Thursday, July 26, 2018


Dear LAVS, 

A culmination of factors found me here, silent tears of complete fear escaping behind dark glasses, standing amongst my fellow racers on some ferry endless miles from home.  I wonder if they feel the same sense of unknown?  The vets must not.  They know what’s coming. They’ve stood here before.  In my head I am trying desperately not to feel alone.  I put myself here alone.  I did this.  There was great value in standing here without my protective guides.  I can’t see that now though.  I am drowning in a longing for a safety net I always bring.  This ache, this ‘missing’ will haunt me for the next ten days I’m sure.  These will be my company in my darkest hours: the ache of the missing and the ever present fear.  

The ferry lands back where it started, firmly in Kentucky. The runners disperse like scattered thistle seeds in the wind.  At first I see them, then I feel them, then nothing.  A mass of warmth first close and then wavering away.  The heat is already incredibly intense, but now that they’ve moved away I am feeling cold.  Cold and yet again alone.  

We are after all, each here on our own journey. 

The Last Annual Vol State, some 314 miles of country side through most of Tennessee from the north west corner of the state to the south east corner.  A journey that is meant to challenge your sustenance, your self understanding, your fibre and control.  Ten days we are given to make the crossing.  I’d cross my fingers but i need both hands free; one for accessing my water and one to float my cane across the asphalt.  All I can do is breathe and move from here to there with hope and belief.  

I’d planned to walk the entire first day.  Not to help acclimatize to the heat and humidity. Not to ease into the journey, not to short myself on a daily distance.  I’d planned to walk because the sun was ever so bright and I did not know what the roads would be like.  I’d planned to walk when my vision was poorest.  I’d planned to walk and convinced myself that this was a warm up to the days ahead.  Movement for movements sake.  It gave me time to adjust to the ear piece in my left ear providing the turn by turn information I needed to follow the map.  People came and went from my day.  I did a lot of nodding.  I asked them questions.  I tried to avoid answering any.  I am far too choked up to talk about home and what had brought me here.  The missing and the fear whispering in my head.

Just who do you think you are?

Ghosts of what could have been, lost among the shadows of what is, dancing on the sides of the road.  The sun grows high, the heat grows thicker and the shoulders come and go.  My cane finds and feels.  My heart and head talk to themselves about struggle and hope.  I may have come alone with my crew, but I brought so much worth fighting for.  Patience is a difficult thing to muster while walking.  I crave to break out into a run, spread the wings on this dream, move from point to point with a grace I don’t possess.  Patience under the sun. 

Aid stops with Chris go smoothly.  Body is behaving well enough.  The sunburn comes quickly.  Lessons are learned ongoing. The day cycles through and I lose touch with the where and when.  I have yet to find the here and now.  I’m aware that you cannot feel the ocean while tethered to the dock.  You might tickle your toes in the water but it cannot move you until you surrender to the current.  I’m not ready yet.  The day grows quieter, cooler, sun sets adrift the humid heavy cloudless sky.  The traffic is unrelenting.  There are times I hide in the grass as two or three big truck blast by.  I stand still holding the cane that found the ground I stand on.  Stand and breathe and let tears I cannot control find their way.  Who am I to put myself here? Who am I to believe there is strength enough inside to face such a fear?  

Into the evening I start to shuffle.  This is my tentative pace that allows for last minute step correction should I need it, you know for snakes or dogs or trucks.  It’s my happy little shuffle that I know can carry me a number of miles without complaint.  I’m happy, dare I say I’m happy?  Alone to run along the shoulder of an unknown, along the edge of something I can’t quite fathom yet.  The sun bleeds away completely and darkness wins.  Sight grants me more than two feet of vision in the dark, but fear of the wild I don’t know might actually win this.  What’s out there?  What do I hear?  What do I almost hear?  What possible monster could trump the daylight fears I have? 

We finally make it to the firehall at 48 miles.  This would be my biggest day, my biggest push.  It’s after midnight and I can shower here.  Shower and sleep.  My body seems to let me go tot that dream.  Or so I think. Sleep comes like a wave… tide coming in.

Vaguely I’m aware that Tim and Andrea are there.  I’m also aware Chris is still awake.  This sleeplessness sets a tone.  If I know my body and cycles, I’ll be awake and ready to go just as he drifts off.  

That is of course what happens.  3:30am and I’m awake and need to move.  Now.  Like a fire was set under my skin.  Chris has finally found sleep in the truck and I hobble around looking for an exit.  I’m also aware of a fellow runner Mike parked beside us who is battling his own demons.  It takes a bit of effort to get things organized but then I set off down the road away from town.  My tummy seems to be slow to get the memo.  After a few miles only I find myself drinking ginger tea in a chair road side preparing for 9 more days of digestive discontent. 

