Monday, May 16, 2022

Aint Nothin Wrong with a DNF


Three years ago I had an amazing time at the Hellbender 100 in the mountains outside of Asheville, NC. That kind of race is my jam! Long, slow, unrelenting. 100 scenic mountain miles and over 20,000' of climbing? Hell yeah! The moment I finished, I knew I would be coming back, and it's not just because I was awarded a bottle of vodka at the finish line. I signed up for 2020, but yeah, we all know how that went. And out of an abundance of caution, the race was cancelled again in 2021.


By the time 2022 rolled around, I'd turned into a completely different runner. I no longer live within close proximity to the mountains. And in the last year, my focus on the Backyard format had transformed the way I'd been training. Then throw in trying to juggle a brand new side business (Long Haul), a full-time job, and parenting two young kids with my hard working spouse. At the end of it all, 2022 Chris is simply much different than 2019 Chris -- less mileage, more stress.

 

I'd run four 100 Mile trail races in 2019, but only one since. I was itching to get back into the mountains for a fun, tough 100 Miler. I knew I didn't have peak mountain fitness, but I ran for 84 friggin hours straight at Big's, so I figured I could, at the very least, casually stroll through Hellbender, enjoying the fantastic trails and scenery. And that was my plan. No hard racing, no stress, no worrying about a top place or solid finishing time. I just wanted to get out there and enjoy an amazing race with an amazing course, put on by an amazing race director and amazing volunteers. Simple.

 

But things didn't turn out that way. When, by all expectations, I should have been strolling to the finish of my umpteenth 100 miler, I was instead passed out in a cheap motel room 3 hours away. There were no broken bones, there was no heat exhaustion or hypothermia, nothing of the sort. My body just felt … empty. Depleted. Sluggish. Right from the start. So I quit. I gave up. I DNF'd.


I ran by this cool sign ... and then I quit


There's this underlying thread in ultrarunning, a machismo-fueled point of view, a finish-at-all-costs attitude. Many brag about having never DNF'd, others take pride in gutting it out through some genuinely sketchy conditions, and there are some who push their body so hard they spend post-race in the hospital. So much ego. I've never understood it. For 99.99% of us, running is a hobby, an enjoyable aside to the daily grind of normal life. It's not a war, or a deadly disease we must fight, it's supposed to be fun and freeing and enjoyable. And yes, at times it sucks, and there's a good deal of character-building to be had in gritting it out and overcoming obstacles. But there always needs to be an awareness of the difference between pushing yourself to achieve amazing things, and fighting against yourself.

 

I drove 10 hours to get to the race, battling a headache most of the day, then at bedtime I went into a migraine that nearly caused me to throw up. I maybe had 2 hours of restless sleep before waking up to pouring rain at 2:45am. Then it was time to get ready for the 4:30am start. Race morning adrenaline warded off the headache and provided me with about 90 minutes of decent running to begin the day. Through the pre-dawn rain, I led the race with a buddy, eventual 2nd place finisher Will Weidman. I was intentionally slow and collected. The objective: have fun, revel in the joy of a full day of mountain running. But by the 2 hour mark, that comfortable pace felt exhausting. I slowed. Still exhausted. I randomly lost my breath. Downhills were klunky and lumbering. I was walking flat sections of trail because I could not get my legs to propel my body forward. I was tripping over rocks and roots I had no business tripping over. 12 miles into a 100 mile race. If it had been halfway through the race, I might've muscled through -- maybe it would pass, just another race day obstacle to overcome. But I was hit with whole-body fatigue right from the start. Honestly, I felt hungover. It was clear that something was wrong. I probably could have powered through, spent a good deal more hiking than I'd wanted, and still finished in a somewhat respectable time. But at what cost? If this were an ordinary weekend long run, I would've skipped it and slept in, given the migraine. Or, if I were starting the run and felt sluggish and empty, I probably would've cut it short to focus on rest and recovery, to live another day.

 

There will always be another race waiting for us. Another chance to test our limits. Another opportunity to prove to ourselves we've put in the work and that we can do great things. To have staying-power in the sport that you love, you've got to listen to your body. Every race I've ever run, my wife has told me beforehand, without fail, "be safe, and listen to your body." I love ultra running, I love the trails, I love the grind, I love the process. 40 years from now, I want to be that old geezer, fighting cutoffs and loving every minute of it, showing those young whippersnappers how it's done. But I can't get there if I don't listen to my body, if I ignore it when it's clearly telling me that something isn't right.

 

After the first climb and descent, I just knew my day was over. I elected to lazily hike and jog the next climb and descent in the off-chance my body turned things around. And so I strolled into the aid station at Mile 33, after 5 hours of, quite simply, not feeling like myself, resigned to quit. I instinctively went to my drop bag and started pulling out nutrition for the next section of the race, then stopped, looked around somewhat confusedly, collapsed to the ground and sat for a moment, then leaned over and rested my head on the grass. It felt good to give up. It felt like the right thing to do.

 

Listen to your body! Are you injured? Do you need more recovery time? Did you bite off way more than you could chew? Know the difference between pushing yourself and fighting yourself. Do that and you'll have staying power. Perhaps I'll see you out there on the trails, 40 years from now, loving every minute of it!

Monday, March 14, 2022

Chris Tries to Not Suck at The Barkley. Chris Fails.

 

Who's excited for failure?! This guy! (PC: Sarah Smith)


From the moment I was born, I was destined to become a Barkley finisher…

 

…Just kidding.

 

I can't say when exactly it was, but by 2018, after a few years of feeling like I was nailing 100 milers, I decided I wanted something more challenging. When you look to The Next Level in hard, competitive US ultras, there's basically 2 options:

  1. Hardrock
  2. Barkley

Now, I'd love to run Hardrock, and I've presently been waiting in the lottery for something like 8 years. But Barkley always held the highest level of intrigue. It's a tremendously extreme type of event designed to probe the limits of human endurance. And technically, anyone who's good enough to belong there has a path to get to The Yellow Gate -- do awesome stuff to impress Laz, apply, get on the "weightlist", and patiently wait your turn. So I set about that path. Barkley was now my Primary Running Objective.

 

In 2019 I cranked out HURT, Hellbender, and Old Dominion in 5 months with solid top placings, and then nailed Grindstone in the fall. I decided I had gained enough fitness to have a shot at finishing a Fun Run. So I finally applied for Barkley and received a spot at the bottom of the weightlist, happy to wait a number of years as I slowly rose up. But in 2021 I decided to explore an accelerated route. I had a sense I'd be good at Backyards and I figured that race format would allow me to explore limits of sleep deprivation and fatigue, and it didn't hurt that Laz created the event style. I eventually wound up at Big's, the world championship for the format, right in Laz's backyard, and made a decent show of things. But I didn't win, so no automatic entry for Barkley. Nevertheless, by January I received my condolences. I was headed to The Yellow Gate!

 

But there was a bit of a hitch. My training since Big's had been complete crap due to aggravating the labrum in my bad hip. I was largely limited to steep hiking and spending each night diligently stretching. Descending was de-prioritized to limit impact forces and allow my hip to heal. As a result, I felt that my climbing would be okay, but my descending at Barkley would be pedestrian at best. So no lead packs for me. I tried to not worry about what veteran I might work with, and instead focused on learning the course and gaining experience. I was now transitioning from my Primary Running Objective's multi-year Phase 1 -- Get into Barkley -- to (hopefully) the multi-year Phase 2 -- Not Suck at Barkley.

 

The 2022 Barkley Course Map!

I drove down to Frozen Head from STL a couple days early, jamming out to Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift. I made the astute observation that Tswift is a fan of The Barkley. If you listen to Treacherous, it becomes pretty obvious. This slope is treacherous. This path is reckless. And I, I, I like it. I'm guessing she heard about The Documentary when it was first coming out and wrote the song for her Red album, but the music execs made her change some of the lyrics to make it sound like a standard relationship song. But the timeline lines up, and the chorus lays it all out. So yeah, Treacherous was the official race song of The Barkley this year. Awesome!

