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Last Annual Vol State Road Race 2016 (Expect the Unexpected)

That’s the tag line for a popular reality show that runs during the summer. In fact, I think the Vol State might actually make a more interesting reality show. The disparate and often diametric personalities and accompanying sub-plots of this year’s race created more entertainment organically than any reality show ever thought of constructing through an audition process. Maybe many people weren’t even aware of the possible story lines. (Just as an example, among runners from my own state, you had the two ultra couples, Mega Couple Joe, who at start time was the course record holder, & wife Kelley Fejes vs. Bo Millwood and me, perennial mid-packers in most standard distance races but pretty accomplished at multi-days.) I’m guessing the team waiting at the rock for the finishers was acutely aware and enjoyed this year’s cast of characters and their antics as much as any year. I could write an entire race report just about that. It would have reality, comedy, tragedy, mystery, suspense and probably some horror, all in one. Oh, and maybe a little Disney-esque “happily ever after” thrown in the mix (more on that later). At any rate, when you come to Vol State, no matter how good your plan is, it probably doesn’t “expect the unexpected.” This was no truer for me any year like it was this year.

Yes, The Last Annual Vol State Road Race is a “race.” Yes, people run it to see how fast they can complete it. They run to win. They run to break course records. Except for the elite few up front though, the rest of us are competing with the course, with ourselves, with the clock, usually to finish in some predetermined window of time we deem “successful.” And some are there for the journey, just to finish and enjoy the views. Some know it will take 9 plus days to reach their destination. In a way I’m envious of that. I keep saying “next year we’ll run it as a picture lap.” (Whenever I run a loop course, I usually walk one lap with my phone or camera and take pictures, especially if it’s a scenic course or I want to get pics of people I’ve run with). But, as for this year, I still couldn’t shake the competitive urge to race, to do better than I’ve ever done, and yes, to “win.”

LAVS has two categories, categories that were established and defined by the participants themselves, not by the race organizers, Crewed and Screwed. Crewed runners are runners who have a support person or team providing their aid along they way. They don’t need to run with packs, though some choose to do so. They can be picked up and driven to a hotel at the end of their day and brought back right where they stopped to pick up again. They have anything they need at a moments’ notice. Solo runners, aptly known as “screwed,” are solely responsible for themselves. They have nothing but what they can or choose to carry and must acquire anything else along the way. Screwed runners may not accept any aid from a crewed runner, their crew or anyone associated with the race. So much as getting in an air-conditioned car is grounds for having your status as “screwed” changed to “crewed.” Believe it or not, people are willing to sacrifice their screwed designation for five minutes of comfort at LAVS. That’s how hot it gets.

The only exception to the “no aid” rule is the road angel. Road angels are people who are not associated with the race but who have become aware of the race over the years and turn out to help. This is my third year running LAVS and every year the aid from road angels has increased. It includes people riding the course with coolers of cold drinks, fruit and assorted snacks to coolers on the side of the road labeled “runners, help yourselves” to full-on pop-up in the middle of nowhere aid tents, staffed by locals who’ve come to love the race and it’s participants. They follow the Facebook page and the check-ins and know who to expect and when and what you look like before you ever arrive.

This is my third attempt at Vol State as a screwed runner. My first attempt was my second multi-day and first solo multi-day. I went with a plan. I couldn’t stick to it beyond the first day. I finished in 6 days, 5 hours and some change. My second attempt I thought I had it all figured out. I ran it solo but partnered this time with my best friend, love of my life, partner-in-crime, Bo Millwood. It was our first attempt at running a race partnered with the intent of staying together start to finish. (Side-note: you want to find out if you get along with someone run 314 miles self-supported with them). We were going to cut out all the b.s. from my previous year, like going a mile off course just to get good Mexican food and long hotel breaks. We slept outside except for two hotel stays (by contrast my previous year I stayed in a hotel every night). All this cutting out the b.s. got us 6 days and 10 hours. That’s right, five hours SLOWER. Also in 2014 and 2015, I was the 2nd solo female to reach the rock. (Sue Scholl who holds the female course record overall was first in 2014 and my most aggressive plan never included finishing that fast.) In spite of my best planning, I hadn’t come under six days and had been the bridesmaid two years in a row.

That would be the frame for our plan for 2016. Breaking six days would be first priority. And second would be competing at the end if that was in the cards. Many people come to Vol State thinking they can break five days, no problem. After crewing the race in 2013 and running in 2014 & 2015, I knew anything under six days really was a solid performance for most of us. Even seasoned “fast” runners get punched in the face by the Vol State eventually. I thought if we stuck to our plan and didn’t get distracted by racing early, by that urge to put up a big number on day one, we would be in the mix at the end. I said more than once, anybody who does better than us, if we stick to this plan, is just plain better, worked harder and deserves it. But looking around at the talented women on the ferry at the start, I wondered if I’d even be competing for top two. There was Kelley Fejes, of course. She’s faster than me on any given day and she had the added bonus of running with her husband, Joe, who was the current course record holder. There was Julie Aistars, a former King of the Road, at Vol State, running for the fourth time. Wendy Murray is a talented runner who has beaten me more than once in standard distances and also has multi-day experience and the chops to lay down a sub-six, I’m certain. And Sandra Garrett, who I didn’t really know much about but I was told she was “legit.” Of course there were other women who might well have challenged for the front also because you always have to expect the unexpected here.

In a way I think this talented pool of women played into my being able to settle on sticking to the plan we had laid out from the beginning. It took the pressure off of the idea of racing and put the focus on getting our best finish.

I keep talking about our plan. I guess you’re all ready to hear what this plan was. First of all, the previous two years, I scheduled myself to be back at work on Thursday (7 days after the start). It made me stick to a schedule, worst case scenario, I need to finish early enough Wednesday to get home & go to work Thursday. On the other hand, it was pressure looming constantly on the horizon, causing us last year to make some pretty bad decisions (like moving for 36 hours without a real break).

Step One: eliminate the added pressure of a self-imposed deadline. Bo & I both took off through the weekend and didn’t have to be at work until the following Monday. This allowed for the possibility of the race turning into a “picture lap” if everything went to hell in a hand basket. If everything went according to plan though, it gave us ample time to rest before heading home and the option of spending an extra day or two in Tennessee to cheer for people and hang out at the rock. Turns out, those extra couple of days we planned for came in handy.

