Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Barkley Fall Classic, 2019: Epilogue

Sunday, September 21. I’ve been sore after many ultras, being more sore usually after I complete the first of that distance- 50k, 50 miles,100k, like breaking in my body. I’ve hobbled back to cars, slowly climbed and descended stairs, and sat down in random places just to catch my breath or ease my fatigue. I’ve rarely been so immediately exhausted and sore as after this race. The boys were hanging out in the RV, waiting for us, when I opened the door to get in. I lifted a foot, placed it on the step, acted as though I was going to step up and then I didn’t. I couldn’t muster any strength or momentum to get in. Luke scrambled down to give me a hand. The walk to the shower and back was merely a shuffle. My physical recovery would take a couple of weeks.

Mentally, I was problem solving and looking for answers. Melinda spent the drive back to Iowa smiling, celebrating and scrolling through Facebook, enjoying all the moments other shared. I spent it breaking down the race. Many afterwards told me it was a tough course but how was I to know? It’s not like I had been here before and I didn’t know any of the other years’ routes so I didn’t know how to place it all. I posed these thoughts as questions to a few friends and they gave me their honest assessments, both for the course and how to gauge my effort and finish in regards to this year.

I continued to hash out the race, running it over and over in my mind. One might think that by stopping at the bathrooms at the beginning was the crucial point where I could have gained those precious seconds back which is true. I wouldn’t have been at the back of the line going up Bird Mountain. What I didn’t write were all the other times I coulda, shoulda done things that woulda set me up for a different outcome. Those things alone would have given me a much bigger buffer of time to work with. However this is also a game of choices and what seemed to break my race could have been the thing that actually saved me from something else. What I concluded was the ultimate factor was that I did not pay attention to the time while on Rat Jaw. My cue card was tucked away in my back pocket and I didn’t pull it out once to see where I was at in relation to the cutoff. The enormity of the thought of Rat Jaw overrode what I needed to do which was to pay attention to the time.

Perhaps I was playing it safe, playing it scared. I found my fight a little too late, a little too slow. That’s not how I worded it to my coach afterwards but it’s a better fit as time goes on. As I said previously, Laz has taken all the elements of a tough race and cinched them tighter and my aversion to risk taking and self-confidence surfaced and this just isn’t the race that allows for that kind of play. 

Except that that isn’t entirely true. I’m not a risk avoider. I willingly signed up for this race- no one forced me, no one gave me a race entry that I was obligated to fulfill in anyway. I chose to go for what I felt was beyond me. Yes, it overcame me many times along the way. I doubted so many times but I never quit. I failed, but I didn’t lose. That is daring.

Daring doesn’t come in a package or cloaked with a cape. No, daring is a choice. There isn’t a set up for it. No one scripted that sweaty Iowa morning when Laz suggested I take a look at the Barkley Fall Classic that I would go ahead and choose to follow through with it all the way to a trail point in Tennessee. What played over and over in my mind was wondering what might be possible for me after reaching for this. I wanted that Croix, the full finisher’s medal, and missing it still stings slightly to this day but I also wanted the see what was beyond that. Beyond climbing the prison wall. 

A friend shared with me this excerpt from a speech of Theodore Roosevelt.

The Man in the Arena
"...The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust
and sweat
and blood;
who strives valiantly;
who errs,
who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms,
the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly..."
Theodore Roosevelt, Paris 1910

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Barkley Fall Classic, 2019: The Race

It's September 21, 2019. The start of the Barkley Fall Classic was subtle. Laz lit a cigarette. There was a race clock overhead but no countdown or shout of go and not really much in the way of whoops and hollers but more as a small surge of bodies pressing forward in the dark. I saw Luke off to my side and gave him a high five. I’ve been away from him for only 10 minutes but I’m already so happy to see him. We take off down the park road towards the trail, the wave stretching out. Right away it’s is hard to know if we are running the mile to the single track fast enough and I’m trying not to worry about it. Melinda says she could really use a bathroom stop and we decide to take advantage of the facilities right before the yellow gate. 

