2018 Barkley – A View from the Other Side

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are. – John Wooden

This year my return to Barkley was a much different experience for me, but one that may have taught me as much as any of my previous three trips there. I witnessed some amazing performances in some unbelievable conditions, and had the honor of crewing for two of those athletes. Sometimes it’s not the completion of a goal itself, but the experience and the lessons learned in pursuing it that are the most valuable. Seeing close up the attitude and perspective that Jodi and Karine, Gary and Linda, and others had this weekend in the face of the tough conditions and the resulting “failure” was a true privilege, and I hope that some of that rubbed off on me.

The weekend allowed me to see things from an entirely new perspective, experience what my own amazing support system has gone through the past few years, and reflect on how some incredible people handled adverse conditions and outcomes that were far from their goals. Thank you so much to Jodi and Gary for inviting me to be a part of it.

If you just want to find out what happened to Gary’s headlamps, click here.

Or if you’d rather just see the footage I grabbed while out there, head over to Youtube (thank you to James DeFilippi for the camera for the weekend).

The 2018 Plan

After my finish in 2017 there was never any consideration of coming back to race in 2018. I had a long list of people I needed to repay for their support over the years, starting with my wife Jessi, who would get to go through March for the first time in four years without helping prepare for a crazy race in the Tennessee mountains or worrying about where I am for 60 hours. Beyond that there was Julian Jamison and John Fegyveresi, who had crewed for me. If either of them had run, I would have returned the services in kind.

Julian and Fegy with me after last year’s finish. Photo: Thomas Gathman

And then there was Jodi Isenor and his wife Karine, who as complete strangers in 2015 had spent good chunks of their weekend trying to glue the pieces back together of this completely shattered novice who had no idea what he was doing. Jodi was returning this year, and I volunteered to crew him alongside Karine. Jodi was a lot like I had been in 2017: a strong runner with a Fun Run under his belt but who was relatively unknown and lost in the noise of some of the bigger names running the race. I was excited to help him surprise people in the same way and get his name added to the list of finishers.

Gary Robbins and I had had some email conversations throughout the year, and a couple of months before the race he asked if I could help Linda crew him. With different race strategies, the probability that Jodi and Gary would have loop transitions at the same time was quite low. I checked with Jodi to make sure he was OK with it, and after he generously agreed I was on board and excited to help Gary get that 5th loop. After all, Gary was on my list too: without us working together for four loops in 2017 there’s a significant chance that I wouldn’t have finished.

Crewing Jodi and Gary as part of “Team Canada” was about more than just the maple products, but these would have made a pretty convincing argument by themselves. I downed that box of cookies in less than 24 hours, which I feel should get me some sort of Canadian merit badge.

Arrival to Frozen Head

With my parents living within minutes of the park, we headed down the weekend before the race to get in some family time. At this point, that mostly means everyone getting to see the kids. 🙂 The close proximity also gives some nice home field advantages: laundry, full kitchen, and a real bed to sleep in up until the race.

The view out my childhood bedroom window looking at Chimney Top.
Also the view out my childhood bedroom window looking at Chimney Top…

As Jodi, Gary, and other runners started to arrive mid-week the preparations really got under way. We managed to get all of us situated on a single campsite, which was an enormous help for me so that I wouldn’t constantly be running back and forth across camp. On Thursday Gary and I actually got out for a great run, exploring part of the park he hadn’t seen before and getting him some new views on the lay of the land. There was actually a good amount of snow still left on the ground, but we expected that wouldn’t be an issue by the time the race started.

