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.
Years ago, I read about the possibility of a bike path that would span the entire Georgia coast, 155 miles through six rural counties, from St.Marys to Savannah- the Coastal Georgia Greenway. Although the article drew my interest I did not have any notion that one day I would be running the entire Greenway, completed or not, over bridges and bike paths, through marshlands and rural communities, on sidewalks and sides of highways, through some of the worst and best weather conditions that occur on our unpredictable coast. Yet that is exactly where I found myself on the morning of Friday, April 1- being dropped off at the Cumberland Island ferry landing with 4 adventurous friends, 14 lbs of gear and food, and a map. The next 47 hours, 41 minutes would be spent in survival mode with one focus in mind... getting back to my hometown, Savannah.
The morning began well enough, with my friends Dan Hernandez, Jason Hallman, Jason Edenfield, and Brian Garvin being graciously given a ride by John DuRant to the start of the run on St.Marys Island. Spirits were high as we chatted about logistics and gleaned tips from John who had completed the course last year. Of course we were nervous, especially with the extreme weather predictions of lightning storms beginning Friday afternoon, but we were able to laugh from the start and we took our first steps toward Savannah at 9:00 am. After warming up together we separated into two groups with Jason H. and I leading with a steady pace through the increasingly humid morning. St.Marys was beautiful and Jason and I ran many easy miles chatting about life, pursuits, running, and nutrition. Running long distances is a great way to get to know someone, and I have made connections with people from all walks of life through hours spent shared in the pursuit of pushing our physical limitations. It is always an enriching experience.
As we progressed out into the more rural countryside, the humidity continued to rise with sun until it felt as though we were swimming through the sultry air. Although I am used to these conditions from running in Savannah, the humid air is still stifling and will slow a runner like molasses in January. Ambling along at a reduced pace, we found a little relief in the shade of oaks along beautiful pedestrian trail traveling through Woodbine. The trail ended at the meandering blackwater Satilla river and we crossed the first of many bridges.
Coming up on the second trail section, a 5 mile converted railway, we had completed the first of six marathons. It was apparent that I would not be able to keep my pace down enough to stay with Jason for the rest of the run (we did not plan on sticking together). Knowing that I had to push myself the first day to get miles in before the storms hit, I pushed onward ahead of Jason after a brief goodbye. Although I love to run with people, I also appreciate the solo experience, and also find that I can pass miles more quickly late in a run without any distractions.
The trail through and around White Oak was wide and shaded. Conditions were good and I was feeling mighty fine clicking off the miles at a good pace. I saw some snakes and deer here, and passed several farms on the side of the trail. This section went by quickly and I before I knew it I popped back out onto Highway 17 to cover the 9 miles to the second county.
Although 17 is a highway, the traffic here is light. These areas have not seen much traffic since the completion of I-95 in 1980. After the superhighway was built, much of the traffic was diverted and many, many businesses along the slightly slower, more scenic road ended up going out of business. It is my personal hope that more local businesses with more character and uniqueness of locality with reemerge with increased travel that completion of the Greenway will spurn.
Crossing the bridge over Laurel Grove Creek, I entered Glynn county. Once in Glynn the clouds really started rolling in. I had been compulsively checking the weather every couple hours before the start of the run as a massive storm system was headed east from Louisiana and expected to hit Georgia in the afternoon and last until the next day. Despite the tornado warnings and potential hail, we had been planning the run for months and did not want to cancel it without at least an attempt. I was getting nearer to Brunswick when the clouds broke above me and I stopped to pull out my pack cover and rain jacket while a torrent of water began dumping on me. I hoped rain would break up the humidity but it remained warm and humid, just a lot wetter. I quickly discovered that my rain coat, which had not been used for quite some time, was no longer waterproof and, in fact, was at the point of disintegration as it flaked off in fluorescent chunks, sticking to my clothes and skin. Guess I should have checked my gear before hand... I laughed at myself. Two things kept me going despite being soaking wet- it was warm enough outside, and there was no lightning within 5 miles. I found a convenience store about 9 miles outside of Brunswick where I stopped to reapply lubricant to my skin to prevent chafing. The rain was slowing and I did my best to dry out under a hand dryer in the bathroom. I don't know what people thought entering, seeing me, soaking wet in short shorts with a backpack, balancing on one leg with my other foot lifted up under the hand dryer, bouncing up and down trying to maintain balance on stiff, road weary knees but they declined to comment. Although it was awkward, it did help, and I walked outside just as the rain was revving up again. Having just gotten slightly drier, I opted to go get a coffee from inside, and sit on a bench under an awning for a bit. I caught up the group phone messages from fellow runners and found out that Jason had dropped out not long after we had parted ways due to risk of injury from a strained hip. We were down to 4 and the run had just begun...
As I sat under the awning, the rain slowed and it seemed that the worst had passed for now. I seized the opportunity to head back out into the misty drizzle and make more progress toward home. The next 9 miles to Brunswick were awesome! The coffee I drank was the first caffeine and in combination with a bottle of ensure I was feeling really good. I could see the bridge that I would have to cross to get over the Fancy Bluff Creek but I didn't pay too much attention as it was still over an hour away. This section was fairly quiet and I was overwhelmed by the scents of blooming sweet citrus flowers, tea olive, and wisteria. I sang some songs to pass the time while the sun was setting and the rain was intermittent, watching powerful purple lighting in the distance over the Atlantic ocean. It was beautiful.
Crossing the bridge into Brunswick, the sun had set and it was time to try out the new headlamp I had recently been awarded after winning a fantastic race, the Fort Clinch 100. It was comfy, bright, and lightweight- I'm happy to have a good headlamp finally. The bridge was long and offered nice views from both sides. Entering Brunswick I was excited by the promise of hot food somewhere- my appetite was getting voracious. I ran through some scenic neighborhoods with gorgeous historic architecture before popping out into a public park with a short running trail that led me back to Highway 17. It was too late for anything besides fast food so I stopped for a break in a 24 hour McDonalds and tried to reorganize my wet mess of a mind and supplies. This was a really nice break- I had a small chocolate milkshake, a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit, and a coffee while I took off my socks to dry my wet feet and put on clean socks. There is nothing quite like a clean, warm, dry pair of socks after you have been stewing in cold wet ones for hours on end. And I was able to sit entirely under the hot air hand dryer in the bathroom, drying my clothes and hair quite a bit. It really is the simple things...
I headed out into the night, fresh and reinvigorated, ready to press on toward Darien and the third of six counties. The rain had dwindled down and checking the weather I saw the storms were not expected to hit hard again until 3 am, when there was a tornado warning. That estimation gave me 4 hours to travel the next 15 miles to Darien and find a good shelter to nap in while waiting out the storm. Plenty of time, or so I thought.
The next 10 miles took less than 2 hours and I took some time at a 24-hour gas station to eat a snack and wash up in the restroom. I continued on fairly leisurely, enjoying walking breaks and talking on the phone for a bit before pushing on through the final 5 miles of the day. I was in a good mental place but soon the rain came back and with as much gusto as ever. Then the lightning began in the clouds to the west. Whenever a strike would light the sky up with an electric blue vein I counted the seconds until the arrival of the rolling thunder. It takes sound approximately 4.7 seconds to travel a mile so I decided to find the nearest shelter if the gap between the lightning and thunder decreased to less than 12 seconds. Most strikes were about 3.5 miles away but the nearer I got to Darien, the closer they became. About 2 miles out they finally breached my 12 second rule and I began to look for a place to take cover. Unfortunately, I was in a no mans land- the road was basically a bridge over marsh with no forest or buildings on either side, just a few low trees and marsh grass. I pressed on and right outside of Darien, within a mile of the town, the lightning got dangerously close. With every strike the Earth shook and all nearby power lines fizzled and transformers popped. Fear prompted me to speed up and I ran the fastest mile of the run into Darien.
