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 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.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Two Hells of Training, and Nineteen Hills: Mill Creek Half Marathon

By now, most people are probably aware that, perhaps as a colossal cosmic joke, or perhaps as an occurrence entirely the product of very bad luck, I got into the legendary Barkley Marathons: a 120 mile trek and climbing event boasting of over 65,000 ft of elevation gain, and a list of finishers that is, after 20 years as a 100+ mile race (it was previously 55-60 miles), shorter than the list of finishers the typical 100 mile race has after one year. No woman has completed it. Or come close.

As my sub-par training unwinds down to the final threads, I put myself in an intentionally uncomfortable and precarious position. To test my climbing, endurance, and tenacity (amongst other less noble things like stupidity and recklessness), I slated a half marathon in Youngstown famed for its hills, and notorious for having shitty weather, at the beginning of my final training cycle, which, in the spirit of the Two Hells Barkley course, I'll call the Two Hells of training. During the week I'd subject myself to back to back 5 hour running and climbing workouts, roughly 22-25 miles each, sprint on Saturday morning (5k) followed by more miles later in the day, 4-5 hours on Sunday running harder trails in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park-- close to 100 miles for the week. The icing on the cake would be a 100k trail race in Hinckley six days later.

The Youngstown portion of my Two Hells greeted me with a thick blanket of snow, which I was admittedly not thrilled to see. The drive to the race took an eon and consisted primarily of my car fishtailing and ending up everywhere but the road. My 4-wheel drive wouldn't engage, and I actually got stuck not once but three times in the middle of a hill, giving my hazard lights a lot of practice. But, thanks to my having had the foresight to leave much earlier than I'd normally fathom leaving for a more local event, I still arrived nearly a half hour before the race. At the starting line, it looked like a lot of people stayed home, including a couple of running friends I'd expected to see.

The course, a series of winding roads through Youngstown's Mill Creek Park, was almost entirely unplowed. The few stretches that did appear to be dragged were still packed with snow and ice, making them slick and difficult to gain traction. I'd worn my Inov8 X-talon 190 trail shoes, hoping they'd be more course appropriate, but they helped very little. Yak Trax would have been ideal, if I had any. I'd raced this course twice before: in 2010 when I finished the half marathon in 1:53:47 under much better conditions, and this past September when I couldn't have hoped for more ideal racing conditions. I finished in 1:50:09 that time. I anticipated finishing between 1:59 and 2:05 given the course conditions, but as the race progressed, I realized I was really handling the snow and slick road poorly. It felt like a lot of people were passing me, which meant I'd started much too fast. Ultra running friend George Themelis caught up to me around the 6 mile mark, looking strong and prepared to tackle the second half of the race. Within a mile, he was completely out of sight. I managed to catch another friend, Joe Jurczyk, around mile 9.5, but I knew at that point it was going to be a slow finish.

Nineteen hills make the Mill Creek half marathon the challenge it's known to be, but those nineteen hills don't typically phase me the way they did this time. I wasn't devastated, but I probably looked like I was running on a treadmill at times. The last three miles are possibly the most challenging, and I spent them largely hunched over, pumping my arms to the tune of what were probably three consecutive 11:00+ miles. I crossed the finish line in 2:12, over twenty minutes slower than I'd done in September. I was humbled, and profoundly embarrassed. It was difficult to gauge how fast I'd have covered the course in better conditions. Perhaps 1:55? We'll never know.

I typically finish in the top 5-8% of female runners at this distance, but this race has always messed with that average. I was 22nd out of 65 women. I'm glad I got it done, even if my finish time and placement were less than stellar. Sometimes "getting it done" is what it's all about, I've found, like at my first 100 mile race when I spent hours in last place. Life is full of challenges, sometimes challenges so overwhelming that few are willing to even bear them. I thrive on those things. Tenacity. Tackling the impossible. Surviving to see what exists on the other side of that. It's possibility.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Where the Trail Barks (2014 Barkley Fall Classic "50k")

"I ain't supposed to be here!"

Oh yes. If you've seen the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, you're probably familiar with the whimpering overweight character that the inmates bet their cigarettes will be the first to cry upon his lock-up in the prison. He wanders in with this deer in the headlights expression, and then to the chagrin of those who bet against him, breaks into a shrill sob as soon as the lights are turned off for the night and the convicts begin to taunt him. "I ain't supposed to be here!" he cries, to which several of the guards respond by hurling a grenade of colorful language followed by a fatal bludgeoning.