Laz's Cigarette Start
We all be crazy 
The back of the pack is usually chatty but not as much today. Laz has taken all the normal race components and compressed them into a tighter form by means of difficulty, distance and time. I feel the need to go, go, go but we are nose to cheek going up the first mountain and moving needlessly slow. There is no good way to pass so many people without being jerk unless there is an obvious gap. I see one man start to work his way through and I tell Melinda we need to stay with him. I don’t know it at the time but his name is Leonard and he’s been out here, oh, a time or two. All I know is I want to move and he’s moving and I urge her to go with him. 

At packet pick-up, Larry said we would need to exercise aggressive patience but suddenly there is no aggression as the congo-line has come to a complete stop. Looking up the mountain, I can see everyone has stopped. No one has successfully played telephone back to us but someone guesses a tree is down and they are right. It’s huge and runners are slow to get over it. While inching towards it, I take time to pull out some food and eat. Someone asked if anyone knew any good duets and the only song I could think of at the time was "A Whole New World" from Aladdin, which I couldn’t recall if it was a duet or not and dared not start singing it because it would be stuck in people’s ears for the rest of the day. The only bright side to stopping was that after the downed tree everyone has spread out and we can begin hiking or running in earnest.

Now Melinda and I were moving. We would be free for a while and then come up to other runers. I hate nipping at other’s heels so after assessing if we were faster or the same pace, I would encourage Melinda to find a way to pass, as I was a few steps behind and could see a little better. Getting around the next person or people felt really good but we also worked really hard to make it happen. We were finding a rhythm getting up the mountain and soon found ourselves going down, down, down. It was fast and flowed and I loved it. Then were climbing again and I discovered I was bottoming out. My energy was gone, my spirit was sinking and I was struggling. I thought I had eaten enough up to that point but so much had already happened and time passed quicker than I realized. We headed up the next mountain and a few of the people we had recently passed passed us back. It was a terrible feeling. We were eight miles in and I was bonking.

The first aid station popped out of nowhere. Instead of being excited to have made it that far, I was quiet and tearful. The volunteers were wonderful, cheering for us, offering us water and Sword electrolyte drink and simply being there. I didn’t say anything only wiped my eyes in my buff and grabbed some Slim Jim’s, a few Oreos, and stuffed my mouth with a handful of potato chips. (I never know what I will gravitate to during a race. I follow what looks good to me. It’s so weird.) We left the first aid station on a roughly Jeep road that was all downhill. All downhill may sound delightful but it takes a subtle beating to one’s quads over and over. At one point I declared to Melinda that I would prefer to ride this section on my motorcycle.

No smile but no quit
We were met at the next aid station by the local high school football team. They offered to fill our hydration pack and bottles with water and Sword. They were super great boys and as mom of teenage boys, I’m proud of them for being there. We grabbed more food and headed out to the next section of trail. I had told Melinda that we should not make a habit of asking how the other was doing but to always assume we were going forward and that we would both be working hard and therefore suffering at some level. (I had listened to Gary Robbins explain this on a Trail Runner Nation podcast years ago.) We could tell each other things like ‘I’m almost out of water’ or ‘I need to go to the bathroom’ but we would keep our complaints to ourselves. As soon as were back on the trail, I told her I was going to work to get to the next aid station only. I couldn’t think beyond there. It was too much. I told her I was in a low spot, which I’m guessing she already knew. She heard me and said that sounded good. She was having a great day, running in a lot of joy. I, however, was being buried by the magnitude of it all and knowing all the hard parts were left to come. 

Somewhere along the climb, the calories kicked in and I heard myself being chatty again. If a person can overthink during an ultra-run, I was that person. I knew I was feeling better but then I was concerned I was expending my energy by being all talkative. This section felt relentlessly uphill with fewer switchbacks than the other trail and much steeper in parts but I liked it. I still don’t even know where the top is. I do know we got to a flat section and I looked over to see only blue through the trees. I struggled to place where in the world was a large body of water in Tennessee and so close to Frozen Head State Park only to realize we were high enough up that it was the sky we were looking at. We were looking down at the sky! 

In all the years, okay, in the few short years I’ve heard about the Barkley Marathons and the documentaries I’ve watched, podcasts I’ve listened to and one very informative but slightly dull book I’ve read, I’ve never gotten a good view of the trails, the park or the area itself. I’ve only viewed it through the eyes of suffering and dreams met or dashed. Now as I saw it for myself I couldn’t get  over how beautiful it was! I was delighted to find the trails were like trails I ran on here and everywhere. There were birds singing, insects buzzing, flowers, trees, views. I kept remarking of how one section was very similar to this trail or another section to another trail I've run on. Much is lost in the close-up perspective of a runner in those films. 

