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

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

Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

Frozen Head sign

Sun rays beaming on Frozen Head.

My view from the Cantrell Suite at Big Cove Campground.

view from the Cantrell suite

My view from the Cantrell Suite, Big Cove Campground.

obligatory yellow gate photo

Obligatory yellow gate photo. Photo Credit: BFCer whose photo I took in return.

what a nerd

Reading a well-worn copy of Frozen Ed’s book with Yellow Gate as backdrop. Nerdiest photo I’ve ever taken.

Race morning came, and I was up by 4:15 a.m. in order to get about 500 calories in me before heading over to the start line. [Note: I would be damned if GI issues were going to tank this race, so I took enough Pepto, both pre- and mid-race, to plug up a plow horse. Maybe not healthy, but you won’t be reading about any embarrassing trips to the bushes here. You’re welcome.] Arriving much too early, and feeling uncharacteristically chilled out, I snoozed in the van until go-time. An unexpected call from Seth gave me a lift before toeing the line with the 362 brave souls who actually showed up. Durb told me to get up toward the front of the pack, and I obliged. I couldn’t hear any of the pre-race instructions so hoped for the best. I suspect there was a moment of silence for Dan Baglione, but the nervous chatter of runners made it impossible to tell, so I  held my own moment to recognize the fallen Barker. Soon enough, Laz lit a cigarette, and we were off.

In the spirit of the secretive nature of this race, I won’t mention the names of aid stations and won’t always give trail names, so as to keep the course route somewhat vague. Note, too, that this course apparently ran a little long this year and instead of the traditional 31.1 miles, it was 31.2. Since GPS devices are verboten, I can neither confirm nor deny this but trust that the RDs wouldn’t lie about such things. 

Start Line to Aid Station 1 (Mile 0 to Mile 4 // 2 hours 30 minutes Cutoff)

Like last year, my plan was to come out a bit hot in the first mile and get ahead of the conga line that would surely form once we hit the single-track. Other runners, like last year, cautioned me that this was a bad idea, but I was confident in my plan. This is a race where you absolutely must run everything that is runnable.  The first mile is very runnable The first climb is runnable, too, but I knew many of my compatriots would be walking up it anyway. No way was I getting trapped in that log jam. Not surprisingly, when we hit the single-track, people started walking. Annoyed, I began a refrain of “on your left” as I pushed past, helpfully (in my mind) adding, “this is runnable, folks!” Upon first seeing the course map, I thought perhaps this new course would be ripe for record-setting (not by me, but by the faster runners). It would be mostly runnable all the way to the second aid station at mile 7.3. In the moment, though, it became clear that this could also potentially tire you out before you hit the big climbs. While the first climb wasn’t steep and you could maintain a good pace, I found myself getting tired much too early. I slowed my pace a bit, but kept pushing with some urgency, laughing at Durb and Laz’s evil genius. This was probably not going to be a record-setting course. This was going to be a hell of a course.

Along the way, one half of the Louisville Brothers, Scott, caught me. We’d both had some trouble on Chimney Top together last year, so it was great to see him looking so strong. We chatted a bit, and I joked that his brother, Brad, had been “all stick and no carrot” last year in trying motivate Scott to push through some serious cramping. He laughed and agreed that was an apt description. Before long, Scott dropped me, as I wished him a great race. It wouldn’t be the last time our paths crossed on this course.

About an hour in, I hit the first aid station. The cutoff was 2.5 hours, so I was well ahead of that. I didn’t need any water, so I rushed through, slowing down briefly to return a fist-bump that Sandra Cantrell offered. A couple days earlier, she had given me her 2016 BFC buff because I had mentioned having worn mine out. I was wearing it on race day as a lucky token, and was happy to see a friendly face as I zoomed down the jeep road.

Aid Station 1 to Aid Station 2 (Mile 4 to Mile 7.3 // 4 hours 45 minutes Cutoff)

I really picked things up here. After having been such a conservative downhill runner, over the past year, with Yassine’s help, I’ve come to love the descents. There’s nothing more exhilarating than bombing down a hill, slightly out of control and letting gravity do the hard work. Here, I passed a number of runners and let out a few “yeehaws” along the way. Much to my surprise, I passed Alicia Rich along this section. She’s the course record holder and had generously given me tips for training the previous year. I figured she’d lead the entire way. It was nice to be able to introduce myself in person, but I was sorry to learn she wasn’t feeling well. We, too, would play leap-frog all day, which goes to show that even on a bad day, she’s still a formidable runner. I cringed a little in passing, though, when I recalled Laz’s words from a conversation a few days earlier about my prospects in the race: “I sent Alicia a private message that said, ‘Ellen Bayer said she’s going to kick your fucking ass.'” He said it straight faced, and I laughed nervously, hoping that he was just messing with me. One can never be sure with Mr. Lazarus Lake.

