04 May 2019


The rolling hills of Tennessee dominate the landscape of this historic ultra marathon.
This race is pretty close to my heart. I ran the Strolling Jim for the first time in my very first year of ultrarunning. The race date actually fell on my 39th birthday, so it was a perfect birthday run. I would run an extra 2.2 miles rather than 1 mile per year, but it's ultrarunning, so distances and measurements are secondary anyway:-)
Running step for step with Dink Taylor, 30+ time finisher of the Strolling Jim. Whom better to tag along with.
I earned a "pink" shirt that first year. Well, actually, pink just happened to be the color for the race shirts that every runner received in their race packet. The Strolling Jim is known for awarding finisher shirts to runners according to their finishing times. Runners taking longer than 7 hours have to settle for the shirts they received in their race packets, sub 7 hour finishers receive a red shirt, sub 6 hour runners receive a blue finisher shirt and sub 5 hour runners receive the coveted gold colored finisher shirt. After my first Jim, I ran the race a couple more times earning a red shirt each time by completing the 41.2 mile distance in under 7 hours. This year, my goal was to complete the race in under 6 hours to finally earn a blue shirt. My last attempt didn't go very well, so I wasn't filled with confidence when I set my goal.

In fact, I was originally scheduled to run a race in North Georgia this weekend, but with a summer busy with work and fun travel ahead, I figured I would be better served by staying closer to home. However, since I needed a long run on Saturday, what better way to do so than to run the Strolling Jim, a 41 year old race run by just about any ultrarunner in the southeast at least once, usually multiple times in their running lives. The Strolling Jim is a rite of passage. While ultrarunners are generally better known for enjoying long distance races on mountainous trails and while the Strolling Jim is a pure road race, its elevation profile alone provides all the challenge a runner desires with its rolling hills that deliver both pain and beautiful views of the countryside.
A typical section of the course, winding country roads through the hills of Tennessee.
Rick was kind enough to let me catch a ride with him up to Wartrace, Tennessee. We wanted to get there an hour ahead of the race start and me choosing to ride with him allowed my all important crew (my awesome wife Anya) to leave home an hour later and sleep a little extra before she'd be chasing me all over the 41.2 mile course for hopefully no more than 6 hours. We arrived as scheduled and picked up our race bibs before returning to Rick's car to get ready for the race.

I really didn't know what to expect from the race, even though my race times from other recent ultras as well as my current training load would suggest that I should be able to break 6 hours. After all, I had come off my 50K PR a couple of months prior to Strolling Jim in 2015, yet I could not manage to come even close to breaking 6 hours. Why would today be any different? Confidence was low. Self talk didn't really stick, either. Rather than dwell on that, I spent my spare time in the days leading up to the race playing with different paces and goal times. I settled for 3 goals, a lofty "A" goal (5:30), a "B" goal (5:45) and a "C" goal (5:59:59).

Failure was not an option. If nothing else, this race would provide ample opportunity to work on my mental game, if I started to falter. The Strolling Jim starting line is always like a family reunion of sorts, a reunion of southeastern ultrarunners. Since all race distances from the 10K to the 41.2 mile would start at the same time at 7AM sharp, I decided to line up in the third row or so as not to get sucked in with the faster runners. I lined up near Dink and DeWayne, which is always a great place to be, both for the stories you'll hear and for the perfect pacing skills both of these guys exhibit. After all, they've managed over 30 finishes at SJ between the two of them, so that shouldn't be surprising. And forger about counting the sub 5 hour gold shirts they accumulated between them...ridiculous!
Lush green Tennessee countryside, enhanced by a consistent Spring rain that lasted for the first 3 hours of the race.
Just under 500 runners took off at 7AM sharp. There were at least 50 runners ahead of us, but it was impossible to tell who was running 10k, 13.1M, 26.2M or 41.2M without seeing their bibs. Either way, it did not matter, my plan was to try to run with Dink for at least the first half of the race. He's consistently run under 6 hours the last couple of years, so if I could keep a steady pace on not blow myself up by the halfway point, then there might be a chance that I stay with Dink and finally get a blue shirt.
Mission accomplished, sub 6 hour blue shirt earned with room to spare.
Right after the start it started to drizzle before turning to a continuous 3 hour rain. The overcast skies coupled with the rain kept us cool, but once the rain stopped, humidity crept up quickly. Thankfully, the sun never broke through, which saved many a runner, including myself. Dink and I ran together for the entire first half of the race, keeping a steady pace that allowed us to chat and stay relaxed. My the halfway point and after the first bigger hills on the course, Dink mentioned that his legs just didn't feel right this day. I had no issues at this point, so when he fell slightly behind around the halfway mark during one of the major climbs, I pulled ahed ever so slightly. I figured he'd catch me on the downhill like he had on every hill prior, but that didn't happen this time. Suddenly, I was running alone. Just like that 500 runners had spread out with only a couple of runners visible on the road ahead and one a couple of steps to be heard behind me.
Post-race pic with my booty, finisher medal, Overall Master winner trophy and RRCA Regional Ultra Champion Masters medal.
My wife Anya had been crewing me about every three miles since the 5 mile mark. I'd swap my hand bottle for a fresh one with a gel or two. I carried SCaps in my shorts along with an ipod touch that I was hoping to utilize for the final 10K push. I continued to feel pretty good and I kept a consistent pace. By the time we hit the infamous "walls" at mile 29, both the temps and humidity level had noticeably risen and I was starting to look for my wife. I had managed to pass a couple of runners leading up to and just after the walls, but I was starting to struggle. I asked my wife to meet me every two rather than every three miles. I needed both the mental boost and a fresh bottle along with a few swigs of cold coconut water to refuel and to keep me going.

