Monday, October 10, 2016

Lust for Life

"All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together."
- Jack Kerouac

We stand on the balcony and look out into the night, mesmerized by the spread of lights that extends as far as the eye can see. We wait for it to offer its hand, and take from it aggressively, or slip into it passively, or light it on fire when it doesn't smile or say the right words. Humankind wants for immortality rather than conception. The universe, in all of its indifference, just pushes onward without need for trust or disdain; the world only wants for survival. The relationship can be traumatic, but also, in all of its chaos, the relationship can be symbiotic. We have to want for survival, too. Immortality? Immortality we have already, when we dream.

I've consumed a lot of caffeine. In three hours I'll be running down the road in the cold, in the dark, with the night and a stockpile of daydreams to keep me company. People say we do this because we've been afflicted by something, and we've got a deep seeded need to either run from it or learn to overcome it by stripping our illusions of perceived physical limitations. I think we run with it, whatever it might be, because when we're in pain we feel the most alive. It's an affirmation of our mortality, and an opportunity to see ourselves for all we are, and have been, and want to be; we dream without pain, but only in the depths of mental and physical anguish do we understand how precious and fleeting our own mortal existence is. And, in that, we become more than dreamers. The tangible and intangible lose their definity. Consciousness is not so easily discernable as we've determined it to be, separate from our surroundings. We become the world. And it lends itself to us, the way any functional part of an entity works to maintain homeostasis.

My feet have seen better days. The ravages of the Last Annual Vol State 500k have been hanging on like an old boyfriend who doesn't know when to stop calling. Nagging aches, toenails that forgot their purpose, an extra 10 pounds that hung around for an after party that never happened: my body retaliated. Though, it did warn me. For more than 250 miles my body shouted belligerantly, in every way it knew how, "I'm going to do it". It forced me awake while begging for sleep; and, I'd lament my hungry soul and eat another corndog. The wires were always crossed, but I wanted it, wanted for it, and languished in it. Again and again, I loved the wanting, and it consumed me-- the intrusiveness of people upon my agonized conception, the wanting for physical validation of my passion for the experience. It was there at every corner, in every pained step, every deep gaze at the stars and neon lights and into another dreamer's eyes. I love hard, and then I loved harder. And it hurt.

...and still hurts.

Whatever exists beyond the confines of these walls isn't waiting for me, and I'm not going to wait for it to catch me. We're in this together, tripping over potholes and catching our breath, crawling into the places that make us wonder, wandering in the space between dreamed conception and the conception of reality. We're all dreamers. And we're all here, laughing, languishing, lucid, in love, and lusting for life.

My shoelaces are tied and I'm ready.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

And on the Fifth Day, There will be Bees (2016 Barkley Fall Classic)

People, I've found, love a good hero story. They love the under dog. Rocky. Cinderella. That person who boldly states, "yeah, so," as he readjusts his shiny new belt buckle, "I really didn't train for this". You know, didn't train for his sub-24 100 with negative splits and a final 10k at an 8:30 pace. Super bro endurance. The craft beer drinking Jedi master of the trail.

I didn't train for the Barkley Fall Classic this year, folks.

And, I didn't win. In fact, pull up a chair and pour a shot of Baileys in your coffee, and stay for a while. I'll tell you about it. But, do me a favor and keep an eye out for the wheel that went shooting off my car on I-71 after the race, because I hear it's still rolling around Kentucky somewhere. I wasn't the craft drinking Jedi master of the mountains in Frozen Head; I was more like R2D2, you know, if he had pain receptors and a foul mouth and attracted droves of hornets and bees.

Despite the jokes about my kindergarten scribble route over the mountains during my record-setting 32-hour Barkley loop in April, I know the park reasonably well. I'd finished the Barkley Fall Classic 50k during the first two years (12:49 in 2014, and 11:50 in 2015), and I've attempted the famed Barkley Marathons twice. My familiarity with the network of trails in Frozen Head State Park, home of both races, and experience running ultras (over 40, including more than a dozen 100k or longer) along with muscle memory convinced me I might be capable of coming home with a third BFC 50k finish-- even though fatigue and knee problems post-Vol State 500k in July had left my mileage between 0 and 15 most weeks. I debated whether or not the trip was worth the time and resources for weeks, and finally lied to everyone back home on Friday morning, hoping to keep my attempt secret until it came to pass. While I hoped for the best, I was prepared for the reality that I might die on Testicle Spectacle and had formally requested to the couple friends who knew I was making the trip that my body just be left out there along with an offering of crab rangoon and Cheerwine. Hope only goes so far. Where it ends and reality kicks in, there might as well be a good meal for the memories left behind.

Vol State 500k road race-- mile 184 "the Bench of Despair"

I slept in my car after arriving at 3am, and when it was time to head out for what was waiting, started slow-- very slow. The spool of yarn having unraveled as it had, speed wasn't even on my 'B' list of priorities. I was just trying to survive the first 7 miles so I didn't get swept before getting to the fun stuff that actually had the potential to put me in an ambulance with a legit medical emergency. I knew if I got past the first aid station that the next segment was relatively tame: the climbs weren't spectacular, and the footing was reasonably stable. The climb up Bird Mountain hasn't been bad since my first time doing it. I tried to make conversation when it made sense, and tried to evade catastrophe on the rocky stretches by not letting my legs get ahead of me with unrealistic and unsustainable speed. The second climb sapped a bit of strength from my legs and lungs, and reality began to sink in. I was only about 5 miles into the race, and I was already starting to feel blasted-- even at a slower pace. I had to stop twice to rest beside a tree, and tried hard not to look like I was having a stroke when people passed me. "Yes, I'm ok. No, my eyes are not rolling back in my head while I spastically gasp for breath."

There's always a tremendous sense of relief after a hideous climb when the trail starts winding down again, and even though this wasn't a hideous climb, when it finally clutched my mental faculties, I was filled with the kind of hope I imagine people get when they wander into nuclear fallout and don't immediately die. I truly had no idea what was coming. Unfortunately, when the trail started winding back down again, it dragged and raked dozens of bodies over a nest of angry, disturbed, stinging insects, and if I didn't know any better, I'd accuse everyone around me of dousing my body with whatever it is that drives dozens of bees to land, crawl, and sting the ever living fuck out of one human being. They were up my shorts, in my ears, down the hole in my shoe-- everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I mean, these bees had a purpose, and it was to bring me down like David brought down Goliath. I was unfortunately Goliath, or the Grendel of this Beowulf story, and I was flailing arms and legs and screaming like I was on fire. I was stung 21 times, including the back of my head in that little space above where my hat adjusted. These fucking bees meant business.

I started walking. Wheezing. Gasping. Pathetically resigned myself to quitting, if ever I made it to the damn aid station. I had a half mile to negotiate, and was executing it prison gait style because it was the only way to walk without nature or body parts touching all the bee stings. I got to the aid station after a half dozen stops to gasp and cry, expecting to have the cutoff biting at my ankles already-- an excuse to give the bird to this whole awful endeavor, but I was surprisingly only about 15 minutes slower than I'd been the past two years, and about 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Fuck. Given, I wasn't in respiratory shock, maimed or otherwise injured, or vomiting my internal organs, there really wasn't a valid reason not to continue. I hung around the aid station crying the blues for a few minutes, drinking water, and generally just feeling sorry for how awful I felt, and then swung my pack back over my shoulders, buttoned my shirt again, and headed back out. This nightmare was the hand I'd been dealt, apparently, and I could either cry about it at the aid station for 40 minutes, or get my life together and finish the fucking race.

On the way to Tub Springs, I decided I was going to finish the fucking race. I was ahead of some good runners-- people who'd finished the 50k with me the previous year, and as much as my body hurt, I was still capable of running and climbing. I lumbered my way to the Garden Spot where Mike Dobies was waiting to hole punch my bib, then headed out on the jeep road toward the second aid station. Things were looking up: I was running, and for the first time since the cigarette was lit marking the start of the race, had started passing people, too. I was in and out of the Tub Springs aid station fast, eating 1/2 of a banana while I was there. I knew this was a long section-- only five miles on paper with two more aid stations in between, but also unquestionably the most difficult, with Testicle Spectacle, Meth Lab Hill, and Rat Jaw along the way. Laced between them was a new section on the Salvation Trail, a trip under the prison via the same drainage tunnel utilized by James Earl Ray and the Barkley Marathons, and a climb over the prison wall. And, they were deceptively difficult.

Heading down Testicle Spectacle (photo courtesy of Carolyn Nauta)

I'd caught up to Carolynn Nauta, a Michigan trail runner I'd met and run with at other ultras over the years, including the Mohican and Burning River 100's, Oil Creek, and last year's BFC. We began to snake our way down the Testicle Spectacle after a couple miles of dusty jeep roading, remarking about the improved condition of the footing from the previous year. My suspicion that we'd fallen considerably behind pace, despite all the jeep road running, was confirmed as people with whom I'd typically be keeping pace were passing us, inbound, less than halfway down the Spectacle. It was only about a half mile, but the severity of the angle (50 degrees, worse in some sections) and footing meant that a fast pace was in the ballpark of 40 minutes/mile. Our pace, more conservative, was probably closer to 50. At the bottom, we angled sharply to the left before connecting with the Salvation trail that abruptly ended at the river shortly before bushwacking to the road where a church was set up with a few aid tables. The Salvation trail, of course, like anything tapped with the Barkley branded wand, was anything but a salvation. It was confusing and slow, and seemed to eat time like a bad dream. "Oh, you've got til 3:00 to get to the Firetower!" a woman at the aid station assured us.

Oh, you've got til 3:00. That's plenty of time. Plenty of time. Plenty of time. Plenty of time. Plenty. Time. Oh, fuck you, Salvation trail. If there is anything I've learned during my half dozen trips through Frozen Head, it's that there is no such thing as "plenty" when we're talking about time. And, there's no such thing as "salvation" when we're talking about a trail. It wasn't even 1:00, according to my poor $8 nursing watch that was threatening to give up the ghost from the heat and humidity, but I already knew my race was coming undone fast. Carolyn and I began the long climb back up the Spectacle, and there was nothing but green and nothing but UP as far as I could see. Two hours wasn't going to be enough time by a measure of at least twenty minutes. I was going to need an hour here and another hour for Rat Jaw, and that wasn't even considering the half mile down the Meth Lab blowout, or all the chutes and ladders of the prison game.

It took a lot of grunt to get to the top, but I was determined to close the gap on missing that 9:30 cutoff as best as I could. The rocky downslope blowout, also known as Meth Lab hill, is as deceptively difficult as the prison obstacles and the Salvation trail. On paper, it looks runnable; it's open, dry, and downhill. But, it also likes to eat ankles and toes. When I finally got to the bottom and hit the pavement, I started walking. The prison, which we'd enjoyed the previous year-- Gina Fioroni, Chris Gkikas, Anne Lang and I, and others, was tedius this year, and frustrating. I just wanted to get through the damn tunnel and over the wall so I could start grinding my gears up that nightmare under the power lines. Neither T-bird or Keith Dunn sugar-coated the reality of what had happened during the past 17 miles: I was not down to the wire, I was playing with the wire, and it was about to catch fire and burn me to a crisp.

