Photo credits (John Price, Karen Jackson, Karine Comeau, et al.)
3-Loop Fun Run Finished (Just BARELY!!!)
I came into this year's Barkley run in a very different and unfamiliar mind-space than I had the previous two years........let me explain,
Back in 2012, I was completely and whole-heartedly all-consumed by the idea of finishing. My training was regimented and intense. I was single in purpose and a goal of a sub-60 hour finish was my only option. I had spent months studying every resource available, fallen asleep nightly dreaming of climbs and descents I'd never even seen in person, and imagined nothing greater than touching that yellow gate after 5 loops. My schoolwork suffered a bit, I saw very little of friends, family, and loved-ones, and getting my daily hill workouts in was not optional....it was required. It helped that we had fantastic weather that year, which made compass-navigating more feasible...and a finish more possible. When somehow, I was able to pull off the impossible and actually finish, I wasn't quite sure how to feel. Certainly it was incredible, and I knew I had earned something that no one would ever be able to take away, but I didn't know how it would affect my trail and ultrarunning in general. I sort-of wandered for a bit and had trouble finding enjoyment out of other races for several months afterward. I kind of had this nagging feeling of "what's next?". It wasn't just that I finished either. It was the entirety of the event. I loved the people, the atmosphere, the culture, and the camaraderie of the Barkley. It was a how an event should be in my mind. When I showed up to some future races that year, I was turned-off by the sponsorships, the swag bags, the expos, and the corporate feeling. I still had some fun at events like Hyner and Finger Lakes....but other events made me feel out of place. I just wanted to go back to Frozen Head, to a place and an event that made me feel as I should.
When I got accepted for 2nd attempt last year, I was ecstatic to be going back. I had been pining for it for almost a year and while tucked away in my little tent in Antarctica, I could think of nothing other than getting back out there and playing on the steep and briar-infested slopes at Frozen Head. My training in 2013 was even more intense. I pushed harder than I ever had in my life hitting 100+ mile weeks, 35,000' ascent weeks, and streaks lasting all winter. I wanted to finish a 2nd time. At least I thought I did. I came to the 2013 Barkley more trained than for any other event in my life, even more so than the 2012 race. Showing back up to Frozen Head was magical. I was home again. I played in the park for a week or so before the race and sucked the marrow out of it. I got to be the veteran, giving advice (some good, some bad) to the virgins as they began to file in. It was awesome. I got to catch up with Brett, Travis, Jared, Carl, Nick and the Abbs' (along with many others). It was truly magical. When the race started, I comfortably, and strongly pushed out a quick 8:24 first lap in mediocre weather, still feeling great. I knew that I was more trained and it was showing. I was on great pace to finish again, even with the new course change. But then something happened. On loop 2, a whirlwind of things piled up on me and left me feeling empty. I had stopped eating and the cold rain steered me into a hypothermic state. A group of us got lost in the fog and I felt personally responsible for ruining their race. My last quote that I remember uttering to Nick and Travis as we passed each on Rat Jaw on loop 2 was, "Guys.....I'm in a horrendously dark place right now...and it is so indescribably terrible". Nick, trying to be encouraging said something along the lines of "Just don't quit at the tower! Finish this loop dammit!". But I did quit at the tower. I stumbled down the mountain a cold, shivering, hypothermic, and depressed disaster. Laz tapped me out and told me that even had I been legally finishing loop 2, he would have pulled me because I was shivering so badly. I wasn't so much mad about quitting as I knew, for safety and health reasons, that it was likely the right thing to do, but I was confused and saddened by the horrible despondency and depression I was feeling. I had never felt that way during an event before and it was simply awful.
