A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Month: April 2016

Back on the Horse

“There is no illusion greater than fear.”

–Lau Tzu

When I first broke my ankle, my brother, Alex, called to comfort me as I lamented missing the marathon I had trained so hard to run. At one point, he took a serious tone and suggested that I shouldn’t run trails again; in his eyes, it wasn’t worth the risk of future injury. That simply wasn’t an option. I attempted to explain to him the call of the trail, that nothing could compel me to relinquish this part of myself.

Six months later, I was doing everything in my power to avoid setting foot on a trail. After I graduated from physical therapy and started running again, my PT (the incredible Chad of 3D Physical Therapy) told me that I could start back on the trails after I was up to 5 road miles. That was October of 2015. 5 miles came and went with not a trail in sight. At first, the reasons were legitimate. The uneven ground hurt my ankle, and I was terrified of doing anything that might compromise my recovery. A Tacoma Runners Saturday 5k at Point Defiance offered my first opportunity to test a “trail” (more like gravel fire road) but even that caused discomfort on the ankle.

Soon, my mantra became, “I will get back to trails after my first marathon.” That lasted until I ran my first marathon, when the tune changed to, “I will get back to trails after I become a Maniac.” That would be in May.

When, on March 24th, I accepted Durb’s invitation to register for the BFC, I knew that I could no longer postpone my return to the trail. It was time to confront my fear and get back on the horse.

On March 26th, I participated in my first caucus. This would take up most of the morning, so I planned to get in my scheduled 17-mile run that afternoon. Given the nature of a caucus, which entails talking with your neighbors, I ended up talking with Andy. He had moved in down the block last year, and I had briefly met him in passing once. We were talking about running, and I mentioned that I needed to get in 17 miles that day. He replied, “Oh, I’m running 17 miles on the DuPont trails today. You should come.”

Instant panic.

I threw every excuse at him, trying to weasel out of it: I’m too slow for you; I need to ease into trails; I’m not ready for 17 miles on trails. Andy just looked at me with this expression that I will never forget. It was a straightforward, no-nonsense look that matched the next thing he said, “No, just come run.”

Saying no was clearly not an option.

Andy and his dog Sam pulled up a couple hours later, and we then picked up two other runners, Gary and Sophie. I knew of them from the Sunday runs but hadn’t really talked much with them before. So here I was, reeling in anxiety about my first trail run and accompanied by three people I didn’t know. I would have been more comfortable if it was just me and Sam, the dog. Not only was I nervous about trail running, but I am also painfully shy around new people, which results in unbearable social awkwardness. I was bound to break another bone. I was bound to make a fool of myself. I was bound to alienate these nice people with my inability to have normal social interactions.

This run was bound to be a complete and total train wreck.

We made our way over to the trails around DuPont. DuPont, as in the chemical company. This was a company town that has since been expanded and modernized, and there are trails on the outskirts, which wind past a superfund site. Andy and Gary (both incredibly fast runners) planned to get in 17-18 miles while Sophie and I ran 12. Gary handed us each a map, gave an overview of the route, and we were off.

The trail was relatively flat, well maintained, and non-technical. We started at an easy pace, and I felt a smile slip across my face. My anxiety relaxed, and my love for running the trails worked its way through me, easing the doubts and fear. It was incredible. Sophie was an amazing trail companion. She called to my attention beautiful sights along the way, like a natural spring bubbling from the ground and the nesting places of migrating sea birds winging through the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. She took detours to show me the view of the Sound and taught me the names of native plants, inviting me to sample the Oregon grapes that looked like yellow buttercups. As we crossed a creek and zig-zagged up a fern-lined switchback, a thrill ran through me. This was where I belonged.

The trails weren’t technical, but trails they were, and there I was. It was a mental barrier that I needed to surmount, and I had succeeded. I am eternally grateful to Andy for refusing to take no for an answer. He didn’t even know me but pushed me as if he was my closest friend who knew what was best for me. I’m confident that if he hadn’t done so, it would have taken me much longer to get myself together. Diving into a 12-mile trail run, and making it out in one piece, was the confidence boost I so desperately needed. Furthermore, the experience forced me to go outside of my social comfort zone and interact with new people. This resulted in great conversation with a welcoming group of runners. For this, too, I am thankful; it has enabled me to challenge myself to engage with others and come out of my shell a bit. I realized that I can get past my awkwardness and feel comfortable interacting with new people if only I make the effort.

