Lexington, KY: October, 2018
“I have a problem” Alonso said as we packed the van by flashlight, breathing out misty rings like a smoker’s exhale. The temperature had dropped with the rain and the early morning was biting cold but at least dry. “I think my ankle is broken.”
“You’re walking on it, right?” Eddie asked. “What happened?”
“It started to hurt after my last run. I thought it would go away but I woke up and it was worse.”
His left ankle was so swollen he had a hard time pulling on his running shoes. We started discussing who would take Alonso’s first run, which was going to begin in a little under an hour. Eddie and I, the two last runners in our van were the likeliest candidates.
“Whoa guys, I’m still going to run!” Alonso interrupted “I’m just telling you I’ll be kinda slow is all.”
“Seriously?” someone said. His leg from the knee down was a uniform width, like a totem pole in a shoe.
“I can run for you, it’s only like four extra miles” I said, “or Eddie. He doesn’t run for hours.”
Eddie had probably just begun to dry off from his midnight squall scamper, and was not entirely thrilled by my inclusion of him. Plus, Connor and I were the only ones who could match Alonso’s projected mile splits but Connor was running second. If Alonso couldn’t go, it would be me.
“I’m good.” Alonso said, and the matter was settled.
The checkpoint where we would meet our other half was at Wild Turkey distillery, and like the other van swaps, was twice as crowded. The distillery was in the steep Kentucky River Valley and the asphalt lots were so full that Pam had to drive down into a sloped field of hay in order to park. The previous night’s rain made it stick to the tires and the mud-hay stew smelled like a cow pasture. We stayed in the van and waited for our time to come.
Three forty-five AM in a hay field is an odd place to find yourself. Hordes of people exited their vans and walked mechanically toward the woods, not looking around, not talking, stomping through the stinking downhill mud, arms out for balance.
“It looks like they’re being called to the woods” Chelsea said, and I agreed the scene bore a resemblance to a B-movie zombie gathering. Once out of the range of headlights they all disappeared. Honestly, we weren’t even sure in which direction the checkpoint was, we just got out and started following the herd – If we were being called to some gathering in the forest, we just answered the phone. The masses led us to the checkpoint, which I had assumed was up near the distillery, but was actually on a gravel embankment by the river. We slipped getting down to it and I figured that would be the end of the day for Alonso’s ankle, but he limped to the start and waited for the other van’s last runner.
Alonso’s third run was almost entirely uphill, but fortunately the van would drive along the same road as the runners, so if he was lying in a ditch somewhere we could scoop him up, put his bib on someone else, and drop him off at a Frankfort clinic with a glass of Bourbon. If this was one of the woods legs he would be on his own. We waited at the checkpoint a bit to give him a head start and then drove up the hill, eyes on the left shoulder looking for a hobbling safety vest, but when we reached the crest there was still no Alonso. Looking backward down the hill, the runners’ headlights grouped together and moved in tandem, like dozens of blinking fireflies on a July night.
“Well, we lost Alonso for the second time” Pam said as we turned into the next checkpoint.
“I could barely do that hill on two good legs.” Eddie said. “He probably went back to Wild Turkey. He’s gonna be mad when he finds out it’s closed!”
We decided to drop Connor off to get the bracelet from Alonso in case we missed him and take the van back down to the distillery. This plan was interrupted by someone rapping on the glass of the passenger window.
“Where were you all?” Alonso asked, breathless but beaming. He had finished nearly five minutes before and was circling the parking lot looking for Connor, who was now circling the parking lot looking for him. He made his way back to us and, upon seeing Alonso, jogged over and took the bracelet.
“I ran sub sevens on a bad ankle for this?” Alonso teased. “I’m counting you as my twentieth kill!”
Alonso had run the fastest split out of all thirty-six for our team. I asked him how he went so quickly, up the hill, when he could hardly walk twenty minutes earlier.
“Not sure. It was just, you know, better when I was running.”
Now down to a pedestrian pace, he was back to strongly favoring his right leg and having a hard time lifting himself into the van. He didn’t even take time to put gel in his hair before flopping down and elevating his foot on the back of Chelsea’s chair.
We arrived early for the end of Connor’s longest run, and the van sat in the dark in city park with a torn up baseball diamond. The extra time was fortuitous because I needed to use the restroom, long form, for the first time during the race. I entered a stall behind home plate and quickly realized I was not the first to have this idea, being greeted by a pyramid of previous work, piled so high above sea level that I couldn’t sit flush without contact. It really was a remarkable sight. This was not a solo project either but a collective of many that had reached its natural limit. I decided not to add my contribution and looked elsewhere, and luckily Eddie had found another set of stalls further away from the checkpoint. Business attended to, I emerged, and Connor was lying on the ground, Pam leaning over him with a bottle of water. He was fine, just needed a second he said. Such was running seven miles at five in the morning after two restless nights.
The sun rose gradually throughout Anna and Chelsea’s runs and by the time Chelsea handed me the bracelet for the final time, it was fully dawn and my blinking vest was rendered useless. The rest of the team went onto the main street in Versailles for doughnuts as I dropped down into a leafy valley for my final run of the weekend. The terrain ruffled consistently like a sine wave, no uphill greater or basin shallower than the one preceding it, as if I were running along a grass covered sheet of corrugated steel. Flanking the road were three-tiered black fences and hedgerows keeping thoroughbred horses from me or perhaps the reverse. They stuck their long heads over the fence, watching me disinterestedly as I passed from one end of their massive farms to the other. Towering, broccoli-shaped oaks created tree tunnels at regular intervals like an upper class driveway and bleach-white houses with long Doric columns and multiple spires sat back, occurring with less frequency but equal regularity. This beautifully manicured landscape went on for miles unchanged, interrupted only by a stone wall or an occasional patch of woods.
