Going into the Bloody 11w 112 mile Race I knew . . . this was my chance! My best chance. And probably the last chance I would have to achieve my long term dream of finishing a 100 mile race.
You see . . . I'm a three time looser when it comes to 100 miles races. I've tried three times before and each attempt ended in a frustrating failure. Usually a mental collapse. In my last attempt in May 2011 at the Cure for the Colors, I felt like my mind and body were strong but blisters caused me to quit at 75 miles. But I've often wondered to myself if that race too was really just another mental collapse. Could I really have pushed through the pain to get the finish? I don't know . . . but I have a long history of wimping out. Maybe that is one of the reason why I have wanted to finish a 100 mile race so badly.
The deck was stacked against me.
Essentially, my hip started interfering with running 19 months ago. Finally had surgery in October 2011 and my running has been limited ever since. In the last 2 months the hip pain has been getting worse and worse. My surgeon guessed scar tissue was building up. My physical conditioning has suffered greatly with my reduced running. I was spiralling downhill. So physically I was not ready to run 100 miles.
My hip surgeon, Dr. David T. Jones in Raleigh told me 2 weeks before, he would like this to be my last effort at 100 miles. He didn't say absolutely no more . . . but it was clear to me he felt like I should probably scale back.
So this was to likely be my last attempt. My last chance to achieve this allusive goal. A goal I have had since 2008.
Given my lack of physical condition and my hip, I knew for certain I couldn't really run 100 miles. But I thought maybe . . . just maybe I could walk it!
In 100 mile races, virtually everyone walks . . . usually a lot of walking is necessary. Walking obviously is slower than running and most 100 mile races have about 30 hour cutoffs. Clearly that wasn't possible for me right now. I needed a race with very lenient cutoffs.
So I found the Bloody 11w. This race was actually designed for people like me: older &/or with limiting physical conditions. How cool is that! And it actually sounded fun! Walk down a wide highway, stop in at convenience stores and restaurants along the way. Take your time and still finish within their 72 hour cutoff! How hard could that be?
Well . . . I would learn it would be pretty damn hard!
The race started with 11 participants in Knoxville, TN at 5 am Saturday before Labor Day and we had to finish 100 miles just north of Kingsport, TN by 5 am Tuesday. The complete race was 112 miles and ended in Bristol, VA. But there was a 100 mile option. Two of us had physical issues to deal with.
The race essentially followed highway 11w the whole way, with detours to the old 11w road that took us through the towns of Bean Station, Rogersville and Surgoinsville.
I grew up in Kingsport and traveled the old 11w many, many times. Oddly I had never driven the whole 'new' 11w since after Interstate 81/40 was completed it was the fastest way. From what I remembered of the 'new' 11w, it was gently rolling hill and basically flat . . . traveling up the valley. Man . . . was that perception wrong!
The course is literally uphill the whole frickin' way! (It was rolling hills but ever increasing elevation.) None of the hills were really steep but they just kept going and going! Slowly climbing . . . up . . . up . . . up . . .
A "Fat Ass" Journey Race
The Bloody 11w is a "Fat Ass" race - meaning there is no aid provided. Well . . . this proved to not quite be true!
|One of many Tennessee Aid Stations along the way.|
Really, the Bloody 11w is a miniature Vol State 500k. You can run crewed or not. I chose to not be crewed and thought this would be fun. Plus, it was just hard for me to ask someone to drive to Tennessee with me to watch me fall on my face after 30 miles or so!
|Race Director Naresh Kumar|
- You start and can carry anything you like
- You can purchase anything along the way
- You can accept any unsolicited help
- But you cannot solicit help except to beg for fluids if needed
Never having done any sort of 'journey run' before I had no idea of just how valuable a crew is to you:
- You don't have to carry the extra weight of a pack and your stuff
- You can get ice and fluids ANYTIME you like
- You can have a TON of supplies in the car just in case you MIGHT need them
- You can get whatever kind of food you want. Your crew can just drive to get it.
- If you want to sleep, your crew can drive you to a motel. Or have a cot for you. Or you can sleep in the crew vehicle.
- Air conditioning is available to you to cool off.
- And the list goes on and on!
Here is what it's like to NOT be crewed!
- You can only eat what is there . . . where you are . . . what you have. What you THOUGHT might sound good to eat 5 miles ago!
- You have to carry all your fluids . . . sometimes carrying a gallon or more just to make it to the next point to re-supply.
- Fluids are never cold . . . always hot!
