Crewing and Pacing at Potawatomi

My first ultra crewing/pacing experience happened Wednesday – Sunday last week for my friend Becca Jones’ 200-mile attempt at Potawatomi Trail Race in Pekin, IL. Our journey started Wednesday in Nashville with a shot of coconut rum and Red Bull and ended Sunday night.

On the 6.5 hour drive to Illinois we told trail stories, went over her race plan, listened to something called motiversity, and epic rap battles of history and I took a few notes to help me remember what I needed to do because this was my first crew experience.

The race started 4pm Thursday. We arrived at the park and unpacked what seemed like a month’s worth of supplies to set up camp. Becca’s friend Kevin was there from New York and was super nice to help us. Then I headed out to Wal-Mart for additional tarps and supplies.

The first loop Becca flew in at 2:15 without her friend Kevin. The muddy steep parts of the course made her knees sore so she planned to slow down on the next loop for the sake of longevity. She stuck to the transition plan and was on her way. Looking strong and fierce. Kevin came in about 10 minutes later with a cut on his forehead. He had fallen and bashed his head. Before starting the race he had been experiencing some dizziness so this injury forced him to rest the remainder of the night but the next morning he got back out there and suffered through it the next two days and ultimately earned his first 100-mile finish…. concussion and all!

The next few loops it rained heavily but Becca kept on grinding away at it. Kevin kept me company awhile and I kept an eye on him for concussion symptoms and forced him to ice his head to keep down the swelling. He was good company and we talked and kept as warm as we could next to the propane heater waiting for Becca. Her second and third loop she was alone on the trail. The aid stations were not open the first night and she did not see many if any other runners. When she came in from the third loop she told us that coyotes were calling to each other and the trails were slippery. It must have been eerie out there in the dark alone with the sound of coyotes. Not to mention that she’s 4’11” and likely an appealing target.

After loop 3 Becca needed to warm up and rest. Her plan was to rest until 2am and I’d run a lap with her but she ended up needing a bit more rest because the rain and cold had chilled her to the bone. We started out closer to 2:45. Due to the dark we mostly power hiked loop 4 but made consistent time. Iimg_2782t was nice being out on the course with her in the dark. The skies had cleared and a half moon was illuminating the sky. We even saw moonlight reflected in streams – it was magical. The deer were extremely active and we saw many. The owls called to each other several times throughout the 10 miles and the coyotes stayed away. There was a solo male runner a few feet ahead of us the majority of the loop. We talked with him a few times. He was actually a 150-mile runner who started early and he was on his 3rd loop while Becca was on her 4th. He decided not to run through the rain like Becca did. About 3 miles in there was a stream crossing with water about 1/2 way up the shin. We had wet feet the next 7 miles but it wasn’t too bad for me because I only did one loop. The course had many slick muddy spots…. most of which were on the steep sections of the course so slipping and falling was a real possibility. Mixed into all that mud was a variety of animal poop. Rabbit, deer, and horse poop were all recognizable but that horse poop mixed in with the mud smelled disgusting. Because it was at the end of the loop it kept making its way into the tent.

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After loop 4, I performed my crew duties and saw Becca off for her fifth loop. There were snow flurries and it was cold and windy. The wind was so fierce it nearly blew our tent over and I had to spend a decent amount of time re-securing it and used the propane heater to try to dry out her shoes.

She came in from loop 5 around noon. I made her some hot food and she rested about an hour before heading out on loop 6. Becca got in from loop 6 shortly after 5:30pm. That’s about 25 hours out on the trail and 60 miles. Her 6th loop took 4 1/2 hours and she came off that loop in a lot of pain. She went straight to the car to warm up and I ran back and forth between the car, aid station and tent to get her everything she needed. The top of her left foot had been hurting for a long time. Not sure how long but she mentioned it to me when we changed her shoes after the 4th loop. The top of her foot was bruised. Well, after the 6th loop not only did that bruised area hurt worse but when she took the rock tape off her skin under the tape was bubbled, rash red and angry. I ran back to the tent again for Neosporin and when I put the ointment on her wound I am pretty sure a few tears were shed. Ideally she would have gotten back out on the trail for another loop before the worst of the cold and wind hit; however, she was exhausted, hypothermic trembling from the cold and experiencing hot and cold flashes and in terrible pain. This was the hardest time for me to be a crew because she was counting on me to be her cheerleader and push her to keep going but the thoughts in my head were complicated.

  1. I calculated out the remaining time, lap speed, etc in my mind and I did not think she could make 200 miles under current weather and present speed. She’d have to go A LOT faster and I did not see that happening with her feet or hypothermia risk.

