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Jamil Coury

Hardrock Boot Camp

By | Thoughts | No Comments

2017 hasn’t really gone the way I’d hoped thus far in my own personal running department. I half heartedly trained for my third attempt at the Barkley Marathons and since lost some valuable motivation amongst some other stressors I’ve previously written about.

I wanted to update on where things have been the past three weeks, as it has been markedly different. I jump started my recent training binge with a Sunday evening 13 mile trail run capping off an 18 mile week. I hurt and was sore the next day as I put in another 12 that day. This all led into the following weekend where I ran 76 miles over three days along the Western States 100 course.

That first week I ran 80 miles, then stepped up to 88 miles the following seven day span. I also cracked 100 miles in a seven day stretch ending that Saturday. I was off and running.

Of course, this gave me an unrealistic mental trajectory thinking I could move up to a 100 mile week. My body had different plans.

I still got in 65, but the miles were long and difficult and a lingering pain in my left foot told me to take the pedal off the gas.

As I look ahead, I’m hoping to continue the trend of at least one day off per week and listening to my body as I am now less than 5 weeks to my next race and my fourth time  running the Hardrock Hundred.

My last three weeks of training via Strava

Flipping The Switch

By | Thoughts | One Comment

I just found this piece of writing today (June 9, 2017) as I was updating this website. The date on this unpublished draft was April 30, 2015 which was about one month after my first ever attempt at the Barkley Marathons and half way through what I dubbed the “Slam of the Damned” consisting of four of the toughest hundred mile races in the world in one year (HURT 100, Barkley, Hardrock & UTMB).

Funny how things circle back around. The ebbs and flows of life.

The peaks and valleys of our existence don’t happen just in a foot race, they happen day to day or season to season in our lives.

I recently re-flipped the switch a few weeks back to the ON position… for now anyways. It’ll be fun to see where this current upswing carries me.

Cheers and I hope you enjoy no matter where you are in the process.

—–

Each moment brings forth an opportunity. A choice. Each moment we can choose how we will spend our time. We can take action or wait in a moment of inaction. We can be swept along where life takes us or choose to purposefully steer our ship to reach for our dreams.

These moments of action or inaction shape our lives moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. I often get swept up in life and wonder where is this ship heading? Who is steering and how long have I been napping?

I had a fortunate conversation with a friend that got me thinking. Thinking about flipping switches. In fact, the last time I spoke with this friend on the phone, I flipped a major switch in my Barkley training build up that I felt had been holding me back. At the time, I was just one month out from the race and a full on caffeine addict. I knew for some time I was in need of “quitting” and in a singular moment during our conversation I did it. I flipped that switch and went off caffeine cold turkey. It was the easiest thing I’d ever done. I had no cravings or desire for something that just a moment before had controlled my daily existence. Pretty powerful stuff.

I again find myself in a daily struggle.

A struggle to find that deep burning passion to reach for my dreams. Yes I’ve gone through the motions of building a “most epic race calendar” and crafting the perfect season of races designed to inspire and impress. I’ve signed up for the lotteries, been selected, hired a coach and booked travel arrangements. But something has been missing.

That fire.

That absolute commitment to making the dream become a reality.

That thing you can’t quite put your finger on. The intangible, immeasurable power from within that compels one to get up early, to push harder, to run faster, stay later and put in the work needed to rise above. The total dedication to giving your personal best.

I’ve set forth on my most ambitious year of ultra running yet, seeking to finish some of the world’s most iconic and difficult 100 mile races. I’m super stoked to be taking on this challenge, but I’m far from where I’d hope to have been at this point. Without clear action I risk going into both Hardrock & UTMB unprepared, setting myself up for disappointing runs.

I’ve hit the realization that it’s time to flip the switch once again. It’s time to reignite the flame. The mountains won’t care whether or not I’ve done the work, they will be there regardless. The races will start on time and after their designated duration will come to a close whether I’m physically ready or not. The competition won’t care about the excuses or the training days I’ve missed but I will.

