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2107 Last Annual Vol State=2016 Vol State, Only Faster, More Philosophical, and With (some) Differ

My theme for 2016 had been to come up with a plan and stick to it. In 2017 I decided that plan was good enough to recycle and upgrade. I guess if you’re into DIY, I up cycled my 2016 plan with some tweaks to make it better. I didn’t even bother to make new index cards. I reused the old ones. I decided not to change one single thing about the actual goal and how to reach it. I just needed to execute it better.

To briefly recap, in 2016 I flipped my running schedule to mostly night time movement by going down for my first break in Martin, only about 29 miles into the race. And I also took 5 hours to, in one instance, ten hours off the course every day to eat, sleep, shower & cool off. It resulted in a better time over my 2015 results by about 13 hours and better than 2014 by 8-ish hours. However, I did not reach The Rock at the time projected in my note cards. I felt like the plan was solid and just needed a little finesse on either side of the breaks, maybe a little more discipline, a little more sacrifice and a little luck with things out of my control, like weather.

There are 6 note cards, self-laminated with clear packing tape to keep them waterproof. (Refer to my gear list video for more on the importance of waterproofing.) Each card represents a segment ending with a hotel break. I realize many people want the adventure and/or cost savings of sleeping where you land. I appreciate that. I’ve tried it. I can’t say I regret it. What I can say is I won’t do it that way again. There are lots of ways to save costs and plenty of adventure to find without sleeping behind churches, in gazebos, Laundromats, and the like. For those who think getting in and out of a hotel room wastes valuable time as opposed to getting up & going on the spot, I’ll direct you to my 2016 & 2017 finish times compared to 2015. Spoiler Alert: For those who don’t know, I finished 2017’s race in 5 days, 7 hours & some change, a further improvement by over 14 hours from 2016.

The sections are:

Ferry to Martin

Martin to Parker’s CR

Parker’s CR to Hohenwald

Hohenwald to Lewisburg

Lewisburg to Monteagle

Monteagle to The Rock

I schedule about 5 hours off at the end of each. This 5 hours is inclusive of everything I do from arriving at my designated location to stepping back on the course. Managing that 5 hours is critical. Finding ways to maximize my time be efficient, and, in the end, being willing to give up some of the hours to try to stay on goal is essential to success. That being said, if you take your breaks wisely, you can avoid zombie walking, desperately looking for food & water in the heat of the day.

2014 was my first year running LAVS, and I went alone, but managed to link up with Salt Shack & Sal Col for much of the race, sharing expenses and pushing/pulling each other along.

In 2015 & 2016 Bo Millwood & I went together with the intent, but not the commitment, to stay together if at all possible. We almost always run events with the understanding that if one is feeling better and needs to go, there are no hard feelings. But we did stick together for all of both years’ events. 2017 I returned on my own with one rule: I’m sticking to my own plan and not changing for anyone, even for the comfort of having company. I was asked more than once “can I run with you?” My response always was that I welcomed the company as long as it worked for us both. I wouldn’t expect anyone to stop because I needed to and I wasn’t going to stop just because someone else wanted to either. It’s easier on paper than in reality though. As someone who is generally laid back & agreeable, it’s almost automatic to just comply when asked “can we take 5 minutes and stretch?” That's the philosophical part that comes into play later.

Getting to the actual race itself, I did my usual room at the Hampton in Kimball the night before the night before, knowing that I will be sleeping in somewhat less than ideal rooms most of the next week. I arrived a little late for the Chinese buffet & most of the runners were already gone. I saw BJ Timoner and Andrew Snope walking out as I drove in. I stopped in anyway to see who was still there. Sandra & Gary, Bill Shultz, John Price were among the last but were clearly packing up. Jan Walker was there, coming back to reprise her roll as the “Meat Wagon” driver. Introductions were being made to Un Ruschell, a first time Vol Stater, who was running crewed but paid the screwed price in order to experience the famed, or is it infamous, bus ride. I was introduced to her and she asked what would be my job at the race. My first thought was to wonder if I really looked that unlike a runner that someone thought I must have been volunteering. I’m also pretty sure Sandra upset the apple cart by insisting on digging out my t-shirt from an already repacked box, much against Gary’s habit. I guess if that was the worst thing to happen to him that day, life isn’t too bad.

Wednesday the screwed runners and anyone who paid extra for a seat on the bus were driven, per the usual, reverse along the course from finish to start with a stop at the Bench of Despair for lunch. Being the bad kid on the bus, I came prepared with a couple of beers for the ride and embarked on the journey with, to name a few, Alex Ramsey, aka Barefoot Alex, and his SO Nicole Sciortino, Andrew Snope, and Shamus J. Babcock. After sharing some of the treats I brought with me, I picked up a couple more at one of the gas station stops, making an ill-advised beer purchase, sans reading glasses. Back on the bus, after drinking most of a beer and feeling pretty punchy, I realized I’d bought something with about 9% ABV and had eaten almost nothing. Oops. It was a fun bus ride, with some cool kids.

