Monday, July 23, 2018

Floating Beside the Bold Arrow of Time (2018 Last Annual Vol State 500k)

Dum spiro spero.

 "Before me there were no created things, Only eternity, and I too, last eternal." ~ Dante Alighieri

 We are faced with mortality when we're forced to acknowledge the discomfort that persists beneath the veil, despite our grandest attempts at becoming gods of our perceived dominions. We want for nothing, and bleed for a host of pleasures. Faster service. Cheaper prices. Elevators. Porn on our smartphones. Greasier chicken. Higher heels. Brighter feathers. Bigger promotions. Convenience. Cars. Eyeliner. Candy. We strip ourselves bare and wash away the neon that drowns the night sky, and in the flesh tones and green, the entity exposed is perspiring vulnerability from every pore. It's exquisite. And it wants to get busy living, to suffer, to know what it's like to exist lumbering down an empty road during a thunderstorm, what it's like to have the skin peeled raw from our toes.

We're pleasure seekers.
We're sadists.
 We're curious.
We're risk takers. We have a deeply seeded need to overcome. For as much as we seek to preserve our mortal figures, we also have a nagging lust to unearth the mortality we see in the chaos around us, when we breathe in the night air. On the streets of rural Tennessee, there is a lot of decay lingering in that chaos and night air. Stepping in it is a reminder that we're not cautious enough. It's also a reminder that there's a porthole to Hell in Tracy City in mid-July, and that it's a wonder the armadillo is not yet an endangered species.

 I've long abandoned any notion of racing Vol State in the conventional sense, given target times tend to come in ranges of 6-12 hours--or even entire days, and are largely contingent upon avoiding things that can be so completely out of one's control that encountering one of them, 141 miles into the race, can lead to the kind of downward spiral that ought to have a country ballad written about it. But, I was as ready as I was going to get this year and I held onto my dream a little too hard, a little too long, until it had grown into my psyche and stared me back in the mirror like I'd never been without it.

I'd managed to survive the year between last year's Vol State and the present completely sans injury, and after embarking on a series of solo and duo self-supported day journeys of up to 80-100+ miles in addition to finishing 2nd and 3rd, respectively, in winter/spring 100k and 100 mile races, my confidence had grown around that dream in a brilliant way. I downsized on gear, choosing the smallest of my 3 hydration packs, realized it was without question that I'd wear Merrell again on my feet, and chose a hat with a very wide brim. I brought very few items: extra socks, Desitin, charger for my phone, Carmex, disposable rain poncho, flashlight, tylenol and Tums in a plastic baggie, and money. Having run the Vol State twice, I knew that anything else was a luxury I didn't need, and would almost certainly shed the first time I reached into my bag and had to rummage for something more useful. Baggies of Tailwind and inflatable rafts might seem like a good idea until the inside of one's pack looks like it's coated in cocaine and they wake up in a sweaty crater, slimy with dirty zinc oxide.

 Five-hundred kilometers is far, and Tennessee is hot in July. The most reasonable way to negotiate these glaring truths is to spend as little time traversing those 500k as possible, to lessen the exposure to that July Tennessee heat. Doing that requires a skill set that unfortunately doesn't come from conversations, podcasts, expert coaching, or blogs... It comes from experience and experiments, getting dirty and blowing off your own foot once or thrice wearing a sweatsuit or a trashbag in the summer sun until you realize what a fucking idiot you are for wearing a trashbag when it's 90 degrees outside.

 JT Hardy had been the fool who offered the breath of life to the idea of us running a sub-5 day Vol State together. He'd averaged 67 miles/day during his FKT run of the Katy Trail in Missouri, and won the 250 mile Infinitus trail race in Vermont averaging nearly the same. With two events in the 200 mile range that paced consistent with a sub-5 Vol State, and my experience with solo journeys teemed with decent finishes in the 100k-100 mile range, and each of us with two Vol State finishes already, it was a stretch-- but not impossible. For weeks we strategized, and on race day, we started together, slow and steady. We logged 40 miles at the 12 hour check-in, and then focused on hitting 80 by morning to avoid the shit storm of car exhaust and assault of the sun between Huntingdon and Parker's Crossroads. The effort proceeded at a steady pace from Dresden to Gleason to McKenzie to Huntingdon before I flopped onto a wooden bench and announced I was taking a 10 minute nap. By the time we started moving again, we were trailing Alan Abbs and Brian Trinkle who was very much running in a pair of flip flops. "It's ok", he explained, "I've tried them before and I know I can run in them". Continuing down the road, JT marveled at how strange it was that more people weren't passing us, neglecting the obvious fact that of the 112 other competitors, it was Abbs and Trinkle who had made the only move. He didn't believe we were in the top 10; it was only when we sat down to eat at a diner in Clarksburg, mile 77, next to John Cash and Douglas Long, that the colors began to align on the Rubix cube.

We missed our goal of 80 miles during the first 24 hours by 5k, and left as a group of 4 for a 15 mile trek to Lexington. It was hot. And, after about 4 miles, I felt terrible. Really terrible. The group disintegrated, Hardy leaving me seated at a booth in a convenience store, dazed and shell-shocked. Cash and Long took off running in the 87 degree heat, the humidity so high it felt like we were inhaling steam. They might as well have evolved into catfish on the spot, given the need for gills in this hell, and especially given their proclivity for beaching themselves in the most unholy places for a fish or a human along the race course. While it was a surprise to find them wandering into a gas station behind me in Lexington after having taken off running in such a way, it was less surprising when considering Cash's sleep plan: "I'm going to run until I'm tired."
I invited them to the Days Inn with JT and I where there were 2 big beds ideal for people who run until they're tired, and they liked the idea well enough to follow me. JT, on the other hand, liked the interruption so much he left the room early.

 I rejoined highway 412 around 4:30pm, and hit the 100 mile mark shortly before the 36 hour check-in, Cash and Long dawdling ahead into the horizon until they disappeared, either from running fast or ducking off the course again into the shadow world of construction equipment and church lobbies.

The section between Darden and Linden is easily my least favorite of the entire course. There is absolutely no shoulder, and I wasn't in the mood to run on the rumble strip for 25 miles until the road opened up. My plan to run 35 miles devolved into a goal of simply getting to Linden without losing a limb or being mugged. On my way to the Tennessee River, past the Pine Tree Inn at mile 111, I was apprehended by local law enforcement-- an encounter I'd long anticipated, and met with flashlight in one hand, identification in the other.
 "Where are you headed?" asked the first of two officers.
"Georgia. Tonight I'm just heading to Linden."
"Linden?!?" asked the second officer, completely ignoring the whole 'Georgia' part of the equation, a surprised look of doubt on his face. "You know how far that is?"
"Yes, from here it's about 15 miles."
"Exactly. You think you're going to Linden overnight?"
"Uh-huh. Right. It isn't safe for a female to be out on this road alone on a Friday night. There are drunks out here."
You don't say.
"I appreciate the concern. I really do. But, I think I'll be ok."
"I've gotten several calls about you being out here on this road. Drunk drivers are out here on Friday nights."
"I don't doubt it," I responded. "But I've been through here before. This is a 500 kilometer race, and I've done it the past two years. I think I'll be ok."
"So, there are other people behind you?" came more doubt from officer #1.
"About 100. Thanks again for being out here."
 As I headed off toward the bridge crossing the river, I heard one of the officers say to the other again, "she thinks she's going to make it to Linden..." and I began to wonder what gauntlet was laid out on the road before me. After all, it was 15 miles, not 500, and one look at me was enough to tell I'd been bobbing around on this saddle for longer than a hot minute already. Time passed in fast forward while the miles progressed in slow motion, until the blackness of night began to fade into grey. I passed the Commodore hotel around 7am and signed in at the Linden Visitor center shortly thereafter before meandering along the remaining streets of Linden where the road finally branches and highway 412 shoots up and into the stars. I laid my head down on a table at the gas station and dozed off for a few minutes, waking up to Salt Shack (Tim Purol), a 4 time finisher, sitting next to me, announcing we were going to do some fast walking. I was feeling incredibly down, but I like Salt a lot, and though I was questioning my ability to keep up with him as much as I was the merit of continuing at all, being with Salt even for an hour or two certainly would've improved my lot, even if marginally.

The first couple miles passed without a hitch, and then the heat began to beat us hard and then harder. We breaked under a tree around the 130 mile mark, and again a few miles later, and then, somewhere between mile 135 and the hubs of hell, Salt announced he'd found the perfect spot for wading in the creek. Well, burn my barn. Cold water? We darted across the road and descended the rocks down to the water, and tore off our socks and shoes. In retrospect, this would have been a good spot to skinny dip had the water been a bit deeper. It definitely would have taken the edge off the heated misery of my chafed thighs and the bleeding abrasion on my back from my hydration pack. I'm pretty sure Salt wouldn't have objected to a bit of clothing-free fun in the cold creek, either.

I'm not sure how long we spent down by the creek, but it wasn't long enough, and back on the road, we were both running out of drinkable water. There are 15 miles between the last gas station in Linden and the first in Hohenwald, and though it was only 90 degrees, the humidity had once again made short work of its ability to deplete my supply. Road angels-- persons who leave coolers of water, gatorade, ice, or treats for runners, and have become numerous in recent years, don't always reach those at the front of the running field as was the case for Salt and I during this trek. As we neared mile 138, more than 10k from town, we had come to our last drinks of water. The past 2 miles had passed like the scene out of National Lampoon's Vacation where Chevy Chase is overzealously stumbling around the desert in his underwear with his jeans wrapped around his head. I'd heaved and wailed my misery in exaggerated moans like a well-paid prostitute. Finally, seated on the guard rail in the shade, I told him I didn't know how I was going to make it much further without water. He insisted there had to be a church nearby with a water spigot, possibly even around the next corner. We'd have our last drinks, and then reassess in a mile. Lumbering down the road, minutes passing, thirsty and hot, I was becoming desperate. And then, just when I was sure I was one moan from either losing my voice, passing out, or learning the limit to Salt's patience, we saw it: a black SUV that rolled past slowly and put its hazard lights on, pulling off the road near the shade from a tree. It was Pam Pratt Moore, a local who thrived on taking care of the Vol State runners, and she had water, gatorade, sandwiches, and fruit.