Consider the switch flipped.

Back to My Roots

By | Real Shit, Thoughts | 6 Comments

So I’ve kind of hit my groove again on the running front. I’ve run 6 days a week for the past couple of weeks and cobbled together a couple of 80 plus mile weeks. I basically went from an 18 mile week to 81 to 88.

But, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

For instance, a typical training log spans the 7 days Monday through Sunday making a single week. Sometimes however, we run more within a 7 day stretch which distorts our weekly total. I recently did this and was at risk of putting in a hard 17 mile day in order to hit my arbitrary goal of 100 miles last week instead of an easy hour which I should have done after an all day running  adventure binge I partook in Saturday.

Instead, I looked at my “rolling 7 day average” for a more accurate picture of what the hell has been going on with my training and why I was waking up almost every day sore and hobbling to the bathroom.

So I really ramped up my training the Sunday before Western States Camp. I finally had that “f*#& it” moment when I just said I’m going to freaking run and I don’t care about the consequences to the rest of my life.

Well, it’s in actuality never that dire of a decision, but quite liberating to just drop everything for some hard ass runs.

So as I do, I ramped up “hella quick” with a 13 mile day that Sunday followed by 12 that Monday which was enough to put my body into the hurt zone. Easy runs mid week and a day off followed by 76 monster miles during the Western States Camp where I just worked to survive each day.

Our minds are a funny thing.

Once you’ve done something you forget the preparation required and pain along the way. I’ve been running ultra distance for over 12 years now and completed close to 80 official ultra marathons plus countless training runs at the distance. Oh ya I’ve done it before, I can do it again.

(Well, spoiler it hurts a lot more if you aren’t trained.)

So by week 2 of my ramp up although my week prior said 81 miles, I was already at a rolling average of 91 by Monday, then 96.5 by Tuesday and 97 by Wednesday.

I decided I wanted another big weekend run and decided to double dip on a solid training run and getting some work done on a potential future race course in the Tucson area. The big mountains down there are mostly wilderness zones without the option for a permitted trail race, but I scoped out a route that stayed out of those areas and looked epic.

My buddy Jess and I dropped a car at the “finish” at American Flag Ranch Trailhead along the Arizona Trail and then proceeded to drive in our second vehicle to the start of our point to point adventure near the Charleau Gap Trailhead.

We set out with a combined 7 liters of water just past 8 am on a day that would reach close to 108 degrees in Phoenix that afternoon. The first few miles were warm but not unbearable as we cruised (mostly hiked) some jeep trail that included a steady amount of climb and some gnarly granite obstacles which some eager rock crawling vehicles were tackling.

It wasn’t long before I had drained my first water bottle and we were already to the gap. 6 miles down, 1000 feet of elevation gain and the Samaniego Ridge Trail above us leading to the heavens of Mount Lemmon high above. I’d never been on the trail and had NEVER heard of a runner going up it.

We sound found out why.

The steep trail took us up, feeling like we were literally climbing closer to the sun. All of a sudden the breeze died and it felt like an inferno had engulfed us. The cats claw choked out the trail and we were now literally forcing ourselves along through the trail.

Up we went in search of views, wind, springs, and ultimately survival. There came a point when bailing would have been deadly. To head back down into the inferno below would have yielded hours of bushwhacking only to end up in triple digit temperatures along a lonely jeep track leading six desolate miles back to the car.

I was cruising along ahead of Jess when I shrieked.

So loudly, I scared myself backwards along the ridge trail that was winding its way up the granite spine of rock we’d been following. Right in the middle of the trail was a snake elongated with its mouth and slithering tongue facing directly at me. My defense mechanism worked and I pulled back in time, somehow shifting that forward momentum in a fraction of a second to propel me backwards.

