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I don’t exactly know where to begin writing this report or epistle about the road I took towards my Barkley experience. Several times, during runs or hikes since then, I found myself trying to figure out how. Perhaps, because the experience is surreal. Normally, I am pretty good at it, especially in those solitary moments. I guess it will be safe to begin with how I got the Barkley wind.

I have known Barkley to exist years back because a then-boyfriend and now the husband of a friend ran it. However, it was only in December 2015, when Apple released the movie and I to fully understand the concept of it. The Apple release came months before the Netflix release so I, pretty much, got hooked on it even the rest of the world did. Watching the movie became so addicting. Perhaps, it is not from the fact that 2 amazing runners finished at the top 2 spots (apologies, Brett and Jared), but more because a 3rd person finished— one who was more of a mortal and a relatable character.

I cannot count the times I watched the documentary. I can almost memorize each line. It was almost my go-to movie when I used to train on treadmills for speed work. I had my quasi-intimate relationship with it. So when that movie came out on Netflix and everyone started to talk about it, I was, somewhat, devastated that that small race down in Tennessee became too exposed in the mainstream running world.

Z-Poles fail.

Now I am not the strongest runner. But I can be stubborn and ambitious. Weeks after watching the documentary, I thought relentlessly about the Barkleys. It was not about FOMO or the fear of missing out on this race. Far from it. But not exactly sure what it is.

One day I posted on Facebook about wanting to be the Sacrifice, if that was the only way to get in. After all, at that time, I knew I was way in over my head. Much to my surprise, one of my friends sent me a private message about helping me out and the husband. He said he was sharing the information on the basis that he actually thinks I have a shot at being a Sacrifice, while the husband has a high probability of finishing or, at least, doing well. It was at this point that I learned one “truth” about the Barkleys: the entry process can (almost) never be sought; it can only be earned through trust.

Long story short, we both applied and Jun (more known in the race as Conrado) got in a day before the race, after being in on the weight list; I didn’t. He finished a loop and 4 books. At the race, somehow, Laz found himself with an injured shoulder and Sandra asked for anyone who can help her put the make-shift, yellow sling on him. And I am talking about this for a reason…

Now, just as a recap, I did have a crappy 2016, running-wise. Except for finishing a trail 100-miler in February, I had mostly DNF’d and DNS’d races I signed up for. Then I had non-running-related back injury in September that took me out from the Barkley Fall Classic, which I thought killed my chances at being considered for the big Barkleys. I gained weight and just lost my interest in signing up for races. Outside of running, all I personally achieved was finishing grad school, which took 5 years.

Fast forward I applied when time came and I got the condolence a day after I sent in my application.

Shit, I thought to myself. Thankfully, though, I had gone back to running again and back to a plant-based diet that helped me shed unnecessary weight.

I guess when the appropriate impetus comes, you are propelled to take necessary actions so you can rise to the occasion.

For starters, I am a flat-lander, living in Jersey City. As an ER nurse, I work 3, 12-hour shifts a week and some of these are on weekends, so the question was getting in my mountain or hill training. So I did the unthinkable at the time: I signed up for a gym membership. I hated going to the gym so the criteria were to sign up where I would not have to donate hundreds of dollars for non-appearance AND for it to be close to home so I won’t have to drive. Thankfully, I found Blink Fitness, which was half a mile from where I live AND only costs $24.99 for a “passport” membership (allows you to attend other Blink gyms).

So I went to the gym and surprised myself on how I actually loved spending my time there. I got on the Stair Master and spent every visit there using the machine. I worked on my upper body for strength and did arm exercises. I must admit that before getting my condolence, I barely did body strengthening.

Also, after finishing grad school, I thought I was done with studying for anything academics. I even shoved aside any thoughts on pursuing doctorate studies because I was SO DONE WITH STUDYING. I decided to enroll, instead, in Norwegian language lessons after falling in love with Norway when I visited in January. Of course, I did this before thinking that the Barkleys will take up so much of my physical and mental self. Seriously, who studies for a race??? So after spending $$$$$ on Norwegian language lessons, I had to cancel that to focus on studying for Barkleys.

I enrolled on orienteering lessons, bought books, and listened and watched YouTube videos.

And every other time when I was not working, I spent in the gym, running, hiking, and doing hill repeats in Mount Tammany—the only sensible place to go that’s near Jersey City. To train, when I can’t come to Tammany, I ran up a section in the Jersey City and Union City that had a bit of an incline and did that over and over. When you’re a flatlander, you make do with what you have and improvise. I also did some hikes on our treadmill that did 40% incline.

