This is a guest post written by Charles Raffensperger. Unbeknownst to many Vol State runners this year, Charles and I set up a race-within-a-race between ourselves. We suffered separately (yet somehow also together) while running towards each other from opposite directions. With only the comfort of knowing each step brought us a little closer to the Rock - and to each other- we ran a combined total of 514 miles in a week.
Vol State meets Vol-tered State.
Here's HIS side of the story:
Vol-tered State 2013 (subtitled “A Walking Tour of the TVA”)
by Charles Raffensperger
Almost a week after my run I feel like I’m at a turn-around point in my recovery. My feet feel like a part of me again, instead of alien appendages attached to the ends of my legs. I actually have some energy left this afternoon and for the first time this week don’t feel like putting my head down on my desk and taking a nap. Wednesday I had actually closed my office door, laid down on the floor, and slept for close to an hour, head resting comfortably on my computer bag. 200 miles is traumatic – last week it was me calling the shots and pushing my body along, despite every attempt it would make to force me to stop. This week we are becoming reacquainted and slowly accepting each other again. I’ve made a deal with my body to take it easy this week. While the actual pain subsides slowly the memory of pain experienced during the run seems to vanish much more quickly. I’m not a biologist but it seems like all animals must have evolved with this capacity in order to deal with the rigors associated with survival.
The genesis for this “experience” grew from my initial desire to run the Vol State race in 2013 along with Psyche. The Vol State is a 314 mile race all the way across the state of Tennessee – starting in Dorena Landing, Missouri and finishing on Sand Mountain at the Castle Rock Ranch in the absolute northwestern corner of Georgia. This year was a record year for the Vol State with over 50 participants across all 3-divisions: screwed (unscrewed/solo), crewed, and relay. Psyche had signed up for the “screwed” category and had really trained hard. Last year she had valiantly finished the same race, having gone nearly 240 miles without crew, but was forced to ask me to crew her the last 75 miles due to extreme issues with her feet…she finished that last 75+ miles in flip flops! I’m incredibly proud of her now that she has finished that race 2 times. She is truly an inspiration!
While I initially added my name to the Vol State list using the alias “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, I withdrew it after my experience in the Georgia Death Race in March. I sweated uncontrollably and ended up fighting dehydration and cramps for much of that race. Knowing that Psyche was committed to the Vol State I started having thoughts of planning a run of my own, although shorter than hers, to help mitigate heat/dehydration issues, but still extremely challenging on its own merit. The first part of planning my route was easy – where to finish? The only natural finish point for me would be at Castle Rock, GA where the Vol Stater’s finish – Psyche’s car would be there so whoever finished first would be able to access the car. The starting point was also an easy choice – it had to be somewhere between Castle Rock and Chimney Rock, NC (where Psyche lives) so we could drive back, pick up my car along the way, and spend a couple of days recuperating before returning back to work the following week. That choice wasn’t hard either – I would begin my run atop Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, highest point along the entire Appalachian Trail, and 3rd highest point in the Eastern US. Last year Psyche and I had a wild experience pacing our good friend Sean (Run Bum) Blanton on this same section of trail as part of his attempt to set a speed record for the entire AT, so I was at least familiar with the trail and the access points on both ends of it.
Using G-Maps Pedometer (Google Maps-based tool) I scouted out various routes between my starting and ending points – ending up with one that included the 1st 32 miles along the Appalachian Trail, 12 miles along US 28 to Deal’s Gap, US 129 to US 72 to US 411 to US 64 into downtown Chattanooga, then a series of roads around Lookout Mountain, crossing under/over 1-24 3 separate-times. This would bring me to the base of Sand Mountain along Nickajack Lake where I would intersect the Vol State course for the first time for the final 5-mile push up to finish at Castle Rock, for a grand total of 197 miles. Using this information I cut out a series of PDF maps, printed and laminated them – with mile markers flagged these are almost exactly like the maps John Price has prepared for Vol State. I also used Google Maps to generate my own turn sheets with all gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants, and motels highlighted on them with approximate mileages to each. I meticulously planned everything I would need to pack using input I gleaned from various Vol State participants. This is one area where my run differed quite a bit from Vol State – I knew I had 32 miles on the AT + an additional 12 road miles for my first night so had to pack all food/water I would need. My only options to get water would be from springs on the AT or from the bathrooms at Fontana Dam. After that I also had long sections without aid so would require a drop bag with food/fuel and a few extras for the 2nd day. Only at the end of the 2nd day would I be back in civilization of any kind.
|Fontana Dam and Lake lower right .|
AT trailhead is just past the north end of the dam. Miles 11-22 constitute the Tail of the Dragon.