Once past the guy we soon came to a headwall. The route we had showed a switchback to the right and then left around the impassable obstacle. We found some climbing bolts drilled in to the cliff face with some thick padded rope and figured this must be it. That trail shortly deteriorated and we were left with heaving ourselves through dense overgrowth. At one point I was just pushing my way through a thicket covered in shiny green leaves. It could have been poison ivy for all I knew, but I didn’t care. I just wanted through and to be back on what semblance of a trail we had been following.

We finally made it above the cliff and reacquainted ourselves with the “trail”.

We got off once more pretty bad in the next section and at one point I was just jumping into large swaths of cats claw really with no other option than to grin and bear it. A great metaphor for life itself at times. I made it through and it really wasn’t that bad.

It was at this point that either my mind was going or I heard voices.

Voices.

Two mountain bikers were shockingly making their way towards us down the ridge trail, essentially dragging their bikes behind them with a bewildered look on their faces.

They were semi-lost and confused, but had the ultimate goal of reaching the gap road some three thousand feet and a world of hurt below. They urged us to turn around saying the trail ahead was extremely rough.

If they only knew…

We ensured them we were committed to reaching the top and if we turned now it would mean certain death for us as we’d already consumed 6 of the 7 liters we’d started with.

We parted ways shortly thereafter and we still wonder if they made it ok….

As we rose up the desert shrubs finally subsided into more consistent stands of pine trees and eventually green blanketed forest floors of ferns. I imagined streams flowing freely, feeding these vibrant lush patches of green, but they had long dried up. It won’t be long before the ferns yellow and brown in the summer heat wave.

Even approaching 8,000 feet the heat was suffocating. We marched on, reserving our last half liter of water between the two of us to small sips every trail junction.

Mount Lemmon is directly North of Tucson in the Santa Catalina Mountain range and rises to over 9,150 feet high. The mountain was named after Sarah Lemmon who is reportedly the first woman to conquer the peak. It took her and her husband a couple of attempts to get up it due to the cliff faces, desert vegetation and difficulty of the area. I now know at least a bit of how they felt….

We soldiered on, eventually topping out near the observatory at the summit, having exhausted our water a mile prior. We figured there HAD to be water at the top, but no sign of any despite dozens of communications towers, abandoned buildings, trailheads and a ski lift. After resorting to some funky tasting water we scored from three 1 gallon Arizona Iced Tea jugs that had been likely soaking in the sun for months, we headed down the Aspen Meadows trail towards the town of Summerhaven 2.5 miles and 1000 feet below us to the East.

We found a spring a mile down the trail and gulped up the sweet waters. No wonder they build the town on this side of the mountain! Spring water!

We limped into Summerhaven 8 hours and 20.5 miles after we began and hunched down at the local bar and grill. I ordered a large coke, wrap and fries. Jess the same.

It was now already 4:30pm, sunset was coming in just 3 hours and we were still 14.3 miles and over five thousand feet above our stashed vehicle.

We scarfed our food and somewhat returned to life, setting off just before 5:00 pm, now along the official Arizona Trail.

This is when things got weird and awesome. Something that is difficult to explain to people who are not ultra runners took a hold me. We jogged along the Catalina paved highway the quarter mile towards the trailhead for the Oracle Ridge Trail / Arizona Trail which would take us down off the mountain range and I looked West. I could see the expansive Samaniego Ridge we had climbed that morning. I knew I had done it, but it seems so far away and impossible that it seems like we are now on a new adventure, a new day.

I’m tired, sore and hurting but also rejuvenated by the calories, water and caffeine coursing through my body. It’s a feeling of euphoria. Of accomplishment, but also of survival. I’m an animal and I’ve gotta make it off this damn mountain to live.

I’m running for my life. I’m purely in the moment and focused on the task at hand.

Nothing else really matters in this moment other than putting one foot in front of the other, drinking water to keep my systems in check and being sure to keep pace so we get out before dark.

Down and down we go…..

