The Blind Leading The Blind

"We probably only have an hour left of daylight," she said, as I impatiently scanned the creek banks for two rocks that were supposed to contain the book we were hunting.

As always, the race directions were confusing and vague. I was looking for a confluence of streams, of which there were many, with a series of hollow trees of which there were hundreds, along with a group of rocks of which there were thousands. Depending on the route we took to get where we were, we may or may not even be in the correct valley, and I can tell my runner is getting cold, frustrated, and spooked as the darkness settles in. That horrible, unsure feeling of being potentially lost in the woods, that can easily rattle even the strongest of woodsman, let alone someone who can't even see.

I couldn't find the book. Again. I would have to convince Rhonda to backtrack. Again. Her fear of being lost in the woods rearing its ugly head. Again.

Because I am intrigued by the impossible

I think it was January when I got an email from Army Colonel Fred Dummar asking me if I would be interested in guiding blind athlete, Rhonda-Marie Avery, at the Barkley. I did a loop at Barkley in 2010, knew how gnarly it was, and wondered how in the Hell that would even be possible. Many athletes, especially Barkley virgins, are lucky if they can complete a single loop, with functioning eyesight; so someone doing it blind, like for-real-blind, just seemed like absolute crazy-talk.

Of course, I said yes, without hesitation.

I had no idea what I was in for, but I was eager to find out.

Excited. Honored. ...a little scared.

Excited. Honored. ...a little scared.

"Where dreams come to die"- RD, Lazarus Lake

Laz's new Barkley tagline. He seems very proud of it. He should be, it's true.

There have been world-class ultramarathoners who have tried, and failed miserably, at the Barkley. Mostly because they could not find the books, had gotten horribly off-course, and/or sleep deprived to the point of mounting lunacy, and these are just a handful of the potential pitfalls. Having lots of experience running ultras through marked trails really means nothing at Barkley, whether you've run one or 500 ultras, it doesn't matter. The tests at Barkley are much greater, more broad, and designed to rattle you mentally and emotionally.

The athletes that seem to do the best at Barkley understand land navigation and orienteering, and have put in significant time training at Frozen Head, getting a feel for the forest, landscape and surroundings, and typically have had a go at the course in previous years. Without this education, you have little chance.

With it, you still have little chance.

Because much of the course is run off-trail, bushwhacking up steep mountains, through thick thorns, sharp branches, camouflaged vines, leaf-covered crevasses, downed-trees, and rotten logs, navigation becomes very important. One wrong move, and you can find yourself in the wrong valley, on the wrong mountain ...or even in the wrong freakin' county.

The conch has blown, we are packed and ready - LET'S DO THIS!

The conch has blown, we are packed and ready - LET'S DO THIS!

Blind runner navigation, the cliff notes

The day before the race was to begin, I got a crash course in blind-runner navigation from Steven Parke, Rhonda's significant other, and it was a huge eye-opener.

Imagine identifying every rock, every root, every tree branch, every hole, every camber, and then, of course, the unusual obstacles. At Barkley, the unusual tends to be the usual.

Rhonda explained that she has developed the navigation skill of listening to her guides' footsteps. This gives her an indication of how close or far ahead I am. When I would get too far away, she'd let me know she was falling behind. She preferred that I talk looking forward, not looking back, as looking back made me sound closer than I really was. Another interesting navigation tool was smacking objects with my trekking poles. This, much like my footsteps, gave audio clues to her that she needed to avoid, step over, duck, or side-swipe an upcoming obstacle.

Lastly, as we stood in the line to secure her bib number and check-in, she casually tells me, "yea, it should be interesting. I never climbed a mountain before."

Oh shit.

That night, laying in my hammock, I started to really process all of this - on one hand, I was amazed at her courage. This is arguably the hardest 100-miler (130 miles) in the history of ultras, with the lowest finisher rate of any race out there, and she was willing to take it on, putting her trust in ME not to lead her astray, kill her with reckless ignorance, or put her in harms way.

