Next job was food. I’d spotted a Waffle House just down the road and, as big fan of the Bloodhound Gang’s ‘Bad Touch’ (“I want you smothered, want you covered like my Waffle House hash browns”) had to go there. I ordered a large pile of waffles, smothered and covered with various toppings. They were, unsurprisingly in retrospect, a bit greasy. I was still hungry and followed this up with a large ice cream sundae at Shoneys. Walking along the pavement it was ridiculously hot and I wondered how the hell I’d managed to walk for hours in these conditions. I headed back to the motel and sorted out a transfer to Atlanta for the next day and a motel for the 2 nights before my flight home. It would have been fun to hang out in Kimball with other finishers, but I thought I might not ever get another chance to see Atlanta. I then headed out for more food, a somewhat underwhelming Mexican which I failed to wash down with celebratory beer as I forgot to take my passport with me.
I slept better that night and only just made the end of breakfast. I bumped into some other finishers and ate with Mike Dobies, finding out about what goes on behind the scenes with the tracking sheet. I then dragged my over-sized holdall down the road to Krystal to wait for the shuttle. As I dithered over exactly which cool drink would be least sickly the waitress got excited about my accent and thanked me for visiting them. The shuttle to Atlanta (via Chattanooga) took a while, but was a good opportunity to rest.
The next day I felt perky, my legs and feet felt more or less normal and I didn’t feel particularly tired. Atlanta didn’t have any major tourist sites that appealed to me so I wandered around downtown and midtown (which was much nicer) for a bit before checking out various running, outdoor and book stores. (I didn’t buy much though, given the dismal state of the pound at the moment...). I probably racked up nearly 10 miles on foot, with regular stops for cold drinks. All in all I was feeling pretty good but I wasn’t firing on all cylinders mentally: I accidentally managed to order a portobello burger with meat in it and didn’t realise until several bites in (“why’s she asking me how I want my mushroom cooked?”, “Ooo, it’s got a soya burger in it as well as the mushroom”, “Oh, it’s not a soya burger, this is a real burger...”).
The journey home didn’t go completely smoothly. First I went to the wrong terminal and then both of my flights were delayed. Newark airport felt like a different universe: $10 sandwiches, $20 burgers and iPads at every restaurant/bar seat. I ended up buying a muffin on the grounds that it had the best calories-per-dollar ratio.
I thought I was already more or less recovered, but when I got home the jet lag and the sleeping problems combined to zombify me. I kept having nightmares, waking up drenched in sweat convinced that I’d not yet finished the race. The one time I’ve had post-race nightmares before was after the Spine. That made sense, because falling asleep in a frozen bog and dying was a real danger. But over-sleeping in an air-conditioned motel doesn’t carry the same risks. I’d also not missed that much sleep: after the 1st day I got 3-4 hours a night, which isn’t much less than I often survive on during term-time. I spent over a week feeling really fuggy-headed and eating huge amounts of (non-greasy, non-sugary) food, more than regaining any weight I lost (although my bowels have still to fully recover nearly 3 weeks later).
All my whining about food makes it sound like I’m a very fussy eater, but really I’m not. I’m veg and my stomach doesn’t like greasy food, but apart from that I’m usually not that picky. I’d initially planned to try out gas station food during our pre-race holiday. But who spends their holiday (willingly...) living off of gas station food? Turns out I’m not that masochistic. And actually I settled on a combination which worked (Pringles, crackers, danish pastries, ice cream and Mountain Dew) fairly quickly.
Now the dust has settled there’s 95% of me that’s still ecstatically happy about finishing in under 6 days, fairly close to the front of the field. Although by now I really shouldn’t be so surprised that I’m actually alright at long stuff. But there’s 5% of me thinking hang-on, if I went back and didn’t screw up day 1, wore more suitable shorts/trousers and generally benefited from the course knowledge from this year, could I go sub 5.5 days and get closer to the front of the field? (I’m pretty competitive about things I’m good at, historically running hasn’t been one of them...) If I lived in the US I’d have been hitting the button the moment entries opened. But it’s too far, and takes too much time and money, to go back again (for a few years at least). Plus I’ve already got plans for the next two Summers: the Monarch’s Way in 2018 and the EMU 6 day race in 2019.
So how hard was it compared to other long races I’ve done? It’s hard to compare given the (deliberately) generous cut-off. If nothing goes hideously wrong you can finish, provided you keep making reasonable forward progress. It’s definitely easier to finish than the Thames Ring 250 (100 hour cut-off), T184 (80 hours and you have to carry all your food and sleeping gear) and the Viking Way (40 hours, 147 harder than they first appear miles, which I’ve failed to finish twice...). A sub 7 day finish is probably comparable to, or slightly harder than, the Thames Ring 250 and T184, especially for a Brit given the heat and humidity. I’m fairly sure the Spine is still the hardest race I’ve finished, thanks to the 7 day cut-off, heavy kit, underfoot conditions and cold weather. But it was the first really long race I did, so maybe I’m looking back on it through whatever the opposite of ‘rose tinted glasses’ are? I’ve definitely learnt a lot about multi-day events since then.
Things which worked well
Raid light t-shirt, Outdoor research sleeves and sun-hat None of these items were particularly stylish/flattering, in particular the semi-see-through t-shirt. But they kept the sun off me and didn’t hold too much water.
Ultimate Direction PB 3.0 pack There were times when I wished I had a slightly bigger pack, but this one is comfy, has lots of useful pockets and was big enough for everything I really needed.
Dry Max Hot Weather socks Stupidly expensive, but no heat-rash, not much swelling and only 3 small (< 1cm) blisters.
Things which didn’t work so well
Clothing for the lower half of my body
I suspect there’s no perfect solution (short of having my thighs surgically reduced so they don’t rub together...). However I’m fairly sure I could have found kit that was better at protecting me from the sun and reducing chafing.
My dog repelling strategy
Which was making myself as big as possible (easy in the horizontal direction, harder in the vertical one...), pointing towards the house the dog seemed to come from and shouting “go home” repeatedly. And occasionally waving branches/twigs around. I saw another runner carrying a car aerial which seems like a good idea. An umbrella might have been a solution to this and the previous issue. I bought a lightweight trekking umbrella but in the end left it as home, because it would be a bit bulky to carry if I got fed up with it (and too expensive to bin). I contemplated buying an umbrella en route, but never came across a store selling them during the heat of the day.
My rest strategy If I did the race again I’d definitely stop in Martin at 30 miles on the afternoon of day 1, and then try harder to stick to a resting in the day routine, even if it required working on my charm/negotiation skills.
A few miles later I reached Pelham, where I was looking forward to having breakfast at a cafe. It was closed though, and Pelham was a small place, so I found a vending machine, bought some Mountain Dew and used it to wash down some squashed Ritz crackers. I sent a sulky message to the OH. He replied asking where the finish was, so he’d know when to cheer. But right then the finish was feeling a long way away, especially with Monteagle Mountain looming in the distance.
Leaving Pelham I spotted another cafe, which was in fact open. However it looked a bit fancy, so it might not have been the best place for a smelly, scruffy person to have a quick breakfast. The ~4 miles to the foot of the ‘mountain’ dragged. I kept getting my phone out to check my position and finding I’d barely moved since the last check. In the end I decided to just keep going to the bottom of the hill, where I’d reward myself by having a nap and then getting my iPod out. Setting a goal seemed to work and I got there without any further breaks/sulks. I think that running my long runs harder might actually have helped a bit with pushing on even when my body and head had other ideas.
