Not everything was set perfectly in motion for this race. I prepared to the absolute best of my ability. Nevertheless, the week leading up to the race I landed with a rattle in my lungs and a light fever. Going into races, I often have a fear in the pit of my stomach that my body will sabotage my race. Some element feels beyond my control. To a degree, this is a fear rooted in reality. However, there are always things you can do to set yourself up for success.
This is my fourth year running the Barkley Fall Classic. I will forever regret missing the first year of this race, but I did not even know about the Barkley lore back then. I had not begun to put the kindling on the fire that has become my love for all things Barkley.
I prepared carefully. I looked at data from previous years, studied maps, ran hill repeats, spent hours on hilly terrain, lifted weights, slept as much as I could, quit drinking and quit eating sugar. I was obsessed with the outcome of this race. In previous years, I had dedicated myself to doing well, but I did not have this constant, nagging worry about finishing. There are only a handful of people that have completed this race 4-5 times. I absolutely had to come home with a Croix de Barque.
I and six of my equally insane friends toed the line on September 15, 2018 around 6:40 am. I looked around and saw plenty of rule-breakers; those who had on GPS watches those with trekking poles in their hands. I had to block it out. I had to focus solely on the task. It was still twilight when we took off on the road towards Bird Mountain. I lost nearly everyone immediately. I told Anne I loved her, knowing that we would eventually yo-yo at some point. She made it into the trailhead before me, which I knew was a good idea. There were so many people running this race this year, it made it nearly impossible to navigate all of the conga lines that happen when 420 people funnel in to single track.
I calmly shuffled up Bird Mountain with hundreds of other silent, terrified people. Occasionally someone would scream out a “CaCAW!” and others, down the switchbacks would scream back. It kept a smile on my face and reminded me to stop taking everything so seriously. Anne and I matched back up for a while and got onto a train of very skilled female runners. The six of us all deftly navigating the saddle between Bird Mountain and Bald Knob. I got in and out of the first aid station as quickly as possible; I left behind the big group of folks I had been shuffling with. Anne saw me on the out and back spur and told me not to stop. I headed out past Bald Knob onto the new section near Stallion Mountain. The course was better marked this year than any other year and I think I might attribute the improved finishing rate to this. I never second-guessed where we were going. Navigated some shoe-sucking mud and headed down the steep and crumbly Jeep road. I really get in the zone on these wide gravel trails. I had just the perfect shoes for the day with unstoppable traction and it provided me with great confidence. I heard someone near me complain about how painful it was to be kicking around the “baby heads” all the way down this climb. He recognized me. “Not for Lauren though! This is her jam!” I laughed aloud. I totally embraced it; I let myself feel that it was real. Yeah, this is my jam. I thought. I bombed even harder. I was letting confidence take hold. I started to worry I had spent too much, however, when I neared the bottom. There was a lot of direct sun and it was already easily 80 degrees with high humidity. I made it down to the church aid station just before Testicle Spectacle. I jumped into the river under the bridge as I saw others cooling down there. I did not mind wasting a little time just to get my core temperature down a little. Grabbed my bib punch, re-upped my tail wind, and headed into the climb.
Oh. No. I thought. Here it comes. I went out too hard. My stomach turned, my heart raced. I was immediately nauseous. I have been to this place before, and it does not end well.
I came to a small creek crossing at the base of the climb. I saw a North Face running hat stuck between some rocks. I had not brought anything to shield my eyes on this exposed climb. I snagged it out of the water and put it on my head. A small gift from “out there”. I got behind two guys who I seem to end up with every year. One, my friend Jay, is known for always having positive things to say. I had been trying to avoid negative talk all day. I was sick of people cussing at the hard parts or getting down on themselves this early in the race. We headed up together. And, in my mind, I hooked an invisible carabineer to Jay. I just thought, do not let him go. Just get up this climb as calmly as you can. Stuck behind a few people who were struggling not to slip back down a tricky crevasse, Jay turned around and looked down the power line. “This race has taught me to be a better man”. It makes me tear up just thinking back on it. This is the kind of guy you want to race behind when you feel like you’re fighting for your life.
I bargained. I promised myself that when I got the top, I could reassess, lay down, maybe even get extracted. I came to the gate at the top, adorned with a rainbow “Happy Birthday” sign. A woman with a tiara cheered for herself at the top, yelling “It’s my birthday!” I was so low I could not even laugh. I crossed the road and with what tiny momentum I had, I descended Meth Lab. This is another dry, crumbly, exposed and steep descent. I was starting to feel out-of-body. I usually crush this descent and have fun doing it. This time, I walked. I tried not to cry. I tried not to let the whole day get away from me.
