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A few thoughts on suffering, human and otherwise …

Mike Baker, June 7, 2012

North Face Endurance Challenge, Washington DC: 06/02/12

A note: Keith Gates and I went up to Virginia to race in the North Face Endurance Challenge. He was racing in the 50 miler and I was doing a leg of the marathon relay with Neil Stout who, along with Stephanie née Barraco, was moving to DC in June. Keith, by the way, ran a Western States qualifying sub 10 hour race.)

Keith and I were sitting in the back of Keith’s rented Dodge Avenger and I was drunk. Keith had just finished running a 50 mile race in under 10 hours and then had a big dinner with beers. He wasn’t so much drunk as exhausted. Somewhere along the way, between one DC suburb and the next, I looked over at Keith who was now asleep except that he looked waxy and too still. I thought, Keith might just be dead. You know, like one of those famous pedestrian runners who leaned against a tree to take a nap mid epic run, put a hanky over his face and that’s where they found him three days later. Dead like that. I thought, I’m pretty tired and then nodded off myself. There is some precedent for this though. One night I woke up with horrible chest pain. I thought, I must be having a heart attack but then I thought, I’m too tired to deal with this. I’ll deal with it in the morning if I wake up. Don’t feel bad Keith. I’m kind of lazy with my own mortality. So there’s that.

A few days later I’m in the Holocaust museum. It was all too much. I mean, imagine a super rich chocolate cake where instead of chocolate its misery and suffering. One mouthful is too much. The only thing that my mind could hold onto was some film footage of a man getting dragged away. I watch his feet kicking out from under him and I could see his terror. It wasn’t wild and flailing. It was a cold helpless panic where you just let go enough to let yourself fall. Like, he knew how dead he was and so couldn’t barely muster a fight but put one up as if he might be ashamed not to fight. No one helped him. I wonder if he would have wanted that knowing that it would have doomed them as well. So there’s that.

Lastly, this morning there was a broken contorted dead squirrel in the road. Someone killed him with their car. I felt like I might as well have done that. I decided on the spot that I had to find a way to give up meat, to give up my share of that suffering being made and tossed into the world. So there is that.

I saw this movie once where a former slave trader goes to the place he gathered slaves and makes himself a slave to man who had himself been enslaved. The former slave makes the former slave trader carry this enormous burden up a mountain. It’s a herculean task. It almost kills him. They, the former slave trader and the man, the former slave, get to the top of the mountain and the former slave takes the burden and throws it off the mountain. The former slave trader goes to retrieve it and bring it back up the mountain even though, by their agreement, his debt was paid because in his eyes, the slave trader, it might never be repaid.

Running is like that for me. It is the puny measure of payment I offer back to life for the bad I have done. And there was Keith, asleep or dead next to me and I thought, “Well if he’s dead then he’s at peace with his sins and all life’s burden but if he’s just sleeping, waking him will only bring it all back to light and I would not want to see that light at the end of 50 miles of trying to pay back my debt.”

There is So Very Little of Man in Where We Go
Bad Marsh 50k, 06/23/12

Mike Baker, July 11, 2012

It is always the last quarter mile of a 5k that matters most. The rest of the race is just what got you there. It is in that final quarter mile that we decide who we are going to be. It is the last lap of the race that makes any sense of the whole blessed thing. This is true of all races. It was most true at the Bad Marsh 50k.

We live two lives.

There is the world we are married in, the job world, the home world. And then there is the running world. I have always felt like the running world was the dream. I mean to say, and maybe you won’t agree, but there is something very different and at odds with reality about the space of time we spend running through the woods in the early morning or in the evening. We push with our bodies but we also push our minds, we empty out all measured thought and replace it with the hurried speech that follows hurried breathing, we are drained of oxygen and soon our thoughts start crumbling into moments and then we are left empty and moving.  

It is maybe only afterward that we find ourselves doing this, trying to get it down to make sense of it all.

Something has changed for me though. Between all the necessary things I have crammed into my day, I have come to see that world, the job, the restaurants, the driving in a hot car on a hot day, all of that is like a dream now. It just passes between runs through the woods. I think it has always been that way. I was just afraid of what it meant.

There is a dream theory that says our dreams are our minds processing the details of the day. The mish mash, the wild start and stop of details are just our minds putting things together the best way they can. These are the engines behind who we really are, not who we want to be. These engines shift the plates of detail together, smashing continents of meaning against other great masses and these things change the two landscapes, build mountains and gauge rivers.

I don’t want to wax poetic, it’s just I need to explain how I imagine dreams work so as to say, if the world I live in is the dream to the world I run in, than all my thoughts, my efforts are a just reflection of what I saw and did on the trail.

I say all of this to explain how stuck I’ve felt lately, everything around me moving, while I watched it unable to piece together what happened in Beaufort.  

I ran a 50k in SC, 7 laps around a 4.5 mile loop in the dark but with less than half way through the race to go, I quit. They offered me a medal. It seems that all you had to do was run one lap and you got a t-shirt and a medal but I waved them off, puked in the bushes and then found a place to think, call some family and sink into overheated slumped and lonely gloom.

The facts: I ate a pork sandwich for lunch that day; I sat out in the heat for 4 hours before the race. I didn’t bring the right gear, the right food, I ran too hard for the first 12 miles. It’s all garbage I tell myself before I pony up to the idea of quitting and then getting real drunk watching everyone else race through the night. Once you realize that you can quit, the chair, the cooler full beer and the shady tree are figuratively and, in this case, literally, just a few steps away.

And if this were all that happened that night, it would be like so many other races, so many other people have had.  This would not be a story worth repeating.

It was dark and, like I said, I was drunk – on Gary’s 6th lap - when he rolled in to the start/finish and needed someone to keep him moving for the last lap, that someone being me - the whole night turned around.

Speed walking in the dark while intoxicated is not for the faint of heart. It takes a stout imagination and a fearless gut. Gary was desperate in that way that only a long distance runner can be desperate, completely unaware of how powerfully they’re moving completely convinced that they are on the very precipice of their own demise.

He had the same nausea I had had two hours earlier except his was wrapped in ingenuity. We stumbled and rambled for an hour or so, passed other ramblers straggling in to the finish or the next lap. I was a pilgrim again, as we indecent shambling wrecks stiff-legged it across the finish line. He had saved us both. 

We had planned on camping out on the course that night after the race but we both agreed leaving was best done in the dark with the real and imaginary dogs barking us out of the woods. The night drifted on and we finally parked the car beside highway 17, next to a gentlemen’s’ club and tried to sleep.  

That last time past the finish, they had offered me the medal, I took it, not to wear but to remember what I had been given. I would need some proof of its ever happening. The next sticky morning I would have to shower off the dirt, greet my wife and talk to people who would not ever make sense of the night before. They were after all, just the confused and muddled gadgets my mind’s storeroom used to make sense of everything that really matters.

It was the best lap of the race. It was the only lap that mattered.

The Kingdom of My Running

Mike Baker, September 11, 2012

This morning, and perhaps only this morning, I can say with all certainty that I am blessed. It is true I have been injured, over taxed and overdrawn on my most of my accounts. I have not raced well or fought enough. My training has been washy at best this last month, a strange mix of going out too hard and underwhelming myself to the point that some might have asked, “Is that it?” It is at that moment when many people quit. We runners are not those people.

I just hate to say I over trained. I mean that was the effect but I’d rather think I had some fun like maybe a bender is fun until you realize it’s been three days since you knew where you left your trousers and shoes. It was fun to run a lot this summer and I already miss the company, the trails and the struggle. There was something important about coming up through the single track, up that hill toward the soccer fields. We were done with the hardest miles the trail had to offer and there was the bike wash and seemingly ice cold water fountain.

When we got that far, I knew we had done something but there were two more miles to go and every time, no matter how hard our legs were worn, we hammered it just because it was there and it always seemed to me like that section of trail just needed a whooping. Dana is fond of calling steep downhill stretches screamers. That last bit had the only uphill screamer I’d ever met. I took it as a personal challenge, like that little hill was calling me out, to not just sprint up it but keep going like the Devil himself was at my heels.

It’s like this: I can run long and long and long all day long but eventually there is always that same inevitable always. I have come to understand that I am not so much an engineer as a basement tinkerer. I can take the clock apart but getting it back together again is a very uncertain thing. I was running 35 mile a week - the track and a long run and maybe fifteen miles of junk to keep my legs warm. That got me to 21 minutes in the 5k. I started racing every weekend for months and that got me to sub 21 and then the always happened.

A bad hamstring begat a bum knee that begat a nebulous posterior chain injury that begat ITB in the other leg. That chain of stupid exists between this year’s Run for the Cookies and this very morning. I think I’m on the upswing finally but it meant walking to a very lonely place because, if I want to survive myself, it hard for me to train all the time with the people I love the most. We literally bring out the worst in each other. It is the thing I love about them, about us. We run like dogs. We will run ourselves into the mud for the sheer joy of it all.

I am safer running with the fitness crowd and only showing up once and a while to negotiate the past and I am safer to know at a distance. Frankly, I am saying I am better off running alone most of the time. It is the only way to save myself. I cannot run 60 plus miles a week in the midst of my current life. I cannot run without water or food. I cannot run with the constancy of effort of some of those I love. There are days when all I need is a few slow miles on the trail to remember who I am and forget all that is asked of me.

Today I ran with Charles and Dave. Charles will be fast someday and Dave will simply always be a good guy to keep company with. We ran four very pleasant miles together and then I ran six more alone. My ITB hurt and my calves were sore. Those last six miles were more like an early morning dream, slow and deliberate. It wasn’t until the last hill, a mile long double track that increases its pitch as you climb, that my feet needed to move fast and loose. It was like this summer running Miller’s Landing when we’d sprinted up to the hill top and Gate B.

It felt like the hill was pleading with me to run harder. It was scooping me up in its loving arms, cooing to me, “You were born to run fast right at this very moment.” It was as if the hill were headed down and not up. The faster I ran, the steeper the pitch, the easier it became. I couldn’t hear my breathing or my foot fall or even feel my heart beat. I passed the church at the hill top and swept over the hill’s crest. Even gravity had fallen away.

I ran down the hill with my arms spread, lost in a swoon. The sun had finally come up and was burning away the dew and the fog. And as I ran the last half mile, the sound of cars and trucks and all of life’s pettiness and minutia swarmed in front of me like a joke that only I got. There are these moments in really long races when I have come in to the finish line. It’s right there in front of me, the gate and the clock and all my friends and I wish sometimes to just curve slightly to the left and miss the whole damn thing and just keep running.

The Big Dog Backyard Last Man Standing Endurance Race
Bell Buckle, TN - 10/20/12

Mike Baker, November 8, 2012

On 10/20 I ran the Big Dog Backyard Last Man Standing Endurance Race where the goal was to be the last person to DNF on a 4 mile loop. I DNF’d on my 9th loop with a total of 33 qualified miles plus 4 miles for the loop I DNF’d on.)

I heard a story about a soldier in World War I who was buried under debris so that only his hand stuck out. Other soldiers marching or walking by would shake his hand, one might imagine, as a morbid play with Mrs. Death herself.  And it is when I am asked to explain the long distance runner’s mind that I tell this story.

The Big Dog started us out for a ¼ mile out and back on the road. Laz, the Race Director, said it was to winnow the pack or cull the herd. I was so far back on my ninth lap, coming back over the hill, I pantomimed cutting my own throat and blowing out my own brains, to a cheering crowd of already DNF’d runners.

It seems they had all bet against my going out again. It wasn’t a slight against me. It is just when you’re laid so bare by fatigue, there is no room for lying even if you are so inclined as to make the effort to lie. I would have taken the bet. I would have bet more against myself.

I say that but it’s also where the screw turns. It is one thing to say your Daddy is a drunk but it is an altogether different thing, a  haymaker thrown into the side of someone’s head kind of thing when someone else calls him a drunk.

And it is here that I invoke the dead soldier’s hand. I had to go back out. I knew I wouldn’t finish in time. I knew it would be a miserable pitiful effort. That is the point. Nothing mattered up until that lap. Each of the successful laps was just that, four miles a running, nothing more and nothing less.

We wish to be the lean straining warrior, arms and face raised to God breaking through the tape as crowds cheer but we are mostly fore-defeated and fighting to hang on for just one more moment after another, shaking the Devil the loose from our heels.

The Big Dog trail consisted of a series of 50 foot limestone rises and stump laden drops, a few ¼ mile hills, one or two bogs and a few rocky flats which, by the time I found them on lap nine, they were barely safe for me to shuffle across.

I remember hitting the halfway point on that last lap thinking, “I just have 2 miles to go. If I can just dig in, I could fight through two 10 minute miles and finish under the clock before Laz rings that damnable cowbell  and  the whole thing starts over again.”

And then full stopping against a tree to catch my breath, knowing how impossible it all was, I started looking at the weird green orb-like nameless fruit that Laz said probably taste real good but you’d be too dead to notice.

You shake the dead man’s hand because you know you’re headed toward the same empty finish, the great forgetting. You shake his hand and go on, bounding down a craggy switch back trail and hopefully you are singing some hoarse boorish song to entertain the trees, birds and worms.

I have ciphered this long and hard. There is that moment when you find yourself in the piney wood and all is still. You do not trust the trail blazes to lead you forward and you do not hear the other runners behind you.

A quick sharp winter breeze blows through and draws out of your chest with the breath you saved in stopping. Look down at the trail and see the spot the Devil dug his thumb into the dirt to cut this trail and know that he meant for you to run through fire.

This is the moment you are at your best. This is the moment God intended you to have. There are two more miles to go before you find the road again and you can say that you are finished. This is where you shake the hand, start to move again and go to work Dead-Man, go to work.

The TUDC 50M and the Tannenbaum 6K

Mike Baker, December 2012

For Greta, a blue merle cattle dog, and the all the runners who cannot run but still fight

(I ran the TUDC 50 miler last weekend and the last 12 miles were the hardest miles to run. It wasn't because they were 12 miles further than I have ever run. It was because the course empties out as runners spread with miles between them, and even if you have someone pacing you, there is no one on the road to compete with. You must do battle with yourself.)

No one tells you that the week after your race will be harder than running the actual race.

Everything from the waist down felt like it had been in a car wreck so that walking hurt, bending over to pick anything up was impossible, and sitting down, even at the most necessary times, was Herculean in scope.

The head cold I thought was done the week before the race, turned into chest congestion and my kidney, on the left side, started to hurt intermittently. (I would later discover it wasn't my kidney but a muscle I had pulled before the race but had forgotten about, as the above mentioned agony of perambulation would make getting punched in the face feel pretty darn good.)

And now, stopped in my car at traffic lights, I burst into tears at the thought of my late beloved mother, world hunger or the color red. That's right. It was an awfully poignant shade of red. Don't judge. No one understood what I'd been through.

If you tell most people you ran a race, they are amazed. They don't even need to know the distance. It is simply the idea that you exerted effort. Their eyes glaze over when you tell them it was 50 miles. Most humans you will meet at the mall have no idea how to visualize walking 50 miles, let alone running 50 miles.

You have officially done something insane and from here forward they simply find you amusing like a great uncle that believes he's still storming the beach at Normandy. I'm trying to be funny but the truth is that is horrible.

You are as alone as Gregor Samsa and possibly as reviled and, oh yeah, everything hurts. I can take one thing going wrong. Sometimes I can handle two. Three, however, seems to be my limit. I say this knowing full well that I am whining. There are far worse things in life than these petty grievances.

The next Saturday found me volunteering as a car parker at the Tannenbaum 6k. Judy had offered me a free race bib in lieu, I imagine, of a better job at the race. I was the guy in the field waving cars toward David Yon and crew who were actually parking them down in the field.

I had not yet decided to race. I hadn't run successfully all week. All my running partners had refused to even take my phone calls knowing full well I would beg them to run. I wanted to at least jog this thing. I just couldn't make up my mind.

Herb had been bull horning out directions all morning: "Don't fold your bib; it's also your timing chip! This is the second annual running of the Tannenbaum 6k!" He was calling out the time to start informing all the racers of how sharp the race would be starting. I had been stretching the whole time.

Four minutes before the race started, I sprinted to the registration table, barely filled out a form and raced to the start a quarter mile away. The sight was breathtaking: 182 runners lined up cross country style facing me like a battle line ready to charge.

I panicked a moment like our boys at Antietam must have panicked, that vicious fear those boys must have felt, to an obviously much lesser degree, all the same caught up in the thrill of having to decide what I would do. I hadn't planned on racing today. I had not even planned to run.

Here I was now standing on the very same line, my legs hurting, my chest hurting, all the sorrow and rage of feeling cheated somehow by no one else understanding what I had done the previous weekend. And then the race started.

I would like to tell you how I shot like a rocket off the line but that isn't what happened. I loped out slow and gingerly as the pack spread out and then disappeared. I have paced a few recovering runners lately so I have been in the back but this time it was with no good reason except that I felt puny and a little unloved.

It hurts the legs to run slowly and it hurts the heart. I cannot say where it was when it happened. I think maybe a mile into the race, when I could not stand myself anymore. My own shadow, disgusted with my effort, had even abandoned me. Here were all these runners, most of them giving their all, and I was not.

This is all I can say about why I started sprinting. It was glorious: full legged strides, wide open and effortless. It hurt like hell but who cares. I passed runner after runner after runner until I found that one runner I could not pass. Try as I might, I just had not a thing left to do but hang on.

I came in at 30 minutes and change, a decent tempo run if that's what it had been, but no great race. Those facts are irrelevant though. For the first time in a week I did not feel alone. For the first time in week, I hurt but didn't care. I was a runner again.

I had a dog once when had been chained to a tree until I got her. She stood stock still all the time. One day at the dog park, I have never known why, a pack of dogs ricocheted passed her and there was a flinch and a stutter and then her legs sprung her into the field. She had remembered she was a dog.

I told my friend Eric who had raced the Tannenbaum about doing the 50 miler which he already knew about, and he replied, "Who told you do that?" All my pleading about giving me slack because I had run 50 miles the week before were met with, "So? That's not my fault."

There is no one as heartless as a runner who's beaten you even if it is a friend. Much thanks and gratitude to everyone who beat me at the Tannenbaum. You saved me. That said, we have a whole new season starting in January and y'all better watch your backs because I'm coming and I'm bringing a can a whoop ass with me.

Doing the dance is better than sitting it out:

Whispering Pines 50k - 02/03/13

Mike Baker, February 2013

We all get so hung up, sometimes, on knowing the course so that we might understand what's being expected of us, know what we'll have to do to say when we're finished. It is a shame we care at all. Runners are worse than those boys who put boats in bottles, if people still do that sort of thing, because putting a man-o-war in a bottle is perhaps slightly more meaningful.

The man-o-war in the bottle has some sort of historical significance. You can say, look at my man-o-war in a bottle. It fought at the battle of (insert any 18th century sea battle). We can say we ran and then we're immediately asked, what were you running from? Bears? The police?

I like to say that I am running from my mother-in-law who is most certainly, out there somewhere, stalking me, like the dark angel of my demise but more likely I run for some innate reason that relates to our genetic programming but I am secretly afraid it doesn't matter.

If it is some deep seated child-like imperative to play, to be free, then it is a form of madness akin to your great uncle Lenny out in the streets of his neighborhood fighting Germans house to house in Stalingrad. I say, so be it.

The human race is fraught with madness. Running is harmless compared to the real insanities we are capable of but it is, at its best, an irrational desire to do completely unnecessary thing for reasons not ever worth trying to explain. We run.

Last weekend I went to Dade City and saw some old friends from college. A quiet evening rehashing past glory turned into a full blown house party with a fire pit, 2 or 3 fist fights and many declarations of love ended with the ubiquitous phrase, “I swear it isn't the beer talking”. When I woke up at 4am, they were still drinking as I was headed off to run a 50k in nearby Inverness.

The race was a disaster. The course was unmarked which didn't matter much since we weren't permitted to use the park and were asked to hide our race numbers. I ran six laps progressively slower and slower, being pretty much inebriated when I got there. I ran with everyone who showed up that day (26 runners or so).

I ran with a few fast people from Tampa and two brothers from Mexico. I can't say that any of them ran the exact course but they ran it fast. I ran with two guys who were running their first ultra. They beat me by the way. They were not drunk. I ran with the Frenchman that did win. I think he was drunk.

It was like a Keystone movie, everyone running in weird mixed up circles, crossing paths occasionally to ask which way was the right way and no one really caring what the actual answer might be.

My second to last lap was walked with three ultra-runners in their 70's. We didn't even power walk. We moseyed. It was so nice. I heard my favorite quote, “Sometimes the Devil is right, not because he is the Devil but because he is old. And he's the Devil”. Jerry, one of the 70 year olds had run his last Ironman a few years before. They were so sweet.

I ran the last lap with a lady who was, to say the least, a might bit peeved by the circumstances of the race. She was mad at her friends for dragging her there. She was mad at the RD for the enormous catastrophe of the event. She was a little mad at me for being guilted into running one more lap. I think she missed the point. I think she would say the same about me.

I would have run the lap anyhow. It doesn't take much goading to get me to do things like that. I love running. My wife says I'm just too dull to ask why but she qualifies it by saying I was dumber in my 20's. We ran 31 miles, pretty much, and called it a day.

There was medal but it was more like a sea shell you pick up at the beach. It isn't the ocean but it reminds you of the pretty girl you saw, the way the cold water felt on your legs, the blown out feeling you had all day afterward and into the next morning.

I run because I can't think of anything else to do that will get my friends to show up on the regular and listen to me pontificate about running. I run because I own three pairs of running shoes and what else would I do with them.

Yesterday, on that ambling mess of a run, my running partner told me about this ten mile trail in Quincy. It's all gnarly greasy single track. I can't stop running it in my head because I just want it to be next Tuesday. I just want to run.

The Barkley Months: The Joys of Ignominious Failure and Hypothermia

Mike Baker, April 30, 2013

Why I’m Proud to be an American or my submission to get into the Barkley Marathons

December 24st, 2012

You have to write a haiku about Barkley to even get onto the mailing list to send the letter requesting a chance to run Barkley. They made me write five. This is the one they finally accepted: “Death is how James Earl/Ray escaped Brushy Mountain/Lucky dumb bastard”

Mr. Lake,

When America fails, she fails on the grandest scale.

I do not mean this as a criticism. It is our legacy and our gift. Our greatest failures sit right next to our boldest successes: the Constitution, Neil Armstrong walking on the surface of the Moon, the American Standard flush toilet.

We thought Little Big Horn was a good idea. We added roller skate wheels to our children’s sneakers and patently refuse to believe they need helmets. We elected George W. Bush twice. Whether you loved or hated the man, we’re optimists.

My high school physics teacher was a man named Kurt Van Luew. He had been one of the finalists for the teacher in space program and when they had the Challenger launch, they flew him and the other eight finalists to Cape Canaveral to watch it explode.

I have often wondered how conflicted he must have been at that moment. Not getting into the space program had to hurt but boy oh boy did he dodge a bullet but everyone in the universe remembers Christa McAuliffe and no one but me remembers Kurt Van Luew.

Barkley is the most American race in America. It is the biggest, baddest way for a perfectly well trained, even mildly heroic athlete to fail on a mind bogglingly gigantic scale. It’s as if you see the giant hump-backed, bull-horned Devil slouching toward you and you don your weapons, roll up your sleeves and steadfastly refuse to run away.

The thing you have to understand about me is that when I went out for that last failed loop at Big Dog, my intention was to make the bell. When I was limping toward the half way mark with twenty minutes before the next bell, I knew I could run fast enough to finish.

This isn’t one of those “failure is when you don’t try things.” I was just dumb enough to believe I could do it. I prefer it that way. I toed the line of my first 5K, right up front on the line, looked around and thought, “I got all you saps beat.” I’m just that optimistic.

Sprinting the first one hundred meters off the line and up a hill, I bent over trying catch my breath and vomited on my shoes. I looked around and then kept running. I believed, all the way to the finish, that I still had a chance. I have been running that way ever since.
I was born to run Barkley.

I told my friend Vince that the biggest thing I having working against my getting into Barkley is that you know me. There is no getting past my limitations as an athlete. I am not the fastest, strongest or smartest.

I have heard many of the stories about Barkley failures but I would feel safe to say that if they represent most of the attempts at finishing Barkley then those who have completed the race are missing the point. Those souls who have gone all the way have in completion managed to fail miserably.

I’m not saying I plan to lose. I plan to win. I do not even understand how this will happen. Faith is like that. You see the canyon and then jump across it. You have no choice but to jump. There is no acceptable outcome but to land somehow on the other side.

I heard a story about a soldier in World War I who was buried under debris so that only his hand stuck out. Other soldiers marching or walking by would shake his hand, one might imagine, as a morbid play with Mrs. Death herself. 

This is why I should be allowed to run at the next Barkley.

Col. Potter
-------------------------

Quitter's Road: Barkley Marathons - March 30th, 2013

(We got to book two, or mile 7, that took us five hours. We spent the next 5 hours running up and down Stallion Mountain looking for Book 3. I quit 3 times before we actually quit. It took us four hours, running in the rain-soaked dark to get back to camp, three rotten dogs tapping out to instantaneous sweet release and total devastation. They played Taps for us, one rendition at a time, so that we all understood how badly it had gone.)

Mr. Lake,

This will probably beat you to Tennessee but then again this is more about how I screwed up and that is more about saying “thank you for giving me the chance to screw up”. The fact that I screwed up didn’t hurt so much until Dan Fox showed his face in the darkness, dropped off his pages and then headed out on his next lap.

You got to know I took every word you said about the race to heart and fought out the training season running up hills and through mud and briars, getting lost all day long. It’s a damn shame what they say - that we’ll often be let down by our own best efforts - but there it is.

It kept me up for a solid week worrying about what you meant, “God help them all” and “You had better be in the best physical shape of your entire life”. It just goes to show how much you meant and how little I understood.

I thought I was taking it to heart, had deliberated long enough. It’s like that scene from Red Dragon when Hannibal Lechter asks Will Graham if Will thought he caught Hannibal because he was smarter than Hannibal and Will says, “No sir, you were at a disadvantage. You were insane.”

Wanting to run Barkley is a kind of madness. I don’t mean because it’s hard but it blinds you to how hard it might actually be. It’s like the Indians who couldn’t see Columbus’ boats sitting out in their harbor.  They had no way to understand frigate. That ship and your damn race are just impossible for most folks to get.

I read everything you can read about Barkley and training as hard as I trained, I still failed to grasp Barkley’s Leviathan nature. It still baffles me, after seeing what little I saw, how anyone could get their brain around how hard things would get.

I look at all the one loop finishers, advantaged by experience or not – superior fitness or not, and take a breath to pause at their courage and will. I could dally around excuses all day but it does not change my messing up. I want to blame you or the course or anything but my own weakness.

It seems to me, we should all be prepared to go and finish. I could not even get started. It’s like the boy who jumped off the troop carrier at Omaha Beach and got blown up just getting his feet in the ocean.

He’s floating with the tide, looking up at Heaven, trying to cipher what the hell just happened and when he might have a chance to do what he came there to do. I looked around at all the athletes that came to Frozen Head and thought, Jesus, I hope he lets me back in some day.

We always imagine, humanity that is, that things will work out artfully. Our last blinking image of life won’t be the dirty polyester woven carpet strands or our pale naked selves and the water below as we fade slumped over on the john.

We expect more than that. We expect to have a moment. I reckon it’s more like Groucho Marx put it.  His grandfather was on his death bed and he looked at Groucho and said, “I really don’t have a damn thing to say.”

There is this and there is that. That is Barkley and this is me waiting out what could be the longest winter a man could know holed up with one good book to read until someone comes to find me dead or man up and boot stomp out a there.

I would like to tell you that it won’t ever happen again, that I won’t get caught that unprepared but likely this last failure is just a different take on a lifetime of poorly thought out choices. It is, in fact, the medical definition of insanity that I would hope for a different result.

 I showed my wife that picture of you and me standing together and she said you looked like a woodland creature. I wonder how she knew.

Col. Potter

Running Toward My Own Happy Oblivion: To Volstate or Not to Volstate

Mike Baker, May 15, 2013

(Advice is a funny thing. It is often what we ask for when we know what we need to do but we want someone else to confirm we’re right. It is rarely that pivotal moment when we just don’t know what to do.)

Today, I find myself in a middling place between knowing right from stupid and truly not trusting my own discernment enough to choose between the two. One road is decidedly prudent and one is foolhardy and wasteful. They’re both equally appealing.

Prudent looks like this: August  run the Hot to Trot 8 Hour Race, October run Big’s Backyard Last Man Standing, late December run a 12 or 24 hour event(depending on what happens at  the Backyard) and then in April 2014 run the Zion 100 Miler.

 I like this trajectory because it seems to build nicely: 8 hours, 12 hours, 24 hours and hundred miles. The series of races gives me time to run strong races and build for the next bigger event, a reasonable time to heal my body and mind, rest up and train. I’ve never done that before.

Foolhardy looks like this: run the Volstate 500k in July. This would be quite an adventure. I would be unaided on an impossibly long trek. This kind of ill planned ass in the wind move has brought me some of my greatest successes and worst failures but it always a good time.

This is a 500k event. There is no way to tell what shape I’ll be in at the end. This could be the end of my season, my job and my marriage. It could also be brilliant, like a birthday party where you’re kicked in the guts all day long and left for dead, assuming that was your idea of fun.

I could do all of this. Volstate does not preclude the first option. It means lowering the possibility of running well the rest of the season. Also, and this is worth mentioning, I am coming back from a mild setback involving my weekly mileage dropping  to 30 miles a week for a month.

I am so sick and tired of not running up to my potential and settling for, “Good job buddy.” I hate the sound of those words. A wolf, finding himself cornered by bears, does not take solace in “Good job buddy.” He snarls, leans back and prepares to die with his teeth around a bear’s throat.

I will likely never win but I would like to taste more bear’s blood than I have tasted lately. It’s this thought that leaves me stuck in the middle because either path leads to a glorious heroic death. My teeth hurt thinking about this.

Volstate would be grand. It represents those whimsical acts of daring that made this sport so huge in my imagination. It is a genuine go-as-you-please. It says to the world, you are all more than you might ever know. It says, I know.

On the other hand there is Manfred von Richthofen or as he is colloquially know, the Red Baron. I think when my father rooted for Darth Vader I understood it was okay to like the villain and the Red Baron was a devastating killer.

He did it by being patient and taking calculating risks. Not running Volstate would most likely guarantee my getting to Backyard strong enough to at least try myself against Marcy Beard and Joe Fejes. I am mortally afraid that Volstate means having no chance at all.

This leads me to my last complaint. I am no coward. And please do not say that no one thinks that. I think, in that bottom settled place we call our gut, that I am a coward. It is my Leviathan sitting on the horizon.

It is what waits for me if the bears grow bored and lose their appetites at the taste of my flesh. It’s why I can’t decide. My feet are stilled in the face of danger as I wait for eternity to roll its dice or toss its coin.

I know an ultra runner whose mantra is “You can’t stay here.” It is at the core of our sport. It seems to me that panic may destroy runners but indecision does something worse. The bears are tightening the circle, the birds quiet, even the Sun is waiting.

Imagine this: it is the end of a race and the runner comes in toward the finish but veers to the left just before crossing the line and heads off toward the beast in the horizon’s roiling fury, a shadow melting into the distance and then a speck and then nothing at all.

