Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Dressing up and Getting Down (Oil Creek 100k and RWS Trail Marathon)

A week had passed since my shockingly better-than-imagined 4th place finish at the Oil Creek 100k, and I was still sitting on the prospect of registering for the Run with Scissors double trail marathon. It was feasible, yes. So was eating a triple order of crab rangoon with a side of fried rice. But, it was a risky move. I stared at the registration page, and studied it, as though looking at it longer was going to make the decision that much wiser. Two weeks later I'd have to run 100 miles on crushed limestone at the Tunnel Hill 100. The last thing I needed were janky knees and ankles.

There are two things in life from which I suffer event specific amnesia: ordering cheap Chinese takeout, and registering for back-to-back trail ultras. Both cause unstoppable, uncontrollable suffering, and yet I find myself eating them both up like a fool, again and again. The choice was mine here: salad or crab rangoon? I clicked the 'register' button. I was in for 52.4 miles. My intestines were already roiled with the wrath of hell.

Oil Creek was my little Cinderella story of ultra racing. I'd emerged from the Barkley Fall Classic intact and with a huge PR, finishing 11th out of the 52 women who started the race (of which only 22 finished) in 11:50. My training had come to a near halt with just the 32 miles and 6,000ft of climbing I ran in Chillocothe the following weekend, and then a scatter of road miles during the week leading up to the race. I was sleep deprived, broke, fat, and exhausted by the time race day arrived, and had hoped to eke out a time in the ballpark of 15:30, banking on my success at other races during the year as a base upon which I could begin negotiations with my muscles and bones when the going started to get rough. I slept on the Titusville Middle School gym floor the night before the race, and woke up feeling more like I was heading out to feed chickens than run in the mountains. How in the hell was I going to compete, even against myself, when I had such a lackadaisical attitude toward racing?

Starting two to three rows back, I fell quickly into 5th place within the first mile of the start. And then, I just ran. Period. I maintained the same strategy I'd embraced at Frozen Head two weeks earlier, charging the climbs and coasting the flats and down slopes. There was no point is sprinting when the running got easy; that killed the quads. And, there was no point in running the climbs; that killed the hamstrings. The best way to keep moving was to employ power and agility-- strong, fast climbing with my shoulders upright and breathing steady. Quick side-steps on the down slopes. Jog the flats. Without a watch or clock, it was utterly impossible to gage pace as accurately on this terrain as I normally can in road or easier trail events. I suspected I was doing well as I headed into the final aid station of the 50k loop, but had no idea I was cruising toward 24.5 miles in less than 5.5 hours. Having climbed over 5,000ft already, I was making good time; and, I figured if I really pushed hard, I could cover the first 50k under 7 hours. It had taken me nearly 7:20 to do it the year before. With caution in the wind and not a care in the world, I rolled into the start finish in 6:37.

As I headed out to start my second 50k loop, it became apparent that I was not only holding onto speed I hadn't an inkling I possessed, but I was a lot further ahead of the 6th and 7th place women than I'd anticipated-- at least a mile. I continued to charge the hills and float the easies, had no catastrophic encounters with bears or diarrhea, and began to wonder as the miles passed, what the hell was happening. My races simply don't follow this path on the flow chart. Rather, they typically follow the vein of: "Does your knee or hip hurt? No? Fall into a bed of rocks. Are you bleeding yet? Yes? Pee your pants. How does that chafing feel? Bad? Pee again. Now how does it feel? Wipe icy hot onto it instead of Butt Balm." Here I was, now 45 miles into the race, sneaking glances over my shoulder while passing runner after runner and...well, passing runner after runner. It was like I'd dodged that bed of rocks and skidded into the Twilight Zone. As I left the aid station, a last glance over my shoulder indicated that there were no women anywhere in sight behind me. And it was then, I think, if one were to ask when my race really began, that I decided I was going to race this 100k.

The trails at Oil Creek are a constant flow of climbs and descents with some stretches of very runnable terrain in between. Between the Petro Center aid station and the unmanned water stops on the way to the last major aid station, I caught sight of the 4th place woman, walking about 100 yards ahead of me up a minor incline; and, I took this as my opportunity to move ahead as much as it sucked running up a hill. Knowing how demoralizing it can be being passed at this stage by someone who is clearly running with a little more gusto, I figured charging fast was the only way to make sure I didn't slip into a pattern of loafing along in a game of leap frog. She managed to pace close behind me through the final aid station, but then I never saw her again, even as night fell and my poor night vision led to a painfully slow running pace teemed with a series of tumbles, stumbles, and close encounters with every sort of plant and rock known to the park. I finished sprinting in 14:28, nearly 2.5 hours faster than my time in 2014.

I celebrated by eating too much, sleeping too little, and then going back to work the next day. I took a week off after which I made my usual ambitious training plans that I had no intention or inclination to keep, and then spent another week fumbling through easy miles and no really cohesive plan. With three weeks until Tunnel Hill 100 and one week until Run with Scissors, I had to make a decision. Salad and smart, or 6 pieces of crab rangoon? Crab rangoon. With fried rice.

I changed my mind and emailed the race director two days before the race. It was going to be hard enough beating 24 hours at Tunnel Hill fat and out of shape. I didn't need to further complicate things by blowing out my knees, hip, and ankle two weeks before driving to Illinois.

I drove to the race after working all night and started the marathon feeling like I was halfway to hell and halfway asleep. Run with Scissors is a laid back event that falls close to Halloween and encourages costumery and fun, two things I don't have to be twice reminded to embrace. Overdressed in formal attire with footed nylon stockings, a long sleeved shirt under my dress, and a lot of jewelry, as an 80's prom queen, I was moving fast and suffering hard less than 10 miles into the race. The good thing about costume races, however, is that the more ridiculous you look, the more distracting it is to everyone around you, and laughter is contagious. In other words, by taking the cake for looking especially ridiculous, it was really hard to stay miserable. I'd set no real goals heading into the race except, perhaps, to pace under 12:00/mile. On a trail course that boasted a vertical profile of about 2,200ft for the marathon, this seemed reasonable providing Mother Nature didn't unleash another mud bath like I'd seen so many times this year already.

Unlike Oil Creek, people passed me every mile along the way. At 10 miles, I was in 2nd place. By 16 miles, I'd fallen to 4th. The Perkins loop, a five mile segment loaded with hills and creeks that I'd marked two days prior to the race, is typically one of my favorite places to run, but knowing every turn, root, and hill along the way made it seem twice as long and twice as challenging at this stage in the race. An aid station sandwiched the loop at 11 and 16 miles, and as I approached it the second time, I was tired and thirsty. Two hours and fifty-one minutes had lapsed. That meant I had 2:08 to finish the last 10.2 miles if I was going to finish under 5 hours. Apparently, somewhere between "I don't care" and 16 miles, I'd decided this was the time I was aiming to beat. It felt like a long shot, but if I kept running, I figured I might come close. And, even if I didn't, at least I'd make a grand appearance at the finish line, dressed the way I was.

The next six miles passed a lot faster and drama-free than I anticipated, and I'd somehow managed to continue running the entire way. I reached the last aid station feeling like I was at mile 96 instead of 22, but with 53 minutes to cover the last four miles. The trail, after the second to last road crossing, becomes a serpentine twist of root and leaf covered hills. At the top of the last major climb, my friend Mark Carroll was waiting and offered a fist bump and words of encouragement. Terri Lemke, who'd paced my last 35 miles at the 2014 Burning River 100 was right behind me, and passed me shortly thereafter. This was actually a helpful move, as she was moving very fast and I was trying very hard to keep up, or at least keep her in sight. In retrospect, I don't think I'd have done as well had she not passed me at this point. As I turned the corner toward the last long, grassy stretch leading to the finish line, I heard one half marathoner (who'd started two hours after me) telling another that they'd be finishing under 3:00. That meant I'd be finishing under 5:00. I passed them in what was probably a bizarre looking sprint in my flashy jewelry bedecked formal wear and black tights, and finished in 4:55:53. Like Oil Creek, it was an incredibly unexpected success.

Now, with 10 days separating me from my last long race of the year, I'm sitting here wondering what I've gotten myself into this time, having set the bar higher than ever before. It isn't even a question of smart or stupid, cautious or ambitious, salad or triple order of crab rangoon. It's a question of whether or not I can keep my shit together for 20 hours rather than 10, whether I can keep running without the hills to break the monotony and pain, without the roots to keep me mindful, creeks to keep me on my toes. It's something I've yet to do in a race distance that always exceeds my ability to maintain logical sensory perception processing, where bones hurt as much as muscles, and food issues can't be ignored. In 10 days, I can only hope that it all comes together, and I find a way to keep it there.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Rock, Paper, Scissors and Blood (Barkley Fall Classic 2015)

It's a universal truth that everything hurts the morning after. Stairs. Squatting over the toilet. Standing up from the toilet. Wiping your chafed ass. Bending over to pick up a potato chip you dropped on the floor. Lifting your leg off the ground when you thought you'd be clever by picking up the potato chip with your toes. Everything hurts. I was prepared for the devil to get me in the shower in the worst kind of way when water hit parts I didn't think possible to rub raw. But this?

