I guess I am what you’d call a registered coonass: I’m a hardcore, ex-football-playin WHODAT who bleeds black and gold; And for most of my years on earth I’ve been a hunter, fisherman, and general sportsman in the state that claims the title of “Sportsman’s Paradise.” I love being Louisianan. I love that I usually sound different in a room outside my hometown. I love that I have a crazy-hard cajun-french last name to pronounce (and I secretly love watching people, as they read it from a piece of paper, struggle with it. lol). You see, I love everything about my culture and the people in it except for things that destroy the latter.
I grew up Thibodaux Louisiana on the banks of Bayou Lafourche. Y’all know how we do!, “We live to eat!” Really, it’s even on billboards and pamphlets at the tourist centers. Hell, our very own parish’s slogan is “Lafourche Parish…Dig In!” With an exclamation point no less!
We exclaim to visitors,”EAT! It’s what we do here!” And what do we eat? Well…Fried anything for starters (beignets, fish, alligator, back strap, oysters, gratons, etc…). A roux (which is fried flour to start a rich chocolate colored based) starts many of our signature dishes here: gumbo, jambalaya, stew, sauce piquant, crawfish pie, ettoufee’. We hunt deer in the fall to fill the freezers with deer roast, back strap, tenderloin, and to mix the lesser cuts with pork to make deer sausage. We kill pigs and have boucheries (where the whole pig is used, snout to tail, including skin and guts. It’s actually delicious. I’m not making a “hey, that’s gross” argument here). We cook whole, milk fed piglets and have what’s called a couchon de lait on special occasions like weddings. During the spring its crawfish season, followed up by speckle trout, snapper, and tuna time…And as the average coonass reads this, invariably, he or she swells with pride and says “das right, sha!” And I get it. Hell, I feel pride as I write these things down. It signifies a culture with a history of making due, surviving on the margins; creating a home from a hot, swampy, mosquito infested, flood-prone, harsh environment. And, the tools and tactics we used to overcome are celebrated in grand fashion, and rightfully so. However, there is an availability issue that exists today that didn’t exist when we were actually using these tools of survival to actually survive: now we can have them whenever we want, as much as we want. And that is the issue. When we were living off the land as cajuns, that’s what we were doing: living, as in sustaining life; not glutonizing everything. Along with the fact that the culturally correct vegetables and other plants our ancestors ate in accompaniment with these animal-derived foods make up a smaller and smaller proportion of the whole as each generation’s norm shifts to something a little easier to endure. Everybody wants to hunt and fish, nobody wants to plant, harvest and/or collect the plants that are just as much a part of cajun culture as boudin: mirliton, chadron, blackberries, granavolies, champignon or the plethora of beans, greens, tomatoes, and citrus trees that were grown in abundance in Louisiana back yards.
If you know anything about me, you know that I stand firm in my belief, no, discovery, that humans are made to eat plants for optimal thriveability. Given our biological tools (claws, teeth, speed, power), it makes sense to my logical coonass brain. Our relationship with plants as food is more human than the one we have with animals as food. And as I have embarked onto the plantbased planes of the unknown as a coonass, I have often thought about the feeling I get that I am somehow being disloyal to a culture, my culture, by not participating in some things that, seemingly, have been arbitrarily made almost prerequisite to that culture.
I think Louisianans are tough, competitive, smart, resourceful, romantic, proud, and full of life, which is why these days I choose to embrace the people themselves more than the arbitrary prerequisites of cajundom. While ultra running may not be a cajun prerequisite just yet, it sure does use a coonass’ attributes: toughness, willingness to grind, and a head too hard to let the body quit (tête dur, bruh!). And I am falling more and more in love with the sport.
This weekend my friends and I did something so typically south Louisianan it made me feel like a kid again: we played in the cane fields all day. Growing up on the bayou, as you travel up and down from Thibodaux to Galliano you see acres and acres of sugar cane being grown. Most of us grew up close enough to cane fields to remember playing hide-n-seek in the rows, cutting stalks of cane to chew on (and thinking to yourself, “this don’t taste like sugar!”); we know how the harvest effects traffic, and road conditions; we know what bagasse is and how it smells; and yes, we’ve had a zillion snowballs doused with syrup derived from it. I think it is safe to say that we, especially from the bottom of the boot, are definitely “Children of the Cane.”
