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Photo contributed by Lynda Webber/Chattanooga Track Club / Sergio Bianchini, 80, will enter the Last Annual Vol State 500K that begins Thursday and attempt to complete the race in the allotted 10 days. Bianchini, a longtime Chattanooga Track Club member, has finished the race across Tennessee five times in as many attempts.

Ask most folks about their preferred paths to spiritual enlightenment and soul cleansing, and you'll hear of everything from yoga, to meditation, to a day at the spa with cucumber slices over your eyes.

Then there's 80-year-old Sergio Bianchini, who will exit a bus in Missouri on Thursday, ride a ferry over to Hickman, Kentucky, then begin a 314-mile walk/jog/run through the heart of Tennessee to Sand Mountain, Georgia, that must be completed in 10 days or less for one to be considered an official finisher of the Last Annual Vol State 500K.

"It's kind of a spiritual journey for me. It refreshes my soul," said Bianchini, who has crossed the finish line in the required time five times in five tries previously ("last annual" is reportedly an inside joke by the organizers).

Said longtime Chattanooga Track Club member Lynda Webber, who finished the Vol State run with Bianchini in 2015, then vowed to never do it again: "We consider Sergio a freak of nature. He has a very high pain threshold. He's like those old Timex watch commercials — he can take a licking and keep on ticking."

And how. Because his family was too poor to buy him shoes every year when he was growing up in Italy, Bianchini has had foot issues most of his life. He'll run this year's Vol State with a "hammer toe" that's caused him such pain in recent months that he's already asked a surgeon once about amputation of the toe next to his big toe on his left foot.

"We'd stop for him to change his shoes, and he'd have blisters on top of bunions," Webber noted of that 2015 race. "His feet are a mess."

In his 2016 run, a side mirror on a car caught Sergio's arm as it passed by.

"Broke some skin, nothing serious," he said.

Just how serious can those blisters become? The year Webber ran, she said it took "about a month for them to heal. They were deep blisters. When I was still running the race I'd actually stop and pop them, put some ointment on them, tape them up and keep running. I'd say to myself, 'Well, that one won't hurt now.'"

Webber said Bianchini never blinked regarding his injuries: "He's a stoic."

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Photo contributed by Lynda Webber/Chattanooga Track Club / The route for the upcoming Last Annual Vol State 500K road race covers 314 miles, most of it in Tennessee, although it begins in Kentucky and finishes in Georgia.

Some might say everyone who runs in the Vol State is an idiot, given that the entry fee is $500 to make yourself miserable. Many of the 100 or so runners who begin the race each year opt to stay in hotels most nights, including Webber during much of her 2015 run. And more than a few wind up dropping out.

Not Bianchini, however.

"I've slept in the woods, in graveyards, on park benches, in a gazebo," he said. "I'm pretty adaptable. But I don't like running at night. I like to see people and the scenery. So I try to find a place to sleep once it gets dark."

Then, typically, at dawn's early light, he's back on the road again, running, walking, jogging; whatever his body can handle at that moment.

"I've been running for 20 years," he said. "When I started I was 5-5. Now I'm 5 feet, 4 1/2 inches. I've shrunk a bit."

Bianchini moved here 40 years to work for Holiday Inn in the hotel business. Widowed with a son, Marco, who now has two sons of his own, Sergio took up running looking for something to do. It became a passion, then, perhaps, an obsession. If there is one face of the Chattanooga Track Club above all others, it might be Sergio's perpetually smiling one.

"It's been a great way to meet people, make friends," he said.

Two of those CTC friends have actually completed more Vol States than Bianchini. Sal Coll — who has participated in more than 100 ultramarathons — has finished it six times, though he won't be racing this year. Then there's Richard Westbrook, who is about to enter his eighth Vol State at the age of 74. He can also give Bianchini a run on the toughness meter. He completed the 2019 race with a big toe he'd broken the day before the start.

No CTC member has finished the race even once other than Bianchini, Coll, Webber and Westbrook.

Nor is pain the only inconvenience. Bianchini wears the same clothes on his back the whole time, changing only socks and alternating two pairs of shoes.

"I'll bathe in a stream, maybe use a water hose," he said.

As for food?

"I'm pretty thrifty," he explained. "I can get by on $50 for the whole race. Sometimes people along the route — we call them Road Angels — will hand you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an ice-cold water or something. You can also always get something at a convenience store. Sometimes I'll just eat a can of beans. I love those."

So while you're enjoying barbecue, fireworks and all things red, white and blue this Fourth of July, Bianchini intends to rest up for his masochist marathon of 314 miles that passes through every Tennessee town from Dresden to McKenzie to Lexington to Lewisburg to Manchester to Kimball to the Peach State and those final two miles up Sand Mountain to the Rock.

"I might run two or three miles," he said of his Fourth routine. "Nothing stressful. I probably should run more. Every year I think 'I haven't trained enough,' but every year I make it."

Given that Webber has wagered $10 with a friend that Bianchini will be the first 80-year-old to complete the Vol State in the allotted time, he feels a wee bit of pressure to reach the Rock in 10 days or less.

"I can't let her lose her money," he said.

But it's something else Bianchini said about the event that makes it all but certain neither age nor hammer toe will defeat him this time around.

Asked what he disliked about the Vol State, he instantly replied: "Nothing. I love every minute of it."

A freak of nature, indeed.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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