Sunday, December 20, 2015

Running the Marabana Havana Marathon

Runners of the Maracuba  head south through Havana Viejo, Old Havana. The Maracuba 3K is run on the day before the marathon as a benefit for kids.
           By the time the Havana Marathon starts I already know I’m too weak from travel upsets and sleeplessness to actually run 26.2 miles, that this will be something different. I’ll just jog, if I can, forget competing and try to earn no more than the finisher’s medal and tee.
            It is 8:00 a.m., Sunday, November 15, 2015 and the marathon starts now, whether I’m ready or not. Soon we’re trotting beside Paseo del Prado, setting out to run two 13.1-mile loops through the city of Havana. The old dreaded mystery skulks ahead.
            This trip is billed as a person-to-person educational exchange, licensed by the Department of the Treasury. The owner of Insight Cuba, a tour company, successfully sold the idea that runners instantly connect with other runners no matter where they hail from. Accordingly, Treasury gave the company license to take 150 American marathoners to Cuba for the Marabana Havana Marathon. This is the second year for such a tour. The word Marabana is a mere mash-up of the two words “marathon” and “Habana.”
            What do you see when you run 13.1 miles twice through Havana? Streets full of the old ‘50s-era American cars—the ’55-model Fords, Chevys and Oldsmobiles. We’ve all seen those pictures. Somehow they keep the 60-year-old heaps running. Their 6-Volt lights glow yellow at night. Repair of the streets on which they travel can be a problem. A raw ditch is dug into the left lane of the one-way street in front of my hotel. Not even so much as a traffic cone warns motorist. You can see a pile of dirt, can’t you?
Gran Teatro, Grand Theater, the home of the Cuban National Ballet, shows an ornate exterior.
            What you don’t see in Havana is perhaps more telling than what you do see. The U.S. embargo froze Havana in the year 1961. It’s like going back in time to then. What you didn’t see in the U.S. then, you don’t see in Havana now: the golden arches, Colonel Sanders, Starbucks, Holiday Inn, Japanese cars… People walk on the street without talking on cell phones. No billboards mar the view.
            Fidel Castro, whatever else he may be, was a strong personality, given to two-hour speeches. One expects a cult of personality surrounding him. It’s not apparent. Even though the marathon starts in front of the national capitol building, I never see a single picture or statue of Fidel or his brother Raul, the current president. In fact Havana’s José Martí International Airport is named not after Fidel but after the poet Martí—he was also a freedom fighter in the war of independence from Spain. Name an airport after a poet rather than a politician. Maybe we can learn from that.
            My trip started in Cookeville on Friday, November 13—Friday the Thirteenth—with a wakeup time of 3:00 a.m. I had to catch an early Miami flight out of Nashville. I needed to hit Miami before 11:00 a.m., for a program in the 4th-floor Auditorium. That program turned out to be lessons in Cuban dance. This was, after all, an educational trip and runners were obliged to follow the program agenda. Above all, though, I didn’t want to miss the charter flight out of Miami for Havana.
So, yeah, I meant to be prompt. But I needed not worry. The charter flight developed mechanical problems and didn’t leave Miami until after ten that night.
L to R, the author, John Litzenberger, Lynda Wacht and Laura Caille sit outside at a bar in Havana.
I met three strangers on this trip. We became fast friends, a foursome. Runners connect. Lynda Wacht, 46, Littleton, Colorado, and I were both trying to find the place to pick up our charter flight ticket. We teamed up, like two Tributes in the Hunger Games. “I’m not leaving you,” I said. Later we encountered Laura, 47, Houston, Texas. She was standing in the concourse showing runners which tunnel to descend to get to the charter flight gate, just volunteering her help. While Lynda and I were chatting with her, John Litzenberger, 54, Seattle, walked up. We became a foursome. These three were much younger than I am, yet they deigned friendship with the 75-year-old old timer.
The three were extraordinary. If there is such a thing as a Ph.D. in Adventure, these three had each earned one. Lynda and John had completed Ironman races. Lynda had finished the Escape from Alcatraz swim. John had run the Rwanda and Jerusalem Marathons. Laura had trekked Mongolia. Amazing. But, then, what kind of people would you expect on a trip such as this?
We wandered the Miami airport, killing time, waiting for the charter flight, wondering would we ever get started toward Cuba? It was thus we ambled in front of a TV showing breaking news of the two terrorist attacks in Paris on this day. We stood watching in horror, speaking in hushed tones. The unspeakable tragedy lowered a pall around us. Finally, I said, “We need to get away from this.” Unable to do anything else, we walked away.
When we finally reached Havana, it was midnight. There was a problem getting through customs. Our luggage was delayed. Actually, I had no luggage, except for a small carry-on backpack. I travel light. My pack weighed eleven pounds; five of those pounds were food. When I pulled out my bag of vittles and started sharing, grateful Laura christened my little bag the “Magic Pack.”
I had no luggage to wait for. Nonetheless, I waited in the airport with my buds. Lynda and I stretched out on the tile floor. John made our picture. After an hour, luggage arrived.
Finally I reached my room on the fourth floor of the Plaza Hotel. It was not much larger than a walk-in closet. One dim lamp fought the gloom. I needed a flashlight to find anything in the Magic Pack. No hot water. No cold water either—except occasionally. One shouldn’t drink it anyway. What do you want, a bath? I hit the sack at 2:30 a.m. after being on the go for nearly 24 hours.
