“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
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collected via my obsessive scanning of the BFC roster: the only two women to finish ahead of me at the 2017 BFC had withdrawn from this year’s race.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
The race directors then ask you,
According to my bib, and anyone else you ask,
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.