Here's my tale from the weekend, and since a short report on the Barkley is as rare a Barkley finish, this one is long too. Thanks to everyone who puts this incredible experience together. The Barkley was just an irritation under my skin before, now it's a full blown scab that I just can't quit picking at. I look forward to applying some Barkley ointment to it in the future.
There is a Wild Thing within me, and it is furry and dark and quick with fang and claw, when I find myself deep in the woods, it takes over. This is typically good because it knows things that I don’t. It knows how to move thru briers without getting scratched or slowed. It is confident when walking slender slippery logs across freezing streams. It knows when to leap and which rock will hold the landing. It knows there is a secret lurking out in the mountains that must be sought. Frozen Head and The Barkley Marathons are its kind of place.
He is not particularly nice, I do my best to keep it caged when among so called polite company. If he remained uncaged, he might pour water on our head when he got hot, or worse, on someone else complaining about the heat. He might poke at someone’s bruise when they complain about falling down, just to see if they have a reason to complain (if they don’t he just gave them one)
When I am alone or tired or sore, the Wild Thing keeps us going, and anything that goes wrong is my fault. But at least I have someone to talk to out there, not that he has anything nice to say.
After three years patiently weighting, I received Condolences early this year along with a good friend Jason Barringer, a Barkley veteran and fellow idiot, so fortunately all we had to do was train a lot, stay marginally healthy and keep our reality dimmers turned way up.
Every little pain, or ordeal that came up in the months following the Condolences made me worry that I would have to drop out and weight another year. As Fools weekend approached, phantom pains and seeping doubts surfaced and had to be ignored, My wild thing helped me here too. He needed to be let out of his cage and the Barkley might satisfy him for a while. Always considering that I could drop, try to get in next year, and be really trained and ready for a Barkley attempt. But I stayed in and ignored the pains and doubts and trained for it, finding the nearest tallish hill to go up and down and up and down and up and down preparing myself.
Jason and I studied the maps and instructions from 2009 and 2011, knowing there would be 2-3 sections he had not seen. For the two weeks leading up I packed and repacked my gear and watched the changing weather reports. My crew had to bail out due to a funeral in a distant town, but Thursday afternoon we made it to camp. I was finally able to put faces to the names that banter on the list. Laz turned the weather on in camp, and made sure it was raining and windy, so we had to set and reset our tents, tarps, clothes and food. Leaving us little time to fester about our gear and fears. The wind at the tops of the mountains roared. Anticipation…
Unsettled sleep, and a predawn conch, led to instant haywire throughout camp, we had to laugh, when to car alarms started going off.
Starting up Bird Mtn, I fall in a line of people that is moving swiftly, with purpose, no one wanting to get dropped. My Wild Thing was pacing, and I had to keep telling him that we needed to reserve our energy. Over the top of the little rise and finally into the woods, the two of us move ahead on the downhill, and find our way to book 1.
We follow the bench over to the wash and look into the abyss towards Phillips creek, its an easy navigation, but a daunting first step. Jason realizes he left his trekking pole at the book and goes back to retrieve it, I say I’ll wait, he encourages that I can go on. I wait a minute, and realize I don’t need a veteran here, as he’ not seen this part of the course anyway, so I drop off into what is best described a vertical swamp. He’ll catch up, he always does, so I’m not concerned. The trail starts with squishy ground and leads to thick vines and steeply off camber slopes. As the hill’s nose starts to take the shape I see on the map, I realize I don’t have to be exact on my bearing and move to the ridge and follow it directly to the rock cairn on Phillips creek.
This is the first time I see Iso, he is silently pursuing me to the rock cairn at Phillips creek, Heather arrives here too. They trail me to the second book in the so-called copse of “rhododendron” then to the confluence near the third book, only asking, “what’s your bearing?” He and Heather pick downstream to look for the book, I pick upstream. They win. I feel alone very quickly, my Wild Thing voice calms me and we move downstream, hear voices, and begin to run to the book. Heather and Iso continue on ahead. I meet up with the group I started with and begin the first real climb of the day. The group spreads out along this slope. The muddy climb in the little fault in the cliff was a nice touch, fortunately it was muddy enough that I could sink my fingers into the mud to get a decent grip on a few roots and continue up.
