Sunday, April 27, 2014

The End of Something

            It is eighty miles from my home to Nashville. Give or take a few miles. It depends on where in town you are going. Yesterday I was going to LP Field, the place where most Country Music runners park.
            I got up at 3:30 a.m. drove I-40 blurry-eyed. Once parked, I headed across the Shelbly Street Pedestrian Bridge, joining a stream of runners. A slate gray morning light that earlier had hit the downtown towers now turned red. I hoped to meet a Twitter pal I've never seen. For a meeting, I'd suggested six o'clock at the foot of the bridge on Third Avenue. That wasn't a good place for her and she'd sent me a message she'd be in Corral 29 and would look for me. Good thing because the trouble I'd had getting off the Interstate and parking had eaten up forty minutes. I was too late for a six o'clock meeting anyway.
            I was assigned Corral 6. Always before I'd started from Corral 1 so as to lower the gun time used in state records. This year it didn't matter. Even though I wore a marathon bib number I intended to run the half marathon. And I intended to run it slow. State record was a non factor.          
            Intended to run slow because I can't run fast. I have Graves' Disease and have had it since last Fall. It has many astonishing effects. It can cause heart disease. So they put a stent in my ticker four weeks ago. Graves' also eats your thigh muscles, among other valuable muscles. Can't run fast without thigh muscles.
            Intended to run the half because on Monday I'd run the Boston Marathon, and by some miracle actually finished it, although I'd not run much prior in a couple of months. So wasn't going to run 26.2 again so soon.
            Since I planned to go slow anyway, I headed to Corral 29 to look for the woman I call CT, not knowing her name. I stood in that desultory corral surrounded mostly by women and a smattering of old men, back of the pack folks for whom a half marathon is a great big deal. But I couldn't see CT. Maybe she'd show later. I drifted down to Corral 28 and looked around there, too, since I wasn't sure where one corral ended and the other began.
            I could start from back here if I wanted to. It'd be different from Corral 1. It didn't matter. Time drifted on as it always does. CT didn't show and eventually we heard the race start. Nothing at all happened where we were, up on the hill at Eighth Avenue, three blocks from the starting line at Fifth.
            Those starting runners headed east down Broad, turned south on First, and west on Demonbreun. They finally hit Broad and ran right past where we stood. I saw last year's marathon winner Scott Wietecha in front, Brian Shelton on his shoulder. Brian, from my town is running well these days. I thought he might win the half.
            CT didn't show, and I figured at this point she wouldn't. But I couldn't stop looking for her. Later I saw where she'd sent me a direct message on Twitter that she'd been bumped to Corral 15. I'd failed to see that message and didn't now have my phone.
            Nothing much happened, except occasionally we'd drift a few steps down the hill toward the starting line, still nearly three blocks away. Twice they moved the corral ropes toward Fifth, and we'd advance thirty yards or so before standing around again.
            Running a half marathon slowly is just a typical morning run for me, no great challenge. Just a matter of putting in time. We stood around. Eventually we'd get our chance. No hurry.
            I had a streak going. I was one of the thirty-eight "Fifteen Year Runners." We'd run all previous editions of the race. As a reward, they'd given us comp entry and a special vanity bib to wear, one colored black, a different color from the 30,000 other bibs. That was sure to bring shout-outs from fans. At the moment, mine was hidden under a throw-away tee.
            This race holds the story of my running. Our histories entwine. I ran the very first one just one year after my first marathon, just two years after my first race of any length. My running grew up with this race. In that first one, which came just twelve days after Boston, I ran ten minutes faster than I'd ever run.
            For each of the first six races, 2000 through 2005, I ran personal records on this hilly course, even though I was running lots of other races on flatter courses that you'd figured I would run faster than here. This was a lucky race for me. I set eight age-group records here. And I won my age division an unlikely twelve consecutive times, beating the great Ken Brewer once by just forty-five seconds.
            As I stood waiting in Corral 29 with my vanity bib hidden, I knew no marathon record was in play. In fact I'd be running not the marathon but the half marathon. Not even running it. Only jogging.
            We stood and waited. We moved forward again a few yards. Then I walked away.
            I stepped out of the corral and walked down the hill toward the starting line, skipping up on the sidewalk to dodge spectators. Around Corral 15, I cut through the shuffling stream and emerged on the other side of Broad, just above Bridgestone Arena.
            I walked beside Bridgestone to Demonbreun and paused, watching runners stream up the hill. I headed on down to Fourth and turned up toward Broad to Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where I cut over to the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge.
            Fans leaning over the rail above First Avenue were watching the south-streaming marathoners below. Fans and runners alike whooped and called out. I stood and watched a few minutes. The stream would diminish to a trickle before another wave emerged. We couldn't see them coming down Broad until they turned the corner at a red brick building onto First. Suddenly a colorful mass flowed, surging around the corner.
            I walked on across the bridge toward the LP parking lot, meeting hollow-eyed runners wearing bibs, who'd arrived too late to run, probably beginners who didn't know one had to arrive early for such a race. They all had numbers in the 20-or-30 thousand range. My number, still hidden under the tee, read 435.
            At the car I changed clothes, putting on the blue Boston finisher's tee I earned on Monday. I could go down to the finish line area, stand around watching runners come in. I'll have friends there. The shirt would be a conversation starter. But I realized that, by now, the winner of the half would have already finished. Brian Shelton, I would learn, finished in fourth place. Scott Wietecha would go on to win the marathon.
            I decided against the finish line. I wanted to be through with this place. I grabbed my phone and saw where CT had sent me the change-of-plans message I'd never seen.
            Throw it all away. The comp entry, the vanity bib, the annual tradition, the streak, the history - everything. Throw it away. I put up a tweet: 
            "Did not start, am not sorry, do not care. Am I being clear? #DNS #CMM" 
            Then I cranked up and drove away. But I don't know. It could be a lie, my tweet. I don't know.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Because Boston

