Saturday, October 13, 2018

Barkley Fall Classic Ultra Marathon, for Em. The 'Why" of what we do.

I may have met Em while visiting my son at University of Waterloo ON,  but I can't be sure. I was surrounded by young people all in pursuit of higher education, higher understanding of our fragile world.  All were laughing, inviting, and living life to the utmost.  Beer, good cheer, and organic fair abounds... Matt stands out along with James and Joe.  They were there-are there-  for my son Max and daughter Jordana.  These young people are the future.  They stumble together, they laugh together, and - with the passing of dear young Em- they cry together.  Please read this guest blog by Matt Morison who attempts to explains the 'why' of what we do.

It is, my dear friend, a good day to be alive.


For Em ... love of my life, light of my world.
The Barkley Fall Classic, or BFC for short, is a 50ish-km course through some very gnarly terrain in the beautiful Smoky Mountains of Tennessee in Frozen Head State Park. The climbs are known to be outrageous, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 12,000 feet of gain over the 50 km, while the entrants and race directors are known to be eccentric and hilarious. This race is a much easier and shorter version of the infamous Barkley Marathons held each spring in the same location, and recently has been the subject of a few great documentaries – give it a Google if you have a spare 90 mins and haven’t seen them.

As a Winnipegger attempting to train for this race, I am glad to have read the old Garbage Hill post on Mike’s blog detailing some of the different routes around Winnipeg’s main topographic feature - of course, built of trash. At least knowing there were a couple different ways up and down the hill made it slightly more interesting doing the endless hilly mile repeats. I wouldn’t even call it boring as there are often lots of cute dogs, friendly runners, and beautiful sunsets to enjoy while doing runs there. That said, as beautiful as many of the hundreds of garbage repeats were, they were quite often marked with violent sobs and many tears as well. This race report needs a very difficult but important introduction to the why of running this race.

I sat on the fence about how and whether to include some of the details of my personal life and journey leading up to this race in this report. I had initially decided to keep things private - but after hearing from Mike, who was both very understanding and encouraging, suggested that if I felt comfortable sharing, it could be helpful to anybody out their reading going through their own trauma and struggle. With that in mind, and also reading the guest blog by Farahnaz Afaq, which really hit home for me in terms of running through and with grief, I decided to lay it all bare. So the truth is I signed up for this race as part of the catharsis I have found through running, in attempting to find healthy ways to grieve the sudden loss of my partner. In January of 2018, Emily Ruston Mann, the love of my life, and light in the world for so many friends and family members, passed away suddenly, without any warning, from an undetected pulmonary embolism.
Emily and I in Drumheller AB on a cross continental road trip
after she finished her Masters Degree in the fall 2016.

My life was instantly shattered that night. To this day, which feels not at all yet far removed from last winter, it is still very hard for me to accurately describe so many of the feelings that made up (and still make up) my everyday existence so changed by loss. Pure rage, numbness, hopelessness, frustration, confusion, doubt. Fake laughter, real laughter, fake smiles, real smiles. Tears, dry heaving, yelling into my pillow, lying on my floor staring catatonically at the ceiling and ignoring texts from friends and family until I am ready to talk to people again, and then going on to feel nearly normal for a week at a time before it all crumbles again some night. It’s all the new life I am living now, which can be so dominated by grief that everything else is pale. But one thing that I started to focus on was that the end of a life need not be strictly about death. Reflecting on an amazing life (and Emily’s life truly was amazing) can take all sorts of forms. For the incredible way that Emily lived her life so thoughtfully and which such care for others, I could feel her encouragement for me to find something to just keep myself afloat. There were many ways I have tried my damndest to honour Em’s memory, whether it is listening carefully to someone tell their story, gardening in a community plot, saving seeds for friends, trying to find helpful ways to volunteer my time, write mail to friends, enjoy lots of delicious local and healthy food, but also enjoy cheddar-covered popcorn. Not that my (and other peoples) memories of Emily can ever be reduced to just a list of activities, but these things that remind us of the way that she lived and moved in the world. I am not nearly close to Emily at being so good at doing all those things, but I try.

But in amongst all that, I know Emily would want me to find a healthy way through this grief. Somehow, it was clear to me what to do there. I latched on to an old passion for running. I used to run. And I think I actually feel like I used to be pretty fast at one point when I was younger – not fast fast, but I actually felt like I could really leave it on the line in an 800 or 1500 m. Despite many years off from the sport, stumbling upon hearing about this race this past February gave me something to actually look forward to. To be excited about. It was very foreign at the time, in such a dark place, to feel hope. But it is undeniable that it was there. So I started to run. I ran on the river trail for dozens and dozens of kilometers per week. I went out at weird hours of the night with my dog and cried and yelled out loud to nobody in an empty Assiniboine Park, running laps on cold nights over icy patches of road. I trained. I felt like I was healing sometimes, only to be knocked down by strong and overwhelming waves of grief, only to get up again, and train more. I got injured. I got sick. I went to physio. I went to AT/osteopathy - a huge help. I trained more. I got a coach (who was amazing). I got a personal trainer (also amazing). I cried. I hit the gym. I trained more. I trained more than I have ever trained for anything.

