Tag: runningphilosophy

The Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) – A microcosm for  . . . everything

The Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) – A microcosm for . . . everything

Let’s take this one from the top.  The Barkley Marathon’s are the somewhat disputed pinnacle of ultra running achievement, or at the least, badassery.  The race takes place each year in Frozen Head State Park (TN), as close to April Fool’s Day as possible.  I will not go into too many details as the internet is filled with the lore and legend of the race, made even more epic by the release of the 2015 documentary, The Barkley Marathons:  The Race That Eats Its Young.  In short, runners start at a random time, one hour after the blowing of a conch shell and concurrent with the lighting of a cigarette.  The course is only sort of marked with “runners” using a map and compass to guide themselves along a 20ish mile loop to randomly hidden books that serve as way points along the course.  Competitors must run the loop in alternating directions for a total five loops (on the last loop, the first one back picks the direction and the remaining runners are distributed clockwise and counterclockwise based on that decision – not that there are too many runners to have to worry at that point).  And by the way, you have to cover the 5 loops of nearly 130ish miles, 54,200 feet of elevation, thorns, poisonous snakes, frigid temps, wasps, and white walkers (the last obstacle is a joke – sort of) in 60 hours.

The Barkley Fall Classic (BFC), is NOT the Barkley Marathons.  It does have its similarities, particularly that both are the brain child of Gary Cantrell (aka Lazarus “Laz” Lake), both take place in Frozen Head State Park, and both cover similarly grueling terrain in the park.  The BFC is held in September and participants sign up to complete a 50K . . . sort of.  The reality is that at roughly 20 miles into the race, at Laz’s checkpoint, you are given a choice, to head downhill another several miles to a marathon finish (which is actually more like 30ish miles) or keep suffering and continue to the end of the 50K (which is actually more like 40-43ish miles).

[READER’s NOTE:  I keep giving miles as an “ish” as GPS is not allowed during the race.  You bring your toy, you go home DQ’d.  You share the map or try to run portions of the course on private property (outside of race day), you get DQ’d and banned.]

2018 will be the the 5th running of the BFC, which was designed to give runners just a taste of the real Barkley Marathons.  And that’s where it all begins.  Word has gotten out about this race, in no small part to the documentary and pop culture coverage of the Barkley Marathons. Not surprisingly, when word go out about registration for this race the ultra running (and running) community lost its collective mind.  Like Cinderella, the registration opened at precisely midnight central time on Saturday, September 23rd.  And literally hundreds of prospective runners crashed the ultrasignup site to snag the coveted 400 or so spots.  With seemingly no rhyme or reason, some folks got invited to the dance and others were smashing pumpkins on the wait list.  Running partners and couples were separated across wait list lines and experienced streakers with plenty of  croix de barques to their name were locked out while newbies on a whim gained admittance.

And then they took to the BFC Facebook page and social media in storm.  Newbies claimed streakers were selfish, streakers felt the newbies should have more experience before facing the task, and some even used the vile word, “unfair”.  There were demands for a registration lottery or showing a “running resume” to level the playing field.  To the credit of Laz, he came forth and “nipped it in the bud” and explained what happened with the website and was completely transparent about the wait list and how some people are specifically jumped to the front of the wait list line to be put into the race (e.g. streakers, some internationals, folks with a real shot to “win” the race, other geographical/logistical reasons) but most will rise and fall with the ebb and flow of drop outs.

And so why do I write this post?  Well dear reader, I was one caught in the midnight masses.  My husband and I have thought of doing this race for a number of years and it just so happened that the stars aligned that we were able to attempt registration this year.  As fate would have it, I registered my husband first and he was one of the lucky (or unlucky ones) who got in and I am wait listed.  Laz does not typically release the wait list as it tends to create a lot of fussiness and unrest so I have no idea how far out of the entrants I sit on the list.  Laz has conceded however, that there are 600+ persons on the wait list.  And I have said very little on social media and have simply watched.  And here is what I have learned:

The BFC is a microcosm for pretty much everything in life.  Sometimes you come prepared and you still get left out in the cold.  Sometimes teams and partners get divided and are forced to tackle a challenge by themselves.  Sometimes life is really not fair and those we see as deserving are not allowed to compete while those we see as wanting are given top billing.  And as is often the case, everyone thinks they are more justified than the next person.  . . and there is epic whining.  What I have learned, is that it’s not about the entrants or the wait list or the social media.  We can only control our training and our racing.

