Thursday, November 29, 2018

Anatomy of a Meltdown - Grindstone 2018

"100 miles is not that far." —Karl Meltzer, ultrarunning legend
"Fuck off, Karl." —Ryan Thorpe, mid-pack doofus

They say suffering builds character. Well I just built a shit load of character in the mountains of Virginia. To get right to the point, I finished Grindstone in 27:59, a personal worst for the 100 mile distance and a 3+ hour positive split. Along the way I encountered more pain than I've ever experienced in a race.

Not from this race, but still very accurate

It took a while to get around to this post for reasons that will soon become clear. I contemplated burning the (mental) footage of this race, but then I figured it might be useful to list all the things that went wrong for the sake of posterity. You can think of this as an autopsy on the corpse of my race. 

Anyway, here are all my mistakes in chronological order.

Mistake #1: Not Training

After the 2017 Grindstone, I vowed never to toe the line of a 100 mile race without a solid training block under my belt. Training obviously prepares your body for the stress of running 100 miles, but it also gives you the confidence to tackle a huge endeavor like Grindstone.

With this in mind, I put in a four week block with 15,000' of climbing per week in May and then another three week block with 20,000' per week in July. I capped this off with a 15-hour self supported Swan Song Loop in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

Elevation profile from one of my harder training runs:
four repeats of Peekamoose Mountain in 85 degree weather.

This would have all been excellent preparation for my original goal race, the Fat Dog 120 in August. However, Fat Dog was canceled due to horrifically bad wildfires that left the entire west coast of North America choked in hazy black smoke for months.

Unable to muster the enthusiasm for another hard training block, and facing work and family commitments that I had put off for months, I slacked off on my training in August and September, and I showed up to Grindstone under-prepared and under-confident.

Mistake #2: Not Acclimating to the Heat

This goes hand in hand with the previous mistake. Grindstone was abnormally hot this year with a heat index that varied from 70-85 degrees. Various estimates say that this temperature range slows runners down by 10-20% unless they make a concerted effort to acclimate before race day. I did not make any such concerted effort, and therefore I suffered. See the race footage below.

Even before my nutritional and chafing woes later in the race, I was never comfortable with the hot humid weather on race day. When I saw Bryan Slotterbach around mile 55 and he asked me how I was feeling, my immediate response was "I feel like shit!"

Mistake #3: Not Testing My Race Gear

Oh boy, this is the big one.

As the old saying goes, "don't do anything new on race day." But as a seasoned 100 mile veteran, I of course know better. Let's break this mistake down a little further:
  • Had I trained in my (relatively) new shoes rather than "saving them for race day," I would have realized that they were full of volcanic dust from a brief run at Mount St. Helens back in August. I also would have realized that this silica rich dust has a tendency to turn my socks into sandpaper and chafe the ever-loving hell out of my feet. I finished Grindstone with blisters on the top and bottom of both feet, as well as severe chafing on the sock line of my ankles. My foot pain was so severe by the end of the race that I could barely walk, let alone run.
  • Had I used my fancy new Salomon soft flasks I would have realized that they are impossible to fill with Tailwind powder, my preferred nutrition. Luckily I had packed an Ultimate Direction flask with a wider mouth. I filled it with a double strength Tailwind mix to make up for the two useless Salomon flasks. This double strength mixture proved to be nauseatingly strong later in the race, causing me to dry heave whenever I took a drink. Unable to take in calories, I hit the wall hard around mile 80 and even ended up having dizzy spells around mile 90. (Cheers to my family, who didn't know about that last part until just now!)
Seriously, how TF are you supposed to get
anything other than water into that opening!?

Mistake #4: Not Getting Enough Sleep

Grindstone is somewhat unique in that it has a 6pm Friday start time. For night owls like me, this is not usually an issue since it gets the nighttime running out of the way early in the race. My typical pre-race plan is to drive down on Thursday night, sleep in as late as possible on Friday, and start the race feeling fresh.

Well... I drove down late on Thursday as planned and arrived at 2am. To save money, I booked a room at a local Airbnb. The house was beautiful, but my "room" was an alcove that was separated from the living area by just a curtain. At 7am the owner's very friendly dog came sniffing around to inspect the new human (me) that was staying in his house. I woke up to a wet nose in my ear, which was really cute but not the best way to start a 40+ hour day.

Mistake #5: Not Having a Crew

Okay, this is not really a mistake. But I did underestimate the importance of having a crew. This was my first 100 mile race that Alex was not able to attend. I knew that crews saved me valuable time at aid stations and provided much needed moral support, but I didn't appreciate all the problem solving that a crew does in order to get a runner to the finish line.

Including dealing with gross foot issues.

In 100 mile races, small problems can rapidly turn into big problems. And this race was an endless parade of small problems that I was not equipped to deal with on my own.

Alex, please come back!

Mistake #6: Killing My Car Battery

This is not really related to my race performance, but I did manage to kill my battery by charging my phone and playing the radio before the start of the race. By the time I realized what I had done, the race was about to start and there was nothing I could do to fix the issue. Some nice volunteers helped me jump it afterwards, but this stupid issue was on my mind for the entire 28 hours I was on the course.

Mistake #7: Not Fixing Small Issues

I don't like stopping during races. I typically limit myself to 1-2 sock changes in a 100 miler and otherwise I don't sit down at all. Sitting breaks up my momentum in a way that I often have trouble recovering from.

There's plenty of time to sit after the race
Photo taken by Alex in 2017 (obviously happier times)

However, this was one of those races where an extra 5-10 minutes at a few aid stations would have saved me a lot of time and trouble later on. I had extra socks stashed at the 66 mile aid station which I opted not to use because I didn't want to sit. I also could have taken some time to eat and drink to make up for my other nutrition issues. Instead, I stubbornly pushed on, getting progressively slower until I could barely walk forward.