With Barefoot Alex, Shamus & Andrew Snope

After the “mandatory” Last Supper at Ryan’s, where I ate an enormous amount of salad because there wasn’t much else I wanted on the buffet, we went to the hotel where some of us decided we had adequate gear for swimming that would dry before morning. I spoke with Bill Shultz & Mike Dobies in the lobby and told them my plans to relax in the pool. Bill says “isn’t it kind of late for that?” and I told him “I have beer that I can’t take with me but I’m not leaving it here.” And also told him it was too late or maybe too early to be stressed out. With that it was off to the pool. My roomie for the night, Rachel Dunai, was a good little runner, and already in bed so I tried to be quiet coming back. Resting the night before is not easy. There’s just so much excitement about the race ahead.

Race morning pretty much all runners congregate in the hotel lobby for breakfast. I hunted down Ken Chappell, who had commented on my Aerosmith shirt the day before. It was my “throw away” this year. His daughter is a musician and loves vintage band shirts. I told him if he felt like carrying it he could have it to take home for her.

Quick fast forward to the ferry, and standing on the Missouri side, the cigarette is lit and we all walk back on the ferry. For a change it takes a while for the ferry to start moving. Attention turns to a figure on the shore. One crazy runner decided to take this river crossing one step further and swim across. My hat’s off to Ray Baum. I believe he was returning for a 2nd attempt to just finish the race and decided to make it even more challenging by swimming across. Call me a wimp. I’ll take the free mile, the rest are hard enough.

Ray Baum about to swim the Mississippi

Section 1: Ferry to Martin

Earlier in the summer I tried out a 4:1 run/walk, run four minutes, walk one, which had resulted in some good miles. I decided to try it day one at Vol State. 2017 start was much hotter than 2016 and a lot of people were feeling it early. I stuck pretty much to plan though, skirting through most runners’ usual stop in Union City, opting for just a slushy & a pack refill, knowing I planned to go down for a few hours just down the road in Martin. Ran some with my buddy from my first year, Salt Shack, who was not on board with much of my plan at all. Outside of Union City I fell in with Greg Pressler all the way to Martin. We shared a water spigot cool off and discussed plans for the race, differences in ideology from Pacific Northwest to South East United States and parted ways at the EconoLodge in Martin, TN. I told Greg I’d see him down the road. The look on his face indicated he didn’t really think he’d see me during the race again, given my plan to take a 5-hour break. After getting a shower, I checked in with Salt Shack to see if he made it to Martin and if he was still there or just kept moving. I offered him a place to at least cool off/shower/nap out of the heat before continuing. He did stop and take quick advantage of the air conditioning but declared my plan kind of crazy & kept on moving.

My new friend, Greg Pressler, cooling off

Section2: Martin to Parker’s Cross Road

I had some leg muscle spasms going on and couldn’t really sleep. After trying every position possible to make it stop, the only one that worked was standing up. I finally packed it up and headed over to Taco Bell for a veggie burrito and sweet tea to fuel me in the night. The first night in the dark was delightful. I ran & caught up to people in the dark and shared some miles on a beautiful star-filled night. Byron Backer & I walked along together after being offered popsicles by a road angel and his daughters. Going landmark to landmark, I ran across people, runners and local supporters of the race, that I’ve come to know and love.

The Dresden Farmer’s Market was full of runners, and for the first time, some locals sitting out & chatting.

The Gleason Fire Department has become a much-anticipated stop. Even if you don’t “need” anything, it’s hard to pass up. Many of these more established stops and repeat offender road angels have definitely changed the definition of “screwed” runner. However, I’d say this, to anyone who thinks that just because the road angels and pop up aid stations are more prevalent now than before, it’s still much more challenging and time consuming to get your own aid than being crewed. While there are a couple of places that you can expect there will be aid other than an open business, some places where I’ve seen road angels or aid set out, I saw none last year. DO NOT PLAN YOUR RACE TO INCLUDE ROAD ANGEL HELP. Much like businesses that close one year to the next, local “aid stations” may not be there from year to year.

Most of the night I ran completely alone, just meeting runners in different places as I moved. I saw Wendy, Henry, Kim, maybe JT (Bolestridge) and Novel in McKenzie. I met Norma for the first time outside of Huntingdon. Every year I have a standing breakfast date at Misty’s All Star Café in Huntingdon. This year was no different. As I came into town I saw Un getting back on the road. I followed along behind her but stopped at the café as she continued on. 3 years in a row I made the 24-hour check in from Misty’s. For the first time I had made it to Misty’s and would have time to eat and be on my way before the 24-hour check-in. By this time I’d met back up with Salt Shack and we made the miserable journey into Parker’s Cross Roads. One highlight was hearing my name called and being met by a local runner and his daughter who follow the race and recognized me.