While I was at it, I decided the next day to return to the scene of the initial incident: the trails of Point Defiance. Since I didn’t get in all 17 miles on Saturday, I figured I would go to the 9am Sunday run to make up the mileage. This was the final mental barrier to cross. As the group snaked its way down the hill behind Fort Nisqually, my anxiety spiked. This was the same route we took that fateful day, and my foot pace slowed as my heart rate rose. I lifted my feet unnecessarily high, refrained from conversing, and sharpened my focus on each rock and root. After we passed the spot that I believed to be the spot and saw what I believed to be the root, my body and mind both relaxed and I eased into the run chanting in my head, “I’m back, I’m back, I’m back.”

When we finished, I thanked Jim, who leads the group, and explained how nervous I had been. He told me that he had started down the trail where I broke my ankle, and then, realizing that it might upset me, he turned down another path. I was so taken with his kindness and consideration. Of course, I thought we had gone down that trail, but I was over the hurdle now either way. The thoughtfulness of his gesture only further reaffirmed the beauty of the local running community.

While we may each run our own race, there is always a group of runners who have played a key role in getting you out there on the course in the first place. A few weeks later, I ran a 12K on Tiger Mountain. It was both brutal and awesome. I powered up the craziest incline I had seen, passing people as I went, laughing when my watch told me it took 21 minutes to go one vertical mile. On the descents, I became reckless and ran with the abandon I had known as a ten year old. It was glorious. Now, there’s no looking back. I know my brother made the safe suggestion by telling me to stay off the trails, but my heart wins.

Happy trails.

Return to Point D Trails

The return to the Point Defiance Trails. This photo was not in any way staged.

BFC Bound: The Dark Horse in the Race

“If you’re going to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.” –Gary Cantrell (aka Lazarus Lake)

I had heard of the Barkley. The more I ventured into the world of running, the more interested I became in learning about the prestigious races and the people who run them. Perhaps that’s the academic in me, but I can’t help but dive into my interests and research the hell out of them. It’s a hobby of sorts. Most trail runners know of the Barkley, even if only peripherally. This was the case for me. I knew it as an insane race in the mountains of Tennessee with the sadistic race director. It didn’t sound remotely appealing. Alexander and I had a conversation about it once, and I remember him saying that the race director smokes a cigarette at the beginning of the race and suggested that the guy wasn’t even a runner. I also seem to recall an NPR piece painting Gary Cantrell in much the same light. The mythology presented him as a guy who gets pleasure out of torturing runners and designing a race that no one can finish. I didn’t get it, but, at the same time, the idea of that race lingered in the back of my mind.

March found me in State College, PA for a conference. Under the weather and conference weary, I returned to my Air B&B flat on my final night with some vegan bar food take-out, ready to relax before my break of dawn flight. Scanning through Netflix for something to help me unwind, I stumbled across the new documentary about the Barkley. I figured I would watch about 20 minutes of it while I ate, then shut it off to grab a shower and head to bed. To say the film captivated me would be an understatement. I couldn’t pull myself away, and after taking in the entire film, I spent the rest of the evening reading the 2012 race reports, beginning with Beverly Anderson-Abbs’ and working my way through as many as I could consume before my eyelids willed themselves shut.

There’s an understandable frustration for those who were in the know about the Barkley before the so-called “Netflix effect” that so many people became fascinated with it after viewing the film. I can appreciate that. For me, while I knew of the race in the most basic sense, the film gave me a knew appreciation for Gary Cantrell and his motivation for creating it. While I’m not naive about the means by which a documentary can manipulate its subject (having a brother who edits documentary films for a living, I know the power of the cutting room), I did see laz in new light and was intensely drawn to the race itself.

What grabbed me was the concept at heart of the film, encapsulated by the epigraph above: the driving purpose of the Barkley Marathons is to give runners an opportunity to test their mettle and see what they are made of. This spoke to me so deeply and completely. In the film and in other interviews, laz mentions that so many of the people that the Barkley attracts have graduate degrees; they are driven people who like to be challenged and are accustomed to succeeding. As I read and learned more about ultra runners in general, they also seemed to be as obsessive with researching and learning everything knowable about races and almost anal in their preparations and training. This felt familiar; it felt like me. The academic part aside, I was also at a point in my life where I wanted to test myself physically and mentally. I felt like I had something to prove to myself and that I needed to make up for lost time spent nursing a broken leg. In some ways it seemed like perhaps I was having a mid-life crisis before I even reached mid-life. I haven’t accomplished all that I had expected to by 37 and felt as is my prime years were slipping by. This sounds like the premise for a terrible film that I would never lower myself to watch, but it really is how I felt.

I needed to do something that could result in failure. I needed to know that I was strong. I needed to know I could do something bigger than me. I needed something like the Barkley.


