Monday, October 17, 2016

The Essays

Plodding my way through the Grindstone 100

First off, I'll briefly say that I had a successful outing at Grindstone.  I managed to plod my way along the 100-mile course to a mediocre finish of 31+ hours. It rained nearly 27 of those 31 hours, so was definitely not the most pleasant ultra I've done. Many of the climbs, while not technical, were quite notable as well. My only goal was a finish and to secure a Hardrock/WS qualifier.  I was monumentally undertrained, and went in treating it like a there was lots of power hiking.  Still, I was thrilled to come away with finish and a qualifier.  I may put together a race report yet, as I did have a few bizarre experiences on this course (e.g. a very close bear encounter, and about 45 minutes of running off course).  If I do, it will end up here at some point.

On to the Essays......

Over the years, I've had many ask me about my Barkley Marathons Essays.  It has become public knowledge at this point, especially since the release of the documentary, that every applicant must submit an essay titled "Why I should be allowed to run the Barkley Marathons".  There are varying opinions by the Barkley community and veterans on what makes a "good essay", and there are many approaches people take to try to potentially woo the race director (Laz).  Often, people simply go with the "here's my awesome/impressive resume" approach, or the "I'm so tough, I never DNF, and I never quit" approach.  Sometimes, people will go for an inspirational approach, or even the more risky hubris angle of, "I'm so awesome, your course won't beat me", which has the potential to get Laz fired up to prove that applicant wrong.  It's a risky approach that can backfire horribly, but often the hubris angle does pay off.  What I've learned over the years, is that there really is no perfect equation...and a lot of it is just luck or random chance.  Maybe in some rare cases, the essay really does matter; it's hard to say, and honestly I think it's best that way. If there were a known formula, then it just wouldn't be the same.  I have no idea the reaction Laz has had to my essays.  He may have enjoyed them, maybe he hated them, or maybe he just rolled his eyes at them and said, "how many times will I read this same essay!"

Frozen Ed shared all of his essays over the years in his book, and it gives readers a tiny window into what goes through the heads of Barkley applicants from year to year.  Sometimes it really comes down to how you're feeling the day you send in your application.  Often times, you'll spend days composing the "perfect" essay, only to delete it all and write a few haphazard sentences before hitting  "send" in a blur of uncertainty.  Other than Ed's essays, I've never read any other applicant's essays, save for the occasional one that is shared online or via email.  I honestly have no idea what other people are writing...only what Ed has written, and what I have written.

I've never had a specific approach to my essays, and they have always varied from year to year.  I've also known full well, that there's a very real possibility they aren't even being truly read...but merely skimmed over in the madness that is probably several hundred submitted essays that find their way to laz during the application period.

I have never publicly shared my essays, nor really told anyone specifics about any of them. I have always regarded them as something I would keep to myself. Lately though, my thought on this has evolved.  I am dealing with the reality that I very likely won't be applying this year and it has stirred in me a desire to partially close a chapter on my own Barkley book, and publish it for the world.  I have submitted 5 separate essays now, each with their own character and personality.  When I go back and read through them now, it's almost nostalgic in a way.  I can also see how my entire mental and emotional connection to the Barkley changes each year, and how my level of respect for the course grows.  Also, I see coming through my words the realization on just how much of an outlier 2012 was, and how the cold truth is I will almost assuredly never finish Barkley again.  So many things went perfectly right that year, and even with my fun-run redemption in 2014, I doubt I will ever be able to put together the perfect year I had in 2012 again.  

So....posted below are my 5 essays spanning 2012 - 2016.  Take them for what they are...a little piece of something that has been so very important to me for the past 5 years.  These essays are incredibly personal to me.  They may just be silly words to all of you, but to me they represent some of the most difficult words I've ever had to put to paper. You'd think answering the question of "why do you want to run Barkley" would be easy.  For me it has been one of the most difficult to really answer...and arguably after 5 years may still be at least partially unanswered for me.  I wanted to share these personal memories with you all.

One parting thought.  My final essay contained this quote, "One might think that I have already come to find or discover what I was meant to at Barkley, but this is simply not true."  

