Friday, September 12, 2014

The Bitter End 100

State Street

Sometimes things don't go as expected and it proves to be a good thing. Sometimes plans go awry and what emerges is better than what was imagined. Sometimes things go very wrong but turn out alright in the end. And sometimes the Bitter End is not really then end at all, but only the beginning.

All I know about Bristol is that a NASCAR race is held there, and that tickets are coveted and scarce. I don'tt know until I arrive that Bristol consideres itself the birthplace of country music; I know this is a special place when I start seeing references to the Carter Family, and though I don't own a Martin guitar, the buildings and statues of these famous dreadnaughts bring a smile as well.

Yours truly, John, Gary (Laz), Jeff, Brandon, Steve, Rick, Becky, Netta, Casey and Ray (Photo by Laura Compton)

This race is another of Laz's concoctions (he's running this race as Gary, but he's still Laz, since that is how I know him best), but Brandon has been volunteered to be Race Director, and he's made the call to begin the race in front of the big guitar at the corner of 11E and State Street. Laz starts us of as he does most of his events (does he light up for Strolling Jim also?) and then darts off into the lead. Several of us straddle the middle of State St, or weave back and forth, first in TN, then in VA, then back again, enjoying having the downtown highway pretty much to ourselves.

Gary (Laz) starts the race! (Photo by Tony Vogt)

Laz holds his lead until he needs to extinguish his cigarette, about a half-block into the race. Nobody is really pushing the pace; I'm walking the first 20 minutes and am still mid-pack. I want to start this race as I did Vol State, and trick my stomach into not entering “flight mode” and messing up my ability to eat the rest of the day. I take a couple of pics, one of the beautiful sign over State St., and another of Compton's Cleaners, which doesn't turn out at all, mostly due to the lack of light and me not wanting to invest the time to get closer for a better shot.

I do not expect to have much company on the course, but I find myself walking and running with Netta through the first 30 miles. We chat, getting to know each other through the lighted streets of Bristol, and then continue our conversations when the street lights are no more and the everything turns very dark. I got used to running in the dark during Vol State, but Netta turns on her headlamp and I have to admit it is nice seeing what's in the road ahead of me. We pass John before we leave town and eventually catch up with Rick and Jeff when they stop for refreshment at one of the best mobile aid stations I've ever seen, with some of the best crew to go along with it.

I also do not expect to have much support. I've planned to run this like Vol State and rely mostly on convenience stores and pop machines for all my needs, but I am hopeful that Laura (and later, Annette) will at least be able to meet me in Mountain City and the Scenic Overlook just before Little Stony Creek Road. We rented a trailer to take some furniture to our children in South Carolina, and I don't want to leave it disconnected from the car for fear it might get stolen, but I also don't want Laura trying to drive the mountain roads with the trailer attached to our Element, so all this indicates that I will lucky to see my wife and daughter before the half-way point, which is where we turn off unto the gravel road. I feel confident I will be okay.

We end up a foursome (Rick, Jeff, Netta and I) and we hang together for most of the 50 miles to the Scenic Overlook right before Little Stony Creek road. We climb the first mountain, taking turns leading, walking anything resembling an uphill. Rick notices quickly that my heels are being rubbed raw by my shoes. I can feel it but I want to wait to take care of it in Shady Valley. Rick encourages me to deal with it immediately, that the group is willing to wait. I'm surprised by this, after all, this is supposedly a race, but I stop and change out of the DryMax socks with the 'no-see-em' ankle cut (Rick's term for 'mini-crew') into a pair of Thorlo 84N that not only protect my heels, but provide a lot of padding in the heel and toe areas, while remaining quite thin in the arch and on top. I had gotten these on a free-offer and had never worn them before now. I had no idea the DryMax socks would lead to the heel issues I was having; I obviously ordered the wrong style, as all my older pairs never caused me these issues.

The "watering hole" just off the highway. The water was clean and cold.  It felt wonderful!  (Photo by John Price)

We run and walk until the 4-lane turns to 2-lane and US 421 enters the Cherokee National Forest. I try twice to take a photo, but my heartrate is too high to allow me to hold the camera still. It has been daylight for a while as we begin the first of three long climbs. Two bicyclists pass us during our first ascent. We stop at a little spring where Rick and I get our heads wet with some very refreshing water. We chat with Doug and ? who are crewing Brandon and another runner. We stop once or twice at Tammy's van: Rick drinks some Poweraid, then passes the bottle to me; Rick uses a rag soaked with wonderfully cold water to rinse off his face and neck, then hands the rag to me; and then Tammy refills our water bottles. (It goes like this for the better part of 50 miles!) So much for not having much support on this run. I feel like part of a family already! This climb has gone and we enjoy our descent into Shady Valley.