On a side note, what is hard about getting into the race is that you have to keep your mouth shut. I had to keep myself from saying anything each time people asked me on social media about what race I am doing when they see me “training hard.”

Not even my closest friends knew I was running except for Susie and Harald and Rudy. Harald, who also did the Barkleys years back, found out, after he asked me what was next for me, race-wise, during a bagel breakfast. And then Howie and Francesco. And, of course, the person, who taught us the entry process. One or two had prodded but the more these people prodded, the more I shunned and got sarcastic and repulsive.

The end of March finally came and Joe Galioto (who also got in) and I traveled to Tennessee. We are almost two clueless runners going out there. But Joe is a much stronger runner than I am, with a stellar running resume attached.

We headed to Oak Ridge and stayed at a hotel for 2 nights, despite having 2 nights rented on a campsite in Frozen Head. We both figured how we want comfort in preparation for the race. The day we got there, we immediately headed to FH to walk on the Cumberland Trail. I hiked without poles and managed to keep up with Joe’s pace.
The day after, my family came after a long drive from Jersey. Earlier, Joe and I went to hike Cumberland again and I had used my Z Poles and decided against them for race day, as it slowed me down tremendously.

Those two nights we were in a hotel in Oak Ridge, I tried to sleep well and eat well. I thought that if the race started early Saturday, I would need to bank on sleep.

Friday, the day before April Fools’ Day came and we headed to camp to register. Big Cove already got crowded with all the runners. It was so great to see runners from different parts of the country and the world.

Unlike the year before, Laz set up registration a little late this year— roughly around 3pm. From that, we kind of assumed the race would start later on Saturday. But then again, with Laz, you never know so I also imagined that race will start in the middle of the night to fuck up with our brains. After all, that’s, partly, what Barkley is about, in my opinion.

Getting in line to get registered, while Howie, also a Barkley veteran, looks and smiles on.

I lined up among the few early registrants. Honestly, I was hoping I did not get bib number 1—the Sacrificial Virgin’s number. Of course, when Laz handed me the bib, I can only laugh out loud. Darn it. I handed him a Philippine (because I am a Filipino citizen) license plate that reads IRUNDFL (I Run Dead Fucking Last), which is a replica of my New Jersey license plate, because as a virgin, that’s what he asks you to bring.

Soon after plotting the course from the master map into our own maps, we headed to Wartburg for Chinese restauarant dinner that would take eternity to cook. Gary Robbins would be in the same place, too, waiting for their take-outs.

By 8 pm or so, we were back in camp and I took a shower. I headed to sleep in our tent by around 9pm, still thinking the race could not possibly start early. I fell asleep and somehow woke up a little less than an hour to pacify a fight between Jun and Mariska. (Yes, this actually happened.) I fell asleep back again but then, come 0042 (12:42am) I heared a conch blow faintly and then another one, more loudly. Mother fucker. I looked at the time because, somehow, I felt somewhat rested that I actually thought it was later in the night. It was not. I only had about 3 hours of sleep.

Mind you, I was not so nervous about the race, except for the part where I would get lost and not getting enough sleep. So far, the lack of sleep part was taking shape at this point.

So I got up and Jun made me coffee. I have not had real coffee in 2 days, because I was hoping to bump up the potency of my caffeine intake on race day. And no, I cannot not have coffee for 2 weeks prior to a race like many others do because that would mean I will end up killing patients by accident when I work.

Jun also made some (burnt) vegan chicken strips and hotdog and I popped my Carbo Pro Motivator (caffeine pills) and VO2 Max and Amino Acid. He also mixed some Carbo Pro liquid carbs in one of my bottles. In the camp bathroom, I was so thankful Kendra Miller (Howie’s girlfriend) was there to help me by braiding my hair. That was my “game time” hair.

With “Frozen” Ed Furtaw, who, I may have not done without in finding the books.

I decided on my compression capri, loose pants over it, a long sleeved shirt, my thin down jacket, and Gore-Tex rain jacket to wear because it had started to drizzle. Soon after, we were by the yellow gate.

Before the race, I had planned on following a veteran so as not to get lost. I had my eyes finally set on one before the race. I also thought about Frozen Ed but as Jun would say “He is fast for you.”

Going up on Cumberland, however, I ended up behind Frozen Ed. Eventually, it turned to become a 4-person group of me, Frozen Ed, Lynn Turner, and the French skipper, Cristophe.

Lynn Turner, also a Barkley veteran, who was instrumental in hearing the frogs’ sound. Can’t elaborate more on that.