 

I'm sure even Jared Campbell would agree that Taylor Swift wrote a song about The Barkley.

Jack, my crew chief at Big's, met up with me at the start and we set up camp in the cool kids spot right next to the gate. Our site ended up housing runners Greig Hamilton, Harvey Lewis, Karl Sabbe, and myself, with Mike Dobies, Keith Dunn, and Sarah Smith hanging out there as well. Monday was spent finishing setup and organizing gear. And, obviously, checking out the map and handing in my virgin license plate. I spent a couple hours copying the map, reviewing the course description, and chit-chatting with folks. Then it was time for some tossing and turning. The conch blew around daylight on Tuesday, and things got real. I was genuinely nervous to start a race, for the first time in years. I had no idea what the next day+ was going to be like, but I was ready for the adventure. All I knew for sure was that I was going to keep going until I got timed out. As I walked to the gate, everything became a bit of a blur. And then, the cigarette was lit.

 

Home sweet home.

Race gear -- 90% of which will go unused!

Pre-race action shot (PC: Jack Kurisky)

The first climb, a completely new section, started out battering my legs like a Tonya Harding hit job. Instead of a chill jaunt up the typical Bird Mountain Trail, we immediately met off-trail slopes as steep as anything I'd dealt with in training. Many people flew up hard and fast, but I focused on warming up my calves for the entire first climb. The first book was a breeze, then it was on to the first descent. I quickly linked up with Jodi Isenor's group, including Alyssa Godesky. I figured this would be a good place to hang out. The early miles of The Barkley is basically a form of speed dating where virgins desperately seek out a veteran date to show them the ropes. Jodi was on my pre-race list because of his experience and his sweet, sexy past Fun Run. I fully trusted Jodi to navigate the course in a time respectable enough for a fun run finish.

 

Me and Jack at The Yellow Gate.

After the 2nd Book we climbed up Jury Ridge, starting on the easy North Boundary Trail. The pace was calm and patient and I felt like the whole group was being smart about effort and I was looking forward to working with them for the first loop. At one point I joked that I was just going to follow Jodi for a whole lap and then drop him hard. Later in camp, Dobies had to explain to Jodi that I was being sarcastic, and not a "real asshole". My wife warned me about that kind of behavior, but when it's something you're born with, it's just really, really hard to not be sarcastic 24/7. Sigh…


Anyways … towards the top of the climb I stopped to pee and get a quick bite to eat, then again to tighten up my shoes. When all was said and done, the group was out of sight and I was left close to Katie Wright. I was comfortable just chilling with her for a bit and had zero intention of hightailing it ahead of the gal who stepped in to help crew me on my 4th day at Big's. We easily grabbed the 3rd book and then departed down to the next one.

 

Katie and I took a less than stellar line starting down and it was slow going. We ended up on a minor ridge too close to the drainage on our right and kept drifting down towards it and its healthy supply of boulders. There was a "road" higher up to our left and we kept trying to intercept it while skirting the drainage, but had little success. Eventually we were passed by a couple of freewheeling Euro chicks who basically blasted down the drainage and we kinda sorta followed suit.  At some point along the way, I was using my poles on the descent to control my direction and one pole slipped between two rocks and quickly learned a painful physics lesson. The carbon fiber pole snapped like a twig. Fan-freakin-tastic. We ended up coming down to the book location, but it took way too much effort and time. As we arrived, folks already had the book in hand, and I was not the last one to pull a page. As a result I impatiently failed to make a mental note of precisely how the book was hidden, which came back to bite me big-time on Loop 2 in the dark.

 

Cheater sticks aren't supposed to look like that.

I took off on the next climb, easily following the ridge and separating from the others. At one point I picked up a stick -- Old Hickory -- that worked well as a replacement pole. The Barkley is a fickle beast … it takes away your brand new carbon fiber cheater sticks, only to offer up bespoke walking sticks, complete with ergonomic knobs to cradle the edge of your hand. The next book was the first one I found all on my own, which came with a pretty awesome sense of accomplishment, even though it was just a simple rock on the top of a mountain. Then it was easy work getting up to the Garden Spot, and as I approached the Water Drop I saw Jodi's group heading out.

 

I had a patient water fill and stripped down to a t-shirt. Because it was getting warm and sunny, I mixed up a bottle of my Long Haul Ginger Peach Tea to sip on in the afternoon hours. It was so delicious! (blatant company plug, go buy my sports drink) I figured I was about 5 minutes behind Jodi and Company and so I started running down the Coal Road a bit hard in an attempt to catch up to them before the next off-trail section. I failed. And then I wasted a couple minutes trying to decide on what the right line should be to cut through a horseshoe bend in the road. My line was not good enough and I cliffed out and had to tear through the woods until it was safe to descend. Then it was time to jump off again into the next drainage. As I wasted another couple minutes contemplating where to jump in and what my line should be, another runner came zipping down the prior descent. It was a virgin named Ivan, and he had a boatload of intel from a veteran on what to do. So the two of us virgins hooked up to fool around in the woods for a while. Bow chicka wow wow! We wandered on down the Coal Road a bit as he attempted to count strides to the jumping off spot. I don't think we hit it precisely, and we didn't have the cleanest line down the drainage, but eventually we made it through and proceeded on to Bobcat Rock and Leonard's Buttslide.

 

LBS was a real treat! Those upper slopes were the first time I just capitulated and allowed my feet to be swept out from under me and ride down sections on my ass. About 1/3rd of the way down I bumped into Alyssa coming back up with the rest of Jodi's group. I figured I went from maybe 2-3 minutes back to nearly 30 minutes back now, entirely a result of not knowing the best lines through a 1 mile stretch of Stallion Mountain coal roads. Ivan and I hit a good line down to the bottom and came upon the book in no-time-flat. Then it was back up. Pretty easy cruise control until the absurdly steep upper slopes where I was clinging to roots and trees to hoist myself up. Then onwards through the cave and up to the next book. Ivan crested and started to look around on the verge of wandering, but the moment I got up there I knew exactly what was up and went straight to the book. I'm getting pretty good at this whole Daylight Barkley stuff!

 

Irrelevant to the storyline, but this was my pre-race breakfast. My son was so freakin jealous!

The next stretch to get down to the New River Valley started off a bit slow and confusing. It seemed easy enough -- just follow the ridge -- but Ivan was more concerned about certain visual indicators along the way. We hit a couple of choke points and a small cliff that we had to work around, but it wasn't too bad of a job. Then we came upon an old road, something I'd call a road and not Laz's idea of a" road". I wanted to cross it and continue into the woods on the ridgeline. But Ivan's intel described going down the road. I wasn't too comfortable with this idea, but there were shoe prints heading down the road, so I reluctantly went that way. After a couple bends, we jumped into the final hollow to reach the valley. We got down there and then there was a good bit of confusion trying to find one of these "roads" Laz says to follow upriver. After a while I just said screw it and forged off into the woody river bottom, knowing at some point we’d get to where we needed to go. Eventually Ivan found "the road" and we followed it upriver. Ivan nearly ran past the next book but I immediately noticed two rocks on the ground that were suspiciously regularly shaped. I kicked the moss and it was obvious I was at "the columns", so I yelled to Ivan to stop and look for the next book. The moment I did that, a group that was right on our rear gleefully shouted that they'd found the ziplock bag with the book hanging out, up on the bank to my left. Truthfully, I was pissed. I found the stuff Laz described in the course description and was about ready to see the book, but was bested by someone else who just happened to see some plastic bag reflecting light in the afternoon sun. So I got up there and impatiently waited to get my page. Then it was off to tackle Little Hell.