The digital display on my car's clock came into focus and I realized it was only 4:46am. Well, 4:48 since my clock is two minutes slow. I've long since grown accustomed to employing the backseat of my car for overnighters when I'm too cheap or too broke to pay for a hotel, or too lazy to pitch a tent. And, after the post-race festivities slowed down to a crawl, I crawled into the backseat and woke up to this. The first thing that struck me in this disoriented state of discomfort was that my body was crunched like an accordion, stuffed into an ill-fitted box. Dirty body parts were everywhere, bent and contorted in unnatural ways, half shimmied out of filthy race clothes that smelled like sweat, windex, and urine. And that-- that was the second thing that bludgeoned me like a gong: the smell. I think this was one of the few moments of my days as a single lady during which I was thanking all that's holy I didn't have a boyfriend in that car with me. I smelled like a zoo exhibit on a hot day. The smell and contorted agony were so overcharged that it only struck me as I fastened my seatbelt that my belly button ring had been ripped from my body. When or how, I don't know. But that, ladies and gentlemen, was my morning after.

Some races come and go without much enthusiasm or post-race fanfare. I race them hard, but they don't really rock my socks off or put me in the kind of mind frame that can grip entire weeks. Nothing about my 2015 race season had gone particularly well. I'd dumped over a thousand dollars int my failed attempt at the Ouray 100 in Colorado. My finish at the Mohican 100 didn't even count because after making it through 95 miles of aid stations, I'd failed to make the cutoff at the finish. My last half marathon was 10 minutes slower than my best time in 2014. Ten minutes. And the Barkley Marathons in March? I'd made it a whopping 8 miles. Coming back to Frozen Head State Park for the Barkley Fall Classic 50k six months later felt deeply personal, especially with the course changes making the difficulty of Barkley Jr closer to that of a loop at the real race. The time now required to finish a loop of each were going to be near mirror images, I suspected. I'd decided I needed to break 12 hours, even if it meant breaking a limb or fighting off wild animals, even if a hailstorm struck or the fury of hell itself was released onto the course, which, with rumored snakes and near 90 degree heat seemed more likely than not.

I've been running and racing for a long time, and writing about it for years, and it is always incredibly amusing when people put a target on my back. I'm borderline overweight, and a busted broke single mother, and I live in Ohio (which, according to the general public, I've learned, is basically one giant cornfield with a single road playing connect the dots between the only places of real civilization: Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland.) They find me, though, and always seem to ask questions like, "how do you even train for mountain races in Ohio?" (on the treadmill, of course) Or, sometimes they can't even bring themselves to ask these kinds of questions because it's painfully apparent by the looks on their faces that they're horrified to discover that the person they're trying to beat actually is a very average looking chubby girl who wears band t-shirts to races and speaks with a lisp and a rustbelt Ohio valley accent. So, they make polite but banal commentary on something before scooting elsewhere to talk to someone a little less awkwardly uncool. The Barkley Fall Classic this year was almost a caricature of all these things, probably much to their chagrin and my amusement. They found me more than ever at this event. "I'd really hoped to beat you"... Set the bar, right?

Accomplishing goals generally requires a rather cohesive plan. My plan was to demolish the climbs and jog the easy parts until I hit Chimney Top. And, while I might look more like I throw the shot put than run ultras, but I'm particularly adept at mountain climbing, so after the race started with the traditional lighting of Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell's cigarette at 7am, I took off faster than I'd normally like, hoping to hit the switchbacks up Bird Mountain closer to the front of the chasing pack so that I didn't end up spending the next few miles politely asking to pass people on every climb. It worked. I counted 5 women in front of me as we made the turn off up the mountain. I remembered the gasping, exhausted horror I'd experienced the year before, musing about how sweat-drenched my clothes were by the time I'd reached 5 miles. I'd have been in for a real treat if conditions had been the same as this year during that first go around. By the second mile, I already looked like I'd run a marathon. The climb itself wasn't nearly as demoralizing and miserable as I remembered it being, and while I'd only gotten to the first aid station a few minutes faster this year, it seemed light years closer. I didn't eat, but drank as much as I could without puking, and then set off to find out what this Deja Vu Hill was all about. Not surprisingly, it felt like deja vu, although it was actually a rather enjoyable course change without any major climbs or obstacles to trip me, largely runnable. And, although the group I'd been running with made a wrong turn that required a map check, I still headed into the Tub Springs aid station in great shape. If last year had been defined by the phrase, "I ain't supposed to be here", this year was gearing up to be a really spectacular "I'm going to own this fucking horse and pony show no matter how badly wrong it goes".

Between all the entertaining requests for information on how to get into the real Barkley (I'm not Santa Claus, and this isn't Christmas, folks), I tried to amuse those around me with musings about the demonstrated proof of the universal truth in the game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. "Just look around Frozen Head-- there's trees growing out of rocks everywhere"; but, they just kind of looked at me like I was psychologically unbalanced. And, after my third blast forward over a rock or root, I began to wonder if I ought to warn them that they were going to go down with this ship if they didn't get the hell out of the red zone that was clearly surrounding me. I was taking the flats and downhills as conservatively as I could, but my running gait is generally an exaggerated arm swinging, stumbling mess, and I was making my way down the mountain like a tornado, taking branches and rocks with me every step of the way.

At Tub Springs, I had a bite of banana and a lot of water, knowing the easy miles were largely packed away for a while like fond memories in the bottom of the Trunk of Shattered Dreams. I didn't really allow myself to get caught up in the panic of Testicle Spectacle, one of the Barkley Marathons features added to the jr course, the way so many others had. I knew the next 4 miles were the BDSM venture of trail running and I was going to get whipped, ripped, and tortured with heat, thorns and climbs almost too vertical to be real. But, that was what had brought me back here in the first place. That the race's facebook page had been bedecked with pictures of dead people and grim reapers had become so ridiculous I'd actually had to turn off page notifications for a while. It just didn't seem healthy to be so amused by what others felt was going to be my pain and suffering. Those are things of which I've never been afraid in the more robust of trail ultras. Rather, I'm afraid of the clock. So, I battled my own demon by refusing to wear a watch; and, I went into the more sadistic portion of this course, where briers grew without caution, without any type of protective gear.

Testicle Spectacle is a sight to behold, a half mile of steep descent or ascent (depending on which way you're tackling it) full of thorns, rocks, mud, and other things that make travel painfully slow, in the order of an estimated 40 minute per mile pace. In the Fall Classic, we had the pleasure of viewing it from the top twice: once before descending it, and again after we'd climbed back to the top. The descent was a bizarre series of slides, tumbles, and the eventual acceptance that I wasn't meant to be on my feet. Even when the coast seemed clear for a few yards and I built up enough confidence to pretend I was going to run, something reached out and grabbed my ankles sending me airborne and onto my ass again. Getting to the bottom was of little consolation or worth delaying the inevitable carnage that awaited in the ascent. To be honest, I don't know whether it was slower to ascend or descend; but, it was certainly more terrifying climbing back up knowing that the line of people creeping their way up above me could lose their footing at any moment and slide back down, taking us below like a bunch of dominoes. It also didn't help that "Funky Town" had become my race's earworm, and the more I tried to fight it, the more the chorus tormented me.

Seeing Meth Lab Hill spread out before me on the other side of the path at the top was like finding out I'd been randomly selected as a test subject for a new taser gun. I'd been hacking up copious amounts of yellowish green mucous all day thanks to my latest run-in with bronchitis, and when I started coughing at the top of Meth Lab Hill, I half peed my pants. The fall that followed was the kind of execution that inspires poetry. I was everywhere all at once, scratches and scrapes finding their way under my arm and onto my butt. The more I skidded, the more rocks poured into my right shoe, and in a flash both sets of shoelaces were untied, and I came barreling down the hill like an avalanche and a whirlwind simultaneously until I finally spilled left into some type of scratchy shrubbery. If I'd have had half a mind to laugh, I'd have probably thought to take a bow. Doubtlessly, someone bore witness to this wonder.

Through the woods, I ran with surprising strength until the old Brushy Mountain prison came into view down the sun scorched road. I was relieved to find aid here, water and an electrolyte drink that were amazingly cold after having been parading under the hot sun for so long. It was an adventure to connect up with a group that included Gina Fioroni, Chris Gkikas and others, touring the prison past rusted cells and dark hallways. Our race bibs were punched by Mike Dobies (current record holder for most Barkley Marathons 60-mile "fun run" finishes), and then we began the grueling trip up toward Rat Jaw.

I would love to take an intermission here. I would love to pause because it's mentally exhausting even thinking about the complete and utter misery and horror that I experienced on this single mile that I swear, even now, took at least 12 hours. If the other sections of the course that I remember from having run them before seemed easier and faster this time around, Rat Jaw made up for all of it and then some. I did not struggle there last year. This year, it was the mothership of all agony around which all of the other miseries and pains were positioned. While there were saw briers and baking sun, the biggest obstacle was actually stretches of black dirt of the same consistency as dry potting soil that made climbing almost impossible. And, we just kept climbing. Up. Up into the grips of the grim reapers I'd laughed at in facebook. Up into the arms of the thorny brambles that hugged and begged me to stay. Up until runners had literally given up and sat down any place that offered even a vague whisper of shade. The worst part was that none of it looked familiar, aside from the power lines above and on the ground. How was it possible that I'd done this before? I could have sworn the whole thing had been fashioned especially for this occasion. Chris was deteriorating. Twice Gina had to remind him to get up and keep moving. Others within our group, including identically dressed Anne Lang and Lauren Kraft, were struggling with the climbs here, too. Time played by its own rules here, completely defying the laws of physics, and I became convinced we'd fallen hours behind the cutoff. At one point, we were all just sort of staggering up from all directions toward the top, and someone commented that it looked like we were enacting a zombie scene from the Walking Dead. Finally, after one of the guys spotted the rock crevice, we began the final ascent toward the Fire Tower.

