Saturday, September 24, 2016

And on the Fifth Day, There will be Bees (2016 Barkley Fall Classic)

People, I've found, love a good hero story. They love the under dog. Rocky. Cinderella. That person who boldly states, "yeah, so," as he readjusts his shiny new belt buckle, "I really didn't train for this". You know, didn't train for his sub-24 100 with negative splits and a final 10k at an 8:30 pace. Super bro endurance. The craft beer drinking Jedi master of the trail.

I didn't train for the Barkley Fall Classic this year, folks.

And, I didn't win. In fact, pull up a chair and pour a shot of Baileys in your coffee, and stay for a while. I'll tell you about it. But, do me a favor and keep an eye out for the wheel that went shooting off my car on I-71 after the race, because I hear it's still rolling around Kentucky somewhere. I wasn't the craft drinking Jedi master of the mountains in Frozen Head; I was more like R2D2, you know, if he had pain receptors and a foul mouth and attracted droves of hornets and bees.

Despite the jokes about my kindergarten scribble route over the mountains during my record-setting 32-hour Barkley loop in April, I know the park reasonably well. I'd finished the Barkley Fall Classic 50k during the first two years (12:49 in 2014, and 11:50 in 2015), and I've attempted the famed Barkley Marathons twice. My familiarity with the network of trails in Frozen Head State Park, home of both races, and experience running ultras (over 40, including more than a dozen 100k or longer) along with muscle memory convinced me I might be capable of coming home with a third BFC 50k finish-- even though fatigue and knee problems post-Vol State 500k in July had left my mileage between 0 and 15 most weeks. I debated whether or not the trip was worth the time and resources for weeks, and finally lied to everyone back home on Friday morning, hoping to keep my attempt secret until it came to pass. While I hoped for the best, I was prepared for the reality that I might die on Testicle Spectacle and had formally requested to the couple friends who knew I was making the trip that my body just be left out there along with an offering of crab rangoon and Cheerwine. Hope only goes so far. Where it ends and reality kicks in, there might as well be a good meal for the memories left behind.

Vol State 500k road race-- mile 184 "the Bench of Despair"

I slept in my car after arriving at 3am, and when it was time to head out for what was waiting, started slow-- very slow. The spool of yarn having unraveled as it had, speed wasn't even on my 'B' list of priorities. I was just trying to survive the first 7 miles so I didn't get swept before getting to the fun stuff that actually had the potential to put me in an ambulance with a legit medical emergency. I knew if I got past the first aid station that the next segment was relatively tame: the climbs weren't spectacular, and the footing was reasonably stable. The climb up Bird Mountain hasn't been bad since my first time doing it. I tried to make conversation when it made sense, and tried to evade catastrophe on the rocky stretches by not letting my legs get ahead of me with unrealistic and unsustainable speed. The second climb sapped a bit of strength from my legs and lungs, and reality began to sink in. I was only about 5 miles into the race, and I was already starting to feel blasted-- even at a slower pace. I had to stop twice to rest beside a tree, and tried hard not to look like I was having a stroke when people passed me. "Yes, I'm ok. No, my eyes are not rolling back in my head while I spastically gasp for breath."

There's always a tremendous sense of relief after a hideous climb when the trail starts winding down again, and even though this wasn't a hideous climb, when it finally clutched my mental faculties, I was filled with the kind of hope I imagine people get when they wander into nuclear fallout and don't immediately die. I truly had no idea what was coming. Unfortunately, when the trail started winding back down again, it dragged and raked dozens of bodies over a nest of angry, disturbed, stinging insects, and if I didn't know any better, I'd accuse everyone around me of dousing my body with whatever it is that drives dozens of bees to land, crawl, and sting the ever living fuck out of one human being. They were up my shorts, in my ears, down the hole in my shoe-- everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I mean, these bees had a purpose, and it was to bring me down like David brought down Goliath. I was unfortunately Goliath, or the Grendel of this Beowulf story, and I was flailing arms and legs and screaming like I was on fire. I was stung 21 times, including the back of my head in that little space above where my hat adjusted. These fucking bees meant business.

I started walking. Wheezing. Gasping. Pathetically resigned myself to quitting, if ever I made it to the damn aid station. I had a half mile to negotiate, and was executing it prison gait style because it was the only way to walk without nature or body parts touching all the bee stings. I got to the aid station after a half dozen stops to gasp and cry, expecting to have the cutoff biting at my ankles already-- an excuse to give the bird to this whole awful endeavor, but I was surprisingly only about 15 minutes slower than I'd been the past two years, and about 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Fuck. Given, I wasn't in respiratory shock, maimed or otherwise injured, or vomiting my internal organs, there really wasn't a valid reason not to continue. I hung around the aid station crying the blues for a few minutes, drinking water, and generally just feeling sorry for how awful I felt, and then swung my pack back over my shoulders, buttoned my shirt again, and headed back out. This nightmare was the hand I'd been dealt, apparently, and I could either cry about it at the aid station for 40 minutes, or get my life together and finish the fucking race.

On the way to Tub Springs, I decided I was going to finish the fucking race. I was ahead of some good runners-- people who'd finished the 50k with me the previous year, and as much as my body hurt, I was still capable of running and climbing. I lumbered my way to the Garden Spot where Mike Dobies was waiting to hole punch my bib, then headed out on the jeep road toward the second aid station. Things were looking up: I was running, and for the first time since the cigarette was lit marking the start of the race, had started passing people, too. I was in and out of the Tub Springs aid station fast, eating 1/2 of a banana while I was there. I knew this was a long section-- only five miles on paper with two more aid stations in between, but also unquestionably the most difficult, with Testicle Spectacle, Meth Lab Hill, and Rat Jaw along the way. Laced between them was a new section on the Salvation Trail, a trip under the prison via the same drainage tunnel utilized by James Earl Ray and the Barkley Marathons, and a climb over the prison wall. And, they were deceptively difficult.

