It was awesome. It was fun. It was miserable fun. It was the hardest thing I have ever done.
That’s how two local men — Jeff Salyer and Duane Goff — described their experiences after running approximately 314 miles in just over eight days across the state of Tennessee. They had recently completed the Last Annual Vol State 500K Road Race, which was in its 15th year.
The two are a part of a group of local residents who run most every day around Cleveland. They are members of the Ocoee Track and Trail group, and their smaller group is named the Half Warriors.
How did they get involved in this adventure?
“Matt Ryerson (a member of the Half Warriors) told me to read a book called 'Bench of Despair,' and it’s about this guy from Cookeville who has run it several times and he wrote about his experiences, and I was hooked after reading the book,” said Salyer, who is director of media services at Lee University. “I knew it was going to be really hard, but signed up about three years ago and got on the wait list.
“But by the time we got the call we had not had enough time to train, so we bailed out. We actually bailed out twice,” Salyer said. “This last year, Matt and I were really serious about it, so we called Jared Wielfaert here at Lee, who started the race with us, and Duane, and the four of us signed up last August to run the race.”
The challenge begins in Dorena Landing, Missouri, and travels those 314 miles to Castle Rock, Georgia, with the major portion being through Tennessee. About 350 people have completed the race, some multiple times.
This year, 66 people started the challenge; 50 people finished.
Goff, owner of Voiceopia Communications in Cleveland, began running about seven years ago. Salyer started about two years later. The two attended Lee College together, graduating one year apart, but never ran as students.
Both have run some marathons. Goff was a member of the Run Now Relay group which ran from Cleveland to Boston a few years ago, and has competed in a triathlon. Though they trained for the Vol State by running from county line to county line, east to west and north to south, earlier this year, they had never faced such an enormous task.
“We didn’t know what to expect, but knew we wanted to do it,” Goff said.
Ryerson and Wielfaert were agreeable, but Ryerson experienced an injury that did not affect his running, but would not allow this type of challenge. Ryerson began with the duo the first day, but he had to drop out due to excessive blistering on his feet. That first day included running — and walking at times — for 56 miles.
“Fifty-six miles the first day,” Salyer said. “Our feet paid for it.”
“And we ran 14 to 16 hours a day, but we didn’t know how much our feet would degrade because of that,” Goff added.
The challenge included a route on all paved roads (except for the final few miles) through West Tennessee, then cut a path east toward their final destination. Towns they traveled through included Dresden, Livingston, Columbia, Shelbyville and Pelham. They had to run up and down Monteagle Mountain and eventually Sand Mountain near the finish.
The challenge was made even tougher because of the time of the year. The Vol State 500K is always run the second Thursday of July. Salyer and Goff completed the challenge in eight days, 11 hours and 49 minutes.
“Vol State is during one of the hottest weeks of the year,” Salyer recollected. “The heat index one day we ran was 118 and in most of the days it was in the hundreds. And the pavement was hotter than that.”
The last mile and a half was through a soybean field, but the rest of the race was on pavement — all highway, but no interstates.
Salyer had mapped out the route they would take, pinpointing places to stop for food or lodging when available. Many times, stops were made just to grab a few hours of sleep, in places like driveways, parking lots or gas station lots.
Food was also a concern during the trip, as the two were among those runners who participated “self-sufficiently.” They had backpacks in which they were able to store necessities, especially pairs of socks, but had to fend for other needs as well as they could.
“We were basically self-sufficient,” Salyer said. “There were some (runners) who had some following them with extra food, extra shoes, things like that. Then there were those like us, unaided, where you only had what was in your pack, or what the kindness of strangers gave you. By the end, those packs were so heavy that 14 miles from the finish, we stopped and unpacked our packs.”
“We had some motels, very low end motels, a couple of nights,” Goff added. “Then some nights we would be in a driveway, a gravel lot or a parking lot in a gas station, trying to just sleep for an hour so we could keep moving. The last day we were up 28 straight hours trying to get to the finish on Friday before sunset.”
In a town called Culleoka, the two were able to sign what is called “The Bench of Despair.” This signifies that runners have made it halfway through the ordeal.
“This is actually a little bit farther than the halfway mark, but it what they call the halfway mark, and if you make it there, and sign the bench, then there is about a 95 percent chance of completing the run,” Salyer said.
Goff said that once they got to that point, “there was a big mental shift … we could do this. Then when we got to 214 miles, we were counting down from 100 miles, and we knew we could do it.”