A young runner holds a sign explaining Maracuba, Proyecto Niños, Project Children.
I was up early next morning, sticking with the program. First a group picture in a park, then a 3K warmup race called the Maracuba. It toured Havana Viejo, Old Havana. I couldn’t take a shower afterwards because, you, know, water. So I just sponged off. Laura tells me she has water but her toilet doesn’t work. We all have our hardships. To be fair, the hotel is undergoing renovation.
Artists display and sell their work along the beautiful Paseo del Prado, a walk bordering Havana Viejo, Old Havana.
Our little foursome met in the lobby and set out to explore the town, stopping at El Floridita, a bar where Hemingway hung out. A girl band was playing Rumba. The place was full of tourists. Nobody goes there anymore. We left without even buying a drink.
We strolled Paseo del Prado, a beautiful walkway, chatting with artists and gazing at the work on display and in progress. We had no cell service or internet service now, but while we’d still been in Miami a friend in Spain sent me a message on Facebook suggesting a restaurant called Astrusiano. It was just off Paseo. Our group was enthusiastic about finding it. It turned out to be a white tablecloth joint with hefty servings of tasty food, a good find. I ordered Chuletas, pork chops, and when my plate came it included three. The four amigos loved the place. I felt like a hero for having inside info from Spain. John and Laura drank Bucanero, a passable local beer. Lynda had wine. Water for me. I was still serious about running the marathon next day.
Lynda Wacht stands ready to run in front of the national capitol. The dome on the building is modeled after the U.S. capitol building.
Ha! That was yesterday. Now I find myself actually running in that marathon, and I know better. I trot north beside Paseo. After three miles or so, the course delivers us to Malecón, a four-lane road curving along the north seashore. The sea is angry, crashing hard on the rocks below, splashing over the seawall and sprinkling the road we run on. It’s a hot day and the sprinkle is good. On my second pass along here I watch a runner in black tee and shorts jog over to the wall. She stands immobile and spread-eagled, facing the angry sea like a virginal offering. The waves wash over her sweat-drenched body.
Later she catches up to me.
“I let the waves cool me off,” she says with a sheepish grin.
“Yes, I saw,” I say.
Here now is the turnaround, a hand-painted sign says. Wait! It’s only for those running the 10K. Marathoners and half-marathoners are supposed to continue straight ahead. Somehow, I figure that out, but many don’t realize it. Laura meant to run the marathon but she turned. Soon she arrived back at the capitol, where we started. James Hill, Austin, Texas, a world-class age grouper my age, made the same mistake.
Police presence was strong throughout race activities.
Runners will ask, “How was the support?” Well, this: aid stations were plentiful and well stocked about two miles apart. But I only saw one ambulance on the course, a good reason why I was careful. I didn’t want to need medical help in a developing country. A scare in Morocco once has left me wary. At the start, there were only two portable toilets for thousands of people. There are no toilets on the course, which fact forces me to improvise a couple of times. Policía look on. Trees help.
The old cars spew unfiltered exhaust as they pass. The streets turn the soles on my sneakers ash gray—from the pollution, I suppose. I smell sewer gas frequently. In 1961, which is the year where I am today, the U.S. didn’t have the EPA either.
About 5K from the finish line my idyll shatters. I’m struck by panic. If I continue my casual trudge, I’ll go over five hours. Five hours is the cutoff for an official finish. Or it may only be the cutoff for traffic control. I’m not sure. There is too much to read and remember. Come all the way here and not get an official finish. What a failure.
I suddenly have to accelerate and go. Go hard! If I have any energy left in my ravaged body I’ve got to find it now. So, I go hard.
I don’t have the precise time; I accidentally stopped my chronograph. Don’t know if I can make it, if there’s time, but I keep trying. A hundred yards from the finish line, James Hill suddenly joins me. I still don’t know. He would’ve beat me if he’d actually run the marathon instead of making the 10K turnaround. He’s doing a friendly honor, bringing me in.
I cross the line glancing at the race clock. Just over five hours. But I still don’t know my chip time, since I started back in the pack. It’s a close call. I chat with Lynda, who was barely ahead of me, and with James Hill. No volunteer hands me any water. There is no water.
It’s over. I should drink something. But there’s nothing. I walk away and head to the hotel. Later, I’ll find my finishing time: 4:59:13. So, I beat the five-hour barrier. Somehow the only two other men in my over-70 age group managed to run even slower than I did. So, I can claim an age-group win. They are both younger than I am, too. That makes me the oldest finisher in this marathon. I get the prize for being not yet dead.
My fear was bogus. Turns out, five hours was not the cutoff for an official finish; it’s only the cutoff of traffic control.
After drinking some bottled water at the hotel, I discover that I still have no running water, hot or cold. I don’t think Hemingway did it this way. I find my buddy John from Seattle sitting at a table in the hotel bar. He’s drinking Bucanero and talking up a couple women. I smell like a mule. His room is on the second floor, two stories lower than mine. He has water pressure. He hands me his room key and says welcome, go take a shower. That shower in John’s room is the best award I’ll get for finishing the Havana Marathon. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Blood on the Trail, Death on the Ice

