Sunday, December 18, 2016

Grindstone 100

Rain, fog, rain, hallucinations, and rain. That's the short story of my 2016 Grindstone 100. Here's the long story...

Starting the second night of Grindstone


My two bucket list races are Western States 100 and Hardrock 100. As it turns out, Grindstone is a qualifying race for both of these. With this in mind, I signed up for Grindstone in April, hoping to finally put a ticket in the lotteries for both races. Like all Hardrock qualifiers, Grindstone features a massive amount of climbing and lots of time between aid stations. This would be, by far, the hardest race I had ever run.

Having slacked off a bit in July and early August because of the insanely hot weather, I finally buckled down and put in a solid six week training block from mid-August through the end of September. With the Barkley Fall Classic and Grindstone looming on the horizon, I decided to focus more on elevation gain and cumulative time on my feet than on mileage. Here's what those weeks looked like.


The middle two weeks were a mini-taper for Barkley, and the final week mostly involved hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains. Not a typical training plan, but it seemed to do the trick. I came into Grindstone in the best shape of my life, ready to take on the mountains of northern Virginia.

The Course

Remember how I described the Barkley Fall Classic as tough? Well it is, but Grindstone is a whole different beast. Described as "without a doubt, the hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian," Grindstone is an out-and-back course through the rugged Allegheny Mountains. The outbound direction includes two unmanned summit checkpoints - Eliott Knob and Reddish Knob - where runners must punch their bibs with an orienteering punch to prove that they passed through.

Grindstone course map

The course features multiple 2,000+ foot climbs for a total elevation gain of 23,000 feet over its 101.85 miles. For reference, this is twice the amount of climbing and three times the distance of the Barkley Fall Classic. Adding to the difficulty of the course, the race starts at 6:00pm, so all but the fastest runners experience two sunsets and two nights of running through the dark.

Up, down, and repeat

My plan was to go out at a conservative pace and stay "comfortable" for the first 60-80 miles of the race, then push harder near the end if I was able to. I wasn't sure what pace this would correspond to, but I made three pace charts for my crew corresponding to 24, 26, and 28 hour finishes to help them determine when to expect me at each aid station. Secretly, my goal was to finish faster than my NJ Ultra Festival time of 26:31 so I could harass Rick McNulty about how hard that race was.


After a fitful night of sleep - partially due to pre-race nerves and partially due to the discovery of bed bugs in our cheap backwoods motel - I arrived at the Camp Shenandoah race headquarters with my wife and crew chief Alex, my mom, and fellow runner Charlotte Dequeker, who had driven down to Virginia with us. The weather was gloomy, and the reports promised constant rain for the next 24+ hours.

Who has two hands and makes poor decisions?

A mandatory pre-race briefing was held at 1:00pm in the mess hall. Race director Clark Zealand gave us the usual advice: "Don't go off course, don't forget to punch your bib at the summits, and - seriously - don't go off course, Ryan. We're in the middle of a million acres of undeveloped land, and you're a bit of an idiot." I'm paraphrasing of course, but that was the gist of it. Anyway, I tried to pay attention to these minor details, but I couldn't help but notice that there were cardboard cutouts of bandaged, bloody feet hanging from the ceiling.

Yup, those are the ones

I chose not to interpret this as a sign of things to come.

As the briefing ended, a light drizzle began to fall. Hurricane Matthew was pushing some small storms inland as it swept past the Atlantic coast. The rain would continue, with varying intensity, for the duration of the race. We took shelter in our car, and I tried in vain use my final hours of freedom for a power nap. But my mind was racing (pun intended), and I eventually gave up and read my favorite chapters from Ultramarathon Man.

The Early Miles

After the usual photo ops (those damn paparazzi are relentless!), I lined up about half way back in the starting corral with Charlotte. I was hoping to justify my seeding (36th male) with a solid performance, but I wanted to avoid starting too aggressively. The plan was to get caught in a conga line of runners and force myself to start slow, then gradually reel people in for the rest of the race.

The calm before the storm (literally)

Once all the runners were gathered and accounted for, Clark led a brief prayer. I'm not particularly religious, but I enjoyed his message, which was to be thankful for the ability to do insane things like run 100 miles through the wilderness. At 6:00pm sharp, we were off.

The first half mile of the course went through the camp on a gravel road before we came to an abrupt bottleneck at the beginning of the singletrack trail. Four minutes elapsed while I waited, as patiently as possible, for the runners in front of me to trickle onto the narrow path. I convinced myself that those four minutes meant nothing in 24+ hour race, but I couldn't help feeling antsy standing still this early in a race. Once back in motion, my mind calmed down, and I chatted with the runners around me.

1.5 miles down and only 100.3 to go!

One of the fun parts of running an ultra is getting to meet (or just observe) different people along the course. There was Mr. Sniffles (who seemed to be dealing with a cold), Legs McGee (because she was mostly legs), and Greg from Virginia (because that was his name and home state). Greg was a Grindstone veteran and very friendly, so I asked him lots of questions about the course. He warned me that the climb up to Little Bald Knob was the hardest on the course and could be demoralizing. So we all had that to look forward to.

Less than an hour into the race, the last remnants of sunlight were disappearing over the horizon, and I flicked on my headlamp. The first night of Grindstone had begun! Soon after, we began the first big climb of the race - a 4.5 mile, 2,400 foot ascent of the Great North Mountain ridge, ending with a bib punch at Elliot Knob. After weeks of hill training, I was happy to find that I felt strong during the climb, passing a dozen people on the steep gravel road to the summit at mile 10.

I made quick work of the bib punch and began the long rocky ridge line descent to Dry Branch Gap. This was the most technical section of the course. The trail was nothing but loose cinder block sized rocks, wet with rain and moss, and obscured by a persistent blanket fog. The earth plunged sharply downward on my left, and sharply upward on my right. The light from my headlamp was only enough to see two steps in front of me, but I raced forward with reckless abandon. It was awesome and primal and everything I look for in a race. I passed another dozen runners in this short section, including Charlotte, who had her characteristic smile and cheery demeanor.