          
          Graves' Disease eats your muscles, those of the shoulders, upper arms, and thighs. You need thigh muscles to run.
          But this story is not about Graves' Disease. And it never will be. Damn Graves' Disease. This story is about the 2014 Boston Marathon, the 118th running of the historic race, the race just one year after the murderous bombing. Damn Graves' Disease.
          I'm incredibly lucky. I've had complimentary entry at Boston for the last three years, having finished on the podium three years in a row, finishing last year just twenty minutes before the blast. I'm lucky.
          In January of this year, when I began to crank up my training for the race, I realized something was terribly wrong. My speed had vanished and I was losing strength in the weight room, too. That brought blood tests in February. Then in March an endocrinologist told me I had Graves' Disease. You can look it up. It brings picturesque grotesquerie, though the specialist said he only sees that aspect in smokers. He also said I had heart disease. Graves' can cause that, too.
          The heart doctor gave me a threadmill stress test and two days later put in a stent. It was the first day of spring. Seven days later the heart surgeon gave me a max-out stress test and told me to do anything I wanted to. He's a marathoner. He knew what I was going to do.
          Heart problem was over; Graves' raged on. I had three and a half weeks - after having not run in a long time. And Graves' still raged on, a long-term struggle within my diminished body.
          Boston is special. This year it would be special in a new way. I could not be cavalier about my chance to run it, a race so many would like to run but can't. I had to respect the race, honor last year's fallen, and support the community of runners. In three and a half weeks I'd do what I could.
          I knew I'd be unable to compete. I changed my goal: report the race from inside it. Live tweet a picture or comment every mile or so. Create a narrative. I knew what that would do to my time, but I didn't care. It was a worthwhile service and the best strategy I had for a meaningful run. Runners at home could see the race through my eyes, and in the moment as I experienced it.
          There were problems: I don't normally carry a phone on my runs; typing on the touch screen in bright sunlight is hard. And would I even be capable of finishing the race at any speed? Could I stay on my feet that long? I did trial runs with the phone and worked out the problems. I'd have to jump out of the stream of runners to make a picture or be trampled, I realized. Then I'd have to find a shady place to do the typing, clock ticking all the while. So be it. My trials showed a mile pace would be thirteen minutes. I could come in under the time limit, if I could keep that pace.
          I had my plan. Let her rip. Before I headed to Boston, I connected my Twitter and Facebook accounts so runners could follow my journey on either.
          A postscript: On race day nearly half of my tweets failed to go through; they disappeared into the ether. There were 36,000 runners registered and a million fans present, many sending texts. The tremendous data load simply overwhelmed the cell phone system. I'd anticipated that but could do nothing about it. Some tweets went to drafts, and so I could have another chance to send them. But most vanished. So, much was lost. But much was gained.
          The experiment was a partial success: Tina Turner said, We never ever do anything nice and easy; we always do it...rough!  My record is rough, too, and raw, as was my experience. And raw it will stay. See the tweets and pictures below, only slightly edited.

Boarding the bus. Tremont Street, Boston Common

Athlete Village, Hopkinton

Vanishing point

Helicopters and airplanes towing banners fill the sky

Home

Where's Waldo?

Imagine the pile of clothes thrown away by 36,000 runners

Corral 2

M.1 Leaving Hopkinton

State troopers line the road in Brookline [sic, Ashland], facing outward

M4 Four Mile Island. I failed to get a picture of Three-Mile Island

We drink

Thanks. Don't mind if I do

M10 Home girl! @sallaboutme Thx Kelly
(Kelly had traveled from Nashville to see the race. She'd sent me a message that she'd be waiting at Mile 10. I looked forward to the meeting. Sure enough, there she was.)

M12 Bitchery and abomination. this traitor of a phone failed to send some tweets!

M12.5 Because if you tweet anything you tweet Wellesley women. 

The famous "Tunnel of Sound." The shrieks all merge into one and rise up out of the earth itself, like 17-year locusts

M15 + Dull boredom, that's about it. Not complaining, just saying

M 20.5 Walkingheartbreak

M21 BC, Doug Flutie, write a sentence 
(Flutie went to Boston College. I later heard that he'd run the race, finishing even after me)

M24+ A marathon is an adventure beyond ordinary experience, James Shapiro wrote. Sounds about right

M24+ Running is a survival activity. I see it in Darwinian terms, not like the sentimental sayings on the back of tees

M25 I've seen lives changed by running it's true, whether in purring sweetness or tooth and claw

M25.2 Under the CITGO sign. 
One mile to go. Fans at Kenmore Square. A shave-headed fan who'd been drinking beer laughingly berates me for stopping at the fence to text. Then he opens arms wide and gives me a big hug.