Well, this year at the Barkley, I walked off of the course (thereby quitting) near the end of my 2nd loop, but, with a smile on my face.  I was in decent shape to continue...well-fed, warm, hydrated, etc.  I had simply come to the realization that after 5 years, I had finally arrived at what I was looking for on the course. I sat on the trail for over an hour just admiring the perfect stars without a care in the world.  Then, I walked down into camp with a smile and a truly earned sense of contentment.  It has been a wonderful journey over the years, and I'm honored and humbled to have been able to share it with you all...



Well, the time has come and I would like to formally request entry into the 2012 Barkley Marathons, aka Barkley 100, aka Barkley 100 miles-of-torture, aka The Race That Eats Its Young.
(PLEASE NOTE:  While you read this, I am very literally working at a remote field camp in West Antarctica.  My internet access is very limited here, but I assure you that I CAN still respond and send you any additional information as needed.  It just may take an extra day or two.  I am also in contact with several people back home via satellite phone if it comes to that.  I return back to the States at the end of January.)

"Why I Should Be Allowed To Run The Barkley"

Originally I had this grand plan to send you an elaborate essay where I would immediately jump into all of the reasons why I think I'm "qualified" to run the Barkley.  I was going to list all of my ultrarunning, thru-hiking, and various other accomplishments and achievements in hopes that it might convince you that I have the "drive" or "tenacity" to actually do well at the 2012 race (or at least better than the other virgin applicants).  I was going to try to relay to you my stubbornness and my ability to push through what I considered extreme situations.  I was undoubtedly going to mention that I don't have a single DNF on my record either and that when I set a goal, I complete it.   blah, blah,'ve heard it all before.

In all of my countless hours of internet research on the Barkley and in all of my conversations with fellow runners about it, I've learned one valuable thing:  You can be the best of the best of the best....and still fail miserably out there.  We are all scum of the earth....measly mortals when faced against the beast.  You can end up leaving the yellow gate on what looks to be an "in-the-bag" lap 5, and end up talking to imaginary friends while sitting in a mud puddle.  I've come to realize that nothing about the Barkley is "normal" for an ultrarun.  When you leave that gate, you are stepping into that proverbial boxing ring.  On one side is you...oh so tiny and insignificant, and on the other is the Barkley Course itself.  You can be completely trained, completely confident, and completely ready...but still be knocked out and beaten by the course in the first round.  Like Ed said in his book, you can spout off all you want about how you "never quit", but at the Barkley, you can still lose to the course....and lose miserably....embarrassingly. 

So, with all that said, and with all the knowledge I've been able to glean from various resources, I do still want the humbling experience of participating in the 2012 Barkley Marathons.  I want to feel what it's like to push myself to the absolute extreme point of whimpering in a corner, only to get kicked again while down.   So I ask that you give me the opportunity to be tortured and that I may call myself a Barkley Runner.

Thank you, and I hope that you give me a shot at being one of the few 2012 Barkley virgins.  

-John Fegy, Representing Antarctica (and/or Pennsylvania)


It has taken me a long time to decide whether or not to send you this email, but ultimately, as you are now reading it, that decision was made.

"Why I Should Be Allowed To Run The Barkley.......Again."

I have thought for a long time about what I might say to you if I were to submit another application to the Barkley Marathons.  In all that time of thinking, I never did come up with any sort of array of profundities or overly-inspirational motives to spill into this email.  The honest truth as to why I should be allowed to run again in 2013, is not because of any obvious or cliche' reason as one might assume.  It's not because I feel that I "deserve" to, or because I'm "worthy", because I "earned it", or because I'm that "Antarctica guy" (or any other crap like that).  Frankly I don't think anyone truly earns it.

Quite simply the reason I'm sending this application because:  I am Haunted.  Constantly.  I am haunted by disbelief. Every single day since I left Frozen Head State Park on April 2nd, I think about what happened, and my experience participating in the Barkley Marathons.  But, every day that passes, the less I actually believe it really happened.  I think back to specific memories I have of being lost on the course, getting water from a creek, picking ticks off of myself, or laughing alongside Alan...and I start to wonder if it wasn't just a dream.  I look at results listings and postings on the internet that list my name, but somehow I no longer believe it.  I email Ed Furtaw and ask him, "Did I really finish?  Was I really there?"  He assures me I did, and that I was.  I see pictures at the finish of me touching the yellow gate and it simply feels that it can't be so.  It has been tearing me up.  I've seen so many people say online that I "shouldn't have finished", that I'm not an "elite runner", or that I just got "really lucky"....and sometimes I actually start to believe them.