Back at Tub Springs a half mile later, I wasted no time. I'd been out for nearly 8 hours, and had yet to eat more than a bite or two of banana, but I didn't feel particularly hungry or wasted. "There are 3.1 miles until you get to Laz", Keith Dunn informed me. Interesting, I thought, considering there were 4.1 miles from here to that point last year, and the course hadn't changed. It was easy running, and I took it easy, jogging rather than aggressively running to save some energy for the dreaded Chimney Top climb that was approaching. I reached Laz at 3:46pm, or approximately 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff-- precisely the same time as last year. "Well," I told myself, "barring catastrophe, it'll be a course PR". My feet were in great shape, and Laz looked thrilled to see me come through, probably looking as strong as I did. Another bite of banana later, I took off running toward the Chimney Top trail. If I really busted my ass, 12 hours was still on the table.

Last year, Chimney Top had been my breaking point. I'd sat down, peed in the open, suffered dizziness, muscle convulsions, blisters that bled, lost toenails, and moved so outrageously slow that it had taken 4 hours to finish the last 9 miles. This year, still scarred from the nightmare of that experience, I powered up the mountain so fast I passed at least a dozen people along the way. I just wanted to get to the top and be done with the damn thing. I still had to sit down once and rest against a tree another time, but I kept the breaks just long enough to catch my breath which had started to sound like a freight train every time I started climbing. It all happened so fast that I flew past snakes and the capstones until I was running and realized I'd long since past the top and was rapidly heading down toward the Spicewood aid station. This was it! If I could get to Spicewood by 6:00, I had 12 hours in the bag. For the first time during the entire race, I checked the time. It was 5:53. That meant I had 7 minutes to clear the aid station, and then an hour to finish the last 3.5 miles. The aid station came into view at 5:59. I filled my water bottle and took off; there was no time for food or chit-chat. "How does this compare to the real Barkley?" the volunteer asked. "Way harder than last year's Fall Classic; that's for sure" I shouted, and took off running.

I continued to accelerate over the next couple miles, until I reached the bottom of the main trail. Here I hesitated for a minute and actually started heading right at the intersection until I realized that was heading back up and I was supposed to be going down. 6:36. I had 24 minutes and about a mile to go. When I got back to Laz's station, he'd been replaced by Stu Gleman who was checking bib punches. "Did you go through Spicewood?" he asked, and I became momentarily confused. "I did the whole loop", I said. After checking my bib, I skipped back into a run through a parking lot where I found Laz. "Was it easier than you expected?" he asked, in the same way he asks people who finish their journeys at the big Barkley. "Well, I did it an hour faster this year somehow!" I shouted back. I ran the whole way to the finish where the smell of grilled hamburgers was as exciting as the cheering crowd of people. Food! I hadn't eaten for 12 hours. Twelve hours!

I finished in 11:50:39, one minute shy of an hour faster than last year. And then, thanks to the direction of Keith Dunn, I had my burger, smothered in A1 sauce with an ice cold pepsi on the side. It was pure magic. After that, I got to do what I love doing most. Seeing people finish is thrilling, and I always stay until the last one is done. When you've been in that position yourself, fighting a cutoff or bringing up the rear, you learn to appreciate just how special it is just to cross the finish line, no matter how long it takes. And, after all, that's what Barkley miles are all about-- finding out what you're capable of doing and pushing the bar just a little bit higher. There's always a cutoff biting at your ankles, whether it's theirs or your own. I will always have unfinished business at Frozen Head, and though I haven't yet figured out what it is I'm trying to find there, I will keep coming back until I have.

In a couple days, I'll be back out into the swing of things, running between midnight shifts, dreaming about my next adventure. There's always another one waiting, and another story waiting to be told.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Things I Lost and the Things I Found: Ouray 100

Ouray, Colorado. July 31st. Friday.

Let's set the stage.

At over 12,000 ft above sea level, I was dancing in the clouds. It was a paradise of sorts, a misty, mountainous paradise, snow still capping some of the highest peaks in the San Juan mountains, quaint little shops lining the sides of the streets down below. It was beautiful, picturesque, a scene stripped from a poem.

An Edgar Allan Poe poem. Or one of Salvador Dali's paintings. I wasn't dancing with Prince Charming; I was dancing with my trekking poles, and the clouds were actually below my feet, off to the right, ringing another mountaintop like the evil of Mordor from Lord of the Rings. Perhaps my mind was there, or somewhere else outside my body. It certainly felt like it.

The mountains that spread as far as the eye could see might be a sea of blues and greens and oranges, but the earth that comprised my immediate surroundings was brown-- layer upon layer of brown, all the way to the stratosphere, it seemed, where this godforsaken mountain and all of its switchbacks ended.

"I can't!" I bellowed, heaving out a hoarsely croaked breath. A jeep blasted by, spraying mud in its passing; and, then another and another and another jeep followed. My face was melting off in the freezing rain. My arms were like frozen dead tree branches, wet gloved hands petrified in their contorted expression of agony, half clutching the poles. My lungs were on fire. And it was thundering. "I can't do it anymore", I screamed. And then I dutifully continued to climb. For an hour.

I've written before of the things I've carried, the things I've left behind, the layers I've shed, and the things I've remembered and forgotten. I don't think I've ever experienced, however, anything quite like waking up in a convenience store parking lot, or watching in horror as a bear tears off into the woods with my hot dogs and Fritos. Or hearing that Cheerleader song on the radio for the 34th time in a 36 hour span. I was hoping to find something magical during this trip, to fall in love, to embrace a lifelong dream. Instead, it was like coming home from a blind date with Ted Bundy. I'd survived, but I was jaded. And broke. And, that was just half of it.

Ouray was supposed to be my call to the wild. I'd registered not long after Barkley, realizing my passion is in the mountains and that climbing was my true forte. I tested my endurance first with a 28 hour finish at Indiana 100, and then 6 weeks later at the heartier Mohican 100. In between, I did a bunch of 20-30 mile trail runs, and repeats on one of the hardest hills I could find. It wasn't Alpine training, but it was the best I could muster in a state known more for its cornfields and abandon steel mills than its mountainous landscape.

Despite everything that had transpired in the days leading up to the event, the race itself started great. I was powering up the first mountain feeling like a million bucks, chatting and looking forward to really getting into the grittier part of the race after the sun that hadn't yet risen finally set again. The climbing was consistent, but the terrain wasn't difficult, and I realized as the first aid station came into view that I was doing well. I was surprised to find that many of the typical aid station staples such as Heed, gels, and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches were absent, but it appeared the ladies manning it had been in a rush to get it even as functional as it was; and, being so early-- barely over an hour into the race, I wasn't overly worried. Water and a bite of a rice crispies treat would do for now. After all, there were only 5 miles until we returned, right?

Right. I got my first taste of mountain running in the throes of high altitude after about a mile of climbing up a service road. The ascent started innocently enough: beautiful shaded trails, not totally unlike what we have here in Ohio...barring, of course, you know, oxygen. Or, a lack thereof, I should say. But, I knew that was coming, and I handled it gracefully at first. I was calm and calculated in my steps, but aggressive enough that I discovered I was leading the women's field at the turnaround at 8 miles. This continued into the descent back toward the aid station where, lungs again filling with air, I was buzzing from the oxygen struggle, and hungry enough that candy and water weren't particularly appealing anymore. I pecked around at the fare, condemned myself to 3 more miles of climbing, hoping that maybe I'd find something to eat at the next aid station. I still felt ok, accepting that the headache was normal for high altitude, and that this was the piece I'd bitten when I registered for a mountain 100.

Miles 10-13 were my least favorite. The service road, exposed to the sun, was dusty and endless it seemed, and the climbing was such that I was just uncomfortable enough that I couldn't run, but not so much that I was wheezing and gasping, searching for a rock to use as a temporary stool. That came later. It was here, however, that I found myself trekking with the same handful of people that I would see for the duration of my race. I arrived at the aid station with Krystie Martinez in 3:58, still leading but feeling extremely hungry. I really wanted a sandwich, or maybe some fruit-- even some potatoes, but a quick scan indicated nothing of the sort was available here. Anxious and frustrated, I asked for ginger ale, which the lone volunteer at the aid station retrieved from a cooler. I was hot, hungry, and my lungs were tired. Two advil and a ginger ale later, I was left with a faint fogginess that accompanied the headache, and a nagging sense that things were just kind of off kilter. Food-- why wasn't there real food here? Who runs 100 miles in the San Juan mountains on hydrox cookies and sour patch kids? Especially, I realized, when there were 9 miles and massive, epic climbing ahead of me-- including a 13,365 ft peak...and no water drops along the way. "Get it together, Kimberly", I said out loud, took in a deep breath, a huge pile of sour patch kids, and headed out, Krystie right behind me. This wasn't the time to hit a wall. Not this early.

