Friday, April 8, 2016

The Lost Weekend (2016 Barkley Marathons)

"Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness"

-Yousuf Karsh

Every race has a defining moment-- that instant when a singular piece of the puzzle is inserted and the entire picture is suddenly made clear. Sometimes it doesn't happen until the very end. Sometimes it's a surge that cannot be met by competitors. Sometimes it's when you fall, 10 feet out of the starting corral, and bloody both knees. At last year's Barkley Marathons, that realization came when I missed the turn-off down Jaque Maite hill and found myself alone and unsure of even which galaxy I was roaming. That moment haunted me for a year; it was when I knew my race was over.

The rawness of the Barkley and its intimacy have drawn me to the event since I read about it a decade ago. It encompassed all the things I loved about the sport and excluded all the bullshit I hated, with the added bonus of a certain amount of mystique and exclusiveness that actually prevented me from taking it serious for several years. After all, if only a few dozen runners were granted entry each year and the entry process was shrouded in secrecy, how might I ever gain access?

Following Hiram Rogers up Hillpocalypse after nailing the second book head-on, two things became apparent: 1. I couldn't feasibly go any faster if I had any hope of surviving the next 15 miles; and 2. I had to go faster if I had any hope of making the cutoff. Reality hit hard: if anyone could pace this course to a 12-13 hour loop, it was Hiram. And, while I was able to gain ground during the descents, I was falling further behind with every ascent. By the time I got to the high wall, I felt like I was going to shit my pants and have a seizure, and Hiram was barely a dot in the stratosphere up above. Joel Gat slowly plowed past me, and then John Kelly-- clearly having been lost-- scurried by. And, then? And then it was just me. This was that defining moment. Though, I had no idea just how defining it was, and what kind of party favors were waiting to pop out of the can at me further down the road.

I'd superstitiously wanted to keep my entry status a secret from Day I, and was rather distraught when posts began to sprout like dandelions all over my facebook wall within minutes of the much-anticipated "Weight List" being published for the Barkley email listserv. The jinx jumped out as a thing of legend and evolved into a very real entity with the passing weeks, and with every mention of The Race, I became more concerned that people were going to build a very unrealistic expectation for me-- especially with the ill-timed release of the documentary that prompted droves of people to proudly proclaim, "pshhh I'm gonna do THAT", as if it were a hop-skip over a ditch and a trotted block to the candy store. At some point I realized how ludicrous the entire process had become; I was revering the name "Barkley" publicly like it was Voldemort, or one of those Bloody Mary-Freddy Crougar double dog dares from childhood (during which we'd lock ourselves in the bathroom, turn off the lights, and say the name 3x in hopes that we'd turn on the lights to face some sort of monstrous entity). Saying "I'm running Barkley" had almost become synonymous with a wish for imminent death-- or at least something really awful, and I half expected to wake up bald and bloodshot with my fingernails missing for having done it.

Compared to last year, I felt much better prepared. I'd obsessed over the park map, and carrying all the right gear. I'd had my sister drop me off several times at 8pm to run alone overnight for 12+ hours in sub-freezing conditions, and I spent hours at a time climbing on the treadmill with the incline maxed. In the fall, prior to submitting my request for entry, I'd pushed myself through a gamut of races that included the Barkley Fall Classic-- a 50k race through the same Frozen Head State Park that included an estimated 15,000ft of ascent and incorporated some of the beloved Barkley features; a 50k with 5,500ft of ascent in Chillicothe, OH, a 100k with 11,000ft of ascent at Oil Creek park in Titusville, PA; a trail marathon in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park; and finally a 100 mile rail trail race in Vienna, IL-- which finally allowed me to beat the coveted 24 hour mark, something I'd wanted for years. Having completed all of these events within an 8-week window, and having done well, served as a tremendous boost in confidence; and with the completion of two more 6-hour trail 50k races in mid-February and March, I was convinced I should be able to eke out my first Barkley loop in the ballpark of 11:30-12:00.

