THE GATE IS YELLOW
Eyes Closed, Here We Go
Rhonda-Marie: Flecks of paint along the metal rail, the gate I would not touch until it was time to cross it. They say the gate is yellow. Yellow like the colour of the feeling in my toes. My intention was bigger than my strength. When I finally did reach out to it, all I felt were flecks of paint clinging to a history I could not know. A history hidden in the road beyond, embedded in the flesh and blood of many who charged bravely, willingly beyond, into the ‘out there’. All I can do is follow. All I can do is beg to be led. All I can do is fight off the darkness that grips my heart and anchors me to the ‘impossibilities’ I’ve always been forced to accept.
I’ll stop. Before we get too far, before you lose yourself in the park along the mountain ridge on the opposite side of the summit and off the map you’ve attempted to trace. I’ll grant you the safety net to retreat back to camp, back to the waiting arms of the ones who love you, support you, and all your sense of adventure... the ones who pray the hardest when you set out. This is perhaps not your typical race recap. If that’s your pleasure, please stop reading. I can’t give you Barkley secrets, I can’t tell you how to enter, I can’t tell you what a complete loop entails, or even what the famous chicken tastes like. But here, in what follows, I can give you a little piece of my experience.
Eyes closed. Here we go.
Christian: 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 doing it blind, for-real-blind, just seemed like crazy talk. Of course, I said yes, without hesitation.
Rhonda-Marie: This race, this euphoric culmination of insane improbability, has called to me since finishing my first trail race. One of my newfound cohorts in the ultra world posted their condolences. Early 2013. Condolences. My constant reminder when I stand at any start line; I chose this. Condolences fit so well. Being legally blind means a number of things. Most typically, in the ultra trail genre, it means accepting that things will suck until a path is made for disabled participation. The thing about ultra running is it’s a challenge that people love; to reach beyond what we accept as possible.
Coming from a world where I have lost job interviews when my disability is disclosed, my experience with acceptance in the ultra world is optimistic. There have been some that will not flex any rule. Not the pacer times, or the cut-off times or the whathaveyou. But for the most part I am accepted on the trail. Road racing tends to be the most difficult to navigate, and that’s really okay with me. My heart is lost on the hillside, on some mystical single track, some blazed ridge off in the sunset. My soul loves to tangle near the escarpment’s edge, where all disability buffers have fallen off and guard rails are as invisible as my next steps.
Do you have a minute? Can you take a minute? This is difficult to explain. Disability is the ‘other’, the lacking, the ‘almost’ but not quite normal. With disability comes expected failure. It also comes with celebration of small successes. The Barkley is a place where everyone is expected to give until their guts bleed, and yet failure is expected. I can’t honestly think of a place I fit in more. Can you imagine living your entire life under an expected failure umbrella?
— Barkley. Because I can fail in good company.
— Barkley. Because I am just stubborn enough to gather strength from that.
— Barkley. Because, damn it, it is the least likely place you’d ever expect to find disability.
Graciously, courageously, and under no illusion of grandeur, race director Laz returned my email, saying yes I could make an attempt with a guide. But when the time came I had no such willing party. It seemed no-one wanted to be responsible for the very real potential for the death of a blind girl, which I found funny. They trust me to cross roads, navigate city transit, raise children, go to work, find the edge of the pool at the gym, chop and prepare dinner... all on my own. But not climb mountains. Unwavering in my faith that the world will eventually come around to knowing that disability is more than just the space holder at the edges of its ‘normal’, I emailed Laz back to say I could not find a willing soul this year. But most certainly he’d hear from me again.
I went running with my Steven one Sunday afternoon. He stopped mid-stride, dove into a ditch and emerged with an abandoned licence plate. “You’re going to need this” he said. “It doesn’t appear that way,” was all I could think. But Steven insisted I did not give up direction on following my dream just because of one hurdle. “It’s not what you do,” he said. He packed the plate away in his pack and we carried on. By email I was introduced to a fellow who agreed to try guiding the Barkley. This gift, this chance, this space, completely unreal. I owe so much to Laz for searching for a guide for me. I owe so much more to brave Christian who took on the challenge of guiding, taking my life in his hands in this dark, scary unknown.
