My Greatest Failure: Barkley Marathons 2016

You will note the heavy use of foreshadowing in this report.

I was anxious and elated when I found out I’d be running the Barkley Marathons for the first time. From New Years through March, I chose training over social life or sleep whenever possible. A typical peak training week for me involved four days in a row of two hours after work hiking on a treadmill set to 15% grade wearing a 16 pound weight vest, followed by maybe a day of rest, then two days of 3-6 hours of hill repeats at 20-40% grade in my fully loaded race pack. My recovery day would be spent on the treadmill, starting next week’s progression.

I’d never trained harder for anything, but I knew deep down it almost certainly wouldn’t be enough, especially after a minor knee injury during a February fifty-miler cost me a couple key weeks. At the same time, I knew I had to put that aside and believe that everything would come together and lead me to somehow become the 15th ever Barkley Marathons 100 mile finisher. The worst result I could imagine was having a perfect run at my loop or loops only to stop short, unprepared physically, mentally, or logistically for all five.

The good news is that this did not happen.

Whoever said Barkley was a cheap race is a filthy goddam liar.
Whoever said Barkley was a cheap race is a filthy goddam liar.

I arrived in the greater Wartburg metropolitan area a couple days early to give myself time to do a bit of last minute shopping and check out the park. I took a nice walk up to the lookout tower Wednesday, thinking it would help me get the lay of the land. Thursday I wandered up Bird Mountain, then around and back down to camp on Quitter’s Road. After all, this would be the only time I’d ever let myself run that particular trail.

When I got back to camp from my motel at noon on Friday, it had gone from nearly empty and quiet to packed and bustling. Not only runners and their crew but the media, inspired no doubt by the recent release of an excellent documentary, had descended en masse. There may have only been 15-20 reporters and documentarians, but they were pretty noticeable at a race capped at 40 runners. I do not question their presence, though. Those who succeed at the Barkley deserve to have their achievements shouted to the world.

Much is made of the sharp humor surrounding Barkley’s rituals. Like the rituals themselves, it seems to serve a purpose. If everything at the campsite were treated as seriously as the race itself inevitably must be, the atmosphere would be insufferable.

Similarly, our race director lazarus lake seems to have become some sort of larger than life Dr. Frankenstein figure in the eyes of the internet and the press. I think he enjoys that, though, so I won’t try to disabuse you of the notion.

Some pre-race highlights: receiving our race bibs (“BARKLEY MARATHONS: WHERE DREAMS GO TO DIE”) and computer projections (“Starchy Grant: Will not run reverse loops for religious reasons”). Finding a braille card in the race packet with a verbal warning that one of the books would in fact be printed in braille[1]. A cake at the campfire potluck frosted in bright sawbriers and big, cheerful letters with “GOOD LUCK MORONS.”


It didn’t take long before everyone knew who this year’s human sacrifice was. Amidst all the teasing, I never saw anyone being anything but friendly and patient with this person. I won’t out them, but I will say they ended up doing just as well as a number of other virgins.

As night fell, I lay down in the back of my rental SUV for a fitful night’s sleep, knowing it could be anywhere from three to fifteen hours before the race began. If I poked my head up, I could see lights moving around up at HQ, but I didn’t know whether it was a camera crew shooting B-roll or laz getting ready to blow the conch.

My all-in-one bed and aid station for the weekend.
My all-in-one bed and aid station for the weekend.

I woke up in daylight terrified I’d somehow missed it, but as soon as I poked my head up I could see another competitor moving around camp unhurriedly. After taking my time eating and changing into race gear, I wandered up to campsite 12 to see what was going on.

The moment I got there, lazarus lake emerged through a veil of license plates into a throng of cameras and boom mics. He looked at his watch, raised a conch shell to his lips, and…

Nothing. He laughed and smoothed out his mustache. On the second blow, there was more of a “pfffft.” “I had this working really great yesterday,” he said, and tried again. Finally, on the third or fourth blow, it was official: B minus one hour.

The only problem was now I had nothing left to do to prepare. I think I was interviewed three times in that last hour. The first filmmaker asked me to “stretch or do whatever it is” I normally do. I don’t usually stretch before a race, but it felt nice. Someone from CNN set his camera up and pointed it at me just as I pulled out a stick of Chamois Butt’r and used it as advertised. Given a few extra minutes with nothing left to do but obsess over pack weight, I pulled out that one extra Clif bar I’d stuck in the night before. That still left me with about 5000 calories: a solid buffer to get me through up to maybe 18 hours in case something went wrong.

It was even one of the good Sierra Trail Mix flavor bars.

At 10:42am the starting cigarette was lit, and we were off. As I passed the gate I said, “Thanks, laz. See you soon.”

My lungs had some trouble warming up on the first climb, and I soon fell to near the back of the pack, puffing on my inhaler[2]. I was determined not to be scraped yet if I could help it: I’d heard many times the importance of sticking with a veteran during your first Barkley run. Of course, I’d also heard how important it is to pick the right veteran.

I stayed with a small group down through Fangorn Forest to book one, then started flying down Jacque Mate Hill after Jim Ball when I was tripped up by my own veteran mistake. Honestly, not tying my shoes tightly enough is a rookie move, but I seem to make it at every race. My ankles were flying all over the place on this steep off-trail descent, and I knew I couldn’t wait long to stop and retie. When I did, Jim was long gone, and I was on my own.

I missed the boundary marker at the bottom, although I probably wasn’t off by much. Stupidly, I decided to press on and make sure it wasn’t around the bend before backtracking. After a bit, John Kelly came running up to me from a seemingly impossible direction, saying he’d just lost half an hour looking for book two. I told him where I was coming from, he pointed out Jury Ridge, and then he was gone.

At this point, I had a quandary. I could follow John up Jury Ridge to the top, then descend on the right bearing to begin Hiram’s Vertical Smile. However, I was supposed to take the North Boundary Trail up to Jury Ridge before dropping down. If I followed John, I’d be cutting the course, but if I backtracked I could miss it again.

This is when I made the first of two disastrous decisions: I backtracked partway, then began making my way uphill on a bearing to intersect the NBT. I believe this was correct, except for one little problem: I’d never seen the Boundary Trail before. I knew it was described as a candy-ass trail, but I didn’t yet know how liberal laz might or might not be with that description. So when I hit an old overgrown jeep road, I didn’t know if that was it or not, but I put my compass to work finding the right line to drop off Jury Ridge.

This, of course, had been the second disastrous decision. As I had reached neither the North Boundary Trail nor the summit of Jury Ridge, this descent led me to the wrong valley, where I spent a long time following plausible but hopeless directions to the next book.

Finally I realized my mistake and tromped on back up the hill. This time when I hit the jeep road I tried to use it to cut over to the NBT, but after a while it petered out on a little spur. As I was standing there working out my move, I saw the last thing I expected: runners. After all that, there was still someone out there behind me.

I cut over a few hundred feet to join Rhonda-Marie and her guide runner Christian on the sweet, sweet North Boundary Trail. They weren’t much for conversation, though, as Christian was busy describing trail features and Rhonda-Marie was busy listening. So I pressed on.