Running Along the Summer's Crooked Spine

Mike Baker, June 5, 2013

A runner stands on the road’s skinny ledge waiting for the clock, hands on hips, slouched and relaxed. A runner steps from toe to toe, prancing. Another runner tightens - turning all that was soft into warped tight spring formed to hurl him off the line.

It is already too hot to race but there is no going back. There is no walking away. The sun is up. The pack hums and sweats together, the very act of creation, 100 single parts of one organism.

They all breathe in. Their eyes flutter a moment with the certainty of knowing what comes next. The gun sounds like thunder in the distance and they are awake, flush and moving through the thick wet air. They cannot catch their breath.

The pack pulls apart, stretched thin with invisible filaments, the slimmest link being that they call themselves runners. The fast and the desperate pull ahead, the weak but courageous pull against futility. Everyone is straining.

The first mile is impossible.  Only the foolish are blind to this fact. They will either crumble or luck will carry them. Everyone will pay for their courage. Everyone is suffering and hoping to catch their breath. Everyone clings to the unseen second mile.

They have all succumbed to hope. The second mile is worse than the first mile. It is their minds, deprived of oxygen, they have forgotten to care. They are headlong toward perdition. They are running for reasons that would make no sense in the light of day, saying prayers not even in a human tongue.

The third miles comes and they are veterans now who see beyond the carnage, their bodies thrown forward, their minds still and patiently counting out their ammunition, eyes almost closed, ready for the final push up and over into certain failure borne of certain hope.

Hope that damn chameleon - hiding all along - safe in the fist, if we but let go and watch it run away, not to abandon but to lead us to the end. The world coming apart is pulling back together again.

Runners are born above the flux, relentlessly holding it off until the last final failure overcomes us. We find ourselves only when we have stepped onto dangerous ground, better off kicking back dirt, scrambling away from the Roman hounds.

Let them chew the road’s grit and spittle before they catch our heels, the last flailing moment 100 meters from the line - when pushing beyond control, unable to hold form, we are desperate beyond reason to squeeze just one more second off the clock.

And then joy or not joy, hauling in all the air God made, our legs defeated, and our hearts defeated. We must breathe, hands on knees - we look up and see the sky. The slightest breeze is proof we are not alone. The world slowly wraps itself around us again.

The first and last runners come together. The pack forms again on the other side of the clock. The first and last runners are the same runner again. They beat the same stretch of road, the same cruel sun fought, win or lost, in vain.

The Tiny Madness of Forgetting - Part 1

Mike Baker, July 2013

I would rather run more than run fast.

It took me six months to own this fact.  It took watching my running partners drop away because they could not bear to slow down, could not stand the sight of my failing again and again, trying to keep up with them, my self-flagellant excesses taking me apart.

I have learned to run alone, again. The same 5am run without another runner to meet was a struggle. I was accountable to no one. I started wearing my Garmin. I could be accountable to the GPS and the clock.

I have grown to dislike the sound of other people talking, monkey chatter other people call their own thoughts and their constant need to express. I don’t mind my own boundless fevered ego expressing itself. I just can’t stand theirs. 

There is a certain trail I have always been a little afraid of running. Every time I go there, I panic a little. It isn’t as hard a trail as Torreya.  It’s the quality of the woods and swamp it contains; its lonesome murky soul is too much to bear.

I would go there every day when my girl-dog died and run until I couldn’t run and then I would scream and cry out to God for answers.  It is the kind of place one goes with prayers already refused; you go full and well knowing you will only hear the bird’s call and the deer’s swift patter away from you into the brush.

This place is like that for me. Some days you stand to hear the song and some days the first few chords drive you from the room. It has the same effect on your heart.  It’s just that some days you rush to suffering and some days you hide from it.

I have taken now to running this trail as often as time allows, running in my lazy fashion until I felt good and done enough to leave.  Once recently, after a heavy downpour, I took a nap on a wet slimy bridge that spanned a now rushing creek.

I woke up in the dark and had to make my way back through high stepping hoop roots, twisting at the crinkling and hooting around me, wondering frantically if this was bear season, wondering what old cracker ghost might roll my way.

This forest has two trails, one for hikers and one for horses, which constantly intersect. I have taken to braiding the trails as I run, first running the hiking trail, catch and run the horse and then back to the hiking trail. It strips away, for now, the little certainty of knowing where I am.

It’s what Jesse Owens said about running. He loved how running could take you from place to place, all on your own steam, on your own will and courage. I love moving through the woods, slow and cautious, sometimes tripping down rooty hills and, with a staggering catch, keep moving.

I mumble to myself, curse or laugh, sometimes just staying quiet, not even waking up my human mind long enough to ruin all that spills before me like so many magnolia leaves and spiders. I have grown used to wearing spider’s webs like garland.

Last week I was fasting and running the forest on my second run of the day. I should not have run there. There is a certain trail split that separates two of the loops. I caught it a quarter mile before the lake. I chose badly but instead of turning back decided to bushwhack toward the lake.

It’s all swamp and briar, empty plastic whiskey bottles, crushed cans of Natty Lite and disposable lighters. I reckon it’s where the kids in these parts go to get high. I struggled lost through the brush for over an hour before I found my trail and then a clay and gravel road.

It had rained quite a bit and now the sun was out and dirt exhaled in deep hot steamy breaths. This road has a long slow hill and I had caught it on the bad side. I was empty, not on empty but wholly without substance.

I could barely think enough to move. I was shuffling.  I just wanted to be done. I used to pray for courage, to protect my family, to do right. I stood on that road, that hot day, looking up at the heavens and prayed for God to protect my family, the thought floating carelessly away.

I know how it must seem dramatic or histrionic and thus false. I accept that but there I was, out of the swamp and onto a clear and simple road with one mile to go and I could not make myself walk. The act was beyond what my mind could make my body do.

Imagine the road laid out before you, a long hot hill, the stupid clear blue sky and all the dry pebbled ground at your feet.  We runners often abide between our selfish need to do this lonely thing and how much we truly disdain our own botched and failed existence.

The sun would set eventually. The road would end eventually. All that there ever is, is the relentless forward way, one step at a time and in these  moments, holding the need to continue and the need to quit, each like ropes pulling us apart, we find the answer to the prayers we came to the forest to ask.

The Tiny Madness of Forgetting - Part 2

Mike Baker, July 2013

I hate to get philosophical at a moment like this but when I run I am running away from Death. I believe this is true of everyone who runs whether they know it or not. Like the Yaqui Indians say, Death is the runner at our heel. We can feel her breath just behind our ear.

A giant demon pounds the earth, his wide black hooves cracking the red clay, his foul sulfurous breath staining the air. He has a thousand heads strung around his neck and his sixteen arms wield swords and axes and cudgels that he swings at you as he runs. Do not be afraid.

Buddha said that in the Book of the Dead as a kind of joke. It is only your mortality bearing down on you. While your legs are fresh he runs but as you tire, his legs become a chariot, his arms become a team of skull headed stallions.

Do not be afraid. Jesus said that in the Bible. I believe he was being serious. Too deep into a twenty mile run, when turning back would give no succor, his cool palm on our necks, his whisper, “Do not be afraid,” in our ears. He offers us all the miles left for running to spend in his mercy.

Take my last twenty miler: the last few hours spent trudging through flea infested, ankle deep sugar sand in noonday central Florida sweltering summer heat. There is no short-cut to an out and back finish, just one long stretch of the same bad news.

I have seen lizards and bugs, spiny low laying palms and gnarly bushes that have cut my ankles two dozen times at least. There is no way to quit. I can see the whole damn trail of my own damn footsteps ahead of me waiting.

It’s like the rabbit in the desert coming round full circle on his own footsteps only to discover Yosemite Sam waiting with his fork and knife, hanky tied around his neck and long loping dog tongue drooling wet. I would laugh at the image except I am the rabbit.

The truth is this trail is pretty. It’s that scrubby land that made the pioneers love this place enough to tough it out two hundred years. If you stop to welcome in the warm gracious sun everything swells with color and life, in deep bright greens.

The demon has gone. The trail, the sky, the piney scratch is so quiet and empty. Here is a good place to stop and tell you about my friend Jaime. Jaime is an ironman who often trains to the point of total catastrophe, heals himself and then starts the process all over again.

His injuries never happen running or swimming or biking. They happen playing soccer or snowboarding or getting out of bed on a cold morning. One day his body, overwhelmed and disgusted, breaks. He never sees it coming.

Many of us, to a lesser degree, are just like Jack. We train along a razor’s edge and pray we will know we are close to falling off. The truth is we are always close. Falling off is the way it will always end. It is only the degree that we are aware of it happening that changes.

How many times have I blindly overreached the landscape of my endurance to not have seen this coming. I am the fool walking off the cliff, a bundle over my shoulder; blissfully unaware how preventable this all was. One foot over the line sweet Jesus.

I start walking. I run a bit. I walk some more. I do this for five miles until I am almost back to my car. This trail winds a bit at the beginning and the end. It takes you through a pretty grove of shady trees, trimmed grass that even in the dogged heat, is still damp.

It is there in the beginning, I imagine, fooling you into thinking your whole run will be idyllic and sweet. It is at the end like the punch line to every cruel joke to remind you of how foolish you were to believe it. I come around face to face with an old cracker man, dressed head to toe in denim.

I think to warn him and then realize he probably knows. He came here on purpose. He is at home here and likely a friend to this place. Maybe he has come to watch. Maybe, he has come to let out his lungs full of other people’s air.

Here is a good place to stop and tell you about my friend Francisco. This happened before I started running. I was leaving Orlando and happened to run into him as he headed out on his afternoon jog. It was hot as blazes but about to rain. Jose looked so calm and poised, smiling and bright eyed.

I found out later he had HIV. Death had caught and inhabited his body so he had no choice but to make friends with Death. He is dying of stage 4 lymphoma right now, skinny but smiling exactly the way he smiled on his run; few people abide in such grace at moments like this.

Don’t be afraid. I am telling you that right now. Run if you can but walk when it’s time to walk, breathe when you need to breathe. We all finish somewhere. We all run the race we wanted to run whether we believe that or not.

Sitting in my car after my run I fake a smile. You have to start somewhere. You have to make a home for catastrophe, share your bed with your own imminent loss of memory, lie to Death until you believe you are unafraid. Death won’t care either way.

Tomorrow I will lace up my running shoes and put my first foot out of the car. I will hesitate. I will feel the gravel rolling under my shoe. Do not be afraid. Death runs with us all. He will follow us out to the hills; he will amble among the front of the pack, as well as the hindmost runners.

It is a new day. Act accordingly.

The Tiny Madness of Forgetting - Part 3

Mike Baker, July 2013

I remember seeing a sign at the trailhead of a canyon trail in Texas, Please pack in water as this trail has no exit except this one. Please hike responsibly. I often consider that sign around the moment I find myself asking how I ever got in so deep.

I am headed up to Georgia today to race in the Hot to Trot, an 8 hour event put on by GUTS, which I also ran last year. Last year, I was completely unsure I would even finish, having run Mad Marsh 50k a few months earlier in 2012, DNF’ing at mile 13.

Mad Marsh was a night race in the South Carolina low country and it was a sticky moist bug-ridden night. I had had stomach distress and my knee got really weird, tendons pulling and popping, but mostly I DNF’d because I was sick and tired and I kept having to pass my cooler full of delicious ice cold beer.

This year has not been much better leading up to H2T. I ran Whispering Pines 50k still drunk from the night before, ran a 4:20 something at the Mike the Dog Marathon and then proceeded to drop Torreya pre-race (due to family issues) and VolState (due to not wanting to get fired for not showing up for a week).

The truth is the puny little thing inside me was glad I dropped those races. It’s funny how the idea of running a slower than 22 minute 5k or a 10 hour 50k fill me with exactly the same dread and shame. I don’t mind being slow but there is absolutely no reason other people ought to know about it.

And so here we find ourselves. There is a saying something like, “When plan B falls apart you drop to plan C and then hope plan D still involves you walking to the finish.”  Something like that. My well- designed plan for a 50 mile finish at H2T has devolved a bit.

Structured training events that built specific skills ended finally with me, nekkid and covered in red clay paint, cussing out huge banana spiders who dared build their webs across my trail and piking the heads of my running partners on posts  to warn other runners that that this trail was a bad place and they just better leave.

I cannot say I’m ready for Hot to Trot. It’s more like this: I ran an awful lot, starving and exhausted and figured out how to bonk. Wait. I really hate that term. I know what to do when the Bear climbs up on my back to stay.  It’s real simple what you do: you just keep moving.

Let the king of the obvious jokes start but it’s the honest simple truth. DO NOT STOP MOVING. Slog like a zombie, do the crab, whatever it takes to keep one foot moving ahead of the other.  You probably won’t die and it’s the surest way to the finish line.

I have seen the one bright pearl and it is Indomitable Will. I had a writing teacher who told me once that I should hold on to the truth of being a writer for dear life.  He said that one day it would be all I had. I always thought he meant I would probably be destitute. 

Alone on the trail, surely lost and certainly well beyond what little I had to start with, I smelled rotten pine wood and rich cypress roots, deep musky mushrooms on a tiny planet full of mushrooms and on a steep greasy hilltop,  swooning in the heat, almost falling over – I got what he meant.

I have long left the blaze ridden trail, making my own way through the forest, I hear the highway a mile off.  I hear the blustery gust whipping up the water, see the clouds darken as the thunder cracks again and again. I try and sprint only to be stopped by my dead legs and windless lungs heaving for air.

It is only now, shambling through North Florida swamp trail, delirious and dizzy, that I understand. Being a writer, being a runner – it’s just filler for the moment we dig in and decide, with no one watching, that we are here to live. It is the pearl held above and beyond us.

It is the smoldering black coals hanging by the thinnest draft of oxygen waiting and ready to burst. It is the horizon and the message we bring to it. It is catching the perilous draft above the clouds to take us up and over icy mountains. It is the space between where we stand and the far edge our kicking feet hope to reach.

It is the will to continue at all costs.  It is nothing more and nothing less than everything that matters. This training season I have learned that all my pride is useless.  Fate be damned, I come to toe the line and whatever comes of it.  I have come to welcome the Bear.

She reminds me that at the worst of any race I am giving all I have to the trail. Call me a failure for finding myself there unprepared, and I will tell you this: so be it. Run your own damn race. Leave me and my friends to run ours.

If we are honest; we accept oblivion as the natural end of all our efforts. Like Bukowski said, “Don’t try.”  He was a sly optimist.  It’s the lesson I learned at Barkley: however hard you think it is, it’s worse than you can imagine.  However you train to ready yourself, it will not be enough.

Whatever your plan, whatever goal you set, you will fail.  Lazarus Lake, Barkley’s race director, gets this. It’s why he made the race. The sooner we quit trying and settle into doing, the sooner we realize the Bear has been there all along and every moment we spend in her company is precious.

 

Hot to Trot 8 Hour Fun Run and how it got that way, August 3rd, 2013

Mike Baker, August 12, 2013

Last weekend I ran the Hot to Trot.  The race is run on an arbitrary 1.189 mile loop at Sweetwater State Park in Lithia Springs, Georgia.  A friend told me, the first time we drove up to race it last year, that the course “was mostly flat.” This is the kind of lie a good running friend tells you, similar to:  “we’re almost there,” or “this is the last hill.”

I’ve always loved this kind of race because you know what’s coming. You can plan for the future.  I had a plan and like all great plans, mine was useless. Wait. That is also a lie. It might have been a great plan had I stuck to it.

The list of what I did wrong is long and impressive. I won’t bore you with the minutia, only the hopefully funny and definitely stupid parts which all start in that place in my brain I call the home of bright ideas. You might want to duck when I say this…

…I invited my wife.  Every race is run with the full weight (is responsibility a better word than weight?) of our families, jobs and other implements of destruction piled on our backs. The Bear, mentioned last week, is the least of our troubles and is often better company.  I would duck again if I were you.

Missus Baker drove us up to Georgia and I was grateful for this but it left me lots of time to worry.  I worried about her.  I worried about the race. The dogs were going insane and when we got to the hotel at midnight, I was so keyed up I lay in bed until 5 am for the front desk and the wakeup call.

Now, this race gets younger and fitter every year. It used to be a happy little ultra party, a bunch of cranky old runners, doing what they love and eating BBQ chicken. This year there were just way too many 20something kids with tattoos and beards who, I am pretty darn sure, were vegetarians.

I get how that’s good for the race. It just sucks for old slow fat runners like me. There is nothing so disheartening as getting lapped 4 or 5 times by a pack of kids, each one saying, “Excuse me sir, runner to your left”’  4 or 5 times. It just hurts.

Back to what I did wrong: I forgot to bring Ibuprofen and body glide. This is a literary device called foreshadowing.  Consider yourself warned.  I had a plan. I think I mentioned that.  The plan was to run the first 15 miles at 10 minute pace and then start power walking all the uphill sections.

More bright ideas:  This training cycle my longest run was only 15 miles.  Last year that got me through the Torreya 50k, this race, the Backyard 50k and the 50 miler in December of 2012. This, however, was like tripping on a root in slow motion. I should a seen this coming.

I got mile 15 in the books at Hot to Trot and kept pushing.  At mile 18 I knew something was wrong and I slowed down, way down and at mile 24 – I walked a lap. You have to understand I was in this for 8 hours and I only had 4 and half hours on the books so far.  I was in trouble.

I had set up my chair and gear at the start /finish with Missus Baker’s chair and a cooler and a huge rainbow-colored beach umbrella to keep Missus Baker cool, thinking this would eventually entice Missus Baker to leave the hotel and join me at the race.

I stared at that damn umbrella over and over while my race fell apart, fearing she might never show.  Let me pause to tell you how much I love my wife. She is about as sweet a human as God ever made.  I am lucky to have her but right then and there I was hating life in the all together.

She finally showed at lap 20. I came around the bend and there she was, yelling, “Go runner, go!!”  It felt like oxygen.  And Missus Baker brought me a Red Bull. Don’t get mad at her.  I asked her to do it, (foreshadowing) and then the really bad thing happened.  I will limit the details to the really bad thing.

I would like to blame drinking Red Bull on an empty stomach.  I would like to blame the insane heat and running for 6 plus hours.  Whatever. On lap 26, between the screamer at the race start which was now eating my knees alive and the very real possibility of the really bad thing, I made a decision.

I was two laps from a 50k finish.  I ran them. I have been staring at those last two sentences for 20 minutes.  Pride is a funny thing.  We make choices and those choices make us.  I could have kept going.  I might have finished 5 more laps but I came in on mile 31.89 and quit.  I was done.

I sat down with Missus Baker and my dogs and watched people run.  Missus Baker looked sweet as usual but she was hot and tired, and the dogs were dizzy and maddened by all the excitement.  Before the race ended, we packed it all in and headed back to Florida.

I ran the first half of the race faster than the year before and the second half worse.  I wore the wrong shoes, and I under-estimated the course difficultly.  I over-estimated my ability.  I hear people use the term “epic fail” to describe things going really wrong.

That might be hyperbole. This was not an epic failure no matter how bad I feel about it.  I made mistakes that I can fix in the future.  I chucked my plan and I paid for it by giving up.  The race doesn’t care.  The other runners don’t care either.

All the little hat pins of Damocles’ dangle above us.  Racing is just the thing we do when we’re not doing the other stuff.  Standing in the heat Saturday, after the race, I will admit that remembering that one essential fact was a struggle.

Every race exists in the context of our lives.  Maybe we’re in school and graduating soon.  Maybe we need to pay more attention to our loved-ones.  Making mistakes is how we learn. No good would come from always playing it the same way every time.

There was this one young man.  He ran like a runner.  I mean to say, he was pretty to watch.  If you see one of those silhouettes of a runner in a smooth forward leaning sprint, he ran like that.  He had lapped me the most, six times before – late in the race - I came up on him on the trail.

He was bent over, hands on his quads looking into the brush.  I thought, Man, a dude like this stopping to look at something in the woods. It must be something amazing like a cobra or a UFO or something.  I stood behind in the same pose, head cocked, looking for whatever it was.

Finally I said, “Dude – what are you looking at?” He said, “I’m not looking at anything.   I have leg cramps.” That’s when I realized he was rubbing his legs. I looked around, like I just broke wind and was wondering if anyone noticed.  Sometimes that just happens.

Training for Stupid
The Long Cane 50k/55 Miler - Parson’s Mountain, Abbeville, SC 09/14/13

Mike Baker, October 2, 2013

Some races are wrapped in a story. Some races are more like real life.

The night before the race, the race director Terri Hayes, her grandson and his girlfriend showed me the trail to the start and the first quarter mile of the course. I helped her lay out the finish line the night before the race, ten tiny orange flags in the dirt.

I drank some beer and tried to sleep. All night I dreamed a huge raccoon was standing outside my tent, arms akimbo, laughing at me. The Barkley dream. The raccoon is always Laz, Barkley’s race director.

Terri runs a low key event. There’s no North Face swag and no shirt. There’s no giant blow-up finishing gate. You had best read the course directions, know how to read trail blazes on your own and, by all means, don’t follow the runner ahead of you because he or she is probably lost.

It’s all about what we understand in the beginning and what we don’t. I, for instance, still didn’t understand the first quarter mile of the race and got right up front with some dudes I heard say had run the race a few times.  

Saturday was a cool 60 degree South Carolina morning. I went out way too fast with the front of the pack. It felt glorious.

Hubris blinds you, really. My “not getting lost for the first quarter mile strategy” turned into 10 miles at an 8 and a half minute pace, when finally, reality caught a hold of my imagination and I slowed way down.  It was like Hot to Trot all over again but with different excuses.

I started walking at mile 15. I walked maybe half a mile when Mike caught me. He’d been way behind me until then. Getting caught like that hurts but what hurt more was realizing why he caught me. He understood where he was at. 

I think his plan was to make sure I wasn’t dying and then get about his business. He had no idea how desperate I was right then.

Mike is old school. You can tell because his shoes have been modified by him with super glue, an x-acto knife and spare rubber.  He has grey hair, a Fu Manchu mustache and a surly attitude.

I got Mike talking, slowed down just enough so that I could get my wind back. I figured I would coast for five miles and then take off. His stories got the better of me. I would tell you some of them but they’re his stories, so drive up to South Carolina and run with him. It will irritate him to no end.

We walk/run the fifteen miles. It turns out Mike had had five knee replacements; both his shoulders replaced and had just gotten a new hip. He really was a candidate for swimming or yoga, anything but running, but here he was big as life, saving my butt.

We came up on this boy in a red shirt, maybe 22, sitting on a log.  He looked done-in and so Mike tried to scoop him up but no dice. Later, we saw him come in at an aid station. That was the red shirted boy’s last rally. We saw him 2 hours later at the finish; I had just gotten out of the lake when he staggered across the line.

I had this moment at Long Cane, the night before, in the campgrounds. I met Sully who introduced himself as a volunteer. He listened to my rambling on all worried and jittery. I realize now he was teasing out of me how unprepared I was. He made it a point to mention most folks don’t finish the 55 miler and drop to the 30k. He said it a few times.

It is the kind of thought that gets stuck in the back of your mind until you need it. It’s like the nagging thought that your wife would be mad at you if were late but she’d be happy if you were on time.  He could see I wasn’t set to run 55 miles.

The best people in this sport are not necessarily the fastest. They are usually, to my mind, the kindest.

Ronnie is a big old mountain boy, a Kodiak chewing Southern boy. He looks like a huge lumbering Tom Hanks from Castaway. I met him the day before the race. He was wearing cargo shorts and New Balance Minimus. He was out to run some of the trail.

We talked a few minutes and he told me this was his second ultra. His first, a 50 miler, ended badly. He asked me for advice and, not feeling very friendly or caring much, I gave him that old chestnut about never quitting. I should have said, don’t go for a five mile jog the day before a 50 miler.

The morning of the race, Ronnie shows up late and sprints to the trailhead and starts racing. Terri has to run him down, to give him a number and loaner water bottle. He was just that eager to go and do it, frantic and maddened at the thought of missing out.

Cut to the end of the race: I was sitting on a bench icing my knee, a few hours after finishing the 50k, and Ronnie comes up to me, and says, Lets go out and finish the 50 miler. I say, No thanks and he says, Aw come on. I feel great. And then I realize he’s busting my chops but he has this sweet funny smile.

He sits down next to me and we chat a while about our races. Letting someone off the hook might be the greatest act of kindness. I met his wife and his parents, who volunteered to get everyone’s time at the finish. Terri could find volunteers to get a rabies shot. 

There was a lake and hot soup and I’m getting mushy but there isn’t a better kind of race out there. I usually find myself dwelling in these columns about all the big bits: mortality and failure, courage and cowardice but really, it’s like O. Henry said, “A good time was had by all.”

I will say this: I have been wagging my bottom at the sport of running for about 6 months now. My training, much like camp food, has been hot, brown and there has been an awful lot of it to go around. I have showed up to races drunk from the night before.

I have refused to carb load for long races, steadfastly asserting my right to eat BBQ ribs and raw jalapenos in an effort to prove the science we all so steadfastly follow is just plain hokum. One week before a 50k, I logged 40+ miles which included speed work on Tuesday and hill repeats on Thursday.

One weekend I ran the Fishnet 5k, a sidewalk race, on Saturday (including 6 miles of warm up and cool down) and then the Mike the Dog 30k on Sunday. What has all that gotten me? I have a 4:24 trail marathon and more than a few 7 hour 50k’s.

I have chronic runners knee, a yo-yoing weight issue, a huge craft beer bill and an epic failure at the 2013 running of the Barkley Marathons.  I clearly have bad judgment. My friend Charles calls it poor impulse control. My friend Gordon says I am afraid to succeed.

My friend Stephanie says I’m just being stupid. I am inclined to think they’re all a little right but that Stephanie is more right than Charles or Gordon. I used to think it was a thing to fix like a transmission or a toaster but I have come to understand it’s just who I am.

My good judgment, like my cell phone, is small enough that in the fury and wildness of the day, it is all together possible I will simply misplace them. It’s like the great philosopher Pogo once said, I have seen the enemy and he is us.

I’m more dog than fox, more squirrel than hawk. One by one I find my clan, my tribe. It’s like when you were twelve and your best friend dared you to jump off the roof, watched you flop sideways into the bush and then shimmied up for his turn at disaster. We’re a stupid tribe, a crazy big hearted stupid tribe.

DFL: Mike the Dog 50k/Marathon/1/2 Marathon

Mike Baker, October 6, 2013

I have signed up for the Mike the Dog Marathon and 50k, every year Dana Stetson's held the race and slept in almost every single time. That's a lie. I wake up Sunday morning and consider running 26 plus miles versus having bacon and coffee with my family. This year we were just out of bacon.

Most ultra-runners have a ritual. They lay their gear out on the bed like a mock flat runner: the shirt they plan to wear, shorts, their spi belt, their race bib, socks, whatever. They have an ultra-box with all the things they might need: body glide, medical tape, 3x antibiotic, GU, Chomps, Succeed!, more whatever.

Last Sunday, I put on shorts and a shirt, grabbed my go fasters, a bandana, drank a few cups of coffee and hit the road. I picked up a Monster Mad Dog Energy drink on the way to Piney-Z and the race. I didn't prepare as much as flee.

It seems the more of these races I do - the less gear I think need to get them done. I imagine Dana has a similar outlook on putting them on. His races do not lend themselves to the unprepared or, at least, the unprepared to do without.

One aid station at the Mike the Dog 30k was an unstaffed red flyer wagon, on the side of a sugar sand trail in the middle the national forest, with a drink cooler in it and a stack of paper cups. The other aid station, at the start/finish line, also had Gatorade and M and M's. Simplicity is a good thing.

Our sport needs to lean up. We have been overrun by synthetic carbohydrates and compression socks, $300 hydration packs, gaiters and Gandalf sticks that are collapsible and fit into your Cuban fiber (read waterproof) lined day pack.

An old timer told me once his medical kit consisted of duct tape, super glue and a coat hanger. He looked at what I brought to the race and told me I'd over accessorized my outfit. I don't admire the sexism but I get the basic idea.

If you break an ultra down - it's as simple as any other race. You cover ground and try not to quit. You finish as fast as you can, as best you can. I was near DFL at the 30k and someone had taken the top off the cooler. There were flies and twigs in the water.

When you're laid bare by exhaustion in 100 degree heat, you come to understand what matters and what is inconsequential. I drank the hell out of that water. I also got into an ice cold, and probably stagnate, snake infested sink hole. Dana's races invite you to necessity.

But I digress…

The Mike the Dog 50k course consists of two out and backs that total 5k. You climb up and over the hill to Connor and then back up and over hill to the park from Connor and then you run almost out to the levee, turn around and run back. You do it ten times.

I rolled my ankle so hard in the first ¼ mile people 3 rows back gagged at the sound of cracking bone. Lucky for me I did it on the downhill. Your natural fear of falling over and being trampled by all the runners behind you keeps you running until the pain subsides to just plain tolerable misery.

There I said it. Big thanks to Mike Martinez and Mary Vancore: having one good friend that will run with you while you cry in pain and talk about quitting is a kingly treasure but having two friends that will shuffle along with you as you whine about your pathetic state is an embarrassment of riches bordering on gluttonous.

Mike and Mary ran the middle of the race with me. It's my personal quit zone. Without a bum ankle I lean toward quitting around mile 13. I have no idea why. Mike and I negotiated our way through what a DNF would look like.

Mary put up with some very inappropriate sailor talk. She and Mike kept me talking and running. The day of the race I was sure it was my Hokas (pot – kettle – black) but I know now it was them. Once I got to the 2/3's mark I couldn't quit. I'm not sure if Mary and Mike knew that would happen.

It's like Alyssa says, you can do anything for 30 seconds. You can do anything for ten miles. I clenched up and kept running. I was dead last, running so slowly I got lapped by two runners. All five of us that finished had to beat our own demons. They just beat theirs faster than I beat mine.

Andrew, the out and back lap counter dude, left as I was heading out on my second to last lap. I spent the day hearing him say, "Ah – all runners are now accounted for." I missed hearing it that lap and the lap after that. It gave the last two laps a desperate lonely feeling.

Dana was actually carrying the out and back turnaround sign as I headed out to finish my last lap. This was not a good omen.

I shuffled out to the spot in the dirt where "Turnaround" was written in chalk dust. I could barely stand up. My ankle pulsed magna hot with every step. My right hamstring had begun spasming and my hips were locked.

A group of six colorfully dressed ladies stood off in the distance out for a walk with their tiny dogs. We stared at each other. I had to pee very badly. I was falling apart. They looked so pretty. I felt ashamed that they should see me like this.

I turned and headed back to finish. No one was left there except the first and second place runners, the race director and his wife, Mrs. Baker and our two dogs, a picnic stumbled upon by a deranged exhausted manic.

The day after Mike the Dog, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. I went to work and by the end of the day I thought I had the flu. My whole body ached. My shoulders hurt. My teeth throbbed. I had that chest pressure you get right before you're in bed for a week with pneumonia.

The next day was better. I was only acutely aware that I had a left ankle and a right hip. I still ached but it was a happy ache. It was an "I'm not dying or permanently crippled" ache. Walking up and down three flights of stairs was a chore but it was one I was grateful to do for myself because I could.

The only thing better than running a 50k is finishing one until you finish one and then, for me, it's like a good friend moved away. I regret what I got wrong, not the part where I rolled my ankle but the parts I missed by not paying attention. I pine for the chance to do it again and see everything.

When you strip away the gear and the noise that accompanies so many of these events these days you are left with the struggle, the absurdity and the miraculous realization that you got to spend the whole day running through hell and you actually paid someone for the right to do it.

