Bourbon Chase Pt. 1: Making Our Mark

Bardstown, KY: October, 2018

(Part two, in which we run at midnight in the rain and then sleep on a gym floor, is here)

I crested the last hill onto the main drive into the distillery after running seven miles along a thin thread of asphalt through rolling horse farms, separated from me by hedgerows and split-rail fences, and I was nearly finished with my final section of the Bourbon Chase.  This final section began near a doughnut shop in downtown Versailles, which they pronounce Ver-sales but I can never remember to. The road was straight on a map but not in profile, where it perpetually wobbled, the land folding like a crumpled up tablecloth.  The towering oaks, situated uniformly like those on a savanna, mostly retained a Kelly green.  It was Mid-October, but it looked like September and felt like November, the first cold front of the season a catalyst for the trees to catch up after half an autumn of verdant lollygagging.  As I entered the grounds of Woodford Reserve, a race official said into his radio that I was the first runner to arrive.

First Runner? Even with our head start and the way we organized our faster runners in the lead van, there was still no way we were the first to arrive, twenty-some hours into the race, but it was so.  I descended into the distillery, a series of rectangular castles connected by footpaths and parallel barrel-moving rails that looked like a kiddie roller coaster track. As I crossed into the exchange zone, Alonso handed me a water and Eddie took off with the bracelet.  All that was left to do was drink bourbon and coffee, order unspecified, and fall into an unbroken slumber. After twelve runners, two vans, no sleep, thirty-six routes, and two hundred miles, we were at last nearing the end of the Bourbon Chase.

As with most Ragnar relays, the Bourbon Chase features teams of twelve, which could more accurately be described as two teams of six split into a duo of vans considering the interaction between the regiments is minimal.  Everyone runs three times, adding up to about 200 miles and a day and a half winding through Bourbon Country with absolutely no drinking until afterward according to the official rules. My half-squad met at my friend Connor’s house to pick up the van, a white package carrier of the kind that would give you unease on a dark evening except with windows, and quickly realized we had brought too much and ditched a few tents and one of the coolers.

Rail-thin Connor, biceps of a snowman but tree trunks for legs, was probably our fastest runner with myself as the second.  Joining us was our good friend Alonso, the third member of our training crew and the last to arrive in keeping with character, and Anna and Chelsea, both grad students, one who I knew prior to the race and one I did not.  Everyone in our van was in their twenties either spiritually (Alonso) or in age (the rest of us) except our final runner, Eddie, and our driver Pam.  We tried giving her the moniker “van mom” as she was responsible for herding us to where we needed to be and navigating on no sleep but she wasn’t having it.

“None of this ‘van mom’ business” she said “but by the end you’ll be calling me van bitch.” 

And so the nickname was born – Pam was now ‘van bitch’ or, more often, ‘V.B.’

“Does that make me ‘V.D.’? Eddie asked. “As in van dad? Because I think I prefer van dad.”

Alonso was responsible for booking the hotel outside of Louisville the night before the race.  That won’t happen again.  From the exterior we knew this was going to be an adventure when Pam pulled the van into the dimly lit parking lot next to its twin, no doubt another Bourbon Chase team regretting their decision.  Alonso and I walked into the lobby, which wasn’t as much a lobby as it was a trailer attached to the rest of the inn.  The room was about ten feet by twenty, smelled like mildew, and was completely empty save for a desk and some flooding damage.  While Alonso checked in a group of young women demurred by the door but then one decided to enter. 

“You’re in the other Bourbon Chase van, right?” she said in a whisper.  I told her we were. 

“Are you actually staying here?” 

I looked around at the makeshift lobby, the stained carpet appearing clean only when compared to the shirt on the proprietor.  Alonso turned around smiling with three keys, apparently not noticing the condition of the place.

“I guess so.”

They were from Wisconsin and had just driven all day, and really didn’t want to have to find another hotel.  The rest of their group walked in and we chatted until I saw Pam behind them, outside raising her arms up in impatience.

“We were making sure you were staying before we did” said one of the Wisconsin crew. 

“Is there a breakfast in the morning?” Alonso asked the clerk.  I looked at him as if to ask where exactly he thinks they would put a breakfast but the man behind the desk answered as if it was a normal question.  “No breakfast, but we have a coffee bar!”

The girls had one room, Eddie and Alonso in a second one, Connor and I at the end.  The exterior door wasn’t unlocked as I pushed it open, and we were greeted with an intensified version of the lobby’s miasma.  We propped the door open to try and air it out, which was made easy by the fact that the door wouldn’t latch.  It was a chilly night, but the autumn air did nothing to clear out the odor, so we propped a chair in front of the door and gave up.  If the room was going to smell like death, we might as well be comfortable.  A hooded figure skulked around a dirt pile just past the parking lot, looking at our window occasionally until I drew the curtains.

