Pushing his body to the brink, Tullahoma High School cross-country coach Chris Clemens challenged himself earlier this month, taking part in The Last Annual Vol State Road Race 500K.
The 314-mile race started on July 11 with a ferry ride across the Mississippi River. The ferry picks up runners from Dorena Landing, Missouri, dropping them into Hickman, Kentucky, where competitors then took off running across the Volunteer State. Participants then have 10 days to complete the course, which wraps up in Castle Rock, Georgia.
Despite the quirky name, the road race has been in existence since 2013, always referred to as “The Last Annual.” This wasn’t the first time that Clemens took part in the challenge, first competing in 2018.
“I’m always trying to test my limits and see what I’m capable of doing,” Clemens said “I’ve done marathons, I’ve done triathlons and I’ve done multi-distances and things like that, I was like ‘I’ve got to keep challenging myself.’”
Last year, Clemens finished the race with an overall time of six days, 15 hours and 53 minutes. This year, the THS coach improved on that time, completing his run early in the morning on July 17, finishing the roughly 311-mile course in five days, 23 hours and 47 minutes.
“I don’t think I maxed out,” Clemens said. “With what I had, I was extremely happy with going under six days. Especially since last year I went six and a half days.”
A total of 120 runners competed in the Vol State Road Race, as race officials capped off the number of entrants. According to Clemens, participants were from all over the globe, coming to Tennessee to take part in the ultra-marathon.
Last year, Clemens ran the race with a team helping him out with logistics, known as the “crewed” division. This year, he competed “uncrewed,” meaning he was totally self-sufficient during this year’s run.
Training for this year’s 500K began with the turn of the new year. Every week, starting in January, he would run an average of 100 miles. The first of his training goals was getting his body used to staying on his feet for so long. The second milestone was what he called “compartmentalizing and troubleshooting.”
“You’re going to run into problems on the course,” Clemens said. “You’re going to run out of fluids, you’re going to run out of something to eat and your feet are going to end up being trashed. It’s basically troubleshooting your way through situations like that.”
He also noted that during his training, in order to get his body acclimated to being a bit dehydrated, he would go on long distance runs with little water. Clemens knew that during the 500K, there would be times that he would be left without water and forced to press on.
During this year’s run, the field was helped a little by the weather. In 2018, Clemens said the heat index reached 115 degrees during the first three days of the 500K. This year, he said it reached 100 degrees, mixed with some rain and some cooler weather. With the weather comparatively cooperating, and knowing that he had completed last year’s course, Clemens knew that he could finish the course.
“That [heat index and temperature] affects your core body temperature trying to get through that. Also, just the fact that I covered that distance, I knew that my body could handle it,” Clemens said.
Having that one year’s experience also helped him know the course a lot better this year. During the 500K, racers are left to their own devices and are required to check in every 12 hours. However, they are also required to follow the course directions, which include running through small towns.
“It’s a vacation without a car,” Clemens said. “It basically gives you a chance to see small towns that have are forgotten in today’s age. With everything going interstate, it gives you the opportunity to run by every city hall and courthouse along the route … This year, with knowing the course, it really helped out.”
With quite a bit of the run taking place in the backroads of Tennessee, there were portions of the course where the roads that there were no shoulders. It was those moments when Clemens said the course was at its most difficult.
“There are roads that just had that narrow white line and rumble strips. So, if you’re going against traffic, you’ve got a lot of cars and trucks headed your way," he said. "As you know, they could be distracted these days. So there are times when they could be coming toward you and you have to get off the road.”
During the run, there is no stopping point for competitors. Racers are free to go as long as they can and stop when they need to before continuing onward. Clemens said he spent three nights in a hotel and another three nights running straight through.
“That was a challenge in itself because you’re working on sleep deprivation and just trying to remember your turn sheets and where you needed to go,” he said.
Heading into this year’s run, Clemens said his goal was to average 61 miles per day, adjusting on a day-to-day basis. During the first day, he ran 75 miles; he completed 38 miles the next day. In total, Clemens said he averaged 54 miles every 24 hours.
After finishing this year’s race, Clemens said he’s already eyeing competing again next year. As the new school year approaches with cross-country season about to get underway, Clemens said he hopes that he can be an inspiration to his athletes and students. Heading into this fall, he wanted to share one quote with his upcoming runners and those students in his classroom:
“We are subject to the limits we put on ourselves, and worse, the limits we allow others to put on us,” he said.