Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Barkley Fall Classic- Escape From the Hole: Survival First

I feel a bit like a kid who has just put his hand on hot stove for the SECOND time. You know, that kid who wandered up to a stove burner and curiously grabbed it to see what would happen. The kind of kid who, after his hand has healed, sees a stove burner again and decides to grab it a second time to see what would happen. Only this time it was a gas stove instead of just an electric burner. That’s how I would describe running the Barkley Fall Classic for a second time. But, I am getting ahead of myself here, so let me back up.

I did the Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) last year. It's the training wheels version of the Barkley Marathons, which is an epic 100 mile (plus?) race put on by the King of Suffering Gary Cantrell aka Lazarus Lake. That race is a PhD in suffering that only 14 people (I think that's accurate) have actually completed since the race began back in 1986. Many years, like this year, no one actually finishes the race. It's a race so hard that the world's most experienced ultra runners vie for spots in knowing that simply completing a single lap on the course would be a serious accomplishment. The race is 5 loops. Here's a link to a cool documentary about the Barkley Marathons

Last year, Laz and Steve Durbin managed to get permission from the officials at Frozen Head State Park to run a short version of the race that allows up to 300 people to toe the line and get a glimpse of the Real Barkley. This race is called the Barkley Fall classic-- or BFC-- and it's a fundraiser of the park and the local schools. It's a great cause and the community does a great job of supporting the event. Athletes from the local school, their families, and other folks from the area volunteer on the course and they are amazing.

I've had a morbid facinaction with The Barkely for years now, so I happily threw my hat in the ring last year for the Fall Classic. I completed the BFC last year in 12 hours and 14 minutes. You have 13 hours and 20 minutes to complete the course, which sounds totally do-able. Easy even. If it wasn't a Barkley event. It was billed as a 50K, but most people agreed was around 35 miles with about 10K in gain. It sounds reasonable. It's not. 

I never imagined a race of that length could push me to such depths of pain and effort to complete. I felt that running it was harder the 100s I've run because so much of the race requires you to stare failure in the face. It's not just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until the trail leads you to the finish. The trail is often non-existent, and you have to find your own way in many places. You have to navigate and push on when all your sense and reason says: "This is stupid. Go home and have a day on the couch." But, I persevered, finished, and (even though I LOVED it) I planned avoid that race in the future.

Until fellow bad idea aficionado Josh talked me into going back with him this year. I talked Royce into it, and we joined forces with Josh's buddy Joe and went over to Frozen Head to dance with the Devil again this weekend.

We arrived in Oak Ridge, TN Friday afternoon in time to check into a hotel, hit packet pick up, and eat the last meal of the condemned. We prepped our gear and went to bed early. When the alarm went off at 5, we ate some breakfast and drove over to Frozen Head so we could embark on this wonderfully terrible idea. 

The sun was just starting to illuminate the dark field where the race begins as we made our way to the start line in time to get a good spot near the front of the pack. There was nervous chatter as we all waited for Laz to light his cigarette, which is how he likes to signal the start of the race.

The first part of the race is an easy mile on the road where you pass through the campground and hit the Yellow Gate where the Big Boy Barkley loop begins. The BFC gives you little tastes of the REAL Barkley. Just little ones, mind you. After getting some encouragement from the VT Ultra crew who showed up to watch the show, Josh, Joe, Royce, and I powered up the first climbs staying near the front of the pack and keeping our heart rates in check. We needed to bank time here to make up for the crazy climbs later in the day. I took the lead and tried to measure out our effort based on my recollection from last year. Just enough to bank time without going into the red. 

The first climbs are really just appetizers for the real part of the race, which began after we climbed Deja Vu Hill and headed off towards an interesting out and back called "Testicle Spectacle". We had stayed mostly together though the first few hours of the race, but we lost contact with Josh just before the "Spectacle" decent and climb. Joe, Royce, and I went down the first pitch of what felt like a double black diamond ski hill covered in briars, and we could see the leaders way off in the distance at the bottom where they looked like little ants on a hill. We all thought: Ugh! We have to get to the bottom (fighting our way through briars since there is not real trail here) and then retrace our steps up this insane climb?! Of course we do.

