100 miles, the hard way

Oak Park school teacher competes in ultra-marathon

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By Brad Spencer

Sports Editor

"The Irish Rover" is a folk song about a magnificent, though improbable, sailing ship that reaches an unfortunate end. How appropriate for stranger-turned-lifelong-friend Joe Holland, therefore, to be singing this song to Oak Parker Eric Podlasek at 1 a.m. in the vast wilderness of Vermont in July.

Podlasek, who teaches second- and third-graders at Longfellow, has 30 or so miles to go to complete the Vermont 100, a 100-mile ultra-marathon that splits nine towns and usually stretches 20-plus hours. Holland, whom Podlasek met just a day earlier, has laced up his running shoes and tossed on his running gear to help pace a fellow runner he surmises is on the verge of quitting. And Podlasek is definitely on the verge of quitting.

So what brings a 5-foot-8, 150-pound, 36-year-old to compete in such a … words like "grueling," "taxing," or "punishing" just aren't adequate. Torturous — that's it, a torturous ultra-marathon?   

Simple answer. "I like to run," says Podlasek, whose passion for running could rival Forrest Gump. He has competed in "25 or 30" marathons thus far. It all began around the year 2000, when Podlasek's mother, Peggy, dusted him in a half-marathon. They still run together, only now it's full marathons.

"She's planning our next marathon probably as we speak," says Podlasek of his 65-year-old mom, who was also his crew chief in Vermont.

When Podlasek isn't spending time with his wife Karen Tarzon, an Oak Park native and former athlete at OPRF High School, or teaching at Longfellow, he's pushing pavement — or gravel, or dirt, or whatever is under his running shoes. He usually runs five times a week. Up and down the sledding hill at Barrie Park. Along the lakefront in Chicago. Over and around the Indiana Dunes.

In March, he ran a marathon in Virginia Beach. He also ran one in Wisconsin, and a 50K in Crystal Lake. During spring break he jettisoned off to Nevada and loped about Red Rock Canyon. He circumvented Lake Mead, drove to the Grand Canyon and … yep, down the big hole on Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River and back he went.

This isn't even Podlasek's first 100-mile ultra-marathon. He ran one a couple of years ago in Kansas, finishing in a brisk 20 hours, five minutes. He calls his hobby "therapeutic."

"I enjoy the solitude. When I get back from such runs I feel more attentive to family, friends and my students. It's re-energizing."

He says his 100-mile jaunt began a little rough, at 4 a.m., pitch black out, his headlamp on the fritz. "My handheld flashlight wasn't working and the headlamp kept flashing, so it was a little stressful. But once the sun came up it was fine."

Podlasek ran until the sun went down again, stopping at aid stations along the way for food and beverages. Runners would pass him and he would pass runners. Horses would pass him and he would pass horses. No, it wasn't his mind playing tricks on him. Horses run in the Vermont 100 as well — with riders on them, of course.

The last 30 miles?

"My entire body was all out of whack," he recalls. "My mental capacity had left me. I was ready to quit and I would say it at every aid station, but Joe would just look at me and say 'Let's go' and off we'd go."

Holland, a runner from New Hampshire who was crewing for another Vermont 100 competitor who had bailed out at mile 70, ran alongside Podlasek for those demanding 30 miles, singing "The Irish Rover." But there would be no unfortunate end for Podlasek. Only a fortunate one, at the finish line. He finished in just under 22 hours.

Contact: bspencer@oakpark.com

Twitter: @oakparksports

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