At the next aid station, we were greeted by a second football team. I opened my hydration bladder to be filled with water and realized a few seconds later that I had filled it with Sword instead of water so I dumped it out and started again. We got our bibs punched by Laz and he exhorted us to run. “Go get it!” Melinda and I are both ready to go but a few minutes later I realize I urgently need to stop. However we were flanked by a steep drop off on one side and the mountain’s broadside on the other. There’s no use trying to find any kind of proper cover so I looked for a spot on the far side of a tree, hopeful for enough cover from oncoming runners and free of anything poisonous- poison ivy, sumac, oak, etc. Not that I could tell you what these looked like to begin with so I guess I looked for a spot mostly bare. Melinda stood guard, engaging passing runners in conversation, trying to distract them enough to keep them from looking around. 

Because the course is not marked with assurance ribbons and slightly marked at significant spots, you are forced to pay attention to the course map along with a general understanding of the park. I thought I did have that understanding until we came to an intersection and would have to pause to look at the map. Thankfully, there would always be someone coming up from behind who pointed the way. It was always such a relief when that happened but other than a couple spots up Rat Jaw, I couldn’t tell you today if we went straight or turned. That’s the downside of not leading; I wasn’t forced to learn because I was following. 

Eventually the course opened up to a clearing and to my right was a tremendous view and drop-off. Quickly we were re-directed and told first we had to do this section and to our left was a similar drop-off littered with runners going both down and up and right in front of us were runners who had made it to the top but were sprawled over the ground. After stopping to put on gloves and arm sleeves (me), we soon found we weren’t running downhill so much as skidding or sliding. We kicked dirt into the faces of runners coming up and tried not to slide into them as they were crawling on their hands and toes up. We couldn’t see the bottom so for all we knew we would do this for eternity only to have to turn around and somehow scratch our way out of the armpit of the mountain. Laz had stationed a volunteer, a brave, hearty soul at the bottom to punch our bib. How he and his canopy got there and got out, I’ll never know. 

Once at the top, we assessed ourselves and plunged over the other side to ski-slide our way down again. Dust flew up into our faces and nostrils from ourselves and those around us.

The next point on the course was the prison. Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. The last prisoners were moved out in {2009} and the prison now offers tours, a moonshine distillery and a cafe. Paul and all the boys met us there in a flurry of hugs, dogs, stories and scooters. I was so surprised and happy to see them and especially Luke. He’s a top notch crew and encourager. We quickly moved through the aid station and up the prison drive, through a side gate into the backyard where climbed a ladder over the wall. “Have you ever climbed over a prison wall?” I have now, Laz, I have now. I can also say I have run through the water drainage tunnel next to the prison. We slipped our way through the chain-linked fence and faced the monster before us.

Have you ever run up to a prison, defunct or otherwise?- check
Have you ever walked through a prison gate?- check
Have you ever climbed a prison wall?
Have you ever run through a prison drainage tunnel? Check
Rat Jaw. We knew it loomed before us- an unknown beast known to kill the spirit of many a man and scar anyone who dared pass. Less than a mile long, more than {1,600}feet of gain, full of sawbriars, numerous stinging and biting insects, rattling snakes, and any amount of tortures if the mind allowed, exposed to the sun like an animal on it’s back, it’s body warming intensely in the mid-day sun all to scorch the flesh and soul. 

Have you ever climbed Rat Jaw?- check
We mounted the beast hand over hand, clawing for dirt, rock and root and thus began our conquest. This section is really an exposed power line section that had been cut and cleared of trees. What grew in the clearing is what grows in any area that has been cleared- weeds, namely nasty briars. And it was part of the course and we wanted to do it! The front runners forged the path, knocking down the tall briars while enduring cut after cut. The briars caught anything they could get a hold of. I crouched low against the ground, partially because of the steepness and partially because I could stay in the tunnel (the rat tunnel- shudder) and not get caught or cut as much. It wasn’t always possible and I came away with a good number of cuts on my arms, shoulders and legs.

