Below is my race report along with a few of those Facebook updates and photos I took throughout the race (and others). The race report is very long and was done for me, to help me remember the race as time goes by and memories begin to fade. If others happen to enjoy it or benefit from it then that is even better.
The Vol State 500K is one of the toughest races in the world. The race starts in Missouri then touches part of Kentucky before making it to the July oven on earth that is Tennessee for the next 290+ miles. The race concludes by leaving Tennessee and dipping down into Alabama briefly before runners finish at ‘The Rock’ atop a mountain in Castle Rock, Georgia some 314 miles after starting.
So let’s begin this lengthy Stephen King-esque of a race report.
The Night Before the Start of the 2011 Vol State 500K
The night before The Last Annual Vol State 500K is ‘The Last Supper.’ This takes place at the luxurious Ryan’s Steakhouse Buffet in Union City, Tennessee. The food was so old and crusty that I had to shake the spaghetti spoon nearly ten times before if clumped out and fell onto my plate. I was too afraid to touch it at that point. I found enough there to get full though.
After dinner, my crew decided it was too early to go to bed and went to the Cameron Diaz movie, Bad Teacher, at the theater across the street. I think they thought crewing would be all giggles and Lil’ Debbies. Sleep is just as important, if not even more important, to your crew as it is to the you – the runner. All of us would be sleep deprived for the next several days.
Dorena Landing Ferry to Start the Race
The runners stay at the hotels in Union City the night before the race because it’s the closest town to the start that has hotels. All the runners have to be to the ferry in Hickman, Kentucky by 7:00 am to catch the ferry over the Mississippi River to Dorena Landing, Missouri where the race starts.
I was blessed to have my cousin Blake Heiman and his friend Cal Archer come down from Wichita, Kansas to crew for me. Cal was replacing Blake’s brother, Erick, who had flaked on us (excuse: work).
The Last Annual Vol State 500K Starting Line Photo
Once in Dorena, we disembarked from the ferry and walked to the top of the hill adjacent to the ferry. Laz then lit his cigarette right before the ferry was about to take off back to the Kentucky side of the Mississippi River. This signaled the start of the race. This happened at 7:23 am this year (note that time for later on in this story). We quickly walked down to the ferry for the ‘free’ ride ($2 bucks actually) back to Kentucky where we got off the ferry and truly started an epic journey.
The big talk on the ferry this year was about Joe Ninke’s ‘wiggle-wagon,’ a creation of tupperware and PVC pipe, that he had constructed to help in his unaided attempt. Joe pulled this around his stomach. To most of us it looked like an achor or U-Haul trailer he was pulling. It was impressive while it lasted. I can’t imagine I’d been able to run even a single mile with it strapped around me.
Joe is a really fantastic ultra runner. He came in 2nd place last year at Vol State and has won several 100 mile races. However, the ‘wiggle-wagon’ proved to be a bit too much this year though. According to Laz, Joe lost his ‘mojo’ at mile 108 after the ‘wagon’ and an Ally McBeal-thin road shoulder had a rough disagreement.
Once off the ferry we ran about 3 miles before we hit downtown Hickman, Kentucky. It was a beaten and run down town. It did offer a couple of scenic views looking over the mighty Mississippi. At this point everyone was feeling great, running (well), and talking to the other runners as we’d pass or get passed by others. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the company because we all knew that we wouldn’t see much of each other for the next several days.
Naresh Kumar, a good friend, and I stuck together and took turns reading directions and drafting off of each other as we ran towards Union City, where all the runners had stayed the night before. Naresh was naturally running in his almost-patented Vibram 5 Fingers and doing the race unaided (carrying all of his goods). A remarkable thing to attempt.
“Marathon done 287 left”
It was such a beautiful and sunny day that first day. I remember running up an down the small hills in between countless cornfields laughing with Naresh for many miles.
Somewhere early on in the race, around mile 20 I developed a serious hot spot on the ball of my left foot that turned into a blister. This had me concerned because there was roughly 300 miles left to go. Many veterans had told me that blisters were the usual weapon of mass destruction that knocked out runners attempting the #VS500K. I told my crew and we quickly started applying vasoline every few miles and changing out socks. We did blister surgery later that evening at the hotel.
Naresh and I stayed together the entire first day. We stopped for a quick bite in Union City before going back out in the heat. We made it to Dresden, Tennessee where we decided to get hotel rooms for a few hours of sleep. I couldn’t sleep! Naresh knocked on the door at 1am and told me that he was taking off. My crew was sound asleep, but not for long. I woke them up shortly after Naresh had left and told them we needed to hit the road, that sleep wasn’t going to happen for me. We started back at 1:45 am (mile 41).
Spira Shoes to the Rescue: I started in a pretty new pair of Newton Gravity running shoes that I’ve used successfully for several marathons and smaller ultra marathons. After 40 miles, I had a blister and thought perhaps the raised rubber lugs on Newtons were helping to intensify this or create it due to the amount of walking done with the running. It actually could have been several factors, but that is the thought that got stuck in my head.
I then tried a pair of Spira del Sol II shoes that had about 200 miles on them. They were ok but still painful with the blisters. In an act of desperation, I tried on an original pair of yellow Spira del Sol I shoes I had retired 3 years ago with 550 miles on them. The past 3 years I’ve used the shoes to mow the yard, hike in, and run errands to the store.
Bingo, they felt better and I could move comfortably in them. They felt like a glove and reminded me of all the successful runs we had together int he past. I used those for the majority of the rest of the race. I used the Spira del Sol II (white) two more times when the Spira del Sol I’s were wet from the rain. I did the last 40 w/ the Spira del Sol II because the del Sol I (yellow) were wet.
Final count was 213 miles in the yellow Spira del Sol II, 60 miles in the Spira del Sol I, 40 in the Newton Gravity, and 1 in a pair of New Balance RevLites.
When I started back I soon found out how painful the blister had become. I could only walk starting back and did just that for several miles.
“Almost ran into a deer on the road. That’s how slow I was moving”
“In a pitch black swamp. DARK. crew went to get gas. Swamp people?”