No picture or video or words can describe the sunset we saw, the miles we shared or blah blah blah.

If you want to know what I’m talking about, get the eff out there and just do it already.

We made the final right turn off the ridge trail and had exactly a five kilometer downhill jog to the car, but the sun had already set. The surreal pinks, oranges and reds lit up my mind like fireworks. A finale I’ve never witnessed before.

We pressed on. No lights between us, with every step we fought the impending darkness.

A funny thing happens when you are forced into a situation you don’t intend. You adapt.

Darkness envelopes the landscape.

The little bit of moonlight casts a shadow. We are literally chasing our shadows to the car and I’m singing. I feel so alive in this moment. Euphoria.

I can’t see my feet or the trail, but I can feel it. I can sense it. My body is acting with a sixth maybe seventh sense now.

And we reach the trailhead. The car is there.

 

It’s over.

 

We made it.

 

I jump for joy and explode in an incomprehensible mad chatter. I’ve either lost my mind or found it. And it doesn’t matter. We’ve done something that you just can’t experience in normal day to day life. We’ve suffered. We’ve conquered. We’ve persevered. We’ve done something worthy.

 

I used to do things like this a lot. It’s how I found myself. Who I really am inside. Moments like these really make you appreciate seemingly insignificant things like a fucking drink of water.

 

I feel I reconnected with my roots on this epic. Not my running roots. Not my outdoor roots. My human roots.

 

Life Stressors

By | Thoughts | 5 Comments

I’ve felt a bit paralyzed in recent weeks. Not able to fulfill my potential I know I have inside me as a human being. We all have an enormous amount of potential. A potential energy inside that is just that.

Potential.

There waiting to be released. I usually don’t have a problem with energy. I’m able to pour myself into a mission or a goal a hundred percent or more. When I feel a passion or fire for something, nothing will stop me from maximizing my end vision for that project.

But lately, I’ve fallen a bit flat. Stale. I’ve felt the blanket of low energy wrap itself around me and keep me in a bit of a pocket. It’s not the end of the world being in that state. More than anything its just a mind fuck. I have this large list of goals based upon that enormous potential energy within myself. I aim high.

When that potential energy is stuck at the station, unable to move forward on the tracks its pretty frustrating. Maybe counterintuitive. One might expect that the energy would just build up behind the train, eventually forcing it out into the world with a might and ferocious force.

I’ve been trying to become ever more mindful of the situation I’m in and have come to realize that this blanket that’s wrapped around me is woven together of the many unresolved and stagnant life stressors that have piled up over time. Little things that I’ve neglected here and there. While not a big deal at any give time and something that may not even take much effort to “check off the list”, become a larger problem in the context of dozens or hundreds of other little issues.

So one day this week I took out a legal pad I always have stuffed into my backpack. I tore off the several crunched up sheets on top, revealing a new sheet. A blank canvas. The perfect thing for a mind dump. Just the act of writing can be stress relieving. I’m giving a little bit of that burden to the very sheet I’m writing upon.

Within minutes I had furiously written 29 line items on the page. I ranked these just now as Small, Medium or Big ticket items. Something small might be my email inbox being overflowing. While a medium stressor is an overdue client proposal. Big ticket items on my list would be the finances of my company and some larger housing repairs that have gone to the wayside.

Of these 29 items, I categories 12 as big ticket items and another 8 as of medium concern.

No wonder I’m stressed and feel like I can’t breath!

The first step in change is awareness of the issue. Once realized, I can begin to act and I hope build some momentum. There is no better feeling than making some actual progress towards the completion of a project or task.

A completely stress free life is not possible and I personally think stress can help us to grow as humans. They can motivate and hasten positive change with the right mindset. So here’s to action and to knocking out the stressor list.

One big ticket stressor I wrote which is kind of sad was simply: “unhappy”. So here’s to realizing there’s an issue and now time for some action!

