Friday, April 8, 2016

Where Dreams Go To Die

Where Dreams Go To Die

2016 Barkley Marathons


Yes, I had dreams. Dreams of finishing five loops; dreams of being the oldest Barkley finisher ever; dreams far more embarassingly fantastical and story-book than either of these. And yes, they died.  (Que an old Allman Brothers Band song here.)0

I came prepared for five loops: Five quart baggies filled with Lara Bars, Paydays, Cliff Bars, bottles of 5-hr energy drink, instant Starbucks sweetened iced-coffee packets, and something new - zip lock baggies of mac 'n cheese I had prepared at home. I packed extra clothes and a space blanket should it get cold, or should I have gotten lost.

I'm sure I have more than enough hubris,1 and I have trained pretty hard.2 I have learned some about using a map and compass. I have visited the Frozen Head twice to hike the "legal" trails and learn the general layout of the park. However, deep inside, I knew none of this had been enough. My bowels were betraying any level of confidence my heart wanted to believe I had.

Fear was my ever-present companion since I've received my Letter of Condolence. So quickly my fantasies turned to anxiety upon arrival of that email. Even in the hours at the park just before the sounding of the conch, I battled the temptation to pull out of the race. In spite of all the race reports I'd read, I still wasn't sure what to really expect, just that whatever it was, it was going to be hard. The Veterans had a huge advantage: mental pictures and memories of the course, and notes and maps from past attempts. Having none of those things gave me a lot of idle time, and opportunity for new anxieties to develop. More and more often I was questioning why I was there.

One of my wife's dear friends, Tina, gave her a verse of Scripture to pass along to me: "Be strong and courageous and get to work. Don't be frightened by the size of the task, for the Lord my God is with you; he will not forsake you. He will see to it that everything is finished correctly."3 I hadn't attempted to memorize Scripture in years, but I was able to get fragments of this one, especially the lines "get to work," and "don't be frightened by the size of the task." They came to me often while I was "out there."

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Friday morning, Laz arrived and we exchanged a warm greeting. He eventually handed out the directions, and set out the map for copying. It was crunch time. Once I'd given Laz my license plate and received my copy of the Official Barkley Marathons Instructions For 2016 (course directions), I headed back to camp and started underlining every detail I thought I might need later. This took nearly an hour.

Copying the map was stressful. I tried very hard to draw my lines down the exact ridgeline Laz used on the Master Copy, while looking over shoulders, checking, double-checking, finally putting marker to paper. Nerve-wracking! I headed back towards camp only to realize ten minutes later that I hadleft the course directions back at the map table! Panic!!! But there they were, right where I had left them.


When will Laz blow the conch? Jim Ball has convinced me that it will be around mid-night, but Saturday arrives and still no signal. Will he wait as long as he did last year? I passed the time putting zinc oxide on the exposed parts of my feet and eating and drinking to stay calm, resisting the temptation to walk mindlessly around camp burning off nervous energy.

Finally, at 9:42am, the conch blows. That final hour went fast, but during my last-minute trip to the bathroom, Mig told me that my trekking poles were anchored in a very dangerous way, one that could put somebody's eye out! With five minutes to go, I was working frantically to fix the problem, even while Laz gave out last minute instructions. As usual for my experience in a Laz race, I didn't actually see the lighting of the cigarette, but people were moving, and I found a spot near the back of the line.

Last minute instructions - photo by K.O. Herston


Jim Ball and me climbing Bird Mountain - photo by John Price
My goal was to keep Hiram, a veteran who knows this course as well as anybody, in sight, but as soon as we cross the Pillars of Doom, Hiram was gone and it was pandimonium as everyone rushed into Fangorn to get to Book 1, every virgin desperate not to get scraped. (There is no chivalry, nor are there good manners at the Barkley. You get your page as quickly as you can and move! It's not really selfishness; it's fear of being scraped, that and the legends passed down around the campfires and blog entreaties of Barkleys past.) Karen and I were the last two, until Benjamin, who overshot the book arrived. We handed him the book and moved on. I took off my pack to get my trekking poles ready, but I had trouble getting the pack back on and snapped correctly, costing me time and frustration. The trekking poles were supposed to be helpful, but at times they were my achilles heel.

