Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Fellowship of Suffering

There is something about the second time around. Much of the mystery and sense of adventure is gone, or at least changed. Success is possible, yet still not assured. The goal has changed from merely finishing to finishing better, or faster, than last time. The highs are subdued, the lows a less intense. Much of the present will be placed side-by-side with the past and compared, contrasted, and scrutinized more than experienced.

I have read that record producers hate producing a band's second album. The songs tend to be written more hurriedly, with less of the care and passion that went into the greatness of those on the first album. The band often gets a lesson in humility, as sales are poor, and radio play hard to come by. I don't want this Vol State to end up like a second album, but I fear the possibility.

I have run more miles in preparation for this year's Vol State than I ran last year, and I've run a 100-miler just a few weeks ago. Still, I did not run a set of 30-mile days like last year; life just seemed to get in the way. My feet picked up some damage during the 100-miler, and though there is no discomfort, there are visible signs that the healing is not yet complete. My planning, my pre-race journaling, and my obsessing are all at a much lower level, replaced by strategizing on how to run the course in less than 5 days, or even 4 days.

I have voiced my fears to the Vol State list, and among the replies is one from Stu:

brad it is definitely much easier on subsequent attempts. 

the demons dont hop up and bite you.

you know what to expect.

the sense of hurry up is reduced...and this is a race where the less you hurry the faster you go.

on the first day, take care of blisters before they get a good start.

this is a sort of strange family get together, not a race. it is a strange agreed upon reality.

the only battle is the next step. the solution is to take it. couple million of them and you get to the rock.

dont talk yourself through anything...talk to th people you meet and run with. the people you meet wish they were you. when you talk to them, it will solve any problems you have.

be here now is good advice. being here now with fellow runners is about as good as it gets.”

The man would prove to be a prophet...



Nearly everyone will suffer this year.  Many will find the temps in the mid-90's too much to bear. Many, like me, will suffer blisters that will slow them considerably.  One will suffer a dog attack that will lead to medical treatment.  Others enter the race not feeling entirely healthy, a less than ideal way to start a 314-mile trek across Tennessee.  Even Laz and Carl will suffer, enduring 50° temps during the their final nights at the rock, struggling to keep warm as they wait for runners to finish.  Each will battle something, even if it's only the self-doubt or ever-threatening presence of Oprah looming behind them, but most will succeed.  Many of those that don't will be back to fight another day.  This year, much more than last, the suffering is very real, very physical, yet the courage to keep moving towards the goal is never more evident than when the pain is at its greatest.  This is my story, but my story pales compared to others, and even my story, such as it is, would not exist if it were not for the fellowship of fellow runners that participated in this year's Last Annual Vol State.  

My buddy John Fegy's has had to bow out so he can devote his time to finishing his dissertation, so I have a motel room to myself the night before we board the ferry. Had he been there, I might be tapping his brain on how to best tape a foot before a race. I've never done it before, never felt the need, but I've got this nagging sense that the time has come. Unfortunately, I have neither the tape nor the confidence to attempt it now.

I head down to the lobby and find a couple of runners hanging out. I enjoy hearing Johan talk about his races and the people he has met. He has some impressive success in his own country (Sweeden) at the 48-hour and 24-hour level and is a favorite to win this event. He is also an incredibly nice guy; positive and personable with a great sense of humor.

I return to my room and repack my pack. I opted to buy a bigger pack this year, just so I wouldn't have much stuff falling off the bungee straps on the back and giving me grief. Unfortunately, having more room has led to me bringing more stuff, including a portable USB charger that weighs more than I had imagined it could.

Morning comes and I am one of the first down to the lobby for breakfast. I eat well, trying not to overdo it, and trying not to drink too much coffee. After eating, I gather my things and check out of my room, heading outside out of the air-conditioning and sitting in the shade. Laz has this roll of blue kinesio tape he is trying to give away, and though I have no idea where I'm going to put it, I take it off his hands. Jeff McGonnell comes over and chats, and shows me a feature of my new backpack that I didn't know existed: more places to put stuff! These will come in handy during the race.

My new backpack, an Ultimate Direction PB 
Alex Morton and Jeff McGonnell

I know that randomness exists, and that coincidences occur, but when too many random events happen that can have a profound impact on something important in my life, I tend to think that there is something/Someone greater moving behind the scenes. Such is how I felt about the free gift of tape and Jeff happening by to show me the extra storage capacity of UD PB backpack. Tuesday night, after the Chinese buffet, John Sands (who I shared a room with that night) and I attended Marcia's blister clinic, and though I couldn't imagine actually using any of the information she shared and demonstrated, I was at least introduced to kinesio tape, second skin, and tincture of benzoin. I would learn much more about them during the race, and by Hillsboro, even know how to use them!

We load the bus and head towards the ferry. The drive goes quickly, chatting with Diane Taylor and Chris Knodel. Chris is ex-military and presently a personal coach, and he is no stranger to athletic events that would be beyond my confidence level. I enjoy listening to stories of his adventures. Diane is always a joy; her light-heartedness and love for Vol State is contagious. I approach the ferry with a considerably lighter heart.

John Sands, Chris Knodel, and Garry Price

The Race: Day 1

I spend the ferry ride taking pics, meeting new runners, and chatting with friends I met last year. I am so much more relaxed, so much less introspective. The air is cool, and it's triggering my bladder, but the line to the port-a-potty is long, so I wait until we land on the Missouri side of the river.

If one didn't know better, one would think there was a pre-race prayer meeting going on.  :)

I make it back in time to see Laz light his cigarette, and off we run to the ferry, where we float back across the river. The clock is running now, but Laz has assured us that this is probably the fastest we will move the entire race – LOL.

Another of those random, coincidental, or “prepared-in-advance” events was my conversation with Abi during the bus ride from the finish line to Union City. She had been sitting up front, but decided to come to the back where she could stretch out and sleep. Unfortunately for Abi, if there is somebody nearby to talk to, she is going to talk to them, so I don't know if she ever got any much needed rest or not. However, I got some advice I actually decided to listen to.

