LAVS Race Report
Let’s All Voluntarily Suffer
Or how I somehow survived Vol State
I’ve never written a race report before, and I’ve never really considered myself in a race before because I’ve never remotely thought that I’d be coming anywhere near a “podium” finish. I’ve always considered my ultras as “challenge events” where the only two questions I asked myself were “Can I do this” and “If I can do this, just how fast can I do this”? After trying the Barkley Fall Classic, being introduced to one Lazarus Lake, and eventually crewing for him for four days while he crossed the country on foot; when my wife planted the idea of us doing Vol State into my head, all I asked myself was that first question, “Can I?” I should have been asking, “Just how much luck am I going to need versus actual skill?”
Dumb luck proof number 1: my amazing wife, Mary Sue and her equally amazing friend, Jennifer
As soon as it was decided, the training began in earnest (by them.) Back to back daytime walks on the weekends, gradually increasing in distance, starting as early as September 2018! Eventually, I realized this was probably a rather good idea and joined. We later found a friend with a dry sauna and would end training sessions with an hour in the sauna at 140 degrees! More dumb luck on finding heat acclimation. Willpower never my strong suit, I was lucky to have Mary Sue and Jennifer as training partners. I was faster, I was stronger, the road didn’t bother me nearly as much as either of them, but I NEVER would have been out there preparing like this without them. This made a HUGE difference.
Dumb luck proof number 2: ants, buses, and food
Despite the traditional trip by bus for all the screwed (self-supported) LAVS participants, like ourselves, being planned to show runners the route in reverse (leaving our cars at the Rock and traveling to the start), we decided to head down 2 days early and drive the route ourselves as we would run it. Again, fortuitous decision. As it turns out, our self-prepared written directions weren’t exactly perfect. We corrected many errors and found many landmarks to go by, as well as finding hotels, gas stations, convenience stores, and sources of vegan fare for the wife and myself. Also, the buses turned out to not come on time. Not remotely. And their stand-ins broke down. Seriously. So instead of leaving at 7:30am…we left the Rock at 5:30pm!!! So, no tour of the route. Way too late, so straight to the hotels. My naivety and fear of finding food had led me to massively overpack. As a result, I was sharing hummus, pop tarts, tortilla chips, and fig newtons with the other surprised and grateful participants. And the ants? I managed to put my ground cloth and pack over a giant ant hill. Miraculously, none got inside. We hit the hotels at 11pm and hoped to get some quality sleep, but not nearly the hours we planned on before starting a 314-mile walk.
Dumb luck proof number 3: servers, clerks, weather, sharts, and hotels from Hickman to McKenzie
At the start of LAVS, Jennifer and Mary Sue had decided to be a team. I could tag along, but THEY were running THEIR race. I decided that it would be great to stay with them, all of us LAVS virgins, unless Oprah—the time cutoff—was in danger of catching us and pulling us off the course. This choice served me well! I hit the ferry at the start, took in the spectacle of the ritual cigarette lighting, and the grand march of the last time all the runners will be together as we pass through Hickman. The weather doesn’t seem to be as horrible as historical LAVS heat. Lucky. “The Ladies,” as they would come to be known, maintain our training pace and again, lucky me, this slows me down and keeps me in check. For some odd reason, despite us all eating pretty much the same things for 2 days, I somehow avoid the intestinal Russian roulette that plagues the Ladies the first 48 hours of the race. I discover my umbrella fits perfectly in my front pack pocket for “hands free” sun shade, get a free buffet and twelve cent pizza at the Pizza Hut in Martin that the server added to the Ladies’ order, and after passing Laz at the check-in near the “stinky bridge” find out that there’s no stink today! We hit the hotel in Martin early, do a ridiculously bad job of hand washing and drying clothes, and head out by 3 am (the Ladies in damp clothes, me in my dry spares I brought—lucky!!) to get some miles in before sunrise. I’m wearing $9 Goodwill Croc sandals. Why? They seemed light, airy, and supportive. I’d use them for a few days, then realize actual shoes were a much better choice, but for now am lucky enough to be ok. Leaving Martin, I think I saw every police officer they have or the same one twelve times, nearly always while Jennifer was peeing. I am feeling good and shockingly not that sore. Feet are tired, but ok. I start getting into the habit of pulling away from the Ladies by several minutes. We could still be a “we”, but this also let them be a “them.”
We cruise to Dresden where I again get to witness the “penguin jog” that results from gastrointestinal issues and proximity to facilities. Everyone that came behind us to the pavilion in Dresden is very lucky that the bathrooms were open. Mary Sue and I get our picture taken on the way out of town by the Dresden Enterprise and I forge out ahead again as we pull into Gleason, looking for the fire department and the fabled aid station there. Still not grasping the concept of traveling light and buying food only when low, I hit the Gleason Superette before the fire station and load up again. Canned pears are wonderful in 90-degree heat! I had met fellow travelers Lisa, Casey, BJ, and someone with gigantic calves at some point the prior day. BJ and Lisa are at the station. Mary Sue and Jennifer would arrive shortly. Texts, calls, and even BJ notify me that for some reason, my 7:30 am check-in did not work. I make sure Laz and Carl know where I’m at via text. The station lives up to its reputation with cots, air mattresses, food, drinks, showers, and fans. I drop the pack and eat half of the only PBJ on the table (save the rest for Mary Sue.) A few other snacks and multiple beverages are consumed, and I join Jennifer near the air mattresses and do some yoga to stretch out a tired back. I refill everybody’s bladders with water and ice and wait for folks to be ready. We are 48 miles in just a few hours after the morning check in and as a result are already ahead of where we must be 9 hours from now. This is where I realize I’m feeling much better than the folks around me and I’m trying to keep that quiet. I don’t want anyone to feel down by seeing someone feeling good when they’re not. Unhelpfully, the volunteer announces loudly, “You look like you’re ready to go!” Everyone turns to look at me as I’m sheepishly already wearing my pack and bouncing off the wall, anxious to leave. We finally do and make our way to McKenzie and our hotel by early afternoon. Everyone is feeling pretty good! By luck, our pace has us ahead of deadline and able to switch to nighttime marching after we sleep! Casey’s General Store provides a huge supper of wedges and handmade salads and tots. We are slowly learning to get ready for bed and the next morning faster. It still takes a long time to get to sleep, though. Legs and feet have their own lives right now and don’t want to rest. We report in early at 57 miles, knowing we’ll sleep through the 7:30 pm check in.
48 hours of good luck apparently results in 36 hours of bad luck: McKenzie through Lexington
Out the door before midnight and stocked up from the night before, we forge on to Huntingdon. We get to the square in Huntingdon and sit on the benches, wondering where the heck the Police Department is. Rumor had it as another rest area. After Google Mapping, GPXing, and searching online, we finally stand up and just by glancing left see the sign pointing to the building. Inside, the first of the mixed bag of luck appears. The courtroom has been turned into a sleeping area, so Jennifer beelines to a spot. The lobby has what appears to be lots of food containers. Unfortunately, most of them are EMPTY pizza boxes, EMPTY donut boxes, and nearly empty boxes of crackers and fruit. The wife and I split a banana and triage ourselves in the lobby. I think this may be the first time I find out how bad Jennifer’s feet are. The wife had been helping her a bit at each hotel stop, and Jennifer had been dutifully taping and treating, but I had not seen them. Mary Sue updates me that Jennifer is in some serious pain and we need to let her try to rest and sleep a bit here. We are fine on time and ahead of deadlines, but my math driven head is crunching numbers and restless. For some reason I have a hard time relaxing.