In addition to wearing a spot tracker device, my dad prefers to keep up with me via the Find My Friends app. Just around lunch time I got a call, “looks like you’re nearing some hotels. I assume you’re about to take a break.” It’s a combination of comforting and creepy to know someone is watching you that closely. My dad used both methods, combined with the Vol State map from the time he got up until he went to bed every day. Since I was breaking during the day, he would stay up until he knew I was moving or check my location on last time, before going to bed. Then his firs thing was to see how far I’d gone while he was asleep.

Section 3: Parker’s CR to Hohenwald

After a typical break in Parker’s CR, I got on the road headed to Lexington. I had left my trusty metal whip/retractable car antenna/dog deterrent somewhere behind. Jennifer Carvallo had found it and had gotten word to me that she left it by a school on the course for me to find. I was happy to be reunited with my main form of defense; since this was the first time I didn’t actually carry a firearm. Lexington was a quick stop. There’s a convenience store with good restrooms and sit down tables that’s just too good to pass up because there aren’t many good places to stop before Hohenwald, especially traveling in the night. A guy who was intrigued and/or impressed by what the runners were doing insisted on paying for my coconut water. I also got a Gatorade and a big cup of soft crushed ice. It’s my addiction, the crushed ice. I live for that at Vol State.

I’m often asked if I ever feel uncomfortable during multi-day races. I take many precautions to stay undetected. People (and dogs) can’t mess with you if they don’t know you’re there. At night I prefer to run without a light source as much as possible and be responsible for staying far out of the way of traffic, even ducking out of sight at times. Running through Parsons was the first time I remember feeling truly uncomfortable alone. It was in the very wee morning hours and nothing was open yet. There was nothing to do but keep going. I was standing under a street light at probably something around 2 am, a big ole red neck truck pulled up to the stop light and there was no way to avoid being seen. I was standing there in what amounts to a tank dress and sandals, wearing a backpack. Their windows were down and a few loud remarks were made in my direction. I did not react and kept moving. They pulled off when the light changed but I could tell by the sound that they turned just beyond the light. I wasn’t sure if they turned down a street or turned around. I ducked in the darkness between two businesses and listened for the sound of the engine growing closer or fading away. I knew Salt Shack & Anne Green were not too far behind and figured if it seemed sketchy I could wait for them. But the sound of the only truck around faded quickly and I jumped back out and continued on my way. On the outskirts of Parsons, I stopped at the grocery store. It wasn’t open but there was a bench, soda machine and outside spigot. Salt Shack caught back up to me there where we ran together for a good stretch, where a couple of friendly dogs followed us to the Tennessee River. Not again. No more dogs. The dogs did turn around at the river and go home. I wanted to stop in the bar but Salt Shack convinced me otherwise. Onward to Linden where I remember being irritated that a place that called itself café or coffee shop wasn’t open for breakfast on a Saturday morning. The grocery store in Linden has a little grill/café though. At that point, I wasn’t picky and there was coffee, bathrooms, a place to sit and opportunity to refill on water.

The section between Linden & Hohenwald turned into probably my lowest point in the whole race. It had also been my low point in 2014, but for different reasons. In 2014, using the mile markers in JP’s book, it showed 7 miles from the gas station at the ‘Y’ leaving Linden to the gas station in Hohenwald. Turns out it was 12. Corrections had been made via his website but not in paper version available on line. It is correct in the new updated paper version now, too.

I was terribly discouraged by the length of time it was taking to travel 7 miles. In 2017, I knew exactly how far it was. It had warmed up in the late morning, something I knew I’d have to deal with if I was going to my break schedule. In spite of the heat, I was moving fine. Due to my daytime sleeping and night running I had been leap frogging a number of runners, mostly Salt Shack, Jennifer and Norma. And had gotten ahead of all three of them. But rain clouds moved in quickly. My body is not a fan of sudden temperature changes. I stopped to get my poncho on and Jennifer caught up to me. I continued moving forward but there was a strong headwind blowing the hood of my poncho off and soaking me as rain ran down the gap in the back. I was shivering cold and no longer moving well and all I could think about was the gas station. Normally I’d go in the gas station for a slushy. This time I was chilled to the bone and had no intention of getting in that air conditioning. All I cared about was the hotel. I hoped to goodness they didn’t have the little window unit set on arctic blast mode. Salt Shack & Norma passed as I was sitting outside the gas station. He asked what in the world I was doing. I explained I just needed a break from the rain & wind. I got on up and continued into town with/behind all of them. Salt Shack stopped for pizza. I did not care to stop anywhere but the Embassy Inn and kept going.