Somewhere along here and surprisingly early in the race, my Wild Thing and I began our conversation, me being reasonable, and him being something else.
A typical conversation might go something like this…
”This is downhill, we can run” says the wild thing
“Yeah, but I need to conserve energy, and there’s no trail and there are rocks and vines and I think I saw some poison ivy back there”
Of course... THAT’s why we came out here”
But Nothing, run! You’re not a lily, you’ll heal…Say… that’s not a bad name for you… Lily… that’s what I’ll call you from now on.
“there really are things that can hurt me out here, and my knee…”
“Shut up, Lily”
“You’re being mean”
this argument goes on for a while, with him getting more offensive each time.
I’ll intersperse some of our conversations we had along our journey as I tell my tale.
Up to the NBT, I am glad to have the trekking pole, I see where others have slipped in the mud about every third step, fortunately my wild thing knows where to step. Even so, every time we slip, he blames me. “hey you run like a barge, lighten up.” “that was you, I cant help it if its slippery”. “Bulls#!+, I run like a deer, deer don’t slip...Lily”
I make a mental note of the location of quitters road as we make the turn toward the garden spot, “That doesn’t exist” he says. Slipping on down I find myself with Iso at SOB ditch and approaching the coal ponds, again Iso is moving silently. Along the coal ponds I notice Iso seems to melt under the blowdowns and reform on the otherside. While I, of course, grunt, whine a bit, get my pack caught on it before moving on.
The Wild Thing informs me “Of course he moves like that, he’s a Chupacabra”.
“WHAT! You’re being silly, there’s no such thing”.
“I’m keeping my eye on him, he’s not going to suck out our blood out just so he can climb Rat Jaw” .
“Whatever, he’s a nice guy, we talked to him in camp, and besides I saw him eating something that had a wrapper ”.
“If you call skin a wrapper then yeah. Just watch him…lily”.
“Heh heh heh.”
I did watch Iso, he moved with silent grace through the woods, he disappears and reappears taking his own path to each book. His offerings of advice to virgins around him consisted only of speaking after his actions do not answer their questions. (or just as often countering the virgins certainty that they know the directions because of Laz’s notes). Only late in the race, and after gravity started getting much heavier did I note that Iso’s supernatural powers may not be stronger than the Barkley.
At the Garden Spot I congeal with Hiram and Chip, and cling like a tick thru the tough navigation around Stallion Mountain. A group of virgins move ahead, get to a questionable spot, stop or go the wrong way, then Hiram appears and they all cling until the next obvious section of trail. This continues until Hiram stops on a downhill quietly saying go ahead, his knee is bothering him. As I pass him I figure this is a crafty and effective scraping maneuver I wouldn’t have thought of, but unfortunately, his knee did take him out early. Now Chip was the lead that the ticks all clung to. I noticed him taking few tries at scraping, pulling ahead on the climbs, and letting everyone pass on the down hills, taking an extended pee break, but we clung tightly. Somewhere along the way I thanked him for being our guide, noting that we didn’t actually give him much choice in the matter. He kindly accepted his fate, Iso was silently there as a back up.
We found the New river a little downstream of where we intended, but quickly found the log and continued to the base of Testicle Spectacle.
We began to trek up the powerline, I was smart enough to eat a bit on the lower slopes, when I heard Chip say “there it is” I look up... and up... and up a little more then laugh incredulously.
What a beautiful hill.
The Wild Thing claps his hands with glee and say’s “it’s runnable”
“by what” I reply
“by us, Lily, get a good running start and let that carry you half way up” he snarls
I begin the climb up using the downed the briers hold my shoe to the mud and us to the hillside. At a few points I am kicking steps into the mud to keep from slipping down. Again the group spreads out climbing, and re-congeals on the fast descent of meth lab hill.
A little buttslide and Iso leads us to the book at Raw Dog Falls, and down to the stream crossing. Since I’m following here, I forget to notice Danger Dave’s Climbing wall, and after all Dave’s help in camp, I figure I owed it to him to at least attempt it. And it bothers me that I’m not noting the course enough in preparation for the next lap.