Mary Sue wakes up Jennifer at whatever time she had requested and back into the night we go. The trip to Clarksburg passes quietly and we check in at 7:30am at 77 miles. With the sun, comes the first real dog encounters and the bees. More mixed luck. First true dog run-in is with super friendly border collie that a child has let out of the house. We are on the highway coming into Parkers Crossroads, so we were obviously worried about this good boy being in traffic. He shot over and was following us but finally agreed to our good-natured shooing and went home. I push ahead again, trying to let the Ladies support each other. Or, to at least be out of the way while they do so. Second run in is with a mixed breed that is as unfriendly as can be. And as more bad luck would have it, there is a ridiculous amount of traffic, no shoulder, no sidewalk, and it is difficult to fend the monster off without falling in front of oncoming cars! I manage to get past and text back a warning to the Ladies.
Even more mixed luck. On our self-tour of the route, we went to the I-Mart in Parkers Crossroads and had great pizza and were warmly welcomed and assisted by the staff. This time? Different staff. Different mood. Lisa’s here, and at the only real table available, so we kind of wander the store, cooling off, and looking for appetite inspiration. My first attempted pizza comes with cheese despite me asking for none. GRUMPY cook makes another. I miss the fact that if you ask for all the veggies, you get jalapenos on your pizza. First bite nearly kills me. I pick them off, not wanting to bother the workers more. The wife fares better and manages to get them to let her cook tomato soup in the microwave there. Jennifer gets cheese pizza, and all seems pretty well. We eat, buy a bag of ice, and go out to fix feet on the sidewalk. Again, I am surprised to find out how bad Jennifer’s feet are and how much of a badass she is to just tape up and soldier on. So off we go, agreeing to walk until we hit the next Dollar General about 10 miles away, but it seemed to never be visible on the horizon. I keep going ahead and hit a gas station. More mixed luck. The worker is incredibly friendly and lets me know they have free water and ice inside for the runners. Outside, though, are approximately 1.2 million bees, one for each prior jalapeno. I dart in, grab a cup, then step back out. I set my cup down to warn off Jennifer (serious bee allergy) and in the time it takes to text, over a dozen bees have drowned themselves in an icy Styrofoam bath. I pour it out and toss the cup. I slip on across the highway to a little market (Minors) and get a single serving of Corn Pops cereal and some juice. Where’s that damned Dollar General?! I ask the clerk. No idea. Google keeps showing it just ahead and has for the last 20 minutes. The Ladies catch up and apparently the ritual required the three of us to be present because that black and yellow sign magically appeared on the horizon seconds later! We refresh, restock, and buy a “disposable” outfit each at the Dollar General, since the plan is to crash at the church in Lexington, shower, and I’ll do everyone’s laundry at the laundromat just around the corner.
More good luck/bad luck. I push out ahead again with the clothes while what appears to be a pretty decent wall of storm clouds rolls in. The idea is to get there before the rain, fill my belly, shower, and change and be ready to do laundry as soon the Ladies arrive and can give me their clothes. The reality is that it starts pouring about 15 minutes after I’ve left the Ladies, a good 3-4 miles from the church. I dart over to the carport of a house to tie up the Dollar General bag of clothes to keep them from getting soaked then bolt for the church. I ran in Crocs. I ran in wet socks. I hit the church around 3:30 pm and circle the entire building to try and find the open door. My mind apparently isn’t functioning the best. I ask on the What’s App if the church is still open. Jan (driver of the Meat Wagon) replies that yes, it is, she’s there, just come in the door. Another trip around the building and I finally see the opening on the back patio I missed before. Going inside, I think I’m in heaven. At home, I sleep with a fan, always, regardless of temp. There are fans everywhere roaring. I see thick foam yoga mats and sit on one incredibly comfortable mat to discard wet clothing and shoes only to discover my little 40-minute jog in the torrent has raised a blister on my right heel and 4th toe. Genius. The Ladies arrive an hour later. Jennifer’s feet just plain suck. They are in a bad way, she’s in a bad way, so I execute the laundry plan while they both do as much as possible to make it so she can sleep. An hour later, I’m back with clean, dry clothes for us all. The sleeping doesn’t go very well. The lights are incredibly bright. The air mattress we are on is so low that both of us needed to be on it to keep from touching the ground in the middle (and we discovered later that the same was true of the one Jennifer shared with another random runner.) One church volunteer was loud. Insanely loud. I mean LOUD. The fans that were running made a lot of noise and the gymnasium gave everything that echo effect that they do, so this individual bellowed every syllable of every word spoken. There was a shortage of sheets on the air mattresses so we had one tiny one on ours that didn’t stay in place, so I ended up laying on bare plastic that my skin would stick to. We had given ourselves 6 hours here, and by the time our alarm went off, I had perhaps slept 90 minutes (not in a row), Mary Sue less, and with her painful feet, I’m not sure Jennifer ever did. We had debated leaving after being there just an hour. I thought we could sleep. Instead we all “rested.” This may have been a lucky decision. There wasn’t a real hotel for 20 miles, and we didn’t know what on earth we’d find.
Once we are all awake, or whatever we were calling it, the horror show began. Jennifer’s big toe now looked like a copperhead with a belly full of brown recluse spiders had bitten it before dropping it into a bear trap occupied by a leprosy-riddled armadillo; or so I was told. I kept myself removed from the situation as Jennifer, Mary Sue, and Jan discussed treatment, tolerance, and the visual versus the reality. During this time, Tony Hendrix, Melissa Wagner, and Jason DuPont have come into the church for a pit stop. Mary Sue updates me on Jennifer’s situation and lets me know that since Oprah isn’t a factor, she is sticking with Jennifer until she can either continue or decides to drop out (or is told to do so for fear of permanent injury.) I find out Tony and crew aren’t staying, simply popping in and are more than willing to take me as a tag along. Pictures are taken, goodbyes are spoken, and I depart with a different trio; thinking I won’t see the Ladies until the end, now. As luck would have it, that would not be the case.
Our newly formed quartet heads down the road around 1 a.m. and I soon begin to wonder if my good fortune causes everyone else’s misfortune. We get perhaps 4 miles down the road and I find myself ahead of the group I’m with again. Looking back, I see Melissa bent over, hands on knees. The discussion turns to food, hydration, electrolytes, etc. Jason and Tony start throwing food and drink at Melissa, but she finally has them back off and just let her be. She’ll figure out what she needs. We start back down the road as another wave of something hits Melissa. To our left, a business appears with a large covered front entrance. We slip to the shadowed side of the building and decide to rest, eventually being forced by a light drizzle to move to the front. I’m still not good at “relaxing, resting, and recovering” so I’m just stretching and catching up with my phone, finding out that Jennifer’s feet are still attached, the Ladies are both still in the race and are about to hit the road! Perhaps twenty minutes later, we do the same. Travel is in fits and starts, Melissa not feeling great, and Jason decides to push on a little ahead with me. Somehow, my walking pace is still faster than his and I end up ahead of our strung-out quartet. The issue now is that I am by myself out in the dark (2 am) and since I can see just well enough not to need the flashlight, I am in non-distinct and fuzzy shadows. Suddenly, I just can’t stay awake. My legs aren’t tired, my feet are in tolerable pain, but my brain didn’t get the same amount of rest my body did at the church gymnasium. Stumbling and staggering, I text the wife just to help me focus on something. She tells me there’s a school just ahead of my location that should be some sort of road angel aid station. The time taken to text and the sleepwalking have let Jason get close, so I relay the information to him, and since he knows Tony and Melissa aren’t far behind him, we let them get close enough to yell the same. It seems to take HOURS for that damn school to appear, though. When it does, we discover that one, it’s literally just a BRIGHTLY lit hallway in the school that is open to us; two, in terms of aid, there is just water and bathrooms; and three, the tile floor of an elementary school is about the least comfortable surface you can choose to attempt to sleep on. Jason stays just long enough to sign the “guestbook” on the table and grabs some water. Melissa and Tony bed down in the entrance, taking my advice of using the entryway’s mat as at least some sort of cushioning. BJ has apparently beat us here and is crashed inside in the hallway by the bathrooms. Since laying down comfortably seems impossible, I just fold myself in half, sitting cross legged, and rest my head on my arms to hopefully doze until the Ladies arrive (Mary Sue had said they weren’t too far back and planned on stopping at that school since Jennifer was in real pain again.)