This is a great example of how windy it gets on the ridges in Frozen Head. Despite the snow having melted in most places, there were still drifts that came up over my knees. Photo: Gary Robbins
Possibly the only picture that will ever be found of Gary and I both smiling at the top of Rat Jaw.
Soon enough, Friday came and race preparation was in full swing. Maps were prepared, directions were checked, and everything was packed up for the unknown start time. There was one diversion from the preparation, though: Jodi had managed to find a near exact match to the original Barkley Cup that was stolen (see Frozen Ed’s book for the full story). He had “Barkley” engraved on the cup, mounted it on a wooden pedestal, and in Stanley Cup style had a nameplate for each finish.
The new Barkley Cup. I think my name could use some company down there next to it. 😉

After Jodi and Gary were both finished and settled in for the night, I had a few hours before the possibility of the conch blowing. I took off with Chris Hanlon, who was there crewing Amelia Boone, and got in a great run up and over Bird Mountain. It felt great getting out on that climb on a beautiful, clear night. Once we were back I joined others at “race HQ” for the conch vigil. This is one thing I had been looking forward to: getting to sit around the campfire and share stories from out there. Soon enough, laz went to bed and everyone else turned in as well.

I set my alarm to go off periodically through the night so I could check if there was any activity. Finally, just after 6 AM I went back up to the main tent and found laz there by himself. The conch didn’t seem imminent, but no way was I going back to sleep. Finally, at 8:33 AM, he blew it.

One hour till the start.

It was a really good starting time. I’ve long held that the ideal starting time is anywhere from an hour before Saturday’s morning civil twilight, to ~58 hours before Monday’s evening civil twilight. That way daylight is maximized for the period of time when navigation can be tricky. The 9:33 AM start time fit perfectly in near the end of that window.

Loop 1 – High Spirits and Beautiful Conditions

As soon as the race started, I had other duties to attend to. Laz had requested that I act as a random checkpoint on the course, to get it in people’s heads that I could be anywhere at any time, particularly at the few locations where shortcuts could theoretically be taken between books. I had my work cut out for me to do this without using the actual course itself and running through the participants, but I had quite the successful outing that morning: getting to three different locations on the first third of the course ahead of the runners and hiding in plain sight.

At the top of an early on-trail climb, with my two guys out front leading the way! (you can’t really see Gary here, but you can see his beard)

It was really cool to get this view of the race progressing and how the field shifted over those first three hours – something I hadn’t even gotten to experience as a participant. It wasn’t all awesome, though, as I also observed Barkley in action eating its young. It was like being a photographer for the Discovery Channel watching a shark get baby seals, or a lion taking down a young gazelle. It was difficult to watch, but I could not interfere. At one section I watched as Eoin Keith got left by himself as he repacked his gear, only to then discover that he couldn’t find his compass. He ran to the edge of the next descent and yelled “Hellooooo” and got no response, before deciding to backtrack and find some other runners. Later, as I was moving between two points but off-course, three runners came by me. One of them asked, “this is really, really wrong isn’t it?” I stood there expressionless without speaking a word.

Sorry Eoin, I’m not a course marker.

After my checkpoints, I headed over the tower where I could actually cheer and not stand there like a tree with an orange trail blaze on it. The tower was absolutely freezing. Brutal winds, the fog had rolled in, and periodic rain. The leaders got there in 5:31, exactly 4 minutes after I predicted they would (Gary, Ally, and Guillaume at that point), with Jodi about half an hour behind. I was feeling pretty good about where everyone was – it fit in perfectly with Jodi and Gary’s respective strategies. Other than some mud, the conditions had been outstanding to that point. I feared the night, though, which was likely to bring significant rain, and with that I knew the fog would roll in and stick around until mid morning.

Gary leading the charge up Rat Jaw, just ahead of Guillaume and Ally.
Jodi getting his page at the tower with Amelia and Johnny.

Once Jodi departed the firetower I happily did as well, escaping the wind and the fog and making it back down to camp in 30 minutes (Strava or it didn’t happen?). We quickly set to work preparing for the first transition. The leaders got back at 8:40 (exactly 2 minutes before I predicted they would… if only my predictions could have stayed accurate the rest of the race) and were looking pretty good. It was a strong first loop where they hadn’t wasted a lot of energy recovering from mistakes. Jodi was back in 9:22, which I was pumped about. It was a great time that I felt was perfect for his strategy of a nice steady pace, but that gave him a little bit of a buffer for the rough conditions I knew that night would bring.