I found a nice side road for my nap and then dug my iPod out. After listening to Owl Cities rather apt Fireflies several times I finally got it into shuffle mode. And I felt great. I marched up the hill singing along to cheesy dance and chart music. I even added in some hand motions, which were a cross between conducting and dancing. I deliberately didn’t time the climb, but it flew by. Mountain, my arse, it was more like a moderately big hill. Thankfully when Jan caught me at the top I’d reverted to a normal walk.
I stopped for lunch at the Mountain Goat Market in Monteagle. It was the sort of place I’d actually choose to eat at, and it had a range of veggie sandwiches to choose from. Unfortunately I managed to choose one which turned out to be fried/toasted and my lips were too sore to eat all of it. I topped my calories supplies up with some gooey Red Velvet cake though. After a brief stop in their, very nice, toilet to reapply lube I headed out into the heat of the afternoon. The march up the hill had left my trousers drenched in sweat so I decided to lie on a big rock, first face up, then face down, for 5 minutes to dry them off. I’m sure I looked completely ridiculous, but I was long beyond caring.
Lunch at the Mountain Goat Market Monteagle
Leaving Monteagle I passed Doug’s support car, with Doug outside having a snooze. Unfortunately, thanks to me, Doug’s snooze didn’t last much longer. A small dog charged out of a nearby house and circled my legs while I ineffectually shouted ‘go home’ at it. Eventually, just as a now wide-awake Doug was crossing the road to help me, I extricated myself. I crossed the road and we had a chat/moan about Tennessee dog owners.
I’d expected to pass a gas station in Monteagle, but didn’t and ended up breaking my “during the day leave town with lots of water” rule. Luckily I did pass a car repair garage with a vending machine, so stocked up there. Otherwise the short stretch to Tracy City went fairly smoothly. Doug caught and passed me, and I took advantage of some shady picnic tables to get out of the Sun for a bit and massage and re-tape my sore feet.
I stopped at the Dollar General in Tracy City for a mid-afternoon snack (ice cream and Mountain Dew) and stocked up on granola bars to see me through to the finish. One of the other customers gleefully told me about how he’d nearly run a runner over the night before. The 16 miles to Jasper was a long haul, but as the Sun started setting and the road tilted gently down it suddenly felt like the end was in sight and I started running. A car pulled up into a drive and two guys jumped out. One I recognised as last year’s first screwed finisher Andrew Snope (the other I later realised was this year’s first screwed finisher Matt Collins). We had a quick shouted conversation while I jogged past. In retrospect I really regret that I didn’t stop and talk to them properly (given that they’d taken the trouble to come out to cheer the rest of the runners on). Yes I was on a roll, but 5 minutes would have made no difference to anything in the grander scheme of things. I don’t remember doing the 7.30pm check-in, but evidently I did: 291 miles.
By the time I hit the top of the long decent into Jasper my trousers were drenched in sweat and really uncomfy. I was really glad that I hadn’t binned my shorts 2 days before. I stopped by the side of the road, mopped the worst of the sweat off, coated everything between my waist and knees in Sudocrem and pulled on the (damp, smelly...) shorts. There were no bushes to hide in, and of course the traffic now got heavier. However I’d reverted to wearing pants, so the passing drivers weren’t seeing anything worse than my KT-tape clad thighs.
The road was quite narrow and bendy, so I had to stop occasionally to avoid oncoming traffic. But otherwise I loved the descent and I still felt pretty happy when I reached (Vol State uber-fan) Steve Smalling’s house at the bottom. I stopped for a bottle of water, a quick chat and a not very flattering photo of me drenched in sweat. He asked whether I was going to keep going to the finish that night. Given that there were 20 miles, and a big hill/mountain still to go that was a sensible question. But I was perplexed, I was feeling good and there were only 20 miles to go, why would I stop? I told him that I was going to keep going until I reached the finish.
Passing Steve Smalling’s house at mile 292.
I navigated my way through Jasper, mainly walking because of the lack of side-walk or shoulder. And realised that getting drenched in sweat when there were still quite a lot of night miles to go hadn’t been the most sensible thing I’d ever done. A few days ago I’d booked a room at the Super 8 motel in Kimball for the following night, but barring disaster I was now going to need a room for at least some of tonight. I decided it would actually be a good idea to stop in Kimball in 4 miles time, sort out a room, dump anything I wouldn’t need for the final 14 miles and dry myself off. With this plan in mind I threw caution to the wind and ran up a, very gentle, small hill. It didn’t feel particularly hot, but soon the sweat was, literally, running off the sleeves of my t-shirt.
At the Super 8 Samir kindly sorted me out with an accessible room, right next to reception and sent me off with a bottle of cold water. I spent 15 minutes ditching the gear I could do without and drying off. I changed into the white shirt which I’d been carrying in case I got cold. Mainly because it was dry, but partly because it wouldn’t look quite as bad in the finish photos as my now very grubby, slightly see-through T-shirt. Some quick maths suggested that a sub 5d 20h finish might be doable. But I resolved to power-walk my way to the base of Sand mountain, rather than running, getting soaking wet again and ending up collapsing in a bush with hypothermia.
The first thing I had to do was power-walk back to my room, as I got paranoid and convinced myself I hadn’t shut the door properly. I then stopped at a gas station to buy one final Mountain Dew. I successfully negotiated the complicated road junction in South Pittsburg (without a GPS track I’d have really struggled) and crossed the big bridge. I was slightly alarmed by quite how low the walls were, and how easy it’d be to fall into the river far below. I sat down (so there was no risk of dropping my phone in the river) and rang the organisers to let them know I was getting close to the finish.
I kept walking, occasionally crossing the road to put more distance between me and barking dogs. Laz and Bill drove past on their way up to the finish at the rock. I reached the rail-crossing just as the barriers came down. This was at least a good excuse to stop and have a wee. I then thought “sod it” and jogged, rather than walked, to the turn up Sand mountain. I put my iPod on again and marched my way up. No singing this time, but I did end up waving my hands around swatting mosquitos (having not needed bug spray for several days, I’d left it at the motel). The first section was quite steep, but it eased off fairly quickly. I crossed into Alabama and started running again, albeit with regular stops to check my phone, to make sure I didn’t miss the turn off to Castle Rock.
Eventually the turn came, 5k to go and roughly an hour to get in inside 5d 20h. I ran the whole way, across the Georgia border and into Castle Rock, past the parked cars and left onto the bean fields. I’d expected to have to get my phone out to navigate, but there was a sign pointing the way, with the motivational slogan “only one more mile to go”. A-ha, I bet I know what’s coming next I thought. And I was right: a series of signs each proclaiming there was only one more mile to go. I was feeling pretty good, so thought this was quite amusing. After 313 miles of roads I wasn’t watching my feet carefully enough though and kicked a rock and nearly went flying. I gave myself a bit of a talking to, slow down, watch what you’re doing. You don’t want to DNF because you’ve fallen over and knocked yourself out less than a mile from the finish.
