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The End of Suffering……for now.
You know a race has a significant impact on you when you have basically stopped writing, blogging, etc. for almost 2 years and you feel obligated to putting at least something down on paper on a Friday night about a week after completion (kind of).
To back track a bit, my racing year in 2016 was to be the “year of redemption”. Injuries, time off to heal those injuries, burn out, working too hard, etc. made 2015 the “year of giving back”, which was pretty cool. However, in 2016 (at least at the beginning) I felt the need to get back to some long, really tough efforts that brought me back to the raw place of suffering I sometimes crave, and need, in this sport.
As I have said many times before, we make plans, and God laughs.
Long story short, the year did not work out. I knew after completing Mountain Mist in January of 2016 that my plans of doing some really hard efforts, including a Western States qualifier, were not to be. My long standing Achilles injury, which I thought I “fixed” by doing a non-invasive treatment and taking 3 months off running in 2015 was back and with it, a lack of motivation to suffer in chronic pain anymore.
I dropped from the few long races I was signed up for, gave it to the Lord and moved on. Actually felt pretty good about it.
The one race I had signed up for that I did not immediately drop out of was the Barkley Fall Classic in September, 2016. I almost did, but I decided to wait to see what would happen as the year progressed and gave myself the option to drop out as the time got closer.
Long story short, I made a decision to completely revamp my diet and supplementation regime in an effort to reduce total body inflammation and chronic pain and, guess what?
So….. fast forward to about 8 weeks before BFC — I put together a very, very aggressive plan that would get me to the starting line in the best shape possible (with only 8 weeks to train and my “long run” being 2 hours since January) for what I expected to be the hardest race of my career.
The training actually went pretty well, got in some really hard efforts and was feeling SO great in terms of pain — which helped my mental state and motivation tremendously!
5 weeks out from the race I was planning on doing a 6 hour (minimum) effort at the Pine Mountain (Cartersville) trails. 1.5 hours into the run with OCD David I sprained my ankle very badly (again, and yes, the same ankle I have turned multiple times, the same foot of my injured Achilles and, best yet, the same ankle I turned about 5 weeks before I ran BFC for the first time in 2014 — message here? You decide).
It was pretty bad. I was able to finish about 5 hours but I hobbled in the last hour. Good news it was a low ankle sprain (first one I have had) which I hear heal faster than high ankle sprains (wrong, btw, for me) but it was very swollen and black and blue almost immediately so I know I needed rehab for the week after.
I took good care of it — one of the benefits of spraining your ankle numerous times, you become somewhat of an expert in rehab — and was actually feeling much better within a week.
Of course, I only had 5 weeks till BFC so I headed to the mountains just one week after spraining it and did a really good and strong 5 hour Springer Mountain loop from the bottom of the stairs. Strangely. this was the BEST my ankle felt for the next 4 weeks.
Not sure why, perhaps I actually broke it not sprained it, but the ankle got progressively worse as I got closer to the race. I was only able to run a few hours (total) the 2 weeks leading up to BFC.
Fast forward to the race.
As always, the trip up and “boy time” with “OCD” David and “Underwear Boy” Christian (may explain this nickname, may just leave it to your imagination) was the highlight of the weekend. We drove up Friday night and all were feeling good, however with more than a little trepidation leading up to the race…..
Got a TERRIBLE night’s sleep as OCD must have been stressing beyond belief due to the face he could not wear his GPS in the race. His snoring was, in a word, epic. At one point I had ear plugs in both ears and pillows wrapped around my head and still could not sleep. I would kick his bed to stop him and try my best to fall asleep before the snoring escalated to a decibel level equivalent to a jet. Didn’t work.
Anyway, who cares, sleep is over rated the night before a race and it’s not like this was going to be tough on my body, right?
Up at 5am and normal race prep, feeling actually very good and relaxed (after giving OCD a bunch of crap for keeping me up all night). Christian didn’t hear a thing, guy could probably sleep through a hurricane.
So here is where the day changed for me. My ankle was feeling pretty good in the 2 weeks leading up to the race (due to very minimal running, lots of icing and rest). This race starts on the road and OCD went out way to fast for me – he starts faster and I normally catch him later, then he normally drops me a the end. Not today, he is in 100 mile shape, I am in 30k shape. I never saw him again. Anyway, I get into my grove and the race hits the trail, the first slight hill. I decide to run this just to see how my ankle is feeling.
And turn it again.
Not bad, but enough to make me realize it is no where near healed.
This will be a long day.
I really enjoy the beginning of this course, it was pretty dark, there was a nice breeze and it is switchback climbing for a while so I can get warmed up before we actually start running. My body felt good (except for some lower back tightness that a lot of people were feeling due to the pitch and length of the first climb) and I was enjoying the day. Another different thing about his day was I was not really into chatting with other runners (normally I have NO problem talking for hours on end in these races :-). Unfortunately for me, this race seem to attract the most chatty ultra runners on the planet! I was able to carve out some solo prayer time during this climb, said a Rosary, prayed from some good friends that are struggling and, as always, gave thanks to our Lord for all the blessings in my life.