Reaching the end of the descent meant it was time to pull out some heavy-duty gloves, because the Testicle Spectacle would soon be upon us. I turned to some runners near me and giddily exclaimed, “Things are about the get real!” This is such a fun part of the course, and there was no hesitation when I reached it this year. Sliding on my gloves, I plunged down into the ultra slip-and-slide that is the Spectacle.

Last year, there had been a drought leading into the BFC, so the Spectacle had been dry and crumbly. This year, and this week, had seen rain, so it was a Testicle of a different color. Lush briars and other flora blanketed it, and the footing was muddy and slick. It would grow worse as more runners came through, since the course asked us to descend and then come back to ascend it. In the previous year, I’d been trapped in a conga line that took its time going down the Testicle, but not so this year. I recklessly throttled down, relying on “veggie belay” [thanks for that term, Seth!] to keep me from breaking my neck as I slid down vertical pitches. Some tried to run down those pitches on two feet, but I discarded my dignity and slid down on my backside; better a muddy butt than a face plant, or worse. I suspect Durb and Laz wouldn’t agree with that, though.

Much to my surprise, as I hit the bottom and began the lollipop over to the aid station, the front runner appeared on his way back up. This was the first time it occurred to me that I was much farther up in the pack than I had suspected. This was exciting, to say the very least. Here, I turned off into the woods and made my way toward the creek crossing. Somehow I tracked too far to the left, and hit some barbed wire fence, which I knew wasn’t right. I pressed on, thinking that I’d hit the creek upstream a bit, but, instead, was deposited into the churchyard. Knowing that the creek crossing was part of the course, I turned around to correct my mistake, and heard a volunteer tell others behind me, “You’re off course; go back!” This was definitely a very careless–and embarrassing–mistake on my part, but no use wringing my hands over it. I caught the creek and plowed straight across, not caring about wet feet. Rolling back into the church yard, this time on course, I said hello to Durb in passing but didn’t linger to tell him about my idiot move. Pausing only to get my bib punched (to prove that I had been there), I raced back up, ready to climb back up the Spectacle.

Aid Station 2 to Aid Station 3 (Mile 7.3 to Mile 10.1 // 6 hours 30 minutes Cutoff)

The return trip would have the added difficulty of sharing the “trail” with the hordes of runners coming down. In several places, they would be sliding down as I attempted to drag myself up. It was amazing to pass a group of Barkley vets heading down in the opposite direction. Last year, I had passed this same group of men in approximately the same place, but I was the one heading down and them back up. How unbelievable was that role reversal. On my way up, I made a point of giving words of encouragement to each runner I passed. Most seemed stunned, their faces saying, “What the hell did I get myself into?” A young woman behind me, Lisa, was also sending good energy their way, and we chatted a little bit. When we reached the steepest pitch, without skipping a beat, she cupped my ass in her hands and pushed me up. I returned the favor by anchoring myself with the aid of some veggie belay, reached around, and pulled her up. I lost sight of her after that, but I appreciated her positive attitude and the moment of teamwork. We agreed, you don’t sign up for this race if you don’t intend to have fun out there. I’m not sure how Lisa fared, but I hope she got a 50k finish.

It was at this time that I started getting behind on my nutrition, which is very unusual. Since I recently broke up with Tailwind, after determining it was the source of my debilitating GI issues that wrecked previous races, I wasn’t drinking my calories. Instead, I was carrying a ton of Clif bloks in a sandwich bag and two soft flasks of GU. Typically, I would drink my calories as I went, eating Bloks and GU while power hiking up big climbs. Neither was an option today, as the big climbs, at least these initial ones, required the use of your hands. The thought occurred to me that I should stop for a few seconds, grab the Bloks or GU out of my pocket, consume them, then move on. The other part of me said, “Don’t stop, just keep going. You’ll find a time to eat later.” In hindsight, I probably should have taken a few seconds to eat, but I knew that I was close to the front and didn’t want to give up any ground. That was likely the bad decision, as I would soon pay for being low on calories. I decided to fill my bottles with Sword at the next aid station. I’d never used it before, so I’d be breaking a Cardinal Rule of ultra running (“Nothing new on race day”) but it would be a way to get some liquid calories and electrolytes and seemed worth the risk.

After a hard push, I crested the Testicle and, without pausing, crashed straight down over to Meth Lab Hill.

Last year, I’d been caught up in a group here, and we had tracked to the right coming down. This time around, the front runners had made a path going straight down, so I followed suit. I soon met up with Cassie and Deano. We chatted cordially, and they, too, seemed to be having fun. Deano appreciated my Barkley geekiness, calling me “a great source of obscure Barkley knowledge.” Felt like a compliment to me. There were some moments of sliding uncontrollably down ridiculous pitches, and a few near collisions, but we made decent progress. When we hit some rocks in a dry wash, Cassie strayed to the right, but I saw a straight line that just needed some bushwhacking. I called her back and took the lead, soon leaving her and Deano behind. It’s tempting to stay and chat with friendly folks on the course, but, in the end, it’s still a race, and I pressed on.

