A JOURNEY OF THE BODY, MIND, AND SPIRIT

Or, The Last Annual Vol State Road Race 2012

            It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the summer of hope, it was the summer of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct to Hell – in short, the period was that of extremes, highs and lows with some moderates.  In comparison, each runner experienced his or her esoteric learnings brought to the surface by the monumental task of the Vol State Road Race in the month of July in the year of 2012.

            Thus, the paraphrasing of the opening lines of the classic, A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.  The book was written of other things and other times.  But, the often quoted opening lines apply to the Vol State Road Race 2012 just like the bonding of the Vol State to thirst and fulfillment, joy and anger, pain and euphoria, loneliness and camaraderie, hunger and satiety, staleness and excitement, stubbornness and anxiety, complacency and spirituality, doubt and confidence, patience and impulsiveness…and, maybe, a little insanity mixed in to what we think is normalcy.  Each runner in the 2012 event can relate to many of the aforementioned qualities.  Now, that it is over, more questions may arise.  But, more importantly, more answers may have been found.  Therein lies the real truth of the long run…discovery.  Each finisher is not the same person as he or she was at the start.  Each of us is someone different.  Only the runner can know to what extent.

            The journey of the mind and body began by running off the ferry in Hickman, Kentucky.  In a race where anything can be expected, the start was the start of great unexpectations.  The ferry was grounded which prevented the crossing over and back on the Mississippi.  Instead of starting in Missouri, we adapted and started on the ferry deck and ran into Hickman.  Gary Cantrell modified the time in order to equate with past Vol States, equality being the key.  Each runner’s mind was working to adapt to the run and apply one’s biology to the mileage, duration, terrain, and environment ahead.  Problems were to be predicted and, hopefully, solved.  If not solved, the runner would suffer.  The amount of suffering would change over the 314-mile distance lying before us toward the southeast.

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In the midst of regular life, running is the touchstone that breathes adventure into my soul. I can feel the trail under my feet, the press of the hill, the gallop of the track, the burn of my lungs, the stir of wonder and possibility. Running reminds me that there is more to me than what is readily apparent much of the time. I don’t always need to see it. But, Oh, how I need to know it’s there. Like having an alter ego, or a super-cool super-hero identity.”

                                                                                                    Kristin Armstrong, Author and Runner

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            I ran easily, slowly up the small rise leading into Hickman.  I glanced around feeling like the rookie that I was in this event.  Most were walking.  Did they know more than I did?  Obviously, since most had run this before.  Still, I ran up the small hills talking to some of the others that were running.  Two guys were taking it out.  Not me. 

            The hills got severe in old Hickman until we were at a high point overlooking the ferry and the course behind us.  I stopped to take a photo and to breathe.  My mind was doubtful about what was out there ahead of me.  I did feel good about my pack and its non-obtrusive presence that marked me as part of the solo or “unscrewed” division…as were most of us in this parade.  But, that did not sway the malignant doubt and anxiety about the immediate future.

 

image001A hardy group of adventurers on the ferry to start the Vol State 2012.

 

            The hills of Hickman faded as we ran out of town toward the boundary of Kentucky and Tennessee.  Scenic farmland bounded the slightly rolling highway leading through State Line, Kentucky and into Tennessee.  We ran through nondescript Woodland Mills looking forward to Union City, a town of note with its population.  Union City was our jumping off point in that the runners met there for the “Last Supper,” the evening meal before the race started the next morning.

 

image003Old downtown Hickman, KY as seen from the highpoint running out of town.

 

            Runners were in the phase of adaptation at this point.  Packs were adjusted along with pace and incoming plans.  The plans varied from runner to runner.  One had a plan of ten hours on the road running and walking and then two hours off; one of the ladies had a plan of running ten minutes and walking five, and my plan was “playing it by ear,” if you can call that a plan. Whatever the plan, the runners kept or modified their plans for the run. Obviously, the easiest plans belonged to those with a crew.  Less adjustment would be needed by those runners.

  The rest of us in the self-supported division, the “solo” runners, were to face a beast with a different evil.  We were running into a day that gave us cooler weather than normal.  Some clouds helped out.  It was if Theia, the Greek goddess of the clear blue sky, empathized with these runners on this part of the planet and relented the clear sky to one of cooling clouds.  I don’t know if any of us were of Greek descent, but the clouds were appreciated nonetheless.

The “beast” is a very subtle enigma.  We all felt fresh and enthusiastic in the beginning miles.  The smarter runners controlled their enthusiasm with reserve in respect for the five-hundred kilometers.  A runner can feel good at present, but somewhere in the runner’s mind is that fear of the “beast.”  Knowing the many ways the “beast” can and will make its presence known belies the fear that tempers the run.  The runner’s weapons in the battle include preparation, knowledge of the event, experience, running technique, “solo” mentality, a good pack and essentials, and the help and sharing of the other runners.  This last weapon may be the most important as it was in my case and in the person of John Price who helped me immensely with his knowledge and experience.  I’ll always remember John and I running down Monteagle Mountain trying to beat darkness.  John told me it was going to be one of the hardest parts of the run.  It was as he said and more.  Thanks, John, for everything in our battle against the “beast.”

I was running through Union City after getting directions from Sherry Meador who seemed to be going in the direction of “it just seems right.”  Not being sure, I conferred with Jay Dobrowalski who in turn conferred with Abi Meadows.  Jay and Abi ran on in to Subway; I followed.  Jay and I stopped to eat.  Abi went to Sonic on down the road.  I didn’t see Sherry again for a long while.

