The website for Mark Swanson’s The Me-Ow Marathons claims, “You have to be pretty dumb to enter Me-Ow. It’s sorta like Barkley only easier…” I can understand why most people have no desire to wander around with limited and devious directions to lead you through a maze of scrub brush and poison oak(PO) infested mountain sides of overgrown trails, when there is a trail at all. All the while you are in search of elusive books with titles like Running Scared, Cold Trail, The Cat Who Went Up the Creek and The Big Nowhere, from which you must collect pages as proof that you have traveled the course. But I am drawn to this type of race like a young kitten to a warm bowl of milk!
I met Mark last fall at the finish of Sean Ranney’s Euchere Bar Massacre, another brilliant ode to Barkley. He came over and introduced himself and eventually mentioned I should come check out his event since I had managed to survive the massacre so well, then something about seeing if I can keep up with last year’s winner, Beverly Anderson-Abbs. Prior to EBM I had heard of The Barkley Marathons and had even listened to an UltraRunner Podcast interview with the legendary duo of Bev and her husband, Alan Abbs. They had been to Barkley a few times and even completed the 60
Mile Fun Run within the 40 hour time limit. Still, I was clueless as to what this Barkley thing was all about. I had no idea that this dark subculture of ultra running I had just been introduced to existed. A trail ultra isn’t enough for these masochists, they have to thrash their way cross country through terrain most would not send their worst enemy through!
SIGN ME UP!!
I couldn’t get any takers on joining me until my brother Joel mentioned one day that he’d like to check out the Putty Tat, or single loop course, while I braved the Siamese. Another Brothers Tebbutt road trip it is! This time to Whiskeytown Lake, CA.
At the not really a race briefing, Mark assures us that each “rounded to the nearest marathon” loop is most likely less than 30 miles, but he’s not exactly sure. He’d also been telling us for months that the PO on the course would be mostly avoidable, yea right! Mark hands us all a few pages of vague instructions with little time to look them over, one of those nifty maps the kiosk ranger gives you with your park entry fee, 3 towelettes designed to wipe off the PO and then casually says “OK, start.”
As I had obsessed over Meow for the last 5 months, I did my Barkley history research and was excited to be toeing the line with a couple of veterans from the infamous race. I also did my usual Ultra Signups research on the 9 other entrants in the Siamese and was pleased to see they were all a strong bunch, including EBM mastermind Sean Ranney and a woman who has a knack for 24 hour track events. I looked forward to an adventurous day of pushing each other through the hills above Whiskeytown Lake.
Here kitty, kitty, kitty…
The race started amongst the tents we slept in last night and immediately began climbing up a dirt road to another dirt road before leaving the trail for the first major obstacle of the day, Spinal Tap. All 10 of us in the Siamese started this beast together and slowly spread out as we ascended. I held what felt like a comfortable pace and managed to top out on the ridge first with the 5 others right on my heals. We quickly followed the ridge to it’s end and found our first book, Running Scared!
Bev, Alan, Sean, Suzanna, Todd and I all descended the steep off trail backside of Spinal Tap almost too closely together at times. This ended up being some of the most serious terrain on the course, where a slip could easily lead to rag dolling down the mountain and taking out the person below. Fortunately the descent went incident free for everyone and we all popped out together on the Papoose Trail. We were now supposed to follow Papoose for 3 miles to Boulder Creek Falls (brief mention about taking care not to fall to your death) and another book. Simple enough and all on trail!
My only real race strategy was to try to latch onto the the dynamic duo or someone else out front and hopefully not get lost. This had worked just fine so far. I felt great running down Papoose Trail and tried to be patient by hanging onto the heals of the Abbs. Sean, Suzanna and Todd must have stopped for a moment because Bev looked back and didn’t see them. She wondered aloud what happened to them and commented for the second time about how the course is definitely harder than last year. Intersesting!
Certainly with some hesitation, but feeling confident and up for some solo adventure time, I passed Bev and Alan on the hill towards Boulder Creek Falls and our next book. I took care not to fall to my death and quickly ascended the spur trail to the falls, grabbed my page and charged back down to the main trail, passing the Abbs towards the bottom of the spur.
