Potawatomi 200

 

Potawatomi 200 was a race unlike others. The months leading up to it was grueling for me. I was getting up between 3:30 - 4:00 am most morning to train before work. My body had finally adapted to training at altitude here in Colorado; that took many months of starting, being physically over whelmed, then starting again. I had to choose, every day to prepare the hight before. Get the clothes out, make the recovery drink, pack the 3 or 4 portions of food I would need at work, hydration bottles, and cold weather gear. All my runs were outside throughout the snow and cold winter in the darkness. One of my typical runs was to run up the road to the top of our mountain. Starting at 7000’ and climbing to over 8000’ with grades over 10%, it was daunting, but never skipped. The recovery days on the spin bike indoors, offered me some comfort while staying dedicated to 4 am starts. In my last week of heavy training, I ran the mountain twice, giving it everything on the second time. Running uphill is difficult and will get the heart rate to threshold quickly, but equally as difficult was running down the mountain. The pounding on the feet and knees forces a lighter step and use of other muscles. This is something that can’t be done on a treadmill. My last training run was a 50 miler in Boulder. At lower elevation and flatter terrain, it turned difficult at mile 38 when I ran out of water. I found a river . miles later which saved me, but my toe was hurting (either running downhill too fast from my run 2 days earlier or my shoes were too tight). I decided to run through the pain without checking it out. By the end of the run, I had injured the toe. That prompted me to buy a new pair of shoes the week before the race. I always wore Brooks Cascadia but went with Solomon SpeedCross (with Goretex). These had an aggressive tread which I thought would come in handy if it got muddy at Potawatomi (“Pot”). I tried them on a 4 mile run the Tuesday before the race and liked them. Melissa drove to Illinois with our gear, Emilia and Jacques (our french bulldog) and I flew in the day before the race. I’ve run this course many time before (it’s my favorite) but have never trained at altitude to this extent so I had no idea what to expect. My plans was to run the first loop in 1 hr and 45 minuted, them ease up to 2 hrs 15 minutes - 2 hours 20 minutes per loop


THE TRAINING

With 2 long distance runners in 1 house, we have managed to train and race while raising Emilia, our 3 year old. We have implemented alternate years for each to focus on big races. This year is my year with Potawatomi 200 to start with. We have learned that both of us training for a big race at the same time is problematic -especially when training is at it’s peak. We moved to Colorado 2 years ago to live in the mountains and train at altitude. living at 7000’ means that training is quite different than at Chicago. Last fall, when I started training for Pot 200, I had difficulty with training consistently. I made a training plan followed most of it for a week, then took a week off. I wasn’t able to recover enough and couldn’t maintain consistency. It as frustrating and wen on for about 2 months. Around this time, I bought and read, “Discipline Equals Freedom” by Jocko Willink. Jocko recommends getting up early and getting up early and getting the training in first. So I started waking up at 4 am Tuesday through Friday. When we would put Emilia to bed at 8 - 8:30 pm, I would also go to sleep.

Was it difficult to get up that early? Not exactly. I was required to do things differently. Doing things differently was the difficult part - not the specific act of 4 am starts.

What I mean by this is every day I had to have a plan an d prepare ahead of time. Review the next day’s workout, get clothes ready, charge watch, prepare bottles, pack 4 meals for work, make recovery drink, clean the day’s clothes and bottles. This had to be done between 5 - 8pm everyday. My day always started the evening before, the discipline and focus in place well before I ever broke a sweat. The other thing I did differently was my training plan. I could not expect to do my typical training load at high altitude. I created minimum workouts. I made it easy to complete my workouts by making them shorter. Consistency was my #1 goa.. Instead of a 10 mile run -I would do 6. My typical week in training would look like this:

MONDAY

TUESDAY

WEDNESDAY

THURSDAY

FRIDAY

SATURDAY/

SUNDAY

Rest day. NO TRAINING

Run from house up the road to 8000’. 3 Miles up and 3 miles down. This was my high intensity running up grades of up to 17% and running down with tired legs down steep road was a huge benefit.

1 hour spin on bike trainer. This was nice to be inside at 4am, when it’s freezing and focus on recovery.

Run 6 miles on flatter trail at 7000’. Across the river is a park with a .6 mile loop. Easy to moderate pace.

Repeat Wednesday’s workout.

1 long run 10-20 miles at altitude is good with a 5 mile on Sunday (1000’ gain). Back to backs were not necessary for me every weekend. My week days were the same and I sued periodization with 3 weeks cycles (moderate week, heavy week, fall back week).

Eventually, I got used to waking up early, running when it’s coldest and darkest, and being prepared by the day before. I knew Pot 200 could be very cold so I made sure to train for that. My mileage was about 60%-70% what I typically would run in Chicago. Even running downhill where we live spikes my heart rate. Running uphill red lines it. I ramped up my mileage about 8 weeks out. 5 weeks high volume with 3 weeks taper. My last long run was 50 miles in Boulder (5200’). At the end of training I knew I needed longer miles on flatter terrain at lower elevation. I think I could have benefited from a 70-100 mile run (easy pace) about 5-7 weeks out. Nonetheless, my training had consistency, high altitude, regular recovery, and regular exposure to cold, dark runs alone.