I have trouble eating during long events, and that leads to early tiring and a lot of walking. Abi advised me to “trick” my body by walking the first 20 minutes. Abi's a nurse, and she threw out a lot of terminology like “sympathic” and “para-sympathetic,” but though I couldn't remember which system did what, I understood the gist of what she was saying: when I start out running, I'm telling my body that I am fleeing something, so the body shuts down unnecessary functions like digestion, making it difficult for me to handle food for several hours into an ultra. By walking 20 minutes, the body is no longer thinking it's in “flight” mode, so the digestive system remains much closer to normal.

The other thing Abi told me was that eating fat would help my stomach by triggering the body to release lipase, the benefits of which I couldn't recall.

I begin my journey by walking, checking my watch to insure that I walk the full 20 minutes Abi recommended. I chat briefly with Yogi, and then hook up with Joel who listens to me try to recount all that physiological information that Abi had given me. The time goes quickly, and soon we are approaching the lookout, where we decide to “run” for the benefit of the photo-op.
Our 20 minutes of walking were over.  Time to look impressive for the photo ;)

Once on the edge of town, I begin running the downhills and walking the ups. There doesn't seem to be much flat, a situation that will persist for the next 300+ miles. I get almost to the Tennessee line when I catch up with Dusty. Dusty looks at me and asks me if I have a leak, or if I'm just sweating that much already. My running shorts are pretty much soaked! It's about then I realize that I'm not getting any water from my bladder tube. This requires a several stops to fix: one to pull out and reattach the tube, one to turn the bladder around so the tube insert isn't poking me in the back, another to check to see if things are right, as I still feel something poking me in the back. My last stop to fix that bladder was at a picnic table in Woodland Mills, just inside the Tennessee line (mile 10). It is here I propped my dog trainer (a fiberglass cb antenna I found near my home in Indiana and planned on carrying across Tennessee) up against a post while I fixed my hydration bladder and emptied my personal bladder. I reshouldered my pack and left, forgetting my dog trainer. I was bummed, but there was no way I was going back for it.

The wet shorts concern me. Shannon had to drop early last year due to chafing from getting too wet. I know enough to soak only my head whenever the lure of cold water is available. Maybe I could find a place where I could take off my shorts and let them dry in the sun. The idea of sitting mostly naked is neither enticing nor negative, I just don't want to invest the time it will take for the shorts to dry. But I seriously consider this option for almost a mile, looking left and right for a place where I can hide and accomplish what needs to be accomplished.

Finally, another idea emerges:  "Don't you have a spare pair of running shorts in your pack?” (It had been quite the debate on the VS list as to whether carrying spare clothes was a good idea or not. I did so the year before and my only regret had been losing them the last 14 miles of the race, so indeed I carried another set with me this year.) I quickly find a corn field, duck in, change, clothespin the wet shorts to the back of my pack, and rejoin the race.

Abi Meadows talks with Fred Davis.  Immediately behind is Dusty, and just beyond Fred is Carl talking with Don Winkley.  The Vol State poet laureate, Rich Limacher, is just out of view on the left. 

Dusty is gone. The last encounter or memory I have of her is hearing “Tennessee Jed” by the Grateful Dead from her headphones as I walk by.

I stop for something to drink as I enter Union City (mile 17), hook up with John Sands and Garry Price to find our way through town, and then head on alone as they stop at Subway. I find half a sub on the sidewalk in front of the hospital that must have fallen from somebody's pack, and though it is tempting, I throw it in a wastebasket.

The road to Martin was hot last year. It is again this year, and I am walking it alone. I see runners ahead of me, but I can't catch them at the pace I'm going, and I'm not willing to run in the heat to make it happen. I stop at a gun/hunting store along the route to drink a Dr. Pepper and sit in their air-conditioning, but Ted Cruz is on the tv and I can only stand so much before deciding that returning to the heat is a better option.

On arriving in Martin, I spy a fruit stand and wait my turn to buy a couple of peaches. The lady ahead of me asks me what all of us are doing and I explain as best I can. She then insists on buying my peaches for me.

I graciously accept the gift and carry them across the street to McDonald's. Just like last year, Jeff McGonnell is enjoying some AC and sit-down time. Unlike last year, I do not order a large Coke. I remember Abi's advice to eat food high in fat, so I order a small dish of ice cream, an order of fries, and a small coffee. It goes down quite easily, and as I prepare to leave, a gentlemen throws five dollar bills on my table and says “maybe it will help you get to the next town.” He doesn't want any attention, or argument, so I offer my thanks and stunned appreciation and head back out for the long hike to Dresden.

There's a little fun spot for kids in the center of Martin (mile 31), where several geysers of water shoot out of the ground. I ask a mom if big kids are allowed to play too, and she just shrugs her head like she doesn't know. I soak my head and shake it off to the amusement of some of the kids. It feels good, and I will continue to soak my head as often as possible during the race.

I stop one more time on the edge of Martin for a grape drink which probably wasn't a great idea, but I don't get sick, just uncomfortable.

The road to Dresden is long and hot. The sun is out in force, though temps only reach 87°. I maintain a steady walking pace, and again, alone, though other runners are often in sight ahead of me. Just before the turn unto Main St, I see a runner who has sought refuge from the sun behind two plastic garbage cans! It looks hot and uncomfortable, but we do what we think we need to do out here.

Once in Dresden (mile 40), I stop at the pizza place I've heard/read so many bad things about. The young man running the place allows me to have a glass of ice water and sit in one his booths. I'm just not hungry enough to order anything. Dan and Rita are there, as are John Hanson and Marcio from Brazil. Dan and Rita offer me a slice of their pizza, and though it looks great, I can only manage a couple of bites. Marcio insists I refill my water glass with Sprite from the two-liter he has bought, not just once, but twice. John sits and waits patiently for his pizza to be delivered. Marcio and I leave together, and before we get out of town, we have been blessed by yet another Road Angel who is handing out water, oranges, cookies and other goodies from the back of his car, with the assistance of his children. There are several of us gathered around: John Sands, Caleb Nolan, and some others I'm forgetting.
John Hanson, TIm Scott, and Marcio approach the 20-mile mark, half-way to Dresden.

