Sunday, July 19, 2020

Last Annual Vol State 500K 2020




I often tell people, I can count on zero fingers the times I've finished a race and said to myself "gee, I wish I'd started faster". Well... I can now make that one finger.


I have always wanted to run the Last Annual Vol State 500K (LAVS — note that "last annual" is an inside joke), but it never works out. It's a Lazarus Lake special, like Barkley, or Big's Backyard, and I had yet to ever do a Laz race. Well, this year, 6 Days in the Dome was canceled, freeing me up. LAVS was actually happening — in one week! — but surely, getting in at the last minute would be impossible? The race sells out instantly, and has a huge wait list. However, this year so many withdrew that it was possible, provided I entered "crewed" and not "screwed". I didn't have time to assemble a crew, but that didn't matter. These somewhat confusing terms refer technically to whether you are included on the bus ride from the finish to the start, and have a hotel provided the night before the race. These are only for screwed runners. Fortunately, Ray Krolewicz stepped up with a spare hotel room, so I just had to get to the start. I worked it out so that I'd visit my parents in Nashville, then rent a car and drive down to the finish, pick up Ray and BJ Timoner, and drive together to Union City, near the start, returning the car there. So, I was in. I was incredibly intimidated. This race is 314 miles of Tennessee heat, humidity, and hills, and I had trained for 55 degrees, super dry, and pancake flat. It was far too late to do any sauna training, nor were the saunas open anyway. So I had to immediately do my homework on how I could possibly survive this. Detailed conversations with course-record holder Greg Armstrong and former course-record holder Sue Scholl helped enormously here. Yet, I still had to deal with the logistics of running without crew, meaning I'd need to carry everything I might need, and know in advance where to get food and water along the route. But as I began assembling this information, Regina Sooey stepped up, eager to crew along with Bill Page. She had run LAVS a couple of years ago in less than 5 days, a very solid time, with Bill crewing her. I was getting comfortable and excited with the idea of doing it as a solo adventure, but I realized that given the circumstances I should gratefully accept this generous offer. Also it would let me think about performance, rather than just finishing. The winner of LAVS is declared "King of the Road" (KOR) in an official proclamation of the Tennessee State Legislature. This kind of recognition is unique in ultrarunning, as far as I know. I wanted that KOR! Greg Armstrong was not running this year, and I looked to be potentially competitive. I would have to worry about Francesca Muccini, who had won overall in 2017, with a women's course-record time of 4 days 4 hours. (At the last minute, Josh Holmes and David Jones also entered, on the heels of Badwater's cancellation; they would definitely also be competition.) Francesca was reportedly looking to go under 4 days this year. So what was my goal? Some were telling me I should shoot for Greg's men's course record of 3 days 7 hours, but I saw that as ridiculous. Greg has studied and optimized the hell out of this course. It's his backyard. I am a comparable runner to Greg at 24-hour, and I do have some solid multi-days under my belt, but this time, I was coming in with no relevant training and no course experience, from relatively cool and dry California. Pacing for that would be arrogant and foolish. But I did gather that sub-4-days should be doable, if nothing went really wrong. Of course, a lot could go really wrong. I was most worried about my feet, but also about recurrent hamstring issues (I'd just had shockwave treatment for that last week) and torn peroneal tendons, that would never full heal without surgery. Both had impacted my training in recent weeks. However, typically the specific issues that worry me going into a race don't prove to be a factor in the race, so I wasn't deterred. I decided that my main goal was to win, also I would like to go sub-4, and ideally go for Grant Maughan's over-50 record of 3 days 22 hours. I worked up a pacing spreadsheet, broken down by stretches between towns. For each segment I could specify average MPH, and time spent resting once I got to the town. Regina and Bill suggested that it was best to rest at hotels in the worst heat of the afternoon, around 2-6 pm, and that made sense to me. There is a problem in that hotels are not necessarily where you want them, so getting your plan right requires a bit of fiddling. I also added up to 2 hours' rest every night, knowing from my experience at the Dome last year that putting all my daily down time in one chunk makes it difficult to move continuously for the remainder. 20 hours is a really long stretch, day after day. So, I played with the pacing and the breaks until I got something that looked reasonable, and had a predicted finish time of about 3 days 20 hours. If I had to slow from that I would probably have some room. I thought surely Francesca would be at best just under 4 days (many women had tried for that over the years and failed), and anyway if she were somehow faster I could adjust my plan when we got there. Oops!




Day One


The screwed runners took the bus the 15 miles to the race start; Ray and I got a lift from Becca Joyner and her crew Scott. This would be her first race over 100 miles, and she had a plan for running 5 days. Ray and I gave her some tips and wished her well. It was an aggressive goal, but she seemed to have approached the planning wisely.
The race starts at Dorena Landing, MO, with the lighting of Laz's cigarette. This year that happened slightly early, at 7:24, relative to a nominal 7:30 start. Then we boarded the ferry, crossed the Mississippi to Hickman, KY, and started running.

I finally met Laz!


My plan called for averaging 4.5 MPH over most of the stretches. That's really very slow, 13:20 / mile pace, but included all overhead that might be required. Still, I could not move that slowly to start. I planned to alternate walking and running. My fast walk is one of my strengths at multi-day races. Greg had advised me that it might not be such a good idea here, because that meant more contact time with hot asphalt, increasing foot issues. That was disconcerting, but in the end I just had to go with it. Yet, by 8 miles, taking it very easy with a 50/50 run / walk, I was way too far ahead. I walked the next 7 miles without running a step, and got my average MPH down to 5.0. It would have to do. Meanwhile Francesca, Josh Holmes, and several others had pulled well ahead.


