"I ain't supposed to be here!"
Oh yes. If you've seen the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, you're probably familiar with the whimpering overweight character that the inmates bet their cigarettes will be the first to cry upon his lock-up in the prison. He wanders in with this deer in the headlights expression, and then to the chagrin of those who bet against him, breaks into a shrill sob as soon as the lights are turned off for the night and the convicts begin to taunt him. "I ain't supposed to be here!" he cries, to which several of the guards respond by hurling a grenade of colorful language followed by a fatal bludgeoning.
That was me, ladies and gentlemen. That was about the sum of my lot, and pretty much the only sensible thought playing like a broken record in my head, heaving and chugging up to the first aid station. And no, that was no typo: I said that was me heading to the first aid station. Indeed, barely 5 miles into this haul, and I already realized what a grave misjudgment I'd made in assuming I was the kind of soul designed to execute this kind of dance. Staring ahead, I could see the ant line of runners marching in single file dozens of feet above me. Switchbacks: never ending, it seemed. And the sweat? Despite the mild starting temperature in the low 60's, the entire front and back of my shirt had been entirely saturated with sweat in less than an hour.
Back up 24 hours, and I was roaring down the highway en route to the corner of the universe, it seemed, where there were only wild things and giant hills, and country music stations on the radio. It was a 9-hour journey, and I hadn't banked on getting quite so stir crazy behind the wheel; but, after about 6 hours I'd had about all of the Paul McCartney "Ram" album that I could handle (left in my car courtesy of my sister), Thom Yorke's whiny "True Love Waits"-- the only song that didn't skip on the entire CD, and so many plays of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" on various radio stations that I began to wonder if I'd missed Tennessee entirely. The first time I tuned into a station that was playing something vaguely familiar and non-country, I almost flew off the road and into the brush...and it was just Aha's "Take on Me". I swear I even hit the high notes.
I've been morbidly fascinated by the Barkley Marathons since the days of 5k's when I hadn't even run a road marathon yet, much less anything that resembled even the easiest trail ultra. Nearly a decade, I'd say, I've been spying blogs and watching amateur video clips made and made public by the race's multitude of fantastically failed failees. And, if you're not well-versed with the thing that is the Barkley Marathons, the idea is this: five loops. The distance of this loop is unknown, but rumored to be in the ballpark of 24-26 miles, ascending more than 60,000 ft in the process of completing all five, almost entirely run off trail. Off trail. That means roughing it without the gentle pull of the singularly most single track of dirt paths that could just as easily be missed in the early spring rain and snow. The kicker? No aid. Nary a makeshift tent or table with a row of bananas or neatly cut peanut butter and jelly bits. And without the luxury of a single trail marker, streamer, or flag, the unlucky winners of the secret entry process are forced to rely entirely on things like a compass and a map...Christopher Columbus style.
When the announcement was made that the Barkley name was being attached to a rag-tag kinda-sorta-50k-but-not-quite-sure race in the same Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee and included some of the Barkley favorites like Rat Jaw and Chimney Top, people climbed out of the woodwork and jumped on it like flies on honey. Why? I don't know. But, the Barkley Fall Classic filled so fast that I found myself on a waiting list for months. And, when I received an email that I was going to have the opportunity to run it, I felt like I'd hit an ultra running jackpot. I didn't actually think about the logistics involved, such as, you know, actually training for it. Granted, I've logged some pretty serious mileage when it comes to ultras (this year alone I'd finished a 100 mile, 100k, 2x50 mile, and 2x50k trail races heading into the BFC), but I haven't actually trained seriously since my taper for the Burning River 100.
One of my friends described the objectives of the Barkley Fall Classic as being: 1.) survive; and 2.) finish. Wickedly accurate, I should add, but at the point of starting, I truly had no idea what to expect. I admittedly disregarded legendary race director extraordinaire Lazarus Lake's warnings as over-hyped fear-mongering, knowing that, if so many brave bodies could make it through the unmarked harshness of the mountains in March even once, without aid stations or the other "comforts" offered in the 3:2 beer version of the event, there was no reason why at least 60-65% of those starting the watered-down fall edition ought not to be able to eke out a finish under the 13:20 cutoff. Granted, there weren't going to be the streamers, flags, and other confidence markers one typically sees every hundred yards or so in the more traditional ultra. And granted, we were going to be climbing nearly 20,000 feet over the course of over 50 kilometers. But, to finish under the cutoff, one only had to maintain roughly a 25:00/mile pace. How hard could that be?