Are you ready for the obligatory moment in the race report where I do something stupid?

Hitting the creek rock road at the bottom of Meth Lab, I pulled off my gloves. It was getting hot, and they wouldn’t be necessary again until Rat Jaw. Deano and Cassie were behind me now, and I raced on toward the Armes Compound, heading toward the prison. Glancing down, I saw that one of my gloves was missing. There was no climbing Rat Jaw effectively without it, so I had to stop and turn around. Panicked, I searched the ground, and Cassie and Deano sped by. Frustrated, as more runners passed me, I scoured the road for my glove. Finding it, I cursed at myself and, while pulling them back on and saying out loud, “Leave them on, you idiot,” all of the sudden found myself thrown to the ground with a thundering thud.

The impact stunned me. It took a second to process, but I must have tripped and fallen, hitting my head on the blunt side of a creek rock on the road. While I don’t think I lost consciousness, I don’t exactly remember tripping. I only remember the shock of head hitting rock, of suddenly being horizontal. It’s true Ellen fashion to be able to come down something like Meth Lab Hill with reckless speed and abandonment, totally unscathed, only to fall on the flat, candyass road at the bottom. It hurt like hell, but there was no gaping, bloody head wound, and my legs still worked, so onward it was.

It’s unclear whether it was due to shock, exhaustion, calorie deficit, or all of the above, but the road to the prison was slow going. This should have been a quick sprint. Instead, I rolled into the aid station a little dazed. The boys poured some water on my head, filled my bottles, and confirmed that the next bib punch was over the prison wall.

Aid Station 3 to Aid Station 4 (Mile 10.1 to Mile 11.3 // 7 hours 40 minutes Cutoff)

The prison road was painfully sluggish; at times I slowed to a walk. I couldn’t shake the pain in my head and the feeling of being slightly off, but cussed all the same at the frustratingly slow pace. Durb was near the prison entrance and asked, “How you doing?” Shaking my hand in the universal sign for “so-so,” I confessed, “I fell and hit my head on a rock.”

“Are you ok?”

“I don’t feel great.”

“Well, you’re doing great. You’re in the top 10.”

“Really? Well, shit, then I can’t stop now!” (Meaning, I can’t stop to talk. Stopping the race wasn’t even a consideration, ever.)

“Yeah, you’re easily in the top ten.”

This knowledge, coupled with the fact that my favorite part of the course was up next, all spiked with a little adrenaline and ego, was enough to obscure the pain of a minor head trauma and fuel me on.

The route wound through the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, past James Earl Ray’s cell (the Barkley is partly a joke at his expense, due to Ray’s pathetic failed attempt to escape into the surrounding mountains), and into the yard. From there, it was up one ladder, held by a young local boy who looked on in disbelief at the stupidity of us runners, onto the wall, then down another ladder to the lord of Twitter himself, Keith Dunn. I joked, “This is the hardest part of the course for me.” Absurdly, last year I had vertigo while climbing the ladder, but this time around, I didn’t think twice. Keith punched my bib and kindly directed me toward the tunnel that runs under the prison.

Last year, I had strolled and joked with a group of runners through the tunnel, but this year I ran it with urgency. It had ankle-deep water and required keeping a hand on the wall to steady yourself. Pushing aside thoughts of rats and bats, I trained my focus on the light at the other side and emerged filled with the excitement of reuniting with an old friend.

Hello, Rat Jaw.

Durb says I’m a weirdo (his words!), and maybe it’s true, but I love this damn hill so much. There’s just nothing else like it. The theme of this year’s race was, “Can You Beat the Rat?” Durb’s daughter did a great rendition of a giant rat terrorizing runners, with yellow jackets attacking from above. Most runners curse this hill, and understandably so, I guess. It’s brutal. It’s covered in saw briars. At any moment, you could anger a nest of bees or yellow jackets or step on a rattlesnake (seriously, ask Phil Orndorff.) According to Durb, at one point 40,000 rattlesnakes were dropped onto it from a helicopter (to discouraged inmates from attempting to flee up it.) It’s an open power line cut, so it gets hot and humid, zapping your energy. It’s steep and relentless. I’ve heard figures that it covers 1,800 feet in .89 miles, and that it covers 1,000 feet in a half mile. This is what I love about Rat Jaw. Earlier that week, staring down from the Lookout Tower road, I left RJ a little offering. Instead of trying to beat the Rat, I chose to love it.

love the rat

Artwork for the 2017 BFC created by Audrey Durbin Bartolotti.