Psyche started her run Thursday, July 11.
|Psyche, John, and Dusty getting ready to board the bus for LAVS!|
I pushed on to Cherokee, NC where I spent a pleasant night in the Pageant Inn and walked around the town a little to loosen my legs up.
Saturday morning I overslept a little and spent more time than I expected trying to get all my supplies in my pack so got a late start on the drive up 441 to Newfound Gap where the road to Clingman’s Dome begins. I saw a turkey and 2 coyotes on the drive up which I thought was pretty cool – the coyotes have evidently learned to scavenge road kill as they were just walking up and down alongside the road waiting for an easy meal. The day had dawned beautifully with sun and a few clouds, but cooler than normal temps. As I got closer to the tops of the higher peaks on the way to the Dome I was engulfed in clouds – in fact, I didn’t emerge from the clouds until nearly 8 miles into my run down the AT.
Day 1 – trail magic!The start was uneventful but I do confess to a bit of nervousness during these last moments before leaving the security of my car and setting out on foot to cover 197 miles, with absolutely NO bail out options! After filling up my water bottles and bladder and vainly trying to stuff everything into my pack (while ditching a few items that simply wouldn’t fit) I headed up the mountain. A quick word about gear – I was wearing a new Columbia Omni Freeze Zero shirt and bandana. While I can’t absolutely say they kept me any cooler on the run they are undeniably the most comfortable running shirt and bandana I’ve ever worn. The material is soft and stretchable and doesn’t chafe – any cooling effect is a bonus in my book – I’m impressed and would buy those products again.
|Starting point of my run atop Clingman’s Dome in the clouds|
Ok, it’s just wrong to start a 197 mile run by trudging up a steep paved road to the summit of Clingman’s Dome, with probably 300+ feet of elevation gain! The weather got progressively worse – colder with howling wind up on the top (and by top I do mean I walked up the ramp to the observation platform). Stopped a couple minutes at the top and headed down the ramp and onto the trail. Anyone who has hiked or run this section of the AT knows that it is VERY technical with rocks and roots everywhere. But I was feeling good and ran as much as I could on the downhills and flats. And I have to admit my ego had started to grow as I ran, thinking about what a badass I was to be doing this run in the first place. But I was brought back down to earth as I passed some hikers and realized that they were probably far more badass than me – through hikers, half hikers, or section hikers…one guy was on the trail for a full month and headed to Damascus, VA from Springer Mountain. Or my friend Matt Kirk who was at that very time headed south from Maine on his attempt to break the unsupported speed record on the entire AT – damn, that’s seriously BAD-ASS!
Continuing down the AT I faltered a bit on the big climbs and took some time up on Thunderhead to fuel up and rest for a little while. One thing about this trail section is that, even with the net elevation decline of perhaps 4,000’, there is also probably more than 7,000’ of climbing and maybe 10,000’ of total descent – added to the additional 3,000’+ of climbing I would do on the next 2 road sections this was some serious climbing and descending. And with the technical trail to boot my legs and feet took a major beating early in the run.
I finally emerged into the sun around mid-day and the temperature was pleasant but there wasn’t much to see due to the tree cover, with the exception of the few balds the trail crosses. The humidity was awfully high though, which was a running theme for my entire run – that’s something that’s inescapable during this time of year so you just have to deal with it. From the time I started my run to the end I was always soaked in sweat at all moments.
|Nice panorama of the Smokies from the top of Thunderhead Mtn.|
Wildlife – aside from one creature that could have been either a large deer or a boar I had one close call with 2 6-foot rattlesnakes that a few day hikers warned me about on Rocky Top (I arrived just a few minutes after the snakes had moved off the trail and back into the rocks) and missed a bear that other hikers had spotted on the first section out of Fontana Dam. Other than that the only other “wildlife” I encountered was of the human variety.
