At Long Last – Strolling Jim!
It was roughly 15 years ago that I first began getting my feet wet in the ultrarunning world. And, it was in one of those early years that I found myself at the Pennar 40 Miler over at Pensacola Beach and for the first time in the midst of a group of grisly-looking ultra veterans. Pennar, besides being one of the true classics of the ultrarunning world, was noteworthy for its post-race parties. After frequently suffering through several hours of 100+ degree heat (Andy Williams, the RD, never considered the race a success unless a competitor ended up in ICU!) the beer would flow freely and shortly thereafter the tales of races gone by would begin. I – the rookie – would sit alongside and take it all in, marveling at the miles and the venues through which their feet had trod. It was during one of those early such post-Pennar parties that I first heard of Strolling Jim, or “The Jim,” as it was called. My follow-up research revealed that The Jim was the preeminent ultra road race in the southeast US, and on the first Saturday in May, any ultrarunner worth his salt tabs had better be found at the Walking Horse Lodge in Wartrace, TN. The race was directed in those days by the ultra icon, Gary Cantrell – the mind behind the insanity of the Barkley Marathons. Gary was a resident of the Wartrace area and in 1978 decided (along with his buddy John Anderson) that the southeast needed an ultra to replace the soon-to-be discontinued Atlanta 50-Miler. What resulted was the birth of Strolling Jim, a 41.2 mile road race through the rolling hills of south central Tennessee. In those days that neck of the woods was truly rural, though to anyone passing that way today it would still appear that way. Back in 1978, about one-half of the course was run on dirt roads. Today those roads are paved, and the rural countryside is filled with large ranches and million dollar homes, but the course retains its tranquility and rural beauty that continues to bring the ultra community back to Wartrace each Spring. This past Saturday, 71 such runners were entered at Strolling Jim, with 10 of them there for at least the 10th time. That – more than anything – is a testimony to the mystique of The Jim.
Ever since those days of the early 90s I have eyed the calendar and thought, “I wonder if I can fit Strolling Jim into my schedule this year?” As many of you know, the American Cancer Society Relay For Life has been near the top of the “importance list” for Peg and I since about 1994, and the demands of that have been an integral player in my absence. This year – with no such Relay demands – I still would have missed it if not for the dreams and urgings of Gordon Cherr. Back in February, completely out of the blue, Gordon stated that he had entered Strolling Jim. Was I interested in tagging along? How could I say no? I was healthy and had no other races scheduled for May, and that voice from the past was still calling ….
Wartrace, TN and the Walking Horse Lodge are throw-backs to a quieter time in the hectic world of today. There are no stop lights, three small restaurants, one place of lodging and, according to my atlas, 624 souls in residence. (There must also be at least two dogs for every resident, for they openly roam the streets and there is a sign within the first mile: Warning – Bad Dogs Next 40 Miles). Gordon, my lifelong friend George Songer from Atlanta and I arrived on Friday afternoon and checked into the now-renovated Lodge. Shortly thereafter we followed Cantrell in his ancient pickup truck plastered with “the Barkley Eats Its Dead” bumper stickers on a tour of the Strolling Jim course. I came away sensing that I was in for a day that would resurrect memories of my one and only hilly road ultra – the South Africa Comrades experience of 1999.
The 7 A.M. start brought clear skies and temperatures in the 50s – perfect for running long. It was a good thing, for Strolling Jim has only three aid stations (unless you count the roadside water jugs that are spaced every few miles!) Therefore, it is a run that pretty much demands that the runner have a support team, and I had a good one in Gordon and George.
Going into this affair, I had set a goal of 6:30, based on my review of past results and the times of those against whom I have competed over the years. Strolling Jim recognizes with special finishing shirts those who break 5 and 6 hours, but I had no such illusions. I listened to the pre-race warning to be mindful of “The Walls” – a grueling series of uphills between miles 30 and 34 – that have ruined more than one runner’s day. Nonetheless, I felt good from the beginning and the miles and hours seemed to fly by. I hooked up with the 1996 Jim winner and Master’s Division (45+) record holder Ken Brewer for much of the first 30 miles. Ken, supported by his wife, was rock steady and I knew that his sense of pace was something that I should hold onto. More importantly, he was good company – humble and kind, yet still tough as nails at age 63. We went through the half marathon at 1:48 and the full at 3:37. 50K passed in 4:20. Yet, “The Walls” were still to come. As one who lives on the trails and has not set more than five miles of shoe bottom to the asphalt road since the Tallahassee Marathon in late February, my legs were getting beat up pretty well by mile 30. The course had been mostly shaded and although the temperatures had risen into the low 70s, I was feeling fine from a hydration standpoint. My calorie intake had been low; with the only nourishment coming from a single Fig Newton at mile 20 and sports drink at the mile 13 and 25 aid stations. Ken and I breezed through The Walls and all was well with the world. But – I’ve done this long enough to know that what is well one moment can go horribly south on you the next. In fact, Ken and I discussed this fact, and the way that aging and experience equips you to handle this. What a premonition! By mile 35 those legs that felt so good ten minutes ago were suddenly useless. George and Gordo were preparing to drive to the finish when I said, “Don’t go away. I am going to need you.” (As an aside – if you’ve not crewed for an endurance event, be aware that a pre-requisite is a thick skin and a forgiving nature. Do not undertake such a task unless you can overlook your runner’s late race crankiness. Ask Peg or George Palmer – both have experienced this more times than I want to even think about ….) So, I am not sure if my words to George and Gordon were a plea or a command, but stick with me they did. I drank eight ounces of sports drink and ate a gel (something I never do!) in an attempt to get some life into my legs at mile 35 — and felt nothing. George, sensing that the wheels were coming off, laced up his shoes and hopped out to run me into Wartrace. At the half way point of the race, I knew that I had a clear shot at a sub-6 hour finish, and as George joined me that was the only thing on my mind. I was suffering but I also knew that I would probably never be in such a position again – this close to a sub-6 at Strolling Jim. I remember muttering to George at one point, “You know – every time I do one of these things I say ‘I’ve never been this tired before’ — and I wonder if that is truly so. Right now I don’t think I have ever been this tired before.” At mile 39 runners turn onto Highway 64, which takes them into Wartrace. I glanced at my watch at this point, felt certain that I would be under 6 hours, and turned my focus to just ending this affair. Gordon had driven to the finish at that point and ran back out to meet us with a mile to go. Together the three of us made our way to the Strolling Jim finish line some 5 hours, 52 minutes, and 6 seconds after leaving. I was tired and pleased with the time, but more than anything, happy to have spent the time at a special place with special friends. I could not have competed in this event without the emotional and physical support of Gordon and George, and it is that what I will always hold onto when I remember Strolling Jim 2006.