The finish gazebo came into view. Doug was there with his crew, having finished an hour and a half before me. Bill slowed me to a halt and then guided me very carefully out onto the rock (there’s a big sheer drop behind it). It took a few goes, but eventually we got a photo of me touching it. I then had the privilege of sitting on the thrown (so called because by the time every finisher has sat in it it’s so gross it has to be thrown away). I got quizzed about my experiences on the road, favourite drink (“Mountain dew: it’s rocket fuel!), favourite gas station food (danish pastries) and whether it was easier than I expected. No, but I definitely wasn’t expecting a finishing time starting with a 5. Bill asked if I realised how many people were still out on the road behind me. I’d been following the tracking sheet throughout so I did, but this was the point at which it really sank in: I’d finished 13th out of 88 starters! Having followed the race intently online for the past couple of years (and also watched the Barkley marathons documentary many times) this all seemed really surreal. I felt like I’d gate-crashed a film of someone else’s finish.
After a while I started getting cold and Laz drove me back to the parked cars for my final challenge: retrieving my luggage. I found the right truck easily enough, but finding the key was a different story. Eventually, as Laz lit a cigarette, the penny dropped-it was parked the other way around. While driving back to the Super 8 in Kimball we discussed one of my pet topics: why physicists tend to do well at the Barkley. (It was actually Laz who brought it up after I’d outed myself by saying that as a theoretical physicist I’d have liked a 100 pi car sticker...)
Touching ‘the rock’
Receiving my car sticker while sat on the thrown
Race bling: to be framed
Not even Mountain Dew could keep me going, and I was stopping every mile or so to rest. I spotted another gas station and remembered one of Laz’s daily updates describing someone walking along carrying a bag of ice. As I’d discovered the previous afternoon, carrying a plastic bag in your hand really slows you down. But probably not as much sitting down every mile. I bought a bag of ice, filled my bottle and bladder, stuffed it in every clothing orifice I could (hat, sleeves, bra... ) and set off again carrying the remainder. I felt so much better. Well apart from my crotch. Ice in my bra was, in retrospect, a bad idea; as it melted the water flowed straight down into my pants. I stopped a couple of times to dish out the rest of the ice. I think I was moving faster, but even if I wasn’t I felt much better.
Ice (ice, baby...)
Jan in the meat wagon stopped and told me that JBob was resting in the store at Wartrace, a couple of miles up the road. Which was surprising, I thought he’d be much further ahead. I passed Doug’s support car again, which meant he was still behind me, which was also surprising. I stopped at the store in Wartrace myself and had crisps, ice cream and (surprise!) Mountain Dew. I asked if there was a motel in town. As far as I knew there wasn’t, but earlier in the day I’d been contemplating stopping here to get out of the Sun. Indeed there wasn’t, but thanks to the ice I was feeling much better and was happy to push on to Manchester, 18 miles away. I stopped briefly in the centre of Wartrace (which was quite picturesque) to tape a small blister that had appeared on the side of my foot, and had a quick chat to Doug’s support.
The next 10 miles were (apart from some dodgy dogs) my favourite of the whole race. The route went up a long, but gentle, climb through farmland with plenty of trees. It reminded me of a less twee version of the Alps. At the top I rewarded myself with a sit-down break to eat a danish pastry. A women and a boy in a car pulled up and told me I was sitting too close to a road junction. I probably was, although at least I wasn’t lying across the junction like they told me someone did last year. They gave me a bottle of water and also thrust a packet of biscuits into my hands. I never quite got around to eating them and they’re now sat in a cupboard as a slightly unusual souvenir. In the midst of this Doug finally caught and passed me.
A few miles later my feet started hurting for the first time. A particularly annoying dog encounter didn’t help my mood. A dog came out and chased me along the road, while one of its owners nonchalantly told the other “fido (or whatever its name was) is chasing that lady who’s walking and scaring the life out of her”, but didn’t actually do anything to discourage it. Fortunately a bit later there was a road angel aid station by the side of the road with chairs. I took my shoes off for a few minutes, gave my feet a massage and took a couple of pain-killers. This was enough to ease the pain and (with the Sun beginning to get low in the sky) I started running. I stopped at 7.30pm to check in (243 miles) but otherwise ran most of the way to Manchester. My trousers had done an excellent job of keeping the Sun off my legs, and were fine for walking during the day. But as soon as I started running they got drenched in sweat and it felt like running in soaking wet sweat pants.
I also ran out of water. Manchester is a pretty big place, and there were plenty of liquor stores, but it was now dark and stopping at one of them didn’t seem like the best idea. Instead I held out until I reached a gas station. The one other customer appeared to be completely off his face (and had tears tattooed on his face). He was very friendly, and told me he had a backpack just like mine (!?). I didn’t feel unsafe at any point during this interaction, but this was somewhere where I’d need to keep an eye on what was going on around me. Passing dodgy looking motels with signs advertising weekly rates reinforced this message.
There were plenty of motels around the interstate on the far side of the city, so I hadn’t bothered booking one in advance. I kept checking the GPS app on my phone, to make sure I wasn’t wandering off route. At one point I opened my front pocket and it wasn’t there. Shit! Was I going to have to DNF because I’d lost my phone? Just as I was going to back-track in the vain hope it was still where I’d dropped it, I found it, behind the pocket. Phew. But I gave myself a bit of a talking to about being more careful.
Eventually the cluster of motels and fast food joints came into view. I wasn’t used to having this much choice. I stopped at a Subway to stock up on food and then went to the first model, a Rodeway Inn. We’d had a bad customer service experience at one on our pre-race holiday, and I briefly considered going somewhere else. But I was glad I didn’t. The guy behind the desk was really friendly and helpful. Several runners had already passed through and he gave me the discount rate that one of them had negotiated. He also showed me the self-addressed UPS envelope full of no longer needed gear that Karen (who would go on to finish 1st screwed woman) had left. I repeated my standard rest routine, apart from mistakenly trying to remove the KTtape from one of my thighs. It was firmly stuck and the skin felt like it was going to come off too. It had done an excellent job of preventing the chafing getting worse though. I initially set my alarm for 3 hours sleep, but it was restless thanks to my sore feet so when the alarm went off I set it for another hour.
I left the motel at about ~4am for the final 62 miles. Sub 6 days was looking doable. However there were two “mountains” to come. On the tour bus they hadn’t looked particularly mountainous, but going up them on feet and legs with 250+ miles on them might be a different story. Apart from my ‘tortoise and hare leapfrog game’ with Doug (he was moving significantly faster than me, but appeared to be stopping for longer and more often) the only thing I was racing was the clock. The front-pack had pulled away and there was a significant gap to the next runners behind.
The first 8 miles to Hillsboro went by quickly and I stopped there for a Mountain Dew. (I did once try its rival, Sun Drop. It was nowhere near as good.) The 7.30am check-in came a little bit down the road at 263 miles. I’d stopped at a nice driveway into a field so I nipped into the crops for a wee and then had a quick nap.
The remaining few miles to Columbia went by quickly. It looked to be a fairly big place so I stopped for breakfast number 1 (ice cream and Mountain Dew) at the first gas station. As I was eating it on the concrete outside Alex came along. He still looked happy, but said he was struggling at bit and was planning to stop at a motel and ice his legs. A little bit down the road an elderly man came out of his house and asked me to sign his guest book with my name, home town and profession. This was one of several occasions where I struggled to convince someone that I really lived in England (“Yes that’s obviously were you’re from, but where do you live now”). I guess travelling a significant fraction of the way around the world to run across Tennessee, on roads, in Summer is a little strange.