THE RACE

A big advantage for me at Pot 200 is having Melissa crew me. She knows the course well (she is the only female finisher to date for the 200 mile distance) and knows me well. She drove to Chicago a few days ahead of time with our gear, and picked me up from the airport the day before the race. I was able to get good rest before the race (she took Emilia with her) and didn’t have to get through a long car ride across the country. We slept in the car the night before the race and ran in Jean and Jeff (who is participating in Pot 200) Lenard at Starbucks in the morning. Jeff was changing a flat tire for an elderly lady in the parking lot when we ran into them. Jeff is a very strong runner who doesn’t quit. Cold weather doesn’t deter him and I knew he would be great competition. David Corfman and Gregory Trapp were also signed up for the 200. They have both put up huge miles at Pot and completed/won the 200 there. This would be my second 200 at Pot. My first was in 2015 when I scraped by with a 63 hrs and 13 minutes, just under the 64 hour cutoff, which is still aggressive for a 200 mile race. My goals were to get under 60 hours, see if I could get close to the course record (Lee Dalgety 51 hours 23 minutes), and win the race. I wasn’t sure what the effect of training at altitude would have and if any of those 3 goals were attainable. The course was a bit shorter in previous years, so the new RD, Mike Kelsey, added some to make it fall 200 miles. Upon arrival, we set up our canopy, tent, and gar. Davin and Greg dropped down to the 100 mile distance as they saw the forecast? Rain, snow and cold was in our future. At 4pm, we lined up and put our training to the test. If you’re thinking 200 miles in 3 days is a long way, a long time, and hard to fathom, just know that the actual race is only a small part of what goes into it.

How many hours, miles, alarm clocks, water bottles, sweat, yawns, calories, etc. have been spent before the gun ever goes off?

Now we let the training manifest itself into this one weekend in early April, with our loved ones lookin on. And the volunteers and race organization putting in their efforts, months to date, in order for this to happen collectively, everyone at the start line has spent huge amounts of time and energy - and I could feel it. The energy is impossible to ignore. My plan was to run the first loop around 1hr 45 minutes and then settle into a 2 hr 10-20 minutes a loop after that. If I could handle that pace, and do the first hundred in 24 hours I felt I could have a chance at 27 hours for the second hundred. Jeff and I went off the front and did 1 hr 40ish minutes for the first lap. I pushed the pace a bit on the first lap to check “intentions”. Jeff was the only one that was running my pace. On the second loop I slowed down and settled into a moderately aggressive pace. What I really wanted to know is how would my body do after 24-48 hrs of pushing. That first night, it got very cold, I think it rained and hailed a little. I was running just fast enough to stay warm in my wet clothes. However, if I would eat anything, within 30 seconds I would start freezing. My blood was going to my stomach for digestion, so my food breaks were not pleasant. The next day (Friday), Jeff was having problems with his knee and was planning on getting to 100 before dropping. We had pushed each other the first 50 miles in 12 hours and it was taking its toll on us. The cold, wet night was breaking everyone’s spirit. My splits were consistently around 2 hrs 15-20 min. with a 10 minute break at the start line aid stations. I would come in, sit down with a blanket, and eat. At times I would shake uncontrollably, and that would be enough to get me out of the aid station and start running to warmup.

At 90 miles, I started to crack. I took a 90 minute nap and went back out. I realized I needed more sleep. My typical slower pace would be satisfied with the short nap, but the moderate, faster pace needed more time. I got in after my 10th lap as the sun was starting to go down. I also needed to slow down a little, needed more sleep, and that the course record was out of reach. I slowed to a reasonable pace (2 hrs 20-30 min.) for one more lap before sleeping again. It’s so important to be aware if the plan isn’t working you need to adjust immediately. I slowed down and took another sleep.

The second night was colder than the first, so I stayed in the car and slept for 7 hours. Melissa would wake me up every so often and I hit the “snooze”. I could tell she was getting worried that I would drop. I had depleted myself too much and needed the rest to wait out the intense cold of the night. When the sun came up, I laced up my shoes and got back to it. I felt great after my throat was better and breathing cleared, the long rest helped and was back to 2 hrs 20-3 min laps. That second night broke many runners will to continue. I was able to wait it out, but now needed to run the last 90 miles consistently. Saturday’s loops went by without issue. As evening came, I knew I needed one more short nap. My goal was to nap at 170 miles and to do that when it’s coldest and darkest. Dave Wiskowski was looking for some miles so we went out together at 160 miles. We would do 1 lap, I would nap, them we would do the last 3 loops. I typically run alone so having Dave there was unusual and fun at the same time. He is one of the most supportive people I have ever met. Typically, i’m in a constant state of self-assessment while running. Always checking pace, fluid intake, caloric intake, body temperature ad infinitum. Getting my mind away from that and sharing that experience with Dave was incredible - thank you.

We blazed through lap 16 in the dark night, talking about running technique one moment, then spiritual matters the next. The last 3 laps on Sunday were relaxed. At this point it was clear that one one else would finish the 200 and that I had enough time clearing a big mishap by me) to finish under 72 hours. At this point my goals that I had started with, did not matter. They were background noise to what really matters. Dave and I came in at 70 hours. My daughter and Melissa were there, my friends were there. When I think back on this race, I remember what it took to finish. Melissa a huge part of that. In the middle of one of the nights, as I was asking her for a snickers bar, she was pulling one out of her pocket to give to me. She knew what I needed before I did. When the cold air nearly stopped me from continuing -Scott Kummer gave me a Ten Junk Miles buff. When I see the people at the aid stations there hour after hour - day after day, these are the people that make this happen. Thank you all the volunteers and Mike Kelsey. Thank you for the privilege of allowing me to practice the art of running longe distance. And at times realize what’s really important.

 
Melissa Pizarro