Saturday, July 20, 2013

2013 Last Annual Vol State 500K : Race Report

Celebrating a 314-mile finish with some fried chicken

....There were moments when I was quite literally brought to my knees and reduced to what I can only describe as a simple being, filled with immeasurable humility.

        A lot of people asked me what my goal was going into this year's Vol State 500k race.  Was I shooting for a course record, for a win, or just to make it to "the rock" still breathing.  In the back of my mind I had always sort of believed that the race could be completed in an unaided fashion in under 5 days, but I wouldn't necessarily say that was my goal.  The current record held by Dan Fox was about 5 days 3 hours. I knew Alan Abbs was going to be running this year, and from conversations we had at the Barkley, I knew he was shooting for a new course record.  I also knew pending a blowout on his part, it would be very hard to to beat a determined Abbs at any race.  So instead of fretting about it, I decided to make myself a list of ground rules before the race that I would stick to regardless of what anyone else in the race was doing. It was very important to me to try to enjoy everything the event had to offer, and not just burn through it with the one goal of trying to win.  If in the end, I were to come out on top, well...then even better!  The Vol State is one of those events that doesn't generally attract big name fast runners (although this year we did have US National Team Member Joe Fejes running a new course record for a crewed runner!).  Because of this, I knew I had a decent chance of placing well..BUT I still told myself that I would not be tempted to break or stray from my ground rules.  Besides Alan, I had no idea what other sort of talent might also be present at the race.  I have done enough ultras and more importantly, thru-hikes, to know what I can and can't do on long adventures...and what my body needs, and how it tells me when to ease up.   The bottom line is that 314 miles is a VERY long way, and to me, making it to that finish line with a slew of good stories, is what I was really hoping to get out of the entire endeavor.

So here were my ground rules that I wrote down before the race:

  • I am running this race just as much for the inner journey as for the outward journey.
  • It's more important to finish, than to place.
  • Don't do more than 85 miles in the first 24 hours.  Period!
  • Sleep at LEAST 1.5 hours every single night.  Regardless of how I'm feeling or what others are doing.  Don't try to pull off some crazy Barkley-style non-stop epic without sleep.  Who knows what sort of permanent damage staying awake for 5 straight days does to one's brain.
  • Allow myself to take necessary cat-naps if I'm unable to safely move forward.
  • Be conservative, yet assertive, but don't be tempted to push beyond my known capabilities based on any other runner's performance.
  • Take your trekking poles and what you want in your pack based on what you know from all of your hikes and ultras....regardless of how many other people say I "won't need that", or "that's extra unnecessary weight", or "to trim down", etc.
  • Take extra time to take good care of feet.  Take breaks to ice them, to elevate them, re-tape them, to pamper them....even if it means losing time/ground to other runners.  Take what I learned at the 72-hour event and apply it here.  I should be able to come away with no feet issues other than swelling.
  • Most importantly:  DONT RUSH.  Take time to enjoy the ambiance, the small towns, and the amazing food of rural Tennessee.  If I want a good pizza from a famous pizza shop, it's ok to wait the 30 minutes for the pizza to be made.   Enjoy a home-cooked southern breakfast if you can, and don't simply eat on the run.  As cliche' as it sounds, stop to "smell the roses" a bit and truly "breathe in" the experience.
There were a few times during the second day and into the third when I was incredibly tempted to step-it-up and break my ground rules in order to try to catch up to Alan.  I remember being in small stores buying sodas, and having the owners tell me, "Oh you just missed a nice gentleman from California in here an hour ago".  By the third day, I was glad that I fought off that temptation, and happily eased into a wonderfully-smooth pace.  When the 12-hour check-in sheets were posted I would check on my status and I noticed that Alan was slowly pulling away from me.  My attitude by the third day shifted to one of excitement for Alan, and I basically began mentally cheering him on to just break the record by as much as he could.  I knew that I was enjoying my experience too much to ever try to catch up to him, so why not root for him?  While I was in a sense cheering for Alan, by that third day, my thoughts of him in front of me actually became quite distant.  I would think of it when the updates came out, but during the other 23 hours of the day, I was simply content soaking in my own experience, and taking mental notes of the wonders I was living through.  I basically moved through the entire course alone with only myself to keep me company.  This gave me an enormous amount of time to think about many things and to do a little soul cleaning.  I had some incredible highs, and some gut-wrenching lows during my time on the course...and I wouldn't trade any of it. 

I remember standing with Carl (race director) the day before the race started and hearing him say, "This race is just so guys have no idea".  This is coming from Carl, a 4-looper at Barkley.  And he was right.  What I learned over my several days on the the Vol State course, is that it IS ridiculously hard. Not Barkley-hard, but a different type of hard...and just as difficult in its own way.  The experience will take your soul, pull it out of your body, reduce it to its simplest form, and then put it back in.  There were moments when I was quite literally brought to my knees and reduced to what I can only describe as a simple being, filled with immeasurable humility.  I have the utmost admiration and respect for anyone that finishes this event, regardless of time or placing.

I drove down to Kimball Tennessee on the Tuesday before the race in order to make to town in time for the first of two "Last Suppers".  We all enjoyed some less-than-stellar chinese buffet food before retiring for the night at the Super 8.

Laz and the group at the first "Last Supper"

The following day, we all drove our cars to the finish area near Castle Rock, and boarded a chartered bus for the long drive to the start.  I chose to ride with Carl in his car for a little more stretch space.  Both Alan and Joel also rode with us for the 300 mile jaunt to Union City, TN.  We drove along the actual course the entire way, and even stopped at the infamous "Bench of Despair" cafe' for lunch.  We all heard stories about how when we were actually at the bench at mile 186, the name would in fact be quite fitting.  It wasn't hard to imagine how I was going to feel knowing how I felt at mile 186 back at my 72-hour event in May.  "Despair" seems fairly apropos.  

Lunch at the bench of despair

Once in Union City, things went fairly smoothly.  I stopped and bought a few last minute things at Walmart and then tried to get an early night sleep.  I was sharing a room with Brad and Alan...and we all enjoyed a nice Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (courtesy of Alan) and chatted about the race a bit before calling it a night somewhat early.  It was a great way to wind down the last evening before starting the madness the next day.

