Flecks of paint along the metal rail, the gate I would not touch until it was time to cross it. They say the gate is yellow. Yellow like the colour of the feeling in my toes. My intention was bigger than my strength. They say the gate is yellow. I’m not so sure. When i finally did reach out to it, all I felt were flecks of paint clinging to a history I could not know. A history hidden in the road beyond, embedded in the flesh and blood of many who charged bravely, willingly beyond, into the 'out there'.
All I can do is follow. All I can do is beg to be led. All i can do is fight off the darkness that grips my heart and anchors me to the 'impossibilities' I’ve been forced to accept for what seems like ever.
Before we get too far, before you lose yourself in the park along the mountain ridge on the opposite side of the summit and off the map you’ve attempted to trace.
I'll grant you the safety net to retreat back to camp, back to the waiting arms of the ones who love you, support you, and all your sense of adventure... the ones who pray the hardest when you set out.
This is not your typical race recap. And if that's your pleasure, please stop reading. I can't give you Barkley secrets, I can't tell you how to enter, what a complete loop entails, or even what the famous chicken tastes like. But here, in what follows, I can give you a little piece of my experience. Eyes closed, here we go...
This race, this euphoric culmination of insane improbability, has called to me since the finishing of my very first trail race. One of my new found cohorts in the ultra world posted their condolences. Early 2013. Condolences. My constant reminder when I stand at any start line ... I chose this. Condolences fit so well. Being legally blind means a number of things. Most typically, in the ultra trail genre, it means accepting that things will suck until a path is made to make a space for what disabled participation looks like. The thing about ultra running.... it is the challenge that most people love; to reach beyond what we accept as possible.
I can't count the number of emails I have sent to race directors asking to be allowed to participate in events. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Coming from a world where I have lost job interviews when my disability is disclosed, my experience with acceptance in the ultra world is optimistic. There have been some that will not flex any rule. Not the pacer times, or the cut off times or what have you. For the most part, I am most accepted on the trail. Road racing tends to be the most difficult to navigate. That's really okay with me. My heart is lost there on the hillside, on some mystical single track, some blazed ridge off in the sunset. My soul loves to tangle near the escarpments edge, where all disability buffers have fallen off and guard rails are as invisible as my next steps.
Do you have a minute? Can you take a minute? This is difficult to explain. With disability, comes expected failure. Disability is the 'other', the lacking, the 'almost' but not quite normal. It comes with expected failure. It also comes with celebration of small success. So here is this race, where everyone is expected to give until their guts bleed and still will most likely fail. I can't honestly think of a place I fit in more.
Can you imagine living your entire life under an expected failure umbrella?
Barkley. Because I can fail in good company.
Barkley. Because I am just stubborn enough to gather strength from that.
Barkley. Because, dammit, it is the least likely place you'd ever expect to find disability.
Graciously, courageously, and under not illusion of grandeur, Race director Laz returned my email, saying yes I could have a guide and make an attempt. But when the time came, I had no such willing party. It seemed no one wanted to be responsible for the real potential of death of a blind girl. Which I found funny. They trust me to cross roads, navigate city transit, raise children, go to work, find the edge of the pool at the gym, chop and prepare dinner... all on my own. But not climb mountains. Unwavering in my faith that the world will eventually come around to knowing that disability is more than just the space holder for the edges of your normal, I emailed Laz back to say I could not find a willing soul this year. But most certainly he'd hear from me again.
I went running with my Steven one Sunday afternoon. He stopped mid stride, dove into the ditch and emerged with an abandoned license plate. "You're going to need this" he said. It doesn't appear that way... was all I could think. But Steven insisted I not give up direction on following my dream just because of hurdle. "It's not what you do" he said. He packed the plate away in his pack and we carried on.
By email I was introduced to a fellow who agreed to try guiding the Barkley. If you stood at the yellow gate and counted this year, you'd have found there were 41 of us. This gift, this chance, this space, completely unreal. I owe so much to Laz for searching for a guide for me. I owe so much more to the brave Christian who took on the challenge of guiding.