Mistake #8: Doing It All Over Again

I have visited the pain cave in previous races. I would even say that I'm well acquainted with it. But this race was where I finally made a permanent residence in the pain cave. Or at least built a summer home.

Despite all this, I'm already dreaming of next year's races. So, obviously I haven't learned my lesson at all. I'm not sure what 2019 will bring, but I have some big things in mind.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Les Trois Croix - Barkley Fall Classic 2018

"It doesn't get any easier; you just get faster" Greg LeMond

You also don't look any prettier.
Photo by Misty Wong

I'm going to be honest with you guys. I was not in a good place after Fat Dog 120 was canceled in August. I had put months of hard training into that race, and I arrived on the west coast feeling the fittest I've ever been. Flying home without a buckle was demoralizing. I felt like I had wasted all of those long weekends that I spent logging tens of thousands of feet of climbing and descending.

I needed a win. And by that, I mean that I needed to get my ass kicked in a race.

That's where the Barkley Fall Classic comes into this story.


I have written extensively about the history behind the Barkley Fall Classic, so I won't go into much detail here. Suffice it to say that the BFC is one of the hardest 50K's in the country, combining a stout 11,000+ feet of climbing and descending with extended sections of bushwhacking and a bit of navigation through the backcountry trails of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. The winning times have varied from 7.5 hours to 9.5 hours over the years, and the top male and female receive a guaranteed entry into the Barkley Marathons.

I had run this race in 2015 and 2016, back before the Barkley Marathons was catapulted to worldwide fame by a documentary. When I tried to sign up for this year's race, I quickly learned that this little known 50K had grown up. The massive wave of people simultaneously attempting to register crashed UltraSignup for several hours in the middle of the night. But when the dust settled, I was in!

The Wednesday before the race, I got a text from my buddy Mike Siudy asking if he could drive down to Tennessee with me. He had just gotten off the wait list 11 months after signing up! Three days later, we found ourselves standing at the starting line of the Barkley Fall Classic, ready to tackle a beast of a race.

It Begins... (Start to Salvation Road)

At precisely 7am, Laz lit a cigarette and we were off.

Lazarus Lake is the conductor in a symphony of pain
Photo by Kristopher Cargile

About a week before the race, I had written a snarky condescending post titled How to Survive the Barkley Fall Classic (maybe), in which I recommended training hard and starting the race at an easy pace. So naturally, I showed up to the starting line in questionable shape and I hauled ass for the first 1.5 miles to get around the teeming crowd of runners.

So uhh... do as I say, not as I do.

By the time we hit the narrow singletrack of Bird Mountain Trail, I found myself in about 50th place which seemed perfect. I was quickly passed on the first climb by Mike and Giuseppe Cavallo (with whom I had shared some miles at Manitou's Revenge) as well as a half dozen other runners. 60th place was fine too.

I plodded onward, allowing my heart rate to settle a bit after the frantic start. The first several hours of BFC are all on well established trails, and it's almost impossible to get lost. I say almost impossible because I had to correct several runners who inexplicably started to follow unmarked game trails or dry creek beds during these early miles. But then, who am I to judge other runners for poor navigation.

♫ Makin' my way uphill / Walkin' fast, trees pass / And I'm Rat Jaw bound
Photo by Misty Wong
Lyrics by Vanessa Carlton, sort of

The first few climbs and descents were uneventful. As usual, I got passed or maintained my position on the climbs and then passed other runners on the descents. I reached the first aid station in just over two hours, which was about 10 minutes faster than in 2016.

The aid station volunteers were football players from Coalfield High School, and they proudly informed me that they had won their game the previous night. In fact, I found out later, they had crushed their local rivals by a score of 49-0! Despite their victory, they were extremely humble and supportive of the runners. Most of their questions and statements were followed by the word "sir."

"Can I fill your water bottles, sir?"

"You're doing a great job, sir!"

I felt like a celebrity getting that kind of treatment, aside from the fact that I smelled and looked like some kind of drowned woodland rodent.

Anyway, back to the race. The new section of the course on Fork Mountain was covered in mud and standing water, but was otherwise pretty runnable. On the long descent down to Rt. 116 the trail became more exposed, and the heat and humidity started kicking in. I absolutely hate running in the heat, and the forecasts had called for a heat index of 98 degrees during the afternoon. I took the next few miles pretty easy to keep my core temperature down, and then I immediately doused myself in creek water when I reached the Salvation Road aid station.

Not me, but you get the idea
Photo by Mary Bogart

Beat the Rat (Salvation Road to Decision Point)

Now four hours and 15ish miles in, we were about to begin the crux of the race: the powerlines. The next five miles would take over two hours and include more than 4,000 feet of elevation change through briers, brambles, and brush (oh my!).

This was what I came for.

First up was Testicle Spectacle, a mile-long 800+ foot climb with multiple pitches, making it impossible to see the top from the bottom. The course followed rough jeep tracks briefly before crossing several dry creek beds and then ascending so steeply that I had to dig my hands into the dirt to pull myself up. I passed a handful of other runners in this section, one of whom was hunched over vomiting.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Yeah," he responded between heaves. "What's the name of this climb? I want to remember where I started puking."

Forty minutes later I reached the summit and was surprised to find a birthday party in full swing.

You never know what you'll find on the trails of Frozen Head

"Thanks for coming to my birthday party!" cheered a woman wearing beads and a party hat.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world!" I responded. The crowd seemed pleased.

That feeling when you get to stop climbing

Having gained a bunch of elevation over the past forty minutes, it was time to give it all back. The descent was down another steep slope known lovingly as Meth Lab Hill. As in previous years, there were clear butt slide marks down the steepest sections where other runners had abandoned all hope of staying on their feet. I managed to keep my footing by turning sideways and surfing down. Sadly I don't have any pictures of this. I'm sure I looked very cool.