I attempted to put into words some additional feelings on this topic a few weeks back in one of my Steep Life video blog episodes:

Jamil running across a volcano with sea of clouds in background

Transvulcania 2015

By | Race Report, Thoughts | 4 Comments

I don’t recall when I first head about the Transvulcania Ultramarathon, but I was immediately drawn to it. The name alone envokes a challenge of epic proportions. The crossing of an entire volcanic island on trail is not an easy task, let alone when the race touches two seas, accumulates close to 14,000 feet of climbing and topping out near 8,000 feet along the way. Mix in an exotic location in the Canary Islands off the coast of Western Africa and I was sold.

The main ridge of the island of La Palma

The main ridge of the island of La Palma

The 73 Kilometer ultra version of the race kicked off this year’s Skyrunner World Series which helps attract some of the top talent in the sport. The dramatic starting line was electric with loud classic rock music reverberating into the pre-dawn darkness near a lone lighthouse on the southern tip of the island all while winds whipped around and waves crashed hard into sheer volcanic cliffs. I took my place near the front of the field in anticipation of almost 2,000 runners set to race a scant 200 meters to the awaiting single track trail. I couldn’t help but feel the excitement and tried to soak up the experience as hundreds of headlamps illuminated the scene.

IMG_3605

Starting line of the 2015 Transvulcania

Start line with teammate Catlow Shipek

Start line with teammate Catlow Shipek

The start was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in an ultra. Instantly, the entire field was set into a forward moving frenzy of arms and legs. I couldn’t see my feet or really anything other than a few feet directly in front of me. I held my arms out to feel for other runners and keep my balance as we sprinted up a short hill before a hard dog leg right around the lighthouse. Two quick turns and we were heading directly up to the trail. It was pure mayhem as runners jockeyed for position, not wanting to get stuck behind a long train of people heading up into the cinders.

I settled in about 100 runners deep, not wanting to get too excited this early. I began a mix of running and power hiking my way up the winding trail. The trail was wide enough for two and snaked its way up through volcanic sand and gravel, crossing the only winding paved road that makes it this far South on the island. Settling into a pace with Montana’s Kristina Pattison, I tried to keep things really easy and for the most part it was. We reached a flatter dirt road section suitable for running and soon Colorado’s Brendan Trimboli passed me looking strong and fluid. A short grunt up some switchbacks brought us to the town of Los Canarios where a party was awaiting us.

The entire town was out on the streets blasting music at 6:45 in the morning, cheering wildly and giving high fives to all the runners. Such a cool experience. This got me pumped up and I was jump started to maintain a running pace through the steep winding streets. We soon hit a trail that instantly gave way to an amazing pine forest and first light. We’d already climbed close to 3,000 feet at this point but I knew we likely had at least 4,000 to go in this initial ridge climb to the top of the island. The entire first climb features deep sand and volcanic cinders that give way with each step. It is extremely frustrating and requires extra effort and energy. The sunrise hit us along this next section and it was nothing short of spectacular. The bright orange sun peeked above the clouds as we weaved in and out of trees over 4,000 feet above the ocean with views of Teide peak on Tenerife Island.

Jamil running across a volcano with sea of clouds in background

Sunrise on La Palma (Photo: Jordi Saragossa)

Kristina Pattison cruising at sunrise

Kristina Pattison cruising at sunrise

I tried to keep pace with Kristina throughout this section, but she was a beast! I had to resort to hiking to keep my systems in check and not overdo it. We still had a long way to go. The trail weaved up and around many cinder cones and the views were amazing in all directions. I wish I had more time and energy to devote to soaking up and remembering all that I was seeing. After many false summits, we finally topped out and began the fun descent into the El Pillar aid station. We were deep into a pine forest at this point and the aid station was packed with screaming fans and crews.