Imagine taking on something so dark and scary you know you'll come apart. Knowing and still accepting that challenge as a gift, a chance, a place to stand your ground and, well, just simply, TRY. Now back step. Imagine taking that on and taking someone else's life in your hands at the same time. This is exactly what Christian did. The Barkley is no trail run. It is no single track. No mountain race. It is struggle. It is survival. It is your worst possible fears served sweetly with a side of arsenic. Neither Christian or I entered this challenge without that knowledge. But truth be told, you just simply don't know the things you don't know.
Standing at the start line behind that supposed yellow gate, in such good company, my thoughts were simply "Well dam, open mouth, insert foot" Now the world was watching. This is my life's purpose; cause a stir, create awareness, make space. This is the hardest thing I do... raised within the boundaries of the backdrop of "I can't" every breath is a dog fight of turning off that soundtrack and beating a new drum. The thing is, here I was, like always, surrounded by 'real' runners. Those who have actual athletic reasons to stand there. I'm not the least bit fast, not the least bit strong, can't climb worth a dam. My only strength is stubbornness. I talk my way into these things and then find myself tangled in the actual issues of pulling them off.
Not sure Christian believed me when I said I'd never been on a mountain before. That set the tone for the next while.
So we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. Go get yourself some tea. I'll be here, stuck in the memory of that endless climb, watching the bobbing heads ahead disappear. Ok that didn't take too long, I could only see them for about ten clear feet. But I did get to hear them go. They seemed to dissipate. Like they were overtaking the mountain. Gone gone gone ahead. And me, one foot then the other. Slow, painfully slow ascent. The easiest one on the loop to start us off. Up and up and up, to see the world from outside my lens. Up and up and up and voices in my head; shouldn't, couldn't, wouldn't. Up and up and up... touch the sky, touch the clouds. Up to where the wind cares not what you see, what you feel, what you think. Where the wind on one side of the mountain kisses your cheek and on the other slaps your ass so hard you fall over. Up where your echo dances away the thoughts of all your edges.
I couldn't read a compass to save my life. If I have any wisdom to depart in this mishmash of madness, it is this. They should have tactile compasses. Have you seen a braille watch? Lift the glass that covers the watch face, and feel the arms? Yes well, they should make a compass version. I was cursing engineers everywhere for not inventing this for the entire race.
The thing about Barkley, one of the things about Barkley, you're bound to get lost. And that's okay, expected actually. I do not know any pair who did this quite as well as Christian and I did. Let me jump ahead... At the end of the day; no that's wrong, at the end of the next day, we'd covered maybe 8 actual miles on the loop, and about 50 extra miles just to ensure how lost we were. Don't kid yourself, I didn't go to do anything but stir the pot. So in that right, I think it was a successful venture.
On the first off trail down the mountain, my trekking pole strap broke. I love my poles. They make me feel safe, invincible, sturdy. So here, some 2 hours in, was my first reminder that I am none of those things. Repaired and down again. Down and down again. We reached a bench. Now wait. I'm new to all this. Not a park bench. A flatfish three foot wide grassy bit of the mountain. An old mining bench? Our instructions were to look for book one on this bench. I was so happy. Hell I'd just come off a mountain. Two feet, level ground, knew exactly where I stood. Neither here nor there, Truth be told only half way down the mountain. But two feet firmly planted. Christian wasn't certain which direction the rock under which the book would be. "You go left, I'll go right" and I strode off. Pretty sure he was concerned. Can you do that? Your Steven might kill me if he knew. "It's a bench. I promise to stop if my feet don't line up" And besides... my Steven would have expected me to take off like that. Looking under rocks was my next 30 minutes. Rocks on the grassy bench, half way down (up?) a mountain. Quick mom... turn off netflixs. I'm certain this is the easy part.
More diving into the unknown. Down and down and compass bearings. Down and down and streams coming together. Down and down and do you hear that? More streams. Instructions... if you've come down too far south, you'll see nothing. No shit. That, at least was a familiar feeling. Somewhere along that stream edge I knew we were stuck. If Jared and Gary hadn't lapped us coming to book two, we not have found it. So then what do you do when you're at the bottom of the mountain? Well if you're Laz sitting comfortably around a fire, chewing chicken... you'd plot a course up the yuckiest part of the next mountain.
