Volstate—When Romance Meets the Pavement
I ran the 2011 Last Annual Volstate Race, 314 miles of roads across Tennessee, finishing characteristically in the middle of the pack, 6th of 13 finishers (19 starters). It was the hardest thing I ever did, both physically and mentally. I don’t see myself doing it again, but I feel the race is a part of me now. I could see myself going to the last supper or the Rock or visiting the runners along the course, but it will be a long time before I could see myself stepping off the ferry again as a runner. The race took a lot from me, but gave something back. I am a Volstate graduate.
I have been running since 1976, when I was in college. I love running. I have run hundreds of races short and long. Nothing really prepared me for Volstate.
When I joined the ultralist in 2006, I think I listed Western States as my long term goal and Badwater as my fantasy race goal. But over the years I changed. I didn’t put my name in the lottery for Western States last fall; I have never applied to Badwater. I imagine they are great races; they just aren’t what I am looking for anymore.
For the last few years, my fantasy race has been the Volstate. The idea of a journey run, along the roads, across a whole state, under tough summer conditions appealed to me. Laz writes so eloquently about the travails of the Volstate runners, about the searing heat, the humidity so thick you feel like you can cut the air into cubes, the pain, the isolation, the sheer daunting task of covering 314 miles on foot. There is a romance to it. It draws me in. My wife, who is completely supportive of my self-actualization through running, is on board. If it was something I had to do, she was with me. She would even crew me as much as possible (we do have a law firm and two kids to take care of). But she does warn me that this is not really my kind of race because of the aloneness, the isolation. I like to see and interact with other runners.
I first write to Laz in 2010 and tell him I want to run the race in 2011. Not surprisingly, he ignores me. If anything, this increases my interest. Finally, with a little help from John Price I am able to gain entrance to the Volstate email list. Laz inquires, “Are you joining us this year?” Such innocence of form, such understatement. He could just as well be inviting me to the work picnic. I say “yes”: one word, heavy with portent and loaded with the commitment to run the state of Tennessee in July. I am all in.
I have already run a 100 miler in early April and a 72 hour in mid-May, so I have a base. I put in 7 weeks of an average 100m/wk, and then back it off the last two weeks before the race. This is plenty of mileage and my legs never feel whipped during the race, because it’s not really about the training mileage. I just am never going fast enough to beat up my legs. I could have used more heat acclimation though, much more. I also make it a point to drop the pesky 10 winter pounds I carried at Umstead and then lose another 4 for good measure, so I can’t complain that I am just too damn fat to run through Tennessee. I will start the race in very good shape (for me).
I also spend much of the spring reading the unabridged version of Les Miserables, over 1400 pages. This requires a lot of patience and reminds me that the struggles of life are infinitely more trying than anything we opt to undertake as leisure.
Wednesday July 13th, my wife, Karen, and oldest son, Jake and I are at the last supper. There is a surplus of nervous energy. I meet Gary Cantrell (Laz), the race director, and Carl Laniak, the assistant director and a past king of the road. I see a few familiar faces: John Price and Joe Judd. I meet Joe’s wife and daughter. I meet Marv. I meet Rich Limacher, the Troubadour. I meet Lynnor and tease her about trash talking her daughter. I see Erika. I meet Abi. I meet Naresh. I buy an ice hat. Don Winkley and his crew, Donald Brown, set me up with a small American flag to display on my person while running.
After dinner, I am still gathering and storing that good ultra feeling from talking to others. I’m in the parking lot of Ryan’s with Laz, Carl and Rich. We’re joking about corrupt politicians and dumb politicians. I notice Carl is wearing running shoes that are so beat up they are falling off his feet. He looks like he could run the race tomorrow and win. Laz’s mustache looks like it’s curling into his mouth as he jokes about his dealings with small town politicians. Rich is wearing a Volstate polo shirt vintage 2009. I’m loving this. Laz and Carl also joke about the two Freds and two Joes and having a team competition. I tell them that I would be inclined to bet on the Joes.
I go back to the hotel and make last preparations, laying out my clothes, pinning the flag to the back of my race shirt, organizing and reorganizing the food and materials. The plan is to do about 50 miles a day and stay in hotels. Karen will be there till Saturday evening when she has to fly back home to take case of the kids and to handle the work I am ignoring. That will leave Jacob and me in the wilds of Tennessee.
I think about race favorites. I think about the two Joes. Joe Ninke finished second last year and is an ultra-stud. He has completed Matt Mahoney’s all-but-impossible Wickham Park 200 miler a few times. He just did 110 miles in 24 hours in the heat and humidity in Florida a couple of weeks ago. Joe Judd won the 72 hour men’s division of Three Days of the Fair. He glided to a relatively easy victory and looked like he could just keep going indefinitely. I know experience is a benefit, so I also think about Don, Fred Davis and John Price, who all did it last year. John has done it several times, including the double and another near double. He also walked/ran across the country this spring. I would like to be competitive; I would like to do this in a week, or even a little less, but I really don’t know what to expect.
The next morning at 7:00 I am on a ferry boat across the Mississippi. It’s not much. The road in Hickman, Kentucky, winds down to the river and there is a little barge-like craft there, with room for about 8 cars and people standing around the cars on deck. Joe Judd’s car is on the boat. His wife and daughter and new puppy are headed for St. Louis when we reach the Missouri side of the river.