And suddenly after many months of a weird time warp of tears and miles – race weekend arrived with a bang. After arriving in Tennessee and checking in to pick up my bib and receive a course map, I tried to make sense of what I had actually signed up for. Did I have a chance to finish it? Was I a failure if I didn’t make it? Would Emily be shaking her head at me for trying to do this? Probably. I had so many questions. I tried to strike up some conversations with a few BFC veterans, desperate for some more information about the route. I had heard all sorts of horror stories from previous years of runners ending up many kilometers off-course, lost in the woods and wondering what went wrong – of course, in this race you are permitted no navigational aids other than a compass and the cloth map you are provided. No GPS, no altimeter, no smart phones. Luckily the overwhelmingly friendly-yet-sarcastic group of runners I sat with were also poring over the map and making course notes the night before which I happily tried to listen in and contribute where I could.

After a fitful sleep and some half-awake packing up and double-checking my gear, I was off to the start line. We gathered in a big open field and traded anxious well wishes to each other. The cutoffs are known to be very tight in this race and most years somewhere around 2/3rds of racers will be counted as DNFs (did-not-finish-ers), for any number of reasons - but getting caught up in the cutoffs being one of them. I couldn’t help but think as I looked around me that 66% of all these athletic looking people wouldn’t make it to the end in time. How could I possibly hope to finish if most of these fit-looking people couldn’t? I shook my head and told myself that I flew all this way and I am going to leave it all out on the course and if I didn’t finish I was going to have no second thoughts about it. There was no way I was missing the cutoffs only to think “man, if only I tried a little little bit harder” – if I was going to fail, I was going to fail in a magnificent way. People would remember that guy who failed as hard as you possibly could. That would be me.

And all of a sudden we were toeing the line and eagerly watching the race director for another strange tradition of the race – it begins with the lighting of his ceremonial “starting gun” cigarette – once the tip glows red, we are free to start – and suddenly - we were off – it was happening. The first mile and a half of this race is on a pretty much flat paved road into a campground – the danger is letting yourself get comfortable and think that it might all be this easy. But within 10 minutes we found ourselves at the base of the Bird Mountain Trail. The dense tree cover makes it hard to tell exactly how far up we are going but I knew from looking at the map we were in for a seemingly-endless set of switchbacks going up a couple thousand feet for the next couple of hours.

The “conga line” tradition people had mentioned the night before came true, where the narrow single track on the sharp edge of switchbacks overlooking several-meter drops prevented any sort of passing, at least safely, for the first hour of the course. This may end up being a blessing is what I had to tell myself, thinking that at least this was preventing me from going out too hard and regretting in halfway through the run. But at the same time, the thought of those tight cutoffs began looming in the background of my mind as we moved along at a slow collective pace. The first cutoff was at 7.6 miles, requiring you to get there in 4 hours. Of course on flat ground this pace would not be a problem for most ultramarathon runners – but this course was it’s own beast and even that first cutoff would surely claim a few victims.

Even great pictures can never do these climbs justice but go try running up the toboggan/sliding 
hill portion of garbage hill a couple of hundred times and scrape yourself with a couple of sharp nails
every repeat. That might approximate these sections well. Here I am at the front of this group
trying to thrash through some sharp vegetation. Photo Credit, Misty Wong.
Luckily I rolled into the first cutoff point at 2 hours 30 minutes, cruising in with plenty of time. I gulped down the remainder of my bladder of water/Skratch drink and stuffed some of the trademark snacks of this race into my stomach – greasy and spicy sausage nibs called Slim Jims. I, in all seriousness, had heard these were popular at this race as fuel and so I had literally trained one night by eating a king-size Slim Jim and then doing a hour easy run just to see how it felt/sat in my stomach. It’s not a pleasant feeling but the high-fat protein feels like it somehow acts as a disgusting jet fuel for runners.

The next sections of the course saw runners really spread out a lot more which was welcome after navigating conga lines for several hours. I find myself almost alone at times, worrying if I am still on course before turning a corner or switchback and seeing runners in front or behind me. I still second guess myself (wondering if I should be sure if I’m actually going the right way just because I am following some one else ….. who might be lost themselves) but keep checking the map and it all seems/feels right. The course is officiated by a series of people with small hole punches who punch letter-shaped holes into the bottom of your bib which eventually spell out a message, which proves you actually went and did the whole course in the right order.

