This post was originally featured on Amelia’s blog Race Ipsa Loquitur here.
My training log entry the day before the 2018 Barkley Marathons read: “Once that cigarette is lit, I’m going to race my little brains out. Give it all my all, and give it hell.”
I’ve never been one to write race reports, but then again, I’ve never raced something like the Barkley Marathons. I’ve spent the past week trying to wrap my head around my experience, and hoping to find the words to convey its enormity. Just like so many things in life, I realize that I’m never going to be able to do it justice through my words, so this is the best you’re going to get.
So sit back, grab your MoonPie and RC Cola, and prepare for a novel (brevity has never been my strong suit, especially here). It’s broken up into chunks, so feel free to navigate to what interests you – there’s an account of my prep, of the race itself, along with my reflections, and then the very end contains gear/lessons and bullet points for those of you (wise ones!) who just want the bullet points nitty gritty.
From the very moment I received my condolences and my heart rate returned to normal, the race loomed over everything I did for the next few months, an unspoken adventure to be had. I pivoted my training immediately after Sean O’Brien 100k, but that still gave me less than two months to take a crash course in everything Barkley, from map & compass courses to land nav skills to a focus on vert. An under the radar trip to Frozen Head in February made clear to me how different this terrain is than what I’m used to in California (NB: you can run on the trails, and ONLY the trails, so it’s of limited use, but I felt it was necessary to at least get a feel for the park, the layout, and some major landmarks).
But I was thriving in a new challenge, in focusing on getting as much vert as possible, and of the fun little secretive nature of it all. (staying mum about it, especially as a virgin, is an unwritten tradition). As I told my coach, this race was solely for me. Not for others, not for sponsors, just for me and my desire to rediscover my original path into racing. It was sheer stupid for the sake of stupid, and I loved that.
But as the race date drew near, the fun and novelty of training began to be replaced by very real self-doubt and panic that I wasn’t prepared, nor that I had any business of even attempting the Barkley. I kept finding every reason I had why this was a poor idea: I had only been back running for a year. I had just run my first 100k in over two years just a month ago, and it wasn’t exactly a smashing success. I didn’t have the time on feet necessary to do well given my recent return from injury. But for every chirp of self-doubt, I reminded myself that the last time I felt this outside of my comfort zone was before the first World’s Toughest Mudder in 2011 (and that ended up being a pretty decent life-changing event). As nerves swelled, I repeated to myself the mantra that “this is where the magic happens.” Yet I continued to vacillate between absolute self-doubt and fear, and extreme excitement. Connecting with fellow Barkers before the race helped immensely with the nerves (especially my partner in crime, the amazingly awesome Maggie Guterl), but as I rolled into Frozen Head the few days before the race, I was losing a battle with the rising tide of nerves and self-doubt.
I arrived in Tennessee just as it began snowing, with the sole thought of “well, at least the snow will break my fall.” A hike up to Chimney Top on Wednesday confirmed the depth of it, as did all the other pictures that other Barkers began posted. On Thursday, more folks started rolling into camp. Barkley is an odd duck – I’ve never been asked “are you a virgin?” so many times before in my life. To ease my nerves, I joked that I hadn’t been asked that since I was 16. I finally had the opportunity to meet fellow attorney Stephanie Case, and we bonded over the fact that we shared the same goal to “make it back to camp alive.”
Not sure if she was kidding, but I wasn’t.
Nerves were at an all-time high, but a strange thing happened on Friday when we checked in and got the directions and the map. I suddenly became focused and clear. I was in it, this was happening, and I was ready. While I barely slept in the back of my rental minivan the night before, I felt an odd peace rising the next morning. And when the conch blew at 8:33am, it was game time.
The lighting of the cigarette, and we were off. Many veterans warned me that the start of the race is frantic and stressful, as everyone converges on the first Book, attempting to hang with the veterans for as long as possible. Ascending to the first Book, I felt confident about my pace, hanging out in the front. But after grabbing the first page and starting the first descent, a sobering dose of reality set in: I may be able to climb with the big boys, but technical off-trail descending is not my forte.
Within minutes, the lead pack was out of sight.