We got Gary in and out of camp in 7 minutes, which included a full change of clothes. We were pumped, and he was off on his second loop in great shape. Jodi needed to  warm up a bit and get some calories in him, but I still felt really good about his time at that point.

Loop 2 – The Nightmare

A couple of hours later I headed up toward the firetower. The storm had come, and it had come hard. Between the rain, fog, and mud, I had difficulty even following the trail. I actually missed a turn, but new the route I was on would still get me there after an extra half mile, so I continued on. The only time I had any visibility beyond a few feet in front of me was when the flashes of lightning brilliantly lit up the entire forest. I imagined the runners trying to navigate off trail in these conditions, and looking frantically around to find a reference point during each of those split second windows of visibility.

On the way up I passed three runners who were on their way back down to get tapped out. Once I arrived at the top I could see why it was such a convincing place to quit. I walked along the edge of the road peering over the side, not knowing whether I had arrived at Rat Jaw yet because the steep ground cut away from me so sharply that my headlamp couldn’t pierce the fog far enough to see the slope. When I finally I arrived at the top I stood there waiting in the rain and wind.

The year before I had faced similar conditions during the day on my final loop, and sought refuge in a grocery bag and an orange toboggan I found in the briars. This year I was standing, and didn’t have the fire of having a Barkley finish within reach burning inside me. The 5 jackets, 4 shirts, 3 pairs of pants, and 2 layers each on my head, feet, and hands quickly proved insufficient, and I began running up and down the road to stay warm as I waited.

I finally recognized Rat Jaw from catching a faint glimpse of the telephone pole situated just feet from the top.
At least the water wasn’t frozen like it was in 2015?

I turned my headlamp off, and after a minute of letting my eyes adjust I found that I could actually see much better. The headlamp was the same one I had used in 2016 and 2017, and its high-powered beam had been bouncing off the fog right back into my face like trying to drive with your brights on.

As I got a clearer picture of the landscape, though, I began to wish that I could see less. I’ve never had any real hallucinations at Barkley or anywhere else. Sure, I’ve seen a stump that looks like a person or something, but nothing crazy. But when I was up there, I swear I saw things out in the fog. First, the entire canvas of fog had white streaks throughout it, like looking at the side of a mountain where the trees and logs are still covered in snow but it’s melted everywhere else. Rat Jaw is a straight drop. there isn’t another slope coming up in front of you that you can see.

Then, lights. Lights that looked like floodlights like a headlamp pointed perpendicular to my sight line, lights that looked like bright specks like a headlamp pointed straight at me. First on Rat Jaw itself, then in the woods all around me. And moving, deliberately. At one point it looked like a procession of equally spaced out lights marching up Rat Jaw on the section around a bend before you head directly towards the fire tower.

I was told later that a park ranger was shining a laser pointer up there trying to ask a non-English speaking runner where he had come from, but I don’t believe that that fully explains things. I get chills and a lump in my throat still just thinking about it. I was half convinced that it was the ghosts of prison coal mine workers coming to get their revenge on the grandson of the man who had no doubt guarded them with an iron fist. It got to the point that when one of the runners was approaching I didn’t believe it until he was almost fully to the top. Like I told them back at camp, though, “it’s only a hallucination if it’s not real.”

But anyway, back to the race. Gary, Ally, and Guillaume arrived at 10:55, a little over 4.5 hours into their loop and 13:22 into the race. Given the conditions, I was actually thrilled to see them at that point. I felt that if they could keep steady, not make any mistakes, and even turn in a 12 hour loop then they would be in outstanding shape. Once the fog cleared in the morning the rest of the race would be great conditions. Johan showed up at 12:42, and then Valery, Benoit, and Jodi at 1:05.

Gary, Guillaume, and Ally approaching the top
Johan headed back down

I thought Jodi was still doing well given the conditions. But he was cold. I tried to motivate him and convince him to continue. He was headed down from the coldest point and the rain would be tapering off the rest of the night. The worst was behind. But he was having none of it, and there’s a fine line between trying to motivate someone and just being a jerk and/or putting them in danger. I wanted to make sure that he really really wanted / needed to quit, and he did. So I went back down South Old Mac trail with him, gave him my outermost jacket, and we got back to camp at about 2:30.

