First, this is a running race named after a walking horse.
The 2015 edition of the Strolling Jim 40 miler, a race that is actually 41.2 miles, was the 37th version. But then again if the distance isn’t accurate maybe this wasn’t the 37th. I guess we can believe it, I mean it’s not like the creator uses a fake name. If you haven’t run this one, you are missing out – missing out on an incredible experience and equally incredible pain. But its a good pain.
A Strolling Jim experience begins with camaraderie with ultra legends and ends with the same. The in between is where runners find out what they are made of. The course is brutal – and all road, this is as old school as races come.
My personal experience with this race includes multiple hours of running with ultra-personalities and hearing about their experiences in iconic races and other adventurous runs. I have been lucky to spend three plus hours each of the last two years running with Huntsville’s DeWayne Satterfield and Dink Taylor. Seeing that these guys have done great things in the ultra world for years, you can imagine the great yarns they can tell. As we ran the country roads in the early miles this year, Satterfield obviously had the Vol State 500K on his brain. When we would come to a viewpoint that held a long section of rolling terrain in front of us, DeWayne would spread his arms out to hold the scene and say with that perpetual smile of his, ‘this is exactly what Vol State is about.’ It’s great to see these guys get excited about these big events.
Around 15 or so miles into the race we passed a country church, I looked back. I did not turn into sand, but I did see the sign out front had the following verse/message on it: O Death, where is your sting (I Cor. 15:55). I pointed this out; DeWayne started singing O Brother Where Art Thou songs. Later on, in our own ways, we found out just where the sting was located.
In order to pass the time, because the early miles (1-26) are about passing the time until the racing or flailing begins, I asked Satterfield why Huntsville, AL has so many ultra runners. In fact, I asked a more pointed question – was there a person that got you guys into ultra running when everyone else was running 10k races? The answer was a gentleman named Phillip Parker. The cool thing about this sport is that every successful runner seems to have a person that they look up to and who taught them how to be the success they’ve become in the sport. Hearing this always reminds me to listen to those who have been doing this for a while to find out the good secrets and to talk to those who are new to our crazy group. Parker was that spark for Satterfield. To hear the admiration in his voice showed how special this man was. DeWayne has a Barkley Fun Run, a victory at Vol State, in fact victories for years and years at the ultra distances. DeWayne is a genuine, good human and for him to look up to another runner so admirably tells me a lot about Parker without needing to hear the stories. DeWayne told me of Parker running Vol State in the early years of the race, a tale that included Parker’s wife discovering on day two that she had an appointment back at home on the 4th day of the event. Parker did what any gentleman would do for his wife; he manned up and ran like a hundred and ten miles on day three to finish the race in time to make the appointment.
Parker would also answer the local’s question of ‘how far you going today?’ with ‘a couple dozen’. Classic.
Eventually, DeWayne and Brett Wilks took off from me. We were a couple dozen into the race. About a mile later, Dink passed me. Dink always passes me. Someday, maybe when I’m 50, I’ll get him back but it won’t be easy. Once the marathon is in the legs, Dink smells blood in those poor souls in front of him.
Last year at the marathon mark things got real for me. Luckily Joe Fejes (yes, that Joe Fejes) and I hooked up for the second half of the race, aka miles 28-41. Joe’s mental capacity to get through races is unparalleled; after all he is ‘6 Day Joe’. At mile 28 Joe told me exactly what we were going to do for the rest of the race. I did not question him. I just did what he said. Things worked out. This year there was no Joe – he’s in Hungary running for six days straight again. So it was me and my crew. Last year, my wife Sherrie handled the crew duties – that is when she made it to me. She got lost and couldn’t find me until I had made it about 25 miles into the race. I’m pretty easy when it comes to crewing, so I just adapted. This year though I had professional help.
When us Southerners say ‘Yong Kim’ it sounds like we are talking about an up and coming female rapper from Atlanta, but in reality Yong is a solid runner from Nolensville, TN. Yong had offered a few weeks back to crew me in this race. Yong has done some great races lately, especially the phenomenal effort he laid down at Savage Gulf marathon, where he was second overall with one of the fastest times ever on the difficult, technical course. Yong and I have also shared plenty of miles together and to say he is the most positive person I’ve run with will not shock anyone that knows him. So when he offered I took him up on it. Another good thing working in my favor was that Yong had witnessed first-hand some of my usual race stupidity. Like the time a few years ago when we ran Stump Jump together. It was the year that would become known by most of the entrants as the ‘Bee Year’. A hot day for sure and me not being one to consume a lot of fluids as I run, I thought the best choice for my water bottle would be one of those 6 oz Salomon soft flasks that fit in your palm. I was fine early, but once we hit Suck Creek Road the second time the light switch went off on me. I spent a few minutes trying to determine why the aid station worker was talking in Swahili. Eventually I came to my senses and realized that she was not the crazy one standing there.