Yet, getting to that feeling of impending accomplishment, there were difficult times.
“These small towns, everything after 9 or 10 o’clock shut down, so food was a problem,” Goff remembered. “We ate so much gas station food. This was the first time I had eaten a chicken salad sandwich or an egg salad sandwich from a gas station. We lived on gas station food.”
They do remember a few “great breakfasts” that they had, one at a very timely interval in the challenge.
“One day, a major storm came in, and we saw it on the radar,” said Salyer. “We were going into the Duck River Valley, so we ran to a hotel, because we were very hungry and wanted to avoid the storm. But with it being on a Sunday, they were not serving breakfast. They suggested Big Food, which had a buffet. We went one block off the route, and as soon as we got under the awning at Big Food, the rain just comes.”
It ended up being much more than rain.
“As we were coming into town, there were literally umbrellas from tables flying down the road,” Goff said. “While we didn’t really want to go even a block off the route, the storm was just so bad we had to find shelter of some kind.”
They also experienced how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting businesses across the state.
“A lot of plans were affected by the virus,” Goff said. “One, a 24-hour Wal-Mart we had planned to stop at which had closed early due to the virus. And one day I waited 20 minutes in a Burger King drive through in 100-degree heat. We couldn’t go inside.”
But while there were snags along the way, the run across the state was very enjoyable for the pair.
“We went through a lot of cool cities and rural towns, a lot of county seats, and when you went through a county seat, your route included going in front or back or around the county courthouse,” Salyer explained. “I also enjoyed the landscapes of Tennessee, and the sunrises and sunsets every day, the farms, a little fog we saw. While from 2 to 4 in the morning were tough, as the sun started coming up, it sort of energized you and made you smile.”
“I was so impressed with the kindness of everyone across the state,” Goff said. “They were all so generous and wanted to help. Many had followed the event for years, and wanted to help. There were so many who wanted to help us accomplish our mission and who we will never really ever know or see again, and will never get thanked for it. That touched me.”
Among those was what the two called “Road Angels.” These were people who set up stations where they would have coolers out with cold water, tents and areas they could rest for a while.
Salyer said that while there were many along the route who were familiar with Vol State, many people "wanted to know what we were doing and asked questions. They thought we were crazy, but then would say, 'How can we help you?'"
“We had people buying our snacks and water at gas stations, and there was a man called ‘The Peach Man’ who would come by and give us frozen peaches,” Goff said. “We had a Taco Bell that let us in after they closed … We were 30 miles away from anything else. They made us a meal and didn’t even charge us for it. They just wished us good luck the rest of the way.”
The two men both admitted they thought about quitting during the first portion of the challenge.
“We stopped at a fire station in Gleason and slept there. Thought about quitting, especially that first day, but after a rest in Dresden, I got that second wind and continued on,” Salyer said.
Through the challenge, many did drop out.
“Normally there are about 120 participants; this year there was only around 60. And about 25 percent dropped out before it was over,” Salyer said. He noted that they had a van that could be called for those who had to drop out that they called “The Meat Wagon.”
Even with the beautiful landscapes they viewed, the camaraderie of the other participants, and the generosity of many across the state to them, one might ask why the two would put themselves through this grueling adventure.
“I did it because I wanted to prove to myself and to my children that you can do hard things, things where you don’t have guaranteed success, and you persevere until you complete them,” Salyer said. “I hope this inspired them, and I have been told that we inspired other people.
“Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” he added.
Goff agreed, saying it “was the adventure of a lifetime — one of those top 10 things you do in your life.”
As with Salyer, Goff also inspired his children, one of which ran one-tenth of the 314 miles during the challenge here at home to honor her father.
“My 15-year-old daughter decided to challenge herself, so she ran 31.4 miles,” he said.
Will Salyer and Goff become perennial Vol State 500K participants? The two gave an emphatic NO, with a smile.
“It was the hardest thing I have ever done physically, mentally and emotionally,” Goff said. “Luckily, Jeff and I were never really in a bad spot at the same time, so we were able to motivate each other.”
Salyer can not only say he completed the run, but he also joked that he beat Goff to the finish line.
“They won’t let you tie, so I crossed 20 seconds before Duane,” Salyer said with a grin.
They wanted to thank everyone who sent encouraging texts along their run, and especially jokingly wanted to thank their wives who helped wash their pungent running clothes after they came back to Cleveland. They both said their shoes were discarded after the challenge.
“Yeah, we didn’t smell too good when we got back,” Salyer said. “But we did it!”