The last I would see of Francesca (left)


Mile 20, the "stinky bridge". The smell is indescribably bad, and stayed with me quite a while.

As the day wore on and heated up, my crew and I got into a groove. Well, on my end it was a groove. In reality, what I was asking from them was unsustainable. To mitigate my lack of heat training, I needed Badwater-style support, meeting them about once every mile in the hottest part of the day, for a change of ice and soaked towel around the neck. This not only incurred overhead; it gave them very little time to do anything but scramble. There's a reason you typically have four-person crews at Badwater. Also Badwater lasts at most 48 hours, not four days. But the impending crisis was not yet apparent to me. On the nutrition front, we were OK. Every hour I'd get ~150 calories, from Coke, Maurten, or Sword. We'd supplement this with real food at breaks. This is another of my strengths at long races: training keto means I don't need as many calories; I can burn stored fat at a higher rate than most runners. Basically this takes GI issues off the table for me, a huge win.


My incomparable crew, Regina Sooey and Bill Page.
Bonus crew member: Patty
We stopped in Martin for three hours, from about 1:30 - 4:30, crashing in their hotel room from the night before. McDonald's for lunch went down well. During this afternoon break time Bill would normally re-tape my feet, but this was early, and we left the taping he'd applied the night before. Stopping here was strategic. It was too early to be really tired, but we wanted to bank some down time to run well through the night and next morning. Leaving Martin, many had passed us. And it was still HOT! Well over 90. And humid. Gradually, it cooled off. As the sun set and I prepared to breathe a sigh of relief, it got super muggy. The cotton shirt I was wearing had worked well enough in the daytime, absorbing a ton of cold water. But now it was unbearable. Only gradually did I realize that this was because as the temperature dropped, duh, the relative humidity rose, 'til the air became super-saturated. I could not look forward to as much relief running at night as I'd hoped. Yep, ignorant westerner from a dry climate here. Sometime during the afternoon, I'd begun to have delusions of grandeur. The early pacing was soooo easy. Those fast times Greg had run, he'd done with almost all running, and short breaks. I saw my run / walk, if my feet could handle it, as offering a distinct advantage. I asked my crew to update all the 4.5 MPHs in the spreadsheet to 5.0 (12:00 / mile). If things went really well, and I decided to try to crank it in on the last day, who knows what I might manage? I even began to think that sub-3-days really ought to be possible on this course. Not for me, not this year. But for someone, sometime. Turns out that's been a hot topic of discussion between Greg and Joe Fejes (who has the second-best time, 3 days 8 hours). Well, this new plan did not last long. By the first evening, already the day's effort had begun to catch up with me. I could hold 12:00 pace with a very easy run / walk. However, crew stops always threw the average segment pace out of whack, and I had to run more and walk less to get the pace back down. I realized how foolish I'd been to second-guess my reasonable initial plan. I should be very happy to hold that, for 3 days 20 hours. There had only been 10 total LAVS performances under 4 days, ever. Who did I think I was? The first night was a bit rough. I backed off the pace, but began to have chafing issues. Since I switched to compression shorts + SportShield, after Spartathlon 2015's chafing disaster, I've never had chafing. But I had never before challenged Tennessee heat and humidity in July. I gradually tried all the different lubricants we had, to no avail. This was one thing that could shut my race down, the most obvious other one being foot issues. There, I was relying on Bill's taping and foot-care skills. I'm the kind of guy whose blister "strategy" is normally to get blisters and run through them. That works for 24-hour, but no way would it work for LAVS. So, by this point I was probably at maximum intimidation. There was a huge amount of the race left, and already I was having issues we might not be able to manage. This fed into a negative attitude, and I wound up needing an hour downtime in the back of the car earlier than planned. I was OK for a while after that, but needed another I think 15 minutes later when I was spacing out and weaving. As dawn approached, things improved. Daylight makes an enormous difference. And the morning, for a while, was overcast. I used this to maximum advantage, and closed out the day with 92 miles. This is also where Josh Holmes was, but in contrast he was really hurting, and would stop here in Lexington for a very long time. Francesca was far ahead with 101 miles, and everyone else who might have been competition had already dropped.


Day Two


I started day two in good spirits, still running well. But as we lost the cloud cover and the day heated up, it got harder to manage. It appeared that our hotel alignment was not going to be great: we'd likely hit Parsons around 11:30, really too early to stop, but the next option was Linden, which might be after 3:30, too late. Plus, apparently there were no rooms available in Parsons! Running got harder and harder, both for me and for Regina and Bill, as they tried to keep up with my increasing needs for cooling. We slowed, and a room was found in Parsons. It was noon by the time we got there. We were all frazzled, and decided to stop for a full 6 hours to reset. This was huge, and probably where I ultimately lost the time I'd have needed to catch Francesca at the end. But it's where we were. (Note: Francesca's one hotel stop the entire race was 75 minutes in Linden this afternoon. Note 2: sleep deprivation is NOT one of my strengths at multi-day. It's probably my biggest weakness.)
After an ice bath, a shower, and more McDonald's (which this time did not want to go down), I got 4 hours' restless sleep. Then I carefully slathered on a ton of Squirrel's Nut Butter (Greg's recommendation for how he manages chafing here) and put on clean compression shorts. Well, I'd see. Then we had a crew powwow to sort out how we could all proceed sustainably. We made a few changes here and there, but we wouldn't have much more heat to run in today. Bill treated some blisters and re-taped my feet, and we were back on the road. At LAVS, mileages are reported every 12 hours. That's when you see where your competition is. With the slow morning and the long break, I had managed a measly 26 miles since 7:30 am. Francesca had run 36, and was now a whopping 19 miles ahead, 137 to 118. When was she going to sleep? We still didn't really see how this could be sustainable for her. Well, the race was early yet. I wouldn't let myself think tactically 'til at least 48 hours.


