Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Call of the Open Road

One Year Later - A Look Back at the Vol State

Somewhere along a road in Tennessee, July 2014
(Photo credit - Donald Brown)
It is hot - really hot - as I work my way through my "J-D Hilly Loop" running route - about six miles, some of which traverses the grounds of the Jamesville-Dewitt High School. It's 2:00 in the afternoon, near the peak heat of a hot day, and it is humid too. I feel the heat saturating me and beginning to radiate into the environment - not quickly enough - as I trot the bigger climbs.

Why am I out here doing this now, when I could have waited for the relative cool of evening? It's because of my Vol State brothers and sisters who are on the open road in Tennessee at this very same hour, in the heat of the fourth day of their race. I have been where they are, and I want to feel that kinship in a tangible way.

My run ended, I return to the house. The sweat is just pouring off me and I am dying for a cold shower to take the edge off. I pick up my phone to check the current weather stats: it says 80 degrees and I laugh! It is probably at least a few degrees hotter out there in reality, but it isn't the assumed inaccuracy that amuses me. It's the width of the vast gulf that separates my sincere attempt at 'solidarity' from the reality of what my brothers and sisters are experiencing!

Each day this year in Tennessee has reached the mid-90's and the dew points have been in the mid-70's. As someone pointed out on the ultra list, those numbers combine to produce heat indices (the 'feels like' temperatures that the weather services report) higher than in Death Valley, California. Eighty people started the race this year and as I write these lines sixty-six are left - and that, my friends, may well be the closest thing to a miracle that human beings are capable of creating.
"a run like this is not just a race it can be (is) a life changing experience."
I used those words from race director Gary Cantrell (better known to many in his alter ego as Lazarus Lake) as the opening of my Vol State race report last year. Now that a full year has passed, do I think they are true? Can a race really change your life? If so, how? In what ways, if any, do I remain affected by my experience of the Vol State?

There are the memories. They really stick, perhaps burned into my synapses by the heat. I can be almost anywhere and something will trigger a flash - and I'm suddenly back in Tennessee in my mind. It can be the look of a road or a town, the items on a shelf in a convenience store, an encounter with a stranger, the use of an item that was carried during the race.

There is the need to talk about it with someone who really knows. Kim and I have never been together in the year since our Vol State adventure without talking about the race. It's incredible the number of conversation topics that can make a legitimate connection to it! Are they really legitimate? Who knows? We're fortunate that the rest in our family always patiently let us go on a bit when it happens - even participate and encourage us a little. They recognize that Kim and I experienced a 'big thing' together and that we share a bond that we feel a need to reinforce from time to time. No one else in our lives understands what we've been through like we do though, and like our Vol State family does. I'm no psychologist, but I think in a weird but very real way Kim and I function as a little support group for each other.

"I'm Pat, and I traveled from Missouri to Georgia on foot in July."
"Hi, Pat!"

There is very definitely a different outlook on life. There is a different outlook on discomfort. There is a different outlook on pain. There is a different outlook on inconvenience. There is very much a new and higher threshold at which you will say that that a thing is 'hard.' If it isn't much like walking from Parker's Crossroad to Perryville overnight then - really - how hard could it possibly be? I hate to admit it, but I have to bite my tongue often when the rest of y'all complain about most of the things you complain about.

(Speaking of differences, I feel even more comfortable saying "y'all" than I did before the Vol State. I sure hope my friends down south won't begrudge one "damned Yankee" that privilege!)

There is a different outlook on distance. Kim might go out for a walk and end up going ten miles. Her friends, um, do not understand.

There is also a different outlook on risk-taking. Not that either Kim or I have become inclined toward stupid risks, but knowing better what we're really capable of - what we can 'easily' handle and survive (keeping in mind our new easy/hard threshold) - we are less inclined to shrink from 'scary' things. Things ordinary people consider major undertakings requiring extensive preparation, we might be inclined to just go and do.

Most significant of all among the changes wrought in us by the Vol State though is a new receptivity to the call of the open road - a call ever-present, but never more insistent than right now, while brothers and sisters are answering it yet again! I knew it would be hard sitting on the sideline and following the race this year - but I really had no idea.

Do you know how long twelve hours is (the length of time between runner check-ins)? You would think it would be longer for those on the road, but really, while you're out there that kind of time can just go by almost unnoticed in a mental haze - simultaneously experienced as eternity and as no time at all. 'Timeless time.' When you're following the race at home though, going about your ordinary daily business and waiting for any scrap of information about what's happening 700 miles away? Ugh! It's maddening!

Before the race started this year, I wondered how strong Kim's interest in following it would be. She needed no prompting from me; she's initiated many of our exchanges each time news has broken - emitting ASCII wails of despair each time a friend has fallen:


So each of us, in our own way, tries to answer the call of the open road where we are, so that we can feel a part of it. Kim did a little Vol State reenactment on Thursday:
"I got my Vol State bag all packed up with a water bottle and some fruit and chocolate for snacks, and only then popped out my door to see what the temperature was like. 'Hey! It's raining out here!' How dare it rain when I wanted to go for a walk! I then pretty quickly decided 'Well screw that, I'm going for a walk anyway! I'll just bring my umbrella!' So a little while later I was walking down the road with my Vol State pack and my Vol State shoes on and my Vol State umbrella keeping the rain off my head while the cars whizzed by."
I'd briefly toyed with the idea of making a self-supported road run from my place in Syracuse down to where Kim lives in Ithaca. It's only 52 miles and, after the first ten, the longest gap between points of supply is only about six miles - nothing by Vol State standards. The timing didn't work out right for my schedule and Kim's this past weekend or next, but I'll definitely do it sometime in August.

In a poor substitute then, I headed out my door to run my most challenging regular road route in the hottest heat of a hot summer day, and I'll do so again when I can. There will most certainly be some long road run next Saturday! Maybe I'll do an out-and-back along the route I plan to take to Ithaca.

The open road beckons, and I cannot resist the call.

(Photo credit - Carl Laniak)


  1. OK - so I'm still not working.

    A race can definitely change your life in so many ways. The kind of bonding you and Kim had - well, as you know, that will be with you for the rest of your lives.

    I experienced that to some degree the year I trained for my Ironman. I biked ALL OVER the place. I was getting in 50, 60, 80, 100, 112 mile rides - so I covered a lot of terrain. And now, when I drive through that countryside, I feel like somehow I made it my own 2 years ago when I travelled it using my own horsepower.

    Running, too - though the distances aren't as great. Still - I found myself considering, just the other day, the idea of running, self supported, down to my brother's place near DC. I think it's 380 miles, and, well, I just don't have that much vacation time.

    Digressing a little, those people who say they run 100-120 miles a week - do they work?

    Anyway - another great post from the McHenry. Well, one of the McHenry anyway.

    In any case - you have me contemplating Vol State.

    1. Answer to Amy!
      Back before I retired and worked a 40 hour week with 12 to 15 hours of commute. I use to train for my prime race of the year at 120 to 150 mile a week... Still had time for a little TV and 3 x a week 2000 meter swim. I do not have family obligations though. Pat will tell you though, I am a little different! ;-)

    2. Different, yes - but good different!. :)

      Amy, I can't speak from personal knowledge of how anyone trains at 100+ weekly volume! I think some are retired, some are dedicated to the exclusion of other aspects of life, and some are fast enough to train that much at easy effort and not spend as much time doing it as you or I would.

      I know if I'm really objective about my available time even at around 70 MPW now I know I have more time available and my limit is really still just what I feel I can physically handle (and I'm hoping that will continue to improve).

      And... adding speedwork can help me do everything faster!