Leaving the Embassy after a shower and getting warm and a nap I saw Jan Walker for one of only a few times during the race. I had called to let her know I was leaving and gave her the chance to use my hotel room.

Section 4: Hohenwald to Lewisburg

This is a section that I highly recommend anyone running screwed travel at night if possible. It is an extremely tricky section to time, and parts of it are just miserable in the heat of the day. From Hohenwald to Hampshire there is really almost nothing. The campground at Natchez Trace used to be a runner-friendly stop but it has been less and less so every year, as the campground has changed hands. In 2017, there was nothing available unless you wanted to nap on one of the picnic tables. And if you’re on that stretch in the heat of the day, it is a relentless stretch of highway with no shade. Then you come to Hampshire. If you’re among the 5-6 day runners you’re getting there Sunday. Mack’s Market doesn’t open until 1pm. If you made it in the night/early morning, you can get a soda from the machine out front and keep trucking, which is what I did the last two years.

From there it’s another 12 miles or so to the first gas station in Columbia. It was a decent section. I had a brief issue with some tightness and just not getting any leg turn over. A stop to stretch, still in the dark, remedied it for the most part. In 2016 it had already gotten to be daylight by the part of the course, so I knew I was ahead of the previous year, if not quite on my goal pace.

Coming into Columbia I had another of my “you can’t make this stuff up” Vol State moments. As I was nearing the gas station, in fact had my sites set on it, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. Seriously. I could not be hallucinating right now, could I? It was a horse. The horse came from a side street and started walking behind me toward town. I looked around to see if anyone was coming for it, but there was not a person in sight. Then blue lights appeared coming toward us and the horse turned and bolted the other direction. Salt Shack was not far behind and actually got an arm around the horse’s neck. The police officer moved toward him and got out but had nothing to secure the horse. I’m not really sure what he thought he would do with no rope or anything. The horse took off again across a school campus. I have no idea what became of him.

See, the horse was real

It was finally breakfast time and businesses were opening up. I sat outside of a gas station and ate some food and recharged my phone for a bit and kept moving. For the 2nd time I had a chat with Mr. Goad who waits outside his house looking for runners and always asks about Sherry and Dr. Adams. I think they are his favorites.

Salt Shack had caught up but was looking to ditch some of his gear. He found a post office and used the kiosk to empty his pack and mail some items home while I kept moving forward.

My goal is always a personal goal, based on doing my best. Secondary to that, I am almost always aware of my standing among other runners. The first couple of days it’s more of a curiosity than anything. But as I reach the half way and beyond obvious patterns have taken place. Whether it’s an “official” designation or not, the screwed runners value their rank among the other screwed runners more than they judge their performances against the crewed ones, although some solo runners have fared very well, even against the crewed. In no place is it more obvious how you’re doing than the Bench of Despair. Runners sign the bench & often include the date and time they were there. It’s a visual indicator of where you stand. Not many were there ahead of me in 2017. I didn’t savor the moment long. Usually runners stop, take pictures, even nap. I wanted to get to Lewisburg before napping and just kept on moving. Plus, the Nutt House is between Glendale and Culleoka. I was hoping they would be out and about again. True to form they had chairs and a canopy and all sorts of things set up in the yard, but there was no one around. They also had a guest book of sorts, well a wire ring notebook, for runners to sign. I signed it and sat in a chair, drank a Gatorade, ate some fruit and found a replacement for the rain poncho I had used before and thrown out. I was sad to have missed seeing the Nutt’s but couldn’t afford to sit and wait and moved on.

In 2016 a dog followed Bo & me for over 30 miles of the race. The story is in my race report from that year so I won’t recount it all. But the dog died between then and the 2017 race. I had him cremated and brought his ashes back with me. I scattered them from where we first saw him until where we finally got him picked up safely off the highway by the local animal shelter, saving a few to sprinkle at The Rock as well. The section from the turn in Culleoka to Shelbyville was mostly a solemn and emotional one. Someone asked if I wanted a picture of me sprinkling his ashes. And I said, “no, some things are meant to be private.” I was left alone to do my thing. There’s a little rustic looking gas station at Mooresville where I stopped in to grab a drink and snack. Sandra was there and I fought back tears as I explained what that spot had meant to me a year earlier. But I felt much better after leaving there and having seen her.

