A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Author: bfcblackhorse

Peak 5: Hugo Peak

Peak: Hugo Peak

Elevation: 1,790′

Total Elevation Gain: 922′

Total Mileage: 4.5 miles

This trip report will be a practice in brevity. Wish me luck.

It’s been too long since tagging my last peak! I’ve been spending Saturdays learning to ski, which has been its own interesting adventure. It’s tough not being good at something, and doubly so when small children mock me by effortlessly shredding the slopes in the pow-pow that the sky just puked, brah. (I think that’s how skiers talk?) It’s been a fun experience, all the same, and I show promising signs of improvement.

I’ve been missing the trees, though, so a writing retreat with a colleague at Pack Forest proved the perfect antidote. We rented a cabin for a night in order to work on drafting our tenure narratives. It’s amazing how productive you can be with fewer distractions. After a solid day of work, we hit the trails right outside the cabin and embarked on a sunset hike up to Hugo Peak.

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Our cabin at Pack Forest. Amazing 1970s interior decor, complete with orange carpet, not pictured.

As we wound our way up along the Hugo Peak trail, we had occasional views of the nearby foothills, many of which were clear cut, as well as flatter terrain to the south and west. Rain clouds threatened to the east but didn’t make us think twice about pressing onward.

The setting sun wore a brilliant orange glow that deepened as it sank toward the horizon. I didn’t even try to capture it with my phone camera, as it surely would not have done justice to the incredibly rich color. I’m not sure that I’ve seen such an orange-colored sunset before. It was absolutely brilliant.

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Peek-a-boo view from the trail, the sun sauntering toward the horizon.

My timing was off, so we missed a summit sunset. Nevertheless, a narrow gap in the trees opened a slivered vista of twinkling lights in the valley below. To the north, we could see Graham and Spanaway. Closer, the lights of Eatonville flickered. Randy signed the summit register on our behalf, noting that this was his first peak and #5 of my 40 for 40.

The spring peepers started peeping in the twilight, and a break in the clouds revealed a starry night. The wind rustled in the evergreens, and we enjoyed some summit wine and took it all in. As we sat on log benches, chatting and stargazing, it struck me how much at peace I felt in this moment. Life has been quite stressful, and I’d arrived at the cabin quite wound up. Sitting among the stars and trees brought a much needed sense of calm. I reflected on how long it’s been since I’ve spent the night in the woods; clearly, it’s been too long. Nights in the forest and mountains allow me to recharge and recenter myself; it’s high time that I return to this world.

Hesitant to leave this outdoor sanctuary, we eventually made our way back down the dark trail. From time to time, we covered the beams of our headlamps to look up at the night sky, more stars emerging with each glance. We heard an owl’s call and, later, that of a creature not identified (I thought perhaps coyote but couldn’t quite hear well enough.) Coming around a bend, two glowing eyes confronted us from the dark, which soon proved connected to a lone deer. It crashed into the thickets and vanished out of sight.

All too soon, the lights of cabins greeted us. The experience was, fortunately, a good one for Randy, and he said that he would love to do this again sometime. I’m happy to have been there for his first peak and night hike and look forward to the next one!

40

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.” –Aldous Huxley

 

I thought that perhaps if I traveled a few thousand miles away, I could elude 40, but it caught up with me all the same. If I couldn’t escape it, then at least I should make it a memorable day. Armed with a long weekend and enough frequent flyer miles to get me to Cuba, we traded the drab Northwest winter for a few days of dazzling Caribbean sun.

Seth’s mother and step-father live in Old Havana, so we were treated to a glimpse of Cuban life, something cruise ship tourists miss on their brief forays into the city. We rose early to run along the Malecón; had tea with Cuban friends; took in a jazz concert at an art museum; strolled through the streets in search of flowers and vegetables; sampled Havana’s emerging food culture; gorged on Rafael’s black beans, rice, yucca, and plantains; sipped rum from a fresh coconut on the beach; and watched the evening unfold from a rooftop terrace. It was a much-needed vacation from the rush of our lives, and a cultural experience that allowed us to see how varied human existence can be.

 

 

Examining Cuban life between the lines was the difficult part of this trip. The everyday conveniences we take for granted simply don’t exist in Cuba. A man pushes a cart down the street offering leftover government vegetables, because there is no grocery store. Another man pushes a cart as he collects your trash. As a resident, you might not have running water in your house for days. If you’re lucky and in the know, you’ll score a coveted loaf of bread that isn’t a stale brick. Bony horses pull heavy loads down busy roads choked with exhaust. Dogs wander in hopes of scraps. Buildings crumble before your eyes. Citizens have only the appearance of moving freely, and bribes unapologetically grease palms in broad daylight. While it seems that things are changing, many Cubans nevertheless live a difficult life. You won’t necessarily see this on the surface—my impression of Cubans is that they are warm people who would never offer a complaint—but the subtext is there all the same. It’s something we reckoned with throughout the trip and after. Traveling there was an interesting experience, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to visit this country, but I also don’t want to view it through rose-tinted glasses, ignoring the everyday challenges faced by many of its residents. In the end, I believe it’s good for us to see how others live in this world, to give us perspective, instill empathy, and compel us to recognize our own privilege. Perhaps we will also use that advantage to do something for others, both human and nonhuman alike.

 

For my birthday, I, naturally, wanted to get out of the city and into the wild. Pico Turquino caught my eye, as it’s Cuba’s highest peak. Unfortunately, it would have been a long bus ride from Havana, and hiring a guide is compulsory. My sights then landed on the Valle de Viñales, a Unesco World Heritage site and national park a few hours drive away. Photos of the limestone mogotes rising above the valley drew me in, and whispers of how to sneak into the national park without a guide sealed the deal.

Viñales is a small rural town that sees a lot of tourists yet manages to maintain an authentic vibe. Vast agricultural lands, limestone mogotes, jungle-cloaked mountains, and lush valleys enfold the town in all directions. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place. We called a lovely casa particular home during our stay, which offered stunning views of the landscape from our balcony. Our hosts handed us fresh-squeezed mango juice as we reclined in rocking chairs, rocking away the tensions of the city’s noise and chaos.

 

After a welcome siesta, we ventured out to scout routes for the next day’s big adventure. This took us through tobacco fields and rural roads dotted with simple homes, the mogotes calling in the distance. Hitting a trail, we continued north toward the mountains, running through a jungle-like setting. We identified a notch leading to the Valle de San Vincente beyond and considered coming back tomorrow to explore it further.

 

We retraced our steps, trying to connect trails and dirt roads all the way, but a small river and deep mud turned us back the way we came. As the sun set and the magic hour light bathed the fields, we saw farmers retiring to porches after a long day’s work. It was a pastoral image straight out of a Constable painting, with a pinkish filter on the mogotes, voices tinged with the contentment of being at rest, chickens clucking in the yard, oxen unyoked in the fields. It was impossible not to romanticize the scene.

After dinner at a vegetarian restaurant (where our eyes were decidedly bigger than our stomachs), we strolled through the lively downtown, walking off our excess. With the weight of that ominous number 40 looming, I grew a little sullen, and Seth made an admirable effort to pull me out of that funk. He reminded me that I still have much to accomplish, and plenty of time in which to do so. We spent the evening dorking out over maps and potential routes for the morning, which, in my book, is the perfect way to end the day.

If I remember one thing from this trip, it will be the orange glow of sunrise to the east silhouetting the mountain ridges, and the cacophony of roosters crowing in the dawn. I’ve never heard anything like it, the cock-a-doodle-doos from all directions, not another sound audible in the otherwise still morning. 40 was off to a pretty amazing start.

As the town awoke and children made their way to school, we trotted toward the national park. Along the way, we picked up four street dogs, who immediately incorporated us into their pack. Running through the streets, the dogs would bark at passersby, the pack protecting, and claiming, us as their own. The dogs seemed as happy as us to be running in the cool morning, heading for the hills.

 

The innocent fun took a turn, though, when they ran after a flock of young sheep. Not wanting them to cause harm, we regrettably had to turn on our pack and attempted to chase them away (ok, admittedly, I made Seth do the dirty work because I couldn’t chase off the dogs myself.) They shot us heartbreaking looks of having been betrayed, but we couldn’t create a situation where they killed a lamb. Eventually, all but one retreated. When we reached a rocky scramble, the hold out could no longer follow, and we rushed away from its sad whimpering. [We saw one of the dogs in town the next day, so we feel confident that they all found their way back.]

 

Our plan was to link up with a trail in the Parque Nacional Viñales, which would take us part way up toward the peak of Mogote del Valle, in the hopes of tagging it for my birthday. The trail gave way to scrambles up gnarly limestone; we hesitated and assessed whether to continue on. Seth climbed up ahead, while I pondered if I would feel comfortable coming back down this jagged rock. He called out to say that things evened out a bit, so up I followed. The trails crisscrossed through limestone mazes and jungle foliage, and our GPS trackers had trouble locating us correctly on the map. It was clear that people used these trails, but it still felt quite remote. They weren’t park trails as you might imagine, with blazes guiding the way. Eventually, it became clear that bushwhacking to the summit would not be possible (maybe with climbing gear, which we didn’t have.)

 

It really wasn’t a big disappointment not to reach the top of Mogote del Valle, as we’d had a great adventure regardless. Making our way back down, Seth listed all of the things I had accomplished in my thirties, as a way of reinforcing that I have done more than I give myself credit for, and that there’s much that I can still achieve. Once again, I appreciated his attempt to assuage the palpable dread with which turning 40 filled me. Winding down the wild landscape, we expertly navigated the dodgy scramble sections, said farewell to some foraging piglets, and returned to the valley below. The map suggested that we might take a trail to the other side of the mogote, so, not wanting the fun to end, we ran over to check it out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Down into the valley.

A steep staircase built into the mountainside led up to Cueva de la Vaca (Cow Cave). At the foot of the stairs, Seth found a tiny puppy, eyes not yet even open. It whimpered and rolled around on the ground, and I instinctively scooped it up. It quieted and nestled into my warm body. There was no mama dog in sight, and we weighed the options. Take it to a farmer? Wait and see if mama returns? My inner dialogue said, “I guess I’m bringing a puppy home from Cuba.” As we deliberated, a group of tourists came down from the cave, mama dog in tow. She immediately sniffed the ground where the puppy had been, so we knew that this was mom. I placed the puppy back, and she licked it all over. Yep, she was mom. Anxious for food, she continued to follow the other tourists, so we broke up a Clif bar for her to find when she came back. This way, she’d have some food, but wouldn’t associate it with us.

 

Relieved that the puppy would be ok, we tramped up the stairs to check out the cave. Having left my headlamp in Havana, we carefully made our way through the dark, trying not to think about what type of animal was making those high-pitched noises. Soon, we caught natural light ahead, and we realized that the cave was, in fact, a tunnel. Reaching the other side, a view of the valley and imposing mogotes spread before us. It was breathtaking. Later, reflecting on the trip, we both cited this as the absolute highlight. The surprise view, coupled with the unexpected trail leading down the other side, was an absolute thrill. It was one of those rare, magical moments in life, when it feels as if the universe has singled you out to receive a precious gift. Tickled, we bounded down the backside of the cave and into the valley below. Here, we wound our way through tobacco fields, saying hello to old farmers, petting goats, and reveling in the pastoral beauty of this lovely place.

 

 

 

 

Magical Valley

Running through the magical valley. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

Running through the maginal valley

 

Cool tree

Cool tree. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

All too soon, the trail turned to dirt path, which soon shifted to paved road. Back in town, our casa particular host greeted us with a special birthday breakfast (she had noticed on my passport that it was my birthday, so she surprised me with balloons and a beautiful spread.)

 

 

 

We didn’t want to leave Viñales, but at least we did so in style: in a 1948 Buick. Back in Havana, Seth’s mom organized a party at a gorgeous old hotel. It was Rafael’s 87th birthday and their 25th wedding anniversary, so there was much to celebrate. The lounge was filled with an eclectic mix of Cubans, expats, visitors, and refugees; a Cuban jazz band performed as we sipped sangria. Seth made my wish for a dance come true, twirling me to the beat while everyone looked on. Unfortunately, we couldn’t convince anyone to join us, but we get an A for effort.

 

 

With one last run through Habana Viejo and down the Malecón, it was time to say chao to Cuba. Overall, it was an interesting experience, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have visited this country. Our adventure through Viñales was truly memorable; as we ambled and scrambled, I did not fret about my age and, instead, was simply happy and present in the moment. I can’t imagine a better way to greet this new year of my life.

Peaks 3 & 4: Mount Washington and Change Peak

Date: 26 January 2019

Peak 3: Mount Washington / Elevation 4,450′

Peak 4: Change Peak / Elevation 4,320′

Total Elevation Gain: 3,691′

Total Mileage: 10-11-ish

This was a delightful outing in an unexpected place. Seth suggested that I plot a looped route on Mount Washington, which is just to the east of Rattlesnake Ridge and Cedar Butte. I’d never been there and welcomed the opportunity to check out a new place so close to home. After some fun with Caltopo, I mapped out two potential routes: one was roughly 13.9 miles and tagged Mount Washington, then came down the new Ollalie Trail and then back up the Iron Horse Trail. The second route was a little over 16 miles and tagged Mount Washington, then went over to Change Peak, and took its time meandering down another section of the Ollalie trail to then run down the Iron Horse. We were both interested in trying the longer route but decided to see how we felt once up there.

It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and my heart leaped when the Issy Alps came into view. We remarked about the impressiveness of Rattlesnake Ridge, which rises up from the Raging River valley and dominates the south side of I-90, and identified favorite peaks to the north as we passed them. We were excited to explore the south side and anticipated the view of the Middle Fork Valley that it would offer.

We made our way up through a mossy forest, with beautiful exposed rock walls dripping with water. I was a bit irritated to see that climbers had left anchors on one overhung wall, bucking the Leave No Trace philosophy that outdoor adventurers should always respect.

 

The trail offered occasional peek-a-boo views of the Issy Alps, which we paused to admire. So often we adventure on the north side of the highway, so it was a nice change to get the view of this section of the Issy Alps spread out before us, from Si to Bandera. Hitting the snow line quite a ways in, we stopped for a snack and enjoyed the warm sun streaming down into the clearing. Donning microspikes, we continued to the summit, which boasted stunning views in all directions.

From various vistas, we could see the entire Olympic Range in the west; Rainier and the Central Cascades to the north, south, and east; and the Issy Alps surrounding us. Below, the Cedar River Watershed revealed the source of Seattle’s drinking water. Snowy peaks contrasted with bright blue skies and the emerald green of the forests flanking the nearby foothills. It was a beautiful spectrum of colors, and we sat to take in the beauty of this place while identifying familiar peaks and wondering over those unknown to us.

 

Being a bit short on time, we opted for a modified return route. We would head toward Change Peak, assess if we had time to tag it, then take a shortcut down. With glee, we bounded down a lesser-used trail, thumping through the snow and laughing in acknowledgement of the sheer joy of it. Linking up with a forest road, we noted a host of ridges and peaks beckoning us to return and explore them.

 

Dancing across the snow, it struck me just how absolutely joyful I felt in that moment. A welcome sense of happiness worked itself through me. It felt wonderful to be playing in the mountains. The bright, sunny day; the perfect snow; the foothills and mountains unfolding around us; a companion with whom I could share the experience–life was good.

 

Reaching the Change Peak trail, we decided “what the heck!?” so up we went. A man on snowshoes passed and asked where we were going. “Change Peak!” “Be careful!” he advised. Well, apparently sometimes men even tell other men to be careful. This was a fun little trail that took us up through a small boulder field and narrow stand of evergreens until we reached the summit. The best view came just beyond, from which we could see Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, and the expanse of the Middle Fork. Again partaking in a favorite past time, we identified peaks and ridge traverses and dreamed up future outings. Seth sweetened the experience by surprising me with a Twilight Bar, my favorite chocolate treat.

Zooming back down from the summit, armed with the confidence of wearing microspikes, was a true highlight of the excursion. I’m pretty sure that I said “Yeehaw” more than once.

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Yeehaw! Descending from Change Peak. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

From there, we ran down the forest road, pausing briefly to check out some tracks in the snow, then linked up with the Ollalie and then Great Wall trail. Back on snow-free footing, we popped off the spikes and continued to run down to the Iron Horse, which delivered us back to the parking lot. Overall, we’d encountered maybe a dozen people, which reinforced Mount Washington’s reputation as being a less-crowded alternative to Si and Mailbox.

The excursion included an interesting array of conversational topics, but our relationship with social media became the most prominent. Seth is deleting all of his social media accounts tomorrow, and I’m heading that direction. We discussed so many facets of this, and talked through the inner conflict between wanting to disconnect from technology and reconnect with friends in “the real world,” and the ease and convenience social media allows us to maintain friendships and acquaintances. It’s a bit frightening to consider the links we may lose as a result of deleting these accounts; that’s what keeps us plugged in. To counter this visceral reaction, we explored ways that we can nurture true friendships using more old school means. Those methods worked for most of our lives. It was interesting to see the response that Seth’s friends had to his announcement of departure; many of them had been contemplating the same move, but were afraid to take that leap. I recently heard an interview on NPR in which the interviewee said, “I keep wondering when we’re all going to wake up from this,” meaning, when are we going to wake up to the massive time suck that is taking over our lives. I’ve often wondered the same. I’ve always been the reluctant social media user, but even I understand the dopamine rush provided by the validation of likes and hearts. Once, I did the math: 15 minutes of social media per day equates to four full days per year. That’s staggering, and it’s probably the push I need to step away for good.

Moving forward, I’d like to use that time instead for my personal writing, something I don’t often find time to do. It occurred to me during this hike that I run the risk of having experiences for the sake of a blog post, though, and that’s a trap I want to avoid. All the same, I found myself pausing more frequently than usual to take photos, thinking, “Oh, that will look great on my blog.” I want to be more mindful of this, and not let a good photo op come between me and the experience. I’ve found that I tend to remember something more vividly if I haven’t taken a photo. It’s a reminder to remain present and not see the world through a viewfinder all for the sake of a more interesting blog post. I want to find a healthy balance between documenting my journey, and living it.

While I’m only a few peaks in to my 40 for 40 challenge, these two summits will stand out as memorable, and this will surely hold steady as a favorite day from my larger adventure.

40 Peaks for 40 Years

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“That number 40 is really bothering you. Why is that?” –Mark Bayer

40

Good question, Dad. That number has been bothering me for a solid year, and its arrival is now imminent. I think, for me, it has come to represent an age at which you should have accomplished the greatest achievements of your life, while also demarcating the age at which you, well, start to get old. Of course, there are plenty of examples of people who accomplish incredible things long after 40, and those who continue to live young well beyond that number as well. To be honest, I’ve never entirely grown up. All the same, that worrisome number stands there in its full symbolic weight, staring me down and asking what have I done with my life, and what am I going to do with the time that remains. Good question, 40.

My sense is that it’s not all that uncommon for people confronting 40 to feel as if they haven’t reached the dreams and goals that they’d imagined for themselves. That’s certainly where I’m at. As a sophomore in college, I said to a friend, with complete sincerity, “I just know that I’m meant to do something big, something that will make a big impact. I know that I will do something great in my life.” Sophomore translates as “wise fool,” so perhaps you will forgive my naivité–or arrogance. I wasn’t interested in recognition for an accomplishment; I simply felt driven to do something meaningful with my life. Twenty years later, and here I am, with not much to show for it. No books published. No work that is making a large impact on the planet. No big adventures. Yes, I’ve published in my field; yes I’ve impacted some students; and, yes, I’ve had some great adventures–I just have nothing epic to show for my 40 years on Earth.

Of course, as one student pointed out to me last summer as I lamented not having any grand expeditions to my name, from her perspective I’m the one doing epic things. Touché. So, to an extent, this is all subjective. The feeling that I’m capable of something much grander, though, nags at me. “It tasks me; it heaps me,” to paraphrase Ahab. What I’ve done is not enough, and time grows short. A strange new panic lurks inside me, a sense of dread: a poignant fear of having wasted so much precious time, of getting a late start, and of running out of said precious time.

In short, it appears that I’m having a run-of-the-mill mid-life crisis.

40 for 40

Enter this corny 40 Peaks for 40 Years idea. I honestly don’t know when or where I came up with this–or why. Some friends have done things to mark milestone birthdays: run a 50k for age 50; do 30 cool new things at 30; etc. I realize it’s a little contrived, but I’m an incredibly goal-oriented person, so a challenge like this suits me well. I remember mentioning it to my Dad in a phone conversation; perhaps I made it up on the spot then? His reply: “That’s a peak per week almost.” Gulp. I hadn’t thought of that.

I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone else until the other night when my friend Jen and I sipped ciders after indoor climbing. She enthusiastically encouraged the endeavor and helped me to set the parameters. I was troubling over what constitutes a peak. Does rock climbing count? Jen supplied the perfect answer: “You can make it whatever you want! If you climb up it, and you’re on top of it, it’s a peak. It doesn’t matter how you got there, whether it’s rock climbing, hiking, or mountaineering.” I like those guidelines.

Here, then, are my arbitrary guidelines for this arbitrary game that I made up for myself:

  • Getting to the highest point of a given landscape by my own power counts as summitting a peak, for the purposes of this challenge. So, hiking up Mt. Si, climbing up Mount Rainier, or doing a multi-pitch climb up The Tooth would all count as peaks.
  • If tagging multiple peaks along a ridge (say, for example, Defiance to Putrid Pete to Webb), each peak counts as an individual summit. (so, three peaks in this example)
  • Each peak only counts once. So, if I do repeats on Mt. Peak or climb Mailbox twice this year, they each only count once. I want to climb 40 distinct peaks.
  • There is no prize for accomplishing this goal, and no penalty for failing. It’s a made-up challenge with made-up rules that no one but me cares about. Ultimately, it’s meant to give me something to do for fun which will also get me out to explore new places. That sounds like a good use of time, even if it won’t change the world.
  • I must understand and agree that this challenge cannot fully address the concerns I have about turning 40, nor will it resolve my sense of having a dearth of great accomplishments. If I complete this challenge, it still won’t be the epic and elusive thing that I’m longing for. I must realize that even if I achieve the most profound feats of wit, intelligence, endurance, and badassery, it will probably never feel like enough. In the end, the 40 for 40 game is meant to serve as a catalyst for pushing me to start truly giving this life my all and doing what I can with the time I’m allotted. I want to be able to die knowing that at the age of 40, I kicked it into high gear and worked toward making a useful contribution to this world. Like my hero Thoreau, I want “to live deep and suck out all the [vegan] marrow of life.”

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Peak 1/40: Mt. Peak (January 13, 2019)

Elevation: 1,808′

Total Elevation Gain: 2,142′

Total Distance: 5.7 miles

40 is still three weeks off, but the sun was shining, and I was in sore need of trail time. After four months of essentially no running, I’ve been eager to get back to it. Mt. Peak holds a special place in my heart. My friend Tyler took me there a few years ago, and I’m eternally grateful for the introduction. Mt. Peak (also known as Pinnacle Peak and Mount Pete) helped me get some serious vert training for my first Barkley Fall Classic (the Goat Path gains 1000′ in 0.78 miles), and it was the first place outside of Tacoma that I would go for solo trail runs. It helped me build confidence at the same time that it strengthened my calves. It initially appealed to me because there were always people on it, no matter the day or time; this helped me feel a bit more comfortable venturing out on my own.

Repeats on Mt. Peak became my Saturday ritual. The day began with picking up a chai for the road, then driving out through Puyallup and up into the foothills. It was a time to leave the city and daily life behind, listen to music, and head for the peace of the hills. Near Enumclaw, you turn off the main road to see Mt. Peak rising up out of cow pastures. It’s a relatively low elevation, so it tends to be reliably snow-free all year. As such, it’s more of my winter go-to route. My standard route is as follows: Goat Trail –> summit –> down the backside –> up the backside –> summit –> down the Cal Mag trail –> repeat. After a number of repeats, I jump into warm clothes, crank the heat, stop at Wally’s drive-in for some delicious french fries, and enjoy a satisfying drive home.

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Rays of angelic light fall upon Mt. Peak, while Rainier looms in the distance.

 

I’ve neglected Mt. Peak over the past year, so it felt right to make it the inaugural 40 for 40 peak. It felt good to return to this tradition. The relatively warm, sunshiney day was an added bonus. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of other people out enjoying Mt. Peak that day. While I have reached a point where I prefer to be in wild places with no other humans in sight, Mt. Peak remains an exception. I actually enjoy encountering other people here.

I started up the Goat Path. It’s a steep climb, and I was panting. Being out of shape sucks! (According to Strava, this was, remarkably, my second-fastest assent of the Goat Path. I find that hard to believe, but Strava knows all.) It was great fun all the same, and the route gave me a little surprise when a view of the Olympics offered itself. This was perhaps the first time I’ve been here when it wasn’t rainy or cloudy, so I believe this is the first glimpse I’ve ever had of the Olympics from here. They stood snowy and majestic off to the west.

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The snowy Olympic range spreads out to the west.

 

 

 

 

Cresting the steepest part of the climb, I dusted off my running legs and eased into a little jog up to the summit. Tagging it, it was down the backside of the little mountain. It felt good to open up my legs a bit and run down. Here, people chatted with me along the way. One runner, on his way back up, asked if I was going up again. “Just one more today,” I replied. He asked if he could join me, but I said, “well, I’m out of shape and will be power hiking most of the way up.” He laughed and we chatted about races and about loving Mt. Peak, and we parted with me promising to run up with him next time our paths crossed. Tagging the gate on the far side, I headed back up in the company of a woman hauling a heavy  pack. “Are you training for something?” she asked. “I’m just getting back into things. How about you?” “Mount Rainier,” she proudly replied; thus, the heavy pack. She was heading up for her third summit of the day. “Good for you!” I cheered. We chatted about her training and also about our love for Mt. Peak (which became a recurring theme in all my interactions that day.) I was able to run slowly up more of the incline on the backside than I had imagined, so I soon left her and resumed my way to the summit. At the one good Rainier viewpoint on the route, I stopped to take it in. A woman with her two kids said, “Here, stand in my place; it’s the best view.” As we traded places, she said, “I don’t know why I like this trail so much; this is the only decent view.” I laughed, as I had been thinking the same thing. “Yeah,” I replied, “I find myself coming back all the same.” She told me that there is talk of rebuilding the fire lookout on top, which would be neat.

 

 

 

 

Continuing up the backside, I started to daydream about hosting an informal “race” here. It’s something I’ve thought about before, and I let my mind work out some potential details. Maybe have participants complete 3 summits using 3 different trails? There would be no course markings, and everyone would choose their own routes. We might call it the “Mt. Peak Threesome?” Hmmm, maybe not. “Mt. Peak Three-Peat?” Well, there’s time to work on that. The idea would be to treat it as a fatass race to raise a little money for the park and gather a group of people together to share the place with them. I’m going to reach out to Tyler and see if he’d like to collaborate on something like this with me.

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View near the summit of Mt. Peak, from the backside trail.

The final descent brought me down the Cal Magnusen trail. This is the main trail, and it’s where I learned to let go of my fear of downhill running. On past runs, there always seemed to be some crotchety old guy there (not necessarily always the same one) who would yell, “You’re gonna break your neck!” as I zoomed by. There was no such chiding on this occasion. It was fun to leap over roots and rocks, and bonus that the trail wasn’t its typical mudfest. It was over all too quickly, and I was back at my car.

Thanking the little mountain, I turned my car in the direction of Wally’s, where hot fries awaited. Passing through Bonney Lake, Mount Rainier loomed large in my rear view mirror, beckoning me to add it to my 40 for 40 challenge.

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Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

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Peak 2/40: BCMC Trail, Grouse Mountain (January 19, 2019)

Elevation: 1,093 m (in meters because it’s in Canada, eh)

Total Elevation Gain: 845 m

Total Distance: 6.84 km

While in Vancouver for the On Sustainability Conference, I took advantage of the city’s close proximity to the North Shore Mountains of the Pacific Ranges. I knew of the BCMC trail from reading about Gary Robbins using it for Barkley training, and its neighbor, the Grouse Grind, has a reputation for being a steep beast. Both lead up to a ski resort, from which you can reach the peaks of Grouse and Dam Mountains–why not tag two peaks in one go! The Grind was closed for the season, so it was off to the BCMC trail. Due to wintry conditions, the only way to reach the true summit would be to rent snowshoes and use the resort’s trails up.

