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.

((crickets))

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.



Well.

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djV11Xbc914

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.

Up.

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.



12:49:25

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.

X

Monday, September 15, 2014

Doing the Greens (Moebius-Green 50k and Green Cathedral Half Marathon)

"Only 9 miles", I was trying to convince myself, trucking my way uphill like a snowplow with a flat tire. "just think about Burning River at 91 miles".

Well, so that wasn't the best example.

At 91 miles at Burning River, I was gagging potatoes onto the ground and crying.

But, really...it was only 9 miles. Right?

I was sweating profusely, despite the sub-50 degree temp and the fact that I was less than 35 minutes into the race. I'd made the colossal mistake of wearing long sleeves, and with only a couple water stops during the entire 13.1 mile race, I was dying. A mile later, a guy ran up beside me and congratulated me on my pace. "Wow, just a little over 8 minute pace. That's pretty impressive!" he said, before taking off on me. "Let's go get this guy up ahead". I'm sure he was just trying to be nice, but I can't help but think he was probably more impressed that a rear end the size of a Volkswagon was ahead of him than he was my actual pace, which really, if you think about it, wasn't all that impressive. I mean, I've seen photos taken of me from behind.

      the rear view

Three weeks earlier, I'd pulled off a small miracle when I finished the Moebius-Green Monster Trail 50k in 5:54:05 after using the three weeks post-BR100 to basically eat, make ambitious training goals I didn't really intend to keep, and otherwise backslide. It wasn't a personal best, but it wasn't bad either, and only the second time I'd finished a trail 50k under 6:00. Fast forward three weeks, and the eating had gotten worse, and furthermore, I'd sunken beyond the point of even making ambitious goals. Quite simply, I'd gotten lazy and 6 pounds heavier. And, that was on a good day.

By the 6th mile, I knew there was no way I was going to keep up the kind of pace I'd run at Akron two years ago, a pace that was 10 seconds slower than Cleveland, but felt now like a 10k effort. I passed a man who was doing the annoying 'walk until someone catches up, then run like a bat out of hell' thing; his run walk only worked until we got to a lengthy hill. Here, passing the 7 mile mark, I was anguished: barely over halfway, and legs seizing.

At this point, I started glancing over my shoulder, wondering when the other female runners were going to start catching me. How I'd managed to stay in 6th place for so long was, frankly, astounding. I'd played a similar game at Moebius, except that I'd built such a wide gap during the first 12.5 miles that once the slowdown commenced, I was over 10 minutes ahead of all but the two women who then passed me.

      Moebius-Green Monster trail 50k- 12.4 miles after having been passed by the first of two women who would finish ahead of me (I am in the back of this pack)

I continued to lumber along. The 7th and 8th miles passed surprisingly fast despite feeling so tired. The 9th mile marker came into view, however, after trekking uphill and around a corner. It was here that I noticed a woman was running in the pack of men that were honing me in like a pack of wolves. I walked through the aid station, not because I felt particularly defeated (I'd had no real illusion of a fantastical finish), but because I was overheated like a car and on the verge of implosion. Approximately 1/8 into mile 10, the woman caught me. She was running very strong, and very briefly I tried to surge to keep up with her. It was a futile attempt. Soon, she was completely out of view.

The group of men, on the other hand, weren't running quite so aggressively, it seemed. It took another 2-3 minutes before they'd caught me, and didn't seem to be in much of a hurry to pass. Or, perhaps, I was moving a little faster as we were traveling on a relatively flat section and my legs were less fatigued. "What is our pace?" I remember asking, to which one of the three men replied, "8:15-- but don't let us hold you back. We're just trying to break 1:50". Well, we wanted the same thing, then. I was loosely determined to keep up with them, but knew it probably wasn't going to happen. They'd come from behind, which meant they'd gained ground on me. That also meant I was slowing down. I'd been averaging 8:10 at 5 miles, and now, 4 miles later, I was averaging 8:15. At this rate, I'd probably be pacing 8:20 or worse by the time the finish line came into view. Finishing under 1:50 wasn't going to be a cinch. Of course, I knew that all along.

