Fear the Reaper 12 Hour Race Report: 2014 Edition

So, yeah. I’m way, way behind on race reports. But I really wanted to do one for Reaper, because Reaper is a special kind of race. First of all, it’s not a race of speed, time, or really even endurance. It’s a race of attrition.

You don’t win Reaper by being the fittest person out there. You don’t even finish Reaper by being fit enough to do so. You complete Reaper by refusing to stop. And if you complete Reaper; that is, stay out there the entire 12 hours, you win Reaper, whether you go home with the tiara or not.

So let’s get to the Reaper race report for this year.

What is Fear the Reaper?

Most of you reading this will know about Reaper, because you know me. But if you don’t know what this race is, I’ll tell you. Fear the Reaper is a 12 hour trek. It’s not a run, because the terrain is largely unrunnable. It’s held at Outdoors in the Smokies by Dan Schreder, a remarkably nice guy known for producing some of the most notoriously challenging events available anywhere. You run/hike/crawl/scale gnarly jeep roads and singletrack, slog through waist high cesspools, and climb near vertical creekbeds with only a rope to help you.

Dan changes the course every year, but it’s always uniquely and grossly difficult. No one emerges without bruises, scrapes, and being able to walk upright the next day (in 2013 this was a whole new kind of pain for me….suffice it to say I slid down a hill butt first right into a small stump. That’s all you need to know.)

This year, rather than a roped out course, Dan decided to give us a map, mark out 6 check points, and make us fend for ourselves across the some 4 square miles of trail. And he decided we’d do this almost entirely in the dark — only the first and last laps were done in the daylight, as the race commenced at 8:00 PM on a Saturday night.

Now, a Confession.

I didn’t want to do Reaper this year, partially because I didn’t want to stay up all night, and partically because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to face whatever dangerous obstacle Dan had in store (last year, it was a rope traverse, 12 feet off the ground, with no safety net and only an overhead guide wire. I made it across 4 times, with one close call, but in retrospect I realize how incredibly risky this was). Also, I liked when the race ran from noon to Midnight, and when I heard it would be an 8 to 8 gig this year, I got a little whiny. And apparently a number of other people got a little whiny too, because I learned one week before June 14, race date, that Dan was on the verge of cancelling Reaper because of low registration numbers. Here’s the real confession: I waited a few more days, because 50% of me was hoping he’d go ahead and cancel so I could say that I didn’t back out of Reaper, it got cancelled. I am very much ashamed of this behaviour, and honestly don’t know why I am bothering to broadcast it to the world, but I’m not here to paint myself into a pretty picture.

Anyway, when I thought about it and thought how I’d really feel if Reaper got cancelled, I knew I would regret not having the chance to experience this one of a kind event. You see, after Reaper, you are not the same person. You always learn something about yourself when faced with difficult, even scary circumstances, when you have been awake for 24 hours and you are tired, dirty, and in pain. And that’s a good thing.

Anyway, after having this “come to Jesus meeting” with myself, I registered. I immediately knew I’d done the right thing. And I would later learn that although only 25 other men and women participated in the 2014 Reaper, Dan decided to go ahead at the urging of a very accomplished and very kind ultra runner (who did the full 12 hours after running a 2-day stage race involving some 40+ miles of trail running and hiking all day).

Cookies, riding, orange nail polish, and Reaper braids.

This is how I occupied my time Saturday during the day before Reaper started. I decided that trying to sleep extra was pointless and would only stress me out and make me more tired, so I got up at a normal hour on Saturday morning. I made it my goal to prepare for the race and stay relaxed. For me, this involved making pancakes for breakfast, packing for the event, going on a 27 mile bike ride at about noon, and then stopping at the drugstore for sparkly nail polish. I chose orange. I also picked up some Cheezits that were on sale, remembering how magical those were during Iron Mountain Trail Race in 2013.

I also wanted to bring cookies to everyone at Reaper, so I went home and made some of my signature chocolate chip cookies. Finally, I showered and then it was time to put on my Reaper uniform: my burgundy running tank (best thing I have), compression shorts (which would not snag on briars, roots, rocks, etc.,), wool flowery knee socks (with holes from Reapers past), my oldest Brooks Adrenaline trail shoes (with dirt from Reapers past), and my Reaper braids.

Reaper braids are nothing more than pigtail braids that make me look like Wendy. You know, Wendy from Wendy’s. Anyway, they’re a dead useful hairdo for offroad adventures, as my hair stays out of my face, and creepy crawlies stay out of my hair.

Reaper Braids in the Early Stages
Reaper Braids in the Early Stages

Getting Started.