  2. Next goal would be 150. Totally doable if she rested and recovered, feet and weather cooperated and she pushed the limit up to the wire.

  3. 100 miles. No brainer. She could definitely do that.

  4. If I push her out in what was supposed to be 10 degrees “feels like” temp and even went with her to pace she risked that 100 mile finish because she looked like hypothermia was imminent and getting her feet wet at mile 3 in her condition just didn’t seem smart. The risk outweighed the reward in my mind.

Becca wanted to sleep, she wanted to elevate her legs and see if the swelling would go down. She needed to warm up. So when she asked me my opinion I told her I agreed I thought this was the right move. That might make me a bad crew member so remember that about me if you ever ask me to crew. Later on, when Googling her rash and symptoms we decided she must have had Cold Urticaria from the exposure of the cold water and wind. The symptoms and pictures matched up to what she experienced.

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We rested in the car and then slept off and on for like 10 hours with me periodically turning the car off and on. It was not particularly comfortable with bent knees that long but it was warmer than being out in the windy cold.  At various times a whimper of pain could be heard from the back seat where Becca slept.

Saturday. New day. Sun is shining. The wind less severe. Cold but sunny. Got our lady fed and ready. She woke up still in pain but rested, determined, and ready to run!! After she took off on lap 7 I ate, tried to defrost our water which had frozen solid, organized a few things and before I knew it I had a text from Becca that she was 15-20 minutes out that had her food and clothing request. 10 minutes later I saw her smiling face. Less than 3 hours on that loop. She was looking strong and back to it! 70 miles in the bank!  Becca took off strong and ready for loop 8 and I did my regular crew duties such as moving gear between locations, drying out shoes, preparing nutrition and hydration, charging headlamps, updating Facebook, etc. While she was out on loop 8 I even had about an hour to sit and cheer runners as they ran through camp. This was something I had been looking forward to from the moment I asked Becca if she needed a crew but up until now, it had either been raining or too cold and windy to be able to sit outside. Between 11am and 1pm Saturday it was a balmy 30 degrees and with a cup of tea and sunny skies it was not unbearable to be outdoors.

At 2:04pm I received a text that Becca was 25minutes out and that I could join her on the next loop if I wanted. YES! I was ready to get my legs moving and see the course in the daylight with her. I spent that 25 minutes getting ready, eating, getting her gear ready, etc. and after she came in and had some nutrition, etc. we left together for loop 9. Becca ran much of this loop with me and she was moving very well for someone starting mile 80. Her feet hurt and I am sure she was tired but she didn’t complain and she pushed on. She was friendly and supportive to all other runners, aid station volunteers and to me. She thanked me a million times but it was I who was grateful to be a part of her journey and to witness her tenacity, grit, and ferocity.

At the end of loop 9, the sun was setting and since I didn’t feel like I was holding her back I asked Becca if I could join her for loop 10 as well to which she agreed. Back at camp, I refilled our water, made sure we had night gear, fed her, warmed her and before we left, Kevin came airplaning through tent city (feet from the finish line) to complete his first 100-mile race! Seeing him finish was absolutely amazing because he started the race off in a deficit. In fact, he was awarded the longest first loop ever award :). He serves as a reminder to never give up! After taking his picture and asking him to buy Becca Benadryl for after the race to address her hives, we were off on loop 10!

Loop 10 was mostly in the dark and because she had already been out there 90 miles, loop ten was mostly a power hike. The 30-mile runners started around the same time we headed out and they were breezing past us looking fresh, laughing and having a great time. From the back, Becca looked like an old wise woman with her staff out in the woods. Some runners even recognized her red hair from the rear and one man even called out, “Becca Mother ‘effen Jones . . .. .Is that you?” (even though they had never met). The first aid station gave Becca a shot of Fireball and that kept her warm awhile. The second aid station had delicious meatball sandwiches and she rested her feet a few minutes because her heels were in terrible pain. She still wasn’t complaining, just getting it done, ticking off the miles and giving encouragement to others the entire time. At the end of this loop, all of a sudden, Becca took off at a full sprint without any warning so I did too and even though she was nearing mile 100 I could barely catch her as she crossed that finish line. She finished around 11:30pm. Tough as nails!

After finishing loop 10, 100 miles, she debated going back out for bonus miles but ultimately the effect of the cold on her body just made more miles unappealing. We celebrated, she took some Benadryl and we called it a night. Sunday morning we packed up and I drove us back to Nashville. On the drive home she had already made up her mind to return in 2019 for the 200 and I think I might just join her. I’m thinking of signing up for the 200 and seeing how many miles I can get done in 72 hours as my goal. If we return next year I hope the weather is nice enough to get to know the other runners a little better.

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