The next 9 miles were a series of ascents and descents for which words simply cannot do justice. I remember, at one sad point halfway up the ascent to Fort Peabody, thinking about Nazi altitude experiments, and how awful my lungs and head felt. Don't Cessnas fly at 10,000 ft? I sat down at least 6 times, and passed a number of other people who were doing the same. At times I wasn't sure if I was even moving at a 1 mile per hour pace. I drank when I remembered, which wasn't enough; but, even that much led to a near catastrophic turn of events when I came within 2 oz of running out. I was eternally grateful for my trekking poles which were taking the edge off the brutal thigh and quad crushing climbs, and by the time I reached the peak, I felt like I was on Mars-- not because I was staring out over what looked like another world, but because I was so starving and out of breath I felt like I'd transcended the land of the living. Could I float back down the mountain? Or slide? I sat down and took some pictures, dizzy and dogged. The descent wasn't going to be easy, but at least it meant getting more air, and doing something that resembled running. I'd fallen into 4th place, and didn't particularly care. I had two miles to the bottom, and then one more climb and descent until I came back to the aid station.

Imogene Pass wasn't easy. If you've ever been lost in the woods and really, really hungry and desperate, you get the gist of what I've been building in this recount of my experience in the Seventh Level of Hell. Granted, I wasn't lost and there weren't any woods, but I was definitely really, really hungry and really fucking desperate. If you don't get the gist of it, by all means, take a bottle of water and a bag of sour patch kids, go to the nearest skyscraper, and start walking up to the top and back down, over and over for 8 hours. If you don't get arrested, by the end you'll have either found the secret to nirvana, or you'll look like I did when I came into the aid station at 22 miles.

"How far?" I asked, scooping up as many sour patch kids as would fit in my hand, washing them down with warm ginger ale.

"Five miles"


"Unfortunately, yes."

Cheezits. At least there were Cheezits here, even if there weren't any sandwiches, eggs, potatoes, or anything else that I typically eat during 50+ mile races. I suddenly felt like I understood that poor bear, fleeing with Fritos and Capri Sun pouches, into the woods. Fuck. I'd eat a dirty piece of pizza abandon on the side of the trail. Or finish someone's half drank can of Dad's root beer, warm and flat with a dead fly floating in it. Boy, was I going to eat when I got done. All I could think about, between the gasps for breath and waves of foggy headache, were cheeseburgers with french fries and cole slaw piled on top, and chicken wings. Ice cold pop. Beer. Big fruit salads with marshmallows and jello mixed in. Potato chips with cold french onion dip. Hell. Half that stuff I don't even eat anymore, but I wanted it all in a giant spread at the finish line. I was going to bathe in it like a god in sacrificial blood.

The climb that waited for me was a difficult experience of scree, hunger, and altitude that left me frolicking like a kid on Christmas when I finally departed the trail for the grass, snow, and boulders that waited at the top. It was confusing at times finding the orange utility flags that marked the course, but not completely impossible. The cliffs next to the trail that resumed were overwhelming to view, but made navigation easy, at least, for a while. My legs felt good. My lungs and head did not. Krystie and I had been running, or climbing anyway, closely for miles, but I left her here, running ahead down the mountain. There was a mix of trees and sun exposure on these switchbacks, with a lot of little offshoot trails and intersections. I took the trail that seemed to lead, and kept moving, watching as the campground down below got closer and closer each time. Well, until I didn't see it at all. Or anyone else. Or any course markings, for that matter. I realized, in a moment of sweaty, lightheaded, hungry terror, that I had been passing all sorts of trail intersections and hadn't seen any type of course marking for a long time. Where was I? And, where was everyone else? I stood there, at the bottom of the mountain, hot and confused and scared. "Hello?" I shouted. Nobody answered. I tried again. And again. And, nobody answered. Had I really gotten that far ahead of Krystie?

This was probably That Moment: the climax of the story where gears shift, and it all kind of comes together in a display of fireworks. Or, in my case, an explosion of tears and rain and sour patch kids. I started climbing. Well, first I stood there, dazed and confused and desperate for a solid 90 seconds. Then, the shouted "hello" metamorphosized into a cried "help!" Then, I started climbing back up. Up. Up. The sweat was pouring. I stopped drinking water. How had I missed a turn? I didn't know what else to do but go back, back until either I found someone or confirmed my direction. About halfway up, I ran into Krystie and a guy named Doug, and together we began the long descent back to the bottom of the mountain. Once there, we continued on for quite a while before finally encountering a streamer tied to a tree branch. My fear had turned to frustration.

Crossing a road that led to a dirt path, two girls were waiting who told us it was a half mile to the aid station. I swear it was the longest half mile I've ever run. At one point, we were standing in the midst of an open camping area, staring vacantly around like a bunch of children. By the time the aid station came into view, I was exhausted. There was food, hot food, a bounty of food, but I had lost my desire to eat. Officially, we were at 27+ miles, but I'd covered well over 30 already, and although we'd been out for nearly 11 hours, I was still nearly 3 hours ahead of the cutoff. I choked down half of a cheese quesadilla and a piece of watermelon, and some coke. And then, Krystie and I left the aid station together for a long 8 mile section up and back down Corkscrew Gulch. And here, the story swings back around to the beginning: cue the rain, the thunder, and a series of retraced steps. And miles that could only be longer if they were in Frozen Head State Park.

I quit. I quit not even halfway into the race, somewhere between 35 and 40 miles, at the top of the mountain. If ever there was an image for the phrase "I threw in the towel" it was here, except instead of a towel it was my trekking poles. And if anything embodies the phrase "I literally can't even", it was me when I got picked up by the Texas preacher who drove me down the mountain in the back of his jeep. I couldn't even stay awake. It was a first of many feelings, namely the first time I didn't feel bad about dropping while I was in the process of doing it. Afterward, of course, there's that walk of shame from the car to the house when I'm left wondering why I hadn't toughed it out, at least to the next aid station. Why I hadn't eaten, napped, and changed clothes. But, at the time, I was just glad to be done with the whole thing. It was over.

And, all the restaurants were closed. I couldn't even celebrate my failure with a cheeseburger and a beer if I wanted to.

I drove back to Ohio with a sense of having lost sight of what I'd wanted to accomplish in Colorado. I felt let down and lost. I felt like I'd been bottomed out, and exhausted from racing. With six weeks until the Barkley Fall Classic-- one of my few remaining races, I'm ready to wind down 2015. Tunnel Hill 100 will be a nice change of pace from the aggressive climbs, and I've raced Oil Creek 100k before. You learn a lot of things, every time you're out there on one of these adventures. Sometimes you break records, and sometimes you go home broken. I found out that I'm not invincible. I broke. And, for a little while, I lost my heart. In the weeks that come, I intend to find my way back again, and have the race of a lifetime at Tunnel. It's the adventure I crave most, after all, and the freedom of exploring myself without the parameters of everyday life closing in around me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

2015 Mohican Trail 100, and the Things I Left Behind

On Friday afternoon, I was confident.

I'd sneaked quietly, or not so quietly perhaps, into the 100 mile race at the last minute, completely unable to shake the desire to do what I've been wanting to do at Mohican for years. Spending a day and a night in the woods, constantly moving-- and particularly doing it as self reliant as possible, has become my elixir for all of life's problems, and my getaway from the noise of daily life; it's my religion and therapy, and a place to hop into the rabbit hole and learn things about myself. It's an adventure and a desire. Sometimes, when I stop long enough to think about why I do this to myself, it feels as though there's something within me that craves this sort of attack on the senses and the elements, a deep seeded desire to take on tasks that are brutal and overwhelming-- just to know how much my mind and body can withstand. The breaking point is where I cave in, where I quit. I threw in the towel too soon at the Barkley Marathons this past March, and it's been consuming me since then. Mohican was to be the second 100 mile trail race I've taken on since then, and the second of five attempts this year. Five in one year. Taking that in is like taking in a tornado.

Lately I've taken on a very literal "keep it real; keep with the roots" sort of approach to running, which meant I was ok heading to Mohican State Park without crew, pacers, tons of expensive gear, without hotel accommodations, without the overpriced nutrition products marketed at long distance runners. I'd done the same at Indiana 100 six weeks before, and aside from a brief dance with the cold that required some time wrapped in a space blanket, things didn't suddenly spiral out of control simply because I was wearing cheap pants and fueling with grilled cheese instead of Vespa. I finished in 28:01 despite the mud, rain and cold that forced half the field to drop; and, I recovered very quickly, and was back to hitting 20-25+ mile long runs within 10 days. People were disturbed to see I'd brought cotton t-shirts to Mohican, and I spent the whole race wearing Ye Old Faithfuls-- my ancient retro style black marathon shorts that are in such bad condition they require safety pins to stay up. But, to each his or her own. I wanted to be comfortable, and running in whatever I had available to me, growing up poor in the city, is what makes me feel comfortable. Sleeping in my car also brought a sense of solitude and simplicity that made me feel very much at one with my surroundings.