The further we climbed, the more bodies we saw strewn along the edges of the trail. Runners cramping, catching their breath, throwing up and everyone with a death stare. It was a wild experience to be bear crawling, barely looking up, only to then look to the side and see someone sitting off to the side. We would check on them but kept climbing. Sometimes there was a knocked down patch where someone had been but now only the ghost of them remained. Yet onward we climbed. 

It was along here that Melinda and I separated. I was ahead of her, climbing faster than she was, but every once in a while I caught a glimpse of her. We were moving at our own paces but because of the windiness of the trail, she said she never knew quite where I was but always thought I could be around the next bend and I never expected her to not be close by. I found myself climbing with a handful of men and one who knew Rat Jaw. He threaded us between two giant boulders to stay on course and mentioned we were getting close to the cut off. I had not been paying attention to my watch during this climb and even as he said so, I didn’t look down to see what time it was. Several others said they hoped they would miss the cut-off by a minute or so and the more they repeated it, the more I realized I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to miss the cut-off. I had trained and worked so hard to get here, I wasn't going to throw it away now.I knew we were near the top because I had stood slightly up to look up and could see the fire tower only to have the briars immediately catch my hat and tank top. I angrily wrestled them back and furiously scrambled my way out of the tunnel.

As I emerged from Rat Jaw the photographer asked if I was going for it and I told her I was. She said it was tight but to go for it. I still had to climb the fire tower for a checkpoint punch on my bib, fly back down, and run a gravel road to the decision point. I noticed very quickly that while my body had felt all sorts of weird and wearied throughout the race, the familiar sharp twinge of pain pinched my right knee as I hobbled my way down the road. I came into the aid station as the volunteers rushed to find my drop bag while shouting instructions. It was a flurry of activity and very quickly I realized I couldn’t stop to get anything from my drop bag if I were to make the cut-of time to get to the rest of the 50k course. I yanked my poles from my bag and sprinted, grunting in pain and effort, around the corner to where Laz stood. I rushed the line and he called out “Time”. I had missed the cut-off by seconds. I immediately turned to the side and burst into tears. 

Over and over, I chose to believe I belonged here. I chose to believe that I could complete the race even while doubting and struggling. The sting of missing it seared my soul but I recognized immediately I felt that way because I was fully committed to it.

The tears heaved out. Laz gave me a hug in the most understanding way, getting slightly choked up himself and I’ll never forget it. It’s a game with a clock like any other and when the time runs out you don’t get another shot just because you’re holding the ball. All I could choke out through my tears was thank you over and over.

The volunteers offered me a chair where I sat to collect myself and drink the ginger ale I had stashed in my drop bag, which then I dropped and spilled most of it. I picked it up and drank it anyway. The ground food streak continues. I received my final punch on my bib from Laz, who made sure I was okay because I was still crying, and headed down Quitter’s Road to the finish line for a marathon finish. 

“Failure happens whether we deserve failure or not” Laz, Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, I Run 4 Ultra, YouTube. Almost a year ago I chalked that phrase on the blackboard in our basement. I’ve looked at it and pondered it in the months since. It isn’t to instill a mindset of failure but a reality that failure will happen when we try things. We don’t like to talk about failure and we quickly rush on to the positive side of failure, all the lessons we’ve learned and how strong we’ve become for the trying, when we should hold space for the heartache and loss, too. It belongs there as much as the victory.

Of course, I didn’t think about this as I hiked down the trail to the finish. I really thought about the pain of the last seconds, Laz’s comforting, and about a couple of long-gone family members who had come alive to me again at the start of this whole journey that July day. I wanted to let the tears keep flowing but it is difficult to be sobbing and running at the same time and I only had breath to do one of those things. Before the race, I had penned in my journal the prayer of strength to endure the pain nobly. Now the noble choice was to finish strong.

Ahead of me was a woman who had gotten out of the aid station before me and I soon closed the gap between us. My running wasn’t great so even though she encouraged me to pass her, I didn’t feel I could actually pull ahead of her at the moment, so I stayed behind. She would pull ahead with some running as I fell back with hiking then the distance would tighten again as we switched modes. We were close enough to confer the map a couple of times at intersections on the trail but without either of us saying a word, we read each other’s intentions- we were still competitors. I used her to pull me out onto the park road and she worked to further her lead. I wanted to keep moving, keep closing in on her so I continued to use my poles. A volunteer offered us water and she moved over to have some but I declined and kept running. I ran and the knees and dust and scratches and memories faded away. I ran and didn’t look back because my grandpa had told me never to look back in a race. I came to the Finish area and people were cheering for me. I could only look at the finish line until I crossed it. 

