I arrived at the start of the Vol State 500k only to find runners sitting down at long dining table with none other than Lazurus Lake at the center and a large spread of roasted meats and fruit being passed around with hungry gusto. As I approached the table I could see the finish line and runners trickling in, fresh off of the road and exhausted from completing the epic journey of 314 miles from Missouri to Georgia. It suddenly dawned on me, I had missed the start and arrived at the finish just as most runners were finishing!
I woke up... the realization slowly set in that my dream was not reality, it was still one week before the start of the Last Annual Vol State Road Race. I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed. I was looking forward to the run all year and it was only a nightmare that I had absentmindedly missed the date... or so I thought.
Flash forward one week: It's 9:30PM, Tuesday night, the week of the start of the race. I'm eating dinner with friends, just finishing up a margarita when I have a funny feeling. I have my list of preparations for Wednesday to get ready for the journey and be ready to drive up that night for the Thursday departure. Do laundry, pack clothes, get batteries, change the oil, etc. I had better check the pre-race emails on last time to make sure I'm not missing anything. I read on... buses will be boarding... 0630 Wednesday... buses will depart... 0700... Wednesday... Wednesday. Wait!? What day is today??? As my eyes scanned the information the realization set in and the sinking feeling hit the back of my throat. Shit, how could I be so foolish? I now had just 9 hours get ready and pack, drive 6.5 hours, and be ready to board the buses to the start. All as I was just getting ready to go to bed.
I made quick goodbyes, headed home and began flinging supplies around haphazardly. I threw my supplies in the back of my van and started the all night drive to Castle Rock Ranch. I had printed the pre-race emails and as I drove Northwest through Georgia I tried to find an address for the ranch. Where the hell is this place? I thought that I must have missed something, but in typical Lazurus fashion, there were no directions to the ranch- only specifications to follow a caravan from the Super 8 in Kimball, Tennessee. Since I would not make it in time to join the caravan, I began frantically emailing Laz and Joe Fejes while driving up to get the location.
Luckily Laz was up and sent me the turns needs to get to the ranch. After driving all night, fueled by caffeine and sunflower seeds, I arrived at the gate to Castle Rock just as the sun was cresting the horizon. I was dead tired but I still had to organize and pack all of the supplies I would need for the next week. I was wary of carrying too much after practicing running with a 20lb pack on so I packed as minimally as possible. In my small backpack I carried a water bottle, cell phone, wallet, a few snacks, a bivvy sac, flashlight, an inflatable pillow, a poncho, a pair of sweatpants and wide brimmed hat. I didn't know what I would eat and drink along the way- my usual fuel of coconut oil, vitargo, and Asi yaupon tea would unavailable and I would have to figure it out along the way.
It was a relief when other runners began showing up at the ranch, confirming that I had made it to the right place. Soon the caravan arrived and we left for the all day bus ride to Union City, Tennessee, following the race course backward. I took a seat in the back and tried to catch up on a little sleep but I could only manage a few moments of rest in the cramped seats. It would have been useful to be paying attention to the course on the way up but there was no way I could care in my sleep deprived state.
It was great to get off the bus for good in Union City, where we checked into a hotel for the night. I was roomed with Patrick Sweatt and we got along well. We were able to go swimming together before the meeting, loosening up my knees that were sore from the long bus ride, and talking out the pre-race jitters. The dinner that night at local steak buffet was a great chance to get to meet and hang out with the other runners and we received our race “bibs”- starchy new postcard sized American flags- to be worn with pride. I wondered what the flag would look like after 314 miles of being exposed to the elements- if the flag would even make it that far...
I did not harbor any illusions that I would necessarily finish the run or that it would be possible to run it in any amount of predictable time. Being a distance beyond anything I had ever attempted before I knew it was best to not enter in with any expectations. Better to take things as they come and try and focus on the present and to see what would be possible once I was already “out there”. Without a time goal, my goal instead became to maintain positivity and appreciate as much as possible my time spent out on the course.
Being tired from staying up all night, I fell asleep easily and was able to get 8 hours of rest before boarding the bus to the ferry ride at the start. It was a short ride and before I knew it we were on the banks of the Mississippi, waiting for the starting cigarette to be lit. With a spark of the flint, the smoldering ember, and long drag of blue tobacco smoke, the race had begun. It was around 7:30AM and we boarded the ferry from Missouri to Kentucky. It was the last time before Georgia we would be powered by anything but our own bodies. I had a few short conversations with fellow riders and watched as fish rode the wake of the ferry, catching a free ride. Old veterans of the race were laughing heartily on the ride, but among others, there was much tension and nervousness about what the coming days would bring.
Hopping off the ferry, I watched Greg Armstrong and John Cash head up the front, running spryly along the Kentucky asphalt. I did not know it at the time but it would be the last time I would see those two for the entire race.
The beginning miles were really nice, relaxing miles spent in the company of new friends. I met several of the runners and we shared good conversation about everything from politics to nutrition and of course, running. The weather was a little overcast as we ran by cornfield after cornfield, classic American country houses with big porches, and little barns.
It was shortly before we arrived in the first town, Union City, that the rains swept in. There was no lightning and the cool wind and water spray felt fantastic running. I stopped in for lunch at a sub shop with quickness of service in mind, and ordered a salad topped with canned tuna. I realized early on that “green” foods would be incredibly sparse and so I wanted to take every opportunity that I could to eat salad and vegetables. I did not linger long and took the salad to go to eat while walking along. The rain had diminished to a drizzle and I did not want to miss out on any cool weather.
