Monday, July 19, 2010

Following the Vol State 500K Road Race - 7/18/10

As I drove west along Highway 412 (some where between Hohenwald, TN and Columbia, TN), I kept my eyes glued to the right side of the road. I had to be getting close to a Vol Stater. The last update that I had received from the UltraList was that a few of the runners had reached Hohenwald and were heading east to Columbia. It was late in the afternoon, too hot to be out on the open road. Maybe the runners were taking shelter until it cooled down a bit. My plan was to be out on the course early Sunday morning, but this did not work out for several reasons.

I took a day off from work on Friday to drive to Hazelton, WV. It seemed like a life time since I ran a race. Vol State started on Thursday morning. I knew several of the runners that were running from the northwest corner of TN to the Southeast corner of TN, a distance of 314 miles. They had 10 days to complete the race, and they could do it solo (carrying everything they needed and using the stores and restaurants along the course for resupply) or have a crew driving along with them. This race was on my ever growing "to run" list. I debated whether to go out onto the course on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday or go to the Big Bear Lake 12-Hour Trail Race in WV. I decided to compromise. I would do Big Bear Lake on Saturday for my own mental sanity and then come back and go out onto the Vol State course on Sunday.

I need to race. I know that. I've been torturing myself by taking time off from doing just that. I'm more of a mental mess now than I was a few months ago when I made the decision. Time off did not do me any good. My body probably appreciates the change, but my mind has been in dismay. I ran 32.5 miles at Big Bear Lake, which is 5 loops of 6.5 miles. That was my goal, and it matched my mileage from 2008, the last time that I ran this race. Needless to say, I was happy. There is something to be said about muscle memory, because my performance had nothing to do with the "training" that I'd been doing over the last couple of weeks, lol. I really doubted that I would be able to get that much mileage in 12 hours, but there it is!

When I finished the race, I listened to my voice mail. Diane (TN) and Bruce (TN) had decided to drop from Vol State. She had horrible blisters, and Bruce did not want to go on without her. They were stranded in Huntingdon, TN, and if I was out on the course, they really could have used a ride to the finish, where their car was parked. I felt so bad, and I realized how selfish I had been. I thought that I had made the right decision to come to Big Bear Lake, when I could have been more useful out on the Vol State course. I immediately called her back. Luckily, someone came along and rescued them, and they were en route to the finish. I decided then and there that I needed to get back to TN, so that I could get out onto the Vol State course. Maybe I could help one of my other running buddies.

The only problem was that I was tired. It's a 9 hour drive to WV. On Friday while driving to WV, I could not stay awake. I would drive for a little while, pull off into a rest area and sleep for a little while, and then drive some more until I became sleepy again. It took almost 12 hours to get to the last rest area that was the closest to the race start. I took my last nap four hours before the start of the race. On the way back home after the race, I was in even worse shape, and it took over 12 hours to get back to TN. Drive, sleep, repeat. I was miserable.

So here I was, still tired, and looking out for Vol Staters. And then I saw him. He was standing under a large shade tree on the side of the road. He is tall and so very thin. His beautiful, flawless, dark skin showed tiredness from battling heat, hills, and humidity for four days. He had not shaved, probably since he started. His salt and pepper beard was the only thing that gave away his 62 years of being. He was crewless this year and wore a heavy pack with numerous pockets for fluids, food, clothing, lights, cell phone, maps, turn sheets, and anything else that he would need to get him to the finish. He had travelled on foot about 170 miles, over half-way to the finish, and was now in third place. He held first place for a while, until he mistakenly took a 6 mile detour and was passed by two other runners. He had been napping when he stopped to get something to eat but had not slept for any extended time during these four days. He was not eating very well. Being a vegan, he had very few food choices at the fast food places and restaurants along the way. And when I realized it was him, I blew the horn and found a place to turn around in the middle of the two lane highway. I parked in a gravel drive way leading onto expansive farm land. When he saw me, I thought he smiled just a little. Fred (OH), my running buddy for the past three years, was so very tired. Nothing that I had been through in the last three days compared to his last four days.

We hugged each other for a long time. The Delano Park 12-Hour in March was the last race we had run together. He had since completed several races including the Umstead 100 Miler, the Self-Transcendence 10-Day (505 miles), a 48-hour race (137 miles), Pineland Farms 50 Miler, and the Mohican 100 Miler. I will never be in his league, but he tolerates my hero-worship of his running abilities and, more importantly, of the wonderful person that he is.