Two days later, while searching for a race or two to run while visiting family and friends in Ohio and Michigan this fall, I remarkably stumbled across The Barkley Fall Classic. It would be a 4.5 hour drive south and necessitate rescheduling some plans, but there it was, a taste of the Barkley. I didn’t pounce on the opportunity, though. I was a little afraid. It was already sold out, but there was an option to put your name on the wait list. I hesitated and decided to mull over the possibility .

I spoke with some running friends the next evening while out for an easy 3 miles, and then discussed it with Alexander. In true Alexander fashion, he said he didn’t understand why I just don’t put my name on the wait list. I think part of my dilemma stemmed from the fact that I hadn’t been back to visit family in the two years since I have lived in Washington.

“Hello, family and friends, I know I haven’t been back in two years, and I’m only in for a few days, but I need to head down to Tennessee for the weekend to run this insane race. Bye bye!”

Again, in true Alexander fashion, he gives me the look that says, “just sign up,” and so I do. In that moment, even though I was only on the wait list, butterflies began fluttering inside me. I was absolutely thrilled.

An old college friend, who is one of my running idols, added her name to the list as well and we began daydreaming about running the BFC. The next day, Crystal received word from the race director (“Durb”) that we will know if we get in by June 1st. She also learned that most people on the wait list actually get in. I tried not to get too excited because this still felt very unofficial and June was still a few months away. I’m excited, but there’s some skepticism.

Durb’s subsequent email, in which he gave me official notice that he sent me an invitation to register for the BFC, will forever stand as one of the most important correspondences of my life. Little did he, or I, know, what the BFC would come to mean for me. That afternoon, Dexter had his final chemo treatment. After a year of almost weekly chemo, he was finally in remission and could settle in to enjoy the rest of his life without the infusions and blood work.

I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful day.

From that day forward, the Barkley Fall Classic has been in every breath I take. It fuels me to work hard and push my limits. I certainly won’t be the fastest runner out there, but I am perhaps the one who wants, and needs, this race more than the others. It’s this that makes me the dark horse in the race.


The Blessing of a Broken Leg

Within a few weeks of moving to Tacoma in August of 2014, a new colleague, Ingrid, invited me to join her for a Sunday run on the trails at our beautiful city park, Point Defiance. The group, organized by a great runner named Jim, meets weekly for a 5-6 mile recovery run on the trails. I was nervous about keeping up, not having run much since May, but the group kept a conversational pace and took short breaks for socializing every mile or two. The trails here are simply stunning, and we weaved through the lush emerald forest on a broad fire road and narrow single-track deer trails, with the occasional view of South Puget Sound. I was smitten. These runs became the highlight of my week and solidified my preference for the trails over the road. It’s a meditative experience, and galloping down technical hills and sloshing through mud are just plain fun. I was slower on the trails, clocking my first trail half marathon a full hour longer than my first road half, but I didn’t care. My competitiveness gave way to the sheer delight of gliding through the natural world, soaking in its beauty. Plus, trail runners are a breed apart from road runners. There’s a sense of community and comaraderie unique to this world, and it felt like I had found my home.

First Sunday Trail Run

My first Sunday Trail Run at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma. I believe the photo credit goes to a passing stranger since Jim is pictured here. September 2014.

Of course, I kept up with the road runs, too, and found myself training for a full marathon in the winter of 2015. I had reached a point where I felt like I could run a half marathon in my sleep and wanted a new challenge. During my first 18 mile training run, I reached that zen-like zone I had heard of, and knew that longer distances were for me.

Fast forward to mid-April. Two weeks out from my goal race, the Tacoma City Marathon, when I should have been tapering, I wanted to get in a few extra miles on Sunday, so I decided to show up for the 8:20 trail run. This run precedes the recovery run and covers 3 miles at a steady pace. This was the first time I joined the early group. Heading down the hill from Fort Nisqually, we were bunched up a bit, and I didn’t have a good view of the footing ahead. About a half mile out, a sleeper root grabbed my foot and sent me flying.

You hear about these things happening in slow motion, and this moment was no exception. I heard the snap as my right foot caught on the root. Overcompensating, I leaped into the air, and then hopped about 5 steps on my left leg, unable and unwilling to put weight on the right one. Hops morphed to a forward plunge to the ground. I heard someone yell, “runner down!” It was humiliating. I motioned for the group to continue on, and Alexander stayed with me. I burst into tears. Not because of the pain, but because I knew something was broken and that I wouldn’t be running my first marathon. Denial kicked in with shock, and I hobbled out on both legs, using Alexander as a support. Unable to see out of one eye, I thought a contact had popped out, and I spent a few minutes in an absurd attempt to locate a tiny, clear piece of glass in a forest. Giving up, we trekked back toward to car to the sound of hammers. The hammers turned out to be two Pileated woodpeckers, and we stopped to admire them at their work, a moment of beauty in an otherwise ugly situation.