So it’s about a 90 minute drive from here to Cosby, TN where Outdoors in the Smokies is. And that involves driving on the world’s scariest interstate stretch – that windy bit of I40 where there’s nothing but an 8 foot high wall and 12  inches separating you from oncoming traffic and where every 18 wheeler in the U.S.A. decides they need to go 80 mph.

I figured that surviving the drive was my first obstacle.

So Boris the Yaris and I make the drive and roll into one of my favorite places on earth, Outdoors in the Smokies. I get out of the car and immediately see Heather, a friend from Knoxville who also shows up at a lot of Dan’s events. And then I proceed to walk down the hill and see about 5 other people from Reapers past. Another reason I love this event so much. It’s like a family of insane people with headlamps.

I had about 1 hour to prep for the event, so I got my map, cooler full of sustenance, and 2 gallons of water to place in my spot at the check in area (you have to check in at the end of each lap to A.) get your time marked and B.) prove that you are still alive). Among the stuff I’d brought to eat:

  • 1 Bonk Breaker
  • 1 box Oatmeal Creme Pies
  • 1 box Cheezits
  • 4 bananas,
  • 1 can wasabi & soy sauce almonds
  • 3 servings of Heed
  • 1 slice of leftover pepperoni, mushroom, jalapeno & green olive pizza
  • I’m pretty sure I brought cut-up pineapple too

I ate most of this throughout the night, and finished 1.5 gallons of water too. One trick to surviving Reaper is to keep eating, but not too much (the pizza at 6:00 am turned out to be too much….the Little Debbie at 7 am….absolutely not).

Laps 1 & 2

After his annual “this is why you’re doing this and here’s what you need to know so you better listen if you don’t want to die” speech, Dan gave us the big send off. As navigation was a part of this year’s Reaper, I had to decide whether I would rather stick to the labeled jeep trails on the map, or make my own “shortcut” to try and maximize my time and hit the checkpoints as quickly (and therefore as many times) as possible. The rules were, you could take any path you want, but you had to hit all 6 checkpoints before you came back to base if you wanted your lap to count. Fair enough.

I decided that if I was going to bushwhack, the daylight laps were the time to do it, so I gave it a go. After hitting my first checkpoint, which was on the lower hill, I took what I thought was more or less a straight shot up the hill to the highest checkpoint on the course. This seemed fairly foolproof (as foolproof as anything at OITS can get), as I knew that even if I veered way over to one side or another, I would hit a major jeep path before accidentally wandering off Dan’s property (there be dragons there….). And it was messy. Soft, debris strewn earth, and a hand over foot climb up, and up, and up, periodically checking my compass to see if I was staying on a straight path.

Well, when you’re in the middle of the woods where everything looks exactly the same, it can get quite disorienting. So eventually, I decided that I was on the right path….I think…..right? YES!!!! After what seemed like an hour, I emerged onto trail #5, the major jeep road that goes down from the infamous Heart Attack Hill. And lo and behold, there was Dan, taking pictures, because I could see the next checkpoint from my point of emergence!! Yay for dumb luck!

With a big smile, I dropped my 2nd token of the day and made my way to checkpoint #3. This involved a steeeeeeeeep rocky downhill (they all are) and several stops to check the map. At this point, we were all in that frantic, “where am I going” stage where we were getting used to the lay of the land. I met up with a few different folks along the way, and eventually got to the 3rd drop box, just above the chicken coop. It was fun running past the animals, and I made note of this  landmark for future laps.

On to #4….and just as I expected, it was smack in the middle of the biggest, grossest cesspool pond on the property. You know you will never, ever, ever get away from one of Dan’s events without submerging yourself into this pond. It’s stinky, filthy, and coats you in god knows what. But it’s kinda fun…..

After this, I got lost for the first time. I overshot my next planned trail so that I would have had to go down the rope I wanted to climb up (I’m definitely more of an uphill racer). So rather than fret, I went to what I’d planned for my last checkpoint, and then back tracked to hit the one I’d missed.

After this, I was stoked because I knew exactly where I was from past Reaper events! I ran the rest of the way into the base pavilion, – lap 1 done!

Lap 2, I pretty much repeated this, but was a wee bit faster because I got my routine down straight.

Laps 3-5

Honestly, this far out I don’t remember much about these laps, which took me into about the 2-3AM hour, other than I was just trying not to think about what I had left to do, and just go. I did abandon any bushwhacking, as it was pitch black and I decided I’d probably save time by staying on the beaten path. Plus, I was in my groove and figured that as it got later, I’d only get more delirious, so I’d best learn my route well.