Headlamps on and climbing up and up. In my pack, on my back, exactly enough supplies for 15-18 hours. More than I'd ever carried. It's just a mountain, or ten. It's just stuff. Up and up and up. Can you hear the wind? Less kissing now that the sun is gone, she is fierce and vindictive and all the voices of those who challenge my right to be here. That wind, so cruel, so heartless, trying so hard to tear me apart. To a high wall... I'm not a squirrel it turns out. Around and up and up and up.
I can't breathe.
Christian stopped. Waited and wondered what had changed. I had no footing. I had no grip. I had nothing but fear and wind in my ears. No sound of his feet. The mountain was older than anything I'd ever dug my finger into. It's history swelling up like a wrath I was not prepared for. This forest, this place, this mountain edge... voices of past wanderers. I am not hallucinating. I'm not tired. I am fearful. They do not want company. Not here. Wait. Let me breathe. Let me sink my feet into the ground with hope and lightness. But no. The wind would not relent. And the climb continued.
Book three in hand. And down the other side of the mountain. Gratefully out of the wind.
Down and down and down again. Round and round. Not a soul breathing. But water ahead. Water that washed my feet of every ache and tenderness. Water through the mountain, like a gift from the heavens. But cold feet get colder though the night. Later we'd return to this ditch and tuck ourselves in that crevasse to stay warm and reread the map for the hundredth time. Later I'd curse my were feet and shaking hands. Later, so much later I would beg the skies to swallow me up, and take me whole. Later I would think that heaven must be a warm place... because this hell, this hell I asked for was colder than death. Unforgiving wind and lost on a map. No tactile compass. And poor Christian listening to me whine about being cold, while he shivered in a t-shirt.
I called it. I said I quit. Here, somewhere after book four, I knew there was a road. It was supposed to take us back to camp. We followed a 'road' for two hours of down. Down and down the mountain. The sun came up. We warmed enough to speak again. And knew we weren't going back to camp on this road. So lost we couldn't even quit. Laughing we turned around and climbed two more hours up and up. Back to book four. Back in a race no one knew we'd quit.
May as well look for book 5 right?
The Mountains laughed at this. They taunted and teased and dared our descent down the wrong summit. Over here... this way... try this way... Hours ticked by. Packs grew lighter. That's okay though, the space the food took up was being recycled with more doubt. Doubt... Again the Doubt... And then...
Army helicopters. Two of them. Circling above. We'd been gone hours. More than a day. Our foggy brains took on the mob mentality that we were being searched for. Perhaps my crew back at camp was too distraught with the knowledge that I couldn't have carried enough food to survive. Perhaps Laz himself didn't want the blood of a blind girl on his yellow gate. Peeling bits of blood and guts of those I do not know, splattered on that gate. Quitters road is long indeed.
We went back to the water drop, the place where the riddled instructions told us there was a road out to camp. The "RIGHT" road. Again we failed to find this road. We found ourselves at a fork where a jeep road intersected a gravel road. Standing, compass reading, deciding; we heard a noise. I turned to my guide, my companion, my new life long friend...
"Ready to be rescued?"
A beat up old pick up truck came rumbling down the mountain we'd just been on. After some discussion about how to return to camp, they asked if the choppers were for us. "We think they might be"... They offered to drive us to the fire tower trail. So in the back of the truck we hopped. I did not hop... Clambered. Heaved. Heavy with the knowledge that now, there was no turning back. We had officially DQ'd.
We got comfortable.
That's not right.
I think Christian may have had a nap. I, on the other hand, was nearly paralyzed. Winding, turning, speeding gravel down the side of a mountain. The one that had seemed so angry by foot, now seemed to growl as we retreated. It yelled in my ears... Dammit Batgirl... you weren't supposed to give up. Where are you going? This is Barkley! This is the test! This is the end of all things and you quit?
... seriously.... you quit?
There was a can in the back of the truck. or a bucket. With every turn I grasped on the edge of the bed and the bucket would slam a bit into my shins. Quitter, it teased. Quitter... it taunted. QUITTER!!! it bruised... down and down and around we drove. All the things they say you can't do, batgirl... all of them... and this.