Step two: Figure out what changed from 2014 to 2015 that resulted in a slower finish. First was the weather. Though both years were hot because, you know, it’s Tennessee, in July, on asphalt. 2014 did have that little cold front near the end which helped in the final push up Sand Mountain. Since we couldn’t change the weather, we decided to change when we ran to minimize the impact of the weather. Also, in 2014, like I mentioned before, I stayed in a hotel every single day. In 2015 we did not. We decided better rest, getting showers and real food would provide enough of a boost in speed that the time off course would trump the quick nap & go style from last year. Bo & I decided we would stop in Martin, only 29 miles into the race, on day one.

A note about partnering with someone: you both must accept that you will always be moving the pace of the weaker runner. In a multi-day this may change, regularly, like more than once a day. Bo & I found that I was usually stronger at the beginning of our “day” and he took a while to warm up. But once he did, I was hard-pressed to keep up. We always go into any race with the agreement that if one person feels significantly better and feels the need to go, there will be no hard feelings. This race was no different. As long as we were both able to maintain our minimum acceptable moving speed though, neither was motivated to leave the relative safety and companionship provided by running together. We did begin to develop kind of a sling shot approach in order to keep moving faster. Whoever was moving faster at the time would go ahead with a predetermined spot to stop ahead. That person could already be getting the process under way of finding water, food, restrooms, checking into a hotel, etc., while the other person caught up. It cut down on some of the frustration for both of us, I believe, by allowing the person who felt good to get some miles at their own speed without making the slower person feel like they were a burden.

Back to the plan. It’s hard to verbalize how much of a benefit not having that deadline was. Our whole demeanor was different from the beginning. It made us less anxious and less tempted to feel like we needed to put up a big number on the first day. Let me define a “big number.” The first two years my plan had me making it to Parker’s Cross Road, about 80 miles, at the 24-hour mark. It sounds doable for someone who can make 100 in more or less 24 hours. The first two years I made my 24-hour check-in while having breakfast at Misty’s All Star Café in Huntingdon, 65-67 miles, depending who you ask. So this year, the plan was not to even try for

Parker’s. Understanding that a 5 day 500k requires five 100k days in a row, 65 miles sounded like a good start for people who just wanted to break 6 days. Five days 23 hours and 59 minutes would be acceptable. 6:00:00, not so much. But then again, we knew it was possible things could happen along the way to change our definition of success, and happen they did. Once again, expect the unexpected.

Stopping at Martin, 29 miles in, and only about 6.5 hours after the 7:30 start, was a hard pill to swallow. Bo was worried that I was going to be tempted to push on. We’d had rain and cool temps to start and were still moving well. Add that to the fact that it felt like there was a pack of hounds breathing down our necks, it was going to be hard to accept letting all those runners simply breeze by. We knew though, that by Dresden, Gleason & McKenzie, one-by-one, most would succumb to the need for rest. They would run on through the heat of the day, draining their bodies and minds and setting themselves on a schedule that would require either a huge break to get on nights, or have to keep running on through the hot Tennessee days. Meanwhile we holed up in the air-conditioned comfort of the Econo Lodge in Martin, waiting for the fall of night. I’m sure upon seeing the 12-hour check-in sheet, many runners & spectators were left scratching their heads, our names near the bottom of the mileage list. In fact, when we ventured out of our hotel room around 8pm, Paul Heckert, who we figured to be the last runner behind us, passed us on the road. And we still had to eat. We sat down and ate at Taco Bell, right by the motel, finally hitting the road a few minutes before 9pm. We immediately started a run/walk rotation of running 12 minutes and walking 3 minutes. We were moving faster than we ever would have without that break and quickly started catching people. Some we saw and spoke to. Others, we were aware had gone down for the day in towns we were now passing through. Bo & I have referred to Vol State as a chess match before. A giant, weeklong, game of leapfrog. We knew many of the people we caught & passed would pass us again. We banked on our running at night being more consistent while others would fade away, decreasing in mileage day by day, as the heat and complications that come with running in it took their toll. Stick to the plan. Racing can be done on the last day if there’s anyone within reach.

Thursday night went well. We both moved well and at a speed that was comfortable for both of us. Some of the notable incidents from the first night included: my first fall of the race, on the sidewalk in Dresden, looking for the farmer’s market instead of at the ground in the dark; going off course in Dresden, straight past the farmer’s market, instead of turning just before it, and having to back track to make the turn; and being given a police escort through a section the officer said was infested with water moccasins. In spite of a nearly 8 hour total break in Martin, we ended up, you guessed it, at Misty’s All Star Café in Huntingdon for breakfast at the 24 hour check-in. Henry Lupton joined us here as we caught up to Jeff Deaton & Byron Backer who were already finishing up breakfast. We were happy to have stuck to our plan. Now all we had to do was eat & knock out the 15 or so miles to Parker’s Cross Road where we planned to go down again in the heat of the day. Now that the sun was up, we were well aware that this might be a five-hour trek over a pretty nasty and desolate stretch.

Part of our plan was to assume each section would be completed at our slowest acceptable speed, three miles per hour. This is a formula Bo & came up with at our last multi-day, The Tarheel 367, in November/December. Anything slower than 3 mph would be deemed a death march or zombie walk and was time for a break. Any time we completed a section faster than 3 mph, it was just bonus. It either allowed us a longer break or a few extra miles before stopping, depending on the circumstances.

The trip to Parker’s was exactly what we expected. Miserable. Hot. Desolate. We jumped back & forth with Byron, Jeff & Henry. We made it to the Knight’s Inn still pretty full from breakfast though. And went through our routine. One acquires the hotel room, while the other hits the closest convenience store for a couple beers & some cold drinks for when we wake up. We each drank a beer at every hotel stop to help relax due to the flip-flopped day and night schedule we were on. We quickly unpacked everything from our packs to allow things to dry. Hug up the clothes we were wearing to dry, showered and got in bed as quickly as possible. We also used this time to charge any electronic devices and maybe take a quick scan of the race Facebook page, check messages and look at the check-ins and see how people were doing. We rarely used our phones while moving except to check location or directions.

