Life Near the bone

A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Category: Race Reports (page 1 of 2)

Peaks 19 & 20: Thomas and Thorp Mountains (Plus Needles 50k Race Report)

Peaks 19 and 20: Thomas Mountain and Thorp Mountain

Elevation: 5269’ (Thomas) and 5854’ (Thorp)

Total Mileage: 32.36 miles

Total Elevation Gain: +10,169’

Date: 6 July 2019

My friend Rich maintains that his Needles 50k is “more fun than laughing.” Crossing the finish line for the first time in 2018, I understood exactly what he meant. It’s a tough, tough course, but it’s so gorgeous, and the vibe is completely chill and goofy and full of good mirth. It’s easily one of my favorite race experiences, and this year proved no different.

Somehow, I convinced my friend Jen that running two consecutive, challenging 50ks was a good idea. We pulled into the large horse pasture at the Silver Ridge Ranch, which serves as race headquarters. I pitched a tent and fell asleep to the sound of the stream rippling by.

There are no bibs, no chips, no numbers at Needles. After a course briefing, Rich and Adam sent us out along the airstrip and into the woods. The trails start off friendly enough, but things get steep real quick. That first climb never ceases to crack me up. It’s just relentless to the point of absurdity. Fortunately, you have time to take in the mountain views that unfold around you on the ascent, with Cle Elum Lake deep blue below.

A gorgeous day dawns over Cle Elum Lake.
Hard-earned views of Cle Elum Lake.

Intent of tagging all peaks within striking distance that summer, we briefly detoured at Thomas Mountain. The summit itself is rather underwhelming, with no real views given the surrounding trees. Seeing a pile of rocks, I stepped on top and guessed that was the highest point, which we paused to confirm on the map. I didn’t climb all those switchbacks just to have Rich deduct another poo poo point from my 40 peaks goal.

We’ll call this rock pile the summit (but will confirm on the map!)
Photo credit: Jen Schneider

All that climbing pays off with a long, fun descent. We linked up with Brad, who was also doing a milestone challenge: 50 ultras for 50 years. If I remember correctly, Needles was #25, so he and I were both halfway to our goals. I think he had to drive to Oregon or something equally insane to run another one the following morning. Having run Needles, I knew he was gonna be hurting tomorrow, but Brad is a beast, and he knocked out another ultra the next day all the same.

One of my favorite spots on the course, a catwalk where you can look right and see the Stewart Range…
…or look left into the heart of the Central Cascades Range.

All good descents must come to an end, and after hitting the first of two aid stations, back up we went. We had added another runner to our group, Colleen, who was stoked to be out there and excited to run Cascade. She brought a nice energy to the gang, and we all chatted and laughed as we climbed.

My terrible posture speaks to how much the climbing wears you out on this course.
Photo credit: Jen Schneider
The wildflowers were on point!

The wildflowers were on full display along this section. This would be true for much of the summer; it must have been a good weather year for wildflowers, as they seemed to stay in bloom much longer and later than years past. As we approached Thorp, I stopped to get some water from the spring there, which Adam had kindly marked for us.

Runners switchbacking up Thorp Mountain.
Pausing for a view of Kachess Lake as we snake up Thorp.

We zig zagged up Thorp, and I convinced Jen and Colleen to follow me past the lookout and over to the Thorp Mountain Crapper. The year before, I had won the Inaugural Thorp Mountain Crapper Selfie Contest, and I wanted to defend my title. Having known Colleen but for a few hours, we dropped trouser and asked her to snap a pic that I’d schemed up. I will leave that to your imagination, but you can rest assured that our moons over the mountains won, handily.

View of the Stewart Range from the Thorp Mountain summit.
Jen taking the Thorp Mountain Rorschach test.

After taking a Rorschach test at the summit (Adam’s way of testing whether we’d completed the course), it was on to the Cardiac Needles. The Needles get their name from the shape of their profile on an elevation chart: sharp ups and downs. I always forget how many there are (5 before French Cabin, then 2 after? Something like that). There’s always more than you remembered, though. They just punch you in the gut when you’re already tired, but, my goodness, it’s just so pretty there you almost don’t mind. Last year, there had been lots of snow through here, so it was nice to have an easier time as far as footing went.

We rolled into the aid station at French Cabin, chatted for a few minutes, then pressed on to finish up those Needles and begin the long descent. Needles dispatched, we were on to a really fun section that winds down to Silver Creek. This part of the course is just plain fun. You can let gravity do the heavy lifting as you plow down, down, down. There are creeks to run through and meadows to admire, then switchbacks that eventually bottom out and return you to the flat trails of the valley.

A break in the trees meant the airstrip was just ahead. We picked up speed for a strong finish, cruising down the gravel and toward Ned’s glorious tubular body dancing in the wind. Needles records your finish time by the minute, so we technically tied as we crossed the finish line. I went in for a big hug with Ned, who always makes me smile.

Finish line hugs with my main squeeze, Ned Needleman.
Photo credit: Jen Schneider

We spent the afternoon chatting with others, delighting in the homemade feast that Adam prepared and getting our money’s worth of Dru Bru from the keg. Needles is one of those races that you don’t want to end, and we lingered socially and cheered in runners as the light faded. Writing this, I smile at the memory of that good company and good cheer. This is what I love about the running community here: the long summer day spent moving yourself through stunning landscapes by foot power; the laughter shared among strangers in a shared setting; the way food and beer tastes after a tough effort; and sleeping the sleep of the exhausted and content.

Thanks to Adam and Rich for putting together this awesome event!

Peak 11: Green Mountain (plus Dirty Turtle 25k Trip Report)

Peak 11: Green Mountain (Kitsap Peninsula)

Elevation: 1639’

Total Mileage: 15.5

Total Elevation Gain: 3228’

Date: May 18, 2019

I have lost track of how many times I’ve summited Green Mountain this year; definitely 4, possibly 5, and using at least 3 distinct routes. On this particular occasion, it was part of the Dirty Turtle 25k course. Oh how it pains me to write the words 25k course! I had run, and won, the inaugural Dirty Turtle 50k (setting the course record, which still stands today by one hour), and I lost the second year by about one minute (thanks to me running a dumb race and blowing up after leading for 26 miles.) The race has a soft spot in my heart, and I love the old school vibe and fun crowd it attracts; RD Gretchen Ta is just a cool lady who knows how to put on a great event. This year, on coach’s orders, I was only running the 25k, and I wouldn’t be racing. I was on the road to recovery and agreed to take it easy and treat this as a training run. Try telling that to my ego.

The race had a downhill start, and I couldn’t help myself. I bolted from the start, dragging my friend Jen along at an insane pace. Reason prevailed as the decline leveled out, and I positioned Jen in front of me, telling her not to let me pass and to keep the pace casual. Eventually, I settled down and eased into a good training pace as we chatted about this and that. Instead of a race, I accepted it as a fun day in the woods with a friend. And it was!  

Coming out too hot.
Photo credit: Jayme Helgeson

The race takes you up to the summit of Green Mountain, by way of Turtle Rock, which is a fun Class 2 scramble. Each year, you can count on a young cowboy wearing a hat and Daisy Dukes, plus a flannel top with the sleeves cut out, to be waiting to greet you at the top of Turtle Rock, offering Fireball or pickles. I chose pickles.

Beginning the scramble up Turtle Rock.
Photo credit: Jayme Helgeson

As you make your way on a narrow trail that feels more boot track than single track, you wind over toward the summit of Green Mountain. We had to veer slightly off course to tag the true summit, but, hey, I wasn’t racing, so why not! On a clear day, you can see the Salish Sea and even Seattle in the distance. I’m always surprised by how far north we’ve come up the Kitsap Peninsula to get here. We took photographic evidence of our summit, then carried on.

I can’t seem to find the summit photo, so you’ll have to accept this action shot as a substitute.
Photo credit: Jesse Dooghan

As we neared the finish line, I slowed my pace to let Jen clearly finish ahead of me. It was my way of letting go of competitiveness and acknowledging that she helped keep me from going too hard. She took fourth place, and I was fifth. (Incidentally, I registered for the 2020 Dirty Turtle 50k this very morning, and I am going to train to win it this next go round.) All in all, while this might not be the most glamorous peak on the list, the Dirty Turtle race, and the people associated with it, makes it something I look forward to each year. I enjoy the trails and atmosphere, and it’s someplace I think of fondly.

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.

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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.

DNF: A Cascade Crest 100 Race Report

Report forthcoming. It’s tough to write about your first DNF!

Mulligan: An Orcas Island 100 Race Report

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

Introduction: Hotdogging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lap 1: Getting Acquainted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feeling strong on Lap 1. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lap 2: Chasing Daylight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dusk at Cascade Lake. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

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

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

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

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

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

Lap 3:  Night Falls over Orcas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn over Orcas

Dawn over Orcas. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

 

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Dawn breaks. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

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

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

Lap 4: The Hazards of Ultra Math

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

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

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

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

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

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

It just took me 2 hours to travel 4.7 miles.

“Oh my god. Can I make the cutoff?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I broke down and cried.

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

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

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

“It’s only 1:30?”

“Yeah! Plenty of time left!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Possibly fake smile. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orcas Finish Line

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

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

bib

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

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

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

Epilogue: Mulligan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 12.51.47 PM

It’s Ultrasignup official.

Orcas 100 Finishers

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

 

buckle and Orcas

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

 

 

 

Closing the Circle: A 2017 Barkley Fall Classic Race Report

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

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

Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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Epilogue

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

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

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

I am eternally grateful.

Cougar Bait

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

 

Chasing the Dragon: A White River 50 Race Report

“In ultra running, we’re always chasing the dragon.” –Yassine Diboun

White River 50 was loaded with extra significance this year. It took on the burden of being a sort of redemption race after my Bryce 100 death march. While only half the length, I needed White River to reassure me that I am a strong runner capable of great distances. Even though the disasters of Bryce were out of my hands, the experience shook my confidence and shredded my pride all the same.

I also viewed this year’s WR50 as a yardstick by which to measure my growth over the past year. It had been my first 50-miler, and I was eager to see how much faster I could run the second time around. Last year, it took me 12 hours and 51 minutes to finish the course. It was only my second ultra, and I had run my first marathon a mere 5 months earlier. I was green. I lingered at aid stations, even going so far as to sit in a camp chair at Buck Creek to chat with friends, eat a sandwich, and change my socks. It would be easy to trim a good 45 minutes off my time simply by being more efficient in aid station stops, but I was aiming for more. My goal for 2017 was to go three hours faster than 2016: 9 hours, 51 minutes. In our pre-race talk, Yassine repeatedly encouraged me to let go of time goals. The forecast called for melting temps, and the BC wildfire smoke had made its way to the central Cascades. Some painful Achilles issues rounded things out. Conditions were not ideal, and this wasn’t the “A race” for the year. Me being me, it was difficult to revise that goal, but I’ve learned that Yassine knows best. I drew up my pace chart using the 10 and 12 hour splits, and decided to keep within that range while sticking as close to the 10-hour splits as possible.

The week leading into the race didn’t come with the phantom pains and jitters of last year. I felt ready and was excited to get out on the course. My amazing physical therapist, Chad McCann, stretched the hell out of my Achilles, helping to ensure they wouldn’t flare up during the race. There were no anxiety-fueled nightmares the night before; I slept soundly and toed the line well rested, eager to get out on this course that I love.

[Photos from a July 23 recce of the first half of the course. The air quality was drastically different on race day.]

Buck Creek to Camp Sheppard (Start Line to Mile 3.9)

In the past, starting races with set ground rules helped to keep me on track, but I’ve reduced them down to one simple commandment: don’t be an idiot. It’s a more streamlined version that encompasses everything: hydrate; eat; keep your core temp down with ice and water; run with urgency but don’t go out too fast; spend no more than 2 minutes at aid stations; make smart decisions.

ladies of WR

Pre-race smiles with my badass trail sisters, Karey and Nicole. PC: woman in parking lot.

There was a buzzing excitement in the air at the start line. RD Scott McCoubrey gave his helpful pre-race talk (“There are two hills on this course; this one here, and that one over there”), the countdown commenced, and we were off. My friend Mark Young, an incredibly fast runner who was out for his first 50, started with me, and I explained my strategy along the way. It was a safe bet to bank some time on this first section; it’s relatively flat and not too technical. This would help with the climb up the Palisades trail on the way to Corral Pass. We wound our way up through the pack on the road so that we were better positioned once hitting the single track. The 10-hour pace called for an arrival time at Camp Sheppard of 45 minutes, but we would be well ahead of that. It was fun to see Van Phan directing us onto the trail along the creek, cheering on runners with her amazing positivity.

There’s not much to report along this leg. I chatted with Mark and another runner who was training for his first 100. We passed runners but tried not to overdo it, settling into a strong but not break-neck pace. Camp Sheppard appeared 33 minutes later, putting us 12 minutes ahead of the 10-hour pace split. I was carrying enough water to get me to Corral Pass, so there was no need to stop. Soon thereafter, the climb would commence. I could tell Mark was eager to pick up the pace, so I told him to drop me. “I don’t need to stop at Ranger Creek, so maybe I’ll catch you there.” That was the last of Mark that I saw until the finish line.

Camp Sheppard to Ranger Creek (Mile 3.9 to Mile 11.7)

The first mile and a half or so of this section is still relatively easy-going, so I continued to push, knowing the climb to follow would slow me down. Yassine reiterated that banking time on a climb isn’t really possible; it was fine to push, but a strong power hike would be smarter than trying to run up the big ascents. Climbs are still my weakest point, and it’s incredibly frustrating to feel as if I’m pushing hard yet still being passed. Climbs are the parts of courses that take a lot of mental work for me, as I have to get out of my head and not let being smoked by other runners leave me feeling defeated.

This is a strange race report to compose, because from this leg on, I didn’t do much talking or thinking. A tunnel of focused concentration guided each step. I was here to race and find redemption; everything else was peripheral. One conversation did catch my attention on this climb. Two men were celebrating the fact that their respective partners had allowed them to go out for long runs two weeks in a row. As a single person who might one day like to have a partner, this sentiment made me bristle. It helped me realize that someone who would understand, encourage, and, preferably, join me for regular long runs would be a bare minimum requirement for any potential partners. [Update: I met him at the finish line of this race.] This was the final conversation to filter through to my consciousness during the race.

This ascent typically has a few peek-a-boo views of Rainier, but with the smoke of the BC fires, it offered only one brief glimpse. I blew a kiss to the mountain as I rounded the corner and swept into the woods. After that initial big climb, this section of the course makes its way through the forest with some rolling sections. Even though the downhill sections are brief, I was able to pick up speed and begin passing some of the runners who got me on the climbs. This included Rainshadow’s Elizabeth Reese (who I didn’t recognize at the time because I was so focused), with whom I would play leap-frog throughout the entirety of the race. She got me on every climb, and I returned the favor on every descent.