I tell everyone my plans to rest briefly at the pavilion south of town. John and Caleb join me, John downing a few Gatorades from the machine, Caleb using the bathrooms. I take off my shoes and socks and apply more 2Toms to my feet. There is some discomfort, but I don't notice anything bad happening yet. I am able to call home and chat with Laura. My news is good: I am at least 10 miles ahead of where I was at by this time last year.
Caleb Nolan later in the race.  He will suffer an attack from two dogs that will lead him to seek medical treatment to stop the bleeding.  It set his race back several hours, but it did not stop him!

John and Caleb head off and that is the incentive I need to get moving. It doesn't hurt that the grass, though short, appears to have bugs I can't see, and I just can't get comfortable. I catch Caleb quickly as he stops to deal with some potential chafing issues; I don't catch John for a few miles.

When I catch John, we hook up, running the downhills, walking the rest, passing several runners through the night. We enter Gleason (mile 48) before dark, greeted by the Gleasonites, more Road Angels who are handing out water, candy, nature bars, and other goodies. There are several runners sitting on a porch there. I ask if Laz has called a meeting and forgotten to invite me? I'm in a great mood, and John and I leave town heading towards McKenzie.

By the time we reach the McDonald's in McKenzie (mile 56), we have hooked up with Joel and Marcio. Marcio is amazing: he has come to the US to run across Tennessee and knows no English! There is one other runner who knows Portugese, but Marcio has moved on head of him to take his chances alone. Joel is trying to fix his feet, as a mis-sized insert has created havoc for his little toe.

I order my ice cream, fries and coffee, but the fries don't settle as well this time. I also finally think to check my left foot, which has been sending me some pretty discordant vibes. Something is going on. Laura sent some moleskin along with me so I cut a piece and apply it straight on the trouble spot. John tells me as we leave that maybe I should have applied it around the the spot, and is even willing to take time to help me fix it, but I decline. I pick a very bad time to not listen to advice...

We move towards Huntingdon in the dark, one hill after another. Along the way, the four of us stop along the highway so John can properly apply the moleskin to my blister. He doesn't like moleskin, in part because it doesn't stick well. Also, the kinesio tape Laz had given has gotten wet with sweat, so it isn't working as it should either. I attach a couple of long strips to the back of my pack so they can air dry.

In Huntingdon (mile 67), we climb up on the courthouse steps and take a lay-down. Marcio is very tired, and he will stay there. Joel, John and I leave town, but I stop at the police station to tell them about Marcio and that he knows no English and that he is one of us runners, hoping they'll let him sleep.

The Race: Day Two

We stop at Clarksburg (mile 77) where there is no chocolate milk, a situation I will encounter often this year, and head towards Parker's Crossroad. The McD's there is packed! It's just John and me now. We check in, having covered 82 miles in 24 hours. We are pleased, but my foot is very sore. Walking after sitting is the worst; it takes several minutes for whatever needs to happen to happen so I can walk at something like a normal stride. Running is out of the question.

Lexington (mile 92) - arriving there shortly before noon. At the first convenience store as we enter town, the owner gives John and me a package of fruit things and I will eat a few at a time for the next day or so.  After another short break at the convenience store downtown, I'm finally convinced to search for a drug store, hoping to find some second skin. It takes some mental gymnastics to convince myself to go two blocks off course, but John is a convincing voice of reason, and with his help, we find the second skin, tincture of benzoin, and some q-tips to apply it. We checked out a motel, just to escape the heat, but the place has no rooms left with two double beds, so we end up on the courthouse lawn, where John gets some quality shut-eye.

I still can't sleep, at least not well. One of the county employees brings water out to us. He doesn't seem to know about the race, so I try to put him at ease. He carries a gun and a radio, but I'm not sure what his actual role is. He thinks I'm a veteran he talked to earlier that day, and I assure him that's not the case. He is eventually content that we are no harm to the community and leaves us be.

I think a lot about Marvin's blisters of two years ago.  These are not encouraging thoughts, other than the fact that Marvin persevered. Mine are nowhere near that bad, but I still have over 200 miles to go. I shudder thinking about how bad they might get... 

John fixes my feet as best he can and the second skin provides some comfort. It is now mid-afternoon, and there's really nothing we can do other than head towards Parsons. It's a long march, neither of us feels like running in the heat, and it takes a long time even to get to Darden (mile 102), where we hope the store is still open. We arrive just minutes before they close (6pm), and find Marcia Rasmussen sitting outside in the shade of a picnic table. I buy two bottles of soda and we sit in the AC until they kick us out. They are nice folks, but they have things to do. It is here that my bowels decide to move, so I take a few minutes urgently looking for a place without poison ivy to do what needs to be done. It doesn't take long...

Marcia, John and I march towards Parsons (mile 107). Though there is plenty of space along the side of the 4-lane to walk three-wide. Dark moves in as we finally reach town, encountering yet another Road Angel who gives us water or Powerade. John and I stop in at the Subway, lucky enough to get there minutes before they close. For some reason, the manager decides to turn on the tv, this time a CNN special on Whitney Houston's tragic overdose and death. I'm not in the mood. He's closing anyway, and it's actually chilly in the building, so we finish, top off our water supplies, and venture across the street for a nap on the bench of a picnic table.

We rest a while and then begin the trudge to Perryville (mile 114), where I remember a pavilion with picnic tables under it that we might be able to sleep better on top of. There are a lot of bars just before Perryville (which is near the Tennessee River) and one of them is hopping with action. The others appear to have closed for the night. A car pulls up in front of the one bar and a gal shouts to us, offering us water. We decline, but appreciate the thoughtfulness, and make our way across the river to the pavilion.

It has dawned on me that the pavilion I'm thinking of doesn't really have a roof. It has a bunch of slats that filter the sun, but those slats are far too far apart to protect us from the dew, and the air is thick with humidity! Still, we stretch out on top of the tables and I actually am able to sleep, until a truck pulls up, a young man gets out, marches noisily across the deck we are on carring some glass bottles, speaks to me (I say “hey,” or something in response), and then he returns to the truck. A young lady is making a lot of noise, and they toot their horn as they peel out of the parking lot. I chuckle quietly before attempting to fall back asleep. (John will later say that he found my chuckle a source of comfort, that I wasn't the least bit worried by these folks, so he didn't have to be either.)