Climbing out of the drainage tunnel under the prison (photo courtesy of Misty Herron Wong)

Both my water bottles said "#nope" and tried to commit suicide within the first five minutes of my climb up lower Rat Jaw, cascading down and into the clutches of the weeds and thorns near the bottom. Thankfully someone managed to retrieve both and rocketed them back up at me, both landing in a hearty bed of torture a few yards to my left. I caught up to the Cunninghams, Donna and Richard-- also double past finishers, mid-way to the top, looking as disappointed and shell shocked as myself. A flick of the wrist confirmed the fate of all of us-- them, Carolyn, Consuela Lively who was 50 yards ahead, and possibly even Clark Annis who'd been frantically trying to gain back ground after missing the bib punch at the church, clawing and climbing above; we were all past finishers, and we weren't going to make it. "It's hard to accept", someone said. We had an hour to get to the top and then run the 4 miles to the check point. It had taken nearly an hour just to do the running from the fire tower to the aid station last year. I continued up, through the rock crevice and then the final stretch to the top. By the time I got to Tub Springs again, there wasn't much enthusiasm or fanfare-- unless I was planning to run at world class speed, twenty minutes wasn't going to be enough time to complete the four miles that separated me from that aid station. Instead, I caught up with Joe Kowalski, a fellow Barkley veteran, and tried to enjoy the miles as best as I could. It took 52 minutes to get there, or 13 minutes/mile, and I missed the cutoff by a half hour. My race was over; I was sent to the right, to begin the last 3/4 mile to the marathon finish line. I'd given it my best, and my best wasn't enough. I finished the Barkley Fall Classic Marathon in 10:17, the 9th or 43 women to cover the distance, and 38th of 132 total finishers. There was no second star to add to my Croix de Barq this year.

It is hard not to be disappointed. It's hard knowing I didn't waste time, that I gave what I had within me, and my training and overall fitness had deteriorated over the past few months to the point that in the end it came down to speed, and I just wasn't fast or fit enough to do what I wanted to do. But, I didn't give up in April, and I didn't give up at this year's Fall Classic, either. There are still rocks to uncover, and adventures to be had. There are still ghosts out there looking for a few miles of companionship. Take them by the hand and go.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Everywhere I Look I Catch a Glimpse of You (Vol State 500k)

violent or unsteady movement of air or water, or of some other fluid.
"the plane shuddered as it entered some turbulence"
conflict; confusion.
"a time of political turbulence"

Bug bites. Bleeding rashes. Little Debbie cakes, smashed to the inside of my hydration vest. Unidentifiable animal noises. An attractive man seeing my chafed butt in a hotel room that looked like a flop house occupied by heroin addicts. Fatigue. Fog. 500 kilometers. Vol State. Turbulence.

But, in the 4th hour of the morning on the 21st day of July, 2016, I was floating up and away toward the edges of the universe. I made a quick mental note of the remaining turns, and then let my phone's battery wind down to 3% listening to "Trouble" by Cage the Elephant on repeat. Laying in the grass under a tree, my body sprawling to the edges of the universe with my spilling, spreading mind, I stared up at the starry sky. And, then I closed my eyes. Eight miles. Eight miles. Eight miles. Go.

"Stand up, Kimberly", I said out loud, "you did it. You have two and a half hours to finish this fucking race. Go."

My legs were still the disastrous animal on skates they'd become over the course of seven hot days, and when I stood up, they didn't immediately obey me. I was tired beyond the point of being concerned with how this dance played out for the public, and functioning on stardust and gatorade and maybe someone's stray Hail Mary, I slowly began the shuffle toward the edge of the road and up the hill. We'd passed that event horizon long ago, possibly in a convenience store, or maybe talking candidly with a horse about my pain and discomfort while cars sped by. In any sense, muttering to myself that I ought to get my shit together, knees rattling, Desitin-covered shorts cut at the crotch into a tattered loincloth, toes spilling over the sides of my butchered shoes like a busted can of biscuits, it didn't occur to me that my appearance was alarming to those zipping by me as I made my way through the streets of New Hope. Or, that laying spread eagle in the grass by the road in the middle of the night wasn't an appropriate behavior for a non-intoxicated, non-deceased person.

Well. It wasn't, anyway. And, that's when I heard it: the siren. I wrote it off as being a straggler from the outskirts of South Pittsburg, or maybe even Kimball. I wrote it off until it was bum rushing me from behind like a heavy wind, and the purr of the engine was closer to a roar on my ankles. This siren was being directed at me.

This siren...was being directed at me.

"Stay right where you are!" shouted a voice. "Don't move!" Two cars had come up behind me. Or, three. Three cars? What the hell had I done in my sleep that required three police cars?

Arms raised, nose running, teeth chattering, lips chapped raw and bloody, eyes bloodshot, hair filthy, all I could think was: this can't be the way my race ends. Not handcuffed in a police cruiser. Or being zapped senseless and pissy-pantsed in the middle of the road.

"You know, I got three calls come in about a dead body laying back there in the grass. Was that you?"

Shit. Where had I been?


The first twenty miles of any hundred-mile race are a pit of writhing, sweating discontent for me. They're loaded with too many people within close proximity, all trying to spit out their racing resume, and awkwardly polite greetings that would best be exchanged for a more honest "my ass is burning something fierce; you got any A&D? I'm Andy, by the way-- hi". Especially, I'd think, here. Given the days to come, the heat, and the anguish, the last thing I wanted was to get started with a Happy Club Hello meeting for 20-30 miles. To a certain degree, it's unavoidable. But, it's more avoidable, apparently, in a 314-mile race, I discovered, and even more avoidable when you're voicing the current list of dead animals you've located on the side of the road.

"Turtle. Possum. Turtle. Wow, that's really dead. Is that a flipping large bird of prey?"

In the case of this event, the Vol State 500k, the entire first day was largely an uneventful span of polite formalities, a few stray dogs, midday heat, roadkill aplenty, several double-meat Philly subs, and a multitude of cokes. I logged 63 miles with Liz Norred at the first of the two daily 7:30 check-ins, and then, together with Dee Reynolds and a few others, made my way to a local diner for breakfast. This is probably a good time to note that in this part of the country, the temperature doesn't have a pre-heat setting. It's mild throughout the night hours, with the sky showing the first signs of daylight not long after 5am. From then, you've got about 30 minutes of pleasant, uplifting twilight-- a good time to shit your pants and brace yourself for what's coming, light a candle if that's your thing, and pray to whatever it is that brings you solace...because from the moment that orange orb makes its way above the horizon, you've got roughly ninety minutes to take cover before the world around you plunges into a humid, hot chaos, taking your feet, mental faculties, and any clothed body part that you shave regularly into the grips of its fiery clutches. This process, unfortunately, occurred while we were eating, leaving us with the day's reality upon our exit: it was already 84F at 9am, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

"The calm before the heat storm"

I'd originally intended to hit Lexington by the evening check-in, but the heat and late departure from the diner piped us down to a crawl, and by 5pm I was just begging my body to make it as far as Parkers Crossroad at mile 82. During the ten hours in between, I'd ripped open the toes on my shoes, spied and successfully utilized a Sundrop machine in the middle of nowhere, spent entirely too long at a convenience store eating a hamburger, and begged locals for use of their garden hose. All the plans I'd made for big miles had flown over the rainbow, and I was instead standing in front of a hotel room at 7pm with my ice cream and face melting into puddles. "Three hours", I told myself, after tearing off my clothes and showering for a solid 20 minutes. "I can sleep for three hours". Liz and I had agreed to leave at 11, which meant I had plenty of time to eat, sleep, and repack my gear for the night. I have no recollection of trying to sleep; I just slept, and when my alarm sounded at 10:45, I was pulled out of a heavy sleep.

At 11:00, I was ready to go but Liz wasn't, and by 11:30 I was becoming squirrely and visibly agitated. By the time we'd finally left the room, it was past midnight, and I felt compelled to take off. I consider the miles I ran between Parkers Crossroad at mile 82 and Fisher's around 100 to have been my fastest and strongest of the entire race. Of course, they didn't come without minor catastrophe, either. Following the directive of Tasha Holland's crew, I missed the turn onto 412 in Lexington around mile 91 and turned, instead, on the next block. I was running fast and feeling good, but I noticed right away that we were running on a two-lane road in a residential area when we were supposed to be on a four-lane highway. I contemplated consulting my map, but held off until I passed a road sign that indicated I was on route 103. At this point there was no denying we'd gone at least a mile out of our way, and I found myself frustrated and swearing at myself for having blindly followed someone else without checking my location first. Irritated, I turned around and banged out a fast mile to get back on track.

My miracle legs began to wear off around the time I passed the 100 mile mark on the way to Parson. We were approaching that critical 90-minutes-until-Tennessee-releases-Lucifer point of the morning, and fatigue hit me hard. I was getting a blister. My legs were also burning along the inner-thigh bikini line. Diaper rash. Bloody hell... Why were all these things happening at once? I needed a sandwich. I wanted a double shot of whiskey, too, but under the circumstances, a sandwich was going to have to do. Subway came into view as I was logging my mileage: 107 miles after 2 days.

One of the parts of Vol State that I genuinely appreciated was the sense of kinship that developed after hours and days of leap-frogging or running for periods with the same few people. I'd first met Jesse Kokotek at the diner during breakfast the morning before, and had passed him on the way to Parson hours before. Now, sitting in Subway, finishing the last of my sandwich, shoes off and feet up, he was there again. On the bench out front, I used a safety pin and baby wipe to lance and drain the blister, then left with Ed Masuoka to walk the next 3-4 hilly, hot miles until he reached the hotel at mile 111 shortly before we crossed the Tennessee River for the first time. From there, I'd planned to set out on my own, but ran into Tasha Holland again. We covered a few miles together, resting in the shade under a tree for a few minutes where Jesse caught up, and race director Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake) and his wife spied us from one of the official race vehicles. "How does it feel to live like a stray dog?" he asked.
It wasn't bad, I thought. Philly subs, endless cokes, and shaded yards? Pathetic, maybe. But, I could live with that.

photo by Sandra Cantrell (Pope, TN: Kimberly Durst, Tasha Holland, Jesse Kokotek)

After a few minutes, we headed back out, seeking the teasing whispers of shade that danced and dotted along the non-existent shoulders on the road. Eventually I came to a volunteer firehouse that offered a reasonable amount of tree protection from the blazing heat, and parted ways with the others. I promised myself I'd sleep for an hour, but after 30 minutes I was getting no closer to sleep than Sisyphus was to shedding the boulder he was pushing. Not good. I'd planned on these mid-day naps to get me through the hottest part of the days, but so far I hadn't been able to sleep even once. I collected my bearings and tried again to sleep, perhaps a half mile down the road, under a tree in a cemetary, but giant ants and scratchy grass made the endeavor even more futile than the previous attempt. Annoyed, I resigned myself to traveling the remaining miles to Linden, and then perhaps sleep in another hotel for a few hours before powering ahead to Hohenwold and Natchez Trace overnight. A number of times I found myself in bardering deals with the Vol State devils: miles for food, miles for a room, miles just to take off my damn shoes. Miles to reward myself with cokes. Radiohead's "Amazing Sounds of Orgy". Cheeseburgers. A baby wipe hooker bath. Here, it was a sandwich of devil deals: make it to Linden and get a hotel. But, sleep in a hotel and I had to make a full marathon overnight. There was no "or else" in the equation. I mean, what else would I have done? Flogged myself like a Franciscan monk if I failed to meet my end of the terms? Some deals are full of unspoken understandings. So, I'd sleep in a bed. And, then I'd hammer out an 8 hour marathon that included 18 miles that were mostly uphill, with no aid, in the middle of the night. Natchez Trace was just a few miles short of being halfway to the finish, 152 miles, and offered a pavillion and running water, making it the idea stopping point. It was going to be tough. I felt like Daniel Webster, except I didn't have a fiddle, and couldn't have played it anyway. Or, like I was trying to win at Monopoly with a railroad and St James Place, and all my donuts bet on landing the Free Parking space. But, I needed that bed, raw deal or not.