I followed another runner down the ridge, but he was much faster and quickly disappeared, leaving Karen, Ben and me to make our own way. As I descended, I slowed myself by falling into trees, several which snapped and fell forward (downhill), one landing on my head. Ouch! Several more trees broke off near ground level when I attempted to use them to control my descent, and Karen remarked that she could follow me by the path of destruction I left in my wake.

We encountered Patrick when we reached Phillips creek, where we were to join the North Boundary Trail, but none of us took a compass reading. We went the wrong way and climbed all the way back to the Cumberland Trail. During this waste of a climb, I tried using my new trekking poles, but a plastic adjusting/tightening connection popped out of the pole, leaving me with one fully functional pole, a short handled section of another, and a section with a spike. We encountered two hikers who knew we were turned around and they directed us back downhill. Already an hour was lost; the dream was slipping away.

Retracing our steps, we hiked up to Jury Ridge and we didn't pick too bad of an line for our next descent. We ended up at the bottom of a convergence of two streams that we thought was the creek convergence we were aiming for, but instead we spent another thirty minutes looking for Book #2.

I have no idea where we went wrong on our climb up the Hillpocalypse, but I don't believe we ever encountered the High Wall we were supposed to work around. My guess is that we traveled far to the right, and after at least another hour of hiking, we finally found a coal road that leds us back towards the NBT. I'm felt pretty good, not about the time off-course, but that I was able to use what little map-reading skills I possessed to find the trail. Of course, once on the trail, we weren't sure if Bald Knob was to the east or to the west of us.

Almost immediately, Kimberly, looking a bit frazzled, came running towards us, greatly relieved to have found some fellow runners. Marianna and Christophe also joined us, and together we again encountered the same hikers we last spoke with a few hours before. Finally determining that Bald Knob is east of us, off we went. I really enjoyed this iteration of the group. Most of us had leadership at one time or other, most of us made mistakes, but we hung together and it was a great collaborative effort.

Patrick, me, Kimberly and Benjamin - photo by Karen Jackson
 We took a short break at Book #3 and ate little bit. I believe we are already six hours into the race, and I had hoped to make Garden Spot (Book #4) in four. I took off my pack, unzipped the back to get a bottle of Ensure out, and then put the pack back on, learned later that I forgot to zip my vest pouch shut, and losing a brand new handheld flashlight as a result. We took the wrong way around the Coal Ponds, but Kimberly, the only veteran among us, remembered enough of the way to get us to Garden Spot. Marianna led us directly to Book #4,where a cairn had been built to honor all Barkley participants who have departed from this life. We each solemnly added a stone to the cairn.


It took us 8 hours to do the first third of the course. The dream of finishing a loop with time to go back out was dead. Evening was upon us; temps were starting to drop. Back and forth we went on the jeep road, but we could not find the path that descended towards Barley Mouth Branch. We explore other jeep roads, as much to stay warm as anything. I knew we were close, but this wasn't horseshoes. We hiked for at least another hour. Darkness descended. I remember thinking that the only way we will find the descent is to wait for the leaders to come through on their second lap, and as we were now approaching ten hours, that would not be too far off. Depressing.

Marianna and Christophe headed down a jeep road that I was sure was going the wrong way. Karen, Patrick and Benjamin decided that it was too cold to continue, and headed for Quitter's Road. Kimberly and I committed to continuing on into the dark, even without a clue as to how we were going to get to Book #5. The fellowship was broken.

As I had hoped, Gary and Jared, the leaders, came running towards us, and offered to lead us to the drop off. We wer so close; we had walked by it at least six times! The others had a chance to join us, but opted to continue their way back to camp. They had dressed for a twelve-hour loop, and well past ten hours, we were not even half-way around.

Jared and Gary climbing Rat Jaw - photo by Chris Gkikas


Gary paid Kimberly and me a nice compliment for contining on when it would have been so tempting to go back with the others. I treasured those words for the rest of the adventure. There were reasons I didn't quit: I didn't want to quit without seeing the course; I didn't want to quit without experiencing being Out There at night; I didn't want to have to look Laz in the face and try to explain why I must not have wanted it bad enough. It helped that I wasn't cold, that I had plenty of food and caffeine, and that Kimberly wanted a complete loop as badly as I did. Down towards Barley Mouth Branch we plunged, descending like the dream, from five loops to one, from fantasy to fiction to reality.  