After a few more minutes of trying to sleep, we give up and begin our move to Linden (mile 126). We will cover the miles with only one or two brief rest stops. It hurts far too much for me to start up after a rest, but my legs get very tired, especially my calves, hamstrings and i-band. It's a matter of picking my poison. Still, John has come up with the idea that slowing our walking pace can help us avoid having to take breaks, and keeping moving will get us there sooner. It proves to be a good plan.

The Race: Day Three

We cannot find a restaurant open for breakfast in Linden, so we take our chances at the grocery store. We are pleasantly surprised to find that the grocery has a full-breakfast menu in its deli, so I order up some eggs, sausage and coffee. The food is excellent. I'll also buy a quart of chocolate milk and drink it before we leave. Eric and Dale join us just as we finish up. Eric, has a huge blister on his heel that he has been dealing with. It's good to see other runners, but we don't tarry long. There is a long march to Hohenwald in the heat of the morning that I am dreading, but it has to be done.

Just outside of Linden, we come upon Frank Dahl, and the three of us will spend the next 18 miles together. We stop at the last convenience store east of Linden and I down two ginger ales, which taste great, but somewhat bloat my stomach. Just as we are leaving, Laz and Carl pull up and offer a few words of discouragement (or was it advice?), smile and leave. We are surprised to learn that quite a few runners have dropped out already, maybe as many as 10 or 11.

The road to Hohenwalk crosses Coon Creek numerous times and I begin looking for a way to get to the water to soak my head. John and Frank don't mind me wasting their time and watch bemusedly as I dunk my entire face and head in the water, soak my hat, and shake off the excess before standing up and moving on. The three stops I make to do this go a long way to helping me survive the heat and sun.

We move well, but we are whipped by the time we reach Hohenwald (mile 144). We think for over an hour that the race track is just over the next hill, or around the next curve, but to no avail. We stop at a church which holds services on Saturday and rest in their shade before making one final push. No one bothers us, or appears to know we are there.  We finally arrive. The convenience store that was such a blessing to Charlie T and me last year is now a huge disappointment. There is no chocolate milk; the fountain machine is broke; CNN on the tv, with a bunch of brainless chatter about leaving children locked up in cars on hot days.  I make a snide remark about leaving ultrarunners out on the highways of Tennessee on hot days, but the humor is about as poor as our moods.  As disappointing as the store is, the manager is actually a nice guy; he just doesn't have much to work with.

Frank stays behind for the AC. I can't take the tv, so John and I move on. We have come to the conclusion that we should get a motel to escape the afternoon heat. (It will reach 94°!) We make one more stop so John can get some supplies for his blistered toes and check-in. The AC feels good. I update my Facebook status. Joel immediately sends me a message asking if he can take over the room if we leave before he gets there. The owners of the motel are very accommodating of us, and they promise to let him in if he arrives.

We leave after dark, but it is still warm. We eat at McD's, and then head towards Hampshire (mile 160). It is good to be making this stretch in the dark, as there is a lot of construction, which would mean a lot of dust and close traffic during the day hours.

We talk about so many things: insurance auditing, backpacking (no such thing as just an ounce), church history and so on. No topic is too boring. We don't worry about being linear, or not repeating ourselves. We come back to our strategy of moving, slowing down if we have to, but moving. We do a good job of sticking to that.

The one stop we do make is by the Natchez Trace Parkway where there is a campground. The owner is a fan of our race and has set out a cooler of pop and water as well as cookies and other goodies. The cookies are wonderful, as is the Coke, but we keep our stop short. I remember getting part way out the drive and remembering that I hadn't filled my water bladder, so John carries it all the way back and fills it from a spigot for me.

The road to Hampshire lasts forever and the moonlight is playing all kinds of tricks on my eyes, making me think the town is just beyond the next hill or curve. The blinking red lights John has also play into this, as I'm thinking there is a flashing yellow light in Hampshire (there isn't, my memory failed me here) and sometimes the flashing light reflects as yellow off some object far ahead of us.  I now see how "moonshine" got it's name.  It makes you see things that aren't there.  

The Race: Day Four

When we finally reach Hampshire, I am no longer sure I can continue. I think about borrowing the couch inside the Men's Club, but there is a huge padlock on the door. John and I stretch out on the benches in front of the club and I am able to sleep a little, however uncomfortably. John is also able to sleep, which makes me feel a little better about needing this break.

As daylight increases, Marcia walks up, looks at the door and pushes it open! The padlock was behind the bracket, holding nothing. She goes in and buys a soft drink. John goes in and comes back out. The room is stifling hot, and there is a sweet smell that is almost nauseous, my guess from all the chewing tobacco spit. Eric and Dale also walk up, and Dale goes in to use the bathroom.  There is only an urinal.  

I check my foot again, and John makes a repair to my patch job. He will also address the issues on his feet. Marcia looks at John's work and has no suggestions; he has done a good job. She leaves behind a few vials of benzoin, which are more convenient to use than the q-tips. She, along with Eric and Dale, move on.

I am reluctant, but the options are few, and perhaps the nap has done more for me than I would have thought. We start up the long hills towards Columbia and actually make decent time. I slow when I have to, and we check in part-way up the mountain. I stop at a large farm house along the way, waking up a lady, but she is very gracious and allows me to soak my head with her garden hose. She explains she was sleeping in because they took they grand-kids to the rodeo the night before.

It is hot by the time we reach Columbia, and the first convenience store is a welcome sight. We have made only one stop until now and have made good time. I pick up a super-large fountain drink of lemonade to go and we head towards the Hardee's about a mile or two away. Just before we get there, I share a memory of meeting an old man in front of one of the houses along the road, and when I look up, there's that same man coming off his porch, pointing his finger, exclaiming that he remembers me from last year. John is amused.