Unfortunately the leaders didn’t fare nearly as well after the tower. As the clock ticked away, I moved to wait up near the trailhead, wanting as early of a view as possible and honestly not wanting to answer any more questions about how I was feeling about Gary’s chances. At around 9 AM, just 30 minutes before the 24 hour mark, I see him coming down Bird Mountain. I sprinted ahead of him back towards camp, yelling for Linda. It was a more difficult turnaround, as he needed to get into dry clothes and fix a place on his map, but we got him back out there hopeful that he could turn in a low 10 hour loop in the great day-time conditions. That would give him a little necessary padding for the night-time 4th loop (I felt if he could just start the 5th loop in time then he had a chance).

Loop 3 – Against the Odds

The odds were not in Gary’s favor heading back out on loop 3 with only a 30 minute buffer. It was a beautiful day, though, and the loop could be done entirely in daylight. We were hopeful. After a short time in camp we headed to the tower. I wanted to see him there in 4 hours, which in the counter-clockwise direction would give him a good shot at doing the loop under 11 to regain a little bit of cushioning before the all-important night loop 4. He arrived in 4:05, and our hope remained.

The beautiful view from Rat Jaw. Gary is actually visible here, as a tiny dot just to the left of the far telephone pole.
Gary at the top.

As the 10 hour mark passed, and then 11, reality began to sink in. Still, we hoped. We set up everything at the gate. If he came in with even a minute to spare I would hand him a new pack (with working headlamp batteries!) so he could turn around immediately and go. But unfortunately he showed up 12 minutes after the cutoff. The race was over, seemingly before it even really began.

After Gary turned in for some sleep, I went back to the gate to wait for Guillaume. Unfortunately he did not make it in time for the Fun Run, and I was unable to keep myself awake any longer, having hardly slept since Thursday night. He ended up coming in hours over the cutoff, but brought along one of my favorite Barkley stories of all time. I’m sure he’ll tell that story more himself, or you can hear it on Ginger Runner Live episode 204.

Waiting for Guillaume

Post-race

I love that John Wooden quote at the beginning of this post, as I think that with the internet and social media it is all too easy for someone to carry a reputation that does not match their character. I knew from the start in 2015 that Jodi and Karine had incredible character. Who shows that much kindness and gives that much help to someone they don’t even know, especially after their own race ends with a disappointing outcome? They did the same thing this year, helping Gary in every way they possibly could after Jodi’s race had ended. Every interaction I have ever had with them I have known to be 100% genuine, and I could not be more proud to call them friends.

I did not meet Gary until 2016, and that was preceded by his online presence. It’s easy for someone to smile for cameras and to say the right things in public view, but I didn’t really know him. Unfortunately that year I took a briar to the neck early in the race and spent all 4+ loops alone, still never really getting to know him. In 2017 we spent 4 loops together and I quickly discovered that he was a very genuine person who matched his reputation. But it was not until this year that I discovered how deep that truly goes.

I of course would have much rather seen Gary finish, but being back in that RV after the race with just him and Linda and seeing behind closed doors how they handled the outcome is probably the most powerful thing I could have come away with from the weekend. With all the pressure, and all the expectations and the hard-work that had gone into the race, they had an amazingly good perspective and attitude about it. As Linda told laz, it’s just a stupid race put on by a funny man. Yes, they’ll be back at some point, and of course he wants to finish. But it’s not going to consume their life and it’s not going to get in the way of family.

My finish last year is definitely still an achievement of a lifetime, but in the end it’s a very arbitrary achievement – I ran around through the mountains on an arbitrary course randomly laid out by some guy. It did not cure cancer or solve world hunger. I touched a yellow gate five times (technically nine… since you also touch it to start loops 2-5). The most valuable thing for me that actually came out of it was the self-improvement and the lessons learned along the way – lessons that can be applied to every day life and used to solve problems of actual importance. Gary and Linda are clear examples of many of those lessons, and in a way maybe Gary has actually gotten more of value out of the race than I have.

