Wow. What a day. What a week.
The Barkley Marathons. The. Barkley. Frickin'. Marathons!
There is so much to this, so much, that my race report needs to be a race novel. This was a special day, I am going to write about the familiars and leave the rest to be discussed on future trail runs. If you really want the goods, you're gonna have to come run with the YC&SD's running club.
I arrive at FHSP on Thursday hoping to get settled and get up onto Bird Mountain to have a look around. A middle March training trip fell through, so this was my first visit to the park.
The park is awesome. The camping area is small, a nice bathhouse centrally located. I was lucky enough to be able to share a camping slab with Psyche, Leo, Charles, & Wouter. Wouter, from Belgium, flew into Knoxville and rode his bike from the airport to FHSP. "No big deal.", he said. Right. Wouter came to run 5 loops.
I, on the other hand, had no illusion of running 5 loops. What a conflicting line to measure; expectations and reality.
Time to put on my trail shoes and I headed up Bird Mountain. This is the first section of the course and is regular "candy ass trail" according to Laz. Almost 1400' of gain in 1.25 miles. Easy, right? I was a little winded at the top of this climb. That didn't really make me feel good about what was to come. Regardless, I spent a couple hours on top of Bird traveling around on the Cumberland & N. Bird Mtn Trails. I kept running into runners that were also up there looking around, everyone was super friendly. I met Paul & Iso, both of whom were already in the race. I also met Travis, who was behind me on the Weight list. At that point he still didn't have a slot. It didn't matter, once he moved to #1 on the WL, he made the decision and packed his stuff and left Colorado for Frozen Head. He was in camp for 2 weeks. (He also finished the Fun Run this year).
I descended back to camp, happy to have my ankle feeling 100% and my right ITB was also quiet, these two recent injuries ended up being a non-issue. Walking back down the trail to the Yellow Gate I saw more and more people pouring into camp. It seems this year people were arriving earlier than ever before. I am not sure if it had anything to do with the documentary being filmed.
I spent the rest of Thursday hanging out in camp meeting new friends and catching up with old ones. As Friday morning passed, Laz arrived at his campsite and we began to set up the race HQ. Ever the master motivator, Laz said that he would not hand out the instructions and course map until the big tent was standing. it didn't take but a few moments before 8-10 runners were instantly putting together the big white tent. Turning to someone(maybe a camera guy?) Laz said, "See, this is the only race where the runners are also the race volunteers." While we put together camp, Laz began to unload his van and hang the license plates. What a cool experience to be able to see all of the plates from over the years.
After handing in my plate to him, It was added to the hanging memorial. My plate will forever hang with Dusty Hardman's & John Fegyveresi's. I had the pleasure of running a little more than half of my loop with Dusty and John ended up being the 3rd and final finisher of the 2012 Barkley. Not long after the plates were hung, we got down to business. Course map time.
It is important to purchase a topo map from park HQ. On that map we were to copy the official course map, provided by Laz. In addition to the map, we were provided with 5 pages of single spaced, typed instructions, on how to precisely navigate the course. "If you follow these instructions carefully, you will have no trouble completing the loop."
As Friday winded down, all but a few runners had arrived. it did not look good for my friend, Psyche. She was the #1 person on the weight list. She needed someone to not show up in order to get in. Literally in the 11th hour, Laz called Psyche over to the race HQ and told her Luis was taking part in the search party for a missing runner out west. He would not be running; she could have his slot if she so desire. What a roller coaster of emotions for her, up and down all day with rumors of people dropping and slots opening and closing. After ascending to the top of the weight list for the 2nd year in a row, Psyche had a slot.
It was hard, but I managed to lay down around 9:30pm to attempt to sleep. The conch shell could blow as early as 12:00AM and as late as 11;00AM Saturday morning. last year, the race began at 1:07AM; I didn't think he would have back-to-back night time starts, but what did I know.
I managed to sleep in one hour increments. It had pretty much been that way all week. I've never felt pre-race anxiety like I felt about this particular race. At 6:42AM, some one's car alarm went off. I, and many others, initially thought this was the conch shell. Might as well get up and start preparing. I had enough time to eat breakfast and handle the morning toiletries before the actual conch did blow; at 8:11AM.
