“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.”
“it is not an adventure if you are sure you will make it.”
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.
- Consume at least 100 calories every 30 minutes.
- Stay hydrated, making sure to drain your water by the time you reach the next aid station.
- Take an Endurolyte every hour.
- Make smart decisions on the course.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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%?
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.
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.
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.