Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Last Annual Vol State 500k Race Report - 2019

During the race, I thought about how I would explain this situation to my therapist. Granted, I didn't have a therapist. But I was pretty sure I'd need one after this race. I could see myself sitting on the therapist's couch and saying:

"Hi. My name is Cory. I just finished a 314 mile race called the Last Annual Vol State 500k. It took me 8 days and 6 hours to finish. We started in Missouri. Then we crossed into Kentucky. Then we ran across Tennessee. This was followed by some miles in Alabama, before finishing in Georgia. I didn't have a crew or aid stations. I was not on a prisoner of war death march. I paid to do this. I think I might have PTSD from my blisters."

The therapist would then smile, imagining all the boat payments that my extensive therapy visits would be paying for years to come. 

There are two divisions at Vol State: Crewed (with a crew and support), and Screwed (sorry, no help for you, good luck using gas stations to refill on food and fluid). I was Screwed. I had to carry anything I may need for that 314 mile journey. Here is what I took with me:

Shirt (the one pictured is the only shirt I wore the whole time)
Shorts (the shorts pictured are the only shorts I wore the whole time) 
Injinji Socks (wore one pair, took one extra)
Ear buds
External battery charger
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Contact case
Reflective vest (didn't use)
Emergency blanket (didn't use)
Altra Torin shoes (wore same pair the whole time)
Blister repair kit
Epi Pen
Body Glide
Direction Book
Head lamp
Patagonia Houdini jacket
Travel pillow (used once, just used my pack as a pillow the rest of the time)
Ice bandana
Cash for vending machines
UltrAspire Zygos pack
Not pictured: bug spray, sun screen, hat, $.99 poncho, and umbrella. The umbrella helped a ton with both sun and rain.

After the race, my shirt, shorts, and socks were transported to a nuclear waste incinerator. 

We met at the finish line at 6:30am on Wednesday to load buses which would drive us on a day-long trip across Tennessee to the start line. Unfortunately there were some complications with the bus company and buses didn't arrive until 5:30pm. Despite the ~11 hour delay standing in the heat all day, runners still remained in good spirits.

Day 1 ~ Miles 0-62
Bright and early on Day 1, we boarded a ferry that took us across a river and dropped us off in Missouri. Race director Lazarus Lake lit his cigarette signalling the beginning of the race, then we got right back on the ferry and went back to Kentucky. I love this little quirk that allows at least a few steps of the race to be in Missouri. 

I ran many miles with my new friends Sharon and Cherie. We came across Laz on the course and they asked if I'd take a picture of them with Laz. (Gary Cantrell aka Lazarus Lake is also the race director of the Barkley Marathons.) Laz put his arms around them for the photo. Then I asked if I could get a picture as well. Laz said "Sure, but I'm not putting my arm around you." I walked up to him and right before the picture he put his arm around me. I'm not going to lie. That made my day.

Late in the afternoon, Cherie, Sharon, and I caught a view of heaven up ahead and knew we had to stop. That's right kids, heaven looks distinctly like Taco Bell. After two cheesy gordita crunches, a bean burrito, and some Mountain Dew Baja Blast, I was on my way again.

We enjoyed a stunning sunset on the first night, though I was already starting to feel the beginning of a panic attack. We weren't even 24 hours into the race and I was already feeling so tired and sore. I truly couldn't begin to wrap my head around how it would be possible to continue doing this for up to 10 days.

In the middle of the night we got to a fire station that graciously was being used as a place for runners to rest. It was a tad disturbing when I first walked in. The place looked like a morgue. 

Day 2 ~ Miles 63-101
Day Two was indescribably brutal for me. The heat and humidity were utterly smothering. I stopped for breakfast at a little cafe in Huntington. I sat next to some other runners. One guy had chaffing so bad that he planned to drop from the race. He lifted his shorts to show me that he had bloody maxi pads taped to the inside of his thighs! That was certainly a "What have I gotten myself into???" moment. By the afternoon I still hadn't slept yet, so I found a great awning of a church and took a short rest. I spent many hours with my new friend Ed Masuoka. He is brilliant, funny, and humble. He is a NASA scientist, and this was his 6th Vol State race.

On the evening of Day 2, I got my first real rest. I stayed three hours at a Knights Inn motel. Even though my room had no soap or shampoo, it more than made up for it with hair. Hair in the sink. Hair in the shower. Hair in the bed. Whoever stayed in that room before me was shedding like a black lab. I took a quick shower, then worked on fixing blisters, then slept for about 90 minutes in my cozy blanket of hair.