Per our routine, when we got up, we got moving as quickly as possible but again, took the time to sit & eat. This time it was Dairy Queen next to the hotel. We saw Julie & Jan for the first time since the start. They were hitting the road just as we sat down. We took our time and didn’t let ourselves feel pressured to keep up with them. This was going to likely be a big night into the next day. It was one of the longest days we had planned from an hours moving standpoint. We would need all the fuel we could get. Depending on how things progressed, we would either stop in Linden (124 miles) or press on to Hohenwald (143 miles).

My sleep at the Knight’s Inn had not been restful. In spite of the frigid air conditioning in the room, I was sweating through the sheets until they were soaked. Bo actually thought I had showered while he was asleep and got in bed wet. I’m not sure what accounted for this. It was the only day that happened. Change of life? Effects of running in the heat earlier? Who knows? But later that night I struggled the most of any time in the race. We hit Lexington just as a storm moved through and could not find Bo a poncho (I had packed one myself) but did manage to get him a plastic bag in order to continue. We moved well again that night, noting all the places we had stopped last year needing to stretch or take a break but felt good enough to pass right by in the cool evening air on rested legs and full tummies. Once again we found ourselves with Henry and meeting Nathan Marti for the first time.

Somewhere between Darden & Parsons my hips tightened up and no matter how I struggled to change my stride, I could not loosen them up. I couldn’t muster more than a fast walk, granted my fast walk is pretty fast. Still, it was discouraging to think about the possibility of walking the rest of the race. I’d stop and do some long lunges trying to loosen them. I felt otherwise ok. I wasn’t especially sleepy, even in the middle of the night. I knew Bo was having to hold back to stay with me. We were making acceptable progress though, so he didn’t complain. It was too early at this point to think of abandoning one another or the plan. Coming into Parsons we did take advantage of a bench in front of a business. Bo set an alarm & we planned to rest about 15 minutes. This was our first encounter with kids playing Pokémon Go, roaming the streets at 3:15am, chasing some virtual character. Their dogs woke the whole neighborhood & ended our nap, as it also did for some other runners. We made our way on into town trying to decide what to do. We stopped again on another bench and ate some of our emergency snacks, ok, Bo’s emergency snacks, because I carried no food, only water. It looked as if we would pass through Parsons before anything opened for business. Just as we’d resigned ourselves to heading out of town, we saw lights turn on in the gas station across the way & decided that even though we’d stopped twice already, it was worth it for restrooms, coffee and hot food. A man who had stopped for gas on his way to a fishing tournament spoke to us. He had been one of our road angels last year & recognized us! While we ate we once again played the leapfrog game with Julie, Jan, Nathan and maybe some others. We didn’t rush. Again, it was worth the stop. By the time we hit the other side of town, nearing the Tennessee River for the first time, I was moving well again and Bo seemed to be staying consistent. Last year we had made our 7:30 am check-in as we crossed the river. This year we would be well beyond before 7:30 Saturday (48 hours).

With the daylight, came renewed energy for both of us. Well, daylight & Starbucks cold Frappuccino drinks from the gas station on the river. Moving on towards Linden we caught a group of 4 guys. I believe it was Nathan Marti, Jeff Deaton, Clark Annis and forgive me, I can’t remember who the other was. Bo and I were back on a run/walk rotation and actually felt a little bit like jerks when we passed them. They commented how well we were moving. I made a remark about how you have to take advantage when it comes because it can change in an instant. We carried on and were greeted by a road angel, as was the group of four. Also along this stretch someone had set out lawn chairs and aid for runners. We were moving too well to risk a stop there, but it was tempting. We got pretty far ahead but coming into Linden, Jeff had broken from the group and caught us. We visited with him on the way into town while deciding what to do. I caught sight of an open post office and decided to duck in and mail the extra pair of Luna sandals I was carrying home to myself & Bo decided to do the same. I had determined the ones I was wearing would survive the distance. The extras didn’t weigh much but they were just another item to deal with when I needed something from my pack.

In Linden we had to quickly decide, stop here? Or continue on, nearly another 20 miles to the hotel in Hohenwald? It had remained overcast ever since that storm back in Lexington. We thought if we were going to have to make daytime miles, we might not get a better day. Sooner or later we had to pay the piper. We decided to go for it. The road splits at a Y, the junction of Highway 412 and Highway 100. There’s a gas station in the Y. It closes pretty early, 6:30 or 7 pm “whenever the traffic stops,” according to the man behind the counter. Last year we hit it after they closed and had to settle for water from an outside pump before heading to Hohenwald. This year we made it around lunchtime.

We ate, refilled our packs & prepared to make it on in to Hohenwald. This was also our first encounter with Nathan DeWall and Francesca Muccini, two crewed runners who were trying to stick together. I know them to be fast runners and was surprised to see anyone of their caliber using a crew back here with us. Even though they hit the road ahead of us, we started catching them. They seemed to be taking regular breaks with their crews. We’d get close then pass while they were stopped. They’d run us back down and we’d repeat the process over and over again. In spite of the clearing clouds & rising temperature of the afternoon, Bo & I still were managing a fair amount of running. My power walk was in full effect and Bo would let me get ahead and then he’d run me down, pass me and run until he felt like walking again and wait for me to pass. We played this game all the way to Hohenwald.

I have only ever used John Price’s book for directions. I can’t speak to the mileage on the other available turn sheets. But if you’re using John’s book & this section seems long, it is. I have measured it twice and mapped it on various GPS applications. His book shows 7 miles from the gas station at the Y leaving Linden (127.5) to the first gas station in Hohenwald (134.5). It’s every bit of 12. Even if you’re packing enough water and food for 12 miles it can be a mental disaster, feeling like you aren’t moving fast enough to cover seven miles as the two hour mark comes and goes and maybe the three, three and a half, even four hours when you finally see civilization. Knowing this really helped keep us from feeling defeated. Even though it had become blazing hot, Bo & I were both in good spirits coming into Hohenwald. On our sling shot plan now, I made it to the gas station first and went in and bought us both slushies to drink outside. We didn’t need much but just a break from the heat for a few minutes to make the final stretch to the other side of town and the Embassy Inn. Patrick Doring was also at the gas station. The first time we saw him since the ferry. I asked if he was going to the hotel. “Why? What’s at the hotel?” was his response. I was almost speechless. “Beds. Air conditioning, showers,” I said, trying to convince him there was no shame in taking advantage of that. He would not be swayed though. We had been told earlier by Nathan D’s wife that the Embassy was full but they were really nice & if we explained our circumstances, they might get us a room turned over quickly from another exiting runner. I called ahead & sure enough, they took care of us. We were so relieved. After making the decision to press to Hohenwald, not getting a room was not an option we wanted to consider.

