Some adventures transform a man. The sleepless nights, the euphoric feelings, the few silent minutes spent in contemplation, the conscious decision made to suffer through the heat, day and night on the endless road, recover and regain the strength, push forward only to sink deeper at the end of the day, the struggle to stay awake and do it over and over, hoping to get to the rock. Run, walk, eat and sleep – This is the story of my journey called The Last Annual Vol State Road Race 500K.
“The Last Annual” part is a joke. The race has been taking place since 1981. There’s no formal organization, no website, no registration fee, nothing. It’s a race for a bunch of people who likes to run real long distance. All the way from Dorena Landing, MO to Castle Rock, GA. 314 miles, 500K.
Like Laz mentioned once “You would not believe how alone you are on the side of the road. All of those people who pass by a few feet away are in another world. They’re in their little air conditioned metal box, but when you get done, you can remember every step of the road.”
Days before the Vol State:
I kept quiet on the Vol State list. Though I got my name enlisted as solo, unsupported, I didn’t make it official. These days, nothing’s official unless it’s facebook official. I thought about it several times. I can still pull back my entry, it’s a tough race, I don’t need to go through this, I’ll just show up as a volunteer and crew some of my friends but finally I had to shake off such odd thoughts and made it official on FB. This was the biggest step for me pre Vol State.
Next big question, what shoes am I going to wear? I have never run in shoes, besides my first two marathons. I have either run in VFF or would go barefoot. I picked up a few good pair from REI and felt miserable running in those and promptly returned them. I decided to take my VFF (Trek Sports) for a test ride on Vol State course on a hot day. Ran/Walked 22 miles and felt pretty comfortable and decided to stick with them. Also picked up a camel backpack and tightened all the cords and told myself that anything that would fit in it, I would take it. I wanted to keep it as minimal as possible, no space for anything that I MIGHT need during the race.
Besides planning for logistics, vacation, travel and other stuff, it was fear and anxiety that took over me. A week before the race, Vol State is all I could think of all the time. It got so frustrating and made me restless to the point that I just wanted to get on that damn ferry. I wrote to a couple of runners who have finished Vol State in the past asking for suggestions and advice. Everyone responded but four of the replies were so good that I took a print out of it and carried it with me during the race.
Here’s the excerpt of some of the conversation:
- It is very hard Naresh; I would say the volstate is harder than a Barkley fun run….because it is SO far!!! The volstate requires toughness, but even more important is PATIENCE. There is no doubt in my mind that you can finish, but do not underestimate the need for patience. It is very far! – Carl Laniak
- I don’t know if you’d consider running with your mouth closed, but I thought that helped regulate my effort and the core temperature – Matt Kirk
- Nothing will prepare u for Vol State. No packs advise no strategy from other runners, no amount of heat training. By the end of the second day, crewed or solo, we will all feel like cow dung. Experience will help. But nobody can give you that. Permission is huge! Are you permitting yourself everything it takes? I’m serious when I say this: a fast walker can do this in ten days. Burn the ships. Destroy any possibility of an easy out. Divorce yourself from the world. Resign yourself to the fact that the start is in MO and the finish is on Sand Mountain. This is your job for the next 4-10 days. Accept it. It’s not easy, and it only gets harder. Exponentially harder in the last 30 miles. But, when the castle rock gate comes into view, and you realize you are only one mile from the rock, you will know that you have done an amazing thing. And it will have been worth it. – Mike O’Melia
- Don’t worry about staying on the road for 10 days, you will be back to Nashville the following Monday after the race start – Laz
I was so pissed off with Laz’s comment and I told myself that even if I had to drop out, I’ll ensure to not drop out on Monday.
I was thinking much about the movie “The Way Back”, story about four men escaping from Siberian Gulag and their 4000 mile long trek for freedom. They face freezing nights, lack of food and water, mosquitoes, an endless desert, the Himalayas. At one point after reaching the great Himalayas someone questions about how they are going to get past the mountains and the guy replies “We walk”. That got stuck in my head. We Walk. To keep pushing forward. After all I at least have access to stores and civilization unlike these men who didn’t have anything.
Laz send another update few days before picking up the crewless runners from the rock to the start line:
humidity so high you can cut the air into blocks.
sun so cruel it sears exposed flesh.
they have heat advisories in effect.
people are supposed to minimize their time outside…
tomorrow we go pick up the crewless runners at the rock.
god help them.
if people hadn’t done it before,
i would say it couldn’t be done.
Charity : Water : Joshua mentioned in his blog, after he made it official about his Vol State, that if an individual attempts to do something that could result in death then one should raise money for a cause in that process to help the less fortunate. That stuck in my head. I asked him whether I can join hands with him in his campaign and he accepted gladly. Though I wanted to run this race for myself, I had another good reason to motivate myself and finish this race. Being born and brought up in India and having lived in a less fortunate place, I remember what a great deal it was to get clean drinking water. I decided to contribute a dollar for every mile as my contribution. Every mile counts and every mile would help realize building a well somewhere that would provide clean drinking water (Thanks Joshua for letting me part of your campaign).
Limerick Taxi Service:
Two fares named Naresh and Fred
Got in and were so full of dread,
That all the way through
“What’d I get myself into?”
Is what the both of them said. –Troubadour
That was Rich’s poem for us and he goes by the name ‘Troubadour’ in the Ultralist. He offered a ride for me and Fred Davis for The Last Supper. Meeting Fred prior to the race was such a blessing. He had finished Vol State several times and his maps and notes were of such great help during the race. Everything just fell in place. Out of office, back pack, pepper spray, maps, I checked the items one after the other before jumping into the car. When I couldn’t get my hands on an Indian flag, I drew one myself on my race shirt. Rich was at my door. My “This is it” moment. Divorce from the world. I had a little cultural exchange with Rich and Beth during our ride and I had the chance to see their jaws drop when I started talking about “Arranged marriages in India”. We talked about a lot more stuff but I was not present in the ‘present’. We were driving through a part of the race course and Rich told tell me that I would have made it till there by day two, hopefully!!