Race morning unfortunately came long before I was ready, however, as the parking lot across the street from the starting line was also directly next to the area where police and search & rescue were trolling the water for the bodies of two teenagers who'd drowned earlier that evening in the water near the dam. While the information hadn't yet hit the news, I had enough intuition to know what was happening, and it kept me up very late, unable to turn off my brain long enough to sleep for more than a couple hours. I got dressed, ate some peanut butter and pureed bananas and mangos, and headed out toward the start.

The race started without me even realizing it had started. A first, even in my world of the racing bizarre.

I guess at some point a horn sounded, or maybe a gun, blow horn, whistle-- your guess is as good as mine; but, I wasn't paying attention and before I knew it, I was thrown into the action like a tumbleweed in the wind. A gentle rain had bumped the humidity up to Level Hell, and within two miles I was sandwiched into a stretch of single track trail between a man who was already farting, and another one that kept making breathing noises that sounded like a horse. As I tell anyone who asks, the first 20 miles are the worst for me in 100 mile races. There are too many people, and they're too happy. Somebody always smells like watermelon and body odor. There's always someone whose breathing resembles a freight train, and women who talk a thousand miles a minute. And, there's always people who insist on asking "how do you feel?" three miles into the race, to which I feel obligated to flash a cheesy grin and two thumbs up. Does anyone really feel wrecked a half hour into a 100 mile race? "Boy, am I gassed", I want to say, panting and grabbing at my sides, falling into an exaggerated heap next to the aid table. All, in good humor, of course. But, it never occurs to me while I'm racing. The first twenty miles suck. The pieces just aren't in sync yet. Or, I haven't yet managed to step outside myself and step back in. Things never come together until about mile 40.

The field thinned out earlier than expected, and by the time I descended the hill beyond the 'private property' signs into the Enchanted Valley, I'd lost both the Gas Man and Cabello Loco and was almost entirely alone-- a pleasant surprise. The rain had picked up intensity, and was falling steadily. My pace was steady, too, splashing through muddy puddles, comfortably fast enough that I felt confident in my training and taper, but still slow enough that I didn't feel out of control. In fact, the elements had kept my pace in check so well that I falsely assumed I was pacing much faster than I was actually running, and I finished the first of two 26.8 mile long loops in 6:11-- much slower than I'd ever covered it in the past. Early foot care and a shirt change held me up longer than I'd have liked at the main aid station, but I was back out and into the rain without too much delay.

The second long loop felt endless, mainly because the rain seemed endless. As I left the first aid station, 31 miles into the race, it occurred to me that I'd been on the course for over 7 hours, and it had been pouring rain for over 7 hours. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation, and told one of the ladies doling out aid, truthfully, that I was beyond the point of caring about the rain. I'd accepted that I had become Sisyphous and this rain was going to be my eternal boulder, at least until I slid down one of the many muddy hills I'd been encountering and just threw my hands in the air and said, "fuck it all". I didn't have to wait long.

My second tryst with the Enchanted Valley was significantly more traumatic than the first. The rain had softened, but the creeks were alive and the rocks were muddy. It seemed like everything was either brown or vibrantly green, and the air was thick. I'd been closely trailing a really pretty young lady who was wearing more white than I could ever remember seeing on a trail runner, for at least a mile, slowly gaining ground until we approached the stretch of mud that ran closely parallel to the creek. Here, she halted and hesitated, telling me I was much more fearless than she was. "I'm afraid I'm going to fall", she said.

"I'm not!" I called, sashaying past her and down a series of rocks, back up onto the muddy trail, and onward toward the hand over hand root climb.


And, I was down. I'd smacked my head hard on a heavy tree limb that had laid itself out over the path in front of me and somehow, like the start, I'd managed to miss it. I tripped and slid and skidded forward, cursing loudly as my knee tore against roots and rocks. I was drenched from head to toe, and now I was covered in mud, too. Somehow, the first thing that came to mind after I was vertical again wasn't how wickedly shitty the day was becoming, but what a great meme this would be.

'Oh, you did a tough mudder? That's cute. I did, too. 100 miles.'

The root climb was just fucking disgusting. It had already seen over 600 pairs of hands and shoes, and the roots were coated with slimy, slick mud. But, considering my appearance post-fall, we'd begun to look like family. I ascended it like a monkey, and sailed ahead toward the aid station much faster than I should have, given the ground conditions.

I was down again. This time, it was on my rear end, and I slid at least 10 feet before coming to a complete stop. There was no point in being pissed, or even questioning the comedy of missteps; and, I also realized that the pain from these falls was actually the first pain I'd felt in 40 miles of running. I kept trying to remind myself of the Tortoise and the Hare, but my mind kept returning to the mud, and then worms and bugs, and then my son singing "you got centipedes in your pants; you got centipedes in your pants!" I was laughing by the time I got to the dam where two of my friends, Katrina and Dave, were waiting. My hand and my butt got high and low fives, and I was happy to report I was in good spirit despite looking like I'd been dragged behind a mule cart for 15 miles in the mud.

The rest of the loop went without event, aside from the realization that my feet were in dire need of a wizard's touch. I was shooting for 13:30 for the 54 mile split, but it became apparent after leaving the Hickory aid station at 47.5 miles that I was probably going to be closer to 14 hours. I knew that I'd slow down at night, and that this was really the magic number for me if I had any hope of making the 1pm cutoff on Sunday. I passed the Mohican adventures finish on the opposite side of the road in 13:52, and rolled into the aid station in 13:59. It was going to be close.

This was a major pit stop for me. Not only did I have to do the typical fuel and hydration business, but I had a shoe and sock change, shirt change, and retrieval of my headlamp and flashlight scheduled here. And, while it wasn't imperative, I'd also promised to report progress here to a couple people, and my phone appeared to be getting a signal from satellites orbiting Mars. I headed out for my third loop around 7:20pm, anticipating a slow but steady walk-run, and an 8 hour split for the first short loop, heading back into Mohican Adventures around 3:15-3:30am. I have poor eye control at night after 15+ hours of running, and generally lose my ability to focus on my surroundings well enough to run on the trickier trail sections after an hour or two of complete darkness, so I wasn't expecting a split worthy of fireworks or fanfare. Things started out well enough-- I actually ran most of the first section, including into and out of the first aid station at 58 miles. I think that was probably the last time I had the strength to do anything like that, and one of the last times I really felt confident that the race was going to teeter into my favor. Darkness set in shortly thereafter, and my race began to unravel...first slowly, and then, around 65 miles, like a roller coaster that has reached its pinnacle before sailing, full throttle, down the track, it deteriorated so fast that I didn't know what had hit me as I rolled into the Hickory aid station at 71 miles. All I knew was I had almost 30 miles to go and there was no telling how I was going to get them done.

Back at the main aid station, a quick time check indicated I'd once again reached that magic number threshold-- 3:30am. I didn't want to get up. Period. The Cookie Monster googly eye business that had plagued me at Indiana was upon me again like a curse, and I was crying like an insolent toddler at a picnic table. My sister was here. At the finish line. As if I were actually contemplating quitting at this point, I hit rock bottom, realizing it was entirely out of the question now. It was one thing for her to drive 45 minutes to see me at Burning River 100. It was quite another to make a 4 hour round trip just for me to drop without her ever having actually seen me. I ate. I took Advil. I caffeinated. And, I ate some more. Finally, it became apparent that I was going to have to get up and go if I was ever going to get out of this rodeo. My feet felt like I was walking on glass and push pins, and it occurred to me, entering the trail after a haul down the road, that I hadn't touched me feet, hadn't checked the batteries in my light, and had thrown my phone into my pack without turning off the data.

My bowels had worked themselves into a tizzy as I headed up, up, and then up some more, until I reached that critical point where teeth and butt are clenched to the max, and it just isn't enough. In a moment of panic, I stepped behind a tree and squatted...and shit all over my favorite shoes. Worse, there was nothing to use for cleaning them, and nothing to use for wiping, either. I remained there squatting, feeling like a deer in headlights, trying to figure out what the devil had gone wrong, and how the physics had worked to my disadvantage so badly in putting my shoes in the trajectory of my ass. It took an hour and a half to get to the aid station. An hour and a half. It had taken just over an hour during the last loop.

I was in trouble.

I tried to convince myself it was the bowel debacle that had set me back, and I was going to get back on track once daylight came out to play. But, it took even longer to get to the next aid station, and with 15 miles remaining, I was down to just an hour ahead of the cutoff. And then there were my feet. The pain was beyond the scope of anything I've experienced in my life, barring none. The blisters were under the toes, forming a fiery perimeter around my heels, on the sides of my ankles, on the achilles, even in between toes. There were so many, and so many more in the works. Toenails were lifting out of their beds. I was bleeding. With every step, something squished like a bag of liquid and nerves threatening to explode. And worse, I was hallucinating so severely that monstrous looking figures were wriggling and creeping out of trees and rock formations all around me. Several times, I woke up and realized I'd been sleeping-- for how long, I don't know. It couldn't have been more than a few seconds, but it was unnerving nonetheless. As I wandered into the Covered Bridge aid station around mile 88, I knew I was in serious trouble. Running was out of the question, and the next section was largely uphill which made walking fast a challenge, too. Two of the ladies at the aid station helped me change my socks, which, in retrospect, was a mistake that cost me a lot of very valuable time. I left knowing I had over 12 miles to cover, and less than 40 minutes on the cutoff. That meant I had to keep moving, and faster than a casual walking pace.

