Saturday, October 9, 2021

A Small Taste of Barkley

Get Off the Couch & Venture Out There

A “Quick” Tennessee trip | Ultramarathon #080

Since I am drive to 99% of my events, I try to follow my own unwritten rule:

BFC invitation 2021-06-05 off the waitlist.
Don’t run a race that takes less time than it does to drive to get there.

For example, I’ve driven to Arkansas, Colorado, and the far Western edge of Texas (Franklin Mountains) to run 100 Mi events before even though these are over 12 hours driving time or more from our current place in Texas. I justify it by the amount of time I will be doing the event itself. However back in the summer months I got myself a nice email that perked my interest one day. I was drawn off the waitlist for The Barkley Fall Classic (BFC as it is known by). Honestly, I had forgotten I put my name on the waitlist earlier in the year and was super excited when reading this note. It didn’t take me long to accept via the UltraSignup page and confirm my entry. 

Obligatory picture at "the Yellow Gate"
Even though the BFC is a 50 km race I was willing to make the 14 hour+ travel to get there without hesitation (once my family gave me their blessing of course). I have had BFC on my bucket list for a long time ever since discovering my journey into ultramarathons and binging on the various Barkley videos out there.

I travelled after a day of work on Thursday to get to Tennessee by driving over night and having minimal sleep in my car during my travels. Friday I arrived in Wartburg and rolled up to Frozen Head State Park in awe. The lush mountain greenery and landscape was a sight to be had as only ever seeing pictures prior. I parked at the Visitor Center/ Park Office and put on my trail shoes to check out the area and shake out my legs from being in the car for what seems like forever at this point. It was very cool to see some of the park trails and then get to go over and bestow my eyes on the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, which included the exit of the prison tunnel and the bottom of the infamous Rat Jaw climb.

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary | Petros, TN.

The first time the race map is revealed is during packet pickup, which was Friday afternoon. Most people are lined up and eager to get a peek at what was about to come the next day. Not knowing Frozen Head State Park (FHSP) and the exact trail layout I was somewhat oblivious to what the map was telling me…but I was about to find out very soon.

My BFC 2021 map prior to opening it u and trying to figure out where I am heading in the morning..

Race Day

started just before sunrise with 415 other runners all masked up just prior to sunset. Humidity was in the air along with the excitement of the start.

lots of climbing uphill, some downhill and yet we finished at the same spot we started, but I swear there was twice as much up than down (hmmm, my math doesn’t quite work….kind of like the old folk tale of your grandparents telling you they walked to school & it was uphill both ways).

no GPS allowed, minimal course marking, but more than enough since we were all provided a map the day before at packet pickup.

small creek crossing early in the race to ensure no runner had dry feet.

torrential rain made this event much more challenging, muddy, and overall interesting adventure.

briars, “rat bites”, poison ivy, chiggers, and many scratches to my shirt and hydration vest.

fog & rain downpour on top of Frozen Head Mountain by the fire lookout tower was just like in the videos on Barkley, but much cooler atmosphere in person when you can soak in the entire surrounding with fellow ultrarunners.

Tennessee yellow jackets are big. I got stung once on the back of my right calf after the prior runners ahead of me stirred and angered them where they seemed to be hanging out.

50 km out at Frozen Head State Park is hard, no question about it.

crossed the finish line at 11:30:23 (by far my longest 50 km time)

Thank You & Kudos

Huge thank you to Gary Cantrell (aka Lazarus Lake, aka Laz) & Steve Durbin for putting on a stellar event. This ultra lived up to the hype and the draw that only BFC type event can create. 

Thank you as well to Larry Kelley, whom I met out there briefly in sharing some guidance to newcomers (virgins, such as myself) and helped out on course during race day at one of the junctions. 

Of course, I cannot thank the incredible volunteers who braved the relentless rain and were not even moving to stay warm like the runners. The local high school football team, Coalfield Yellow Jackets, were there running the aid stations after a stellar performance of their own the night before. Thank you to all those local boys for helping every runner in their pursuit of the BFC.