- You sleep where you get tired. Not in a motel (unless it just happened to work out perfectly!). Hopefully you can find a cover to sleep under. Or maybe some soft, low-cut grass to lay on. Maybe.
- You have nothing extra except what you choose to carry. And you want to keep your weight as light as possible. You have only the bear minimum of everything.
- At night, stores close. Some stores aren't open Sundays, or Holidays! But you never know what will be open and what is closed. If you run out of food or fluids you just run out. If you were crewed, you have availability to everything, anytime!
And then I think about Doug Dawkins and John Price crossing the whole frickin' US - uncrewed! Folks . . . those are ultra running Gods!
How did the hip do?
My big worry of course was my hip . . . would it allow me to walk that far? Or would it seize up and refuse to go further. I was not optimistic. The race started and within the first 3 miles my hip started complaining. At times it got bad; then it would ease off some. Pain varied from a low of maybe a 3 to a high of probably a 7.
Painful . . . but no so painful I seriously considered quitting because of it. The pain continued all day Saturday. All Saturday night . . . Sunday morning and up until ~ 6 pm Sunday (Mile 63).
Then . . . the pain stopped! That's right! Stopped! Not eased off! It completely went away and didn't return until mid-day Monday at about mile 95! (I talked with Dr. Jones once I got home and he believes that maybe I simply wore away the scar tissue!) Since getting home . . . no significant hip pain!
THIS IS FRICKIN' AMAZING!! Ultra running just may have had a positive impact on a hip joint!!!!!! Ultra running helps . . . not hurts!! (Okay . . . that may be a stretch!)
It turns out my big challenge at Bloody 11w was facing dehydration and heat exhaustion.
The Race -
SaturdayFor me the race started alone. I missed the start of the race!! Long story but the short version is my newphew, Andy Hicks, was driving me to the start and I was unsure which exit to take and I told him one exit too early onto highway 11e. We knew 11e and 11w joined (that was the point where the race actually started!) so we needed to either turn right or left. We weren't sure. But a policeman was right there and he pointed to the left and said it was 3 miles. Well . . . it was 3 miles . . . but to the right! Lots of confusion but I finally started on my way about 15 minutes late!
I didn't want to do this whole race alone so I decided to press it and catch up with some of the slower folks. Took me awhile and quite a bit of actually running . . . which I had planned to NOT do any of!
Finally caught up with some and started walking.
By mid day Saturday the sun was bright with minimal cloud cover and the temperatures had climbed into the 90s . . . well above the predicted 80s. Also humidity is fairly high too. And when you're on 11w there is no shade to speak of. Reading Psyche Wimberly's race report from last year, I learned to not necessarily follow good safety rules and to walk on the right side of the road if 1) there was any shade and 2) the road shoulder was reasonably wide. That helped. But after Blaine, TN (mile 15) the road narrowed to 2 lanes and walking on the right side of the road just seemed too dangerous.
By mid-day things got very serious. I knew there was a long 5 mile stretch between Blaine and Rutledge without any stores. But I thought I had plenty of fluids in my 3 liter bladder. But I didn't actually check! Within a mile of the last store . . . I ran out of water. All morning I had been drinking and misjudged how much I had consumed! Rule from this point forward - "Never ASSUME anything. Check it out!"
Also, while I had been drinking all morning I had not had to stop and go the the bathroom. This is a cardinal rule in ultra running - make SURE you're urinating fairly frequently . . . if not, increase fluids until you do! That is just ultra running 101 basics.
So I was already dehydrated to some degree . . . and I ran out of fluids! When you are already dehydrated, the temperatures are in the low 90s, the humidity is high, you're out of fluids, you have 4 miles to go to more fluids and there are no clouds and NO SHADE . . . it's time to be concerned. And I was.
I started knocking on doors of the few houses we passed. No one answered the door! And no water spigots out front either or I would have just helped myself.
I really started feeling the effects of heat exhaustion and dehydration!
I honestly just made it to the Hardees in Rutledge (mile 29). Once there I drank cup after cup after cup of ice cold fluids - Mountain Dew, Coke, sweet tea and water. I just can't tell you how much I drank! I just drank and drank . . . sitting in the air conditioning for 3 hours before I finally started peeing again. Dehydration often brings on nausea, and food sounded terrible but I forced myself to eat a little. Finally, we decided to continue on but once we started back, I just had nothing. No zip at all. Energy was totally gone.
Essentially the same thing happened again on Sunday coming into Rogersville at mile 60. I found myself chasing little patches of shade back and forth across the highway just for a few seconds of shaded relief. And this time I got dizzy and disoriented. I had fluids but the heat just overpowered me. Can you imagine what it must be like to run Badwater?
