“You can’t do a race when you are mentally somewhere else” -
This was the general gist of a reply I got from James Elson when I sought advice about the situation. The situation was as follows; I entered a race six months in advanced in the USA, 500k non-stop across Tennessee, not long after it was announced that there was to be a family reunion right in the middle of the race, in Fiji.
You can’t be in two places at once, physically or mentally. I could not take on something as difficult as the Vol State race when my mind is telling me I should be on the other side of the world on a beach drinking cocktails and celebrating with my in-laws.
But as luck would have it some dates were re-jigged and it was made to work. I would fly to Tennessee a couple of days before the race, have about 8 days to finish the race (cut-off was 10, felt a bit cocky but needs must) and then fly straight out to Fiji in time for morning coconut water.
Perfect, I could keep my mind on the task in hand with the guilt free abandon that I've come to require, and Fiji would be a lovely place to recover.
The flight to Nashville was fine and then the two hour minibus to Kimball went without a hitch too. I was preparing to check into my motel and enjoy the day and a half before the race. Nothing at all to worry about now apart from 500 kilometers of running across a US state, or 100 pi miles if you like old money.
At the end of the minibus journey there was a little confusion. I was trying to pay the driver and give him a tip and my wife was on the phone trying to tell me something.
She was pregnant.
Yes, two of them.
Obviously this is the most fantastic news I could possibly hear, I was delighted. However she was in New Zealand, I was in Tennessee and I was at least 10 days, 500k of running away from celebrating this with her.
It's the kind of news which makes you think nothing else matters. Your job, your health, your friends or your dreams. You are about to become responsible for one of nature's greatest miracles. Two of them. Everything else in life gets relegated to trivial details.
And here I was about to set off on what could be the toughest challenge of my 9 years as an ultra runner. The heat, the humidity, the long roads, the vicious dogs, the fast drivers, the storms, the complete lack of support when running in an alien place with people looking at you as if you have escaped from somewhere.
Would it's demotion to fly on the windshield make this task easier or harder? I will never know. All the reference points changed. All of the things that made the other things as James understood them had now gone. It is fine to talk about that guy in the third person because he no longer existed. It was a brand new me starting this race. It may as well have been my first race. My mind had just changed so much I had no idea what it was capable of anymore. There was a different driver. Would he keep things the same, or find the extra gears or plough my body into a ditch?
I'm not explaining it very well am I?
And since I can't explain things very well I'll allow Laz to explain the Vol State.
The Vol-State is not just another ultramarathon. It is much more than that. The Vol-State is a journey, an adventure, and an exploration of inner space. It begins with a ferry ride across the Mississippi River, from Missouri to Kentucky, and finishes at “the Rock,” high atop Sand Mountain in Northeast Georgia. What lies in between are 314 miles of the great unknown. From the time the Vol-Stater steps off the Ferry, until they reach the Rock, they are totally reliant upon their own physical and mental resources. For the next four to ten days, in the face of the heat and humidity of July in Tennessee , the Vol-Stater must make their way on foot, along highways and backroads, from one small town to the next, over hills and across rivers, up mountains and down long valleys, all the while accounting for all of their most basic needs; “what will I eat?” “When will I find water?” Where will I sleep?”
Success is not guaranteed. There are no aid stations, teeming with volunteers waiting to tend to your every need and encourage you to continue. There are just miles and miles of empty road. Your friends can follow your progress from afar, but no pacers can carry your burden for you. If you do encounter another runner, theirs is the same desperate plight as your own. You will have doubts. Finishing will often seem an unfathomable dream. Your worst enemy may become the knowledge that an air conditioned ride to your car at the finish (in the dreaded seat of disgrace”) is but a phone call away.
Day 0.0 Total Immersion
“It’s not the heat – it’s the humility” – Yogi Berra
Before the start of this race I would have been delighted with a 5 day finish. I would still be very very happy with a 6 day finish. 7 days would have been ok and under 8 days essential if I was to make my flight out of there. About 15 minutes into the race all I then wanted was to be able to breathe.
I imagined this race would start like any other long long race, jog along at a comfy pace and chat to other runners, “where you from?”, “Why you here?”, “Done this before”, “What else have you done” etc etc. These are the miles that should pass without drama, the easy miles.
I passed the state line from Kentucky into Tennessee, about 7 miles in an hour and a half. During this time of swimming 2% of the distance I don’t recall having coherent conversation. I was soaked through, trying to wipe salt water out of my eyes so I could focus on not getting run over, very aware that pushing the pace on the flat somewhere above 5mph would see me explode at the side of the road.
I had a mental trick I used in LANY when things got hard at the end of the day. Say I was 45 miles into a 50 mile day I’d say “you know that thing you had to do 10 times today? Well now you only have to do it once more”.
Remembering this trick worked against me here. “You know that thing you have to do 50 times this week? We’ll you’ve just done it once and you’re fucked”.
The size of the task was now kicking in, truly humbling us all.
We were supposed to start on a boat in Missouri and ride across the Mississippi. That didn’t happen as the ferry was not operating due to flooding so instead we hung around on the Kentucky side of the river and waited until the time when we’d normally disembark to run. This was 7.48AM on Thursday morning. That really messed up the “what’s my average pace” calculation early on. It’s funny how a minute a mile here and there can give you such grief when later on I’d be debating whether to lay still for 4 hours or 12.