The Barkley Marathons, a 100 mile, five-looped, trail/mountain race with 130,000ft of total elevation change, was an hour from starting when Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake, or "Laz") blew the conch shell at 9:43am on Saturday, April 2nd. Last minute preparations and photo-ops whittled that hour down to minutes, and before I could get caught up in the anxiety of the pre-race hubbub, I was bringing up the bottom 1/3 of the pack, comfortably following Hiram Rogers and Kirby Russell up Bird Mountain. Following closely behind were Karen Jackson, Brad Compton, Finnish runner Mariana Zaidova, and Starchy Grant; blind runner Ronda Avery and her guide were following below us a couple switchbacks. Having climbed these switchbacks a number of times, I was mildly concerned about how far behind the rest of the runners we were given what I felt was a realistic pace, but still confident that I knew the course well enough that it wouldn't be problematic. After all, there were a number of previous finishers, Fun Run (3-loop) finishers, and elite runners in this year's race; and I knew heading into the event that I was considerably slower than most of the field. We made the turn-off toward England Mountain, crossed the Pillars of Doom, and finally began the descents through Hiram's Gambit and Fangorn Forest. The first book passed without a hitch, and then I hit the descent toward the park boundary-- a less pretty line than last year, although it went much quicker and with much less confusion. Heading up the marked trail toward Jury Ridge, I knew I was going to have to employ a different tactic if I wanted to keep pace with the runners immediately in front of me. Up to that point, I'd considered myself an excellent climber, but these men were putting me to shame. At Jury Ridge, I felt really good for about 10 seconds before I became entangled in a terrific mess of saw briers, one of them slicing deep enough to leave a clear stream of blood snaking its way down my shin. I began using my trekking poles like the Sword of Truth, slashing and swinging at anything that came within a foot of my body, although half the time the things I swung and sweeped only snapped back and clawed at me from another direction. It was a maddening chaos that ended directly at the Raider creek confluence and book 2; though, bloody legged and filthy and sweating profusely, I was astonished that my race was progressing so well.

My trekking pole slipped on the wet, clay-like earth that was shoulder-level, and sent a huge chunk cascading below. I couldn't have picked a worse spot to try to get over the highwall. My water bottle was struck next and somehow jumped ship and went tumbling down. I looked up: Hiram was disappearing above with Jim Ball and Kirby Russell. I sighed and took a drink of Gatorade. Nobody was coming behind me, which meant the rest of the group must have had trouble finding the second book. This climb was harder than I'd remembered it being, and by the time I got to the top, I was relieved to be heading onto a runnable marked trail. For some reason I became convinced that I was at Bald Knob and that the rocks in front of me were the remnants of the capstones, and I spent an outrageous amount of time wandering around here looking for the third book. Finally, after about an hour, I decided this effort was going to be fruitless, and began to make my way back down the trail on the switchbacks. Not far down, I took a bearing and realized, around the same time that two hikers approached from the opposite direction, that I was heading in the wrong direction. It was embarrassing and I swore profusely at the error. Who the hell just starts aimlessly running without bothering to see where they're going-- especially when heading left of the north boundary markers? Left of north is west, and I was supposed to be heading east. This was a gem of idiocy that was clearly in a league of its own. Now, I was not only too slow to keep up, but I'd wasted more than an hour rooting around for a book in the wrong area before heading down the mountain in the wrong direction. It was looking like a 15-16 hour loop day.

I climbed back to the top and then began to make my way down and then up in the opposite direction. Choosing to wear two long-sleeved shirts had seemed like a good idea in the morning, but now I was hot. I sat down on a rock next to a small stream trickling down the mountain and pulled out a pack of Honey Stinger chews. The contents from my first bottle were empty, and the second bottle was half empty. The water here looked clean, and I was thirsty, so I filled the bottle and added a purification tab, sucked down a Hammer gel, then another, and finally half of the contents of the Gatorade-filled bottle. With a little luck, I should reach the top of this next ascent in time for the water I'd just filled to be drinkable. Just as I was preparing to stand up, I heard voices. Close to Bald Knob, it reminded me so much of last year that I actually laughed maniacally as I leaped to my feet. "People!" I screamed, as though I'd been lost for more than just a couple hours. How in the dickens had this awful situation managed to repeat itself so perfectly? Clearly I was not, in fact, the last person trolling the mountains, destined for a disastrously slow loop alone. But, it wasn't looking pretty. A quick count indicated there were four: Karen, Brad, Patrick Doring, and a guy I'd met the night before named Ben. So, this was it: let the Canterbury Tales begin, right?