Leaving Union City, I felt refreshed after the 18 or so miles.  I was running on the Martin Highway.  In my college days in the Ohio Valley Conference, all the conference schools considered UT-Martin, the university in Martin, to be way out there in nowhere.  Now, I was running to Martin from the other direction.  The road was big, divided, and rolling.  The roadside was lush with green.  The air was clean.  The runners were treated with the passing of well-kept homes with manicured lawns and the farmland that was rich, fertile and treated as the treasure that they were.  It was a scene of the beautiful USA.  The fact that it was about thirteen miles to get into Martin made the stretch even more enjoyable.

Whilst in Martin, I stopped at the great American restaurant, McDonald’s.  I eagerly ordered a Coke and a milkshake.  I sat inside at a table enjoying my cool time.  A guy at the next table asked if I was cycling and began asking more questions once I told him what we were doing.  The conversation evolved into the subjects of politics, global warming, and conspiracies.  He was impressed by my inferences of the goodness, sharing, and helping of the people along our route.  At the conclusion, he stated that after hearing about the run and the people helping, he now had a renewed respect and faith in America.  The only problem here was that I was too long in the interesting conversation before I realized it.  A little time lost and I was on my way refreshed physically and mentally.  On to Dresden on a beautiful day.

A bland feeling was with me as I ran toward Dresden.  I was neither here nor there.  I just was.  That’s what the mind can go through in the midst of the long run.  But, into Dresden and I was shaken mentally into reality.  I guess that may be because of the turns in Dresden making it far different than the arrow like road leading in. 

Thankfully, there were orange arrows on the pavement pointing the way through the town.  Interestingly, the arrows were labeled “500K” and were along side other arrows labeled “5K.”  Quite a dichotomy.  It made me think how I would feel racing a 5K compared to how I felt at the moment.   As I approached a sharp left turn, I could see two women ahead of me.  I wasn’t close enough to tell who they were.  But, one ran straight ahead, probably to a motel.  The other hopped into a van with her crew member and went straight ahead also…so that one must have been Erika, a crewed runner.  That was the last time I saw them for the rest of the race.  It was the last time I saw anybody until I got to Gleason.

The glow of Gleason far off in the dark made it seem like it was unreachable.  But, just as my mind was evaporating, I thought I heard a motorcycle coming up behind me.  It was the only thing on the road except me, at least in my immediate world.  Then, the phantom motorcycle slowed and the rider told me that up ahead were some people with oranges and bananas to help the runners.  He left.  I was running in the dark wondering if that was for real.  Was I dream running?  Turns out, it was for real as a young family served me oranges (out of bananas) and cold water.  Entering Gleason, I saw them and the phantom motorcyclist again, and again, was served oranges.

The darkness took me into downtown Gleason where I got two Cokes from a machine.  I sat in the glow of the Gleason Superette and slowly feasted on the nectar from Atlanta.  I lay my pack on the raised walkway and lay my body down using my pack for a pillow.  Resting, I was approached by the local police who wanted to know what I was doing.  After hearing my description of the Vol State, he wished me luck and told me to be careful leaving town. 

I put on my pack and noticed a compatriot across the way sitting in the pale glow of streetlights.  I wobbled over to greet John Price who gave me a description of the next stretch.  It was 48 miles to this oasis, and I was tired and sleepy.  But, I knew I would trudge on toward McKenzie.  There, I would probably sleep.  And, I did.  Behind a veterinarian clinic.  It was a welcome rest in my Mylar sleeping bag on the ground.  I was awakened by light rain in my face.  Up, packed my stuff, strapped on the pack, covered under my poncho, and I was on the four-lane toward Huntington.  Once there on the square, it would be sixty-seven miles behind me.  Gee, that would leave only 247 miles.  But, who’s counting. 

My head was a vacuum as I ran the rolling terrain toward Huntington.  I was seemingly thinking of everything.  My mind was spinning.  Perhaps, it was the result of welcomed sleep; maybe, it was the simple beauty of the Tennessee countryside.  I don’t know which, probably a combination of both.  Whatever the catalyst, I could not help but be emotionally tied to the terrain, to the Americana scenery, to the experience offered from the mind of Laz. 

The day was a mixture of clouds, rain, damp breezes, and dry stretches of road.  All this made nature’s green jump out of the earth, the dark soil framing the colors of barns, fences, houses, even mailboxes to present a kaleidoscope of colors that pierced my awareness.  I’m sure others felt as I did.  I was a running animal doing what I was meant to do…run long.  It felt so natural to be running along this asphalt ribbon through American farmland.  I was emotionally gratuitous of the beauty of the setting.  It made me feel deeply privileged to be part of this race, this place, this day, this meeting and sharing with the other runners, this inward journey magnified by the journey of long distance. 

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I get up each morning with joy, knowing that each day is another day in which I can relish this extraordinary sense of well-being.  My runs are each an adventure, a meditation and a practice, each one different but each an equally exciting journey as I discover more and more about myself, my body and my relationship with this beautiful planet.”

                                                                                                                   Serena Scott Thomas, Runner

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            Upon reaching Huntington, I sat on a bench in the downtown area.  I had 67 miles behind me.  I had run through some rain and felt blisters forming to a serious degree.  This was big, since I don’t usually get blisters.  I could predict trouble ahead because of this. 