Most of this was familiar though. The early morning start, the heating up during the day, the choking humidity and the sun bearing down on you. Last time I had a number of days of cumulative miles to blame for my slow going, but here I was at the start of the race unable to muster more than a shuffle. I came here with a series of aims in terms of time. The “A” was 5 days, 100k a day for 5 days. 100k a day does not seem like such a big deal, I have run 10x500k weeks before and on two occasions during LANY ran 500k in 6 days, so why not crash that into 5? Seems doable....
The “B” goal was 6 days, 88k a day. About 54 miles. With nothing else to do with myself 54 miles a day felt quite pedestrian, I should be able to do that and have time to go to bars and sit down in restaurants and maybe even catch a show.
It is always good to expect the unexpected and so long as I finished in under 8 days I would have been pleased, the 8 day cut off for me being less than the 10 for the race due to my flights out of there. I originally gave myself 8.5 days but American Airlines kindly cancelled my flight out of Nashville and offered me the alternative of one 12 hours before.
I think we all have a tendency for early panic. Constantly flitting between longer term thoughts of how the race will end alongside much more pressing matters like how to I get rid of this very dry feeling in my throat. I was already getting things wrong. I had taken only a litre of fluid for the first section where it was 15 miles until the next shop. I was trying to keep up with others who I knew were going too fast in these conditions and suffering for it.
I would have been in around 20th place heading into Union City, first thing I did was duck straight into the gas station and joined the line of runners fumbling in and out of the first air conditioned building we’d been in all day.
I immediately bought more water and tried to buy a drink that didn’t look like a lava lamp. One runner came out with half a bag of ice and told us to take what he wanted, he was done with it. I tried to put some into the narrow necks of my water bottles but could not force it in. I don’t know why I felt rushed, I had done 15 miles of a 314 mile race in just over 3 hours and was fumbling around like I was going for a marathon pb.
I left the gas station as more came through, there were a few turns through Union City which again brought into sharp focus that this was going to take a lot longer than I expected. The route card would say to take a left turn in 0.6 miles, and so you’d look out for it right then, expecting it any minute. But of course the tenths of miles pass as slowly as normal miles do and just over half a mile does not come with the usual speed. An insult the ancient Greeks used to throw at each other before a race was to say “You are so slow that the groundskeeper once locked you into the park because he thought you were a statue”. I was risking getting locked in here. Let’s look for a silver lining in this, at least I won’t miss any turns at high speed.
After Union City there was another long section towards a town called Martin, at least another 10 miles until we could re-supply. I foolishly persevered with just 1 litre and ran out half way through this section as the heat of the day started to build. I saw an outdoor shop hoping they would sell drinks and just my luck they did! There was a vending machine just between the cross-bows and the assault rifles.
There were various fast food outlets at Martin, around 28 miles. Just over a marathon done out of 12 I figured I’d stop for lunch and not rush about it. Short of breath and leaking water all over the place I sat in Subway, ordered a foot long something or other with a very large soda and started to re-assess what was realistic today.
I thought I might just run until I was a bit sleepy, then crash in a bush or under a tree for a few hours and then jumping back up and jogging on. I sat slumped from what could be the hardest marathon I have ever run at the start of a race and decided to completely change my plan of action. I called up a motel in McKenzie, which was the 56 mile point and booked a room for the night. This first 28 miles took me 6 hours, I figured if the next took 7 hours I’d be in the motel by 9. Sleep for 4/5 hours and then get back on the road in the early hours and knock out a few more miles before the sun comes up.
I spent about half an hour in Subway and then a while in a dollar store picking up more drink. I now had a more realistic plan and something to aim for that night. So long as I can get to that motel tonight I’ll feel like I’ve completed a section of this race. This beast could not be slain in one go, I'd have to cut it up.
It got hotter and the roads got more bleak, there was a long section to Dresden along a busy highway with a wide shoulder. It was really hard to keep any pace going here, I chatted briefly to Mike Callans as we leapfrogged each other. A left turn off the highway saw us running down some quiet roads that would have been very welcome in the first 40 miles. On entering Dresden there was a small table set up by some “Road Angels”, strangers who hear about the race and set up drinks and food. I took only some water and a banana as I prepared to enter the town of Dresden. I followed all the “turn left, turn right “ instructions looking out for a cafe or shop and then soon was on the road leaving Dresden. I saw nothing! The route fiendishly wound it’s way through without passing anywhere to stock up.
There was an opportunity to go half a mile off course to a store. I laboured through the calculation, an extra mile to stock up now or do I get a mile closer to the next town (Gleason, 7 miles away) and re-stock there. It was getting cooler so I chose the latter, making some reasonable progress as the 12 hour mark passed.
There are few rules to this race. Basically get from A to B along this route with only your own two feet, no help from anyone you know. The only other thing you have to do is to call in every 12 hours with your approximate location at 7.30. I did this to report that I was 45 miles in after 12 hours, it felt like a crawl but I was optimistic that tomorrow will be way faster.
I arrived into Gleason just as it was getting dark, Some parallel roads and a train track confused me a little as to where things were. I was to take the old route 22 out of town towards Lexington though there was a store located in the town square just off course. I found the store to see that it had closed an hour ago. I was pretty hungry and thirsty and it was another 9 miles to McKenzie. I asked a few locals if there was anything around and sure enough half a mile off course there was a gas station. Now there was no decision to make, I needed food and drink and so walked over to it and was relieved to see it was open and seemed to have hot food there. I picked up more water, some different colours of mountain dew and looked into the hot food counter to see various golden brown shapes of batter.