After quickly refueling at the Dry Branch aid station (mile 15), I began the 1,000 foot climb up Crawford Mountain. I again made steady work of the climb, paying careful attention to my heart rate to avoid redlining to early in the race. After summitting, the descent was on a buttery smooth dirt trail, which made for easy running. I let gravity do its thing and bombed down the steep slope, passing another dozen runners in the process. I rolled into the Dowell's Draft aid station (mile 22) with just over 5 hours elapsed in the race - right on pace! This was the first crew access point, and I was happy to see my mom and Alex after running in the dark for so long. Alex beamed with excitement as she told me that she met Simon Donato, the host of the TV show Boundless, who was there to pace his friend. Cool!

Alex geeking out

Feeling refreshed after seeing some friendly faces, I began the long meandering ascent of Hankey Mountain. Rising 1,500 feet in 5 miles, the slope of the trail was right on the borderline of what I consider "runnable" in a 100 mile race. I awkwardly alternated between running and power hiking, struggling to find a steady rhythm.

I caught up to a runner and broke the silence by explaining my thoughts on the climb. He agreed, but noted that this section would be awesome to run down on the return trip. With some mutual ground established, we awkwardly ran/hiked together for the next few miles. The runner was Troy Shellhamer, an accomplished hiker and ultrarunner with a racing resume as epic as his name. He told me stories about running Western States, through-hiking the Colorado Trail, and pacing Traci Falbo when she ran the Grand Slam of 100 Milers. We discussed how to have a sustained career in ultrarunning, the benefits of running 50 milers vs. 100 milers (sometimes it's nice to be done before dinner), and how Ian Sharman and Jeff Browning are gods among men. One by one the miles ticked away as we reached the summit of Hankey Mountain at mile 25 and began a very pleasant descent on fire roads to the Lookout Mountain aid station (mile 30).

Not needing any supplies, I ran through the aid station and began bombing downhill toward North River Gap, per my usual strategy. This meant leaving Troy behind, but relationships are fleeting during an ultra. A few miles later, I realized that I was lower on water than I had thought. I also noticed that my GPS battery was dying even though only 8 hours had elapsed and the battery was rated for 12 hours (thanks Suunto). I still had miles to go before the North River Gap aid station, at which point my watch would be dead and I would be dehydrated.

I began to have the sort of illogical thoughts that ultrarunners tend to have during these moments: "Maybe my watch is running short, and the aid station is closer than I think." But these sort of things never happen when you want them to.

Then I found the aid station.

I couldn't believe it! My watch was showing 34.5 miles and I was running into the mile 37 aid station. I had also arrived 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Did I make a wrong turn and accidentally cut the course? I had been running with other people almost the entire time. Maybe we all cut the course? I would have to tell the race director what happened and risk being disqualified from my goal race...

These thoughts were put on the back burner when I realized that my crew would not be ready for me yet. Luckily the course passed right through the aid station parking area, and I spotted the silver pickup truck that we had borrowed for the weekend. I peaked in through the passenger side window, my headlamp illuminating the interior. Alex and my mom we're both reclined in the front seats, fast asleep. I rapped on the window and startled the hell out of both of them.

"Holy shit!" Alex yelled. And then, "I'm so sorry! Holy shit! I'm sorry."

I calmed her down by telling her that I was way ahead of schedule and that I was the one who made the schedule in the first place. She took a moment to throw on a rain jacket - mind you it was still pouring outside - before grabbing my GPS charger and a few other supplies from the bed of the truck. I set off toward the aid station while she and my mom got a change of socks, new water bottles, and a camp chair.

The nice thing about running in cold weather is that it becomes much easier to digest solid food. I took full advantage of this fact while I was waiting for my crew to catch up, snacking on grilled cheese, quesadillas, and whatever else looked appetizing. My crew quickly caught up, apologized a few more times, helped me change into new socks, and sent me on my way. All told, I spent 4 minutes in the aid station, which is a pretty minor delay in the grand scheme of things.

Alex is truly brave for getting this close to my feet mid-run

The Middle Third

I left the aid station in 66th place and began the long, long climb up Little Bald Knob: 2,600 vertical feet over the course of 7 miles. In a typical training run, I can cover 7 miles in a little under an hour. This stretch of trail would take me over two hours of continuous heart-pounding exertion. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I set off on the climb alone, as I am known to do. The solitude gave me time to think about the mileage that my GPS was displaying. Now it's typical for my GPS to be off by a few percentage points, especially in mountainous terrain where the satellite signal is bouncing around. But this was a huge error, and my early arrival at the aid station suggested that I really hadn't gone a full 37 miles. Where could I have gotten off course? I knew there were two bib punches in the first half of the race. Had I skipped one? I had also seen many of the course markings torn down (I would later learn that the local hunters were feeling territorial). Maybe they altered the course?

These sort of thoughts continued for a while, making this a serious low point for me mentally. However, I still had plenty of energy and was moving well. When I caught up to a group in front of me, I asked if their GPS mileage was off, and whether there had been a second bib punch. They told me that they had gone about the same distance as me and the bib punch was up ahead a few miles. Whew! I still wasn't totally convinced though, and I would continue to harass other runners with these questions for the next few miles.

Up and up and up and up.

Rain rain rain rain fog rain rain.

The Wild Oak Trail, which the course followed for the duration of this climb, is on a ridge line with (supposedly) spectacular views. However, the fact that it was 3 a.m. combined with the dense fog meant that I was only able to see a few feet in front of me at all times. I followed the circular beam of my headlamp and focused on my breathing. Step, breathe in, step, breathe out, step, breathe in... After a while, it became meditative, maybe even enjoyable. No, I take it back. Definitely not enjoyable. But it did feel very cool being alone on a mountain ridge. The night was silent except for my breathing and the rain pelting the leaves around me; pitch black except for the small orb of light in front of me. I passed a few small groups during the climb but was otherwise alone the entire way.