As the following day went on, I found solace in becoming a member of Travis's crew and support. In 2012, he and Alyssa were a big reason for my finish, so I got to feel like I was returning the favor. Seeing he (and Nick) triumph was magical, and allowed me to find some peace out of the entire ordeal. When I got home I didn't run for a long time....weeks. I couldn't find my center and I struggled with a lot of things. I had lost sight of what it was that was important to me with regards to being outdoors and playing on trails, and my experience at the Barkley allowed me to realize this. I slowly found my compass bearing again, and started up with the running...more cognizant of the aesthetics and beauty of the running, and not so much the number-crunching. Gradually I found that happiness again, and ended up having an incredibly fun year playing at events like 3 Days, and Vol State. I slowed down a bit in 2013, and like I said, I tried to enjoy the trails and roads more for what they were, and not for the times I might clock running on them. It was a bit of a soul-search I had to go through I think, a sort-of running-epiphany....but one that I necessarily needed. It was my failure at Barkley that made it possible.
So....when I applied for this year's Barkley, I wrote a very different kind of essay and had a very different mental goal for my run. I knew, without question, that I would not be able to get in the training that I would really need, especially if the course change was to be at all significant (which it WAS!). I have been in the final stages of writing up my doctoral thesis, and finding time to squeeze in the necessary hill workouts was an incredibly difficult struggle. Still, I got in a fair amount...and enough to give me a small fighting chance. The most important thing to me this year was to just enjoy as much time as I could on the course for whatever that meant. I wanted to just be out there. I also had made the decision beforehand that I would not forcefully latch on to anyone. I would simply do my own thing, and if that meant I was around others great...but if others went ahead, that'd be great too. I wanted to find myself on the course, and absorbing the experience within my own mind. No ipods, no time-math, no crazy heart-rate monitoring....just me and the woods. I had made a few other adjustments as well....like that I had decided that I would use my trekking poles this year...something that I had wished I had done last year. I proved in 2012 that a stick works, but I missed my poles for sure. I also carried a lot more clothing, rain gear, and food....so I was heavier. I knew the forecast was not looking so great so I didn't want to screw around with hypothermia again. There were also a lot of people I was really looking forward to meeting and catching up with this year. People like Willy "Natureboy" Syndram (with whom I hiked the 75 miles of the Smokies on my AT thru-hike back in 07), and Heather "Anish" Anderson, the current PCT speed record holder. I knew other fast runners with large ultra resumes would be coming too...people like Jamil Coury and Eva Pastalkova, that I was looking forward to chatting with. But as always, I was really looking forward to seeing the likes of the legends like Ed Furtaw, Matt Mahoney, Mike Dobies, Stu Gleman, and of course Laz himself. I wanted a year to relish in, and remember, regardless of the outcome. I knew in my heart, that this could be my last year participating in a while as I just don't know where I'll be, and what I'll be doing next year at this time.
This year I again came to Frozen Head a few days early, but mostly just to get myself in the right headspace, not so much to explore trails. I did spend a few days making some trailed loops around the park, but mostly I just sat in my cheap motel room in Wartburg or my tent at Frozen Head working on my thesis. As the week got closer to Friday, I was amazed at how slowly people were filing in to camp. I thought for sure that more virgins would want as much time as possible to prod the veterans for useful info...but it seemed there was a general attitude this year of "ahhh...I'll just follow a veteran" By Thursday afternoon people were still slowly trickling in, and I found myself settled in nicely at the site right next to my site from the previous 2 years. I was sharing with a few others, and right next to the Abbs' and Jared. It was a great little group. I wandered around and met whom I could, caught up with those I knew, and chatted with the virgins. I helped a few with map issues, tried to give hints where I could...but mostly just relaxed. I did not do any running or hiking for the 2 days before the race. I simply ate and took it easy. On Friday afternoon, Laz put out the map and we all glared at it in horror as we envisioned the new 600+ foot climb that we'd now have to do (Hiram's Vertical Smile). Last year's change, while not trivial, was still manageable. This year though, it was going to definitely add some time onto loops. It was quite significant....and we all knew it. Even Jared knew it. I prepped my gear, set up my car-aid-station, made my food bags, and wrote down all of my necessary compass headings on my two maps. It all went fairly smoothly, and I was relaxing again by the time the chicken came out. I enjoyed some lively banter up by the fire and traded some good Vol State and Barkley stories (particularly with Alan). The general opinion around camp was that Laz was going to start the race early morning, but no one knew for sure. I was guessing a 5 - 6 am start. Sure enough the conch blew at 5:46 am waking me up in my tent after a very poor night's sleep.