Gathering at the ferry

At about 6:45, we all slowly made our way up onto the Hickman Ferry for the 7:00 am trip over to Dorena Landing, MO...and the start of the race.  Of course once on the other side, we would quite literally step right back on the ferry to head back.  This all went smoothly and you could tell that there were a lot of anxious runners in the group.  I tried as best I could to sit down and enjoy what would likely be my last nice relaxing rest time.

Getting on the Ferry with Laz

At some point around 7:35 AM CDT,  Gary Cantrell (aka Lazarus Lake), lit the cigarette on the Dorena Landing road, and we were back on the ferry officially on the clock.  A short 15 minutes later, the boat was back in Kentucky, and we began what would be over 314 miles of motion.

And so it began.  It was forecast to be a hot day, but with relatively moderate humidity levels.  I lathered on the sunscreen on the back of my neck (but not anywhere else - which came back to bite me later), and started jogging.  There we were, a lovely and cheerful line of over 40 runners.  It was the only time in the entire race when all relay, crewed, and uncrewed runners would be together.  We were one big happy Vol State family.  At the top of the first hill, just two miles into the race, Carl took photos of the runners...just so that we would all remember how "happy and cheerful" we were at that time.  Exiting Hickman, was a very long stretch of flat open highway into Tennessee and the next big town of Union City.  My goal was to run as much as possible to the TN border about 7 miles down the course, and then take a few short walk breaks.  I was hoping to make it in to Union City (Mile 15) in under 2.5 hours.  I chatted a lot with fellow runners along this stretch and was just hoping to knock out some easy early morning miles.  I knew this was going to be the best and most run-able I would feel likely for the entire race.  Crossing into Tennessee felt like the switch had been flipped and that there was no longer any turning back.  I was committed to the Volunteer State for good.

Looking back into Hickman at about mile 2

Mile 2 overlook picture.  I look so smiley and happy (and clean).

I arrived in Union City after a few hours and took a nice 15 minute break at the Subway eating a loaded veggie sub.  I refilled my water bladder, and went slow enough to enjoy my meal, but moved with a purpose.  Leaving Union City en route to Martin was going to be tough.  I was entering the hottest part of the day, and was not looking forward to the sun beating down on me.  Most of the stretch of road leaving town was very long and straight, with almost no discernible shoulder.  At mile 20, Laz and Carl were camped under a highway overpass to take our pictures again.  I rolled up to them at about 4 and a half hours total.

Rolling in at mile ~20

After what seemed to be several miserable hours, I was slowly entering the outskirts of Martin. I bee-lined for the first gas station, went inside, and cleaned up in the bathroom.  I splashed cold water on my fast, and just enjoyed the AC for a good 30 minutes while I sucked down a large ice-cold gatorade and some high-calorie snacks.  When I left town, I told myself to slow it down a bit.  I was pushing a bit hard, and the heat was getting to me.  I took it nice and easy on my way to Dresden, where I already told myself I was going to stop and order a pizza at the shop in town.  I figured 38 miles was a good place to stop and take a real long break for a full supper.  A few miles before town, I passed by Joshua Holmes, but had not seen a single other runner for hours.  I figured by this point I was in my own little pocket.  In Dresden, I popped into the pizza place and put in my order at about 4:30 pm.  I took almost 40 minutes total to get my pizza and wolf it down, but it was well worth it in my book.  I felt as though I were in a hiker town on another thru-hike, trying to satiate my thru-hiker appetite.  When I finally finished up, I left a nearly full box of breadsticks on the table for following runners to take advantage of.  I popped over to the gas station listed in the book to refill water, but it was no longer open.  I evaluated my water situation and decided I could make it to Gleason now that it was a little cooler out. As I was leaving town, I saw Joel Gat who had just made it in.  I told him about the breadsticks and he headed over to the shop to finish them up.  I'm glad to know they went to good use!  I put my head down, followed the orange arrows out of town and made my way towards Gleason.

The run into Gleason was fantastic.  I took it easy, and soaked in the late afternoon ambiance.  I ran through the road tunnel at about mile 40, and then continued along the nice country road to Gleason.  At my current pace, it was looking as though I'd get to town right at the 7:30 pm check-in.  Joshua was right back with me again as well.  I rolled into town, navigated the subtle twists and turns of the roads and found myself in the town square looking for a place to tank up.  Unfortunately everything was closed.  I walked over to a vending machine outside an auto mechanic shop, and bought two sodas.  I figured this was plenty of sugar and fluids to get me to McKenzie just 6 miles further down the road.  I left town quickly and started on my way towards McKenzie.  The temps were noticeably cooler.  It was also sometime around this stretch that I noticed the back of my legs were burnt to a crisp.  I had forgotten to put sunblock on my legs and arms and I knew there were going to be painful.  At this point, the sun was almost down, so I figured I'd just lather it on liberally the following day.  

I arrived in McKenzie right as it was getting dark out.  I stopped at the first open gas station and plopped down at one of their inside booths.  I simply loved how a lot of the gas stations in Tennessee had these booths to sit and eat at.  You just don't find booths in gas stations in PA.  I unloaded my pack, put on my night vest, got out my head lamp, and decided it was time to use the trekking poles.  I had told myself that once night fell, I was going to power-hike for several miles in order to work some different muscles, but also to give my running a break.  I figured I could still bust out over 3 miles/hour with just some strong power hiking, so why push it.  I justified it as almost a way to sort-of reward myself.  If I were to work hard all day with run-walking, then at night I could simply power-hike.  I enjoyed a somewhat long break at the gas station eating ice cream bars, candy, chips, and drinking plenty of water, before finally heading out.  Walking through McKenzie was almost eerie.  There were no cars out, the town had closed up and gone to bed for the night.  It was just me power-walking down the sidewalks making my way to the other end of town.

The next decision I made was critical to my aforementioned "ground rules".  Despite not being tired at all, I knew at my current pace I was going to likely approach 85-90 miles for my first 24-hours.  I decided to stick to my plan and take a short sleep break.  At about 1 am, I rolled into the Heritage Inn at mile 67 and got a room.  I told the clerk that I only needed it for about 1.5 hours and so she gave me a discount.  I quickly got to my room, cleaned up very briefly, hopped into bed and got my shoes off asap.  I let my feet air out, and I elevated them on the extra pillows.  I set three alarms for 1.5 hours and was sleeping fairly quickly.  Guess I was more tired than I thought.  I woke up in a panic thinking I'd slept through my alarms only to realize I had been sleeping for about 10 minutes.  I dropped down again, and woke up after about an hour realizing that I was likely not going to get any more decent I packed up and left.