Artist's depiction

After an eternity, I summited the mountain and began the short descent to the mile 45 aid station. I confirmed with the volunteers there that the second bib punch was still ahead on the course (I really should have memorized the details of the course better), then grabbed some food and quickly moved on.

The next mile or two went gradually downhill on a gravel fire road, and I was able to pick up my pace for the first time in a few hours. It was here that the race leaders started to pass me coming back toward the finish line. Cheering for them was rejuvenating, and I made quick work of the next few uphill miles leading to the Reddish Knob bib punch. I met several people on the short out-and-back section to Reddish Knob, and each of them warned me that the orienteering punch was not there (local kids had stolen it). I made the trek to the summit anyway and took a cursory look around in the bushes for the punch.

As I was milling around, fellow NJ ultrarunner and all around badass Jun Bermudez caught up to me. Along with running some of the most prestigious 100 milers in the US, Jun has finished the Bigfoot 200 (that's not a typo) and completed a lap of the Barkley Marathons (yes, the real one). In short, this is a guy who knows his way around long distances. We concurred that the punch was indeed missing and set off to the Briery Branch Gap aid station together. He noted that I was only wearing a thin compression shirt.

"Are you cold?" he asked.

"Nope," I responded, and then thought about it for a second. "Well maybe a little."

He suggested putting on a rain jacket at the next aid station. I had one stashed in my pack (at Alex's insistence before the race), but had been avoiding it since I always feel clammy and uncomfortable running in waterproof layers. Nevertheless, he was right. Hypothermia is a major cause of DNF's in 100 mile races, and I needed to stay warm.

Shortly after 6 a.m., 12 hours elapsed in the race, we pulled into Briery Branch Gap, which was the turn around point in the course. I was now in 45th place. I changed my socks and put on a new compression shirt. In the time it took me to do that, I started shivering. After some further prodding from my mom and Alex, I finally put on my jacket.

Concerned mom

I chugged a hot cup of coffee and walked over to the fire pit to warm up. A quick glance at the shivering miserable faces of the other runners who were huddled around the fire convinced me that this was a terrible idea, and I hit the road. The only good way to warm up was to keep moving.

Can someone do something about all this rain?

On the climb out of the aid station, I again caught up to Jun, who had left a few minutes ahead of me. We talked for a bit until he went running into the bushes, apparently suffering from some stomach issues. He caught up to me a few minutes later, but again had to run off. This cycle would repeat a few times until I finally pulled away for good. Jun would go on to finish in 26:45.

As the sun came up, I passed a number of familiar faces who were heading to the turnaround. I ran into Charlotte, who was still smiling. She would later summit Reddish Knob with Barkley legend John Fegyveresi and go on to finish in 29:17, well under her 30 hour goal. I passed Otto Lam, who had run the Grand Slam of 100 Milers and was capping off his racing season with yet another brutal race. He looked cold and low on energy, but would gut out a 33:47 finish to go 6 for 6 on 100 mile races for the year. The steady stream of friends and acquaintances was a welcome distraction from the fact that the fog was obscuring the panoramic views from the ridge.

Artist's depiction

It turns out that I'm a very visual person, and the constant lack vistas at the mountain tops would slowly drain my enthusiasm over the course of the race. More on this later.

After a few miles of rolling hills, I began the long descent from Little Bald Knob. After 14 straight hours of rain, the Wild Oak Trail had become a giant muddy slip 'n slide. I can usually count on my downhill running ability in an ultra, but the two hour descent was filled with stutter stepping, side to side movement, and occasionally stopping dead in my tracks to avoid faceplanting in the muddy trail. I was totally unable to build up any momentum, and I knew I was shredding my quads in the struggle to stay upright.

By the time I got to the North River Gap aid station for the second time (mile 65), I knew that it was going to be a long day. My quads didn't hurt yet, and I still had gas in the tank, but I had just dealt a huge amount of damage to my legs which would come back to bite me at some point. Luckily, I only had 15 miles left to run before Alex would join me. With that in mind, and some new socks on my feet, I headed back out onto the trail. I had moved up to 35th place and was determined to catch a few more people before I finished.

The Final Push

The gradual 2,000 foot climb that ensued was fairly uneventful, although I became increasingly aware that my pace was dropping. For some reason, the cold weather had made it difficult for me to stomach the usual 20 oz. of water and 200 calories of Tailwind that usually forms the base of my nutrition. Instead, I had been relying heavily on the solid food at aid stations. On the plus side, holy crap are hot breakfast burritos delicious when it's 45 degrees and raining! On the other hand, it's hard to eat 200+ calories per hour of real food while you are running.

At mile 75, I reached the top of Hankey Mountain for the second time and began the gradual 1,500 foot descent to Dowell's Draft, where Alex would be waiting to pace me. You may recall that I awkwardly ran/hiked this section with Troy earlier in the race, and that we both agreed that it would be fun to run down on the return journey. With that in mind, I opened up my stride and managed a few 11:00-ish miles, passing by a handful of runners. I was feeling pretty good about my ability to run on technical terrain this late in the race, but wondered how much longer it would last. Spoiler: not much longer.

Ultrarunner or dead body that was pulled out of a river? You decide!

I pulled into Dowell's Draft with 19:20 elapsed. This was right between my 24 and 26 hour pace splits, so we figured 25 hours would be a decent goal to shoot for. Alex was ready and raring to go, so I scooped up a handful of food and we got back on the trail.

Mom: Can I take a quick picture?
Me: Sure, but I won't stop eating.
Alex: (always looks cute)

The first few miles with Alex were fun. It was great to catch up after being by myself for almost a full day. I told her how I was feeling (good, with 75% forecast of bad), and she updated me on the other runners she had seen, including her brush with stardom earlier in the race.

