2015 Barkley Marathons - a virgin's race report

April 9, 2015 at 8:19pm

Chris Gkikas, virgin - finished 1 loop, but over the time limit to continue

The climb up Bird Mountain felt much like the Barkley Fall Classic -- a single file line of runners marching with determination up the 14 switchbacks until the trail veers left onto England Mountain. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening – me, in the Real Barkley – just months after musing, as I slogged out the final miles of the Fall Classic, that you couldn’t pay me enough to do “the real thing.” Yet here I was, stepping off trail at Frozen Head for the first time onto the actual Barkley course, hot on the heels of Hiram Rogers and Dusty Hardman who plowed happily through the fallen leaves with the reckless abandon of children going excitedly to forbidden places.

I was in heaven.

This euphoric feeling, the idiot grin I wore, lasted the entire time, even through the pain. Especially when I learned, many hours later, that I (we) would miss the 13:20 cutoff for Loop 1 and not be allowed to continue. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Crashing through the Fanghorn Forest, a very pretty stand of pine trees atop England Mountain, I arrived at Book 1 and tore out my page. The pace with which all this was happening was very fast – faster than I thought it would be. The minute I had my page in hand, I was off again, tailing Hiram and Dusty around the corner and struggling to safely stow it in the plastic ziplock I had my map in, crammed down the front of my shorts. There wasn’t any walking, as I’d done liberally in training -- this was frantic running, racing, and it was in that moment that I realized how green a virgin I was. It wasn’t until a few miles later that I’d realized just how screwed I actually was.

Hiram, a long time Barker, chose a well-informed line down Jaque Mate Hill, which plummets 1,300 feet in half a mile. This descent was tough on my legs, and I felt it right away, but the exhilaration of flying downhill at such speed was intoxicating and I intentionally pulled away from Hiram and Dusty. I felt like all the off-trail training I’d done in nearly identical conditions at Shope Creek back in Asheville was going to pay off, so I played my confidence card right away. I thought of that line in the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin” which goes, “sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime if you don’t lay ‘em down.” I’d read that the Barkley is all risk, and with that, peeled away to “become my own man.”

Landing pretty much dead on target at the northwest corner of the North Boundary Trail, I began my hike up to Jury Ridge. Iso Yucra and Joe Kowalski caught up to me and we moved up the ridge together until it was time to hang a left off Jury Ridge and down Hiram’s Vertical Smile, which wasn’t nearly as steep (a saner 24.5% grade.) Joe remarked that my bearing was spot-on, but I was just following the trail of runners ahead of us who’d left an easily discernible path of disturbed leaves in their wake. I felt really great at this moment, being cheered for my “skills” by a veteran. Iso is a very strong runner, and we discussed how “relaxing” it was to float downhill on bent knees and soft feet.

Incidentally, I was fairly star struck all weekend. Though I’d met a number of these characters already at the Fall Classic and Big’s, many of these people were legendary figures I’d only read about. Iso, the Bolivian with a Fun Run finish to his credit, was now a running buddy for a short stretch of the actual Barkley course. My eyes must have been wide like saucers the whole weekend, and I probably couldn’t have been any more the obvious neophyte if I’d had a sign over my head saying so.

Hangman’s Holler was the name of the confluence of creeks where Iso and I arrived to Book 2. From another direction came a few people I had zero expectation of seeing again after the cigarette had been lit – Johan Steene, Nicki Rehn and Heather Anderson. We all ripped out our pages and I gave Johan a smile and a laugh, telling him I hadn’t expected to see him again until the end. There wasn’t time for chatting though, because next came Hillpocalypse, a straight shot up “Not Jury Ridge” at a 38% grade for 0.70 miles.

To keep this honest, it was here that the first thoughts of quitting entered my mind. I wasn't thinking of quitting, and never did -- just the idea of it. I wasn’t but 5 miles into the first (hha) loop and I was already entertaining the notion of returning to comfort. I yelled at myself out loud to get these counterproductive thoughts out of my head and pressed on.

It was here that I veered off (on my own) and wound up a bit too far left. Joe had caught up to me at this point, and we motored up the mountain together until we got to some sheer rock faces that were too steep (almost vertical) to ascend. We did, though, climbing up between a fissure in the giant stones, holding onto exposed roots and rocks. This was great fun and would portend future scrambling, both up and down. When we finally got to the NBT, he stopped to impart some veteran wisdom on me by pointing out how to know which ridge to descend, “should we get to a reverse third loop.” I marked this in my mind and we jogged along the Candy Ass Trail past Bald Knob together.

Jeremy Ebel came cruising by us at this point, looking fresh as a spring flower. The guy’s got a very enviable cruise control that makes his progress along the rolling trail look more like floating than running. Soon, he was gone, but we’d see him again a number of times the remainder of the loop. On several occasions, he’d come crawling out of the woods from a random direction because he’d gotten lost and fell behind. Jeremy was doing exactly what I’d originally planned on – being his own man and doing the navigating himself – and it was causing him some issues. My plan, of course, had gone out the window quickly when I realized how fast all these people were moving. Nobody was stopping to stare at their map or struggling to narrow down which sentence in the 5 pages of printed instructions applied to them at that moment in space time. They were just moving, and without thinking I clung on to other people as it was obviously the best strategy for both staying on course and maintaining this absurd (for me) pace.