Only then did I look around and there was Paul to greet me and by chance, Luke was there with a big hug. I was exhausted and devastated and in shock. I hobbled over to get my dog tag medal. People told me congratulations but I didn’t believe them. My competitor crossed the finish line and I congratulated her. She thanked me for making it a race to the end. While Paul went to get a chair for me, I made my way to the food tent and tried to ask for a plain piece of bread but couldn’t even do that without breaking down. The men were so gracious with me. When I came back later, they said they were quite concerned about me and were glad to see I was doing a little better and filled me up with a rib-eye steak sandwich. 

One of the best crew and cheerleaders I know
My competitor
Melinda crossed the finish line not too much later. I was so happy to see her. She was full of smiles and loved her adventure. We sat along the finish line, comparing our scars and scrapes which were still covered in dirt and cheered runners in until the very end. It was one of my favorite parts. 

Mindy Extraordinaire!
We're so dirty!
We're so tired we can't even take off our packs
Tis but a scratch
That's gonna leave a scar
I finished the Barkley Fall Classic marathon. There was heartbreak in missing the 50k cutoff but there was also reward in daring to go for something beyond what I thought I was capable of doing or anything I had dreamed. 
I dared anyway.


photo credits: Paul Nye, Misty Wong, Curtis Baker, guy sitting on the prison wall, me

Monday, November 25, 2019

Barkley Fall Classic 2019: Pre-Race

It's September 18, 2019. A nice but chilly evening in Iowa. The corn is done growing. The moon is shining. The cows are in bed. I'm in the back of the RV Paul and Melinda have rented for our road trip to Tennessee. We're going there to embark on a race we've only heard and seen from magazines and the internet. A race that decidedly has played mind games with us all summer year. And we ready to play back.  Stuffed into our home on wheels for the next four days, besides us three, are their two boys, their puppy Bullitt, Luke, 2 scooters, 3 bikes, running gear, homework, coolers, and not enough snacks.

We're here!
After driving all night, we arrived at our campground near Wartburg, TN late Thursday afternoon. Paul had found a great area for us and Luke was instantly excited because he knew there were mountain bike trails there.  We slept in Friday morning and got going slowly. Eventually we solidified our plans for the rest of the day. Melinda and I went for a little shake-out run on the campground trails and it gave us a good taste of what we might find the next day. It was mid-morning but I notice the sun felt different; closer. The predicted weather for Saturday didn’t seem terribly hot but being on an exposed mountainside can make a little seem a lot worse and I don’t know how Tennessee weather behaves.

Luke and Griffen loved the bike trails
When we arrive at packet pick-up, I bolt out the RV door faster than Bullitt. I’m ready to see and learn what this whole thing is about. I made my way down the line, getting everything including a really nice drop-bag which was offered for purchase ahead of time. Laz is sitting in the awning out of the Tennessee sun and I re-introduce myself, handing him a jar of my candied jalapeƱos and suggesting they would go well with his blue cheese burger he described in detail to us last July. Melinda meets him as well and we have our picture taken with him. It’s only after this happens that I feel a thrill of excitement tingle through me. Soon we have the race map spread out over the hood of a truck and Larry leads us through the course while I jot down notes. I know this will not be easy but having the map now makes me feel more secure. 

Getting all the details from Larry
We meet again
Laz and two Mindys
Not our last hug
Standing in line for the spaghetti supper, I look around at all the runners and notice the race t-shirts everyone is wearing. I love it! It's like I've found my people. We enjoy the spaghetti supper but don't stay for the talk or movie because we want to get to Frozen Head State Park to see how the race is set up. The walk up to the yellow gate feels unreal. We are here! I’m here! I’m a bit overcome by it all. It’s just a regular gate painted yellow like a lot of other park gates except this one has stories to tell. There is a gate in the little preserve I run in and every time I run by it, I touch it. I say we all have our yellow gate and now here I am, standing by the one yellow gate! 