Due to my late start I was still on trail with a little more than a mile left to the trail head when it got dark. This, folks, was now what Psyche and I refer to as a “Raffensperger-run”! Many times we’ve been on a run after dark and made a game of seeing how far we could get before having to fish out our headlamps. Well, this time I stumbled along down the dark, steep trail and finally arrived at the trail head – from there it is another mile to Fontana Dam. I crossed the dam alone which was surreal with all the lights and headed to the bathroom for more water. My first disappointment came when I saw a vending machine and had visions of a cold Coke but realized it wouldn’t take quarters, only bills and the smallest bill I had was a $ 20 – damn, damn, damn! Turns out that I ran across more vending machines like that later but was finally able to get change late on my second day and deliriously enjoy a refreshing drink. I spent some time on the steps of the visitor center at the dam, refueling, taking care of my feet, and checking out my phone for service before finally packing up and heading up the road.
|Fontana Dam in daylight|
But day one was not over when I reached Fontana Dam – I still had 12 road miles ahead before I could hole up at my motel in Deal’s Gap. That road section included 2 big climbs also. I had my first and only encounter with law enforcement on this section, when I was stopped by a nice officer (I later learned might have been a park ranger) who was just making sure I was ok and offered me a ride. I continued on slowly and after an eternity finally saw my motel at 2:15 in the morning, after having been moving for 17 hours. I walked up to the door and saw my room number on a sign but was confused about the key until I realized they simply leave your room door open and the key inside – strange! I headed up the hill to the bathhouse and retrieved my drop bag which was still there and intact.
The room itself was odd – tile floors (no carpet – remember that this is a motel mostly for bikers), it had one regular bed and 2 bunk beds and metal shelves for my stuff. It had a TV and remote that only an electronics expert could decipher – after fiddling with it awhile I finally managed to get TBS but that was the only station.
The next morning I felt pretty good considering, and went to check out – I almost walked out when the clerk stopped me and said “Sir, you have to check in and pay before you can check out!” I had totally forgotten with my late arrival that I hadn’t yet officially checked in – too funny! A few pictures, topped off my water and Gatorade, and headed up the road…
|Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort|
Day 2 – the tail of the dragon!
Ok, I knew this was coming and was somewhat apprehensive about it but all I could do was head up the road and into the lair of the Dragon! This is an 11 mile section of US 129 that is nicknamed the Tail of the Dragon, because it has a grand total of 318 curves. This makes it a popular destination with bikers (motorcycles that is; and some car enthusiasts). While Tennessee has cracked down on speeding through the Dragon it is still a dangerous road to drive on, much less run along. In fact, after I left the Dragon later I saw about 12 emergency vehicles headed back up there – I was never able to find out exactly what had happened but I’m sure someone was seriously hurt or killed on that stretch of road that day.
When I first started up the road it quickly became apparent that there was not much shoulder and the only way for me to safely traverse it on foot was to always move to the outside of each curve – that meant I had to listen for oncoming cars or bikes and constantly run across the road to the outside of the curves. After a bit I became pretty proficient using this technique and was confident I wouldn’t become a casualty of the road. I wondered if anyone other than me had ever done this section of road on foot – I doubt that anyone has, which is a pretty cool thing indeed!
11 miles is a long way to constantly have to watch for cars and run back and forth across the road. I was happy when I came to the scenic overlook that signaled only 3 downhill miles to the end of the Dragon – it was wearing on me, A LOT!
When I finally emerged from the Dragon I had another challenge – full sunlight and no shade, a long 12 mile stretch along one of the dammed TVA lakes, and no stores. During the heat of the midday sun I walked most of this section to keep my body temperature down. I was low on water also and 2 different times along here I was forced to fill up on lake water at a boat ramp and dock. While filling up at the boat ramp I had my first experience with that feeling that you appear to be homeless to other people. A father was with his young son while pulling his boat from the water and he deliberately motioned for his son to stay away from me. It didn’t bother me but it was my first taste of that feeling like I don’t belong among “regular” people.