I know that Jodi and Gary will be back. I don’t know when. I know that whenever it is, though, that I will do everything in my power to help them reach the goal they seek.

With Jodi and Karine the day after the race

As for my experience at the race? Well, there wasn’t a lot of sitting around at the campfire like I had imagined, other than waiting for the 40 hour mark hoping Guillaume would show up. I probably ran close to 50 miles myself, and in between that was getting things ready for transitions, catching the 2 hours of sleep that I got, or handling the backup backup bugler duties. Overall it may have been more stressful than running, because there was that constant feeling of not knowing and not having any control. I’m glad I got to experience what my own support crew has gone through the past few years – walking a mile in someone’s shoes really is pretty effective and I’m glad that I can now more fully appreciate what went on behind the scenes while I was running in circles around Frozen Head.

Gary’s headlamps – what really happened

Gary’s race report is excellent, but he made an all-too-kind and unnecessary oversight, and I do not want him to have to respond to questions about it and beat around the bush for my sake. Linda and I each had responsibilities laid out. One of mine was the headlamps. As I’ve done with every headlamp ever before taking it on something important, I tested the batteries with a multimeter. Batteries can be duds, and out on a Barkley loop is the absolute last place you want to discover that.

I’ve always used headlamps with standard batteries, though. While you might find duds in batteries that are mass produced, possibly by the millions, I’m sure the good people at Princeton Tec have a much better QA process (one that is clearly better than my own). But still, I wanted to be sure the best batteries in the bunch were the ones that were used. So I tested a few, and grabbed two that were reading the strongest to pair with each of his main headlamps.

The plan we had established was that the batteries wouldn’t actually be plugged into the headlamps before packing them, to prevent them from accidentally turning on or losing any charge whatsoever. I still have absolutely no idea why, and cannot believe, that I didn’t at least plug them in to visually test everything and then immediately unplug them before packing them. Unit tests are nice, but you still have to test the full system.

When Gary told me that the main two headlamps hadn’t worked, my stomach sank through the floor. The only thing I can imagine is that the terminals had gotten shorted by the multimeter and quickly discharged the batteries. I’m still completely confused, though, as to how they were still showing good strength and high voltage when I disconnected the leads. The batteries that I hadn’t tested all worked great when I plugged them in.

In any case, I can’t recall the last time I had felt so bad about something I had done. One of the first rules of Barkley is to not get caught without a headlamp, map, or compass, and I had nearly caused complete race-ending disaster. If that had ended up causing him to not finish it would have been absolutely devastating, and I’m honestly not sure how I would have handled it. It’s one thing to make a mistake that’s only costly to yourself; it’s something else entirely to make a mistake that costs someone else months of hard work, dedication, and the possible achievement of a major goal. I would have been Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, Scott Norwood, (insert hockey reference here that I wouldn’t understand).

It is beyond fortunate that he came across Greg Armstrong, who gave him more batteries for his backup headlamp. And while I still definitely wish it had been a beautiful, clear night, the dense fog made the benefit of having a high-powered headlamp minimal. As I found when I was waiting at the tower, the high beam reflects right back into your face and can limit your view as much as it helps.

Still, though, Gary and Linda both had every right to be upset, and Gary could have thrown me under the bus in his race report and I would have deserved it (I never asked him not to). They never once placed any blame on me or did anything to make me feel as if I was the one who screwed up. Yes, they both knew that I was testing the batteries, and they both knew that they would not be plugged in, but the lights were my responsibility. That’s all there is to it. It was absolutely no fault of Gary’s. Not to mention I’m the one with degrees in electrical engineering – I should know how a dang battery works.

Getting quick turnarounds at Barkley like I did last year requires having complete trust and confidence in your crew that they’re sending you out prepared. I did not do that. I am unbelievably grateful for the way that Gary and Linda handled the situation. Both their reaction and the “ghosts” on Rat Jaw give me a bit of a lump in my throat thinking about them, for entirely different reasons.

13 thoughts on “2018 Barkley – A View from the Other Side

  • April 3, 2018 at 12:27 am
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    Great report. I just love getting the inside perspectives of this race from those that are actually involved. You guys are extraordinary!