That day, I stood at the finish line next to Dana for a photo, holding up my finisher's award, 2 brass bells on a chain, no one around to watch and cheer – I couldn't stop grinning but ought to have been missing a tooth or two, or had a black eye. I would have been jumping in the air fists thrown to heaven like a boxer.

I still needed to pee though and now I was a little dizzy. A car turned the corner and we all had to hustle out of the way so as not to get run over.

Hitting rock bottom is better than I thought it ever could be: Big Dog Backyard Ultra

Mike Baker, October 19, 2013

Big Dog Backyard Ultra is a 4.166666 mile loop that you have a whole hour to finish. All you have to do is run a 14 minute mile. It’s easy. A whistle blows three times at :57 minutes, twice at :58 and once at :59. Lazarus Lake, the race director, rings a cow bell on the hour and everyone starts again.

I have to write an email to my friend Jim to apologize. Jim ran the Backyard this year without his girlfriend Karen. She was hiking somewhere else in Tennessee and couldn’t make the Backyard. The year before, at the Backyard, they had had a canopy and a full camp kitchen.

Karen cooked for Jim. Karen, a licensed massage therapist, gave him rub downs. She had things waiting for him where she saw him rolling in off the road or out of the woods and on to the trail. She did what any good crew member would do, she looked after him.

This year Jim was alone. I, on the other hand, am almost always crewless and surely crewless at the backyard and I was also injured. I had been power hiking Friday afternoon, after driving from Florida to Tennessee, when I misplanted a foot, twisted my right leg.

Injuries for me are sort of funny in how all is well and sing song jolly along the trail and then POW! My foot slips and twists out, causing a massive contraction of my calf and hamstring muscles sending me to the dirt in a howling cussing pile of Mike.

I should also mention that this happened on the walk through. That’s right, I was injured on the walk through. I am now known for two things at the Backyard. I was the guy everyone at camp bet would drop and didn’t and I’m the guy that got injured before the race even started, walking the trail.

I could hobble by Friday night but every bump or tussle in the grass set me to the ground whimpering momentarily until I could catch myself and “man-up”. Thinking water, vitamin I and sleep would fix things by morning - I didn’t drink a single beer. I probably ought to have.

Morning did come and I was still limping. I hobbled over to the Thug Palace and settled in to watch. The Thug Palace was a shanty town McMansion of strung-together tents and tarps, decorated with Christmas lights and fake poop. It was odd seeing a race like the Backyard from the spectator’s view.

It turns out spectators eat a lot. We helped our runners when they came in and made fun of them when they left. We went to Starbucks and got in a car accident. I bought a donkey mask that I wore late that night at the bonfire. I had, by that point, begun drinking copiously.

The day before, and before my injury, I had pitched my tent at the bottom of a craggily stone laden field. I had cursed it in the daylight but in the warm moonshine glow of the night, I hobbled and bounced laughing happily down to my tent to sleep and dream.

I woke up around 2 a.m., wrapped up and spent a few cold hours around the fire with race crews staying up for their runners. They would scurry off every hour for the five minutes their runners had to eat and grouse and breathe before they, the crew, would stump down and wait again for the next hour to come.

There are a lot of things that make the Backyard the greatest ultra on Earth. It’s a devilish concept and by devilish, I mean of the Devil. Running each lap is, as Laz says, a modest request made over and over until almost every runner understands they cannot win and then inevitably quits or gets timed out.

The course is a beautiful and fun mix of single track trail and poison ivy. The course is littered with trees that should have been cleared and rocky fields that could have been avoided. This year was dry but last year’s course was a swampy mess. These are all great things

It’s the people who show up, however, that make it so amazing. I sat around a fire all day with world champion ultra-runners, transcontinental runners, national record holders, and Guinness book of world record holders. I talked 6 race strategies an old guard mad genius named Bill Shulze.

And then there are the mortals that come to run. These are every day folks just like you and me. They just happen to be fond of running 100 mile races back to back.  One dude ran the Backyard until he lost his peripheral vision. They’re tough like that.

There is a world of people we are invited to honor with respect. There are presidents and judges writing and defending laws. There are basketball players and actors who build houses for the poor. There are popes and cyber whistle blowers.

Almost everyone I admire was there at the Backyard. Every hour I was blown away by the heart and guts of those people. They came to do battle with a clock and a trail. Every hour they would head out again or come straggling back or just crumble at the thought of going on just one more time.

We screamed and cheered like mad as one runner started to quit when the bell rang and then buoyed by our cat calls and clapping went on, looking back at me saying, “You know this is utterly pointless.” I yelled back, “I know – have fun!”

I would later learn that was Mark Williams, the first human to ever finish Barkley, the Walking Man. The awesome thing about Mark, at that moment, was that even though we all knew how badly the next lap would go for him – he still had hope. He pressed on.

Sitting in the grass, hours later, Mark and I discussed the plight of our matching giant injury prone calves. I was talking shop with the FIRST man that ever beat Barkley. I wrote that sentence ten minutes ago and have spent the time dumbfounded that it really happened.

In the end, the race came down to giants fighting giants. Marcy Beard folded first at 120 miles. Keith Knipling and Tim Englund duked it out for six more hours until Keith finally fell away. I want a poster with all three of them, dressed as matadors, to put over my bed so when I fall asleep at night I can dream of their greatness.

I need to finish though by telling you about Jim. Jim is a southern gentleman and a tough SOB. He was coming from his first morning loop, over 24 hours into the race, and looking over at me and asked how my leg was doing.

Every loop after his 12th loop, someone could be heard saying Jim looked bad, this was probably it for Jim but there he was – loop after loop. I heard he got so twisted up once at Vol State that he actually fell off a road into a culvert.

I want to say something about the human will but the truth is I have no idea how Jim does it. He kind of looks like Baudelaire. I mean the debauched sallow-eyed Baudelaire in case you were wondering. He just runs better than Baudelaire probably could.

He was sitting in a chair, wrapped in a blanket trying not to go hypothermic, saying he was so sorry that I couldn’t run this year. This is going to be cliché, but I don’t really care: when I grow up I want to be like Jim.

He ran 112 miles before he fell out. Most runners who go out for the fatal lap, struggle for a mile and then back out 15 minutes later. Jim ran the whole damn loop. The camp erupted when he finally ambled down the hill.

My only regret about the Backyard this year, including my leg and wearing a donkey mask, was not thinking to crew for Jim. I have no idea why I didn’t offer. I got to fetch him beer afterward. I would a given him every beer in my dang cooler if I’d had had the presence of mind to offer.

Its addictive watching that clock. There are 6 runners left, then five then 3. You just want to watch one more lap. I had an 8 hour drive a head of me though and each lap I waited meant driving deeper into the night.

I watched the runners leave out again. Laz was sleeping in his chair when I left the Backyard. The timing crew was delirious and nodding a bit also. I packed up my gear, looked at the clock and the race that would continue for three more hours after I left, I said some good byes and headed home.

They do not sell GU at the Circle K: Running the Truck Route Trek 10/09/13

Mike Baker, November 2013

The Truck Route Trek is a 27 mile run from the Oak Valley Publix at North Monroe and Capital Circle to the Killearn Publix right after Capital Circle turns into Thomasville Road. Last year I ran it with Liz, Kelsey, Mason and Dustin. Liz was the race director last year.

This year I volunteered to lead as no one else volunteered and there would be no Trek if some poor stooge didn’t step up. I have no race science or show science. I used to book little punk shows in town with amazing bands like Grabbag out of Jacksonville or Lincoln Brigade out of New Orleans.

No one would come. Or a few people would come and no one would pay to get in. I would put the out of town band last. One time I let a band tune up for 30 minutes and the entire audience walked out. I enjoy chaos too much to look after anyone else’s good time. I have no race science.

People asked me for stuff regarding the Trek, things to make the race safer, things to make the Trek more accessible to new shorter distance runners. I declined. I said, “We’d run slow as the slowest runner but you better be able to finish.” I said, “Otherwise, bring a credit card and a cell phone.”

It didn’t help that nothing is appealing about the truck route. It’s an ugly road that people use to avoid going through in-town traffic. You run mostly on concrete and asphalt, picking through construction dirt, pieces of rebar, chicken wire, bits of wood and nails, cigarette butts and dirty mud.  

It’s littered with garbage and gravel, lined with drainage ditches filled with green sweaty muck. We found abandoned t-shirts and underwear, lots of tossed beer cans and a broken toy knife that I kept as a souvenir.

You spend the trek eating out of gas stations and all the restrooms smell like the industrial blue cleaner that was used to clean them. This presupposes they’re clean. There is no shade. There is no sag wagon or drop bag station.

I bought a new bladder for my W*l-mart hydration pack. It was cleverly designed out of ice pack material for hot days so empty it weighed 4lbs. Its weight plus the pack and 2 liters of water had me carrying 12 pounds of weight. I ditched the pack near Southwood.

I subsisted, for the last 13 miles, on drinks at gas stations and convenience stores. Wasted from carrying a hiking pack full of gear a half marathon I began power slamming caffeine which made me profoundly sick.  I mean “can’t hold down water” sick.

That lasted for the next six miles. There is nothing as endearing as stumbling into a small euro-styled café yammering 100 mile an hour but unable to walk and bumping into your lawyer or an in-law. The Trek is fun like that.

I nearly quit back at mile 13 where I ditched the pack. I nearly quit at mile 15 hunched and twisted by a lamp post waiting for my guts to decide if they were staying inside me or not. It was only at mile 25 that I thought I had any hope of finishing.

The Trek ends on a mile long cement hill climb that breaks down whatever you have left and punishes you on the way to the bottom, one heel strike at a time, forever trying to climb it in the first place. The finish is an unceremonious Publix sign and your vehicle. You don’t get a t-shirt for showing up.

You don’t get a medal for finishing. You don’t even get a number that says you’re doing something real. I was not surprised that at 7am that morning Mason was the only other fool to show up. Kelsey had just finished a full Ironman and Liz lives in Georgia now.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a great time. I got to hang out with Mason and do something I love. The Trek was a thing worth doing. Let’s call it that. It’s like running to St.Mark’s for a few beers at Christmas or shotgunning a beer to run a mile.

It lives somewhere between racing and training. It’s the long distance running version of stuffing your friends into a phone booth. It looks fun on paper and someone is definitely going to put an eye out. It’s the road that circumnavigates our city. It’s the damn mountain you climb, why? Because it’s there.

Okay.  I think there’s a point here somewhere…

I write a lot about Death. I sometimes wear skulls, bones and such when I race ultras. It helps me remember that Death comes for us all. I also think it’s funny. I think Death is funny. Here’s this thing that is the ultimate time clock. It goes off and the game is way over.

Death is so present in our lives, in fact, that we often forget its even there. That is a horrible, horrible mistake. We all know that 5k where we came around the corner and saw how close we had come to a PR but also knew we couldn’t cover the distance to the finish to get that PR.

I almost graduated with honors. I was one exam grade which translated into one point off my GPA, from graduating with honors. Bill Hillison asked me if I,”… was really just one A off”, implying there were a few grades off the mark. You see the race clock and in your heart you know all the things you didn’t do to get that PR.

Dustin, who ran with us last year, passed away. Dustin was an awesome ultra runner. He hadn’t done anything big yet but he was headed that way. He had a new born son, a beautiful sweet wife and a promising career. One day he was running and then one day he died.

I hope I speak for Mason when I say we ran the Trek for Dustin but also to remind ourselves to inhabit our own lives. I get 50 state marathon runners. I get people who do Tough Mudders. I get how most people reading this probably think I missed my own point by wasting a day doing this.

I get that too. I’m not saying you should do this. I’m saying, do something. Have your adventure right now because tomorrow is promised to no one.  It was a cold day that got real hot. It was a long way to go to get nowhere in particular.

It was the Truck Route Trek, foul conditions, no support, no problem. We were running up the hill to the overpass, near the very end, and passed a couple headed in the opposite direction. They said it was all downhill from there. They had no idea.

It had been downhill since we started and as we rolled into the Publix parking lot, we were sprinting, hooting and jumping for, seemingly, no reason at all and every reason you could imagine. We dropped our bags in his truck and went into Publix.

They had sample stations out for all the holiday treats runners normally avoid: pumpkin ice cream, eggnog, apple pie dripping in hot caramel. I drank a gallon of water and I got the biggest jug of watermelon they had. I inhaled it.

I took a shower when I got home, changed and went out for tacos.  My day had only just started and I had already run around the city. I had grocery shopping to do with Mrs. Baker, maybe a movie and dinner out. I had to see to my dogs.

I think that next year everyone should run in costume. Or maybe like a Burma Shave sign, everyone’s t-shirt with have a phrase, one after the other as we run along. No t-shirt, No fee and no whining. We’ll need a third runner and that last part would be a lie. There’s always whining.

My Epic Fail, Part One - The Duncan Ridge 50k, 11/23/13

Mike Baker, December 2013


The Duncan Ridge 50k was really tough. It had 10,000 feet of elevation gain. That means going up 10000 feet, a third of the way up Mount Everest. That means the rest of the race was going down. There isn’t anywhere you could comfortably call flat, excluding the parking lot, on the course.

I had taken a Victorian Amazonian misadventure approach to preparing for the race. “Pack the family bible and the spittoon but leave the running shoes. There’s isn’t enough room. We have no accurate maps, two cups of water and a lovely tea set. Of course we’ll survive. Bravo!”
Looking around at the young fit tattooed runners, the make of pure iron gaunt steely eyed old runners, I desperately wanted to see a girl in a tutu. Wearing my traditional skull motif clothes, a waxed mustache and dull blank stare, I stank of rank amateur. The vultures were already circling overhead.
Mary had texted me earlier saying, “Start off slowly and then go slower than that.” She’d been coaching me on not killing myself doing these races. She’s a mom. They make the best running partners for me for reasons too obvious to mention unless this is the first time you’ve read my column.

My usual blow-it-out-until-mile-15-and-limp-to-the-finish approach didn’t need to be kept in check though. The first set of hills did that. They were the warm up for the cloud covered mountains I saw driving into Blairsville: Coosa Bald and Duncan Ridge.

The ascents ranged from switchbacks that were a muddy foot wide to barely run-able verticals that were, standing, nose in the dirt steep. The descents are pretty much the same except they were scarier. The longer you ran, the more dangerous it got.

The trails were littered with random wet leaf hidden rocks, downed trees and hoop roots. It was real pretty though, running high up in the mountains, dozens of mushroom varietals, bears and bobcats, drizzling rain and a lovely hazy fog that never went away.

 You have no idea what 10,000 feet of gain feels like until you get half-way up a three mile climb. Think mile 20 of a marathon except you’re only six miles into to a 50k. It’s the place in the marathon your body switches energy systems and you start to worry you have to slow down or just not finish -- but at mile 6.

I wanted to drop to the 30k at mile 8 but inadvertently headed out on the 50k course before I could stop myself. I seriously considered dropping at the 13 mile aid station until a runner headed in the other direction said there were grilled cheese sandwiches at the 15.5 mile turnaround.

A word of warning: the short section from mile 13 to mile 15.5 is all uphill and it’s the steepest scariest section of the course. Also, there weren’t any grilled cheese and it was uphill all the way back to mile 18. I don’t know how they did that.

The rest of the race I spent desperately trying to get from aid station to aid station ahead of the clock. Each ascent was worse than the last. It’s like the drinking game “Quarters.” When you start being unable to get the quarter into the glass, it only gets worse as you get sloppier and very drunk.

Each hill climb became more impossible as I moved toward the finish. I had to convince myself not to quit. “Mrs. Baker didn’t raise a quitter.” I kept mumbling that, followed by, “But if I fall and break something they’ll have to pull me, just not something in my face.”

You are in dangerous territory when you start considering a broken bone as an alternative to finishing. You have no idea. You find yourself bargaining, tree to tree, just to keep going. You crest a hill, half tripping down the other side into a misty quiet gully and can’t find the trail.

You have no idea how long you looked but halfway through looking you forget why you’re even standing still. Time exists in spurts. You tumble down switchbacks, trying not fall off the mountain, in seconds. Climbs seem to never end, a foot slips, and you grind back, heartbroken at the loss of one or two inches.

Everything hinges on Coosa Bald. Going out it’s a brutal three mile climb into the clouds followed by a one mile descent at breakneck speed, half on your butt and half playing Harold Lloyd as you hang from trees trying not to tumble head first down the hill you’re running.

Coming back it’s more unfortunate. You are very tired and running up this one mile beast is out of the question. The course up is filled with dream-like vistas. There were a few moments, looking out at what I’d climbed and was terrified, not exactly at the height or drop. It was just so much bigger than me.

I came into the final Coosa Bald ascent and it was so cold. An aid worker took off my Camelbak, another handed me soup and another rubbed my back. All she could say over and over was, “You look so cold. You look so cold.”
The three mile descent is where you’re supposed to make up time. It seems, on paper, to be your ace in the hole. I and another runner tried. He’d been dogging me all day and now we simply ran together. I rolled my ankle five times and had two face plants. Both of us were desperate to be finished.

He fell behind on one long hill section where the ground was covered in marble sized gravel. He slowed down and, in perfect Baker style, I managed the descent by force of dumb luck being too stupid to fall and too clumsy to slow down.

I kept not looking at my watch. I had met all the cut offs until now. I couldn’t bear to look and see how close it was. I had dropped into a gorge. I found someone hiking there. He had been ahead of me but now was limping on a destroyed IT band. He was using a makeshift hiking stick to keep from falling.

I looked at my watch as I passed him. I don’t know why but I looked. I needed to be at the aid station by 4:45. It was 4:42. I ran for 3 more minutes and still couldn’t see my way out of the woods. I ran another minute and then looking out over the sweep of the valley knew it was over for real.

I stopped running and walked a minute. He caught up with me. We talked. It was the first conversation I’d had all day. It felt like I’d been holding my breath all day. It was nice. A lady shot past us. I will chase a rabbit and my legs, which had seemed dead, felt amazing. I chased her.

She had a headlamp and was convinced she could doe eye the volunteer into letting her go on. She got us really lost. The hiker with the bad ITB and the fellow who had dogged me finally caught up and took the lead. We followed them in.

The aid station volunteer greeted us frowning and said he had bad news. The lady tried but he wasn’t budging. Another runner had already come in for the bad news and greeted us with cokes. I broke out the chocolate covered espresso beans. We caught a ride to the finish.

It’s funny. I got DQ’d but I don’t care. I made some mistakes. I wore Hokas instead of real trail shoes. My pack sat too low on my back and caused amazing back pain. It’s like the Navy Seals say, “No one rises to the occasion.” You rise to the highest level of your training.

That DQ was the best I had. I don’t just mean my fitness. I mean, the mistakes I made were my best judgment. That’s what I had. I didn’t think through how the benefit of Hokas would be outweighed by their clumsiness. I didn’t understand how running packs work.

The best I had was 27.5 miles over the time clock. I can learn from my mistakes. I can get smarter about my choices. I can be fitter next year. I’m just saying, I feel good about it because it was the best I had. I ran my own stupid silly race and got what I came for, mostly.

Out of the sag wagon my core body temperature dropped and I started feeling that old familiar nausea and right-to-your-soul cold. I snatched someone’s fresh cup of coffee out of their hands and bullied my way close to the fire.

My friend Abby was waiting a fried chicken dinner, the state bird, down in Flowery Branch, Georgia. I had to get road worthy fast and get off the mountain before nightfall. The only way I know to her house is all tiny fast roads that curve, dip and are filled with people who have no idea what I’d been through.

I got in my car, turned the heat up full blast and pee’d in the coffee cup. I did it in that order. You have to look after the necessities and I knew I needed to be sharp as I got myself warm. I changed into dry clothes and waited for the nausea and shaking to pass.

These races teach you to be practical in wholly ridiculous situations. Ask anyone. There is nothing logical about running 31 miles when there is nothing behind you that wants to eat or arrest you. You still have to finish. You have to keep moving. You have to do something.

My Epic Fail, Part Two - Ancient Oaks 100 and the Barkley Marathons

Mike Baker, January 2014

I ran in the 37th Annual Ancient Oaks 100 Miler December 21st, 2013. Ancient Oaks is run in the Enchanted Forest Sanctuary in Titusville, Florida. It is a deceptively hard 3.4 mile course with a weirdly high DNF rate.

The course is root-y and leaf covered with gnarly little palms who’ve grown down across the trail. There is about ¾ mile of uphill sand right at the beginning. Also, it was hot the day we ran and stayed hot until I left the course that night at 8PM. I DNF’d at mile 41.5.

There were a bunch of things I did wrong which I won’t bore you with except to say that Vaseline and Body Glide will save your race if, and only if, you think to put them on --  there are some mistakes from which there is no return.

The things that killed me, though, were lack of fitness and commitment. You can fake it, fitness-wise on a 50 miler but there is no faking your way through 100 miles.  Which leads me to commitment. I had none. I mean to say I never committed to the idea that I was going to run for 24 plus hours.

I had a lot of time to do the math. I knew, even if I ran to the 32 hour cutoff, I was going to DNF. I also knew that if I dropped at 40 miles, around 7PM, I could be home by 8PM having dinner with friends, soak in their pool and drink a few beers.

There is no way past calling this quitting. You can make the argument that it was strategic. Lots of elite runners drop out of races when they know they won’t put in competitive times. The idea is that they save their bodies for more training sooner.

This wasn’t that. I looked at how fun going until the next day might be and decided beer would be more fun. Soaking in a pool under a beautiful sky would be more fun. Anything, other than running all night, sounded more fun.

That’s what I mean about commitment. I had talked to runners who were doing this for the 4th, 5th and 6th time, even running for 32 hours, who had never finished. They had committed. Matt Mahoney said I would regret quitting in the morning.

He was wrong. It took until just this moment that I regret quitting. See,a lot has happened since the race. I didn’t get into Barkley this year. I mean to say, I didn’t get into the race proper or even make the wait list. I agree with Mr. Lake’s decision, looking back at my year, and Mrs. Baker thanks him.

It still hurt pretty awful. I wanted to run it. I had made plans to run it. I still might go and camp out at the primitive site deep inside the park. It’s like visiting the Dalai Lama except that in the Frozen Head version, he’s kind of a sadist and all of his followers are morons. Seriously. We are all very stupid people.

The next thing that happened is I hit a cyclist with my car. I was turning from a stopped postion, barely moving, with the sun in my eyes. His head was down and we collided. He’s alright. The car is fine. It was weird. He was angry at first. That’s to be expected.

His bike was damaged but all he had was a few scrapes. The police arrived. We all talked a few minutes. They gave us both brown papers, information exchanges with no citation, and left. He and I stood there shaking.

His wife arrived. I really expected her to punch me. I would have punched me. She checked on William and then she checked on me. She took my hand in her hands and comforted me. It is so rare to stand in the presence of this kind of grace.

They were both like that. They understood exactly what mattered most when it mattered most. He and I were safe. That was all that mattered. We actually laughed a little.  I had missed a dinner date with friends (for which I was massively under-dressed) because of the accident and was relieved to avoid the embarrassment.

He said he was happy to oblige. I look at all my frustrations and worries and I think, what a waste of time and energy. It was the end of the year and we had both lived. All the things I went through this year had brought me to this.

The other thing that happened, after Ancient Oaks, was that I ran with my nephew Jack. He’s 12 years old and a soccer player. We ran a simple 4 miler that ended in a mile of hills: hill, plateau, hill, plateau, and hill. He had been good company. He smiles easily and he didn’t complain.

We hit the last hill though and he started drooping. I said, “Is that all you got?” and without a word he dug in and sprinted ¼ mile up that thing. I couldn’t catch him. I had to jog it in to the finish.  It’s such a pleasure to see optimism and determination.

All year long I felt like something was missing. I couldn’t ever put a finger on it. It’s like that scene in Pretty in Pink, the woman searching through her purse looking for what see can’t find and all along it’s that she didn’t go to prom.

Let me step back a moment. I trained for and then ran a great 50 miler at TUDC in 2012. I ran it in 8 hours and 33 minutes. Last year, 2013, was a different story. Each race I ran seemed to get worse. I got slower and sloppier. DNF’ing at Ancient Oaks was the inevitable end to that kind of line on a graph.

Last year was hard. I ran 7 50k’s and 40% of a 100 miler. I ran two marathons and two 30k’s plus a bunch of 5k’s I don’t even remember. You read about most of them.  It was fun but here’s the  connection. Everything got sloppy.

I drank too much. I ran a lot but really didn’t train. I was driving my car and hit someone. Nothing really bad happened but it could have. When I was 16 I lived with my grandparents. One morning I was sitting at the breakfast table hung-over from too much wine and my Grandfather said, “You worked for it. You earned it.”

Life unfolds in disaster. I hate waxing philosophic but as the perfect vase shatters, a) we get to see the inside of the thing and b) we are alleviated of the burden of its perfection. This is a running column so I’ll stick to that but the truth is last year was a mess that just got messier with time.

I earned all my wolf tickets, all my misfortune, disaster and ruin. And I had a hell of a lot of fun doing it. Disaster is like that if you embrace it. Life is like that. Running is like that. It finds a way to happen. I’ve said this before but you keep moving because if you stop moving, it isn’t running anymore.

I leave you with this. Life will always be messy. Things will always go wrong. We run because we can. We live because we must. I promise you I will pay more attention when I’m driving. I will probably drink less. I will run with anyone who asks.

And I will continue to break all the perfect vases in my life. Maybe that means something different this year. I need to stop writing now so I can go and find out. May the road rise to meet you unless you just tripped, in which case, ignore everything I just said.

My Epic Fail, Part Three

Mike Baker, February 2014

I need to tell you a few stories. I need to lay all my cards on the table. I ran an awful lot this last year but little of it was training. I ran a lot of ultras last year but none of it was racing. I suppose it’s better than not running or racing at all but not by much.

I had just run the Mountain Mist 50k, which was the most technically demanding and punishing course I’d run yet, and was set to follow that up by running a 12 hour race the next Saturday. I spent the night before the 12 hour race hanging out in friend’s carport drinking and cutting the fool. I can cut the fool.

It was very dark and cold the next morning when I got to the race to check in. We had such a good time the night before that it was only by force of habit that I even made it to the race at all. I got to the race site and RD filled me on what was happening.

Straw One: It seems the actual race start would be a quarter mile away. This meant lugging all my loop race gear down a long windy trail in the dark. This wasn’t in the advance “Hey so you agreed to do this race and this is what’s what” letter.

Straw Two: The RD then explained the course. It’s a timed event with a 4.5 mile course which the RD explained may cause us to run over 12 hours which means our times will list 12 hours and 30 minutes or whatever it took you to finish the extra loop.

This isn’t normal for a timed event. Timed events are usually run on a mile plus loop so it’s easy to drop right before the time’s up or so the last doomed loop you run isn’t an hour’s worth of work “wasted”. The RD then said we could run the loops in any direction we wanted as long as we finished each loop.

The Final Straw: The course was a series of criss-crossing trail loops. Each loop was blazed with different colors. The RD had marked the course using the blaze color for each specific trail, not a color specifically chosen for the race.

This is real important for the times when trails cross over. The native color of the trail you’re on is blue and the cross over trail blaze color is yellow. You have to remember to make the switch.  Most RDs would have picked a neutral color easier for those times in the race when you have stopped cogitating much.

The race started.  I immediately got passed by quite a few people but it was the big guy with the fists full of Oreo cookies passing me which brought home how bad my situation had gotten. I stopped in the middle of the sandy trail and started laughing.

It was so shameful it was funny.  I had run an ultra a month for seven months and like I said, just finished Mountain Mist a week ago, and running for twelve hours was just too much.  I walked back to the start, handed the RD my number and told her I was going home.

She pleaded with me to run just one lap. The RD was confused. I explained myself. She listened to a minute of that lameness and walked away in disgust. She clearly didn’t care. I drove home and took my friend and her pretty daughter out to breakfast.

I’ve quit a lot more than I’d like to admit. I have, in fact, DNF’d four times this last year including this last before mentioned time. The first three were races. The fourth DNF was running itself and that fact I only came to understand this very moment.

I am an okay runner. My 5k PR is 20:44. I had to do two speed work outs a week and starve myself down to 130lbs to get it. My dear friend Z. was slogging 10 minute miles each week and eating like a minister. I only beat him at that PR race by a few measly seconds.

And then Z. got faster than me. I was tired from running the 50 miler out at Wakulla that year and Z. had decided to get serious about training. It just happened. You need to understand that I know he didn’t do anything wrong. He kept dropping me on trail runs though.

He wanted to run more roads because he could go faster. I quit roads a long time ago. Bless his heart; he tried coaxing me into races, not to beat me but to get me running fast again. The more he tried, the more I fought the notion we should run together.

I think that’s when I started preferring my own company to the company of other runners. I didn’t want to have to keep up. I didn’t want what I supposed was their judgment. Z. was running faster and at some inexpressible level I really did blame him for my running slower.

We were training partners and he wasn’t supposed to get faster than me but he did. He got faster because he was better rested, younger, maybe smarter, whatever. He wanted to get faster and trained accordingly. I was falling apart. Your friends don’t care and strangers wont believe you. Z. just got faster.

All I saw was the insurmountable tsunami of time washing over me and I chickened out. I knew no matter how I played this I would never catch up to Z. Maybe I did need a break. He would argue that. Everyone would have argued that.

My response to my wheels digging in was to run a lot of races because I had to do something. Let me tell you though, anyone can do that. There is a kind of flashy dance step that dancers do when they’re tired. It’s not hard at all but it looks hard. That’s what this last year has been.

I’m not saying I thought that, exactly, and I’m not saying that any of my DNF’s were necessarily invalid. I’m saying they were unnecessary. The whole year was unnecessary. It’s easy to show up and slog all day long. It’s easy to get a t-shirt that “proves” how tough you are.  Anyone can do it.

Quitting on races was just a result of doing that flashy dance step. I was too tired to plan or train or recover. I convinced myself that doing lots of big mile races, breaking myself down month by month, was hard. It wasn’t hard, it was just grueling.

Hard is digging in and training. It’s showing up at the track week after week. Its showing up to run with stronger runners than you and fighting to the last inch. You show up and you work when you are supposed to work. You think it out and you do it right.

It’s taking care of the details so you can train and so that training might mean something. Its laying back and thinking out what to do next. Its doing less when less is called for. It isn’t about pride. It’s about courage. 

You put your feet on the floor and you admit to yourself what’s what so that whatever you do out there is what you need and workout by workout you get stronger and more prepared to race because you’re honest with the one in the world that needs to hear the truth: you.

And when you finally go to a race, damn it, you race. You look at where you are and you say, I will fight until I have no fight left. I will do my best and then I will go harder than that. That’s what runners do all day long. Being slow should piss you off.  The proper response to being slow is to fight.

Last week I did something I haven’t done in quite some time. I trained. 

I went to the track on Tuesday. I ran as hard as I could but it was slow and even then I was I was nauseas until lunch from the effort, but for the first time in a while, I cared. I was DFL on the last 1200 but it doesn’t matter. Next week I’ll be smarter and more under control and maybe I will be faster.

It was like waking up. The next day I ran just a bit harder than my normal Wednesday run. The day after that I ran real hard. The day after that I ran through the morning woods, roots, ruts, desperately tugging at the loose threads of my old boundless enthusiasm.