But perhaps most of what I know is that that just as in life, I do not know the day or the hour (if at all) that I will be called up, so I must be ready.  We are already working on Joel’s training plan and I will be right there doing squats, hill repeats, bear crawls, and every other torturous thing along with him so that he is ready . . . and so am I, if I get the chance.

The Coach’s Spirit

The Coach’s Spirit

I love coaching . . . and I blame my father.  You know those team pictures we all took as kids in recreational sports leagues with the kids lined up in rows, wearing nice crisp uniforms? Coaches kneeling at their players’ sides with whistles and some random kid in the middle holding a ball or a chalkboard with the team name.  I have one of those pictures.  Except the sports team in question is my older brother’s soccer team.  My dad is kneeling down with his players, and my biddy self is standing at his knee with a whistle around my neck and a big smile.

Granted, I was not coaching eight year old boy’s soccer, but I got the bug.  When I got older and had actual motor coordination, I did become a coach.  I was the assistant coach to my dad for a number of years when my little sister played soccer.  I was often in charge of setting the line up and arguing why I thought my line up had the best match ups.  One time, I even got to coach the team by myself when my dad went all Bobby Knight and got himself ejected.  Admittedly, it was girls’ youth soccer.  But also in defense of my dad, the referee was an absolute cretin.

I believe that coaching is an art form that like all art forms is one part genus, one part hard work and study, and one part sheer magic.  When I coached soccer, I watched my dad attend national coaching courses to get licensing.  I also watched what happened with the teams whose coaches did not invest the time . . . lines, laps, lectures . . . and a distinct lack of fun.  When I was old enough, my parents supported me in pursuing coaching licenses.  And now several years later I am coaching a marathon training program for our local Fleet Feet store and I am trying to schedule my training certifications through USATF.  In addition to that, I pour over webpages and pages of books to learn about new techniques, drills, running form, cross training, muscle imbalances, nutrition, and the psychology of sports.

But, why?  What’s the point of spending hours a week studying and planning for very little real gain (monetary or otherwise)?  The point, actually has very little to do with me, and everything to do with . . .you, the reader.  You, the runner.  You, the person who wants to do better than the day before.

The coach’s spirit is one of a tinkerer.  We look to those who come to us for guidance as riddles to be solved, as machines to be tweaked, and as characters to be challenged.  As a coach, the greatest gift you can give someone is the gift of self-actualization.  I see so many men and women with amazing talents who are plagued by self-doubt: “I’m too slow”, “I’m afraid I’ll finish last”, and my least favorite “This must be easy for you”.  Everything is all relative.  Certainly, we have limits imposed on us by our genetics, but it should be the role of a coach to work with their trainees to develop and execute a plan that allows the trainee to grow mentally and physically.   Simply put, to be more than they were before.

Coaches should help their trainees redefine what is possible.  Help them look for solutions, rather than complain about the impossibilities.  And above all, coaches should help their trainees find joy in the struggle and the journey.  Because without the opportunity to face a challenge and the possibility of failure, how will any of us really know the limits of our potential.

I remember the absolute elation I felt when I ran my first (and only to this point) 100 mile race.  The task was a Leviathan and I thought there was no way I could face down the challenge.  I also know that I have never been the same since I rose to the challenge and succeeded.  I look back at that moment and realize that it was one of the hardest things I have ever done both physically and mentally.  And no matter what happens going forward, no one can take away that accomplishment.  From that day on, things haven’t seemed as daunting.  I am not afraid of failure, personally or professionally.  And most of all . . . I got me just a little bit of swagger.  And that, is what I would love to bottle up and give to all the men and women who live with doubt and fear of failure.  But until such time that I can science that into reality, I will continue to coach and offer anyone who is willing to listen and to do the work, their own opportunity to find some swagger.