Getting to the first book was not easy. It was foggy like no other. After almost 2 hours, we found the book, courtesy of Lynn’s keen sense of hearing. Not to elaborate, but it was the “frogs” that helped us find it. Soon enough, we were headed to Book 2. Oh, my lord. That climb was sick. I have not climbed, shooting up like that, ever, without any switchbacks that when I actually got on the switchbacks later, my Achilles hurt but made the hike up all the switchbacks going forward easier.

We climbed up and down looking for Book 2. In one of the downhills, however, I almost lost the rest of the group because of the dense fog. I thought “This is the part where I’d get lost.” But because I did not want to be in that position, I looked at my bearing on the compass and trusted the faint light I saw in the end. I managed to finally to catch the rest.

In our trek to Book 2, another group caught up to us and I glanced to see an image that resembled Mike Wardian. I asked if that was Wardian and, holy molly, it was him! That never happens in any other race and that’s when you know in this race, speed does not necessarily equal success at finishing. Sorry, Mike. However, because they were the faster pack, our group lost theirs, eventually. We stopped for a while to gather our bearings and after a while, we found Book 2.

Cristophe, 2nd from right, and the rest of the French team at Barkleys. (Photo credit from Cristophe’s Facebook page.)

However, Frozen Ed had to decide at that point to go back to camp because of some health considerations.

I decided to continue, at least, to Book 3 with Lynn and Cristophe, and take it from there.

The fog was still thick and it continued to be battle of feeling cold on the downhills and hot in the uphills. I had already taken my down jacket off and stowed it in my back pack, thankful that I decided not to bring poles because there was nowhere to stow them.

We got into Book 3 and I was so happy to have found it myself underneath a rock. Lynn decided to go back down where Frozen Ed had gone to head back to camp. At this point, I had asked Cristophe about staying with him going to Book 4 AND if there was any access to Quitter’s Road, should I need it from there… a question I should never have asked.

We got on our trek to Book 4 and Cristophe showed me the significant landmarks. Rhonda-Marie (a blind runner, who did it last year) warned me about a crevice on Sonofabitch Ditch and I finally understood what she meant when I got there. It was at this point in the race that I, despite the fog, got to appreciate the beauty of the course, perhaps, owing to some light overhead.

We got to Book 4 in a semi-open spot. It had a cairn and rocks arranged.

Before Frozen Ed left us, he entrusted Cristophe with the ashes of Stu, a Barker who had passed. Cristophe was to spread them on the memorial set up at that spot.

So when we got there and found Book 4, Cristophe did what he promised to do and laid the ashes to their final resting place. It was such an experience to be there and the experience became somewhat spiritual.

However, that also became the turning point for me, when I decided to end my Barkley journey.

I had still a lot of energy and physical strength to give but something in me did not want Cristophe to slow down because of me. I had to make that painful decision to have him show me how to get to Quitter’s Road.

The ever talented Howie Stern found me on my way back to camp from Quitter’s Road and on South Mac Trail, where this photo was taken by him.

After waiting for Cristophe to get water from the water drop, I found myself alone on the jeep road. Nick Hollon’s words reverberated “Quitter’s Road is so long…”

Now what’s bad about Quitter’s Road is that not only does it branch many different ways, but the farther you get to the race, too, the longer it takes to come back. I found my way walking back to camp, constantly looking at my map until they tore into pieces, and had sooooo much time to contemplate on what worked and mostly, what did not.

Quitter’s Road is so bad because it makes you introspect and question your decisions. And believe me, regrets came way too soon. I felt I should not have quit just yet, that I should have spent more suffering out there. It was also at this point when I realized I needed to learn more about navigation, which, in hindsight, was my weakest point, because I had apprehensions that if I fell behind Cristophe, I may not be able to find my way back. I thought, that if I only had that as a very strong asset, I would be more confident.

That is not to say the course was easy. It was hard– and I only reached Book 4; there were still the other mountains and Rat Jaw. While there were switchbacks, there were also crazy downhills and climbs that didn’t follow a trail, meaning, steep inclines. I remember jumping off a rock cliff or rock formation going into Book 1 that was about 15 feet high that further dropped into another loose soil that ran downhill. That was one of those moments, when I thought I’d give my mom a heart attack, if she knew what I was doing…

After an hour or so of walking, I managed to find myself heading towards the Fire Tower. I met 3 lovely people, Jean, Ron, and Pete, who were on their way back to the campsite. Jean’s husband, Hiram, was running and both Pete and Ron were helping and they were also on the weight list.

