Thursday, April 26, 2012

Black Mountain Campground to Mt. Mitchell

Mt. Mitchell Scenic Drive
Saturday's run with Charles was the perfect adventure run. Our only goals were to run "somewhere out towards Mt.Mitchell" and to "be out for about 6 hours or so."

We left the house late, around 1:00 p.m. (assuring some night running) and decided to try a new driving route to Mitchell.   From Chimney Rock, we took Hwy 9 towards Black Mountain and picked up US Hwy 80 for about 15 miles. This is a beautiful drive, and later I discovered it's part of the DOT's newly designated Mt. Mitchell Scenic Byway.  Cool.
The drive was an adventure in itself, being a new route. We were rewarded with surprisingly great scenery, including the discovery of Tomahawk Lake. On a beautiful day, I have to say it was just nice to be out driving. Like me, C likes to drive around aimlessly and enjoys making road "connections".   
Once at the BRP, we pulled off at the Green Knob Overlook at Milepost 50.4. Our plan was to hike up to the firetower, descend down to the South Toe River and the Black Mountain Campground, and then ascend more than 3600' in elevation over 5 1/2 miles to reach the Mitchell summit. This is one of the toughest climbs in the region.
The trail to the firetower is not obvious from the overlook, since there is no signage. You have to walk about 100 yards north (turn right from the overlook) and look for the signpost for the trail on the opposite side of the road. The narrow 1/2-mile trail gains 340 feet in elevation. It has a yellow blaze and can be overgrown in areas. Since it is somewhat hidden, the trail is not used by many hikers.

The panoramic views from atop the tower are certainly worth the 1/2 mile hike from the Parkway. The tower provides the best viewing point of the rugged and tall Black Mountains range, including Mt. Mitchell. The fire tower, atop the 5,080-foot Green Knob Mountain, was built by the U.S. Forest Service in 1931. 
The tower can be seen as you drive north on the BRP

Looking westat the peaks of the Black Mountains, the highest in eastern America with

Mt. Mitchell (6,684 ft) on left, Mt. Craig (6,647 ft) and Big Tom (6,580 ft).

The Black Mountains are underrated. They are more than a billion years old and contain 16 peaks over 6,000 feet tall. Six of the ten highest peaks in the eastern US are found here- including Mount Mitchell, with an elevation of 6,684 feet. Under...rated.

What a setting for an adventure run!
We descended down to the Black Mountain Campground easily enough, adding miles by taking the longer loop trail. We stopped and had a bite to eat at the bridge entering the campground.

As you go through the campground, it's a little difficult to tell where to pick up the trail to Mitchell. We saw a sign for a trail to a we had to take that excursion. Setrock Creek Falls is very cool and easy to access.

Setrock Creek Falls- Between Briar Bottom and Black Mountain Campground

Eventually, we made our way to the trail indicating the Mitchell summit was 5.5 miles.  This was a tough, relentless climb. It's deceiving. About midway up, I bonked. However, after some food and rest I came around pretty quickly.

We met up with the old Mitchell approach trail at the junction of Comissary Ridge and knew we only had about 900 feet to go. Midway up the trail we saw signage for the Balsam Nature Trail, and we didn't take the trail to the right...yet still ended up arriving at Mitchell via the Balsam Nature Trail. I've approached Mitchell from this same starting point, and fail to understand what turn I take that puts me on the Balsam Nature Trail...a mystery.

Finally, we summit Mt. Mitchell, and it's totally fogged in and it's gotten very cold. Then it starts raining!  We were definitely taking the road back to the car.

This was the most interesting part of the run. It was so foggy and rainy as we left the park it was a little bit scarey. We had to wonder if the winds were going to stay kicked up. because we were both freezing.  Then thunder and lightning got our attention...

It was like this the whole way back, although we did run most of the way which felt good.

We got back to the car almost 9 hours later, and endured fog so thick you couldn't see through it for almost all of the ride back.