North shore of Cane Creek Lake
           The episode started with a phone call one Wednesday morning in February. I’m not sure why that call was the start of the story, but it seems to be the case. In truth, it did in a way frame what later amounted to a story that I didn’t then know was happening. It wasn’t an ominous call either, rather a lucky one. A young reporter for the local daily wanted to interview me about a book I’d recently published. I was in favor of that. Any notice for a languishing book is good news.
            I suggested meeting for lunch and mentioned a Thai restaurant. It turned out to be one of her favorites. We set the date for Monday of the following week. I was looking forward to it.
            That Monday rolled around. I did what I normally do and went out for a run, a twelve miler. The route of that run meanders through town, down a street the police call “Crack Alley,” heads toward the western edge of town, circles a fifty-six-acre lake and then returns. The two and a half miles around the lake is the highlight segment of the course. A paved path winds over rolling hills through a hardwood forest, cuts across a quarter-mile-long levee that dams the valley and then follows the north shore. The levee and north shore offer sweeping, open views of the lake.
            Approaching the end of the levee that Monday morning, I happened to look down. There I saw a bleached-out spot on the pavement; it was the size of a saucer. I should not have been startled, but it changed my day. It was strange that I was surprised to see it. I knew the spot well, its shape and location. It was near the right-hand edge of the pavement just before the right-hand turn off of the main levee. Some of my recent runs had been on other loops and I hadn’t had much occasion to consider this bleached spot in a while. But now, once again, all over, I stood recalling. The spot took me back nearly two years. It’s a wonder that it had that power; the spot didn’t look unusual; a bystander would have been puzzled. After all, it is normal for weathered pavement to exhibit a scattering of spots of one kind or another. It may’ve looked ordinary, but this spot was different. I knew what caused it. Blood.
            Blood. Nearly two years before this morning, I’d been running along here when it brought me to a taut stop, a shallow pool of blood, irregular in shape; it spread to twice the size of my hand. I bent down for a close look. It was bright and fresh. Immediately I looked around to see if I could spot an injured animal or human. Something or someone injured ought to be nearby; the blood was that fresh. There was nothing, no one. Short pasture grass made a turf all around, no place where anything could hide or go unseen. The blood was fresh enough it seemed impossible I couldn’t look up and see its living source.
            The mystery baffled me. Somewhat experienced in tracking, I took a closer look. Had a deer been shot here by a poacher on park property? There was no evidence of it. A bullet or arrow cuts hair. Sometimes just one hair provides a valuable clue, tells where an animal was standing when it was shot or helps extend an intermittent blood trail after other signs fail. I turned up not one hair—or feather. The blood itself was pristine, wet. I inspected for traces of the pinkish coloring left by the tiny air bubbles of a lung shot. Nothing. Nor were there any tiny pieces of grass fibers that would indicated a gut shot. The blood was pure and unblemished. Perhaps an animal injured at another location ran to this place, stopped and bled out the pool. But no blood trail led to the spot that I could find, not even a drip. I gave up on the gunshot idea.
            Maybe two animals had been fighting, competing males, say, and one was injured. Again, there was no evidence. The blood was adjacent to the grass. A fight would have raised tuffs of grass, scattered tiny clods from toenails or hoofs. But the ground and grass were undisturbed. I ran out of possibilities.
            In the end, I had no clue, just the blood. The mystery was complete. It was as if living blood had suddenly appeared without the presence of any living thing accompanying it, as if from the very air overhead.
            That spot of blood from two years ago changed with time, but it remained there on the pavement over the following days and weeks. I was surprised by its endurance. I found myself brooding about it, and I anticipated seeing it each time I ran that route. In whatever way it changed, it remained indelible. The color turned to dark rust. It turned still darker and the surface took on a scaly appearance such that no one seeing it now could ever guess that the spot was blood, or had been. I began to think it might never go away. I wondered if anyone else had seen the blood when it was fresh and if they’d wondered about it like I had. I doubted it. It was my secret, this mysterious spot.
            But weather changes many things. After a few weeks, a siege of rain came. I got up one morning after hard overnight rain. It was still raining. I sat in a rocking chair drinking coffee, delaying my run and looking out the window as the rain poured down. This will finally wash away the blood, I thought, dissolve it and flush the pavement clean. I trusted the cleansing power of the rain. It pelted down. I was confident the blood spot would finally wash away.
            A few days later, after the ground had dried, I ran the levee again. Perhaps I should have looked away, but I couldn’t. I knew the spot’s location too precisely. I didn’t need that perfect knowledge. The spot was still there; it was telling me it was still there. It had endured the rain. And it would endure more. It was still there. Although incredulous, I accepted that fact; I could see it was true.
            I accepted the spot and came to believe it would never go away. It endured, identifiable to me, all through the summer and fall. A hard winter followed that. Rain fell many times, but the spot stayed there. Then the snow came. The spot went under the freezing and thawing and refreezing snow and ice—out of sight and eventually out of mind.
            While the snow was still on the ground an especially hard freeze came and stayed several days. My runs grew more challenging. For traction, I screwed ten sheet-metal screws into the sole of each of my shoes. The screw heads acted as cleats and kept me from falling. I tried to keep my fingers warm by wearing thick fleece gloves like hunters use. When that wasn’t enough, I put hand warmers in each glove. That arrangement would keep my fingers warm enough for a while, but on a run as long as the twelve-mile route around the lake they’d start aching. It felt like frostbite.
            The lake behind the levee froze over, hard and thick. The cold weather brought in waterfowl from up north. Duck hunters here know that that will happen and welcome the cold air. As I circled the lake, I could see hundreds of ducks standing around on the ice, maybe even a thousand. I identified many kinds, including Gadwalls, mallards and coots.
