It isn’t uncommon for Paul Stofko to hallucinate during races, a lack of sleep and nourishment bringing him to a state of consciousness where he barely knows what’s going on.
The 43-year-old Chesterton fitness program coordinator and former Lake Central track athlete keeps coming back. Long-distance running has been a key part of his life for over 20 years, when he first discovered the trails out west as a student at Northern Arizona University. Stofko will race in the multi-day, 200-mile Potawatomi Trail Run at McNaughton Park near Pekin, Illinois, starting Thursday.
“I always felt, especially with (ultramarathons), the ability to see some of the wonderful places that you probably have no access to driving makes it all interesting,” Stofko said. “You’re all trying to finish. The competition is there, but in general, most of the people are just to accomplish something maybe they’ve never done before.”
The 200-mile ultramarathons Stofko runs generally take 50 hours over three or four days. In advance of the race, Stofko said he trained about five days per week at Indiana Dunes National Park, starting 3 1/2 months ago. In the last month, he has ramped it up to about 57 miles over two days.
Stofko’s friends — many of whom run long distances, as well — help him plan his race and turn up over the weekend to support him. Brenda Campbell, Stofko’s “crew chief,” is a fellow ultramarathon runner who works with Stofko before and during the race to determine his eating and sleeping regimen. Stofko said ultramarathons typically provide items like grilled cheese sandwiches or stir fry, rather than just protein bars and Gatorade, as an hour upon hour of running can erode participants’ appetites.
Campbell said Stofko won’t sleep on Thursday night but will sleep “at least an hour” on Friday and get “a little bit of sleep, hopefully, at some point” on Saturday. The rest of the time, Campbell said, “he won’t ever stop.”
“At the beginning of the race, everything feels fine,” Stofko said. “Then as the days and hours progress, you just have these low (points). … Two or 3 o’clock in the morning is kind of your natural cycle that your body will just shut down. I’ve been on the trail a couple of times where my eyes will just close, and it’s almost like you have a mini-sleep. You’ll be walking, but you’ll be sleepwalking, because you’re so tired and your body is shutting down.”
Stofko isn’t new to the Potawatomi Trail Run — in fact, he said he has run over 1,000 miles on the course. He knows the course and has fun with it. Campbell said that early on in the race three years ago, Stofko came to a hill steep and treacherous enough that the race organizers had placed a rope for runners to hold onto.
About 100 feet up the hill, Stofko took one hand off the rope and started swinging around. Campbell was sure he would fall off the hill and tumble down to the bottom.
“It was just like a dropoff — he would have bounced and rolled down this hill,” Campbell said. “The whole rope is flying, and I’m like, ‘Oh no.’”
Later in that same race, Stofko experienced significant disorientation with just 10 miles remaining. Campbell said two observers who clearly knew Stofko approached him during the race to encourage him. After a decent-length conversation, Stofko turned to Campbell and said he had no idea who his two No. 1 fans were.
That was it for Campbell. She made Stofko sleep for two or three hours to get his mind right. Stofko came back out and won the race anyway. Such temporary pain can’t stop Stofko from pursuing his passion.
“A lot of friends I have, they just do the shorter-distance stuff, it’s kind of inconceivable (for them),” Stofko said. “When I first did the 100s, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll never do anything above 100 (miles) Then I did 150. Then this race had a 200, and I said, ‘Why not? I know the course that well, so what’s another 50 miles?’ You have to be a little bit off, I guess, to do this kind of stuff.”