Upon arrival, Mary Sue fills me in that Jennifer is in a bad way. She wants to call Jan and I thought she declared that “this may be it” and that she isn’t sure if Jennifer could go on. I found out later I misheard her. The wife never had a doubt about Jennifer finishing (and later all would realize the same about our fellow bad-ass traveler.) The discussion wakes BJ and he sort of disappears. Mary Sue goes outside to call Jan and as I go to find her, we discover that BJ had decided to sleep outside. Maybe it was us, maybe it was the fact that the hallway was sitting at about 65 degrees, but we apologize anyways, having seemingly followed him out to keep him awake! I soon found out we are going to wait for Jan to drive up from the church so she can take another look at Jennifer’s feet (especially that horrific toe) and advise how to continue. It doesn’t take long, and neither does Jan’s evaluation. “Looks worse than it is.” “Survivable.” “Desitin injection.” Jan gets in the car. Jennifer doesn’t! Soon, we are back on the road! We climb the rolling highway and dodge traffic while holding our flashlights, the night slowly giving way. We head towards Parsons and eventually check in at 103 miles for 7:30am Sunday, officially 72 hours completed.
Life, Death, and another mixed bag of luck: Parsons, Perryville, and Linden
As we hit the outskirts of the county. Mary Sue’s worst fear materializes. She has come across an injured animal on the side of the road, a cardinal, and scoops it up. Now what?! Long story short, she carries this injured bird while a flurry of texts, IM’s, FB posts, What’s App callouts and even phone calls to local officials reveals that since it’s Sunday, there is literally nothing to be done except comfort the animal while it passes or find a place to let the bird pass in solitary safety. She chooses the former, carrying the bird all the way into Parsons; even flagging down a police cruiser to ask for help and advice. We find out later that Jason had originally found the bird IN the road and moved it off to the side. The county is too small to even have animal control, so we are on our own. Jennifer has cried from physical pain…now it’s Mary’s turn to have the tears. Dodging ridiculous traffic resulting from a rerouted highway due to some accident, we cross back and forth from the Parson’s Inn to the only church open (on a Sunday mind you) in town. Surely a church congregation will have a loving soul that would take the bird off our hands, caring for it until Monday when it could go the local vet clinic, right? Nope. 9 am is still too early for churchgoers apparently. By the time we manage to wrangle something to put the bird in from the church (a most horrifically ironic foil roasting pan) it passes, a final resting place created in the high grass next to the hotel’s parking lot. Inside, during this time, we have cajoled a room out of the day manager, who is working to do the housekeeping herself since the staff doesn’t arrive until later. Smelling the manager’s amazing Indian food that is somewhere out of sight, Jennifer, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, tries to get the manager to cook us some! No dice. Mary Sue and I walk to Subway instead, returning to still wait for a room to be made ready. The hotel staff is truly wonderful, offering many small amenities, but we get in asap and try to crash. Quick rinsing and hanging of clothes and what-nots gets done and when we wake up at 5pm, realize that having damp clothes won’t be much of a consideration since it has started to rain in earnest as we leave.
We dart into a supermarket for a little stock up and to look for a poncho for Jennifer and a replacement flashlight for myself. My light has vanished, and she only has a disposable poncho; rather beaten up. We get a big garbage bag from the clerk and make her an oh-so stylish Hefty bag rain outfit. Don’t see a good flashlight. On the way out, Tony and Melissa show up and walk with us for just a little bit down to the next gas station. We go in briefly and they head into Subway where Diane (the Turtle!) has apparently stopped. The weather report looks bad, so we are trying to move on down the road as quickly as possible, choosing Fat Man’s Key Stop as the next likely haven. Unsure of when it closes, the race is on. We hit the bridge, crossing the Tennessee River right at check in (112) for a nice selfie over the water, and roll up to the Key Stop at 8. Lisa and Jason are there! Strategies and plans are exchanged, and they depart while we are still recovering. The number of helpful and charitable things the clerk there did are just too many to list, but we end up well fed, supplied, and sheltered from the weather past the normal closing time. Not wanting to overextend our welcome, off we walk into the night as the rain begins to let up.
Throughout the course of this event, I was constantly surprised by catching up to people I thought I was to forever fall behind, and so was again shocked to see a light off in the distance, that again turned out to be Jason and Lisa. No matter how bad Jennifer’s feet (or mine for that matter) were, our pace always seemed to be the fastest of the “back of the pack” folks and we quickly became a loose quintet now, marching to Linden. Spirits are high, music is played, and we find out that the Visitor’s Center is supposedly open for a sleeping area, as well as a few other places in town. We also discover a cooler just outside the town square with four ice cold Budweisers! Manna from heaven. Lisa has managed to wrangle a hotel room at the Commodore, so the rest of us push to the Center, passing a packed post office lobby full of sleeping LAVS sardines. The Center is not open, unfortunately, though. Apparently during AM hours, it is open for runners. At 2 in the morning, it just hosts a cooler on its porch. As a result, the four of us decide to bed down in the gazebo in the center of town. Hoping for just a few hours of sleep, we try to spread out on the wooden floor and benches in the shockingly cool, damp air. Jason is the only one who manages sleep, approximately 2 seconds after laying down, and snores for the next 3 hours. He doesn’t keep anyone awake though; we just can’t sleep. The alarm goes off and so do we, knowing the infamous death march to Hohenwald is on the horizon. We travel an hour or so, with a quick foot care pit stop outside a closed gas station, then check in at mile 132 at 7:30. Twenty-five miles to half-way!
It’s a LONG way to Hohenwald
If you look up anyone’s race report, they talk about the hike to Hohenwald. It’s long. It takes all day. There’s hardly any businesses or homes for the 16 or so miles in between Linden and the city proper. So that also means not many driveways. Add in the minimal shoulder along the highway, and you just really don’t have any great opportunities to rest, sit down, or do much more than put your head down and just mule-walk. So we did. Sometimes it rains on that walk. And it did. And apparently, most years, the Hinson Family welcomes runners into their carport about halfway through that death march. And they did. A delightfully misspelled signed welcomed us to “snaks” and we gleefully dropped our gear to the ground, enjoying produce FRESH from the garden a few yards to our right. BJ sat in a lounge chair while Tony and Melissa were asleep on cots, and two more runners we had finally chased down, Chastity and Pam, on inflated pool floats. We tried to be quiet to allow folks to rest, but Mr. Hinson was fond of conversation and apparently hard of hearing, resulting in a rather loud discourse. Seeing what looked like a break in the weather, we sign their guestbook and pack up.