I arrived at the bottom of the hill still feeling fresh, but much hotter than I would have preferred. I found a muddy creek and splashed water on my face and neck. If I turn out to have an e coli infection later on, I want it known that this creek was the culprit.

Having cooled off sufficiently in dirty Meth Lab Hill water, it was time to face the rarest of obstacles in the Barkley Fall Classic: a mile of running on flat pavement. How bizarre! I trotted along at a conservative pace, keenly aware of how quickly my core temperature was increasing despite being soaked in water.

A short while later, I arrived at the entrance of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Race volunteers directed me through the prison yard and up to the rear wall where James Early Ray had escaped decades before. Standing guard at the top of the wall was none other than Jared Campbell, the legendary ultrarunner, adventurer, and only three-time Barkley Marathons finisher.

Typical Saturday. Thrash around through briers and escape from prison. The usual.
Photo by Larry Perry

Before I left for Tennessee, Alex had told me in no uncertain terms to take a selfie with Jared. I'm not one to disappoint my wife, so I scurried over as fast as my legs could carry me and snapped a picture.


Jared directed me and another runner toward the prison tunnel. The other runner, who shall not be named here, was very dismissive. He informed Jared that he had run this race before and didn't need directions. Naturally he wandered off course during the next climb and I didn't see him again until after the end of the race. The lesson: when Jared Campbell gives you advice on navigating Frozen Head, you listen to him! (I would end up talking to this runner later on, and he's a good guy. Hey other runner, if you're reading this, please take this in the good nature it is intended.)


The prison tunnel was a welcome break from the midday sun, but it was short lived. At the end of the tunnel, we began the hardest mile of the race: a 1,700 foot ascent of Rat Jaw.

Let's set the stage. Most runners reach Rat Jaw during the hottest part of the day. Unlike the other power line cuts, Rat Jaw has no discernible path. The lead runners have to force their way through thickets of head-high briars, and subsequent runners can (sometimes) follow the faint trail that's left behind. Rat Jaw is also significantly longer and steeper than the prior powerline cuts. Oh and it's also exposed to the sun for its entire length. In short, it's a slog.

Spot the runner in the brier patch
Photo by Misty Wong

As you might expect, this was where the race really started to take a toll on the field of runners. One by one I passed people sitting or hunched over on the side of the "trail." More than once, I started leading a group of runners through the briers only to turn around and find that they had stopped when they found a small patch of shade. I knew if I rested, I would never be able to convince myself to get going again. Onward and upward, or some stupid shit like that.

As I remembered from previous years, the climb was endless. Time stood still on that mountain. I heard my heartbeat pounding in my ears as my head threatened to explode from the heat and exertion. I began to wonder if I had died and was sentenced to an eternity of climbing in this sun scorched hellscape. After weeks (months? years?) of climbing, the fire tower came into view.

By the time I reached the top, my legs were covered in fresh blood, and the rest of me was covered in sweat, dirt, and debris. It had taken 62 minutes to cover the previous mile. Photographer Misty Wong snapped a picture of me smiling like an idiot, but she informed me that she wanted pictures of crying devastated runners, hence the picture at the top of the post.

Counting how many gallons of blood I spilled on the course
Photo by Misty Wong

The view from the fire tower was nice, but I didn't stick around any longer than necessary. I passed Giuseppe on the way down from the tower and wished him well.

You can see why they chose to build a prison in this wilderness
Photo by Sword Performance

It was time to get back on real trails and - get this! - run for a little while. The four mile descent to the decision point was pretty tame by east coast standards, but I couldn't muster anything more than a jog. Although my legs felt fine, the heat had sapped my energy. Fifty minutes later, I arrived at the decision point.

One Last Climb (Decision Point to Finish)

I stuffed some food and pickle juice in my mouth, refilled my bottles, and marched over to Laz for the final bib punch.

"Are you continuing on, or dropping down to the marathon?" he inquired.

"Laz," I responded, looking him straight in the eye, "I didn't come here to run no stinkin' marathon!"

The volunteers cheered, and I ran onward to finish the final nine mile loop: Chimney Tops. Now on it's own, the Chimney Tops loop is not particularly difficult. However, after 7.5 hours of running in the heat and humidity, this final mountain is a killer. Maybe it's the fact that there are multiple false summits along the way. Maybe it's the fact that the trails get progressively steeper the higher you go. Maybe it's the fact that there was a nest of angry hornets that decided to attack my quads half way up (yeah, that shit really happened).

Regardless of the reasoning, this climb destroyed me. In the two hours it took to reach the Spicewood Aid station, I went from a strong motivated runner to a shambling mess.

Thankfully the weather started to cool down at this point. After gulping down a bottle of water at the aid station, I realized that I had a shot at breaking 10 hours and setting a personal best for this race. I had to do the final 3.5 miles in 45 minutes. Beating my previous time (10:11) on poor training and in worse weather would be a huge accomplishment, so I left the aid station on a mission.

The 2.5 miles back to the decision point were entirely downhill, and I ran every single step. I passed through the aid station with 9:47 elapsed and couldn't remember how far it was to the finish. A mile? A mile and a half? I pictured myself crossing the finish line with 10:00:01 on the clock and decided that was unacceptable.

It was time to run myself into the ground once again.

Ragged breathing. The taste of blood in my mouth. Tunnel vision. The heat. Good lord, the heat. I've gotten used to all the side effects of pushing this hard at the end of a race, but that doesn't make it any easier.

I stole a quick glance at my phone. Seven minutes left. Was that good or bad? How far to the finish line?

Head down. Keep pushing. Keep breathing. Ignore the way that people are staring at you. Ignore the fact that the sun is literally baking you and every natural instinct is telling you to stop.

Six minutes left. Was that really only a minute of running?

Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Try to choke out a feeble "thanks" to the people clapping. Instead just snort at them like a bulldog with asthma.