The night before I left Nashville, I went on Facebook and un-friended my parents, sister and couple of friends who might possibly update my parents about my race. I still remember how mad, yet proud, they were when I told them about my first 100 mile finish. This time its three times longer and getting them worried about my adventure is the last thing I wanted. (Mom, Dad, Sis and friends – If you are reading this, I am sorry)
The Last Supper:
A ritual where all Vol State Runners, crew, volunteers, family and friends meet at Ryan’s steakhouse in Union City, TN the day before the Vol State. I heard so much about The Last Supper but I am here finally and things started getting real. I met all the runners and their family members. Ultra legends Dirt, Laz and Marv collectively had over 100 years of Ultra running experience.
I thought I was the baby in the group but Erika beat me on that. I had couple of email conversation with Lynn, Ericka’s mom and an awesome runner, but meeting the mother daughter duo running the Vol State was such a pleasure. Finally, my friend Joshua showed up with his crew. Josh and I had several hours of conversation through email and chat prior to the race. Both of us were equally anxious and scared. Soon, we all retired for the night. I couldn’t go to sleep. I met Lyn, Erika and Sherry in their room and we had a blast talking about our races and other stuff.
For some reason, too much of anxiety kept from going to sleep. It didn’t work out no matter how hard I tried. I might have slept for an hour or two. Morning arrived sooner than I expected, 5:30AM, packed my bags, filled it up with water and jumped into Shannon’s yellow bus. I took a ride with Diane, my running friend who introduced me to the ultra world, and John Price who is a legend by himself. He recently ran across USA self supported and he also ran the Vol State double last year. We stopped at a couple of spot en route to click pictures and headed straight to the Dorena Landing, MO where our Ferry was waiting for us.
Ferry ride was just the beginning:
Things started becoming more REAL for me. Things that I have read and heard about are happening to me. Last year I signed up for Vol State but had to pull back due to family emergency. Last Supper, Ferry Ride, Bench of Despair and the Rock were some of the notable things and two of it has already happened. The Ferry took us across Mississippi river to Dorena Landing, MO.
We got out of the ferry, lined up at the start line and before we knew it, Laz lit his cigarette. Clock started ticking. Race is ON. We ran towards the ferry. Wish I could put it in much better words to explain the joy of the moment, but one has to be there to experience this.
The ferry ride back to Kentucky was silent, at least for me. The longest 10 minutes of my life. Fear was creeping through my spine; I disassociated myself to a corner of the ferry and was gazing at the water contemplating for the next few minutes. This race is something I never thought I would do. I had a humble beginning to the Ultra world and after 16 months of Ultras, here I am running the Vol State 500K. I had all sorts of questions and doubts but before I knew it the ferry landed on shore, I shook it off and took off with the rest of the runners.
First step into a sea of Uncertainty:
The road wading through Hickman, KY towards Union City, TN. We took the wrong road within the first 3 miles of running but thank God, John price hollered and put us back on track. The day was starting to get hot, field was getting scattered but Josh and I were still running together. I stepped inside a bank on my way to refill my handheld bottle. Before we knew it, we made it to Union City, about 18 miles into the race.
Made a quick stop at a Subway and I ate a tuna sandwich and lots of Coke. Josh and I soon caught up with Don Winkley, another Ultra Legend, and his crew Donald. Laz and Carl were standing under the bridge at Mile 20. “This is your worst 20 mile time, isn’t it” and I nodded, “yes indeed”. It took over 5 hours to run 20 miles. I had no goal for day 1 except that I talked myself into running at least 40 miles every day. I ran a bit with Don Winkley, another Ultra legend, who eventually won the race this year. While I was out of water and ice again, I stepped into an outdoor store and the lady was kind enough to give me some ice and let me use the faucet to refill my backpack. That refill took me all the way to Martin, TN (Mile 29)
Made another quick stop at a McD and drank a large banana smoothie. I checked my feet and noticed that the duct tape has slipped over but it wasn’t all that bad. Refilled my pack again and headed out. Josh resupplied his stock and we took off. We noticed a church sign that said “The Most Effective Daily Exercise – Walking with God”, right message at the right time.
It was a long stretch to Dresden and the day was getting hotter. The road almost appeared like an interstate with wide shoulders. Josh’s crew would pass me every now and then. I finally noticed the sign board “Dresden – A great place to live”. I was sitting under a tree for a bit and Josh’s crew hollered at me and asked me not to move, there was a dog charging towards me. I was feeling cold all of a sudden, my first encounter with dog during Vol State. He barked a bit, circled around me and left. Thank God. It was mile 40 and my feet were killing me. I just wanted to rest somewhere. There was a motel about 3 ¼ of a mile off the course and at that point I was ready to go that extra mile for some good rest.
I picked up gallon chocolate milk and a sub on my way and got in my room. The motel owner, an Indian family from Gujarat, offered me a great discount and one of the best rooms. Felt really proud for having that India flag on my shirt. It unites every one of us no matter where we are. Took a cold shower and tried to rest but couldn’t go to sleep and was just lying on my bed. Iced my feet and kept it elevated, meanwhile I munched on some chips and sandwich and flushed it down with chocolate milk. When I realized that sleep is not my best friend that night, I decided to head back out. It was 12:30am. Before heading out I spread all the items from my backpack on the bed and decided to dump everything that I never touched for the day except for pepper spray. I woke up Josh and he asked me to get going and that he would start an hr later. I backtracked from the motel and rejoined the course. It was crisscross from there and if not for the directions painted on the road, I would be surely lost. It was funny that 500K direction was marked right next to a 5K race route. I am sure the 5K runners must be wondering who would run 500K and might even think it’s a prank.