            It was still morning, and I had morning hunger.  I got the attention of a passenger in a car that stopped in traffic right in front of me as I sat on the bench.  I asked the lady if she knew of a place to eat in the southerly direction I was going.  She was very friendly and polite (a typical southern lady) and apologized to me because she didn’t know of an eatery.

            As luck would have it, there was a café just down the hill.  I entered and ordered breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast with jelly, and chocolate milk.  It just hit the spot.  Sherry Meador came in while I was eating.  She warranted a few glances as she entered all bound up in bright colors.  The family behind me asked about the venture and wished me luck on the road.  They asked me to wish “that lady in all the colors” luck, also.  Sherry was fluttering around the place like a peacockian rainbow.  I think we, the boring guy and the rainbow, gave the customers something to talk about once we left the building.

            The next major mark for me was I-40, which was the 82-mile mark.  The run south to the interstate was remarkably internal.  I was running through a stretch which later yielded almost a blank in my mind as far as remembering any landmarks or scenery. 

            Bouncing around inside my head were renegade thoughts given birth by the “beast” as I zombied along looking for an interstate. One can get philosophical in situations like this, and I was jumping in head first.  The silver lining here is that the distance is covered while I was visiting those other mental worlds.  Pure physical problems take a back seat to the overall venture.

            The thoughts of past ventures served to bolster my effort.  This somewhat disassociation was not planned but can be welcomed when it serves a positive end-product…like I-40.  I was in Tennessee, but I was really re-running across Iowa as I did not too long ago in celebration of an upcoming birth of a granddaughter in Iowa City and one in Georgia, both born an hour apart.  Later, I was re-running north to south through Georgia, and my mind jumbled the three separate runs on three separate routes into one composite route.  It was the best and the worst of the three. 

            While warming in the increasing heat of the interstate search, my brain cells took me back to running the 100-mile Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada which traversed the desert along side the infamous Area 51.  Running in the sun in Tennessee took me to re-running in that desert and seeing the heat waves dancing off the asphalt on the long straight road.  Then, there was a sign on the left which simply stated, “Hot Water.”  Beyond the sign was a small flat area covered by a thin shimmer of water…which I guess was hot.   

            As the day leisurely moseyed into evening, the sky hosted some dark clouds promising rain.  Thunder and lightning was on the horizon.  That picture took me to re-running a part of the TransAmerica Road Race through Kansas.  There, the sky was markedly divided by a well-defined line of dark clouds.  It was like a straight edge going across the sky.  On one side of the edge were ominous dark clouds rumbling with deep thunder.  The other side was clear blue with not a wisp of a cloud.  Everything in the sky was stationary.  It was two fronts pushing against each other, and neither was moving.  It was a Weather Channel photo opportunity.           

            INTERSTATE 40!  82 miles!  Finally.  The day had turned warm, though still not hot in running terms.  Still, I felt the warmth and looked forward to fast food in a cool place.  Then, up ahead on a rise right before the interstate sat a McDonald’s.  I entered, ordered, and wolfed down the Big Mac Meal, large version.             

            Back on the road, I felt refreshed.  My running felt better, more coordinated, and my mind was more aware.  Maybe, the zombie phase was behind me, at least temporarily.  I headed for Lexington under a blue sky but with dark clouds way out there in front of me.  Lexington square was at the ninety-two mile mark, ten miles away.  The dark clouds were closer than that.  I was beginning to hear thunder and saw some lightning off to the southeast.  Maybe, the wet, electrical weather was blowing on through, and I would miss it.  I was certainly running slowly enough for it to gradually pass.  Approaching Lexington, I was running twenty-five minutes and walking five.  That seemed to work well at present.  But, Oh, how things would change!

            I was no longer visualizing other long runs.  I was in my element as I ran into a slight and cooling headwind.  I just hoped it wasn’t the harbinger of an incoming storm.

            The road was a wide, divided four-lane.  It was hilly all the way into and through Lexington.  I got to a point in which a sidewalk appeared and gave me the opportunity to get off the road shoulder.  A welcome sign marking “Lexington City Limits” gave me false hope.  I had a sudden brain jolt that I had covered more distance than I thought…That I was running really well.  Then, back to reality as I kept running over hill over hill over hill on that blasted sidewalk looking for downtown.  It was probably the longest stretch of sidewalk that I have ever run.  But, it did finally lead me to downtown and US 412 on which I took a left turn and headed for Parsons.

            OK…Here’s the thing.  Whenever I go by a park bench, or any bench really, I have the urge to sit on that bench and watch the world go by…if only for a few minutes.  There is probably a name for this “bench” condition, but I know not what it is.  I do know that I usually take advantage of the bench if the run or race warrants such.  This one did.  After turning on 412 and running maybe a block or two, I spied a bench nestled in a little park on the other side of the road.  Unable to resist, I crossed the busy road, bought two chocolate milks, put my pack on the bench, and proceeded to stretch a bit behind the shaded bench.  Then, I reclined on the bench and drank my milk without one iota of guilt.  I listened to the evening sounds of the city as I rested.  Then, guilt raised its ugly head, and I had to rise and run.  Oh, well.

            It was going to be dark soon as I ran out of town.  The chocolate milk had an effect as I approached a long hill.  I had to piss.  So, I saw a dark alley beside a building with a large air conditioning unit about fifteen yards into the alley.  It was in the shadows, a perfect place to relieve my bladder unseen by passing motorists.  I entered the shadows, took off my pack, pissed, and lubricated some delicate body parts to prevent friction rash. 