I told him to sit in the car and get cooled off. But I had forgotten. He does not like the cold air, even in this heat. It cramps him up. So we sat with the doors open. I offered him cold water, Coke, Gatorade, chips, oranges, and oatmeal cream pies, even though I knew he couldn't have the cream pies. He took the water and Gatorade and filled a couple of his bottles. We talked about his experience so far. I tried to follow along, but now that he was sitting, he was falling asleep and not making much sense. Or maybe I was too brain dead to comprehend what he was saying. I told him to take his time, get cooled off, and rest just a little. He insisted that he didn't want to lie down, so he only closed his eyes and maybe napped for 10-15 minutes. I dozed, but I also watched the highway for other Vol Staters. No one was close to him.

He jerked. And then he was on the move. I reparked the car, so that it faced the highway, near some overgrown shrubbery. I locked the doors and grabbed a Gatorade, and we headed back out onto the highway. I would walk the next 10 miles with him. He couldn't run, because he had not had any sleep. If he had been running, I would not have been able to keep up with him. I doubted that I would be able to keep up with his walking. He commented that he had been slowly walking for hours now. That was all that he could do as tired as he was. He wanted to get to Columbia, have some good pasta, and sleep at the restaurant for 2 hours, before continuing on. I was determined to go with him. Since he was in the solo category, there was only so much I could do for him. I knew I couldn't "mule" for him. He had to carry his own supplies. The pack looked like it weighed as much as he did. I wanted to lift him and the pack onto my back and carry him into Columbia. I am built like a tank compared to Fred.

The highway had a narrow strip barely wide enough for us to walk side by side. When cars approached us, I ducked behind Fred, so that he wouldn't have to make any extra movements, using precious energy. This was a busy little highway, with the speed limit set at 55 mph. Everyone seemed to be going faster than that. The considerate drivers moved over and waved to us. Others looked like they were gunning for us and would just enjoy knocking us off the road. The hills rolled, and the sun beamed. A breeze would come along every now and then, and we would comment on how good it felt. There was no shade. There was farm land, houses scattered here and there, and many miles ahead. We talked about various things, and we fell silent more than once. What do you say to a person doing a monumental thing such as this? I was just in awe of the Vol Staters.

After 2-3 miles, we saw the race director, Gary. He and his daughter were driving the course checking on runners. I had not seen him since the Run Under the Stars 10-Hour Race in 2009. He asked if Fred was now being helped. I reassured him that Fred was still going solo. I doubt that he heard me, because a truck came barreling down the highway just at that moment. We stopped and talked a little, but if Fred was on his feet, he needed to be moving, so we continued on.

A little later, Fred started weaving in the strip. His hallucinations had been pretty vivid. A shrub turned into a dead animal with the legs up in the air. Another one looked like a large poodle. We saw a shady spot and crossed the street. We sat for a couple of minutes. I have been wanting to do this race for years as a solo, planning to push a baby jogger with my supplies. Now, seeing Fred and how tired but still determined that he was, I wasn't sure that I had a Vol State in me.

Before I knew it, he was up, and we were on the move again. We were coming into town now. We passed a sign that said 4 miles to downtown Columbia. Flo, Fred's wife, had crewed for him last year. He had dropped from the race once he arrived into Columbia. He had fallen behind on the schedule that he set for himself to finish the race in time to take his mother to a military ceremony honoring his deceased father in Texas. He wouldn't let his mother miss such an important event, so he dropped from the race. But this year, he was determined to finish. Beyond Columbia would be all new territory for him.

We spotted a laundromat. Fred said that he would check out the facilities, wash and dry some clothes, and take a nap. In the mean time, I would go back the five miles to get the car and bring it to the laundromat. It turned out to be the longest five miles of my life. I tried to run some of it and power walk as fast as I could, but I was drained. All I wanted was for someone to offer me a ride back to the car. No one did.

I finally made it to the car. It seemed to have taken longer to get there than it had taken for us to get to the laundromat. I grabbed a Coke, some water, and a bag of chips and drove back to the laundromat. I still saw no other Vol Staters behind Fred.

I was afraid that Fred would be gone by the time I got back, but he was still there. His clothes had just finished drying, and he was talking with a local about the race. He had not taken a nap. I reprimanded him like he was my child. Why didn't he sleep?