It was inevitible that I was going to melt down and start talking to myself, but I didn't anticipate it happening at 124 miles. I'd been hoping for the greater part of three hours that the rumor of thunderstorms I'd seen in the distance would usher in something truly awful, perhaps even a tornado, anything to get me off this road for a while without the personal stigma of having thrown in the towel. But, the clouds were all passing south-- too far south to be of any use to me. Blisters and hot spots had boiled all over my feet, the chafing had spread like fire over gasoline, and I felt pitifully sorry for myself, hot, hungry, and mildly disoriented, raw skin burning in all the places a person wants least to be burning. I was tired of walking, but I couldn't bring myself to run. I'd reached my breaking point-- those last few threads pulling at my psyche, threatening to kick me into a wasted, demoralized crying jag, just as a convenience store came into view, and the welcome sign for Linden. I could see from the road that there were tables and chairs in the store. Relief! I lumbered through the door and struggled to find my own voice in the process of choosing food. What did I want? Food. What kind of food? Food I could eat. Burger or pizza? Food. Coke or DrPepper? Drink. Sit? Fuck. Potato wedges? I could, but I like beds and showers. I almost forgot my credit card at the counter, and didn't even bother to put a lid on my drink, limping toward the seats in the back of the store.

I arranged to take a room at the Commodore, a mile down the road, for half price under the agreement that I'd only stay a few hours-- long enough to shower and breathe; and, then I'd hit the road for Hohenwold and Natchez Trace around 10pm. If I arrived at the hotel at 6, I'd have time to shower and catch 3 hours of sleep, patch my feet for the night, and head out in reasonably good condition. It was only about 5:45 when I logged my daytime mileage: I was sitting on 125 for the journey, barely 18 for the day, but this was what the cat had dragged in, and it wasn't going anywhere for a hot minute. When I got into the hotel room, I wanted to cry. An entire layer of skin on my left pinky toe was loose, open, and oozing; but, at least I knew why it had been hurting so bad. My inner thighs were covered in red welts, an area approximately 4x4 inches, but hadn't opened. A shower would clean everything, air would dry it, and then I could apply some Desitin. One more blister had become problematic on the ball of my foot-- the other painful spots weren't quite there yet, so I figured it made the most sense just to lance and drain it now rather than later. The shower was the size of a tanning bed or a coffin, and I was terrified I was going to kick one of the walls with my tender, aching toes, but there was soap and shampoo, and it felt surprisingly good to stand under the hot water for a few minutes. I dropped my towel and flopped my naked body onto the clean sheets, piled all the pillows from the other bed under my feet, and set my alarm for 9:40.

the Commodore Hotel in Linden, TN

The trip from Linden to Natchez Trace is significant for two reasons: first, it was the last time I was able to run for longer than 2-3 minutes during a mile stretch. It was also the first time I decided I'd rather play Five Nights at Freddy's with whatever was in the woods flanking me along the woods than consistently use a flashlight or headlamp. I checked out at 10:05, and started walking toward Hohenwold. Once I got beyond the sodium lamp light and earshot of Linden, I flicked off my headlamp and switched to a small, handheld light, only using it when I could see a car approaching in the distance up ahead. Eventually, the stream of cars thinned to almost none, and it was just me, empty road, moonlight, and whatever was crawling around in the woods beside me. I began to run. I passed Dee Reynolds and Liz Norred who were stopped at Dee's crew car, perhaps 4 miles down the road, and picked up the pace. I paced a 12 minute mile, then 11:32, 12:29, 12:13. And then, I slammed headfirst into a hungry, blistered mental wall. I walked, then sat in a driveway and tried to collect my senses. There were 8 miles until Hohenwold and nothing to eat along the way. I had been rationing my fluids, but I had also been running. I knew I still had a Danish and pack of peanut butter crackers in my pack. These things had been put there as emergency foods-- things I hadn't ever actually planned to eat, but now were becoming a reality meal. If I could make it a bit further, I could sit down and eat them, and then restock when I got into town. I started singing to pass the time; "Amazing Grace" devolved into Beck's "Loser", and "No Rain" by Blind Melon, and finally "Trouble" by Cage the Elephant. And, then, I was walking in the dark in silence. A sign on the road indicated I had 6 miles to go until I reached Hohenwold. I wanted to throw my flashlight at it, my pack, my hat, my busted shoes. Six miles meant two more hours of walking. How could there be nobody around? And, what the hell was going on in my shorts? It felt like my underwear were piano wire, cutting my thighs down to the bone. I reached under the band and my fingers came back bloody. Fuck. I'd rubbed this area so raw the skin had broken, and now I was bleeding and the skin was probably infected. I opened my pack and retrieved my dwindling supply of baby wipes, and two folded Kleenex. I felt like a 5 year-old playing with a toy doctor kit. "Here, mommy. Let me fix your broken leg with stickers and hugs".

Four miles from Hohenwold, there was a soda machine in front of a warehouse. It was a solid 50 yards from the road, but I was willing to walk twice that far for a cold coke at this point. The Kleenex had stuck to the raw, bloody spot under my underwear band on my inner thigh, and was working nicely in keeping the pain somewhat manageable. I was tired, but unable to sleep here. Instead, I used my pack as a pillow, and propped my legs up against the building, savoring the can of coke like it was a $200 bottle of wine. 3:20am. That meant I'd be hitting Hohenwold between 4:30 and 4:45. If I was careful, I could nap for a few minutes and still make it to Natchez Trace by 7:30.

As I walked along the road, I began to struggle. Perhaps it was the buzz from the caffeine, or maybe I was just becoming more unhinged and anxious, but I had a heightened sense of awareness of every sound eminating from the woods. Somehow it hadn't occurred to me in the 14 preceeding miles that there might be animals in woods, but now I was aware, and becoming increasingly convinced that my awareness of their presence was somehow luring them all out of their blood-hungry hiding places. Lord, they knew I was here. Things were following me. Things! Whatever they were, they were watching me, and knew I was tired and weak. I couldn't shake the thought, and finally, after about 20 minutes of deliberation and self-induced mental torture, drudged up the strength to flick on my headlamp and boom a growl. Eyes-- there were eyes EVERYWHERE, and three sets close together flinched and backed up when I growled. Coyotes. "Oh, fuck that", I said out loud, and turned off the headlamp. No way. If something was coming to get me, hell, I'd rather be taken off guard than know it's on its way. Once I accepted this, fear of animals largely subsided.

Hohenwald, TN

I laid down in another driveway two miles from town, drank the last of my Gatorade, and tried to reassure myself that everything would be OK when I got to Natchez Trace. Hohenwold came into view-- in a series of signs I spied with my flashlight-- around 4:30am. I found a convenience store that was open, replenished my fluids, bought a bag of trail mix and a sandwich, and laid down behind the store to eat and rest, giving myself a budget of 30 minutes. After I finished the sandwich, I stuffed the trail mix into my pack, used the pack as a pillow, closed my eyes and briefly fell asleep, waking up to store employees and a customer staring at my body and talking quietly amongst themselves. I probably looked homeless. I nodded and collected my belongings, struggled back to my feet, and began to make my way down the road again. There were 7 miles to Natchez Trace, and I needed to get there by 7:30. If I kept moving, I'd make it.

...if I kept moving.

A mile down the road, just past the Walmart, I sat on the curb beside the shoulder of the road, and mapped the distance, hoping it was somehow shorter than 6 miles. It was definitely 6 miles, and I couldn't afford to keep sitting like this if I was ever going to get there before the sun began torching the road in the worst kind of way. It was supposed to be 96 degrees today, and if I dawdled too much, I ran the risk of not reaching Hampshire before the only store in town closed. With nothing else between Hohenwold and Columbia-- more than 20 miles, I couldn't afford to take that risk. The sun was readying to rise, and I suddenly realized daylight was not my friend. For miles I'd been wanting to get out of the dark, and now all I wanted was to climb back into it. There was no shade anywhere.

The shoulder was wide on the highway during the miles leading up to Natchez Trace, and a half mile from the campground, I dropped my pack and sat down. The tears started with a choked gasp and opened into a symphony of loud sobs and wails. "Why are you doing this to yourself?" I shouted. "What are you trying to prove?" I cocked my head back, and daylight domed the world above me. My left shin was sore, probably from the effort to keep pressure off the pinky toe, and my raw thighs had made a comeback in the past hour. That I'd been running just hours before seemed inconceivable. That I'd make it a half mile further to the campground seemed almost as impossible. 7:19. I staggered along the road, catching sight of Tasha Holland trotting along the opposite side of the road, her crew car closeby. We came into the campground together, and I realized almost immediately that this wasn't going to be the paradise I'd envisioned all night. The pavillion barely shielded the sunlight, and it was another 50 yards to reach the bathroom and any running water. I sucked down a coke and popped two Advil, applied ointment to my thighs, and ice left by Tasha's crew. They'd also left me a Kind bar and grapes, and a bottle of water. I realized this had put me into the 'crewed' category of the race, and I was ok with that. I texted Carl Laniak an hour later to let him know my status needed to be changed on the website when I nearly passed out in the heat, and crawled into an air conditioned car and accepted a new shirt.

Road construction on 412 at the halfway point had left me half dead and dilerious, but the air conditioning, new shirt, and an hour out of the sun and heat had left me feeling hopeful. I walked with Tasha for a few miles, then set out on my own for Hampshire when she headed off in the car for a hotel. Hydrated and better dressed for the heat, I began to walk with a little more gusto, and before I knew it, 160 miles had become 164, and I was standing in front of a sign welcoming me to Hampshire. I couldn't believe how quickly things had turned around-- 10 miles earlier I could barely breathe, and here I was, smiling for a picture as I headed into the store for lunch. I ordered a club sandwich and fries, the first time in 24 hours that I consciously made a well-thought choice of food, and sat at a table next to an electrical outlet where I charged my near-dead phone. The locals assumed I was a back-of-the-pack straggler, and were surprised to hear I was sitting right in the middle. "There are at least 40 people behind me", I told them. One of Dee's friends came into the store while I was there, and I saw her crew truck a mile or two down the road at the cemetary where I decided to rest. Jesse parked his belongings next to mine, explaining he'd gotten to the store not long after I did and had been told a girl had just left. "Was she wearing a trucker hat and some jacked up shorts?" he asked. I laughed. Bonds are formed this way at the Vol State.