            I wondered about that, the standing around. The first two days after they arrived, they simply loitered on the ice doing nothing. They’d better be hunting something to eat, I thought. They stood there like they were waiting for room service to bring shelled corn on a platter. But food wasn’t coming to them.
            The ice was a dangerous hangout for the ducks. Predators like coyotes and foxes could come out after them. For refuge, they only had one spot of water in the otherwise hard-frozen lake. It was not much larger than a tennis court, just off the north shore. I’d come to it shortly after I passed the blood spot. It was close to the trail, and gave me a good view of the ducks gathered around it. Perhaps there is an underwater spring at that place that makes the water warmer. A few ducks worked hard swimming about in it, keeping it stirred up, keeping it from freezing. The rest simply stood around and looked on, like humans, letting a few do the work for them.
            The cold siege dragged on. After a few days, three or so, the ducks began leaving out. I watched as they took to the air, a dozen or two at a time. They were finally heading out to hunt food, I figured. They didn’t get to be ducks by waiting for a handout. They headed northwest. I knew where they were going. Cordell Hull Lake, a shallow lake twenty miles away on the Cumberland River, would have open water. And there were soybean and corn fields scattered around it. They could find food there. But they seemed to come back to Cane Creek at night because the crowd of ducks remained constant.
            It was a show, seeing them fly. Then one morning, I saw another type of bird circling over the lake, drifting slowly and disorganized, not sleek and fast like ducks. My first open view of the lake comes when I leave the woods and hit the levee. I came out of the snowy woods that morning and then I saw them: Buzzards. Here was something new. I continued on across the levee toward the blood place and then I saw why the buzzards had come.
            A deer had gone out on the ice. It hadn’t gotten far, maybe twenty-five yards from the shore, just past the blood place. I was late to the show. Buzzards had stripped the skeleton. A few stringy tendrils of gristle hung from the naked bones. The wind blew through the rib cage. Even the deer’s cape lay separate from the bony carcass, crumbled on the ice like an old Army blanket. The plunder was complete.
            The deer had lost its struggle in a spectacular way. It should never have gone out on the ice, a very dangerous place for a deer. It’s too easy for the hooves to slip. Once a deer does the splits with its back legs it tears tissue that binds those legs together. The deer can never gather its legs underneath its body again. It can never get upright again. The rupture is deadly. Cows have the same problem. Ranchers and farmers know this. A cow down with that ailment must be destroyed. This had been an unlucky deer. Predators and buzzards probably starting feasting before it died, almost certainly did. Food was scarce and urgent for them too.
            The deer should have known this. Why did it make the terrible decision to venture onto the ice? It had started across the lake near its widest point. If it had veered to the right, past the blood place, it could have run in retrograde to my route across the levee, or cut down the levees’ back slope and across the field. Dogs or coyotes might have been chasing it. Maybe they cut off its escape and the deer panicked. I was too late to see what happened, and anyway it might have happened before daylight.
            I could stand on the blood spot, which was now under the snow, and from there see the remains of the deer on the ice. I stood on one mystery and gazed at another, two mysteries I suppose I’ll never solve. It’s frequent that one can’t settle things for certain. I am content with that. My fingers were cold. That much was certain. I would continue my training runs. That much was certain, too. More than that, I couldn’t claim.
            The weather warmed. The deer’s lank skeleton gradually sank into the ice, inch by inch, a little each day; the ducks went back north; the lake thawed; the mysteries faded. I quit using cleats. Spring came. I went off to the Boston Marathon and other spring races. Thoughts on the mysterious blood, the mysterious deer death, or the hungry ducks receded in the warming spring.
            The seasons passed, as they always do. My thoughts turned to other places. I ran many roads. Sometimes I did long training runs with a young friend. We planned adventure runs on the steep hills in rural Jackson County, picking loops off a county map. I’d ridden my mountain bike over those primitive roads years earlier. We explored the county on foot now, without bikes.         
The next winter brought mild days with scarcely any snow or ice. I continued to run and didn’t have to use cleats or deal with cold fingers. That easy winter shaded into mid-February, and that was when reporter Megan Trotter called me about the interview. And on the morning of our scheduled meeting, I ran across the levee at Cane Creek, looked down and in that moment saw once again the familiar shape of the pool of blood, nearly two years old.
Some chemical in the blood had bleached and discolored the pavement precisely to the shape of the pool that had grown so familiar to me. I stood amazed again. I bent down to look closer. Photographers know that weathered asphalt is a good substitute for a neutral gray card, good for taking light meter readings. This asphalt had weathered to that soft color, except where the blood had spread; there, the asphalt was bleached white. I could see the limestone aggregate embedded in it, the tiny distinct stones. The thought hit me: if you examined one of those stones in an electron microscope you’d find yet traces of blood in the pores, iron molecules maybe. It would be there, its sign would.  And the thought grew: Blood is strong. Blood endures long. Blood gives its evidence.
            I stood pondering. The blood on the trail, the death on the ice, even my own struggle to run with cleats and frozen fingers, all these events coalesced somehow. Surely, they did. Each one seemed a piece of a larger principle. All merged into a symphonic whole: the unending struggle for survival. Survival necessarily subsumes mystery, striving and suffering. I’d witnessed this here, had in a small way been part of it. In time, maybe I would devise a unifying summation of it, one I could write down in a single canonical sentence. In that moment, I could only note it as mere demonstration: The terrible need to live. A larger, more profound meaning evaded me.
            I was looking forward to my meeting with reporter Megan Trotter. I trudged on toward home, toward a warm shower and my lunch with her. On the way, I realized I knew the story I wanted to tell. It was this story. And once I arrived at the House of Thai and Megan got her recorder going, I laid out the whole story, even though I knew it was too complex and too long for her to use in a Herald-Citizen feature. It was a story I had to tell.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Across Tennessee, Vol State 500k