Shaky hands make for lousy pictures.  It's a little early in the race for this though!

We stop in Shady Valley at a store frequented by motorcyclists. The bicyclists are there also. Jeff's wife, Christy has joined the mobile aid station with their Quest. I call Laura and give her an update. (She is still in Bristol, but getting ready to leave to check into a motel in Johnson City where she'll meet Annette.) I drink some chocolate milk and a bottle of cranberry juice. I check my feet: they are very sweaty, but there is no evidence that blisters are forming. I do see a toe-nail looking ragged. Of course, Rick and Tammy have a clipper I can use.

This stretch of US 421 is known as "The Snake," and it's frequented by groups of motorcyclists.  Truckers and those hauling trailers are advised to consider alternate routes due to the very sharp curves and switchbacks.  I was very glad Laura wasn't bringing the Element and trailer up this stretch of road.  

I head out first, knowing the others will catch up quickly, and we begin our second big climb. Mountain City is eleven miles away. Jeff had run from Bristol to Mountain City two weeks before, and we are 30-60 minutes off his pace of that weekend, but I am very pleased with the progress I am making. The hill takes a lot out of me, and I am very glad for every time we encounter Tammy and Christy along the way.

Elevation Profile (Courtesy of John Price)

[Other assorted memories and finds from the first 30 miles: Rick teaches me what coyote and bear scat (poop) look like (we see several samples on the highway; I find a big juicy pear in the ditch along the road which tastes yummy; I find a pocket knife - something to help protect me from dogs and bears later on the gravel road?]

Jeff and Rick have moved ahead as we approach Mountain City and arrive at the convenience store first. I have already called Laura on the approach into town to give her a status update, and she tells me she and Annette should be meeting up with us in an hour. I encourage her to take her time, that there's really nothing she can do for me before the Scenic Overlook. We rest maybe 30 minutes; I buy an ice cream and Poweraid from the store and put ice in my bottles. Tammy has some cantelope pieces that taste very, very yummy and go down well. I don't worry about refilling the bladder as I don't think I've been taking much water from there, but I top off my bottles. Netta's husband, Tony, and Carl join the mobile aid station! What a caravan! Circus! Party on wheels!

We head out on SR 67: there is not much birm, not much cloud cover and not much shade. By the time we reach the Correctional Facility, I am lagging behind the group and resigning myself to being alone, but just a short distance later, I see a convenience store on the left and spot the familiar and comforting site of the mobile aid station. I am not alone after all! A little rest, more water, more Poweraid, and I believe a Dr. Pepper courtesy of Tony and Netta.

We move on, still running anything that resembles a downhill and walking everything else. We pick markers - mailboxes, road signs, roads, bridges, etc - and announce our stop and start points. We are moving well. We pass a little Thai place on the opposite side of the road and I see a Kia the same color as my daughter's parked next to an Element the same color as my wife's! Rick urges me to check to see if it might really be them so I check the Kia and see what looks like our cooler in the back seat. I pop into the restaurant just long enough to tell them that we are stopping at the Dollar General a short distance up the road.

Right before we reach the Dollar General, a Ferrari pulls off of Doe Creek Rd (SR 167) unto the highway and stalls! We offer to push it back across the road into a car lot, but the driver is content to leave it barely off the road, if even. I see that the driver is an elderly man with a small long-haired dog in his lap. Who would have thunk it, an old man with a dog in his lap driving a Ferrari in this part of Tennessee!

The Dollar General is where I notice I'm starting to struggle badly. I get a few dry heaves after drinking some Dr. Pepper and water. It is the last place I will see Laura and Annette before the long gravel road section, and before it gets dark. Jeff is also struggling with his IT band, a problem he's wrestled with previously. Though there are miles and miles to go, the race is changing. I will hang with Rick and Netta for a while longer, but those miles are numbered.

It is in Butler where my engine starts to smoke. I'm the last to arrive to the mobile aid station. A couple operating a little roadside stand of used clothes and other items lets me sit in one of the their folding chairs. I drink some Poweraid. I down a 5-hr energy drink, and then lay down on the concrete pad. Suddenly, everything in my stomach, orange drink, cantaloupe pieces, bits of pear, who knows what else, wants out! It is not a pretty sight watching a man with a long beard upchucking and I feel horrible for those who are witnessing it - more sorry for them than myself. I pretty much lose my cookies at least once every long ultra, but this is pretty bad even by my standards.