The hours go by and the heat starts cranking up. We started the day around 20 degrees Celsuis and humid, and we are up to the low-mid 30s at this point. Which happened to coincide perfectly with some of steepest climbs of the entire course. Everyone’s pace moves from slow to glacial as runners are forced either onto all fours to scramble the uphills, or often on their butts to slide down the downhills, which are just too steep and slippery to head down. Halfway through these gnarly climbs we are treated to a very cool section of the course which goes literally in, over, and under through a big culvert, a decommissioned max-security prison. This jail used to house James Earl Ray, the coward who murdered Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. many years ago, who famously attempted and failed to escape the penitentiary. 

Just after coming over the biggest climb of the course, only about four miles to go
before until the "decision point".  Thanks to Misty Wong for the great photographs.

As the brutal climbs come to an end, I keep checking my $8 Casio stopwatch (remember, no GPS!) to see where I am at with the cutoffs. The two main timings I had to keep in mind were making it to the decision point by 9.5 hours, and the finish line by 13 hours, 20 minutes. The decision point happens at mile 22.6 – if you arrive there in time, you are given the choice to either continue on as normal to finish the race on another 7 miles of treacherous steep trail - or to take a nice easy 0.7 mile flat road back to the starting line and end your race early. With some strong effort on the runnable last 4 miles leading up to it, I hit the decision point in 8 hours 20 minutes, beating the cutoff. The choice was clear – I was finishing this cruel and sadistic race.

The aftermath on my shins on crashing around on the course.

I set onwards, although within 15 or 20 minutes, the heat gave way to the skies opening up and dumping some serious rain on us – the remains of Hurricane Florence. I also realised I hadn’t actually really seen anyone else since I set off on the last leg – was I actually still on course? Was I lost? Almost 9 hours in, exhausted and wet and feeling confused, having not really stopped all day, I sat down on the forest floor to try and rehydrate, stretch, see where I was, having been somewhere on the verge of tears for a few hours from just all of the emotions associated with running this race and the times I had been through while training starting to bubble up. And I truly had no idea where I was at. I checked the map and compass and started wondering about walking backwards where I came from to see if I could retrace my steps. I thought about Emily, I thought about failure, about why I was here. I don’t know how deep the hole of thought could have gotten but it was suddenly interrupted when I hear something behind me… “Hey man! Nice hat!”

I turn around and there is a smiling face – a fellow Canadian who had been wearing a matching Canadian Trail Running Company 5 panel hat to the one I had one now. I joked to friends that this hat saved my race, but it was really this fellow runner. He literally and emotionally picked me up off of that forest floor and put me back onto the trail and reassured me we were still on course. We ran the entire remainder of the race together, picking up the pace all the way to the end. Special thanks to David Varty for running with me to the finish and to Devin Morrow and James Janzen for getting me that hat.

And somehow, at 11 hours and 45 minutes after we had begun, I staggered across the finish line, found the nearest clump of grass and fell into a heap but couldn’t tear the stupid grin off my face. There was a strange mix of emotions – love and loss and life and achievement and grief can work together in mysterious ways. But after that sort of physical challenge, the real forefront of your brain seems to be focused only on one thing – lying down, not moving, and just smiling.

The BFC class of 2018 had a fantastic year, besting the highest finish rate ever for the BFC at a whopping 48%, huge congrats to everyone who ran and gave it their all. I know there were many people who had DNFed in previous years who earned their medal this year, but also people who maybe fell short of their goal this year who will surely be back in the future to conquer this race – I am going to be rooting for them from either near or afar. I know for many of them, the training might have already begun looking ahead to next September. Maybe next year I will be even be back again myself, but in the process of training for this race, the journey itself was just as, or if not more important than, the destination. Finding a way to honour Emily by doing this for myself to get through this pain, was in a way, also, for her. It’s hard for me to describe so I will leave it at that.

I somehow arrived the next evening into the Winnipeg airport, surrounded and surprised by my amazing friends and family who waited (unknownst to me) outside the gate. They had tried to bring me a bottle of my favourite scotch, but perhaps fittingly, it fell out of someone’s arms and smashed on the airport floor about 15 seconds before I came through the international arrivals doors.

I was home.

For anyone still reading, may your next run (or any challenge in your life) be hopefully easier than this one but may it also be rewarding and difficult enough to learn something about yourself also.
A grand welcome at the airport from amazing friends and family.
So much for that Laphroaig though!

Matt Morison