By the time Joe and I were approaching the Coal Ponds, a group formed that consisted of Frozen Ed Furtaw, Michelle Roy, Edward Sandor, Joe and myself. Like blood cells coagulating in the winding artery of the Barkley course, our clot remained mostly intact the rest of the way, struggling to keep pace with the unbelievably spry and sociable Ed, who led us from book to book with great accuracy. We were at the Garden Spot now, got our pages from Book 3 and dropped down to the first unmanned water stop. I chugged a bunch and took some salt as I’d begun to get dehydrated. Thankfully, my urine returned to normal color and frequency quickly and I was very glad to have “solved the problem.”

Now a merry band, we hustled around the perimeter of Stallion Mountain on the winding poacher roads until we reached the descent into the Barley Mouth. This was a steep pitch of 48% for a quarter mile of loose mud and rocks until bottoming out at the creek where we crossed onto an old jeep road. Following this road took us to Leonard’s Butt Slide, a delightful 80% drop to Book 4. Once we’d gotten the page, we had to climb right back up that 80% slope, which must have looked pretty comical with all of us falling and sliding back downhill and laughing. The steady stream of oaths, chuckles and profanity was priceless and I'll never forget it.

After we’d gotten back up to the poacher road, it was time to climb a hill called Foolish Stu, which was a slope at 69% for one third of a mile. These climbs were really beginning to take it out of us, and the progress was slower as time wore on. By now, 9 miles into the race, I had no idea how far we’d gone or how many hours had passed -- it was all a blur. All I could think about was not losing Frozen Ed, who scampered up and down the slopes like a mountain goat, carrying in his brains “the way.” This made things much simpler, because all I had to do was keep up and not get hurt. I struggle now with the idea that I had an "easier time" because of this.

I had been having a lot of trouble eating. The Lara Bars I’d brought with me, which tasted so great in my too-slow training, were now a torturous experience to choke down while maintaining this constant pace. I found it very difficult to chew and swallow at the same time I was running, focusing on not breaking an ankle, and panting at what must have been a heart rate in the 170’s. The stuff just wadded up in my cheeks like a chipmunk, forming a gooey and immovable clump that was impossible to chew and swallow. I tried to rely more on the liquid fuel (UCAN) I’d brought with me than the solid stuff, but soon ran out and wound up not eating much of anything for the last 5 or 6 hours, knowing I'd have better food options in camp - when I could breathe again. The fact that I didn’t bonk in all that time may be due to the ketogenic diet I tried valiantly to follow leading up the race.

At the top of Fyke’s Peak, we got our pages from Book 5 and began the descent down Fyke’s Folly to the New River. This part of the course is the only part I have trouble picturing now, two weeks later, and I’ve had recurring nightmares where I am back at this point on the course, alone and without the amiable, reliable group to lead the way. We crossed Hwy 116 and under the power lines that mark the Testicle Spectacle portion of the course, which wasn’t in use this year. I didn’t shed a single tear over that, by the way, when I took a glance up and down the long, steep incline. We climbed the next ridge, dipped down into the next valley and the back up the next ridge to the Lady Parts Tree (with its lady parts hanging open) where we retrieved Book 6, titled “Racing the Sunset.” Fascinating timing to reach that book when we did.

Continuing up (and up and up) Flatrock Ridge and through Asshole Pass (?) we got lost for the first time on Falling Dog Ridge. We got onto the left ridgeline and stopped to consult our maps for the first time. We determined we were on the wrong ridge, took a bearing and dove down into the valley through lots of briars and thick stands of mountain laurel. Before we took off, though, I suggested we check for what our “backstop” would be, a trick Bill Butcher had taught me, and determined it would be the creek. This was the only time I got to use any of my “navigation and orienteering” skills and I felt kind of proud to actually have something to contribute, minor as it may have been. After climbing the steep valley wall, we found ourselves on course again just before reaching Raw Dog Falls. Frozen Ed pointed out Danger Dave’s Climbing wall, at which we all simultaneously used variations of the expression, “fuck that” before heading up Pussy Ridge instead. We found Book 7 in the rusty barrel and climbed up to the highway to Pig Head Creek, another steep, 29% grade. At least it was a real trail.

By now, Joe had fallen behind our group and it was just Frozen Ed, Michelle, Edward and me. We would see Joe again on the way down Rat Jaw, which came next. The sun was going down at this point and by Ed’s estimation at the fire tower, we had a minimum of 5 hours until we’d reach camp. This news struck me particularly hard, and the fantasies of quitting returned in earnest. I pushed them out of my mind, but the impetus was very strong. I refused to quit, though, even though I had an “easy downhill 3.1 miles of Candy Ass Trail" as a quitter's road. I didn’t come out here to quit, and I wasn’t going to.

I WAS, however, quietly relieved at this point to understand that we probably wouldn’t make the cutoff. This thought was, and continues to be, a shameful feeling on my part that I regret.