Getting into Lewisburg had been a long haul. I got some food at the gas station before the Celebration Inn and just carried it on down to eat in the room and get off the road for a while. I chuckled as I checked email one of the few times during the race. I read a piece of a thread on the Vol State email list where someone was breaking down people’s strategies and what not. Someone commented that I had a day less than 50 miles and questioned whether I could rebound from that. The next full day I recorded another 60-mile day. What people sometimes don’t understand is, your stops might be dictated by availability of a place to stop, not by ones ability to move farther in a given period of time. Trying to average 100k a day or more doesn’t mean you have to get that every day. It does mean you have to be disciplined about getting back out on the day(s) you didn’t.

Section 5: Lewisburg to Manchester

I know, my break down says Lewisburg to Monteagle. One thing about having a plan is knowing when you need to make adjustments. In 2016, we’d ended up stopping in Columbia, instead of going on to Lewisburg. Then we took a break in Shelbyville as well, still needing a very short break in Monteagle to make the final push to The Rock. In 2017, I went on to Lewisburg as planned, without a stop in Columbia. However, I was later leaving Lewisburg than I wanted to be and knew that trying to make Monteagle might be counter-productive. So I adjusted to stop in Manchester. But that would be my last stop.

Lewisburg to Shelbyville was a pretty fun stretch of road. I was leap frogging with Salt Shack, but well aware that there was a group not far ahead of the two of us. We found out later that most of us in the first group of 6-8 screwed runners had been making check-ins so close together that most people thought we were all running together. In actuality I saw Salt Shack off & on, but sometimes not for 8 or 10 hours at a time. We both saw Jennifer several times and Norma once or twice. But that was it.

Somewhere on the stretch between Lewisburg & Wheel I came up behind Salt Shack as a police officer was stopping him to talk. My first thought was that he must be stopping to see what we were doing but found out he’d seen another runner not much earlier & got permission from the gas station’s owner for that runner to get some ice from their cooler and just shove some money in the door. He told us the runner had left what he didn’t need behind for anyone else. There also was a running spigot we could use if needed. The other runner turned out to be Greg, who we still didn’t see until much later. We did take him up on the ice and also left some money for the store’s owners and kept going.

Running alone from there for a while towards Shelbyville, I noticed a creepy sight. I saw a porch light on in the middle of the night. As I got even with the house, I turned and looked up. There was a woman in a wheelchair smoking a cigarette with her Chihuahua on a leash beside her. I just kept moving. Salt Shack had got his running legs back and caught me coming to the turn in Shelbyville and we stopped at the 24-hour gas station there. We compared notes about the lady on the porch. He’d seen her, too. At least it wasn’t a hallucination. While we were in the gas station, I noticed a man at the counter wearing a Strolling Jim t-shirt. My eyes got really wide and I looked at Salt Shack and said, “I think that’s Barry Barkley!” He looked at me with a puzzled look, like who in the world is that? I’m not often star-struck. I’ve met famous people. I’ve hung out with celebrities. But I was frozen in my seat. He left before I said anything. The girl working there said he comes in at the same time every morning. Darn it. I should have at least asked. I don’t often drink the flavored coffee drinks they make in the machines at convenience stores. But for some reason I wasn’t feeling like black coffee that morning. So I got whatever they are. It’s espresso with a lot of sugar and maybe cream and some kind of flavored syrup with more sugar, I think. Anyway, that stuff was like rocket fuel.

When I’d reached Shelbyville in 2016 it was already around 10am. In 2017 it was still dark. I felt good about my progress. Gone from the year before was my beer before naptime. I didn’t have anyone to share the checking in and getting food duties like I had in 2016. I had to make hard sacrifices. I had to be more disciplined than ever about my breaks and more motivated when I was moving to actually get some running in during the cooler night temps. I played games and made up challenges for myself like getting to the Marathon gas station in Wartrace before 7:30am check-in. It’s only 10-11 miles but I’d also been running since Thursday and now it was Monday. Ten or 11 miles in what was probably less than two hours at that point was not a gimme, especially since there’s a really good convenience store in between where I had always stopped. This time I ran right past it though. No matter how nice the facilities, the fact was that I didn’t NEED anything until I got to Wartrace. It was a beautiful cool morning & I needed to take full advantage.

I was sitting outside the Marathon with a bag of ice and some other supplies when Salt Shack casually rolled up, in his way, and asked what came over me. I told him I wanted to get there before check-in. He looked at his watch & laughed because we’d both made it there by check-in and he had a much more leisurely stroll. But, those are the things that get you through the Vol State.