For the next several hours during those earliest hours of the night, I plodded along with my trekking poles on the side of the divided highway.  This stretch had a significant shoulder, so I was able to turn off my headlamp, and just move along in my own little dark shell along the road.  There was enough moon and star light to see the white line, and there was just something magical about walking along in the darkness.  At about 5 am I came into an open gas station in Clarksburg, wolfed down a TERRIBLE sausage muffin sandwich, and had a bizarre conversation with a local about his lawn mower.  I left after a short break and made my way to Parkers Crossing.  I knew there was a McDonalds there and that on my current schedule I would likely hit it just before morning check-in.  This would put me at about 81 miles for the first 24 hours and I was absolutely content with this number, knowing that I did get in about an hour of sleep as well.  I rolled into the McDonalds at 7:00 am and wolfed down two glorious egg McMuffins and some coffee all while enjoying a nice morning break.  Right at 7:30 check-in, I texted in my status, and headed out to tackle the 10 miles to Lexington.   81 total miles for the day


Day two was tough.  At this point you're significantly committed to the race, but still so darn far away from even thinking about the finish.  I put the poles away, and began some early morning running.  I wanted to make it to Lexington as quickly as I could without going overboard.  For me Lexington marked a huge milestone as it was the town where you make the turn and start heading East towards the finish.  At some point during this 10 mile stretch I found myself running with Bruce for the first time.  I can't remember if he caught up to me, or I to him, but never-the-less we ran together for a few miles.  At one point we had a local dog follow us for over a mile.  I kept trying to shoo him back home, but I guess he just wanted to go for a run too.  By about 10:30 I was well within downtown Lexington and finally made that noteworthy turn onto highway 412.  Right at the turn is when I also saw Laz and Carl.  They were parked off to the side giving me some ol' hoots and hollers.  They took some pictures, we chatted for a bit, and I was off running again before I knew it.

Downtown Lexington - mile ~92

The stretch between Lexington and Parsons was one of the longest and most difficult of the entire race. It was brutally hot again, and there weren't too many notable milestones to use as checkpoints.  The miles went by slow and were hard-earned.  At one point I found myself stumbling into a tiny convenience store right at mile 100.  As I walked in, covered in sweat, I was greeted by 5 elderly folks all sitting in a circle chatting and gossiping about local news.  They all at once looked up at me with a rather bizarre expression and asked me, "are you another one of those walkers going to Chattanooga?"  I blurted out a quick yes and asked if they had any cold drinks.  I bought a few sodas and took a seat next to the AC.  They told me that a fine gentleman from California had just gone through about 90 minutes before dressed a lot like me.  I could only assume it was Alan.  That was about as close as I ever got to Alan the entire race.  This was also the point when I was most tempted to start pushing it hard to see if I could catch up to him.  I ultimately decided not to think about it and just keep doing what I was doing...thereby sticking to my ground rules.  As I looked around the small store, I noticed all of the boxed products on the shelves were at least 10 years old...and many from the 80's.  I can only imagine how long it had been since anyone really bought any of this stuff.

When I finally made it up to Parsons, I headed straight for the ice cream shop where I bought a large milk shake.  It was fantastic.  I meandered to the BP, stocked up on snacks and water, and headed out of town noting the sign saying it was 17 miles to Linden.  This was going to be a long evening I thought.  The road out of Parsons had very little shoulder, and I was often buzzed by cars whizzing round the winding turns.  It was nerve wracking and constant all the way down to the Tennessee River crossing.  On the other side of the bridge I popped into the gas station, the same one we stopped at as a group on the drive-through just a few days earlier, and stocked up yet again.  It was getting close to check in time and I wanted to be close to Linden before calling in.  I headed out and ran a good ways.  I  wanted to at least make it past the cemetery listed in the book at mile 116.  I ended up passing it sometime around 7:15 and so when I texted in my location 15 minutes later, I indicated I was at mile 117.  This put me at 36 miles since the morning check-in.  I was fairly happy with this number.  I pulled into a church at mile 120 and suited up with all of my night gear and again pulled out my trekking poles for my night hiking session.  It worked well the previous night, so I thought I'd give it another go.

I rolled into Linden after dark and took a long break at a gas station table in town at mile ~124.  I charged my phone for a while, checked the status update...noting Alan was 7 miles ahead of me, and the closest runners trailing me were about 7 miles behind.  I was in my own little pocket.  I filled up after a long break and decided to make my way towards Hohenwald.  I knew I wouldn't likely make it the entire way to the town before having to take my sleep break, but I noted a church about 11 miles up the road that made for a good destination.

I trekked my way out of town, hit the last gas station on the outskirts and turned down the highway headed towards Hohenwald.  I looked up at the sign and it stated "Hohenwald 17".  Ughhh.  This was going to be a looooong night indeed.  Thankfully, this road also had a decent shoulder and by this time of night, traffic was non-existant.  Something I had noticed now being on my 2nd night was that traffic essentially stops after about 11 at night on the back country roads.  The following 11 miles that I hiked from that gas station to the church outside of Hohenwald were some of the longest miles of my life...but yet also some of the most memorable.

I slowly trudged my way down the highway, trying to fight off what had become a very aggressive need for sleep.  My body was doing everything it could to convince me to stop and get some sleep.  I'd look at an open soft spot of grass and think, "well that looks just lovely, how about I just go over there for a few minutes and.....NO!  STOP!  GRRRR!"  I'd splash some water on my face and be good for another mile...only to have to fight that demon off over and over again just a few minutes later.  I just wanted to make it to that Church.  It was my only goal, and then I could reward myself with some sleep....but not until then.  It was ridiculously long and difficult night to get through.  I began doubting I'd ever be able to finish the race at all, let alone in decent time.  It was a incredible low point for me in the race.

