Dave: Enjoy as Nathan Jackson of Texas shares his race winning scamper at the Potawatomi 150 Mile Trail Run on the challenging McNaughton Park trail system in the state of Illinois.
150 miles. Simply typing that conjures up images of some lost soul traveling a desolate landscape searching for an oasis. Fortunately for me, there was no desert and my life didn’t depend on making the trek. Not to mention there was plenty of food and water.
I had first attempted this same race in 2014 and to massive disappointment, I wasn’t able to finish. 49 miles in while crossing a creek I had slipped and pulled something in my right foot. Walking became unbearable so I knew my adventure was done. I had walked the last mile back in to the aid station and tried to see if rest would help but the pain was too great to risk further damage. My result was the official “DNF” (Did Not Finish) or Did Nothing Fatal as they say.
I returned for redemption. The Potawatomi Trail Runs are located in Pekin, Illinois, just southeast of Peoria. They have a trail system in McNaughton Park that was not to be messed with. Someone is quoted on their website as saying “comparing the high altitude, long climbs of the western mountains to McNaughton hills is like comparing being eaten by a shark vs. being eaten by a 1000 piranhas … both are unpleasant … just in different ways.” I’d have to agree. There isn’t too much to contend with as far as rocks or roots, although there are plenty but the constant steep hills will keep you walking a good portion of the day. The course is loops of 10 miles with two stream crossings, some open fields and plenty of hills.
I had flown up the day before and stayed in a hotel in Peoria for the night. My buddy and I setup a tent site near the start line, picked up a few supplies (donuts and watermelon – because that’s what I like to eat when I’m tired), dropped our gear off at the hotel and went for a steak. The race would start at noon on Friday April 10, 2015. Somewhat of an odd start time but it was nice to not get up at 04:00 or earlier for a morning start.
Morning came and I was ready to get going. We arrived at our tent about 1 hour before the start. The sun was out but not too warm so I put on some sunscreen and did as little as possible. There were about 19 or so runners for the 150 mile and looked like another 10 – 15 for the 100 mile (non-competitive). We started out fairly loose bunch, no sense in getting wound up trying to get into the lead. The first 100 feet of the course drops down a hillside of about 60 or so feet and out into an open field. I settled into 3rd right out of the gate and was in a very comfortably slow pace. Actually, I found it very difficult to go that slow, especially on the flats.
Once out of the field, you start to cross in and out of creek bottoms until you reach the first aid station (Totem Pole) – around 2.5 miles in. I didn’t bother taking any fluids with me on the first two laps as I just wanted to see the course and relax. I was plenty hydrated so no worries. Between the two aid stations, you’ll encounter the first creek crossing. There is no use in finding a dry area to cross, there isn’t one. May as well just walk through it. From this point on, my feet will stay wet until I finish.
The course continues with more hills until you reach the last aid station at around 5.5 or six miles (Heaven’s Gate). I stopped long enough to grab some water and pressed on. More rollers brought you to the second creek crossing about 1 mile from the start/finish. Lap one was done in around 1:59:00. A hair faster than what I anticipated but I didn’t want to race the clock, just go on feel. Well, I felt good so after some electrolytes and more water, I took off for lap two.
Lap two was uneventful, as was lap three. My lap times were coming in between 2:15 – 2:20 so I felt fine with the effort. I couldn’t help but to notice that I was in second place and first place (Matt) was putting more time between us. He must have a goal in mind I thought. Course record maybe? I took off for lap four with my headlamp as it was going to be dark soon. Hunger really started to get in on this lap so I made sure to stop at every aid station to grab what food looked appealing at the time. Mostly Fig Newton’s and a couple of cookies. Once I finished lap four, I needed real food. Aid station volunteers were cookin’ up spaghetti with meat sauce. Downed a cup of that and pressed on.
Loop five through seven are a bit of a blur as there wasn’t anything significant about those that I can remember. Well, other than it getting cold. It must have been in the mid 30s. Not good for wet feet or tired bodies. As the sun began to rise on Saturday so was my exhaustion. When I finished lap eight, I needed a break. Shivering, hungry, and my feet were a wreck. My buddy Zach started his SUV and cranked on the heater. I pulled off my socks and shoes and promptly laid down for a nap. Zach asks “how long you wanna sleep, half hour?” I said “No, give me an hour.” My mind was still moving so I’m not sure I really slept but I did rest. His alarm goes off and I immediately told him. “Give me 30 more minutes.” No sooner do I go into my self-induced coma do I hear his alarm go off again.