I jogged through and was looking forward to being on the only part of the course I previewed ahead of race day, a 3 mile section of dirt road where I hoped to cruise. As I turned off the short asphalt section onto dirt, Anna Frost appeared and after a quick hello decided to join me for about a mile. We chatted about Hardrock coming up so soon and how we both needed to “get in shape” quick. I was moving forward ok through this section and knew I would need to fill all my bottles at the next aid station since there would be about 7.5 miles to the next aid which was half way around the exposed caldera section of the race. Temperatures were rising and even though we were up high, the sun was brutal.

Bryon Powell was at that aid station and commented “Doesn’t get much better than this” as he snapped a photo. I looked at the ocean on both sides of the ridge and the caldera ahead and agreed. This next climb up to the rim of the caldera was quite challenging for me. I started to feel the effects of the heat on my body and climbing on my legs. I watched as a lot of runners pulled away from me as I tried my best to keep an honest hike going. It was through this section that the lead marathon runners who had started at El Pillar began to pass by me. I finally topped out along the rim of Caldera and was a bit taken back by the time into the race. I was going much slower than I imagined at this point.

Coming into El Reventon at 28K (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

Coming into El Reventon at 28K (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

The caldera was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in an ultra. The trail generally follows the outside of the rim, climbing up and down along ridges and cliffs. Once in a while we run right along the edge and can peer down into several thousand foot drop offs that lead right into the inner basin. I’m pretty sure it took me the better part of half the race to make my way all the way around this thing! Things were getting rough for may along this section as a water stop that was part of the race last year went missing, meaning a lot of runners ran out. Even with my 2 liters through this section, I went dry the last 20 minutes. I actually caught Timmy Parr here and shared a little of my reserve with him as he had been out for well over an hour.

I hit the next aid station and soaked my whole body in water, a ritual that continued all the way to the finish. At this aid station we could finally see the top of the climb and high point of the race at the Los Muchachos aid station off in the distances. I made my way around and actually passed a few runners at this point. As I entered the aid station all I wanted was Coca Cola and chips. With no chips to be found (really?!?!) I had to settle for a big bowl of pasta which was actually quite welcome at this point.

Running atop La Palma. (Photo: Ivan Briones)

Running atop La Palma. (Photo: Ivan Briones)

From the high point I knew we would have to descend all the way to the sea meaning an almost 8,000 foot downhill. I’d heard stories of this being extremely steep and technical. I was envisioning the descent starting right away, but it was quite drawn out. After a few miles of generally down hill but rolling single track, I was still at 7,000 feet and now beginning to be quite frustrated. I just wanted to get down to the beach! Soon the steep descent began and I kept an eye on my altimeter as the feet melted away. The trail was quite techincal, expecially for how I was feeling at the time.

With about 3,000 feet to go we began criss crossing through grape fields and hillside neighborhoods. Local residents were out in full force with running hose water to cool us off and other unexpected refreshments. So cool to have them take part in the race! With 2,000 feet to go we entered some nasty steep asphalt sections running through banana plantations. I was soon happy to dip below 1,000 feet to go where I could see the deep blue water of the sea and hear the music pumping from Tezacorte beach directly below the cliff I was running down. After several dozen switchbacks I was there and so happy to be making my way through the final aid station. This doubled as the marathon finish and it was crazy with lots of cheering spectators and additional excitement.

Beach

1000 feet below me is the beaches of Tezacorte and the 68K aid station.

We were led down to the beach and then up a dry river bed and through a slot canyon. Looking up to the top of the Caldera towering almost 8,000 feet above it was reminicent of my running down in the Copper Canyon of Mexico. The combination of heat, river bed and vertical cliffs above were impressive. I knew there was still 1,000 feet of climb up to the finish in the town of Los Llanos and I watched my altimiter slowly creep up. After 2 miles we climbed out of the river bed and up a series of steep switchbacking roads to the outskirts of Los Llanos. I was in really rough shape at this point and just wanted to be done. I had a rock in my shoe that I refused to stop to take out that really added to my unpleasantness. Walking at this point was impossible with the hoards of cheering fans lined up in front of restaurants and kids looking for high fives. I grimaced and tried my best to wave and greet all of the kids.