The river is wide and muddy and the water level is still pretty high. We power over to the Missouri side to the ferry landing that is even less built up than the Kentucky side. A two-lane road just basically ends at a ramp at the river’s edge. You can’t even see any buildings. The runners get off the boat and line up at a white line for the cars waiting for the ferry (there are no cars waiting). At about 7:23 a.m. Laz lights a cigarette and the race is on, sort of. The 19 runners shuffle back onto the boat for the return trip, and then we wait till we get back to Kentucky to actually run (or walk). I see Joe’s wife, daughter and puppy on the shore. I talk to Marv about his work in New York before he retired. We talk about horse racing. I have to go the the bathroom, a porta-john lashed to the rail. I’m getting a little jumpy. Castle Rock, Georgia is 300 and something miles down the road.
Back at Hickman about 7:55, we start the run. Some people jet off ahead—not me. Joe Judd and I talk and basically walk through Hickman. We talk to Stu; we talk to Diane. We miss a turn about 2 miles into the race and realize about 100 yards later, so we go back and take the unmarked left to the overlook. As we are heading out of town, Joe is enticed by the smell of fried chicken coming from a convenience store. He stops and I forge on and do a little running on the road to Union City. I see my crew every couple miles for a change of water bottle and some food. We make Union City by lunch and eat at the Subway. I go in and stop to cool down. It’s about noon and in the 90’s, though there was a little high cloud cover earlier.
I leave the Subway and head up the road toward Martin, the next town. It’s heating up. According to people who ask me what I am up to, the heat index reaches about 110. I wonder, what a heat index really is; who knows how hot it feels. But I am crewed and have ice in my hat and in a bandanna on the back of my neck, and this is all doable. As the afternoon slides away, I am mixing in running and walking and feeling hot, but okay. Then at a mid-afternoon crew stop I pee and it’s dark brown—not good. I think I know what happened and what it means, but it is disconcerting, and I’m in the middle of a hot afternoon. (Please don’t try this at home. Blood in the urine is nothing to take lightly.) I infer that in the heat my kidney function was low (my blood being used for cooling) and I emptied my bladder and managed to get it irritated inside so that I was passing some blood from the bladder scratch. My immediate solution was to drink a little more and not to empty the bladder all the way. This helped, but it’s not easy to hold some in every time you go.
I go on to Martin and Joe catches up. We walk and run together for a while till he stops for some food in Martin. I go ahead toward Dresden, but he catches up again, and we go through that town together, following markings painted on the road. It starts to thunderstorm and he decides to head to a motel while I keep on in the evening. Naresh and Josh were a little ahead of us and are also heading to the motel in Dresden. I head on to Gleason and go some of the way with Sherry. She moves ahead when I stop for my crew. She connects up with Sal in Gleason and they walk all night.
While I am alone at one point, I try out my pepper spray (highly recommended by the experienced runners for bad dogs). I spray a cloud at the ground in front and to the side of me. The light breeze wafts it up and over to me causing me to cough and tear up a little. Nice. I walk past some fields in the darkness. I hear an exhale, almost a sigh, close by to my left. It spooks me for a moment and I wheel around with my headlamp shining across the shoulder and into the field. I see a Holstein sitting about 30 feet away. I swear that sigh sounded human.
A few hours later, I am on old Route 22 and am overcome with the need to crap right on the side of the road. So I do. I haven’t done something like that since . . . well I never have. I’m a grown up; I don’t squat on the side of the road. But I do because I have to. No cars come. It is a quiet night. I then head on to McKenzie where we stay night one. I am at about 55 miles.
At the motel, I pee and see the fresh blood and know it is my bladder. I question whether it makes any sense to go on. My wife tells me that I should sleep and decide in the morning. I have put a tremendous amount of mental and physical effort into preparing for this race (not to mention the cost of traveling to Tennessee and getting the rental car and provisions) and do not want to bow out after one day.
Other things about Day One
I am wearing a nearly new pair of Asics 2160 road shoes. I have worn this series for at least a decade. I tape the insides of my heels and the balls of my feet and the sides of my big toes to ward off blisters. I wear Drymax socks. I get blisters anyway, right under the tape and other places, but they are not that bad the first day. I am wearing a triathlon sleeveless top, with back pockets. I wear the same top every day because I pinned the flag to it, and I can’t muster the energy to move the flag. I wear a white running hat, but during the heat of the day (about noon to 6 p.m.), I switch it out for the ice hat. I have ice in a baggie on my head and ice in a bandanna on the back of my neck. I also put on a white oxford cloth cotton button down shirt to keep the hot sun off me. It helps. I use Two Toms roll-on on my arm pits (one application in the morning) and get no chafing there the whole race. I wear running underwear and compression shorts under long running shorts. I have two sets of these that I alternate, changing only at the end of the day. I lube my butt and crotch with a mixture of Desitin and Vaseline (also one application a day). It works great. Despite the heat and humidity, the long hours and multiple days, I have no chafing issues.
Although I don’t often advertise it to the world, I am vegan, have been for a few years. My concern on the road for all this time is getting enough calories. I do not eat health food on the roads of Tennessee. I drink mostly water in my handheld, with some Succeed every now and then to change the taste. I eat Fritos and mint Oreos as snacks to get the salty and sweet sensations. I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I eat tropical fruit and nut mix. I have a big apple pie from Costco; I have a slice now and then. Joe wishes he had some of this pie. From the road, I eat mainly Subway—12 inch sub with lettuce, tomato, pickle, avocado, oil and vinegar. At crew stops I drink Coke, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, Chocolate soy milk, V-8 and cran-grape juice. It works, as long as I am sure to pack in enough calories. I never have stomach problems.
I mostly use food to replace salt lost in sweat, but I do take some S-caps. I take 7 the first day in all that heat. My hands swell. I take fewer from then on, really using my stomach as a guide. When my stomach feels too full and that it is not emptying fast enough I take an S-cap and I feel better.
