Potvin pushes limit, runs 100-mile race

ESCANABA – A goal for many distance runners is to do a marathon and maybe qualify for Boston.

Just in case 26.2 miles isn’t enough, ultra-marathons are available.

Former Bark River resident Jenelle Potvin took on the challenge of the Western States 100-mile event June 29-30 at Auburn, Calif., completing the rugged course in 25 hours, 28 minutes, 15 seconds.

Potvin, now living in Truckee, Calif., placed 22nd in the women’s division and 111th overall. The race drew 383 runners, with 277 finishing.

“It’s about controlling your pace, knowing you’re going to be out there 24-30 hours,” said Potvin. “When I start the race, I want to feel good the whole time out there. If I feel I’m pushing myself too hard, I need to adjust the pace.”

Feeling good throughout that race, however, is much easier said than done as Potvin acknowledged.

“The worst pain is from mile 75 to 100,” she said. “My lungs were good and I was awake enough, but my legs were ready to give out. You go into it knowing the lows you experience are going to be worse than anything. There’s no explanation for how you could be feeling so good at Mile 70 and so lousy at Mile 15, which didn’t do much for my mental state. Although, I knew that would happen. I also knew I was undertrained.”

This was not the first 100-miler for Potvin, who placed third in the women’s division at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in Nevada a year ago.

“Last year, I was in better training shape,” she said. “This year, I had plantar fasciitis in both feet during my training. Although, it never bothered me during the race.”

Potvin’s preparation for this year’s event was also hindered by a calf injury.

“Before I was injured, I was doing 60-75 miles a week,” said Potvin. “But that lasted only a few weeks. I went three weeks with zero miles. Then, I did a 35-mile run and averaged 12-minute miles two weeks before the race. Normally, if you’re training for a 100, you wouldn’t want to do more than 15-20 miles at that point. But I wanted to make sure my calf could hold up. There was a lot of climbing, so I wasn’t really pushing myself. I knew I needed to save it for the race.”

Potvin says the Western States is probably the most competitive 100-miler.

“A lot of people start out fast,” she added. “Overall, it’s a downhill course, with the hardest around Mile 40. If you kill your legs in the first 40 miles, once you get into the canyon you’re in trouble because it gets so hot. The reason why I had problems in the late miles is because of a lack of training.”

The high temperature in Auburn that day was 102, the second highest in the 40-year history of the race.

“I had no problem with blisters last summer,” said Potvin. “But this year it was so hot and the feet were always wet. I had chafing on the upper thigh. I thought it would never come up, but it did. I live in the mountains (approximately 6,000 feet above sea level) where it usually doesn’t get that hot. Although, I think training at high elevation helped me. I notice a big difference after living here for 14 years. I don’t get winded due to elevation alone.”

As expected, much thought goes into preparation for this type of event.

“I had been thinking about the race everyday since December,” said Potvin. “I wanted to visualize what it was going to be like. I was working with a physical therapist and going in for acupuncture couple times a week. Before that, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. Also, my therapist cautioned me about having too high expectations. Once I realized I was going to do it and committed to it, the anticipation was overwhelming.”

Gaining entry to the Western States 100 is by no means an easy process.

“First, you need to run a qualifying time in a 50 or 100-mile race,” said Potvin. “Then, you have to enter a lottery which includes about 2,000 people. My boyfriend (Chaz Sheya) has been trying for four years and has yet to get in, even though qualifying has never been a problem. This was my second year of trying and got pretty lucky. I was relieved when the day finally came.”

Potvin had a little bit of a cheering section on the course, which she says was helpful.

“I had lot of friends on the course,” she added. “It’s a real strong ultra-running community out here. Everybody wants to be a part of it. Those who aren’t running are volunteering or cheering the runners on. There were more than 1,500 volunteers on the course. This is definitely the Boston Marathon of ultra running. I was kind of surprised to see many of the runners were older males, including some in their 70s.”

Also providing support was her sister, Lynette Potvin, who lives in Mason, Mich. (in the Copper Country).

“It was really incredible to have my sister there with me,” said Jenelle. “The finish was real emotional. It was just a relief that I made it, especially after the lows between Mile 85 and 99, where I just didn’t know how I could continue. It was just an overwhelming sense of happiness and relief.”

Potvin, who’s considering a 50-miler in the Sacramento area next month, says most ultra-marathoners do 100-milers for the challenge.

“It’s not easy, but it’s real exciting,” she added. “You never know what’s going to happen. You can be in the best shape of your life and ending up dropping out at Mile 30 because of things that might happen. I’m real stubborn and that’s why I think I had success. I stopped drinking more than a year ago. I just feel better when I don’t do it. One of the biggest things is being outside and enjoying the scenery. I try not to run on the roads any more than I have to.”