MOREHEAD CITY — Two years ago, Andrea and Jared Beasley pushed themselves to new exhaustive limits for what they called a “twisted” 40th birthday celebration for both of them.
The pair ran an infamous 500K (314 miles) known as the Last Annual Vol State Road Race, crossing five states in 6 days, 13 hours and 16 minutes. The ultra event had a profound effect on Andrea.
“I came back a different person,” she said in 2017. “With everything stripped away, you see the good and bad in yourselves and in others. You appreciate everything more. The availability of food, water, safety, even just putting your feet up, it just means so much more now. My list of necessities in life is much shorter now.”
The Beasleys had another benchmark event to celebrate this summer – their 20th wedding anniversary. Instead of taking a relaxing vacation, the parents of four sought more punishment. They found themselves July 11 again on the ferry ride across the Mississippi River to Dorena Landing, Mo., that serves as the start of the race.
“We thought, why not celebrate (our birthdays) in a gruesome way,” Andrea said. “I think people like this sort of thing because it peels back life and it’s very raw. It’s living at its purest form – eating, drinking and getting to the next place where you can keep surviving. Obviously, it’s as close you can get to that without it being dire for real. You can still pick up a phone and call for help. But it does help you see what life is like without all the conveniences.”
The race takes runners from Missouri through Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia and the length of Tennessee. For the 97 runners who toed the starting line, the journey began with the short ferry ride to Dorena Landing. Race Director Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, a legend in the ultra-running community and designer of Barkley Marathons, pulls a cigarette from his pocket, as is traditional for all of his races, and lights it to signal the start of the run at 8 a.m. on the dot.
Competitors hop right back on the ferry and float over to Hickman, Ky., where the real race begins.
The first time through the race, Andrea finished slightly ahead of her husband. Although they run the race together, the last half-mile stretch allows runners to kick it into extra gear.
Andrea did the same in the second go-around with a time of 6 days, 14 hours, 54 minutes and 23 seconds. Jared finished it in 6 days, 14 hours, 55 minutes and 19 seconds. They placed 29th and 30th, respectively. Jared, who was feeling a bit under the weather during this interview, chose to allow his wife tell their story.
The slightly slower times were due to the surprise deluge delivered by Tropical Storm Barry, which inundated the hilly backwoods of Tennessee midway through the 10-day period runners had to finish the race.
“The second half of the race was pretty epic,” Andrea said. “They don’t typically get heavy storms during that part of the year there, much less a tropical storm. We were pressed and ready for the heat. We knew we were prepared for what we’d see because we learned so much the last time. But this race has a reputation for throwing things on its head and saying, ‘Good try, but you’ll never be truly ready for it.’ ”
Nonetheless, the couple did find themselves more prepared the second time around. With one change of clothes and a pair of shoes, regular stops to wash and dry them were integral to staying healthy on the run.
“We took a lot less stuff this time,” Andrea said. “Our packs were a lot lighter, which was good. We realized after the first race that a lot of what we had brought wasn’t helpful. You can try to bring little comforts, but no matter what, it’s going to be horrible out there. You might as well travel light.”
Participants had the option to run “crewed,” taking care of their own transportation to the race and oftentimes running with a crew of helpers, or “screwed,” where runners park at the course’s finish and run it with only what they choose to carry on their backs. The Beasleys chose to run “screwed.”
“We didn’t bring any food either,” Andrea said. “You just kind of figure you’ll find it out there when you make it to the next time. Really, the heaviest thing we carried was water. We had big hydration packs and had to keep them full.”
Familiarity also helped with navigation, but only to a point. After all, six days on the road can distort even the most sure-footed runners.
“We were more familiar with the course and less likely to get lost,” Andrea said. “I say that, but when you’ve been up for three days straight with little 20-minute naps here and there, your decision making gets a little wonky. On the last day, during a 4 1/2-mile climb up a mountain, I swore we were going the wrong direction. Luckily, my husband was there to encourage me that we were going the right way and help keep me straight.”
After food and water, the next priority was sleep. The couple, unable to sleep on the ground due to the threat of ticks, chiggers and other critters, learned to find semi-comfortable spaces for only 20-, 30- and 40-minute naps at a time, always looking to keep their feet elevated to prevent swelling. Locations varied according to what was available, including the outside of a country market, the front lobby of a post office, 24-hour laundromats and covered picnic areas.