The people of Tennessee are generally nice. Many ask what I’m doing and offer encouragement. The approaching drivers usually give me as much room as possible on the narrow roads. I wave to everyone, especially those who move over so that I have room to run without having to run on the rumble strip. Many of them wave back, the preferred way being a raised finger (pointer finger, not the one I see raised by drivers at home). I never see anyone running or riding a bike, except those in the race. I do see a lot of people mowing lawns. There are a lot of small houses with big lawns.
Tennessee has a lot of road kill. In the hot humid temperatures, it smells rank. You can smell death and rot long before you get to a carcass. Sometimes there is no carcass at all, just a mark on the road where the blood spilled and that smell of death. Armadillos are popular targets, and the remains suggest that the armor doesn’t do much for them. There are pieces of it all over the roads. Turtles are also a common sight—lots of broken shells and turtle parts. By day 4 I smell so bad, I figure I fit in with the roadkill.
I decide to go ahead. I just can’t bail on this race because of the blood. But at my wife’s recommendation, I decide to walk almost all of the day, so as not to further irritate the bladder. If I jog even a few steps, I feel the bladder bouncing and the irritation. I drink a lot of water and I pee a lot, but I labor to hold in the end of the flow, so my bladder is never empty. This leads to some damp running underwear. So it goes. My only wardrobe change is the addition of calf sleeves. I’m not sure if they do anything, but they keep the sun off my legs. As I just start out, I find a quarter. This is the beginning of my finding a lot of change on the road.
I see Joe again as he catches up to me in the morning and we walk together for a bit, both stopping for lunch in Huntington, but at separate places. He eventually pulls ahead in the heat of the afternoon and disappears. We are on a broad highway with large shoulders and no shade. I see someone riding a bike along the road up ahead and then see him talking to my crew. I get up to the crew car and it’s Rich Limacher. He has been cruising along the course and talking to runners. He is resting in the air conditioning of the crew car. I take his place and change my socks. Rich had a blow-out on the bike and has called his wife to come back from Lexington to pick him up.
I am having trouble with blisters, having walked the whole day. I have blisters on the ball of my left foot, the inside of both heels, my left little toe, and the foot pads of both feet—the bottom of the feet just behind the second and third toes. These blisters are about half dollar-sized and painful, because they jolt the nerve in that area just about every step. I keep going.
We cross the interstate at Parkers Crossroads in the evening and I keep going to Lexington, about mile 92. Not a great day. It goes a lot slower when you walk the whole thing. Right at the end of my day, my wife walks about 5 minutes with me so we can discuss how we are going to get her to Nashville the next day with me in the race. We agree that I should go to Parsons and check into a motel for a nap in the afternoon. Then I can rest while Jake takes her to the airport. When he gets back, we can take off and go all night. That’s the plan.
Just before going to the motel, we see Naresh and Sherry walking up. I greet them enthusiastically. They are going to walk through the night. I ask Naresh how he is doing in the Vibrams. He says he’s fine, but Sherry interjects, “Don’t believe him. His feet are killing him.” They go on and I never see them again in the race.
At the motel that night I am a little down. I drink an O’Doul’s non-alcoholic beer (my first one ever) because I have read somewhere that they are good for kidney function. I shower, tend my blisters and think about the days to come without my wife, with all these blisters, with the bladder thing, with a lot of miles still to cover. Sleep this night and every night is fitful.
On day two we also hear that Joe Ninke has dropped. He was pulling a narrow cart with his supplies, and it didn’t work out. He ended up dropping around mile 108. I was surprised, having penciled him as the favorite. A lot can happen in this race. Don Winkley is now ahead.
I hit the road late, probably 8:30 and see Josh a few hundred yards ahead of me. This is the worst day for my feet and I have trouble getting a rhythm going. Josh is slowly pulling ahead. I see Laz and Carl. They are in good spirits, and they suggest that Josh and I keep our relative positions to the finish with me trying to catch him over the next 215 miles or so. I tell them that they should go back and talk to him some more and delay him so that I can catch him now. I meet Joe Ninke, who is in their car. We shake hands and I tell him I thought he was going to win. He is very nice and gracious. Afterward, I think I should have been more politic about his troubles. I feel bad. He has no way of knowing how much I respect him and his abilities. I move along.
Josh’s wife drives up and introduces herself and wishes me well. She seems very nice. A friendly face can buoy your spirits. Within the next half hour I pass Josh as he is stopped with his crew tending to his feet. I can empathize. I try to keep a steady walk/shuffle. If I stop for even a few seconds, starting feels like walking on hot coals. I have to beat down the foot pain all over again.
I have to go through a long construction site with dump trucks and heavy equipment. There is dirt on the road and narrow shoulder and the road is chewed up and this adds to the foot pain. I come up on Fred Davis. He is not feeling good and is moving really slowly. I try to encourage him and gently suggest he might want to stop at a motel and take a break to recharge. He tells me that he never does that. At about 2:30 we are a mile outside of Parsons. I run that last mile to get to the hotel in time so Jake can leave with Karen.
I hug and kiss Karen. I am hot and tired and feel like crying as she leaves with Jake. My emotions are raw and close to the surface. I try to rest, but sleep in the middle of the afternoon is tough. Soon Jake is back. He’s tired and wants to rest a bit. Finally, at about 9:00, we are back on the road, heading for Linden.
The First Night Session
This is still part of day three, but it feels like a new day because of the rest stop. It’s my fourth running session as the days and nights start to mix and blur. We are at mile 108. We head off past some roadhouses filled with cars and pickups on Saturday night. I cross the Tennessee River for the first time on a long bridge with a good wide shoulder. The moon is just past full, and it’s a nice evening, though still pretty hot. On the other side of the river, the road is narrower, the shoulder one of those twelve inchers, with the rumble strip built into the shoulder. Tough going, but little traffic. I hear a lot of barking dogs and have the pepper spray right in my hand, but no dog rushes me.
