Failing the Way God Intended: The Torreya 50k


Mike Baker,


It had rained the night before so the air was cool and misty, the rain’s last breath, gentle and falling. All the racers were furtive, moving around in the dark morning, setting up drop bags and camp chairs, getting packets, eyeing the competition and trying not to see the trailhead.

Torreya is a two loop 50k built on a combination of the Torreya Loop, which is tropical with steep switchback climbs and root-y fast dangerous descents, and the Challenge loop, which has long slow climbs that never seem to turn downward.

I felt strong that morning. I had eaten a pb&j earlier. My stomach was queasy but like I said, this was Torreya and I had come by my unease honestly. My water bottles felt like lead in my hands. I hadn’t used them since Snakebite last year.

My water bottles have straps that allow me to let go of them when I’m running. It keeps me from tensing up my arms but I kept forgetting, thinking about the trail and forgetting what they were and trying to shake them loose of my hands.

Everyone knew what was coming. Those that had no idea, people who had never run the race or run Torreya for that matter, should have known. It wouldn’t have mattered. Tell someone who’s never run the place before how bad it will get and they laugh you off.

No other trail in town is nearly as hard as Torreya and everyone has a story of things going horribly wrong out here. Dana’s achilles problem started here. Chrissie had to be rescued by a ranger who brought her cake to eat, the only thing he could find. I can’t politely say what went wrong with my last go at this event.

Chrissie calls it the Widow Maker. I know you think it’s not that bad. You would be one of those people who, after finishing the Torreya Loop the first time, staggers blurry eyed back to your car, dull from the heat and banana spiders and wild pigs and the hills, “all of those hills”, you’ll tell your friends.

The race start hangs on the sunrise so we all wait. More brooding, more nervous jokes and bragging, a few introductions. Brad, this is Juan and Kathryn. More body lube gets applied. No one wants to leave the race shelter because of the rain.

Marty, one of the RD’s, says a few words about the trail being washed out. She says, “If you see water on the ground, that’s the trail.” Everyone stands around laughing at what wrong things they know are coming to them on the trail.

It reminds me of the World War I trench soldiers shaking the dead man’s hand as they walked passed him. You have to make friends with impending disaster. The runners passed the time mocking it. There was little else to do. The sun finally rose and the race started.

I felt light on my feet. I knew the first bit is down a rutted hill and then a turn around. I hear Brad on my right and then I don’t. Dana and I talk a few minutes and then he’s gone. This was the last time I felt good about anything.

Here’s the back-story. Brad and I have run together since 2009. He’s my friend. He has always thought ultra’s were a bad idea until they weren’t. This year he ran the Flatlander 50k with me. He and I have always been competitive. We can say it’s not like that but it’s true.

We’re runners. I think I’m usually the one going too far with it, though. I’ll push us to stumbling exhaustion at the back end of a long run, when neither of has any legs left, just to see who breaks first. Sometimes its him, sometimes it’s me. Races are worse.

I was injured one year but I knew about this 5k in Georgia that was a flat out and back with a slight decline on the return. I knew Brad could PR there. I knew he needed that. We got to the race and I threw down before I even knew what I was doing.

Brad PR’d but so did I, ahead of Brad and then, after the race I was unable to walk to the car, having doubled down on my hamstring pull. I really am the problem, which brings us to Torreya. 50k was my thing. Ultra was my thing. I had to keep Brad off, that is to say, keep ahead of him in the race.

I kept looking over my shoulder. Sometimes I could see Brad deep through the trees, sometimes he was closer down a hill slow marching towards me. It wasn’t until I heeded Marty’s advice and followed the water, that I went way off course running down a stream to the river and Brad passed me.

I wasn’t ever ahead of him again that day. He’d walk the uphills and bomb the downhills. I would get close and then he was gone. Over and over. I started bombing the downhills and rolled my ankle five times, and then my hip went out on the other side compensating for the bad ankle.