            Back on the road, traversing the long hill, a police car turned from the eastbound side to my westbound side on which I was running facing traffic like all intelligent runners should.  The car pulled onto the shoulder coming right at me.  Did he see me?  Is he going to run over me?  Am I going to have to jump into the high grass and weeds?  God, I hope not.

            He stopped, blocking my progress which is a lot better than running over me.  I knew right away something was up when he got out of the car with his ticket pad in his hand.  It didn’t look good.  Was I speeding?  He wanted to know why I was running along this road at night (even though there was still some daylight).  I went through my explanation that I had used in Gleason.  He then told me a driver had reported seeing me sneak in beside a building in the dark, and it looked mighty suspicious. 

            I had to agree.  But, after hearing my reason for the “sneaking,” he asked a lot of questions about the race.  He wanted to know the distance; the general course; the number of runners; if those he saw walking were part of it; when did I expect to finish; where did I spend the nights; where was I from; how old was I; what place I was in.  I answered that last one with, “I have no idea.  I just know I’m not first or last.”  He was bewildered by the fact that I was in a race and not knowing what place I was in at the time.  And, like all the police officers, I encountered along the way, he wished me luck and told me to be careful.

            This was in contrast to a guy and girlfriend I met upon leaving a store as they were entering.  This was the last store on the outskirts of Lexington.  The guy pushed the door open asking loudly where the cigarettes were exclaiming he would get some beer first. 

Upon seeing me, he burst out with, “Yo, buddy, you look terrible!  What in the hell are you doing?  You look plum worn out.  You better get some rest.  You want a beer?  You look like you need one…or more.”

The girlfriend entered the conversation with her, “He looks like he needs a bath.” 

I responded to the beer offer, “No thanks.”  Then, I left them in the store, glad to get away from their penchant for loudness.  I quickly drank my drink and ran into the silent night.  It was comforting.

Into the night, I ran alone.  I was in the somewhere in the middle of western Tennessee and felt like I was the only man on the planet.  I was in blackness under clouds that blocked starlight and moonlight.  I could easily fall into the depths of despair…and this was only the second day and night.  My god, what would it be like up ahead?  Would I survive this venture?  Did I have the guts to stick it out?  I would soon find out.

The road through the darkness became somewhat level.  My running was more of a rhythmic canter.  I was comfortable in the run.  The subtle fatigue was present but not as a malignant cancer that would destroy the night’s locomotion.  Rather, the fatigue was a reminder of the approaching 100-mile mark.  It was a presence that took my mind off my painful, blistered feet.  It kept me alert.

I slept in Parsons which looked like a pretty little town, at least, what I could see of it in the dark.  I awoke to a dry morning and hit the road after a milkshake breakfast.  Milkshakes became the blessed nectar of the gods during this run.  I felt energized and ready to run.  But, I had a feeling that this part of the run, this part of Tennessee, is a turning point of the Vol State. 

If other runners felt anything like I did at this stage in the race, then the third day may be the earmark of finishing or collecting a “Did Not Finish.”  I did not want that, but I could see that this day, this terrain, these accumulated miles might constitute the zone of decision as to continue or wrap it up.  It was a time of malaise with the result being a feeling of emptiness spelled “DNF.”

Linden was ahead.  As I approached the hills leading into the town, I remembered the town from a canoe trip with a mentor while I was in graduate school.  We traveled down from Clarksville, Tennessee to canoe one of the few scenic rivers that flowed north.  We spent two days and nights on the river.  It was a vivid memory now that I was running into Linden.  I was a new runner at that time.  That time was before the first running boom.  That was evident by the fact that my first running shoes in my lifestyle running were Hushpuppy Desert Boots.  I bet I really looked cool with that footgear.

 

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A welcomed aid station provided by a resident west of Linden, Tennessee.

 

Leaving Linden, I ate something from a convenient store.  I still don’t know what it was, but it looked good sitting under the warming light.  It was warm and had some kind of meat rolled up in a crust.  I ate it, and it kept me going.  Straight out of Linden and into the flatter road to Hohenwald.

Hohenwald…The name has fascinated me for a long time.  And, when I found out some of the history with Meriwether Lewis ending his days there, it became a bigger point of interest.  But, all that aside, I was enveloped in a tunnel of darkness and night sounds on the straight road to Hohenwald.  I ran without my light so I would be invisible to an approaching vehicle.  There were very few, so I felt safe.  Then, in the darkness, I felt the presence of something just ahead of me.  I had to almost jump over it from being so close but managed to just side step the mysterious object.  Once I had missed it and prevented my falling to the pavement, I looked back and found Sherry Meador curled up on her knees trying to throw up on the road.  I asked her if she was OK, and her reply was, “Oh yeah, I’m OK.  I do this all the time.  Go ahead. I’m OK.”

I left Sherry in the darkness.  I ran my blisters into Hohenwald.  I slept in a motel and worked on my blisters.  After deflation with a hypodermic, cleaning, and duct tape, my blisters were ready to push toward Columbia.

Ah!  Another milkshake for breakfast as I left Hohenwald.  I was aiming for the Natchez Trace Parkway at approximately 152 miles.  I ran well even though I had more walking breaks than before.  The Parkway was an item of interest as an object of a possible adventure run in the future.  It is one of the prettiest roads in the country.  I wanted to run it.  But, not now.