It was a long night. The Old Route 22 which would take me to Gleason was so dark and lonely. I had a doubt at times whether I am on track. A cop passed me at around 2am and when they turned around, I was sure they were going to check on me. They were very friendly, I told them about the race and they asked me to be careful and went their way. Finally made it to Gleason (Mile 48) and after going through the town, it was Old 22 once again. Before heading out I checked my feet and it was a nasty sight. There were blisters everywhere. The skin started reacting to the adhesive tape. I should have left the duct tape intact before leaving Dresden, instead I thought I’ll tape my feet with the JnJ adhesive tape. A very costly mistake and I paid for it heavily. I removed the tape, cleared the blisters and applied some of the advanced blister band-aid and wore my Injinji socks. It was pitch dark and the road was wading through some corn fields. Soon, Josh’s crew passed me. It was the first sign of traffic after a long time. Blake told me that Josh is about 3 miles behind me. As I kept going I saw a flash light coming towards me. After about couple of minutes I noticed that it was Fred Davis. Apparently, he never rested and he turned around somewhere and was heading in the wrong direction. Not sure how far he went in the wrong direction but he turned around and we spoke a bit and I took off. It looks like he made the same mistake last year too but he is one strong runner who never rests.
Soon, the sun was out and a couple of very friendly dogs kept me company as I headed into McKenzie. I made a call at 6 in the morning to let Carl know my position. McKenzie, Mile 57. I stopped at a small local country café shop and had bacon and eggs and biscuits with lots of coffee. The waitress was very nice and I was soon joined by couple of local regulars and it was story time. I really enjoyed sharing my experiences and getting to meet new people on the road. Even as I was packing my bags to leave, I saw Fred stopping for breakfast at the same café. It felt good for having covered 57 miles on Day 1. Except for the blisters, I was feeling really good and goal was to get to Huntingdon by noon.
At this pace, you can win the race:
I was on Old 22 once again. It was a long and quiet a hilly stretch. By now, I could smell a road kill from miles away and I was getting better at judging what it would be. This section had a huge rattle snake with its jaws wide open and it was smelling nasty. Later on I smelled a raccoon and my guess was right. Soon, I smelled evilness, and there was Laz. Carl and Laz were driving around and they stopped by. “Hey man, you are doing well, in fact you might even win this race”, Carl hollered.
I spoke with Laz and Carl and told them about Fred. They laughed. Carl told me that Sherry and Sal is in Huntingdon and resting for the day. Josh rested a bit at McKenzie and when I called him he was about 4 miles behind. I was feeling tired but not sleepy though. I kept pushing my way and after passing the courthouse, I stopped briefly at a small breakfast inn and got myself a cheese burger. While it was getting made, I spoke to the locals and it was story time. There were people of all kinds, motor bikers, construction workers, truck drivers, students, etc. After sharing my quest, I was pleasantly surprised when the lady handed over my burger and told me that it’s on the house. First act of kindness, my first free meal during the race. They asked me to keep my eyes open for Holly bobo, a girl who got abducted from her house and is still missing.
I made it to Huntingdon, had my cheese burger, took cold shower and tried to sleep but the attempt went in vain. Cleaned up my blisters which were getting worse. Treated it with lots of peroxide and let it dry before applying fresh band-aids. 3 hrs went by with little sleep. Soon, Joshua joined me. His crew was equally tired. I stepped out for a bit and met Sal and Sherry. Sal was just heading out while Sherry wanted to catch some more rest. When I couldn’t get any more sleep, I decided to hit the road leaving Josh and his crew back at the motel.
It was pouring cats and dogs and by the time I filled my backpack, the rain subsided. Though the sun wasn’t out, it was humid and the air was dry. Breathing was getting very difficult. A gentleman who was mowing his front yard asked me where I am going and when I told him that I am going to Lexington, his jaws dropped. He waved at me to get in his truck and when I told him that it’s a race, he just stared for a moment and continued with his mowing business. He must be thinking, “What an idiot”, but it was very nice of him for offering me a 25 mile ride.
I saw a familiar face on my way to Lexington, it was my dear friend John Spencer. He was biking on the course. Meeting a familiar face during Vol State is the best thing to happen. We chatted a bit and he told me that he met couple more runners ahead of me. Must be Sal and Sherry, I thought. While he took off to meet other runners, I caught up with Sherry on my way. I gulped another bottle of chocolate milk and Sherry and I headed out together. Our next stop was at Parker’s crossroads. We made a quick stop at McD. I had an apple pie and a large smoothie as it was getting difficult to keep anything solid down. As we were passing through the interstate intersection, the sign board was showing “Nashville”, I read it as “Heaven” until Sherry hollered me and I realized that I am en route to hell :).
Sherry is such an awesome runner. Listening to her ultra running stories and experiences made me realize what a strong willed woman she must be. I first met her at Oak Mountain 50K in Alabama in 2010. She left me to dust at the last uphill climb. While I was struggling to even walk that hill, she ran the hills and put me to shame. I was so looking forward to meet her and time permitted me to run a bit with her. Made another quick stop at a convenient store and drank a bottle of Starbucks cold coffee. The store was owned by an Indian guy and he hollered “Jai Hind” when I was leaving the store and wished me luck.
Lexington came in sight pretty soon but fatigue was setting in. It’s been close to two days and I had very little sleep. We sat at a gas store. I gulped a bottle of coke and took care of my blisters. Fred Murolo caught us at the gas station and he retired for the night at a motel close by while Sherry and I decided to get to Parsons by morning.
First Low Point:
After a few hours of running/walking, fatigue got too bad that taking even one step was getting very difficult. I decided to crash on the side of the road for a while. Sherry wanted to rest too. We found a spot on the side of the road and rested for a bit. I napped a good half hour. I just wanted to lay down for a few more hours but we decided to keep moving. Time was ticking so slow. My feet were waging a war inside my shoes. I could feel the blisters getting worse but dreaded to look at it. It got worse when we hit the section of the road which had very little shoulder. There was some kind of construction work going on and the debris on the shoulder was so hard on my already blistered feet. Swore a little here and there when I would accidentally step on a sharp object. The section was getting hilly as we got closer to Parsons. just hated every bit of it. Soon, we spotted Sal in the distance. Carl and Gary passed us at that point. Day 2, we called in, 107 miles.