Almost immediately, Tammy brings over some wet paper toweling for my face, and Tony brings over a jug of water to pour on the concrete pad. I continue hurling a couple more times and then find a place to throw away the paper towels and go over to help Tony wash down my mess. The couple running the market start packing up, whether because of me or because of the hour of day I don't know.

I thought we were stopping at a restaurant on the other side of the Butler bridge, but that has changed to going all the way to the Scenic Overlook, which really isn't that far. I look longingly at the restaurant as we pass by, not because I'm hungry or because anything sounds good, but because it would be a chance to sit down again. The group moves further and further and further ahead. I am once again resigning myself to being alone and stop at a little store (Busy B's) to see if they have a fountain machine with Country Time Lemonaid. They don't, but I do learn that the Overlook is only a couple of curves away, so I move on. It is several curves and a bit of a climb before I get to see the sign and the mobile aid station.

I have mixed feelings: I am surprised they are still here; I am relieved that I am not alone; but I have been doing some thinking for the last few miles and their presence complicates things. They put out a chair for me, but I head immediately for the concrete picnic table and lay down on the bench. Carl keeps me company while I continue my internal debate.

It's plain that I'm not doing well: I'm old; I'm slow; I'm weak; I'm negative; I will be out on the spooky roads alone; I'll still be out on the course late into the next afternoon, maybe early evening; Laura may not get home Sunday evening like we hoped; Laura may not get home Monday at the rate I'm going; and on and on and on. Carl and I weigh my options: press on with the group; try to rest an hour or so and then move into the darkness alone; or wait until the group moves on and call Laura and beg her to pick me up. There are challenges with all three options. I'm already lagging behind badly, so pressing on with the group looks like an exercise in wishful thinking. The skies are looking ominous and the picnic table is my only shelter, so there really is no place to rest comfortably, especially if it starts to rain. And I don't even know if I cell phone service; my cell is in my hydration pack which is way over yonder by the chair they set out for me, and I don't feel like getting up to retrieve it. Tony comes over to check on Carl and I tell him that I'll probably rest awhile and then call my wife to come get me if I don't feel better. I ask him not to tell the group I may be dropping until they are well on their way. He and Carl head back over towards the cars and I close my eyes and try to rest.

The group is coming my way. It's picture time? I still don't get up but I manage a bit of a smile, and it's genuine. I'm not sure what makes my decision - the loud thunder, the group photo, Carl's company, verbalizing my thoughts about dropping to Tony - but suddenly I sit up and tell the group II'm heading out with them. They cheer! I'm thinking "what am I doing?" but it feels really good, at least for the first couple hundred yards. Rick and Netta take off running, Jeff and I walk towards Little Stony Creek Rd, and we begin the second half of our adventure.

Decision time! (Photo by Tammy Gray)

This is the third long, steep climb, perhaps the longest and steepest. There is just enough daylight to see that there are some nice homes along the creek, several with gated driveways. The road is asphalt for much longer than I expected, but once the houses give out, the road turns to gravel. Jeff and I climb and climb. He has a device that tells us our altitude, but my interpreation of data goes something like "there's still a long way to go." We chat a little, but I have an issue with my ears, like they need to pop, or like there's water in them, and when I talk my own voice echos in my head like an electric guitar with too much flange and reverb and chorus all at once. It hurts to hear myself talk. Jeff is fine with silence. Jeff also waits during my frequent stops, even when I feel the need to sit down in the middle of the road on the damp gravel for four or five mintues. I eventually stand up and prepare to press on; Jeff has been more than patient.

We find Christy and out come the lawn chairs. I try drinking some more pop but don't risk any food, and after a short sit we press on up the hill. It is a long time before we reach the Laurel Fork Rd intersection, and here we take a longer rest. Jeff is worried about his feet now; it is no longer just me who needs a little extra time. I wander off to the edge of the road and upchuck again, though there isn't much to bring up. Christy walks over with a wet paper towel.

At least we are at the top of the mountain (Iron Mountain?) and heading, generally speaking, downhill. We are still walking, making good time, not encountering any dogs, bears or humans (other than Christy) along the way. Shortly after one stop, Jeff needs to adjust something (maybe removing a stone from his shoe?) and I keep walking, knowing he'll catch up shortly. It actually takes him awhile. I have my headlamp, but I keep it in my pocket, and I'm surprised at how easy it is to walk on a dark gravel road with a pretty thick canopy above me to block the moonlight. We start to encounter houses again, and I walk right by one, but when Jeff approaches it, a dog starts barking. It must be his headlamp.