 

The group that caught up to us had a veteran, but they were jibber-jabbering about compass bearings so I just took off ahead of them. We climb a ridge, the ridge, the only damn ridge. Just go up! After a couple of stupid decisions on the ridge -- why not just head straight up into this coal reservoir between two minor ridges, what could go wrong?! -- and trudging my way through dense sawbriers, I grabbed the next book and went on to Rat Jaw.

 

On the descent, Ivan and I did not know about an upper rock ledge and barreled right off the trail into the briers. I felt like I'd flung myself into a net filled with spikes. It took a couple minutes to realize we'd missed a turn off, down, and around the ledge. Good Times! But the rest of the descent was fairly clean, with little bits of skating and butt sliding. Then through the tunnel and to the Prison Book.

 

Ivan and I started working our way up to the next book and I feel like we followed the directions and the ridgeline we were supposed to, but we ended up too far down the line of capstones. I was 99% sure we needed to be at one particular end of the capstones. He wasn't positive about that, but he started off to investigate. After a few minutes he trudged back. No Dice. I wasn't buying it, but I figured it was a great chance to familiarize myself with this area. So I hightailed it all the way to the other end of the capstones just to feel the area out. Then I backtracked and eventually clambered above the capstones to scope everything out. As I was doing so, I saw The Compass Crew passing through the capstones. Jackpot! I yelled to Ivan and we were back in business. Another 20 minutes wasted on the course, but lessons were being learned!

 

We took a quick compass bearing then started down the Zipline to the Beech Tree. The line was a disaster in spots, bumbling into boulder fields, but we quickly overtook the other group and then I spotted the Leaf Churn from other runners and cruised on that all the way down to the Beech Tree.

 

I quickly dropped everyone around me on the last climb. I was feeling good and figured even with the 60-80 minutes of accumulated delays from not having a veteran holding my hand, I was still going to roll into camp in under 11 hours, with a solid shot at a 40 hour Fun Run. After I collected the final book page I continued congratulating myself and inadvertently turned the wrong way on the Chimney Top Trail that leads back to camp. You're supposed to go left when you hit the trail. But when you hit the trail you're coming out of the woods so it's not like there's a junction sign or anything. So I intercepted the trail at a slight right-ward angle and smack dab in front of me was green Chimney Top double blazes and a distinct left. Boom! I rode that awhile and started to feel confused. I didn’t know we passed by all the chimney rocks on the way back to camp, hmmm. This descent doesn't feel as steep as it's supposed to. What's the deal with this flat section. Then I look at my watch. Shit. Nearly 30 minutes has gone by since the last book. This isn't right. I should've dropped down to the Rough Ridge climb by now. Then I saw the Fireplace just before Mart's Field off in the distance. FUCK! I just went 3 miles in the wrong direction. Oh well. I turned around and high-tailed it back to camp to sneak in just under 12:00.

 

It's dark, why am I just now arriving at the gate?! Oh yeah, cuz I'm an idiot.

The interloopal wasn't spectacular, but my crew chief Jack got me all ready to go with an assist from Sarah Smith. I ended up wolfing down nearly 1000 calories to drown out my embarrassment of making the Furtaw Fumble on Chimney Top. In the middle of it all I distinctly remember uttering "I think I just fucked up my Fun Run." Such is life. I proceeded to head back out for Loop 2 into the night, knowing a long dark night of very cold rain awaited me.

 

The first climb was a doozie. I wasn't tired, but man was I slow. I stopped twice, to throw on my rain jacket and then rain pants. On Loop 1 I got to the first book in maybe 33 minutes. This time around it was more like 85. Pathetic. I'm pretty sure I simply took in too many calories in camp and my body was all like "Bruh, chill on this stupid hiking pace, I gotta digest all this damned food you just ate." At the top I realized that Barkley had just stolen 2 hours from me between 2 books. A Fun Run was not gonna happen. For some reason I decided I didn't want to turn onto Jacque Mate until I'd identified the old Book 1 rock. I rounded a turn and started veering away from the ridge and knew I'd somehow passed it. Instead of just accepting that and going down to Book 2, I turned around to keep looking. A runner came up on me -- I'd passed him as he struggled to find Book 1. It was John Clarke, one of the folks from The Compass Crew that Ivan and I passed earlier. I explained my stupid activity and he was like "come on, lets go". I followed him for a minute and then it was very clear he didn't want to run Jacque Mate like we were supposed to. I politely inquired: what the hell are you doing? He said we had to cross over the ravine. I was all like, umm, why the hell would we do that?! Then he went on about some kind of stride counting after the ravine and taking some kind of compass line. He said it was a cleaner line than Jacque Mate … but he was a virgin, too, so how he came up with this cockamamie idea is beyond me because the course description is painfully clear. I was in the learning mood though, and I didn't want to backtrack, so I let him lead me down a ridiculous line -- let's keep checking that compass as we trudge through godforsaken rocks and deadfall to maintain the sacred azimuth! The whole time I bitched about how stupid it was and how much easier it would have been to simply follow the Jacque Mate ridge like we were supposed to. We eventually got spit out on the NBT about 150 yards above Book 2. I checked my watch -- about 2:28 on the loop vs 1:06 from loop 1. More time lost. Son of a bitch!

 

I hiked up to Book 3 and then made note of the compass bearing to try and ride the ridge down to Book 4 that Katie and I undershot the first time around. I stumbled through some rocks and such, but it was a good deal cleaner than in the daylight, and I finally found "the road" down. Once I got to the confluence I struggled to find the book. I spent like 10 minutes checking a dozen trees. I couldn't find the damn thing. It was pitch black, raining hard, and every drainage was flowing like crazy. Am I at the wrong confluence? This looks right, but where the hell is the book?! I decided it was time to go on an adventure. I'm not sure of what all I did, but I effectively explored both upstream and downstream, trying to make sense of the terrain and the drainages – in the dark, in the middle of a downpour. After a while downstream I became convinced I was firmly in the river bottom, so with knowledge that there was no confluence below that original one, I hopped onto the other side of the stream and backtracked up "the road". When I got to the original confluence I looked at every damn tree trying to find the stupid book again. And then, all of a sudden, there it was, right where it should've been. I firmly remember looking for a book behind 2 rocks leaning against a tree instead of a book between 2 rocks on a bank behind a tree. Catch that distinction? Oops! Either way, that was an exciting 90 minutes of my life I'll never get back. But, now I have a very firm notion of how to approach that book and exactly where it's located. I'll not be bungling that in the future.

 

I hightailed it up to get to Book 5, climbing fairly well. Around this point, I snapped Old Hickory and had to find a less awesome replacement. In the dense fog I accidentally crossed over the NBT where we were supposed to turn, and just kept going on the ridge. The ridge quickly flattened, which was odd, but I kept going for a few more minutes. I eventually pulled out my map and quickly realized what happened. But instead of turn back, I was intrigued by an odd flickering in the distance. I continued on to a big round fence, and just beyond it a sign that said something to the effect of: Feral Hog Pen, Stay Away. Awesome! Did I just find a new Book location for Laz? I noticed I should be close to the Cumberland Trail so I continued on my line to confirm. Sure enough, maybe 100 meters later I bumped into the Cumberland. Now being 100% sure of my whereabouts, I took a hard line back over to the NBT to reacquire the proper course. Climbing to the top of Bald Knob was a real treat. The winds were howling like crazy, with bitterly cold rain. The fog was so bad you couldn't see park boundary markers. I almost got blown over a couple times near the top. That was the only time all night I felt genuinely cold. At the Book I engaged in my new ritual of pulling off my sopping wet gloves, securing my page, wringing out as much muddy water from my gloves as possible, then throwing them back on, downing some calories, and shooting off to the next part of the course.

 

Randomly throwing in a pic of my Loop 2 pages (drying out in the garage).