We had to do it all of that knowing that this was not the hardest climb of the day. Our trip down and back up "Testicle Spectacle" was hard. It was hot, slippery, and required some serious scrambling though the briars, but we made it.
Note: that this section replaced a much easier out and back climb from last year's course. 

After we got back to the top, we had a nice trip down "Meth Lab Hill" which brought us to the old Brushy Mtn Prison. Much of this section (Not Meth Lab, of course) was an oddly runnable section that I suspect Laz and Steve included to give the field a fighting chance at finishing. You have to be able run fast somewhere to make it ahead of the cut offs. I was grateful for this chance to bank some time. The prison came into view. It's eerie- even in the daylight- and spectacular. I can't imagine coming into this place on a cold, foggy night like you have to do several times during the REAL Barkley.

Once there, we ran through the actual prison checking out the cells, we got our bibs punched when we made our way down into "The Hole" which was a dank solitary confinement cell. Pictured below is just a normal cell on the tour. There was no light in The Hole. 

After leaving the prison, we got to experience ALL of the Rat Jaw climb. Last year we only did the final two pitches of it. This climb was insane. Seriously. I'm not kidding. It is truly Epic in it's steepness. You literally had to kick steps into the dirt to scramble your way up the first 25 feet. 

If I remember correctly the bottom of the pitch is called "gunnysack hill" because you look like you climbed out of a gunny sack filled with cats when you emerge onto the road at the top of the hill. I have the cuts on my arms and legs that prove that description to be an accurate one. I'm serious. At work on Monday morning a colleague looked at my arms as I sat down in a meeting and said: "Did your cat do that?" I smiled sheepishly and said, "Nah, I had a race this weekend." I am fairly certain they think I'm a few eggs short of a dozen. They're not wrong. 

Anyway, back to Rat Jaw. Joe and I lost contact with Royce on the 2nd pitch up the climb. This climb requires you to just move as fast as you can. It was hot and water is at a premium. You want to get out of the sun (it's very exposed and humid because you're tunneling through briars), so we knew we might get split up. I had made sure that Josh, Royce, and Joe knew the key navigation moves required to find the top of the mountain, so splitting up was all good at this point. 

When Joe and I reached the top, we got our bibs punched at the top of the Fire Tower, and then pushed on towards the mile "22" (not really. I can read a map and it's longer than 22 but that's the beauty of this race. Mileage doesn't matter. It's all relative anyway). Joe and I still had dreams of a sub 10 hour finish at this point, and we ran hard to get to the start of the final loop on the Chimney Top Trail, which holds the final climbs of the day. I stopped to grab my trekking poles out of my drop bag (so kind of Steve and Laz to allow this) and put on some dry socks. This stop meant I lost contact with Joe here. He would have dropped me anyway because I was feeling like I was going to throw up and needed to slow down to recover a bit on the climb. I dug deep and got myself right again by eating slowly and forcing myself to drink some more tailwind as I worked my way up the climb. The 10 hour goal was slipping away, but I was resolute to finish this thing in under 11 hours. Heck, I knew just finishing would be an accomplishment. The finish rate last year was like 50%. 

I pushed on and felt better at Chimney Tops. From there it was just a nice 5 mile trail run back to the finish. I pushed at hard as a I could and managed to make my last mile go very quickly. I ran past Laz at the final aid station and yelled my thanks for another amazing day. (Laz and Steve, if you happen to read this: Thanks for a great event and a chance to see the park again. You put on a top-notch event. Please tell everyone who made it possible that we are grateful.) 

So, how did it turn out for this crew of Bad Idea Club members? We made it. 

Joe finished first and was just a bit over 10 hours for 20th overall. I'm grateful that I had Joe to push me for so much of the race. He's a talented runner, and he did a great job of breaking trail on Rat Jaw.
Then I finished in 22nd place at 10:49. Last year, I was in 115th place at 12:14:55. I'll take it.