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“Sure you’re tired, and sure you’re sore, but if you could bottle the high you get from transcending the pain mile after mile, well…reality was overrated.”

 

                                                                                                                           Dick Beardsley

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Like an enigma of road mystery, John Price and I latched together approaching the N. T. Parkway.  This turned out to be a good thing as it usually did with John throughout this run.  He knew of a campground at which the owner could be rousted and then serve the runners some food and drink.  This “rousting” was because the grill was closed most of the time, and this was our situation…running in during the “most of the time” during the week. 

We found the place closed, and John went to roust the owner.  The owner, Bill, served us salad and soft drinks.  I ate two salads and drank several glasses of Coca-Cola and was charged $2.00.  While there, John and I was joined by Charlie and Sherry.  We ate and drank in the coolness of the grill and the warmth of good conversation.

Afterwards, we took pictures and then readied for the run into the warmth of the day.  I stayed behind a few minutes to lie on the bench on the porch (me and those benches) and take a short nap.  It would be several miles before I would see my compatriots again.

One of the most pleasant stretches of the Vol State led into Hampshire at 166 miles.  The road was shady for a few miles to give a break from the sun.  There were some hills, but they were of no consequence.  The small town was scenic and friendly.  And, it was one place, I’m sure, that one could purchase Elvis hair.

Again, John and Sherry and Charlie and I were in close racing position.  The challenge coming up was the giant hill on the way out of town.  I could see it while descending a hill coming into town.  While spying the hill on the far side, I was telling myself that, surely, we would not have to run up that thing.  Laz wouldn’t do that to us in this stage of the game. 

Charlie and the gang left town ahead of me and traversed the hill and headed toward Columbia.  I lagged behind feeling I would catch up to them near Columbia.  The hill had me thinking otherwise.  But the evening was approaching, the asphalt was cooling, and the running was a bit easier.  And, on toward Columbia I ran.

image007On the road to Hampshire, Tennessee in the beautiful USA.

image009Downtown Hampshire with Elvis hair on sale.

 

            Columbia was the largest town through which the Vol State would pass.  It would be dark when I got there.  Entering the city, I caught up with Sherry and we caught up with Charlie at a convenience store.  We were sitting by the store drinking our chocolate milk trying to figure out what Sherry was talking about when John caught up with us. 

            After the fueling, we all ventured through town while having amusing conversation about everything.  One of the best of times.  This was especially true for me being one who virtually ran all my mileage alone.  Running with good company was a rare treat.  Friends were made.  We all stayed in a motel on the far side of town that night and had a fresh start the next morning albeit separately. 

            Leaving Columbia under clear morning skies led me to Glendale which was admittedly small but was a landmark of sorts on the Vol State route.  Laz, a ghost-like race director, had told us that if we made it this far, we were likely to finish.  Glendale had the bench. 

            The “Bench of Despair” was at a store in Glendale.  Also, some good milkshakes.  I felt good at this point.  The countryside was pleasing and scenic.  It fit my idea of near perfect adventure runs.  I rested on the “Bench of Despair,” while not feeling much of that omnipresent despair.  I felt good about finishing.  My blisters were under control. 

 

image011Me with my chocolate milk on the Bench of Despair in Glendale and feeling pretty good.

 

            I was on my fifth day headed toward Lewisburg and then Shelbyville and Wartrace, home of the Strolling Jim Ultra.  Those towns reflected the supposed end of the run…in a “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel” of which I actually believed there was such an end.  I had a feeling it was going to be a grind.  I was right. 

            Not only was it grinding, it was a solitary run.  I didn’t see any other runner until I got near Tracy City on the sixth day.  I was beginning to believe that the race had been called off, and they forgot to come and tell me.  I was just a ghost running through the hinterlands.

            Those hinterlands were punctured by the towns of Manchester and Monteagle which were slightly larger than the in-between towns which were no less important or welcome to this runner.  The stretch from Wartrace to Manchester was rather difficult even though it did provide some shady miles for a break from the increasing heat and glare of the sun. The geographical beauty of the state was compromised by my fatigue.  The hills on 16th Model Road leading to U.S. 41 were challenging and made me walk more than I wanted. 

Also, during this stretch was the only time I was accosted by a seriously attacking dog, a pit bull.  Just as I had gotten the hills behind me, came the canine.  I heard him coming up behind me and thought he would just bark and then amble away.  I was mistaken.  He took his runners a little more seriously than that.  The dog nipped at my heels which made me turn and raise my arms and shout to make him think about his attack.  He thought about it while licking the saliva off his glistening teeth.  I had no choice but to stand still as a last resort.  To show no aggression, I stood frozen with my palms facing away from Fido.  He barked and got closer, so close I could feel his hot breath on the back of my hands.

Finally, a young boy, about age 9, came to the road to pull the dog back into the yard, but he wasn’t strong enough.  I asked him to go get someone bigger to get the dog.  He ran and got his teenage brother who pulled and jerked the pit bull back into the yard.  He apologized for the incident.  I thanked him and quickly ran on down the road feeling a surge of energy.  The surge did not last very long.