Not far behind this group was a pair of international runners: one French, the other the Finnish human sacrifice. Our quintet had become a septet, and we were slowly moving forward. I wasn't worried about Ronda, who was hiking with a guide, but what had become of Starchy was uncertain. He'd not passed me, and I hadn't gone off-course. It wasn't possible for him to have reached book 2 faster than I had; we'd chosen a perfect line and had descended directly at the confluence. So, he must be behind, although it was almost inconceivable that anyone could be behind us at this point. The pace was staggeringly slow, but I didn't think it was necessarily a good idea to just charge ahead. By the time we got to book 4 at the Garden Spot, we'd had to stop a half dozen times to wait for the French runner to catch up. I remember thinking that at this pace I'd have missed the marathon cutoff at BFC by a landslide. It had taken 7 hours to reach the water jugs, and daylight would be fading over the next couple hours. I tried to console myself with the thought that the last few segments were relatively straightforward, and if I could just survive Stallion without losing a limb, I might still be able to make it back to camp in 17-18 hours. Sure, it was embarrassingly slow, but it had been done before.

photo courtesy of Karen Jackson

Large groups at Barkley are a terrible idea. The more minds and bodies, the wider the gap in ability and the more potential for variation in opinion; and it became abundantly clear that we were not all on the same page heading out onto Stallion Mountain. We passed the dirt pile on the road without realizing what it was, and just kept up heading out until we were at a clearing that was impassable in three out of four directions-- impassable by human standards rather than Barkley standards, at least without proper rock climbing equipment or maybe hazmat suits. This was obviously the wrong place. A compass bearing indicated we weren't even heading in the right direction, even if we'd managed to conjure a magic carpet to fly us over the deathly drop-off. The foreign runners were convinced they'd found the turn-off to Quitter's Road, and insisted we follow it just to make sure. When the rest of the group refused to go with them, they left us and disappeared around the bend. I never heard from or saw them again, though I hear they spent the night further down the road under a space blanket before heading back to camp. After backtracking to the water jugs, the five of us again made our way out and then south, once again reaching the same crossroad. Frustration was building, and dusk was falling. Headlamps were making their way out at the same time as jackets were being zipped. Minutes turned into hours, and finally, Karen and Ben decided they'd had enough. With Patrick, they headed back toward the park boundary, our group of five whittling down to two. We were now 10 hours into the race, and stil hadn't found the descent toward Barley Mouth, the Buttslide, and book 5. It would take Jared Campbell and Gary Robbins and another hour before we'd finally see Bobcat rock, the water, and Starchy Grant.

"This can't be right", I told Brad, climbing to the top of an embankment that had dangerously inadequate footing.

"That road didn't go anywhere", Brad said, referring to the road that ran past Bobcat rock. "It didn't start sharply downhill. It can't be the right one".

I was staring out into the night when a light caught my eye. "There's somebody up there."

"Up here!" the voice belonging to the lighted figure yelled. It was Starchy. He explained that he'd spent 6 hours looking for book 2, and we explained we'd spent 5 hours looking for the turn off toward Barley Mouth, and together we decided we were going to finish this thing no matter how long it took. Interestingly, it never occurred to me how incredible it was that someone else was on loop 1 in the same place at the same time more than 12 hours into the race; and, it never occurred to me how incredible it was that at this point nobody who'd come into camp was a partial looper. I didn't know, officially, but suspected it, having seen every single person in the bottom 1/4 of the starting field and knowing most of them had been clogged at the Garden Spot with us.

