A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Category: Barkley Fall Classic

Race reports from the Barkley Fall Classic

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collected via my obsessive scanning of the BFC roster: the only two women to finish ahead of me at the 2017 BFC had withdrawn from this year’s race.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.

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.

Frozen Head sign

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.

********************************************************************

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.

 

“Relentless Forward Progress”: A Barkley Fall Classic Race Report

“During the run, I will merely have to continue to make Relentless Forward Progress (RFP) one Barkley Mile at a time.”

–Frozen Ed Furtaw

“It’s  an awesome race. Train well, and you’ll love it.”

–Steve Durbin

“it is not an adventure if you are sure you will make it.”

–lazarus lake

******

A truncated honk broke the morning murmur. A more definitive conch shell blast followed, calling all runners to attention, as laz sounded the one-hour warning. The murmur grew to an energized babble as we made final preparations and consumed a few more calories. laz strode past our picnic table, conch shell in hand, and, smiling, asked if we had heard it. We smiled and nodded, and when he inquired, “Does it feel real now?” the other runners replied, “yes.” I laughed and said, “no!” He shook his head and quipped, “it’s gonna get real, real fast!”

Everything for me had been moving toward this day, this race. That it had arrived as an actual event, an actual day, seemed incredible. For six months, I had trained my guts out. I read race reports and studied a topographical map of Frozen Head State Park. I knew every word of Frozen Ed Furtaw’s book, Tales from Out There. I ran hill repeats on mountains and took classes in compass navigation. I left the comfort of running with friends to train solo on the trails for hours on end. No missed workouts, no excuses. I was going to arrive at the Barkley Fall Classic as prepared as possible. There would be plenty of elements in this race that would be simply out of my control–that’s its appeal, after all–but success hinged on showing up ready for it. I felt ready, but a twinge of regret for having ever told anyone I was running this race nagged at me. Word had spread quickly, and I felt cloaked in the weight of the Tacoma running community’s expectations. It would be one thing to let myself down, but it would be something entirely different to fail in the eyes of so many. As we lined up for the start, though, all of this fell away.  I placed a hand on my friend Crystal’s shoulder, looked around at the several hundred runners and the silhouette of mountains that cupped us, and smiled.

******

Since my use of “ground rules” proved so effective in running the White River 50 Miler, I developed a similar rubric for my run at the BFC.

  1. Consume at least 100 calories every 30 minutes.
  2. Stay hydrated, making sure to drain your water by the time you reach the next aid station.
  3. Take an Endurolyte every hour.
  4. Make smart decisions on the course.
  5. Spend no more than 2 minutes at an aid station. This I learned from the legendary Ann Trason, who shared her philosophy at an inspiring talk she gave at The Balanced Athlete in August.
  6. Make Relentless Forward Progress (RFP). This phrase I borrowed from another ultra legend, Ed Furtaw, who used it as a mantra for his running of the Barkley Marathons in 1997. Staying ahead of the sweepers and making the cutoffs was essential, so it would be helpful to keep this chant playing on a loop in my head. This meant, too, that I would run anything that was remotely runnable.

These were things within my control, and they would be crucial to success on the course. I would deal with the things that lay out of my control as they arose, but if I neglected the elements that I had agency over, then I could not expect to finish this race. I didn’t bother adding “Quitting is not an option” to the ground rules, because that went without saying.

******

Start Line to Aid Station #1: Bald Knob / 7.6 miles / 4 Hour Cutoff

There was a moment of silence held in honor of Barkley Veteran Stu Gleman, who loved this park and whose presence, we were assured, would be watching over us out there. Such complete focus settled over me, that I didn’t even see laz light his cigarette signaling the start of the race. In fact, I didn’t catch a glimpse of him on the sideline as we made our way over the timing mat. My eyes were set forward, and my legs sought to move up toward the front of the middle pack. My plan was to come out hot and get a jump up Bird Mountain. There would surely be a bottleneck up that climb, and I didn’t want to find myself on the wrong side of it. Other runners had given me doubting looks when I shared this strategy, but I knew it would work for me. The climbs would be my strong suit on this course, and the switchbacks up Bird would feel like home.

Being the thoughtful course designers that they are, laz and Durb built into the start of the race about 2 miles on pavement winding through Frozen Head State Park. This helped to spread out the runners, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to move up through the herd. Soon, that infamous yellow gate came into view. Shockingly, there were already a number of runners walking up the slight (paved) incline. I zipped around them, but took a moment to reach back and touch the yellow gate for good luck. At this point, I realized Crystal had fallen behind me. We had agreed to run our own races, as she was coming back from an injury, so I turned my attention to the trail that broke off leading up into the forest.

yellow-gate

The yellow gate.

