Terra Turner is a warrior. There’s no other way to put it.
The 46-year-old vet tech at Rome’s Culbreth Carr Watson Animal Clinic just completed a 340-mile race across five different states. She ran for nine days in the blazing heat and the pouring rain, stopping to rest only for a few hours each night. She slept on church porches and ate on the run.
An experience like this can teach a person a lot about herself, but Terra said she learned more about the goodness of other people than she expected to see.
This race, called Heart of the South, is what folks call a Journey Run. It was created by a man named Lazarus Lake, an endurance race designer and director known for such events as the Barkley Marathons, Big’s Backyard Ultra and Vol State 500K (yes you read that right, 500K). His events are legendary, pushing runners to their breaking point.
For the Heart of the South, runners park their vehicles atop Sand Mountain in Georgia and board buses to a destination they don’t know. All they know is that it’s about 350 miles away. When the race begins, they’ll have 10 days to get back to the finish line, with only the supplies they can carry or obtain along the way.
“We got on a bus on Wednesday morning at the finish line in Georgia,” Terra said. “It was 7 a.m. and we didn’t have a clue where we were going.”
There were two buses carrying 76 runners. Forty-eight of them would reach the finish line.
“We finally got to Gafney, South Carolina,” Terra said. “We spent the night there in a hotel and the next day the buses took us to the starting line. We knew the distance would be about 340 miles and the route would take us through five states.
She said runners are allowed to take anything they could carry.
“But you want to pack as light as you can because you don’t want any extra weight while you’re running.”
She took a pair of flip flops so she could take her shoes off at night, an extra set of clothes, a shirt to sleep in so she wouldn’t have to sleep in her running gear, medical supplies such as tape and Bandaids for blisters, and a water bottle.
She would have to rely on her physical ability and her resourcefulness to make it through days to come. But she also had a running companion. Kendra Stallings is a fellow runner and she and Terra decided before the race that they’d stick together from start to finish. It made the journey that much easier.
“You have 10 days to complete the race and Kendra and I figured we had to average 32 miles a day,” Terra said. “We ended up averaging 35 miles a day. With some days being more than others depending on the weather and traffic and how we felt. One day we ran 42 miles.”
To give those numbers a bit of context, a marathon is just over 26 miles. So Terra, Kendra and the other runners who finished the race, had to run a marathon or more every single day for 9 or 10 consecutive days, carrying gear and with only brief moments of rest.
“We tried to get up as early as possible every day,” Terra said. “You want to try to move while it was cool. And then you ran until you got tired or something was hurting or you needed a break. You get injuries and blisters and things like that.”
They ran along heavily trafficked roads for the most part and were thankful for a gravel road with no cars whizzing by them as they ran.
Along the route they tried to stop to rest at little stores on the side of the road where they charge their phones, rest a while, take a quick nap and then head back out on the road.
And most nights, after having run for hours and hours, there was no comfortable bed to sleep in. Runners had to sleep where they could find a safe place to lay down.
“Most of the time we slept on the porches of churches,” Terra said. “We slept at a post office one time, at a fire station — anywhere near the route that seemed like a safe place to sleep for a few hours.”
She had expected back country roads for most of the route but got just the opposite. It was mostly busy highways on which runners had to constantly be on the alert.
One particular gravel road was actually a blessing to her and Kendra since it was shaded, with no traffic and no pavement.
They ran for hours each day through small towns in different states. And everywhere they went Terra saw friendly faces and helpful strangers. Because there were runners ahead of them, by the time they’d come through a particular area, folks had heard about the race and knew other runners were coming through.
“So people left coolers out full of ice water which was a really nice surprise,” she said. “The distance between stores (where they usually stopped) was sometimes 20 or 25 miles so when strangers would leave out water or sports drinks or snacks, that saved a lot of runners.”
Store owners and employees made sandwiches, some purchased containers for runners to soak their feet, others offered a place to rest or just a friendly smile and words of encouragement. All those things buoyed the runners spirits and made the miles more bearable.
One thing Terra realized was that since she and Kendra might have gone at a little slower pace than other runners, they got to soak in more of their environment.
“If you’re trying to win the race I think you miss out on a lot,” she said. “Some people ran through the night to help their time but if we had done that we’d have missed all the beauty of these towns. We saw murals on buildings and pretty farm houses and animals. And then all the stores are closed at night so you don’t get to see and meet those people either.”
Her body held up better than she expected. Something different hurt every day, she said. You’d wake up every day with some new nagging injury or discomfort but it was never anything to make her stop. Once she had a foot injury and simply YouTubed the best way to tape it up and kept on running.
Runners had to check in twice each day with race organizers. There was a cutoff line morbidly called the “Grim Reaper” which was the demarcation of who was on target to finish within the allotted time and who was falling behind the required pace.
Terra and Kendra were always ahead of the Grim Reaper. But others weren’t as lucky. The race had a 40% drop rate.
“A lot of people didn’t make it,” Terra said. “(Lazarus) would let people keep going even if they were a little bit behind, as long as they were moving good. He’d give them a little time to make it up. But it was tough on some.”
They ran through South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and little section of Alabama.
“We saw all these beautiful little towns that I would never have traveled to if not for this race,” Terra said.
And throughout the ordeal she kept her friends and family updated while they in turn kept everyone else updated with her progress through social media. And the support came flooding in.
“I totally felt all that support,” Terra said. “I’d read all the updates on Facebook when we’d stop for a while. I couldn’t really respond to everyone like I wanted to but I definitely felt all the love and encouragement people were sending. I got so many messages and comments from people who were following us every single day.”
A week and two days after Terra began the race, she and Kendra finished. They had completed the grueling journey in 9 days, 9 hours, 29 minutes and 42 seconds.
It’s the longest race she’s ever done.
“When I signed up for this one I don’t know what I expected, I just knew it was a new challenge, and a tough one at that,” Terra wrote on social media after the race. “I really didn’t know how tough because I didn’t know it was a self supported race at the time. What I got out of this race was something very unexpected... I didn’t expect complete strangers to offer us money to buy snacks. I didn’t expect multiple people to pray out loud with me for safety and strength on my journey. I didn’t expect two guys in a work truck to pull up beside us in the mountains and hand two bottles of water out the window, never say a word and just drive on to the next runner. I didn’t expect an entire family with young/teen kids to spend two days traveling a section of highway to give out water and snacks and to want to have their picture taken with us.
“I didn’t expect cashiers at Dollar Generals and Family Dollars to buy us tubs for ice to soak our feet and let us use chairs and back rooms. I didn’t expect people to sit coolers full of ice cold drinks out by their driveways... The world is full of people who love their neighbors. Don’t listen to all the bad stuff you hear. I have no doubt that this is part of the reason Lazarus Lake puts these types of races on. It’s not always about seeing who he can break, sometimes it’s about seeing the world in a brand new light.”
Terra’s not sure what her next big ultra race will be. She’d like to tackle the Vol State 500k but nothing’s set in stone yet. She’s still coming to terms with what she experienced during of the Heart of the South
“I expected to push myself,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve done. But I had no idea the people I’d meet along the way. I knew it would be an experience. I just didn’t know it would be that kind of experience.”