Stifling the rising sense of panic, I focused on finding my way to the next book, determined to not get caught in a no man’s land by myself. As we climbed out of Book 2, I realized that I was gaining on folks, and able to make up lost ground from my slow descending – such would be the story of the next 30 hours for me. Shortly after Book 2, I ended up catching up with fellow virgin John Burton and veteran Jodi Isenor, and the three of us worked our way through the course for the next several hours. I’m forever indebted and grateful to Jodi for being such an incredible teacher out there. As long as you can keep up, it’s quite easy (but entirely unhelpful to you in future loops or years) to blindly follow a veteran and shut off your brain. But Jodi made a point to make sure John and I were checking our bearings, and noticing certain landmarks along the way, especially for when to take certain turns on the reverse loop. I made as many mental notes as possible (whether or not I retained most of them remains to be seen). Jodi is a phenomenal navigator, and we hit perfect lines through Stallion and lots of the traditionally confusing part of the course (let’s be honest, as a virgin, it’s ALL confusing). As we approached Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw, I remember breathing a sigh of relief, thinking “phew – this is the part that everyone says is easy.”
Famous last words.
Perhaps it’s easy in that the grade isn’t as steep, and navigation isn’t an issue, but I don’t think any of us were expecting the mud and slick conditions. Climbing Testicle ended up more of a crawl at points, with traction impossible to come by. Many internet commentators told me that obstacle racing would do no good for me at Barkley. I’d agree, but it did teach me that if you can’t get traction, hands and knees is the way to go. So as poles proved useless, I resorted to a (literal) crawl. “Perhaps,” I thought, “Rat Jaw will be better. The saw briars will provide traction.”
You know condition are bad when you prefer to go through the saw briars than the well-worn mud trail.
I’ve been told that looking up at Rat Jaw is a super intimidating. Fortunately, the fog made it so I could only see about 20 feet in front of my face, so the intimidation was going to have to wait for another day. The one redeeming quality of Rat Jaw is it’s the one out and back place where you can pass by runners on the same loop. As we climbed and crawled our way up, figures started to emerge from the fog. Gary, Guillaume, Ally, Jamil – all flying down the mountain. Given the turnaround, by my estimates they were about 45 minutes ahead of us at that point, which, not going to lie, pretty much made me pee my pants with excitement. I knew that meant we were moving solidly, and on track for a 9ish hour loop. Visions of 5 loops danced in my head. And it was here I realized that I had been having a blast the entire time – true Type I fun, and I couldn’t wait to get that first loop in the books.
After seeing friendly cheering faces at the tower, we proceeded to head back down Rat Jaw, and I proceeded to turn it into Amelia’s Buttslide. But it didn’t matter, because I was all smiles and feeling great.
But, as I learned, at Barkley – everything can change in an instant.
And that instant happened when John took a bad spill down Rat Jaw and I then took a spill under the prison, and we lost Jodi. Suddenly, it was two virgins alone in the woods, with some tricky book placements coming up. But I had my map, I had my cheat sheet with all my bearings I drew up the night before, and I had my compass, and we made our way.
Suddenly, the course became frustrating, as we wasted an hour searching for the next Book. Tick…tock. We were in the right spot, but the heavy rains and fog began to roll in. I was soaked through from head to toe from the prison spill, and in that instant, I realized how one error can cost you an entire race.
We managed to find that Book, and the next two, albeit much more slower, and with more navigational mistakes. But the funny thing is that admidst that frustration of losing Jodi, a new feeling began to emerge – a feeling of competence. I was shooting bearings, and they were accurate. I was getting to the right spots, just fumbling around rocks and trees and the like for the actual books. And while we lost an hour and half searching, as we ran down Chimney Top after grabbing that last page of the last Book, I felt more empowered and competent and capable that I ever have in my entire life.
John and I rolled up to the gate, finishing Loop 1 in 10:57, all smiles. “Fun course you got out there, Laz,” I told him, and he told me I was the first woman in, and still on 100 mile pace. Of course, Jodi had finished the first loop in 9:20, so the error of that one spill, one mistake, proved to be a big one in terms of time.
The following two videos are post-Loop 1, handing Laz our pages (courtesy of Irun4ultra).
“You’re probably not going to break 50, but you can still bust the course record”
After rolling up to the gates, we realized that all veterans were back out on Loop 2, so there was really no option other than two virgins going out into the woods alone, at night. “It’s ok,” I thought, “we can handle this.”