It was a huge relief to step foot into a lit up gas station on the South end of Darien. I asked the gas station attendant if she know of any affordable motel nearby. Earlier in the run, I had not wanted to stay in a motel, but everything I had was soaked through and I was a soggy mess, desperate for a place to lay down out of the rain. The prospect of any bed with a blanket as well the ability to put wet clothes in front of a heater or fan for the morning was like the sweetest dream. The rain was predicted to continue until noon on Saturday so I figured it would be worth the $40 or so dollars I'd have to pay for the privilege of prepared accommodations. She said there was only one, about a mile away, that would be inexpensive. All other hotels were 3 miles away (in a direction opposite of the course I was traveling) so I opted for her recommendation. I bounced along for another mile, sure that within an hour I would be curled up cozy and warm, getting some useful rest at 70+ miles into the journey. Unfortunately, what greeted me at the end of the mile was so far away from the expectations in my mind that I still shiver thinking about it.
The first thing I noticed was that this "motel" was more of a dilapidated base of operations for what I sure was either a chlamydia research facility, termite farm or a crystal meth ring. Actually it was probably a some combination of the three. It was a squat, strip mall style place, and people had left their guard dogs tied up by ropes outside their rooms, all night in the terrible weather. I was greeted by an unchained junkyard dog that I had to placate to get to stop barking at my arrival. Next I noticed the sign, “No Vacancy” and then the office, locked and unoccupied. Then the storm got even worse. I found myself under a leaky tin awning, looking at a soaking wet cushion-less couch. The idea of going back out into the storm and traveling another 2 miles off course was too disheartening to consider so I decided the disgusting, moldy couch was slightly better than the wet concrete ground. In retrospect I'm not sure that it was. I was lucky however, that for the past 2 years I have been carrying in my backpack an emergency space blanket even though I had never needed it until right then. It stuck to my wet skin and being wrapped in it shielded me from the wind, the wet couch, and the incessant drips of rain through the awning. At 2:30 in the morning, I found myself sitting soaking wet, shivering, with achy joints and pain pulsating from my shoulders from carrying a backpack for 70 miles. I drifted in and out of consciousness while the storm raged for the next 6 hours. I managed maybe 45 minutes of restless sleep but would be constantly woken up by reverberations of lightning and the pain of laying uncomfortably. It was hopeless and dire, one of the times when you have to totally succumb to the suck and just wait in misery for conditions outside of your control to change on their own accord.
When the sun finally rose in the East, the weather turned as well, and I wearily packed up and began to head back to the course. Although the night was incredibly awful and slightly traumatic, the new sunrise brought both warmth and hope. My mood became downright jubilant as I bounded down the sidewalk. It seemed like providence when a few blocks later I passed a run down laundromat with an open door. I could not believe my luck, especially when I realized that this was perhaps the only coin laundromat in existence that lacked a quarter machine and I just-so-happened to have two quarters change from buying a coffee the night before. I unpacked my bag and threw all of my wet clothes and my wet backpack into a dryer for the next 14 minutes. I had saved a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit from the night before, and although it was old, cold, and hardened it was the best damn breakfast sandwich I've ever eaten. With a little bit of food and the promise of dry gear, I was damn near ecstatic. I put on my warmed shirt and repacked my dry backpack and I hit the road again, singing songs on the way back to the course.
Returning back to the riverfront area of Darien, I passed by the docks of sailboats and under massive Spanish moss laden live oaks that shaded the paths bordering the river. This was one of my favorite parts of the run and I took my time, taking pictures and enjoying the beauty. I waved at people out in their yards gardening, collecting the mail, or just sitting in rocking chairs on their porches. The architecture in the area was classically Southern- big airy Victorian homes with high ceilings, large porches, and decorated cast iron window frames. The weather was warm and humid but it felt fantastic.
At this point I was making decent progress but not pushing myself. I had started the run with the idea of having a fun adventure and enjoying a long run without the pressure of racing. The weather had made the situation stressful in a different way but I was still enjoying myself. I walked occasionally when I felt like it and stopped at most businesses since they were very sparse at this point. I stopped for water at a little shop 10 miles outside of Darien to indulge in a ice cream cone. The clerk could see that I looked pretty haggard by then, even though I was grinning and obviously enjoying myself. She asked me where I was headed and I said I was headed home to Savannah. “On bicycle?” No ma'am, I replied, I'm traveling on foot. She looked confused, “Son you have a long way to go”. I just smiled and said I know, thanks for the ice cream!
On this section, following GA99 and hugging the marshlands surrounding Blackbeard Creek, I found the most interesting discards on the roadside. Over the course of about 20 miles I discovered a brand new pair of sunglasses, enough tools to fill a toolbox, 5 phone chargers, 6 phone covers, 3 rolls off multicolored yarn (all about ½ mile apart), and 1 wallet complete with ID, credit cards, library card, and workplace badges but no money. The splatter pattern of the credit cards on the roadside made it likely the wallet was thrown or dropped out of a moving vehicle. Another highway mystery and a story that will never be known. I salvaged the cards to send back to the owner, a 55 year old living in Townsend.
I made my way into Crescent, where I approached Bubba's Diner. There was something about the old school hand painted sign that made me want to experience the “HOME COOKIN'” and the second sign, “RIBS”, sealed the deal. Well Bubba was there, but the ribs that day were long gone, so I opted in stead for a massive slow cooked turkey wing smothered in gravy and cabbage stewed with salt back and black pepper. All for only $4! This was in part an experiment, just to see how I would react to a stomach swelling portion soul food on a long run. It was delicious but it did slow me down for a good half an hour. It was worth it though!
Shortly after Bubba's I got a message from local low-country runners Tony Varney and Ann Kerkman. They were on their way to provide some aid to Dan, Jason E., and Brian and did I need anything? I replied no, that I was trying to stay in the Vol State mentality (a 500k unaided race through Tennessee). They excitedly informed me that “road angels” do not count as aid, and as veterans of the Vol State, I trusted their judgment and we made plans to share a quick beer en route. The few minutes I spent catching up with Tony and Ann on the side of the highway were a really nice break and I felt quite grateful for the kindness and effort they put into helping us with the endeavor. Oh and the beer!!! Thanks!
The beer was great for my mood but not for my motivation or lack of sleep. I had, unfortunately, not gotten much sleep in the lead-up to start and the lack of sleep throughout the storm had compounded the effects of sleep deprivation. I was maintaining decent focus but as soon as the alcohol buzz kicked in I needed a nap badly. I slowed to a walk until I found a gas station where I sat on a bench and almost fell asleep sitting up. Noticing the grassy lot nearby with three Uhaul trailers on display for rental gave me an idea. Like a bear looking for a cozy cave to hibernate, I realized that the Uhaul cavern was dark, dry, quiet, and totally free of chiggers and tics. I crept around back and ever so slowly began lifting up the sliding back door of the trailer. What I saw was the most beautiful flat, dry, empty, dark rectangle of space I could have imagined. My mouth was almost watering for sleep as I hopped in the container and closed the door behind me. I was instantly in heaven... which lasted for about 3 seconds. I had been spotted and heard the hollering as soon as I was shut in. “Hey you, whatchu doin' out in back of dem Uhauls?!!!?” I sighed, slid open the door, and returned to the light of day. I explained myself to the old woman attendant and apologized for not asking first if I could rent a Uhaul for a 40 minute nap. I explained how exhausted I was having been kept up stuck in the storm and she understood, but they weren't even her Uhauls so she couldn't allow me to camp in one. The adrenaline that I got when she first caught me did wake me right up though. I drank a little coffee and headed out with renewed vigor. I would be sticking to the original plan of making it to Richmond Hill where ½ mile off course I had a place to nap and some food thanks to the generosity of another runner, Sara Maltby. All I had to do to get there was go another 40 miles on legs that had already traveled 90 miles on 45 minutes of sleep... no problem, right? It was gonna be a while before I could get a nap.