The real fun, though, was about to begin as we rappelled down the 40% grade using downed power lines and telephone pole cables to the prison, easily the most iconic of the forbidden Barkley places.

It was now dark and our headlamps lit the way for our merry band of travelers. Entering the prison tunnel in darkness was something I hadn’t expected. It was all but ensured by the late, 11:22am start. Straddling the concrete curb that runs the length of the tunnel, I managed to keep my feet dry (this whole time!) until we saw how wide and tall the ventilation hatch escape route was. We opted to wade the icy, knee deep water at the end and scramble up the rip rap instead. We found Book 9, got our pages and took off for The Bad Thing. Near the beginning of the climb, I looked up into the mountain's enormous blackness and saw a light shining back at us from most of the way up – I figured it might have been Jeremy, who had been catching and losing us (and himself) several times on this part of the course.

Ed nailed the navigation up The Bad Thing and after what seemed like (yet another) eternity, we reached Indian Knob. Passing through the Eye of the Needle, a giant capstone with a neat little walkway through it, we collected our pages from Book 10. It was very cold, and any stopping would immediately remind us of that fact as sweat (blood, tears?) would freeze and quickly produce uncomfortable shivering. Edward stepped a few feet to one side of the rocks and said how much warmer it was, and he was right. It was probably 20 degrees instead of 15, which felt positively tropical at the time.

Zipline was next, a three quarter mile descent over arguably the sloppiest footing on the entire course at a 40% grade. The reckless abandon with which I remember flying down Jaque Mate Hill many hours before was gone now, replaced with tender footed, cautious travel, stepping gingerly from boulder to boulder on increasingly hammered quads. It was a tossup if I preferred climbing or descending at that point. I might have answered, “neither” if you’d asked me. At the bottom, Ed led us to the Beech Tree above the confluence of two creeks (a place of “stunning natural beauty,” as Ed put it, even in the dark.) We got our page from Book 11 and looked up into the darkness at the final climb, Big Hell.

This was a moment of great joy, followed by over an hour of agonizing, slow grunting and trudging up Chimney Top. We’d all now been reduced to labored, tiny steps, a few at a time before having to pause to rest – leaning on our trekking poles or slumped against trees just to take the pressure off our legs. At one point, I said, “Look, capstones!” thinking that we’d be close to the top. Of course, we were not, and the giant capstones I swore I saw was actually just a particularly steep place. It was so steep, it looked like a wall to me. We climbed it, though, because nobody’s going to come carry your ass off this mountain. I tried not to complain, of course, but am pretty sure I exhibited poor form by asking Ed (just once) if we were “almost there.” I think he just laughed.

Halfway up, I suggested that we take a short break. It was the first time we'd stopped for more than a moment, and it felt very nice to say the least. We shut off our lights and gazed up into the inky blackness together. We didn't talk much, but we all did agree that it sure was a beautiful night to be out in the mountains together. Then we got up and kept marching.

Getting our final page from Book 12 at the summit of Chimney Top, I was elated. I knew it was going to be over soon (in an hour and a half) and that made me very happy as we jogged down the Candy Ass Trail (another shameful memory - being happy about failing this way.) The pace the others were keeping was a bit much for me though, and I allowed myself to fall behind with just a couple of switchbacks to go before reaching the Flat Fork Walking Trail back to camp. I regret letting this happen because I really wanted to finish with the group that had kept me company (and on course) the entire time, but I didn’t want to ask them to stop and wait for me to pee AGAIN. I let them chuckle off down the trail without me while I relieved myself yet again (solved one problem, created another.)

I arrived in camp at just under 15 hours (14:40, I think… laz didn’t write it down or count my pages, as my Loop didn’t even count.) I remember Paul and Gina coming out to meet and run me in, but I let them go to jog the final steps and touch the yellow gate alone, something I promised myself I would never again do unless it was at the Real Barkley. While I’m still conflicted about how it went – “finding a veteran and hanging on for dear life,” something I didn’t want to do out of foolish pride and overconfidence (read: virginity) – I am very happy to have gotten a chance to see what’s “out there” with such an amazing tour guide such as Frozen Ed and the wonderful company of our small group.

I thanked laz for the opportunity for such an amazing experience, laughed about the absurdity of the course and told him I knew what to do next time, if and when there is a next time – which is, to train much, much, much harder. Now that I had seen the course with my own eyes, and gotten to witness the towering vertical wall of insane difficulty it presents, I have my formula. While in the end, the result (failure) will (likely) be the same, I know what it takes to perform better and, as laz said, “get to suffer longer.” I will apply again (and again and again) and execute my new, improved training formula and see how my results change, if I am so unlucky.

Some special thanks are in order. First, my wonderful wife and kids who endured months of my incessant babbling about the Barkley. Without their sacrifices in time and patience, I could not have done even the paltry training I did accomplish. Thank you for not leaving me or committing me. Also, Paul Christopher and Gina Fioroni for being such great companions and crew who took great care of me when I was in need, both before and after the race. Thanks to Bill Butcher, as well, who generously imparted his expert advice that will undoubtedly help me succeed in the future.