Do What Moves You – part II

Do What Moves You – part II

In the second part of this blog series on “motivation” we will discuss finding motivation during recovery and in returning to running after injury or a long hiatus (see part I on the elements of motivation).  Not surprising, there is a huge field of study on the “psychology of sports injuries“.  There is no way around the issue, injuries are awful.  According to the NCAA and Sports Science Institute, “injuries can hinder performance and negatively impact . . . athletes’ mental health and well-being, including: threats to self-esteem, social isolation and motivational demands associated with rehabilitation. Therefore, injury is one of the most arduous physical and psychological tests confronting . . . athletes.”

Sound familiar?  The scope may be different for us amateur athletes (i.e. no shoe contracts or college scholarships at stake) but the similarity of the human experience in injury is largely the same.  LeBron James and myself are likely to react in a very similar way to being injured and sidelined from the sport we love.  So if injuries are such an “arduous” experience, how do we athletes come back from injury and stay motivate?

We science the heck out of our recovery!

Science tells us that “greater self‐efficacy is the ability to perform prescribed rehabilitation modalities, stronger beliefs in the treatment efficacy, and higher value attached to rehabilitation, were all related to compliant behaviour.”  Say what?  If we believe we can succeed (self-efficacy) and we believe in the value of the treatment/therapy, we will be good little recovery runners and do our work without pushing too far, too fast.

Now is the critical point.  We need to find the motivation to recover and the self-belief that we will recover.  To achieve this goal, we will utilize the strategies of motivation from my first blog post: Autonomy, Value, and Competence.

Autonomy – we control the outcome.  In order for us to feel “in control of an injury” we need to understand the in’s and out’s of our injury.  What is the injury, how did we get it (i.e. overuse, muscle imbalances, bad form, etc) and we need to understand how we can prevent the injury in the future.  We also need to have a clear idea of what recovery looks like – how long it will take, what are the steps of recovery, and what does success look like at each step.  We need milestones for performance during recovery.

Value – recovery is singularly important to us and our running tribe.  Value is perhaps the easiest for us to find.  We want to be better and back in the race.  To boost value, we need to tap into our social network.  Our network of family and our running tribe become our recovery team.  They help us see the value of little accomplishments and keep us connected to our running even when we are sidelined.  I have good friends that have been injured but quickly became the hero of the long run when they showed up to provide mobile aid stations during hot training runs.  The injured runner values their return to sport and their community values them and their recovery.

Competence – we will recover and be better than before our injury.   We must approach our recovery with “tenacious attention“.  The athlete must make their singular focus to do all the million little things correctly that will lead to recovery.  With this laser focus, there is no room to doubt the possibility of recovery.  The runner must stay in the moment.  The worst thing a runner can do is reminisce about who they were as a runner.  That is not the runner we are at the moment and it is an unfair comparison.  The runner must focus on every fine detail of a task and push their bodies precisely to facilitate recovery without crossing the line.  Every precise execution is the opportunity to build competence and prepare for the great return.

Do What Moves You – part I

Do What Moves You – part I

What moves you?  When you have a long or hard training run planned and the temps are in the teens or heaven forbid, triple digits, what drives you to lace up and head out?

I have a group of friends from my running group who have a messenger chat room and the topic of today’s conversation was how to stay motivated.  Not just when the weather is challenging but when you are recovering from/coming back from an injury.  This will be a two part post.  In this post, I’ll cover what fuels motivation and what science has to say about staying motivated.  In the second part of this series, I’ll cover coming back from injury.  So let’s get down to it.

The good, old-fashioned, dictionary defines motivation as “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way” or “the general desire or willingness of someone to do something”.  Thanks to science, we can also define predictors of staying successfully motivated:  Autonomy, Value, and Competence.