We crashed at a motel which was owned by an Indian family. The Indian flag on my shirt lit up their face. Sal, Sherry and I were at a very low point. I looked at Sal and he told me how bad he is hurting and that he is going to switch himself to “Survival Mode”. I switched to Survival Mode too. The steep uphill climb and the nasty shoulder debris took a toll on my blistered feet. It was hurting so bad that I thought my race is over. I was at a very low point. How am I going to continue another 207 miles with these feet? The very thought was mentally challenging. I was regretting so bad for taping my feet with the adhesive tape. But the damage is done and I need to keep going. No point in complaining coz everyone’s hurting, one way or the other. I got myself into this and I need to get out of this by myself. I tried to sleep but I had a nightmare that I am calling Carl and letting him know that I am dropping from the race. I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. With the help of the first aid kit provided by the hotel owner, I took care of my blisters, took a shower and got ready to hit the road.
While getting ready to leave, we saw Fred coming in. He was barely moving at that point. I could see that he was hurting really bad. I personally went to thank the Indian family for their hospitality. The Indian masala chai that they offered lifted my spirit a bit. I devoured a huge cheese burger at a small joint across the motel while sharing our stories with the strangers. One of them said that they saw another runner a few miles ahead. We all thought it must be Abi. I filled my back pack with lots of ice and water and headed towards Linden.
The road from Linden to Perryville had very little shoulder and the drivers were so rude. Sherry almost got hit by a pick-up truck and the driver didn’t give a damn about us. Soon we reached Perryville and crossed the bridge across the Tennessee River.
Switch to normal mode and Begging for food:
Though I started from parsons in “Survival mode”, running the little bit of downhill towards Linden made me feel that I am still in game and moved to “Normal Mode”. But I was having a different issue now. Starvation. Though I gulped a large chocolate milkshake and a cheese burger, I was hungry. Earlier a stranger offered us some green apples. I ate them and took some more from Sherry and I was still hungry. It was like a car full of gas all of a sudden going empty. A few miles before Linden, I located a bar on top of a hill. I wanted food, period. While Sherry and Sal were waiting, I went up the hill to see if the bar had anything to offer. It was a local country bar. Three to four gentlemen having a very strong southern accent arguing with each other about something while the waitress looked completely wasted. I had to repeat myself thrice every time. When I asked whether she got any food, she said “No”. I persisted; I was ready to take anything even leftovers at that point. When she looked at my shrunken face, she took pity on me and offered to give her frozen pizza which she had saved for herself after the shift. I was smiling at this time. Like a wanderer in the desert who found an oasis.
I quickly went down the road and informed Sal about the good news and saw his face lighting up. Sherry decided to lie down instead. The waitress offered some Mountain dew while the pizza was getting ready. The bunch of drunkards heard our story and thought we were on drugs. One even said “You are stupid or what; there are lots of things to do for fun” in a mocking tone and everyone laughed, I did too. Here I am in the middle of nowhere at the wee hours of the night begging for food at a bar. How often will you get to do this in real life. Meanwhile, the pizza was ready, and waitress saw the whole pizza disappearing right in front of her eyes. We ate it as if we didn’t eat food in days. Though it didn’t fill me up, my gas meter got up a bit. Any amount of fuel is good. This angel, though she was drunk, was the only reason I survived another night and kept moving.
The James Bond Dog:
Feeling rejuvenated, we started our long walk to Hohenwald, which was about 19 miles from Linden. Having taken care of the body it was time to take care of the mind. At this point, I have hardly slept ever since the race started. Though we all kept a good pace, we needed some rest. We napped a bit on the side of the road and then after about 5 miles we stopped again. This is where something funny happened. While we all were lying down on the side of the road, we heard something as if a dog was tiptoeing and following us. Assuming that it must be a hallucination, I closed my eyes briefly when Sal hollered again saying he heard something. It was indeed a dog. It was tiptoeing on its feet so slow and silent following us as if someone has deployed it to spy on us. When we got up in a jiff, the dog hollered so loud signaling all its friends in the neighborhood, the next few minutes was crazy. Running and walking at a fast pace on my blistered feet was no fun. It was a long night. The sun was out before we knew it and when we saw a nice church parking lot, we decided to lie down there for a few minutes. We soon got company but the dogs were much friendly than the previous ones. That’s when we saw Abi passing us. She looked fresh and strong and was running. I had my doubts whether I will ever get back to running with a decent pace in my life after Vol State. At this point, 3mph was the new 7mph. As we entered the city limits we picked up some food from a gas station and crashed at a motel at Hohenwald. This brought us to the end of Day 3, Mile 144.
I started to wish a truck would hit me:
After a cold shower and taking care of the blisters, I slept a good 2 hours but nightmares woke me up. That’s when I saw Sherry taking off. She had some foot issues and had to go to Wal-Mart. I tried to get more sleep but it didn’t work so well. Sal and I got ready and went to Hardees. Had their biggest and heaviest cheese burgers and flushed it down with several refills of coke. Our goal for the day was to get to Columbia. We met Gary and Sandra on our just before we hit Natchez Trace. When Gary asked how I am feeling, I told him “Gary, I wish a truck would hit me, not hard but a little bit to injure me so that I can take that as an excuse and drop out from the race. I would gain sympathy from others and yet leave the race as a hero”. That’s exactly what I told him and I was being honest. That was the thought running in my head while running from Lexington to Parsons. I was hurting bad, very bad. Later that day Gary sent this in his updated but didn’t reveal my name.
“i think this call for an updated list bio: fantasy ultra goal: to be hit by a truck, and only injured slightly.”
After chatting a bit with Sandra and Gary we headed towards Columbia. I was worried about Sherry at this point but Carl assured us that she is moving strong and is past Natchez trace. It was Sal and me at this point. Soon, we reached Hampshire. We found a store with a vending machine. I was hungry by now. It’s so frustrating when you have food right in front of you but you can’t have it. All that’s there between me and food is a thin glass. I was drooling looking at the bag of chips inside the convenient store like a dog in chains looking at food. Its right there, but I just can’t have it. I was really sad. I should have carried an extra cheese burger. Drank couple of coke instead and marched towards Columbia.