Gearing down for the night

As the day turned to evening, I stripped to just shorts, as I'd determined the previous night that maximizing bare skin was most comfortable. My crew was eager to get more calories in me. In Linden, the options were: Sonic. Turns out I was hungry, and due to limited places to pull over, I was getting tired and cranky by the time we managed an opportunity, well past Linden. I sat in the front seat with the AC on and ate some burger and fries. 


Sonic. It's what's for dinner.
The next town on the course is Hohenwald, but it's 19 miles from Linden. There's an 8-mile stretch with a very gradual climb, only 400' overall, but it's enough to notice. Apparently this is called "8-mile hill", though I didn't know that then. I was running this in the dark, waiting for the shallow "hill" to end. Or was it a hill? Perception can be wonky in the dark. I've run in places that were absolutely flat, yet I would swear they were uphill. Well, this got really tedious, so eventually I pulled up my pacing spreadsheet on my iPhone. I had made elevation notes. Sure enough! OK, not my imagination. I now had real food in me, and was pretty comfortable temperature-wise; moreover, the chafing had not reappeared. But I was having unaccountable trouble focusing. My head was just not in the game tonight, though nominally things were going fine. I decided to call Liz and brainstorm. That helped a lot. It always does, to hear her voice. Then I realized it: we had not updated our pacing plan since the morning's issues; we’d had neither Wifi nor cell service in Parsons. My running style is always to focus on how I am running relative to my current plan. Actions have to have meaning relative to something. I tried to explain this to Regina — her attitude was "no, you can't think like that!". But I knew I was right, for me. I made a reasonable estimate on arrival in Hohenwald, plugged in the new numbers, got an answer that looked good, and then click, I'm in the game again. Problem solved. This is, I think, a good point at which to stop and reflect. You can get through a race like this by always having a strong attitude, having the mental discipline to always "run the mile you're in", as Regina puts it. This is undeniably a critical skill. But for me, it's not something I can keep up non-stop over any long race. There will be emotional ups and downs. The one skill that IS critical in this kind of race is to identify dispassionately when something is not right and take steps to correct it. This includes mental state. If you want to quit when there is no reason, you need to fix your head, somehow. That might mean slowing down for a while, taking a nap, taking caffeine, taking calories, whatever. Or, sometimes, pushing through it a bit to give it a chance to go away on its own. In this case it meant syncing up my mind to my plan again. 


Somewhere near Hohenwald

But as we got close to Hohenwald, I did begin to get very tired. I asked for some Red Bull. Two miles later, entering Hohenwald, I had begun to hallucinate and weave. I informed Bill that at the next stop it would be time to go down for an hour in the back of the car. When I next met them, the car was ready. But by then, somehow, I was alert. I think maybe it was a combination of the lights in Hohenwald, the turns to navigate engaging my mind, and the Red Bull finally kicking in. For the first time all night I felt 100% engaged, not intimidated by the remaining hours, ready to crank. So, we kept going. The 18 miles between Hohenwald and Hampshire are mostly long, smooth descents and climbs. It was a nice, comfortable night, and I was moving well. Still, in another hour or so the hallucinations and mental wandering began to come back, so it was time for a stop. Nominally an hour, but I woke early and got back on the road. As dawn approached, running got easier. Dusk and dawn are the magic hours at LAVS. Daytime is hell, and and at night the sleep demons come after you. At 7:30, I'd managed 48 miles overnight, matching my first night. I'd finally gained a bit on Francesca, who'd run 43. Now she was up 14 miles, 180 to 166. I'm the faster runner, so this race was going to come down to her ability to rest less and run more in the heat vs. my speed. I still trusted I would catch up. By this point all the other runners, including Josh, were far enough behind to be out of the picture if I held pace.


Day Three


The day heated up quickly, and it wasn't long before we were challenged again by the logistics of keeping me cool. Regina and Bill I think couldn't quite grasp what it felt like to me; they're from Florida. And there's a big difference between existing in this weather, as they were doing, and running in it. Regina wanted me to push while it was still "cool"; I was already cooking and needed to gear up to full daytime mode, covered head-to-toe in white, with plenty of ice stops.
The next "stop" was Columbia, by far the largest city on the course. It went on and on. The downtown was pretty. Somewhere in here Regina handed me a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich. Here I was visited for the second time by Greg, who'd also stopped to chat during the first night. He asked if I needed anything — I was actually thirsty, and not sure how far crew was ahead, so I said sure, I could use water. He popped into the convenience store that was right there to get me one. And then there was my crew! Ah well. Greg chatted with me a while as I power-walked. He was actually crewing for Francesca, along with her husband, but was also going up and down the course to chat with other runners. He gave me a heads-up on the upcoming sections.