Fatigue and the knowledge of no oasis before Manchester had me in its grip as I looked forward to U.S. 41.  Then, like a dream come true, I came upon a commercial campground and heard the laughter of swimmers.  I ambled onto the green, inviting grounds toward a barnlike building that looked to be a pavilion of sorts.  I found a vending machine and picnic table within the shady area.  I sat there with my cold, sugared drink, took off my pack and enjoyed the sitting and the shade.  The grill was closed or I would have gotten something to eat.  But, still, I was in a little heaven. 

Eventually, one of the relatives who was camping there, came by, and we fell into a conversation about the run, the route, the area, the remaining miles, and so forth.  He asked me to come up to the house to get some food that was being prepared, but I regretfully turned him down because I wanted to get back on the road and get to Manchester.  I returned to the road somewhat refreshed from the rest and the conversation with a human.  A couple of miles down the road, I heard a vehicle slowing behind me and coming to a stop.  The teenager at the wheel said that his dad had sent him to find me and bring me a plate of food.  Good food, good people, good state.

I neared U.S. 41 and was given a bottle of cold water by a man who was just returning home.  At the juncture of U.S. 41, I got under a roofed porch of an abandoned fruit stand for protection from a storm that came through.  An old man that was on his porch across the road brought me another bottle of cold water telling me I might need it.  Good people, good state.

Manchester.  I had driven through here many times on the way to and from college from my northwest Georgia home.  And, on trips to the Midwest and beyond.  Once I got to Manchester, I really felt I could see “the light at the end of the tunnel” rather than the reflection.  I stumbled into the drive-in section of a Sonic in order to get a big milkshake.  Again, good people, good state…As a patron came over to ask if I was one of the runners running the state, and upon hearing my reply, he paid for anything I wanted while at Sonic.  All I wanted was a milkshake which happened to be half price at the time.  He wanted to by me more thinking I needed more for the run, but that was all I could take at the time.  I would find a spot of ground and sleep on the eastern edge of town.  Welcomed sleep behind another abandoned fruit stand just beyond the interstate and motels.

__________________________________________________________________

            “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.  You never know when you are going to get hungry.”

                                                                                                                                               Yogi Bear

            ____________________________________________________________

 

            Ah, the morning outside of Manchester found me eager to get started.  I felt good and rested after a not-so-good day.  The day was clear and the temperature was moderate but promised to warm up sharply.  I felt that with a good run, I could finish this thing. 

            My blisters still made my starts tentative, but once I got some strides behind me, I was ready to go.  The terrain leveled out headed toward Monteagle Mountain.  I ran through a wooded area for a few miles as I approached Hillsboro.  I knew that Hillsboro was not named after a hill so I had no trepidation as I approached the town.   The town consisted of a grocery store and a gas station with a few other buildings.  It was a crossroad town.  I got chocolate milk from the grocery and ran on toward Pelham.

            I was still the lone runner, having seen no other race participant since Columbia.  The world spread out before me as I ran comfortably to the southeast.  The lush farmland flanked each side of the two-lane highway.  This was running at its best, true adventure. 

            I am unashamedly in love with this great country of ours.  The beauty of the country is best sensed by running through it.  Be it cities, small towns, mountains, trails, backroads, U.S. highways, sidewalks, beaches, or places where man has seemingly not tread…The beauty abounds.  And, it is not just visual but is found in sounds, odors, the air.  It surrounds us.  The runner probably senses this innate beauty and appreciates this country more than the normal driving around citizen.  It is one of our rewards.  The ultra runner is involved in an even more intense appreciation because of the more varied venues of the runs.  It is one thing that draws me to ultras.  I feel lucky to be part of such a group.  The Vol State is surely one of the great venues of such runs or road races.  Well done, Laz.

 image013A scene of Americana west of Hillsboro, Tennessee, U.S.41 highway.

 

This land between Manchester and Monteagle along U.S. 41 etched its way into my mind as the beauty of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.  The deep green of dark, rich farmland glistening under bright sun and puffy clouds framed by the shadowy form of Monteagle Mountain is an artist’s palette of a tourism guide to see the USA.  I was in it.  I was running through it. 

            As I was running toward Pelham, I found my lumbar reservoir out of water.  I also detected that I was light headed, slightly dizzy and unable to run in a straight line like I thought I was doing.  Finding myself way to the right of the white sideline and in the middle of the oncoming lane several times, I knew I had a slight problem.  I had been running harder than the previous days, and the temps were a little higher with me out in the sun during these miles.  I needed water and probably some nourishment since all I had the previous evening was a milkshake and some chocolate milk this morning.  I hoped Pelham would have more options that Hillsboro.

            Pelham was an oasis for sure.  I spied a sign that pointed to a vending machine in front of a firehouse.  It told me that Sundrop drinks were fifty cents.  I got one and then was asked if I needed any help from a farmer on the porch of a house across the road.  I told him I needed to fill my water reservoir and asked if he knew of a place up ahead.  He told me that the cafe was opening just now and I could get water and food here.  The “house” was converted to a cafe.  I entered and was the only customer except for four regulars who came for breakfast every day. 

            As usual, a conversation sprang up about my venture and some of the other runners who had passed through earlier.  I had two turkey, cheese, and tomato sandwiches and a small salad with keep ‘em comin’ refills of sweet tea.  Good food.  After filling my reservoir, I found out that one of the ladies had paid for my meal.  Not only that, but the farmer and his son had driven to see if the natural spring was running from the side of the mountain and returned to tell me it was low but furnishing cold water.  They had told me about the spring but said that it might be dry with the lack of rain lately.  So, they went to check.  Good people.  Good town.