This was a very tough 25 mile loop, but one I will come back and run again. It was a great reminder about how fickle the weather can be at Mt. Mitchell. 

Good times!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Barkley: What Was I Thinking?

I realize now it was probably a mistake to go in to work the day after getting home from Barkley. I mean, how do I reconcile the fact I broke IN to a prison in the dead of night with this stack of papers on my desk?

It’s like Barkley switched on my prehistoric brain and I'm having trouble switching it back. I can readily deal with the possibility of falling off a cliff while being lost “out there”, but answering a phone? What planet does THAT happen on? I’m staring at this box of highlighters on my desk like they're moon rocks. What ARE these things? And when will I remember why I find them necessary?

Like so many others, it will take me a while to “normalize” and absorb everything that happened before, during, and after Barkley. Barkley changes you, and it’s hard to force yourself to put everything in to words when you’re still trying to understand it. But you have to weigh that against the fading memories that will be gone forever if you don’t act.

Now, more than ever, I know this is an event you have to experience to appreciate. To attempt one loop is to know not how difficult, but how IMPOSSIBLE this event truly is. And I say this even after watching not one but THREE people finish this year, and six people complete the “Fun Run”.

As for my 1-loop experience, I found myself scraped, alone, lost, found, befriended, and continually tortured in seemingly endless ways. I climbed almost 11,000 feet, descended the same amount of treacherous downhill, jumped off a cliff, bush wacked through briars, creeks, rocks and trees, located 11 books hidden in the woods, and found my way back to camp in a 18 hour and 46 minute timeframe of seriously difficult effort.

I was rewarded with a spectacular DNF.

It was the best day EVER.

Foothillz Foolz, Meet April Foolz
Charles and I drove up to Frozen Head State Park on Wednesday for Saturday’s race. In contrast to last year, we arrived to a completely full campsite- and the entire vibe was different than last year. There were a lot more people, including a documentary film crew.

We were starting to get worried about where we'd be staying when Carl Laniak and Co. drove by on their way out to dinner. Wouter Hamelink was in the van and he solved our problem by kindly offering us a place to pitch our tent at his campsite. Later, we invited Thomas to join us as well ('cause everyone knows it's not a party 'til the 'Snail arrives).

Wouter is awesome. His name is more difficult to pronounce than mine, so I like him based on that alone. But after just a few minutes with Wouter, anyone would love this guy.

Weight List Therapy
I remained #4 on the weight list for weeks. However, with last minute weight list activity, Travis Wildeboer was #1 and I was #2 going in to Barkley week. By Friday, Travis was in and I was next up. I was in exactly the same position Charles was in last year (what are the chances?).

Being #1 on the weight list is horrible for obvious reasons. In fact, the weight list concept is just horrible. I mean, it’s hard enough to train through the winter knowing you’re actually IN the race. Try training for the hardest thing you possibly may ever attempt while not even knowing if you’ll get in. Then sit back and watch your motivation climb and descend faster and farther than you ever do. It’s not fun.

Needless to say, my head was not in an ideal place upon arrival at FHSP. Up until about 5 weeks out, I had trained fairly well (or so I thought. It's funny how that changes post-Barkley). But suddenly I wrote a BOOK! work overtook everthing in my life and I was working 10-16 hours a day. My training fell apart. However, I wasn't all that worried - I actually didn't believe I was going to get in.

Now it looked as if I might just get in, afterall.

Talk about race anxiety. With more than 2 days to stew in the race anxiety of all race anxieties, I mentally fell apart. I focused on my lack of training, on how I "sacrificed" my aerobic base for less, climbing-specific miles and then lost even that fitness. I doubted the training I did, and the training I didn't do. I doubted my decision not to drop, and basically my sanity in general. Things spiraled downward from there . It got ugly.

By Thursday night, I was in such bad shape and was bringing such negativity to Charles everyone around me, I finally forced myself to stop focusing on the anxiety itself and trying to find reasons to justify it, and looked within for answers. I asked myself what was truly going on. Surely all this commotion isn't just about some dumb race??