As I was recovering, Royce rolled into the finish looking strong. He finished 36th overall at 11:16. Great job, buddy! 

As Royce, Joe, and I were rehashing the race, Josh came rolling in. He looked amazing for someone who had to fight off some dehydration (the serious kind). Josh finished 67th at 12:18. Amazing! Josh is a beast, and he is going to crush Pinhoti this year. 

It was really cool that we all managed to finish. Of the 219 starters only 101 made it to the BFC finish line in under 13:20 minutes. I'm proud of our crew. And this was our reward: 

But, we got WAY MORE than a trinket that shows we were stupid and hard enough to suffer through this race.

We got the satisfaction of staring failure in the face and succeeding. This race is a true test of fitness, resolve, navigation, and dedication. It's also a hell of a lot of fun (the Type 2 kind).

I'm really happy to have cut almost an hour and half off my time from last year, especially because the course was longer and harder than last year. When I finished, Steve Durbin mentioned that folks who finished both years generally took 1 and 10 minutes LONGER on  to complete the course. That makes for a pretty big swing for me in the right direction. I'm really grateful that Ginger has been such a huge help in my efforts to improve as a runner. She's running quite strong these days too, so look for a great result from her at the New River 50K next month. I'm also in debt to all my friends who run with me and push me on a regular basis. I'm mostly just grateful that I have the ability to go out and challenge myself like this and do it with such great friends. 

Will I grab the burner a 3rd time. I'd love to say no. I said no Saturday night. But Frozen Head State Park has a unique pull. Kind of like the Bermuda Triangle. So, who knows? We will see what life brings over the next year, and we can all decide if we want to dance with the devil again and stare into that abyss another time. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Iron Mountain 30 Miler: Burn the Ships

I have been wanting to run Kevin Townsend's Iron Mountain race for the last couple of years, but i just hadn't managed to work it out until this year. I'm really glad I did. Kevin and his merry band of volunteers put on a great race over in Damascus, VA on the Iron Mountain trail. He offers a 16, 30, and 50 mile option. Since I have the Barkley Fall Classic coming up in a couple of weeks (Ouch), I opted for the 30 mile version since I didn't want to burn too many matches so close to a return trip to Frozen Head to dance with the devil (Laz) again this year.

Ginger was doing the 16 miler along with Linda, and fellow Bad Idea Club member Josh was doing the 30 miler with me. Jordan was defending his title in the 50 mile race (He won again! He is a human terminator).

We camped out at Bear Tree Friday night after packet pick up, and then got up Saturday morning to head down to the Start/Finish for check in at 6:45. It was nice morning, and the temps were warm but comfortable. I had taken a couple of days off leading up the race, so my legs felt fresh. I  have been feeling strong since Eastern Divide and have managed a couple of nice, long training runs in the mountains the last few weeks, so I was feeling great about Iron Mtn. My strategy was simple. I was going all in on this one. The mantra for this race: Pack your coffin and burn the ship. For once, I wanted to be as close to the head of a race as I could get. My goal was sub 5 hours and a top 10 finish. I wanted to either get that or explode into a million pieces and at the very least have a very hard effort to prep for the BFC in a couple of weeks.

The race begins with 4ish nice, easy miles on the VA Creeper trail as you head up towards Straight Branch and the access trail to the Iron Mountain trail. Josh and I started at a conservative pace to get warmed up, and then I slowly started ramping it up as we got closer to Straight Branch. Once I got to the top of the Straight Branch climb, I started pushing myself to close the gap as much as I could to the lead group that went out a little faster than Josh and I wanted to go. As I worked my way along the Iron Mtn trail, I moved up through the crowd and managed to catch up with some of the 50 milers who had started 30 minutes before the my race did. (Not Jordan, of course. He was long gone).

I was feeling great, and sticking to my plan of eating a Vespa or gel every 45 minutes and refilling my  hand bottle at each aid station. I went with Tailwind in the hand bottle to get some liquid calories to make sure I stayed topped off. Even though it was warm, I figured one hand bottle would be enough since the longest stretch between aid was 7 miles. I did stash another bottle in my drop bag at the turn around (16 miles) in case this gamble didn't pan out and I was running out of fluid.

