Deep in the verdant Appalachians where the mighty Tug River separates West Virginia and Kentucky, the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s had a long running feud. To commemorate that Armageddon, 600 of us had our own long running feud; body, soul and will against one of toughest races on the North American Continent. On a vista that was coffee-table-book beautiful and in a perfect morning of mist laced mountains and soft spoken people; we launched our training and tenacity into the hills. Behemoth Blackberry Mountain, dripping humidity and suddenly searing sun threw the gauntlet…insouciantly pleasant volunteers, every-mile aid stations, and glorious scenery seduced us into this challenging journey through history.
My 50th State and 122nd career marathon couldn’t have happened in a better place. It is by far the most difficult marathon I’ve attempted and quite likely the friendliest…most assuredly the runner support winner. An ambulance escort for six miles just enticingly far enough ahead that I couldn’t grab the bumper? The promised nip of moonshine hinted at by a mischievous little old lady? A piece of candy offered by a courtly 80 year old gentleman? “Don’t think y’all could be any sweeter, but it’s worth a traaa.”
Held during the Hatfield/McCoy festival, the city celebrates what was a negative by uniting forces and having fun as families. Intermingled as they are by now, who knows who is related to whom? I was designated a Hatfield, so even the runners get in the act.
Warned of feral dogs skulking in the hills, the danger of being hit by an errant golf ball as we ran across the country club (or shot if we tore up the green!) and cautioned about navigating the lattice footwork bridge swaying miles (it seemed) above the turgid river…it wasn’t all about the distance.
First of all, the race director’s succinct pre-race directions…unedited.
DAVE’S TOP TEN RULES AND REGULATIONS!
1. This course has been certified by the Hatfields and McCoys usin’ the most modern form of measurement know to us at this time, the speed-o-meter of Dave’s pickem up truck.
2. All runners must pass all the check points or you will be disqualified or even worse shot or worst of all you could be lost in them thar hills and never be heard from again. Please be aware that people from the hills ain’t used to see’n runners on the road so watch out for traffic and potholes.
3. Follow the Big Blue Hillbilly Footprints to Root 119, if you make it acrost Blackberry Mountain take a left on 1056 to beautiful, historic Matewan. Go through the town and acrost the swangin’ bridge then back into Kantuc-just follow the Hatfield-McCoy Raid, but don’t be stealin’ any pigs. By this time the Hatfield’s should have a posse ready to chase the McCoy’s back into KY.
4. Finish the race before dark!!!! Cause that’s when most of the shootin’s and hangin’s start.
5. If you run into any pigs along the way don’t mess with them. You might
start another feud.
6. PLEASE no feudin’ before the race starts
7. No fraternizin’ with the ENEMY
8. Stay on your side of the RIVER
9. Share your ‘shine
10.Groom your whiskers
If you have any complaints about the course, see the Hatfields!!! Since I’m a McCoy!
We stayed in the Historic Mountaineer Hotel; opulent, ornate, original…oozing Southern hospitality and redolent with history. The rooms were each titled for the famous person who had slept there…we were In Dorothy Lamour, right next to Greer Garson and Jerry Lee Lewis (Hank Williams Jr. was just around the corner).
We arrived very late in Charleston, WV…the closest level place to land…and having a 90 mile drive to our destination we called the hotel as per instruction. The cheerful hostess said, “I’ll wait up for you, just ring the bell when you get in.” So at 12:30 a.m. we rang the bell and a lovely blond appeared looking as though she’d been put on this planet just to serve us.
“It’s old, ladies, but everthin’ works.” And it did, even to the gargantuan crystal chandelier holding court over the dark polished wood foyer, two deep rich leather wing back chairs providing comfort to those pondering the next move on a giant chess board. And mirrors? Everywhere and anywhere; reflected beauty, old world elegance.
To quote the chamber director…”You will revisit your time spent here over and over again in your mind. There is something special here. It’s not the thousands and thousands of spectators who line the race course, because if that’s what you’re looking for, you may be disappointed. What IS here are genuinely good folks who epitomize southern hospitality. It’s slow traffic and even slower accents. It’s a place where folks come as visitors but leave as friends.” Amen that.
As we zig-zagged back and forth between West Virginia and Kentucky…the border a convoluted maze, we never really knew which state we were in unless we checked with the natives. Not that it mattered, their charm ignores borders. For 50 Staters, it counts as either/or and they can run it again to get the other state.
Greeted by Devil Anse and Ole Ranel at the finish line, I was tired enough to wish one of them would use the rifle on me. But a cold wet towel on my sun-seared neck, a unique medal and my own mason jar (for moonshine?) soon assuaged my fatigue enough that I limped over to the house made entirely of coal…64 tons of West Virginia’s finest bituminous…and unabashedly kissed the ebony wall. Who knows, might have been just the last bit of pressure to turn it in to the world’s largest diamond.
And so ended my saga of states, I now own all 50 and DC with 26.2 miles of sweat equity. That’s 1,336.2 miles of history, homilies, heritage and humor…this has been a fun journey. I only have three continents left, but this is now a high mileage vehicle and I think I’ll settle for the relaxing run of a half.
How could any marathon compare? Chickens clucking, cows grazing, goats ruminating on a roof; a washed out creek with a car hanging off the side…a giant tow truck leaving just enough room for us to squeeze and squish past, high rise trailers beside mansions molded to hillsides…the list goes on.
Once again, so many images, so many stories, so many miracles. But it always comes back to the people. “Y’all hurry back now!” And I just may.