Eventually, I would run some and walk even more. I reached McKenzie, Tennessee around 7:30 am. I caught and talked to fellow runner Fred Davis III just as I entered the city. He wasn’t doing too well. He had already gotten turned around and was heading the wrong direction when Naresh came upon him just a few miles earlier. The crew and I headed to McDonald’s for some breakfast in McKenzie. After breakfast I went back out to the car for about an hour to try to sleep as Blake and Cal rested in McDonalds. Sleep wasn’t happening though so I knew it was time to start back.
My official Day 1 check in mileage was 57 miles.
Roughly two hours after stopping in McKenzie I started back at mile 57 heading towards Huntingdon. It was hilly, busy with traffic, and hot. Laz and Carl stopped and talked to me for a quick spell shortly after I had started back. Several miles passed and then I finally hit Hwy. 22 south towards Huntingdon, and the sun really came out at that point.
However, soon after my wife, kids, and au pair showed up. It was an amazing recharge and great to spend time holding my children and talking with them in between crew stops for a handful of miles.
“I had to take off the Run It Fast t-shirt. Too many people were starting to be able to read it zooming by at 70 mph!”
“Things observed 98 miles into #vs500k. A turtle’s hard shell is not really that hard. And the chicken crossed the road because he was the only animal that could do it successfully!”
“Mall walkers are laughing at me right now…and oh yeah, that dude at the gym that reads John Grisham books while exercising on the treadmill.”
The miles from McKenzie to Huntingdon were rough. It seemed like it would take forever to reach mile 65 (Huntingdon) much less mile 314. But step-by-step, like most things in life, I made it to Huntington.
Once in Huntingdon, we (the crew and I) were very hungry. We quickly found Mallard’s there on the square and all agreed it was the best option. Perhaps it was the only option. The food was good and the air conditioner was even better. The cashier at Mallard’s told us the hotel at mile 68 there in Huntingdon was better than the ones at mile 80 (Parker’s Crossroads). She said the hotels at Parker’s were next to the truck stop and “very trashy and dirty!” That sold us on staying at the Hilton (Heritage Inn) there in Huntingdon to get some rest.
I had talked to Naresh and he had been at the Heritage for a few hours sleeping. He offered his room to us so we crashed with him for awhile. I ran into Naresh, Sal Coll and Sherry Meador at the Heritage. They had been there resting and were about to hit the road again as I arrived.
Again, I watched my crew sleep while I couldn’t. I think maybe I finally slept three hours or so.
It was around midnight when I woke my crew and told them we had to hit the road. Blake and Cal doctored my blisters, one per foot at this point, and we resumed on the road around 1 am…I think.
“I’ve come up with the term ‘road physical’ after last night’s run. It’s when you have 20″ of shoulder and two dump trucks or semi’s are going by each other opposite directions at same time. ‘Road physical’ because Istop, turn sideways so I won’t get hit and duck!”
From Huntingdon, the next stop was going to be Lexington, Tennessee (mile 92). The night time air was a bit cool as I started back. It was refreshing! I walked until I got outside of the Huntingdon city limits then started running again towards Parker’s Crossroads. Mentally I had put Parker’s as the halfway point to Lexington. I was feeling better as the miles started to tick off. My blisters were painful, but I could bear it. Then my crew disappeared for several miles. I was empty on fluids and starting to worry about them when they reappeared. They showed up and Cal started immediately apologizing. He had left his laptop charger at the previous hotel and had gone back to get it, but the desk lady wouldn’t let him back into the room. Cal was not too happy about this. The desk lady was brave to say “NO!” to a 300-lb college lineman.
It wouldn’t be the last time I worried about my crew when they went missing.
I zigged and zagged into Lexington right at 7:30am on Saturday morning.
I called in to Carl/Laz to report my Day 2 distance at 92 miles (35 miles since Day 1 check in).
The plan was to take the shoes off and down several McDonald’s breakfast burritos before starting back in a couple of hours. In retrospect I probably should have only stopped for an hour or less at McD’s.
Miles 91-102 were not kind to me after leaving the Golden Arches. I got caught up in a bit of a numbers game with the #100 (then 102) and put down some painfully slow miles in less than ideal conditions. Construction work 8 miles east of Lexington had claimed most of the shoulder. The were working on a road project as dirt was flying everywhere while dump trucks were passing each other on the two-lane highway that had little shoulder. My slow moving was made even slower by having to jump off the road and wait for cars and dump trucks to pass. Finally, at mile 102, I decided it was time to find the hotel and maybe sleep.
“A lot of ugly miles to finish today. I should have retreated to hotel sooner to recover. We (and not just runners) often get caught up in #’s. Since the beginning of time it’s just a one sided romance. Numbers don’t care about you and have never returned love to anyone.”
After the first day, Cal told me that his grandfather had passed away and that he would have to leave us and fly back to Kansas for the funeral. This occupied my mind at the hotel as I was trying to figure out a way to get him to the airport in Nashville and a replacement for him, since Blake was only 15 years old. In Lexington, this intensified as I was having trouble finding someone that would be able to take him to the airport.
I didn’t get sleep that night at the hotel, but I figured out a way to get Cal home. As Blake and Cal slept I tried several connections to find help with just that. Jonathan Harrison volunteered to come crew the next morning. When he arrived, he would take Cal to Columbia where my good friend, Chris Estes, would then meet them and take Cal from Columbia to Nashville to catch his flight. Jonathan would drive back to find Blake and help him crew the rest of that day until around noon. It worked out perfectly. I’m very grateful to Jonathan and Chris for their help!
Blake and I said our goodbyes to Cal at the Tennessee River as I crossed it for the first time near Perryville, Tennessee.
‘The Bear Story’ Posted on Facebook July 17, 2011 – 2:53am:
“Feeling really good. So cop (sheriff) pulls me over to warn of a wild BAAAAAARRRRRR up ahead. Confused me because ive never heard of a bear in these parts. I said, “bear?” and he said, “yeah, them drunks come out of there wide open. I just wanted to warn ya! I thanked him and he basically escorted me through the small town with his lights on.”
I ran past the ‘wild bar’ right at closing time. The parking lot was full of drunk men and beautiful woman. And some how I just kept running right past it.
Twenty miles later I found that bear I was warned about:
Jonathan made it back to find us around 9 am. I had jumped in the car to nap for about an hour after hitting mile 120 and calling in my distance.