That was me, ladies and gentlemen. That was about the sum of my lot, and pretty much the only sensible thought playing like a broken record in my head, heaving and chugging up to the first aid station. And no, that was no typo: I said that was me heading to the first aid station. Indeed, barely 5 miles into this haul, and I already realized what a grave misjudgment I'd made in assuming I was the kind of soul designed to execute this kind of dance. Staring ahead, I could see the ant line of runners marching in single file dozens of feet above me. Switchbacks: never ending, it seemed. And the sweat? Despite the mild starting temperature in the low 60's, the entire front and back of my shirt had been entirely saturated with sweat in less than an hour.

Back up 24 hours, and I was roaring down the highway en route to the corner of the universe, it seemed, where there were only wild things and giant hills, and country music stations on the radio. It was a 9-hour journey, and I hadn't banked on getting quite so stir crazy behind the wheel; but, after about 6 hours I'd had about all of the Paul McCartney "Ram" album that I could handle (left in my car courtesy of my sister), Thom Yorke's whiny "True Love Waits"-- the only song that didn't skip on the entire CD, and so many plays of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" on various radio stations that I began to wonder if I'd missed Tennessee entirely. The first time I tuned into a station that was playing something vaguely familiar and non-country, I almost flew off the road and into the brush...and it was just Aha's "Take on Me". I swear I even hit the high notes.

I've been morbidly fascinated by the Barkley Marathons since the days of 5k's when I hadn't even run a road marathon yet, much less anything that resembled even the easiest trail ultra. Nearly a decade, I'd say, I've been spying blogs and watching amateur video clips made and made public by the race's multitude of fantastically failed failees. And, if you're not well-versed with the thing that is the Barkley Marathons, the idea is this: five loops. The distance of this loop is unknown, but rumored to be in the ballpark of 24-26 miles, ascending more than 60,000 ft in the process of completing all five, almost entirely run off trail. Off trail. That means roughing it without the gentle pull of the singularly most single track of dirt paths that could just as easily be missed in the early spring rain and snow. The kicker? No aid. Nary a makeshift tent or table with a row of bananas or neatly cut peanut butter and jelly bits. And without the luxury of a single trail marker, streamer, or flag, the unlucky winners of the secret entry process are forced to rely entirely on things like a compass and a map...Christopher Columbus style.

When the announcement was made that the Barkley name was being attached to a  rag-tag kinda-sorta-50k-but-not-quite-sure race in the same Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee and included some of the Barkley favorites like Rat Jaw and Chimney Top, people climbed out of the woodwork and jumped on it like flies on honey. Why? I don't know. But, the Barkley Fall Classic filled so fast that I found myself on a waiting list for months. And, when I received an email that I was going to have the opportunity to run it, I felt like I'd hit an ultra running jackpot. I didn't actually think about the logistics involved, such as, you know, actually training for it. Granted, I've logged some pretty serious mileage when it comes to ultras (this year alone I'd finished a 100 mile, 100k, 2x50 mile, and 2x50k trail races heading into the BFC), but I haven't actually trained seriously since my taper for the Burning River 100.

One of my friends described the objectives of the Barkley Fall Classic as being: 1.) survive; and 2.) finish. Wickedly accurate, I should add, but at the point of starting, I truly had no idea what to expect. I admittedly disregarded legendary race director extraordinaire Lazarus Lake's warnings as over-hyped fear-mongering, knowing that, if so many brave bodies could make it through the unmarked harshness of the mountains in March even once, without aid stations or the other "comforts" offered in the 3:2 beer version of the event, there was no reason why at least 60-65% of those starting the watered-down fall edition ought not to be able to eke out a finish under the 13:20 cutoff. Granted, there weren't going to be the streamers, flags, and other confidence markers one typically sees every hundred yards or so in the more traditional ultra. And granted, we were going to be climbing nearly 20,000 feet over the course of over 50 kilometers. But, to finish under the cutoff, one only had to maintain roughly a 25:00/mile pace. How hard could that be?