To keep things complicated you almost need to be a chemist to run these things, It's all about keeping yourself hydrated and having the correct amount of electrolytes (salt). Too much or too little of either is not good. And realistically you never really KNOW where you stand. Hydration is easier than electrolytes. The peeing rule works pretty well on hydration but electrolytes is a different story.
Too little salt usually leads to cramping . . . so if you cramp usually salt helps. But sometimes you don't cramp. You just bloat. Or you loose energy and seem lifeless. Too much salt can lead to retaining fluids (swelling) and heart issues. Too much salt has never been an issue for me, but it sure has for many others. :-)
Paul Heckert and I had sort of been together all day Saturday. Late in the afternoon we formally decided to keep together and help each other out. Paul is a veteran 100+ mile finisher and we both move at about the same pace. In all my other attempts at 100 miles I had always been alone in my quest. It really helped to have someone there with you. There are times I helped pull Paul through some rough spots. He certainly did the same for me! I believe our working together was one of the primary things that made this attempt a success. Thanks Paul!
Saturday Night / Sunday MorningSaturday night / Sunday morning is sort of a blur. But one thing I remember clearly is a call I got from Stephanie Carter, another Bloody 11w participant. She and Chris Knodel were together and had gotten to the point where 11w meets 25e and they were unsure which way to go. I checked my GPS and told them to stay on 25e/11w for a couple of miles and then 11w would go off to the left.
Then, hours later I got another call from Stephanie, "Frank, just exactly how far is it to the top of this frickin' mountain? We've been going 9 miles and there is NOTHING here. No houses, no stores and we're out of water! What do we do?"
Crap . . . they had turned left (north) on 25e instead of right! They had just gone 9 miles out of their way . . . UP A MOUNTAIN!!!! I really had nothing for them. I suggested trying to hitchhike back to where they had left the course. And to knock on doors for water. But they hadn't passed a house in miles! Finally, out of total desperation they drank water from a creek and found a ride back. They decided to just drop out of the race. Who wouldn't after that!!
We finally got to the only 24 hour convenience store for probably 30 miles and took a break . . . got a pizza and topped off our fluids!!! Then, on a couple more miles to Bean Station proper. Nothing was open. We finally stopped at about 3 am at a post office on the north side of town and slept probably 1 hour on the grass there.
Then, on towards Rogersville and our second sunrise. The road from Bean Station was mentally hard . . . simply a never-ending climb. But we were refreshed after our sleep and the miles passed on.
The people I met along the way were terrific! Like the lady running the all-night convenience store in Bean Station. Paul and I stayed there probably 1 1/2 hours drinking fluids, eating pizza and snacks. She was a hoot! And in Rogersville just before I made it to Hardees I saw a little hill beside the road that was shaded. As I stopped I saw folks out on their porch so I ask them if I could rest there a minute or two. They said sure. Then offered me something cool to drink which I declined. Then they offered some fresh fried chicken and to drive me anywhere I wanted to go! I declined again! But how nice was that?
This really was a race . . . at least in my mind. Another competitor was also a physical misfit, having significant circulatory issues in one of his legs. And I wanted to beat him! And he wanted to beat me! (Which he eventually did . . . like a drum!!). Gary Cantrell (aka Laz) is a gnarly ultra veteran probably known most for the races he has created. It is Gary's perverted mind that created the Barkley Marathon, arguably the hardest race in the world based upon the finisher percentage. Also, Vol State 500k is a Cantrell creation I believe. And now he was the creator of the Bloody 11w. At the pre-race dinner we kidded each other about who would be DFL (Dead F*@king Last). Guess from that perspective I did kick his ass!!
Laz passed us in Rutledge when we stopped 3 hours to re-hydrate and start peeing again. And I never saw him again!
Laz and his buddy Steve Durbin had recruited an all-star crew to help them . . . Terri Preast! Terri often drove back to check on us and see if we needed anything and to make sure we were okay. I think secretly Laz had sent her back to find out if we were catching up!!
Sunday MorningIt was a tough climb out of Bean Station and dealing with the heat going into Rogersville. Paul and I were trashed before we got there! We needed to cool down and rest and decided that the Hardees there would be a good spot. We ate a lunch and tried to cool down and gather our energy, but the sun and heat outside were simply relentless. So we decided it would be smart to simply rest until later in the afternoon when it cooled down.