A few miles later the stomach cramps hit again, but this time I was in a built up area. What to do? Knock on someone’s door early on a Sunday morning and ask to use their toilet? Or try and find a bush which looked like it didn’t belong to anyone? Thankfully a small patch of overgrown wood appear and I dashed in, oblivious to whether any of the plants I was pushing through were poisonous. This time what came out was not just yellow, but pure liquid. Time to hit the Immodium...
I thought finding a cafe in the City centre for 2nd breakfast would be easy, but everything was shut because it was Sunday. Eventually I found somewhere that was open and went in. The “open 24 hours a day” sign and the single, toothless customer should have rung some alarm bells. But I went ahead and ordered some pancakes. I sat down, looked around and realised quite what a dive this place was. A trip to the dirtiest toilet I’ve ever seen in a bar/restaurant confirmed that eating here would probably give me even worse stomach problems. So I made my excuses (“I’m suddenly feeling ill”, which wasn’t that much of a lie), paid for the pancakes (since they’d already started making them) and left.
A bit further up the road I spotted a restaurant which seemed to be very popular, and therefore presumably a safer bet. However it was a ‘point at what you want at the counter’ job, and I had no idea what any of the food was. So I left in the hope of finding somewhere better. Finally, on the other side of town there were a bunch of chain restaurants. I went into the nearest one and ordered a stack of pancakes, which I almost managed to finish. It was nearly mid-day by now and all I’d managed to do with the morning was eat 2 breakfasts and have explosive diarrhoea in a bush. I was feeling fairly fresh though, and after stocking up on water at a gas station I set off for Glendale and the infamous bench of despair.
This 4 mile stretch went by quite quickly and I only stopped briefly at Glendale market. I took advantage of the toilet to relube my undercarriage (ditching the pants and “going commando” was now seeming like less of a good idea...), take a not particularly flattering selfie and drink a bottle of Mountain Dew (I accidentally picked up diet, but thankfully realised before I’d opened it).
The rolling road to Culleoka, with narrow shoulders soon wore me down and I was happy to stop at the best road angel aid station I’d seen since day 1: sun loungers under a gazebo and a selection of cooled drinks and snacks. The road continued to undulate and the heat of the afternoon ground me down some more. My legs were really sore, from a combination of sun-burn and road rash. Everytime anything (my shoe-laces, a blade of grass, a bug,...) touched them it felt like I was being stung. The new factor 100 sun cream was unpleasantly sticky and seemed to be making things worse rather than better. I was happy to stop and talk to Jeff, a local who’d finished the race last year, who appeared with a car boot full of cold water. I’d booked a room for the night at the Celebration In in Lewisburg, but it was 10+ miles away and I wasn’t going to get there until the evening. I was worried that all the food stores would be closed, like they were in Columbia that morning, and I’d be without food, not just for that evening but also the long stretch to Shelbyville the next morning, so I asked Jeff’s advice. He agreed this could be an issue and suggested stocking up at a gas station by the interstate ~6 miles out of Lewisburg.
The afternoon had another pleasant surprise in the form of the Mooresville market. For some reason I hadn’t marked it on my map. I got the impression that in previous years they hadn’t been particularly welcoming, but this year they were giving all Vol Staters a free gatorade. I declined though in favour of buying (“my precious...”) Mountain Dew. I also bought a couple of fruit turnovers (which, unfortunately, it turned out had been deep fried). One of the locals tried to talk to me. I initially felt bad that I couldn’t understand a word he said. But on leaving I overheard someone else having exactly the same problem.
Next up was one of my worst dog encounters. A smallish dog charged out of a house and drove me into the, fairly busy, road. There was what looked to be an extended family outside and they eventually managed to call the dog back. Phew, I thought, and started walking again. The dog charged again. I looked both ways quickly and darted across the road. The dog, without looking, tried to follow and nearly got run over. At this point the oldest woman appeared to get angry with me. She shouted that I should have looked before crossing the road and that waving my water bottle at the dog would stop it chasing me. Eventually I made a, very cautious, escape.
A bit later I stopped at the gas station and stocked up on food for the next ~15 hours. I’d have to carry a plastic bag in my hand the rest of the way to Lewisburg, but that was better than going without food. A bit later a guy in a truck stopped. He’d driven a huge distance that day, trying to see and help as many Vol Staters as possible. I clearly had plenty of food and water, but the fruit cup he thrust into my hands made a nice treat that evening. A few miles out of Lewisburg I made my 7.30pm check-in: 197 miles.
There was a gentle downhill into Lewisburg that I should have run. But the combination of the plastic bag and drivers veering towards me when they spotted me (due to a few too many Sunday afternoon beers?) meant I ended up walking. This was one of the toughest patches of the week, I wasn’t feeling miserable so much as irritable. On the outskirts of Lewisburg Doug caught me and, with a big effort, I just managed to keep up with his fast walking pace. I was generally glad of his company; the motel was on the far side of town and it would have been a long slog on my own. A throw away comment he made, which I could have even taken as a compliment, made me even more irritable though. He asked whether I’d seen Salt that day. I replied no, he was now consistently in front of me. Doug said something along the lines, that Salt didn’t look like he should be as fast as he is. And then added “just like you” on the end. My mood wasn’t helped by walking past several, decent looking, open grocery stores. I’d carried a bag of groceries 6 miles for nothing...
When we got to the motel it looked completely shut. It was only 9.30pm, but it felt a lot later. Doug’s one-man crew had already checked-in, but I was suddenly paranoid about where I’d be sleeping (Doug kindly said I could to go to their room if I couldn’t get into mine, but that would have rendered me crewed). To my huge relief, we spotted a small boy sat in the window, and he summonsed someone to open the door.
After check-in my shower, sleep, get going again routine went as before, with a couple of changes: I binned the new sun cream and switched my shorts for the baggy long trousers which I’d brought in case it got cold at night. I was tempted to bin the shorts too, but kept them just in case the trousers were even more uncomfortable. I knew my thighs would chafe really badly in the trousers, so I took the slightly radical step of covering them both in KT tape. I suspected this would either work really well or go very badly wrong. The new diaper rash cream was a completely different consistency to Sudocrem (should have checked the ingredient list...). I reserved the Sudocrem for the most important body part, my feet, and coated everything else in the new stuff.
I didn’t have many hours of darkness left, but as usual the first post-rest stretch went quite well. I ran most of it and the turn onto SR 64 to Shelbyville came much sooner than I expected. I started dragging arse soon after that though. A combination of my usual post-dawn drowsiness and not wanting to get to some aggressive dogs that we’d been warned would need to be “driven back by any means” if they came out. I solved the first problem with a quick nap on a very nice church porch (although accidentally lying on the bite valve of my bladder made it a bit soggy) and armed myself with a small branch. It was actually more like a twig, and probably not up to driving off a mildly bad tempered elderly cat even.
