Monday, October 7, 2019

La Gira de Lázarus (BFC 50K)

Early on at the BFC...before the 'real' climbs.
(photo credits - Misty Wong, Curtis Baker, and me)

In the Spring of 2014, Laz posted somewhere online that he would be starting a new race in the Fall. This race would be an homage to the Barkley Marathons, only much shorter. He had been toying with the idea of trying to set up a "Baby Barkley" for a while, in order to give folks out there who have always been curious about Barkley, a chance to tackle Frozen Head on a more reasonable scale. The whole idea of an event like this would be to give runners a "taste" of what the Big Barkley is like. 

So...that Spring, he announced with glee the first ever Barkley Fall Classic 50k. The event would be "About 50k", and feature the marked trails in Frozen Head. He even was able to acquire permission to allow the course to use Rat Jaw and the Spectacle since they are simply power-line cuts. Being a Laz race, and a little brother to the Big Barkley, I eagerly signed up. Having just completed (barely) a Fun Run a few weeks prior at the Big event, prior to the BFC announcement, I felt like doing a loop around the park on trails would be a nice change of pace and a great way to spend a day at Frozen Head.

But then, my dissertation defense happened that Summer and my training went to zero. Ultimately, I pulled my name from the start list and figured I'd sign up again the next year. 

In 2015 though, I started a new job and couldn't swing it. Then 2016 went by, and 2017...

In 2018 I agreed to come to the event simply to punch bib numbers, but even that ended up conflicting with my work calendar.

So this year, I finally made the decision to register and hopefully run (if Laz was willing to let me in). When I got the acceptance email, I told myself that nothing was going to keep me away. I had decided some time back that I wanted to participate in (and hopefully finish) every one of Laz's events at least once. A grand "Lazarus Tour" as it were.

But then....I learned that I'd be starting a new job in August...again.  I wasn't going to let that stop me this time though, despite the very likely drop in training. In addition, Laz had asked if I would speak at the pre-race dinner about my experience at Barkley.

So....on to the quick race report...

For those asking about how the "Little Barkley" compares to the "Big Barkley"....well I'd say this. You definitely are getting a taste of what the Big Barkley is like with the climbing and exaggerated loop length. Add in the Spectacle and Rat Jaw climbs and you are getting a really good taste of the course. I actually think even with the off-trail and more rigorous climbs of the "Big Barkley", that one loop at the BFC actually takes longer than one loop at the big dance. This is most definitely due to the much longer loop, but I think that balances the difficulty out. In other words, I think if you finished a loop at the BFC under the limit, you probably could finish a loop at the Big Barkley under the limit too from a physical fitness perspective, and assuming you don't have any navigation or weather issues (big assumptions). I was ridiculously undertrained for the BFC and managed to squeak in with a time of 12hrs 38mins. I think had I been peak "Barkley Trained", I probably still would have taken 10+ hours to cross the line.

Am I glad I did the BFC? Heck yeah. It was really awesome being out in the park running a true event on the beautiful trails of Frozen Head. I had trained a lot on those trails, and had always wanted to run an actual event on them. Unfortunately, most of the Barkley course is off-trail. I will say that when I hit the point on the BFC course where we started doing the Spectacle and Rat Jaw, in the middle of the hot/sunny afternoon, I remembered just why I came to the decision I did back in 2016 during my last genuine running of the Barkley. I ultimately decided that there was nothing left to "find" out there for me....and no new "pain to endure".

Here is what I wrote to my friends on the Barkley Email List after my 2016 attempt:

Honestly for me, it has become so much more about the people and Barkley family, than about the course itself.  I have chosen not to write a race report for this year, but if I had to share one sentiment, it’s that I came to a point on loop 2 where I was sat down on the trail, looking up at the stars for what seemed like hours, and came to the realization that whatever it is that I had been looking for “out there” for the past 5 years, I had found, and that I was content to walk back to camp with a smile.  There is no way I could possibly verbalize this sentiment and emotion accurately in words (which is why the race report was never written), but I will say that it truly felt like an epiphany of sorts, and a true closing my chapter. The Barkley is a special event, and Frozen Head is a magical place. I think in the end though, it’s the people and their stories that make it what it is.

So, with this said, I went into the BFC this year with only two simple have a good time, and to reminisce. Sure I wanted to check off another one of "Laz's Races", but that was most certainly not my primary motivator. I ran a couple of local races in Flagstaff to prepare my legs for some climb (definitely not enough), but otherwise didn't get in much training due to time commitment of my new job.

When the Friday of the BFC came, I hopped on a flight in Flagstaff, and headed to Nashville. Many hours later, and a few bumps along the way, I finally pulled into Wartburg with just a few minutes to prep before my 'Barkley Talk' at the pre-race dinner.

