This past Saturday, Cheryl ran into a couple friends at the gym who were complaining about the weather. After all, we don’t tend to have loads of tornado warnings and monsoon-like rains in October. But, so far, this fall has been “special.”
“Well,” said one friend, “at least we’re not running across the state of Kentucky.”
“Really,” said the other. “What a bunch of lunatics.”
“Um. Excuse me,” Cheryl responded. “Tanya’s doing that.”
Apparently, there was some derisive laughter that followed, but as far as I know, no one recanted the “lunatic” comment.
As this conversation transpired, I was sitting in a van with six other people near Midway, Kentucky. The van smelled of old socks, a chilly mist was blowing, and I was grimly watching the line of people growing longer at the port-a-potty as I worried about whether or not I’d be pooping before my final leg in the relay.
It had been a long day/night/day.
We had left Nashville about 24 hours earlier en route to the inaugural Bourbon Chase Relay, a 200-mile trek through Kentucky’s “Bourbon Trail.” This was a race that would wind past famous distilleries and old battle fields, through horse farms and crossroads, around town squares and over train tracks. Twelve team members would run three legs each, averaging 15-18 miles of racing in under (we hoped) 27 hours.
Generally, I look as though I might enjoy a wheelchair in the hours that follow a race, so the thought of running three races roughly six hours apart was both terrifying and irresistable. In the days leading up to this, my first relay, my thought process was: How bad could it be? It could be bad. It won’t be any worse than a marathon. Marathons are bad. What if I don’t sleep at all? Where will I brush my teeth? What if I have gas? Will my headlamp give me a headache? For crissakes look at the weather forecast. How bad could it be? It could be bad.
This was not what I would call positive visualiztion, but as soon as we got on the road, I began to feel better. This was due almost entirely to the energy of my teammates. Our team was divided into two vans, and in our van was:
Diane (driver and stats keeper), a woman who has run a million marathons and relays and who had to have had the patience of Job to put up with six nervous Nellie runners who were yammering questions, worries, directions, and outbursts over her shoulder for 500 miles. Personally, I would have driven off a cliff. Intentionally.
Grady, who at 61 can still kick most people’s butts at 5ks. Plus, he can repair anything with duct tape. Once, he made a pair of running shoes out of duct tape and an old box. Laugh if you must, but his duct tape fixed 4 things before we even got to Kentucky.
Edward, who I’d never met before, but he ate a double cheeseburger, fries, gumdrops, pop tarts, a Krispy Kreme, 3 root beers, and 2 giant Yoo Hoos throughout the trip and still raced awesomely. Four days later, I’m still speechless with admiration.
Theresa, a top masters runner who pummels me into a sad little poof of dust at any race, at any distance. Just recently at a 15k, I was vastly relieved to see that, like me, she couldn’t read her race number listing without reading glasses. Just as I was thinking, heh heh heh, she blew by me in the first mile to disappear into a distant speck. Sheesh.
Matt and Andrea, the two 25-year-olds stuck in the geriatric van. The other van was full of 20/30-somethings. I’m sure that van was oddly void of chatter about linament, hair loss, reading glasses, and grandchildren. Still, Matt and Andrea were polite and good-natured in spite of their grave misfortune of being placed in the Rest Home on Wheels.
The legs for our van began at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Bardstown. It was still light out, but sprinkling steadily and growing cooler. Naturally, to ward off the dangerous chill, several of us visited the bourbon tasting room. Is that wrong during a race? Who cares. Our first runner was off, and we piled back into the van (which, incidentally, already looked like someone had picked it up and shook it really hard) and zoomed to the next exchange.
Two legs later, it was my turn. And it was pitch black. And we were on a remote 2-lane. Somewhere, a dog howled. Excellent.
8.1 miles with only the greenish glow of my headlamp lighting up the 10 feet in front of me. Somewhere behind me, I thought I heard footfalls, but when I turned my head, I couldn’t see a headlamp. Maybe it was just the wind. As the shouts and whistles from the exhange point faded, all that was left was my own breathing. Every now and then I could hear water rushing in the ravines on either side of the road. Once I heard something running quickly alongside me in what sounded like tall grass. Twice, I heard coyotes.
It was too dim for me to read my watch. Suddenly, I was just running with no sense of time, surroundings, or other runners. Sometimes I sensed I was going up a hill, but I never saw it coming. I was racing, but there was no race around me. Somewhere, behind or in front of me were hundreds of other runners, but on that first leg, in the middle of the night in rural Kentucky, I never saw a single soul. Eerie and unforgettable.
When our van was finished with our six legs, we had a space of about 4 hours to sleep. I mean, to “sleep.” Seven stinky people (well, Diane wasn’t stinky) trying to get all comfy in a van that might be big enough for 4 people to get crabbily comfy. Grady slept on the floor wrapped around a cooler. I slept in the driver’s seat with my foot crammed under the accelerator. I think Theresa and Andrea stretched out on seats with seatbelts jabbing their protruding coccyxes (an earlier conversation topic). Cozy!!
When the entire van went silent, I had the overwhelming urge to crack up. Then I had the urge to belt out the old 80s gem, “Here in my car, I feel the safest of all!!” But I resisted these temptations and spent the next 3 and a half hours alternately looking at my watch and listening to the wind howling. I might have slept 15 minutes. Somebody slept, because I heard some disgruntled snoring and a smattering of flatulence (it wasn’t me). But mostly it felt like everyone was laying stock still and staring hard at the darkness.