Talking chicken and Vol State with Alan and Nikki.
6:46 AM Start (still in the dark)
The forecast for the race was basically that the first day would be on-and-off rain, cooler, with a very cold first night (with maybe even some snow). There were also conflicting reports of high winds for later in the day. In other words I knew the first 18-24 hours would be tough and I mentally prepared for it. I would not be pulling out another 8:24 loop, pending some miracle. I led the wave up Bird Mountain with the Abbs', Jamil, and Jodi not far behind. At the top we broke off onto the Cumberland Trail taking at least 6-8 people with us. It was a large crew that seemingly wanted to keep us veterans in sight. After quick work through Fangorn we came upon the first book and chaos ensued. Everyone frantically wanted their pages first. It was a bit of a push/shove match but eventually I left with my page just behind Alan and Bev. We bolted down Checkmate still pulling several other runners with us and before we knew it were climbing up to Jury Ridge. At the top, we put our game faces on as we began the dreaded new section. After grabbing the new Book 2 just off of Jury Ridge's ridgeline, we took an incorrect line down to the confluence and Book 3. We ended up passing the gas well, but were still too far North. We wandered around for a good 10 minutes looking for the draw and the confluence and eventually bumped into Jared who was also wandering around looking for the Book. We all agreed we were too far North as the landscape didn't seem right, and after a good 15 minutes we finally found the right place and the book. We began the new, and very steep climb back up to the North Boundary Trail where we would pop back in to the usual course. From here on out, the course would be the same as last year. On the climb, the first real significant one of the day, I noticed I was already lagging behind the others. I decided that I would do my own thing and let them go on ahead. I was here to enjoy myself and that was it. What none of us knew was that while were were looking for Book 3, several others passed us. At the top of the climb, we scrambled up the Vertical high wall (which was tons of fun!), and popped out on the NBT. I jogged my way along the trail, past the coal ponds (passing several others along the way) until the final switchbacks up to Garden Spot. I hiked up and gathered the book...making sure to eat as well. By this point, the rains and fog had started. I had caught up to Jodi at this point and I decided to navigate down through the Stallion, Butt-slide, Fyke's sections.
The two of us made quick, albeit briar-infested work up on Stallion, and were soon descending down to the New River. The Abbs and Jamil were still well out of view ahead of us. We had some great conversation up and over the Spectacle and I showed him the navigation ropes up Pig Head Creek. My climbing was still labored, but I was having fun. Once we hit Rat Jaw, the rain was full-on. It was cold, windy, wet, and foggy on the climb. This also meant that the mud had become similar to last year...almost impassible. We found ourselves climbing Rat Jaw by staying on top of the briars for traction.
Alan, Bev, Jamil Descending....Jodi and I ascending
(I'm at the top of picture, a bit behind Jodi)
Jodi killing the climb up RatJaw
Final push up Ratjaw
Topping out in the fog
Jodi and I getting pages at the tower (Loop1)
I made the descent with Jodi and we made quick work through the prison tunnel. On the other side we could see the Abbs' and Jamil starting the climb up the Bad thing and we figured we'd probably catch up to them if things went well. We dove into the briars by the water towers and began the slow and painful climb up the Bad Thing (probably my least favorite climb on the entire course). I explained the contour around the top to the proper capstone and we nailed it almost dead on. Within a minute or so on the top we were tearing our pages out and checking our compass headings for our descent down zip line. Our line wasn't terrible down, but was a smidge off as we found ourselves a little off course near the bottom. We spotted the Abbs' and Jamil across the creek though and jumped in to join them. The 5 of us got our Beech Fork pages and climbed Big Hell together to the summit. After the long/slow climb, we grabbed our last pages and began the jog/run back to camp down from Chimney Top. The wind was blowing and I had to stop to put on another rain shell. We had a good pace all the way back to camp and came up on the gate at about 9 hours 12 minutes....a little slower than I would have liked, but not bad considering the rain and fog that had been plaguing us all day. I knew the night loop was going to be tough and I informed the others I'd be spending 20-25 minutes in camp.