I prepared some slides to show to the runners, but my laptop wouldn't connect to the projector correctly, so I ended up just winging it. I talked about why Barkley and Frozen Head are special to me, and just what sort of mind set you have to be in to make an honest run at the Big Barkley. I talked about my training a lot and then basically just took questions. It was a fun back and forth, but I could also tell runners were getting tired and really just wanted to get rest before the race. I thanked everyone and headed to Oak Ridge and my hotel room.

Meeting fellow BFC-er, Loretta, at the pre-race dinner

I studied the course map and was happy to see we'd be running some fun loops around the park, starting with a really nice clockwise loop around Bird Mountain and the North Boundary Trail. I'd actually get to run DOWN quitters road too! I went to bed fairly quickly and was up the next day on time and eager to have some fun. I didn't have any real breakfast, but thankfully bumped into a friend near the start line with some leftover cupcakes.

I prepped my gear, and just enjoyed the cool morning air before the start.  When the clock hit zero, we were off and I began an easy pace jog down the road towards the campground. The course has about 1.5 miles of wide road that allow runners to jockey into a good position before hitting the single track of Bird Mountain. I was in a great position somewhere near the mid-front of the pack, but had to stop to adjust my pack for about a minute. This significantly cost me placement and led to me dealing with some really serious conga-line slow downs in the first 4-5 miles. The climb up Bird went ok, and generally I was able to pass people when I wanted, but it was still tight. I hadn't realized just how far back that minute-long stop had put me in the group.

After about 45 minutes, I was cresting the top of Bird and heading down the back side. This is where I got a little frustrated. I was stuck behind a group of about 10 runners that wouldn't go around each other, and were running so slowly that I was simply walking behind them. This cost me easily 20 minutes. I kept waiting for a wider part of the trail to politely pass, but it never came. Eventually I did finally get around this group but not until almost at the bottom near Philips Creek. I brushed it off and figured it was probably good anyway as it kept me from running too hard on the descent. 

On the climb up to Jury Ridge, I pushed a bit, but it felt great. I had multiple conversations with various friends including Andy Lang. We probably traded stories for over an hour.  Once I finally crested Jury and made it to the next ridge below Bald Knob, I hopped out on to Quitters road, refueled at the aid station, and began the nice easy run back down to the campground and yellow gate. I realized at the aid station that one 20 oz bottle was probably not going to be enough liquid throughout the day, but there was nothing I could do now. 

Somehow it felt a little wrong to be running down Quitters Road...a part of Frozen Head I made a personal vow to never to tread on due to it's infamous history as the path that most quitters take at Barkley. I wound't even train on quitters road as I considered it bad karma. I had to brush those superstitions aside though and keep telling myself it was ok for the BFC. I was "On Course"!

Crusin' down Quitters Road

After the nice easy descent back down into the campground, the course took us back down the road we initially started on. When we hit the ranger station though, we turned into the woods to start the climb up Chimney Top. I had fond memories in this section thinking back to the finish of my final 5th loop in 2012. I can recall screaming at the Ranger Station to "WAKE UP!" because I was "Coming in!". I refueled again, and ducked into the woods to start the long climb up to Chimney Top. I was never a huge fan of this climb, but I was at least mentally prepared for it. I hooked up with Rob Youngren for this climb and it also brought back some really fond memories from 2012. By the time we hit the steep section near the top, I could tell Rob was starting to pull away from me, so I held back and let him proceed on. He was clearly in better shape than me.

So fast I was a blur! (not really)

Once on the top, I mentally settled in for what I was expecting to be a rather runable section over to the Fire Tower. I had forgotten though just how hilly and annoying that section was. There isn't anything particular difficult about this stretch, it's just hard to get into a rhythm (especially if you aren't well trained). I found myself walking more than I should have in here.

Eventually the trail does open up to more of a jeep road as you near Tubb Springs and the Fire Tower. I was finally able to open up a bit on this stretch and it felt quite relaxing. I knew the next 4-6 miles or so would be some of the easiest of the course, and then the rest of the course would be difficult. I had to savor this mild stretch while I had it.

Running to the Fire Tower

I reached Tubbs Springs, chatted with Laz for a bit, refueled, and started the nice easy jog down to Armes Gap. I have hiked this road dozens of times at various Barkley events in order to see runners at the tower, so I was very familiar with all of the turns and where certain sections were on this stretch. I was able to tune out for a bit...and it was probably the highlight of my day.  This would all change though once I hit Armes Gap. 

At the Gap, I crossed the highway and made my way up the short climb to the top of the Spectacle. The course this year had us descend down the spectacle, only to turn around and climb back up it. As I stood at the top, looking down, a lot of unpleasant memories came back. I remember just how 'not fun' these climbs are. Thankfully, it looked a lot less overgrown than I was expecting and had a very well-defined path down down to the bottom. I suppose I had all of the previous runners to thank for that. Without further hesitation, I put my head down, and plunged into the briar-infested abyss.