3:30 a.m.!! Rise and shine!!
Round two of our runs seemed to be the hardest. Personally, I felt like there were parts of my legs that I’d like to unfold but couldn’t. I ate half of a pulverized Luna bar and began mentally preparing myself for 5.8 miles just before dawn. This mental prep mostly consisted of “oh no” and “shit.” Thank God for teammates. Everyone was encouraging without being too Polly Sunshine everyone’s-a-winner!! about it. There was a lot of joking. Grady even offered me a type of linament that’s used on horses. There was a picture of a horse’s leg on the bottle, and that was good enough for me. I used it, and damned if my legs didn’t come unfolded.
Is the darkest hour just before the dawn? Why, yes, in fact, it is. The quietest, too. It felt like even the blades of grass were sleeping as I raced through the farm roads that led to the Four Roses Distillery. This time, I could see the blinking tailights of other runners ahead of me, but when they turned corners or went over hills, I was alone again. Just as I was being lulled into the dreamy hypnotic pace of it all, one of the most frightening moments of my entire running life occurred. Dog attack? Screeching car? Scary person? No….
A freaking rooster, unseen and about 2 feet from me bellowed out his wake up call, and I just about soiled myself. This was at about mile 3.5. I’m here to tell you that that damned bird provided a level of adrenaline no pre-race overload of caffeine has ever provided. I careened like a mad woman to the finish, passing 4 other runners, lurching blindly into the Four Roses parking lot, and hurling the wristband to Theresa. I even managed an ear-splitting “YOU GO!!” as Theresa bulleted out of view. I love that rooster.
As I staggered back to the van, I noticed that there was a lot of chatter about roadkill. Some teams had even gone so far as to write “Roadkill” on their windows with hash marks underneath. In general, life was surreal at that point, but I did think that this obsession with squashed animals in the road was a tad mental. Diane jogged over with her clipboard and cheerily asked, “How many roadkills?” My God, I thought, What is wrong with you people? Does the flattened possum I saw at mile 3 really bring you joy? It wasn’t until some time later that I realized “roadkill” referred to runners passed. Thanks to my friend, The Rooster, I managed 4 roadkills within 2 miles!
Some time after my leg and just as the clouded sun was rising, I thought I saw a man standing in the middle of the road. He was young with a moustache and wearing a grey hat. Not a runner. As our van approached him, I said, “Hey. There’s someone in the road.” But at that instant, the curve of the road changed, and what I thought was a person was just a trick of light.
“Oh. Okay. I must be really tired,” I said.
“No, I saw him too,” Edward said quietly from the front seat. “Not a runner. Some guy with a hat.”
A ghost? A shared optical illusion? Later, Grady admitted that he had seen something too. But it had faded into the fog the same way. The Ghost of the Bourbon Chase. No one mentioned him again.
As the day grew brighter, glaringly bright even, our final runs loomed monstrous and unthinkable. I tried jogging around the lot where we would meet up with van #1 to take over the legs to the finish line. Even deathly slow jogging felt like a loud funeral dirge in a horribly minor key. And I was supposed to race again in a couple hours? Hilarious. I put on some more horse stuff and walked down to the exchange area.
Somehow, our team had moved into the top 20 or so teams out of 150. A few more roadkills and we might move into the top ten. I had a little rush of adrenaline. Not rooster level, but close. Now I had to figure out a way to race even if my body was pissed at me and my legs were folded into origami swans. I think everyone was feeling the same way. This was it.
Unbelievably, Matt ran his fastest leg yet. Youth, I reasoned. But then as I paced in the handoff area, waiting for Grady, he came barrelling around the corner–a good two minutes faster than expected. Cripes! As I slapped the armband around my wrist and took off, I primarily felt panic. I only had 3.9 miles to run, but it would have to be faster than either of my previous legs if I wanted to maintain our place. I heard “ROADKILL!” merrily chanted behind me as I headed around the town sqaure and out to the horse farms. No pressure or anything.
Race Day Magic. Who would ever have guessed that this mysterious and wonderful phenomenon could happen in race #3 in 18 hours on dead legs with no sleep and scary food? Since there were no mile markers, I had no idea what my pace was until I saw the One Mile to Go! sign. I was at 21:15 at 2.9….It didn’t seem possible. I was so excited that I yelled an obscenity at some cows (I think they liked it). The final stretch was downhill, and I could see my teammates waving and shouting for nearly a quarter mile. Blurry, getting clearer, there’s Theresa, slap the armband into her hand, she’s off. And I’m done. 18 miles in 18 hours, ghosts, roosters from hell, friends, bourbon for breakfast, roadkill, rain, living in a van, magic, mania. Done.
In the end, we finished 12th overall, well under 27 hours. Not too bad for a team that “just wanted to have a good time.” The finish line and post-race party in downtown Lexington was seriously glorious. The sun almost came out for about 15 minutes and there was a sea of free bourbon tastings. Our finishers medals were groovy. There was a reggae band playing. Who could ask for more?
Much later that night, we pulled into the parking lot in Nashville where we had all met up only 35 hours earlier. Diane noted that most people would be stunned to think that we all actually paid money to do this. “That must seem really crazy,” she considered.
Yeah, running across Kentucky in the rain. What a bunch of lunatics.