"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"...like 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!"
"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?
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."
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 alarm...so 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