Barkley Marathons '08

(mine's not quite such a good read as some of the other reports from the past, but I tried. after writing this, I read it again a few days later and questioned a few of the details, but hey, I was up for 38+ hours...)

Not long after I began ultrarunning, I learned about a crazy race called the Barkley Marathons. Apparently almost everyone who attempted it failed. I read reports about the terrain, weather, course, and rituals involved with the race. I knew Laz, because my first ultra had been his Strolling Jim 40, but for several years I never even mentioned it to him in conversation because I knew this Barkley run was out of my league. I was intrigued, but knew I would have to pay some dues before I deserved (or even rationally wanted) a spot. Last year I began to think about it more seriously. I had attempted the Vol State run several times, was more acquainted with Laz, and so I went up to spend a few hours at the race in 2007. I saw Milan Milanovich come in and scrape his finger across his neck indicating that he was done (after more than 24 hours), and I saw Pat Costigan come in all chipper and pumped, only to succumb to the course a few books later. I only spent a few hours there, but I got a little feeling for how these competitors looked and felt.

When I finally finished the Vol State Gary told me that to run across TN in 10 days you had to be tough. But he said that to finish the Barkley you had to be tough AND strong AND you couldn't make mistakes AND you had to get lucky.

I had it in my head that I wanted to give Barkley a try, but all the talk about getting lost and staying up one or two nights was intimidating. I read a book about land navigation, and entered a 24 hour rogaine type event. With the help of John Dove I got comfortable with the navigation and being out at night, and learned some of the keys to not getting lost. It was a good experience, and after another small orienteering meet, I felt like I could go out in the woods with a map and compass and not end up totally lost.

Byron Backer and I started talking about the Barkley during the fall, he had been interested for some time as well, and so we decided we'd train together and visit the park before the race. After new years, we made several trips to Frozen Head and explored several portions of the course, both backwards and forwards, in conditions that were usually very cold and wet, including an overnight hike in rain, sleet, fog, and snow. After our course reconnaissance I felt certain that I could do a loop, and that since I knew I could do a loop without dying I could almost guarantee two loops. In my mind, the third loop was a bit of a stretch but I wanted to believe I could do it. Going out on the fourth loop was my ultimate-on-the-edge-of-being-reasonable goal, and doing a fifth loop felt like an extremely unlikely (nearly impossible) challenge.

Before the race I told Gary that I was hoping for a Fun Run finish. After the run he said he had not thought I had it in me.

I was in an interesting place emotionally and mentally before the run, trying to get my girlfriend of three and a half years back, and feeling pretty negative about the prospects. Thursday and Friday before the race I considered giving my spot up to one of the wait list folks who'd come a long way to try and run. I decided, however, that lamenting my situation would do no good, and would just give way to feeling worse, so I needed to go out on the course and give it a good shot.

Saturday morning we headed out and the weather was fine. Cool and damp. Everyone sped up Bird Mountain and ran/slipped down to book one. We were in a couple big packs, and enjoying conversation over Jury Ridge and Squire Knob. When we got to Garden Spot Andrew Thompson and I got slightly ahead of the pack (although Byron and Brian were well out ahead of us at this point) and spoke for a few minutes. Andrew uses positive talk as a tool out on the course, and his complements and comments bolstered my confidence enough that I told him my goal was to go out on the fourth loop. He said, "good." And now that I had stated an ambitious goal out loud, and had an experienced Barkley runner give positive feedback, I was ready to give this thing a shot. Of course, within a few minutes the pack caught up and I led them around the east side of Stallion Mountain, over shooting Fyke's Peak by accident, whoops! This was one of two or three sections of the course that I was not 100% confident on because I hadn't seen it much. Once we corrected, and found the book location (the book, however, was missing) we went down to the New River and started the climb up Testicle Spectacle, this is my least favorite climb on the course. It is relatively short, but LONG ENOUGH TO SUCK! Since it wasn't super wet, it was actually much easier than I'd seen it before, and I was pleasantly surprised to zoom right up it, passing everyone in the pack who'd gotten to the New River quicker than I had. Next I enjoyed the butt slide and traversal over to the book at Raw Dog Falls, I got real good at nailing this descent and hitting the book dead on. I also enjoyed the climbing wall, because it is nothing like a running race, it's a total jungle gym type diversion, like being on the playground. Up to the highway and the steep gully to the mine ruins, I kept ahead of the group all the way to rat jaw, where a pleasant surprise of people and gifts awaited. Greg Eason was only a couple minutes behind me at the Fire Tower, so I went slowly down to the trail towards Mart Fields, so he'd catch me. We were about to climb the Hump Trail, which I hadn't seen. It looked straight forward, but I figured, why not slow a little and go up with someone who's seen it…It'll save wandering around looking for the book, and talking is a nice diversion. When Greg caught up he was just as happy as I was to have company, so I followed his lead up to the book and down to Indian Knob. This went well, as did our descent of Zipline. We got our page at Beech Fork and Chimney Top and made our way back to camp. I felt great, and was looking forward to the next loop, and since we were doing a very similar pace I was excited to start it with Greg. We agreed to 15 minutes to re-supply in camp, and started the pit stop. My dad was crewing, and had gone in to town and brought a fried chicken sandwich back, which I was overjoyed to devour. I packed up more snickers bars, crackers, and a sandwich.