The humidity was something fierce. I hadn’t experienced that in over two years, so it was a bit of a punch to the gut. By mile 2, I was completely drenched, sweat dripping down little rivulets into my socks. Fortunately, as we climbed, a lovely breeze sauntered over the mountain. I found myself in a group that was moving at a relatively good pace. I could have power hiked faster here, but the pace was strong enough that I felt good about staying put and not trying to pass on the narrow single-track trail. One runner asked if everyone else was carrying a Sharpie in order to mark off switchbacks as we ascended, which struck me as a pretty great idea, but I figured that would be unnecessary. I had studied the map so intently, that I felt pretty confident in my ability to stay on course.

As we neared the top of the initial climb, a sweeper holding a scythe greeted us. He blocked the trail leading forward, forcing runners to turn right. At camp the night before, we had discussed this turn as a potential problem, but the RDs must have decided to baby us and send an angel with a scythe to guide us. I smiled as I shook his hand and said, “Thanks for being here, but I hope not to see you again!” He laughed and said, “We’re just here to help.” This directional cue was the most help that I wanted from a sweeper on this course.

The field had broken into smaller packs, now, and mine continued to move ahead at a good clip as we began the first descent. The footing was tricky, as autumn leaves littered the trail, covering jagged rocks. The ground was dry, sometimes crumbling under foot and nearly sending me cascading down a slope. It was also canted at an uncomfortable angle. Throw all this together, and you realize that the descent isn’t really a reprieve from the climbs; it’s just a different challenge. Taking another cue from Ann Trason, I thought of the course as a puzzle to work out. It was a matter of finding a rhythm that kept me moving forward while negotiating footing and keeping upright. Given my talent for tripping on trails (and breaking bones as a result), I would have to be a great negotiator on this course if I expected to come out in one piece. After only a few minutes of running downhill, my IT band starting screaming at me. It’s never done that before–ever–and I told my leg that it was too early in the race for this nonsense and to please shut the hell up.

This section of the course was particularly delightful. The physical trail was unlike anything I had run before, with its deciduous leaf litter and southern soil composition. It simply felt different than the trails of the Pacific Northwest. A fun new puzzle. It did, however, remind me of hiking in Indiana as a kid, that distinctive autumnal smell of trampled leaves sending me back to those days. There was a comfort in that, and I couldn’t help but think, “This really isn’t all that tough.” Of course, I knew this was just the false sense of ease laz and Durb hoped to instill, but to this point, it felt like a pleasant jog through the woods. I may have even let out a few little “Yips” or “Yeehaws” as we zigzagged down the mountain. This was just plain fun.

At the bottom of that descent I saw my first race casualty: a runner propped up against a giant walking stick, standing to the side of the trail to let us pass. He had a look of resignation on his face. We asked if he needed help, and he explained that he had sprained his ankle. That was going to be one hell of a walk up to the aid station. I give the guy credit for hobbling out on his own. In addition to his ankle, he also broke the spell of ease for me. It reminded me of ground rule # 4: Make smart decisions on the course. This included not going so fast that I set myself up for a bad, race-ending step. Duly noted.

After another series of switchbacks, I arrived at the first aid station, 1.5 hours before the cutoff, according to my stopwatch. That means it took me 2.5 hours to cover 7.6 miles, and I wasn’t lollygagging along.

The first order of business was to get my bib punched. Without it, all else would be for naught. Next, I needed to refill my water bottles and bladder. My fingers were a little swollen, and I was having trouble opening the bladder, so I asked a volunteer for help. He kindly obliged and refilled it for me, along with my bottles. There was no reason to linger (see Ground Rules #5 & 6 above) so I thanked the volunteers and headed back out. One man called out to the pack, “The next section is less mileage and less climb than the first. It’s much more runnable.” A look at the map would confirm this, but it was also nice to hear. Heading outbound from the aid station, some runners asked, with a tinge of panic in their voice, how far to the aid station? I smiled and reassured them they were just about there, but thought to myself, “Good lord, it’s going to be a long day for some folks.”

Bald Knob to Aid Station #2: Tub Springs / 12.4 Miles / 6 Hour Cutoff

The field had thinned considerably after the first aid station, and I found myself alone for stretches along Bald Knob. There were a few places where a side trail tempted you in the wrong direction, but the park map was seared into my mind, so I moved forward confidently. It pays to be a good student. There were more switchbacks to climb, and they led to the second hole punch. There I found Barkley Veteran Mike Dobies sitting on a log, hole punch ready. I shook his hand, and we chatted for a moment. If I wasn’t careful, I would have broken Ground Rule #6 and stayed there to talk with him all day. Given that Mike Dobies and Ed Furtaw had both adopted RFP as their motto in 1997, I assumed he would appreciate my abrupt departure.

The single track gave way to a jeep road, and the elevation leveled out a bit. This section was very runnable, and I was surprised to pass people walking. Another runner was moving at a perfect pace, so I positioned myself to draft him. I could hear the footsteps of a third runner behind me, and we fell into a rhythm, our little locomotive moving through the trees. Along the way, we picked up another runner. We exchanged where we were from (which was common on this course; people didn’t ask your name but where you were from). My drafting pal was from Atlanta, and our new friend was from Portland. Atlanta had run the BFC in 2014, and Portland had run it in 2015, so each shared a few tips as we sped along. It felt wonderful to open up my legs, pushing myself to take full advantage of the gentle terrain.

