Ultramarathoners conquer Crenshaw County heat

By Haley Mitchell Godwin

The annual Heart of the South Road Race (HOTS) is a grueling ultramarathon spanning over 380 miles, and is one of the most unique challenges in ultrarunning. This year’s participants were seen running across Crenshaw County and included race partners Meghan Curley of Maryland and Dipak Bhattacharyya of Virginia.

The team paused to rest and refuel at the Dollar General in Brantley on June 15 around 6 p.m., with approximately 270 miles still to go.

“The hardest part about the race is the heat,” said Bhattacharyya, who is competing for the third time. “But, it’s all about finishing. That is the only goal.”

Curley, in her third HOTS race, agreed and said the Alabama temperatures were a shock to their systems.

“Since we haven’t experienced high temperatures yet where we’re from, it has been harder than in years past,” Curley said. “Planning our route to ensure we have access to services has also been a challenge.”

There were 54 racers at the start of this extreme challenge, which is kept mostly secret until the start of the race. Runners assembled June 12 atop Sand Mountain in North Georgia, where they parked their vehicles. After an overnight stay, competitors boarded charter buses on June 13.

Their only clue about the destination was that it would be between 300 and 400 miles away. It wasn’t until the bus dropped them off near Destin, Florida that racers received a map and course directing them back to their cars in North Georgia and the race’s endpoint.

The race began with participants filling vials of seawater in the Gulf of Mexico to be poured out on the bluff in Castle Rock, Georgia. The runners were given 10.5 days to cover the 381-mile trek through the Florida panhandle, 12 Alabama counties and a mile through a Georgia bean field to a bluff above the Tennessee River, marking the race’s end.

Marie Finch Williamson of Highland Home saw several racers come through the county. According to Williamson, although many of the racers looked completely exhausted, they were nothing short of inspiring.

“Never did I imagine they still had a couple of hundred miles to go when I saw them,” Williamson said. “Each time we went somewhere for three days, we saw more walkers, so I got curious and started trying to find out about what they were doing.”

“I anxiously awaited each update people posted on the HOTS Facebook page. I wish I had known that providing snacks and water was a thing because I would have been at the end of my road at 331 with water, Gatorade, and protein snacks until the last one passed by.”

Williamson said she was biting her nails and cheering each time progress was posted on social media. She was especially drawn to Gina Kimrey, who became Williamson’s hero. According to Williamson, Kimrey displayed immense dedication, determination and stamina.

At the 10-day mark, Kimrey had completed 381 miles when race officials stopped the marathon. She was only 3 miles from the finish.

Kimrey covered 30 miles in the final 12 hours, battling the heat and giving her all for 10 days. To Williamson, the woman was, and is, the Queen of the South.

According to Curley, HOTS provides a sense of adventure that is not found in other ultramarathon events.

“It almost feels as though it has been created for you and no one will have the same experience.” Curley said. “It is a true journey run. My why is a combination of experiencing the challenge, the adventure of getting to know people and places in a way I wouldn’t otherwise, and also creating a space for me to disconnect from the business of life and re-engage my mind and body. After college, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer and this gives me a similar feeling with the on-the-ground view of communities you may not always have the opportunity to interact with. Thank you to the communities and people who make these runs, for their patience, curiosity and spirit.”

Participants occasionally checked in on social media, with one racer commenting on the overwhelming number of bugs in southern Alabama.

“Alabama’s state motto could be ‘Alabama: We have all of the bugs, all of the time,’ ” he posted.

Brian Purcell, a leading contributor to the HOTS Facebook page, reported on June 17 at 5:39 p.m. that only 21 participants remained in the race.

“HOTS has never had that few finishers,” Purcell posted. “Third Circle of Hell last year had 25 finishers… Anyone [who] finishes this year deserves a well-earned ‘Heart of the South’ sticker.”

In the five years the race has been held, it has started in West Memphis, Arkansas; Gaffney, South Carolina; Frankfort, Kentucky; Fig, North Carolina and now Destin, Florida. The finish is always at Castle Rock, Georgia.

The race, created by Lazarus Lake — famed organizer for the Barkley Marathons — is modeled after his renowned Last Annual Volunteer State Road Race, held across Tennessee since 1981. The HOTS race, also referred to as the Last Annual Heart of the South Race, began in 2020 due to the overfilling of the Last Annual Vol State Road Race (LAVS). Unlike LAVS, the HOTS course changes annually, adding to the challenge.

For more information, follow HOTS and LAVS on social media or visit www.vacationwithoutacar.com.