The man invites us up to his porch for a sit in the shade and some ice water, and we do not refuse. He wants to know our names, where were from and what we do for a living. He tells us about other runners he has seen that morning, some of whom would stop, some who wouldn't. He tells us that Johnny Adams stopped last year and gave him a copy of John Price's book, and how much that meant to him.  We have a great visit, and he doesn't hold us long. He has been as blessed by our visit as we have been by his hospitality.

I wish I had ordered two cheeseburgers at Hardee's, they are that good, but alas... We eat, rest a little, and then head for the motel (mile 179) to escape the afternoon sun. (Temps reach 95°!)  Eric and Dale have already booked a room and Marcia will venture in later. I sleep well, almost too well, and we miss check-in. I finally wake up and tell John that we have to boogie.  It's Sunday night, and nothing, not even the bowling alley, stays open past nine, and they are closing when we arrive.  They let us use the vending machines; we press on with no real food.

I don't let it get to me, and since it still takes me a long ways to get my stride and pace up to normal, I move ahead while John loads up. I even try running a little on a downhill just to fix whatever it is that makes my foot hurt so bad when I resume walking. John doesn't catch up to me until shortly before the road to Culleoka. The Bench of Despair (mile 187) market was to have water out for us, but I can't find any, so I buy a pop from the machine before we head towards Culleoka (mile 188).

We come upon Marcia again at the closed store in Mooresville (mile 193) and she joins us for the trip into Lewisburg. It's a long haul, but the conversation greatly helps the miles go by. Marcia tells us about her near-death experience with the collapsed snow-bridge and this leads to a discussion about how some fight for life and others give in, and the role faith or beliefs may or may not play in all this.

The Race: Day Five

The conversation weaved around about as much as we did as we walked along the side of the road. We were sleepy, but the shoulder of the road was wide, so we managed okay. We entered Lewisburg about the same time I entered it alone last year. Nothing was open on either the approach into town or in the downtown. Even the Huddle House wasn't open yet, though we saw employees getting dropped off in front of the locked building.

Lewisburg (mile 201) seems like a depressing place. We hear chickens crowing in the downtown area, the housing looks like it has seen better days, and there is so little open for business, even on a Monday morning. We stopped at a Shell-mart and again, no chocolate milk. They have fried eggs, so I order two biscuits with two eggs on each, and get a large fountain lemon-ade, which they allow me to refill before I leave. There is no place to sit inside, so I find a low brick wall across the parking lot and eat there. I also inspect my feet once again, but make few changes.

The eggs will burp up several times during the next couple of hours as we make our way towards Farmington (mile 206), where a restaurant that treated me so well last year has been shut down. John and I revisit a topic we have discussed several times, whether or not he should go on ahead. He is anxious to run, but I'm in no shape to do so. I've been grateful for his company and expertise in dealing with my blister, but he has a chance for a sub-6 day finish and maybe even a top 10. I don't. I can tell that he's thinking hard, and he finally makes the decision to try running for awhile, at least on the downhills.

Marcia and I walk on towards Wheel (mile 211), and I take a chance that the Methodist church will have its water hydrant on. They do, and both of us soak our heads and hats good before moving on. Two miles later (though it takes us about 40 minutes to walk it), we arrive at the Pit Stop Market (mile 213) where John is finishing up his lunch. I eat two chicken salad sandwiches, lots of pickle slices, and a bite of Marcia's ice cream. The gals manning the store are first rate and it will trouble me greatly when I realize a mile or so down the road that I've left without leaving a tip.

I am chilled, and with my foot needing so long to loosen up, I know Marcia will have no trouble catching me, so I head out alone. The heat was oppressive, and now I didn't have anyone to convince to keep marching when I wanted to stop. I was getting sleepy, and there was no shoulder to walk on comfortably, and traffic was heavy. I finally succumb to temptation and find a shade tree on the other side of the road. I am at the edge of a yard, and I really don't think anyone will mind, but as I lay trying to nap, a car pulls into the drive and an older lady rolls down her window. She really wants to know where I am from, so I tell her about how we started across the river from Hickman, KY and so on. Then she asks me again, “where were you from before that?” Oh...Indiana. “I thought you sounded like a Yankee,” and I wish I had a photo of the mischievous smile on her face! She tells me to ask if I need anything and drives up to the back side of her house.

I continue resting in the shade, but not sleeping. I look up to see Marcia making her way along the road, staggering a little, pausing and looking at the ground as if she's dropped something, then moving along again to repeat the process. She looks at me but does not cross the road to share the shade. She doesn't get more than a 100 yards before a sheriff pulls up on my side of the road, half on and half off, with his lights on, stopping traffic from both directions. He gets out and crosses the road to talk with Marcia, at which point I decide to put on my shoes and go over to see what's happening.

I introduce myself to the officer who is young and very polite, and he tells me his concerns about Marcia's weaving on the narrow berm of the road. His concerns are valid, I've seen enough to know that. He literally asks me for a second opinion as to whether it is safe for her to continue. In no way do I want to be responsible for Marcia being taken from the course, but I also am not a doctor. The best compromise I can come up with in a hurry is to assure him that I will walk with her to Shelbyville. That satisfies him, and he shakes our hands, tells us to get water at the fire department if we want, and returns to his car.  

I have stepped in where I might not have been wanted. All I can do is assure Marcia that I respect her desire to be independent but that I want to respect the commitment I made to the officer. She handles my meddling very well, and we stay together to the convenience store in Shelbyville (mile 223). We even find another house that will let us use their garden hose to cool off. It made those long miles a little more bearable.  We see several county vehicles before we get to Shelbyville and I speculate as to whether or not they are purposefully keeping an eye out for us - a positive form of paranoia?  

I tell Marcia at the convenience store that I plan to stop at the waterfall park and then go to the motel. My feet are burning up and my legs are as tight as guitar strings. My commitment to the officer has been fulfilled; the AC and refreshment have restored her as much as they have me, so I head out.for the park alone I call Laura along the way and tell her my plans and she has no objection to my booking yet another motel room. It seems frivolous, and it's even off course, but I can't talk myself into heading out on the long, exposed road to Wartrace in the afternoon heat. (It only reaches 91° on this day.)
Enjoying the shade and the sound of the waterfall, contemplating what honestly was already a foregone conclusion: I was booking another hotel room.  (Charlie stopped on his way home and snapped this photo.)