From there I had only a little trouble dropping down from the right place on the right line to the right spot to find the next book. However, I’d spent five hours in all between books one and two. With a 13:20 total cutoff to find all 13 books and get back to camp and begin loop two, my race was over.

I might have come to Barkley hoping deep down that I could pull off at least a three-loop fun run finish, but I also came knowing that, in truth, the odds were against me, as easier versions of the course have thwarted hundreds of better runners than I over the years. In truth, as much as I might have hoped it, that had never been my primary goal. I showed up at Frozen Head State Park with one thing in mind above all: to run until I was told I was finished.

So I pressed on.

Somewhere after book three, I almost started to feel sorry for myself. Then I remembered what it said on my race bib, and I started laughing instead.



It was long dark by the time I go to the Garden Spot, and I’d gotten a bit turned around and wasn’t sure I was in the right place. Before long a couple of headlamps came up the road: Jared Campbell and Gary Robbins, lapping me. I’m used to it from Gary, at least. I think he’s lapped me four times in all at HURT. They pointed out the book I was pretty much standing next to, and we got our pages and ran together to the water jugs where I let them go ahead without me. Jared was one veteran I didn’t mind being scraped by.

A few minutes later I saw three new headlamps coming toward me. A trio of runners I hadn’t seen since book one asked if I could help them find Quitter’s Road. I declined, but invited them to join me in looking for the next book. They declined.

Route finding on Stallion Mountain at night wasn’t easy, but I was starting to get the hang of following both my compass and tracks of the runners ahead of me. At the bottom of the Barley Mouth descent, when I saw a pair of headlamps shining up from below me, I was confident enough to call out directions before continuing on, amazed to be passing anyone nearly twelve hours into what should have been at most a twelve-hour loop.

But then I thought better of it. If there was someone else out there having as much or more trouble than I was, I figured I should at least hang out long enough to make sure they were OK. And anyway, I was no longer in any real hurry. Maybe we could team up and avoid any more major navigation mistakes.

This was either the best or the worst decision I made all weekend. If I had to lay odds, I’d say both.

Brad was a long-time ultrarunner who had been out to Frozen Head for the Barkley Fall Classic, but he had no wilderness navigation experience and he was having trouble with the climbs after his trekking poles broke somewhere around book one. Kimberly, on the other hand, was having more and more trouble descending as the course beat on her legs, and she’d lost her map. She’d also run BFC and, more importantly, last year’s Barkley, where she’d made it as far as Garden Spot, just a mile or so back up the mountain as the butt slides.

Together we moved on to Leonard’s Buttslide, one of the most enjoyable hills on the course, with one of the most elusive book locations. As we were searching near the bottom, John Kelly lapped us, and the four of us briefly worked together to find it. We would not be able to keep up with him on the ascent, but as with Jared and Gary a few miles back, this was to be expected.

Bobcat Rock, Hiram’s Pool and Spa, and Stu’s Folly gave us no trouble, but something went wrong with our next descent and we didn’t see the highway after crossing the river. Many important Barkley landmarks such as streams and trees can be easily misinterpreted, but Highway 116 is not one of these. We had just returned from a failed bit of scouting in one direction or the other when we saw a new headlamp getting ready to cross the river toward us.

It was Andrew Thompson, a past Barkley finisher. Surely if anyone knew where he was going, it was A.T. We followed him east along the south bank before, without a moment’s hesitation, he appeared to dive up a monumental climb.

All he had said was that were too far left – or was it west? – and we’d have to cut back over on the road. I felt good that I was able to keep up this Barkley legend on a relentless 30%+ grade, but presumably his legs had worked harder to cover more distance in the same time I’d been using mine. When he paused to rest against a tree I pulled out my map and checked our bearing.

“I think we’re here,” I said, pointing out a short cut close to the road, and he nodded. I was not yet able to grasp the magnitude of our mistake. Eventually I stopped worrying about keeping up with A.T. and waited for Kim and Brad to catch up, and after confirming he hadn’t disappeared onto an invisible highway just over the next rise, we turned around and descended well over 500 feet back the way we came.

Later, much later, back in camp, we would learn that A.T. had led us up Little Hell, once most notorious of Barkley climbs. It has not been on course for at least ten years.

Back at the river, we started over on our search for the highway, more methodically this time. We could only possibly be too far west or too far east, so all we needed to do was try one direction, then the other. We went west along the riverbank until we found ourselves at an impassable gorge. Somehow, I still could not bring myself to lift my eyes from a small area on the map surrounding our target to locate the matching terrain, but it would not have mattered much. There was still nothing to do but try the east.

We reached a confluence, and before we could reorient ourselves we saw a new pair of headlamps and made our way over to them. It was Ty and Jason, cruising on loop two. We all headed south to where we knew the road would have to be, although we were still a ways off from where we wanted to meet it. Ty and Jason left us at the road, running down the shoulder to the turn-out we’d been looking for.

Once on the other side, attempting to navigate the new hill beyond Testicle Spectacle, we caught up with them again and spent some time fighting through laurel thickets together. After a time Ty asked us if we’d gotten our pages from the book five minutes back – not what we wanted to hear. We must have been so intent on catching up to them that we went right past book seven.

There was no shortage of confusion and frustration as we worked to find our way back over the hump of the ridge, looking for a faint trail of footprints to bring us back to the most vaguely described book on the course. If it hadn’t been for Mig and Dale coming up the ridge for their second loop and passing us just after the book, we might have had to descend all the way to Testicle Spectacle before we could usefully retrace our steps.

As we reached the top of the hill, day broke. This was both a relief and an immense disappointment. The light would help immensely, but the sun had just risen on day two of our first loop, and we were barely more than halfway done.

Kimberly’s legs were not up for the short, steep descent above Raw Dog Falls, and she let herself sit and slide her way down the forest floor. This seemed to be working OK, but after I reached the bottom and began to scout ahead, I heard her call for help. I didn’t realize what was happening at first, but when she called again I turned back to find a massive splinter a quarter-inch across sticking straight out of her lower leg.

“It won’t come out,” she said. I knelt down, counted to three, and pulled on it. She was right. I counted to three again and pulled again: my hand moved, but the splinter didn’t.

She didn’t seem happy with me at this point, but I apologized again, braced my other hand against her shin, and pulled hard and long. Finally, it popped out, and she had a new wound to join her brier scratches. We sat for a minute or two to recover, and then we pressed on.


We somehow missed Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall, which I regret, and while Brad split off to backtrack and find it, Kim and I chose to backtrack from where we were near the second highway crossing to book eight. Brad caught up soon after, but took his time following us back up to the highway and Pighead Creek. We were worried he was getting ready to give up. He thought we were getting ready to ditch him. Neither was the case.

As we climbed to the Prison Mine Trail, one of the easiest sections of the course to navigate, Kimberly nonetheless started to question our line. It didn’t seem right that we could be climbing so high, but still have Rat Jaw to come without a major descent in between. I turned back from my position in the lead and looked over her shoulder.

“This is right,” I said, “I promise. Look behind you.” Behind her was Jennilyn, coming around the corner as she cruised up the hill  on her way to finish up a successful second loop. Once again, I found myself picking up speed as I fell in with a runner who was lapping us, and once again it’s hard to say how much I let her pull ahead so I could stick with the other two and how much she simply left me in the dust. She was clearly a woman on a mission to squeak it in under the cutoff, though, and I won’t pretend I would have kept up with her for long.