 Upon Pam's departure, the sky opened up and dumped a cosmic fury of rain, thunder, and wind, exactly the way one would imagine the gods of Hades might respond to the kindness of divine intervention. I was spent. My mind lost sight of everything save the Embassy Inn, and I made it clear to Salt that it was the only place I wanted to stop. In the room, we dumped our packs onto chairs and I began stripping clothes on my way to the bathroom. Mile 144: I was peeing blood from dehydration, and crying in the shower. A low of this magnitude had happened at some point every year I'd run the LAVS, but it was no less profound and stifling each time it happened. I was low, lower, lowest, not even halfway through the race. And then my hairbands both ripped. I guzzled a glass of water and a can of Mellow Yellow and laid naked on the bed, airing every angry, blistered, chafed part of my body like the good lord intended.

When I woke up 3 hours later, I felt like a different person. I told Salt I was leaving, and expected him to catch me on the way to Hampshire.
 And, then I ran.
 I stopped for a can of Sun Drop and a bag of sour gummi worms a mile down the road, drinking the rest of the gatorade in my bottle before replenishing my stocks for the long night. I tied the arm sleeve JT had lent me around my hair like a scrunci, and then continued to run onto the highway where the cars had thinned to an occasional one or two, and the shoulder widened by a measure of 10. The air had cooled and the miles passed without struggle nearly all the way into Hampshire. Two miles from Mack's Market, mile 163, the wheels finally began to fall off the wagon, and I felt myself becoming unhinged by the quarter mile. The town was asleep except for Mack's where two people were seated outside and cheered me on as I ran toward the store. Inside, I ordered my usual club sandwich and bought a pop and a bag of chips. I chatted with the two until about 3:30, before setting out to log another 10-12 miles before check-in. With 4 hours on the clock, I had time to walk and an hour to rest. I expected Salt to find me sleeping in the lawn chair at mile 169, but I woke up having not been disturbed, and assumed he must have passed me without reacting. I approached the gas station at mile 173.5 around 7:10, met the disgusted smirk of the teenager working the register with a request for pizza sticks with the kind of sincere stare that splits a sheet of ice right down the middle, and then carried my haul of food and drinks outside where I could reload and saunter into Columbia for the start of day #4. I'd covered 30 miles in about 9 hours after leaving the hotel, and I felt like the wind might be blowing in something good. A daily write-up had, for the second time in as many days, pinned me as the top self-supported female ("screwed" division), a statement that had been met with plenty of crowing from the peanut gallery about who was going to pull the rug from under my feet in the coming day or two. I didn't like to think about things like that, and it made me curiously nervous.

 I left Columbia, jogging, under a cloudy sky, determined to make the most of Jimbo and Kim Nutt's yard set up in Culleoka 9 miles down the road, providing I got there by 1pm. I'd have 3 hours to sleep and 3.5 hours to reach Lewisburg at mile 200, a solid spot to stop and reassess my situation, and prepare for whatever horrors awaited me on Shelbyville road overnight. If this year had been anything at all like the past 2, there was an excellent chance I was going to lose half my leg and all my money, meet Sasquatch, or die. I reached the Nutt house at 1:15pm and felt pretty good about my progress. I'd covered 13 miles, even with a couple stops, and had plenty of time to eat, sleep, and cover another 10-12 miles before the evening check-in. And then, laying on a reclining lawn chair with my shoes and socks off and a burger in hand, who else wandered up beside me, but Salt? It couldn't get much better than this.
"Girl, I spent all night trying to catch you. Once I got within 30 minutes of you, and then I lost you again," he told me, resting on the reclining chair next to mine.
"I left the hotel running. I did 30 miles overnight. I felt really great after I woke up!"
I cat napped on the chair while Salt rested and then took off for the Celebration hotel in east Lewisburg, and after a while it became apparent I wasn't going to get the kind of sleep I needed on this lawn chair. The sky was dark, threatening to storm at any moment, but I collected my bearings and headed back onto the road around 3:30 hoping to get as far as I could before the storm hit. If I was lucky, I'd find shelter. Otherwise, I'd be spending more time in Mooresville than I'd have liked.

I spent more time in Mooresville than I'd have liked.

Lewisburg hit fast, and I was hit with a sense of urgency. I stopped at the Dollar General for drinks, a snack, hairbands, and more Desitin, and realized it was going to get dark soon and I hadn't really slept all day. The napping in Culleoka had been the worst kind of tease, the type that licks and pokes at your senses just enough to brand itself on your wanting, only to fade into obscurity as though it never had been. That wasn't sleep, and I was going to go bat shit crazy halfway down Shelbyville road if I didn't disappear for an hour into another level of consciousness soon. In the center of town, mile 201, a woman called me by name, and, not recognizing her, I must have stared like she'd lost her mind, because she explained her purpose in the next breath. The offices in this building-- they were open to runners, and I could eat, sleep, and clean up here if I wanted. If I wanted? And, this was a question being passed across the airwaves that required deliberation? I wandered inside and immediately was struck with a tremendous sense of humility and guilt. The furniture in these rooms was clean and beautiful, and I was absolutely ramshackle repulsive. I chose a cot in a room beside a large window, set my alarm for an hour, kicked off my shoes, and tried very hard to sleep.
Repeat: I tried very hard to sleep. I tried very hard to sleep. I tried very hard to sleep. I tried very hard to sleep.
I tried.
Very hard.
But, I could not sleep.
At least, not for long. In total, I may have dozed off for 20-25 minutes before I once again gave up and pulled myself together, this time for a long night on Shelbyville road with Sasquatch, the dogs, and very possibly a missing limb or two. This wasn't how I wanted my night to shake out, but I had 25 miles to cover if I intended to label this a 50 mile day. Begrudgingly, I began to plod down the road. My body didn't feel especially up for running, anxiety cranked up to level 9,000, senses heightened and on patrol for all the terrors that were waiting around that bend up ahead. Dogs, I was listening for angry dogs. Howls. Whoops. Hoots. Growls. Rustling in the bushes. Whirs from above. The lights from a UFO--
"WHAH!!!" bellowed the entity behind me, and in an instant I stumbled, tripped and nearly lost my light, screeching almost without sound as I whirled around to find Salt was powering up from behind me.
"I flashed my light twice; I thought you knew I was there!" he exclaimed.
"No!" I answered. "Were you at the Celebration? You missed out on a free place with couches and air conditioning."
Salt informed me that he needed to log 14 minute miles tonight if he wanted to get back on track to break the age group record, and I realized in that instant that I was going to be running Shelbyville road alone. I jogged to keep up for a half mile before settling back into a brisk walk, and watched as he disappeared far too quickly into the distance. And then, I was officially alone. The online tracking sheet indicated I was nearly 20 miles ahead of the next runners; Salt was the only person between me and the half dozen who were 20 miles behind, and JT and Doug who were nearly as many ahead of me.

 As I speed walked onto Highway 64, Shelbyville road, two things became apparent: 1. the evil dogs had apparently all gone on sabbatical from terrorizing me simultaneously; and 2. I wasn't going to make enough noise to find out whether that 'apparently' in the first statement was true or not. Three times an animal tore into the road at me, but all three times it turned out to be a happy family pet that just wanted to keep me company. I laid down in the church pavillion in Wheel, and again on the bench outside the Bedford Market, exhausted and frustrated with the previous day's lack of sleep, and then set my eyes on hitting the outskirt of Shelbyville by check-in.

I could've spent the rest of my life trying, and I don't think I'd have fallen upon a spot more apropos for an existential epiphany.

"Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

Some places speak without words, and some images leave a blank canvas for interpretation. People are strange in their inability to admit there is beauty in that watermark: in desolation telling its story without a word. In the freedom that comes from unhinging a door and letting the world an opportunity to see mortality in its human form rather than something we try to avoid stepping into or running over, 60mph, in a hurry to distract ourselves in ever more creative ways.
Creative. Creation.
This race-- the ultimate in macabre displays of the art of human suffering, a production playing out over computer screens and smartphones for all the people who wanted to enjoy it.

Cars sped by. My socks-- one injinji, one that came from an economy sized bag of misfits I'd bought at Walmart, were filthy. My hat drooped around my sunburned face. The borrowed white arm sleeve was greyed and browned from days on the road. I'd lost an earring. My legs hadn't been shaved for nearly a week. I smelled terrible. And, most noteably, people avoided making eye contact with me.

Pulvis et umbra sumus.
Keep moving. Keep moving.

It started raining near the top of the climb into the parking lot of the gas station at mile 228, and I donned my $1 rain poncho upon departure.

My mind was becoming hazy from sleep deprivation, worming into all the places the mind ought not go after 228 miles on the road. Dying in some unnatural form. Potato soup. Stray cats. Cathy Downes, coming to get me. Fruit roll-ups. Tylenol. Swollen feet. Salt Shack. Hotel showers. Bedsheets. A cold coke. Sex. Loneliness. Peaches.

It took an eternity to reach Wartrace.

Hours, lumbering slowly along the road, in a $1 plastic bag.
The difference a single day makes, in terms of finish times, at Vol State isn't marginal; it's the difference between stores revering you as a part of the nation's homeless problem, and welcoming you as a walking celebrity. I came into towns last year and it seemed like everyone knew who we were. This year, I came into stores to the scorn and disgust of clerks and locals who behaved as though I were trying to buy a ticket to heaven when I plopped my Sun Drop and gatorade onto the counter and asked if I could get an order of jojo taters from the hot case.