As I plodded along, I heard some strange tapping catching me up from behind. I turned my head to see JBob accompanied by a couple of friendly looking (stray?) dogs. I’m not used to being caught from behind by someone I haven’t seen before at this point in a race. This initially made me feel a bit miserable. But a quick conversation revealed that JBob is a much faster runner than me (he finished 5th at Vol State last year with a crew and is running Spartathlon later this year) and was only temporarily behind me because he’d spent 12 hours laid up in a motel with a bad back. He soon ran off, but his dog companions stuck with me. I hoped they’d help me ward off the dodgy dogs, but realistically they were likely to be even less use than the twig which I’d already ditched.
I was a bit fuzzy about exactly where the dodgy dogs were. The Pittesville market came into it somewhere, so when I spotted it I crossed to the other side of the road. JBob was sat outside eating breakfast and was presumably somewhat perplexed about why I’d actively avoided the first gas station in miles. (I later discovered the dogs were a few miles further down the road and they must have been safely locked away when I went past.) There was luckily another gas station not far along the road, where I stopped for my by now habitual breakfast of ice cream and Mountain Dew. The 7.30am check-in came somewhere (I can’t remember exactly where) in this midst of all this: 215 miles.
While I was eating I decided to book a motel in the next town, Hohenwald, ~18 miles away. There was no availability showing online so I shelved my dislike of phones and phoned the one motel on the route, the Embassy Inn. They were obviously expecting runners. They asked me when I was planning to arrive, and when I replied 3 asked whether that was am or pm. I also had a look at the online tracking sheet and was amazed to discover that I was only ~5 miles behind the leading pack of screwed runners (the first 2 crewed runners were a long way ahead). (I may have sent a text to the OH with this information including the phrase “jesus f christ”...) I only have one speed (slow), so I’m used to being at the back of the pack and then, if the event lasts longer than 12 hours, working my way through to mid-field. However for the first time in my life I’d gone out too hard. The runners who’d overtaken me overnight had been resting more and moving faster, so the gap to the front-pack was only going to increase and I was likely to be moving backwards rather than forwards.
I stocked up on water and snacks for the long, shop-less stage ahead. The girl on the check-out got really excited because she’d never met an English person before. It initially seemed a bit OTT, but then I realised that I’d have probably reacted in the same way if an American had passed through the small village I grew up in. There are in fact a lot of similarities between rural Tennessee and rural Somerset, Tennessee is just more spread-out and much, much hotter.
In the half hour I was inside eating it had already got hot. I slathered on the sun screen and bought even more water from a gas station. The next stretch was quite scenic and initially quite pleasant. It was the first time I really noticed the roadkill. I’d spotted scaly remains before, and had assumed it was some sort of snake. But now, seeing them earlier in the decay process, I realised it was armadillo armour. And the ones which were less squashed/eaten stunk. I got into the habit of putting my hand over my mouth and breathing through my nose every time I spotted one coming up.
The first 7 or 8 miles flew by, but then it really dragged. There was nowhere to shelter from the Sun. A couple of time I sat down on drives, but sitting in the Sun didn’t really help and I was rattling through my water supplies. Like the previous afternoon the sky clouded over, and it started raining heavily and thundering. But this time the storm went on for hours. I was counting the seconds between the lightening and the thunder (I’d decided I’d look for shelter if the gap got down to 2 secs). The storm seemed to be rolling around, getting closer, going away and then coming back again. I did at least discover an unexpected advantage to waterproof poncho wearing: you can wee discretely by the side of the road.
I plodded on, hoping I was getting close to the first gas station outside Hohenwald, but not wanting to get my phone out to check in the heavy rain. I was rationing my water, which in turn had stopped me eating. I was extremely happy to see a sign directing runners to water underneath a carport. The couple living in the house came out and we chatted for a bit, I signed their guestbook, explained that it wasn’t actually the last edition of the race and got some water and food down. They broke the news that the gas station on the outskirts of Hohenwald was actually still another 3 miles away. But now I’d had a short break and some food and water that didn’t seem so bad.
Before I got there I had painful stomach cramps. Fortunately there were some trees I could dash behind, as yellow semi-liquid poo pushed out everything else that was in my bowels. The result of the somewhat greasy breakfast I’m guessing. Eventually I made it to Hohenwald and this time I stocked up on food before heading to the motel, so I could eat before checking-in early (144 miles) and sleeping. Otherwise my routine was the same as the previous night with 2 differences. i) I didn’t put my pants back on as, despite being made of thin, wicking fabric, they’d felt like a wet nappy the night before ii) I didn’t arrive till late afternoon (so much for avoiding the heat of the day) so it was already dark when I left.
My first destination was Walmart for food and medical supplies. The chafing issues meant I was getting through my sudocrem supplies far faster than expected, the foot taping was using up my KTtape and my expensive suncream was getting sweated straight off me and my skin was frying. I needed to make space in my pack for the extra supplies, so I ditched my fluorescent vest. It had annoyed me on the 1st night, it fact it had annoyed me on the only other occasion I’d worn it so I was happy to see the back of it. I also bought lots of water, a sandwich (turkey, but they didn’t have any veg ones so I resorted to taking the meat out), some pouches of baby food, crisps and my new found nectar, Mountain Dew, and had a picnic on the pavement outside. Walmarts are huge: the walk across the car park and then around the store was probably a good fraction of a mile, but it was well worth it.
The road out of Hohenwald was long, wide and straight, but it also seemed to be downhill so I actually managed a fair bit of running (and my undercarriage felt a lot happier without pants). It was very misty, which gave the odd sensation of being in a bubble. I stopped briefly at the campground near Natchez Trace Parkway, hoping to use their toilet, but it was locked, so I weed on the grass instead. The road into Hampshire got a bit more bendy and interesting and I continued making what seemed like good progress. I stopped at the vending machine outside the store there for my, now customary, Mountain Dew.
My usual post-dawn tiredness hit me, so I lay down on a drive leading into a field and set my alarm for a 10 minute nap. I only managed 5 though as a truck sped by and I woke up panicking that I’d fallen asleep on the shoulder. That, and a couple of caffeine tablets, was enough to wake me up though and I continued moving at a decent pace up till the 7.30am check-in. I sat down on a very nice driveway and checked in: 169 miles. More than half-way in 3 days, however my focus was still a sub 7 day finish. I put on my hat, sleeves and sunglasses, slathered the remaining exposed skin in my new factor 100, allegedly sweat-proof, sun-cream and set off again.
Having learnt at least some of the lessons from day 1 I stopped at a vending machine on the outskirts of town and bought the least noxious looking drink. Apart from seeing Jan in the meat wagon, the 8 miles to Clarksburg went by without incident. However it was getting pretty hot and I needed to get more water for the 7 miles to Parkers Crossroads. Clarksburg was small and (like most of the places we went through) very spread out, so I was paranoid about walking right past the only supermarket. I even went into a gun shop and asked if they sold water. There was one benefit to my paranoia though. I’d crossed to the ‘wrong’ side of the road, to check out a potential shop, and heard aggressive barking and growling behind me and turned around to see Doug being driven into the road by a pair of dogs. Eventually the shop appeared. They didn’t seem to have individual bottles of water, so I settled for Gatorade, which left a lingering taint in my water bottle.
After a brief sit on a piece of concrete in the shade, I headed off to grind out the hot miles to Parkers Crossroads. This would have been a better place to stop and sleep than Lexington, but I didn’t think I had the charm/chutpzah to negotiate an early check-in. I did stop at the MacDonalds there for lunch. I managed most of a large portion of greasy fries but struggled with the sugary McFlurry.