It didn't happen. With the sun came heat, and with the heat and moisture came humidity. I couldn't catch my breath. Teemed with the searing pain in my feet, I hadn't a dribble of speed left in my body. I'd hoped to have at least 20 minutes on the cutoff when I reached the final aid station at 94 miles, but that didn't happen either. In reality, I had closer to 8. It was a moment of acceptance, a really cold, hard truth: I wasn't going to make the cutoff without divine intervention.

On the way to the finish line, I tried over and over again to run, but I could not. People passed me-- very determined people. Some of them I knew, like Tara Schweitzer and 20-time finisher Ron Ross, and others I did not. All tried to convince me I could keep up with them. But, I could not. All finished under 32 hours. Except me. I couldn't even cry. With a mile to the finish line, I found my sister. It was 12:57pm. We walked.

I've had emotional finishes. I've had moments that were so overwhelming they'd transcended the uber emotional realm and circled back into dulled senses. Nothing was quite like this one. I'd run 100 miles. And, it didn't count. In the results, my 32:14 effort is simply listed as DNF, the same as those who'd opted out at 15 miles, or 40, or 65. It's strangely ironic, that: I "did not finish", despite finishing. It makes me think that part of me is still stuck out there on the Mohican course, stuck in limbo until next year.

I was given a 100-mile buckle, despite not making the official cutoff, a decision that a few people did not like-- which has prompted me to consider returning it. Or, maybe I'll keep it put away until next year, when I finally escape from limbo. Maybe I'll carry it with me during the race. Maybe. Until then, I have a year to wander in limbo, stewing and biding my time yet again, until I have that chance to seek revenge.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Things I Carry (Indiana Trail 100)

Few feelings, I've found, truly compare to the sense of having sunk...and not only sunk, but having sunk in the sense that one was swinging at a target the size of an elephant with a barn door, and still completely missed. Barkley was not fading. In fact, it seemed like the more time passed, the more I became obsessed with it, and my memories of the ridge contours, the streams, and rocks only became more vivid and defined; and, Indiana-- my immediate concern, slipped nicely into that crack between the center console and the driver's seat where things go and are completely forgotten about for the next 3 years. The problem with that, of course, was that Indiana Trail 100 was not happening in 3 years, but 4 weeks after Barkley, and I didn't have time to sit around feeling sorry for myself while dreaming about a "next time" that, quite frankly, might never be granted.

I didn't train. Period. I kind of swayed and sashayed into race day like leaf in a breeze, hanging onto my Barkley training for dear life while hoping, simultaneously, that it would serve as a kick starter for the more beastly things I had planned in preparation for Ouray 100 later this summer. I mean, because what better way is there to kick start training for the altitude and elevation waiting in the Rockies than a flat trail race nestled between the cornfields of Indiana? I made ambitious weight loss goals that, on the morning I left for Indiana, had resulted in a four-week net loss of an impressive 0.7 pounds. I didn't seek pacers or crew. I packed my drop bags an hour before I left. I had about as much enthusiasm as most people have cleaning their toilet after a catastrophic overflow.

Sleep overtook me very early, and while I woke frequently (as I always do the night before a big race), I probably still accumulated a solid 6-7 hours of quality sleep-- more than I typically get before a race of this distance. I was a little concerned about getting cold overnight, and I'd only packed my Inov8 190's and 212's to last me the entire distance, despite the forecast anticipating a 100% chance of rain. But, I still felt reasonably confident that I could handle what was coming. A tool I've been using since running the USATF national 50 a couple years ago, and that has been very successful for me, is to break the race into bite sized hunks. In this case, it was in a hailstorm of pieces of varying distances and lengths of time. I had drop bags at both drop bag locations. I had clothing, lighting, and foot care at both locations. I would start in my lighter weight 190's, and then switch to the 212's at 50 miles. And, as the IT100 consisted of 6 x 16.6 mile loops, I would focus first on reaching 50 miles in 11:30 or better, then 66.6 under 17:00, and then 83.3 under 22:30. If I could hang onto these plans, I'd feasibly finish under 28:00, regardless of course conditions. I'm very good at whittling away an entire cherry pie in an hour, bite by bite, piece by piece. I planned to eat the IT100 the same way.

Because I have a bad habit of shooting into the early dark miles like a bullet toward an iron wall, I intentionally started in the back of the pack. It actually took 40 seconds for me to even reach the starting line after the gun sounded, and I was jammed behind so many slow-moving runners that I estimate we reached the two-mile mark in probably close to 28 minutes. Irrationally discontent, I finally made a move, and began passing dozens of runners. It was cool but comfortable, and the grass was wet from the overnight rain, but it wasn't yet raining. I felt fast, and it felt good. The first loop passed in a blur, and I headed into the tent to change into my pants having covered it much faster than I should have, despite the slow start, in about 3:06 (11:15/mile).

The rain started a couple miles into my second loop. I knew it was coming, but had secretly hoped it would hold off at least for a few more hours. Rain meant mud, and my shoes had to last 50 miles a pair. I hurried through the aid station at 21 miles and into the woods that waited. I knew what I was going to encounter. This might be a good time to pause for an educational intermission, since the best point of reference I can offer for what would go down on this section (~4 miles) can only be understood after having seen it: Wipe Out.

I'll reiterate that I knew it was coming. The ground wasn't particularly stable during the dry first loop, and with hundreds of runners traveling it teemed with the rain, it was only going to deteriorate by the hour. Bad. How it had gotten so bad so quickly was pure witchcraft. I sacrificed a minute or two finding the few inches on the side of the trail near the thorns and brambles just to save my shoes and feet for at least one more loop. I rationalized it was better to eat two minutes now as opposed to twenty later patching damaged feet. I finished loop 2 in a more conservative, comfortable 3:55 for a net time of 7:02 (12:40/mile).

I started loop 3 feeling bad. Nix that. I started loop 3 feeling low-- very low. My time was fine, and my feet were holding up fine. But my stomach was sour, my legs were cramping, and it was still raining. I'd mistaken a cup of pickle juice for ginger ale at the main tent, and I was burping up brine like nobody's business. I wretched once along the side of the trail on the section where the vacation cabins overlook the woods, but nothing came up but acid, and I walked the entire road stretch to the first aid station at 37.5 miles. All I could think was, "how the hell am I going to finish this race when I feel this fucking bad at 40 miles?" Walk the next 60 miles? No. I'd be better off calling it a day at 50, or even 66 miles, than walk for the next 20+ hours in the cold, rain, and slop. This was just foul. The mud was worse, and looked like horses had been galloping through it, deep sinking holes filled with water dotting the unavoidable mud pit that was clearly growing like a cancer. At the next aid station around 42 miles, I was at a crossroads. In my drop bag was a small travel sized bottle of Advil. I knew it was not advisable to take it, and I knew the risks involved. But, the pain in my hip and cramping in my left hamstring had rendered me incapable of running. I could take a couple and hope for the best, or I could plow onward in agony and probably quit either at the end of this loop or possibly the next one. I popped open the bottle and took 3 pills, washed them down with hot soup, and threw in a few TUMS for good measure. Hell be had, I was in this horse and pony show for the long haul, no matter what I looked or felt like at the end.

photo by Robert Gee

If few things compare to the sinking low after a racing disappointment, on the opposite end of the spectrum, few things compare to the intoxicating high of bone and muscle pain easing away into oblivion, 45 miles into a 100 mile race. I ran like it was going out of style, and then I ran some more. I think I even laughed and whooped out loud at one point, sailing down a hill so fast I almost cartwheeled into the lake. Was this what it felt like to be on Speed? Hell, I didn't care. I ran across the timing mat for a 50 mile split of 11:26 (13:43/mile), and immediately dove into changing shoes and gathering supplies. I'd hit my first target, and I was feeling good enough that I didn't anticipate 17:00 being a tough call to answer for the next loop, even with the extra time I was spending in the tent. Terri Lemke, who had paced me the last 35 miles of Burning River 100 in August, found me and brought me some grilled cheese. I love Terri; she's serious and kind hearted at the same time, and sat with me for a few minutes talking about the race. A lot of people were dropping, apparently, but I wasn't going to be one of them. After grabbing my good headlamp and checking the batteries, refilling my bottle, and dunking the last of my grilled cheese sandwich into salty soup broth, I was out into the elements, running and hopeful.

It continued into dusk, through the 4 miles of You Shall Not Pass mud that had spawned a 5th mile; and then, it continued into the darkness. I started to feel cold toward the end of the loop, and also started to slow down finally. The muscle fatigue was returning, and with a vengeance, but the crippling bone pain was still far enough at bay that I didn't feel completely overwhelmed. I finished the loop in 16:07 (14:30/mile), although I'd spent so much time in the tent after the previous loop that I'd actually been faster during loop 4 than the previous one. I was nearly an hour ahead of my 17:00 goal, which meant I had a little extra play time for the last two loops.

I was going to need it.