Made it to Columbia early in the morning, Day 4 and Mile 184. Sherry had already made it to Columbia, TN that morning and crashed at a motel. We crashed along with her in the same motel later that morning. Sherry took off early though. Sal and I rested a bit. Inspected my feet and there were more blisters. As I was adjusting my feet to accommodate the existing blisters, new blisters would show up at another spot. Removing the socks was the most painful thing. At one point, it was so excruciating, it felt like walking on razor blades. I slept a bit only to be awaken by the same signature nightmare. All my nightmares would be the same. It’s about making a call to Carl and telling him that I am done with the race and asking him to pick me up. That nightmare was my wake up alarm throughout the race.
Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing – Matthew 6:3
Content with a few hours of rest that I managed to get, I stepped out and it felt like an oven and it was 100% humid. Sal and I hopped inside Shoney’s and decided to have a long lunch to beat the heat. The waitress was too kind. She was very excited to hear about our quest and went around the table and told every other guest she was waiting on about us and our adventure. I ate like a pig. It was a lunch buffet and ate at least four plates of food and downed several glass of coke and a huge dessert. When it was time to get the check, the waitress told me that it’s been taken care of. A random stranger she was waiting one had paid for our food and also asked her to not tell us until the stranger left the restaurant. I so wanted to thank the stranger but he was long gone. In a world where everyone deserves attention, this random stranger not only taught me a great lesson but how to live by it. His act of kindness really lifted my spirit and made my day. Like they say “Today you, tomorrow me”. I asked the waitress to pass on our sincere thanks to that man if he ever shows up again.
It was still hot outside but we decided to keep moving. Sal kept a good pace and I tried to keep up with him. Refueled at a couple of vending stations on my way and narrowly missed the “Bench of Despair”, a very important landmark of the Vol State Course. A stranger who was aware of the Vol State stopped by on the side of the road and handed over a water bottle. After a few miles, Gary and Sandra greeted us with their big smile. Gary said that we picked wrong time of the day to run. It was a hot day and he mentioned that he measured the surface temperature of the road and it was like 146F. Exchanged the story about the act of kindness from the stranger with Sandra and we made our move.
I love Tennessee, period.
I had nothing but good experiences throughout the race, even back at the crazy bar, filled with drunks, people were kind. On my way to Lewisburg just before I got to the intersection, a cute old man in a pickup truck probably in his 80’s stopped by and offered to take me to his house for supper and drop me back at the exact location. I still remember his face. His act of kindness moved me. I hated to say “No” but I had to, and gave him the reason. He asked me to be safe and left. I remember telling Carl how I met a cute old man who is the best granddad one can ever ask for. Pain and suffering was inevitable during Vol State but I am so glad and thankful for the experiences and I enjoyed every bit of it as an unaided runner. I have read couple of story book on wayfarers but getting to live a life like that was something. No matter how good I get with words to explain, one has to be there, in that moment to understand such experiences. While my pain and suffering was making me strong, people and their act of kindles along my way were teaching me to live and appreciate life.
Amid the “pain and suffering” is the “pure joy” of traveling the open road with nothing but your own power moving you forward.
My encounter with a cop, getting investigated to becoming Facebook friends:
I didn’t see Sal in a long time. It was already dark and I was sitting by the courthouse in Lewisburg. I thought I would wait a bit for Sal to catch up and then head out to Shelbyville. Took my shoes off and was massaging my feet and there were two guys sitting next to me. One was a huge guy with piercings and tattoos and the other was a skinny guy. We had a little conversation and I told them about the race and they were pretty shocked. But what happened the next one hour was something that I never expected.
I see a cop car going around the court house:
Huge guy: Watch out. He is gonna go around the court house.
Huge Guy: He is gonna go around the court house one more time and pull over right in front of us
Me: <Panicking and blinking>
Huge guy: He is pulling over, act kewl..don’t worry
Me: <Thinking: why should I act kewl and normal>
The cop by now has pulled right in front of me and had the beaming huge light turned ON, pointing it on my face. I was panicking by now but acted as if it’s no big deal. The cop was asking for backup and two more cars joined him. He stepped out of the car and took my ID. Another longest 10 minutes of my life. I waited until he got back to me once again and asked me what I am doing at this time. I explained about the race. He frowned. I explained in detail, he frowned more. Finally he asked me to leave right away and asked me to meet him at the Shell station which was about 0.5 miles from the court house. I picked up my stuff and left while the cops were having a word with the other two guys.
As soon as I made it to the Shell gas station, one cop followed me and asked me more about the race and other details. Once he got convinced that I am a nice guy (A little self compliment) he got interested about the race. I started telling him about Vol State, Barkley, Strolling Jim, UltraMarathons and about Laz. He was surprised that there were events of suck crazy long distances and that there are people who run such races. We spoke like good old college buddies for about an hour about Ultramarathons and about India. The cop went ahead and launched Facebook from his laptop and “like” the Vol State FB page. He said he is going to track my progress on Google maps. Then he asked me whether I can be his friend on FB. When I told him how to find me, he sent me a FB friend request with a note “This is the nice cop you met at Lewisburg”. I told him that I’ll accept as soon as get back to civilization. He wanted to click a picture with me and we waited for Sal to show up, but when he did, Sal was in a pretty bad shape. While we refueled at the gas station, the cop went ahead and helped Sal with his motel booking and left. People have been nice throughout the race, including cops. Sal was thinking about dropping at that point. His hands and legs were swollen pretty bad. I walked him to the motel and asked him to reconsider his decision in the morning and took off to Shelbyville.
Those surviving on the road are doing just that surviving…barely
It was a long night. I looked up and saw a plane in the sky. Up there, inside that big nice tube is a guy sitting in his chair in an air-conditioned space with a nice blanket and comfortable pillow with everything he wants to eat and drink and there must be a beautiful waitress attending to him if he needs anything. Back to reality, here I am on a stinky road in the middle of the night out of water and out of food limping on my blistered feet suffering. Such is life. God is good, beer is great, people are crazy, I was signing that song loud, really loud. If any of my friends would have seen me at that time, they would have thought I have gone nuts. I made it to Bedford Co by the middle of the night. Sleep deprivation was killing me. I might have slept for about 6 hours since the race start. I was starving. I was surprised since I ate a whole large pizza but I was still hungry. I got to a nice little breakfast café by 4:30AM. I knocked at the door and the lady told me that they open at 5:00AM. I asked her for some water and she let me in to refill my backpack.
