"Old hillbilly, pine-tree-diggin strength."
This is the first of our Boone/Visibles series, where we'll feature people around Boone with interesting stories to tell. Which is pretty much everyone, actually.
You’ve probably seen Bobby Cordell around town. I first noticed him running up that mile-long, thousand-foot climb toward Howard’s Knob. This skinny, red-haired guy had some kind of pack on his back. I’d wave from the ease and comfort of my subaru, and he always waved back. Not a cursory kind of wave you’d completely forgive from someone who must be in some serious discomfort, as this guy had to be, but a truly enthusiastic acknowledgement that we’re all in this together and peace to you, sister.
I got the story of why Bobby started running. And I found out what’s in that pack.
Karen: You started running because of a car accident?
Bobby: I had a collapsed lung, broken jaw, broken bones and stuff. I spent seven days down there in the ICU in Winston-Salem. When I got out I pretty much just gave up on any hopes of exercise. At 310 lbs, I was in really bad shape. And one day I looked in the mirror and said I really want to get in shape. I got down to about 240 through basic exercise,, but I wasn’t really making the progress I wanted. So one day I came up with an idea to sell my car and force myself to run everywhere. I moved to Clint Norris road, and I would run to Boone and back every day for about two years, carrying everything I had with me.
K: Even in the winter?
B: Yep. I would leave the restaurant at around 12:30 at night sometimes and I would run up Route 194. It’s about 3 ½ miles. I was running an average of about 7 ½ miles every day no matter what.
K: How did you feel?
B: I started feeling a lot better. I started running around town. My paces weren’t fast, but I was getting in shape. So, I started running further and further to see how far I could run. One day I did 84 miles, just to see how far I could go.
K: Is that the furthest you’ve ever run?
B: The furthest I ever did was 105 miles in 22 hours on the Boone Greenway. After my friend Matt Jenkins ran across the state to raise money for the Western Youth Network, he came back to Boone and as a welcome back present, me and some friends decided we were going to do an all-day thing out there.
K: Do you run every day?
B: When I first started I would run every single day no matter what. And now, I’m like, okay, it’s good to take breaks and rest and recover. So sometimes I’ll run seven days a week and sometimes I’ll run like six or five.
K: Do you compete?
B: I’ve won a few small races, and I’ve done some ultra marathons. My first competitive race was known as the Bethel Hill Moonlight Boogie. It’s considered one of the hardest ultras in the country. I finished fourth place in that, and I was really proud. It starts in June at 6pm, and the average temperature’s 95-97 degrees. It’s in Ellerbe, NC. The race waiver will tell you that there’s snakes, snapping turtles, turkey vultures, people will throw things at you, and everything in the race waiver is there. I honestly will say that the Boogie is the hardest race I ever seen in my life.
K: Do you ever have time for other things besides working and running?
B: I’ll draw. Eat. I eat a lot. I eat a whole lot. I like hanging out at coffee shops, I’ll go to Appalachian Mountain Brewery and just chill there and relax, but for the most part, it’s pretty simple. I just like running, eating, resting, work. That’s about it.
At the end of the interview, he told me what was in the backpack he ran with up on Howard’s Knob. He’d gotten a pack big enough for a spare tire, and added some rocks and chains to make it weigh over 80 pounds. His theory was that if he hurt during his regular runs, his races would seem easy. I asked him what he weighs now. He said 145 lbs.
Bobby grew up on the Watauga County side of Beech Mountain, and when I marveled at his strength and endurance, he credited it to having to help dig up trees on his folks’ property in his youth. He said, “There’s nothing like old hillbilly, pine-tree-diggin’ strength.”
*A longer version of this profile of Bobby Cordell will appear in the Winter 2016-2017 issue of High Country Magazine.