Our settling down process repeated. Bo stopped for beer & other drinks. I went ahead to the room to check in. They even gave us a reduced rate because we were only staying a few hours, providing we turn our key in when we left so they could turn the room for possibly others behind us. Beer, shower, sleep.

We did not cut our break short to compensate for the extra miles. In fact, we probably stayed longer. This being a small town, even the fast food joints close early. We managed to hit McDonald’s leaving town about 45 minutes before closing. As we passed the Sonic, we saw Henry outside fixing his feet. We yelled & waved and indicated we were going to McDonald’s. The service at McDonald’s, while friendly enough, left something to be desired this close to closing time. The girl working the counter was aware of the race. “Y’all must be pacing yourselves, or just walking it all. Lots of people went through during the day.” We thought we had moved up pretty well through the rankings so I’m not sure what her definition of “lots of people” was. We tried not to be offended by the suggestion that we were slow. The stop took a little longer than we would have liked but not too long. We ended up having to take our coffee with us though, as we’d already finished our food before they ever brought it to us. Even though it was night, it was our morning & we always start our morning with coffee. This year we were into Hohenwald, took about a 7-hour break and were leaving town earlier than we came in & out of town with no break the previous year. Since we stopped at McDonald’s we were able to pass up the Wal-Mart and keep going out of town. Next stop: campground at Natchez Trace.

Bo had an especially difficult time getting started Saturday night. It was a straight shot to the campground though so again, the sling shot method was in effect. It was a beautiful night and there was a wide shoulder with not much traffic. I caught up to Clark, who was walking with a gallon jug of water. I visited with him a bit and Bo caught up. I got to the campground first though. Disappointingly the restrooms were locked this year. They did have water and snacks for the runners in the picnic area, which we took advantage of and continued on. What follows the campground is a long stretch of road construction that has been going on at least as long as I’ve been coming to Vol State. This is the first year I got to experience it at night. Both having trudged that section in the heat of the day last year; Bo & I discussed how we hated it for any one stuck on that stretch in the day. I moved way over to the right, usually a no-no when running roads, but there were construction barrels on that side, blocking traffic from a wide & newly paved shoulder that I’m not sure many people took advantage of. After the road construction, there is a nice stretch of winding down hill. The shoulder nearly disappears though. Luckily in the now wee morning hours of Sunday morning, there still wasn’t much traffic to contend with. As I jogged, hiked, fast walked, down I caught a glimpse of a cooler at the end of a driveway. It was marked “for runners only” or something to that effect. It had a couple of small bottles of water that were still cold. I decided to turn my flashlight off and wait for Bo to make sure he took advantage of the water. I knew we would come through Hampshire with nothing open. Anytime we could find water and save what was in our packs was an advantage for later.

Sure enough, we came into Hampshire still in the dark. We did stop outside the market to get drinks from the Sun Drop vending machine, ubiquitous in Tennessee. Patrick was curled up on the side of the building asleep. I’m not sure he knew we were even there. By contrast, both of my previous attempts at Vol State, I had been in Hampshire for lunch at the market after they opened at 1pm on Sunday. Last year, notably, it is the place where Andrea Stewart took the lead as first solo female and never relinquished it. After leaving Hampshire we ran into Nathan D and Francesca again. I started talking to Francesca and she & I began clicking off the miles pretty quickly. She was struggling with the idea of whether to continue without Nathan. He’d had some issues and wasn’t moving as fast. Up until now she had waited always. It wasn’t long before I realized we’d gotten so far ahead of both Bo and Nathan that we couldn’t see them. I let her go. It was the last I’d see of her. She absolutely killed it after that.

Continuing on, we made our 72-hour check-in outside of Columbia that morning. We found Henry outside the Quick Mart coming into town and stopped for some food as he was continuing on. All of us were headed for the Richland Inn on the other side of town. With the sunrise, it heated up quickly and Bo really wasn’t feeling it. We were greeted by an 80-something year old gentleman who wanted our names and where we were from, as he wanted to follow our progress. We talked to him longer than we really wanted, but he was so nice & so interested in the race we didn’t have the heart to just blow him off. Again we saw Henry who was having trouble locating the hotel on his GPS & I gave him some info and off we all went again. Rounding the square in Columbia, I saw an open restaurant, Puckett’s. Sensing Bo was in need of a little pick me up, I thought this could do the trick. We could get a sit down dinner & a beer before going down at the hotel. Well, guess what? To everyone else in Tennessee, 10am is considered breakfast. The waitress wasn’t even sure if they served beer that early. She had to go ask! We probably were the only ones having beer with our breakfast buffet but we did not care! As we walked in, an employee familiar with the race remarked, “wow! Y’all are fast!” The McDonald’s incident melted into the past. Thank goodness we had our beer there. The convenience stores were not selling them that early when we hit the hotel. On the way to the hotel a man with a cane saw us consulting our directions and asked where we were going. We told him the Richland Inn. “The Richland Inn? That’s far. You need to call a cab to get there. It’s probably a mile away.”

Richland Inn, roughly 179 miles, Sunday, 11:30am. Repeat the usual break process & hit the road. As we got out and surveyed our meal options, we noticed the Shoney’s next door & on the turn, had a buffet. We decided this was probably as fast as the gas station and better than potato wedges. Quick meal & down the road we go. As prior starts have gone, I was moving slightly better at first but Bo got into the groove quickly and we headed for the Bench of Despair at the Glendale Market. One of the highlights of the bench is seeing the names of those who’ve gotten there before you. The proprietors leave cold drinks for those who come during off hours and a marker for you to sign the bench. It gets repainted every year. Andrei Nana joined us for the first time at the bench. I was shocked again to see such an accomplished runner coming from behind us. Early he had been running with Team Fejes, who had dropped out by now due to their own battles with the Tennessee heat. I had assumed he was still up there somewhere. All three of us made the 7:30pm check-in Sunday night from the bench, took pictures and continued on.