Soon, the log lean-to of Ranger Creek came into view. There was no need to stop for water, so onward to Corral Pass.

Ranger Creek to Corral Pass (Mile 11.7 to Mile 16.9)

This is one of my favorite sections of the course (most of the photos in the collage above are from this section.) After some additional climbing, the single track delivers you onto a ridgeline that is just plain fun to run. It’s rocky but rolling, a tad dusty but a sweet respite from the monster ascent that precedes it. On a clear day, the views are spectacular. This is also where the front runners appear on their return journey. As per usual, each front runner offered words of encouragement to those of us still outbound; this aspect of ultras is perhaps one of my favorites. It speaks to the healthy community of mutually supportive runners when someone who is working hard to get themselves to the podium still has the presence of mind to say “nice work” to those of us who are running a very different type of race. I took note of the fact that I made it further along this segment before seeing the front runners than last year. I passed Gucci here, looking strong as he crested a hill, and he shouted out supportive words as we crossed paths. The third female appeared at the juncture of the lollipop and main trail: this meant I was, at worst, in the front of the middle pack. This gave me a boost, and I picked up my pace heading in to Corral Pass. The appearance of photographer Jarad Long meant that the aid station was only 3/4 of a mile away, so I pushed even harder when he came into view.

Corral Pass

Barreling in to Corral Pass. Rainier conspicuously absent in background. Photo by Jarad Long, Pronounce Photography.

The Corral Pass aid station had made a strong impression on me last year. Upon arrival, a volunteer came up, took my hydration vest, asked what needed to be done, and instructed me to go eat while she took care of it. This amazed me, and I have since made a point of emulating this in my own volunteering endeavors. This year proved no different. Not only did the volunteer take care of my needs, but she also checked in about how much I was drinking and asked about my electrolytes, joking, “I’m going to be your mom for a minute.” Seeing my bladder wasn’t drained, she scolded me, but when I showed her my empty soft flasks and said, “I’m drinking, mom,” she relented and laughed. I popped a couple of Endurolytes, she poured water on my head, then sent me on my way. This all spanned maybe 90 seconds.

Corral Pass to Ranger Creek (Mile 16.9 to Mile 22.1)

While I usually avoid bananas, due to their negative environmental impact, they were speaking to me today. I grabbed a handful of Ruffles and a banana, and followed the advice of the Corral Pass volunteer from last year: “Eat and climb.” On the way out, I saw Ron, whose story had been a big inspiration to me last year. Surprised to see me so early on, he gasped, “You’re killing it this year!” Grateful for the kind words, I trotted out feeling charged. I munched my food quickly then broke into a slow run. Knowing that I wasn’t all that far behind the lead females added incentive to push; I felt really strong and confident.

After the climb, the lollipop is mostly downhill. The catch is that the trail runs in a narrow groove that makes finding good footing tricky. On my recce run, I took this slow, but race day was a different story. I approached the trail with mindfulness, but didn’t overthink it. This allowed me to pass several runners along the way. Regaining the main trail, I knew that friends would be coming the opposite direction. This led to my mistake of watching for familiar faces instead of watching my footing, which resulted in a tumble. I stood up and dusted myself off; just some minor scratches and a sore hand that would surely bruise. Mostly, it was just embarrassing; some runners asked if I was ok, to which I replied, “Yeah, just wanted to get my bonehead move out of the way early.” Eventually, I passed Matt, who looked strong and happy. Soon after him came Karey, Nicole, and Bill, all smiles and moving with purpose. You could see in their faces that they were going to show the course who’s boss this year.

Moving closer to Ranger Creek, I fell into a line of runners who were chatting along. They were a bit faster than me going up, but much slower on the downhill parts, so I hedged about what to do. When one runner started talking about conducting brain trauma autopsies, making me woozy, I decided it was time to leave this party. The lead runner, jokingly suggesting I insulted him by passing, threatened not to reveal to me the secrets of silver duct tape to address injury. I laughed and replied, “I’ll take my chances.” I flew through Ranger Creek in a flash. The volunteers yelled out, “You need water?!” “No, I’m good!” These volunteers line the trail with signs that remind runners to keep hydrating, so they seemed particularly concerned that I kept going. I was gone before they could protest.

Ranger Creek to Buck Creek (Mile 22.1 to Mile 27.2)

Five miles of switchbacks define this section of the course, which offered an ideal opportunity to make up time and move up in the field. A year ago, I ran it conservatively. Today, I bombed it. How much difference a year can make; my confidence in the descents had grown exponentially, thanks to Yassine’s coaching.

This was all too good to be true. My stomach started rumbling in a familiar manner, signalling the GI issues that were about to unleash, forcing me into the cover of trees. Bryce redux. Runners I had passed soon caught me; I’d pass them again only to break off into the bushes. It was clear my day was taking a drastic turn for the worse. I had some Pepto with me but decided to keep running and do some self care at Buck Creek.

I plowed into Buck Creek in anticipation of seeing familiar faces, but I was apparently too early. A volunteer brought me my drop bag, and I switched out nutrition while another volunteer took care of my hydration vest and another told me how much water was left, saying, “So you know much you’re drinking, or not drinking.” I had gotten a bit behind in nutrition and hydration on the descent from Ranger Creek, so I needed to make up for it now. I saw a runner propped up against a tree, Joe, who I had met at the Dirty Turtle. He looked like he wasn’t doing well; I wasn’t sure if saying hello would be helpful in that moment, so I opted to leave him be (I was glad to see on Strava that he rallied and finished.)  I popped some Pepto and Endurolytes, grabbed a banana, and took of for Fawn Ridge.

Buck Creek to Fawn Ridge (Mile 27.2 to Mile 31.7)

Trouble found me as I embarked on the second half of the course. Like last year, it was tough to run the first easy mile out of Buck Creek leading over to the Suntop trail. My stomach was a mess, and the GI situation spiked my anxiety. I realized about a half mile out that I had forgotten to put ice in my sports bra and soak my head; that was a stupid mistake that would come back to bite me on this section. The climb to Fawn Ridge really is one of the toughest parts of this course. It’s essentially all climb, some of it open to sun exposure just as the day is really heating up. It’s an absolute slog. With my gut problem growing more agitated, I lost some of my drive. My legs felt wobbly and unsure. A sub-10 race seemed impossible now, so I told myself that as long as I was faster than last year, that’s all that mattered. My competitive self wasn’t buying that. I didn’t see anyone on this section after the climb started. It was a lonely stretch that left too much opportunity to think about the steady decline of my race. It took effort to push aside those thoughts and concentrate on getting myself to Fawn Ridge. It’s my favorite aid station on the course, because it’s like an oasis that appears when you’re at your lowest. I planned to have some Coke as a pick me up, plus they would have ice and cold water, all packaged in a festive atmosphere.

Rounding a corner, the first hopeful sign of relief came into view, as sunlight glinted off the inflatable fish hanging from a tree. Fawn Ridge was just beyond the sea creatures that lined the trail. This beacon spurred me on, and finally two volunteers appeared. One said, “You look strong! You’ve got a top 20 [female] finish going!” Stunned, I gasped, “Are you serious?!” “Yeah!!!”

Suddenly, I found my racing legs.

I made a quick turnaround at Fawn Ridge, downing a cup of Coke, throwing ice down the hatch, soaking my head, and refilling water. I was gone in less than a minute.

Fawn Ridge to Suntop (Mile 31.7 to Mile 37)

A renewed sense of urgency moved my tired legs as I continued the climb toward Suntop. Not having asked where in the top 20 I fell, I worked under the assumption that I was #20. My job now was to pick off a few women while not letting any pass me. Soon enough, I caught #19. She was walking slowly and dejectedly; her race had somehow gone south, and I felt for her. There were no words exchanged as we passed, as it was clear she was in no mood for words of encouragement.

This is another fun section of the course, as it meanders through shaded groves, across streams, and along ridge lines before cresting the highest elevation on the course. There are plenty of downhill sections, which allowed me to catch woman #18, Elizabeth Reese. She had me on the climbs, but I kept her in sight and knew I would push past her on the descent from Suntop.

[A word of caution: things are about to get gross. Not Bryce 100-caliber gross, but still, you’ve been warned.]

Unfortunately, my off-trail bush excursions didn’t cease; in fact, they took quite a turn along this stretch, as I discovered blood in my stool. For lack of a better phrase, and no pun intended, this scared the absolute shit out of me. At Bryce, a runner had told me that since there was no blood in my stool or urine, I wasn’t experiencing kidney failure. Here at White River, my brain made what seemed like the only logical conclusion: now that there is blood, I must be having kidney failure. The slightly more rational part of my brain insisted that I wouldn’t be able to keep running in this manner if I was in kidney failure, so I listened to that voice and kept pushing.

At last I reached the interminable half mile that leads to the summit of Suntop. I swear it’s the longest half mile on the planet; it’s mostly exposed, dusty switchbacks; Rainier looms behind your back, but you don’t realize it because all you can think is “climb, climb.” I knew Glenn would be waiting at the last switchback, which gave me a little boost. I was determined to look strong coming around the bend, unlike the photo from last year in which I’m hunched and exhausted (but smiling all the same.) Rounding the bend, there he was like clockwork, and I offered a “thanks, Glenn!” as I zoomed up the final stretch to the top. Out I popped onto Suntop summit, the SRC and 7 Hills aid stations there to greet me.

Sun Top Climb

Oh yeah, totally running up this year! PC: Glenn Tachiyama

Sun Top

The mountain may be hiding, but the smile is there. PC: Glenn Tachiyama

Wanting to travel light down the Suntop road, I opted to fill only my bladder, not my bottles. I wouldn’t drink from the bottles while running downhill and could fill them at Skookum. This became the penultimate bad decision I made on the course, as we soon shall see. In the moment, though, it made sense. Andrea Morrison took my pack and filled the bladder with water and ice, the ice being the final bad decision of the day. I grabbed a banana as Brian Morrison put my vest back on me. Tempted over by Jerry Gamez to the 7 Hills station, I took a shot of pickle juice while he hosed me off and I joked, “I love this banana and pickle juice combo!”

With that, I zoomed away, unknowingly toward disaster.

Suntop to Skookum Flats (Mile 37 to Mile 43.4)

During our training run, Mark and I had run the six miles down Suntop road at a sub-8 minute pace, so it was clearly the place to make up for time lost on climbs. Here, I passed Elizabeth again, as well as several men. This descent is no one’s favorite, because it’s a rutted gravel road where cars drive too fast and kick up too much dirt; you never find the right side of the road with the best footing; it’s exposed to blasting sunlight; it slowly snakes down the mountain over six miles, and is tedious at best. Still, it was an opportunity to widen the gap between myself and the women behind. Skookum would be tough, so now was the time to go all out and gain as much ground as possible.

Within a quarter mile of leaving Suntop, I felt water streaming down my rear. Thinking perhaps the volunteers hadn’t fully latched the water bladder, I stopped to assess the situation. It was tightly sealed. Forging on, the same sensation stopped me again in disbelief. “What the…?!” The latch was good; the problem eluded me. Running again, it hit me: the ice had punctured the bladder, and soon I would be out of water. Panicked, I started drinking as fast as possible. This minor disaster would leave me without water for 6 miles on the sunniest and hottest part of the course. My GI issues were already dehydrating me, and this would surely exacerbate the situation. It seemed the best solution was to crank out 7-minute miles and get my ass to Skookum Flats stat.

What an idiot.

Running full tilt propelled me past more runners, but three trips to the bushes allowed them to catch up. By the last trip, there was an alarming amount of blood. The other runners hadn’t caught me this time, though, and, determined to hold 17th place, I willed myself not to leave the road again. Where the downhill meets the flat is always a killer here, and this day proved no exception. Still, I powered on, pulling myself together at the sight of a crowd at the trailhead. I saw Ron again, who yelled, “Damn, you’re crushing it!” Apparently, I’m a good actress, because the wheels were coming off.

I plowed into the Skookum Flats aid station a hot mess. In a complete panic, I begged for water, and, dazed, mumbled, “my bladder broke; I didn’t have any water.” The volunteers, all Cascade Crest affiliates, pointed me toward buckets of river water, in which I doused myself as they filled my bottles. I drank several cups of water, but nothing could repair the deficit. I introduced myself to Wendy Wheeler-Jacobs as her CCC double-leg sweeper; I was such a mess in that moment that she surely must have regretted taking me on for that role. There was a moment of hesitation before leaving; I would have 34 ounces of water to take me the final 6.6 miles to the finish. For me, that probably wouldn’t be enough, and the thought of running out fed my anxiety. The possibility of kidney failure lingered as well, but, not wanting to get pulled from the course so close to the finish, my lips stayed sealed, and off I went to face Skookum Flats.

Skookum Flats to Buck Creek Finish Line (Mile 43.4 to Mile 50)

Last year, Skookum Flats got in my head, and I had anticipated the rematch for a year. With its gnarly roots and rocks, all coming at you when you’re most tired, it had nearly got the best of me due to my fear of falling and breaking my ankle again. As a result, I had walked much of it in my first White River attempt and had been determined to make up for that this year. How frustrating it was, then, to get there and feel mentally prepared for it but have an unwilling body.

A combination of factors compounded here. I was severely dehydrated and would surely run out of water along the way. Thoughts of kidney failure haunted me, inducing a panic attack. At least, I told myself it was a panic attack. My vision darkened and flickered, the world closed in. There was a disconnect between mind and body, a barrier between them. “It’s just a panic attack, you know what this is, it’s just a panic attack. It’s ok.” I was only partially convinced, which served to fuel what was, I’m now sure, just a panic attack. Each time I tried to run, though, I felt faint and on the cusp of passing out. In disbelief, I would try again, only to be overcome with the same sensation. Even on the downhills, letting gravity do the work, my efforts met the same results. The fear of blacking out warred with the desire to hold my position in the field and to conquer Skookum, but the reality soon became clear: I couldn’t run.

Walking as quickly as possible, I pushed forward, hoping to keep the female runners at bay. I knew Elizabeth would catch me before long, and I reassured myself that two additional women could pass me and I’d still have a top 20 finish. About 3 miles in, Liz breezed by. I said, “there’s no more downhills, so you won’t be seeing me again!” She laughed and sped off. Soon a runner appeared on the horizon, and it was in disbelief that I saw it was Gucci. “Oh no, I shouldn’t be catching you,” I offered. “Yeah, I can’t keep my heart rate down, so I’m walking it in.” “Do you need anything?” “No, I’m ok, you go ahead!” “Way to gut it out, man! Hang in there!” It’s awful to see such a strong runner have a bad day, but I admired the grace with which he finished out his run. He’d still finish with a time that most runners would envy.