At long last we reached Rat Jaw, and I whooped with joy and all but sprinted up the hill. I might have been fifteen hours behind schedule, but I had been waiting for years to climb this fucker, and I would be damned if I wouldn’t enjoy every minute of it.

Up at the lookout tower, some of the water jugs were still frozen even in full daylight. When the other two arrived, we started a careful accounting of our remaining calories. Kim and I were running painfully low – we’d already been rationing for a few hours – but Brad still enough that he offered to hand off a Clif bar or two. Stranger still, as I was counting up my few remaining gels and chews, he pulled a baggie full of mac and cheese out of his pack, complete with plastic fork, and passed it around. I only had two bites, but it was among the best things I’ve ever eaten.

This is the memory I will carry most clearly from my first running of the Barkley Marathons: the lookout tower is, aside from the first and last miles of the loop, the easiest place on the course to quit and take an easy trail back to camp. In spite of everything, in spite of Kimberly’s beaten and bleeding legs, in spite of Brad’s broken poles and slow climbs, in spite of my dead dreams and frustrated hopes, none of us quit. None of us even said the word “quit.” After all, no one had told us we were finished.

And so we pressed on.

Descending Rat Jaw we had the new experience of getting lapped by runners on loop three, each of whom had the bonus fun of climbing Rat Jaw from the bottom. When we saw John Kelly down near the prison, I jokingly asked him if he’d gotten turned around – loop three is run in reverse, and getting even that far is an accomplishment most Barkers don’t manage. I guess his mind was still on our chance meeting by a creek so many hours before – he thanked me for getting him straightened out. Well, you’re welcome, John.

Traversing the drainage tunnel under the penitentiary was fantastic. That might be the only time you hear me say something positive about prisons in America, so soak it up.

On the other side, I decided to try climbing the chute to keep my feet dry. First I tossed my poles up onto the lawn above. Then I tried tossing my pack up, only to have it land on my head instead. Twice. Finally I got it up (no comments from the peanut gallery), and started using my long neglected rock climbing skills to chimney up. It seemed to be going well until my hamstring cramped in a non-negotiable fashion two thirds up. I got my feet wet.

Climbing The Bad Thing, I somehow spaced on the fact that we were headed for the Needle’s Eye at the top, and so forgot a piece of navigation advice that would have saved us a few minutes finding book 11, but it didn’t turn out too badly. Descending Zip Line, however, we (okay, mostly I) made a bad decision that put us on a parallel line. While not so disastrous as descending to the wrong valley, this is perhaps the most confusing place to be. Your compass tells you you’re doing everything right, but the course instructions no longer match up, and instead of simply running downhill to the next landmark you end up scouring every tree for a hidden book when you still have half a mile or more to go. Near the bottom we bumped into Dale on his third loop, who helped straighten us out.

I don’t know if Big Hell is the hardest climb on the course, but with all its false summits, making it the last climb on the course is… well, clearly it was the right decision.

Somewhere around half or two-thirds of the way, sitting to rest and let the others catch up, I cried out with joy, realizing only a moment too late I might have given them false hope that I’d spotted the summit. In fact, what I’d spotted was just as sweet: a second gel left over in my pack. I could eat now, and again at the summit. I sure missed solid food, though.

Kim sat down next to me and ate some of the Clif bar Brad had given her. I might have been visibly drooling. It was even one of the good Sierra Trail Mix flavor bars, too.

Further up the mountain, we spotted Jennilyn descending the next ridgeline over and called out to her. It looked like she was heading the wrong way altogether, getting off to a bad start on her reverse navigation. Worse yet, when she met up with us, she told us she didn’t have a headlamp packed for the loop. Kimberly handed hers off without hesitation.

Finally, after more false summits than I can count, I spotted it: the final book. I grabbed it, tore out my page, and burst into tears. I was simply overcome. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t upset. I was just overcome with pure, unfiltered, unnamable emotion.

And then I ate my last gel, my very last literal ounce of food. We still had a few miles to go down the switchbacks to the campsite.

And so we pressed on.

Eventually we came out to parking area and a road. After more than 31 hours, it almost didn’t look right. Soon we were approaching the campsite, and we didn’t have any idea what kind of reception to expect, but before we got there Hiram, the many-year veteran who had scraped us so long ago, was high-fiving us out the window of his car. When we reached the bathhouse, in sight of our goal, we joined hands as we’d planned and started to run. With a small crowd that felt like a stadium around us cheering, we reached the yellow gate, and touched it, together.

Thirty-one hours, fifty-nine minutes, nine seconds. The slowest successful Barkley loop in history.

“Did we make the cut-off?” Brad asked.

laz, in turned, asked if we knew our pace. Officially, after all, we’d only covered 20 miles, although we guessed that in reality it was anywhere between 40 and 50 with up to 20,000 feet of climb.

Danger Dave played taps for us, one at a time, but before we left the gate I promised laz I’d had more fun Out There than anyone else that weekend. Maybe the five-loopers can contest this, but I still believe it to be true.

Finish photos care of Sean Ranney.

Finish photos care of Sean Ranney.

Finish photos care of Sean Ranney.
Finish photos care of Sean Ranney.

I try to learn something from every key race, and the lessons from this year’s Barkley will be stewing for years to come. Here, however, is one thing I learned for sure:

No matter how lost and hopeless I think I am, I can still be of use to someone else.

And I can still have a shitload of fun.

P.S.: If you’d rather hear me talk about this than read, I was interviewed for Ultrarunner Podcast. I don’t really advocate running badly as a route to stardom, but it sure beats not running at all.

1: Presumably in fairness to Rhonda-Marie, Barkley’s first blind runner.

2: I try to learn something from every key race. At Western States, I learned I have asthma.

My DNF is Bigger Than Your Finish: Bigfoot 200 2015-08-07

I’m 150 miles into the Bigfoot 200 and, remarkably, the only problem I have with my feet is that some asshole keeps walking on them. Over and over. Hundreds of thousands of times. Surely he’ll stop sometime soon, right?

The good news is that I have a brand new pair of running shoes, a full size bigger than I normally wear, waiting for me at the next aid station. The bad news is I still have to climb 2500′ feet up Elk Peak and a little ways down the other side before I get there. The climb isn’t particularly tough, at least not by Bigfoot standards, but it is full of maddening false summits, and I’m beginning to run low on patience. I find myself composing a Least Favorite Mountains List, Unabridged:

1. Elk Peak

I’m running with Heather, and at this point we’re pretty sure we’re the last two runners in the field. She runs out of water before me, so I share my last few sips with her. As we near the summit we can hear booming thunder from what we think is the next ridge over, but we can’t see the flashes to tell how far away it is or if it’s moving our way. By the time we reach the short, steep out-and-back to the exposed peak, there are dark clouds above us, but still no more than a few drops of rain, so we decide to leave our trekking poles behind and go for it. The approach is steep enough that on the way back down I’ll be grabbing onto tree branches to slow myself.