The course for Vol State touches five states, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

The Vol State 500K road race begins at Dorena Landing, Missouri and ends at the Castle Rock Community on top of Sand Mountain near Trenton, Georgia, touching five states in the process.  Runners have precisely 10 days to complete the 314-mile journey. The Last Annual Vol State Road Race, as it is officially and jokingly called – it’s only last until the next one - typically begins on the second Thursday of July, deep in the heart of July’s heat. Everything about the race is ironic, from its distance of 100(Pi) to July’s heat, to its finish line just inches from a 100-foot precipice. It’s all crazy.

The race was created and is directed by Gary Cantrell, aka, Lazarus Lake, who is noted for having created the Barkley Marathons, a race designed to make you fail, he says. Lake typically starts the Vol State race in Dorena Landing not by blowing a horn or firing a starter pistol, no, but by lighting up a smoke. Runners trot down the river bank and jump onto the Dorena-Hickman Ferry, the boat that brought them from Hickman, Kentucky to Dorena Landing in the first place and that will now take them back to Hickman, where the real running begins. It’s all crazy.

This year, high water on the Mississippi River knocked out the ferry. We had to forego the boat ride and start in Hickman. We did a bit of out-and-back running at the start to compensate for the lost distance. Eighty souls started, 21 dropped, 59 finished. Eighteen of the finishers were aided, runners permitted a crew to bring supplies such as food and drink - and even transportation to a hotel or restaurant when needed.

In the jokey lexicon of Vol State, the two categories of aided and unaided runners are referred to as “crewed” and “screwed.” A screwed runner can accept drinks and food from random strangers and from other screwed runners, but is allowed no planned help. If a screwed runner ever gets in or on a moving conveyance, even if it doesn’t take him forward, in that moment he becomes a crewed runner, even though he has no actual crew.

Those are the rules. Most runners choose to run unaided, seeking the transcendent experience of total self-reliance. Self-reliance and the timely kindness of strangers, that’s it, 314 miles on your own. Can you face it?

Forty-one did. Forty-one of the 59 finishers were unaided. I finished 29th among them, becoming the oldest runner to complete Vol State unaided. Moreover, I gave up the time each night to write a daily journal on Facebook. That cost maybe an hour each day, eight hours altogether. But I wanted to document my race enough to take the time penalty. I’ve assembled those entries below. What they lacked in artful expression at the time was offset by their immediacy. They yet collectively stand as a raw, unedited narrative of events, a crude record - informational content trumping literary merit.

Twelve members of the club Run It Fast entered Vol State. All finished. Bill Baker, a thirteenth member, served as crew and made this photo.

The road goes on forever – but in the other direction – and the clock never stops.

Day 1, Martin, TN, Mile Marker 30:

Before the start, I pose at the water’s edge on the road to the ferry’s drowned landing.

Both legs cramped at same time, rigid as iron. I fell backwards, straight, like a board. I could not soon get up. Sitting there grimacing, I drank some water, ate some salt. I was leaving Union City. Passing motorist saw my fall. She circled back to check on me.

"It scared me," she said.

"Scared me too."

Problem was not over. Unable to run, I could slowly, slowly walk, but only with the most gentle care. Otherwise, cramps grabbed again.

I drank the bottle of water I had left. Got another bottle filled at a house. Couple of passing (now) runners shared their water. Still on a knife edge. After those three bottles of water, I was still nearly past moving. Yet, I had to move to find water somewhere on down the road.

There didn't seem to be a place. Finally reached a house, but no one answered the door, just the dog barking inside.

Another cramping runner had joined my evil fate at this point. We shuffled on, coming to a country transmission shop ringed by disabled vehicles. It was dark inside there. Chances seemed bleak. Turned out three good ole boys and an elderly man and woman were there huddled around a counter, likely a family.

"Could you fill our water bottles?" I asked.

A beat. Then,

"How about some cold GatorAde?"

That was better, of course. We needed the electrolytes as much as the water. They filled our bottles.

I pulled my cash out and offered money as a donation for their favorite charity, even suggested the church collection plate. They'd have none of it. They'd just possible saved us from the meat wagon.

"God bless both of y'all," the old lady said.

Day 2, Friday, Huntingdon, MM 68

A cottonmouth thick as a runner’s thigh would not surprise me in there.

VS runners look forward to breakfast in Gleason at the Korner Kafe.

Sergio Biachini, 74, hangs with fast women, Lynda and Betty (Lynda in photo).