Hampshire, TN

"The goat whisperer", Jesse Kokotek

We left together for the trek to Columbia, me in front and Jesse not far behind. After a mile or so, I sat on a rock in a field beside a farm and waited for him to catch up, and we spent a few miles in partial silence, partial conversation, Jesse bleating and mooing at animals in between. It was an enjoyable passing of time, and I hoped we'd run into each other again once we parted ways when I laid down under a tree. I was getting hungry again and tired, my phone had depleted most of the juice it had sucked from the Hampshire outlet, and the pain was starting to return to both my feet and my shin. I guessed I was a mile or two past 170 as I watched Jesse disappear. I'd hit the Bench of Despair at mile 184 overnight, I reasoned, and probably end the day close to the 200 mile mark. By the time I got up and started heading for the heart of Columbia, I had less than an hour of daylight remaining. I tried to make the most of them, but my feet were throbbing with pain, particularly the skinless pinky toe and the big toe on my right foot. I hadn't looked at that one all day, and by the size of it, I could only imagine what was hiding underneath the injinji socks covering it. The streetlights came on as I passed the last of the several large, beautiful homes, and as I climbed my way into the outskirts of Columbia, I began to become impatient. Should I stay in a hotel? Where do I go? What the hell is going on down there on that track? Wait-- are they playing Pokemon Go?

Finally, after weaving past shops and lights and cars, I exploded through the doors of a gas station, breathing in agony through my teeth. Everything hurt-- everything. And, unlike the small country stores, there was no place to sit here. "Oh no", I wailed, "there's no place to sit down!"

"Hey!" someone called. It was Jesse!
"I hurt so bad. I need to sit down."
"I'm just sitting outside", he explained.
I bought a coke and two bottles of Gatorade, and begged for the leftover pizza sticks the employee was preparing to throw away. Jesse found an outlet on the side of the store for my phone, scrawled down his phone number of a piece of paper, and after a few minutes, left me laying on my pack with my feet up against the brick wall of the store. It took 15 minutes to squeeze enough battery life back into my phone for me to be comfortable leaving, and after taking two more Advil, I took inventory of my supplies, and took off as quickly as I could for the long stretch of road leading to the Bench of Despair. A mile down the road, I managed to catch Jesse again, just as he was preparing to dodge traffic for a soda machine in a plaza. I walked slowly along the opposite side of the road, and waited until he came back into view, and then watched in amusement as he scouted out the unlocked teardrop trailers and tiny homes on the side of the road.
"If you're looking for a place to sleep, these might be a little hot, but they'd work", he told me.
"Tempting," I told him, "but I don't think I'd want to get back up if I did. I'm going to keep going."
Jesse had begun to employ a run-walk as we left Columbia, and I couldn't keep up, so the next seven miles gradually devolved into the same maddening, anxiety-laced derailed trainwreck as the Columbia gas station stop. Several times I sat down just to ground my senses again, and fell into a terrible despair in between. I wondered if I'd somehow gotten lost, and wondered why there were no other runners anywhere to be seen. Twice a trucker pulled up beside me to ask where I was going or if I needed a ride, and I began to wonder if I looked like a hooker or a runaway. The only comfort I found in all of this was that anyone who managed to apprehend me was first going to have to deal with the stink; and then, if he somehow got past that, was going to have to deal with whatever was going on under my shorts with the blistered, bleeding chafing. It would take a whole hell of a lot of desperation to be able to function under that kind of pressure.

By the time I made the turn-off and headed toward the Bench, I had stopped negotiating with myself, and just dropped my body like a ragdoll onto it. I'd made it. And, now I was going to sleep.
"Marco", came a familiar voice. Jesse was tucked between gas pumps in the dark.
"Polo! Imagine finding you here!" I called. "Can you take my picture?" I asked. "Yeah, can you take mine?"

"The Bench of Despair", mile 184

The shoes were the first thing to come off. The air had chilled enough that I used my teal all-purpose jacket to cover, and then set my alarm for an hour. I needed sleep so badly, but suddenly found myself in the metropolis of race activity. After spending the greater part of seven miles completely alone, I was astonished as runner after runner approached me here-- crewed or screwed. Tasha arrived first, then a pair of guys. By the third interruption, I accepted that this was the worst place for me to be trying to sleep, and slowly headed down the road. Not even a mile down the road, I found Jesse laying in a driveway with his legs up against a fence. Probably all the wiser, I thought. I figured there must be a church somewhere, or even another residence with a fence like that one. Light was dancing around me, and dogs were barking. I needed to lay down. As I continued down the road, I began to fall asleep, first for just blips that a hard step would snap, and then into longer periods during which I found myself lucidly navigating thoughts while being consciously aware that I was sleeping. The process was unnerving, and ended at the steps of a church that almost seemed to materialize out of thin air. I set my alarm for 15 minutes, dumped my pack under my head, and slept hard until the alarm sounded, hit the snooze twice, and then finally accepted that I needed to get up and keep moving. My map indicated I was nearing 187 miles, then 188 when the twilight of morning opened as I approached a store that had a bench out front. I laid down here, too, and tried again to sleep, but Juli Aistars and Jan caught sight of me, and I decided it probably made more sense just to keep moving. It would be daylight soon, and there was no point wasting the cool of the morning feeling sorry for myself on a bench. The women were running, and though I tried, I couldn't jog longer than a minute or two at a time. The pain in my toes was really coming to a head, and I was beginning to question how much longer I was going to be able to ignore what was going on underneath my socks.

I came into Parson almost right at 7:30, logged my mileage (194), and crashed on a bench outside a diner. I needed to take care of my feet, but before I'd gotten my shoes off, Kathleen Wheeler came out to tell me Jesse was in the diner eating. I didn't know who she was at the time, but if she was directing me to Jesse, I figured she'd become a friend, too. He must have gotten up and then passed me while I was sleeping on the church steps.

"Marco", came a call from the back of the diner, near the bathroom.
"Polo!", I called back, before dropping my pack and phone at a seat across the table from him. "I slept so many times back there", I explained. "It was bad. I couldn't stay awake."
"Yeah, I got up not long after you passed me. I'm going to leave here in a few minutes and sleep in a hotel in Lewisburg for a few hours. You can call and see if it's still available when you get there. I don't know."
"Probably", I said. "It's going to be hot again".
I ate a chicken biscuit sandwich and drank half a coke, and bought a bottle of water. I didn't feel particularly well, and a trip to the bathroom confirmed what I feared: blood in urine that had turned the color of beer. Fuck. I hadn't anticipated something like this at all, much less in the cool hours of night. Now, the sun had kicked itself into full gear, laying on the heat hot and heavy. I neglected my feet and the back half of my coke in a moment of anxious lack of reason. There were only six miles until Lewisburg, and then I could rest somewhere cool, drink and drink some more, and sleep in an air conditioned room a mile down the road. I set out on the open road with blind optimism and not enough water or common sense.

photo courtesy of Kathleen Wheeler (Parson, TN: Jesse Kokotek and Kimberly Durst)

Turbulence: confusion. I'd liken it to being in an internal earthquake. It felt like things were moving and shaking around me, and I wasn't sure what I ought to be doing, who was around me, what time it was, or how much further I had to go. I was hot and nervous, and upon coming to an intersection, exploded in a panicked cry. What was this road?
"Do you need help?" asked the officer in the patrol car at the intersection.
"I'm trying to find 373!"
"You're on it. Do you need water?"
"I'm just so hot. I need some shade."
"Here, my wife buys this by the case. Take two. Are you sure you're ok?"
"Yes, I just need some shade."
I stopped under an overpass and dumped the contents of the first bottle over my head. I felt gassed and uneasy, but began stumbling along the road, desperately scouting the shoulder for any hint of shade. I can't remember if I said anything, or just stopped, or what happened next, but the officer pulled up beside me again and told me I ought to at least let the paramedics check me out. "You don't have to go to the hospital, and you won't be billed. Just let them make sure you're ok."
The next thing I remember, I was laying on a gurney in an ambulance with a turnicate squeezing my left arm.
"If you don't want to go to the hospital, we should at least get some fluids in you and get your core body temperature down. You are ok with receiving fluids through the IV?"
"Yes, I just want to finish my race", I explained.
"What kind of race? I keep seeing people with backpacks walking."
"It's 500 kilometers. This is about 200 miles right here."
After a second IV was inserted in my right arm, Nathan Dewal asked if he could see me and take down my information to send Laz. I wasn't overly enthusiastic about these details hitting the public, not after having been the same person who spent 32 hours on a Barkley loop and who wrote a Fall Classic race report that had all but become required reading for the race. Being mocked and humiliated at this point sent me into a particularly low low point, and I started crying again out of depression and embarrassment for what I'd allowed to happen to me. I was tired of embarrassing myself at races. I spent over an hour laid up on the gurney, and then had the three miles to Lewisburg to negotiate before I could get out of the heat and rest. As the paramedics drove off in the ambulance, I stared ahead at the sun-baked road. There seemed to be no end to it. But, I was no longer in immediate danger of kidney failure, blacking out, or worse, and there were a few shaded places along the way. I stopped at a restaurant and texted a few people: Gary, Jesse, Tasha, and Steve Monte, walked a half mile down the road, and then decided it was better just to go back to the restaurant. I could eat and drink here, get out of the sun, and then power on to a hotel. Gary called me a few minutes later and asked if I was planning to go back out. Of course I was-- I hadn't gone 200 miles just to quit! He asked me to stay in a hotel until night because it wasn't going to get any cooler any time soon, and I agreed this was the best course of action; I just needed to get there. A half hour and half a calzone later, Kathleen called to tell me she was in Shelbyville, but would get there as soon as she could. Jesse was staying in a hotel a mile down the road, she told me, and maybe I could share it with him. Good enough for me, I thought. It could've been a rent-by-the-hour hole in the wall and would've been the Ritz Carlton as far as I was concerned. As long as it had a bed and a shower, I didn't care how clean or safe it was, or how many people were already in the room.
The clerk at the front desk looked at me suspiciously when I told him I was looking for Jesse, directed me to the phone and told me the extension to dial. Jesse sounded like I'd waken him from the dead, but told me to come up. I found him disoriented and surrounded by blankets and pillows. The room looked like it had been gutted of linen, and there was stuff all over the floor. I guessed that this was what a room looked like when a drug run was utilizing it. Or cheap prostitution.
"What time is it?" Jesse asked.
"3 o'clock", I answered.
"Gahhhhh. I can't feel the left side of my face!" he grumbled. "What the fuck..."
I dropped my gear on a nearby table and spied the empty, empty bed in front of me.
"We're just going to skip the formalities", Jesse began, pulling himself free of blankets, "because I'm naked".
"I don't care", I answered, "because I'm about to be naked. God, I hurt so bad." I began to scout out the room for towels. Anything to use to cover myself so I could get out of these sweaty, stinking clothes.
"There's towels here but no toiletries," Jesse continued. "I wish I had a pizza or something."
"Yeah, me, too. I ate back at that restaurant, but I'm still hungry."
Shimmying out of my clothes and into the minimally covering towel, I was faced with the horrible reality of my feet. "Damn, look at this toe", I said. The nail on my right big toe was completely raised from the bed by a giant blister. The skin had ripped and begun oozing on the right pinky toe, twinning it with the left. A second blister had formed on the ball of my foot, and the back of both heels were raw.
"Do you have something to drain that with?" Jesse asked.
Safety pins. Baby wipes. A bandaid or two. It was going to get ugly. "yeah, but I really think I ought to take the tops of these shoes back to the laces. That's how this happened in the first place; there's too much pressure under the nail."
I used scissors to cut the top of my shoes all the way back to the laces, and hoped for the best. After draining all the blisters but the one under the big toe, I hobbled toward the shower. There might not have been any shampoo, but there was a tiny bar of soap, and that was good enough for me. After I got out, I put my dirty clothes in the sink and filled it with hot water and the remainder of the bar of soap. A pizza had mysteriously materialized outside our door, and Jesse had placed it on the sink next to the bathroom. As I climbed into bed, he plunked down a cup next to me. "Drink this before you leave. Don't sleep too long!" and left.