TVA – I subtitled my run “A walking Tour of the TVA” because during the course of my run I was adjacent to several dams and lakes (both at the beginning and end of my run) created and maintained by the TVA. I’m a sucker for engineering challenges and there were no shortages of amazing engineering feats to keep my senses occupied along these stretches!
|One of several TVA dams along my route…|
Scenic overlook on the Tail of the Dragon – the power lines are amazing!
The rest of this day was spent trudging along in the sun and heat, with only 2 brief stops for vending machines, until I finally reached civilization along US 411. US 411 was a tease as I saw a huge lighted area to the south and believed that was the gas station and fast food stops I remembered from my drive up. Turns out those lights were for an industrial complex and it was another mile before the first gas station. That Shell station had several older men, apparently drunk, loitering out front – I exchanged greetings but I’m sure they didn’t know what to make of me. I refueled and rested here to figure out what to do next – I had a choice of 2 motels, one was 1.5 miles off course and the other was another 8/9 miles down 411. I remembered seeing a couple motels on the way up and the one along 411 didn’t seem very appealing (plus the fact that it already after midnight and I was still 8/9 miles away). That made my choice easy and I would hole up in the closer hotel, despite the fact it was a little off course. The strange thing about that hotel is that it was buried back inside an industrial complex, not along either main road. I’m sure they miss a lot of business by not being on the main road. But the 1.5 miles off course brought my total mileage for my run to an even 200.
By that point in my run my feet were starting to hurt – BAD, so I was walking gingerly. For the rest of my run this was a common theme as my feet ached so badly every time I either put weight on them or took it off. I think at this point I also realized my kinship with the Vol Staters and Psyche, as I now realized how extraordinarily difficult it must be for them to have feet like that, and continue on for 314 miles! Amazing!
Day 3 – the wonder of dumptrucks!The theme of day 3, and continuing on into days 4,5,6 was unrelenting heat and humidity – I think the highs eventually reached 93 during the days, which is actually cooler than it could have been. But for me, managing in the heat is probably a bigger challenge than for most people – you see, I sweat uncontrollably if my core temperature rises too fast. On a run a few years ago on the Foothills Trail in SC I succumbed to full on heat exhaustion and was close to heat stroke – I basically redlined as my body couldn’t control its temperature and no amount of fluids would stay down. I couldn’t let this happen on my Vol-tered State run as that would land me in the hospital. I remembered some advice John Price had given to put ice in your hat if possible and used that technique throughout my run when possible – that allowed me to travel at least a mile or more in each section before I started to get very hot. There was a slight breeze along much of 411 but the best breezes I learned came from trucks. There are all sorts of trucks but dump trucks with a full load seemed to displace the largest amount of air and were wonderful. 18-wheelers were hit and miss – some displaced bunches of air while others you could hardly feel. I honestly think the trucks, rumbling along every so often, took the heat edge off just enough to keep me going! I also learned to fill my bladder with ice – my Camelback bladder is very well insulated but also had a double layer of insulation with the contents of my pack. Amazingly, I would still have some ice left in my bladder after 6 full hours in the sun.
A few other experiences in this section: a beautiful thunderhead on the road between Englewood and Etowah. Nice stop at a picnic table outside a gas station in Madisonville with a big slab of granite I could use to rest my feet and powder them. An Amish boy driving his horse and plow along the road – we smiled at each other but didn’t share any words...just acknowledged the other doing whatever task was at hand. Across 411 another older Amish man whose horse was spooked and bucking up into the road – some sharp strikes with his whip straightened the horse out and he back down into a deliberate stride.
Englewood to Etowah for the night – the Red Roof Inn was a welcome sight as I ran down the final mile into town.
Day 4 – on to the roach motel and the horrible shithole of cleveland!More of the same on day 4 – hobbling start, some running that would better be described as shuffling, heat; god, it seemed to take forever to get to Benton! Stopped outside Benton in a small café and had a HUGE barbeque sandwich. I took my shoes off inside (I was the only customer at the time) and the owner walked over and remarked “resting your dogs?” I didn’t explain what I was doing to him and his wife, only that I was on a “long hike”. The funny thing was that the farther along on my run the fewer people asked me what I was doing, probably because I looked worse and smelled worse each day (I never in fact washed out my clothes – what would have been the point?). But for those who were interested I explained the route, etc. and were generally met with blank stares and the question “What is Clingman’s Dome?” I couldn’t believe that so few native Tennesseans knew anything about the highest point in their home state!