The road eventually turns back into asphalt and we sit down in the middle of the road so Jeff can empty his shoes of stones. I do the same, and though my feet are soaked with sweat, I don't feel evidence of any blistering. I'm so glad I brought these socks along! We are on Walnut Mountain Rd now, and soon we see Christy parked up ahead at the intersection with Buck Mountain Rd. This is the busiest intersection we've seen since leaving the highway, and seeing pick-up trucks in the middle of nowhere at this hour of a Saturday night (midnight, more or less), isn't what we want, but no one bothers us. Jeff needs time to work on some serious blistering he has on both feet, and Christy settles in for the task. I nurse a Mountain Dew, walk about, walk to the opposite side of the road and dry heave, and sit some more. I have no desire to move on just yet. Once we set out, Jeff experiences discomfort in both hips, and the issue doesn't work itself out. We walk slowly, reaching Old Buck Mountain Rd and then the intersection with Katy Dr before Jeff tells Christy that he's done, at least for the night.

I assure them both that I'll be fine, that I don't need anything, and hope that they'll come back after a good rest and finish the race. They have been a godsend to me; I haven't had to do the spooky section alone. Though we part on the edge of Bitter End, and it seems for me that something new is just beginning.

It is just a short distance to the intersection where Buck Mountain Rd rejoins Old Buck Mountain Rd (or is it Old Buck Mountain Rd rejoining Buck Mountain Rd?) and the houses of Bitter End. It really isn't as forlorn looking as I imagined it would be, even in the wee hours of the morning. Another short walk brings me to US 19E.

I cross to the far side (east-bound lanes) of 19E and four law enforcement vehicles head west one of them turning off of Buck Mountain Rd. I think they might be looking for me, but none of them double back to make contact. I walk into Roan Mtn and stop at a pop machine and try to sleep in front of the big doors of the local fire station. Sleep isn't happening, so I move on, stopping again at the post office and then again at a church on the edge of town, where the sign honors a couple celebrating their 60th anniversary. The porch is carpeted, but I still can't sleep. I try another 5-hr energy drink and head back out.

A sign says "Elizabethton - 16 miles." The street lights are thinning out. The shoulder is narrowing. The creek next to me is singing a wonderful lullaby. I am getting sleepy. I keep looking for another place to stop and rest, finally crossing the road to a restaurant with a covered front porch. I actually fall asleep this time, maybe for 15-20 minutes, and it is enough, I actually feel rested. I move on towards Elizabethton, not sure how far I've come or whether or not I'll find any more open stores before I get there. I have no cell coverage, so when check-in time arrives, I'm truant. I stop again to rest, check my handwritten directions, and eat a peppermint.

I finally get a cell phone signal near Hampton, so I send Brandon a status update. It is almost 5:30am, so I'm not as late as I feared I would be. I stop at a convenience store; they don't carry lemonaid in the fountain machine either, so I buy a chocolate milk. The gal assures me that Elizabethton is only 5 miles away.

I doubt E-ton is that close, but the gal knows her stuff. I have to go through Valley Forge first, but I reach E-ton in pretty short order. It takes a long time to reach E. Elm St, the road which will take me to the covered bridge and on through town, and just before I turn, I am in need of a very private spot to take care of an issue I haven't had to deal with yet, an issue likely triggered by the chocolate milk. I see a possible spot to my right, but just as I cross the four-lane highway, Tammy pulls up to the light and tells me I'm turning the wrong way. I assure that I'm okay and she drives on. By the time I'm finished, Tammy is driving back towards me. She asks me when I started to recover and alerts me to to a long stretch of gravel walkway and sidewalk ahead. I also learn that Rick and Netta are on the other side of town, heading up SR 91 for Johnson City, though that info doesn't really mean anything just yet.

I call Laura from the Covered Bridge but get no response, so I call Annette. I tell her I probably have another five hours ahead of me. She doesn't sound like her usual chipper self. I'm thinking about that as I move on. I see a McDonald's on my right, two blocks off course, so I decide to see if they have lemonaid. They don't. I see a Hardee's a little further down, and they do have lemonaid, so I get a large cup, refill my bladder with ice, drink some lemoniad, refill the cup and head back the same way I've come to the course. The lemonaid isn't everything I thought it would be, and I leave it in a trash can. That was almost a complete waste of 30 minutes or more, though I do have a bladder filled with ice for my efforts.

I make the climb out of Elizabethton, where Rick and Netta were maybe just 90 minutes before. This is a tough little climb, with no shoulder, and under full-sun. I find some shade and call Laura and tell her I'm heading towards Johnson City, that I'm walking, and that if they meet me, to bring ice. Then I put my phone away and puke up the lemonaid.