The next 2 miles were probably the hottest of the week. It felt like the heat from the pavement was roasting me and the air was too hot to breathe. The sky then clouded over and the temperature dropped. Which was pleasant, until it started thundering and raining heavily. I stopped and put my waterproof poncho on. Not to keep me dry (I was already soaking wet from my sweat), but to protect the contents of my pack. For the next hour or so it alternated between heavy rain and hot sunshine, and sometime both at once, which was particularly unpleasant. It rained enough that the street flooded and my feet got soaked from paddling. Earlier on Doug and I had had a discussion about how far it was from Parkers Crossroad to Lexington: he said 5 miles, I said 10. It turns out we were both right. The city limits were 5 miles, the centre of town (and crucially my motel) were 10.
When I got to Lexington I headed straight to the Days Inn motel. It wasn’t raining (and in fact looked like it hadn’t rained at all) there, but I was keen to get out of my wet shoes and socks. I stripped off my wet clothes, washed the miscellaneous gunk (sun-cream, insect repellent, sudocrem, ...) off of myself and discovered that I hadn’t been applying sudocrem liberally enough-there was nasty chafing on both my thighs. I washed my clothes, wrung them out in towels (a tip picked up from the Vol State mailing list) and laid them out to dry by the AC before collapsing into bed. I then realised I was really quite hungry. But being completely naked with no dry underwear (I did have a dry shirt and trousers) I was limited to eating the snacks I’d been carrying since day 1. Day 2 lesson of the day: buy food before checking into motel. Before going to sleep I texted the OH and did my 7.30pm check-in a few hours early: 92 miles.
I slept for ~3 hours before relubing various body parts, retaping my foot and heading off into the early evening. First stop: a gas station for food. I grabbed some familiar food (Pringles and Ritz crackers) and then spotted what turned out to be my food discovery of the race: “Danish pastries”. Danish pastries are one of my favourite treat foods. These “Danish pastries” bear very little resemblance to proper ones (even after having eaten nearly a dozen of them I couldn’t tell you what’s actually in them). But they were a fairly palatable way of getting down a large number of calories. I ate most of my stash on the steps of the town hall before heading off towards my first goal: Chesterfield.
Chesterfield was a small place, with few facilities and none which would be open late evening. However for the last 12 years I’ve lived in the original Chesterfield (Derbyshire, UK) so I was keen to get a selfie with the road sign (I’d been carefully looking out of the bus window on the drive to the start to check that Chesterfield, TN was in fact big enough to have a road sign). Even though I was feeling pretty good, the 8 miles took quite a while. There was a bit of police activity on this stretch. First I passed a police car which had pulled a driver over, and then another car going in the opposite direction drove past me slowly and shone a spotlight at me. This unnerved me slightly and when a car pulled onto the shoulder and the driver opened the window I went round onto the road side (on the grounds that then it would be harder for the driver to drag me into the bushes...). It turned out that it was Jan in the meat wagon and she tipped me off about a nice picnic area, behind a dilapidated store with a vending machine, a few miles up the road in Darden.
Passing through Chesterfield took a while. Stopping to look at the front-side of every road sign didn’t help my progress. Finally I got to the name sign. I couldn’t get a selfie to work in the dark, so settled for a photo of just the sign instead. The next target was the vending machine in Darden. I was so fixated on looking for it I later discovered I’d walked past the road angel cooler outside the church. I found the dilapidated store. The vending machine also looked pretty derelict. It dispensed a can of drink though, and I took it down the grass bank to the picnic area, where there were more, less dodgy looking, vending machines. I wasn’t sure it had been worth the (very short) walk though. I drunk the drink and was about to use the toilet when a car pulled up. I rapidly grabbed my pack and headed back to the road, on the grounds that people who loiter around picnic grounds in the early hours of the morning are likely to be up to dodgy stuff. Looking over my shoulder what I saw was a middle-aged woman and a teenaged girl, buying drinks from the vending machine...
I plodded on towards Parsons. Along the way Brian passed me and mentioned that he was tired (didn’t stop him moving faster than me though...) and was aiming for a 24 hour laundromat in Parsons. I was also feeling a bit tired so joined him there and tried to sleep. The AC made it too cold though and I gave up after 5 minutes (I’m still adding “laundromat” to my list of strange places I’ve slept in however). I took advantage of the indoor toilet to relube my thighs and got some snacks from the vending machine before heading out again.
The next stretch to Linden was a long one: 19 miles. The first part had no shoulder, so it was a case of walking on the rumble strip, looking out for traffic very carefully and jumping into the verge it it didn’t look like it was going to pull out. The vast majority of drivers were very considerate, much better than in the UK and I felt a lot safer, and did a lot less verge jumping, than I did on Escape from Meriden last year. Drink/drug driving seems to be more of a thing though, so there was the potential for very bad things to happen. Staying alert was therefore crucial. In retrospect nighttime road running after only 3 hours sleep in 40+ wasn’t a great idea. After a few miles there was a motel. The reception was open, and I was tempted. But I couldn’t stop again so soon after my last break, so I settled for a 10 min power-nap on its drive instead.
A bit later Brian caught me; he’d also struggled to sleep at the laundromat. We stopped at a vending machine and he introduced me to the joys of Mountain Dew: not too sickly, 200 calories a can (300 a bottle) + caffeine. He also warned me of the danger of accidentally buying the diet version. Brian stopped to try and rest again, but caught and passed me at speed soon after. It was fairly cool and I should have been running at least some of the time, but I just didn’t have the energy. Salt and Karen also flew past me, having had a better, more conservative and sensible sleep/rest strategy on days 1 and 2.
It got misty and the road crossed the Tennessee river. As dawn came my pace slowed even more. My arms and legs got covered in small biting insects. Repeatedly spraying them with insect repellent seemed to be the only way to get rid of them. I stopped in a driveway for a wee and, mid-flow, spotted another runner on the opposite side of the road seemingly doing some stretches. I waved. A few minutes later Alex flew by me in his Luna sandles, looking like he was out for a short run. Just after dawn is often the hardest time for me on a multi-day race. But it seems like a 10 minute power-nap can fool my body into thinking that it’s had a full night’s sleep. Just when I needed it, I came across some loungers and a coolbox in a road angel’s garden. After a nap and a juicy peach I felt much better, and set off again at a decent walk at least. At the 7.30am check-in I was at 122 miles, a few miles outside Linden.
After the first ‘free’ couple of miles it was finally time to start running. The route through Hickman, Kentucky was a bit fiddly, but with the field still tightly bunched I didn’t need to use my map & notes. It didn’t seem too hot initially, although I was walking a lot more than I usually would on day 1 of a multi-day. Some annoying large insects kept biting me through my sleeves, but I couldn’t get my bug spray out easily, so I resorted to swatting them instead. I was a bit surprised to see people coming out of the first grocery store, a few miles in, with drinks. Surely the 2 litres of water I was carrying would be enough to get me to Union City? An hour or so later I realised it wasn’t and started rationing it. And I was very happy when my first road angel appeared: an elderly lady with a car boot full of water. I filled up my water bottle (but not my bladder) thinking this would be enough. A few miles later I was rationing it again and counting down the miles to the first gas station on the outskirts of Union City.