The descent actually went incredibly smoothly, and quickly. Even with the steeper sections, and the side-stepping to allow the reverse traffic to move up, I was down to the bottom in under 15 minutes. I stopped briefly to catch my breath and cool off for a bit, and then started the long slog back up. I realized two things at that moment. First, it was really starting to get hot out, and two, I was definitely not trained for these types of climbs. I felt like I was back in my first week of Barkley training. Slow-trudging up steep gradients, bending over every 30 seconds to catch my breath. It was all embarrassingly slow. Any time someone was coming down, I took advantage of the break to allow them to pass (really so I could rest). Eventually I was over the worst of it and finishing of the less steep part near the top. 

When I finally crested, I was relieved at the thought of fun steep slog down Meth Lab Hill...but needed to empty out my shoes of pebbles first.  I went to take of my right shoe, and bent my foot down in the process. This action initiated an immediate and ruthless cramp in my calf. It was horrific and I gasped out in audible pain. My calf seized so hard, that my foot was permanently pointed at the ground and I couldn't lift it. I tried to think if I had taken enough salt, but at this point it didn't matter. I was in an incredible amount of pain and I couldn't get my calf to stop seizing. I tried to sit down but it didn't help. An aid station volunteer came over, grabbed my calf with her hands and aggressively started squeezing it. I yelped in pain, but she kept telling me to just hang tight. I wasn't sure if what she was doing would work, but I lasted as long as I could, grimacing through the pain. Eventually it was too much and I begged her to stop. 

After she pulled away, my calf seemed to have become stable. I was nervous to test it though. Whatever she did, did seem to work out the muscle spasm at the very least. I gingerly put my shoe on and walked around a bit to test it.  Once I was convinced that it would at least remain stable, I started to slowly descend Meth Lab Hill. I forgot how steep it was in spots and in a few locations, slid hard on my backside. Both of my calves were incredibly sensitive and I was doing my best to not aggravate them.

After what seemed like over an hour, I finally found myself entering the town of Petros en route to the Prison at the bottom of the descent. I trotted along the road slowly, really feeling the last few climbs, and now the intense afternoon heat. As confident as I felt all day that I could just "take it easy" and get through the day, I was now realizing that Rat Jaw was going to be awful, and that I was in real risk of not finishing. I was not in a happy place at the moment.

I reached the prison and was happy to see that we actually got to enter the grounds. We ran to the very back wall where a ladder was set up in an effort to re-create the famous James Earl Ray escape. When it was my turn to climb, I could feel my calves already yelling again. I knew Rat Jaw was going to be a shitstorm of misery.

After dropping down from the wall, we walked through the tunnel (which is always fun), and then began the long, brutal climb up the Big Rat....during the absolute hottest part of the day. There's no simple way to say this. It was pure misery. The briars were over 6 feet tall, and in many parts I had to crawl on all fours to avoid a complete butchering. I had forgotten just how long the combined lower Rat and upper Rat climb was (over 2000 feet of gain). Just making the mid-point of Rat Jaw (the part where the famous powerline section starts) seemed to take forever. When I did make it there, nearly out of water, I found over two dozen runners simply laying down...totally exhausted. It was like a war zone. I fought off the enormous temptation to join them, and simply trudged onward. I knew that the upper part of Rat Jaw can be broken into three manageable sections. As long as I was moving, no matter how slowly, I'd be making progress. 

I ticked off each of these three sections rather smoothly, and thought I was in the clear once around the corner and on my way up the much lower-gradient final stretch. Unfortunately, it was in this stretch that the briars were at their worst.  It was terribly slow going, and I suffered greatly. I received many a battle wound.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Mike Dobies randomly standing amongst the briars about 100 meters from the top. Turns out he was punching our bibs for 'Rat Jaw'. He just laughed when he saw me. I probably looked awful. I did finally push on through the final climb and made it the road underneath the tower, only to find the photographer taking pictures. I tried my best to fake a smile, but inside was definitely suffering. I felt some sense of relief knowing that while there were still several climbs left, they would all be on switch-backed trails. My off-trail, briar-infested adventures, were over.

The best part about topping out on Rat Jaw during the BFC is that you still have to climb the stairs up to the top of the Fire Tower. This year, friend and fellow Barker/Vol Stater Carl Laniak was waiting to punch bib numbers. He was lounging in a comfortable chair, sipping a soda, enjoying the breeze. All I could think of was, "Can I do THAT next year? That looks delightful!"

Topping out on Rat Jaw

Trying to stand back up...

Looking up at the tower I still had to climb...