It was cold, dark, and humid as I set out on my 5th loop. And, I was walking. Somehow, the high had unraveled so fast I didn't know what hit me, and I didn't have another dose of Advil I was willing to commit to the cause. I cursed at the mud. In fact, cursing isn't a strong enough word for what I did. I was 71 miles into the race, wearing one black glove with skulls on it and one pink glove, I'd pulled a red shirt over my jacket, turned my cap around backward, my face was bloated, and I was screaming hoarsely at the mud like I needed an exorcism. It answered with an owl hooting and a 10 foot slide that would have put Michael Jackson to shame in his heyday. Getting to the aid station at 75 miles was a task fit for a gladiator, and gladiator I was not. I was the idiot thrown into the ring to get maimed and slaughtered by the gladiator. At the last aid station around 80.5 miles, I ate everything I could get my hands on-- two quarters of grilled cheese sandwich dipped in soup that I then drank, half of a banana, two cups of soda. I did my best imitation of running that I could execute, but I was actually not moving any faster than my speed walking pace, so after about three quarters of a mile of this nonsense, I walked the rest of the way in to the timing mat and tent, covering the 83.3 mile distance in 22:00 (15:50/mile). My pace had become staggeringly slow, largely because of the long stops, but technically I was still on pace to beat 28:00. In the tent, I changed the batteries to my headlamp, refilled my bottle, but really couldn't choke down any more food. I figured, it was only 4.2 miles to the aid station, so I shouldn't run into trouble.

Four miles at the beginning of a race are a warm-up. Heck, 4 miles even twenty miles into a race can still be covered reasonably fast. But, after 83 miles in cold, soggy, slop, 4 miles felt like an eternity. I started talking to myself. And, my eyes started to do this Cookie Monster thing, rolling around everywhere but where I wanted them to focus. I couldn't get the thought out of my head, and it made me laugh out loud, shaking and sputtering. I was a car running out of gas and unable to stay on the road simultaneously. And, I couldn't go any faster if my life depended on it. In other words, I was becoming hypothermic. I made it to the aid station intact enough to tell the crew I needed heat, caffeine, and hot food. I also wanted a nap, but reasoned with myself the mental fatigue was a byproduct of the dehydration, hunger, and cold. I wrapped myself in a space blanket and slapped on some duct tape, and after about 10-15 minutes eating, drinking, and consuming copious amounts of caffeine, set back out to finish what I'd started. "Daylight in an hour", someone yelled at me from the aid station as I left.

photo by Robert Gee

It always brings relief. One of my running friends described it as "the coming of God after the disaster yesterday", and that is precisely what it was. The sun rose over my shoulders as I was climbing through the thick mud and standing water near the end of Satan's Paradise around mile 93. I still wasn't moving fast, but daylight was upon me. The muscle fatigue was a dull constant, and the aching in my hip had reduced me to exclusively walking. The battle for 28:00 was going to be close. Very close. So close, in fact, that as I passed the final aid station and asked for the time (27:09) I determined I had 50 minutes to cover 2.67 miles, and didn't even bother to stop; I just kept going. That, on wet, rolling hills, equated to 18:43/mile, or a brisk walk. I tried to run, repeatedly, but I physically couldn't do it. Without a phone or watch (I wore or carried neither) I blindly gauged my pace at 19:00/mile, which was going to put me about a minute over my goal. At the final stretch where the short section of pavement opens onto the grass, I tried really hard to run, and I probably looked utterly ridiculous staggering over the finish line.


I'd missed my goal by 100 seconds. One second per mile.

But, I considered this race a success, for several reasons. First, my training was insufficient. I was heavy, and had been on a perpetual taper since Barkley (and actually since two weeks before Barkley). Second, I ran with no crew or pacers. I knew exactly what I needed at every aid station, and did not rely on suggestions or others fetching supplies for me-- except in the case of hot foods that were in pots or pans on the other side of a table. I took care of myself, and really learned how to be completely self-sufficient in horrible conditions for 100 miles. I satisfied all my objectives, except the time goal, which I missed by a margin of less than 2 minutes.

I have a series of smaller races waiting for me now, including the Mohican 50 mile trail race, and the Buckeye Trail 50k. I'm optimistic, and finally feel like I've come to terms with my Barkley failure...at least, in the sense that I accomplished my first training run toward my next attempt, whether that is next year, in two years, or twenty.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hunter and Hunted: One Human Sacrifice's Short Story of the Barkley Marathons

I sat up, frozen like a slab of preserved meat, at 6:14am on Saturday, March 28th. "I had a nightmare," I began, "that Laz blew the conch at 10:10".

I was fit to fry already. My adventure began with a malfunctioning tent, forgotten sleeping bag, and parking mishap that resulted in my car needing to be towed an impressive four feet. I was already on pace to end up in another state mid-race when I learned the news Friday afternoon. You'd think it would have come as a relief. I mean, when expectations bottom out, there's really no place to go but somewhere else, even if that somewhere else is a buttslide lickedy split through a gambit of briers, sticks, and past bewildered squirrels and birds. I'd seen a program on the National Geographic channel years ago about the Mayans leading poor young girls, primed for a glorious death, to the top of a volcano where they'd be left to be struck by lightning as an offering for the gods. I'm sure the townspeople, spared the rod of lightning bolts, told those girls their role as a human sacrifice was an honor, too. But, truthfully, I hadn't expected to be bestowed with such an honor as being holed up on a mountain until either the wild hogs staged a fantastic attack, flanking from all sides, or I ended up in another zip code.  I was the Human Sacrifice this year at the Barkley Marathons. Me.

If you want to see how fast you can run 100 miles, you run Umstead; and, if you want to prove how tough and durable you are, you run Hardrock. If you want to find out when the bell tolls-- if you want to know just how much you're capable of withstanding, where to draw that perimeter around your mental and physical limits, you run the Barkley. It's a place, a thing, guaranteed to expose layers of yourself that, alone on a ridge, balancing your body and brain, you did not know existed.

Knowing someone who's seen the ship sail, or the bad things happen, if you will, is the first step to getting into the race. After all, it's well known that the entry process is guarded like the Bush's Baked Beans secret recipe. Then, of course, you have to trust that your friend isn't selling you a load fit to make you look like an idiot, cause, you know, I've heard that sort of thing happens. I didn't spend a great deal of time composing a witty little ditty, complete with sheet music for the banjo, nor did I bribe, beg, or make outrageous promises. I set my alarm for three minutes before the entry time, and scraped up two or three very sincere sentences. In fact, I was so tired and disoriented when I sent the letter that I wasn't even sure if I'd put it together in intelligible English. I had to go back and read it twice. Then, I had to wait. For days. Race director Gary Cantrell, better known to potential Barkers as Lazarus Lake, actually threw me off completely by asking those who'd gotten in to "out" themselves days before he'd sent out the condolence letters.

But, my letter of condolence came, and I accepted the challenge. I mean, I'd been stalking this thing like a creepy voyeur for years, so I knew the back story and some of the many successes and phenomenal blunders-- people spending 30+ hours on the course only to come back with one book page, buddying up on Rough Ridge under a space blanket for the night, things like that. I knew that Barkley miles were like miles on another planet, and that 60 hours to cover the course had only proved possible for 14 men. Some of the best trail runners, male and female, legends-- super stars, had come to be humbled by the challenge the Barkley presented in its unique setup. In its five 20-mile loops, runners climb more than 65,000 feet, and spend a great deal of those miles bushwacking, buttsliding, climbing pitches that ascend 1,000 feet in a mere half mile, and doing a lot of off trail running. The pages that had to be retrieved from 12 books stashed in hollowed trees and under rocks, weren't found by following streamers and pie plates; runners had to navigate the course via compass and map. I knew all of this.

I also knew I was fat and had slumped into the worst training of my non-pregnant adult life, after a masked man broke into my house, waiting for me to come home from work in November to do any number of unspeakable horrors. After 17 years of competitive running, it had become a major accomplishment to convince me to jog more than 50 feet on the road without wielding a hammer or an open box cutter like Michonne from the Walking Dead. But, my Rocky Balboa bravado at getting in was soon met with Ivan Drago gym sessions that topped out the incline on the treadmill, and weekend excursions to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to run trails and hill repeats, with and without a tire trailing me on a rope. By the first of March, I'd done as much as I was going to do, and two weeks before the Barkley, I won the women's division of the Buzzard 100k trail race on account of everyone else dropping out, thanks to freezing rain, ice, mud, and the misery that would accompany 62 miles of that. I rationalized that this was the best approach I could take, and that sometimes it isn't enough to just be fast; sometimes the winner is the one willing to withstand the most blows-- physical and mental.

The morning of the Barkley was ablaze with antsy runners and a lot more media people than I was accustomed to seeing at trail events. A French reporter interviewed me, and I told him I hoped to finish two loops and get out on the third. A "Fun Run" (60 Barkley miles) would be an impressive accomplishment, but I was really just there to see why this race had earned the reputation it had. I'd run 100 miles, I'd won races, I'd seen parts of this course before. That wasn't why I was here. I wanted to find out just how much I could take, and test my own tenacity. I wanted to find myself out there. I wanted the adventure.  At a quarter to 10, people had begun to make their way to the yellow gate, like spectators coming to enjoy an afternoon picnic at a public execution. The conch sounded at 10:22, and before I knew it, the hour had pegged me mid-pack following Jodi Isenor and Nicki Rehn up the first series of switchbacks, Jamil Coury and Chris Gkikas nipping at my heels.