Then, the skies opened.
After 20 minutes in camp, switching into dry clothes, taping toes with Rocktape, and getting some words of encouragement from the amazing Linda Robbins, John and I headed out in the pouring rain, dark and blinding fog, knowing that the task at hand was formidable, but thankful for the great guidance of Jodi the first lap who also made sure that we were taking notes ourselves. God knows we needed them now. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be very long until we came to a standstill – in the storm, the exact location of the first Book eluded us (which is rather embarrassing to admit considering we were just there a few hours before). We searched. And searched. And turned around in circles.
5 loops slipped away.
“ok, Fun Run it is” I murmured to myself.
At this point, our best bet was to hope that someone else came up the trail to help us look. I knew that Maggie Guterl would be coming out again, and after about an hour, she showed up with Eoin Keith: honestly, I’ve never been so excited to see someone. Eoin helped us find the first Book, and we set off, a team of 4 virgins, focusing on our compass bearings, as eyesight and landmarks were useless at this point.
Two books later, we see a headlamp in the distance as we climbed towards a peak. Jamil had been at the third Book, searching for several hours. The five of us combed the location, and, getting frustrated, I turned to find a bit of shelter to pee. And in front of me, there was the book, shoved in the crevice. (note to self: one win for navigational peeing).
We continued on through the dark and the rain, descending down towards the prison, which had now turned into Class 3 rapids (for excellent footage of this, check out Jamil’s video).
And, around sunrise and halfway through the loop, reality began to set in that we going to miss the cut off. This, actually, was news to me. I was under the impression that there was no cut off for the second lap, just a 40 hour cut off for a Fun Run. In my mind, even if we did an 18 hour lap and came in at 30 hours, we wouldn’t be “timed out.” (my lawyer brain was building up arguments to Laz that a 10 hour third lap was TOTALLY doable…totally). But Jamil broke the news that it’s 13:20 per loop, so we were going to miss the 26:40 cut off.
The funny thing is that not a single one of us questioned whether we should go on and complete the lap. We were about as far away as you could get from camp, daylight was breaking, this would be an amazing way to see and learn the rest of the course in a counterclockwise direction, and dammit – none of us were going to be quitters.
So we trudged onward, knowing our fate, but making the best of it. And honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better, or more fun, second loop. At this point, I must mention how grateful I am to Jamil, who graciously played “tour guide” to us virgins. I have no doubt in my mind that he could have taken off once we helped him locate that third Book – he’s much stronger than us, and we encouraged him to do so. But he hung with us, teaching along the way.
30 hours in, I nailed the last book location (thanks for making me nav, Jamil!) and the 5 of us trotted down Bird, touching the gate together. I did try a brief moment of convincing Laz to let me go for a Fun Run…that got shot down quickly.
That second loop wouldn’t count in the Barkley record books, but it counted in mine.
It didn’t feel like a DNF – it felt like a victory. A hard-fought victory, defeating the self-doubt demons I wrestled with leading up to the race. And there was no sadness when taps played (sorry I was a bit too giddy…), because in place of sadness, it was a newfound feeling of self-confidence. The fire was lit, and it was time to fan those flames.
For those of you who know me, my favorite thing in the entire world is a post-race shower. More accurately, sitting down in a post-race shower. And a campground shower definitely wasn’t going to stop me from doing that. So I took my Sufferfest beer I smuggled all the way from California, and sat my butt down in that campground shower next to a cockroach, and started to let things sink in. Such as the fact that there were so few folks left out on the course, and we were only 30 hours in (Gary and Guillaume on Loop 3, and Steph and Gab doing Loop 2). The chatter that this was perhaps the worst conditions and weather Barkley has ever seen (I don’t think I appreciated that at the time). How many strong veterans even failed to finish Loop 2. And honestly, how much fun I had out there. I came into this race, fully expecting Type II fun from start to finish, but it was genuinely, legitimately, Type I. How many Barkers can say that?
And as we gathered around the campfire as night fell, and I proceeded to shove every piece of food into my mouth I possibly could (a trend that continued for the next week…whoops, still is!), I told myself I would give myself a few days before I answered the question “will you come back?”