Staring at that ant line of runners up and ahead, thighs already reeling from the relentless climb, I was aghast.

"I ain't supposed to be here!"

I could almost hear Laz reeling at the pathetic sight of me, "we've got a winner!" In other words, one of the many race casualties that he expected.

Pressing on, two things became apparent. First, this course was not going to be 50k. It probably wasn't going to be 35 miles, either. Hours passed, and I hadn't even hit the 7.6 mile aid station, and I'd managed to dash down every inch of runnable space. Clearly, the Barkley mile in the deep end had translated to the same Barkley mile in the kiddie pool. Second, a 13:20 finish wasn't going to be a stroll through Central Park, even if the mileage had been correct. I was running when it was possible, but the climbing alone was stalling me to a crawl at times.

I finally reached the first aid station just under an hour ahead of the cutoff, or at about 9:35am, 2:35 into the race. I didn't want to waste any time, but I knew that I was going to need to drink as much water as I could at the aid station just to stay ahead of dehydration, even with the capacity to carry approximately 40 oz. A volunteer filled my handheld and I drank half of it, then filled it again along with the smaller bottles that fit on my vest. After eating an entire banana, I asked how many miles there were until the next aid station. A little over 5? Doable. At least, more manageable it seemed than the 8.5-9 we'd just covered.

This was probably the most uneventful section of the entire event, with nothing particularly frightening happening aside from a pair nearly-devastating wrong turns. Luckily, I'd had the good fortune to end up with groups of people, both times, that included someone familiar enough with the area to know we needed to go right over Sonofabitch Ditch and then left where there was no marker at an intersection. It was the only time I found myself reaching for my compass-- a much needed inclusion in our goodie grab bag of lip balms, whistle, map, and water bottle. I paid little attention to the time here, knowing that even though I wasn't going to be breaking any speed records, I was moving well enough and hadn't made any major missteps that would have been costly enough to set me behind pace.

At the aid station, we were warned immediately that we'd want to load up on hydration. It was getting hot, and there were 8 miles until we'd be back. "So this is the notorious mile 22 cut off?" I asked a volunteer. After all, we'd been moving for over 13 miles. Eight and change would take us near or over 22 miles. "Oh no," a man jumped in, "that's down by the Welcome Center". Come again, sire? "This is 18 on the way back".

Only in this godforsaken place does 13+8=18.

"Okey doke", I began, trying to fathom what snakes and charms were going to be waiting for me in the sundry treasures o' Tennessee mountains ahead. "Gimme one of them 'nanners, please, and some salt". This stretch was going to be a real doozie, I sensed, and in the worst kind of way. We'd yet to traverse the famed briars, and I was fairly certain there was a lot more climbing and rocky hells to be had. Well, I rationalized, if worst came to worst, I'd at least walk away with 22 Barkley miles...and that was if I somehow lost the hour I was sitting on. With miles ending up in unknown places like piss in the wind, however, I knew it wasn't entirely out of the question that I might lose that entire hour over the course of these miles.

It started innocent enough, with the Quitter's Road jeep path taking us through some gentle rollers that were largely, at first, conducive to some decent running. My thighs were rather trashed, but not incapable of picking up the pace. My toes, on the other hand, were wrecked like nobody's business, and ended up being the biggest hindrance to faster moving. I estimate I was probably moving at about a 13-14 minute pace on the first part of this section. After crossing a road where a few pedestrians were parked and cheering, the going got tougher by the quarter mile, it seemed, until I was reeling and gasping up the last half mile stretch to the turnaround.

I knew that the downhill stretch ahead was going to rapidly evolve into something really ugly. It was without question: 'old prison trail', the sign read. Old Prison. I'd read about this somewhere, maybe in a blog, or an article. This was how the Barkley Marathons-- the real race, came about. An escapee, a desperate man, fleeing through this pass, surrendered himself in the brush less than a few miles from this old prison. Bad. With that kind of "what the fuck?" history, teemed with the few 120+ mile victors in the Bark, it didn't take long for hell to wreak the kind of havoc I'd known was coming all along.