I spent the next section running along with Clayton Bouchard. We had a good time talking about recovery strategies and hopping over the remains of an armadillo army that had apparently lost the war against the invasion of the Fords. I took a short break only to find Clayton coming back toward me in the opposite direction. He had dropped his wallet along the course and had to backtrack to find it. What a bummer early in the run! Later, he caught up to me and I was happy that he had found it without too many bonus miles, even though a little cash had been garnished from it.
In the afternoon, passing near Gleason, I found myself unnaturally tired. My legs and muscles felt fine and good to go but my brain was craving sleep, a direct result of the all night drive to the start. I found a nice freshly mowed lawn and propped myself up in the “V” of the drainage ditch out front. I was in the sweetest little nook, invisible to the cars on the street as well as the occupants of the house I had so surreptitiously taken up residence in the yard of. I set my phone timer for 15 minutes and instantly fell into the rhythm of my breathing and a brief sleep. I woke up feeling amazing. It is awesome how much a healthy body can “recharge” with a brief sleep when rest is lacking. I re-shouldered my pack and headed east with renewed vigor.
In a relatively short period of time, I caught back up to Daniel, whom I was running with before the nap, and an important point dawned on me. It's better to be rested and faster than to try and slog onward sleep deprived at a slow pace. At least for me. This would become the strategy the rest of the run, to sleep as often as needed in order to maintain a running pace while moving.
At 12 hours, I had made 56 miles into McKenzie and was feeling quite good. Staying positive and keeping moving became my mantra as I continued on into the night. I had only slept for about 15 minutes at this point but I wanted to make it to at least 80 miles, see how I felt, and then decide to press on or sleep. Night fell and I was mostly running with 2 other runners at this point, one of whom had offered a spot to sleep in a campground at mile 80. They were well lit up with headlamps and tail lamps, but I just held my flashlight nearby for use only when cars approached to warn them of my presence. It was fun to chase the far away lights that were running away from me and I would almost catch up and then decide to take a break. It was during this night haul between Huntington and Clarksburg that I met my first “road angel”. A man with his two kids driving down the highway with a cooler full of water and cookies. I declined the cookies but the icy water was great after sucking on hot hose water all day.
Making it to mile 79, I found the campsite that Daniel had told me he had a spot at. Although the idea of a legitimate place to sleep was appealing, the weather was cool and I knew it was wise to keep moving when the temperature was most agreeable to running. Also, I was not sure of the rules of a crewed runner offering a piece of ground in campsite to an screwed runner. It was probably against the rules and I sure as hell was not going to run 314 miles only to be disqualified. I moved onward, alone into the night. Little did I know but this would be the last time I would see another Vol State runner along the route for the rest of the journey.
I pressed on, wanting to make it to at least Lexington before the 24 hour mark. I passed through around 3 am and since I felt fine decided to continue on and see how many miles I could rack up. I started to get really sleepy after Lexington and began to look for a safe place to rest. Near Chesterfield (mile 98) I found a large awning on a church's porch and was able to lay down on the concrete and fall asleep. I had brought two things that made sleeping in odd places more bearable, an eyeshade to block out light, and an inflatable U shaped neck pillow. I set my sleep timer for an hour and was out in minutes.
Waking up, I reported my miles while walking through Chesterfield. It was cool to have a spreadsheet showing everyone's reported miles during the race. I was impressed to see Greg and John had both made it to 120 miles, a great start leaving less than 200 miles to go. At this point I was in the lead of the screwed runners having run almost 20 miles more than anyone else.
The second morning heated up quickly. There was no relief in the form of rain as there was on the first day. The rising humidity and sunlight beating down on me dictated a slow morning. I decided to take it slow during the hot daylight hours and then make up miles overnight when I presumed the conditions would be more favorable to running. Regardless of my slow speed, I was soaking wet dripping sweat the entire morning. I watched the water drip off of the front of my wide brimmed hat with a regular rhythm and heard the swish swish of my wet shorts being sloshed from side to side by my legs.
I quickly realized how imperative it is during this race to take every possible opportunity to apply some lubrication barrier between my skin and clothing. During the intense heat chafing could end this race quickly, making endless tiny abrasions and turning running an unnecessary exercise in pain tolerance.
On the way out of Parsons, a man flagged me down to ask if I was running in the cross state race. He offered me a drink and considering the heat (which had now broached 100F) I accepted. He lead me over to a walk in cooler outside of what I found out was his restaurant, Little Josh's. I got a tour of the restaurant and the owner, Bryan, turned out to be a commercial fisherman as well as a recreational runner. He had just taken his whole staff down to Florida to do a mud run. Awesome business management! I rued that I had no time to dine (and didn't want to scare off Bryan's other customers with my slow cooked aroma), and with a cold sports drink I headed back out on the highway.
Luckily I had picked up a tip from Bryan about a sandy embankment along a river under a bridge that he said would make a nice rest stop along the route. Sweet! I don't know why but I had not yet considered undersides of bridges or underpasses as viable shelters.
I had to start thinking more like a homeless person to do well during this run.
Sleeplessness caught up with me before I could make it to the bridge on the Bison River that Bryan had told me about. I decided to try my luck under another bridge that spanned a small creek under the highway. I found a well trodden route down under the bridge but was dismayed by the fact that the embankments were piles of large rocks. Sleeping on the concrete bridge supports was also out of the question due to large families of wasps and spiders taking refuge there. Oh well, I shuffled some rocks around in an attempt to get a small patch of flattish ground. I nestled up among the rocks, hoping that I was not intruding too much on some as of yet unseen snake's domicile and slept for a good 40 minutes.