Of course not. The race was is just a perfect excuse for long hidden fears to arise and take hold. What a nightmare...Barkley had become a perfect storm of fear.

Not to spend too much time on this, but as a race experience, this was a good one. Barkley raised the bar of fear so high for me that it facilitated a breakthrough. I was able to see the fear for what it was - in this case a perfect example of how losing my mom at a very young age created a certain insecurity within me that plays out when I'm confronted with new (and fearful) situations in my life. The best thing about seeing this was that I immediately knew the solution to the problem. My takeaway is this- the answer is never to think smaller, or be or do less, but to see the fear for what it is and do what I need to do anyway.

Uh huh…and you thought this was just gonna be a race report about some really tough trails with names like Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw. Instead, you get Barkley therapy. You can thank me later.

As it is with many of my "big" insights, I feel kind of dumb when the realization sets in. It always seems so obvious. I will say this, though- as anyone who has survived early childhood tragedy knows, things don’t become available for healing in the order you always expect them to. You take what you can get when you can get it, even if it's at the Barkley Marathons. I'm just thankful that there has been as much grace in my life as there has been tragedy.

Oh, $hit. I'm IN
So, I got in to the race at about 9:30 Friday night. There were rumors that Luis Escobar would not be arriving at Barkley as expected. He supposedly was involved in the search party for Caballo Blanco (Micah True) - of "Born To Run" fame. Apparently, Caballlo had gone out for a 12-mile run and never returned. Sadly, the rumors were true. Caballo was found dead, apparently of natural causes, on Saturday. Read the story here.

The story of how I got in to the Barkley stands alone, but on a personal note, it got even better when I arrived home and googled "luis escobar". I wanted to know more about the runner that enabled me to get in to the Barkley. Perhaps I would "friend" him on facebook and send him a thank you message. Guess what? As soon as I read a little about him, I was like, "Oh! That Luis Escobar!!" I know exactly who he is- because we both grew up in Central Coast,CA (he's from Santa Maria and I'm from Arroyo Grande). I knew his name as a x-country phenom when I went to Arroyo Grande High School in 1981-82. Wild, huh?

Getting Ready
In theory, the race could actually start in a few short hours. Although, Charles and I didn't really think it would- not with a new first section that sounded kind of dangerous, and with a film crew here. But you never know...

Now that I had my head firmly screwed on, I got my things ready and went to bed early. Surprisingly, I slept really well. We heard the conch shell blow right after 8:00 a.m., and I went to work getting ready. What a difference a day can make! I was totally focused and ready to make the very best of my situation. I was calm but excited.

Georgia Snail & Psyche- Getting Ready (to each his own)

Now that I was in the race, I wanted to be included in Geoffrey Baker's "portrait project" and I went over to his tent to have my "before" portrait taken.

Geoffrey S. Baker Photography Tent

Before I knew it, I was milling around the yellow gate with the others as if in some surreal dream where the hardest race on the planet is begun with the lighting of a cigarette.

Witness the typical all-out sprint start. Ultra style.

Book #1- Pillars of Death, the Flume of Doom, and Hiram's Gambit
Perhaps I should have mentioned this at the start. Finding books 1 and 2 at the Barkley is the most exciting thing I have EVER done. I truly don't have words to describe the heart-pounding adventure this was.

Earlier today, I was walking down our road with Leopold and we startled some deer. They ran through the forest and across the road, and the very last deer jumped all the way across the road from the forest in one leap. You could feel his fear and adrenaline.

It was like that.

But not right way. Immediately after starting, I noticed nothing was going as I expected. I assumed everyone would take off and I would be hard pressed to keep up. My "plan" was to make sure I did not lose sight of Frozen Ed and/ or Leonard Martin. Instead, both of them were well behind me, and I found myself leading a small group that included Joel Gat and Tim Hardy. We all walked up the first couple of steep miles of Bird Mountain "candy ass" trail in a group.