There isn’t much between Wartrace & Manchester. You make the best of it. You know when you get there that Manchester has plenty of everything. It got pretty hot that morning and afternoon and the pace slowed considerably. We found out there were several runners not far ahead at all in the Whispering Oaks Campground & tried to get there but just missed them. I went in for some ice anyway, quickly. My dad called, concerned. He’d tracked me and the apparently the GPS tracking signal had put me somewhere else. Although the spot tracker had me in the right place, he was worried my phone may have been stolen or picked up somewhere or that I’d taken a wrong turn. He was also worried that I was still sort of lagging behind the lead women. I told him not to worry. I was exactly where I needed to be. I was indeed on the race route & sent him a pin of my location and informed him I would be “dropping the hammer” soon. But first I just wanted to get to Manchester.

I ended up taking a longer than expected break at the gas station by the state park coming in to Manchester but it was worth it 100%. Looking at the menu I didn’t see anything that was quite what I wanted. But the ladies there jumped in and said to just tell them what I felt like and they’d make it. They were amazing. It also cut out a need for a dinner break getting into town.

I made one last stop before the motel in Manchester. That was at the post office. I picked up a large prepaid envelope and postage. When I got to the hotel and sorted my pack, I put anything I could do without until the finish in the envelope to lighten my pack just a little more. The front desk mailed it for me the next day.

Salt Shack asked me that afternoon, “how far behind can you be at the 7:30pm check-in and think you can still catch any of the women?” In my head I thought that unless someone was in Kimball I’d catch up. I was pretty sure I was getting more rest but covering about the same miles every day. (Of course by this point Francesca was already crowned King of the Road. But she was crewed, and she was on a mission.)

When I checked in to the motel, I found out some other runners had just checked in ahead of me. I’d been so much slower in the heat and taken so long at the last food stop that I thought there was a possibility they had gotten to Manchester far enough ahead to have taken a quick nap & already hit the road. It turned out to not be the case. Now I was pretty comfortable that I could still get a decent break and be in striking distance.

After taking my planned break, I hit the convenience store next-door and fueled up for about a 100k hike to Castle Rock.

Section 6: Manchester to The Rock

The rest of the story aside, this might be the most interesting part. Manchester to Monteagle is another section that is maybe best done in the dark. It’s a long stretch of not much but exposed road. Even during business hours there aren’t a lot of places to stop. If you leave Manchester prepared, especially in the cooler night, there’s enough available to get you to Monteagle. I made a stop Hillsboro for a drink at a vending machine.

The climb up Monteagle can be absolutely terrifying in the day. You’re hugging the side of the mountain or hopping the guardrail to avoid cars. At night, for starters, there isn’t nearly as much traffic to contend with. And you can see the traffic coming well in advance in the dark & make a decision about which way to go. In the dark, I hike/run/walk Monteagle mostly up the middle of the road and switch back and forth as needed. You can’t do that during the daylight hours.

Once again I was playing leapfrog with Salt Shack up Monteagle. We reached the top and there was a light on outside a business on the corner. There was a young man there doing some building renovation who yelled to us that we could get water there if we needed. He’d just seen a group, less than an hour ahead that stopped there also. We didn’t stay long and headed on toward Tracy City.

There are several places with drink machines and vending machines in Tracy City. I stopped once, maybe twice even. I love the Section leaving Tracy City before you get to the really steep downhill to Jasper. It’s one of my favorite parts. It’s runnable downhill. If you hit it at the right time of day, there isn’t much traffic either. It’s glorious. You can just run. It was in this section I finally saw another runner actually on the course besides Salt Shack. Jennifer was sitting on the ground off the shoulder. I ran up to check. She said she’d simply gone too far without enough calories. She asked if I had anything to eat & I told her didn’t and even if I had it probably wouldn’t suit her vegan diet. I tried to perk her up as she said she just couldn’t spend another night out there. While I was talking with her, Salt Shack caught up also. He had two dates in a zip lock bag that he gave her. I called Jan & gave her a head’s up on Jen’s condition and kept moving while Salt Shack stayed with her a bit longer. I don’t think I was more than another mile, maybe two, down the road when I saw two more people sitting just off the road. It was Norma with a man, wearing an unmistakable hat, who I hadn’t seen since the first day. I ran up & spoke. The man in the hat looked up, surprised to see me. It was Greg Pressler. “I really didn’t expect to see you here,” he said. I said that I’d told him I’d see him down the road & here we were. Norma was clearly having some classic overuse issues with her leg. It was swollen and red. Greg had stayed with her, trying to figure out how to best help her. Again I called Jan & let her know and told her I thought if she got to Norma before Norma got to a store, that a bag of ice might be in order and that Norma probably didn’t care about her screwed versus crewed status as much as she cared about finishing. We both convinced Greg that maybe he could be more help to her by going ahead and if she ended up being that slow he could come back and crew her to the finish, as Jan was headed that way to check on her and Jennifer.