At the summit we can tell the lightning is still at least one ridge over, and I know from looking at the elevation chart earlier the Klickitat aid station can’t be much more than a mile away, all downhill. Still, it’s steep enough that it’s hard to go as fast as I want, and I’m thirsty enough that I’m starting to wonder if today’s the day I’ll find out what it’s like to drink my own urine. That thought is just starting to transition from a joke to a worry when I round a switchback and shout up the trail to Heather, “I see it!” A moment later my friend Bull is shouting my name as I come down out of the forest.

There was a certain rhythm to the Bigfoot 200: as the race wore on, each new segment would start out with a major boost from the aid station before it, but halfway through it would become its own distinct, increasingly epic, challenge. Difficulties came in all kinds of ways, but they came without fail.

Mile 30 came after several hours trekking through the blast zone of Mount Saint Helens, boulder hopping through a lava-rock talus field, then traversing steep canyons of ash as I circumnavigated the volcano. After crossing a series of shallow ashy washes, I discovered I was coming into the aid station from the wrong direction. This meant backtracking a mile to the turn I’d somehow missed, then running another five miles to complete that leg of the course correctly. This mistake only added two miles or so, but made for a couple of discouraging hours.

There’s a famous quote from elite ultrarunner Karl Meltzer: “100 miles is not that far.” And of course that’s bullshit, pure macho swagger. You can’t run 100 miles without some suffering, some risk, and a ton of commitment. After even having attempted a 200, though, he’s right. When you run a 100, you wake up, you start running, and at some point, you’re done. When you run a 200, you wake up, you start running, days pass, things change both inside you and out, you stop running whether or not you want to, and at some point, maybe, it’s done with you.

I got 90 minutes of sleep at the Coldwater Lake aid station at mile 46, the only full REM cycle I’d hit in the race, and left in time to enjoy the sunrise as I climbed out of the basin. The whole second day would be marked with spectacular alpine views (and the occasional stretch of treacherous footing). The second night would be marked by a light cold rain, and while it didn’t last long it soaked the long grass that stretched across the next few miles of narrow, rutted trail, soaking me with every step. This was the first major low point as I chided myself for ditching the rain pants from my pack at the last minute and tried to remember if I’d packed a change of clothes at the next aid station, mile 90.

Fortunately I had, and once I’d changed and relaxed in front of a propane heater for a few minutes I felt much better. I asked a race volunteer to wake me up after 90 minutes and went over to the sleep station to lay down. Unfortunately, they confused me with another runner and woke me after 45 minutes, and I got up groggy and confused, rushing to get out of there. I only made it a mile down the trail before I realized I needed more sleep. I pulled out my phone, set an alarm for 20 minutes, and was out like a light, but awake again long before it went off. For the rest of the race, the only sleep I’d get would be like this, in five to fifteen minute bursts on the side of the trail.

On the ride up from Oakland, I asked Bull why he runs 200s. He said it’s because he learns so much about himself. This would be his sixth in a year. I guess there’s a lot to learn, but not all of those lessons are easy, and not all of them are good.

It was the afternoon of the third day when I hit the Lewis River trail, a gently rolling path that winds its way through shady waterfall views and roaming packs of families and college students, none of whom can seem to understand why someone wearing a race bib would be moving so slowly. I couldn’t understand why the aid station would be taking so long to appear. When it finally did, I learned that I only had nine and a half hours to make it 19 miles, and over a mile uphill, to Council Bluff. I refueled and took off running, hooking up with another runner named Reed for four miles of steep rolling trails. Finally I realized I was overheating and sat down to rest, insisting Reed go on alone.

I was able to cover the next 15 miles in just enough time, blazing into the aid station ten minutes under the cutoff, only to learn that it had been changed after I left Lewis River. This meant I had plenty of time to rest up before heading back out. I should have used more of it.

The next section, even though it was relatively short and easy, was where things got bad. Even though it was not where my race ended, it was where I hit bottom. It’s because of what happened on my way to Chain of Lakes that I’m not sure 200 mile mountain runs like this are really something people should do. My experience might not have been typical, but from talking to other runners about what happens after three nights of running, it wasn’t too unusual, or even as bad as things can get. I’m still shaken up just thinking about it.

Sometime after sunrise, I made the left turn off a flat gravel road onto a narrow trail that marked the last two miles to the aid station. My sense of time was shot, but I knew that I was moving painfully slowly, and that for some time I’d been seemingly uncontrollably making strange sounds, grunts and hoots, as I made my way. Worse, I’d been talking to myself in a strange, antagonistic way that I felt somewhat disconnected from. The words coming out of my mouth weren’t a surprise, but they weren’t intended, either.

When I finally came to a sign on the trail saying there was one mile left to the aid station, I knew I’d missed the cutoff. I didn’t pull out my phone to check the time, I hadn’t done so for hours, and I couldn’t tell how high the sun was through the tall trees, but I was moving so slowly I had to be. It was decided. It was a fact, as real as if I’d just been told by the race director herself.

First I broke down sobbing, gutted that I’d come so far and now my race was over because I was just too slow. Then, for lack of a better word, I threw a tantrum, wailing and tossing my trekking poles around, tearing plants out of the ground and smashing them, like a badly behaved five year old. My rational mind was gone, worn away by 71 hours of continual effort and sleep deprivation, and I don’t much like what was left behind.

When I finally got to the aid station, I just sat down without speaking or looking anyone in the eye. I found out I still had two hours before the cutoff and, after all I’d just put myself through, I felt devastated. That meant I’d have to keep going and, worse yet, I’d have plenty of time to make it to Klickitat, where I’d have to keep going again. But after sitting, eating, and being around company for a while, I felt much better, and I wouldn’t go back to such a dark place again.

Sometime around mile 100 I realized my quads were starting to bother me for the first time, and I congratulated myself on how well I was pacing myself. If I was right and my pacing was good, my training was off. In either case, I was too slow. You can’t run a 200 mile mountain race with a 108 hour cutoff at a two mile per hour average and hope to finish. I’ve done great at tough 100s like HURT pushing the cutoffs this way, but in a mountain 200, the odds of nothing big going wrong over the course of four and a half days are practically zero. I came so close I can still taste it, but with the strategy and conditioning I started the race with, maybe that was the best I could ever hope for.

It turned out the real crux of the race would come after my bonus miles, after my frigid pants-wetting, after my long dark sunrise of the soul, after my least favorite mountain. If you talk to anyone who ran the late miles of Bigfoot 200, they will tell you about the horrors of the Klickitat to Twin Sisters leg: 5,000 feet of climbing, much of it in hands-and-knees steep bursts, over 17 overgrown, undermarked miles. I got to do it at night, alone, exhausted. Normally I enjoy this sort of terrain, but even at the moments when I was energized from a nap it was such slow going that I started to despair of making the 4:30am cutoff at Twin Sisters, mile 175.

At 4:00am, I realized that, without having seen any of the major course landmarks, the aid station could be half a mile or five miles away. I sprinted off down the trail, fighting my way through brush along a ridgeline, up and down steep rollers, finally coming to a stop halfway up a 30% grade at 4:30am. I hadn’t made it. They might have changed this cutoff too, or they might decide to let me through anyway, but either way I’d been too slow. I sat down to rest, and woke up twenty minutes later with my ankle hurting like hell. The adrenaline was gone; here came reality.