Five minutes left. Holy shit, there's the finish line!

Try to compose yourself. There might be a photographer, and you can't use the picture if you're crying and/or soiling yourself.

Finally, after 9:56:19, I was done running! A 15 minute improvement on my previous time.

Post Race

Mike came over to congratulate me, but I made a bee-line for my cooler and doused my head in ice water. He had finished 20 minutes earlier and had overcome his own issues on the final climb, finishing 11th overall after running in the top ten for most of the day. Badass!

As for myself, I was 24th of the 400+ starters, and I was only an hour behind the winner. Not bad for a guy who didn't train and hates running in the heat.

Giuseppe came in a little while later, and the three of us posed for a picture showing how we felt about the course.
Dear Frozen Head, you're number one!

I received my third Croix de Barque and proudly added it to my collection when I got home. Then I threw them all in a drawer because I never know what to do with race hardware.

Les Troix Croix

Up Next

Three weeks later I would get well and truly destroyed by the Grindstone 100 in my worst hundred mile race ever. Stay tuned for a report.

Friday, September 7, 2018

How to Survive the Barkley Fall Classic (maybe)

Some Intro Stuff

What follows is a list of advice for anyone who is considering running the Barkley Fall Classic. Heeding this advice will not guarantee that you finish. But it might make your DNF less painful. Before we start, here are some answers to questions you might have.

What is the Barkley Fall Classic?

BFC is a "50K" which follows many of the same trails as the Barkley Marathons. It covers about 35 miles of rugged terrain in Frozen Head State Park and includes somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 feet of climbing. Portions of the course follow power line cuts through briers and thorns.

Yikes! Why would I want to do that?

Possibly because there's something wrong with you. If so, read on. If not, the rest of this post will probably not interest you.

Who the hell are you to give advice?

I'm not an expert in ultrarunning. I'm not the toughest runner, nor the fastest, nor the best technical runner. What I am is a guy with average athletic ability who has finished some difficult races, including this one, due to careful training and preparation. Here's my race report from 2016.

Now that that's all settled, let's get to the good stuff.


1. Start now!

(Actually if you're running the 2018 race, start a long time ago)

BFC is really. Freaking. Hard. You will need to train.

But dude, I'm like, really tough.

BFC is not a Tough Mudder (nothing against Tough Mudders - I've done lots of them). You cannot get by on just "toughness" or "grit" or whatever people call it when they neglect their training and then suffer through a race. Unless you have superhuman athletic abilities, you cannot wing it and expect to finish under the cutoff. Want to show everyone how tough you are? Good! Go outside and run 4-6 days a week. Starting now. Build your aerobic base over the summer and then do more specific work outs closer to the race.

But it'll be funny when I tell everyone how little I trained!

Maybe. But keep in mind that you're occupying a spot that could have gone to someone else. Someone who perhaps would have trained harder. Honor that privilege and do you best to finish.

2. Volume

My rule of thumb is to at least match your race distance and elevation in a week, preferably for 3-4 weeks in a row. This means 30-40 miles with 10,000' of elevation gain every week for a month.

But I don't have the time for that!

Take a look at this picture:

Hell has a name, and that name (other than hell) is Rat Jaw
Photo by Carolynn Nauta

That nastiness is known as Rat Jaw. It is the signature climb of BFC. Do you think Rat Jaw cares whether you have the time to train for it or not? Go out and run!

3. Hike Up, Run Down

BFC is mostly run on established trails, so it's not necessary to train by running through thorn bushes. However, you need to practice moving on the type of climbs and descents that you'll find on the course.

Find the steepest hill around, and do hill repeats on it until you accumulate a few thousand feet of elevation gain and loss. This should take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours. Focus on maintaining an efficient uphill hiking pace and a fast downhill running pace. Pay attention to how your quads feel on the downhills at the end of the day. If a 3,000 foot workout kills you, think about how 12,000 feet will feel on race day.

But there are no big hills near me.

John Kelly finished 5 loops of the Barkley Marathons by training on an 0.05 mile, 95 foot tall hill near his house. He had to run up and down that hill 10 times to get one mile and 950 feet of climbing.

This is what toughness looks like.
From John's blog

Surely you can find a way to get some elevation gain in your training runs.

4. Nutrition

If you are successful at BFC, you will spend somewhere between 8 and 13 hours on the course. You will also spend several hours at a time between aid stations. You will need to eat and drink, both in large quantities. Use your long training runs as an opportunity to figure out what works for you. Everyone is different, so experiment with different combinations of gels, powders, and real food. Oh and bear in mind that Laz banned gel packets from the race, so you might need to invest in a gel flask if that's your fuel of choice.

Race Day

1. What to Wear

Both times that I ran the BFC, the weather was hot. In 2016 it was in the mid-80's and humid. You will probably be tempted to wear long sleeves to protect yourself from briers, but I recommend shorts and short sleeves to stay cool. Calf sleeves are a good idea, however. And a good pair of gardening gloves will help you claw your way up the power line cuts.

You know what hurts worse than a few scratches? DNFing.

2. Start Easy

The first mile of the course is on a flat section of road. You will be tempted to go out at your 5K pace to bank time. This is invariably a bad idea. Instead of banking time, try to bank energy. Take your time, talk to people, and - as a race director once told me - choose which butt you want to follow on the long climb ahead.

Incidentally, starting easier is better for everyone around you, because then other runners won't have to pass you on a narrow singletrack trail when you inevitably slow down.

3. Find an "All Day" Pace

The first climb is pretty steep. Unfortunately, every climb after it is even steeper. If you are breathing hard in the first 15 minutes, you are going way too damn fast! Find a pace where you can comfortably talk to the people around you, and then ask them what the hell you go yourself into. Remember that you have 10+ hours of running ahead of you, so pace yourself accordingly.