When we started the 2.5 mile, 1,500 foot ascent of Crawford Mountain, things started to unravel. With my nutrition suffering, I had been increasingly struggling with uphill sections for the past few hours. I pushed hard on this climb, but was only managing 20:00+ miles. Strava tells me that my grade-adjusted pace (equivalent pace on flat ground) was 13:00-14:00 per mile, which isn't terrible, but at the time it felt like I would never reach the summit. After a full hour of climbing and many false summits, we reached the top.

These glutes were made for walking
And that's just what they'll do

I'm again going to point out that I didn't memorize the elevation profile of the course, and I had somehow convinced myself that Crawford Mountain was the final big climb. Au contraire. A painful 1,000 foot descent brought us to Dry Branch Gap aid station at mile 87, after which we had another 1,600 feet of climbing to reach Eliot Knob. Woo boy!

Coming into Dry Branch Gap with my wonderful pacer

Now, starting to run on fumes, and depressed by the constant rain and fog, I began to really struggle. The thing about the Eliot Knob Trail is that it has a never-ending series of false summits. Just when you think you're at the top, you turn a corner and find yourself staring up another 300 foot climb. After a few of these, I hit my lowest point of the entire race. Poor Alex did her best to cheer me up. She sang and danced and told me how amazing I was for doing this race. All she got in return were grunts and groans from her grumpy husband.

At last, we hit the technical section of the trail, which meant that we had about a mile to go until the summit. However, after 23 hours of running and over 30 hours without sleep, my coordination (and sanity) were beginning to suffer. I slipped constantly and began to hallucinate.

Zombie Ryan attempt to negotiate the "trail"

The following conversation played out a half dozen times during the final miles of climbing.

Me: Oh, there's the sign!
Alex: What sign?
Me: The sign that marks the turnoff at the end of the climb.
Alex: (furrowing her brow) ...Okay.

And, of course, there was no sign. Inevitably, the "sign" would turn out to be a leaf or a patch of moss on a tree. And each time, Alex would play along, although she began to suspect that there wasn't really a sign anywhere on the trail.

Finally, we came to the sign.

...this was my best effort at posing for a picture

Finally, the actual "last big climb" was over. I showed my elation by grunting at Alex as she took my picture (Sorry!).

Then began the steep 2,000 foot descent to the final aid station. At this point, my quads were feeling the full effect of the abuse that they had endured over the last 90 miles of running. Each step felt like I was being stabbed in the thighs. And there were a lot of steps left to go.

As we ran (Well, Alex ran. I hobbled.) down to the final aid station, we crossed several streams that I didn't remember from earlier in the race. Were we off course? No, I realized, this was just the runoff from the massive amount of rain that had fallen in the mountains over the previous 24 hours. What had been dry creak beds on Friday night were now fully flowing rivers on Saturday evening. I did my best to hop across on any exposed rocks, but dunked my feet a few times along the way.

After some very slow miles, we finally arrived at the mile 97 aid station with 24:14 elapsed. Only five miles less to go, and no more major climbs! However, I would soon come to learn that even the minor climbs at Grindstone are formidable on tired legs. I grabbed a handful of food, thanked the volunteers, and staggered back into the woods with my pacer in tow. The sun was just starting to set for the second time, and I reluctantly put my headlamp back on.

The home stretch! My body language here is telling.

Alex resumed her singing and chatting, trying to motivate me over these last few miles. Although the end was close, I still could not pull myself out of my funk. The trail leading away from the aid station immediately went uphill, climbing 500 feet in a mile and a half. I huffed and puffed the entire way up, totally depleted of energy.

"I thought we were done climbing!"

At last, we made it to the top, and it was all downhill to the finish. The final few miles were on very technical terrain, with several more stream crossings. At mile 99, I had my first and only wipe out of the race. I slipped on a wet rock, and my feet flew out from under me. After making sure I was okay, Alex let me know how hilarious I looked.

At mile 100, we were back on good trail and "running" (if 15 minute miles can be considered running). The beam from my headlamp danced off the wet leaves and rocks, and my hallucinations kicked in again.

A dog appeared on the side of the trail, happily wagging his tail as he watched us.

"Is that a dog!?" I asked Alex.

It was a fern blowing in the breeze.

A white rabbit darted across the trail and scurried into the bushes.

"Hey look - a rabbit!"

I'm pretty sure it was an actual rabbit, but Alex insists that she didn't see it. From then on, I kept my observations to myself.

Suddenly the camp came into view from across a small lake. All we had to do was negotiate another creek crossing and circle the lake and we were done!

"Careful," I warned Alex as we crossed the final creek, "The rocks here are slippery."

Within seconds, she had slipped on a rock and was on her butt in the middle of the trail. So at least we were even. After confirming that she was okay, I let her know how hilarious she looked.

We emerged from the woods and onto the gravel camp road. It felt slightly uphill, so I walked for a few steps until Alex chided me, "Come on! You can run this!"

I broke into a feeble jog, and we entered the camp. The finishing chute was up a short hill, but I refused to stop running. I powered up the little incline and ran straight through the finish. My final time was 25:39:09, good for 33rd place overall!

Final Thoughts

It took me a long time to write this report, in part because I wasn't sure how I felt about my race. Don't get me wrong - I'm proud of my final time and place. In fact, my slowdown over the last 20 miles cost me less than an hour and maybe a half dozen places. In the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty minor loss. My time was also on the low end of my predicted finish times. However, I've never had such a prolonged mental low point in a race. Some combination of the weather, exertion, sleep deprivation, and lack of scenery just destroyed my positivity after 80ish miles.

Rather than dwell too long on my emotional meltdown, I'll simply apologize to my pacer and attribute my grumpiness to a unique combination of hardships. Hopefully, my next 100 miler will have milder weather, nicer scenery, and less sleep deprivation. In fact, I might have to come back to Grindstone next year and see if I can go sub-24 hours!