Waking up refreshed, I was able to maintain a decent pace heading into Linden. It was on the way up to Linden that I ran into Laz in the “meat wagon”, a large passenger van, the last resort for the runner who has lost all hope and ability to continue along the journey. He was impressed that I was running up the hill to Linden, one that he said others had referred to as particularly demoralizing. I was feeling great, although I knew I was going upward, I did not even notice that I was on a hill. My time in Colorado had payed off in terms of vertical ability and I was actually relishing the times when I was able to get off some flat ground for a long climb.
I didn't hang out long in Linden and soon found the sandy embankment along the Bison River. It was right past a convenient store where I was able to get some juice and ice water. I was exhausted as I blew up my pillow and set the timer for 2 hours.
Sleep is ongoing experiment during Vol State and I would end up trying many different lengths of time, from 6 minutes to 120 minutes, to determine how to get the maximum clarity from the least amount of sleep. Ultimately I would settle on 100 minutes being the most effective amount of time to sleep.
I woke up feeling super refreshed and ready to run. I hit the road and enjoyed having a phone conversation with my fellow Luna Sandals team member Alex Ramsey. He was about to head to Death Valley to run the Badwater 135, the hottest ultramarathon in the world. Although the heat index in Tennessee would sometimes rise to 110F, it was no comparison to the oven that is Furnace Creek, California in July. I would try and think about Alex, Harvey Lewis, and others who would soon be battling it out under the unforgiving desert sun as I continually sweat through my clothes.
At the 36 hour check-in, I was nearing Hohenwald and anticipating some fresh food. The sun was setting and I was anticipating a cooler evening where I would be able to make up some miles. Hohenwald had a strange feel to it and I did not like the vibe I was getting as I stopped in a mart on the way into town. The attendant was shielded behind bullet proof glass and had the air of someone who is depressed by her occupation but so used to it she continues on in quiet resignation.
Leaving Hohenwald, storms were quickly rolling in. I was tired anyway, so it was a great excuse to lay down and wait out the storm. I picked up a chicken sandwich and a soda from a fast food place and found a nice awning outside of a bank to lay under and snack and nap. It was a short storm that blew over, I woke up in 45 minutes to wet ground but not much else. I headed out into the night.
I was hoping that the weather would be cool by this point, but it seemed almost as hot as the day. Steam rose off of the road, the moisture from the recent rain was already ready to reform into vapor. It was thick and I could not see the ground at times, it was eerie like a horror movie or dream.
Late that night, I made it to the campground at Natchez Trace and needed water so I decided to find a spigot here. When I approached I saw a beautiful bench that was begging to be lain on. Who am I to argue? I needed to dry out my feet anyway which had been more or less wet for a while. Laying on the bench with my feet elevated sans sandals and socks, I easily drifted off into dreamland for another hour long nap.
I would wake up stiff as a board. It was always a question upon waking- would I be able to start running again? I could not dwell on it too much, just start shuffling one leg in front of the other and hope that once the blood flow returned to the stiff tendons that they would slowly reply with increased pliability and return to normal function. I was consistently surprised at how quickly functionality would return.
The next section I ran during the morning while watching the sunrise. Construction had closed down half the road and made a perfect traffic-less lane to run in. It turned out to be helpful to be running here with some daylight as I was able to find a pocket knife on the ground that would prove to useful later on. I was able to keep a consistent rhythm running here. It seemed like I always had the strength to make up some faster miles right before the 12 hour check-in. I was maintaining a narrow lead of between 15-20 miles over the next competitor, Rich Flint, and I did not want to show a flagging pace lest he see this and use it as motivation to make a move on my position. It was difficult though- my anticipation of being able to complete more miles during the night turned out to be too optimistic considering my sleep deprivation and the intense humidity. By the 7:30AM check-in, I had only made it 29 miles in 12 hours- hardly the 40+ miles I assumed would be possible. My lead over Rich had also dropped from 21 miles to 17. I constantly had to reevaluate mileage expectations and adjust for the changing conditions and challenges that this “vacation without a car” presented.
I began the third day with a short nap outside of Mack's Market, at mile 161, waiting for their 8AM opening to get a little breakfast sandwich. The women working here were really nice, refilling my water and making me a sandwich to go. I left with fresh coffee and what I thought was a ham and cheese sandwich in tow. A few miles later I found that my ham sandwich lacked ham but it was too late to care.
At the start of day 3, the race was more than half way over. To me this always means one thing- don't get passed. It is one of my goals when running races that I never allow myself to be passed during the second half of the run. The first half, fine, I'm running my own race, but the second half, hell no.