A couple hours of RICEing and the swelling around my ankle only grew worse. It was time to visit urgent care. I explained the situation to the doctor and was relieved when she said she thought it was only a sprain and that, after some rest, I would be good to run that first marathon. The x-ray results said otherwise. I will never forget the way that doctor walked into the room, x-rays in hand, and asked in a voice that promised only good news, “Well, are you ready to know the results?!” “Yes!” I replied, sure now that it was only a sprain. “You broke it! You won’t be running that marathon!” I realize that it can be difficult to convey tone through writing, but please imagine these words being delivered in the most enthusiastic manner, as if she was actually telling me that, not only did I not break my ankle, but I in fact strengthened in and would surely run the fastest marathon in recorded history. This doctor clearly skipped her course on bedside manners. Cue the tears and unbearable self pity.

goodbye, marathon

Self portrait of self pity. April 2015

I had worked hard, and in one second had ruined everything. I was a miserable, pathetic mess. I was furious–madness maddened. Then things got worse.

Later that week, as the tech wrapped my broken leg (distal fracture in the right fibula, to be exact) in sky blue plaster tape, my phone rang. Seeing it was our veterinarian, I handed it to Alexander to answer. I had taken in my cat Dexter the week before for lab work to diagnose some trouble he was having with breathing. As the tech spoke with me and wrapped and wrapped, Alexander became silent. I new something was wrong but refrained from even looking at him until we pulled out of the parking lot. He informed me that Dexter had renal lymphoma, and there wasn’t much we could do about it.

Everything shattered.

Dexter and I set up camp on the couch. He went to chemo, I rested. We started the healing process together. I forgot to feel sorry for myself and focused instead on enjoying each moment with him. Talk about perspective. His strength inspired me, but my immobility was incredibly frustrating. Four weeks in a cast. Eight weeks in a boot. The most basic of tasks were impossible, and I felt incredibly helpless. Dexter handled his chemo treatments with grace, so I sucked it up and dealt with my own recovery. Already the injury seemed like a blessing of sorts, as it gave me a perfectly valid excuse to spend most of the day hanging with the Big Guy. I knew that I would give up running forever if it meant I had just one extra day with him. I was fortunate to have one extra year.

Laying on a couch with your leg propped up makes you restless. To occupy my mind, I frantically read online about others with the same injury, trying to determine how long it would take me to get back to running and, more importantly, if I would ever regain my speed. The internet being what it is, I found so many disparate views that I threw up my arms in defeat. A chance encounter with my physical therapist, Chad, in June brought the answer I so needed. Seeing me on crutches, he asked, “so what is it?” When I explained the fractured fibula, he simply nodded and nonchalantly replied, “Oh, that’s nothing. We’ll get it fixed, no problem.” He walked away, and I had to refrain from bursting into tears of absolute joy. It was the reassurance I so desperately needed, and his casual reply gave me an incredible lift in spirits.

I started my physical therapy in mid-August. It was an incredibly slow process, and it frustrated me to no end, but I was in good hands. Long walks along my former running routes became part of my routine, and I worked up to incorporating the 30th St. hill. Reaching a faster pace with each walk instilled a sense of hope and kept me moving forward. My first runs were on an anti-gravity treadmill; if only I could run in the real world carrying 40% of my body weight! Graduating to a 1/4 mile on the track mid-September was both a humbling and thrilling experience. I quickly built up my mileage, and, equipped with a new stride, I finally learned to run without limping. Not only did I stop favoring the right leg, but my stride was stronger and more efficient than it had ever been. By October, I was back at the gym, building up the strength I had lost and replacing those atrophied muscles with a stronger self inside and out.

By late November, I was ready for my first half marathon, where I missed a PR by a matter of seconds. It felt incredible to be back and poised to be faster and stronger than ever. Two weeks later, I secured a half marathon PR. During the early stages of recovery, I had registered for a slew of races, anxious to make up for lost time. Between running these two particular half marathons, I had registered for three marathons and a grueling 50 mile trail race. I had unfinished business and a new drive to live up to my full potential.

I think signing up for the White River 50 Mile Endurance Race before I had ever even run a marathon encapsulates my new mindset and push. Call it FOMO or what have you, I knew that I could never again take for granted having the use of my two legs. I wanted to push myself to my physical limits, and challenge myself to move beyond them. I had a new perspective on life, a new appreciation for my good fortune, and a new work ethic to bring it all to fruition.