In the wee hours, we come into Linden (mile 125), and we are moving right through—destination Howenwald. In Linden, I see a runner on the road ahead. At first I think it might be Naresh. It’s someone tall and thin. It turns out to be Joe Judd. He has just left his hotel and started on the road. We walk some more miles together. At about 7:30 a.m., I again have to crap on a quiet stretch of road. (Somehow, I’ve lost all culture and am now a caveman.) We are almost up to my crew car and I ask Joe if he can send Jake back with some paper towels. Joe continues on and I can’t catch up. He cruises into Howenwald and I limp in, literally. I go slower and slower as I become depleted in the hot morning air. The last 6 miles take about 4 hours.
On the way in to Howenwald, I get annoyed at Jake—tireless crew, helping his father. He has a habit of lying to me to make the next stretch of road seem better than it is. We climb the hill 6 miles outside of Howenwald. He tells me it’s all downhill after the climb and that it’s close. Not true. It’s 6 miles and rolling. I explain to him, probably not as gently as I should, that I need accurate descriptions because I am counting on them for every stretch of road. It’s deflating to expect something and get something else.
Coming into Howenwald, I see a Rottweiler mix dog, big and muscular, cross the road and hide in the ditch on the left. I am concerned. He turns out to be really friendly and he follows me all the way into town. Jake gives him a bowl of water along the way. Later, he rolls in some stagnant water in a roadside ditch and smells awful, even at a distance. Juli Aistars stops by to talk a bit and raise our spirits as does another very nice woman. The dog is about to jump in Juli’s open car door when her husband, Val, closes it. The smell would never have come out of that car.
Finally we’re at the motel in the early afternoon (mile 144). The plan is another rest and another all-nighter. I send Jake for ice and food while I rest in the room. I hear moaning at the door. It’s the smelly dog. I hear Jake pull up, and the motel owner asking him with an Indian accent: “Did you arrive with a dog, sir?” Jake tried to explain that we were from out of state and most certainly did not own that dog. I could just picture that dog stinking up the outside of the motel.
Before I try to nap, I put my burning painful feet in an ice bath and put icy cold wash cloths on my shins and knees. I moan so loud I’m afraid that the management will think someone is being murdered.
The Second Night Session
That night, Sunday night, at about 9:30 we started the fifth running session. We are headed to Columbia. The motel in Columbia is on the other side of town, at about the 180 mile mark.
My feet are killing me. I just can’t get a rhythm going. I keep stopping in the car and putting my feet up or changing socks. The miles are passing really slowly. At one point in the night Jake and I sit in the car and talk about his career and business aspirations for about an hour. It’s a great talk; I wouldn’t trade the time for an hour walking down the road, but I need to move on. I’m in the middle of a race. I cut a hole about 2 inches in diameter in my right shoe insole to take pressure off the foot pad blister. It seems to help a little, but the going is still slow, with many breaks. Later, I see Josh pass by on the other side of the road. I see him break in to a run. I get out of the car and trudge on. This is the worst night. I make maybe a mile an hour with all the stopping. At another point, Jake and I talk about the real possibility that I might not finish this race. I can barely walk this night. The feet are so blistered by this time and the foot pad blisters feel like they are on fire. I’m winding down and in a bad place mentally about my chances. I know from other long races that these periods pass, but I have trouble envisioning going another 165 miles on these feet. I am very aware of the blisters on the foot pads, both little toes, the ball of the left foot, the insides of both heels, the outside of the left heel, and the back of the right heel. I push the pain away; I keep walking.
Toward dawn, Jake is wiped. I’m getting a little energy from seeing the brightening sky. I come up on the car and Jake is sleeping. I bang on the window several times and he stirs. I tell him I’m moving on and he should go ahead and meet me in two miles. He nods through the window. I move on. My left foot is starting to get numb under the foot pad; the right is still killing, but I can move better. I go a mile and then another. The crew car never passes. I keep going and don’t see Jake. We are in a low area of several creeks with small ridges on both sides. There are a lot of dead box turtles here. I observe that when shell is hit apparently the front of the turtle still crawls to the side of the road.
I also notice the exposed ledge at the edge of the highway. You can see the close horizontal lines of the sedimentary rock. I remember as a child looking for fossils in areas like these. I pick up a few pieces to bring home to the kids. I also pick up a small piece of turtle shell and armadillo shell. Yes, I am picking up pieces of road kill to show my kids.
I try to speed up a little to get as far from Jake as possible before he wakes up and comes after me. This energizes me ever so slightly. Finally he appears, apologetic and a little worried that he has not been attentive. It has only been about an hour and a half; I made maybe 4 miles in that time. We are both a little ragged and decide that we will get at least to the halfway point, 157 miles and then drive into Columbia and get lunch. I think I may drop out if my feet don’t feel any better. I am starting to feel liberated at the thought of getting off this road and flying home to my family. We go to about mile 158 and mark the road with duct tape. In the deepest recesses of my mind, I have to admit that my feet were starting to hurt less and that I moved better when I let go of the mental burden of thinking of the miles ahead. Thinking I might quit after a few more miles made those miles easier—something to contemplate.