Jenny El Tee (@luoyunghwa) for some incredible race photos of the participants crossing the creek and again up on top of the Rat Jaw climb. Photos are great and thank you for braving the weather yourself especially with all your photo gear equipment out there in the elements.

Photo Credit: Jenny El Tee | Jennifer Thorsen Photography | @luoyunghwa

Photo Credit: Jenny El Tee | Jennifer Thorsen Photography | @luoyunghwa


Legend has it The Barkley Fall Classic was created to allow more people to experience Frozen Head State Park and the allure of the now popularized Barkley Marathons by showing them how hard 50 km can be in this area and disincentive people from pursuing signing up for the Big Barkley (as it is referred to), but also to give people a taste of the Barkley allure itself. My opinion now that I have run BFC is that my respect level has gone up drastically for anyone who has ever toed the line at Barkley Marathons. Seeing the area, the topography, and some of the famous features out at Frozen Head State Park in person really put things in perspective that the YouTube videos & the Netflix documentary simply can not. 

Ultimately, I am grateful to go into The Barkley Fall Classic classed as a virgin (first time starter) and managed to come out being labelled as a BFC veteran (50k finisher) now. The Croix de Barque is a very cool finishers medal to have earned and I am proud of this accomplishment.

my 50 km finishers Croix de Barque

This race is hard. The experience was well worth the drive it took me to get there & back.

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Thank you for following along. Next Up:
 (potentially) Cactus Rose 150 Mi (2021-Oct-22)
Franklin Mountains Trail Run | King of Mtn (Nov-12), 100 km (Nov-13)

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Habanero Sucks!

Where the Beach Meets the Ranch

#HH100 | Ultramarathon #077

The Hottest Race in Texas

Attempting to stay cool. Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas | JJustis Photography

I've lived in Lone Star state now for just over 4 years. After moving here in late 2017 and experiencing the South Texas heat & humidity for multiple summers I swore I'd never run this race as it scares the hell out of me. As well since being in Texas I've been running with Trail Racing Over Texas and Team TROT now for the past 5 seasons (2017 as ambassador & 2018-2021 on the elite team), I have run out at 7IL ranch a quite few times -- Jackalope Jam, Blazing 7s Trail Run, The Remix, Jalapeno Hundred. Therefore I can't blame ignorance on the fact that I actually did subject to myself of signing up for this years 6th edition of the Habanero Hundred: The Hottest Race in Texas.

Summer Training

For me coming into this race I did something very unusual. I actually focused on training and building up my mileage specifically for this race to kick off my fall racing season. Ever since Cocodona 250 in May (see prior 2 blog posts) I have been not racing any events. This is not my typical race schedule as I enjoy racing many times throughout the year often even a couple ultras within a month. But this time I took a large reset and enjoyed some downtime post Cocodona before getting back to serious training.  As someone who does not typically follow structured training  I even took the approach this time around at systematic mileage buildup. I started off around 45 miles per week at the very end of May and then slowly adding mileage all the way before peaking in July at around ~75 miles per week. My rolling 7-day average mileage  at this time was peaking right around 100 miles per week briefly, which I think to me is my biggest training block I have ever had in terms of a consistent sense. July was also full of a lot of vertical gain as I was working remotely in California and running the mountains and hilly streets of Santa Barbara. This got my legs ready as well as some prep for later fall mountain racing.

Weekly stats snapshot from my STRAVA.
All my data is public if you wish to view.

We arrived back in Texas from my stint in Cali at the very beginning of August. This gave me the final 12 days per race to retune my body to the August heat and more importantly the humidity. I did not do a lot of long effort runs, but simply got outside in the heat of the day and did some movement or even yardwork at peak times. This was essentially my taper phase as I backed off the volume but kept the intensity the same, but much shorter in duration combined with the heat of the peak times of the afternoon. My body was as ready as it was going to be and my mind was willing. As race day drew closer I felt the nerves and anxiety of not knowing if I could pull this race off. I have run a lot of 100 mile (and more) races now, but the heat factor combined with the sandy terrain of the venue for sure put a wave of doubt in my mind. I have total and upmost respect for this event, which is part of the reason I said I would never run it.