My Day 3 distance was 120 Miles or 28 additional miles since checking in 24 hours before.
The fewest miles of any day, and I believe that was due to fatigue from the race and always not being able to sleep at the hotel. The drama of having to figure out how to get Cal to the airport and such probably wore me down a bit mentally as well.
With Jonathan assisting Blake I put down some slow miles in the hot sun before stopping at mile 130 at noon to head to the hotel. I remember a large hill around mile 126 that took me some time to get up. It was getting hot and I was getting slower. Rest was needed for sure. Jonathan left to head home at that time as well. He was a huge help.
I think I slept decent in Hohenwald after an ice bath/shower/foot soak and two Hardees cheeseburgers. I don’t normally eat cheeseburgers, but I had at least two a day during the race. The only other ‘real’ food I ate during the race were breakfast burritos from McDonald’s and Subway sandwiches.
Back on the road before 11 pm, I began my march towards Hohenwald, Tennessee as we had stopped short of it earlier. I always would start back walking when I would hit the road to loosen the muscles up slowly and give me a chance to wake up before I started running. A few miles after restarting I came across Fred Davis III who had been struggling throughout the race. Fred told me he had slept most of the past day at a hotel in Parsons…in the tub. Fred and I talked for a handful of miles before I decided I was feeling pretty good and picked up my pace.
Around 2:00 am I got to Hohenwald (mile 144) and all of a sudden I was starving. I saw a couple of ‘teens’ walking the streets, and I asked them where I could find some hot food. They said that the Wal-Mart was the only thing left open in town. So I immediately told Blake I needed hot food ASAP and that I was going to crash soon without it. He went to Wal-Mart and found some frozen TGIF mini-burgers in the freezer section. He then some how found his way into the employee kitchen to use the microwave to warm them up for me. Let’s just say they could have used another 2 minutes in the microwave, but beggars can’t be choosers, especially in Hohenwald, Tennessee at 2 in the morning.
The burger fuel was just what I needed. I continued on towards the Natchez Trace Parkway (mile 150). Daylight hit and when morning comes after running all night it immediately energizes you. I got to see the sun come up eight consecutive mornings. I don’t know if that will ever happen again until I’m 70 and at the door of IHOP waiting for it to open every morning for the church gossip club.
Monday morning, 7:30 am, called in my Day 4 distance at mile 157 (37 miles since day 3 check in).
There were some steep climbs that morning that made up for their difficulty with scenic views and beautiful foliage. After it leveled out I found myself running hard and as well as I had since the first day. I would have liked to have made it all the way to Columbia but decided to stop at mile 167 and find a hotel. This took awhile!
My cousin Leah came down to help Blake crew that next night once we started back. Her mom Rhonda came and dropped her off that night as we were about to head back out.
As I was running and approaching Columbia I received a call via the cellular network system from the Super Indian known as Naresh Kumar. He was nearly 25 miles ahead, but the exchange of stories did us both good.
Naresh told me on the phone that he almost had gotten arrested on the square in Lewisburg by several cops. He had approached a couple of suspicious punks on the square when cop cars showed up with the sirens and lights turned on him. They didn’t buy his story that he was doing this long race called the Vol State. They thought with his dark skin, backpack, and funny shoes (Vibram Five Fingers) that he was up to no good. Finally, they believed him and one cop quickly befriended Naresh by asking if he could add him on Facebook and take a photo with him to post on the popular social network.
Nearing Columbia I called in my early morning cheeseburger request to Blake and Leah. The only place they could find open was a Shell Station that had cheeseburgers and fried food. They got the burger and went to the square there in Columbia (mile 174) to meet me with the burger, chocolate milk, and for a change of socks. I opened my burger to find it wasn’t assembled properly. The two pieces of bread were next to each other with the patty on top of them both. The burger malfunction provided a good laugh for us and an intricate puzzle for me to figure out.
Eight miles after Columbia I grew tired very quickly. I asked for a spray bottle and kept spraying myself in the face with water every 30 seconds. It wasn’t helping. I came upon my crew and told them I was getting in the car to take a quick 15 minute nap. They waited outside. After 4 minutes, I put my shoes back on and hopped out of the car and told them I’d see them in a couple of miles. I realized I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep under pressure and decided it was best to keep moving.
Maybe telling myself I was going to take a quick nap was enough. I was recharged from my 90 second attempt to sleep. I started moving again, slow at first, then a good bit faster. Daylight hit as I entered Culleoka, Tennessee which had pretty hillsides and farm life. I saw a handful of deer as I met my crew for a quick pitstop after leaving the small, rural town.
Facebook Rambling During the Race:
“When family or friends love and care about you they are going to annoy you because they will cross your t’s and dot the i’s you ignore or simply can’t see.”
When 7:30 am came I called in my Day 5 mileage at mile 195 (38 miles since Day 4).
I was tired at this point but wanted to keep going, cross under I-65 at mile 196, and work my way up to the square in Lewisburg at mile 201.
Something happened crossing under I-65 though. Similar to hitting 412 east of Lexington the bottom fell out a bit. The humidity hit 100% and it felt like it was 130 degrees as I hit construction and fresh, black asphalt. The combination of that, being tired, and hungry made me feel like I was wandering around in the Sahara at a very slow pace.
I almost laid down on the asphalt at one point. I had to stop and sit in the car with my crew at one point. Thank goodness for a leftover Subway sandwich Blake found in the cooler. There was a big hill, that seemed like a mountain, leading into Lewisburg. With the heat, I was moving very slow in my nomad march towards mile 200.
It didn’t help that there was little to no shoulder going up the hill. I met my crew when I made it to the top of that mountain/hill. Blake and Leah provided what I needed then told me they were going to go on ahead and try to find some food to help expedite the process a bit when we hit the hotel.
Once I survived the desert and made it into Lewisburg I walked on the sidewalks towards mile 201 where I was going to stop for the hotel. As I walked past the town crazies they were staring at me like I was crazy. When a drugged out woman passed me on the sidewalk with a dirty look, I immediately turned towards her and barked. It was really funny!
