First DNF: And I’ve never been prouder.
Yesterday I ran a hella hard race called BarKaKoo and scored my first ever DNF*. Well, technically it was probably a DQ*. Either way, we were DFL* out there.
BarKaKoo is a fantastic race full of all the things that make me love trail running so much. Our beautiful run community was out in full force bringing tons of positive energy and reminding us that we are all connected by something so much bigger then running. It was also for a great cause, raising funds for Little Warriors, a charity that brings awareness, support and treatment for child sexual abuse. The course was incredibly beautiful with lots of elevation over winding singletrack through the forest and past snow-covered ponds.
Community. Nature. Movement. The holy trinity of happiness.
The race is modelled after the infamous Barkley Marathon in Tennessee. If you haven’t heard of this race, I encourage you to Google it, or even better, watch one of the many documentaries on it. It’s the kind of sick and twisted event that even the strongest ultra trail athletes fail at and then pray for a chance to find redemption.
Barkakoo is held at Chickakoo Lake Recreation area. The course is 5 loops of an 11km course, for a total of 55km and must be completed within 10 hours. The course is intentionally not well marked, and you must reverse directions on each loop. You also must carry a piece of a log with you, and have it stamped at a check point along the course each time. The race can be done solo, or on a team of either 2 or 5. I was lucky enough to be out there on a two-person team with my run bestie Tania. Between Covid shutdowns and her knee injury, it has been forever since we raced together. In fact, it was my first in-person race since January 2020 which seems like a whole lifetime ago given all that has transpired since. Everything I’ve done since the pandemic has either been virtual (QBU or Survivorfest) or in-person like Run On but I was busy being the Race Director, so it felt really nice to toe the line.
Thanks to a hectic morning, Tania and I were both a little frazzled getting there for the 12 o’clock start, but thankfully we made it in time and I was off with the mass start for loop one. I found the first few kms a little frustrating as I should have started closer to the front of the pack to avoid having to try to pass on the narrow trail. However, within a few km I seemed to settle into the right pace and got a little more space to myself to just run. It was also frustrating because it was so ridiculously hard to actually RUN! Normally, 11km on trail could be done in an hour. But the fresh snow and cold temperature meant that every step was like running on quicksand. It was very difficult to get traction and keep your ankles from slopping around too much. It’s a real workout for all those little muscles in your lower legs that don’t get that same practice when you run on smooth surfaces. As a result, the first loop took me just under two hours.
I handed the chunk of wood to Tania and off she went with the warning that she was in for a tough loop. The time spent waiting in between was a game of staying dry and warm, and mustering up the courage to get out there and do it again. Thankfully, the aid station tent was warm and the company fantastic. Tania came back a few minutes quicker then expected, and I was scrambling to pull my ice-cube shoes back on my feet and not lose any time with the transition. My second loop, (loop 3 of the race) was a lot more enjoyable then the first. Because you are going in the reverse direction, you get to see all the people finishing loop 2 which is kinda fun to witness the strange mix of pleasure and pain on their faces. Also got to see our friends Christy and Aia who were tackling the full course as soloists and were giving it their all out there and finished two strong loops before calling it a day.
After a quick log stamp at the cabin check point, I was off into the woods again as the sun was setting and the real magic began. The trail looks different and the temperature drops at night, but instead of making me miserable, it brought incredible peace. All the stress of work, school and family life completely dissipates. Its just me, my icy breath and racing heart, slogging up another hill and sliding down the other side. The moon was bright orange behind a veil of cloud and the air was perfectly still in the trees.
I made it back to the gate (that’s a Barkley reference that plays out beautifully at Barkakoo) to see Tania shivering in the cold, as always more prepared than me, ready to trade me off again for her second loop. Cold sweaty hugs and she was off into the night while I rushed to find dry clothes to stay warm.
By this time, many teams had decided to drop, knowing they were not going to make the cut off and finish the race. Given the tough conditions, it was pretty tempting for most people to call it off even before the final cut off time because they knew they were not on pace to finish in time. Even though I knew we didn’t have much time to spare, I was confident we would make it out for the last loop before the cut off at 8pm. I got myself dressed and ready to run again for Loop 5 then stood out in the cold with my still ice-cube shoes, and waited, wrapped in a blanket, watching the clock and willing a head lamp to come through the trees. 7:50. 7:53. 7:54. Come on Tania…
And there it was. That headlamp bouncing along. And so began our excited hoots and hollers back and forth, celebrating our small victory and the chance to finish the distance. After a flurry of time check in, water refill and me stuffing a potatoe slice into Tania’s mouth while she fumbled with her pack, we were off into the night giggling like lunatics to run Loop 5 together. By this time, we were both moving slower than we were on earlier loops and I knew we would have to dig deep and work hard if we wanted to finish the race before final cut off at 10pm. It still baffles me that conditions could be so tough that it would take us an average of 2 hours per 11kms and still not be able to cover 55km on a team in under 10 hours. That’s one tough race.
We started out with our usual chattiness as we ran, filling each other in on all the excitement of the day. But before long we were out of breath and surprisingly out of words, and that’s the beautiful thing about a good run friend…silence is more then ok. And I think its safe to say we were both in our happy place of working hard and enjoying the moment, grateful to be out there in good health and good spirits. After hitting the check point as the last racers on course, we must’ve been talking again as we came off the single track and up the big hill on the wide trail. In a moment of distraction, we somehow missed a marker to turn onto single track. We kept going to an intersection that didn’t look familiar, taking the most well travelled direction, thinking we would find a reflective marker ahead. We did, and took the turn but it still didn’t feel right. I listened to my gut and insisted we back track to get onto the right trail. It’s a good thing we did, and we were back on course within less then a km of lost distance. Unfortunately, those lost minutes were enough to make finishing in time completely out of reach.
That’s ok. It didn’t dampen our spirits in the least. We kept pushing, knowing that there was a herd of happy volunteers waiting for us at the end and we didn’t want them standing around in the cold for too long. Off the last bit of single track, and onto the final stretch, where you could see the glow of the aid station tent in the distance and the promise of the end to a beautifully challenging day.
Sure enough, there was Trevor, the race director, at the gate, waiting to give us the news we already knew. He congratulated us on finishing and brought out the big red button you push when you DNF, which was surprisingly satisfying (although not as good as ringing the PR bell at a 100 miler!) and made even better by the few hearty souls that stuck around to wrap the event up.
I’ve never had the experience of chasing cut offs and knowing I’ll DNF before. Given that this race started with 68 participants, and only 5 finished, it still pretty satisfying to know we were close by being the last to DNF, and the only DNFers to still finish the whole course. A race like this is about so much more then just the distance. The whole story encapsulates the struggle in every step and the fight against the elements. It’s about the people and the high fives and the simplicity of knowing that your only job is to move a chunk of wood from one place to another before you run out of time.
So many people didn’t finish this race that the race directors ran out of the DNF mementos, so we didn’t even get one of those after all that work (although we have been promised custom finishing tokens!) Our team name was Hope and Joy because those are our middle names, and this event definitely embodied Hope for the good in the world, thanks to the hard working community coming together for a good cause, and we definitely got a whole lotta joy, even if we didn’t get a medal.
I did however, walk away with a loonie, so that’s a win. I found it on the ground in the aid station tent and I think I’m gonna put it towards my race entry for next years BarKaKoo. We’ve got unfinished business out there.
*DNF- Did Not Finish
*DFL- Dead F@#$ing Last