It turned out I was about three miles from Twin Sisters at a formation called the Cispus when this happened. A volunteer named Jim who had been walking another runner out from the aid station to the junction help walk me in, which was good, because even using my trekking poles as crutches I was moving about half a mile an hour. He confirmed that they had removed the cutoff; if I hadn’t made that last push and hurt my foot, I could have made it past Twin Sisters to the last two relatively easy legs of the course and a nearly guaranteed finish. Unlike when I’d convinced myself my race was over the previous morning, now I just felt drained.

Even though things did not go as planned, and I have serious reservations about putting the human mind through such stresses, a huge part of me is sad it’s over. I didn’t need to finish this one to experience incredible highs or to see miles and miles – hell, days and days – of unforgettable views. I don’t know that I could honestly recommend that anyone take on a challenge like this. I’ll be digesting this one for a long time. I’m also pretty sure this won’t be my last.

Thoughts on DNFing at Bighorn

I’ve been lax in writing up my race reports recently. Looking back, it all started a year ago when I finished Western States and realized I had surprisingly little to say about it: it went well, I had a great time, I’m glad I got to run States. Who cares?

If anything, I think it’s more important to reflect on and record the runs that don’t go so well, since these are the runs with the most, and most valuable, lessons to offer. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on my most recent DNF at the Bighorn 100.

1. Heat

I underestimated and underprepared for the afternoon heat. Most of my research led me to believe that nighttime cold was the biggest concern, especially with thunderstorms forecast this year, but the first day of the race was in the 80s and humid. I did no heat training in the last few weeks before the race. I felt relatively comfortable grinding up the first big climb, but I was not acclimated, and it cost me.

2. Hills

Over the last few months I’ve done tons of steep hills, but not a lot of long, grinding climbs. This helped me on the toughest part of the course coming up out of Footbridge on day two, but by then I was already too far behind.

3. Pacing

This was also a mixed bag. I started all the way at the back with the intent of taking it slow through the first long climb, but after a few miles I felt too good in spite of the sweat dripping down my face and tucked in behind a woman who was taking the initiative to pass slower ascenders, even though I knew better. Correlation may not be causation, but it’s interesting that we dropped together too, 70 miles and 25 hours later.

4. Altitude

The course wasn’t quite high enough (about 5000-10000 feet) to cause me altitude sickness, but it was certainly high enough to increase the amount of energy I burned, and I especially noticed on that first grinding 14 mile climb.

The long, hot, beautiful first climb of the Bighorn 100
The long, hot, beautiful first climb of the Bighorn 100

5. Salt

When I pulled into the Dry Fork aid station at mile 13, all of these factors combined to ambush me with the worst calf cramps I’ve ever had while running. I took a couple salt tablets from the water table, but somehow didn’t think to grab more for the trail. The cramping had subsided by the time I pulled into Cow Camp six miles later, though, so I didn’t think much of it and ran on through.

Maybe 200 yards out of the Cow Camp aid station, my foot caught a rock, and as I stumbled and tried to right myself not one but both of my calves seized up. As I rested in the dirt and thought about backtracking to pick up more salt, another runner tripped on the same rock and went down clutching his calf. Obviously whatever I had was going around.

6. Weight

My legs had recovered by the time I pulled into Footbridge at mile 30, but I was no longer as far ahead of the cutoffs as I wanted. I put on tights and a dry shirt, and loaded up my pack with nighttime gear.

Part of my plan for Bighorn was to test gear I’d use at Bigfoot 200 in August, so I didn’t want to go too light, but as I started the next long, grinding climb to the turnaround at Jaws, I spent some time thinking about where I could shave a few ounces.

Jaws, as I had been warned, was carnage. Runners who had arrived sometime before me were flagging down rides out or shivering by the fire talking about how there was no way they could make the next cutoff. I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.

7. Dolphins

About two hours and eight miles later, the leader of the fifty-mile race caught up with me as the rocky, rolling high country trail began to drop more steeply downhill. His race had begun an hour ago at Jaws. Not long after, the rest of the fast fifty-milers began streaming past me. Every last one of them was friendly and supportive.

I’d dreaded this moment. It had been bad enough stepping off trail to let all the faster, less doomed hundred-milers go by the other way as they came back from the turnaround before me. But now this, all these fast young muscular fucks, these, these sprinters–

A few days before this year’s HURT 100, I had the amazing privilege to be snorkeling in Hawaii near Kona when a pod of wild dolphins showed up at the reef and hung out for at least an hour thirty feet below us tourists. Every few minutes they’d come up for air, and if you timed and angled it right and kicked like hell, for a few split seconds it really felt like you were swimming with them.

That’s what it felt like, running down the mountain with these fast fifty-milers.

8. Liquid Lunch

When I bottomed out back at Footbridge, mile 66, I’d made up an hour on the descent. I ditched my night gear and began climbing three steepest part of the course, affectionately known as The Wall. From here the course ruled and gently ascended for seven or eight miles. I pounded caffeine and tried to stay focused.

In the hard push down the mountain, though, I’d had trouble getting enough food down, even in gel form. I normally avoid liquid calories like Perpetuum or Tailwind during ultras, preferring to keep things simple when I don’t have a crew, but they could have made a big difference here.

9. Dust

As my fourth or fifth wind died down, I rolled up on the dustiest section of the course, the same area my legs had been cramping the day before. I was able to put a stop some unpleasant coughing fits with my albuterol inhaler, but it thoroughly blocked my momentum. I now had a bit over two hours to go eight miles before the next cutoff, and I couldn’t seem to get started again.

10. Beware the Chair

When I pulled into the next aid station, still six miles before the 29-hour cutoff, I misread my watch and thought I’d somehow already missed it. It wasn’t until after I’d been sitting and resting for a minute that I learned I still had 90 minutes, but I no longer felt hopeful or motivated to keep going. In retrospect, making the next cutoff was unlikely, but certainly possible, and I wish I’d continued on as soon as I’d found out. Instead, I
hitched a ride on the back of an ATV once the aid station shut down for the day.

All in all, my biggest mistakes lay in underestimating the course and what I showed up expecting would be my tenth 100-mile finish. I know I’ll look back on the Bighorn 100 and remember the beauty of the mountains, but when I remember my disappointment, I hope to remember these lessons too.

A Punchline Without a Joke: Plain 100 2014-09-13

Plain 100 2014

I have said before that there is no such thing as an easy 100 miler. Nor is there any such thing as a normal 100 miler. Plain 100 is less easy and less normal than any of the others I’ve run. This seems to be more the organic result of the personalities of Chris and Tom, the race directors, that of anything intentional, but there are many things intentional.

Thing 1: Directions to Deep Creek, the start/finish line, drop bag point, and “aid station,” cannot be found on the race website and were not given at the pre-race briefing. It’s not clear if this was intentional or an oversight, but as others had said in fewer words, if you can’t find a campground in the woods outside a tiny town in the mountains at the dead center of Washington State, you probably shouldn’t run Plain.