The group assembled at what looked like a dead end was telling. People were ripping at rolls of duct tape, fastening all sorts of things to their legs: butchered bottoms of boot legged jeans, swaths of vinyl, naked tape itself. Most were donning ove gloves and other industrial handware. And, in that moment I realized that my thin leather palmed gloves and retro sport era marathon shorts were so ill-suited for what was coming that there was no point in even waiting around to delay the carnage. I charged ahead of the assembled crowd like a gladiator, without even bothering to put on the gloves. I followed the man ahead of me into an opening in a sea of thorny bushes where the term "single track" truly earned its meaning.


It was the kind of 'up' that one just can't really prepare to even comprehend, because on paper it would have just looked mind boggling and impossible. I was clawing at dirt, rocks, roots, whatever I could get my hands and feet on, squirming and climbing up. Had I known this 'up' was going to continue this way-- 1,000 ft of ascent in 1/2 mile through such a thorny hell, I don't know if I'd have been so blindly eager to charge into its midst. People were pausing at every possible spot for reprieve: in a dirty cleared spot under a bush, on a rock, even mid-step. The heat of the day was blasting an infernal veil over this spot in such a way that by the time my head emerged from the first pause in Rat Jaw paradise, the sweat was running so heavily that I was blinded and helpless for about 20 seconds, my hands too dirty and sweaty to be of any use, and my clothes so wet and salty they'd have done more harm than aid.

It wasn't over.

Here, the climb recommenced with the addition of an accessible fallen power line that was to be followed all the way to the fire tower. The saw briars continued and the heat continued to broil. Approximately 2/3 up the climb, I followed a small group of 6-8 runners who branched left into what appeared to be a less traveled area. One of the women I was following was very familiar with the area and insisted we were going the right way, even though I was incredibly skeptical. It didn't look like anyone else had gone this way all day, even though there were easily 100 people ahead of us. She kept pointing to the power line to our right, explaining that we were supposed to be following it. Several times, someone brought up that it was supposed to be to our left instead of the right. But, eventually, we heard a distant call, "Marco!" to which she called, "Polo!" Bingo. We were going the right way. Where the other 5-6 people had gone, I haven't a clue.

Climbing through this span of branches and briars was the worst. At one point, both my shorts and earring (yes: earring) were caught in the claws, and it felt like they were literally tearing at my flesh. As we made our way out and then into clear view of the fire tower, I was bleeding and down to 3 oz of water, but I'd survived Rat Jaw. I climbed the Fire Tower, had my bib marked, and was told there was just an easy half mile to the aid station. I made it there just 23 minutes ahead of the cutoff.

Thankfully, the jeep path made it possible to bank some emergency funds for the coming Chimney Top climb, and over the next 4 miles I gained another 27 minutes, rolling into Laz's lookout post with 50 minutes to spare-- the only enforced cutoff point on the entire course. My body was pretty beat up and broken down at this point, but knowing I had 50 minutes was a huge relief. I'd been hoping for 30, knowing if I could at least get through the aid station with that, I had a fighting chance of making it.

Laz hole-punched my bib and told me I had 8 miles until I got back. "all downhill", he laughed. "Is there aid in between?" I asked, wondering how much I ought to drink and fill. "5.3 miles", someone answered. I figured I probably ought to fill all 3 bottles this time. Something told me it wasn't going to be jeep paths for 5.3 miles.

If "I ain't supposed to be here" embodied my mindset halfway up Bald Knob, "I'm fucked 6 ways from Sunday", embodied what happened on the way up Chimney Top. If you've ever sat down, smack in the middle of a path, opened up your pack and started eating, you might have an idea what it was like. Or, peed in the open, beyond the point of caring who or what saw you. Or, laying in the dirt along an overlook that dropped off probably a couple thousand feet below, just trying to catch your breath. And, if a bunch of cherubs bearing grapes and honey suddenly materialized and rolled you off, so be it. Let me tell you: I did all of the above, and then some. If I could have bet on anything that day, it wouldn't have been on lottery numbers. It would have been that the hubs of Hades were up and that St.Peter and the Pearly Gates were somewhere down below. And my karmic retribution for some act or thought was apparently yee-haw heavy.