As I suspected, my water supply didn’t last through this section, which spiked the panic. Incredibly, two campers appeared next to the trail. I stumbled into their camp and the man pulled out a rifle. I laughed nervously and asked for water. He put down the gun and gestured to their supply. Thanking them, the tense mood eased, and he invited me to douse my head or stay and drink more. I was a little rattled and filled only one bottle before thanking them on my way out, “Thanks, but I have a race to finish.”

Soon thereafter, two runners moved toward me coming from Buck Creek and shared, “you’re about 20 minutes out!” I wasn’t sure if they meant at their pace or mine, but, looking at my watch, I saw that a sub-11 finish was within my grasp. It would just take some RFP, but it was possible. Still unable to run, I nevertheless moved my legs with a renewed sense of purpose. A runner passed me about ten minutes later, and I asked a question I never allowed myself to ask before: “do you know how much further?” I felt ashamed the minute the words left my lips, but I was in bad shape and knew I didn’t have much left. “About half a mile, I think. Surely not more than a mile, though.” “Anyone can run a mile,” I told myself.

He wasn’t far off, because the light that signaled the open road soon came into view. From there, it was a quarter mile to the finish. Too proud to walk it in, I drew on that to help me find enough strength to run the home stretch, which would be lined with spectators. It really was all I could do to keep from passing out, but the sounds of cheering voices, and my sheer stubbornness, carried me across the finish line.

WR50 finish

This should be an Academy Award-nominated performance. PC: Jarad Long.

I collapsed into Eric Sach’s arms and said, “I don’t feel good.” At which he proceeded to drag me over to the medics tent and deposit me on a cot.

I was a smoldering wreck.

After the medics posed a series of very personal and humiliating questions, they offered a few guesses as to the cause of my GI and blood issues and ruled out kidney failure. My body temperature couldn’t regulate, so they wrapped me in a blanket, shivering on an 80 degree day. Mark found me and offered congratulations, which felt funny given that I was on my back in the medics tent. He had an outstanding run, and I was so happy for him. Jason Weekes showed up and pointed out that I was the 13th female (not 18th, as I had believed), which gave me a lift in spite of my humiliating condition. Later, Pablo found me and came bearing the gift of a baked potato while offering to spoon feed it to me. Declining his kind offer, I still enjoyed what was, decidedly, the most delicious baked potato of my life.

Laying there, a plate of half-eaten baked potato on my chest, and feeling embarrassed, I noticed David Horton walk up. He looked at me and said, “You look pretty comfortable there.” And so, I replied, to one of my ultra heroes. the most idiotic thing that came to my head: “I’m just practicing to win Best Blood at Mountain Masochist.” With that he laughed, pulled up a cooler, and sat down to talk to me. How surreal, to be laying on a medical cot, chatting with a runner whose career you’ve read so much about and whose races you’ve aspired to run. How surreal, an hour later, to have him sitting in your lap, taking selfies and asking for your number so that he can send them to you. In the end, it was worth the humiliation of a pathetic finish to share that time with Dr. Horton. Some of his words will stay with me, echoing in my mind and motivating me in my future endeavors.

best selfie ever

When David Horton sits on your lap and asks to take a selfie, you say yes.

Graduating from the cot to a chair, I could relax and cheer in runners. Bill and Matt were there as well, neither having had the day they’d hoped for, but both being models for making smart decisions. We anxiously awaited for Karey and Nicole to appear. During this time, Pablo brought over Seth and introduced us. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that would be one momentous introduction, a most welcome one that would go on to change the course of my summer, and of my life. He’d soon become the guy who would be out on those long runs with me, but that’s another story, for another time.

I was so proud to see Karey and Nicole come in for their finish. These women had trained their asses off for this race, and they both demonstrated such determination and grit. It was such a sweet end to the day to see them beaming as they crossed the line. It had been a long, hard day, but they dug deep and accomplished their goal, which was truly inspiring to witness.

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

In our post-race debrief, Yassine and I talked through my theory about the source of my GI distress (Tailwind), and I lamented the fact that yet another race had gone south. In his infinite wisdom, Yassine said, “In ultra running, we’re always chasing the dragon. That perfect race is elusive, but we tell ourselves it’s out there.” He went on to remind me of his own races that hadn’t gone as planned. It was reassuring to hear this from my coach. Sometimes I forget that he’s human, too, and even elite runners have bad days. Few, if any, runners go out and have seamless races on every outing. With so many variables in the mix, the odds of hitting a hiccup are in your favor, be it minor or major. Hearing this helped me to take some of the pressure off of myself that I had been piling up since Bryce. I had believed that if I just trained well and tweaked the little problems, then a flawless race was guaranteed. Yassine’s words reminded me that’s not how ultra running, or life, works. There are no guarantees–and that’s exactly what we love about the sport.

Chasing the dragon can be fun; it can motivate us to push ourselves and to seek that golden run, but we also need to see the beauty of, and lessons in, the races that don’t go exactly as planned. I’d been so hung up on the defeat of Skookum Flats, I had failed to recognize that I had set a 2 hour and 5 minute PR on the White River course, finishing in 10 hours and 46 minutes. Initially, I was too absorbed in agonizing over missing my time goal and feeling a sub-10 finish had cruelly slipped from my grasp. In retrospect, and with the help of others who gave me perspective, I saw that moving from 57th to 13th place, from a 12:51 to a 10:46 finish in one year was an incredible achievement. If we’re too caught up in perfection, then we’ll never see the progress we’ve made. No, don’t hide behind the royal we, Ellen: if I’m too caught up in perfection, then I’ll never see the progress that I’ve made.

Perhaps, then, this is the dragon that I should be chasing, seeking a place within myself where unfulfilled expectations and small defeats don’t signal failure but, rather, herald new forms of growth.

 

Guided by Voices: A Bryce 100 Race Report

“Feed the Good Wolf.” –Yassine Diboun

“Don’t stop now, don’t stop now.” –Robert Pollard, Guided by Voices

“The sun was rising up from the fields / I got a feeling I just can’t shake / I got a feeling that just won’t go away / You’ve gotta just keep on pushing / Push the sky away / And if your friends think that you should do it different / And if they think that you should do it the same / You’ve gotta just keep on pushing / Push the sky away / And if you feel you got everything you came for / If you got everything and you don’t want no more / You’ve gotta just keep on pushing / Push the sky away.”  –Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Introduction

In our initial discussion about choosing my first 100-miler, I led by saying I wanted to run Plain 100. Yassine politely laughed. It’s a notoriously difficult race, but I didn’t want to cherry pick an easy course. He said, “I know you could do it, but let’s not start with a post-graduate race.” He suggested choosing a destination race that didn’t involve too much travel. I needed a June race, since I had the BFC and Big’s Backyard waiting in the fall and wanted to be rested and recovered. “Bighorn?” Polite laugh. I started my research and came across a promotional video for Bryce 100. The landscape was just stunning, and I’m a total sucker for a good promotional race video. True, it was probably just as challenging as Bighorn–it was in a desert, at altitude, and had a lot of climb–but for whatever reason, Yassine gave me his blessing for this one, so I registered immediately.

On training runs, I would fantasize about how it would all play out. Initially, those visions were quite unambitious. It would be me crossing the finish line with a smile, proud to have accomplished this achievement. As my training progressed and I grew stronger, faster, and more confident, as I won races or took second, those fantasies evolved. They ranged from finishing in the top ten, then standing on the podium in third place, until, finally, I had won the race and set a new course record. If you’re gonna dream, dream big. Yassine started to say that he felt I was going to do really well at Bryce, and that I was made for this distance. I researched past runners and tried to calculate a finish time for myself by comparing our times at comparable ultras. I read every race report I could find, did heat training, made a meticulous plan for race day, and really let my Type-A side shine as I organized drop bags. I identified places in Utah to pick up supplies on the off chance my checked bag should go missing. I had backups for backups. I had everything I could possibly need stored away in drop bags, which would serve as my “crew.” After months of work, everything was falling into place.

There wasn’t a shadow of a doubt in my mind. I didn’t need a crew; I didn’t need pacers. I was going to do this on my own, and I was going to crush the Bryce 100.

crew

My “crew.”

My Y family sent me off with words of wisdom. Terry S. said, “Whenever you start to focus on going too fast and getting caught up in competing, just hear my voice telling you to remember the two Fs: Fun and Finish.” He knows my competitive nature and knew I needed this reminder. Joe Corona suggested memorizing some good songs and maybe including “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Others shared similar goodwill sentiments, but Teri P.’s final words rattled me a bit: “Ellen, just know that it’s ok if you don’t finish. Just starting is an incredible accomplishment in itself. It’s ok if you don’t finish,” she repeated. The idea of not finishing had never occurred to me; not once. The seriousness with which she said this, though, stayed with me. I tried not to hear her words as I finalized my splits cheat-sheet that I would carry with me. I intentionally chose not to include cut off times, thinking there was no need for them and it would only take up space. In the back of my mind, I also thought that if I didn’t include them, then I wouldn’t be able to put myself in a position to use them.

The next evening, I rolled into Ruby’s, outside of Bryce, for packet pick-up and the pre-race briefing. I was pretty sleep-deprived, but the excitement of what the next day held gave me a boost. While depositing my drop bags, I met Joe Schrum, who guessed from my Gorge Waterfalls t-shirt who I was and admitted to Face Stalking me after seeing I was from Tacoma. It was nice to meet someone from back home. We chatted about the course a bit and discussed our goals. He was hoping for a sub-30. I stated three goals. The bare minimum goal: finish under the 36 hour cutoff. The realistic goal: finish sub-30. The reach goal: finish sub-26. (I didn’t mention the fantasy goal of setting a new course record, which was 23:50.)

That evening I took a little shake-out run through Panguitch and then got to bed relatively early. I didn’t have pre-race jitters and slept surprisingly well. The alarm sounded at 3:30 a.m. and I began race morning rituals of loading in some calories, double-checking gear, hydrating, and then it was off to catch the shuttle for the start line.

flat Ellen

Flat Ellen, ready to rock.

I caught the 5:00 a.m. shuttle from Ruby’s, which dropped us at the start line with about 50 minutes to wait in the cold desert morning. There was a brisk breeze blowing, so we all shuffled around in an attempt to stave off the shivers. I knew in a couple of hours we would be longing for that cool wind. My stomach was a little upset, but I chalked it up to minor jitters. Light began to flank the north eastern horizon, and soon enough the race director gave last minute instructions before the collective countdown to “Go!”

Start Line to Thunder Mountain (Mile 0 to Mile 10.5)

In our pre-race talk, Yassine repeatedly circled back to the idea of being patient and not coming out too fast. I think he gave me more credit than I deserve when he said that he didn’t think this was a problem for me and that I was good about starting easy; in reality, I very much needed the reminders. My running buddy, Rich, also knowing me well, had given similar advice, advising me to see how I felt in the final 40k before I started racing. They are both seasoned 100-milers, and I have tremendous respect for their expertise, so I knew it was important to follow this suggestion.

We started off down a gravel road and had about 2 miles before we hit the single track trail. I had started about 3/4 of the way back, but in this opening section, I slowly made my way up through the pack. I didn’t push hard, but I didn’t want to get caught in a conga line once we reached the trail. Already the day was warming up, and the sun was barely peaking out above the mesas. I was happy with my position as we turned onto the trail. I had a good, steady pace going; not too fast but also making good time. This section was fairly rolling, and I recalled the advice that Rich’s friend who had run it the previous year, Joey, had given me. He said that I would be tempted to run this section but cautioned me not to because it would “come back to bite you in the ass.” It was, admittedly, tough not to run the rollers, especially when runners blew past me on the climbs. The voice in my head reminded me to be patient and not get caught up in racing so early; “let them go,” the voice said; “there’s a lot of miles ahead of you, and you’ll be passing them later.” I listened to the voice in my head, heard the voices of friends and mentors reinforcing this point, and settled in to a comfortable pace.

We hit some beautiful country in this first stretch. The limestone is a gorgeous orange/pink color that was quite lovely in the soft morning light. I power hiked the climbs and ran a steady pace on the downhills. A few miles in, I asked another runner to grab my Kool Tie bandana out of my pack for me. It was already pretty hot, and it would be crucial to keep my core temperature down. I fell into a rhythm and became the head of a small train of runners winding over the painted hills. Some of the downhills were too tempting for me to resist, so I picked up the pace a bit but mostly let gravity do the work. It felt good not to worry about holding up runners behind me. In the past, I’ve been very anxious about having runners behind me, to the point that I would continually step aside to let them pass.  I’ve been working on this a lot, and it seemed like progress not to be worried about them and not to step aside. I was relaxed and excited for the day that lay ahead

I don’t remember the exact split, but I believe I rolled into Thunder Mountain Aid Station in about 2 hours. This wasn’t break-neck speed by any means, but I was happy with the split. My stomach was still a little upset, but otherwise all seemed good to go. I stopped briefly to top off my water and use the nifty composting toilet, and then continued on. I made a bonehead move by missing the trail out of the aid station and ran down the road a ways until some nice runners called me back. I thanked them, laughed, and said, “I wanted get my idiot move out of the way early.”

Thunder Mountain to Proctor (Mile 10.5 to Mile 19)

Fair warning, things get pretty gross from here on out. I’m documenting this for myself so that I have a record of the run. Keeping in mind that friends and family will also be reading, I’ll try to keep the details vague enough so that it’s not completely disgusting. This is coming from someone who lived with a guy for almost 9 years and never farted in front of him, but it’s the reality of most of my race, so no use being shy about it, I guess.

Coming out of Thunder Mountain, I fell back into a steady rhythm. Once again, runners raced past me, but I was more relaxed and trusted that being patient would pay off. This section was quite exposed, and the day grew warmer. The odd feeling in my stomach was migrating into my gut and became more pronounced. It wasn’t clear what the issue could be, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t ignore it, at first. This became increasingly more difficult, though, and I felt my pace slacken a bit in response. It took another two hours to cover a shorter distance, which confirmed that I was slowing up. I had another run to the composting toilet and realized my condition was getting a little, um, loose, you could say. Fortunately, I had a drop bag with Imodium in it, and my hope was that this would take care of the issue.

Wanting some real food, I grabbed a potato, then refilled my water, and re-upped the Tailwind in my bladder. The potato was mostly raw, but I choked enough of it down to get some solid calories. I was efficient in both aid station stops so far, taking care of business quickly and not lingering any longer than necessary. I soaked my hat and arm sleeves in water to help cool me off and was surprised not to see anyone else doing the same. It was 10:00 a.m. and blazing hot. Imagine what late afternoon would bring. While I was slightly concerned about the feeling that was spreading inside me, I still felt good otherwise, and headed out not realizing how brutal the awaiting section would prove to be.