The sign welcoming me to Johnson City appears much quicker than I expect. There is a lot of church traffic. I look at the properties around me for a garden hose hooked up to an outdoor spigot and signs that they might allow a strange-looking stranger to soak his head with cold water. I don't have any luck, but very quickly I see a car pull over in front of me; Annette and Laura have decided to come to me instead of waiting for me to come to them. They have brought ice and water. They let me unload everything I will not need for the rest of my journey: a handheld, a headlamp, my Nano, the pouches of extra batteries, sunscreen and creams, the extra clothes, etc. The pack not only feels lighter, it fits much nicer too! Annette soaks a shirt in icey water and tells me to put it on my shoulders. I'm skeptical, but I do as I'm told, with good results.

Annette asks me if she can "run" with me, a rhetorical question for sure. We move into downtown Johnson City, where a fireman allows me to soak my head with their garden hose and assures me that Deleware St is just ahead. It is quite a ways ahead, near the west edge of downtown, but we find it, join 11E, and head towards Jonesboro.

We hook up with Laura at the Hampton, where they refill my bottles and bladder with ice. Annette needs to head back to SC, so we part, and Laura takes her back to the motel. I am under some time pressure: the hotel has extended our check-out time to 1pm so I can shower before our trip home, but me finishing by 1pm is now looking very doubtful.

I press on, crossing 11E to face traffic, in time to see a driver pulling over and rolling down his car window. It is Collin, Netta's friend and pacer, and he tells me with excitement that I'm almost there! I ask him, "is it about 10 miles?" and he says "oh no, not even five!" This gives me new life (and renewed hope for a shower!)!

A couple of miles later Rick and Tammy pull up in their mini-van and tell me that the turn is just a couple of miles ahead, to look for the Road Runner gas station. Laura has already told me to look for the Arby's. I thank them for all the help they've been to me during the race and say "good-bye." I have already seen Tony and Carl drive by also, probably to pick up Netta.

I don't see the gas station or the Arby's right away, but I see the Hardee's, and I'm guessing that Laura said "Hardee's" but I heard "Arby's" and that this is the turn. (There was no "Boone St" sign.) As I reach the intersection, I do see the other establishments and I make my turn with added confidence. Boone St is lined with American flags like it's the Fourth of July, and I can see that downtown is just two or three blocks away. I make a jog, turn, and see Laura cheering. I look more closely and see Netta, Carl, Rick, Tammy, Tony, Collin, and a friend of Rick and Tammy's. They point me towards the courthouse door; I climb the steps and make my celebratory and ceremonial touch ending my race.

What a relief!  But what a sense of accomplishment!!  (Photo by Tammy Gray)

31hrs, 27min, 14sec. 3rd place overall. Rick and Netta had joined hands and touched the door at the same time, which seemed only fitting as they had run the whole way together. I ask Rick if they had been there four hours already and he shook his head. I guess again: five? He shook his head and confessed that they finished little more than a couple of hours ahead of me. I shake my head in amazement. They are curious as to how I came back from the dead, or as Netta put it, survived the adversity.

It means a lot to me to see the group at the finish. Though I lost sight of them at the half-way point, we have run a lot of miles together. It also feels good to feel like part of the group again. I don't want to say that I couldn't have finished without their help, maybe I could have, but this race was made so much more memorable and wonderful by their presence, and I definitely would not have finished as quickly as I did without all the support from all of them (including Jeff and Christy).

I want to stay and chat, but there are only 20 minutes left on our motel extension and Laura really, really needs for me to take a shower, so we say our farewells and Laura and I head for home.

Appendix A:  Final Results (via Brandon Wilson email to the Ultra List 9/8/14)

1. Rick Gray - 29:28:00
2. Glynetta Vogt - 29:28:00
3. Brad Compton - 31:27:14
4. Jeff Deaton - 43:19:00
5. Casey Quaintance - 45:19:32
6. Ray K - 45:19:33
7. Steve Durbin - 53:43:17
8. Laz - 54:00:19
9. Becky Lockard - 54:00:19
Ties are broken by age

Appendix B:  The fine piece of marketing that made this a "must race" for me.  