I managed to keep up with the men through mile 11. They gained some ground on me at the last aid station, and then more on a rather steep hill. How anyone could have charged that hill was one of life's mysteries. Yet, it seemed like everyone was charging it but me. Approaching the 12 mile mark, they were still in view, albeit with a sizeable gap of probably 45 seconds or more. Here, a second woman caught me. Interestingly, she began to mimic my pace, even walking up the first of two large hills alongside me. I asked her for our total time, to which she responded, completely out of breath, "1:41". I began wondering if I was even going to beat 1:51, walking up a hill like this. But, my legs were like lead weights and my lungs were on fire. At the top of the hill, this woman started to move ahead. And then, as we began our ascent up the second big hill, she began to move even faster. I didn't.

As I neared the top of the hill, a third woman passed me, running like it was an Olympic sprint. I knew we were almost done, but I just didn't feel like I had anything left. I forced myself to at least pick up a jog, seeing the mile 13 marker. There was no way I was going to finish any race, much less a half marathon, walking-- even one with an uphill finish like this one. The clock was still ticking in the mid-1:49's as it came into view, and I saw the lady who'd given me the time finish well under 1:50. Briefly, I thought maybe I might be able to eek out a sub-1:50, but I simply wasn't moving fast enough.


So, no records were broken at the Green Cathedral half marathon. I finished in 1:50:09, the 9th woman and 2nd in my age group. As far as finish times go, it was a little slower than what I'd been running (nearly 4 minutes slower than Cleveland), but given the circumstances-- particularly the idiocy in running 15 hilly miles the day before, a lot better than I could have expected. The extra weight didn't help my case either.

I waited around to collect my age group award, after which I was approached by a woman who remembered me from the Snowville aid station at Burning River. I drove home where I then did what I seem to be doing best nowadays: ate. A lot. This morning my weight was the highest it's been since winter, and I feel ashamed of the way I've let myself go, so to speak.

Barkley is coming. Fifty kilometers of what is rumored to be the most unforgiving terrain I'll ever encounter. Twenty-thousand feet of climbing, and as much descent, with sparse aid stations that will be as stocked as an unmanned water drop in most other ultras. I've tried not to obsess over it, tried not to spend too much time pouring over it in social media. I've found that sometimes that approach works best. When you know it's going to be bad, jump in blindly. Without the hype and without the expectations, I can tackle it simply knowing it's going to be the scariest thing I've ever encountered, and expect no less. I made a point of asking advice for footwear and leg cover, but otherwise, I'd prefer just to leave it up to fate. And, despite the predicted 10% finish, I intend to be one of the ones crossing the finish line Saturday evening.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Burning River 100- 2014 Edition

It was 3:15am on August 2nd: Burning River 100. And, I wasn't wearing deodorant.

There have been times when I've showed up to run an ultra not wearing socks. I've forgotten a band and had to run with loose hair. And, I've even admittedly raced 50k without underwear. These things happen when you race after being up all night working third shift. But, this?

I closed my eyes for a minute on the bus, hoping four tampons would be enough, because I wasn't prepared for that curveball either. It was going to be a good day, even if I stunk before everyone else did, and even if I had to wait in line for the bathroom every time I found one. I'd trained hard for this-- really hard. And, I was convinced nothing was going to rain on my parade.

Course changes moved our 10k romp around Squire's Castle to the road, and I was incredibly grateful to see Polo Fields aid station come into view after another half dozen plus paved miles o' misery. I had no idea what kind of time I was making, and promised myself I wouldn't sneak a peek until Snowville at the halfway point, but it felt like I was traveling at a conservative enough pace that I wouldn't blow up later. Aid station crew were friendly and well-prepared, and as always, the fanfare that erupted from spectators and crew was overwhelming but pleasant. But, it was early-- 13.5 miles early, and I just wanted to hit the trail.

After you've jumped into the deep end more than a few times, you get a feel for the water. And, in the case of running 100 miles, you learn that it's ok to walk early if your body tells you it needs it, and to tend to your feet before hot spots and blisters get out of control. I'd meticulously planned my drop bags, having raced BR100 twice already, and having trained on most segments of the course countless times over the past couple years. My first shoe change was slated at Oak Grove around mile 39, but my shoes and socks were soaked by the time I reached Shadow Lake (~mile 24), and I was forced to dry and Vaseline my feet there and return them to the wet shoes and socks. Blisters began to boil shortly thereafter. I also broke my vow and checked the time a few miles later. Five hours and thirty-nine minutes for 29 miles and change? Not bad. I was moving well, and felt fine, even though it took more than 20 miles to find my race legs.