I'm not at the park very long when Marcia joins me. Not long after that, Charlie T drives up and takes our picture. His relay team has just set a new record, and he is taking the scenic route home. Shortly after he leaves, I leave and seek the motel. Marcia stays behind to think out her plans.

The man at the motel is very friendly. The rate is very fair. He tells me that a runner that morning wanted to book a room for only one hour, but that he wasn't legally allowed to do that. (I found out later the runner was Frank. He has moved that far ahead of me.) It is only 2:30 in the afternoon. I check my phone; John has sent a message that he is on the other side of town. Had I gotten that before I checked in, I might have tried to continue, but it's too late now. I take a shower, trying to keep my foot as dry as possible. I lay on top of the sheets, and there is blood from a gash in my back (caused by an object in my pack) and from my shoulder (also rubbed raw by the pack). I keep the foot outside the to air it out. I also have a towel with me, as I have sweat profusely the previous two nights, leading to chills and interrupted sleep. I will alternate between wiping away sweat with the towel to laying on the towel to keep the sheets from getting soaked.
Frank Dahl

I stay 11 hours!! It is after 1 am when I finally decide to pack up and go. Laz has sent a missive stating the the only imperative any runner still out there has is to “move!” I feel like I've been yelled at by a coach, shouting at me from the sidelines to get my head, heart and feet back into the game. I top of my water bladder, buy a Coke, and head out into the night.

Tue, Jul 15, 2014 at 1:07 AM
the long, thin line marches on
it is the 5th afternoon now.
heat climbing ever closer to 100.
not a breath of a breeze can penetrate the suffocating humidity.
the birds have stopped singing.
there is no sound,
except the rush of the metal boxes passing by.
the occupants of the boxes are in a different world,
where miles are counted in minutes
and the space between the air conditioned boxes
and air conditioned buildings
is considered an uninhabitable no man's land.
yet on the footsoldiers go.
propelled by a single imperative...
the numbers have thinned.
gaping holes have appeared in the long thin line.
crudely fashioned headgear all but hides the faces.
all but.
there is no missing the haunted eyes,
with the thousand mile stare.
no one is thinking of the rock.
all ambitions have been surrendered, save one.
the prime directive.
the single imperative...
for to stop moving means to be loaded onto the meat wagon.
the meat wagon passes the miles in funereal silence.
the full load of casualties lost in their own thoughts,
watching the passing survivors moving on.
how can you look at those who fight on without asking yourself the hard questions?
everyone in the meat wagon is there for a reason.
no one would question putting an end to the journey.
but we question ourselves.
I am hurt.
but everyone is hurt.
why do those continue,
and i have stopped?
out on the road there are different questions.
where will I find water?
when will I eat again?
and a single driving imperative.
move, or die.
the grand adventure is constructed from a thousand difficult moments
and a million painful steps.
the long thin line is not made of the people who will set amazing records,
and hear their praises sung by a throng of voices.
it is made of ordinary people,
with a hunger to do extraordinary things.
in the end, it is in their own heart
that they will find greatness.
but on this one difficult day,
the most extraordinary achievement is the most deceptively simple.

Shelbyville is a pretty town, perhaps my favorite on the Vol State route. Along this short stretch are a line of flowering trees surrounded by a grassy lawn. It is a horrible place for nature to strike, especially if it was daytime, but it's dark and there is no traffic.  My keys are locked inside the room, there is no turning back, but my bowels will not allow me to move forward. Shelbyville is too nice a place for this, so I close my eyes and pretend I'm in Lewisburg.

I march steadily for Wartrace, stopping to get two hot-dog like sandwiches at store outside of town (mile 226), then moving without a break until I reach the bench in front of the Marathon at 4:30am. There is car out front and I see two ladies working inside, their backs towards me. I slide off my pack and update my Facebook status and think about relaxing. There really is nothing I can do here, so I shoulder my pack quickly and stand up to move off. I hear voices. Ladies' voices. They are talking to me, or about me. One comes to the big window and says that they're not open and I can't hang around here and I have to move along. She's younger than me, at least a little, and somewhat pretty; she's doesn't look like someone who would think a boogie-man might be out to get her. I assure her I am going and walk away.

I get a Coke at the laundromat downtown (mile 233) before heading across country on Pine Knob Rd, which turns into 16th Modal Road. I spend the night composing an instrumental break for a song we do in church (Everlasting God) which I decide to try out when I get home. I think about the lady in Wartrace, and how fear has taken the place of love, all in the name of prudence, in our society. (I admit, I seldom pick up hitchhikers anymore.) I get to thinking that a Road Angel with doughnuts and coffee would be a wonderful thing about now. I try to email that to the group, but I have no signal. I hear the chorus of “Tennessee Jed” playing in my head, so I try to text Dusty that there is no place I'd rather be, wondering if she'll get my humor so early in the morning.

I stop by the campground (mile 244) to drop off the empty can I've carried since Wartrace. I've heard the owner doesn't much like us, so I'm in and out. I've also noticed a little sign announcing the Little Hurricane Primitive Baptist Church, Elder Earl Pitts presiding, and that tickles me. I break into a version of “Angel Band,” singing out loud as I walk. I turn south on US 41 and head into Manchester (mile 250), catching Richard Westbrook just past the courthouse.

I stop at McD's for two burritos and a large coffee. Richard comes in just as I'm ready to leave, and just as I'm ready to leave, the rain starts. I put on my Dollar General poncho and head down the road, the rain getting heavier, just like the traffic. It's late morning (about 10:30) and there is little where I can go to get out of their way; the shoulder to the left of me is a small river of water and I don't want my feet getting any wetter than necessary. Fortunately, the rain doesn't last long and I can soon put away the poncho before I get too hot and sweaty.

