Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Barkley Marathons...A Beginning

When assassin James Earl Ray escaped from a Tennessee prison in 1977, he was missing for 55 hours. In that time, he only managed to get eight miles away before being recaptured. Race organizer Gary Cantrell heard this statistic and thought he could make it at least a hundred miles in that time. He organized the Barkley Marathons to test this theory.

Since 1986, ultra runners have met in the hills of Frozen Head State Park to have a go at what many runners believe to be the world's hardest long-distance trail race because it has such a low finishing rate. In fact, the course is purposefully designed and adjusted to keep it at the outer limit of human endurance. Some years no one finishes.

Since the race began in 1986, only 9 runners out of about 700 have finished within the 60 hour cutoff. Past finishers have set speed records for the Appalachian trail. 2 past finishers have won Hardrock. 3 past finishers have finished Nolan's 14 (2 have won). 1 past finisher set the speed record for the Colorado fourteeners.

The course is relentless and never lets up - that's a given. Because of the distance, difficulty and time limits, runners must run around the clock at least once for the Fun Run and at least twice for the 100-mile. The course is not marked, so good navigation and orientation skills are a must.

I am humbled and in awe of the "9" that have completed the 100. They are a special breed. I honestly believe that a Barkley finisher is as elite as you can get. I believe that what goes on mentally and physically during this event is like what few other athletes ever experience. In essence, the Barkley is not about running - it's really about human potential, and the fact that we are capable of doing much more than we think.

The Barkely atmosphere is what every ultra runner hopes to have a chance to experience once in his/her running life. Gather thirty-five of your dear friends and share an experience that is wrought with challenges and obstacles that push the limits of what is possible. Bundle all that up into one hell of a good time, and you just found yourself in Frozen Head.

Is this my year to run the Barkley? Maybe, maybe not. But I will be there, and I will be ready to run. More importantly, I will be ready to NOT QUIT.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Birth of the BARC

It's not a Memo...It's a Mission Statement.

It started out as an idea, not even a terribly creative idea : Run 44 miles on your 44th birthday. Take the day off from work and do something special to celebrate being alive. By the end of the day, my birthday run had in fact given birth to it's own creation- The Birthday Adventure Run Challenge. The BARC.

Make no mistake about it- the BARC is not a birthday run. If a birthday run is about celebrating life and being grateful for being alive for another year, then the BARC is a birthday run on steroids.

Differences- for starters, a BARC has an added goal of making this year's birthday more memorable than the last. Also, the number of your years must lend itself to the base of the challenge (OK, so that part's not different than my original idea).

Essentially, a BARC is a challenge that you design for yourself, based upon your feeling or mood at any place in your life. One year you may focus on a strength, the next on a weakness. It can be a short hard run or a multi-day epic. It's entirely up to you; and because of this, you can end up challenging yourself like no run tailored for the masses could ever do.

For example, on his 70th birthday Jack LaLanne towed 70 boats carrying 70 of his friends across Long Beach Harbor (about 3 miles), handcuffed and shackled.


Why would you do this, you ask? If you have to ask, you probably won't understand the answer. Because challenge is fun. Pain is fun. Suffering is fun. Why? Because when it ends it gives you a perspective on life you couldn't otherwise have. And what better way to explore the art of suffering than completing a super burly kick-ass adventure run?

Like Captain Kirk said, "I don't want my pain taken away, I need my pain." With no pain, there is no struggle, no struggle, no rewards, and if no rewards, then why bother living at all? These things add experience to our lives, they fulfill and enrich us, they make us human.

This Year's Challenge

I take it the situation is grim and the odds are against us. Sounds fun.

A 44-mile out-and-back run starting at Montreat College in Black Mountain. The goal was to run to the summit of Mt. Mitchell, the highest place in the Eastern U.S. at 6,684 ft, then summit the next four highest peaks along the 4.5-mile crestline trail between Mt. Mitchell and Deep Gap before returning to the start.

All in all, that's FIVE mile-high peaks:

  1. Mt. Mitchell (6,684')
  2. Mt. Craig (6,648')
  3. Big Tom (6,581')
  4. Balsam Cone (6,596')
  5. Cattail Peak (6,584)
Burly? Check.
Kick-ass? Double-Check.

The Report

Preparation for the Monday run began on Friday. On my way down to the GUTS Reactor Run on Friday morning, I took the Parkway up to Mt. Mitchell to drop aid. I dropped a gallon of water at Black Mountain Gap and another gallon at the picnic area at Mitchell where Deep Gap Trail begins. I made sure to put notes on the water indicating it was aid for runner and to please not remove it.

