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.