Refreshed, we exit the Hinson’s driveway, myself now paired with BJ. He agrees with me that all the participants have been lucky with the weather. The heat has been nothing like years past, and I personally have managed to dodge serious downpours despite the presence of Hurricane Barry in the region! In the relatively few minutes it takes us to climb the current hill, BJ recalls how it took more than an hour to do the same when the summer sun was far more brutal. Accompanied by an intermittent drizzle, our merry (?) band finally arrived at the town and subsequent hotel in the early afternoon. We check in for mile 144 since we decide to sleep through 7:30 pm.
Hohenwald to Hampshire to halfway and beyond!!!
Being group screwed has its advantages. You can help each other. As such, after every sleep, Mary Sue would assist Jennifer in whatever fashion would make her able to walk…stapling on toes, sewing on heels, whatever. I decided I’d go run ahead to the Walmart about a mile down the road, do all the shopping, then just meet them roadside so we could be ready to go. While shopping, I had the world’s friendliest (and possibly oldest) Walmart employee help with the shopping. She just kept asking what was next on the list, then pointing out exactly where it would be. On the way to the checkout, a couple stopped me, and the lady asked the question we’ve all heard by now, “You’re one of those runners, aren’t you?”
I replied with a smile, “yes, I am.”
“Can I ask you a few questions?”
“Let me give you a few answers first, then ask what’s leftover,” I say.
“One, I’m not sure the reason I’m doing this. There’s no charity involved, and I think I just wanted to find out if I could. Two, we started in Dorena Landing, Missouri, crossed by ferry into Hickman, Kentucky and we will finish in Castle Rock, Georgia if we go fast enough to get there by ten days from start time. Lastly, if I make it, I get a bumper sticker, a patch, and a ‘wooden medallion’ for a necklace. No prize money, nothing big like that. Any questions those don’t answer?” I ask with an even bigger smile.
Confused look and a head shake. “Well, good luck!”
On to checkout, and the nearby ATM where I wait for the Ladies. They arrive, we divide up goods, and off into the night we go. For the second time, I hit a wall around 2:30AM. Mary wisely suggests that I run on ahead, thinking the extra activity will get me a little more awake and less down, discouraged, and grumpy. I check the distance we are at, knowing that sometime in this stretch between sleeps we will hit mile 157. Halfway! That alone will be a huge mental boost. It’s the first of the three numbers I’ve been looking forward to. 157 for the half accomplishment. 200 for just a God-damned big number. And 214, for a countdown from 100 to 0 as you finish.
Running by myself was a brilliant idea. I wake up almost immediately. The body is happy to be moving with purpose, and I build a 30-minute lead out on the highway. I keep an eye on the GPX app, wanting to cross halfway with the Ladies. I see the bend where the group can selfie and decide to nap on the side until they arrive. The sun and the Ladies arrive at about the same time. We take a pic, celebrate, then check in an hour later at 161 after passing the newly proclaimed “Bench of Hope”!!!!
Hampshire to Columbia…. or Boys go pee pee, Girls go wee-wee and MacGyver laundromat
The realization that not only are we passing the halfway mark in terms of mileage, but also the beginning of day 6 on the road sets in. WOW! Half of our time is gone, and we are just a mere four miles ahead of Oprah. Just realizing how far we have come, though, puts a smile on all our faces. This lasts most of the day. Just outside of Taco Express, we encounter a woman with a dog and a bicycle, who is apparently trying to get to somewhere in Virginia. We pass on some food and money, and I have the first near dog bite of the entire trip. This little ankle biter she’s holding looks like he’s half-asleep and seems to want to smell my hand. WRONG. It wants to eat my fingers. Lesson learned. We wish the woman well, receiving thanks, and head into the gas station/restaurant and it turns into “old home” week. EVERYONE is there. We bump into Jan, BJ, Lisa (and her husband who is now her crew), Pam and Chastity and OB (forgive me Oddbjoern, I have no idea how you shorten your name initially). After fantastic black bean burritos, Icees, and nachos, we intermittently spill out and head toward Columbia. Jan has warned us of construction, and a fellow LAVS runner having been struck by a car. The workers had subsequently said to walk down the middle of the road in the construction to be safe. She also warns me of the dogs in “Wheel.” I try to look up Wheel on the GPX and she says “it’s not a town. Just beware of the house on the left, that has a long fence right before the Pit Stop. The pit bulls there are vicious and have mauled people. The townsfolk, although Wheel isn’t a town, apparently even talk about something needing to be done, since they bite people EVERY YEAR!” But then she just shrugs it off saying, “you have an umbrella, right? You’ll be fine. You just flap that open and shut in their face.”
Um, ok…filed away to remember. We have also learned that there is a podiatrist who has setup a foot station at the Bench of Despair, who will even come out if called and who does not constitute taking “crewed aid.” We further discover that he can actually come to our hotel, since he was willing to come to the Bench, and that this is still not being crewed! Also, Jan has let us know that we are likely to encounter Mr. Goad. He will NOT be a road angel. He will NOT offer food or water. He WILL want you to come over and sign his book and possibly sit and talk a bit.
Truth. Before we make the square in Columbia, we are waved over to a porch. Down go our names in the book. Out comes our names and the names of our homes. A slight interview by Mr. Goad including the following, “Boys go pee-pee, girls go wee-wee. Didn’t you learn that in school?” I cry, laughing. Jennifer laughs loudly and anxiously. Mary immediately goes to her pack and pulls out her P-style, asking “have you ever seen one of these?! It lets girls go pee-pee!” I lose it. Jennifer is now laughing loudly, but not anxiously. Mr. Goad? Politely looks at the device and shakes his head. “Hmm..nope.” Not offended, not phased. I see OB and (another reason to apologize) wave him over, planning our escape. We swap places on the porch and wave our goodbyes as we head toward the square, making the final push for the hotel that never seemed to get closer.
Once in the hotel, we realize that laundry will again be a manual affair. The podiatrist attends to Jennifer and OB’s feet in her room (he has horrific heat rash and fears cellulitis setting in.) The wife does her best Lucille Ball grape-stomping in the bathtub with all the dirty clothes then we attempt to rinse, wring, and dry. With every diaper pin, safety pin, hanger, and luggage rack in the hotel room, I lay all our clothes outside of our room and hang them on the railing. Putting wet clothes in front of the AC unit inside did nothing except get them cold and slightly less damp, so I didn’t try. As I took everything out, though, I feel a blast of warm air and realized that the air going OUT of the AC wasn’t great to dry clothes, but if you could get them close to the vent outside of your room, where the air goes in? A MAJOR discovery! The clothes most likely to be worn went on luggage rack that comes in the room and set right by the unit outside. Nearly dry clothes in under an hour! I pull everything back inside, once we each have an outfit, and let the damp clothes hang. 7:30pm check in put us at 179 miles, and laundry made bedtime even later. OB departs, Jennifer is taped up, and we eventually crash much later than anticipated.
Bench of Despair, Nutt House, Breakup Talk, and Pit Bulls
Laundry and podiatry made for a late bedtime, so we sleep well into the AM for a change. Jennifer slept in a separate room for the best possible chance at rest for her. She’s been shown how to tape her feet and seems in much better spirits. We know we are close to the fabled Bench of Despair and the equally famous Nutt House aid station, so the wife is in good spirits. I, on the other hand, am clock-watching. Making it to the Bench of Despair helps. Selfies taken, signatures made, and foot aid station raided. Check in at 7:30 am. We’ve only gone 6 miles since last check in! I know we are ok on time. I know we should make up tons of miles today. I know the Nutt House will most likely be great, but we are behind Oprah for the first time. Even if only technically behind, depending on what decimal you round up or down, but my head is not happy, and my feet are restless.