We slog in a line up Pussy Ridge to the Pig Head creek crossing and to the long climb up to the PMT. After the short reprieve along the PMT, we turn to face Rat Jaw. Again I look up and up and up some more, steeper this time and laugh incredulously.
The Wild Thing again claps his hands with glee and say’s “this is what I’ve been waiting for, Start running Lily”
“No Way, I’m taking it easy here” I respond
What an incredible climb, its anything and everything that anyone and everyone has ever said about it. Majestic even. We meet a few runners coming down, carefully choosing their steps in the mud. Since Rat Jaw has been cut, my safe side sees nothing but opportunities to impale myself in a most unjust fashion, but my wild side only sees handhold and footholds.
Then the Wild Thing reminds me “Hey Dumbass, you brought leather gloves to protect your lily soft hands, remember?”
“Oh Yeah, that’ll help”
I put the gloves on, and begin using my all fours to climb. I pass a few runners coming down and attempt to exchange peasantries between gasping breaths. Getting to the turn, I can see runners disappearing up into the fog. Somewhere after the cliff band I begin to hear some encouraging words and know I’m approaching the top. But it’s still several minutes and high steps away. I resupply at the top and begin to descend and hopefully catch up to Chip.
I pass Jason, Mike Bur and Billy the new guy at the flat spot at the mine opening and we encourage each other a bit and note that our asses are being rather kicked at the moment. His going up and mine going down. On my way to prison, I’m moving hard to catch up to Chip, but he remains out of reach, I stop to adjust my shoes and Iso moves past swiftly and silently. I’m also noticing a rather unpleasant and relatively offensive chafing in my scrotal area, and plan for dealing with that at the next book. I finally catch Chip and Iso at the steep field of briers to the prison. In the tunnel the water feels good on the feet at first, and washes off the sticky mud from the descent. but about half way thru and about the time started thinking of finding a headlamp I realize that my feet are numb and painfully so. They will remain this way the rest of the day.
One of the film crews is getting some footage at the tunnel exit, and excitedly get some close ups of us retrieving our pages and sustenance. I dig into my emergency kit while he is filming, find a couple of pouches that contain lubricating ointments, and tell him to get ready for some good film footage. I then put a nice gob of goo on my fingers and plunge my hand into my pants and lather up the offending chafe. He says he’s not making that kind of film here. We laugh, I load up and move on.
I see Chip and Iso ahead and up, and after trying and failing to keep with him on the last few climbs, I make a goal of keeping him in sight, but again fail. Approaching the Bad Thing, I note the knob, the saddle and the ridge to Indian knob, again laugh incredulously at its absurdity and begin climbing. The Wild Thing laughs with me, but doesn’t mention his opinion on the Bad Things runnability. About two thirds the way up there is a rock outcropping that I think must be the top, when I cross over and realize I’m not even close to the top, my incredulous laughter at the climbs wanes. It’s getting cold, so I put on my coat and continue. I finally reach the cap stone, unsure of where the keyhole is, so I find a break in the cliff and get to the very top of Indian Knob, and figure the Keyhole is to the north. Iso again silently appears taking a direct line to the keyhole.
We start down ZipLine and soon find ourselves in the rocks and boulders that make it so famous. Iso helps me note various landmarks for the next loop. We catch up to Chip and we all seem to fan out and there is no clean line to come back together until we reach the jeep road. I try to put a little distance on Chip so I can let him whiz past me on the climb up Big Hell. Iso is at the beech tree when it comes in sight. Chip arrives and surprises me as I turn to leave the book, I hand him his page and he begins the climb up the steep ridgeline to Chimney Top. I can’t see the absurdity of big hell, and I can’t seem to muster up any incredulous laughter at this point. It’s all real, and I have to believe it by now. So the Wild Thing puts us in low gear and begins the climb, never stopping, just moving ahead. This seems to work, because I am actually catching people and passing them, and that rarely happens for me on climbs. I like absurd climbs, but I’m just not particularly good at them. I start to notice more cracks in Iso’s supernatural powers, and consider giving him a blood meal, but I figure that would be considered aid, and continue. We reach the book and prepare for the steep and muddy descent to the switchbacks.
