Dr. Jarad Schofer
“You want some good advice? If y’all were the kind of folks that took good advice, you wouldn’t be here right now.” This is how the race director, Gary Cantrell, begins most of his races. Then he lights a cigarette to indicate that the race has begun. This race, the Vol State 500K, was no different. The Vol State is a 314 mile race across Tennessee in the suffocating July heat, and somehow I found myself lined up at the start in July 2020.
Ultrarunning is the hobby (?) of running more than a marathon distance, which can be anything from 50K (31 miles) on up. Gary Cantrell is infamous in the ultrarunning community. He is the director of The Barkley Marathons, a notoriously tough 100+ mile race through the mountains in Tennessee that has seen only 15 finishers in 35 years. I highly recommend the documentary The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. Cantrell also invented the “Backyard Ultra,” where each runner must complete a 4.17-mile loop every hour on the hour until only one person is left standing. Why 4.17? Because that works out to 100 miles in 24 hours, a popular goal of many ultrarunners.
I have run several ultramarathons, including a 100-miler in 23:52, and I was on the Vol State waiting list in 2019. I never got off the list though, so to prepare for the following year’s race I took a bus to Pittsburgh and returned on foot. That 262-mile journey took me seven days, but the lessons I learned about myself and about journey-running were invaluable. For example, running in the heat of the day with an umbrella is an amazing way to stay cool and avoid sunburn. It may also cause drivers to refer to you as “Mary Poppins.”
The 2020 Vol State began, as it does every year, by crossing the Mississippi River by boat from Missouri to Kentucky. At 7:45 am the heat index was already 100+, so I just walked. The runners were tightly packed early on while covering the nine miles through Kentucky, and we were already getting the obligatory questions. “Where are you going?” “Are you running for charity?”
Fifteen miles into the race I already had six blisters, which certainly validated the phrase “blistering heat.” After 34 miles I stopped in a motel for five hours. I didn’t sleep much but beating the heat is one key to surviving Vol State. Most people who quit do so in the first two days due to blisters, chafing, or dehydration. By the end of day one I had gone 54 miles.
When doing Vol State the runner must completely rely on themselves for food, water, shelter, etc… This is known as being uncrewed, or as Gary Cantrell likes to call it: “screwed.” Sometimes there are long stretches without food or water, which is where the ultimate savior of all saviors comes into play: the road angel. A road angel is someone who sees a runner and then offers them food or a drink. Some local folks even put out well-stocked coolers along the course. When the heat index is 118, this is a welcome sight for sure.
After day one, my pace slowed considerably, but I still managed to cover 71 miles on days two and three combined. I also partnered up with another runner, Lynn, which made the miles a bit easier. We even dodged a major thunderstorm, arriving at a hotel five minutes before the sky opened up.
One famous quote about ultrarunning is “You know you’re running an ultra when you can read about the winner in tomorrow’s paper and you’re still doing the race.” Something similar was true for Vol State because by halfway through day four I was at mile 150 when Francesca Muccini crossed the finish line. Yes, she ran the entire 314 miles in three days and ten hours. And I wasn’t even halfway finished.
By day five Lynn and I had gotten into a groove. Walk a few miles, sit in some shade, check on your feet, stop to eat. Wash, rinse, and repeat. We even slept under a bridge at one point. There were no trolls to speak of. We made it to the “Bench of Despair” at mile 183. This landmark is a red bench outside of a gas station that the Vol State runners like to autograph. The bench earned its name because most runners who get that far do finish the race, and yet they realize they still have so much farther to go.
On day six Lynn and I were heading into the town of Lewisburg TN when I got really hungry. Due to Covid all of the nearby restaurants were only offering drive-thru food. In the spirit of Larry David, I got in line at a Dairy Queen and asked if they would let me order food without a car. Luckily, unlike on that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, they were fine with it!
In true Gary Cantrell fashion, the final part of the race consisted of two thousand-foot climbs, which were brutally difficult after covering 270 miles. At one point I pulled over to rest and both of my feet were throbbing so hard that it felt like they each had their own heart. I did manage to finish in 8:07:21:12, and by doing so I became one of only 347 people to ever finish the race in its 15 year history. Cantrell likes to say “You live a lifetime in those 7-10 days,” and I can see why!
After finishing the Vol State, what could one possibly do for an encore? Well… I am currently on sabbatical and on March 14th I will begin walking across the country from California to Virginia to raise money for cancer research. That’s like doing nine Vol States in a row, so I hope there will be some road angels along the way.