I stop at Hillsboro (mile 258) and get a couple bottles of fluid, a chocolate milk and a lemonade. I carry them in the outside compartments that Jeff had showed me a few short days before. Before getting too far out of town, I think about my feet and whether or not it would be a good idea to change socks now that the rain has stopped. I have moved well all night, but my feet are starting to get that familiar ache again, so I stop and set up shop on the some steps at the side of the church. I take off my shoes and the sight is not a pretty one. The patch job is shredded and the foot has some pretty good maceration (wrinkling) going on. I have no choice now but to learn how to use the second skin and kinesio tape myself. I start by cutting away the dead skin, drying the area as best I can, then putting some anti-bacterial ointment on the wound, as best as I could see and feel where the worst was at. Then I cut a good size piece of second skin and put it on the wound. John would cut it to form fit, but I don't have good enough vision of the wound to be that careful. I then wrap some kinesio tape over the second skin and around the foot and learn how to use the vials on benzoin that Marcia has left me to glue it down. Then I have to clean up.
I don't know if this pic does it justice.  This is after four days of running on John's patch job.  The most tender area was right where the pinky toe met the rest of the foot.

I carry a roll of white cloth tape that I used to use on my nipples before my daughter introduced me to 2Toms. I rolled the empty and broken vials inside the backing of the kinesio tape, then take a small piece of cloth tape to make a little ball. The cloth tape is actually scrap, the edging that builds up with use and resembles a twist tie from a loaf of bread. I actually forgot I had thrown it on the ground so when I saw it laying there, I thought it was a twist tie.  It holds the ball of trash together perfectly!

I stand up and start to move. I can't tell which foot has the blister, literally! I'm elated. No shuffling for minutes upon minutes to limber up the foot! I can get right down to it! And I do. It is several miles to Pelham, and I will be late for lunch, but I'm already thinking about what I am going to order. I want a cheeseburger, but while I'm waiting for that to be prepared, I want a bowel of ice cream and a lemonade. I have very pleasant thoughts while I make my way south.

Harry and Ollie's in Pelham (mile 267) are huge friends of our race. They set out water, offer $5 showers, use of their RV, and open their campground for crews to use. They said they would set up a shelter and have sleeping bags available. Jan pulls up alongside me in her van and snaps a few pictures. This is the first I have seen of Jan and her van, so I am embarrassed not to recognize her. She has been keeping track of the back of the pack for the first several days, but is now looking out for us. She tells me Marcia is just leaving Hillsboro, but is struggling and needs some rest. Richard is still ahead of me at this point, but we are within eye contact of one another and I will catch him before long. (He passed me without my knowing it while I patched my blistered foot south of Hillsboro.)
Nobody else does this for us!  Shade, a rug to sleep on, water in the cooler, chairs to sit in, a hose to wash off with...
The Vol State is going to miss Harry and Ollie's, very , very much!

I order my ice cream, but they are out; they have popsicle sticks left over from a church event that past weekend, so she gives me three of those. Salt Shack and Karen are there. Richard stops in. Jan stops in. We have a party in progress! I air my feet and am relieved that my patch job is holding. The cheeseburger is awesome! There is no lemonade so I try sweet tea. I recharge my iPhone and they refill my water bladder. I don't rush the visit, but I don't exactly tarry either. Salt Shack (Tim), Karen and Richard have moved on. I need to boogie. I soak my head and hat at the outddoor spigot one last time and move on down the highway.

The climb up Monteagle (mile 274) goes well. I stop at the CVS (Salt Shack and Karen are making there way out and I urge them to keep moving) and pick up some 5-hr caffeine. I have only used these one other time for a race, but they stay down better than the pills, at least if there's not too much already in the stomach. I quickly move on out of town, passing by the last convenience store before Tracy City. I think the others must have turned in there, as I never see them again until the finish.

I buy two candy bars and some pop in Tracy City (mile 280). It is a long haul to Jasper (mile 297) and I need to have calories, sugar and caffeine. The owners let me fill up my bladder with ice since I have purchased some other stuff; I get the feeling that they are reluctant to let me do so, but relent. I thank them as I leave, and they become very friendly, genuinely so, so maybe I have misread them all along. I check my feet outside and there is some serious blistering around my long toe. There are also some small blisters on my right heel. I make a bloody mess trying to pop them, so I put on some antibacterial cream and replace the sock. There's nothing more to do.

It is dark as I start out for Jasper. This road is almost desolate, at least of businesses and homes, but not of traffic, at least early on. There is no shoulder, so I'm constantly stopping to let cars go by, inches away from me. I decide to use my headlamp for the first time, not wearing it, but carrying it, turning it on as cars approach, just so they can see I'm there. I make good time. I have Scorpio in the sky ahead of me. I see a couple of falling stars. I stop only once to update my Facebook status and rest my shoulders from the weight of the pack. There are less than 12 hours left in Day 5.

I try to run. My first attempts are laughable, but I don't surrender the idea. I try again. For some reason, I count to eight over and over as I run, but with no particular number of eights in mind, or any other goal. It's just something to occupy my mind while I run. I run off an on when it's flat or downhill. My feet are able to take it, and my legs might even be appreciating the change.
The Mountain Mart has been closed for a few years, which is a real shame.  After the long hike from Tracy City, Vol Staters would love a chance to refuel or rest before the horrid descent into Jasper.
(Jasper isn't a bad place, it's getting there that puts your feet through Dante's inferno!)  Nobody was around to take a pic of me when I passed by here in the wee hours of the morning, so I used this one of Caleb.  

The 4-mile downhill into Jasper is torture. I cannot move more than a few steps without stopping in pain. I sit on the guardrail several times. I try switching sides of the road. I honestly don't think I'm moving as fast as 2mph as I drop into town. At the bottom of the mountain, I walk to regain my mental equilibrium, then start running again, counting to 20 now. I run and walk through town, not stopping anyplace since I'm only four miles from Kimball and planning to stop there.