One hour until the start.
At Precisely 9:11AM, Laz lit his cigarette and we began. Nobody seemed to be in a terrible hurry to scramble up to the road to the trail head; I did notice Nick Hollen was one of the few guys actually "running" up the jeep road. I fe1l into the middle of the congo line, heading up Bird. I reached the top of Bird Mountain in 36 minutes. Certainly not the fastest 1.25 miles in my life, it was 12 minutes faster than my stroll on Thursday. Looking around, I noticed I was in a group of about 6 runners containing: Hiram, Dusty, Tim, James, and Will. Excellent, I thought, two vets and a handful of virgins. A portion of the new section was named after Hiram, so who better to be with on the way to my first book? We hit the book dead on in 52 minutes and quickly began our way down Check Mate Hill. Dropping 1300' in .5 miles of bushwhack, this section was no joke. I couldn't imagine having to come back up it on loops 3 & 4. (Luckily I didn't have to - this year) As we were heading down, we ran across Psyche, she had overshot book one and was back tracking. This was the beginning of a long day for her.
Hiram took us right to book 2, 1:20 minutes into the race. I was brimming with confidence, I was feeling so good. The mood was light and jovial as Hiram & Tim continued to take us on a tour of the park and the book locations. Everyone was joking and in good spirits. The climbs were manageable and our lines were perfect. Book after book, we were dead on. The pages from books 3 & 4 were safely tucked in our plastic bags and we were headed to "Testicle Spectacle"
It's really a cruel joke. You come down off of Stallion Mtn and cross the New River, you are feeling great and the weather is nice. Not long after you pop out of the woods off of an old jeep road, you turn right and there it is-straight up. I mean STRAIGHT UP.
Testicles, spectacles, wallet, & watch.
No point in delay, time to climb. You know you are in for a long day when you are finding it is easier to travel on all fours then with two legs. We could see a tiny spec at the top of TS; it was a camera man. After what felt like about 30 minutes of climbing we hit the bench the cameraman was sitting on. I was the last runner in our line, he got up and followed me up the remaining section. After about 5 minutes I heard him exhale, "Phew, that was hard!" Wait, what?!?!? Dude, you filmed us for 30 minutes of that climb and hiked for 5 minutes and you are gonna try and tell me that was hard?????
Grabbed our page at the top of TS and headed out, next stop Raw Dog Fall.
Hiram navigated this one perfectly and we had our next page.
coming into this race, I had been having internal debate about what experience I wanted to have. There was a lot of talk about "virgins clinging onto vets" and never truly experiencing what it is like "Out There". I was torn, do I hang on and take the tour or do leave my comfort zone and go at it on my own. I had decided pre-race, that I would force myself out of my comfort zone and try to hang on to a stronger vet for as long as I could. I had been falling back on the last couple of climbs and was red-lining in order to stay with the group. I had to work really hard to keep up on the climb and then recovered as best as possible on the descents.
This all changed after Raw Dog Falls & Danger Dave's Climbing Wall. Myself & James were dropped on the climb through Pig Heads Creek, on the way to Rat Jaw.
We were on our own. Two virgins, a couple of maps and 5 more books.
We picked up the trail to the base of Rat Jaw and began what felt like the longest hour (or two) of my life. More 4-point of contact climbing(both feet and hand on the ground). I was grateful for the points along the power line cut where I could use the downed power line like a rope to help pull myself up. The higher we went, the steeper it got. I was moving 5 feet at a time. My heart felt like it was going to explode. James & I didn't speak, we simply exchanged simultaneous glances of encouragement and disbelief.
One step at a time, we made it to the top of Rat Jaw, where the book and 2nd water drop were located. I was relieved as I had run out of water halfway through the climb and we were cooking out there in the exposed power line cut.
The decent was almost as difficult, the only plus was that we were going down. It is here we ran across the guys coming up behind us. It was nice to see the others, I took some comfort in knowing the likes of Frozen Ed & Leonard Martin were on my six; they know the course pretty well.