“I hope this is not a mistake!”
… I thought to myself as I ran towards Beverly Blvd., named after last year’s winner and to be renamed (or not) after this year’s winner. This section turned out to be this complex maze of what Mark called ravines, but were more like gullies, in which there was a book hidden in one of the many of ravines and amongst fields of PO. After I zig-zagged my way down and across the ravines, I finally came out on the overgrown road mentioned in the directions. I descended this a short ways until I saw a green gate and a gravel road and knew that I passed the book and probably by a fair distance.
I power hiked back up the steep abandoned rode, seeing Bev and Alan’s front sides descending towards me after a few minutes. They had found the book and Alan graciously tried to explain which of the plethora of ravines the book was hidden in as they flew past me. Shortly after them, I passed Sean and he let me know that the book was still a ways up the road and that Suzanna and Todd were still there when he left. I went up a ways further with no signs of anyone or a book, so somehow I got the bright idea to go cross country again, thrashing through a PO’d ravine for about 5 minutes before going back to the road and finally finding S&T a bit further up. Todd told me the book was just 200 yards further up.
Moving forward again!
That debacle was stressful and left me a little frustrated to say the least. It was still early though and anything could happen, so I hauled butt downhill past the green gate to the gravel road and a water station with a kind volunteer. I found Suzanna and Todd there and managed to leave before them, anxious to try to gain back some of the time I had lost. I quickly forgot about being lost as I found book #4 behind the tree where Mark said it would be.
I managed to only get a little lost trying to find book #5. I passed it by a short distance before realizing my mistake and back tracked a couple hundred yards before hearing voices above me. Pheeew! I made my way up to Sean, Suzanna and Todd. Sean kindly explained how to find the book a short ways back up the hill. More lost time, but I was back on track again.
Though I began to give up my hopes of catching the Abbs again, I still felt great and moved as fast as I could while taking care to spend a little more time in reading the course directions. And the directions are now clearly stating that I should recognize this spot as I am about to ascend Spinal Tap for the second time. Good times! Up at the saddle where I became I little confused the first time up, I found Kirk (a Putty-Tatter and one of the massacred at EBM), on his first lap up and trying to find his way. I stayed with him to a point where the route finding turned easy and marched on.
I soon reached the top of Spinal Tap again to find Sean, who was wondering if I happened to see his directions, map and the book pages he had collected so far, while on my way up the trail-less mountain below. Uhhh…no…sorry. Sean decided to continue the course with a photo of the directions and map taken by his phone, even though he would likely be DQ’d for losing his book pages. Sean and I left Suzanna and Todd at the top of Spinal Tap and hammered down the steep and deceptive west side of Spinal Tap for the second time together and managed to avoid some of the gnarliest sections that Tina and Scott decided to tackle.
Off Course Again!
Sean and I got back down to the Papoose trail once again and went the wrong way on it thinking that we were coming out below the trail junction we needed to catch over to Shasta Bally Rd. We even passed Lorelei and Alex (a couple of Putty-Tatters) and Suzanna and Todd, all going the right direction, before confronting our mistake. More bonus mileage and time, awesome!
Back on track and full of water from the drop at the base of Shasta Balley, Sean and I started power hiking up the endless and painfully steep road to the highest point on the course and our next book. We chatted about our upcoming races that we will allow us the opportunity to run together again, Western States and the Tahoe 200. Shortly after the conversation tapered as we concentrated our energies on upward progress, I looked back to see Sean falling behind. I took this opportunity to push hard to see how far I could make it towards the summit before passing the Abbs as they made their way down to Sheep Camp and the start of the second loop. Sooner than I had hoped, they came pounding down the quad busting descent and we exchanged encouraging words in passing.
After they passed I pulled out my phone to check the time for the first time all day, making a mental note of my surroundings so I can check the time again here on my way down to see how far behind I am. I found Suzanna and Todd at the summit getting ready for the brutal descent and wasted no time in grabbing my book page and starting back down. I noticed that my legs were showing signs of potential cramping and knew that I needed to start eating and drinking more. I reached the point I last saw the Abbs and about an hour had passed. I managed to pass Suzanna and Todd before arriving to the much welcome Sheep Camp where a real nice man had our drop bags waiting and the unexpected treat of a “real” aid station. Mmmm…donut holes!