As such, the Nutt House is frustrating as hell for me. We get there shortly after check-in, and I’m thinking we’ll only be here a short while since we’ve only been on the road seven- or eight-miles total since leaving the hotel, and we already stopped at the Bench! Wrong. Mary lets me know that we are most likely going to stay for at least a half an hour…perhaps more. My brain just starts pacing in my skull. This is the best aid station ever, hands down. If I weren’t vegan, I’d have stuffed my face in a most uncouth fashion on the homemade biscuits offered. I still had an easy time of finding food and beverage from the abundant fare, but I was ready to go. I don’t think I showed my frustration, but I think my lack of fatigue was obvious. I was the guy who didn’t sit. There were lots of times during LAVS where I had to remind myself to sit down, take a load off, rub a foot. This was one of those and I think the wife noticed.
We left the Nutt House with fond farewells, and notifications that there were a few behind us (and apparently a few inside!) Moments before departing, we saw Tony come outside shortly from the house and found out that he and Melissa had slept on the porch. The road stretched out ahead and I was glad to finally get moving again. We chug along closing in on noon. Heading east on Culleoka Highway, we hit Cully’s Market & Diner and get more real food! A toasted PB&J with French fries for me makes the impatience go away. I gladly sit and enjoy my lunch, then we pass the time outside fixing feet and petting the store cat.
My prior impatience must have been far more noticeable than I thought, though, because we weren’t on the highway for more than an hour before the wife motions for me to come back and talk to her. “You know, you should go run your race. We will be fine. I think you would enjoy your race more if you went on ahead and ran your race. But don’t go yet! Let’s make sure we each have everything we need.”
I was surprised. Guilty. Happy. Confused. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Me and Jennifer will be fine. I just think you will be happier going on ahead.”
We decide to hit the next gas station right after crossing Highway 65. Before we can reach it, though, we encounter the LAVS groupie whose house we had been warned NOT to go to by Laz. Not out of safety concerns, but more that this individual was going far beyond road angel and was basically crewing for people. Cooking, laundry, dropping things off by car to you. She may even have a small part in the reason Laz created a new race and route for 2020. From the back of her car, we accept a few items and then try to let her know we really need to go so we can divide and conquer. She grills us for a little more info on any stragglers behind us, since she has apparently been banned from the Facebook group and everyone has been told not to come to her house! Feigning ignorance, we have her take our photo before doing gear count and separating. Trading wipes for tape and goodbye kisses, we say our farewells and after hugs all around, I start my own race at mile 195!
Leaving the BP gas station behind, I jog towards Lewisburg, just a few miles away. The Coin Laundry right on the main drag lets me dry all the clean but damp clothes I have in a gallon Ziploc bag, so I am quickly armed with fresh clothes for later now! Unfortunately, there is NO air conditioning in the laundromat, so I loiter in the adjoining store a bit, looking for pepper spray, because I think I’m getting close to Wheel. By now I have learned that Wheel is an unincorporated territory west of Shelbyville. Thanks, Google. I have also learned that the store does not carry mace, so I gather my clothes and freshly charged phone (found an outlet!) and after just a mile, also learn that Pam and Chastity are just in sight now, and that Lewisburg may truly be the worst smelling place on the planet. I smelled something in the air. Not good. It seemed to get worse. Definitely not good. Curious if it was me, but confused as to why, all of a sudden, I’d be aware of my own stench, I start jogging to try to get away from the smell, but it becomes so terrible that I literally stop and check the soles of my shoes. The only thing I had stepped in, though, was the town of Lewisburg, Tennessee. I keep running, passing Pam and Chastity as they round the corner of a restaurant to sit down and eat. Onward I go into Farmington. Lo and behold, Jason and BJ have paired up and are just stopping to rest at one of BJ’s apparently annual watering holes. It’s a trucking company, or something, but it looks very closed despite it being mid-afternoon. He’s kind of distraught about it, and I understand. They usually take him in, walk him to the back while chatting him up, and let him hit the vending machines in the cool building. This year? Shuttered. A pickup truck rolls into the parking lot and stops in front of us, where we are just sitting outside of the locked door in the shade. BJ yells to the man about this person and that, wondering where they are, and the man responds they don’t work there anymore. I think this really gets BJ down.
We chat, discuss plans, and I share mints and gum which go over like gangbusters. Also, I discover, BJ has no clean socks left. I offer a pair of long Injinji’s and he rolls the dice and decides to use them, never having worn toe socks before. Having travelled past the smell, of Lewisburg, not BJ’s feet, I rest a bit and then my usual restless nature kicked in again. I didn’t want anyone who I had passed to pass me. Why? Any motivation to push. So I did. And then I hit Wheel. And I half remembered what Jan said. And I encountered the pit bulls.
It’s crazy to remember how much actually happened in what could not have been more than 4 seconds of time. Throughout my memories of the race now, the event has transformed into someone scrolling through microfilm; things flashing and rolling by, then suddenly stopping at a crystal-clear image. I remembered having seen a sign saying Wheel, unincorporated, population something. Sudden awareness, now. House on my left. Long split rail fence. OPEN driveway. Two different colored snarling pit bulls racing at me. Behind them, far up the drive, their owner silently stands at his car with his arms folded, watching them tear toward me to tear at me. I do NOT remember the “flap the umbrella open and closed” part, but I do remember “in their face” so I grab my umbrella from my pack pocket and turn to face the fastest of the two dogs. I do NOT remember saying anything out loud, but I cannot guarantee I didn’t yell “EXPELLIARMUS” as I thumbed the pop-open button, pointing the umbrella at the dog 5 feet away now. Why? I was relying on this thing to magically protect me like a wand, and it was one of the first spells Harry Potter mastered and as such, was a pretty harmless spell. It just flew into the forefront of my mind, though, and apparently worked! The umbrella exploded open as the dog’s face reached it. Definitely disarmed (since that’s what the spell did) the thing went tumbling by me, backflipping away in surprise. The second dog slid to a halt, seeing the alpha beaten by a homeless looking wizard. Eyeballing both and just keeping my face to them and my umbrella open like a Kingsman (two movie references in one dog attack!) I manage to finally back away from both animals and continue up the road. They slinked back toward their owner.
I immediately text back to the Ladies about the location and the dogs. Calm, and oddly bolstered by the experience, I then did a quick Facebook livestream as I approached the Pit Stop Market. Hell, if I made it through that and was almost at 214 miles, what could possibly keep me from finishing? In what became a ritual at every future location possible, I grabbed a Coca Cola Icee and some Munchos. Also, I bought 2 chicken tenders. I thought I could toss them at the next “bad dogs” Jan had predicted. Check-in is at 216 miles, right at 7:30pm.
Shelbyville, $10/hr hotels, and how far is too far off course?
Here’s some more good luck, bad luck. After two more hours of jogging, I find myself cruising into Shelbyville. Having seen no more dogs, I dispose of two now truly disgusting looking chicken strips. Hotel choices have been gone over on the phone with the Ladies, whom I am scouting ahead for as I go. They aren’t terribly far behind and could possibly make it to take my room, wherever it ended up being. I chose to pass up the Magnolia hotel, known for its incredibly economical $10 an hour room rate and its alarmingly high crime rate. Good luck there. I hit the gas station for pre-sleep snacks and am warned off the idea as well, with phrases like “crack house” and “drug den” tossed in for effect. Now the bad luck. My small travel bottle of sunscreen, attached to my pack with a carabiner that passed through a hole in the molded bottle’s bottom so that it hung upside down, no longer has a cap. Somehow, the constant bouncing from running has performed the bottle cap challenge, long before it became a viral internet sensation. As such, the lower right half of my body looks like I’ve been bombarded by pigeons with gastrointestinal issues and fantastic aim. I eagerly travel slightly off-course to my hotel to clean up and sleep. The Ladies have decided that the America’s Best Value Inn is just too far out of the way and stop at the Magnolia later. That’s their bad luck and their story to tell.