In camp I moved with purpose, but also made sure not to miss anything. I knew on our current time and pace, we'd likely get through the new parts still in daylight which was fantastic in my book. We each spent about 25 minutes eating, and resupplying. I was careful to bring lots of extra clothing. I knew it was going to be a cold night, and even though the rain had mostly stopped, we were all still wet and would get even colder as the night moved on. Additionally, the winds had started to pick up. At the gate, we all checked out and began the climb up Bird. Things went smoothly at checkmate, and we were soon climbing up to Jury Ridge mentally preparing for the new parts. I was again lagging a bit, and had decided that once on the climb up from the new section, I would slow up a bit and let the others go ahead. This time, we navigated book 2 perfectly with the help of Jodi (who had nailed it his first time through). On the climb, I watched as the others slowly pulled away and I mentally prepared for a long, cold night alone. I took time to eat, and kept a smooth and even pace. The NBT went by mile by mile, and soon I was climbing to Garden Spot. When I arrived, I was surprised to see that the others were only a few minutes ahead of me. I stopped for a couple minutes to warm up and eat. I made the turn to Stallion, feeling pretty good, and made quick work down the Barley Branch towards Leonard's Butt Slide. At the bottom, I had caught back up to the group, but there was someone missing. I noted Bev wasn't around and had assumed she was just taking a pit stop, but Alan informed me that she had to drop due to borderline hypothermic conditions. I knew exactly how awful that feels and it brought back vivid memories from last year. I was super bummed to hear the news, but you simply don't mess around with safety issues. The night had gotten very cold and it was now sleeting on and off. We were all so far into the loop yet all we could all think about was getting back to the gate. There was definitely some quit temptation coming on at this point. Moving through the remaining parts of the loop were slow and labored. Generally on the climbs I fell back behind the group a bit, but then caught back up on the downs. One by one...book pages were collected, and we suffered through the cold up to the tower. The fog was pretty bad, but not quite as bad as last year. At the tower, I was presented again with a temptation to quit and recalled my mental state last year. This is where I gave up. I refused to this year. I quickly headed down Ratjaw before the debate was even settled, so that I would have no choice but to finish the loop. I was dreading the thought of the Bad Thing. I simply hate that climb...but we were making steady progress. We ran into Jared at the Beech Fork as he was heading out on his loop 3. It was good seeing him and he still had quite a bit of spunk in his step. I had no doubt that he'd be going for 5, pending some major blowout. We made the last slog up to Chimney Top, got our pages, and began the jog back to camp.
We came into the gate at about 23 total hours. The first words out of Laz's mouth were "Well that was kind of a slow loop for you guys!". My immediate response was...."you're a bad, bad man Laz". On the run into camp, we had all discussed our intentions, and the general consensus was that we would all like to go for loop 3, but none of us were particularly thrilled about it. I informed the others that I would be taking at least 45 minutes this break. I need to warm up, and re-evaluate my goals.I set up in the warm bathroom, and ate a lot of food to replenish. Alan and Jamil were also doing the same, while Jodi was taking a nap.
