For all the unpleasantness and disappointment I took away from the state of Tennessee last month, I experienced an equal or greater amount of kindness and support along my (shorter than planned) journey. This kindness is one of the things that people rave about for the Volstate 500k. The local residents and families who exhibit this kindness are often referred to as "road angels" and they are held in very high regard among those familiar with the 500 kilometer race. These road angels are there in the night driving past to offer aid, they offer a kind word or bag of chips when things look rough, or maybe a popsicle from a smiling girl when it's 105*F outside. Sometimes their deeds are planned and deliberate, and other times strictly coincidence, but mostly they are just good, kind souls looking to help someone in need.
Even though I only finished 81 of the 314 miles in the race, I was lucky to come across several extremely kind strangers who shared their time and offered a helping hand. Most of all, this is what I'll remember when I look back at my partial trek across Tennessee in July of 2017.
The first of these road angels I came across was only about 30 or so miles into my day, when I met John, a local University of Tennessee Martin student who was familiar with the race. He was sitting in a parking lot with water, ice, cooler, and snacks. I had just made a stop for lunch at Subway not quite a mile earlier so at first I turned down his generosity, but after a few steps I decided to stop and have a bottle of water with John. We chatted a little about the race so far and he asked if I was the first runner. I was at that point. I drank the water, thanked him for his kindness and went on my way, more hydrated than before.
The next road angel I came across was Joey. I ran along old highway 22 (I think) in the heat of the day, alone. I turned a corner down a nice shady stretch of road that led to a small single lane bridge that turned and went back up the hill, also in the shade. I stopped for a second and took a couple photos of the bridge then continued on up the hill as a car passed. A few minutes later as I got further toward the top of the hill a man came out of his house with a glass of water as he walked down his driveway toward me. Joey invited me to a nice shaded area under a big tree toward the end of his driveway. The glass of water (in a University of Tennessee cup) was delicious! It was ice water but "not too much ice that it was too cold, but just right". Joey also mentioned that I was the first runner he had seen, which made me smile. I finished up the water and headed on my way.
The next group of helpers I came across were Kim and her well staffed team of volunteers at the Gleason Fire Station. This "aid station" is well known throughout the race and is always a big hit for all runners. I was the first to come through and Kim and the other volunteers had more than I could possibly need at the ready. I rested a few minutes here, about 10 hours into the race and got some calories in while sitting in the cool breeze of the empty fire station. They grabbed ice, fruit snacks, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, some cool fresh watermelon (this was my favorite snack!) and anything else I could need. I have met Kim a couple of other times at the last two 24 hour races I've done in Nashville and she is always as energetic as she is kind and helpful. This was very common with almost everyone I encountered throughout my travels. When I left the Gleason Fire Station my pack was full of fruit snacks, I had a PB&J strapped to my chest for later, and a nice cool bag of ice to hold on my neck until it had melted. This was especially helpful during this next stretch of ~5 miles of brand new blacktop just put down today. SO HOT! (Though I do really enjoy the smell of fresh blacktop for some reason...so that helped)
A little while later I had passed ~50 miles and was starting to get some hot spots (one in particular) in my feet due to the extreme heat/sweating so I knew it was time to cut out the toe boxes on my shoes to allow air to travel through the shoe and keep my feet more dry. I was a few miles from McKenzie and needed to find a place to sit. Up ahead I saw a good looking spot on a concrete wall where I could do some shoe surgery. As I got closer and rounded the corner, I noticed opposite the wall was a pop up tent and a large bearded man (Ron) with a couple coolers of water and food. Clearly (below) his beard dwarfed mine by comparison.
I sat and chatted with Ron for a while who told me about how much fun he has every year hanging out and helping the runners who pass through. Though, his children were disappointed that they couldn't help out this year as he was volunteering for work instead of on his own. Ron also told me about his line of beard oils/products which he offered me a small bottle of. I wish I had the room to bring it with me. It was here that I sat and checked in with Laz and his team for my 12 hour update at 7:30 pm. It was also here that I ran into a local reported named Brad who wanted to get some photos of me coming into town and chat a little about the race.
After hanging out with Ron a bit I headed up through the McKenzie into the town center. The McKenzie Banner reported on Ron's aid station as well as a much larger station set up in the town center where another huge group of Road Angels awaited my appearance. This is the article that Brad wrote about the race, including a few photos, though today is the first time I've sought it out and actually read it after my disappointing finish. This one still stings a bit: "Out of the 88 [runners] that started the race, 15 would eventually tap out, including Soutiea." The amazing crew at the McKenzie aid station offered ibuprofen, water, Gatorade, burgers, pickles, etc. You name it. I rested up here a bit before hitting the road as nightfall was getting near. Seriously, everyone I encountered here and before went above and beyond to help us, complete strangers. Though, I would find that the "high" I felt encountering the road angels quickly wore off as I left them in the distance and approached the vastness of the open road.
From here out the darkness rode in and with it the demons of being on the road alone with hundreds of miles ahead. Though I did fine one additional treasure along the unforgiving highway. An iced down box with a couple cases of water and bag of apples inside. The cold crisp apple was delicious in the heat of the night. From there on it was a mental battle until I inevitably threw in the towel. Though looking back, I probably wouldn't have lasted this long without all the amazing volunteers I found along the way. Fitting in the Volunteer State.
This post would be missing a key component if I didn't talk about how helpful Greg Armstrong was not only these couple of days before/after the race, but also in his other two races I've competed in the last year, also in Tennessee. Greg picked me up from the airport, drove the course with me in the days leading up to the race, called in a favor to have a friend pick me up from a motel alongside the highway, and then met us and brought me back to the airport. Without Greg's help and his friend David, I may still be stranded in that very motel with no public transportation or rental cars available. I hope that one day I'll be able to return the favor.