I looked at the shapes and asked “can I have some fried chicken please?” She responded that there was no fried chicken left. Hmmmm, I looked back at the shapes. “OK then can I have some wedges?” again to be told that there were no wedges. My orange brown shape recognition skills were certainly in need of improvement. Instead I just pointed at what looked like a orange brown sandy bulb on a stick and said “Can I have two of those please?” She informed me that these were called “corn dogs”, an unspecified meat coated in corn and then deep fried.
I left and sat on a verge and endured my first experience of corn dogs. If you are at all precious about what you put in your body to run then I would say that this is not the race for you.
With a bag now full of fluid and a belly full of unspecified animal I felt pretty good about making it to the end of the day. Lights go out here at about 8.30 and I had 10 miles left to go to get to my motel. I managed to catch up with Mike again and Thomas who were all staying in the same motel. We ran fairly closely for most of it on a road that was completely dark and quiet, except that the trees were making deafening noises.
I had never heard anything like it, I thought it must have been locusts (having seen a Locust Ave earlier) but was infact some sort of fly. There were frog noises too and I saw fireflies for the first time. It was an amazing close of the day, running without lights along a road we could not see, deafened on both sides by the mating noises of flies and frogs and occasionally lit up by the arse of another fly. If you are not used to this then it can be pretty terrifying when one of those things ignites six inches in front of your face.
The running now felt a little easier as the three of us pushed on into the darkness. Thomas was crewed and running carrying nothing, not even a shirt. As he pushed on ahead I saw him come running back as there were dogs barking outside a property. He asked me how I deal with dogs, clearly someone who didn’t know I had a book out. Not very well is the answer! However I figured that if a dog wanted a piece of you it would have taken it before you can even get scared of it and so barking dogs are not really anything to get bothered by. Just head to the other side of the road and walk on like they are not there.
Mike and Thomas ran on as I walked the last few miles into McKenzie, this was a real turnpike of a town, basically existing because of a big junction. I headed to the main road and looked left to see my motel and rather thrillingly a McDonalds right beside it. I picked the standard ultra marathon recovery meal, large big mac, large fries, large milkshake and 10 chicken nuggets. I checked into the motel and got straight into the shower. The key with motel stays is to get horizontal as soon as possible, like with any visit to a motel I suppose.
It was around 11 by the time I got back, I figured I’d sleep for about 5 hours and then head back out in the early hours of the morning to try and get a few miles done before the heat starts to kick off.
Day 0.8 – Start McKenzie – 55.6 miles
I woke up about 4am and faffed around a bit before leaving the motel at 4.30 to head to the McDonalds and have breakfast. I didn’t feel that hungry, in fact I had left the big mac I bought last night. That might be the first time I had ever left a big mac. I had a breakfast and ordered a bucket of coffee with it but only had a sip since I am a very slow coffee drinker and the coffee here is made by Baldrick. I headed back onto the course and headed to the next town of Huntington which was about 10 miles south. I only got about an hour of running done before the sun came up and started to beat upon me once more.
On arriving into Huntington I was again out of supplies and the road book mentioned a café called “Misty’s” which sounded great but I didn’t have much hope of it being open at 7am. Alas it was open and I sat down inside and enjoyed some cool air and the attention from the staff who thought I was amazing to be doing such a challenge. I had not seen another soul all day but not long after I sat down Bo and Karen came in and joined me and soon after another chap did. In the half an hour I was there I think there were 7 of us in the café all replenishing from a night of running. I had a medium breakfast, I was not that hungry yet. I was keen to get back out there and get more miles done. I was pleased that I had done over 100k in the first 24 hours and in some way could still consider myself to be on for a 5 day time.
I thought as I had started earlier I should be able to get another 50 odd miles done today, since at 7.30AM I was already on 10 miles I didn’t think this would be a problem at all. The effects of running in the heat are cumulative though and this second day took it’s toll more than I would like.
It must have only been 11am when I was heading towards Parkers Crossroads, another junction town with a load of fast food places. I decided to stop there and have another McDonalds and get out of the heat.
The things that were making it hard were;
- The sun, never obscured by clouds it just sat there in the sky all day and tormented. I was constantly faffing with my hat and shades, hat on hat off, shades on shades off.
- The lack of shade, there really was nothing. These highways only had trees set way back behind ditches.
- Shade does not cool you down. You get a brief respite from the sun but your sweat can not evaporate with the moisture in the air which means it just pumps out more sweat, doing nothing for your temperature.
- Everything being wet all the time. Being in a column of moisture everything I was wearing was dripping with water
- Heat rash. Something I didn’t really appreciate beforehand. My salty sweat just stays on my skin and clothes, with no movement or evaporation the salt will eventually eat into my skin, causing a nasty and painful rash. I was already suffering this in the groin and around my back.
- Having to look up. Sometimes the shoulder was narrow and whereas I would normally like to just stick my head down and go I could not, I had to look up at the sun.
- The heat of the road. The heat generated by running and friction combining with the slow roasting you get from hot tarmac was causing hot spots and blisters on my feet. An occasional wrong landing would reveal I was going to have foot problems.
- All of this combining to hit you hard with a humbling fact. You are working your arse off and getting nowhere. You are having the fight of your life for every mile, every metre. This race is going to destroy you.
So the humility forced me again to cut the day short. I decided I was going to get as far as Lexington which was about 90 miles in and stay there for the rest of the day and start again at night, trying to become fully nocturnal. 34 miles for day 2 seemed pathetic, though it wasn’t really 2 days of running, it was more like 36 hours.
Not long after Parkers Crossing I puked up the McDonalds which is rare. I know lots of being don’t really get the McDonalds thing but I don’t know of another way of getting 1000 calories down your throat in 2 minutes for around £5.