I woke up at 9:30 with my legs still elevated and my nerves on the edge. I'd gone into the race knowing I needed to be done in 7 days or less if I was going to have enough time to nap for a couple hours before driving home and going to work Thursday night. It was a 10 hour drive, so a finish much later than 8am Thursday morning was pushing this into the realm of the impossible. Until I'd needed medical intervention, I hadn't really worried much about my self-imposed cut off, but now, after 12 hours off my feet, the entire direction of my race had changed. Several friends back home had offered to pay for my lost day at work if I needed more time, but beyond the guilt and financial obligation, there was the reality that my facility was already short-staffed, and my presence was not only wanted-- it was needed. I needed to be done in 7 days, not 7.5. I had a lot of ground to make up if I was going to make that happen. First, however, I had to backtrack a half mile. It sucked to have to do it on foot because it meant I was tacking on yet another extra half mile to get there. But, if I was going to cover the full 314-mile course, I didn't have a choice. Directionally, I became mildly disoriented, and on my way back I ran into Josh Swink, asking him if I was going the right way to get to Shelbyville, because nothing looked familiar.

Committing myself to a 20+ mile night, I made it a mile or two down the road before an overly jolly, motley crew of men came into view behind me. Who could be this happy after 200 miles? Laughter. I hadn't heard laughter like that since the bus ride from Castle Rock to Uniontown. And, no wonder-- it was JT Hardy and Novle Rogers, along with Sergio Bianchini and JT Bolestridge. They were playing a game with letters and music groups, and I gladly picked up my pace a bit to keep up with them and join in the fun. JT informed the group the last mile had been 18:32, and I decided at that moment that I was going to stick with these guys as long as I could. They'd planned to cover 20 miles overnight, and at the pace we were traveling, that meant they also planned a number of stops along the way. Perfect, especially with the Shelbyville dogs looming ahead in the coming miles. I'd heard horror stories about these dogs chasing and attacking people, and had received a text from Jesse while I slept telling me at least one of them had been killed. With a group this size, most of the men carrying trekking poles, it seemed unlikely that the dogs were going to make much of a move for us.

We continued onward, sleeping side by side in two rows in a gazebo in a Wheel community cemetary, then stopped at an early-opening convenience store for breakfast sandwiches and caffeine. We reached Shelbyville at 7:30, covering 22 miles overnight, logged our 223 miles with Carl and Gary, refilled and refueled in the shade behind a store, and then decided to press on to Wartrace and Manchester, moving slowly and resting frequently. It took the greater part of three hours to get to Wartrace, by which time I felt confident I'd paid karmic retribution for every cheeto I'd sneaked as a child and every time I'd hit snooze on my alarm clock. It was 92 degrees when we got to the gas station, and I think every one of us got a slushy and a hot dog to celebrate getting out of the sun. We laid out our gear and sprawled on the floor in the back of the store, and for a few minutes I felt like everything was going to be ok.

(Shelbyville, TN: JT Bolestridge, Novle Rogers, JT Hardy)

If there's one thing I learned during this journey, it was that if I was feeling good, it would pass; and if I was feeling bad, it could and would always get worse. The final miles into Wartrace were a kaleidoscope of tortures. The men, with the exception of Bolestridge, took off running-- RUNNING in this ghastly heat. Cars were everywhere. There was thunder and lightning in the distance up ahead. Trains. Blasts of heat and sunlight between the patches of dark clouds. I felt like I was going to die. I wanted to die. Or, at least, I just wanted this nightmare to end. I was so close to the store, and yet so far-- I could see the men turning the corner and heading for the double doors, and yet I couldn't will my body to run the quarter mile that separated us. When I got into the store, I was hit with a crushing low and a terrible realization: they were going to leave me in the dust. All of them. Why this bothered me so much, I can't really explain. I was more than 230 miles into the journey, and in less than 48 hours I'd be done. I'd spent almost as much time alone already, and surely I could make it to the finish on my own.

Kathleen was in the store with us, which meant Jesse must have left not long before we arrived. I sat down, despondent, and dropped my gear beside me. How was I going to finish this race? I ordered a corndog and a coke, and tried to keep quiet. An ice pack melted over my shin and dripped onto the floor beneath my chair. Kathleen appeared and reappeared with items from shelves that might be useful to purchase, but I tuned everything out and internalized my frustration and discomfort. I had so far to go, and I felt so awful. The pinky toe on my left foot wasn't just burning or throbbing, it was aching all the way to the bone. Advil was temporarily taking the edge off the pain, but it wasn't a viable long-term solution, and the periods between when it eased and intensified were getting longer and longer. Slowly, I pulled myself together, and we made our way out and back onto the road. I'd convinced myself that I was the only one slowly dying, but my "whip your shit together" internal pep talk had apparently sent me into a gear the others, except Sergio, hadn't unearthed. By the time we stopped to take a break, Bolestridge had fallen behind, Hardy was hurting, and Novle was at least twenty paces behind. Sergio released himself from Hardy's watch and moved ahead, and a few minutes later, I followed. We regrouped twice, first at a pull-off with a nice gate for elevating our feet, and again at a church two miles from the Whispering Oaks barn where we'd planned to spend part of the night.

photo courtesy of Kathleen Wheeler (Wartrace, TN: JT Bolestridge, Sergio Bianchini, JT Hardy, Novle Rogers, Kimberly Durst)

If the lows I experienced on the highway before Natchez Trace and heading into Wartrace were bad, the one that struck a mile before I reached Whispering Oaks was the Krakatoa of erupted miseries. I openly cried in the street, and hadn't two figs to throw at who or what heard me, or what they thought. The pain had blown its way back into both feet and the shin with a vengeance, and I blew curses into the air at the hell that had stormed these legs and feet and the horses it rode in upon. I couldn't reconcile what was happening to my body with the possibility of restful sleep and the relief it might bring. I couldn't eat the food that was prepared for us at the barn, and I couldn't sleep on the air mattresses and cots set up for our use. It was the single best non-hotel resting spot on the entire race course, and I was so filled with frustration and despair that I couldn't enjoy it. I picked at my food, laid down for an hour, and then, after everyone else had gone to sleep I quietly put on my shoes and sneaked out. I figured if I was going to figuratively die during this journey, I was going to do it on my own terms-- not being left behind like a wounded animal. My toe was almost beyond comprehension. Sergio, who had left at the same time as me, tried hard to convince me to continue with him, but I could barely walk. I let him go ahead, sat on the porch of a local shop, removed my sock, re-rigged the bandaid wrapped around the toe, and then reapplied the sock without pulling the pinky toe of the sock fully around the bandaid. It was a last ditch effort, and strangely effective. The pain had eased enough that I began to walk again with a bounce, and made the turn onto the highway with more hope than I'd had for miles. I slept in a gazebo beside the police station for an hour in Manchester, and then continued onward toward Hilsboro and Pelham, stopping at a convenience store, and in a driveway to rest along the way.

When I logged my mileage in the morning, I was exhausted, but pleased to have made it 20 miles alone; and started the seventh morning with only 50 miles remaining. It was a long shot, but still possible that I could finish within the next 24 hours if I plowed through the day without any major stops or sleeps. I stopped to rest on the porch of a community center, and then made my way into Pelham. I needed to find an electrical outlet for my phone, and the Post Office seemed the most logical place. It was also air conditioned, and appeared to have been a chosen spot for a road angel drop of food and drinks. I plugged in my phone and laid on the floor, thankful the office was empty. From there, I had four miles until I reached the bottom of the Monteagle climb-- 5k with 1,000ft of climb. Sue Scholl found me a mile from the climb and offered me cold water and a popcicle; and then I made my way up the mountain like a bulldozer. It took over an hour including the stops to sit on the guardrail along the way, and when I got to the top, I was overjoyed to see a real city with lots of stores and places to eat. I stopped at the first one I saw-- the Depot Cafe, and ate every scrap of food in the basket I ordered, and then spent a full 20 minutes in the bathroom patching myself for the journey to Tracy City and Jasper.

The first thing that struck me upon leaving the diner was the heat. It was easily 95 degrees. The second was that I had to do something immediately about my diaper rash. I wasn't going to make it 2 miles further, let alone 40, in this kind of agony. I cursed the party responsible for the Shave your Nethers movement that had prompted people to take a razer to places a razer ought never be. I needed a viable plan to combat this. Family Dollar. Family Dollar had to have something I could use, I thought. It meant crossing several lanes of traffic, but I was ok with the extra steps if it meant ditching some of the misery in my shorts. The problem with vague wishes is that they're vague, and once I got into the store I had no idea what I was trying to find. I needed something that would extend over the panty line, and something to cool off the burning. Icy Hot? No. Calimine lotion? I didn't itch. In the end, I walked out with a pack of panty liners and a diaper cream that supposedly offered immediate relief. I'd double the panty liners, side-by-side, creating a shield that blocked the lining of the underwear, and slather on the diaper cream like it was topping a sundae. Hell, with any luck and fortitude, this was going to be my last day out here.

My remedy wasn't an ace, but it propelled me back into motion, and I began the 6-mile trek to Tracy City around 2pm. It was later than I'd thought, and I accepted that I wasn't going to be able to sleep in a hotel if I wanted to finish by 8 or 9 am. Hot. It wasn't particularly hotter than the past six days, but it felt like I was going to wilt like a dandelion. In Tracy City, I was anguished by the thought of continuing, and I begged the clerk at the convenience store I entered for a place to sit out of the sun. He told me I could sit on a milk crate in the back of the store, and I thanked him profusely as I cracked open a Dr Pepper and took off my pack. Jesse called while I was in the store and told me he'd been sleeping in a Save-a-Lot for the past three hours, and people thought he was homeless. Typical. I didn't even bother to offer an explanation anymore unless asked.
"Where are you?" he asked.
"Tracy City", I answered.
"Where is that?"
"Mile 280?"
"Oh, wow, so you're like right behind me. Where are you now?"
"I'm in a convenience store. I think it's green."
"Yeah, you're right behind me. You just continue down the road a half mile and you'll get to the Save-a-Lot".
"Are you there now?" I asked him.
"No, I just left."
I wondered if we'd end up running into each other again, but as I hung up the phone, I could see a flash of pink shuffling down the sidewalk. It was Juli! I swung my pack over my shoulders and hurried out to catch up. It had been 35 miles, at least, since I'd run or walked with another person! Social lottery jackpot! I caught her and was pleasantly surprised that she remembered me. Juli mostly talked and I listened, and I didn't mind at all; the conversation kept my mind off the pain, and we made it almost halfway to Jasper, 287 miles, before I decided I needed to stop for an hour or so. Juli and Jan had helped me cut the crotch loose from my shorts in hope that it would cut back on the friction, leaving me with a Desitin-covered loincloth. It wasn't the most sightly garment I'd sported during a run, but if it could get me to Castle Rock without any more blood, it was a worthy sacrafice. I inflated the airplane pillow Steve Monte had given me before the race, and put my legs up against a tree, and tried hard to close my eyes. But, for the first time in a week, I was filled with nervous anticipation, and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't shut off my mind. After 45 minutes, I began to collect my belongings and prepare what was left of my feet and legs for the miles ahead. There were only 27-- just a little more than a marathon, but it just felt so far, and the 10 hours remaining until 7:30 am seemed so short.