Staring at that ant line of runners up and ahead, thighs already reeling from the relentless climb, I was aghast.
"I ain't supposed to be here!"
I could almost hear Laz reeling at the pathetic sight of me, "we've got a winner!" In other words, one of the many race casualties that he expected.
Pressing on, two things became apparent. First, this course was not going to be 50k. It probably wasn't going to be 35 miles, either. Hours passed, and I hadn't even hit the 7.6 mile aid station, and I'd managed to dash down every inch of runnable space. Clearly, the Barkley mile in the deep end had translated to the same Barkley mile in the kiddie pool. Second, a 13:20 finish wasn't going to be a stroll through Central Park, even if the mileage had been correct. I was running when it was possible, but the climbing alone was stalling me to a crawl at times.
I finally reached the first aid station just under an hour ahead of the cutoff, or at about 9:35am, 2:35 into the race. I didn't want to waste any time, but I knew that I was going to need to drink as much water as I could at the aid station just to stay ahead of dehydration, even with the capacity to carry approximately 40 oz. A volunteer filled my handheld and I drank half of it, then filled it again along with the smaller bottles that fit on my vest. After eating an entire banana, I asked how many miles there were until the next aid station. A little over 5? Doable. At least, more manageable it seemed than the 8.5-9 we'd just covered.
This was probably the most uneventful section of the entire event, with nothing particularly frightening happening aside from a pair nearly-devastating wrong turns. Luckily, I'd had the good fortune to end up with groups of people, both times, that included someone familiar enough with the area to know we needed to go right over Sonofabitch Ditch and then left where there was no marker at an intersection. It was the only time I found myself reaching for my compass-- a much needed inclusion in our goodie grab bag of lip balms, whistle, map, and water bottle. I paid little attention to the time here, knowing that even though I wasn't going to be breaking any speed records, I was moving well enough and hadn't made any major missteps that would have been costly enough to set me behind pace.
At the aid station, we were warned immediately that we'd want to load up on hydration. It was getting hot, and there were 8 miles until we'd be back. "So this is the notorious mile 22 cut off?" I asked a volunteer. After all, we'd been moving for over 13 miles. Eight and change would take us near or over 22 miles. "Oh no," a man jumped in, "that's down by the Welcome Center". Come again, sire? "This is 18 on the way back".
Only in this godforsaken place does 13+8=18.
"Okey doke", I began, trying to fathom what snakes and charms were going to be waiting for me in the sundry treasures o' Tennessee mountains ahead. "Gimme one of them 'nanners, please, and some salt". This stretch was going to be a real doozie, I sensed, and in the worst kind of way. We'd yet to traverse the famed briars, and I was fairly certain there was a lot more climbing and rocky hells to be had. Well, I rationalized, if worst came to worst, I'd at least walk away with 22 Barkley miles...and that was if I somehow lost the hour I was sitting on. With miles ending up in unknown places like piss in the wind, however, I knew it wasn't entirely out of the question that I might lose that entire hour over the course of these miles.
It started innocent enough, with the Quitter's Road jeep path taking us through some gentle rollers that were largely, at first, conducive to some decent running. My thighs were rather trashed, but not incapable of picking up the pace. My toes, on the other hand, were wrecked like nobody's business, and ended up being the biggest hindrance to faster moving. I estimate I was probably moving at about a 13-14 minute pace on the first part of this section. After crossing a road where a few pedestrians were parked and cheering, the going got tougher by the quarter mile, it seemed, until I was reeling and gasping up the last half mile stretch to the turnaround.
I knew that the downhill stretch ahead was going to rapidly evolve into something really ugly. It was without question: 'old prison trail', the sign read. Old Prison. I'd read about this somewhere, maybe in a blog, or an article. This was how the Barkley Marathons-- the real race, came about. An escapee, a desperate man, fleeing through this pass, surrendered himself in the brush less than a few miles from this old prison. Bad. With that kind of "what the fuck?" history, teemed with the few 120+ mile victors in the Bark, it didn't take long for hell to wreak the kind of havoc I'd known was coming all along.