Hiking up these switchbacks will be some of your fastest miles of the day.
Photo by David White

4. Run the Downhills

And I mean really run them. If you are hitting the brakes on these downhills, you will absolutely murder your quads before the end of the race. Those of you who are familiar with east coast trails will find that the terrain at BFC is surprisingly runnable. To finish the BFC, you will have to run Every. Single. Step of these downhills. There's even a short downhill section on the climb up Rat Jaw. Run that shit.

Doesn't this contradict your last point?

You'd think so, but no. The whole reason you trained to run downhill is so that you could do it quickly and efficiently on race day. You did train, didn't you?

5. Follow the Map

You were given a map and compass for a reason. While the course is marked, there are typically a few tricky sections. In 2016, some local kids removed an arrow. The runner in front of me missed the turn, but I checked the map and got us both back on course. A minute spent checking the map could save you ten minutes of running.

On a related note, follow the power lines on Rat Jaw, Testicle, and Meth Lab. There will be game trails through the woods on either side of you. You will be tempted to follow them because they are less steep and/or less brier infested. These are not part of the course, and you are cheating if you follow them.

6. Don't Neglect Your Nutrition

Aid stations at BFC are few and far between. Refill your bladder/bottles at every opportunity, and make sure you have enough calories to get to the next aid station. BFC miles take a lot longer than "normal" miles, so plan accordingly.

7. Remember to Get Your Bib Punched

At each aid station, a volunteer will punch your race bib with a hole puncher. Do not forget this. If you finish without one of your bib punches, you are DQ'ed. In 2016 a runner had to do Testicle Spectacle twice because he forgot the bib punch at the bottom. As fun as that hill is, I wouldn't want to do it twice.

7. Keep Track of Your Time

There are cutoffs at each of the aid stations. You should know how close you are to these cutoffs. Don't be the guy/gal who misses the cutoff at the final aid station by ten seconds. Laz will not allow you to continue, even if you have a really good excuse.

8. Don't Quit

The BFC is one of the hardest endurance events on the east coast. You might get to a point where you're not having fun, or you feel like you'll be out on the course forever. Keep going. The satisfaction of finishing will more than make up for the temporary discomfort you feel.

9. Have Fun!

BFC is a unique event, and the trails at Frozen Head have a ton of history behind them. Enjoy your day thrashing around in the briers. It might not seem like fun at the time, but the stories will stick with you forever.

It's not every day you get to do something like this.
Photo by Mary Hosbrough


Can I bring my GPS?

Nope! Strictly forbidden, and Laz keeps an eye on Strava to see if anyone posts their GPS tracks. He has banned several people over the past few years. This also means no Strava or other tracking apps on your phone. If you think you found a clever loophole in this rule, you are cheating.

Can I train at Frozen Head?

Yes, but only on the designated trails. The power line cuts are reserved for BFC and the Barkley Marathons. Running them outside of these events could jeopardize the future of the races. Laz has also banned people for posting photos and GPS tracks from their off trail training runs.

On a more life-altering level, the land owners in the area are wary of people trespassing, and you do not want to end up at the business end of a shotgun in rural Tennessee.

Can I bring trekking poles?

Yes, but you will not be allowed to access them until the mile 26 aid station. They wouldn't do you much good on Rat Jaw, Testicle, and Meth Lab anyway.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Adventure Report: Swan Song Loop

"What if you took all of the climbing of Manitou's Revenge and condensed it down to half the mileage?" asked no one ever.

Nevertheless, the Swan Song Loop exists, and it is utterly ridiculous.

Mount Washington from the summit of Mount Adams

A Brief History Lesson

The Swan Song Loop came into its full existence in 2014, the brainchild of a bold NH hiker named Robert Rives, who himself modeled the loop after a decades old traverse conceived by AMC volunteer Bradford Swan. It is necessary to understand the history of the route to fully appreciate how difficult it is, because it was designed to be just short of impossible.
"Swan's Traverse came into being as a joke ... It originated one night at Madison Hut, in 1953 or 1954. I had been remarking on the way some hikers paid absolutely no attention to the contour lines on the guidebook maps, and to show how serious this oversight could be, I set out to devise a route from Ravine House to Pinkham Notch Camp that was reasonably direct yet would go 'over all the humps,' utilizing notoriously hard trails. Fancy loops, to include especially tough sections of trail, were not indulged in, but two of the hardest headwalls - King Ravine and Great Gulf - were made parts of the route." —Appalachia , 1958
Many years later, Robert would then extend the traverse into a full loop using similar principles. He wrote of his loop:
"I wanted the numbers to be big, the obstacles nauseating, the footing horrifying, the exposure real and tangible.  More than anything, I wanted to leave New England with a lasting idea, a new challenge fit for the next-level mountain athletes of the decade.  I don't count myself among this group, but ambitious ideas and routes can come from anyone of any ability.  All it takes is the audacity to sit down with a map, a pen, a sense of dark humor - and then to slip on a pair of shoes and dive down the rabbit hole." Blog entry, 2014
And my god, are the number ever staggering...
  • 28 miles
  • 15,700' of climbing, and 15,700' of descent
  • Five ravine headwalls
  • Three Presidential summits

The Route

True to the principles of its conception, the Swan Song Loop makes a bee-line from the Appalachia trail head to the summit of Mount Washington, and just so happens to pass over the summit of Mount Adams on the way. Oh and incidentally, it takes the steepest possible route to both summits: the King Ravine Trail and Great Gulf Trail respectively. It then descends to the Pinkham Notch visitor center by way of Boott Spur, which adds an extra 1,000' climb and descent to an already massive 4,000'+ descent.

Swan Song map. Click for more detail.
(North is to the right)

From Pinkham Notch, it then climbs the notoriously difficult Huntington Ravine Trail to the Mount Washington Auto Road before barreling down the Wamsutta Trail to the Great Gulf Trail. After that, the only thing left is to ascend Mount Madison via the Madison Gulf headwall - the steepest section of trail in the entire route - and descend back to Appalachia via the Watson Path.