Laz routes the course by every courthouse. I think this is Columbia?
Somewhere in here, we finally settled on what would work pretty well in the heat for the rest of the race: long-sleeve compression top, with ice dumped in front, in back, and in each sleeve, as well as in the hat. So treated, I could run a lot farther between stops than with the cotton shirt and the ice towel around my neck (which had worked very well at Badwater). That gave Regina and Bill more time to rest and recover. The challenge now was that, once again, the hotel spacing was far from ideal. There was no hotel opportunity before Lewisburg, but it would be very late by the time we got there. Well, so be it. This stretch features two iconic parts of the course: first, the infamous "Bench of Despair" in Glendale, which it is considered appropriate to sign with a marker that's been helpfully left for that purpose. That's mile 184. And second, three miles later, the Nutt House. One of the special features of LAVS is that, though there is no official on-course support, "road angels" sprinkle the course, locals who are aware of the race and come out to help the runners with water, chairs, etc. By far the most elaborate road angel setup is that of Jimbo and Kim Nutt — the "Nutt House". I did not plan to stop there long, but could not decline a chair, meeting Kim, and chatting more with Greg, who was hanging out there. There was a fan pointed at the chair, and a Coke placed in my hand. I knew Francesca was getting away from me, but it was going to be a hot 15 miles to Lewisburg, and this was a welcome oasis. 15 minutes and several photos later we were on our way again.


The Bench of Despair



At the Nutt House, with Regina, Greg Armstrong, and Kim Nutt

In the worst heat of the day, this was maybe the most brutal part of my race so far. But I managed to hold a decent pace over the rolling hills, and we eventually pulled into Lewisburg about 3:45 pm. We were at a critical juncture now. Stopping for the planned 4 hours would sacrifice some good conditions; also, we had not expected Francesca to be so far ahead. Again the ice bath and shower were critical. Then, the Subway sandwich Regina had procured was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. We decided I needed two hours' sleep at a minimum, so we would go from there and see how it looked. I set my alarm and was immediately in a very strange mental landscape, the moment my head hit the pillow. It was somewhat similar to my very disturbing ego-dissociation episode during EMU 6-day a couple of years ago, perhaps. Not as unpleasant, but equally confusing. When my alarm went off, I had the wherewithal to re-apply Squirrel's Nut Butter, put on fresh shorts, and let Bill in to work on my feet. But from there it was harder. I had to ask Bill to explain again just what it was we were doing here. This "race" thing... I have a body, and I have to move that body along a particular trajectory? And bodies need food and water... OK... I knew it was supposed to be simple, but I just couldn't snap my mind back into the right space. These were challenging concepts from where I sat. Bill called in Regina to help, and she told me to just breathe; they would do the rest to get me ready. Breathe. I could do that. I've done a lot of meditation over the past few years, and breathing is the way to get back to my body. Good call, Regina. It's easy to dismiss this strange mental state as "just not quite awake", but the idea that our normal state of waking consciousness is a simple thing I think is badly mistaken. The realm of possible states of consciousness is vast, and we normally only scratch the tiniest part of the surface, as our physiology works to constrain our brain processes to a small subdomain that is effective for desirable behavior. I was slightly elsewhere in this space. Gradually, I am gaining a bit of an appreciation for its wider textures, and it's incredibly fascinating. I'll have more to say here in the post-race analysis. By the time I was dressed and geared up, it was clear enough what I needed to do, get back to the road and start going that-a-way. Once moving, things gradually returned to normal. I was out a bit before 7:30, giving me just enough time to reach mile 203 for check in. Again, I lost a little ground, as Francesca had run 40 miles to my 37; she was now at 220. Tonight was going to have to be big. From here it's 20 miles to Shelbyville, a very long, dark, boring stretch at night. It was a little muggier than the night before, but not too bad, and I got back into a good rhythm. As my mind started to wander, I thought another call with Liz might help. The first thing she said was "are you hunting down poor Francesca?". Poor Francesca! What about poor me?! Here I am smack in HER turf, where she has a KOR and the CR, with no training and no course experience. She seems invincible; I need all the support I can get. Still, the call helped, as communicating where I was mentally and physically helped ground me, and reconnecting with Liz always does. Interestingly, I learned later from Francesca that beginning around here, for the rest of the race, she felt me as a pack of wolves breathing down her neck. She dared not rest. She couldn't even walk, because then she would space out and fall over. It was just run, run, run, until I catch her, or she breaks, or she holds on.