The group assembled at what looked like a dead end was telling. People were ripping at rolls of duct tape, fastening all sorts of things to their legs: butchered bottoms of boot legged jeans, swaths of vinyl, naked tape itself. Most were donning ove gloves and other industrial handware. And, in that moment I realized that my thin leather palmed gloves and retro sport era marathon shorts were so ill-suited for what was coming that there was no point in even waiting around to delay the carnage. I charged ahead of the assembled crowd like a gladiator, without even bothering to put on the gloves. I followed the man ahead of me into an opening in a sea of thorny bushes where the term "single track" truly earned its meaning.
It was the kind of 'up' that one just can't really prepare to even comprehend, because on paper it would have just looked mind boggling and impossible. I was clawing at dirt, rocks, roots, whatever I could get my hands and feet on, squirming and climbing up. Had I known this 'up' was going to continue this way-- 1,000 ft of ascent in 1/2 mile through such a thorny hell, I don't know if I'd have been so blindly eager to charge into its midst. People were pausing at every possible spot for reprieve: in a dirty cleared spot under a bush, on a rock, even mid-step. The heat of the day was blasting an infernal veil over this spot in such a way that by the time my head emerged from the first pause in Rat Jaw paradise, the sweat was running so heavily that I was blinded and helpless for about 20 seconds, my hands too dirty and sweaty to be of any use, and my clothes so wet and salty they'd have done more harm than aid.
It wasn't over.
Here, the climb recommenced with the addition of an accessible fallen power line that was to be followed all the way to the fire tower. The saw briars continued and the heat continued to broil. Approximately 2/3 up the climb, I followed a small group of 6-8 runners who branched left into what appeared to be a less traveled area. One of the women I was following was very familiar with the area and insisted we were going the right way, even though I was incredibly skeptical. It didn't look like anyone else had gone this way all day, even though there were easily 100 people ahead of us. She kept pointing to the power line to our right, explaining that we were supposed to be following it. Several times, someone brought up that it was supposed to be to our left instead of the right. But, eventually, we heard a distant call, "Marco!" to which she called, "Polo!" Bingo. We were going the right way. Where the other 5-6 people had gone, I haven't a clue.
Climbing through this span of branches and briars was the worst. At one point, both my shorts and earring (yes: earring) were caught in the claws, and it felt like they were literally tearing at my flesh. As we made our way out and then into clear view of the fire tower, I was bleeding and down to 3 oz of water, but I'd survived Rat Jaw. I climbed the Fire Tower, had my bib marked, and was told there was just an easy half mile to the aid station. I made it there just 23 minutes ahead of the cutoff.
Thankfully, the jeep path made it possible to bank some emergency funds for the coming Chimney Top climb, and over the next 4 miles I gained another 27 minutes, rolling into Laz's lookout post with 50 minutes to spare-- the only enforced cutoff point on the entire course. My body was pretty beat up and broken down at this point, but knowing I had 50 minutes was a huge relief. I'd been hoping for 30, knowing if I could at least get through the aid station with that, I had a fighting chance of making it.
Laz hole-punched my bib and told me I had 8 miles until I got back. "all downhill", he laughed. "Is there aid in between?" I asked, wondering how much I ought to drink and fill. "5.3 miles", someone answered. I figured I probably ought to fill all 3 bottles this time. Something told me it wasn't going to be jeep paths for 5.3 miles.
If "I ain't supposed to be here" embodied my mindset halfway up Bald Knob, "I'm fucked 6 ways from Sunday", embodied what happened on the way up Chimney Top. If you've ever sat down, smack in the middle of a path, opened up your pack and started eating, you might have an idea what it was like. Or, peed in the open, beyond the point of caring who or what saw you. Or, laying in the dirt along an overlook that dropped off probably a couple thousand feet below, just trying to catch your breath. And, if a bunch of cherubs bearing grapes and honey suddenly materialized and rolled you off, so be it. Let me tell you: I did all of the above, and then some. If I could have bet on anything that day, it wouldn't have been on lottery numbers. It would have been that the hubs of Hades were up and that St.Peter and the Pearly Gates were somewhere down below. And my karmic retribution for some act or thought was apparently yee-haw heavy.
