Fiona In Focus
Fireflies, Raccoons, and the Kindness of Strangers
One woman's adventure at the Last Annual Vol-State 500k road race
By Fiona Green
While the notion of running a 26.2 mile marathon is daunting for some, most of us would agree that the idea of running 500 K - or 314 miles- borders on insanity. Anyone who would even consider undertaking such a challenge would need to be a super athlete, extremely disciplined and just a little crazy. Yet 37 year old massage therapist and mother of three, Natalia Harrison, who took on the challenge this summer, appears perfectly normal and is extremely modest about her achievement.
Harrison only started running 5 years ago. Last year she ran her first ultra, a 50 miler in Waxahachie, then followed that last December with the Brazos Bend 100 miler. While to most people this would be considered a remarkable achievement Harrison finished the event wondering how much farther she could run.
Researching ultra events online she discovered the Last Annual Vol-State 500 K road race. The event, billed as 'a 500 km foot-race across Tennessee', started on July 13 and the course included portions run in five states. It began with a ferry ride across the Mississippi River, from Missouri to Kentucky, and finished at "the Rock," high atop Sand Mountain in Northeast Georgia. Harrison's interest had been piqued.
At the time of her research only 2 spots remained for the event which capped the number of participants at 100. Still uncertain about embarking on such an epic journey she decided to wait another week, reasoning that if she was destined to run it there would still be a spot available for her. A week later she clicked on the website and held her breath. One spot remained. She immediately signed up. Cut off for completion of the event was 10 days, an average of 50 K per day. Harrison's goal was to cover the course in 7 days, running on average 45 miles - almost 2 marathons- every day for 7 days.
Runners were divided into 2 categories, those running crewed (around 20 runners), who were assisted by a crew of friends or family, and those running uncrewed or 'screwed' (around 85 in total) who were running the entire course unaided. Crewed runners had a distinct advantage as their support group could provide encouragement, sustenance, clean clothes and other home comforts. Runners could even sleep in a support vehicle but under no circumstances could they use it to advance their journey. Harrison decided to run the event unaided. In the weeks leading up to the race she carefully researched the area she would cover, figuring out tentative sleeping arrangements, the location of grocery stores etc. Running without a crew meant that she had to carefully calculate what she would need on her journey and pack everything into a backpack that she would carry for the entire distance. As well as snacks, drinks and a change of clothes she packed the race handbook, mace and an emergency poncho. She also packed salt pills to replace salt lost through running, turmeric and ginger to settle her stomach and aloe vera lotion to soothe her burning skin. Runners did not wear official race bibs but they all attached a small American flag to their backpacks.
In preparation for the event Harrison ran around 20 miles per day, three times a week. As race day approached she felt confident yet slightly apprehensive of the daunting task that lay ahead.
The day before the race runners parked their vehicles at the parking area at Castle Rock Ranch and rode tour buses backwards on the course to Union City, Tennessee. They spent the night here and were provided with bus transportation to the start the following morning. They began the day by boarding a ferry for a short ride to Kentucky. As per tradition the race director lit a cigarette to start the race and the adventure began!
The event website does not sugarcoat the loneliness and challenging conditions that runners face. 'There are no aid stations, teeming with volunteers waiting to tend to your every need and encourage you to continue. There are just miles and miles of empty road. If you do encounter another runner, theirs is the same desperate plight as your own. You will have doubts. Finishing will often seem an unfathomable dream. Your worst enemy may become the knowledge that an air conditioned ride to your car at the finish (in the dreaded seat of disgrace") is but a phone call away.' While there were no official aid stations for runners refreshments were provided along the course by random strangers who left out coolers stocked with water and Gatorade along with signs inviting runners to help themselves. Without these 'angels' Natalia believes the number of runners completing the event would be far lower.
Organizers kept track of runners by having them call in every day at 7.30 am and 7:30 pm to confirm their location. As her cell phone coverage was spotty in some areas Harrison made sure to ask other runners she met close to check-in time to call in for her. In between times a volunteer was riding the course 24-7, checking that the runners were able to continue and did not require medical assistance.
Harrison had initially planned to only run during the day and sleep in hotels at night but quickly revised her plan when she realized the challenge presented by running in the heat of the day. She opted instead to log the majority of her miles after sun down, taking advantage of hotel accommodations only 4 times during the week, so she could wash her clothes, shower and sleep on a real bed.
While many of her miles were run alone, she did have company for parts of the race. A runner named Ken, whom she encountered around the time she discovered a large blister under her toenail, helped her cut a hole in her shoes to avoid having her toe rub against it. They ran the final 30 plus hours together, discussing everything under the sun, forming a special bond and memories that would remain etched in her mind forever. She also enjoyed some canine companionship as a small dog jogged beside her for almost 15 miles. Concerned that he might not be able to find his way home she enlisted the help of a local to return him to his family.
Every day brought a new adventure, too many to recount in this article. There was the time she decided to grab a few hours of sleep on the steps of a church, using her backpack as a pillow, and her emergency poncho as a blanket. She awoke to find a chubby raccoon staring at her, perhaps wondering if she had any snacks to share. One morning she showed up at a gas station around 4:30 am as the locals were getting ready to start their day. Everyone was interested to hear of her journey and didn't mind when she removed her shoes to let her feet breathe. They even paid for her breakfast. She recounted one particular night when, after running many miles alone, she had spotted the reflective glow from a group of runners in the distance. She hurried to catch up to them only to realize that the glow in fact came from a bunch of fireflies. Another time, after a hard day running, she was leaving a Dollar store with a bag of snacks when a woman approached and offered her a cold drink. She proceeded to bless her and wish her well, hoping that she would soon land on her feet and be able to return to society. It was only after she left that Harrison realized that the woman, observing her messy hair and disheveled appearance, had confused her for a homeless person.
Every runner had their own unique stories. One had experienced melting shoes and been forced to buy replacement footwear at a local Walmart. Another had met a local policeman who had opened his lunch box and generously shared his sandwich with her.
The final miles included an uphill climb which tested everyone's strength and resolve but by then nothing would have stopped her crossing the finish line. Arriving at the Rock, after running for 185 hours 51 minutes and 15 seconds, provided a sense of accomplishment bordering on euphoria. Unwinding in her hotel room Harrison was able to assess the damage. She had lost several toe nails, her legs ached and her mind was still on the alert, unable to switch off and relax. For many days afterwards she continue to wake up at all hours of the night, thinking she was still racing.
Has Harrison got the ultra bug out of her system? Not even close. Her future race calendar includes a 100 miler in Kansas in October and a return to Vol-State next year. After that she is considering the 888K Infinitus (551 miles) in Maine in 2019.
Her advice for anyone considering doing Vol-State is to be prepared, be patient and simply take the race one step at a time.