We blew into Tub Springs 2 hours before the cutoff. I was pleased to have created even more cushion between myself and the scythes coming up from behind, but I knew better than to get too cozy.

And then I proceeded to have my one and only minor meltdown on the course, after having run the absolute easiest part of it.

Young football players from the county school were volunteering at most of the aid stations, and these young gentlemen were kind enough to refill my bottles and bladder. They also poured water on my head, at my request, although they were a bit baffled by that. As I attempted to close my bladder, the top would not latch. I grew increasingly frustrated, and kept trying to latch it closed, but to no avail. I asked one of the football players for help, and he said, “Oh, you’re asking the wrong person.” A half dozen of them worked on it, with no better luck than me. I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that I had been here longer than 2 minutes and needed to go. I thanked them and took the bladder back, making repeated, unsuccessful attempts to latch it.

Then droppeth the f-bombs.

Realizing I was setting a poor example, I apologized to the young men. One, slightly stunned, said, “It’s ok, miss. You should hear how our coach talks to us.” The others voiced their agreement. It was a very kind response.

Panic really had set in, though, because without water, I was, well, fucked. I refused to believe that my race was over for such a stupid and unaccountable reason. I immediately tried to channel some sort of inner MacGyver in order to rig a temporary fix, but as I saw runners who I had passed earlier now leaving the aid station ahead of me, I fumbled even more confusedly. In the most well-timed intervention imaginable, a runner came up to me and said, “Here, let me help you with that. You’re tired.” And with his magical hands, he closed the latch in mere seconds. I have never thanked someone so profusely in my entire life, but let me say it one more time: Thank you, runner in blue shirt wearing glasses. You saved my ass.

Onward!

Tub Springs to Aid Station #3: Salvation Road / 14.7 Miles

Portland and I left Tub Springs together and chatted about running in the PNW as we breezed down the jeep road. I left my frustration behind at the aid station and pressed forward with a renewed sense of joy. This was another welcome opportunity to bank some time against the climbs to come, and we passed quite a few runners in the process. We wound our way down the mountain and crossed the highway, some friendly volunteers directing us across the road and sharing words of encouragement. As the jeep road climbed back up the mountain, Portland started to trail behind. We were mid conversation, but I was sticking to the ground rules, and unapologetically kept running as he slowed to a walk. This hill was runnable, for me, so up I went. RFP.

And then I met the Testicle, and this race went from good to great.

After 4+ hours on what laz calls “candy ass trails,” we were finally heading off trail and onto the infamous Testicle Spectacle. It was breathtaking. There was a small group of spectators at the top–Spectacle Spectators, if you will–and one guy helpfully instructed, “If you’ve got gloves, now’s the time to put them on.” This was obvious, as saw briars cloaked the hill. We donned our gloves, and then stood for a moment. Again, the man spoke up: “Well, what are you all waiting for? An invitation? Get to it! It should take you an hour to get down.” We laughed at our own moment of hesitation. I think we were just in awe of the Spectacle’s scale and slant.

The descent wasn’t entirely what I had expected. There were the steep pitches downward, but there were climbs as well, with some runnable bits in between. The saw briars cut in right away, but their bark was worse than the bite. While some runners attempted to go down those steep grades upright, I threw out any sense of dignity and slid down in a crab walk position. It wasn’t too long before most other runners swallowed their pride and opted for the same. This descent felt like a party, and the pack I was with seemed to be enjoying it as much as me. There were lots of testicle jokes, which I won’t include here, but you can use your imagination. Everyone’s spirits were high, and we made good progress. About halfway down, a group of Big Barkley veterans passed us on their way back up. I was astounded to even see them on the course, and this was my first hint that I was farther up in the field than I had imagined, although I scarcely believed it. They all said, “good work” or other words of encouragement, which became the norm on the Spectacle. I had wondered what the course climate would be, not having run a trail ultra outside of the PNW. Here, even the front runners share kind words with us mid-packers, and I was happy to see that same camaraderie at the BFC.

We ran into a bottle neck at a particularly steep climb. A red arrow, one of few course markings, directed us up it, and you could sense the restlessness as we waited our turn. A runner came up from behind and yelled, “No, no, no! We can go around it, to the left! I did this last year, I know! Follow me!” With that, a whole gaggle of runners followed him around the bend. I thought about Rule #4, Make Good Decisions on the Course, and looked at the runner next to me. He shook his head and said, “I’m following the arrow.” I nodded in agreement. We did end up seeing again those runners who detoured–as we were leaving Aid Station #3, and they were just arriving.

