May 21st, 2019
The Last Annual Vol State 500K Road Journey - We're in this Together
Thursday July 14th, 2016
After the intense heat of the day, I am lying on this picnic bench wrapped in a rain poncho shivering to beat the band. Shivering serves a purpose, I remind myself, but it makes it impossible to sleep. The 4 other Vol Staters sharing the shelter with me on the highway to Columbia doze peacefully. One is sawing logs and I envy his temporary escape from discomfort.
We met up earlier in Hohenwald at a just closed gas station. Jan and I were happy to see Paul Wilkerson, Nathan, and Brian. They had texted that they left us a pizza in the previous town but I pay little attention to my phone so I missed it. Paul gives me his just purchased Gatorade not knowing if we will find another open store. Darkness has set in and we hope to move forward all night. We do find another open gas station and get food and drinks. The proprietor gives us the "up and down" assessment that we are accustomed to. Is it the way I am dressed, something I said or just that I reek???
As we leave town, memories of past Vol States flow through my weary mind. The drunk girl in her car asking to use our cell phone or borrow some money, catching Fred Davis on his way out of town and remembering the details of that conversation including Fred's shopping trip at Walmart. Fred has the most delightful laugh, full of mischief and glee. The ragged and tired band that we form is like a shot in the arm. We grow quiet and Paul asks for stories. Stories are always a good distraction if you can remember any :)
I had thought 3 Vol States was plenty, but my mind had devised a reason for returning. Jan Silverman was so close on her first attempt here, which was also her first ultra attempt after just 3 marathons on her running resume. She made it to 218 miles despite frequent T storms, uncrewed, without a clue about foot care. The ride from a friendly police officer did her in. She needed a finish here and doing it screwed again, she would need company. We decided to run as a team. We both set up fundraisers which we believe in. Why not?
The best part of any ultra, but particularly VS, is the people. Seeing old friends, making new ones, feeds my spirit. We sit with Mike Edwards and Clay. The Last Supper is like a family reunion, comrades at arms, united for a single purpose. We are clean and in no pain, having just stepped out of our lives of comfort. All kinds of emotions permeate the room - I remember my first Vol State, not knowing what was to come. Now I am a wizened sage, or so I tell myself...
Exhausted and overheated, we arrive in Columbia. In the daylight, it is not so sinister as I remember from previous years. I had run into questionable characters in the wee hours, one who had been drinking heavily and offered a bed for the night. The challenge of being screwed is when you end up in Hampshire in early morning after a long night of trudging. There are no open stores in sight, intense heat already seeping from the pavement and 20 miles to Columbia. We ask some Hampshire boys for water - they tell us they have none and there are no stores open on the 20 mile route to Columbia. We can tell they are thinking, "You're screwed!" But we have one leg up on them - we have been screwed since this journey started... What they don't know about is the ever multiplying Road Angels - our ace in the hole.
We use the shade to our advantage - until it is gone at midday. Road Angels do help us and one of them is Janet Duncan as we fight to gain the town proper before collapsing. Janet introduces us to Mr. Lambert, who lives on the route and is 84 years old. He has followed the Vol State and keeps a log of the runners. I ask if we can set a while. He replies, "I wouldn't have it any other way!" He tells us about his "onery" wife who is actually a charismatic woman who he has loved for 60 sumpin' year'n. He has a wit to challenge the younger generation and talks of things past like "step ins" which is what pantyhose were once called. It occurs to me that he is like us ultrarunners, full of life and a love for adventure, never giving up or thinking of himself as "old" despite the relentless march of Father Time. Living rather than just existing - it is what we do.
We get turned around in Columbia looking for the Richland Hotel. Our usual problem solving does not serve us and instead Jan and I bicker. Emotions flow and little hurts are discussed since we have taken turns with our highs and lows and being the "weak link". Another way to do Vol State and another set of challenges. We are good friends and this setback turns out to be a good thing, a test of our friendship and it bonds us closer and helps us work together better for the miles to come.
We find Paul Wilkerson again at the hotel and we end up leaving together around 2:30AM after oversleeping - we needed it! We are the only Illinois runners, us 3, and here we are together. We run well for a while after the good rest, get to the Bench of Despair and take pictures. A lady is in the store - we knock. She never acknowledges us. Is she hearing impaired, deliberately ignoring us since the store is closed, or are we truly in a dimension other than hers? Food for thought but none to eat... We soon find a Road Angel aid station and we are catapulted from the Bench of Despair to Heaven! Jan examines the supplies and exclaims, "It's an ultrarunner!" Who else would leave batteries, baby wipes, even deodorant. The last would be very obsolete in our feral state.
We are now thinking that we can get this done in about 6.5 days. Little did we know what was to come. Jan slowed with hip flexor and Achilles issues on the way to Lewisburg. We find Jessie on the way and Kathleen Wheeler! We eat breakfast together and enjoy each other's company. Paul is still with us - the Illinoisans!
