Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Vol State Vignettes

The 2014 Last Annual Vol State Road Race

(Photo credit - Jan Redmond Walker)
"a run like this is not just a race
it can be (is) a life changing experience.
vol state is a journey thru personal hell
you WILL be discouraged.
you WILL feel self doubt.
you WILL want to quit.
but if you persevere.
if you dog it out, step by step.
you will find in yourself a strength you never knew existed."

Lazarus Lake, Race Director, the Last Annual Vol State Road Race

How do you distill an experience like the Vol State down to something readable, to something comprehensible? How do you convey to the interested reader who has not run the race what the experience is like? In the end that effort must fail, because no one who has not done it can understand how truly awful it is, how long, hard, painful and hence - ultimately - uplifting, empowering, glorious... it actually is.

I could write a nuts-and-bolts account of what happened to my daughter Kim and me as we experienced the 2014 Last Annual Vol State Road Race. 'First we went here, then we went there. This is what we did and this is what we ate.' That would tell you something, but it would not explain the Vol State.

Let me try instead to just tell some stories...

- Chapter 1: "Dad? It's a really long way from where we left the van."
- Chapter 2: Sunshine
- Chapter 3: Abi
- Chapter 4: Creatures of the Night
- Chapter 5: Going Feral
- Chapter 6: The Problem of Pain
- Chapter 7: Road Angels
- Chapter 8: The Long March
- Chapter 9: Roadkill
- Chapter 10: A New Day
- Chapter 11: Diane
- Chapter 12: Despair Cannot be Scheduled
- Chapter 13: Bad Dog!
- Chapter 14: The 'McHenri Nation'
- Chapter 15: "How y'all doin'?"
- Chapter 16: Pampered Cheaters (or "Love Diane!")
- Chapter 17: Doubt vs. Destiny
- Chapter 18: Destiny
- Chapter 19: Denouement

"Dad? It's a really long way from where we left the van."

The course of the Last Annual Vol State Road Race

We had been riding for perhaps ten hours, with a couple of stops along the way. Our minivan - along with every vestige of what might be considered normal life (changes of clothes, elaborate toiletries, the ability to travel great distances, effortlessly, at will) - was some two hundred plus miles behind us, on Castle Rock Ranch, in Georgia, near the finish at "The Rock." Riding in a small bus, we had chugged and bumped over every inch of the road we would have to follow on foot on the return journey.

It was far.

Mile after mile, the Tennessee scenery had rolled by - farm after farm, house after house, town after town. Names I had come to know from several years of following the race scrolled by in reverse: Kimball, Jasper, Tracy City, Monteagle... Lewisburg, Columbia... there's the famous Hampshire Men's Club!

I had once facetiously told Kim, "No one ever gets to Hohenwald," because the stretch of the course leading there has the reputation of feeling interminably long. We started joking that Hohenwald didn't actually exist, and started referring to it as 'the mythical Hohenwald.' Kim slept through it on the way out, preserving the illusion.

We were fortunate to have John Price on our bus. Throughout the day he maintained a running commentary.

"There's a soda machine on the side of that garage."
"This convenience store opens at 5:00 AM."
"There's a water spigot on the back of that church."
"This cemetery is a good place to take a nap."

Any of this might prove useful. Kim and I would be running in the division of the race that Vol Staters call 'screwed' - that is, unsupported by a crew following us in a vehicle loaded with supplies and offering a ready shelter from heat or storms. A timely source of water could save us from miles of doing without - could even conceivably save our race.

I tried to take it all in, but there was so much! Town after town, it all blurred together. I only hoped that some of it would come back when we got to these places - if we got to these places. Well, we would have John's book with us on the road at least. Not quite like having the man himself, but it contained most of what he was telling us. The visual cues I was gathering on the bus ride would give some reality and substance to the simple words in the book, I hoped.

As the miles rolled by, the weight of them slowly accumulated in my soul. It was so far! The demeanor of the others on the bus seemed strikingly normal given what we were actually doing. It was not much different from any other long bus ride I've taken. Some were chatty and upbeat, some quiet and thoughtful. Many napped from time to time. Everyone seemed relaxed, and I suppose Kim and I did too. I guess if you're the type to wilt before the thing even gets properly underway you'd never have gotten on that bus to begin with. Still, I wonder what makes people get on it? What makes people get on it a second time, knowing just how far it actually is? Kim and I at least had cluelessness as a defense of our sanity - though I increasingly questioned it as the weight of the miles accumulated in my soul.

I think we were headed toward Gleason when Kim's comment seemed to sum up the trip.

"Dad? its' a really long way from where we left the van."


It was the first time since way back when she'd first started talking about doing the race with me that I had the sense that my daughter understood the magnitude of the Vol State - and neither of us truly understood it yet.


Waiting for the ferry to leave Hickman
(Photo credit - Brad Compton)
One of my favorite shots of Kim.
A lot of cool people in the background, too.
What a glorious, beautiful morning when the ferry left the dock! Kim and I were so ready - still nervous, of course, but ready - eager to set our feet on the long road, and for the adventure to begin!

"It'll feel good to get on our feet tomorrow," we'd agreed by the end of the long bus ride the previous day. We would have a good guffaw remembering that conversation later.

At 7:30 in the morning the sun is pleasant and cheery. Magic is happening - you're riding the ferry! You've seen pictures. You've imagined yourself here. You're standing among legends, names you've only read about before as you've followed the race - now connected to faces, voices, even developing friends. Everyone is smiling.

I peeled the four dollar bills we would need for the ferry ride (a dollar each way for each of us) from the bundle of ones carefully stashed in a ziplock bag in my pack. I had about $25 worth and didn't know whether it would be enough. How much do you need if you have to live off vending machines for ten days? We each had about $5.00 worth of quarters too - the second-heaviest single items we carried after water.

I handed the ferryman two dollars and we got on board. Soon we were chugging across the Mississippi River toward Dorena Landing, Missouri.

Dorena Landing! The name was enough to raise my pulse! Meaningless to almost everyone in the country (and probably even to most Missourians) it appears on every bit of 'promotional' material for the Vol State. The race begins at Dorena Landing, Missouri.

When we got there it proved to be nothing but a break in the riverbank vegetation, where a deserted strip of road came down to the water's edge. Still, it felt like hallowed ground, and I felt like we really didn't belong there - computer Dad and his little slip of a girl - among all of these 'real' ultrarunners. What had we been thinking?

And yet there was nowhere else I'd rather have been right then than standing in the sunshine on the bank of the Mississippi in Dorena Landing, Missouri! I'd let either fear or just simple inertia keep me from pursuing many dreams in my lifetime - but not on this day. This day I stood, in fear and trembling, in a place I'd only pictured before in dreams. Soon the cigarette would be lit and the impossible would be happening - I would be running the Vol State!

The cupped hand, the bowed head, the puff of smoke - images only before seen in still photos or internet video, now burned directly, indelibly into memory. Only Gary Cantrell - Laz - could come up with the notion of starting a race by lighting up a Camel - and somehow make it seem perfect - no, iconic. Sixty-five runners streamed past him, walking or jogging the short 50 yards back onto the ferry.

Laz gives last minute 'instructions' to the largest Vol State field ever.
Kim and I can be seen in the second row of runners - just above Laz's head.
(Photo credit - Jan Redmond Walker)
I paid the other two dollars and we got back on board, in short order chugging slowly across the river once again, returning to Hickman, Kentucky where we'd left - only now the clock was running, and the race was on! It is such a bizarre start. Laz likes to joke that those three miles on the ferry are among the fastest, easiest miles anyone will get in the race - but it is no joke. Kim and I chose a spot in the bow, along with Paul Heckert. We each took a turn holding an arm out over the railing. It would be the only time any of us led the race.

The ferry lands, the gate goes down, and sixty-five runners stream off the boat under the morning sunshine. Some run, some walk. The elite disappear, never to be seen again by the likes of computer Dad and his little slip of a girl. We walk and we jog a bit. There is the usual slow jockeying, the working out of relative positions within the pack. Within a day or three the 'pack' will be spread out over a hundred miles or more and each runner will be lucky to see another at any point in the race. As far as I know, Kim and I are unique in our commitment to travel together throughout.

We enjoy the tour through Hickman, the first of many towns to come. I begin the never-ending process of navigating the course. Mike Melton, crewing for someone, is positioned at one of the turns, pointing the way. It seems bizarre to encounter a 'road marshall' in the Vol State. He would be the last.

Kim starting the climb up from the river in Hickman
It isn't until we begin the climb to the overlook that the truth starts to sink in. It is still early morning, and the sun is hot. "The sun is not your friend," Laz had said. Lending its cheerful morning light to the excitement of the start of the adventure, it had fooled us. Climbing out of Hickman we began to understand.

Kim poses with a box turtle we found on the road out of Hickman.
Don't ask about the sock.
Most of the runners passed us while we were messing around with this and we never saw them again!
Our third state already! Must be 3/5 done, right?
Don't ask about the sock again.
By the time we'd crossed the broad, open spaces between Hickman, Kentucky and Union City, Tennessee we understood all too well! Clothes drenched with sweat, we'd first tried our hats and bandanas as sun shields, then quickly moved to our big guns - our umbrellas - in an effort to hide from the relentless, baking sunshine. Two New York Yankees with almost no chance to heat acclimate before the race - what were we doing here again? What had we been thinking? By Union City we knew we were into something for sure. By Martin we knew we needed a different strategy.

Sunshine had become our greatest enemy.


Abi Meadows enjoys her time on the 'thrown' at the finish.
(Photo credit - John Price)
They say the Vol State is a family. "If you step on that ferry, you're family," we were told. We would learn early what that meant and just how true it is.

Abi is a force of nature. That may be cliche, but it is also quite true. A heck of a runner, she didn't belong near the back of the pack with Kim and me, but she was having a tough year, coming into the race at the tail end of some kind of cold or flu, and she was taking it slowly for her.

I'd noticed her the day before on the bus ride. She was hard not to notice. Very easy on the eyes, as they say - and dressed with quite a flair. She ran in a slinky purple dress and a straw cowboy hat! When you talk to Abi you mostly just listen, and you will soon know a lot about her. Also, within a couple of meetings we were convinced that if the situation legitimately called for her to pull a rabbit out her little running pack, Abi could do it. There was no problem we had (and even some we didn't) that Abi couldn't solve and wasn't eager to solve!

We'd first really met her at the convenience store on the way into Union City. At that encounter we'd somehow gotten onto the topic of butt chafing and lube (a very natural thing for ultrarunners to talk about). We didn't have any problem with it and so far were satisfied with the way our 50/50 Desitin/Vaseline mix was working. Nevertheless, Abi told us all about 'Calmoseptine,' something she'd been using that was working really well for her - and she gave us a couple of spare foil packets of it to try if we wanted to.

We didn't catch up to her again before she left the Subway, and I thought we might have seen the last of her, but we got past her without knowing it on the way to Martin. We stopped at a sporting goods store that was known to have vending machines inside and to welcome Vol State runners to rest in the air conditioning. I was just setting to work trying to do something about a couple of blisters Kim was developing (after checking with the staff at the store to make sure it was ok to get into something that involved in their little sitting area) - when in walked Abi!

She had stopped at a car repair shop that I'd noticed a short way back up the course. It didn't look like a place to stop to me, but apparently she'd just walked in there one year looking for shelter from the sun, got to be friendly with the guys working there, laid down on their floor for a while, and now they liked to see her stop by every year she ran the race.

Anyway, I'm there looking at Kim's blisters, pretty much deciding they weren't developed enough to do much about yet, and Abi starts explaining a technique known as 'wicking' a blister that involves using a needle and pulling a silk thread through the blister, leaving the ends dangling outside so that the thread wicks fluid out of the blister and prevents it from sealing back up. In short order we had one of Abi's spare needles and a good length of silk thread wrapped around one of our tincture of benzoin ampules.

Kim's socks were a little sub-par for this race too, and at the mention of just the slightest doubt about their suitability - whoosh! Out of Abi's pack came a pair of nice, cushioned, purple running socks. "Don't worry about it," she said, "they're spares somebody gave me and somehow I ended up with three of them." Kim would wear Abi's socks the rest of the race.

We bumped into her again in Dresden. She was coming through town just as we were getting ready to move out from there again. She bounded down the road ahead of us and disappeared (looking back at that image in my mind I would swear to you she was running in cowboy boots, but I know that isn't right).

Then we caught up to her again in Gleason, at the little cafe where we stopped for breakfast. She had stopped there too. That time she helped us order!

"What would you like to drink?" the table server asked. "Milk," Kim replied.

"...and orange juice," Abi added. Then, after a pause as we looked at her, "It's really good for you. You need the potassium."

We both had some orange juice.

Finally, on her way out she told us, "Text me when you're coming into Lexington. The hotel there is full and I just took the last room. If the timing is right you can have my room when I'm ready to leave."

Could Abi even pull a hotel room out of her pack for us? By then anything seemed possible!

Creatures of the Night

After the long, hot march to Martin we knew we wanted to take as much advantage of the nighttime hours for movement as possible. I wasn't happy about the prospect of doing the notoriously difficult navigation of Dresden at night, but I wanted nothing to do with moving through the worst heat of the day either!

The timing made sense for a shift to nocturnal movement anyway. Arriving at Martin in the evening, about the twelve-hour check-in time when we had to report progress to Laz or Carl, the race directors, it would make no sense to stop until morning before moving on again. Far too many hours to waste. After getting some food at the McDonald’s and settling into our room at the Econo Lodge, we set an alarm on Kim's phone for a few hours later.

Sleep is difficult during a multi-day race. Everything decides to ache as soon as you lie down and it’s nearly impossible to get comfortable. You’re keyed up – worried about whether you’ll oversleep, worried about the next cut-off. Kim has always been a light sleeper and this would plague her for much of the race. She got far less good sleep than me in general - but particularly at our shorter stops.

When the alarm went off we managed to get ourselves pulled together and out the door fairly quickly. We would get more efficient about gathering our things (and also less motivated to do so) each time we stopped further on. We left the room around midnight, hit the nearby convenience store for a few things, and then started out of town.

This time of night, leaving a town, was the most nervous time for me. The midnight streets of most towns belong in some part to some of the less-savory characters who live there. Little is open but for a few bars, and the few cars cruising the streets tend to come from there. The chance of encountering some gang of young drunks and having a problem is real. Then there are the police vehicles, also cruising, sometimes checking you out (as a couple of odd-looking, out-of-place pedestrians at that time of night) with the serious possibility that they might stop you and ask some questions. Martin definitely had that feel to it, and I did keep my eye on one car aimlessly cruising the blocks around the main street, music blaring.

It always felt better to me when we made it out of town, back onto the more lonely roads between towns - probably because I was raised in the country and just have never been a 'townie.' If anyone were to give you a problem out there beyond town it would probably be worse because you'd be so isolated - but the drunk young hooligans tend to stay in the towns near the sources of beer, and the few vehicles moving between towns at night tend to be people set on going somewhere: delivery trucks, shift workers headed home or to work, that sort of thing (or so I imagined).

If it came to any real trouble I had some pepper spray. It was primarily intended for dog defense, but obviously could be useful in a dangerous human encounter as well.

Most of the time it was just me and Kim out there on an empty road lit by a nearly-full moon. There were also the nighttime insect chorus, the fireflies, and the occasional pair of unidentifiable glowing eyeballs reflecting the light of our headlamps back at us from the road ahead - but mostly it felt like the world was ours as we slipped quietly down the road. There is a strange feeling of freedom about it.

Kim and I really bonded during those times alone together in the dead of night – vagabonds, sitting outside a closed business at 3:00 AM sipping sodas in the glow of the soda machine out front. We talked and laughed about many things in the quiet of those night marches - much of it forgotten now, just blurred into a warm memory of a new companionship growing between us.

