“I would recommend that you not run for a while, or at least limit your running to low-impact.”
These are the words of my PT just days before the Barkley Fall Classic (BFC). I had seen him just twice so far, trying to get relief from a horrific case of sciatic pain that left me debilitated any time I would run for more than an hour. While I was beginning to get noticeable relief, my PT was not convinced that I should be doing anything “extreme”. Little did he know what awaited me in just a few days time.
|Low-impact activity...just 10,000 ft of vert|
My earliest memories of Frozen Head State Park were from my days as a boy scout in Troop 6. I have distinct memories of a gravel, jeep road that went up forever, and long, winding single-track trail that was steep enough to sear memories into my brain some 20+ years later. I can’t say for sure, but it seems like I remember my buddy and I being led to a seemingly-early death by our Scoutmaster on these trails, going up and down like a sick joy-ride out of hell, only to find ourselves at some nightmarish prison, in the dark, with no semblance of how to escape.
Maybe its PTSD that I suffer from. If so, I have learned that the best way to get over trauma is to relive it, to confront the demons head-on.
The BFC was created as a way to expose those of us whose appetite for destruction cannot be satisfied through watching crime dramas play out on TV. No, this one was served to us as an opportunity to bask in the glory of a masochistic exercise in futility. Those who have participated in the running of the Barkley Marathons will even scoff at this puny assessment of the BFC, for they have experienced something that extends beyond the realms of conscious awareness, into that of an exercise in mindfulness, of being present in the discomfort, and aware that is will not end for a few nightfalls still.
As for us BFCers, perhaps we cannot even imagine, but we were more than willing to have a taste, and a taste is what we got.
The race began with the lighting of a cigarette. Off we went into the pre-dawn, up a road, past a legendary yellow gate, and onto single-track. And then up for a good long while. Switchback after switchback, up and up. Seeing that I had not run in the previous two weeks, and that the last run I had was stopped short with debilitating pain radiating down into my foot, I made the wise decision to run up this entire climb. Even though both the pace and the grade lent itself to a much more conservative approach, at this point, I wasn’t even sure how long my day was gonna last. I watched the front runners disappear into the mountain. I watched those behind zig-zag along with me towards the top. At the height of the climb I watched a guy go the wrong way onto the CT, and shouted to him that the CT was not on the route. I paused, along with a few others, to look at our map, and sure enough we needed to stay on the trail going straight down the other side of the mountain to the boundary mark, then hang a right.
Somewhere on this downhill my feet began to slide…and slide…and slide inside my shoes.
I led the charge down to the boundary, and soon found myself with no trail to follow. Mind you, this is a Barkley-inspired event, so there were no trail markings…just the faint blazes on trees, the park signage, and the rare sighting of a “confidence” arrow. At this point I was with a few other guys, and we all set out in differing directions looking for something. I went down a huge ditch, and clawed my way back up, it turns out, just for fun, as another guy yelled out that he had found something. So I headed towards him, and saw a footprint in the dirt. But then as we looked up the trail, we saw an arrow.
Being back on the “trail”, we ran into two folks heading the opposite direction…at first, this was confusing, but then it was even more confusing, as one of these guys was Joe Fejes. Following a joke that at the time wasn’t too funny (something about us heading the wrong way), we all forced a laugh, and they punched our numbers, showing that we were, in fact, going the right way towards aid station number 1.
Following a quick fill-up on drink and food, I set off solo down the trail. My attention quickly returned to the discomfort I was feeling, not down my leg like I was expecting, but on my heels. I could feel the thick, calloused-over skin on my feet sliding around. I tightened my shoes as much as was comfortable, and set back out. But I knew my feet were screwed. Maybe a mile more down the trail, and I could feel the skin rupture on both my feet, exposing brand-new, virgin skin to the rugged trail I was pounding. Even though I had on shoes, I might as well have been barefoot. There was no escaping the inevitable.
So now I couldn’t run on my heels without searing, nausea-inducing pain. So on I went. Deeper and deeper into the woods. The afternoon progressed with more steep ups, which didn’t seem to bother my feet since I was up on my toes, and steep downs, which hurt really bad. Since the climbs were so steep and long, I would forget how bothersome the pain was, and I would get real positive in my head, like “hey, this ain’t so bad”, and then take that first step back down and I was like “Oh man this really feels bad”. And so it went, mile after mile. I passed through aid stations, eating and drinking so as not to bonk, passing time and distance that didn’t really matter. I made my way to the out-and-back, passing by “testicle spectacle” on the way, thanking the Good Lord that I didn’t have to run down that, but faced with the inevitable climb up to the turn-around that would shoot me right back into the pain cave on the way down.
At this point in the race, I was looking forward to three things that were to come: 1) seeing my wife 2) rat jaw 3) the end. If I kept going, these three things were inevitable. The first one came pretty soon after the turn-around. My wife has a talent of looking like she is having the time of her life, and maybe she is. She would later tell me that she knew I was in trouble by the way that I looked at her. She cast her radiating smile and good vibes upon me, as we stopped briefly to exchange a hug. And off she went.