A moment of silence

We don't do easy things
Finally we head back to the campground and start getting settled for the night, except there's still so much to do. We begin to fill our packs and drop bags and lay things out for the morning. I pull out the maps and some pens and notecards and begin to condense the route information onto a notecard. I put it into a small sandwich bag which later I fold and stuff into my shorts pocket during the race. I inspect my new drop bag which is amazing and then figure out how to pack what I want in it. I decide I will carry more on me because of where the drop bags will be located in the race. Eventually we tucked ourselves into bed and try to sleep.  

It seems as though all of Tennessee is fast asleep when Paul pulls out of the campground and secures a parking spot at the race. I opened the back window’s blind and see a stream of cars pouring into the park. We finish our final preparations, double check everything and finally nudge the boys awake. We all stumble out of the RV and make our way to the start to leave our drop bags. There’s a start line with a timing clock over it and a chute lined with all the state and country flags representing the runners in the race. Come to think of it, it’s the fanciest starting area I’ve witnessed. I’m a little bit emotional but try to stuff it down. I’ve got a race to run and a job to do. Luke feels the weight of the moment and stays close to me. As I hug him for the last time, he reminds me to take care, have fun, to not sit down and to stay out of the tall grass. I laugh at my clever boy as that’s what I’ve told him all weekend long because of potential bug bites. 

I can still feel this hug
Melinda and I make our way to the start and position ourselves in what I think is mid-pack and then wait.

photo credits: Paul Nye, Melinda Nye

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Barkley Fall Classic, 2019: Prologue

It’s July 4, 2018. A nice warm morning in Iowa. The corn is growing. The sun is shining. The cows are mooing. I’m in the backseat of Mel’s car and we are headed northeast to Ackley. Mel, Susanne and I are going to meet up with a guy we’ve only read of and seen from magazines and the internet. His name is Gary Cantrell although most people call him Laz. He’s walking across the United States and is sharing his miles with anyone who wants to join him. We want to join him. We find him a few miles out on the east side of town. He’s sitting in a lawn chair his crew person has placed for him safely off the highway where a gravel road intersects yet not too far off the road for steps are counted and precious. He’s been walking all night, for as you may or may not know, Iowa can be unpleasant during the day in July and he switched his walking schedule to nights to save himself from the relentless roasting of both the sun and humidity which is aplenty thanks to our burgeoning corn crops. 

No Iowans were confused in seeing this sight. None whatsoever. Or upset. Everyone was cool.

"Larry, please bring me an ice cream cone this big"
The three of us take turns walking with him, swapping out one of us for the two and we each share about our lives. I tell him this is my backyard, so to speak as my grandparents’ farm is just a short distance away. I explain my high school summer job of roguing corn and watch him stop to take a picture of a fiberglass ice cream stand for his daughter. I think he likes Iowa but is not too keen on Highway 20 suddenly becoming a four lane road, unsafe for foot travel nor the lost time he has had to fight to make up because the roads in Iowa are messed up because of all our corn! He finishes his walk for the day, er, night a couple of miles west of Ackley and we all meet up to congratulate him. He’s younger than my parents by less than handful of years but has made it from the East coast to the middle of the United States on cigarettes, Dr. Pepper, chocolate milkshakes and now Casey’s breakfast pizza. As we stand around finishing our conversation, he asks me if I’ve ever climbed a prison wall and I confessed I hadn’t gotten to it yet.

One of these is not like the others
The moment I registered on Ultrasignup for the Barkley Fall Classic 50k, I felt excited and immediately sick.

If anyone knows about this race they usually only know about the Barkley Marathons from the Netflix video The Race That Eats Its Young. Whether they do or do not know about that race, I end up trying to explain that I’m signed up for a race in the same park and with the same race director as the guy from the movie but it’s not that race. On top of that, I’m not in the race yet because my name didn’t get drawn in the initial lottery but am on the waitlist and might get my name drawn as runners “pre-quit”. (Laz’s term, not mine.) It’s a cumbersome tale and eventually as the months wear on, I shorten it to say I’m training for a race in Tennessee in September. Which is close enough because once I share that its in the mountains with a lot of climbing and the actual distance is unknown but might be around thirty-six to thirty-seven miles, their eyes have long since bugged out and I’m left justifying why I think this is a fun idea and then even I begin to think I’m crazy. 