We easily spotted the Buttslide trail and began the descent toward book 5, and with a bit of elbow grease, grunt, dirt, help from John Kelly, and the lucky shining of my headlamp directly onto it, located the orange park boundary stake and the book. This probably could have been an opportune time to make a joke about there only being eight books left, but we just rather obligingly began the slow climb back up the Buttslide and across the road to Bobcat rock. The climb to the top took much longer than I expected (a repeating theme), and once there it wasn't terribly long before we were standing in front of a rather surreal sight: a round body of water and what looked like the back seat of an old van, overlooking the world below. If it weren't for the presence of these things in the woods back home, I'd have probably been even more astounded or perplexed-- even though I knew they were there. But, there are a number of bathtubs in the CVNP that I've posed in doing all sorts of cute and inappropriate things over the years. Finding a couch at the top of a mountain is almost blase when you've pretended to cook a Thanksgiving turkey in a bombed out old stove in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, a little way past this, it was apparent we were on somewhat of a trail, and within minutes I'd spotted the rock-filled borehole on a large sheet of rock that sat between knee and waist level. "Book 6!" I yelled. At least there'd been less than an hour between these books.

Time changes. I'd venture to say it really can speed up or slow down, or even cease to exist at times, if it weren't for the scientific proof against this claim. But, it certainly changes form to the brain sometimes. I think urgency pushes us into hasty decisions: quit when we've still got a few minutes; or, give up when it looks like it might not be possible to complete a task within a set period of time. But, when you're the Turtle in the game of the Barkley rat race, time no longer matters at all. I wasn't even wearing a watch, and I don't recall any of us compulsively flicking our wrists to catch a glimpse of the numbers on the display. The objective here was to collect our pages. Time was no longer of essence at all. Only finishing the loop mattered.

From here, it seemed we descended into the grips of Hell for a long time. It was freezing cold, and the numbers suggested by my compass indicated nothing short of a gamut of death traps. There were highwalls, brier-covered wooded patches, impossibly steep pitches. The first of many hangry, ugly grumbles erupted when Brad accidentally kicked a very large rock over Starchy's shoulder on a drop down to more level footing, narrowly missing his head. "Wait until I'm at the bottom!" With the two at the bottom, I came tumbling-- literally, immediately after, my poles ending up in the next dimension, scrapes and cuts covering my fingers where I'd been clawing at rocks in futility, trying to prevent the disaster. I don't know if it was here or at another messy tumble when I screamed "I'm tired of falling!" at a volume fit for Zeus, but I was certainly thinking it. From here, it was just a matter of getting to the river, crossing the river, and getting to the highway. Easy enough, right?

"That's Andrew Thompson. He must know where he's going."

What felt like, and likely could've been, hundreds of feet up what we later found out was called 'Little Hell', it occurred to me that this-- this just couldn't be right. Where AT was going-- anyone's guess was as good as mine. But, I'd never seen anything like this in the course description, and I'd seen where the highway overlooked the river. It was nothing like this miserable place. "We need to go back down; the highway is not up here."

"I hope he knew where he was going. It doesn't look like he's coming back", one of the men said.

"This isn't where we're supposed to be."

"You think we should go back down?" Brad asked.

"Yes", I answered. "This is wrong."

Looking down the steep descent, I was beyond the point of cursing missteps and mishaps; and I'd lost count of the number of times my legs had been wasted on a climb that wasn't a part of the course. It hadn't even occurred to me to be mad. And, anyway, there was no point in being mad even if my mind did manage to worm its way out of these Finish or Die shackles; it would have been a long time before we'd approach a jeep road that headed back to camp, and by then we'd have committed so much time to the full loop endeavor that stopping early would be even more ridiculous than following through with what we'd started. In short, quitting simply didn't my mind; and, I don't think it crossed Brad or Starchy's minds either. We were committed. It was just a matter of getting it done.

It took another hour, steep climb, and a quarter mile hike down the road before we reached the Armes Gap pull-off, but once there I was at least able to relax momentarily in the comfort of being in a familiar place. I knew the footing to the top of the ridgeline, and from there the old Testicle Spectacle was within view. I could tell by the sky that daybreak would be coming within an hour or two when we began the ascent with earnest up what was one of my least favorite segments of the entire course. There seemed to be many people here at the same time as us: Jason Poole and Ty Draney, a pair of international runners whose accents I couldn't quite place, voices to whom I couldn't connect a face or name. We found the 7th book after a short tree scouring mission and a lot of scrambles through the brambles. I made a silent note that there didn't seem to be one square inch of skin on my exposed legs that wasn't bleeding. We continued the ascent and the mountain spit us out near the place where the Testicle Spectacle meets the road: more familiar ground. From here we just needed to negotiate our way to the stream, and then follow it to Raw Dog Falls and the climbing wall.