            I felt pretty sure that I would be able to finish on this run.  I had approximately a 100 kilometer, or sixty-two miles, to run from my starting point this morning.  Now, I had eight miles to the top of Monteagle Mountain.  I was feeling good.

            It was during these miles that I experienced a phenomena known to some runners.  The beautiful setting, the lack of traffic, the quiet, and my steady rhythmic movement lent itself to the happening.  It was that of which I do not talk about glibly.  It is very personal.  I refer to it as a runner’s high, but it is not the usual “Runner’s World” version which is popularized by them. 

            The RW version is the rush of endorphins that make a runner feel the “glow” during the late stages of a run but, usually, afterwards.  The feel-good powers of the endorphins decimates some of the fatigue and soreness one would feel normally.  Mine in not that kind of a “high.”

            This happened shortly after leaving Pelham.  My breathing was steady and deep.  My run was almost trancelike with the soft sound of my rhythmic footstike.  Everything felt good.  My mind was not focused on anything in particular.  I was enjoying the way I felt and the pleasing landscape around me.

            Then, time folded.  I became detached.  I was elevated about two body lengths above myself and watching myself run along the shoulder of the highway.  My detached self was floating off to my right above the oncoming traffic lane.  But, there was no traffic.  There was me running, and there was me floating above me running.  Observable running movements seemed to be in a slower motion but still steady, even.  Endorphins probably had something to do with this, but it was more. 

            The detachment, the “high,” seemed to last only for a few minutes.  I can remember being aware that it was not going to last much longer and hated to see it end.  How I knew it was going to end, I don’t know…I just felt it.  In those seemingly few minutes, I covered about three miles.  It seemed like I was transported three miles ahead if I measured it in time alone.  It is eerie but real.  I knew I ran the miles.  I could see myself running them.

            This has happened to me quite a few times before.  I can’t ever bring it on.  It is a force of its own.  I guess everything has to be just right.  I have spoken to a few other runners about this.  Only a few had experienced the same…and, they were reluctant to talk about it as I was.  But, there it was.  In a beautiful valley on a beautiful day, after many, many miles behind me, perhaps a little spirituality had entered my world.  But, the climb up Monteagle Mountain changed all that.  I was back to the real world of effort.

          __________________________________________________________________

           

“The distance runner is mysteriously reconciling the separations of body and mind, of pain and pleasure, of the conscious and the unconscious.  He is repairing the rent, and healing the wound in his divided self.  He has found a way to make the ordinary extraordinary; the commonplace unique; the everyday eternal.”

                                                                                                                               Dr. George Sheehan,

                                                                                                                               Running and Being

        __________________________________________________________________

 

            After experiencing the high of detachment, I experienced the difficulty and labored breathing of trying to run up Monteagle Mountain.  There were stretches I had to walk, and I tried to keep the walking at fifty steps on my right foot.  Sometimes, that sneaked on up to seventy-five steps, once up to a hundred.  Survival.           

            I passed a view of the valley I had just left behind.  It was amazing with all of the earth green lying out before me like nature’s carpet.  God, I loved that view…Because I loved running through it.

 

image015The view to the west of a fantastically beautiful valley from near the top of Monteagle Mountain.

                       

            I got to the top and walked off course to my right to a Sonic for a milkshake.  Walking back to the course had me under storm clouds.  Then the rain and lightning came in loud and clear.  I huddled under the stoop of a real estate office that was closed.  Me, my milkshake, and the storm.  It lasted about twenty minutes with hard rain and high winds coming across the mountain from the west.  It was chilling, especially with a milkshake.  I pulled out my poncho to drape over me to block the wind and provide a little warmth.  This was my second poncho, bought at a Dollar Store in Lewisburg, because I had left my first one at a store between Linden and Hohenwald.  I started running again when the storm lessened to a light rain.  I kept the poncho on for a few miles until the rain stopped.  But, I kept in lodged in my waist belt of my pack in case I needed it quickly.  The rest of the run proved to be dry, but the poncho was ready for a quick draw.

            40 MILES TO GO!  And, most of it would be relatively flat or downhill.  I had the towns of Tracy City and Jasper to run through before I got to Kimball, Tennessee which was the last town of note before the finish.  I could smell the finish line. 

            I had read accounts of runners reaching Kimball late in the night and sleeping there to make the final assault on the finish the next morning.  I already knew that when I get that close, I would keep going until completion.  Kimball was basically fourteen miles from the finish.  But, that proved not to be your normal fourteen miles, especially in the dark.

            But, before Kimball I ran through Tracy City feeling good and eager to finish.  Somewhere between Tracy City and Jasper, John Price and I hooked up again.  John filled me in on what was ahead.  The stretch along Monteagle Mountain was virtually deserted.  Very few houses were along the road, and those that were there were far removed from the roadside and most were not visible.  No stores for refreshments.  Dark.  Quiet. 

            John clued me about the difficulty of the descent into Jasper.  Some had called it the most difficult part of the Vol State because of the quad thrashing run downhill.  We wanted to make it to the bottom before dark because of any cars whipping around the curves presenting somewhat of a danger to life and limb.

            After we took a short break before the descent, I followed John toward Jasper.  He was right.  The descent was difficult and tiring.  We encountered but two vehicles in the few curving miles, but the decline took its toll.  Once the mountain was behind us, my pace moved me slightly ahead of John.