A facebook post that I wrote a few months ago sums this all up much more succinctly:

I have been thinking recently that breaking my ankle was, perhaps, a blessing in disguise. Not being able to walk for 3 months was incredibly frustrating and humbling, but I have come back faster and stronger, more determined to reach my full potential. This photo was taken 2 1/2 months after I started running again (and I started back by running only 1/4 mile, limping the whole way.) This injury taught me to appreciate mobility. It drove me to push myself and to work harder than I ever have before. This photo was taken about 10 seconds before I ran my fastest half marathon to date. Next month I will run my first full marathon. By the end of July, I will have run 4 marathons, a 50K, and a 50 miler. I probably wouldn’t have done any of this had I not been injured.

Ellen Runs Tacoma 2015

Running toward a PR at Santa Runs Tacoma Half Marathon, December 2015. Photo credit On the Run Events Photography.

I guess this is one of those, “when life gives you lemons” posts. I was very depressed about my injury when I was stuck on the couch, but I feel that I have a new lease on life as a result. In a weird way, I am almost glad that it happened. I don’t want to experience that ever again, but I can see now how it has changed me for the better. Thanks to those of you who inspired, encouraged, and pushed me along this journey.

Two and a half months later, I would feel compelled to throw my hat into the ring for the Barkley Fall Classic. While White River would certainly be challenge enough in itself, there was something about the BFC that called to me as offering the greatest test of my mental and physical limits. It will give me a means for finding out just what I’m made of. I don’t know that I would have ever even pondered the question of what I’m made of if I hadn’t first learned how fleeting and beautiful our mobility truly is. So, thank you, sleeper tree root, for giving me what is perhaps the most valuable lesson of my life. And thank you, Dexter, for being a model of true grit and grace.

The Barkley Fall Classic: An Introduction

“we never achieve great things by setting small goals.

and success is never guaranteed;

it must be earned.”

–Gary Cantrell (aka laz)


To provide just a small sense of what, exactly, I have gotten myself into by accepting the invitation to run the Barkley Fall Classic, I include here a few descriptions from the race directors Steve Durbin and Gary Cantrell (laz). If you haven’t already viewed the documentary film, The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young, I highly recommend it. The BFC is a shorter version of “The Big Boy,” but covers the same course and includes similar psychological torture. 

I begin with Laz’s introduction to the BFC, his characteristic charm shining through:

“every race begins with a vision.

as a race director, we do not have the idea of simply measuring out some distance and having runners come and cover it on foot.

we have a picture on our mind of the experience the runners will have.

and there are often other, subsidiary goals we hope to achieve.

i felt like this year we came very close to getting it just right.

we wanted people to get a taste of the barkley…

a step outside the comfort zone,

and some moments of doubt.

we wanted a finish that was attainable for anyone,

but easy for no one.

looking into the faces at the 22 mile cutoff,

it felt like we had achieved that.

i admire the heart everyone who made it to that decision point,

and chose to go on.

collecting a barkley marathon is no mean achievement.

but, willingly going on to chimney top to chase the croix de barque

when you could opt to end the suffering and still get a finish

is something special.

about 1/3 of the people who had the guts to toe the line

collected the big prize.

those who came up short….

well, now you know what you have to do.

we also succeeded in raising significant funds for wartburg’s young athletes.

and, i like to think that the athletes who worked the aid stations

found something inspiring in the “old people”

who faced hard challenges

and hard choices…

and made the choice to endure whatever it took to achieve their goal.

because that is what sports, and life, is all about.

we never achieve great things by setting small goals.

and success is never guaranteed;

it must be earned.

congratulations to everyone who had the courage to answer the starting cigarette.

respect to anyone who faced down the big rat, and got a finish….

and my hat is off to the special few who *EARNED* the cross.

to those who failed (even the ones who lost their nerve on the way to the starting line)…

the only thing more impressive than finishing a race like BFC

is returning from failure,

and doing what it takes to achieve success.

if it was easy, what would be the point?

thank you for sharing your great adventure with me.

the mixture of joy and pain in your faces,
as you flew past me on the homestretch
will inspire me forever.


Here’s a general “About the Barkley Fall Classic” statement from the Ultra Sign-Up website:

“The Barkley Fall Classic is designed to give the runner a taste of what the Barkley Marathons is all about.

It contains all the elements; beautiful trails thru the rugged Brushy Mountains, surprising new elements to the course every year, with the course map not revealed until the night before the race, numerous hard climbs and descents (including some of the signature hills that have made the Barkley a thing of legend), and a very personal challenge to face down the demons that wait for us at our very limits of endurance.