I thought about what Coach Ghelfi and I talked about. Race in the moment, I thought; only right now, only this. Ok. I though. Can I walk this hill without giving up? Yes. Yes, I can. I tried to trot a little. I made it down to the winding roads near the prison. I saw others ahead of me, jogging steadily on the road. The sun was brutally hot and the sky was annoyingly clear. Just walk it in, you will not lose anything here. I walked to the prison and PRAISE JESUS there was unlimited ice. I iced my new hat, iced my neck, took a HUGE hunk of ice, and shoved it down my shirt. This was an incredibly redeeming moment for me. I climbed the prison wall, to be helped down by the only three-time finisher of the real deal Barkley’s. (No big deal) Anne’s husband, Andy scared the hell out of me in the tunnel. He turned on a blinding light, pinched my side, and said, “Let’s go!” I was already feeling better. The ice was working and it was so good to see Andy. We scrambled up the base of Rat Jaw together for a bit.
I committed myself to executing the plan: Do not look back, do not stop and do not go too fast. I. Passed. So. Many. People. I do not remember seeing Erica, but I passed Irene who said some kind an encouraging words. I passed Wilf, who was seated in the shade. He laughed when I told him to slow down. “How can I slow down? I’m not moving!” I laughed the tiniest laugh and continued up. I told myself that it went on forever so that I would be happily surprised when it ended. This worked really well. The briars and the heat were quite bad this year. But it did not upset me in any way. I knew just what to expect. The giant chunk of ice lodged into my sports bra was keeping the area near my heart cool and I cannot say how well this worked.
People were seated everywhere, despondent, and forlorn. I got up to the level spot where a road comes up close and saw four wheelers and about fifteen people just laying on top of them and around them. Anne and I later referred to these folks as “The Sirens”. They are dead set on coaxing you away from going on. I heard a paramedic say to someone, “You should probably quit. You look bad”. I hope most folks ignored those idiots.
I made it from base to top in 59 minutes. 9 minutes slower than last year. But last year it was cooler and the whole thing was mowed.
Three women at the top were drinking beer and screaming, “You’re almost there”. I arrived triumphantly but was not tangled up in the fanfare. I powered up to the fire tower and climbed the stairs without hesitation. I am extremely afraid of heights and I think this is the first time I have not let myself feel even a little bit afraid. I punched my bib and headed to Old Mac. I had gotten it back! All the mojo was returning. I felt invincible. I beat my chest, drank some Gu and flew down at top speeds.
I kept thinking, I really gambled by going so fast in the beginning. And, in some ways, I felt that it was luck that I had sprung back so well.
I made it down to Laz at 2:30 pm, two hours before the cut-off and an hour and a half faster than I ever have before. I sat down on the ground and made sure I had absolutely everything I needed. I ditched the gloves, sleeves, shirt, pack and extra garbage. I was excited about finishing with just a small waistband, sports bra and hand-held. It gives you a little extra boost when you feel like you look pro.
I chugged a can of coke and headed over to Laz and his wife, Sandra. “You’re here! SO EARLY!” She said. I love that she even remembers anything about me. I headed out for the final climb.
I moved relentlessly. When I passed the first ponytail, I started to taste the blood. I am going to run them down, I thought. I was feeling good. I started to repeat the mantra Calm, Compact, Efficient. I ran the most efficient gait I could manage. I kept my arms tucked but my shoulders and elbows loose. I kept my face loose. I kept my mind calm and clear. And I raced for my god damn life.
I came upon a shirtless guy who was running around my pace. He told me I looked familiar. The second time he looked back at me he said, “Do you want to play a game?” It sounds creepy but it ended up being super awesome. He said, “You chase me until you can’t and then I’ll chase you. Ok?” He told me that there was a guy not too far up from us that was his all-time rival and that he could not let him win. I saw the guy in yellow. He was running with two very strong, shirtless, ripped girls. I thought, yeah, we have to run these guys down. We took turns pulling each other. We tiptoe ran the rolling hills, we blasted down technical descents. We looked back to see if the other had made it down some rocky step-downs. By the time, we made it to the final hairpin turn we were both wickedly excited. We got our final punches. I chased him one more time and then I pulled out in front. It started to pour. Everything felt cool, alive, magical. My heart rate was still low enough to push a little more. We stopped for two seconds to marvel at a clearing. There was a full rainbow, cascading over a lush green mountaintop. “LOOK AT THAT”, he said. Just the final boost I needed. I got in front, totally confident in the Continental tire grip in my shoes, just flying over wet, jagged rocks. I looked back with maybe two to go and he was gone. Calm, Compact, Efficient.
I made it through the marathon shoots where Laz and Sandra were still sitting. “Marathon or 50k? They shouted”. “FIFTY K!”
“THEN ON TO THE FINISH LINE MY LADY” I blasted through and out to the parking lot. A volunteer yelled, “Go get ‘em!”
On the road, I dropped it down. I took one final swig of Tailwind and decided I could survive the final mile on adrenaline alone. I came up on Andy, who was headed in for his Marathon finish. I had remained so unemotional up until this point. He turned around and saw me, looked at his watch. “Wow. Lauren”. I got goosebumps all over. I checked my watch. 11:00:00 when I looked down. I wanted to make it to the finish line before the minute rolled over. I came in to the straightaway and went into an all-out sprint. 11:00:53. I did it. My best performance ever.