Christian: 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.
Rhonda-Marie: Standing at the start line behind that apparently yellow gate, now the world was watching; my life’s purpose to cause a stir, create awareness, to make space. Raised against the backdrop of “I can’t,” every breath is the beat of a new drum. The thing is, here I was, like always, surrounded by ‘real’ runners. My only strength is stubbornness. I talk my way into these things and then find myself tangled in the actual issues of pulling them off. One of the things about Barkley, you’re bound to get lost. And that’s okay… expected, actually. Yet I do not know any pair who executed getting lost quite as well as Christian and I. Jumping ahead for a moment, not to the end of the day but to the end of the next day, we’d covered maybe eight actual miles on the loop, and about 50 extra miles just to ensure how lost we were. See, I didn’t go to do anything but stir the pot. In that regard I think it was a successful venture.
Christian: As we stood in the line to secure her bib number and check-in, she casually tells me, “yeah, it should be interesting. I never climbed a mountain before.”
Rhonda-Marie: I’m not sure Christian believed me when I said I’d never been on a mountain before. That set the tone for the next while, I think. So we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. Go get yourself some tea, I’ll still be here, stuck in the memory of that endless climb, watching the people ahead disappear. Okay, that didn’t take too long, I could only see them for about ten clear feet. But I heard them go. They seemed to dissipate, like they were overtaking the mountain. Gone, gone, gone ahead. And me, one foot then the other. Slow, painfully slow ascent. The easiest one on the loop to start us off. Up and up and up, to see the world from outside my lens. Up and up and up, to touch the sky, touch the clouds. Up to where the wind cares not what you see, where the wind on one side of the mountain kisses your cheek and on the other slaps your ass so hard you fall over.
On the first off-trail down the mountain, my trekking pole strap broke. I love my poles. They make me feel safe, invincible, sturdy. So here, two hours in, was my first reminder that I am none of those things. Repaired and down again. And down again. We reached a bench. Now wait. I’m new to all this. Not a park bench. A flattish three-feet wide grassy bit of the mountain. An old mining bench? Our instructions were to look for book one on this bench. I was so happy. Hell, I’d just come halfway down a mountain and I knew exactly where I stood. Neither here nor there. But two feet firmly planted. Christian wasn’t certain which direction to turn to find the rock under which the book would be.
“You go left, I’ll go right,” I said, and strode off. He was concerned. “Can you do that?” he asked. “Your Steven might kill me if he knew.”
“It’s a bench” I replied. “I promise to stop if my feet don’t line up.” Besides... my Steven would have expected me to take off like that. Looking under rocks was my next 30 minutes. Rocks on the grassy bench, halfway down a mountain. Quick, mom, turn off Netflix. I’m certain this is the easy part. More diving into the unknown. Down and down and compass bearings. Down and down and streams coming together. Down and down and do you hear that? More streams. Instructions... if you’ve come down too far south, you’ll see nothing. No shit. That, at least, was a familiar feeling.
Christian: Top-level, I had three things in which I needed to stay 100% cognitive:
The six 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 with the top three
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 are not a big deal 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. Not only physically leading, 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 fewer and fewer 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?
Rhonda-Marie: I couldn’t read a compass to save my life. If I have any wisdom to impart in this mish-mash of madness, it is this: They should have tactile compasses. Have you seen a Braille watch? Lift the glass that covers the watch face, and feel the arms? They should make a compass like this. I was cursing engineers everywhere for not inventing this for the entire race.