Proctor to Blubber Creek (Mile 19 to Mile 28)

This leg is, undoubtedly, the worst on the course. The climbs and descents are technical, steep, and mostly exposed, and you’re passing through as the day is really heating up. Given the amount of climb, you’re also getting up above 9,000 feet in altitude. These factors would work against runners, and most of us ran out of water along the way. The vaguely bad sensation in my stomach and gut evolved into something more akin to pain along this stretch. I started to cramp in my gut, feeling like I was full of gas. The impact from running aggravated the situation, and my pace slowed in response. Joe caught up to me at this point, and we shared a couple of miles together. At the five-hour mark, he made a short video clip. I was still in good enough spirits to sounds cheerful as he filmed, but I finally admitted out loud that something was wrong. He offered me Tums, but I was reluctant to break the Cardinal Rule of not trying something new on race day. Eventually, I had to let him pass, as my pace continued to decelerate.

The pain from cramping intensified, and another runner, seeing me struggle, pulled out a small pharmacopeia from his pack. I was amazed by the variety of remedies he carried. He didn’t have Pepto or Imodium, but he did have Gas-X. Thinking that I was just having a gas issue, and no longer caring about the Cardinal Rule, I gladly accepted and said, “Thanks, man. You probably just saved my race.” If only that were true.

I believed it was true, briefly, and managed to jog along. I hoped that the Gas-X, plus the Imodium I had taken, would clear things up. It hurt to run, but it was on that line between bearable and excruciating, so I jogged as best I could. The jog soon became a shuffle, the shuffle then interspersed with power hiking, and, finally, a power hike was all I could manage. I was in complete disbelief and incredibly frustrated, but each attempt to increase my speed resulted in almost unbearable pain.

This is horribly embarrassing to write, but I found that passing gas offered some relief. Whenever possible, and, of course, when no one else was nearby, I tried to pass some gas in the hopes that this would solve the issue. It wasn’t long, though, before I had to make a sudden emergency trip behind a tree, and I knew that things had gone from bad to worse. Much worse. It was clear that my situation was going to dehydrate me very quickly. I still had about 5 miles and stupid amounts of climbing to do before I reached the aid station, and my water was running low. I drank more conservatively.

When I reached a small creek, I stopped to soak my hat and arm sleeves again, grateful for the cold mountain water. Crossing over, I began an absolute monster climb. Despite my weakened state, I was still passing some runners who struggled up this climb. A woman caught me and we chatted briefly about the nasty ascent. I asked if she had any Pepto. She didn’t but offered me some Tums. I was done being cautious and happily took them, desperate for anything that would ease up this pain. She was a bit condescending as she said, “I remember when I was a baby ultra runner, someone gave me Tums, and I’ve carried them ever since.” I had bigger concerns than feeling resentment at her patronizing tone, so I took the Tums and pressed on.

Part way up the climb, I ran out of water. I was carrying 1.8 liters in my bladder and 34 ounces in soft flasks. I made additional visits to trees off the side of the trail. Despite the heat and exertion, I was no longer sweating. My stomach had started to bloat; it was puffed out and looked like I had a balloon under my shirt. The pain grew steadily intense, and running amplified it beyond belief. On the few little descents between climbs, I tried to run, but the pain would spasm up my sides and into my chest, nearly making me vomit from the shock of it. I’d never felt anything like this.

“Just get to the aid station,” the voice inside me said. “You’ll hydrate. They’ll have something to fix these problems. This will pass, and you’ll make up time.” I listened to the voice and pressed forward. My watch was off at this point, so I wasn’t exactly sure how far out I was from Blubber Creek. It seemed like it should be just around the next bend, but I would turn the corner only to see more trail stretch out. I felt a little panicky, not having water and knowing I was dehydrated pretty badly, but I suppressed that quietly nagging voice and focused on moving forward.

A wave of relief enveloped me when I rounded a corner and heard voices ahead. Real voices. I had reached Blubber Creek Aid Station. I pulled a volunteer aside and whispered, embarrassed, “Do you have any Pepto or Imodium?” He didn’t, and asked what was going on. I explained all of the problems, and he told me to sit for a minute and to sip water, slowly. “Like an I.V. drip,” he said. “Don’t eat unless you’re hungry. Let this stuff pass through and then eat, bit by bit, like an I.V. drip.” He liked that simile. I took comfort in the slow, calm way he spoke. I was reluctant to sit, though, so I wet my hat and arm sleeves, soaked my head in water, and sipped fluids. I made a couple visits to the composting toilet (which, by the way, beats the heck out of a port-o-let.) He returned with some Tums. He told me to take a few now, then gave me more to carry along, then sent me off by repeating his instructions on how to drink and eat every 5 minutes, “like an I.V. Drip; drip.”

Blubber Creek to Kanab Creek (Mile 28 to Mile 36)

This was one of the most mentally challenging legs of the course. It was a very runnable segment, but I was incapable of running. Any attempt resulted in excruciating pain. It was infuriating, because my legs felt great and ready to roll. To add insult to injury, the downhills were more uncomfortable than the flats and climbs, forcing me to slow down on the parts of the trail that I should have used to make up time. Additionally, I was ducking behind trees every 5-10 minutes now, and my stomach was even more ridiculously bloated, popping out my shirt like a yoga ball was underneath. Somehow I managed to laugh at the thought that I could now say that this race had both literally and figuratively turned into a real shit show.

The voices in my head became more prominent, and it was clear that there were two of them. One was negative in its focus, dwelling on how terrible I felt. It took it personally whenever a runner passed me and was disgusted with my performance. “You should be running. You should be miles ahead. Weaker runners are passing you, and making it look easy. This isn’t the race you trained for. You are weak. You can’t even suck it up and run. You are pathetic.”

The other voice drew upon Yassine’s mantra to “Feed the Good Wolf.” To paraphrase: there are two wolves warring within you. One is evil, the other is good. The outcome of the battle depends on which wolf you feed. Thus, feed the good wolf. This voice said, “Feed the Good Wolf. You’re well ahead of the cutoffs. Just keep making Relentless Forward Progress (this voice also cribbed from Frozen Ed Furtaw), just keep making the cutoffs. This pain can’t last forever. It will turn around; eventually you will be able to run again. Just gut this out. It’s not the race you trained for, but it’s the race you’ve got. Accept it for what it is, and move forward.”

I chose to feed the Good Wolf.

Coming out of Blubber Creek, two runners buddied up with me, Jeb and Clint. They were also reduced to power walking, each suffering from their own unexpected issues. It was nice to have company, and talking with them lifted my spirits and got me out of my head. We made light of our situation and found reasons to laugh. I said that, at this point, I just wanted to make the 36-hour cutoff. It was humbling to say it, but Jeb replied, “You’re working through some serious stuff. If anyone laughs about a 36-hour finish, fuck ’em. They don’t know what we’re going through to get there, but we know.” I took a lot of comfort in these words. The bad voice in my head was filled with shame about my performance, while the good voice pointed out what I was pushing through just to keep moving. OK, true, I would know what I went through, but no one else would appreciate the magnitude of the effort. Hearing Jeb’s proclamation helped me realize that it didn’t matter what anyone else understood about this race. Of course, I would go back and forth on that realization over the next 30 hours, but he planted the seed that I would attempt to nurture.

I wanted to stick with Jeb and Clint, but Tums don’t do shit to relieve severe GI distress, and before long I had to excuse myself and make for the trees (by the way, thank heavens for the number of trees and shrubs on this course. Also, thank heavens for baby wipes. They saved my ass.) I said I’d catch up but knew that was not going to happen. This became a pattern through this section. A runner would chat with me for a bit, but then I’d flee for the trees, or they would simply drop me. It was incredibly humbling and frustrating, and I had to work very hard not to feel completely defeated by being constantly dropped by runners who were hiking.

One man stayed with me for about a mile, and he talked endlessly about all of the badass ultra women he admired. He mentioned how much he loved those films about women who thought their races were over, but they managed to turn things around and had very successful runs (I’m pretty sure he was talking about Billy Yang’s awesome films and Devon Yanko and Sally McRae‘s WS100 comebacks.) I understood that he was trying to give me hope, and I appreciated it. “You can still turn it around,” he offered. He also had a friend who he thought was just ahead of us. “She’s a medic, and I’ll bet she can figure out what’s going on with you. We’ll meet her at the aid station, and we’ll get it figured out.” I thanked him, and soon he, too, dropped me.

Soon after, I heard a voice from behind, “There’s my Wy’east Trail Sister! I caught you at last!” He had seen me in my Wy’east Wolfpack shirt at the start line, and he’d finally caught me. His name was Hugh, and he had trained with Yassine. He asked what was going on, and I explained the several issues that had compounded. Everyone I had spoken with had a theory about the bloated stomach, and Hugh’s was that I was retaining water due to taking too many electrolytes. (Others had suggested I wasn’t getting enough electrolytes.) He asked if I had blood in my urine or BMs; I didn’t. “OK, so kidney failure isn’t a concern.” That’s a relief. I said, “I’m not sure if this is anything serious, but I assume I would know it if I was in real danger.” He replied, “Nothing you described sounds like you’re in any real danger. It doesn’t sound life threatening.” That was a true relief. He paused and became very serious: “You know, if Yassine was here, he’d ask you, ‘How would you feel right now if you quit?'” This took me aback, especially because the bad voice in my head had started floating the idea that I should quit. “I would never forgive myself,” I replied. “Well then,” Hugh said, “keep moving. There’s still plenty of time and plenty of miles for you to kick this thing and turn your race around.” With that, he, too, dropped me, but not before leaving me with this important image of my coach asking me how I would feel about quitting. I’d hear that question again throughout my race.

I rolled into Kanab Creek feeling somewhat hopeful. Jeb and Clint were still there, which surprised me. Maybe I was moving faster than I thought. I asked the volunteers for Pepto or Imodium; “we have Tums,” they replied. No thanks. I refilled water but chose not to add Tailwind to my bladder. This, in hindsight, was a terrible mistake. I’d stopped eating after mile 20 or so. Eating made the pain worse, and it was clear I wouldn’t keep it down anyway. I took Hugh’s assessment as true and assumed I had too many electrolytes; fearing I’d exacerbate the situation, I didn’t take any Endurolytes and didn’t re-up the Tailwind. I was still a little dehydrated, but at least I was able to drink. I knew that I needed to eat, but the adverse reaction was so painful, that I stupidly decided to just go without. This meant I was only getting water. No calories. No electrolytes. I knew better, but it also felt as if I didn’t have any other choice. It was all very un-Ellen-like, but so was this entire race.

Perhaps it was the combination of catching up to Jeb, Clint, Hugh, and the other man who had cheered me up on this past leg, but I left Kanab Creek feeling a bit better. The next section was only 5 miles and mostly downhill, and I optimistically hoped that I could run down into Straight Canyon.

Kanab Creek to Straight Canyon (Mile 36 to Mile 41)

The trail left Kanab Creek and followed along the edge of a cliff. Down below, the iconic hoodoos of Bryce Canyon glowed in the late afternoon light. I may have been miserable in many ways, but I never lost sight of the beauty of this landscape. I understood, throughout my entire experience, that it was a privilege to be there. As Yassine always reminds me, “Our lives are so good, we pay to put ourselves in these situations.” I took in the vista on display, smiling and appreciating this astonishing place. Snaking along the cliff’s edge, the refrain from the Guided By Voices song, “Drag Days,” played on repeat: “They will turn around / They will turn aroun—ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh–ound.” I picked up into a little jog, which morphed into something resembling a run. “This will be the part in my race report when I write about how things turned around in that moment. The sufferfest is over and done with; now my race begins!”

Sharp knives stabbed at my gut, needling me with pain and knocking out my breath. I staggered to a halt. Tried to resume a jog. Knives. I didn’t want to believe this, so I tried again. Daggers. This description isn’t an attempt for the dramatic. This was the reality of my race; this was me fighting it while also trying to reconcile myself to it. Things were decidedly not turning around. “You’re still ahead of the cutoffs,” the good voice said. “That’s all that matters. You can’t run, but hiking has kept you ahead of the cutoffs.” It was true. While my margin shrank a bit at each aid station, I was, at that point, about 2 hours ahead of the cutoff. I was making decent time. “Feed the Good Wolf. Make Relentless Forward Progress,” the good voice chanted.

A number of runners seemingly rallied on the downhill and tore past me. By this point, I had a pat reply when people asked how I was doing: I’d smile and laugh, “Just guttin’ it out!” I probably said that 100 times on the course. I was learning to manage disappointment, and I tried having a sense of humor about it when talking with others. I was learning to revise my expectations and navigate a feeling of failure. I had plenty of miles ahead of me to work through all of this, and, to use a cliche, it was an emotional roller coaster.

At this point, the front runner came into sight. He looked strong and was gliding along in gazelle-like fashion. I whooped for him as he passed with his pacer, both of them telling me to stay strong. A few minutes later, the second male showed up. He was bent over, looking tired and zombie-like. I said, “He’s not too far ahead of you!” The pacer said, “Did you hear that Matt? Come on, let’s get him!” I didn’t think Matt was going to catch that runner, but he looked like he could use a hopeful word to pull out of that trance. (The results show a Matt in third place, so hopefully that’s him and he pushed through that wall he was up against.)

Since I was so far behind schedule, my meticulous drop bag arrangement was now all off. As a result, I hadn’t reached the battery pack for recharging my watch, and it died about a mile or so from the next aid station. Finally, I reached Straight Canyon, and volunteers and crews cheered as I hiked in. I laughed and shook my head; their applause weren’t exactly warranted. After 22 miles and roughly 7 hours of severe GI distress, I had some Imodium in my drop bag. My fingers weren’t working, so a kind crew member opened the impossible packaging for me. I asked if the aid station had Pepto. They didn’t, but the runner next to me did. I popped two of them in tandem with the Imodium, not caring if this was a bad idea. I grabbed a headlamp and pullover to prepare for the night that would soon fall. I was looking forward to the respite from the heat and vaguely hoped that the cool air would also help me feel better. My stomach was still enormous and the cramping holding on strong, but I managed to choke down a handful of potato chips and sipped some Coke. This would become the one thing I could eat for much of the race. I came in about 1 hour 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff (wish I could remember the exact window, but this is close.) Not wanting to relinquish too much of my lead over the cutoff, I topped off my water and pressed on. As I left, the lead female was departing in the opposite direction.

Straight Canyon to Pink Cliffs (Mile 41 to Mile 46.5)

The next 10.5 miles forced me to swallow another bitter pill. First, the front runners came past on their return, and then the middle packers ran by. It was humiliating and humbling. The bad voice would say, “You should be with them. That’s where you belong.” The good voice didn’t really have much to say, so I decided to ignore the bad voice. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes, but never fell.