Not much farther up the road from Glendale, the Nutt’s have set up a bonafide aid station. Last year when we passed through, no one was out but we helped ourselves to Gatorade and fruit. This year, we ran up & Henry was sitting in a chair and the family was outside offering any and everything you could want or need. Drinks, every possible drink. Food, if you can think of it for a run, they had it. Batteries. Chapstick. Bug spray. These people are amazing. It was hard not to want to just hang out. But the night was young & we needed to get some miles. Henry headed out a few minutes before us, be we weren’t far behind.

Expect The Unexpected.


You never know when something will change not only your race, but also your life. Something happens that challenges you to forget your own selfish goals. Something happens that makes you ask yourself “Who am I? What is important?” You wonder, when I’m old, will it matter if I won? Will anybody remember or care that I broke six days, finally? Or do I take care of the tiny being that for whatever unknown reason picked me, picked us, as his companions and guardians?

As we rounded the corner around maybe 9pm Sunday night in Culleoka (188 miles), something darted out in the road. It was small. I said “oh, little kitty, watch out.” Then I realized it was a small dog. At first I wasn’t sure if it was a puppy or just a small breed dog. But it was friendly and wearing a collar. This wasn’t going to be one of those Vol State vicious dog stories. We tried to shoo him away, out of the road, back toward his home. The dog continued following us. We didn’t really slow down for him at all. He just kept up. There was little or no traffic but we did start to worry about how far from home he was getting. When we reached the next landmark, the Mooresville Market (193 miles) I took a photo & made a plea on the Vol State Facebook page, hoping someone in the area was up and moving around and would just come get him and deliver him back to the neighborhood where we found him. We didn’t stay long. Made the post & continued. Henry was with us again. We more or less ran with or near both Henry & Andrei all the way to Lewisburg (201 miles). One of the fun parts of the journey into Lewisburg was trying to spot deer in the woods off the highway. Bo delighted in spotting eyes in the dark. It was a game that made the miles tick by. Bo & I stopped outside a gas station with a spigot to refill our water and try to get our tiny companion to drink. Andrei passed by and didn’t stop but a second as he was looking for some place to nap. The dog followed Andrei. Well, that’s the last we’ll see of him we thought. Surely in Lewisburg he would find a distraction and stay there.

Bo and I continued now, not worried about the dog, to the 24 hour gas station on the far side of Lewisburg where Henry had already gotten food and was heading outside to sit and eat. We followed suit, Henry once again finishing just before us and hitting the road. We took our time, realizing resources between here and Columbia would be limited, especially the time of night we were moving. Leaving Lewisburg we passed the Celebration Inn on the outskirts of town and were moving along well when Bo said, “look down.” There was the doggy. We called him several names Chico, Drifter… Apparently we passed wherever Andrei had gone down to nap and the dog wanted to keep moving. Increasingly we began to feel distressed. As we neared morning, traffic increased. We were on roads with no shoulder. The dog was all of 10 to 12 pounds, like a large Chihuahua. He can’t be cut out for this mileage. We looked for secure fences in front of homes where we thought if the owners found him in the morning they’d take care of him. We thought we HAD to get him off the road. Twice we put in him other people’s yards, feeling like that’s a lousy thing to do but the best way we could help him. We were running solo, in the night, with little to no resources for ourselves, let alone a small dog. Both times he escaped and was right back with us in minutes. We had resisted feeding him because we didn’t want to encourage him to stay with us but Bo finally pulled out a Slim Jim from his pack, unwrapped it, broke in two and put it on the ground off the road, hoping he’d stop to eat and lose interest in us. Nope. He picked the questionable meat-like product up in his mouth and chased us down again.

The sun was starting to show and Ben Brucker, running solo but with so little gear that we thought he was crewed, caught us on the road near the church outside of Wheel. At first it looked like the little drifter was going to follow Ben when we stopped as he’d done earlier with Andrei. But he crossed the road and stopped with us. We got water at their outside pump, took more pictures and made more pleas, reaching farther into the community for help. Still, we had to move. It was only going to get hotter and more dangerous for all three of us. There’s a gas station a couple of more miles beyond the church that has a grill. I’ve eaten there the last two years. They were open for the morning business as we came by. Bo went inside and got some breakfast biscuits while I stayed outside and tried to get the little guy to drink water and asked every single person outside for help. Please, just get him off the road. Take him to a shelter. Anything. We’re not asking you to adopt him! Understand, we were now maybe ten miles from Shelbyville. The closest shelter would not have been a ten-minute drive for these people. It was unreal. No one would do anything.

We headed on to Shelbyville. That’s all we could do. We still were managing our minimum 3mph or better. But the situation was quickly coming to a head. It got hot quick. Monday morning traffic was zooming by. I was trying so hard to put aside the feelings I was having regarding my own race. Bo & I had both been feeling pretty good and could have probably already been in Shelbyville getting a room for the day now. I started to feel six days slipping away. I started to feel Sandra Garrett pulling away and Julie and Jan catching up. And I looked at this tiny life, panting by my side, running in the road to sniff every bit of road kill as the trucks and cars slammed on breaks & swerved to avoid him. All I thought was that we couldn’t let him die out here. Whatever happens in our race, this is more important. If it blows up our plans, we did the right thing, and it’ll be a good Vol State story.

We met a woman who offered us water in front of her home & offered to take the drifter to the shelter when her husband got up. Yay! Finally our prayers were answered! She put him on her locked patio & off we went. Several minutes later the click of toenails on asphalt could be heard from behind. There he was, barreling as fast as his tiny legs would carry him down Highway 64.

While we tried to keep moving forward, I located the phone number for Bedford County Animal Control. I had hoped some rescue organization would come forward to help first. But we had become desperate to get the little guy safe. They weren’t open yet so I left a message. To my surprise they actually called before normal business hours. I explained the situation & where we were and they sent someone immediately to meet us as we came into Shelbyville. We had begun carrying the dog a couple of miles back, taking turns, wetting him down with our remaining water, trying to keep him cool & out of traffic. Animal control whisked him away and I expressed my desire that, should his family not be located, we would come back for him. The last thing I wanted was to save him from the highway, only to die in an overcrowded shelter. Finally we could relax though. We had met the challenge set before us. Not the challenge of sticking to our plan. The challenge of doing the right thing when it wasn’t in our plans. In all, the drifter had made what I estimate to be between 33-35 miles that night. That’s one determined little pup.