After more climbing and butt-sliding, saw briars and inexplicable shoe-sucking mud, we reached the bottom of the Spectacle and cut into the woods to bushwhack down to the New River crossing. Along the way I saw a discarded stove top rusting in the woods, which took me back to the “appliance graveyard” on top of the hill I learned to run on as a kid. I guess that’s a universal thing, hauling old appliances to the most unlikely of places to discard of them.

laz had promised a baptism on the course, so I knew this river crossing was coming, and I knew how I would tackle it. I shook my head at the runners trying to hop across on rocks as I plowed straight into the water and darted across, leaving many people behind. I run with wet feet for nine months of the year, and the cold shock of water was a welcome respite from the growing heat. The woods soon cleared and we hit the pavement. In that moment, I realized that my feet hurt. They were fine on the trail, but that hard top road sent shock waves through my feet, which caught me off guard, but it only made me laugh. I sucked it up and sprinted to the aid station.

At the church, I made sure to get my bib punched before attending to my water. I also threw out my not eating bananas due to environmental concerns policy and happily ate several. I guess there really was salvation here, as promised, because I figured out my mistake with the latch on my bladder: I had been folding the bladder in the wrong direction. Well, no time to wring my hands over being such an idiot. It was time to climb back up the Spectacle. This was an important moment, because the line on the course map changed from yellow to white, indicating that I was now “inbound.”

Salvation Road to Aid Station #4: Brushy Mountain State Prison / 17.5 Miles

The return trip up Testicle Spectacle elicited an even livelier mood. My pack joked and laughed while also encouraging each runner we passed on their way down. About halfway up, I saw Big Barkley veteran Kimberly Durst on her way down, and I wondered, “How in the hell am I ahead of her?” Knowing she ran a sub-12 last year, the hope of doing so myself started to seep in. I had to push that thought away, though; this year was supposed to be about finishing.

The Spectators were awaiting our return at the top of the Spectacle and provided more helpful suggestions. Did laz and Durb position them out there to help us runners, or were they just Good Samaritans? Whatever the circumstances of their presence, they certainly played a key role in keeping me on course. They directed us toward Meth Lab Hill with specific instructions: “Now, head down this hill. Start off to the left here, then veer right but stick to the power cut as far down as possible, then go left. You’ll hit the road, then head to the prison. Listen, once you get to Rat Jaw, you need to stay on the power cut. You will be tempted to go into the woods for easier climbing or to avoid the briars, but I’ve seen runners get way off course doing that. If you don’t know these mountains, then you’re gonna get lost doing that, so always keep the cut line in sight.” There were about a dozen of us ready to make our way down Meth Lab as one of the Spectacle Spectators offered one final observation, “You guys look like the Fellowship of the Ring!” due to one runner who had picked up a gigantic staff of a tree branch, fittingly curled at the top. We laughed and followed Gandalf down the hill.

Meth Lab was surprisingly runnable, albeit with its own butt-sliding components. When we reach an impassable juncture, there was some confusion about the direction. I remembered the instructions as going left, but others pulled to the right, as runners had clearly done before us. Of course, that didn’t mean a thing, as they themselves might have been off course. We hedged for a moment and went right. I hoped this was in keeping with Rule #4. We lucked out, and soon reached the bottom, where things flattened out and we could pick up the pace. There were a few moments of uncertainty about direction, but we soon found the paved road to the prison.

I had been toward the front of this pack and now used this opportunity to speed ahead, apparently the only runner who thought sprinting was a good idea at this point. Out in the open, it soon sank in just how hot the day had become, but I pushed on, passing walkers as I zoomed toward the aid station. There, a man offered to wash off my dirt- and blood-covered legs; it wasn’t a problem in my eyes, but he seemed concerned so I let him toss water at me. Another man handed me a Gatorade. I never drink the stuff, but it was cold and I thought the sugar rush might be nice, so I gulped it down. The cherry on this sundae, though, was the ice. As a volunteer refilled my bladder, another gave me ice, which I promptly poured into my sports bra, and she said, “You got it, girl!” I knew keeping my core temperature down would be critical in this heat. It felt glorious. I took a few more pieces of ice to nibble as I ran toward the prison, giving a hearty thanks to the volunteers.

Brushy Mountain Prison to Aid Station #5: Tub Springs (again) / 18.7 Miles

Entering the Brushy Mountain Prison was incredibly eerie. I was the only person inside, and there was the stillness of an abandoned building, yet you could still feel a presence there. It had a damp, mildew scent that reminded me of the basement of my elementary school. To think of the history this place held was really something. Having spoken with one of the former guards the night before, I knew these walls kept some mighty secrets, too. Unable to linger, I ran out into the yard to face the namesake and inspiration for this year’s BFC, and, for me, the most difficult part of the course: the wall.

In a replication, of sorts, of (one of) James Earl Ray’s escapes from the prison, runners would scale a ladder inside, step on top of the wall, and then climb another ladder down the other side. I am scared of heights, and ladders give me vertigo. As I queued up for my turn, with Atlanta behind me, I mentioned my anxiety about this and contemplated letting him go ahead of me. If this is a year of facing my fears and challenging myself, though, then that would not do, so up I went. A woman held the ladder and said, “Be careful, it’s loose up there.” I had no idea if she meant the ladder rung or the wall, and I didn’t ask. Better not to know. Vertigo set in, but I reached the top and stood on the wall, only to find no one holding the other ladder. I waited for a volunteer to run over before I could will myself to budge. This goes down as the only element of the course that induced fear in me, which is pretty ridiculous.

