Monday, September 22, 2014

The Barkley Fall Classic: Another Metaphor For Life


 ** disclaimer, this blog has NOT been proofed, edited, spell checked, grammer checked or checked in any way, it is just my thoughts before they disappear into the abyss of my noise filled mind ****

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In late 2014, a race came on the calendar that I just had to do.  It was called the "Barkley Fall Classic" - a scaled down version of the Barkley Marathons (very scaled down). 

The Barkley Marathons is a race that is not widely known outside of the Ultra Running community, however, it is pretty much universally accepted as the hardest endurance event on the planet. 

Really. This beast makes Ironman look like a local 5k.

The race takes place in Frozen Head State Park in central Tennessee.  The story (I am doing this from memory so I am sure I am butchering the actual story, Google or Youtube "Barkley Marathons" and you will get the full story) goes that when James Earl Ray (the man who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King) escaped from the Brushy State Penitentiary (which is in or near Frozen Head), he only was able to make it 8 miles from the prison before he was captured.

55 hours after he escaped!

This gives you an idea of how tough the mountains are in this park, and how brutal the terrain is.  Two guys were watching his escape and decided this would make a great place for an ultra marathon -- the Barkley Marathons were officially born!

The race takes place in March of each year and has its own very unique selection and interesting sign up procedures, etc.  I won't go into a whole lot of detail but this is an ultra marathon definitely in it's own category.    The race consists of 5 "20" mile loops (actually around 26 miles each) and the racers have 60 hours to complete it.  Believe it or not (and I believe it now after being in that park) if they complete the whole 130 miles, they will have climbed and descended a total of 120,000 feet -- the equivalent of climbing and descending Mt Everest.....


There are also a number of things the race director does (like not telling people when the race will actually start, somewhere between midnight and noon, making them go in a different direction each loop and, this is the kicker, the course is totally unmarked -- they have to find their way using a map and compass -- no modern GPS allowed).    He puts 5 books out in the woods and the racers have to pull a page from each book that corresponds to their race number to show they completed the whole course.   More than once, racers have gone through all that pain and came back missing just one check point!

Imagine doing all this, while totally exhausted, in the middle of the night, after being up for 3 days straight. 

Oh yea, and the weather can range from 20's and snowing to 90's.  Lots of rain and fog that time of year.

So, it will come as no surprise that in its 30 year history (40 people are selected each year so over 1000 people have attempted) this race has a fairly low finisher rate.

OK, it actually has, by far, the lowest % of finishers of any race in existence (that I have heard of).  14 people have finished (no females, the farthest a female has made it is about 68 miles). 

Yep, about a 1.4% finisher rate.

The race director (let's call him "Laz", cause that is his nickname) likes to say he has created an event at the edge of human limitations. 

And he has.

So, none of us "normal" ultra runners would even attempt this race (or be accepted if we applied), but I have always been intrigued by how hard this terrain must be that it takes some people over 20 hours to do 1 lap.  In fact, the man that holds the record for the shortest distance traveled covered just 2 miles....

In 32 hours!

So I just had to jump on the chance when they decided to create the "Barkley Fall Classic" - a "50k" that would be much tamer than the Barkley Marathons but would give you a "taste" of the terrain that makes up Frozen Head State Park!  My questions of "how hard can this really be" would finally be answered!

So, how did it go? 

Well, first of all, (again) I was not able to get in the specific type of training I would have liked to (long, sustained climbs and descents) beforehand but since I really had no idea what to expect, I was actually not nervous about this at all -- I figured I would take it as it comes and allow my spirit and faith to get me through the tough spots I knew I would get into.  I was in good shape, but not in mountain shape.

I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into.

Add to this, 3 weeks before the race I sprained my right ankle, which I have done about 10 times before in varying degrees, which caused me to have a very light training week while I rehabbed it.  I wasn't too worried, it was not the worst I have done and I have a good brace I could wear in the race so I wouldn't turn it again.

And again, I was completely wrong.

Race weekend, 9/19/14 - 9/20/14.  