Finally at the hotel, I went through the ice bath/shower/soak ritual. I tried to sleep but Leah got a call that she was hired for a job in Chicago and told me she would have to leave immediately to go home. My mind raced trying to think of a way to get Blake help for the night when we went back out, but finally I realized it wasn’t going to happen on such short notice. I figured the 15-year old Blake and I would just have to take our chances. Naturally I got very little sleep as the door to the room kept opening and shutting with sunlight hitting me in the face every time. Blake had no worries about driving on his own at 15 so why should I? I did but there was no other option at that point.
I was eager to get back on the road and get moving so we left Lewisburg at 9:30 pm. I told Blake to go back to Burger King (lunch came from there too) and grab me two more Whoppers. The next dozen or so miles were uneventful. I had Blake meet me every mile so we could keep an eye on each other. I didn’t want him getting pulled over and me being so far ahead I couldn’t be there to explain to the cops what we were doing.
Facebook Rambling Around Mile 215:
“Every day you build what your kids will climb on. They are watching. Do big things!”
A funny thing happened on the way to Shelbyville though. I had hopped in the car for a 15 minute nap somewhere around mile 216. After I got out I told Blake to meet me a mile or two up the road. Well, I was running well when I came upon Blake parked on the side of the road. I saw he was sleeping, and I didn’t need anything at that exact moment. So I decided to keep on running.
And I kept running and running without any sign of Blake. I finally figured I had better text and call him to wake him up, which I did to no response. So i just kept on moving forward. Then I started to get worried as I ran out of water that I might make it the next twelve or so miles without any sign of Blake. I finally flagged down a lady in her car and explained the situation to her. I told her Blake was ‘x’ number of miles back and asked if she would honk her horn as she drove by him. She laughed, puffed on her cigarette, and agreed.
Crisis averted, so I thought!
I kept looking at my watch and counting the minutes as they continued to fly by without any word from Blake. I started to have all kinds of horrendous scenarios play out in my head. The most popular of which involved a gang of wild rednecks carjacking and killing Blake. The more time that passed, the more assured I was that he was in fact dead.
Finally, I called and someone immediately answered Blake’s cell then hung up. Panic flooded me as the redneck had found Blake’s phone and immediately shut if off once it started ringing. I texted, “Where are you?,” to which the person responded “Where are you?” as well. Great, now they are pretending to be Blake to ease my worries and keep me off their trail. I see that I have a voicemail from Blake. I listen to it and it’s 2 seconds of breathing before the caller hangs up.
At this point I’m about to hitchhike a ride back to where the car was and see what I can do. I’m 220 miles into this super ultra marathon and I’m thinking if Blake is dead them I’m going to have to drop out of this race. Then the Casey Anthony part of my brain took over and tried to persuade me to just keep on going, to finish the race unaided, then report Blake missing after I have finished at Castle Rock in three days or so. That erratic thought was quickly dismissed as thoughts of how I would explain his foolish death to his family started to occupy my brain.
FINALLY, I call again and Blake, THE REAL BLAKE, answers and I ask him, “What’s going on?” He responded, “I’m a dumbass! I went the wrong way.” Blake had awoke at some point, after a very healthy and extended nap mind you, and when he took off to find me he had turned left instead of turning right. He had driven back several miles that we had already covered. He finally recognized a church from earlier and turned around. At that point I didn’t care if he had driven back to Kansas. I was just thrilled and excited that he was alive. A few minutes later he caught up to me and stopped the car. I ran over to him, gave him a big hug, and told him how happy I was that he was alive. I was so happy and relieved that the drunk rednecks didn’t have him in the barn doing bad things to him.
Needless to say, the Blake missing-in-action drama, kept me very awake, alert, and helped me make it several miles without realizing I was covering that amount of ground. When we met back up I was just a few miles short of Shelbyville and a new sunrise.
I’ve been to Shelbyville a few times, so I was glad to be on semi-familiar turf. With the energy the sun brought I started to run rather fast (after 223 miles) as I hit the town square and headed through the Walking Horse capital of the world. I met Blake near the courthouse, changed socks yet again, and gave him directions to the nearest McDonald’s so he could grab breakfast burritos as I kept falling forward towards Wartrace, Tennessee.
7:30 am hit and I called in my Day 5 check-in at mile 228 (33 miles since the day before). 228 is in between Shelbyville and War Trace.
The burritos provided great fuel and the sun was beautiful as I went up and down the hills leading into Wartrace. I’ve done The Strolling Jim 40 Miler the last 2 years in Wartrace, and I got to run a bit of the last bit of that course as I entered Wartrace.
I had been calling the owner of the Walking Horse Hotel as I ran towards Wartrace. I was trying to make sure we could get a room there. It’s an older, historic hotel that is allegedly haunted. It also has a horse buried in the backyard to top it off. That would be Strolling Jim, a famous Tennessee Walking Horse from yesteryear.
The housekeeper was the only person at the property. Her name was Barbara and she was very friendly and polite. I asked her if we could get a room with two beds instead of the one she offered, because I didn’t want to share a bed with Blake after what the savage rednecks had done to him (JK!).
Barbara said she had to talk to the owner so she called him. Joe, the owner, immediately asked to talk to me. So she handed the cell phone over to me. Joe told me, “Josh, off the record, Barbara is horrible at making beds. Ok, maybe not horrible, but she just doesn’t make them up to my standards. If you guys don’t mind making your own beds you can have the double queens in room 205. I will have Barbara give you the sheets and I’ll cut you a bit of a discount. A bit dazed and confused I agreed!” I get off the phone and hand it back to Barbara. Blake starts laughing as he tells me that they could hear every word Joe was saying to me on the phone.
So that meant that Blake would get to make two beds as I took an ice bath, showered, and soaked my feet. After 236 miles, you don’t give a Doug Flutie hail mary how the beds are made. But Blake was solid! Joe should probably look into hiring him to make beds and get guests breakfast burritos from McDonald’s.
But first I wanted to put down a few more miles before rest. I made it to Laz’s house at mile 236 where a bee or yellow jacket landed on my forehead. I reached to grab it and it stung my finger. I’ve had a couple of nasty anaphylaxis reactions before so I immediately took some Zyrtec and took it as a sign to go back to the hotel and rest up.
Blake and I grabbed some lunch at the cafe on the square there in War Trace. Well, now that I think about it, it’s not even a square. It’s more like an ancient strip center. So yeah, we had lunch there on the town strip!