I couldn’t stay awake at this point. I looked around and there was a church and a cemetery behind it. Perfect. I headed into the cemetery and found a nice spot to lie down. I passed out for about an hour and I got up to my alarm, the same old nightmare. That one hour nap felt so good. I passed the idea on stopping for breakfast and sneaked out of the cemetery. I wanted to make it to Wartrace by noon and was planning to crash at my good friend Amanda’s house. Shelbyville courthouse came in sight and made my check in call to Carl. Day 5, Mile 227.
It was a hot day. I could feel it. My foot was getting cooked inside my VFF. I should have stayed at Shelbyville but I braved the sun and decided to head to Wartrace. I regretted my decision. I felt horrible. The heat was sucking everything out of me. I drank the whole 100oz of water and was still thirsty. Heat was making my already blistered feet worse. There was not even a single shady spot to rest. I had no other choice but to push and when the Marathon gas station came in view, I ran into the station and grabbed a gallon water jug and drank 3 ¼ of it. The lady who was buying some stuff stood there astonished while I was drinking. I paid for it later and sat for a while before going another mile to my friend’s house.
I crashed on the couch and tried to sleep a bit but mind wouldn’t just rest. It just wouldn’t hibernate or even go idle. The effort put in to go to sleep was worse than the blisters. My foot was evidently swollen especially near the toes. Two new additions to the blister family, a huge blister on the right foot toe and a big one on the left heel. Tried to stand up and felt miserable. I have 78 more miles to go. I switched myself to survival mode. I got 5 more days and even if I average 16 miles a day I should be able to finish the race. Refueled myself and hit the shower which ended up being the most painful one. I was moved to tears while replacing the band aid. I decided then to push to the finish line. No more sleep breaks, only rest stops to refuel. It wasn’t about getting to the rock but I just wanted to be done with it. I was losing myself. Patience, patience, I spoke to myself.
That night I called my mom:
While I was getting used to the newly formed blisters and fighting the fatigue, an uninvited visitor showed up. Shin splint on my left leg. Yet another lonely night. I was really getting worried. What if it gets so bad that I couldn’t keep up with 16 mile/day average? To keep myself distracted, I called a couple of friends. Spoke to Joshua for a while and then with Diane. I was so craving for a soda when I was a few miles away from Manchester. I looked though my bag and four quarters and $5 bill but no more extra quarters and no $1 bill. The vending machine wouldn’t take the $5 bill and I don’t have enough quarters. Another dog drooling at the food scene. I stood in front of the vending machine in silence expecting a miracle to happen, that out of nowhere a soda bottle would pop up. I was wrong and I left, frustrated.
The shin splint was getting worse. The left foot was swollen by now. A little ice would help but where would I find one in the middle of nowhere. It felt as if a brick was attached to my left foot. I was literally dragging my left foot every single step. I felt the need to sit down but I was dreading about the pain that I have to endure once I start walking again. A church graveyard was in sight and sat down there for a while. I couldn’t go to sleep but just sitting down felt so comfortable. I wanted ice so bad, I decided to keep moving and was so glad to find a convenient store. I drank couple of coke, picked up a 10lbs ice bag and started walking. There was no motel in sight. I tried calling Sherry to check if she had crashed anywhere in Manchester but no reply. I finally found an abandoned gas station. Threw my backpack down in frustration and kept the ice bag on my left feet. It was still hot and humid and the ice was melting away. I told Carl later that morning while I was at Hillsboro and Gary included it in his update.
naresh is in hot pursuit in hillsboro (app 260).
ok, he isnt in hot pursuit
he is sitting in an abandoned convenience store
with a bag of ice on his foot
says his foot feels like a brick attached to his ankle.
says he only hopes to wake up someday and not feel like this.
That’s right. I was only hoping that I don’t want to wake up someday and not feel like this. I called my mom. She was surprised about the late night call but I covered it up with a couple of lies. We spoke about a lot of stuff going on in the family and in India. After disconnecting the call, I wept. No point sitting here and drowning myself in self pity. I am here because I chose to. Was thinking about Mike’s email; This is your job for the next 4-10 days. Accept it. It’s not easy, and it only gets harder. Exponentially harder in the last 30 miles. He was right, every bit of it.
When your whole world consists of discomfort, the only thing to do is laugh. I told myself to HTFU and move on. To really HTFU. By now the ice bag was nothing but a piece of plastic lying on my leg like a blanket. I took a few steps and it felt much better. Icing the feet didn’t get any better but at least it didn’t get worse. The early morning sun rays brought some hope. I took it real easy, maintained a comfortable pace and made it to Hillsboro.
When I’m weak, then I’m strong:
I know the tougher sections are ahead of me but I tried hard not to think about it but just take it one step at a time. I was really at a low point that morning but “This too shall pass” and it did pass. I enjoyed some good biscuits with sausage and bacon and lots of coffee. Rain or shine, I was ready to hit the road. The waitress helped me fill my backpack and I took off. I called Carl and updated him as well. Day 6, ~260 miles.
It was a hot day. Hillsboro to Pelham took forever. I put my head down and just looked at the ground in front of me and took one step at a time. Couple of guys in a pickup truck offered a ride which I had to decline. They even handed over a $5 bill which I had to decline. I told them it’s a race. They replied “God save you” and took off. I called Diane and she told me there’s a café at Pelham which remains open till 2:00PM where I would get good food. I did make it by 2:00PM and had a huge salmon, rice, mashed potatoes and lots of Dr Pepper. Carl was driving through the course and he guessed that I would be at the café. Amy and Carl accompanied me for lunch and I told them the cop story. A friendly stranger joined me for lunch before Carl and Amy joined me. He gave me lots of pointers about the course but he said that the next 6 miles is going to be tough.
