Tuna Run 200 Race Recap: 2017
On Saturday night as we drove to the next big exchange point after what was supposed to be a quick bite at Wendy's I sat in the back seat of the van with my legs kicked up and my Richmond half marathon blanket draped over my sore legs and watched brown-gold fields chase the sunset. Some fields were cotton - half-harvested or brow-beaten with white balls - the closest to snow that ever settles on those furrowed fields. Some fields contained soybeans - either thin from recent harvest or heavy with dry or moldy bean shells for crop rotation, already longing to burrow and return to the soil and elude the dull grey winter that in this Indian summer seemed impossibly far away. But the crops knew that winter is coming. Brown naked stalks of tobacco stood sentinel in some fields, though there were much fewer fields than there were twenty years ago or even ten years ago. As we drove east I looked behind us at the shrinking fields and watched the sky purple into twilight, a soft nostalgic smile curling at my lip corners.
It's strange running through your home countryside, especially with strangers as they remark curiously on the Piggly Wiggly with its faded and peeling sign, or the grand old houses either dilapidated and sagging on their stout Greek revival columns or perfectly preserved as a worshipped specimen of the past, of blood and heritage and clandestine things that fill worms with anger and pride. When I see forsaken main streets lined with brick storefronts now shuttered and cracked others see something quaint. Old schools with boiler columns. Baptist churches indistinguishable from one another sporting brick fellowship halls and whitewashed steeples. Grey sway-backed nags looking dolefully from behind thin wire fences. Trailer homes with chickens in the front yard or maybe rusted farm equipment. Hound dogs that bark and bay behind chain-linked fence.
And through all this I ran. I ran and ran through and from and out of my homeland, the place that makes me cry and smile, the place that smolders in my heart as I watch the crops burn under a furnace-hot autumn.
My first leg loomed hot and bright. I left Blackman's Grove Baptist Church in Benson, NC a little before 2pm and I worked my way 4.94 miles to the next exchange point, fighting my way through thick heat and around blind curves where tractors, reapers, and cotton pickers ambled along - behemoths with sharp steel rollers and growling engines. The heavy equipment took up a lane and a half of traffic and I stepped off the road to let them pass while I panted and wiped sweat from my eyes. Benson is hillier than you might think with long slow inclines along winding highways that used to be wagon trails or cowpaths. A few brown dairy cows with flaccid udders watched my slow progress up and around the countryside.
Tuna Run this year - or at least the course and the actual race - was significantly different than last year. Last year there was major flooding after Hurricane Matthew that washed out roads so some legs were cancelled and resulted in a race restart at Bentonville Battlefield. This year we started at Lake Benson just outside Raleigh at 5:30am and progressed steadily across the state so that our few hours of relaxation seemed to fly by. There was no time to pull out a tarp and play Cards Against Humanity; mostly we talked - about running, about food, about running food, about race conditions, and about the other vans and their decorations at the transition zones.
Our team name was "O Van, Where Art Thou?" and we drew outlines of tunas with chalk paint from stencils and wrote our team name and van members' names in block letters with squares to check off after each leg. Brian drew some tacos and beer next to some tuna - an homage to the food waiting for us at the finish line - and I drew a silhouette of the three figures from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" movie poster: George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson running through a field in their prison outfits fleeing the chain gang. When the van rolled past empty fields those silhouettes were framed perfectly and seemed to spring to life and run and jump through the crops towards us.
I had hoped to hang my hammock at the Bentonville Battlefield but 30 minutes hardly seemed like enough time for that so I lay on the cool grass and read a few pages of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! It was strange yet satisfying to read a Civil War novel at a Civil War battlefield, just like how I'd read Angels and Demons on location in Rome - sitting on the steps of Santa Maria di Popolo or Piazza Navona with each appropriate scene change. But it's one thing to read a book on location at a church in a foreign country and another thing to read a book on location in a Civil War battlefield. At the very least the skeletons in the church crypts are not yours and cannot haunt you.