I was ready a minute or two before Greg, and I felt bad when I saw him hurrying to the gate. I didn't want him to forget anything because I rushed him by 1 minute. Gary asked how it was going and I told him jubilantly that I felt great, but it was bittersweet because I knew the next time I saw him the odds of me feeling great were pretty slim. The first loop had taken us just under 9 hours, and had felt pretty much right on to me effort wise. As we ran down to book 1 I was telling Greg about how I got in to ultrarunning, and really enjoying the late afternoon. Later Greg would keep the storytelling going tell me about adventure races that he'd done. Greg had hoped to get to the coal ponds before dark, but since the race had started a little late this year, we had to turn on our lights before getting to Bald Knob. Fortunately we navigated this section without incident and only missed switchbacks on the descent once or twice, and corrected those mistakes very quickly. I was firing on all cylinders through this section, while Greg has having relative low spot, he was very concerned about slowing me down, but I felt his pace was strong enough, and I had no reason to leave him because the likelihood in my mind was that if we became separated there was a much greater chance that one or both of us would lose more serious time being disoriented. Greg understood, and I slowed a little to let his gut process some food and get back in the comfort zone. We arrived at Garden Spot and walked right past the book because a dense fog was setting in. A couple minutes later we figured it out, and made our way up Stallion Mountain. This section was easy, but when we detoured around the high wall past the first peak, it wasn't long before we became disoriented. The fog was super dense on the cleared areas atop Stallion Mountain, and I literally twice thought I was headed southeast only to look at my compass and read that I was going exactly NORTH. As soon as we stopped recognizing anything, we attempted to be objective again and figure out which way to go. After several minutes thinking we had found the correct path, we ran directly into Andrew, who thought he was correct, and was coming from the opposite direction. Another 5-10 minutes of searching for recognizable features (despite that fact that it was pitch black and we couldn't more than 20 feet in the fog) we decided to descend the east side of the mountain and find a road we knew existed, so we could use that to orient and guide ourselves. This proved successful and we made our way to Fyke's Peak. The path down to the New River was good until the very bottom, where the gully gets extremely rocky and nasty, it was raining down through here, and times were rough, but we just kept moving forward. On this descent Andrew made a comment about something I'd said off-handedly earlier about my girlfriend, and although I had intentionally been trying to avoid talking about that situation (to keep my mind focused on the task at hand) I now recounted my situation to two sympathetic hikers, who thankfully showed some support and allowed me to maintain a positive frame of mind even after 20 or so hours out on the course. I crossed the road and started the ascent of Testicle Spectacle. Since it was wetter, the climb was worse this time, but still not horrendous. And when we made our way down the other side I lead the way to Raw Dog Falls again, and was happy to nail it for the second time. The fog was still so thick that only because of intuition were we able to cross at the right spot for the climbing wall, but we did so and made our way up towards rat jaw again. The team dynamic that we were developing was greatly helpful to the hike. Andrew kept positive thoughts in our heads, Greg had some good stories, and I was generally leading off the front trying to focus on pushing and route finding.

We reached the fire tower, where several tents were set up (what a horrible windy campsite!) and continued to the Hump Trail and then down to Beech Fork. When we reached Chimney Top, Brian was grabbing his page out of the book. He told us he'd napped for an hour and a half before starting loop 3….this meant he was 4+ hours ahead of us…we were impressed. Mentally, it felt good to have all the navigation on loop two done, it made me feel like I was already back in camp. I'd run out of food but luckily Andrew had plenty of extra so I ate a bar and some juice from him. On the descent of Chimney Top we met Jim Nelson, who seemed to be in great sprits. We hit camp as the sun was just becoming evident, and Byron was checking out for loop 3. I wanted to go with Byron, but our group of three had already discussed taking an hour of down time, so mentally I was not prepared to turn around immediately, and I let byron go. Dad had gotten some pizza and kept it warm for me, so I scarfed that, and then jumped in the shower for about 3 minutes, which felt very good. I then limped over to the van and lay down. I packed my bag with food again, and then closed my eyes for about 5 minutes. I was too keyed up to sleep unfortunately, but luckily it didn't affect me badly. With 10 minutes left on our hour, I sat up and finished dressing and packing the bag, and kept eating. Then I walked a little stiff legged back up to the gate, as Gary watched.