Good call, because about the 4th lap, I totally forgot that I had stuck my map in my shorts leg to free up my hands for the crawling parts, and jumped into the pond with it. It was totally ruined. So the rest of the night, I was going by memory (it “cost” 1 lap to “buy” a new map).

Laps 6-10

About halfway through, Reaper gets the very hardest. You are tired, but haven’t yet gotten your second wind. And this year, in the dark and with very few fellow participants, it got lonely. In 2013, I naturally fell in sync with another participant (Spee D Gonzalez) and we trekked about 7 or 8 laps together, seeing others along the way. This year, after the 2nd lap, I’d maybe see one person in passing per lap. By 1 AM the camp had gotten quiet as family and some participants took naps.

But just when my motivation was at its lowest, I came upon someone going my way at about the 3rd checkpoint (the chicken coop checkpoint). We talked and I learned his name was Matt and he was doing this as a 2 person relay, so he and his partner would alternate laps. It was so nice to have company for even the 15 minutes or so.

By lap 10, I learned I was well in the women’s lead, and staying on par with the men. The next closest female was on her 8th lap, and the leading guy was on his 11th (although in all fairness, he’d also brought back 2 hidden cinder blocks along the course for bonus points….trust me that could not have been easy).

One memory I do have was the changing sights and sounds of the night. When it first got dark, I saw eyes. Millions and millions of eyes. I believe these belonged mostly to spiders. Then, it got really really quiet. But by about 3 AM, the bullfrog started up. That was a strange sound… there was also an owl or something unique on the south end of the property. But at 5 AM, the rooster started joining in the gig. Nature is so cool, how every animal and bug and plant is on its own rhythm, caring less about stupid things humans do like drive cars and watch TV and build things and romp around in the woods all night.

Lap 11

On lap 11, I was in those weird stages of knowing that you are sleep deprived enough to start acting like you are drunk. Seeing that I was way out in the woods, I knew this could be dangerous, so I became hyper aware of every potential deadly rock, stump, slippery spot, etc. It was weird. But it was also the lap where sunrise started. Oh, and it was the lap where I knew I would lock in the win.

I can tell you, there is something very special about experiencing the dawn and sunrise when you have been out all night long. First, the light starts to play tricks on you. It’s like everything’s in black and white for a little while. Then, the sounds change. The birds start up and the world starts coming to life. Finally, you get to that point where the headlamp is of no use anymore.

Lap 12

So, lap 12 was kind of a controversial lap in my mind. I was really tired, I was mentally prepared to call it a day after lap 11, because I knew I’d retain my crown for a second year (my beloved plastic tiara I won in 2013). But I did the dumb and arguably selfish thing by asking how many laps the winning man had done and checking the time. You had to start your last lap by 7:30 AM if you wanted to continue, and it was 7:18. The winning man had done 12 laps……so idiot here decided to do a 12th lap so I could say I’d A.) equalled the guys and B.) truly done everything I could out there that day.

The problem was, I knew I’d finish well after 8AM, and that everyone else would have finished at least 20-30 minutes before me. But I went anyway. Dur. Well, I finished, and by then everyone was hungry and ready to go to Janice’s Diner for some grub. So I changed out of my dirty wet clothes as quickly as possible, feeling like a jerk. Not the best way to end a feat like Reaper, but I hope it’s mostly in my head that I was being a jerk.

Anyway, Dan was kind enough to offer me and a couple other all-nighter folks a ride…I was seriously worried about driving safely. We got to the diner, and I was so tired. Matt and his friend were so nice and tried talking to me, and I know I was acting more like a Zombie than anything else.

Comparing Reapers.

Every Reaper is hard. Was this harder than 2013, when we had a marked course but many more obstacles (like the rope traverse, some log crossings, 3 ponds, and a sawhorse or two to jump over)? Yes and no. Yes, because an overnight race is really tough on the body. Yes because each lap was about .5 mile longer this year AND we had to visit the highest and lowest point on the property on each lap (a 2,000+ foot difference).

But no because of the lack of obstacles, which was mentally a little less challenging. So basically what I am saying is, Reaper is really hard. I’ve done elevation, course description comparisons based on my own experience and others’ race reports, and I think it would be fair to suggest that doing 12 laps of Reaper is similar to completing one circuit of the Barkley Marathons. It’s definitely harder than the Iron Mountain 30 Mile Trail Race, which has about 6,500 feet of climbing and is definitely a tough course.

Will I do Reaper again? You bet. I love that plastic tiara.

All us Reaper winners after breakfast at Janice's Diner! What a great crowd!
All us Reaper winners after breakfast at Janice’s Diner! What a great crowd!


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