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.
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.