James & I hit the prison tunnel and trudged through. I managed to keep my feet dry through the entire tunnel. All I had to do was make it up the wall. Of course, I fell off the wall halfway up and my feet were soaked. Relentless forward progress.
Book 8 was in the bag. All that remained were 3 pages and the 2 hardest climbs; A Bad Thing & Big Hell.
I can't accurately describe these climbs. I'm not sure my words will do them justice. I would move 15-20 feet at a time, and then doubled over, hands on my knees, gasping for air. I would pick a tree and motor towards it, get to it, allow gravity to slump my back into it and rest. James and I were using young treelings to help pull ourselves up. Trees keep snapping or pulling out of the ground. I found a really great hiking stick, which helped tremendously. Every time I thought I couldn't go any further, I reminded myself of my race mantra, "Don't make any race decisions on an uphill climb."
We hooked up with Leonard on the decent down the Zip Line. He is a wealth of information and I think he is a major reason I was able to finish the climb up Big Hell. Something he said stood out, "Just focus for an hour and twenty minutes to the top of Hell." that is how I run a lot of my races, I break things down into time segments, "I can do anything for X minutes." It took all I had to make it to the top of Hell. I didn't think it would end. I knew for sure James, Elise & Leonard were going to drop me. Thankfully, Elise & James were allowing me to see their suffering, I knew they were hurting, too. For some strange reason that helped me continue, we were unified in our suffering.
Nothing felt better than grabbing the 11th page out of the book. I knew I had finished the last climb and had almost 2 hours to get back to the yellow gate. Leonard was giving us splits and advice on our way down Chimney Top. "12 minutes of climbing up Rough Ridge and then about 45 minutes of downhill on trail to the park". Easy peasy.
Or was it? We hit Rough Ridge and I immediately fell off the back of the pack. One last punch from Laz, this 400' climb had me on the ropes. "Don't make any race decisions on an uphill climb" I finished the climb and caught back up to the group on the decent. I knew then there was no way I could go back out for loop 2. Bird Mtn and it's 1300' feet would be insurmountable. I was okay with that. I had left everything I had "Out There".
I arrived back at the yellow gate 12:44 after I left; I returned a different person.
For most, this is where the story would end. Mostly of the same for me. However, unlike the other one loopers, I showered, ate, and then headed over to sit by the campfire. I asked Laz, "Is is cool if I sit here with y'all?" He said, "Sure, it's tradition."
This is where the lesson began. I sat around the fire with them until about 4AM. Runners came and went. I saw Jared & Brett go out on their 3rd loops. They looked as fresh as they did 24 hours before. Brett ended up shattering the course record and Jared finished his 5 loops in 56 hours. I was there when Psyche, Naresh, & Matt Mahoney finished their sub 19 hour loop. The look on Naresh's face, when Laz told him there was no need to count his pages, was priceless. I was there to see so many runners, far stronger than me, get tapped out.
I learned invaluable lessons. Listening to Limacher, Dobies, Gleman, Laz, Mike Bur & Jason discuss the "old days" and what it was like and what it took to run Barkley....and this lil nugget, "Completing 2 loops at Barkley is equal to some of toughest 100 milers in the country."
When I heard that, the vacuum popped. Aha!~I hadn't really thought of it like that. Thinking about it though, time wise, it is dead on. Funny, I thought going in that "one loop was the same as a tough 50 miler". It only makes sense that the same would apply to 2 loops.
The lessons learned are how to properly prepare for another go. Jason said, "Train in the Cohutta's, you can get 2000' of climb in 3 miles." I need a sub-24 Pinhoti in order to have a shot at 2 loops. I need to climb! I need to have a few hundy's under my belt in order to think about a Fun Run.
The best part of my race happened after I was tapped out, while I was sitting around the campfire, soaking in the Barkley. I'm glad I was forced out of my comfort zone in several different ways this past weekend. It has opened my eyes to a whole 'nother ballgame.
"Most races are designed for success, this race is designed for failure." - Laz
He said that to me as I was saying goodbye to him Sunday morning. The next sentence was equally as important, "You have to have your own idea of success." I simultaneously succeeded and failed at Barkley. What a ride!
**Photo Credits: T. Armbruster, P. Wimberly, & J. Price**