On the other hand, "she was willing to take it on, putting her trust in ME not to lead her astray, kill her with reckless ignorance, or put her in harms way." - Oh my God, I cannot fail this woman ...and in a place where there 1,883,915 opportunities to fail.

The odds were against us.

But then again, were they?

Sure, maybe as 5-loop finishers, odds were 1,000,000,000-to-1. And as I would learn on the course, even a complete loop in 13:20 was seemingly impossible at the pace necessary to warn of every potential obstacle along the way, but this was bigger than me, or her, and all we had to do was give it our best, not get hurt, lost, or die (where have you heard that before?) and demonstrate for other disabled athletes that you can go after anything you want in athletics, or in life. She was carrying the torch and that's pretty damn cool.

The biggest mental challenge of my life

I've done some hard shit. But most of that relied heavy on the physical, not having to think much, just perform. Maybe GORUCK Challenges require significant thinking throughout the event, but once you learn to rely on your teammates and get over yourself, it's pretty smooth sailing.

This challenge was not about the physical. Probably the one advantage to approaching the Barkley with Rhonda was the very slow pace necessary to accommodate a blind runner. I felt physically fine for 95% of the 30 hours we were out there because I was rarely pushing myself to the redline. 

It was all mental.

Taking our place in the very back. This was a contest vs. ourselves. No one else.

Taking our place in the very back. This was a contest vs. ourselves. No one else.

Explaining the inexplicable

Because the first rule of Barkley is that you don't talk about the Barkley, I will do my best to present the mental challenges in conceptual detail. This in and of itself will be a monster challenge because without experiencing it, no one could have ever made me understand the level of intense focus necessary with just mere words, but here we go:

Top-level, I had three things in which to stay 100% cognitive:

  • The 6-pages of Barkley directions (written in a way that requires careful reading and understanding) 
  • The hand-drawn map we created the night before the race, that may or may not have been copied 100% correctly
  • Making sure Rhonda didn't trip, fall, get smashed in the face, run into a tree, or die

Then, of course, the usuals associated with very long endurance events like, maintaining your hydration, nutrition, and electrolyte balances, but that was easy in comparison the top 3.

Here's an example:

If I was running alone, and I wasn't sure I was in the right spot, I could scurry around to various locations to assess my position, look for clues, and evaluate my surroundings, AND, could do so rather quickly and efficiently.

In other words, if I was looking for a hollow tree, by myself, I could check 200 trees within 1/4 mile in five minutes. But, since I was leading Rhonda, I had to keep a pace conducive to her being able to follow me, while still checking the trees, and making sure she didn't run into one.

This made navigation mistakes, course rechecks, and back-tracks take much, much longer than they would solo. Furthermore, and something I feel was impossible for me to prepare for, was how much more aggravating it would be for her when we did have to recover from mistakes. Again, as a solo runner, little mistakes don't have as much impact because you can recover quickly, but as a lead runner for a blind athlete, there is much more impact because recovery from mistakes takes a lot longer and therefore increases the rate of frustration.

These situations would force me to stay positive and optimistic under duress because I was leading - and not only physically leading - as I had to demonstrate motivational and confident leadership characteristics as well. If I started to fall apart mentally or emotionally, then we'd surely be doomed.

As a result, I obviously found myself wanting to make less and less mistakes ...during an event that is designed for runners to make dramatic mistakes. This created a scenario where I wanted so badly to be right that I would trick myself, reading into directions what I wanted them to say, or worse, I would disregard compass headings thinking surely something must be wrong with the compass because "this has got to be the correct way."

Most of the time, it wasn't. The tool was right. I was wrong. Imagine that?

I was trying to decipher the directions, navigate the map, all while on the move, and all while trying to ensure Rhonda was aware of the relentless terrain in front of us, and most of the time, doing this in the dark - off-trail, bushwhacking, freezing cold (literally), consistently unsure of my general positioning in the mountain forest.