When I caught wind of an ultra endurance race being started in Port Allen by Walker Higgins, the director of the Cane Field Classic (which I have yet to race due to marathon training plan conflicts, but I’m signed up for it this year), I was all ears. I had just completed my first ultra-marathon in Destin Florida, and my friends were signing up for this event called the “Children of the Cane 50k, 100k, 100 mile endurance race.” I had heard nothing but awesome things about Walker’s other race. That, and the fact that the race was called “Children of the Cane,” compelled this coonass to sign up promptly.
I dove into the training. I logged miles like I’d never logged miles before. I even ran from Houma to Thibodaux and back, 40ish miles, with some friends before I officially started my 100k training plan. I ran 40 miles at the Dusk til Dawn, Hotter than Hell event in New Orleans, which almost killed me (lol), as part of my training. That 40 miles was huge for me in my experimenting with nutrition/hydration. I learned a lot that night. Then came the weekends of solo 50k’s and 75 mile weeks. All the while I was scared to death of what 100k would feel like. The only thing that comforted me was the fact that I had given my training everything I had. I knew that because I’d laid it all out there, I had really helped my chances of finishing. As the weeks passed by, and the day of the race drew near, I was nervous but excited. I knew at the worst I’d probably just make the 18 hour cut-off, and at the best I’d finish behind my friend Wally, whatever place that was. I’ve written about Wally before. He is a true warrior, and a wonderful sole. He is the kind of guy you just want to be around indefinitely, which is why I was sad when I couldn’t keep up with him anymore.
The weather on race day turned out to be just perfect! Wally, his wife Nikki, Jonathan, Ethan, and I were all running this race. Wally, Ethan, and myself were tackling the 100k, and Nikki and Jonathon were taking on the 50k. We showed up about an hour before the start and met at the ice chest near the start/finish we’d put out the evening before. Here we were, about to kick off our respective races. We snapped the obligatory group pre-race selfie, and before we knew it we were off!
I hung with Wally thinking that if I could just hang with him for the first half or so, I’d be golden. I didn’t achieve that feat. By mile 20 I was starting to lag behind him a little. By mile 22 he was a little further ahead. By mile 23, as I topped the Mississippi River levee, I could see that he was even further ahead. I caught a glimpse of him way ahead in mile 24 as we traversed the worst part of the route, in my opinion, and that was it, no more Wally sightings until I saw him in my mile 51, his mile 59, on his way to wrap up his 2nd place finish. However, he did leave a little message for me in the cane field that said “hey, buddy! thinking about you!” in not so many words; As I rounded a corner in the cane field around mile 44, I read, in giant letters scribbled in the dirt, “JOSH.” It made me cry…shocker! I let him know that he’d made me cry, and we had a quick laugh, and BOOM he was off again. I needed that little message at that point, too.
I had been kinda running with a 100miler named Geoff Landry up until about mile 43. In mile 43 Geoff came by and asked if I was o.k. I told him that I was, but I was really beginning to feel the pain. But I reassured him that I was just gonna shuffle out the pain (to use the words my friend Jean shared with me as he came around me in the Dusk til Dawn event we’d run together in July). Not long before Geoff passed me, I found myself almost face to face with one of the 100 mile leaders in one of the many out-and-back sections of the zig-zaggy cane field course. He is a local legend named Ed Melacon. He shot me a look and I realized I was walking so I hopped to a jog, and he clapped for me and said “there you go!” I don’t know if he realizes how big of a deal that was to me.
In just a few miles I found myself where Ed had been when he shot me the “stop walking” look. There, I could spy that someone was behind me, about the same distance I was behind Ed. This drove me. I now know his name is Nathan Jones. At the time, though, I thought it may have been my friend Ethan. It was killing me that someone was climbing on me. I didn’t want anyone between me and Wally. So, from 47 to 49 I picked up the speed a little. And, as I could see for miles behind me because of the back-and-forth nature of the course, I could tell that whoever that person was wasn’t within 2-3 miles.