Heading down Testicle Spectacle (photo courtesy of Carolyn Nauta)

I'd caught up to Carolynn Nauta, a Michigan trail runner I'd met and run with at other ultras over the years, including the Mohican and Burning River 100's, Oil Creek, and last year's BFC. We began to snake our way down the Testicle Spectacle after a couple miles of dusty jeep roading, remarking about the improved condition of the footing from the previous year. My suspicion that we'd fallen considerably behind pace, despite all the jeep road running, was confirmed as people with whom I'd typically be keeping pace were passing us, inbound, less than halfway down the Spectacle. It was only about a half mile, but the severity of the angle (50 degrees, worse in some sections) and footing meant that a fast pace was in the ballpark of 40 minutes/mile. Our pace, more conservative, was probably closer to 50. At the bottom, we angled sharply to the left before connecting with the Salvation trail that abruptly ended at the river shortly before bushwacking to the road where a church was set up with a few aid tables. The Salvation trail, of course, like anything tapped with the Barkley branded wand, was anything but a salvation. It was confusing and slow, and seemed to eat time like a bad dream. "Oh, you've got til 3:00 to get to the Firetower!" a woman at the aid station assured us.

Oh, you've got til 3:00. That's plenty of time. Plenty of time. Plenty of time. Plenty of time. Plenty. Time. Oh, fuck you, Salvation trail. If there is anything I've learned during my half dozen trips through Frozen Head, it's that there is no such thing as "plenty" when we're talking about time. And, there's no such thing as "salvation" when we're talking about a trail. It wasn't even 1:00, according to my poor $8 nursing watch that was threatening to give up the ghost from the heat and humidity, but I already knew my race was coming undone fast. Carolyn and I began the long climb back up the Spectacle, and there was nothing but green and nothing but UP as far as I could see. Two hours wasn't going to be enough time by a measure of at least twenty minutes. I was going to need an hour here and another hour for Rat Jaw, and that wasn't even considering the half mile down the Meth Lab blowout, or all the chutes and ladders of the prison game.

It took a lot of grunt to get to the top, but I was determined to close the gap on missing that 9:30 cutoff as best as I could. The rocky downslope blowout, also known as Meth Lab hill, is as deceptively difficult as the prison obstacles and the Salvation trail. On paper, it looks runnable; it's open, dry, and downhill. But, it also likes to eat ankles and toes. When I finally got to the bottom and hit the pavement, I started walking. The prison, which we'd enjoyed the previous year-- Gina Fioroni, Chris Gkikas, Anne Lang and I, and others, was tedius this year, and frustrating. I just wanted to get through the damn tunnel and over the wall so I could start grinding my gears up that nightmare under the power lines. Neither T-bird or Keith Dunn sugar-coated the reality of what had happened during the past 17 miles: I was not down to the wire, I was playing with the wire, and it was about to catch fire and burn me to a crisp.

Climbing out of the drainage tunnel under the prison (photo courtesy of Misty Herron Wong)

Both my water bottles said "#nope" and tried to commit suicide within the first five minutes of my climb up lower Rat Jaw, cascading down and into the clutches of the weeds and thorns near the bottom. Thankfully someone managed to retrieve both and rocketed them back up at me, both landing in a hearty bed of torture a few yards to my left. I caught up to the Cunninghams, Donna and Richard-- also double past finishers, mid-way to the top, looking as disappointed and shell shocked as myself. A flick of the wrist confirmed the fate of all of us-- them, Carolyn, Consuela Lively who was 50 yards ahead, and possibly even Clark Annis who'd been frantically trying to gain back ground after missing the bib punch at the church, clawing and climbing above; we were all past finishers, and we weren't going to make it. "It's hard to accept", someone said. We had an hour to get to the top and then run the 4 miles to the check point. It had taken nearly an hour just to do the running from the fire tower to the aid station last year. I continued up, through the rock crevice and then the final stretch to the top. By the time I got to Tub Springs again, there wasn't much enthusiasm or fanfare-- unless I was planning to run at world class speed, twenty minutes wasn't going to be enough time to complete the four miles that separated me from that aid station. Instead, I caught up with Joe Kowalski, a fellow Barkley veteran, and tried to enjoy the miles as best as I could. It took 52 minutes to get there, or 13 minutes/mile, and I missed the cutoff by a half hour. My race was over; I was sent to the right, to begin the last 3/4 mile to the marathon finish line. I'd given it my best, and my best wasn't enough. I finished the Barkley Fall Classic Marathon in 10:17, the 9th or 43 women to cover the distance, and 38th of 132 total finishers. There was no second star to add to my Croix de Barq this year.

It is hard not to be disappointed. It's hard knowing I didn't waste time, that I gave what I had within me, and my training and overall fitness had deteriorated over the past few months to the point that in the end it came down to speed, and I just wasn't fast or fit enough to do what I wanted to do. But, I didn't give up in April, and I didn't give up at this year's Fall Classic, either. There are still rocks to uncover, and adventures to be had. There are still ghosts out there looking for a few miles of companionship. Take them by the hand and go.


  1. Great report, as always. The bees were kinder to me, and I was sent to the right just a little earlier.

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