Even Sunday coming up a hill at the back end of ten miles, preparing in cowardly desperation to shuffle it on in, something happened – I forgot to quit. Standing in the cold rain, exhausted and finished running, I felt like an explorer stepping on to the shores of the New World. I felt alive and dangerous.

I went home and made breakfast for Mrs. Baker and the dogs and sitting in bed eating with my family, I felt that for the first time in a long time I had earned all my life’s bounty. I spent Sunday repeating “Someday I will not be able to do this. Today is not that day.”

What a blessed life, the runner’s life.  We have the gift of the stubborn heart. This running life is hard. Our bodies hurt and we struggle and some days we succeed and many days we barely survive. I am grateful for this struggle.

This week, for the first time in a while, I feel like a runner. Someday I will not be able to do this. Today is not that day.

Mike Versus The Viennese Table

Mike Baker, January 2014

I attended a Christmas party where someone asked, “How the hell did you happen?” This is not, as my lovely wife tried to frame it, a complimentary question. It is akin to someone looking out over the city of Dresden, a crumbling bombed out crater, and saying, “How the hell did this happen?”

This is not, for the sake of disclosure, the first time someone has asked me this question. Usually it’s more a declarative statement like, “The boy ain’t right” or involves eye rolling or speechlessness. I’m not offended. I get it.

One might read my columns like you read the Doofus and Diligent comics in Highlights magazine waiting to get your chicken pox looked at by the doctor. I am a cautionary tale. I don’t mean to be. It just happens that way.

I tried being under control. It’s a bad long term strategy for me. I mean it’s a good strategy. Most successful runners employ some version of it. It’s called disciple and patience or preparation and execution. I really only have a willingness to suffer.

It usually happens like this: I have a plan (good or bad, you’ll see are irrelevant), I work the plan and get some success. This lasts for what seems to be an interminable period of time. I see someone doing a race that looks fun or say, they call me asking if I want to run. This is where things go pear shaped.

This is something specifically NOT on the plan. It’s an easy day and this person wants to run a tempo run at say, Fort Braden. I just ran a speed workout the day before and have two back to back, scheduled, long runs coming up in the immediate future.

This is a bad idea, not just because I went and did it but because in very short time, it will get added to the plan. The truth is I didn’t need any help adding something stupid, dangerous or unnecessary to the plan. I come up with bad ideas all on my own.

Take the training run I created for Hot to Trot, a ¼ mile hill repeat at an 18% grade as a long run or the weekly swim that turned into a run swim run and then it became a run swim sprint and then a run swim sprint calisthenics throw down followed up by vomiting in the middle of Summer.

Either way, a functional 35 mile a week 5k plan turns into a 60 mile a week 50k plan because there was a good looking race and then a few extra tempo runs and then someone told me about this other race called the Georgia Death Race and Oh my God! I got to do that, who wouldn’t, just for the t-shirt, right?

This is exactly how crazy works.

I spent a couple years running in the pre-dawn, working full time, going to school full time and being married. If I didn’t run with you, work with, study with you or sleep with you, there is a large possibility we only saw each other online.

The day I graduated I started looking at all the races I’d put off for two years. Also, I have a credit card. Also, see the first part of this story. Mike just doesn’t make good decisions in the wild. College kids in Daytona in the full Sturm and Drang of Spring Break make better decisions.

I signed up for a lot of races. I had a plan, that’s right, a really ingenious plan where I would do a 50k as my long run, one a month, until February when I would do two a month, rest a little bit and then do a 100 miler in April.

This isn’t how things worked out. Thank god, no one is interested in making a video about middle aged slow bearded ultra runners to sell on late night TV infomercials. See Mike lost in the woods of South Carolina or up on a Georgia mountaintop hoping to break his arm so he wouldn’t have to actually quit.

The New Year came and I thought, “Enough crazy - I will race less.”  I should be honest. I didn’t just decide to race less. I was invited to an intervention, for me, put on by another runner who was “concerned.”

Also, a few people pulled me aside to say that maybe I was looking beat up and that maybe I needed to rethink… me. I still had three outstanding races but decided I would forgo them all and then promptly signed up for a fourth in April.

I then decided, I would run the 4th but also a friend had a spot in an upcoming 12 hour race in early February. I would run that too. Okay, to recap, I had three more races left. I decided not to run them. I signed up for two more.

 It gets worse. I then decided I could do two of the three I had previously decided not to do. The two “new” races bookended the 12 hour race which meant I now had a race a week until the middle of February.

That’s right: a 50k one week, a 12 hour the next week and 24 hour the week after that. I have a month off until the middle of April and then one more 50k and when I would take a hiatus from racing until November and the dreaded Duncan Ridge 50k part two.

This brings us to The Georgia Death Race. Its run in the middle of March on the same course as the Duncan Ridge 50k except instead of turning back at 15.5, you keep going until you get to something like 68 miles.

 The race director doesn’t even know how long this race is in totality because there’s no accurate, and safe, way to measure it.  This race has a 24 hour time limit. My 50 miler at Wakulla took a little over eight hours. This isn’t a race.

It’s a monster. It’s Moby Dick. There are places on that course that are dangerous to traverse in the daylight - let alone at night - with a headlamp which might come up if you’re me. It’s dangerous just to think about. One woman who ran the race last year said it was more painful than child birth.

That last bit about the GDR is necessary to put what happened next into some kind of perspective, that the GDR is a very bad thing. Forget Moby Dick. Think drunk Godzilla with Godzilla sized brick bats in each hand and all he wants is you.

How a Bad thing Happens in 10 Easy Steps

  1. I told an ultra runner friend what I had planned for the next month e.g. one ultra a week leading up through February.
  2. I mistook his response, mentioning the Georgia Death Race, as teasing me. He was actually just musing on the race itself but in the land of crazy we hear things. Don’t judge.
  3. I responded via email about how he might be evil. I expressed extreme horror at the idea that he would even suggest such a thing.
  4. I then posted on Facebook, “Georgia Death Race, really?” I was still aghast.
  5. My friend Jim Ball mistook my comment, confusing my horror at the very idea of running GDR, for signing up for GDR.
  6. My friend Jim Ball signed up. I felt really bad for Jim Ball.
  7. I started thinking about what it would take to do the GDR, seemingly more plausible when I considered where I might be by nightfall.
  8. I realized it was still the worst idea in the world.
  9. I told my wife about the whole stupid situation while she was cooking and I was doing dishes. We both knew I was going to do it.
  10. The next morning I looked at the Ultrasignup page and saw the open spots had dropped from 11 to 9. I watched the available spots number decline all day until at 1PM, it was at 6 spots and then the inevitable happened...

It’s days later and I’m the only one surprised by how this all turned out. I was stunned when it all came together but no one I told even blinked. They’d been down this road with me before and each likely knows how it will turn out better than I did.

The first race, the Mountain Mist 50k, is less than a week away. I’ve run the Mount Sano trails before, where Mountain Mist takes place, in a half marathon. I rolled my ankle seven times and took two full blown yard sale style face-plants.

One face-plant involved using my forearms in downhill ski fashion to snow plow stop myself as I skidded down a gravel covered hill. I remember standing in the shower, later that night, picking gravel and dirt out of my flesh for a half an hour.

I told my friend Gordon that one day I’ll write one these where things go right, I win the race, get the girl and ride off on a narwhal. I doubt that’s how this party’s gonna end. I have no right to be running Mountain Mist, let alone the next week’s race or the one after that or the GDR.

I’m stubborn that way though. I have always admired the Special Olympics motto, May I be victorious but failing that, may I be courageous in the effort. I love the gift of running up a very big hill. I love running high in the mountains.

I love that moment, exhausted and looking out over everything, when you realize the world is so much bigger than you. Yesterday I couldn’t hang on for a 9:30 mile on stubbly single track down off Deep 20. I just keep reminding myself how I have a plan.

The Mountain Dew of My Salvation: 20th Anniversary Mountain Mist 50k

Mike Baker, January 2014

There is a section of Mountain Mist called the Waterline. It’s a long steady steep climb up the side of a waterfall. I have no idea how high it is but to my mind it’s high enough. Many people were scrambling up it laughing and jostling. I spent my time clinging to rocks, begging God not to let me die.

There was a photographer perched on a rock right near my head when I was going up. She got off two shots tight in my face which I’m sure was clenched much like my body in a tight white fist of horror. I’ve always been afraid of heights.

I have been to Paris six times and never gone above the second platform at the Eiffel Tower because you have to leave the safe enclosure of the elevator and climb stairs. I once made a friend stop his car half way up Lookout Mountain so I could walk back down the road. It seemed safer.

Last Saturday, at Mountain Mist, I had already run 25 miles when I came up on The Waterline. I was leg shaking, quads burning tired from running. I was a dizzy wreck by the time I reached the top of the waterline. I was about to drop.

I had switched from PowerAde to water around mile an hour back. Even without the Waterline climb, I was in a bad place. I had been rushing through aid stations trying to make the cut offs and forgot to really eat anything.

There are three cut offs that matter at Mountain Mist. The first is at mile 17. It was the easiest one to make. The second was at mile 21 but even with the shorter distance I still had to “run” for it. I say “run” for it because I was only moving my body like I was running.

I learned this fact soon after the second cut off when the woman behind me power walked as fast as I could run, settling me back into a hip switching trot, the lady power walker kept me company until the waterline.

The waterline almost broke me. It took everything not to quit from the terror of it and then all I put into getting to there. I came up over the ridgeline and staggered down the trail sure that I would drop even if they let me go on.

And then it happened, a miracle, my friend Dana moseying along the trail drinking a Mountain Dew which he told me later happened completely by chance. He was watching the race, looking at everything, and there I happened to stagger his way. That Mountain Dew made all the difference.

I remember my first ultra. It was a figure eight course with an aid station in the middle. Mrs. Baker crewed for me. I told her that her job was to make sure I ate and drank something at every stop and, no matter I looked like, say that I looked fresh and ready to go.

I popped loose a muscle adhesion in my calf around mile 10. It hurt like nothing I’d ever felt in my life. I came in to the aid station ready to quit. Mrs. Baker gave me a PB and J, a cup of Coke, told me I looked awesome and pushed out the gate and into the race again.

I never had a chance to quit. Dana’s Mountain Dew was just like that. There he was, “Hey man, you want some Mountain Dew?” And before I knew it I was at the aid station under the cut off by a sizable margin and back in the race before I knew what hit me.

The last six miles were a struggle. I had a massive hydration pack failure. I got passed by the same pretty Korean lady who passed me in the last miles of Duncan Ridge. I made it through to mile 29 with 20 minutes to spare before the final “end of the race” cut off.

There Dana was again. This time it was on purpose. He ran me in the last mile or so. I’m not sure if it disqualifies me. I don’t care. He kept telling me jokes and running. It turns out a bunch of folks I knew at the race had waited for me.

I heard them cheering as I came in and then the ominous warning, “Hurry up you have two minutes.” I went from a run to a sprint and finished 8 hours and 28 minutes. It wasn’t my best time but it’s one of my proudest.

I have heard this was the best it’s been at Mountain Mist. The last few years have been not as cold but rainy messy mud fests. It’s easy to think of the things I did wrong. It’s easy to brood on the loss of fitness I’ve had over the last year.

I might fixate on that but I won’t. I finished. That’s something I haven’t done in the last two races. I needed this, as slow as I was, more than just about anything. It comes down to something a volunteer said to me at an aid station. It was a beautiful day for a run.

It’s been a hard running season. I’ve seen my body worn down from too much racing and too much life. They pulled me at Duncan Ridge for missing a cut off. I refused to continue at Ancient Oaks. Going into the Mountain Mist 50k, I needed things to not go wrong. I needed some redemption.

Dana drove us home that night from Huntsville. It was a blurry funny conversation occasionally interrupted by gas stops where I would wander into gas stations still dressed in my beanie, tights and sweaty mud and race bib covered t-shirt. I looked like a black and neon yellow alien.

I remember there was a missing person’s flyer taped to the counter at a gas station in Dothan. The missing fella had been missing since early December. I was so tired I blurted out, “That ain’t good.” The lady behind the counter said she knew him and she shook her head.

I said, “You know he ain’t coming back, right?” She looked at me real cross and said, “You don’t know him.” I told her she was right, I didn’t know him and then left the gas station with my soda. We still had a few more hours in the car before we got home.

The Georgia Death Race and the Hot to Trot 8 Hour Race:

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. -- Mike Tyson

Mike Baker, August 2014

I come from a family of stone cold losers but that ain’t nothing to scoff at and it ain’t bad neither. They’re regular folk who caught sight of the America dream, set sail to get it and scuttled their own boats on purpose for reasons too horrible to describe to the uninitiated.

I’ve held up my end of that stupid bargain by running in races I was vastly unfit to run, knowing full well I was doomed. I ran the Georgia Death Race this year. It’s a 68 mile romp along the Coosa Backcountry Ridgeline. This is the same trail as the Duncan Ridge 50k which was the sight of my first DNF.

I  got 5 minutes into the GDR and found my headlamp dead as I hadn’t changed the batteries in that particular lamp since the Barkley Marathons of 2013. I ran 8.5 miles through the Coosa Backcountry trails, up Coosa Bald and along the ridgeline in pitch dark.

I rolled my ankle 11 times, took 3 face-plants and fell backward over a felled long and dislocated my hip. I saw the sunrise up over the top of Coosa Bald and sobbed like a baby at its sublime majesty. I also DNF’d 10 minutes later as my right leg was numb and my left leg felt like it was broken in 15 places.

I hung out with the Aid Station crew until they could drive me back to the trailhead and a hot shower. These three good old boys in the truck with me were all knee-slap-guffawing first at my catastrophe which they pretty much summed up as their own experience out on those trails.

One of them let on how he’d had been in a motorcycle wreck the week before but refused to tell his wife until she found him on the bathroom floor, passed out in pool a whatever had been in his stomach earlier that day.

He apparently had three broken ribs and possible something a little punctured. They laughed their butts off as we skittered down the narrow mountain roads, nearly slipping off into certain death 8 or 9 times. It’s the funny thing about our sport. You court death a little.

You push yourself until you either finish or break and that might be dying or just admitting you ain’t got what it took. I most decidedly didn’t have what it took that day but I knew that fact going into the stupid race.

I knew that when we bought three cases of beer the night before the race and my crew drank one of the cases that night. I didn’t bring ultra runners. I brought drinking buddies. They didn’t even ask what happened when they picked me up. They just handed me a beer and we drove to Raven Falls.

We were drunk when we got there. We were more drunk when we left. We were pretty much drunk the whole weekend. I believe I went to a high school play what gave me night terrors as they told me later I’d wake up every thirty minutes screaming and then just pass out again.

It took me five months to dry out and get my training back on track. I quit beer. I quit beer. I quit beer. I quit eating meat. Mrs. Baker is about to get me to quit sugar and gluten. I got no idea what gluten is but its days are numbered. I have become a paragon of good intentions.

The truth is though, is it’s working. I can’t run short distance much faster than I ustacoulda but my body’s all lined up for the long stuff and my brain, hardwired from a year of just going out into the woods running and staying out, is smooth and calm as moccasin-filled pond water.

I ran the Hot to Trot 8 Hour Race earlier this month and it wasn’t my fastest 50k time (6:39) but it was steady and thoughtful. I let gravity do all the work on the down-hills and just steady cruised the up-hills. I let people pass, let them worry about who they were beating and never chased anyone, mostly.

I almost left after I finished the 50k but someone bribed me with a cowbell from the Yeti Running Club and I walked the last hour or so. I met some fine folks who welcomed my company which is rare if you’ve ever been forced to listen to me for anything over 15 minutes. It was just like that sunrise.

My next race is the Chattooga 50k. It’s a Terri Hayes race which means low key and likely a sketchy map but she has such a big heart and love of our sport that I don’t mind getting lost. It’s the last time this race is gonna get run and she invited me to run it.

I was set to run the Barkley Fall Classic, a 50k, three weeks after Chattooga which is to say, I had not planned on running Chattooga but its like this, I can only do some much before that gene I got kicks in and I scuttle my boat.

The BFC is a tough race. It demands your attention. It’s the candy arse trail from the Barkley Marathons plus some stuff the RD found to round a 15.5 mile loop you run twice. It’s a 50k with 32K feet of elevation change.

It’s just that Terri invited me to run the last running of Chattooga. It ain’t never gonna be run again by Terri. I reckon some local SC runner will pick it up and add aid stations; Chattooga only has three and you hit one of them twice with two 10 mile gaps to suffer through.  The trail is only blaze-marked and its pretty much just wilderness.

It’s the mack daddy of stupid races at this stage of the game. But see, one night I stayed up til two in the morning talking to Ms. Hayes while she waited on some errant 50 miler volksmarching her race German walking stick and all, and he was only 50 miler. That’s the level of her dedication. They’ll run it again with a nice RD and better support but without Terri so who cares.

Terri Hayes loves this sport. Meeting her is like meeting one of those punchy old boxers. There is such a majesty in knowing how much they’ve seen and how gentle time has made them that if you are not in awe, then you are heartless.

I remember seeing her at night at Ancient Oaks last year, 40 miles into a 100 miler and seconds away from my second DNF. I was a wretched bloodied mess and she came along, headlamp turned down, all smiles and good intentions. I would not have been surprised if she offered me cookies.

Chattooga wasn’t in the cards until she invited me. I started off by telling myself I would run 20 miles and hike 11, miles so it would only be a long run with a hike. But then I worked out the time it would take to run the whole thing which was only 10 minutes slower than my last 50k and I thought, hell why not just run the damn thing.

It’s like I said, I got this stupid gene and no matter how well intended I might be, how well things are going, I am bound and determined to blow it just because life it too full and bountiful for me to turn down either fork in the road. I will take them both just to see if I have the legs for it.

Maybe reason will settle on me like a blanket. I’ve been racing short trail races this summer, 5 miles and such. I’m slow by my own half remembered standard but I’m smarter, except I’m not. You have to understand this about me or you will just miss the point.

It isn’t the result, it’s fight. It is a way you face that great mystery called life and death. It invites failure in the most catastrophic ways. It begs us to hope and believe. There is a place at Duncan Ridge, as you’re coming down a massive descent at the end, when you can see the wide valley spilling out below you.

I remember being so tired at that moment it was as if stopping and going was the same thing.  Low in the valley between the mountains, lost in the sweep of everything, the immense horizon, the trees, rocks, the ground so muddy and rich it would swallow me if I stopped running,

I felt like the only person left on Earth. I can’t speak for God’s presence but I am certain I heard the universe’s lonely voice in the moss covered lowland calling out to the mushrooms and the worms, the hawk and the boar. No matter which trail I took I was headed toward this voice.

I was in the last few miles of the race, the last few breathes of my existence might fit into my palm as I ran and yet, I knew then like I know now that I cannot be alone. My coming and going from this world might mean nothing like the deer passing into moss means nothing but my fight was everything.

The deer runs unto death to stave off the hunter’s bullet. And it is the same as the 5k, 30k, 50k runner pushing their bodies beyond what they believe is possible, throwing themselves against the fatal wall just to find out what happens next.

It isn’t an ultra thing or a runner thing or even an athlete thing. It’s a human thing. There is no value in knowing that I can do a thing I already know I can do. It is that thing just beyond us that we ought to hunger for in our lives.

It is the branch just above our heads, the pace one breath away from what our lungs will give. No matter what we do, something will happen and we will be richer for it. We’ll know more about who we are. Maybe we’ll be stronger.

Or maybe we will be silent and everything we have remembered all these years will be forgotten. I believe whatever comes is good. If we live as fully as we can live, holding nothing back for later, then everything that happens is victory.

I meditate now. I kneel and let my attention fall to my breathing. When a thought comes, I acknowledge its presence and let it pass. Maybe I won’t go to Chattooga. Maybe all this is can just be a thought that rises in my mind and drifts off like a cloud.

The Pugilist picks, moves, and sometimes loses for over thinking and not fighting. The Brawler rushes in for the slug fest and sometimes, lost in his own fury misses the well timed glove coming up under his chin.

Like I said, I think I’m smarter but maybe not. I’d like to think I’m like the boxer, I know I can take a punch. The trick is getting in close enough to lay few of my own.

A Perfect Day in a Deadly World

Mike Baker, September 2014

I got out of my car and it was already hot.

It must have been cold in other places but it was still Summer here. I don’t mean calendar Summer. I mean real Summer, where the tiniest remnant of the night’s cool might sit right on the morning’s edge - balancing - ready to blow away and leave you sweating.

I kept my t-shirt on. I always start off like that. I’m an optimist. I’m a rube. My Daddy will tell you that. I regretted the shirt four minutes later, too far away from my car to go back and make the work out in time so I kept running. Time is a wolf. I am the rabbit.

The park’s lights hissed and lit my way to the soccer fields. The stubborn moon, still hanging in the sky, carried me to the trailhead dropping darkly into a tunnel of deeper night still left over in the woods. That’s when I turned the headlamp on.

I held it in my hand though. It’s easier to see things when the light angles low, the terrain makes more sense plus there was no way I was committing to wearing it. I would be back out into the moon light soon enough and then the Sun would be up eventually.

I got to gate A early and waited on Z. to show.  The half lit dawn quivered with shadows and things coming to life out of darkness, the furtive almost moments before pure sunrise. Everything is possible and everything is likely doomed.

Z. pulled up two breathes before I could bag on the whole thing.  Something about waiting gets me thinking about things, something about pre-dawn puts the nerves on me. The trees sway. There’s the sounds of frogs and cicada. I am the rabbit.

Z. sits sideways in the driver’s seat and gets his go fasters on. He’s workman quiet setting out his tools or worse, like when your Dad sat quiet across the table. You knew he knew what you did and you knew what was coming. This is his workout.

Z. found these two lengths of trail 8oo meters long, more or less.  One is mostly downhill with three or four rollers at the bottom, all set on turns. The other length of trail is uphill with a 400 meter gradual climb followed by 400 meters of not so gradual.

We run hard but not all out. Also, Z. is pretty fast. He isn’t Tallahassee fast. He’s everywhere else fast and he’s faster than me.  It isn’t running the oval though. It isn’t that precise or as dangerous.  This is speed work for trail runners, wolves and rabbits.

We jog out a half mile to the start, which is a trail that leads down to the lake, and before I’m ready or Z. even finished his sentence, we were escalating to tempo pace and then a sprint. Wait. I was sprinting. Z. was just running hard.

I held on mostly, maybe a few steps back until I saw Z. stop and when I hit his mark I stopped. We didn’t talk much. Usually we talk a lot. Usually there’s a third runner but he’s up in Montana right now in 20 degree weather which must be like heaven.

There’s something about that middle runner that makes this work. All Z. and I have is the distance between what he can do and what all I’ve got in my holster. There is just enough time for me to get it together before we reach the next trail and we’re escalating the pace again.

We do this four times with me just hanging on. The next two halves I start falling back. The middle runner gives me someone to hang on to when the gap between Z. and me becomes blindingly apparent.  I get to the finish and spit and start running again. I’ll be the rabbit running toward Z. who is the wolf.

And Z. doesn’t care. He knows his pace and runs it. I plug. Its good work but its plugging. I try and focus on what my feet are doing, paw back on the downhill, climb the steps on the uphill, I count the hills, memorize the trail, pick my line.

I like jumping. It isn’t efficient but it takes the edge off losing ground. I come off the far right side of the trail leaping a little trench in the trail to a clear spot. Z. stretches his lead out further. The last two halves Z. doesn’t even wait for me to finish. He just starts running.

Running is like that. You know what I mean? There are runs when you’re there for the company of a fine person. This isn’t that kind of run. This is work. This is pack running. I’m not a social runner. No small talk.  I’d rather get dropped than risk slowing you down.

Slowing down for someone is condescending and hangs in the air, makes it hard for to breathe. I know what’s happening. You say it’s okay but it isn’t. You can taste in your mouth like dirt. I’d rather have the wolf behind me than pity.

I knew I was coming apart and had this been a chase, I’d be in the Wolf’s teeth and I wouldn’t want Z. to even look back. I wouldn’t look back on his ending either. Like the man said up on Chimney Top said, “It don’t mean nothing, drive on.”

I search my guts for some last morsel of courage, dig in and tell myself if I just fight I can catch Z. That’s a fantasy but I convince myself anyway, straighten up my back and fight up the last hill. No telling how long he’s there waiting for me to finish.

We jog back to gate A. I tell him I have a race this weekend up in Tennessee. I’ll be here the next Tuesday. I know it’s a lie. He says, What about Thursday? I can’t I say, I’ll be in Tennessee. He turns and walks away toward his car. I turn and jog off down the trail to my car.

The Fitness Crowd is rolling into the parking lot and they stare a little bit at me as I head toward the showers, soaking wet and dusty at 8am. I don’t reckon I’ll ever beat Z. but as long as the Wolf is between me and the tennis crowd, I believe the rabbit will be safe for a minute or two.

The Barkley Fall Classic: When Bad Things Happen to Stupid People

Mike Baker, October 2013

There is no telling you this story without telling how I blew off Terri. She’d invited me to run the last South Carolina edition of her classic 50k. It meant a lot that I’d even received an invitation as only 40 people were invited and I accepted.

I planned for this race. Time passed. That’s when the emails started, the usual kind RD’s send out updating campsite information, cut offs etc. More time passed. That’s when the weird emails started. She was having issues with the park, she said.

There would be no aid stations or maybe a mobile aid station. There would be no numbers. There would only be forestry trail blazes on trees and no turn or confidence markers. Finally, she told us she was completely at odds with the forestry service who didn’t want us there.

They said we couldn’t run in groups. They said we would harm the trail. Terri had no insurance. They said that was a violation of Federal law. They cited 8 other Federal laws we were violating. I’m a “Stick it to the Man” kind a guy but this was feeling like a lone hike and not a race anymore.

Eric told me I could probably just stay in Tallahassee and violate Federal law. This is when fate intervened. I hadn’t planned on running the Barkley Fall Classic. There was a wait list and I was at the bottom.  I offered to be a course sweeper. I offered to bribe the race directors. No dice.

Something like a miracle happened. The RD, the infamous Lazarus Lake, scared the sweet Jesus out of so many runners that the wait list emptied out, leaving 18 slots needing to get filled. My entry was instantly paid for and I was in the race.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Barkley Marathons and Frozen Head State Park. I never wanted to go back there but I knew I had to go. The BFC wasn’t Barkley, by a long shot, but it was FHSP and that had to count for something. Sorry Terri. I made a choice.

I couldn’t see myself driving to both races, 7 hours each way, and running two tough races that were two weeks apart. I chose the BFC. Terri can hate me if she needs to hate me. Likely she’s just disgusted. I’ve bagged on her more times than is right.

The BFC is a 37 plus mile race around the perimeter of FHSP with 20,000 feet of elevation change, conceived as a fundraiser for the Wartburg, TN high school athletic department. The race course hits some famous Barkley masterpieces: SOB Ditch, Rat Jaw, Chimney Top. It isn’t Barkley though.

The BFC is all trail except for Rat Jaw which is a 1 mile vertical crawl in sand and dirt through saw briar bushes. The BFC was too easy to be anything like Barkley. They showed us the Barkley movie the night before to make this point and to put the fear of God into us.

Sitting out in my buddy Jim’s trunk drinking beers after the movie, he couldn’t stop talking about toxins in different local snakes snake bites.  Rattlers will kill you but they’ll hear you coming 100 yards away and scoot so likely you’ll never get bit. Copperheads wouldn’t kill ya’ but you’ll wish you were dead.

We packed that night at the campsite. Jim had a few more beers. We tried to sleep. The next morning we caught a ride to the race start with Charlie, sitting in the bed of Charlie’s  truck. It was the last pleasant thing I did that day.

Look – it’s an ultra – there’s a lot of running and a lot of walking. There was 37 miles of it. This won’t be a blow by blow. Go run it next year. This is more a Joe Friday thing. Just the facts or in the case of anything involving Mr. Lake something approximating facts and, maybe a few lies.

The most important thing to know about the race is that I alternated between pain in my legs (Rat Bites, poisonous plants and relentless forward progress) and pain in my back from multi-hour ascents. I ate just about anything put in front me that anyone called food.  I ate prunes, God help me.

There was 12 miles of switchbacks up and  over the ridgeline half a dozen times, a 4 mile out to steep ascent up a desolate peak climb and  4 miles back to the utter hell that is Rat Jaw,  6 or so miles way the hell up Chimney Top and then a bunch of down to the finish.

I’m not even going to count if I got the miles right. There was a lot of them and most were uphill. It might have all been uphill. I saw five people quit right in front of me all at different places in the course. One dude quit three miles from the finish because he didn’t believe it was three miles away or that the race would actually finish.

I saw one dude weeping into his hands thinking he’d reached a peak that was still a mile or two away. I offered a big corn fed dude 100 bucks to punch the RD. I made sure the RD knew the haymaker was coming being polite and all. I took a nap on the trail with three other runners. Don’t judge.

I met some amazing people. I met Craig who has DNF’d every ultra he’s ever run but keeps on coming. I met Johnny who always kept it easy even when it was pure hateful misery. I met a Sherpa girl who ran down every hill like a cool sweet breeze. I met Susan who danced across rock fields like a ballerina.

Going up Chimney Top, we traded off resting against trees and puking. I ran out of water twice and both times people offered me theirs. We fought together and when the time came, we left each to suffer alone. It had to be that way.

My buddy Jim had run 200 miles out in Tahoe just a few weeks before. I tried to stay with him for a while but he had his own battles to fight. His feet were raw and torn from the previous race, his muscle still empty. We kept meeting up though.

I would leave him and then he’d find me. He’d leave me and then I’d find him stopped against a rock on the mountainside. The last time we connected, I was on top of Rat Jaw and he heard my voice and called up a litany of names I can’t repeat here. He meant it like normal people would mean a warm embrace.

Susan and I raced in the last three miles hopped up on caffeine and desperation. Johnny said he heard us talking and laughing all through the valley. When you can smell the barn, you bolt with legs you never knew you had. I ended up dropping Susan in the last mile.

I finished the race in 12 hours and 20 minutes. They gave me a medal, John Price bought me a sandwich and I caught a ride from a family of racers up to my camp. The lady runner in the truck was downing peppermint schnapps. She looked back at me with dull numb eyes as if to say, It’s just like that.

I was feeling the beginnings of hypothermia out alone in the cold dark night. I met this family of campers who had a huge fire. They welcomed me in and fed me corn on the cob and home fries. I took a shower and drank a bunch of beers hanging out with the mighty Tim Dines, Bill Lovett and Tim Waz.

I got back to camp and found Jim back and in his tent. We talked for an hour like that, me standing in the dark and him in his tent occasionally moaning as his muscles cramped up and his skin burned. Neither one of us slept that night.

The next morning, Jim and I built a fire, drank fresh coffee and ate apple cobbler. We packed our gear and swore we weren’t ever coming back for this stupid race and then swore we would because how could doing anything else. Jim told me Charlie came in an hour late, missing the cut off, but finished.

Driving down the mountain later that morning, my cell phone finally got a connection and I saw an email from my girl Abbi who said my boy Brian was stranded in McMinnville, two hours west of me and would I mind going to get his sorry butt? It’s just like that.

Becoming the Stonecutter

Mike Baker, Octrober 2014

I ran the Barkley Fall Classic this year. It bothers me greatly that it might be easier at 38 miles long than one 20 mile loop at the Barkley Marathons. It bothers me greatly that it might be harder and no one’s talking because all the lies are part of the myth that keeps most regular folks away.