The trail meandered through the forested canyon and then began the climb up to Pink Cliffs. First, we were on a gravel road, and then veered off onto single track up a steep and rocky climb. Joey had warned me that the section from Straight Canyon to the turn around at Crawford Pass (and back again) was the worst, but I didn’t find it too bad, all things considered. The Pepto and Imodium Cocktail kicked in a couple miles out of Straight Canyon, and eventually my emergency tree dashing routine concluded. I still had a host of other issues, but this was a great problem to be done with. At one point, a fluttering noise caught my attention; I turned to see a magpie in a pine tree. I’ve always loved these birds, so I decided that the magpie was a good omen. I had to believe in something.

The summit of Pink Cliffs is the highest point on the course (~9,400′), and I reached it as the sun was setting. I paused for a moment–the first time I had done so on the course–and watched the sun set. The trail hugged the edge of the cliff, which had a frighteningly steep drop off. The canyons blanketed as far as I could see, with mesas jutting out in all directions along the horizon. I was moved by the beauty of it all, and I felt a sense of excitement at the prospect of running through the night (which I’d done only once before.) The good voice said, “You’re going to finish.”

Not long after that, I made it to the Pink Cliffs Aid Station. There were two young kids taking numbers of incoming runners, and a third came running over and said, with enthusiasm, “We have to make any runners who get here after 10:45 quit! They aren’t allowed to keep going!” This was pretty irritating to hear, coming into the aid station that is supposed to offer you comfort. The zeal with which this kid anticipated ending runners’ races for them was off-putting, but I chalked it up to kids being kids and didn’t let it bother me. I was an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff (as best as I remember, give or take 15 minutes), so this wasn’t my concern, anyway. I grabbed a handful of potato chips, refilled my water, and carried on.

Pink Cliffs to Crawford Pass (Mile 46.5 to Mile 51.5)

It was about time to put on the pullover and turn on the headlamp as I started the trek to the turnaround at Crawford Pass. This was mostly a descent, and perhaps it was the power of that sunset that put a little spunk in my step, as I power hiked at a faster pace than had been possible for some time. I passed a number of runners making the return, but I no longer allowed this to bother me. I’d give a “hey, hey!” as we passed. Feeling mostly positive, I also started to wonder if there were any runners left behind me. I suspect those who passed me going the opposite direction wondered this as well. They would find out, but I had no way of knowing.

The gravelly road soon became a series of switchbacks, and the entire descent came into view. Pins of lights from headlamps dotted the zagging line down the mountain. Initially, I thought that I simply had to get to the bottom of the road, but I soon noticed beams of light stretching all along the bottom of a cliff, reaching back for what seemed like forever. “Oh god, they go on forever back there. For miles!” the bad voice whined. It deflated me. “Feed the Good Wolf,” the other voice reminded.

Sure enough, at the bottom of the road, the immaculately marked course told me to head off onto a single track trail that wound along the bottom of the mountain. This was a nasty section. Dry draws crossed the trail endlessly. While in different circumstances I could leap down and fly up the other side, my condition was so bad that I had to crawl down into the draw and then drag myself up the other side. There were blow downs and some sharp drops to navigate as well. There were a few creek crossings. There were logs meant to be used as bridges, but I didn’t trust myself to keep my balance across them, so I picked my way across the water, tip-toeing an attempt to keep dry-ish. It was an exhausting stretch.

I always seem to rally when others around me are at a low point. A runner caught me, and he was in incredibly bad shape, losing hope by the second. I tried to keep the conversation positive. He’d veer back into focusing on his pain, and I would redirect his thoughts. This kept my mind off my own physical pain, too. After crossing a particularly gnarly draw, I paused and looked up. The sight was stunning. Stars like I’d never seen carpeted the sky. There seemed to be more points of light than open space. It felt as if the sky was wrapped around us, it was that bright and bold and brilliant and close. The Milky Way traipsed across the scene. I gasped, “Oh! Look at the stars!” He replied, “Oh, yes, wow! You really do find the positive in everything, don’t you?”

“That’s the only choice we have if we’re going to make it.”

For the first time in hours, I dropped a runner. He fell behind, and this was no time to wait for anyone. I was chasing cutoffs. I hope he kept going.

Soon after this, a runner said, “You’re almost there! I’m 20 minutes out. You can make it!” I’m not certain, because it was too dark to tell, but I think it was Joe. Either way, it helped to hear a friendly voice. A little further on, another runner said, “it’s just half a mile!” These words fueled me on. A third runner said, “You’re almost there! And, I’m not just saying that. It’s really less than a quarter mile.”

I could smell the campfire before the Crawford Pass Aid Station came into view. Tempting as was its glow, I headed for the tent, ready to try some food. The race website had mentioned there’d be vegan broth overnight, so I asked the volunteer for some. He said, “We’ve got chicken broth. That ok?” “No, thank you.” I scooped my trusty handful of potato chips, as another person who overheard this said, “I have some baby carrots. Would you like them?” I smiled and thanked him, but I didn’t want to take someone else’s food from them. I munched my chips and chatted briefly with another runner who was clearly struggling. His name was Steve. He had offered some words of encouragement earlier, and now he needed some. All of his friends had dropped, which took away some of his momentum. I’d wanted to leave with him, but needed a few minutes to fill up water and assess my headlamp situation. I had come in around an hour and fifteen or hour and thirty minutes ahead of the cutoff. This meant it was approximately 11:15 p.m. I’d been on course for over 17 hours and had only just now reached the halfway point.

I was using a backup headlamp because my drop bags were out of sync with the race I was having. My next headlamp was about 24 miles away. This was a cheap, battery operated headlamp. I knew the batteries should last me, but the risk made me anxious, especially if I was the last runner on the course. If the batteries ran out, I could be stuck god knows where until daylight. I asked a volunteer, “I know it’s a long shot, but any chance you have extra batteries? Things haven’t gone according to plan, and I’m concerned about the possibility of my batteries dying.” She sprung into action as her partner mumbled, “Every time she does this, she never gets the headlamp back.” She returned and offered me a headlamp, but I wasn’t comfortable taking it (even though I would have mailed it back, dude.) Instead, I asked for the batteries, and left thanking her profusely. This would give me peace of mind heading back into the night.

At long last, I was inbound.

Crawford Pass to Pink Cliffs (Mile 51.5 to Mile 56.5)

I left several runners behind me at Crawford Pass and a few, though not many, were still coming in as I made my way back out. I offered encouragement to everyone I passed. It occurred to me now that a significant amount of runners must have dropped. Having now passed everyone on the course, it was clear that far fewer were out here than who had started. Retracing my steps, the trail didn’t feel quite as treacherous as it did outbound. Perhaps knowing I was heading back gave me a little lift, but the thought then struck me that I had to go back and do again everything I had already done. Of course, the bad voice leapt on that thought and tried to foster it; the good voice jumped in and reminded me that this trail seemed shorter and easier on the return; the rest of the course should be the same. I stopped a couple of times to take in the starry sky, still amazed by its splendor.

Amazingly, I overtook a couple of runners on the climb back up the road. The ascents had become my strong suit on this course; they are typically my weakest element. The switchbacks did feel a bit interminable, but soon enough I was back at the Pink Cliffs Aid Station, about an hour ahead of the cutoff. They had bowls of noodles, and I figured it was time to try something other than chips. The noodles actually tasted pretty good, and I was happy to be eating. It hurt my stomach a bit, but not as badly as earlier. The station captain was surprised by how good of spirits I was in, given how badly I felt. I had a knack for pulling everything together around others, downplaying how awful things were inside. I decided to sit for a minute as I enjoyed my dinner. A pacer sat next to me, irritated that his runner needed a nap. I realized then that I wasn’t tired yet. The 24-hour mark was not far off, and I was remarkably lucid, as the station captain noted. As I headed back out, he said, “Don’t scare no bears out there!” I didn’t let myself ask if there were actually bears out there.

Pink Cliffs to Straight Canyon (Mile 56.5 to Mile 62)

It was a little nerve wracking going back along Pink Cliffs. The wind had really picked up, and the trail traced the edge. There was that tricky descent to navigate as well, and I slid several times on my way down. Reaching the road, I tried to pick up the pace of my hike, but I topped out pretty quickly. Several runners took advantage of the descent to run and make up time. I simply couldn’t. From that height, you could see down into the canyon. The Straight Canyon Aid Station was lit up in flickering Christmas lights. It was an awful tease, though. It gave you the impression that it was so close, but it was still so far away. I heard one runner behind me yowling like a wild animal, then yelling, “Yee-oww! The pain! The pain!” while he laughed maniacally. As we neared the canyon trail, his pacer ran up to me and said, “I’m going to run ahead and get his stuff set up at the aid station. What do you need? Just tell me, and I’ll have it ready for you?” I couldn’t believe his kindness. I thanked him and said I was all set. As he and his yowling runner passed me, he yelled back, “This is runnable here! You can make up time going downhill!” I laughed and replied, “It hurts worse on the downhill, but I’ll make it! Thanks!”

The cutoff at Straight Canyon was 4:20 a.m. I arrived around 3:30, if not a little after. My margin for error was quickly shrinking. The temperature had dropped significantly, and the wind was fierce. I had another shirt in my drop bag, which I put on over the pullover. I was also wearing another shirt underneath, plus arm sleeves. I had gloves, a hat, and wrapped my buff around my ears. Still, I was shivering. I asked about vegan broth, but they only had chicken. I asked for tea. I needed something to warm me up. I sat down with my tea, and another runner gave me a sleeping bag to wrap up in. I feared I might never come out from under it, but I took the risk. The warmth of the tea and sleeping bag were comforting. Another runner laid down on the cot (maybe it was Steve?) and said to me and a volunteer, “I think I have to quit.” He was stunned, almost shell shocked as he said it. “I’ve never quit before.” The volunteer said, “We got word that almost half the field had dropped by 3:00 p.m. yesterday. It’s just a bad year.” All of this talk of quitting was fueling the bad voice in my head. “You have every reason to quit. You are in incredible pain; you’ve barely eaten. In a few hours, it will be blazing hot, and you will dehydrate. You’re moving slower and the cutoffs are getting more narrow. There’s no shame in quitting. You did your best, but you’re done.” The bad voice was starting to sound like the reasonable voice, but I thought of everyone who was sending me good thoughts from afar. I couldn’t let them down.

Yassine asked, “How would you feel right now if you quit?”

“I’d be miserable.”

I tossed off the sleeping bag and blurted out, “I’ve gotta go! I’ve gotta try!” The volunteer and runner who had just resigned himself to quitting agreed in unison, “Yes, you have to try!”

I stood up, and then nearly collapsed. A violent, burning sensation surged through both feet. I took a step, and pain shot through them again. I fell back into the chair, unsure what had happened. I dared not take off my shoes, out of fear I would never get them back on. It took a moment for me to process what had happened: I had developed enormous blisters on the bottoms of my toes on both feet; the right foot was in far worse shape than the left, but both were pretty bad. I had been so focused on the pain in my gut and stomach, that I hadn’t noticed the blisters on my feet. It’s incredible to think that, but it’s the only explanation as to why I hadn’t noticed until now. I hobbled over to the fire, unsure what to do. The fire had apparently attracted other runners who had quit and were waiting for a lift back to Ruby’s. The guy next to me was looking past the fire into space. He wore a face of unwelcome resignation, and his eyes were glassy. He was coming to terms with not finishing the race. The tone was similar for everyone around the fire, and the decision to quit was infectious. I lingered by the fire’s seductive glow.

“The fire feels nice. It’s cold. You’re in no shape to finish, and you won’t make the next cutoff anyway.”

The good voice knew what was up and pointed out what I was doing: “You’re letting the clock run out. You’re setting it up so that you can’t make the next cutoff. Can you live with that?”

I was starting to think that I could.

I staggered over to the water table, trying to decide what to do. Was I really going to quit? I was at mile 62. I’d made it this far, could I really live with quitting now? I didn’t want to quit, but I wasn’t confident that I could make the next cutoff, and now with my feet wrecked, I’d be even slower. I had less time to cover about the same distance I had just covered.

“Let’s go! We go now!”

I looked up from my stupor.

“C’mon, let’s go!”

A runner was filling up his water bottles, urgently and sternly instructing me to go.

“I can’t make the cutoff. I won’t make it. I can’t run”

“We go now!”

There wasn’t any arguing with him, so I went.

Straight Canyon to Kanab Creek (Mile 62 to 67)

As we marched up the road out of Straight Canyon, my new trail buddy periodically turned around and yelled something in Spanish back in the direction of the aid station. I heard a faint reply, and assumed it was another runner. This continued for a few minutes, until the other runner caught us. Shortly after, I heard a voice from behind, “Do you want my coat?” I assumed he was talking to the other runner, so I didn’t reply. “You look cold. Do you want my coat?” “Me?” “Yeah. You’re all hunched up and shivering.” “Oh, thanks, but I can’t take your coat.” “I don’t even want it on. I was going to take it off and carry it, so you may as well wear it.”

And that’s how I met Izzy. He was a great liar, and one of the kindest people I have ever met.

Realizing that arguing with him wasn’t an option either, I accepted his kind offer. I was freezing, and his coat warmed me immediately. It was no surprise to learn that Izzy was the son of the insistent runner, Juan. Juan said, “You can’t quit. You are too young,  and I am too old to quit.” He laughed then pulled ahead of us a bit, and Izzy stayed with me. He was there to pace and mule for his father, and it’s clear he brought the morale as well. I’ve never met someone so generous. Izzy was a college student who spent weekends pacing his dad at ultras around Utah. He was so good natured, you couldn’t help but feel happy around him. He kept telling me how good I was doing, encouraging me to keep going. Sometimes Juan would slow down, and we’d move ahead. Sometimes he would take the lead, and we’d follow. We stuck together, though, and Izzy made conversation and kept my spirits up. I was in such good hands, and my body responded by giving more than I thought possible. Izzy is studying to become a pediatric physical therapist; he will be incredible with those kids, as he was an expert at motivating and encouraging us to push ourselves in a way that felt positive and supportive. His energy inspired me to dig deep, and it turned my mindset around, leaving the depths of despair behind at Straight Canyon.

We reached Kanab Creek Aid Station at 5:30 a.m. Half an hour ahead of the cutoff.

We quickly replenished water. I could tell that my lips were badly chapped, so I asked the volunteers for chapstick. One loaned me hers; next time, I will carry the nominal extra weight. I was able to eat an orange slice here, although the tart juice stung my lips. With no time to lose, we made a speedy departure as the light of early dawn spread across the sky.