I believe I've solved the cramp problem. Cramps were not a factor today. Lots of water - say, a bottle each hour. That means 12-14 bottles each day. Filled some of those bottles with sports drinks. Yesterday, after I finally found water, over the next two hours I drank so much my fingers got fat.

I started running in Martin, TN this morning at 2:30 AM. Saw a runner in Martin, but for next five hours, I never saw another runner - not until I reached Gleason.

I had the city map for Gleason in my hand working my way thru town. It's not good enough to merely go into one side of town and out the other. You have to precisely follow an often torturous route marked on a map. So I was.

Suddenly a short-haired, white-and-black spotted dog about the size of a miniature Jack Russell ran into the street. A one-armed man came running after the little mutt, scooped him up like a short stop, tucked him under his arm like a running back and carried him back to the house for a ten-yard gain.. No disability here.

While I watched this performance back over my shoulder was the moment I ran past the turn I should have made. So, in my ignorance, I turned at the next street, where there was no street sign. A street too far. As I ran down it, it began to turn, and none of the side street names were right. Finally, found a sign showing name of street I was actually on and realized I'd gone too far before turning.

Ah, well, by the time I went back to where the nearly Jack Russell lived, it only cost me maybe a bit less than an extra mile.

It was annoying because it delayed my arrival at the Korner Kafe. I'd been looking forward to some heavenly fried eggs. By the time I got there Sergio, Lynda and Betty were already there. Soon Troy and Cathie came too.

We had a Vol State reunion.

Day 3, Saturday, Parsons, MM 107

Mansion fronted by tall corn sits in early morning mist.

Two years ago Ella and her mom Marie surprised me ta Parkers Crossroads during Vol State 500k. Here she is again. Marie caught me later on down the road.

One of the biggest surprises two years ago during Vol State 500k was when this gentleman in a full coverage helmet rode up beside me on his motorcycle and asked if I was Dallas Smith. Tom Silvers’ daughter Maggie Silvers had asked him to go find me on the course and get a picture. Now they’ve done it again. This time, I got the picture.

Uber marathon couple Cathie and Troy Johnson  take a break from the heat just north of Lexington.

Hit the road at 3:06 AM this morning. Stopped at 7:46 PM just now, nearly 17 hours on the road. It was a brutal day on broad roads with no shade.

I used three hours to go seven miles! I stood in utter, astonished disbelief. But it was true. A crossroads where I actually was completely fixed my position. I'd gone only seven miles since leaving Lexington over three hours earlier.

Forget all the rules. This race rips the heart out of running. I was walking, only, to give my quads a chance to heal from yesterday's damage - they felt hot and feverish. Still how can you walk that slow?
All my clothes are wet. I sit in a towel wrap. No sit-down meal today. About to eat a can of chili because mart didn't have Beanee Weenees.

Positive note: During that darkest of trudges, numerous Road Angels offered both cold goodies and simple human kindness. That helped.

Day 4, Sunday, Hohenwald, MM 145

Leaving Parsons this morning, I saw a layer of cool mist spread over a swale.

Sunrise, I trot the fog line east toward The Rock, the Tennessee rolls north toward Kentucky and the fisherman draws an arrow south, each finding his own destiny.

The Vol State 500k has added a new term to the running lexicon, "2 mph," a speed ordinary runners don't consider, but every Vol Stater knows. When you have no play left except an enfeebled walk then you make that play.

You can endure even that and emerge running the next day. I did. The fever on my quads broke overnight during a deep sleep untroubled by dreams or trips to the bathroom. This morning, I hit US 412 at 4:14 in Parsons. I stopped at 6:30 PM at Hohenwald.

The moon is a stingy mistress withholding her light, hanging in the eastern morning sky, offering only a thin smile and each day falling a little closer to the rising sun.

When I left Parsons a whip-poor-will was calling, second consecutive morning to hear that sound. A chorus of frogs, several kinds, were making their calls, including one that sounded like barking. And a bullfrog was grunting. These hopeful sounds launched me into another burning day.

I have a hip hop vibe going, running with my shorts pulled down low, so they can rub a new spot and let the old spot rest. May improve my style category, trotting down the road with drooping britches.

I remember a guy two years ago had same problem, but different body part. He wrapped his scrotum with duct tape. Which seemed an imperfect solution. That's the fate of the uncrewed runner - making do with what he has or he can find.

Day 5, Monday, Columbia, MM 179

Resting my pack at a construction site on US 412, I text  my position after four days – 157 miles, precisely halfway.

The persistence of life – does this embattled plant’s struggle represent that of the Vol State runners passing it? Naaw, poetic over-reach.

A country place – Hampshire.

In Hampshire Linda makes the best baloney sandwich this side of Castle Rock and beyond, stacked high with lettuce and tomato.

Left Hohenwald at 3:00 AM. By 7:30 AM, the end of 4 days, I had 157 miles, precisely halfway.

Who cares whether what I do is what anyone would call running? I won't worry with it. My aching feet have got to get my chaffing butt on down the road any way they can. I need this finish bad.

The road and I are coming to an understanding. I solved two problems today - a toe problem and the chaffing problem. Both involved the pen knife this country boy put in his pack. Essential gear.

I prefer not to team up. I think a person ought to run his own race, relying on his own strength, not someone else's. But that's just me.

I shall have to burn these clothes, have a solemn ceremony worthy of a battered flag and bid adieu.