Two quick turns and the finish was finally just ahead. I ran down the red carpet and crossed the line in 10 hours 7 minutes. Not exactly the result I was looking for on this day especially since I felt like I ran as hard as I could. I was greeted at the finish by Chris Vargo and most of the American contingency who was still hanging out at the finish.

The finish! (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

The finish! (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

Most of the American contingency. (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

Most of the American contingency. (Photo: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell)

All in all it was an incredible experience to run and finish Transvulcania. The course is absolutely incredible from start to finish and highlights the entire island along the way – not only its scenery, but its towns, people, culture and industry.

Loop 4 Demons on Indian Knob – Barkley Marathons 2015 Part 1

By | Race Report, Thoughts | 2 Comments

I woke up frozen. I was shivering and unaware of how long I’d been out.

Where was I? I couldn’t move or feel my feet. Everything was soaked. My clothing, the ground, the air itself. As I turned on my headlamp to look out from where I lay, a dense fog permeated the the beam of light piercing through the eerie night. Was this a dream? If I just closed my eyes would I wake up?

No. This wasn’t a dream…. but a living nightmare. I was losing my mind and sleeping away loop 4 of the Barkley Marathons. I was defeated and huddled under a large overhanging boulder that was providing a meager amount of shelter from the rain and cold moving in on me like tidal waves.

In the previous 3 hours I had moved a scant 1/2 mile and yet to collect my 3rd page from the top of Indian Knob. I simply couldn’t stay awake and alternated from napping while laying against a tree, sitting down to snooze, to just plain falling asleep face down on rocks… all the while the skies rained down upon me. I simply didn’t care and couldn’t pull myself together mentally to get up this climb.

Rewind another five hours and I had left camp around 10:00pm. I had completed my second consecutive Barkley Fun Run, this one 7 hours faster than last year and I had a 90 minute buffer before the 36 hour cutoff by the time I left camp for loop 4. I was fired up and ready to go after the full 5 loops. I was a man on a mission. I bolted out of camp at a jogging pace, into new territory. I was the lone wolf taking on the much respected and feared loop 4. A place only few have seen but many have lost their mind. Many 5 loopers have said that loop 4 is the crux. Going through the second night with no sleep leaves the mind vulnerable and primed for error. I didn’t think much about this as I headed up the first climb up over Rough Ridge. I was alert, hiking strong, even running the flatter sections of trail. I had sweet caffeine running through my veins and I was ready to unleash my “late in the game ultra surge” on the Barkley. After all, I’ve had a string of great comebacks in my ultra career and this could be my finest yet…

Heading up towards Chimney Top, I crested the ridge where we make the final ascent up to the Capstones and was met with a ferocious wind howling and ripping through the trees. I knew rain was in the forecast, but this was sending fears of last year’s challenging weather all the way through my bones. I had been enjoying the dry course and now feared for the worst. A 4th loop mud slog would not help me now. I almost missed the turn to the first book, but recognized my mistake 10 feet past the trail. I made my way across the ridge top and ripped out my first page of loop 4 and taking my bearing, headed down towards the Birch Tree. There was no turning back now – in my mind I was committed to Loop 4 at this point.  I wanted to just be efficient and nail my navigation of this section, one of the most difficult on the course (the nighttime reverse loop 4 is historically difficult for the few that reach this point). Terrain is less familiar, and the way ridges fan out going down hill, if you pick the wrong one in dark, you may end up a half mile from your intended point.