Here's the bottom line though:


I got my Western States and Hardrock qualifier! I entered both lotteries with one ticket each. Although I was not selected, Grindstone was the first step in the right direction.

Oh, and on a lighter note, I finished Grindstone faster than the NJ Ultra Festival 100. Which means that Ultra Fest should count as a Hardrock qualifier. Rick, take note!

GPS data is on Strava
Official results are here

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Barkley Fall Classic 50K

Lazarus Lake, the architect of our misery

On September 17, I ran the Barkley Fall Classic. Mile for mile, it was the most difficult race I've ever done. It was awesome.

A Quick History Lesson

On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, TN. He was caught and sentenced to 99 years in Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison in the heart of the rugged mountains of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. In 1977, he escaped over the prison wall and fled into the steep brier infested wilderness. After 54 hours, he was found hiding under a pile of brush. He was cold, hungry, and exhausted. He had managed to go less than 8 miles in that time.

A cocky young ultrarunner named Gary Cantrell found Ray's feeble effort hilarious, and boasted that he could go 100 miles in that time. In the spring of 1984, he created the Barkley Marathons, a 60 hour 100 mile run through the heart of Frozen Head. Of the 800+ people who have attempted the Barkley since then, only 17 have finished, making it one of the most difficult endurance events on the planet. It is so difficult, in fact, that finishing a single 20 mile Barkley loop is considered a major accomplishment. Finishing 60 miles is considered a "Fun Run" and is the crowning accomplishment in some runners' careers. There are many peculiarities which make the Barkley unique and more difficult than other ultramarathons. For a more comprehensive description, I highly recommend watching The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young.

In 2014, Gary (who has since adopted the moniker Lazarus Lake or simply Laz) created the Barkley Fall Classic, along with the help of Steve Durbin, aka Durb. The BFC is a 50K race designed to give runners a taste of the big Barkley. Unlike its predecessor, the BFC course is marked and has aid stations at regular intervals. Like its predecessor, it contains some heinous climbs through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet. The prize for finishing is a Croix de Barque, pictured below. I earned one in 2015, and I was hoping to earn another this year.

Hard earned hardware

Speaking of Laz...

Most race directors try to develop a strong rapport with their runners, sending informative and friendly messages before race day. Laz, on the other hand, has a wry sense of humor and sends sarcastic, often dis-informative messages to the racers, and even engages in friendly pre-race heckling. Some examples:

"i will be surprised if more than 10% of the starters
can bring home the croix de barque.
if you get one of those babies,
it will mark you as a MAN among men
(we will be surprised if any women win one)"


All Barkley Fall Classic Aid Station Fare is guaranteed to be totally inorganic. Our aid station offerings are the product of multiple levels of processing, and can not be traced to any living source, plant or animal. Artificial preservatives are not required, as no microorganisms have yet evolved that can survive on this stuff."

But, like the Oracle in The Matrix, he is not telling you the truth, nor is he necessarily telling you what he believes to be true. He is telling you exactly what you need to hear to succeed in his race. Or, occasionally, he is just amusing himself. I was raised on a steady diet of sarcasm, so I find Laz's brand of humor hilarious. His comments are sprinkled throughout this report for your (and mostly my own) amusement.

Laz and I bonding at the 2015 BFC. He refused to get closer than this because I was too sweaty and smelly.

Laz also has a funny way of measuring distances in his races. Most big Barkley runners will tell you that the 100 mile course is really more like 120-130 miles. A "Laz mile" tends to be a little farther than a statute mile and much more difficult. In a Laz race, you have to redefine your concept of how long a mile takes to run. To add to the confusion, no GPS's were allowed in the race (due to the use of private property), so runners had no way of knowing how far they had gone except at aid stations.

The Early Trails

After months of sacrificing our weekends for long trail runs and hill repeats, Alex and I arrived at Frozen Head State park just in time to hear the ceremonial conch shell being blown, signaling one hour until the start of the race. At precisely 7am, Laz lit his cigarette, and the race was on.

Waiting for the race to start, back when we were young and happy

The first mile of the course was on a paved roadway. Last year I had started conservatively and ended up behind a line of runners when we got to the narrow single track trails. This year, I decided to start more aggressively to get out in front. Unfortunately, it appeared that everyone else had the same strategy. By the time we reached the famed yellow gate, there were at least 100 runners ahead of me. I planted a kiss on the gate (at the request of Kat Bermudez, whose husband Jun ran the big Barkley this spring), and began my ascent on the Bird Mountain trail.

Conga line on the Bird Mountain Trail
Photo by David White

"The worst climbs are in the second half of the course. The importance of this information will become obvious, when you start doing the climbs in the first half."

The 1,500 foot climb up the Bird Mountain Trail was slow but fairly uneventful. I chatted with the other runners as we power hiked our way up the fourteen switchbacks to the ridge line. The descent, however, was slow and painful. I like to fly on the downhills, and there was a huge line of runners in front of me who were tip-toeing cautiously down the trail. Ultrarunners refer to this as being in a conga line. Unlike weddings, conga lines in races are not enjoyable, at least not for me. I started to get antsy. As The Dude would say, I could not abide.

I began passing runners two or three at a time whenever the trail was wide enough. Most of them were kind enough to step to the side of the trail when I asked to pass, but others were a bit more stubborn and forced me to go off-trail to get around them. By the time we reached the end of the descent, 1,500 vertical feet later, I had passed about twenty people. I paid for this improvement in the form of a twisted ankle and an epic faceplant half way down the mountain. Luckily, no serious damage was done, except to my ego.