We drive into Columbia. It’s Monday about noon time. I call my wife and tell her maybe I should drop; my feet are making it too tough to walk at any decent pace. It’s just not working. I could be home by tonight. She asks if I will be very disappointed about dropping. I reply not now but eventually, yes. She asks if I would feel it necessary to come back to conquer this. I admit that I very well might. She asks if I really want to go through the first half again. I reply, no I don’t. She reminds me that we have put a lot into this; training, expense, turning our lives upside down getting the help of others with the kids. She advises that we go to the motel, get a room and relax till dinner time and then get back on the road. We will probably feel better with more food and rest. She makes it clear that the best way out of this race is through it, not dropping out of it. I value her advice; she’s thinking clearly, not like us, the two scuzzy road warriors.
Monday Evening Session
We follow her advice, get some lunch and check into the Richland Inn on the far edge of town. We rest and then drive back to the tape at about 5:30 p.m. It’s over 20 miles back up the course. We pass John, Fred, Lynnor and Erika around Hampshire. I’m starting a mile or two behind them. Jake later tells me that Paul was in the store in Hampshire and that I should catch up to them that evening. I like the thought of walking with others, but I’m a little disappointed that I have now put myself back another half day. I was solidly ahead and am now with these five. I catch up to Lynnor and Erika and Fred. We walk along for awhile. Lynnor and Fred are talking religion, not my subject. I talk to Erika for awhile. She seems really strong 160 miles into this race. She walks fast. We all do. She is excited at the prospect of completing this race at age 19. I see no reason why she wouldn’t finish. I think Jake likes Erika. He is taking a lot of photos of the race. He takes a lot of Erika.
Fred drops back and I talk with Lynnor for awhile. She is proud of Erika, as Erika is of her. They draw strength from each other. As ultrarunners are prone to do, Lynnor and I have some no barriers conversations, about life and family and raising children. I walk a little with Paul as well. He started 14 hours late and is doing great. We talk about a lot of things. He is uncrewed; all the people around me are. Paul has a big pack. He seems very strong. We head into Columbia.
At the near end of town, there is a convenience store. Paul and Erika and Lynnor stop. I forge on thinking of the motel, and the luxury of being crewed and not having to hit every convenience store for food or water. But it’s still about 5 miles more. At the edge of downtown, Erika, Lynnor and Paul catch up, and we walk through the city. The directions send us through a sketchy area of town, through a dark neighborhood parallel to the main road. A police car pulls up, and the officer warns us to get to the main road. He says there are shootings and killings here on a regular basis. It’s near midnight. We move on and get to the stretch along the main road. The motel is about a mile up ahead. I am really happy to get there and feel like I’m back in the race. I need a good day tomorrow. I really need a good day tomorrow. I’m thinking Shelbyville, about 46 miles down the endless road.
Tuesday Day and Night
Having gotten back to the motel after midnight, I get a late start in the morning, hitting the road at about 9:00. The sun is already doing its thing, and the first five miles out of Columbia are shadeless, with a wide shoulder. While I am ambling down the road, Lynnor and Erika march up. I am delighted to turn a few more miles with team Matheney, but it doesn’t last long. We turn onto the Culleoka Highway and there is a convenience store the on right that caters to the runners. It even has signs welcoming Volstate runners, and it has the “bench of despair” outside. Erika wants to get some ice cream. She is beaming, saying that only one Volstate runner has dropped after the bench of despair. This is around mile 185, but she can feel the true prospect of finishing. She and Lynnor enter the store and I walk on, and sometimes run in a rumbling shuffle. I feel motivated today. The road is narrower and there is shade from the trees along the shoulder. I pass through Culleoka, which is a small village, and then see Laz. He is driving with his daughter Amy today. She is very nice. I tell Laz about my wife not letting me quit. He laughs and laughs. I tell him about my blisters and just dealing with them. He tells me a story of a prominent ultralister (unnamed here), who asked him how you keep going on blisters. Laz imitated the questioner’s stiff-legged heels only walk while telling. He said, “So I told him you just do it.” He laughs some more.
Laz and Amy move on and I head on toward Lewisburg. And I think that is the solution. You just do it; you deal with the pain and work to overcome it. Today, so far, it’s working and I am pushing it. I head into Lewisburg, and it’s hot and there is more road construction. In places I can run/walk on the new areas of pavement not yet open to traffic, but in other places, I am dodging cars around construction barrels. It’s about 4:30 in the afternoon and there is traffic and it’s a tough stretch. Finally I get into town and really there’s not much there; downtown is deserted, except one young man listening to a discman, a relic of the 90’s. I move on to the highway connection on the outskirts of town, and Jake and I go have some dinner: more Subway. We’re a little past 200 miles now. I take about an hour in the car to gather myself for the evening session, another haul, to Shelbyville, about 23 more miles down the road.
Just as I am getting out of the car to start on to Shelbyville, I see Lynnor and Erika walk up the road. I ask them if they are heading on to Shelbyville and Lynnor says no. They need to eat and rest. I wish them well and start on again. I don’t see them again.
Just a few miles out of Lewisburg in the deepening twilight, about 200 yards in front of me there is a heavy car crash in which a compact car rear ends a tractor with some kind of trailer on the back. The car ends up in the ditch with airbags deployed. As I run up, an older guy exits the car and staggers out of the ditch. His car is smoking. A guy who lives across the street comes running over and assumes control, directing traffic around the debris. I pick up pieces of car and put them on the side of the road out of the way of passing cars, and then I move on. A minute later I see a police car speeding to the accident site.
I turn right on Route 64 and move on toward Shelbyville. This day (night now) is going relatively well, and I know if I can just hold on to the energy, I will have gained back some miles. I am passing through walking horse country and in the gloom I can see big barns and lots of white-fenced pasture. There are dogs out here. I am running with a handheld in one hand and the pepper spray in the other. Several times I rouse dogs that come from a long way off and come right out into the road barking and chasing me. I turn and yell at them, and none try to rush or bite me. At one point I’m yelling “No!” at a pit bull, and a voice from a house set back about 50 feet says, “No, Angel, come home now.” Angel, right. So I say, “Go home, Angel.” Angel eventually tires of chasing and barking.