I talked a new running buddy, David "C" (made famous by running the last hours of the Death Race with me) into doing the race and traveling together.  We met up Friday at lunch and headed up to TN, both of us very excited about a new adventure.  It is always exciting to be a part of an inaugural race, especially one of this caliber and difficulty.  David and I get along well, and have a banter that I only have with long term friends which is very fun and easy.  He is also 10x as OCD and anxiety ridden as I am so it feels really cool to be the "calm and laid back one" in the group, not a common occurrence for me!

The first of God's wonderful interventions this weekend was a scheduling issue (my fault) that caused me to be at our meet up place around 30 minutes early, so I had time to do a calm, full Rosary and pray for everyone in the race (and other things).  I prayed, as I always do, that God would open my heart and soul to a new and better version of myself by me doing this competition. 

Or at least teach me something that I was needing to learn!

We got up there around 5pm and went straight to get our race bags and settle in.  There was a planned showing of the new documentary about the Barkley and a pasta dinner scheduled for 7:15pm that we were signed up for. 

I told my wife -- I traveling up to my favorite place, the mountains, to do an ultra marathon in the mountains and I am watching a movie about an ultra marathon in the mountains, in a room filled with like-minded ultra marathoners, who love the mountains as much as I do. 

Heaven on earth, for me at least!

The movie was pretty cool, and amazingly inspirational -- I just cannot imagine that any human could finish this race -- with my sense of direction I would hopelessly lost after 2 miles and break the aforementioned record!  The mental strength and tenacity that these competitors have was awe-inspiring and very motivational -- I was ready to "taste" this course!

Got a great nights sleep (David did not, remember, I am the laid back California surfer-dude in this "bromance") and headed to the park at around 6am (race started at 7am).  When we got there we were both kind of disappointed that the parking lot was so neat and tidy and well organized. Somehow I think we both thought the suffering would begin even before the race began with terrible parking, bad directions, or no directions -- no such luck, they had more volunteers than I have ever seen at a trail race!

On a side note, it seems this race (which allowed 300 people to enter, sold out almost immediately and then had 100 people drop before the race even started, re-sold 100 more slots and still only had 240 show up to start) was the biggest event this town had ever seen and everyone from the high school kids to the Rotary Club to the Cattlemen's association (really) were out helping.  Also, I am pretty sure a lot of the proceeds, if not all of them, went to benefit the town which is really, really cool.

Anyway, my calm feeling continued this AM, which was even more surprising cause I was traveling with someone -- I am normally a bit of a wreck when I travel to a race with friends as it messes up my pre-race prep and rhythm -- I am used to not having to think or worry cause I keep everything I need, and stuff I really never need, in my truck all the time so I don't really have to pack.

Again, David being so freaking nervous and high strung must have calmed me down a bit -- if you are reading this brother, thank you so much for being such an OCD mess! 

One thing I was thinking about (again, not worried, just conscious of it) was that the trail marking would be minimal on this course and -- if you have read any of my books or blogs -- you know I can get lost on the best marked trail in existence.  Because of this, I started in the middle of the pack instead of towards the back as I normally do, didn't want to have any situation where I was left alone to make my own (read: bad) decisions out on the trail this day!

Laz didn't give us much confidence as, in addition to the normal crappy throw away "swag" in our race bags there was a whistle and a very nice compass!  Nice touch, sir.

The race started out with about a mile of road, which I really hate, and because I didn't want to get left behind I started without my normal 5-10 minute walk to warm up my tight, pain filled muscles and joints.  Of course, everything started to hurt right away:  My turned ankle, my right knee, my 15 year Achilles injury -- even my left big toe for some strange reason.  Couldn't wait to warm up, have the endorphins start flowing and the joint pain go away (to be replaced with the wonderful race-specific pain that I knew was coming).

Speaking of what was coming, we did have very detailed maps (which I actually packed, in a waterproof holder and, never, not once, looked at it -- I would just let others make the decisions on this day) but they did not have an elevation profile so, except for seeing the telltale zig zag of switchbacks -- it was really hard to tell where the big climbs and descents would be. 

