Trying to describe who Aneta (“Nettie”) Zeppettella is in a brief introduction is like trying to wrestle Athena back into Zeus’ skull. It isn’t going to happen. Nettie is simply too fierce, too irreducible. Her UltraSignup page is filled with one mind-bendingly hellish race after another: Badwater, Cruel Jewel, HURT, Fat Dog, and Hellbender. Seventy-four races in all, and—get this!—not a single DNF.
Nettie wears many hats too. Bucket hats. Kea Peak. Boco. Mother. Wife. Trail Sister. She, along with Jennifer Russo, is the co-owner and Race Director of Empower Ultras, which hosts an awesome array of trail and ultra-events throughout southwest Ohio. If that weren’t enough, Nettie is also the subject of an upcoming documentary directed by Jessica Vandenbush of Eat Clean, Run Dirty Magazine, produced with a grant from Fuji Film.
In 2021, racked by hallucinations and poor weather, Nettie became just the second woman to finish Illinois’ notorious Potawatomi 200*. Here she describes her harrowing experience, offering insight and explaining why her memory of this race has been impossible to shake.
As someone who lives in Ohio, how were you made aware of Potawatomi and what compelled you to sign up?
There were a few people from Ohio who did the race before me, so I was aware of it through friends. I wanted to run a 200-mile race; however, I didn’t have time to fly out west and I didn’t want to invest too much money into it either. So, it was ideal. I could do it by myself. My friend was going to come on Saturday, but you never know if they’re going to make it. Something else might come up. Plus, it was only a five-hour drive from where I live. Registration was like $150. And the course is full of loops. I could sleep in a hotel afterwards and drive home. It was mostly logistics, and it was affordable. I had heard it was hard and the cut-off was tight, but I was willing to try because it was easy to get to mostly.
What were the weather conditions like, and did you ever consider DNFing?
It was awful. It rained nearly the whole time. The trails were turning into rivers. I was just soaked. I had three rain jackets that were all supposed to be waterproof, and they were all soaking through. I was putting extra clothes on trying to stay warm. But I didn’t really think about quitting. If I quit, I knew I’d have to come back, and I didn’t want to come back. So as long as I wasn’t going to time-out, I would keep going. I didn’t ever want to see that trail again. I wanted to get it done and over with.
How were you able you keep from mentally spiraling out?
I hallucinated like crazy, and I was aware of it too. At some point, I had such vivid hallucinations that I was talking to someone who wasn’t there. I hallucinated a whole conversation. I became very afraid that I would hallucinate a trail marking and wander somewhere totally off-course. I was touching the trees and touching the ribbons just to make sure they were real. I kept trying to open my eyes wider. Sometimes if you blink a few times things disappear. That was the first time I ever had auditory hallucinations. I heard a theatre performance and that really scared me. When my friends came Saturday afternoon, I didn’t recognize them. I had no clue who was there and what was going on. As I was running with my friend Ruth, I kept asking if we were on the trail and if she was touching the markers. She had to remind me that she slept the day before and didn’t have to touch something to be sure it was there. She kept saying, “You can trust me.” But I was always wondering why she wasn’t touching the ribbons. So it was kind of funny. But when I was talking to that person in my head, that lady who I thought was running next to me was all of the sudden sitting inside a shoe box. It was like, poof! I was in the middle of a field and there was nobody. I was by myself. And I was like, “Okay, this is getting weird.”
You’ve completed some of the hardest races in ultra-running, yet you say that Potawatomi still haunts you. Why?
It was hard. You just keep going in a circle, and every loop gets worse. It’s raining. Then it’s raining more. The things that were easy become harder. You’re tired and the mud is getting worse. Being on that loop eighteen or nineteen times, there isn’t much to look forward to. I remember being so frickin’ annoyed because you can hear the aid station at the end of the loop from a half-mile out. You have to zigzag to it. It was fine for the first two days. But on the third day, it was really pissing me off. It was mentally draining. There was no joy in it near the end. I just wanted it done. I couldn’t look at rain either after that. I just couldn’t look at it. During the last two loops, I had to slide downhill on my butt because I was so sleep deprived. When I moved my head, it felt like I had vertigo. My head didn’t adjust to the sleep deprivation. So when I was going downhill, things were spinning. I was afraid I would topple forward, so I just slid on my butt.
What advice do you have for a woman who might be gearing up for next year’s 200-miler?
Give the course your full respect. It’s a hard race. Running loops is easy logistically, but daunting. The weather is also bad. When I think about Potawatomi, you have to really want it. If you really want it, you can push through and get it. It’s not a race with stunning views. There are pretty places, but you will see them twenty times. I’m average talent-wise. I’m a mid-pack runner. But I think it’s very attainable. And the people there were wonderful to me. They want you to finish. I got great support from aid stations and volunteers, so the community will be there for you. Also, don’t start too fast. The year I ran, I think fourteen or fifteen ladies started the race. Many of them were way better runners than me, but some went out too fast and others just got bored. One lady had her leg lock up on her, so you also have to be lucky. I was lucky nothing horrible happened to me. I really wanted it, you know, but some of it was just pure darn luck.
*In 2022, Rachel Burke became the third female finisher on the Potawatomi 200.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photos provided by Aneta Zeppettella.