Every time I was explain the VS course to someone, once I get to the Monteagle section, their jaws would drop. I understood that it’s going to be a tough climb but never realized it would be that hard. In the middle of the day when it was hot, the pain increases exponentially. It was so steep that a biker got down and started pushing his bike. I was out of water by that time once I got to the top, I was glad that it’s done. I headed into a bar again and everyone just froze for a second. One guy asked me whether it’s raining, “No, I am just sweating hard as I ran up the mountain” I replied. While the bartender was filling up my handheld, I was explaining about the race and tried to be in the A/C for a little longer. Climbing Monteagle really aggravated my shin splints and there was a huge swelling. Stopped at another gas station on my way to Traci city and iced my feet. Knowing that I won’t find anything once I start to Jasper, I bought lots of Danish buns and Beef jerky and made it to Traci City.
I can write a book titled PATIENCE:
I hated the Traci City-Jasper section as much as I hated Lexington-Parsons. Hardly any shoulder and the traffic would just zoom by. I had to literally stop every time a car approaches and wait until it would pass. I don’t want to get hit by a car now, not even slightly. Along with shin splint and blister, fatigue was setting in and it was getting real bad. I didn’t sleep after leaving Wartrace. Pain kept me wide awake. Body is willing but the mind won’t shut down. The more I think about the finish line, the more frustrating it would get and I was losing my patience. “Patience – the capacity to tolerate trouble or suffering without getting angry or upset”, It’s a word with no time factor associated to it. Tolerate, but without getting upset or angry. That’s precisely what Jasper section taught me. I was so pissed off at one time after leaving Wartrace that I picked up a stick and started hitting a tree to vent it out but not today. Carl in his email told me, “Don’t underestimate the need for patience” and emphasized it in caps. Took a couple of deep breaths and kept pushing forward, to be patient, to learn to appreciate the journey as well as its completion and that this too shall pass. I have started the race and passed the middle and the end is inevitable, and if I am patient enough and endure, I will get there.
Sandra drove all the way from the rock to check on me. They knew that I didn’t get any sleep in the past 30+ hours. Seeing a familiar face in the middle of the night was such a blessing. We spoke for a minute and she took off and returned after a while along with Amy.
The downhill section to Jasper was a killer. I would have loved this section any other day but not today. The grade was so tough to walk and running was the only option I could find some relief for my tired feet. At one point, I felt I should curve my body like a ball and just roll down the hill. It was very humid and I was out of water by now. In my mind I imagined that I would be in Kimball, TN once I am done with downhill, but I was wrong. The downhill took me to Jasper and it’s another 5 miles to Kimball from there. I had little water left in my handheld and I tried to ration on it.
I was sleep walking on the Kimball road by now. A cop stopped me and when I told him about the race. He looked for a spare reflective vest in his trunk for me but he didn’t have one. He asked me to be safe and warned me about the traffic. I asked him whether he had extra water by any chance but he didn’t have any. I was totally out of water by now and could feel the effects or dehydration. Started walking at snail pace. The sound of speeding vehicles gave me hope that the interstate junction is close and that I can fill my water there but the intersection was nowhere in sight. It was just like the mirage that would make a man wandering in the desert to think there’s water close by.
Seeing a waffle house from the distant gave me hopes that I’ll survive. A part of me wanted to stay at a motel and rest but another part of me wanted to keep pushing and be done with it. I listened to the latter. I had a huge BLT sandwich, big bowl of chili, lots of hash browns and lots of water. The waitress was surprised that I drank so much water and she asked whether I am doing ok. I told her about the race and that I am at Mile 300. They thought I am on drugs and didn’t talk to me much after that. I don’t blame them. I was smelling nasty and looked dirty and my zombie look was enough to prove.
The Longest 14 miles of my life:
I still had a good shot at Sub 7. I couldn’t believe that I was thinking this way. I was ready to push the lever from Survival mode to race mode again. It’s just amazing how time and energy can impact mind. Moments ago, I just wanted to finish the race and now I am aiming for a Sub 7. I was determined. I have come this close; why not give it a shot. At the same time, I didn’t want to get over confident. Race is not over until I set my foot on that Rock. It was a tug of war. Push hard for Sub 7 or take it easy and finish. I looked at my shin splint and it looked pretty swollen. I haven’t removed my shoes ever since I left Wartrace, so I know pretty sure there’s a nasty sight inside. I decided to push for a sub 7 and take chances. I read the direction and walked against the direction of the traffic hoping that it would take me to New Hope Bridge, but when I didn’t see it coming, I decided to back track and go the other way. I lost a good 45 minutes in this confusion. I walked across the New Hope Bridge crossing the Tennessee River one more time and stood there for a minute. I crossed Tennessee River three days before after leaving Parsons and here I am crossing it again. I took a moment to appreciate everything that I have been through and thanked God for enabling me with His strength, without Him I am nothing. He was my strength when I was weak. When I had every reason to drop out from the race, the Lord gave me his strength and brought me so far and I had no doubts that He will enable me to get to the finish line. I called Carl to let him know that I am just passing through the bridge and made my way towards Sand Mountain.
I spoke to Josh briefly and told him about my position. He was excited for me and told me to get it done. The traffic was so bad, the roads so narrow with lots of twists and turns. The curve was too sharp. Sometime I had to stop well ahead based on the sound from the distant traffic and let the car pass. They were driving too fast. One car passed me so close that I lost my balance and fell down and luckily ended up in someone’s yard. I am glad it wasn’t anything serious. I was extra careful from then. Walking my way towards Sand Mountain I was going through the directions and it said “Easy 10K to the finish”. I underestimated the “easy 10K part” and dumped most of my water and ice before climbing the Sand Mountain. Another big mistake.