Many mountain hundreds start with a big climb right out the gate. Plain starts out gently, with six or seven miles of nearly flat dirt roads, first to the original starting line in town (or what passes for one), then up a slight rise to another campground.

Thing 2: Those miles don’t count towards the 100. The Plain course runs long, and not by a mere 0.2 or 2.0 miles like Western States or Bryce. Consensus and lore have it pegged at 106 miles, although some estimates go as high as 112. When the climb out of Deer Camp starts to get noticeable, you still have about 100 miles to go.

At Maverick Saddle, around ten miles in, I checked in with Thing 3, the Search and Rescue volunteers. They hang out at a few spots along the course with radios and trash bags to monitor runners’ progress and collect our trash.

Thing 4: You are not allowed to receive aid on the course from anyone who isn’t currently running the Plain 100. That means no aid stations, no pacers, no trail angels, no race photographers, no help from SAR. If you so much as ask them a question, they will remind you that hearing the answer means disqualification. If you go off course in front of them, they will wait until you’re out of earshot to laugh. I took an extra minute at Maverick Saddle to double check my map and course directions.

Thing 5: The course is not marked. There are no flour arrows, confidence markers, wrong-way ribbons, glow sticks, LEDs, or flagging of any sort set out. What you get are turn by turn directions and a low resolution map on the website. Anyone too lazy to buy or print something better would have to make do with the bandana silkscreened with the course map given out at check-in.

Soon after Maverick Saddle, the trail got steeper, tougher, and more scenic, with some nice views of sunrise over the Wenatchee Mountains and the other side of the Entiat range. This was the first of what would normally be three approximately 5000 foot climbs.

Thing 6: Normally, the second climb would take us 5000 feet up Signal Peak in only four miles. This comes at the start of a 14 mile dry stretch, and most runners reach it during the hottest part of the day, so it must be climbed under the weight of hours worth of water and, hopefully, at least half your food for the loop.

Thing 7: Technically, the rule is no aid except at Deep Creek, the start/finish/”100K” checkpoint. This means you must carry all your food and gear with your for as much as 64 miles at a stretch, assuming you don’t go off course for any bonus miles along the way, and all the water you might need between known stream crossings.

I felt every ounce of this weight when I landed badly coming down off a rock on the technical Hi-Yu trail and my lower back responded with an equal and opposite reaction. While I sat and stretched by the side of the trail I was passed by both Chihping and Noé, two fellow Bay Area runners I’d leapfrog with at the back of the pack for many hours to come.

Thanks to a couple of wildfires smoldering off to the north, the forest service had closed down part of the course, including the dreaded Signal Peak climb. This year’s alternate route included a seven mile loop through the high meadows near 6000 feet above sea level. I’ve never noticed any symptoms of altitude sickness below 9000 feet, but that doesn’t mean the thinner air can’t slow me down. It slowed me down.

Over the next ten miles, my back worked itself out, assuaging my fear that my race was already over. I caught up with Noé again and overtook him on a downhill section. He told me he was worried about getting lost and about falling — he’d only recently recovered from a bad shoulder injury. I slid and landed on my ass in the mud, laughing, as I took off ahead of him.

Thing 8: The trails are often kind of terrible. Where most mountain hundreds are run on trails maintained by and for hikers, these are mostly maintained by and for dirt bikers. Many sections had deep eight-inch wide ruts right down the middle of the trail, which got slick with mud up in the high meadows. Where switchbacks might otherwise provide perfect downhill running, concrete honeycomb was laid into the ground to prevent erosion while pummeling our soles and threatening sprains. Sometimes there were little jumps. On one particularly awful stretch of otherwise gentle trail, there were miles of whoop-de-doos, basically speedbumps that made it impossible to run with any kind of rhythm. Elsewhere nature provided, and the trail was simply covered with fist sized rocks.

Through the high meadow loop, I found myself slowing down, and it wasn’t just the altitude. I was eating a gel or a handful of trail mix or jerky every 20 minutes like clockwork, but I was still feeling hungry and drained. I rallied for the Whistling Pig Meadow downhill and the last, easier part of the Signal Peak climb that was still on the course, and even put in some good descending from there on some bad trail before bonking completely. This was the worst. Here I was on a five mile downhill where my whole race plan hinged on making up time, and all I could do was walk and feel sorry for myself.

Tearing down Billy Creek Trail with Glen Mangiantini. Photo by Chihping Fu.
Tearing down Billy Creek Trail with Glen Mangiantini. Photo by Chihping Fu.
Two miles downhill on this Billy Creek trail, a little after the Search and Rescue checkpoint and about eleven hours into the race, I let Chihping pass me for the last time and pulled off trail to take a giant dump. I started to piece together what was going on then: it was bright green. Like, greener than goose poop. Greener than a lot of the trail vegetation, and I was running in the Evergreen State. More to the point, the last time I could remember eating much of anything green was a giant spinach smoothie more than two days ago. Almost an hour and a half and only three miles down the trail, I took another giant crap, but this time it was two-tone: half bright green, half, you know, just kinda brown. Now it was all beginning to make sense: I hadn’t really crapped in a few days, and my gut was backed up enough that I wasn’t extracting nutrition from my food as efficiently as normally.

You know how a cat will fly all over the house like a furry little demon right after after it poops? It was kinda like that. I made a full recovery on the rest of the downhill, and began making up some solid time on the five miles out along the rolling Mad River trail. After only one or two, however, I was surprised to be overtaken by another runner – someone I hadn’t seen all day. He told me he was running the 100K, a shorter race that stopped after only this first loop, and gotten lost. He also told me that from what he knew, Noé and another runner named Don had gone off course, and I was now in last place for the hundred mile race. I hoped he was wrong, mostly for their sake.

The narrow trail here snaked along next to and above the Mad River, anywhere from zero to about 80 feet above the water with a steep drop off. For the first few miles the ground was soft, but it abruptly gave way to a carpet of fist-sized rocks. Nonetheless, I still felt great, finally running well, high-fiving runners I hadn’t seen in twelve hours who were coming back the other way and telling myself I could make it to the turnaround before putting on my headlamp for the night. I made it, but just barely.

Halfway back along the out-and-back, I was elated to see Noé headed toward me. He told me he’d been following Don when they made a wrong turn and ran about five extra miles. This was on the longest dry stretch of the course, so they’d run out of water, and Don had become dehydrated. Noé told me he had been leaning and falling over, but they’d eventually found a stream, then the right trail and recovered. I told him where the turnaround was and what to look for, and that he still had plenty of time to make the Deep Creek cutoff.

A mile later, I saw another headlamp coming my way, which of course belonged to Don. I told him I was glad to see him, asked how he was doing, and gave him the same information I’d given Noé. He only said “Yeah” or “OK” in response, which at the time I took as an indication that, like Noé, he was frustrated about having gone off course and lost so much time. In retrospect, this was a mistake.