Day 1.7 – start Lexington - 90 miles
I looked at the road book before I headed out to get an idea of the turns and markers for the next few miles. The instructions were quite simple, follow the US 412 for 95 miles. Not too different from the instructions we got on a daily basis in LANY, follow the road until the motel and then stop. I don’t know why 95 miles on a straight road seems easier than 95 miles with a few corners in, I’m hardly a drag racer at risk of spinning off the side of the road.
Heading out around midnight having finished the half a pizza I immediately bumped into Bo and Karen again. I had not seen them since Misty’s. They said they had crashed in a church just down the road and were keen to make good progress during the night. Seemed like all the runners were starting to move to the same schedule. I ran on, determined to get a lot of miles done before the sun came up and saw some lights in the distance. Assuming they were fast walking too I figured I’d catch up with them soon but it actually took well over an hour.
I took less for this 314 mile race with no checkpoints than I would have for a 50 mile race with checkpoints every 10k. Over this kind of distance I guess every ounce is precious. That said for me it was about what I could fit into a small bag that I was comfortable with.
I used the Ultimate Direction PB vest. There were a few of these around. I took two 500ml salomon soft flasks to put in the breast pockets. A rain jacket, some spare socks, some spare pants, phone and power pack (which I later discarded and bought a phone charger instead), plasters, lube, hat, buff, headlight and finger torch.
I also took a Spot Tracker. The product itself worked OK (is expensive and needs a subscription). However I WOULD NOT RECOMMEND using this product. In signing up for a years worth of tracking you are unwittingly signing up for an auto-renewal. I just saw 200 euros leave my account and are slow in refunding.
It was by the first vending machine of the night that I saw Andrea Stewart and David. We all stopped for a while and chatted. David told me we were at 99 miles, which made me happy since it meant I’d run about 8.5 miles in the last hour and a half, that was a quick pace and should see me get to sun rise with plenty of miles behind me. Not long after we each celebrated a 100 mile pw, around 41 hours.
About 3 miles down the road was another vending machine which everyone stopped at except me who was keen to move on, with the road book in hand I was obsessing about the distances I was covering, extrapolating pace so I could reassure myself that I was going to make it a long way before sunrise and get this ridiculously slow race back onto some respectable path.
The key for be here was to get to the Subway in Parsons in well under 4 hours. That was about 16 miles from Lexington. I entered the “city limits” of Parsons well under time and then saw various motels and gas stations, all closed. No Subway though. As I went further and further into town and approached the 4 hour mark I became more confident in the idea that I had already passed the Subway and not spotted it, or that it had closed down.
I seemed to go through the middle of town and then was going out the other end, congratulating myself that I had now done about 17 miles and was well on pace for doing some miles today. Then pretty much as the 4 hour mark passed I looked to my right and saw the Subway attached to a gas station. It was probably the first and last time I have greeted the sight of a favourite fast food chain with a very loud “ooooh you little bastard!”
And so, not for the first time I found out that I was running way slower than I thought, way slower than I thought I should be doing as well. I tried to keep a relative perspective on it, I have overtaken about 6 people tonight, they are all going really slowly too. Perhaps I am not doing so badly after all?
The day broke around the time I was passing a bar in the middle of nowhere. After the race I spoke to John Fegyveresi who said that he was running with Jay Dobrowoiski and both were suffering from full on running suck. Upon arriving at a bar, maybe this one they agreed to just go in for a beer. I think they had a couple of beers in two hours and left feeling pretty refreshed and ready to run a few more miles. It would have been nice to have the option now but it was 5.30AM.
I bumped into Francesa again who had just started for the day from Parsons and was looking sprightly as usual and then further on I saw Steve Smith resting by his car with his crew.
There is a funny dynamic that happens with screwed runners and crews. In any other race, GUCR, Spartathlon, Badwater there would be no question about crews looking out for other runners. You’d run along with the crewed runner and their crew would make sure you are ok, offering you a seat, water, food or whatever. Any reasonable request from the runner would be met too, if you needed toilet paper (my #1 request) or lube they would get it.
Here it’s different. It becomes an awkward chat moment like in teenage years when you go to pick up a girl for a date and you are left for 2 minutes talking to her dad at her house.
“how are things going?” he might awkwardly ask.
“Yes they are going well thank you, how about this weather hey?”
“Yes, how about this weather, it sure is something”.
"Yes, something is sure what it is"
They can’t even offer help as in to tell you that there is a big climb coming up or a gas station in a couple of miles or that you are being pretty stupid right now by not wearing your hat. That would be support, and burning in your own stupidity is what this race is about.
Steve and Francesca were just starting for the day. I have only done about 35 miles and realised that I was not going to cover any distance in this heat so decided to call ahead to the motel in Linden. It was full. I asked if there was room just to stay during the day and the lady kindly gave me a room until 3pm. That would get me out of the worse of it and if I could eat after checking out and be on the road about 4 I might finally be able to get going in the night.
Day 2.5 – start Linden - 126 miles
I checked out and went to a café next door where I planned on spending about an hour eating and letting the sun dwindle a little before trying to complete an ambitious mileage. I wanted to make it to Columbia, which was 54 miles away. If I could just jog a bit during the rest of the day, get some miles done in the night then I might have a chance to get this race back to the 6 day goal.
I sat in the Rusty Hook café and drank a load of sweet iced tea and had some deep fried stuff. It mostly served fish and I was not in the mood for fish so had some chicken instead. I got confused by the menu, at this stage I’d rather it would be arranged into sections such as “soft and soluble” and “hard, chewy and brittle” rather than “fish” and “chicken”. My chicken and wedges were pretty hard, chewy and brittle.