I finally slept a handful of hours at the Walking Horse Hotel. My good friend Kirk Catron had been wanting to come out during the race or possible help crew but his busy schedule had prevented that, but he offered me his attractive legal assistant, Jennifer Hill, to come help the night we left Wartrace. I took him up on it. Not that Blake needed the help, but I knew he’d appreciate the company. It was very nice of Jennifer to come out on her birthday to help us out. Blake and I both appreciated it.
Estes met us at the hotel as well before we headed out. He was selling burned CD’s out of the back of his truck or something. Actually, he brought CD gifts in his journey to help promote Sarah McLachlan’s comeback. It was great to see Chris and his encouragement meant a lot to me. We’ve run a lot of races together over the last couple of years and we talk a lot about running.
It was extremely dark, like being deep in the jungles of Cambodia, as I left War Trace past Laz’s house heading towards Manchester, Tennessee. I was feeling good as I would run for a bit, then walk, repeat.
After making the turn on Sixteen Model road towards Manchester it was rather uneventful and boring for the next ten or so miles.
My wife called as I was approaching Manchester to tell me that her, the kids, and au pair were going to make a detour on their way to Chattanooga to stop and see me in or near Manchester. It was late at night and I advised her against it because of the kids being up so late, but she persisted. I’m glad she did. It was really great to see them (even though Phoenix was asleep). They were all extremely tired though. So they found the nearest motel to stop at for the night. I heard the next day this was a regret as the motel was a bit on the Slim Shady side and they had to use a chair to “lock” the door.
Manchester was mile 250 which is a bit of a milestone. I waited too long to have Blake and Jennifer get me food so Krystal was all that was open. I decided I’d chance it on three cheese Krystals. They used to do the job late night in college, but I wasn’t sure how they’d do halfway into a 40 mile segment in the middle of the night.
Fuel is fuel though! We often over think it a bit during shorter races.
Somewhere in Manchester my right shin started bothering me. My left had bothered me several dozen miles earlier in the race and then all of a sudden stopped hurting. I was hoping the right one would do the same little, cute charade.
After Manchester, it was going to be pretty straight and uneventful on Hwy. 41 (Hillsboro Hwy) down to the base of Mounteagle Mountain. It consisted of stopping every 2-3 miles to do my foot ritual, change songs, load up on Roctane/Honey Stingers/Chomps, and refuel my water bottle with either Nuun, Endurox, or water.
Jennifer bailed at some point before the sun came up. I don’t blame her either! Blake had everything down to a science at that point when I would stop, and crewing can get a bit boring after 10 hours of stop and go. I knew I would be out there for another 4-6 hours.
The shin was getting worse not better! I told Blake and he taped an ice bag to it. It was pretty ghetto-fabulous while it lasted. This held for about a half mile before it came undone. I stopped and used the tape to tape the shin really tight. I kept the ice bag and would stop and ice it every couple of minutes for a few seconds. Could I do 64 more miles on it? I knew that wasn’t really a question. The real question I asked myself is, “How much damage am I going to do to my leg before I finish this race?”
With all of that said, it was too painful to run. All I could do at that point was walk at a slow pace, and it didn’t take Nikola Tesla to figure out that at a 23-minute walking pace, the finish line wouldn’t be seen for a long time…if at all. With a race of this distance you never know when you will unexpectedly get knocked out? Was this my Mike Tyson – Michael Spinks 91 second knockout? Not yet, but I didn’t know if it might turn into a 8-round decision a few more miles down the road.
At 7:30 am on Day 7 (Thursday morning) I called in my mileage at 265 (37 miles since Day 6).
From mile 265 to 270, I was moving very slow. I had sent Blake to find food and it was taking him awhile to find something. He eventually went up on the mountain and found a Subway. I finally stopped and sat on a bridge pillar at one point just to rest my feet. When he made it back, I sat in the car, ate the Subway sandwich, and cooled off. The sun had come out blazing hot that morning and things were heating up very quickly. This was all building on my psyche as I wanted to climb Monteagle Mountain before heading in to rest up for the final push towards Castle Rock.
To make things all better, when Blake had returned from the mountain top with food he told me, “I think you are about to have the three hardest miles of your life!”
The Sub sandwich in that air conditioned car was where I started to mentally prepare for the 3-mile climb that was about to happen. I knew that in roughly a mile that I had to be all business and totally into the game. I did get good news that my wife and kids would be there soon, and I’d get to see them before I started up.
The BPU ice hat (courtesy of Mike Samuelson) had been a lifesaver at different parts throughout the first 7 days and now it was essential. Blake was filling it with ice about every 5 minutes as the sun was very present.
“When family or friends love and care about you they are going to annoy you because they will cross your t’s and dot the i’s you ignore or simply can’t see.”
My family arrived and I sat in the car for a few moments with them, and it was the only part of the entire race that I started to get slightly emotional. I knew what laid before me was daunting. I kept looking at everyone in the car (even Dani), and I started to swell up. They were all so positive and encouraging! Phoenix the most enthusiastic of them all. He was excited for me going up a mountain. He loves when I run! I knew I had to get out of the car soon or I’d be going all Timberlake ‘Cry Me a River’ and likely drown, ending my #VS500K hopes.
My very thoughtful wife gave me an umbrella as I got out of the car. It was very sweet of her and the only time she has ever picked up an umbrella (or me either). It provided shade from the sun and also extended the life of the ice in my BPU ice hat.
(Side Note: Mike Samuelson’s Bartlett Park Ultra 50K/40 Mile/ 50 Mile race is a great little trail race that is a lot of fun that takes place outside of Memphis every September.)
Well, that was more of a buildup than ABC gave the Bachelor Pad so let’s get up that mountain as quickly as possible.
And that’s what I did!
Naresh, jokingly or perhaps in a #VS500K delusion, had told me on the phone a few hours earlier that I’d get to Monteagle Mountain and slay it easily. He said something about how I murder uphills and climbs and would have no problem with it. I laughed and thanked him for his exaggerated and heroic interpretation of past races we had done together. But what he said stuck in my head.
I started up the mountain at a very fast hiking pace. The road up the mountain was very curvy and cars often are hidden and can surprise you if you aren’t paying close attention. The sun had started to hide a bit behind the clouds that had come out. There was also a bit of tree/shade coverage on the road. I took the umbrella down, my Mary Poppins impersonation over!
