Becoming the Stonecutter


Mike Baker,


I ran the Barkley Fall Classic this year. It bothers me greatly that it might be easier at 38 miles long than one 20 mile loop at the Barkley Marathons. It bothers me greatly that it might be harder and no one’s talking because all the lies are part of the myth that keeps most regular folks away.

There was one moment at the BFC where this dude came in to an aid station with three miles to the finish and Mike Dobies told him he had three miles to the finish and they were easy miles. That boy sat down in the dirt and quit because he was sure it was another lie, that it wasn’t three miles or flat.

Mike pointed out that assuming the boy was right and it was a lie, it was four miles back to the last aid station and that was definitely uphill. I have no idea what that boy did and I don’t rightly care. A man’s quitting is between him and whatever god he prays to for the courage to give up.

I have quit a few races in my own life. I quit at mile 13 or so of a night 50k because it was hot and there was a cooler full of well chosen craft beer. I quit right before a 12-hour race in central Florida. I showed up hung-over and there were a couple of pretty ladies at home I could be taking to breakfast.

I’m not sure quitting to be in the company of pretty woman counts but it was a quit so it’s on the list. I quit at Barkley in 2013 a whole bunch of times before I actually quit. I know that shouldn’t count being as any sane man would quit that stupid race.

I quit the Ancient Oaks 100 Miler at mile 41 as there are some mistakes, from which, you cannot recover. I had ham and brie sandwiches, I had a blanket and batteries for my lamp. I had no Body Glide. I woke up the next morning, poolside with a melted ice pack on my lap very hung-over.

I quit the Georgia Death Race at mile 8. I had run 2.5 hours in the morning dark without a headlamp. I rolled my ankle 11 times, took three face-plants and fell backward over a tree, dislocating my hip a little. I did get to see the sunrise on a mountaintop. I quit at the bottom though.

I spent the rest of that day drunk sitting by Raven Falls with my crew who were, ironically, drinking buddies. We also drank in Helen, Georgia later in the day and then even later in Flowery Branch, Georgia where we sat through a high school play, also drunk.

I think the only quit I have under my belt that didn’t include drinking, (again I exclude Barkley for reasons already stated), was Duncan Ridge. It was a tough year for me and my training had been weak. I ran a lot but didn’t train much.

I brought a way too large pack. I wore Hoka clown shoes. I carried the family bible, a spittoon and moose antlers. I went Victorian and I reeked of amateur. I was so out of my depth, it took me 25 miles to realize how bad it actually was.

I was coming off Coosa Bald deep into one of those exhaustions that help you see how little you matter in the gigantic swirling universe. I felt lonesome. It was beautiful and haunting if you know what I mean. I looked at my watch, fighting the clock, I pressed.

I saw a runner I’d been trading off with all day up ahead of me. He was walking with a stick. He’d blown out something and the stick was helping him stay upright as he hobbled back in to the finish. I looked at my watch. The cut off aid station had to be close.

I passed the runner with the stick and then descended deeper into the valley. The sun was going down. There was a rise up over a small ridge then coming over it, I saw nothing but miles of trail ahead of me. I looked at my watch as it ticked passed the cut off time. I started walking.

I came into the aid station with three other runners who missed the cut off and we caught a ride into the finish together. I was grateful at the time. I was exhausted and on the verge of hyperthermia. I quit and for the life of me, I can’t make it funny.

I don’t mind missing the cut off. That happens. You toe the line and you have what you have. The race was bigger than me. I don’t care about that. You do things to see what you have and what you don’t. I quit and that the only thing I know for sure is that I quit.

I run with this guy who is fond of saying you should do more than the other guy if you want to beat him. He’s always tacking on little bits of distance at the ends of things or sometimes in the middle. Most runners cut the tangents in training runs but not him. You go short on the corner. He goes long.

I always went with him because I figured it was what made him so good. It never made sense to me. I couldn’t see how these little bits of effort could add up to anything useful. Like I said, he’s a tough old goat of a runner and I figured just shut up and follow the goat.

We were all going long this morning and he was hanging back with the other runners. This is a social run. Sometimes its brisk. Sometimes its chatty. Its a bunch a guys who’ve know each other a while. Plus, there was a pretty girl.

I already got a pretty girl plus I can be a little hard to take in person and I was a little too much me for my own good that morning. I bolted. You have to do that sometimes. I got far enough up ahead so that I wouldn’t inadvertently say anything to another human being.

That was fine for a while but then I just wanted to be out of earshot lest I hear something that might compel me to contribute to the conversation. That was when I decided I just wanted to be alone. I had to run hard to make that happen.

I have this thing I’ve been doing. I try and pay attention to my feet, the way a Zen monk lets their attention fall on their breath. I “observe” the sensation of paw back, the syncopated rhythm of it. It takes my attention away from the severe lack of oxygen in my lungs and the battery acid in my legs.

I was alone. My attention would drift back to something and I would say to myself, “Thinking”, and then let my attention fall back to my feet. I was well ahead of everyone. Don’t get me wrong. There were a few strong runners back there who could have run me down like a deer.

It just felt good to only hear my own breathing, no words, my feet rolling back in the dirt and stones sputter. There is a trail spur we call the North Loop. It’s adds an extra quarter mile of single track. It isn’t hilly or super technical. It meanders.

It breaks up the monotony of running the almost jeep trail we were running this morning. Wide and flat has its place. I got it in my head that I would do this extra quarter mile and still beat everyone else to the finish.

I hit the turn already exhausted. I threw down stumbling. My feet going a little off here and there, my breathing wonky as I double gulped air, finally coming apart near the end just trying to get back to the trail.

I turned back onto the main trail and no one was there. It was devious. They were either ahead of me or behind me. I had to run harder now. Okay. We have all had this experience. You are running your guts out and a turtle sprints past as you realize you’re barely moving.

There was no one at the trailhead. I crossed the street. I saw a few runners and, of course, while I was off on the North Loop, they were passing me. I had run slow enough, maybe the whole way; maybe just on the North Loop that they caught and they passed me.

You have to try. You have to fight for it. Winning and losing are just outcomes. Life happens in the fight, real victory exists in trying. It’s like Dana always says, “It is what you do when no one is looking that matters.” It’s what my friend the goat says, “You have to do more.”

It isn’t that if you just keep taking on a few feet here and there you’ll get stronger. It’s that you were willing to do it that matters. It’s like training runs where you throw down in the last quarter mile because that’s how you’ll race.

Life won’t ask you necessarily to do more. You just have to get accustomed to doing more. It’s you and the hill and the hill is screaming at you and it’s the runner that says, “I’m tired but I don’t care”, that passes the runner giving up at the crest of the hill.

More than that though, in the end, you finish. You finish because you can. You finish because no one has told you to stop. You show up at the 50k, 50 miler, 100 miler to run a race and you don’t stop until the RD says, “Get the hell off my course.”

I have quit more times than most you and I will wear each one of those failures like a medal to remind me of what I will never do again. They are the only medals that matter because they remind me how in this tiny invisible life all I have is the fight I am willing to give.

I want one death, on my feet, and racing toward the clock.