The road was hauntingly lonely during these wee hours.  I was completely and utterly alone, and it felt like it.  Every once in a while there'd be a faint dog bark in the distance, or I'd walk by an old house dimly lit by a single porch light, but the road was almost entirely empty.  After about 6 miles, I became convinced that I was seeing things that I had already passed.  I was certain that I had turned around and was now walking back towards Linden.  I crossed over "Coon Creek" several times and kept thinking that I was going back-and-forth, even know I knew that wasn't possible.  I would fire up my GPS over and over again to check I was on the right track, and even though it read correctly every time, I was convinced I was going the wrong way.  I was having some serious mental battles.  It was only when the road began to climb around mile 9, that I finally believed I was headed into Hohenwald.  At the top of the climb I saw a sign that said "Hohenwald 6", and I was elated.  The Church was now in sight as well.  I had made it.  I went around the back side of the church, pulled out my tyvek sheet and space blanket, and crashed hard.  I set my alarms for 2 hours and I as I began to fall asleep I could hear the faint sound of about 4 dogs at a nearby house barking at my obvious presence.  I didn't care.  I had fought a ridiculous battle that night, and I had won.  I fell into sleep with a smile on my face knowing I was victorious.  I had battled off my overwhelming desire to sleep and made it to the church.  I never was able to get comfortable on the ground though, and slept terribly....but slept nonetheless.  It wasn't until the next day that I would come up with my "sleep-against-a-tree" maneuver that proved to be infinitely more comfortable for sleeping.  

After two hours of tossing and turning, I slowly got up to throbbing hips and sore legs.  I was also shivering quite violently.  I got dressed and began the long hobble into Hohenwald still wearing my mylar blanket.   After about 3 miles, I managed to wolf down a couple of gels and stagger into a gas station outside of town.  There, I bought a hot chocolate, and some snacks...just to get me in to downtown.  The sun was coming up and I was now much more awake as I strolled up and into the McDonalds in downtown Hohenwald.  

Sunrise on the third morning heading into Hohenwald

I sat for a long time drinking coffee, calling home, and eating whatever I could.  The difficult night had made me somewhat homesick and it was nice to call home.  It certainly lifted my spirits.  With a full belly, I left McD's, passed by Bruce's crew (who had apparently made it into Hohenwald just ahead of me), and texted in my status:  145 miles.  This put me at 28 miles through the night and 64 total for the day.  Still over the 62/day needed for a 5 day finish.


As hard as my 2nd night was, my third day would prove to be equally difficult.  As soon as I began jogging out of town I had myself convinced that I was feeling good.  This feeling was ridiculously ephemeral, and within 2 miles I was struggling to stay awake again.  I knew that I needed a cat nap.  I told myself I would drop down for a 30 minute nap as soon as I hit the Natchez Trace campground.  This seemed like a good mental milestone as it was roughly the halfway point of the course too.  I tipped my hat to Bruce who ran on past me and I detoured into the campground a few short miles later.  I found the nearest tree I could that offered some shade, propped my bag up at its base, and slept using at a pillow.  It proved to be incredibly comfortable and I ended up using this method several times during the rest of the race.  I slept for a good and solid 30 minutes and when I came to, I was in MUCH better shape.  I gathered myself and began a long slow climb up a highway that had major construction going on.  It was mentally difficult navigating this section and dealing with the lack of shoulders and presence of orange cones and barrels.  About half way up the climb I noticed a small cascading waterfall on the opposite side of the road, dropping down from a small cliff overhead.  I scampered over to it, tore my hat off and stood underneath it for several minutes letting my core temp drop.  It was glorious.  For the rest of the climb I was rejuvenated and once at the top, I began running the descent down the backside....and I ran it all.  I ran all three miles from the ridge top of the Hampshire Pike, right to the front door of Mack's Market.  When I got there, I sat at the counter, and ordered a large cheeseburger and shake.  When the burger came out and I took my first bite of it, I was convinced at that very moment that it was in fact the best goddam cheeseburger I had ever put into my my entire life.  It was righteously divine.   I thanked the lady behind the counter and walked outside to begin running again.  I noticed a line of Harley Davidson motorcycles and couldn't help but think of that scene from Pee Wee's big adventure when he knocks over the one bike and they all fall down like dominos.  I carefully stepped around them and began a slow jog out of town.  The stretch to Columbia would be long, but quite runable despite it being the hottest part of the day.  I maintained an even and steady pace of running/walking for the several hour stretch into Columbia and it went by surprisingly fast.  At one point along the stretch I was approached by a local with a cold bottle of water.  I graciously accepted it and drank it all down in one go.  It was cold, refreshing, and oh-so-needed at that moment.  It was my only true "trail-angel" moment on the run, but it was perfectly timed.

Arriving in Columbia proved to be rather anticlimatic.  I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I just didn't feel any sense of accomplishment getting there.  Truth was I was really feeling discouraged.  I weaved my way through town in a rather sour mood, and finally hit up a gas station as I was heading out of town.  I stocked up, ate what junk-food I could and texted in my status:  178 miles.  This meant I had done 33 on the day.  I wasn't particularly thrilled with that number, but it was, what it was.  I chalked up the lower number to my nap at Natchez Trace.  I geared up with my night gear and trekking poles, and as I left the gas station, I noticed large thunderstorm clouds forming over the highway that I was about to hike along.  This thought did not get me down though, as I knew I was just 5 miles away from the infamous "Bench of Despair".  Despite its name, I knew that it was a HUGE milestone.  I was incredibly excited to make it there, and I knew they had also left out water for us runners.  I had made the very ambitious goal of making it all the way to Lewisburg before sleeping.  I even called to book a room at a motel there.  Somehow on paper it seemed doable.  After a quick few miles on the highway out of Columbia, I turned off the exit at Glendale....and there it was!  The BENCH.  I had made it!  I finally felt like I had accomplished something that day and just as I set my trekking poles and bag down so that I could enjoy my ceremonious rest on the Bench of Despair, an SUV pulled up and stopped right next to me.  Out popped Abi Meadows and her son.  It was good to see some familiar faces, but I was honestly in a rather non-social and sour mood.  I felt bad that I wasn't more talkative, but I just kind of wanted to be alone at that point.  Still, I tried to be polite and exchange pleasantries.  She told me about some upcoming gas stations that may (or may not) still be open.  As I sat there on the bench, she whipped out a huge SLR camera and started snapping some pictures of me.  I remember sarcastically thinking, "oh I'm sure those pictures will come out cheery looking".  I went around the side of the cafe and found that the bathroom was left unlocked.  This was a very welcome surprise as I was able to clean up nicely.  I came out a few minutes later feeling much better and said some goodbyes to Abi and her son as I started the 5 miles down the dark country road to Culleoka.  I found myself in the 180's.  I remember vividly during my 72-hour event, the most difficult of all the miles to get through were the 180's.  They just wouldn't come.  It seemed it took an eternity to make it to 190.  Here during the Vol State it was no different.