On the road this day I also learned about guard rails – along most of my route there were few, if any, places to sit down and rest. Not even suitable patches of ground on the side of the road. So the end of guardrails became a favorite resting place for a few minutes to gather myself for another push.
This section also follows along the mountains that form the western edge of Cherokee National Forest – I began to rely on the mountains as a gauge of my progress as I recalled various peaks and landmarks from my pre-run drive up along the route.
Stopped in Benton at a Sonic to rest and get in the shade at one of the tables and called in to my office. I had been in touch with work since Monday because we had a major software release due to be released. In some ways I was glad to stay in touch with the office because it made it much easier to jump back into things when I got back to work the following Monday.
Pushed on until I finally got to the intersection with US 64 where I would turn and head toward Cleveland – stopped a couple times here to refuel and rest (Hardee’s and McDonalds). Shared some good conversation with Psyche – from the end of the 2nd day when I regained cell service Psyche and I had spoken frequently but managed to schedule calls to conserve our batteries. Those calls definitely energized me and kept me going as we talked about our separate adventures and experiences, both good and bad. Shared suffering definitely strengthens your bond with one another. And we were slowly, but surely, working our way toward a much anticipated reunion on the Rock…
The 10 miles to Cleveland wore on as I wore down – like a dummy I had eaten much earlier and was now bonking a bit – stopped at a convenience store to get a candy bar. The weather wasn’t bad, although a storm threatened up ahead, as I struggled on. After a stop outside town at a Kangaroo station I made it to the edge of town. At the Kangaroo station I overheard a long conversation between a lady with a bunch of tattoos and piercings as she pleaded with the clerk to hire her again after he had accused her of stealing $ 7,000 when she worked for him before. Now, to be fair, I really don’t mean to disparage Cleveland or its fine citizens so please take my impressions as one who passed through briefly and came away with a limited perspective of this town. I walked into town around midnight so there was very little traffic or activity – most of the houses and buildings on that side of town are pretty old and decrepit, if not totally abandoned looking or boarded up. As I walked through the center of town I heard some people up on a rooftop – 2 couples of 20-somethings – they asked me what I was doing and I told them about my run. They sounded impressed and obliged my questions about motels by giving me some directions to the other side of town. Continuing to move toward the center of town I expected to see signs where business 64 would turn left – I never saw a SINGLE sign so kept walking. After another mile I came to an intersection that matched what those young couples had described. I went into an open convenience store and asked the clerk if this was a road where several motels were. He looked at me as if I was crazy and said emphatically “There are no motels around here…you’ll have to go a couple more miles over by the interstate.” WTF? I have to go a grand total of 4 miles out of my way to stay in a motel tonight? I stepped outside the store and a kind lady walked over and said “Are you looking for a motel? There are several just a couple blocks down this road.” Another common theme on this run – be wary of directions you are given by the “locals”. Psyche and I have had similar experiences on previous long runs, once notably at the Bloody 11W, where the “directions” we were given had our heads spinning.