The first part of this section is admittedly a blur for me. I know daylight opened the sky like the curtain on a stage, but the usual hope that comes with that light was, interestingly, not present. I think, in retrospect, that the kind of brain power required to stay on task in Frozen Head cured me of any anxiety I harbored toward night mountain running, and sunrise was, then, just that: sunrise. And, it came without mention, without marvel. Hope only exists with the possibility of failure. And, in that moment, failure simply didn't have a seat at the table; it didn't exist. We followed the sound of the water until we'd reached a steep pitch covered with leaves that ended just downstream from Raw Dog Falls. While the men climbed and scrambled down, I slid down on my butt. It was one of the single most painful lessons I've ever had in the art of laziness: a large splinter of wood approximately four inches long and a quarter inch thick became lodged in my left leg. If there was any single moment of desperation in my entire 2016 Barkley Marathons experience, it was here. I dropped my trekking poles and just started bawling, very very loudly. I couldn't pull the stick out of my leg, it was bleeding, and it fucking hurt-- really bad. It must've taken Starchy a solid 10 seconds to even realize anything was wrong, and Brad even longer; or, perhaps we'd become so oblivious to the tedius bellyaching about sticks and thorns and kicked rocks that my lamentation poured over them like sunshine or rain. Perhaps we'd just learned to effectively filter useful utterances from the non-useful? Anyway, removing the stick required a lot more effort than I think either of us anticipated, and led to even more blood and crying, and Starchy holding my hand and profusely apologizing. And then, just like the end of an act in a play, we simply recommenced our pilgrimage to the yellow gate as though nothing had happened, crossing at the falls and then climbing the steep pitch to the road. The mountains don't have sympathy. Nature doesn't have sympathy. We collected our pages from book 8 in the rusty barrel at the foot of Garbage Valley, and then silently climbed to the road, and stared ahead at Pighead Creek.

The sun was shining. It was gearing up to be a beautiful day, I thought, as we began the long, long climb up to the prison road trail. What better way to bring this Odyssey to a close than sunshine and the satisfaction of having fulfilled a promise? Halfway to the top, we ran into Jennilynn Eaton who was trying hard to finish her loop fast enough to make the loop 2 cutoff. "I'm only going to have a few minutes", she told us. My stomach was growling as we neared the crest where the road branched. Up to this point, I hadn't thought much about food. Now, more than 22 hours into the race, I was suddenly faced with the reality that it was getting hot, we still had 1/3 of the distance to cover, and my food supply had dwindled down to scraps. With the exception of a gel and a Cliff Shot Block or two, I was going to run out completely at the Firetower. As we rounded the corner and the long, ugly wide cut flanking the power lines came into view, Starchy whooped and charged ahead. "I've been looking forward to this for years!" he shouted. I sighed, groaned, and plowed up and ahead with considerably less gusto. I'd been here before, twice, and I knew it wasn't a picnic-- especially with the sun beating down and mats of cut saw briers to negotiate. At the top, I ripped the Braille page from book 9 and flung off my pack and dug into it like I was diving into a Chinese buffet. Maple almond butter. Ensure. There was fat, calories, and the realization that from here the course wasn't going to be overly tricky-- just two more grueling climbs and two more descents, something we'd been doing already for nearly 24 hours. I popped two Shot Blocks and a gel into a side pocket, readjusted my pack, and prepared for the climb down to the prison. I had just consumed 400 calories, 2,100 for the loop, and I had 300 to get me to the finish. It was going to be a hungry, hot, tiring challenge, but for the first time my mind was beginning to wrap itself around the idea of this journey coming to a close.