There was one moment at the BFC where this dude came in to an aid station with three miles to the finish and Mike Dobies told him he had three miles to the finish and they were easy miles. That boy sat down in the dirt and quit because he was sure it was another lie, that it wasn’t three miles or flat.

Mike pointed out that assuming the boy was right and it was a lie, it was four miles back to the last aid station and that was definitely uphill. I have no idea what that boy did and I don’t rightly care. A man’s quitting is between him and whatever god he prays to for the courage to give up.

I have quit a few races in my own life. I quit at mile 13 or so of a night 50k because it was hot and there was a cooler full of well chosen craft beer. I quit right before a 12-hour race in central Florida. I showed up hung-over and there were a couple of pretty ladies at home I could be taking to breakfast.

I’m not sure quitting to be in the company of pretty woman counts but it was a quit so it’s on the list. I quit at Barkley in 2013 a whole bunch of times before I actually quit. I know that shouldn’t count being as any sane man would quit that stupid race.

I quit the Ancient Oaks 100 Miler at mile 41 as there are some mistakes, from which, you cannot recover. I had ham and brie sandwiches, I had a blanket and batteries for my lamp. I had no Body Glide. I woke up the next morning, poolside with a melted ice pack on my lap very hung-over.

I quit the Georgia Death Race at mile 8. I had run 2.5 hours in the morning dark without a headlamp. I rolled my ankle 11 times, took three face-plants and fell backward over a tree, dislocating my hip a little. I did get to see the sunrise on a mountaintop. I quit at the bottom though.

I spent the rest of that day drunk sitting by Raven Falls with my crew who were, ironically, drinking buddies. We also drank in Helen, Georgia later in the day and then even later in Flowery Branch, Georgia where we sat through a high school play, also drunk.

I think the only quit I have under my belt that didn’t include drinking, (again I exclude Barkley for reasons already stated), was Duncan Ridge. It was a tough year for me and my training had been weak. I ran a lot but didn’t train much.

I brought a way too large pack. I wore Hoka clown shoes. I carried the family bible, a spittoon and moose antlers. I went Victorian and I reeked of amateur. I was so out of my depth, it took me 25 miles to realize how bad it actually was.

I was coming off Coosa Bald deep into one of those exhaustions that help you see how little you matter in the gigantic swirling universe. I felt lonesome. It was beautiful and haunting if you know what I mean. I looked at my watch, fighting the clock, I pressed.

I saw a runner I’d been trading off with all day up ahead of me. He was walking with a stick. He’d blown out something and the stick was helping him stay upright as he hobbled back in to the finish. I looked at my watch. The cut off aid station had to be close.

I passed the runner with the stick and then descended deeper into the valley. The sun was going down. There was a rise up over a small ridge then coming over it, I saw nothing but miles of trail ahead of me. I looked at my watch as it ticked passed the cut off time. I started walking.

I came into the aid station with three other runners who missed the cut off and we caught a ride into the finish together. I was grateful at the time. I was exhausted and on the verge of hyperthermia. I quit and for the life of me, I can’t make it funny.

I don’t mind missing the cut off. That happens. You toe the line and you have what you have.  The race was bigger than me. I don’t care about that. You do things to see what you have and what you don’t. I quit and that the only thing I know for sure is that I quit.

I run with this guy who is fond of saying you should do more than the other guy if you want to beat him. He’s always tacking on little bits of distance at the ends of things or sometimes in the middle. Most runners cut the tangents in training runs but not him. You go short on the corner. He goes long.

I always went with him because I figured it was what made him so good. It never made sense to me. I couldn’t see how these little bits of effort could add up to anything useful. Like I said, he’s a tough old goat of a runner and I figured just shut up and follow the goat.

We were all going long this morning and he was hanging back with the other runners. This is a social run. Sometimes its brisk. Sometimes its chatty. Its a bunch a guys who’ve know each other a while. Plus, there was a pretty girl.

I already got a pretty girl plus I can be a little hard to take in person and I was a little too much me for my own good that morning. I bolted. You have to do that sometimes. I got far enough up ahead so that I wouldn’t inadvertently say anything to another human being.

That was fine for a while but then I just wanted to be out of earshot lest I hear something that might compel me to contribute to the conversation. That was when I decided I just wanted to be alone. I had to run hard to make that happen.

I have this thing I’ve been doing. I try and pay attention to my feet, the way a Zen monk lets their attention fall on their breath. I “observe” the sensation of paw back, the syncopated rhythm of it. It takes my attention away from the severe lack of oxygen in my lungs and the battery acid in my legs.

I was alone. My attention would drift back to something and I would say to myself, “Thinking”, and then let my attention fall back to my feet. I was well ahead of everyone. Don’t get me wrong. There were a few strong runners back there who could have run me down like a deer.

It just felt good to only hear my own breathing, no words, my feet rolling back in the dirt and stones sputter. There is a trail spur we call the North Loop. It’s adds an extra quarter mile of single track. It isn’t hilly or super technical. It meanders.

It breaks up the monotony of running the almost jeep trail we were running this morning. Wide and flat has its place.  I got it in my head that I would do this extra quarter mile and still beat everyone else to the finish.

I hit the turn already exhausted. I threw down stumbling. My feet going a little off here and there, my breathing wonky as I double gulped air, finally coming apart near the end just trying to get back to the trail.

I turned back onto the main trail and no one was there. It was devious. They were either ahead of me or behind me. I had to run harder now. Okay. We have all had this experience. You are running your guts out and a turtle sprints past as you realize you’re barely moving.

There was no one at the trailhead. I crossed the street. I saw a few runners and, of course, while I was off on the North Loop, they were passing me. I had run slow enough, maybe the whole way; maybe just on the North Loop that they caught and they passed me.

You have to try. You have to fight for it. Winning and losing are just outcomes. Life happens in the fight, real victory exists in trying. It’s like Dana always says, “It is what you do when no one is looking that matters.” It’s what my friend the goat says, “You have to do more.”

It isn’t that if you just keep taking on a few feet here and there you’ll get stronger. It’s that you were willing to do it that matters. It’s like training runs where you throw down in the last quarter mile because that’s how you’ll race.

Life won’t ask you necessarily to do more. You just have to get accustomed to doing more.  It’s you and the hill and the hill is screaming at you and it’s the runner that says, “I’m tired but I don’t care”, that passes the runner giving up at the crest of the hill.

More than that though, in the end, you finish. You finish because you can. You finish because no one has told you to stop. You show up at the 50k, 50 miler, 100 miler to run a race and you don’t stop until the RD says, “Get the hell off my course.”

I have quit more times than most you and I will wear each one of those failures like a medal to remind me of what I will never do again. They are the only medals that matter because they remind me how in this tiny invisible life all I have is the fight I am willing to give.

I want one death, on my feet, and racing toward the clock.

Big’s Backyard Ultra 2014 or My Death March toward Nirvana

Mike Baker, November 2014

The rural south is littered with dogs what generally get called red bulls because they’re red and built big like trucks. They’re a mix of whatever came along that day and took a fancy to their mama and most end up travelers or chained to trees or worse. They got bad reputations.

I reckon Big would get called a brown bull. I don’t know what mix of breeds he has in him, maybe pit, maybe horse, maybe Buick. He’s brown with a head like a cinder block and there’s a lot of him. Gary Cantrell puts on the Backyard as a fundraiser to cover Big’s upkeep. That’s how the race started.

Gary rescued Big, who I believe had been shot and beat up pretty bad and left in a ditch. Gary tried to give Big away to some college kid friend of his daughter. That didn’t work out at all. I think Big got real sad or Gary got to feeling like Big needed a better hand than some college boy.

Gary took Big back but most people that know Gary and have met the Big would argue that was gonna happen anyhow and it was just a matter of politeness shown to Mrs. Cantrell that Big got “sent away” under the pretense of not coming back. Now, Gary looks after Big and Big looks after Gary.

Gary is the race director for Strolling Jim, the Bloody 11w 100 Miler, the Bitter End 100 Miler, The Last Annual Vol State 500k, the Barkley Fall Classic and most famously, the Barkley Marathons or the “Race That Eats Its Young”.

It was because of Big surviving his mortal wounds and Gary’s reluctant compassion that I went to my first Backyard 3 years ago. Anyone who would save Big, this scary near dead shambling old pit dog was someone I would pull into the boat, if you know what I mean.

I knew about Big’s story before I really knew about the race or Gary’s other races. I was to Gary, the dog guy as I pestered him with questions about Big before I even started pestering him with questions about the race which is not like any other race I’d ever done.

And you really have to understand how the race works to understand the rest of this story. The clock starts and everyone runs a 4.1 mile loop which consists of a ¼ mile out and back on the road and then two conjoined trail loops in the hills behind Gary Cantrell’s house plus a little bit of land what belongs to Ben Yancey.

You have an hour to finish the loop. You can come in fast and rest or come in slow, closer to the end of the hour and start the loop shortly thereafter. There are three whistle blows at three minutes to go, two whistle blows at two minutes and one whistle blow at one minute.

The Race Director clangs a cowbell at the start of the next hour. If you haven’t finished the loop by the clang of the cowbell, you’re finished. You can cross the line right as the bell clangs and still be in the race. This goes on until only one runner can finish the loop after the bell clangs.

If no one finishes the loop in the allotted hour then no one wins the race. Those are Gary’s Rules. It’s his race. This race knows no mercy. The first year I ran the race, the Gary bet on the lap I planned on dropping and told me he was disappointed when I tried to quit which I ran and lost on. The bet was for one dollar.

This year, his very own son came sprinting out of the hills, staggering and tripping and generally hauling tail, finally collapsing 27 feet from the finish line as the bell clanged. We know its 27 feet because Gary paced it right in front of his son, as his son - his own flesh in blood still lay moaning broken up a bit in the squirming in the dirt.

I was the first  runner ever, and I believe only, injured on the course walk through, my 2nd trip up to Tennessee to do the race, being too rock and roll to change out of my Converse lo-tops before the walk- through and whoopsied right out the race.

I missed running the second year and spent the rest of that day drunk. There is a photo of me wearing a donkey mask standing by the bonfire swigging a giant bottle of liquor. I would like to say this photo was staged. That would be a lie. This year I had a grudge.

I ran each of my good loops, and there were 8 of them, in 52 minutes a loop. I spent the day pacing off of other runners. I paced of Tim Dines who was too tall and I can run with Tim but I can’t power walk the hills with Tim. His stride is too long and I lack speed in this regard and stride length.

I tried running with Marcy Beard. She’s my size almost exactly and she’s a hundred miler for sure so I figured whatever pace she ran I would get in on time and make the bell. The problem was she runs differently than most people, all people really.

She would bomb the down hills like a dancer and slow march up hills, sometimes shooting ahead in weird unexpected places. She stopped to pick a flower or something. I ain’t certain as I nearly fell over the top of her, blowing my cover as it were and having to sprint ahead like nothing ever happened.

I tried pacing her from the front. I figured if she got in behind me then I would be safe. It meant keeping track of her and I became sort of paranoid always listening for her like she might have passed me and I just missed it. I know how little sense that makes. It’s just where my head was at.

I talked to her at the end of the second lap I ran “with” her. I told what I had been doing and how awful it was and she gave me some advice: Stop pacing off me. Find your own pace and trust yourself. When you stop laughing at that last thing she said, it worked. Mostly.

I went out for the laps seven and eight lap looking for my happy places. You take any given piece of terrain and find the pace and style of running that makes you smile a little bit. The best example is up hills. The going wisdom is to power hike the up hills.

I don’t have a wide stride though so generally its more comfortable for me to look at up hills like a staircase and walk up the steps, sort of choppy and short-strided. It isn’t as energy efficient as power walking but it doesn’t suck like power walking either.

I run with this fella John out a Texas. You won’t know he was from Texas except to look at him, 5’8” and 200lbs a weightlifter turned runner. He ought not a been very long for this race. I thought so and kept trying to drop him.

He kept coming back at me, chatty and grinning. He’d been to Eastern Europe where I believe he was looking for a wife. He didn’t find a bride but sure drank a lot and right about then was pressing me. Getting him to talk didn’t slow him down one whit.

John ended up running over 130 miles. I can’t say how as he seemed like a river running north or rain falling up being he was built like Big. I would spend the evening cheering him on from the bonfire but right about then I was trying to drop him.

I think that’s where things went wrong. I had found my happy place and its running hard and right at that cusp of hard and the best I got. This here race is about being smart. Mrs. Baker didn’t raise a quitter but she might thrown some ciphering my way.

I got talking to this runner named Chris and it was so pleasant I missed the fact we were clocking 9-minute miles uphill. I say 9 minute miles but who knows. It just felt good. It’s something to feel like you just started when, in fact, it’s the middle of the race. Or, as it turned out, the end.

I came in from my eighth lap feeling pretty good, exhausted and a little crazed but good. I had a system. I would eat a few Fig Newton’s, drink Gatorade, use the privy and drink more Gatorade. I would do deep squats and then stand up with my hands on my toes pulling my back into a stretch and then go run.

This last time in to the start/finish after lap 8, I didn’t do any of that. I ate some Chexs Mix, drank a Mountain Dew, and before I knew it I was toeing the line and then running. I started the final loop feeling off. My stomach was rolling with Mountain Dew, my legs felt like lead. I wanted to hurl.

The out and back section on the road is meant to spread the runners out and the group I’d been running with dropped me in the first ten yards. I would doggedly sprint after them and they would drop me again.

And again. And Again. If this were a nature film, the narrator would describe the weak slow straggling deer about to be picked off by the hungry drooling lion; when the narrator said deer, he would have been referring to me.

I caught up with the pack again, around the timing mats and then hung behind my usual group of runners until we hit the woods. I started talking face-plants some time immediately after that. I am not a graceful runner under the best circumstances.

It would happen in the process of either running with them or being dropped by them or trying to catch up. I would cease running under control and begin flailing a bit, causing my trailing toe to catch on something or just simply misstep on a root and down I’d go, legs splayed cross wise, back twisted and usually bouncing down a hill ruddered by my shoulder or my face.

It got so bad, in a considerably smaller distance than you might imagine, I stopped seeing downhill trail as a chance to breathe or run faster. Downhill trail became just a lot of loose gravel and a tree branch or two crossing the way that was sure as the Devil going to be the reason I busted out my front teeth or snapped my neck.

My friend Bill describes this sensation as something like trail runner’s vertigo. He pantomimes looking over the edge of a cliff, his legs going all wobbly and his eyes filled up with the impending doom staring up at him from down below. I started slowing down.

It’s hard to explain but my body just slowed down under the weight of 35 miles of running, cold wet weather, not enough stamina, mental exhaustion and this new found reality that I was bound to fall again.  My body just started shutting down.

That’s when the grim reaper caught me. He was a dude, super geared up in matching shirt, shoes and shorts with match arm sleeves and hydration pack and visor who came in almost dead last every loop. He said he frontloaded the loop. I should be able to catch him in miles 3 or 4 when he started walking.

This never happened.

Then Jeremy Ebel passed me. He had been running 14:30 miles all day. Everyone thought he was doomed. I may have been the first person to understand that this was just his strategy. He offered me some food tips and then realizing I was just coming apart, smiled and waved as he passed me.

My legs were shaking and I could walk faster than I could run. It’s a weird place to be because I’m a runner but as I watched Jeremy run off, I knew I couldn’t hang on at his pace which was almost walking and all I had left was not going to be fast enough to beat the clock.

Earlier in the race, I had worked out times to be at spots on the trail, which allowed me to get the loop done with 8 minutes to spare. This last loop I hit the first checkpoint two minutes behind my mark. I hit the second checkpoint 8 minutes behind my mark.

I hit the third checkpoint 15 minutes behind, a little past the cowbells clanging, my legs had no run left in them and there was a faint gentle breeze. I felt the calm ease of mind I reckon you feel when you done made peace with the inevitable at the end of everything.

Gary Cantrell makes special things. They aren’t just races, they’re experiments we get to conduct on our very souls. Everyone either quits or fights but ultimately everyone loses. It’s what we do with that information that makes us either stronger or chips a little bit of ourselves away.

There’s a bonfire Gary gets going every year as night rolls in to Bell Buckle, TN. It’s his fire and I mean by that, don’t mess with it unless you’re married to him. I once accidently burned my shoes trying to warm up my feet and he yelled at me, not for endangering myself but for putting something in the fire he didn’t want there.

There was moonshine and monkey shine and I don’t care how corny that sounds. It was a lovely place, a big circle of old friends and new friends and welcome strangers. I kept trying to find missing friends in the fire lit faces of these new people.

Jim was home tending his torn up feet, Catherine and Bill who are not married but really ought to be were home in Canada trying to get Tennessee out of their blood, Ray the K just ran 1800 miles for reasons no one can discern, Pat and Shannon who just had a baby they named Plexico. I missed them.

Don’t get me wrong, the new folks were nice enough. There were the two bearded Chris’, Rodney and Greg. I imagine world peace might happen with a bonfire and moonshine or a fist fight would break out and maybe a hockey game.

I drank a little moonshine with Durb and Waz. We had some cherries macerated in moonshine and moonshine sweetened with honey from Waz’s honeybee hives. I talked a while with Bill Schultz about a six day race he just did up in Alaska.

I had made Tim Dines late for dinner at Sir Pizza the night before so I could get some vegetarian brots and his wife cooked up for me and we shared them out to a few fellow vegetarians that night. I shared out most a my beer as well. It was such a pretty and cold night.

This year though, as the hours rolled on to late hours, the circle around the fire was mostly race wives and girlfriends too worried about their men out running through the night to want to tell stories and lie about races. They were thinking out the things their boys would need on the next loop.

I bugged Mike Melton and insulted Mike Dobies for a bit. Tim and Kathey Dines left early to rescue their son from a babysitter. I wandered back to a far field where my tent had been that year and brooded a bit and then pee’d on the spot. I went to bed around 10pm. It was really all that was left to do.

I’ve never done right by Gary in that I’ve never been smart about how I approached the race but I don’t reckon I need to, as my particular style has always been to run until there’s nothing left but heart and hands like that scene in Tin Cup where Costner keeps swinging at the stupidest shot ever just to be the guy who did it.

I’d rather run hard than smart. A man walks into a bar, lays down a 100 bucks and says I can out run all you mugs and then he asks the rummy sitting next to him to hold his wooden leg because that heavy old thing might slow him down. That guy would be me.

I headed home the next day around noon. Some people stayed later, some to the finish but I could see that the race would last a while and I needed to get home and to work the next day. Jeremy Ebel and Johan Steen ran 49 hours in total or 204 miles.

They both quit together. Johan had a flight out to Sweden that he couldn’t miss and Jeremy refused to win on a technicality. Gary, the race director is said to have cried actual tears. He then told them both that they had lost and the coveted entry to the Barkley Marathons would go to no one.

It’s funny to me how Gary’s compassion for Big is what got me here the first time, but the race itself has no mercy for the ill prepared or the witless, the fair minded or real good sports. This race, decidedly has got nothing to do with mercy.

Getting What We Paid For and the Other Lies We Tell Ourselves:
Ancient Oaks 100 Miler - 2014

Mike Baker, January 2015

The Ancient Oaks 100 Miler is a 3.46-mile loop through the Enchanted Forest Park in Titusville, Florida. You run it 29 times, crossing five timing mats that verify you didn’t cut a loop inadvertently, or worse, on purpose.

There is a tiny section at the very end of the loop where you aren’t on a trail. You’re running through the utility area behind the park main building and then through the outdoor theatre where the race started. I heard Chrissie say, “You’re done.” I told her, “Not yet. I’m not done yet.”

I remember thinking that I would throw down my walking sticks as I came up on the finish line so that I could finish the race on my own steam. I remember realizing I might not finish if I threw down my walking sticks and, stooping over hard to the right with sticks flailing, I hobbled across the line.

I had been using sticks, a tree branch and a stiff dried palm frond, since mile 85. I had been making good time up until then when my back, always a fragile enterprise, went out causing me first to lean to the right and then to stoop. I was too exhausted to hold myself up for long.

Stretching didn’t help for more than 25 feet. I tried that for a half mile. The sticks just came to me. It was exhausting and slow but I could keep moving over the course’s varied terrain: the sugar sand mile, the snake roots and then the blessed boardwalk.

I prayed for the boardwalk. It was easy to navigate in the dark, or now having to use the sticks, more importantly it meant Mt. Mahoney was nearby. Mt. Mahoney was trench that lead down to a gulley with the Mount part being old rail timber stairs, too wide to easily ascend, that lead toward the finish.

I say toward the finish because once you scaled Mahoney, you had to cross the sand pit which was exactly that, 100 meter sand pit. You could go around it but with my limited energy and the clock ticking down, just like Moses - I crossed the desert all three loops to the finish.

Chrissie said I looked like a beetle in the sand, hunched over, extra arms swinging out in lazily sideways rhythm.  I scurried into the theatre and couldn’t even remember the cold morning the day before when all of this started. There was just the grind, loop after loop.

If they had told me right then that they had made a mistake and then I needed to go again, I would have started again and then dropped dead moments later. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything left. It's just the idea of having to go back out one more time was more than I could bare.

Mike Melton came up to me at the finish, shook my hand and gave me my award, a piece of paper with a drawing of a tree, colored in, the words Ancient Oaks 100 above the tree and the date 2014 below the tree. The 4 is handwritten on top of a 3. The award is laminated. There is no buckle.

I stood up straight to pose for the mandatory picture with Mike and everybody said that it would make a better picture if I stayed hunched over. It was funnier that way. I think, at that moment, I hated everyone taking pictures and cheering. I thanked Mike and kept walking.

All I wanted to do was sit down. I had been on my feet moving for a day and a half. I still had 300 feet to my car and my chair. People were still whooping it up behind me. I passed other runners in their chairs, glazed and oblivious.

I made it to my seat. This is where the race really ended. I sat, unsure what to do next. I couldn’t put it together. Mostly, I was glad to be not moving. Early that day, day two, I had stood crying on the boardwalk section of the trail, begging Chrissie to let me stop when Dusty came up behind me.

Dusty gave me the biggest best hug I’ve ever gotten and then told me it would get better soon and to get my ass moving. She was right. I got moving again and understood I would finish under the cut-off time. Everything was exhaustion and pain but there was no more stopping.

Sitting there in the chair finished, feeling crushed by all the things that had happened, I just couldn’t put together. Chrissie and Lynsey took off my shoes. It’s a strange thing to have someone remove a garment of your clothing because you are unable to remove it yourself.

It's how being dead might feel if the dead could feel. I imagined looking down at my own numb feet as the Mortician pulled off my shoes and socks. I was grateful to be done or dead, whichever was the case. I’m not sure if that makes any sense.

My feet were caked in trail dust, my big toes were black with blood under the nails and there was necrotic flesh on the side of my toe where a blister had come and gone. It's been over two weeks and that spot still has no sensation in it. It's just dead.

I asked about Sandra, my other pacer, who I was told had left in the morning. She had to get to her son who had been on his own since the morning the day before when she had gone to work. She worked a full day, drove to the race, and then paced me. She had told me goodbye herself earlier. I’d forgotten.

I think I was sitting in the chair for about fifteen minutes when all the muscles in my back knotted into a wretched ball of agony and I told Chrissie to lay out my sleeping bag near the chair, just seconds before my body gave out and I fell, face first, into it.

People in the real world would be prone to ask questions like, “Are you okay?” or “Do we need to call a doctor?” People in my world took video and asked questions like, “Are you ever gonna do this again?” and “How chafed are your (insert delicate body part) right now?”

I rolled myself over and began cussing. I also imitated Richard Pryor having a heart attack. It made sense at the time. I think it had something to do with God punishing me for the sin of my hubris at thinking this was even a good idea. No one got it but everyone simultaneously laughed and cringed.

People only saw me lurch up from the waist, twisting my fist into my chest and growling, “How’s that feel now (insert long expletive)” and then collapsing back onto my sleeping bag. There is video of this on the internet.

Lynsey and Chrissie loaded the aid station back into my tiny car. Lynsey made us all get to the race at 4:30 in the morning to get good spots for our aid station set up. I ended up sleeping between two cars and then restlessly pretending to sleep, in my tiny car, until race time at 7am. I have many hateful thoughts about Lynsey.

Chrissie, sometime after packing up my car, wished me well and headed back to Tallahassee. She too had worked all day and then drove down to Titusville to be up all night and run with me. Please take a moment right now to recognize how awesome Chrissie and Sandra are as human beings. Just do it.

Lynsey got me a driver and dropped me off at the hotel. Walking and standing were almost impossible. Driving myself to the hotel was something worse than impossible. It actually seemed like a good idea. I wanted to get to the hotel real bad.

The girl Lynsey finally got to drive me had finished much earlier in the day. She told me she had been training for the race for two years. I told myself, I was twice her age and had only trained six months for the race which I hadn’t even expected to get into.

The race is by invitation only and I had made the wait list. I was so low on the list though I doubted I would make it and for my sins, I made it in. I slow shuffled to the front desk and then to my room. Lynsey and my driver carried my clothes bag and the folding table into my room for me.

I don’t know why they brought in the table. I stripped off my clothes, after they left, and shuffled to the shower. I mention that they had left before I stripped down as earlier, still at the park, when I finally stood up I, shuffled over to the tree line behind the car and pee’d.

This was only in my head though. I actually shuffled over to the road, where runners were still trying to finish their 100 mile race and pee’d into the road, pulled my shorts back up and then got into my car and waited for the ride to the hotel.

Now standing naked in the bathroom, I negotiated getting into the tub and then managed the shower by slathering my (insert tender parts) with Vaseline and then biting down on a wash towel. I really didn’t need the wash towel.

I was just worried one of my “not at the race” hotel neighbors would call the po-lice after hearing me scream and curse as boiling water ripped into my very sensitive skin. You always think you got everything covered with Vaseline until you get into the shower. Hand to God, every time.

I grabbed the ice bucket on the way out of the bathroom and headed to bed. Look, this is the hard reality. Once I got into bed, I wasn’t getting out for a few hours whether I had to go or not. I felt sorry for the next resident of the room but a boy got to do what a boy got to do.

I fell immediately alseep. I slept for five hours. I woke up and texted Sherry. Sherry is a long haul trucker who also runs ultras, who had finished a couple hours earlier than me. Once, a few months back, Sherry’s truck broke down in a town without a Wal-Mart.

Sherry put on her go fasters and ran 20 miles to the next town which had a Wal-Mart, bought some sundries, had lunch and then ran 20 miles back to the previous town where her truck was being fixed. She takes tough to places you will never understand unless you do this.

Sometime late during Saturday night, during the race or early Sunday morning, Sherry and I were on the road section between the start/finish and the mile of sugar sand trail running. Sherry just sat down in the road. She said she was fine. She had her slice of pizza and would eat it there where she sat.

She said her legs apparently had stopped working. She told me later that when she stood up, her left kneecap had moved to the side of her leg. She hobbled; stiff legged until it righted itself and still beat me by over an hour to the finish line.

Sherry and I met down stairs at the IHOP, the evening after the race, and had some dinner. I’m a vegetarian but right then all I wanted was a cheeseburger. It wasn’t just that I needed protein, or that the idea of a cheeseburger was sumptuous. It was that it was a big California howdy to the universe.

It was a “Look at me. I’m still here.” Mike Melton, the race director, rolled in with his son, a German couple everyone knew but me showed up, Lynnor who I knew by reputation sat next to me and introduced herself again. They were all lively like the previous day and a half never happened.

It was like they’d all just had a nice hot sauna, a good rub down, and a pedicure instead of running a 100 miles. I sat dumbfounded and listened. I’m shy with people I don’t know but practically catatonic around people I admire.

Sitting there at the table having dinner, I surfed the web on my phone, looking for my next race, and listening. They were all telling the little bits of their race that they could remember, telling me about Vol State, laughing at the disasters of the last hours of their own runs and what they saw of mine.

I told them how earlier that day, after the race was over and my so-called friends shot video of my cussing and groaning in the dirt, I swore I would never run another ultra. I swore to God. They thought that was funny. Someone asked which 100 I was doing next.

Here I was sitting at the grown up table at Christmas, still wearing my short boy pants, and no one said I had to leave. It was a real uneasy feeling. See, I’ve done a ton of 50k’s over the last three years, maybe fifteen. I’ve done a couple fifty milers.

I had even run Ancient Oaks the year before, DNFing at mile forty one due to severe chafing of the (insert none of your business), but I had never completed a 100 miles until that day. I’d done it but there was this thing that kept tugging at me like maybe I had faked it.

I had a crew chief, Lynsey, who I shared with two other runners. I had pacers. Jimmy and Juan ran a bit with me during the first fifty miles and Chrissie and Sandra ran a big bit in the second fifty. And I can tell you without reservation that I wouldn’t have been able to finish without them.

I needed them because I needed it to be about something other than myself. I remember looking at my watch around 3pm on Saturday, thinking, If I’m gonna quit, I need to do it now because I didn’t want Chrissie having to drive all the way from Tallahassee.

I kept telling myself, all these people showed up for me. I could not break. I could not stand the thought of facing those people at the end as a coward. And that is the only thing that got me to the night or the first fifty miles. Once everyone showed up, I had no choice but to finish.

Everything, by the way, before the second half meant nothing, that first fifty miles, you just get through them. The race starts at the beginning of the next fifty miles. You won’t believe it until you get there. Just trust me on this. I finished the first 50 and realized I had 50 more to go and I was already dead meat.

You just have to keep moving. I remember at one point in the night, I stopped and shot gunned a cup of coffee and ate two ibuprofen and two Tylenol, I got real light headed, grabbed the folding table of my aid station and tried not to drop on the pavement.

I steadied myself and started staggering toward the sugar sand mile. Later in the night, I had another one of those blood pressure drops somewhere along the snakeroots, which were actually trees grown sideways in the dirt across the trail.

Its dodgy running there in daylight because the roots come a full 10 inched up off the trail. Running through there at night, you actually have to stop and will your leg up and over the root. I was running through there at night and I got dizzy.

My heart was pounding like a bass drum. I thought I was going to die, actually die, and I had to say to myself, You can die but keep moving just in case you don’t die. Die moving. Please no one tell my Mrs. Baker that happened.

I am not a fast or talented runner by the way. My very best 5k is 20 minutes and 44 seconds. It isn’t bad but it isn’t fast. I had to hobble myself with all kinds of runner-induced injuries to get there. My trail 50k PR is 6 and half hours. It was a hilly course and it was August. It isn’t bad but it isn’t fast.

My first complete 100 mile race took 30 hours and 40 minutes. Sitting at that table at IHOP with all those people who ran faster than me, smarter than me, who did not have crews assisting them, who had finished on their own steam.

I never had that moment, during Ancient Oaks, runners are supposed to get where you see how amazing you are for finishing. I felt like a fraud. Over the course of the week after the race, I got surlier and surlier. I got in a disagreement with someone in a store and decided to walk home, 14 miles away.

I was up near Lake Jackson, five miles from my house, when someone I know stopped and asked me if I needed a ride. They thought my car broke down. They had to drive me back to my car which was unlocked with the headlights still on.

This part may only make sense to runners. My daily pattern changed. My nutrituion and hydration is usually dialed in most days, right, I started eating holiday food like a beast. The week after the race, my diet was all over the map.

I wasn’t running so the triggers that usually directed my habits were off. Some days I was only drinking coffee and beer. I drove 14 hours to Texas, the next Saturday after the race, with Mrs. Baker. It was cold everywhere in Texas. It turns out I had a cedar allergy.