Swan Song Loop elevation profile
Four major climbs descents

Easy peasy, right?

For each climb and descent, I'm going to list the distance and elevation gain of the steepest pitch. Bear in mind that a climb of 1,000' in a mile (20% grade), is considered pretty dang steep by most runners and hikers.

Mount Adams ascent via King Ravine

Steepest section: King's Headwall, 1,287' in 0.51mi, 47% grade

My goal was to do this entire loop in daylight and to finish with plenty of energy left, so I drove up to NH the night before, stayed at an Airbnb 20 minutes from the trail head, and was on the trail by 5:20am. I was still digesting my morning coffee and bagel as I began hiking up the Airline Trail, but I knew that my stomach would have plenty of time to settle down in the hours it took to reach the summit. It was an odd feeling knowing that my initial 20:00/mi hiking pace would be some of my fastest miles of the day, but such is life in the White Mountains.

This is gonna hurt

About three miles in, I reached the King Ravine Trail, which almost immediately splits into the Subway route and the Airline route. The Subway crawls under and through house sized boulders and is much more difficult and time consuming than the Airline. I didn't come here to mess around on any pansy-ass regular hiking trails, so the decision to take the Subway was easy.

Now I'm not the claustrophobic type, but when it's 6:00am and you're squeezing between house sized boulders that are so close together that you are touching rock on all sides, you start to question what you're doing with your life.

Okay, that's a lie. A normal sane person would question what they're doing. My dumb ass was having a great time, and I kept trying to take selfies during the scramble. But none of my photos do justice to how tight these rock crevices were. So here's a picture of pre-school girl going through a section of the King's Subway.

Now picture a full grown human trying to wriggle through here
Photo by Trish Herr,

Shortly after the subway was another spur trail called the Ice Caves Loop, which is a similar scramble/spelunking experience, except the boulders are so big and insulate the ground so well that there are patches of ice and snow under them year round.

Once I emerged from the caves, I found myself at the base of a massive rock scramble leading 2,000' up Mount Adams. This was the King's Headwall.

Looking back from King's Headwall.
The Subway and Ice Caves go through the boulder field that's still in the shadows.

The headwall rose sharply up the side of the mountain, covered in sharp car-sized rocks. As Ben Nephew would say after setting the fastest known time on this loop, "This is a full body workout, with all sorts of moves that have absolutely nothing to do with running." I couldn't have said it better myself. I would soon learn that the Presidential ravine headwalls are more like extended bouldering routes rather than actual hiking trails.

It took just over an hour to cover the single mile that I was on the King Ravine Trail. This would set the tone for the remainder of the day. After a final scramble up the Gulfside Trail, I reached the summit of Mount Adams after more than two hours of continuous climbing. I paused to take in the views and marveled aloud to another hiker about the perfect conditions.

First summit of the day!

Mount Adams descent via Buttress Trail

Steepest section: Star Lake Trail, -961' in 0.83mi, -21% grade

After a rocky descent on the Star Lake Trail, I made a quick detour to the Madison Spring Hut to refill on water, adding half a mile to my total trip. Then it was on to the Buttress Trail, which makes up for a lack of sheer steepness by being completely overgrown and littered with off-camber rocks.  The Buttress Trail is so narrow that it can scarcely be called singletrack. It is halftrack at best, perhaps even zerotrack. This fun combination of difficult factors means that you are constantly feeling out each footstep with the knowledge that a momentary lapse in concentration could mean snapping an ankle miles from civilization.

So, you know, my kind of fun.

Mercifully, this descent was short by Presidential Range standards, and I reached the intersection of the Great Gulf Trail only 50 minutes after leaving the hut.

Mount Washington ascent via Great Gulf

Steepest section: Great Gulf Headwall, 1,625' in 0.76mi, 40% grade

I first remember hearing about the Great Gulf Trail years ago when Alex's Uncle Chris was advising us on a planned Presidential Traverse. He was adamant that we understood the fact that the only good bailout routes were the ones on the west side of the Presidential Range. The trails on the east side were rocky, slow, and dangerous. In particular, he said, the Great Gulf Trail should be avoided because it leads to a vast wilderness and doesn't get close to civilization for miles. It was not until I hiked the Great Gulf Trail that I truly appreciated his advice.

Madison and Adams as seen from the Great Gulf Trail

The blazes on the Great Gulf Trail can generously be described as faded. They can - perhaps more accurately - be described as sparse to nonexistent. And they can be cynically described as goddamned irresponsibly poor.

Let's put it this way: I was following the trail blazes when possible, confirming my location with a trail mapping app that showed my exact position on a topographical map, and I was moving at a snail's pace, and I still managed to lose the trail several times. Normally, I would chalk this up to me being an idiot, but human/mountain goat hybrids Ben Nephew and Adam Wilcox had similar issues during their attempts on the Loop.

Despite my whining, the Great Gulf Trail is a beautiful trail with stunning views of the northern Presidentials. The boulder scramble on the headwall was one of the most fun parts of the day, because whenever I was tired I could turn around and admire the scenery. As with most of the ravine headwalls, the trail also followed a stream almost the entire way up the mountain, meaning I could cool off in the water whenever I started to overheat (I also could have drunk unlimited water had I thought to bring a filter).

Standing on the Incline Railway tracks near the summit

Reaching the Gulfside Trail near the summit of Washington was a huge mental victory, because it meant that navigation would be much easier for a little while. With the summit in view and dozens of massive rock cairns marking the trail, I was able to relax for the first time in a few hours.