The Ranch

Pre-race setup at my half tent & coolers
With a noon start I was able to get a good sleep in my own  bed, get up with the family and have breakfast with my kids prior to driving out to 7IL Ranch, which is about an hour commute for me. I arrived and got to my small little area with my half tent, chair, and cooler not too far down from the timing mat I'd be crossing each loop. Sitting there in my chair I was sweating already. I hunched back in my tent utilizing every bit of shade I could as I got my final gear prepared.

The usual pre-race briefing by Race Director Rob Goyen was shouted out with 15 minutes to go. I laced up my shoes and was now stepping up to the starting line. There was quite a few people there as the 100Mi, 100km, and relay teams were all starting at noon. The countdown commenced and off we went down the well known gravel packed road leading to the gate at the fence were the pasture trails started, the sand was not far away. 

Pre-race brief by TROT RD: Rob Goyen
Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas | JJustis Photography

The first 2 laps out there I did not feel overly hot yet, which was weird, as that was close to the hottest portion of the day. This may have been part of the reason those first laps were a little quicker pace than I had wanted. Soon the heat caught up to me and half way through the 3rd lap I started to feel like my heartrate was spiking. I did not look down at my Garmin and my wrist based number, but just by my feel and the toll the heat was now doing to me I just knew I needed to slow down. I slowed drastically and put in some walk breaks even before getting to the half way aid station only 25km into my race. I got to the aid and happily accepted a cup of coke complete with ice in it. I downed one immediately and then took another and sat down for a few minutes in the shade of the pop-up canopy. I sipped my cold drink and just tried to relax and get my heart rate down. Onward I pressed and trudged through the next 5 km finishing up my third loop, only 13 more to go - agggh! Again I took some cold drinks from the main aid station and went to sit in my own chair setup. I sat down. I spent a full 15 minutes here after loop 3 in my chair. It was a needed break again.

Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas | JJustis Photography

This day was going to be a full on struggle to get through to the night, as already my plan was falling apart. One thing I knew going into this race is there was no way I could press and I would just have to take what the day would give me in the unrelenting Texas heat.  Temperatures at the ranch were reported to have hit feel-like highs of 114f that afternoon. My firs goal foremost was to survive and complete the race. Getting through the first 8 hours until sunset without imploding was crucial. This was my focus and near term goal of simply  getting to where that yellow death ball in the sky would finally go down beyond the horizon.

Coming into the finish of one of my loops. Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas | JJustis Photography

Another aspect of this race is the sandy conditions of the trails out at 7IL Ranch. People who have never been out there hear tales of how it is basically a beach and non-stop miles of sand...but that is simply not true (although it feels like that after many laps). In my opinion there is maybe 15% of the loop that is pure sand, but this is also soft beach-like sand. Running through these sections is not recommended. Here you come up to these sections and simply walk through them trying not to kick up sand as you go - again a futile attempt as you will always kick sand up and into your shoes & socks, even with gators on. The sand is best described as beach sand because of the fact these trails are well-used by horses the sand remains soft and loose. It also retains and reflects the Texas sun and heat very well creating a further warming effect when you cross these sections. Due to the fact that you are sweating and drenched some putting ice and water on yourself to stay cool combined with the grit of sand, feet issues are another big killer of the race out here at Habanero. In order to be proactive and preventative I tried to change my socks as soon as I felt any sort of grinding from sand in my socks/shoes. I think the first time I changed my socks was after the 4th loop. My feet were already wrinkled and pune-like from being wet at this point. As I took off my socks I shook them and the fine beach like sand tumbled out in front of me. I wiped off my feet and dried them out, which felt great to do. Slipped into dry socks felt so nice each time, but they'd only remain dry for maybe 3/4 of a loop before they were soaked again from the combination of sweat and the water dripping my from ice bandana melting and dripping over my body, as well as the occasional  sponge bath (but I would try and avoid getting my feet wet during this). I went through a total of 6 pairs of socks and 2 pairs of insoles, and a whole bunch of Trail Toes cream during this event, but it only mitigated my issues it did not prevent them, as the sand always got in and my feet were wet for at least 90% of the time.