I called my sister-in-law, Sherie Spencer and she came to our rescue! Guess we sort of broke the rules but Sherie drove us to her house in Kingsport. We washed out our clothes and took a 30 minute nap on something SOFT! Then, she drove us back to the Hardees in Rogersville where she had picked us up. A big storm came through as we drove but when we arrived in Rogersville the storm had just stopped! Sweet!! Perfect timing!
Sunday Night / Monday MorningPaul and I crushed Sunday night / Monday morning and I thought we just might catch Laz. We went from Rogersville (mile 62.5 at 6:30 pm) to just outside of Kingsport (mile 84 at 4 am) . . . 21.5 miles in 9:30 and we stopped for a 30 minute nap in Surgoinsville while it rained again. That night was probably my best memory of this race. We both walked steadily all evening and morning and the part leaving the 4-lane 11w main road and traveling the old 11w through Surgoinsville in the middle of the night was just fabulous!
With completing such a great night, I hoped that maybe we had gained on Gary and Steve. But, in all honesty I knew that catching them would be REALLY hard unless they had problems.
At 4 am Monday morning Paul and I needed another nap. But we couldn't find a good place to sleep and we were sinking fast! So in desperation we opted to get under an awning of a closed gas station. . . next to the pumps! Not soft . . . but dry! After maybe 30 minutes we got a wake-up visit from a local sheriff's deputy wondering what on earth we were doing!
Paul is a astronomy professor at Western Carolina University and had a class he had to teach Tuesday morning. With the long drive home and knowing he would have to stop often to snooze, he decided he needed to quit at mile 85. I know he would have been able to finish.
MondaySo Paul left at daylight and I saw my third sunrise! I was refreshed and decided I would try to catch Laz. I picked up the pace and pressed on, entering Kingsport then crossing the north fork of the Holston River. This is my home . . . where I grew up. It felt good to be there.
After crossing the river and heading up the big hill by Walmart a van stopped up ahead and flashed their lights! Then, the door opens and a good looking lady started running towards me!
As you can imagine, this sort of thing just happens all the time to me! It's a real problem!
Turns out this was Abi Meadows coming down to see how I was doing and to hang with me for awhile! Abi had earlier won the race! She had finished the complete 112 miles in 38:46 and had passed the 100 mile point at 34:48! Abi hung with me for probably a mile or so but then she had to go find her son who was also competing but had dropped out at about mile 50 or so.
Abi told me that Laz was at mile 94 or so (I was at mile 88) . . . so realistically no catching Laz! Guess that sort of took my drive away.
About mile 90 I got hit by a freight train that was moving through Kingsport. I never saw any tracks, never heard the train, but I sure felt the impact as it knocked me on my butt! All my energy just left!
I struggled on, took another short 10 minute nap at a Putt-Putt miniature golf course, and slowly made my way towards the finish.
From mile 85 I knew I was going to finally finish my 100 miles! And I would finish during the day Monday (the race cutoff was 5 am Tuesday). My goal was to finish 100 miles . . . but secretly I had hoped to complete the full 112 miles. The last 12 miles are really, really hard with lots of hills. But I know I could have done it. I was tired . . . but I could have done it! But I started thinking about Sherie having to drive me to my car in Knoxville and she had to work Tuesday. I thought it would be easier for everyone if I just stopped at 100 . . . so at mile 95 I decided to stop at 100 rather than finish the full race. I later found out my sister-in-law would have preferred to have driven me back to Knoxville on Tuesday!
The last 5 miles just took FOREVER! I know this road like the back of my hand. Long straight stretches that just seem to go on forever, Then a slight turn and another long straight stretch! At least this part was flat . . . and I was smelling the barn!
A couple of times as I closed in on the finish I teared up. Just thinking about finally finishing a 100 miler. Thinking about my family that have been so supportive. Thinking about all I had gone through since Saturday morning. Thinking of all my friends . . . many who had constantly been sending me encourgement via Facebook. It was all just very emotional for me.
The finish to this race was perfect. I'm use to being the last finisher. Usually by the time I get to the finish the volunteers have packed everything up. Maybe there are a few folks still there. But maybe not. For the Bloody 11w there was no fancy finish chute . . . no crowds (heck . . . only my sister-in-law was there!), no fanfare, just a simple finish line to cross. And I crossed it.
Here are a few pictures . . .
|Who can really explain this? "Well I had my welder and I had some metal . . ."|
|Cherokee Lake just past Bean Station|
|World's Smallest Police Station - Surgoinsville|
|Allendale Mansion - Kingsport|
|Crossing the N Fork of the Holston River - Kingsport|
|Crossing the 100 mile finish line.|