The principal of autonomy dictates that the more ownership we have for an activity or pursuit, the more likely we are to stay motivated for the task.  So to translate for us runners, the more opportunity we have to control our training and goals, the more likely we are to stay motivated for our daily run.  To aid with this control, it can be helpful for runners to develop their own training plans and goal races.  During the day, runners should schedule runs in their calendar and keep these commitments in the same way we keep business lunches, staff meetings, or summons from the local pastor.  Also, science tells us the earlier in the day we schedule a run, the more likely we are to complete the run because other life commitments don’t get the opportunity to pull us away from our run.  I add control to my running life by scheduling runs in my calendar, specifically runs with my running groups for extra accountability.  I work many long hours but on running group nights, if no one will die because I leave the office, I will not schedule late afternoon meetings because the run is my commitment to myself and my sanity.  I am an adult who runs!

The second principal component of motivation is value.  We are generally more motivated to complete a task when it comes with a high personal value.  For runners, this may mean paying for a goal race or speed sessions.  For other people, the value is in telling others of our plans and knowing that to keep social status we must follow through with our workout (i.e. think of the endless social media posts about workout plans or completed workouts).  Still for others, the value is in the competition.  I know runners who go out the door solely because they know their competition is out working hard to beat them.  Find the value and you find your motivation.  For me, the value add is that I don’t want to show up to the start line unprepared.  I want to compete and I can’t rest while my competition is out running hills while I make sweet love to a pizza and a Netflix Marathon (Don’t judge.  People we’ve all been there).

The third and final component of motivation is competence.  There is a direct link between our perception of our prowess and our desire to complete a task.  For us runners, that means as we find success in PR’s, overall/age group awards, weight loss, or running longer distances we have a greater motivation to run/race.  This is great, but all runners have slumps.  So what do we do when we feel our times are slipping, that Father Time is winning, or we gain a few pounds after winter break?  The best cure for our feeling “incompetent” is to re-frame.  Maybe we didn’t perform well at the most recent race, but rather than going to the “I suck” head space, we need to evaluate the things that went right and the specific, discrete tasks that will help us address a weakness.  To succeed, we must always train our weaknesses.  If I didn’t kick soon enough or I got psyched out by a strong surge from a competitor, there are speed work sessions to be done, hill repeats to be conquered, and running groups to engage to help train my weaknesses.  And in training my weaknesses, I have more ownership and autonomy . . . and you guessed it, more motivation.

So, the next time you hesitate to lace up or look back at your day with disappointment because you couldn’t find the motivation to run, check which of the big three components, autonomy, value, or competence was draining your drive.  Chances are, with a bit of tweaking, you’ll be ready to rise to the challenge tomorrow.

The Wise Runner’s Fear

The Wise Runner’s Fear

I truthfully have no idea how many races I have run.  I know I have run a lot of races.  I have run 5K to 100 milers.  I have run multi-day events.  I have run trails and roads.  And while each race is unique, they all have one thing in common, fear.  Every time I toe the starting line, I have the butterflies of anxiety and the undercurrent of fear.

So what are we afraid of and more importantly why do we as runner’s persist in an activity which evokes fear and anxiety? Let’s start with the fear. Most fears can be defined as rational, or reasonable concerns. For runner’s, the reasonable fears are getting lost, running out of water or nutrition, injury, not finishing, heat, cold, chaffing, and the ever dreaded . . .potty disasters. All of these are rational fears because they likely could and often do happen to runners at some point during their running career. The good news is that with proper training and planning, these anxieties can be easily mitigated.

But what should the wise runner fear? A wise runner fears the battle between his “demons and his better angels“.  If a runner ever tells you that she has no jitters before a race, she is a liar.  The runners who are truly honest will tell you that they always fear the “demons”.  The “demons” are the inner voice we all have; the negative self-talk.  The “demons” catch you off guard and make you feel like you are worthless.  They whisper sweet consolations that can make you dump months or even years of training down the drain because you are suffering.  The battle between the ears is truly where races are won or lost and goals actualized.  I have run phenomenal races only to crash in the last few miles because my demons said “we are done”.  The demons are clever; they know exactly what to say to make you slow down, rationalize less than your best, or make you not care about something that was once an ambition.  The distance of the race is no matter.  I know 5K runners who have caved under pressure when challenged during the last quarter mile.  I know 100 milers who sat on the trail and pondered DNF (did not finish) at mile 90.