The best thing about traveling at night though, is that you can pee almost anywhere - even if you're a girl! It's often the little things that mean the most at the Vol State.

So we approached the town of Dresden - peeing our way there. We had started out in great shape - both of us ready to go, feeling good - and we ran quite a bit. By the time we were nearing the town though, Kim was starting to really drag. Her feet were hurting her pretty badly. We were resolved to get to the new farmer's market we had heard about on the far side of town before stopping to rest though. It was reputed to have bathrooms and vending machines - and water for refilling our packs.

I was looking for the tricky first turn that would take us off the highway and toward the center of town, but it seemed to never come, and we worried we would miss it in the dark. Finally I spotted the veterinary clinic and the Budweiser plant that John Price had pointed out as landmarks to look for, and then we found Ben Herron's first road marking pointing the way - so far, so good. It was very early in the morning (still dark) as we made our way through town, trying to follow the rest of the markings. We got tangled up a little bit on a couple of turns because the markings weren't close enough to the left side of the road where we were walking to be able see them easily.

Eventually we made it to the brightly-lit farmer's market, just past the turn onto Evergreen St. Kim was exhausted and in pain and it was imperative that we take a good long break there. We found the bathrooms locked - disappointing, but not a show-stopping problem. The Gatorade machine worked and we got our first taste of that in the race. Neither of us drink much Gatorade normally, but it does go good on the Vol State.

We took our shoes and socks off, sat and rested and watched the dawn break. Knowing sunshine was not our friend, and that we had miles to make if we were going to set ourselves up for good second-day mileage before we took a long break again, I was anxious to get moving - but had to give Kim the time she needed.

That night's march would prove to be the first of many. The following night we would leave the town of McKenzie at around midnight and trek through Huntingdon and most of the way to Clarksburg before first light. I enjoyed the nighttime approach to Huntingdon. The town is nicely lit with some old-fashioned looking three-globed streetlights. We got tangled up in the town square there too - pretty unbelievable because the route through it was just straight across from where you enter it. I was trying to follow signs for route 22 though, and those direct the car traffic around counterclockwise - and then fail to adequately indicate where to leave the square! We almost ended up on the wrong side of some railroad tracks with a train coming.

Other night marches would include Lexington to Parsons, Parsons to Linden, Hohenwald to Hampshire, Lewisburg to Shelbyville, Wartrace to Manchester, Pelham to Tracy City, and Kimball to The Rock. To some degree we became increasingly at home as nocturnal creatures of Tennessee, and to some extent the lonely night hours wore on us psychologically. It is very isolating.

The worst of that came on the march from Lewisburg to Shelbyville. We were well into middle Tennessee by then, and had been conditioned to be on constant alert for aggressive dogs - having just had our second serious bad dog encounter on the way out of Lewisburg. At night when a dog goes off at your presence you can't immediately tell whether it is tied, or fenced in - or coming straight out into the road after you. You have to be very careful and keep looking over your shoulder until you are well past the property. It is tense, and you feel very alone and vulnerable.

That was the coldest night of the race, too. When we had to rest, we spent an hour or two in the gazebo of the town cemetery in Wheel, huddling together, wrapped up in anything we could get around us for warmth. Neither of us slept really well there, but we did sleep a little. That morning, for the first time since the race started, we looked forward to the dawn and the heat of the sun eagerly, watching the eastern horizon, waiting for the warm glow of its first direct rays to reach us as we continued on toward Shelbyville.

I wonder if any of the real creatures of the night ever get lonely, ever long for the day? Perhaps Kim and I had been fooling ourselves and were only pretenders.

Going Feral

At first it feels really strange wandering around a deserted town square in the middle of the night. It makes you feel like some sort of two-legged alley cat that’s crept out of whatever hiding place it spent the day in and is now on the prowl after rats and mice. After a while though, you get used to doing strange things, and they no longer feel so strange. The Vol State requires to some degree that you ‘go feral’ (credit for that description goes to King Dan 'Feral' Fox, winner of the race in 2012). For screwed runners, the race is just easier in many ways if you let go of some of your arbitrary notions of what is ‘civilized’ or acceptable.

Among the first things to go are personal hygiene and your notion of what a human being should smell like. Early in the race we had a pretty elaborate routine we went through when we stopped at a motel. On arrival, we took turns in the bathroom. We would strip, wash out our reeking clothes in the tub with bath soap, ring them out and hang them to dry. Then we'd shower and wrap in a towel long enough to get under the covers of our respective beds. Usually Kim went first and I'd follow - and I'd usually do a second, more thorough wringing of her things with my stronger man-hands to improve the odds of her stuff actually drying while we rested.

It didn’t take too many days to begin to realize the futility in all that. Our RailRiders shirts dried pretty well. Other things, not as much - but it really didn't matter. Whether from rain, sweat or both our clothes would be wet again within an hour whenever we got back out on the road anyway. Kim came up with a new test of whether you're an optimist or a pessimist: "Are your socks 'mostly dry' or 'slightly wet?'"

There was nothing that could be done for our packs. There was no way we were going to empty everything out of them and try to wash them out at any point along the way. Mine just got stiffer as the race went on, conformed to my shape like a piece of custom body armor.

A few days into the race, when things were starting to get really hard, it no longer seemed to make sense to spend much time trying to clean our clothes or our bodies. Time at a motel could be much better spent sleeping! I just tried not to think too much about what my only pair of underwear must be like after days of my personal skank mingled with butt lube. As long as there was no chafing down there anything else could be cleaned up later.

Early on you are very aware that you smell bad and you tend to apologize for it when approaching, say, the checkout counter at a convenience store. After a while you forget (or your olfactory receptors become fatigued and desensitized) and you walk around smelling like road kill, but acting just like you’re anybody normal – and then you’re puzzled by the occasional odd look you get.

Modesty was another race casualty. Obviously there are proprieties that a father and daughter feel need to be preserved when living together on the road and in motels. Still, the normal level of that got compromised a bit. Underwear is, after all, an effective covering even if it’s technically not meant to be seen by others. Ordinarily a young lady doesn’t hang her butt out to pee in the presence of her father – but what if you need to use him as part of your privacy screen? Occasional mishaps occur and it is, after all, just a butt.

After a while there is no desire to take so much as a single extra step for the sake of privacy, nor to waste time taking turns in the convenient off-road spot secluded enough to avoid exposing yourself to the ‘muggles’ passing by in their cars. It’s just, “Okay, you squat there and I’ll turn my back and pee over here.”

A while after that you no longer care so much about the muggles. You start making calls like, “Ah, I’ll probably be done before another car comes along – and, really, they've probably seen someone peeing alongside the road before anyway.” Or else, “Well, I don't think they'll be able to see all that much, I don’t know those people, and they’ll never see me again anyway.”

Corn fields are the sought-after bathroom facilities between the towns! There’s usually a weed-free access path to them via a tractor road, the rows provide ‘separate stalls’ for privacy, and the pesticides used on the corn probably make for very low odds of getting infested with chiggers. On top of that the items you (ahem) leave behind add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil – good for the corn and a win-win, says I! No possible pathogens would survive the high-temperature processing used to make high-fructose corn syrup anyway, so please have no fear – and drink that next Coca Cola with confidence!

Now a porta-john anywhere along the way – well, the only thing you’re missing there is an attendant with hot towels! We used a porta-john in a vacant lot on the way out of Martin. It was way too dark to see what it was like inside, but it smelled okay, so good enough! Kim used one porta-john that had been sitting where it was for so long that it was embedded in the vegetation with vines growing inside. She said it was very aesthetically pleasing. The one nice thing about the long stretch of road construction between Hohenwald and Hampshire was the regular access to porta-johns.

On it goes. In general, ‘going feral’ means dramatically lowering your own standards and having fewer inhibitions based on what civilized people might think about what you're doing.

It means eating just about whatever crappy food you can find when you’re hungry – even old, cold McDonald’s French fries that have been carried in your sweaty shorts pocket for fifteen miles. It means growling back at angry dogs. It means being able to curl up on a rock and take a little nap. It means being willing to try the spigots on the outside of homes or churches when you’re desperate for water, it means napping in cemeteries because they’re quiet, or on church porches because folks there probably should be nice enough not to run off a tired ‘homeless’ person in need of a little rest. It means that abandoned houses and old shacks falling into ruins look like good places to maybe bed down for a while.

It also means wandering through towns in the dead of night like an alley cat on the prowl for rats or mice – hoping that no one notices you passing and feeling ready to bolt when someone does. To a certain extent going feral is a choice, and things become easier when you make that choice – but to a certain extent going feral just happens whether you choose it or not, and you’d better be prepared to accept that if you’re going to do the Vol State!

The Problem of Pain

Kim struggles with breakfast at the cafe in Gleason.
This being the third town where she'd arrived in great pain,
getting motivated for the next march to McKenzie was very hard.
Kim knew that Vol State was going to hurt. She didn't need me to tell her that, but I had told her anyway - in as many ways as I could. She knew she was under-trained. She knew it was not just an ultra, but one of the more monumental ultras out there that she was biting off. Kim is stubborn though. She tried to mentally prepare herself to just accept that pain would be a part of the experience and to build her resolve to continue anyway.

"If there's no bone showing keep going." So goes one of the nuggets of Vol State wisdom.

Kim had been convinced that her knee that always gave her problems would be a constant unwelcome companion in the Vol State that she would have to grit her teeth and bear. It seems almost nothing about the Vol State can be accurately predicted though. After a bit of complaining early the first day, her knee was fine, and would remain so throughout the race! It was her feet that proved to be the real problem.

"My feet hurt."

I first heard this on the way out of Union City, I think - definitely by the time we got to Martin - the first day. That aspect of it would be part of what made it hard for her to take. There is, of course, the reality of the actual pain vs. the mere concept of it. It is easy to steel your will against the concept of pain. Quite apart from the reality of it though, she felt a sense of betrayal. She had prepared herself to deal with pain that would start later in the race - not on the first day!

As the days wore on and the excruciating pain in the balls of her feet continued to make her suffer, she became more and more frustrated. When she took off her shoes she thought her feet should at least look bloody and bruised, twisted and torn - something - but they looked just fine!

"There's nothing wrong with you!! Why are you hurting me so much!?"

We slowly learned the parameters and the limitations that Kim's pain placed on us. When we left Martin for Dresden she felt pretty good - so we ran and walked just as we had the day before. Soon the pain started again and steadily worsened as the miles added up. By the time we reached Dresden she was dying to stop and get off her feet again for a while! She was always okay for a while after a break - maybe good for ten miles or so after a long break - but then the pain would return and build, and by the time the miles mounted up toward twenty she was in agony and her ability to deal with it was reaching its limit.

It sounds hard to believe, reading this section, but we did have good times
out on the road - even in the midst of some of the darkest times.
Here Kim is near the railroad tunnel just past Dresden en-route to Gleason.
This felt like a real milestone because it was a place we had stopped for
a break on the bus ride. We felt like we'd made real progress in the race here.
Morning mist on the fields near that spot. We didn't miss the beauty.
By the time we'd reached Gleason she was dying again, and seriously questioning whether she could even make it to McKenzie. Dawn having come way back in Dresden, the day was well-advanced by the time we left the cafe where we had breakfast, meaning that we now had heat to deal with too. It was an awful, painful march. Kim started insisting on stops at places we could sit for a while and get her off her feet. It helped, but only so much.

I was growing in admiration for her courage each time Kim forced herself to go on - but it hurts a Dad too, something terribly, to see his little girl suffering as she was. Still I had trouble letting go of my notion of 'good pacing' and accepting all of the stops she wanted to make. On the marches to Gleason and McKenzie I was still pushing. Before the race, Laz had said to us, "You'll need to go at the pace of the stronger one." It seemed like very good advice until I was the stronger one and it was my little girl struggling.

Kim found a spot for us to stop on the road to McKenzie that came with its own food supply!
This was the first time we spread out our ground cloths and took a real break mid-march.
We enjoyed the blackberries.
By the time we left McKenzie for the night march to Huntingdon my own resolve was worn to tatters from watching her trudge nearly in tears into each destination. We would go at her pace. We would stop when she needed to stop. The only times I pushed after that were when I was sure we were 'near' a place of real rest, where we intended to stop for several hours. "Let's just get to the motel, Bimbe, then you can really rest."

By that attitude, I betrayed her more than once! It turns out towns are big - I had no idea!

That sounds like a flippant remark, but I'm serious! One of the lessons of the Vol State for modern Americans totally reliant on the automobile is that 'near' is such a relative concept. During the Vol State, arrival in towns works like this: first (after what seems like forever wandering in the nowhere between towns) you pass a sign that says, "Foo-ville City Limit." The first couple of times this happens you get excited. Then you learn: it will be at least three more miles from there before you get to anything that looks at all like a town - maybe as much as five miles.

Next comes the "Reduced Speed 55" sign. You didn't realize the speed limit was higher on that tween-town highway! Remain calm; there is still a long way to go. "Reduced Speed 45" starts to mean something. You can get a little bit excited when you see that. It will still probably be a mile or two before you get to the fancy, "Welcome to Foo-ville, Home of the Winners" sign, with the Kiwanis and Lions Club logos on it which means you've arrived at the part of the town somebody cares about beautifying. Usually you also finally get to the "Reduced Speed 30" sign at about the same time. At that point you might be less than a mile from a gas station and convenience store where (if it's open) you can get in, sit down for a while, get a drink or something to eat - you might be.

Whatever - the motel you are aiming for is four miles past that, on the way out the other side of town. It is always four miles, no more, but certainly no less. They will be the longest four miles of your life - until the next town. Those will be longer.

After surviving Clarksburg we were walking the dreaded four more miles to the motel in Parker's Crossroad. It was too much. All we could do was keep going and get there, but I led my little girl into that town literally weeping behind me. We stopped at the Subway - the first place we could get in off the road, and she just sat at a table and cried. I'm not sure what the woman working the counter thought about it. I got Kim a sweet tea and just sat with her while she slowly worked through the breakdown and pulled herself together a little. Then I patiently explained my plan to her.

The better motel was just across the interstate from where we were. There was another one closer on this side, but we'd been told it had uncomfortable beds. We had no reservation at either. I would call the one across the interstate to make sure we could have a room there before we took another step! If they had no room I'd try the closer one. Then we could stop at the convenience store next-door to the Subway and get some drinks and food for the room and we could walk just that little bit more and we'd be done. Would that be alright? She said that it would.

The better motel did have a room. Kim was miserable as we hit the store and then walked over the interstate on the bridge. Only another Vol Stater, I think, can really appreciate what it means to take so many more steps in so much pain - simply because you have absolutely no other reasonable choice!

Coming into the race - with Kim such an ultra neophyte - my guess as to the absolute farthest we would go was Lexington - the next town down-course from Parker's Crossroad - another ten miles. Checking into the America's Best Value that morning, I was pretty sure our race would actually end right there.

It would turn out Kim had more strength than either of us knew.

Road Angels

Tennessee hospitality - such an integral part of the Vol State! The race touts it, counts on it in fact, and every year there are many stories of runners (particularly screwed runners) being saved from difficult situations by the "road angels."

'Screwed' (unsupported) runners may not accept aid from anyone associated with the race except other screwed runners who have also traveled to the point where aid is rendered, from the start, on foot. Screwed runners may not get into a vehicle except when ordered to do so by law enforcement. They can, however, accept just about any other aid offered by strangers not associated with the race, and it is noteworthy how often such aid is offered!

We encountered our first road angels even before we got to Union City. John Price had pointed out a soda machine at a Fastenal hardware store - the first opportunity for any resupply after leaving Hickman. When Kim and I spotted it and headed across the lawn to the front of the store we found not only the soda machine but a cooler full of free, cold water bottles, the front door open, and John Price himself sitting in a comfortable folding chair in the air conditioning! The two young men minding the store that day had taken it upon themselves to set up a little impromptu aid station!