Joel had Laz's instructions out and it seemed the group I was in was paying close attention, even while talking all the while, so even though I was "leading" this little group, I wasn't really paying too much attention myself.

Soon, we arrived at the top of Bird Mountain and turned left on to the Cumberland Trail (a new section this year). I was curious about the "Pillars of Death" I heard about in camp the night before. Thomas had been up here exploring the trail the day before, so I knew I wasn't looking for pillars that went UP, but ones that I would walk over. And they were cool:

Pillars of Death - photo courtesy Matt Mahoney

Immediately past these rocks, I decided to heed Laz's words about taking advantage of any flat, runnable sections. I was jogging down the trail when I heard Joel call my name, and in whatever time it took for me to run the 50-100 feet back the way I came, I knew I was fucked my entire race experience was formed. I watched the entire field of runners cut across a small hill and begin running down the other side. And they were moving incredibly FAST.

I got a glimpse of Frozen Ed and Leonard Martin- Leonard was wearing a red and white shirt and all I knew was that I had to keep that red and white shirt in sight as if my life depended on it.

Later, several people said and wrote in their reports, "I saw this section was called 'Hiram's Gambit' so I figured I better stick with Hiram." That never even occurred to me. My one consolation is that you can go here to see how much good it did Hiram to be Hiram.

This is the view going down Check Mate Hill - courtesy Matt Mahoney

As I flew through "fanghorn forest", it registered that the section was aptly named- what a creepy forest. The forest leads you to Check Mate Hill where you descend 1300 feet in less than 1/2 a mile. Of course, at the time, I didn't know this was Check Mate Hill. I was out of my mind, trying to keep any human being that I could in my sights.

This photo gives a better view of how steep Check Mate Hill is (courtesy Matt Mahoney)

Everone was just gone, except this one guy with longish grey hair (I later learned this was Pat). I flew down the hill, chasing Pat, hoping against hope he was going the right way. I could no longer see Frozen Ed or Leonard Martin.

I was almost all the way down the hill, when I got a really bad feeling- This just can't be right, I thought. I know the book is back up there somewhere and I've screwed up. What a moment of truth. Follow the one person I can still see and assume he knows more than I do...? Or head back UP check Mate Hill? Oh, holy god. I headed back up the hill. I didn't come here to NOT get the book pages, damn it.

About 1/2 way back up, I see people coming towards me. I ask if they've already gotten Book #1 and they say yes. Someone tells me to head back up and angle slightly to the right until I hit a road. Go down the road and I'll find Book 1, they say. Then, (I think it was) Tim Dines says, "Psyche, you've got this." *

So, I climb back up Check Mate Hill, I find the road, I run down the road and I eventually see the rock that Book #1 is hidden under. Just like the instructions say: "The first runner will find the book under a large rock. He may need to wait for the second runner if he is not strong enough to lift the rock."

Oh, noooo..... I can't lift the rock by myself. And I' Can you imagine? I get scraped, descend and then climb back up Check Mate Hill to find Book #1, only to realize that I may not be able to physically get the book out from under the rock? No, no, no, no. That is not happening. I pry and pull, and push and shove, until I finally see a bit of plastic. E ventually, I work the book out from under the rock, and get my page! Sweet, sweet victory.

Naresh, Stu, and Terry at Book 1 (courtesy Matt Mahoney)

Book #2 The Rambo Experience
Obviously, I don't bother placing the book back under the rock because 1) I'm not strong enough and 2) I believe I'm the last person in the race. I secure the page in my plastic baggie, and head back the way I came. I read Laz's instructions. I'm supposed to be looking for a creek, but shockingly, I don't see it. I know I have to go back down the hill but I'm not sure where to go down, or if it makes any difference. Then, I see Pat- he's coming up Check Mate Hill just like I did and he's saying he made a huge mistake- he went for Book #1 where it was last year. So I tell him where he can find Book #1, and I continue to try to make sense of Laz's directions.