Around midnight I met up with my friends Jeff and Carol Manwaring and we plunged into the night together. From that point on, we spent every single mile with each other.

The race is well known in Tennessee. Many people who live along the route will set out some snacks or a cooler of drinks on their front lawn. They are called "road angels" and their kindness was so, so appreciated.

Because of the suffocating heat, we tried to focus on getting most of our miles at night. My favorite part of moving at night was when we would start sleep walking, then find a cozy driveway to take a quick 20 minute power nap. Hearing the frogs croak and the crickets chirp while staring at a blanket of stars above was magic. It's crazy how rested you can feel after sleeping for 20-30 minutes.

Day 3 ~ Miles 102-137
The morning of Day 3 was an inferno. You know that scene in The Wizard of Oz where the Wicked Witch of the West cackles "I'm melllltingggg!" as she drips into a puddle on the floor? I was the Wicked Witch. 

We were kind of getting to a crisis point with the heat and were starting to get concerned. At that very moment we came across Pam Pratt who I swear had angel wings tucked under her shirt. She had chairs under a canopy, cold Dr. Pepper and water, and some pasta salad that I would have sold one of my kidneys for. (Notice the bubbled sunburn blisters on my knees. Yes. I was using sunscreen.)

Jeff and Carol brought a baby stroller to carry their supplies. They did this last year too and got stopped by police a few times to make sure they didn't have a baby out in the heat. The Manwarings only live a few minutes away from me. I've known them for many years. We even traveled to Tennessee together. I couldn't have guessed that we'd spend almost the whole race together, and how valuable their support would be.

We planned to sleep for a few hours during the heat of the day. They booked a motel room in advance and there weren't any rooms left. They graciously invited me to stay in their room with them. I can't express how thankful I was. Traditionally when you stop, you rinse out your clothes and hang them up to dry. (Spoiler alert: THEY NEVER DRY.) I told them I didn't have a second pair of clothes so I'd just wrap a towel around myself. Jeff said "I have a dry pair of underwear, you can just wear these while you sleep." Did I wear them? You betcha. Then we all sat there in our underwear comparing blisters. And after we woke up, I took off Jeff's underwear, then he put them right back on. That, my friends, is true friendship. When you're in the midst of a 314 mile battle like this, swapping underwear doesn't even register on the radar for bizarre things.

Our long slog through the night began with an insane flash flood. We were drenched. We got to know the smell of roadkill before we even saw the roadkill. Skunks smell terrible. Possums smell terrible. But the absolute worst smelling roadkill is armadillos. They smell like a combination of a clogged gas station toilet, moldy cheese, rotten eggs, sweaty armpits, bad breath, and vomit. 

During the night we took a short power nap. Sleep comes within 60 seconds once your head hits the ground.

Day 4 ~ Miles 138-174
We were blessed with some cloud cover which helped us get a few extra miles in the daylight.

One road angel said up some camp chairs in their garage with drinks and snacks. We caught up with my friends Sharon and Cherie and they immediately had me laughing with their hilarious stories. 

Jeff, Carol, and I got a hotel room for a few hours in the afternoon. We planned to sleep four hours but I could only sleep three because my feet were hurting so bad. All my sorrows vanished in the evening though when I made my second Taco Bell visit of the race. 

People were so interested in the race. The most common question was "Why are you doing this?" They expected to hear that we were running for a charity or something. For me, "Why?" is a difficult question to answer. It's a deep question wrapped up in a lot of thought and emotion. Instead of getting into the philosophical points of making a journey like this, I'd usually say something like "I had some vacation hours at work that I needed to burn." So many people stopped and asked us about the route, or our goals, or the experiences we had so far. People were genuinely interested and so amazingly considerate and thoughtful.

That night we took a power nap in my favorite place during the whole race: a post office! It was quiet and cozy and we slept like rocks for a glorious 40 minutes.

Day 5 ~ Miles 175-202
Day 5 was kind of a blur ("Alex, I'll take Sleep Deprivation for $600.") We spent a few hours at a motel in Columbia and got FIVE HOURS of sleep! This was our longest period of sleep during the whole race. We felt amazing after waking up. After a few miles we were treated to one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen. We all stopped walking and just stood there in silence surrounded by a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors. I took deep breaths. I wanted to breath in every ray of pink and purple and yellow and orange that my lungs would hold. It was a powerful moment.