Thing 9: Plain is not a fucking joke. When I saw Noé back at Deep Creek the next day, he told me he had essentially sacrificed the rest of his race to save Don’s life. Here’s what Noé wrote about it later:

Hours later when I was coming back from that out-and-back trail I saw Don who was in his way to that point, looking completely sick, leaning on his left side, clearly sign of dehydration. – He cannot be here, I thought, this section is extremely unsafe. – Noe, can I stay with you, I feel very dizzy and weak. I responded immediately – Of course, let’s go together. He was not really walking, he was dragging his feet making a great effort to put one foot in front of the other and some times losing the balance of his body, like nauseous. It was already dark and everybody was gone, that was a single, rocky and narrow trail, so there’s no much I could do, just escorting him and make sure that nothing worst happens. Moving at 50-55 minutes/mile and taking breaks. – That was ok, no rush, I said! We were in the middle of the forest, very remote area and there were absolutely no one nearby, just he and me.

At about 2 am. the temperature dropped down dramatically (probably to the 20’s) when suddenly Don lost the control of his balance and dropped off to the cliff. – OH NOOOO!!!! I yelled very loudly. At first I thought that he had hit on any rock or he was on the river or he was dead. NO, he was trapped on two fallen old trees very close too the abysm. That section was very steep and he was like 20 ft down from the trail. Has he a broken bone? Or maybe is he bleeding? He was responding to everything I was asking so I tried immediately to rescue him.

I don’t deny that I was also afraid to slip and cause a tragedy, my shoulder is not completely healed from a surgery and I still don’t have much strength, so slowly I went down grabbing my arm on some branches, grabbed his hand and start pulling him from the area. – Don, you need to be strong and help me, I said. – Come on, little by little he was moving and finally I got him to a safe spot, what a relief!

If Noé hadn’t been with him, and Don hadn’t had the presence of mind to turn back earlier, he could have been in much worse shape by the time Search and Rescue found him. Thanks to how well prepared Noé was, he was able to walk the rest of the way to them instead.

Thing 10: Aid is only allowed from other runners, which means the only aid station is allowed at Deep Creek. However, it’s not part of the race organization. Volunteers come out with a grill most years, but weren’t able to this year. When I pulled back into Deep Creek after midnight 20 hours 38 minutes, there was no aid station, only my drop bag and a camp chair.

Nonetheless, I was happy to see both Chihping and Glen (another runner I’d spent time running and leapfrogging with) still there. I hoped to get out of my chair fast enough to leave with one or both of them, but I had enough to do just emptying and refilling my pack, putting on the right nighttime layers and lights, and eating what I could before heading out that even my fast stop took about twenty minutes, and they were both gone.

Too bad, too. This was the section I’d been most worried about. While I’d had no real trouble navigating the first 100K, the start of the second loop is notorious for getting runners lost in the dark. It starts on a trail that runs parallel to a road, and there are many intersecting roads and paths. In theory, though, all I had to do was keep following the same trail for ten miles.

This all went to hell at Goose Creek Campground where in my infinite wisdom I decided to ignore a sign saying “<--- TRAILHEAD." This was obviously completely unhelpful, since I wanted to keep going straight. Instead I spent at least twenty minutes wandering around the campground, trying to figure out where the trail picked up without waking anyone up. I must have crossed over the trail at least once, completely ignoring it again, by the time I ended up out on the road. I knew this was wrong, but eventually decided to run along the road until I could spot the trail again just off to the right, cut back over, then retrace my steps. It would waste a lot more time, but I refused to finish Plain having cut the course. Eventually I decided it had been too long - I should have seen the trail or an intersecting dirt road by then - and decided to forge into the woods until I found it. I couldn't, at first, figure out why I was going down such a steep hill, or why I could hear water so nearby. How could there possibly be a river between me and the trail? It turns out running for 22 hours without rest can, in fact, take a toll on one's mental faculties. After more time than I care to admit, I realized I'd gotten turned around. Once I got back to Goose Creek, I had no trouble finding my way through this time. I now had about six hours to get to the next checkpoint, and I wasn't exactly sure where on the course that was. I figured I still had a shot at making it, but it would be tight. Fortunately, I was still moving well. I just had to stay focused and avoid doing anything else stupid. Oh boy. For the next eight miles, the trail continued to snake along parallel to the road before the last big climb up to Chikamin Ridge. At some point, the trail descended to what must have been a sharp bend that I didn't see right at the edge of the now paved road. I must not have seen the bend. what I did see was an obvious continuation of the trail across the road. At seven in the morning, I found myself in the middle of Grouse Creek Campground. It should have been immmediately obvious that I was off course, but I didn't think I'd ever gone off course, so I just thought the map was confusing and looked for where the trail continued. I wandered back and forth through my second campground of the morning twice before pulling out my compass for some clarity. It kept spinning. I turned it over and found a big hole in the base, where the water is usually held in. I dug my phone out of my pack and waited for GPS, glad I had it for backup. Finally I saw where I was on a topo map. Now that I'd stopped moving for so long, however, and the morning light had failed to find me in this steep mountain valley, I was shivering violently. I had only two hours left to try for the Chikamin Tie cutoff. I decided instead to head back downhill toward the Alder Ridge Search and Rescue checkpoint, which I knew I could find. The topo map showed a service road heading south from the campground that cut a more direct path than the asphalt, so I decided to follow it. Of course, the topo map on my phone hadn't been updated in a few decades, and a short ways out of the campground it became clear the service road I was following hadn't been maintained in about that long either. I found myself climbing over and around thick brush and trees along a steep cliffside. Eventually I gave up and scrambled up the cliff 100 feet to the road. Before long, without so much as a thumb, I was picked up by two other runners who had dropped before me. Plain is one of a small handful of races known as "graduate-level" 100 milers. I'm one of a few who learned why the hard way that weekend, although I certainly did not have it as hard as some. Still, for all its difficulty, it's an incredibly fun, beautiful race, and I'd be glad to go back anytime. I'll just make sure to doublecheck my map. And my compass.

Hurt and Loss: HURT 2014-01-18

This will be an unusual race report. It comes with a trigger warning. It discusses suicide in some detail, and vomit in some quantity.

I won’t say a lot about what makes the HURT 100 so beautiful, so hard, and so rewarding. You can read my report from last year for that. I will say that I was extremely excited to know that I would be running it again this year, and that I considered last year’s finish the hardest thing I had ever done.

Last year's finish. Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.
Last year’s finish. Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.

Along with so many other things, that all changed approximately three weeks and five hours before the conch blew to start the race. Early on the morning of December 27 2013, or very late December 26 if you prefer, Conor Michael Fahey-Latrope killed himself. He was a close friend to me and a companion in adventures both well and ill conceived across the millenia.

I spent most of that night (or the next if you prefer) and the next few days at the scene, trying as best I could to help his bereaved wife and child, to sort through his possessions, to make That Phone Call to a number of our old friends. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but unlike running and finishing HURT I had no choice at all.

I thought about withdrawing from HURT. Funeral details were up in the air for a while, and it seemed like everything would naturally be chaos for weeks, months, forever. I was only just recovering from a minor knee injury and undoubtedly undertrained. A week after Conor’s death, under the strain of it all, I sprained my back changing into my gym clothes. I was drinking too much for the first time in eight years. I was a wreck all around, I knew it, and a stupid footrace didn’t seem so important anyway.

