By Larry Carroll
There are plenty of ultra-marathons that could be called a “race,” and with that designation give the uninitiated an idea to wrap their heads around something they’ll most likely never experience. Then there are the ultra-marathons that take it one step further – Badwater, Barkley – adding in unique elements and obstacles so intimidating that “race” seems less of a relevant noun and could instead be replaced by something like “near-death experience.”
The Vol State 500k Relay, it would seem hard to argue, is one of those races.
On July 11, photos began emerging on social media of what one athlete dubbed “abnormal people,” crowded onto a Mississippi River ferry in running shorts. They were standing under a beautiful sky, which was something akin to false advertising when you consider what they were about to endure.
Once the ferry hit land in Kentucky, participants disembarked and were then on their own until they reached “The Rock,” a destination atop Northeast Georgia’s Sand Mountain. Many have been running ever since.
An estimated 120 participants took place in this year’s Vol State, but it was Greg Armstrong of Castalian Springs who finished first, setting a new course record of 3 days, 14 hours, 11 minutes and 31 seconds. Of course, this being the event that proudly advertises itself as “a journey, an adventure, and an exploration of inner space,” Armstrong won with no crew to help him, finding his own water, food, and resting places where he could during the 314-mile trek. In fact, it was his “uncrewed” status that made his run all the more notable.
“For me ‘unaided’ meant no hotels, no showers, and very minimal road Angel support,” Armstrong tells Tennessee’s Lewis Herald newspaper (“Running to The Rock” : Vol State Roadrace is more than just a test of fitness). “I rested for 10 min on a cot in front of a church, maybe 15 on a lawn chair at the Nutt house but all other horizontal breaks were in ditches, park benches or side of the road. I almost broke my vow of no hotels in Manchester but resisted. I applaud anyone that covers the 314 miles on foot, my hat is off to anyone that reaches the Rock!”
Making his time perhaps even more amazing is the fact that Armstrong – the event’s defending champion, 3-time winner, course record-holder, and Tennessee native – ran in Teva sandals. 72 hours into the race, he had already run an astounding 262 miles while his nearest competitor (Johan Steene) was 13 miles behind. Sixteen runners, meanwhile, had at that point quit. Additional male competitors who have finished include:
2. Johan Steene 3:22:07:19
3. Alan Abbs 4:07:18:19
4. Sean Ranney 4:12:54:15
5. Aaron Bradner 5:08:15:13
6. Jeff Stafford 5:13:35:52
7. Henry Lupton 5:14:44:34
8. Tim Purol 5:16:51:02
9. Terry Bonnett 5:17:40:06
10. Seth Crowe 5:18:56:54
Armstrong finished ahead of the race’s typical pace, which is stated on their website as being between four to ten days to complete. Runners must cover 50.24K per day to finish in the allotted 10 days, regardless of whether they run or walk.
Entering day 8 in the July heat and humidity, participants are still navigating their way along the highways and backroads of Tennessee, perhaps worrying about where they’ll find their next food morsel or drink of water.
Where those necessities may come from, however, has become a minor point of contention. On July 16, race director Laz Lake complained on Facebook (Laz is complaining that Vol State angels are too generous) about local “Angels” who have been supporting the racers with food, drinks, chairs and more – and asked them to knock it off.
“Goodies beside the road, maybe a hose, a canopy for shade, mats or cots to sleep on… this is all great,” he wrote. “But taking people into your home for showers, putting them in your beds, doing their laundry, cooking them meals, letting them hang out like some parasitic relative all day… this is way, way too much! those people are way beyond crewed!”
Vol State racers may sign up as “crewed” or “screwed” (which means uncrewed), but regardless of crew support and bus transportation to the starting line, it seems like Angel help is in abundance for those who want it.
On the women’s side, Bev Anderson-Abbs finished first in her rookie run of Vol State, setting a new uncrewed women’s course record of 4 days, 7 hours, 17 minutes and 55 seconds. Comparing her experience to that of her husband Alan (who ran Vol State in 2013, and again alongside her this year, she tells (Laz is complaining that Vol State angels are too generous) Canadian Running magazine that times have changed.
“There are coolers all over the place with water, snacks, chairs set up, and I thought, this is not like what I expected,” she says of the course. “There were very few places where you really had to think about what you needed to make it to the next place where you could get water or food. For the most part, you could just hop from cooler to cooler.”
Additional female finishers (as of July 17) include:
2. Kimberly Durst (5:15:51:51)
3. Denise Calcagino (5:21:25:29)
4. Christina Pierce (5:23:46:49)
5. Judy Rupp (6:07:11:32)
6. Karen Jackson (6:07:53:40)
7. Andrea Beasley (6:14:54:23)
Not all the drama, however, played out at the finish line. One racer reported seeing a mountain lion in Twitter, another was reportedly struck by a Dodge Caravan – but kept running Facebook, and there were apparently some very aggressive dogs around mile 210 (“Running to The Rock” : Vol State Roadrace is more than just a test of fitness). All of which serves as proof once again that the Vol State 500K is a race…er, near-death experience…like none other.