Later on there was the kindness of the people at the sporting goods store between Union City and Martin. They let us stay in their small sitting area, cooling off, drinking our sodas, and taking care of Kim's blisters, then gladly allowed us the use of their restrooms - as if that was just one more reason they were there.

As we started into the outskirts of Martin, approaching a church on the left, a man moved toward the street up the church driveway. He turned out to be a resident of a house across the street (and a member of a different church) who had noticed the runners coming through on a very hot day. His freezer was filled with two-liter soda bottles filled with ice and he'd loaded up a bunch of them and taken them across the street to offer ice water to everyone else coming through. His name was James Kirk, his friends called him 'Captain' (of course) and Kim and I got a real kick out of having been saved by "Captain Kirk."

By the time we got into Gleason runners had been coming through there for quite some time. One local woman, also named Kim, had embraced the race whole-hog! We met her just on the edge of town, her SUV parked on the side of the road with the back hatch open, offering drinks and snacks, and asking the runners for their names so she could follow our progress down the course. She soon 'friended' me on Facebook and indeed offered us encouragement online all the way to the end!

We were in really bad shape coming into McKenzie. Kim was in pain, it was hot, we were both exhausted, and all we wanted to do was get to the motel, get a room and go down for some rest through the rest of the heat of the day. Foolishly (not yet knowing the 'bird-in-hand' rule for screwed runners in the Vol State) we had bypassed all of the convenience stores en-route to the motel, certain that there would be something near there where we could get some drinks and snacks. There was nothing. To make matters worse, when I asked the proprietor for a room he said that none were available, but that he might have one after 3:00 PM if we were willing to wait.

It was barely past 1:00, but we had little choice but to wait. Noticing our condition (we must have looked awful - I know we smelled awful) he told us we were welcome to wait in the cool of his tiny little lobby! Kim laid out on the small couch and I sat on the desk chair at the computer desk. In another moment the proprietor came out to give us two bottles of cold water - and a little after that, two bags of potato chips! Then he went into action to see if he could get us a room right away. A housekeeper he sent to check on one of the rooms came back reporting that it appeared the previous occupants had left. He set her immediately to turning the room around and told us we could have it in ten minutes. When I asked about food nearby he said Dominos pizza would deliver. In a few short moments he had solved all our problems, and we were so grateful for all he had done!

Sometimes it wasn't what the road angels gave you or did for you, it was just a few moments of warmth and friendship shared that took your mind off your troubles for a little while. I remember the 'good-ole-boys' at the Amoco in Clarksburg, where we stopped for a little breakfast. Just your typical morning regulars at such a place, they shared their long table at the back of the store with Kim and me, plying us with questions about what we were doing and kidding around with us. One of the paunchiest of them told us he was going to start training and join us next year.

One of the neatest road angel encounters happened on the way into Lexington. We were walking down the road well out of town where some housing had just started appearing when we passed a modest, double-wide mobile home. A group of people was sitting out in the front yard. It was getting late into the evening and the heat of the day had dissipated much by that time. The people greeted us and waved for us to come into the yard and have a cold drink. We hesitated, then decided to do so. It appeared to be an extended Hispanic family. Their English was marginal and we knew almost no Spanish, but we managed to communicate well enough anyway. First they offered me a Bud Light but, trying to explain that wouldn't work well given how much further we planned to go, I asked for one of their Coca Colas instead. Kim and I each took one. The older man - obviously the patriarch of the family - vacated his chair and beckoned for me to sit down.

We talked a little, as best we could. They were able to ask their questions about what we were doing and how we managed on the road. I hated that I had to be a little cautious when they asked about how we bought things - whether we had money. I said (truthfully) that I had a credit card. There were a couple of very young boys with the group - maybe six years old - and the men were having fun teasing them that they were going to send them along with us when we left. Finally, one of the younger men looked at me earnestly and asked, "Why you do this?"

It was then I remembered one sentence of Spanish I knew that would be the perfect response. "Loco en la cabeza," I said (crazy in the head).

There was a bit of a pause while everyone registered that I had replied in Spanish, then a lot of laughter! "Loco en la cabeza!" the old man guffawed, slapping a knee.

We soon finished our Cokes, begged leave and thanked them for their kindness ("gracias" being one other useful bit of Spanish in my repertoire). Moving on down the road, we found a tennis ball lying in the rain gutter. At first we thought to pick it up and take it along as a toy for the road (I like to bounce a ball as I walk or run sometimes) but as we picked it up we heard yelling from behind. The two little boys were out at the edge of the yard near the road yelling something after us that we couldn't make out. It occurred to us then that perhaps the ball belonged to them - or in any case, that they might appreciate it more than we did. In one of the few instances in which I voluntarily walked backward on the course I retraced my steps uphill until I got within sight of the yard. The boys had returned to the group by then and I had to get their attention. I held up the ball and they seemed to respond positively and eagerly so I tossed it to them, waved, and turned down-course once more.

We moved on down the road with a warm, happy feeling that lasted for quite a while.

There were many other instances of kindness along the road. A bottle of Gatorade pressed into our hands here, some cold bottles of water there. Another hotel proprietor handing us free bottled water and personally escorting us to our room. A convenience store proprietor offering ice and inviting us to stay and rest and cool off for as long as we needed. A building supply store letting us use their bathrooms and giving us free bottled water. An auto parts store glad to let us take shelter from a thunderstorm, also offering us water. A man inviting all of the runners into his yard to fill our packs and bottles from the tap on the side of the house serving up the tastiest pure, cold spring water I have ever enjoyed! A mother and daughter, cruising up and down the course with lemonade and fresh fruit - best grapes I've ever eaten!

There was Steve, on the outskirts of Jasper - practically a Vol State groupie, he had been following the race from the beginning and knew who we were by name when he saw us. He had cold drinks at the end of his driveway, and when Kim said what she really needed at that point was a bathroom he immediately invited us into his home. What a pleasure to sit and talk with him about the race for little while!

Along the way I made a correlation. Some will surely think me wrong - perhaps even be offended by the observation - but I think I am right. The south is known for hospitality, and the kindness to the Vol State runners shown by so many Tennesseans is remarkable - stunningly so to people from New York, like Kim and me. There is something else that is strikingly different about rural Tennessee. It seems like there is a Baptist church about every two miles or so all along the Vol State course. I have no idea how many "First Baptist Churches" we passed, but it was many! I do not think the Tennessee hospitality and the deep Christian roots and ongoing influence there are unrelated. Many of these people are probably just living out Mark 9:41:

"For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward."

Kim and I also firmly believe that we did not walk that long road across Tennessee alone - even when we were alone. As we were stripped down and pushed beyond our strength and beyond what we believed we could bear, we leaned more and more upon our God, whose strength can accomplish anything.

"And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Cor 12:9-10

Some of the times I most cherish from our journey together were our devotional times, once each day, when we prayed and read the Bible passages that Kim carried along for that purpose.

I'm certain we had road angels that couldn't be seen.

The Long March

Going at Kim's pace was beginning to put us in trouble with Oprah.

"'Oprah,' you ask?

Yes, Oprah (and, yes, that Oprah). The Vol State requires you to average 31.4 miles per day if you are to finish within the ten-day time limit. There is some leeway for falling behind that pace, but not much. From the fastest runners to the slowest, the field strings out very far, and at some point the length of it becomes unmanageable for the race directors. They like to lay eyes on every runner at least once a day, if possible, and the amount of driving involved becomes untenable. Anyone who falls behind the 31.4 miles per day pace risks getting pulled from the race. On the online race map that shows everyone's position (maintained each year by Mike Dobies as a voluntary contribution to the race) cutoff pace is represented by a figure of the Grim Reaper. Laz, ever the more colorful and with a style all his own, recast the Grim Reaper a few years ago as 'Oprah.'

"You know who Oprah is," he had once explained. "She is the spectre that trails the pack at the Vol State. She is the 'real' world - where celebrity is the most important thing, and there are no lonely figures alongside the road, chasing dreams."

We had put Oprah a goodly number of miles behind us in the first twenty-four hours, but at our new, slower pace we were beginning to give those miles back. Worries about this began to plague Kim. She was so committed to the race! Hurting as she was, she was constantly aware of our 'Oprah bank' and what our movement decisions would do to it. When we stopped at the motels for sleep she would toss and turn, fretting over Oprah rather than getting the sleep she badly needed. Add that on top of fighting the pain, and it inevitably set up a downhill slide.

I had no idea what to expect from her when we woke up at Parker's Crossroad. After the painful, tearful arrival there I thought we would be done. Eighty-two miles in two days was enough - a pretty impressive performance for an ultra newbie, and farther than some have gotten on their first Vol State attempts. We had gotten a good taste of the experience and pride would be served (a ride in the 'Seat of Disgrace' notwithstanding). We could go home.

Oprah would soon be coming into town (she was about three miles behind us) and the way we moved we were pretty sure she would catch us eventually.

The decision to go on was all Kim's. My 'Daddy instincts' were just too powerful for me to be the one pushing her to go out for more torture - and my Daddy pride swelled in my chest as, with nearly the first words out of her mouth, she said that we had to go! She didn't want to just throw the race to Oprah. Oprah would have to catch her and drag her off the course! "Alright then," I said, and we gathered our things to go.

So began one of the most miserable marches of our race.

We left Parker's Crossroad a little before the 60-hour check-in, at which time they put us at 84 miles (five and a half ahead of Oprah). The timing was about like we'd planned. We were into some of the hottest days of the race, and even after 6:00 PM the residual heat of the day was oppressive. It was less than ten miles to Lexington but they seemed to take forever - and Lexington was one of the worst of those 'long' towns where you start seeing signs of an imminent arrival but never actually get there.

When we arrived (finally!) at the center of town and the turn onto route 412 (a major milestone on the course - where it turns fully east for the first time) businesses were already closing. We thought there was a McDonald's off-course to the right, but we couldn't see it when we turned that way and wouldn't risk traveling far off-course not knowing it was there. Bird-in-hand! We turned back to the Little General gas-and-grocery on the left just before the turn.

This time, I could eat half a sandwich and Kim did better. I was glad to see her getting in some calories. Up to this point in our race, I really felt like Kim was having the full Vol State experience and I was just watching. That would change later this night.

We moved on down the course. I had that unsettling vulnerable feeling again as we worked our way out of town. The cars going by on city streets when I'm walking at night just seem somehow menacing to me - I suppose because there was a time in my life when I was with the drunk hooligans (who am I kidding - I was one of the drunk hooligans) so I really know what's possible.

By the time we reached the Little General at mile 92 - the last place heading out of town - Kim needed the bathroom again. I thought I might get a cup of coffee, as I was starting to feel sleepy, but it was almost midnight, they were near closing, and the coffee stuff had been put up for the day. We had six minutes to sit in the cool and rest before they closed (it was still very hot and humid outside even then). The two ladies running the place were very nice, but it seemed obvious they thought we were absolutely out of our minds for what we were doing. One of them became the first of many to warn us to be careful out there on the roads because, "We've got all kinds of idiots driving around here."

Leaving there, we struck out on one of the longest, loneliest, toughest stretches of night march we would do, crossing a lot of seemingly empty marshland. We were aiming for one of the motels in Parsons, the first of which we would not reach until mile 106.

The road here seemed so dark! Kim continued to insist on regular stops to rest her feet. I knew she needed them, but I still wasn't happy about stopping. We'd been told there were 'no' mosquitoes in Tennessee, but there were here in the marshlands and they attacked us with gusto every time we sat down on the side of the road. I was fighting sleep the whole way, but unable to really get any at our little stops because of the bugs. I just wanted to keep trudging.

Kim ran our schedule though. It was always her insisting that we, "stop here," and it was always her deciding, "OK, let's get moving again." This night, I was just an exhausted, brain-dead zombie tagging along behind her. Kim set the pace. She was learning to manage her foot pain and I was just there - but even through my personal fog I was still so proud of her!

By the time we reached Chesterfield (mile 98 or so) Kim thought we should go down for a real rest. As we approached what looked like a school on the left we noticed a person sitting at the end of the driveway - John Rasmussen! It had been a while since we had seen him last (on the road to McKenzie, I think). We exchanged just a few words, then Kim and I picked a spot on the front lawn of the school - the Pin Oak Elementary. Our spot was shadowed by two of what must have been the school's namesake trees. For the first time we went all out - spreading our Tyvek ground cloths, getting out our emergency space blankets to cover us, and using our packs for pillows.

It was a miserable attempt at sleep, but we got a little. It was warm and humid, and the space blankets would stick to our skin. Mine made me too hot, but I still needed it to keep the mosquitoes off - some. The usual discomfort of lying down meant a lot of rolling on the ground with a lot of crinkling of the space blankets to go with it. I don't think I ever did better than doze a little and I don't know if Kim did any better than that. Still it was rest, and it is truly amazing what even a little of it can do for you in a multi-day race.

We were roused by the noise of a couple of cars and some voices. Two vehicles had apparently arranged to meet at the school in the dark hours of the morning before dawn. Noticing us, one of them cruised by in front of the school to check us out - not stopping as we hurriedly packed up our sleeping gear and made ready to leave. Once again, human encounters on the road at night are the most unnerving. I looked for John, and it appeared that he had moved on.

My marginal rest did more for me than Kim's did for her. I bounced back a good bit more than she did. Still, she was calling the shots. I'd have been content to aim for one of the early motels in Parsons. Kim insisted that we needed to go for the last one - at mile 110 - to give us a head start on Oprah for the 'next day' after we rested (next days were often actually nights). That choice set up one of those miserable four-mile finishing marches through town to the Pine Tree Inn.

By the time we'd made it to the outskirts of Parsons I was definitely better. The combination of some pathetic sleep and dawn's light had me alert and moving pretty well. It was my turn to set the pace again. At some point I made the observation that we had a division of labor: Kim got us out of the towns and I got us in. She says she didn't cry again coming into Parsons, but that's not how I remember it. Maybe she didn't actually cry. Maybe it was just a few of the little, involuntary whimpers that had preceded the weeping coming into Parker's Crossroad (Kim says they weren't exactly involuntary. "I could have not whimpered if I wanted to. It just felt better to vent a bit."). In any case, my daughter was hurting and my heart was breaking for her again as I did my best to get us to the motel, trying to identify encouraging landmarks along the way. It seemed like The Pine Tree Inn would never come.

We made it to the motel at about 9:30 AM. I'd called ahead for a room before we'd passed the motels at mile 106. By now rooms were little trouble as most of the racers were either far ahead of us or had dropped. The proprietor here was one of the nicest. He and his wife welcomed us warmly, gave us water, and escorted us to our room. It was one of the nicer rooms we had stayed in too. This was supposed to be the hottest day yet - with cooler weather coming behind it - and we had no intention of moving again until well after peak sun.

I was once again skeptical whether we would move again at all.


West Tennessee roadkill. These (in varying states of decay) were a common sight.
(Photo credit - John Price)
Back on our way out of Lexington, as one car went by there was a huge 'clunk' and the car lurched as the back wheel rode up over something. I thought for sure they had dropped their muffler and run over it, but as we approached the lump in the road I could just make out in the dark that the 'muffler' had legs waggling uselessly in mid-air. Another armadillo had bought it. The highways in western Tennessee are absolutely littered with armadillo parts - and armadillo roadkill is one of the worst smells you can imagine! I think a lot of people consider them nuisances and go out of their way to run them over.

You see quite a lot of roadkill on a multi-day road run across a state. First there was the armadillo section. In places it was like the shoulder of the road was paved with bits of armadillo shell! Later we transitioned into the frog section, and it seemed like there was a flattened amphibian to step around every fifty yards or so. Inevitably, the way Tennesseans let their animals run loose, there was a dead cat or dog or two.