Still later, she had this to say:
There is a beautiful description in Dante’s Inferno of the damned who “ran (naked), goaded sore by wasps and hornets.” Tennessee in July may very well display the traditional god-awful traits we commonly attribute to hell. Plenty of heat, abundance of chiggers and pestering insects. And at the end, I felt like a lost soul (my eyes were void as Greg said) hunted down by what, in my fatigued mind, I perceived as a relentless war machine (Bob).
Shelbyville came and went. Passing through, the moon was just rising in the east, dead ahead, waning gibbous and blood red. It was very striking. Oddly, though the course goes basically due east from here, and the moon stayed straight ahead, in my mind I was running different directions at different times. Normally I have an absolutely perfect, or at least definite, sense of direction. This was an early sign I was starting to lose it again. Wartrace was another 10 miles, at mile 233, and this would be a difficult stretch for me mentally. It wasn't long before I needed more Red Bull. Based on last night I figured it might take a while to kick in, so I didn't sweat the beginnings of hallucinations and meandering over the next couple of miles. But then, it didn't get any better. I frantically tried to communicate this to Regina and Bill, but through a series of misunderstandings it was a while before I could get some more Red Bull. (Earlier in the race I'd mostly been wearing a light vest that held my phone, but now I was running shirtless at night, and didn't want to risk chafing from the vest, so mostly I was running with no phone and no way to contact crew other than at the next stop.) Eventually it became clear that I needed a break. I couldn't afford an hour, so we decided on 15 minutes, in Wartrace. As I put on my mask and earplugs, Greg showed up again to chat with Regina. He was saying something about Francesca not stopping. So about spacing out and falling over — this was definitely the problem. And like Francesca, it was an issue mostly when I was walking. Unfortunately, a core part of my multi-day race strategy is to do a lot of fast walking. That's what I was trained for, and what was comfortable. It's now clear to me that this strength can be a double-edged sword, something I am going to have to ponder on before my next multi-day. It's a long 16 miles to Manchester. Much of this stretch, east of Wartrace, seems to be, for lack of a better word, haunted. This seems to be THE place for hallucinations, for those who come through at night. I was no exception. It was kind of confusing countryside, dark and dense and tangled. The break helped, but it wasn't long before I was hallucinating again. I don't remember whether I had more Red Bull. I do remember that my perception of the space between crew stops was very different from Regina's, and I got increasingly worried that I was going to completely lose touch with reality in here. Dawn could not come soon enough. One hallucination was vivid and striking. I can't quite describe it, but it was a very large sculpture, maybe some kind of crouching animal or person, behind some trees. I thought, "that can't be real. What would something like that be doing here?". But I stared straight at it, and there it was, plain as day. Huh. I came around the corner, and there it wasn't. Just trees. Somewhere in here, Regina gave me a 5-hour Energy. I had never had one before. Perhaps it helped, or perhaps it was the approaching dawn — it wasn't long before the horizon began to lighten. I woke up, and stayed alert through the end of the race. Like Francesca, there was no more time for breaks. I didn't rest for a single minute after Wartrace. At this point in the race, one of the pieces of magic happened that contributed to Francesca's mind-boggling performance: it began to rain. Just a few drops at first; the important thing was that it was cool and overcast. I picked up the pace and stopped alternating walking. The rain grew harder. I was now in my element for the first time in the race; it was MY turn to do some running. I'd lived in Vancouver for 10 years; this was very familiar. I'd run Spartathlon 2018 in a literal hurricane, and PRed. Bill pulled up and asked if I wanted a jacket. I was still running in just shorts. "Nope! This is as good as it gets!" I just wanted to crank. The rain grew harder; there was lightning. I kept running. The harder it rained, the harder I ran. I finally had the cooling I needed. Maybe I couldn't catch Francesca, but I was going to at least scare the hell out of her with this 12-hour split. And if she wanted to hold on to the win she was going to have to fight for it. As 7:30 approached, I was almost treating it like the end of the race. Maybe that would work well in terms of putting up a big split, but... what then? If I was completely spent, I'd have to slow way down to recover, and then I would start freezing. I had a light rain jacket, but nothing appropriate for this weather. Most runners were huddled in whatever shelter they could find. I could not afford that. At 7:30 on the dot, I pulled under a canopy where my crew was parked. 55 miles, YES!!! I pulled on my Spartathlon t-shirt and jacket, grabbed an Egg McMuffin Bill handed me, and got moving again. I was able to actually get back to my normal run / walk comfortably, whew.