Checking time once tends to lead to a domino effect of constant checks, and for someone who refuses to wear a watch, this means frequent shuffles into the pocket of a handheld water bottle that, on this occasion, more closely resembled a clown car than a 3 x 5 inch pocket that was only meant to carry a phone or a packet of gel. In my case, it was holding the phone I planned to power on to check the time, toilet paper, batteries, a flashlight, tampons, and a Justin's nut butter. As I neared Oak Grove, I was powering the phone on and off so frequently I'm surprised someone didn't take notice and ask if I was ok. I was hoping to hit 40 miles under 8 hours and 50 in 10.5, and somehow seemed to believe if I checked my phone often enough it would propel me to the aid station faster. The course was relatively tame between Egbert and Oak Grove with Alexander road in between, and easy miles on the Towpath where scary clouds and gusts of wind threatened my chi with the fear of lightning and other unspeakable terrors. I made it to Oak Grove unscathed and lightning scare-free, albeit in 8:07-- a few minutes behind schedule. Still, I took my ability to stay reasonable close to my target time a sign that I'd done my job in training, and that I'd planned well.

Getting to Snowville in 10.5 hours wasn't going to be an easy task, and I knew I'd set the bar a bit high. In the past, I'd reached this aid station in 11:31 and 11:58, respectively, and even though it came a mile earlier than in years past (49.6 miles this year), I knew this was an ambitious goal. The Oak Grove loop was harder than I remembered, but I ran when I could and walked when running wasn't in the cards. There were a couple long climbs that put my already labored hill-climb breathing into full fledged Darth Vader mode, and I was grateful to be done with it when I left Oak Grove again, this time for Snowville. I'd been prepared for the worst, but the Bog of Despair was so dry I barely batted an eye as I navigated it. This was a huge mental boost for me, and I began running fast upon leaving what used to be the muddiest soul-sucking part of the entire course. I reached Snowville in 10:45. I was still a few minutes behind, but I'd also spent a little longer than anticipated at Oak Grove. So far, the day was turning out as well as I could have hoped. The weather was holding up despite the clouds, and although I had blisters in the making, nothing catastrophic had happened yet.



I zoned out every negative feeling I'd harbored in the past toward the Snowville to Boston segment, running it reasonably well, arriving at the aid station feeling more like I'd run 54 kilometers than 54 miles. This was a hard section, in my opinion, with a lot of hills, and the next segment wouldn't be as challenging. After that, I just had to focus on getting to the Ledges-- preferably in daylight, where my pacer, Terri Lemke, would be waiting for me.

In 2012, I reached Pine Lane in daylight that quickly faded to darkness along the Bike and Hike path, and in 2013 I made it there at twilight, so getting there over an hour and a half before sunset was another boost. Unfortunately, a thread had started to unravel upon leaving this aid station that was threatening to rip out of control, and before I knew it, I was on the Bike & Hike unable to bring myself to run-- even on the flattest portions. And, while I was marching as fast as my legs could carry me, passing a number of people along the way, I was incredibly eager to find Terri. This segment seemingly took forever. There were signs along the trail once we entered it again advertising that Ledges shelter was only 1/2 mile to the right, taunting me each time I passed one. I power walked my way into the sight of cheering spectators, my sister, and Terri, just before darkness set in, realizing for the first time that my pacer was a pacer and not a savior, and all this hope of reaching her wasn't going to take away the obvious fact that I still had to cover another 35 miles. The first twitches of panic took hold as we left together for Pine Hollow.



I knew I'd lost sight of a sub-24 hour finish, but reasoned that 25-26 hours was definitely still a possibility. I'm known to spend miles doing calculations, even late in races when nothing else seems to make sense, and I was fairly confident that even if Pine Hollow to Pine Hollow and Oneill Woods got the best of me, I should still be able to finish well under 27 hours-- not the kind of finish that gets written about in magazines, but respectable nonetheless, and a hill of beans better than the 29:42 finish I scraped up in 2012.

By now, I was tired, it was getting dark, and I had blisters. Terri, an ultra running legend, was impressed by my walking pace, and I humbly told her it was really all I could see myself doing for the foreseeable future of our trek together. We made our way to Pine Hollow, discussing a number of running-related topics, and arrived to a chaotic scene of people, bags, food, and tape. I was eager to get out of my Inov8 X-talon 212's and into my 190's-- and also fresh socks and a shirt of my own, having borrowed one of Terri's en route to the aid station, but my bag was missing. Granted, the aid station was jam-packed, but I've never had a drop bag disappear, especially one that was as clearly labeled as mine was. While I realize one or two of my bags didn't have my bib # marked, all of them had my first and last name printed in reasonably large, bold letters. After nearly 10 minutes of searching, only the ziplock bag containing my X-talon 190's was located-- a bag that had been taken out of my drop bag. Why someone would do something like that is still a disappointing mystery, but thankfully ultra runner and BR100 volunteer Hugh Patton offered to lend me a pair of his own socks.