Safely down the other side, bib punched, we received directions to the tunnel by the creek. I’d had no clue as to how dark, and how long, that tunnel was. I was with a smaller group now, and we joked our way through the tunnel. There wasn’t too much water inside; in fact, it looked more like brown sludge than water. As the circle of light at the tunnel’s end grew larger, we could see bats swooping down at our heads. There were a couple photographers there to capture our emergence. Leaving the tunnel, we climbed up a steep bank onto the last level ground we would see for some time.

And that’s when this race went from great, to greatest race of my life. That’s when I made the acquaintance of The Rat.

Simply put, there was nothing that could quite prepare you for this hill. It’s absolutely stunning in its relentless vertical pitch. While I trained on some steep mountain climbs in the PNW (a big shout out to Mt. Elinor, in particular) and did my share of scrambles as practice, there was nothing comparable to the reality of this beast. Photos don’t capture it, and I’m sure my words will fail miserably as well. Atlanta told me he was going to make his way up through the woods, saying he’d gone up the power cut before and “had nothing to prove.” I heeded the advice of the Spectacle Spectator and decided to confront the Rat head on.

The initial climb up Big Rat begins with a stupidly steep vertical wall of loose, sandy dirt. I’m not the best judge of height, but I would venture to say it was maybe 30-ish feet at an incredible grade–maybe 80%?

up-the-big-rat

The initial climb up the Rat. Photo does no justice to it (by no fault of the photographer, Crystal.)

My smile grew bigger, and I just laughed in delighted anticipation. There was no real thinking; it was simply a matter of reaching out with one hand, finding something to grab hold of, and pulling yourself up in the hopes that the root or briar you clung to wouldn’t give. I used the toes of my shoes to kick little foot stands and hauled myself up. It would not be the last time on that climb that I was grateful for all of those pull-ups and dead lifts I’d done in the preceding months. I felt very confident going up this first component. RFP, indeed.

The runner who came up behind me said, “I’ve just got to ask you your name. I’ve been impressed with you all day. You are looking so strong!” This was Matthew, and we became instant pals as we clawed our way up the slope, saw briars grabbing at us and leaving little rat nibbles. The hill had been cut a few weeks earlier, so the briars weren’t as gnarly as in years past, but they certainly made their mark nonetheless. Matthew asked what I thought of the course, and I expressed my complete love for it as we passed grown men laying on the ground moaning in agony. I hesitated to say it out loud, but he asked, so I admitted, “it’s not been quite as tough as I had imagined.” In hindsight, I recognize that the course is incredibly tough; it was just that I had trained so well for it, that I wasn’t having the trouble that other runners encountered. (I also managed to avoid the yellow jackets, otherwise this would have been a very different race report.) Being so well prepared, both mentally and physically, I was able to enjoy every moment. I smiled every step of this race. Thankfully, there is photographic evidence of me grinning my way up Rat Jaw. Matthew didn’t necessarily agree with my assessment. He said he was enjoying it, but that this was a “one and done” deal for him. (Matthew, I see your name on the wait list for 2017, so let’s plan to reconvene on RJ next year.)

I had read about downed power lines in race reports, so I immediately grabbed the first one I saw and used it to give my legs a break, pulling myself up. Runners behind me followed suit. This helped tremendously. At one point, a runner ahead/above me was having trouble and he nearly came barreling back down. I side stepped and lost my footing, and whoever was behind me cupped his hands under my rear and propped me up. No time for formalities. Disaster averted, I made it to the narrow shelf at the top of that climb. I looked back down and started laughing, and said, “Whew, this hill is no joke!” My chipperness was apparently not welcome here, and one guy snapped sharply at me, “Did you think they were joking?!” It was in that moment that I realized no one else was enjoying this. The tone had completely shifted since the Spectacle. No one was talking. Men were laying on the ground, puking in the woods, staring off into space, moaning, and cursing. I noticed, too, that I was the only woman in sight. One runner said to us, “You know we’re close to the front pack.” “No!” we all replied in unison. “Yes, we must be! Maybe front of the middle pack at worst. Just imagine what it’s like further back. It’s gotta be a real shit show.” This was so bizarre to me. First, that he thought we were that far ahead. And, second, that he thought runners further back were having a bad go of it.

I was completely oblivious. I, for one, was having a blast. Onward and upward!