As light faded to darkness, I fell into kind of a dark place myself. My feet were an utter mess. Blisters had erupted all over both feet and each step was incredibly painful. I'd consider myself fairly experienced on foot care, but I just could not get on top of this problem. I was overwhelmingly discouraged and frustrated. 

During the night we made it to The Bench Of Despair. This is probably the most legendary spot of the Vol State 500k course. By this time, many runners feel as if they have met their breaking point. The discouragement I was feeling wasn't unusual. But the silver lining is that nearly every single person who has ever made it to the Bench Of Despair at mile 186 ends up finishing the race. I just needed to not give up.

A few miles after The Bench Of Despair, we made it to The Nutt House. Jimbo and Kim Nutt LIVE for the Vol State race each year. Their front yard is transformed into an oasis of love and support. They gave us chairs to sit on, cooked us some hamburgers, and even gave us some pie. It was so touching to see how important this race is to them. They truly love every runner who passes through, and it shows.

We had some really slow miles during the late night and early morning. We were all so tired. My feet felt like I was walking on molten lava, and Carol's ankle was causing lots of hassles. Around 4:00am we got to a gas station that was already cooking breakfast. We ordered some BLT sandwiches but it was going to take a few minutes to cook them. Our legs and feet were so demolished that we couldn't stand for a few minutes. Instead we just laid down to rest.

Our brains were FRIED. I think we realized the absurdity of laying on a gas station floor and we got the giggles. Then the giggles morphed into a complete outburst of laughter. We could have been arrested for public intoxication, and we would have failed the sobriety test of walking a straight line. Except that instead of being drunk on alcohol, we were drunk on exhaustion. This moment of pure misery may be my favorite memory of the whole race.

Day 6 ~ Miles 203-225
We made it to Lewisburg, Tennessee and were treated to a jaw dropping sunrise.
My feet were in severe distress and I needed some medical supplies from Walgreens. I had to sit outside and wait for 45 minutes for them to open. (Jeff and Carol went ahead a mile to our motel where we planned to sleep for a few hours.) While waiting for the store to open, a kitten found me and refused to let me stop petting her. I'm surprised that any living creature would willingly get that close to me considering that I had been wearing the same clothes for six days in a row.

The rest of the day was just a typical Vol State kind of day. You know, sleep in a crappy motel for a few hours, see a dead horse on the side of the road, eat gas station nachos, enjoy beef stew from a different gas station, take a roadside power nap, dodge dead armadillos, see a rainbow. The usual.

Somewhere along the way I lost my Badwater hat. I may have set it down when I stopped to take a picture or something. I planned to buy another one at the next gas station. Selection was fairly limited, but when I saw the bedazzled hat that said BOY, I heard the hat whisper to me "I love you. Take me with you." So I did. We've been best friends ever since.

Day 7 ~ Miles 226-267
It's difficult to describe how challenging Day 7 was for me. The heat radiating from the road was like a toaster oven. I SWEAR if you put a pepperoni Hot Pocket in each of my shoes, you could have set the shoes on the road for three minutes, then had yourself a couple of fully baked Hot Pockets. Between the heat and the fact that my feet were always wet, my blisters went from bad to worse.

We all experienced the brink of another crisis moment when we got caught in the heat of the day with no cover. This is a quick way to lose 15 pounds of sweat within one hour. My skin was withering like a dry raisin.

I just tried to hold on to hope that things would work out. I know I have the ability to keep fighting when things get hard. I recognized that this was one of those transformational moments when you realize that you are capable of more than you imagined. It's a blessing to recognize when you are living one of those moments.

In the evening we stopped at a Subway restaurant in Manchester. While we ate, I spent a lot of time trying to fix blisters. Once we started moving again, I knew I was in big trouble. My feet were in worse condition than ever. Carol said she has lots of experience fixing blisters and offered to work on my feet. I initially declined. I was being too prideful, and I was embarrassed at my condition. But my feet were at a crisis point. Something had to happen. So eventually I relented. In the lot of a car dealership she got my feet back into a condition that I could keep going.

At 2:00am we propped a phone on the baby stroller and watched the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I'm not exaggerating. I know every single line of that movie. I've never met someone who knows and loves that movie as much as I do. That is until I met Jeff and Carol! Those couple hours of the movie were pure happiness.

Day 8 ~ Miles 268-301
The focus of Day 8 was the three mile climb to Monteagle, one of two big climbs of the race. The bonus was that the scenery helped distract from our angry legs and feet.