Now that the sunset had come I could feel the relief in my core slowly enjoying the fact the ambient temperature was decreasing to a much tolerable level. My stomach was feeling quite bloated at this point from the non-stop drip and consumption of fluids, mostly BASE Performance mix, and water. I thought getting in some more solid food would help so after loop 8 I remember getting a nice big cup of mash potatoes. I also took some added salt and poured it over top as I though this would help kick start some fluid intake. This was a mistake. After heading out on the next lap I got a surprise. My stomach turned on me and instantly emptied. Loop 8 became a puke-and-rally as I had just lost a bunch of calories and fluid due to this. Later I got to thinking that the excess salt I put on my potatoes may have been the cause of this, since I went on to eat many many more cups of potatoes throughout the night and remainder of the race.

The majority of the night loops were great after this as my pace increased as the temperature decreased. A storm front was visible in the southern sky and it appeared to be creeping closer with the threat of rain and thunder storm pending. It made for a great night light show with the sky lighting up as well as this added benefit of a slightly cooler temperatures, although the humidity was way up there. It was ideal for this race and really we got lucky with this. The storms never did come close to the ranch but remained just beyond reach teasing us throughout the night. I thought I was moving quite well and found my consistent pace. Running the same loop 16 times you seem to find landmarks and specific spots where you walk every time or start back running. I would break my loops up this way as not to get too far ahead of myself. 

Very early in the morning I had about 5 loops left and my TeamTROT colleague, Matt Zmolek, came up behind me rolling at a great pace. We chatted for a bit and I hung on with him for about the next 1/4 lap before he continued on. This did not overly surprise me, but his casual pace and consistent 100 mile splits never ceases to amaze me. With about 50 km to go he was now lapping me, which meant he was a full 6 miles ahead of me. Matt is one of the king's of Habanero for sure and went on this year to finish for the 3rd time while also establishing a new course record (congratulations to his great race!).

The race starting at noon is unique in terms of timeline since by the time the middle of the night comes around you have only been running for about 12 hours, not your typical 18 with a normal 6am start time. This was an advantage I thought because I avoided my usual 4-5am low point being just a little bit fresher at this point. The sunrise came without going through a bout of the sleepies and I just tried to keep on truckin' as close to even loops as I could. I was also trying to bang out all the loops I could before the heat of the new day started to take hold. It turns out I would have 13 loops done and 3 left by the time the sun was fully up.

My feet were mashed up and I had popped some blisters earlier in the night to try and provide some relief. It worked again as only a mitigation technique only holding off the damage my feet were taking inevitability with each trip around the sandy ranch trails. I stopped after loop 13 and ditched my night lights, changed socks for my final time (it would be), and grabbed my sunglasses and a new rabbit shirt. Loop 14 felt good as the new dry socks gave me a good feeling for a little while, plus now the end was somewhat in sight as I was counting down the miles to go.

My last 2 loops out there were a couple of my slower ones as the sun was high in the morning sky and beginning to bake the landscape again. I utilized ice stops twice per loop and just kept everything the same trying to run as much as I could, and take my usual walk breaks. The pace was slower but I just kept focused on the end goal of finishing try to ignore the constant pain signals my feet were sending up to my brain. There was very few people left out on the trails which made those early morning loops oddly tranquil in the South Texas heat.

The Finish

Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas | JJustis Photography

My primary goal was to finish and I now knew that was a guarantee. But my secondary goal of breaking 24 hours was now also in reach and I had a nice little cushion of about 15-20 minutes heading into the last loop. A short final break interloop and then I was off for the final trip around the infamous yellow loop of Habanero Hundred 2021. Loop 16 was my second slowest lap as I knew I had the time and also the heat was getting stupid hot again at this point. But I pushed on and unknowingly passed 5th place on that final loop. This led me to crossing the finish line in 4th overall with a sub-24 time. I was done...and man did my feet hurt.