Day Four


I awaited the update with bated breath. When it came, I couldn't believe it. Francesca had run 48 miles, her best 12-hour split since the first day. But... how? Is she human?? I had gained 7 miles, but I had expected a lot more. I had only stopped for 15 minutes, and had hammered the last few hours. At the start of the fourth day, she was up 268 to 258. I now had to run 56 miles to her 46. It was beginning to look like I had run out of room to catch her.
From here it's a long, flat, open 21 miles to the first of the two big climbs on the course, up Monteagle. I kept up solid pacing, but was no longer cranking. I can't crank for 56 miles at the end of 314. The thunderstorm continued to worsen. I was slightly afraid that the lightning would necessitate taking cover for safety, which would end any chance I had, but none ever struck close by. As we approached Pelham, a few miles to the climb, the highway became completely flooded. It was impossible to run without trudging through standing water. I thought back to the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, a few months ago, where I had to withdraw after 34 hours due to badly macerated feet from running through standing water for too long. Fortunately here my entire soles were taped, which I hoped would be enough. (Thank you Bill.) Finally, Monteagle. A 950-foot gain over three-and-a-half miles. Bill insisted on gearing me up with full night-time lighting, for safety. There were blind turns around the switchbacks. My original pacing plan had called for 3 MPH here, 20-minute miles. I was gratified to find that walking at about 15:00 pace was sustainable. Not that the plan was at all relevant anymore. I was now far ahead of it, and it was just a matter of doing the best I could do from here on in. At the top, we meander a bit through the town of Monteagle, and the next 6 miles take us to Tracy City. I was in a bit of a strange mental space now, not spaced-out like earlier, just not exactly dialed in to race mode. It was no longer open highway, but little resort towns and complexes. Like we'd taken a time-out from the race for a while. Not good. Regina handed me another Subway sandwich and I ate it slowly as I progressed. Then, perhaps, we made a mistake. I sent Bill and Regina ahead to see how far away Francesca was. It took them a loooong time to return, and the news wasn't good. "I drove forward 12 miles to get to her, and then 9 miles back to get to you." (This makes sense because were were both moving forward.) So, still about 10 miles ahead. It seemed to be all over. Here I lost heart for a while, and just trudged forward, through the long kind of no-man's-land past Tracy City. I didn't even really have a good picture in my head anymore of where we were, which is bad. I have to have a context in terms of location and plan. My reaction was natural, but my meta-cognitive racing skills should have alerted me that this was a bad mental state that needed to be fixed. Maybe something about three days and 280+ miles on my legs and my brain. Logically, there was every reason to keep pushing. Francesca would very likely be near the breaking point. If I push her all the way to the finish and she survives, well, she earned it. But if I give up 25 miles early? That's just crazy; it makes it 25 miles easier for her. But that's what I was doing. Fortunately, this state did not last too long. I knew I would still have a very good finish. But how good? I pulled up my spreadsheet on my phone, which also had a list of the top-10 LAVS finishes of all time. It appeared that, just maybe, I could come in ahead of #3 John Cash, with 3 days 13 hours. Wow — 7 hours ahead of plan (largely due to not breaking at all on the fourth day). I plugged in some numbers, adjusted some planned paces. Hmm. It might be possible, but I was going to have to start pushing, and it was going to hurt. I texted Bill and Regina: "Please come back. New plan." They were fully on board, and Regina started texting with Liz to make sure my spreadsheet was setup correctly for what we would have to do. Confident that the plan was now in capable hands, this late in the race, I was comfortable saying "OK, you're driving now; tell me what to do". Shortly ahead was the long, steep descent into Jasper. I hadn't even been aware we weren't already through that; that's how out of touch I'd gotten. The original plan, which would still work, had me doing that at 10-minute miles. Holding that average for several miles at this point was a big ask, but Regina assured me it would be doable. One problem, though, was that the clouds had finally burned off, and the sun was coming back out. As I started the descent, I'd shed the jacket, but was not really geared up for heat again, lacking even a hat. Man, this downhill was STEEP. I could really only run it effectively at one pace, about 8:30 / mile. My feet hurt like hell. Already, the night before, I'd had to start taking Advil for the foot pain in order to endure the pounding of running. Regina had said, I think, 5 miles, but I could see on the elevation profile on Bill's Fenix 6 I was wearing that this downgrade lasted 5.8 miles. That was a long way to push. But I held it. I hit Jasper and turned right, still descending. Finally, there was the car, at a gas station. I pulled up, out of breath, and began gearing up in my daytime heat clothes. I couldn't do it quickly enough. "We're wasting all that time I just earned!" I was almost frantic. But Bill got me good to go in short order, loaded with ice, and I was off. I breathed a sigh of relief. I should now be in a state where my original pacing of 4.5 MPH — 13:20 / mile — would be good enough. I was keeping it closer to 12:00, alternating running and walking, though really none of it from here to the finish was as flat as I'd imagined. The four miles to Kimball lasted a while, as now it was very hot. 300 miles! And onward. Another few miles, and it was time to make the somewhat confusing turn onto the famous Blue Bridge. I carefully followed the map display on Bill's Fenix to stay in the correct lanes.


At the Blue Bridge

This was now the end stage, and I was getting excited. I asked for my phone back, to double-check the timing. I wanted to make sure I knew what I had to do. In reality I think I could have pushed harder here, but in my mind it was just about safely breaking John's mark. There was nothing to shoot for beyond that. After 5 miles of meandering through New Hope (Regina gave me another 5-hour Energy somewhere in here), we finally made the turn onto the big hill up Sand Mountain. Apparently Francesca was also now on this hill, up ahead, but too far to reach. So, I had gained some after all. Of course, Laz would put the biggest hill at the very end — 1,000 feet over 3.5 miles. I was constantly re-doing the math, assuming 20:00 pace up the hill: yes, I was still good. I actually tried running up the hill to see what it felt like. It was maybe sustainable, but at 15:00 pace, it wasn't any faster than walking, and was a lot more effort, so I backed it down to a walk. After a mile, we entered Alabama, our fourth state of the journey. Finally, the last turnoff, towards Castle Rock ranch! There was now less than three miles to go, and the big hill was done. I looked at the numbers again and did a double take. If I could manage 10-minute miles to the finish, I could actually come in under 3 days 12 hours, a full hour ahead of John! 3-and-a-half days did seem like a meaningful mark to work for. My feet were done, so it took a goal of this magnitude to push me to keep running. Every step hurt. I started cranking again, probably for no apparent reason to my crew. I saw Karen Jackson and Bo Millwood, just leaving — alas, that meant they must have DNFed. I kept pushing. We entered Georgia, came to the field where the cars were parked, and turned left. At this point it was a mile to the finish. There were some hills here, so holding pace took effort, but I was doing it. Then I realized — DOH! — the race started at 7:24. Not 7:30. I was going to come in before 7:30, but I would not have 6 minutes to spare. I checked my Garmin. It looked impossible, but I couldn't quite tell. I cranked it up as hard as I could — and ran right into a giant mud patch. Uh... WTF??? 313 miles of road, and this in the final half mile. Thanks Laz. My white shoes had stayed pristine all race. No longer. Not that that mattered; I had to slog through, and all remaining hope was lost. I entered the final clearing, and there was Carl Laniak, waiting by The Rock. My crew were there, as was Sandra Cantrell. I reached The Rock, slowly bent down, and touched it. DONE! Final time: 3 days, 12 hours, 3 minutes, 12 seconds.