Settling in behind Barkley Vet DeWayne Satterfield, we approached the initial climb up Big Rat. The first pitch is so steep, forcing you to grab whatever thorny flora presents itself to belay you up. At least this year it wasn’t so dry and crumbly, so we weren’t off to a bad start. While Big Rat was covered in lush vegetation, most of it wasn’t saw briars. Greenery towered over us, but at least it wasn’t yet tearing us to shreds. We joined up with Heidi, and she and I chatted as we powered up the mountain. She had taken second place last year and was a great climber. Heidi mentioned that she and I were F3 and F4. This was even better than Durb’s top 10, so I kept pushing to keep up. I decided I was sticking with this group if it killed me. Last year, I’d had to pause to catch my breath occasionally on RJ, but on this go round, I just didn’t stop. At one point, some guys above yelled back, “Bees!” They had been stung, and Heidi asked, “Where?” “Right where you are! Go high!” It still wasn’t clear where the bees were, exactly, and the only option was to go high, so we just hoped for the best. Eventually, Heidi pushed past us and forged ahead. I stayed behind DeWayne; he had a great pace going, enough to push me but not too much that I couldn’t sustain it. The towering flora soon morphed to saw briars, which grabbed you from all angles, scratching your skin, removing your hat, and being a rather unpleasant dance partner.

We finally hit the rock wall that stops you in your tracks and forces you to track left or right. Last year, I chose wisely and went right, finding the crack in the rock that allows you to scurry up. Here, we were met with a conga line of about 40 people, all waiting to get around to the right and through the crack. There were murmurs of a guy taking off up through the woods, which was forbidden and could lead to disqualification. Going through the woods wasn’t an option for me; I was staying on course, but this line was absolutely ridiculous. I started eyeing the sea of saw briars to my right, and DeWayne clearly had the same idea as me, saying, “to hell with this” out loud as I simultaneously thought it. Time to blaze a new path. Before we could act on it, Barkley Vet Robert Youngren came bounding out of nowhere. While this might not be exactly how he phrased it, in my memory, I see him cinematically appearing in a flash out of the saw briars and hear him saying, “Fuck this shit!” before crashing past us into the thicket. DeWayne and another runner followed, and I jumped on board. A handful of runners joined us, including another Barkley Vet, Byron Backer. How exciting, for this Barkley nerd, to blaze a path up Rat Jaw with these Vets. I was geeking out.

Of course, there’s a price to pay for such an endeavor. While there were three or so guys ahead of me starting the path, the saw briars were far from trammeled into a manicured trail. Laz had shown me the key to swimming through saw briars, a breaststroke of sorts, but that technique wasn’t viable here. The briars were, as Larry Kelley put it, “the Goldilocks length.” Not tall enough to swim through with your arms, not short enough to step through. Instead, they were just the right height so as to rip every part of your leg, and were too short for your arms to be of much use. Nevertheless, they managed to remove my hat multiple times, and catch me on the ear, lips, and cheek. Pulling out a saw briar that is snarled into your lips isn’t fun, per se, but it certainly felt as if I was getting the full Rat Jaw experience. The worst part was the way they grabbed at the juncture where foot meets leg on the front (what is that part called?). That area took the brunt of the thorns, repeatedly attacked. You get into a zone, though, where you almost don’t feel it. All you can do is laugh, too, at the absurdity of what you’re doing. As Yassine always reminds me, “Your life is so good, you paid to put yourself in this situation.” Yes, indeed.

Our main concern was staying out of the woods. Runners were under strict orders to stay on course, which meant tackling Rat Jaw by staying in the power line cut. The woods were easier going, but off limits. Our troop made a point of keeping the trees on our right, never stepping over that line. We hugged it close at times, but never veered off course. There were more rumblings of the lead male having gone up through the woods. We could see him reaching the top of RJ ahead of us. I hadn’t seen him go into the woods myself, but others clearly had and were pissed. Excepting him, we were now the lead group, having left behind the log jam at the stone wall. I wish that I had looked at my watch to note how long it took us to reach the top, but my guess is about an hour (to go .89 miles.) Despite worse conditions, it felt like I had climbed Rat Jaw faster this year; it certainly helped to reach it earlier in the day, avoiding the blaring heat. A crowd of spectators cheered as we crested the top. I saw Sandra again and asked, “how many women ahead of me?,” already anticipating her answer. “None!” she beamed as she jumped up and down in excitement, waving her arms in the air.

I was the first woman to the top of Rat Jaw, and I felt like I’d just won the race.

This was no time to stop and celebrate. The next bib punch was at the top of the Lookout Tower, so I raced up, only to be greeted by bees flitting about the top. I remained calm and, chanted inside, “you are one with the bees, you are one with the bees.” One landed on my chest, but didn’t sting. Bib punched, I bounded down the stairs, catching a glimpse of the next female runners, including Cassie who kindly asked if I had found my glove, before sprinting down the jeep road to the aid station. This aid station was at mile 11.3, and runners had 7 hours and 40 minutes to reach it before the cutoff. 7 hours and 40 minutes to go 11 miles. That’s astounding. I got there in a little over 4, which is itself quite remarkable and speaks to the difficulty of the first third of the course. There certainly would be no course PRs today.