On the way to Manchester, the rain finally decided it had had enough of god's country, and let the sun off its leash again to play. Anticipating a less than warm welcome at Whispering Oaks, I chose to sleep for 10 minutes first at a canopy tent set up by road angels around the 240 mile mark. I'd made good time getting there, and the sleep was so sound that had there been a reclining lawn chair, I'd have likely stayed an hour or more. It was hard to leave.
Very hard.

The road was hot.
And Whispering Oaks was paradise.

In the past, I'd arrived at this barn to find stifling heat, too many people, and pop machines that didn't always work. The ethereal breeze that slipped by was enough to convince my mortal soul that I'd not be leaving the vacant couch next to a cooler of ice chilled waters for a solid 20 minutes. I needed to get to Manchester, but this? The Tibetan Book of the Dead hadn't prepared me for this temptation.

If I live to be 100, I doubt I'll ever be able to explain why I felt I'd be better off sleeping in the Manchester coin laundry aside from my fixation on numbers and the laundry's location near mile 250 on the course. But, I left Whispering Oaks around 5:45pm to cover the last 5-6 miles into Manchester. And, it was a mistake.

The laundromat was no longer in business. I stood outside the locked doors with my gas station shopping bag in hand wondering what the hell I was going to do now. The Green Leaf Inn was cheap, and only a mile down the road, but it was 7:30 and I didn't want to pay $60 for an hour or two of sleep. I wandered into the city and toward the only other place I knew might work: the gazebo next to the police station. There was a power outlet nearby, and the gazebo had benches where I could elevate my sore feet, and was sheltered enough I didn't feel totally exposed to every passerby. I climbed into the shelter and sat on the wooden planked floor, swung my pack off my back, kicked off my shoes, and ripped into my chips and dip. This was it. This was really fucking IT. My pop was expired, and flies were landing all over me. I'd passed up a couch, a bed, a shower, for THIS. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to turn off the noise, but the more I tried to sleep the less I felt able. I was so tired, but I could not rest.

Vol State is a wonderful teacher at a few things. One of those things is to be patient, because where there's pain, certainly there are other places that can hurt more. Another is that if sleep doesn't come within 10 minutes of laying down, it isn't meant to be. This wasn't meant to be. By 8:45, I'd had enough, and piece by piece, the shit show reassembled itself for a haul out of town.

There were times when I missed being with other people. I'd wondered how JT was doing, and felt a great deal of pride and happiness when I thought about the success he was having this year, miles and miles ahead of me. I'd wondered how close I was to Salt, who, at last check in, was only 5k ahead of me. I'd wondered whether tonight would be the night the group behind me closed the gap, and I would be left battling the heat of midday in Tracy City with a group of 4 biting at my heels, including Cathy, who everyone said was, without doubt, going to pick me off like a scab.

I also wondered if it was better all those people didn't see or hear me that night, lumbering down the road making up music that sounded like Maynard James Keenan met PJ Harvey and they did cocaine and bath salts together before going on stage. You lose friends over shit like that. I was tired.
I did strange things between Hilsborro and Monteagle.
I spent about 14 minutes trying to feed a machine that was, in retrospect, doubtlessly broken, limp dollar bills to no avail. I heard a cat meowing and wandered around the store trying to find it. I called my friend John on facebook video chat, and talked to him until my phone shut off when the battery died. I have no idea how long that call lasted, or what we talked about., or why I chose the video option when my surroundings were shrouded in darkness. I laid on the floor of the Pelham post office until morning was threatening to come to life, then took off with gusto for the base of Monteagle, racing the sun and the darkness.

"Overhead, ether flow moment
Colors run
So slow
I've never seen the arrow of time fly so low
And time flows on"
-Tame Impala

Time and movement never seemed to align. It always felt like the world around me was in fast forward, while I was moving in slow motion.
I ate breakfast at the Depot Cafe, 7:15am, mile 274 in Monteagle. Forty miles separated me from the finish at Castle Rock Ranch, and all I could think about was sleep. I wandered off the road and into a park on the way to Tracy City and slept for a half hour, waking up to sunlight blasting my face between the tree branches above. In the city, I wandered past shops at a snail's pace, trying to figure out what was worth eating.

Tracy City offered plenty of viable options, but I ended up in a small, tucked away secondhand store that had a large bronze armadillo on display, eating a guava danish, answering questions regarding where I relieved myself when nature called.  Like so many other acts of happenstance, it only seemed appropriate that this was my dining experience in Tracy City. There was no bathroom in the secondhand store. The guava danish was delicious. And, the armadillo was not for sale.

I asked.

Before leaving town, I bought a ten pound bag of ice and a box of ziplock baggies and sat down outside Save-a-Lot pouring ice into bags I placed on my back under my pack, chest, on my head, and finally chilling a can of Sun Drop. It was going to be a long walk to the Mountain Mart. Twelve miles, to be exact.

Ice melts.
Souls ache.
Skies open and unleash thunder and rain.
I slept in the cemetery.
Slept in the cemetery.
Slept too long...
Resting in peace.

And, I hit the base of Jasper, mile 295, around 6:30pm. I had 13 hours to cover the last 19 miles if I wanted to beat the 6 day mark. I'd need most of them.

I sat down outside a shop in Jasper to charge my dying phone and discovered it had no intention of charging. Under normal circumstances during Vol State, this isn't problematic. Nearing the end, it can mean the difference between having a race director to greet you at the finish, and waiting for hours at the finish for the next runner-- and race director-- to show up. It took an hour to charge my phone from 3% battery life to 6%. I made my last refueling stop a gas station in Kimball, mile 301, not far from the Super 8. I'd seen and high-fived acting race director Carl Laniak, JT who had finished in 5:01:19, and waved at Sandra and Chrys from across the street. Those last 13 miles, I've learned, prove to be far from a simple formality, and this year was, by far, the most bizarre entanglement I've had yet with the world between South Pittsburg and the Nickajack crossing before the base of Sand Mountain.

Climbing up the road toward South Pittsburg, my phone had already lost 1/3 of its powerful 6% charge. I found myself scouring the businesses that dotted the roadside for a viable power outlet-- the car wash ,convenience stores, then the Sonic near the bridge over the Tennessee River-- all to no avail. For 300+ miles I'd been able to nose out power sources under roofs and behind potted plants, and now, when I desperately needed one, they'd all packed up shop and sailed the ocean blue.
Just as Carl answered my call at mile 303, the blue bridge, my phone heaved its final death rattle and gave up the ghost. And, just like that, I was in the dark. In New Hope, I discovered an outlet on the side of a church, and parked for another half hour, long enough to draw a 3% charge, and make a call to Carl. I explained that I might not be able to call at the base of the mountain, but that I was coming, and ought to be finishing within the next 3 hours. I filled my water bottles one last time at a water spigot outside the church, and then climbed back onto the road to head for the mountain.

Wake up.
My eyes shot open and I found myself leaning one step from tripping over the guard rail and falling to the railroad tracks below. I looked up and the mountain loomed ahead. It was time.
"Carl, it's Kim. There's a little hill in front of me."
One. Just one. Just one.
Time, distilled. Pain. Awareness.
The train was roaring.
I'm still alive.
Here we go...

I finished in 5 days, 19 hours, 6 minutes, and 50 seconds, 11th finisher out of 114 hopeful souls, the 1st woman to do so this year without a crew.
"It's really done," I told Carl, squatting over the rock with my head in my hands.
And, yet, it never really is.

There's always unfinished work on the open road, stories to unfold, stories to be told, love to be shared, pain to be spared, friends to make, lessons to take. There's rainfalls, midnight phone calls. Heat. Wrecked feet. Passion. Death. Stilled life. Caught breath. This is a love story that doesn't end.

Staring out over the mountain, time spinning ahead, I slowly caught up to its rhythm and squeezed my eyes shut..
Time-- I can hold it in the palm of my hand, but it cannot be closed in my fist.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Ready, Able: 2017 Vol State 500k

"You don't look good. I ain't sure yer gonna make it."
~ Huntingdon local, LAVS day 1

The objective couldn't be any simpler: exit the ferry, and touch the rock. That's it. This isn't a ten step process, an obstacle course, an orienteering event. Exit the ferry. Touch the rock. Just like that. And, of course, one ought to get there as quickly as one's body permits. That said, the logical course of action is to run-- to cover the distance as fast as possible, the same way one might handle something a little more "small potatoes" 100 miles...or facing the firing squad for a quick, painless death. I mean, a few do run the vast majority of the miles in between, and those people are gods. As for the rest of us? Well... we "run". We also skip to the loo, gallop with the horses, walk-- forward, backward, sidewinding sideways, tiptoed, pigeon or penguin, bent over a stick that's become a personal wizarding staff, side-foot, heel to heel; and then we crawl, salsa, command squirrels, scuffle and shuffle, and semi-consciously stagger our way down the road to some distant landmark like an abandon shed or a CAT vehicle to embrace the reckless abandon of 20 minutes of shitty rest with stray dogs and scary noises aplenty. Sure, it takes us a lot longer to do it-- time that is no longer measured in minutes or hours, but days. But, we get there in our own way, and carry with us all of the pain, joy, anguish, and ghosts that kept us company along the way.

This is the Last Annual Vol State 500k Road Race. And, barely a day into the journey, locals were already boldly predicting my failure. I must have looked pretty damn bad.