Kanab Creek to Blubber Creek (Mile 67 to Mile 75)

This section rode along the edge of a cliff, the Bryce hoodoos in battalions below. The sun rose as we steadily tramped toward Blubber Creek. While I was renewed by Juan and Izzy’s companionship, and by having made the cutoff, I could also tell my body was growing tired. A few handfuls of potato chips and some noodles over a 19 hour period wasn’t going to cut it in terms of nutrition. On a sandy climb, I tripped on a rock, falling and busting my cheek on another rock and bruising my hand on yet another. In cartoons people see stars, but that must be based in real life experience, because stars burst across my vision at impact. I was mostly embarrassed but also thought, “certainly this can’t cause a concussion, right?” Izzy was there immediately to lift me up. “I’m ok, I’m ok.” It was clear that I was struggling. Juan stopped, and I said, “You guys have to drop me now. You got me out of Straight Canyon, and I’ll be forever grateful for that, but I’m slowing you down. You have to drop me.” “No!” Juan replied, “We finish together.” “I promise you, I will finish. I promise I won’t quit. But you have to leave me now.”

Juan saw there was no arguing with me. He had rallied and could run, and I wanted him to make the cutoffs. I gave Izzy his coat and thanked him for everything. As he pulled ahead, he called out, “Ellen, you ok?” I would reply, “Hey Izzy! I’m good!” He continued this every 30 seconds or so, until finally his voice dissolved in the distance.

I enjoyed the view of the hoodoos below and appreciated the cool morning. It was in that sweet spot between being too cold and too hot, and I knew that wouldn’t last long. A couple miles later, I overtook Izzy. He was walking slowly, but still smiling. “Ellen! You’re doing great!” “Are you ok?” “My knee’s bothering me, and Juan could run, so I told him to go. You go ahead, too, Ellen. You’re going to make it!” Pushing forward, I promised, “I won’t quit, Izzy. I promise you, I’ll finish.” That was the last I saw of him. It’s the poignant part of ultra running. Sometimes you encounter people who completely turn your race around, and often you don’t even catch their name, much less ever see them again. You never forget what they give you, though. While I would like to think that I would have eventually left Straight Canyon on my own and attempted to make the next cutoff, I honestly don’t know if that’s how it would have unfolded if Juan hadn’t come along and dragged my ass out of there. If Izzy hadn’t been there to encourage me along the way, I might not have had the strength to beat the buzzer.

Running still wasn’t an option, but I moved with a sense of urgency. Along the way, I had my first hallucination. I saw, as clearly as anything, a composting toilet tent off the side of the trail. “I’m here! That’s the aid station!” It was a tree stump. It was a wild experience, because it was absolutely convincing. Shortly thereafter, I saw the aid station tent. Nope, more trees. I then caught a pacer and runner, and we leap frogged a bit, me taking them on the climbs and them passing me on the descents. We came in to Blubber Creek 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I asked, “Did we have until 9:00 to get here, or until 9:00 to leave here?” The volunteers said, “You have until 9:00 to leave here.” I didn’t need much time, just enough to refill my water. I was also able to eat a banana, which helped. I had almost 4 hours to cover 9 miles. On a normal day, I could easily run a marathon in that time. I turned to the runner and pacer and said, “We’re going to make it!” That thought fueled me more than any banana, and I started off as fast as my hiking pace would carry me. Tears formed in my eyes as I chanted, “You’re gonna make it! You’re gonna make it!”

Blubber Creek to Proctor (Mile 75 to Mile 84)

In my memory, the trip from Proctor to Blubber Creek was all climb, so I had it in my head that the return would be all downhill. The sun hadn’t quite crested the mountains, so it wasn’t too incredibly hot as I began. While there was some initial descent, it soon turned to climb. There’d be a short descent, but the climb that followed never seemed proportional. While I was still faster on the ascents, they still demanded a lot of energy. I hazarded a bite of an energy ball, but it tasted like black licorice. A granola bar was more palatable and gave me a little boost. As I came around a bend, I spooked two turkey vultures who swooped out of their perch with a loud swoosh. “You like turkey vultures,” the good voice reminded me. “They remind you of the Nature Park at DePauw. They glide on thermals for fun. They are not a bad omen. They are not here to suggest that you are road kill.”

Soon thereafter, the front runner of the 50 miler came flying past. He ran up the climb on those fresh, fleet legs like a damned antelope. I smiled all the same and whooped as he sped past. The next men were quite a ways behind him, but they all foreshadowed the throng of 50-milers who would be zooming past me from here out.

Next came the dodgy descent. It had been a tough climb, and it was even trickier coming down. I took a few bad steps and was reduced to clumsily crawling down some sections that I would usually bound down like a deer. A new problem emerged on this section: within minutes of drinking water, I would have to pee. In an effort to stay hydrated, I drank frequently. But just as soon as I’d gulped, I’d have to squat. I didn’t overthink it at the time; it was more of a nuisance than anything. The temps were rising now, too, and I realized that I still wasn’t sweating. Remembering the creek at the bottom of the hill, I looked forward to cooling off and pushed to get there. Coming down a steep slope, I saw a red backpack up ahead. I thought it must belong to a hiker who had set it down and stepped off the trail. As I got closer, I realized it was another hallucination. The red backpack was a tree stump.

It took much longer to reach the creek than I expected, but finally hearing its babble gave me a lift. I drenched my hat, head, Kool Tie, and sun sleeves. It was refreshing and exactly what I needed in that moment. Reluctantly, I pressed onward. The stream came close to the trail a little ways down. My sun sleeves had already dried, as had my Kool Tie. I’d gone 1/4 of a mile, at most. That’s how hot and dry it was. I detoured over to the stream and soaked everything once again. From there, it was out into the exposed sandy climb, the sun relentless in its glare. My sun sleeves dried out quickly. Since I was dehydrated, I wasn’t sweating; thus, the sun sleeves weren’t functioning as intended. They made me even hotter, but I figured that was better than exposing my arms to the intense sun.

This exposed section and its awful climb took a lot out of me. It was here, too, that a nagging sensation in my ankle started to register. I didn’t quite acknowledge it, but the thought that something was wrong with my ankle crept forward in my thoughts. They say not to do “ultra math,” but I couldn’t help but try to figure out how many miles I had to go until Proctor and how much time I had left to cover the distance. If my math was correct, then I had about 5 miles to go, and maybe 2 hours to do so. I was already low on water but also terribly thirsty. “You can’t make it,” one voice said. “It doesn’t look good,” said the other. Even the good voice was losing hope.

4 miles to go, and I was out of water. I was nearly out of time, too. I was a little confused about pace and distance, though, so I carried on as if I could realistically make the cutoff. My body knew what was going on before my brain would acknowledge it; in an attempt to expel the emotion welling inside, my body tried to cry. I held back tears and held onto hope that I could do it. One minute my math added up and I could make it; the next, it was impossible, even at a faster pace. Each 50-miler who passed me called the tears forward, and I worked hard to suppress them. One runner stopped and said, “Oh, were you the first female?” He thought I’d lost first place in the 50 mile race. “No. I’m a 100-miler, and I’m realizing that I might not make the cutoff.” Hearing my voice say this out loud was unbearable. I had to fight. I pushed, telling myself that if I didn’t make the cutoff, I would plead with the volunteers to let me finish. I didn’t care about an official finish. I just needed to go the distance. I needed not to quit. I couldn’t go 84 miles, most of it in excruciating pain, just to be pulled so close to the finish. As the cutoff slipped further from my grasp, my resolve went with it. With about 3 miles to go, the cutoff elapsed.

I looked down and saw that my ankle had blown up and was dark red from the swelling; it throbbed. I was hobbling. The cramps and bloated stomach were as bad as ever. The blisters on my feet were screaming. The temperature was sneaking up into the 90s. I was severely dehydrated. My lips were cracked and starting to bleed. Watching the cutoff disappear, I lost any drive that remained. I’d hauled myself over 80+ miles, only to be pulled from the course a smoldering wreck. I was out of water and still had to hike 3 miles just to be pulled from the course. Failure enveloped me.

A 50-miler ran past, then stopped and backtracked. “You ok? You need anything?” “I’m ok,” I said, my voice shaky. “You need some water?” “No, thanks.” I wasn’t going to take anyone’s water; they would need it. “I’m a 100-miler and the cutoff just passed. I’m just coming to terms with the fact that I didn’t make it. They’ll pull me off the course.” Without hesitation, he lunged forward and tightly embraced me. “It’s ok; everything happens for a reason,” he whispered in my ear. With that, a tremendous sob burst from the depths of my being. I cried a few breaths, and he held me tighter. Then, I composed myself, and said, “I’ll be ok. I’m ok. Thank you.” He offered to walk in to the aid station with me, but I told him to go, I would be fine, and offered my sincerest thanks. As he spun around to leave, I saw a bib pinned to his back that said “Legally Blind.” I’m not exactly sure why that made such an impact on me, but I told myself, “Ellen, you are not legally blind. Your life is so good, you paid to put yourself in this position. Being here is a privilege. Get over yourself, right now.”

Those were a long 3 miles, and I experienced a wave of emotions. More than anything, I started thinking about the texts I would now have to send to the two people who had prepared me for this race: Yassine and Rich. I would have to tell them that I didn’t make it. There was something about having to tell them this that stung more than not being able to finish. I respected these runners, my coach and my running buddy. I wanted to show them that my hard work had paid off. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I couldn’t imagine typing out a text that said, “I didn’t make it.” This thought tormented me for three long miles. Inside, I knew that Yassine would say, “You had every reason to quit much earlier; it’s ok. There will be another race;” Rich would say, “Don’t be an idiot; no death marches.” Nevertheless, I couldn’t bear the thought of telling them I couldn’t do it. Then there were the family and friends who had been so excited for me. Those messages would suck, too, but not quite as sharply as the one sent to my running mentors.

A man passed me along a ridge and said, “Just about 2 and a half miles to go!” He thought this was a good thing, but I couldn’t believe it was still that far to Proctor. About a mile out from the aid station, a couple stopped to check on me. I must have looked pretty rough, hobbling in. I finally accepted a little water, since they had plenty between the two of them. They encouraged me to keep going and said, “we’ll see you there!” I took that last mile to compose myself and prepare mentally for the end. I didn’t want to cry as they pulled me off the course.

People clapped as I made the last steep climb into Proctor, while I shook my head and gave a small smile. As I passed one man, he spun around and said, “Hey, 100-miler? The vegan?” “Yes?” “I saw you at Crawford Pass. I offered you baby carrots. You’re doing great! You’re going to finish!” “I missed the cutoff. They’re going to pull me.” It took everything in me not to cry. He walked over and said, “Just keep going. They won’t stop you. Go take a break. Hydrate, eat, and get some rest. Look, I have a runner coming in. He’s about 30 minutes behind you. When he gets here, you’re going to leave with him and his pacer. You’ll finish together.” “They won’t pull me?” “No, just keep going. But for now, go rest.” He walked me to the tent, filled my water bottles, and left me to recuperate. The volunteers were so busy doing damage control on the 50 milers and 50k runners, that no one seemed concerned about pulling me. I was going to finish.

The crew chief, Rick, checked on me, then waited for his runner. I sat awkwardly with other runners on something that passed for a cot. It was great to relax and chat with runners. My sense of humor returned, and I tried to lift up others who were blasted after that last leg. I ate bananas and drank water and a little Coke. My ankle was blown up even further, so I put ice in my sock in a feeble attempt to reduce the swelling. Knowing that I would be leaving there on my own feet and not in a quitter’s van gave me a boost. I saw a tube of what appeared to be chapstick, and I smeared it all over my lips in relief. (Later, in the hotel mirror, I would be startled by the clown face staring back at me. I realized then that I had put on a deep magenta lip gloss, and I had worn those cartoonish lips for the last 18 miles of the race.) I also took some Endurolytes. My stomach was still bloated, but I knew at this point it couldn’t be a result of too many electrolytes. Rick’s runner came in about 60 minutes after me. He looked like death warmed over. His crew went to work on restoring him to life. He hadn’t made the cutoffs for miles, but had somehow managed to make it through the gatekeepers. He spent the next hour recovering, and man did that guy rally. Before we left, I thanked Rick, choked up: “It’s really important to me to finish my first 100. Thanks for helping me do that.” “That’s what this sport is all about.” I hugged him, and then we were off.

Proctor to Thunder Mountain (Mile 84 to Mile 92.5)

The runner, like me, had been reduced to a power hike, and he had trouble on the downhills. Given his condition coming in to Proctor, I assumed that I would have no trouble keeping up with him. This soon proved to be a wrong assumption. I struggled to keep pace with him, and liquids were still cruising through me at lightning speed, requiring frequent stops behind trees. This section was, not surprisingly, hot and exposed. Many of the 50 milers were slowing down, zapped by the course and the sun in equal measure. The runner and his pacer made conversation; occasionally the pacer would include me, but I mostly hung back and listened. I already felt like a burden and tried to remain quiet. At every creek, even if it was a glorified trickle, we stopped to soak our hats, Kool ties, and sun sleeves. I had stuffed my sports bra with ice at Proctor, but the heat grilled us all the same. Reaching a larger creek, we stopped and soaked ourselves for a few minutes. One woman was moaning, and I said, “You got this. We’re almost there.” Everyone was hurting.

About 1.5 miles away from Thunder Mountain, I told the runner and his pacer not to worry about dropping me. I thanked them for getting me that far, but I was struggling to keep up and didn’t want them waiting on my account. They slowly pulled away.

I wasn’t too far behind, though, when I arrived at Thunder Mountain. I laughed when I thought about the contents of my drop bag there: two hand helds. In the fantasy version of events, I would zoom into this final aid station, swap out my pack for two light handhelds, and then whisk away to the finish. Pulling in to Thunder Mountain, a volunteer greeted me by saying, “You’re not leaving until you hydrate, and you’re taking as much water as you can carry. There are medics on the course giving I.V.s and we can’t have anyone else collapsing out there. Also, this last section isn’t 7.5 miles. It’s 9. They changed the course and didn’t update the website. We just found out.”

I wanted to punch something.

While an extra 1.5 miles doesn’t seem like much, especially in the grand scheme of a 100-miler, it’s soul crushing news when you’ve been fighting the desire to quit and have been going for nearly 37 hours. Another volunteer said, “Yeah, so you’re running a 101.5 miler.” To which I replied, “Don’t forget that .5!” We all laughed, because what else could you do?

Food was pretty scarce here. I rummaged some potato chip crumbs and a tortilla. The volunteer wanted to make me a quesadilla, but I declined and asked for a plain tortilla, which he thought was weird. “Carbs,” I offered. He said, “Man, you’re gonna finish a 100-miler. That’s rad! You’re doing awesome! You don’t even seem tired!” This guy was like The Dude’s more energetic brother. He was really impressed that we were still going. The 50-milers chimed in, too. They were all feeling pretty awful, so, once again, that helped me perk up. I made light of how I felt and joked around while I hydrated. The runner and his pacer were ready to go before me; I thanked them again, and the pacer said, “We’ll see you at the finish line.” “Oh, don’t wait for me.” “We will be there at the finish line,” she said firmly. A few minutes later, I followed.