All of the death along the highway kept you a little bit sober about the risk as traffic whizzed by. It's surprisingly easy to just tune out the vehicles, sometimes passing by with only a foot or two of separation from you, as just a source of white noise - a benign part of the environment. At least one Vol Stater this year had been knocked down by a car though - fortunately with no serious injury.

When Kim and I woke up at the Pine Tree Inn, it was late afternoon. The decision to go on was much harder this time even than it had been at Parker's Crossroad. We had a pretty good lead on Oprah right then, but she never stops. If we wanted to stay ahead of her we had miles to cover and neither of us really felt like moving. Kim especially was torn.

It is such a silly thing at the Vol State - how trapped we felt! Chased down the course, not wanting to go, but having to go. No way out - but for the simple decision to quit. I mean, we could end our suffering at absolutely any time. All we had to do was stay at the Pine Tree Inn and call Carl or Laz and have them send the 'meat wagon' for us. The only thing standing in the way was pride, but oh what a fearsome and powerful foe our own pride can be! We were trapped.

Kim really didn't think she could take much more, but she wouldn't quit. We cursed Oprah for being so bad at catching us! Kim cried and then I started crying too. "Why are you crying?" she wanted to know.

"I'm crying because I'm your Dad and I love you, and it hurts me too - to see you struggling so hard."

Then we prayed, we read the next chapter of our Bible passage, and we got ready to leave. Once more we would throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord and of the open road and see what happened. It was fifteen miles to the next town, Linden, and another sixteen miles beyond that to 'the mythical Hohenwald.' If this was to be a good day we would need to cover them all and not stop for a real rest again until the motel on the far side of Hohenwald.

We checked out and said goodbye to our very kind and friendly hosts, then made our way just a mile down the road to a restaurant - Little Josh's - where we would have one of our few real meals during the race. We were just about to enter Perryville, on the west bank of the Tennessee River. Josh's specialty seemed to be catfish and I figured it would be good. This time I was legitimately hungry, Kim less so. She ordered one piece of catfish and a little salad that seemed to go down well, and I ordered a multi-piece catfish dinner with fries, hush puppies, and cole slaw. Kim managed to eat the catfish, and then ordered a second salad. We both had some sweet tea.

We were awful by the time we sat in that restaurant! Neither of us had showered at the motel and we reeked. Our packs never got any sort of cleaning and they really reeked! We'd taken a table as far from other people as we could manage, and it seemed to be working okay. The waitresses were gracious and took good care of us, and on the way out the man in the kitchen (Josh?) chatted with me a bit, asking a few questions about the race (few businesses serving the public were unaware of it by the time we reached them at this point).

Rested and fed, things seemed pretty good - and we notched another big milestone as we crossed the river at about mile 114.

Tennessee River!
(And still - don't ask about the sock. It's a female college roommate thing
and few who hear the explanation truly understand.)
Across the river, we stopped again right away at a convenience store. It was still hot, the air conditioning was still very attractive, and Kim already could use the break. I remember calling Karen from there. We were heading into another night - probably with the lowest confidence yet, and I think I shared something of that doubt with Karen.

Moving on, we at least started to enjoy some nicer roads as the course climbed away from the river valley. It was no longer marshy, but more like a typical, treed country road through farmland. It was narrow and twisty though, with less shoulder than much of the road we'd traveled, and we had to be much more careful of the traffic. As night fell the traffic thinned, as usual, and we could at least see the headlights coming, giving us warning to be on our guard - but it was pretty high-stress travel.

The road was long, and there weren't too many places to rest, and I think we both still felt to some degree like we should keep pushing. Kim went downhill very fast; she was just exhausted, and the pain in her feet would not let up! It was still warm and humid - the change in weather had not yet come - and the dark tunnel of road seemed to go on forever. Kim was having no fun whatsoever. "It's supposed to be at least a little bit fun," I had told her during one of our conversations about whether to go on. This was not fun.

A car pulled up in the dark and a very timely road angel handed me a large, cold bottle of Gatorade. We had no idea how much we needed something like that - it tasted so good as we sat by the road in the dark in the dead of night and drank some. Shortly after that we reached the Linden Church of God, four miles outside of town (always four miles - always) and also, finally, the end of our road. Kim was done.

We'd come only ten miles from a long rest at the Pine Tree Inn and she was miserable already, tired, in pain. She lost the will to go on at that point and we sat on the patio in the entryway of that church and she cried again. I had no heart to try to convince her to keep going. I wanted her to stop! Her agony was my agony, every step of the way. What kind of father would put his little girl through something like this? What was wrong with me? Four miles ahead was the Commodore Hotel in Linden. I knew it had only six rooms. What were the odds we could get one this late in the evening?

"Kim, do you think you can make it four more miles to the hotel? I can call them and see if we can get a room. Otherwise we'll just have to wait here on this patio until they can come and get us in the morning."

She said she could handle the extra miles. I made the call - with little hope they'd actually have a place for us.

"Commodore Hotel, this is Mike. How can I help you?"

"Hi, Mike. My daughter and I are about four miles out of town, coming in on foot, and I was wondering if we could get a room for the night."

"Are you the McHenrys? Abi left you her room."

I was gobsmacked (to use the region-appropriate term)!

Abi! We had nearly forgotten about her, but she had not forgotten us! She had been following our progress, knew we were still coming along behind her, knew we might need a place - and had made arrangements for us without our even knowing about it! It was at that precise moment that I truly learned what "Vol State family" means.

"You won't believe this, Kim. Abi left us her room. Abi did pull a room out of her pack for us!"

"Abi is so nice!" came her plaintive response from the dark.

It was a long four miles, as usual. There was much more pain for Kim but, knowing the end - the real end - was near, I don't think there were more tears. Still, walking down the final hill into the town I think the decision was really cemented in her mind.

"Dad, when we get to this hotel I am SO done!"

I'm pretty sure we both felt at peace with that. Actually we joked that it was the perfect place to drop because 'no one ever makes it to Hohenwald.' We both felt infinitely relieved - no longer trapped, a huge weight lifted off us. We settled into the room, and I texted Carl that we were dropping - 'please send the meat wagon.' I showered for the first time in a while. Kim just laid down - first on the floor, then in the bed. "Vol State roadkill," I couldn't help thinking when I looked at her.

Middle Tennessee roadkill.
Kim resting on the floor of Abi's room at the Commodore after the decision to drop.
That night, for the first time since the race began, Kim slept well. We both slept long and well - no longer tense about Oprah relentlessly chewing up our bank account. But we did not go to sleep before Kim had thrown me a curve ball to figure out how to handle:

"Dad, you've got to go on. When I get back to Castle Rock I'll just drive myself to Kimball and get a room. I've got a pile of books in the van, and I'll just hang out and read and do nothing. It will be so nice."

I'd thought about it while I'd showered. I certainly had more in me. In spite of the low point back on the road to Parsons I still really hadn't been pushed beyond my capacity. I could still run. On my own, I was pretty sure I could quickly gain back a cushion on Oprah. Who knew what I could do really? But to go on without Kim - alone? I wasn't sure I could handle that psychologically. This had been so much our race, and we had come through so much together. I felt as though I did not want to dishonor what she had accomplished by just 'leaving her behind' when she couldn't go on.

On the other hand, I think we both knew that if I dropped there, the only reason I would be doing so was because of her. Even if I was at peace with that, could she be? We had come a long way; I had invested a lot in this. It had been a dream of mine for several years. If I insisted on quitting with her she would have to live the rest of her life with the knowledge that she had cost me maybe my only shot ever at finishing the Vol State. Was it right for me to do that to her?

I reluctantly agreed that I would go on - in the morning, after I'd seen her safely off the course. Then we both slept the sleep of the dead - while Oprah marched on through the night.

A New Day

Our sense of time during the Vol State was just so screwed up! We never knew how to talk about time - at least not about how to talk about temporal concepts like 'day' and 'night.' A race day started at 7:30 AM each day - multiples of 24 hours from the start. Then we went nocturnal. We slept during the normal 'daytime' and when it was our 'new day' it was just thinking about getting dark - and the current race day was half over! Then there was the part where our cycles of awake and asleep occurred somewhat more frequently than every 24 hours.

Keeping it all straight was hopeless! We started suffixing every reference to 'yesterday' or 'last night' or other day-related terms with, "...or whatever." Eventually we started using the term 'last sleep' in places where 'last night' would ordinarily be appropriate.

As it happened, waking up at the Commodore in Linden was a new day in every possible sense of the word. It was morning, it was almost the start of a new race day, and we had both just slept at least six hours during the night. It was such a new day that it even became time to re-evaluate some of the previous night's decisions.

I woke up first and went downstairs to see if I could scare up some coffee. I was seriously reconsidering the decision to go on alone - trying to decide if, in fact, I wanted to quit for me rather than just for Kim, and if that was true then whether there was any way I would be able to convince Kim of it. I met Troy Johnson downstairs and told him we were dropping. He and his wife Cathie were dropping too. I'd briefly seen Chris Knodel in the room across the hall from us upstairs. He was dropping there too. It felt nice to say the words.

"We're dropping here."

By the time I went back to the room I was working out how to tell Kim that, no, I wasn't going on. I was dropping here too after all, and she didn't need to feel responsible for that - but Kim had been awake and was doing some thinking of her own. Before I could say much of anything she told me she wasn't so sure she wanted to stop anymore! "I really think we should go on, Dad. I really don't want to just quit."

If Kim could find that kind of resolve after the horror of The Long March, then how could I possibly say no? It looked like we were going on! At that point our Oprah bank account was empty - actually overdrawn by about half a mile. Oprah had caught us, but we were not quite dead. I texted Carl again:

"Call off the meatwagon. We're going to try moving again. Screw Oprah."

If I had any concern about whether race management would be behind that decision it was dispelled when Carl replied: "! AWESOMER !"

We would get out there, move as best we could, rest whenever Kim needed to, and not worry about what happened. If Oprah caught us she caught us - but she was going to have to catch us. Laz was going to have to pull us from the course. We would not quit.

Ahead of us lay the sixteen miles to the motel in Hohenwald. Our 'luxurious' rest had cost us the choice of covering them at night. We would have to make this march in the heat of the day. It was not as hot as the previous day, but still the big weather change had not come (it would be heralded by thunderstorms - something new for us to deal with when they came).

We left the hotel around 8:00 or 8:30 AM and it really was a new day. Rest is so critical to everything but more than anything, it is critical to a positive mental outlook. It had been a while since we'd set out on the road in the morning sunshine too, and that had a cheerful effect on us in spite of the accompanying heat.

Kim was a whole new Bimbe (that's pronounced, BIM-bee, by the way, and is her older brother's nickname for her). She was on top of whatever pain she was still having, she was focused, and driven. Once again she took complete charge of our schedule - dictating short rest stops and getting us up and moving again like clockwork (even checking the time on her phone at each stop to make sure we didn't spend too long). Her aim was to keep her pain manageable, keep us moving patiently but efficiently, and have us cover at least 32 miles by the next 7:30 AM check-in.

We had decided that we would run our race, let Oprah run hers and not worry about her anymore. We hoped that our race would be enough to keep us ahead, but if it was not then so be it - we would be pulled having given our collective best effort.

Three miles out of town we stopped at the convenience store where 412 and highway 100 split. We rested there for a while, ate and drank a little. The proprietor was very friendly and we chatted for quite a while. I think he said he was either second or third generation family owner of the business.

Sanders Market, Linden, TN, and the road to Hohenwald (right).
(Photo credit - Google Street View)
From there we had ten miles to go to get to the first gas station and convenience store in the mythical Hohenwald, and three miles past that to the Embassy Inn. The day was already quite hot and would only get hotter for quite some time to come.

The road here was nice, following the course of Coon Creek for quite a few miles. There were regular spots of shade from the trees alongside, and it was relatively easy to find places to get off the road into some shade for our short sit-downs. Eventually it left the creek valley and climbed for a few miles up to a higher, even more sun-baked plateau on which Hohenwald is situated.

We were beginning to run short on water as we topped the climb, and were once again getting fatigued - this time from the heat as much as from the miles, but from both, really. We weren't sure how much farther it was to the convenience store, and we were beginning to ration our remaining water a bit. Then we came to a spot with two churches opposite each other. On the left was a Seventh Day Adventist church. We circled the building in hope of finding an exterior faucet, to no avail. Desperate enough, we crossed the road to try the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall on the other side. We found a tap right on the corner of the front entryway and soon had our packs and bottles filled. Thank you, JW's!

Another mile or two down the road we did get to the 412 Market, where we rested again for a good spell. Again, the proprietor there was very accommodating, happy to let us rest, and offering us ice.

At the 412 Market. Kim assumes her preferred resting position.
She doesn't look much different from back at Linden, but she's thirteen miles down the road.
As we moved on from there, the sky was really starting to look threatening! The thunderstorms were beginning to arrive - we could see an active one to the north, and soon some strong wind from that one reached us on the road. When the rain hit, it hit hard! We were still about a mile from the motel and we were going to get drenched. I looked around a bit frantically and saw a set of gas pumps up a little rise on our side of the street and we made a dash to get under the awning. It wasn't a public filling station and there was a man there putting gas into a company vehicle. I asked him if it was okay for us to shelter there and he said sure - or if we wanted to we could go inside the auto parts store. One more quick dash to the door and we made it inside, where some other nice people kindly let us sit and wait out the downpour.

When it lightened up we made our fastest mile in a while, through town to the Embassy Inn. They only had smoking rooms available, but we were grateful for anyplace we could shelter for a while as the storms passed through. We were ready for another few hours of nap-time again anyway.

Our new day had already carried us twenty miles, and we would have hours to add to that before the morning check-in after we had rested for a while. We had made it to the mythical Hohenwald! Anything seemed possible.


Diane Taylor (right) relaxing at The Rock with Dusty Hardman (who we didn't get a chance to meet).
Diane thought her hard work at this year's Vol State was done at that point.
(Photo credit - Jan Redmond Walker)
We were stepping out of the Commodore Hotel in Linden the morning of our new day - the morning after we'd quit - when we finally saw Diane Taylor. I'd 'met' her online before through the Vol State list and gotten some good advice from her. We'd also spoken with her before the race and we'd been well aware of her out there, steadily plying the course behind us. Knowing she was back there had given us some measure of comfort about our place in the race and our ability to finish.

"Just stay in front of or with Diane Taylor and all will be fine," Paul Lefelhocz had commented on Facebook when I posted that we were 'un-dropping' and going on.

Diane is well-known by most everyone in the Vol State as the woman who does the race at an unhurried pace, walking the whole way, bringing up the rear - but always finishing. Mike Dobies puts another figure near the back of the pack on his online race map besides the Grim Reaper: it's The Turtle, a statistical composite of all of the previous Vol Staters who finished in nine-and-a-half days or more. Diane is The Turtle.

Actually this was her fifth Vol State, and she had finished three of her four previous starts. Still - pretty reliable. I almost had the impression, from hearing others joke a little about her races, that Diane's pace made the Vol State easy - more of a tourist stroll across the state than a brutally hard physical challenge. I surely knew better than that now.

As Kim and I stepped out onto the sidewalk there she came, smiling and weary, from the direction we'd arrived the previous night. It's always so exciting to see another racer during the Vol State! We greeted each other like long-separated best friends. She was stopping into the Commodore for some rest, and knowing Diane would be behind us, unconcerned about falling behind, was one more thing that added to our revived spirits and positive outlook on our own race.

Like Abi, Diane loves to talk - with a musical Tennessee lilt to her voice that goes down easy in the ears. We talked excitedly for a minute right there on the sidewalk before she beckoned toward the benches in the hotel entryway and I apologized - "Oh yes! Let's get you off your feet" (not that it made any more sense for Kim and me to be standing on concrete not going anywhere either).