Heading into Columbia, some issues were starting to become critical. The first one was my sandals- I had opted for a well broken in pair, already with several hundred miles on them, that I knew I would be comfortable running in. It was becoming evident over the first two days however, that the brutal heat and endless asphalt were wearing down the sandals faster than I anticipated. The heel and forefoot were paper thin at this point and I knew that today would be the day that the inevitable holes would appear. I thought that I could probably run with holey sandals without issue but I did not want to test the hypothesis during a race so I had to determine a solution to the problem. I started collecting scraps of rubber from blown out tires. I found several thinner pieces that would be useful for sandal repair. My first idea was to melt rubber into the holes, much like melting plastic into gouges to repair skis, and then to smooth out the hot rubber using the knife I had found. If that didn't work then I would try and superglue or duct tape rubber over the hole and if that didn't work I'd have to either run despite the hole or try and wedge rubber inside of my sock. I stopped on a bench in Columbia when the holes had become nearly dime sized and tried to melt the rubber pieces using a lighter. It didn't burn well and it didn't drip hot rubber like I expected. No go. Next I tried to hold the rubber scrap and sandal together and light both on fire, fusing them. Didn't work, the rubber would dry out and not adhere. Next I decided I needed some adhesive. Luckily in Columbia I was able to find glue at a grocery mart. Finally! I double patched the tops and bottoms of the sandals and the rubber appeared to adhere quite well with the superglue. I could only hope that the patches would last. Meanwhile, I would definitely be holding onto the glue. Putting the sandals back on, I was relieved by how “stable” the patchwork felt and my mood was elevated by solving the problem at hand.
Creativity in problem solving is a necessary skill when trying to survive in the wilderness, run an efficient business, solve a differential equation or run 300 miles unaided through the Godforsaken wasteland that is rural Tennessee in July...
The other issue I faced on day three was chafe. Between my thighs it was death by a thousand cuts. Body glide, even with frequent reapplications, was no longer working at all. I thought that I was either going to have to buy a new style of shorts (like cutting down some super loose sweatpants), or buy a big enough shirt to run bottomless (which I really did not want to do). When it became apparent that I was no longer going to be able to run in the shorts I was wearing without causing bleeding, I decided to use my new knife to alter the style of my shorts before searching for entirely new clothes. I cut out the section that connected the front from the back, effectively turning my shorts into a skirt. The difference was instantaneous. The lack of abrasion with the added bonus of a fresh breeze flowing put a hop in my step despite becoming the worst looking cross dresser in all of the South.
Leaving Columbia, I passed by Laz with the meatwagon now loaded with the fresh bodies of the Fejes'. I was in a good mood with repaired sandals, a 'new' handmade running skirt, and fresh food from the mart in Columbia. I had a slow start with all of adjustments that had been made, but the day was still young and I had plenty of time to make up some miles. I talked with Joe, Kelly, and Laz for a minute, laughing about my new attire, repairs, and heat rash. I can't say I was not a little jealous of Joe and Kelly who, after dropping from the run, got to ride around in the back of an air conditioned van drinking cold beverages. I moved on quickly though, I was in good spirits and needed to move well when I could.
There is a 5 mile section of highway between Columbia and the next viable stop, the “Bench of Despair” in Glendale. I ran consistently through this section as large storm clouds approached from the rear. I sped up to try and make as much progress as possible before the storms could catch up. Looking to the northwest I watched powerful lightning strikes and counted off the distance between them and myself. Soon the storm clouds overtook me and I was in the middle of a raging storm. I started to look for shelter, but there were not many options. I passed some type of heavy machinery retailer that had a large carport that would have spared me the rain that was now coming down in diagonal sheets but it was surrounded by a barbed fence that I did not feel like climbing over on spent legs. I continued as the lightning hit dangerously close to me. Looking up I saw a strange black apparition in the sky. It was a lone jet black cloud hovering closer to the ground than the mat of gray clouds passing above. It moved quickly and as it swirled around formed the image of one of the prison guarding dementors from the Harry Potter novels. Like an enormous flying grim reaper, it was definitely not a good omen. The need to find shelter became urgent. Seeing what I believed to be a bridge ahead I booked it only to find that the bridge was only a small tunnel over a drainage ditch. I dove down into the ditch and into the rectangular tunnel. There was no place that I could avoid the storm and also not be wading in ditch water, so I waded. And waited. The storm raged and I tried to not touch anything in the tunnel as it was a great wasp metropolis, with over a dozen nests that were over a foot in diameter. Luckily I did not seem like a threat to them and they huddled in hives to avoid the storm as well. I then looked down at water as the level was rising and saw the little black wisps of the local leeches. I had one clinging to my sock already. Leeches below, wasps above, and lightning outside as the water rose increasingly rapidly. Some shelter. In a few minutes the water went from just covering my toes to ankle deep and moving quickly. No escape from this madness. The storm continued to rain heavily but the lightning had moved further away so I headed back out into the storm to try and make it the final mile to the Bench of Despair. I sprinted to the bench and made it in less than 9 minutes. It was a great relief to make it- there was a large garage where I was able to wring out my clothes and hang them up to dry. In the meantime I was able to eat some BBQ and drink coffee while the storm passed. It was odd to be warm and drinking coffee so soon after shivering, soaking wet, hunkered down in a ditch with wasps and leeches while lightning raged outside. Situations can change quite quickly, especially during VolState.
Being exposed to the elements, lightning is statistically the greatest danger and demands the most respect and caution. Snakes, alligators, sharks, bears, catamounts are all minor threats compared to the danger of being exposed during a lightning storm.
I hung out at the Glendale market until around 5PM when the storms had all but passed and the bright sun returned. Heading out I felt refreshed and in good spirits from the long forced break. The storm must have slowed Rich Flint as well so I was not concerned about losing too much time.