The first day had been largely uneventful, aside from a half dozen super fast runners jumping ship for various reasons. It had been triple digit hot with heat indexes surpassing the 110 mark, resulting in fewer miles for most people, and blisters a full 24 hours earlier than I'd had them the previous year. The crux of my 24 hour check in wasn't hearing a middle-aged man fortune telling my heat exhausted demise, however; it was realizing I couldn't keep up with my friends Novle Rogers and JT Bolestridge, and was being scraped off and left behind like shit from a boot. It was hot when I left the diner to start my second day, and I was faced with a harsh reality: this was my journey to be had--mine, and I couldn't depend on anyone else's company to get where I needed to be. Time passed in hot, slow motion. At 72 miles, I felt like I was going to die. At 74 miles, I was desperately seeking a tree under which I could hide, googling the location of any and every business in hope that something might materialize within a mile of my carcass. By the time I reached Clarksburg, I was despondent. The diner in which Liz Norred and I had eaten the previous year had apparently ceased to exist, and I was left staring across the street at a food mart that didn't look likely to carry prepared foods of any kind. I wasn't going to make it. Not this year. Not like this. I staggered across the street from the abandoned store and bought a nachos & cheese Lunchable and a Mellow Yellow, ripped off my Luna sandals, and collapsed in a heap on a bench outside the store next to Nicole Sciortino and Erich Hellstrom. I wept like a baby. My blisters stung, flies were crawling all over my food, and everyone else was happy. This was a disaster. By the grace of something divine, I managed to make it to Parkers Crossroads, mile 82, around 3:30pm and determined that even though I hadn't planned on any hotels this year, there was absolutely no way I was going finish if I didn't take a room for a few hours. Things had just gone too badly wrong too fast, and I couldn't wrap my head around what I needed to do to climb out of hell. I bought a can of Campbell's Chunky soup and a Monster energy drink from a gas station, secured the room, showered, and then laid down in the air conditioned room until 8:45. It hadn't been a bell-dinging winner of an experience, but it beat the hell out of crawling around in the sun, and by the time I checked out of the room, dusk was upon the world around me, and I'd shifted gears.

A three or four hour break can be a game changer during this event, I'd learned last year, and this stop was no exception. I'd strapped my favorite Merrell kicks to the back of my pack before the start of the race, deciding I'd switch to the shoes at night for running and save the Lunas for day walking, and immediately felt the difference: within a half mile of leaving the hotel I was running and I felt great. What I didn't realize was that I'd left my sandals at the hotel; that discovery would come hours and many miles later at Fisher's Grocery near the 100 mile mark. I made it to Lexington, mile 91, by 11:00 and picked at a sandwich and coke at a gas station before making the turn onto Highway 412-- a significant mark for most of us, considering that in all likelihood we'd be spending the greater part of two days on it. After that, the going got slow. I passed a runner camping out on the side of the road perhaps a mile or two from Fisher's-- it was too dark to tell, but I believe it was Maryka Hladki; and then shortly thereafter Henry Lupton caught up and we paced a mile or two together with a short stop at the closed store for use of the Sun Drop machine and a sit on the bench. Darden came and went, and then the first road sign for Parsons. I rolled into town too early for a Subway sandwich, but late enough for the gas station next door to be open, so I bought a chicken biscuit sandwich and hung out on the bench outside the store for an hour, eating and then repairing my feet, and checked in at 7:30 two miles down the road, not far from the Twin Pines motel.

The sun was exhausting. It took an eternity to cross the Tennessee River, mile 113, with some pretty strange stops before and after, pretty much anywhere I didn't think someone might spy me from the road and call the police. I peed behind a nice spread of shrubbery by an abandoned dwelling before the river, and then relieved myself again in a cemetery a mile or two past it. I probably should have been ashamed of myself, using a cemetery for this purpose, but under the circumstances, I was just pleased that my kidneys hadn't decided to give up the ghost. Plus, it was a nice place to get out of the sun and collect my bearings. I continued my sad party of one down the road, daydreaming about the Marathon station in Linden, when race director Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake) rolled up beside me.
"You're moving really well!" he called from the van.
"I'm feeling really good...for now!"
"That'll change..."
"Yeah, I know it!"
"You've got weather coming!"
There'd been some cloud cover-- not much, but more than there'd been-- for hours. But, I hadn't bothered to check the radar, keeping my phone in airplane mode to conserve battery power. I threw my arms into the air and called, "what are you gonna do?" as he drove off chuckling. A glance over my shoulder told me what I needed to know. I had 5 miles until I reached Linden, and these clouds weren't going to hold out for an hour and a half. As the sky darkened and a breeze kicked in the first misty whispers of rain, I began to scout out the landscape for good hiding places. I'd read about Andrew Snope's adventure in a drainage tunnel the previous year, but all of the drainage tunnels I'd passed thus far looked like the sort of place you'd find the Loch Ness monster or a mutant pig. The barns were all guarded and far from the road. Finding a business-- closed or open-- out here was like catching an albatross with a boomerang. As the wind picked up and the mist transitioned to full fledged Tennessee rainstorm, I spotted an old tin roofed fruit stand 50 yards off the road and made the sprint to it my day's mission and accomplishment. Sitting on an old cinder block, I relished in my good fortune, watching as five minutes turned to ten and then twenty, and the poor souls who hadn't been so lucky-- Maryka, Jared and Andrea Beasley, an unidentified man-- rolled past in the downpour. After a half hour, however, I had become impatient. This rain could go on for hours. Was I really going to waste an entire afternoon hiding in a ramshackle fruit stand while everyone else pressed forward and took it in stride?

Pride is a dangerous vice at Vol State. It leads people to push faster and further than they should during the early hours and days, and it can lead to foolish decisions in the miles further down the road. In my case, it meant making a break for the road as soon as the clouds saw a break in the rain. And, then rain it did, again-- hard-- for the next twenty minutes. My clothes were soaked. My pack was soaked. My feet-- my precious feet, the vehicle that had to carry my body another 194 miles to that damn rock, were macerated and blistered, soaked. As I trudged through the last mile before the climb into Linden, I completely broke down. It was the shit show I'd sworn I'd never put on: the sobbing and wailing and anger. I pulled myself together enough to coherently order a ham and cheese puff and jojo taters at that beloved, fantasized Marathon station, but lost it again when I pulled off my shoes and socks and caught sight of my feet. No. This wasn't happening-- not now, not this early.

"Quit. Quit while you're ahead. Those feet aren't getting you to Hohenwald let alone Castle Rock." Happy people and flies crawling on my Lunchable were a disaster? No. This-- this was a disaster.

I moved my circus act outdoors and called my kids and said all the things I'd never, ever wanted them to hear. "Mom might be coming home early..." Lord, but was I ashamed of myself. I texted Gary and told him if I couldn't pull it together, I'd be needing the meat wagon, because things were bad and weren't looking to get better. I felt like a fool. Thankfully, he let me know that no such wagon would be making a stop in Linden until the following day, and it was only 3:30 now. Three-thirty? That meant I had a very long time to think about poor life decisions.

I was low. Dangling over a cliff low, just wishing a bird would fly by and peck my hands away from the edge. My shoes and socks were, in a sick, twisted change in atmospheric events, now sunning along the curb-- sunning, as though nary a cloud had passed by; and me-- I was sitting on a bench double-poking blisters with a safety pin as locals walked in and out of the store and stared in curious disgust. This was it; this was my life. It was ridiculous, but it was mine.
Those disgusted looks did something to me. Maybe they reminded me of what looked back in the mirror, of the way I'd feel if I wasted an entire evening and night waiting for that van to collect what was left of me in the morning. I don't know.

But, I couldn't do it; I couldn't quit.

I walked a mile down the road, past the Commodore, and sat down in a spot where I spied a power outlet in which I could charge my phone. Across the street, I could see a litter of kittens playing on a porch, and watched in amusement, counting the dollars and change in my pack, contemplating what might be in store for me on the road ahead to Hohenwald. And, then it all came together: I slung my pack over my shoulders and secured my shoes, took a deep breath, and started walking. And, kept on walking, as day faded into night.

JT, Novle, and Clark Annis passed me 10 miles down the road, and though I made little attempt to keep up for long, it was a relief to see familiar faces. They'd doubtlessly had a more pleasant stay in Linden, and seemed to have their mental faculties held together with more than Elmer's glue. Six miles or so from town, I began to slowly slip and fade into the clutches of a mentally exhausted hell. My goal was no longer to reach Hohenwald, but to find something that passed for a shelter and had a power outlet where I could charge my phone. Churches seemed to outnumber houses and stray dogs in god's rural country, but clearly intended to keep their water spigots and electricity from the vagrancy like the good lord intended. By the time I passed Maryka who appeared to be sleeping in an open shed on the opposite side of the road around mile 140, I'd twice been unsuccessful in accessing the divine power of electricity at the local places of worship, and my nerves were fizzling like the blisters in my shoes. Finding a single functioning outlet behind the Jehovah's Witness church was an unexpected stroke of luck, and I took it as an opportunity to catch a nap away from the occasional blast of a car or disturbance from a concerned passerby. I kicked off my shoes and slept for 30 minutes or so, then collected myself from the pavement and continued down the dark road where things got really weird really fast.

If you've ever been followed, you have a sense of the eerie disconcerting feeling that creeps into your gut and soul when you know someone is trailing you. I had mace, but I didn't have a weapon-- aside from my pack which could probably cause a concussion, I reasoned, if I swung it hard enough; and I felt deeply troubled, trying hard to keep my pace steady and my eyes alert for any place I might be able to take cover and seek help if I needed it. But, there were few houses, and almost no traffic. As I passed a closed convenience store, I noticed a car parked with the engine running, and the dark figure that had been trailing me suddenly stopped and began pacing furiously, slapping what appeared to be a belt against his hand. Seeing the car parked with its engine running put the fear of god into my step, and dogs howling or not, I began to fly like that albatross I'd been trying to catch down the highway toward the heart of Hohenwald. I peed my pants a half mile down the road, completely unwilling to stop, and unable to hold it in any longer. A police car with lights and siren blaring blasted by me in the direction of the strange man, and I took it as a sign that maybe I'd dodged a bigger bullet than I'd realized. Or, maybe it was heading toward the drunk driving accident I heard about a few hours later that came within yards of pinning the Beasleys to a guard rail. I shot across the highway toward Walmart around 5am, starving and desperate for caffeine, bought a Southwest chicken wrap and a Monster drink, and devoured them both in the parking lot like a sad, half-domesticated seagull. The curtain was preparing to open on another day, and this Walmart parking lot seagull girl pecking at that spicy chicken wrap was threatening to be the opening scene for act IV. But, I'd survived a night I'd nearly written off just 12 hours before, and despite the blisters and mental fatigue, I was still faring much better than the previous year. I felt pretty good about that.