During one wooded slope, I ran around a bend and nearly into the back of a clown. We had encountered this jester-dressed team having a snack in the middle of the night near Danville, another group given a substantial head start who we had been leapfrogging for much of the race. I ran by him quickly, mustering a pleasantry between hill-induced gasps, the clown having more trouble than I with our final run of the chase. I had no idea that passing him up put my team as the furthest along in the race until I summited and ran down into Woodford Reserve. Though we were somewhere near the median in terms of true chip time, I sprinted through the Civil War era stone warehouses ahead of everybody who had signed up for the Bourbon Chase, those that started before us and those that started hours afterward. I handed the bracelet to Eddie for the third and final time and wandered the distillery grounds with Alonso for several minutes, admiring stacked aging barrels in a cavernous barn, happy to have finished but not ready to be done. After picking up Eddie an hour later we had nothing else to do until the last of van two’s runners crossed the actual finish line in Lexington, so we got ready in no rush and cleaned out our rig to make the ride more comfortable before it was well past time to sit down to a meal.
The brunch was pure self-ingratiating hedonism. Most of us ordered whatever our eyes caught first; Connor had two sandwiches. My coffee was grainy and the omelette was wet but the food’s quality meant little because I was seated between friends in a warm restaurant that smelled like a Sunday morning. There would be no more running, just sustenance and company. We lingered at our table as we had nowhere to be while van two completed their last section but eventually pried our drowsy selves out and boarded the van one last time and headed toward downtown Lexington to watch the finish.
Like most of the cities in the Bluegrass Region with English names, Lexington was founded by displaced Virginians as the state’s settlers herniated into what is now Kentucky by way of the Cumberland Gap. Early to the Transappalachian party, they were enticed by the soil in the north-central part of the state, a relatively flat bowl of land surrounded by hills, perfect for growing tobacco and maize. The history is still noticeable in the colonial architecture, faint Tidewater accent, and top-down social structure led by horse riding gentry. Lexington never sprawled, the urban boundary cut by a straight razor and hemmed in by horse farms, and is unsure whether it wants to be a city or an oversized small town. Even with the massive University of Kentucky it feels more like a larger Bardstown than a small Louisville. Its satellites (Georgetown, Versailles, Nicholasville) are literal, like moons of a mid-sized planet, circling but never touching, and have distinct town identities of their own instead of being swallowed up by a creeping nucleus. Other cities of its size have been blown out and left for dead but Lexington remains a true missing link in the evolution from hamlet to metropolis, and it is possible to walk from the urban fringe to downtown with an hour and a good pair of shoes.
I was done propelling myself with my feet however, and driving an oversized, scribbled-on van into Lexington is an even quicker affair. Easier, though, remains to be seen as Pam had trouble parallel parking, her first real issues with the vehicle since the mailbox incident of section one. Downtown there were Bourbon bars on the ground floor of restored Italianetes, quick bites catering to the college crowd, narrow streets, and an unusual amount of revelry for midafternoon. Our destination was Cheapside Park, a two-block green space in the heart of Lexington where the finish line was located, via a coffee shop mercifully on its northern row. Waiting for van two’s last runner, I stayed warm in the café and watched teams of twelve cross under the final inflatable arch, many of them costumed and themed like our friends the clowns or The Running Richards, each member dressed like Richard Simmons.
Alonso was of course missing, having asked Pam to drop him off at his hotel on the way into town so that he could check in and shower. Consistent for his bookings this trip, the place was falling apart and had a massive hole in the parking lot that used to be a swimming pool but now was enjoying a second life as a gathering place for runoff and giardia. The only other car in the lot was a tinted SUV where some kind of transaction was taking place between two scruffy characters, one of whom walked threateningly toward our van. Pam was about to reverse us out of there but then he turned around about halfway, no doubt himself concerned by a white stalker van with the word “kills” on the window followed by a bunch of hash marks. Alonso came out and said this place was even worse than the one from the first night and asked could we take him to a new chain hotel down the street.
“At least this one has a pool” I said, and he was not amused.
He texted me for our whereabouts and once he found us downtown, we had our entire team ready to cross the finish with our last runner. She turned the final corner about a half hour afterward and we met our six counterparts partway up the street. We were no doubt a sight to behold, slow lurching steps down a slight grade, brains fogged from sleeplessness, stomachs full of a coffee and omelet cocktail. Eddie and Alonso were even a few Kentucky Ales deep, spending the time before our official finish under an umbrella with a pints in hand.
Ragnar finish lines are a special place, and everyone crossing it had experienced the same things during the last day and a half: the contraband drinks, the loud gym floors, the midnight rainstorm, the camaraderie. Coffee injections, Clif Bar kindness, and matching Jim Beam bandanas. I had hit my predicted times and not succumbed to anyone else’s kill count so from a personal standpoint I met my goals, but that wasn’t the point – I didn’t cross under the banner myself but with eleven friends and two drivers who deserved more than a free breakfast, somewhere in the middle of the pack at thirty-ish hours, cold and sleepy, but ready to sample some bourbon, no longer chasing but drinking it straight.