Contemplating the bench's namesake

Arriving in Culleoka a little over an hour later was but a small milestone.  Everything in the "town" was closed. I bought a soda out of the vending machine and kept right on trucking.  From here, the enormity of trying to make it all the way to Lewisburg was setting in.  It was a very long 12 miles away and I was falling apart quickly.  I struggled to keep my eyes open as I hobbled down the completely empty highway.  Not a single vehicle passed me. and I leaned heavily on my poles to stay upright.  As I approached the small gas/service station in the tiny hamlet of Mooreville, I hit the lowest point of the entire race.  I was entirely defeated and there was no way I was making it to Lewisburg.  Out front of the station, I saw a wooden bench.  There was no fighting it off this time.  I gave in to the temptation, curled up in my Mylar blanket at mile 192 on the glorious bench and slept for a solid 2 hours uninterrupted.  

When I woke it was about 4 am and I slowly hobbled myself down the highway towards the I65 interstate crossing.  I had only a single poptart to fuel me the 8 miles to town, my water was low, and I was straight up miserable.  It was a very difficult trek into Lewisburg, and when I did finally make it in about 6 in the morning, nothing was yet open as it was a Sunday.  I sat down at the first gas station I came to, charged my phone for a bit, and tried to choreograph my next move.  I also pulled a nicely embedded tick off of myself.  Must have found me while napping on the bench.  I slowly got up and made my way through town.  Half-way through downtown, I passed an open laundromat.  I excitedly ran in when I saw the "OPEN" sign and shot straight to the vending machines.  I got two sodas, and a whole slew of junk food.  It was magnificent.  While I sat there alone in the laundromat, I also managed to catch some news on the TV...which was completely saturated with news on the Zimmerman verdict.  I left and made my way out of town.  A few minutes later, two young women out for a Sunday jog, passed by me lightly on their feet, and part of me just wanted to smack them.  If only they knew that I had been on my feet for 200+ miles now.  In truth I was just jealous and only wished I could still move like that.  

At the far end of town, I finally came to an open gas station.  I tanked up, fueled up a bit more, and finally decided it was time to ice the feet up for bit. I bought an entire bag, and just let my feet cool off for a while.  It was amazing how fast the swelling came down after just 15 minutes of icing. Just before leaving, I drank down two full chocolate milks (something that had become a ritual at pretty much every gas station now as well).  A few miles down the road I passed the motel that I never made it to, and just kept on walking.  At 7:30, I texted in my location:  204 miles.  This meant I only managed a paltry 26 miles through the night.  I was a bit disappointed, but it still gave me 59 for the day.  It ended up being my lowest mileage day of the entire race and also explained why Alan was able to go from about 8 miles up on me, to about 15 miles.  I knew I would never catch Alan at this point, and any temptation I had to try to catch back up to him were quelled.  In a sense, it was a blessing in disguise as I was now able to enjoy my journey purely for itself, and not based on how my performance compared to anybody else's.

Icing up the legs a bit

Icing the feet


Leaving Lewisburg I got hit with my first rain of the race.  I pulled out my double-ply garbage bag and wore it beautifully over myself and my pack.  It ended up working better than any poncho.  I slogged down the road to a closed White's Market in the rain still using my trekking poles and still just hiking.  I found that I was in desperate need of some real food.  Unfortunately the market was closed...and my chances weren't looking good elsewhere as it was a Sunday.

I ticked of a few more miles slowly, throwing in some jogging when I could and eventually hit a small gas station market outside the town of Wheel.  I walked in and there was a full on restaurant in the back!  They were doing a Sunday morning home-cooked meal.  My prayers had been answered.  For 6 bucks, I got a genuine chicken and biscuits Southern-style meal.  The kind you'd get at a Cracker Barrel, only not all fake and gross....the real thing.  It was magnificent and it filled me up with some much needed fire.  I drank a few gatorades and was out the door with a fire under my ass.  I ran all the way to the town of Shelbyville a good 8 miles down the road, and as I came into the town, immediately ran out of gas.  I felt myself starting to nod off again and desperately wanted to take a power nap.  As I came to the downtown center I noticed a small river park off the side of the road.  Perfect!  I ran down to the first shady tree I could find by the river.  I propped up my bag, set my alarms for 20 minutes, and was out in seconds.  Bruce's crew came by, saw me napping, and actually took a picture of me.  I had no idea until they sent me the picture after the race.

Napping in Shelbyville

After my short nap, I felt moderately refreshed and began my way through town.  I stopped at the BP and ate some ice cream bars, and drank a few mountain dews.  I figure I was due for some caffeine.  I was running with Bruce at this point and it was nice to actually have some company to chat with. When we hit the last gas station before heading out of town I made one last bathroom and cold water stop and watched as Bruce went on ahead without me.  

When I got back on the road to tackle the ~6 miles to Wartrace, I decided to finally listen to some music.  I put my iPhone on shuffle and a Coldplay song came on.  I don't know what it was about that song, but it became a catalyst, and something incredible happened next.

As the song began to play, I was filled with in unexplainable desire to run with it.  It had a perfect beat and for whatever reason I was simply overwhelmed by it all.  All at once, the enormity of what I was undertaking began to set in. I was 226 miles into this quest with less than 100 to go.  I felt the goosebumps coming on, and everything only become more intensified.  As I crested the a small hill I found myself so overcome by it all, that I dropped to my knees in tears.  I had been completely stripped down to nothing, my soul exposed, and I was able to experience that magic that I have only felt a few times in my life.  The same magic I felt on the Canadian border, the same magic I felt after finishing Leadville for the first time, the magic I felt on Katahdin...and the same magic I felt touching that 5th gate at the Barkley.  It was just too much to take in and I sat there on the side of the highway half laughing, half crying and so completely exposed.  I thought about all the things I've been lucky enough to take part in, I thought of those back home supporting me, and I thought of my dad.  For whatever reason, that Coldplay song started it all, and from that point on, it became my anthem for the race.  Any time I needed a boost, I would put that song on and it would fire me up as I would recall the feeling I had on the highway to Wartrace.  

Eventually I got up, gathered myself, and continued on...with the music still blasting.  Carl drove by at one point and and hopped out to cheer me on.  He seemed surprised I was still running so well.  Of course I didn't tell him that this was a rather new development brought on by some unexplainable music epiphany I had just had. meant I was running.  I was in and out of Wartrace quickly and off to tackle the LONG 20 miles into Manchester.  I had decided that making the 20 was a reasonable goal, and would put me in manchester around 1 am.  I could drop down for a short sleep, and still make good miles by 7:30 am check in.

