I lay here, on the side of State Highway 22 somewhere between Huntingdon and Clarksburg, TN in a little dead end driveway along a fenced in animal pen around 1am, not even 24 hours into the famed Last Annual Vol State 500k Road Race. I type in the phone number for Jan, the driver of the "meat wagon" to signal my intent to quit the race. Then I deleted the numbers from my screen and closed my eyes. A few minutes later, as I lay here, on the hard/rocky drive I hear a noise behind me. I look up to see several mini-horses staring at me wondering what the F I was doing in their driveway. I closed my eyes again. I opened them up, picked up my phone, and again typed in the phone number to Jan and began constructing my "I quit" text. I fumbled for the right words, locked my phone, set it down, and again closed my eyes. Maybe it's 2am by now.
This is my second attempt at rest and some sleep after finding a car shop a few miles and few hours earlier where I unsuccessfully tried to nap in the bed (I use this term lightly) of an abandoned truck in their parking lot. Turns out the corrugated plastic is not the least bit comfortable to sleep on. I continue to lie here, on the side of SH22, with only about 5 feet separating me from the trucks that fly down the road disturbing my attempts at sleep. My plan was to run at least the first 24-26 hours without sleep. This shouldn't have been a problem since I've done several 24 hour races and know what that feels like. This was different.
I unlock my phone again, looking at the drafted text message as I delete and retype the message time and time again trying to find the best words. Why did it matter? No matter how you say it, "I quit" is still "I quit" and that was the only message Jan would get, no matter the specific language used. My finger hoovers over the send button. Instead, I lock the phone and set it down on my chest again and shut my eyes. I wonder where the next runner behind me is. I've been trying to rest and moving slowly for a few hours, yet have seen no signs of anyone else yet. As far as I know I'm still in the lead.
This is the most difficult decision I've ever had to make in a race. It was made even more so because I was in the lead and my legs actually felt quite strong. I had managed the heat very well on day 1 (so, so hot!) and my body felt good. By all accounts, the probability was high that I could have continued on and won the race. I had traveled so far to get here, put in over 1,000 training miles these past few months, and invested so much of my mental and physical self into this race. I really really wanted this. At least I thought I did. As I've taken some time to reflect on what happened out there, I'm not so sure I wanted it, or at least maybe not for the right reasons. After missing qualifying for the US 24 Hour Team back in April I quickly decided this race was "next" to do this year. I've been eying the race for a couple of years now, but maybe the decision to jump in wasn't entirely made for the right decisions and instead was to fill the void of not running with the US team in Belfast.
3am passes and still no actual sleep. Just cars flying by and these weird damn mini horses breathing down my neck banging on the fence a couple of feet behind me. Seriously though, WTF were they doing back there?? Creepy little f-ers. I pick up my phone again and hoover my phone over the send button but I just can't seem to press it. "Maybe if I can actually get some sleep I'll feel better" I thought to myself. I just couldn't do it on this hard driveway with vehicles flying by. It wasn't doable. I should have left hours ago and marched on to find a better spot. I haven't seen another runner yet, where are they?
I'm still laying on my pack in this makeshift bed covered in an old Boston Marathon finisher's blanket and mind is made up, I'm not having fun here. This isn't running. I just don't want to be here any longer, yet I can't press the damn button. I stare at it, for a bit longer as 4am approaches. Finally, I summon the courage to press send and a feeling of relief hits me. It's over. Someone will come get me and I can figure out how to get back to my belongings and reschedule my flight to get home. It was in this very moment that I was faced with the decision to step out of my comfort zone and continue on, or to remain safely inside the bubble. It's clear which option I took and even more clear that I'll need to do some serious soul searching.
I quickly find out that the meat wagon is at the tail end of the runners, I mean why would they be up toward the front? It will be hours before someone could pick me up. I say that's fine, I'll be here, laying on the side of SH22. Jan does her best to convince me to stay in the race, urging me to keep moving forward, to get a hotel and get some sleep, to "push through" until daytime when I'll feel better. She goes on to tell me that if I keep going and win it will only be the second time in the history of the race that a screwed runner (i.e. unaided) has won the whole race. This gets my attention, but only for a minute. She says I have to get to Parkers Crossroads for a pickup, which is about 8-10 miles up the road. I really do not want to do this. I check Uber: service is unavailable in your area. I check Lyft: service is unavailable in your area. I search for local taxi companies but also come up empty.
I pack up my belongings for the long slow march to Parkers Crossroads where I can get a hotel and figure out how to get the hell outta here. I cross the highway and attempt to hitchhike to the hotel. Cars are coming by, but not often. I march on for maybe an hour or so until the sun begins to come up over the treeline. A vehicle slows and turns around. I AM SAVED! As they approach I notice it's one of the vehicles for a crewed runner, finally another runner approaching after about 4 hours of me not really making any forward progress. She tells me that Kevin and Francesca are not far behind and they'll be waiting up ahead for them to arrive. I ask for a ride to the hotel. She encourages me to keep moving and not get into a car because once I do I'll be out of the race. She doesn't seem to be able to understand that THIS IS WHAT I'M TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH! I try to explain to the driver that this is not simply a matter of pushing through or getting rest. These things are not the deciding factors in my decision to quit. My heart isn't in this race. It isn't what I was expecting I guess. I just do not want to continue. The driver again refuses to give me a ride and drives off. I am furious. "Who does she think she is? She doesn't know me! She can't make this decision for me!" I cursed aloud as I continued to walk down the road, backwards, with my thumb sticking out. A while later I approach the 3 stopped vehicles for the 2 crewed runners behind me and I deliberately don't even look in their direction, out of spite (though it's not likely they even noticed). I curse them again.