M26 Once again down Boylston Street
Maybe the most storied and treasured stretch of road a marathoner can ever run

Finish Line!

I am so through






Thursday, January 16, 2014

Where the Cummins Falls Marathoner Eats



            If you travel to the Cummins Falls Marathon, you’ll be well advised to set aside a couple of extra days to see local sights and sample local restaurants. A famished runner can find a truck load of cool eating joints in Cookeville, Tennessee. But you need to know where to look. I am here to help.
            One hundred and thirty-two, that’s the number Google gives me for the aggregation of restaurants in Cookeville. That’s maybe more than you’d expect for a “small town” of 31,010 souls. But the town’s activity is much larger than its population suggests: it’s a university town, with the influx that brings; it sits at the crossroads of TN-111 and I-40; and it serves as a hub city for the whole Upper Cumberland region. People come to shop, eat out, see ballgames and watch movies. I once read the dubious claim that Cookeville triples on the weekend. I don’t believe that number, but it does grow.
            So, yes, 132 restaurants. That number includes the usual expected chain restaurants such as O’Charley’s, Outback, Ruby Tuesday, and so on. Most of those restaurants are strung along Interstate Drive, parallel to and one block north of I-40, visible and handy to the Interstate traveler. Ah, but I rarely go there. Jo Ann and I chose the home grown restaurants in the old part of town, in the Westside and Eastside.
            Without making any claims of good taste in food or anything else, I will tell you the places where this runner actually goes to eat. For what it’s worth, here they are:

Favorites


            BobbyQs is the most famous restaurant in town. Widely written about in magazines and books alike, it’s the place to go when you want BBQ or catfish. Their banana pudding is better than sex, they claim. Ask them early on to save you a helping, because it tends to run out. I’m partial to the BBQ pork, but also go for the house salad topped with a grilled catfish. Sometimes I make a veggie plate from their selection of sides, which includes potato salad, fried okra and potato salad. Avoid the poolroom slaw unless you really, really like the red-pepper hot. If you absolutely must sample some heat, might try a split order, half and half of regular and poolroom slaw. No beer at this place. But their coffee is good, made from beans they grind themselves.


            Moma Rosa’s is the go-to place if you are craving Italian food. Its lineage is New York. Favorites of mine there are stromboli and eggplant parmigiana. Jo Ann likes the baked ziti. If I get their garden salad I always ask for the house dressing. Are you hungry? Moma Rosa’s orders are large, and we normally come home with a take-out box that makes my lunch the next day. A few years ago, we took my late friend, ultra runner and vegetarian Angela Ivory there. She had the spaghetti topped by a sauce sans meat. She loved it. I was glad we’d picked that place.


            Seven Senses is the only new comer in my group. But it has quickly become one of our favorites. It it’s located on Broad Street in Westside across from Foothills running Company. It features an urbane ambiance and a collection of unusual dishes. I suppose you could call it urban eclectic. I suggest the Papa Tony’s pan seared shrimp. The name honors the late Tony Stone who was mayor and who began the Cookeville Cook Off. He was well known for his grilling skill. Jo Ann likes the chicken and waffles dish. Their seven salad is good too. Ask for a glass of Calfkiller beer, a local brew.


            Taiko is described as a Noodles and Sushi bar on their banner. If you are in the mood for Japanese food, this is the place, situated on Broad across from the Depot. Usually I don’t eat sushi, but there are plenty of other dishes to choose from. Jo Ann likes other places better than this restaurant, so I usually only eat there when she is out of town. It’s a nice break in the usual routine, and sushi lovers rave about it.


            On Broad just a few steps from Foothills, the Cajun restaurant Crawdaddy’s is one of Cookeville’s most popular eateries. Its upstairs bar is popular too. In good weather, check out the courtyard and balcony seating. Crawfish etouffee is my standard request there; if I’m going to a place named “Crawdaddy’s” I expect crawfish. If you want gator tail their sampler will include crawfish, gator and shrimp. Their steaks are well respected and people hold dinner meeting there. To go with the crawfish, ask for a glass of Calfkiller.


            House of Thai is on Eight Street at the east side of the Tennessee Tech campus. I’m partial to Thai food, so it’s one of my favorites. My standard dish there is drunken noodles. They will season it with red pepper to your taste. Be careful; it can be too hot. Pad Thai is a close second choice. The curries are good too. Jo Ann is a light eater. She usually orders a spring roll and rice. We agree on the hot Thai tea. I could drink a gallon of it.


            Mexican restaurant Cinco Amigos is a favorite watering hole for the Westside Runners. After our Wednesday night runs we sometimes retire there for our birthday parties. In fact, we find all kinds of occasions to gather there. The amigos have covered outside seating, which is where we usually end up. They decorate it for our parties with maracas, party hats, and balloons. The food is tasty. And nothing I’ve ever eaten there has given me digestive difficulty. My standard is from the Especialidades menu, number 27, the burrito supreme. RunItFast hero Lisa Gonzales @runlikeacoyote would like it, burritos being her weakness – or rather maybe her strength. Of course, Dos Equis beer goes with that burrito.


            I think of Char as a steakhouse. But their tag line boasts of seafood and pasta as well. I don’t go out for Sunday brunch very often, but I recall a very good bunch at Char. Char was the first stop of the first red dress run Westside Runners did. The whole red dressed bunch retired to the patio where we could be as noisy as we wanted without bothering anyone else. There we did pleasantly linger a while before shoving off to the next watering hole. In addition to the patio, Char also has a small covered outside seating area that overlooks the Putnam county courthouse. Definitely, at this restaurant ask for Calfkiller beer.