I knew better than to put too much stock in the Natchez Trace pavilion after last year's lack of bells and whistles, so it was a pleasant surprise to find JT, Novle, and Clark there when I arrived, and the Beasleys not long thereafter. I marveled at my overnight marathon on feet I'd sworn weren't going to carry me out of Linden, and focused my newly found optimism on getting to Hampshire where I'd have a good sandwich and a cold drink, and maybe catch a couple hours of sleep. I left the pavilion with the Beasleys in tow, and soon found myself following Un Ruschell and her crew of one on the long, open highway. The fog was heavy, and after a mile or two, I struggled to keep my mind alert; the fatigue from my overnight adventure and its lack of sleep had caught up in a big way. Near the halfway point, the sun decided it had had enough of the haze, and the fog dissipated into an infernal blast of sun and heat. I was trapped; there was nowhere to go but forward, and forward offered little shade. The left turn toward Hampshire wasn't the relief I'd remembered; it was just more hot, baked road and zooming cars. I caught up to Maryka, who'd passed me at Natchez Trace, and then fell back again in despair as the minutes turned to miles turned to dwindling water supply. A mile from Mack's Market, mile 163, I abandoned all hope under a tree near a ranch. I peed everywhere including on myself for the second time in a day, and then sat down to try to put myself back together. How in hell's bells had I been so happy at this point last year?

photo by Kara Molitor

I was an exhausted mess at Mack's. It seemed like a dozen runners had collected in the store, all in various states of disrepair: Clark, JT, Novle, Henry, the Beasleys, Rick Gray and Angie White. Getting to Columbia had taken the back burner to catching a nap and eating more than a few bites of food. Henry had decided he'd had enough and had called for the meat wagon, and Rick and Angie had both polished off more beer than I'd had in the past six months. Novle and Clark had been tending to blisters. I laid on the floor with my feet up, slept for 15 minutes, and then prepared for more fire and brimstone. The Men's Club next door, and its collection of scary furniture, was no longer in service, dashing my hope for a solid 2 hour nap. That meant I was going to be subjected to whatever Mother Nature dished out on the open road... and it was a long open road.

There were no good resting spots. Last year I'd spent almost 10 miles wandering down the road with Jesse Kokotek here, and it had seemed like there were dozens of decent places to crawl away from the world and turn off the lights for a while. In fact, it had been hard to resist the stops. Perhaps I'd set the bar higher this year, I wondered, given there were, in fact, dozens of shaded areas. Too high. I couldn't close my eyes. Had I become a snob? I passed the mini goats at mile 168 and realized what a lonely trip it had been so far this year, and then passed the strip of yard where I'd logged my mileage at check-in last year and realized I was also doing a hell of a lot better. The number of road angels who'd set up water stops and roving aid stations has sky rocketed in recent years, and this year in particular, to the point that running "screwed" really wasn't a raw deal at all. A man was handing out cups of cold Del Monte peaches not far from the goats, and literally next door a woman was passing out bottles of cold water; and a mile or two later there was a spread of chairs and drinks in a shaded yard. This strip, which just a year ago had been a scenic stretch of no man's land without so much as an accessible spigot, had transformed into a buffet line. A few miles outside town, I finally logged my mileage-- 171, and then continued my march toward Columbia. I stopped at the same Shell station as last year at approximately the same time, and sat outside charging my phone in the same outlet. It was as haunting as it was comical: deja vu without the physical agony, without store clerks who took pity on me, without Jesse, without the panic. As I sat on the pavement, reassembling the components of my life-- the Desitin, advil, alcohol preps and safety pins, smashed Debbie cakes, I was struck with a sense of being comfortable-- and I nearly laughed out loud. My life-- it was this pile of items; this was all I had, and all I needed to avert most of the many crises that might befall me. Hell, I even had a tourniquet. And vitamin C drops. I could handle chafing and muscle pain. Apparently I could also handle chopping off my own leg and scurvy. I was ready for the shit show if it came to town again.

I wasn't so ready to deal with townies.

"Honey, we seen you out walking miles down the road, and we just want you to know you've got a place to stay with us if you need it", called the woman in the car.
"Oh...well, thank you", I replied. Some road angels were apparently doubling as hostesses.
"No, really. You gone a long way. Yer more than welcome to stay at our place," came the man.
"I appreciate it, but I've still got a ways to go".
"Are you ok?" called the man.
"Yes, just resting for a bit."
More silence.
"You sure?"
Finally, the woman exited the car and approached me. "Do you have a boyfriend? Is he in the store?" she asked.
I must have given her the look of the devil. "Excuse me? Why?" Where was this going?
"Well, we seen you walking all this way..."
"Ma'am...This a race. I've got about 140 miles left to cover."
"Oh my goodness...we thought you was in trouble, walkin' all that way lookin' like that."
Oh. So, I looked like a damsel in distress. Or, someone fleeing hell.

Add 'runaway' to the list, I thought, as I climbed to my feet and headed back onto the road after finishing my taco sticks.
Darkness had encroached upon the world around me, and the sleepiness that struck next was powerful, and took me down in front of an old, large church. I dozed off for 20 minutes, and then felt cheated and angry to have to get up and go again. I knew there'd be no rest on the highway heading to Culleoka, and if I was going to do it, it had to be now. A park with a few good hiding spots looked inviting until I got closer and realized a pair of seedy locals were hanging out. At least, I thought they were locals. To be honest, they could've been fellow runners, but I wasn't willing to get close enough to find out. It was dark and I was tired, and going out of my way for a potentially weird conversation wasn't scoring high on my 'To Do' list. Winding out of town and onto the highway was like navigating into a bad dream. I was so tired I could've slept on the pebble covered shoulder of the road if I didn't think someone would call me in as a dead body again. By 11pm, I had no more tricks up my sleeve. I'd slapped my face hard enough that I'd probably left marks, and making up weird post-apocalyptic stories wasn't working anymore. It was time for Grizzly Bear. "Ready, Able". Rinse and repeat. Repeat. Repeat with a side of Alt J's "Tessellate". Ready. Able. Repeat. Repeat.

I didn't collapse on the Bench of Despair; I sort of melted into it. Un Ruschell passed by, and then the Beasleys approached, convincing me the yard set up down the road was worth the walk. "It's not far past the bench", Jan, driver of the meat wagon, had told me as I left Columbia. Good deal...except "not far" is highly subjective after 185 miles and almost no sleep. I pissed and moaned the entire way, and it took an hour. In retrospect, the bellyaching was ludicrous, but at the time I felt like I was walking to the moon when I was supposed to be walking to the corner store. The yard set up was a 5 star hotel, though, as far as I was concerned. It even had a power strip where I could charge my phone. Multiple lawn chairs, complete with over-sized beach towels. I think the Beasleys were glad to be rid of me as they moved on, leaving me sleeping on one of those lawn chairs, towel pulled up to my chin. The condensation in the air had been so heavy I'd been unable to set the alarm on my phone, but Andrea had set it for 4:55 at my request: 80 minutes from the time we arrived at the tent. It wasn't memory foam, but it was the most comfortable I'd been since Parkers Crossroads. A full hour of uninterrupted sleep...

I bolted awake to a world that was not dark. Not. Dark. There was no way, no way I'd slept through my what the hell brought forth all this daylight? When did my alarm sound? And what time was it? It was 5:35, and my alarm was set for 5:55 rather than 4:55. I was drenched from the humidity so I changed my shirt, scrambled into and then tied my shoes, swallowed some water, and tore off down the road as fast as my legs could walk. I reached the Culleoka Market at mile 188 at the same time Un Ruschell was leaving and bought a biscuit sandwich which I shoved into my pack for later. I caught sight of my reflection in a store window and discovered my chapped lower lip had split, and blood was streaming down onto my chin. Whoa... No wonder people were asking about my abusive boyfriend at the Shell gas mart in Columbia. I was bloody and filthy. It looked like I'd been beaten and put out to die in the street. A mile or two down the road, hunger overtook me and I sat down to eat the sandwich. I felt famished, and realized I'd barely eaten for 4 days. No sleep. No food. What the hell had I been doing all this time?

The 7:30 check-in came a mile before I arrived at the Mooresville Market, mile 194, but I still felt good having kept pace with last year's progress-- and without all the agony and disaster. At the market, I caffeinated and ate a few pickle flavored potato chips, retrieved with thanks the free Gatorade the store was supplying to runners this year, and promised myself I'd walk the next 6 miles like I was tip-toeing in the tulips, recalling last year's catastrophe. I was looking forward to a room at the Celebration like a kid looks forward to Christmas, and it appeared JT, Novle, and Clark were due to arrive any time. If I could snag the room on their way out, I'd have paid every cent it was worth. I moved slowly down the road, stopping for a cat nap on a picnic table behind a gym that was years past its prime. It felt like it was 200 degrees as I lumbered into Lewisburg, and I found myself scouring the roadside for a decent gas station-- the type that had tables and chairs inside, or at least outside in the shade. But, as I continued to walk, I realized these weren't country stores, and it didn't look like I was going to have much luck. I stopped first at a Marathon where I bought a Danish, a soda, and a bottle of cold Gatorade. I mused to the store clerk that it was scorching hot outside, hoping maybe he'd allow me to hang out on one of the old milk crates in the store for a few minutes, but instead he directed me to a nearby park. Frustrated, I took my plastic grocery bag outdoors and settled under a tree where I spent the greater part of the next hour. Finally, realizing this wasn't going to work as my day plan, I packed and headed further down the road-- a mile, then two miles, until I was in east Lewisburg and approaching the beloved Celebration Inn. The Celebration: this was it. This was the place where I'd spent nearly an entire afternoon last year, where I'd met JT and Novle a couple miles down the road, in the dark, approaching dog alley.