I was in new mileage territory now. Hell, I was at a mileage p.r. after mile 43 or so. As bad as I was hurting, it was starting to settle in that I was going to finish this thing. I was in mile 50 walking down the middle of the train tracks that I’d quit even trying to run on. As I walked I was just thinking to myself “50 fucking miles, bruh!” Then a voice in a more somber tone would say “12 to go, it ain’t over yet.”
As I exited the tracks and continued onto a gravel road through a cane field I started meeting up with the leaders of the 100 miler, and I now know, the 100k leader. But as I continued my grind up the gravel road, one of the leaders pulled out his earbuds and caught my attention.
“Hey , man! Eat some plants! Great work, brother!”
I learned afterward that this guy was Jason Cheek, he came in second in the 100 miler! Complete animal. That he would make a point to encourage me, and that he knew about my plantiphelia, was kinda cool.
After seeing Wally in mile 51, as I mentioned earlier, I knew I still had to traverse the dreaded river bank section. Once I had that under my belt, It’d be all over but the crying. I pretty much walked that whole section when I reached it. Keep in mind that all this time, I’m constantly looking over my shoulder for the guy chasing me. Then, out of nowhere, I heard footsteps and my heart sank. But when I turned around it was a very upbeat young woman, who was not racing but manning the aid station in mile 55. She could tell she startled me, I think, so she very warmly introduced herself to me, and explained she had been pacing people through this section all afternoon. It was nice to have company for a few minutes.
As we approached the aid station, she ran ahead with my water bottles and refilled them to save me some time. I immediately chugged them, used the stick roller on my hip flexors and calves, then grabbed a handful of skittles and an Oreo (yes, really) before heading out on my last 6ish miles.
As I topped the levee and headed out along the top toward the descent back onto the trail that would take me to the finish, I couldn’t help but think of how bad it sucked to run on the gravel road atop the levee, and, that the 100milers would have to run about 15 or so miles on it later that night…”suck it up, Josh! 10k to go, baby!”
Once back on the cane field headlands heading back, about mile 57, I met up with my buddy Ethan. We exchanged hugs, and he told me I was looking strong. I told him I loved him.
Not long after this I found myself racing the sun. In mile 59 I was back where I’d met up with Jason Cheek earlier. The sun was below the horizon, but it was still daylight. Right as I approached the last section of train tracks, in mile 60, I noticed what I thought was a little black puppy in the grass beside the road. I remember thinking that I’d take this lost little puppy with me, cross the finish line with him or her, and have a great story and addition to the family. But as I got closer, I could see clearly that this was no puppy! This was an ass-up skunk, ready to spray the shit out of me. I increased my speed and forgot all about my crossing-the-finishline-with-a-new-puppy fantasy. Now it’s time to attack these muddafucking train tracks…
Walking down the tracks, I could see a light up ahead. Was it a train? What if it is a train? Hadn’t thought of that one! Shit, I don’t have the energy for train-dodging. But as I got closer, I could tell it was someone with a flashlight. It was my friend Randy, who had driven in from Lafayette to volunteer and witness this ultra craziness for himself. Randy lit the way, and helped me in to mile 60. There I saw my family waiting and cheering me on…”half a mile, Josh!!! 100K! you did it!” I cried and soaked in that last half mile. It had taken me 13 hours and 46 minutes to travel 62 miles through cane field, gravel roads, train tracks, and overgrown sandy riverbank trail. I was almost sad it was over. Almost.
It was a good thing I finished when I did because when I saw the race results, I realized that Nathan had closed the gap on me considerably, and merely ran out of real estate, as they say, or I’d have come in 4th. Nice show, bruh!
As I identify more with eating plants and running miles, I am understanding how I can still have my coonass-ness, cajun-ness, out-dat-boot-ness without caving to the “prerequisites” of said “-ness.” I was so happy to be participating in this event with folks who have cajun surnames (and those who don’t. don’t get it twisted. lol). And for one of the first times since I have started my running journey, I felt both like an authentic ultra runner (albeit very slow still), and a child of my beloved cajun environment at the same time. That was very cool, and I thank you for that, Mr. Higgins and family. Peace. Run. Plants.