I shuddered and closed the book and cheered Kristen as she received the baton at the battlefield exchange zone, glad to get away from that field of cannons and lead bullets and long-dead boys in grey and blue coats.
Once my van finished its first leg that hot afternoon we ventured to Mt. Olive for a quick bite before pulling out hammocks, tarps, and sleeping bags to nap at the next big exchange point at a local elementary school. I didn't think I would sleep well, but with my feet up and toasty in my sleeping bag under a dark sky I drowsed for hours until cheers at the road stirred me to the first few runners coming to the transition zone. These runners had started later than us - some of them much later - running paces that covered the hundred miles in hours fewer than we had, but even so we were keeping a respectable pace with teammates ranging from 8:00 pace to 10:30 pace. I had managed to run 10:07 pace in the mid-afternoon heat, and as we approached midnight and the temperature dropped I felt that thrill of excitement that I only feel when I'm running in October under a night sky.
My teammate David had the first hand-off in my van at the elementary school and we drove ahead to Bethel Baptist where volunteers offered hot chocolate and clean restrooms in their fellowship hall. And then, a little while after midnight, I took the baton and I ran.
Four miles in the darkness. The highways were empty except for white passenger vans filled with cheering runners, some sporting strings of Christmas lights. It was a new moon that night so anything outside the halo of my headlamp disappeared into black. The cotton fields on either side of the country highway were there but unseen, the hound dogs and coyotes in the distance were heard but unseen, and the billions of stars that can only be seen in dark sky country twinkled in and out of sight as I glanced occasionally skywards looking for meteorites, always chasing that white ribbon in the road that continued straight out of my sight, beckoning me on to the next beautiful mile.
Fellowship halls. Port-a-potties. Sour-smelling vans and rancid sweat-soaked running clothes. Hot pavement that blisters your toes. Peanut butter in jars. Inside jokes with people you've never met before. It's the sort of experience that is incredible and unbelievable. One of my vanmates kept exclaiming, "I just can't believe this! I can't believe I'm doing this! I can't believe people do this!" and yet every year a couple hundred teams run from Raleigh to the beach. We cheered each other on, calling encouragement to our runners and other runners through the night as we joked and chased those miles eastward. At dawn we handed off the baton to the other van again and we crashed for a few hours at our rented beach house before resuming our last legs.
Approaching Swansboro we could smell the beach - brackish and marshy through the pine savannah of Croatan National Forest - as teammate after teammate passed the baton. I had the bridge run: 4.94 miles over Highway 58 onto Emerald Isle. The traffic roared on the busy highway and I dodged cars through intersections as I dashed towards the bridge, my feet heavy as cement in my shoes and the sun hot in a bright cloudless sky. It wasn't until I was on the bridge that I remembered I am afraid of heights, and so I stopped only to snap one selfie and shuffled onwards over the channel and onto the island.
Island life. Though we could see the beach the race didn't stop: we had another 18.69 miles to run along the island to the boardwalk on Atlantic Beach where finally - finally - there was seared tuna and tacos and beer and the whole ocean before us into which we could dip our toes. I took off my shoes and walked into the ocean. The cold water was a jolt to my hot and tired feet, and I stared off at the horizon where fishing boats bobbed and a Marine unit blew up mist under its helicopter as it ran a training session, and I wondered, "What if we kept going? What if we just kept going eastward?" But the slab of red marbled tuna called to me and I turned back and joined the party.
I suppose you have to be a certain kind of crazy to want to spend days in a van with people you know well or don't know at all, and to run at odd hours through the countryside just for a bit of tuna and tacos. I suppose you have to be a certain kind of crazy to perform minor surgery on blistered feet, to laugh with other runners with battered legs, to commiserate with a team who had a member never show up at the start line and ruined their line-up, to offer a ride to a woman who shook with incredulity that her van left her behind at a transition point. It's a certain kind of crazy to run two hundred miles to the beach, to observe how the land flattens to sandy fields and keep going, keep going, and chase the rising sun. It's a certain kind of crazy that I'm glad to do every year.