    Reply
  • April 3, 2018 at 8:53 am
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    Dear John, great report, very interesting. It totally matches the footage you had with the camera! I have been following the Barkley Marathons for 5 years now and I have been always fascinated by the courage, the mental endurance, the sense of personal purpose / goal exhibited by all the participants. I have also been fascinated by the history of this race and it’s people around it. You have the privilege of being on both sides, the runner and now the history.

    I loved your report and truly I would like to see you someday trying the race again. But that is just my wish! I was also speechless during reading the last section of your report where I learned what happened with Gary’s headlamps! Thankfully (not a fair expression for Gary – I do not mean that against Gary) the weather conditions prevented you from being in a very difficult spot. You did not definitely deserve such a hit, an irony from the Spirits of this Race!!

    All the best….

    Reply
    • April 4, 2018 at 11:21 pm
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      Thank you very much. It was fun to be a part of it in a different way. It was also tough at times not being out there myself, and having no power over what was going on out there. Who knows what the future will hold.

      Reply
  • April 4, 2018 at 10:13 am
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    Thanks for this, and the footage. Barkley’s fascinating, but not an easy race to follow from afar. Every small insight into what it’s like out there helps to make people’s stories more real and so more inspiring, and you’ve offered up more than most.

    Reply
    • April 4, 2018 at 11:26 pm
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      Thank you. The race has a very fine line to walk between exposure and secrecy / solitude. The atmosphere of the race itself is an enormous part of what makes it what it is, but at the same time without some exposure the race might die entirely (or encourage people to come seek information by discouraged means). Hopefully this provides good insights, while maintaining the mystique and without affecting the race experience.

      Reply
  • April 4, 2018 at 1:52 pm
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    Crazy that happened with the head lamps. Thanks for the great report!

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    • April 4, 2018 at 1:59 pm
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      Also I should have added I really like your perspective on your accomplishment of completing Barkley. It is a huge accomplishment because of its difficulty but also insignificant in relation to the things that truly matter when life is all over. Still, however, your success and others inspire us to do our very best and teach us we all have a great well of untapped potential that most never find. Challenges like the Barkley along with people like yourself who have the courage, mental fortitude and physical abilities to take them on show us how to give more of ourselves which is a great thing.

      Reply
      • April 4, 2018 at 11:30 pm
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        Yeah, I still can’t believe the head lamp issue occurred, or that it ended up not being a disaster! Extremely bad luck mostly canceled out by enormous good luck that followed. And yes, that’s exactly what I mean by the value taken from the race: learning how to push to our potential in other areas and achieving things that previously seemed impossible.

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  • April 5, 2018 at 4:52 pm
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    I love reading your report because they are down to earth and straight forward. You seem to be the same person when you put pen to paper as you are in interviews. It is refreshing to read reports that are written by someone who could be your neighbor or an elite ultra-runner. Thank you for the report and the insight on the race. I look forward to the chance to see you on the trail someday.

    Reply
    • April 5, 2018 at 11:51 pm
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      Thank you very much. Those types of comments mean a whole lot more than the “badass” etc. comments. And I am someone’s neighbor (hopefully a good one)! Enjoy the trails and hope to see you out there somewhere

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  • April 9, 2018 at 10:30 am
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    Amazing read, thank you so much for this unique perspective! I very much enjoy the Barkley, and this way, I get to experience it from both sides! I would love to have the chance to volunteer, or even try one loop and get tapped out. I have no question that this is above my pay grade, but I love to follow the Twitter feeds, and read the stories after. Thank you so much for writing this report, and for helping out the runners in one capacity or another. Kudos to all the folks who take this on. They are to be admired and cheered!

    Reply
    • April 9, 2018 at 2:41 pm
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      Thank you, it’s great to hear that you enjoyed it! I know that unfortunately not everyone will get to experience what it’s like out there, so hopefully little tidbits can provide some piece of the experience without giving away too much. 😉 Best of luck on making it to the race one day!

      Reply

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