Just the way I like it.  Again, I think this added to my calm demeanor, as they say "ignorance is bliss".

The race hit the trail, we got to see the famous "yellow gate" that the Real Men and Women of the Barkley have to touch each lap to make it count and it went, straight up hill.  For what felt like 5 miles. 

I was feeling wonderful spiritually and attitude wise (lots of fun and happy banter the first hour in every ultra) and like total crap physically.  I was not worried as the first hour of all of my long races start this way. 

Basically, the race felt like a series of very long, tough climbs followed by long, not too technical descents and -- I was actually a bit disappointed again.  I signed up for this to experience the rugged and unpredictable nature, at least a taste, of what Barkley is famous for.    Trust me, it was physically tough but not unique or scary or rugged or remote.

I would not be disappointed for long.

After about 2 hours I caught up to David and he was not happy to see me!  I was feeling good and very talkative at this point (I had warmed up) and he was not having a very good day. 

I actually started to feel better and better as the day went on and was running up hills I would normally walk up and I was listening to great music and loving life and then.....

I turned my already sprained ankle, badly!

Could hardly walk, had to stop and let it calm down a bit before I started again.  Pain eventually went away but I was running so tentatively on the downhill's (normally the only area I am somewhat strong on the trails) that, of course, I sprained it again on the next downhill -- even worse this time.    I was limping for about 1/2 mile downhill.

On top of that, I smashed my head on an overhanging tree on a fast descent -- hard enough to see stars and cause a very nice gash my children really appreciated the next day! 

Despite all this, I felt fantastic when we hit the turnaround at "mile 15" -- most racers' GPS's had this course at least 5 miles off, to the good for Laz of course -- David got 37 miles total so that is what I am going with, not that it really matters! 

I was so looking forward to the "signature climb" called "Rat Jaw" which is a part of the actual Barkley course and, people told us the night before, we could expect to take up to an hour to climb.

By the way, it is .8 miles long.

So, we are running along, feeling good and thinking we were getting close to another aid station when we see this arrow in the ground, pointing up a mountain/power line that goes straight up.

And you cannot see any trail at all, just huge nasty looking briars.  For a minute I thought it was a joke, then we looked closer and listened and you could see and hear "runners" buried all over this climb trying to get up it.

Now I was excited!

I put on my $2 work gloves that David convinced me to buy the night before and was ready to climb!  Of course, I had to wait about 30 minutes for OCD David (his new nickname) to put on his full armor sweat suit cause he was afraid of hurting his sensitive skin.  Seriously, he did cover his whole body -- probably a good move but I wanted to really experience this race so I went in with shorts and a t-shirt.  Gloves were a very good idea, however.

This was, absolutely, my favorite part of the race and probably my favorite short climb in any trail race I have ever been in.  There is really no way to accurately describe it unless you were there but I will try.  Imagine climbing up a grade so steep that you have to get on your hands and knees to pull yourself up.  Then add complete over growth, 90% of which is nasty large briars.  I was pulling myself up, crawling, rolling, falling, laughing screaming and groaning at the same time.

It. Was. Awesome.

I also couldn't stop thinking that when they do the whole course, they have to go up, and down this, 5 times!  In the middle of the night, with no course markers, with no sleep, with no aid.  And it is usually cold and muddy. 

They are truly a breed of humans apart from the rest of us. 

We hooked up with some friends and found our way up.  At times we would end up on the side of the briars on a semblance of a trail (when they got so thick you could not even move in them) which was still very tough due to the grade but didn't draw as much blood.  Almost all of us ran out of water, we were really working hard and I, yes me, actually found a trail a couple of times to lead the group away from getting off trail!  I didn't want this part to end! 

When we finally got to the top I looked at my watch and could not believe it.  1 hour and 10 minutes to go .8 miles. 

You do the math.

Looking back, I could have had the finish line of this race be at the top of rat jaw.  I was spent, felt awesome, felt accomplished and had "tasted" enough of Barkley to understand how it could take someone so long to complete just one lap of this. 

But this was not to be.  To add to our misery we had to climb a watch tower to get our numbers punched and then move on to the next aid station.