Confident now that my daily trek was about over I headed down the road to the promised motels. The first one I came across was some sort of extended stay variation (not a chain) but the office was only open during normal business hours – strike 1. The next one looked open (again, not a chain) and also not full. I went to the office and after a bit the clerk came out – opened the small window (the office itself was closed) and told me without hesitation that there were no rooms left. Again, WTF? It looked like the parking lot was only half full and there were plenty of rooms available…I asked why and he mumbled something about renovations. I suspected I looked so bad he didn’t want me in a room – strike 2. Dejected, I continued on – passed a high school that had an inviting grassy yard with some big trees where I could consider crashing for the night. But I really wanted a shower and bed so I walked over to a broken-down looking place called the Crown Inn. I figured the rooms might not be great but would be better than sleeping outside. Boy was I WRONG! I opened the door to room 103 and was immediately hit with a strange/foul odor – like someone had burned a huge amount of food in the “kitchenette” and the smell had seeped into everything inside. The source of the foul odor wasn’t hard to spot either – dark, black stains all around the stove and sink that were permanently etched into the off-yellow cinder block walls. The carpet looked as if they found it at the dump and cut a large piece out for each of the rooms in the “suite”. It had an oversized purple velour couch that I didn’t dare go near. A worn, broken table and chair, bare bathroom with one small towel (almost hand-sized) and one tiny bar of soap made up the rest of this shithole. The bedroom had a large bed that thankfully appeared to have clean sheets, and a large television, along with a window air conditioning unit. I threw my pack down on the floor, managed to get a shower (which was increasingly difficult the worse shape my feet were in), and crawled into the bed. While fiddling with my phone I looked down and saw a roach crawl out from under my pack – it looked like a German roach, which are small but numerous…yuck! I was angry and tried to smash it with my horribly sore right foot – missed. Oh well, I crawled back in bed, turned on the tv, and damn if I didn’t see another roach crawling up the bedspread toward me! I flicked him off the bed in one motion and tried again to relax….but a few minutes later out of the corner of my eye I spotted another insect shape making its way down the far wall – I tried to smash this one with my shoe. Needless to say I didn’t get much sleep that night. To this day I’m convinced the owner deliberately gave me the nastiest room he had – not that any of the others would have been much better (the entire building looked like a slum) – strike 3. I was happy to finally leave Cleveland the next morning.
Day 5 – “you like my music?”!
The 5th day of my journey was another hot one – starting out and about 2 miles down the road I spent a few minutes in a beer cave in a gas station store to cool down. The next stretch of road promised to be difficult as I remembered miles of narrow roadway with little or no shoulder and traffic moving at 55-65 mph. It delivered on all counts as I carefully made my way down the side of Old Lee Hwy making damn well sure all oncoming vehicles acknowledged me and moved over. Most obliged but a few stalwarts did not budge and shook me up a bit. This section had one nice convenience store as a pit stop about midway and then I had several more miles to go up and over the ridge before dropping down into Ooltewah. Ooltewah was a nice oasis where I double dipped at a McDonald’s and Hardee’s – I found Hardee’s to be a nice place to tend to my feet because they all seemed to have tables outside with umbrellas. After a well-earned rest I headed out again onto another several mile section with no shoulder. At one point I was preparing to call Psyche at out pre-arranged time and without any good options for shade or a place to sit I saw 2 overturned garbage cans at the end of an abandoned driveway – I started walking over only to be startled by a shrill woman’s voice who barked at me “That’s private property you know!!!”. I moved back to the road and continued on my way, all the while giving that fat bitch the finger as I walked away.
After a couple more miles I started down the last 1-2 mile stretch and actually felt a surge of energy as I moved into the Chattanooga City limits for the first time – I started to run and with purpose. But that surge was short lived; after I had some Gatorade at a gas station I was too stiff and tired to run much more. I variously walked, ambled, and shuffled down the road that would take me closer to downtown Chattanooga. But downtown was still miles away and I was bonking – food and a large shake at Burger King brought me back to life a little and I continued on. But the day and miles were wearing on me and I trudged on, slower and slower toward my goal. While climbing up the last ridge along 64 I stopped at a gas station where, upon leaving, a young black kid getting back in his car, blaring rap, took a hard look at me and demanded “you like my music????” I attempted to nod my head but it probably came across like a disinterested shrug and it was evident he didn’t want to play with me anymore – at that point I was so hardened by days of pain that he could clearly see I would have nothing to lose if he pressed the point so he let me continue on. Although I wasn’t angry, my attitude had changed over the course of several days – to one of “I don’t give a shit if you’re looking at me – go ahead and LOOK; smell me if you like because I don’t give a damn! I just need a soda and some fries and I’ll be on my way…and I’ll take my shoes and socks off IN HERE – deal with it!”