I couldn't stay. The realization sunk heavy and hard. The men hadn't left, and I wasn't going to pony up the funds for a room of my own that I only intended to use for 2 or 3 hours. I was going to have to keep moving down the road. I swallowed my disappointment, and made my way into a Shell station. I wasn't even hungry, and I still had plenty of Gatorade-- even if it wasn't very cold anymore. I just wanted to get out of the sun, get off of my feet, and wade in self pity for a few minutes before I had to deal with the 100 degree heat again. I bought a cherry slushy and carried it behind the store, hiding in a shaded spot between two roaring air conditioning units. The exhaust was hot and the spot wasn't exactly a chilled hotel room, but it was out of the sunlight and away from people and cars, and that was good enough for me at the moment. Mile 202, early afternoon: I probably could've slept here if I'd have been willing to give it a go, but eventually I finished the slushy and decided I might as well keep moving down the road. I figured if I pushed hard, I could probably make it to the Wheel cemetery gazebo or even the church pavilion by check-in, catch some rest there, and then move on toward Wartrace overnight. Of course, this was easier said than done.

I left the shaded spot and proceeded to head toward the edge of town when I spotted what appeared to be a table with chairs in the back of yet another gas station a short walk across the street. This was it: I'd found my oasis. In the store, I invested in a can of pop and a bag of combos, and then made my way to the back where I discovered there was not only a table and chairs, but a couch-- a COUCH in the air conditioned room. I was beside myself with joy. A couch in a gas station? What was this sorcery? To look like a legitimate customer and not just a dirty person exploiting the store for use of its furniture, I cracked open the can and ripped into the bag before setting my alarm for 30 minutes and drifting off to sleep.

Ninety minutes later, I was speed walking toward the Highway 64 turn-off with Rick and Angie, counting my lucky stars that I wasn't going to have to face Shelbyville Road and all of its gnarling, angry stray dogs alone. For three people with blisters and 206 miles in the bag, we were moving down the road at a blazing quick 15:00/mile pace, trying hard to make it to the Bedford Pit Stop in time to catch a hot dinner before closing time. The dogs weren't bad, but the heat was, and about 4 miles from the store, I let the others go ahead without me. I needed a break and knew the church was only about a mile down the road. My feet were becoming problematic, the kind of problematic that suggested it was time to take the scissors I'd had the foresight to pack to my shoes. If I didn't make it in time for a hot dinner, I had food in my pack-- more than enough to carry me through Shelbyville and into Wartrace. Water was a different story, but I was resourceful. If I could spot an electrical outlet on the side of a building from across the street in the dark, I could surely locate a water spigot. Four miles was a stretch in this condition, but one mile was not. I rolled into the church pavilion around 6:30, and dumped the contents of my pack onto one of the picnic tables. I picked at the combos and trail mix, and peeled my socks back to my toes, inflated my pillow, and put my legs up. I'd accomplished my goal in reaching mile 214, and felt confident that with the shoe doctoring and some blister care, I should be able to make it 20 miles to Wartrace overnight.

It was a bad night. This was becoming a trend, I realized: struggling through the day in the heat, gas station hopping and searching for a shaded place to cat nap before the night; then anguishing through the night in tired desperation-- looking for anywhere, everywhere to sleep away the ghosts and ghouls that haunted a tired mind in the dark streets and landscape. Novle, JT and Clark passed me for the last time on the street in front of the pavilion, on the way to the Bedford market. My rest and shoe surgery delayed departure from the pavilion, and I arrived 5 minutes after closing time; but Novle and Clark shared their leftovers with me, and we left together around 9:15. I kept up with the men for a mile, but it was a struggle I wasn't willing to endure, and then the gap between us increased by the minute until they weren't even visible in the distant horizon. I was alone again, as I'd been most of the way, tired and desperate for sleep.

It took an eternity to reach Shelbyville, and once there I didn't really know what to do with myself. I tried to set up camp behind a building, but I felt paranoid and uncomfortable, like someone was going to bother me and do god only knew what. After 10 minutes of this madness, I climbed back to my feet, and kept walking until I approached a 24-hour laundromat. It was filthy and none of the vending machines worked, but I was filthy and non-functional, too, and at this point the air conditioning wasn't something I could pass up. I went to the bathroom and stripped off my underwear and bra, socks, and handkerchief, pulled my two extra t-shirts from my pack, and dumped them all into a machine. I had no laundry detergent, but I did have a bar of soap I'd snagged from the hotel, and under the circumstances, it was better than nothing at all. I fed the washer my quarters and plugged in my phone, washed my face and arms under the faucet in the wash basin in the back of the room, and curled up to sleep on the folding table. I took another cat nap while my clothes dried, and then was forced to accept that I needed to get back onto the road. I walked out of the laundromat, still delirious and paranoid, and almost plowed right into Sherry Meador who was walking fast on her way to a hotel. We walked together for her final mile in town, and then I headed right and uphill, on the long trek to Wartrace. As batshit crazy as I felt at that moment, I was still lucid enough to realize I was lucky not to have to face this battle during the day.

The number of stops I made on the way to Wartrace was astronomical. Several times I woke up, still on my feet; and more than once I crumbled off the road as far from view as I could muster. Weird thoughts played in my head, over and over, wrecking my ability to think logically. I became paranoid and nervous-- of what? I don't know. But, the entire experience was brand new to me, and terribly unsettling. As the first strokes of the gloaming between night and dawn painted the sky with tones of hazy grey, the Beasleys passed me, dragging in a breath of relief. And, I wondered, almost out loud: am I the only person out here who doesn't want to be in the dark anymore? I made it to Wartrace a few minutes past 7, and crashed through the doors of the Marathon station like I was breaking the tape in an Olympic victory. Mile 234: I'd done it. I'd survived a hell of a night, and man...there were egg rolls for sale in this store. Egg rolls! I intended to eat them all. Armed with a cold pop and candy and a pile of egg rolls, I dumped my body into one chair, and used another for my aching, sore feet. Pete Peterson joined me a few minutes later, determined to make miles and not waste time. Me? I didn't care about anything but my egg rolls, and maybe getting to Manchester by check-in. It was only about 18 miles which had been my going rate for days during sunlight, and gave me plenty of time to sleep at the Whispering Oaks barn-- if I ever got there. It was only a 10 mile walk, but if there's anything to be learned about daylight hikes during the LAVS, it's that 10 miles can take almost half as many hours, even with the best intentions and middling talent.

The first few miles out of Wartrace weren't bad, and seemed to pass faster than I'd remembered. Things only slowed when I foolishly decided to rest under a tree, only to somehow start backtracking down the road once I'd gotten going again. Thankfully, it only cost me about a half mile, but it was a mile I couldn't get back, 20 minutes more time spent in the sun than I'd wanted or needed. A mile and a half from Whispering Oaks, I approached a tented road angel stop like nothing I'd seen before-- and believe me, some of these stops had evolved faster than you could say "screwed gently with love". Face washing station? Multiple flavors of ice chilled Gatorade? A massive bin of snacks? Three large lawn chairs? And, it was empty. Knowing how much traffic passed through Whispering Oaks, this seemed like the better place to stop. It was shaded and loaded, and at the moment-- all mine. I snoozed and hydrated for the better part of an hour, then headed back onto the street. The Beasleys were at Whispering Oaks when I arrived, and Clark whose feet were being diligently tended by Jan. I'd only intended to stop there long enough to go to the bathroom and charge my phone, but all of the electrical outlets were being used. Frustrated, I moved on, hoping I'd find somewhere to charge it on the way to Manchester.

I found myself in another laundromat, sitting on the floor between a row of seats and a row of washers, talking to my kids while my phone charged in an outlet under a table. I was a mile or two from the center of town, and once I got there, I was going to eat and then eat some more. I'd spent the first 4 days starving in the heat, and now my appetite had returned with a vengeance. Since cutting my shoes, my feet had behaved, but 5 days and 250 miles had left them sore and throbbing. I hadn't gotten the sleep I'd planned at Whispering Oaks, and as I put my phone away and looked out at the road ahead, the first twinges of panic set in. It was late afternoon, and it wasn't likely that I was going to make it very far after I ate. That meant I was going to be coming through Hillsboro and Pelham in the dark-- towns where I knew there were stray dogs and not a lot else, even more sleep deprived than I'd been in Shelbyville. I ate at a Hardee's near the 252 mile mark, and then replenished my fluids at a Raceway station near the edge of town. As dusk faded to darkness, I slid into a panic. How was I going to get through this night? I made it to the Dollar General outside Hillsboro 5 minutes before it closed and bought a Monster drink, a last ditch effort at staying alert as things spiraled out of control. Alone: why did I always have to be alone during these unnerving night walks? How could there never be anyone anywhere around me, anyone besides sketchy people in cars who drove too slow and asked too many questions?