I knew at some point going down Big Hell I’d have to veer left onto one of the long finger ridges in order to hit the correct confluence of streams where I would find book 2 in this direction. I lost some time here since I didn’t quite have a gauge of where to turn left (I didn’t have a discernible landmark in my mind, but still found the book without wandering around too much. I reached book 2 right around midnight and felt like I probably lost some time here. I was a little hard on myself and let the small mistake get to me mentally. I tore out my page and knew I had to cross the stream above the confluence and then find the old jeep trail. I stuck a little too close to the river at first, but then found a small narrow path that led to a wider trail that began to climb. I went over a couple of downed trees and was on a very clear path.

Then things started to get weird. I was climbing steeply now and the “jeep road” was now very narrow. The river was now a hundred feet or more below me to the right. This didn’t seem right. I seemed to be WAY above the river and there were thundering waterfalls below me. But I had only been going a few minutes up the trail past the confluence. I had recalled from loop 1 (descending down this way from the opposite direction) that I had chosen a path too high and I ended up seeing the Abbs  & company way down below me. I thought I was somehow back on that path and no longer on the jeep trail. I though the jeep trail paralleled the river and that meant I was definitely off path. The flow of water also just seemed too great. Had I already reached the “waterfalls” which were a sure sign that I should have turned off on a side stream then I should be making my way directly up hill. I was now full on second guessing myself although I had most definitely crossed the stream at the right spot after the 2nd book and then found the correct “jeep road” almost immediately. My mind was tricking me. Barkley was doing what it does best.

I pulled out my map and compass and this only further confused me. I now believed I may not even be following the correct stream. I could be anywhere in this giant dark bowl. I decided to back track. I went all the way down to the river confluence at book 2 and then up again to where the jeep trail crosses the creek above the confluence – the part where we aren’t supposed to go because it was much easier than the “correct” route. I now knew I had to be on the right path (which I was on the entire time). I again went up and the trail again steeply climbed WAY above the stream below. As I went higher I again looked down to see thundering waterfalls. I simply don’t remember ever seeing these before this low down on the trail. I had confirmed I was on track but now I didn’t know how high to go before cutting across the stream. I began to doubt I was even on the right stream again. Maybe I had taking another confluence. No I just double checked myself. My mind was wasting away. How would I ever climb up the right slope and how would I find the top of Indian Knob? It was pitch black and I knew it would start to rain soon. I recognized now how tired I was. I sat down for a minute and set a watch alarm for 10 minutes. I would try to clear my head. I nodded off and when I heard my alarm, I “snoozed” it. But it didn’t go off again. I woke up 45 minutes later. Shit.

Time I couldn’t afford to lose. I didn’t feel any more alert or that I knew any better if I really was on track. I don’t quite recall if I napped again here or if I pressed on. Eventually I though I reached the correct spot to cross the creek since the jeep road had now come back close to the water at a higher elevation. I vaguely recognized a part of the creek where I could easily rock hop and thought I saw a familiar “trail” or set of footprints. It was here that it started to rain.

It was light at first but I pulled out my rain jacket. Then I laid down. I was sleepy still. Just a few minutes. I woke up to rain coming down and I was soaked. I don’t know how long I slept, but I stumbled to my feet and began climbing. I knew I had to go up and I then confirmed I had crossed the stream at the proper spot. I just need to follow my bearing and I would make it to the top of Indian Knob and be able to find book 3. But I was so tired. I lay face down on a rock. It was raining. I didn’t care. I was warm from the effort of climbing and already soaked. I slept for some time until my body heat dispersed. I stumbled to my feet again and repeated this process until the fog began to roll in and I reached the small trail that traverses across below the Indian Knob capstones. I made my way over but the cold and sleepiness would not relinquish their grip. I succumbed to their immense pressure and found a nice overhanging rock to get out of the cold. It was here I fell into a deep sleep curled up on the cold damp earth. When I awoke my feet were frozen and the fog of defeat had closed in around me. Now in survival mode and desperate to get warm, I pulled out my space blanket and wrapped it tightly around myself hoping for the best. The next thing I remember is waking up to the light of the morning and my loop 4 failure. I knew instantly it was over. The Barkley had won.