The BCMC winds up through a peaceful rainforest of emerald green. The trail itself is pretty gnarly, consisting primarily of tangled roots and rocks. At times, a creek flows straight down the rocks on the trail.

 

 

 

I learned at the conference that Vancouver sits on unceded Coast Salish territories. This means that the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations did not cede their traditional territories to colonists through treaty, war, or surrender. The city of Vancouver formally acknowledged this in 2014, and representatives from UBC, the host university for the conference, explained ways in which they have attempted to recognize Coast Salish peoples’ relationship with the land on which the university stands. I was a bit embarrassed not to have known this about the city, and I thought about the implications of this aspect of colonization as I journeyed through the forest.

The BCMC is “easier” than the Grouse Grind thanks to its short, sharp switchbacks. This makes the trail less vertical, but, in my experience, it led to getting off trail a few times. In the first instance, I had just passed a man, and then continued on what turned out to be a boot track and not the official trail. Passing the man for the second time, I said by way of explanation, “Took a wrong turn back there!” and laughed. It took a moment for this to register with him, but once it did, he sped up to catch me and said with incredible earnestness, “That is very dangerous. There are orange markers on the trees. You must follow the markers and go from tree to tree.” Laughing off the mansplaining instead of letting it irritate me, I returned, “I know; I just wasn’t paying close attention,” and moved ahead.

Not two minutes later, I’d done it again. Another older man, who’d overheard the first incident, said, “I thought my sense of direction was bad, but yours is terrible!” I couldn’t argue, given the amount of evidence against me, so all I could do was once again laugh and say, “I actually have a great sense of direction; I’m not sure what’s going on today!” We laughed and chatted; he took a bit of a grandfatherly tone, and I reassured him that I had everything I needed in my pack to ensure that I was safe and could figure out where I was (ten essentials plus gpx tracks and Delorme satellite device.) He climbs the BCMC once a week, and it showed! I had to work hard to stay within 3-4 meters of him. After about 20 minutes, he pulled up, breathless, and said, “You’re pushing me too hard; I need a break!” Surprised, I replied, “I was just trying to keep up with you!”

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One does not lose this trail due to lack of signage.

I passed a range of people on the ascent, from serious trail runners doing repeats for training to men in designer jeans, button up shirts, Ralph Lauren sweaters, and loafers.  Everyone was friendly. One runner passed me and said, “It’s never easy!” to which I replied, “But it’s fun!” “Yes, it is!” It’s true. While there were quite a few people out on the trail, I still had some moments of solitude, and the scenery was quite lovely. The temps were perfect for a cool weather hike, and there was no precipitation. I am particularly fond of steep, technical climbs, so this fit the bill. I’d say it wasn’t steeper than the best parts of the Goat Path on Mt. Peak, but it was vertical enough to make me work to get up some sections.

The trail is 3km one-way, and I hit snow at exactly the 2km mark. It was relatively hard packed and not too deep, so I kept on without my spikes. About a half kilometer later, a descent into a creek bed changed my mind. While putting on my spikes, my climbing friend caught me up. With honest relief, he said, “Oh good, you’re still on the trail. I was worried about ya. But you have your crampons on and look ok.” Overlooking the patronizing sense of worry, and without correcting him about the crampons, I explained that I was well prepared to be out here (listing the contents of my pack) and that I also had a satellite device with an SOS button and two people tracking me. “Oh, ok, sounds like you know what you’re doing.” “Yes, I do, thanks.” He explained that he’s afraid of going out into the backcountry, especially alone, because he’s afraid of getting lost. He sticks to the BCMC because it’s tough to get lost there (although apparently a tourist got lost in the canyon between the BCMC and Grouse Grind a few years ago and died.) It occurred to me that perhaps this man was projecting his own insecurities about being solo in the backcountry onto me.

 

 

 

I get quite irritated by this not-so-uncommon experience with men on trails. I’m not reckless and don’t take risks that I shouldn’t, and just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of traveling alone through the woods. It’s an unfortunate reality that, more often than not, during my solo adventures into the natural world, some man will make a comment that implies his sense of my incompetency. My response has typically been either to make a smartass comment (“Not my first rodeo, dude!”) or to laugh it off and keep going. No matter how I respond, though, it gets under my skin, deep, and I proceed to unload some serious fury on him in my mind. This is something I’d like to reflect on more: how should I handle these moments? What’s the best type of response? How can I get men–who are total strangers–to recognize that they are patronizing me? How can I push them to see that their sense of concern for me, and sense of themselves as thoughtfully offering insight or advice, is actually insulting, despite their good intentions? They would never say these things to another man, which makes it all the more infuriating. Did anyone say anything to the two dudes in loafers and sweaters, not a single essential between them? Doubtful.

My companion and I trekked the final half kilometer together and had a friendly chat, despite my frustration with his concern (admittedly, I perhaps gave him a little cause for concern, since I went off trail twice in two minutes, but we’re talking 5-6 steps off trail before recognizing my mistake, and not me wandering blindly for hours.) We reached the Grouse Mountain Chalet, which is the base for ski resort operations. Most hikers opt to take the gondola down, which my new friend planned to do. “My knees would hurt for weeks if I went back down the trail! Good for you for taking the tough way down.” We shook hands and parted ways.

It was time to decide if I was going to push for the true summit of Grouse Mountain, or head back down. This amount of inner debate called for hot chocolate. Fortunately, the chalet coffee shop not only had delicious hot chocolate but also vegan cookies; score! Grabbing a seat by the window overlooking the valley below, I weighed my options. It would cost about $60 US to rent snowshoes and purchase an alpine access pass from the resort. Was it really worth that much money just to say that I tagged the official summit? True, it would be fun to snowshoe and check out the mountain, but I wasn’t convinced that it was necessary for my 40 for 40 game. Then, I thought about Jen’s words when she helped me determine the parameters for the challenge: I had climbed up something, and I was (essentially) on top of it. Gaining 845m in 3km was certainly a tough climb, and the view from the chalet gave one the sense of being on top of a mountain. The verdict: good enough.

 

 

 

Trekking back down was fun! With the overconfidence that comes with wearing microspikes, I bounded down through the snow. Wheeee! Postholing up to my hips stopped me in my tracks once, but, laughing at myself, I zoomed on and ran most of the 1km covered in snow. Taking off my spikes, I took it easy the rest of the way down, navigating root and rock and the ever-growing line of hikers. Ruminating on my decision to head down, I thought about the intention behind this challenge. The main idea is to have a goal that gets me out and allows me to see new places, all while having fun. As far as that goes, BCMC was a mission accomplished. In the end, this is a silly game that I’ve invented for myself. I really don’t care if someone else thinks this shouldn’t count as a peak because I didn’t tag the official summit. It honestly feels great for me not to care. In the past, I almost certainly would have felt a sense of failure for not reaching the absolute top of Grouse Mountain. While I do want to drive myself to do great things–that is, in fact, the driving force that motivates me so much right now–it is also liberating not to care so much about the technical details of something.

It’s nice to feel content simply by being present, out in the woods.

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Crisis of Identity: A Barkley Fall Classic Race Report (2018 Edition)

“You’ve got this.” –lazarus lake

“You don’t belong on the porch.” –Larry Kelley

“Don’t be an idiot out there.” –Mike Dobies, paraphrased

Introduction

Stumbling in a stupor toward the finish line of the White River 50 Miler, I determined not to register for another race until I got a hold on, and fixed, whatever was wrong with me. This was the second race in a row during which I had become incredibly dizzy, my heart rate flying, treading on the verge of fainting in pre-syncope episodes. At the finish line, surrounded by sympathetic friends, I broke down. This was not a celebratory moment. This did not feel like a great accomplishment, even though I had just traveled 50 miles through the Cascade mountains by my own power. I had to be honest: finishing ultras wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to be competitive and give my best, entire self. It felt as if some malevolent force was mercilessly taking away the thing that I love most.

Two weeks later, strolling along the knife edge of pavement that Idahoans call a shoulder, I shared with Laz some information that I had just collected via my obsessive scanning of the BFC roster: the only two women to finish ahead of me at the 2017 BFC had withdrawn from this year’s race. “There’s no one standing in your way,” Laz said, smiling. Ego ignited, all thoughts of my medical condition faded away, replaced by daydreams of crossing that finish line as F1. When we parted, Laz and I made a pact: he would dig deep and finish his transcon in time to be at the BFC Decision Point so that he could punch my bib and tell me that there were no women ahead of me. His final words constitute perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. Turning to our friend, Joe Kowalski, Laz said, “You know who she reminds me of? Sue Johnston.” To be compared to such an outstanding trail runner with an enviable list of accomplishments–including being the only woman to start a fourth loop at the Barkley Marathons–was an incredible honor. Those words meant more than he knew.

 

 

60 hours later, I stepped into a car on a dark, rain-wet access road at 2:00 a.m., earning my first DNF at Cascade Crest 100. As I sat down, feeling defeated and humiliated, the regret and panic of the moment mingled with thoughts of the near future: “I have to drop the BFC and Big’s. I just can’t run.” Over the next few days, as I licked my wounds, had yet another fruitless doctor’s appointment, and navigated the regrets and what ifs of not finishing a race, I continued to wrestle with what to do about the Barkley Fall Classic. At Cascade, I had made it 56 miles and had managed to keep running for the first 36 (after Stampede Pass, you couldn’t exactly call what I did for the next 20 miles “running.”) In comparison, the BFC would be slightly shorter in distance, but would have perhaps a bit more elevation gain. I would have four more hours to work with (it took me 9 hours 19 minutes to get to Stampede Pass at Cascade; I would have 13 hours 20 minutes to complete the BFC.) The late summer heat and humidity of Tennessee would be considerable. But, I felt confident in my ability to navigate the course, and my absolute love of Frozen Head would be a good motivator along the way. Still, I wasn’t sure if I was physically capable of finishing, and that scared me. My Cascade DNF was still raw; to earn a second on a course that has so much meaning for me was unimaginable. I considered taking the easy way out; I could give up my coveted spot on the roster, cowardly avoiding those three scary capital letters.

Others worried about me attempting the race and encouraged me to really listen to my body and consider sitting on the sidelines. When even Seth suggested I sit this one out and then Durb joined that chorus and said, “You can just hang out on Saturday; we’ll have fun,” I realized that the seriousness of my condition was apparent to others. This wasn’t a race where you can afford to take it easy; it’s an all out push, or you don’t finish. As a summer of races had shown me, pushing was perhaps beyond my limits. I wanted to punch something. It all felt so unfair.

On the ground at Frozen Head State Park, a test run up North Old Mac and down the Spicewood trail wasn’t reassuring. The dizziness came on quite immediately, and at a slow pace to boot. Standing at the top of Rat Jaw, though, the course called out its siren song.

Handing out bibs to runners three nights later sealed the deal; I was absolutely incapable of letting these people have all the fun while I missed out. Stealing a moment with Laz, I congratulated him on completing his epic journey and told him I wasn’t sure that I could to live up to my end of the bargain. “You’ve got this,” he smiled, looking me dead in the eye. “Oh laz, I don’t know.” “You’ve got this,” he insisted, “You’ve got this.”

Those words echoed in my every thought the rest of the night. I generally don’t have the slightest care about what people think of me, but when it comes to people I respect and hold in high regard, the thought of disappointing them scares me. It’s a point of pride when people have high expectations for me; it speaks to their estimation of my capabilities and drives me to meet, or exceed, them. But it mingles with an irrational fear of failure, particularly in the eyes of humans I admire, which both induces incredible anxiety while it simultaneously spurs me on to succeed in endeavors that seem impossible. I did not want to disappoint this man. I did not want to fail to fulfill my end of the bargain. I did not want to disappoint Durb, my good friend and always my strong supporter. I did not want to disappoint others in the running community who looked to me to succeed. I did not want to disappoint myself. All the same, I could not reconcile my strong mental drive with the fact that, in all likelihood, I was not physically capable of meeting that deliverable.

Not typically a crier, that night saw the first of several sobbing moments to come. Under the weight of this self-imposed pressure, I stood before my good friend Larry Kelley, tears streaming down my face. “I want it so badly, but I don’t think I can do it.” “Not with that attitude you can’t,” he replied. He paused, then took on a more serious tone. “You don’t belong on the porch. You hear what I’m saying? You don’t belong on the porch. You’re a thoroughbred. That’s why people like me and the old geezer like you. We want to see you run. A thoroughbred is meant to run. Even if it doesn’t win every race, we love to watch a thoroughbred run.” In this mixed metaphor, I believe that I’m both a dog who doesn’t want to be chained to the porch and a horse who people want to see run, which makes it one of my favorite pep talks ever (even though I am vehemently against horse racing–but that’s another matter.) It’s why I’m grateful to have Larry on my team. Feeling sheepish and embarrassed for my tears, I left with a sense that, whatever the outcome, I would give that course everything I had. I definitely didn’t want to be left on the porch, or in the barn.

Start Line to Aid Station One / Mile 0 to Mile 7.6

As we toed the line, Durb gave runners a moment of silence to contemplate the day to come. I thought about the Barkers who have passed and hoped to channel some of their energy and spirit out there. In a true hall monitor moment, I had to tell a woman next to me that she couldn’t have her poles until the Decision Point; she was grateful for the heads up and had someone take them to her drop bag. These were the only words I exchanged while waiting for that Camel to glow. I had wished my friend Terry good luck, then claimed a spot toward the front. Despite my stupid body, I was going to come out hot, as usual, and beat the conga dance up Bird Mountain. A strange energy filled me; a tension tinged with determination. Absorbed by the task at hand, I took in very little, and didn’t even see Laz raise a lighter to his cigarette, sending us off.

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Game face on. Photo by Mary Bogart.

As per usual, the first couple of miles follow a road in order to thin out the field. Moving steadily up through the pack, I was completely drenched in sweat by the time we passed the Vistor’s Center. By the time we hit the campground, my breathing was desperate and shallow, my heart was leaping out of my chest, and my pace involuntarily slackened. Seeing Larry and Oz at the Yellow Gate, I swerved for a good luck hug and some puppy love, and made a point of touching the gate along the way. Some folks were already walking, so I pushed to pass them before we reached the single track.

It was clear to me already that I wouldn’t be racing up Bird, but I would run as much as was possible, and power hike the rest. As Laz warned everyone, this would make one’s chances of finishing more difficult, but I knew that I could make up for it on other parts of the course. This became an opportunity to work on my head game. In racing, I like to be chased, to run scared. When a woman passes me, it tends to leave me feeling defeated, making it harder to push. This is something I’ve been working on addressing, as it’s completely mental and within my control to change. It was a pleasant surprise that I was able to maintain a positive, driven outlook as women passed me on the switchbacks. “There’s a long day ahead, and anything can happen,” I reassured myself. “You can make it up on the descents, and you can do the big climbs better than most people out here. It’s a long way to go, and a lot can happen. Just keep running as if you’re here to win this race.” The interior monologue worked. I pushed on, not giving up, not succumbing to defeat when passed.

Having consumed many switchbacks, the course crests the mountain and turns downhill. Later, my friend Phil would say, “I called out to you from below when you hit the top of Bird, but you turned onto the downhill and immediately shot off out of sight.” That’s what it felt like; my legs came alive. I love a good downhill, and the backside of Bird never disappoints. It’s canted and narrow, but oh so fun to bomb down. My spirits lifted, the inner dialogue switched on a voice of confidence. Most runners yielded, heading Laz’s order from the start line: “Follow trail etiquette and yield to the faster runner.” Well, I managed to find the two runners on course who blatantly disregarded the memo. I was clipping one guy’s heels, but he wouldn’t yield. “On your left,” I called out. His reply was somewhat indistinct, but the tone was clear, and it amounted to something along the lines of, “I’m not budging for you, bitch.” (I don’t think he used those exact words, but that was clearly the intended sentiment.) Being an easy going, good natured person, I refrained from either commenting or noting his bib number to tattle on him later. Instead, spotting my chance at the next switchback, I took a flying leap toward the tight turn, grabbed a tree trunk, spun around it, and busted past. Leaving them to eat my dust, it crossed my mind that, in a karmic moment, the course itself would be sure to punish them later.

Zooming along, I continued to pass runners (all of whom followed the rules and yielded.) It struck me as funny that going up the backside of Bird last year had felt so difficult at the time. It’s interesting how a change in direction can shift your perspective. I moved along well for a while, then slammed into a long, long line of runners. The Louisville Brothers, Scott and Brad Wunderlich, were among them. We’ve run together each year, so I was happy to catch them. I fell in behind Scott and we caught up on our races since the previous year and reminded each other of our pact to run the course an hour faster each year (which meant a 10-hour finish this year.) I’m faster on the descents than them, but the horde of runners was so long, that passing would be quite difficult. The dilemma played out in my head. I wanted to go around, but this group of about 15 runners rode each other’s heels. On the other hand, talking to Scott got me out of my own head. A loop of anxiety about winning the race had wound through my head all the way up the mountain; conversation was a welcome reprieve from that, so, I stayed put. All the same, I wondered if I’d regret that decision later, as this was a place to really pick up speed and make up time, if only I could get around everyone.  Telling myself that the jeep road descent would offer an ideal place to cover ground faster, I tried to settle in. My friend James Brinsfield ended up behind me, and his ever enthusiastic character helped to further distract me from the inner conflict.

Hitting the next round of upward switchbacks resolved the conflict within, as the group mostly dropped me. As James passed, something caught my eye; he had a hilariously big hole in the butt of his shorts. “James, how did you already tear your shorts?!” “It’s from last year!” he proudly replied. A few minutes later, when I caught Nick Yeates, he exclaimed, “Ellen?! I didn’t expect to see you. Excuse me for saying this, but I thought you were, ummm, a fast runner, and didn’t expect you back here. I think that’s a compliment?” Taking it as a compliment, I replied, “Just not feeling 100% today.” [I also realized during this conversation that Nick was the guy I mentioned in my 2016 BFC report as having broken his ankle at the bottom of Bird and, so I assumed at the time, ended his race. Turns out, he suffered through that day with a torn ligament and finished. He’s now one of 5 runners who have finished every BFC.]  At that point, Terry caught me, too. He tried to ease up and stick with me, but I reprimanded him and said, “No you don’t; get going!” He’s a nice guy and would have likely stayed with me, but there’s no place for being nice on this course. He needed to push and make sure that he finished, so I was glad that he moved past me on the switchbacks.

I fell in with a woman on the climb, and she asked me–as many runners would throughout the day–if I’d run the course before. “This is my third time,” I replied. “How many finishes?” “Two for two.” “Please tell me it gets easier than this,” she pleaded, “even if it’s a lie.” “I could tell you this is the worst of it, but it’s not in my nature to tell a lie.” “I’m really having my doubts,” she confessed. We were maybe 6 miles in; it was way too early for doubts. “After the aid station, it’s an easier stretch, then downhill jeep track. Just keep moving forward, and take it aid station to aid station.” Passing her, I gently touched her shoulder and offered, “You’ve got this; just keep moving forward and you’ll get to that finish.” Honestly, with early doubts like that, I think it would be pretty tough to finish this race, but it seemed ok to tell a white lie in this instance, especially if it helped her keep going.

I rolled into the aid station after 2.5 hours. At the time, I thought this was faster than my 2016 race, but looking back at my race report shows that it was exactly the same time. 2.5 hours to go 7.6 miles. How absurd. Sandra Cantrell looked surprised to see me (I read her expression as, “Why are you here so late?”) but she smiled when I told her that I was wearing the buff she’d given me the year before. She punched my bib, a nice volunteer filled my water, and I was off.

Aid Station One to Aid Station Two / Mile 7.6 to Mile 14.7

It was true that the next section is relatively easy. The trail rolls up and down along the northern boundary of the park, through an emerald tree canopy, over trickling streams and slick limestone, past coal ponds and springs. It’s lovely. Tulip Tree leaves littered the ground, bringing a smile to my face. It’s my favorite tree, so something about seeing the leaves brought me a sense of peace. Too often the emphasis is placed on the brutality of Barkley, which does a disservice to the beauty and tranquility that constitutes much of the course.

Two runners leap frogged with me through this section; them passing me on the ups, me dashing past on the downs. Eventually, they tucked in behind me, and a small group formed. Several of them were worried about finding the Garden Spot, having heard tales of last year’s lemming parade into the great unknown. Learning that I’d run the course a couple times, they looked to me as a guide. It’s a risk first-timers take, though, as even a seasoned BFC runner can get off course, leading the flock astray. Fortunately for them, there was no way that I was getting lost on the way to the Garden Spot, but they didn’t know that. One runner, James, and I chatted as he settled in behind me. He, too, was worried about reaching the next check point, was having some unusual pain in his legs, and felt a little unsure about the downhills. I explained how I had learned to push past my fear of running fast on the descents and assured him that if he kept pushing forward, he’d make it [He did! Congrats, James!]. Another runner asked if it would take about the same amount of time to get to the next aid station. “I haven’t been on the jeep track after Garden Spot, but I’ve heard it’s cushy and all downhill. We should be able to do this section faster than the first 7.6 miles.” Note to self: never make assumptions about parts of the BFC course that you’re not familiar with. You’d think I’d have learned that by now.

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Winding our way to the Garden Spot, James behind me. Photo by Misty Herron Wong.

After some twists and turns, we started up toward the Garden Spot. Confident in the direction, I picked up my pace. I believe it was James who lightheartedly said, “She’s scraping us!” “Not on purpose!” I returned. “I just need to make up time where I can.” Catching a woman ahead of me who looked unsure of her directional choices, I assured her she was going the right way. She hesitated, and I gave her directions to the Garden Spot; seemingly satisfied with my knowledge, she pressed on ahead. While I’m competitive, and helping another woman wasn’t helping my ranking on the course, it just wasn’t in me to ignore or mislead others. It actually felt like a responsibility of sorts to reassure others and help them find their way. Those trails and the park map are permanently seared into my mind, and a certain satisfaction came from being able to share this with others who moved with unsure steps.

Just below the Garden Spot, two volunteers greeted us with a hole punch and instructions to turn down a narrow trail to the jeep road. Thanking them, I tore down, spirits lifted at the thought of a buttery jeep track that went nowhere but down, down, down. This is where I would make up time. Reader, you know where this is going. No, I didn’t fall and bust my head, but neither did I effortlessly bomb down that fictional jeep track. I had not anticipated a hot, exposed road with gravel big enough to bruise and sharp enough to shred your feet. Giant mud ponds dotted the way. The sun beat down with relentless force, and the humidity sucked your will to live. The boulder gravel I could will myself to ignore; the deep and mucky mud ponds I could plow through and not worry about slowing down to skim the edges. It was the blaring sun and heat that pulled me up panting. The flats and gentle uphill sections became a slog, my energy zapped. I was stunned. This was all runable, but my body moved in slow motion. It was fun to be in a new area and experience a new landscape, but it was tough to reconcile my expectations for this section with the reality. Of course, that’s exactly what puts the Barkley in BFC: it’s not going to go according to plan.

Finally, the jeep track turned to a consistent descent, and I pushed forward. The sun had taken a lot out of me, but this was one of few opportunities to really make up time. Passing runner after runner, I gritted my teeth and tuned out the rocks, bombing down steep sections with a sort of glee as others moved more cautiously. It wasn’t quite my usual downhill speed, but it was good enough to provide a sense of optimism. Reaching the blacktop road below, it was a short jaunt down to the aid station. Again, the pavement should have been a place to effortlessly pick up the pace, but that sun and heat continued to weigh me down. It was then that I noticed that my clothes were soaked through and that some serious chaffing had formed. I rolled into the aid station in search of lube, a bib punch, and water. Having procured all three, I pulled out my gloves and headed out the door. I’d caught Terry there and quickly checked in; he was moving well and in good spirits. I also ran into my friend Mike Edwards on the way out; he’d shared some kind words the previous night, which I appreciated, and here he offered to help in any way. “I’m all set!” I said, and took aim for the Testicle Spectacle that waited beyond. Pulling on my gloves, I chuckled, “Now the fun begins.”

Aid Station Two to Aid Station Three / Mile 14.7 to Mile 17.5

The main reason I contend that this year’s course was the easiest I’ve run is the fact that we weren’t going both up and down Testicle Spectacle. In previous years, it was a reliably tough part of the course. Not only did you have to confront stupidly steep ups and downs both coming and going, but you also had to contend with two-way traffic. It’s hot and exposed, so the sun has a lot of time to take its toll. Cresting a ledge, the power line cut unfolds in its entirety before you. I heard a lot of groans in that moment, but I just laughed. You can see all the ground that you must cover, and the top looks impossibly far away. It looms above in the distance and seems to sneer at your puny effort to climb it. This is what I love most about the course; these climbs that venture toward the absurd. If you have the right sense of humor and mindset, though, you appreciate them for their uniqueness.

A large group of men fell in behind me, and once again I led a chain of runners. Despite feeling tired, I managed to pass quite a few men on the way up, and my chain gang had trouble keeping up. This boosted my confidence and instilled hopes of passing enough women to make me a contender. Knowing that Meth Lab and Rat Jaw lay in waiting, I told myself this race wasn’t over yet, and there was time and miles enough for me to gain ground. Part way up, I overheard a heated exchange between two runners and soon discovered that it was the Louisville Brothers. Scott was on the ground, clearly not feeling well. Brad was advising him to make a smart but difficult decision. As Brad pressed forward, I stopped and offered, “Hang in there, man; I’m not doing Chimney Top without you!” You could tell he was hurting, but that hadn’t stopped him in the past, so I kept going and felt confident that he’d will himself up and onward.

I felt like I’d made good time coming up Testicle. While I’m a slow climber, the really steep ascents tend to level the playing field, and by making relentless forward progress and not taking breaks, I can usually hold my own on the signature Barkley climbs. It struck me as odd that I didn’t have a single saw brier scratch. Last year, I’d clambered to the top looking like I’d lost a bar fight with angry cats and had blood streaming down my shoulder. It surprised me to be unscathed. Like last year, though, I was still smiling all along the way.

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Smiling up the Testicle Spectacle. Photo by Susan Typert.

Without delay, I carried on to Meth Lab Hill. Last year, I had run down this with reckless abandon. With a similar plan in mind, I plunged down with intention, but the speed wasn’t there. Feeling physically depleted and a bit unsteady on my feet, I picked my way down at a run, or perhaps a controlled jog is a better description. The mind games commenced. “Come on, Ellen, you need to push down this. You’ve done it before, so get moving!” My body was not compliant. Fatigued, heart rate a bit wild, dizziness slowly creeping in, broiling in the humid oven, the energy just wasn’t there. It was maddening. Unwilling to admit it to myself at the time, I suspect that my experience here last year played a role in my slow descent. While I had barreled down Meth Lab in 2017 with absolute ease, I’d fallen on the candyass jeep track at the bottom, smashed my head into a rock, and sustained a concussion. Even though the hill itself hadn’t led to that tumble, I wonder if being near the scene of my traumatic brain injury unconsciously made my legs more cautious. Reaching the road after what felt like an eternity, I noted the spot where I’d fallen before, rolled my eyes at it, and ran on, hoping that confronting, and then dismissing, that spot would help me move past a moment that continued to haunt me.

Coming up through the Armes Compound, I hit the sunburned pavement that led to the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Along the way, I once again found myself giving words of encouragement and course insights to others who asked questions. We were making good time and were on track to reach Laz before the cutoffs, I assured them. “Plus, the best part of the course is coming up!” I meant it; I couldn’t wait to get to the Big Rat and gladly shared my enthusiasm with the runners who eyed me with suspicion.

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The road to Brushy Mountain, with a glimpse of Rat Jaw. Photos of the prison, tunnel, etc. taken the week before the race; I never stop to take photos during the race.

It was a danger to let your mind expect it, but I couldn’t help but think that this aid station would, as it always had before, provide ice. They did not disappoint. I’d been dumping water on my head and neck at each aid station, which was crucial to keeping my core temperature down. The ice would be a lifesaver on Rat Jaw. A young volunteer brought over a heaping scoop of it, and I proceeded to dump it down my sports bra and into my hat. Thanking him profusely, I headed toward the prison.