I tagged the summit sign, cutting in front of a huge group of slow-moving tourists in the process. I figured that a runner who was in a rush carried more urgency than a group of people who drove to the top wearing crocs and sandals to mill around aimlessly. Maybe I'm a jerk for doing this, but at least I'm a jerk who didn't waste time standing in line.

Mount Washington summit
No way in hell am I waiting 5 minutes to take a picture with a sign

I took a few minutes inside the visitor center to refill all my water bottles and indulge in a cold bottle of Coke from the cafeteria. I nearly bought a bowl of buffalo chicken soup that smelled absolutely hypnotizing after being in the woods all morning. But I figured that it wouldn't sit well in my stomach on the next descent, and the thought of vomiting buffalo chicken while running was unappealing. Instead, I grabbed a pop tart out of my pack and chowed down while taking pictures from the observation deck.

View from the observation deck. Not a bad place to have lunch.

Mount Washington descent via Tuckerman Ravine

Steepest section: Tuckerman Headwall, -2,313' in 1.56mi, -28% grade
Honorable mention: Boott Spur Link, 735' in 0.31mi, 44% grade

Tuckerman Ravine is famous for being a ski destination well into the spring and summer months. In the winter, snow blows into the "bowl" from the surrounding area, and the snowpack can reach depths of 150' by the end of the season. When Alex and I hiked Mount Washington on July 1, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail was still closed due to the risk of avalanches. The point I'm making, is that this is a crazy and dangerous place. Naturally the Swan Song Loop descends this headwall.

Descending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail

This was the first section of trail where I started to see other people, and most were nice enough to yield to me as I "ran" by. Or they were terrified by the sight of a sweaty smelly man flailing wildly as he barreled toward them. Either way, they gave me plenty of space.

I refilled my water from a spigot near the Hermit Lake Shelter, making sure to splash some water on my face and limbs to cool down. From there, I had a short but brutally steep climb up Boott Spur Link before I would continue my descent down to Pinkham Notch.

And what can be said about Boott Spur Link that hasn't already been said about colonoscopies...

They're both a pain in the butt, is what I'm saying

Despite this being the shortest climb in the Swan Song, it packs a punch. The entire climb is less than a third of a mile, but ascends 735 feet, making it one of the steepest sections of the route (44% grade). As with most trails in the Presidentials, it is also littered with jagged unstable boulders. It took over 20 minutes for me to cover this small section of trail, for a whopping 1-hour-and-6 minute-per-mile pace. The good news is that the view was pretty good.

Mount Washington from Boott Spur Link

With that climb behind me, it was back to the descent down to Pinkham Notch, which was a leisurely 2,500 feet in 2.4 miles. These miles were fairly uneventful, and I quickly found myself at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. I refilled my bottles, and headed back up the way I came.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the last potable water source for the next 5+ hours.

Mount Washington ascent via Huntington Ravine

Steepest section: Huntington Headwall, 1,322' in 0.55mi, 45% grade

A quick turn off from the Tuckerman Ravine Trail brought me to the trail head for Huntington Ravine. Right away, I knew that this wasn't going to be like the other trails I had done. At regular intervals, there were warning signs posted to deter hikers from attempting the trail. Naturally these only encouraged me to press onward.

Well I wasn't sure before, but this sign definitely made me want to do it

The meaning of these signs slowly became clear to me when I turned a corner and saw the ravine headwall several miles in the distance. It appeared to be an impenetrable wall of rock with no clear path from the base to the summit. This is the sort of stuff that brings me to the White Mountains!

This is going to be fun
(The headwall trail runs just to the right of the shadow in the middle of the image)

The trail quickly grew more rocky and technical as I approached the base. For the second time that day, I found myself slithering between house sized boulders with patches of snow under them. I heard water running through the rocks far below me, and chilled air breathed up through the gaps like a natural air conditioner. The whole experience was haunting, and I knew that the most intense section of trail was still to come.

When I reached the base of the headwall I finally understood what the fuss was all about. I tried to take a picture that would capture the sheer magnitude of the climb before me, but no static image would do it justice. The video below does a slightly better job, but this is one of those trails that you have to see in person to appreciate. Try to follow the yellow trail blazes as the camera pans up the wall.

The Huntington Ravine Headwall is not a hike. It is an extended, very exposed, poorly marked rock climbing route. The first couple hundred feet of ascent were a slab climb reminiscent of the steepest pitches of Breakneck Ridge in NY. Above that, there were multiple boulder piles where I had to stop and think about where to place my hands and feet. Bear in mind that I have a few years of rock climbing experience and I consider myself pretty confident and sure-footed on exposed terrain.

Looking across the slab near the beginning of the climb
Note the rock climber at the bottom center for scale

A word of advice for anyone who plans to do the Huntington Ravine Trail: there will be times when you find yourself surrounded by impossibly steep terrain with no trail blazes in sight. You will think to yourself, "I must be off trail. It would be irresponsible for the trail to continue in this direction."

Well, the joke's on you, because the Huntington Ravine Trail was built before responsibility was invented! The whole damn thing is an exercise in poor decision making. Incidentally, that's why it is so much fun.

View of Wildcat Mountain and Pinkham Notch from the Huntington Ravine Trail

Anyway, I reached the end of the trail two hours after leaving Pinkham Notch, and had a leisurely saunter along the Alpine Garden Trail to the Mount Washington Auto Road, thus completing the ascent with all limbs still intact.

Mount Washington descent via Wamsutta and Great Gulf

Steepest section: Wamsutta Trail, 1,007' in 0.44mi, -43% grade

The Wamsutta Trail will forever hold a special place in my heart. After a summer spent training on the dark rock- and root-covered Catskill trails, descending the Wamsutta Trail felt like home. It was as if the steepest pitches of the Devil's Path had been supersized. The result was a 2,100' descent in just 1.5 miles of trail, almost half of that coming in just the final half mile.

Looking north from the top of the Wamsutta Trail

My Strava data shows that I maintained a running cadence for almost the entire descent, and yet my pace hovered around 27:00/mi the whole way. The footing was so difficult that each step was minuscule. Each foot placement had to be precise, lest I careen headlong into a tree. Ben Nephew called it "an elevator shaft to hell," but I was having a great time.

After the chaos of the Wamsutta Trail, the Great Gulf Trail felt like running on a paved bike path, and I effortlessly cruised to the intersection with the Madison Gulf Trail.

Mount Madison ascent via Madison Gulf

Steepest section: Madison Gulf Headwall, 415' in 0.10mi, 78% grade

Throughout the descent I had been hoping to reach a campsite or hut with a water spigot so I could refill my bottles. I had left Pinkham Notch with two liters, but with temperatures reaching the 80's in the valley, I only had a few sips left by the time I reached the Madison Gulf Trail junction. My fears were realized as there was no potable water in sight.

Nevertheless I had reached the base of the final climb after 11 hours of hiking. Only Mount Madison separated me from the finish line, and I was determined to get there before sunset.

The first few miles of the trail were tame compared to the carnage that I had experienced in the earlier parts of the day. However, the lack of water meant that I had a hard time eating any food, and the combined hunger and dehydration made my energy levels plummet. The Madison Gulf Trail followed a small stream the entire way up. I stopped frequently to splash the cool water in my face, but I didn't want to risk drinking contaminated water.

Looking south from the Madison Gulf Trail

Finally I gave in. I remembered reading that Giardia took a few days to incubate. Assuming that was true, I would be home well before any symptoms appeared.

I found a mossy section of the stream where the water would be somewhat filtered, and I filled a bottle with the cold clear water. I chugged it quickly and then refilled again just in case I needed more. With some water in my system I was able to eat a couple gels, and almost immediately I felt my energy levels rising.

The shadows from the mountains were growing longer by the minute, and I knew I was running short on daylight. I had packed a headlamp, but as a matter of pride I didn't want to take it out.

With renewed purpose, I set to work on the steepest pitch of the day: the Madison Gulf Headwall. Composed of vertically stacked boulders, the headwall rises 415 feet in just a tenth of a mile. The footing isn't bad at all, but the climb felt relentless, particularly after 13 hours of hiking and running.

The Madison Gulf Headwall - not for the feint of heart

I crested the top of the last headwall and then had a short walk to the Madison Spring Hut, where I had first filled my bottles ten hours earlier. They were just serving dinner, and the delicious smell of hot food almost stopped me in my tracks as I opened the door.

I had been fantasizing about buying a lemonade at the hut for hours, and I filled and gulped down two cups in quick succession before realizing that I was using a cup from the discard pile. The thought barely registered in my tired brain as I threw a wad of cash into the money jar on the counter. I refilled my water bottles for the last time and was back out the door for the final push to the summit of Mount Madison.

Last view of Mount Washington from the summit of Madison

Like the other northern Presidential peaks, the summit of Madison is essentially one big rock pile, and I savored the last bit of scrambling for the day. I reached the summit just in time to see the last rays of sunlight hitting Mount Washington in the distance.

Mount Madison descent via Watson Path and Brookside

Steepest section: Watson Path, 2,001' in 1.17mi, -32% grade

With all of the climbing done for the day, it was time to see if my legs had enough life left in them for a quick final descent. Unfortunately, the Watson Path is not the best place to test tired legs. After millenia of harsh weathering and assault from lichens, the rocks at this elevation are sharp and unforgiving. This means that the soles of shoes and boots stick really well, but it also means that any fall is guaranteed to draw blood.

With the health of my legs in mind, I cautiously tip-toed down the mountain. Eventually, the Watson Path gave way to the friendlier Brookside Trail, though not before I spent ten minutes lost at an unmarked trail intersection that happened to coincide with a stream crossing.

As I lost elevation, the trail grew progressively less rocky and my pace increased. With two miles to go, I saw that I could potentially go under 15 hours for the whole loop. While I hadn't started with any time goals in mind, this seemed like a nice round number. I picked up the pace for the final few minutes and reached the trail head in 14:58:27.

Adventure accomplished.

Thoughts and Future Plans

The Swan Song Loop is - without a doubt - the most challenging route I have ever encountered. While I treated this like a long training run and never pushed myself too hard, I still gave it an honest effort and finished with an average pace well over 30:00/mile. The Loop is far more difficult than Manitou's Revenge, the Barkley Fall Classic, or the Presidential Traverse, which had been my prior benchmarks for "really damn hard terrain."

I'm happy with how well I handled a 15 hour unsupported effort in the mountains, and this gives me a lot of confidence for future races and adventure runs. I'd like to go back and run this route for time, but I would make the following changes:
  • Footwear: I used an old worn out pair of Scott Kinabalu Supertrac shoes thinking that they would still have enough tread for one last adventure. However, this is a route where you need to have absolute confidence in your footing, so I would bring a newer pair next time.
  • Water: I ran out of water on the Madison Gulf Trail and resorted to drinking stream water.  Luckily, I didn't suffer any ill effects afterwards. Since almost every trail on this route follows a stream, it makes a lot of sense to use a water filter. One of the first things I did when I got home was to order a Katadyn BeFree filter, which simply replaces one of the soft flasks in my pack now.
  • Navigation: Despite extensive planning and the use of maps and a GPS app, I still had some navigation issues. Unfortunately, the only way to learn these trails is to run/hike them a few times. So I guess I need to spend more time in the White Mountains!
  • Other Time Sinks: I spent a lot of time taking pictures and talking to people on the trails, which was great for a training run like this. However, I could probably have saved 30 minutes or more simply by not stopping. Thankfully, I now have enough pictures to last a lifetime.
Since Fat Dog 120 was canceled due to wildfires, my next events will be the Barkley Fall Classic 50K and Grindstone 100.

Happy running!