Before the race, Carol told me that there are parts of the course that remind her of Hawaii. It seemed like a stretch to compare Tennessee to Hawaii, but now I finally understood what she meant.

Occasionally we'd get to a gas station or fast food restaurant and see other runners. Sometimes you get the luxury of sleeping in a motel for a few hours. Sometimes you just sleep on the side of the road. And sometimes you just sleep in a restaurant. My friend Cherie McCafferty took this photo during one of her stops. In my eyes, this is a perfect description of the Vol State experience:

We slept for a while in Monteagle, then I spent a while trying to fix blisters before we started again. As with the night before, as soon as I started moving, my feet were screaming with pain. I just couldn't keep going. Carol said "Sit down, let me help you." She took off my shoes and started working on my blisters.

This was my breaking point of the race. I'm not normally very emotional, but at that moment I burst into tears. When Carol saw the silent tears rolling down my cheeks, she started crying too. My feet were hurting so bad that I couldn't begin to fathom how it would be possible to go another 40 miles. It seemed absolutely impossible. But she again repaired them enough to keep going. Even now, the thought of her deep compassion makes me emotional. 

That night was a dark time for all of us, literally and figuratively. We were all having a hard time, and we were all trying to help each other keep going. Our NASA friend Ed caught up to us! We were thrilled to see him. Ed was so tired that he was talking to trees. In that moment, all we could do was laugh as we thought back on what we had experienced over the course of those eight days.

Day 8.5 ~ Miles 302-314
We made it through our last night of the race! We survived eight days! Now we only had the final 15 mile push to the finish line. A point of celebration for runners is when they reach the Blue Bridge around mile 304. By that point you can start to smell the finish line. That's when you know you're going to make it. I was ecstatic.

There are no words that could adequately express the gratitude and love I feel for Jeff and Carol Manwaring. Their compassion, encouragement, sense of humor, and grit radiate off of them. They said they were so thankful that I was part of their journey too. We talked about how we needed each other, we helped each other when times were tough, and the fact that we were with each other made the race experience so much richer. I feel so thankful to call them my friends.

We had the last climb of the race up Sand Mountain to complete. But we were determined and excited to make it to the finish.

In our final miles, we got caught in the fiercest flash flood of the race. Sometime I'll share some video from that point. It was pretty crazy. Right before the finish, Jeff, Carol, and I celebrated with a 312 mile jumping picture.

And then, after 8 days and 6 hours, covering the span of 314 miles, we made it to The Rock, the finish line of the Vol State 500k. I was swallowed with a sense of complete happiness and gratitude for the journey that I had just experienced.

Laz congratulated us at the finish line. He laughed at my hat and said he liked the creativity of buying a hat at a gas station after losing my first hat. He said "Let's trade hats for the finish line picture." I love this so, so much.

I could feel something changing in me during this race. The person who stood at The Rock after 314 miles is not the same person who stood at the start line. All the outside noise was quieted. It became so clear to see what truly matters in life. What matters is love. The world clutters our lives with responsibilities and due dates and meetings and to-do lists. They suck up our time and energy. But those things are completely meaningless. Relationships are what breathe life into us.

I saw just how powerful a simple act of kindness can be. On day 2, I started crying when a guy pulled up next to me and handed me a bottle of water. I needed that water and it meant so much to me. I regretted all the times I have passed up an opportunity to be a road angel to someone who may need something as simple as a bottle of water, or a hug, or some words of encouragement. I assure you that I will do my best to not overlook those opportunities anymore. It doesn't need to be something major. It's those small, simple actions that can make a world of difference. I will actively seek out opportunities to be a road angel to people in my everyday life.

I saw firsthand that we are capable of more than we know. I saw it in every single runner I spent time with. So often we take the easy way out in life. We choose comfort. We quit when it gets hard. But if we're willing to accept and embrace being uncomfortable, there really is nothing we can't do.

If you want to read more of my stuff, check out my books Nowhere Near First, and Into The Furnace. It's hard to summarize an experience like this into a single blog post. I don't have anything specific planned, but there may be more of this experience that finds its way to a book in the future.

Thank you to my sponsors St. George Running Center, Altra, Tailwind Nutrition, Injinji, and UltrAspire. Thank you to the amazing road angels along the course. You always seemed to be there when we needed you most. Thanks to the amazing runners I was able to share miles with. I am so happy to have new friendships with you. Thank you Laz for pushing me to my limit and showing me that I can push even farther. And finally, thank you Mel, Jackson, Dani, and Ky for your love and support. Coming home to your love was the greatest finish line award of all.