I went from surly to manic. I decided I needed to run some and ran with an old friend on Tuesday and Wednesday of the next week. Wednesday was New Year’s Eve. I finished my run then, after my shower, walked down stairs and blacked out on the tile floor.

I had to pick myself up and staggered to the couch where I collapsed a second time. I lay on the couch all night as every time I tried and stand, I got dizzy and nauseous. That is when it hit me, when it finally came together.

The finish line wasn’t the finish line. My chair that I hobbled to after the race wasn’t the finish line. There is no finish line for me. There is no enough. It wasn’t what I thought I needed to do a 100 miler to call myself an ultra distance runner or how I did it.

Someone asked me why I ran Ancient Oaks and my response was, “There is no reasonable explanation for doing this kind of thing.” I was being funny at the time but the truth is until I figure out what’s missing, I could run a thousand miles and find it wasn’t enough.

It’s like Gary Cantrell says, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will only find what you have always had.”

This morning I was driving to work and I was thinking out the logistics of running from Pensacola to the Keys on old Florida back roads. I thought about John Price and Bill Schultz as they made their individual trips across America on foot.

We have, in this life, two possessions: experience and memory. Everything else that comes our way passes with us or by or we leave it behind. Life moves. It’s funny how little the finish matters to me in the end.

There was the time I spent with Chrissie, Sandra Juan and Jimmy. That matters. Seeing all those tough SOB’s laid bare in their own struggles to finish. And there is the day before the race start, before everything changed.

Ancient Oaks is scrubby sandy trails, filled palms and oaks, tropical and pretty. Juan and I decided to run the course the night before the race. The night was cool and we plotted out how the race would work for us. We finished running right before sunset.

A volunteer was putting things into the back of her truck on the other side of the parking lot when we got to the car. She was across the parking lot. She yelled that the park closed a half hour ago. We yelled that we loved the park and thanks.

We left the park and headed out looking for dinner. We were giddy talking about the race, at the thought of what was coming. Lynsey would be getting to the hotel soon. There was beer we needed to drink and gear that needed to be sorted out.

You Gotta Keep the Devil Way Down In the Hole

Mike Baker, February 2015

My real life happens on dirt, the narrow slip of time I spend haunting trails in the morning half-light is all that counts for me. All the rest is what is required. All the rest is a dream I stumble through on my way to the next trail.

The trail has started creeping into the dream. It won’t go its own way. It has begun following me around. I have a drawer I throw wet running clothes and shoes into when I get to my office. You can see bits of grass and a few stones in its corners.

The office chair I have for guests should always be swept off before guests arrive to sit and talk. I found dirt in my gym bag and a few times in my bed the morning after I came home from a late night run and forgot to shower, just climbing into the sheets.

I change clothes for work in toilet stalls and bathing is generally done with sports wipes and spray on deodorant. I apologize for the indelicacy but I am almost unfamiliar these days with doing my business indoors.

It seems an extravagance, too high toned for my liking, to even use the port-a-let when a port-a-let is made available to me. If you and I are out for coffee and I seem quiet, you might ask if everything is alright. “I’m fine”, I’ll say. I’m likely tired and or more likely, already running down the next day’s trail in my mind.

And it is not an obsession. I know it looks like that to you. You, who watch three or four hours of TV a night. You, who follow a football team, buying shirts and hats, tail gate and get angry at missed calls by referees.

It isn’t an obsession. It’s a calling. It’s a discipline. I would say that its like prayer but the truth is, it is more like the thing I have understood prayer to be than any prayer ever was in my life before running. Running is how I feel God’s joy, the expression of that joy of his creation. It flows through me.

It is selfish. It is profoundly egotistical but I look at all the foolishness humankind considers right in the world. I look at wars and religious hatred of other religions. I look at the depravity of human civilization, the sickness of western culture building on and then consuming the Earth like a plague.

Running is the one moment I forget I am human. I forget the sick gambit of working, of progress, of family and faith. Running a lean quiet trail through the dark and as the sun rises, cleans away all the catastrophe of the previous days “work” and the coming apocalypses’ that is my life.

I have all that I need and some of what I want. I have a good life. I just don’t believe it to be a right life.  There is something missing in a world where everything is made and done for us. We are not accountable for our survival. We are accountable to spreadsheets and management.

We are accountable to a dress code and a conduct manual as if we needed to be told how to be in the world, as if our gut was screaming bloody murder at us to just stop. I am not meant to wear a tie. These hard leather shoes are ridiculous. My cubicle is a coffin. I am going to die in this office, slowly, one meeting at a time.

They will push my ergonomically designed chair to the back door, tip me out and onto the parking lot and give my chair to the next poor bastard that takes my place. We have made a cheery slogan of our alienation from one another, “It’s not personal, it’s business.”

This culture of making things out of nothing, money, regulations governing money, breeds fear and horror. It breaks the human mind. We were never meant for this. Ours is the same lot as all the other animals. We are afforded more comfort but too much comfort has made us frail and weak.

Running saves me a little bit from that. It reminds me life is hard all round. It makes me strain and suffer in a real physical way. It breaks down my body so I can remember all the mental junk is just junk, an illusion that drives weak human wanting.

I struggle more than most against this wanting. I crave rich food. I want things. I put the tie on my own neck. I pulled the lever all by myself. I run to set the balance against all the other things I have bought into, all things I have come to see as normal.

I am speaking now to all the runners who might claim running. This is definitely an “us versus them” thing. They need us to buy in to air conditioning and cable, fast food, fast anything. They need us so they won’t feel so alone.

Look, I believe in compassion. I am just more likely to have compassion for dogs and birds before I ever have it for a citizens. I was running down on the Phipps side and I saw this raccoon. It was just sitting next to a bush, staring at us. We actually stopped to look at him.

He tried running away and staggered a bit, his body dropping under him and then, picking himself up, kept off to the woods and out of sight. He was likely not long for the world. Either something bigger would get him or he would just pass.

It’s how my dog Jesse died a few years back. It’s been tearing me up ever since I saw that raccoon. I miss Jesse. He was my close friend for ten years and he died too young. My life is a little more empty without him in it and there is nothing I can do about it. It is just grief.

My Aunt is dying of cancer. I feel like I need to visit her in the next week or so because I have a relationship with her children that would be harmed if I didn’t show my face. That’s sick. I get that. Its just her passing means very little to me.

Running gave me that scar. It’s not a bad thing. Scars are good. We get torn up and scars are our body fixing the damage. Jesse was loyal heart with a wild heart. He squared off against all comers. Jesse showed me like running showed me that we are, for better or worse, only what we do.

I look at most people and all I see is the weakness in my own heart, a deep sickening weakness that makes me frail for no reason and puny at the sight of my own mortality. All I see in my aunt is the petty stupid woman that lorded over my mother.

All I see is the needy sick thing, sick before cancer, sick at birth when someone told her she was unique and mattered before she ever even walked on her own. I am losing my compassion and yet I am full of that puny wanting, desperate for recognition that I matter.

If human history is just the last invisible line at the end of the ruler, drill down to you and understand, you are infinitely less than that. Likes like Galway Kinnell said, “We are all the tiniest flea on the tiniest flea on a body that never even knew we existed.”

And that is just fine by me. It means that right now is all the world there is have. It means, to me, quit looking up. Look at what your hands are doing, look at where your feet fall, check the roots in front of you. Don’t step into a hole when you can’t see the bottom.

It is the meaning in this seemingly meaningless world. We are here to live as deeply as we possibly can, abide as fully. I get that for some people that means their family. They wake up with the bullish imperative to fight tooth and nail for their children, their homes, their god.

This morning the stars exploded across the dark deep blue morning sky, the heavens spread beyond my vision’s reach. We had a few miles back to the cars and work. The trees rustled, gravel tearing underfoot as we raced each other back to the car.

The first going by easily, the second twice as hard, downhill jumping moguls, sudden drops and then the hill up and up until neither of us could breathe. Then ‘round the hill and down a quarter mile of open field and loose dirt.

Charles strained. I could hear his breathing pulling hard into his chest. I felt my own heartbeat, dizzy and pained in my own chest. My feet pounded into my knees, a howling pain. Charles lurched ahead and I, over-striding, pulled next to him as we fought to be first through narrow gate entrance.

There was no time left as Charles pulled just ahead and through trailhead gate, our feet were tumbling under us as we tried to slow down and then stopped, hands on knees breathing deeply the cold morning air.

Running helps me remember what matters. Running, if we care to listen, whispers to us as we run. It says, “Now is the moment you are alive. Do not forget you are alive. You must breathe now.”

An Interview with 100M Runner Sandra Garrett

Mike Baker, March 2015

Editor’s Note: Sandra Garrett, a 41–year old first-time 100-mile runner from Tampa, finished 6th overall in the Iron Horse 100 near Jacksonville in December, 2014.

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Sandra Garrett worked as a carnie, which pretty much makes her cooler than you or me. Also, she’s Scottish which makes her impossible to understand if she’s really tired or a little drunk. I met her at a Torreya running weekend. She’s friends with Juan who I ran with at Whispering Pines.

I was hung over from a house party and he had literally just come from a club in Tampa where he’d been dancing all night. Juan and I share the same bad judgment and she called Juan friend, which made her instant family as far as I was concerned.

We ran all day at Torreya and were a mile out from camp, at the end of our fifth 6 mile beer and brat fueled six mile repeat, when Juan dropped down into a sprint toward camp. Sandra had been just a step behind us all weekend.

It turned out that it had been the newness of the trails, the technical steep climbs and the strangeness of the place that had held her back because on the smooth long road to camp, she muttered a curse, and then buried us like we were standing still.

She’s gangly, she can curse like a sailor, and she’s fit as barbed wire. I had the honor of pacing her a few miles at the Iron Horse 100 this year and at the back end of 100 miles, I had to work to keep up. She finished in a little over 21 hours in her first go at 100 miles. She is a genuine natural runner.

How old are you? 41

Did you compete in high school cross country or track? I did not compete in any athletic fields in high school or college.

How many years have you been running? I’ve been running for 3 years..

Lifetime personal records

What running events do you train for or what are your training goals? I train for next big race or big jump in distance.

Consider your training over the past 6 months to one year.  How many miles a week do you typically run when not injured and consistently running? I trained for Iron Horse over the past 5 months, plan was based on 50-60 miles per week. Followed the plan as close as I could but didn’t always make my weekly mileage. When not training I usually run 40-50 mpw.

What does your typical week of running look like?

How does your training vary over the course of a year? Training is all over the place unless I have a plan to follow. When I have a goal I'm usually more accountable to myself. If not I just tag along with friends and run whatever they are running.

Do you take recovery or down time? I try to take down time after a big race but a lot of time this doesn’t happen! Use step down weeksduring training for recovery.

How much sleep do you usually get at night? I try to get at least 8hrs sleep per night, although its usually less on the days I get up earlier for long runs.

What time of day do you normally run? I run any time of day that I am able with my work/home schedule. A lot of long runs I did after work on week days and at night, most of these by myself.

What injuries have hampered your training over the past year?  I had a foot injury after Croom Fools Run 50 mile last march. Took a couple of weeks off to recover which turned into 6 weeks as I lost my desire to run, so didn’t, then felt bad for not running, thus no desire to run. Vicious cycle!! I try to pay attention to my aches and pains during training to avoid injury.

Do you take any dietary or medical supplements? I try to take a multivitamin with iron, I'm anemic. Also take the joint supplement when I'm feeling creaky. I’m also taking prescription meds: synthroid, for my thyroid; neurontin, for my sciatica; b-12, I'm deficient.

What type of running shoes do you prefer? For road running I like Brooks Pure Flow. For trails Nike Wildhorse Zoom. I race in the same shoes I train in. I have shoes with over 1000 miles on them that I still wear, they are super comfy. Usually I can tell I need new shoes when my IT band starts to bother me during a run.

Do you race in a different type of running shoe?

Do you use weight training? I suck at cross training!! I'll try to do yoga occasionally. Don’t swim, don’t own a bike and my weight training consists of push ups and crunches.

Do you stretch? I suck even worse at stretching!! I will stop mid run to stretch out something that is bothering me, but always neglect to do it after the run.

What are your favorite running routes? I love to run on trails, lots of good ones locally, and try to make all my long runs out there. I'll do the shorter weekday runs on pavement around my neighborhood. If I do intervals or speed work (yeah right) I’ll usually do those on pavement. Most all of my races are on trails too.

What running resources do you like that would benefit someone else? Relentless Forward Progress has gotten me through all my ultras, used the training plan in the book. I also have used an online pace calculator for my last 2 races.

How has your training changed over the years? Over the past couple of years my training has changed only in that I'm training for much longer races and I've gotten off the pavement for the most part. Most importantly I've figured out what works for me instead of just doing what everyone else is doing.

What examples can you give of specific training methods, and what were the results? Like I said I followed the training plan from the book but I switched it up to suit me, took the weekday mileage from the 50mpw plan and the long runs from the 70mpw plan. I literally do not have the time to run 70mpw but I wanted the benefit of the longer long runs. Also, if I had to cut miles in a week I skipped them on a weekday and made sure I still got my long runs in. I didn’t do much of the LSD either, instead just trying to find a pace I could comfortably maintain, then trying to knock that pace down with my shorter runs.

What advice do you have for beginning or experienced runners to help them with their training? I don’t think I’m experienced enough of a runner to give advice to anyone except my close friends. General stuff, yeah but people need to figure out what is going to work best for them.

Discuss your overall training strategy Back to back long runs: I this every weekend training for IH, usually sun & Mon, or free night & sun I'd say over 50% of them I did solo. It gets you used to running on tired legs, hell all of me was tired on a Monday doing 20 miles after working all day.

Running at night: Being in the dark and cold and tired was excellent prep for IH. Just to get out there at night when you could be at home drinking a beer sucks sometimes. I’ve purposely run long out and backs instead of loops so I wouldn’t be able to quit.

Junk miles: I would give up miles during the week if I had to because of my schedule but I never tried to make up these miles on other runs. I made myself be OK with not reaching my weekly target if I had to drop miles. Adding extra miles onto my other runs just made them bad runs. I wouldn’t run as fast as I had further to go, or I would run too fast knowing I only had so much time, or would end up with long miles on the pavement, etc. So then every run that week would suck and I would be over tired, and cranky and hating my training.

Running solo: This is where the mental part comes in. It's just you and the miles you have to run no matter how good or bad you are feeling. I had a lot of shitty long runs like this, just wishing I was done. Running 24 miles and passing your house every 6 miles! I think it made me tougher mentally, resisting the urge to quit. Sometimes I would run this route on purpose too.

Nutrition: I trained with what I used during the race, real food. I also limited my intake the night before and the morning of long runs. I felt it made me more efficient at using what I was taking on board instead of the huge carb dinner from the night before.

Embrace the suck: Pretty much speaks for itself. But getting over all the shit that sucked on my long runs got easier. It's that mental stuff again!

Running on effort: For the most part of my training I didn’t use a garmin and ran on effort alone. I think this helped me maintain a better overall pace on my long runs. I was able to judge when I was going too fast and would tap out before the end of the run, or taking it too easy.

Other stuff: I did some interval runs which I enjoyed because it changed things up and I had a buddy to do it with. Not beating myself up about my training in general was a big part of it too, as long as I gave my best effort. I tried not to focus on mileage and pace too much, if I had a bad day and had to walk for half of my run I still counted it as time on feet. Just to be accountable to myself and what I was happy with.

How were other races useful to your training and why? During my training I ran a 5k, great because it made me do some speed work, which I’m usually way too lazy to do. I ran a marathon, which I used as part of a big b2b weekend, I ran a hilly 18 the day before. I knew I would never quit during a race so knew I would get my miles in. And I ran 100k as a prep for IH. Ran it exactly how I planned to run the first 60m of IH. I ended up winning the 100k, huge confidence boost 5 weeks out from the 100miler.

How do training partners work into the process? Did you have to deal with conflicting goals, between you and your training partners, and how did you manage that? Most of my training buddies are also ultra runners, so someone is always training for something. I got to run with folk a little faster and stronger than me which I love to do as it helps me immensely. Or sometimes I was the faster one and I would be pushing someone else. Didn’t really have any issues with running partners.

How did you decide you were (or would be) ready? i.e. Did you set up a series of goals and then act on achieving them, did you play it by ear.

Describe your strategy for IH 100

Mental:  I knew I was mentally tough enough to get through. I really tried not to worry about the the things I couldn't control, like the weather. I knew I had put in the time and just had to trust myself. I never had any dark moments during the race and never felt like I couldn’t go on. Maybe this was because it was my first one?

Physical:  I had planned to run intervals of 9min run and 1min walk as I had done at the 100k. It worked well for me there and I was able to run the whole 100k. I planned to use this strategy and keep running for as long as I could. I was going to drop to intervals of 4/1 when I couldn’t keep the 9/1 but I didn’t need to do that. I think I had been able to train more at that sustained pace by running on effort during my training runs. I think I averaged around an 11:30 running pace for the duration of IH.

Spiritual:  I'm not a 'spiritual' person so this was not a factor at all in my race.

How did you manage low points? I had no low points during the race. I managed it in sections between AS and never thought about how far I had left to go. I also knew I would have you guys to help me out, and for company in the dark so I wasn’t worried.

Which pieces of kit were most essential? Which pieces of kit did you wish you had but didn’t? Having a crew!!! I knew I could rely on you all to do whatever was needed, whether it was getting me clothes or food or filling my drinks. And the company during the night. Other than that I had made sure I had trained with everything I brought with me. Having food I knew I could eat, I brought my own Gatorade because I don’t like heed, having lots of socks and extra layers of clothes. I don’t recall wishing for something that I didn’t have.

Can you describe what was happening at different points in the race? High points or low points, nutrition issues etc.

Discuss your nutrition strategy. I ate solid food for as long as I could manage. The potatoes and chicken soup worked great for me. As did the Starbucks shots, should not have drank the last one 5 miles from the finish though. I had used all of these at the 100k.

What were the benefits of having a crew and what didn’t work for you? Having a crew was excellent, as I said earlier. I looked forward to seeing you guys. I didn’t just have to finish for my self, I didn’t want to let you guys down either!

Discuss the ways in which pacers were helpful. Discuss how they weren’t helpful. The company during the second half of the race definitely made it easier I think. That was more what I wanted rather than a 'pacer' as I wasn’t really 'racing'. Juan did push me when he realized I was in 2nd which I actually enjoyed, I have no idea why. Maybe at this point I was a little delirious!

Describe why you wanted to run a 100 miler. I wanted to run a 100 miler after crewing my friend Juan at AO 2 years ago. I wanted to feel what these people where feeling as they crossed the finish line.

Discuss mental strength and how it functioned during the race. I’ve mentioned mental toughness quite a bit. I really believe you can train yourself to be mentally tougher.

Did you use mantras or slogans? What were they? No mantras. I do talk to myself while running, I don’t know if it helps, but its a distraction.

What were you thinking about when you finished? At the finish. I was in disbelief. It really was an unexpected finish time. Unbelievably happy and proud of myself. I felt good. Its hard to describe, as you know, took a while to actually sink in!

They can take so much away from you. They cannot take this.

Mike Baker, February 2016

Gary and I have a Tuesday morning patter. Gary says he woke reaching for his cell phone hoping to find a call from me saying I was sleeping in instead of running and I sit in my car watching the clock with 15 minutes until he’s due to show up and I think, I could just leave.

Neither thing happens and we walk as much as we can before there is nothing left to do but start shuffling to the soccer fields and the stop sign we start at and the road we’re going to run. It is the best part of the run. It is all possibility.

I always imagine, heading out, that Miller’s Landing Road is all downhill. It isn’t. It runs uphill the first half mile and then slowly starts rolling downward. It’s where the novice to running this road will get themselves in trouble.

You have to work so much in the beginning until you crest that first hill that when you crest that hill you feel release and ease so that you open you stride up wide, everything lengthening with freedom and then contracting as you slide into downhill efficiency.

Your feet begin slip under you instead of breaking and you kick back more and more violently, faster and faster. You only vaguely remember this first three miles downhill was supposed to be breezy and light as you suck in air and double down on your pace.

The air is cold and burns your lungs and because you are a natural runner this feels good. Your legs burn a bit filling with acid and that feels good. I’m running down Miller’s Landing with Gary. This run is always with Gary and I am pressing him and he is one stepping me and that is good.

We are both fighting for position, both of us try to act like we’re not and both of us trying to steady our voices as we talk. The road levels out and pushing turns to dueling and we go silent. No one will admit it but we’re waiting to see who breaks first.

One swooping downhill after another. No one wants to slow down. No one. Both of us are desperate for each breath as the flat rises just enough to turn the whole thing vicious in my head, until the little hill crests.

The drop is so sudden slowing down would crack your shins and stopping is impossible. All I see is fear and excitement until it all stops as suddenly as it began and my feet are shuffling in the dirt and tiny stones sputter around me.

My brain hasn’t stopped yet and the sight of the lake, all fog and silver and who knows what is out there, seems like a dream and you understand the metaphor, seems like a dream. This is not running hard or downhill or fighting. This space is quiet and empty except for Gary and me and the fog.

The sky is still night dark blue with a stubborn moon holding out against the morning whose impatience hangs over everything. I think I tried to say this then. I doubt it was more than a sigh or a cough. We turn and head back.

The first hill is too steep to run hard and neither of us have our breath or our legs back yet anyhow. Going up this hill always unnerves me. Its only 25 meters but it reminds me how much climbing is left. The trick is to shake it loose before you crest it.

You will know you have failed when you come up over the top and what comes next does not feel easy. The sun is up now. The fog on either side of me is burning away. Gary is reminding us both that there will be more downhill. Neither of us believes it though.

You know you are in trouble when Gary commiserates with you. You’re not feeling well and neither is he. You had better be sandbagging because, whether he knows it or not, he is sandbagging and that is when I know I’m how much trouble I’m in this morning.

My legs are still sore from the previous weekend’s two long runs and my heart is lonesome and poor from the weekend drunken roaming with friends. It is too late to fix. Gary starts pulling away. I try and fight it at first, a surge then another surge, each getting more expensive than the last.

It’s as if I can see up all the way up to Forest Meadows and I just let it happen, It is like watching a movie with a great lone runner gliding into the future we never see because the movie is over except I see Gary ahead of me reminding me that I quit.

It is too much to abide. I begin surging again, eight seconds and then eight seconds more. One burst is followed by another and another until it isn’t surging. It is my pace. I know how impossible the gap is to close but I do not care. I tell myself, “Just crest the hill.” I run each downhill flailing and needy.

I lean in on the next uphill section, stay straight and tall. I wait for the magic angle and climb. I let the hill pull me up and even as I get faster so does Gary. This is his moment but it is my moment too. He just can’t see it. I see it. God sees it.

I used to know the mile markers. The church is mile one and I imagine stopping to pay my respects and how the South is filled with very old Death and then I shake the thought loose and push myself away from it.

There is one last great climb. It’s the one Gary and I would fight each other on if we’d been neck and neck. One of us always forgets the false crest and doubles down until they realize it’s too late and still have half the hill to go, too stubborn and unwilling to back off.

We are both grim faced and pale in our souls as we pass the gate sputtering to a stop. We pause just enough to catch our breath and then push on. It is just me at the gate this morning. I want to stop but I know that Gary hasn’t stopped and I don’t want him to wait on me at the finish.

The road rolls now and curves. It has the smooth prettiness of something that is important but right now it is just a road I am running home on. I am not fighting to catch Gary. I am fighting to hang on. I am preparing to die.

I understand how absurd that sounds but I decide it would be better than quitting. I quit once this morning and so, press up over the last rise. I see the dirt parking lot, the stop sign. I tell myself, “Don’t stop until someone says, Stop.”

There is Gary standing in the middle of the road hooting and cheering me on to finish, “Come on boy, come on!” I double down and double down again and passing the sign, just like that, it’s over. We jog in slow and steady without a pause.

Running partners are better than wives or husbands because they don’t care too much to correct our flaws but they will lie to us about them. Gary reminds me about my weekend and I decide to believe him.

We jog back to our cars and decide to walk a few miles before I head to work and Gary heads off to all the things he has offered to do. Neither wants the day start. There is so much to say before we go, before the day begins and all the good words burn away like the fog.

Flatlander Crash Canyon 50k or Attack of Moose and Squirrel

Mike Baker, March 2016

Brad and I left Tallahassee at 4am. We’re easy company except for things like race day. He was wanting to stop for breakfast. I’d been nursing a cold and a trick back for a week. I just wanted to get to there. It was a two-hour drive and I figured on having an hour to stretch, change clothes, set up our aid station.

We got to the park gate and there was a line of cars. The park wasn’t open when the RD said the gate would be open. They had to wake up the park ranger to let us inside. It was a cold wet morning. This was a small race. 28 people signed up and 21 showed for the party.

The RD gave everyone an extra 30 minutes to get things together. It messed me up. I ended up grabbing just a bag of Mi-del ginger snaps and a few packs of Honey Stinger gels for the race. I left my chair and race bag in the car. Brad grabbed his cooler. He had some cokes and Gatorade. He had our beer.

Everyone was standing in line around the one hitter john. I found the secret hidden multi use john. It felt like a mansion changing into my gear and sorting out my business in there. The other racers  were managing a stuffed up toilet and I was doing toilet paper origami and sitting on one of many toilets putting on my shoes.

I finished up and found Brad wandering around nervously. This was his first ultra distance event. He’s run two marathons and they’d been stone cold bad scenes. He almost quit running both times. I wasn’t even sure why he agreed to do this.

Wait. That’s a lie. I told him the course was flat. You should never ask me for directions or advice. I misread the course description. I’d say it wasn’t well written but I’ve asked a few folks since and they all disagree. I’m just hardwired to miss the bad in a thing.

The course was a 10k loop down into Providence Canyon and up out of it again. The RD started us running the canyon edge and then had us drop down onto a steep switch back to the canyon floor, easy on the first loop, brutal on the last loop.

You reach the canyon floor. That’s when you cross the creek. He told us there would be water crossings. You get it set in your head that there will be water crossings. People just say that. Just the crossing, and over a tiny hill, you descend into the creek for two miles, two soggy shoed miles.

The creek water chewed at your feet, one waterlogged and sand gritty loop at a time. Brad was pissed. You got to imagine him, this being his first ultra, not needing one more thing to worry about even if he could stand running in wet shoes.

He could have run the creek edge if he didn’t mind managing balancing on crumbling dirt. Everyone tried running on the creek edge, and by loop three, everyone gave up and ran in the water. Everyone made the same joke on loop five that most of the water was probably in other runners shoes by then.

No one ever laughed. It was another case of easy on the first loop. Like I said, Brad was pissed. He’d brought these shiny new Brooks Ghosts. I warned him. Its like running Torreya with a someone who’d never run Torreya. You warn them. They always underestimate your warnings value.

The course leaves the canyon, climbing up a ¼ mile worth of hill to the middle aid-station that was run by the Boy Scouts who were the race’s recipient, and had standard race fair: Coke and orange slices. They had bananas but who cares. Bananas are a sucker’s move. If you have to ask, you’re the sucker.

I really had to watch my mouth around the scouts. That was tough. I remember some loop or another, I thought of this real filthy joke and looked over at these kids, paused and said to Brad, “I’ll tell you in a minute. Its just the filthiest joke I ever heard.” This one boy’s head nearly swiveled off his shoulders.

The next two miles, after the aid-station, were all up and down, no flat as such. The course has one of those butt slide down-hills where you either fly or skid and pray you don’t break an ankle. This last steep drop was just as hard first time as it was to run the last.

The last climb was steep and it took you out the canyon and up along the canyon’s edge for a half mile back to the start. I told Brad, “Hit the aid-station, get what you need and start walking.” That is not how things went down. Brad was in a panic.

The best way I know to run a 50k is to run easy, light and loose. That was in my head. Brad though was ticking miles and minutes, racing down the clock. He was racing against his own experience running marathons. He was ciphering all the times I had pushed the pace on training runs until we both fell apart.

We hit the first aid station and he was looking out over the next four laps, peeling his nerves apart, looking out over having to do that again and again again and again. He changed clothes, ate a bunch of food and stretched. I just watched the clock rolling away from us. I wasn’t helping things.

I should have seen that but once you get your race head on its hard to see it for what it is in the real world. I glared and bounced around like junkies look while their dealer is telling them a story about his Persian cat. Yeah, yeah, can I go now? I got to go.

I know that sounds contradictory. You run easy but you respect time passing. You hit the aid station, get what you need and keep moving. You might walk through it but you never stop at it. He set down a campsite with a zip code.

We headed out again. Same loop, same pattern. Run the down hills, cruise easy through the creek, walk the up hills, bomb the down hills, cruise the flats around the canyon. The second time at the aid-station I’d swear he was doing yoga. I swear to God, yoga.

I didn’t even know he knew yoga but there he was, all 240lbs of him doing upward facing dog and happy baby pose. I lost my cool a little and took off. I had to get moving. I hit the switch back, cruising past tourists and out of nowhere Brad was bombing past me.

And that’s how three loop went. He’d sprint way ahead, go hands to knees heaving up oxygen and I’d catch him. He’d bomb a downhill, I’d pass him on the uphill. He was wrecking himself. I should have known something was wrong. I’m not like that though.

I’m too selfish for that kind of thinking. I thought he wanted a race. Wait. I left out a piece. I can’t remember when this happened but he had said something about our pace. I hate that junk. I don’t run like that. I don’t want to know.

You get caught up in where you are and when you need to be at the next place and you start breaking things. Wheels come off. This wasn’t an A race. This wasn’t even a C race. This was just supposed to be something laid back and easy and here Brad was telling me our pace.

I had said something like, “The next time you think to tell me our time, maybe you just say it in your head.” I am a small stupid man. He’d been hanging on to my saying that for hours. I stopped running. I yelled at Brad to hold up but with a few extra words you ought not hear in this story.

This all started off with me getting to do something that I wanted him to love like I love. Standing there staring at him on the trail, it had become a duel or a fist fight, squared off and waiting for something to happen. I said, ‘Brad, I’m walking.”  We finished loop three.

We stood around at the aid-station staring at each other. Brad walked over to the Boy Scouts. I walked over a few minutes later. They were talking about how to start campfires without matches or flint. Brad offered up a suggestion. I made a joke. We both started laughing.

Brad had these ice cold cokes in glass bottles. We drank a few of those. There is nothing like an ice-cold coke in a bottle in the middle of a race like this. We started walking and talking. We had the cut offs clear and away. We’d finish on time.

We spent the next four hours hiking trails and acting the fool. I don’t remember much of the conversation. It ain’t none of your business anyhow. We met a lady named Sarah.  We talked to her a while.  She headed off.

I got bit by a dog. There was this family up on the canyon edge with a big old lab. I’d been petting dogs all day and I just stepped up on this big boy like it was a kitten. It didn’t break the skin. He just took hold of my arm to say, “You’re too close to my family.” I took him at his word and walked on.

I imagine it would be like getting in a dust-up with a dude and realizing it was Wild Bill Hickok. You holster your gun and apologize walking backward in the opposite direction. The rest of the day was like that.

Random strange things mixed up with joking around and hiking. There were these three young ladies sunbathing on a canyon cliff edge. I’m pretty sure that was illegal but as it was near the end of the race, we held off saying anything about it as neither of us was sure it actually happened.

We came up on the finish and the race volunteers and the RD were breaking down the tents and tables. They had put down a cut-off we weren’t even close to missing but it was late and there was only one other runner behind us.