There were nearly a dozen runners stopped at the gas station, refuelling and drenching everything we touched in sweat. I was in a bit of a flap and put my cash back in the wrong pocket, which led to a panic that I’d lost it. My nose stud had nearly got sweated out and I wondered whether I should tape it in (which would have looked “interesting”). I got my phone out to make the navigation through the city centre a bit easier. Another runner had recommended the Galileo Pro app, and it worked really well, better than Google Maps or Apple Maps. I’d marked a Subway on my paper map and decided it would be a good place to stop for lunch. There was a longish queue, but I convinced myself that a 10 min wait would be worth it. The 12 inch veggie sub wasn’t great (the filling was just cheese and salad), but along with a big bag of crisps and a large soda I got a decent number of calories down.
I headed back out with the remains of my soda in my hand. Once I’d finished it and found a bin for the cup (the lack of public bins would become increasingly irritating) it was time to start running again. And soon it struck me that it was actually really rather hot. Jeff was a couple of hundred metres ahead of me walking. When I was running I’d close him down, but only very slowly. And when I walked he’d slowly move away from me. Slowly it dawned on me that running was taking a lot of energy, but not actually getting me anywhere particularly fast. So I switched to just walking too. At the 20 mile mark, Laz and crew were stationed in the shade under a bridge, (ironically) taking 20 mile splits. I told them it was nice to see the Sun, we don’t get much of it back home...
I thought I had enough water for the 10 miles to Martin. I didn’t. And was very glad to get to the outdoor store, which not only had a vending machine, but were giving us drinks for free. They were also getting a fair amount of business, as runners bought hats and cooling towels. I’m not a fast walker and a fair few people overtook me, but I managed to keep up 17-18 min miles (I was wearing a cheap digital watch rather than a GPS, but the mile markers meant I could still check my pace). In Martin I stopped briefly in a gas station to eat another large bag of crisps and an ice lolly, and resupply with water. A group of us stopped in the town centre to cool off in the water fountains. I got a couple of miles down the road before I realised I hadn’t put sun-cream back on and my legs were burning. I also made another mistake, walking past a grocery store because I still had plenty of water. A couple of hours later, on the endless straight road towards Dresden I was rationing it again. I’m not usually this slow on the uptake, but it took me a while to learn the ‘in the daytime always leave towns with lots of water’ lesson.
Eventually the orange markings which one of the locals had sprayed on the road to show the route into Dresden started. Two women on lawn loungers asked us what we were doing, was there a 5k going on? No it’s a 500k we shouted back. I suspect they didn’t believe us. A bit later a man and two girls appeared up with popsicles and water which I was extremely grateful for. I downed the water, the centre of Dresden was close so I didn’t need to ration it. And a few minutes later I was rolling around on the pavement in agony with cramp.
I eventually made it to the farmer’s market where I slumped on the floor and the cramp started again. Just my calf this time, and the pain was ‘grimace & grunt’ level rather than ‘scream’. The mayor, who was running the unofficial aid station, asked if there was anything he could do to help. He mentioned someone last year having an IV at this point. I said I just needed to gut the cramp out and then eat and drink. The race rules this year banned IVs and I’m not sure it’s something I’d have wanted to try and get past my travel insurance in any case. Nicole kindly got me a gatorade and somebody else offered me some salt tablets. I had some, I just needed to actually take them. I hadn’t forgotten, I just thought I was eating lots of salty food and I’d previously been sceptical about the benefits of salt for avoiding cramp.
I spent an hour in Dresden, eating, drinking and trying to recover. As well as the cramp there was the first hint of blisters on the ball of one of my feet. I’d expected to have to deal with this eventually, but 40 miles in was way too soon. I taped it up with KTtape and hoped this would keep the blister at bay. I also made my first 7.30 check-in (a bit late). I initially considered getting a motel to rest properly, but I started feeling better quite quickly. Sufficiently better to try cracking a joke which no-one apart from the Mayor’s wife got (and I’m guessing laughing at bad jokes is part of her role). I wasn’t the only person suffering. There were runners with badly blistered feet and a nasty allergic reaction. Andrew Snope, last year’s first screwed finisher, came in looking pretty wrecked and went off to a motel.
I headed out into the dark for the short stage to Gleason. There’s some debate about whether it’s best to be visible or not. The argument for invisible is that you don’t want to draw attention, particularly from drunk drivers, to yourself. Initially, being used to narrower British roads, I went for visible, wearing a fluorescent vest and also 2 red lights on the back of my pack. The route turned onto a quiet back road, and I was amazed by the noises coming from the verges, not just Katydids, but what sounded like the frog chorus. Together with the flashes of fire-flies, it felt slightly surreal. My calves were tight, but I eventually got back running again. Someone had reported two aggressive dogs on this stretch on the race WhatsApps group, so I armed myself with a branch. I’d contemplated buying some mace, but never got around to it. There was some barking, but no loose dogs, so I eventually ditched the branch.
On the outskirts of Gleason a van skidded to a halt next to me and a young bloke stuck his head-out the window. Uh-oh I thought. But actually they only wanted to give me water. There was another unofficial aid station in the fire station in Gleason. I stopped for a short while, tried to eat and took advantage of an indoor toilet to relube my undercarriage. There were quite a few people trying to sleep here, but I wasn’t tired and quickly got cold. This was a common problem. Air-conditioning is great, but not when you’re drenched with sweat.
The next short stage to McKenzie went by fairly quickly. There was another unofficial aid station here, where I had some more food and forced another Gatorade down. The enthusiasm and support of the locals was fantastic, but the frequent aid on this section made it feel more like a normal race and possibly slowed my transition into the Vol State mind-set.
Huntingdon was only 11 miles away, but most of it was on a wide, straight road which really dragged. I got there at dawn, just as a really long train came through. I soon regretted not sitting down when the barriers first came down. Salt and Angie caught up to me and Salt led the way to Misty’s All Star cafe for breakfast. I was feeling tired and did a bad job of finding veg food which I could eat. I ordered toast and pancakes, but didn’t manage to finish them. Angie was also feeling tired and we headed back to the Police Station, which was offering support, to see if we could grab a nap. It was far too chilly inside though. Angie went off to try and find a motel while I sat down for a quick nap on their door step. I don’t think I slept, but 10 mins with my eyes shut perked me up and after checking in (67 miles) and booking a motel in Lexington (25 miles down the road) I set off again.
One of the bits of advice I’d gleaned from the last but one Supper was to sit on the right hand side of the bus, so that you could see the side of the road we’d be running on. And to listen to the veterans. I was luckily on the same bus as John Price (the author of the book) and several other veterans, who gave a constant commentary about the locations of vending machines and water taps. Along with stories about people who missed turns and went on long detours. I was pretty tired though and slept through a fair bit of it. Plus in the end one small town merged in to another. It was a long drive, with stops along the way at a couple of gas stations plus Glendale Market, home of the infamous Bench of Despair.
We finally got to the motel in Union City. There wasn’t much time after finding our allocated room mates and checking in before getting back on the buses to go to the Last Supper at another buffet restaurant. Finally we had one last stop at Walmart for last minute shopping, in my case for some snacks and safety pins for attaching the US flag we had to carry to my backpack. After some last minute kit-faffing, I went to bed and, still tired from the night before, I actually managed to sleep quite well.