A few other runners came in too, including Dave who I’d last seen at the vending machine at 99 miles. We’d each run a marathon in about 12 hours. He mentioned a gazebo just outside that was set up by some road angels that a few of the runners were having a break at. It sounded nice and said I’d join him when I was done here but I just never saw it. I wasted no time trying to look for it. I left around 4 to get started on the big miles I had set myself. The temperature was still high and the air still wet but it didn’t whack me as much as it did in the morning. I was tired and sleepy but determined to push on.
4 miles in I stopped at the gas station in a v in the road and filled with more water, I ran on towards Hohenwald, the next big town and expected there to be a gas station before then as per the road book about 7 miles down the road but it was not here. I thought immediately about “that little bastard Subway” moment I had the previous night but this gas station genuinely had gone. I was OK for water and fluid and able to go on to Hohenwald without needing anything else as the darkness came. If I had done that in the day though there would have been trouble.
The sun set as I was heading into Hohenwald which was quite a long drag. There was a Walmart here which I planned on going into to buy some sort of ground mat to have a nap on in the night and more lube, I had gone through my small tin already. Before I got there I spied a subway and made a stop there to get some more food. There were only two others in this very cool subway that made me shiver when sat down, I had to head back outside to get warm again.
There were a number of times where I felt like I was being paraded, not for being a stinky mess of a human slumping in and out of eating establishments but because of my English accent. I was encouraged to talk as much as possible whenever I got into a conversation with anyone.
About a mile up the road was Walmart which I knew was going to be a ball ache. They are so big and you end up doing another mile just getting across their car park and around the store. Especially when you look into the fridges and not see any water and ask one of the guys working there “do you have any water?” and they just shrug and say “nah”. I was too angry to react with anything other than shrugging myself and walking away. If I was a bit more awake I may have yelled “You’ve just been put on the living wage, then show some fucking signs of life, prick”.
I could not find a ground sheet, the closest I got was a towel which I took outside and crossed the road and found a nice mound of grass to lie down on and try to catch up on some of the sleep that I had missed over the last couple of days. It was about 10.30, I gave myself until midnight to just lie down and try to sleep but again it just would not happen.
I thought I could at least lie there for an hour and rest my legs, let the ever dwindling layers of skin between my legs re-graft a little. Alas no I was just laying there getting bitten by things. Every noise I heard I imagined being a policeman or a concerned stranger coming to make sure I was not dead.
I got up before midnight and just got on with it. I was very tired but not about to fall asleep. I was a bit annoyed about losing the time trying to sleep, now I had only 6 hours to get along before the sun came up.
The night was pretty uneventful. This was probably the most populated stretch I did during the night, there were always houses around and always dogs making their presence known. There was a eerie section of road that was being worked on and had cones and lights everywhere.
Getting into Columbia took a long time. I made a stop in a pharmacy to buy a first aid kit. I bought a large kit with the intention of taking out just a couple of plasters and using the scissors to perform a little surgery on my feet. They were pretty badly blistered by now. On arriving at my room later I discovered that the “kit” I bought, the green case with a cross on it was simply a variety pack of about 900 plasters and no scissors. I cut into my blisters with a coffee stirring stick.
Just as I approached Columbia Francesca passed me, I think she started in Hohenwald a few hours before and caught me up. The heat felt immense again at only 10am and could not imagine trying to get though any more miles after I got to the motel. I was struggling to get a few miles on a litre of fluid, stopping in almost every gas station to buy more. I could not do this on a sparsely populated road.
A couple of miles before getting to the motel I stopped in a diner. There is an element of “double or quits” with finding somewhere to eat. I’ll pass a place and think that if I just hold out a bit more I can find somewhere better. The obvious risk is that you may end up rejecting a place and then not finding anywhere before the end and having to eat gas station food. There are times when I go into gas stations and consider asking “can I just drink what’s in the pumps”?
But I stopped at a place that looked nice. It had a sign on the door declaring it as a smokers zone, I was fine with this. I figured that being in a smoky room would mask my own more offensive aura.
But the food was massively disappointing, not what I’d come to expect from American breakfasts. I went for a pork steak with eggs, hoping it would come laden with chips or hash browns or something but it was pretty modest. Eating in these places is not so much a way of getting calories in but as a reward for doing quite a lot of work over the night. A crap breakfast almost feels like an insult.
The most frustrating part of the day was getting to the motel. The streets in the USA are so anti-pedestrian it feels like a massive conspiracy. Big junctions with little clue as to how to cross and then walkways that just disappear. Cars that honk at you for having the audacity to be outside your car. I eventually found the place.
Despite the difficulty of the day I was really pleased with what I had just done. I covered the 53 miles I said I would at the start and was now 178 miles into a 314 mile race. Only 136 to go, that’s only a Badwater. I was determined to keep up this momentum after a well deserved rest.
Day 3.7 start columbia 190 miles
I left the motel feeling pretty good except for the heat rash that was getting quite intimate with me. Only a couple of miles in a car stopped suspiciously right in front of me. I always imagine my smell would come to the rescue here. Someone at gunpoint could say “get in the van” and then half a mile down the road when they are unable to breathe they’d stop and say “I’ve changed my mind, get out of the van”.
Alas it was not a nasally sensitive psychopath but a lady driving the meat wagon. She was just stopping to make sure everything was ok (and obviously if everything wasn’t OK there was nothing she could do to about it). The runners would now be spaced out by about 180 miles.