Completely out of water now, I made my way slowly and carefully the 3 tenths of mile back down to Tubb Springs from the tower where I was finally able to rest, recover, refuel and think about finishing this darn thing.  I saw Laz and Sandra, and we all laughed at how unprepared I was for this. Laz asked if I was going to push on for the 50k or call it there for the Marathon. I asked where I was on time (I had no watch on), and he said I was about an hour ahead of the cut-off. Ok...I guess I'll go on then.

Laz looks at me and says, "Ok... let me just see your headlamp so you can proceed".

"Headlamp? Ummm....I don't have one. I just assumed I'd finish before dark..."

"You need a headlamp or I can't let you proceed."

"Shit. Must have missed that part in the Runners Instructions. Well it looks like I'll be doing the Marathon then."

At that point, one of the aid stations volunteers walks over and says, "Someone just found this headlamp on the trail and said you can have it."

"Seriously?! Awesome! Looks like the 50k is back on the menu boys!"

And with that I headed off into the unknown, with a random janky headlamp, with unknown battery life. Just like I like it. It almost seemed like Barkley providence.

The next several miles were very level/easy jeep road. I walked a lot of it, but very briskly. It felt good to push a 4 mph walk. After what seemed like forever, I finally did make it to Bald Knob and the final aid station. They told me I was still about 50 minutes ahead of the cutoff, so was free to finish out the last 5-6 miles. 

I hopped back on to the North Boundary Trail as the sun was getting lower in the sky, and as I trudged my way along over to Jury Ridge and Phillips Creek, a LOT of memories poured back. I thought a lot about my loop 3 in 2012, which was at about the same time of day, in very similar conditions. I remember trying to catch up to Nick and Alan...and wondering how far back Bev was. I remember thinking that I would have one more night loop, and then an "easy loop 5 in the day". As tired as I was at this point in the BFC, I was quite happy reminiscing about my 2012 experience.

Eventually I did drop down to Phillips Creek and looked up at what would be my last climb up the backside of Bird Mountain (the same trail I descended about 10 hours prior).  One thing I remembered about this climb from my previous times up it during training, was that it always is longer than I expect it to be...and with more switchbacks than I think are possible. True to form, the climb seemed to go on forever. Even with the nice trail tread, and switchbacks, I was still stopping on occasion to rest. I was definitely tanked.

When I finally crested the top and knew all I had left was a pleasant descent down the front of Bird, I finally let out a long sigh and smiled from ear to ear. A photographer snapped a photo of me right at that moment and it's probably my favorite from the day.

Topping out on Bird Mountain.

Heading down Bird to the finish line!

I downshifted on the descent to a mostly brisk walk...jogging a little here and there. I know every single switchback on this part of Bird so knew there'd be no surprises. I ate the remaining gummies I had, gulped my water, and reminisced back to my 2014 Fun Run Finish. I recalled coming down these very switchbacks with Alan Abbs and Jamil Coury, not sure we'd make it in before the 40 hour cut-off. I could remember waiting to hear the water of the creek to know that'd we'd only have 5-7 switchbacks left. I remember telling Alan and Jamil that we'd absolutely have to run some if we wanted to make it. All three of us could barely walk at the time. It was brutal.

I smiled my way all the way down to the yellow gate and eventually found myself trotting along the road and the final mile back to the parking area and the finish line. I noticed in this final mile that it was starting to get a bit darker, but still not dark enough for a head lamp. I laughed thinking I wanted to tell Laz...."Told you I wouldn't need the headlamp!".

I came around the last turn and began the jog up the finish line chute. Andy and Anne Lang were there giving me some motivation and I laughed my way through the finish. It was a good day (mostly). Final time: 12 hrs, 38 mins....about 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff.

Was it a fun course? Heck yeah!
Was it a tough course? Oh hell yeah!
Would I do it again? I really don't think so. I think I'm quite content to close my Barkley book now.

A quick gear note: I have been having a lot of trouble with my feet lately, trying to find a shoe that works for me. I find that my feet have widened over the years, so have trouble with some of my previous models (too narrow). I tried for a while to run in Altras, but they just didn't work for me, and I found myself tripping in them a lot on trails. For the BFC, I tried a brand new shoe (Topo - Ultraventures) and although I don't have too many miles in them yet, so far I really love them. Just wide enough, with just the right amount of cushion and heel-to-toe drop! Hopefully, they end up being the solution I've so-long looked for.

Our handkerchief / map! What a great idea!
Wipe your sweat, and check your navigation!

My hard-earned bib number

My Croix de Barque
(50k Finisher Medal)

My Barkley memory box, now with new material to add!

So...what's next? Glad you asked. I will be participating in Laz's Strolling Jim next May. After that at some point, I plan to run Laz's new "Heart of the South" run along the Lee Highway in order to complete the full 'La Gira de Lázarus'.

I saw a comment online after the BFC was over telling me that as far as they could tell, I'm the only runner to have completed both "Barkleys". I don't know if that's actually true or not, but did make me smile a bit at the thought.

Hike on my friends,