Again, I was feeling fantastic, after this aid station we had a long (4 miles) descent that I felt so good on I ran the whole way (this may have been my undoing after climbing Rat Jaw I probably should have taken it easy down this and paid attention to my nutrition more), pacing off Joel and Rachel (running buddies from Atlanta) while listening to music the whole way. 

Got to the "22 mile" aid station (closer to 26 miles) and still felt fantastic.  I was, however, having huge cravings for something other than water to drink.  The aid stations were very minimal and I get sick of just water after about 3 hours -- this was 7.5 hours into the race and I would have paid $20 for a cold Coke!  David had 2 ice teas in his drop bag and he shared with me.  Now, to his credit, he told me the ice tea he bought had a ton of sugar in it and I shouldn't drink too much.

It tasted so good so of course I guzzled the whole thing.  And ate 3 chocolate chip cookies. 

You can guess what happened about 30 minutes later.

On top of this, mentally I was in a space that "the hard stuff is over, the last "9" miles shouldn't take too long".    I really should have listened when they explained the course.  And that people got to put their hiking poles in their drop bags before this section. I just kept thinking after Rat Jaw nothing would be that tough.

I. Was. SO. Wrong.

We left the aid station and started up another climb and I started to feel bad almost immediately.  My energy dropped, my stomach felt terrible and more than all of this -- my spirit, drive and desire to finish this thing completely left me.

You absolutely cannot explain this to anyone who has not done an ultra, and you don't have to explain it to them because it happens to all of us, all the time.  You can be running down a hill, feeling fantastic, singing, appreciating nature, being thankful to the Lord for all your blessings and then, BAM, you feel like you are dying and questioning everything you are doing and everything you are.

I am not exaggerating, ask anyone who has run more than 5 hours straight.

I immediately tried to repeat the mantra "It never always gets worse" (think about it) but this state of mind, and sour stomach is sort of like clinical depression -- you cannot just "cheer up".  It doesn't work that way.  You just have to suffer through it, keep moving and pray it gets better.

I also took it as an opportunity to be grateful for suffering.  Didn't work too well, but I did try.
My stomach was bad, and like an idiot (you don't think very clearly after 8 hours of constant effort) I thought that "maybe my blood sugar is just low" so I choked down a gel - and almost puked.  I had just ingested about 50grams of pure sugar in 20 seconds that made me sick as a dog and my thought was that if I ingested another 25grams it would make me feel better.

Kind of like of having one more beer to "sober up".  Ultra Brain.

The one thing I did realize, as this was how I felt in the Death Race, was that at this point I could go the rest of the race with virtually no nutrition and would have to because the thought of taking in anything, besides cold soda, which did not exist except back at the car, made me want to curl up and die.

So now, the deep, dark depression of ultra Marathoning settles in.  The thoughts become totally self defeating and loathing.  Your confidence disappears.  Then the thought of quitting starts.  Here is just a small sample of the flowchart of the downward spiral:

I feel like crap

Maybe if I just slow down I'll feel better

If I slow down too much I wont make the cutoffs

I am such a fraud, I don't belong out here

Lord, give me strength to get through this -- I promise I will take time off to heal and not do any long races for a long, long time.

*** interject here, on a tiny little downhill section I turned my bad ankle for the 3rd time, which leads to......

I am being so irresponsible running on an injured ankle, if I do permanent damage in this race I will be so disappointed in myself

****then, the dreaded .....

I am never going to make it to the finish feeling like this, I might drop at the next aid station (which was only 3 miles from the finish, btw, but again, like clinical depression I was not thinking straight)

How will I explain this to my family?

My friends?

My clients?

My Cross Country kids?

How can I possibly be so miserable and complaining to myself.  I have such a great life, so many blessings, I brought this upon myself and when this is over I have a great home, family, creature comforts to go home to that so many people, especially homeless do not have.

I am a fraud. 

I will tell everyone that dropping out was the smart thing to do, given the possibility of long term injury

I don't care what people think.

I don't have to prove anything to anyone.