Somewhere along that stream edge I knew we were stuck. If Jared and Gary hadn’t lapped us coming to book two we may not have found it. So then what do you do when you’re at the bottom of the mountain? Well if you’re Laz sitting comfortably around a fire, chewing chicken... you’d plot a course up the yuckiest part of the next one. Headlamps on, and climbing again. In my pack were exactly enough supplies for 15-18 hours. More than I’d ever carried. It’s just a mountain, or ten. It’s just stuff. Up and up. Can you hear the wind? Less soft now that the sun is gone; here she is fierce and vindictive, like all the voices of those who challenge my right to be here. Up and up.
I can’t breathe.
Christian stopped. Waited and wondered what had changed. I had no footing. I had no grip. I had nothing but wind in my ears and fear in my head. No sound of his feet. The mountain was older than anything I’d ever dug my finger into, its history forming a fury for which I was not prepared. This forest, this place, this mountain edge... voices of past wanderers. I am not hallucinating. I’m not tired. I am fearful. They do not want company. Not here. Wait. Let me breathe. Let me sink my feet into the ground with hope and lightness. The climb continued.
Book three in hand, and down the other side of the mountain. Gratefully out of the wind. Down again, round and round. Not a soul breathing. But water ahead. Water that washed my feet of every ache and tenderness. Water through the mountain, like a gift from the heavens. But cold feet get colder though the night. Later we’d return to this ditch and tuck ourselves in a crevasse to stay warm and reread the map for the hundredth time; and I would curse my wet feet and shaking hands. Later, so much later I would beg the skies to swallow me up, and take me whole, thinking that heaven must be a warm place because this hell I had asked for was colder than death. Unforgiving wind and lost on a map. No tactile compass. And poor Christian listening to me whine about being cold, while he shivered in a t-shirt.
Eventually, sometime after book four, I called it. I quit. I knew there was a road. It was supposed to take us back to camp. We followed it down the mountain for two hours. The sun came up. We warmed enough to speak again. By then we knew we weren’t going back to camp on this road. So lost we couldn’t even quit. Laughing, we turned around and climbed up for two more hours back to book four.
Christian: I can’t stop thinking about it. I get these flashes 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, in 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 realise we were lost as hell and had to turn back. Back to the course? Maybe. Who knows? Only at the Barkley can you get lost trying to find Quitters’ Road, so you decide to stay in the race because you can’t get back anyway.
Rhonda-Marie: So, may as well look for book five, right? The mountains laughed at this. They taunted and teased and dared our descent down the wrong summit. Over here... this way... try this way. Hours ticked by. Packs grew lighter, the space the food previously occupied refilled with more doubt. And then... Army helicopters. Two of them, circling above. We’d been gone for more than a day. Our foggy brains considered that we were being searched for. Perhaps my crew back at camp was too distraught with the knowledge that I couldn’t have carried enough food to survive. Perhaps Laz himself didn’t want the blood of a blind girl on his yellow gate. Peeling bits of blood and guts of those I do not know, splattered on that gate. Quitters’ road is long indeed.
We went back to the water drop, the place where the riddled instructions told us there was a road out to camp. The “RIGHT” road. Again we failed to find this road. We found ourselves at a fork where a jeep road intersected a gravel road. Standing, compass reading, deciding; we heard a noise. I turned to my guide, my companion, my new lifelong friend, and asked... “Ready to be rescued?”
A beat-up old pickup truck came rumbling down the mountain we’d just been on. After some discussion about how to return to camp, they asked if the choppers were for us. They offered to drive us to the fire tower trail. So in the back of the truck we hopped. Well, clambered, heavy with the knowledge that there was no turning back. We had officially DQ’d. We got comfortable. Actually, that’s not right. I think Christian may have had a nap. I, on the other hand, was nearly paralysed. Winding, turning, speeding down the side of a gravel mountain. The one that had seemed so angry by foot, now seemed to growl as we retreated. It yelled in my ears... Damn it Batgirl... you weren’t supposed to give up. Where are you going? This is Barkley! This is the test! This is the end of all things, and you quit?
Seriously.... you quit?