So...I went out of Wartrace hard.  The very first thing I did upon exiting the town, was to miss the turn at Knob Creek Rd.  I followed the Strolling Jim arrows on the ground and went about a 3/4 of a mile up the road before I caught the mistake.  I was so pissed that I basically followed it up by running two 8-minute miles...which of course was a horrible mistake as just moments later I was hobbling over in pain from such a foolish undertaking.  Eventually I got my strength back and I began the long winding country hike by Laz's old house and through the farm lands on my way to Manchester.  It was a beautiful evening and when I texted in my numbers at 7:30 PM, I was pleased with a 34-mile day putting me at 238 total miles.

The miles went by slowly along Knob Creek and Model Roads, but eventually I made it to the Murfreesboro highway right as Bruce had again caught back up to me.  He went on ahead and I slogged my way along the endless highway miles.  It seemed that Manchester would never come and it was sometime in here that I also realized that the hotel I was shooting for was on the far side of town another 2 miles past Manchester Center.  Ugh.  After fighting off fatigue for hours I finally made it into downtown Manchester and I stopped at the first food place I came across: a Sonic.  It was a bit strange hitting the button at the car pull up and having the girl come out. She was genuinely confused by my presence there and by my lack of a car.  I tried to explain what I was doing, but she just looked at me weird and gave me my food.  I slowly ate the burger while hobbling the 2 miles down the road to my motel....a Motel 6.  I basically sleep-walked my way up to the check-in window, begged for a room as fast as possible, and stood there falling asleep in place as the attendant ran my credit card.  When he finally gave me the key, I bolted to the room, washed up quickly and immediately laid down.  I knew this was going to be my last room, and so I felt excited knowing that once I got up, it would be the last time I would have to deal with a full night again before finishing.  This thought brought me comfort as I fell asleep.  

I was only down for about 80 minutes before hopping back up and bolting out.  I bought a few quick snacks at the gas station and started off down the long straight highway to Pellham a long 14 miles away.  The small town of Hillsboro was right in the middle and gave me a short term goal to aim for.  I found this stretch to be incredibly difficult and the only thing that kept me motivated and on my feet was knowing that it was my last early morning I'd have to do this. I basically stumbled my way down the highway, again only seeing a couple of cars.  I couldn't wait for the sun to come up as I was desperately fighting to stay awake.  When I made it into Hillsboro, the small service station was actually open, so I was able to get a large coffee.  It tasted awful, but it had caffeine.  On the opposite side of the street was a closed auto mechanic shop with a long car bench seat out front.  I sooooo wanted to lay down in it, but fought of the temptation with every fiber in my being.  Instead I headed South along the endless flat highway.  Thankfully the sun was finally beginning to come up helping me to fight off the drowsiness a bit.  At one point I came across several police cars that had a section of the highway cornered off. I don't know what they were investigating, but they gave me some strange looks as I walked by at 6 in the morning sporting my trekking poles and an unlit headlamp.  I must have looked rather odd.  My goal was to make it into Pellham by morning check-in, and my clock ticked over at 7:30 right as I pulled up to a small breakfast cafe in town.  I walked in, ordered an enormous breakfast platter, coffee, and water, and sat down to send out some text messages.  The waitress told me that the meal would likely take a good 30 minutes to get ready and wanted to make sure I was willing to wait.  I thought about it for a second, and decided that I indeed would wait to enjoy a nice breakfast.  I had earned it, and I wanted to treat myself.  I thought back to my ground rules and had decided this was one of those "stop and smell the roses" moments. So I sat down and sent in my mileage update:  266 miles.  This meant I had done 28 over the night and had 62 on the day.  I was absolutely and completely content with this number.

And so would begin my last day.  I sat there on that outside picnic table enjoying every single bite, every last morsel of the wonderful breakfast prepared for me.  I drank several cups of coffee and breathed in the cool morning air.  It was going to be a good day.  I was going to make it to the rock.  I finally headed out, excited about the prospect of a tough climb up Monteagle.  I again put on some Coldplay, and ran the entire 4 miles up to the base of the climb.  It was a good morning, and I was completely alone again.  I wasn't sure if Bruce had passed me or not in the not, but there was no sign of him.

The climb up Monteagle was tough, but I chugged it out at a steady and even pace.  It felt good to push a bit and get my blood flowing on something other than a long straight section.  At the top, the road dumps out right at a CVS.  I went in and bought a mess of supplies.  I restocked on advil, bought another bag of ice for my feet, and bought some rolls of self-adhesive athletic tape for my thighs.  Over the course of the 4 days I had been running, I had acquired some significant chafe in the inside of my upper thighs.  I had been really good about applying sportslick lube, but all of the salt from my sweat was lingering in my short liners causing some serious blistering and chafing.  I decided to try to wrap my legs in some bandage to protect it from the rubbing.  This temporary solution did actually work, although it would not have lasted for more than a day or two.

After a decent break, I bolted out of town en route to Tracy City.  I was feeling good and ran the first mile or so.  Very quickly though I was overcome by another sleepy wave.  I hiked past the South Cumberland campground and saw a beautiful tree just calling my name.  I couldn't resist and dropped down for a glorious 20 minute power nap.  I realized then that this last day was going to be a tough slog.  When I got up I didn't feel very rested, but I pushed on to Tracy City regardless.  In town, I ordered a small pizza from the gas station restaurant and sat down at a small table to restock.  Bruce's crew came in and we chatted for a bit.  He had finally caught back up to me and was hoping to push hard to the finish.  I was really worried about the following section of the course. It would be a tough 17 miles of road, with no services along it.  I knew it was going to be a real test in trying to stay awake.  I figured once at the other end, I'd be in Jasper, and essentially back in Kimball.  From there, I could book my hotel room and simply haul it up to the rock on pure adrenaline.