Now sleep, 2:00 AM comes too soon.

Day 6, Tuesday, Shelbyville, MM 223

No detailed update. I've been out there on my feet 19 hours. Columbia to Shelbyville, 223, so far.

I trusted those shoes.

Day 7, Wednesday, Manchester, MM 252.

Gene Simmons grows white beard, runs Vol State 500k,  mocks Bench of Despair.

Road Angels, Kim Nutt and son Graham meet the old runner with hospitality, cold drinks and fruit. Thanks, folks!

All was calm in Culleoka yesterday.

A country place sits behind a rock fence.

Wartrace is the kind of place where little kids ride their bikes on the town square. I took a nice 12-minute nap on the gazebo there.

On 16th Model Road: Once a mighty elm, judging from its bark, now reduced to a lifeless skeleton – by Dutch Elm Disease, I suppose.

I have an enduring memory of my total surprise when Lana Sain came out to meet me two years ago in Manchester during Vol State. Here she is again.

Feet are shredded! I have no trouble usually. Danger of infection concerns me on nail of big toe. Don Winkley knows a woman who lost foot over similar. He recommended soaking in peroxide. When someone of his experience speaks, you should listen. So, it happened the little mart had peroxide. I did what Don suggested.

Plans for tomorrow are uncertain. May go short to give feet a break - stop in Monteagle rather than cover the 48 miles to Kimball as I did last time.

Day 8, Thursday, Tracy City, MM 281

Another sunrise on the road. Bullfrog in the pond sounded deep and mellow, like old grandfather.

Hillsboro Highway.

My bright blue smile is yours, all yours.

I look back toward Pelham from Monteagle Mountain.

I'm running on raw nubs. Last night I soaked them in peroxide mixed with water in a hotel wastebasket, as Don Winkley had advised. Don, 77 now, was King of the Road one year. I expect he'll beat me this year. He's supported. Someone like that speaks, you listen.

I'm sitting on a side deck of a church in Tracy City, where I've just dined on a Slim Jim. Having peanuts after this post. That'll be supper. Also where I just slept for an hour. That'll be my sleep. Nearest hotel is hours away
Day 8 doesn't end until 7:30 tomorrow morning. I'd been determined to reach The Rock by then, finish in under eight days. That dream is dead and buried in Tracy City. Hit a bad patch here.
Leaving here to soldier on thru the night, do what I can do. Long lonely stretch from here to Jasper.

Epilogue, Part 1, Vol State 500k

The last night and day, Thursday night and Friday, left me unable to report as I had previously. A brief summary:

My location, Tracy City, was 34 miles from The Rock, 20 miles from the nearest hotel, in Kimball, 15 miles from Jasper. I'd just slept an hour on a church deck. I headed out for an overnight march across the Cumberland Plateau, where there were no services. But I wouldn't need as much water at night, I figured.

A mixture of "run lightly, walk smartly" was my plan. But VS didn't care about my plan. As the trek unfolded it soon became apparent I couldn't either run lightly or walk smartly. I didn't have the strength. I don't mean I was too tired to do either, my body simply wouldn't. All I could do was a plodding walk, like a rehab patient.

It was a new experience, as if I'd tumbled over the edge and fallen into a new region, a place whose contours were strange and unfamiliar. Perhaps sleep loss had finally done its deadly work. I'd never lost so much accumulated sleep before. I guess an endocrinologist would explain my condition in terms of hormones.

My plodding walk was punctuated by wandering, missteps and lurches. The paved shoulder was maybe two feet wide, that space partly taken by the rumble strip and overhanging weeds. My feet were raw. Stepping on the rumble strip was painful. To avoid stumbling, when vehicles approached (some were semi-trucks) I'd get outside the fog line, against the weeds, stop walking and brace my hands on my knees until they passed.

The moon was dark, stars were bright, the brightest I'd seen in a long time. The road headed straight toward Scorpio's stinger. I plodded on into the night.

Epilogue, Part 2, Vol State 500k

As I plodded through the night toward Jasper, sleep began to overtake me. But there was no place to stretch out except in the weeds, where I knew I'd get abundant chigger bites.

It took me three hours to cover the eight-mile distance to Foster Falls State Park. That kind of pace no longer even surprised me. On a grassy yard there (whose?) I found a bare spot of ground and stretched out on it. Bugs and ants crawled on me. So I left after 15 minutes and trudged on, looking for another place.

The night wore on. Traffic was reduced to an occasional vehicle. Still, no place to sleep, though my light searched.

Another runner! He was standing in the road watching my approach. I was 10 feet from him, before I saw anybody, though he was wearing a head lamp.

Fred was struggling like me. We walked together. He told me his troubles. He'd, at one point, gotten turned around and walked the wrong way on the road. And he couldn't walk straight. Each time he tried he'd gradually curve left until he hit the fog line and rumble strip and weeds. Then he'd get back to the middle of the lane and set out again. And repeat the routine again. And again. And again.

After an hour I found a 10-foot-long driveway to nowhere. I had to sleep. I kicked some gravel aside. Fred said it didn't look safe. It was close to traffic. He went on. I put on my wind shell and tried to put on an emergency poncho but couldn't figure out how. I just wrapped it around my legs and lay down, feet pointing toward the road. Soon, a car stopped at my feet. A man's voice came out of the dark.

"Sir, are you alright?"