Date: Mon, 21 Jul 2014 18:20:41 +0000
From: lazarus 
Subject: bitter end 100 miler

i had been planning a pleasant 3-day excursion thru the smokies for labor day weekend.

lots of reasons:
i like to do multidays
i had a waaaaay cool route picked out
it would knock my needed counties down to 3...

and why the hell not?

well, i came up with a good reason why not.
i need to do a 100 mile race.
and i need to do it after labor day weekend.

as it turns out,
completing a 100 mile race that starts after 09/01/2014
would put me over more than a 30 year span of completed 100's (officially)

it seems that very few people have done this.
suddenly i find myself thinking about how i can turn this route into a straight out 100 miler.
and whether i might be able to have a fatass 100. 
that draws enough runners to make it count as a race.

and i need to start it on september 6.
labor day weekend is too early.

now, when i plan my runs, 
i pick routes that are going to be fun and have lots of cool places to see.
this one is no different.
i am not a stickler for "exact" distances.
this would be in excess of 100 miles,
but probably not over 125 or 130.

it starts in bristol, on the virginia-tennessee state line
and goes thru old bristol on state line road.,
and out into a scenic valley at the base of the smokies
before climbing up and over one of the big mountains
(eastern US version)
before passing thru mountain city and turning south.
shortly out of mountain city it will turn off onto unpaved
back-county roads in the smokies...

i am not talking about the gatlinburg, dollywood smokies.
i am talking about the real thing.
backwoods, hillbilly, moonshine country.

when i was laying out the route, i noticed a little town called bitter end....
i had to adjust the route to pass thru bitter end, tennessee!

i have already been thru difficult and defeated.
i was sure to come to the bitter end eventually.

the course comes out of the backwoods at a place called roan mountain and turns west,
going thru places like hampton and elizabethton (thru the old downtowns)
before entering johnson city on the old main street
and going thru the old downtown district there as well.

i am going to have to get back on this thing,
and get some measurements,
and adjust the finish to achieve the desired distance.

now i have to ask myself if there is anyone out there
game to run a nut-busting fatass 100 miler in the smokies?

the time limit would probably be around 72 hours.
i am not the runner i was 30 years ago.
and the course will kick my ass!

i think i have a crew
(you ain't going where i am going without a crew)
now all i need are opponents who don't need their nose wiped for them.
this is my 30-year 100.
i will have to make shirts.
(if you have shirts, it must be a real race)

anyone game?


Appendix C:  The website, with an inaccurate listing of the race participants

Appendix D:  The course description

don't run this one without a camera.

quite a trip today.
quite a trip in a car.

i would not advise attempting to run this one without a crew at least part of the time.

mile 1-11
we start out with a trip down state street in bristol tennessee/virginia.
one side of the road is in virginia, the other is in tennessee.
the state line runs right down the center stripe.
cool old downtown with special features.
i will leave them for the runners to see for themselves.
after getting out of town,
we run a good, divided highway with broad shoulders.
the mountains we are going to cross loom over us.
they are really big.
like sand mountain and monteagle combined...

and then some.
there are frequent signs advising trucks to select an alternate route.

at the end we cross a bridge over holston lake.
it is like running into a postcard.

mile 12-30

not much shoulder.
not much is needed.
there is almost no traffic.
it isn't just the trucks that have selected alternate routes.
we climbed and climbed, steeply.
switchbacks, hairpin turns.

i want fegy to be here to explain the rocks we see.
tortured, twisted, folded, standing almost on end.
mute testimony to the immense forces that created these mountains
so many millions of years ago.
in a car they fairly flash past,
just like the tempting peeks at the views thru the trees.
i can't wait to see it at footspeed,
and drink it all in.
at the same time i wonder if i can make it.

there are no stores here.
there are no houses.
there is no room for them.
there is barely room to squeeze in this road.
patches show where big chunks of it have surrendered to time,
and plunged down the mountain.
there is only forest and rock and sky.

the top is like cresting on a roller coaster.
and then it plunges down.
even steeper, and more endless than the way up.

when the bottom finally arrives, we are in shady valley.
there is no question about how it got it's name.
walls of high mountains surround it on 3 sides.
the sun must appear hours late,
and disappear hours early.
it is a quaint community, 
with the mountains blocking out time as effectively as they do the sun.
no cancerous subdivisions,
no strip malls,
no mcdonalds.
i suppose it is poor.
but it looks beautiful to me.
and there are country stores and houses.
if you can survive the mountain crossing to reach it.

after a brief respite in shady valley comes another mountain crossing.
bigger and steeper than the first.

fear and eagerness are at war in my stomach.
they feel like butterflies.


now we know what they call it mt city.
there is population here.
and poverty.

around 35 miles we pass thru mountain city,
and peek down its few blocks of downtown.
then we turn, and start the long descent to fish springs.

there is a little more traffic,
and a little more shoulder.
this way is not so steep, just a steady downhill grade.

we pass thru a series of small towns,
strung like pearls along this one navigable artery in a sea of mountains.
we stop at a country store in one, to eat breakfast.
a small group of the ubiquitous "mexicans" is already there,
parsing out their dollars for potato wedges and pieces of chicken.
they are all speaking spanish,
and the man behind the counter seems to understand
i hear him tell each one "gracias" as they pay..