Inspired by the herculean efforts of those running in this weekend's GUTS Reactor Run, I set off early Monday morning for Black Mountain to begin my ultra adventure run challenge. I had about 90 ouncesof water (Accelerade) and hot pink flagging tape. I figured I was good to go!

Little did I know just how much I would be relating to those GRR racers in a few hours.

The first part of the course is the same as the Seven Sister's Summit Run. You start at Rainbow Rd. Trailhead and take the Rainbow Trail up 2 miles to the split of Mitchell Toll and Trestle Road. That first 6/10 of a mile up Rainbow Trail is brutal, too. I don't know the elevation gain, but the super-short, super-steep switchbacks gets you up pretty high in that first 1/2 mile. In hindsight, it kind of set the tone for the day...

Now, for some reason, instead of going up to the split of Mitchell Toll and Trestle, when I came to a grey diamond marking that said, "Traverse to Rainbow Road" I took that. I figured I had a map, and I'd be fine. And I was. However, it was a little tricky. As I neared the end of rainbow Road, I came to a horse gate, and was at Lookout Trace. It took me a nittle while to figure out that if I went up Lookout Trail, it would intersect with Trestle Road and I'd be back on track.

I flagged the crap out of the intersection of Trestle and Lookout, so I could take the same route on the return home (thank you Mad A for that great idea).

Trestle Road is a nice trail running along a ridgeline. After a couple of miles, there's a sharp right turn and a short, steep climb to a gravel road. The branches here were covered in rime ice and looking very pretty indeed. Again, I flagged the crap out of this intersection to help me on the way back.
Sourwood Gap was right around the corner, and I ran to the left here to access Mitchell Toll Road, which I'd take all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I took in the sights at a leisurely pace and made sure to explore every little spur trail. I'm glad I did, as I discovered this rock outcropping that gave this beautiful panoramic view:
Nice view from a little rock outcropping off Old Mitchell Toll Road

The first sign that the recent weather had impacted the trails came a little further up the Toll Road. It's bad enough to run this rocky trail in the best of conditions, but there was water everywhere! The Toll Road was literally a river in many places.
Old Mitchell Toll Road/ River

Finally, the Toll Road drops you on to the BRP at Black Mountain Gap. For some reason, I started getting really excited about the run at this point. From here on out, I was in uncharted territory, and suddently summiting Mt. Mitchell seemed a whole lot more real. Maybe I was just happy to be off that rocky, river of a toll road.

First surprise of the day: The gallon of water I had stashed in the bushes just right of the sign was gone! That really surprised me, but I figured Deep Gap was not too far away, and considering all the water on the trail, I'd be fine. Off to Mt. Mitchell State Park I went, with a left turn on to Hwy. 128, and then I kept my eyes open for the Buncombe Horse Trail.

Entrance to Mt. Mitchell State Park

Highway 128 is the road to the summit of Mitchell. Had I known what I was in for with the Buncombe Horse Trail, I would've taken this road all the way up!

Maybe a mile up Hwy 128, I picked up the Buncombe Horse Trail. There was snow on the trail, but the real problem was the water. It soon became clear that this stretch was going to be slow going and miserable. The trail was a choice of ice or swamp. When you could run on hard packed snow, things were fine, but the terrain constantly changed and trying to decide where to step soon began to wear me out. (On the way back, I didn't even bother. I ran right down the middle and just did not care).

Entrance to the Buncombe Horse Trail

The trail was a mess!

Running on the far sides of the trail would sometimes yield good results

But just as often, your foot would completely sink out of sight

After about 5 miles, I began to look for the Commissary Trail, which would take me to the Mitchell Trail. All I could think of was how happy I would be to get out of this bog!

Then I found the Commissarry Trail and here's what it looked like:

The Commissary Trail was completely frozen over
At least I wasn't on this trail for long before I came up to the Mitchell Trail. Surprisingly, there was no snow on the trailhead. From the sign, I could tell this would be quite a hike up to the summit. I had about 16 oz. of water left, and so I started up, anxious to summit Mt. Mitchell.

About 500 feet later, here is what the trail looked like:

All the water that had run down froze over

I just found a new way to hate trail stairs.

I was already concerned with the time, and was doubting my ability to continue on after Mt. Mitchell. I had agreed to meet my boss for a birthday beer after the run, and I wasn't yet ready to give up on that.

It seemed like it took forever to maneuver around all the ice and reach the summit. I was out of water, worn out, and ready to head back. From what I had heard about Deep Gap, there was no way I was risking it with all this ice.

