It was no surprise that the MeOw Marathons would be an unusual event. The first clue was that it was billed as a “West Coast tribute to the Barkley Marathons,” generally considered the world’s hardest trail race – only 14 entrants out of somewhere around 1000 have ever finished Barkley. MeOw wouldn’t be that hard, but any race borrowing from Barkley almost by definition can’t be doing so for the comfort of the runners.
Held in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, RD Mark Swanson had estimated the race would involve around 8,000 feet of climbing per marathon. However, his estimates were suspect, since it quickly became clear that he had no interest in making each “marathon” loop marathon length. At the end of the event, runners’ estimates had it triangulated to about 32 miles per loop, but considering that no one managed to run the course without getting lost or doubling back at least once, all of our mileage counts were rough.
All ten of us dumb enough to attempt the double marathon started the day on the shore of Whiskeytown lake with a map of the park on which Mark had sketched, roughly, the course, and a sheet of directions that would take us through about the first ten miles. Along the way, there would be the occasional checkpoint where we pick up souvenirs to show we hadn’t cut the course, as well as further directions. Both in order to find the souvenir drops and the unmarked trails not shown on the map, the directions would be essential.
The directions would also prove maddening. Written in the style of a children’s book with more than a hint of Lewis Carroll, it would sometimes prove necessary to read ahead another paragraph to discover that you were following the tale of the character who had taken the wrong path. Or that you were reading about an optional shortcut – you know, the one completely overgrown with poison oak. Worse yet, Mark would occasionally get his left, right, east and west reversed. I might have been the only runner not to turn right at the top of the trail, when the directions told us all about how Beverly Anderson’s Abs avoided all temptations to turn left and continued rightishly like a good Republican when she reached the top of the trail, and was therefore possibly the only runner not to get lost at that junction (Beverly Anderson-Abbs was the favorite for the race, and the eventual winner).
The course began by running along the lakeshore, then straight up the mouth of Brandy Creek, where the water was up to chest high. I thought I’d have a decent advantage in this brief section of rock hopping and stream navigation with all the technical running I’ve been doing in the Sierras lately, but in this badass crowd I hardly made up any time at all. If any. In a small cache on the shore of the creek, we grabbed our first souvenir – a Hello Kitty valentine.
Almost two miles up the trail, after checking the directions at a junction, I realized I’d somehow already managed to drop my first souvenir. Trying not to let it get to me, I turned right around, hoping to see it dropped on the trail, resigning myself to last place. I would have to go all the way back to the cache for a fresh Kitty.
Worse yet, on the way back up with my new valentine, I would discover that the front food pocket of my pack was empty. I had managed to let it dump its contents on the floor of my car without noticing before the race. I would have enough food to get me through the first loop in the main compartment, but just barely.
Only a couple miles into the race (with a few extra for me), we climbed the 5,000 up a steep, sandy jeep road with few switchbacks to the summit of Shasta Bally. The views of Mount Lassen, Mount Shasta, and the Trinity Alps were memorable, but if you ever visit Whiskeytown this is not the day hike you want to make. Near the top Sean Ranney surprised me by catching up with me on the last leg of the relentless ascent – he’d gotten turned around at Sheep Camp, the beginning of the climb, and put on some of his own extra miles.
Sean and I ran together for a while to the summit and down around the back side of Shasta Bally, help to keep each other on course, but he was too fast for me. After a while I came upon Aaron Sorenson, a name I knew from the roster of hardened Barkley non-finishers, moving slowly down a long fire road. He said he was having trouble with the heat and was ready to drop. It was only 11am, and poised to climb into the 90s. From what I heard later, Aaron would go on to get badly lost and spend many hours finding his way to where he could get a ride back to the start.
After picking up my second sheet of directions, getting only briefly lost, and picking up a souvenir at Boulder Creek Falls, I realized that while I was just finishing up a marathon under the nine hour cut off for the first loop, I still had another “chapter” of directions to go. I was disappointed, but I decided to push myself to bring it in with the best time possible, ideally proving to myself that I would have made it had I not dropped my first souvenir.
After a frustrating couple of miles on a steep trail choked with deadfall that made for very slow going, the course met back up with the steep Shasta Bally jeep road, and I bombed back downhill into Sheep Camp, where I was shocked to see a big circle of people waiting for me by the dropbags. Bull Dozier and Tina Ure had needed a full hour to recuperate between loops, and when I pulled up to the semi-aid station Mark told me I could keep going as long as I left when or before they did.
I pushed the temptation to drop out of my mind and refueled quickly, making a few mistakes in my haste. I shoved too much food from my dropbag into my pack, hoping to make up for my calorie deficit but only adding to the weight on my back. After the heat of the day, I hardly had any appetite for the rest of the run. I failed to apply bug spray, which would turn me into a feast on legs any time I stopped running for even a second once night fell. No matter, I was off, feeling a strange sense of relief and dread all at once.
I was joined by Josh Ritter, who had volunteered to sweep the course. This meant I suddenly had a pacer, and better yet since Josh knew the course I didn’t have to put as much energy into finding my way. We started slowly along the trail from Sheep Camp to one of the most memorable parts of the course, the slick rocks of Brandy Creek Falls, which reminded me of HURT.
Shortly after, we reached the dreaded Salt Gulch Trail. I knew this because this was how the directions referred to it. I remember this because the grade was 30% or more for the better part of a mile. The good news was that my evening dose of caffeine was starting to take effect, turning my shuffle into something vaguely resembling a jog. The bad news was that now was when the mosquitos were coming out in force, coating the back of my neck any time I paused to catch my breath.
When we reached the next checkpoint, we became worried. On the second loop, runners were not only collecting directions or souvenirs but signing in at each location. Bull and Tina had been ahead of us since shortly after the falls, but they hadn’t signed in. Josh found a signal and got in touch with Mark to let him know before we moved on toward the next check point at the top of Kanaka Peak. They hadn’t signed in there, either. Josh sent me on ahead while he waited for them, but with his fresh legs it didn’t take him long to catch up.
Eventually we learned that Bull and Tina had gotten lost following the direction to turn at the fallen pine tree at the side of the trail, having chosen the wrong pine tree. An amateur mistake! They lost enough time on this that they gave up and took a shortcut back to the finish.
As Josh and I continued on, it became clear that I wouldn’t make it by midnight, the official time limit. As it became clear just how much more course there was to get through, 2am started to look like what we’d be pushing for. At the second to last checkpoint, I declined a ride back from Mark, opting to run it in the last few miles the shortest possible route along the road.
After cresting the last hill, I picked up speed and barreled down toward the lake running 8:30 miles. I had run 59 miles with at least 14,000 feet of climbing in 18 hours, but I was at least 8 miles short on the official course. No matter. I ran as hard as I could for the lake, the actual finish line, and washed myself clean of a hard, beautiful, glorious failure of a day.
And that is how I finish a DNF.