I finally made it to the top of the ridge and into the tunnel with a light rain starting to fall. Out the other side and I could finally see downtown Chattanooga, but it seemed much farther away than I remembered. Now, this isn’t the best part of town I’m sure but it was late and nobody was out on the street so it was a long, lonely walk toward downtown. This was definitely a low point as I felt I was getting weaker and wondered if I could even make it the last couple of miles. I finally stumbled to the intersection with Broad Street around 1:30 and planned to follow that out another mile to a La Quinta Inn along the interstate, but luckily found a Days Inn one block away in downtown. While a room meant comfort it also signaled pain as it forced me to deal with my feet that had progressively gotten worse. My left little toe had most layers of skin peeled off it while my right foot had a huge blister under the big toenail and a nasty blister, also losing layers of skin, on the entire underside of the front of my foot (the pad). The heat and humidity had created a sauna inside my socks and constant friction had finished the job. After another restless night I packed and headed out Thursday morning for my final push to the rock – another 35 miles or so of suffering.
Looking worse for wear before heading out for the final day’s push
I felt surprisingly good when I started out Thursday morning and headed out of Chattanooga, despite the pain in my feet. The route took me around the tip of Lookout Mountain, which added an uncomfortable climb – both the climb and heat started to take their toll as I headed back down the final stretch to cross under I-24 for the 2nd time that day. I stopped several times along this stretch and took my time to prepare mentally and physically for a challenging 12 mile section by Raccoon Mountain and around a large bend in Nickajack Lake. I knew there was only one possible stop in this section, at Sullivan’s Store, which was there mostly to serve fisherman at the boat ramp across the road. As I started up this section I passed the entrance to Raccoon Mountain and angled over to a small, old style motel from the 1940’s – Alpine Lodge. The owner came out and pointed out a vending machine next to the units at the top of the stairs. I took the Fanta Grape with me and headed on to Sullivan’s Store where I took a long break. While at Sullivan’s Store one frequent customer asked me if I had been pouring concrete because I was wearing the same kind of socks his brother sold to concrete workers – he was referring to my calf-compression sleeves…too funny!
The next section was 7+ miles but my memory of driving this section in a car told me I had a decent climb up toward the top of the ridge, then 2-3 miles of nearly flat road before descending back down to Haletown. The reality though was that it was ALL up and then ALL down! This climb started breaking my spirit as it never seemed to end until it final crested and I realized it was all downhill to the small community where I knew there was a convenience store – it was getting dark and I knew the store might close early so I hammered a good running pace all the way down, trashing my already mangled feet more in the process. Thankfully the store was open and I sat inside for a bit (the lady was very, very gracious) and then outside in a big rocking chair on the porch while I savored a Monster, a Yoohoo, and huge cheeseburger. I could see the next stop (gas station/fireworks store) about a mile away so didn’t fill up with any additional water or fluids before I left Haletown – that proved to be a mistake as the gas station lights were only for show and it was in fact closed. I didn’t have much water left as I continued on TN 156 and ever closer to Sand Mountain, and Psyche. Earlier, while moving along Nickajack Lake I realized I was actually on the same road (US 41) as Psyche, only we were probably 20 or miles apart – she coming down and through Jasper north of me while I had turned off onto 156, headed west. She was headed west along 27/72 only to make big turn east and toward Sand Mountain.
Now I realized the last several miles would take hours (especially with the Sand Mountain climb) and I was running out of water. Psyche and I were inching closer and closer to the turn at 377. Amazingly I thought we might arrive there at just about precisely the same time! Imagine, after runs of 308 miles and 7+ days and 192 miles and 5+ days we were so close, without planning it that way – amazing!
I decided to detour into a closed park area and fill up my bottles with lake water at another boat ramp (and treated) so I would have enough for the final climb and push. I made it the short distance to the turn and looked up the hill along the road to the west – no headlamp. I waited several minutes and looked again – no headlamp. While waiting, I was so tired I decided to lay down, although the only place to do it was half into the road. I figured there wasn’t too much traffic and I had my headlamp on so was not worried about getting run over. After about an hour I got back up and again looked down the road – this time I saw a faint light bobbing along – that meant only one thing!
I eagerly yelled out as she slowly made her way toward me. We embraced and spoke for a minute but were both totally exhausted so the reunion was short. She told me she would have been there sooner but had developed a horrible leg cramp while climbing the last hill and had to sit down for a long time to let it quiet down. I honestly don’t know who was in worse shape as we inched up the mountain. Knowing she was possibly low on water I offered her some of mine but she refused it. I found out later she was hungry and dehydrated and wasn’t thinking clearly. The same thing happened to me several times during my run as I knew rationally I needed fluids or food but didn’t want to bother.