Aid Station Three to Aid Station Four / Mile 17.5 to Mile 18.7

This year, we would jog around to a side door and go directly into the yard. I was glad to have had the opportunity earlier that week to tour the full grounds (and at a leisurely pace.) The new owners have worked wonders, transforming the place into a museum and moonshine distillery. It was fascinating to learn about the process from the distiller, who had built the stills and related facilities himself. The tasting room and restaurant repurposed a prison building using materials sourced from old houses and barns in the area. It was wonderful to see so many people there touring the facilities.

No time to play tourist today, so I ran through the yard and toward the wall at the back of the compound. This year, there were two ladders, which was a welcome addition to help speed things along. Approaching the ladder, a woman (who I know realize must have been Mrs. Raw Dog) smiled and offered, “You’re the 18th female.” Deflated, I solemnly returned, “I wish that was good news.” “It is!” she cheerily replied. I appreciated the sentiment, but this was hardly good news. My first BFC, I finished 11th female; my second year, I finished 3rd female. Last year, I was the first woman to reach the top of Rat Jaw, and in the top 5 or so overall to reach the top of that climb. It would take an epic charge up the Rat to move up to a more respectable place in the field. I love Rat Jaw, though, and it has always returned that love; a glimmer of hope lingered as I climbed up and over the wall.

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Climbing down to ask Jared Campbell to punch my bib. Photo by Lance Parry.

Waiting on the other side was three-time Barkley Marathons finisher, Jared Campbell. I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to see him there. He writes great race reports and is just a model runner. While I don’t know him personally, he conveys a sense of being a genuinely nice person. He has such an air of cool calm, a confidence that seems to be absolutely devoid of ego. I thanked him and said, “it’s a real treat to have you out here. Thank you.” He smiled and wished me luck.

Onward I sped, toward the creek that leads to the tunnel. The tunnel runs the length of the penitentiary; it’s dark, dank, awash in stagnant water, and longer than you’d think. Pressing my fingertips to the wall as a guide and picking up my feet high to avoid any tripping hazards, I ran through the tunnel, enjoying the brief reprieve from the heat. The pinhole of light on the far side growing larger, I felt a little giddy thinking of the Big Rat waiting on the other side. Spilling out the tunnel’s end, I clambered up the creek bank and skipped over to the most iconic part of the course.

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The far side of the tunnel, which leads to Big Rat.

Big Rat is an impossibly steep climb up a power line that covers 1800+ feet in 0.89 miles (some say 1800′, others say 2000′; whatever the true gain, it’s a mother of a climb.) [Note that, while many people refer to the entire climb as Rat Jaw, it’s actually called Big Rat. Rat Jaw proper begins further up the hill at the jeep road.] A line of runners waited patiently as individuals took turns pulling themselves up the ridiculous first pitch. They all apparently wanted to climb up the absolute worst possible route, in the crumbly loose dirt that disintegrated in your hands. Anything under the power lines is fair game on Big Rat, though, so, bypassing the herd, I took a line just to the left of them. As such, I passed a dozen runners and had an easier climb because I could grab grasses and briars to help belay me up. A similar strategy had catapulted me past scores of runners last year, and I was willing to incur some rat bites if it meant moving myself up through the pack.

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Photos fail to do justice to the first pitch on Big Rat (which begins to the right of the telephone pole.) On race day, runners had worn a clear path through the dirt. I skirted just to the left of them.

Atop the first pitch, I surveyed the landscape and was surprised by the absence of saw briars. In their place were hundreds of harmless Tulip Tree saplings. “They must have mowed it!” I kept thinking, and then, in disbelief, said to others around me. “They must have mowed it!” [Later, Mike Dobies would, as delicately as possible, suggest that “maybe it was the time of day you got there. Maybe they’d already been trampled down.” Of course, he was right; the brier experience of a front runner racing up Big Rat is a significantly different experience than that of the mid-packer.]

Despite lacking the tangle of saw briers; despite the joy with which I’d always anticipated the climb and the glee with which I’d consistently bounded up it; despite having genuine affection for this beast, the Rat nearly my undoing at the 2018 Barkley Fall Classic. Having done some ultra math, I figured that if I reached the top by the 8-hour mark, I’d still have more than enough time to safely reach Laz at the decision point. Approaching Big Rat, I was 5 hours and 53 minutes in. Time was abundant. There was no room for complacency, though; there was only enough room not to be completely panicked. In the past, I’d made it up Big Rat in an hour or less. I thought it might take a little bit longer today, given my condition, but my expectation was to move quickly, because, clearly, I hadn’t learned my lesson about having expectations here.

In hindsight, it must have been the heat and humidity that played the starring role in my unraveling. It didn’t feel any hotter than usual, but later reports indicate that this was the hottest and most humid BFC on record [Terri Durbin later told me that it was so humid at the finish line, that spontaneous rain showers would burst out of thin air.] My nutrition was spot-on, as was my hydration. The compression sleeves I wore as an experiment had helped to keep the dizziness somewhat at bay, but even they met their match here. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears and my chest tightened. Dismissing my body, my mind said, “Onward! Upward!” I had never stopped while climbing Big Rat. Ever. I’d be damned if I was going to start stopping now.

And then, I stopped.

I couldn’t breathe, my heart was a wild animal beating against a cage, and my body broiled under the sun’s unforgiving rays. I shook it off and pressed forward. Twenty paces later, I stopped again. I was furious. “I have never stopped on Rat Jaw. I have never stopped on Rat Jaw. Keep moving! That’s the secret to getting up it! You keep moving!” In that moment, though, another voice chimed in. It was Mike Dobies’. That morning, he had told me, “I don’t care what kind of pact you made. You’re not healthy. Go out there and do what you need to do to finish, but stop pressuring yourself to win, and don’t do anything stupid out there. Don’t be an idiot. Just take care of yourself and finish.” Well, I am an idiot, which is precisely why I love this course and this climb so much. Nevertheless, the rational part of my brain listened to Dobies in this moment. I’m convinced that it ultimately saved my race. I passed so many wasted runners on that climb; strong men and women curled into fetal positions, a couple of them clearly suffering from heat stroke, others from severe heat exhaustion. Masses of them were lying on the ground; others vocalized their intent to quit right then and there. If I was going to avoid being one of them, if I was going to make it up this climb without passing out or doing worse harm, then I needed to let go of any hope of racing to the top. It was painfully obvious that a podium finish was now firmly out of my grasp, but I could complete the 50k if I made some wise decisions here. I tend not to make wise decisions while running; my brain during a race clutches an all-out or nothing attitude. It felt in many ways like a small defeat to think in terms of “just finishing,” but that was apparently one of only two options: do what was necessary to finish, or push only to collapse on Rat Jaw and have my sorry carcass dragged out by the park staff.

Humbled beyond belief, I slowly made my way up toward the fire tower, twenty paces at a time.

That became the strategy; climb 20 paces, then duck under saw briers and whatever other flora offered some sort of cover from the sun, taking a few seconds to catch my breath and let my heart rate slow a bit. Reaching the jeep road that crosses Big Rat and marks the start of Rat Jaw, a smoldering hovel of runners came into view. They had dragged themselves off to the sides, seeking shade in the trees. Everyone sat or sprawled out. I decided not to sit. I would stay two minutes, then go. I took the opportunity to drink and force down some nutrition. There was an agony hanging thick in the air. Runners asked the volunteer who stood sentinel on a 4-wheeler, “how much farther to the top?” He seemed to take a certain pleasure in telling folks, “You’re about halfway up.” This isn’t what they wanted to hear. Much to my surprise, Scott showed up. “You’ve risen from the dead!” I exclaimed. “I’m so glad to see you here; I knew you’d keep going!” My rest time was up, though. Rat Jaw was waiting.

The pattern continued. A trail had been worn through the thickets of saw briers that cloaked the upper part of the hill, but I knew better than to blindly follow it. It zigged and zagged upward with no apparent rhyme or reason. Along the way, I’d pause to encourage runners who were giving in to despair. “We have plenty of time. Just keep moving up, and you’ll make the cutoff.” I gave some variation on this refrain, answered questions about what was to come, and tried to model for others a sustainable method for reaching the top. Nearing the rock wall, which is about 2/3 of the way up, the trail forked. To the right was the more direct route, as the gap in the rock wall was off to the right. Starting along this fork, a yellow jacket nest under a log that had fallen over the blazed trail gave me pause. It wasn’t worth the risk, so I backtracked and took the longer route. Scrambling through the crack in the rock wall, I had to call another runner back who had (unintentionally) continued on into the woods around the rock. Drawing slowly closer to the top, I was able to take shorter breaks, although every 20 steps or so still called for a brief pause. Near the top, shouting voices within earshot, I came across a guy who was in terrible shape. Another runner tried to encourage him on, and even told him to take hold of his shirt and he’d help pull him up, which was incredibly moving to witness. I stopped, too, and said, “You’re almost to the top. Tub Springs is right around the corner. Mike Dobies will take care of you there. He’ll get you recovered and back out there; just get to him!” The other runner continued to try and pull him up, but it was futile. I realized then that this guy needed actual help; he was disoriented and slurring his words, asking strange questions. Despite my words of encouragement, I decided to notify the medics at the top of Rat Jaw that there was a guy in need of help down there.

Attaining the summit of Rat Jaw was quite a different experience this go round. I was 7 hours and 30 minutes into the race. This was, by far, my slowest trip up the Big Rat. I reflected that the part of the course that typically brings me the most joy had been a true struggle. It was bewildering to acknowledge that it hadn’t even been fun. That moment was among the most upsetting of a race that held several disappointments: I’d never not had fun on this course. I’d reached such a dark place in my mind, that this wasn’t even fun. Such a mindset didn’t feel like me; not here on this course.

Trying to shake that feeling, I made haste up the “Far Tar” to get my bib punched. The young volunteer apologized as he fumbled with the hole punch. “No worries,” I assured him. “I hope to see you out here running it yourself next year!” I laughed; he was quite adamant that that wouldn’t be happening. Thanking him, I bounded down the stairs, around the bend, and off to the aid station below.

Striding down, the fact that the chaffing had not only worsened, but also spread, reached my conscious self. “Yeeouch!” I can tune out physical pain, though, so I changed stations and focused on taking advantage of the jeep track descent. Reaching the aid station, I told Dobies, “they may call you Bad Mike, but you were Good Mike this morning. Your advice kept me from killing myself on Rat Jaw, and that saved my race.” With that, the volunteers refilled my water, and I grabbed a handful of fruit chews. [I have to note here that the Coalfield boys were really on point this year. They had my water filled in seconds at each aid station. I’m grateful to them all.] One of the Canadians pointed to the rice crispy treats and declared, “these are heaven.” I chuckled, thinking of the remarkable thought and concern that Durb and Laz put into selecting aid station food. They would be happy to know that the runners appreciated it.

The only thing left now to do was to run three and a half measly miles down a candyass trail to meet Laz.

Aid Station Four to Aid Station Five: The Decision Point / Mile 18.7 to Mile 22.2

A series of factors had compounded, and the dizziness I’d experienced over the summer increasingly became a nagging presence. During the past few races, I’d learned that I could partly ignore the dizziness on the descents; it was most crippling on flats and ascents. I knew this trail well and banked on my proclivity for downhill running to carry me along. A short ways in, Lauren Kraft caught me. We’d met briefly the night before through our mutual friend Anne Lang. I offered to let her pass, but she declined; “No, you’re moving great. I’m just going to pace behind you.” It hadn’t occurred to me that I was moving great, so it gave me a little lift to hear that perhaps I was traveling a bit faster than a video shot in slow motion. That lift inspired my feet to turn over more quickly, and soon I pulled away, no longer out of a sense of competition but simply because I could.

And then, I fell.

It was a hard fall, but my subconscious told my arms, “You reach out and break that fall, arms! Arms, you will break your bones before you let this head hit the ground!” The arms complied, and my left outer thigh took the brunt of the impact. Lauren caught up and saw me on the ground. “Do you need a minute? Do you need help up? What do you need?” “Go! Go! Go!” I replied. “I’m good; you keep going!” Sitting for the first time that day, I took ten seconds to collect myself, then heaved my sorry body up. A killer bruise was already forming. Irritated with myself, I decided to take a moment to pee, since I’d needed to for hours but had ignored it. “May as well, since I’m already stopped.” As I dropped my drawers, incredible pain shot through me, and I nearly fainted and puked in the same instant. The chaffing had engulfed every inch of skin touched by my shorts. When I pulled them down, a lot of skin came with them, and then salty sweat trickled into the open sores.

Pulling my shorts up and myself back together, I resumed making my way down to Laz. Initially, I attempted to maintain the same strong pace. As I tripped once, then twice, then yet again, I pulled back. The dizziness had firmly set in, and I was stumbling around. That, mixed with a new sense of caution, held me back. I’m terrified of hitting my head again; the recovery from a traumatic brain injury has been infuriatingly slow, and the injury has altered my life in many frustrating ways. While I could ignore and push through the pain of the deepening bruise and the seared flesh, I couldn’t ignore or muscle my way through the dizziness. That’s what angers me the most about whatever it is that’s causing this. Pushing through pain is entirely possible, but I’m just not going to win a fight with a blackout. What angers me the most is that it’s out of my control. I can’t address it through training or through a strong mindset. As of right now, even the doctors can’t tell me how to fix it.

What followed was the true low point in the race. I had a couple of miles to contemplate arriving at the Decision Point and facing Laz. I would not have lived up to my end of the bargain. Not even close. I thought to myself, “Nothing has made me suffer on this course as much as knowing that I have failed.” Those were two seriously dark miles. As you may have noticed, I remember races in an incredible amount of detail, but I have perhaps blocked most of those two miles from memory.

Reaching the main trail, the shouts of volunteers and spectators at the Decision Point grew louder. There was an energetic buzz and excitement in the air, but my mood darkened. A volunteer handed me a whole banana, for which I was quite grateful after hours of eating GU and bloks. Stopping at my drop bag, I picked up some additional nutrition and grabbed my trekking poles. I’d never before used poles at the BFC; I had, in fact, snidely scoffed at the idea. There are plenty of tree branches to grab if needed. My fear of falling won out, though, and I unapologetically took them.

The race clock read 8 hours and 15 minutes. I had reached Laz 1 hour and 15 minutes ahead of the cutoff and had just over 5 hours to finish the final loop. Most runners would be ecstatic; I plunged into a well of self pity.

If I thought things couldn’t get worse, I was sorely mistaken. Running up to Laz, I lost all composure and broke down. Through tears, in a warbling voice, I said, “I’m so sorry that I couldn’t live up to my end of the bargain, Laz. I’m so sorry that I failed.” “Well, are you going to continue?” I don’t know why the question shocked me, and it even made me feel a little insulted. “Yeah, of course I’ll keep going!” I shot back with a little attitude. “Well, then, that’s what matters. Getting here is what matters.” It was kind of him to say, and I know he meant it, but I had myself convinced that he was nevertheless disappointed that I’d come in so much later than promised.

Tail between my legs, I jogged off to Chimney Top.

Aid Station Five to Aid Station Six / Mile 22.2 to Mile 27.8

“You are such an idiot,” the voice inside my head berated. “I can’t believe you cried in front of Laz! What is wrong with you?!” That thought was sure to plague me to the finish, so I needed to find a way to occupy my mind. A spectator gestured to me and the guy who hit the Chimney Top trail head with me and said, “Yeah, go get it! Push each other on to the finish!” I laughed and said, “Dude, you’re gonna drop me as soon as we start climbing, but good luck to you!” “Everyone underestimates this climb,” he replied. “Yeah, I know better,” I answered. The back and forth took some of the edge off my recent embarrassment, but he did predictably drop me on the climb. I settled in; I knew that, barring some unforeseen disaster, I would finish the 50k. There was plenty of time, and while Chimney Top is tougher than you’d think, it was more than doable in the time left.

Soon, I came upon a runner who was having trouble with his heart rate and stomach. I knew the feeling. He was a bit faster on the climbs, but needed breaks pretty often, so we stayed with talking range. At that point, my race took on a new direction. On Chimney Top, I became a coach of sorts for the numerous first-time BFC runners who were panicked about finishing. It wasn’t the role I had looked for when setting out that morning, but it was a way to manage my own disappointment by helping others reach the Croix. Of course, they would have made it without me; I simply provided the reassurance that we were in the home stretch. I gave them a sense of what was to come, how far we had to go, and landmarks to look for. I encouraged them and tried to calm the anxiety that had a grip on them. I’d had similar fears my first year, so it felt good to give back and help others relax a bit and try to enjoy what was left of the course. I didn’t go so far as to tell them to slow down and stop pushing, but I tried to convey that they were definitely going to finish. This also gave me a job and a purpose, which, in turn, kept my mind from retreating into the dark, pathetic pity cave.

Chimney Top just keeps on climbing (which is why some people refer to it as Chimney Tops, I think, because just when you believe you’ve reached the top, the trail continues up), so I settled in and reminded myself how beautiful this part of the park is. It’s cruel, too, as at one point you lose elevation, only to be asked to climb back out and up. Two runners on a switchback above me yelled down, “Yellow jackets!” I could see them buzzing around a log over the trail, so I gingerly stepped over it, making a point of not letting my poles touch the ground so as not to disturb them. Despite my efforts, one came after me. It repeatedly stung my leg, over and over and over. I’ve always chanted “I am one with the birds and beasts of Frozen Head” as a mantra when confronted with its various wildlife. I try to do no harm, even to the smallest of creatures, but my knee-jerk reaction was to swat at the source of that stinging. My intent was to brush it away, but, stinger buried in my leg, the yellow jacket was firmly attached, and my swinging of the pole accidentally killed it. I knew it was a natural reaction, but I felt bad all the same for killing it.

Having now gone through a BFC rite of passage, I secretly hoped that I wouldn’t be confronting a rattlesnake next. Mid-thought, a clap of thunder broke the still air. “Ha, yes, a thunderstorm while up on Chimney Top; perfect.” The brief shower that followed was most welcome, though. It was still unbearably humid, and the rain served to break the heat and cooled my worn body.

Moving on, I’d chat with runners for a few minutes, then move past them (or them past me.) One runner asked someone in French how much time was left. We had 3 hours and 50 minutes, which I confirmed for him in broken French. “Vous parlez Francais?” “Un peu, mais pas tres bien! Tout va bien. All is good.” I spent some time with one guy who kept puking and just wanted to be finished, but was also thinking about registering again for the next year. “Yes! Do it!” I encouraged.

I then spent some time with a Brit named Russell. Everyone wanted to know how much more climbing. When Russell joined me, we were nearing the capstones. “There are three sets of capstones,” I explained. Once we reach them, then we start heading down. Once we get to Mart Fields, we’re pretty close to Spicewood. Once we hit Spicewood, you can smell the barn. It’s all downhill and flat, and you’ll cruise into the finish.” When we reached the fourth capstone, Russell was a bit dismayed. “I was sure there were three capstones.” Trying to recall what Scott had said last year, I felt certain he had said three capstones. Maybe it was three sets of capstones? When we reached the fifth capstone, Russell seemed to find me a dubious character. I shrugged my shoulders. However many, the capstones were a good sign that we were nearly done with the big climbs.

Russell pulled ahead and a woman soon caught me. She was also feeling unsure about the route. I reassured her that we were on course and approaching to Spicewood. “Here’s Mart Fields; we’re real close!” She was hesitant to pass me, as she doubted her ability to stay on course up here. Pointing to a blaze on a tree, I explained, “See the diamond on the tree there? That’s a trail blaze. Just keep following them down to Spicewood. Larry will punch your bib and point you in the right direction from there. When you reach the very bottom of the Spicewood trail, go left.” She thanked me but stuck close most of the way to Spicewood.

Sure enough, Spicewood soon came into view. In light of his recent “You are a thoroughbred” speech, I shouted down to Larry as I rolled in, “Well, Larry Kelley, I guess you don’t have to take me out to the back 40 and put a bullet in me just yet!” “I never would! I just took off my Cougar hat when it started to rain, but I’ve been wearing it all day!” [Since Larry had dubbed me Cougar Snack, I’d given him a hat from Cougar, WA for his birthday.] Punching my bib, he said, “I’m proud of you!” I smiled but couldn’t help but think about being here last year, when he told me there were only two women ahead of me. At least I managed not to cry. I found Oz and got a puppy hug to get me to the finish; as I walked away, he ran up from behind and jumped on me, pushing me with his front paws. I think that’s puppy talk for “hey, I love you!” With that, I joined the gaggle of runners who had congregated at Spicewood. “Everyone be careful on the way down, especially since it just rained,” Larry advised. “There are some rocks that are going to be slick.” It was amazing how the mood had shifted; runners now realized they really would finish, and, finding their legs, they sped down the trail. Even runners whom I’d passed before shot by on a second wind. It’s amazing what the smell of the barn can do for you.

Aid Station Six to the Finish Line / Mile 27.8 to Mile 31.2

As for me, the dizziness grew steadily worse, and my pace correspondingly decreased. My role of Chimney Top Coach concluded, I no longer had an exterior purpose on the course, so the interior took hold. I was in a lot of physical pain, but, as before, switched it off. It was the dark thoughts that crept back in. I saw myself as juxtaposed with the runners who gleefully ran down the Spicewood trail. They were so happy to claim a 50k finish, and I was not able to share in that joy. For me, finishing just wasn’t enough this time. It hadn’t been the plan. My three-year trajectory was supposed to move from finish to podium to win. This performance was decidedly off course. I wrestled with those thoughts the whole way down.

Hitting the main trail, I swung left and jogged as fast as was possible. It was probably more like a pathetic shuffle. “Do not cry when you see Laz again,” I warned; “don’t you dare cry again.” Reaching the Decision Point, which was now just an ordinary trail head since the cutoff had passed, I walked up to Sandra, choked back tears, and reached out to shake her hand. “Thank you, Sandra, thank you for everything.” I don’t quite remember what she said, but she had a pained look on her face; she knew how disappointed I was, and her face conveyed the sympathy that she felt. Turning to Laz, I reached out my hand, and cried like an idiot as I said, “Thank you, Laz, for this course. I’m so sorry to have disappointed you.” Holding my hand, he replied, “You didn’t disappoint me! The women’s field was stout!” Like a blubbering idiot, I just kept repeating, “I’m so sorry I disappointed you; I’m so sorry I disappointed you.” Laz continued to hold onto my hand, gripping it harder, and made me look him in the eye, which I had hitherto failed to do. “You are not a disappointment. You are not a disappointment,” he declared. To add to my humiliation, Jared Campbell was now there, and he stepped over, looking confused as to why someone who was finishing the 50k was making such a fuss. So now, there I stood, in front of Sandra, Laz, and Jared Campbell, crying like a baby and muttering the same sentence over and over. It was so pathetic, but the raw emotion dictated my actions. While I understood that Laz was completely sincere, I still felt like a failure all the same.

Wiping my eyes, I turned to go finish my race. Behind me, I heard a familiar voice. “Terry?!” I exclaimed. “Holy shit!” I had dropped him on Rat Jaw and had worried about him all through Chimney Top. I was surprised he’d caught me but happy he’d made it. “Come on, let’s finish together!”

The finish line was just under a mile away, but my body was already done. My head was faint and my heart raced; this compounded with the emotional stress, and left me barely able to run. It was pathetic, but I had to walk a couple of times just to keep from passing out. Terry stayed with me and encouraged me forward. Realizing that I could at least beat my time from my first BFC, I determined not to slow down again. As we rounded the corner and the volleyball fields came into view, the same surge of ego I’d felt when approaching the finish line at White River and Wy’east Wonder took over, and my pride forced my body into a respectable run. Terry hung behind; I tried to slow up to let him finish next to me, but he pulled back. As I crossed the finish line, I held up three fingers, to signal my third finish.

BFC 18 finish

Three fingers, three-time finisher. Terry waves happily to the camera. Photo by Sword.

Durb was there to catch me, and once again the water works turned on. I apologized for my poor performance, and he said, “Well you finished the marathon, right?” Taken aback, I quickly corrected him: “50k!” “Oh wow, I can’t believe you did it. I didn’t think you’d be able to in your condition.” Neither had I. I think he said something about seeing me somewhere on the course and that I had looked pretty rough. I’m sure I did. He had been worried about me, but was so excited I’d pulled off another finish. He walked me over to get my Croix de Barque. It had two stars to indicate that I was a three-time finisher.

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Terry and I pose with our Croix de Barque. You can see the two stars on mine. I am the only person visible in this photo who is faking a smile. Photo by Phil Orndorff.

We met up with Phil, who had to make a tough decision at the Prison. The heat had gotten to him, as I suspect it ended many runners’ races. James Brinsfield had a similar experience, thanks to stomach issues. His girlfriend, however, who we’d convinced the night before to register, had a top ten finish. The Campfire Gang was all over the map with our races, but it was good to be there together at the finish line. Eating the world’s best veggie burger, we sat at the finish line until the last runners had crossed. It was great to cheer people in and to see the joy in their eyes as they finished. I truly felt very happy for them. Anne Lang charged in shouting, “I did it! I did it!” It was great to congratulate her and debrief after the race. We’ve both had struggles with injury and questioning our identity as runners, and it was a comfort to talk with someone who understood.

The clock ticked into the Golden Hour, and we all held our breath waiting for Nick Yeates, who has a penchant for getting down to the wire and squeaking in a finish. We hooted, hollered, and shouted his name as he came roaring in minutes before the cutoff, collapsing as he crossed the line. He would remain in the elite company of 5-time finishers.

Eventually, Terry drove us back to the campground. I’d been procrastinating, mostly because I knew that showering with this chaffing was going to be miserable. But, as I knew, the physical pain was easy enough to ignore.

Reaching for Conclusions

The tagline for this year’s BFC was as follows:

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“Some Win, Some Whine, Some Stay Home”

The race directors then ask you,

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“Are you a Winner, or a Whiner?”

According to my bib, and anyone else you ask,

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“I AM A WINNER”

Well, I didn’t stay home, and I didn’t win, and this race report sounds dangerously close to whining. I realize that I live a privileged life and have no room for complaint. If my worst problem is that I simply can’t do a thing that I love, then I should count myself lucky. People suffer far greater wrongs, and my self pity is beyond indulgent and selfish. All the same, I feel a tremendous sense of personal loss. I’m both embarrassed to whine in this race report and saddened to feel disconnected from the thing that has come to define me, the thing that brings me true joy.

Something is physically wrong with me, and it’s holding me back from fulfilling my potential. The not knowing is so frustrating, because it means I can’t easily fix it. Everyone has a theory, but theories are just that. Last week I had a holter monitor test. Next week, I’ll see a sports medicine doc. I hold out hope that this will lead to answers, but part of me worries that it will just raise more questions. My thoughts run wild and contemplate a future without this sport that I love. I’m so new to ultras. I’m just over two years in, and last year was a breakout year. I have high expectations and think I can go far. To be stopped in my tracks by some as yet unnamed thing is maddening. I feel as if I have lost a part of my core, the thing that largely defines me and makes me happy. In an effort to console me, some friends and family have suggested that I will find a new passion. Others have been more understanding of the impossibility of that. I don’t want a new passion. I want to run long distances, and I want to be able to give my entire being and best self. I want to do other things, too, but not at the expense of running.

In the end, I don’t think that it’s winning that I really care about. I mean, I like winning and podium finishes, but that’s not really what I’m out for. What I truly want is to be able to walk away from a race knowing that I gave absolutely everything. As my friend Kathleen says, I want “to leave it all out on the course.” To be so spent afterward because I used every drop of energy and drive to finish as best as possible. I want to know that I couldn’t possibly have given more or done better. This is how I felt after the 2017 BFC. I finished in third place, but I am prouder of that finish than any race I’ve ever won or took second, because I worked harder for it and left everything out there (including a piece of my brain on a rock at the bottom of Meth Lab Hill. As Durb likes to joke: “It’s the smartest rock in Tennessee!”).

Of course, others have, and will, tell me that I’m being too hard on myself, that this is exactly what I did at the 2018 BFC. That it took everything I had just to finish. That I need to acknowledge what I was able to accomplish. Not everyone walked away with the Croix that day. I recognize this, but I’m nevertheless left feeling that I have so much more to give, if only this body would comply.