They guys told us we would reach a jeep road and should turn left. We did, but we did not see Bobcat Rock and the trail down Leonard's Butt-Slide. We marched right past it, turned around, and marched past it again! It was cold, and we needed to keep moving, so Kimberly and I headed back to the creek, ventured around the bend in the road, descended to the creek and crossed it, only to discover there was nowhere to go that way. We came across some abandoned mining equipment, rusting away quietly just above the creek bed and I wondered if I was destined for the same fate. Then Kimberly looked up and saw a headlamp on the road above us. It was Starchy, who had just arrived at the jeep road.

We followed Starchy and he took us straight to Bobcat Rock! Frustrating, but a relief at the same time. We descended Leonard's Butt-Slide, but couldn't find the book. John Kelly came along on his second loop, and he had trouble also. We descended further down, climbed back up (a short, but very steep climb) and John finally yelled that he'd found it! By the time I get my page and made my way up to the road, Starchy and Kimberly were at Bobcat Rock (John long gone), looking for the next path up to Hiram's Pool and Spa. Starchy and I walked right past Book #6, but fortunately, Kimberly spotted it and saved us some backtracking.


Starchy was doing such a good job navigating that I make a big mistake: I quit looking at my map and compass and contributing my input. It was a hassle unzipping my pack pouch, pulling out my 200x reading glasses, sitting down with the directions and map and trying to figure out what was going on when Starchy did it all in less than a minute. Still, an extra set of eyes and another brain (such as it is) might have been helpful on the next descent.

There were cliffs to work around, some climbing down, a loose rock that rolled murderously towards the head of the person in front of me, some tense moments and words, as we made our way down the ridge towards New River. We ended up far to the right of where we were supposed to be. Former finisher Andrew Thompson came along on his second loop, and immediately began climbing a steep hill. We followed, but at the top, he was long gone, and the highway we expected to find was nowhere in sight. Back down we went. By now, all I had left of my trekking poles were two stubs, the top section of each, so as I climbed these steep ascents, I was bent over even worse than the old man on the Aqualung album cover.

Part way up the next climb, we realize we had passed Book #7, so we descended yet again. We encountered Mig who told us it was only a few hundred feet back. We spread out a little until Kimberly found the book in a hollow tree trunk.

Walk into splintered sunlight,
inch your way through dead dreams
to another land

maybe you're tired and broken,
your tongue is twisted with words half-spoken
and thoughts unclear4

I was frustrated and getting down on myself. The name of a bluegrass band from many years before came to mind, Old and In The Way, and it really seemed to fit how I was feeling at that moment. I'm debated whether or not to tell the others to go on without me. I'm slow. I don't feel like I'm much help to the group, but I think that once daylight comes, I'll be able to find my own way. However, instead of voicing all of these thoughts, I pulled out my map and compass, took a bearing, and announced that I was going "this" way and started off into a thicket of rhodendrums. Kimberly was more than a little frustrated with me, but Starchy followed. My bearing and compass reading were right, but by not having an accurate idea what our starting point was, my navigation brought us out on the top part of Testicle Spectacle. At least now we know where we were. And daylight was breaking.

The section down to Raw Dog Falls went pretty well. I went my own way at Danger Dave's climbing wall, and didn't really expect to see the other two again. They were much faster climbers, and I was tempted to sneak off to a sunny place where I could take a nap. I found an Old Man Route around the wall, got Book #8 and climbed up to the road, where to my surprise, they sat waiting for me. It was daylight now; my spirits had improved and the loneliness and worthlessness I felt during the night were passing; and I was thankful they were there. I wouldn't be any faster on the climbs, but I also wouldn't have to battle my thoughts alone as the heat of the day, fatigue, and the effects of sleep deprivation worked their magic.

We climbed Pig Head Creek, reached the Prison Mine Trail, and got lapped by Jennilynn. The climb up Rat Jaw went better than I expected, and I used up my water just before reaching the top. We filled our bladders and bottles, and took time to eat. We had been out on the trail for over 23 hours and Starchy and Kimberly were running low on food. I pulled out my zip-lock bag of mac 'n cheese and gladly shared.