We headed in to Shelbyville in search of air-conditioning and sleep. I had warned Henry earlier to avoid the Magnolia Inn in Shelbyville and head straight to the America’s Best. It’s off course & not exactly four-star. But the Magnolia always looked like one step above crack house when I passed it. This year it looked like it had under gone some substantial renovations so we stopped to see if maybe Henry had ignored my warning and gone ahead & stopped there. Not only did we find out he had not stopped there but, we were told, “we don’t have your kind here. They’re in the park on the right or under the bridge.” Wow. I know we looked rough. But dang, we showered every day. America’s Best Value it is! We washed our clothes in the shower for the first time & tried to dry them outside in the sunlight on the luggage rack. And went through our usual routine. As luck would have it, Henry was right next door. He ordered pizza and wings around the same time we got up & moving and we all visited a bit, made a stop at the pharmacy for a few supplies and headed on the road to Wartrace. Instead of eating in Shelbyville, I opted to wait for a gas station on the outskirts of town (226 miles). Henry & Bo stuck close together and I moved ahead a little. I was excited to be greeted by Greg Armstrong, the 3-time King of the Road and new course record holder. It’s always a boost when you meet people on the road. We visited. The guys caught up and we headed on again. I got to the gas station at the intersection of Hwy 41 & 64 first and started buying food and drinks, taking a bathroom break and getting ready for the trek on into Wartrace. We explained, mostly in vain, to a local what we were doing. He kept telling us of places off course to go for food. We couldn’t seem to make him understand that we weren’t going to travel off course because we were on foot. He offered a ride. Our situation probably wasn’t helped by the fact that Bo had now begun telling people we were in a Pokémon Go race. We left there with the intention of getting to the café in Wartrace but were disappointed to learn that they are a breakfast & lunch only café. We settled for the gas station coming in to town. Which did have hot food. So all was not lost. As light started to fade for the day, Bo Henry & I stopped in the gazebo in Wartrace and did foot repair with the supplies we’d bought in Shelbyville. We used the public restrooms there one last time, and headed off in the darkness for Manchester.

Between Shelbyville & Manchester all of our plans started getting a little haywire. Henry had originally said back at the hotel he was going to stop in Manchester. Period. He wasn’t racing anybody. Bo was down with that plan. I was not. I knew based on when we were leaving, we’d make it to Manchester still in the dark. I was not willing to give up those dark and early morning hours. I was going to press on to Monteagle. That was the next logical stopping point. It was the next place with hotels and services. It was the first and only time Bo & I considered splitting up.

Bo and I took turns feeling good between Wartrace and Manchester and played our game of leapfrog off and on all the way in. As we came through the town square area I heard a phone ring. I looked at Bo and realized it was neither his nor mine. A runner must be near. Lo & Behold, there was Sandra, in a gazebo, on her back with her feet elevated. Holy cow. We’d caught her. Suddenly my original goals came back into focus. We were still well on pace, in spite of our earlier challenge, to make sub-six days. So now the question was, could I take and retain the spot as first solo female? The possible strategies were playing through my head as we moved. It had become apparent that she & I were moving at different times of day. Now the game of chess became real. Who is going to need the last break? It was possible that when she got up from this break she would be able to go all the way without a significant break. I had my suspicions she had slowed considerably though and must be fighting some issues. Sticking with our schedule of breaks, Bo & I had managed to stay relatively issue-free. We both had some chaffing early that we’d dealt with. Bo had a couple of blisters, minor by Vol State standards. So even though sticking with our plan meant taking one more break, at Monteagle, we felt we were in good position. I’d been cutting Sandra’s lead and now I’d passed her on course and she hadn’t immediately followed. I knew one more break likely meant she would catch and pass me again while I was down though. How much did she have left in the tank? Would she be able to turn it back on when she smelled the barn?

The first issue though was coming to the outskirts of Manchester and Bo deciding to stay or go on. We knew Henry had changed his mind and decided to move on. Bo seemed intent on staying in Manchester. It was another 22 miles at least to Monteagle. I asked him repeatedly what he was going to do if he stopped? Take our regular 5-7 hours and end up having to run in the heat of the day? Or take a huge 12+ hours off in order to get back on a night schedule? He didn’t know. All he knew was he didn’t want to go another 22 miles. We made preparations to split up. Just as I had finished packing my gear up and was finishing my coffee drink, Bo made a spin around the parking lot. “I’m going with you.” We put down some of the best miles of the race. We were met on the road in this stretch by Andrew Snope, a fellow LUNAtic, and this year’s first screwed runner, 3rd overall. It was a brief visit but another pick me up. Also somewhere along this stretch, we met a road angel who turned out to David Christy, an Alabama trail runner who organizes a Facebook running group and is sort of a reporter for his running group. He was closely following the Vol State, had studied many of the runners on-line and was driving the course, chatting with and offering aid to runners along the way.

Hillsboro and Pelham were the final towns before Monteagle. There were limited resources in both places and it was getting hot again. We took shelter from the heat for a few minutes in the post office in Pelham. I wondered why it wasn’t open. Isn’t this a weekday? What time is it? We’re not getting anywhere fast so we better get moving. There was a café that was clearly open. Bo & I looked at the sign and tried to decide if we should go in to see if we could get some waters for the road. We felt like we were too grungy to actually eat at this establishment. A woman pulled up and asked if we wanted some biscuits or something. Here we go again. Somebody thinks we’re homeless and she’s going to give us biscuits. We tried to resist but the woman insisted on us coming in. When we followed her in she said, “They’re some of the walkers. I’m buying their breakfast.” Whew. They didn’t think we were homeless. They knew why we looked and smelled so bad! We told them it wasn’t necessary for her to buy our food. Why were they serving biscuits anyway? Is this an all day breakfast place? Oh. It’s 9am. It’s breakfast-time. This night running had me so confused. Anyway, they wouldn’t give us the bill, so Bo left a generous tip, probably more than the bill itself. We ran on past the church where, last year, Bo had insisted he could not go one more step without a nap & we had slept one hour in the rocks behind the shrubs. This year there was no such need. Bo ran over and lay in the rocks just for old-time sake. We were nearly taken out by a car pulling through their drive. Teenagers playing Pokémon Go again.