As I started climbing Sand Mountain, I saw Carl, Gary and Abi going up the hill and they said they will wait for me at the state line which would be 495Km mile stone. The uphill climb was very difficult especially my shin, it was crying in pain. I looked at my watch; Sub 7 was out of reach by now. The little detour at New Hope was a waste of 45 minutes. Precious 45 minutes. No regretting at this point. Gary was clapping and encouraging me along with Carl, Abi and Donald (Don’s Crew). When Abi approached and asked how I feel, my instant reply was “I want to kill this guy” pointing towards Gary. For making the last 10K very difficult and making it hell as if I didn’t have enough of it. Everyone had a good laugh as no one expected that response from me.
5K to the finish line. That Einstein guy was right about his theory of relativity. When you sit next to a pretty girl for one hour, and it feels like a minute, as opposed to when you sit on a hot stove for one minute, and it feels like an hour. That 5K took me for ever. Time slowed down, really slowed down. I was forced to witness the passing of every second of every minute. The more anxious I got, the slower time passed. Finally, I made it to the corn fields. It’s not too far now. Carl asked me whether I am cognizant enough to follow the pink ribbons that would lead me to the rock. He knew that it’s over 36 hours since I shut down my eyes and he was really concerned. But I was wide awake. This is it. This is the moment. This is what I have been waiting for. I assured him that I’ll meet him at the rock and they took off.
Started passing the pink ribbons one at a time as the course went wading through the corn fields. I started running after a point. The excitement was too much to hold. Day 1 was flashing through my head. I was scared and full of doubts not knowing whether I would be able to accomplish something of this magnitude and here I am still in pain and suffering but running towards the finish. Mind took over body and all the pain seemed very trivial. The rock was in sight. Carl was at the rock to ensure that I don’t trip and fall off the ledge. I walked to the rock and Carl hollered to Gary, “NOW”. Timer stopped. It’s finished. It’s over. It’s freaking over. 7 day 00:55:04. First Unaided Finisher and Fourth overall.
I sat down on the rock, the place where I wanted to be for the past 7 days. I ran, I walked, I ate and I slept, going through heat, days and nights through pain and suffering to get here. I sat right there. I was trying to talk but it was getting difficult to say anything. The pain that went mute briefly returned with full force. When I couldn’t talk any more, tears took its place. No matter how hard I tried not to get emotional, I couldn’t help it. I sat there. In Silence. No one spoke a word. They allowed me to be in the moment, to cherish the experience, to enjoy my finish. Covered 56 miles on my last day. Vol state was an experience, an adventure of a life time, it taught me so much, a challenge greater than I ever imagined, it showed me what I am capable of, to endure and keep moving forward in spite of pain and suffering, to have fun, to live the moment and above all to take one day at a time.
Carl helped get to a chair and everyone sincerely congratulated me for my finish. I finally drank good water. My mouth still tasted bad after drinking water from a dirty puddle.
I asked Gary, “Who’s the guy going back to Nashville on Monday after the race start, who”, he laughed. He knew very well how to encourage me and he did exactly the same. Abi offered me her course map (Thanks a lot Abi) which Gary signed it for me: Naresh, “the Monday Man”, You are my HERO! – Laz
I had the opportunity to see every other runner finish. I was extremely glad to see Joshua finishing the race, strong. He ran a Sub 8min pace the last three miles of the race. Now, that is something. We finished what we started. The full 500Kms. It’s over.
I am glad that our adventure didn’t cost our (Joshua and Me) life. With support from amazing friends, we not only met the goal but exceeded it by over a $1000 dollars and still counting. Thanks so much for your contribution, support, wishes and prayers.
All’s well that ends well:
It was fun times after finishing the race. “Gary, it feels like I am in a space ship”, that was my first reaction when I got in Gary’s car and the cold air was blowing on my face. First time setting my foot in a motorized vehicle after 7 days. When I insisted to stay awake in the car, Gary very well knew how to put me to sleep. “Just pull back the chair and lie down, you don’t have to sleep”, Gary told me, the next thing I remember, I am waking up in his driveway. Almost an hour flew by. When we decided to crash one night at a motel in Kimball, I managed to get a good discount as the owner was an Indian. But when he heard about the race and the cause, he refused to charge me for the room and he insisted. He invited all of us for lunch. This would be Gary’s first time tasting Indian food and I told him how lucky he is to get his first experience as Home Made Gujrathi Food. The food was delicious. Carl, Sandra, Gary and I enjoyed the food and above all the hospitality extended by the family.
And just like that, it all came to an end. No more sleeping on the side of the road, parking lots and cemeteries. No more travel stories and meeting new people. Now that I am back to reality, all the experience remains as a good memory and that the journey to the rock has served me well.
– Naresh Kumar
- Mom, Dad, Sis, I’m sorry!!
- I accepted the cop’s friend request and we are buddies on FB now.
- I read ALL the responses from my friends from Chennai Runners group. Huge thanks to Navin for keeping everyone posted about my progress in detail. Navin, thanks a lot. For your support and encouragement and for being there when I need you the most. Thanks for all you time spent in writing daily updates for our group. I also want to thanks everyone from Chennai Runners, for your support and prayers. I sincerely appreciate each and every one of your thoughts for me.
- Thanks to my friend Angel and my friend Jeff Bauer for keeping all my friends updated. Jeff your timely tips and suggestions are greatly appreciated. Thank You!!
- My blisters have healed up pretty good and I treated me a nice bike. Thinking about riding the Vol State course sometimes, soon.
Battle of the Vol State:
they got on the ferry & they rode it to kentucky,
they were headed for a battle in the state of tennessee.
there was heat and pain a waiting, but they didnt waver
they were bound to make their way; to the castle rock, you see.
the sun went down and the runners kept a comin
there wasnt near as many as there was the morn before.
they ran thru the bottoms and they ran over ridges
they ran thru dry stretches where a camel wouldnt go.
the sun came up and the runners kept a comin’
there wasnt quite as many as there was the night before.
they ran so far that stray dogs couldnt follow
down the endless blacktop to the slopes of never more.
the sun went down and the runners kept a comin
there wasnt near as many as there was the morn before
they left their homes & they left their loved ones
to fight a hopeless battle in the state of tennessee.
but those who reached the rock down in georgia
found the prettiest sight that they would ever see…
the finish. – Laz