My Epic Fail, Part One – The Duncan Ridge 50k


Mike Baker,


The Duncan Ridge 50k was really tough. It had 10,000 feet of elevation gain. That means going up 10000 feet, a third of the way up Mount Everest. That means the rest of the race was going down. There isn’t anywhere you could comfortably call flat, excluding the parking lot, on the course.

I had taken a Victorian Amazonian misadventure approach to preparing for the race. “Pack the family bible and the spittoon but leave the running shoes. There’s isn’t enough room. We have no accurate maps, two cups of water and a lovely tea set. Of course we’ll survive. Bravo!”
Looking around at the young fit tattooed runners, the make of pure iron gaunt steely eyed old runners, I desperately wanted to see a girl in a tutu. Wearing my traditional skull motif clothes, a waxed mustache and dull blank stare, I stank of rank amateur. The vultures were already circling overhead.
Mary had texted me earlier saying, “Start off slowly and then go slower than that.” She’d been coaching me on not killing myself doing these races. She’s a mom. They make the best running partners for me for reasons too obvious to mention unless this is the first time you’ve read my column.

My usual blow-it-out-until-mile-15-and-limp-to-the-finish approach didn’t need to be kept in check though. The first set of hills did that. They were the warm up for the cloud covered mountains I saw driving into Blairsville: Coosa Bald and Duncan Ridge.

The ascents ranged from switchbacks that were a muddy foot wide to barely run-able verticals that were, standing, nose in the dirt steep. The descents are pretty much the same except they were scarier. The longer you ran, the more dangerous it got.

The trails were littered with random wet leaf hidden rocks, downed trees and hoop roots. It was real pretty though, running high up in the mountains, dozens of mushroom varietals, bears and bobcats, drizzling rain and a lovely hazy fog that never went away.

You have no idea what 10,000 feet of gain feels like until you get half-way up a three mile climb. Think mile 20 of a marathon except you’re only six miles into to a 50k. It’s the place in the marathon your body switches energy systems and you start to worry you have to slow down or just not finish — but at mile 6.

I wanted to drop to the 30k at mile 8 but inadvertently headed out on the 50k course before I could stop myself. I seriously considered dropping at the 13 mile aid station until a runner headed in the other direction said there were grilled cheese sandwiches at the 15.5 mile turnaround.

A word of warning: the short section from mile 13 to mile 15.5 is all uphill and it’s the steepest scariest section of the course. Also, there weren’t any grilled cheese and it was uphill all the way back to mile 18. I don’t know how they did that.

The rest of the race I spent desperately trying to get from aid station to aid station ahead of the clock. Each ascent was worse than the last. It’s like the drinking game “Quarters.” When you start being unable to get the quarter into the glass, it only gets worse as you get sloppier and very drunk.

Each hill climb became more impossible as I moved toward the finish. I had to convince myself not to quit. “Mrs. Baker didn’t raise a quitter.” I kept mumbling that, followed by, “But if I fall and break something they’ll have to pull me, just not something in my face.”

You are in dangerous territory when you start considering a broken bone as an alternative to finishing. You have no idea. You find yourself bargaining, tree to tree, just to keep going. You crest a hill, half tripping down the other side into a misty quiet gully and can’t find the trail.

You have no idea how long you looked but halfway through looking you forget why you’re even standing still. Time exists in spurts. You tumble down switchbacks, trying not fall off the mountain, in seconds. Climbs seem to never end, a foot slips, and you grind back, heartbroken at the loss of one or two inches.

Everything hinges on Coosa Bald. Going out it’s a brutal three mile climb into the clouds followed by a one mile descent at breakneck speed, half on your butt and half playing Harold Lloyd as you hang from trees trying not to tumble head first down the hill you’re running.

Coming back it’s more unfortunate. You are very tired and running up this one mile beast is out of the question. The course up is filled with dream-like vistas. There were a few moments, looking out at what I’d climbed and was terrified, not exactly at the height or drop. It was just so much bigger than me.

I came into the final Coosa Bald ascent and it was so cold. An aid worker took off my Camelbak, another handed me soup and another rubbed my back. All she could say over and over was, “You look so cold. You look so cold.”
The three mile descent is where you’re supposed to make up time. It seems, on paper, to be your ace in the hole. I and another runner tried. He’d been dogging me all day and now we simply ran together. I rolled my ankle five times and had two face plants. Both of us were desperate to be finished.

He fell behind on one long hill section where the ground was covered in marble sized gravel. He slowed down and, in perfect Baker style, I managed the descent by force of dumb luck being too stupid to fall and too clumsy to slow down.

I kept not looking at my watch. I had met all the cut offs until now. I couldn’t bear to look and see how close it was. I had dropped into a gorge. I found someone hiking there. He had been ahead of me but now was limping on a destroyed IT band. He was using a makeshift hiking stick to keep from falling.

I looked at my watch as I passed him. I don’t know why but I looked. I needed to be at the aid station by 4:45. It was 4:42. I ran for 3 more minutes and still couldn’t see my way out of the woods. I ran another minute and then looking out over the sweep of the valley knew it was over for real.

I stopped running and walked a minute. He caught up with me. We talked. It was the first conversation I’d had all day. It felt like I’d been holding my breath all day. It was nice. A lady shot past us. I will chase a rabbit and my legs, which had seemed dead, felt amazing. I chased her.

She had a headlamp and was convinced she could doe eye the volunteer into letting her go on. She got us really lost. The hiker with the bad ITB and the fellow who had dogged me finally caught up and took the lead. We followed them in.

The aid station volunteer greeted us frowning and said he had bad news. The lady tried but he wasn’t budging. Another runner had already come in for the bad news and greeted us with cokes. I broke out the chocolate covered espresso beans. We caught a ride to the finish.

It’s funny. I got DQ’d but I don’t care. I made some mistakes. I wore Hokas instead of real trail shoes. My pack sat too low on my back and caused amazing back pain. It’s like the Navy Seals say, “No one rises to the occasion.” You rise to the highest level of your training.

That DQ was the best I had. I don’t just mean my fitness. I mean, the mistakes I made were my best judgment. That’s what I had. I didn’t think through how the benefit of Hokas would be outweighed by their clumsiness. I didn’t understand how running packs work.

The best I had was 27.5 miles over the time clock. I can learn from my mistakes. I can get smarter about my choices. I can be fitter next year. I’m just saying, I feel good about it because it was the best I had. I ran my own stupid silly race and got what I came for, mostly.

Out of the sag wagon my core body temperature dropped and I started feeling that old familiar nausea and right-to-your-soul cold. I snatched someone’s fresh cup of coffee out of their hands and bullied my way close to the fire.

My friend Abby was waiting a fried chicken dinner, the state bird, down in Flowery Branch, Georgia. I had to get road worthy fast and get off the mountain before nightfall. The only way I know to her house is all tiny fast roads that curve, dip and are filled with people who have no idea what I’d been through.

I got in my car, turned the heat up full blast and pee’d in the coffee cup. I did it in that order. You have to look after the necessities and I knew I needed to be sharp as I got myself warm. I changed into dry clothes and waited for the nausea and shaking to pass.

These races teach you to be practical in wholly ridiculous situations. Ask anyone. There is nothing logical about running 31 miles when there is nothing behind you that wants to eat or arrest you. You still have to finish. You have to keep moving. You have to do something.