But then I think about how damn hard I trained.  How many God-awful hill repeats I did....over and over and over and over....    How I spent 15+ hours every weekend training on hills and trails.  how I did two-a-day workouts during the week (every week) of more hills, and how I studied that Frozen Head map for months.  I think about how I sat every single night at the dinner table down in Antarctica while others were playing cribbage and poker, and I studied race reports and scribbled down notes and compass bearings.  I tell myself that I did finish dammit...and it was because I trained hard enough, and wanted it badly enough.  But then I wake up the next day and I don't believe it again. In a way, I've tried to mentally "Earn" my Barkley finish by spending the rest of this year pounding out countless ultras.  I've run harder, and at more races this year, than during any previous year.  I thought finishing Badwater would somehow make my Barkley finish feel more real.  It didn't.  I thought perhaps finally breaking 25 hours at Leadville would make me accept my Barkley finish as non-fantasy.  It didn't.  I even thought that if I simply ran a large volume of races, I could somehow earn my Barkley finish.  After a long year of racing multiple ultras (Five 100-milers), I still fail to believe that Barkley really happened.  Why?

So, back to the question at hand.  I should be allowed to run the Barkley, because, quite simply, I need to experience it person.  I need its very presence to course through my veins.  I need to stand in the park and take it in again, during a race, so that I can truly remember and be a part of it.  I want to know that it really happened, and that it wasn't a fluke of luck.  That measly ol' middle-of-the-packer me....could walk up to that gate during Fool's Weekend in 2013, and make some sort of magic happen again.   And perhaps prove to myself once and for all, that it did really happen, and that I am capable. 
...or I'll crawl back to camp whimpering like baby after 1 loop and realize that it in fact was just a dream.   A Very BAD one.

I hope to see you there Laz,
-John (Antarctica and/or Pennsylvania)

P.S.  Actually the real reason is just because I want to buy you a pack of smokes and then hide them under a rock half-way down Checkmate Hill.

Not all pain is gain
Observe the march of the fools.
What were we thinking?

Laz, ....a story first.....
On February 13, 1996, in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Gary Kasparov, a legendary chess master, walked into a room and sat down to play a third game of chess against IBM's Deep Blue computer....
Three days prior, on the 10th, Kasparov was beaten by Deep Blue...marking the first time that a chess-playing computer defeated a reigning world champion chess player.  What he had originally thought in his mind would be another quick exercise in formality, demonstrating that the instincts of a human player will always better those of an artificial intelligence, was violently thrown into disarray when he was forced to resign after just 37 moves.  It suddenly dawned on him that this would not be a "walk in the park", and that he would have to earn fight for it.

On the 2nd night (Feb 11th), Kasparov went in prepared.  He sat down, and began by employing a Catalan Opening technique.  The game was trying, and lasted for 73 moves, but eventually resulted in Deep Blue's resignation.  Kasparov now had his confidence back as the match was now tied 1 to 1.

So, coming back to this third night, Kasparov wanted to keep his momentum going.  This time, he began with a Sicilian Defense to which Deep Blue responded with the Alapin Variation.  After 39 moves, the game resulted in a draw with 1/2 point being awarded to each player.  It would be the same story on the fourth night as that game also ended in a draw.

On the fifth and penultimate night, Kasparov knew he needed a win to at least ensure an overall tie.  Leading with a Four Knights technique, Kasparov was quickly overpowered and it looked as though he'd lose.  He offered a draw, but Deep Blue's team refused, overconfident they'd get the win.  After just 23 moves, Kasparov had turn the tide of the game and come out on top with a victory (which was particularly embarrassing for the Deep Blue Team)

On the last night, Kasparov solidified his place as the ultimate chess master, when after 43 moves, he again came out with the victory, securing an overall score of 4 to 2 for the entire 6-game match. year later, IBM challenged Kasparov to a rematch, and this time Deep Blue came out on top, besting Kasparov after 6 games by a total of 3.5 to 2.5.   After that match, Kasparov's career was destroyed because in his anger at losing, he had accused the Deep Blue team of cheating.  This accusation brought him shame in his home Russia, and he eventually faded into somewhat obscurity....