            Entering Jasper, I stopped for a Coke and saw John pass headed toward Kimball.  He was the only runner I have seen since Columbia.  He was running well and obviously feeling pretty good.  I finished my Coke and hit the road trying to catch the Virginian.

            We gathered again a little outside of Jasper.  Again, my pace moved me ahead as we approached Kimball.  Fatigue was noticeable in a stale kind of way as I ran into Kimball.  I approached a park on my left, and the call of the green grass in the shadows of street lights pleaded for me to take a rest.  So, I did.  I lay on the grass for ten minutes and felt quite refreshed upon rising.  I had to keep going toward that finish line at the rock.

            Kimball engulfed the intersection of U.S. 41 and U.S. 64/72 with Interstate 24 passing through east to west.  After reaching the intersection and running west for a change, I took another refreshment break and drank another soft drink or, rather, two…a Coke and a Mello Yellow.  Energy for the final miles.  No more aid stations.  Just me, the road, and darkness.  A half-marathon to go. 

            I had to make my way through a maze made up of the melding of the interstate and the splitting of U.S. 64 and 72.  I had to find the right road and cross the mighty Tennessee River for the second time.  This was a bigger problem than I had envisioned.  My rapidly mounting fatigue was making thinking a little more difficult.  I wanted to keep running to eat up some miles, and in doing so, I missed a ramp that would put me on the road that crossed the Tennessee.  I had to climb up a forty-yard embankment to get back up on the right road.  The climb angered me, or, maybe, it was missing the ramp that really caused the anger.  It all led to frustration and accelerating fatigue.  But, once on the bridge, alone, over the Tennessee in complete darkness, I felt better.  Ten miles to go!  I think.

            God!  State Road 156 seemed to last forever.  I was extremely tired and looking for 377, the road that would take me into Alabama and become State Road 73 in that state.  The rolling hills, the curves, the complete darkness made it feel like a journey into Hades.  The saving grace was the cooling night air and the glow of stars directly overhead between the corridor of trees.  And, the police car that came by, stopped, and asked me if I needed any help and what was I doing out here in the middle of the night.  But, they did tell me my right turn heading south was just up around the curve.  I wondered how close John was behind me.  It might be good to finish together.

            Making the right turn on 377 put me on a long up hill up Sand Mountain.  Four miles, I think, I wasn’t sure.  My so-called thinking was completely shot by this time.  I was a zombie auditioning for a roll in The Walking Dead.  But, I was moving too slowly and wouldn’t get the part.  Up, and up, and up.  It seemed like it would never level out.  My running, if you could call it that, was minimal.  Jog a few steps, walk a few steps.  Surely, John would come whizzing by and leave me behind any minute.

            Finally, the Alabama state line.  A little more uphill jog-walk and I would be on top.  Then I would look for the road into Castle Rock Farm and shoot on in there.  I was running completely again once on top.  I turned left on County Road 257.  My pace picked up a bit.  I was actually striding out into a run, not a jog.  I peered into the darkness for the stone pillars marking the entrance to Castle Rock Farm.  Passing the pillars, the road surface became smoother and easier to run.  Now, I looked for the dirt road to the left leading a winding route through the cornfields to the finish at the rock.

            It was like a night scene from The Children of the Corn.  Corn flanked me on both sides as I stumbled down the rough, dirt road.  A couple of times I ran through unseen mud holes.  After cursing the mud holes, cursing myself for not using my headlamp to see the mud holes, I settled into the final run to the opening at the finish and the rock. 

            There it was…The path to the opening, some cars parked on the side, and Laz directing me to the edge of the cliff to finish on the rock.  He told me to slow down, be careful, come over and touch the rock to finish.  Beyond were the tree tops which were level with the rock ledge.  I could see where one could stumble over the edge after a 500 kilometer journey to get there.  That would not be good, an ignominious finish to such an adventure.

            Finished.  Walked back to the tent. Sat on the finisher’s throne, a folding camp chair.  Rested a bit.  Then John finished.  Then Jay Dobrowalski found his way through the corn maze to finish.  Where was Charlie?  After that, I went home.  I wondered how this would affect me later.

            We had twenty-three starters and fifteen finishers.  I placed sixth.  I was proud to be one of them. 

            Looking back on the Last Annual Vol State Road Race 2012 brings many and varied images and thoughts.  The distance and terrain were challenging.  The weather changing from pleasant to stormy to hot and dry was a constant catalyst.  How each runner faced the challenges was impressive and something to aspire to in personal quests.

            I have run some long races and adventure runs.  My training is almost 100% in solitude.  During this run, I befriended some runners by sharing the road and its challenges.  As I return to my running in solitude, I can’t help but think of those runners.  Then, maybe, I am not really running in solitude after all.

            The race is unique.  It may be a race to all entrants, but it is also an adventure run of the runner’s spirit.  It will give one an appreciation of the land on which we live, of the beauty of our country, the camaraderie of the runners, the dedication of the race directors, the good people along the way, and the freedom to do what we love to do.  Each of us was drawn to the race for different reasons, but we all left with the discovery of the soul of our running, of who we are or will be.

            What more could we ask?

          __________________________________________________________________

           

Conquering any difficulty always gives one a secret joy, for it means pushing back a boundary line and adding to one’s liberty.”                                                                                                                                                                                                       Henri Frederic Amiel,

                                                                                                            Swiss philosopher, poet

        __________________________________________________________________

Richard Westbrook

 

           

           

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