It was slow going for a while, I traveled about 8 miles in 2 hours to crest the bridge over yet another leg of Blackbeard Creek and enter into Liberty county. At the border, I was bummed when I turned my phone on and found out that Dan, Jason E., and Brian had decided to drop out of the run. The storms had put them too far behind schedule and there were other issues as well. And then from five, we were down to one. It was disheartening but I was still determined. After surviving the night of living hell I had a lot of steely resolve about finishing. I was not going to quit even if it took a week to get back.
In a little while I was picking up steam again, knowing that my one “aid station”, a cooler filled with food, water, and goodies, was waiting for me, stashed in the back of a construction site in Riceboro, a mere 6 miles away. I made haste toward the cooler and ran quickly for 5 of those miles. Finally seeing the construction site that I had left a cooler in early in the morning Friday, was a huge boost. I took my time reorganizing my pack and supplies as well as picking up some of the strongest “black drink”, an Asi yaupon tea infusion, that I had ever concocted. It was so strong that it was entirely opaque and even the bright sun would not light up this stiff brew. I did not need much to feel the effects shortly after, and it help me continue on with increased mental focus despite my sleep deprivation.
From the cooler it was only 18 miles to make it to Richmond Hill, hot food, a shower, and a nap in a real bed in a waterproof shelter. Heaven. The sun set as ran further north and once I passed through Midway and was within 13 miles of Richmond Hill, I hit a low. These miles were the toughest to stay moving through because the shoulder on Hwy 17 was virtually non existent, the traffic was heavy, and the ground outside of the road was soggy and muddy. Running toward the bright headlights in the night was disorienting and incessantly jumping into the squishy ground between the groups of cars was tiring and hindered progress. It was a drag but as I got closer to Richmond Hill I recognized more and more landmarks which were encouraging. I was able to push the pace any time there was a break in the traffic. Finally hearing the roar of I-95 and seeing the halo of light in the sky was a whiff of the barn and I sped up to get past the interstate and finally off of the section I dubbed Die-way 17. It was a massive relief to be on quiet residential streets after the mental duress of running against a lot of fast traffic late at night.
Arriving at Sara's was great, but it was all business. I planned to leave her house at 2 AM and since I arrived late, I had less time to relax. I scarfed down an avocado with a baked egg inside, a few pieces of bacon, stripped and took a quick shower, and hit the bed in about 20 minutes. The time was 11:45 PM... my alarm was set for 1:45 AM. It did not take me long to fall asleep like a rock. I enjoyed two beautiful, blissful, warm, dark, and dry hours.
Waking up 2 hours later, I felt super fresh and after rocking my joints back into motion, I threw on my gear and hit the road at exactly 2 AM. It felt amazing to swap out my backpack for a hydration vest (at least 10 lbs lighter) and to have Dan's assistance crewing for the last 50k. I warmed up rather quickly and I was surprised at how much more easily I was able to move after the brief respite. I got back on the course where I left off and got out of Richmond Hill heading back up17 for a short section before crossing the Ogeechee River and diverting to back roads. This section then followed a short trail to a residential neighborhood. The cool night air felt amazing. I made quick progress, running well, despite being so sleep deprived and physically spent over the past 42 hours.
I made it back to 204, one of the main drags in Savannah and was dismayed to turn left instead of right. Knowing this area well, I knew that I was turning away from the shortest route back home, but I had to stay the course. Soon after, I passed the Ogeechee Canal Historic Park and it brought back memories of being being a boy scout with Troop 30 in my youth. Not only did we camp on the banks of the canal many times over the years, but I had also completed my Life Scout project here, a 6 tiered canoe/kayak storage shelter with a roof, with the help of fellow scouts.
Getting off 204, I followed a quiet road bordering the banks of the canal. It was quiet and the stars were out so I turned off my headlamp and ran many peaceful, uninterrupted miles through the cool dark evening, listening to the owl calls and the chorus of frogs, amphibians, and crickets. The road then turned into a fantastic trail and although it was obviously quite beautiful with the amount of cypress knees welling up from the flooded surroundings, it was dark so I was restricted to what I could see in the orb of my headlamps glow.
I followed more quiet roads into Pooler, and Dan helped me out on the way. It was great to have him for a crew. Every 3-5 miles I would find him on the side of the road with supplies spread over the hood of the car. I did not have to worry about running out of water, carrying too much, or stashing trash and it made the final push from Richmond Hill infinitely easier.
The last leg before downtown Savannah was an 8 mile stretch on Highway 80. I frequently run in this area anyway so once I got withing a few miles of town I was able to imagine that I was just out for a morning run, watching the sunrise over the Savannah river. 3 or 4 miles out I ditched all my stuff except a handheld and felt light and free. A few people were coming to meet me to run over the Savannah river bridge and I did not want to be late so I hustled into town. Being back in downtown Savannah, under the oaks, next to the cobblestone streets, the run felt over even though there were still 4 miles to go. I rendezvoused with my parents, Kelly Luckett, and Brian who had come out to run over the bridge with me. We took it nice and slow, I wanted to savor the finish.
From the top of the bridge it was all down hill and flat for another 5k and although part of me wanted to see just how fast I could run those 5k, I held back and tried to reflect on the experience of the past 48 hours. There was no need for ego at the end of this one, and I enjoyed talking to my Dad and Brian as we rounded the last corners of the Hutchinson Island racetrack and made way for the ferry landing. Coming down the steps to the ferry was both cathartic and serene. The morning was sunny and cool, a beautiful day for running. The sun reflected off of the Savannah river and the windows of the historic businesses on the cobblestone streets as sea birds swooped low eyeing the banks for food and cargo ships headed to their port of call. I met Dan on the landing. He handed me the CGG buckle he had designed for the run finishers and we relaxed and laughed for some photos. The trek was complete!!!
I was pretty exhausted but so excited by finishing that I did not quite want to rest yet. With Brian, Kelly, and my parents, we went out and enjoyed an awesome breakfast with coffee while enjoying good conversation. It was surreal to be home doing such a familiar activity as eating Sunday brunch at an outside cafe in downtown Savannah. I looked around at the fellow diners enjoying their food and company outside and had a quiet laugh to myself considering the vast difference in the past 48 hours from my perspective to theirs. While they were out drinking at the bars, I was dodging traffic in dark along a muddy highway, sucking exhaust fumes. When they were waking up late Saturday morning to coffee and a newspaper in their warm robes at home, I was already miles into the day, sleeplessly pushing forward with all my might after one of the more traumatic nights of my life. While they were cozy in bed Friday night, the lightning storm an excuse to stay in and watch a movie with popcorn, I was curled up wet and shivering, wrapped in a piece of glorified tin foil. It was an interesting thought and I realized that this dichotomy of experience between humans exists all the time and it is important to remember. While we live out our mostly comfortable existences, at any given time there are many, many, people experiencing suffering.
I learned many things during the experience of running the Greenway- the limits of my own abilities to withstand suffering and sleep deprivation, the ephemeral nature of emotion whether positive or negative, and also the joy of overcoming the trepidation of stepping into the unknown. I found out that I can withstand a lot and still maintain a reasonable level of mental focus and acuity, that the bad times nor the good times last forever- we are always on a pendulum between the two, and also that I continue to love adventures and explorations into unknown territory. The run pushed the boundaries of mental capacity and perceived limits and I am so happy that I decided to undertake the endeavor.
The Coastal Georgia Greenway itself on the other hand was just incredible. The rural coast of Georgia has so much to offer in terms of gorgeous scenery, boundless nature, friendly people, and fantastic regional cuisine. The opportunities of this area for ecotourism are limitless- hiking, biking, kayaking, fishing, camping, and birding are all possibilities in this pristine environment. In combination with the fascinating and rich history of the area- from the Creek Indian civilization thru Spanish conquests to the Civil War, the completion of the Greenway will be a great asset for all Georgians and visitors to our communities. It will also spurn a revitalization of some of these rural communities through increased tourism. We have no doubt lost some value by circumventing some of these localities in favor of faster travel on I-95. Let's bring back some local flavor and support local economies in rural areas as well. Let's finish the Coastal Georgia Greenway!