But I already knew the answer.
The journey through self-doubt is one worth taking
It’s been a long time since I’ve truly pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. I’ve been very fortunate in that I haven’t “failed” at a lot in life. As we approached Barkley, I realized that the last time I confronted the overwhelming possibility of failure was at World’s Toughest Mudder 2011. But I didn’t fail at that. And for the last 7 years, while it may look like I was taking on gnarly races through World’s Toughest Mudder and Death Races and Spartan, they were all familiar, and well within my comfort zone.
Barkley was far, FAR from my comfort zone. But as I’ve preached, the more something scares you, the more you should run towards it. I spent the months leading up to Barkley swimming in a feeling that I was in over my head, which simultaneously scared me and invigorated me. For the first time, I had to swallow the very real fact that 99% of people fail at this race (mostly, just no one wants to be “that person lost out in the woods”). And while I generally don’t believe in results-oriented goals for much of anything in life, Barkley is definitely a race where they don’t work (at least not the first attempt).
The more I reflected, the more I realized the entire Barkley process was a journey to rediscovering myself. To heading back to my roots, of where I started in racing, and doing really hard and semi-stupid stuff simply for the love of it. No prize purses, no TV cameras, and the only reward for finishing is that you don’t have to go out for another loop (hence the advent of the #bringingstupidback hashtag)
As odd as it sounds, once I lined up at that yellow gate, waiting for the cigarette to be lit, I knew the hardest part was over – I had overcome the self-doubt that would make it so easy to just never try in the first place. By giving myself the permission to try, I could not fail.
Confidence can spring from failure
The weeks before Barkley, I doubted what I was getting myself into: I had just started to rebuild confidence as an athlete after a year on the sidelines from injury, and a topsy-turvy frustrating year of rebuilding, and I was just starting to feel strong and run well again. I doubted that tackling a race that has a 99% failure rate was a wise move, or that I was ready for it. And I started to fear that an attempt at Barkley would destroy whatever confidence I had started to build.
But as illogical as it sounds, the reverse happened: my failure at Barkley left me feeling more confident in myself than I’ve ever been. Confident as an athlete, and confident as a person. Confident that my body is not broken, confident that I’m strong, and confident that I can hang with the best. While I might have failed to live up to the expectations Laz had for the “year of the woman,” I’m at peace knowing that I gave everything I could and left it all out on the course in those conditions, and knowing that I’m capable of more.
That’s not to say that I’m satisfied.
The entire experience out there lit a fire. I couldn’t sleep the night after my race ended, so I sat in my minivan pouring over the course directions and map while it was still fresh in my mind, writing down everything I could remember. “Out There” exposed my weaknesses, and I’m giddy with the thought of tackling those.
Many people opine on whether a woman can finish Barkley. I believe one can, but it’s going to take a ballsy run. Those same people ask me whether I think I can finish. I think John Kelly said it best to me the other day: “I don’t know that you can. But I don’t know that you CAN’T. And that’s the best that can be said of anyone at Barkley.”
He’s right. It takes the perfect lightning strike of EVERYTHING going right in a race where there are so many variables. One mistake – navigational, gear, nutrition – can derail you in this race where there is no margin for error. And that doesn’t count the factors that are beyond your control – weather, start time, course conditions, wild dogs (asked Guillaume about that one).
So I tip my hat to you, Laz, and the Barkley course. You won. But that doesn’t mean I lost. I gained confidence, peace, trust in my body, and a new purpose. And damn straight – that’s where the magic happens. You better believe I’ll be carrying those in my arsenal if given the opportunity to face the Barkley Marathons again.
Failure is how you define it. And it’s never final.
EPILOGUE, SHOUT OUT, THANKS
Hands down, Barkley was by far the hardest race I’ve ever taken on, and I’m forever grateful to be given that opportunity, especially knowing how hard it is to gain acceptance now. I had been expecting the difficulty, but it’s impossible to grasp that until you experience it. While yes, you move much slower than a “regular” ultra, the combination of 40% grade ascents/descents, off-trail technical terrain, and navigational prowess takes a different kind of athlete. You can’t just shut your brain off and run. You have to use your brain constantly, not just for navigation, but to be able to keep your cool WHEN things go wrong. Because they will. Many folks don’t have that capacity to right the sinking ship – those who do well at Barkley do. And for that unique combination of reasons, I fully believe Barkley finishers are some of the best athletes out there. Utmost respect to all finishers, and those that I know have that finish in them (especially Gary, Guillaume, Johan, Jamil, Jodi) – not a matter of if, but when.