While I knew it was temporary, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take some pleasure in being F1. This race is so dear to me, that to take the lead, even for a short while, was quite a wonderful feeling. I knew that I probably couldn’t hold the lead, but, admittedly, thoughts of doing so danced in my head. Out of water, and with a long ways to go before the next aid station beyond this one, a stop to refill was necessary. It felt like it took forever, and I sent furtive glances behind me, always ready to see the next woman coming in. Bladder and bottles filled, I sped off–although “sped” is a generous word choice here.

Aid Station 4 to Aid Station 5 (Mile 11.3 to Mile 16)

The calorie deficit caught up as I jogged down the trail. I’m sure the monster climbs and head injury didn’t help, but my sense was that I was cripplingly low on fuel. I started pounding calories, but I was already pretty significantly in the hole. My legs simply wouldn’t turn over. Looking around, others seemed to be in a similar situation. We were the lead pack, but no one was running as fast as they should have been on this candyass section of the course. The exception here was Liz Canty, who breezed past with ease, reclaiming her lead. Soon another woman followed, smiling politely as she passed, followed by Alicia. Iit was fun while it lasted; back to F4.

A cluster of us made our way to the Garden Spot, and I overheard one runner ask Robert Youngren about Rat Jaw, and he replied, “This is about the worst I’ve ever seen it.” Maybe we all took a little pride in hearing that. We’d passed several junctures along this section, and I knew to keep right at them, so I plodded along as quickly as possible, yet feeling like I was running in slow motion. Arriving at an intersection with another jeep road, I was less sure about the route; I’d memorized the trail junctures but had overlooked this road juncture. A group of us paused, and just as I was pulling out the map, Robert came up from behind and said, “Go up to the Garden Spot, go up.” Others would not be so lucky here, as many opted to go right, which resulted in hours of aimless wandering off course.

Heading up hill, Anatoly rolled up and, grabbing my arm said, “Come on, Elena, let’s go together!” I only wished that I had the speed to join him, especially since he had an outstanding run and finished in second place. I tried to dig deep and push, but it wasn’t enough to keep up. A voice then came from behind, “There she is! Hey, I heard you said I was just an old stick or something!” It was the Louisville Brothers, Brad and Scott. “No, I said you were all stick and no carrot in trying to motivate your brother last year.” That seemed more agreeable to him. Scott asked where I had passed him; “Rat Jaw,” I explained. Remembering that Brad had started off by running with Scott’s son, I asked jokingly, “Did you drop your nephew?” “I had to! We weren’t going to make the cutoffs!” It was fun to be reunited with my Chimney Top Crew, and I decided that I was going to try my best to finish it with them this year. I was still haunted by stepping aside last year and having them go on without me, so it felt like an opportunity to revise that mistake.

We rolled into the Garden Spot to find a line of runners waiting for Mike Dobies to punch their bibs. I’d been preparing all day for the quiz he planned to give in exchange for a bib punch, but the frenzy of impatient runners canceled the exam. Standing in line, I shouted, “Come on, Dobies, let’s get these bibs punched already!” Horrified runners, including Brad, spun around, shooting me dirty looks. I felt rather sheepish under their hostile stares; I’d only been joking, but that wasn’t apparent to them. I guess I like that they felt protective of this poor, innocent volunteer out here punching bibs. When my turn arrived, Mike said, “Eww, you have a slimy bib. I hate the slimy ones.” Laughing, I patted him on the shoulder, saying, “See you round the campfire tonight” and I tilted down the trail.

Catching a group of runners, I yelled up to Brad, “Hey, I was just messing with Mike Dobies back there. You looked like you wanted to kill me!” “Oh, he knew you were joking,” Scott offered, to which Brad replied, “Yeah, if you hadn’t been joking, I would have punched you in the face, because I hate women.” Duly noted: don’t joke with Brad today.

I joined a small group, including the Louisville Bros. and Alicia, as we wound up and down the trail on our way to the next aid station. There were a number of switchbacks dotting this section. As a slow climber, I yielded to the rest of the group, and they dropped me on the ups. With each descent, I caught back up. This game of cat and mouse continued all the way to the aid station. At least I was able to eat on the climbs, a desperate effort to repair the deficit. At one point, we veered off course. We didn’t go far before I started to think this didn’t feel right, and as I thought it, Brad said it out loud, while up ahead Alicia yelled back that we were off. Fortunately, we all realized our mistake before getting too far astray. In my memory, this section, albeit run in the reverse direction, had seemed like one of the easiest on the course last year. I didn’t remember this much climbing. Blowdowns littered the trail, slowing our progress significantly. Needless to say, I didn’t leap over them like a graceful gazelle. There was less chatting, as we all settled into a groove and pressed forward.