Steadfast in my decision, even in heartbreak. I knew we were hopelessly lost. I knew I did not have enough food to carry on. I knew... that in my effort, some now 29 hours of effort, there was still some message.
The truck dropped us off at the highway pull off for the tower trail. They said there were three trails. One to the prison, one to the tower, one to the camp. Somehow we took the one to the prison. We stopped at the end and found ourselves half way on rat jaw climb. I looked up. I talked to my legs. I considered trying it. But my race was done. Officially done. We retreated (again) and went to the tower. Here, after what seemed like an endless climb, we found book 9; the braille book. Helicopters were still flying around. In attempts to let them know we had been here and were alive I began searching for the page number that matched my bib. This book, perfectly fitting to my situation, had no page numbers. The pages were still attached from the braille printer. Little did I know, Laz's last minute instructions at the yellow gate, some 28 hours earlier, were to tear out a page... any page. There was no point in my taking a page that didn't match my bib. No one would know we'd been here. I left some of my personals on the water table, thinking that one of my crew could place me having been there that way. We sat on the grass, soaked up the sun. I felt the warmth of hope and promise in the sky, it wasn't to be my day, but it was to be our saving grace. Food nearly gone, water nearly empty and both of us too foggy to even refill while we sat there by the second water drop. Almost as if dropping made us less deserving of it.
Out of the game.
But, not out of the forest.
This tower, marked the half way point on this years course. Half way back to camp and still rather lost. Breathing in and out, 28 hours later, and still just as confused.
We decided to go back to the highway. Hitchhike our way back to the camp. Before we rounded the corner there was a trail that led to the camp. Some unknown distance along that candy ass trail were our people, sitting around a campfire, eating chicken, counting seconds. Heart full of the knowledge that we'd have to face them... head full of the awareness that we were down to one working headlamp and still not clear on distance between here and there... we continued back to the highway.
Running... 29 hours later. Running. And listening to Christian talk about pregnant trees and faces in the rocks. Running and knowing that finding another well rested human being was the only way out. Down and down. and down..
We ran into a couple on their way up. Dam if they weren't hiking up the mountain faster than we were running down it. Humbling to know just how slow the ultra shuffle is. Please if you see anyone from this race, tell them bib 81 is alive? Tell them we are headed back along the highway? And in my head... tell my Steven I am sorry to have failed at this quest.
walking again... and now along the highway. No shoulders, white lines, crazy fast cars, movement, noise, chaos.
my nemesis. This... this... this... culture, so developed for the abled, so focused around the things I cannot do, or not well anyway. White lines, traffic, guard rails... shifting focus... maybe I'm sleeping. Sloped roads.. shuffling feet. Single goal...
Then a car pulled over and asked if we needed a lift to camp. Wait I know that voice. I've heard that voice. But to be honest, I"d have taken a ride from Santa Claus if he'd pulled his sleigh up. Yes... please. A ride home.
Home. I dread that. Love that mountain side and all it's potential. All it made clear. All the hope it carried to allow other'abled participants to show up, take part, be accounted for.
The drive took 15 minutes. I can't imagine having had to walk that. The couple in the front tweeted out our picture of us to tell the world once and for all that we were in fact alive.
When we reached camp, they weren't expecting us. Oddly I felt they weren't looking for us either. Once they saw us, everyone started yelling 'RUNNER'... no no I thought, we aren't running. We drove here. 'RUNNER'... shhh...no no no...
they say the gate is yellow... of course, yellow in the sun is as invisible as your uncaught dreams.
they say the gate is yellow... but all I felt were peeling bits of paint, history etched into the metal as much as the rock under my feet. History or effort. Bits and pieces of me all over the ground, fallen like last years foliage, trodden on by overstepping awareness for a race who's prestige was in it's unknowing.
they say the gate is yellow.... perhaps it is, but i remain skeptical and hopefully ever-present enough to always question that which 'they' say is true.
Thank you Barkley Family; for accepting this rather black sheep to your fire pit. I am forever grateful.