I began the 17-mile stretch slowly, but steadily.  Gradually a few miles had ticked by.  I was entirely walking at this point...and had no juice for any sort of running.  Carl whizzed by at one point and got out to cheer me on.  I told him, "I'm in a crappy place right now man, but I'll keep moving".  He just smiled and told me to keep at it.    Somewhere about 4 miles into the stretch I began having some serious stomach aches.  I wasn't sure if it was the cruddy pizza I had eaten or just everything else catching up to me.  I ducked into the woods to make a bathroom pitstop, but it didn't really help.  For the next 5-6 miles I was at another one of my lowest points of the race.  I felt miserable, I was fighting to stay awake, and the end just wasn't in sight yet.  I called home for some motivation and it helped, but I was still feeling terrible.  Eventually about 9 miles in, I succumbed to the temptation of another nap.  I figured maybe if I took a few z's, my stomach would settle.  I didn't even try to be discrete about finding a hidden tree or grassy patch.  I plopped down right off the side of the road, probably in someones private property and was out in seconds.  About 20 minutes later when I woke to my alarm, I felt notably better.  I power hiked a few miles and before I knew it I was looking at a sign informing me that I was about to start a long downhill.  I checked my GPS and sure enough, the topo lines indicated I had a long 3-4 mile descent into Jasper.  I decided I was tired of walking and I wanted this thing to be over, so I ran it all.  I ran all 4 miles straight down into the downtown square of Jasper.  Somewhere along the descent it started raining on me, so I got a nice shower too.  I decided to bypass any sort of service in town, and instead head straight for Kimball where I would fuel up, check in to the Super 8, and set myself up for the final push.

Right as I walked in to the hotel lobby, I sent my text in that I was in Kimball, mile 300.  This had meant that I pulled of 34 miles since the morning.  Not bad considering how sleepy I was.  It was also right then, that Alan had made it to the rock a mere 14 miles ahead of me.  I sent Carl a text asking him to congratulate Alan for me.

I got my room all situated, and I cleaned up quickly in the sink.  I tanked up for the final time, emptied a few unnecessary things out of my pack, sent a text to Carl telling him I was on my way, and headed out for the finish.  I quickly burned the 2 miles over to the bridge where I made sure to stop and enjoy the view.  The evening had become incredibly humid...more so than at any other time during the race.  I was absolutely covered in sweat, and could not get cool.  I stood on the bridge, flipped my headlamp on, and tried to absorb whatever slight breeze I could...but it wasn't helping.  The five miles along the New Hope section were very quiet...and very humid.  I spent most of that time thinking back to all of the memories I had acquired over the 4 days.  I thought back to places I stopped at back on the first day, and people I ran with on the 2nd.  I thought about times when I was essentially sleep-walking, and other times when I was running hard.  I thought about my moment on the road to Wartrace when I was overcome with emotion, and I thought about hitting the low point just before Jasper.  I listened to the katydids and thought about how I was now less than 8 miles from the finish.  I passed a small "town park" in New Hope and thought that it would be a good place to nap, but not now.  I was on a mission.

When I got down to the reservoir, I turned to start the climb up Sand Mtn.  This would be the last climb, a tough 1.5 mile ascent up from the valley floor.  I began the slog...and it felt slow. Truth was, that I was pounding it out hard.  I just kept thinking that every step was one step closer to that rock.  At some point, Bruce and his crew drove past on their way back down from the top.  He had finished about 2 hours previous.  We exchanged congratulations, and just like that he was gone.  I pointed my head forward, rounded a corner and smiled as I crossed into Alabama.  

TN/AL border

When I rounded the last bend in the climb, I tried to get the attention of Carl and Laz across the gorge using my headlamp.  They had told me that you can actually see the road from the finish if you're looking.  I was so out of it, I didn't think to just send them a text.  I had turned my phone to airplane mode to conserve battery.  

After the climb topped out, I jogged my way around the loop to the final road turn-off onto Castle Rock Road.  I took a picture of the sign to mark the occasion, and then began running....

Last road turn of the course

And I never stopped.  I ran the 2 miles down the Castle Rock road, only stopping to take a single picture at the gate.  Then I continued right down the long driveway road to where my car was parked...still running hard.  I saw the orange arrows indicating the turn off into the cornfield and followed it...still running.  It was all starting to well up, and I was energized now.  I burned my way across the field and entered the woods on the other side, now just 1/2 mile from the finish.

Picture of the AL/GA gate at Castlerock

I was on trail!  Actual honest-to-god trail.  For the first time in 313 miles, I was trail running.  And then, I stepped my foot down on a muddy patch, and was airborne.  The 313 miles of pavement running had worn my soles down completely.  When I hit the mud, it was like ice and I flew into the air.  At some point while horizontal in the air I thought to myself, "this is the moment when I tear my ACL, or break my leg".   It could only be me that would so illustrate murphy's law, by making it 313.5 miles, just to break myself somehow within view of the finish.

I came down in the mud hard and was completely covered on my entire right side.  Whatever high I had been riding was instantly sapped and I was now caught in a wave of panic.  Was I alright?  Was anything broken?  I slowly stood up and a did a self evaluation?  Legs work, arms work, no immediate pain.  Ok...lets try walking......that seems to work.  I cautiously began walking forward making sure nothing was tweaked.  When I rounded the next corner I slowly began to jog again and very quickly came up on parked vehicles and the finish tent.  Both Laz and Carl looked at me and said, "John is that you?!  We weren't expecting you yet!  You flew up here from town!"  

Carl slowly directed me over towards the rock where I got down on my knees and kissed it.  He shouted to Laz, "NOW! and my time was recorded:  4 days, 16 hours, 19 minutes, 1 second.   I had finished 2nd place in the unaided "screwed" division behind Alan, and with the 2nd fastest time ever.  I had also beaten the previous course record by over 10 hours.

I sat down and traded stories with Carl and Laz for a good hour, all while drinking soda and eating fried chicken.  It felt good to be done.

This race had so completely stripped me down to my simple core over-and-over again.  I think in some way I can understand why people participate in the several thousand mile self-transcendance races.  Pushing yourself for so long really makes you see yourself for the simple being that you are, and experience your own existence in its purest form; much like my experiences on the AT, CT, and PCT.  I am forever grateful that I was able to take part in such an incredible event, and that I came away from it with such profound memories.  What a wonderful adventure it was...


Laz passed out at the Rock

Some quick stats/notes:

Here were my mileage splits.  I had actually finished about 8 hours before the 120 check-in, but splits were only marked at 12-hour intervals on the master spreadsheet.

Sleep:  I figured I slept for a total of about 7 hours over the course of the race, with 1-2 hour naps each night  After talking with Alan at the finish, I found out he slept for only about 1 and a half hours TOTAL over the entire race!  Crazy!  he truly is a monster hiker/runner.