            Dipsy Doodle is a blue collar, meat-and-three joint in the country about five miles west of town on US-70N, Broad Street. In operation since the 1940s, it is the oldest restaurant in the area. Josh Hite, @urnewhite, and I frequently go there for lunch after our adventure runs in remote Jackson County. For lunch, expect lots of home cooked veggies, a different selection each work day. For example on Monday, they have pinto beans, boiled cabbage, turnip greens, small whole boiled potatoes. Those are just the ones I recall from the Monday menu. (I’ve dropped the turnip greens lately because of too many coarse stems, a small complaint.) For me, cornbread goes with those country veggies. Veggie selection on Tuesday includes the old depression-era favorite, tomatoes and macaroni. I’ve never seen that offered at any other restaurant. The giant burger – you can get it with or without cheese - is the reason I go there half the time. Jo Ann favors the BLT. I believe they put more crisp bacon on that sandwich than you’ll find anywhere else. The “mile-high” meringue on their chocolate and coconut pie is thicker than a pillow. It’s big; sometimes I share a slice.

These Also Serve

            For the sake of brevity – and maybe it’s too late for that - I’ve left out so many restaurants, it makes me feel guilty. Let me quickly toss in a few more.
            Spankies, on East Ninth at Tennessee Tech. Try their French dip sandwich with roasted potatoes. Ask for Calfkiller beer.
            World Foods is a little restaurant and deli on N. Cedar in Westside featuring Mediterranean foods. It’s where to go for pizza. Instead of smearing a red slime called tomato paste on the crust, they use actual tomatoes. Such a difference!
            Father Tom’s Pub is a popular local hangout, also on N. Cedar, near World Foods. I have to shout this one. Tom told me that on race day between four o’clock and midnight, he will give a free glass of beer to anyone with a race number who orders an entrĂ©e. Hit him up for a Calfkiller.
            El Tapatitos is the Mexican restaurant Jo Ann prefers. I like it too. Prices are reasonable and it’s a popular place, on S. Willow.
            Bull and Thistle, maybe the brightest jewel in the Upper Cumberland, is actually in Gainesboro, seat of Jackson County, the county Cummins Falls Marathon runs through. Running Buddy Josh Hite @urNewHite calls it the best restaurant in Tennessee. The chef was recruited from Ireland. It’s a new restaurant in a renovated historic building. The server told us the kitchen alone cost $1.5 million. A wide selection of beer is available. It’s on the courthouse square, seventeen miles northwest of Cookeville.   

Thursday, December 19, 2013

After the Flood

Running on what's left of Blackburn Fork Road

Zion Road bridge, the only modern structure spanning Blackburn Fork, was destroyed