Bo felt so good when we got to Monteagle that he even wondered out loud if it made sense to try to get to Kimball before going down for our last break. We decided to stick with what got us here. We took our usual break, although a little shorter this time, in Monteagle. I was banking that after a good break and with some cooler temps on the horizon, I’d be moving closer to four miles per hour and Sandra appeared to have slowed to somewhere between 2.5 to 3 mph. We were out of the room and back on the road before 5pm, and knew we were set to make it to the end.

We thought we’d have to wait until the 7:30pm check-in Tuesday night (132 hours) to find out how far ahead Sandra had gotten. We were 40ish miles from the finish when we headed out with nearly 15 hours to get there in order to break six days. The goals from the beginning seemed within reach, barring any disasters, and barring Sandra holding back some cards she hadn’t already played. We weren’t 100% sure whether our friend Henry was ahead or behind either. I had him on the Find my Friends app but he regularly turned his phone on airplane mode to save battery. Leaving Monteagle we’d considered trying to call and see if he was at our same hotel and see if he wanted to leave with us, but we decided everyone needed to be doing what was best for their own race at this point and hated to call and wake Henry if he was taking a longer break and throw him off his game. When we did eventually locate him on FMF app, he appeared to be so close that I wasn’t sure if he was ahead or behind. In the mean time, we didn’t have to wait long to find out where Sandra was. We caught up to her in Tracy City. She got a little pep in her step briefly but didn’t keep up. We hit a downhill & Bo took off. I felt guilty for just running off from her but was afraid Bo was going to blow right past the turn in Tracy so I took off to at least keep him sight.

We made the 7:30 check-in on the side of the road outside Tracy, I think about mile 284. We found out shortly that Henry & several others were not far behind. Many of the people we’d run with in the previous days were all right near us, if not in sight, not much farther back. Henry. Andrei. Nathan M. Ben. Clark. Jeff.

We got some good miles under our belts between Tracy and that descent to Jasper. Bo finally understood what I meant when I told him these were really our last good runnable miles and we enjoyed them. The descent into Jasper goes on forever. Even when you’re moving well, it takes forever. The previous two years it had been an excruciating experience. This year, at night, with not much traffic, feeling good, able to run much of it, it still wasn’t fun. We were relieved beyond comprehension when we finally leveled off. The next goal was to find a hotel in Kimball, check-in as we went through town and ditch as much weight as possible before heading out for the last 14 miles. Getting a place in Kimball had never been a problem. It’s not exactly a summer vacation mecca. What we hadn’t counted on were 1000 contractors in town to work a shut down at a local plant. There were no rooms. Bo was defeated by the turn of events. He’d been fantasizing about ditching most of the weight since I first mentioned the idea. Now we had to let it go and move on. I was having some cramping in my feet from pure fatigue and needed a break. We both needed food. Henry had caught and passed us. He was moving hard, soaked in sweat, and showed no signs of slowing. We let him go in order to do what we needed to do to make the final push. I got my sandals off and worked out the arches using the edge of a concrete step while Bo rounded up some food. We ate and drank. We did our now favorite hot coffee concoction from the gas station. We let Carl know where we were & what our plans were. We crossed paths with David Pharr, a crewed runner, briefly, crossing the blue bridge leaving Kimball. We both moved pretty well immediately after our stop but heading up the mountain and toward the turn at Castle Rock Road, I got significantly ahead of Bo. He’d been letting me power walk and then would run to catch up. But this time I couldn’t see him at all. I decided that when I got to the turn, if he hadn’t caught up, I’d at least wait there long enough to make sure he saw me turn. I wanted to get in the Castle Rock gate and ditch a few things as we passed our car on the way up. Bo caught up and we stuck together on Castle Rock Road and through the gate. We arrived at the cars just as Sandra Cantrell was bringing Henry down from the Rock. We all hugged & congratulated one another. I ran & tossed a couple things in the bed of the truck. Bo was not taking one extra step at this point and just waited, talking to Henry.

We made it onto the dirt road just as the sky was turning pink with the sunrise. It was beautiful. We were going to make the Rock twelve hours ahead of last year and seven hours ahead of my previous attempt. Sandra Garrett said later, “Once you see the gate, all the pain disappears.” She’s absolutely right. Once we were on that dirt road, Bo and I started running. I’d speed up. He’d speed up. Last year he got to take his place on the Rock first. This year he said I could go first. Yet here we were, racing down the trail, through the trees. That’s when it happened. A root jumped up and grabbed my foot. I plunged to the ground, elbows & knees digging hard into the dirt and bouncing onto my back. So hard that it nearly ripped the American flag off of the back of my pack. I struggled to get up. Of course Bo stopped. I was determined not to limp in and managed to mostly walk it off in the short distance to the finish. Blood was dripping down my knee. But I forgot all that as soon as that rock came into sight.

We took turns finishing. Carl made sure we didn’t plunge to our deaths past the finish line. Gary recorded our times. We took turns on the “thrown” telling all the stories. Of course the hit of the day was the dog story. Nathan M. was not far behind. None of us were in a hurry to leave because we didn’t have a place to stay. Nathan went down and brought his car up. He insisted on me trying to clean some of my wounds from the fall. Andrei was not far behind him either. We were still there when Ben finished as well. Bo & I took out our emergency bivvys for the first time in the whole race and attempted to nap at the rock. Between the ants and the excitement of telling stories, I couldn’t sleep and got back up to visit and try to locate lodging.

Eventually I managed to secure a room at the Hampton Inn in Kimball for that night. It was still early and check-in would not be for several hours. We decide to go to the hotel and tell them our situation, hoping that they’d be able to get a room ready before the regular check-in time. The desk clerk at first appeared unmoved by our plight and was not only insisting his hands were tied regarding check-in but also was questioning the legitimacy of our reservation. I have a confirmation code. You just looked it up. Luckily a woman who appeared to be the head housekeeper overheard. She stepped in and was able to assure us they’d have a room ready by 11:30. We went to get some lunch and a few supplies at Wal-Mart and wait for our room.