The winner had won the race already. Greg Armstrong was a supported runner and Johan Steele both coming a shade under 4 days. There is a great ultra running quote that goes something like “you know you are running an ultra when you are still running and you can read about the winner in the morning paper”.
Not long out of Columbia I was heading towards the Bench of Despair. As it’s name suggests, it’s a bench. It is painted in red and a marker pen is left for the runners to sign it as they go past. I got there about 9.50 and scrawled my name. I remembered what my name was at least, obviously wasn’t working hard enough. I tried to take a photo but the light would not allow and it was too big to selfie me in it anyway. This is not a selfie friendly race!
I imagined that I might sleep for a while on this bench, it's pretty iconic. I actually dreamed I would maybe just stay for a few seconds whilst booming through at high speed on my way to victory. Funny how a race can take all of your dreams and expectations and and grind them into a turd and present them back to you. Funny how from that you end up surpassing what you thought was possible. in dimensions you didn't even consider. We often go into races with fairly one dimensional goals and leave with very three dimensional achievements. This race does them better than any other I know.
There was an ice bin full of drinks by the bench. I sat there and enjoyed a painless moment of sugar rushing down my throat as I forgot about what it was I was despairing about. Maybe it's a deliberate irony?
Straight out from the Bench I was in some residential streets which make me a little more nervous, dogs barking everywhere. Most were locked behind fences but here they were free to roam. Normally they would just go to the end of their property but some were more adventurous and came out into the road.
Stages of dog
1 - Barking - It barks because it is scared and is assessing a potential threat. You have no reason to fear
2 - Growling - It has sized you up and thinks you are a threat and is waiting for your move
3 - A hissing/snarling - It’s decided that you need dealing with. You can still redeem yourself
4 - No Noise - You’re fucked
I had left Columbia in haste without food, I have enough of a tank such that I could probably manage a state or two without looking like a Shoreditch Hipster. I made fairly good progress to Lewisburg during the night and scored an unexpected BP station at 5am. They had a wonderful array of deep fried browny golden objects. Hmmmmmmmm, browny objects...
The sun rose as I head into Bedford County. It’s not at all like the Bedford I live in at home. This place is very warm, lacks wind and the drivers give you loads of space. It had been sometime since I saw any other runner, I went into a cafe and got a slightly different facial expression from the usual “WTF is wrong with you?” that I had become accustomed to. I didn’t know what this was until she looked over her shoulder at another dishevelled mess of a human slumped in his own stink in the corner I nodded at the waitress as if to say “yeah he’s with me” and went over to talk to Jay.
Jay was doing this race “properly” and by that I mean he was not stopping in motels. There is always another level of stupid you can take this race and his refusal for a bed or a shower made his efforts seem much better than mine. I was about to check out for the day in Shelbyville, a couple of hours down the road and was feeling pretty destroyed but even in my condition I could see that Jay was a dead man walking.
He could still move though, it was incredible. Maybe someone would say the same about me right now. As Rocky Balboa would say it’s not about how hard you hit but it’s about how hard you can get hit but keep moving forward. This whole race was about getting hit hard in the body and brain, for days and days and days but keep moving forward. He looked like he had given his all, borrowed some from a mate, given all that too and now was getting beaten with baseball bats by the bailiffs.
Seeing things like that can give you hope that you can get into a pretty bad state yourself and still have enough left to survive. I think our brains are designed to stop us actually giving everything voluntarily, just in case you do actually need everything. Perhaps something about racing tricks the brain into thinking it's not voluntary anymore. It's weird, I don't think I ever thought about quitting. I felt like this was something I needed to do. Did this have anything to do with the new me? Maybe. I think there were two things on my mind here, the first was practically this was the last "big event " I was going to be able to do for a few years. With two babies to look after there would be no more weeks off swanning across Tennessee or any other place.
The second I guess involved my new role as someone who would shape someones life. I have no idea what I would teach these two little people as they grown up. I am not going to tell them to finish everything they start, finishing stuff is not the best thing, not in ultra marathons anyway. I would tell them that the best moments in life come out of the times when hope is lost and somehow you hold onto yourself just enough to muddle through it. I'd say that being born in the UK in 2016 you are probably not going to suffer much actual desperation (I'll try to discourage them from reading the Guardian). Instead you can chose to put yourself in hopeless situations with the intention of finding your way out of it.
It does not have to be running, but they should do something where they risk despair.
I ran with Jay for a little while, getting into Shelbyville I struggled to find my motel, this place had curvy streets in, something I just could not get my head around after running along the 100 mile grids. Jay left who was aiming for a church in about 8 miles. The thought of another 2 hours in the heat was too much for me to want to join him.
Day 4.5 start shelbyville - 223 miles
Now that I was almost nocturnal I was making better progress. 223 miles done with about 90 left which I wanted to get done in two stints. Shelbyville was a big enough town for me to get heckled in as I ran past a few people sat outside their houses for the evening
Just before it got dark I caught up with Jeremy Ebel, I knew he was just ahead of me from the positions that had been announced a few hours ago. He was limping, he had run an extra 20 miles with a nav error and only 2 weeks before he ran the Ronda Del Cims in Andorra, a bloody mountainous 100 mile race. He was a million times a better runner than me and the first point of conversation was the Piece of String race. I felt quite honoured that he knew who I was and that race.
It was great running with him through Wartrace exchanging stories about our various adventures.