I immensely thank Dan Hernandez who conceived of the idea, put in all of the legwork on planning and route finding, and also crewed me for the last 31 miles. John DuRant who woke up early on Friday to give us a ride to the start. Sara Maltby for being literally the best aid station of all time at mile 125. Brian Garvin, Jason Edenfield, Jason Hallman, and Dan, for having the cajones to attempt the trek and for the shared miles. Tony Varney and Ann Kerkman for the roadside beer and encouragement. Kelly Luckett, Brian, Jason, and my parents who came out early Sunday morning to make sure I didn't fall off the bridge. Asi Yaupon tea for supplying me with tea for late at night when I needed it (yaupontea.com). Luna Sandals for providing me with a great pair of Gordo Monos for yet another blisterless distance running experience (lunasandals.com). Special thanks to everyone in our group message who kept tabs on our progress and offered much needed words of support and humor that made the voyage that much easier, I love our community!
Photo by Dave James
I am so stoked that I had the opportunity to run this years Fort Clinch 100 on awesomely beautiful Amelia Island in northeast Florida! Two years ago I had the chance to come run in Fort Clinch State Park while my fellow local ultrarunning friends were crushing the 100 mile course during brutally hot conditions and I have wanted to return ever since. The course is a 10.2 mile loop of gorgeous, rolling, twisty trails overgrown with oak hammocks, Spanish moss, palmettos, and ferns, rich with insects, arachnids, mushrooms, tons of wildlife, a short beach section and a long pier. The hills are the remnants of older sand dunes and the island is surrounded by tan sandy beach. Having mainly grown up on the coast of Georgia, exploring the many undeveloped barrier islands, this course felt like running through my own backyard. Familiarity with the environment, not getting lost (for once!), and well planned nutrition and hydration made this one of my most successful 100 mile runs.
I went into the race with a few goals in mind: to stay positive, stay in motion, stay focused, and keep nutrition and hydration on point. I also wanted to improve upon the course record of 17:59 set 2 years prior by Grant Maughan but I knew this would hinge on the unpredictable weather. I was nervous about my preparation due to a lack of hitting training goals in the weeks prior to the race, but I felt both fresh physically and mentally relaxed. My last long run had been a few weeks prior in the Grand Canyon where I completed 40 miles of the 46 Rim to Rim to Rim run (the north rim was too icy to complete the trek).
I arrived the night before the race for packet pick up and had an early dinner at 5:30 pm so I would have plenty of time to digest before the morning. My prerace dinner consisted of spinach and kale salad with olive oil sardines and coconut oil for dressing. This is consistent with what I eat normally and is a nice mix of proteins, fats, and nutrients that will not cause bloating and is easily digested. After mixing eight 140 calorie bottles of sports drink, I hung out with fellow local Savannah runners Bren Tompkins and Sara Maltby who were competing in the 50 mile race and fell asleep early on a cot in the back of the ultrawagon.
I woke up at 5:30 for the 7:00 a.m. start. I was planning on skipping a real breakfast and just having a spoon of coconut oil but Bren magically appeared with bacon so I ended up having two slices (thanks Bren!). Sara, Bren, and I caught a ride to the start with Chris who was there supporting Sara and Bren in the 50 mile race. Both races began at the same time so we all toed the line at 6:55 for the prerace announcements and at 7:00:30 we were off. It was tempting to run with those who jetted out in front after the race began but I've learned a few things from prior races and held back for a proper warm up, paying close attention to my heart rate monitor and trying to slowly, evenly increase the rate from 90 to 138 over the course of the next 20 minutes. My plan dictated that I not allow my heart rate to exceed 142 beats per minute (bpm) for at least the first 60 miles.
The first lap was dark under the oak hammocks on the rolling single track and I preceded with caution, paying close attention to the pervasive roots. Two years ago I came out to this race to show support for Sara and Bren (who were then running the 100) and the one lap that I ran I managed to badly sprain a toe just weeks before an important race. I did not want to make the same mistake twice! I ended behind a woman who had great knowledge of the course and she pointed out obstacles along the way. Thanks stranger! I felt warmed up four miles in and since our pace was a little restful at 128 bpm I passed my tour guide and was finally on my own. I would run the rest of the race entirely solo with the exception of a few minutes with other local runner Melissa.
Getting into a groove was slow, there is always some trepidation at the beginning of a 100 mile journey. I went through a mental checklist of physical diagnostics in an attempt to make sure every part was working well and in sync with the rest of my body. I tried to pay intense attention to the trail, breathing, and all of the surroundings. I saw many deer, squirrels, and birds the first loop. It was tempting to jump off trail and run with the deer and I slightly rued the fact that I was running in a race but maintained focus on the goal I had set out to accomplish.
I waited until partially thru the second loop (mile 13) to begin slowly sipping on some sports drink to supplement my energy expenditure. I usually wait at least an hour into long races before consuming anything form of calories so I maintain a nice aerobic fat burning zone. From when I started drinking calories, I tried to maintain a slow steady stream of about 175 calories per hour. I would get about 60 of those calories with spoonfuls of coconut oil and the rest mainly from sports drink with a few nibbles of solid food. When I ran 24 hours at 6 Days in the Dome, I was given the advice by Sharon Gayter of Great Britain to eat at least 1 solid thing per hour, even if it was just a nibble of chip in order to keep digestion in action. I heeded her advice then and have used it ever since to good effect.
The second loop flew by and before I knew it I was in the zone, cruisin along, singing songs in my head, feeling good, staying loose, natural, and relaxed as I danced over the roots and let gravity carry me down the slopes and around the banks of the tight turns. I had a good rhythm going on and was carefully monitoring the status of my stomach, joints, and muscles to deal with any issues quickly. Anytime I would lose focus I would bring my attention back to my surroundings, trying to take in as much as possible, and also be mindful of my breath. I avoided considering for too long how long I would have to maintain the effort of motion and tried to forget about the concept of time.
During the early afternoon, the threat of severe rain or hail seemed as though it had passed, but the humidity was thick and when the sun came out it was downright steamy. This was the most useful time for me to be monitoring my heart rate because I was showing increased exertion running the same speed that I had on prior loops. Whenever my HR exceed 142 bpm I would relax and slow down to keep from getting caught up in a zone that would be unsustainable for long periods. The heat and humidity of the afternoon also affected the rate at with which my stomach was processing liquids- I could feel that despite being thirsty for cold water, I was getting stomach slosh and so I abstained from eating or drinking for about 10 miles from around 1:30-3:00 pm. I instead poured water on my head to cool down and tried to coax out my stomach into motion to keep digestion going. It worked and my stomach slowly evacuated the slosh and I maintained regular peeing every two hours.
In the mid afternoon, I hit the 50 mile mark in 8:20. I still felt good despite the inevitable fatigue and I was happy to being counting down past the halfway mark. I saw Bren and Sara and both had impressive finishes in the 50 mile race, Bren coming in 1st overall and Sara coming in 1st female and improving the course record by over an hour! Congrats! I was a bit jealous of them being finished and being able to sit down when I still had a long way to go but I didn't dwell on it as I continued on.
After another loop I started to feel the fatigue more but I was able to maintain pace through constantly refocusing my effort. I really wanted to finish as much of the run as possible during the daylight hours to minimize the amount of time spent running in the dark which is usually slower. I was still sticking to the fueling plan after the afternoon heat slowly tapered and it worked well for me. I did not let myself consume more than 20 oz of liquid per hour, this being the max that I can absorb in that period of time.
Miles 60-75 were not easy but I was in a good groove and my heart was consistently at ease with little variance on the hills. I saw the most wildlife on these miles, jumping over snakes and sneaking up on deer for entertainment. The sunset was beautiful coming through the trees and I watched it fade behind the clouds over the bay as fog horns sounded from distant ships. What a great place to have a race!