Around this time my dad called. He wanted to know what time I thought I’d finish. You’d think with somewhere around 50k to go, predicting a finish time would be easy. It wasn’t. I told him I thought maybe 5:00 in the afternoon, worst-case scenario I wanted to finish before the 7:30pm check-in. He agreed that sounded reasonable and he was getting in the car. In Santee. South Carolina. To see me finish. That day. It’s a 7-hour drive on a good day with no traffic. But he couldn’t stand the thought of no one being there to see me finish. The first year my son Kyle had dropped me off at the race and come back with Bo to get me at the finish. The second & third years Bo and I ran together. 2017 would be the first time that I didn’t have “a person” at the finish. Talk about motivation. When your 73 year old father will get in a car and drive that many hours on no planning to see your finish, you run your ass off.

Just before the steep downhill into Jasper there has always been an old store on the right. All the year’s I’ve run it’s been closed. This year it was under new ownership and open for business. Since this time there would be no escaping the heat of the day, I went in. They had restrooms, tables, and cold drinks & were even cooking food. I looked at the food but couldn’t decide on anything. Took my pack off and put it on a chair, along with my dog deterrent. I went to the restroom, bought a huge Gatorade, and came back, intending to sit and drink it. I heard my antenna hit the floor and started looking for it. That thing fell down some secret wormhole in the universe and was nowhere to be found. Three of us searched everywhere. By that time Greg & Salt Shack both were in there having breakfast.

My search came to an abrupt end when I heard the bell above the door ring as someone came in. I swung around and looked. There stood Jennifer, sweating from head to toe like she’d just won a 10k. I stood there as she walked to cooler to check out the options and thanked Salt Shack for the dates. What in the world? Two dates was enough to get you running like that? I was really kind of stunned. I looked at Greg and Salt Shack, grabbed my pack & the Gatorade and said, “I’ve got to go.”

I drank, no chugged, about a third of the Gatorade, threw my pack on one shoulder as I started running and finished getting it on while moving downhill. It’s about two miles downhill. It’s a quad buster and there’s no fun or easy way to get down. Going slow hurts. Going fast hurts. This time the only option was to go as fast as I could. My Luna sandals were slapping the ground and I’m sure I was quite the sight. I’m pretty sure Greg was the first one to leave behind me, but Salt Shack caught up first. We pulled into Steve Smalling’s in Jasper together. Mostly I stopped there because he goes so out of his way for the runners and just loves the race that I wanted to show my appreciation, even now that there’s a store just two miles before his house. Also I saw someone else in his driveway. It was Brian Trinkle.

I didn’t stay long. I had no idea how close behind Jennifer was. On the way down the mountain Salt Shack had told me that when I left the store in a hurry she’d made a comment like “she’s going to be competitive now?” As if I hadn’t been competing all along. At the time the comment was further motivation to not slow down. However, later I would reflect for a long time trying to decide if what I did was unsportsmanlike in some way.

Brian left Steve’s house along with Salt Shack & me. It’s the first time I’ve gotten to talk to Brian. He’s a cool guy. Long story short, we lagged behind as Salt Shack got chastised by the local police for running in the middle of the road. We wanted to be safe and, in this case, the median seemed safer than the non-existent shoulder. But we certainly didn’t want end up being detained either. Luckily we were getting close to sidewalk anyway. Salt Shack seemed wound up by the whole experience and really took off running ahead of us. I thought he was just blowing off steam. Brian and I stayed together for a while but I was getting more & more nervous about being caught by Jennifer again. She had made more than one come back from the dead during the race and might have another one yet.

I ran past the Super 8 in Kimball and down to the convenience store on the corner. I didn’t even take my pack off or risk going in the restroom. I kept one eye on the street out front, grabbed a cup full of ice, a bottle of water, and one cliff bar. While I was getting my drink I got a text to come to the Super 8 and a hotel room #. It was Salt Shack. What he’d been in such a hurry for was to get to super 8, check into a room & drop his pack for the last 14 miles. He was offering me a place to drop off my stuff & not carry it all the way. I told him it was too late. I was past there and wasn’t turning around. While I was checking out I saw him run by. I paid, shoved the cliff bar in my vest pocket and took off out the door, ice in one hand, and water in the other. I wanted to catch him and ask if he saw Jennifer but he kept moving just as fast as he had been earlier. Finally, as he was about to make the turn to South Pittsburgh, either he was gassed or looking at traffic, but he stopped just long enough that I was able to make up ground. I didn’t really catch him until the Sonic though, because he stopped there. I asked if he had seen anyone and he said “no, why? Is she close?” And I said I didn’t know but I wanted to be sure. I took the opportunity to put the ice and water in my pack and dispose of the cup and plastic bottle before we headed on to made the check-in at the blue bridge, indicating our final push to the finish. At that point we saw Brian come up, not from behind us, but up the embankment from the other side. He’d made a wrong turn in that tricky section coming into South Pittsburgh and wound up in the wrong place. He turned around and went back to follow the route correctly.