There is a lot of aid on the course. I just wasn’t able to use any of it. I ate a bite and got queasy. I drank from my bottles and I got queasy. I ate a GU and threw up in my mouth. My stomach went from turned sour to a hurricane rolling over and over.

Someone else passed me and then someone else. I felt helpless. Finally, my back went out so that each bump, drop or grinding bit of trail crushed a nerve in my spine sending needles and razor down my legs. It felt like I was sliding backwards and moving forwards at the same time.

You run the Torreya loop and then take a connector trail, maybe the nastiest technical climb in either direction on the course, up to the Challenge Loop. When you come off the connector trail there’s a bench where the Challenge Loop starts. I dropped my handhelds on the bench. I couldn’t use them. I didn’t need them.

The Challenge Loop meanders. Its only five miles long but it might as well be fifty. It just seems to go on forever, turn after endless turn. There is even a section that mimics the connector trail that brought you to the Challenge Loop except, once you descend, you climb again and you’re still on the Challenge loop.

More people passed me around the end of the Challenge loop. Things went really south.

I was supposed to be at the Barkley Marathons that weekend. My Dad was going to be in Tampa, though, and he’s 70. I had to go see him. I dropped out of Barkley a week before Barkley was going to happen. This is a mortal Barkley sin. There is no forgiveness. It means that whoever replaced me only had a weeks’ notice to make plans and get there. I would never be let into Barkley again. And then the plans with my Dad fell apart, for reasons not worth discussing, which is how I ended up at Torreya at the last minute.

Here I was at mile 11 of a 15 mile loop and all the detritus of my life came pouring into my head, waves and waves of poorly made choices, failed ventures, ruined friendships, all the weight we carry but tuck away like books in the attic, all of them falling on top of me at once.

Around mile 13 I realized the things I was thinking, all the horror and misery heretofore mentioned, I was actually talking aloud to the jungle and the bugs, the runners and vultures. It was too much to bear. I started walking.

I was in this beautiful place and all I had to give it back was pitiful sorrow and failed ambitions and poor broken me. The air was cool and the sky had turned bright blue. The pines swayed and quivered with life. I let people pass me. I waved them on and wished them good luck.

I came up the last hill and crossed the finish line. I took a 25k finishers medal, thanked Joe and set about to find a church key. I sat on the concrete ledge of the shelter and watched as fifteen people came in behind me on the 25k. I had been sure I was DFL.

I spent the next few hours drinking beer and talking to Joe and Marty, listening to other 25k finishers tell their stories. Vince won the 50k. Chrissie and Danielle finished almost hand in hand. Gary Johnston finished. Maria showed up fresh from the Springtime 10k covered in Marti Gras beads.

She gave me a gold set made of dice. We drank some more and talked and waited. Brad rolled in somewhere after 8 and a half hours. We had heard from other runners they’d seen him, standing on the trail and staring off into space.

He must have seen the way home because he was running up over the last hill, slow and red faced but running. We all cheered. We knew where he’d been because we’d been to that dark lost place once or twice before ourselves.

Brad teetered at the finish, seemingly unsure why the medal was around his neck, everyone beaming at the glory of seeing a thing done right. Brad joined us in cheering the last runners, one by one up over that hill.

It was getting late. We packed our gear into the truck and Brad drove us back to Tallahassee. We grabbed some dinner and then he dropped me off at home. I sat on the edge of my bed, dumbfounded at how the day went sideways and sideways wasn’t so bad after all.

It’s been a week since we ran together but this morning we ran the Alford Greenway. We swapped stories on the dark trail, laughing at near falls and bad jokes. There were armadillos everywhere on the trail this morning, scurrying and panicked at our intrusion.

We made it back to the cars and stood amazed at the sun rising up into a dark blue morning sky. We wrapped ourselves in Spring’s last chilly morning. The birds bickered about whatever birds bicker about and we made plans for the next day’s run.