I was happy to make it to about 76 miles before I had to turn on my head lamp and fire up a flashlight with only one more marathon to go. It was also at this time that I finally allowed myself to use caffeine for an added boost. I will not drink any caffeine until the last 1/4 of any long race and I was excited to try out the strong concoction of Asi yaupon tea I had brewed the night prior. In the past I have used coffee and also yerba mate for the caffeine but lately I have been experimenting with the locally harvested wild tea, yaupon, after reading accounts of Native American tribes using the tea to maintain stamina in battle. In addition to caffeine, the infusion also has stimulants in the form of theobromines and also healthy phytonutrient flavonol, which improves cardiovascular circulation. Downing a healthy portion at mile 75 provided a much needed mental boost and kept me moving strong into the night. I was also surprised that I did not see a jump up in my heart rate, odd considering I had consumed roughly 150 mg of caffeine at one time.
With the end in sight (sortof) I wanted to fly but held myself back for miles 80-90 and at mile 85 had my final pit stop to freshen up, relube, eat some coconut oil, down some strong yaupon tea, and take a short walk break for about 250 meters. This turned out to be the only time I walked for more than a few feet during the entire race. I was really stiff after stopping for a minute and it took me quite a while to accelerate from a slow shuffle back up to running speed.
Once I hit mile 90 in 15:18, I knew it would be possible, but not easy, to finish in under 17 hours. I was excited by the prospect of besting my time goal of 17:45 and focused on putting max effort into the last loop. I told myself to stick to the 10 min/mile pace until mile 95 and then I would be able to drop the backpack I had been wearing all day, take off my shirt that had been chafing me, and run free to the finish. Arriving at my aid station for the last time, I threw off the pack and my shirt, chugged 4 oz of yaupon tea, and hauled ass outta there with just my headlamp and two flashlights. It felt great to be closing in on the finish and three lights made the trail and roots easy to navigate. My GPS hit mile 100 as I left the trail for the short road section as soon as I no longer needed to pay strict attention to the ground to avoid obstacles I pushed it hard. This was the most amazing feeling to run mile 101 in 7 minutes and I experienced an interesting dissociation from my body where it simply felt like I was flying thru the cool coastal night air. It was all I could do to maintain the pace and when the mile ended on the pier I just smiled and relaxed into a relatively easy 8:35 pace until I crossed the finish line.
This was one of the most successful races I've ever ran. It takes a long time to figure out the hundred mile distance because you can't run them every week to try out different strategies but I finally feel competent at planning and execution. It was great to finish without a single blister, yet again, in my tried and true Luna sandals. Overall, this race was a successful assimilation of the many things that I have learned about myself over the course of my running 7 prior 100 milers. I am so excited to finally have a solid win at this distance after so many near misses in the past. I cannot thank enough Caleb Wilson (facebook.com/LlamaRunningCompany) for directing this awesome race, Luna Sandals (lunasandals.com) for getting me registered and providing footwear, Asi Yaupon tea (yaupontea.com) for providing me free tea to fuel the run, and the incredible volunteers who took time out to support all of the runners over the course of the weekend. Thanks, I will be back!
What I wore:
Luna Leadville trail sandals with tech strap
Injinji cotton toe socks
Brooks running shorts
Ultimate Direction AK race vest
Garmin 310xt gps watch with HR monitor
What I consumed:
5x 140 calorie bottles of Vitargo S2 carbohydrate drink (700 kcal)
7x 100 calorie spoons of coconut oil (700 kcal)
2x Ensure active heart health vanilla milkshake (260 kcal)
3x 5 oz portions of max strength Asi yaupon loose leaf tea brewed in french press (150 kcal)
1/4 gallon unsweetend coconut/almond milk blend (140 kcal)
6x candied ginger bites (65 kcal)
10x Hammer endurolyte extreme (every 1.75 hours)
10x master amino acid pattern protein for fast recovery (every 1.75 hours)
3x mini coconut macaroons (210 kcal)
4x fig newtons (220 kcal)
1x avacado (250 kcal)
Total calories = 2,695 = 160 kcal/hour
First of all I have to thank Luna Sandals (lunasandals.com) for getting me entry into this epic race and providing me with both awesome adventure sandals and Injinji socks for another blisterless ultramarathon. I ran in a newer pair of Leadville Trail sandals and they stuck great to the muddy mountainsides and had great traction bombing downhill. Thanks ! And now the story...
This year's Pinhoti 100 was a debacle from the start for me. I went into the race feeling great... this should have been the first indicator that something was wrong. I had taken about ten solid taper days and had trained hard leading up to the taper. Although Run Rabbit Run had been run 7 weeks prior I felt like my running legs stayed fresh because I had such a difficult time moving quickly and maintaining focus above 9500' above sealevel (where I live). I had ended Run Rabbit with little to no recovery necessary before jumping back into training about 18 hours after completing the race (I don't get the chance to run the mountains of Colorado very often, you know...) So going in, I had high hopes and I tried to keep a positive outlook on the ever mounting poor weather predictions showing trail conditions likely to be torrential rain, cloudiness, foginess, mud, humidity, and a cold and windy night. All of which turned out to be accurate.
Arriving at the Sylacauga Parks and Recreation department Friday afternoon I had a good time checking in, hanging out with some fellow runners, and enjoying the pasta dinner/briefing. I should note that although I was at the pasta dinner I had brought along my preferred dinner of broccoli/kale/chard/mushroom/bacon/sweet potato/beet coconut oil stir fry to dine on instead of the mushy spaghetti/unidentifiable red meat sauce/iceberg lettuce and stale carrot "salad". Although I'm sure the church luncheon style buffet tasted great (especially finished off with a piece of Pinhoti wedding cake), I have been putting a lot of emphasis on nutrition lately and maintaining my dietary habits before, during, and after the race was important to be well prepared to consistently run far. Fellow runners and I learned during the briefing that course had been altered due to flooding and that the start of the race had been moved to the second aid station where we would complete an out and back to/from the first aid station in order to make up the distance between the planned start and first aid station that we would be missing out on. This was all fine although it meant that everyone would have to pass 250 runners coming head on on a mostly foot wide single track after turning around at the first aid station. It also meant that I did not study the previously sent course instructions for navigation before aid station 2 at 13.5 miles. I was assured the course was well marked and would be easy to follow. I fell asleep easily soon after the briefing and woke up bright and early to ride the bus to Heflin for the start.
Without much fanfare, with wet ground underfoot, we started the 100 mile journey on Saturday an hour after sunrise. I found a good spot about 20 people back to allow a nice warmup for the first half hour. About 2.5 miles in I felt the engine running smoothly, the gears well lubricated, and I started to speed up and pass people. The single track trail emptied us out onto the first road where markers on the left side seemed to indicate that we should be following the road for a bit so I started following the rolling forest service road down to where I thought the first aid station would be. About a half mile down this road I hadn't seen a little flag on the ground and started to get concerned but when I looked behind me I saw several runners that offered reassurance that this was the correct path. Also, there were no turnoffs of this road and there were many orange ribbons tied to low hanging limbs that were the same color as the little flags in the ground earlier in the run. It was only after 2.25 miles that the dirt road led us to a paved road and a "T" intersection with no course markings in a super scenic trailer park area of Alabama that we realized we were not on the course. I pulled out my course instructions trying to get an idea of where we should be and where we went wrong. A local man pulled up to the stop sign and reoriented us to our location. It was a dismal feeling to be lost and almost 2.5 miles away from the course only 5.5 miles into the run. We ran back, up, up, up the mountain until we saw the last flag and realized that the trail had continued on the other side of the road. The course would have been well marked had we traveled in the intended direction, but due to the last minute rerouting decision there were no flags on the other side of the trail, only on the side that we had arrived from. The 4 or 5 other "lost boys" and I weren't the only runners who made this mistake, but we took the longest to figure it out. Later many people told us this one spot was particularly confusing if you weren't aware of the fact that no road sections came until later.