Anyhow, they saw us coming and started hootin’ and hollerin’.  I would like to think it was the joy of seeing us finish and likely I’m right just for very different reasons. They gave us our finishers awards, a pint glass with the race name, and we stood around shooting the breeze.

Brad headed off to change and I sat in my car and caught my breath for the first time all day. It had been perilous. I remember my first 50k, how I almost dropped at mile 12 and how my wife accidently kept that from happening.

I told her that her job was to make sure I filled my bottles, grabbed some food and headed out to do the next loop. And, no matter what I looked like, say that I looked great. I came in to quit and before I could, I was on my way with a sandwich and a compliment.

Brad got back to the car. We cracked open the beer I’d brought, a bomber from the Snakebite 50k. I’d been looking for a reason to open it for and here we were, done with something big and still friends. I wished I had been like my wife. I wish I’d done my job.

That’s just not how things worked out and in the end all I could do was let it go and enjoy the cool evening air and the cold tasty beer. I put on some music.  The RD was still waiting for the last runner when we drove off. I never did tell him that joke.

Failing the Way God Intended: The Torreya 50k

Mike Baker, April 2016

It had rained the night before so the air was cool and misty, the rain’s last breath, gentle and falling. All the racers were furtive, moving around in the dark morning, setting up drop bags and camp chairs, getting packets, eyeing the competition and trying not to see the trailhead.

Torreya is a two loop 50k built on a combination of the Torreya Loop, which is tropical with steep switchback climbs and root-y fast dangerous descents, and the Challenge loop, which has long slow climbs that never seem to turn downward.

I felt strong that morning. I had eaten a pb&j earlier. My stomach was queasy but like I said, this was Torreya and I had come by my unease honestly. My water bottles felt like lead in my hands. I hadn’t used them since Snakebite last year.

My water bottles have straps that allow me to let go of them when I’m running. It keeps me from tensing up my arms but I kept forgetting, thinking about the trail and forgetting what they were and trying to shake them loose of my hands.

Everyone knew what was coming. Those that had no idea, people who had never run the race or run Torreya for that matter, should have known. It wouldn’t have mattered. Tell someone who’s never run the place before how bad it will get and they laugh you off.

No other trail in town is nearly as hard as Torreya and everyone has a story of things going horribly wrong out here. Dana’s achilles problem started here. Chrissie had to be rescued by a ranger who brought her cake to eat, the only thing he could find. I can’t politely say what went wrong with my last go at this event.

Chrissie calls it the Widow Maker. I know you think it’s not that bad. You would be one of those people who, after finishing the Torreya Loop the first time, staggers blurry eyed back to your car, dull from the heat and banana spiders and wild pigs and the hills, “all of those hills”, you’ll tell your friends.

The race start hangs on the sunrise so we all wait. More brooding, more nervous jokes and bragging, a few introductions. Brad, this is Juan and Kathryn. More body lube gets applied. No one wants to leave the race shelter because of the rain.

Marty, one of the RD’s, says a few words about the trail being washed out. She says, “If you see water on the ground, that’s the trail.” Everyone stands around laughing at what wrong things they know are coming to them on the trail.

It reminds me of the World War I trench soldiers shaking the dead man’s hand as they walked passed him. You have to make friends with impending disaster. The runners passed the time mocking it. There was little else to do. The sun finally rose and the race started.

I felt light on my feet. I knew the first bit is down a rutted hill and then a turn around. I hear Brad on my right and then I don’t. Dana and I talk a few minutes and then he’s gone. This was the last time I felt good about anything.

Here’s the back-story. Brad and I have run together since 2009. He’s my friend. He has always thought ultra’s were a bad idea until they weren’t. This year he ran the Flatlander 50k with me. He and I have always been competitive. We can say it’s not like that but it’s true.

We’re runners. I think I’m usually the one going too far with it, though. I’ll push us to stumbling exhaustion at the back end of a long run, when neither of has any legs left, just to see who breaks first. Sometimes its him, sometimes it’s me. Races are worse.

I was injured one year but I knew about this 5k in Georgia that was a flat out and back with a slight decline on the return. I knew Brad could PR there. I knew he needed that. We got to the race and I threw down before I even knew what I was doing.

Brad PR’d but so did I, ahead of Brad and then, after the race I was unable to walk to the car, having doubled down on my hamstring pull. I really am the problem, which brings us to Torreya. 50k was my thing. Ultra was my thing. I had to keep Brad off, that is to say, keep ahead of him in the race.

I kept looking over my shoulder. Sometimes I could see Brad deep through the trees, sometimes he was closer down a hill slow marching towards me. It wasn’t until I heeded Marty’s advice and followed the water, that I went way off course running down a stream to the river and Brad passed me.

I wasn’t ever ahead of him again that day. He’d walk the uphills and bomb the downhills. I would get close and then he was gone. Over and over. I started bombing the downhills and rolled my ankle five times, and then my hip went out on the other side compensating for the bad ankle.

There is a lot of aid on the course. I just wasn’t able to use any of it. I ate a bite and got queasy. I drank from my bottles and I got queasy. I ate a GU and threw up in my mouth. My stomach went from turned sour to a hurricane rolling over and over.

Someone else passed me and then someone else. I felt helpless. Finally, my back went out so that each bump, drop or grinding bit of trail crushed a nerve in my spine sending needles and razor down my legs. It felt like I was sliding backwards and moving forwards at the same time.

You run the Torreya loop and then take a connector trail, maybe the nastiest technical climb in either direction on the course, up to the Challenge Loop. When you come off the connector trail there’s a bench where the Challenge Loop starts. I dropped my handhelds on the bench. I couldn’t use them. I didn’t need them.

The Challenge Loop meanders. Its only five miles long but it might as well be fifty. It just seems to go on forever, turn after endless turn. There is even a section that mimics the connector trail that brought you to the Challenge Loop except, once you descend, you climb again and you’re still on the Challenge loop.

More people passed me around the end of the Challenge loop. Things went really south.

I was supposed to be at the Barkley Marathons that weekend. My Dad was going to be in Tampa, though, and he’s 70. I had to go see him. I dropped out of Barkley a week before Barkley was going to happen. This is a mortal Barkley sin. There is no forgiveness. It means that whoever replaced me only had a weeks’ notice to make plans and get there. I would never be let into Barkley again. And then the plans with my Dad fell apart, for reasons not worth discussing, which is how I ended up at Torreya at the last minute.

Here I was at mile 11 of a 15 mile loop and all the detritus of my life came pouring into my head, waves and waves of poorly made choices, failed ventures, ruined friendships, all the weight we carry but tuck away like books in the attic, all of them falling on top of me at once.

Around mile 13 I realized the things I was thinking, all the horror and misery heretofore mentioned, I was actually talking aloud to the jungle and the bugs, the runners and vultures. It was too much to bear. I started walking.

I was in this beautiful place and all I had to give it back was pitiful sorrow and failed ambitions and poor broken me. The air was cool and the sky had turned bright blue. The pines swayed and quivered with life.  I let people pass me. I waved them on and wished them good luck.

I came up the last hill and crossed the finish line. I took a 25k finishers medal, thanked Joe and set about to find a church key. I sat on the concrete ledge of the shelter and watched as fifteen people came in behind me on the 25k. I had been sure I was DFL.

I spent the next few hours drinking beer and talking to Joe and Marty, listening to other 25k finishers tell their stories. Vince won the 50k. Chrissie and Danielle finished almost hand in hand. Gary Johnston finished. Maria showed up fresh from the Springtime 10k covered in Marti Gras beads.

She gave me a gold set made of dice. We drank some more and talked and waited. Brad rolled in somewhere after 8 and a half hours. We had heard from other runners they’d seen him, standing on the trail and staring off into space.

He must have seen the way home because he was running up over the last hill, slow and red faced but running. We all cheered. We knew where he’d been because we’d been to that dark lost place once or twice before ourselves.

Brad teetered at the finish, seemingly unsure why the medal was around his neck, everyone beaming at the glory of seeing a thing done right. Brad joined us in cheering the last runners, one by one up over that hill.

It was getting late. We packed our gear into the truck and Brad drove us back to Tallahassee. We grabbed some dinner and then he dropped me off at home. I sat on the edge of my bed, dumbfounded at how the day went sideways and sideways wasn’t so bad after all.

It’s been a week since we ran together but this morning we ran the Alford Greenway. We swapped stories on the dark trail, laughing at near falls and bad jokes. There were armadillos everywhere on the trail this morning, scurrying and panicked at our intrusion.

We made it back to the cars and stood amazed at the sun rising up into a dark blue morning sky. We wrapped ourselves in Spring’s last chilly morning. The birds bickered about whatever birds bicker about and we made plans for the next day’s run.

The All-Night Curry Run or Port-a-lets and Why They Matter

Mike Baker, June 2016

I drove up to Meg’s house on Friday. We had dinner out and then headed home to catch up. It had been a month or so since I’d been up her way, not since the Yeti Beer Mile Ultra, and my race wasn’t until 9pm Saturday. I could stay up late with Meg while she worked.

I have known her for almost 30 years. Her home has been my pre-race home away since I started racing up around Atlanta. These last few races she has even been my ride home. Meg is family. “Sister” isn’t the right word; it isn’t big enough for how much I trust her. I trust her like I trust Mrs. Baker.

Saturday morning I went on the job with Meg where I spent the day hot boxing and then we grabbed some Indian food for lunch. We bought Meg a kayak and drove home for a nap. The race started at 9PM but we needed to be there at 830PM for packet pick-up and a race briefing.

I hadn’t planned on running the Midsummer Night’s Dream Ultra. I had planned to run a 40-miler in Alabama. It had been 30 bucks to enter, plus a bomber of craft beer, and involved four ten mile loops that only three people had ever finished.

The runners all get shirts and the finisher’s award is one of the bombers, selected by the runner, from an ice filled kiddy pool. The sooner you drop or miss a cut off, the better your beer selection becomes. I reckon most people drop when they’re ready to start drinking.

The Alabama race was the week I needed to go to Texas though and I had emaiedl the Race Director I was bagging on the race. I really wanted to run an ultradistance event in June so I found Midsummer. It’s a timed event where you can run for whatever amount of hours you signed up to run, trying to accumulate the highest amount of miles in that amount of time.

Midsummer is run on a 1.2 mile loop in Canton, Georgia at Boling Park, a small pretty French style park with wide pea gravel covered foot paths that roll slightly. There’s limited tree cover and multiple intersecting loops. Everyone set their chairs and tents at the first curve next to the aid station. The start/finish was a good 100 meters down the trail.

The mile tally board was out of eye shot of the start/finish so that if you wanted to know your distance, you had to start a new loop or drop. It’s kind of devious the way it forces people to keep moving the full length of whatever distance they were committed to run.

It gets really sketchy if, like me, you don’t wear a GPS and get loopy in the later miles forgetting your studiously kept mile count along a the trail somewhere during the night. I might desperately want to rest, but I also desperately need to know how far I’ve gone. 

I came into the race set to go 24 hours and had worked out a sub 24 hour 100pace; I reckoned that if I could run 1 mile at a 13 minute pace, I could walk 0.2 miles in 4 minutes. This pace gave me time to eat and drink and use the port-a-let without sacrificing my 100 mile goal. It seemed fool proof.  

It is fair to say that I made all the mistakes. Let’s start with Meg. I love Meg like a Sister and her council is precious to me, but I think I mentioned she’s a stoner and that I ended up hot boxing all day long in her car. I might have survived the Indian food otherwise.

I love Indian food. Channa Marsala is my comfort food.  And I do believe that capsaicin is a magic runner fuel; like beer. It makes us wild and dangerous. I also believe I have no idea what I’m talking about. It was 90 degrees when the race started.

The decision to eat Indian food, much the like BBQ incident at Mad Marsh 2013, comes back up, literally an hour or so into the race. While I hit my time goal for the first twenty miles; 17 minute loops, I also puked three times. The first two times I puked in my mouth and up my nose.  

The third time I hurled was mostly in the bushes, and mostly the entire box of Vienna Fingers I ate on the drive to Canton with Meg who, while I was apparently hot boxing. I think the nausea distracted me from my bowels that I only noticed once my gut was clear and quivering.

I spent the two hours running loops and hitting the port-a-let to evacuate everything I had already digested, loop after loop, sprinting in the last 50 yards to make up the time I would lose sweating it out in the blue plastic box I was now calling my home away from home.

I had hit my time goal for twenty miles and, after 4 ½ hours of dysentery, I decided I needed a nap. I laid out my woobie; a quilted Army poncho liner, and went down for a nap in the dirt. I had planned on setting an alarm but instead I woke up with a terrified start. I think I slept for about two hours.

I got up and started running. I needed food badly. I started eating watermelon, kept on ice, in a huge Tupperware vat. I would reach around and fumble, picking up a few pieces with sweaty grimy hands, remembering my time in the blue plastic port-a-let.

No one had hand sanitizer. Each chunk of watermelon I ate became a kind of Russian roulette I was playing with bacterial infection. A Bacterial Infection is a thing that, if you have ever spent days in bed with a burning fever and pounding headache, should terrify you. 

Also, I had had this idea I would go to the race with as little as I could pack. I brought my headlamp, my chair, my woobie, body lube and extra batteries for the lamp. I panicked in the last moments and brought packets of Justin’s Nut Butter, but the heat made that sound like swallowing spackle.

All the drinks were served in tiny green and white Dixie cups. Do not get me wrong; I believe in cup-less races. I just wanted to see how little I could bring to a race though. I ended up sucking down a cup of PowerAde, chugged three more and then slammed a cup of coke; at one stop.

This happened loop after loop. I could see how many cups I was wasting. I could imagine the aid station running out of cups. This did happen in the morning when they switched to much larger Styrofoam cups. I was drenched in fear and guilt every time I ate or drank anything.

I need to tell you about The Grunts, but first I need to tell you about the lights. They decked out the course in multi-color Christmas lights, flowers, and butterflies. There were also girls dressed as fairies who danced around the course, occasionally following runners.

The fairies left around midnight but the lights stayed with us until sunrise. I think they were supposed to be enchanting. They made for good lines when I decided to run lightless later in the night. They had set up a portal of lights around the entrance to a trail that went to the creek.

I’m not sure why they did that except that I believe many runners used that trail as an extra toilet being that it was at the opposite end of the course from the actual race supplied toilets. You know who you were and dude that was just gross.

The Grunts were ROTC or National Guard. They might have been real Army, but I doubt it. They had set up a base in the middle of a back loop and were running with us but carrying 50lb rucksacks in full combat dress including combat boots.

They were required to run ten miles, going from a fast march to a trot as fast as I was going and sometimes faster, discussing strategy for finishing on time. Everyone has cut-offs. I believe theirs was four hours.

Now this trail was run-able in the dark without a lamp. It was broad and even, pale in comparison to the grass and trees on either side of it. The trail felt very safe except for one tiny curve that dropped eight feet down to the creek that lined the park's southern edge.

This one Grunt, toting a 50lb pack and completely exhausted in the morning, missed the road and stepped off into the black nothing right before the creek and whatever lay in it. You could hear the Grunt howling as he slid down the embankment, momentarily halted by a large bush to the groin before he tumbled pack and all, ass over tit into the creek below.

We all stood watching as he clawed his way up the dirt wall from which he’d bounced down. Two of his brothers gave him a hand up and dusted him off. His sergeant asked him if he was alright. He mumbled a, “Yes sir, I think so” to which his sergeant asked, “Then why aren’t you hauling ass, boy? You’re still on the clock.”

We all shook our heads and got moving too. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to us, but I for one, wasn’t going to stick around and find out. Their sergeants ran out to run them in for the final quarter mile, yelling a variety of “encouragements.” 

There is that place in an Ultra where everything starts to hurt. It is not just tired or sore. You get an “empty soul” feeling; everything hurts straight to the bone. All this time slow pounding hard packed foot paths covered in pea gravel had taken their toll.

This leads me to my shoe choice. I had the idea I would run for 24 hours and so I settled on Hoka Clifton 2’s. I had worn them at the Yeti 100 and they’d done me right. I figured the aforementioned pea gravel hard packed paths were practically pavement and the maximal Hoka cushion would save my legs.

Let me back up a minute; the big lesson I learned at Yeti was that there is no putting miles in the bank going fast in a 100-mile race. You are floating a check you will never have the cash to pay. That said, going slower might save resources for later but, pummels your legs worse and earlier on.

Also, I’ve been running in Altra Lone Peaks which have a super wide toe box which has allowed my toes to splay more natural when I run. The Hoka’s have a significantly narrower toe box and my little toes had become hot spots and then paper sharp cuts trapped in my Injinji’s toe socks. 

After 6 more miles, I rolled into the aid station and ate some cookies and started walking. I passed the start/finish and chatted a minute with the RD about dropping to the 12 hour. I know the old maxim; Just keep moving because the bad will pass. I get that.

I looked at the prospect of running into the next afternoon. It was going to get to 97 degrees again. If you add 20 degrees as your body temperature spikes while you power through the 30 plus laps ahead, it was going to be a real death march.

Meg had told me she would have her phone on her in the morning. I finished my loop and texted her to meet me at nine am. I had posted on Facebook about a 12-hour quitting time earlier in the race but that was me kidding around after puking on my t-shirt a few times.

Something really nice happened after I stopped racing. I met a Southern Lady named Gina. I mean Maybelle-on-the-porch-sipping-a-sweet-mint-julep Southern Lady trying to decide if she was going to quit. That is a terrible place to be. My friend Del, who convinced me to run the 24 hour, dropped at six hours. 

Del can run. He’s smooth and long legged and elegant. He’s fast. A year ago Del got hit by a car while running a charity run and it busted his pelvis. It was amazing to see him out killing it for 6 hours, but I’m sure it hurt his pride a little to have to call it early.

I have found that when it comes up that a runner might quit, and that runner's not me, it is best to keep one's damn mouth shut. You don’t want to help someone along on their way to shuffling off to Denny’s. You also don’t want to convince them to injure themselves or to possibly shuffle off something more permanent than pride.

You just listen and nod. Say something like, “Okay” or “I understand.” Allow me to take that back, just nod. Gina, the nice Southern Lady runner, pulled off the trail when we got to her and her daughter’s chairs. They were gone on my next trip around.

I also walked a few laps with an Alabama runner named Miles; yes, his name really is Miles. He had run a 5 ½ hour 50k and then he ran out of gas and then his knee went out. We walked a few loops, trading race stories and swapping gossip about people we both knew. He needed to sit and so I dropped him at his tent and kept walking.

There were two East Asian runners wearing Indian Air Force t-shirts. Their people had opted not to set up on the strip with everyone else. They drove their car out to the opposite side of the trail, twenty feet from the start/finish, and parked next to a bench.

The Indian runners both looked ominous in the dark. They seemed draped in shadows, staring into the distance transfixed on their goal, singular in their will to stay on track. I mention this because as the sun came up, they actually had the same miserable “about to weep look” all the other 24 hour runners had pushing their miles into the daylight. 

I can’t say if that was always the case, maybe the night hid that from me, or maybe they were settling into running another 12 hours and as the sun rose, the heat rose with it and the impending swelter sat on their shoulders, grumbling and picking at their will to continue.

Miles jumped back in and he and I walked the last few laps together. He had come with a team and two of his runners were actually still running. One was set to tie Miles' eventual distance and one was set to run 50 miles. There was another Alabama team there, his team’s rival, so that he narrated both team’s final laps as we watched both teams try and make the most of what little time was left.

Even though we had quit with twenty minutes to go, and would not have finished a loop in twenty minutes, we shouted and hooted for the last runners barreling to finish, one man coming in at the exact last available second.

I stood opposite the long stretch of trail leading to the finish watching him cover ground, watching the seconds tick by as he dug in and doubled down for the last 25 feet, fighting for his life. It is the kind of thing you dream about doing. It is just as glorious to watch.

I was sitting down now, a little glazed and sore, watching the 24 hour’s grab a few things at their chairs and wobble back out. Seven people started off on the 24 hour race.  They were the ones, I thought, who actually made commitments to stick to it for the day.

I imagine they made those commitments days or weeks or months before. I hadn’t made a commitment, even if I told myself I had, because I was sitting down and not getting back up to walk into the afternoon. I heard later that all the rest quit soon after that and there were no 24 hour finishers.

I choose to believe that they pushed on and were only pulled off the course when the RD decided it was just too dangerous to continue. I choose to believe that they fought and cursed him, maybe even sobbed at how all their efforts seemed wasted. It mattered that much to them.

I packed up the little bit of gear I had, watched the awards get handed out and collected my medal. There is an argument about collecting a medal for a race you didn’t do. Juan, my Peruvian running soul brother, would say I DNF’d the 24 hour race. I had signed up for the 24 hour but only finished the 12 hour. 

I understand why Juan wouldn’t want that medal and frankly, it isn’t as meaningful to me as say a Torreya 25k finish medal or my first 50k medal--but why not? Lessons were learned, suffering happened and a good time was had by all. I will, for Juan’s sake, engrave “24 Hour DNF” on the medal's back.

Meg was standing by her truck, redheaded and barefoot wearing a blue flowered sundress. She was barely awake. We drove home. I got a shower and we went and got some lunch at the Atlanta Highway Fish Market. I drank three ice cold cokes and ate some gumbo and fish tacos.

We took her new kayak to Lake Lanier for her first test run. Meg paddled out and around an island. I watched her on the lake’s horizon as she paddled back to me. I waded out into the ice-cold lake, submerging my body into the chop and then stood, baptized by the water and all that came before it.

The Flower that Grows in this State - Part 1

Mike Baker, June 2017

It started a few days ago when I stopped taking my get along pills. I just forgot to take them one day and then kept forgetting. I always know I’m in trouble when I find myself descending into mild weepy sadness over the smallest things: the movement of the elevator as it rises, or the quality of light out of my office window.

I got to the trail this morning and remembered I had them, The Pills, in the car, so I took them.  I hadn’t really wanted to run.  I’d been drinking a lot more than usual for a few weeks and I was hungover.  I was exhausted from my dream the night before.

I was trapped in a trailer, in the dream, with a woman and there was a killer sulking around outside the trailer, peeking in and I had to dial the police while she held the door shut with her body’s weight because I wasn’t strong enough to hold the door.

I kept waking myself up all night.  I’ve gotten pretty good at that.  I can’t direct my dreams quite yet, but I can alter things slightly, move the narrative.  What I can do is make myself leave the dream at will, but when I fall back sleep, there I’d be right back in the trailer, the killer still hunting us, me too puny to do anything but worry.

This morning though, the guys all arrived at the the same time at the trail. I used to be the first runner at the trail, back when it mattered to me to be first because I had time to empty my body of all the fear welling up inside it.

I had that rare chance to leave before anyone arrived, or better, no one might show up and I could just go home and try and sleep some more, but today they all rolled in, one after the other, like a convoy of the disturbing kind.  They are my friends.

“Get on your shoes, find your hat, take your damn pills,” I thought.  Each thing was a step toward running.  Bill said something.  It’s whatever it is he says first thing in the morning and it’s always the same thing.  Then Gordon grimaced and Gary said, “Hey bud.”

I try not to run with Gary these days because I’m drunk too often, and fat.  It scares me to think about running fast and hard with him on the trail or the road, the shame of having to slow down or giving up because the pills I take have somehow taken my will to fight and that is all a runner has, really.

We walked to the trail head.  The run was starting and I couldn’t stop it. I laid in a few excuses for a mile down the trail when I might use them, the excuses, to turn back, bagging on the run to go home and get into bed again.

We started running slow at first.  It’s always slow with these boys because they have almost a 100 years of running between them and they know to start slow and warm the legs and lungs up.  The first mile is up hill anyhow, which means it’s going to be rough.

Then there’s Myles Johnson Road, a series of rolling hills getting bigger and bigger until the last massive climb.  We were a quarter mile into the road when politics came up and a friend’s sudden passing and my head was already a horror show of knotted and cracking, crumbling things around me.

My job pays bills, but it is slowly chipping away at the last pieces of ever being anything other than what I am right now.  My running, a collapsing rusty trailer in the woods off the road, that I am noticing less and less as I pass by it. They are all things I can’t stop from happening.

I have been in three car accidents this year.  I break rules because I can’t fight them.  There are tickets and bills and worry about all the things in the barrel pointing in my face and suddenly I’m up ahead of everyone, building a gap, running away from all of it.

I’m not fast.  Bill and Gary just came back from the Grand Canyon and are running on dog tired stumps and Gordon is, as most days, reveling in the canopy and the sweet morning air.  It is fast for me though and I am pushing.

You know you’re pushing because it hurts.  Your legs hurt, your lungs ache, you want to vomit, you want to cry, you want to quit but I wasn’t quitting; I wasn’t giving up.  I wasn’t heading back to bed and then up behind came Gary, jogging, really, but right then it didn’t matter because it felt like the old days.

The two of us were dog fighting up a hill, snarling and barking out joy at the the gift of misery God had given us and then we were at Maxwell’s, drinking water from the lead pipe tap and then Bill and Gordon rolled in and we were headed back unable to wait any longer to start running again.

We headed back to toward the trail, all of us fighting the hills together, everyone silent and then talking at once, all the jokes were about our imminent deaths because we didn’t care that it was coming for us all whether we wanted its company or not.

That’s the real joy of this game, when you know, really know, how close to death you are and you just run through it like a fog, your body radiating heat as you run though cool, wet, thick air and at that moment your body suddenly cools too, grows clammy to the touch and you are uncertain if you are even alive.

The last mile is downhill.  It’s smooth and it’s the time you can lay back because all the work is done but not today; today, we pushed like the racing men we were and maybe still are right now.  Gary kept tugging us ahead.  I’m sure he could have gone faster.

I am sure Gary hung back just for me.  He would pull ahead and I would catch up, over and over and over, until we were done.  Finally leaning on the fence rails sucking up all the air our lungs would take and heaving out all the weakness left in us; there was nothing left quit.

My Best Guess and Your's

Mike Baker, March 2016

The Judge and I run together a few times a week and we had missed our Tuesday run because he was having a foot problem and I was having a knee problem and so we agreed to meet up Wednesday but only after my Hot Power Flow yoga class earlier that morning.

Our usual Tuesday run is up the hill from the Thornton Greenway entrance up to Myles Johnson Road and down Myles Johnson to the gas station and back, which in not as hilly as the 30k route or as long, but it has three or four nice sized unfortunate hills.

They are unfortunate because they are unfortunately the ones you’ll have to run up if you’re going to run this route but as it turned out Bill was right when he said the first liar always loses because I said I was fine to run to the gas station after Hot Power Flow yoga and the Judge called my bluff.

We ended up not turning onto Myles Johnson at the top of the hill but continuing on to the bridge which is another two miles down the trail, giving us a six insted of seven mile run which it turns out was all I had in me after an hour of Hot Power Flow yoga.

I’m getting old but only in my body, as my brain is pretty much eternally fourteen or so, and you’d think being surrounded by women twisting themselves into pretzels would be distracting, but like I said my brain might be fourteen but my actual blood pumping heart is almost fifty.

I had spent the hour praying to a God I barely believe in to please not let me die here in this overheated room, especially since I’d never had the conversation with any of these women -- whom I don’t believe I had ever met or spoken to before about what they need to tell my wife were my very last words.

And this is just in case you and I are doing something together when I finally shuffle off to Buffalo or whatever happens when you die, make sure you tell my wife the last thing I said was that I love her, whether it’s the last thing I say or it's, “Oh hey look, someone dropped their wallet.”

I mean, I do love her quite a bit but you never know, I mean we all think we’re going out like Allen Ginsburg saying something meaningful but most of us will be face down in the mustard yellow colored shag carpet our mothers-in law never replaced.

The point is, I’m suffering on a run that is easier than our normal run and it's a cool Spring morning when I should be light as air, floating along with all the joy the universe has to offer but the Judge has had this business situation he’s been dealing with and its three miles before the story is over.

He launches another story about a dude that tried to kill himself by jumping off a bridge and ends up killing the driver of a truck and only injures himself which means instead of facing the great hereafter he’s going to be facing a judge (not the Judge as the Judge is a retired judge) and looking at twenty years in prison for manslaughter.

This is when I realize the difference between Jews and Irish Catholics. The Judge is Jewish and I’m Catholic. Catholics are just poorly educated Jews who drink too much and who, instead of drinking, brood -- and maybe they’d be happier drinking and we Catholics could quit laying bricks for a living if we could just sober up and read a book once in a while.

Now on our last run, the Judge and I were under similar circumstances, whereby I had lifted weights in the morning and met the Judge in the afternoon to run this course he’d made up near my job because he is both a good friend and he likes to watch me suffer which, it turns out, is a common trait among many of my friends.

It’s not just that I had lifted weights in the morning but it’s hot out, not really hot like Florida-summer-110-degrees-with-100%-humidity-hot but maybe 80-degrees-after-months-of-cold-weather-hot, and it seemed like a damn desert out there.

It was just that I had lifted weights and it was the Arabian Desert in the Myers Park neighborhood but also I’d started a new diet whereby I hadn’t had a carbohydrate to eat in over two days and here we were climbing the hill at Hole #9 which is a hill of proportions so mythic it’s been mythic since the 1970’s when people ran in dolphin shorts and dudes wore half cut t-shirts and thought they looked tough.

I haven’t bonked in a long time but half way up hole #9 I started walking. But not just walking, I took off my t-shirt and put it on my head and began cursing the Judge in language I am not allowed to even consider putting on these pages.

Regardless, the Judge and I soon parted ways and I came up on some Police arresting four young men who were seated on the curb, hands behind their back in handcuffs with the Police in tactical regalia and pistols and batons and such things as Police are prone to be found holding, and they, the Police and the four gentlemen in handcuffs, were taking up most of the sidewalk.

I tried to slide past, a short bearded sweating shirtless man with his shirt on his head trying to act as if he might be invisible which it turns out he’s not and one of the fine members of the Leon County Sheriff’s Department put his hand where his hip be at.

This is a note to any of the youth reading this story or even their parents, you never ever never want to see any member of law enforcement put his hand where his hip be at because that is where his Glock 9mm is kept.

I am a middle aged, chubby bearded white collar office worker heading to my job after, albiet shirtless with my shirt on my head, after an afternoon run through the neighborhoods around where I hold my white collar office job and here is this fine upstanding member of Leon County’s law enforcement community with his hand where is hip be at and I might had pee’d myself just a little.

Now I’m telling the Judge this story, about the very fine member of the Leon Law Enforcement community putting his hand where his hip be at and all the tactical gear and the four fellas sitting on the sidewalk, as we're running along on the way back to our cars, his is a truck an mine is a car, when I let out with a pitch perfect, “We had rakes and shovels and other implements of destruction…”

I want to pause a moment in my story to tell you that I have a lot friends who are hippies and they’re fine people, much like the very fine upstanding members of the Leon County law enforcement community and particularly the very fine upstanding member of the Leon county law enforcement community who had his hand on his Glock who didn’t shoot me, except perhaps that hippies are likely to smoke more weed then the fine members of the Leon County law enforcement community which I’m not saying is the case with the very excellent member of the Leon County law enforcement community that most definitely has his hand where his hip be at as I tried gingerly to avoid eye contact and just get inside my office to my white collar job.

I just never thought of myself as a hippie, well I might have joined the back to the land movement back in the 70’s, had I been there back in the 70’s, but I wouldn’t have been one of those sturdy folks still living there out on the land now, but one of those skinny starving folks hitchhiking back to town to call his parents for bus money home.