The NBT that was taken over to the Garden Spot was a pain in the ass. The ground was so wet that the single track was like pudding. And it's nearly all on a slight camber. So a majority of your steps resulted in a slide to the downslope. 12 minute miles was about as good a pace as I could muster without risking slipping off the trail. I reached the Garden Spot in 8 hours, it'd only taken 4 on the first Loop. Oh well. I popped down to the Coal Road, made a turn, and was greeted with a bright headlamp shining in my face. A runner had his map out with a quizzical stare and blurted "we're going the wrong way". No, we're not. "We should've taken that left back there." No, that's the Cold Gap cutoff. He seemed out of it and miserable, and unconvinced. He wanted to quit. I asked him why he'd do that, it was like a 3 hour hike back to camp so why not keep going. I told him I was going to run ahead for 10 or 15 minutes to confirm it's the right way, just to coax him along. He followed along behind me, muttering about it being the wrong way. At one point I looked back and his headlamp was still there. Then I rounded a corner, and nothing but darkness. On I went. I took a lot of time assessing the dropdown to the next ravine. I wasn't gonna Fun Run anymore, so why not waste some time trying to be sure of where I should go. I eventually decided I'd found the right spot and then I thought it's just a 300' descent so go tear ass down to the next coal road, it'll be a piece of cake! So that's what I did. Only, in a matter of seconds I nearly ran off a 50' cliff. I looked around for 5 minutes to the right. No dice. Time to backtrack. Then off to the left. After another 5 minutes I finally found the edge, and a convenient Leaf Churn indicating the proper route. So much wasted time!

 

I figured the worst was over. LBS would be simple. It was a piece of cake in the daytime. Boy was I wrong. I started off just fine and I thought I was coming up close to the proper confluence. Then I got cliffed out near the bottom. Which was odd cuz that didn't happen the first time around. I couldn't see a way down. I thought I was too close to the confluence so I ventured to the left for aways. No luck. Scramble up aways for a better vantage, go this way, go that way, no way down. I finally found a light game trail, which I soon realized was actually "the road" that travels through the valley. After more failed attempts to get around the cliff, I started to entertain the idea of extracting via "the road", but was afraid the river would be raging too much downstream to cross over. An hour had already been wasted, so I figured why not keep plodding along, trying to solve the problem of Book 7. I then realized I was looking at the wrong confluence. In my descent I'd veered off slightly and wasn't looking at the correct New River confluence, but was actually downstream a short bit looking at the New River's confluence with a drainage on the other side of the valley. Bingo! Now I know what to do! I backtracked up "the road" until I could find a way past the cliffs and down to the river bottom. I got all the way down and approached the proper confluence. But still, no dice. Another 10 minutes of searching and still nothing. So I started to climb out to try for a better vantage. As I did so, I popped up on an upper flat, and right there, staring me straight on in the face, was the rock foundation with Book 7 sticking out. Another thrilling 90 minute adventure exploring drainages!

 

Random pic of my gear drying out.

Dawn approached as I came up LBS and on to Book 8. Then it was off down Fykes into the New River Valley. I was a bit faster this time than with Ivan and I did a pretty good job staying with the Leaf Churn. At the lower road, I wanted to stay true to the intent of the course and decided to stick with the ridge line instead of the road. But I couldn't find the Leaf Churn and didn't have the best line down. I think as I was coming down, Karel Sabbe was coming up on the other side of the ridge on his 3rd Loop. I got down to the valley and spent some time deliberately trying to follow "the road". Sometimes I saw Leaf Churn, then I'd lose it. It woulda been faster to just tear through the woods, but I was trying to learn the course as best I could. I finally ventured over to the Skillet Book and then proceeded up Little Hell. Halfway up I crossed paths with Greig on his 3rd Loop. We exchanged pleasantries. He seemed stoked that I wasn't quitting, but then again, he's a happy-go-lucky Kiwi so he's probably always stoked about everything. 

 

At the Fire Tower there were some photographers waiting for the Loop 3 runners. I asked that they let camp know I'd arrived and would finish the loop after the cutoff, then I dove down into Rat Jaw. It was a slip-slidey mess and I skated on my shoes and ass whenever possible. Halfway down I crossed John Kelly. More pleasantries exchanged. Then I hit a steep stretch and slid like 30 feet and lost grip of my Old Hickory #2. I contemplated trudging back up to retrieve it, but opted not to. And there it remains, to this very day, abandoned and alone on Rat Jaw.

 

I took my sweet ass time at the Prison, snacking, swapping out soaking wet gloves, finally removing my rain jacket, and stripping off my waterproof pants whose entire ass section had been torn away from all of the butt sliding. Then I went up to Indian Knob, trying to replicate the line Ivan and I took, but trying to see if there was a way to not drift so far down the capstones. I found Old Hickory #3 along the way. At the end of the climb, I still ended up roughly where we'd hit on Loop 1 and then wasted 10 minutes tramping over to the proper capstone. On the map it still seems like the right line, which has me utterly confused. Next time around the park I'd really like to run with a seasoned veteran to see what they do and to find the Leaf Churn.

 

These pants were not meant for butt sliding!

Then it was on down to the Beech Tree. I followed some Leaf Churn here and there, but there was still a decent bit of drifting into small boulder fields and hitting inefficient lines. Eventually I hit "the road" and flew down to Book 13. Then it was a final climb back up to Chimney Top, a proper turn, and an easy cruise back to camp to finish in, I dunno, 30:40 or some ridiculous time.

 

"Chris Finally" arrives at camp. (PC: Sam Hartman, I think)

It was a disappointing romp through the woods in the sense that I thought I had Fun Run fitness, but it slipped away. If I'd tried harder to reconnect with Jodi's group, I may very well have gotten in 3 Loops. But whatever. I thoroughly enjoyed cliffing out and getting confused by the raging drainages in the dark. Going alone gave me so many opportunities to make mistakes and learn lessons for the future. I walked away feeling I'd learned enough to have an honest go at starting a 4th loop if I'm ever invited back … assuming I team up with a solid veteran at the beginning and my training doesn't get bogged down by another stupid injury.

 

 

Here's a brief accounting of my lost time on the course -- mistakes I've learned from and will hopefully avoid in the future:

Loop 1

  1. Bad line down to Book 4 -- 10min
  2. Unfamiliarity with Coal Road Jump Offs before LBS -- 15min
  3. Slow going down Fykes -- 10min
  4. Is this Lickskillet Road? -- 10min
  5. Indian Knob Adventure -- 20min
  6. Furtaw Fumble -- 60 min

Loop 1 Noteworthy Errors: 2:05

Adjusted Loop 1 Time: 9:50

 

Loop 2

  1. Interloopal Binge slowing me down -- Let's say 30min
  2. Not Jacque Mate -- 30min
  3. Book 4 Explore -- 90min
  4. Feral Hog Pen -- 15min
  5. NBT slip-n-slide laziness -- 15min
  6. Ravine Doublecheck -- 10min
  7. Ravine Cliff Out -- 15min
  8. Book 7 Cliff Out and Drainage Confusion -- 90min
  9. Seriously, is this Lickskillet Road? -- 10min
  10. Prison Picnic -- 10min
  11. Another failed Indian Knob -- 10min

Loop 2 Noteworthy Errors: 5:25

Adjusted Loop 2 Time: ~13:00

 

So yeah, if I had a tour guide the whole time going at a good pace that aligned with my current abilities, I'd confidently say a Fun Run was on the table. But I was a virgin doing his own thing. I have to believe that with a good bout of healthy training, if Laz invited me back for 2023, I'd have a damn good shot at a 40 Hour Fun Run, and a half decent shot at starting Loop 4. I'll happily take that confidence and ride it through my training for the next year!

 

All in all, Barkley was one of my favorite experiences in the sport thus far. There's just nothing else like it. The climbs were so gnarly and so much fun. I truly believe that the race format accentuates my strengths. It wasn't very apparent this time around, though. That hip injury after Big's really cramped my style. And not having a vet from the start led to a good bit of wasted time. But I'd like to think sticking it out through the overnight rainfest showed a bit of fortitude on my part, considering most everyone else dropped on Loop 2. I never felt gassed on the climbs, I prepared well for the elements, and I never once felt the slightest bit sleepy.