Jan stops to get a brace to stabilize the Achilles before we rest at the Celebration Inn. They are so accommodating there. Brian rejoins us. He has suffered with tendonitis and swelling since early on. He soldiers on with his fast and steady pace and no complaints. I run ahead and wait for Jan at the turn to Shelbyville. She is slowing again with hip flexor pain and the Achilles. She does not talk about quitting but continues to problem solve. Paul stops with us in a small church shelter on 64 to Shelbyville and we rest. Paul is a giver and offers anything he has. He leaves before we are ready to. Jan and I enjoy the shelter for some hours and are getting ready to leave when Patrick trudges in. Jan gave him the last small amount of food she had.
We use our recently purchased umbrellas to protect us from the beating sun - thank you, John Price, who gave me this tip back in 2012! We encounter 2 aggressive little dogs who won't stop charging us so Jan sprays one with pepper spray and misses. I kiddingly say, "That was unnecessary use of force," since he did not attack. She shoots back, "It was good practice! I didn't know it came out in a stream." I have to agree.
We meet Paul again and his wife Kathy, who is only checking in as she can't aid her screwed husband. We eat at a store with Brian and Paul and then lose track of them as Jan struggles with pain. We rest at the Whispering Oaks campground where they provide sandwiches, a soapless shower, phone charging, and a place to rest. We wash our clothes. Jessie rejoins us and tells us of the pit bull attack that ended in the dog being hit by a truck. He talks of the surprising emotions that he has experienced during this journey.
Jan steps wrong on her foot and thinks she tore the already strained Achilles - she sheds tears but pulls herself together and consults her chiropractor back home. "Jan, you know what we have to tell you." Seeing the swelling, the blue line forming at the base of the heel, the pain she is in, I know she probably needs to stop. We discuss it and she decides to take a long break in a hotel and reassess in the morning. We switch to crewed at mile 247 at the Market store. We chat with a local, Ruthie, while we wait for Kathleen to pick us up and bring us to Marv Skagerberg's hotel room. Marv is Marvelous, as always, taking care of us with food, drinks and sharing his bed. Now that sounds bad, but many things at Vol State are not what they seem :) Marv is a true gentleman to the core of his Vol State loving soul!
After 9 hours of rest, we set out to Manchester in the wee hours after Bill Baker was kind enough to return us to the Market at mile 247. We trudge slowly for about 3 miles before Jan knows the gig is up and she is taking a big risk going 65 more miles on this injury. She heads back to the hotel and insists that I go on for a finish.
This is the saddest moment in the run even though we knew it was coming... We are a team and we have been cleaved. What is a finish without Jan? I shed tears as I disappear into the night and Jan heads back to Marv's room. I come upon a group of three- two TJs and a Novel. TJ has a swollen Achilles as well on the same side as Jan's. Vol State certainly does things to you - the steep cants, the heat, the long miles, trying to match the pace of others, adjusting form to accommodate blisters... They are punch drunk and laughing at everything. I have just rested and left my partner behind, so I don't feel any humor but I appreciate their company for a short while. I call Val who is supposed to meet us at the Rock and ask him to come when he can to crew but no rush. I've been alone here before and I like the solitude. He needs to pick up Jan first.
On the way to Hillsboro, I see a runner walking. I catch up and it is Sergio. We stick together for many miles and he regales me with VS stories such as being hit by a car and dressing his own wound. He said, "Some people have stopped VS for different reasons. I get hit by a car but I don't stop." He tells me his plan for an attacking dog. "You give him your arm. With your other hand you grab onto his balls, slam his back on the pavement and "crack" - everything lets go. The arm hurts, maybe it's broken but (shrug), it could be worse." Sergio is a delight with his accent, his great stories, the way he tells them, his views on life and loss... Another gift of many during this Vol State.
Val and Jan finally come by, but I have not minded the hours between - I did some thinking and then there was Sergio. Val and Jan both enjoy talking with Sergio when we stop. He gets help from a few Road Angels but Val can offer nothing to the screwed. This is so hard when we are used to helping anyone in need at an ultra. Screw the rules and screw the screwed.
Jan is her smiling, positive self, despite this huge disappointment. She is an "other" focused person and the kind of friend who would never let you down. She accepted the challenge of Vol State and did not shy away even with a major life tragedy occurring just 2 short weeks before the start. No one would have blamed her for the DNS. But she is strong and a fighter. Seeing her spirit and excitement and "never say die" attitude during this journey was quite an eye opener for me. It was Vol State that started our friendship and Vol State that continues to strengthen it.
Jan shed tears on the course as she ran ahead of me and thought I couldn't hear, fought with demons, "what ifs" and self doubts related to her personal tragedy, took phone calls from family members who are also struggling, and even news from the coroner that she hoped she would never hear. And yet she persisted and considered shuffling on an impending Achilles tear with a 9 or 10 day finish. I would have shuffled with her if she could have pulled it off but the situation came to an inability to even stand on the injury. If Jan couldn't do this, I am sure no one could. Hopefully, she stopped soon enough to save her worse injury.