The Pine Hollow to Pine Hollow loop was described as 3.7 miles, and I knew from training on it that it wasn't going to be a picnic, but the amount of time we spent slogging along this trail was nothing short of an eon, and the ground we covered easily approached or surpassed 5 miles. It was the first time I experienced true frustration in the 17 hours I'd spent on the course. Had we missed a turn? Were we on our way to Covered Bridge by mistake? No, that wasn't possible. I knew that segment, and we were heading in the wrong direction. When we finally made our way back into the aid station, I knew I'd lost a lot of time, and it wasn't going to be made up on any of the next three segments.

Along the 6.2 mile hike to Covered Bridge, mental fatigue finally dug its talons into my brain, within minutes of the start of approximately 47 (and it may have been more) pee stops, and the start of the worst butt chafing episode I've ever experienced in my 31 years on this planet. While I knew I'd finish, and probably under 29 hours, all other goals became secondary concerns to finding something to wake me up beside the horrendous burning on and between my butt cheeks. I'd heard tales of butt-chafing that had forced people out of races, but had chalked it up to weakness on the part of the chafee. This discomfort was in a galaxy of its own, and the terrain we covered during those 6.2 miles rivaled the 2013 Bog of Despair at times. I repeatedly lost my footing, sunk my shoes in deceptively deep mud, and generally fell into a funk. I was dizzy and aching by the time we made our way into Covered Bridge, and downed a cocktail of Ibuprofin, S-caps, and Pepsi. I smeared a quarter tube of Desitin on my inner thighs and on my butt, shoved a wad of toilet paper between the cheeks, followed by eating potatoes, banana, and grilled cheese-- the most palatable foods for me at this point.

I liked the next segment, the 4.7 mile Perkins/Riding Run loop, and had run it so often I'd nearly memorized ever twist, turn, creek, and hill, but encountering it fatigued, pained, and in the dark was an indescribable, confusing nightmare, especially muddy as it was with a dimming headlamp. I missed familiar landmarks, and didn't even realize I'd reached the big hill until I was nearly halfway down it, and by the time the trail spit us out onto the road, I had no idea what had just happened. We were done with it? Back at the Covered Bridge? This meant we only had 14 miles remaining...well, at least on paper.

Another quarter tube of Desitin and wad of toilet paper later, we began our hike toward Botzum Parking (mile 91) on what turned out to be the second segment that was easily a mile longer than had been listed. The road section was painful on my feet (and everything was painful for my butt), and the O Woods was full of rocks and fallen trees that kept turning into crawling, writhing CGI animals. It was the only time, like 2012, that I experienced any type of visual disturbance, and also struggled to stay awake and retain my peripheral vision. I'm a logically thinking person, but if ever there was a case for the supernatural, I can assure you it's Oneill Woods after dark. Upon exiting the trail, I was sure the aid station would come into view, but it didn't. There was just more pavement. Unlike the long experience in the Pine Hollow loop, however, I knew we were, without a doubt, heading in the right direction.

We finally reached the aid station at about 6:15 am. With 10 miles remaining and a needed refueling and bathroom stop, I was anticipating a 28:00-28:30 finish. It wasn't going to be fast or pretty, but I was going to get it done. Not long after arriving, however, I found myself doubled over, bile filling my mouth, gagging potatoes onto the ground in front of me. I didn't feel well, didn't want to eat even though I was hungry, and my feet and butt hurt. But with one aid station and only 10 miles separating me from the finish line, there really wasn't any other option but to get up, force something down, and get moving. As I've told countless people inquiring about BR100, if you can leave the Covered Bridge, barring medical emergency, you're going to finish. It is the point of no return. The only question is: how long will it take?