Gary and Jared were climbing Rat Jaw on their third loop as we descended. We also met Heather, now on her second loop.) By the time we reached the bottom, John Kelly was exiting the prison area. There was no way I could keep my feet dry in the tunnel, nor did I have the climbing skills to go up either of the towers. (Kudos to Jared, who climbed them on all five of his loops.)

Bad Thing took a while, but it was fairly straightforward. We didn't have too much trouble finding the book at the top and we were anxious to begin our descent down Zip Line. Again, stream after stream converged, leaving us guessing as to when we are actually supposed to cross the creek and when weren't. We spent a lot of time looking for a beech tree at one convergence, until I finally gave up and began moving further downstream. Suddenly, I heard my name being yelled from off to my right. It was Dale Holdaway (followed by JT and Jason) and he told me that the beech tree was only a little further down. Very soon we found a confluence that had the right angle layout I'd been expecting, went to the beech tree, got our pages, and rested before climbing Big Hell.

I'm not sure where we again encountered Jennilynn, but I believe it was during this climb. Maybe it was because it was the last climb, maybe because we were ready to be done, maybe because we'd been on our feet moving for thirty hours, or maybe for any number of other reasons, but this climb seemed to take forever. It deserves its name, We finally reached the top, celebrated getting our last pages, and took only a short breather before heading down Chimney Top Trail.

We were pretty quiet as we walked. I was thankful for the downhill, but once we encountered the Ridge Mountain ascent, I surrendered the point position to the others. Somewhere along here we made a pact to approach the Yellow Gate running and holding hands. I remember feeling thankful to be included, apparently still harboring some of those dark feelings from the night hours.

At the gate, I asked Laz if we made the cutoff. I got no response, just a look from under the brim of his hat. I told him that Barkley truly is the place where dreams go to die and he asked me if any dreams did die out there? I told him, "yes," but some came true also.

Running to the finish.  Joel Gat is off to the right, in the flip-flops. - photo by Dan Henry courtesy of the Chattanooga Times Free Press - http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/local/story/2016/apr/06/barkley-marathons-race-eats-its-young/359012/#photogallery_1549
Touching the Yellow Gate - photo by

Photo by Clark Annis



  Dave played the best version of "Taps" I heard all weekend. Many wanted to know exactly what happened to us Out There, but I was at a loss to know where to begin. The only word I had was "convergences." Too many convergences...

Asking Laz if we made the cutoff - photo by

Our adventure lasted 32 hours. We have been informed that we took more time to complete a single loop than anyone in the history of the event. My mind and heart are still trying to cope with the experiencing of such a wide array of emotions simultaneously: exhileration, euphoria, and complete humiliation. It's befuddling...

Afterwards:

The reception for the three of us at the Yellow Gate was so positive. Instead of laughing at us derivisely, people cheered and applauded our dogged determination. Several offered me a beer, but all I wanted was an ice cold Classic Coke, which Joel Gat was able to procur. Thanks Joel!!!

Later, after a shower, I did enjoy an IPA at Jim and Karen's fire, wrapped in one of their fleeces, enjoying the comraderie (Chris Gkikas was there too) until I started to nod off.


Jim Ball, Chris Gkikas and I, before the race - photo by Karen Tuell



After six hours of sleep, I woke up and just laid there, my mind wandering. I heard "Taps" sounding for three runners and regretted not having gotten out of my sleeping bag to be there to welcome them in. I spent the rest of the night and the next day hanging out around the the fire at HQ, enjoying fellowship with people I've come to enjoy so much, and watching runners come into camp and head back out, each with amazing stories of their own to tell.

Laz and me after the race.  I'm not sure who were talking with. - Photo by John Price


Jared was the only finisher, finishing in about 53 hours. There was a huge crowd at the finish line, and he sat calmly and answered questions for 30 minutes or longer.

I thank the Lord for the whole experience:
- for creating the beauty of this part of Tennessee
- for Laz, Raw Dog and all those that have had a part in creating and sustaining this race
- for all the other runners, their families, friends and crew, as well as friends of the race, that joined together to make this the great event it was
- and for the privilege of getting to do what I did this weekend. It wasn't all I had hoped for, but perhaps in some hard-to-explain way, it was so much more.