"Yes sir, thanks, I'm fine. I just need to get some sleep."

It was a lie.

Epilogue, Part 3, Vol State 500k

After an hour of sleeping in the 10-foot-long driveway to nowhere, I woke up cold. I got up, trudged on, hoping the nap would help.

But I could see no improvement. Round midnight I was on the dark three-mile-long descent into Jasper. No place to rest. None.

My light began to go out. I'd be trapped. No place for refuge, no light to walk by. Had to act while I still had some light. Got out two extra batteries. The next part had to be done by feel. Put the new batteries in. Got that done. But light wouldn't come on. I've had trouble with its switch. After a few whacks - blip! - there it was. I'd not risk turning it off again, until I finished with it.

Found a church at the bottom of the hill. I circled behind it. Found a back door in an alcove, doormat on the concrete there. Nobody would know I'm here, I thought, unless they're prowling the night.
I had to have sleep. From 1:30 AM to 5:30 AM that matted concrete was my unconscious home. It was a total blackout.

Surely, four hours of sleep would help me go at a better pace. But it did not. I was 19 miles from The Rock. At two mph I could get there in the afternoon. At one mph, well, twice as long. But I would get there. If I didn't lose my single last ability, the ability to plod on.

I lost three positions before I got there. Johnny Adams passed me in Jasper. Then passed me a second time after he's stopped for breakfast. John Price passed me in Kimball and Don Winkley, a crewed runner, passed me on the New Hope Road.

But I did get there, in a time of 8d 10h 9m 11s.

Epilogue, Part 4, Vol State 500k

Recalling a moment in South Pittsburgh, near the Blue Bridge, amid howling traffic, freeway lanes, curving ramps, retaining walls, all the artificial structures and cacophony that at times makes the world seem alien, hostile and scary: A pickup truck sat on the shoulder ahead, the driver waiting.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine, just tired."

"Well you had your arms over your head [I’d been stretching] and you were wobbling."

Then I told him a little about the race, how much sleep I'd lost, etc. He was amazed, incredulous. Finally he went on.

Half a mile later, an SUV pulled over ahead, same deal. It was the same man again. He'd changed vehicles and brought his wife back so she could see me. He got out and made my picture several times and asked all kinds of questions - my name, age, etc. He wanted me to talk to his wife. I leaned into the SUV and greeted her, and we had a little chat.

Now these were not runners. Mr. ---- was a heavyset man, round body, round head, red face, short legs, and he was decked out in a Hawaiian shirt. But he was jovial, laughed a lot, and I liked him.

He brought his wife! So she herself could see the truth of what he was trying to tell her.

I’ll take it as a tribute.

 Known as the “Blue Bridge,” at 11 miles from The Rock, it spans the Tennessee River at South Pittsburgh where we cross that stream a second time.

Road through the tall corn points to The Rock in the distant woods.

A bump on the rock ledge just inches from a 100-foot-high precipice marks the end of our journey.

The Rock behind me, I can now pose for a triumphant finish line photo. Note the overlook bench.

Epilogue, Part 5, Vol State 500k

The drink I never drank.

After finishing VS, I checked into the Super 8 at Kimball and took a badly needed bath. Getting out of the shower I slipped on the wet tile and fell. I was pretty weak. Hugging the commode, I braced and got halfway up but fell again. Broke my fall with ribs against the tub rim. Second try I managed to actually get upright.

I hobbled to the Waffle House for the first real meal in a long time. Once I got back, I opened a beer and poured a little into a motel glass and took a sip.

Twelve hours later I woke up, the warm beer setting there, the room lights full on and the room fly still buzzing around. It had likely walked on its hairy feet across my lips during that time.

That's 12 hours for which I can offer no account, no dreams, no trips to the bathroom, nothing at all. Total nothingness, a blank space for which I can bring up no memories, tell no tales.

Epilogue, Part 6, Vol State 500k

Jameelah suffered blisters early on, and she was carrying a heavy pack, but finished still. She is plenty tough.

One more memory: As I was leaving The Rock in my car, having finished, suddenly here came a runner. It was Jameelah! I'd last seen her in Linden days earlier. I stopped the car and jumped out to cheer for her.

There she went, running hard and brave down County Highway 132 just two miles from the finish, and I knew nothing on earth could stop her. It is an enduring image, likely the last glimpse I'd ever have of the strong woman, I figured.

By coincidence, we'd shared a searing moment on the first day of the race, in the countryside between Union City and Martin. We'd both gotten dehydrated and were suffering legs cramps. We'd run out of the water we needed to solve the cramps. And we were running out of running ability needed to find more water, going from house to house to find a drink. But there were not many houses. We were striking out, our races in jeopardy.

That's when we came to a country transmission shop, one ringed by disabled vehicles. We went in that dim place without a lot of hope and asked to fill our bottles. Those good ole boys opened their hearts and their refrigerator both and filled our bottles with cold water and cold GatorAde. They helped the Brooklyn-raised black woman just as quickly as the old white Tennessean standing there.

They made me proud of Tennessee.

And now another coincidence that give or take 20 seconds doesn't happen. Checking out of the Super 8 on Saturday morning, I was on the walk toward my car when Jameelah rode by in a car and stopped. The image on County Highway 132 was not the last. We had a chance to relive that taunt day near Martin and to make some pictures in the parking lot.