Hillsboro faded into a rural Anywhere right around the time the effects of the energy drink were wearing off. I didn't know what to do with myself. There was absolutely nowhere appropriate here to stop and sleep, and it seemed like I couldn't walk a half mile down the road without a new dog barking a welcome or warning from its domain. Anywhere-- I would sleep anywhere at this point. It just needed to be away from the road, and away from the dogs. Approaching Pelham, I found myself in a terrible realm of crossed wires: I was not able to determine at times whether I was awake or sleeping, whether my surroundings were new, remembered, or an inception; and I began to mentally deteriorate rapidly. I had to stop and sleep. But where? The panic exploded and rippled out around me as my headlamp died, and then my phone. I was plunged into a dark world where I could not find myself, much less where I needed to be. A mile or two from the base of Monteagle, I discovered that none of the outlets outside the volunteer fire station were functional. But, not far from there was the post office. It was my last hope, and thankfully a success: the door was unlocked, and there was an outlet near the floor. I didn't even bother to inflate my pillow. I just laid directly onto my pack and closed my eyes. Thirty minutes, I decided, would be enough. I should have stayed and slept for two hours. I made my break for Monteagle sometime between 4 and 4:30, and got caught in another loop of "Ready, Able" on the way up. By the time I reached the top of the climb, day was preparing to unveil itself again, and I was barely functioning as a coherent adult. That I'd composed a rational facebook post during this time is, in retrospect, remarkable, given the nightmare that befell me in the 6 miles that followed, and the mental Olympics I put myself through to climb out of it.

"What am I doing? Am I awake? Why am I going there? Did I die?"
"I know I am going to Jasper, but where is that? How far is 15 miles? Why can't I remember where I'm going?"
"I don't know how to find myself. What is the purpose of this thing I'm doing?"
"Make this stop..."

Tracy City, mile 280. I knew I was there, and that I was heading to Jasper. In a fit of despair, I found a park where I slept for an hour, only to wake up so befuddled, confused, disoriented I could barely remember my own name. I had to text my sister to confirm I was, in fact, still alive; and had to eat and drink to slowly bring myself back to reality. It took more than two hours, by which point I was seeking reprieve in the shade every mile or two. I was determined to climb out of the hell my brain had fashioned, and determined to climb out of this race before I had to suffer another night like this. Rick Gray passed me around mile 287, the first runner I'd seen in more than 12 hours, and I finally reached the Mountain Mart at mile 292 around 4pm. The food I ordered there was divine simply because it was hot and placed before me, and if it weren't for Jasper local Steve Smalling's yard with its reclining lawn chairs waiting a half mile from the bottom of the 3 mile descent, I don't know how I'd have gotten myself up and out of the store. But, I'm glad I did...

...because passing the store at that exact moment were JT Hardy and Sergio Bianchini-- two of the men I'd spent 24 hours with after leaving Lewisburg last year, and with whom I'd spent most of my first day this year, the only day I'd spent in the company of other people. I almost cried.
"Oh my god-- Kimberly Durst, is that you?" JT shouted from across the street.
This, I thought, this was the luckiest thing that could have happened to me. And, we still had a really good chance at finishing sub-7.
"Where does this descent start?"
"Here-- right here. Three miles. Might as well run it."
Last year, I'd felt like I was going to die pushing into Jasper. I could barely walk, I was delirious, and the descent had taken, in all likelihood, close to 2 hours, given I was stopping frequently along the way.
"I'll see you guys at Steve's house!" I called, and took off, gradually picking up the pace until I was approaching his yard at a near sprint. My clothes were soaked and streaks of sweat were streaming down my legs, arms, and temples, but I felt great. And, with less than 20 miles to go, it was still daylight. JT plunked down in the lawn chair next to mine, and Sergio stretched out on a hammock. One hour. It seemed logical to sleep before the big push to the finish, but too many people were coming and going, and I simply could not sleep. Not long before we left, Angie showed up; and we left together for Kimball around 8.

Being with the group was probably my saving grace from another night of the mental circus of horrors, and I was more grateful than I think those guys will ever know. We made it to the heart of Kimball, mile 301, before 10, and decided it was time for a break. I grabbed a Monster and sour, chewy candy; JT grabbed something equally horrible, and Sergio spent a solid 5 minutes comparing prices on energy drinks before settling on one that cost 99 cents, then dashing next door for McDonald's oatmeal that he brought into the store. We stayed for a half hour, sucking down these ridiculous meals of caffeine, taurine, B vitamins, and copious amounts of sugar. We were either going to fly through New Hope and up the mountain, or we were going to be lit enough to power the empire state building.

Let's fly through New Hope and light the mountain.

I called Gary when we crossed the bridge over the Tennessee River at mile 305, and he asked us to call again at the base of Sand Mountain before embarking on the last 10k. In New Hope, the anticipation was building. JT and I tried to play the alphabet game with band names ("Sugar Ray", "Yanni", "Ice Cube", "Erasure", "Ez E", "why the hell do they all have to end in 'E'"?) but the base of the mountain hit like a Mac truck within a mile. This was it.

"It's Kimberly, JT and Sergio. We're about to climb."

A quarter mile from the top, right when we let Sergio, eager to run, go on, I asked JT if he minded if I played a song. I didn't settle on "Ready, Able", but "Sleeping Ute" by the same band. It felt strangely appropriate, and I felt lucky to have been able to spend the last 20 miles of my adventure with someone like JT.

"Dreamed a long day
Just wandering free
Though I'm far gone
You sleep nearer to me
If I could find peace
If this night bleeds
But I can't help myself
So I walk out
These wandering dreams
Of the north road
Dressed gold and green
If I could lie still
As that grey hill
But I can't help myself
But it's calm and it's clear
Collapsed here on the stone
Delivered to this place
A vision dark and cloaked
And those figures through the leaves
And that light through the smoke
And those countless empty days
Made me dizzy when I woke
And I live to see your face
And I hate to see you go
But I know no other way
Than straight on out the door
And I can't help myself
And I can't help myself"
~Grizzly Bear, "Sleeping Ute"

Gary had mentioned in one of his daily musings that people didn't typically decide who was going to finish 1st and 2nd at the Vol State, that that was something people decided coming in 27th and 28th. JT and I, 27th and 28th place, decided I'd go first given he was expecting an extended welcome to the rock from his family.

I finished in 6 days, 20 hours, 10 minutes, and 40 seconds.

It wasn't surreal, but it also wasn't easy to stay awake. I wanted to thank Gary for not giving up on me after last year's disaster, but I didn't know what to say. He commented on how much better I handled all the things that had gone wrong this year, and all I could do was thank him, thinking, "I did...but just wait until you read how it really went down..."

"You don't look good. I ain't sure yer gonna make it".
I made it. Ready, able.

photo by JT Bolestridge Cheers!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Lust for Life

"All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together."
- Jack Kerouac

We stand on the balcony and look out into the night, mesmerized by the spread of lights that extends as far as the eye can see. We wait for it to offer its hand, and take from it aggressively, or slip into it passively, or light it on fire when it doesn't smile or say the right words. Humankind wants for immortality rather than conception. The universe, in all of its indifference, just pushes onward without need for trust or disdain; the world only wants for survival. The relationship can be traumatic, but also, in all of its chaos, the relationship can be symbiotic. We have to want for survival, too. Immortality? Immortality we have already, when we dream.

I've consumed a lot of caffeine. In three hours I'll be running down the road in the cold, in the dark, with the night and a stockpile of daydreams to keep me company. People say we do this because we've been afflicted by something, and we've got a deep seeded need to either run from it or learn to overcome it by stripping our illusions of perceived physical limitations. I think we run with it, whatever it might be, because when we're in pain we feel the most alive. It's an affirmation of our mortality, and an opportunity to see ourselves for all we are, and have been, and want to be; we dream without pain, but only in the depths of mental and physical anguish do we understand how precious and fleeting our own mortal existence is. And, in that, we become more than dreamers. The tangible and intangible lose their definity. Consciousness is not so easily discernable as we've determined it to be, separate from our surroundings. We become the world. And it lends itself to us, the way any functional part of an entity works to maintain homeostasis.

My feet have seen better days. The ravages of the Last Annual Vol State 500k have been hanging on like an old boyfriend who doesn't know when to stop calling. Nagging aches, toenails that forgot their purpose, an extra 10 pounds that hung around for an after party that never happened: my body retaliated. Though, it did warn me. For more than 250 miles my body shouted belligerantly, in every way it knew how, "I'm going to do it". It forced me awake while begging for sleep; and, I'd lament my hungry soul and eat another corndog. The wires were always crossed, but I wanted it, wanted for it, and languished in it. Again and again, I loved the wanting, and it consumed me-- the intrusiveness of people upon my agonized conception, the wanting for physical validation of my passion for the experience. It was there at every corner, in every pained step, every deep gaze at the stars and neon lights and into another dreamer's eyes. I love hard, and then I loved harder. And it hurt.

...and still hurts.

Whatever exists beyond the confines of these walls isn't waiting for me, and I'm not going to wait for it to catch me. We're in this together, tripping over potholes and catching our breath, crawling into the places that make us wonder, wandering in the space between dreamed conception and the conception of reality. We're all dreamers. And we're all here, laughing, languishing, lucid, in love, and lusting for life.

My shoelaces are tied and I'm ready.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

And on the Fifth Day, There will be Bees (2016 Barkley Fall Classic)

People, I've found, love a good hero story. They love the under dog. Rocky. Cinderella. That person who boldly states, "yeah, so," as he readjusts his shiny new belt buckle, "I really didn't train for this". You know, didn't train for his sub-24 100 with negative splits and a final 10k at an 8:30 pace. Super bro endurance. The craft beer drinking Jedi master of the trail.

I didn't train for the Barkley Fall Classic this year, folks.

And, I didn't win. In fact, pull up a chair and pour a shot of Baileys in your coffee, and stay for a while. I'll tell you about it. But, do me a favor and keep an eye out for the wheel that went shooting off my car on I-71 after the race, because I hear it's still rolling around Kentucky somewhere. I wasn't the craft drinking Jedi master of the mountains in Frozen Head; I was more like R2D2, you know, if he had pain receptors and a foul mouth and attracted droves of hornets and bees.