Reaching the aid station, I made a quick turn around. I grabbed for a banana, and saw the bowl had bees crawling inside it. Once again, I escaped unstung. The volunteer who punched my bib said, “You’ve got a hanging chad there, but we’ll count it,” to which I replied, “If there’s a recount, I’m going to come looking for you!” On my way out, Liz came barreling in. She must have taken a wrong turn as well, as I hadn’t passed her. There was no telling how many runners who had been ahead of us had done the same.

Aid Station 5 to Aid Station 6 (Mile 16 to Mile 22.2 / 9 hours 30 minutes cutoff)

A ways out from the aid station, we crossed paths with Heidi, going the opposite direction. She’d followed a guy off course and was heading back to get her bib punched. She hadn’t passed us since Rat Jaw, so there’s no telling where or how they got off course. “You’ve got time; hang in there,” we offered. Liz must have made a quick turnaround, because she caught me pretty quickly. She asked how I was doing as she passed and explained she’d gotten lost. She was clearly frustrated, and said something along the lines of, “Now I just want to get this thing over and done with.” Wishing her well as she sped ahead, I thought to myself, “What’s wrong with me that I don’t want to ever be finished with this race?” I was having so much fun and loved being out in the park. I had waited a long year for the opportunity to be out there, and it was a shame to think it would be another year before I’d have the opportunity to do so again.

The group had dropped me, but I would close the gap on the coming descents. My legs were pretty shredded, and my head was throbbing. While I didn’t run conservatively, I also didn’t bomb down full blast. A few times rocks tripped me, but I always caught myself. After a few repeats of this, I yelled out, “Fuck!” and heard another voice materialize: “Language!” It was Brad, pulled up against a tree stretching his legs. “Ha, sorry! I just keep tripping over my damn feet!” We leap frogged a bit, but once we started up the backside of Bird Mountain, they disappeared.

Oh, the backside of Bird. Larry Kelley had warned that it would be “the great equalizer.” In my memory, in 2016 it was a fun downhill jaunt with canted single track and pretty little streams. Going up it was an entirely different game. The reality was that it was in many ways the toughest climb on the course. Bird was going to end a lot of races today. It was incredible to think that after this, there was still Chimney Top to face. Shaking my head, I laughed once again at Steve and Laz’s evil genius. This course was kicking some serious butt.

Since my legs were torn open, and my palms sweaty, using the old “hands on knees” approach to climbs wasn’t working. The salty sweat sharply stung the open wounds. Fortunately, Frozen Head offers many natural trekking poles. I grabbed a suitable stick and used it to help take some of the load off my legs. While perhaps the most difficult part of the race, it was also one of the most pleasant. The forest is quite lovely, and the birds were happily chirping. Dappled sunlight filtered through the trees, and the streams meandered over limestone. I spent most of this section alone, listening to birdsong and thinking about the pre-race visualization that Seth had guided me through, in which he said the beasts of Frozen Head would help me along the way.

I heard footsteps behind me and saw Barkley Vet Tim Dines approaching. We’d passed at the last aid station, but it took him a while to catch me. I stepped aside, since he was clearly the faster climber, but kept him within view for some time. Another runner, looking wearied, caught me. I laughed and asked, “Are you having fun yet?” He smiled and said, “At least it’s real pretty here.” Agreed. We fell into a silent march up the remaining switchbacks until, at last, I saw clear sky and the trail sign marking the top of the mountain. “Yip yip!” I hooted. “Is that the top?” “It sure is, although I wish that I could tell you it’s all downhill from here. At least it is for a little while.”

With that, I re-gifted my walking stick to the woods and bounded down Bird. I had anticipated really bombing down this section, but the sensible part of me said to save something for Chimney Top and not to court danger, given my pounding head. Still, I pushed pretty hard, and was surprised when I saw Alicia slowly making her way down. “That climb was a killer,” I suggested. She replied, “Yeah, my race is done at Laz,” meaning she wasn’t going on for the 50k. “No! You have to keep going! What’s wrong?” “Just not feeling well, not trained enough.” I offered her Endurolytes and food, but she was all set. “Well, you have plenty of time, so try to keep pushing. At least you don’t have to worry about anyone breaking your course record today!” I was happy to see on the results page that she had, in fact, pushed through for a 50k finish.

While I didn’t rejoice in Alicia having a bad day, I did find my racing legs after passing her, because it meant that there were probably only 1 or 2 women ahead of me now. A podium finish was within my grasp. My paced quickened, and I passed a few male runners as I tore down the remaining switchbacks of Bird.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but surely everyone who runs this race has envisioned themselves running toward that Yellow Gate as they complete Loop 5 of the Barkley. Maybe it’s just me, but probably not. Well, in my dreams, I’m always coming down from Bird on Loop 5, so today it felt like a micro version of that fantasy come true, swishing down the mountain, switching back and forth, now fleetly leaping over rocks, the sound of the creek’s babble getting louder as I draw nearer the bottom. The planets align and all is well in the world.