There was a bucket in the back of the truck and with every turn it would slam into my shins. Quitter, it teased. QUITTER! All the things they say you can’t do, Batgirl... all of them. Now this. But I was steadfast in my decision, even in heartbreak. I knew we had been hopelessly lost. I knew I didn’t have enough food to carry on. I knew that in my 28 hours of effort, there was still some message to hang on to. The truck dropped us off at the highway pull-off for the tower trail. They said there were three trails. One to the prison, one to the tower, one to the camp. Somehow we took the one to the prison. We stopped at the end and found ourselves halfway along Rat Jaw climb. I looked up. I talked to my legs. I considered trying it. But my race was done. We retreated, again, and went to the tower. Here, after what seemed like an endless climb, we found book nine; the Braille book. Helicopters were still flying around. In attempts to let them know we had been here and were alive I began searching for the page number that matched my bib.
This book, perfectly fitting to my situation, had no page numbers. Little did I know, Laz’s last-minute instructions at the yellow gate, some 28 hours earlier, were to tear out a page... any page. There was no point in my taking a page that didn’t match my bib. No-one would know we’d been here. I left some of my personals on the water table, thinking that one of my crew could know I had been there. We sat on the grass and soaked up the sun. I felt the warmth of hope and promise in the sky. It wasn’t to be my day, but it was to be our saving grace. Food nearly gone, water nearly empty and both of us too foggy to even refill while we sat there by the second water drop. Almost as if dropping made us less deserving of it. Out of the game. But, not out of the forest.
This tower marked the halfway point on this year’s course, so we were halfway back to camp, and still lost. Breathing in and out, 28 hours later, and still just as confused, we decided to go back to the highway. Hitch-hike our way back. There was a trail that led to the camp. Some distance along that candy ass trail were our people, sitting around a campfire, eating chicken, counting seconds. With our hearts full of the knowledge that we’d have to face them... heads full of the awareness that between us we were down to one working headlamp and still not clear on distance between here and there... we continued back to the highway.
Christian: Rhonda endured this with eight per cent 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 2.30am in the freezing cold, and run a quarter-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 thousands 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 by the time a minute has passed.
Rhonda-Marie: 29 hours later. Running. And listening to Christian talk about pregnant trees and faces in the rocks. Running and knowing that finding another well-rested human being was the only way out. Down and down.
We met a couple on their way up. Damn it, if they weren’t hiking up the mountain faster than we were running down it. Humbling to know just how slow the ultra shuffle is. Please, if you see anyone from this race, tell them bib number 81 is alive. Tell them we are headed back along the highway. And in my head... tell my Steven I’m sorry to have failed at this quest.
One step. Another. A misstep. Another. Walking along the highway. No shoulders, white lines, crazy fast cars, movement, noise, chaos. My nemesis. This... this... culture, so developed for the abled, so focused around the things I cannot do. Or cannot do well, anyway. White lines, traffic, guard rails... shifting focus... maybe I’m asleep? Sloped roads, shuffling feet. A single goal, to be found. Then a car pulled over and asked if we needed a lift to camp. I’d have taken a ride from Santa Claus if he’d pulled his sleigh up. Yes, please. A ride home. The drive took 15 minutes. I can’t imagine having had to walk that. The couple in the front tweeted a picture of us to tell the world once and for all that we were alive.
Christian: 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 an 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.
Rhonda-Marie: When we reached camp, they weren’t expecting us. Oddly, I felt they weren’t looking for us either. Once they saw us, everyone started yelling “RUNNER!”... no, no I thought, we aren’t running. We drove here. “RUNNER!”... shhh... no, no...
They say the gate is yellow, but all I felt were peeling bits of paint, history etched into the metal as much as the rock under my feet. History or effort. Bits and pieces of me all over the ground, fallen like last year’s foliage in a race whose prestige was in its unknowing. Perhaps it is yellow, but I remain sceptical, and hopefully ever-present enough to always question that which ‘they’ say is true.