Zach gets out of the truck and walks around to help me get moving. The sun was warm and bright. Not what I wanted but what I needed. My feet were still wrecked but on the wet socks and shoes go. Off for lap nine and I took a glance at the leader board. Matt was about 2:00 – 2:15 hours ahead of me. Gonna be tough to catch him now. The next two laps were the most vivid in my mind. I was clear headed and I was managing the pain while keeping a respectable pace – sub 2:10 hour pace.
I noticed that Matt’s times were getting slower. Halfway through lap 12 (around 115 miles) I caught up to Matt as he was walking with I’m guessing his pacer. We exchanged the typical small talk, “How you holding up?”, “You doin’ OK?”, and the “Hang in there man!” He looked spent. And I knew it. Time to drop the hammer. We were near the Heaven’s Gate aid station and once I was ready to leave, Matt shows up. I made a purpose of heading out of there quickly so he would lose sight of where I was on the course. Mind games you know? My excitement was through the roof. Well, the roof of our tent as I was telling Zach about what just happened. He was amped and I fed off that energy for another lap.
Lap 13 begins and night will follow soon so I take my headlamp out once again. Everything is really starting to hurt. Blisters are on every part of my feet and parts of my skin actually hurt. Must be from the impact of running for so long. Moleskin was on all parts of my toes and feet. Never would I be in so desperate need of moleskin until around 126 miles. Coming around a left turn as my right foot pivoted around, I felt a blister tear. It didn’t actually tear open but rather from further under the skin. I don’t know the science of it, but it freakin’ hurt. I kept running hoping it would just go away or I would find a way to deal with it later but the burning was too great to ignore. I stopped and took my sock and shoe off to inspect the damage. This wasn’t good. I only needed 24 more miles to finish, and I’m in first. Better figure this thing out.
Luckily, two guys who were running the 50 mile race walked by and asked if I needed anything. The blister was big enough that I needed at least a 1” x 1” square to cover it up. Out of shear dumb luck, one of these guys just happened to have a 1” x 1” square. He kindly donates it to my foot and with their help off the ground, I was off and running again. I don’t know what I would have done without those guys. It was about three miles back to the stat/finish area. Walking back would have cost me a ton of time. This little square was able to help me back to the tent. Once there, I could address this more accurately.
In the tent, I found another blood blister that ruptured while mummifying my feet with Moleskin. Some ointment, a few Band-Aids, now back on the wet socks and shoes go. Unfortunately, I was careless on how I got my socks on and in the process, I tore back my pinky toe nail. Did I mention that there were other tents in the area and they were close by. The frustration and pain got to me so I let out some choice words for our neighbors. “Fix it and move on. Now’s not the time to worry too much about it. You got two laps” I told myself. These last two laps took everything I had to keep from rupturing more blisters and keeping those toe nails from falling off and rolling around in my socks.
My times were getting increasingly slower and the night was getting colder. The wear of the event was taking major toll on my body as muscles were ceasing to function properly. I just wanted this thing to end. The last creek crossing helped to alleviate some pain for a short while but there was about one mile left of running. I didn’t run much that last mile but the home stretch of about 100 or so meters, I made sure not to look like it hurt as I crossed the finish around 36:57:00. Final results aren’t up on their site as I write this so take the numbers with a grain of salt.
The next four or five days had me dealing with edema in my feet so much that putting on sandals was difficult. Toe nails are still a question at this point but everything else is back to normal. Not sure what event I want to do in the future but I can guess that it won’t be quite this challenging. We’ll see though.
I want to give a huge amount of thanks to my buddy Zach who stayed awake for much of the entire race to help out. His assistance was very crucial in finishing, not to mention his tent and heated truck. My wife and kids deserve a huge thanks as they have to deal with my obsession more than anyone. Also, a big thank you to all that donated what you could for my charity – Marine Recon Foundation.
– Nathan Jackson
Posted on 28 Apr 2015