I moved quickly through the second aid station, grabbing a couple of PB&J square as the awesome volunteers refilled my bottle for me. I normally try to be self-suffient, but they were so nice that they insisted on filling it for me. Then, I took off toward the turn around. Coming into the last two miles on the out, the leader flew past me on the return trip. He was quickly followed by Leif (one of the amazing vast VT Ultra guys). I kept counting runners who were in front of me. I reached the turn around in 8th place. So far, my strategy was paying off. When I came in, Hannah and Jonathan were at the aid station cheering on all the VT runners and they were such a huge help fixing me up with more tailwind in my hand bottle and getting me back out on the course in less than a minute. It was a fast aid stop, which I was grateful for when I started back towards the Finish line and was able to see that I was only a couple of minutes in front of the 9-11 place runners.

Being content with 8th place was not in the plans. I wanted to push this race as hard as I could, so I kept repeating the mantra and pushing as hard as I could. Truth be told, I was thinking of trying to finish in 4:45 instead of just sub-5. At this point, it was a stretch, but possible, so I kept hammering. Around mile 20, I passed the guy who had been in front of me. As I caught him, I ran with him for a few minutes, chatting and sharing encouragement, and then when I had recovered a bit I started pushing to put some time into him and make sure he couldn't catch me right back up.

I started to flag a bit on the final climb before the aid station around mile 22. I looked at my watch and saw that I was moving too slowly. I started playing the mind games: Is someone coming from behind? Am I going to lose a spot. I knew Joey Turner (another local guy in my age group whose time in his previous races I'd used a gauge to know what would get me top 10) was only a few minutes behind at the turn around. Instead of focusing who was behind, I reminded myself that you can only move up if you focus on who is in front of you-- not who is behind you, so I picked up the pace. When in doubt, pin it. So I did.

The last aid station was another blur as the volunteers (thanks, Tammy and the crew) helped me quickly get though the aid. I slammed a cup of Mtn Dew, a coke, and grabbed a few PB&J squares and a banana and took off again. When I got back to the Straight Branch junction, I grabbed a water jug from the stash there and topped off my hand bottle. Sub 5 was looking possible. Sub 4:45 was slipping away, but I kept racing like it was still a possibility. My strategy with time hacks is to run like they are possible until they actually pass. It seems to work really well.

When I got to the final decent, which is a two mile section that is crazy steep and littered with baby skulls, I just kept pushing as hard as I could. Finally, I got through that section, still feeling strong, and hit the last mile marker that appears when you hit the pavement and leave the woods. 1 mile to go. I had 7 minutes and change to cover that last mile if I wanted to get in under sub 5. At that point, I just decided to run as hard as I possible could. I gave it all I had. I snuck a glance at my watch. The pace: 6:35. But, sub 5 was right there for the taking, so I dug deep and took it.

I came into the finish at 4:59:34. 7th place. I made it. And not without the help my awesome VT Ultra friends and the great volunteers. My aid station time for the race was 3 minutes. I could not have done that without the help, so thank you so much!

Here's a link to the Stava data if you want to see the course. Note: my Garmin consistently reads short on mileage:

It felt great to achieve the goal and have a great race. I owe Ginger a great debt for helping me train and for making sure that we have been eating so healthy lately. Her support is so important to me and I am so grateful.

I also am really grateful to my friends (like Jordan, Brett, Royce, Josh, and the whole BBurg crew) for pushing me to get faster. The VT Ultra crowd has been such an inspiration and has really made me have new love for racing.

Ginger had a great race in the 16 miler and she came in 7th female. She is a beast! She is such a great runner and the worlds most awesome wife. She got me registered for Umstead when she finished!!! She rocks!

It was another fun weekend, and I (as always) feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have such a great family and amazing friends. Now, it's time to get back to work, finish prepping for the BFC over in Frozen Head, and continue enjoying life.