By that point the sun was high and there is no way to avoid the special kind of misery that is the final climb up Sand Mountain at noon. I was starting to look at my watch & checked the Find My Friends app and tried to calculate in my head where my dad was and what time he might get there and how long it might take me to finish. It looked like we might really get there at nearly the same time. I kept thinking I’d see his car pass me as I climbed, but I didn’t.

The only blister I got in the whole race developed that day. It was on my second toe, between it and the big toe way down at the end. I was trying to ignore it. But it was growing and I could see it. Finally I decided to stop in some shade and drain it. That felt better. As I was standing to get started again I heard footsteps and held my breath. If Jennifer had found enough to catch me moving uphill I wasn’t sure if I could do anything about it. I turned to look. Greg Pressler. Whew. I tried to stick with him for a bit but he was moving almost effortlessly on the uphill. Me, not so much. I just moved as fast as I possibly could, realizing I would probably finish before my dad made it.

The usual suspects were there, minus Carl Laniak. Bill did a fine job of keeping runners from plunging to their deaths in his stead. His style of documenting the runners’ comments was somewhat less discreet than Carl’s, but quite entertaining. Gary noted my time and almost immediately, without letting me enjoy the moment, said “that’s awful close to 5 days,” as if to tell me my work at Vol State wasn’t done yet.

At the finish with Gary, photo courtesy of Bill Shultz

Greg enjoyed the thrown for only about ten minutes before I replaced him. Frank Dahl was still there, waiting for a chance to get back down the mountain. We compared Vol state animal stories. Salt Shack wasn’t far behind. My dad finally made it about fifteen minutes later. Like a champ, he parked in the field and walked up. Brian made it on up while I was still there too.

Nothing Like a good head pat from your dad, even when you're 47 years old.  Photo Cred: Bill Shultz

We learned just how close everyone from Matt Collins (first screwed, third overall) to Brian and Norma and Jennifer had been at times. Because of the different times of day we were moving I just never saw most of them. After Francesca and Kevin, the first overall runners, both crewed, there was a string of 9 screwed runners that finished before another crewed runner.

In the end, it turned out I was almost four hours ahead of the next female finisher.

I stewed over the comment from the earlier that day about getting competitive. It bothered me to think someone thought I was being a bad sport racing the last day. I hadn’t come there with her. I hadn’t made a pact during the race to stay together. In fact, I’d gone out of my way the entire race to say I would not commit to staying with anyone. The name of the event is The Last Annual Vol State Road Race. The word race is in the title. And did the fact that I was behind and had passed her on the last day mean I hadn’t been competitive all along? I’ve always tried to be strategic, from the first step off the ferry, with the intent to “race” if I’m in the mix at the end. Is that being a poor sport? I would get my answer a couple of days later.

The two days following I spent part of my time hanging out at The Rock to see finishers and part of the time driving the course to see other runners. Greg & I spent part of Wednesday prior to his flight home together having some fun, giving some impromptu road-side counseling and looking for the lost antenna, still unfound, where we ran into the Beasley’s. I got to see my dear friends, Noah & Jennifer. Noah was running and Jennifer was crewing with the aid of Greg Shore. I was excited to catch them out on the course. We saw Kimberly, JT (of the Bolestridge variety) and Novel. We saw Sergio, the Italian Stallion, reunited with JT (of the Hardy variety). I was at the finish to see Alex and Nicole, as well as Un, finish and bring them a celebratory beverage from the Palmetto State. Thursday I went back out for a bit. I saw Clark, who’d made numerous attempts to quit but couldn’t. And got to see one of my favorite Grumpy Old Men, Richard Westbrook as well as Byron Backer and Shamus. I saw “the girls”, Heather, Rachel & Donna. I got a quick selfie with my roomie, Rachel Dunai. I had lunch with Jan & Henry, who to my surprise, had been picked up by the meat wagon, before getting on the road.

But one of the most meaningful encounters was as I was driving from down from Tracy City towards Jasper when I saw BJ. There’s a pull out on the right where there is some logging going on and I stopped there to greet him as he came down. He said he could afford to stop in the shade and talk to me for a second. One of the first things he said was, “I know the winners are long since done and it might seem silly, but how far back are the next runners?” I told him exactly how many miles since I’d seen them and what they were doing. He continued to explain that although he might not be competing for the “win”, finishing place was still important. He was still in front of more than 30 runners, and that mattered.

If the 44th finisher can be racing, so can the 6th. Thank you, BJ.

About Me.

Karen Jackson

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

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