From the Fire Tower, it was another 2.7 miles to camp. En route, we saw other former Barkley runners, Fegy and Julian. It was not long until I was near the yellow gate and heard Laz yell “Is that Kat Bermudez?” After explaining to Laz what happened with the fog and all, Dangerous Dave, with his bugle, played Taps for me. That marked the end to my Barkley journey.

These two. Amazing.

In hindsight, there is a lot to learn from this experience. I noted some of them above but also, I realized one important thing: When you run this race, you are on equal footing with other runners. There is no preferential treatment because you are a female runner. No one will wait for you and you have to work your ass off to keep up. I realized that when I fell behind the rest of the men in my group butt-sliding a steep mountain. They continued on their pace. And that was to be expected.

I learned the need to read up on the weather. Such a simple and trivial thing to think about on a day-to-day basis, but something that was utterly needed in races such as this. I knew that had I known the hourly weather forecast, I would have know that the skies would eventually clear out as the day progressed.

Another thing I learned is that this race is not all about speed. A back-of-the-pack runner like me can be there when Laz falls (because I still think part of the reason why I got in was because I helped Laz with his sling), take a shot at the application process and, if fortunate enough, be picked, and train. Hard.

And why did I do it? Do I have a self-destructive behavior, as some people people would say upon learning I was in? I do not. It is, perhaps, more because I needed to do something for myself, from the depressing state I was personally in in the past months. It was not for glory or fame– not that I stand a chance at having it, given my running record. But there was something about self-flaggelation and pushing one’s self, myself, to that level and beyond where I can do what I, otherwise, didn’t know I can or am capable of.

Being the Sacrificial Virgin is trivial. The experience is priceless.

I do not know if I am even able to come back, considering I was picked as a Sacrifice or if, based on how I performed, I am still worthy of a spot. But, in hindsight, as well, the time spent at Barkley and in preparing for it, was a time worth giving attention to. The discomfort of it all gave me a new perspective, not only during the race but in my day to day affairs since then. I now have this new dictum of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because life is never always comfortable.

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Cloudy start. I was in my short-sleeved shirt and shorts. Not right for February. #climatechange

Cloudy start. I was in my short-sleeved shirt and shorts. Not right for February. #climatechange

You know that classic enabler-abuser relationship? How about that sadomasochist dynamic? In my opinion, there is not much difference between the two. In both situations, one receives the pain, the other gives, and the situation is based on the assumption that there is some form of justification why this pain must exist. Other than that, it appears that there is the promise of pleasure or change or reward awaiting in the end.
Weirdly enough, these are the exact, same thoughts that reverberated while I was doing the loops at Mount Tammany today, as part of my training for a mountain race.
Being a flat-lander, living in Jersey City, the best hope for mountain training is a trip to one of the nearby mountains and doing repeats.
As a background, Mt. Tammany is in the boundary of NJ and Pennsylvania. It is a 1250 climb to the summit at 1.5 miles from the base. The loop (covering the Red Dot and Blue trails) is a total of 3.5 miles (http://www.njhiking.com/mt-tammany/). Of course, compared to the Rockies and other mountains out west, it is tiny, but being that it is part of the Appalachian Trail, the challenge is in doing the repeats on a very technical terrain.
I have not been out on mountain trails in a while. Blame it on the lack of races that often motivate and the lack of motivation, itself.
So for me to be out there today, after having gone just recently— Saturday, to be exact— means I am seriously training for something.
On Saturday, I failed on my attempting 4 loops. Having left the house rather late that day, we didn’t get there until past noon. That was a mistake. Then after my first loop, I decided to eat and took my time. Another mistake. It was slushy that day. And colder. So after the 3rd loop, I decided to stop because by then, it became slippery, owing in part to the huge crowd that was there that day. I also stopped because it was late and I DIDN’T HAVE A HEADLAMP!

This photo does not justify the technical incline.

This photo does not justify the technical incline.