This mattress from a destroyed house was left balanced on a snag

Josh wanted sixteen, and I had fourteen. That is, he wanted to go for a sixteen mile run, and I had a fourteen mile loop. My fourteen-mile loop went into Jackson County, a rural place where the dogs run free; and past Cummins Falls where the water runs wild.
The water of Blackburn Fork jumps off the falls and meanders down a narrow valley for ten miles before it joins Roaring River. You might call the valley a gorge; it is pretty narrow at the bottom and bounded by steep wooded slopes with some bluff outcroppings. A road surfaced with creek gravel, paved in places, follows the stream on its journey.
But I didn’t even mean to go there, down the gorge, I mean. The fourteen mile loop stayed above the valley. It merely went past the falls, staying on top. But, see, Josh wanted sixteen miles that morning.
The weather was hot, August hot. One bottle in a waist pack is not enough for such heat. The well-equipped ultra runner made preparations. I dug out the backpack I use for journey runs and such. It’s a tiny thing probably designed for the shorter torso of a woman. But it is just right. It is short enough to leave room for my regular waist pack below it. So I can go with both the waist pack for my bottle and still have a bit of cargo room in the little backpack.
The backpack is large enough to hold a pair of long pants, a wind jacket, a pair of gloves and emergency medical kit. The pack was a bladder pack before I took the bladder out. Now it’s just a pack. It’s what I use for ultra marathons; so I don’t need drop bags, or for a crew to meet me two hours before or two hours after I need an item. I travel light and carry everything I need. That way, I have it when I want it.
What Josh needed was sixteen miles. In August that distance crosses the line for a one-bottle run. So I duly filled two extra bottles and put them in the little pack. Just in case. Those two bottles may be responsible for what happened, because without them, I doubt we would’ve made the decision we made that day. Or, more accurately, failed to make the decision we should have made.
Because he did say sixteen, and once I’m pretty sure I further heard “or more,” and I only had fourteen. I figured we’d just run down a side road for a mile—“or more”—and add that excursion to the fourteen miles of the loop. Which side road exactly I didn’t know. We could take our pick.
So we shoved off at my house into the building heat, heading toward Jackson County, each runner with a bottle strapped to his waist and with two extra bottles in the pack I was wearing.
Six miles into the run we were approaching Blackburn Fork, when we made the decision on which side road we’d pick for our extra-distance excursion. The signpost said Blackburn Fork Rd. I was very familiar with the road from having ridden my bike all over Jackson County. The road stays up on the rim for a mile and a half before it drops suddenly into the gorge, making sharp turns and switchbacks.
We headed down it. Soon a pickup approached from behind, pulling a farm implement. We edged over.
“Dallas, you going all the way? the driver asked, stopping.
“Nah, we’re just going part way.”
I’d never seen the man before. I shook his hand and redundantly told him my name. He said he recognized me from having read my newspaper stories. He had a reason for asking his question, because the road was closed. On back roads in that country, what road closure signifies is not so much a legal condition as a physical one—it’s impossible to travel it.
We knew a little of what had happened on upper Blackburn Fork, at least its two branches near Cookeville. Ten days earlier, a strong flood had covered roads, disrupted travel and work and school schedules. The two main branches of Blackburn Fork pass into Jackson and converge maybe a mile above the falls. The concentrated energy of the two branches had combined in a catastrophic way. The flood had gathered strength downstream to a degree that Josh and I didn’t yet imagine. 
I’d actually seen some of the damage on the end of the gorge near where Blackburn Fork joins Roaring River. But most of the gorge was closed off.  Only a few people live in it, and generally speaking the gorge lies beyond the experience of most of the local population. People didn’t know what had happened there.
So I thought maybe Josh and I could penetrate just a little ways and then cut and climb back out.  I was carrying two extra bottles of water, after all. The road I had in mind crossed the stream on a single-lane bridge and climbed up to a ridge called Seven Knobs in Jackson County. So I asked,
“What about the bridge…”
“It ain’t there,” the man cut me off—his way of telling me I had a poor idea of what was down there. That bridge had been there since 1937, I believe he said. He mentioned how deep the mud was, and he talked about how he’d once enjoyed canoeing on the stream. Then he drove on, turning in to his house just up the road. Josh and I resumed our run.
Another three-quarters-mile brought us to the edge of the rim, where the road dipped sharply down. There in the road stood the obligatory Road Closed sign that people in this part of the country simply ignore and drive around.
Half way down the hill we came to a view of the valley floor, although screened and obscured by dense tree foliage. Through the leaves, we saw tan. Where the fields and pastures below should have been green, we saw expansive desert tan, desert in Tennessee. The flood had stripped away green living plants and replaced then with acres of deposited gravel bars, or gouged out the bottom land to bedrock, in either case replacing the green background with an alien tan overlay, at least from our distant view. Although no stranger to floods, it was the first time I’d realized that a flood can change the very color of environs.
We rounded a switchback, the hill’s last sharp curve, and leveled out on the valley floor. Approaching the place where the creek swings in close to the road, the creek on our left and steep hillside on our right. (And here, I’ve used the work “creek” for the first time. Some will argue with that, because the state legislature has designated the stream a Scenic River. So they claim it’s a “River.” But in my experience, locals refer to the stream as a creek, the legislature notwithstanding. I’ll continue favoring the local and historical “creek” over the legislative term.)
The road disappeared into a dark chaos of tangled trees uprooted by the flood and swept into random piles. The road surface vanished under a deep layer of mud, now rutted by truck tracks, but the tracks didn’t go much farther.
There sat a car. Josh and I picked our way through, to find a young man and his girlfriend. The young man appeared quite drunk. They were just standing around looking in amazement, as we approached. We were at a one-lane bridge where a branch known as Dry Creek flows underneath just before its confluence with Blackburn Fork. The bridge was partially covered by uprooted and broken trees. The branch had washed out the approach on the other side. End of road.
