Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Barreling through Kentucky: The 2014 Bourbon Chase

The distillery tour guide poured another splash of amber liquid into my glass, and I was thinking that maybe today I would gain an appreciation for the official state drink of Kentucky.

"This here bourbon is our top of the line, barrel-aged 28 years. It sells for $400 a bottle, if we had any bottles left to sell. But we don't.  So you're lucky to get a taste of it. Swirl it around and take a sniff, but don't drink it yet."

A rich aroma of caramel, and vanilla, and a hint of butterscotch filled my nose. And the unmistakable vapor of turpentine.

"OK, now take a little taste."

I held it in my mouth, as directed, waiting for the flavors to open up and blossom on my tongue. I swallowed, trying not to cringe from the burn. I concentrated on what I was tasting. Sure enough, it was turpentine.

"Pour in just a couple drops of water, now taste it again." (Only filtered, pure, reverse-osmosis water need apply).

Diluted turpentine? Really, though, I couldn't tell a difference. I have to believe that my palate is not cut out for the nuances of bourbon. It's disappointing.

I was in the Heavenhill Tasting Room with half of my Bourbon Chase team, 'The Bourbon Chafes'. There were 10 of us running the 200-mile length of Kentucky's Bourbon Trail, which takes a meandering route from Louisville to Lexington, hitting all the major bourbon distilleries along the way.

We had just come from the start line at the Jim Beam distillery, where our lead runner recently took off for the first leg of this 36-leg journey. The team was divided 5 and 5, in two different vans, and Van 2 AKA Disco Daddy (the one I was in) had some time to kill before we got going in late afternoon. Naturally, we spent that time sampling bourbon. And avoiding the rain.

I'm not sure what I was thinking when I jumped at the chance to join this team. I love to run, and I'm finding that I'm gravitating more to running events that challenge me.  I think I was drawn to the culture around the Bourbon Chase: the silliness, the scenery, the promise of a fun-loving team (any friend of Brenda's, my Summit Freewheeler teammate who invited me along, was sure to be a blast), and, of course, the jaw-dropping Kentucky landscape. And maybe even the bourbon.

What I wasn't ready for were the hills, the rain, the challenge of running in the dark and in the middle of the night and in a sleep-deprived state. I hadn't factored in how my legs would feel having to run multiple legs of the route (including an extra one I hadn't planned on), without a lot of recovery time in between, or what I would do if it rained during every run and now I had no dry clothes to change into. My Bourbon Chase experience reminded me a LOT of my RAAM experience, complete with the whole communal sleeping arrangements (translation: no sleep), living out of a gym bag and in a space-constrained van (although I was allowed to bring a French press, even though I never had a chance to use it), and coordinating hand-offs with team members. The difference here was that I was just a runner in this event, not a crew member or a coordinator. All I had to do was get set down on the road when it was my time to run, and then run until I was told to stop. Super easy.

And run I did. Over leg-scorching hills and twisty 'hollers' opening up onto tobacco fields; along highway shoulders with ankle-deep puddles from the never-ending rain; through pitch darkness with unearthly moo-ing echoing from the abyss; with my only motivation being a tiny red bouncing dot somewhere far in front of me indicating another runner, and presumably I was not lost.

We ran all day and all night for 29 hours and 22 minutes, crossing the drizzly finish line in Lexington and heading straight to the after-party.

I didn't really know my teammates before I signed up. I was immediately struck by the fact that everyone was a gifted athlete and determined to do this thing, but even more than that, everyone had a killer sense of humor and there was an instant rapport that carried us through from start to finish.   Aside from the rare times we were crashed out in Disco Daddy, we were laughing non-stop. My teammates were an interesting mix of ultra runners, trail runners, ultra trail runners, at least 5 runners who claimed that they hated running, at least 3 triathletes, one swimmer, and some non-runners who were there to drive and navigate. Team Captain Andy was a logistics genius, predicting our finishing time to within 17 minutes of our clock time. We all hit it off immediately, and that was the coolest thing about this race. Unlike a lot of competitive events I've done over the years, this one truly felt like we were all there to have a good time, and so we did.

The Bourbon Chase is one of those events that, while I'm really glad to have been a part of it, is a one-and-done kind of ordeal.  Like my appreciation for bourbon, long distance running must be an acquired taste or, more likely, you have to be wired for it.

Back home on Sunday, after a full night's sleep and a steamy hot shower, I decided to give bourbon another chance. I found a recipe for a bourbon drink that included a little lime, a little cranberry, and a splash of simple syrup. It smelled like heaven, and it didn't burn as it kicked my ass into a sweet oblivion.

Maybe I can learn to like this stuff.

Disco-themed costume, or bad taste in running apparel?


This is what a $400 bottle of bourbon looks like
Bourbon tasting

Distilleries dot the hillsides everywhere

The After-Party
Andy, Adrienne, and I at Heavenhill

Big thank you to my teammates: Andy and Adrian, Dawn and Larry, Megan, Eric, Matt, Joe, Brenda and Ryan, Sara, and Cathleen! (And I stole their photos and video, too...)


  1. It was an awe inspiring weekend spent with friends old and new!! You runners amazed me!!

  2. What a great adventure!