At the motel in Shelbyville I made a decision to ditch my undershorts. The chafing was too bad. It relieved it slightly but now there was an additional problem of cumulative bouncing. My undercarriage was now swinging free in my large shorts and it felt like my stomach was getting pulled out. It made me feel pretty sick. I figured I had already used them for their ultimate use and so didn't need them anymore but the feeling was herniating.
We passed a campsite where Jeremy took this as an opportunity to wash his entire clothes and bag. This was where I found out about the salt eating my skin, he said he's done this wherever he could to help with the chaffing. I wished I'd known.
Jeremy could run faster than me but only for 5 minutes at a time, then he had to stop and stretch. My mind went into darker and darker places and I thought that a lie down would be the only way to sort it out. I said goodbye to Jeremy as I lay down somewhere in Manchester and tried to get the demons out of my head.
It didn’t help. I stayed for about an hour. I tried to hide myself from view of anyone who might disturb me but that didn't stop the flies. I was so tempted by the motels in Manchester, only 20 miles run and in the middle of the night it would have been a complete waste of darkness. I stopped in a Walmart and bought a sandwich and a huge jar of lube. I sat on a verge outside Walmart just trying to get my head around what I needed to do. I could not run without incredible pain in my groin. I had about 100k left, another 25 miles to do today. I sobbed to myself as I looked across the road and saw Jeremy running past, he had waited in a gas station hoping I would catch up. I thought this was really nice and decided to stick with him at least until I got to Monteagle, my next motel
We staggered into a small town called Pearson, I find it hard to distinguish between some towns and groups of houses at the side of a road. The roadbook said there was a cafe coming up, Jeremy and I were going to stop there and eat as much as we could.
Everything was a chore, stepping up a kerb or watching out for a car passing, a fly or branch in the road. I was having an extended stay in that odd place ultra running takes you. The place where you genuinely believe that no one on earth has suffered like you have. It is a dark and deluded place, when you stop to think about just how deluded and self centred it is you just feel much worse.
I don’t belong here.
I would like to think I am usually friendly to people but on entering the cafe all I could think of was “I hope the waitress doesn’t ask me any questions, I just want a fucking breakfast”. It seemed nice and concerned people offended me and I only wanted to be near miserable people. It seems to be a thing that miserable people are drawn to other miserable people.
The cafe was nice, it was a Monday morning, I think it was Monday morning. There were a few families and a group of bikers making a start to their day over breakfast, it all seemed so perfect. Like a film.
I’ve done some tough races like this before, I know the drill. You start off in great spirits as yourself, racking up the miles. You hit a series of walls that at some point will force you to change your approach, your goals, your outlook. You might have to deal with this in a novel way, thinking on your feet in times of stress.
If you finish you can derive satisfaction from the trinket and the notch of “another ultra marathon finish”, but the most valuable part is knowing that you had to become something different in order to get to the end, that somehow you became an improved human and you can take that improvement forward in your life. Ultra marathons change you, but the changes usually happen near the end.
But this change happened from the start and I have run the whole race not entirely sure how much I care about it, yet I was unable to quit.
I felt the need to justify to Jeremy why I was so miserable, aside from the 250 miles I had just run.
Sat down at our table waiting for our food I waited for a buzz to be provided by the other patrons so not to draw attention to what I was about to say. I then said to Jeremy “The day before this race started my wife told me she was pregnant” and then barely audible through a shrieking sob I added; “and now I really don’t want to be here anymore”.
So much for not drawing attention to ourselves.
After that emotional moment we left, having had our bill paid for us by some kind people who has already left. I was really touched by the gesture that I can probably never return.
I was now in so much pain I could barely move at 2 miles an hour, we had about 13 left to get to Monteagle and I told Jeremy to go on, perhaps I might catch him later but right now I had two battles going on, keeping my failing body in this race and trying to convince my mind that the suffering was worth it.
The climb into Monteagle was hell, about 3 miles of gradient while trying to listen out for cars. It took much more than an hour to get up there. The motel was about half a mile off course, I had not booked in advanced and was distraught at the idea that it may be fully booking. It wasn’t. After getting some food I went straight to bed to try and let some of the skin between my legs regenerate.
Day 5.7 start monteagle 273 miles
I must have got more than 8 hours in the motel, it was 11pm and I needed a chemist but the local one was shut. I had 43 miles left to run and toyed with the idea of just waiting here until morning. The race clock was now on 5 days and 15 hours. I was not going to make 6 days but could make 6 something. I could get an overall time of less than 150 hours, which might seem nice.
I decided to leave at midnight with the mantra, get to 26 miles, no dramas. I went to the McDonalds to fuel for the marathon ahead.
I made good speed out of town and towards Jasper. The descent down Jasper is met with fear for many runners but I actually found it quite easy. I was hungry but that feeling was nothing compared to the chafing that would get worse if I slowed down. The descent was steep but I was happy to be moving much faster than I had done for days, knowing that each mile was a significant chunk of my remaining total.
There was a storm due, I had no clothing to deal with it. There were plenty of houses around and I could easily have taken refuge in a barn or under some shelter, but it was 3am and people don't like being disturbed at that time. In my head I planned my approach to a barn should I need to shelter. I would make enough noise so that if they had a dog I knew about it and I would leave my bag and shoes obviously displayed so that the owners would know I was in there. I'd pick somewhere that looked like it was a family with kids. Having seen the gun stores here and the rebel flags I took it as given that everyone here was armed. This genuinely didn't worry me though, I never felt unsafe.