SO, on to The Barkley,
("Why I Should Be Allowed To Run The Barkley.......Again......AGAIN....")

In 2012, I came to Frozen Head as a nobody.  No one would have bet a single cent on my finishing the impossible.  Somehow, someway, I got it done.  I pulled out every ounce of will I had, and had a lot of luck on my side.  This past year (2013), I came to Frozen Head, more prepared, but was defeated rather handily.  I came shivering down from the fire tower, utterly and completely humiliated.  The Barkley had eaten me alive.  It was humbling, yet it was exhilarating and wonderful.  Later that weekend, I watched in awe as my friend Travis touched the gate for his fifth lap and it nearly brought me to tears.

I have had another full year to think about going back to Frozen Head.  As much as I loved my time playing at Vol State this summer, there is something about touching that gate at Frozen Head that can never be equaled.  The people, the mountains, the camaraderie, the climbs, the bushwacking, the compass-work, the camping, the misery, and yes....even the chicken.

I am Kasparov.  I defeated Deep Blue in 2012, and was crushed in 2 moves (loops) in 2013.  So I ask that you let me come back in 2014 to break the tie...and win the match.  I realize that space is very limited and there are so many that would love a chance to run.  2014 will be the last year of my PhD and could very well be the last year I'll be able to train and run the Barkley for a long while.  So I ask that you give me another chance to defeat the machine, before whatever post-doc life takes me over.

Here are some words I wrote to you back in my 2012 application essay:
"I've come to realize that nothing about the Barkley is "normal" for an ultrarun.  When you leave the gate, you are stepping into that proverbial boxing ring.  On one side is you...oh so tiny and insignificant, and on the other is the Barkley Course itself.  you can be completely trained, completely confident, and completely ready...but still be knocked out and beaten by the course in the first round.  Like Ed said in his book, you can spout off all you want about how you "never quit", but at the Barkley, you can still lose to the course....and lose miserably....embarrassingly."

These words were in a sense prophetic.  In 2012 Laz, I won.  I beat the course.  But in 2013, I lost miserably.....embarrassingly.  What might 2014 bring?

-john fegy (PA)

Lyrics from "Deep Blue" a song from acoustic artist Peter Mulvey,
"After all the dance was done and after all the big boys left the room...did you take the time to savor your sweet doom?   You went deep you could go....but there's a deeper blue than you."

I will fight Deep Blue
Inevitable check mate
Just five easy loops

Laz, ("Why I Should Be Allowed To Run The Barkley.......Again.....Again......AGAIN....")

"Although we live with the expectation that the world is fully visible and exhaustively known, we also want and need places that allow our thoughts to roam unimpeded.  The hidden and remarkable places are havens for the geographical imagination.  Map makers, cartographers, and surveyors alike play their part for modernity by eliminating doubt and attaining panoptic knowledge.  Yet modernity also gives us the self-questioning and self-doubting consciousness that permits us to understand that we lose something in its attainment.  Interest in phantom, hidden, or undiscovered geographical oddities is growing.  There are countless shifting and potentially doubtful phenomena out there, including cartographic "facts" like the shape of nations, borders, mountains, parks, rivers, and trails that will continue to disturb our geographical certainties.  The truth is, we want a world that is not totally known and that has the capacity to surprise us.  As our information sources improve and become ever more complete, the need to discover new places that are defiantly off the maps becomes more intriguing and provoking.  As new hidden places are newly discovered or uncovered, it hints at the possibility that perhaps the age of discovery is not quite over."