Laz and Dobies had some fun with math at our expense...
-officially, we traveled at an astounding pace of .625 miles per hour, 55 feet per minute (try that at home for fun)
- had we done the entire 100 miles at that pace, it would have taken us approximately163 hours
- Robert Youngren calculates that if we averaged 1.5 (unofficial) miles per hour, we may have wandered as far as 48 miles during our loop, . This caused Laz to proclaim that even though the Barkley course is not a perfect circle, neither did it resemble a small intestine.

PS...Erik, on his second loop, found my handheld while descending Bald Knob! How cool is that?

Thanks to Henry Spier for his 20 Self-Evident Truths. I didn't fully appreciate #20 until today: that "the Barkley is the ultimate revealer of truth. Most will find out that they are not as tough as they hoped they would be...but all will be grateful and better for the experience." I want to believe I am a better person for this experience; help thou my unbelief.  :)

Footnotes:

0 - "Dreams" by the Allman Brothers Band  
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8OR-nIqEzw

1 - Henry Spier's "Barkley Self-Evident Truths" #5

2 - ibid, #1

3 - I Chronicles 28:20, The Living Bible

4 - "Box of Rain" by Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bxh5olGxCYI

Other stuff:

a)

Barkley Self-Evident Truths - Henry Speir

#0 - You can't learn if you listen with your mouth. (Mike Dobies)

#1 - You toe the line at the yellow gate with the training you have, not the training you wish you had.

#2 - Weather happens - the successful Barker wastes little time and energy on this and instead focuses on aspects within his control.

#3 - There are two ways of quitting at the Barkley: Direct and Indirect - Direct is the aspiring Barker declaring, regardless of reason, that they are unwilling to continue; Indirect is the lack of will to move at an appropriate pace so as to not timeout.

#4 - Manage your calorie intake; the successful Barker will not allow himself to even go into "mico-famine" - if you are near the end of a loop and need to eat, do so, don't wait to get in camp.  attrib: Andrew Thompson

#5 - One cannot make it far at the Barkley without above average hubris.  However, hubris is also one of the leading causes of a Barkley attempt being cut short.  The successful Barker is aware of, and will manage this.
#6 - There is no "wishing" at Barkley - there is "vision" and the steadfast will to then realize that vision.
Thompson corollary: Once the switch is flipped, it can't be unflipped.

#7 - Go at a pace comfortable for *you*.  If you plan on going with someone else, you are going at their pace, at some point this will be too fast.  attrib: David Horton
Corollary: The virgin would be wise to seek a vet that is otherwise likely to move at a slower natural pace than them
(see self-evident truths #8, #9 and #5).

#8 - The most important decision the Barkley virgin can make is which veteran they will try to follow.  Choose wisely.   See: Barkley self-evident truth #7.

#9 - The Barkley virgin is a parasite and any self-respecting veteran will attempt to "scrape"(drop) them at some point.  See: Barkley self-evident truth #8.

#10 - You will vastly increase your chances at success if you know where you are and are able to pick out where you are on the map at all times; keep track as you progress and make a mental note as you get to each book or pass significant terrain features.  At some point, you are likely to find yourself alone - see: Barkley self-evident truth #9

#11 - While "Out There", the ephemeral "Barkley Friendship" can be very fleeting, but also very useful.  The successful Barker will immediately recognize when it is no longer useful and move on with haste.  (be mindful, however, of Barkley self-evident truth #5)
Corollary: The successful Barker will instantly spot the mopey, blue, dead-weight Barker and put distance between them
before he is infected with negative, self-justifying talk about quitting.


#12 - All other things being equal, during the nighttime, the successful Barker will leverage pairing or teamwork possibilities with those around him.  Being mindful, of course, of Barkley self-evident truth #11.
Corollary: The Barkley virgin is much less likely to be scraped at night.  See: Barkley self-evident truth #9

#13 - While "Out There", the course is in command; between loops, YOU are in command.  The successful Barker will visualize, plan and parsimoniously manage every minute between loops.  What you do or fail to do here could be the beginning of the end of your Barkly outing.