I became restless and frustrated during the last 10 miles to Jasper. The descent, which could have been an incredible high on healthy legs and feet, was like a cruel practical joke in my makeshift shoondals (shoe-sandals) and carefully placed toes. A trucker slowly pulled up beside me around 10pm and asked if I wanted a ride, and I must have looked at him like I was hiding a machete under my loincloth because he blasted off down the road as soon as we made eye contact. If there was anything pretty about this haul in the preceding days, it was long gone now. I dropped one of my water bottles, sitting on a guardrail near the bottom of the descent, and it went crashing down the drop-off behind me, leaving me with one bottle and less than 10oz of fluid. Then, when I stood up, one of the blisters on the ball of my foot exploded in my sock. What next? Snow?

I headed into Jasper wondering if I was going to find an open convenience store or if my 10oz of water were going to have to make it to Kimball. I wandered slowly down the road and around the bends, unsure what to do. I laid down behind a school and set my alarm for 20 minutes, deciding that maybe a nap would bring some clarity. I woke up damp and uncomfortable and hungry. Further down the street I found a closed shop that had a Sundrop machine out front beside a bench, and decided this was as good a place as any. The only food that remained in my pack was the bag of trail mix, and I discovered it was inducing a gag reflex when I tried to eat it. I was able to choke down the soda, but my stomach was turning in on itself, aching and hurting. This was a nightmare. I had roughly 15 miles to go-- 5 hours of walking, given my physical condition, and I'd been reduced to gagging trail mix and coke. I sat for 15 minutes and then started heading for Kimball. It was a long walk despite the short distance, and I was immediately blinded and taken aback by the bright lights and traffic as a series of businesses came into view. I had a choice of convenience stores here, and felt confused by the rush of energy on the street. I wandered into a store and bought two bottles of Gatorade, and asked the clerk if she'd seen any other runners. She looked at me like I'd lost my mind and said "no"; I was the first she'd seen all night. I knew my lip was split and chapped badly from the sun, explained the adventure briefly, and then headed out of the store and toward the tangle of roads that loomed ahead.

Mile 301: just past the overpass, the course instructions explained. Ok, I thought. But, which of these roads? The road on the far right seemed to extend up and into the next galaxy, and I found myself mesmerized by it, entranced. It was like climbing a staircase into the stars, I thought. The sky was full of sparkles and the traffic left blurs of bright light that melted into the blue-black sky. I was lost in the magic of the moment, wandering along the shoulder until I came to a sign: Pedestrians prohibited... Wait. Was this the interstate? I backtracked to the place where the roads branched, and stood confused for a moment. Maybe I ought to just keep going the way I'd been going? Easier to find my way back if I got lost, I figured. Up ahead, under the lamplight, I caught a glimpse of something I'd least expected to see on the pavement: a giant painted mural. It was huge, and appeared to be the portrait of a clown. I could make out the reds and yellows, and his smiling face. I was overwhelmed by the image, and wanted to see it up close, but as I approached it, I discovered there was no painting at all, just lines worn and broken into the pavement. What was happening? I continued up the road without aim for miles until I reached an intersection, and after turning left and continuing a short distance, approached a large bridge. I was afraid of it, and it took some effort to begin crossing; the largeness of the water and the blueness of everything around me felt like I was being drowned. It was hard to comprehend what was happening all around me, and I found myself caught in a terrifying autopilot: keep moving ahead without looking anywhere else. I could feel myself falling asleep again like I had on the way to Parson, except that heavy steps weren't waking me, and I was navigating myself into some uncomfortable places.

A quarter mile or so past the bridge, I collapsed in a heap in a yard. My phone was dying and I was dying, too. I had eight miles to go, and my brain was fried. I let my arms and legs go limp, stretching out under the moonlight in the cool grass. If I could just sleep for 10 minutes, I would make it. I was floating up and away toward the edges of the universe. I made a quick mental note of the remaining turns, and then let my phone's battery wind down to 3% listening to "Trouble" by Cage the Elephant on repeat. Laying in the grass under a tree, my body sprawling to the edges of the universe with my spilling, spreading mind, I stared up at the starry sky. And, then I closed my eyes and fell asleep. My alarm sounded and my phone was flashing: 2% battery. Eight miles. Eight miles. Eight miles. Go.

"Stand up, Kimberly", I said out loud, "you did it. You have two and a half hours to finish this fucking race. Go."

My legs were still the disastrous animal on skates they'd become over the course of seven hot days, and when I stood up, they didn't immediately obey me. I was tired beyond the point of being concerned with how this dance played out for the public, and functioning on stardust and gatorade and maybe someone's stray Hail Mary, I slowly began the shuffle toward the edge of the road and up the hill. We'd passed that event horizon long ago, possibly in a convenience store, or maybe talking candidly with a horse about my pain and discomfort while cars sped by. In any sense, muttering to myself that I ought to get my shit together, knees rattling, Desitin-covered shorts cut at the crotch into a tattered loincloth, toes spilling over the sides of my butchered shoes like a busted can of biscuits, it didn't occur to me that my appearance was alarming to those zipping by me as I made my way through the streets of New Hope. Or, that laying spread eagle in the grass by the road in the middle of the night wasn't an appropriate behavior for a non-intoxicated, non-deceased person.

Well. It wasn't, anyway. And, that's when I heard it: the siren. I wrote it off as being a straggler from the outskirts of South Pittsburg, or maybe even Kimball. I wrote it off until it was bum rushing me from behind like a heavy wind, and the purr of the engine was closer to a roar on my ankles. This siren was being directed at me.

This siren...was being directed at me.

"Stay right where you are!" shouted a voice. "Don't move!" Two cars had come up behind me. Or, three. Three cars? What the hell had I done in my sleep that required three police cars?

Arms raised, nose running, teeth chattering, lips chapped raw and bloody, eyes bloodshot, hair filthy, all I could think was: this can't be the way my race ends. Not handcuffed in a police cruiser. Or being zapped senseless and pissy-pantsed in the middle of the road.

"You know, I got three calls come in about a dead body laying back there in the grass. Was that you?"

Shit. Where had I been?

"I'm really sorry. I'm in this race and I've only got 8 miles left. I just want to finish it, please. I didn't mean to do anything wrong."
"You're all over the road. Somebody is going to hit you. This is a race? Do they know you're out here at night?" the officer asked.
"Yes, we're all out at night. That's the best time to go because it isn't hot."
"What kind of race does this? I'm telling you, someone is going to hit you walking down the middle of the road like that in the dark."
"It started a week ago in Missouri. 500 kilometers. I'm almost done. I'm trying to get to Trenton, Georgia."
"You know, I think I've heard of that. You're going up Sand Mountain, aren't you?" he asked.
"Yes. I'm almost there. I just wanted to rest back there. I didn't mean to look dead."
"I'm going to tell you what," the officer began, "I'm going to send you up over that hill there to Berryman's store. There's an old church pew on the front porch. You need to sit there until daylight. I don't want you out on this road in the dark again."
"Yes, sir," I answered. "Over the hill?"
"Yep, right up there over the hill on the left. Can't miss it. You stay there until daylight."
Well, I thought, there were far worse potential outcomes to this bizarre tangle of events than an hour on a church pew on a butcher's front porch. With daylight came clarity, and I set off to make my way to the rock.

The climb up Sand Mountain was terrible. I moved as quickly as I could, but it seemed like the harder I pushed, the more I hurt and the more I struggled. I stopped repeatedly to drink, but it was never enough. My phone had given up the ghost shortly after I texted Gary about my police encounter, and without any measure of time, minutes felt like hours, and I slammed into another crushing low. I was a mere few miles from the rock, and yet I could hardly fathom taking another step. I was sweating worse than I had in the 100 degree heat in Tracy City, and I was desperate for human contact-- physical contact. I wanted a hug. I wanted someone to cheer for me, to ring a cowbell; I wanted someone to tell me it was ok, that I was going to make it. It was the strangest wish given my usual dislike for coddling during races. But, as I reached the top and made the first turn, it was all I wanted in the world. As I neared the turn toward Castle Rock, I literally gave up. I crumbled into a crying heap in a residential driveway, unable to fathom another mile in this condition.

Sandra Cantrell, Gary's wife, found me laying in the driveway and told me I was almost there.
"Am I going the right way?" I asked, climbing to my feet, still sobbing in the baking sun.
"Yes, it's just down the end of this road. There are signs; you can't get lost in the corn this year", she assured me.

Limping a jog down the hot road, I tried hard to regain my composure. Halfway to the gate, a car rolled to a stop, and a man in an electric green shirt hopped out. Jesse! He gave me the best quasi-hug a person could've given a filthy, sweaty body, and told me there was nobody between us. "You're finishing after me!"

I couldn't think of anyone I'd rather follow.

As I approached the gate, I felt like my heart was going to explode. Gone was the crushing heat and scorched road. There were butterflies. Shade. Birds singing. It was so quiet. In that moment, I felt like all I'd gone through over the past seven days had been validated. I'd died, and this was what had been laid out before me. There were 3.1 miles remaining where this path turned, but in my mind, this was the endpoint and the Rock was just a formality. Ironic that I'd worked so hard to escape the confines of traditional race formalities only to reach one that determined the entire outcome of the journey.

7 days, 1 hour, 41 minutes, 1 second.

I'd made it; I was done. I'd put every bit of my heart and strength into this journey, and it had finally come to a close. Having gone into this run as a "one and done" deal, I was surprised to discover just how much I'd fallen in love with what I'd done, what I'd been doing, with the open road, with the journey. I was struck with emotion I failed to articulate, and found myself instead lamenting the physical pain and exhaustion. Inside, I was a wreck, but aglow. Sometimes we find what we're looking for in the places we least expect. In the midst of all the turbulence, I found clarity. And, with all that had transpired, I was in love. It was more than an epic story; it was an adventure, and in that adventure a quest to unearth ourselves in the open road. I cannot imagine any better way to do that.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Lost Weekend (2016 Barkley Marathons)

"Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness"

-Yousuf Karsh

Every race has a defining moment-- that instant when a singular piece of the puzzle is inserted and the entire picture is suddenly made clear. Sometimes it doesn't happen until the very end. Sometimes it's a surge that cannot be met by competitors. Sometimes it's when you fall, 10 feet out of the starting corral, and bloody both knees. At last year's Barkley Marathons, that realization came when I missed the turn-off down Jaque Maite hill and found myself alone and unsure of even which galaxy I was roaming. That moment haunted me for a year; it was when I knew my race was over.

The rawness of the Barkley and its intimacy have drawn me to the event since I read about it a decade ago. It encompassed all the things I loved about the sport and excluded all the bullshit I hated, with the added bonus of a certain amount of mystique and exclusiveness that actually prevented me from taking it serious for several years. After all, if only a few dozen runners were granted entry each year and the entry process was shrouded in secrecy, how might I ever gain access?

Following Hiram Rogers up Hillpocalypse after nailing the second book head-on, two things became apparent: 1. I couldn't feasibly go any faster if I had any hope of surviving the next 15 miles; and 2. I had to go faster if I had any hope of making the cutoff. Reality hit hard: if anyone could pace this course to a 12-13 hour loop, it was Hiram. And, while I was able to gain ground during the descents, I was falling further behind with every ascent. By the time I got to the high wall, I felt like I was going to shit my pants and have a seizure, and Hiram was barely a dot in the stratosphere up above. Joel Gat slowly plowed past me, and then John Kelly-- clearly having been lost-- scurried by. And, then? And then it was just me. This was that defining moment. Though, I had no idea just how defining it was, and what kind of party favors were waiting to pop out of the can at me further down the road.