I’ve rubbed in most of the sunscreen, but am a hot, greasy mess. Despite being warned by BJ of bedbugs, I look forward to trying to get horizontal as soon as clean. The clerk, however, seems to be in no big hurry, and despite my obvious solitude, appearance, and participation in LAVS proceeds to ask me about my car’s make and model, if I have any pets, and if it is only me in the room. Really asks a lot about that.
“Just one person?” Yes.
“So, it will only be you?” Yes.
“Anyone else?” No.
Looking back, I’m not sure if he was hinting at the possibility of providing me company, or if other runners had come before and swapped in and out of rooms. Then he asked me about pets! After getting past the bizarre check-in, I hit my first ever non-carpeted hotel room. Interesting. I check out the bed for critters and it seems to pass muster, so a shower is in order while I blast the local weather on the TV, not wanting to miss whatever the hurricane is going to be doing nearby. Grub from the prior gas station serves as supper and I pass the night in hard sleep at mile 224.
Shelbyville to Manchester, or Why didn’t Wartrace notice we were there?
I pop out of bed around 5:30 am, rejuvenated and anxious to start my first real solo day! I retrace my steps to get back to where I left off course in route to the hotel and get to revisit the square in Shelbyville. Good thing! The café is just opening, and I have a real breakfast that doesn’t come out of a wrapper or a fryer. Oatmeal, toast, fruit, coffee, and a bucket of sweet tea out the door. Outstanding. I can tell I can go a long way before needing to eat again. I remember to grab sunscreen at the next available gas station and snag some gum and mints. The day passes in a relative blur, but I remember stopping to do a horrible imitation of Andy Dufresne’s letter to Red when I see this long stone wall to my left. Wartrace is just as beautiful as it was during Strolling Jim, but there are no road angels whatsoever. The weather is mild and eventually I end up catching up with BJ! Somehow, I figured since he would pass me in the night, I would not see him again. He’s not having the best day and asks me to walk with him for a while. I gladly do, and the time again goes microfilm. Heading up a hill somewhere, a work crew is clearing land and burning brush. A man sits in front of a cooler and I debate asking for a drink, ice, or anything cool at all. BJ looks at me and asks if I actually need it, and I reply, “no, but if it’s free…!” We don’t directly ask, though and subtlety is either lost on this guy or he’s in no mood to share. We walk, we talk, and Don Winkler’s crew guy stops to chat us up. It’s not the most comfortable spot on the road, so I’m anxious to get going again. Then it rains. For real. Whispering Oaks Campground is nearby, according to BJ, so the plan is to push hard and get there. I end up having to do a rather public stop at the end of someone’s driveway to address some chafing, but otherwise we plod in, drenched, tired, and hungry.
For me, the Whispering Oaks Campground was even better than the Nutt House! No peanut butter, and they apologize for not planning for vegans, but I am more than capable of putting together a barbecue potato chip sandwich and relishing every bite. There are showers, which BJ partakes of, but I don’t have dry clothes and don’t want to put wet clothes back on. The hotel in Manchester is only 9 miles away. At the first break in the weather, I bolt with appreciation and farewells to BJ and the campground staff. The highway turns right just up the road and there is suddenly glorious shoulder to walk on. Most of the day had been spent stepping on and off of 6-12 inches of scrub grass and weeds just outside the white line of county roads as traffic passed. Yeah!
Then a good dog encounter! Two strays were wandering all over the road, playing with a couple of dogs that were behind a fence. They noticed me and immediately trotted over. NO worries. You could tell at distance that these were two good boys. The only problem was they were being so friendly that they wanted to accompany me to Castle Rock. Eventually, a truck pulled over and the driver asked if they were my dogs, because despite trailing me, they weren’t very good at observing the right of way. When I told him that they weren’t mine, he surprised me by dropping the tailgate and rounding them up. He was going to find the owners or take them home! Another yay! So, in a great mood, I powered into Manchester and nabbed some Taco Bell before stopping at the Quality Inn.
I knew I was staying, so I checked in at 252 miles early. I also checked in with the Ladies and found out that they were close enough that I could pass off my room to them before checking out! The hotel had a rather late “late checkout” so they could keep the room till almost 1pm. And the hotel had laundry facilities 2 doors down from my room. Jackpot! I dropped a room key at the desk for the Ladies, did laundry while I ate, then slept like the dead. I wanted to push tomorrow and planned on sleeping as much as possible.
The Ladies and I cross paths very shortly. As I’m getting ready around 4:30 am, they roll into the room. I leave my quarters behind so they can do laundry and wish them a good “night.” Jennifer’s feet apparently have done everything possible to try and make her quit, but she is determined to press on. I’m worried about her, but it really seems she will let nothing stop her, and I know Mary will finish no matter what, so I just let them be and head off towards Hillsboro. After a few hours, the morning check-in finds me at mile 263.
The Penultimate Push from Pelham
Castle Rock seems close! I decide to push. It’s day 8 and I decide I’m going to run as much as possible today. The weather seemed agreeable to me, not forcing me to stop from heat, and no rain in sight. Coming through Pelham, there are lots of dogs. Almost all of these are simple “stay out of my yard!” barkers and just announce the fact that they see you. But there must be one in the crowd…always is. A border collie decides I have no business being on its street. It takes umbrella, yelling, foot stomping, rock and dirt kicking, and a bit of attitude to get the damned thing to finally back off and return to its yard. Checking the GPX I realize I am heading into Monteagle and am at the base of the 3-mile climb! A very nice road angel station off to the right lets me dump most of my food, grab the limited amount of water I guess I will need to make it to the top of the mountain. Remembering our drive of the course, I know that the Mountain Goat Café is at the top and will provide a fantastic reward for my efforts! Vegan calzones and ginger beer are waiting, so I power up the curvy highway, dodging traffic. Walking with my head half-turned so I can hear which direction cars are coming toward me from, since I can’t see any of them, I get up the hill in less than an hour. There is a 30 second period of crazy disappointment, because I had forgotten the café isn’t right at the top of the hill, but instead after the first left. Looking up the street I see my oasis! For once, the air conditioning is welcomed. I sit just inside the first set of doors, waiting on the bathroom. Instead of walking through the café dripping sweat from every possible part of my body, I want to go in and do a quick sink wash and paper towel off. I do so, then grab my food and quickly make my way to a corner as far in the corner as possible in order to not offend the patrons. I see some vaguely familiar faces of LAVS participants who must have finished recently but stuck around. Also, I get a few “good job” comments from those who either know of the event or vaguely recognize my participation in the event. Bottoms Up ginger beer and a calzone make for a great 30-minute break. I check the phone, check the charge (I had given the wife my cord, too), take a quick pic and am ready. Heading out the door, I bump into Tim Hardy! While tying shoes and applying sunscreen, I get a mini pep-talk and pretty much feel like I can run the rest of the day! Farewells and congratulations exchanged; I head off.