What it comes down to, it seems, is that I’m really bad at accepting failure. I’m not so good at seeing the silver lining. And it makes me sound like a whiner. I’m cringing just writing this race report. I have an unhealthy relationship with disappointment and a crippling fear of letting others down that I need to overcome.

As such, I’m going to buck up and move forward. Either my doctors will figure it out and set me on the path to recovery, or they won’t. I’ll have to deal with the outcome. You’d think that by now I’d have learned not to make plans or set expectations when it comes to ultra running, but, in the end, I can only be myself. In the year to come, when my body is healthy, I will train with purpose and with gratitude. I will work harder, but also smarter, and do what it takes to bring my best self to toe the line at the 2019 Barkley Fall Classic. Registration opened today. Until I turned on my computer this morning, I’d been composing an email in my head to Durb to explain that I wasn’t going to register for any races until I was healthy. Computer on, browser open, I immediately went to Ultrasignup and registered for the 2019 BFC lottery.

This dog just isn’t content to stay on the porch, or this thoroughbred in the barn.

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Obligatory Croix with Yellow Gate photo. I’m grateful for Mike Dobies’ friendship. Photo credit Terry Schimon, whose friendship I also appreciate.

Our Type of Fun: An Issy Alps 50k Trip Report

The Fun Scale, as defined by Kelly Cordes

Type I Fun – true fun, enjoyable while it’s happening.

Type II Fun – fun only in retrospect, hateful while it’s happening.

Type III Fun – not fun at all, not even in retrospect.

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Introduction

It’s 5:10 a.m. My running tights are soaked through, and I haven’t even left the driveway. Torrential rains fall from the sky in theatrical fashion, and, in closing the trunk of my Outback, I send a bucket of pooled water cascading down onto my legs. I own two pairs of tights, and the other pair is packed for use later in the day. Sighing at this characteristically bonehead move, I hop into the car and head toward the Little Si Trailhead to meet Seth and begin our Issy Alps 50k adventure.

A series of interconnected paths has led to this moment. It was during Lap 18 of the 2016 Carkeek 12-Hour race that I first learned the concept of an adventure run. I ran this lap with Dan Sears, who I had just met, and we covered a lot of conversational ground in that short time. He explained that he was more interested in adventure runs with friends these days than in competing at races. They would choose an interesting location, devise a fun route, and just enjoy the experience together. My competitive racing life was still in its infancy–I was a mere 6 hours away from my first win–but the idea of adventure runs captured my imagination all the same. That chance course encounter also resulted in Dan introducing me to Rich White as a potential running partner. Rich would, in turn, introduce me to the Issy Alps Ultras and the Harvey Manning Peak Challenge. These challenges, not quite races but a bit more formal than an adventure run, spoke to me. I was drawn to the prospect of playing in the Cascades, covering a difficult route without the support of aid stations and helpful volunteers. The same factors led me to research the Ultra Pedestrian Wilderness Challenges, another great opportunity for adventure in my backyard. Yassine called my attention to the Angel’s to Alpine challenge in Oregon, which stoked my interest in this new (to me) type of ultra.

The Bob Graham Round was the first of this sort of endeavor that I’d heard of, and I was very keen to give it a try. I’d had the great pleasure of doing a recce on the first part of the course early last summer, further fueling my desire to embark on these sorts of adventures. During my BGR recce, I learned that, while most fell runners bring a pacer, navigator, and mule along on their attempts, it is possible to get an official finish as long as you have one other person with you to confirm that you summitted all 42 peaks on the route. Two runners had done so the year prior and had verified each other. The runner who told me this did so with a thinly-veiled tone of disdain in his voice; this wasn’t the proper way to do a Round. All I could think about was how I’d love to meet someone who would happily attempt the BGR with me, foregoing the standard crew and just vouching for each other.

Enter Dr. Wolpin.

In the midst of all these running and peak challenges swirling in the air, the universe also conspired to bring Seth Wolpin into my world. We’d had a brief written exchange in regards to my first story on the Boldly Went podcast, and I’d read some of his trip reports. Knowing of my curiosity about the HMPC, our mutual friend Angel Mathis offered to do some scouting with me and suggested that we invite Seth; “Do you know Seth?” she asked, coyly. “You two should know each other.” Two weeks later, Pablo Cabrera introduced us at the White River 50 finish line. In the correspondence that followed, Seth mentioned being a “Bob Graham geek.” He had my attention. In the following weeks, we bagged some incredible peaks, traversed stunning ridge lines, and bushwhacked to secret alpine lakes (some details of which I recount in this episode of the Boldly Went podcast.) This was the type of guy who’d be there by my side for a BGR attempt, just for fun.

Before long, he had my heart.

That was just over seven months ago, and we’ve enjoyed some pretty spectacular adventures in that time. Two weekends ago, we agreed to start adding more big pushes and micro-adventures into our life. Seth tossed out some ideas for the inaugural weekend: wandering the bluffs and canyons of eastern Washington; modifying Stuke Sowle’s Grand Tiger Traverse into a point-to-point route; or attempting the Issy Alps 50k. He tasked me with doing some research and making the final call. Initially, I was drawn toward bluff running in the east, after seeing a photo posted in the Seattle Mountain Running Group page and longing for sunshine. With the forecast calling for rain over there, though, it seemed to defeat the purpose of heading across the mountains. Better to wait for sun. The Grand Tiger Traverse seemed like a fun option; I ran my first trail half on Grand Ridge and my first post-broken fibula trail race on Tiger, so it would be fun to link up those places that were formative parts of my trail running life. I do doubles and triples on West Tiger 3 pretty regularly, and this would give me a chance to explore other parts of the park. As for the Issy Alps, I wasn’t sure about the prospect of dealing with snow on the climbs and rain all day. After reading lots of trip reports, studying maps, and considering all the options, I began composing an email to Seth. Much to my surprise, I was writing an argument in favor of doing the 50k. It would be more epic than the other adventures; I’d only summitted one of the four peaks; and it would give me the chance to use microspikes for the first time. Plus, I quite fancied the idea of sitting in a hot bath after hours spent in the cold and pouring rain, reflecting on the beauty of a tough challenge. Naturally, he agreed.

We debated whether to formally announce the attempt; we weren’t going to set any records and intended only to have fun. Around 9:00 p.m. on Friday, we decided to make it Facebook official. I joked that we would be going for the SKT, Soggiest Known Time, given the appalling weather forecast for torrential rain and a volatile windstorm. We received some nice well wishes, plus we would now have the eyes of local ultra runners upon us, adding motivation not to bail. We planned to meet at the Little Si Trailhead at 6:00 a.m. in hopes of being ready for a 7:00 a.m. start. After too little sleep, alarms buzzed early.

Peak One: Mailbox / Fun Scale: Type 1

I had never climbed Mailbox. Upon my first arrival in the Pacific Northwest, I learned a lot about the much beloved hiking routes in the area. Mailbox consistently came up as a must-do hike, but friends warned me that it could be pretty scary for someone with the extreme fear of heights that I had. I envisioned a rocky scramble with razor sharp edges, vertigo-inducing cliffs where one bad step would send you plummeting to your death. I imagined a mailbox teetering on a narrow precipice, verging on the abyss. You’re laughing because you know this is far from the reality, but it was the image my mind took away from those early descriptions. Later, as I began proactively confronting my fear of heights, I would avoid Mailbox due to its popularity; I had no use for crowds. I would see it towering above as I made my way to other trails in the area, always thinking that someday I’d get around to it but never feeling pressed to do so. Today, I was happy to have an excuse to finally see it for myself.

After a white-knuckled drive/swim through unbelievable rain, I rolled into the Little Si parking lot where Seth waited patiently. We transferred gear between vehicles then headed over to the Mailbox trailhead. There were very few cars at the lower lot, which is apparently a rarity these days. The ungodly weather probably facilitated that. We took a few minutes to load our packs–both of which Kathleen Egan graciously loaned us. I don’t know the exact model, but they were Ultraspire fastpacks, and they were incredible. Thanks, Kathleen! We opted, perhaps at my insistence, to go self-supported. Seth typically goes unsupported, but in this weather, I felt no shame in having a dry set of clothes and shoes waiting in the car. Plus, we’d be able to travel pretty light up Mailbox. Final preparations in order, we left behind our creature comforts and headed for the trail. It was 7:01 a.m.

The route calls for ascending and descending the Old Trail, which, I’d come to understand, is the best way to experience Mailbox. The WTA description of this route suggests that it’s a soul crushing, relentless climb. Reaching the turn off for the trail, we noted signage warning hikers of the many rescues performed on this route each year. I can see where all of this was coming from, but I soon realized that such descriptions and warnings are for the average hiker. Don’t get me wrong, Mailbox’s Old Trail is a formidable route; it just wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before, and it wasn’t the greatest challenge I’d ever encountered. Things were pretty quiet as we zig-zagged up, switching back and forth. I’m a slow climber and, as my friend Jen says, I’m like a diesel truck: I take a while to get rolling. As such, Seth soon pulled ahead. All the same, I moved with intention, my favorite motto of RFP–relentless forward progress–cycling through my mind. It was too early to get frustrated at myself for not being able to keep up on the climbs.

Eventually, the trail littered with pine needles turned to one covered in a sheet of ice. It was cartoon-slick. In my attempts to avoid slipping, I’d end up getting off trail and more than once had to look for blazes to orient me. Eventually, I caught Seth, only because he’d stopped to put on his microspikes. I’d purchased mine months ago, but this was the first opportunity to try them out. I had no idea what to expect and certainly didn’t anticipate them being so incredibly fun to sport. I charged up the ice sheets with a new velocity. This was awesome! It was a wild sensation to move so sturdily over ground that just moments before threatened to break my neck. The past year has been full of similar new experiences. For the seasoned outdoor adventurer, this is just another mundane detail. For the newly-initiated, the first time you float on ice is a memorable moment. A stupid grin spread across my face.

Two tall figures made their way down the trail, both decked in heavy winter garb and toting large packs. One of them grumbled a greeting of sorts while the other remained silent. Catching Seth at the clearing near the final climb, he told me, “They didn’t summit. Too cold; too windy.” Perhaps that explained their mood. Well, not summitting wasn’t an option here, lest we sought defeat on the first peak. Here, without the shelter of the tree canopy, deeper snow covered the landscape. We worked our way over to the rocky steps leading up. Seth pointed out the wells formed around large rocks and cautioned me to be careful of my footfall to avoid post-holing. As we ascended, I moved in awe of the labor that went into laying the “steps” made of giant boulders along the route. The wind picked up, without the body of trees to break it. The view was the trade off. Despite the rainy, dreary day below, the Issy Alps stood on full display from this vantage point. Many “oh mys” escaped these lips.

How fortunate we are to live in this place. How fortunate we are that this is what Saturday looks like for us.

“There’s the summit,” I hear Seth say. Sure enough, that infamous mailbox came into view. Happily, there were no insane scrambles to reach it. There were a few trinkets inside, plus a pair of ski goggles. Seth thought I should take the goggles, but I’d forgotten to bring something to leave in the box and felt that it would be bad luck to take without giving. Instead, we took in the view and identified neighboring peaks. We were presumably the first people on the summit that day, and we had it entirely to ourselves. The wind continued to build, so we didn’t linger long.

After the easy-ish ascent, I figured the descent would be nothing. I wasn’t prepared for vertigo to smack me in the face, but it came on in a rush as I made my way down. It’s such an odd feeling; it’s the closest sensation I’ve had that replicates the feeling of being in a nightmare. It didn’t last long, but it was intense. Add to that the fierce wind and, now, snow, and conditions were a bit on the treacherous side. Suddenly, my confidence in the security of microspikes flagged, and I was more cautious in my steps. Each wind gust threatened to whisk away my lucky hat, so I held onto it with one hand, poles in the other, trying to keep sight of the path to follow. Seth bounded down the boulders like a damned mountain goat. I gingerly picked my way down like a pig on roller skates.

Soon, other hikers came into view, all looking a little stunned by the deteriorating weather conditions. The one exception was a cute little black Corgi-esque dog that bounded up the boulder steps with a little doggy smile on his face. I couldn’t help but smile back. Seth was out of sight at this time, and I took care to make sure I didn’t get off trail and continue forward at a junction he had pointed out earlier where hikers tend to get off route. Hitting the Old Trail, there was the benefit of tree cover, so the wind gusts and snow subsided. It was time to put the microspikes to a real test and start running down the trail. With a few “yeehaws!” I zoomed over the ice sheets, still amazed at the grip the spikes provide. Running soon became difficult, as the trail was now littered with hikers, mostly in large groups. Many were clearly training for bigger summits, decked out in their mountaineering boots, helmets, and giant packs. It was a bit of a circus, though, and lived up to the vision of Mailbox that had kept me away. It was surprising to see so many hikers on the Old Trail; my assumption was that most people took the new one instead. Several groups stopped me to ask how close they were to the summit, anxiety in their voices and eyes. I’d encourage them that they were close and that the view was worth it, but it also became a bit irritating to be stopped so frequently. Fortunately, Seth paused to pet every dog along the way, which helped me catch up to him. Admittedly, I silently took some pride in the thought that, to these people, summitting Mailbox would be a day’s work, while, to us, it was just the start of the day. That’s not to belittle their achievement by any means; I just took pleasure in knowing that I’d be pushing some of my limits today.

Hitting the gravel road, I ran ahead to get a start on my wardrobe change. We had done Mailbox in 2 hours and 25 minutes; this was one of only 2-3 times that I looked at my watch during our 50k attempt, as I wanted to just take in the experience and not worry about time. Going self-supported was a good call; my hardshell and rain pants were soaked through, which meant my under layers were soaked as well. My shoes and socks were sopping wet, too, and I felt confident that we easily had the SKT in the bag after only the first peak. We both swapped out all clothes. I’m fortunate to have a boyfriend who has stockpiles of gear, as he loaned me an extra hardshell since mine wouldn’t be dry anytime soon. My appearance was rather clown-like, with baggy rain pants and a too-big jacket, but I’ll take comfort over fashion any day. Those dry clothes felt so incredibly lovely. You have no idea how wonderful it is to be in dry clothes until you have been in soggy, squishy clothes for hours in the cold. We loaded up packs and munched on avocado sushi rolls and inari, which tasted sublime despite being at least a day old. We were relatively efficient during this gear swap, eating and changing and packing all at once. Never one to idle the engine, this felt like a time for an exception, and I blasted some heat for a couple minutes to chase off the chill. Our turnaround time was about 20 minutes; not lightning speed, but not bad either. This was our one and only resupply stop, so we made it count, then pressed on.

 

Interlude: Granite Lakes, Sitka Spruce, and CCC Trails / Fun Scale: Type 1

From the Mailbox trailhead, the route leads down the Middle Fork Road a short ways to the Granite Lakes trailhead. We had taken this trail on our first camping trip after having spent six weeks apart. It was early November, and the autumn foliage of the lower trail eventually gave way to a winter wonderland as we neared the lakes. It was absolutely magical to step from one season into another. Not finding a suitable spot to pitch a tent at the lakes, we came down below the snowline and found a gorgeous little spot on a new section of trail leading to a new trailhead. The snowline descended overnight, and giant pillows of snow plopped down onto the tent, waking us with a jolt at what sounded like someone lobbing snowballs at us.

It was nice to return to this little trail, which seems to be underused and underappreciated. Once an old logging road, now a narrower track that edges along a steep hillside with beautiful exposed rock walls along the way, Granite Lakes trail is a runnable, pleasant respite from the big climbs of the route. The trail becomes a sort of ledge that hugs those rock walls and steep, tree-lined drops, and we wondered if the original road had been blasted out. It seemed too perfectly sculpted to be natural, but the blasting would have taken quite some amount of labor. The answer remains a mystery to us. Reaching the junction, we turned down the new trail. We paused briefly to say hello to that great campsite, then bolted down the hill. It’s a buttery, cushy trail meant for cruising. It was pretty slick, though, and Seth had some spectacular wipe outs as we descended, sending us into fits of laughter. Reaching the new parking lot, he was stunned at its appearance. Only a year before, there was nothing of the sort here. Seth opined the days of having the Middle Fork to himself. We weighed the pros and cons of making the wild more accessible, but failed to arrive at a satisfying answer to that question.

Hitting the road, we crossed the bridge over the Middle Fork, where we saw rafters dropping catamarans into the river. Noting that it would be fun to return in warmer weather for a pack raft trip, we continued to the hidden trail on the other side, where we would drop down to meet the Sitka Spruce trail. Seth had pointed out this spot on numerous occasions before while driving past, as it can be easy to miss. Somehow, we lost sight of each other here, Seth going under the bridge to look at the river, me continuing onward. As the trail forked, I stopped, not seeing him in either direction. I let out some yips, but heard nothing in response. Choosing the wrong fork (naturally), I continued down a deer trail but sensed something was off. Backtracking, we reconnected, and then scouted for a good place to cross a feeder creek. Apparently, there once had been a great big log bridge, but someone had, for some unknown reason, recently sawed it away. No other options presented themselves, so into the water we went. Seth opted to go in with shoes on. For me, it was far too early to get my feet wet, so I chose to take off shoes and socks, and then roll up my tights above the knee. The creek was cold but not too wide, and we forded soon enough.

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Fording the feeder creek. PC Seth Wolpin.

The Sitka Spruce trail was my favorite section of the entire route. You move through a lush, fern-sprinkled landscape, punctuated by small creeks and lined with its namesake tree. Spring flowers were emerging, and the trail treated us to the colors of salmon berry flowers, skunk cabbage, and trilium. The trail is easy to follow but clearly does not see many hikers. It gives you the sense of stumbling into your own secret forest. Seth suggested that the greenery was the very definition of verdant. The trail soon climbs to a ridge, and the spruce needles cushion the path like a carpet. Words fail me in this moment to convey the wonder of this ridgeline. Traversing its spine, we felt completely immersed in a green world of our own, far from the hordes on Mailbox. All too soon, it delivers you onto the CCC road. Farewell for now, Sitka Spruce Trail. Seth took a moment to point out the trail to Green Mountain, which we would have to save for another day.

The CCC road is a flat gravel stretch that we should have been running. It was too early for walking; perhaps we had been lulled by the serenity of the Sitka Spruce into a walking slumber of sorts. I wanted to pick up the pace, but before the suggestion could leave my lips, Seth confessed that he was always tempted to walk flat sections like this. I suggested that we at least make good use of the time and eat our sandwiches while walking. That accomplished, and out of excuses, we chose a landmark tree stump in the distance and agreed to start running there. Having stiffened up a bit, it began more like a shuffle than a run, but finally our legs were moving at a respectable speed. As the CCC dipped downhill, my pace quickened, leaving Seth behind. It felt good to open up the legs and compensate for walking the flat section above. Not wanting to outpace him by too much, I slowed to a walk until Seth came into sight, and we stopped at the private sculpture garden he’d mentioned earlier. Not long after that, we reached the Teneriffe trailhead. Anticipating the climb to come, we had a quick snack, then were off to bag Peak 2.

Peak Two: Teneriffe / Fun Scale: Type 1

Teneriffe made me nervous, and I was anxious to get past it. My main goal with the entire trip was to be safely off Teneriffe before dark. I’d read a recent trip report that spoke of potentially fatal conditions on top, leading me to imagine a razor’s edge ridge covered in slick snow and ice, promising to send me plummeting to the beyond with one wrong step. Last summer, a hiker fell 100 feet off Teneriffe and wandered lost in the wild for several days. As I would learn soon enough, my imagination ran a bit wild in its expectations, but at the time, it loomed as a formidable challenge.

Several people were finishing up their hike for the day as we headed out. I soon pulled ahead of Seth, running what I could. The trail eventually forks; our route went right, up the Teneriffe Falls Trail (also known by the less culturally sensitive name, the Kamikaze Falls Trail.) We passed a few groups coming down from the falls, some warning of the slick rock ahead. We passed a couple with a cute little dog; they were the last humans we’d see the rest of the trip.

I miraculously kept the lead, pressing forward with a sense of urgency. I paused below the falls, which we could hear above. We debated getting water here, but decided to wait until reaching the falls proper. Mistake. At the foot of the impressive falls, which cascade in spectacular fashion from far above, we paused to admire its beauty and majesty. We also refilled our water bottles and were thoroughly drenched by the misty spray as a result.

From here, the route picks up a boot track, which grows steeper by the minute. Seth mentioned that upon reaching the ridge, we’d find a nice spot for taking a break. Sure enough, cresting the climb, we came to a nice little rocky outcropping. It offered a wind break and comfy seats to enjoy a snack and take in the view. We also used it as an opportunity to prepare for snowy conditions moving forward, adding layers and wrapping our feet in plastic bags. We ate vegan marshmallows and other junk food, sharing with the other the treats we had brought and chatting about this and that. As I finished up, Seth got a head start. I asked, “Where’s the trail?” not seeing anything obvious, but also not seeing many options. “That’s the trail,” he answered, pointing to something that looked more like an absolute vertical incline than a trail. I was afraid of that. Looking at my watch for the second time, I saw that we’d been out for nearly 9 1/2 hours. The thought took my breath away. We were 1/3 of the way through in terms of distance, but still had three summits to go. I’d never expected another 50k to take me longer than it took me to run my first Barkley Fall Classic, but the Issy Alps was going to change that, handily.

This is where the real fun began. Perhaps it’s thanks to my experiences on the Barkley course, but I absolutely love stupidly steep climbs. Maybe it’s because they level the playing field a bit; I’m a slow climber, so naturally I enjoy a climb where I’m not left behind. Coming up right behind Seth, who had a start on me, I joked, “You know it’s rough if I’m on your heels.” He laughed that this climb makes Mailbox look like child’s play; agreed. Again, it wasn’t necessarily the toughest climb I’ve done on a run, but it was a beast all the same, and I loved every inch of it. We soon reached snow, so out came the microspikes. Donning spikes on a steep incline is no easy feat! This pulling on and off of the spikes also slowed us down considerably throughout the adventure, playing a role in our markedly slow pace.

The snow grew deeper as we climbed, and we began to posthole. At times, it seemed best to step in the tracks of climbers who had come before us. At others, that seemed to be a fast track to postholing. We had to avoid tree wells and other similar hazards, and the slow going became a thicker grade of molasses. Despite the challenge, it was fun all the same. As the summit came into view, I saw that my fears had been unfounded. There was safe passage to the top, and only the uncautious would tempt the obvious cornice. We sat on a bit of exposed rock and admired the view while sharing a Twilight bar (the vegan’s answer to a Milky Way, and pretty much my favorite treat on the planet.) We could see where we’d been on Mailbox, and where we were heading, toward Si. We took a look at Green Mountain and its sketchy ridge that the HMPC asks you to traverse. Seth pointed out the different route options for connecting Green to Teneriffe, none of them ideal.

 

For the descent, we would make a sort of triangle and link up with the new trail, which was more like a road than trail. Seth dropped down first, and the pitch appeared incredibly steep from my perspective, making my legs wobble as he quickly disappeared down the slope. There were no other tracks here, and I found it tough to kick in steps. When Seth fell and slid wildly for a moment before catching himself with veggie belay, I froze. Seeing him careen out of control, even only for a moment, reignited those lingering fears. Sensing my hesitation, and seeing my difficulty in kicking steps into the snow, Seth made some for me, being the thoughtful guy that he is. It’s humbling to say, but I was grateful to have him there to do so. I find it difficult to admit when I need help, but humility won the day and I accepted his kindness.

The worst of it over, and none of it nearly as terrifying as I’d anticipated, the trail leveled off a bit, and we made our way down the new trail, heading toward the Talus Loop Trail, which would connect us to Si. The descent was marked by constant sliding, falling on butts, postholing, and lodged poles. The falls were harmless, but caught me off guard,  and I couldn’t help but laugh each time. The postholing was obnoxious more than anything. Under different conditions, this would be a section to bomb down with abandon. The snow made it an entirely different animal. True, our pace was faster than it had been for a while, but already the sun was setting, and we hadn’t even entirely descended from peak two.

 

Nature called at one point, and I sent Seth ahead while I answered. It seems we always separate at important junctures. Wearing so many layers makes even a pee break drag out interminably, and I had to rush to rejoin him. Coming to a T-intersection, I considered the options. Seth had mentioned a higher connector trail over to Mt. Si. My instinct told me that this was that trail, but that it was the higher route used for the HMPC. For the Issy Alps 50k, we needed to descend to the bottom of the mountain before turning over toward Si. Of course, I could have easily consulted the map on Gaia, which was on my phone, but stowed so inconveniently far away in my pack. I could have also listened to my gut, which said, “go left, no doubt about it.” For whatever reason, I did neither, and started up the trail to the right. In my head, it somehow made sense at the time. Fortunately, logic prevailed before too long. Not catching Seth after 5 minutes, I hauled out my phone to see that I had, in fact, chosen the wrong trail. With quickened steps, I retraced my path and flew down the mountain to find him waiting below. It was a good lesson in keeping the map handy and trusting your gut.

Snow marked much of the descent, and daylight waned quickly. Finally reaching solid ground, we removed our microspikes and debated whether to get out headlamps. We wanted to try to make it a bit further without them, but deny the falling darkness as we might, a few minutes later found us stopping yet again in order to pull out the lamps. I was relieved to have the toughest climbs behind us, and to be safely off Teneriffe before dark. As night fell, we met the Talus Loop Trail and began our traverse over to Mt. Si.

Peak Three: Mt. Si / Fun Scale: Type 1, mostly

It’s funny how what should be the easiest parts of a run can sometimes be the most challenging. Perhaps it was due to getting behind in calories–we hadn’t stopped to eat since sharing a candy bar on the summit of Teneriffe–but whatever the cause, my energy flagged on the Talus Loop Trail. As I am wont to do, I had completely minimized the remaining two climbs in my mind. We had bagged the toughest two peaks on the route and had covered more than half the mileage. I had previously climbed Mt. Si, long before my ultra days, and at a respectable pace. Little Si was for people who can’t do Mt. Si, I arrogantly told myself. This might be the beauty of the Issy Alps Ultras: they tempt you to underestimate the difficulty of the route. I was still in this mindset, but my body was gassed. Sometimes holding RFP as a personal motto gets me into trouble; I’m reluctant to stop and eat or rest or look at a map because I just want to go, go, go. I’m not the fastest runner by any stretch, so I make up for it by not taking breaks. Occasionally, it works to my advantage. Sometimes, it comes back to bite me. My sense is that this instance was an example of the latter.

A trail juncture along the way gave us pause. The left descended, while the right ascended. Seth felt sure we go down, but I was inclined to think we went up. Trusting his knowledge of the route, and our shared sense of having to climb all of the peaks essentially from ground zero, we went left. We would go a little ways then check Gaia to see if we’d chosen wisely. Despite the downhill grade, I was moving slowly, so we soon decided to stop for a snack break. The plan was to save the chocolate bars for summits, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and that last Twilight bar was devoured. We also took the opportunity to check our route decision. Good thing, because we were off course. Back up the hill we went. Fortunately, we discovered our mistake before getting too far down the trail, but the mistake did seem to zap some energy out of us, not from the added mileage but from a mental perspective. It was dark and getting cold. We were tired. Bonus miles were less welcome at this stage. Retracing our steps to the juncture, we happened upon several salamanders. It was wild to see them winding down the trail, their bright red skin shining in the artificial light.

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There’s a salamander in there, somewhere. PC Seth Wolpin

The sugar must not have kicked in, as I continued to lag behind after regaining the route. Seth pulled ahead and disappeared around winding bends, leaving me to focus on my slow pace. This is the exact moment when you don’t want to be in your head, that moment when you linger on your weaknesses and criticize yourself for not being stronger. I was angry with myself for being slow and feeling sluggish. I chided myself for not training hard enough. I cursed my concussion and slow recovery. The Fun Scale dipped dangerously close to Type 2.