I was moving pretty fast up the mountain. The umbrella turned into a bit of a hiking stick since I had nothing else to do with it. I was charging up the mountain as best I could when I saw Blake, the fam pulled over, then two kamikaze cars pulled over in front of them as well. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought it might have been the CIA who finally found me and wanted to question me about my involvement in the secret spy ring in the Ukraine last year or perhaps it was Blockbuster Video bankruptcy auditors to arrest me for never returning that Thomas Crown Affair VHS in 1999.
It was neither the CIA or Blockbuster Video auditors. It was the third devil down on the list, Lazarus Lake, along with co-RD Carl Laniak, Donald Brown, and a beaming Naresh! So I stopped and enjoyed the homecoming and congratulated my good friend Naresh on his amazing accomplishment, as he had finished the race earlier that morning in 7 days and 55 minutes! He hadn’t slept in two days, but he was all smiles. Laz and Carl were interrogating me when I looked behind them and saw Naresh holding baby M like he was running for political office. But she wasn’t complaining, she was all smiles as well!
The Monteagle half-time party finally concluded, and I knew the remaining 1.5 miles or so up the mountain would be cake. I did it even faster than the first part. There was for a sense of accomplishment after getting to the top of the mountain after 40 miles and being on the road 16 hours straight.
“After 37 miles and about 15 hours I wasn’t sure I had enough left in tank earlier to ascent 2,000+ feet of Monteagle in 3 miles. It was blazing hot at that moment. I just buried my head and charged up it one step at a time. Every tree 100 yards ahead was a short goal.actually my pace up those 3 miles was faster than the two dozen miles before. Kept going once at top until thunder/crazy storm sent me in for rest.”
In fact, I felt so good when I got to the top of the mountain that instead of stopping as planned, I wanted to keep going for a bit more. So I did as Blake went to get ice, hamburgers, and scope out our hotel choices.
About as soon as Blake started his errands, the sun disappeared into a thick array of black clouds and the heavens opened and poured weeks of pent up rain pelting towards the earth. It was fine at first but then the thunder/lightning starting exploding all around. Then those crazy Harry Potter lightning bolts starting hitting 5-feet behind me and 3-feet to the side of me. Usually cool to these things I started jumping like Kris Kross on crack! I kept thinking Blake would get the obvious signs from God to come find me and pick me up but no! I kept waddling through the water, holding my lightning stick of an umbrella as I kept praying to quickly see the white Tahoe.
I’ll admit I had a thought that it took Blake so long to get to me because he was just 15 years old and might not know how to turn on the windshield wipers.
I had been given my sign that after 16 hours and 40+ miles it was time to head in to dry off, shower, eat, recover, and sleep. And three hotels later I did just that!
Sleep didn’t like me during this race, but at the Super 8 atop Monteagle I slept as hard as I had in over a week. I didn’t get back on the road until 7:18 pm which was less than six hours since we had stopped, but I had wanted to start back around 6:30 pm to try to finish this race in less than 8 days. But the sleep was good and obviously needed. My goal since the beginning had been to just finish the race. I didn’t want to get knocked out 200 miles in from something I should have been smarter about. I had tried to be conservative up to this point in the race.
I started back at mile 275 with roughly 40 miles to go to the finish rock! There would be no more stops or planned sleep. Whatever fuel was left in the tank would be dumped before reaching the conclusion of this epic journey.
The sleep had recharged me. I was perhaps as fresh as I had been since the start of the race. The shin was still hurting, but it was taped tightly to shut it up for the time being.
I ran from mile 275 towards Tracy City (mile 280) as Blake went to get more cheeseburgers for dinner. Whitney Franklin, the race director of The Southern Tennessee Plunge Marathon, and her friend Anna surprised me shortly after I had restarted. I had met Whitney at her inaugural Plunge marathon last fall. They had been eating up on the mountain and keeping track of the race on my Facebook Running Page. It was great to see them although I couldn’t stop for long. I was in a great rhythm and wanted to keep the momentum going while it was making a cameo.
I talked to Carl around mile 275 and he told me that Sal Coll, Fred Murolo, and Paul Lefelhocz were all five miles ahead of me when I started back at 7:30 pm. I made it my goal to catch all three before the end of the race.
”280. Moving fast”
Tracy City came and went. I knew that in a few short miles that there would be a very steep 3-mile dump off the mountain into Jasper City, Tennessee. The shin was not happy at all since leaving Tracy City. I had to stop twice and tape it tight. Blake would rub muscle rub on it and ice it. I felt the pain more when I walked so I tried to run as much as I could.
I had been warned by several others that the steep dump off the mountain could be just as difficult as the climb up it.
“450K down. 50K to go.”
Blake had gone ahead to scope it out. He told me that I was about 500 yards from when the drop started. There were no places for him to pull over during those 3 miles so I told him I’d see him at the bottom.
I started off gingerly and zig-zagged across the road to decrease the grade. Doing that made it easier on the knees and enabled me to move down it a bit quicker. To me it was so steep that it was very tough to walk down it. I would jog slowly down it then find a siderail on the road and sit on it for about 30 seconds to regroup, then repeat every 300 yards or so.
“295- Hellish descent into Jasper down the mtn. 1,300 ft in 3 miles”
I tried to use the brakes as little as I could on the descent and made it down to Jasper City in pretty good shape. Jasper is around mile 296 of the race. I knew I had been moving pretty fast since I started back at 276 and had gained a good bit of ground on Sal, Fred, and Paul. Blake had driven ahead and told me I was just a few hundred yards behind who he thought was Fred (I think it turned out to be either Sal or Paul).
I kept running well and wanted to catch all three men. I knew I was getting close to all of them. Fred probably still had the biggest lead on me, but I had knocked it down from 5 miles down to just around one. I would catch Fred if everything kept going smoothly.
Mile 300 was big for another reason than simply being an amazing numerical milestone. I crashed hard after hitting 300! I don’t know if it was a shortage of electrolytes or heat exhaustion but the bottom fell out.
I don’t know exactly what happened, but it wasn’t pretty. I felt like I was going to fall asleep walking, along with just not feeling right inside. Luckily mile 300 is in Kimball, Tennessee which is right next to interstate I-24. So there were many gas stations and places to stop.