Eventually Matthew outpaced me; I saw him look back once, and I regretted not being able to keep up. As we made the turn from Big Rat up to Rat Jaw proper, I expected to see the fire tower at the top. Instead, it was another rise, beyond which nothing was visible. Rat Jaw plays this trick on you, and you fall for it every time. I loved its sense of humor. At each shelf, I found more blasted men, but I did not stop. Eventually, I reached the sheer rock face that I had read about. I couldn’t remember which way the race reports said to go around it. Right looked promising. I was nervous to get too far from the power line cut, but the rock wall pushed me deeper into the woods. A few runners caught up to me and asked if we could get around that way. I replied, “It looks like it, but follow me at your own risk!” Despite my serious concern about rattlesnakes coming into the race, I hadn’t worried about them out on the course until this moment. I was leading the way, the woods felt strangely still, and each fallen tree looked like the perfect little snake condominium. The park ranger had told me the day before that they had recently seen a lot of rattlers up on Rat Jaw, but I pushed those words aside and pressed on. I saw how easy it could be to veer off course here, too. It was easier moving up through the woods, but it did lead you in the wrong direction. I caught sight of a little crevice that appeared to lead back to the power cut. A quick scramble up opened onto a little sea of saw briars, but it was possible to wade through them back to the cut.

Rat Jaw’s game of hide the tower clearly began to take its toll on runners. One yelled out from down below, “Can you see the tower up there? The tower has to be there! It just has to! This can’t keep going on!” Never had I seen a face some completely and utterly hopeless and miserable. Again, it forced me to recognize that not everyone was having a good time here. I yelled down something encouraging but couldn’t lie; the tower wasn’t in sight.

Up the next slope, runners yelled down, “Bees in the power lines!” How they learned this, I have no idea, but we heeded the warning and took a slight detour into the woods. Soon enough, the tower came into view, although there was one final slog up another absurd pitch before you got there. Of course there was. I cracked up as I crawled up. Spectators cheered from the top ledge and reminded runners to now run up the short slope, climb up to the top of the fire tower, and get our bibs punched. I flew up to the lookout, where one of the football players punched my bib. I allowed myself a few seconds to take in the view, and a man, who I presume was the football coach, said, “I should make you guys run up that hill for practice.” To which his player emphatically replied, “Nuh uh.” I wonder what those kids thought of us crazy people paying to put ourselves in this situation. I thanked them and zipped back down. One of the spectators on the ledge above Rat Jaw stopped me and said, “You need to at least stop and get a picture of what you just did!” I didn’t have a camera or phone, but I did take a mental image that I won’t forget.

From there, it was a quick jaunt back through Tub Springs, where I topped off my water, and darted off to meet laz.

Tub Springs to Aid Station #6: laz at the Trailhead / 22.1 Miles / 9 Hour Cutoff

I left Tub Springs with another female runner, Jane; she was the first woman I had seen in some time. I mentioned to her the turn onto the Old Mac Trail coming up, and she said she knew it because she ran the course last year. She said this was her favorite stretch of the course. On paper, this was supposed to be a little over three miles, and we should have had plenty of time to cover it before the cutoff. I was anxious, though, and picked up my pace. Jane and I chatted off and on, but I found myself becoming more focused on pushing harder. I could not miss that cutoff. The exertion, after those monster climbs, started to take its toll, and I began to cramp up. The pain was sharp, but I willed myself to dig deep and run through it. I popped a couple of Endurolytes, hoping that would do the trick. I kept encouraging Jane to pass me, but she said she would have been walking if it wasn’t for me. When we reached an odd juncture, she said to go right, but after a minute this didn’t seem correct. Another runner caught up and said he thought we should go left, and a look at the map confirmed this. Jane found my intensity humorous, I think, because she kept reassuring me, “You’ll make the cutoff. Trust me, you’re golden.” I wasn’t trusting anything other than laz punching my bib and sending me forward. I had less than an hour to get there. Side stitches be damned, I was going to run faster.

After winding down Old Mac Mountain, we hit the main trail, which leveled out. I sprinted into the aid station, 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff. My bladder was relatively full, so I asked the volunteer to pour a little water on my head. I scrambled to find my drop bag and quickly grabbed some nutrition and laz’s Christmas gift. Forget reapplying body glide, changing socks, or digging out my PB&J. RFP! I almost left without my headlamp but asked laz if I would need it. He very kindly tried not to laugh at me and said, “Yes, it will be getting dark, and you’ll want it.” I pulled it out, tossed it around my neck, and asked, “This way for the 50k?” “Yes,” he replied, “this way for the 50k. You didn’t come all this way for a marathon.” No, I did not. I loved that he didn’t even taunt me with the marathon option. It must have been written in my face that it simply wasn’t an option. I thanked him, and headed out to Chimney Top.

 Trailhead to Aid Station #7: Spicewood / 27.8 Miles

It is humbling to admit this, but I completely underestimated Chimney Top. I thought, “sure, it’s some switchbacks, but I’m good at those. No problem. Like Ann Trason says, I eat mountains for breakfast.” I was feeling strong, my legs weren’t tired, and mentally everything was on point. I had kept up my nutrition, stayed hydrated, and kept my core temperature down. Well, a primary objective of this race is to feed you humble pie, and Chimney Top offered me a healthy slice.