I’ve got to thank my wife for holding down the fort as I disappeared for 4 days to go aimlessly wander in the woods. And thanks to my in-laws for helping out with kids’ school duties. Jack was amazing again as crew, I just wish I’d given him more loops to help out! Sarah and Dobies and Keith were great company at camp, too.


Here’s hoping I get to take another crack at The Barkley next year!



Saturday, January 1, 2022

Another year down -- 2021

Running-wise, 2021 was a pretty big year for me. So I wanted to take some time to reflect on how the year went, and what I look forward to in 2022.


2021 Accomplishments, TLDR Edition:
✅ Lose my mind from sleep deprivation at a Backyard
✅ Kick ass and have fun at Black Hills 100 with my nemesis
✅ Watch people suffer at The JIM
✅ Lose to Harvey Lewis at Big's
✅ Impress an old dude who wears flannel shirts
✅ Impress another old dude who lives in Virginia
✅ Get embarrassed by Andersen at Hellgate
✅ Start a sports drink company (…Another, really? Are you sure that's a good idea?) in the hopes of experiencing crippling bankruptcy in the near future
✅ Fail to hit 2600 miles in a year, for the billionth year in a row
 

More than anything 2021 was a year of almost-injuries. Post-Hellgate 2020, I developed peroneal/ankle problems and took it easy the first 2 months of the year. Then I got back at it in March only to jack up my MCL on some gnarly SDR™ trail in the middle of the night. The middle of the year was fine. Then there was the infamous knee problem at Big's. And finally, messing up my "bad" hip just before Hellgate. All in all, I probably had 14+ "down weeks" of crap mileage due to these random problems. Luckily, some of that well aligned with post-race recovery. But still, there was a lot of lost time, most of which could've been avoided if I simply stretched and did yoga.

 
Racing this year was fairly low-key, and I really enjoyed it. I had my first-ever Missouri ultra at the Berryman 50 back in May that I used as a tune-up long run before Capital Backyard. It was nice to finally meet some local runners after 2 years of living in STL, and I'm excited to become more active in the local scene, in the land of painfully flat and runnable races.

 
The backyards I ran this year were, simply, incredible. I had a gut feeling I'd be pretty good at a race style that rewards patience, easy effort, and the ability to go long stretches without sleeping. But at Capital, I far exceeded my expectations. It was an amazing experience getting the chance to go back to DC and see so many Happy Trails folks and test my limits. Towards the end, the race was a crazy sleep-deprived roller coaster, but I learned a lot about how to manage that style of race, and I learned how hard it is to succeed at that race format while attempting to go it alone.

 
Big's was hard to put into words. 1% of me walked away bummed that my knee just wasn't having it towards the end. But the other 99% was filled with gratitude -- for the experience, for my body's ability to do something that had never been done before, but most of all for the support both at the race (JACK!, Andrew, Katie) and from everyone that followed along. I can't wait to experience it all again next year.

 
Hellgate simply is what it is. After 7 straight years of running it, Hellgate has become embedded into the annual calendar, a certain kind of holiday, one that can be frustrating at times, but mostly joy-filled. Hanging out with folks at Camp Bethel, especially after the race, is my absolute favorite thing to do in the sport of running. #HellgateDeepInMyHeart


That said, my favorite running memory in 2021 was the Black Hills 100. I signed up out of spite right after Hellgate 2020, with a goal to ruin John Andersen's day. It turned into a week-long family road trip, and one of the best race experiences I've ever had. John and I ran practically every step of that race together. And, if I might brag for a moment, we put on a friggin clinic in patient running. I've never had a pacer, or paced anyone, in a race before. And while we've shared literally hundreds of miles racing each other over the years, getting the chance to run Start to Finish with my "nemesis" is something I'll never forget. It was like a chill 108 mile training run, with a dash of frantic stress thrown in as we desperately tried to secure podium positions for coveted Bison Skull trophies.

 
On top of that, Kristin and I have started a company, Long Haul Sports. After a year+ of tinkering and testing a sports drink formula designed specifically for endurance athletes, we decided to take the plunge. We started accepting a limited amount of pre-orders just before Thanksgiving. Our garage is currently filled to the brim with machinery, packaging, ingredients, etc. We move into our manufacturing space in January, and then we'll truly set out on this crazy little business idea, building up inventory, taking orders, making deliveries, and trying not to go bankrupt! All in addition to raising 2 young kids, our other full-time jobs, and feeble attempts at training. It's gonna be a lot of work, but I keep reminding myself that if John Andersen could do all that with Crozet Running, then how hard could it really be, right?

 
So after much / some / a little reflection, here's what I'm looking forward to in 2022:
  • More St. Louis ultrarunning engagement
  • Hellbender 100 and Bighorn 100, complete with VHTRC reunions
  • 100+ hours at Big's
  • A lot more stretching
  • A lot less sleep (so long 9hr nights)
  • A super secret running endeavor
  • The JIM
  • Living up to my potential at Hellgate
  • Hopefully making it back to Capital Backyard, but definitely not to run
  • Growing back my 7 missing toenails
  • Supporting local races and awesome athletes with Long Haul
  • Not going bankrupt

Cheers to everyone in 2022. May we all be blessed with abundant free time to continuously explore endless miles of steep, technical trails!

My favorite non-race moment of 2021 ... feeling like I was going to get blown off a crazy steep ridge on Oahu.




Friday, December 17, 2021

Hellgate Is My Happy Place

I bow to your superior Hellgate skills. (PC: Michelle Andersen)


Let's dispense with painful reality of the race: I lost to John Andersen. Again. For the 2nd year in a row. By 15 minutes. Shameful. It was supposed to be a battle for the ages. Instead, he separated 16 miles into the race and I never saw him again. And now he has a 4-3 lifetime head-to-head record over me … though his Top 10s average time is 12:07:21 to my 12:06:12 (and Jordan's 12:04:24).

This year's title bout was a bust...


Heading into Hellgate this year was … weird. I didn't feel residual fatigue from 350 miles at Big's. That was late October, and then I took 3 weeks off from running, and then I piddled around with 30 mile weeks right up to Hellgate while trying to battle a messed up hip. I really didn't stretch after Big's, like, at all. I just ran 350 miles, what if I try to stretch and EVERYTHING tears?! I'm notoriously tight even on the best of days. So when I started feeling searing pains in my bad hip (torn labrum a few years back) after a week in which I did 8+ hours of "leaf lunges" cleaning up the yard, well, I knew Hellgate 2021 wasn't going to be all unicorns and puppies.


Aside from the obvious goal to Beat Andersen, I was just looking to have a comfortable night of running, and rely on my overall fitness to eek out another Top 10 and a Sub-12. Dreams of an 11:15 and a massive PR were just going to have to wait for another year.


The early miles were calm and collected, but there was no denying that my hip was painfully tight. I took the downhill from Petite's deliberately easy to lessen the stress on my hip, running in the neighborhood of Rachel Spaulding.


After Camping, I caught back up with John and ran alongside him for a couple miles before dispensing with some stomach contents in the woods. I hoped to catch back up soon, but instead I  took it painfully easy on the downhills all the way to Overstreet. I figured I'd rather run a slower race and survive, than limp into Jennings at Mile 30 with a totally shredded hip. And the fog was further complicating matters. So I lazied my way along, continuing to bleed time, all alone in the dark, for hours on end. I guessed I was outside of the Top 10 and might never break back in, and I spent a good couple of hours trying to come to terms with the fact that one of my Lifetime Running Goals -- Ten Straight Top Tens at Hellgate -- was disappearing before my eyes.