Numbers


Francesca finished in 3 days, 10 hours, 49 minutes, 40 seconds. She shattered her own course record by a whopping 17 hours, or 17%. She ran the third-fastest Vol State ever, male or female. It's an almost inconceivably incredible performance. After talking with her over lunch a few days later, and reading Greg's race report from his perspective, it's clear that this resulted from Greg's recommended strategy of getting ahead of me early, and maintaining a lead, combined with Francesca's flawless execution. They were thinking (as I was planning) that I would try to run a bit under four days, so she would potentially have to run a bit more under four days. But doing it this way would tell her exactly by how much. As it happened, I underestimated my ability here and was able to push for much better, forcing Francesca to do likewise. The rain exaggerated this even more, giving me a burst of speed she was forced to counter. Greg's account of her performance is harrowing towards the end, as she was completely lost, disoriented, reduced to speaking Italian, yet managed to hold on. It was an absolute triumph of the human spirit, and I am enormously honored to have played a part in it. I helped her create something truly great. I did not get my KOR, but you cannot ask for a more meaningful experience than this. All hail King Francesca II.
I believe no woman will ever come close to this mark again at Vol State. It was the result of unique circumstances optimally driving a spirit that would not yield. Paul Kentor says I am being hyperbolic, which is fair enough, so I will moderate this: yes, it's conceivable that the right woman (there are not many) with the right conditions could run faster. But I see it as unlikely that such combination will ever occur at LAVS. Therefore, I stand by my assertion. Courtney, Camille, you are welcome to prove me wrong. Looking a little closer at the numbers... per Greg's report, Francesca spent a total of less than five hours stopped, with about 60-70 minutes of sleep. I spent over 15 hours stopped, with about 8 hours' sleep. She had to suffer a lot more than I did. Neither of us rested at all after Wartrace, for the final 81 miles of the course.

Here's a table comparing various stats, and a graph of our distance vs. time.






I ran the fourth fastest Vol State ever (behind Greg, Joe Fejes, and Francesca), which I am very proud of, especially since I entered at the last minute and had no specific training. This was only possible due to the amazing and tireless efforts of Regina and Bill. They worked as hard as I did, to counter my lack of heat training. I'm also pretty proud of my splits. I ran 111 miles in the final 24 hours, including the two big climbs. I am pretty sure no one has done that before. I substantially negative split the course (and Francesca ran very close to even splits). Obviously, in hindsight I wish I'd started faster, but I do believe I made the best decisions I could at every stage based on my knowledge. Looking over the entirety of the race, I can only point to my temporarily losing focus around Tracy City as a mistake. Had I managed to maintain focus and drive there I think I could have finished half an hour faster, maybe more, but probably still not enough to catch her. I improved on Grant Maughan's over-50 course record by 10 hours. However, Francesca is also over 50! I will technically have the men's age-group record here, but it will come with an asterisk. Looking ahead to next time (and how can there not be a next time?), I am very encouraged about my potential to challenge Greg's course record. Now I have a reference point in terms of this performance, and several things to optimize. The main challenge will be improving management of sleep deprivation.

Oh, one final number: I'm the 314th unique person to finish this 314-mile race. Ha!

Aftermath


I spent the next two nights at a hotel in Kimball recovering. After a huge brunch on Monday, I said farewell to Regina and Bill, as they headed back to Jacksonville.
Tuesday morning, I rented a car to drive back to Nashville for a couple more days before my return flight on Thursday. The timing was good here: I drove the course backwards from Kimball to Manchester, stopping to chat with and cheer on each of the approximately dozen runners over that stretch. Nobody else had yet finished since Francesca and me. First was Josh Holmes, who had recovered from his early issues and was continuing to push. He would wind up with a PR, in his fourth Vol State. Next, Becca Joyner. She'd had substantial ankle issues but was soldiering forward. She would not finish in under 5 days, but the time would start with a 5. An outstanding debut for her first 100+ race. Catching up with Ray Krolewicz, I walked with him quite a while, discussing a range of subjects. I could talk to Ray forever. But my feet were in agony, so eventually I let him go.


The infamous Ray K

One week after finishing, I am home, and still bemused at the impact on my body. My feet were absolutely destroyed. I still needed Advil last night to sleep. My lips were horribly burned and chapped; I forgot to treat them at all. Funnily enough, it was the same with Francesca when I had lunch with her, her husband Mark, and Trent Rosenbloom on Thursday. Her lips were cracked and bleeding, same as mine. And that's it. Muscle issues? Zero. My legs might as well not have run a step, for all I could tell. I can't understand it. But the most substantial impact by far was on my mind, or maybe my spirit. I will cover that in the next section.