“There was only one time we got desperate and slept on the side of the road,” Beasley said. “It was gravel, which is painful, but at least it wasn’t the grass. You never want to sleep on the ground in the grass out there.”
Sleeping runners present quite a scene for the unfamiliar passer-by. Sometimes competitors are questioned by police officers or have concerned citizens reporting a dead body on the side of the road.
“Sometimes it’s a problem, but most times people leave you alone,” Andrea said. “It’s just, people don’t expect to see you in a driveway of an abandoned house.”
Then there are the people along the route who are more than familiar with the race. Runners call them “road angels,” people unaffiliated with the race who offer food, water, shelter, sun block, etc. to runners on their own generosity.
“The people along the main route look forward to this,” Andrea said. “We’ve met people who have taken their vacation time around the race so they can come and watch everyone come through.”
Now on their second running of the event, the Beasleys ran into a familiar face or two along the way.
“As you run across the state, you wind up seeing people you know,” Andrea said. “At one point, we were running through a cornfield – literally pitch dark at 3 a.m. – and this guy pulls up in a car and says, ‘Jared and Andrea.’
“My first reaction was to be afraid, but of course, it ended up being a guy we met a few years ago and came out to see how the (runners) were doing.”
The Beasleys got some help from a “road angel” when they took a risk and began an 18-mile stretch between towns with Tropical Storm Barry bearing down on them. The rain hit them before they could find adequate shelter.
“We were lucky enough to find a house that let us take shelter on their covered porch,” Beasley said, “but you got to a point where you knew you had to just face getting wet. Otherwise, you’d never finish.”
The deluge was in sharp contrast to the extreme temperatures during the start of the race, with the heat index exceeding 110 degrees daily before the tropical storm approached.
“We had a heat wave at the beginning,” Beasley said. “This time, we had a lot of dehydration and muscle cramping that I’d never dealt with before.”
The couple went form fending off heat exhaustion to wading through flash floods in the undulating landscape.
“The terrain is mountainous and hilly, so the flash flooding is pretty serious,” Andrea said. “It’s kind of funny, though, we went from our shoes melting into the pavement from the heat to mid-shin flooding all around you. Every day was a new adventure.”
After 6 days of running, the couple finally entered the final leg of the race. The last chunk of the course takes participants up Monteagle Mountain, a 3-mile stretch rising 1,000 feet that starts around the 271-mile mark.
At the top of the mountain, runners reach “The Rock,” touching it to signify the end of the race.
The weeklong jog’s pace across country roads makes the journey home a little surreal, especially as participants first descend the mountain at the finish line.
“When you get in that car after the race, everything feels way too fast,” Andrea said. “Jared is only going 35 mph down the mountain, and I just couldn’t handle it.”
Recovery time was slim for the couple who returned home to care for their four children: James, 6; Lockwood (nicknamed “Porter”), 10: twins Isaac and Samuel, 14.
Andrea Beasley is the daughter of Lockwood Phillips, general manager and co-publisher of the News-Times, and Nikki Phillips, web editor at the News-Times.
With two Last Annual Vol State Road Races under their belts, no one would blame the couple for drawing a line in the sand of pushing their limits. After all, they already participate in a number of other annual ultra-marathons.
But no, the Beasleys will be participating in their first Mattamuskeet Death March in August, a 100K race around Lake Mattamuskeet in Fairfield that requires runners to carry with them at all times a 5-pound 100-cartridge .50 caliber ammo can.
“That’s more of a mental task,” Beasley said. “Can you carry this thing in your hand and run? That’s another example of a twisted and crazy event that we can’t help but be attracted to.”
The couple also has their eyes on the Tarheel Ultra in December, a 378-mile point-to-point race spanning from the coast of Virginia to the coast of South Carolina. In addition to getting in their ultra-running fix, the couple knows they’ll see old friends at such an event.
“The people we run with, you kind of get attached to them,” Andrea said. “It’s nice to see those people who do crazy endurance things like you, people who find it fun to sleep in laundromats and stuff.”
The ultra-running couple has been participating in long-distance races for years, but the Last Annual Vol State Road Race in 2017 represented a major jump in limitations. Each step up gets the couple closer to their long-term, wilderness goals.
“This is all just building up to me wanting to through-hike the Appalachian Trail,” Beasley said. “Once we retire, I’d love to do the TransAmerica Trail from here to California. It takes a lot of time on your feet to get where that’s feasible, but one day.”