Every car in the night must have wondered what I was doing, a couple of them stopped to ask if I was OK. Most of the time I would have my headtorch off and would be following a barely visible white line in the road. I had to be on my guard to look out for cars and often I'd get a feeling I was drifting off the face of the earth but this is one of my favourite things about running, the pitch black tunnel. Never really knowing where you are or what's around you but just following a faint speck.
I was still relying on vending machines, hoping that they would not run out and that my dollars would not get too wet.
One time after necking a bottle of Mountain Dew I looked at the bottle that smugly declared to me that it contained “ONLY 30 CALORIES!!!”
I hated it more than that bastard Subway.
26 miles came easy, the next 4 did too. Now was the 13 mile big uphill slog to Castle Rock.
I was moving so slowly but now not bothered at all, I knew that before the sun went down today I’d have finished the Vol State race.
I passed the HQ motel in Kimball, passed the spot where my wife told me she was pregnant and then headed out over some busy junctions and onto the bridge out of Tennessee and into Alabama, that was Tennessee done, now for a few miles of Alabama and then into Georgia.
It was getting warm and there are not a huge number of places here to get stuff. One of the "Mom and Pop" stores mentioned in the guide had closed. I stopped in a barber shop to ask for some water a few miles in.
The end goes up “Sandy Mountain” - If you can imagine a slight incline on the South Downs Way then make it flatter. Then a bit flatter than that. Then you’ve got it. This was a truly epic case of making a mountain out of a molehill.
2015, July 15, 11:05 AM EDT - Update from Laz
the stories that everyone will hear
have mostly been written.
the winners have won,
and the world class runners have gone home...
but the worthy tales have not all been spun.
the most dramatic dramas have not yet played out.
while the fleet of foot have returned to the "real" world,
the majority of the vol staters
still occupy that other real world.
the world where all that matters is food and drink.
where sleeping indoors is the height of luxury.
a world where the barest of essential possessions
have been parsed over,
and most of the trappings of modern day life
have been deemed extraneous.
every runner still on the road has a story.
and every story is worthy of telling.
some of the stories I know,
most, I do not,
and many I will never know.
no one came here from a vacuum.
they did not spontaneously generate on the ferry.
these are real people
with real lives;
regular, ordinary people
the sort we see around us every day.
but something inside them
drove them to move out of the comfort zone;
to try things that no one would think reasonable,
or even possible.
those who could be broken are gone,
and those who remain are the select.
they have paid a price in pain and fatigue.
they have watched the residue of civilized life
leaving only the most basic essentials of existence...
and a quest.
the arduous journey to the rock.
without any of the things we think are essential to modern life,
they have lived more life in the past 6 days,
than many will live in a lifetime.
they have seen despair
and have heard the clarion call of surrender...
but they have persevered.
those hardy few who remain,
can only be stopped now by injury.
they will not give up.
the ones with surrender in their hearts are gone.
and oh, the stories they have to tell.
the stories of life on the open road.
with oprah at their heels
and the rock beyond the reach of their imagination.
there are stories of drama,
of the surprises that wait around every bend.
stories of the kindness of strangers
and the impersonal cruelty of the beating sun.
the beauty is,
as each one reaches the rock,
their faces alight with joy,
we unworthy followers get to share in the passion.
and, as each finisher arrives,
they get their moment on the throne.
when their stories are the center of attention.
when we all are waiting,
to hear the stories only they can tell.
each of us, who have been there,
share the knowledge of the truths we have learned
on the unforgiving road.
but the individual stories can only be told by those who have lived them....
I need to take a quick shower.
james adams is approaching sand mountain...
he has stories to tell,
and I want to be there to hear them.
reading this while heading up the mountain did make me cry a bit
Having been on tarmac for 313 miles the occasional pebble is an upending experience. The instructions say “go up sandy slope and then through woods” as I did, expecting the finish to pop out of somewhere sometime soon. While walking through the woods I had the most amazing realisation which made me laugh out loud.
This is all a joke. This is the best kept secret in ultra running. This race has no finish! All those who have done it before have been sworn to secrecy and those who are here new have to find out the hard way. I know there are people in these trees looking at me and wondering how far I’ll walk before I give up and call someone. Genius! This could be the greatest non-race that has ever happened.
I was convinced, absolutely convinced that I was right and was a little suprised (and almost disappointed) when I actually saw the finish. It was just Laz and Carl Laniak sat in chairs under a gazebo waiting for me to arrive. I almost expected them to say “you have only one question to as the sages of ultra-running” to which I may have responded “Does this count and an ultra?”
6 days, 5 hours and 40 something minutes. A shade over what was my middle goal but two days before my flight out of there.
The Vol State race is unlike anything you would have ever done before. To ask whether it was the “hardest” and so forth would completely miss the point. This was a journey run, one that will be completely unique to you. Jeremy described is as 80 people diving into hell and then racing to get out of there. I think this is a perfect description of the race, we all found it tough from mile one and took our time getting out of there. The fastest being just under 4 days and the slowest being 10. No part of it felt easy and nothing was ever a given yet at the end when I saw the finish I was a little sad that it was all over. I felt like it took something different from me to get this race finished, not the usual combination of legs and head but something much more. In the words from the website;
Many will fail. But, for those who find the steely will and muster the sheer dogged tenacity to overcome the impossible obstacles, and reach the rock on foot, the Vol-State can be a transcendental experience. No words can adequately describe the sense of combined relief and amazement to be experienced at the Rock. No one can explain the regret that this incredible journey has actually come to an end. Former King, Barry Crumrine probably summed up the Vol-State experience as well as it can be put into words;
“I found in myself something that I never knew was there.”
Or again from Yogi
It’s not the heat, it’s the humility.