We see Joshua on and off, Jeff for short times, Bo and Karen who we last saw crossing the TN river for the first time. Greg Armstrong stops and chats a few minutes and tell us the story of Karen and Bo's new furry friend who followed them for 30 miles, of his own police stop when he was reported as running in his underwear and had to explain to a woman officer about chafing. We saw our dearest Road Angel and women's VS record holder, Sue Scholl, a few times. Her frozen water bottles were a great way to ice Jan's Achilles and her foot care skills were a Godsend. We met Andrew Snopes after our restless night on the porch swings at the now closed down Walking Horse Hotel and he joined us at breakfast. Four days, 6 hours with no crew! He shares his VS stories including being mistaken for a dead woman to which he responded to the officer, "I am neither." He shares his life views and his future goals. For one so young, he understands living very well...
We stop in Tracy City in the heat of the day and find a shade tree at a business. It is the Electric Cooperative. Sam, the Manager, comes out and invites us to use his office couch. He gets us water and leaves his office to us for 2 hours until they close. So many giving people! We get through Tracy city with no dog attacks. This is where I had a close call in 2010 with a set of pit bulls. We meet Kimberly and stick with her for some miles. She is officially crewed so we can help her. Her chafing is incredibly painful and the Desitin stopped working. Jan cuts her shorts to decrease the rubbing. Kimberly slows to rest after check in time and we go on.
As I run out of gas and slow, we decide a hotel in Kimball would help before the descent to Jasper. We mark our spot with a water jug and landmarks. We drive the 10 miles to the Super 8 but no rooms. No rooms anywhere in Kimball after checking several. We get food and sleep fitfully in the car for a few hours. I suggest we sleep outside as the car seems claustrophobic after enjoying all of the outdoors for many days.
We return to our spot before the descent to Jasper and I have a good run down the hill, passing Joshua. He blew his knee out on Day 2 and has been reduced to mostly walking but he will get it done. I start to slow down from pain in my left foot from a huge blister under a callus that has been plaguing me, so we stop for breakfast in Kimball. We see Tasha and her husband and hear a little about her race. She is so excited! Her husband was a great support to her and a bonus to have an athletic trainer as crew.
On leaving Kimball, I am limping on the bad blister on the ball of my left foot that I have fixed repeatedly. We couldn't find the right stuff last night so we improvised a cushion out of corn pads. I stop often to fix it but am moving at a snail's pace with pain on every step. Paul W stops by. He has finished! He offers his room in Kimball for a shower if I finish in time.
Negative talk - "I don't know how I can finish on this foot." I am so close, I could crawl but my knees would be scraped off on that rough pavement. Val and Jan are waiting for me to get to the car. I have a weak moment and I cry, wondering how I can go another 12 miles on this foot. Val does not baby me, just looks for solutions. The foot supplies are used up. I will have to do what I do best, not give in to the pain. Joshua catches up with me on the bridge crossing the river. We stay together as the temperature rises again. His crew hopscotches with Val and Jan. Joshua is engaging and he shares his thoughts on Vol State, on the human spirit, on his ups and downs and a disagreement with his crew at one point. "It's all good now," he says.
There are highs and lows at Vol State, just like in life. The highs come with a pretty sunset, time with fellow Vol Staters, meeting nice people along the way, Road Angels who would give you the shirt off their back, even when they have so little themselves. The kindness of strangers, the innate goodness of people, nature, the full moon, the bobcat who ran across the road in front of me as dusk set in, good friendships and camaraderie with fellow road warriors, joy in just being alive and here - these are all highs. The lows are the despair when you think you can't take another step, extreme weariness, the feeling that the heat is going to win when sweat pours profusely and you feel chills, hunger that can't be satisfied, a hotel that alludes you, thirst with no water to be had, smelling so bad you can't stand yourself and can't get away, a despair that brings tears to your eyes, the creepy man offering a ride to a hotel who you know instinctively not to trust but you summon your best polite attitude, look him straight in the eye and say "No, thank you", the roadside wreaths that usually mean a life cut short and you think about all the lives cut short and weep - those are the lows.
Gary dubbed me King of Lean back in 2010. I did not disappoint as I started leaning on Day 5. Jeff came by and asked me what happened to my back. I said, "What always happens to it at Vol State." So I leaned but much later in the run and not as severe as usual. The feeling of being pulled to one side with pain in the back is one of the most unpleasant things I've had to deal with in ultras. I've tried everything to make sure it does not happen. There is no rhyme or reason and it is sporadic, but at Vol State I have never escaped it. Jan helped immensely with a massage technique she did every time we stopped. I got to the Rock with a lean but was able to conquer it on my own feet, though Carl is always right there to stop your fall off the cliff if need be...
The short sit at the Rock hearing stories is always fun but I was so exhausted. Thank you Sandra for your stops on the road ending in "see you at the Rock" and then we see you there. Thank you Bo and Karen for the final encouragement on the way up and for hanging around so we could hear your stories. What will you name the little guy? I'm talking about the dog, of course! :) Thank you, Gary and Carl, for your monumental patience and to all road warriors I was lucky enough to share some road with or sleeping space or a meal. To Jan - we said we were done but don't you want to get back at this course more than ever??? Thank you Val, for enabling me in my insanity just to make me happy!
Finish time 2016 - 7 Days, 3 Hours, 44 Minutes
Looking forward to all the race reports!
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