The first aid station is at “7.6” miles (all mileage in quotes as Laz – the infamous race director — does NOT report exact mileage) and the time cut off to make it to the 50k was 3 hours 15 minutes. This may sound ridiculous in terms of pacing but keep in mind it is probably closer to 10 miles, and mostly steep climbing. I got there at 2:45, ate a bit of food and was on my way.
The next section is kind of blurry, even just one week later, not sure why but I am pretty sure the “bee incident” occurred here?
This is crazy stuff. Came around a corner and bunch of people are just standing in the trail, never a good sign. Someone said they saw a bear, but then we realized there was a bee, yellow jacket, hornet, dinosaur sized wasps (depending on who you have talked to) ahead on the trail. We made the smart move to follow one guy WAY off trail to bypass the nest, a girl behind us either thought she could out run the bees, or did not hear us yelling at the top of our lungs “YELLOW JACKET NEST, GO AROUND!) and ran right through the swarm. If I didn’t know the pain she was feeling (I have been stung many times in my life growing up in NY and on trails) it would have actually been pretty funny watching the trail sprint while screaming and flailing her arms.
It was NOT funny.
We caught up with her and the guy with me had to keep running as he was allergic, I am not so I did my best to help her get the remaining bees, dinosaur wasps, etc off her. I’ve heard some foul language in trail races but this was a new low. No judging, but it was pretty impressive coming out of her mouth. BTW, about 5 minutes later we pulled another dinosaur wasp out of her hair, and her ear! Crazy. But not as crazy as the next person to come through.
So we continue to yell as loud as we can to warn upcoming runners. Then we hear a woman obviously who did not hear our warnings run right through the nest.
Ok, here is the deal. I raced motocross for 15 years. I hung out with some pretty crazy people. I have seen a guy break his FEMUR (compound fracture, saw the bone). Saw a guy cut off all of the tips of his fingers in a motorcycle chain. I’ve personally crashed so hard I knocked out my teeth. I had a serrated footpeg rip my thigh open and get 40 stiches – a cut so deep I could see muscle. Saw a guy get his leg sucked between the knobby tire and swing arm (space was about 3 inches, broke the leg in multiple places), etc.
Their, and my, screams were NOTHING compared to what and how loud this woman was screaming. I cannot explain it. It still haunts me. Basically she stopped running (we think, we were too far away to see her but we could hear her clearly) when she started getting stung, the worst thing to do.
I AM DYING!
WHY WON’T ANYONE HELP ME?
OH MY GOD, GET THEM OFF ME!
OH MY GOD, THEY ARE IN MY EARS!
HELP ME, PLEASE SOMEONE HELP ME!
(** insert tons off expletives **)
It was gut wrenching. All we could do was yell to her to run as fast as she could.
This moment changed the race for me, I was already realizing, for the first time ever, I might not make time cut offs. The problem was about 25% my lack of fitness for the climbs and 75% the fact that I could not bomb the downhills like normal to make up time due to my ankle.
And I really, really did not care. Nothing to prove, finished the 50k in 2014 and would be super happy with the “marathon” (probably a 50k in distance anyway, but who knows and I really don’t care). I didn’t know at that point if you got a DNF if you dropped to the marathon (you didn’t, I asked a few people who did it in 2015) but it wouldn’t have mattered, with what was to come I would never make it.
Next up was a climb called “Testicle Spectacle”, aptly named after how we as Catholics remember to do the sign of the cross: Testicle, spectacles, watch, wallet. There was “Meth Lab Hill” in there somewhere as well but I cannot tell you if we went up or down that and when it was.
Told you, its Blurry.
I do remember actually enjoying going down TS, it was fun (you had to slide a lot of it, and hold onto briars to slow your slide) except the fact that I was already cramping so when I squatted down to slide my calves and hamstrings would lock up. Fun. Saw Christian and David coming back up, they were WAY ahead of me and looking good.
Coming back up TS I started having thoughts of dropping out. I was NOT in shape for this and really did not have the mental drive to continue for 6-7 hours more (I think we were about 5 hours in when we started back up the climb). The mental part was really 90% of it. The good news is I came to the conclusion that in this season of my life I don’t need all day suffer-fests anymore, and that is a good thing! 3-5 hours is more than enough for me now.
I actually think a big part (besides the ankle, the lack of fitness and the lack of drive) was nutritional. In addition to no GPS (no big deal for me as I don’t own one, just use a simple watch, mostly to keep track of when to eat) Laz also does not allow gels in the race (due to littering) so I had minimal simple sugar during the day (some bananas at aid stations and some raisins I brought with me). This is fine and I am trained to run on low carbs and fat, but not at this level of exertion. I know in the past I have felt these low points, and thoughts of dropping out then I get a gel, or some coke or other form of simple sugar and rally within 5 minutes!