As we climbed I starting getting worried that Laz or Carl would consider me to be “pacing”, “crewing” or aiding Psyche in some way – I’m pretty sure they would not expect me at Castle Rock and might question why we were together. So I told Psyche that I wanted to push up the mountain and finish a little before her – I was feeling a little stronger so I did just that. One thing I can say is that the climb up Sand Mountain is interminable and I understand now how completely the Vol State course devours runners who were strong when they started. I finally reached the turn and trundled down the road. I had been looking back for signs of Psyche and was comforted a bit by a barking dog that indicated she was only 20 minutes or so behind me.
At the final turn to the fields I took a short detour over to the car to open it up and take a few swigs of bottled water. On up the dirt roads and through the bean fields – once in the woods and the final obstacle – a freaking mud pit! Damn, I tried to go around it to no avail so walked right through it and almost lost both shoes in the muck. On and on and on until I final heard muffled voices – Laz, Carl and Joel (I didn’t recognize Joel at the time) – it was now close to 5:30 in the morning. I’m sure they were surprised when I popped out of the woods instead of Psyche as they had expected!
I was too tired to even care about going over to the Rock and found a place to sort of sit on the cooler as I chugged a small Gatorade and started working on my feet. By this point my feet were in serious shape and as I took my socks off you could literally smell rotting flesh – going through the muddy pit didn’t help matters. I was done, completely done, and just wanted out – although I sat there and talked with the guys for a bit. While I had turned my phone off the conserve the last little bit of battery I had remaining Carl got a call from Psyche – she was lost on top of the mountain and sitting in a ditch! Oh god, no! When I had turned down 377 toward Castle Rock Ranch it had occurred to me that she might miss the turn, especially as physically drained as she was. But it was the first turn and very obvious – and she could easily look left down the road and see the bright red light on the back of my headlamp bobbing down the road ahead of her. Now, although I was feeling some guilt, I also knew that it was her race and issue to work out – only she could summon the guts and will to figure it out and drag herself the last 2 miles. I knew she was also wearing some sort of flimsy foot gear – it looked literally just a pair of socks but I found out later she had flip flop pads underneath the socks…although that was no match for the rough road and trail she had to traverse. Although I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t help her finish I decided to drive out and make sure she was ok. Joel graciously gave me a lift to Psyche’s car and I drive out to find her. By the time I made it out to 377 she was hobbling along toward the correct turn but then dropped to the ground and starting breaking down. I comforted her until she was able to regain her composure and continue on – valiantly she made her way down Castle Rock Rd and on to the Rock. I waited in the car in the parking area because I was afraid of getting stuck in the mud and also because I wanted this finish to be hers alone.
Close to an hour after she left the pavement Laz, Carl, and Joel drove out – Psyche slowly got out of one of the vehicles and I instantly knew everything was now Ok because she was smiling. Carl hopped in our car to drive us back to Kimball because we would have been unsafe in the physical states we were in. We got a room at the Super 8 and slept most of the day Friday.
Leaving the hotel Saturday we ran into several more runners who were still making their way to the Rock and gave them some encouragement before finally heading home. It was a nice drive all the way back to Clingman’s Dome and I took Psyche along much of the route I had taken on my run, pointing out various landmarks along the way. However, I deliberately avoided Cleveland…
It was surreal as we entered the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome and I saw my car there. We had a funny moment as a girl taking pictures had spotted both of our cars with all their crazy run stickers and plates (“OUTTHERE” and “FARTHER”) and excitedly called to her friends “Hey, I think these 2 are together!” We walked over and told them all a bit about our runs – it didn’t seem real that we had done that and were now coming full circle (literally). On the drive down the mountain we found out there had been a landslide on the stretch of 441 between Gatlinburg and Newfound Gap so they had closed the entire road (even coming in from Cherokee) to traffic – if we had gotten there just 30 minutes later we would not have been able to retrieve my car!
This was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and challenged me on every level. Although I can’t say it was life altering it did open up the world a bit and I learned that I can push through anything that life throws at me – and believe me, life is throwing a lot at me right now.
Would I do it again? I don’t know. But this has opened up the door and I am not willing to close it all the way just yet….