We told her about our situation - that we'd nearly dropped - and she was firm that we should not do that! She took off her (surprisingly large) pack, sat down, and started giving us all kinds of advice about the coming parts of the course - pulling out her maps and notes from previous years and pointing out some features we didn't know about. You could tell right away that she knew the course at a level of detail and intimacy that went way beyond what could simply be gleaned from the book or from race reports. She was telling us about it like you'd tell someone about where things are on the street around the corner from where you live.

Soon we said goodbye - again, like good friends, and it really felt like that's what we already were. Brad Compton had titled his race report "The Fellowship of Suffering" and that really speaks to the bonds that can form among the Vol Staters so quickly. Leaving Linden, we no longer had a 'standard' against which to measure ourselves coming along behind us, we had a friend who we cared deeply about.

Later in Hohenwald, when the storms started, we were immediately worried about her out there on the road behind us. Abi had taught us how Vol Staters care for one another and now I knew it was our turn. I got Diane on the phone and made sure she was okay, and that she knew what room Kim and I were in at the Embassy Inn and that she was welcome to share the room with us if she needed a place to get in and get shelter.

She did stop by later. I woke to a knock on the door and got up to let her in out of the darkness and the rain. She was soaked, and told us about getting caught by the storms and sheltering in a derelict shed we'd seen on the corner by the JW's. As far as I was concerned she could stay as long as she liked and we'd figure out how to make her comfortable, but she just took off her pack, used the bathroom, and sat down on the floor and rested for a bit. Then she wanted to move on and I saw her off again into the night - a steady rain continuing to fall. I didn't want to go back out there just yet!

It was a little unnerving, knowing we were now behind Diane, but I was already beginning to understand the difference in our styles of movement. Kim and I moved faster than Diane when we were moving. We took frequent, very short breaks - with one longer break for a nap and one good, long break for real sleep each 'day'. Diane moved more slowly, but also more steadily, taking fewer short breaks, but stopping more often for one of those longer cat-nap sessions along the road. Overall our paces averaged about the same. I figured we'd see Diane again when we moved on.

We left the motel just before midnight, and the rain had stopped. We just caught the McDonald's a short way down the road before they closed. Kim ate some french fries. I ordered a grilled chicken wrap - picturing a little snack wrap, but it turned out to be this gigantic thing, bigger than any other wrap I've ever eaten! I surprised myself by munching down most of it.

Getting out of town I was once again set on edge by a carload of young men that went by several times. As usual, though, we just kept on walking and soon enough we were well out of town, where the roads were dark and lonely and yet I felt more at home. It was a divided highway - which is always nice because the traffic going your way is way over on the other lanes, there is usually a good shoulder, and the traffic coming at you has plenty of room to get over. People talk about Tennessee drivers not treating runners with such consideration, but that wasn't our experience at all. Maybe having Kim with me helped there.

We continued our movement pattern from the previous march - with Kim programming our regular short breaks - and the miles slipped by. I checked my phone a little after 3:00 AM and had a text from Diane:

"I'm resting under the bridge at the Natchez Trace Parkway."

I'd had my phone in airplane mode for a while, preserving the battery, so I wasn't sure how long ago she'd sent the message. I responded, "I think we're coming up on that. Are you still there?"

About a half hour later I received, "Yes - I keep turning off my phone to save battery."

"Me too. Maybe see u soon."

In fact, the bridge loomed out of the darkness ahead of us very soon - but there was no sign of Diane! We were looking in the wrong place - down near the road where we'd have probably sat down. The bridge had long, sloping concrete-covered embankments underneath - going up from the 412 roadbed to the ends of the bridge at the parkway level. Suddenly a light shone out from under the bridge way up at the top of the embankment on our left and Diane called out to us.

What we found when we got up there was a perfect place to shelter! There was a flat spot at the top of the slope with the bottom of the bridge forming a low ceiling. It was so far from, and so far above the 412 road level that no one would notice someone tucked away up there at night! Perfect and prudent for a woman traveling alone as a spot to take a rest with little fear of being bothered. Diane had spread out her bedding and some other things up there and it almost looked as comfortable as our motel room. I told her she'd found a 'right proper hobo spot.'

Up there on top of the ramp, under the bridge, at night, you are practically invisible.
(Photo credit - Google Street View)
Kim and I sat down and rested for a bit (I think I may have even dozed) but soon she was cracking the whip again. We had miles to go yet. Quickly we gathered ourselves together and made ready to leave, wondering if Diane would join us. She said she was waiting for us to leave before getting up and gathering her own stuff though. Maybe not decent under her sleeping gear? We didn't ask, but honored her desire and moved out.

A short while later she caught up to us on one of our breaks and we did travel together for a while - through most of the endless construction between the trace and the big climb before Hampshire. At times she lagged behind, as our moving pace was definitely stronger much of the time - but she always caught up to us at our next break and we'd move on a bit together. It was kind of an unspoken agreement between us. We would enjoy each other's company when that's how it worked out, but feel free to move whenever and at whatever pace seemed right for each of us - no strings or pressure about that.

The best place for breakfast biscuits in Tennessee - at least as far as we know.
(Photo credit - Jan Redmond Walker)
We came together again the last mile or so into Hampshire, arriving together at Mack's Whiteside Market at breakfast time. Kim and I went right in, claimed a table and used the bathroom while Diane chatted with some of the locals outside. Eventually Diane came in and we were able to follow her lead on how the place worked and how to order food.

The breakfast biscuits here - made to order, and with a side of gravy as Diane ordered hers - were absolutely fantastic! Kim and I each polished one off, and we would each order another one to take with us for the road (without the gravy, unfortunately). We stayed for quite a while, again, chatting with the obvious regulars who were understandably curious about what we were up to.

When we finally left we were ready for nap time. We took a quick look into the Hampshire Men's Club - right next door - but it was already far too full of guys shooting the breeze. We'd get no rest in there. A short way down the street we came to a house with a hand-made sign out front welcoming Vol State runners and offering water. Thinking perhaps they wouldn't mind if we camped out for a while in their backyard we went around to look. Even better! We saw some very comfortable looking chaise lounges, but we thought we'd better knock first and find out if it would be okay. Nobody was at home and we felt we had to move on, rather than have them come home and find three vagrants squatting on their back patio.

Further down the street, Diane was eyeballing every deserted-looking building as a potential spot to stop. I felt like I was getting a real education on how a veteran screwed Vol Stater sees the world and makes the best use of it. Finally we spotted a little picnic pavilion way behind a Baptist church right before the first climb out of town. It was a little farther off-course than we'd have liked. It wasn't clear whether it was associated with the church or with the school on the next street behind the church. It looked like a quiet place though, it had a roof in case it rained again, and we'd be able to lay off the ground on the picnic tables. That seems pretty luxurious by halfway through the Vol State.

We each chose a spot and made ourselves comfortable. Diane on a table-top, me on a bench. Kim tried the floor under a table for a while, thinking she'd be more sheltered from the breezes, I guess, then thought better of that and relocated to a table-top and covered up. We all napped as well as we were able to for an hour or so.

When Kim and I made ready to leave, Diane chose to lag behind and rest a little longer. It would turn out that was the last we saw her on the course, but we stayed in touch by text as we worked our way through Columbia and Lewisburg, advising about available water, bad dog encounters, and offering to share rooms. It still felt like we were all part of one team, and we had no idea at that point just how close that team would yet become.

Despair Cannot be Scheduled

Seemingly impossibly - after our near-death back in Linden - we had covered thirty-six miles in the slightly less than twenty-four hours since we'd left there. It was the end of race day five, we had a four-mile lead on Oprah, we had just rested, and we felt pretty good heading out from Hampshire for the next long day-march to Columbia (if a little sad at leaving Diane behind).

Stepping out in our usual marching order, me leading the way, we got a mile or two before Kim said, "You're moving kind of slow, Dad."

"Oh. You want to take the lead for a while?"


So Kim led the way toward Columbia. She seemed so strong then. Fred Murolo, on Facebook, had assured us that the kind of foot pain she'd been struggling so desperately with earlier in the race would eventually become easier to manage. It wouldn't hurt less; you would just get better mentally at handling it. It seemed that's exactly what had happened with Kim, as we'd moved so well and with no tears or complaint since Linden.

Kim leads the way on the road from Hampshire to Columbia.
As the sixth morning progressed it grew warmer but, as expected, nowhere near as hot as the previous few days. High temperatures would stay below 90 for the rest of the race - an almost unbelievable godsend in Tennessee in July.

Still the road was long and hot. There was nothing for ten miles between Hampshire and Columbia. There was, as I recall, an out-of-business convenience store in the little town of Cross Bridges. Instead of aid, we had our first real bad dog encounter in that town.

We both hated Columbia! Of all of the long towns with their long approaches, and their motels so far out the other side, Columbia was the worst! Kim was once again absolutely dying as we came through town. We had found the limit of what one good night's sleep could do for her, supplemented in the full day afterward only by a short sleep and a few fitful naps.

As we worked our way through town we had to stop frequently to let her get off her feet for a few minutes and rest. Climbing out of the center of town toward the turn where the motel was, twice we stopped and she just laid down - on concrete or grass, whatever was there - and curled up into a fetal ball, miserable. Once again I could hear the occasional involuntary whimper from behind me as she followed me up the hill. Once again I was trying to gently encourage her - 'the motel was coming soon, we would rest there as long as she needed, there was a grocery nearby, I would get her into the room then go there myself to get us food and drinks.'

That's just what we did. Kim crawled right into her bed (the quaint notions of showering or cleaning our clothes having long since been abandoned). I talked with her enough to get a mental list of things we'd like from the grocery, then headed over there right away as my own last act of will before passing out.

The Save-A-Lot made me angry! I was expecting a real grocery store, but instead what I found was a deep discounter selling a pretty random assortment of off-brand things. I could hardly find anything we had hoped to get - and as I wandered in circles through the store, exhausted, I found the mental list I'd made had faded to the point I couldn't even really remember what all of those things were! I wanted so badly to get things I thought Kim might be able to eat and there was almost nothing.

I did the best I could and, after far longer than I'd planned to be gone, made it back to the room. I vented my frustration to Kim as I laid out the things I'd found and she came over and gave me a hug and thanked me for taking care of her. We were both in a really bad place right then. I posted to tell our friends on Facebook that we might be done again, then went down hard.

At the 7:30 PM check-in, day six, we'd made eighteen miles the preceding twelve hours. We would only make one more in the next twelve hours. We were less than five miles from The Bench of Despair, but it seemed that somehow we'd arrived there early.

The 'McHenri Nation'

"The Bench of Hope"
(Photo credit - John Rasmussen)

There are two ways to garner a lot of attention running the Vol State. One is to do it very fast. The front runners always put out unreal performances, and increasingly so as the race has gotten more attention and begun to attract more elite runners. Gone are the days when a new "King of the Road" can be crowned with a five-day finish. The new standard is three days and change.

King Greg Armstrong was no exception to that new norm this year - finishing in a phenomenal 3:17:50:53 (three days, seventeen hours, fifty minutes, and fifty-three seconds). Equally (if not more) impressive, second place finisher Johan Steene - running screwed - bested Alan Abbs 'unbeatable' screwed record from just last year. Johan finished in 4:02:05:16. Laz said that he could have beaten four days, except that when he stopped for a rest at the bottom of the descent into Jasper he began hallucinating that he was in a meeting at work and couldn't leave. I'm told he sat there for some five hours before some other runners came along and snapped him out of it.

Third-place finisher Sue Scholl, also running screwed, set a new overall female record: 4:12:48:04!

All of these amazing performances were accomplished, and the runners starting to work on recovery, as Kim and I were only just leaving Linden - some nearly 200 miles back up the course! The other way to garner a lot of attention at the Vol State is to struggle along at the back of the pack, with Oprah breathing down your neck every step of way. Kim and I were well-cast for that role.

For a while we were part of a little gaggle of runners we came to think of as our 'back-of-the-pack family.' There was Kim and me, John Rasmussen, who we'd leapfrogged pretty much our whole race to that point, Abi - generally ahead of us some significant number of miles, but close enough for us to imagine seeing her again - and Diane Taylor, so far, almost always trailing behind. Paul Heckert was out there ahead of us too - also not quite within reach, trading places with Abi.

Then the grim reaper began to swing his scythe. John was the first casualty, dropping at the Bench of Despair with an injured ankle. We found him there sitting on the bench when we arrived the morning of the seventh day.

When we woke that morning after our horrible arrival in Columbia, once again we felt a lot better. Of course the Oprah bank was blown again - in fact we were eight-and-a-half miles overdrawn right then! On our way into the motel we had agreed that we would at least move on the four miles to the Bench of Despair. If we were going to have to give it up and drop, we wanted to reach that famous race landmark under our own power before doing so. We had equipped Kim with some extra padding in her shoes - purchased at a Dollar General on our way into town - and we decided to try mixing in some running again hoping that the change in gait might help her feet while improving our pace. Once again, in a sunny new day, we felt better than we would have believed possible and we moved well.

We were riding high when we made the turn onto the Culleoka highway and down the little hill into Glendale to the famous market - and there was John! Had we been thinking better we'd have made some serious effort to convince him to go on. He seemed so set on dropping though, so certain of his injury as sufficient reason, that it never occurred to us to question his decision.

He was kind enough to take what would be the best picture of us in the race - sitting on the bench ourselves. For us it was the 'Bench of Hope' - as I'd been told it had been for Lynnor and Erika Matheney when they ran the race together as mother and daughter a few years back. When you never thought you'd reach it, the bench serves more as confirmation that you really can do much more than you thought you could. If we could make it this far, who knew what we could do if we just kept going? We had our milkshakes and our fried pies (warm - and the best on the course that we found), said our goodbyes to John, and started down the cheerful road to Culleoka.

Diane, meanwhile, had struggled into Columbia behind us. We hadn't actually seen her since Hampshire. We stayed in contact with her via text message. She knew we were thinking about dropping at the bench, and she left Columbia behind us thinking she might do the same. By the time she reached there we were already at the market in Culleoka. She was still thinking about quitting and we tried to encourage her not to. When she texted, "Leaving the bench," we were so happy!

We offered to share our room in Lewisburg when she'd come into town there behind us, and tried to connect with her to leave town together, but she'd chosen to get her own room (probably best for all of us) and did not answer her phone when I'd called her as we were getting ready to leave. The end came for Diane there, and Kim and I were then the lone survivors at the very back of the pack.

"Well at least she's not suffering anymore," one of us intoned in mock seriousness.
"Yes, she's in a better place now."

The only thing funny about it was how true those sentiments actually felt.

The little bit of status posting I'd done on Facebook had gotten us a small following. We'd survived two near-death experiences now, and when you combine the father/daughter angle with the underdog, David-and-Goliath aspect of dragging along near the cut-offs, I guess we were becoming a bit of a story. I didn't keep up with e-mail at all during the race, so I didn't have any idea what was happening on the Ultra or Vol State lists, but apparently we had some fans there too.

I think we first started learning of our 'celebrity' when Jan Walker mentioned it when she took this shot of us napping along the road between Culleoka and Lewisburg:

Tyvek ground cloths were part of our kit - thanks to John Fegyveresi's 2013 race report.
(Photo credit - Jan Redmond Walker)
Way back at the beginning of the race (maybe even at the Last Supper the night before the start) Laz, who has a knack for tagging Vol State runners with nicknames that stick, dubbed us "The McHenri" and that was how we would be referred to in race status updates from him. Naturally, our 'fan club' became "The McHenri Nation."

We knew The McHenri Nation included some runners who had finished ahead of us. I'd begun getting texts of encouragement from old friend Juli Aistars (finished sixth among solo runners, in 5:06:16:05) and new friend Sue Scholl. Messages of encouragement were also showing up on Facebook from friends back home, other ultrarunners I know - even from Kim the road angel in Gleason who followed our progress the rest of the race!