While we'd been resting the bugle had been blown several times, and we'd seen several more people enter camp. Most of these ended up stopping I think. As we headed out we saw a couple more coming in, and then we settled in and began the work of loop 3.

My first mistake on loop 3 was angling too much south and not enough east coming down big hell, luckily Andrew's experience caught it before a major time error happened and we corrected. Zipline was a monster on the way up, but not so much worse than several of the other climbs. My comment on all the climbs is that if you are fit and strong a 1000 foot climb is not a killer, I never found myself dreading a climb, the toughest I had was the early morning loop two climb of Big Hell. I just put it on autopilot and went up the mountains. If I started to feel beat up I just told myself I would only have to push for 10 more minutes, and that always got me to the top. I just attribute this to the fact that I like climbing. Going down Rat Jaw was similar to a scree field, because you could just skid down sideways. Near the bottom we just down climbed the old powerline, being careful not to cut ourselves on the little barbs left by the monster mowers that clear the briars from powerline cuts. Heading down to the highway I took a page out of Mike Dobies' book and powerslid down pighead creek. I reached the highway a few minutes before Andrew and Greg, who took the descent in a sane manner. Next we went down to Raw Dog falls, and I believe this was the time at which Andrew first voiced his feeling that 3 loops would be plenty for him this year at Barkley. I got the feeling from Greg that he felt the same, but I don't remember him ever vocalizing that decision. Personally I kept my mouth shut, because although I was tired, I was definitely sticking to my idea of starting loop four. Unfortunately going up over the spectacle my feet started to hurt. I had worn my new balance 152 flats for the first two loops, before changing into Mizuno Wave Ronins for loop 3. The mizunos are a little smaller, and I thought that might help my feet out, but apparently nothing was going to help after 32 hours of constant wetness. I generally kept the pace up until we got up over Stallion Mountain, but once we reached Garden Spot I was dead weight for Andrew and Greg. I made a brief comeback with caffeine and advil from the coal ponds to the other side of Bald Knob, but once we were on the clear section of the North Boundary Trail the downhills were very painful. For the next three ridges I probably held the pace at about 1 mph on the down hills and maybe 2 mph on the uphills, which were less painful. Once I slowed the group down, it became apparent that we would not make the 36 hour cutoff for loop 4, and since Andrew and Greg had not intended to go for that anyway they chose to slog in with me….we had been together for almost a full day now. I was disappointed to slow these guys down, but I felt like they were sincere in their desire to stick with me, so I only objected a couple times. No use begging them to leave me when they really didn't want to speed up anyway!

From the final book to the gate probably took us 2 hours, which is absolutely pathetic, considering on loop 1 that had taken us 50 minutes and loop 2 it took us 59 minutes. It got dark enough for lights at the final book, and coming down into camp took forever since my feet hurt and I was now bonking and really sleepy. We cruised into camp around 11pm, and Gary counted up the pages. If not for my last few miles of death march we would have come in quick succession with Byron and Blake, who got in before it was really dark because they kept their energy reserves up.

When we got in I was tired but really just my feet were broken. I was disappointed in not going out for a 4th loop. After some congratulations from the bystanders I went over and laid down in the van and took off my shoes. There were several monster blisters on my toes, and several other monsters on the bottoms of my feet and heels. Only a couple of them were broken and painful, but they were taking up a lot of room inside the shoe. It was nice to lay there and tell my dad and friends James, Craig, and Lauren (who'd shown up Sunday afternoon) about the journey. I fell asleep pretty good and got up in the morning because the bell lap was rung, meaning Brian was leaving on loop 5. I hobbled to the bathroom and took a nice warm shower, and got the rundown from Wendell about Brian's attempt. I sat on the floor of the bathroom resting for about 45 minutes before heading to Hardees for some biscuits, and waking up Byron to tell him what a freaking stud he is.

I spent a couple hours talking to the stragglers in camp Monday morning, and got warm congratulations from Gary, who apparently hadn't thought I had it in me to do the fun run. The thing that pleased me the most about my attempt was that mentally I was in the game until the blisters really hit me near the end. If I had been equipped and prepared to deal with the blisters I fully believe I'd have gone out on loop 4. Perhaps I'd have just made a couple books, but perhaps I'd have been able to hold on. If weather, course, training are agreeable (fat chance!?!), and if I can gain entrance, we'll find out next year.

Thanks to Gary for giving his time, energy, and interest to this great event, and thanks to Greg and Andrew for sharing some good times out there. Also thanks to my dad for the dedicated crewing and ancouragement, it is a great advantage. Monstrous thanks to Byron for sharing the training and encouragement for the last 6 months thinking about this run.


p.s. you can learn alot about the barkley from matt mahoney's website. As he describes it is quite tough, and I don't mean to downplay that in my report, I just like to write about the mental aspects more so than the course aspects.