Takeaway


I learned a lot of little things that will help me in my next Vol State, or other long, hot, humid, point-to-point race. Better patterns of heat management, foot-care logistics, ice baths, etc. The critical importance of good crew communications.
The most important big realization is that my run / walk multi-day strategy is in direct conflict with dealing effectively with sleep deprivation. That was a rude shock, and something I am going to have to think hard about. I can only improve substantially at any multi-day race by sleeping less, somehow. The sleep deprivation experience here was a bit different than at other races, maybe because of the long afternoon breaks. I was never tired during the day, even the last day. I was often tired at night, both in terms of needing sleep and in terms of mood and attitude. In the past I haven't noticed quite this distinction. In my first 48-hour race, it was the second day that was incredibly brutal. The second evening has been very challenging in every multi-day I've run, but I think less so in this one. I did have a rough patch, but got over it. But now we get to the heart of the matter. Why do we run? In particular, why do we seek out experiences such as Vol State, that so dramatically tax mind, body, and spirit? There are as many answers as there are runners, but there are common themes. I do these races to challenge myself, to put myself in places I would never otherwise reach, to probe the depths of my soul, learn who I am, and grow as a person. It's intensely rewarding. Throughout history all human societies have had spiritual rituals and journeys that served the same purpose. This is my way. Vol State is known to be transformative for almost all who do it, whether in four days or ten. I suspect a lot of that comes from the universal camaraderie exposed by shared suffering, the generous spirit of the road angels, the triumph over adversity to finish under taxing conditions after many days of living in a very circumscribed world. I didn't get most of that. I didn't see a single other runner after the first 12 hours, and while I appreciated the stop at the Nutt House, my crew met all of my physical needs. I did have the satisfaction of pushing myself to near the limit, and achieving a result I can be very proud of, if still coming up short of the win. This, I've had many times before. What I actually came away with was completely unexpected, and not fully apparent for a day or two after the race. And it was huge. I think I would call this experience transformative. This gets pretty personal, and is going to be hard to communicate. And it may sound a little weird. But it's the most important part of the whole experience. It goes back to that strange, dissociative sleep in Lewisburg, and my slow return to ordinary consciousness. I've had this kind of non-ordinary-consciousness experience before. To a certain extent, my meditation practice represents an effort to develop my consciousness beyond ordinary bounds, in particular to increase mindfulness, that is, non-judgmental awareness of my thoughts, emotions, and feelings, also separation from ego. I've had limited success there. For the two or three days after the race, though the awareness dawned on me slowly, my mind was in a very different state from normal. I was thinking differently, perceiving differently. I was able to connect, a bit, to the dissociative mental landscape of Lewisburg (and of EMU two years earlier), and perceive the vastness of the potential range of human consciousness. I have studied consciousness. In my time as an AI and neuroscience researcher, I learned a lot about the mechanisms of consciousness. But the subjective aspects are something else entirely. There is an enormous world there I was barely aware of; it's incredibly exciting. Lest this get too airy-fairy, I was also able to connect, in the other direction, to ordinary consciousness, in a way I never had before. I had sought mindfulness... now, I simply had it. My thoughts and feelings were transparent. I could see clearly the little neuroses that shape my ordinary thoughts and behaviors. I was able to neatly sidestep them, and act and think in a way that is truly genuine, for lack of a better word. Most people who know me would agree that I'm a "nice" guy. It's a lot easier to be nice than to be genuine. But being genuine, living in a way that is in honest accord with your true feelings and values, with full respect for others' needs, that is priceless. I have to wonder whether this insight is maybe at the core of all religions. I could go on. I had many thoughts on the human experience which I wrote down, and still seem valid to me. But I will stop here. You could describe my state as a kind of mania, and that might not be inaccurate. Hardly surprising, after such a journey. But if so, it was the healthiest mania I've ever heard of. Our brains are wired to work within a very narrow operating range, different for all of us. The experience of LAVS somehow turned some dials to take me out of the normal range, into a very benificent regime. I don't know how. I would guess that I laid the groundwork with my study and mindfulness practice, and this experience unlocked the potential I was building up. Gradually, my mind returned to pretty normal. But I am able to hold on to memories of the experience, and they serve as a much better guidepost for my meditation goals than I have ever had before. And I am going to try as hard as I can to carry forward the habits of living genuinely. So... thank you, LAVS.


Thank You


Thank you to Lazarus Lake, Carl Laniak, Sandra Cantrell, Jan Redmond Walker, Mike Dobies, and anyone else I'm not aware of who contributed to putting on this amazing thing called LAVS.
Thank you to Ray Krolewicz for bringing the possibility of a last-minute entry to my attention, and for the hotel room in Union City that made it possible. Thank you to Greg Armstrong, Sue Scholl, Ray, BJ Timoner, and Huge Holstein for many helpful discussions about how to run LAVS. Thanks also to Greg for several on-course visits of support (though these did double duty gathering intel! 😆). Thank you to Liz Hearn for putting up with these crazy adventures, and for the very helpful mid-race conversations.

Thank you to Francesca Muccini for being such an incredible and inspiring competitor. Most especially, thank you to Regina Sooey and Bill Page for incomparable crew support. I would never have asked anyone for support at this level so close to the race, especially during the pandemic. It was a miracle that you not only stepped up, but were somehow up to the much higher demands I placed on you than you had any reason to expect. Your course knowledge and experience were also invaluable. There are a million details of race execution glossed over in my report, simply because I didn't have to worry about them; Bill and Regina had everything covered. Ice baths. Foot care. Gear alternatives. Electronics recharging. Even laundry, twice! Oh, and most of the above pics (finish pics are by Carl Laniak and Sandra Cantrell). You name it, they did it. It made my task much simpler. Actually, it made my task possible. I will never forget it.

4 comments:

  1. Brilliance formed into paragraphs. What an honor to read.

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  2. Loved every word, thank you for graciously sharing.

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  3. Love love love. At the end of the day, we run for transformation. We run... to save our lives.

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  4. I feel transformed just reading about your transformation..so interesting to read not just a race report, but a life report.

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