After talking a bit with the man and woman, Josh climbed down the other end of the bridge. It was a three or four foot drop. As I followed, the over-solicitous young man insisted on helping ease the old gent down and grabbed hold of my upper arm, which had the unhelpful effect of depriving me of the use of one hand. Nonetheless, I made it down without breaking an ankle. Josh and I picked our way though some more downed trees and broke out on the road again.
“He’s been drinking Mimosa juice,” said Josh, the former bartender.
“He wanted to help me. I didn’t need it, but he wanted to. That’s okay.”
The road curved left, hard against vertical bluffs. The flood had gone high up on those rocks far above our heads. The creek, calm and pastoral now burbled across the gravel shoals below us innocent of all the violence it had brought. I looked for the right place because I wanted to show Josh something about the bluff.
“These are the bluffs I’m running in front of on the cover of my book, Falling Forward,” I told Josh.” This is where we made the picture, these bluffs.” I showed Josh the place where my friend Charles Denning had gotten the low angle by stepping part way down the creek bank, to a low angle from below the road.
“He photographed me running up and down the road in front of these bluffs.” In one frame, the shadow of a tree on the bluff had loomed menacingly over the motion-blurred runner. The runner’s shadow ran across the rocks. Although the runner was blurred, his shadow on the rocks was jarringly sharp; it was reduced in size and preceded the runner as if the runner rushed toward his diminished future. These fleeting shadows, the ephemeral quickness of life caught in images cast against timeless rocks and threatened by the looming darkness filled the photo with metaphor. The picture inspires me yet. Its feeling of menace had come true—this location had drowned under fifteen feet of rushing water.
Farther down the road, the roadbed simply disappeared, gouged away by the flood’s force, the road bed itself replaced by gullies and ridges. Josh and I picked our way through. In the distance I could see where a small rustic bridge had spanned the creek. It was gone. One steel girder remained, its end cast in the near abutment and held tight. The flood had bent the three-foot-deep girder like a noodle and aligned it with the flow direction. Charles and I had made running pictures on that bridge, too. He had laid down the floor and made a photo showing the splintered wooden floor as I ran by. Now Josh and I had no way to even record the bridge’s absence, or any of the other devastation around us. We had no camera; Josh wasn’t carrying his cell phone as he usually does.
A white frame house sits on higher ground on the right. Two dogs came tearing out barking invectives. I don’t worry about dogs when I run with Josh, although Jackson County is full of unleashed menacing dogs. He has a black belt in Karate. I trot happily on, leaving him to deal with any malevolence. I figure he’ll just kick the shit out of one out if he needs to. There is a danger in that too. The owner may come after you with a deer rifle in his hand and vengeance in his heart. He places the welfare of his dog a couple of rungs above that of two strangers on foot. But these two dogs I just sweet-talked, and they turned into tail-wagging pussycats. Their owner was more guarded,
“Who are you guys?” she wanted to know. So we stopped and talked, and convinced her we were harmless. They’d gone without power for seven days after the flood, she told us. During those days her husband had stayed up guarding the darkened house. They’d had suspicious-looking men come around late at night, would-be looters they’d figured. She had a reason to be cautious with strangers.
We went on, running through devastation like we’d not seen before. Whole groves of mature trees swept down and flattened like so many corn stalks. Stretches of the creek bank had been denuded, the trees uprooted or broken off and carried downstream and left in house-sized piles. Just past the woman’s house a creek bottom cultivated in soybeans had been simply erased, gouged to bedrock in places, buried by gravel and television-sized rocks a few feet deep in other places. It was as if the Colorado River had coursed through this narrow canyon and scoured it out.
River bottoms and creek bottoms have existed ever since humans first occupied this land, thousands of years ago. I believe this because you can find stone points thousands of years old on the surface or in the top few inches of the soil. The soybean field experienced a flood it had not seen in a similar span of time. By coincidence, only two months had passed since Nashville had endured what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called a 1,000-year flood. Josh and I had run the Strolling Jim 41-mile ultramarathon at Wartrace, fifty miles south of Nashville, that very day. And now this place, hit by a similar flood. But Josh and I were not talking about that—until suddenly we were. We were trotting along in amazed and morose silence, when out of the blue he spoke,
“Global warming’s not happening, right?”
“Right!”
We were being ironic. Climate scientists have told us for twenty-five years that global warming will bring storms of enhanced intensity and frequency. Within two months, Blackburn Fork and Nashville had both obeyed that prediction. Severe weather is here. We’ll have to get used to it. We’ve done nothing to stop it. And it’s too late now. It will only get worse. The polluters and their lobbyists together with their stupid and dishonest politicians have won.
We passed where the seventy-year-old bridge leading to Seven Knobs used to stand. No sign of it was left, no abutments, nothing.
Josh had become the mule now, carrying my little pack. It contained two empty water bottles. We each were running low on our last bottle. The creek water wasn’t safe to drink, we knew.
About half way through the gorge, Zion Road comes in from the east rim and joins the main road, which crosses the creek there. But not anymore; the bridge was gone, the main road cut in two at that point. Left of the bridge approach is a grassy lawn where a brick house had stood. It had been cleanly swept away, its pieces, bricks and all, scattered downstream. The concrete walks remained like the house’s silent signature.
The bridge at Zion was the most emblematic scene of the flood’s power. It had been the only modern structure spanning the creek. Its entire three-span deck, still attached to the beams underneath, had been swept downstream sixty yards and spun into a skewed alignment with the creek, the near end left resting on the bank, the far end out in the water. Even the two piers, hammer-head-shaped monoliths, had been toppled and carried downstream sixty yards or so and left lying in the water like giant overturned mushrooms.