So, back on course, finally at mile 3.2 of the race but mile 7.8 that I had run I found myself almost in DFL with only the other lost boys behind me. I was tense and anxious having erred so early in the race and this made me really want to expend some energy to relax. Since the first part had become an out and back I would now have to pass 230 runners head on, letting them have the right of way, and then, hopefully, come back up and pass all of the same people again from behind after the turn around. At this point I was a little upset about the course marking and a little upset at myself for not realizing the error sooner and my sandal straps were starting to make a hotspot on my heel. I did what I felt I like doing at the time, I took my sandals off and with bare feet started hauling ass and vaulting up the slanted side of the trail to avoid the oncoming runners. I put all my energy into focusing on the trail and making up some small margin of time. I did too much leaping and high intensity mini sprints for this early in the race but with frustration driving me I just didn't care. One part of my mind knew this was a mistake in terms of the race but the rest of me felt reckless. Of course this would come back and haunt me later, and I even knew that at the time, I just had a really hard time caring about potential future implications in those particular moments.
Running along I felt good although I had lost my water bottle and also despite tenderizing my feet a little on the rocks. I put in some fast miles here and decided to reshod my feet around mile 25ish. Coming into the aid station at mile 27 was a relief, I was able to pick up my first drop bag with a bottle of carbohydrate and a snack pac including coconut banana chips, a fig, and some sprouted seed fruit cubes. These were premeasured packets of about 250 calories and another 250 calories of fractionated barley amylopectin (a complex carb), or as I like to call it, science drank. I had the calories spaced out to equate to about 150-225 per hour. At this point I asked an aid station volunteer how many people had come through so far. I got a really dumb look and snide reply of "I dunno, a lot". That's great. Real nice. I could tell the gentleman assumed that if I was a "real" competitor that I would already have been up in the front groups and that he thought my caring about position in. a. RACE. was silly when I was so far back. Well, I didn't have time to explain to him that over the last 20 miles I had passed nearly 200 people and that I planned on at least trying to pass everyone else as well so I just headed out back onto the trails.
Miles 27 to 41 were enjoyable and I was able to relax just a little bit, not having to pass people so frequently. The course was really beautiful, and while it was still daylight we were treated to sweeping views of the Alabama countryside replete with the fall foliage. The forest was in full decay and the recent rains had spurred on the fruiting of masses of fungi. I was incredible stoked when I ran across a massive Hen of the Woods (maitake) mushroom but after brief consideration I realized I did not want to carry this several pound mound of mushroom 10 miles to the summit of Mount Cheaha- the closet place I would be able to drop it off with a friend. The mountains in this part of the country are old and mild, not too rocky, not too steep, and overflowing with streams. In fact there were too many stream crossings to count. Usually running in Lunas is great for crossing streams because one's feet will dry out so quickly but it didn't matter much here because the rain was pretty much incessant and I maintained "wet dog" status for almost the entire race.
At the top of Mount Cheaha, the highest point in the race and Alabama, I was treated to a great view of... fog. Lots of fog. This portion of the race was like running through a cool rain cloud. I was able to pick up my emergency "early" flashlight here, which I was so thankful I had included considering I was originally planning on not needing a light until mile 55, but that was before the extra freebie miles I put in. I was also greeted by my fellow running friend Catherine Toriello here and seeing her gave me an unexpected mental boost. She would later be pacing me from miles 68 to 85.
After Cheaha I jogged down the steep "blue hell'' which although technical was extremely short so it didn't slow me down too much. These miles between 41 and about 68 were the most successful of the race, I was able to keep my head in the moment and all aspects of my being in sync with one another. My steps coincided with the beats of my heart, the in and out of my breath, the pumping of my arms and the rhythm of my mind. It is these moments of deep entrainment, or flow, whatever term you ascribe to this state, that I find to be one of the most beautiful aspects of running. I relished this time with joy
At mile 68 I was able to pick up Catherine as a companion and her company made the ensuing dark miles breeze by. We climbed up the sometimes steep but never long lasting inclines and cruised the downhills enjoying good conversation. At one point we passed an extremely large Calvatia craniiformis, a puffball mushroom that looks exactly like a human brain. It was eerie in the darkness and I thought of the notion of losing one's mind on the side of the trail, an apt description of how it feels to run endless miles through foggy rain in the dark. It was a lot of fun to have a pacer for the first time ever and I can't thank Catherine enough for coming out to support me despite the dismal weather.
I dropped off Catherine at mile 85, and I was feeling really good. I still had plenty of leg strength and the rain had FINALLY dwindled down. I put on some fresh socks and was planning on making a run for 2nd place... I was about 18 minutes behind him at this point. I was optimistic and we had only a few short trail sections and main forest service roads to travel at this point. I think it was a little before midnight when I took off down the road and waved goodbye to Catherine and the aid station volunteers. My positive energy lasted for a few miles but soon the rain starting to come back more than ever and I started getting colder as well. With fatigued muscles from the acrobatics I did earlier in the race, jumping over small streams and road barriers instead of stepping, it was more difficult to keep the heart rate as high as I needed to maintain core temperature, In retrospect I believe I could have kept warm by focusing on breathing in the proper proportion and rhythm but this did not occur to me during the race and the shivers soon set in.
There weren't many course markings on these next road sections and I started to doubt whether or not I had missed a turn. At one point I turned around and backtracked for a half mile or so to the last flag and then on the way back I realized that one of the flags had blown over and was just on the ground. I passed a lot of flags that were no longer planted in the ground after this point and stopped to re-post many of them. I attributed the downed flags to the weather- the ground was soft and loose from all of the rain and the wind was fierce in more open areas. After running for quite a while I became desperate to reach the mile 95 aid station which felt like it had to be close but I was wet and tired at this point and I doubted my own judgement of distance. I started walking a lot more, telling myself I would be able to run from the last aid station to the finish. At some point as the trail I was on emptied out onto a road I glimpsed a headlamp behind me. Oh hell no, I was not gonna get passed this late in the game... I pointed my ever dimming headlight at the course directional arrow and took off, fast, down the road towards a lake. My light was really dim at this point and as I followed the road down, I did not see the runner behind me pop out of the woods. I realized something was wrong as the road ran smack dab into the lake with no exit or path around. Damn. This was when I just lost it mentally. I ambled slowly back to the last course marker I had seen. In my haste I had misread the sign and gone the wrong way, yet again. Losing position this late in the game and adding even more distance to the run, I gave up. It was colder and wetter than ever and I just hobbled along barely going a mile an hour. I couldn't stop shivering and I was ready to flag down the next car to catch a ride to the last aid station which had to be close. I ambled along like this in a super depressed, frozen state for I don't know how long. It seemed like a dream... if I had a lighter I would have just tried to find dry ground and kindling for a fire. I saw no one and the aid station would never arrive.
Going down the road feeling bad, I couldn't wait to get out of this freezing rain and get back to where the climate suits my clothes. Finally, another runner caught up to me, and I desperately pleaded, how far to mile 95 aid station? I'm done for... He looked at me and said, "Are you joking?" I said no, why? It turned out that we were less than 5k from the finish. I couldn't believe it, how had I missed the aid station and yet stayed on course? Knowing now that finishing was the fastest way to get out of this mess I had found myself in, I started running again. As soon as my mind turned back right side around I found I still had plenty of physical reserves and also I was finally able to stop shivering as well. It turns out all of my despair was purely mental... I should not have given up after the last time I had made a wrong turn and had to backtrack. I felt a little bad re-passing the runner who had given me back my strength by informing me of my whereabouts but honestly I just wanted to get it over with, racing was no longer anywhere on my radar. About 20 minutes later I found myself on the track at Sylacauga High School, mystified that I somehow had a new buckle in my hand. And the mystery of the missing aid station? It hadn't been set up yet... after sitting down I remembered passing the festival style tent at a turn off that wasn't fully assembled upright but I had assumed that it belonged to campers or someone else out there being that we were in the midst of National Forest. I wish I would have realized that that was mile 95 because I would have not lost my mind looking for it but then again I did learn yet another important lesson in how I, and we as humans, are effected by the power of perception and our own minds.