It really helped. From this point on, when things got tough, we would sometimes joke that we had to go on - we had to do it 'for the fans.' The humbling reality was that it wasn't really a joke. We really were developing a following, we really did have people interested in us, invested in our success, rooting for us, and hoping we would be able to pull off a finish and make the happy ending that every underdog story needs.

The McHenri Nation was in our corner and we owed them (and ourselves) our best effort.

Bad Dog!

Back at Hampshire, I'd been the first to stir from the nap that Kim, Diane and I had taken in the picnic pavilion behind the church, but soon we were all awakened by a commotion in the trees at the edge of the picnic grounds. We could hear two dogs barking and also this very odd, raspy squealing sound coming from some animal the dogs were clearly after. My best guess as to what it might be was a wild or feral pig, but we just couldn't tell for sure - until the dogs finally drove it out into the open. It was a whitetail doe, one of its hind legs mangled and bloody and nearly useless.

Soon some people arrived and drove off the dogs, then worked to contain the deer until someone could come and take care of it. It would have to be put down.

Kim really needed to pee, and I could stand to as well - the usual need just after waking up. The one thing our luxurious resting spot was missing was a public bathroom facility! The nearest discreet-looking spot was a little cut into the trees at a corner near where all the ruckus had started. Didn't seem the smartest idea, but when you have to go you have to go. I went with Kim to stay close to her in there and was glad I did. As she squatted just out of my peripheral vision to my left I saw that, sure enough, the two dogs were still hanging out in this little wooded strip - and one of them was slinking right toward Kim!

"Aaayyyyy!" I growled at it, fixing it with a stare. Realizing suddenly it wasn't dealing with just one small, vulnerable-looking creature but a tall angry one too, it changed course and slunk off in another direction. I suspect most strays wandering in these areas have had bad experiences with human encounters and will instinctively shy away more often than not. That's a comforting thought at least.

That was our first dog encounter of the race (which is famous for its bad dog encounters) and ushered us into the portion of the course where they would become an occasional real problem and an ever-present tension and concern. In this part of Tennessee, many houses had packs of half-wild dogs loose in their yards, few of which thought of the road as any sort of boundary to their territory. The lack of concern by the owners about the real dangers this posed seemed very at odds with the Tennessee hospitality we'd come to appreciate, but it's just how it is.

One runner this year, Caleb Nolen was seriously attacked and injured to the point of requiring medical attention - while the dog owners just watched. Part of what would make the long, cold, lonely trek from Lewisburg to Shelbyville so difficult was the knowledge that we would be passing the spot where that incident had occurred sometime during the night.

Kim and I would soon be constantly wary, and very good at defending ourselves and intimidating aggressive dogs. We employed our 'frilled lizard defense.'

Before the race I had speculated that our umbrellas might be useful against bad dogs, but I had only imagined wielding a closed umbrella as a striking weapon. After we'd been on the road with the umbrellas for a while it occurred to me that it might be even better to use them in a more proactive, but defensive manner. We could point the umbrellas at the animal and quickly flap them open - exactly as a frilled lizard flares the folds of skin around its neck to suddenly appear larger and more menacing.

We first tried this when two large, angry reddish dogs came right out into the street after us in the little town of Cross Bridges, their unconcerned owners watching from the front of the house, and it worked even better than I'd imagined. As soon as the more aggressive of the two animals started through the roadside ditch to get at us Kim aimed her umbrella at it and flapped it open smartly. Mine was already open over my head so I just tipped it down, achieving the same sudden increase in size. We both growled a sharp 'Ay!' at them in command voice.

The dogs backed off immediately! They got angrier and barked more, but they were definitely also intimidated and suddenly very uncertain what to do. It helped that there were two of us. Altogether we seemed just a little too much to tackle once it was clear that we weren't afraid or about to just run. We had to turn around and repeat the whole thing a couple of times to keep the dogs at bay as we started moving on, but then we'd made it past their territory and they were satisfied they had 'driven us off.'

Kim - soon to be a first-year vet student - didn't like that we had to be cautious and defensive toward any approaching dog. Many dogs will bark assertively but then go submissive as they approach more closely. Kim felt she was missing a lot of opportunities to 'make friends' - and she probably was. The risk was not worth it though, and new friends could be a problem too if they were drawn to follow us far down the road. We would become somewhat responsible for them if that happened.

We had another serious encounter just a mile or two past Lewisburg - one very aggressive dog that showed no sign of halting its charge at the edge of its yard. Again, the frilled lizard defense did the job. We used it every time we felt at all threatened by a dog, and it worked so well I never had to escalate to my pepper spray. Thankfully, we passed the spot where the attack on Caleb had occurred without any incident - not even a bark - shortly after our chilly nap at the cemetery in Wheel.

The dog encounters at night were particularly harrowing because of the reduced visibility and consequent reduced ability to assess the situation and the animal's intent. There was little choice but go 'en garde' every time one barked off in the darkness as we passed a house - which happened often and contributed to an ongoing heightened level of tension through the night marches for the rest of the race. That long night march from Lewisburg was almost completely dominated by it.

The conditioning set us up for what, in retrospect, must have been a comical scene. We were having a really rough time as we were coming into the town of Wartrace. In fact, we had just stopped on the sidewalk to give each other a hug when a smallish, stout, white pit-bull type dog came barreling around toward us from the backyard of the house we'd stopped in front of - full-tilt, teeth bared, serious bark. Kim and I immediately went into the frilled lizard routine like the pros we had become - flapping and 'aay-ing' at the critter for all we were worth! Only vaguely did we register the voices from a young couple walking on the other side of the street.

"That dog can't get you!"

They seemed to think we were a couple of idiots. It was then I noticed the small box on the animal's collar - indicating the presence of an invisible fence that (as long as it was working) would contain our 'attacker' within the yard. Slowly we backed off from DEFCON 1 to more like DEFCON 4 and continued on our way. We sort of felt like idiots - but also indignant at the same time.

"Well excuse us for not immediately grasping that we were dealing with the ONE RESPONSIBLE DOG OWNER in this part of Tennessee!"

Actually we knew at least one other one, and I'm sure there are many more. Most every region of the country has some unfortunate characteristic it is known for that the innocent who live there get tarred with as well. In middle and eastern Tennessee it's bad dog owners and bad dogs.

"How y'all doin'?"

It's inevitable that you will be asked questions while you run the Vol State. The mere fact of a pedestrian in a lot of places is noteworthy. In Tennessee in July it's inexplicable. What the heck would someone be doing walking out there in that heat - or running, for heaven's sake? There must be something wrong!

Early on the questions are more on the curious side. "Where y'all walkin' to?"

"Georgia," we'd usually reply. Usually that would begin a little conversation about the race, some expressions of awe, or disbelief, some well-wishes. I got a good inward chuckle out of one old codger who asked us that question on the way into Shelbyville though. When we said "Georgia" he just paused thoughtfully for a moment, dismissed us as hopeless kooks, I think, and then said, "Well, have a nice walk."

Often there would be the follow-on question of, "Why are y'all doing this?"

The first day of the race Kim and I had speculated whether the questions might 'morph' as we went on. Foreseeing the future states of exhaustion and dishevelment likely awaiting us, we wondered if "Where y'all walkin' to?" would at some point get replaced by, "Are y'all alright?" Indeed, that proved to be the case - often asked by someone who stopped their car as we sat resting by the side of the road. Some of them appeared quite dubious when we assured them that we were fine, that we were just in a race.

By far the most common question - given that Kim and I were traveling together was, "How y'all doin'?" It was also the most difficult question to answer.

Like, "Hey" or "How's it goin'?" up here in New York, "How y'all doin'?" is just a standard greeting down south, but it's nearly impossible (when you really just kind of suck) to not actually consider the question and what appropriate, truthful response you might give - even though you're pretty sure the questioner really doesn't want to know all that. Usually I'd just pause and go through the involuntary thought process and then edit myself by saying, "We're doing pretty good..." with just a hint of tentativeness in my voice.

When I spoke to Laz about this dilemma after the race he told me that he'd developed the perfect response to that question. His answer goes something like, "Well, under the circumstances pretty good - but if I just woke up one morning feeling this way I'd probably call 911."

We were not doin' especially good coming into Shelbyville - the last time I vividly remember being asked by a convenience store clerk. (Actually, the first one of those we encountered on the way into town greeted us with, "Y'all are kinda late." That was special. "Ya noticed, didja?" I replied.)

Having rested too little and too poorly in Lewisburg, and only having had a pathetic catnap shivering in the cemetery in Wheel since that, we were dragging butt working our way to the America's Best Value - an excruciating quarter-mile off-course in Shelbyville. We got a room at about 9:30 AM.

In the twenty-four hours after the previous morning's check-in we'd managed another thirty-eight miles, carving our eight-plus mile Oprah deficit back down to less than two - but we were whipped again. The good night's sleep at Columbia was spent, but it seemed like we still could barely afford to rest for long with Oprah continuing her relentless 'tack-tack-tack' down the road ahead of us in her designer shoes.

I slept fitfully in Shelbyville, and I don't think Kim did much better. Then, wakeful again and with no point in staying, we dragged ourselves out once more into the late afternoon heat at about 3:30. I just wanted to get to Wartrace. I'm not even sure why that seemed so important to me at the time - other than the simple fact it was another ten miles down the road. I guess it felt like a big milestone since it was a place I'd been on foot before. I'd be connecting my Vol State run with my Strolling Jim run from last year.

Getting out of Shelbyville seemed to take forever, and when we got to the last convenience store on the way out of town their air conditioning was busted! I'd really been looking forward to cooling off again there and was pretty disappointed. Looking back now at how much that little inconvenience affected me it's clear that the stop in Shelbyville had done almost nothing to recharge me and reset my mental state.

Off we went up route 64 toward Wartrace. It's nice country and we did enjoy the scenery. I looked forward to spotting the point where the Jim course turns onto 64, and I recognized it right away. That told me we were getting close to town. I was just exhausted though, trudging up the road with no strength or purpose.

Kim, meanwhile, was doing no better. She was bored! I know, that sounds so lame - but think about it. All we'd been doing for over a week was putting one foot in front of the other down this never-ending highway! Sure, the scenery changed from time to time, but honestly - it all started to just seem the same. The thought of two-and-a-half more days of it was just eating at Kim. She just didn't care anymore - not about 'adventure,' not about finishing, not about anything. She says she knew we could do it. She just didn't care! She wanted to read a book, see a movie, watch something totally stupid on TV - anything but keep on trudging down that road!

She asked to stop and rest at a little turn-off where a dead-end road went off into a large farm field. We sat there at the corner of the field, looking out into it, really enjoying the view and really feeling very comfortable there - and all of that had just started pouring out of her, the tears starting to flow again, and she said she just wanted to be done.

Dead end.
This little sun-baked corner seemed like a little patch of heaven that we nearly didn't move from.
(Photo credit - Google Street View)
"Okay," I said, "let's be done."

I was thinking more about what was ahead. It was clear - even if we could decide that we wanted stay in the race - that we were not ready to just go on past Wartrace and tackle another twenty-mile night march to a motel in Manchester, alone again in the dark on another chilly night with the barking dogs. I wasn't ready for that. Our only alternative was to try to get a room at the Walking Horse Hotel, just ahead, and try to get some real sleep again in hope of another revival - but I was convinced we didn't have time for that - that Oprah would put us away and end our race anyway if we did that. So I was convinced we were at the end of the road either way.

"Okay, Bimbe. Let's be done."

Relief started to wash over both of us - again. This time it was really over. I pulled out my phone and texted the first person that came to mind - Diane. Though she'd dropped hours ago and we hadn't seen her in two days I still thought of us as a team, and I wanted her to be the first to know.

"We think we're done."

She called me back right away. I don't even remember what she said, but I babbled our situation to her as best I could and told her we were going up to the hotel and we would check in there and wait to be picked up. I hung up with her, then gently convinced Kim to get up and start moving on up the road again. She really felt like she'd be happy sitting there on that corner forever, but I got us moving.

And then all hell broke loose! Diane sicced Laz on us.

The phone rang again and the caller ID said "Diane." I answered and said, "Hey, Diane," but a strange voice I couldn't recognize in the wind and the traffic noise said something like, "Surprise! This is not Diane."

"Jan?" I said, thinking perhaps it was Jan Walker making arrangements to pick us up. Then somehow I figured out it was Laz.

"Oh it's Laz! Hi Laz," I said, looking over at Kim as I said it. A look of dread crossed her face.

I can only paraphrase what he said, but it included things like, "This is the test! This is what you came for! You have to push through this. When you get to The Rock it will all be worth it." and "What about The McHenri Nation??"

Oh sure! Pull that one out on us too!

I listened, and I knew that he was completely right in everything that he said. Totally. One hundred percent. Right. And I hated him for it. That feeling of blissful relief in me was already gone, and I could already see Kim turning into an emotional basket case before my eyes as she too realized that our decision was not as final as we'd thought it was just moments before. I couldn't tell Laz anything other than that I needed to get off the phone and talk it over with Kim. Eventually he accepted that and let me go.

Kim was melting down. I repeated to her some of the things Laz had said and she knew he was right too. I think it threw her right back into that emotional feeling of entrapment again and, in her exhausted state, all she could do with that was shut down. We got to the Marathon station just on the edge of town and I convinced her we should just go in there, get something to eat and drink, sit down at a table and talk things through.

We'd barely started that - Kim still teary-eyed and right on the edge of complete breakdown - when two people walked in the door - a man and a woman. The woman took a quick look around, spotted us, made eye contact with me and asked, "Are you the McHenrys?" Stunned, I said yes.

"I'm Donna and this is Gene. We're friends of Diane Taylor. She asked us to come find you."

Still stunned, I introduced myself and Kim. Donna and Gene Vedock, as you can imagine purely from the situation, were just some of the nicest people! They started explaining how they'd looked for us at the Walking Horse and, not finding us there, decided to try the Marathon. They would certainly invite us to stay at their home, but they were moving, everything was boxed up and that just wouldn't work - but they'd be glad to drive us to Manchester to get a motel if that's what we wanted to do. Donna wasn't sure the Walking Horse was offering rooms to the public anymore.

I could barely think any of this through with it coming so soon on the heels of our renewed quandary about what we were actually doing - and Kim was no help at all right then. Finally I asked Donna if I could have her phone number. We'd walk over to the hotel and see if we could get a room and, if not, call her back and take them up on their offer of a ride to Manchester. I hope I thanked them profusely for what they had done (I think I did)!

The Walking Horse Hotel, in Wartrace.
(Photo credit - Jan Redmond Walker)
Kim and I sat flabbergasted for a while, continuing to talk inconclusively about the larger issue before us, and then made our way to the Walking Horse. They did have rooms, but they were asking $100 a night - by far the most expensive room of the race. Given that we had an option I told them we were going to do something else and went back out on their front porch to call Donna back.

When she didn't answer, Kim and I sat down to wait a while and then try her again. Just then a big 4-by-4 pickup truck pulled up right in front of us and out hopped Gene with two other guys we didn't know!

"Come on and stay at David's house!" Gene said, indicating which of the other guys was David.

Once again we were just stunned and confused with this new turn of events, and hesitant about what to do. David and Gene put on a full-court press to assure us this was fine, everybody was friends of Diane, we were very welcome at David's, and so forth. Still confused, we eventually just succumbed to the obvious path of least resistance, put our packs in the back, crawled into the truck and headed for David's house.

It was so strange to be riding in a vehicle again! Gene and David continued to talk reassuringly, and the other guy (Tyler, I think) joined in as well. In short order David turned into the driveway of a huge house with about a half-dozen cars out front. It looked like a party was going on.