The decision to go out on loop 3 was a very difficult one. Had I not dropped so early last year, there is a good chance I would have pulled the plug at 2. At 24+ hours we all knew it but didn't want to say it: A 5 loop finish was no longer possible. A 3rd loop would be it if we went for it. A fun run would be all I would come away with. Considering my lack of training, and the horrendous weather on day/night 1, I was actually quite content with this thought. The problem was, we still had to do that 3rd loop. I had many debates in my mind, but after about 70 minutes of mulling around, I finally just got up and starting walking towards the gate. If I didn't do it then, I was never going to do it. Jamil and Alan reluctantly followed. We hadn't see Jodi. We were all starting to suffer from the effects of sleep deprivation a bit. We were slow on the climb and since it had become clear that this would be our last lap, we laid into the caffeine tabs. Alan and I started popping 200mg tabs left and right. The mini boosts were nice, but really did nothing more than to keep us alert. Slopping around in the mud and cold the previous night had really cost me a lot of energy...much more so than in 2012. I was much more tired on this loop 3 than on my 2012 loop 3. Thankfully, the sun was just starting to come up on the climb up to Chimney Top. Branches along the trail were caked in wind-blown ice. It was quite surreal. The wind at the top was still biting hard and made for a brisk morning. It felt good to be on a reverse loop...my first since 2012. We navigated perfectly down and up the Beech Fork and were soon descending to the prison. Alan and I got off course going down the Bad Thing, but corrected quickly. Still, Jamil had managed to beat us down and was waiting for us at the book. We noticed that Jodi's page was also missing, meaning he had passed us at some point. It was apparent that the sleep did him well! I was happy for him that he was having such a strong loop 3 and finally going out on his own. I secretly began to hope that he might sneak in under 36 and still have time to go out for a 4th.
The long climb up lower and upper Rat Jaw took a while, and we were greeted part way up by the French film crew. I think at one point they got video of me pissing...so that'll be some lovely footage. Right as we began climbing upper Rat Jaw, Jodi was already coming down. He had already gained about 45-60 minutes on us and was looking fantastic! I could see the hunger in his eyes. It reminded me of myself two years ago. We all wished him well, and the three of us plodded on. We made quick work on Rat Jaw and Alan began hinting at quitting. I tried to keep his mind distracted and soon the three of us were descending back down Pig Head Creek. There'd be no quit at the Tower this loop dammit! I led us down that descent and got out on the road quickly. The climb up Meth Lab Hill, despite being tame, really sapped me. I fell behind again. I began to worry a bit about our finishing time. I kept telling the other two NOT to wait for me as it might come down to minutes. On the descent down the Spectacle though, I caught back up with Alan and we breezed down to the New River grabbing the swamp book in the process. In my mind we now had 3 major climbs left...Stallion, Hiram's Smile, and Checkmate. We just needed to get through them and we'd be done. The climb up Stallion was the longest, but it's one of my favorites so it didn't bother me. The sandwich I'd eaten at the tower was finally kicking in and I maintained a steady pace up the entire climb. Within an hour we were en route to Garden Spot with 4+ hours of time remaining. We hustled at the Spot, and began a very brisk hike along the NBT. We passed the turn off to quitter's road where I told Alan he had come this far...he was stuck with us till the end. There'd be no quitting. When the three of us made it to the "Wilderness" Ridge at the turnoff to the new section, we all breathed a long sigh, gathered ourselves, took a bearing, and dove down into the woods. I took lead, and navigated quite well, down to the confluence. On the ascent up to Jury Ridge, Jamil confidently took lead and picked a perfect line up to the Book 2 cairn. This was critical to our finishing as we lost no time here. It was truly a perfect ascent. At the top, we all ate quickly, sussed ourselves out, and did some time-math. We also put our headlamps on as it was getting dark. We all agreed we needed 2 hours from Phillips Creek to be safe. We were at 2:20. We hustled down the switchbacks to the creek and began the climb up Checkmate with about 1:55 remaining. It was going to be close.