I met Blake initially at Mile 300 for sock change, mile 300 photo, etc. but kept going….for 50 yards that is. I met him in a gas station parking lot and immediately got in the car. I told him I wasn’t feeling well. My toes were freezing, but I took my shoes off and my toes felt hot. It was 90 something degrees outside even at three in the morning. Signs that something was obviously amiss. I met Blake four or five times along the next three miles. I got in the car more than once to rest. The third time I fell asleep for about 25 minutes or so. My mile splits for those three miles were 34:31, 32:16, and 49:43. Any chances of catching anyone and finishing in less than eight days was gone!
“After hitting 300 I fell apart. Felt sick, like I was about to fall asleep walking. So cooled off and took a quick nap. The train is back on the tracks. Crossing the TN river again. This time in South Pittsburgh.”
But after that nap I started walking again, very slowly. I got to the ramp to get up on the road to cross the Tennessee River for the second time of the race and couldn’t figure out how to get up it.
The official race turn sheet hinted that this was confusing:
” Continue on US 64 till crossing under I-24 when it becomes US 72. continue south on US 72. to SR 156. Turn left onto SR 156 in South Pittsburg (a couple ways of doing this your choice).”
I was just glad to be walking slowly at that point. I overshot the overpass and came up an on-ramp on the south side. The weeds were so high I walked all the way to the end of the ramp before slowly backtracking up the ramp back towards SR 156. Last thing I wanted to do was itch for the next six hours!
Alas, I made it up on SR 156 and walked across the bridge at a snail’s pace, but not before pausing to relieve myself over the bridge and into the Tennessee River. Every 5th grader boy’s dream! The middle of the bridge is mile 303 for the record. The most monumental piss of the race for sure!
I had recovered from my system malfunction a few miles earlier, but the shin was in a great deal of pain and I was walking/limping very slowly. The next three miles from 303 to 306 I averaged a 23:30 pace per mile.
With about a 15K (9 miles) to go in this race I stopped for the millionth time to change socks, dry feet, and refuel my pockets with goodies. Donald Brown, who crewed race winner Don Winkley, was driving on the course to see where runners were in relation to the finish where he had been camping out. I talked to him briefly and told him my shin was busted up and that I planned to take it easy and walk it in. He told me that Fred was six or so miles ahead and I wasn’t going to catch him.
I had however passed Sal and Paul at some point. I think they likely went down for rest back in Kimball at a hotel.
“15K to go. This might actually happen. Have to TN, hit Alabama briefly before the last couple of miles conclude at Castle Rock, Georgia.”
And for the Grand Finale…
I am not sure what happened at that point. I don’t know if it was being told I wouldn’t catch Fred or the amazingly simple math that walking 23 minutes per mile would take forever to finish this race but something made me start running again. It was gradual at first, mixed in with a bit of walking, but the running was taking over and getting much faster.
At mile 308, I took a right onto Highway 73 south that led us into out of Tennessee and into Alabama. I had been well prepared for Monteagle Mountain the day before, but no one had warned me that there was another freaking mountain. This one had a name too, perhaps Sand Mountain. It didn’t slow me down though, I kept running and running up it at an intense pace. I would watch my HR monitor and when it would hit 180 I’d walk for about 15 seconds then take off running up that mountain again. It was beautiful when I would look up and foggy.
Blake kept asking me if I wanted things, and I kept waving him off. I did at one point ask for a certain bandana, sunglasses and my yellow Spira shoes. He went colorblind though and couldn’t find the blue bandana. So I stopped once to dig though my bag and find it. I told him to meet me at the next to last turn before the cornfield with the shoes.
I kept turning up the intensity and shedding clothing and other items every time I saw Blake. He’d simply give me a water bottle about twice a mile and collect whatever I had discarded.
The mountain was relentless but so was I. While running the past several miles hard up the mountain, I had been doing math in my head. I calculated that if I could run sub 24 minutes for the last three miles I’d finish half a minute shy of 8 days!
BUT WAS THAT REALLY POSSIBLE AFTER 311 MILES AND THE LAST SIX UP A MOUNTAIN?
Of course not, so I ran as hard as I’ve ever run in my life!
Blake met me around mile 311 with the magical yellow Spiras that had saved me and gotten me through about 200 miles of the race. They had gotten soaked atop Monteagle when the storm hit, and Blake had been trying them out the last 11 hours. But I was moving too fast and didn’t want to waste 30 seconds to change into them. I had really wanted to reward them with crossing the finish in them. I had thought about it for several miles. You do a bit of thinking during a 500K, especially when you go five days without seeing another runner.
”I’ve been running like a man possessed!” - Tom Petty (Mudcrutch)
I waved Blake and the shoes off a last time. I took my HR monitor off my chest and threw it at him. I got rid of it for two reasons: 1. I wanted to be as light as possible for the last three miles and 2. I didn’t want to see the numbers it was about to display for the last three miles!
The climb up the mountain was over when I saw Blake that last time. The next mile would be rolling hills and the last two would be off-road into the cornfields that led to the finish on ‘The Rock’ atop Castle Rock, Georgia.
Up to this point in the race, I had yet to do a single mile in the single digits due to crew stops and run/walking to pace myself to the end.
I had twenty-four minutes to do three miles in to finish in 7 days, 23 hours, and 59 minutes.
I peeled off the first of those three miles in 8 minutes and 12 seconds. It had felt like a 4:45/mile and yet was still 12 seconds slower than I needed to average.
At about this time, I turned off the asphalt and into the tractor ruts that would lead me through the cornfields and to ‘The Rock.’ According to my GPS watch, I needed to run these last two miles in a total time of 15:48 (7:54 pace).
I felt I had run the last mile with the pedal to the medal. But, as with most things in life, when we truly want something bad enough we find another gear or a little bit more left in the tank than we ever imagined we had at the onset.
Of course during this time adrenaline had taken over, and I hadn’t felt my much pain from my shin during these miles. But I did know in my head I was risking doing more serious harm and injury to it. I weighed it all in my head and then ran as hard as I’ve ever run in my life.