This is my last full day of running, so it turns out to have all kinds of fun up and downs, and interactions. Hines Ponds is a beautiful little rest stop off the road that lets me splash my head and hands with cool water from the tiniest waterfall! Running well and coming up on 280 miles, I see a soda machine outside of a bonafide service station. DAMN! No change; left it all with the wife to do her laundry. Looking to get change for a couple of bills, I head into the customer entrance next to the open garage bay door. Nobody is inside. There’s a car on the lift, so I assume a mechanic will be nearby, so I sit and wait a bit. Then a bit more. Then I start calling behind the counter. The lobby was a nice cool pit stop, but I’d like to get a move on. I decide to give up and head back out onto the road. Halfway across the parking lot, I get a “hey, can I help you?” from behind. Two mechanics have emerged from somewhere. I explained why I was where I was, and they tell me that there is an aid station for runners just up the road on the left at the “old school”, whatever that is. Ok, then! I’ll wait till I get there and not worry about the change.
In Tracy City, I see the handmade sign welcoming us runners, and the balloons at the edge of the parking lot of what looks to be an old school. Perfect. I could use the water now. I’m not low, but it’s not cold anymore. I head up the asphalt entrance and see someone eating while sitting on the tailgate of a pickup with what looks like all kinds of supplies around him. As I get closer to the vehicle, though, I realize these aren’t coolers, bottles, food containers, or even foot care supplies. It’s a guy selling bootleg DVD’s while eating melon out of a Tupperware bowl. Awkward! I don’t stop walking, but instead veer a bit toward a circle of large rocks and pretend that was my goal all along. Giving a quick “Hi, how are you?” while needlessly retying a shoe, I hide my disappointment. A quick furtive look around reveals no aid whatsoever, so I just backhand a wave and run back down the entrance and continue my way on down the road. Soon after, I get bailed out by the Grundy Market!
Coca Cola Icee! Munchos! Wedges! Hydration bladder full of ice. I buy a charger cord because I absolutely need one, but due to sheer desperation, am forced to buy a ten-foot cord. All they have. So, I roll this thing up and pack it away and continue out the door. While in line checking out, a local asked me the usual questions about what, why, and how far. I explain while fumbling money out of a zip-loc entrapped wallet. Once outside, I sat on the curb to sunscreen up and retie shoes in earnest. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I look up and the same guy hands me a giant Slim Jim with a huge smile on his face. “Protein for the road!” I gave him heartfelt thanks, despite being a vegan, and put in into a vest pocket. The notion of eating meat doesn’t gross me out, but I have made the decision to try and not support any of the industries that require animal utilization. So, a donation, that I didn’t buy, I can justify in my head for later use.
There’s enough water in my pack to go for a long way, and I remember Tim Hardy telling me that there’s a spot in Jasper at Steve Smalling’s house for aid, after the long downhill. Time to run! The rest of the afternoon passes in blocks of running for 10 minutes, walking for 5 or running for 3 songs and walking for 1. Then I just run and run. Auto-pilot had been achieved, but I start getting crazy hungry and really don’t have anything with me. OR so I thought! Yep, I ate that Slim Jim. And it was a struggle to do so. Those spicy ropes of “meat” were never my favorite when I did eat meat, but it took enough of the edge off my hunger to let me power through to the Mountain Mart at the top of the descent into Jasper proper. While staring at all the guns on the wall, I have yet another Icee, a packaged apple pie, and some rye chips and calculate time to the Super 8 in Kimball. I’ll make it by check-in, so I call to see if they have rooms and am assured I don’t need a reservation. The counter has rows of biscuits and servings of deep fried “things” and I keep looking to see if something else will work. I give up, figuring all the batter surely has milk or eggs. Not a big deal, I’m feeling better after the rest and food, so I grab a bottle of ginger ale and head to the cashier. The staff had noticed me eyeing all the fried food and start haggling. “Hey, buy 1 and you can take 3 with you!” It’s late afternoon and I’m guessing they are getting ready to throw some of this stuff away. I decline and turn to head out the door. One hand on the push bar, I get my second tap on the shoulder of the day. “Here, just take one.” A smiling worker hands me a biscuit with something and something on it, sealed in plastic wrap. Again, heartfelt thanks and a departure.
Walking towards the beginning of the long downhill, I examine my gift. Best guess put it as a bacon and egg biscuit. The egg-like part was a sponge, so it went into the balled-up wrap. The bacon quickly followed; carbon dated at 12 hours at least. As for the biscuit? I tried to give it a quick nibble, but then let the nearby birds have the parts that didn’t disintegrate at the first bite. Happy to have the carbonation to clear out my mouth and throat, I down half the ginger ale then start running down toward the rumored aid station.
The legs feel strong and I make great time during the long downhill. After it levels out at the bottom, another few miles pass and then I see what must be Steve Smalling’s house on the left. A long driveway with coolers and folding chairs waits rather invitingly. I see another runner depart before I can get close enough to clearly see them. I trot down the drive and take a seat while a very friendly Steve Smalling introduces himself and conducts a quick interview, complete with pictures! I find out that the runner who left was Kim Atkins, since her husband has stuck around for a few minutes to chat, also. The Super 8 in Kimball is close, so I am in no major hurry, for a change. I enjoy a few sodas and some very supportive conversation. Steve and Mark ask about the Ladies and I find out that Mark had surprised Kim by showing up. I decide to head out and get to that hotel! Jasper is a quaint little town, and I end up running with someone else who, to be honest is a blur. I remember female. We had just made the right onto 72 and ran together for a very short while. They crossed the road and went into the Exxon station and I ran on.
The sun dips below the horizon and on through dusk into proper evening I go. It’s only 4 miles to the hotel, so I start jogging and end up catching Alex Morton, silent member of LAVS-eve for all who remember. We talk a bit, and I decide I want to push on harder and try to catch Kim, just to talk to all the people I knew of but haven’t interacted with. I’m able to catch up to her about a mile from the hotel and we also talk about plans. We both know we are close, and we both feel pretty good, but she has decided to push all the way to the finish. I am worried about trying to navigate once I get tired, because I know it’s coming. I’ve done 45 miles since sleeping last and it would be another 17 past the motel. Until recently, I just wanted to finish. Now that I knew I could actually do it in under 9 days, I start doing the math and realize I can get a decent few hours of sleep and still make the Rock before 7:30 am! Mind made up, I wish Kim well and cruise into the Super 8 at Kimball by check-in. Not really hungry, but anxious to get horizontal, I grab a few sodas from the shockingly reasonably priced vending “shelves” in the lobby and some chips. After what seems to take like forever where a rather unenthused clerk finally checks in a rather unhappy family for whom English was a second language, I get a room. Mile 297 in the books. I shower, take off all the tape on my feet, and figure out hours needed at doable pace to keep my result under 9 days. Alarm set, chips eaten, Orange Crushes drank (no caffeine) and pack finally not-needed, I fall into bed and fall asleep to John Wick 2. Every hotel stay by myself involved falling asleep to either the first or second installment!
Where’s that hill? Where’s the turn?! Where’s that damn Rock?!