First and foremost, a huge thank you to my crew, Chris Hanlon. We’d never met before, yet he flew cross-country to spent a week in the woods, and was absolutely incredible. And to coach David Roche -– thank you for indulging me in my adventures and supporting me along the way.
To my sponsors – HumanN, RockTape, Ultimate Direction, Sufferfest Beer, Reebok. Thank you for being so supportive even though I told you I couldn’t talk about this or announce it – I realize that’s a sponsor’s worst nightmare. And to Premiere Spine and Sports and Dr. Justin Brink for getting me to that start line healthy.
To my fellow 2018 competitors – so great to share adventures with you. To the veterans who were so kind in sharing words of wisdom – John Kelly, Gary Robbins, Jamil Coury, Jodi Isenor, Johan Steene. To my fellow virgins, especially my lovely ladies Maggie Guterl and Steph Case, and to John Burton, who is way faster than me, but graciously stayed with me.
To the old timers sharing stories around the fire. To the fellow women of Barkley out there. To Keith Dunn, our fearless Tweeter (and lover of musical theatre!) And, of course, to Laz: that’s a fun course you’ve got out there.
STATS (completely entirely 100% accurate based on my Timex Walmart watch that stopped working after Loop 1)
- 26 miles per loop
- 15,000 ft of climbing per loop
- Pre-race Pop-Tart flavor: Cinnamon Roll
- Song on repeat (only in my head): Bishop Brigg’s “White Flag”
- Hashtag: #bringingstupidback
THINGS THAT DID NOT WORK WELL/LESSONS LEARNED
- I broke my thumb a few weeks prior to Barkley. Using poles with a broken thumb is a bitch and a half.
- Speaking of poles, this was the first time I’ve ever raced with them. I should have probably done something shorter than a 30 hour effort for a first go around.
- Waist lights are life savers for the fog. I did not have one.
- Work. On. Technical Descending. Self-preservation has to go out the window on this one.
- Trails in California are horrendous training for this – well-groomed, no roots or rocks, with grades that top out at 15-20%. I figured that out way too late this year.
- Trying to rest against saplings that can’t hold your weight (that never ends up well…)
THINGS THAT WORKED WELL
- Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta (plenty of capacity, held up well among briars)
- Rocktape H20 – preventively taped around my toes to guard against blisters and maceration, and no issues
- Injinji compression socks with thin wool liner socks over – I solely run in Injinjis, and have for years, but added the wool liner. No blisters, no maceration, feet never got cold.
- BeetElite before (and interloopal!); beer after
- Moxie Gear Shin Gators: everyone was jealous of my briar whacking shields
- BleggMitts: I have a history of frostbite in my fingers, so my hands get cold very easily, especially when wet. We use BleggMitts for OCR, but they worked beautifully here. And held up really well! Hands only got cold for one brief moment.
- Upper body strength: Gary pointed out to me before the race that he thought my upper body strength from OCR would be key in this race, and I agree. The amount of scrambling and climbing you have to do taxes the upper body (in fact, my upper body was MORE sore than my lower body).
- When traction fails, crawling on hands and knees (thanks OCR for making me proficient there!)
- Compression base layer with wool mid-layer. Goretex jacket during rains. Extra packs of Handwarmers.
- Eating real food – the calorie deficient out there is real. Bizzy coffee shots for caffeine (though I only needed one…it was only a 30 hour race?)
- I’ve heard Barkley naysayers chatter about how if a “top” ultrarunner showed up, one who was super fast, they’d just crush it. And that the reason that so few athletes finish is that because no “real” athletes show up. False. False. False. False. I do believe speed is necessary and helpful, but speed alone isn’t going to help you.
- I swore that if I was in a bad patch, I was going to yell out “THIS IS FUCKING AWESOME” every few minutes. Luckily, I never needed to use it. Because it was awesome (ya can’t stop me from having fun, Laz)