Most common conversation with locals:
"Where you running to?"
"I'm running across Tennessee"
"What you doin' that for?"
"Uh...well it's this race..."
"I'm running for America!"
"Oh ok.  Good luck then"

Pack:  I used a golite 20L rush pack.  It worked out fairly well, but was probably a smidge too big.  Generally I'm not a fan of running in packs and prefer vests, but it did the job and I came away with no major problems because of it.  I would likely use it again if I were to run the race a 2nd time...although perhaps the 14L version.

Shoes:  I had a brand new pair of Hoka Bondi B2 Road Running shoes.  Needless to say, the tread had already started wearing off by 100 miles.  For shoes that are supposed to be good for 1000, I was a little disappointed at how fast the tread wore off.  Certainly they were still cushioned, but there's no way I'll be doing any trail running in these babies .

Worn heel

Worn forefoot

Socks:  I have had a recent epiphany when it comes to socks.  About a year ago, I switched from darn tough, over to drymax.  Since then, I have noticed an increase in toe blistering and the loss of toenails.  For this race, I wore a SINGLE pair of darn tough socks, and didn't have one issue with my feet.  Looking at my feet 12 hours after the race, you'd never even know I ran 314 miles on them.  I am a solid a firm believer in Darn Tough socks again, and will be switching back.  Sorry Drymax...just too many problems.  It should be noted that I also did a very good job with taping my feet for this race and pampering them whenever possible.

Otherwise, everything else went well.  I had no major blowouts or issues.  I opted for running in a sunhat during the day and that kept my head and neck cool.  I also went with my thin button-down shirt as it kept my nice and cool throughout the race.  That's pretty much it.


Unknown said...

Wow. Cool!
Sounds like you really felt it ;-)

I kept hoping you and Abbs would destroy each other on Sand Mountain, but that was just chat bs: I wouldn't really wish that scene on anyone.

Really a wonderful effort!

Feral Fox

Niklas said...

What a great report, thanks a lot for sharing. It really makes me want to do this sometime. Awesome performance by all of you Vol State runners.
Stay Great.

Brad Compton said...

John, great report! I marvel at how many miles of running you can put together. Enjoyed meeting you, sharing a room, and thanks for the tube of sunscreen and the race number belt. They came in handy. Brad

David said...

Reading this a few things stand out. First and foremost, you are an absolute beast. Your ability to keep moving forward under the adversity you faced is inspiring. I’m amazed with how well you took care of yourself both physically and mentally during the race. You are also an amazing writer and this has to be one of the greatest sentences I have ever read.

....There were moments when I was quite literally brought to my knees and reduced to what I can only describe as a simple being, filled with immeasurable humility.

With all your adventures and amazing writing ability, I certainly hope a book detailing your “bad-assery” is in the works.

I truly understand how good that burger must have tasted. Well said.

“I was convinced at that very moment that it was in fact the best goddam cheeseburger I had ever put into my my entire life.”

Finally, from this day forth, I will tell random people why I run such crazy races. So simple its brilliant.

"I'm running for America!"

Congrats on an inspiring effort, this write up may convince me to run this next year.

Sara Montgomery said...

Extremely fascinating race to read/hear about. HUGE congratulations on your great run of it!!

SKrouse said...

John, what an incredible effort and time, especially with the discipline to run your own race. I am truly in awe.

I share your appreciation for the insight and wisdom gained along the sometimes quick and often endless miles of road, practical and otherwise. Thank you for giving us this window into your own experience.


Alan said...

The stretch to Hohenwald was truly Twilight Zone-esque. I was convinced for several hours I was almost there, only to be disappointed. And yes, the multiple crossings of Coon Creek were a mental problem.

The 5 old folks smoking in the near product-empty minimart was a trip.

I highly recommend next time you're going through Shelbyville, after you sleep at the park by the Duck River, get a good bath there. The water was the perfect temperature and I heard all the homeless people hang out there anyway so you would've fit right in.

Congrats on a great Sub 5 effort.
Your VolState Dress Shirt Bro,

Justus Stull said...

Hey John,

Awesome reading this and all the other stuff on your blog. Can you comment further on what all you carried at Vol State? I am looking at doing some long solo runs and am looking for any advice on kit.



Lakewood said...

After having done many thru-hikes I had a pretty good idea of how to go as simple as possible, while still giving myself a few comforts and necessary emergency equipment.

Basically I broke my list up into 6 categories and started by including everything I thought I "might" need. Then, by race day, I had it slimmed down even further.

"In Pouch" referred to items in my front zip pouch on my pack. It included
aid kit (which had bandaids, advil, tylenol, superglue, immodium, tumms, pepto, ginger chews, nipple tape, moleskin, etc),
Also there was SOME of the following (I left some stuff behind)
Ginger Chews x3
Bug Spray Small
Nip Tape Small Pieces
Sportslick minitube
Extra Foot Tape
aquamira micro
Small Sunblock
small headlamp
micro light
Micro disposable tooth brushers
RED micro LED
spare batteries??
Map Book
Wallet CC Cash
Bug Head Net
swiss army knife
Small vial of Dr. Bronners

For "Clothes" both worn and carried:
white shirt
button shirt
2nd Pair Socks
Thin pair of emergency and/or sleep socks
Summer Hat
Trekking Poles
hoka shoes
Extra Hoka inserts
Night Vest
calf sleeves

For "Rain Gear"
Garbage Bag

For "Sleep Gear"
Tyvek Sheet
Mylar Blanket
(I did not bring air mat, or any sort of sleeping bag or liner)

For "Hydration"
3L bladder (only filled 2L at most though)
1 carry bottle in side pouch of pack for gatorade or ultragen

For "Food"
some gels, clif shots, and emergency food. I only carried enough food to get me about 6 hours in case I couldn't buy any through the night or ran out. I also carried a small amount of ultragen powder.

That's about it. Hope that helps.

Justus Stull said...

Thanks for sharing your kit. I really appreciate it.


Simco said...

Did you size up in expectation of the swelling?

I didn't see your email on here. Hope you get a notification for comments!

Lakewood said...

Simco, I always wear a 1/2 size bigger yes. I'm 11.5 but wore 12s. The icing kept my swelling to a minimum though so I really had no major issues.

andy said...

thank you john for your valuable info. your my hero, i have succeeded because of you. keep moving brother. andy

jedi said...

What do you recommend on taping feet?