This race is incorrectly measured so I have already "run" 31.5 miles, which means I have already completed a 50k, what do I care about some stupid finish line or medal?

I hate this

Why do I do this to myself, over and over.

Why did I think I could run a 12 hour race when my longest training run was 5 hours?  On much easier terrain?

Why didn't I train more?

I can't believe I won't even be able to enjoy the finish because I will have dnf'ed and feel so bad I cannot eat or even drink a beer (believe or not this was a common thread in my thinking, if I dropped out I would hate the finish line)

How bad will it smell in the car when I drive back with the aid station people that take me home after I drop out? I will open the window to save them (this one I thought about a lot and what I would tell them about why I dropped.  Seriously, I was out of my head)

I am never doing another race longer than 5 hours

I have nothing to prove to anyone

What is wrong with me?

This thought process went on for about 2 hours.  I varying degrees, getting worse and then better when I decided I would drop, then worse again when I questioned myself.

On top of this, I was climbing as slow as I could possibly walk without falling over.  I have only stopped during a climb to take a break maybe 5 times in my life, and I stopped and sat down at least, no exaggeration, 20 times during this climb.  Every time I saw a log, or rock that looked comfortable I would sit down.  Then it got so bad I just sat on the ground.  Then anywhere.  Then I took pictures of my legs, no idea why.  Then I sent a text to my wife that I was quitting due to my ankle.

 At one point I actually laid down, in the middle of the trail, looking up at the sky and groaning.

Not ashamed to admit I almost broke down crying at that point.  Lucky for me another runner came by and thought I was dead which broke me out of my miserable self loathing moment.

Another runner gave me a mint.

Didn't help.

Another runner gave me ginger.

Didn't help.

I ended up climbing with two other guys, both hating it as much as me (one was puking as well - gave him my other mint to see if would help - it didn't) and stopping as much as me.

After we finally got to the top of this climb (btw, it had a false summit that I was able to shuffle down -- I had firmly decided I would walk to the next aid station, not matter what the terrain, since I was quitting anyway) I started to move a little faster.

Then, somehow, I started running!  Before I knew it, I actually felt better -- I hadn't eaten anything or drank any water in almost 2 hours and this must have cleared my stomach problem. 

Praise the Lord!  I was feeling better, my mood was improving!

Ironically, my legs actually felt really good all day.  Besides from the painful ankle, and terrible blisters on my left foot because I was favoring that leg, I really did not have any leg problems at all.  It was just an overall exhaustion and mental and spiritual depression I was going through.

By the time I reached the final aid station my mood was almost as good as the morning and thoughts of quitting were a distant memory.  Thinking back, I was so far ahead of the cut offs I probably could have walked from the base of the final climb to the finish and make it back in time.

I ate 3 potato chips and poured water over my head.

Found a great playlist on my iPod.

Thanked the volunteers (little did they know but one hour earlier I had decided they would be driving me back and smelling the worst smelling human in their lives) and headed down the final descent.

The people at the aid station told me it was "3.2 miles downhill" and I said, with a touch of anger, "you better be serious, not more "Laz Miles" here, right".  They promised me they worked for the State of TN and could not lie.

Looking back, that was pretty funny.

I was going to finish this darn thing!

I ran almost all the way back, a few walking breaks and was thankful and grateful to our Lord the whole time -- I know it was he who brought me out of that terrible, dark place.  I was singing again, praying, talking to my Father in Heaven and loving life.

This 4+ hours of the race (I left the "ice tea" aid station at 7.5 hours and finished in 11:39) were the perfect metaphor for our lives.

You can be going along, feeling wonderful, and life can just kick you in the ass without any warning and you can ask God why and get no answer.  And you can suffer for a long time, with no end in sight.  But if you have faith, and stay the course, and just keep moving, not matter how slow -- God will always bring you out. 

And that is the lesson I learned, for the 100th time, in the Barkley Fall Classic.

That, and a cold beer after you finish something like this is one of the best tasting things on earth.

Thank you, Laz, and all the volunteers and everyone involved for a small taste of the Barkley Marathons.

For now, that was more than enough for me

God bless you all.