Approaching The Devil Trail, just after Little Cove, Cole Crosby came flying by like a happy-go-lucky bullet train, bemoaning an earlier wrong turn in the fog, and clipping off miles that were 90-120 seconds faster than mine. A few miles later, approaching the final depths of The Leaves, I caught back up with a crashed-and-burned Cole -- no energy, nutrition issues, etc. He's a super fast runner, so I'd hoped for his sake that he'd be able to spend some time resetting and then get back at it; and that seems to be what happened. It's always great to see people overcome race problems and fight back rather than capitulate.


I lumbered into Bearwallow a full 30 minutes late, and 20 minutes behind John. But by then, all the hip babying had seemed to do the trick -- it finally declared that I was the winner and it would stop being such a pain in the ass. I did some quick math and realized I had a tiny shot at Sub-12, but it meant I'd have to equal my 2018 effort when I banged out an 11:34 after my first-ever Bearwallow By 8. Michelle and Annie were there to get me situated; it was nice to see some friendly faces after nearly 6 hours of underachieving and mentally beating myself up over it. As I was leaving, Horton let me know I was in 9th Place … and then Rachel came storming into the Aid Station. Knowing she'd also be targeting Sub-12 for a Course Record, I took off, on a mission to not have the day be a total bust, and with the hopes I might be able to rabbit Rachel a little bit.


I still couldn't open up my stride quite like I wanted, especially on the ins and outs of The Pretty Trail -- my favorite section of the course -- but I could feel I was at least as fast as I'd ever been before. I rolled right on through both Bobblett's and Day Creek, afraid ceding even 30 seconds at an aid station might keep me from getting that Sub-12. Rachel nearly caught up to me in The Forever Section, but it seemed like I kept outclimbing her any time a hill appeared.


After a solid bout of climbing to Blackhorse Gap, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief as I had more than enough time to get in under 12:00 and had another Top 10 in the bag. Though my hip wouldn't let me really fly, I still took the final miles pretty hard. I rolled into the finish thoroughly exhausted and collapsed, right at the feet of Andersen, well rested and patiently awaiting my labored arrival.

Describing leaf piles in The Devil Trail? (PC: Jay Proffitt)


And then the attention of everyone at the finish quickly turned to the clock and the camp road, awaiting Rachel's arrival. She came cruising in at 11:59 for a new CR and the first female ever to go under 12. It's one of the coolest moments I've ever experienced at Hellgate. Between Rachel's Sub-12 and Dubova's absurd back-to-back CR's, it feels like there's been a phase shift in what's possible at this race. 3 years prior, John, Jordan, and I had rolled into Bearwallow at 8am, simply hoping we could find a way to break 12, something John and I had never done, and Jordan had only achieved once before in nearly a dozen attempts. And now … well, the men's CR had dropped by a full half hour, a woman broke 12, Jordan's gone Sub-11, and both John and I have gone Sub-12 3 of the past 4 finishes. The floodgates have opened!

Men's Top 10, in awe of a laydeh sub-12. (PC: MA, Jay Proffitt, somebody...)


On paper, the race was a bit of a bust -- barely breaking 12, losing to Andersen by an ungodly 15 minutes, nearly getting kicked out of the Top 10. But I knew my body wasn't in top form. I listened to my hip and took care of it when I needed to, and was somehow able to run Bearwallow to the Finish 5 minutes faster than ever. So overall, this was a pretty good confidence boost for future years. And more than simply attending a race, I had another weekend of chatting with running friends that I rarely get to see more than once a year. And I got to spend some time chatting folks up about Long Haul, which worked flawlessly for me yet again. So all in all, a pretty excellent weekend. And … and … I got to fly out instead of drive 11 hours each way … no more sleeping in random truck stops for this guy!


Thanks to:

  • My wife for looking after the kids and letting me go on yet another running adventure this year
  • Will for the ride to and from the race, and for your family's incredible hospitality
  • Michelle and Annie for your helpfulness and kindness at Bearwallow
  • NOT Danton and Jimmie, for tricking me into riding with them to the start, effectively imprisoning me in a car for 2 hours with a loudly snoring Dubova
  • Helen for your tireless support of this race, especially the now infamous Helen's Water Stop
  • Squirrels Nut Butter for your support and for your sweet, sweet lube
  • Myself, for creating Long Haul Sports Nutrition and agreeing to sponsor me
  • And obviously David Horton, for everything.

It was great seeing and chatting with so many other runners out there at the pre-race, on the trails, and afterwards. I look forward to those encounters all year long, and like always, I cannot wait until next year.


An Aside: The Three Amigos Status Update

Jordan Chang just finished his 15th Hellgate, and his 9th overall Top 10 finish. Next year he'll be going for his 10th! He also just hit 7 consecutive Top 10s. His overall Top 10s average is 12:04:24, and his consecutive Top 10s average is 11:48:55.

John Andersen just completed his 9th finish and 8th consecutive Top 10. He currently averages 12:07:21 in his Top 10s.

I'm still bringing up the rear, with my 7th finish and 6th consecutive Top 10. My Top 10s average is 12:06:12.

From 2016 through 2020, for 5 years, the 3 of us were never separated by more than 4 places (the worst was a 6-9-10 in 2017). 3 years in a row we went back-to-back-to-back. This year I brought shame to the Three Amigos, bringing up the rear for a 5-place-spread (3-6-8). My 8th place was also the worst place by any of us since 2017.

I'm excited for the next four years. There's a lot more anniversaries and Top 10s that still need to be achieved!

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Bury My Guaranteed Barkley Entry at Wounded Knee

Wow! So I really don't even know where to begin.

 

I'm going to have to start with a long round of Thanks:

  • To my wife, for allowing me to disappear for 6 days while juggling care of the kids and your demanding teaching responsibilities, I couldn't have done this without you and your continued support and belief in me.
  • To my mom, thank you for coming in and looking after the kids for a couple days
  • To my crew chief Jack, well, words can't adequately describe just how grateful I am to call you a friend and to have had you by my side during this race.
  • To Katie and Andrew, I wouldn't have made it far into the 4th day if y'all hadn't come around to help out with the crewing, because, man, I definitely needed all hands on deck in those exhausting hours. I mean, honestly, how incredible is this community, where folks you never really knew before are suddenly, selflessly committing themselves to a fellow runner, to massage their legs, to shovel food down their throat, to support them and look after them.
  • To my fellow runners, thank you for letting me share some miles with you. And thanks for putting up with my snark and sarcasm … it can be endearing once you get used to it, at least that's what I tell myself.
  • To Laz and Sandra, thank you for sharing your home, errr … yard, and for providing a stage that allowed me to achieve far more than I could have ever dreamed.

 

 

 

 

Let's jump right into the fray, when things got dicey!



 

Night 3 at Big's, the World Championship for the Backyard Ultra race format. Over 60 hours of running already complete. That's where things got … interesting.

 

After a few hours of night running, my right knee started to feel weird. A couple hours later I had stabbing pains around the MCL with every footfall. It got to the point that I could no longer run more than a few strides at a time without wanting to collapse in pain. So I started power walking the road course, which was fast enough to get me through each loop with a few minutes to spare. But then around hour 66, even power walking was too painful. So I had to devise a new method of dragging my body down the road.


I realized that as long as my right knee was fully locked, I had no pain, there was just a very dull ache from ground contact rather than a knife being stabbed into my knee. So I spent the next few hours working through various iterations of a sideways straight-legged skip-hop-thing. To get into an upbeat frame of mind around this time I ran with headphones for my first and only loop, jamming out to Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia album. It was exactly what I needed to maintain focus as I worked out the kinks in my new "running" form.


I would forcefully use my good left leg and arm to propel my body up and forward, and while in the air I would swing my dead right leg forward to prepare for a straight-leg landing, then I would rock my body forward again while balancing on the straight-leg and proceed to the next stride. Sometimes my body was facing almost forward, other times I was facing nearly perpendicular to my direction of travel. It was a crazy amount of effort to drag my body down the road and I was barely making it back in time for the 3-minute warning bell.