On our way to Memorial Parkway, a steady rain began that didn't let up for the next few hours. For the first time in 20 miles, I began to run. And although it was slow, and barely lasted 1/4 mile, it was something. We continued this walk-run, sometimes at Terri's suggestion, sometimes at mine, all the way to the aid station where, minutes before entering, we found Dan Bellinger running toward us with his dog, thrilled to see us and beaming that we had hours to finish 4.5 short miles. It was a good feeling knowing I was heading toward the last segment, and I was happy that he was happy, but exhausted and not happy that I still had 4.5 miles to cover. We arrived at 7:45 and left about 4-5 minutes later, and I estimated it would take an nearly an hour and a half to finish, or about 18 minutes/mile. Even with the fast finish on the road, I knew the first half of the Cascade Valley section wasn't easy, and there was a long stretch uphill on the brick road after leaving the aid station.

The rain picked up momentum as we headed up the behemoth of a hill that waited in the Gorge and Chuckery, a course change for which I had not been prepared. It felt like we were moving at the pace of a turtle, and at one point my breathing became so labored I thought I was going to faint and barrel down the hill backward, over-Rover rolling, but finally, at the top, after a minute or two of hiking, we again picked up a shuffled jog. The rain made what was typically an easy, somewhat boring stretch puddly and muddy, and a number of people passed us. I didn't care. I just wanted to get done. And, by the time the bridge came into view, I was a teary, bawling mess.

We headed over the bridge, through the rain, and up the paved hill on the other side with gusto, passing one runner and pacer team here and another further down the road. My running picked up pace first just a trifle, and then, with less than a half mile to go and the finish line in view, to a pace I didn't think was possible.



28:18:49

I'd done it. After three 100 mile DNF's in 2013, a lot of heartache, and a hell of stretch of high mileage racing and training over the past few months, I'd earned my second 100 mile buckle. I could not have been more pleased with my pacer, my sister being there to support me from Ledges at mile 66 to the finish, or the journey itself. I got to see several friends finish before leaving. It was a great end to a long, challenging adventure.

I'd initially decided 2015 would be spent training for a fast marathon, and to improve my 50 mile time, and that I was done with 100 miles for a while. But, I suspect Burning River will call me back for another go on a course I love with the support of a trail running community like no other. People say racing ultras is addicting, but I think it's the atmosphere that draws me in, again and again. It's like nothing else. Magic.



Cheers!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Torture to Taper: 2014 Buckeye Trail 50k

I didn't feel ready.

It's a moment of panic, really, standing at the starting line like a deer in headlights, not knowing what you're going to do. Even worse, standing there without wearing socks or underwear, even though you know you're going to be running in the mud and humidity for 6 hours or longer. I guess I made up for it by wearing two sports bras and an orange hair ribbon. And, I did have water this time...it was just old water that had been in an unwashed bottle for nearly a week.

The projected top 10 lists had been released earlier in the week, lists to which I typically do not pay too much mind in a really personal way. I mean, if it were a local 5k top 10, you'd better bet your ass I'd expect to see my name near the top. But, I haven't really found my niche yet on the mantel of speedy ultra personalities, so I tend to view these lists the way I view an article outlining an upcoming super race like Western States or Leadville. This time, though, it was different. I wanted to finish in the top 10. I just didn't particularly feel like racing.

This was the Buckeye Trail 50k: a trail ultra with a history more than two decades deep, and legends like Stephen Godale who had been there every step of the way. The course consisted of a 25k out-and-back stretch that followed a significant portion of the upcoming Burning River 100 course between Snowville and Pine Lane, some of the worst segments of BR100 in my own humble opinion-- at least in terms of steep climbs and mud. This was home, after all, to the notorious Bog of Despair. I'd run it once before, and recorded a personal worst 50k time; and, though I knew I was much better trained this year, and healthier, I was tired. In the 5 weeks leading up to the BT50k I'd already raced two very challenging 50 mile races, had logged my highest weekly training mileage to date with 90 miles, and had run 40 overnight miles the weekend before. My body was begging for a break. I told myself that break was coming. I just had to get through these 31 miles first.

I started slow, and even considered walking up the first paved incline, much like I'd done at the Tussey Mountainback 50 back in October. My early walking had paid off big time in that race, as I spent most of the last 10 miles picking off runners who'd flown by me in the early miles. My Cliff Young shuffle broke into a wider gaited trot and eventually a gallop as the miles progressed, passing first the Snowville aid station, and then Boston Store. I paid little mind to those who'd passed me, particularly those runners I didn't recognize, expecting their overzealous pace to catch them later when the race actually began. It's a lesson I learned, a lesson most of us learn the hard way. Banking time simply doesn't really work, at least not in a way that is beneficial to one's morale in those late miles when we're all looking for that silver lining and instead find ourselves being passed by droves of fresh-pacing runners.