so, when my turn comes, i order my breakfast in spanish.
the man laughs, and says in a pure mountain accent;
"now here is a man who has it going on. he can speak the language."
i laugh and tell him "pococito"
then i order in english.

i don't tell him that my conversational abilities are restricted to discussions of
eating, drinking beer, stacking rocks, 
and (of course) making lewd comments about pretty women who pass by the work site.
basically, all i need to stand side by side and do heavy work in the hot sun.

we tell him what we are doing.
he thinks we are crazy.
we ask him if he knows about little stoney creek.
he thinks we are even crazier.
then he tells us;
"you tell them all there is good food here."

we dawdle at the store.
people all know each other.
and strangers smile and speak to me.
i like this place already.
the people are poor. and rough.
and it feels like home.

it doesn't take us long to reach watauga lake,
which we cross on another bridge.
it doesn't take long in a car.
i hate to think how long it will take me on foot.
but the scenery is breathtaking.
especially the ominous mountain ahead of us.

just past fish creek we stop at a scenic overlook
(god knows how you pick just one)
a quarter mile past it,
a tiny "road" (or is it a driveway) catches my eye.
only an idiot explores new territory without a map.
but, as everyone knows, i am an idiot.
(durb hangs out with me, so he must be an idiot too)

we had looked at a map on the computer last night,
but could not figure out how to get it to print.
so i just tried to commit it to memory.
and in my mind,
this single vehicle wide track, with no road sign
looked like little stoney creek road.

after i convinced durb that it was a road at all,
we started up it.
we passed by a camper converted to a home,
and soon found ourselves climbing sharply on a narrow track,
with a mountain on one side
and a dropoff into a cascading creek on the other.
thick rhododendron swept both sides of the car.

steve seemed a little dubious about our route.
i'm not sure if he was worrried we were on the wrong road,
or worried that we would never get out.

i was mostly worried we'd meet a vehicle going the other way.

then we spotted a mailbox.
i could see that there was the remains of lettering on it,
so we stopped and looked.closely.

i could just make out a number,
and "little stoney creek road"

this was it!
it was the last road name we would see for 20 miles.

i suspected that the best was yet to come.
and i was right.

does anyone want to hear about the second half of the bitter end 100 mile course?

mile 53-75

having established that we were on the right road...
at least the road we wanted, if not "right" in any other sense of the word...
it did not take durb long to ask what we do if we meet someone going the other way...

someone would have to back up,
until we got to a spot where 2 vehicles could squeeze past each other.
i was really hoping that wouldn't happen.
it was hair-raising enough winding our way up the mountain.
durb was fairly certain, based on jeff's encouraging post,
that, if we met someone, they would shoot us and leave us for the buzzards.
i did my best to reassure him that i grew up on roads like this,
recounting past adventures in similar places....

successful adventures.
i left out ones like the time i tried to ford a stream in my old camaro
(the one with the chicken wire grill)
and realized how badly i had misjudged,
when water began pouring thru my windows.

but who hasn't stood on top of their car while it sank, at least once? 

after putting our route thru his mapping software,
steve had told me the two mountains around shady valley were "class 2" climbs.
little stoney creek was a "class 1"
i am not certain what scale that was on,
but i would have rated little stoney as an MMF
(the first M stands for murderous) 

the drive seemed to go quickly,
there was so much to see.
it would have gone more quickly still, if durb didn't keep stopping to look around.
i wasn't about to complain.
as long as the car was moving, i encouraged him to keep his eyes on the narrow roadway.
at one point, we were on a barely vehicle width track,
with the face of the mountain right up on durb's window,
and i chose to look down on my side.

the sight made my testicles try to crawl back inside my body.
the hill had to drop off at least 1,000 feet at about an 85 degree angle.
it would have to be climbed with ropes.

i told steve;
"i don't want you to look, 
because i like it when you are watching the road. 
but it would be good to make sure you keep the tires away from the edge on this side." 

a few minutes later, we were going the other way,
me finding the rock wall to my side very comforting,
when steve emitted a loud; "EEEP"
"i just looked down"
"don't do that"
"i was wrong. they won't have to shoot us.
if we meet someone, they can just push us over the side...
we would never be found."
"naw. we wouldn't fall 10 feet before we caught on a tree....

not that it would matter. i'd be dead anyway. 
my heart would stop as soon as we went over."

i knew from the detailed map that there were numerous side roads,
especially after we got to the top.
but i had cross matched it with a map of the county maintained roads.
i figured that the others would be gated.
we saw a number of them with the distinctive forest service gates.
others had been gated privately, with large boulders and heavy ironwork.
there were no houses in sight of the road,
but several of the drives showed enough use to indicate someone lived down them.
those would have a "no trespassing" sign tacked to every tree alongside the road for a quarter or a half mile.
no one moved out here because they liked uninvited guests.
steve did not suggest that we stop and say hello.