But really the thing I want to tell you about is the little West Indian fella I saw the other day because, like I said earlier, I’m getting old and things are breaking down a little and so the day before I ran up 120 stories of stairs after running three miles and found, for reasons still unknown to me, I could bend my left leg and I was having knee problems, like I said.

The West Indian doctor fella had this dumpy office and he looked like a retired third world general on the outs with money, kind of stuffed into old clothes in a cold drafty office what wasn’t so much furnished as his office has stuff in it, like a desk and some bone models scattered around, a foot here and skull there, papers and a calendar book.

Like I said I’m not a hippie but I know a few and there I was on the trail running, able to quote in pitch perfect tone Arlo Guthrie’s line from Alice’s restaurant Massacree, “Shovels and rakes and other implements of destruction.”

And here I was getting something between physical therapy and some kind West Indian body magic and paying good money to get it done, and I was back on my heels feeling humbled in this old fella's presence like I might be the only person who knew he was actually the Dalai Lama.

And there I was on the trail running home with the Judge and I remember this old West Indian fella that might be the Dalai Lama, gentle and kind as a lamb, but cranky and decisive at the same time and I remembered the way I knew how to be that fourteen-year-old boy, the one my Mama was proud of, and just said, Yes Sir, a lot.

And the Judge was worrying about his business situation again and I found myself saying yes sir a little bit but not actually yes sir as that would be weird like hugging your wrestling coach weird because you generally want to punch your wrestling coach’s lights out for making you run stairs until you puked.

I mean yes sir like you might get your uncle a beer because he’s your uncle and even if he’s already a little drunk, you’re gonna drive him home and listen to his story for the fifteenth time about getting divorced that night because mostly you’re glad you got him home in one piece and somehow you’re glad to hear that story again on the long dark drive taking him home because some day one of you won’t be there and that drive will be lonely and quiet.

Janky: Ten Things I Need You to Know About the Torreya 50k

Mike Baker, April 2018

ONE

My relationship with the Torreya 50k is like that girlfriend you’ve had since the 90’s, Ms. On-again, off-again. She’ll call you up and you're like, “Maybe it’ll work this time” and its great for a little while but inevitably one of you ends up crying in the kitchen on a deputy sheriff’s shoulder while the other one is drunk, face down in handcuffs on the mustard yellow carpet of your double-wide calling the three deputies restraining her all kinds of horrible names in-between yelling “I love you baby” and as all four deputies carry her out of the trailer, a limb in each hand, you whisper, “I know” tapping into that part of you that likes your women like you like your rollercoasters: fast, dangerous and out of control. The worst part is you’ll bail her out in the morning and the two of you will laugh about it over the one All Star Breakfast you can afford now at Waffle House and then you’ll walk the three miles back to your trailer because you sold the 1978 El Camino to get her bail and her boyfriend said there wasn’t enough room in his I-Roc for three people.

This is not hyperbole. You go out on your first Torreya 50k high speed, all your weakness left behind after a few thousand miles of training runs, and you finish like a dog foaming at the mouth, furtive and slightly dangerous. Your next Torreya ends at the 25k as you’re beset with multiple trips off trail squatting in the mud, followed by shotgunning a couple of Mountain Dew and ending with you spending the next twenty-four hours in the fetal position in a hotel room bed, wracked with fever and many trips to the bathroom uncertain which end needed to be over the toilet first.

Or maybe you’re babbling and yelling to yourself at mile twelve as the you realize how out of shape you really are and how you’d rather be drinking with the volunteers. And maybe it’s okay that you’re having a nervous breakdown, that your doctor’s suggestion to start taking something for OCD and panic attacks is a good idea or you know, anything you might be thinking but you drop at the end of the 25k.

This could go on for years. Or whatever. My point is that this year, after two whole months of training that included some running and some yoga and a Stairmaster, you might not be as ready as you think.

TWO

Juan and Elizabeth didn’t show up for the start of the race. They had driven from south Florida to run at Torreya and one would have expected them at the start. Brad and I ran down to the bridge, the first mile at Torreya is a downhill half mile to a stone bridge and then back up the hill to the start again that runners call the stupid mile, which is when we found Juan and Elizabeth who were hurriedly getting dressed at the Start/Finish and who informed me that I told them the race started at 7:30 instead of 7.

THREE

Brad stopped to use the only modern toilet in the park at the start/finish which we left and came back to a mile ago. This is where Dale passed us the first time. I don’t remember where we passed Dale but it wasn’t for long because you are generally on the wrong trail when the trail blazes turn blue which took us about a quarter mile to figure out and Dale passed us again.

FOUR

If you are not a runner you may not be familiar with this phenomenon but runners negotiate with themselves. Usually it works like this: I will run hard until I get to that tree up there and then I can stop running hard. And as soon as you pass the tree, you make another deal to run hard to the mailbox or the big rock or the dead possum in the middle of the road or whatever. I was, at around mile 5 however, negotiating how to drop down to the 25k. Don’t say it. I know. Something about quitters never winning. I should have seen that coming being that I haven’t finished the 50k in five years. Blah, blah, blah. I’m an optimist, like Custer or anyone that fights Rocky twice.

The hills are consistently in front of you, one after another, eating away at your legs and your mind and your heart. No matter how much food I ate, water I drank, I could feel my legs fading. I didn’t say anything to Brad of course. He had developed his own strategy. He started pulling. It’s a runner thing. The idea is to one or two step ahead of the other runner to get them to work harder. This assumes they want to keep up or they even can. I did my best for most of the course but near the end, say the last five miles, Brad had to actually wait on me to show up. Juan, who was half an hour behind us and running the course goofy footed, caught us at one point while Brad stood on a hill top, arms akimbo, waiting.

FIVE

You should know about the rain. I don’t remember what mile it was when the rain hit but first it was a light drizzle and then it was hard rain and then there was lightning and thunder which is kind of funny because, scared or not, you’re two and half miles from the finish so it doesn’t really matter how afraid you are, you’re still two and half miles away from shelter. Laughing, followed by running as fast as you can, just makes sense.

SIX

It went like this: I would trudge halfway up a hill and then, determined not to get dropped by Brad, start running. I would catch Brad right at the top of the hill at which time, he would start running and I would have to keep running. You should note here that I had to run to catch Brad as he was walking.

SEVEN

I want to take a moment and explain Brad. Did you ever see that After School Special with Scott Baio as the skateboarder that starts smoking marijuana? Brad is Jack’s brother (Scott Baio) who keeps Jack from getting into trouble with their Dad because Jack was stoned and almost accidentally killed his brother while he was rowing a boat and Jack hits his brother in the head with an oar but pulls him to safety and Jack’s brother tells their Dad he ran into a tree and knocked himself out to keep Jack out of trouble except instead of lying to our Dad, he hung out with me while I struggled to finish the 25k. Maybe he’s more like Han Solo. He had the money from Princess Leia. He could have cruised off to pay his debt to Jabba the Hutt but he came back and pretty much saved the rebellion. That’s Brad.

EIGHT

Running downhill is the gift hills give runners everywhere except at the Torreya 50k. Descents will, at the Torreya 50k, make you miss the slow, steady grind of ascents. There are your “I’m getting too old for this mess” eroded staircases of roots and bad life decision descents. There are descents that look sweet at the top. You cruise up over the hill in a nice, wide open gait only to discover the pitch has just tripled and you now can’t stop running because the only thing gonna break your fall is your backside or the rocky gorge at the bottom of the hill. Torreya has a second, even more fun version of this, where the hill is on the side of hill where you might end up barrel rolling down or a cliff with a 50-foot drop to your right. Mostly though, for me on Saturday, they were just there. And at the back end of 15 simple miles, it hurt running down hills as much, or even more, than running up hills.

NINE

I bought this very expensive bottle of beer a few years ago and I told Dale that we’d drink it this year at Torreya when we finished the 50k which I hope, at this point, you get didn’t happen. It never feels good to quit a race. My previous Torreya 50k DNF’s, you get a 25k finish but you know why you were there and it ain’t what you did, weren’t hard. I wasn’t really in it for more than a good run followed by a few beers. This year, I believed I had 50k finish and I didn’t. I felt broken, beyond exhausted and I could hear my Daddy calling me a coward. I just didn’t have the heart to go out again. I told Maria about it and she said she could have told me it was going to go that way and that hurt to hear. I think I should have seen it myself. It’s that I’ve always been a Tigger, bouncing in and out of peril, and sometimes that pays the rent and sometimes the check don’t kite. I usually hang around until the last runner shows up exhausted and grinning but I couldn’t bear it Saturday. I didn’t have a beer. I still haven’t had a beer.

TEN

An old running partner was fond of telling me that I only dressed like a trail runner and that I was, in fact, a road runner to the center of my tiny Grinch heart. It's true I started running on trails to build my miles, as trail running is just easier on the legs than roads. I was going to break 20 minutes in the 5k. I never broke 20 minutes and I stopped running 5k races. We have so many trails in Tallahassee and they are all beautiful. I fell in love with dirt. Torreya is one of the few places though that we have that feels like wilderness. Most trails are bordered by developments and roads and schools. Torreya just rolls and rolls. It has real predators wandering around it. You might be deep in a humid tropical bog and minutes later, high up in a piney wood. It has a grand old river. It has peril and history. I have given away almost all of my race medals but not the ones from Torreya. Torreya isn’t a race. It’s a donnybrook and a muck up. It's a family reunion. Brad and I were cruising down this broad hill section in a torrential downpour toward an ever widening, black muddy creek and Brad, not even breaking stride tight rope ran across a random assortment of logs and rocks and rotten wood. I jumped as high as I could and smashed, splashing down into the water, laughing as I landed. And then, scurrying out and up the next hill, trying to catch up to him again.

The History of Dogs

Mike Baker, May 2018

I

Greta was an Australian cattle dog we had been fostering. She had spent most of her life tied to a porch and had lost her appetite for being a dog.  Greta would lay in the grass like she was dead. She wouldn’t even pick a sunny spot. We would take her to the dog park and she would lay in the dirt if that was next to where we sat down. The other dogs would swoop past us in a tight peloton, leaning into the turn and chasing the lead dog. She wouldn’t even follow them with her eyes.

This went on for weeks and weeks. Dogs would even come up and look at her like she was an interesting rock. I don’t know if dogs feel pity. I always imagined them walking away shaking their heads unsure that they had really seen as sloth-ly an ACD as they had just witnessed. She was a barrel chest hulk of a dog which is also odd for an ACD and maybe that had come from years laying tied up in someone’s yard.

The change, imperceptible for a long time, was in her postures over the course of weeks. It was a shift from laying to sitting up on her paws then her head up, a slow pivot following the pack until one Saturday, as the pack rolled past, she shot up and lit out after them. It was like she saw something she remembered deep inside herself and, over the course of weeks, connecting the dots to see a picture of who she really was. She was a dog. She had a job to do.  And, from that day, there was no holding her back.

These last two years has felt like that to me. I was chained to my injuries. My back went out hard. I had pinched nerves. I went on and then off an antidepressant. I put on a lot of weight. I had a full blown cardiac event.  I woke up one day and I forgot I had been a runner.  I wasn’t unhappy. I ate whatever I wanted. I drank a lot of craft beer. I slept in all the time. I became that guy you hate to invite on a run because maybe he’d show up or maybe his alarm just never went off. This went on for two years.

I was lying in bed one morning and the blanket was warm and the air felt cold. I pulled the blanket tighter around me and started drifting back to sleep and then I heard Gary’s voice in my head. He said, “You either get up and run this morning or you just got to admit you aren’t a runner anymore.”  I got up. I got dressed and ran the three-mile loop in my neighborhood. The three-mile loop became my regular run for a while. I needed something excuse-proof. Everyone one else could bag but I had that stupid ugly boring loop to run every morning.

It’s not that other people bagged.  The Judge has always been a good companion on the trail. Dale gave me his Sundays and, of course, Brad has always had my back. It’s that the loop in my neighborhood was quit-proof because it was always there waiting for me outside my own house. And it would wait outside my house as long as it took me to get my shoes on and lock the front door.

I had my Greta moment one day when Bill and I went for a ten mile out and back run. It was at mile six I felt my back pop a disc. Bill said there was a way to shave two miles off the course and we could do that since we’d be walking. I told Bill he could do a very bad thing to himself and that I was running back the four miles we had left. That might not be your kind of runner but it’s mine and that’s what we did.

II

I used to run real early Wednesday mornings with a guy that was having big troubles in his life. One morning he showed up in kind of cold sweat. I could see, maybe in his eyes, that the night’s worrying had raked him over pretty hard.

No one but me seemed to notice and nobody said a word to him. We all started running. I let it slide. These guys ran faster than me and it was all I had to hang on behind them as I didn’t ever learn the course and getting dropped meant getting lost.

His life has gotten much better since that time but when I see him still, that moment lingers. Second chances are like that. They hang around your neck swaying contra to everything you ever do. They drape your eyes, a crepe veil depicting what went wrong the first time.

They become the other runner so you never run alone again. They whisper in your ear on the hill climb. They remind you of all the other hills you’ve run. They say, “Climb or die but climb anyhow.” The rain will not tamp them down nor will heat or cold gut-whipping wind.

I was running out at Fort Braden in a rain storm. This was after my dog Aubrey, half Dachshund and half Chihuahua, died. I had had her in my life for ten years and she was twenty when she passed. I drove to south Florida the day I brought her home and she sat on my lap as I drove all the way.

She stayed on my lap all weekend and that’s how we were for ten years. I took to the street in front of my own house, in my own neighborhood, howling like a bear and sobbing. My wife stood on the step afraid someone would call the po-lice.

That day out at Braden was a sob and run type of run for me. And then there came a thunder strike and a tree went down. It was a huge cracking howl of a sound. I couldn’t see it or pick its direction. It was like every tree had fallen all around me.

I bolted and lost the trail, following a tiny creek down the ridge from me. I thought I shook the whisper of the second runner loose and I felt free. Lightning popped off up ahead and then somewhere behind me. I felt it in my nerves but my heart said, We are too fast for lightning.

I saw the doe off in the distance. We running parallel ridges, stopping to admire each other, both knowing that stopping too long gave the lightning time to find us and running on. There is no shelter at Fort Braden and sometimes there is no ground.

This deer was running away from the lightning and she was running away from me. The second runner had always been there. The rain covering its whisper, hiding the deer hooves beating the warning to leave woods.

I made my way back to the parking lot, as the storm finally turned from electric to a growling dark deluge, and got into my car soaking wet. I changed my shirt and put on a knit cap, my ears still ringing from the lightning strikes.

III

It was a big sky pre-dawn morning, the dark starry blue you can see only at 5am. The air was crisp and dry as we shuffled out of our cars still too groggy to say hello to each other, just falling into stretches and yawns. This was the Myles Johnson run the Judge loves so much. You run a mile up the trail and then cross Miccosukee at Myles Johnson and then you run Myles Johnson.

Myles Johnson Road is a dirty stretch of road between Miccosukee and Crump Road but it’s all hills. The last hill is a mile and a half of long slow climb. You can get a good seven mile run out of this route if you start at the Thornton Road Greenway entrance, ten if you start at Edenfield. It’s funny how you get to Myles Johnson. There’s a gate at the top of the hill. You have to go around it and then cross Miccosukee.  It’s a blind corner for cars coming off Myles Johnson turning right. It has all the feel of trespassing as you cross the road and start running again.

It reminds me of Miller’s Landing which is a runner’s road, a mean spirited straight away that pulls you along its hardest climbs.  It is like a kid on the playground calling you out to fight. It brings out the runner in runners. I am always weary and tired, exclaiming how bad things will go on the run, and then pulling the Judge along as my legs and lungs come alive. My favorite part of the run though is getting to Crump Road and stopping at Maxwell’s convenience store. You’ve been running, locked into the mindset of the fight or just in a conversation with your running partner. And then suddenly, you are in this place filled with people who have no context by which a sweaty half naked person makes sense. You are like a stray dog, wandering up for water at the faucet on the side of the building.

Maybe you’re laughing at some inside joke that the people pumping gas or buying scratchers will never get. Everyone is a little nervous, sidelong and holding their breath just a little unsure why you showed up. And then, because you can’t let your legs get cold, you turn and head off back to Myles Johnson, heading back into the wilderness from whence you came. And all the people pumping gas relax and are at ease again.

This morning as we prepared to head out to Myles Johnson, a man unloaded five Rhodesian Ridgebacks, dogs raised to hunt lions on the savannah. They are large hoary brown dogs and all of them had red lights hanging on their necks. They’re big, powerful creatures and while I never felt threatened, I wasn’t about to bum rush the person they came with to the park. He headed out in to the field with them following at first and then moving ahead of him.  

I spent the first twenty minutes of the run thinking about them running off lead. I imagined them sweeping across the field, swooping left and then right, not chasing one another, just training, coordinating their attack on that thing tickling the backs of their brains. That thing they can’t ever find because as beautiful as the Greenway is, it is no African savannah.  We run the hill toward the gate you pass around before crossing over to Myles Johnson. I wanted to turn our headlamps off and run like the dogs, loose and wily, trusting my feet to sort out the terrain. I wanted to run back and bring the dogs with us.

Today is Not that Day

Mike Baker, May 2018

If you have ever read my column, you probably already know, I’m going to ramble a bit and it will seem like I can’t find my way. Try and think of it like this: your running partner invites you to a trail he’s found and you go and run the trail with him. The best part might be that he gets lost and has to guess which way is right and in the end you get back to your car in one piece and maybe never find out how lost you really were that day but the company was pleasant enough and at least you weren’t at work. I ask you for that same generous indulgence.

I’m certain there aren’t an infinite number of excuses not to run but there are an awful lot of them. I know, for me though, all of my excuses boil down to the simple idea that I’d just rather not. Running is hard. Even when you’re fit and at the right weight and the weather is fine like a pretty lady is fine, it’s hard. Even easy effort faces the geography and the weather and your temperament. I always feel heavy at first. It seems a little impossible that I might even be able to do it. You know what I mean. There is that split second before you start when you say, “I can’t do this.” You start though and before long you aren’t necessarily worried about whether you can finish as that thought is transformed into, “How will I finish?”

I’m not suggesting I don’t enjoy running. I love running. It’s that there is the runner in me that says, “Get up and get it done.” And then there is also the middle aged civil servant that dreams my way, shuffling into the morning kitchen, lazily staring over the sink into the dark window’s reflection and can’t even remember why I was awake at 4 a.m. in the first place.  It is that other me that puts a confident hand around the runner’s shoulder and says with a car salesmen’s grin, “You don’t have to do that brother. Sip this warm coffee. Let your mind swirl around the last night’s reverie. There is always time for running later.”

Monday has always been my day off, until a brief spate recently when I ran on Mondays but that’s for another time, and this Monday I woke to a frigid house and checked my thermostat. It was 40 degrees with low humidity which is perfect running weather but, because Monday is my day off - I had made no plans to go and run and mostly, I did not.

I had things to do that morning including, but not limited to, jump starting my car and driving to the auto parts store to get a new battery. I called ahead and Antonio, the counterman at the auto parts store, said they had nine in stock.

I got there and running my car in the middle of the parking lot, I called Antonio again. “Should I turn the car off?” Yes, they could jump it if they needed to. “Where should I park?” Anywhere. Antonio, like most folks, operated at a level of confidence gleefully beyond his expertise and he went about testing the battery, changing out the battery, testing the alternator like this wasn’t my only means of transport, like this wasn’t a potential thing I could not afford. And all the while, I stood out by my car worrying and felt the cold crisp air and knew that I really ought to be running someplace. I looked at the sidewalk and the long slow hill down toward Ocala Rd. This weather demanded running but I still had to go work so I did not run.

The details of my job wouldn’t interest you. It suffices to say that I test the veracity of numbers and analysis and I do it sitting, drinking coffee.  My window looks out over a tree lined road and a park and all morning, I watched the weather slowly warm and I thought, “It is still perfect weather for running. I had all my gear in a bag. I just had too much to do.” Time passed as it does and it got to be 5pm, an hour before I leave, and I thought, “Leave now and go run” but I had taken so much incidental leave lately and I needed to make up time so I stayed and I did not run.

I got home, fed my dogs and put on a record I had just gotten in the mail and it skipped and, at first, I couldn’t see why it skipped but there, running diagonally from the label out to the edge of the vinyl, was a crack and I stood in my living room, shoulders slumped and thought I should run. And I stood there just listening to the record pop every time it hit the crack and then fling the stylus back a microscopic amount and start over again. I should have run.

My wife came home and we had a long night of cooking. It’s a lovely thing to prepare your meals for the week. It is lovelier to have your best friend with you as you do it and so, even tired and defeated, we worked in our narrow, tiny Pullman kitchen, glazed and sleepy, I staring out the same dark window from the morning. I had not run and now there was no time left to run.

I did run the next day as that was the start of my training week and the weather was similar. It was 40 degrees and crisp and it was hard work starting out. The first 200 meters of the Greenway toward Myles Johnson is a hodge-podge of surfaces that don’t exactly feel like the same trail as they lead you to the bridge that leads up the big hill toward Myles Johnson.

There’s a drainage trail that’s always crumbling, a trail maintenance staging area with a huge pile of sand and a view of the cow fields on your left and a meandering series of S curves that always leave me uncertain where I am until we come up on the bridge. I’m always a little startled by the big hill that comes next. This is where the Judge started telling me about a trip out of town he’d taken recently.

I’ve been running with the Judge for years but lately I’ve been heavy and for a few years I was a drunk and he hung in there with running on my slowest days and forgiving my late morning cancellations. I’m saying all this to tell you that I ran hard today to show the Judge I am better, that his old running partner is still here. It was hard but it’s that thing about running, that satisfaction you had as a boy when your father asked you to do a thing and just assumed you would do it correctly and you did it correctly and he gave you an “Attaboy!” It’s that feeling you got from the “Attaboy!” that running gives me.

It’s hard work and maybe you make it harder by pressing up the hill or the watching your footfalls down the hill so that your feet roll under you instead of heel breaking so that you accelerate and push deep into hard breathing because you catch runners only on the uphill but you break their will at the crest as you pass them and they come apart just a little because everyone slows down once they hit the top of the hill so right then you really drop the hammer. You finish and hear your Dad’s Attaboy and it all feels right.

This morning I decided that I would not pass up another good morning to run. We’re coming in on Summer weather and so there are only a few days like this left, maybe. It’s more than that. I mean, if you wake up and your legs feel good and you put your feet on the floor and you feel sturdy in your posture, drink a cup of coffee, get dressed, strap on your go fasters and get out the door before reason sets in, how many days like that are left for you to have in this life?

I get that you might have a plan. You’re going to Boston and there is a method that must be followed, there is preparation that must be made if you are going to execute on the qualifying race day and then be ready for the big show. I do not mean to disparage you. I understand. I am saying that there is no goal, for me, greater than the joy of running, of getting from one place to the next on my own steam. My feet, my legs, my will took me from the trailhead and up the mountain and this glorious view from Preacher’s Rock is mine because I took it.

There is, in my newly born heart, no difference between that moment and just going and running the three-mile loop in my neighborhood. One is obviously majestic and once you’re up on that huge flat rock, your gut aches at all that creation laid out in front of you. It is the kind of glory you hug in your memory, desperate to hang on to every detail for as long as you can. It is the kind of memory that carries weight. This is all true. The three-mile loop though is that run you do when no one is looking. No one cares. You do it bored and restless. It probably has a soundtrack. You just want to finish. You shouldn’t. You got out the door for a reason. You love running.

I started running using the telephone pole method. You run to a pole and walk to the next pole. I started on this same loop, day after day, until I ran two poles and then three and then I didn’t stop. This loop has seen that. It’s seen fast weeks and slow weeks. It is as reliable as any clock and twice as confounding because as long as I linger before leaving my house, it is still there waiting.

I had put an old pair of shoes on the trash the night before and unwilling to look for a newer pair, grabbed those shoes and headed out to my porch to put them on. I have sat on my porch hundreds of times putting on my shoes. This pair had another run left in them.

Maybe the night before you had that anxiety dream where the Devil hunts you down and in the morning, you take to the lamp lit road and you chase the Devil out of your neighborhood. Anyone can step away from the world and mediate all day, John said to me once, try sitting down to just sit when your kid is sick, the mortgage is due, the sink won’t drain. You make that deal. I don’t have to go to the trail today if I just cover the loop in my neighborhood. You finish the loop and you’re warmed up and you think, one more loop gets me six miles. You roll your head and sidelong look at your house, keeper of coffee and donuts and trot out for three more glorious miles.

Like the man said, Today, “Today, we get to run.”

The Wal-Mart 100 Miler and Other Things You Shouldn’t Try at Home

Mike Baker, July 2018

You do big things so you can have big stories to tell and I did that for a long while but I never understood what I was doing. I just got lucky and then I stopped getting lucky and then everything fell apart. This is about what putting it back together looks like for me and it starts with Elizabeth who you might remember from the Save the Daylight 48 hour.

We had talked for the last year about an epic self-supported run from her home in Jupiter to Boca Raton and back. It’s about 100 miles up and down Military Trail, with a loop around Century Village because it’s funny, and home for pizza dinner the next day.

We both chickened out. It wasn’t the distance. I was determined to do something really epic and Elizabeth is just a super durable human. It was the criminal element on the Trail between Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach and how tired we’d be that night.

Mrs. Baker had already worried it over pretty hard when she heard it was going to happen and, between my own concerns and hers plus Elizabeth not being sure she could keep me safe, we decided to do something really big but close to home.

The Wal-Mart 100 was Juan’s idea and we wondered if it would work and we tried it and it works. Look, ultra-distance has become a trail, beer, unicorns and hug party. And that’s cool. People want crazy big climbs and scenic vistas. I get it.

It’s the same mentality that created CrossFit, whose motto is something about being well rounded and hard to beat but using the F word, which has also become very popular in the trail running community. I have dropped a few F bombs in my life. It happens.

We have somehow made ultra-distance running for people who get bored easily. I would argue that anyone can run up and over mountains with wide scenic views and lush root-y trails. You’re either looking at the majesty around you or watching your feet, trying not to fall.

The thing that makes the Wal-Mart 100 unique today is that at its heart it’s a very old fashioned ultra-distance event. It is a short, boring loop that is very runnable. It is boring and a tad monotonous. It requires nerve to maintain pace loop after loop.

Running should always be fun unless it isn’t. Sometimes it’s about steady slow work. Sometimes it isn’t. The first 100 milers were held on tracks, sometimes quarter miles and sometimes not. The point is that anyone can run through the woods.

The Wal-Mart 100 is designed to be a “Go-As-You-Please” which is an old term, that pre-dates the term ultra, from when we were called pedestrians. There was “Fair Heel to Toe” which meant a very particular style of walking and Go-As-You-Please which meant kind of what it said, just get it done.

I knew Elizabeth would be the perfect partner for this bright idea. She had massive foot pain during her first 100 miler and so she decided to imagine the pain was tiny flowers growing on her feet, a garden blooming more and more as she walked.

That’s how her brain works. She seems to me to abide in absolutes, giving over to an idea with 100% commitment and moving through. She, more than me, was born for the sport of Ultra. I told her about the idea and she was game without reservation.

The loop is 2.5 miles: left on Indiantown, left on Central, left on Toney Penna, left on Maplewood and then left back onto Indiantown to the start finish - the car and the Palm Beach County Bloodmobile with crates of human blood stacked up in the window.

The turn onto Toney Penna is nondescript. All the other turns are onto major roads, broad with crosswalks and multiple lights. Toney Penna is narrow and looks like a condo complex entrance. We missed it once and bought aerosol chalk to fix it with arrows, except that’s when the rain started.

Three hours of sideways, torrential rain and tidal waves rolling off the street as cars passed, parking lots filled with oceans of rain water, cars backing up on Indiantown, full stop to turned around. And me, having left Tally with just my go fasters, shorts and a shirt but no rain jacket.

Elizabeth, being super matter of fact, kept telling me how the Brooks L.S.D I gave her at Save the Daylight, which she was wearing, was her favorite piece of gear, almost impossible to replace if it was ever lost, and thank God she had it. I tucked my ice cold hands under my pits and rolled on ahead of her.

Three hours into the rain, and twenty miles and we decided to go bowling. That isn’t a weird running term. There’s a bowling alley on Maplewood and we bowled three games. If this ever becomes a real event, bowling at mile twenty will be mandatory.

We played next to two seven-year-old girls whose bowling names, which is a concept similar to trail names, were Bob and Diaper Genie. All respect to the little thugs that beat us like rented mules. I recommend the pizza and Dr. Pepper. We put on our go fasters and headed back to the course.

We figured out that the distance from the car to the actual Wal-Mart building, and then around the widest possible interior loop and back to the car was a half a mile. We didn’t count the distance to buy stuff.

Wal-Mart really sells everything. Whatever you think of them. You could replace all your gear in a Wal-Mart which is how the idea for the race even came to Juan. We always end up at a Wal-Mart the night before a 50k or whatever. Most trail ultras are in Podunk towns and very Podunk town has a Wal-Mart.

We did get yelled at on Wal-Mart loop three, around midnight, when they were cleaning the floor. The cordoned off area cut slightly into our loop and we’d been rolling for 15 hours so we ducked under the sign that said, “Keep out.”

The maintenance guys said, “Hey, didn’t you see the sign?” We said that we did, that’s why we ducked under it. He was not amused and to be fair, we barely stepped on the newly waxed floor and to be fair he was right but we were tired. Sorry Maintenance Dude.

We ended the run at 3am, and 40 miles, with a dizzy exhausted loop in Wal-Mart, wandering up and down aisles trying to rack up 1 mile so we could quit with honor. We staggered home, took showers and tried to sleep.

No glory but running is like that. Last Saturday, the Judge and I ran out at Munson Hills. It was near 100 degrees and neither of us put down our best run. It was just a thing that needed to happen. Running is, for me, a discipline.

This doesn’t mean I don’t love it. It means, to me, that I owe it deference and respect. It’s due my time and best effort and failing my best effort, it is owed my willingness to do my best. The Judge and I shuffled along Saturday, praying for tiny bushes to throw tiny shade on our feet.

We finished, and when we finished, no one was happy. All the runner’s mellow got spent on not passing out. It’s the same thing that got Elizabeth and me through the Wal-Mart 40. You just keep moving, making jokes for 19 hours.

I have never laughed that long and that hard as my time spent with Elizabeth. The further you go, more tired and more tired, the jokes get funnier. Ultra brings that to the table sometimes. I’ve heard people call it the grind, and I get why, but I prefer to call it the roll or that old hippy term truckin’.

Like Franco says, “You can stop when I say it’s time to stop.” Elizabeth and I had little things going wrong. Half a dozen hot spots between us and not enough tape in the world to hold off the blisters coming our way and no buckle to earn.

It’s never about the buckle but it is if you know what I mean. The arch on my left foot was collapsing. Elizabeth’s quads were screaming. And the idea of 60 more miles and 24 more hours was more than we could stand. It’s not about a buckle and sometimes it’s about the big “why we are doing this?”

I toed the line at one of Terri Haye’s races at Whispering Pines and I dropped at mile one because I was too hungover, sweating oceans of salt at 7am and there are two pretty ladies back home sleeping-in that I could take out for breakfast. I dropped the F bomb, walked back to the start and handed in my bib.

Sometimes it’s about the pretty ladies who will keep company with us once we’ve had a shower. Elizabeth and I, back home from the MW40, slept four hours, had breakfast and then hit all the thrift stores for vinyl with her husband Chris and our bud Matt.