At another point my headlamp picks up a pair of eyes in the road ahead and I think it’s a dog and I yell “No!” and the eyes pause and bolt away, but in a loping manner. It was a deer in the road.
I eventually head in to Shelbyville. As usual, Jake misleads me as to the distance and makes it seem shorter than it is. I am running out of energy and barely walking at this point. The last two miles take at least an hour, even though I know we’re so close. Finally I get to the turnoff to the highway. I’m wiped and it’s about 3 a.m., but we made 46 miles today, and I’m optimistic. We check into the Best Western, which is the nicest motel we stay at the entire trip.
After an ice soak for the feet and legs and some rest, it’s late. I am not going to be out the door early.
We’re moving slow after a long Tuesday, and Jake goes down to load the car. He comes back with a note from Joe Judd that we should call him before leaving. Joe is at the same motel. Joe and I agree that we will move along together and Jake will crew us both. I tell him that I can offer him anything I have and a crew and I can give him a ride to Nashville airport Friday afternoon, because that’s when we are going back. He has his doubts about that schedule, but he accepts.
We move on toward Wartrace, but we get a late start, nearly 11:00. We see Laz’s wife Sandra and then we see Laz. Then, right in Wartrace we run into Stu and Marv. They both started solo and then tried to relay, but have now dropped. It is great talking to them and they give us each a Coke. Stu tells us he likes to drink Coke mixed with milk. We have ours straight, but Jake later tells me that Coke and milk go great together. When the roadside visit is over we move on through Wartrace through the heat of midday. The sun is baking us as we head through rolling hills of farm country. We are a little wilted and we make terrible time through the afternoon. I enjoy Joe’s company and we talk easily of our lives and adventures. The miles tick by but not fast enough. I think that we both need more calories, but we are way out in the country. Joe eats a few cookies from the motel in Shelbyville and some of the food in the crew car, but it is not enough.
We are coming into Manchester and it’s about 10 at night or so. We are about 3 miles from the cluster of motels on the far side of town. Jake is waiting at a closed convenience store. Joe is done for the day. He suggests we mark our progress here and come back on Thursday to start from here. I am thinking we should run for the rock on Thursday and these three miles might blow that plan up. I say I’m going to walk it in to Manchester. He and Jake take off in the car to get food and check in to a motel. I go as fast as I can into town, trying to gather the last energy of the day to make the motel. Eventually, I see Jake on the sidewalk ahead and he directs me to the motel. We are all bunking together. Joe makes a tentative plan to rise early and have Jake drop him back at the convenience store so he can meet me up here no later than 7:00. That should leave us time to put some good distance in on Thursday.
I take off the foot tape. I have about 15 blisters now, some in clusters and at various depths, some regular, some blood blisters. For the last two days, my second toe on the right foot has been swollen about twice normal size. Tonight I notice the left foot is the same. The foot pad blisters now have companion blood blisters and blisters coming up in the skin between the big and second toes of both feet. The feet also feel as if the bones are being pried apart. I also notice that my legs are swollen, and the skin swells out above and below the compression sleeves on my calves. I try to be quieter during the ice bath so as not to disturb Joe.
Then I take a shower to strip off the road grime and all of a sudden I am sobbing in the shower. I am getting to the end of my strength and composure. I keep it quiet: no need to share this with a fellow competitor and my son. I get back to my bed and email Karen from my phone. I tell her that I am wiped and I know this is just too much for me and us, that I miss her and the kids terribly and can’t wait to get home, and that I am going to stick with less dislocating events in the future. I use email because I don’t want Jake to find this when he texts Carl from my phone with the daily progress.
I lie in bed and think, “I’ve got to finish this. I am running out of energy; I am running out of sanity.” At about 5 a.m., I ask Joe in the next bed if he’s going to get up and head back to his point so we can put in some good miles today. He tells me he thinks he is done. I am surprised, but I shouldn’t be. He has been thinking of dropping for two days. My crewing solution really worked more for me than for him. I ask him about 10 times in the next 2 hours if he might reconsider. He’s a friend and I know, I really know now, how this race depletes you and leaves you ragged. I think maybe if he just gets out there he can do it. But in the end, he is done, and we offer to get him to the bus station where he can get to Nashville and get a flight to Denver. It’s kind of sad that our alternate plan lasted less than 24 hours, but we both have things to do. We shake hands and wish each other well, and I head back to the road.
Thursday into Friday
My plan is to go to the end, with only short rests in the car. This is an ambitious plan; I am about 100k from the finish. I haven’t covered that in any 24 hour period.
As I start the day’s run, I take stock. The feet are bad, but I can master them for a few hours at a time. The legs are okay. My spirits are up and down, but the prospect of a run to the finish is intoxicating. I move along and see John P. at a convenience store. He waves as I pass. A few minutes later he shuffles up to me and we cover some miles together. It’s pleasant and we talk about our running history. I know nothing of John’s life, but I know his mileage from the late 80’s; with some people it’s just the opposite. I have no idea how much Lynnor trains, but I know some of the subdivision regulations of the Woodlands.
John has a Garmin and can tell me our pace, which is interesting to note. We’re walking, doing about 19:00 minute miles for the most part. We have been on the road for a week; I’m fine with this pace. We are getting closer to the mountain. After Pelham, we will climb for three miles to the plateau. Then we will go through Monteagle and Tracy City and then down the other side. Laz has said that the steep downhill at mile 290 something hurts. John tells me he plans a break at the motel in Monteagle and then a midnight start for the rock from about mile 275.