#14 - If you haven't spent much time with a USGS 7.5 min topo quad and can't tell the difference between a draw and a spur, go back, re-read and double down on Barkley self-evident truth #8

#15 - Ultrarunners: Realize that all that trail running training and experience you have is only tangentially useful at being successful at the Barkley.  Furthermore, some of the experience and habits you've gained in this pursuit can even be somewhat counterproductive at the Barkley.  That is not to say that it's not useful at all; it's just not as useful in preparing you for the Barkley as you likely assume it to be.  See: Barkley self-evident truth #1
Corollary 1: "Mudder/Death/ToughGuy" type running events and experience are even more useless.
Corollary 2: The best comprehensive Barkley training is during the event itself; if you are in, keep moving forward --
your next chance is at minimum a year, but more likely more than a year away!

#16 - Knowledge and understanding of the actual Barkley course and how to navigate around it is fundamental to success and goes without saying; however, equally as important and useful, but often overlooked, is the "big picture" of the park, its features and how they are all interconnected and how the Barkley course fits and flows within/around the park.  (attrib: Jonathan Basham; also: laz, Furtaw, others)

#17 - Implicit in your desire to enter the Barkley and being granted entry into the event is your steadfast commitment to self-extract and make your way back to camp on your own power, accept under the most extreme of circumstances.  If you had the energy and fortitude to get out there, then you should be able to get back on your own...without bothering the locals, and bringing shame and disgrace to yourself and the Barkley.  (partial attrib: "Pit Viper" circa 2007; others before and since)   See: Barkley self-evident truth #16 and #10

every barker has self-extracted.
no matter how long it took.
altho some have hitch hiked back from some damned remote locations!

there is a certain pride that no one has had to be found and retrieved over all these years.
the weight of all the barkers who have precdeeded you
and all the barkers who hope to follow
is on your shoulders.

you got yourself out there.
you must get yourself back.

laz
#18 - Navigating around the Barkley course is no doubt a challenge.  However, the primary driver for causing the once aspiring Barker to quit is the cumulative effect of the brutal climbs and descents.  See: Barkley self-evident truth #3

#19 - The Barkley is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. (inspiration attrib: Winston Churchill)

#20 - The Barkley is the ultimate revealer of truth.  Most will find out that they are not as tough as they hoped they would be (or as most perceive them to be); a select few will become legends.  All will be grateful and better for the experience.

b) from Laz on why a GPS isn't necessary during the Barkley

as for tracking your heart rate,
i will save you the trouble.
you are going to redline....

a lot.

if the term "redline" is not part of your standard english vocabulary,
picture the gauges on the dash of your automibile.
the meaning of "redlining" should be obvious.

let me explain:
when the uphill slope gets over 30%
most people have to redline their heart rate just to move.
by the time it hits 40%
everyone has to redline to move at all.

30 and 40% grades are all over the barkley course.

if your heart cant take a licking
and keep on ticking
you ought to give over your slot to a weight lister.
because you will die out there.





12 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your perseverance! I navigated all 4 of my barkleys way better, but I never finished a loop. I have always regretted not just lying down and sleeping and finishing it the daylight the year I made it to Big Hell and couldn't find the book from sleep deprivation. I so admire the 3 of you for sticking it out to the finish! I hope you get back in next year, you will use what you learned this year to get a loop within the time limit in the future! Congrats again!

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  2. Great read Hoosier Brad, thank you for sharing

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  3. "It wasn't all I had hoped for, but perhaps in some hard-to-explain way, it was so much more." I sense a profound truth here - though I think I can only really discern a glimmer. Thanks for writing and sharing this while you are still trying to sort it all out yourself. It made it raw and real, and added to the already great respect I have for you.

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  4. But the man can have a dream and work on it!
    Wish you improve your map navigation skills!
    Go on!!!

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  5. Nice report. Fun times. I loved the hand holding coming in to the "finish".

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  6. good job, well done. I liked your smile and like your story. MIG

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  7. Brad, I have no words except that I can't even comprehend the dream. And congratulations for your massive plunge into that abyss and doing more and getting more out of it than I ever could in my dreams. Big hugs, jasz

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  8. Great story. I have so much respect for you and your fellow finishers - you really did finish!

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  9. Great story. I have so much respect for you and your fellow finishers - you really did finish!

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  10. Thanks Brad for giving me a new target to shoot for as I age. My last loop at age 60, 6 years ago was over 20 hours. Excellent write-up also, very enjoyable and brings back great memories.

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  11. But the man can have a dream and work on it!
    Wish you improve your map navigation skills!
    Go on!!!
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