The BFC is a 50 kilometer race, with a ridiculous amount of climb and descent (with the attendant reward of numerous scenic vistas.) The course is designed to challenge the runner mentally, as well as physically. Course markings only exist at major turns, leaving the runner to rely on their confidence that they have not made a wrong turn, or missed a right one. Long sections of very runnable trail follow on the heels of strength-sapping sections of hills… requiring the successful BFC runner to run, when every fiber of their being cries out for taking things slow to recover. The most devastating climbs hit at the runner’s weakest moments. Everything is arranged to play on the doubts and weaknesses that exist in all of us. The BFC’er must not only beat the course to finish, but they must conquer their own darkest fears….

As a final challenge, there is a 22.1 mile cutoff of nine and a half hours. Those who reach that point within the time limit are presented with a terrible choice. They can, with a word, choose to end the suffering and run an easy downhill grade for another 7 tenths of a mile, to record a marathon finish…. or, they can strike out into another 9 miles of brutal climbs and descents in an attempt to complete the 50k. Unlike other races with “drop-down” choices, those who choose to continue can no longer log a marathon. At the BFC it is all or nothing.

At the BFC, success is not guaranteed. It might even be considered unlikely. Fully a third of the aspiring entrants will come up with some reason to not be at the line when the starting cigarette is lit. (and who can blame them? at the BFC your very best is not good enough. It takes something a little more than that). More than half of those who have the guts to toe the line will not finish the 50k. The Barkley Fall Classic is not for everyone. If you are only looking to impress your friends, there are a lot of better 50k’s to choose from. You should pick one where you are sure to finish, if you don’t screw up. If you are looking for a chance to find that something extra inside yourself… that something that you do not know for certain is there… the BFC is for you.”

And here’s Steve Durbin’s description. In comparing his description with Laz’s, and in considering their email and facebook correspondence and statements, I have come to the conclusion that Steve is the Good Cop to Laz’s Bad (but lovable) Cop.

“Once again, it seems a lot of people got nervous and dropped out for no good reason this year…

Out of 308 total registrants, only 214 toed the line, and about half of those finished the 50km and secured the Croix de Barque… arguably the most coveted award in all of sports.

The 2015 edition of BFC added Gunny Sack hill, Deja Vu hill, a trip down and back up the Testicle Spectacle, down Meth Lab Hill, inside the gates of the old prison for a quick run through Brushy Mountain Prison, including a look inside the prison cell of the infamous James Earl Ray. Runners then exited the cell blocks into the prison courtyard and down to the building housing THE HOLE… where they put the baddest of the bad when they acted out.  Can you say ‘total darkness’? From there the course rose 2000′ in about a mile, up the Big Rat, a horrendously foul ascent laden with saw briers up to 10′ tall.

So, go ahead and click on the Registration link above and get yourself in the best shape of your life.  13000’+ of climb… thrills… chills… and spills.  As they say… bring your big girl panties.


2015 RECAP

Too easy… 2014 was the first running of BFC, and it was a big struggle to be able to host this event. It looked as though it may not happen, or that our signature hill… Rat Jaw would be eliminated.

The folks of Morgan County helped us and we held BFCI. 164 finishers out of around 230 or so.

Promises of a tougher, cooler course ensued…

BFCII looked awesome on paper, but perhaps a little too tough, so laz and me decided to allow for a marathon option for those who did not reach the 22 mile aid station in 9 1/2 hours, OR those who reached it, but chose to head on in and forego the final 9 miles, which includes the wicked ascent up Chimney Top. After all, we can easily design a course that can’t be finished… but we want one that anyone is capable of finishing, but you’re going to have to train, and then work for it.

Judging from the comments, and the way Facebook lit up, I’d guess we got this year’s course right.

Of course we aren’t going to rest on our laurels… BFCIII will be the coolest yet.

Don’t miss the return engagement, coming September 17 to a Frozen Head State Park near you.

Something good out of something “bad”?

BFC has now donated $17, 700 to Wartburg High School Athletics, and $6,080 to Frozen Head State Park.

Plus together we raised money for the American Legion of Morgan County, and the Cattlemen’s Association in their fundraiser for Agriculture Scholarships.

WBIR TV – Knoxville did a pretty slick feature on BFC before the 2014 event.”

Apparently, stating that “BFCIII will be the coolest yet” translates to “toughest yet.” Laz has been taunting us recently with his course additions (apparently the course is still somehow exactly 50k; past runners will tell you it’s much longer, one suggesting that one BFC mile = 1.5 real-world miles.) If I understand Laz’s cryptic messages correctly, then we can look forward to a river crossing as part of the new course. We won’t know for sure until the night before the race, when he gives us the course map. It’s tough to know who to trust. Durb tells me that, as long as I train hard, I will be fine and absolutely love the course. Laz tells me I’m going to find god and salvation on the other side. Past runners’ race reports suggest I’m going to be in hell. My guess is the truth is somewhere in between.