The next sections were great for running but I could only maintain it until Culleoka at mile 185. It was there on a shady road when suddenly my left foot exploded into pain, causing me to almost fall when I could no longer put any weight on it. It was bad, the small muscle that stabilizes the foot on slanted surfaces had been sprained and was swelling almost instantaneously. The cause? The minute downward slant of the road had consistently flexed the muscle, overworking it. Normally a variety of camber and terrain would have spread out the effort of stabilization but here there was no variation- I ran on the left side of the road and my left foot landed consistently slanting downward along the frontal plane. It was very painful and I spent the next several hours trying to figure out a way to continue moving forward. I was able to call an anesthesiologist friend to get an informed opinion about whether or not I was risk causing a more serious injury by trying to continue (thanks, Dave!). I decided to try and keep moving until I had a chance to take a longer rest, wrap the foot, and reevaluate. I couldn't go far and ended up laying down on the side of the road for a 20 minute rest to see if it would help. Several people stopped and asked if I was okay and it was hard to answer the question honestly. It was also hard to turn down offers for a ride here, it was so tempting. I did not want to cause a long term injury by continuing but I also really did not want to quit. I got back up on my feet. I could hardly put weight on my left foot, every step would send pain rushing up to my brain, so I limped along for a while. I knew this could not last for too long before I would injure something else by compensating- my stride was really asymmetrical. I tried running on different parts of the road, different parts of my feet, altering frequency of steps, and flinging my arms forward. Deep breathes, focusing on the source of the pain, ignoring the pain. Nothing could get my stride back to even. After a while I began focusing on using glutes to propel me forward and it was only through a combination of this, breathing, and extremely exaggerated hip twists that I was able to somehow run again and not put stress on that particular sprained muscle. I probably looked ridiculous, my hips swung over 30 degrees in front and behind the coronal plane but I did not care, I was excited to be moving.
I had to push hard to make it to Lewisburg (mile 200) by the 60 hour check-in. I knew there was a grocery store here and I did not want to miss the opportunity to get some avocado and fruits by arriving too late. On the way, foot sprain would flare up and I would be forced to walk or to try and find a new 'style' to run for a while. But eventually, somehow, I would always come around to being able to run again.
I made it to the store and was able to get some great supplies. A pint of blueberries, an avocado, a peach, and some chocolate milk had me drooling. I found a church and climbed up their fire escape stairwell to a small platform where I made a camp and ate food, saving some blueberries for later. After checking the other runners' statuses, I found that I had put more distance between myself and the rest of the field and easily fell asleep for a longer 100 minute nap.
I woke up stiff and cold, not as rested as I had hoped, but the sun was setting and I was eager to get moving. It took a while to get moving again and I had to cope with the sprain which was still aching badly. I stopped at a gas station on the way out of town and picked up an energy drink for some caffeine later. On the way out I passed a woman who urged me to “pick up the pace” and “put some effort into it!” I couldn't help but laugh and mention that I was actually doing quite well in a race, some 200 miles deep, and urged her to go look it up and try for herself.
This night turned out to be the worst yet. I was stiff, tired, and in pain. I headed out on to dark highway during another humid night, alternating running with limping on my pitiful left foot. I made it to HWY 64, finally getting toward some parts of Tennessee that I am familiar with from 3 years of competing at the Strolling Jim 40 mile run. Shortly after making it to 64, I had run low on water and was just too tired to continue. I decided to nap in the parking lot of a farm supply and used my bivvy sac for the first time. It worked well for warmth, but waking up an hour later, I was soaked in sweat and the night was breezy, giving me the shivers. I woke up not knowing where I was. It always took a second to realize upon waking during this run what my reality had been transformed into- a Sisyphean task, the incessant struggle, a simple task of moving forward made daunting by endless repetition. Damn, this was in fact real life. Gotta get moving fast and try and warm up.
I made it a couple miles before my sprain flared up in shooting pain again. I was forced to walk and even that proved painful and difficult. I began to fall into a mental spiral. Surely there was no way I could keep this up. I must be doing damage to my foot. I can't continue if I can only go the 1.5 miles an hour I was managing. My poor foot, what the hell am I doing out here in the middle of nowhere, 2 am on a hot night, smelly, limping in a skirt and wincing with every step? Then I ran out of water...
I... spent... hours searching the backsides of barns and buildings, looking intently for the outline of any protrusion that could possibly be the silhouette of a water conduit. Try after try, building after building, nothing. I finally found a large church that I was sure would be my saving grace, the miraculously appearing spigot, transforming metal tubes and earth into life giving water. Around the side I saw the glint of coarsely painted metal pipe and the unmistakable outline of the ubiquitous yard hydrant. Eureka! So I thought, until I saw that it was guarded by a closely circling, foraging, hungry skunk. I briefly considered the possible benefits of being inundated with deep stink- at this point it might make me smell more pleasant and maybe it would give me motivation to finish faster to get to a bath? I don't know but I decided against it and tried to usher the animal out of the way without alarming it. I did give it a spook and it returned to is lair beneath an industrial air conditioner. As I swept in to refill my bottle and moisten my parched lips and tongue, I grabbed the handle and pulled. Only the handle wouldn't move- the spigot was held shut by an evil shining lock, glinting in the night like a flame reflecting in the corner of laughing Satan's bloodshot eye. What kind of Christians were these?!!? To deny one in need of such a basic necessity such as water when they clear had an abundance of it, on tap! It was in fact, no miracle but instead the immaculate deception!