I took my time at Sheep Camp to make sure I was nourished, resupplied and prepared for what lay ahead and would surely take me into the dark hours. It was a little after 2PM and 8 hours in at this point. I left here before Suzanna and Todd and just before Sean arrived, easily finding the next book at Upper Brandy Creek Falls and still feeling strong. I soon hit my low patch of the day though, slogging up the annoyingly steep Salt Gulch Trail. I then managed to pass another book by at least a half mile before realizing my mistake and backtracking. I picked Suzanna and Todd up on my way back as they had also just missed the crucial turn at Tina’s fallen tree, that would lead us down to the creek and our next book. The 3 of us found Sean down at the creek just as he was setting off and said a quick “Hi/bye”.
By this point in the game, I had become a little mentally worn down from getting off course so much and lost out there on my own, so I was happy to fall in with the team of Suzanna and Todd for awhile. They kindly let me tag along, probably wondering how long it would be before I charged ahead, only to see me again after I got lost and had to catch back up. We all seemed to be moving at about the same pace, which was strong and steady with very limited stopping time and working together to make sure we don’t botch Mark’s easy to follow directions anymore. The 3 of us marched forward, enjoying good conversation and wondering every now and again how things were going for the others.
Todd spotted him first! There was Sean just a couple of minutes ahead, ascending yet another steep bump on this deceptive ridge that seemed like it would never end. It was now dusk and we had been on the move for 14 hours and still had a few more to go. As we made our way along this roller coaster of a ridge, we saw Sean again and we were a tiny bit closer, but never caught up before the ridge thankfully ended and led us to our next book. We then made the steep descent back down to the shores of Whiskeytown Lake and crossed the damn to head up the final PO covered hills in search of our last two books.
The Home Stretch!!
Suzanna, Todd and I made quick work of finding the next book and carried on knowing that we were now real close to being back at camp. We followed the directions down to Brandy Creek where we found a slightly frustrated Sean lost in his search for the final book. The directions said to look for the flag on your right just after passing under the power line and here we were underneath the power lines with absolutely no sign of the book or a flag. This spot of the course confused even the Putty-Tatters during the daylight, so imagine us Siamese folks in the dark and 16 1/2 hours into our day! Turns out you had to continue on this almost non-existent old road before passing under more power lines and the location of the final book. Power lines are hard to see at night!
Sean, Suzanna, Todd and I agreed to finish the race in a 4-way tie for third. Cute, eh? While this scenario is certainly not appropriate for all race situations, it was the right way to finish our day. Turns out that Bev and Alan finished together, holding hands (even cuter!!), just 41 minutes ahead of our 16:58, with a winning time of 16:17. Also turned out that Sean’s lost pages made it back to the finish before him, so he didn’t get DQ’d.
What a day!!
Special thanks to Suzanna and Todd for absorbing me into your team! I really enjoyed all the hours I spent on the course with these two great people and also the time I got to enjoy with Sean and the others. This was my first race experience in which I have worked with others as a team and thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of Meow. In the aftermath of Meow, we all seem to agree that this event best suits those that work as a team, even when it is just the moral support of being steered back on course or the comfort in seeing or hearing each other nearby on an off trail section.
The 24 hr woman I saw in Ultra Signups ended up being my new buddy Suzanna Bon, Bronze Medalist at last year’s 24 Hour World Championships and an instrumental part of Team USA winning the Team Gold Medal.
Cheers to Tina and Scott who made a full day of it, completing the Siamese in 24:03, just 6 hours and 3 minutes past the 18 hr cutoff. They were also not DQ’d, but OT’d instead! Cheers also to everyone else who managed to find the start and brave the Me-ow!
Strong efforts by all!
Not to be forgotten, Joel Tebbut racked up another DPMR win when he out kicked Jesse on the Putty-Tat course by 2 minutes in the final mile, after they had found the last book together. Jesse might not have thought this was very cute!