Nope, not a typo: I said Jamil Coury. I'd been so fucking stupid, I'd ended up ahead of one of the best trail runners in the world. Granted, Frozen Ed was also trailing me so closely we were making occasional conversation, but it wasn't until we'd turned west onto the Cumberland trail that Jamil finally scampered past me, heading over the Pillars of Death toward the turn off leading to the descent down Hiram's Gambit. I'd kept the others close enough that even though I was descending slower, they weren't totally out of sight, although after a jaunt through Fangorn Forest which is beautiful in a scary kind of way, I still had to locate Book 1 on my own. Unfortunately, after ripping my page, I made the ill fated decision to adjust my pack, and when I looked up, the others had shed me like a diseased layer of skin.

I set out around the mining bench toward the easter part of the mountain and then headed down Checkmate hill. Alone. I was running without caution, and so fast that it took me about 3 minutes to realize that absolutely nobody was anywhere near me. No voices, no movement, and worse-- no fresh footsteps to track. Clearly, I'd made a mistake. A quick compass bearing indicated I was heading south, and I figured that even if I dropped too far south, I could make my way over at the bottom of the spur where the ground leveled out. This proved much easier said than done. Rather than wait, I kept trying to head north through the brambles and over the rocks and trees until it seemed so Herculean and ridiculous, that I decided I'd be better off just heading back up and trying again further north. I probably fell 19 times climbing back up Checkmate, and felt like such a seasoned fool at the top (still nobody in sight; I'd clearly made a huge miscalculation) that I began running as fast as before so far north that I hit the impassable rock cliffs. "What the hell?" I thought, and after heading just a bit further back south, dipped back down. This time, however, I was smart about it, knowing that if I was north and headed southeast down the hill, eventually I was going to run into the creek. It was impossible to miss it. And, by the time I finally reached the boundary marker on the Northwest corner, I think I did the cha-cha and sang Hallelujah, doing all the parts in the choir along the way. Sure, I'd probably blown the better part of an hour on a reasonably easy section of route-finding, but I'd gotten to the book, and I was now well on my way to the second.

I moved deliberately slow up the switchbacks on the ascent to Jury Ridge to make sure I didn't miss anything, and made the turn off at precisely the right spot, following a creek all the way down to the first confluence. I knew this was not the correct one, but checked for the large stone anyway, moving painfully slow on purpose, remembering the story of Matt Mahoney's 8 hour search and book rescue attempt that resulted in utter failure. It was obvious to me that this was the place he'd spent all those hours searching. I continued further north until the flowing water picked up momentum and the sound of a second creek came into earshot. As they neared to the merging point, I made my way to the space between them, until I was all but standing in the water. "This is just a fucking gas", I lamented, "you've got to be kidding me". I'd done everything right, and it wasn't there. I squeezed my eyes shut, wondering if this was going to be the beginning of an epic disaster, and reached for the plastic bag containing my map and compass. Just then, when I ripped open the ziplock bag and reached for the map, something caught my eye: the book! I was literally straddling Book 2! I whooped and hollered with gusto and immediately sprang back into action after retrieving my page. I might be alone doing it, but I was doing it, whatever "it" was.

This is where my Barkley experience got real and got really personal, really fast. I began heading southeast toward the Bald Knob switchbacks, but couldn't make heads or tails of whether or not I was on the right ridge. I suspected I was too far west, I spent so much time climbing and scaling over on this section that it felt like I was an Ibex licking salt off some death cliff. One misstep and I was going to have a real story to tell if I made it back to camp before the vultures got to me. It was at a really vulnerable moment, left foot balancing on a rock and right foot planted on a large root, staring up and to the right at the horizon that everything Stu Gleman had told me about creating 3d models came together, and I was suddenly seeing the landscape come alive like the points on a grid, and I came alive with it. Up to that point, I was memorizing directions and listening for streams and looking for signs, but my conception of space was limited to myself passively studying at a trajectory drawn on a topographic map that had been a legend of obstacles rather than a place of which I was very much a part.

In that moment, I suddenly became afraid. Why? I don't know. Maybe it was because it was easier to be a passive part of the experience, looking for someone to follow, trying to find objects that aligned with the words on a piece of paper. But, I found myself standing on a switchback looking at the sky, knowing without a watch that it was about 4:00, and I was probably not going to make the 13:20 cutoff. Terror. It was going to get dark before I even got to the prison at this rate. At the top of the switchbacks where the trail starts heading back down, there I was, suddenly struck with a sense of both urgency and uncertainty. Wasn't I supposed to be crossing a coal road? Why more switchbacks?

I was completely and utterly confused.

I sat down where I was and opened my pack. Pancakes and bacon sounded really good right now, and cold water, too. I looked first at my map, and then took a compass bearing. Supposedly this was, in fact, the right way. But, these switchbacks seemed to descend into the next dimension. I plotted myself on my 3d grid of the mountain on the northwest side, which also seemed wrong. Shouldn't I be further east? I put away my pancakes, water, and compass, refastened my pack, and started heading back down the way I'd come. Was I even on the right damn mountain? I mean, this thought seriously began to creep into my head. Granted, I was still seeing the orange blazes I'd seen on the way to Jury Ridge, but I was also seeing the same white blazes I'd seen on the Cumberland heading west on England mountain. It was not possible I'd teleported back there, but the white blazes had really thrown me off. At a trail intersection, I pulled out my map again.

"Are you a runner?" came a voice further down the mountain. "Yes! I'm lost", I said, explaining I'd come down the switchbacks and had no idea where I was supposed to be. "You're going the wrong way; you're supposed to be going up the switchbacks".

Well, there was another hour in the landfill of lost time. I'd found Julie Pierce and David Hughes, two people who'd previously completed loops at the Barkley. After confirming we were all on our way to Book 3 at the Garden Spot, we slowly began climbing back up and down the switchbacks on Bald Knob, crossing Son of a Bitch Ditch and then taking in the view of the Coal Ponds. David made it clear he was taking Quitters Road at the Coffin Springs, but Julie said she'd reassess once we reached the Garden Spot. Daylight was waning; I'd wasted too much time sitting and backtracking, and I really didn't want to be faced with Stallion Mountain at night. I was really hoping Julie would be willing to go a few more miles until we reached Rat Jaw. I knew the way from there with confidence, and she could take Quitters Road a short stretch past the Fire Tower back to camp if she didn't want to continue.

But, after taking our pages from the book at the Garden Spot, she apologized for not being able to continue and said she'd be going back to camp with David. Between her knee hurting, and her kids waiting to see her, she didn't want to be out all night on a loop that clearly, at this point, wasn't going to be completed in any reasonable amount of time. So, I was at a crossroad. It was cold, about 30F and dropping, and nearly 7:00pm. I'd be alone on Stallion. In the dark. With wild hogs. And ghosts. And the four horsemen of Hell. Probably devils with pitchforks, too.

I have never quit a race in which I hadn't reached the pits of utter anguish and despair, whether I'm sick, injured, or hallucinating and falling asleep so badly that further progress is not feasible. If I drop, I'm suffering.

The trip on Quitters Road was the most heartbreaking trip of my life. I could run. I could climb. I could eat. I could still feel my toes. I had no blisters. I was peeing. I was laughing. I had no reason NOT to continue except my fear of being alone on that mountain at night, and the navigational errors that could potentially put me in a really bad place. People make choices when they're cold and scared that make or break their race, and I broke mine. I was tapped out around 9pm after a 6 mile hike back to camp on a jeep road, and fell into an internal debate that has haunted me since I chose to turn right at that Coffin Springs sign: I made the right choice. But, I could have continued and finished my loop, even though it probably would have taken me 15 hours to complete it.

I watched amazing things happen after I got done. I watched as one by one, some of the most tough and talented runners I've ever met were bugled out of the most difficult trail race in the world. They doubtlessly found themselves on those mountains the same way as I had, feeling more alive and aware than they've ever felt at any other point in their lives. The Barkley isn't about winning or losing. It is about finding out where that bell tolls, where your limits really lie. It's about meeting yourself out there on a trail or at a stream, and not being afraid of what you see, hear, or feel. I hope that next year I have the honor and privilege to be a part of such a special event again. If not, I will still be there, hanging on every second and view I can catch. Once you've been there, you become a part of the story and a part of the place, and it doesn't leave you.

I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to look at conventional trail races the same way again after this experience. The Indiana Trail 100 is in four weeks, but it feels like a completely different race now all of a sudden. Nobody finished the 2015 Barkley Marathons. But, you know, sometimes the beast has to eat, too. He gets a little more clever each time he's outwitted, and it had been 7 long years since he last had a full meal. I think you lose a little bit of yourself every time you're out there, lost in the mountains, consumed by the challenge, looking to find something that is hidden. Those lost pieces, and the stories we tell are what has made the Barkley Marathons what it is today, and what it's going to be next year when 40 brave men and women lace their shoes and fasten their packs, staring at the mountains that wait before them on the other side of that yellow gate.