Thunder Mountain to the Finish Line (Mile 92.5 to Mile 101.5)

The serious climbing was front-loaded on this final leg. The sun was starting to set, so the heat would soon abate. I passed a guy with a dog waiting on a rock for his wife. I asked if I could get some puppy power, and the dog came over to give me some love. The 50-milers were passing me still, but even that steady stream soon slowed. Ahead, I could see the medics. They had runners sitting in the shade, I.V.s on their arms. I straightened up, smiled, and put my best face forward. I didn’t want them to pull me. “How are you feeling?” “I’m good!!!” It was perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, but they let me pass.

The sun was sinking over the hoodoos, and as I crested a climb, I took a moment to absorb it. “You’ve seen two sunrises and two sunsets,” I thought. There was something kind of incredible about that. The magic hour light played on the bright colors of the hoodoos, and I breathed in the beauty of this moment, savoring that sunset. I passed a young woman managing some blisters, and then she caught me up. We chatted on the next climb, but she was able to push past her pain and soon dropped me. In the twilight, I heard a man moaning out loud. I stopped to put on my headlamp and called out “You ok?” No answer. More moaning. “You ok?” Nothing. I slowed until he was near me, and asked again. He was in a lot of pain and unsure if he should have dropped his wife. He figured she quit and was now worried about him. We talked for about a mile. He was worried about making his cutoff, so I encouraged him to drop me. He seemed reluctant, but I said I couldn’t run, and he could. He had to go. With that, I was alone.

It occurred to me at this point that people were probably worried about me, namely my Mom and Yassine. I’d been in the wilderness of Utah for nearly two days and had no cell service. There was no way to reach them, so I had to tell myself that they wouldn’t worry too much. I grew anxious all the same; I would be finishing over twelve hours later than the “realistic goal” of a sub-30. No one would have anticipated the race I was actually experiencing.

I had swapped out my cheapy headlamp for a fancy one, but this proved a bad move. The lamp caught the dust, making it impossible to see, so I had to carry it in my hand. This eventually made my arm ache. One voice said, “Your left arms hurts. Doesn’t that mean you’re going to have a heart attack?” The other voice said, “It aches from holding the headlamp, you idiot.” I chose to believe that voice.

The final 4-5 miles also required some serious mantra chanting. I had entered a forest and saw no other runners, no headlamps in the distance in either direction. Occasionally, I heard a sound that seemed like it was either a frog or a bear. Maybe there wasn’t a sound at all, but I tried not to think about whatever it was. I realized that I was most likely the last person on the course. The sweepers were out there somewhere, so at least they hadn’t caught me yet.

“Feed the Good Wolf. Make Relentless Forward Progress. Dig deep, like Dexter.” The third mantra came from my admiration for the grit my cat Dexter had shown in his year of receiving cancer treatment. He went through so much, but never gave any indication that he suffered. He was tough as nails, and I wanted to emulate that. I chanted on.

My morale was getting low, though. I took Corona’s advice and turned to music. I started to hum the Guided by Voices song, “Don’t Stop Now.” I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t look at my watch until I hit the gravel road. I knew that if I looked too soon, I’d have more mileage to go than I thought, and that would deflate me. It became a game, a bet I made with myself to see how mentally strong I was. Something to occupy my mind. An attempt at “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” didn’t last past the first bottle. I went back to chanting mantras. I could feel myself slipping toward despair, so I added, “You got this, girl, you got this” to my repertoire. The fluids were still going straight through me, and I was stopping shortly after every drink. (A friend later suggested this was due to low sodium levels.)

“Maybe Rick will come out on the trail to meet me and walk me in. His runner is probably finished, so he might come out to help me finish.” Thus hoped the bad voice.

“Get it together. You don’t need someone to come get you,” scolded the good voice. “If you ever run Barkley, do you think Laz is going to meet you on the trail to walk you in?”

“You could just lay down on the trail. The sweepers will find you and take care of you.”

“Do you really want to curl up in a ball and let the sweepers find you like that, giving up when you’re so close?”

“Feed the Good Wolf. Make Relentless Forward Progress. Dig deep like Dexter. You got this, girl, you got this.”

I scanned below for any signs of humans, but all I could see was a stream of tiny car headlights on a faraway mountain. I told myself that around the next bend, I would find the road, but all I found was another bend, and it always led up.

F-bombs competed with my mantras. My body tried to release its emotion through tears, but another side of me wouldn’t allow it. It was the strangest sensation, trying to cry and not being able to. Those last three miles nearly broke me, and, in the end, I’m glad no one was there to witness this embarrassing fit of despair.

At last, I reached the road. There were three ambulances parked there, all full with runners hooked to various devices. The medics seemed surprised to see me. “Where’s the finish line?” “Just down the road, about a mile or so.” One eternal mile. A medic joked that he could drive me down, but I declined. “No thanks; I have to finish this on my own.”

I would have thought that I would be overcome with joy, get a final wind, and be able to run that last mile. Perhaps fittingly, I couldn’t do it. I’d hiked about 80 miles of the course; no sense in pretending otherwise at the finish. The ambulances drove past, kicking up all sorts of dust to choke me, ironically rubbing salt in the wound. Even when the finish line came into sight, I didn’t experience a wave of relief. I just wanted to be finished.

Volunteers were taking down the finish line arch, and they seemed surprised to see me. The 50-miler cutoff had passed about an hour ago, so they probably hadn’t expected anyone else. Everyone stopped what they were doing and started clapping an cheering as I hobbled in. A woman rushed up to me as I crossed the finish line, and pulled me into a warm embrace. I started to cry. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting, but I had to finish. I had to know I could do it.” They were all excited and congratulated me. Another woman said, “I’ll go get you a buckle. There are even some pink ones left!” “It’s ok, I didn’t make the cutoff. I don’t need a buckle.” The woman who had hugged me said, “No, you earned it.” More women came over to hug and congratulate me, and then one handed me my buckle.  It was a dusty rose, like the color of the hoodoos, and it had some flora that were gathered on the course and pressed into the buckle. While I didn’t care about a finishing time, and I didn’t do this for a buckle, I must admit, it was quite beautiful to hold. “Your friends from Texas just left,” a volunteer explained. “They wanted to wait for you to finish, but they had to go. They were sorry not to be here.” This, of course, was Rick, his runner, and the pacer. They really had waited for me. I was so touched by that.

Another thought had troubled me on this last leg. I’d been awake for nearly 48 hours, and I’d been moving for nearly 42 of those hours. Even though I was still very lucid, driving the 30 miles back to Panguitch seemed like a bad idea. I expressed this concern, and two race organizers, Brad and Laura, assured me that they would get me back to the hotel. I piled into a van with a group of 50-milers who must have finished not long before me and relaxed my mind and body for the first time in over 42 hours.

post race shoes

Post-race shoes and socks. The shoes started with maybe 30 miles on them; the socks were brand new. Compare to the pre-race photo above.

All told, I ran roughly 20 miles and hiked roughly 80, climbed and descended 18,565 feet. It took 41 hours and 53 minutes. I earned the distinction of DFL: Dead. Fucking. Last.

I’m left with mixed feelings about the experience. On the one hand, it’s still frustrating to have trained so hard and then have things out of my control blow all of that to pieces. It’s humbling and embarrassing. There’s a part of me that is ashamed of being reduced to a crawl along the course. I never imagined finishing a race DFL. In this particular case, though, the DFL was preferable to a DNF. On the other hand, though, it wasn’t a complete disaster, much as it may seem that way. I learned a lot about myself, and these lessons will continue to shape me into a better runner, and a better person. Part of me feels proud for gutting it out and finishing. I had plenty of good reasons to quit, but I didn’t. About half of the starters quit, so I learned that I have some mental toughness to draw upon. Being in motion for 42 hours also gave me some confidence about running Big’s Backyard Ultra this fall; if I could keep going in that much pain for that long, just think what’s possible for me under better conditions. I had to confront failure and disappointment; they were my companions for hours upon hours. It’s good for me to confront those fears and learn to manage them. I learned that to finish this race, I had to rely on the kindness of strangers. I had to be open to that kindness and learn to receive it. I didn’t have to do everything on my own. There’s no shame in asking for and accepting help. I often close myself off from others and prefer to be alone and to reach goals on my own. This experience challenged me to let others in and be a little less fearful of asking. Sometimes, you have to let the giver give. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that the ultra community gives, unconditionally. At a time when I’ve felt as if I’m floundering around in life, it’s a comfort to reach this realization.

It wasn’t just the voices in my head that guided me to the finish line; it was the voices of the family, friends, and strangers who gave something of themselves that carried me along.

Buckle.jpg

A hard earned buckle.

 

Impostor Syndrome: A Carkeek 12 Hour Race Report

“Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.”

–Wikipedia

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Prologue

My first day as an assistant professor at the University of Washington found me at the Faculty Fellows orientation on the Seattle campus. My social anxiety was through the roof, and I felt intimidated being surrounded by so many colleagues talking about their research and academic backgrounds. Everyone was so clearly confident and excited, and I was holding on by a thread, overwhelmed with the belief that I simply didn’t belong here. The new Seattle faculty exhibited the faintest, but still detectable, snobbery when they learned that I was working at the Tacoma campus.

During an orientation session, one Faculty Fellow provided a name for what I had been feeling ever since I signed the job contract with UWT: “impostor syndrome.” It was a new term to me, but the feeling was all too familiar. It was a relief to hear that I wasn’t alone in experiencing this, as several other new hires let out audible gasps of solidarity when he mentioned his suffering from this condition. Having a word for what I felt was a revelation.

A few days later, during orientation on the Tacoma campus, an Associate Dean came over to introduce himself and mentioned how impressed he was that there were 600 applicants for my position, and that I was the University’s top choice. (I believe the number was closer to 550, but this dean always said 600. Splitting hairs at that point, I guess.) An uncomfortable smile spread on my face; inside, I panicked: I really had fooled all of these people into thinking I know what I’m doing. This dean introduced me to others throughout that first year by mentioning the 600 applicants, and each time it further fueled my doubts. While I was completely confident in my teaching, I wasn’t convinced that I was Research-1 University material. Surely, the faculty and administration would discover this, and I would be out of a job before the first year was up.

To (over)compensate for this, I threw myself into my work, regularly putting in 60-80 hour weeks. If I was going to keep this job, then I needed to excel in teaching, service, and research. I said yes to everything; gave my students and courses all of my self; and submitted too many conference proposals and sent out articles. If I wasn’t smart enough, at least I could work hard and hope that it would get me through. I would work until 9 or 10 pm during the week and work through the weekends. I took time 3 days a week to run, and that was the full extent of my personal life. My home life was unraveling, but I was too consumed to even see that. This was hardly a life at all.

Last June, during a meeting with the School’s Dean to discuss my Interim Review, she took a serious tone and looked me dead in the eye: “You need to hear this. During the faculty discussion of your file, they mentioned that you have serious impostor syndrome. They charged some of your colleagues to work on this with you. One faculty member stood up and said, ‘She is brilliant. Her work is brilliant. It is our responsibility to help her get past this impostor syndrome.’ You need to know that we all see you’re good at what you do.”

Hearing this, my impostor syndrome dialed up to 11.

A week later, the faculty member who had made that remark pulled me aside and told me so. He added, “In my position, I have seen many assistant professors, so I am a good judge. I know a brilliant scholar when I see one. You are one of them.”

Nigel Tufnel, please add a 12 to your dial.

If you traced my academic trajectory back to my undergraduate days, you would find a very different character. The younger version of me was overly confident, even cocky, you might say. Graduate school tempered this a bit, but it wasn’t until I landed the UWT job that impostor syndrome took hold. By the end of my second year, that hold had turned to a strangle. This was not sustainable.

This complex carried over to my running as well, although to a different degree and of a slightly different nature. In my younger days, I competed quite successfully as an equestrian. I went into every event expecting to win. Most times, I did. I was accustomed to being the best, the person everyone else was out to beat. I did not like losing.

Coming to running later in life, I learned to humble myself as a competitor. Other runners I met in local groups or at races were more experienced, faster, or generally more talented than me. This was actually good for me. There were so many incredible runners to admire and learn from. Races became a competition with myself, working toward personal bests instead of trophies. It was liberating.

When I initially heard about the Barkley Fall Classic, I thought about who among my running friends could finish that race. A list of talented runners all came to mind, but I did not make that list. Of course, I did go on to register for, and finish, the BFC. Thanks to the inaccuracy of Ultrasignup’s algorithms, for a time it projected me to be the second female finisher at the BFC. This seemed hilarious to me, seeing my name listed above the 2015 winner’s, Alicia Rich, who is a phenomenal runner.

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Ultrasignup’s wonky projection.

I understood that the projection was off (it was based on the result of one race that wasn’t too difficult), but somewhere in the recesses of my mind, a flicker of faith in myself slowly formed.

Why not me?

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“It all depends on who shows up that day.”

–Yassine Diboun

The Race: Carkeek 12 Hour

The race directors over at Endless Trails bill Carkeek as “The Toughest 12 Hour Out There. Period.” I seem to have a proclivity for choosing races described as “toughest.” It was an intriguing challenge, consisting of a 1.93 mile trail loop with 436′ of gain.

I had run for 12 hours twice before (White River and BFC)  but never while running short loops. My main concern was the sheer boredom of running in endless circles. After a disastrous run at the Portland Marathon, and my wrecked body still recovering from 6 months of intense training for the BFC, I nearly dropped out of the race altogether. Not wanting to bow out of something I had signed up for, I decided to show up with no expectations other than to meet new people and enjoy spending the day with them. I could always drop to the 6 hour race if it came down to it.

I’m not sure what sparked it, exactly, but at 4:30 am on race day, as I made my way up north to Carkeek Park, I decided to win this race.

It struck me, as this novel thought took shape, that a timed event might be the ideal conditions for me to succeed. I’m firmly middle pack in a traditional race, but if the parameters were altered to favor someone who is persistent, then I might just have a shot. Drawing from two lessons I took with me into the BFC (Frozen Ed’s Relentless Forward Progress/RFP, and Ann Trason’s 2-minute aid limit), it seemed possible to fit in more miles by simply not stopping for the duration of the race.

The ground rules were pretty streamlined here:

  1. Consume at least 100 calories every half hour.
  2. RFP (including only slowing down long enough to grab food from the aid station or my car between loops; no stopping).

The race started at 6:00 am, which meant we would run the course in the dark for the first hour or so. The prospect of running an unknown trail in the dark was intimidating. I’d never run a trail in the dark, and it seemed like I was asking for a(nother) broken leg. The plan was to settle into the back of the middle pack on the first loop to learn the course and get a feel for running by headlamp in the forest.