I came across this text (paraphrased) as I was reading a new book I picked up titled, "Unruly Places"....a book that highlights strange geographical oddities around the world and a need to explore that still exists in many of us.  Needless to say it got me thinking about Barkley again.  Last year I finished on a high note with my fun run, and certainly it could be argued that I have nothing left to prove...and that I should gracefully bow out.  But what I have come to realize over my 38 years, is that I have an unnatural fascination with exploration.  I've spent many many hours/days/years trying to understand what is at the root of this fascination within me, and after years of coming back to it, I think I've finally been able to put a small finger on it.  I think there are just some people that are born into this world that are meant to be explorers.  Thinking back to many of the classic explorers of old (Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, etc), they all seem to have had a deep-down drive to go to uncharted places.  To see the unseen and to set foot on the un-touched ground.  The problem is in today's 21'st century, so many of the places on Earth have already been "found", leaving the explorers among us, striving to find new ways to "explore".  For me, I think perhaps I was born in the wrong century, as I  do seem to have this unexplainable desire to "set forth" and go out not just to the edges of world, but to the oddities of the world.  I want to see and appreciate places, that very few if any others have the way I do.  I want my resume of visited places to be full of superlatives, extremes, and oddities when I finally leave this world.  Many many people have asked me why the hell I would want to go to some of the places I go to, and I find it extremely difficult to explain it in words.  It's a feeling I have, and a need that I must fulfill from time to time.  It is one of the things that truly brings me a sense of contentment, and I will continue to seek out unique places for as long as I am able.  It is also part of the reason I found myself doing research for 5 seasons down in Antarctica.

One might think that I have already come to find or discover what I was meant to at Barkley, but this is simply not true.  Certainly there are the countless places I've yet to physically see within Frozen Head, but I speak more of the places that the Barkley allows me to explore within.  I have yet to find another experience that has allowed me to explore so deeply within (except for maybe my PCT thru-hike).  Each of my three years at Barkley has been immeasurably different with regards to my inner-exploration and I know I still have more to "see".  The Barkley has become my family, the course my home, and the other runners, my friends.  I'm not sure that I deserve an entry this year or not, and many might argue that I should give up a possible spot for another, but I have found that as long as my sense of discovery and adventure is alive and thriving within me, I must continue to explore.  It is at the Barkley that I may best do this.
I hope to see you fools weekend Laz,

-John Fegy   -   (representing Pennsylvania)

2015 Haiku
Unruly places
Explore Frozen Head again
Discover within

Laz, (Why I should be allowed to run the Barkley Marathons)

Sitting in my dorm room in McMurdo Station Antarctica, waiting to deploy to South Pole Station, and many Barkley thoughts have been weighing heavy on my mind. There is a place here on station dedicated to the historical explorers with many famous quotes and tales of their expeditions. Many of the quotes bring me right back to my failures at Frozen Head, particularly those from Scott’s doomed quest for the pole. I’ve replaced a few words to make the quotes more relatable...

“Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority”.

“[I] shall stick it out to the end, but [I am] getting weaker of course and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more…”

“Had we survived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions and I which would have stirred the heart of every [runner]. These rough notes and our [broken] bodies must tell the tale.”

Last year I wrote you about Unruly Places. Places that are at the geographical and metaphorical edges of our world. Places that I long to find. I say this to you now, literally 24 hours from setting foot at the south pole of our lovely world. In just one day, I will be standing atop a place, where every direction is North, farther and more remote than anywhere. I tried to explain this desire I have in me to get to these places (both physically and mentally), but couldn’t really put my finger on it. Recently, I found myself re-reading Melville’s Moby Dick and this passage explained it better than I ever could. The Barkley is my great whale, and I am tormented by it. Someone has undoubtedly made this connection before to you, but for me, I only just discovered the incredible similarities…..

"Chief among the motives, was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself (i.e. The Barkley). Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas (i.e. Frozen Head) where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, the nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail the forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it.”

This past year, I decided the fire was not in me and I gave up my spot for another runner. This was a very difficult decision, only made harder by the fact that so many others ended up dropping as well. I attended the event, watched as Jamil, Johan, John, Rob, Heather, and others inspired with their performances. I was happy for them, but I most certainly had a part of me that was empty because of it. Watching the runners head up Bird Mountain on loop 1 was hard, not being among them.

So I ask you to let me return. Let me return and go after my great white whale once again. I know slots are even more coveted/rare this year, but I will come trained and prepared to give it another honest go.

-John Fegy (now representing Vermont)

2016 Haiku:

Wicked Great White Whale
Dear God, what an awful place
Everlasting itch

I’ll leave you with this final quote:

"We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that we can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last."

-Robert Falcon Scott

Remember...nothing, is impossible

See you out on the trails everyone....
and never stop exploring.