2017 got off to a good start with PBs at 100 mile and 24 hours at the 24h Endurance Helsinki track race. I followed that up with another DNF at the Viking Way, thanks to my lack of speed. In that aftermath of that DNF I got myself a coach (Ronnie Staton). Not for Vol State (I’m pretty good at preparing myself to plod slowly for days on end), but as a long term thing to try and do something about my lack of speed. It’s now the limiting factor over anything less than 150 miles, and I either had to resign myself to it, or try something different. The main change in my training so far has been the long runs: less miles (no more 20:30 mile back-to-backs) but run harder. Which left me feeling a bit unsure of how well prepared I was for back-to-back long slow days. It didn’t help that my bank holiday weekend fast-packing trip on the Monarch’s Way didn’t go to plan. I was late starting (thanks to staying up nearly all night beforehand to watch the General Election results) and called it a day early when an allergic reaction to grass cuts and pollen left me struggling to even plod along at 2.5 mph.
Exactly how fit or fast I was wasn’t going to be the deciding factor for Vol State though. When and how I’d finish would largely come down to how I, and in particular my feet, handled the heat. At Easter I started going to hot yoga classes, starting at 1 or 2 a week and building up to 3 or 4 by the end of June. To my surprise I really enjoy yoga, it seems to be good for my stress-muppet tendencies and I’m planning to keep going when I’ve got the time.
One of the biggest challenges was finding kit that would work in the heat and humidity, and testing it in the British ‘Summer’. Thankfully we did have one week of hot weather, where I discovered that of the 2 pairs of shorts I was considering wearing, 1 chafed horribly and the other held onto sweat so it felt like running in a giant nappy... I panic bought lots of shorts, trying to find some which were light-weight and comfy and would stop my, somewhat chunky, thighs chafing. Some (for instance the ridiculously expensive Salomon ones, which made my legs look and feel like two over-stuffed sausages) went straight back to the shop. In the end I settled on a cheap Odlo pair. They didn’t feel, or look, great, but they were the least worst option.
I also had shoe problems. The latest version of my go-to road shoes, the Brookes Adrenaline in wide-fit, weren’t wide enough for my hobbit feet. I ended up running the track race in trail shoes, and tried half a dozen different replacements, none of which I really felt happy with. The solution in the end was a pair of men’s Adrenalines and some surgery (to the shoes not my feet...) with a Stanley knife. I never thought I’d spend £25 on a pair of socks. However blisters across the balls of my feet, which I’ve suffered from in the past, would turn the race into a painful plod, so I invested in some Drymax Hot Weather Running Socks.
Sun protection was another issue. While I’m not a natural red-head, my skin is fairly pale and burns easily. I tried to build up a tan, to get some natural protection, but again the British Summer hampered my plans. So I bought Outdoor Research Sun Sleeves and an ActiveIce Cap with neck protection, plus a stupidly expensive small tube of sport specialist factor 50 sun cream.
Our pre-race road trip would also be an opportunity for some heat and Sun acclimatisation. Having previously had a great holiday touring national parks in Arizona/Nevada/New Mexico, we decided to do the same again in Utah/Colorado. Beforehand we were a bit nervous about whether we’d even be allowed into the US under the new immigration rules, given that we’ve holidayed our way around the ‘axis of evil’ (Syria, Libya, North Korea and, in the OH’s case, Iran too). While there’s presumably an electronic record of our travels, to avoid a knee-jerk reaction at the border we got new ‘clean’ passports without visas, or the Arabic translation of the personal details page. To our relief immigration in Denver was fast, efficient and friendly.
I didn’t do any proper training runs during the holiday, but I did go for a longer walk or run back to the rental car while the OH waited in the shade a couple of times. The 10 days were fantastic, and at the end I felt really guilty. If I didn’t have this thing about doing ridiculous races, we could have had a longer proper holiday. We parted in Salt Lake City, the OH flying to Florida for a work trip/busman’s holiday seeing “Space stuff” while I flew to Chattanooga via Dallas (a reminder of quite how big the US is).
Groome transportation run shuttles from Atlanta and Nashville airports to Chattanooga, with the Nashville shuttle able to do a drop-off/pick-up in Kimball, close to the finish at Castle Rock and the meeting point for screwed Vol Staters. They don’t, I discovered a couple of days beforehand, do pick ups from Chattanooga airport. In retrospect a taxi to their Chattanooga office, followed by a shuttle to Kimball would have been my best bet. But I was keen to get to Kimball in time for the ‘last but one supper’ (to glean more race wisdom) and ended up taking an expensive cab ride to the Super 8 motel in Kimball.
Another thing I’d left to the last minute was working out what to do with my luggage (thanks to the pre-race holiday I had a holdall full, mainly of dirty washing and books). I’d assumed the motel would have a luggage storage room, like most British hotels, even cheap ones. But they didn’t. I emailed the Vol State mailing list, asking if I could leave my stuff in someone’s car. This triggered emails from other people with the same problem. Plus someone who helpfully told me that having luggage was a sign that I was unsuited to doing Vol State (apparently I should have only turned up with old stuff that could be thrown away and then buy new clothes from Walmart at the end) and that my 6-7 day estimated finishing time was probably completely unrealistic. Great, thanks! In the end somebody offered up the open back of their truck, and I went to Walmart and bought a roll of large, strong bin bags. I could have done without the pre-race stress, it added to my feeling that I really should have been having a longer holiday with the OH rather than doing this (silly) race. I didn’t manage to get much sleep that night.
Coming back to my estimated finish time, I’ve learnt the hard-way (T184...) that I do best at multi-day events when I don’t fixate about finishing time/position and instead focus on moving forward as fast as I comfortably can. But I needed an estimated finish time to book my flight home. The cut-off is 10 days, but if I was moving that slowly something would have gone very badly wrong and I’d be best off dropping. It’s tempting to think that 60 miles a day, and a 5 day finish, is doable. But I’d done enough research to know that that was a fantasy. Most people take 6-8 days and I also had James’ 2015 finish as a benchmark. He’s a much, much better ultra-runner than me, with a trans con and multiple Spartathlon finishes to his name, and he’d taken over 6 days. Yes he’d struggled with the heat, but I was likely to too. I decided I’d be happy with a 7d Xh finish, ecstatic with a 6d Xh finish and booked a flight home which would (just...) allow for a 8d Xh finish (where in this case X had to be small). I completed the 270 cold, muddy miles of the Spine Race in under 7 days, while carrying a 10kg backpack. So surely I could manage 314 miles of hot roads with a small pack in under 8?
Beyond those time goals my strategy was to run through the first night and then try and sleep during the heat of the day, either in a motel or a quiet shady spot if I could find one. The sleeping during the day strategy I’d picked up from reading race blogs (the Race tracking spread-sheet contains a compilation). Some even quite fast finishers went as far as stopping at a motel during the first afternoon, but I didn’t think there was any point in me doing that-I always struggle to sleep during the 1st night of a multi-day event. While I didn’t have a concrete plan, I did spend a fair bit of time preparing. I printed the maps from John Price’s web-site on waterproof paper and spent several evenings annotating them with the turns and locations of motels, cafes and stores (which I cross-checked with google maps). I also read a lot of the blogs from previous years’ races. This was useful for getting a general idea of what to expect (heat, dodgy dogs and dodgy driving) but not knowing the places the race passed through, detailed information didn’t really stick in my head.