I had never navigated up Checkmate in the dark so we all agreed to let Alan lead. It was a lot of pressure to put on him, but he navigated us perfectly and when we topped out on the coal bench I thought we could relax and had the finish in the bag. We rounded the bench to the book...BUT IT WASNT THERE. Panic set in. We scrambled back and forth and could not find it. I knew all of the visual markers. The rusty cable, the fallen tree....everything was where it should be...but no book. Precious minutes ticked by and I yelled, "I'm not going to go out like this dammit!". Finally, I took a deep breath, climbed up on the center ridge where we come down to the book, and traced an approach to where it should be. I popped out on the bench, looked to my left where the book should be....and there it was. It was there all along. Annoying! In the end, we lost about 5-7 minutes, making our precious cushion that much slimmer. We quickly bolted into Fangorn. I navigated, praying that I didn't screw us up. A couple of times I didn't recognize the surroundings, but I always gathered myself quickly and refound the route quickly. Soon we were making the final climb up to Hiram's Gambit and the final high-point of the race. We popped out on the Cumberland Trail, hopped over the Pillars and hit the Bird Trail junction at the top with 25 minutes to get to the bottom. I did the quick math, turned to the guys and said,
"I think we have to run a bit to make this guys. I don't want to be the guy that misses it by 2 minutes...so I'm running. I don't care how much it hurts".
They agreed and we sort-of run-hobbled our way down the mountain, grunting and groaning the entire way. My attitude shifted between elation and panic. Moments would pass where I was convinced we'd make it, and then after countless switchbacks not ending, I'd panic and start running faster. I kept hearing the creek, but it never seemed like it was getting closer.
10 minutes left. Still switchbacking....still seemingly no closer. 7 minutes left and the creek is now loud. I see a headlamp and know we are close. I recognize the last switchback and realize I'm about to pop out on the road. We're going to make it. This is the first moment I'm truly convinced we'll make it....only about 1/4 mile from the finish. The headlamp was from some of the film crew waiting. I turn on the adrenaline afterburners and run around the corner not waiting for Alan and Jamil (I know they are just 30 seconds behind me anyway and that they're safe to finish as well).
I ran down the final road to a large and welcoming crowd of my Barkley Family cheering and hollering for us all. I touch the gate at 39:56, with just 4 minutes to spare. Alan and Jamil are a minute behind me. The crowd tells us all that it was the most intense and exciting fun-run finish ever...waiting for us. They were all biting their nails and watching as our headlamps descended the mountain, wondering if we'd make it. I took a well-earned seat in the chair by the gate, turned in my pages, and then stood up to gracefully accept my Taps. We all laughed about the crazy finish, and then gradually retired to our campsites and tents. It was a hell of a fun run finish. Jodi had gained over 3 hours on us during his 3rd loop finishing with an amazing 36:36...just a smidge over the cut-off for a loop 4 attempt. He had the 2nd best performance at Barkley this year and should feel pretty darn good about that. I can definitely see him coming back for another go.
The next day at about 4 pm, I stood patiently at the gate and watched as Jared Campbell became the 2nd two-time finisher. I stood eagerly for over an hour and listened to his wonderful stories of loops 4 and 5. I couldn't help but smile to see such an incredibly humble guy, with such a kind heart, finish the Barkley for a 2nd time (especially on this tougher course). It was an honor to shake his hand and hear his stories. He earned his finish, and I hope he takes a nice long rest in the coming weeks.
All in all it was a great success. I was of course somewhat disappointed not to be out on a 4th or 5th, but considering my lackluster training this year, I can't be anything but content with my fun run. I drove home from Tennessee quite pleased with my experience and happy to have met and talked with so many great people. I will miss my Barkley Family over the year, but will be thinking of all of you often. Thanks for again imprinting the indelible memories in my heart and mind.
hike on my friends,
39:56 Fun run finish
Alan's Finish and Taps
The Barkley Buckle
Celebrating with Jodi the next day. (Using a pole to walk!)
Jared Campbell Finishes again: 57:50
That was an awesome read John...and still surreal to have been 'out there' with all of you super inspirational people!!
That was pure perseverance and determination at it's finest. So glad to have been a part of it with you.
Take care and we do hope to see you at the 2015 edition. If not, you always have a place to stay with us in Nova Scotia...trail guides included :)
Best of luck with your thesis!!
great run and great report - it is a unique and great race to be sure...
Thanks for sharing your story. For those Barkley curious like me who are uninitiated, how do you find the books? How are they marked on the map?
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