To my great delight, night running was a blast! Because your vision is impaired, you have to just trust that you will lift up your feet high enough and that you will find a good place to land each step. It helped me to realize just how much energy I exert attempting to find the perfect footing on the trail; it taught me to believe in my ability and to channel that energy into more productive outlets, like moving faster. Yassine had recently told me this would be key to me becoming a faster runner. It was a revelation at the time. I had imagined he would schedule more track work and hill repeats; it hadn’t occurred to me that I could get faster just by believing in myself. I clocked the first loop in approximately 20-22 minutes, coming in toward the front of the pack.

An overview of the course: it begins with a flat stretch along the Sound that leads to a monster stair climb that winds endlessly up a steep hill. At the summit, the course dips into the fern-filled forest on a runnable, rolling trail. There are some climbs in there, with nice descents and a few flattish stretches, but overall this section was quite runnable. Of course, this is also what makes the race difficult, because you feel pulled to run when your body wants to power hike. Along the way, you climb two more sets of stairs separated by grated bridges. After a bit more climbing, you descend a hill that has some steps and some of those long wooden erosion boards (making footing tricky) before hitting a straight stretch of semi-paved trail that flanked what appeared to be a water treatment plant (which The Ginger Runner fittingly dubbed “the murder house.”–I was glad to learn that I wasn’t the only runner assigning nicknames to landmarks on the course.) Here, you crossed the road and started up a hill that I thought of as the second part of the course (I had heard a runner say that we were past the halfway point there.) I called this the “Chimney Top” section, because, like its namesake at Frozen Head State Park, just when you thought there was nowhere else to climb, the trail found a way to go up. This section had four major climbs, with several good-sized climbs in between as well as rolling sections and a few descents. Having landmarks was quite beneficial. The white rock meant only two more climbs to go. The small wooden bridge meant I was nearing the final climb. The giant bolder, which I named Chimney Rock, meant that it was all downhill from there. I used these and other landmarks as a way to track my progress and keep my mind busy. The final descent became quite treacherous as the day wore on. From the six hours of rain and repeated foot stomping, it was slick, and there were a few Carkeek casualties (all ankle injuries, which I had to not let terrify me.) At the bottom of the descent, you returned to the aid station and parking lot, where you could grab what you needed, or just keep running on to the next loop. You yelled out your number as you passed, and the volunteers would track your loop on a leader board made of hot pink poster board and sticker stars.

The interesting thing about a loop race is that you’re never exactly sure if the runner you’re passing, or being passed by, is ahead of you or behind you in terms of the rankings. For all you know, the runner passing you might also be 3 loops behind you. This adds a unique challenge, because you’re never certain if you should try to hold off that runner or let them go.

The first loop kept runners pretty packed together, but from there out, I found myself alone more than in company. I zoomed through loops 2 and 3, and by then I could ditch the headlamp. This is also when the rain started, and it didn’t let up for 6 hours. I like running in the rain, though, so I thought of it as an advantage in my favor. It occurred to me that I should change into dry clothes once the rain stopped, but by that point I didn’t want to lose a single second, so I ran in the same soaked clothes for all 12 hours. (This is no feat compared to another runner who completed all 12 hours in a bacon costume.)

At the end of every single lap, one of the race directors, Matt, yelled out “Go Ellen!” while the other race director and the volunteers hollered. This provided an incredible boost. I had showed up alone, not knowing anyone, and this group stepped in and made me feel like I had my own crew and cheerleaders. This certainly played into my successful run. Upon completing loop 6, Matt said, “You’re just knocking out those loops, Ellen! You’re killing it!” I thought perhaps he was just being nice, since I had mentioned that I had never done something like this before, but in the back of my mind, I thought it might also mean that I was doing well compared to other runners. He asked, “Are you having fun?” I was! He replied, “We like to ask earlier rather than later.” In fact, despite my initial fears, I enjoyed every minute of this race and never found it boring at all. There was a zen-like comfort in hitting the same landmarks over and over and over again.

It was around loop 7 or so when a runner ducked out of my way on the final descent and said, “I’ll get out of your way; you’re coming in hot!” I laughed and told him, “I should probably settle down; there’s a long day ahead!” This moment actually played an important role in the race for me. All too often, I get anxious when a runner comes up behind me and worry about being in their way. Trail running etiquette dictates that the runner who wishes to pass must make their intentions clear; it’s not the responsibility of the runner in front to step aside or ask. Despite knowing this, I always say, “Just let me know when you want to pass,” or I’ll just go ahead and step aside. This isn’t something I should even think about; I should just run and leave it to them to say, “On your left.” It’s what I do when I pass others, so why couldn’t I just relax and let them decide when they want to pass? After this encounter, I decided to address this aspect of my running; there would be plenty of time to practice that day. There were several moments out there when I had to resist saying, “Just let me know…” but I managed to rein in that impulse and focus instead on moving myself forward. It seems like a minor detail, but it contributed to my deepened sense of confidence on the trail.

carkeek-12-hour

Heading down the last staircase into the aid station. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama, who stood out in the rain to get great photos on the course.

On loop 8, I remember feeling a little tired, so I power hiked a few of the hills that I had run during the early race. When I completed loop 12, I took my first look at the leader board. I’d had a serious case of ultra brain all day and had some trouble assessing the star sticker count, but it looked to me that I was the lead female. With that knowledge, I tore out on loop 13 with a renewed sense of urgency. Up to that point, I had been finding my rhythm and hadn’t focused too much on winning. Now, the race was on.

This was my first experience viewing a race as a competition against others, and not just against myself. The drive to win enabled me to push through some serious pain in my ankle that steadily increased with each loop. It started as discomfort in my right ankle, the one I broke last year, but by the 6-hour mark, it was screaming. One part of my brain told me to stop before I did more damage. The other part thought back to my orthopedist saying I would have pain and swelling in it occasionally, and that this was normal. Of course, I wasn’t sure if it was normal for this to happen a year later, but decided to interpret it in this way. When a sensation of heat started to throb in the ankle, I worried, but once again banished that thought. Running through pain had gotten me in trouble before, but I was too set on finishing this race to quit. I figured that I could make it through the race, and then deal with the injury later. If I didn’t focus on the pain, I was able to ignore it, so, onward!

Coming in to log loop 16, a glance at the leader board showed that a runner named Rene was out on loop 17 and that Gretchen was out on 16. This meant there was a woman in front of me and one right behind. Again, my brain was having trouble processing anything other than running, so who knows how accurate this was. It did, however, spur me on, and I ran the rest of the day with the thought of catching the woman ahead of me and keeping the other behind. Other runners ducked out of the rain to enjoy hot homemade soup, while I grabbed a pb&j tortilla for the road (and, once, accidentally, a salami tortilla. Start my vegan clock over, I guess. That was my worst loop. Not having eaten salami in 20 years, it made me incredibly sick.) I decided not to look at the leader board again until the clock stopped. Just run.

Most loops I ran solo, but there were interludes during which I had company or exchanged words of encouragement in passing. A pattern emerged of runners commenting on how strong I had looked all day. The war with my impostor syndrome raged in those moments; were they just being nice, or was I clearly crushing this race? I had several pleasant encounters with The Ginger Runner, Ethan Newberry, and his wife, Kim. It was another example of ultra brain clouding my awareness. They seemed so familiar, but I couldn’t place how I recognized them (I love their short films and live broadcast.) I ran with another guy who had placed second several years ago; he was very encouraging and we chatted each time we caught up to each other. I didn’t catch most runners’ names, but my brief conversations were always jovial; a reminder of how much I love the trail running community.

On lap 18, I met Dan Sears, a seasoned local ultra runner. We ran most of that loop together, and he had a lot of good advice to share as I prepare for my first hundred miler (including forcing me to consider how difficult it will be to run at altitude in Utah, where I will take on my first 100.) We talked a lot about how privileged we are to be able to run at all and spoke of the gratitude we feel for that opportunity. Finding that I don’t have a running partner, he offered to connect me with Rich White, the RD for Cascade Crest and a Tacoma runner. I thought to myself, “is this really my life?” That it would occur to him that I would be a good running match with such an experienced ultra runner blew me away. The tide must have been turning in that internal battle, though, because instead of voicing some sort of self-deprecating reply, I said that I would love to have Rich as a trail partner and passed along my contact info.

Math calculations become pretty difficult after 10 hours of running in a circle. From about lap 16 on, I had tried to determine how many more loops I could fit in before time was up. I had hoped for 26, as that would put me at 50 miles, but I wasn’t sure it would be possible. I felt pretty confident that I could do 24, so that became the goal. Occasionally, I would try to calculate if I was even on pace for that, but, as I explained, my brain wasn’t interested in anything other than telling my body to propel itself forward. As with the leader board, I determined to stop crunching numbers and just run as hard as possible.

On lap 21, I chatted briefly with Kevin, who was on lap 24. We joked about the strange route around what I called the glow stick tree, a tree in the middle of the trail with glow sticks on it to indicate that you were to run just past the tree and then make a hard right up the hill. This was how I initially ran that section, but after seeing others cut to the left, I did that for a couple loops until someone corrected me. It only added 30 feet or so, and it was tricky because it slowed you down for the awkward turn, but I’m not one to cut a course.

Finishing loop 23, I had roughly 43 minutes to spare for a final loop. I passed Ethan and Kim on the final descent, and they asked what lap I was on (I had made a point of not asking anyone this, only because I didn’t want their response to potentially deflate me.) Ethan said he was about at the same place, and we discussed if there was time for one last loop. There was. This lit a fire under me. I picked up the pace and left them here, because I assumed they were both on the same lap as me; my thinking was that if I at least finished loop 24 before them, then perhaps I could get in a few short loops to widen the margin. It was a strange thought process, because I had never viewed other runners as competition like this.

Hitting flat land by the aid station, I yelled out my bib number–“75!”–for the RD to mark the leader board, and kicked on the afterburners. When I dipped down onto the start of the trail, I thought of Dexter and said out loud, “This is where you dig deep.” I was tired and sore, but I wanted to run this final loop faster than the others, running as much of it as possible and only hiking the steepest climbs. It would be tough, but I knew I had it in me. Running hard would also give me a chance to add on a short loop at the end for a little extra mileage. I don’t remember much of that loop, other than feeling completely alive, dialed in, and strong. Sometimes I get wheezy when pushing while I’m tired, near hyperventilation, but not today. When I reached the top of the final climb, I yelled “Chimney Rock!” and blew a kiss at my favorite course landmark (I said “Chimney Rock” each time I passed it that day; part of the ritual.)

I had been nervous about taking the short loop because I hadn’t seen it marked and feared getting lost. Another runner expressed the same concern to me, but I asked the RDs and they pointed it out. I tossed  my handheld on the table and took off. There were a lot of runners walking the shorty, all looking very tired. It was a good climb, but I decided to run it in the hopes of fitting in another shorty after. I came up behind Kim, who turned to say, “I thought that was you, speedy!” Little moments like that gave me an added boost to push a little more. The trail meandered through the woods a bit before meeting back up with the full loop’s final climb, taking me past Chimney Rock. I blew down the hill, reached the aid station with 13-ish minutes to spare, and went back out for another. I assumed this would be the final time, so I thanked Chimney Rock (because you talk to rocks after running in circles for 12 hours) and barreled down the descent.

Reaching the aid station, I thought I was finished. Matt, the RD, said, “You have seven minutes, are you going out for another?” I hadn’t expected to, so this caught me off guard. I then said something that I regret: “Will it make a difference in my final results?” In other words, do I need to run one more to keep my place in the rankings, whatever that may be? He looked straight at me and gave the best possible reply: “You should do it, because you can.” I will never forget that, and am eternally grateful to Matt for calling me out. There was time on the clock, so I needed to run.

There wasn’t much time on the clock, though, so I needed to push. I saw a group of three runners ahead of me and decided to catch them. Surely, if we all came in together, they would count my last loop. They were a ways ahead of me, but I almost closed the gap as we neared Chimney Rock. I heard Gretchen say, “We have 2 minutes!” when they reached the summit just ahead of me, so I disposed of all trepidation and flew down that hill faster than I had the rest of the day. It was exhilarating. Kevin caught up to me, saying, “C’mon let’s do it!” as he passed, which summoned even more speed from somewhere deep. He nearly wiped out on the final set of stairs but recovered, and we charged into the aid station together to the whoops of volunteers and runners, the clock hitting 12 hours.

 I honestly didn’t know where I stood on the leader board at that point. I had stopped looking, stopped wondering, and just focused on running as hard as I could. At least I could say that I gave it everything I had. Kerri, the other RD, gave Gretchen an award for wearing her costume the entire race, and then announced the race winners: “And now, for Overall Top Female, we have Ellen Bayer!” I was genuinely shocked, and said, “No way! Are you serious!” She laughed and replied, “Oh yes way, I’m serious!” She then awarded Kevin Overall Top Male Finisher. Kevin sat in a camp chair while a woman attended to him, and I just stood there dazed as people congratulated me. It was a surreal experience. I made sure to thank Matt and Kerri for the constant support, as well the volunteers and other runners who had made this such a memorable day and pleasant experience.

I had run 47.94 miles in 12 hours, with approximately 11,000 feet of elevation gain. While I would have still won even without that last short loop, it was nevertheless the most important loop of that race. It was a reminder that I need to always keep running, because I can.

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A welcome addition to my Ultrasignup profile.

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Drawing Conclusions

Winning a race feels amazing, especially when you never thought of yourself as a competitor. I rolled into Carkeek by myself, a complete unknown, a mid-packer with a short race resume and who had just run her first marathon in February. Dark horse, indeed.

Coming in with a new mindset, determining to run it to win it, changed everything for me. More valuable than winning a race is the lesson that altering my mindset can influence the results of my endeavors, whether that be in ultra running, academia, or my personal life. I knew that ultra running was partly fueled by mental strength; it hadn’t occurred to me that my professional and personal life would benefit from that as well. It was now entirely clear why curing my impostor syndrome was imperative. Being confident in my work would, in turn, fuel that work. Being confident in myself would, in turn, help me begin the next chapter of my life. Once again, ultra running stepped in to teach me how to live.

In our post-BFC debriefing, I told Yassine that I would like to one day win that race. Always confident in me, he added that, “It all depends on who shows up that day.” By this, he meant that maybe the faster runner didn’t choose this race; maybe the faster runner had some race management trouble; maybe the faster runner gave up. In those scenarios, you have a shot at winning because the more talented runner wasn’t there. I don’t think about Carkeek in that way, though.

I’d like to think that, for this race, I showed up.

carkeek-trophy

Best trophy ever.

“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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