Frozen Head State Park, home of The Barkley Marathons and the Barkley Fall Classic. Photo credit Tennessee State Parks website.

It Begins with a Bridge

“…this could change everything about everything.”

-LDB, April 7, 2012

On April 4, 2012 my good friend, LDB, casually called to my attention the Fall Colors Bridge Run, a footrace that begins on the UP of Michigan and spans the 5-mile Mackinac Bridge over the confluence of Lakes Michigan and Huron. With her dry humor, LDB asked our friend JB, “Have you ever done this? I think running across the Mackinaw Bridge would be awesome. It’s in October so we could train and stuff.” My initial response reveals my fear of heights and distaste for crossing that particular bridge by automobile, much less on foot: “we need to drink the wine first or there’s no way you’re getting me on the bridge.” Then, I voice my second concern: “The 12 minute-mile minimum part worries me.” By April 7th, this whim of a proposal took a serious turn, and LDB promised that “this could change everything about everything.” You had no idea, my friend. By April 8th, I was singing a new tune: “You can count me in. I’ll start putting in some time on the treadmill instead of the elliptical. Running is rough on my knees but I think I can do this if I ease into it.”

So began my running life. As much as I loved running that hill as a kid, that never translated into the more traditional form of recreation enjoyed by so many young adults. I ran track in middle school for exactly two practices before excruciating bursitis (yes, at age 13) ended that. I could sprint the basketball court in high school and found running suicides the best part of practice. None of this inspired me to head out for a jog, save one time I tried to run with a neighbor and realized anything further than the length of basketball court was long distance to me. I made a few more attempts in college, when I was dating a fabulously fit baseball player or when an old friend took it up as a hobby. It never stuck. Lungs burning and legs like lead after a quarter mile, I thought running, well, sucked.

Given this track record, I was anxious that training for the bridge race was destined to end in failure. The Couch 2 5k (C25K) program saved me. I think back now to those initial days (on the dreadmill!) that called for intervals of 90 seconds of running and 2 minutes of walking. Working up to two full minutes of running, then five, then double digits was difficult. I stuck with it, though, and remember when I graduated to road running. It seemed like an epic leap. These training runs took me through the neighborhoods of Greencastle, Indiana, my home at the time. Some days it was the “Alphabet City” run past the high school, others it was around Robe-Ann Park for some hill training. It was a new way of seeing the town and a move toward a more active lifestyle. I took immense pride in my ability to run several miles through the streets and even then looked back to laugh affectionately on those seemingly eternal two-minute interval runs on the treadmill. Heading into the bridge race, I had reached 4 miles but nothing longer. The race would be 5.6.

Running on 3-ish hours of sleep, we awoke at JB’s family cabin in Wolverine, Michigan to drive up for the early start of the race. Five of us toed the line that morning, only one of whom had ever run a race, all of us in various stages of preparation, and one of us negotiating a serious foot injury. A motley running crew if there ever was one. Regrettably, the instigator of this expedition, LDB, wasn’t able to join us. The car was quiet as we snaked through the evergreens, but I seem to recall a collective gasp as the bridge came into view, and you could feel the anticipation hovering in that space. We picked up our packets and hopped onto the school buses that transported us across the bridge to the starting line in the UP. Since it was chip-timed, there was no group start, and runners took off as they were ready. We wished each other well and were off, our pal MM dashing ahead with incredible speed and confidence. In my memory, I see him gliding up the incline of the bridge with such ease, then disappearing over the apex. I wouldn’t see him again until the finish line.

I remember almost every step of this race: the initial climb up the bridge; the fleet young man speeding past us in singlet and speed shorts and giving a thumbs up in support; the guy wearing those crazy toe shoes; the thrill of passing slower runners; the wind burning my cheeks; discovering the thumb holes in my running shirt, which served as much-needed gloves; seeing dawn break over Lake Huron; holding hands with Alexander at the top, and then waving goodbye as I bounded down the decline; that guy who told me there was only 1/2 a mile left to go (liar!); the volunteer sitting in his car at the one aid station, trying to stay warm; turning the final corner and running up to the finish line, the man announcing my name as I crossed, and MM waiting there fully recovered and apparently without having broken a sweat; nearly hyperventilating from the effort; and cheering my friends as they flew in. I was hooked.

The awards ceremony was truly inspiring. The real runners regally strode up to accept their medals, and I laughed in awe and humility when it became clear that, with my current pace, I wouldn’t medal until I reached the 75+ age group. Still, I was proud of my 9:29 pace, which was much faster than I had trained and not bad considering it was the first time I had run over 4 miles. The feeling of accomplishment, and the runner’s high that accompanied it, ensured that this would not go down as a one-off experience.