As I approach Kimball (mile 300), I see Frank on the side of the road fixing his feet. He has run well. A police officer swings over to my side of the road, rolls down his window, and tells me I'm almost there, to be careful, and God bless. And, best of all, the McDonald's is open. Two more burritos and a small coffee and I'm good for the final 14 mile push to the finish. I cross the bridge (the second crossing of the Tennessee River) and call Carl. He tells me there are three or four runners just ahead of me. I have no more to give; I will be happy just to finish.

I make New Hope (mile 305), start the climb up Sand Mountain (mile 308) and finally reach the top. I have under two hours left in Day Five, and I'm pretty sure I can make it, but I do not stop. I spend my climb up the mountain counting, sometimes to four, sometimes to three. I don't know why it helps, but it does.

I encounter a dog on the road leading to Castlerock, the first scary canine encounter of the trip. As I enter Georgia (from Alabama, which I entered as I neared the top of the mountain), my cell phone changes time zones, so I have a moment of panic thinking that I had only twenty minutes to complete the run in under six days. Carl assures me I have closer to eighty minutes, but I run through the field, into the woods, and out into the clearing where Carl is waiting to assist me to the Rock.


I decline an offer to wear the tiara, but I accept the cold beverage. Carl brings my car up to the top so I can get my sleeping bag out. Richard finishes, and then Frank, and we sit for a while with Laz and Carl. I'm cold, but eventually I'll try to sleep, with limited success. I'll have to move my cot a couple of times, and will eventually believe that my car key has fallen into the grass, but Carl will find it right where I've left it, in a plastic bag with some spending money for safe keeping. I am there to see Sal finish, and then I head to the motel.
Who knows what I was talking about at this point, or if I was making any sense at all :)

I shower, sleep some, then head back out to the rock. John Sands is talking with Laz and Carl. It is a great couple of hours, until the wind picks up and the temps drop. We get to see Jeff McGonnell finish and we know that Ed, Marcia and Tim are making their way up the mountain, but I am ready to get back to the room and sleep some more. I give all three a hearty wave and honk as I meet them on the way down Sand Mountain. Marcia smiles.
John Sands and Laz - or am I hallucinating?  John had a great race, finishing 9th, in 5d, 15h, 37m, 6s.  

At the room, I start scanning TV channels. I can't handle the news channels, and the religious channels aren't doing it for me, nor are the merchandise channels. I come across a view of the McD's, Krystal, and convenience store just down from the motel, with a radio station playing in the background. Perfect! (I even see a runner making his way through to the McD's on the screen!!)


Stu was right:
- in many ways, despite the blistering and the heat, it was easier this year
- there were no demons, and there was very little temptation to quit
- it was more of a get-together than a race, though I did entertain hopes for doing better than I did
- it was the people I met along the way that got me through this, from
   - Abi and her advice about my stomach
   - Marcia and John Sands and their knowledge about treating blisters
   - the generosity of Marcio, Dan and Rita in Dresden
   - the road angels and wonderrful people along the way
   - the runners I met in passing, and those I had conversations with via Facebook or texting
   - to Laz, Carl and Jan who I seldom saw or talked to, but who were there if I needed them
   - to Laura and my children, whose texts and phone conversations kept my headed towards the rock
   - and Stu himself, the one who gave me the insights I needed to get through this.
     (I just wish I'd paid more careful attention to that blister part.)
A church just before the climb up Monteagle.  :)

64 runners started:
- 45 finished (I think)
- I finished 14th
- 5 days, 22 hours, 56 minutes, 44 seconds

(about 3 hours slower than last year)

Richard Westbrook, Frank Dahl and me at the finish line.  

Gregg Armstrong - King of the Roads!! 3d, 17h, 50m, 53s !!!

Johan Steene - Top Unsupported Runner setting a new unsupported record: 4d, 2h, 5m, 16s

Due to the fear of sweat wicking from my shirt to my running shorts and causing chafing in places where it would hurt even worse than blisters on my feet, I started rolling up the bottom of my shirt, sporting this midriff look that I'm sure looked pretty silly to passers-by.  Still, it kept my running shorts a bit drier, and any breeze we encountered felt good on my belly.

I ran a tremendous number of miles with John Sands, basically every mile from Dresden to Farmington, but I did not realize how many times I ran with Marcia during this race.  Here we are at Mile 20, but there would be Darden to Parsons, and most of the way between Mooresville and Shelbyville.  She had a fantastic race, taking nearly three days off her finishing time of the year before!  I'd settle for half that ;)
The Big Blue Bridge  Our second crossing of the Tennessee River

Maybe my favorite pic of the whole trip!  (Charlie T photography)

I will always consider Sherry to be the embodiment of the Vol State spirit.

Sherry and her daughter Elizabeth, another mother-daughter finish!

Dale Holdaway, Fred Davis, and Eric Moening.  John, Marcia and I encountered Dale and Eric numerous times during the event.

The father-daughter duo of Pat and Kim McHenry.  The buried Oprah in the final hours of the race :)


When I drove to the finish line Wednesday morning, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils' first album was in my cd player. These two songs bookended my 2014 Vol State and fit better than anything else I can think of.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJCDBNFd1MI   "Standing On The Rock" (Ozark Mountain Daredevils)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xN0oMyeXJVg   - "Beauty In The River" (Ozark Mountain Daredevils)

Here is the song I composed a musical interlude to during the night, either between Shelbyville and Wartrace or Tracy City and Jasper.  This is my favorite version:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jP2nz6PG8KM  Of course, it already has one here.  "Everlasting God" by Lincoln Brewster.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2-Sf_yHQfU  "Angel Band" by the Peasall Sisters

I want to extend a huge "THANK YOU" to:  Laz, Carl and Jan for making this event happen.

Thank you also Jan, Carl, and Charlie for letting me use your pics for this blog.  

Thank you also to the One who allows me and makes it possible for me to do these things.  


  1. Thank you for sharing your journey. I feel like it has changed me just reading about what you have accomplished

  2. Brad, I really enjoyed reading this. Best race report I think I've ever read. Great run!

  3. Thanks for the detailed report. It allowed me to share the experience... WITHOUT THE PAIN! .. awesome performance

    1. The experience is well worth the pain. I urge you to try it if it fits into your plans next year :)