I don't know how many people there were in the driveway but it felt like a swarm of welcome as we got out of the truck! There was Addy, who it became clear went with David and was one of our hosts, Donna was there, another woman named Sandy - and a whole bunch of other people. There was a barrage of comforting assurances offered: there were guest rooms, beds, showers, food - anything we needed. We were so very welcome! There were questions about us and the race, questions and suggestions about what we might do.

Kim - ordinarily shy with new people, but extremely fragile at that point on top of that - was going into full shutdown mode! We got into the downstairs guest room, and as soon as our hosts gave us some space she literally crawled into the corner of the floor between the bed and the wall, curled up into a fetal position and didn't move for some time. I took a shower (heaven, by the way), came back and found her still there. I managed to convince her to at least get up onto the bed!

Then my phone rang. It was Diane. She began to explain to me that since we'd gotten into David's truck our status was now crewed as far as the race was concerned. Then the next real stunner: after some rest, if we wanted to go on, she would drive up to Wartrace - any time we wanted - and crew for us!

I had to talk to Kim about that, so I told Diane I'd do that and call her back. I thought about it for a minute myself. We had such wonderful new friends pulling out all of the stops to get us a finish. I suspected there was more happening on Diane's end than I knew - more people there talking about our situation and thinking for us about how we might yet do this. I knew that crewed, the experience of the road would be very different and much easier. It seemed like it would be ungrateful of us not to give it a try.

Those were the thoughts I gently shared with Kim. For her part, she still didn't care - but if all of these nice people wanted so badly for her to finish this then she would give it one more try. Her only demand was that she wanted to not have to make any more decisions. She wanted me and Diane to just make all of the plans and tell her what to do. I agreed to that and Kim went upstairs to the quieter guest room to go to bed and sleep for as long as possible.

I called Diane back and told her we were ready to give it a try, and we arranged that she would come to David and Addy's at 2:00 AM to pick us up and get us back on the road. I went upstairs to tell Kim, kissed her goodnight on the cheek like I hadn't done in years, then went downstairs and explained our plan to our hosts, apologizing too for our lack of sociability. They would hear none of that and were kind of amazed at what we were going to do (and at what Diane was doing too, I think).

I thanked them again for taking us in, and then retired to the downstairs guest room. Crawling into the most comfortable bed I'd been in for a while, I fell asleep to the sound of conversation out in the kitchen and soon slept the sleep of the dead. Kim did the same upstairs. Finally, after everything that had happened, we were both doin' pretty good.

'Pampered Cheaters' (or "Love Diane!")

Diane beckons us again to enjoy some creature comforts.
This was coming into Kimball.
(Photo credit - Jan Redmond Walker)
It was about ten minutes 'til 2:00 AM when my phone woke me from deep sleep. Diane's voice said she would be at the house in ten minutes. My mind struggled to focus and really register that thought at the same time it was trying to register where I was.

Already the race had changed. I no longer had to worry about oversleeping if I didn't want to take that responsibility. From now on I could ask my crew to give me a wake-up call.

After hanging up I relaxed back into the mattress for a couple of deep breaths before hauling myself out to go upstairs and wake Kim. By the time I came back down there was a light knock on the door to the garage and I let Diane in. I noticed a sign taped to the inside of the door before I opened it - Addy, David, and the rest of their family had left us a note wishing us good luck in the rest of our race.

I don't even have words to tell you how much I appreciated those wonderful people.

Diane was ready to take charge of us! We didn't have a lot of stuff to get together so it didn't take long to get out the door. Diane filled us in on what she had for us as we got into to her SUV (license plate: "Diane"). She'd never crewed anyone before and was excited about the new-adventure aspect of that. I kind of suspect that, in addition to just the satisfaction of helping us out, this was a way for her to turn her DNF into something positive and keep the Vol State experience going.

In any case, she had a cooler full of drinks, an assortment of snacks, and sundry other equipment in case we needed it (along with, I'm sure, things that she would need). It was very strange again - getting into a vehicle and being driven somewhere. We made sure she knew we'd left the course at the Walking Horse and she took us there to set us on the road again.

It only got stranger from there. There was no need for us to carry our packs! Diane would never be more than a mile or two away with anything that we needed. I no longer had to worry about navigation. Diane made sure we knew which way to go heading out of Wartrace, and she would stop and make sure we made any tricky turns and were aware of any hazards or points of interest on the way. It was slowly dawning on Kim and me that all we had to do from now on was put one foot in front of the other.

Way back on the ferry someone had jokingly referred to the crewed runners as, "pampered cheaters." That was literally what we felt like within just a few miles - after about 235 miles screwed. When we wanted to take a short break and sit down, no more looking for a patch of mowed grass or a little paved turn-off where we could sit! We just hopped into the car with Diane. If it was chilly there'd be heat, and if it was hot there'd be air conditioning! How about that?

If we were hungry, we dug into the snack bag and found something that looked good. Thirsty? Grab an ice cold Coke! A little later when she was able, and had learned our preferences, Diane filled in the menu with those things. Chocolate milk and sweet tea whenever we wanted them!

And if we were really hungry? Well, before we made it all the way across Sixteenth Model Road it was getting to be breakfast time and we were feeling like some solid food and a longer break. Ordinarily the odds of those two desires coming together at a place that actually had food were next-to-nil. Now, no problem! We just noted where we were leaving the course, hopped in the car, and Diane drove us the five miles or so to the next little market that she happened to know had some pretty good breakfast biscuits. Whoa... wait... food when we want it - any kind?? Yep. After we'd satiated ourselves we just drove back to where we'd left off and on we went with the race.

Pampered cheaters - that was us. I mean for a while it actually felt like it was just so danged easy that when we made it to The Rock it shouldn't even count! (Note to other crewed runners: we did get over that feeling, and this is not meant to demean your accomplishment in any way. The contrast really was that stark though.)

The best part of all about being crewed though - the part that helped Kim and me the most, in spite of everything I've just described - was that we were no longer alone. Even with all of the logistical advantages we now had, what really, really helped Kim and me the most was seeing Diane's smiling face every mile or so. It's so hard to overstate the psychological value of seeing someone you know, someone who knows what you're going through, someone who always tells you you're doing great. Within a short time Kim and I developed a new pattern. I would usually be the first to spot Diane's vehicle parked near the road up ahead.

"There's Diane!" I would say - to which Kim always replied, "Love Diane!"

Diane was the best!. She shared enough of what had happened to her after we'd last seen her on the course for me to be frankly amazed at what she was doing for us - and oh so grateful! She'd dropped in Lewisburg, gone to The Rock to hang out and watch friends finish, and then our situation broke and she'd committed to help us. She then had to scramble to get supplies for us together, get a flat tire fixed on her SUV (!) and get on the road to get up to Wartrace on time. If I understood rightly she'd only had about two hours' sleep since she'd quit the race.

We'd have never known she wasn't well-rested and fresh as a daisy if she hadn't told us all that. Every time we saw her she was bright, cheerful and positive (even one time after she'd been stuck in a ditch and rescued by some locals in between times we saw her). There was nothing within reason Diane wouldn't do for us if we asked her to - of that we were certain.

A little while later Kim and I made it to the breakfast place 'for reals' (on foot, that is) and stopped in again to use the bathroom. It was about time for the 7:30 AM check-in, the morning of the ninth day. I would not have to worry about check-ins anymore either. Diane would call in for us. We'd made another 27 miles on Day 8, in spite of having our third near-death experience. Oprah was once again beating us by about six miles. We had 69 miles left to go in the next two days and we hadn't strung that many miles together in any two-day period since the first. Ahead of us in those last 69 miles lay the dreaded climb to Monteagle, the even more dreaded descent into Jasper, and the final hard climb up Sand Mountain to The Rock.

There were still five or six miles to go before we got to a motel in Manchester where we could once again stop for some real sleep. Diane could drive us there and return us to the course later, or we could push on and bag those miles before we stopped. We felt good, so we kept going.

Meanwhile, Diane worked the 'Vol State network' for us and found us a free room - Abi's again. Diane just had to go pick up the key. All three of us settled into the room at the Microtel - Kim and I each on one of the beds, Diane on the padded shelf under the window (which she said would be fine, but it still made me feel un-gentlemanly). We slept for a couple of hours before someone stirred and we all agreed it was time to get on the road again (also it was past checkout time and the front desk called us twice to remind us).

Outside it had started raining again, and we would spend all day marching from Manchester to Pelham in it. A pleasant surprise along the way, John Price stopped by and took a few photos of us! The character of our race was changing again, as the back-of-the-packers were slowly rolling up the field to the point where it was easier for people to get to us.

On the road to Pelham - happy to see a friend!
(Photo credit - John Price)
Once again we weren't going to make it to Pelham in time to get to Harry and Ollie's for dinner before they closed. Diane recommended we keep moving until 4:20 then she'd drive us up there.

Harry and Ollie's is a little Vol State institution (sadly, one that is ending, as we heard they are closing this year - we were very fortunate to experience the place before it just passes into race lore). The owners, Peggy and Jeff, embraced the race more whole-heartedly than any other place on the course except perhaps the Bench of Despair market.

Smelly nasty runners were welcomed into their quaint little country knick-knack shop and cafe like they were family! Being there was like being in your grandma's kitchen while she fussed over you. They had a pop-up shelter set up in the front yard with some flooring spread out, where runners were welcome to stretch out and take a nap. Free drinks were out there too. They had showers available for a small fee, and a comfortable little camper parked in the driveway that could be rented inexpensively by anyone who needed some better-quality downtime there.

We walked in the front door to a round of applause! There was a little Vol State party going on in there. Abi was there, along with Sue Scholl, who had been crewing her for a while, John and Marcia Rasmussen had stopped in on their way out of the area (at the start of their long return trip to California) and Jan Walker was there. It was great to see so many friendly faces, and there was a burst of chatter as everybody filled each other in on what had been happening with them.

Vol State party at Harry and Ollie's
Marcia and John Rasmussen (foreground) and Abi Meadows (background)
(Photo credit - Jan Redmond Walker)
Diane recommended the beans and cornbread and they were awesome. All three of us had some. Dessert was a rich coconut cake that was also outstanding - and of course there was sweet tea!

There was conversation only Vol Staters would understand (and Peggy and Jeff too - they were that into the race):

"So are you guys really here?"
"No, we're actually five miles up the road."
"Oh" (and heads nodded in understanding).

Who's got the worst feet?
Clockwise, from left: Marcia, me, and Sue Scholl
(Photo credit - Jan Redmond Walker)

We went for the camper rental, because Kim and I were going to need another solid nap before tackling the climb to Monteagle. Then we headed back up the road to finish 'really getting there.' As expected, they were closed when we got back there on foot. Kim and I settled into the camper after arranging a wake-up call with Diane. She would sleep in her SUV in the driveway. It was coming up on 9:00 PM.

Doubt vs. Destiny

Sometime way back when she'd first put us on the road in Wartrace, Diane had spoken to Laz. According to her he was upset that she'd let us stop for so long there, and was convinced that the lost time made it impossible for us to finish (truthfully, the same concern I'd had when it became clear to me we had to stop, and the reason I'd thought that our only choice then was to drop).

We'd been having intermittent contact with 'race headquarters' since then. Actually I don't know how often Diane spoke to Laz, Carl, or Jan, but I had the impression it was not infrequently. Getting to Pelham hadn't dispelled their doubts about us. The clock was running and everyone was concerned about our progress, and especially so whenever we stopped to rest.

When we'd last spoken to Laz we'd told him that our plan, after resting in Pelham, was to push through Monteagle to Tracy City (mile 280) by the 7:30 AM check-in. That would leave us 34 miles to cover in the last 24 hours. Everyone agreed that was way better than stopping at Monteagle (which would have left 40 miles) if we could pull it off. Our little team had no doubt we could do it. The others, who couldn't see how we moved on the road, remained very concerned for us.

I think there was a misconception at work there. I think everyone assumed we were making such slow progress because we couldn't move well when we were moving. That made them nervous for us every time we chose to stop for rest. In reality, we moved pretty well - usually averaging somewhat better than two miles per hour when we were on the road - which is actually pretty good time for Vol State back-of-the-packers in the final days of the race.

Our real limiting factor was Kim's mental state. I think whenever she tired whatever mental defenses she had developed to deal with her ongoing pain just collapsed. Pushing her much beyond that point was quite simply unthinkable! We had to get enough regular rest to keep her out of that place or we'd just be done again. Our rest stops were not gratuitous luxuries or poorly-calculated risks. They were conscious race management and they were essential to our progress. We always did the math on them based on what we knew our movement pace to be, and it always worked out - with a comfortable margin.

We left Pelham a little after 11:00 PM. From there we were looking at about twelve miles to reach our goal in Tracy City. It was about three miles to the base of the climb to Monteagle, another three miles up the mountain from there, then another six miles to Tracy City. Twelve miles to go and about eight hours to do it. Mountain or not, we knew it would be no problem. In fact, we were talking about maybe pushing on a few miles past Tracy City if we still felt good when we got there (once again, crewed, we could go as far as we wanted and then just drive back to Monteagle to rest in a motel).

Case in point about our movement: Diane timed us going up to Monteagle, from where she left us at the base of the mountain, to the VFW near the top. It took us just one hour and one minute to make that climb.

It was perhaps the most nerve-wracking three miles of our race! It was dark (still, the recommended time to be doing it from a low-traffic perspective), it was raining (some of the hardest rain we'd walked in the whole race hit us there), and it was foggy too. It was a twisty, curvy, two-lane blacktop with almost no shoulder. At one point as I was leading the way toward yet another blind curve - just waiting for the big truck I was expecting to come barreling around at any moment and take us both out - I said to Kim, "I think this might be the single stupidest thing I've ever done in my life."

"That is not encouraging coming from a guy who's jumped out of an airplane," she replied.

That was one of the times we were happiest to see Diane ("Love Diane!"). We rested and snacked a bit in the parking lot of the VFW - to the sound of honky-tonk music coming from within.

The march to Tracy City was bad. Fatigue was settling in again and Kim was starting to struggle. Diane set us the goal of reaching the Piggly Wiggly in the center of town, and Kim never hated a place she hadn't been to so much in her life! It just never seemed to come! It had been a while since the tears on the way to Wartrace, and it was time for tears again. There would be no extra miles past Tracy City.

Finally we made it, loaded ourselves into the Diane-mobile, and headed back to Monteagle. We settled into the Best Western there at just about the 7:30 AM check-in time (I'd gotten two rooms so Diane would have a real bed - she really needed some good sleep too) and we all agreed we would rest for three hours before getting back on the road. Thankfully, by this time Kim was no longer a light sleeper. Way back up the course I'd assured her that sleep would sooner or later take care of itself. Now when she put her head down anywhere she zonked!

I was not so fortunate. I got to sleep well enough alright, but Laz called me a little before 9:00! I tried to both not wake up much while I talked to him, and be 'cordial' at the same time (probably failing) - as he tried to convince me that we really didn't have time for this and we needed to get back on the road. I understood where he was coming from - he was concerned for us. Again, I don't think he really understood the rationale behind what we were doing - or the real constraint we were dealing with (or else he just thinks it's always better to push than to not push - it is Laz we're talking about). I didn't succeed at convincing him we were fine, but I did eventually get him off the phone. I didn't sleep any more after that though.