So today, I came back. still left a bit late but earlier than Saturday, nonetheless.
I got there and God bless the available parking.
After taking some Carbo Pro VO2 Max and Amino Recovery, I went for my first loop.
The first is always hard, I felt. The muscles are not warmed up at this point. I finished the whole 3.5-mi loop in 1:26. It is almost always at the first loop when I take photos and today was not an exception. It was a bit cloudy at the time but I had my short-sleeved shirt and shorts, anyway. I eventually warmed up.
Once finished with the 1st loop, I stopped by my car to replenish myself with the one and only bottle of Soylent I brought and my Carbo Pro products. I did this with every loop. I rationed my Soylent, a soy meal, which, on an ordinary day, would have been enough with the 400 calories it provides. Somehow, I thought the 4 slices of toast I had this morning was enough but it was not.
The 2nd climb. Somehow I thought this to be faster. But it was just about the same pace as the first. I tried hiking the red dot trail with no poles but eventually decided about half-way to the summit. I finally confirmed the value of trekking poles at this point. I realized that the effort your legs could have been making is actually translated to “arm work.” This is where upper body strengthening comes in handy. One hour and 26 minutes later, I reached the parking lot again and replenished. I was not happy with the time I logged for the 2nd loop. I felt I was stronger and I remember that one or two times when I finished a loop under an hour. Gone are those days, I guess.
The 3rd climb was not was not any easier and by then, I started to get a bit bored. However, it was during the 3rd loop that too many things went on in my head.
I thought about the impending sunset and how, HOLY SHIT, I FORGOT TO BRING A HEADLAMP AGAIN! So I sought Google for the time the sun sets today. 1744 (yes, I prefer military time… okay, that is 5:44pm). Phew! that should be enough, I thought, to, at least, hit the summit with some sun light on. But then another thought hit me. A stupid question. “Does sunset mean the sun is totally out or that the sun starts to move down and out?” That was probably a question fit for an elementary student but at that point, my brain was not functioning anymore. (Okay, honestly, I still don’t know the answer.)

Lights out.

Lights out.

Another thing that bothered at the 3rd loop was missing time with Mariska. Much as she has evolved into a non-listening monster, I still value the time I spend with her. When I was training for Rocky Raccoon last year, among my biggest issues with training was the time I missed spending with her. This was one of those days and I thought about how I had come back in the same cycle. And I am certain I am not the only runner with kids, who is facing the same predicament,
But things had to be done today. I figured that if I even went home without a 4th loop, it will haunt me. So I brushed those issues aside and after a near-fall, I pushed harder on the downhill.
Once I got to the parking lot and after downing the remainder of my ration and some Carbo Pro pills, I headed out for the 4th.
It was a comforting thing to know that coming down the blue trail on my 3rd, I saw some hikers still coming up. I thought that, therefore, I will see them on their way to the red dot as I go up. I also figured bears will still be in hibernation, so the probability is low that I’d see any of them (and I am very scared of bears).
The 4th was a slog to beat the loss of daylight. While going up, I sent a photo I had taken of myself earlier and sent it to a few running friends on a Facebook email thread we share. I told them it was for them to know how I dressed, in case I went missing. (Yes, I am crazy like that.)
While I wanted to finish the hike up-run down with still some light out, I made a commitment to reserve the 4th loop as a time to actually enjoy the trails.
That is what I did, if only to avoid thinking of the bit of exhaustion that had hit me at that point.
And near the end of the red dot trail, I saw it. I saw the most amazing view I have ever seen while on Mt. Tammany. It was a view I had not seen before, probably because I always went there on broad daylight. What I saw was the sight of Mt. Minsi and the other mountains nearby. It was kind of spiritual. Unfortunately, I could not dwell on it long enough, but made sure that apart from my memory, I had it captured on my GoPro.

If bears won't eat me, I can live here.

If bears won’t eat me, I can live here. This beauty.

Further on the way up, I saw one of the hikers I met while finishing 3rd. And then 2 more and then 1 and then 1 and then no more. I was alone. I reached the top with still a bit of light but the sun was nowhere to be seen at this point. But I had reached the blue trail and it was a bit dark once I hit the descent on the blue.
While that was all downhill, that was not that easy, at all. I loved technical downhills but at that point, the goal had become “to not fall” with all those loose rocks and some soil erosion. When darkness finally fell, I decided to take out my iPhone and use it as a flashlight. I wasn’t enough but good enough to help avoid accidents.

img_0226-2
The darkness was fascinating.
Besides Rocky Raccoon, which was flat, the only other time that I’ve been out in the darkness alone was in Washington, when I went on the course of Bigfoot. There is something different being alone in the woods. My mom would not approve if she knew, but it was liberating.
The experience for a slow-ass runner like me wasn’t so bad; it was great! After all, some time soon, I will be out in the woods at night so this was a good refresher.
It was a slow finish at 1:47 for the final loop. But I was glad it is in the books and I am proud of myself. And while I know I need to put more training, I felt I accomplished a lot today.
It was painful, it was blissful. And again, as it is in sadomasochist, abuser-enabler relationships, there is justification for the pain. That promise that something good will come in the end.

Happy ending.

Happy ending.