finally we came to a fork in the road.
just then, a local came up behind us in a truck,
and durb moved to the side to let him pass.
the local took the left fork.

i was uncertain,
trying to pull up the map in my head.
i knew there was one road that turned to the right,
and dropped off the side of the mountain.
but there were also several that went left.
it did not seem like we had gone far enough to come to the right turn.
the left fork appeared to start down the mountain.
even tho all these roads had names,
we had not seen a single road sign, nor any evidence that any had ever existed.
if the county was to put signs up,
the locals would take them down.
anyone with business out here would know the way.

we took the right fork.
it did not take long to figure out we'd made the wrong choice.
this road was not nearly as deluxe as the one we had been on,
and it started down the mountain almost immediately.
it still took 3/4 of a mile to find a spot steve was comfortable turning his 4WD around.

after that, the rest of the route was a piece of cake.
i knew that when we took the left fork,
we would be on walnut mountain road.

it was sort of ironic that we had been warned about buck mountain.
buck mountain was where we would return to civilization.
there was even pavement on the last part of buck mountain.

we saw an older couple working in a small field,
while we were still on walnut mountain.
durb wanted the reassurance,
so we stopped and rolled down the window to ask;
"is this walnut mountain road?"
the woman answered "yes"
we thanked her and went on.

the man had dropped what he was doing and come over quickly,
looking suspicious.
he hesitated, but then returned my wave as we drove away.
i remember how it used to be on the back roads around here.
the locals will speculate for weeks about who were the strangers
on stoney creek and walnut mountain road that day.
they will be afraid that it might be outsiders wanting to move in.
nobody wants their home to become the next gatlinburg.

we found the rest of the way without a problem.
we were disappointed that there was no sign for bitter end.
but we made note of it as we passed.
we'd have stopped and taken a picture for you...

but it did not feel like the sort of neighborhood where that would be appreciated.

all too soon we were back at a highway,
and turning to go into roan mountain.
there we found bob's dairy bar and stopped for a milkshake lunch.

roan mountain is how i will think of carter county.
bob's was just another place where everyone knew each other,
but they had a smile and a friendly greeting for a stranger passing thru.
cloudland high school sports are still the biggest show in town,
and kids come from the little stoney creeks, the walnut mountains, and the buck mountains,
to play football and basketball for the highlanders
with the whole community turning out in support.

it is a place where you can instantly feel at home.

mile 75-100
the home stretch begins with a long downhill thru hampton to elizabethton.
at elizabethton we will turn on elk,
and pass thru the old downtown district (very picturesque)
we will divert at the cool traffic circle long enough to cut thru doe river park
and cross the old covered bridge that is on brandon's website.

we leave e-town on the main road,
but soon cut off on the old elizabethton highway to johnson city.
it doesn't have a great shoulder, but it isn't a main road any more.
the e-town highway turns into main street in johnson city,
and we'll go thru another great old downtown district
coming out the other side,
and eventually joining 11E just before the willie nelson historical marker.

11E has an excellent, wide shoulder.
and one final dirty trick.
it is all rollercoaster hills
up until the cutoff for jonesborough,
the oldest city in tennessee.
when you take that cutoff, you will soon see the courthouse.
the finish will be when you touch the front doors of the courthouse.
right in the middle of the oldest, and coolest downtown in tennessee.

the course has been measured 5 different ways.
all of them have come out over 100 miles (the longest at 105)

i have been studying my timing on the run.
my last 100 (bloody 11W) i was only able to cover 56 miles in the first 24 hours.
that was with a steady, pretty much nonstop effort.

i have two more years of rehab on my leg,
and it is a lot better than it was.
but this is a much tougher course.
reaching the start of little stoney creek by daylight on day 2 will be a stretch
(but what i am shooting for)
that will be great for me.
i get to do that section in the daylight.
(those doing it at night ought to be cautious!)

i hope to be between roan mountain and elizabethton by dark.
(the plan includes no sleep except naps if absolutely necessary)
i will lose my crew then.
while i think i can do the rest uncrewed,
if someone was crazy enough to pick me up sunday night,
and crew me in to the finish (hoping for monday morning)
it would sure be a huge bonus.
all i can offer as compensation,
is that i will surely be suffering by then.

you can expect me to be doing a lot of weeping and swearing.,
probably at the same time.

until i touch the washington county courthouse doors.


US 421 north of Shady Valley (Photo courtesy of John Price)

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