Going into the race I had a few goals, one of which was to time out and not quit. It was a pretty big goal for me to write down because it implies a more competitive spirit than I'm typically comfortable assuming during a race. Basically, I wanted to keep going until my body quit on me. That goal was at the forefront of my mind during this 8+ hour dead-knee period of the race. Not once did I consider quitting. It was more about finding a way to survive to the next hour. I was hyper-focused the whole time. And going through a 3rd night without adequate sleep, I was surprisingly lucid and didn't even need caffeine.


That said, I knew with absolute certainty that my knee would not get me through the day loop, the trail was just too rocky and slow. So, by killing myself to get to dawn, I could effectively "give up" without giving up -- by taking what would likely become a 70-90minute stroll through the woods on the 73rd loop and timing out with my head held high.

 

When I finished Hour 72, I came into camp and a flurry of folks helped Jack tape and wrap my knee, and then push me back out to the corral. The first half mile of the day loop is a road out-and-back and man did it hurt. I limped back through camp to start the trail section, with Harvey and Mori out of sight. I was appreciative of everyone's effort to get my knee in shape, but fully aware of the fact that I was 100% screwed. Just outside of camp I fell for the first time all race. It was a hard fall. I saw stars. My knee exploded in pain. I got back up and could hardly drag my leg through a rock-hopping section of the course. I slowly hiked the first hill and tried to manage the following descent. I lost control again and slammed hard into a tree.


And then, magically, I pushed off of my dead right leg and the stabbing knee pain was replaced with a manageably uncomfortable ache. As I hobble-jogged into a flatter, straighter section of the course, I started pushing the effort, madly swinging my good left leg and arm to propel me, and gingerly pushing off with my dead right leg. As I found that I could start bending my right knee and pushing off of that leg, I transitioned from sad, pathetic, injured walk-jogger into a rabid animal. Quite simply, I said "Fuck it, I'm finishing this loop!" Instead of hiking the uphills I sprinted them, sometimes even clawing with my hands. My pace felt absolutely uncontrollable. I was redlining, hard.


And then, towards the end of the loop, at the base of the final hill, I saw Harvey and Mori off in the distance. And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was back in the game. Never before in a race have I felt so utterly overwhelmed, both physically and emotionally. That hour of running was a whirl of pain and emotion and struggle that I can barely remember, but that I will also never forget. I don't know what the future holds for me in this sport, and I may never achieve anything as big as the record-breaking Assist at Big's ever again, but the 7am hour to start the 4th day at Big's in 2021 feels like an inflection point, a phase shift in how I view myself as a runner and what I believe I am capable of. It was the most rewarding hour of running I have ever experienced.

 

That's it. That's the obligatory poetic, inspirational blog post.


 

 

…But if you care for some more details about the race, here they are…

 




The Leadup:


I qualified for Big's with an at-large slot from my 56 hours at Capital back in May. My downfall then was a combination of sleep deprivation and caffeine mismanagement. So this time around I had a formulated plan for how to handle each.


For sleep, I had a cot and a zero-gravity chair, I had headphones and a sleep sounds app, I had an eye mask, I had plenty of blankets and even a weighted blanket to make me feel instantly cozy.


For caffeine I had 50mg dissolvable strips that I could carry with me and drop the moment I got cloudy or sleepy.


All the rest of my planning remained much the same as with Capital, but I felt the focus on sleep and caffeine would pay dividends. Despite most of the international qualifiers not being able to make it to the race, there was enough talent in the starting field to take the race well into Day 4, and possibly even into Day 5. Now, I don't consider myself an elite runner -- my training and mileage are crap, I don't have a single notable win on my resume -- but I'm pretty good at staying level-headed and I don't mind the grind of longer races, so I fully expected myself to be mixing it up with the big kids right up to the end.


I drove down from STL and picked up my crew chief, Jack, at the Nashville airport before continuing on to Bell Buckle to set up our tent. Then it was a low-key dinner of delicious McAlister's Deli and early to bed. I tossed and turned all night, only getting a few hours of sleep despite downing what felt like dozens of melatonin. In the morning, while I wasn't rested, I felt ready to tackle a few days of running. NBD.


Did I bring enough crap?!

Prepping the tent, and wearing my obligatory pre-race t-shirt.


Using a secret incantation to bless my pillow for successful catnaps in the days to come.

Team kits?

This is gonna be fun, right?

 

Day 1:


The first 24 hours were super low key. I ran comfortably, I chit-chatted other runners, and I introduced some runners to my obnoxious sarcasm.


I stayed calm between loops with breathing techniques, and made sure I was on top of my calories. I started out trying to take in 200 calories of my Long Haul drink each hour and then supplementing with 100 calories of gels, chews, or some kind of quick snack. I think I wore an old pair of Altra Timps for the trail and Altra Torins for the road.


Most importantly in this first day, I built up the courage to have a couple of random conversations with Maggie and Courtney. Did the words coming out of my mouth make any sense or was it incoherent jibberish … who's to say?! But I was running and chatting alongside two "famous athletes" I look up to more than anyone else in the sport. So, yeah, it was a good day!


Proof that Maggie and Courtney are my new BFFs.



I ran into some frustrating troubles that could never be resolved fully over the succeeding days -- despite having repeatedly tested my new headphones which I'd primarily planned to use for rain sounds to help me sleep, we had connection problems with my phone and one of the buds straight-up had no charge and never charged up throughout the race. Turns out, the rubber/foam attachment was too big and was popping the bud off the charging pins … despite the fact the attachments were made by the same company. So a good number of overnight hours were spent trying to figure out the best way to get me my Pavlovian rain sounds response and also effectively block out the rest of the noise going on in the camp. Run of the mill running problems, right?!


Running is soooo hard.


 

Day 2:


Physically, Day 2 was a breeze. Another great day to be out on the trails with perfect fall weather. Hours 25-35 made it clear to me which runners out there came prepared with trail legs and which ones did not. The transition from overnight road miles to the sometimes-technical daytime trail miles looked very uncomfortable to some. But I found it to be a great opportunity to change up muscle groups and get into a relaxed running groove.


Acid reflux reared its head, something I had never experienced before Capital. And while I kind of expected it to happen at some point, my nutrition plan was woefully inadequate to properly accommodate the new problem. I knew that temporarily shifting to water instead of Long Haul would help, but the hundreds of dollars of food I'd brought along were not very useful -- lots of chocolate, salt, and baked goods (baking soda/powder). Even something as bland as a banana was often too acidic for my throat. We mustered through, but it got a bit testy at times, with me unable to effectively articulate how much I now thoroughly despised every single piece of food in my tent, and with my crew chief unable to do much of anything about it. I dreamed of the blandest foods imaginable -- unflavored oatmeal, white rice, cream of wheat. Luckily, I snagged a bag of rice from Steve Slaby, and while it was absurdly over-salted for my taste, it went a long way to helping me keep my nutrition on track.


In the overnight hours on Day 2 I finally figured out the most comfortable way for me to lay down. I'm a stomach/side sleeper and the cot was just not working out how I'd hoped, but my body was finally tired enough to pass out laying back in the zero-gravity chair … that is, once I yelled at the neighboring tent in the middle of the night to shut the heck up cuz I could hear them through my noise cancelling headphones.


Me failing at passing out on the cot. And yeah, that's a superhero cartoon duvet for my weighted blanket. Again ... running ... hard stuff.


I believe I started dosing caffeine in the overnight hours of Day 2. I'd originally planned to keep at 50mg/hour once I started, but I quickly found that a 50mg pick-up was gentle enough to not overwhelm me but also enough to support 3-4 hours of alert running.