As I power hiked up the first switchbacks, a couple of runners caught up to me. One asked, “when does it get steeper?” I didn’t realize she had directed her query to me, but she thought that I looked like I knew what I was doing. I laughed, “no, first timer here!” What I didn’t say out loud was, “it gets steeper?” Soon some of their friends caught us. I offered to let everyone pass, but they insisted that I was a good pacer. I kept pushing us up the hill until a strange sensation pulled me up sharp. I stepped aside, they asked if I was ok, and I assured them that I was. I wasn’t so sure, though. My heart rate had suddenly skyrocketed. At least, I assume that’s what was happening, as my heart felt like it was going to fly out of my chest. I rested for about 20 seconds to let it calm down, then resumed climbing. I caught the group when they stopped for a break, but I kept moving forward. My heart rate soon spiked again, and this time my vision flickered a little. “Relax, relax,” I thought. “Catch your breath. You surely don’t want to be airlifted out of here. Even if you go slowly, you will make the final cutoff.” This happened maybe two more times on that climb. I would wait a beat to let the heart rate slow, then continue forward. Nausea hit at the same time. Fortunately, Crystal had given me a piece of ginger, which I choked down knowing it would help. I needed to keep eating, despite my stomach’s protests.

During this climb, I met up with the Louisville Brothers (Brad and Scott) and Jane. They became my Chimney Top Crew. One of the brothers was having some trouble, and the other was using carrot and stick to keep him moving (maybe a little more stick than carrot.) He asked me, “do you want to see two brothers fight?” “No, I want to see you finish!” They both liked that answer, and our little band of misfits kept climbing. That’s where Chimney Top gets you; like Rat Jaw, just when you think you’ve reached the top, the ridge line turns to incline. Fortunately, the beauty of this part of the park wasn’t lost on me. It was the most gorgeous corner for sure. There was a peaceful stillness to it, and the rocky outcroppings added wonderful texture. You would meet a runnable ridge line, and then ascend yet again.

ct-crew

Taking a quick breather with my Chimney Top Crew. Photo by Jane.

My heart rate and nausea were finally under control, and I was feeling strong again. I kept the lead and paced us over to Mart Fields, where I pulled out the map to check our progress. Brad guessed we were about 1.5 miles from Spicewood. It felt like we should have been closer by then, but this was the BFC, so nothing was as close as you assumed. We were descending pretty steadily and moving along the ridge now, though, so I picked up the pace. We covered that distance fairly quickly, then found ourselves greeted by the sole aid station and bib punching volunteer at Spicewood.

I had completely drained my bladder, so I stopped for a quick refill. The volunteer said we had 3.8 miles to go, and almost in unison, we asked, “real miles or laz miles?” He insisted 3.8 miles, for real. “I hiked up here in two hours with a broken pelvis, so you will have no trouble getting back down.” We still didn’t quite believe him, but thanked him anyway, and set off to beat one last cutoff.

Spicewood to laz / 30.4 Miles

I resumed my position in the lead as we wound down the mountain. We had picked up another runner, Travis, at Spicewood. He asked my name, gave me his, and said, “Ellen, if you don’t mind, I’d like to follow you in to the finish. You’ve got a great pace going, and that will keep me motivated and moving forward.” It was certainly a compliment, and I didn’t want to let him down.

While I would love for this race report to end with me heroically leading my CT Crew to BFC success, this, sadly, is not that story.

I kept us at a great pace for about a mile, maybe a bit more, but a few factors compounded. First, nature had been calling me for quite some time, and I kept trying to postpone answering. That call grew increasingly more difficult to ignore. Second, the footing became more technical, with lots of rocks, and I was taking some bad steps going at that speed. Third, I was wearing one hard contact lens, and a “loaner” soft contact lens (that was not my correct prescription.) It had been screwing with my perspective, and after 12+ hours of wearing them, I was having trouble seeing. The waning light didn’t help. Writing this now has the air of making excuses. Perhaps I was. It’s something I will always wrestle with. Had I known that I would have come in the top ten of female finishers, I’m fairly certain that I would have solved that puzzle and kept going. Then again, maybe I would have taken a really bad step, broken my ankle, and earned my first DNF. I decided in that moment that a DFL beats a DNF any day. I was here to finish this race, and, consulting Rule #4, I knew it made sense for me to address the factors outlined above. I apologized to the Crew, and stepped aside.

Factor 1 being resolved, I stepped back onto the trail, only to have two more groups blow past me. Reining in my competitive spirit was excruciating. “No one else passes you. No one,” warred in my head with “Finishing is winning. Finishing is winning.”