That first mile in the cornfields, and second to last mile of the race, I did in 7 minutes and 35 seconds! I’ve run many faster miles in my life, especially at 5K’s, but after 23 hours of sleep in nearly eight days and after 311+ miles it was the hardest I’ve ever pushed myself while running.
My heart rate monitor was long gone, but I knew my body well enough to know it was pushing 220 bpm+. At a 5K race my HR is high for me if it reaches 200. I could feel my heart pounding and every pore on my body was raining sweat. Patrick Ewing would have even been jealous!
I still had a mile to go and needed to finish it in less than 8:13 to finish at 7:29 am and just barely before 8 days.
I ran that last mile of this epic journey just as hard as the last one but a bit slower finishing the 314th official mile of the race in 8:08.
As I reached the rock I heard Don Winkley, Laz, Naresh, Blake, my wife, and others screaming, “YOU DID IT!” And I had, I had finished at 7:29 am according to my Garmin watch. I had made it to the finish a minute shy of 8 days.
Carl also had to stop me my maniac sprint out of fear I was going to run past him and off the rock, and down the side of the mountain 300 feet to my death. I had already started to slow though and assured Carl I wasn’t going to go all ‘Flying Monkey’ off the rock and into the Tennessee River below.
So it was a great feeling! I had never run that hard in my entire life and I had done something I had deemed impossible a few miles earlier at mile 300 when I crashed.
Everyone was so nice and sincere in congratulating me. The aforementioned people along with Marvin Skagerberg, Stu Gleman, Fred Davis III, Donald Brown were there when I finished.
Blake was a very big reason I made it through every single one of those miles leading up to the finish. He seemed just as happy as I was, and I was extremely happy and excited.
Then as Laz was talking to me I looked at his handwritten list of all of the finishers and their times. I saw my name as “7. Joshua Holmes – 8:00:07:44” which is 8 days and 7 minutes. I look at him confused because my wife and Blake knew what I was trying to do at the end, and when I got to the finish everyone was yelling, “You did it,” as I came sprinting in. I had felt good about my sub-8 day finish.
So I asked Laz about it and he told me that the race started when the ferry left Dorena Landing, Missouri and that the ferry had left 7 minutes early this year. That the race had officially started at 7:23 am on July 14th. I looked at him like he was ill and told him that he must be joking but of course he wasn’t.
“WOW FINISHED 500K 8 days 7 minutes. Amazing finish. Was left for dead then decided I needed to finish. Sprinted last 9 miles up mtn thru corn field to the rock.”
“8 days 7 min. Sprinted last 15k. Busted it for sub 8 days. Flew up mtn last 4 miles before ending last 2 in cornfield. Did sub 24 min 5k to finish. To find out race started at 7:23. Oh well. Finished at 7:29. How it goes :)”
In my defense, we were required to call in every morning at 7:30 am with our DAILY mile count and where we were on the road. It wasn’t a DAILY call in at 7:23 am or a DAILY + 7 MINUTE call in at 7:30 am! I finished the race at 7:29 am on July 21st and didn’t have to make a Day 8 call in at 7:30 am! LOL!!!!
It was deflating for a bit but just for a brief fleeting moment. I’ll always remember how I ran that last 15K up the mountain and how hard I ran that last 5K – averaging 8 minute miles to finish. My finish was the most memorable moment of my running career in the most remarkable and longest race I had ever run.
I had no regrets!
The race was epic and magical, every single step of the way!
– Joshua Holmes (2011 Vol State 500K Finisher)
charity:water In connection with running the Vol State 500K I decided to raise money through charity:water to build a clean drinking well in a developing country. After a few days, Naresh asked if he could join in and help push the cause. With his help, we met our $5,000 goal that would build a clean drinking well. And we kept raising the goal after that!
Facebook In-Race Update: Yeah! We (Naresh and myself) along with 94 donations from a lot of you have raised $5,000 to build a clean drinking water well in a developing country. That well will provide clean water to a community of over 250 people. Thank you all who have supported or contributed so much. We can raise more though. I’m going to raise the goal a bit and raise more!
A gigantic thank you to all 100+ of you that have donated so far. With 112 donations we’ve been able to raise $6,165.00 that will provide clean drinking water for 308 people in need. (You Can Still Donate for the Next 3 Weeks: CLICK HERE)
Family and Friends Were a Huge Help
I owe a big thank you to my wife and children who made big sacrifices for me to take an extended amount of time away from home and my responsibilities there. I also very thankful that I got to see them on four or five different days of the race and that my wife was there for me at the finish line. I’m very thankful for my crew throughout the race that consisted of Blake, Cal, Jonathan, Leah, and Jennifer. A massive thank you to Blake who was there crewing and working very hard for every single mile of the race. He was a large part in my success of finishing the race. A special thanks to Chris Estes for helping get Cal to the airport. Thanks to Laz and Carl for putting the race on and doing a great job keeping track of everyone and finding us at different points throughout the race.
Post race I felt pretty good. I drove Blake about an hour back to the hotel where my family was staying. We all took about a three hour nap before we went out for a celebratory dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Chattanooga. The next day the family and I went to the Chattanooga Aquarium for the day and Ruby Falls the following day before heading home.
The shin was a bit painful, but I could walk on it. Everything else, including the blisters from the first couple of days, had healed or was feeling pretty good. I could have run a couple of days after the race but made myself wait a week to play it safe and rest the body.
300 Photos from the 2011 Last Annual Vol State 500K
(photos by: Joshua Holmes, Blake Heiman, Dani, Carl Laniak, Naresh Kumar)
More Run It Fast – Vol State 500K Links
- 2011 Last Annual Vol State 500K Results
- ‘King of the Road’ Don Winkley’s Winning Vol State 500K Race Report
- So What Shoes Did I Wear During the Vol State 500K?
- Days 1 & 2: The Last Annual Vol State 500K Live Blog
- Day 3: The Last Annual Vol State 500K Live Blog
- Day 4: The Last Annual Vol State 500K Live Blog
- Day 5: The Last Annual Vol State 500K Live Blog
- Day 6: The Last Annual Vol State 500K Live Blog
- Day 7: The Last Annual Vol State 500K Live Blog
- Day 8: The Last Annual Vol State 500K Live Blog
- Day 9: The Last Annual Vol State 500K Live Blog