I guess I can be pretty stubborn sometimes. Once the funeral was confirmed for the weekend before the race and my back showed improvement, I confirmed my travel plans, had a new race shirt printed up, and announced I’d be running in Conor’s memory, to raise money for his daughter.


It must sound funny, but it was hard to leave Oakland and everyone I’d been grieving with on a plane to Hawaii in order to hob nob with friends and athletes I admired, all of them disconnected from this tragedy, and run the tough jungle trails I’d missed all year. I spent a lot of the first two days just re-learning how to hang out with people who weren’t in a state of shock. It was hard, but it was good. Like in ultrarunning, maybe I don’t always see a distinction.

And then, the night before the race, I did something stupid. I ordered the loco moco.

I can’t be completely sure if it was the onion, the meat, the gravy, or one of the eggs on top, but something gave me an unmistakeable case of food poisoning. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the rice.

I woke up about one a.m. with diarrhea. It came back an hour later accompanied by vomiting. The nausea kept me awake until I purged the rest of my stomach, but I don’t think I managed any more sleep before my 3:45 a.m. alarm anyway.

My usual morning prep time was at least doubled with some extra trips to the toilet, but I only puked once at the starting line. When conch blew at 6 a.m. and we began on our way up to the brutal Hogsback climb for the first time, my stomach felt even better. Maybe it would be okay as long as I kept moving.

Looking back, I’m sure it was only adrenaline that got me that far. Even before the top of Hogsback I slowed and fell to near last place. Shortly before reaching Manoa Cliff, I puked. By the time I reached the first aid station at mile 8, I was puking every 20 minutes. I couldn’t even keep ginger candies or plain water down. Aside from feeling sick and wasting time, I was losing calories, hydration, and electrolytes on a warm and extremely humid day. My only chance was to spend some extra time refueling at the aid stations, move extra slowly, and hope to climb out of the hole I was falling into if my stomach recovered. If.

At Paradise Park I knocked back ginger ale, broth, and devoured fresh watermelon, but just a few minutes up the easy part of the climb it started to come up again. I gave myself two minutes to rest on a new stone wall along the tourist path to Manoa Falls. Before I could get started again, two volunteers on HURT Patrol found me and walked with me up the switchbacks to the lower bamboo forest, where I took advantage of a slight downhill to take off running.

“Do it for Conor!” they shouted, having asked about my shirt. I had to wipe away the tears quickly to keep a clear eye on my footing.

It wasn’t long before they caught me again, clutching a couple stalks of bamboo and doubled over. So much for the watermelon.

At the mile 13 aid station, I stuck with ginger ale and broth. The station captain kept up a conversation while I sipped them to make sure I was lucid. I must have looked as good as I felt. I thanked him and grabbed another can of ginger ale to go, eying the calories on the label.

The steep climbs of the third leg helped put my predicament in perspective. Although my legs were fine, the climbs felt about as hard, and I was stopping to rest even more often, than on the fifth loop last year. On the other hand, having adjusted my pack to avoid any squeeze on my abdomen and having switched to an all-liquid diet, I was starting to puke less.

Back at the Nature Center start/finish aid station (mile 20), local volunteers and Bay Area friends checked in on me and helped me refuel. I guess I looked pretty bad. I thanked them and headed back out.

Photo by Allen "not that" Lucas
Photo by Allen “not that” Lucas


I only puked once on the next leg, a real turning point I was sure, but I was also pretty sure I’d just clocked my slowest marathon time yet, and it was getting dark already. Sometimes I do better at night on hot weather runs, but I wasn’t ready to try caffeine on my stomach, and it would be a long night without it.

My lowest point came two miles into the long climb out of Paradise. I’d only managed 30 miles in 12 hours. The math was clear, and it was against me. I had 24 hours left to run 70 miles, never mind the intermediate cutoffs. Even if I made a full recovery, there was no way I could make up the time.

I felt like a failure. I’d failed myself. I’d failed Finn and Daed. I’d failed everyone who had contributed to the memorial fund because I was running this thing, and everyone back home watching for my name in the online results. I’d failed Conor. Again.

In the dark of the jungle, I sat on the side of the trail and wept. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care who was disappointed, or how fast I ran, or if I finished, or how far I made it at all. I wanted my friend back. I could never run well enough or be good enough or do anything to make that happen.

After a few minutes I looked down at my GPS watch and saw something strange. It told me I was moving very fast, five-minute mile pace or so, and ticking off hundredths of miles as I sat there. I must have landed inches enough off the trail to convince it I had floated up the next switchback. I stood up and started trying to do just that.

This would be okay, I thought. It wasn’t about being perfect, about proving something, or anything more than trying in and with his memory. It was about showing that memory why I try so hard, why I wanted him to be able to join me and learn the same things the same way.

I’d long fantasized about Conor coming out to pace me for a loop at HURT. Even if it didn’t get him into ultrarunning, I knew he’d love the trail and I knew his athletic ass would leave mine in the mud. We’d talked often about what I got from the sport and how it inspired him.

“I think the hard and important part is to take that and apply it to the rest of your life,” he told me once about some hard-won running lessons. He could have some great advice for someone who couldn’t even choose not-death over death.

Food for thought at the Nature Center.
Food for thought at the Nature Center.
Food for thought at the Nature Center.
Food for thought at the Nature Center.

So I wouldn’t finish. So what? There’s no shame in a DNF done right. I’d keep going until someone made me stop.

When I got back to Nu`uanu at mile 33, the station captain told me I looked much better and congratulated me on my attitude. I drank some ginger ale, grabbed some gels and a can of juice for the trail, thanked him, and took off.

A mile out, I sat on a rock and cracked open the juice. As I started to drink, I was elated to feel something I hadn’t in over 24 hours: hunger.

A mile up Nu`uanu Ridge, it all came up again.

I started to ask myself, What would Conor do right now?

Yes, I was mad and disappointed, but I still loved and admired him. What might he do in a situation like this?

Conor would down whatever food was in his pack, puke it up, and sprint to the next aid statoin like nothing happened.

Conor would strike up a conversation with a stranger and find out what they think he should do.

Conor would quit.

Conor wouldn’t be here at all.

Conor would put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger.

I pressed on, stopping often to rest or to vomit. No matter how loud I turned up my earbuds, I kept hearing how he would have said, “Oh, no-oooh!” when I told him about this. I kept wishing more than anything he were there with me, or anywhere other than sitting on Daed’s shelf in an urn.

At last I accepted I would need to rest until my stomach could recover. It was almost midnight — 18 hours into the race — by the time I made it back to the Nature Center at mile 40. I lay down on a cot where Allen “not that” Lucas checked on me every half hour. After he left, a volunteer medic took over, waking me to sip broth every 10 minutes. Even without moving, my stomach didn’t start to feel settled until 6 a.m., but by then I was too weak and too dehydrated to press on for a third loop.

I’m sure I could have still made them pull me, but not in a good way. Instead I walked over to the timing table, told them I was done, and spent the next twelve hours slowly recovering and watching other runners come back in, victorious or otherwise.

As in my previous adventures, I learned a lot. Like Conor might have said, it wasn’t all about running. It didn’t pan out in the end, or really go well at all, but I’m glad I went.

After all, I didn’t want it to be easy, and I know Conor wouldn’t have either.