Before things could completely spiral in my mind, we met the Mt. Si trail. Something about this landmark gave me a jolt, and, suddenly, I was renewed. I found my ultra legs and characteristically upbeat perspective, moving up the climb with a new sense of urgency and glee. Seth fell behind, which is quite the role reversal for an ascent. For once, I was the one who got to stop for a breather to let him catch up. This gave me a mental boost, and once again this adventure was firmly rooted in Type 1 fun. Casually leaning up against a log railing on a switchback, I smiled as Seth strolled over. “We need a real break,” he said. He was right; we’d been pushing through and breaking only long enough to split a Twilight bar. We stopped and raided his gourmet vegan cheese stash, spreading it on table water crackers. Doesn’t everyone carry table water crackers and gourmet vegan cheese on their outdoor adventures? We sure do, which is just another reason why I love adventuring with this guy. We have a shared vision for ultra snacking.

Cheese devoured, onward we went. Once again, I pulled ahead, admittedly loving it. Hey, maybe I can only climb faster than Seth Wolpin once he’s worn out and doesn’t get enough breaks, but you have to take the small victories when you can. It was also nice to be on a familiar trail, and I reflected back to my previous trip up Mt. Si. After reading Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, I was excited to try Mt. Si for myself and aspired to do a double or even a triple. At the time, I hadn’t yet run an ultra. I researched the FKTs and set a goal for myself. In recounting the story to Seth, I remembered my goal being something like 53 minutes and that I achieved it (but this was ultra brain talking and I’m pretty confident there’s no way I got up it in that time. Maybe it was just over an hour.) I also went on and on about how if I could do the Haystack, anyone could. I recalled being a little nervous scrambling up, but I’d done it, and now I could look up at the Haystack whenever I drove down I-90 and know that I had been up there. Imagine my surprise when, upon reaching what I thought was the summit of Mt. Si, Seth continued walking past the “haystack.” My haystack, it turns out, was just a little rocky outcropping, and the summit lay beyond it. This would then, technically speaking, be my first actual summit of Mt. Si. There was no other option but to laugh at myself.

It was dark, windy, cold, and rainy. You know, typical PNW early spring. We trotted over to the summit and looked down on North Bend, its lights twinkling through the mist below. It was wild to be atop one of the most popular mountains in the area with no one else around.  A few city sounds made their way within ear shot, but mostly the wind and rain provided the only audible backdrop. It struck me in that moment that climbing these popular routes in the middle of the night might just be the best way to experience them. We were, in all probability, the only humans out on the trails in that area at this time. There’s something quite cool about that, about knowing that in the morning, once again the masses will make pilgrimages to these hiking icons of the northwest, none of them even imagining that two crazy runners were up there in the wee hours of the morning, edging toward the summit one cheese cracker at a time. We then moved toward the Haystack. Despite the darkness, you could see its outline in the night and feel its presence looming above you. It was spooky and awe inspiring all at once. The true sublime. I felt like it was watching us, which unsettled me a bit. I definitely had not climbed this thing! Someday I’ll come back for it, but the route didn’t demand the scramble, so we pressed forward.

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Mount Si (maybe; or maybe Little Si). North Bend below. Note the laser beams/rain drops. PC Seth Wolpin.

Snow was patchier on Mt. Si, probably thanks in part to the many visitors it sees year round who tramp down a trail. We hadn’t needed the spikes for much of it, and it was a relief to be done with them at this point. The descent follows the Old Trail, and we had wisely taken note of the juncture on the way up so as not to miss it coming down. We hit the mark right on cue this time. While it has some steep and technical components, the Old Si trail has many runnable sections. Seth caught his own second wind and barreled down. The previous descents caught up with me, and my knees were wrecked at this point. Each footfall sent pain shooting through both knees, albeit the left knee is always more sensitive. It took some teeth gritting and will power to push on at a run. It’s rare that I experience pain on long runs and races, so this definitely registered. Fortunately, the thrill of being on Si in the middle of the night, coupled with the fun of the Old Trail and knowing we had one summit to go, helped propel me past the discomfort and cruise (so it seemed) to the finish. Despite the physical challenges, my heart was open and joyful, filled with gratitude to be capable of such an experience. I let out “Yip Yips!” and “Yeehaws” along the way.

Then we got to Little Si, and I promptly fell apart.

Peak Four: Little Si / Fun Scale: Type 2

Hubris is a bitch. My arrogance in minimizing the difficulty of Little Si–even the name suggests it’s a negligent climb!–bit me in the rear. On its own, of course, it isn’t a particularly challenging trail. At the end of an incredibly tough 50k, it’s another matter. A sign post at the trail juncture said that it was 1.4 miles to the summit. 1.4 miles. That’s nothing! That’s not even a warm up! But those 1.4 miles out to the summit were eternity personified. The rain continued to gain momentum as puddles formed along the trail. There was little talking at this stage; I had gone silent. In an incredibly rare move, I put my head down, determined to just grind out the final miles. It’s my nature to always find joy in running. Even in the most challenging situations on a course, I’m still smiling and grateful and happy. This was a new side to me; this was the me who wanted to just finish this thing. It wasn’t quite the soul crushing experience of the final 5 miles of Bryce 100 (the only other time I’ve felt this mentally crushed on a course) but it was close. Seth mentioned that Doug McKeever had sent us some words of encouragement. “I’ll read them to you on the summit,” he offered as a carrot. It was what I needed. There were no “Doug signs” on the course, but at least I would soon hear welcome sentiments of support.

The trail winds around the summit, so you essentially travel past it and around to the far side before climbing. Something about that made the experience all the more difficult, the trail teasing and taunting you as it slowly wraps around and around. As the climb began, the technical nature of the trail caught me off guard. Gnarly rocky and rooty sections marked the route. The rain, now pouring, sent rivulets cascading down, making the rocks all the more slippery. My legs wobbled wildly, and a fatigue set in that turned me into a walking zombie. Everything hurt. I couldn’t say that I was having fun. “One point four miles my ass!” I exclaimed. Onward I trudged, literally encapsulating the very definition of the word. After eons, we reached the summit. Modest celebrations ensued. Seth read Doug’s messages, which made me smile and provided a much needed lift. Of all the positive mottoes, my favorite was the one borrowed from the great Dr. Horton: “It doesn’t always get worse.” Indeed! Thanks, Doug! You have no idea how your kind words helped me keep moving forward.

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Still managed a smile! Little Si summit. PC Seth Wolpin.

Jelly legs and brain exhaustion made for a tricky descent. Despite being less than 2 miles from the trailhead, I needed a quick break to refuel. We munched a quick snack as Seth observed, “If we push, we can finish in under 20 hours.” How incredible that a sub-20 50k finish was something we’d have to work for! That goal, ridiculous as it may seem, spurred me on. The trip down felt treacherous. The snack had helped calm the wobbly legs, but my fatigue was nearly debilitating. It had recently become clear to me that I still have some fear of falling on the trail to overcome, fueled by the knowledge that a fall could be disastrous for someone recovering from a TBI. All of these factors compounded and led me to run down the slippery trail much slower than I would have liked. The clock tick-tocked away, the 20-hour mark nearing ever so quickly. As the trail flattened out a bit, I mustered every bit of energy left, but there was not much left to give. Head down, teeth gritted, I pushed as hard as humanly possible yet moved at a pathetic pace. No longer caring about dry feet, I plowed straight through giant puddles, shoes soaked.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

At the trail juncture, the sign post read 0.3 miles to the parking lot. We laughed maniacally, relieved that we had it in the bag, but that 0.3 miles dragged on and on, and soon it was no laughing matter. Pushing through everything, I managed a jog hobble, questioning out loud the accuracy of the trail signage, cursing whomever measured the distance. Just when I began to think that I was in some Twilight Zone time warp, the glow of streetlamps came into view, and the Little Si parking lot appeared. We ran over to Seth’s truck and tapped it with joy.

After nineteen hours and 54 minutes, we had successfully completed the Issy Alps 50k. It was 2:55 a.m.

Afterword

We laughed giddily on the drive over to the Mailbox trailhead to retrieve my car, heat blasting, chocolate bars procured, dry clothes enveloping us. I explained the Fun Scale to Seth and said that everything had been Type 1 fun for me, except for Little Si. Even then, it had already become fun with a little distance. All it took was being warm and dry and sufficiently sated with chocolate, and already I saw the grind of Little Si through rose tinted glasses. Pulling up to my car in the now empty lot, we saw an owl just beyond, picking over the dinner he’d just caught. We marveled as he sat and returned our gaze before flying off to munch on his late night repast.

In reflection, I’ve wondered if this race is tougher than the Barkley Fall Classic. They are roughly comparable in distance and elevation gain. My BFC podium finish still took 11 hours, but that pales in comparison to the nearly 20 hours spent on the Issy Alps course. Both have unique challenges that make them difficult, so perhaps it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Whatever way you slice it, both courses appeal to me because they don’t pamper you. They both ask so much of you and, as such, have so much to give in return. As the HURT 100 saying goes, “We wouldn’t want it to be easy.” You don’t stand to learn much from the easy path.

The experience solidified a few things for me. First, it confirmed my sense that adventure runs have an appeal that organized races lack. There are no volunteers there to baby you; no course markings; no cut offs to chase, or to push you. You might go for an FKT, but often it’s really about the finish. They take you off the beaten track and provide character building experiences. I find myself struggling now with a desire to abandon organized racing and turn my full attention toward wild runs. I’m torn in two directions, part of me craving the thrill of competition, part of me longing for the personal satisfaction gained from the less traveled, unmarked route. I want to have my cake and eat it, too. I want to do both, but I wonder if it’s possible to train competitively and embark on crazy adventures. I suspect that an answer will be found in the months to come.

The Issy Alps 50k also serves as further evidence that I have, in fact, found true love. True love for adventures on the trails, yes, but also in the person of one Seth Wolpin. Sometimes, I think back to something an old boyfriend said to me years ago: “If you want to go hiking, then you need to go make a friend.” In other words, it would never happen with him. The trails have called to me in various ways over the years, and, save my horse Whisper, I’ve never had a trusty trail partner. I’ve enjoyed solo runs through the mountains, and I’ve shared happy trail miles with friends, but part of me longed for a partner who shared a similar drive to test limits and push boundaries. Someone who would put in big miles, and love every minute of it. Someone who would rate spending 20 hours on trails in the cold, wind, and rain as Type 1 fun. Someone who would do a Round or adventure run or informal ultra simply because we could, and not for any public approval or recognition. Someone who would run with me for the sheer love of it, and for love of the exhaustion and aching and adrenaline and contentment that come wrapped up in big pushes. As much as I appreciate solo experiences and alone time on the trails, I can’t help but return to the revelation that resonated so strongly with Christopher McCandless at the end of his life: “Happiness only real when shared.” It gives me such great pleasure to be out on an adventure, and to look over and see this man by my side.

Perhaps, in the end, this is less of a trip report, and more of an open love letter to the incomparable Seth Wolpin. I raise a local IPA (which you have taught me to appreciate) to the incredible adventures we’ve shared thus far, and to all the wild and wonderful and possibly ill-advised journeys yet to come.

 

 

 

Mulligan: An Orcas Island 100 Race Report

Mulligan (noun): A second chance to perform an action, usually after the first chance went wrong through bad luck or a blunder. –Wikipedia

Introduction: Hotdogging

At 6:30 a.m. an alarm is ringing. I am laying in the back of a truck parked at Camp Moran on Orcas Island, long since awake, a single question looping through my mind: “What the fuck am I doing?”

The Orcas Island 100 Miler will begin in 90 minutes, and I’m supposed to toe the start line. I’m fairly certain that this is a terrible idea. There’s no way I can finish, and in this moment I’m not altogether convinced that I even want to try. Much to my chagrin, a spontaneous and last minute insurance policy kicks in–I gave my students the link to my Delorme map share so that they could follow my progress–and it forces me to silence the loop, emerge from the warm coziness of the sleeping bag, and begin my pre-race rituals.

This race had called to me during its inaugural year in 2016. I was drawn to its beauty, old school vibe, and challenging nature. The Project Talaria documentary of that first race, paired with Glenn Tachiyama’s gorgeous photos of runners in action out there, fueled my interest. Running the Orcas Island 50k in 2017 sealed the deal. When registration for the 2018 100 mile race opened, I entered immediately and am willing to bet that I was the very first person to do so. Glenn said, “Ellen, this course was made for you!” Yassine expressed a similar sentiment. I hadn’t even run my first 100-miler yet, but I knew that I would love running that distance, and this particular course was both a stunner and a beast. Yes, please! The race involves four 25.2 mile loops around Moran State Park on Orcas Island and has 26,000 feet of vertical elevation gain and loss. Some runners find loop races boring, but, for me, they put me into a meditative state and create a sort of rhythm. I like making landmarks along the way, too; sometimes by the end of loop races, I also start talking to them.

Things derailed in September when I fell during the Barkley Fall Classic, hitting my head on a rock and sustaining a concussion. The injury was worse than I imagined and kept me from running for the next three months. As a result, I lost my fitness and was essentially starting over once my TBI doctor gave the green light to resume life as usual. I knew that he was the doctor for me because he didn’t flinch when I asked about running a 100-miler in February: “Go for it,” he encouraged. I wasn’t sure, though, how possible it would be. In December, I showed up for the Deception Pass 50k with no real training miles on my legs and hotdogged my way through it. If it wasn’t for Seth dragging my butt around that course, I might not have made it. It was incredible to me to hurt that badly during a 50k. It was humbling and humiliating, frustrating beyond belief to be that out of shape. Still, I finished.

A couple of weeks of travel in December and January didn’t help matters, as there was no time for running. I went into the Capital Peak Mega Fat Ass 55k slightly more prepared, but still shuffled across the finish line at the back of the pack.

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Capitol Peak Mega Fat Ass 55k. Photo by Seth Wolpin

Serious doubts had set in. Out on a run with my friend Jennifer, I confessed that I wasn’t sure if starting Orcas was a good idea. My first hundred miler had been such a complete disaster. Coming into the second one unprepared could result in failure, which would only further crush my confidence. I needed a do-over, not a do-worse. Giving up my bib started looking like the smart option. Of course, choosing the smart option isn’t in my nature. I knew that I could handle the mental component of running Orcas; that wasn’t a concern. It was the physical aspect that troubled me. I convinced myself, and Yassine, that I would be willing to call it mid-race if things got bad. It’s unclear whether either of us believed that, but a DNF was a real possibility given my circumstances. In the end, I decided it was worth the risk. A couple of solid runs in the week leading up to the race provided some much needed confidence, enough to trick me into feeling like I might just be able to hotdog my way through this race.

In our pre-race talk, Yassine sensed my doubts and told me to stop playing the “I’m so out of shape” loop through my head. It was time for a new mantra. His words, as per usual, snapped me out of it, but by race morning, the loop had devolved back into negativity. In that impulsive moment of giving my students the map share link, I hadn’t actually thought I would need the push. In the end, I might not have gotten out of that truck without it. Having Yassine there saved me, too. Each time that I voiced some form of doubt, he would redirect my thoughts without even acknowledging the negative worry I had expressed. “Hey, look, you’re lucky number 7!” “You’re gonna be great! You’ll have the biggest cheering section at Cascade Lake!” “It’s a beautiful course; you’re gonna love being out on those trails! I wish I could be out there!” He chipped away at my doubting outlook, but, sensing it might  require something more, he stole off to put on his aid station attire: an orca costume. How can you not smile at a guy dancing and laughing at the start line while wearing an orca outfit? Yassine’s positive energy was infectious, and at last a new mindset took hold. I could do this. Seth held my hand as the RD, James Varner, counted down to the start; we enjoyed a sweet little kiss, then were off.

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Getting ready to run. Trust me, I’m more excited, and awake, than this photo suggests. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

Lap 1: Getting Acquainted

Start Line to Mountain Lake (Mile 0 to Mile 4.7)

The course opens with a climb up the Mt. Constitution Road. It’s a paved series of lazy switchbacks, the occasional view of the San Juan Islands peeking out around a curve. We began running at an easy pace, slowly moving up through the field. I had left behind all the negativity and self doubt and found the sense of joy that usually guides me through races. The morning was crisp, there was no sign of rain, and the runners projected good energy into the air around us. As the climb became steeper, I felt myself slowing. Seth and I had agreed to run our own races, so after three attempts at kissing goodbye while running, we parted ways. I watched as he made his way up through the pack and tried to keep up as much as possible, moving back and forth between a power hike and slow run. As my hero, Van Phan, passed me, she said, “So he dropped you, huh?” I confidently replied, “Oh, I’ll catch him on the downhills. I’m not worried about that.” Joke was on me; I wouldn’t see Seth again for hours.

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View from Mt. Constitution Road. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

Along the way, I chatted with other runners, everyone in good spirits. I liked that this was a small field, as it gave the race a more intimate feel. I had lost sight of Seth but was happy to know he was pushing himself. Finally, the Little Summit trailhead came into view, and we started down the first descent. It’s a fun downhill of winding single-track but can be a little gnarly in places, with rocks and roots and creek crossings. Caught in a cluster of runners, my anxiety spiked as I was on the heels of the runner ahead of me and felt at any moment my own heels would be clipped by the runner behind. We bombed down quite quickly, fortunately without incident. Before long, we reached the Mountain Lake Aid Station. I quickly checked in with my bib number and kept going.

Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 4.7 to Mile 10)

This section is quite runnable as it meanders along the edge of Mountain Lake before rolling over to the Twin Lakes. I passed quite a few runners who were power hiking, my plan being to cover as much ground as possible during the daylight. I wouldn’t push too hard, knowing there were many miles to go, but I did want to get as far as possible into Lap 2 before the sun set. I took note of a particularly boggy section crossed gingerly on slippery, questionable logs; “this will be interesting come lap 4,” I offered as neighboring runners laughed uncomfortably. Reaching the Twin Lakes, the trail diverges toward the second climb, Mt. Pickett. This is one of the most beautiful stretches of the course; the forest opens up, letting streams of sunlight filter in, and it’s carpeted in bright, spring green moss. It’s also the easiest climb. Nevertheless, I’m a slow climber, so runners passed me on the ups, as I leap frogged them on the occasional downhill parts. Some of the climbs felt runnable, so I slid between a slow run and power hike, picking up speed on the descents. After summiting Mt. Pickett, a double-track trail winds down to the aid station. This provided a welcome opportunity to pick up speed. As I sped past a runner who had leap frogged with me throughout this section, I assured her, “You’ll pass me on the next climb!” Reaching the Mt. Pickett aid station, I grabbed a pb & j and kept moving. The captain, Doug McKeever, told me he was a fellow Tacoman and sent me off with good wishes.

Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 10 – Mile 14.1)

This section is also quite fun and very runnable. It’s a little rolly with some gradual downhill sections and few climbs. I left the aid station with a small group, and we made good time, cruising past the south end of Mountain Lake and then following a stream that wound its way down to a waterfall. Glenn Tachiyama was waiting at the bottom, capturing a great shot of runners in action with the waterfall serving as a cascading backdrop. It was just such an image that led me to this race, and now here I was, the one in front of the lens.

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Feeling strong on Lap 1. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

I was surprised not to have caught Seth by this point, having assumed that I’d out pace him on the flats and downs. At the same time, I was excited that he was having a good race and felt a sort of pride in the fact that I hadn’t been able to catch him. Glenn provided photographic evidence that Seth looked pretty incredible as he passed by before me:

Seth Chasing Waterfalls

Look at the back kick on this guy! Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

After some more rolling terrain accompanied by the rushing stream, Cascade Lake finally came into view. Yassine would be waiting there at the aid station, and this knowledge gave me a boost that picked up my pace on the stretch of road that hugged the edge of the lake. I rolled in feeling happy and strong, and Yassine, true to form, was yelling my name and cheering like crazy. There was something incredibly reassuring about having my coach there at this race; I would pass him four times over the course of the event, and on each loop I told myself, “Just get to Yassine.” He noted how strong I looked coming in, and I admitted to feeling great. A volunteer had made some delicious vegan energy balls, which I devoured as Yassine filled my water. Seeing another runner grabbing a beer, Yassine joked, “Hey, do you want to chug a Tecate like that guy?” I laughed and, raiding the fruit bowl, replied “I think I’ll just stick with this banana.” Yassine guessed that I was only 10 minutes behind Seth, so with my coach’s words of encouragement fresh in my ears, I left with a sense of urgency, knowing the climbs to come would widen that gap.

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I wouldn’t want anyone else for a coach. Photo of Yassine Diboun in Orca costume by Seth Wolpin.

 

Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 14.1 to Mile 19.9)

Last year, during the Orcas 50k, I found the Power Line climb to be a fun challenge. It’s relentlessly steep, but I’ve climbed worse, so I initially looked forward to it. As I chugged up it this time, I tried not to linger on the fact that this was the first of four ascents I would make up it in the next 30+ hours. Hands on knees, one foot in front of the other, I made slow progress up the beast. A runner who I had met earlier, Jason, caught me, and we climbed and chatted, which made the time pass more quickly. The woman I had passed on the downhill caught up, too. I laughed that I had told both of these runners that they would catch me on the next climb and joked, “I need to stop saying that to people.” We all exchanged names, and she tried to commit ours to memory. I joked, “By Lap 4, we’ll probably just make up names for each other.” She forced a laugh, and I asked how she was doing. She sighed and said, “I’m just trying to take it a step at a time.” Jason and I both encouraged her (Jennifer) to take it aid station to aid station. She thanked us and moved out of sight. I didn’t see her again, but looking at the results, it looks like she finished ahead of me, so way to go Jennifer! Jason and I would be roughly in the same vicinity throughout the rest of the race.

As we finished Power Line, the course turns left onto a delightfully downhill single-track trail that contours through the forest along the side of a hill. It’s probably my favorite part of the course. After such a tough climb, you’re rewarded with a beautiful stretch and can let gravity do the heavy lifting for a while. I fell in behind a runner named Mike, and we both let out a few Yeehaws along this section, taking pleasure in the trail itself. Eventually he pulled aside and asked me to lead; he didn’t want to go too fast. I had intentionally not passed him for the very same reason, but went ahead and took the lead. “Yeehaw!”

All good things must inevitably come to an end, I suppose, and the contour trail soon deposited us at the foot of Mt. Constitution. Mike soon dropped me, and other runners overtook me as well. This is an endless source of frustration, but I refused to focus on my deficiencies as a climber and committed to pushing up the switchbacks as quickly as was possible. A runner fell in behind me, and we puffed up and back, up and back, until we heard cowbells and cheering in the distance. “That sounds promising,” I offered. “Yeah.” Sure enough, the Team Seven Hills aid station was just ahead. I grabbed a quick nibble of food and scanned the crowd for my friend Sudheer, who had said he’d be there. Disappointed not to see him, I checked out and headed toward the Tower.

After having just completed the two most difficult climbs on the course, runners have the option to climb a bit more. By making your way to the top of the Lookout Tower on each lap, you gain entry to The Tower Club. Of course I would attempt to join this elite company! In a room at the top, the race directors had placed a hole punch, which runners used to mark their bibs in a designated spot. Someone had also placed an “Easy” button. As I punch my bib, someone tapped the button, which led a mechanical voice to declare, “That was easy.” With a chuckle, we spiraled down the stairs back to the course and the final descent.

Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 19.9 to Mile 25.2)

The Power Line and Constitution climbs had taken a lot out of me, but the next five miles were mostly downhill, so it was time to put my running legs on and cover some ground. Winding down the edge of Mt. Constitution can offer expansive views of the Cascades and San Juans, but there was a lot of cloud cover, and the winds were picking up. I passed Glenn for the third time and thanked him for braving the gusts just so that we runners could have the perfect photo backdrop.

Orcas 100 Mt. Constitution

Happy to have those climbs behind me–for now. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

In my memory, this section was an interminable series of switchbacks. I recalled Van Phan mentioning in the documentary that she counted 36 switchbacks on the descent. While I love downhill running, I tend to get a little bored on switchbacks. To my surprise, there was more to this section, with some small climbs, flat and muddy parts, and some rocky technical sections. It was much slower going than I had anticipated, and it’s not until further down that the trail reaches a higher “butter factor” and becomes easier to run. On the descent, I thought to myself, “In 24 hours or so, hopefully I’ll be coming down this for the final time.” It would be longer than that, but it was a wild thought to consider: What a crazy endeavor we’d all set out to accomplish.

The trail finally morphs into a fir-needle cushioned path with few obstacles and longer stretches before turns. You hear water flowing and know this must mean you’re inching closer to a lower elevation. Near the bottom, there’s a hair-pin turn punctuated by an enormous old tree. It’s such a grand old soul, that I couldn’t help but stop to hug it and say “Hello, Old Tree.” It would become for me the beacon assuring me that the lap was coming to a close. Soon thereafter, Cascade Lake came into view. The trail jogs left there and leads to two last climbs, the second of which another runner appropriately dubbed “Power Line Jr.” It felt a little cruel to have these climbs stand between you and the end of the lap, but I guess none of us signed up for this because we thought it was an easy course. The last push behind me, I rolled down into Camp Moran, the first of four laps in the books in a time of 5 hours and 57 minutes.

Stepping into the lodge was an incredible experience. Volunteers flanked me within seconds of crossing the threshold. One took my pack to refill. Another noticed that my fingers were swollen and assessed that I needed electrolytes. In many ways, the volunteers treated me like a helpless child, and I say this in the most positive sense. Trail running can be mentally exhausting, and sometimes you need someone to take charge and do the thinking for you. As one volunteer brought me a glass full of pickle juice, another said, “Now, I want you to just chug that. Hold your nose and drink it all.” Yes, ma’am. It was both delicious and disgusting at the same time. Another volunteer snagged me a piece of vegan pizza while another swooped in to grab my drop bag. Bringing it over, he said, “This was laying on top of your bag.” It was the chocolate bar that I had given Seth. An enormous smile spread across my face. We weren’t running together, but we were thinking of each other. I took a square of chocolate and felt a warm glow inside.

The day had grown surprisingly warm on the first lap, so I opted to change out of my sweaty clothes, knowing they would bring on a chill as the day cooled. A volunteer helped with this as well, given my fat fingers were incapable of doing anything productive. I touched my socks, debating whether to swap them out. The volunteer said, “Just change them. Do it.” He pulled over a chair and started taking off my shoes and socks. My feet were dirty and sweaty, but this guy didn’t bat an eye. The moleskin had fallen off, so he grabbed some athletic tape and doctored my disgusting feet. It was incredible. I told the volunteer that he was a saint, and he asked if I could put that in writing for his wife. That tape stayed on my feet for the duration of the race and prevented any blisters from emerging. Thank you, Saint Volunteer!

It’s dangerously easy to get lulled into comfort here, and it soon occurred to me that I had stayed too long. Throughout Lap 1, I had either not stopped at aid stations, or had limited myself to 2 minutes. I had been at Camp Moran for nearly 15 minutes. While the food and self-care were all necessary, it was too long, and I needed to get moving before I stiffened up. It was a game of chasing daylight, now. I asked the volunteer to put the chocolate bar back on Seth’s bag. He handed me a Sharpie and instructed, “Leave a little note. It will pick him up when he needs it.” A few hearts was the best I could do before heading out the door.

Lap 2: Chasing Daylight

Camp Moran to Mountain Lake (Mile 25.2 to Mile 29.9)

Back up the Mt. Constitution Rd. I went, mostly hiking this time around, but doing so with a sense of urgency in my stride. I chatted intermittently with runners as they zoomed past, but I was finding myself alone for much of the time on this course. I like it this way, having occasional company interspersed with long stretches of welcome solitude. Often I get a snippet of song or a mantra that loops through my mind. For this race, the last line in the refrain of the Birds of Chicago song “Remember Wild Horses” was on repeat: “You’re just rememberin’ wild horses is all”–over, and over, and over, for nearly the entire race. It’s the closing song in the Orcas Island 100 documentary, which explains why my brain chose it. Why it lingered on one line for 30+ hours, I can’t explain.

As I neared the top of the climb, the Delorme started beeping like crazy. I pulled it out and saw that a number of people, mostly my students, had sent thoughtful words of encouragement. Some made me laugh out loud; some made me smile; all were most welcome. That positive energy gave me a lift, and when I reached the Little Summit trailhead for the second time that day, I moved down it with intention and an extra spring in my step. My legs were a bit stiff, so this downhill was slower going the second time around. Given my talent for rolling ankles, I went a bit more conservatively, knowing I was getting tired. I don’t recall even seeing another runner until I hit the Mountain Lake aid station, where I was greeted with avocado sushi rolls and mango and sticky rice balls. In that moment, they won the Best Aid Station Food award. I tried not to be greedy and resisted the temptation to just bury my face in the plate and eat every last bite. Thanking the volunteers, I pulled myself away from the goodies and headed down the trail.

Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 29.9 to Mile 35.2)

It took a little more mental prodding to run parts of this section that I had blown through on the first lap. Gentle inclines felt a bit steeper on round two, but I knew that run them I must. It was a slower pace, but I pushed myself, always conscious of the waning light. I heard two runners quickly closing in behind me, and they soon breezed past with ease. Exasperated by their fleetness, I forced a smile and hello. How demoralizing. “Hey there! We’re the Safety Sweepers. Just making sure everyone’s ok. How are you?” Laughing, I replied, “Happy to know you’re not looking that fresh at mile 30!” They laughed then floated away on those fresh legs.

I don’t remember much else from this section, other than another runner zooming past me on the descent into Mt. Pickett aid station. I was still at a point of trying to avoid getting my feet wet and remarked that I shouldn’t waste energy on that and instead should embrace the inevitable. He advised me, “No, it’s too early for that!” He was right, so I continued to pick my way down so as to avoid the sloppy mud fest sections. It was slower, but I would be happier running with dry feet. Turns out he was another Safety Sweeper, which took the sting out of the ease with which he dropped me.

Another quick stop to grab food at Mt. Pickett aid station, and I pressed on.

Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 35.2 to Mile 39.3)

My tentative goal had been to make it 55k before needing a headlamp, and I was glad to have achieved that. Twilight fell as I journeyed to Cascade Lake. I don’t remember much about this section, other than that I was losing light and pressing forward, clinging to the waning day. When I hit the road that leads to Cascade Lake aid station, I picked up the pace and once again came in to the sounds of Yassine’s cheers, smiling and still feeling happy and strong. “I knew that was you! I could tell!” he exclaimed.

After telling me how good I was looking, Yassine took a serious tone and said, “Seth’s still here, and he’s not feeling well.” “He’s here?” I was shocked. “Yeah, you need to get him moving.” Looking across the shelter, I saw Seth talking to some runners. It had taken me nearly 40 miles to catch him, and then it was only because he’d waited here for me. We congratulated each other on strong first laps and decided to head out together to face the coming climbs and the falling darkness.

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Dusk at Cascade Lake. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 39.3 to Mile 45.1)

I’d picked up my trekking poles at Cascade Lake, hoping they would help save my legs a bit during the two brutal climbs. I had always felt reluctant to use poles in a race, and this was, in fact, the first time that I had run with them. Perhaps more practice in advance would have been a good idea, as I don’t feel that I was using them effectively or efficiently. Seth and I chatted about our first laps as we made our way up the Power Line then over to the contour trail. Mike caught up to us here, and I commented on us getting to run this section together again. Seth pulled ahead as we wound up the side of Mt. Constitution and waited for me in the comfort of the Team 7 Hills tent at the summit. Sudheer was there this time, and he shared kind words of encouragement. Unable to linger, we made our way over to the Tower, which we both climbed for the second time. “That was easy.”

Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 45.1 to Mile 50.4)

Darkness, coupled with ever more stiffening legs–and, admittedly, some fear of falling–led me to run a bit more conservatively on the descent. I also opted to use my poles, thinking it would add some insurance against a fall. The runner who had followed me up to Constitution on Lap 1 was now behind me on the downhill, and Seth was ahead. I kept insisting that the runner pass me, feeling that I was slowing him down. He, in response, insisted that I wasn’t slowing him down, so the three of us formed a team snaking down the mountain. At some point Jason joined us. There was intermittent conversation, but overall it was a quiet ride down. When we reached the grand old tree near the bottom, which Seth had also mentioned hugging on Lap 1, we all gave it a pat, and the runner behind me said in an appreciative tone, “That’s a big old guy.” As the trail jogged left at the road, I let out a wolf howl in the direction of the Wy’east Wolfpack aid station, taking comfort in the fact that my coach was right across the street. Onward and upwards, we took out the unwelcome last climbs and trotted in to Camp Moran, which I had left 8 hours earlier.

Half the race behind us, there was still a long, cold night to confront. On a whim, I had tossed an old puffy jacket into my drop bag, and it proved to be a wise decision. I donned a winter hat, heavy gloves, multiple layers, a hard shell jacket, and the puffy. Temps were falling below freezing, and the wind gusts were reportedly reaching 24 miles per hour. We would be moving slower and couldn’t rely on producing enough heat to keep warm. I’d been prepared for Lap 3 to be the worst but also determined to go into it with a good mindset, acknowledging it would be tough but not dwelling on it. At Camp Moran, Team Rainshadow’s Colton took care of me, grabbing food and my drop bag, filling my water, and attending to everything I needed. As with the first lap, I was in capable hands and was so grateful for that. Having felt the noticeable difference new socks made on Lap 2, I took an extra minute to put on a fresh pair. We made a quick turnaround and headed out for Lap 3 munching big slices of vegan pizza. Photographer Matt Cecil stopped us on the way out to take our halfway point portrait. I was clearly looking a little rough on the outside, but the smile was genuine. (You can view Matt’s stunning portraits here, and you’ll see one at the end of this report.)

Lap 3:  Night Falls over Orcas

Camp Moran to Mountain Lake (Mile 50.4 to Mile 55.1)

I expected Lap 3 to be my slowest of the 4. It would be dark for its entirety, limiting vision to a tiny orb of light on the trail. Stepping out the door at Camp Moran, the noticeable drop in temperature took us both aback. As we climbed, the winds became a more significant force. I hadn’t expected to feel sleepy, but on this third climb up the Mt. Constitution Road, I felt my eyes grew heavy and a strong desire to lay down for a nap took hold. I was more anxious about a potential fall than I would admit. It took some mental strength to push all of this aside and focus instead on moving forward. Seth is a much faster climber, and I encouraged him to drop me. He refused. I insisted. He pushed back, saying he was worried about me on my own out there at night, since I was coming back from a traumatic brain injury. Runners were more spread out, and if I fell or rolled an ankle, it would be a long time until someone got to me. I began to tense up, stating that I could take care of myself and had, in fact, gotten myself out of worse situations. “I’m not leaving you at night.” “If I was a dude, you would leave me.” “Not if I was dating him.” While I understand now that it came from a good place with the best of intentions, in the moment, it struck me as my boyfriend not believing I was strong enough to do this on my own. In truth, we simply should not trust our words or interpretations at Mile 55.

After a moderately tense and quiet descent, we could smell the campfire at the Mountain Lake aid station. The volunteers offered a most welcome cup of miso soup with tofu. A few runners were huddled around the fire, but I was reluctant to get too cozy. It would make leaving all the more difficult. One runner appeared to be in rough shape, and we came to realize it was Joel Ballezza. It seemed as if his race was over, and we wished him well. The volunteers mentioned that several runners had come in mildly hypothermic.  The thought troubled me, but the puffy was doing its job, and the upcoming flat section offered an opportunity to run and warm up. We left and walked for a few minutes as I drank some soup, then shifted into a shuffle. “Ten easy miles to Yassine,” I reassured myself.

Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 55.1 to Mile 60.4)

Throughout the flat section, we alternated between a power hike and a shuffle. I knew we should have been running most of it, but it was difficult to convince my legs to do anything other than this pathetic shuffle, my feet barely leaving the ground. I was starting to hurt, and your mind tells you that it will hurt less if you shuffle along. The truth is, running probably would have felt better, but good luck convincing your brain of that. We laughed while passing the Twin Lakes, recalling a mnemonic one of us created to remember this location on the course map (I’ll spare you the details, lest you get the false impression that one of us must be a fifteen year old boy.) I made a couple of feeble attempts at lightening the mood by singing the “Erie Canal” song and making up a song that ran something like, “Mt. Pickett, you are a friend of mine” (which, in hindsight, appeared to be a thinly-masked version of that Jose Cuervo song.) We greeted Mt. Pickett at its summit before launching down the double-track to the aid station below. This was a welcome opportunity to pick up my pace. I wanted to reach the aid station first so that I had a couple of minutes to sit down and eat some hot soup.

Fatigue had set in with full force, and the thought of sitting in a camp chair for five minutes called like a siren’s song. For the first time in a while, I was running instead of shuffling. I made an important discovery on this descent: once I pushed past the initial stiffness, it actually felt good to run. This was an important lesson to learn, and I would draw upon it throughout the remainder of the race. At the aid station, a few runners were huddled around the heaters, some of them appearing to be in rough shape. A volunteer handed me a cup of lentil soup. I tossed in some potato chips and felt warmed by the food. Seth arrived and had a nice chat with Doug McKeever. I wanted them to keep talking so that I could rest for a minute. Seth looked to me and said we should go, and I asked if I could have another cup of soup. I was stalling, but I also needed the calories. That’s one tricky thing about running at night; I just don’t consume enough calories, and I knew I was really behind in this department. My mind rationalized the extra minutes as paying dividends in the future, and perhaps there was some truth to that. A second cup of soup devoured, there were no more excuses, so back into the cold, dark night we went.

Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 60.4 to Mile 64.5)

I caught a second wind from that stop and took the lead, picking up the pace. Despite some minor irritations, I still felt happy and relatively strong. Of course it wouldn’t be a race if I didn’t make at least one bonehead move. Coming down along the end of Mountain Lake, chatting about something and watching only the ground for footing, I neglected to notice the fallen tree leaning across the trail and ran smack into it, hitting my head. For someone still recovering from a concussion, this isn’t ideal. Fortunately, my headlamp took the brunt of the impact, and I shook it off. I maintained the lead through much of this section, the rolling hills, descents, and flats being my stronger suit. At one point, we reached a climb, and we both simultaneously remarked, “I don’t remember this climb.” This was our third time around the course, and it’s funny that we both hadn’t noticed this hill until now. These things must stand out more prevalently when you’re tired.

Reaching the Cascade Lake aid station, I launched into a complaint about Seth refusing to drop me because he felt that I might get myself into trouble. Yassine immediately redirected that negative energy; “Hey, how about some soup?!” Seth went to the roaring fireside, but I feared it would only make the night feel colder. The hot broth warmed me from the inside. I grabbed some heavier gloves in anticipation of the colder temps on the exposed Power Line. I reached around to grab my poles, only to discover that they were gone. My heart broke. Not because I felt like I needed them for the climb, but because they had been a Christmas present from Seth. A nice volunteer at Camp Moran had put them into my pack for me. He’d had trouble breaking them down, so I managed it with my swollen fingers. I should have taken that as a sign that he wouldn’t know how to secure them in my pack, but I was lazy and didn’t want to take it off. As a result, they were somewhere out on the course. Just as we were leaving, a volunteer ran over exclaiming, “Are these your poles? A runner found them on the trail and brought them in.” They were mine! It was too bad not to have seen the runner so as to thank them. It felt like a good omen as we embarked on what I felt sure would be the most difficult part of the race.

Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 64.5 to Mile 70.3)

As we began the climb up Power Line, we ran into Maudie, who seemed a bit distressed. Earlier, she’s had an asthma attack, but she rallied and eventually passed us at Mt. Pickett. The ascent made it difficult for her to breathe, and she was in the middle of trying to make a difficult decision. We encouraged her to go back to Cascade Lake and get some rest; she could always recover and continue on, but it wasn’t worth attempting this climb at night, in the freezing cold and gusty wind, if she was having trouble breathing. I could fully appreciate how that was a tough decision to make; she’d come so far, and I completely empathized. As we continued on, Seth had trouble staying on course, so I took the lead so that he could just follow. I was happy to have something to contribute to this partnership. A few times I stopped and exclaimed, “Seth, look at the stars!” The general absence of light pollution allowed the stars to shine their brightest; immense clusters of them gathered all around us. That’s mostly what I remember from this third trip up Power Line: diamond stars and bitter cold. Oh, and Safety Sweeps bounding past like god damned gazelles.

As usual, it was a relief to hit the contour trail that led off the Power Line. Through the trees, I saw a city of lights and stammered, “There’s a city over there!” Seth seemed to think that I was hallucinating, but I clearly saw a long stretch of glittering lights through the trees. Its beauty in the dark night held my attention as we wound along the side of the hill, descending down and down, deep into the woods. It was wild when the side of Mt. Constitution came into view and we could see headlamps winding their way up it. At the top, I saw a huge light, which at first appeared to be an enormous spotlight. Upon closer examination, I realized it was the moon peeking through the trees. It was simply beautiful.

Seth wasn’t having too much fun at this point, yet, strangely, I was enjoying myself. He was incredibly tired and decided to slip off the trail for a ten-minute nap. Worried that he was potentially hypothermic, I offered to wait for him. He insisted he was fine and urged me to keep moving. He wrapped me in a firm embrace, whispered, “I’m so proud of you.” I replied, “Next time, we’ll do something that makes you happy.” He corrected me, “We’ll do something that makes us happy.”  I was uncomfortable leaving but reassured myself that he does this sort of thing all the time and knows how to take care of himself. I took a mental note of what that spot looked like in case I needed to direct a search party to find him later. With each step, I questioned leaving him and debated whether or not to tell someone at the next aid station where he was. He didn’t give me much time to worry, as shortly thereafter Seth zoomed past. I dug deep to push as hard as I could up the climb, hoping to warm up with the effort.

During this time, some strong runners came past, all offering words of support. It struck me that they must be the front runners, finishing their final loop. How impressive. Cresting the summit, we trotted in to the ever effusive Team 7 Hills aid station, where a party raged on through the night. Sudheer and Michael took care of us as we paused a moment to enjoy the comfort of camp chairs. Unfortunately, they had no hot vegan soup, so we munched on pickles, potato chips, and pb & j, foods that I was ready never to eat again. Sudheer said that about 12 runners had come through on their final loop. It was incredible to see how strong they looked at mile 90+. A few runners still on lap 3 hunched in the corner and looked to be in rough shape, trying to pull things together and warm up near the heaters. Seth and I were somewhere in between, the full spectrum of running experiences represented. We moved outside to catch a little warmth from the crackling fire as dawn broke.

Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 70.3 to Mile 75.6)

Walking toward the Tower, the rising sun cast a warm glow across the water, and the snowy Cascades unfolded before us in all their majesty. It was a sunrise unlike any other, the purples, oranges, and yellows swirling around the blues of the water and soft white of the mountains. It absolutely took our breath away. “This is why we do this.” He agreed. Our spirits rose with the sun, and we spiraled up the Tower stairs for our third hole punch.

Dawn over Orcas

Dawn over Orcas. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

 

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Dawn breaks. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

With the new light, the descent would be easier, and faster. At one turn near the bottom, I happened to look into a clearing to my right and realized that it was the Power Line. This had escaped my notice on the previous laps. Runners were mounting the climb, and it occurred to me that they were probably on their fourth lap. The realization came with a soft punch in the gut; we were clearly toward the back of the pack. It took some prodding to remind myself that I was only here for a finish, but the competitive side of me sank with the sight of runners so physically close to me, yet so far ahead.

It was a pleasant surprise to see Yassine waiting for us at Camp Moran. He was tired but still exuding his characteristic good cheer. We walked into the lodge 10 and a half hours after we had left, making Lap 3 the slowest by far. We discussed the strategy for Lap 4. All along, I’d assumed that Lap 4 would be faster than Lap 3. We would smell the barn, it would be daylight, and we had gone easy through the night. Seth wasn’t as optimistic and felt like we needed to account for unforeseen problems. Yassine agreed with his assessment. I didn’t quite see it that way but agreed we should get moving a.s.a.p. I did the now routine sock change and ate real food (although I don’t remember exactly what I ate this time. I just remember eating a lot of food.) Yassine took my puffy with him back to Cascade Lake so that I could pick it up later, since it would likely be dark when I finished Lap 4. It was hard to wrap my mind around that. We left Camp Moran at precisely 9:00 a.m., two hours before the cutoff and eleven hours before the course closed. Seth was incredibly anxious about the timing; I was wildly optimistic. I should have known better.

Lap 4: The Hazards of Ultra Math

Camp Moran to Mountain Lake (Mile 75.6 to Mile 80.3)

If you’ve ever read one of my race reports, then you’re probably sitting in anticipation of the moment when things inevitably unravel. That moment has come.

Making our way up the Mt. Constitution Road for the fourth and final time, I suggested a plan for how to approach our last lap: “You’re faster on the climbs; I’m faster on the downhills and flats. We each have our strengths, so let’s take advantage of that and hope that it will balance out with us ending up together on the course at some point.” He understood what I meant and agreed to the strategy. I’m pretty sure that plan makes sense, as I reflect back on it. Seth jogged up the rest of the climb as I power hiked up. I kept him within my sights for a while, but eventually he loped out of sight. That’s when my stomach turned on me. Terrible nausea struck, and my pace slowed to what felt like slow motion. I felt lightheaded and a bit dizzy. Perhaps I had eaten too much at Camp Moran; perhaps I was also dehydrated. I’d consumed more caffeine in the past 24 hours than I had all of last year. Things compounded when that old familiar feeling in my gut made its grand entrance. 75 miles had passed without incident, but this was a long race, and it only stood to reason that my GI luck would run out.

The nature of the climb, with its looping switchbacks on a relatively well-used road and surprisingly few clusters of trees, ruled out popping off to the side to take care of urgent business. There was a restroom at the trailhead, but I was convinced a construction crew had added extra turns in the road. It dragged on, and on. The Delorme started beeping, so I took it out to distract myself with messages from friends, family, and students. Their words cheered me up and spurred me on, but they did not make that outhouse appear any faster. It was a pretty agonizing climb on several fronts, but at long last I reached Little Summit, took a great sigh of relief, concocted a threat-level midnight strength Pepto cocktail, and sauntered over to begin the descent.

With tired legs and a tired brain, it seemed wise not to rush the downhill too much. I’d come too far to twist an ankle or hit my head now. I ran what I could, shuffled here and there, and gingerly crossed creeks that seemed to have doubled in size since I last saw them. I thought back to the reckless abandon with which I first attacked this same descent, in disbelief that such speed was ever possible. The impact of hopping down over roots and rocks jostled and jolted me, which served only to slow my pace even more. After what felt like an eternity, the Mountain Lake aid station came into view. I hadn’t seen anyone else since Seth dropped me on the climb.

The volunteers greeted me and asked what I needed. I just wanted some food and was delighted that they had a tray of mango and sticky rice balls left. I grabbed a couple and kept moving. Heading out, I paused and asked, “What time is it?” “11. It’s exactly 11:00 a.m.”

It just took me 2 hours to travel 4.7 miles.

“Oh my god. Can I make the cutoff?”

“You have nine hours! You’ll definitely make it!”

My brain flat out rejected their confidence. My brain imploded.

Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 80.3 to 85.6)

This is my thought process at Mile 80.3: “I just blew my 2-hour cushion. I’m chasing the cutoffs now; I lost my 2-hour cushion on that climb. I WASTED my 2-hour cushion on that climb. Now I have no margin for error. If it took me 2 hours to go less than 5 miles, then it’s going to take me over 4 hours to get to Yassine. That leaves me less than 5 hours to do the hardest climbs on the course, and I’m tired and don’t feel good. I’ll never make it. I will not make it in time.”

The reality was less grim, but trying telling that to an ultra runner 3/4 of the way through a hundred miler. My logic was obviously flawed. In my head, it made sense that, since I had started lap 4 with a 2-hour buffer ahead of the cutoff, and since the first 5 miles had taken 2 hours, then that buffer was now lost. The cutoff at Mountain Lake was 12:40 p.m., so I was, in fact, an hour and 40 minutes ahead of it. I had lost 20 minutes of my buffer, which wasn’t negligible, but it also wasn’t the tragedy my mind perceived it to be.

So, I did the only thing that made sense to me in that moment: I ran.

There’s nothing like panic and the dread of a DNF to help you find your running legs. This section of the course was relatively flat along the lakes, with a semi-gentle climb up Mt. Pickett, and all of that glorious double-track downhill leading into the next aid station. I ran it at a pace not seen since Lap 1. Even during much of the climb up Mt. Pickett, I willed my legs to continue in a general running-like gait. Talking out loud to myself in the third person seemed a good idea.

“Come on Bayer, you got this. Get it together. You have nine hours to finish. Try to cover these next ten miles in three hours, and that gets you to Yassine. You’ll have six hours to do the big climbs and final descent. You can do that. What are you thinking, Bayer? It won’t take that long. You could even finish in under 34 hours at this rate. It will take less than three hours to get to Yassine, and it will take about 5 hours to do the rest. That’s 5 hours to go the last 11 miles, much of which is also downhill. Wait, what are you thinking, Bayer? You’ll barely make the cutoff. If it takes X amount of time to reach Yassine, then it will take Y amount of time to do the final climbs. You’re tired and feel terrible, so those climbs will more likely take Z hours to the power of 2, and that’s just not enough. You’re screwed. Oh, just shut up and run, Bayer!”

This is why everyone tells you not to do ultra math. It never adds up. One moment, I convinced myself that I could still finish in my rough goal of 32 hours. The next, the numbers only led to a down-to-the-wire finish. I’d oscillate between relief and terror, all the while talking out loud to myself and running as hard as I could. Passing another runner, he cheerfully greeted me, “Hi there! How’s it going?” “I’m just trying not to do ultra math!” “Oh yeah, don’t do that. You have plenty of time! Don’t worry!” I didn’t trust his confidence, either, and ran on. This time, I barreled through the mud pits coming down to the aid station. I didn’t care about wet feet anymore. All that mattered was the path of least resistance.

Flying into the Mt. Pickett aid station, I saw Jason and the runner who’d paced behind me a few times casually reclining in camp chairs. “Why aren’t they in a panic?!” I wondered to myself. A volunteer asked if I needed anything. Grabbing a GU packet, I replied, “I just need someone to tell me that I’m going to make the cutoffs.” Everyone in the tent seemed to respond in unison: “You’ll make it.” Jetting out the door, Doug McKeever said, “You’re looking great, Ellen. Seth is about 15 minutes ahead of you. Go catch him!” My heart was grateful for those words. I was closing the gap. In my head, the logic was that if I could catch Seth, then I would regain the buffer. I could make the cutoffs. With that, I bolted down the trail.

Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 85.6 to Mile 89.7)

Instead of a snippet of song or a helpful mantra, the ultra math now looped through my thoughts. I couldn’t turn it off, and the “not enough time” equation dominated. It never occurred to me to marvel at the fact that I was running this fast at mile 85; I just ran, futilely crunching numbers. There were lots of hikers and tourists along this stretch, and I must have been a sight, tearing past with panic in my eyes and a grimace on my face. Bombing down to the bridge with the cascading waterfall backdrop, I saw a few runners grouping up for a photo shoot with Glenn. One yelled, “Hey! A female! Come join us!” They were laughing and having a great time; I wondered what was wrong with them. Why was no one else worried about making the cutoff? Seeing a friendly and familiar face in this moment of doubt, it took all I had not to break down and cry, which is perhaps why my face is averted in the photo that Glenn snapped:

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Looking tired, seconds before bursting into tears. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

And then I broke down and cried.

Glenn greeted me; tears came rolling down. “Glenn, I’m so worried about the cutoff. I’m not gonna make it.” “The cutoff at Cascade Lake? That’s at 4:00. You have plenty of time!” “No, the cutoff at Mt. Constitution. I’m too slow on the climbs.” He seemed genuinely surprised by my concern. “You’re doing awesome, Ellen! You’ll make it!” “How long ago did Seth come through?” “I don’t know; not long. He’s not too far ahead.” “OK, thanks, Glenn.” “You’ll make it!” Glenn’s voice was sincere and reassuring, so I tried to will myself to believe him.

I passed the three men who had invited me to their photo shoot, and they asked me to run along with them. I politely declined, pressing forward with my absurd sense of urgency. It didn’t make sense to my tired brain why no one else was worried about the cutoffs. It began to register that I was also probably blowing myself up by running so hard; there’d be nothing left to give on the climbs. The remaining miles on this section were a mental montage of inexplicable math.

Hitting the road that shoulders Cascade Lake, I summoned every scrap of strength to speed up and get to Yassine. I felt so defeated and ashamed, and those emotions gripped me as I ran into the aid station. Yassine was cheering like crazy, and that triggered the tears. Shaking my head and making a “no, stop the party” motion with my arm, I arrived a smoldering wreck. “Everything fell apart, Yassine. My stomach turned, I was lightheaded, I had GI issues, and it took me 2 hours to go the first five miles. I screwed it all up. I blew my buffer. Then I blew myself up just to get here. I won’t make it. I’m too slow on the climbs.” With characteristic calm, Yassine informed me that it was only 1:30 p.m. “You’re doing great! You have plenty of time! You’ve got this! What do you need? Let’s get you taken care of and then get you back out there.”

“It’s only 1:30?”

“Yeah! Plenty of time left!”

I had just run 10 miles in 2.5 hours. That’s means that since the first aid station, I had run more than twice the distance in almost the same amount of time. I was 2.5 hours ahead of the cutoff at Cascade Lake. And, I had caught Seth. He had arrived only minutes before me. I drank some hot broth and attempted to compose myself, embarrassed to have come in such a mess. I was behind on calories, and Yassine went through my drop bag, pulling out snacks, trying to entice me to eat. Everything was on the extreme end of salty or sweet, and I was tired of it all. I’d been on a steady rotation of GU and Clif Bloks punctuated by potato chips, pb & j, pickles, and bananas. My rational self knew that I should eat, but my stomach said broth was the limit. I took a cup for the road and left to confront Power Line.

Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 89.7 to Mile 95.5)

Seth and I debriefed during the approach to Power Line. I urged him to drop me on the climbs, but he insisted on helping me get up this one. Then, we’d see. Still doing faulty math, I worried that waiting for me would, in turn, make him anxious about the cutoffs. Still, if he was anxious, it never showed. He had nothing but kind words and encouragement during that climb. When he would pause and turn back toward me, I cringed thinking he would express impatience. I should know him better by now. Instead, he was supportive, telling me I was doing a great job. His kindness carried me up that monster climb.

Despite the vertical movement; despite having made up time; despite being well positioned to finish comfortably ahead of the cutoffs; I reached my lowest point during this climb. Physically, it was tough. My legs were trashed from pushing hard the last ten miles, and my Achilles were screaming with each step. Power Line is so steep, that you essentially climb on your toes, which was the worst possible scenario for sore Achilles.

It was the mental component, though, that brought me down. I began to recognize what an idiot I had been. What a selfish egomaniac I was. I had put two people I cared about in a tough position by insisting on running this race when we all knew that I wasn’t physically ready for it. For Yassine, I hadn’t given him enough time to help me train and prepare for this distance. Last year, Bryce 100 was the end point on a long, carefully planned trajectory of training. I was as fit as I would ever be. Here, I’d had, all told, maybe a month of actual training. I was coming back from three months off and still having issues from the concussion. He knows how stubborn I am, though, and knew that I would have fought, kicking and screaming, had he suggested I sit this one out. Just the mention of dropping would have led me to dig in my heels and resist. As for Seth, here he was worried about making cutoffs, in part because he had waited for me at certain points throughout the race. He was stressed and not necessarily having a great time. I felt responsible for making things uncomfortable for them. Here I was, chasing cutoffs; I really didn’t have any business being out there on that course.

It became clear to me that I was here for the wrong reasons. It was more about my ego than about my own personal joy. I was too proud to drop out. I was too concerned with proving to others that I’m tough and can do whatever I set my mind to. Those aren’t the reasons that I started this running journey, and they weren’t healthy motivators. In the beginning, it had been about proving something to myself, competing only with myself, and doing this solely for myself. Something changed after I won my first race; that taste of a win shifted my priorities. To a certain extent, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. That said, it had taken me away from my true self. I wanted approval, validation, recognition. That wasn’t me. Instead of doing ultra math, I now dwelled on what an asshole I was, filled with shame. I grew sullen and repentant, composed apologies in my head. Looking back now, I can see that much of this overly dramatic thought process was fueled by exhaustion and the warped perception that comes with running stupidly long distances. But the general notion that I had started running for others instead of myself was true, and I wanted to change that.