His race update that morning set up the rest of our race for anyone still following it and put 'The McHenri Nation' on the edges of their seats:

the last drama rests with the mchenri.
resting in tracy city after a long, difficult push during the night,
they have 34 miles to go.
oprah is 3 miles ahead.
oprah has been ahead much of the race,
but she has not broken them...
not that there have not been close calls.
not that they have never wavered.
it is not courage to never waver.
it is courage to reach the end;
and go on.
the mchenri have peered into the abyss,
and seen what is there.
they got what they came for.
they have been pushed to their limits,
and then beyond.
oprah has had her foot on their throat.
but they have looked deep inside themselves
and found that something they never knew was there.
something that exists inside us all.
something few people will ever find.
something few will ever seek.
now they have 34 miles between them
and victory over the ultimate enemy.
their own weaknesses.
it is not quite over.
their plan is to head back out at 10:30.
they have 21 hours to cover those 34 miles...
the lonely plateau.
the dreaded descent into jasper.
the interminable stretch thru kimball to south pittsburg.
the hair raising miles thru no hope.
the bone-crushing grind up sand mountain.
before the endless run down castle rock road,
thru the beanfields and into the woods.
until they reach the end of the road,
and there is nowhere left to run.
1.5 miles an hour...
it does not sound like much.
until you have reached a place beyond a death march,
and lived there for days;
with oprah's hot breath down your neck.
courage is not pretty.
it is not exciting.
it is grimy and dirty.
it is doing what you have to do,
when quitting is as easy as climbing into the meat wagon...
and no one would blame you,
except yourself.
now the mchenri represent us all.
every one of us who has dared to reach beyond our limits.
their victory is their own.
but their joy will be felt by us all.
vaya con dios, Patrick and Kimberly.

When you're out there in the race and you read something like this about yourself, you almost think he must be talking about somebody else.

"We're just out here walking, for heaven's sake."

For several years though, I'd been one of the people across the Internet - hanging on every over-the-top, romanticized word Laz wrote during the race in his unique, almost poetic prose. I knew the power that writing like that has with the fans of the race, and I knew many people would be anxiously checking their computers periodically to see how we were doing, to see whether we would make it. I would be.

In spite of all the doubts that had been raised, we knew we would do it. We would do it for the fans.


The march across the plateau was long - but we made good time. The descent to Jasper was nerve-wracking, but it was not hard. Just as we had done on the climb onto the plateau to Monteagle, we made it down in good time. Steve, the road angel in Jasper, reminded us again of our 'celebrity' - cruising in his truck looking for us, taking our picture before greeting us by name and inviting us into his home.

There was no thought of stopping until we reached the Super 8 in Kimball - mile 300 - where our Vol State adventure had begun ten days before on the night before the long bus ride.

Twenty miles of the final thirty-four had been covered by the 7:30 PM check-in - 'only' nine hours since Diane put us back on the road in Tracy City. Twelve hours remained to cover the remaining fourteen and reach The Rock!

Kim was dragging again, and our plan was to rest a few hours at the Super 8 before the final push. We checked in while Diane went to Wendy's to get us some burgers, fries and frosties. Jan was in the lobby as we were checking in, and she fixed me with a serious look and said, "Patrick, you've got to eat your food and you've got to go."

Again it seemed the misunderstanding had reared. I tried to explain that if I attempted to push Kim another fourteen miles at that point it would just be ugly. We would rest a few hours and we would have plenty of time to reach The Rock. I estimated that it would take us five hours to get up there. Jan mostly kept her own counsel on that assertion, but gave up trying to convince me otherwise. "I've done this race before," was her last comment.

There was a problem at the Wendy's and it took Diane quite a while to get the food to us. Kim had crashed by then and mostly lost her appetite. She got up and tried to eat a little, then gave up and went back to bed. I ate all of mine. Kim was nervous about staying too long and thought we should sleep no more than two hours. I was keyed up too and couldn't sleep really well anyway - in spite of the shortfall back at Monteagle. Eventually my stirring around got Kim awake and we decided it was time to move.

I called Diane and we headed out somewhere around 10:30. We had nine hours to reach The Rock with fourteen miles and one more big climb to do. We knew we had it.

That last march was not a pleasant one for me. I'd overeaten and the food wasn't setting well, and I was tired. Kim was a little better, but she'd been pushed past her hard limit so long ago that she could only be so good. It was another long, lonely night march - in spite of Diane's frequent company. Still, it was the end and The Rock pulled us along.

Vol Stater John Fegyveresi had these patches designed to give to the runners this year.

We made it to the Sonic in South Pittsburg in time to use the bathrooms before they closed. Then we made our way across the fabled blue bridge over the Tennessee River. After all this time we'd actually earned our John Fegys patches. It was quiet and lonely after we crossed, as we made our way through 'no hope' (actually the little town of New Hope). Only a few cars were still on the road at that hour.

Finally - the turn onto 373 and the start of the brutal climb up Sand Mountain. Parts of it were steeper than the climb to Monteagle (or at least the legs I was climbing with this night thought so). Finally - the sign saying, "Welcome to Alabama." It's traditional among the Vol Staters to bad-mouth Alabama, but the cheerful strains of "Sweet Home Alabama" played through our minds nonetheless. Neither of us had really believed we'd reach here on foot. Finally - the turn onto Castle Rock Road! Diane met us there - always making sure we stayed on course - then we told her we'd be fine not seeing her again until the ranch. The little rolling hills took longer than we'd thought they would.

I think we saw Diane one more time after that, at the gate, then she'd been admonished to leave us alone to make our way the final steps from there. It's a good idea, leaving the runners with their own thoughts as the great adventure draws to a close. Laz and Carl had been informed when we'd made the turn up Sand Mountain. They were already at The Rock waiting for us. Diane would make the somewhat harrowing drive through the muddy bean field and the little track through the woods to join them.

Kim and I walked onto the ranch, down the tree-lined lane in the dead of night with only a little moonlight lighting our way. It still made the impression that we were conquering heroes entering Rome to be honored by Caesar! We stopped at our minivan - the last, lonely vehicle still there in the once-crowded parking area. I had something I wanted to pick up - my celebratory cigar (a minor vice I've not seen fit to totally expunge from my life).

The finish of the Vol State is bizarre, yet somehow very special. You follow a tractor road up into the field (a bean field this year - often it's corn). After some 300-plus miles of road you find yourself in a trail race! The footing is uncertain, especially so this night after the rains and the prior traffic from all of the other runners and the coming and going of vehicles. Then the 'road' plunges into the treeline, and the footing if anything gets worse. You stumble and slip and occasionally swear. There were mud holes to be navigated around. I don't think Kim liked it at all. You peer around every turn hoping to see what you know is coming so soon - the end of the line, The Rock - and Laz, Carl, and perhaps a few other Vol Staters waiting to welcome you into the fraternity.

Finally (finally!) the clearing appeared and voices greeted us. There was Laz with a clipboard, Carl positioned at The Rock to escort each finisher in turn to the final step - a little high spot, the touching of which makes the end of your journey official. We'd been warned ahead of time that we'd had a decision to make. There are no ties in the Vol State! One of us would have to finish ahead of the other. If we couldn't decide which of us it would be they would set up a line and we'd have a sprint finish.

The choice for me had been easy though. Kim's was by far the greater accomplishment and I wanted to honor that by letting my daughter be first to The Rock. On the way up Sand Mountain I'd told her that, and then asked her if she'd accept that as my 'fatherly gift of love' to her - or if she'd prefer to have me give her an honest race at the end. At that point, she'd said, she was inclined to accept my gift!

I watched in pride as Kim stepped to The Rock, Carl warding her carefully to make sure there was no mishap. One step beyond the finish is a sheer three-hundred foot drop!

Kimberly McHenry finished the Vol State - her first ultra - in 9:20:03:06. I followed at 9:20:03:33 - my first DFL and I couldn't have been happier! Diane had timed us from Kimball, and we'd made the last fourteen miles in five hours and seventeen minutes - a little over my estimate, but not bad.

(Photo credit - Carl Laniak)
The group at The Rock was small - just Laz, Carl, and Diane. Others had meant to be there, but it was 3:30 AM for heaven's sake! Alarms had been slept through.

Everyone was exhausted as you might imagine, but still they honored us with our time on the 'thrown' - the victory camp chairs that have to be thrown out each year because of the runner stench that is impossible to completely get out. I lit my victory stogie and the victory photo was taken. Patiently they all sat and listened to the stories we would share. Laz gave us our finisher's awards - our "314" stickers. He also had the patches (John would have given us those on the ferry had he made it to the race). He informed us of our earned right to purchase the Vol State jacket - available only to those who have once reached The Rock. Then Laz did me the greatest honor by telling me, "I remember your first post on the Ultra List. You're a veteran now." Then, looking at Kim, he added, "And you've jumped right ahead to veteran status!"

Inevitably, our time there as the last finishers had to be cut short. Beds were calling to all of us - Laz and Carl more than any of us, probably. Most of the camp had already been broken down and packed away. Carl started gathering what was left and I stubbed out my smoke. It was half finished, but its purpose had been served.

I could  barely keep my eyes open as Diane drove us back down to Kimball in our van. Runners are not trusted to drive right after they've finished. I tried hard to stay awake because there were details to be sorted out. There was still a mix of our stuff, Diane's stuff, and even some of Jan's stuff in our packs and in Diane's vehicle - which would be left at the ranch until morning. There was what to do about the rooms at the Super 8. Checkout time was at 11:00 and we'd not get in to crash until - well, I don't know, not long before that!

We asked for late checkout and they gave us until noon. We arranged with Diane that we would drive her back up to the ranch after that so we could sort everything out with both vehicles there. Our little team would have one more time together before it was really all over.


'Morning' came sooner than we expected. Kim and I were still in race mode and unable to stay asleep for more than a few hours. We went down the street (driving!) to the Waffle House and ate a good breakfast, then connected with Diane. Jan was taking her up to the ranch already and we headed up after them. After sorting out all the gear, Kim, Diane and I had a group hug and we said our thank-yous and goodbyes. It seemed impossible to find the right words. Still, we said what could be said then started driving back down Sand Mountain for the last time.

Laz thinks otherwise, but I think we would never have finished without Diane.

For Kim and me, the experience of the race had begun slowly and built in a long crescendo. We'd left Syracuse on the 4th of July to drive down to southwestern Pennsylvania and spend the long holiday weekend with my mother and father there - leaving there Monday to take the rest of the drive to the Chattanooga area in two days. The return to normal life would be a similar, slow decrescendo.

Way back at the beginning of it all, Laz had said that we should not leave Tennessee before visiting the farm to meet Big (for those who don't know, Big is the stray pit bull that adopted Laz a few years ago and, through Laz's writings about him, Big became a beloved mascot of the ultrarunning community). Once the invitation had been given Kim would have hurt me - bad - if we didn't take Laz up on it.

Instead of heading straight north from the Chattanooga area, we got on I-24 heading northwest, aiming to get off in Manchester, retrace the route from there to Wartrace, and then make our way to Bell Buckle from there.

I was more than a little nervous inching our van, uncertainly - hemmed in by trees on both sides with no way to turn around if the road, in fact, went nowhere - up the long driveway to what we really hoped would be the right house. Then a very large reddish dog appeared ahead, barking a sentry's challenge at us. Laz was coming along a few yards behind the Big.

"The Big Farm" was a perfect place to relax and depressurize from the race - thank you, Laz and Sandra, for letting us prolong the disruption of the Vol State to your lives for another day!

We met Big and Little and soon were 'new best friends' with both. Kim was in heaven. Laz and Big gave us a tour of the farm. Just as we were walking back up the path to the house from Big's Backyard Diane appeared, walking down toward us!

I think this is why Kim did the race.
"Hey, Big!" she said as the Big bounded up to greet her. She was visiting her friends in Wartrace, and stopped by the farm to give us back another water bottle she'd found in her car. We all sat on the porch for a while and visited, Big periodically making the rounds for petting. Diane left after a while, but Kim and I lingered. Slowly, without our really noticing its passing, the day wore on toward evening, Sandra came home, dinner was offered (habanero cheeseburgers for me and Laz!) and it became clear we were welcome to stay in the runner's dorm that night.

I don't know if it was a thoughtless imposition on our part or just a routine part of life for the people and animals of the Big Farm - that exhausted, brain-dead runners just show up sometimes and then don't leave. Laz said that, in spite of many prior Vol Staters planning to stop by and meet Big after the race we were the first to actually do it. Actually Kim was the first - I was just the chauffeur.

Shortly after dinner there was no more resisting the call of the beds upstairs. In the peace and quiet of the Big Farm and the comfort of the runner's dorm, Kim and I finally got our first totally restful full night's sleep in eleven days.

In the morning, we walked into a Big story book with Big and Laz on a five-mile loop through places we'd read about - there was 'the black dog' corner and Broiles Road, the 'goat corner dog' and Short Creek. Coming around one corner, Laz suddenly exclaimed, "Well, Big, look who's coming there!" We saw a couple walking toward us on the intersecting road. "That must be Dale and Linda!" Kim and I each thought to ourselves. "That must be the McHenri!" Dale and Linda exclaimed.

Kim joins Big's pack.
Laz quipped that maybe we should have taken pictures of each other taking pictures of each other. Pretty funny that his gift for writing had made minor celebrities (to each other) of such ordinary people as Kim and I and the Ruckers.

All too soon our time with Laz and Big on Big's roads ended and it was really time we were on our way. It would be a very long drive home, stopping again overnight at Mom and Dad's on the way.

For those who are not ultrarunnners, I imagine you would come into this report wondering why anyone would do such a thing - and I don't imagine that, having read these stories, you will have found an answer to that question. Perhaps you are even more puzzled. Why did Kim and I put ourselves through this? Why didn't we quit? I can only give my answer. I hope Kim will give hers in a report of her own.

We had an adventure. We dared to step out of our modern, far-too-comfortable life and world and experience something that a few dream of in their heart of hearts, and fewer still dare to do. We are now and forever will be "Vol Staters." That's both a legitimate badge of courage and a membership in a unique extended family.

We have learned something - just something - of how hard life is for many less-fortunate people in this world. We know what it's like to sleep on the ground, to have no roof, no bathroom - to not know when or where your next meal will come from, to be hot, thirsty, and tired with nowhere to go, to feel vulnerable, to fear the slowly cruising car, the police, the barking dog.

Still, we had a credit card, cash, some high-tech gear and clothing ("high-tech vagrants" we called ourselves). We had a bail-out option. Even after everything we experienced, we only just know something of real hardship - but we know that much, and even that changes you a little.

We also learned of the kindness of strangers.

On the drive home I had to pull off the highway to find a place to take a nap and then get a cup of coffee before continuing. A panhandler was working the end of the off-ramp. Back in New York I mostly ignored such people. Most New Yorkers do.

"Don't my taxes pay for all kinds of services so people don't have to do things like that?" ("Are there no workhouses?")

As I pulled to a stop at the light I slipped into my practiced, casual forward stare ("I don't see anyone there"). Then I thought about how hot it was getting out there. On the floor behind the front seats was a case of water. It wasn't cold, but it was wet - and what would it cost me to just offer a bottle of water? My hand reached for it almost on its own as I started putting down the window, and the panhandler came over and gratefully accepted the meager gift.

Our eyes met as he stepped back. "It's hot out here," he said.

"Yeah," I replied, "I know."


  1. i did not want your story to end.
    thank you!

  2. I told you on FB I would read tomorrow... I lied and I am a happy liar.

  3. This was a most fabulous read. Thank you. It was worth the wait, and will be worth the reading again.

  4. Unbelievable! Absolutely unbelievable! Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. What a wonderful narrative, Pat! Truly evocative! I hope you've been enjoying the summer.

  6. An epic story. Thanks for sharing!

  7. So I had to come back and revisit this race report. It was only last November that I read it for the first time, after my first trail run with you and Luana, but oh how my perspective and experience have changed since then!

    This time I was reading the race report with an eye towards "what would I need to know if..." - because you may have convinced me. I'm a little worried about the dogs... but, well, I have pepper spray and I can growl.

    Names that were once foreign are now familiar. Laz, Juli,John P... Places like Wartrace, which I had never heard about, but which now are familiar from documentaries such as the Barkley, or my own research into Strolling Jim.

    An epic journey indeed. And, perhaps, a good guide for planning...