A thunderstorm is building at the near edge of the mountain. Thunder starts to rumble. We’re going to get some rain today.
A man in a pickup truck swings onto the shoulder to talk to us. He tells us he heard we are in a race and it’s hot and he has a bottle of Power Ade for each of us. I thank him sincerely and take mine. John declines; he’s completely self-sufficient. We run into Laz. We move on and John stops for lunch in a little restaurant. I move ahead as far as I can before the skies open up. The rain would be refreshing, but with the condition of my feet I don’t want wet shoes and socks, so I ride out the storm in the crew car on the shoulder. While it rains, I see John and then Paul walk by. I talk briefly to both. At first John doesn’t recognize me in the car. We are all a little fried by this point. Before I get out, I try to eat as much as I can so I have a surplus of energy for the afternoon activity.
As the storm slows to a drizzle, I get back to it. Soon I’m climbing the mountain. I know it’s 3 miles, and I put my effort into it, getting to Monteagle in just about an hour from the bottom. I replenish my water and get some snack food and send Jake for food, while I head toward Tracy City. I have been to Monteagle and I spent 4 summers as a child in Sewanee, just about 6 miles to the west. Having never been back there since 1965, I would love to just drive through Sewanee again, but I’m in a race and the course goes the other way.
On I go down a windy road with no shoulder. Soon a police officer pulls up and asks me how I’m doing, but it really comes out like, what the hell am I doing. I explain that I’m not just some scraggly staggering homeless meth head. I’m a scraggly staggering journey runner and racer, having come over 275 miles from Kentucky and heading 35 more miles to Georgia. He is hardly satisfied. He says he has reports of some crazy person running in the road and creating a traffic hazard. I apologize and do my best to seem lucid. He asks me to please stay on the shoulder at all times (the shoulder here is about 8 inches wide and is all rumble strip). I say okay and he lets me go. I have a copy of my license in my shorts, but he never asks for id. He does pass me about three more times before I get out of town.
During this time, I am shuffling from Monteagle to Tracy City and waiting for Jake to return with food. He takes over an hour, and I start to think that he is lost. Then I am convinced that he is lost. I consider my options and think I will try to finish with what I have. I take inventory—4 mint Oreos, one Ziplock with some Fritos, a baggie with two Tums and one S-cap, 4 dollars and some change I have picked up on the highway. I think, if I have to I can make it with this and look for Jake later. You get crazy after a week on the road.
Then the white Dodge Journey shows up, and all is well. I tell Jake about my fears and inventory. He thinks it’s funny and that it sounds like the scene from “The Jerk” when Steve Martin is leaving home. “All I need is these 4 Oreos, and these Fritos, and this S-cap . . . .”
I move on to Tracy City in the evening. This is a depressed town. Dead. I see an older man at a table outside a closed bakery. He motions me over and we talk a few minutes. He finds out what I am doing and says he would like to do something like that and that he used to walk a lot but the leg has been acting up. He has to be about 80. I encourage him to keep walking; you never know.
Later as I’m leaving town a little sub-compact passes me two or three times. Finally it stops near the entrance to a dirt road and the driver motions me over. He is about 75 and he is driving with a teenager in the passenger seat. We talk about the race and what I’m doing. The man tells me a story about how he used to have a repair shop. He put a small room in the back where he could sleep if he needed to. Years ago a man from out of town had his car break down and the man let him sleep there while he was fixing it. This was a roundabout way of his offering a place to stay if I needed it tonight. I thanked him and said that it was a very generous offer but I had to get to Castle Rock Georgia by the morning so I would have to be on my way overnight. He wished me well and warned me about traffic on the road down to Jasper.
I continued on and it got dark. I knew that the road down the mountain was coming up, but there is a lot of flat road after Tracy City before it plunges down to Jasper.
At some point shortly before midnight the race changes. Jake reads an update from Laz that says that there is a 4 or 5 way competition for 6th place. Paul, Sal, Josh and I are within a few miles of each other heading to Jasper, and John Price is in Monteagle resting before his run for the rock. Jake is excited. He says let’s get 6th place. I say to him that I’m really mostly competitive with myself and my goal that has propelled me through this day is to finish in less than 8 days. But . . . it is a race, and if he thinks we should really compete for 6th place, I’m with him. No long rests to the finish, pushing it as much as possible the rest of the way.
For the first time, I reach down inside myself and I consciously summon the strength to push the pace. I do not want to save anything at this point. I tell Jake I am summoning. He thinks it sounds like the occult, but it’s really about drawing out my reserves. I think of finishing this race and getting back home. I think of my wife and how much I miss her. I think of how great it will feel to finish. I think of famous quotes about struggle and determination, like the one from Teddy Roosevelt. I even think about Aragorn’s speech from “The Return of the King.” “A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day.” I am about 24 miles from the finish. I am ready to run, to leave it all on these roads.
We move ahead and I start down the mountain toward Jasper. My legs feel great (not my feet, but I’m managing that pain) and I run the whole way down. I know Paul and Sal are in front of me and Josh is close behind. About 2/3 of the way down, I pass Sal. He is moving in obvious pain walking gingerly. We exchange pleasantries and I run off ahead. Now that I’m being competitive, I don’t want him to think he has any chance of catching me, so I disappear as fast as possible around the next curve.
When I reach the bottom I keep running as long as possible and then shuffle as best I can. We turn right in Jasper at mile 296. I am getting tired again, and I try to eat to keep my energy level up. It’s past midnight. I keep the awareness that Paul is now ahead and Josh and Sal behind. I’m pushing to try to catch Paul. Jake sees him every time he moves ahead. We’re less than a mile apart; I envision overtaking him and trying to shuffle past him. I talk to a nice police officer in Kimball along the river. He is into the race and the tale of the four runners. At one point he tells me Josh is about a mile behind, Paul a half mile ahead.