I passed people, and people passed me. But, every time I was sure I was near the end, after a hundred yards or so and a turn or two, the climbing recommenced. Worse, every time I passed someone or someone passed me, I heard the same line, "about a mile to go". After the third time, I began to wonder if I'd channeled my inner Bill Murray and was really living a real life version of the movie Groundhog Day. How many more miles were going to be the last one? Finally, reaching a leveled area dotted with a few large rocks and fallen trees, I caught a group of men who were sitting, all looking defeated and spent, discussing their next move. I had 2 oz of water left, and was hoping to hear that the aid station was coming up over the hill and down yonder. Instead, one of them said what I least expected:
"One point three miles".
I was going to die.
"We haven't even seen the worst of it".
And it was going to be painful.
I was going to run out of water. That was my immediate concern. Never mind my convulsing muscles in my left thigh, the lightheadedness that had struck a half dozen times already, or the cramping that was seizing my feet and calves. Eyeballing the last water bottle's contents, the guy sitting directly in front of me offered some of the supply from his back. It was bath water warm and had the familiar staleness of hydration pack water, but I don't think I've ever been so grateful for a mere 10 oz of water, which is what he afforded my handheld.
I made it up the steepest ascent better than I'd anticipated, before beginning the grueling descent toward an aid station I'd begun to think was an imaginary one and a cruel figment of Laz's imagination. But, just as I was ready to prepare everyone back home for the worst: I was lost and/or not going to make the cutoff, I saw a couple rangers' ATVs set up in the distance with a few jugs of water and boxes of bananas set up on a collapsible table. This was it. I only had about 3.4 miles from here to the finish line, and the folks at the aid station told me I had an hour and forty-five minutes to cover them. Even walking at a 30 minute pace, I could still scrape up a finish under the cutoff. And, even if these miles were as Barkley long as the rest, and 3.4 was really over 4 miles, it was feasible.
Unfortunately, by now my battered, jammed toes and trashed thighs had rendered me virtually incapable of anything resembling a real run, and aside from a few short breaks into a trot, I walked every step leading to Laz's lookout where the trail ended and the last 0.7 miles on the road began. I was passed by probably a dozen people, and I wish I could have found it within me to run with them, but my feet weren't going to make that possible. Daylight was fading as I found my way onto the path that I knew was going to take me to Laz. Now, like so many other times, it was no longer an issue of whether or not I was going to make it, but how long it was going to take. Casualty? No. I was heading into the home stretch.
Laz gave me a rather curious look when I speed walked into view. I knew the answer already when I asked it, but felt compelled to confirm that I had less than a mile remaining. "4 miles", he answered, the curious expression turning closer to amusement. "Do I go straight?" I asked, staring directly at one of the few giant signs with an arrow clearly pointing to the right.
Well, at least I left an impression, I imagine.
There was just enough daylight remaining that I was going to finish without needing to use my flashlight. I had 45 minutes to cover just 3/4 mile. I was walking, unfortunately, but walking fast. A group of 3 people passed me with only 1/2 mile remaining, but I just couldn't yet bring myself to run. Finally, a few yards before turning into the park where the crowd could see me, I conjured up enough of something that could pass as a quasi run and executed it all the way to the finish line.
It had taken me more than twice as long as it typically takes to finish a trail 50k, but I didn't care. I'd done it; I was done. No more Neverending Story switchbacks. No more Rat Jaws or Chimney Tops. No more Sonofabitch Ditches. I'd put this one to rest, and was bringing home something bigger than a medal and bragging rights. I'd become a stronger runner. The fact that I'd only finished ahead of 15 other runners didn't matter. Those were 15 brave people who had the guts to start and the stamina to finish. One third of those who'd started the race, roughly the same percentage one would expect to see do the same in a 100 mile race-- 3x the distance, did not finish. And, the average finish time was 11.5 hours. We covered approximately 35 miles, and climbed more than 19,000 ft in the process, including a staggeringly slow ascent through the dirt and thorns. Crossing the finish line was a testament to sheer will power.
There are things you just don't learn doing intervals and tempo runs, things you don't discover during a half ran, half walked long run on the easy bridle trails or well-groomed Buckeye. I think there are things you learn that come from facing the unknown, and accepting that failure truly is not an option. You can have it or be had; you can beat it or it can beat your ass. The Barkley isn't about time, in any of its forms. It's about using your resources and making the right choices, and moving ahead. You can run a fast 50k somewhere else, any time. But Barkley miles? They're another animal entirely. And you have to play their game. That is how you come out vertical on the other side.