I passed people, and people passed me. But, every time I was sure I was near the end, after a hundred yards or so and a turn or two, the climbing recommenced. Worse, every time I passed someone or someone passed me, I heard the same line, "about a mile to go". After the third time, I began to wonder if I'd channeled my inner Bill Murray and was really living a real life version of the movie Groundhog Day. How many more miles were going to be the last one? Finally, reaching a leveled area dotted with a few large rocks and fallen trees, I caught a group of men who were sitting, all looking defeated and spent, discussing their next move. I had 2 oz of water left, and was hoping to hear that the aid station was coming up over the hill and down yonder. Instead, one of them said what I least expected:

"One point three miles".

I was going to die.

"We haven't even seen the worst of it".

And it was going to be painful.

I was going to run out of water. That was my immediate concern. Never mind my convulsing muscles in my left thigh, the lightheadedness that had struck a half dozen times already, or the cramping that was seizing my feet and calves. Eyeballing the last water bottle's contents, the guy sitting directly in front of me offered some of the supply from his back. It was bath water warm and had the familiar staleness of hydration pack water, but I don't think I've ever been so grateful for a mere 10 oz of water, which is what he afforded my handheld.

I made it up the steepest ascent better than I'd anticipated, before beginning the grueling descent toward an aid station I'd begun to think was an imaginary one and a cruel figment of Laz's imagination. But, just as I was ready to prepare everyone back home for the worst: I was lost and/or not going to make the cutoff, I saw a couple rangers' ATVs set up in the distance with a few jugs of water and boxes of bananas set up on a collapsible table. This was it. I only had about 3.4 miles from here to the finish line, and the folks at the aid station told me I had an hour and forty-five minutes to cover them. Even walking at a 30 minute pace, I could still scrape up a finish under the cutoff. And, even if these miles were as Barkley long as the rest, and 3.4 was really over 4 miles, it was feasible.

Unfortunately, by now my battered, jammed toes and trashed thighs had rendered me virtually incapable of anything resembling a real run, and aside from a few short breaks into a trot, I walked every step leading to Laz's lookout where the trail ended and the last 0.7 miles on the road began. I was passed by probably a dozen people, and I wish I could have found it within me to run with them, but my feet weren't going to make that possible. Daylight was fading as I found my way onto the path that I knew was going to take me to Laz. Now, like so many other times, it was no longer an issue of whether or not I was going to make it, but how long it was going to take. Casualty? No. I was heading into the home stretch.

Laz gave me a rather curious look when I speed walked into view. I knew the answer already when I asked it, but felt compelled to confirm that I had less than a mile remaining. "4 miles", he answered, the curious expression turning closer to amusement. "Do I go straight?" I asked, staring directly at one of the few giant signs with an arrow clearly pointing to the right.

Well, at least I left an impression, I imagine.

There was just enough daylight remaining that I was going to finish without needing to use my flashlight. I had 45 minutes to cover just 3/4 mile. I was walking, unfortunately, but walking fast. A group of 3 people passed me with only 1/2 mile remaining, but I just couldn't yet bring myself to run. Finally, a few yards before turning into the park where the crowd could see me, I conjured up enough of something that could pass as a quasi run and executed it all the way to the finish line.


It had taken me more than twice as long as it typically takes to finish a trail 50k, but I didn't care. I'd done it; I was done. No more Neverending Story switchbacks. No more Rat Jaws or Chimney Tops. No more Sonofabitch Ditches. I'd put this one to rest, and was bringing home something bigger than a medal and bragging rights. I'd become a stronger runner. The fact that I'd only finished ahead of 15 other runners didn't matter. Those were 15 brave people who had the guts to start and the stamina to finish. One third of those who'd started the race, roughly the same percentage one would expect to see do the same in a 100 mile race-- 3x the distance, did not finish. And, the average finish time was 11.5 hours. We covered approximately 35 miles, and climbed more than 19,000 ft in the process, including a staggeringly slow ascent through the dirt and thorns. Crossing the finish line was a testament to sheer will power.

There are things you just don't learn doing intervals and tempo runs, things you don't discover during a half ran, half walked long run on the easy bridle trails or well-groomed Buckeye. I think there are things you learn that come from facing the unknown, and accepting that failure truly is not an option. You can have it or be had; you can beat it or it can beat your ass. The Barkley isn't about time, in any of its forms. It's about using your resources and making the right choices, and moving ahead. You can run a fast 50k somewhere else, any time. But Barkley miles? They're another animal entirely. And you have to play their game. That is how you come out vertical on the other side.