The night wears on. Then Jake reports to me that Paul told him he was probably going to stop to rest. He tells me to keep pressing to stay ahead of Josh. I don’t want Josh to see me because it will charge him up. I think he’s faster than I am. I have to stay out of his line of sight. I manage to stay just out of sight, although I see his crew car a few times. The hours pass and then we’re past mile 300 and on the bridge over the Tennessee river, second crossing. It’s a big, beautiful, arching bridge and it’s empty. I think of peeing into the river, but realize that in my condition I could fall in over the low railing. Bad way to end the race. So I pee at the top of the span, right on the road, probably about the hundredth time I’ve peed on the road in this race. Then I shuffle on down the other side. The road through South Pittsburgh and the rest of Tennessee seems to take forever as the night grows stale. I see a snake on the road around 4 a.m. I step right over it. I think it’s about to become a dead snake, lying there in the road. The terrain is rolling up and down here.
Finally I turn right and start the climb up Sand Mountain, another 3 miles up. I’d like to say I ran it. That would be a lie. I walk it, but briskly. It is just starting to get light. All the traffic is coming down the mountain. I walk some of it on the right side of the road to avoid the cars. About halfway up I turn and see the Tennessee sign, and know I am in Alabama for the first time. On I go.
At the top of the hill for the first time in almost 8 days my stomach feels lousy. I ask Jake for an S-cap, and he has trouble locating the bottle. We’re both a little out of it. Eventually he does, and one cap calms my stomach right down. We see Donald, Don Winkley’s crew. He is driving back down the course to see where everyone is.
I turn left on the last road. Just a few miles to go. It is morning, but I am still chasing the sub-8 day finish. I see Abi; she has to go somewhere, but wishes me well and offers her house for a shower and nap.
Finally, there is the gate, and I enter the final stretch. It is actually marked with ribbons. I turn left into the corn field and try my best to keep a reasonable running pace on the soft, sandy soil. I am so anticipating the finish that this section seems to take a long time. Finally, I take the last turn and see a motley crew and makeshift camp with a few cars including my crew car parked there. I cruise into the finish and Carl helps me stop before plunging off the rock. I look for Jake. He has gone back to direct me and take pictures of me finishing and has taken a wrong turn in the cornfield. He arrives about 5 minutes later, very winded. We have a laugh at this. He gives me a bottle of champagne. We toast and I down a big glass. Then Jake finishes the bottle and takes a well-earned nap.
Official time 7 days, 23 hours, 42, minutes and 46 seconds: sixth place. The last 100k takes us one continuous stretch of 23 ½ hours. We manage to finish ahead of the others that were near us on the road last night. Jake is very satisfied at this. So am I, but I’m happier to get in under 8 days. I tell Naresh that we finished around the same time—7 days and something (he really beat me by just about a whole day). We laugh. Finishing feels great. I can turn off the motor.
I accept handshakes and hugs all around, and then Josh sprints in 25 minutes later, and I’m just another guy at the campsite. I sit around for awhile talking to Marv and Stu and Laz and Carl and Naresh and Donald and Don and Sherry. I congratulate Josh. I love everyone. It’s done.
After some talk and a few minutes of rest, I wake up Jake. We should get up to Nashville in time to turn in the rental by about 2:00. I give my cooler, bought at Walmart last week for the race, to Carl. I should have tried to give the campers some of the left-over food and stuff, but I’m too spaced out at this point. We say our thank-yous and goodbyes and drive off. We take the same wrong turn out of the cornfield that Jake took running to meet me, and we get the scenic tour on the way out. Then we’re at a car wash trying to make the Dodge presentable for return. It was brand new 9 days ago, with 6 miles on it. Now it has about 1,150 and is filthy. It smells like dirty running clothes (surprise). We wash and vacuum and toss some trash and pronounce it okay. Then we go to the airport where we cannot get an earlier flight and end up waiting (sleeping) for about 5 hours. Finally, at about 1 a.m., I slide into bed. My wife says sleepily, “Honey, you’re home.” I’m home.
So, I completed my fantasy race, a race I had romanticized with the help of Laz and others and felt compelled to do. There was a great risk of failure and I teetered on the brink of failure, but I did it. I’m pleased. And I haven’t supplanted it with something bigger and badder (really there aren’t that many races bigger or badder); it’s still my fantasy race. And I learned along the way that there is a limit to the amount I should ask of my family to let me do things like this. This race exceeded that limit; I was too long away from my wife and kids and business. So, I can scale back. I can concentrate on races we can drive to, that won’t be so dislocating to others. And I am so thankful to Karen and Jake and everyone who helped me and who had to listen to my growing obsession with this challenge.
Other than that, with the incredible difficulty, the romance of pushing down the road across this state in July, enduring the elements, the hardships, climbing and descending and climbing again, I thought I might have some epiphany, I might get a glimpse of some greater meaning of existence. I would like to be able to end this report with some pithy literary quote, like “I know myself and that is all.” I’d like to say I learned something profound out there.
And I did learn something, something simple. Probably something I already knew. I like to challenge myself to be a better version of myself as a runner. But it’s really more important to challenge myself to be a better version of myself as a person, a husband, a father.
But, come on, this is running. It’s a lark, a child’s sport. I do it just because I love it. It’s not opening up some deep inner meaning or showing me how to live my life. And to the extent that I should think that it will, that this race will cause the world or nature to whisper something impossibly profound in my ear as I struggle down the highways of Tennessee, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”
- Fred Murolo (2011 Vol State 500K Finisher)