Despite the jokes about my kindergarten scribble route over the mountains during my record-setting 32-hour Barkley loop in April, I know the park reasonably well. I'd finished the Barkley Fall Classic 50k during the first two years (12:49 in 2014, and 11:50 in 2015), and I've attempted the famed Barkley Marathons twice. My familiarity with the network of trails in Frozen Head State Park, home of both races, and experience running ultras (over 40, including more than a dozen 100k or longer) along with muscle memory convinced me I might be capable of coming home with a third BFC 50k finish-- even though fatigue and knee problems post-Vol State 500k in July had left my mileage between 0 and 15 most weeks. I debated whether or not the trip was worth the time and resources for weeks, and finally lied to everyone back home on Friday morning, hoping to keep my attempt secret until it came to pass. While I hoped for the best, I was prepared for the reality that I might die on Testicle Spectacle and had formally requested to the couple friends who knew I was making the trip that my body just be left out there along with an offering of crab rangoon and Cheerwine. Hope only goes so far. Where it ends and reality kicks in, there might as well be a good meal for the memories left behind.

Vol State 500k road race-- mile 184 "the Bench of Despair"

I slept in my car after arriving at 3am, and when it was time to head out for what was waiting, started slow-- very slow. The spool of yarn having unraveled as it had, speed wasn't even on my 'B' list of priorities. I was just trying to survive the first 7 miles so I didn't get swept before getting to the fun stuff that actually had the potential to put me in an ambulance with a legit medical emergency. I knew if I got past the first aid station that the next segment was relatively tame: the climbs weren't spectacular, and the footing was reasonably stable. The climb up Bird Mountain hasn't been bad since my first time doing it. I tried to make conversation when it made sense, and tried to evade catastrophe on the rocky stretches by not letting my legs get ahead of me with unrealistic and unsustainable speed. The second climb sapped a bit of strength from my legs and lungs, and reality began to sink in. I was only about 5 miles into the race, and I was already starting to feel blasted-- even at a slower pace. I had to stop twice to rest beside a tree, and tried hard not to look like I was having a stroke when people passed me. "Yes, I'm ok. No, my eyes are not rolling back in my head while I spastically gasp for breath."

There's always a tremendous sense of relief after a hideous climb when the trail starts winding down again, and even though this wasn't a hideous climb, when it finally clutched my mental faculties, I was filled with the kind of hope I imagine people get when they wander into nuclear fallout and don't immediately die. I truly had no idea what was coming. Unfortunately, when the trail started winding back down again, it dragged and raked dozens of bodies over a nest of angry, disturbed, stinging insects, and if I didn't know any better, I'd accuse everyone around me of dousing my body with whatever it is that drives dozens of bees to land, crawl, and sting the ever living fuck out of one human being. They were up my shorts, in my ears, down the hole in my shoe-- everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I mean, these bees had a purpose, and it was to bring me down like David brought down Goliath. I was unfortunately Goliath, or the Grendel of this Beowulf story, and I was flailing arms and legs and screaming like I was on fire. I was stung 21 times, including the back of my head in that little space above where my hat adjusted. These fucking bees meant business.

I started walking. Wheezing. Gasping. Pathetically resigned myself to quitting, if ever I made it to the damn aid station. I had a half mile to negotiate, and was executing it prison gait style because it was the only way to walk without nature or body parts touching all the bee stings. I got to the aid station after a half dozen stops to gasp and cry, expecting to have the cutoff biting at my ankles already-- an excuse to give the bird to this whole awful endeavor, but I was surprisingly only about 15 minutes slower than I'd been the past two years, and about 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Fuck. Given, I wasn't in respiratory shock, maimed or otherwise injured, or vomiting my internal organs, there really wasn't a valid reason not to continue. I hung around the aid station crying the blues for a few minutes, drinking water, and generally just feeling sorry for how awful I felt, and then swung my pack back over my shoulders, buttoned my shirt again, and headed back out. This nightmare was the hand I'd been dealt, apparently, and I could either cry about it at the aid station for 40 minutes, or get my life together and finish the fucking race.

On the way to Tub Springs, I decided I was going to finish the fucking race. I was ahead of some good runners-- people who'd finished the 50k with me the previous year, and as much as my body hurt, I was still capable of running and climbing. I lumbered my way to the Garden Spot where Mike Dobies was waiting to hole punch my bib, then headed out on the jeep road toward the second aid station. Things were looking up: I was running, and for the first time since the cigarette was lit marking the start of the race, had started passing people, too. I was in and out of the Tub Springs aid station fast, eating 1/2 of a banana while I was there. I knew this was a long section-- only five miles on paper with two more aid stations in between, but also unquestionably the most difficult, with Testicle Spectacle, Meth Lab Hill, and Rat Jaw along the way. Laced between them was a new section on the Salvation Trail, a trip under the prison via the same drainage tunnel utilized by James Earl Ray and the Barkley Marathons, and a climb over the prison wall. And, they were deceptively difficult.

Heading down Testicle Spectacle (photo courtesy of Carolyn Nauta)

I'd caught up to Carolynn Nauta, a Michigan trail runner I'd met and run with at other ultras over the years, including the Mohican and Burning River 100's, Oil Creek, and last year's BFC. We began to snake our way down the Testicle Spectacle after a couple miles of dusty jeep roading, remarking about the improved condition of the footing from the previous year. My suspicion that we'd fallen considerably behind pace, despite all the jeep road running, was confirmed as people with whom I'd typically be keeping pace were passing us, inbound, less than halfway down the Spectacle. It was only about a half mile, but the severity of the angle (50 degrees, worse in some sections) and footing meant that a fast pace was in the ballpark of 40 minutes/mile. Our pace, more conservative, was probably closer to 50. At the bottom, we angled sharply to the left before connecting with the Salvation trail that abruptly ended at the river shortly before bushwacking to the road where a church was set up with a few aid tables. The Salvation trail, of course, like anything tapped with the Barkley branded wand, was anything but a salvation. It was confusing and slow, and seemed to eat time like a bad dream. "Oh, you've got til 3:00 to get to the Firetower!" a woman at the aid station assured us.

Oh, you've got til 3:00. That's plenty of time. Plenty of time. Plenty of time. Plenty of time. Plenty. Time. Oh, fuck you, Salvation trail. If there is anything I've learned during my half dozen trips through Frozen Head, it's that there is no such thing as "plenty" when we're talking about time. And, there's no such thing as "salvation" when we're talking about a trail. It wasn't even 1:00, according to my poor $8 nursing watch that was threatening to give up the ghost from the heat and humidity, but I already knew my race was coming undone fast. Carolyn and I began the long climb back up the Spectacle, and there was nothing but green and nothing but UP as far as I could see. Two hours wasn't going to be enough time by a measure of at least twenty minutes. I was going to need an hour here and another hour for Rat Jaw, and that wasn't even considering the half mile down the Meth Lab blowout, or all the chutes and ladders of the prison game.

It took a lot of grunt to get to the top, but I was determined to close the gap on missing that 9:30 cutoff as best as I could. The rocky downslope blowout, also known as Meth Lab hill, is as deceptively difficult as the prison obstacles and the Salvation trail. On paper, it looks runnable; it's open, dry, and downhill. But, it also likes to eat ankles and toes. When I finally got to the bottom and hit the pavement, I started walking. The prison, which we'd enjoyed the previous year-- Gina Fioroni, Chris Gkikas, Anne Lang and I, and others, was tedius this year, and frustrating. I just wanted to get through the damn tunnel and over the wall so I could start grinding my gears up that nightmare under the power lines. Neither T-bird or Keith Dunn sugar-coated the reality of what had happened during the past 17 miles: I was not down to the wire, I was playing with the wire, and it was about to catch fire and burn me to a crisp.

Climbing out of the drainage tunnel under the prison (photo courtesy of Misty Herron Wong)

Both my water bottles said "#nope" and tried to commit suicide within the first five minutes of my climb up lower Rat Jaw, cascading down and into the clutches of the weeds and thorns near the bottom. Thankfully someone managed to retrieve both and rocketed them back up at me, both landing in a hearty bed of torture a few yards to my left. I caught up to the Cunninghams, Donna and Richard-- also double past finishers, mid-way to the top, looking as disappointed and shell shocked as myself. A flick of the wrist confirmed the fate of all of us-- them, Carolyn, Consuela Lively who was 50 yards ahead, and possibly even Clark Annis who'd been frantically trying to gain back ground after missing the bib punch at the church, clawing and climbing above; we were all past finishers, and we weren't going to make it. "It's hard to accept", someone said. We had an hour to get to the top and then run the 4 miles to the check point. It had taken nearly an hour just to do the running from the fire tower to the aid station last year. I continued up, through the rock crevice and then the final stretch to the top. By the time I got to Tub Springs again, there wasn't much enthusiasm or fanfare-- unless I was planning to run at world class speed, twenty minutes wasn't going to be enough time to complete the four miles that separated me from that aid station. Instead, I caught up with Joe Kowalski, a fellow Barkley veteran, and tried to enjoy the miles as best as I could. It took 52 minutes to get there, or 13 minutes/mile, and I missed the cutoff by a half hour. My race was over; I was sent to the right, to begin the last 3/4 mile to the marathon finish line. I'd given it my best, and my best wasn't enough. I finished the Barkley Fall Classic Marathon in 10:17, the 9th or 43 women to cover the distance, and 38th of 132 total finishers. There was no second star to add to my Croix de Barq this year.

It is hard not to be disappointed. It's hard knowing I didn't waste time, that I gave what I had within me, and my training and overall fitness had deteriorated over the past few months to the point that in the end it came down to speed, and I just wasn't fast or fit enough to do what I wanted to do. But, I didn't give up in April, and I didn't give up at this year's Fall Classic, either. There are still rocks to uncover, and adventures to be had. There are still ghosts out there looking for a few miles of companionship. Take them by the hand and go.