The biggest problem with the overnight hours came from my shoes. Since 2015, about 90% of my mileage comes from Altra shoes. I love them. They fit great, the work great. But lately their shoe design has been, well, spotty. For years I could take any pair of Altras and wear them right out of the box, no break-in necessary. I thought 20 miles of pre-race running in a brand new pair of Torins would've been more than enough, but I quickly found on Night 2 that the tongue is atrociously designed. The tongue is too short and also too stiff, and it continually jabbed into the bend in my foot with every single stride. I likened it to the feeling of a credit card edge being jammed into my foot non-stop for 12 hours. It was so frustrating that I had to abandon those shoes for Night 3, and at the start of Night 4 I even took to hacking the tongue off altogether, literally the first time in my life I've had to make alterations to a shoe. So yeah, I dunno, Altra, maybe you can work on that and lemme know when you fix the problem. K Thanks!

 

Day 3:


I'd wanted to go with a brand new pair of Altra Lone Peaks for Day 3. Like the Torins, I'd put 20miles on the new Lone Peaks to break them in, but they felt wildly different than the previous model. The structure of the toe box was both rigid and flimsy, the material kept rippling into a U-shape that receded into the toe box space and would put pressure on my toes, and the stitching area that formed the toe box felt rigid and stiff and was rubbing my big toe like crazy. This was the first time in 6 years I'd donned a pair of Lone Peaks and didn't enjoy them. So after the first loop, I had to rip them off in a panic and abandon them for a pair of Altra Timps, which felt fantastic.


After a few hours of daytime running, the hallucinations started. The accumulated sleep I'd bagged the past 2 days certainly helped here because my mind was strong enough to write off the hallucinations for what they were rather than freak out like I did at Capital. It started off with a gorgeous multi-million-dollar cabin in the woods that I'd somehow never noticed before. Tucked away in the trees, it was tall and boxy with dark green metal siding and tall, narrow windows, and there were a couple of small balconies on the second floor. It was the kind of modern aesthetic you might see profiled in Architectural Digest. After rounding a turn and still being able to see it, I stopped momentarily and walked briefly into the woods to get a better look, but it kept disappearing on me. It was then I realized it was a figment of my imagination. I hollered back to Harvey, who was right behind me, to confirm that what I was seeing was not, in fact, real, and he happily let me know I was losing my mind.


A couple laps later I saw a mint-condition early 90s black Mercedes sedan abandoned in the woods … it was just a big rock.


And throughout the day and into Day 4, I continued to see more houses and cabins.


Deep into the Night of the Fucked Up Knee.

 

Day 4:


After my miracle hour, I settled into a groove. I was hitting decent splits on the course, my knee was mildly cooperative, and I was getting pampered like crazy in camp. Each time I came in, Jack was toweling me off and prepping an ice bandana; Andrew Moore had come over to shovel food down my face and torture me with a percussive massage gun; and Katie Wright, fresh off her own 28 hour effort at Big's, helped prep nutrition for the next hour and tended to my knee. It was absolutely unbelievable. I mean, in the moment, I was sometimes incoherent, sometimes a sassy pain in the ass, and sometimes uncomfortably silent, but after the race was over, I was able to wrap my head around the fact that people I didn't really even know had come over to prop me up and keep me going for over 12 hours. "Grateful" doesn't even begin to describe how tremendously indebted I feel to Andrew and Katie for their assistance.


Mid-race action shots ... eat, foot care, eat some more.



Honestly, much of Day 4 felt pretty routine. But then, in the last few daytime hours, starting around 79 or 80, my knee started getting iffy again. I had to be very careful about placement. The right leg wasn't allowed to be the lead leg for any turns or to get around any obstacles, and I was spending more and more time at the start of each loop trying to warm the knee back up. Every few minutes of sitting down between loops would cause stabbing pains in the knee at the outset of the next loop.


As night approached, I wasn't sure how long my knee would be able to hold out on the road. For our first night lap, I high-tailed it so I could get into camp early and take care of my feet, which had been in an old pair of Torins for 100 straight miles now, and the odd side-skipping action I was doing earlier had both torn up the shoes and caused a slew of blisters. My knee wrap was also proving problematic and needed to be readjusted.


I hopped out of the chair with new socks and shoes and a newly wrapped knee, ready to tackle the 85th hour. But from the first steps, I could tell my knee was toast. I gingerly walked a quarter mile to the bottom of the hill and I just knew that I was done. I'd already spent an entire night hobble-jogging and side-skipping, and I had absolutely no confidence that I'd be able to make it to the turn around in under 30 minutes. And most importantly, with the resurgent stabbing pains, I had no idea if I was just suffering from some run-of-the-mill overuse injury or if I was causing real structural damage to my knee. And while I had the goal of timing out, my wife and I always have an understanding that I will listen to my body, and my body had made it painfully clear that my right knee was toast long ago and that I'd been running on borrowed time. So, I turned around to hand in my timing chip and happily accept The Assist.


No caption required.


Me, Jack, and Laz. 




Post-op:


I didn't go to a doctor to check out my knee, but it took 7 days post-race to be able to walk without pain. Inflammation finally went down after a few days, but there was still a lingering heat coming from my MCL after 10+ days and the wrong motions while walking or navigating stairs sometimes produced moderate pain. 14 days post-race and things were finally feeling "normal" enough to go for a short, easy jog.

 

I lost 2 toenails, in what was the easiest toenail removal process I've ever dealt with as a runner. Blisters formed under each nail and grew so big that the nail literally rested on top of the blister. Once I popped those suckers, the nails practically fell off my toes. So yeah, if anyone out there has problems with damaged toenails during ultras, I highly recommend just extending your run for a couple hundred more miles to make the removal process a piece of cake!


The world's easiest toenail removal!

 

I temporarily held a share of the Backyard world record for 3 hours. That's insane! That's something I could not have fathomed even a year ago, when I wondered if my body could go much more than 48 hours. So I feel like I definitely earned a few weeks off from running, the first extended break I've had in years.

 

As for what's next with this race format … well, my ultimate goal with Backyards has been to explore my limits of fatigue and sleep deprivation to better prepare myself for whenever I'm gifted with the opportunity to start Barkley. With this last effort, I've gained the confidence I was looking for to know that I can handle the potential mental and sleep-deprivation effects of running Barkley. So, technically, I don't think Backyards have much of anything left to offer me when it comes to my Primary Running Objective. But I'm guessing my 84 hour effort will be enough to qualify me for Team USA at the World Team Championships in 2022. And while it's not quite the same as, say, an official USATF kit for the 24Hour national team, it'd be an honor to represent the United States at next year's Big's. So, expect to see me there, with tons of other incredible athletes, seeking out Day 5 and Hour 100. Let's just hope my knee holds up for the next go around!

 

Gear List:


Shoes: Altra Torins, Timps, and Lone Peaks

Clothing: Patagonia Strider Pros (every run, every race, for ever), and random shirts

Lube: Squirrel's Nut Butter, which worked like a charm for 84 hours straight

Socks: Injini (every run, every race, for ever)

Caffeine: I found some caffeine strips on Amazon -- 50mg caffeine, 25mg theanine. They worked like a friggin charm.

Nutrition: Long Haul sports drink, SIS gels, Clif blocks, and a bunch of random food.

Sleep: cot, zero-gravity chair, blankets, eye mask, earphones and ear plugs, weighted blanket

Confidence: love and support from family and friends.


Random Photos:


Taking a knife to a poorly designed tongue that literally bruised my foot.

The Night 3 side-skip-hop demolished my shoes.

Post-race feet and ankles so swollen they couldn't slide into my amazing, glittery sandals.

Tent city at Big Dog's Backyard Ultra.

Action Shot ... to prove I did more than eat and sleep and lounge around for 3.5 days.

Hell is a 4 mile long stretch of flat pavement that you're forced to run over and over again.

Post-race interview? That was weird.

Got stuck in bad traffic on the drive home. Pulled over to nap. Forgot to turn off my lights. Oops! Ended up doubling my 5hr drive home.


Me dressed up as the Backyard World Champion for Halloween. I think I won the Most Obscure Costume award for my neighborhood this year.


And finally, here are some more boomerangs of the side-skip-hop-thing in action: