Mile 24: “Rise Up”

“Losers try until they fail. Winners fail until they succeed.” -Robert T. Kiyosaki

Today is my birthday and I have a lot on my mind. Truth be told, I am not certain EXACTLY where this blog post will take us…but I know of several things that I want to get off my mind and the general direction of where it might lead. I am not all “sunshine and rainbows” today, or even on most days anymore, but there is always an under current of faith/hope within me, trying to find its way, and I hope that this helps to bring it out. It might not be in the same way you may think, however, or come to expect from reading my previous posts. I have been very “scattered” lately; still seeing my counselor to help sort things out. He has impressed me on the past few visits with his ability to listen, decipher, and redirect what I felt were “negative” thoughts/emotions/behaviors into “positive” ones; looking at the same things, but through a different lens. I continue to take the days, the emotions, and the runs one by one. I am learning to expect nothing; simply embracing the journey and accepting the results and progress as it unfolds, regardless of how slow it comes. “Wave upon wave, but never as hard or severe as the initial hurricane.”, has become the analogy. The past 9 months have taken their toll, obviously, and more times than not lately the “future” of anything seems so uncertain, unpredictable, fleeting, and…??? The word I am looking for escapes me. It has been increasingly difficult for me to see “the point” in alot of things.

Even Boston.

I know. Now don’t go freaking out on me, just hear me out. In fact, forget about Boston for a minute. Let’s talk about Barkley. The annual Barkley Marathons is “the nation’s most notoriously brutal trail race”. I watched the documentary film featured on Netflix several years ago while training for my own ultra marathon. (My 1st and ONLY.) I could never be hard enough/ strong enough/ smart enough/ dumb enough/ crazy enough or WHATEVER to even CONSIDER attempting the Barkely Marathons. (Although it would be the only race where I would rightly and deservedly be assigned to wear the #1 bib…if you understand Barkley, you will know exactly what I mean.) This month’s Runner’s World Magazine covered a story on this awesome, yet fear inspiring, race. To help you understand, I will quote some of the details of this race in order to paint the picture. (Although if you have the opportunity to read the article and/or watch the film, I strongly urge you to do it.)

THE BARKLEY MARATHONS, created by Lazarus Lake (“LAZ”), “consists of five loops through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, totaling 100 miles, though most participants believe it’s closer to 130. Runners must ascend and descend more than 118,000 feet of elevation- almost the equivalent of climbing up and down Mount Everest. TWICE. And all within 60 hours. Of the more than 1,000 entrants up to 2018, only 15 have finished. It costs $1.60 to enter. An application must be sent to a closely guarded email address at precisely the right minute on precisely the right day, and must include an essay titled “Why I Should Be Allowed To Run in the Barkley”. You must then complete a written exam that asks, for instance, “Explain the excess positrons in the flux of cosmic rays” and “How much butter should you use to cook a pound of liver (with onions)?”. New runners must bring a license plate from their state or country. Returnees who did not finish must bring a specified item of clothing. One year it was a flannel shirt; another it was white socks.” (But this year, 2018, it was a case of Dr.Pepper!) “The few who have finished the course and are crazy enough to return need only bring a pack of Camel cigarettes. The race can begin anytime between midnight and noon on the closest Saturday to April Fools’ Day, always exactly one hour after a conch is blown. Runners are not given a map of the course, which is unmarked, until the afternoon before. Then they must rely on compasses and the race’s obscure official directions.” (Printed by Laz: “Look for a weird rock at a confluence of two streams, cross over that, turn left, and go down a hillside. If it looks too steep, that’s the right one.”) “GPS is forbidden.” There are many notorious sections of the course that are affectionately named, e.g., RAT JAW, GNARLY MOUTH, LEONARD’S BUTT SLIDE, FOOLISH STU, BAD THING, HILLPOCALYPSE, etc.. “Runners must locate 13 books- largely chosen with an eye for dark comedy, e.g., UNRAVELLED, LOST AND FOUND, and THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU: GOING BEYOND SELF-HATE, in each course loop, and tear out a page corresponding to their race number. There are no aid stations, just two unmanned water drops that are often frozen solid. Those unable to finish are serenaded by the Barkley’s official bugler playing a discordant rendition of “Taps”. All runners must sign a disclaimer that reads: “If I am stupid enough to attempt the Barkley, I deserve to be held responsible for any result of that attempt, be it financial, physical, mental, or anything else.”

(There are many other intricate details about Barkley that will intrigue you if you care enough to read up on it.)

“The event was indirectly inspired by James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King’s assassin, who escaped from nearby Brushy Mountain’s State Penitentiary in 1977. When he was recaptured 56 hours later, Ray had barely gone eight miles. At that time, Laz thought he could have made it at least a hundred. (Wrongly, it turned out, as he has never managed more than two loops of the course himself.) Named after Laz’s friend Barry Barkley” (for no other reason than needing to give the race/course a name) “the first event was held in 1986. Thirteen people participated. No one finished. And so on until 1995, when Mark Williams of the U.K., fueled by tea and cheese sandwiches, completed the five loops in 59 hours and 28 minutes.” There is a time limit for each of these 20+mile loops along the way, however, and if the racer does not finish each loop in under 12 hours, they are ruled a “DNF” (Did Not Finish) and the bugler sounds out “Taps”. “Completing three of the five loops is known as a “Fun Run”.” “Laz likes to say that to finish the Barkley you just have to average two miles an hour for 60 hours. How hard can that be?”

If/when you watch the film, however, you will see the level of physical and mental exhaustion that some of these runners face, especially in the final two loops on this brutal course. Their eyes are glazed over, they stumble, mumble, hallucinate, and appear to fall asleep while standing up. There are several entertaining, yet jaw-dropping, stories from these phenomenal athletes. “In 2005, a runner on loop five became convinced that there were houses on top of one of the mountains and that he had been sent to collect their garbage.” Gary Robbins, Barkley Marathons contender x3years knows all about this. In 2016, on his first attempt to conquer Barkley, he was forced to drop out in the final loop because he had become delusional. He states he was seeing faces in the leaves upon the trees. He returned in 2017, stronger, wiser, and more prepared to tackle this course. He was one of the top contenders favored to finish, but in the final loop, in a state of extreme mental and physical fatigue, he made a fatal miscalculation, resulting in a single wrong turn. He arrived at the iconic gate (the official start and finish point of this morbidly humorous race) from the wrong direction. He collapsed on the ground, with a time of 60 hours and 6 seconds (6 seconds past the cut off point) holding all 13 pages from the books along the course. Even the bugler himself cried while playing the gut wrenching cords of “Taps” and Gary was ruled a “DNF”. In reality though, it was not just the 6 seconds that caused this powerful athlete to “DNF”. That wrong turn caused him to miss an entire 2 mile portion of the trail/course; which is only a small consolation, but one slightly easier to swallow than a mere 6 seconds of time. To some this might seem cruel but, as every honest athlete knows, the path to athletic achievement is not one that can or should be cut. Every sanctioned race has checkpoints. Even Boston. (ESPECIALLY Boston…and USATF certified Boston qualifying courses.) You not only have to show up and cross each one of these checkpoints in order to complete the course, you have to, also, follow the pre-determined course route between each of those checkpoints in order to earn the honor of completion.

In 2018, Gary Robbins returned, again, to Barkley, older, wiser, and more experienced. He had trained, planned, and prepared to make this the year he became the 16th finisher of the #BM100. Unfortunately, just as in Boston weeks later, “mother nature” had other plans. Barkley already hosts a difficult fluctuation of “normal” seasonal conditions with temps known to climb into the 80’s during the day and dip into the 30’s at night. Then add in the potential for rain and frequently dense fog. But this year, these select few athletes faced rain, sleet, and snow with temps hovering in the 30’s-40’s, dense fog, and 25+mph winds. No one finished. It was nerve-racking to follow, ticking away the hours, hoping all the athletes were ok and would SURVIVE. Despite last year being the most emotional of DNF’s I think I have ever seen, watching Gary walk away defeated again, after all that time and effort to plan his execution of the “perfect race”, was still like taking a punch in the gut by Muhammad Ali. He has not yet decided if he will return to Barkley to try again in 2019. Despite his desire and ability to rise up to the challenge, he agreed with his wife in his post race blog when she stated that when it comes right down to it, Barkley is “just a stupid race put on by a funny man.”