My friend Andy and I leap frogged for the better part of the Boston to Pine Lane segment. We rolled into the aid station together at the halfway mark in 2:54 and change, but I was out again as fast as I could feasibly get out, stuffing ice cubes down my bra (and joking with my Running Ma Dawn Drasner, "yes, I have ice cubes. Since when are my boobs this big?") and jamming 1/2 of a banana into my mouth. I'd been hydrating well despite the heat, and managing my water ration well, having not come closer than a few gulps from an empty bottle. I'd decided during the previous segment that my legs were in much better condition than I'd anticipated before the start, and I was going to hit the 'Go' switch in a few miles. The leading women weren't tremendously far ahead, and I'd encountered the leading male runner well into the Boston to Pine Lane segment, which meant the head of the field was feeling the effects of the heat, humidity and mud. I had a fighting chance at walking away with a pretty good race under my belt.

Pine Lane to Boston II was a blur. I was running fast and feeling fine, and had been repeating periodically a mantra, sometimes in my head and sometimes out loud: "once you get to Boston, there's only one more aid station". I wasn't cramping or wilting in the heat, but the overall fatigue from the previous weeks was making me impatient to get done. The towpath leading to Boston Store came into view before I knew it, and with 11 miles to go, I was prepared for the worst 5 mile segment of the entire race. Epic climbs. Mud galore. Creeks. Ugly, yucky stuff, especially after 20 miles. I set out for Snowville, my only goal being to reach it before the 5 hour mark. If I did this, even if a rogue boulder rolled out in front of me, a large barking dog chased me up a tree, or some other act of the divine intervened, I would still make it well under 6:30, and hopefully closer to 6:15.

I started encountering burned-out, tired runners a mile or so into this segment. A couple of them attempted to jog when I caught up, but most simply stepped off the trail, looking spent and defeated. I was admittedly feeling a little more tired and anxious as the twists, turns, ascents and descents progressed, wondering impatiently when those familiar, final hills were going to come into view. Up to this point, I'd only checked the time once: the 25k mark at Pine Lane, but now I was checking it every couple minutes. Finally, the steps came into view, and I knew I was about 1/8 mile from the aid station. 4:58. Six miles were all that separated me now from the finish line, but they were going to be the six longest miles of my life, it seemed.



After I filled my water bottle, I took off running. This was my least traveled segment, one I'd rarely seen in training, and one without any real landmarks until I reached the stables near Oak Grove. Unfamiliar miles seem shorter when I'm fresh, and longer when I'm tired, and I admittedly hit a mental wall around 29 miles after which the thought of running was agonizing, but an agonizing necessity. It was here that another friend, Crystal Shinosky, finally took off after having followed or closely led me for nearly 2 miles, and after which I finally passed the stables, knowing I was less than 2 miles from the finish line.

My pace was steady, and a quick check indicated 5:58 had passed. Well, clearly I wouldn't be breaking 6 hours today, but 6:20 was looking awfully good. Looking over my shoulder, I realized nobody was in sight, and briefly I toyed with taking a walk break. But, running downhill on the pavement, I simply could not justify it, especially with a struggling runner walking just 100 yards or so in front of me. I picked up the pace, passed the runner, and, laborious, deliberate breathing pattern enforced and arms pumping like I was executing an exaggerated pantomime of an Olympic sprint, I made my way down the final stretch. My time: 6:21:32. I finished 10th. (Take that, top 10 projection!)

I laid in the cold grass under a tree in fetal position, unable to eat or drink and unwilling to move. It was a great race, and I felt great about it. With three weeks until the big day, I hadn't had a bad race in months. I'd survived the brunt of my hard training, had survived three brutal ultras in 5 weeks, had nearly a half dozen PRs or course PRs under my belt since late April in distances ranging from half marathon to 100k. I couldn't have hoped for better training. And now, it was over. My taper was finally going to begin.

I've given a lot of thought to Burning River. There is a chance I might be paced by one of the legendary ladies of NE Ohio ultra running, and with all that has transpired over the past 3 months, I'm not sure what is waiting around the corner at this epic, grueling race. Is 24 hours possible? I don't know. But, I'm going to give it my best shot.

I feel ready.

Cheers!

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Work in Progress: The Life of One Ultrarunner

Rather than prattle endlessly about this topic or that-- nutrition, shoes, speed work, which book or article I read and how I feel about it, today, instead, I'm just going to share a series of pictures that tell the story of what I do, and the history that led me to this path.