When I hit the jeep road, my new friend Mike Edwards was sitting there in a camp chair and called out some words of encouragement as I headed for the bridge and rounded the corner. The Yellow Gate came into view, and the most ridiculous smile spread across my face. Unable to resist, I touched it before continuing down the road toward the trailhead, where Laz was waiting at “The Decision Point.” I felt strong and happy and privileged and completely alive.

There was a very welcome reception hosted by volunteers and onlookers alike at the trailhead. I had reached it in 8 hours and 15 minutes; the cutoff was 9 hours and 30 minutes. Last year, I reached the cutoff with only a half hour to spare. It spoke to my progress over the course of a year that I reached it more quickly, and on a tougher course.

I found my drop bag and ditched my Kool Tie, gloves, and all the food that I should have eaten but hadn’t. This made a much lighter pack, which was most welcome. The Coalfield Boys went to work on adding Sword to my bottles. An older man, who looked familiar but whom I was unable to place, grabbed my bladder and said, “Let me do that. We’re here to take care of you. You look so strong; much stronger than the woman ahead of you. Of course, I told her that, too.” I laughed. “Hey, your legs are pretty bad. Want us to wash them off for you?” “No, thanks, I need to get out of here!” He started to say how much he loved being out here and seeing us runners; I tried to be appreciative of the sentiment and stayed for a few seconds more, but I felt a sense of urgency and needed to set out.

Thanking them, I trotted over to Laz for my bib punch and to state my intention to go forward and attempt the 50k (instead of quitting and taking the consolation prize of the marathon finish.) I asked, “How many women ahead of me?” “Just one!” he replied. Another volunteer said, “Well, just two.” I thanked them and headed out to face Chimney Top. As I started down the trail, Laz yelled, “It’s all a gentle slope from here, and mostly downhill.” “Well, I know that’s not true, but I appreciate the thought.” They laughed and said something else, but I was too far down the trail to catch their words. Reaching the creek, Misty Wong said, “Looking good! There’s only one woman ahead of you, I think. Maybe two.” I didn’t know who to believe, so I worked under the assumption that there were two ahead of me, making me F3.

Aid Station 6 to Finish Line (Mile 22.2 to Mile 31.2 / 13 hours 20 minutes Cutoff)

I had woefully underestimated Chimney Top in 2016, and paid dearly. My heart rate felt off the charts, my vision flickered, and the climbs left me breathless. I approached it with humility this go round, but also with the sense that it would feel more like the gentle slope Laz described after having climbed up the back of Bird. I picked up another walking stick and moved forward, propelled by the fear of being hunted by F4. I wasn’t so much concerned with catching F2 as I was with keeping F4 at bay.

The runner with bib #27 (I was bib 28) caught me after the creek. At registration, we had joked that it meant we would finish together, and he said he was going to just hold on and let me drag him through. We laughed at meeting on the course here; he was moving strong and soon left me. Another runner ahead of me stopped dead in his tracks and came back down the hill, a look of agony on his face. “I missed Spicewood. I didn’t get my bib punched at Spicewood. I have to go back!” Smiling, I touched his shoulder and reassuringly said, “We’re going to Spicewood, Buddy. We’re on our way there. All is good.” Relieved, he fell in behind me and stayed there all the way to Spicewood.

Chimney Top is the hill that keeps on giving. You climb up and up, and when you reach a ridge and think you’re finished, the trail turns to the left, and you climb again. I passed several men who were stopped on logs or rocks, catching their breath and looking bewildered by the difficulty of the climb. Pierre was one of them; I asked if he needed anything; “No, just catching my breath.” Others gave similar replies. I’d been in their shoes last year but was committed to not stopping this time. RFP. The trail descended for a time, which I had no real memory of. I’d been kinda out of it in 2016, but it felt strange not to recognize my surroundings. I knew that I was on course, though, and, sure enough, once we started to climb again, the trail became familiar.

There were an incredible number of blowdowns through here. I had taken away a valuable lesson from my Goat Lake Recce with Seth, during which we tried to keep sight of a boot track among an array of blowdowns. He taught me to stop and assess the situation, looking at where the trail came from to help determine where it would continue under and then past the blowdown. I put that experience to work here, and patience and intention rewarded me with never losing the trail.

Climbing some more switchbacks, I saw Scott up ahead of me and dug a little deeper to catch him. Nearing the first set of capstones, I closed the gap and said, “Fancy meeting you here!” “Hey there! Brad dropped me.” Scott had a great pace going, so I fell in behind him. We chatted about our experience on Chimney Top last year, recognizing that we were both having decidedly better races than before. We took advantage of the runnable sections as they presented themselves, noting that there was one more big push after the first capstones. It was nice to talk and feel in good spirits after such a taxing climb, and running helped wake up my tired and sore legs. He pulled ahead a bit; my legs were stiff and needed to loosen up, especially for the descent to come. It was interesting to see campers at Mart Fields; they offered some kind words, and this landmark meant the final checkpoint wasn’t far off.