The bridge had been of routine construction like dozens of such structures I’d designed myself working for the then-Tennessee Department of Highways. This one was worth maybe half a million dollars. Its near abutment was the only part of the entire three spans left in place. That abutment was now covered by a house-sized pile of trees.
Josh and I worked our way through downed trees to a point upstream where the creek flowed shallow over a gravel shoals. We waded across the creek and climbed up to the road on the far side and ran on.
For a long time now Josh and I had been past turning back and rejoining our loop home, even though we were running low on water. We’d gone too far. We were committed to wherever we ended up now. And we’d not even discussed that decision. We simply kept going forward, too fascinated at the destruction to turn back. It’s a safe bet no one had ever before run the length of this remote road. It’s an equal bet we were seeing the destruction in its entirety like no one yet had. We could only run on now, the town of Gainesboro our likely target—for the reason that it was the only one possible, however far it was. It was a hot day, and our lack of water was becoming worrisome
You are never prepared. I’m not. We were running on gravels, dirt and washed-out gullies, and wading the creek. And what was I wearing? Why the lightest pair of lightweight trainers I’d been able to buy, not trail shoes. That is a good way to break an ankle. Both of mine have been broken, but I think they recovered stronger than before. Sometimes I get away with negligence.
There’s a memory on this road I told Josh about. Many years ago I made a special ride on my mountain bike through here. It was one of the most alluring valleys in Tennessee and a favorite place of mine. I guess that changes now. Jim Smith and I rode our mountain bikes through here, as we later did many times. What made that particular trip memorable was that my youngest son Joel, maybe nine, rode with us, as did Jim’s son Andy, a few months older than Joel. Andy had muscular dystrophy which affected his legs, and he couldn’t ride a bike. He came along on his all-terrain-vehicle, a three wheeler.
There was a place in the road then where a flowing branch came into the road, turned and ran with the road. Branch and road were one for a few feet. You rode down into the water, followed it a bit and then it turned from the road and went on while you climbed back onto the roadbed. At the start of the trip Jim and I told Joel and Andy about that place, about how they’d have to go through the water. They got excited. You’d think we’d told them they’d see Santa Claus. While we rode alongside the creek that day, they kept asking about when we were going to ride through the water. And, of course, they did love it once we got there, splashing the water and whooping.
The three-wheeler was a blessing for Andy, allowing him to participate in trips like the ride we took that day. A year later he was killed on it, when a school bus hit him on the subdivision road near his house. Jim lived in a rural development called Dry Creek then and I still owned a house there myself, having recently moved. Our houses were on the head of the same Dry Creek that flows into Blackburn Fork where Josh and I entered the gorge on our run today.
At that place where Andy and Joel had enjoyed the water there stood a faded old house close beside the road, one surrounded by outbuilding, and fruit trees, the home place of an old-time family. Josh and I were running by that place as I told him the story. The house was now gone, swept away by the flood and scattered in pieces. An old woman had lived there alone, I’ve heard. She was lucky enough to take refuge in a barn on higher ground. A young man on an ATV, successor of Andy’s, rode down, apparently on a trail through the woods, and rescued her from the barn.
Down the road a hundred yards from the house site, Josh and I discovered a giant pile of trees thrown up against still-standing trees beside the road. Mixed into the pile and scattered beyond it were items from the house: a microwave oven, floor fan and so on, and articles of clothing hanging like prayer flags from the brush. We found home-canned jars of green beans and pears, muddy but looking perfectly good to eat once wiped off.
“Something’s dead,” Josh said. I noticed the scent about the same time. We began looking, wondering if it was the body of a human, a pet, or a farm animal. Josh and I spread out. We poked around in the piles of brush. The scent came and went. I began back tracking the wind. Concentrating, I was aware a car passed. (The one bridge left standing was the last one near Roaring River Road and crews had repaired the road on that end enough that cars could come in from there.) I followed the scent to a depression against the road bank, and found a collection of minnows that had been trapped and died there when the flood receded. I called Josh over and we stood looking down at little fish that stunk out of proportion to their actual size. Mystery solved without drama.
“Was that two women in a red convertible?” I asked.
“They were not attractive.”
“Uh.”
When you hold an ace in the hole, you need to be certain it actually is an ace. Charles Denning and I once went hiking in the mountains in the dead of winter where it can get dangerously cold. Our route was long and the sun got low and we began to wonder if we’d make it to the truck before dark. Spending a night in the wilderness began to seem a possibility. There were many overhanging bluffs and caves where we could take shelter. If need be we’d just build a fire for warmth and light. For Charles’ benefit I dramatically produced the butane cigarette lighter I carry for such emergencies, held it up and gave it a flick. Results were notable for their absolute absence: no flame. Flick, flick, flick, flick, and still no flame. In fact, no flame ever came from that traitor of a lighter. I should have checked it beforehand. It had been stored with my hiking stuff for a long time and had lost its pressure, I reckon.
By the time Josh and I crossed the only bridge left standing on Blackburn Fork—out of four—our water was nearly gone. We’d been stretching it out. But, of course, that only allows one to get more dehydrated and does little to conserve the total combined fluids contained in bottle and body.
My ace in the hole was just one half mile farther. A spring seeps out of the bluffs beside the road. An ancient plumber of springs had stuck an iron pipe in the bluff crevice decades ago, capturing and running the pattering little stream right out to the thirsty traveler. Just stick your bottle under it. And you don’t even have to turn off the faucet that the plumber didn’t provide to the everlasting spring that never stops.
When we got there, the everlasting spring that forever brings cold, life-giving water, that non-ending stream of the thirsty runner’s dream, that very spring had, in point of fact, gone bone dry. We’d get no water there. I’ve filled my bike bottle there. I’d never seen it dry before. My ace had turned into a joker.