Overall this race was a fantastic learning experience and I had some great successes. My energy levels remaining intact through properly timing nutrition, water, and electrolytes. I held on through the hard to perceive trail in the foggy parts of the night when visibility was very poor and was able to remain very cognizant and lucid the whole race even when I was losing a positive disposition. My sandals took good care of my feet and worked great once I had them adjusted properly. Greater familiarity with course would have solved a lot of the issues that faced.
I would LOVE to run this race again and try and improve on my performance. Armed with greater course knowledge and better weather, this would have been a FAST race. The course is almost entirely runnable, fun rollers, and beautiful deep rich woods. The volunteers and execution were great, thank you to everyone who made this years race possible despite the less than celebratory weather!
Six days… the time frame and distances required of such an arduous run are simply beyond my comprehension. Having not yet made a foray into multiday races, I am proud of my modest back-to-backs but these “races” are a whole ‘nother level of intensity. When I first started running, the marathon seemed like the end-all distance, the goal to strive to be able to accomplish. When I learned about ultras suddenly the paradigm shifted, and 100 miles became the new pinnacle of distance running. I did not hang out at the marathon level for long, I ran one in November and registered to run a 50k two weeks later. Two months later I found myself up to my ankles in cold mud with bare feet, 16 hours and 80 miles deep into a 24-hour race appropriately dubbed Delirium. Since then my ultra education has progressed, every preconceived notion about what is possible has been shattered and I have learned that races don’t have to stop at 100 miles, or 135, or 153, or 200, or 314, or even 3100. Witnessing, volunteering, and participating at Six Days in the Dome was an educational experience for me and I think I came out of it with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in ultrarunning (as well as a barefoot running record).
The Back Story
I saw when 6 Days in the Dome appeared on the Ultrasignup website and reading about “the ideal conditions” that were to be present during the race made it an enticing prospect especially since I had expressed the wish prior to improve upon Peter Wayne Botha’s standing barefoot running record of 131 miles in 24 hours. The only reason I didn’t signup right away was timing… by my estimations I didn’t feel like I would be well prepared by August to attempt improve upon that distance. I figured the most ideal time would in fact be one year later after more training and after more than one 100 mile run completion (which was painfully slow as well). The only problem… this race would not be an annual event, one time only. Well, sometimes logic succumbs to a feeling, which is what happened here. As the registration quickly filled up I was enticed by the international field as well as the history and caliber of the runners. Suddenly I did not want to miss the chance to run with Valmir Nunes, Connie Gardner, Sharon Gaytor, Joe Fejes, Kenji Okiyama, and Zach Bitter among many others all in the same venue. But by now registration had long since been filled/closed. So in June, just 2 months away from the start I emailed R.D. Joe Fejes asking if he needed volunteers for the event and maybe, just maybe would be there be a time frame in which I could run for 24 hours? He wrote me back saying yes, that I would be able to be the vegetarian chef for some of the international runners. I was in, now all I had to do was to get to the furthest Northwest corner of this country from my humble little historic community in the Southeast corner.
To prepare I elaborated on my Delirium training plan but without spreadsheets or mileage goals. Two months is too short of a period of time to do any real training so I figured the best bet would to be to run as little as possible but at good times. For example, I would go for an afternoon run before work, go to work for a solid 7 or so hours (in which I usually traverse about 8 miles average) and then enjoy the cool night for the best glycogen depleted run, all at easy paces. I also had a scheduled run mid July, the Cremator 50, that would be the last long run before tapering for Six Days.
The only other preparation had been my diet which had shifted radically in June in which I went from a plant/fruit based eat anything (besides meat) diet to a much stricter- no sugar (yes, even fructose), low carbohydrate diet which does incorporate meat, but not too much and only high quality and fatty meats. The diet served me well and I felt really good running the Cremator 50 in a decent time with little to no soreness the next day.
I arrived in Anchorage after a weekend of developing real community and developing self-reliance skills (as well an epic mead share and great drum circling) at the annual Southeastern Permaculture Gathering in Celo, North Carolina. I cannot thank enough Janie Brodhead, proprietor of the finest fresh foods and herbs store in Savannah, Brighter Day, for going out of her way to give me a ride to the airport in Charlotte. I think the positive glow from the weekend carried over and stuck with me throughout the next month and helped me during the run as well. I caught a ride directly to The Dome from the airport but it was around midnight and the doors were locked so I opted to stash my bags behind the building and set up a little camp on the roof of the entrance to the dome. This would have been fine but I was a little jet lagged, it was still light outside despite the late hour, and there were seagulls flying around squawking the whole time. I think they were curious about me and I tried to dissuade their friendship lest I wake up plastered with bird shit. Not a good start to an ultra, but fortunately all I endured was a rough nights sleep.
The next morning I immediately was introduced to Zane Holscher, Collette Zimmer, Lazarus Lake, and Dave Combs who were heading up the responsibilities of running the race. I was introduced as THE cook which threw me a little off as I was expecting to be working for someone else and focusing on vegetarian fare, however, I did not mention it and was willing to take on whatever responsibility was necessary to make the Six Days go as smoothly as possible. After a rundown of the facilities I had a little bit of trepidation about how everything was going to work out. Catering for 50-60 people is not a small task even under ideal circumstances, catering for 50-60 people who are trying to run for six solid days in a facility where the ad-hoc kitchen consisted of a few propane burners, a grill, some woks, and big boiling pots which are all located an eighth of mile away from the nearest sink and water source was going to be an extra challenging endeavor to say the least. But what else are ultras about if not challenging yourself?
I received a copy of the meal schedule… large courses every eight hours at 4 a.m., 12 p.m., and 8 p.m. with standard snacks available 24/7 including fruit, nuts, candy bars, sodas, and water. Since breakfast was not a part of day one, and lunch was simply sandwiches I set about to organize the supplies and prepare for the impending cook-a-thon. This did not last long though, soon I was being hounded to make coffee, make tea, look up obscure age group records and hand out timing chips. The Six Days was about to begin and my task was already underway.
After working out issues with the chip timing system, the runners were off and the race was underway. Although Zach Bitter was the highlight of the beginning, running consistent sub 7 minute miles in search of the elusive 11:30 hundred miler, Valmir Nunes was making incredible progress as well, and Joe Fejes and David Johnston looked like they were having just another day in the office. For the first few hours, wildcard Alec Blenis, running the 24 hour, appeared to be trying to maintain pace with Zach, but this turned out to be the hubris of youth and he admitted defeat after a mere 33 miles.
I started cooking the first dinner, spaghetti with the various accompanying sauces in the early afternoon. It was in the preparation that the shortcomings of the facility for catering purposes became apparent. Just to make a pot of pasta I had to 1) carry the pot from the “kitchen” to the dishpit, a little less than an eighth mile 2) carry the pot filled with 6 or so gallons of water back to the burners 3) boil water, cook pasta 4) carry the dirty pot back to the dishpit 5) wash pot and finally 6) return pot to kitchen for a combined distance of close to one half mile… just to make pasta. Little did I know this half mile trek, completed while lugging supplies on my shoulder would be completed many, many times throughout the first four days.
At 8 p.m. Collette and Zane and I served the first dinner and although it was well received we had a fair amount of leftovers. We decided to adjust our portions down just a bit for the next day. It was also about this time that it was apparent Zach Bitter was no longer on pace for a sub 11:30 hundred due to stomach issues although it was obvious to all observers that the potential existed and it will only be a matter of timing before the 100 mile record gets improved upon again. After a “bad” race he completed the 100th mile in 12:08. Among the six day competitors, Nunes had an early lead and would throughout the night complete over 140 miles in the first day. Liz Bauer was intent keeping the pace with MaryLou Corino, of Italy, and both put up many miles in the first hours. It was really awesome to watch.