Photo with RD & TeamTROT Manager: Rob Goyen.
Habanero Hundred - one & done! I don't think I need to run this race again.

My Results

77th ultramarathon run | 23rd completion of 100 Mi (or more)

My data analysis of the 16 loops.

Habanero Data Analysis

Habanero has been deemed The Hottest Race in Texas for a very good reason. It starts at high noon in mid-August on a exposed ranch with a guarantee of high humidity and very little shade on course.

  • 5 sub-24 hr finishers this year. [only been done 11 times total now by 9 different people]
  • 34.29% finisher rate for 2021 (24 runners). [historical average of 28.08%]
  • 114f - this was the feel-like heat index temperatures at the ranch at the start of the race

Historical stats of HH100 (based on UltraSignUp data)

Gear Used

  • Gear Bags: Victory Sportdesign Grizzly backpack (in my crew/family van), and 3 Victory piglet bags utilized as laundry bags
  • Shirts: rabbit (deflector UPF 30,  sensePRO vert shirt)
  • Shorts: rabbit 5" FKT
  • Shoes: Altra Torin 3.5 (also x2 pairs of insoles)
  • Socks: Drymax (6 pairs)
  • Headwear: rabbit (BOCO) straw hat, rabbit (BOCO) rabbitELITEtrail cap
  • Sunglasses: goodr (couple different pairs)
  • Watch: Garmin fēnix® 6X - Pro Solar Edition (went from 99% > 54% battery life)
  • Waistlamp: kogalla RA Adventure Light
  • Backup Headlamp: Nathan Sports Halo Fire
  • Hydration: x2 20oz Nathan soft flasks
  • Anti Friction lube: Trail Toes
  • Ice Bandana: Nathan, Victory Sportdesign (prototype version)
  • Chair: Magellan Outdoors Oversize Anti-Gravity Lounger
  • Cooler(s): & small Coleman & x1 YETI (full of some refreshing Athletic Brewing Co. beers)

Final Thoughts

The trifecta of the heat, humidity, and sand make this race a beast to content with. It is no joke. Anyone who goes into it will thoughts otherwise gets humbled very quickly as evident of the extremely low 28% average finisher rate over the 6 years of the race.

DO NOT underestimate this course as it is a flat 100 miler yes, but the conditions are what is the immense challenge here. Every year Rob begs the TROT trail community and everyone not to sign up for this race, but year after year there is hundreds of runner that take to the ranch at varying distances to see if they can survive the heat of mid-summer Texas. There is a reason that #HabaneroSucks start trending each summer around this time of year. Rob even put this slogan on the race shirt of this years edition.

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Next Up: Night Moves Trail Run (2021-Aug-28)
Alamo City Ultra 50 km (2021-Sep-11)
The Barkley Fall Classic (2021-Sep-18)

Friday, May 28, 2021

Cocodona FAQ

 Follow-up Questions

I have received such great feedback and nice comments upon finishing Cocodona250. I just wanted to express my gratitude to the trail community for the support and good vibes, thank you! I recently just was in a podcast with Rob Steger from Training For Ultra and shared my Cocodona story with his podcast. Download the audio episode HERE, or go watch the YouTube video version HERE. Give Rob a follow and support as he puts out great media of all sorts for our trail ultra community.

Training For Ultra Podcast -- Episode #167

Since I have gotten so many questions and inquiries about this race I thought I'd post some of my FAQs I did answer just to have them documented and saved on my blog. Shortly after the race itself I posed a question on my Instagram stories about what you all wanted to know about my race experience....and well I got a lot of good questions and that sparked a lot of my information for my race report. I did respond to all the questions and posted the answers back to my IG stories, but here they are below in summery:

Thank you everyone for following along. Big thanks to the Texas community (Trail Racing Over Texas, Houston Area Trail Runners (HATRs), and the Sugar Land Running Club (SLRC)) for all the support and comments during the Cocodona itself. It was a cool experience to have my family and the media team informing me of all the people cheering me on and watching the live stream of the race.

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Thank you also to:
Thank you everyone for following along.