After the bridge, I sought out 5k races and made them a Saturday routine. I worked on distance, discovered trail running, and built up to my first half marathon in May 2014. Now here I sit, two marathons and a dozen half marathons under my belt, a 50 miler on the horizon, and the drive to conquer even longer distances propelling me forward.

Thank you, LDB. This has changed everything about everything for me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.



Just for fun, I offer here a few of my favorite lines from facebook posts and email exchanges leading up to my first footrace:

  • Started week two of the couch to 5k today, plus kicked up my speed a bit. I hope you all won’t mind that one of us will be a sweaty mess during this event. (April 26, 2012)
  • Starting week three and at a 12 minute mile speed. I agree with JB that I’m also getting addicted and find myself wanting to run longer than the couch to 5k program allows (but am sticking to the program, which they emphasize again and again.) (May 3, 2012)
  • I’m finding that my endurance is really building up, but I worry what it will be like when I switch from treadmill to road. I’m going to transition out to the track at school as a way to ease into the more realistic conditions of running the bridge. I’m also looking at programs that get you from a 5k to an 8k. Hang in there everyone!
  • 2.8 miles uphill, 2.8 miles down, spanning the border between Lakes Michigan and Superior. Hopefully my fear of bridges and heights won’t get in the way! *Make that lakes Michigan and Huron…. I just started running this summer and have never done anything like this before!
  • I will be channeling my inner Crystal Wheatley tomorrow as I run my first race ever: an 8k across the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan!
  • Thinking of Smith as I prepare for my first race tomorrow: “I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honestly and realness there was in the world.”
  • You know me well enough to know I didn’t cut class! Instead, I left campus after a full day, then we drove 8 hours to the bridge, had 3.5 hours of sleep, then ran 5.8 miles! I had a 9:29 pace, so not bad for being exhausted!
  • JB, you were amazing! I was so excited when I saw you in the home stretch. I really needed this, too. I have been feeling like I’m getting too old for some things, and this has shown me I still have a lot left in me. The fact that the only medal winning woman I outran was the 75 year old lady tells me that I have some training to do for next year! I’m highly motivated to shave 8 minutes off my time for next year!
  • It was great, and we all finished with decent times! It turned out to be 5.8 miles, and somehow we ran it faster than we had practiced. Next year, I’m shooting for top three in my age group…

The First Hill

“I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world.”

-Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

As a kid, starting around age 10, I would run full-speed up the eight vertical acres of my father’s farm in Brookville, Indiana, then come tearing down. In my head, I was training for a race between cousins, neighbor kids, and family friends. I was to be the race designer, director, and ultimate champion, of course. There would be no prizes except for the glory of being the fastest kid around. I knew some of the competition could beat me on the street, but no one would have put in the training for this hill race.

Our hill was part of a power line cut, a clearing of about an acre across at its widest and perhaps a quarter acre at its narrowest. It was a scrubby, thorny, rocky thing with horse paths that zig-zagged in a switchback pattern to the top. I opted to forego the sure footing of the paths and instead zipped straight up. This route was steeper and more difficult, but it was shorter. Spikey thistle, loose limestone, and sundry thorn bushes and brush scraped my stubby legs, the scratches my battle wounds. It was a small price to pay for the victory that was sure to come. Lungs burning and legs shaking, I would reach the top and not even take in the Whitewater river valley, with its bottomland farms and rolling verdant hills spread out before me. Instead, I touched the telephone pole at the peak and made my way back down, flying with the reckless abandon that only a ten-year-old knows.

I’m not sure how long this training went on, but I regret to report that the dreamed of race never came to fruition. Perhaps I ran the idea past my father and brother and they laughed at the idea? Perhaps I couldn’t convince anyone else to toe the start line? I can’t really say. All I remember is the sense of urgency I felt during this training. I remember those runs up that hill and the drive to be the fastest runner to attempt it. This bramble-riddled hill was my place, my home. I don’t know that I have ever felt a stronger connection to a piece of land. This foot race might have been one way I imagined forging a stronger bond with it. Not to conquer it, but to show how rooted I was to it.

This race turned out to be a race of one, but it must have planted a seed that lay dormant for decades. Twenty years later, I would run my first trail race and find my calling. A few years beyond that, the grip of this hill moved me to toss my hat into the ring and register for The Barkley Fall Classic. In hindsight, it must have taught me that I will always run a race of one, against myself, and for myself alone. I can only hope that, come September, I can channel the love of that hill to propel me up its Barkley big brother,  Rat Jaw.

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