A bit later I see them up ahead again (presumably after seeing their runners and moving up another mile or two) and the woman runs across the highway to try and talk me out of quitting. I told her that I understood her position and that if our roles were reversed I would be trying to get her to stick in the race too. We chatted as she walked along with me. I told her she should go back to her vehicle and I didn't want to keep her. Really, I just didn't want to be having this conversation, not with her, not with anyone. My mind was made, there was no changing it. Something she said though stuck in the back of my mind, and honestly now I don't even remember what it was. For a brief moment I considered "unquitting" and I cinched my pack back up crossed the road and began to run a bit. I ran down the hills and on the flats and walked back up the hills of the rolling highway. I looked over my shoulder and finally saw Francesca and Kevin approaching. I decided running again was a horrible idea and confirmed my quitting. I chatted with them briefly as they passed and I wished them luck on their journey. I would not be continuing. Looking back, I probably should have listened to my gut after finishing the 117 mile overnight training run to Provincetown, MA. I told Woo when she picked me up that I knew I could do the race, but that I really didn't think I wanted to do that for 4-5 nights in a row.
Finally, after a couple hour death march, I made it to Parkers Crossroads around 6am. I stopped into the first gas station and picked up a PBR tallboy and a chicken breakfast sandwich. That beer tasted so damn good, even in defeat. I would later find out that only in Parkers Crossroads can you purchase beer 24/7 (not all of TN) because they are designated as a "historic town" (or something) due to their Civil War history. I walked over to the closer of the 2 hotels and tried to get a room but unfortunately they were sold out. I had to march across the highway to the other hotel, but first I decided to call. Luckily they had rooms available. Now, the room wasn't exactly clean or habitable, but it was close enough and much better than laying on the side of the road.
At 0730 I checked out my position to the race officials as was required every 12 hour and informed them of my decision to quit. Instead of checking in, I checked out, officially. Laz again tried to convince me to take some time and rest and rethink things. I did not respond. I also let Jan know that she did not need to bother picking me up I would figure out my own logistics (that later proved more challenging than I imagined).
I washed my clothes (that were now caked in Vaseline from all the chafing) in the sink and showered then planned to call Enterprise to rent a car when they opened at 8am. I had a little time so I took a nap. I woke up a bit later, called Enterprise and made a reservation. I was told that my pickup would be there about 1030 by the call center operator. Afterward, I called the branch location nearby (30 miles away) and was told that their driver didn't arrive until 11 so it would be at least 1130 before someone would pick me up. I had already changed my flight to be at 8pm that night from Nashville (about 2 hours away) and still had to get my belongings from a friend who was a couple hours away as well. I was frustrated but okay. I took another nap and got a call around 1115 and was told by the Enterprise agent that they didn't have any cars in and that they likely wouldn't have any until later in the afternoon. This just wouldn't give me enough time to get my stuff and still get to the airport in time for my 8pm flight. I was now in panic mode as I tried to call cabs (none returned my calls), other rental car locations (none were able to pick me up), and generally scrambled to figure things out.
My savior, on more than one occasion this week was Greg Armstrong. He pulled some strings to have a friend David, also an ultra runner, who lived in the area pick me up and drive east toward Nashville to meet him. Greg also picked me up from the airport on Tuesday and spend 2 days driving the length of the course with me and giving me insight and knowledge he has picked up over the last 3 years winning the race each time. Greg is an incredible athlete and an even more incredible human being. I am disappointed that my quitting the race negated the time and effort Greg put into helping me prepare to succeed here.
In the end, after riding with David and then Greg back to the Nashville airport I was relieve to get there with a few hours before my flight and that I was able to get home. I've been following the race with mixed excitement and sadness since I quit. I've also been chatting with fellow SRR runner and friend Shaun Miller who is nearing his finish soon (hopefully around or under the 7 day mark) on a regular basis. I am rooting for him to succeed, but know in my heart I'm so glad that it's him still out there and not me. F that.
I am still disappointed that the race wasn't what I wanted it to be, that it wasn't what I thought it would be, and that it didn't fill that hole that my last DNF and missing the US team created. It will take a while to get over that, and to get over the sting of two DNF's in a row. Basically everything I've worked for all year has been for naught. I don't know what's next right now, and maybe that's okay. I do know that I'm glad I didn't continue on and burn myself out on running and jade my view of racing for the future.
More to come on the actual part of the race I ran and the great people of Tennessee, but for now I'll end here.