There are angels along the course, stocked coolers of cold water and sports drink.  Chopped melon and cheeseburgers.  Tents and cots and shade.  Smiles and hugs and .. admittedly a lot  of confusion about my BLIND runner vest.  

“You’re not one of them are you?”  I answered with the best smile I could … “I ask myself that every day”

“Wow you’re brave out there with that traffic and … everything”.  Thankful for dark glasses and extra humid weather that makes everything drippy, “I’m not sure brave is the right word, incredibly naive perhaps?”. 

They’d collect my name, promise to watch results and look for my name.  It’s a sweet surrender that comes with knowing people are counting on you.  I’d leave them, grateful, anxious, and return to my shuffle.  Just me and the road.

Me and the road, the missing and the fear.

Hours turn to days.  Sunrises, sunsets, cows and traffic.  Sometimes other runners.  Sometimes none.  Several times I had heat exhaustion from not wanting to stop in the heat of the day.  Stubborn?  Maybe.  I know my speed, sonically slow.. I can only make up for that by constant forward motion.  Regardless of how I feel about it.  Move.  I’d try and nap, try and rest and get 45min to an hour and bolt up thinking several had gone by.  Move.  with all the blood in my veins and fight in my soul.  Move.  I’d find myself along a road crying for no reason and unable to stop.  My only self talk was that’s fine, it’s just pieces of me falling away.  Tears i don’t have to carry anymore.  Cry if you want.  BUT MOVE.

The shoulder varied from a single lane on the side of a divided highway, wide enough for two or three runners to move side by side, to a white line painted over the rumble strip beside a ditch or mountain side.  Sometimes the earth would grant you one step sideways to avoid being run over by traffic.  Most times it offered you nothing but the chance to stand bravely in the face of oncoming blasting moving sounds and demand that you take up space.  This must have been my most difficult challenge.  Disability does it’s best to blend it, to not be noticed, to not disrupt the norm.  I had very little time to adjust to the place where I was forced to do just the opposite. 

Hey you there, driving too fast towards me, yes you.  Pay attention.  I am part of your world.  I am here.  I breathe and eat and sleep and struggle just like you.  I am part of this.  I am here.  More than once I’d smile and wave a gracious thank you to someone I couldn’t see through windshield.  More than once I’d be wiping tears away between breaks of traffic.  But I am here for just this reason; to illustrate the struggle people with low vision go through daily to fit in to the abled inaccessible world we’ve been fostered into.  Why then, should I expect shelter from its gale force assault now?  I am not above struggle.  I am not worth more.  I will fight the fight in my head.  I will brave this onslaught.  Apparently no matter what the cost.  

On one such road, that winded and twisted on banked corners and blind curves, on the miles between the aid stops, Jan the meat wagon driver pulled over and came upon me in  a moment of mustering.  

“How are you doing?” she asked.

Voiceless I wanted to tell her of oppression and obstacles and fight and anger at being held back and the driving pain in my soul at thinking I was ever even slightly enough to conquer this task of my choosing.  I wanted to collapse in her arms and beg to be shown the exit door.  Stage left.  Somewhere safe, away from this, away from all the monsters that followed me in.  I wanted to fall into her back seat in the air conditioning and give her my life’s worth to be driven away.  I wanted nothing more than to give up.

I took a breath.  Answered in my steadiest possible voice “I’m okay.  It’s just a bit hard”. Retrospect tells me she knew better, could read between all my syllables.  She crossed her arms over herself, almost as if to say this is not the refuge you seek girl.

“This road is tough, and I have vision”  The rest trailed off in words I didn’t retain. 

It’s okay.  Army of one. Right here.  I carried the belief of so many.  Someone has to be on the front line.  It’s okay.  There is a time and place for everything.  I ran my fingers over my Saint Christopher and wedding ring on my necklace and stepped back onto the road.  For if there is no way - make one.  

There were nights I fell into hotel beds and couldn’t tell you my name.  Three hours later I’d be awake and aware forward was the only direction to go.  There were times food was put in my hands and I couldn’t tell you what it was.  I’m not very good at this sport you know?  Some ultra runners seem to know themselves and seem to be alert and awake and capable of holding it all together.  I float in the middle somewhere.  I can carry a banner and hold ground, but I may not remember what town we’re in or what day it is.  