Number two came soon enough. Just past an aid station, there was an arrow that pointed to the left. Just down this trail, into some slight overgrowth, was another arrow pointing up to the right…and there it was, in all its glorious splendor: rat jaw. All I could see were briars, with power lines above them. There was only one thing to do…go into the jaw.
|Rat Jaw...can you see the people?|
I was with two other guys at this point. As we headed into the briars, it became apparent that there was no real way to go…no semblance of any sort of “path”, and because we were on up in the standings, there was no sign that anyone else had even been into the briars. After about 20 yards into it, we realized that the best idea was to try to get as close to the side of the briars, while paralleling the power lines, thus cutting out the bloodletting (no pun intended) as much as possible. The guy in front led the charge, and soon enough, he had left me and the other guy behind. Onward and upward we climbed, on our hands and knees, clawing up the steep embankment, through the brush, past the briars, up towards what, we didn’t know. We could hear the cries of others as they made their way through the briars. I saw a piece of broken glass, then another, then another. At first, I didn’t know what to make of this, other than that the RD had put it out here for those who chose to suffer no more. I soon got over my macabre when I realized that we were approaching the top, that the shattered glass was from people chucking bottles from the fire tower, down the mountain. I looked up, and caught a glimpse of the fire tower. We scrambled up the last pitch and were free from the rat jaw.
So where was number three? How much more would I have to endure? By now, I could feel the torn flesh of my heels folded back under my feet, as if there were pieces of leather in my shoes. The searing pain would mount its charge on any occasion that I put my heel down. I got to another aid station, and Laz (aka Lazarus Lake, aka Gary Cantrell…google him if you need to know) laughed at me, poking fun at the amount of time it had taken me to get to “mile 22” (6ish hours).
I had no idea what was ahead of me, but I knew from a guy I had been running with earlier that this was going to be very difficult. I could only hope there was no downhill…and lo-and-behold, a climb resembling those of the Duncan Ridge! A climb that would go on for what seemed like forever…the kind of climb with no switchbacks, and no top. My energy was waning, and the lack of running the few weeks prior was catching up with me. I stopped, sat down, and ate an EPIC bar, letting the guy behind me pass. Following a few moments of serenity, I began the final haul up towards the top. Finally, after what seemed like the longest climb of my life, the top came. I was thrilled, but this was short-lasting, as the reality of the final decent, and the pain that would accompany this decent set in. There was only one thing left to do.
So the pain in my feet was inevitable. I had to try something else. What I did next was my own practice in mindfulness. As a therapist, one thing I try and encourage my patients with is staying present and in the moment, practicing radical acceptance (“it is what it is”), and reframing their experiences into something that can be constructive and beneficial. It was time to put this into practice.
I focused on the here-and-now of the situation, not knowing where the finish was or would be, and not concerning myself with how much more there was to go.
I accepted the condition of my feet for what it was, understanding that it was not going to magically get better, and that it was something I was going to have to handle if I wanted to get this thing done.
Finally, I sought to reframe my experience, in two ways. First, with the physical, with the pain. I thought about what the pain was, and realized that it was nothing but an uncomfortable feeling. This feeling, while acknowledging that it was uncomfortable, was different than what I normally feel when I press on my heel…it was a weird feeling. And that was the reframe…it didn’t hurt, it just felt weird.
Second, I sought to reframe my current mental state. I began to get out of myself, and be thankful for the opportunity to be out in creation, to be thankful for the joy I get to experience when I run. I was thankful to God for the opportunity to bring Him glory through my experience of running. I was thankful for the opportunity to endure. I reflected on the times in my life that God has given me to endure, and how thankful I am for the growth in grace that He gives me through the perseverance of the difficult times. I thanked God for my wife, for the love that we both have for the trails and for the sport we pursue.
Before I knew it, the trail was flat, and the opening to the road was within sight. I honed in on a guy that was in front of me, who I had been running with earlier, and let the enthusiasm of both trying to catch him, and the end coming into view to inspire me. We hit the road together, and made our way to the finish, to the end of the BFC.
|No worries on that finish!|
I got to my car, took off my shoes and socks, and was greeted with some gnarly feet. It was just as I had suspected…a thick layer of skin, barely attached towards the back of my heel, exposing the new, pink, baby skin underneath. All I could think about was how the shower I would be taking would feel on my feet.
I was soon greeted at the finish line by the ever-radiating smile of my wife. Her remarkable enthusiasm for trail running is so contagious, always inspiring a comment from those who catch a glimpse, and this time was no different, as the finish line volunteers remarked at the joy she was beaming. In the midst of my discomfort, she always makes me smile.
And that was that. We hopped in the car, and headed back to my parents house for a meal, and the dreaded shower, and following an inward scream from the pits of my soul, I wrapped up my feet in some serious wound care bandages, and proceeded to walk on my toes for the next week. It has been three weeks, and I still have flesh coming off my heels.
A big congrats to all those who took on the challenge, and made it to the finish line, and a huge thanks to the volunteers and the RD’s for putting on such an awesome event, and for giving us a taste of the Barkley. Thanks to Rock/Creek for the best gear hook-ups, and the opportunity to rep an awesome brand. Thanks to Fuel-100 for helping me stay fueled and hydrated on a long, humid day. Thanks to Epic Bars for simply the greatest race food out there, and thanks to the Blues Marathon for keepin’ the briars off my head!