After all we’d been through, all we’d overcome; saving a puppy; still making it to the Rock under six-days; crashing to the ground in a glorious display as we raced down the dirt trail; finishing finally as 1st solo female; after all that, what happened next is what brought me nearly to tears. We were given a room and hauled all our stuff down there. The first but minor disappointment was that we were in a handicapped room. We had bought Epsom salts for a bath. Handicapped rooms don’t have tubs. Oh well. At least I can get clean. I jumped in the shower. At first the water was warm. I figured it would get warmer. It did not. My hair was already wet and soapy. I began to fiddle with the handle, then the showerhead. I rinsed the soap out before things got worse and called for Bo. “Am I so tired I can’t work the shower? You try.” He had the same luck, no hot water and little water pressure when you moved the handle beyond half way. I went ahead and put on some clean pajamas, even though I wasn’t completely clean, so that we could call for help. “Oh, they’re working on the hot water heater next to your room. It’ll be thirty minutes or an hour before there’s hot water. We’re really sorry.” Oh. My. Gosh. I could not take it one more second. I collapsed onto the bed nearly sobbing. All the emotion of the previous six days came to the surface in an instant, over hot water. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. After my meltdown, I fell into a deep sleep, right where I had collapsed. Way back in Monteagle I had insisted on picking up some Tylenol PM. I’d had trouble sleeping well because my hips would ache when I lay down to sleep during the race. Other than the second night, I’d had no hip problems while moving. But when I stopped I could never get comfortable. When we first came in the room I set out the Tylenol to take after my shower. Bo woke me up at some point and said there was hot water. I was totally out of it and took a while to wake up and get to the shower for a second try. Operation Get Clean accomplished, I fell immediately back to sleep. When I awoke again Bo said, “I’m glad I didn’t take that stuff you took. It knocked you out.” But I hadn’t taken it. I finally was so spent that nothing would keep me from sleeping soundly. I was physically and emotionally drained. We slept through the night and into the next morning. Probably for the better part of 16 hours, we slept.

Our story didn’t end at the Rock though. There was more to do. As mentioned earlier, we had given ourselves the time to hang around town. Thursday we chose to look up the most recent check-ins, get some breakfast and go load up our cooler with ice, cold drinks & assorted snacks. It appeared there would soon be an influx of finishers at the Rock, some of our friends included, and we wanted to be there to see them and to be of any possible help to Gary, Carl and Sandra as they pulled hours of sitting duty at the Rock. We had missed a big group in the night but Sergio was still there, telling his stories, arm still bandaged from his clip by a car mirror at least a couple of days prior. Sergio is nothing, if not entertaining. And tough as nails. 75 years old, weighing probably all of 110 pounds, wearing two-day old bandages, he’s explaining in his Italian accent how the driver of the car was so shaken up, filing a report wasn’t necessary. He needed to go to Hardee’s. Dee Reynolds had finished, showered and returned as well. We were all there to see Julie, Joshua, Liz and Ed finish. We shared our drinks and snacks. I had to explain what “Nabs” are. I didn’t know that’s a very local term. Even if they didn’t know the proper name, everyone devoured said Nabs when I brought them out to explain. Liz tried vainly to assure her grandma that she could still hold her own stuff, like her treasured 314 decal. We listened to the stories as each runner took his or her turn on the thrown and were given their “cornucopia of prizes,” as Gary called it. The chair is called the “thrown” and not the “throne” because it’s so nasty by the time the last runner sits in it that they have to throw it away and get a new one. The “cornucopia” is a car decal, a patch and a wooden finisher’s medal. Julie, Josh & Liz were all had crew waiting to take them from the rock. Ed did not. We offered to drive him and his car to his hotel room in Kimball. An offer he eagerly accepted. We left feeling like we’d made ourselves useful for a day.

After getting back to the hotel, there was a call to be made. We’d left someone behind in Shelbyville two days before finishing, now a full three days had passed. We had made a promise to a tiny dude that we’d return if no responsible owner had been located before we went home. I called Bedford County Animal Shelter. They had gone ahead and neutered the little drifter that day, based on our promise to adopt. He would be available for adoption Friday morning. Thursday evening we relaxed. We went for a swim in the hotel pool. We kept an eye on the progress of other runners. And we slept some more.

Friday morning we headed back along the course toward Shelbyville. We possibly could have made the drive quicker by hitting the interstate but preferred to take the race route and greet runners as we traveled, hopefully providing them with the same pick me up others had done for us. Among the runners we saw Richard Westbrook coming down into Jasper. We saw Wendy Murray and her crew of Laura Carver and David Griffith. We stopped and took a selfie with John Price. We reminisced about those sections of the course and stopped for a bite to eat in Manchester. We made it to Bedford County Animal Control to make good on our promise. We’d kept the drifter safe for 35 miles. He had been so determined to stay with us. How could we go back without him? Anything else seemed like a betrayal of trust.

The adoption process was quick. It was clear they were overrun and more than happy to work with us to make sure one more animal went to a loving home. We finally settled on the name Tennessee or his full name, The Tennessee Drifter. We put him in the truck with his tiny harness we had bought at Wal-Mart and headed back the way we’d come, along the race route, greeting everyone we could find and introducing Tennessee to his new ultra family.

We finally made it home in the early morning hours of Saturday morning. We had finished, spent a day at the rock, spent a day picking up our newest baby, driven home and runners were still out there. We followed their progress as we went about introducing Tennessee to his new family of other rescues, Cody the Catahoula, Otis, Riley and Bugsy the stray cats and Kyle’s new pup, Woodson. The dogs all made fast friends. The cats are still adjusting.

I’m still processing the entire series of events. I’ve always known anything can and will happen in a multiday, Vol State, in particular. I expected the unexpected. I just didn’t expect this much of it. I never expected to have my heart stolen by 12 pounds of love and determination. I wouldn’t change a thing.

About Me.

Karen Jackson

Mom, small business owner, ultra runner, brand ambassador for Luna Sandals & Dirt Bag Runners.

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