Eventually, I decide to wait and follow Pat. I figure he must be a vet if he knew where Book #1 was last year. When I see him, I say something like, "I don't know where the hell I am so I'm following you." He mentions something about a jumble of cable being a landmark, and heads down Check Mate Hill that way. I follow, until we get to a section and it becomes unclear how to proceed. Laz's instructions say to be careful not to go too far to the right because there are dangerous 40- 60' cliffs, but this guy is moving.

All of a sudden, he finds a rock face drop off, and jumps off of it. He begins descending. I'm like, "mother fucker!!" "Hell no!" but then I remember: I'm LOST. And he's gonna be GONE in a few seconds. I decide to follow, and I take my pack off and throw it, along with my trekking pole, down the cliff ahead of me. I remember saying, "Sorry, honey" out loud right before I jumped, because I knew Charles would not like what I was all.

Naresh and Terry Cash going down the Flume of Doom (courtesy Matt Mahoney)

Later, I heard this section was called the Flume of Doom. I don't think I actually went down the Flume per se, but rather jumped off the cliff you see in the picture above. It was scarey as all hell.

The fear did not let up. Pat was now almost completely out of sight, and he was bushwacking down the side of the mountain just freakishly fast. It was incredibly hard to run fast enough to keep him in my sights. Especially as I'm having a heart attack. The whole section down to Phillips Creek had such a surreal, dream-like quality to it. I was chasing Pat, but it also felt like I was being hunted. It somehow reminded me of Rambo- the forest scene in First Blood where Rambo is forced to hurt the officers who are hunting him. He tells them to get over hunting him or they will get a war they will never forget. At any moment, I expect Rambo to silently step from behind a tree, or spring from his lair in the leaves beneath me. Surrrreal, I say...

I've now completely lost sight of Pat. I decide to head down to the water instead of bushwacking just above it. I don't even know why. I honestly think my race is over. I take my time and follow the creek, thinking it will eventually lead me... somewhere. I can decide the best course of action at that point.

Then I look up, and right in front of my face is the rock cairn where Book #2 is hidden. Damn! Barkley is nothing but a series of emotional ups and downs!

Rock Cairn where Book #2 was found (photo from 2010 Barkley)

Books #3 and #4 - Takin It Down a Notch
Now I know exactly where I am... and I know where Book #3 is located. I secure my page, get water, cross the creek and begin climbing up to Jury Ridge. This section is on "candy ass" trail and it's a tough climb and everything, but nothing like what I just went through. Mostly, I feel a little depressed because I know I'm last (turned out not to be true) and it's hard to make myself hurry.

I do run all the downhills of this section and I keep checking Laz's instructions, wondering when I'll get to Son of a Bitch Ditch. I also think that no one better tell Laz that this whole section is quite runnable if you're so inclined.

The Garden Spot was tricky to find and I wasted a lot of time, but it seemed to me I could follow the directions for the most part, even if I lost a lot of time doing it.

By the time I was on Stallion Mountain, I was losing heart and considering taking one of the roads back to camp. Can you believe it? After all that initial excitement, I was having a hard time facing the prospect of navigating the rest of the course alone and it taking me for freaking EVER to finish a loop.

Just as I was finding Book 4, I look down the trail and...Naresh and Matt Mahoney are walking towards me!!! GET OUT! I was so happy to see them! I knew right then I would finish and it would be perfect. I mean what's not to love about how this turned out? Matt Mahoney, the godfather of Barkley, gives Naresh and I a personal tour.

align="left">I'll end this story with a few photo highlights of the rest of the journey. Matt took some phenominal pictures, and it was such an honor to complete the loop with him. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect experience, especially since I don't know if Naresh will even be here next year. It was the best day ever.

Book 5 at the swamp

Book 6 at Raw Dog Falls

Breaking IN to the Prison for Book 8

The rusty barrel on the way to Pig's Head Creek

Congratulations to the 3 finishers this year.
I still can't fathom what you did.

* You have no idea what that meant to me, Tim. Thank you.