This was demoralizing. I returned to the road as parched as ever after being millimeters from torrents of potable water. I ambled onward. The pain in my foot persisted as I limped along at 2 miles an hour. Time slowed and stretched. Progress was barely discernible and I spent untold lifetimes in this pitiful state. It took 3 hours to progress 7.5 miles before I found salvation in the form of a water tap and bench at a church in Wheel. After gulping down water, I laid down despite my lack of progress throughout the evening. Across the street a group of late night partiers were drinking and listening to loud music. I remember hearing the same pop hits that I had heard endlessly repeated on my recent cross country drive. It was 330AM and I had only made it 13 miles in 8 hours. I wanted to drop out so badly but I dismissed the thought as an impossibility. A short nap later and I slunk out back into the dark of the night, passing nearby the party in an open garage under the veil of darkness, once again considering the vast difference between the individual experiences occurring simultaneously between myself and the carousers. The pain had not improved but I did realize that my mental anguish was contributing nearly as much to my sourness as the actual pain. Realizing this I returned my mind to my breath and once again began trying to alter my form, gait, and cadence to minimize the forces on the sprained muscle. Something happened, I'm not sure what, but all of the sudden I felt very determined. I sped up and found my rhythm once again. Building speed I found a fast pace and kept the momentum up by forcing my breath into a even beat like the strokes of a speed rower. Running fast again I picked up a high and was able to subdue the sensations emanating upward from my damaged foot. I kept it up and tried to turn off my mind. I was able to keep the pace up nearly all of the way into Shelbyville and I realized that I had ran over 7 miles in that one hour, nearly 4 times faster than the previous 7 miles. I was ecstatic to be running well again in the cool night. All of the trauma of the previous hours evaporated in the wake of motion. It was at this point that I understood what prior King of the Road Barry Crumine meant when he said the in running Vol State “I found in myself something that I never knew was there”.
I was able to make it to mile 227 before the 0730 check in and I kept running until Wartrace where I was able to stop for some bad breakfast sandwiches at a gas station. It was nice to be running on familiar roads (from the Strolling Jim 40 miler) and I waved and smiled as a morning jogger and I passed each other. I tried to pass for someone just out for a morning stroll but I probably looked too ragged by then. He has no idea, I thought to myself, and laughed.
I was feeling good until the road out of Wartrace began heating up as the sun rose higher in the sky transforming the dewy ground into miles of outdoor sauna. I found myself on a shade-less route as the heat went from bake to broil. The pain in my foot came back with a vengeance. Damn I thought I had the kink worked out. I walked, slow. This wasn't working, once again. I found a small swath of shade to lay down in and fell into a sweaty sleep.
It didn't help. The road out of Wartrace was too hot and I was too tired. I ran out of water again. I cursed myself for not filling up when I was down to half a bottle. All of the residences had large gated fences around the properties, most with less than friendly guard dogs roaming behind them. I did not want to test my dog whispering skills on random dogs when I was so out of it and I didn't not want to encroach on someones property who might answer with bird shot before I had a chance to plead my case. I was wary of the climate of fear that seemed especially pervasive during this election cycle and did not want to find out if Tennessee had a stand your ground law. I finally saw a spigot that looked like it was made of gold and diamonds it was so precious to my eyes and cautiously and politely approached the home and knocked on the door for permission to gather water. No one was home and so I quickly filled up and left on my way.
After getting closer Manchester, I was eager to find the RV park where they had vending machines (according to John Price). I pulled up drenched in sweat, exhausted, and looking like a lost dog. The vending machine was broken, so no soda, but the attendant at the park got me a couple bottles of water which I went ahead and downed on the spot. We talked for a bit in the shade of a barn like building, then I returned to the heat and started making progress.
It was not long on this unbearably hot road when a truck with a large family pulled over to ask if I wanted some water. I asked if they had anything to do with the race or were a crew for another runner, just in case. They had no idea a race was even going on so I took some cold bottled water and drank it while I explained what kind of ridiculous logic put me in the Tennessee back country mid July for days on end. The man was really interested and offered both the large hat off of his head (mine had been lost in the lightning storm) as well as a blessing. I declined the hat but figured a blessing couldn't hurt. So the man grabbed my shoulder, and began in a serious and heartfelt tone, “Dear Jesus Christ, bless this young man in his journey...”. It went on for a while but hell I was in no hurry in this kind of heat. I didn't feel any white light emanating through my body or hearken angel's trumpets booming down from the sky or anything but the family was so nice that I left the encounter with a smile.
A mile later my tired caught up with me and found a lone tree in someones yard with just enough shade to be slept under. I climbed in, eagerly anticipating the brief recess from consciousness, and found an apt groove between the protruding roots to lay my half dead body. After a minute, I was almost out but was awoken by the sensation of crawling. I looked down only to see a large ant crawling up my calf. I lifted my leg and blew him off. Try to fall asleep again. More crawling. Damn. I didn't want to leave but it was obvious the spot was already occupied. Then I decided, screw it. They were the big ants that don't bite, they probably just want to drink some sweat and get some salt so I'll play along. It was not super easy but I turned off my aversion to things crawling on me long enough to fall asleep for a 15 minute nap. It was great dreamless sleep. I woke up to a dozens of ants on me and I took my time to blow them off before I continued.
Running through Manchester, I recalled the time that I had spent at the music festival there in the year 2006. It had been a dreadfully hot that June and I vowed to never return due to the intense heat. It was a trick of fate that I found myself back in the same small town, enduring the same sweltering heat and humidity exactly ten years later.