The second climb and descent on the North Boundary Trail was more of the same. During the ascent, I spent a few minutes talking to Christian Griffith, who led a blind runner through half of a big Barkley loop earlier in the year (BAMF!). Christian would go on to finish the full 50K in 11:42 after, for reasons unknown to me, stripping down to just his compression shorts. Running through Frozen Head does strange things to people's minds. After 2 hours and 15 minutes of hard work, I finally reached the first aid station... at mile 7.6. No, that number is not a mistake. Yes, that's an average pace of about 17:45 per mile. And yes, fellow BFC runners, that mileage is accurate (check the Frozen Head Park map). That's just how much harder a "Laz mile" than a normal mile.

After quickly refilling my water bottles, I was back on the trail and heading toward The Garden Spot. I got my bib punched by Barkley Fun Run finisher Mike Dobies, who offered the following sage advice: "You know, you're supposed to use your map." However, I would eventually decide that the best use of the cloth map was mopping sweat off my forehead.

The next few miles were fairly runnable (by Barkley standards), and I made good time to the Tub Spring aid station at mile 12.4. I don't remember how much time had elapsed at this point, but let's just assume that it was a lot. On the other hand, I was steadily passing people on every flat or downhill section, so I figured I was doing well. The following miles were again fairly runnable, and we eventually came to a ridge with a steep descent on either side.

The Hard Parts

"there will be times that you look at what lies ahead and think.... "no way!"
"yes, way."

This is where the course gets interesting. And this is what separates the Barkley Fall Classic from other races.

There are three off-trail hills in the Barkley Fall Classic, all of which have creative names and follow power line cuts. The first of these is Testicle Spectacle. As the legend goes, Barkley legend Frozen Ed Furtaw was scouting the course with Laz when they stumbled upon a monstrous climb through briers and brush. In awe, Frozen Ed crossed himself and said "spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch." Laz misheard him and named the hill Testicle Spectacle, reasoning that a climb this severe would be a display of testicular fortitude.

Pictures don't really do justice to this hill, but here's an attempt.

Testicle Spectacle from near the top of the climb
Photo by David White

But that picture makes it look a little too peaceful. Here's one from down in the trenches.

Runners climbing/descending the Testicle

We started at the top of this hill, followed the power lines to the bottom, frantically bushwhacked through the woods to get to an aid station, and then did the whole thing in reverse. Some of the descents were so steep that people were sliding down on their butts. I attempted to ski down them by pointing my feet to the side and sliding down slowly. This seemed to work well. On the ensuing climb, many sections required us to crawl on all fours, grasping desperately at roots and briers growing on the dusty hillside. All told, this single hill took 90 minutes of time as well as most of the skin on my thighs. On the bright side, I ran into Alex shortly before the summit. She was in good spirits and was not too far behind me. We exchanged a gross sweaty kiss in the middle of the trail before going our separate ways.

Next up was Meth Lab Hill, which (as far as I know) does not actually have a meth lab on it. It just looks like it should. This was another brier strewn descent, but mercifully we did not have to climb back to the top. It did require more bushwhacking as well as my remaining skin, however.

After a few more quick miles, now running completely alone, I reached the aid station at the gates of the now defunct Brushy Mountain Prison. Here a wonderful volunteer offered me a couple of ice cubes to put under my hat and the most delicious sip Coke I've ever had. He also informed me that I was somewhere around 20-25th place. Cool!

Brushy Mountain State Penitentary, surrounded by the mountains of Frozen Head State Park
Photo by Carolynn Nauta

The course wound through the main prison building, which had been left to decay after it was shuttered in 2009. It seemed more like the setting of an 80's horror movie than a competitive trail race. But it was also a temporary reprieve from the scalding sun, so I wasn't about to complain. I followed the course markings through the building and into the back courtyard, where a ladder was propped against the against the exterior wall. My eyes lit up. We were going to escape from the prison! I climbed over and took a mental picture of my surroundings, disappointed that I hadn't brought a camera. Luckily, some friends of mine did.

Climbing the prison wall
Photo by Alex

The view from the prison wall
Photo by David White

It was here that I caught up to a group that included Barkley Fun Run finisher Byron Backer and British runner Tobias Sangster-Bullers. Byron appeared to be suffering but would go on to finish the 50K in 12:50. Tobias seemed cheerful, but he would choose not to continue after completing the marathon distance in 8:12. Together we navigated to the prison tunnel, a water filled tunnel which runs underneath the prison grounds and features heavily in the Barkley documentary. The tunnel was pitch black except for a pin prick of light at the far end. I walked slowly and deliberately, happy to have some time for my heart rate to settle down before the next climb.

Walking through the prison tunnel
Photo by David White

"the BFC is going to break you down like a shotgun."

If you told me to design the least runnable mile of terrain I could imagine, I would show you a picture of Rat Jaw. Speaking of which, here's a picture of Rat Jaw.

See the trail? Me neither.

The old Barkley course, when drawn on a map, resembled a rat's head. One of the more brutal climbs on the course, a 1.2 mile off-trail trek which ascended 1,700 feet, appeared to be the jaw of the rat. Hence the name. Rat Jaw is another power line cut which barrels uphill from the prison to the highest point in Frozen Head State Park. Last year the climb was infested with ten foot high saw briers (pictured above) which made forward progress impossibly slow. This year the briers were mowed by the power company, possibly in an act of pity. This had the unfortunate side effect of removing all shade, leaving us to bear the full brunt of the sun on what was now a 90 degree day.

The first couple feet of climbing give you some idea of what you're in for.

The first pitch of Rat Jaw
Photo by Mary Hosbrough

If this was in a climbing gym, it would be considered a low grade bouldering problem. If you make it to this point in the course, there are two things to consider. The bad news is that this is only a small fraction of the climbing involved in Rat Jaw. The good news is that some day, the sun will engulf the earth in a fiery inferno, and life as we know it will cease to exist. The point is that there is a definite end to the suffering.