2 am. Alarm goes off and I am instantly awake. I flip the tv over to the Weather Channel while putting on my last clean outfit. Fate and some lucky planning left me with a totally clean and dry set of clothes for the last 17 miles. Knowing I don’t need my pack now, I rummage through for just my waist pack. I don’t bother taping my feet or doing any kind of preventative maintenance outside of a quick “how’s your father” to prevent chafing. I’ll deal with whatever blisters happen in 17 miles. My umbrella goes on my hip like a swashbuckler’s sword and I head back to the lobby for a few quick, portable calories. Two dollars later, with Mountain Dew in one hand and Frito’s in the other, I walk out the door for the last stretch of highway I’m to walk. It’s nice to not need the GPX for navigation, but instead just rely on the memory of heading around the Sonic, cross the bridge, go up the hill, hit the barn, and hit the Rock! Seemed simple enough. Had to remember my instructions, too. Call to let them know you hit the bridge. Same when you start the climb. Ok, no problem. The weather is great at this time of “morning” so the run to the bridge is an easy one. I make the first call and get a “see you soon” from Laz. I walk across the bridge and try to take a picture of the river, but it’s too dark. It’s beautiful so I walk a bit to enjoy the view. I keep checking my watch. I want that sub-9 day finish and start getting paranoid about it. So, I start running again. And running. I did NOT remember Highway 156 being so long before getting to the turn to go up Sand Mountain. I also did NOT remember that stretch being so hilly, either. I turn some music on low and resume grinding out the run. There isn’t much traffic to be aware of, but I keep the music low anyway since it seems like I am running by lots of houses that could either have angry dogs or folks none-too-pleased at hearing blaring music at 3:30 in the morning. It’s less than 5 miles from the bridge to the turn, but it seems like it takes forever to get to Route 377 and the climb. I keep checking the watch to make sure I am ok on time. Finally, the trees on the left give way to the view of the river again and I know I am almost to 377!
I dive into the waist pack and grab the phone and my flashlight. The final call is made, and I keep my flashlight, but stow away the phone. There had been enough ambient light to be able to see just fine, but on this crazy winding 3-mile hill, I wanted cars to be able to see me. Following LAVS etiquette, I am on the left side of the road, with no real shoulder to speak of. Its not quite 4 am so traffic is sparse. I go back to my half-turned head method of vehicle detection to be able to determine if whatever I hear next is coming from behind me and traveling uphill or is bearing down on me from above. Thankfully, before the first car approaches from either direction, I have an epiphany. If I’m walking on the left side of the road and turn my light on as a car comes downhill, they will simply see light from around the curve and assume that another vehicle is coming uphill at the same time. This is going to make them stay in their lane, instead of doing the usual wide turns on the curves. In other words, they are going to hug the turn and come right at me!!! Suddenly enlightened, I put my theory into practice and walk up the center line, listening both ways. My left ear picks up the sound of traffic first, so I turn on my light and head to the right side of the road. Theory proved! The car comes down and around the turn riding the white line on the shoulder. I repeat the process for each car coming down the hill, keeping an eye and ear out for traffic from behind; but in the 3 miles I believe only one or two cars come up the way I came.
The trees break up again as I climb, and I know I am close to the top. The road levels and all that is left is to look for the Party Hardy sign, marking the turn towards the barn. I hear a gigantic dog off to my right, but it seems to be behind a fence, so I put it out of my mind. A mile or so jog doesn’t take long before I see the sign! 132/Castle Rock Road! I start down the rough road, with just another mile and half to go before the lot where our cars are parked. Thinking of that makes my mind rewind 9 days. I remember race reports and Laz quotes where people get sad to realize this experience is coming to an end. At about the same time, that same rush of emotions that I thought sounded so crazy hits me. I picture myself telling people back home about the experience. I imagine telling other runners about the experience. I look forward to seeing the few LAVS participants still in the race behind me and having common and uncommon ground to go over. My eyes tear up a bit as the wall comes into view (and they are now as I write this.) I get distracted by the memory of being told that Roxy(ie?) may not be as friendly in the wee hours of the morning when just one person is on the road and the owner isn’t around. Or at least she’d be loud. Looking around, I can tell she’s not out, so I start walking, just to catch my breath for the last bit of running I plan on doing. I make the turn into the opening opposite our makeshift parking lot and go down the road towards the power line tower that reminds me of the final scene in “Seven”. The GPX has it a mile from that turn to the Rock. I start running again and see a handwritten sign that reminds me that Lazarus Lake is involved in this race, “1 Last Mile!” Of course this is meaningless, because at least a tenth of a mile beyond this is a “Smell the Barn, Just 1 More Mile” sign with an arrow to turn left. Beyond that is another, and now I’m flashing back to the Barkley Fall Classic, where the signs all read “One more mile”, which were all technically correct, since they were a mile apart, but they didn’t remotely mean you had just one more mile to go. “Almost there, Only 1 Mile to Go with another arrow” tells me I’m not lost, but then the road turns to mud. Suddenly, it sucks to be in road shoes and I am resentful to be on “trail”, despite lamenting the asphalt for the last 214 hours! “One mile to go. Trust Me. Really. No Fooling”. Then a break, a clearing, and Lazarus Lake standing, wrapped in a blanket! I divert my run over towards him and he gives me the stop sign.
“Let me show you where you actually get to stop.”
He walks me over to the Rock. I can’t see anything past the bluff and it’s a bit underwhelming, but I am so happy at what I’ve just done that I don’t care. We turn and head back to the canopy where the “Thrown” sits, waiting. I almost sit in the chair marked “King of the Road” and quickly scoot over to the other Thrown. Mike Melton has come over from the van and another runner is also there. I get congratulated on my achievement and am told that I am a record-breaking finisher! Very confused, I ask how? Laz explained that I was the 85th finisher this year and that the event had never had that many folks finish before! He went on to say that when Kim Atkins finished, she would be the record breaker, and then everyone after her.
During the race, I never truly felt either confusion from fatigue or panic due to circumstances. For about 10 seconds, though, I experienced both. Kim? She was supposed to finish last night! Something must have happened! We need to send out search parties! But then my mind regrouped and I simply asked, “Kim hasn’t finished?” Laz explained that she decided to stop last night, as well, and had just called from the bridge a few minutes ago. Relieved, I sank back into the chair and reached into the cooler not marked “NOT PUBLIC” and grabbed a water. I got my sticker, my woodallion, and my patch. I steal Laz’s pen to write my time of 8:22:52:06 on the back of my woodallion as Mike asked a couple of questions, and was surprised to hear how far I came in the last 2 days, then Laz asked me, “Well, what did you think?”
My immediate response was, “The next time I want a bumper sticker, I’m buying the fucking thing.”
Laughter ensued and Laz looked at me for a second before saying that I looked pretty good and must have gotten some sleep. I let him and Mike know that I didn’t need a ride to the hotel, just one back to the car would be appreciated. Mike and I walked to the van and I told Laz I’d see him soon, to welcome the Ladies in sometime tomorrow.
I am sure there are a thousand things I’ve left out. I tried to leave other people’s stories for them to tell. There were other dogs. A mom and her pups…a pack of Pekinese…a hound dog too lazy to even get up while barking at us. There were other random road angels. The workers who didn’t seem to speak English but pulled over to offer the Ladies water and ignored me. The bad drivers, not malicious ones, just awful at driving who made shoulder walking a serious venture. The “aid” that dried up as the back of the pack arrived since people forgot that some of us would actually take ten days. Other aid stations that were great (the tent with the race logo by the giant warehouse-looking building) where I moved all the fruit cups into the ice cooler after discovering one cold one and realizing everyone behind me would relish the same. Taking 8 days to realize I didn’t have to take the tape off of my feet before every sleep if it was still in good shape and counting how many more hours I would have saved following this practice! Taking pictures of every sunrise. Taking pictures to amuse myself. “Knowing” I could do this on day one, then truly knowing I could do this on day 5 and beyond. Finding the real definitions of sore, hurt, pain, and injury. And I learned to be my companion that could pass the time with songs, my pacer that could get me into auto-pilot mode, and my coach that would ask the questions that made me answer truthfully.
Are you tired? Yes!
Do you need to stop though? No.
Are you in pain? YES!
Are you injured and need to stop? No.
So, what are you going to do? Keep going!