“The runners come for something they could fail at,” says Laz. “And the less likely it is that they can do it, the more attracted they are to it.”

This is very much like Boston for me. The level of athleticism I must achieve just to qualify to apply for Boston is so far out of my reach, I am not yet convinced that it is 100% possible. And while I can only imagine the amount of physical and mental pain/difficulty I will have to endure to achieve that level, I am not 100% certain I even have the desire to push myself that far. It all comes down to how bad you (I) really want it. 50 years from now, nobody is going to know, remember, or even care if I went to Boston or not; only myself. (If I am even still alive at that point.) While it’s great to have a goal and something to work towards, when it comes right down to matters of life and death, it really just doesn’t even matter.

“It’s just a stupid race put on by a (funny) man”.

But still… I keep coming back to it.

I have, since October 2017, lost all interest in racing. I have not registered for or shown up to any of my “usual” annual races. I have even had offers from friends to register me for them but I simply don’t want to. I no longer have that desire. Running has become more personal to me. It has become more about simply moving forward in life’s most difficult moments than it has been about time, distance, goals, or pace. I have no desire to be better than anybody else on the course. Most days, I don’t even care about being better than myself previously, I simply want to run. I have fallen “silent” in most of my running groups and when I do attend a race I prefer to go unnoticed, start to finish, completing my run in whatever manner I need to that day. I am currently uncertain as to my future place in this dream of “Chasing Boston”. As with most things in my life, I am just taking this thing one day at a time. I have begun my 16 week Break 4:00 marathon plan which will lead me up to the PEAK TO CREEK Marathon in October. Truth be told, this is the only race I really care about at this point in my life. I want to give this one race everything that I have. I want to make myself proud that day. At that time (in the days/weeks after) I will reevaluate my thoughts/desires/intentions and decide if I have, not only the ability but, also, the desire to “rise up” and continue “Chasing Boston”. Now, again, don’t freak out on me. I am by no means “giving up”. I have simply been coming to realize the past several months that we truly are only given this ONE LIFE…and we need to live it in a way that brings us full happiness and peace. I have recently completed reading my mom’s journal (aka “the red book of pain”💔) and find it difficult to realize that, while she lived a life faithful to her God and her religious beliefs, she lived most days of many years in heartbreaking sadness over many things. (Most, of which, were 💯 beyond her control.) I have never been like that. That’s no way to live life. But I have realized that the past several years seem to have blown by nonetheless with me always reaching for and struggling for that next run/race with a better, faster, stronger time or a harder, further/longer distance; always wanting more or better than I am or have done. And while there’s nothing “wrong” with this, I am realizing that it has prevented me from simply taking in and appreciating where I am in the “right here/right now” moments. This, I feel, is much more important in the long run (and in hindsight) considering how short this life really is for some of us. This is not to say I will not (eventually) make it to Boston. Anyone that knows me even a little bit knows that I will ALWAYS continue to run. But I refuse to push myself to point of mental misery on a daily basis and to a level that makes me simply “endure” the run rather than enjoy the run. That way of living negates the whole point of #ForTheLoveOfTheRun. (Just a side point too- there are several runners that have purposely tried and failed multiple times to achieve their BQ, and it wasn’t until they let it go in their minds that they truely unleashed their full potential. I know of THREE of these people, personally, and all 3 of them are now full fledged Boston Marathoners; two of them several times over.)

A wise friend of mine once wrote: “Have your fears. Have your doubts. Have a way to rise above them.”

I truly hope that I can. Someday. It just has to be on my own terms and in my own time. But even if I never make it to Boston in my lifetime, I will (at the very least) have no regrets as to how I chose to run this course called my LIFE.

#ChasingBoston #ForTheLoveOfTheRun

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