It was the most intense, exhausting, and challenging thing I had ever to work through and it never let up. It never became easier, and in fact, as we started to lose it a bit mentally, it only got more difficult, more frustrating, and more seemingly hopeless - but I maintained a positive attitude the entire time because I was out there for Rhonda - it wasn't about me.

Intense, right?

I mean, without ever having done this before, you can imagine how 30 hours of this would be intense, right? 

But remember, I did all this with perfect vision.

Rhonda endured this with 8% vision.

All she could do was follow my footsteps and hope for the best. Think about that level of courage for a moment. Better yet, take a friend, go to the gnarliest trails you know, at 2:30 a.m., in the freezing cold, and run 1/4 mile away from the trails, into the deep wilderness. Then, stand in the middle of a ravine at the base of a mountain, close your eyes, and climb any number of 1000s of feet to the top of that mountain, through all the leaves, trees, branches, briars, and debris, and do so just by listening to your friend's footsteps.

Good luck. I bet you'll open your eyes before 1 minute passes.

She didn't have that luxury.

One of the greatest experiences of my life

Yup, no doubt it's in my top 5 of life experiences.

I am proud of what were able do "out there." No one but us will ever know what we truly went through in those woods, and completing what we did was a miracle. We easily covered 50 miles or more of distance out there, always moving, mostly back-tracking, often taking incorrect routes, and covering miles to nowhere on some of the gnarliest terrain anyone has ever traversed. No one will ever truly understand the level of challenge this presented for both Rhonda and myself - yet, through it all, we kept our eyes on the prize. We demonstrated understanding, encouragement, consideration, selflessness, and mutual respect under more extreme duress than I think either of us had ever experienced in an event.

I can't stop thinking about it. I get these flashes of images in my head of her climbing one of the gnarliest sections of the race, head down, no talking, just huffing and puffing, grinding it out. One foot in front of the other. Pitch so steep that stopping caused her to wobble backwards, only to catch herself with her poles, and continue forward. Or, on our hands and knees, it the pitch black, crawling through terrible terrain in an effort to get around "the walls", only to ascend even steeper grade, while completely exhausted. She fought the entire way. Even when she wanted to give up, she wouldn't. Even when she said she'd had enough, she didn't. Even, when we tried to quit, we got lost.

Seriously. We took the wrong road, thinking it was quitters road, only to realize we were lost as Hell, and had to turn back. Back to the course. Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows...

Only at the Barkley can you get lost trying to find quitters road, so you decide to stay in because you can't get back anyway.

It wasn't until we saw the helicopters that our delusional minds starting getting the best of us, convincing her first, then me, that the copters were looking for us. In fact, while we were 26 hours into loop one, and feeling like that must have everyone at camp freaked out, there were actually 3 other runners, also still out on loop one, too - but of course, we never knew that.

And, as you might imagine, no, the choppers were not looking for us.

Could it be done?

Rhonda and I discussed whether it could actually be done. She believes that having two people - one guide, and one navigator - would make this easier, and I agree; however, I don't see Laz letting more than one individual be involved.

Even one official loop (completed in 13:20) is improbable because that would mean finding each book within a hour of each other and there are just not many sections where a blind athlete can run, or even move quickly. You have to run some sections of each Barkley loop to complete a loop on time. There is no way around that fact, and that would also assume that you nailed each book without a single mistake. Not likely. Not for even the most seasoned Barkley veteran.

However, all that being said, we made the very first attempt. We opened the door to the seemingly impossible, and from here, who knows where it goes for disabled athletes at the Barkley.

Only one man knows.

Laz. Race Director.

Laz. Race Director.

This experience was a gift. The most unique and intense gift that I have ever received in the form of an experience, and I cannot thank Rhonda-Marie Avery enough for giving it to me. A new friendship was born, and I cannot wait to guide Rhonda in another event. After taking on the hardest conditions possible as a first-time leading a blind runner, anything else will be a piece a cake.

I will never forget the 2016 Barkley. Never.