I found another convenience store and took the opportunity to refill water, drink some milk and eat some peanuts. It was a great relief to get out of the sun if even only for a few minutes. After eating, the tired that I was trying to run away from was creeping back up. My body wanted time to rest and heal. It's demands were becoming more frequent. I tried to press on but couldn't help but stop when I found a beautiful piece of grass near the side of the road. It was damn near golf course quality and shaded. I fell asleep quickly.
Although I had set a sleep timer for 45 minutes on the cool grass, I was abruptly woken up by a boot nudging into my side. I gazed up into the eyes of a surprised looking police officer and sensing the implication sprung up to my feet quickly to address her. First she asked if I was alright and I said, “Yeah, doing great! Just needed a little nap and to get out of the sun”. Then she told me she had several reports of a possibly dead woman on the side of the highway. I laughed and said well I'm obviously neither a women nor dead so may I be on my way? She was still a bit skeptical of the situation and asked if I had ID. Thankfully, I did, and after she looked it over she let me get on my way without any further hassle.
The rest of the way to Hillsboro was uneventful. I found a dollar store nearby and decided to check it out for the first time during the run. They had way more options than I expected and I found out that canned soup is already cooked- you can just open it and eat it. I got some vegetable soup that tasted great and after the 7:30PM check in I fell asleep outside in the back of a convenience store.
That night I made my way into Pelham where I encountered a most curious site. An extremely tall and large tree was glowing in the middle of a cow field. It was the strangest sight in the middle of the night- there were no leaves and the tree was glowing orange but there were no flames. Little embers floated downward from the branches as if they were falling leaves. No one else was around- the night was quiet but the tree made a gentle noise like wind blowing through leaves. I sat and watched the orange glow and the cascading flecks of lights rain down into the field. It was strange and I had no explanation as to how the entire tree had been lit on fire with no flame and no evidence of a fire at its base in the field. I tried to take a photograph but it was pointless in the night, it would not show up.
It was only much later, recalling the story to others that I learned what had happened. Lightning had struck the tree, singeing off the leaves and leaving the trunk and branches smoldering through the night. It was incredibly beautiful and it also marked a turning point in the race- with only 50 miles to go I was able to remain calm and focused and my sprained foot no longer bothered me.
The climb to Monteagle was described as the first hill of the race and I made it challenge to run up the entire way. It felt awesome to be running uphill and I cheerfully bounced along, enjoying the night and happy to running the nearly shoulder-less road in the night when no cars were present. I made up the hill in under 45 minutes, and from the top I saw the dreamy glow of the Waffle House in the distance. I hopped off course and headed that way, hungry and happy for the chance to sit down for coffee and breakfast at 3:00AM. It was the best breakfast ever and so enjoyable to have some hot cooked food.
My goal for the night was Tracy City, so after breakfast I passed through Monteagle in the night. I had almost made it to Tracy but I found an awesome place to sleep- a covered bench in the Cumberland State Park. A 45 minute nap had me refreshed and ready to go. I had a few hours before check in and I managed to make it to mile 288.
The stretch between Tracy and Jasper was a long one with no marked stores so I doubled up on water and hit the road. With less than 50k to go I was able to run well and was in good spirits. It felt amazing to be coming to a point where the end of the race was a conceivable distance. I ran past many rural farms before beginning the long descent to Jasper.
During the descent I ran out of water so at the bottom of the hill I stopped at a church to refill as well as to take a hobo bath under the faucet. On the way out of the church property a car pulled in and a man stepped out. I explained myself saying that I just needed some water and I hope it was not too much of an imposition that I had used the spigot. He was happy to be helpful and asked where I was coming from and why. I explained and then told him it was some sort of personal test to determine the limits of what was possible- a trial of sorts. He vaguely nodded and then I asked him why he thought Jesus had chosen to subsist in the desert for forty days? He asked if he could bless me and although I had already been blessed I thought, hell, why not? It didn't take long as he implored the Lord for protection along the journey and I hoped that we both would find whatever answers we were looking for.
Just outside Jasper a sign was posted for runners advertising free drinks and water so I made one last stop at the local's house. It turned out to be an older man and his wife and they gave me ice cold sports drink as we chatted for a few minutes. I was eager to finish so I headed out but I was extremely thankful to them, whoever they were.
I made quick work of Jasper and made good time getting to Kimball. Passing through there was once again little relief from the soul sucking heat and direct skewering beams of sunrays but I was moving briskly with the finish palpable in my mind. I stopped at a fast food restaurant at mile 300 and hit the final low of the race. It was only 14 miles to go but the distance toyed with my mind. So close, normally a 100 minute run but in my state it could take many hours. I tried to focus but it was hard. I took a brief sit to get ice water and collect myself. I was so tired, I almost decided to take a nap. Instead I decided to push it to the finish. Try and forget about all those 300 miles already run and pretend like I was going out for some nice afternoon heat training. I started over a long bridge. It wasn't working. I couldn't run anymore.
I had to figure it out, this was the last problem, the last puzzle to solve to make it to the rock. I couldn't run and the thought of walking for another 5 hours made me ill... but... what could I do? A thought crossed my mind, maybe I could dance? I turned on a live recording of the Talking Heads and began bouncing from side to and swing my arms every which way, in circles, above my head. It was working, it felt fantastic. It really got my mind back into a positive place and I forgot about pace, running, racing, and just enjoying dancing along out there, singing at the top of my lungs. I let the people I passed who were out mowing lawns, pruning trees, and smoking on their porches see me in my full ridiculousness. I definitely turned some heads as I bobbed, swayed, and spun around while running up the road. Pain evaporated and I felt great being in my awesome body.