In the meantime, I’m calling upon all my friends and acquaintances to share with me their Barkley Fall Classic experiences and advice as I begin my training. I’m on the waitlist but am training like I will get in. My friend, Melinda, threw her hat in the ring as well as was drawn in the initial lottery. Together we scour the internet for information and compare our training, her with her coach and mine with Coach Matt. It’s difficult to tackle something unknown. The race, while not the race, still has a bit of mystery to it. No GPS devices or tracking is allowed on the course. The race route is revealed to the runners the night before the race at packet pick-up and it is sort of understood that this race belongs to only those who toe the line that year so no exact routes are shared afterwards. On top of that, there are some off trail sections that only if you’ve been in the race before know what they are as going off trail in the park is prohibited. 
Jack does not care if you're hot or cold, tired or sore
Ledges crew
(missing David)
(because he came later)
(not because he was lost)
The most consistent advice I received from my Midwest friends was to do a lot of hill repeats.  And a lot of hill repeats do I do. On the gravel roads near me, I took to repeating all the hills and steep driveways as many times as the month’s number- six repeats for June, seven for July, etc., using rocks or sticks to keep tally at the bottom of the hill. At Ledges, I spend hours upon hours running and hiking up and down. If I saw a family or group of people hiking in the park, I was going to see them three more times that day. Melinda, Shannon, William and I made up sick games to pass the miles and climbing. Then we went to Hitchcock and did the same thing. We would repeat Angel’s Dead Wing and Legacy trail along with Care Bear loop until we were silly worn down. (These trail names have been altered to protect their innocence. They’ve done nothing wrong. I, on the other hand, had stopped caring what the actual names were and made up whatever sounded close enough.) Earlier in the year, a friend let me into Jack Trice Stadium to run the stairs several times. And in June, Melinda and I ran a 50k in Decorah to test ourselves a bit. I spent at least one day a week on core and strength work. Then to change it up a bit, Coach Matt had me do a couple of 20 mile bike rides. I’ve never ridden my bike that far before. It was all new and I was plenty nervous to go that far but my reward was that I got to ride all the way to the High Trestle Bridge for the first time! 
Pre-Driftless Dirt 50k smiles
Run when you can and when there's a photographer

On repeat number- who's counting anymore
They ran ahead because my singing was getting out of control
One Saturday, I was in the middle of a monster hill repeat day at Ledges when I look up to see Susanne and Aaron coming down Crow’s Nest. They join me for a repeat and ask me if I’ve made it off the waitlist and I say no but I will show up ready anyway. Later that day, I pull into my driveway to a text from Susanne saying I got in! I don’t believe her! We were just talking about it! I confirm it by looking for the official email asking me to accept or decline the invitation and then gush about it on Facebook. I am thrilled! It’s the beginning of August. I’ve waited almost a year to get into this race.


Besides training, I armed myself with maps, books, and maps within books. I learned trail names and tried to memorize locations within Frozen Head State Park. I stared at contour lines until I could almost imagine the mountains rising from the map in 3-D form. I always like to have a paper map when learning a new trail and I wasn’t going to get a preview run so this was my best shot at knowing my where I would be when I got to the race. 

Ledges: one soul and quad crushing Saturday after another

Scanning the through continual onslaught of b.s. and speculations on the Facebook page, I started a long list of gear needed and slowly collected the items. I wondered if my pack would be big enough to hold everything so on our last long run, I tell Melinda we should do a test run with everything we think we’ll need. It was a smart decision because I learned the gloves I had were too big for my pack and later that week I spend 20 minutes in Theisen’s looking for a pair that would fit. I debated about buying a new pair of shorts that might be more briar resistant and a bigger hydration pack but I would be risking a lot on untested gear so I skipped both purchases. 

Showing my future pacer Carlton Peak
Mouth of Tettegouche River
Working with my sometimes uneven schedule and a family vacation to the North Shore, Coach Matt was able to keep my training at an effective level. But even with rest days built in, it still became a blur of long weekend days, climbing and descending, and shorter focused week days. I texted him frequently with concerns and mental breakdowns and he carefully patched me up and sent me back out. I trained like I’ve never trained before and it’s working even as it taxes me. I get to the point where I can’t imagine actually racing but I’m so tired of recovering. 

Photo credits: Susanne Kennedy, Larry Kelley, Nick Chill, Shannon Haus, me