So the next time you set your site on a race, remember, you must first rally your better angels to silence the demons.  Then, you can worry about the location of the next restroom on the course.

Now for the why.  Why do runners subject themselves to such a physical and mental battle such that the very act of competing, makes  a runner experience fear and anxiety. The answer is  . . . because we must know.  We must know who we are when we suffer. Part of what makes us human is the quest to define who we are.  And what better way to know thine self, than at a time when we are pushed to our limit. In short, we put ourselves through “this mess” in pursuit of our best self.  We want to do the hard thing.  We want to be weighed and measured against the best runners, the hardest trails, the longest distances, and our own demons. . . and we want to be found worthy.  In the end whether we succeed or fail isn’t what matters.  What matters is that we will be better for the struggle.  We will come to a greater understanding of ourselves, and we will be better prepared for our next trial (or trail).  Because let’s face it, there will always be a next time.


It takes suffering to succeed

It takes suffering to succeed

What is the price of success to become an ultrarunner?  I think in life, we all want to be successful at something.  We all have dreams we want to pursue.  Whether it’s getting a promotion at work, going back to school, or running the Vol State 500K.  The real key to success is not however thinking about the dream itself.  Imagining yourself in a cap and gown with sheepskin in hand or standing at the finish line at some race is helpful in terms of positive visualization, but it does very little in the grand scheme of things for actually achieving the goal.

The way to define whether you have what it takes to achieve your goals is not to fantasize about what achievement looks like but to think about what misery looks like.  This seems like a somewhat negative approach but it prepares you for the reality.  If I want to measure my chances of completing the Vol State 500K, I need to be thinking about whether I’m prepared to run 100+ miles a week in preparation.  I need to be prepared to suffer in TN heat and humidity for 10 days straight.  I need to know that I will be hungry and tired, I might get lost in the dark and have blisters that eat my feet.  These are realities that I must be prepared to face and over come to “live the dream”.    So rather than asking what is my dream, I should be asking myself, what level of suffering am I prepared to face – that will dictate the chances of succeeding in my dream.

Another case study is the Barkley Marathons or for those of us mortals, the Barkley Fall Classic.  Since the release of the documentary, that brings light to the lore and legend of what many consider to be the hardest race in the United States, there have been many in the running community who fancy they are up for the challenge.  Some days, I admit that my husband and I are victim of this passing fantasy.  Here is a post from the Race Director, Lazarus Lake, regarding both the Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) and the actual “big kid” Barkley Marathons.  Below is what Laz thinks is necessary to succeed:

“Here is an interesting fact, for those of you who are thinking you will one day join the small number who have completed 5 loops at the big barkley: Robert Youngren wrote a fantastic race report last year, about his serious attempt at 5 loops. (Maybe he will post a link on here, it is a fascinating glimpse into the world of 5-loop aspirants) It is no secret (or won’t be after you try to capture a Croix) that people who succeed at Frozen Head have to run everything runnable. Being serious about doing the deed, Rob went out in the company of the people who get deep into the race with a chance at 5. Do you know what they were doing on the way up Bird Mountain on the first loop? They were running… FAST… The first climb you hit in the BFC is defined as “runnable.” If you are one of those people who include it as “walk all the uphills,” you can take finishing 5 at the big barkley off your dream list…. Maybe you can walk it and still get a Croix at the BFC….


But, I will tell you this much about the 2017 BFC. Running the runnable sections, even when your soul cries out for relief, is going to be more critical to getting the Croix than ever before. You better put on your big girl panties when you get dressed on September 16.”

So I asked myself in the middle of a somewhat benign 18 miler yesterday, that felt like I was dying, am I running up ALL the hills? Am I running fast? Am I working as hard as I can every minute of every mile?  And I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t.  And until I’m prepared for that level of suffering on every training run, the Barkleys and perhaps the Vol State 500K are still dreams.  But tomorrow is a new day and another chance to test my resolve.