Somewhere in the midst of the Rat
Photo by Carolynn Nauta

There are no words that can adequately convey the amount of suffering involved in scaling an  infinitely long, impossibly steep, brier strewn, hot as balls hellscape. Perhaps the best account comes from Mean Jean Baker's race report: "Rat Jaw became my new childbirth experience and horrifically reset my pain tolerance."

Finally reaching the top in the 2015 race

After many, many, many (MANY!) false summits, I finally reached the top of the climb. I had started from the prison with a group of three and I was again by myself, having slowly eked away from them over the course of the climb. I glanced at my wristwatch. It had taken 59 minutes to go 1.2 miles. In a race. Where I passed people. The climb was hard, I guess, is the point I'm trying to make.

Once at the top of the climb, I scaled the fire tower for another bib punch. I took a second to enjoy the view...

Oooh, aaahhh....
Photo by Alex

...before making my way back down to Tub Spring, where I voraciously gulped down several bottle fulls of water. After another 4 or 5 downhill miles, I got to Laz at the decision point. If I went straight and chose the marathon finish, would be done in ten minutes and have my head buried in a cooler full of ice shortly thereafter. This seemed tempting. If I turned left, I had a grueling 9+ mile 2,000 foot climb and descent ahead of me before I could cool off.

"if it was easy, what would be the point?"

Needless to say, I turned left.

One Final Push

After a quick sock change and a swig of Coke from my drop bag, I made the left turn to continue on to the 50K finish line. Laz's parting words were "the rest of the course is a gentle downhill." Ha!

The one redeeming quality of the Chimney Top Trail is that it's an actual trail, unlike the previous climbs on the course. Unfortunately, it is also a viciously steep and poorly maintained trail. With the help of another runner, I navigated the tricky beginning of the trail and then began the long march to the Chimney Top capstones.

I climbed steadily for about half an hour before reaching a descent, which I recognized from last year as the first of many false summits. After a few welcome minutes of downhill running, the trail resumed its ascent of Chimney Top Mountain. My legs were starting to get tired, but nothing was painful yet, so I pushed hard during this climb. I caught up to and passed Dewayne Satterfield, who is a Barkley Fun Run finisher and elite master's runner. In our brief encounter, he paid me one of the nicest compliments I have ever received during a race: "Go ahead. Your climbing pace is faster than mine." The months of hill repeats had finally paid off!

The sandstone caps at the peak of Chimney Top Mountain
Photo from

The final push to the summit was so steep that I had to grab trees for leverage. It was hard to believe that this was an actual trail! After an hour and fifteen minutes of climbing since the decision point, I finally reached the capstones. I broke into a feeble jog, but the trail was so rocky that my pace was barely faster than a walk. I slowly descended a few hundred feet before climbing again to a neighboring peak. I still had some life left in my legs, but the trail was just to technical to allow actual running.

Half an hour after reaching the capstones, I came to the Spicewood aid station, which marked the beginning of the long descent to the finish. I was finally done climbing! I reached the aid station at the same time as another runner and decided that I was going to beat him to the finish. Luckily for me, he stopped for a while to re-hydrate and chat with the lone volunteer, while I stopped just long enough to fill a water bottle.

I took off down the trail, looking to put an exclamation point on what I considered a successful day of running. My quads still felt good, so I pushed hard on the runnable terrain. After thirty minutes, I had lost all of the elevation that I had fought to gain over the preceding two hours. As I rounded a bend, Laz and the aid station came into view. A few spectators clapped as I emerged from the woods and hit the pavement for the final mile of the course.

With no other runners around and no pressing time goals, I was able to enjoy the final few minutes of the race and take in the scenery. It was still blisteringly hot, but I was almost done. As I came into the finish area, I spotted Alex. This meant that she had not made the time cutoff at the marathon mark, which I knew would be heartbreaking for her. Despite this, she smiled and cheered for me as I ran past her.

Coming into the finish line
Photo by Alex

The finish line was pretty subdued since not many runners had come in yet (first world problems...), but I was ecstatic to be done.

Finally done!
Photo by Misty Herron Wong

I crossed the finish line in 10:10:47, 12th place of 324 starters. I had finished 47 minutes faster than last year on a harder course and in worse conditions. I had also posted the sixth fastest time on the climb and descent of Chimney Top, meaning that I finished strong. My race was a success!


"thank you for sharing your great adventure with me.
the mixture of joy and pain in your faces,
as you flew past me on the homestretch
will inspire me forever."

The one downside to my race was that I could not share my victory with Alex. Having trained for months specifically for this race, she was inconsolable about not being able to finish the 50K. More devastatingly, she knew that she would have to come back to the BFC again to finally beat the course. However, she had overcome the heat, the briers, the harder course, and four wasp stings to improve her BFC time by more than two hours since last year. She is an inspiration, and she will continue to improve as she develops more experience.

We lounged around for an hour, icing ourselves down while we watched the other runners finish, until the sand flies finally drove us away. We then spent a night in a quaint little bed and breakfast before driving down to Great Smoky Mountain National Park to continue our Tennessee adventure.

Rat bites and a Croix de Barque: my Barkley souvenirs

So How Hard Is It?

It's hard to describe the difficulty of this course in words. It has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

On one hand, most of the course is on established trails, which are not overly technical by east coast standards (west coast runners, who tend to have a different definition of "technical," might be in for a surprise though). In fact, there is almost no navigation required, unlike the big Barkley. On the other hand, the off trail segments are devastatingly slow. By my estimations, my pace on Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw were 45:00/mile and 49:00/mile respectively. And believe me, I was not dawdling on these climbs. Add to this the stress of thrashing around in saw briers, being stung by wasps, and the lack of aid stations, and you have one of the hardest 50K's around.

Consider the following fact: In 2013, Jason Lantz won the Vermont 100, one of the oldest and most prestigious trail ultras on the east coast. Over the course of that race, which cumulatively climbs 15,000 feet, he averaged 9:14/mile. At the Barkley Fall Classic, a race that is about one third the distance, he averaged 14:10/mile.