I'd superstitiously wanted to keep my entry status a secret from Day I, and was rather distraught when posts began to sprout like dandelions all over my facebook wall within minutes of the much-anticipated "Weight List" being published for the Barkley email listserv. The jinx jumped out as a thing of legend and evolved into a very real entity with the passing weeks, and with every mention of The Race, I became more concerned that people were going to build a very unrealistic expectation for me-- especially with the ill-timed release of the documentary that prompted droves of people to proudly proclaim, "pshhh I'm gonna do THAT", as if it were a hop-skip over a ditch and a trotted block to the candy store. At some point I realized how ludicrous the entire process had become; I was revering the name "Barkley" publicly like it was Voldemort, or one of those Bloody Mary-Freddy Crougar double dog dares from childhood (during which we'd lock ourselves in the bathroom, turn off the lights, and say the name 3x in hopes that we'd turn on the lights to face some sort of monstrous entity). Saying "I'm running Barkley" had almost become synonymous with a wish for imminent death-- or at least something really awful, and I half expected to wake up bald and bloodshot with my fingernails missing for having done it.

Compared to last year, I felt much better prepared. I'd obsessed over the park map, and carrying all the right gear. I'd had my sister drop me off several times at 8pm to run alone overnight for 12+ hours in sub-freezing conditions, and I spent hours at a time climbing on the treadmill with the incline maxed. In the fall, prior to submitting my request for entry, I'd pushed myself through a gamut of races that included the Barkley Fall Classic-- a 50k race through the same Frozen Head State Park that included an estimated 15,000ft of ascent and incorporated some of the beloved Barkley features; a 50k with 5,500ft of ascent in Chillicothe, OH, a 100k with 11,000ft of ascent at Oil Creek park in Titusville, PA; a trail marathon in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park; and finally a 100 mile rail trail race in Vienna, IL-- which finally allowed me to beat the coveted 24 hour mark, something I'd wanted for years. Having completed all of these events within an 8-week window, and having done well, served as a tremendous boost in confidence; and with the completion of two more 6-hour trail 50k races in mid-February and March, I was convinced I should be able to eke out my first Barkley loop in the ballpark of 11:30-12:00.

The Barkley Marathons, a 100 mile, five-looped, trail/mountain race with 130,000ft of total elevation change, was an hour from starting when Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake, or "Laz") blew the conch shell at 9:43am on Saturday, April 2nd. Last minute preparations and photo-ops whittled that hour down to minutes, and before I could get caught up in the anxiety of the pre-race hubbub, I was bringing up the bottom 1/3 of the pack, comfortably following Hiram Rogers and Kirby Russell up Bird Mountain. Following closely behind were Karen Jackson, Brad Compton, Finnish runner Mariana Zaidova, and Starchy Grant; blind runner Ronda Avery and her guide were following below us a couple switchbacks. Having climbed these switchbacks a number of times, I was mildly concerned about how far behind the rest of the runners we were given what I felt was a realistic pace, but still confident that I knew the course well enough that it wouldn't be problematic. After all, there were a number of previous finishers, Fun Run (3-loop) finishers, and elite runners in this year's race; and I knew heading into the event that I was considerably slower than most of the field. We made the turn-off toward England Mountain, crossed the Pillars of Doom, and finally began the descents through Hiram's Gambit and Fangorn Forest. The first book passed without a hitch, and then I hit the descent toward the park boundary-- a less pretty line than last year, although it went much quicker and with much less confusion. Heading up the marked trail toward Jury Ridge, I knew I was going to have to employ a different tactic if I wanted to keep pace with the runners immediately in front of me. Up to that point, I'd considered myself an excellent climber, but these men were putting me to shame. At Jury Ridge, I felt really good for about 10 seconds before I became entangled in a terrific mess of saw briers, one of them slicing deep enough to leave a clear stream of blood snaking its way down my shin. I began using my trekking poles like the Sword of Truth, slashing and swinging at anything that came within a foot of my body, although half the time the things I swung and sweeped only snapped back and clawed at me from another direction. It was a maddening chaos that ended directly at the Raider creek confluence and book 2; though, bloody legged and filthy and sweating profusely, I was astonished that my race was progressing so well.

My trekking pole slipped on the wet, clay-like earth that was shoulder-level, and sent a huge chunk cascading below. I couldn't have picked a worse spot to try to get over the highwall. My water bottle was struck next and somehow jumped ship and went tumbling down. I looked up: Hiram was disappearing above with Jim Ball and Kirby Russell. I sighed and took a drink of Gatorade. Nobody was coming behind me, which meant the rest of the group must have had trouble finding the second book. This climb was harder than I'd remembered it being, and by the time I got to the top, I was relieved to be heading onto a runnable marked trail. For some reason I became convinced that I was at Bald Knob and that the rocks in front of me were the remnants of the capstones, and I spent an outrageous amount of time wandering around here looking for the third book. Finally, after about an hour, I decided this effort was going to be fruitless, and began to make my way back down the trail on the switchbacks. Not far down, I took a bearing and realized, around the same time that two hikers approached from the opposite direction, that I was heading in the wrong direction. It was embarrassing and I swore profusely at the error. Who the hell just starts aimlessly running without bothering to see where they're going-- especially when heading left of the north boundary markers? Left of north is west, and I was supposed to be heading east. This was a gem of idiocy that was clearly in a league of its own. Now, I was not only too slow to keep up, but I'd wasted more than an hour rooting around for a book in the wrong area before heading down the mountain in the wrong direction. It was looking like a 15-16 hour loop day.

I climbed back to the top and then began to make my way down and then up in the opposite direction. Choosing to wear two long-sleeved shirts had seemed like a good idea in the morning, but now I was hot. I sat down on a rock next to a small stream trickling down the mountain and pulled out a pack of Honey Stinger chews. The contents from my first bottle were empty, and the second bottle was half empty. The water here looked clean, and I was thirsty, so I filled the bottle and added a purification tab, sucked down a Hammer gel, then another, and finally half of the contents of the Gatorade-filled bottle. With a little luck, I should reach the top of this next ascent in time for the water I'd just filled to be drinkable. Just as I was preparing to stand up, I heard voices. Close to Bald Knob, it reminded me so much of last year that I actually laughed maniacally as I leaped to my feet. "People!" I screamed, as though I'd been lost for more than just a couple hours. How in the dickens had this awful situation managed to repeat itself so perfectly? Clearly I was not, in fact, the last person trolling the mountains, destined for a disastrously slow loop alone. But, it wasn't looking pretty. A quick count indicated there were four: Karen, Brad, Patrick Doring, and a guy I'd met the night before named Ben. So, this was it: let the Canterbury Tales begin, right?

Not far behind this group was a pair of international runners: one French, the other the Finnish human sacrifice. Our quintet had become a septet, and we were slowly moving forward. I wasn't worried about Ronda, who was hiking with a guide, but what had become of Starchy was uncertain. He'd not passed me, and I hadn't gone off-course. It wasn't possible for him to have reached book 2 faster than I had; we'd chosen a perfect line and had descended directly at the confluence. So, he must be behind, although it was almost inconceivable that anyone could be behind us at this point. The pace was staggeringly slow, but I didn't think it was necessarily a good idea to just charge ahead. By the time we got to book 4 at the Garden Spot, we'd had to stop a half dozen times to wait for the French runner to catch up. I remember thinking that at this pace I'd have missed the marathon cutoff at BFC by a landslide. It had taken 7 hours to reach the water jugs, and daylight would be fading over the next couple hours. I tried to console myself with the thought that the last few segments were relatively straightforward, and if I could just survive Stallion without losing a limb, I might still be able to make it back to camp in 17-18 hours. Sure, it was embarrassingly slow, but it had been done before.

photo courtesy of Karen Jackson

Large groups at Barkley are a terrible idea. The more minds and bodies, the wider the gap in ability and the more potential for variation in opinion; and it became abundantly clear that we were not all on the same page heading out onto Stallion Mountain. We passed the dirt pile on the road without realizing what it was, and just kept up heading out until we were at a clearing that was impassable in three out of four directions-- impassable by human standards rather than Barkley standards, at least without proper rock climbing equipment or maybe hazmat suits. This was obviously the wrong place. A compass bearing indicated we weren't even heading in the right direction, even if we'd managed to conjure a magic carpet to fly us over the deathly drop-off. The foreign runners were convinced they'd found the turn-off to Quitter's Road, and insisted we follow it just to make sure. When the rest of the group refused to go with them, they left us and disappeared around the bend. I never heard from or saw them again, though I hear they spent the night further down the road under a space blanket before heading back to camp. After backtracking to the water jugs, the five of us again made our way out and then south, once again reaching the same crossroad. Frustration was building, and dusk was falling. Headlamps were making their way out at the same time as jackets were being zipped. Minutes turned into hours, and finally, Karen and Ben decided they'd had enough. With Patrick, they headed back toward the park boundary, our group of five whittling down to two. We were now 10 hours into the race, and stil hadn't found the descent toward Barley Mouth, the Buttslide, and book 5. It would take Jared Campbell and Gary Robbins and another hour before we'd finally see Bobcat rock, the water, and Starchy Grant.

"This can't be right", I told Brad, climbing to the top of an embankment that had dangerously inadequate footing.

"That road didn't go anywhere", Brad said, referring to the road that ran past Bobcat rock. "It didn't start sharply downhill. It can't be the right one".

I was staring out into the night when a light caught my eye. "There's somebody up there."

"Up here!" the voice belonging to the lighted figure yelled. It was Starchy. He explained that he'd spent 6 hours looking for book 2, and we explained we'd spent 5 hours looking for the turn off toward Barley Mouth, and together we decided we were going to finish this thing no matter how long it took. Interestingly, it never occurred to me how incredible it was that someone else was on loop 1 in the same place at the same time more than 12 hours into the race; and, it never occurred to me how incredible it was that at this point nobody who'd come into camp was a partial looper. I didn't know, officially, but suspected it, having seen every single person in the bottom 1/4 of the starting field and knowing most of them had been clogged at the Garden Spot with us.

We easily spotted the Buttslide trail and began the descent toward book 5, and with a bit of elbow grease, grunt, dirt, help from John Kelly, and the lucky shining of my headlamp directly onto it, located the orange park boundary stake and the book. This probably could have been an opportune time to make a joke about there only being eight books left, but we just rather obligingly began the slow climb back up the Buttslide and across the road to Bobcat rock. The climb to the top took much longer than I expected (a repeating theme), and once there it wasn't terribly long before we were standing in front of a rather surreal sight: a round body of water and what looked like the back seat of an old van, overlooking the world below. If it weren't for the presence of these things in the woods back home, I'd have probably been even more astounded or perplexed-- even though I knew they were there. But, there are a number of bathtubs in the CVNP that I've posed in doing all sorts of cute and inappropriate things over the years. Finding a couch at the top of a mountain is almost blase when you've pretended to cook a Thanksgiving turkey in a bombed out old stove in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, a little way past this, it was apparent we were on somewhat of a trail, and within minutes I'd spotted the rock-filled borehole on a large sheet of rock that sat between knee and waist level. "Book 6!" I yelled. At least there'd been less than an hour between these books.