I catch up to another runner I met the day before, He’s a bit low and wearing down. I hadn’t seen him all day and try to encourage him to perk up. I am feeling amazingly good for having been out for almost 12 hours already and been through THAT, so I’m planning to head out on a second loop, taking it book by book.
I get to the gate I am flying high, and cracking jokes (at least I think they were funny, but I am biased and, at that point, a bit loopy)
In camp, I have no crew, I find a dead battery in the car and phone. So I heat some water, feed, change clothes, repack, warm up a bit, and converse with a few others getting warm in the bathhouse. The Wild Thing has taken over again and is excited to get out in the dark and rain. I must be running on adrenaline, because I am running between the bathhouse and camp and quickly changing everything and trying to stay sane and complete. Typically after an ultra I am laying down in some grassy spot whimpering, so this felt really good. I get myself turned around in about an hour and head back to the gate for a new number.
I keep telling myself to take it book by book. The climb up Bird is uneventful, darkness closes in at about the first switchback, but I continue without my headlamp. The Wild Thing doesn’t need it, he feels his way up the mountain. I do see a pair of lights ahead, and soon another behind me. So there is comfort there. But I also see the lights of the warm bathhouse further and further below. The roar of the wind coming over the mountain gets louder and louder. As I near the last switchback a stinging rain begins, and a hood and hat is just not effective. I turn on a headlamp, and it makes vision worse as the light is reflected back at me due to the encroaching fog. I pull out a hand held light, and it is much better, but I didn’t change batteries in it and didn’t bring extras. I reach the Pillars of doom and realize that, since this morning, the pillars have gotten smaller, making the distance between them much farther apart and they have a fresh coat of slick on them.
As I am traversing the pillars of doom, I scoot up to the edge of the first pillar, pick my landing spot, begin the giant leap across. Just then a gust of wind and rain start to blow my hat off. I reach for it, catch my hat, land precariously and wait for the wind to subside. I scoot to the edge of the next pillar, pick my landing spot, begin my leap and again a blast of wind and rain take my hat off, I catch it, land precariously. One more to go and one more repeat of the hat trick. Finally over the pillars, I find two others wandering about the small rise looking for a trail. I can’t see the outline of the rise due to their lights but trust that they are on or near trail. One asks if I’m going on without seeing the trail, My Wild Thing answers for me “of course” he says confidently. I check my bearing, know the trail is on a ridge and begin the descent to Fangorn. I soon find the muddy trail beaten into the slopes from this morning, but when the ground flattens out, trail goes away, and I’m l ft with a compass bearing. I check and it, and I’m going 90° west, tell myself to trust the compass, turn and follow it. About a minute later I check again and it is another 90° west. AHHHH! that will take me in a circle! OK, trust the bearing. I continue like this until I come to a wash, and fortunately it follows the compass bearing, so I continued up it and it began to form into a bench, and look like where the book should be. Eventually it leads me to the book, get my page and assess my situation. I walk to the point look off into the abyss toward Phillips creek and… chicken the fuck out.
Climbing back to the Cumberland trail my Wild Thing is cursing me, “come on, you won’t get another chance like this. You’ve played in the rain before” and “Don’t be such a sissy” “if you keep going, I won’t call you Lily anymore” “just one more book… just one more book” but I notice his breathing is a bit heavier and shallower, and he’s not eating like he should. He remains unconvinced to this day. Now he’s mostly convinced me. He’s already cursing me when I go back to the freezer for the extra scoop of ice cream. “HEY! we’re still training for next year Lily, put it back, there’s a hill go climb it for dessert.” I suppose he’ll carry me if he has to.
At the time, I was certainly satiated with my 14 pages, but of course, now, regret not continuing. But I have to remind myself of the conditions, my condition and my conditioning. I caged up the wild thing that evening, and he’s vowed not going to forgive me until we get back out there.
I remained high as I’ve ever been all weekend and beyond. I can’t quite describe the feeling to anyone who hasn’t experience something so special. Thanks for the incredible experience, and I plan to be back, the Barkley is in my skin and may be the only thing that quiets the wild thing.