Occasional conversation snapped me out of these dark reveries. Part way up the climb, Seth did his own calculations: “If we can get to the top of Power Line in 30 minutes, then do the contour trail in 45 minutes, and climb Constitution in another 45 minutes, that will give us more than 3 hours to finish the last 5 downhill miles.” His math sounded more reliable than my own. Near the top, a group of mountain bikers parted to the sides of the trail, creating a tunnel of sorts for us to walk through. “You guys are crazy! What you’re doing is insane!” They were all smiles and expressed sincere admiration, while Seth said that to us, riding down a steep mountain on a bike seemed nuts. I managed to half-jokingly retort, “What we’re doing is stupid!” Seth looked surprised, and later admitted he’d never heard me talk like that before. It was truly out of character. Twenty minutes later, we crested Power Line. “We did it 10 minutes faster than we planned!” he exclaimed. His optimism bolstered me. We were doing this. The toughest climb was behind us. We would make it.

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Possibly fake smile. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

The contour trail was my strong suit, so I willed my revolting legs to engage in a running motion. It took a lot of will power, but once I pushed past the initial groan, it actually felt pretty good to be running. I ditched my poles, feeling that I could run faster without them. My plan was to get a lead on Seth here, knowing he’d catch me on the climb to Constitution. It was quite rewarding to look through the trees in daylight and see a city on the shores across the water. I hadn’t been hallucinating last night! Soon, Seth was out of sight, and I was cruising down the contour trail. Finally, an appreciation for still being able to run after 90+ miles sank in. How incredible! I chose to focus on these thoughts and to shelve the gloomy self loathing.

The climb to Constitution never failed to slow the momentum built during the gradual descent off Power Line, and this fourth round was no exception. Seth caught me on the third or fourth switchback up. He had a ping in his knee and was moving more slowly, but still faster than me going up. As with the fourth climb up the road, it seemed as if someone had maliciously added switchbacks to this climb; it felt endless. Landmarks that had given me something to work toward on earlier laps had seemingly disappeared. It was now a blur of back and forth, up and up, hands on knees, step by step. Finally, the cowbells of Team 7 Hills came within earshot. Seth and I both laughed at our shared sense of this climb seeming strangely longer than before. Nevertheless, we’d covered the contour trail and the Constitution climb faster than projected; it was around 4:00 p.m. We had arrived two hours and ten minutes before the cutoff at this aid station, and we had four hours to finish the last five miles of the race. We breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 95.5 to Mile 100.8)

This aid station had a great party vibe, but we still felt compelled to make a quick turn around. The day was coming to a close, and we’d be finishing in the dark (and, presumably, in the cold.) Reaching the Tower for one last sprint up the stairs, the glory of the Pacific Northwest was on full display below. Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier, along with the Canadian Rockies, stood sentinel. The snowy and wild North Cascades sparkled brightly, leaving me speechless. Dazzlingly bright peaks stood out in sharp relief against a Robin’s egg blue sky. Emerald islands bejewelled the deep blue waters below. The morning had given us a stunning sunrise from this same vantage point, but that didn’t compare to the spectacular sight now on view. We paused longer here than at the aid station, smitten with the scene of such astounding natural beauty. In the end, it’s not the dark moments that stick with you; it’s the jagged peaks wrapped in snow blankets, the largeness and grandeur of the wilderness, your own smallness in comparison, that sears itself into your very soul. That mental image will forever linger in my inner eye.

The ping in Seth’s knee caused him serious discomfort, and running made it worse. “You go ahead and run down. I’m gonna have to walk it in. It might take me three hours to get down.” Slyly smiling, I sarcastically echoed his words of the previous night: “I’m not leaving you. It will be getting dark soon, and you could fall and hit your head or roll an ankle.” He only rolled his eyes but there was a smile in there, too. I probably could have run down faster, but what was the point? This wasn’t going to be a podium finish. At this point, who cares if I came in at 33 or 35 hours, as long as I finished. He got me up the Power Line as well as through the previous night. We’d run nearly half of this race together; it was only right to finish it together.

Our moods had changed drastically, having the worst of it behind us. In part, we were a little loopy, but we could also smell the barn. We joked and laughed. I granted Seth dibbs on the first shower and gifted him a guilt-free long and hot one at that. No nature girl judgement shall pass tonight. We thought about clean sheets. I fantasized about sitting in a chair for more than five minutes. We were, you might say, having fun, merrily making our way down the mountain. At one point, Mike came barreling past us. He yelled, “It’s gonna hurt whether you run fast or slow, so may as well run fast!” It made sense, although it’s tougher to convince your feet of this. Seth occasionally attempted to run; it hurt, but he’d push through it. So we commenced a jog/hike. That was killing me, though, as the transition back and forth never allowed me to loosen up. As we neared the lower trail that had the high “butter factor,” I decided to run ahead. I’d need to get a jump on those last two sadistic little climbs. It felt good to open up and run, and the effort left me amazed at the things my body was capable of, with some nudging from my mind. Over 95 miles in, and I was still running. That was quite the psychological boost after walking 81.5 miles at Bryce.

A few “Yeehaws!” escaped as the trail got buttery and my pace quickened. Running past the grand old tree, I stopped to hug and thank it. Dusk was quickly turning to dark, and Seth was nowhere in sight. I pressed on and planned to wait at the top of Power Line Jr. Bottoming out by the road, I let out a wolf howl toward Cascade Lake, although the aid station was dark, the final cutoff having passed almost 2 hours ago. At the top of the first climb, I slowed and looked over my shoulder. No headlamp. I hesitated, not wanting to get too far ahead. After a few minutes, a light came into view. It was a female runner, someone I’d never seen on the course. I let her pass by, and she was reluctant. She said, “You’re probably faster than me; you should go in first.” I told her she looked great and that she needed to go finish this thing. For once, it didn’t wound me to be passed by a runner. I walked, glancing over my shoulder every few steps. Finally, I heard Seth’s wolf call, and I responded with a coyote yip. We had about a mile to go and only one last mini climb to dread.

We started planning our post race priorities. We had treated ourselves to a hotel room for the night, instead of climbing into the back of the truck. I didn’t mind leaving the post-race party early in favor of showers and clean sheets, but, I said, “I just want to sit in a chair. Maybe for 15 minutes.” He agreed. As for dinner, we both were so tired of race food. For the first time in my life, pizza didn’t sound appetizing. “I just want raw vegetables,” I insisted. “I just want to eat a bunch of broccoli.” He was on the same page.

Plans settled, it was time to run it in and finish the race. Seth asked if we should race in, or cross the finish line holding hands. He answered his own question with a smile, “Together, holding hands.” As we rounded the final corner coming in to Camp Moran, a crowd of cheers rose up. Someone yelled, “Sprint it in! Sprint it in!” He looked at me, and we both launched into a sprint. It was probably a 10-minute pace, but it felt like we were flying. We were laughing wildly, and just before crossing the line, he grabbed my hand and we took our last steps, high-fiving James as our race came to an official close. Yassine was dancing with excitement. There were hugs and deep breaths, laughs and sighs. We finished Lap 4 in 8 hours and 45 minutes. After 34 hours, 11 minutes, and 15 seconds, we had completed the Orcas Island 100 Miler and joined the Tower Club.

Orcas Finish Line

Happy for the experience, and happy to be finished with it. Photo by Yassine Diboun.

There was some banter at the finish line, much of which is hazy to me. James said something about us looking perfect, and Seth said, “I smell perfect!” Yassine led us toward the lodge and said with excitement, “You’re gonna love this…” He opened the door, and the entire room stopped to clap and whoop for us. It was surreal, and all I could manage was a grateful smile and a small wave. As per usual, volunteers swooped in to take care of us. This is something that set this race apart from most others; the volunteers were so attentive and competent, taking the best care of you throughout. To my great delight, one woman brought us over a plate of hummus and fresh veggie wraps. The presentation even showed care; she had arranged fresh veggies and avocado slices tastefully around the wraps. It was exactly what I needed. Yassine sat down with us to debrief. His positive nature and supportive words never end, even after he’s worked all weekend and had little sleep himself. He asked about our lowest moment on the course, and Seth said it surely must have been when I came into Cascade Lake in tears. “No, it was right after that. When I realized how awful I had been, and that I owed you both an apology.” I tried to explain my thinking and offered apologies, but neither of them saw things as I did. They were quite generous and thought I was being too hard on myself. Yassine saw this as a do-over for Bryce. It was a way to show myself that I could run a hundred miler. The fact that I wasn’t my most fit only served as further proof that I’m a strong runner. Seth thought it was an opportunity to inspire others to push themselves beyond their perceived limits.

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My bib, with hole punches and hanging chads to prove I climbed the Tower four times.

It was wonderful sitting in a chair, talking with my coach, and feeling like I had accomplished something. The band played on, and runners filed in to applause. It was nice to be there to celebrate their achievement. To our surprise, Joel walked in, having rallied and finished. Someone remarked that he had “died seven times on the course,” but here he was, a finisher. It goes to show how far the mind can carry you when the body gives out.

We lingered for some time. Seth scouted out a veggie platter, and I ate the equivalent of a head of broccoli. It’s not my favorite vegetable by any means, but its fresh, crunchy greenness was so satisfying after 34 hours of carby, fatty junk food. Eventually, we hobbled out to the truck and made our way to the hotel. Extensive chaffing in sensitive areas made my shower a bit painful, and bending over to wash my feet seemed impossible, but I reveled in the hot water and the refreshing scent of soap. Under clean sheets, we laughed in delirium, shivering as our bodies tried to regulate our temperature. Craving water at the finish, I hadn’t had a celebratory beer and decided to drink one in bed. I woke up some time later, half-consumed beer teeterting precariously on my chest. Depositing it onto the night stand, I shut out the light, and slept the sleep of the content.

Epilogue: Mulligan

Orcas taught me a lot. It reminded me that I am capable of doing anything that I set my mind to. My mind is stronger than my body. I learned that, once you push through the initial stiffness and pain, it’s easier to run; it actually feels good. I learned what it feels like to run with 100 miles on your feet, experienced the awe of that fact. Yassine was right; it was a do-over for Bryce. As he said, “You had to get that monkey off your back.” I ran a 100-miler, and finished before the cutoffs. I may not have been at my peak fitness, but I finished, and that did unloosen a burden that I’d carried since Bryce.

The experience reminded me that I have wonderful people in my life here to support me, whether that’s sending long-distance messages; providing guidance and support on the course and off; or pulling me up a soul-sapping climb.

I learned some practical stuff about running this distance: athletic tape prevents blisters; next time, tape your Achilles, because that chaffing is not healing anytime soon–ouch!!!; changing socks is worth the time; always pack layers; definitely carry electrolyte tablets; use the stronger headlamp; hold off on drinking caffeine; liberally reapply glide, especially in sensitive regions; keep eating, especially at night; for the love of god, buy a replacement water bladder that fits your pack; practice with poles if you’re going to use them; no more than 5 minutes at an aid station–ever; make time to cook pancakes to  put in your drop bags, as you would have been so happy to have them out there; just don’t do ultra math.

Orcas also gave me the opportunity to share an unforgettable experience with the guy I love to adventure with. I came to realize a while ago that I needed an ultra boyfriend who could keep up with me on the trail. Seth has proved to be all of that, and so much more. His patience, endless support, and encouragement helped to push me out there while also pulling me up. Plus, without him, there would be far fewer photos in this race report. I can’t wait to see what we do next.

Most importantly, the experience gave me a needed reality check. I’d lost sight of why I run ultras, drifted away from the personal journey. Moving forward, I will prioritize the personal endeavor and not get caught up in the public one. I will be my best self, training and racing hard for the pleasure it brings me in itself, not in relation to others.

Orcas also whet my appetite for more. It was, dare I say, a lot of fun. At Bryce, I learned that I could travel 101.5 miles by my own power. At Orcas, I learned that I could travel 100.8 miles, running much of the way, and despite not being at my peak fitness. During the race, while I was out there running along, the lottery for Cascade Crest 100 was held. When I finished, I learned the results. Come August, after months of dedicated training, I will have the opportunity to enjoy this distance again, and to see what it’s like to run 100 miles at the pinnacle of fitness. I cannot wait, but I will strive to remain present and delight in every training mile that leads me there.

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It’s Ultrasignup official.

Orcas 100 Finishers

Happy finishers! I’m so grateful to have shared this experience with Seth Wolpin. Here’s to many more adventures together. Photo by Matt Cecil.

 

buckle and Orcas

Obligatory buckle photo. View from the ferry deck, Orcas in background.

 

 

 

Closing the Circle: A 2017 Barkley Fall Classic Race Report

“We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.” –Henry Ward Beecher

“The wheel is come full circle. I am here.” –Edmund, of Shakespeare’s King Lear

Prologue

I projected so much symbolic weight onto the 2016 Barkley Fall Classic, that I shudder to think what would have happened had I not finished the race. At one point, my friend Crystal, who was also training for it, said, “You’re getting really intense about this race. It’s starting to freak me out.” She was right. Training became my sole focus, at the expense of other summer activities and spending time with friends. Miles and vert were my world. Other forms of insanity soon ensued. I took courses in map and compass navigation. I studied the map of Frozen Head State Park, searing every trail and contour line into my brain. Using every available resource, I began an obsessive research project and essentially figured out the undisclosed course in advance. My irrational fear of failure spurred on this madness, burdening the BFC with my belief that it was the one thing in life that could help me confront my crippling dread of falling short.

(You can listen to a short recap of this race that I shared at a Boldly Went storytelling event last April. Also, Boldly Went is an awesome podcast that you should be listening to anyway.)

How much change one year can bring. I still trained hard–perhaps even harder–for the 2017 BFC and took it quite seriously, but I also allowed myself to incorporate other activities and people into my life. In addition to miles and vert, I confronted my fear of heights by learning to rock climb; took to the mountains and bagged peaks; ate fresh blueberries while walking through the wilderness; bushwhacked to alpine lakes, dipped in upon reaching them; and camped in the wild, all the while making new friends and enjoying new adventures. The map of Frozen Head is forever imprinted in my mind, so a quick refresher look was all I needed. With Durb and Laz withholding some information about the race this year, piecing out the new course in advance wasn’t possible. Plus, there wasn’t so much riding on this race for me, which allowed me to relax and approach it as pure fun.

Of course, that’s only half true, because for months I agonized over which race would be my A race for the year: The BFC, or Big’s Backyard Ultra. Last year’s BFC really wiped me out, physically, so it seemed only reasonable to go all-out in only one of these races. Recognizing that I’m simply not fast enough to win the BFC, but that I’m perhaps stubborn enough to be the last person standing at Big’s, I initially decided to put in a good show at the BFC, but not overdo it, so that I was fresh going into Big’s 5 weeks later. That plan lasted through the summer, until I met Seth Wolpin. His 93-mile run around the Wonderland Trail, followed by his strong performance at the Cascade Crest 100 only a week later, inspired me to just go for it at both races. When I explained to him my initial plan, and started to say how his runs inspired me to approach the races differently, Seth interrupted and said, “Yes, push hard at both!” The sentiment fed my competitive nature, and thus became the plan.

That being said, I still came into the BFC feeling relaxed and excited. Arriving four days early gave me the opportunity to run through the park on my own, volunteer and help out pre-race, and make new friends at Big Cove Campground. Instead of a race, it became an experience. Having the park seemingly to myself on a run up to the Lookout Tower, and getting a look at my beloved Rat Jaw, was an absolute delight. Running down the Spicewood trail allowed me to revisit a part of the course that had gotten the best of me the previous year, and made me laugh in embarrassment at how technical it had seemed to that earlier self. Bombing down it on a foggy morning gave me confidence that I would have a great run at the BFC. Volunteering in the days leading up to the race gave me the opportunity to give something small back to this race that I love and to connect with friends old and new. Typically, in the days leading up to a big race, I would be mindful of my food choices; refrain from drinking beer; hydrate like crazy; and put in early nights. Instead, I ate Mexican food for almost every meal; taste-tested every beer Mike Dobies offered; grew slightly dehydrated; and stayed up much too late listening to Barkers and BFCers tell stories that hovered somewhere between fact and fiction. It was one of the happiest weeks in memory.

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Sun rays beaming on Frozen Head.

My view from the Cantrell Suite at Big Cove Campground.

view from the Cantrell suite

My view from the Cantrell Suite, Big Cove Campground.

obligatory yellow gate photo

Obligatory yellow gate photo. Photo Credit: BFCer whose photo I took in return.

what a nerd

Reading a well-worn copy of Frozen Ed’s book with Yellow Gate as backdrop. Nerdiest photo I’ve ever taken.

Race morning came, and I was up by 4:15 a.m. in order to get about 500 calories in me before heading over to the start line. [Note: I would be damned if GI issues were going to tank this race, so I took enough Pepto, both pre- and mid-race, to plug up a plow horse. Maybe not healthy, but you won’t be reading about any embarrassing trips to the bushes here. You’re welcome.] Arriving much too early, and feeling uncharacteristically chilled out, I snoozed in the van until go-time. An unexpected call from Seth gave me a lift before toeing the line with the 362 brave souls who actually showed up. Durb told me to get up toward the front of the pack, and I obliged. I couldn’t hear any of the pre-race instructions so hoped for the best. I suspect there was a moment of silence for Dan Baglione, but the nervous chatter of runners made it impossible to tell, so I  held my own moment to recognize the fallen Barker. Soon enough, Laz lit a cigarette, and we were off.

In the spirit of the secretive nature of this race, I won’t mention the names of aid stations and won’t always give trail names, so as to keep the course route somewhat vague. Note, too, that this course apparently ran a little long this year and instead of the traditional 31.1 miles, it was 31.2. Since GPS devices are verboten, I can neither confirm nor deny this but trust that the RDs wouldn’t lie about such things. 

Start Line to Aid Station 1 (Mile 0 to Mile 4 // 2 hours 30 minutes Cutoff)

Like last year, my plan was to come out a bit hot in the first mile and get ahead of the conga line that would surely form once we hit the single-track. Other runners, like last year, cautioned me that this was a bad idea, but I was confident in my plan. This is a race where you absolutely must run everything that is runnable.  The first mile is very runnable The first climb is runnable, too, but I knew many of my compatriots would be walking up it anyway. No way was I getting trapped in that log jam. Not surprisingly, when we hit the single-track, people started walking. Annoyed, I began a refrain of “on your left” as I pushed past, helpfully (in my mind) adding, “this is runnable, folks!” Upon first seeing the course map, I thought perhaps this new course would be ripe for record-setting (not by me, but by the faster runners). It would be mostly runnable all the way to the second aid station at mile 7.3. In the moment, though, it became clear that this could also potentially tire you out before you hit the big climbs. While the first climb wasn’t steep and you could maintain a good pace, I found myself getting tired much too early. I slowed my pace a bit, but kept pushing with some urgency, laughing at Durb and Laz’s evil genius. This was probably not going to be a record-setting course. This was going to be a hell of a course.

Along the way, one half of the Louisville Brothers, Scott, caught me. We’d both had some trouble on Chimney Top together last year, so it was great to see him looking so strong. We chatted a bit, and I joked that his brother, Brad, had been “all stick and no carrot” last year in trying motivate Scott to push through some serious cramping. He laughed and agreed that was an apt description. Before long, Scott dropped me, as I wished him a great race. It wouldn’t be the last time our paths crossed on this course.

About an hour in, I hit the first aid station. The cutoff was 2.5 hours, so I was well ahead of that. I didn’t need any water, so I rushed through, slowing down briefly to return a fist-bump that Sandra Cantrell offered. A couple days earlier, she had given me her 2016 BFC buff because I had mentioned having worn mine out. I was wearing it on race day as a lucky token, and was happy to see a friendly face as I zoomed down the jeep road.

Aid Station 1 to Aid Station 2 (Mile 4 to Mile 7.3 // 4 hours 45 minutes Cutoff)

I really picked things up here. After having been such a conservative downhill runner, over the past year, with Yassine’s help, I’ve come to love the descents. There’s nothing more exhilarating than bombing down a hill, slightly out of control and letting gravity do the hard work. Here, I passed a number of runners and let out a few “yeehaws” along the way. Much to my surprise, I passed Alicia Rich along this section. She’s the course record holder and had generously given me tips for training the previous year. I figured she’d lead the entire way. It was nice to be able to introduce myself in person, but I was sorry to learn she wasn’t feeling well. We, too, would play leap-frog all day, which goes to show that even on a bad day, she’s still a formidable runner. I cringed a little in passing, though, when I recalled Laz’s words from a conversation a few days earlier about my prospects in the race: “I sent Alicia a private message that said, ‘Ellen Bayer said she’s going to kick your fucking ass.'” He said it straight faced, and I laughed nervously, hoping that he was just messing with me. One can never be sure with Mr. Lazarus Lake.

Reaching the end of the descent meant it was time to pull out some heavy-duty gloves, because the Testicle Spectacle would soon be upon us. I turned to some runners near me and giddily exclaimed, “Things are about the get real!” This is such a fun part of the course, and there was no hesitation when I reached it this year. Sliding on my gloves, I plunged down into the ultra slip-and-slide that is the Spectacle.

Last year, there had been a drought leading into the BFC, so the Spectacle had been dry and crumbly. This year, and this week, had seen rain, so it was a Testicle of a different color. Lush briars and other flora blanketed it, and the footing was muddy and slick. It would grow worse as more runners came through, since the course asked us to descend and then come back to ascend it. In the previous year, I’d been trapped in a conga line that took its time going down the Testicle, but not so this year. I recklessly throttled down, relying on “veggie belay” [thanks for that term, Seth!] to keep me from breaking my neck as I slid down vertical pitches. Some tried to run down those pitches on two feet, but I discarded my dignity and slid down on my backside; better a muddy butt than a face plant, or worse. I suspect Durb and Laz wouldn’t agree with that, though.

Much to my surprise, as I hit the bottom and began the lollipop over to the aid station, the front runner appeared on his way back up. This was the first time it occurred to me that I was much farther up in the pack than I had suspected. This was exciting, to say the very least. Here, I turned off into the woods and made my way toward the creek crossing. Somehow I tracked too far to the left, and hit some barbed wire fence, which I knew wasn’t right. I pressed on, thinking that I’d hit the creek upstream a bit, but, instead, was deposited into the churchyard. Knowing that the creek crossing was part of the course, I turned around to correct my mistake, and heard a volunteer tell others behind me, “You’re off course; go back!” This was definitely a very careless–and embarrassing–mistake on my part, but no use wringing my hands over it. I caught the creek and plowed straight across, not caring about wet feet. Rolling back into the church yard, this time on course, I said hello to Durb in passing but didn’t linger to tell him about my idiot move. Pausing only to get my bib punched (to prove that I had been there), I raced back up, ready to climb back up the Spectacle.

Aid Station 2 to Aid Station 3 (Mile 7.3 to Mile 10.1 // 6 hours 30 minutes Cutoff)

The return trip would have the added difficulty of sharing the “trail” with the hordes of runners coming down. In several places, they would be sliding down as I attempted to drag myself up. It was amazing to pass a group of Barkley vets heading down in the opposite direction. Last year, I had passed this same group of men in approximately the same place, but I was the one heading down and them back up. How unbelievable was that role reversal. On my way up, I made a point of giving words of encouragement to each runner I passed. Most seemed stunned, their faces saying, “What the hell did I get myself into?” A young woman behind me, Lisa, was also sending good energy their way, and we chatted a little bit. When we reached the steepest pitch, without skipping a beat, she cupped my ass in her hands and pushed me up. I returned the favor by anchoring myself with the aid of some veggie belay, reached around, and pulled her up. I lost sight of her after that, but I appreciated her positive attitude and the moment of teamwork. We agreed, you don’t sign up for this race if you don’t intend to have fun out there. I’m not sure how Lisa fared, but I hope she got a 50k finish.

It was at this time that I started getting behind on my nutrition, which is very unusual. Since I recently broke up with Tailwind, after determining it was the source of my debilitating GI issues that wrecked previous races, I wasn’t drinking my calories. Instead, I was carrying a ton of Clif bloks in a sandwich bag and two soft flasks of GU. Typically, I would drink my calories as I went, eating Bloks and GU while power hiking up big climbs. Neither was an option today, as the big climbs, at least these initial ones, required the use of your hands. The thought occurred to me that I should stop for a few seconds, grab the Bloks or GU out of my pocket, consume them, then move on. The other part of me said, “Don’t stop, just keep going. You’ll find a time to eat later.” In hindsight, I probably should have taken a few seconds to eat, but I knew that I was close to the front and didn’t want to give up any ground. That was likely the bad decision, as I would soon pay for being low on calories. I decided to fill my bottles with Sword at the next aid station. I’d never used it before, so I’d be breaking a Cardinal Rule of ultra running (“Nothing new on race day”) but it would be a way to get some liquid calories and electrolytes and seemed worth the risk.

After a hard push, I crested the Testicle and, without pausing, crashed straight down over to Meth Lab Hill.

Last year, I’d been caught up in a group here, and we had tracked to the right coming down. This time around, the front runners had made a path going straight down, so I followed suit. I soon met up with Cassie and Deano. We chatted cordially, and they, too, seemed to be having fun. Deano appreciated my Barkley geekiness, calling me “a great source of obscure Barkley knowledge.” Felt like a compliment to me. There were some moments of sliding uncontrollably down ridiculous pitches, and a few near collisions, but we made decent progress. When we hit some rocks in a dry wash, Cassie strayed to the right, but I saw a straight line that just needed some bushwhacking. I called her back and took the lead, soon leaving her and Deano behind. It’s tempting to stay and chat with friendly folks on the course, but, in the end, it’s still a race, and I pressed on.

Are you ready for the obligatory moment in the race report where I do something stupid?

Hitting the creek rock road at the bottom of Meth Lab, I pulled off my gloves. It was getting hot, and they wouldn’t be necessary again until Rat Jaw. Deano and Cassie were behind me now, and I raced on toward the Armes Compound, heading toward the prison. Glancing down, I saw that one of my gloves was missing. There was no climbing Rat Jaw effectively without it, so I had to stop and turn around. Panicked, I searched the ground, and Cassie and Deano sped by. Frustrated, as more runners passed me, I scoured the road for my glove. Finding it, I cursed at myself and, while pulling them back on and saying out loud, “Leave them on, you idiot,” all of the sudden found myself thrown to the ground with a thundering thud.

The impact stunned me. It took a second to process, but I must have tripped and fallen, hitting my head on the blunt side of a creek rock on the road. While I don’t think I lost consciousness, I don’t exactly remember tripping. I only remember the shock of head hitting rock, of suddenly being horizontal. It’s true Ellen fashion to be able to come down something like Meth Lab Hill with reckless speed and abandonment, totally unscathed, only to fall on the flat, candyass road at the bottom. It hurt like hell, but there was no gaping, bloody head wound, and my legs still worked, so onward it was.

It’s unclear whether it was due to shock, exhaustion, calorie deficit, or all of the above, but the road to the prison was slow going. This should have been a quick sprint. Instead, I rolled into the aid station a little dazed. The boys poured some water on my head, filled my bottles, and confirmed that the next bib punch was over the prison wall.

Aid Station 3 to Aid Station 4 (Mile 10.1 to Mile 11.3 // 7 hours 40 minutes Cutoff)

The prison road was painfully sluggish; at times I slowed to a walk. I couldn’t shake the pain in my head and the feeling of being slightly off, but cussed all the same at the frustratingly slow pace. Durb was near the prison entrance and asked, “How you doing?” Shaking my hand in the universal sign for “so-so,” I confessed, “I fell and hit my head on a rock.”

“Are you ok?”

“I don’t feel great.”

“Well, you’re doing great. You’re in the top 10.”

“Really? Well, shit, then I can’t stop now!” (Meaning, I can’t stop to talk. Stopping the race wasn’t even a consideration, ever.)

“Yeah, you’re easily in the top ten.”

This knowledge, coupled with the fact that my favorite part of the course was up next, all spiked with a little adrenaline and ego, was enough to obscure the pain of a minor head trauma and fuel me on.