It was a half mile further to the Roaring River Road, and from there, an uncertain distance on to Gainesboro—maybe in the range of six to seven miles, I vaguely figured from my memory of riding the road. My guess would prove to be not bad wrong, and would end up pushing our total distance to twenty-one miles by the time we reached Gainesboro.
We headed down the two-lane blacktop, fully catching the sun’s heat now, running beside Roaring River. Our lack of water began to tell. Josh is half my age, hence, more able than I to shuck off the heat and dehydration. Nonetheless, we ran together down that road carrying empty bottles in our waist packs and Josh carrying two empties in the backpack, little more now than relics of a water-blessed past.
Occasionally we walked, getting gradually tired and slow. Josh ran on. I began to trail behind. Cramps had set in on my legs. I could only go so fast before the cramps seized hard. I did what I could.
“Josh, go on. Don’t wait for me.” But he did wait.
“The first thing you’ll come to is a liquor store,” I said.
It was true. On the lower end of Roaring River—preceding the town itself—sits a campground belonging to the Corps of Engineers. The liquor store, as well as a companion grocery store, sat across the road from it. Because of the campers, that had once been a good location. Then the campground closed, followed by the grocery store. Now, only the liquor store remained.
“At least I hope it’s still there.”
But I didn’t know for sure. I hoped we could fill our bottle there. But I feared it might have dried up like the spring.
Ultra-runners know you can log a long distance if you simply keep going forward. We were getting closer, but also getting thirstier. So thirsty, that Josh took a chance. We came to a house on a hill above the road. We could see a frost-free faucet standing in the yard beside the house. Josh carried the empty bottles across the yard. I stood in the road watching to see if he was going to be shot. He lifted the faucet handle. Not one drop of water came out. Apparently it had been disconnected.
He looked around and found a coiled water hose connected to a faucet on the house’s foundation. Now he was really pushing his luck. If anybody was home, they’d likely hear the water flowing in the pipes under the floor. Josh turned on the faucet and filled all four bottles. He came walking back smiling. Nobody showed up waving a shotgun.
“You were taking a chance.”
“I figured it was die of thirst or be shot.”
I took a long swig. And at once spit it out on the hot pavement. The water out of that hot hose tasted like water out of a tractor tire, full of chemicals, the taste thereof anyway.  
“That stuff’ll kill you!”
We trudged morosely on, still thirsty, carrying the weight we didn’t need of the water we didn’t dare drink. But we were getting close. Soon we came to the closed campground, the gated roads and weeds between camp sites. And I knew we were there.
The liquor store was, too, and still open, even though there were no customers until we walked in. Yes, we were customers. Josh had revealed his ace in the hole—an emergency twenty-dollar bill. A lone woman sat behind the counter.
“You got any Cokes or Dr. Pepper?” I asked.
“We don’t sell anything but liquor.” That’s all their license permits, she told us.
“Well can we fill up our bottles? You got a bathroom or something?”
She took me to bathroom in an unfinished utility room at the back, and turned on a light. While I was pouring out bad water and filling bottles with good water, Josh was prowling around in the cooler. He found a drink called Jim Beam Cola in an aluminum can, and a daiquiri by Jose Cuervo in a plastic bottle. I saw him purchase two of the colas. Then he called his wife Martha on the store’s land line to see if she could drive to Gainesboro and pick us up. Arrangements were made: we’d meet her at the Marathon station, which, with a name like that, was the appropriate place.
We walked out of there smiling, and drinking the colas, in violation of open container laws, I am sure. It was afternoon now and we’d had nothing to eat, but the cold colas compensated for that. We had about a mile to go, and we walked down the shoulder sipping on the cans. Josh and I happened to actually be talking about how we were surely violating the law when the sheriff’s car passed.
“There goes the sheriff, Josh said. And then, “Well, he’s not stopping.”
“I don’t give a damn if he does.” My patience with all things contrary was worn out.
Suddenly Josh crushed his can.
“Man, you finished that in a hurry. I’m sipping on mine to make it last longer.”
“I got a couple of those daiquiris in the pack.”
“Oh.”
So we opened the daiquiris, kept walking, and finished them too. When we hit the Marathon station we saw Martha pulling in at the lot. She’d been prompt. Josh and I had just had two quick drinks on empty stomachs. We went in the station’s store.
“Want to get some beer, Dallas?” Josh said. He had a ten spot left from the emergency twenty. We went to the cooler.
“Budweiser is what you want,” I said. I pulled out a quart can. Josh grabbed a quart of Corona Extra. We sat them on the counter and got in line to pay behind a couple of other customers. A uniformed officer, a woman with a badge and a gun got in line behind me. I turned.
“Catch any crooks today?”
Nope, she didn’t. I was telling her we’d run from Cookeville, that we’d come through the flood damage on Blackburn Fork, and had she been up there to see it yet, and she hadn’t, and then I became aware of a querulous discussion going on behind my back. I turned to see what in the world was going on now.
Josh was holding the ten out, but the clerk wouldn’t take it. He was demanding an ID, and Josh was trying to tell him we’d been running and didn’t have any and…
My patience really was exhausted. I didn’t want to hear it. I snatched the ten out of Josh’s hand and thrust in at the clerk.
“Here, I’m buying this stuff. Do I look old enough?”
The clerk made a slow grin, took the ten and gave me the change. I turned and dropped it into Josh’s hand. We scooped up our beers and dashed out. Martha was waiting.
Josh and I drank the quarts while Martha drove us back to Cookeville. She dropped us off at my house, turned around and left us standing in the driveway. It was mid-afternoon. We’d now each had the equivalent of four drinks on an empty stomach. I unfolded a couple of yard chairs in the shade in front of Josh’s car, where he’d parked it that morning.
“Josh, you want another beer?”  I had a refrigerator stocked in the garage.
So that’s how we finished the day, sitting in the shade and nursing a beer each, talking about the day’s astonishing scenes. We’d seen a remote rustic valley, one of my favorite places, devastated by flood damage unprecedented in our experience. We’d run twenty-one miles on a hot August day with not enough to drink, and with nothing to eat—on a run we’d never intended to make in the first place. We’d spent extra time exploring damage, and, thus, had gotten more dehydrated than twenty-one miles would usually indicate.
Around three-thirty we finally got something to eat. Jo Ann brought out sandwiches, ham on croissant.