On the second day I had little time to pay attention to the race as we had a full schedule of meals to prepare and I fell into the rhythm that would dictate the passing of my time until I would get a chance to run on that Friday. My schedule thus became sleep: from 12 p.m. until 3 p.m. and again from 12 a.m. til 3 a.m., prepare and serve food, wash dishes: all other times. It was also on the second day that I learned an important lesson about multi-day runs- the first day, everyone is a little nauseous and they don’t feel like eating much, the second day, they’re ravenous! Our decision to tone down portions after the first day overlay was not the brightest, runners burned through meals so fast I had to cook more during the meals to try and keep up. From day three onward nutrition demands lied somewhere in-between those on the first two days, but we always made extra just in case.
Also on Day 2, I was able to take enough time to watch Traci Falbo completing the final laps of her impressive 48 hour run in which she set a new American record as well as a new world record for indoor/track. I have not seen anyone give more of herself during any race ever and with four minutes left in the race, she collapsed in exhaustion/elation after her upper body was increasingly, slowly, leaning to the side until she could not longer support herself. It was one of the most dramatic moments I have ever seen in a race and I felt privileged to have witnessed it. No matter how hard I push myself to new levels, I will remember Traci’s run as an example of literally giving every ounce oneself and never stopping until it is impossible not to.
Temporary reprieves from the kitchen came in the form of a few catered meals throughout the week and my saving grace was a local volunteer named Melissa, who arrived every morning and kept me sane while assisting in the preparation and cooking. She was a hard working kind woman and we enjoyed sharing stories throughout the days.
After an intense Four Days in the Kitchen that left my upper body sore, Zane took over the kitchen duties for the remainder of the race so I could get a solid six to eight hour rest before Friday morning. I set up my supply table the night before with dates, pecans, oreos, ensure, salad, perpetuem, coconut oil, and vespa. I woke up at 7 a.m. anxious to start running.
At 10 a.m. Dave Combs signaled the start for myself and 7 or 8 other runners who were running for a 48 hour time period. I really had no idea how the race would turn out as every mile past 100, if I made it there, would be unknown territory. I began the race feeling good although my entire upper body was sore, I had not run all week and so my legs felt fairly fresh. Originally I had intended to go out at an 8:30 pace until I burnt out and would have to resort to my “trashed” pace of 11:30, but after having a long informative conversation with Sharon Gayter, I realized that a continuous even effort would be a more practical strategy. She had infinitely more experience running these types of races and we had similar time p.r.’s for most distances so I felt as though I would be wise to adhere to advice from my elder. We started the run and I stuck to an easy 9:45-10:00 pace, with occasional 9:15’s thrown in to bank a little time for bathroom breaks. This went well and although I started off feeling strange I soon fell into the rhythm and the miles just started to tick off. At this point in the Six Day race, I was the fastest person on the track so it was mostly a solo race with little conversation from the other runners. Leigh Moser was putting up some good times early in the 48 hour so occasionally I honed in on her and kept pace. I did not eat much in the first part of the day, I wanted to avoid any potential stomach issues (especially after Zach Bitter and the Swedish Fish Sabotage). At three hours in I started to replace some calories, but I relied mainly on liquids in the form of Hammer Perpetuem.
I soon learned why some of the runners were dismayed by the surface, although it was a “rubber” track, it was more like a thin 1mm spray paint of rubber over the most incredibly dense concrete. It was much more like running on concrete than a standard soft bouncy track. Being indoors, the facility was illuminated solely with florescent lights with no windows, so there an eerie atmosphere that pervaded the strange space that would not be present in an outdoor race with natural lighting. It had no physical effect, but I could see that over the course of the week this would produce a strange psychological effect on runners and it made the passage of time that much more abstract. I believe it was David Johnston who made the comparison that the race was like running circles around the inside of a Costco. Also, although the temperature was moderate, the humidity at Dome seemed to rise throughout the day, perhaps being a sealed, pressurized facility the collective energy of the runners was building up in the atmosphere.
As the first 12 hours ticked by I realized that I was maintaining pace fairly easily and consistency was turning out to be a good strategy although I was not leaving myself much of a cushion to reach my goal of 135 if I had to slow dramatically. At this point I had eaten a nice big salad with olive oil, some sweet potato and beet chips with hummus and guacamole, coconut oil by the spoonful, and four scoops of Perpetuem. I knew I was running a huge caloric deficit but this is what I had been training to do so I felt fine. At this time I just focused on maintaining pace and getting to the 100 mile marker in steady time.
At 16 hours, 43 minutes into the race, I crossed the invisible mile marker 100 at almost exactly my preplanned speed of 10 min/miles. The steady pace was working great and I felt no pain and little exhaustion and gotta an extra mental boost with a new 100 mile p.r. (although I am now curious how fast I can do just 100). Although this put me in a great position with 7 hours, 15 minutes left until the timer would go off, the race was far from over and I did not allow myself to lose gusto although I did take a quick celebratory walk around the track while drinking an ensure which is one of my favorite drinks which I normally abstain from due to sugariness. At hour 17 I was back on course and calculating the average speed I would need to maintain to hit the planned 135. Just 12 minute miles were all I had to do (for the next 7 hours) and realizing this I slowed a little allowing myself a little break and focused on running each lap under three minutes. In retrospect I think that I could have maintained a faster pace here but I stuck to the plan… after all, every mile past 101 was new territory and I was wary of overconfidence.
At some point in the late quarter of the race I was able to totally succumb to the flow of the run and tick off many miles in a state of total meditation. This is my favorite part of running on a track or a road or any easy course where one does not have to be totally intent on the terrain to avoid calamity. It was late in the race and I closed my eyes halfway, focused on paying attention to my breathing, and put my entire body into rhythm with my rising and falling breath. I lost all concept of time and through the cracks in my eyelids I could only see a few feet in front of me but this was all that was needed to follow the white lines. I felt very relaxed, much like water flowing through a river, and I was no longer in “race”, just running. I ignored all clocks and lap splits during the few times I fell into this state, and waking up out of them I would find that a half an hour had gone by in what seemed like minutes, and also that I was maintaining a perfectly even pace the entire time. Returning to full consciousness I felt refreshed and ready to continue after these mental interludes.
The last four hours of the run were very tough miles and it was only around hour 22 when I only had to run seven miles to hit my goal of 135 that I realized I was going to be successful and allowed myself to crack a smile. I listened to one of my favorite albums on my headphones at this point and I felt simultaneously incredibly high and extremely emotional, I cried for a few laps and had no shame about anyone seeing me in a state of heightened emotional vulnerability. I kept running and pushing until the end until I hit some arbitrary number of laps with about 10 minutes remaining. I said, “THAT’S IT!”, ran a fast lap and finally stopped running. Thankfully, Jennifer Aradi was there and really pushed me to try and run a few more laps. At first I said, “No, watch this”, and sat down but she kept egging me on and I got up and did just a couple more laps before the buzzer went off. Jennifer, I cannot thank you enough for the motivation at this point.
When the timer finally did go off, I found I had completed 533 413.6 meter laps for a total distance of 136.98 miles, or 220.49 kilometers. I was ecstatic and incredibly weary after slowing down finally. After a few celebratory hugs I hit showers, found the handicap shower seat and sat down letting hot water just pour over me. For about 20 minutes I just sat there… this was the most enjoyable shower I’ve ever taken. After the shower I hobbled around the track a few times taking pictures with Valmir Nunes and Joe Fejes before taking a few hours nap… I planned to get on a plane bound for Ecuador at 8 p.m. Although the Six Days were still underway, my race was over and the keys to the kitchen were handed over. I lamented missing the end of the race in the which Joe Fejes set a new American record of 580 miles in six days and also saw Kenji Okiyama and Josh Irvan battling it out for the second place finish, but I was happy to have reached my goal and also improved upon the standing 24 hour barefoot running record.