I was so happy when I started seeing the signs I was near the summit!

It's surreal to come upon this sign in the middle of the wilderness

Mt. Mitchell visitor center via trail

I took this picture on the way to the picnic area- no view whatsoever.

Second and third surprise of the day: I reached the picnic area, and took shelter in the little building there. I was ready to get my water, have some lunch, and call Charles. At this point, I was harboring some lingering thoughts about heading out Deep Gap even though it was getting late in the day.

I called Charles, only to find thathe had gone home sick and was completely out of it. It was a frustrating call as I kept losing reception and so we finally just said good-bye.
I went to retrieve my gallon of water, and found it was completely frozen! Then, I searched my pack for some food, and found I had just one Mojo bar left. I had failed to finish packing food the night before, thinking I was going to do that in the morning. Instead, I completely forgot, and ran out of the house with my food-short pack. Ugh! Stupid mistake.

Site of realization I had no food or water and 20 miles to get back to my car.

So close, yet so far away. Good-bye Mt. Craig and friends.

I decided I better just head back, and I hoped for the best. I found plenty of water on the trail and purified it with iodine. However, the lack of food finally got to me. The last few miles were a death march. Not even a death march, more like a death (slow, slow) walk. To make matters worse, almost all of my flaggings had been removed.

My boss started texting me and I told him I was OK, not to worry, that things were just taking longer than I thought. he surprised me by showing up at my car in Montreat and texting me. I sent him directions to pick me up at Lookout Trace, thereby ending this birthday run. To round out the experience, we went to a beer pub in Black Mountain where Ihad 2 Ranger IPA's and called it a day.

I was almost feeling disappointed in the day, but when I arrived home, I saw that my NB wear test shoes had arrived, and, being the shoe whore that I am, life was good again.

Armed with new shoes and a plan for a seriously kick-ass "BARC" next year, I set this run behind me, never to look back.

* Over the weekend, Adam Hill (Mad A) was kind enough to e-mail me some additional information I was missing about the route I had chosen. I was working off of Mike Mason's (Cheetah) general directions for this course, and had I not had Adam's additional notes I would have gotten lost for sure. Thanks, Adam!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Birthday Run Preview

44 miles to celebrate 44 years. Just like the movie, this begs to be a triumphant true story.

If you saw "127 Hours"...this is my note.

On Monday March 7 I plan to run from Montreat College in Black Mountain to the summit of Mt. Mitchell, the highest place in the Eastern U.S. at 6,684 ft. Then I'll summit the next four highest peaks along the 4.5-mile crestline trail in the Black Mountains between Mt. Mitchell and Deep Gap.

Mt. Mitchell got its name from Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a science professor who first calculated its height in the mid-1800s. Mitchell fell to his death from the peak in 1857 while verifying it as the highest in the range. He's now buried at the summit. I'm just sayin'. This could be dangerous.

Between Mount Mitchell and Deep Gap, there's about five miles of rugged trail that will take you to Mount Craig -- the second highest peak in the eastern U.S. -- and across Big Tom, Balsam Cone, and Cattail Peak, three of the other mile-plus summits. On a clear day, experts say the panoramic view stretches 85 miles.

At the time I'm writing this, the route looks like this:

Cheetah's StolenBirthday Run in 10 Easy Steps
  1. Start – Rainbow Road Trailhead in Montreat
  2. To Trestle Road trail to Sourwood Gap
  3. Pick up the Old Mitchell Toll Road, run to the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP)
  4. Left on the BRP
  5. Right on Rt 128
  6. Right on the Buncombe Horse Trail
  7. Left on the Mitchell Trail (run to the summit of Mt. Mitchell, 6,684 ft)
  8. From the summit, run across the parking lot to the Deep Gap Trailhead
  9. Follow the Deep Gap Trail across the following summits:
    Mt. Craig (6,648 ft)
    Big Tom (6,581 ft)
    Balsam Cone (6,596 ft)
    Cattail Peak (6,581 ft)
  10. Turn around and retrace run back to Montreat

Given that some of these climbs are so steep they are permanently roped to provide a needed handhold, I'm expecting to arrive back at Montreat in the dark. After discussing this fact with my friend Dave Pryor, he suggested I stay home avoid the Rainbow Trailhead route on my way back, considering how easy it is to get lost on these trails at night. Good thinking, Dave! Thank you. (Maybe now I won't be out there for 127 hours!)

I've asked my friend Adam Hill, who knows these trails better than anyone I know, to provide a little guidance in adjusting the route in my favor, so I can avoid getting lost...if at all possible.

Stay tuned...