My vision problems (yes, Adam Parker, you told me so. I should have brought glasses) and rocky terrain slowed me more than I would have liked, and a bad step rolled my ankle. I shouted out loud at myself, “Get it together!” I went forward more conservatively, choosing the best footing available. Then, ultra brain set in. I reached a T with no course markings. I knew, absolutely, to turn left. It should not have even given me a moment’s pause. But with no one else around, ahead or behind, doubt set in. Well, as Durb said at the start line, this is what we wanted out here. Moments of doubt. It made no sense to go right, as that led up to Spicewood. I turned left but could not convince my feet to move faster. They doubted the part of my brain that was being rational. When I reached another convergence of trails, I consulted the map again. Again, I knew to keep left, but the fact that no runners had caught me left me second-guessing. It was such a frustrating sensation, intellectually knowing that I was going the right direction but hearing doubts despite this. Yassine’s advice to “silence the committee” in my head came to me, so I told them to shut the hell up, and stayed left.

Of course, before long, I came to a familiar stretch that I knew led to the trailhead and to laz. Confidence restored, my hesitant jog morphed to a solid sprint, and, sure enough, there sat laz, a group of runners basking in his presence. I charged ahead, with about a mile to go.

laz to the Finish Line / 31.1 Miles / 13 Hours, 20 Minutes Cutoff

Without fail, at the end of every race, I have enough left in the tank for an all-out sprint. The BFC was no exception. One slight moment of confusion aside–an arrow seemed to point to a trail, but the bystanders shouted at me “road! road!”–the afterburners kicked on, and I went blazing down the road. I could hear my breathing nearing the high-pitched whine of hyperventilation, but I knew I could keep this pace for a mile. As I rounded the final corner, finishers started cheering, I caught Crystal out of the corner of my eye, and heard her call out as she ran to catch me. I crossed the finish line in 12 hours, 10 minutes, and 45 seconds. More than an hour before the cutoff. Crystal tackled me with a hug, and a volunteer came over with a pair of dog tags and asked, “Marathon finish?” Barely able to speak, I shook my head, smiled, displayed my punched-filled bib and breathlessly said, “50K.” She signaled to another volunteer, who handed me my Croix de Barque.

Jane had kindly taken photos of my finish, and congratulated me on being in the top ten. “No! Top ten? No!” “Yes!” she assured me; “I was eighth, and only one other woman came in between us.” Astounding. Her sister had come in first, so I gave them both hearty congratulations. I ended up actually being 11th female, but I’m quite pleased all the same. With a 37% finisher rate this year, finishing was very much like winning.

Next year, of course, my eyes are already set on loftier goals.

I pulled Durb aside for a finisher’s photo (he had said to find him after I finished, which I took to mean I had better finish or he didn’t want a photo with me. I loved that!) and then sat down to cheer in the rest of the field. This was also a great time to swap stories with other runners, and it illustrated that, in addition to being well trained, I also got very lucky on that course not to have encountered yellow jackets or rattlesnakes. Runners described the sound of people being attacked by yellow jackets as “something out of a horror film, the screaming was incredible.” Another group met a giant rattlesnake on Chimney Top shortly after I had passed through. I was sorry that Crystal hadn’t made the 50k cutoff, but a marathon finish at the BFC is nothing to snub your nose at. Plenty of people would have been happy to get those dog tags instead of a DNF.

Here are the statistics reported by laz:

“550 runners were accepted for entry to the BFC
226 of those either withdrew,
or never showed up at all.
of the 324 who answered the starting cigarette;
73 dropped out
132 either chose, or were relegated to the marathon…
and 119 took home a croix de barque.
37% of the starters.”

******

In his first correspondence with me, Durb said, “it’s an awesome race. Train well, and you’ll love it.” I took his instruction to heart, and it played out exactly as promised. I trained hard; it was an awesome race; and I loved it with every scrap of my being.

2016 has been a crap year, painful and heartbreaking. I was in a bad place, had some dark moments that lasted months. Through all of this, training for the BFC motivated me to make Relentless Forward Progress in my own life. This race was in my every thought and action. When I needed an outlet, a release, my training was there. I believe this is what draws many runners to the BFC, and to its Big Brother that it attempts to emulate. We’re seeking something deep within ourselves, hoping to find that we’re stronger than whatever overwhelms us. In some ways, it wasn’t necessarily about running a race; I can’t quite find the right way to express it, but it was more about facing the threat–my fear–of failure, looking it dead in the eye, and forging past it, no matter the outcome. This race taught me how to live my life again, and gave me the assurance that I was strong enough to confront its uncertainties. That sounds pretty cliche, but it’s the best I’ve got.

Of course, I will admit that next year I won’t be content with just finishing, but for now, it is enough.

I am eternally grateful to these two men, who dreamed up this race, and who gave me the opportunity to experience it. laz and Durb, words are not enough.

******

Coda

Before heading back to Washington, I drove past the hill I had run as a child. The sale of that land would be final come October, so I wanted one last glimpse of it before it left my family’s hands. The power line cut was covered in golden yarrow, the old horse paths still visible. The resemblance to Rat Jaw wasn’t pronounced, but there was a distant familiarity that perhaps explained my love for that beast. With a knot in my throat, I whispered a word of thanks, and drove forward.

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