My questions were always about Oprahs location.  And how far away sleep was.  There was two nights in the tent.  Those were harder mornings.  Getting up off the ground was tricky.  My right shin had developed a mind of it’s own.  That’s okay, it took my mind off the blisters.  We slept in a church parking lot once night.  I napped in a park, in a postoffice lobby, in the bath tub.  One time along the road I wanted to sit down and knew Chris was a few miles up the road soon.  Spotting a guard rail I nearly stopped to unburden my feet.  Told myself it was ok to need a break.  There on the end of the rail a sunbathing copperhead changed my mind.  Okay world, I’ll take your message. Keep moving.

There was always bacon.  There was always ice.  There was always clean clothes.  I found out on the last day that Chris had provided me matching outfits each day.  This made me laugh, I’m colourblind and never match.  My feet would literally bake in my shoes.  Every time I stopped we’d switch them out.  That worked until they were swollen enough that only pair fit well enough.  I learned to hid in the heat of the day, impatiently watching an hour or two drift away.  I learned to embrace going into random stores and asking for Popsicles and cold water.  People were so very wonderful.  

The country side would open into expansive miles between shelter and towns.  Then out of no where a general store would appear and be open at 5am serving eggs and bacon.  People would ask where we started, where we finished.  Why are you going?  Why indeed. I myself am going (running and now walking) to raise awareness for inclusion in sport.  In my head would ring this why… it’s a good distraction from the sunburn, the leg, the blisters, the some hundred miles left.

Dogs charged.  From here there and everywhere.  Surprising dogs.  Angry dogs.  Thankfully loud dogs.  I was on the phone with my husband during one such charge and screamed and yelled and hung up.  Charging back at the dog.  Regaining my stance.  Composure long since gone.  It seemed endless. It seemed heartless.  It seemed like a lifetime of struggle in 8 days.  Strength was missing and yet the miles clicked away.  One such dog warning came about mile 240.  I’d had enough at this point. Angry that I had to be so on alert all the time.  Betty, Mikes wife and crew came back by car to warn me this was up ahead.  I texted Chris what was upcoming.  She offered to drive between me and the dogs.  I asked her to hold my sunglasses.  Trekking poles in one hand and pepper spray in the other, I was ready.  There is a place where you decide what to tolerate and when to fight back.  They call it ‘enough’.  Chris got to the dogs before I did. The dogs got easier after that.  I felt less afraid, or more equipped to cope.  They still frightened me, but I felt more ready. 

From that point on Mike and I fell into pace.  Company was nice.  I was ever so grateful he didn’t need to talk.  I think we spent some 60 miles together and I could tell you very little about him.  We climbed the first mountain pass together.  I made sure to call my husband before starting that climb.  So many warnings had come my way I didn’t know what to expect.  Mike seemed confident.  Our crews could not be in touch for the entire three miles of ascent.  I needed to hear Steven’s voice and make sure he knew why I had to be here.  Maybe make sure I knew why I had to be here.  Somethings are worth fighting for. 

The climb proved unremarkable and i lost the bet on how many cars we’d have to dodge on the way up.  38 in total I think.  And a lovely hotel bed waiting at the top.  

The next day I knew had to be my last.  I could not put pjs on one more time and curl up under the covers counting wishes and moons waiting for well rested legs to carry my both down and up the next two climbs.  The weather seemed to give us a break, until it didn’t.  My leg cooperated, until it didn’t, Until I could feel the line of pooling fluid and blood rising in my calf.  The day gave away to darkness just after the blue bridge.

The blue bridge was only 15k from the end.

I texted ahead “I’m on the blue bridge, not that I can tell it’s blue”

I don’t even know who got that message.

“Did we tell you? They painted it yellow just today!” was the reply.

“Yellow?  OMG memories of yellow gates!!” I sent back.

And still we walked on.

Through darkness we climbed the last mountain.  I knew in my heart of hearts I was slowing Mike down.  What I fine young man to stick with a stranger for no reason at all.  At the top of the climb we met our crews one last time.  I instantly elevated my leg and iced, knowing it had to be brief and that the barn door was calling.  Both Betty and Chris told us there was a tornado warning for our area and that Carl had messaged all the runners requesting either they hurry up or seek shelter.  Now I’m to finish this battle in a tornado?  On a mountain?  Right after the last text from Steven saying he had to close his eyes?  Every step determined.  Every step in painful awareness it wasn’t the last.  Every step down a dark lonely road to the Castle rock.

I had emailed Carl before the race and said the last mile on the dirt track worried me the most.  I don’t typically run trail without a guide.  Thankfully he agreed either he or Chris could walk me in, if I’d made it that far.  Fair enough good sir.   And indeed when the time came and my feet turned left on the dirt, Chris wasn’t far away. I assured Mike we’d be fine and that he should go.  That mile of earth was the longest mile I’ve every travelled on foot.  Lightning flashed upon the hill and in my heart too I’m certain. The hair on my arms stood on end.  The thunder danced in the clouds.  