Time changes. I'd venture to say it really can speed up or slow down, or even cease to exist at times, if it weren't for the scientific proof against this claim. But, it certainly changes form to the brain sometimes. I think urgency pushes us into hasty decisions: quit when we've still got a few minutes; or, give up when it looks like it might not be possible to complete a task within a set period of time. But, when you're the Turtle in the game of the Barkley rat race, time no longer matters at all. I wasn't even wearing a watch, and I don't recall any of us compulsively flicking our wrists to catch a glimpse of the numbers on the display. The objective here was to collect our pages. Time was no longer of essence at all. Only finishing the loop mattered.

From here, it seemed we descended into the grips of Hell for a long time. It was freezing cold, and the numbers suggested by my compass indicated nothing short of a gamut of death traps. There were highwalls, brier-covered wooded patches, impossibly steep pitches. The first of many hangry, ugly grumbles erupted when Brad accidentally kicked a very large rock over Starchy's shoulder on a drop down to more level footing, narrowly missing his head. "Wait until I'm at the bottom!" With the two at the bottom, I came tumbling-- literally, immediately after, my poles ending up in the next dimension, scrapes and cuts covering my fingers where I'd been clawing at rocks in futility, trying to prevent the disaster. I don't know if it was here or at another messy tumble when I screamed "I'm tired of falling!" at a volume fit for Zeus, but I was certainly thinking it. From here, it was just a matter of getting to the river, crossing the river, and getting to the highway. Easy enough, right?

"That's Andrew Thompson. He must know where he's going."

What felt like, and likely could've been, hundreds of feet up what we later found out was called 'Little Hell', it occurred to me that this-- this just couldn't be right. Where AT was going-- anyone's guess was as good as mine. But, I'd never seen anything like this in the course description, and I'd seen where the highway overlooked the river. It was nothing like this miserable place. "We need to go back down; the highway is not up here."

"I hope he knew where he was going. It doesn't look like he's coming back", one of the men said.

"This isn't where we're supposed to be."

"You think we should go back down?" Brad asked.

"Yes", I answered. "This is wrong."

Looking down the steep descent, I was beyond the point of cursing missteps and mishaps; and I'd lost count of the number of times my legs had been wasted on a climb that wasn't a part of the course. It hadn't even occurred to me to be mad. And, anyway, there was no point in being mad even if my mind did manage to worm its way out of these Finish or Die shackles; it would have been a long time before we'd approach a jeep road that headed back to camp, and by then we'd have committed so much time to the full loop endeavor that stopping early would be even more ridiculous than following through with what we'd started. In short, quitting simply didn't my mind; and, I don't think it crossed Brad or Starchy's minds either. We were committed. It was just a matter of getting it done.

It took another hour, steep climb, and a quarter mile hike down the road before we reached the Armes Gap pull-off, but once there I was at least able to relax momentarily in the comfort of being in a familiar place. I knew the footing to the top of the ridgeline, and from there the old Testicle Spectacle was within view. I could tell by the sky that daybreak would be coming within an hour or two when we began the ascent with earnest up what was one of my least favorite segments of the entire course. There seemed to be many people here at the same time as us: Jason Poole and Ty Draney, a pair of international runners whose accents I couldn't quite place, voices to whom I couldn't connect a face or name. We found the 7th book after a short tree scouring mission and a lot of scrambles through the brambles. I made a silent note that there didn't seem to be one square inch of skin on my exposed legs that wasn't bleeding. We continued the ascent and the mountain spit us out near the place where the Testicle Spectacle meets the road: more familiar ground. From here we just needed to negotiate our way to the stream, and then follow it to Raw Dog Falls and the climbing wall.

The first part of this section is admittedly a blur for me. I know daylight opened the sky like the curtain on a stage, but the usual hope that comes with that light was, interestingly, not present. I think, in retrospect, that the kind of brain power required to stay on task in Frozen Head cured me of any anxiety I harbored toward night mountain running, and sunrise was, then, just that: sunrise. And, it came without mention, without marvel. Hope only exists with the possibility of failure. And, in that moment, failure simply didn't have a seat at the table; it didn't exist. We followed the sound of the water until we'd reached a steep pitch covered with leaves that ended just downstream from Raw Dog Falls. While the men climbed and scrambled down, I slid down on my butt. It was one of the single most painful lessons I've ever had in the art of laziness: a large splinter of wood approximately four inches long and a quarter inch thick became lodged in my left leg. If there was any single moment of desperation in my entire 2016 Barkley Marathons experience, it was here. I dropped my trekking poles and just started bawling, very very loudly. I couldn't pull the stick out of my leg, it was bleeding, and it fucking hurt-- really bad. It must've taken Starchy a solid 10 seconds to even realize anything was wrong, and Brad even longer; or, perhaps we'd become so oblivious to the tedius bellyaching about sticks and thorns and kicked rocks that my lamentation poured over them like sunshine or rain. Perhaps we'd just learned to effectively filter useful utterances from the non-useful? Anyway, removing the stick required a lot more effort than I think either of us anticipated, and led to even more blood and crying, and Starchy holding my hand and profusely apologizing. And then, just like the end of an act in a play, we simply recommenced our pilgrimage to the yellow gate as though nothing had happened, crossing at the falls and then climbing the steep pitch to the road. The mountains don't have sympathy. Nature doesn't have sympathy. We collected our pages from book 8 in the rusty barrel at the foot of Garbage Valley, and then silently climbed to the road, and stared ahead at Pighead Creek.

The sun was shining. It was gearing up to be a beautiful day, I thought, as we began the long, long climb up to the prison road trail. What better way to bring this Odyssey to a close than sunshine and the satisfaction of having fulfilled a promise? Halfway to the top, we ran into Jennilynn Eaton who was trying hard to finish her loop fast enough to make the loop 2 cutoff. "I'm only going to have a few minutes", she told us. My stomach was growling as we neared the crest where the road branched. Up to this point, I hadn't thought much about food. Now, more than 22 hours into the race, I was suddenly faced with the reality that it was getting hot, we still had 1/3 of the distance to cover, and my food supply had dwindled down to scraps. With the exception of a gel and a Cliff Shot Block or two, I was going to run out completely at the Firetower. As we rounded the corner and the long, ugly wide cut flanking the power lines came into view, Starchy whooped and charged ahead. "I've been looking forward to this for years!" he shouted. I sighed, groaned, and plowed up and ahead with considerably less gusto. I'd been here before, twice, and I knew it wasn't a picnic-- especially with the sun beating down and mats of cut saw briers to negotiate. At the top, I ripped the Braille page from book 9 and flung off my pack and dug into it like I was diving into a Chinese buffet. Maple almond butter. Ensure. There was fat, calories, and the realization that from here the course wasn't going to be overly tricky-- just two more grueling climbs and two more descents, something we'd been doing already for nearly 24 hours. I popped two Shot Blocks and a gel into a side pocket, readjusted my pack, and prepared for the climb down to the prison. I had just consumed 400 calories, 2,100 for the loop, and I had 300 to get me to the finish. It was going to be a hungry, hot, tiring challenge, but for the first time my mind was beginning to wrap itself around the idea of this journey coming to a close.

Coming down Rat Jaw, I passed Jared Campbell and Gary Robbins for the second time. Despite being in a great deal of pain at this point, I couldn't help but laugh. What were these guys thinking, lapping this motley trio for a second time? It amused me probably more than it should've, and I must've smiled the biggest, goofiest smile as Gary congratulated me for not giving up. What else do you do? We're all making our way. Some were just doing it a hell of a lot faster. After collecting our 10th book pages at the prison, we looked up and past the water towers. So, this was it: the climb called The Bad Thing, an ascent that could be, according to course instructions, "disastrously time consuming" if not nailed at the correct capstone. For whatever reason, I'd never really sweated this segment, and I think the confidence paid off. Though my right leg was becoming increasingly difficult to maneuver with the inflamed ligament, and though we didn't end up directly in front of the Eye of the Needle at the top, the quest to find book 11 wasn't nearly as time-consuming as I suspect it could've been, or as time consuming as other books had proven to be.

Coming down the Zipline, on the other hand, was an odyssey of its own. Horrible-- it was just horrible; there's no other word I can grasp that accurately describes the confusion, debate, and utter inability to make heads or tails of what we were doing that ensued here. It was hot--probably at least 65-70 degrees and 2:00pm when we reached what we believed was the creek confluence. By this point, I'd completely forgotten everything Stu Gleman had told me about the "Christmas trees" that flanked the beech tree at the bottom of the mountain. Instead, we began a very time-consuming, futile search and rescue mission up and down the land running parallel to the creeks that only ended when we ran into Dale Holdaway who indicated the beech tree was further ahead. At the tree (and book 12), I discovered that in addition to my course map (long gone at this point), I'd dropped my last gel and two Shot Blocks somewhere between the Firetower and Neverland, meaning I had absolutely nothing left to eat. Brad offered me a Cliff bar-- much appreciated calories, and Starchy filled his water bottle at the creek. One climb; we had one more climb, and then we could finally begin the trip back to camp.

I'm sure we were making conversation-- when I didn't feel like my lungs were going to leap out of my body and onto the trail, but I don't recall what words we exchanged. The climb to the Chimney Top capstones, also known as Big Hell, was excruciating for my protesting ligament, but finally ended with the discovery of book 13: The Undead and Unfinished. I don't think any title could've been more appropriate. The break here was brief: we waited for Brad to catch up at the top, and then almost immediately began the ascent down. For the first time in the 18-20 hours the three of us had spent together (and more than 30 hours since the start of the race), there was a sense of urgency, and for the first time we also began to wonder out loud what the rest of the world must be thinking of the three lost souls and their lost weekend in the mountains of Frozen Head State Park. As if it made any difference whether or not I had them, I must have patted the pocket of my pack that contained my 13 book pages at least a half dozen times to make sure they were still there. There was something about proving to myself, even if the world didn't care, that I'd completed the mission, and having those pages was paramount. The ascent from Rough Ridge to the walking trail was frustratingly long, and the euphoria and adreniline that built during our trek along it grew to an almost unimaginable height.

We turned and started a walk that built momentum and speed with every step until we were jogging, hand in hand, along the driveway through camp. This was it: the big moment of reckoning. The wave of emotion that came pouring in was almost too overwhelming to even process. I was hungry, tired, overjoyed, satisfied and disappointed simultaneously, and before I knew what was happening-- our hands came down on the yellow gate in unison. It was over. We'd finished the longest loop in Barkley's 30+ year history:


It really was over. Over: I could've repeated this like a mantra, with a cheeseburger and enough whiskey to tranquilize a bear in hand, and a hot Greek man fanning my poor ghastly body and soul to sleep. We'd done it. It was OVER.

My mission at Barkley this year, ultimately, was to finish any loop I started. I think you've got to be willing to do that, and you've got to have a tangible goal in mind upon which you're able to measure success. Ultimately, our failure was, by Barkley standards, one of the most spectacular in race history. I own that, and I'm not ashamed. To someone unfamiliar with the Barkley, it's probably hard to find any success in what unfolded during those 32 hours. But, to those who have been faced with those mountains, I don't think it's so hard to see at all. You just have to keep moving, keep fighting, and refuse to entertain even the whisper of doubt. As long as you've got a compass, water, warmth, and the will to keep pushing onward and upward, the creature comforts waiting on the other side of that yellow gate will embrace you in due time.