I gave him a Coke and a bag of chips. He reorganized his pack, grabbed his cell phone that had been recharging, and he was back onto the road. This time I would drive the car ahead into Columbia and then run back to him, walking with him back into town.

When I drove into Columbia, I saw Juli (IL). I had read the update on the UltraList about her severe sunburn. The description did not do her legs justice. Her legs were as red as a tomato. She now wore a long sleeve white shirt to protect what was left of her skin on her upper body. I immediately pulled off the road, parked, and walked back to her. I gave her a hug. Only afterwards did I think that I must have hurt her because of the sunburn. But she didn't complain. She asked how I was doing. My life is boring compared to hers right now. I wanted to hear about her experience. She rapidly told me that she had just finished a 2 hour nap, she had shared some time with Fred on the course, and that she hadn't been able to blog about the experience as much as she would have liked. "We've been kind of busy," she said. Well . . . yes, Juli, that's an under statement, lol. She said that she was enjoying herself. Severe sunburn, blisters on her feet, hills, heat, humidity, 314 miles of road running from start to finish, and she was enjoying herself. I had never done what she and the other Vol Staters were doing, but as I thought about what she said, I understood exactly what she meant. Maybe I did have it in me to do the Vol State one day.

Juli's husband, Val, has been crewing for her. He came running towards us to check up on her. I gave him a hug and told him to take good care of Juli, even though I already knew that he would. I hugged Juli again, trying to be conscious of the sunburn and not to grab her too tightly. As I drove off, I saw Val directing Juli to make a left turn onto Highway 50. There was a Shoney's at the corner and a hotel across the street from there. Gary had said that a couple of Vol Staters were planning to take a break at the hotel. For whatever reason, I parked the car there and ran/walked back to Fred.

About 3 miles later, I saw Fred. He said that a local had asked him to take a break and have a beer with him. Fred declined and opted to keep moving, lol. Don (TX) was hot on his tail. His crew person (I forgot his name), was just up ahead. When he took our photo, we joked with him that he was holding Fred up, so that Don could pass him, lol. Once we made it to Columbia's town square, Don did catch Fred. We all took another photo and chatted only a few minutes. At this point, however, Fred was not in jeopardy of losing his 3rd place position because Don was taking a break in the SUV with his crew person. Even though the Vol State is a race, runners know that they are not in competition with each other. They are competing against their minds, bodies, spirits, the hills, the miles, the heat, and the fatigue. It's irrelevant to be concerned about what another runner is doing because that runner is fighting the same demons. You just keep moving forward when you have to and stop only when there's a real need. Therefore, Fred and I made our way to Shoney's.

We had dinner at Shoney's, but the pasta that he ordered was not enough to fill him up. He couldn't eat the bread because of the butter, and for some reason, the rice that he had ordered was fixed with a creamy sauce (indicating a milk product), so he couldn't eat that either. Now we had to search for some additional food for him. There was also a Captain D's in the area. He was able to get fried okra and potatoes. He said that he'd been eating a lot of french fries and baked potatoes over the past four days and was growing tired of potatoes. To me, it still wasn't enough food for him, considering how far he had gone today, but he said that it would last him until he could have breakfast the next morning. Looking for more food had cut into his nap time, so he was going to take the food with him and continue on down the road. We had checked at the hotel for room rates, but it was more expensive than he wanted to pay for a few hours of sleep. He would just have to try and find some where else to sleep before the night was out.

I didn't want to leave him. I was in a rental car for my 3-day weekend, and it was due back at 11:00 p.m. It was about an hour's drive home for me, and I still had to go to work on Monday morning. I hugged him again. I told him to try to sleep and to be careful. He had his headlamp and a small handheld flashlight. He also had reflectors around his lower legs and on his pack. He took another bottle of water, and I watched him walk away from me in the night heading east on Highway 50. I was so sad. Had I done enough for my friend? Ten miles with him today was a drop in the bucket. He was now at about 180 miles into the race, and he still had so far to go. Knowing Fred, he would finish. I admire my friend. I want to be just like him when I grow up.

Go Vol Staters! Onward to the finish at Castle Rock, GA!


  1. These runners are actually doing what in my grandiose plans I was unable to do last summer when trying to run across Spain. They are still running. In this story you brought insight and perspective, Tiger. That's no small thing. Thanks. And your love for your running buddies is touching.