Anyway, it was what it was — these nutritional deficiencies would just add to the suffering and this is what we signed up and came to expect from a Laz designed day.
After climbing TS, we did a really rocky, steep downhill to the prison. This is when I knew for sure I was either dropping out at the prison or taking 12+ hours to do the “marathon”. I hated this section and I normally LOVE technical downhills. I walked (yep, walked downhill) almost all of it. The prison was “mile 17.6” and I was already 7 hours into this thing!
I was with a couple of guys and none of us could run, it was crazy. There were even downhill and flat road sections leading up to the prison and we were walking, hobbling really.
And we were not even 1/2 way.
Before the race, I was looking forward to seeing the prison and walking through it, now all I cared about was if there was anything cold to drink (no ice, or soda which I live on in hot races at aid stations, did I mention after the nice breezy morning it ended up being about 85 degrees for the bulk of the race, no real cloud cover, especially on tough climbs).
God answered my prayers.
There was an aid station leading into the prison with ICE! I filled my hydration pack with ice and water and noticed empty soda bottles! I asked (begged) the guys there if there was cold Coke anywhere and he went to get me one!
Nectar of the Gods — I started to walk into the prison with it but he took it back, wouldn’t let me have the whole thing! Oh well, the few sips I got were enough to make me forget about dropping out. Prison was very cool, the ladder over the wall where James Earl Ray escaped kind of freaked me out, I don’t like heights and I was cramping even more at this point but I made it. Loved the tunnel under the prison, it was damp and cool and dark – a nice break before the HELL to come.
So, here we are about 7 hours into the race and we are starting up “Big Rat” and “Rat Jaw”.
In 2014 this was my favorite part of the race, crawling up a 45% grade, took 70 minutes to go .8 miles, briars over my 6foot2inch head. Amazing, such a challenge and was with good friends and had a blast. Was way ahead of time cut offs and feeling strong.
2016, not so much.
All the factors, especially having done TS beforehand, added up to the, by far, hardest 2+ hours of any race I have ever been in. Just looking at the first section (basically hand over fist climbing in dry, dusty dirt with no handholds except a random briars) made me want to cry.
Ok, maybe I did cry a bit.
This year we not only did the full Rat Jaw, the briars were cut down. This sounds like it would be better, but it was not. It made the climb straight up the middle instead of all over the place with some traversing and also we were exposed to the hot sun almost the whole time. It was about 2pm at this point. I never thought I would say this but I missed those briars!
Unless you have done this course, or something like it (is there anything else like this?) I really cannot do it justice trying to explain how hard this is. Imagine something so steep you are completely bent over, or crawling on all fours. We would go 10 steps or so, then bend over on a log, or your hand, sit, or even lay down, and rest to let our heart rate and breathing come down.
Then do it again.
Met and bonded with some cool people on this climb. The funniest comment from the men was “our wives really are right, we are down right stupid. We paid for this, drove hours to be here.”
My only consolation was that, at this point, I knew there was no chance I would make the 9.5 hour cut off to determine if you got a “marathon” finish or went on to attempt the “50k”. In 2014 I felt great up until the last climb: Chimney Top, and I knew I wouldn’t have to do it this year – I almost dropped with 3 miles to go that climb hurt me so badly. To give you an idea on the difference between this year and the first year we did it, I hit the time cut off at about 8.5 hours in 2014. This year I was at 10:40! And I felt like I was in better shape this year!
Anyway, somehow we made it to the top of this climb and I told myself I would just hike the remaining (mostly downhill) to the finish.
I actually ended up feeling better once the sun went down so I ran a good bit and felt SO good to finish! Around 11 hours to do a “marathon”.
You do the math on THAT pace per mile! Factor in the mile of Rat Jaw took about 100 minutes!
I was SO hungry I ate a steak sandwich and drank 3 Mtn Dews in less than 2 minutes after the finish.
Both Underwear Boy (decided to let you all figure that one out) and OCD finished the “50k”, hats off to them (only 37% of the starters finished the “50k”). Very proud of those guys.
Biggest take aways from this day.
1. Hardest endurance event in my 25 years of competing. Including Ironman, 100 miler, Georgia Death Race, etc. Nothing compares. You HAVE to experience it to understand.
2. Cannot imagine the people who attempt (and even more so the 14 that have finished the FULL Barkley): 5 loops of a harder course, no aid, no course markings, no support, only 40 people in the race. They. Are. NOT. Human.
3. Swore off Frozen Head State Park (for now). No desire to go back. One “50k” finish and one “marathon” experience are enough for me.
4. Laz is a cruel, cruel man.
2016 Barkley Fall Classic
324 brave souls started
132 marathon finishers
119 50k finishers