The route wound through the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, past James Earl Ray’s cell (the Barkley is partly a joke at his expense, due to Ray’s pathetic failed attempt to escape into the surrounding mountains), and into the yard. From there, it was up one ladder, held by a young local boy who looked on in disbelief at the stupidity of us runners, onto the wall, then down another ladder to the lord of Twitter himself, Keith Dunn. I joked, “This is the hardest part of the course for me.” Absurdly, last year I had vertigo while climbing the ladder, but this time around, I didn’t think twice. Keith punched my bib and kindly directed me toward the tunnel that runs under the prison.

Last year, I had strolled and joked with a group of runners through the tunnel, but this year I ran it with urgency. It had ankle-deep water and required keeping a hand on the wall to steady yourself. Pushing aside thoughts of rats and bats, I trained my focus on the light at the other side and emerged filled with the excitement of reuniting with an old friend.

Hello, Rat Jaw.

Durb says I’m a weirdo (his words!), and maybe it’s true, but I love this damn hill so much. There’s just nothing else like it. The theme of this year’s race was, “Can You Beat the Rat?” Durb’s daughter did a great rendition of a giant rat terrorizing runners, with yellow jackets attacking from above. Most runners curse this hill, and understandably so, I guess. It’s brutal. It’s covered in saw briars. At any moment, you could anger a nest of bees or yellow jackets or step on a rattlesnake (seriously, ask Phil Orndorff.) According to Durb, at one point 40,000 rattlesnakes were dropped onto it from a helicopter (to discouraged inmates from attempting to flee up it.) It’s an open power line cut, so it gets hot and humid, zapping your energy. It’s steep and relentless. I’ve heard figures that it covers 1,800 feet in .89 miles, and that it covers 1,000 feet in a half mile. This is what I love about Rat Jaw. Earlier that week, staring down from the Lookout Tower road, I left RJ a little offering. Instead of trying to beat the Rat, I chose to love it.

love the rat

Artwork for the 2017 BFC created by Audrey Durbin Bartolotti.

Settling in behind Barkley Vet DeWayne Satterfield, we approached the initial climb up Big Rat. The first pitch is so steep, forcing you to grab whatever thorny flora presents itself to belay you up. At least this year it wasn’t so dry and crumbly, so we weren’t off to a bad start. While Big Rat was covered in lush vegetation, most of it wasn’t saw briars. Greenery towered over us, but at least it wasn’t yet tearing us to shreds. We joined up with Heidi, and she and I chatted as we powered up the mountain. She had taken second place last year and was a great climber. Heidi mentioned that she and I were F3 and F4. This was even better than Durb’s top 10, so I kept pushing to keep up. I decided I was sticking with this group if it killed me. Last year, I’d had to pause to catch my breath occasionally on RJ, but on this go round, I just didn’t stop. At one point, some guys above yelled back, “Bees!” They had been stung, and Heidi asked, “Where?” “Right where you are! Go high!” It still wasn’t clear where the bees were, exactly, and the only option was to go high, so we just hoped for the best. Eventually, Heidi pushed past us and forged ahead. I stayed behind DeWayne; he had a great pace going, enough to push me but not too much that I couldn’t sustain it. The towering flora soon morphed to saw briars, which grabbed you from all angles, scratching your skin, removing your hat, and being a rather unpleasant dance partner.

We finally hit the rock wall that stops you in your tracks and forces you to track left or right. Last year, I chose wisely and went right, finding the crack in the rock that allows you to scurry up. Here, we were met with a conga line of about 40 people, all waiting to get around to the right and through the crack. There were murmurs of a guy taking off up through the woods, which was forbidden and could lead to disqualification. Going through the woods wasn’t an option for me; I was staying on course, but this line was absolutely ridiculous. I started eyeing the sea of saw briars to my right, and DeWayne clearly had the same idea as me, saying, “to hell with this” out loud as I simultaneously thought it. Time to blaze a new path. Before we could act on it, Barkley Vet Robert Youngren came bounding out of nowhere. While this might not be exactly how he phrased it, in my memory, I see him cinematically appearing in a flash out of the saw briars and hear him saying, “Fuck this shit!” before crashing past us into the thicket. DeWayne and another runner followed, and I jumped on board. A handful of runners joined us, including another Barkley Vet, Byron Backer. How exciting, for this Barkley nerd, to blaze a path up Rat Jaw with these Vets. I was geeking out.

Of course, there’s a price to pay for such an endeavor. While there were three or so guys ahead of me starting the path, the saw briars were far from trammeled into a manicured trail. Laz had shown me the key to swimming through saw briars, a breaststroke of sorts, but that technique wasn’t viable here. The briars were, as Larry Kelley put it, “the Goldilocks length.” Not tall enough to swim through with your arms, not short enough to step through. Instead, they were just the right height so as to rip every part of your leg, and were too short for your arms to be of much use. Nevertheless, they managed to remove my hat multiple times, and catch me on the ear, lips, and cheek. Pulling out a saw briar that is snarled into your lips isn’t fun, per se, but it certainly felt as if I was getting the full Rat Jaw experience. The worst part was the way they grabbed at the juncture where foot meets leg on the front (what is that part called?). That area took the brunt of the thorns, repeatedly attacked. You get into a zone, though, where you almost don’t feel it. All you can do is laugh, too, at the absurdity of what you’re doing. As Yassine always reminds me, “Your life is so good, you paid to put yourself in this situation.” Yes, indeed.

Our main concern was staying out of the woods. Runners were under strict orders to stay on course, which meant tackling Rat Jaw by staying in the power line cut. The woods were easier going, but off limits. Our troop made a point of keeping the trees on our right, never stepping over that line. We hugged it close at times, but never veered off course. There were more rumblings of the lead male having gone up through the woods. We could see him reaching the top of RJ ahead of us. I hadn’t seen him go into the woods myself, but others clearly had and were pissed. Excepting him, we were now the lead group, having left behind the log jam at the stone wall. I wish that I had looked at my watch to note how long it took us to reach the top, but my guess is about an hour (to go .89 miles.) Despite worse conditions, it felt like I had climbed Rat Jaw faster this year; it certainly helped to reach it earlier in the day, avoiding the blaring heat. A crowd of spectators cheered as we crested the top. I saw Sandra again and asked, “how many women ahead of me?,” already anticipating her answer. “None!” she beamed as she jumped up and down in excitement, waving her arms in the air.

I was the first woman to the top of Rat Jaw, and I felt like I’d just won the race.

This was no time to stop and celebrate. The next bib punch was at the top of the Lookout Tower, so I raced up, only to be greeted by bees flitting about the top. I remained calm and, chanted inside, “you are one with the bees, you are one with the bees.” One landed on my chest, but didn’t sting. Bib punched, I bounded down the stairs, catching a glimpse of the next female runners, including Cassie who kindly asked if I had found my glove, before sprinting down the jeep road to the aid station. This aid station was at mile 11.3, and runners had 7 hours and 40 minutes to reach it before the cutoff. 7 hours and 40 minutes to go 11 miles. That’s astounding. I got there in a little over 4, which is itself quite remarkable and speaks to the difficulty of the first third of the course. There certainly would be no course PRs today.

While I knew it was temporary, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take some pleasure in being F1. This race is so dear to me, that to take the lead, even for a short while, was quite a wonderful feeling. I knew that I probably couldn’t hold the lead, but, admittedly, thoughts of doing so danced in my head. Out of water, and with a long ways to go before the next aid station beyond this one, a stop to refill was necessary. It felt like it took forever, and I sent furtive glances behind me, always ready to see the next woman coming in. Bladder and bottles filled, I sped off–although “sped” is a generous word choice here.

Aid Station 4 to Aid Station 5 (Mile 11.3 to Mile 16)

The calorie deficit caught up as I jogged down the trail. I’m sure the monster climbs and head injury didn’t help, but my sense was that I was cripplingly low on fuel. I started pounding calories, but I was already pretty significantly in the hole. My legs simply wouldn’t turn over. Looking around, others seemed to be in a similar situation. We were the lead pack, but no one was running as fast as they should have been on this candyass section of the course. The exception here was Liz Canty, who breezed past with ease, reclaiming her lead. Soon another woman followed, smiling politely as she passed, followed by Alicia. Iit was fun while it lasted; back to F4.

A cluster of us made our way to the Garden Spot, and I overheard one runner ask Robert Youngren about Rat Jaw, and he replied, “This is about the worst I’ve ever seen it.” Maybe we all took a little pride in hearing that. We’d passed several junctures along this section, and I knew to keep right at them, so I plodded along as quickly as possible, yet feeling like I was running in slow motion. Arriving at an intersection with another jeep road, I was less sure about the route; I’d memorized the trail junctures but had overlooked this road juncture. A group of us paused, and just as I was pulling out the map, Robert came up from behind and said, “Go up to the Garden Spot, go up.” Others would not be so lucky here, as many opted to go right, which resulted in hours of aimless wandering off course.

Heading up hill, Anatoly rolled up and, grabbing my arm said, “Come on, Elena, let’s go together!” I only wished that I had the speed to join him, especially since he had an outstanding run and finished in second place. I tried to dig deep and push, but it wasn’t enough to keep up. A voice then came from behind, “There she is! Hey, I heard you said I was just an old stick or something!” It was the Louisville Brothers, Brad and Scott. “No, I said you were all stick and no carrot in trying to motivate your brother last year.” That seemed more agreeable to him. Scott asked where I had passed him; “Rat Jaw,” I explained. Remembering that Brad had started off by running with Scott’s son, I asked jokingly, “Did you drop your nephew?” “I had to! We weren’t going to make the cutoffs!” It was fun to be reunited with my Chimney Top Crew, and I decided that I was going to try my best to finish it with them this year. I was still haunted by stepping aside last year and having them go on without me, so it felt like an opportunity to revise that mistake.

We rolled into the Garden Spot to find a line of runners waiting for Mike Dobies to punch their bibs. I’d been preparing all day for the quiz he planned to give in exchange for a bib punch, but the frenzy of impatient runners canceled the exam. Standing in line, I shouted, “Come on, Dobies, let’s get these bibs punched already!” Horrified runners, including Brad, spun around, shooting me dirty looks. I felt rather sheepish under their hostile stares; I’d only been joking, but that wasn’t apparent to them. I guess I like that they felt protective of this poor, innocent volunteer out here punching bibs. When my turn arrived, Mike said, “Eww, you have a slimy bib. I hate the slimy ones.” Laughing, I patted him on the shoulder, saying, “See you round the campfire tonight” and I tilted down the trail.

Catching a group of runners, I yelled up to Brad, “Hey, I was just messing with Mike Dobies back there. You looked like you wanted to kill me!” “Oh, he knew you were joking,” Scott offered, to which Brad replied, “Yeah, if you hadn’t been joking, I would have punched you in the face, because I hate women.” Duly noted: don’t joke with Brad today.

I joined a small group, including the Louisville Bros. and Alicia, as we wound up and down the trail on our way to the next aid station. There were a number of switchbacks dotting this section. As a slow climber, I yielded to the rest of the group, and they dropped me on the ups. With each descent, I caught back up. This game of cat and mouse continued all the way to the aid station. At least I was able to eat on the climbs, a desperate effort to repair the deficit. At one point, we veered off course. We didn’t go far before I started to think this didn’t feel right, and as I thought it, Brad said it out loud, while up ahead Alicia yelled back that we were off. Fortunately, we all realized our mistake before getting too far astray. In my memory, this section, albeit run in the reverse direction, had seemed like one of the easiest on the course last year. I didn’t remember this much climbing. Blowdowns littered the trail, slowing our progress significantly. Needless to say, I didn’t leap over them like a graceful gazelle. There was less chatting, as we all settled into a groove and pressed forward.

Reaching the aid station, I made a quick turn around. I grabbed for a banana, and saw the bowl had bees crawling inside it. Once again, I escaped unstung. The volunteer who punched my bib said, “You’ve got a hanging chad there, but we’ll count it,” to which I replied, “If there’s a recount, I’m going to come looking for you!” On my way out, Liz came barreling in. She must have taken a wrong turn as well, as I hadn’t passed her. There was no telling how many runners who had been ahead of us had done the same.

Aid Station 5 to Aid Station 6 (Mile 16 to Mile 22.2 / 9 hours 30 minutes cutoff)

A ways out from the aid station, we crossed paths with Heidi, going the opposite direction. She’d followed a guy off course and was heading back to get her bib punched. She hadn’t passed us since Rat Jaw, so there’s no telling where or how they got off course. “You’ve got time; hang in there,” we offered. Liz must have made a quick turnaround, because she caught me pretty quickly. She asked how I was doing as she passed and explained she’d gotten lost. She was clearly frustrated, and said something along the lines of, “Now I just want to get this thing over and done with.” Wishing her well as she sped ahead, I thought to myself, “What’s wrong with me that I don’t want to ever be finished with this race?” I was having so much fun and loved being out in the park. I had waited a long year for the opportunity to be out there, and it was a shame to think it would be another year before I’d have the opportunity to do so again.

The group had dropped me, but I would close the gap on the coming descents. My legs were pretty shredded, and my head was throbbing. While I didn’t run conservatively, I also didn’t bomb down full blast. A few times rocks tripped me, but I always caught myself. After a few repeats of this, I yelled out, “Fuck!” and heard another voice materialize: “Language!” It was Brad, pulled up against a tree stretching his legs. “Ha, sorry! I just keep tripping over my damn feet!” We leap frogged a bit, but once we started up the backside of Bird Mountain, they disappeared.

Oh, the backside of Bird. Larry Kelley had warned that it would be “the great equalizer.” In my memory, in 2016 it was a fun downhill jaunt with canted single track and pretty little streams. Going up it was an entirely different game. The reality was that it was in many ways the toughest climb on the course. Bird was going to end a lot of races today. It was incredible to think that after this, there was still Chimney Top to face. Shaking my head, I laughed once again at Steve and Laz’s evil genius. This course was kicking some serious butt.

Since my legs were torn open, and my palms sweaty, using the old “hands on knees” approach to climbs wasn’t working. The salty sweat sharply stung the open wounds. Fortunately, Frozen Head offers many natural trekking poles. I grabbed a suitable stick and used it to help take some of the load off my legs. While perhaps the most difficult part of the race, it was also one of the most pleasant. The forest is quite lovely, and the birds were happily chirping. Dappled sunlight filtered through the trees, and the streams meandered over limestone. I spent most of this section alone, listening to birdsong and thinking about the pre-race visualization that Seth had guided me through, in which he said the beasts of Frozen Head would help me along the way.

I heard footsteps behind me and saw Barkley Vet Tim Dines approaching. We’d passed at the last aid station, but it took him a while to catch me. I stepped aside, since he was clearly the faster climber, but kept him within view for some time. Another runner, looking wearied, caught me. I laughed and asked, “Are you having fun yet?” He smiled and said, “At least it’s real pretty here.” Agreed. We fell into a silent march up the remaining switchbacks until, at last, I saw clear sky and the trail sign marking the top of the mountain. “Yip yip!” I hooted. “Is that the top?” “It sure is, although I wish that I could tell you it’s all downhill from here. At least it is for a little while.”

With that, I re-gifted my walking stick to the woods and bounded down Bird. I had anticipated really bombing down this section, but the sensible part of me said to save something for Chimney Top and not to court danger, given my pounding head. Still, I pushed pretty hard, and was surprised when I saw Alicia slowly making her way down. “That climb was a killer,” I suggested. She replied, “Yeah, my race is done at Laz,” meaning she wasn’t going on for the 50k. “No! You have to keep going! What’s wrong?” “Just not feeling well, not trained enough.” I offered her Endurolytes and food, but she was all set. “Well, you have plenty of time, so try to keep pushing. At least you don’t have to worry about anyone breaking your course record today!” I was happy to see on the results page that she had, in fact, pushed through for a 50k finish.

While I didn’t rejoice in Alicia having a bad day, I did find my racing legs after passing her, because it meant that there were probably only 1 or 2 women ahead of me now. A podium finish was within my grasp. My paced quickened, and I passed a few male runners as I tore down the remaining switchbacks of Bird.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but surely everyone who runs this race has envisioned themselves running toward that Yellow Gate as they complete Loop 5 of the Barkley. Maybe it’s just me, but probably not. Well, in my dreams, I’m always coming down from Bird on Loop 5, so today it felt like a micro version of that fantasy come true, swishing down the mountain, switching back and forth, now fleetly leaping over rocks, the sound of the creek’s babble getting louder as I draw nearer the bottom. The planets align and all is well in the world.

When I hit the jeep road, my new friend Mike Edwards was sitting there in a camp chair and called out some words of encouragement as I headed for the bridge and rounded the corner. The Yellow Gate came into view, and the most ridiculous smile spread across my face. Unable to resist, I touched it before continuing down the road toward the trailhead, where Laz was waiting at “The Decision Point.” I felt strong and happy and privileged and completely alive.

There was a very welcome reception hosted by volunteers and onlookers alike at the trailhead. I had reached it in 8 hours and 15 minutes; the cutoff was 9 hours and 30 minutes. Last year, I reached the cutoff with only a half hour to spare. It spoke to my progress over the course of a year that I reached it more quickly, and on a tougher course.

I found my drop bag and ditched my Kool Tie, gloves, and all the food that I should have eaten but hadn’t. This made a much lighter pack, which was most welcome. The Coalfield Boys went to work on adding Sword to my bottles. An older man, who looked familiar but whom I was unable to place, grabbed my bladder and said, “Let me do that. We’re here to take care of you. You look so strong; much stronger than the woman ahead of you. Of course, I told her that, too.” I laughed. “Hey, your legs are pretty bad. Want us to wash them off for you?” “No, thanks, I need to get out of here!” He started to say how much he loved being out here and seeing us runners; I tried to be appreciative of the sentiment and stayed for a few seconds more, but I felt a sense of urgency and needed to set out.

Thanking them, I trotted over to Laz for my bib punch and to state my intention to go forward and attempt the 50k (instead of quitting and taking the consolation prize of the marathon finish.) I asked, “How many women ahead of me?” “Just one!” he replied. Another volunteer said, “Well, just two.” I thanked them and headed out to face Chimney Top. As I started down the trail, Laz yelled, “It’s all a gentle slope from here, and mostly downhill.” “Well, I know that’s not true, but I appreciate the thought.” They laughed and said something else, but I was too far down the trail to catch their words. Reaching the creek, Misty Wong said, “Looking good! There’s only one woman ahead of you, I think. Maybe two.” I didn’t know who to believe, so I worked under the assumption that there were two ahead of me, making me F3.

Aid Station 6 to Finish Line (Mile 22.2 to Mile 31.2 / 13 hours 20 minutes Cutoff)

I had woefully underestimated Chimney Top in 2016, and paid dearly. My heart rate felt off the charts, my vision flickered, and the climbs left me breathless. I approached it with humility this go round, but also with the sense that it would feel more like the gentle slope Laz described after having climbed up the back of Bird. I picked up another walking stick and moved forward, propelled by the fear of being hunted by F4. I wasn’t so much concerned with catching F2 as I was with keeping F4 at bay.

The runner with bib #27 (I was bib 28) caught me after the creek. At registration, we had joked that it meant we would finish together, and he said he was going to just hold on and let me drag him through. We laughed at meeting on the course here; he was moving strong and soon left me. Another runner ahead of me stopped dead in his tracks and came back down the hill, a look of agony on his face. “I missed Spicewood. I didn’t get my bib punched at Spicewood. I have to go back!” Smiling, I touched his shoulder and reassuringly said, “We’re going to Spicewood, Buddy. We’re on our way there. All is good.” Relieved, he fell in behind me and stayed there all the way to Spicewood.

Chimney Top is the hill that keeps on giving. You climb up and up, and when you reach a ridge and think you’re finished, the trail turns to the left, and you climb again. I passed several men who were stopped on logs or rocks, catching their breath and looking bewildered by the difficulty of the climb. Pierre was one of them; I asked if he needed anything; “No, just catching my breath.” Others gave similar replies. I’d been in their shoes last year but was committed to not stopping this time. RFP. The trail descended for a time, which I had no real memory of. I’d been kinda out of it in 2016, but it felt strange not to recognize my surroundings. I knew that I was on course, though, and, sure enough, once we started to climb again, the trail became familiar.

There were an incredible number of blowdowns through here. I had taken away a valuable lesson from my Goat Lake Recce with Seth, during which we tried to keep sight of a boot track among an array of blowdowns. He taught me to stop and assess the situation, looking at where the trail came from to help determine where it would continue under and then past the blowdown. I put that experience to work here, and patience and intention rewarded me with never losing the trail.

Climbing some more switchbacks, I saw Scott up ahead of me and dug a little deeper to catch him. Nearing the first set of capstones, I closed the gap and said, “Fancy meeting you here!” “Hey there! Brad dropped me.” Scott had a great pace going, so I fell in behind him. We chatted about our experience on Chimney Top last year, recognizing that we were both having decidedly better races than before. We took advantage of the runnable sections as they presented themselves, noting that there was one more big push after the first capstones. It was nice to talk and feel in good spirits after such a taxing climb, and running helped wake up my tired and sore legs. He pulled ahead a bit; my legs were stiff and needed to loosen up, especially for the descent to come. It was interesting to see campers at Mart Fields; they offered some kind words, and this landmark meant the final checkpoint wasn’t far off.

Cresting a small incline, down below I saw Larry Kelley punching a runner’s bib while Scott put away his poles. “Cougar Snack coming in!” I laughed, running down to the junction with Spicewood. “There she is!” Scott yelled. “Cougar Snack!!!” Larry returned. As he punched my bib, I said, “I have an obnoxious question for you: how many ladies ahead of me?” “Two.” That settled it; I trusted his answer. Taking a little water before heading into the homestretch, I started for the trail as Larry smiled and sent me off with, “Cougar Snack!”

Remarkably, this section had given me the most trouble last year, so this felt like a rematch. My recce run earlier in the week confirmed that I was more than capable of running down this very quickly, although there were some nasty sections with slick limestone that nearly swept me off my feet. I would be cautious on the rocks, but would otherwise run my guts out down this trail. I soon passed Scott and said, “You’ll catch me.” I passed a couple other men who said, “Looking strong!” I felt great. I was running toward a podium finish at my favorite race, and regaining my dignity on a trail that had humiliated me a year prior. Being alone, and moving quickly, thoughts of a rattlesnake encounter flashed through my mind, but I repeated that I was one with the beasts of Frozen Head, and they would grant me a free pass. A smile pressed against my cheeks as I raced down the mountain.

Hitting the main trail, I spun toward the trailhead. Along the way, I passed Robert Youngren, moving slowly. “Hey, Trailblazer! Thanks for leading the way up Rat Jaw!” “Yeah, that’s not what I signed up for, but it’s what I got,” he replied. “Do you need anything?” I turned around to ask. “Nah, I’m ok.” I waved and pressed on. Soon the trailhead came into view; Laz was still there, along with some spectators who hooted as I zoomed through. One mile to go, all on paved road.

I was tired as hell, but there was no excuse for running slow on a paved road one mile from the finish line. Some marathon finishers cheered as I passed them. The shadow of F4 haunted me, and I anxiously turned around a couple times to make sure she wasn’t in sight. Rounding the corner into Flat Fork Field, the finish line came into view. I can’t help myself and always sprint at the end of a race, no matter how I feel. This was no exception. Crossing the finish line, I heard Durb’s voice over the speaker, “Ellen Bayer of Tacoma Washington, finishing third female in the 50k.”

I finished in 11 hours, 7 minutes, and 26 seconds. Nearly an hour faster than in 2016, and on a tougher course to boot. I’d finished 11th female and 69th overall last year. This year, I’d moved up to third female and 22nd overall. This felt like quite a personal accomplishment. I waited at the finish line to congratulate Scott as he, too, came in for a strong 11-hour finish. At the awards tent, Keith Dunn meticulously selected the Croix de Barque with the best positioned star for me (the star indicating this was my second finish) while John Kelley’s mother congratulated me on a great run. While I have a box of medals set to be shipped off and donated to Medals for Mettle, the Croix will be conspicuously absent from that box.

Croix de Barque avec Etoille

Croix de Barque, avec Étoille.

bib

My bib. Having secured all 7 punches required for the 50k finish, my bib read, “I Beat the Rat.” Marathon finish bibs said, “I Ate the Rat.”

The adrenaline having worn off, the pain in my head regained my attention. Shannon (whose last name I never caught) gave me an unofficial exam. As she described the potential delayed effects of a concussion, I immediately started feeling all of those symptoms at once. In reality, I was just hyperventilating, but it was scary all the same. She and Mike took care of me until a medic came over to assess my situation. He determined that I had a mild concussion and told me to go on brain rest for the week and to get myself to the ER if certain symptoms presented.

Mike deposited me in a chair and I ate the world’s most delicious veggie burger while watching runners come in. Liz came over and hugged me, congratulating me on my run. “Did you win?” “Yeah, but I had to chase her [F2] down first!” I was happy for her, as she had clearly worked hard. I caught up with Matthew Crownover, with whom I had climbed Rat Jaw last year. He said, “Let me ask you a question,” and paused. “This course was tougher,” I answered, anticipating his question. He laughed, and we compared notes. It was definitely more difficult, and part of its strength came in appearing, on the map, to be easier. I had the opportunity to speak with other runners post-race who expressed similar sentiments. Some had finished the 50k, some the marathon, some took a DNF. It seemed like everyone had fun, though. Everyone felt they had a story to share. I finally had a moment to check out my Rat Bites, which were quite impressive. Definitely left a healthy offering to the trail gods today.

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Epilogue

Sitting around the campfire that night, we shared stories and laughs. Jenn monitored me for warning signs that would signal a trip to the ER and made sure that I took only three sips of the Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale Mike Dobies had been saving for me. Our group grew to include a wonderful array of more Barkers and BFCers. Much like the race, I didn’t want this night to end. I’d made great new friends, and sharing our experiences with a campfire flickering was nearly as much fun as being out on the course. Nearly 24 hours after waking for the race, and apparently in the clear to go to bed with a mild concussion without dying in my sleep, I reluctantly headed toward my tent. It will be a great pleasure to reconvene with the Campfire Gang next September.

After last year’s BFC finish, I aspired to work toward a top ten finish for 2017. My subsequent podium finish surpassed those expectations by far. Of course, it’s important to keep things in perspective. I was the third fastest lady who showed up that day. On another day, the results could have been different. That’s not false modesty; it’s the reality of ultra running. I’m happy all the same to feel that my hard work resulted in a faster, stronger, and more confident me. I’ll admit it: I like racing. I like competing. I want to win. I want to push myself, discover my limits, and find out what I’m made of. But in addition to becoming a stronger runner, physically, I’ve also grown emotionally. Ultra running has taught me a lot about how to live my life and navigate its ups and downs. There are lessons to be learned in every race and in each training run. There’s also a lot of fun to be had in the journey, and wonderful people who will share it with me. I used to joke with Yassine and describe our pre-race phone calls as our “talk Ellen down from the ledge” call. I’d be so anxious and high strung before a race; Yassine was always reliably calm and cool. Over the past few months, the nature of our pre-race talks has changed. He still has important words of wisdom to share, and I still need them, but I’d like to think that I have reached that calm and cool state he’s modeled for me. I still have my drive, but the intensity has shifted in character. It’s more positive and confident, less nervous and doubting.

This, then, is why I feel the 2017 BFC is emblematic of me approaching a state of coming full circle. This journey began early last year when I registered for the 2016 BFC. What a different person I was then. If we are to believe Henry Ward Beecher, who suggests, “We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started,” then I have traveled a remarkable distance. Through the help of this race, Yassine, the ultra community, and my family and friends, I returned to Frozen Head a happier, healthier person, and a stronger runner. There’s still much work to be done, and there’s room for more growth on so many fronts. I haven’t been at my best over the past year; in fact, I’ve often felt as if I’m floundering around without direction. But ultra running has gifted me a number of challenges that have resulted in personal growth, pushing me to pull myself together and create a better self. There’s also promise that the best is yet to come, thanks, in many ways, to the foundation that the Barkley Fall Classic has built for me.

I am eternally grateful.

Cougar Bait

Another sign of growth: I can laugh at myself and embrace a new trail name, Cougar Snack, which doesn’t sound nearly as badass as BFC Black Horse, but is probably more fitting. Photo Credit: Mike Dobies, who saw this while shopping for beer and thought of me.

 

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