The beds were raised up with plywood that had also appeared to be flood damaged, and Connor took the one nearest to the door.  I didn’t really unpack, just threw my stuff on a table and pretended the moldy carpet was lava.  I attempted to wash up but our shower featured an overturned desk chair and a hairy washcloth so I cleaned my face in the sink.  The girls later told us that, while theirs was clear of furniture, the water was as icy as the October night.  In order to really exhibit the uncleanliness, a rust-colored stain of mystery was added to the right side of my bedsheets.  I refused to look on the other side for fear of spotting its twin, and it was too late to find another hotel, so I remained on the left, topside and exposed, lying to myself that if I didn’t see what was inevitably below, then it might not be there – Schrödinger’s Fleabag.  I was too tired for this and was heading into a thirty-hour relay, so I rested my head gingerly on the cleanest looking pillow and fell into a shallow sleep.

We woke late in the morning, and I was pleased to see I hadn’t tossed the sheets aside.  The old man at the front desk chased us out yelling “Don’t go! I’m almost done making coffee!”  However, there was an unspoken accord that we would stop at Starbucks.  Nobody mentioned the hotel until a few sips of coffee had allowed us to rejoin the sentient. 

“Hey Alonso?” Anna asked, “Was your bed made of plywood, or just ours?” 

Alonso quaffed his dark roast and responded in his typically understated way.  “That hotel was… disappointing.”

An hour before the start, we arrived to a foggy autumn morning at Jim Beam.  The first light of day sandwiched itself between the canopied Kentucky hills and the retreating clouds, reflecting off the corrugated siding on the main barn, the air heavy with the fog-trapped sweet scent of distillation.  Our team had an early start, handicapped by a slower than average projected pace (Ragnar likes to have each team finish at roughly the same time the following day, so the fastest teams sometimes waited until Friday evening to begin.) Without realizing this, we frontloaded all of our fastest runners into van one, which inevitably led to us being out ahead of the other generously handicapped teams for most of the race. 

As the dawn lifted, Alonso took his place underneath an orange blow-up arch behind the distillery and the race began.  The rest of us made our way to the van, realizing that getting to the next checkpoint as early as possible and then waiting there made more sense than lagging behind.  Alonso finished his run and met Connor at the first exchange, slapping his wrist with the bracelet that acted as our relay baton.  Backing out, Pam reversed slowly, the first time she had to maneuver the van through something other than a parking lot and Anna got out to make sure the rear left tire didn’t have a date with the roadside ditch.  While this obstacle was avoided successfully, the same could not be said about the mailbox on the other side.  Pam stopped abruptly and said some choice words.  Blocking both lanes, she got out and inspected the impact, and determining there was no harm done, we pulled the rest of the way onto the road and went south. 

We waited for Connor in a gravel lot near a cluster of tobacco barns, multi-tiered curing sheds in massive rows, each several hundred feet wide with whitewashed sides and shapes like elongated Mayan pyramids.  Pam parked the van among these giants and we watched runners pass by.  Other vans joined us, indistinguishable from ours except for elaborate and mostly inappropriate drawings and writing on the windows.  A group pulled in beside us with a large speaker set strapped to the hood, playing a banjo riff that became our entertainment while Connor ran seven miles.  One passenger got out and slapped our van’s door, and Alonso rolled down a window.

“What’s up?”

“You’ve been tagged!” the banjo man said.  He explained that Ragnar teams often make magnets with their team name and logo and disseminate them onto as many vans as they could.  By the end, we would have at least two dozen.  This one said Special Deliverance and had a cartoon of a string playing hillbilly.  We also took note of the other teams’ van art, remembering to get creative at our next free moment.

Anna ran third and went through Bardstown, a venerable looking place that reminded me of what small rural towns were purported to be by books and shows but barely existed in practice.  Prim and functioning, the town circle enclosed the courthouse and was ringed by shops and eateries, a commercial strip that extended in four directions along the main arteries like radiant spokes.  Many buildings were ancient compared to other European-made structures west of the Appalachians – The Old Talbot Tavern, erected pre-Yorktown, still had its original maroon doors and sandy brick façade.  It is still a restaurant and inn, built closer in time to the end of the Renaissance than to that of the Hyundai parked in front of it.  I’m sure Bardstown’s proximity to the Bourbon Trail is the reason for its continued liveliness, but it was still pleasant to see a town of this size open for business.  I returned the following year for a hot brown and an old-fashioned at the Old Talbot Tavern and made sure to walk around without rushing to grab a timing bracelet.

Heaven Hill distillery encouraged runners to contravene the in-race teetotalism, and made available samples of a few of their bourbons underneath a white tent near the back of the parking lot. 

“Just don’t take the cups near the relay exchange and they’ll look the other way” the attendant said of the race officials. 

Alonso, Connor, and I tried a few of the spirits in clear plastic thimbles, enough to taste but not close to the amount needed to impair even the most diminutive of dehydrated runners.  Heaven Hill may not be a household name like some of the others on the trail, but they produce several popular brands like Evan Williams and Elijah Craig.  It was enjoyable to get out of the van and stretch in the warming afternoon sun with friends and a tiny beverage.  Anna finished quickly – her section short but incredibly steep, nicknamed Stairway to Heaven Hill – and handed off to Chelsea before doubling up some refreshing samples of Kentucky’s Gatorade.  We lingered here for a bit, taking a quick amble through the gift shop before it was my turn to run.