Coming down Rat Jaw, I passed Jared Campbell and Gary Robbins for the second time. Despite being in a great deal of pain at this point, I couldn't help but laugh. What were these guys thinking, lapping this motley trio for a second time? It amused me probably more than it should've, and I must've smiled the biggest, goofiest smile as Gary congratulated me for not giving up. What else do you do? We're all making our way. Some were just doing it a hell of a lot faster. After collecting our 10th book pages at the prison, we looked up and past the water towers. So, this was it: the climb called The Bad Thing, an ascent that could be, according to course instructions, "disastrously time consuming" if not nailed at the correct capstone. For whatever reason, I'd never really sweated this segment, and I think the confidence paid off. Though my right leg was becoming increasingly difficult to maneuver with the inflamed ligament, and though we didn't end up directly in front of the Eye of the Needle at the top, the quest to find book 11 wasn't nearly as time-consuming as I suspect it could've been, or as time consuming as other books had proven to be.

Coming down the Zipline, on the other hand, was an odyssey of its own. Horrible-- it was just horrible; there's no other word I can grasp that accurately describes the confusion, debate, and utter inability to make heads or tails of what we were doing that ensued here. It was hot--probably at least 65-70 degrees and 2:00pm when we reached what we believed was the creek confluence. By this point, I'd completely forgotten everything Stu Gleman had told me about the "Christmas trees" that flanked the beech tree at the bottom of the mountain. Instead, we began a very time-consuming, futile search and rescue mission up and down the land running parallel to the creeks that only ended when we ran into Dale Holdaway who indicated the beech tree was further ahead. At the tree (and book 12), I discovered that in addition to my course map (long gone at this point), I'd dropped my last gel and two Shot Blocks somewhere between the Firetower and Neverland, meaning I had absolutely nothing left to eat. Brad offered me a Cliff bar-- much appreciated calories, and Starchy filled his water bottle at the creek. One climb; we had one more climb, and then we could finally begin the trip back to camp.

I'm sure we were making conversation-- when I didn't feel like my lungs were going to leap out of my body and onto the trail, but I don't recall what words we exchanged. The climb to the Chimney Top capstones, also known as Big Hell, was excruciating for my protesting ligament, but finally ended with the discovery of book 13: The Undead and Unfinished. I don't think any title could've been more appropriate. The break here was brief: we waited for Brad to catch up at the top, and then almost immediately began the ascent down. For the first time in the 18-20 hours the three of us had spent together (and more than 30 hours since the start of the race), there was a sense of urgency, and for the first time we also began to wonder out loud what the rest of the world must be thinking of the three lost souls and their lost weekend in the mountains of Frozen Head State Park. As if it made any difference whether or not I had them, I must have patted the pocket of my pack that contained my 13 book pages at least a half dozen times to make sure they were still there. There was something about proving to myself, even if the world didn't care, that I'd completed the mission, and having those pages was paramount. The ascent from Rough Ridge to the walking trail was frustratingly long, and the euphoria and adreniline that built during our trek along it grew to an almost unimaginable height.

We turned and started a walk that built momentum and speed with every step until we were jogging, hand in hand, along the driveway through camp. This was it: the big moment of reckoning. The wave of emotion that came pouring in was almost too overwhelming to even process. I was hungry, tired, overjoyed, satisfied and disappointed simultaneously, and before I knew what was happening-- our hands came down on the yellow gate in unison. It was over. We'd finished the longest loop in Barkley's 30+ year history:


It really was over. Over: I could've repeated this like a mantra, with a cheeseburger and enough whiskey to tranquilize a bear in hand, and a hot Greek man fanning my poor ghastly body and soul to sleep. We'd done it. It was OVER.

My mission at Barkley this year, ultimately, was to finish any loop I started. I think you've got to be willing to do that, and you've got to have a tangible goal in mind upon which you're able to measure success. Ultimately, our failure was, by Barkley standards, one of the most spectacular in race history. I own that, and I'm not ashamed. To someone unfamiliar with the Barkley, it's probably hard to find any success in what unfolded during those 32 hours. But, to those who have been faced with those mountains, I don't think it's so hard to see at all. You just have to keep moving, keep fighting, and refuse to entertain even the whisper of doubt. As long as you've got a compass, water, warmth, and the will to keep pushing onward and upward, the creature comforts waiting on the other side of that yellow gate will embrace you in due time.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 7, 2015

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

Ouray, Colorado. July 31st. Friday.

Let's set the stage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Five miles"


"Unfortunately, yes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

2015 Mohican Trail 100, and the Things I Left Behind

On Friday afternoon, I was confident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was in trouble.

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

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

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

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

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