I made it until the last chance water stop with this technique, where Laz and Carl waited in the wagon. I said, how far to the rock, and Laz said 7 miles. I said, so what's the bet, 90 minutes? To which I received a hearty laugh. It had taken the top 2 crewed runners 90 minutes just to get up a 5k uphill section along the way. So I said, 90 minutes it is then and took off on a mission. About a half mile up the road, Laz was waiting. His estimation was wrong it was closer to 7.5/8 miles and so we decided 100 minutes would be the challenge. Of course, I had no idea what kind of terrain existed on the way to The Rock, and what kind of “hill” it would take two veterans of the US National 24 Hour team 90 minutes to ascend over a 5k distance. When I turned and saw the grade of the ascent I knew I had made a foolish wager but my thoughts drifted to the classic Coolhand Luke, the 100 eggs, and the overly confident bluff that if you somehow believe enough in can win you a big pot. I had nothing left in the tank, but sometimes nothing is a real cool hand to have. I pushed, hard. I kept my running form vowing to not walk til I passed out and focused on sucking air as hard as I could as I climbed an endless, steep, uphill. I knew I could not once think or consider how far I had to go or had come and just kept it right there in the present. One step, one push off at a time. I found a Zippo lighter on the ground, scooped it up while still moving, and pressed the hot metal into my palm as I furiously pumped my arms toward the sky, using the momentum and thrusts to pull my body up behind. I don't know how long I climbed but I do know that I just as I was reaching my absolute physical limit, I found the turn with Laz and Carl waiting. The climb was over and I had managed to not break stride once. A small feat but the challenge was still on with 5k to go and less than 30 minutes I broke into what felt like the fastest sprint of my life. My body began floating and I was able to run the undulating road with the fastest turnover and cadence of the entire run. I was so close there was no way I was going to let up now, even on the ups, even when the road turned to tractor torn dirt and kept dipping, even exposed and running out of sweat in the sweltering soybean fields. I ducked into a short wooded section and was beyond elated to see Laz and Carl smiling and pointing to The Rock. It was unbelievable, surreal, a dream in real life as bent down to touch the high point. I couldn't believe I had made it after all of the journey, the highs, the lows, the pain, the ecstasy, the problems, the solutions. I knew I made it as Laz told me, “Ninety eight and half minutes”. I had put it all out there and somehow managed to make it from New Hope to the rock with less than 90 seconds left on my foolish wager, a big bluff that somehow I believed enough in to make reality. 4 days, 6 hours, 48 minutes, and 31 seconds from when I stepped foot off of the ferry from Missouri, I had completed the journey. The adventure was over and my mind was reeling as I babbled on about the trials and tribulations of the past several days. I still can't believe it and I realized I had found what I had been looking for in running several years. The strength to press on, the will to continue and the mental faculty to deal with any issues as they arise .
After the run followed Laz and Carl to the Super 8 in Kimball with the intention to get a room but they no longer had any vacancies. It was just as well, all I really needed was a shower as I have a cot in the back of my van. The shower felt incredible, it is awesome to wash after accumulating days of road grime, dirt, and sweat. I hung out in Laz's room for a while, cracking jokes and laying in various awkward positions to minimize the sensations in my legs. I could not keep them still for long, the default had become motion rather than rest. It would be a while before the next runner would be closing in on the rock so we were able to go out for some decent Mexican food in the meantime. I was riding a tired high and I was feeling blissful at a having completed the adventure. I still needed to pick up the few supplies I had shed on the course, so after a few pictures I headed off to Wartrace. By the time I arrived it was getting dark so I parked and van camped in the same spot I slept for the Strolling Jim, in the parking lot of the historic Walking Horse Hotel, outside of the grave of Strolling Jim himself. Laying on the cot in the back of my van, I replayed scenes from the past week in my head- the near miss of the start, the new friends I had met before and during the race, the storms, the many nooks I slept in, the Tennesseans I met on the way, the rivers, the mountains, the traumatic times and the good ones. I did not sleep for long, it must have been habit, and woke up with the sunrise after a dreamy six hours.
I especially appreciate the slow walking in the day after an long run and took my time heading over to Jaebird's Diner for a fantastic egg and collard green breakfast. I talked with some of the locals and picked up a whiff of some fellow foot travelers as they sauntered in. It turned out to be Juli Aistars and Jan Silverman. Juli was former King of the Road and Jan was an awesome gym owner from Pennsylvania. We had a great time sharing running stories over coffee and I wished them the best on a successful journey as I headed back out onto the course, this time in a van. I lingered around for the rest of the day, driving the course slowly and stopping to wish the remaining runners well. I got a chance to say hi to fellow Luna sandals runners, Karen Jackson and Bo Millwood who were looking strong on the morning of day 5. Karen and Bo would later finish in under 6 days making Karen the 1st female screwed runner.
All in all the Vol State was an incredible experience that I know I will never forget. It is a true test of perseverance and an epic adventure. It is much more than a race and will take you places mentally and physically that no other run I have completed has done. As much as all of try and describe what it is like it is truly something that cannot be “got” from reading race reports or descriptions- you must experience yourself to know. I feel grateful to be among those who have undertaken the journey and managed to make it to The Rock and I have so much respect and admiration those who have. I do not know when I will be back to run it again, but even after all the hardship all I can think about is getting “out there” once again.