 My section, the fifth of the day, was a four and a half mile vertical ‘V’, beginning on a ridge, dropping down to a forested valley before a brutal uphill.   Chelsea slapped the bracelet on the wrist opposite my watch and I took off into the trees.  When we signed up, each runner had to estimate their pace during their three legs of running for Ragnar to accurately stagger starting times – If you stray too far from your estimate you risk time penalties or worse.  I had written in seven minutes per mile, a comfortable pace at this distance, slow enough to account for the hills and not to destroy the fun parts. 

My entire first mile was downhill and shaded before the forest tapered and I was left with a view of an undulating valley, shoulder-high with corn and lined by ash trees.  The road was two-lane in name only, and as runner vans passed me, I realized that if a car were to come from the opposite direction, two of its tires would have to join me in the field.  At the valley’s trough, my own van passed and Pam laid on the horn while the others cheered.  I tried to keep with them for a moment, as nobody was driving quickly on this charcoal gray ribbon of a road, but when the terrain reached the winding ascent the van chugged upslope at a pace I could not match – the last I saw was Alonso’s waving hand as they rounded a bend near another patch of trees.  Soon a double yellow line appeared, easing my worries slightly about the snaky road mixed with drivers unaccustomed to giant vans, though the shoulder was still far from adequate.  Most vans that passed cheered for me as I lurched up the hill, displaying the convivial atmosphere among Ragnar runners.  I overtook quite a few others on this stretch, owing more to our generous start time than to my hill training, though I pretended to credit the latter. 

I finished my section and handed off to Eddie in front of an old general store, one of only two buildings I had seen on my entire run.  Weathered white wood siding and an iron awning sat above a hunched deck near the entrance and several mid-century Pepsi advertisements sat near the door.  Trade these pieces of collectable Americana for Victoria Bitter window signs and the fluffy emerald magnolias for eucalyptus and this could have been rural Australia in the middle of the bluegrass.  Either the store didn’t have electricity, or the day was sunny enough to deem it unnecessary, because no lights were on and the interior was dim and dusty like an unloved attic.  Items were strewn about the one room operation: old tools, farm equipment, expired dry goods.  Alonso and I said hello to the motionless woman behind a counter but she remained that way, her body still but her eyes following us around the room like a Scooby-Doo painting.  The place was fascinating, but it made me sneeze and we had to go to the next checkpoint so our stay was brief.  With hundreds of vans of seven passing through, this far flung mishmash market likely gets more perusing on a mid-October Friday than any other day of the year, but whether that translates to actual sales, I cannot say.

Makers Mark was a beautiful bedlam.  The iconic distillery was the check-in zone for each team’s second van, and one of only five places on the entire trail that every participant would be at once.  A crowd formed at the checkpoint where Eddie would be handing off the bracelet to the first of our van twoers and the atmosphere was like the finish line of a marathon: screams, bullhorns, drunks.  I could hardly see over the crowd that formed between the grassy makeshift carpark and the runner’s course. 

At some point Eddie was back among us, van two was off and running, and we had plenty of time to explore.  The main distillery building-gift shop was massive, like an antebellum home with a four story turret growing out of its roof.  Scarlet shutters hung on the windows, colored as if they were dipped in the company’s trademark wax.  Out of the top of the tower was an industrial sized vat and a bunch of other industrial gizmos that smoked and smelled of sweet corn.

The grounds were the loveliest of any stopover thus far, impeccably designed to look like the Kentucky of postcards: limestone walls along brick trails leading from one gray barn to the next, overhung by old oaks and black maples, light green with the near-imperceptible first tinge of early fall, the terrain so precise that an exclusive golf course would look haphazard by contrast.  My team and I crossed a wooden bridge to a sampling stand, making it even more obvious after Heaven Hill that the no drinking rule was legal cover and not something strictly enforced.  I requested a glass of Makers 47 on the rocks and sat down with Alonso near a stack of barrels, partially shaded.  The tree covered hills of the bluegrass rolled in the distance as runners passed on a dirt trail cross-creek from our sipping perch.  The ice chilled and the glass sweat in the October sun as wispy cotton ball clouds began to float in, the kind of weather where there was no weather.

In the grassy lot of Makers Mark we took the downtime to decorate the van, searching those of our neighbors for inspiration.  Following trend, we wrote the names of each of our runners along with three check boxes, the first set filled as we had all completed our initial run.   

“What are kills?” Eddie asked a young guy wearing the same Jim Beam bandana that we were, received free from the first distillery on the tour.

“It’s when you pass somebody on the course” he responded.  “A Ragnar thing.  You want to get as many kills as you can and not let anybody get one on you.”

On the side of this guy’s van, beyond their names, each runner had hash marks denoting their kills, by nickname I figured, as Snake had the most.  Junior and Dr. Pain had some catching up to do.  Since we hadn’t been counting runners we passed, there was no way of marking this down, though given our early starting spot I had passed at least a half dozen on my first run alone.  Instead we wrote Pam’s name, followed by ‘Mailbox Kills:’ and a single hash mark.  Van adequately defaced, we piled in and drove toward Danville.

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