In a word, it's difficult.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On My First DNF

I'm going to post my last two races out of order because I'd rather not dwell on this one for too long. On 9/17, I ran the Barkley Fall Classic and had one of the best performances of my life. One week later, I entered the Mountain Madness 50K and dropped out of the race for the first time in my running career. The latter story will be the focus of this post.


After a brutal Barkley race the prior weekend and three days of intense hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, Alex and I signed up for Mountain Madness on a whim. We both had "credits" with NJ Trail Series from volunteering and making the podium in previous races. This allowed us to sign up for about $20 combined. Alex wisely chose the 7 miler, and I decided to use the 50K as my last long training run before Grindstone 100, which will be on 10/7.

The Race

The MoMa course is held on the beautiful single track trails of Ringwood State Park in NJ's Ramapo Mountains. The 50K has about 5,000 feet of elevation gain and is known for being rocky and technical. I decided that this would be excellent preparation for the technical trails that I would face during Grindstone, and I told myself that this would not be a "race" in the conventional sense, but rather a long easy effort to get in more mileage. The last thing I wanted to do was push too hard and injure myself two weeks before my 'A' race for the year.

We started promptly at 9am in perfect 60 degree weather. Although I'm usually a solitary runner, I quickly found myself behind a group of three guys about my age, some of whom had run the course before. This allowed me to put my head down and just focus on running, while leaving the tricky navigation up to them (mistake #1). We chatted as we effortlessly clicked off the first few miles of rocky trail. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we made a crucial navigation error only 2.3 miles into the race, where the course crosses over itself. Following an arrow that was not intended for us, we had turned right instead of going straight at an intersection (mistake #2).

The clusterfiasco that was my MoMa race

We followed this trail for a mile and a half, all of it in exactly the wrong direction. At mile 3.9, we came to a fork in the trail that we were not expecting. After a too-quick glance at the map and a bit of frantic discussion, we chose to go left and took off at a brisk pace (mistake #3). Half a mile later, we realized that we were approaching the finish line (27 miles too soon!) and turned back. We came back to the fork at mile 4.9 and decided that we should have gone right, although we were still on the wrong section of trail entirely (mistake #4). We followed this trail for another half mile until we saw an arrow that pointed back in the direction that we came from and realized that we were - at best - several miles off course.

At this point, the three other runners decided that their race was over and ran straight to the finish. I decided to continue on by myself, still not totally sure where I was on the course. I floundered around in the wilderness for a while, running way too fast on my tired legs with the intention of making up lost ground. By the time I figured out where I was, I had gone almost six miles off course. I arrived at the first aid station more than an hour behind my anticipated time.

Regardless, I wanted to finish the race. I was feeling strong, and the weather was perfect, now sunny and 70 degrees. Unfortunately, my body had other plans.

Half a mile from the aid station, still running hard to make up for lost time, I felt a familiar tightness in my right hamstring. It was the same little cluster of muscle fibers that had bothered me during, and after, the NJ marathon. I knew that I could run through this issue as long as I was cautious. Hell, I had run 7:15 miles at the end of that marathon without too much issue. As that thought went through my head, I tripped over a small rock and extended my right leg to catch myself. My hamstring seized, and what had been a small twinge of pain turned into a full on muscle pull. My race was over; I just didn't know it yet.

I gingerly jogged onward, but the hamstring complained. I tried stretching. I walked for a bit. I stretched again. Nothing worked. I could still run, but every step put me at risk of further injuring myself and jeopardizing my Grindstone 100 race. My Hardrock and Western States qualifier. My one chance this year to enter the lottery for the two most prestigious 100 mile races in the country. I knew what I had to do. I limped back to the aid station and informed the volunteers that I was dropping out. I had a long and solemn seven mile walk back to the finish line to think about what had just transpired.

A few 25K runners passed me as I got close to the finish, and I could hear the crowd cheering for them. I ducked behind a nearby building and sneaked into the finish area. I didn't want people cheering as I came in.

Some Perspective

I always took a lot of pride - maybe too much pride - in finishing every race that I started. Until this past weekend, I had run 6 marathons and 17 ultramarathons and never dropped out, despite fighting through heat, cold, rain, snow, and extreme fatigue. This stubbornness has even earned me a few victories in races where no other runner was willing to continue.

I always imagined that my first DNF (did not finish) would result from some horrific injury: a broken leg, being struck by lightning, getting mauled by a bear, etc. Instead, it was a small twinge of pain in the back of my leg and the specter of missing my goal race.

I suppose I made the mature decision to drop before hurting myself even worse and compromising months of training and preparation. I suppose it was only a matter of time before I had to withdraw from a race for one reason or another. It still stings. But what's done is done. My hamstring is healing, and I'm on track to start my big race in 10 days (gulp!). Alex, incidentally, had a great MoMa race and finished on the podium in third! Her success softened the blow from my epic failure.

A Final Analogy

This self serving post has gone on for way too long already, but I want to finish with a final thought.

Back before Alex and I became runners, we were indoor rock climbers. We would go to a rock gym 2-3 times a week and usually spend a couple hours top-roping and bouldering. We had very different approaches to climbing. Alex hated falling, and she would choose routes that she knew she could complete. I, on the other hand, had no qualms about flailing around on routes that were well above my ability level, falling repeatedly while Alex dutifully belayed. Often, I tried to convince her that she needed to fall more. Falling was a sign that you were pushing your limits during a climb. That you were challenging yourself and improving.

Since taking up running, our attitudes have switched somewhat. I have used conservative race strategies, and even avoided a few races altogether, to maximize my chances of finishing everything I started. Alex, on the other hand, has signed up for a few races that she knew would be tough, maybe even impossible, to finish.

So maybe I need to fall more.

Or maybe I should just stop overthinking these things and go for a run.