I begged to be done.  Begged to just stop.  Begged to be anywhere but here.  This, was just too much.  Chris spoke softly, counted down in meters, detailed the ground for my steps, Just let me be done.  Done and down from here with it’s pending tornado's.  Almost almost, he’d say.  I said all I really wanted was some Italian Wedding Soup.  I must have reached my bargaining phase.  Chris said hey let’s just walk 400 meters more and then go find some Italian Wedding Soup. 

And here I stopped.  Dead stopped.  In the middle of the trail.  Jammed my poles in the ground and bent over sobbed openly.  Chris was instantly concerned.  “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”  

“It doesn’t matter how far I run” I said sobbing still. “I can’t eat that soup, it’s my favourite soup too, but I’m allergic too most of what’s in it!”

That must have been my last fight.  Instantly swarmed by fatigue, I felt there was no single one more step within me to give.  Months before when I was training and testing out the technology , the use of RunGo through a long night run and the crew expertise of Chris, I’d warned him at some point he’d need to slap me.  He refused then of course. Vowed up and down never to do such a thing.  

Now here is this forest, nearly fast asleep I said “Chris it’s that time, I need you to slap me”

I hadn’t made the request once in 8 days.  Never once did I feel that sleepy.  But now?  Now I couldn’t keep my eyes open.  I think I was surprised when he did.  That was the point though right?  Surprise. Adrenaline.  Refocus.  Oh I laughed and laughed.

And then cried once I remembered how sunburned my cheeks were and how bad that hurt for such a gentle tap.

Then there were lights, and a few cars.  And Mike and Betty swimming in victory.  All I could do was wander to a well described rock on the edge of a cliff and say the few words I’d come to mutter, hopefully in a voice that was recognizable.

“Everyone should be given the chance to fight for their finish line.  That only works if everyone is given the right to stand at the start”

I remember asking Carl why they’d put so many god damned miles between the start and the finish.  He’d replied with “It’s actually a trail race with a really long warm up”.

Later, after driving back down the mountain as the storm finally hit, I sent a simple thank you message to Laz, who is out on his own journey throughout my mini adventure.  
I woke up to his reply late the next morning;

“It is not the physical limitations of the body that count, it is the poetry in the soul.  if you have not limited yourself, how is it my place to limit you?”

I’m left with that to ponder.  Why do we let others place limits upon us?  Why do we place limits on ourselves?

Take me right now for instance… I am setting no limit on my recovery naps.

Dear LAVS, you are a beast and I know not which of us was slain, but now neither of us will be the same again.

It is my firm belief that strength has nothing to do with the ability to endure or tolerate pain and suffering.  I think I’ll work on finding the strength to celebrate the happy moments, the loving myself part, all the tough parts are there.  Endurance is, to me, more about struggle. 

I am so grateful for all the hope and belief that came my way through this journey.  I am so endless grateful for the crew and support from Chris throughout it all.  It must not be easy to send a friend into the fire and not be able to follow.

much love



  1. Well written. Thanks for sharing and congrats on completing such a challenge.

  2. I followed your race with daily anticipation. I could feel your movements through your words, although they were quick snippets of your daily movements.
    This! This blog! This is your expression of your journey, that I knew would be forthcoming. Through your words, the world will understand your journey.
    Only you could run your race, but through these words, all can understand your strength.
    Congratulations, Rhonda-Marie!

  3. Wow. You bring me to tears. I am humbled by your tenacity and bravery.

  4. Well that's an amazing adventure recap! You are one amazing athlete! This Chris, sounds like a stand up kind of guy. I'm glad you had the help you needed to get you home safe :)

  5. Your report, following my great fortune to have run into Gleason with you, will remain as one of the great highlights of my all time running adventures. So happy you finished! What you confronted and what you represent is the best we could hope to find in any human encounter. What an honest, touching, insightful way you have in your writing. Hope all my questions didn't annoy you too much when running together! I appreciated your company and honest answers.

  6. Rhonda-Marie,

    Yours is the most affecting story of Vol State I've read. And I've finished it three times. Much respect for your courage and your writing ability, both.

    At the invitation of the ladies there, I was in the Gleason firehall that night when you came in. I wanted to talk with you, but I knew you needed to rest and I didn't want to intrude.

    You ran a brave race and wrote a wonderful story. Good luck in all you do.

    All best,
    Dallas Smith

  7. Wonderful story telling! I am inspired by you in so many ways! Way to go!!!!

  8. I've read this several times. Each time my heart skips a beat and tears come to my eyes. Great job Rhonda!