The walls are a 2 mile section of very short but steep hills. The are known to break runners in large numbers. This year I barely escaped, but I slowed significantly and I still had 10 miles to go. With 5 miles to go, I asked my wife to meet me every mile until the last 2.2 mile highway shoulder section to the finish.

My wife kept giving me updates on runners ahead to give me the proverbial carrot to chase. I remember her telling me that the runner in 4th pace was just ahead. While I believed that the runner was close, I was sure she got the number of runners ahead wrong. I was certain there were at least 20 runners ahead, but I didn't bring it up or try to confirm with her. I just kept plodding ahead. With 5 K to go, I walked for the first time as I grabbed an extra long sip of coconut water. A quick look over my shoulder and I realized that a runner I had passed in the walls had caught back up to me. Ugh, I really didn't want to get passed with a 5 K to go, so I grabbed my bottle, popped in my earbuds and cranked up AC/DC. Heck yeah, let's do this!... fast forward 2 minutes, I have been unable to control the volume of my ipod touch that wasn't dealing with the rain and humidity all to well. Well, shit!

As I saw my wife in the distance at the 2.2 mile mark and final aid station, I pulled out my earbuds and gave her my bottle as I planned to just go "naked" for the final stretch without bottle or anything else. Not wanting to turn around again to see where my closest competitor was, I asked my wife: "How far back is he?" - "One foot" she responded "one foot". He was literally right behind me. Hahaha, that cracked me up. Here I was trying to be all stealthy and he was right there.

I decided to drop the proverbial hammer right there and then. If this guy was going to beat me, he would have to earn it the hard way. I crossed the highway and took off. I saw another runner ahead in the distance and decided to try to reel him in as something to focus on. Thankfully, he was walking. Yes, I thought, I may actually catch this guy. Then he looked over his shoulder. I know he was thinking the same thing as me "Aw shit"! He took off running and I just tried not to slow. The gap between us never got any smaller. When I finally crossed the finish line with my wife cheering, the clock showed 5 hours 44 minutes. I had finally done it. I had earned a blue shirt.
Pre-race pic with Rick, who let me hitch a ride so my better half could be better rested for the day's crewing duties.
I actually won 5th men overall (my wife was right, as always:-) and I got both the Overall Masters win and the Overall Master RRCA Regional Ultra Championship. To be honest, both of these titles would have gone to Greg Armstrong, who had actually run a double Strolling Jim, starting the first one at 1AM and finishing it 10 minutes before the official race start before running it again with all of us, once again getting a sub 6 hour finish. 82.4 miles with nearly 7000' of vert in less than 12 hours, are you kidding me!!! What a beast!
Not a war, nor a battle, nor a fight, but a skirmish. Friendly contest is probably a better word for what went down today, by skirmish will work, too.
Thanks to Steve and Terri Durbin, the amazing crew of volunteers and, of course, the creator of this event Lazarus Lake aka Gary Cantrell. I cannot wait to come back to see what Zack can do next year. I cannot lie, I would like to see more of the newer breed of speedy elites give this race a go. I have to believe that the prize purse for the course record will lure a couple of them to Wartrace within the next couple of years.
An entertainingly accurate elevation profile.

1 comment:

  1. i've read several of your reports. i enjoy them. thanks.



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