Yong was solid all day, moving between crewing me full-time and a few others part-time. Next year I’m hoping that he jumps into the race as well.
As things deteriorated for me, Joshua Holmes was head hunting. Right as I entered ‘the walls’, Yong told me that Josh was very close and that I should work with him to the finish. We were in two totally different places at this point and Josh ended up running this critical section of the course strongly and got the sub 6 hour result for his effort. Very proud of him. Josh and I have shared some memorable miles, specifically at Badwater last year where I was on his crew. That week produced a lifetime of stories. Like the day after the race. We had stuck around for the finish festivities in Lone Pine and on the drive back to Los Angeles decided that we would celebrate the week with one last event – a soccer game between Manchester United and LA Galaxy. So we drove to Pasadena and looked for a parking spot around the Rose Bowl. Because we are cheap, we didn’t want to pay to park so we ended up in a residential area a few blocks from the stadium. None of us were completely sure if parking in this area was legal. After slow-rolling through the neighborhood like a bunch of combination creepers/terrorists, Josh pulled the big suburban full of runner and crew in front of a house and waffled with his decision to park there for a moment, then stated, “this is a rental, it’s not like anyone is going to know it’s my vehicle. I think we are OK here.” We all sat there a minute reassuring him it was fine. Then I remembered that we had not removed any of the five 3’x2’ race required signs from the vehicle. These signs had ‘Joshua Holmes’, ‘Run It Fast’, his race number – basically everything except his bank account on them. And that is why we are runners. Being a ninja or international spy requires more stealth and intelligence than we can produce. Just for the record we were a band consisting of one medical doctor, two attorneys, an accountant and a college student.
As I struggled through the 50K point that was marked on the road I looked at my watch to see how long it had taken. 4:18. Even though it was rough those last miles leading to the mark, my heat soaked brain was convincing me that a 4:18 50k is not terrible at all. Later that night as I thought about this I had to laugh. As I was feeling good about my 4:18, Scott Breeden had finished the race four minutes earlier. Everything is relative I suppose. Small victories, all that stuff. But Scott is a real talent and was doing this race on Barkley legs. I’d not be surprised if he doesn’t threaten the seemingly untouchable Strolling Jim course record in the coming years.
Those last ten miles were cruel and I made a joke of them. Mostly this race came down to me quitting on myself and that doesn’t sit well with me. I’ll have some unfinished business to motivate me next year. As I closed in on the finish and flippantly read Laz’s painted-on-the-road messages to the runners, like ‘only wimps walk here’ – walked, ‘big girls run this’ – walked, ‘only 5k to go, start your kick’ – walked, I was passed by a guy who ran right by me. And he kept running. Actually he had this Badwater shuffle going that was super effective. To stay close I would run a little harder and then settle into a walk. Basically it was the way a 9 year old runs a 5k. At this point I was crushing my ear drums with Rage Against the Machine tunes so that my walk was motivated. Yong had put ice into my water bottle so unbeknownst to me, I sounded like a jack hammer to everyone around me. Once we hit a mile and a half to go I decided I would run with this guy and see what his story is. I turned off my iPod as I caught up to him. His first words were, ‘I was wondering when you were going to catch me. I’ve been hearing your water bottle for a while now.’ Man, I bet that was annoying. Luckily he was a super nice guy and still talked to me. I told him that he must have been a Badwater runner at some point in his life because he had the Jerry West of Badwater shuffles going. He looked at me and said that he had won the first three. Tom Possert, I’m sorry for being a nuisance and an idiot.
Once I finished the race I got to see women’s winner Beth Meadows come in a few minutes later. (This is my way of letting the reader know that I beat all the women.) I had talked this race up to Beth who had just run Boston a couple weeks before. Beth is one of the super solid female runners from Nashville that performs very well in every race she enters. For winning Beth got this awesome trophy that is not dissimilar to the height of Clark Griswold’s Christmas tree. And Beth has Strolling Jim fever now. Something that you can’t get rid of – ask Dink who has done 29 Strolling Jims now.
Another year finished with the consumption of a big ole chicken leg under the tent in Wartrace. Many more stories were shared and fun had. But before that I sat down under the tent and Laz asked me if it was as easy as I expected. I answered that it was a rough day. He then made a reference to me doing the marathon. I guess I looked more like someone who had wrestled with a 6 hour marathon than a 6 hour 41 miler. I’m not sure what that says about me…