Cresting a small incline, down below I saw Larry Kelley punching a runner’s bib while Scott put away his poles. “Cougar Snack coming in!” I laughed, running down to the junction with Spicewood. “There she is!” Scott yelled. “Cougar Snack!!!” Larry returned. As he punched my bib, I said, “I have an obnoxious question for you: how many ladies ahead of me?” “Two.” That settled it; I trusted his answer. Taking a little water before heading into the homestretch, I started for the trail as Larry smiled and sent me off with, “Cougar Snack!”

Remarkably, this section had given me the most trouble last year, so this felt like a rematch. My recce run earlier in the week confirmed that I was more than capable of running down this very quickly, although there were some nasty sections with slick limestone that nearly swept me off my feet. I would be cautious on the rocks, but would otherwise run my guts out down this trail. I soon passed Scott and said, “You’ll catch me.” I passed a couple other men who said, “Looking strong!” I felt great. I was running toward a podium finish at my favorite race, and regaining my dignity on a trail that had humiliated me a year prior. Being alone, and moving quickly, thoughts of a rattlesnake encounter flashed through my mind, but I repeated that I was one with the beasts of Frozen Head, and they would grant me a free pass. A smile pressed against my cheeks as I raced down the mountain.

Hitting the main trail, I spun toward the trailhead. Along the way, I passed Robert Youngren, moving slowly. “Hey, Trailblazer! Thanks for leading the way up Rat Jaw!” “Yeah, that’s not what I signed up for, but it’s what I got,” he replied. “Do you need anything?” I turned around to ask. “Nah, I’m ok.” I waved and pressed on. Soon the trailhead came into view; Laz was still there, along with some spectators who hooted as I zoomed through. One mile to go, all on paved road.

I was tired as hell, but there was no excuse for running slow on a paved road one mile from the finish line. Some marathon finishers cheered as I passed them. The shadow of F4 haunted me, and I anxiously turned around a couple times to make sure she wasn’t in sight. Rounding the corner into Flat Fork Field, the finish line came into view. I can’t help myself and always sprint at the end of a race, no matter how I feel. This was no exception. Crossing the finish line, I heard Durb’s voice over the speaker, “Ellen Bayer of Tacoma Washington, finishing third female in the 50k.”

I finished in 11 hours, 7 minutes, and 26 seconds. Nearly an hour faster than in 2016, and on a tougher course to boot. I’d finished 11th female and 69th overall last year. This year, I’d moved up to third female and 22nd overall. This felt like quite a personal accomplishment. I waited at the finish line to congratulate Scott as he, too, came in for a strong 11-hour finish. At the awards tent, Keith Dunn meticulously selected the Croix de Barque with the best positioned star for me (the star indicating this was my second finish) while John Kelley’s mother congratulated me on a great run. While I have a box of medals set to be shipped off and donated to Medals for Mettle, the Croix will be conspicuously absent from that box.

Croix de Barque avec Etoille

Croix de Barque, avec Étoille.

bib

My bib. Having secured all 7 punches required for the 50k finish, my bib read, “I Beat the Rat.” Marathon finish bibs said, “I Ate the Rat.”

The adrenaline having worn off, the pain in my head regained my attention. Shannon (whose last name I never caught) gave me an unofficial exam. As she described the potential delayed effects of a concussion, I immediately started feeling all of those symptoms at once. In reality, I was just hyperventilating, but it was scary all the same. She and Mike took care of me until a medic came over to assess my situation. He determined that I had a mild concussion and told me to go on brain rest for the week and to get myself to the ER if certain symptoms presented.

Mike deposited me in a chair and I ate the world’s most delicious veggie burger while watching runners come in. Liz came over and hugged me, congratulating me on my run. “Did you win?” “Yeah, but I had to chase her [F2] down first!” I was happy for her, as she had clearly worked hard. I caught up with Matthew Crownover, with whom I had climbed Rat Jaw last year. He said, “Let me ask you a question,” and paused. “This course was tougher,” I answered, anticipating his question. He laughed, and we compared notes. It was definitely more difficult, and part of its strength came in appearing, on the map, to be easier. I had the opportunity to speak with other runners post-race who expressed similar sentiments. Some had finished the 50k, some the marathon, some took a DNF. It seemed like everyone had fun, though. Everyone felt they had a story to share. I finally had a moment to check out my Rat Bites, which were quite impressive. Definitely left a healthy offering to the trail gods today.

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Epilogue

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

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

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

I am eternally grateful.

Cougar Bait

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