"Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness"
Every race has a defining moment-- that instant when a singular piece of the puzzle is inserted and the entire picture is suddenly made clear. Sometimes it doesn't happen until the very end. Sometimes it's a surge that cannot be met by competitors. Sometimes it's when you fall, 10 feet out of the starting corral, and bloody both knees. At last year's Barkley Marathons, that realization came when I missed the turn-off down Jaque Maite hill and found myself alone and unsure of even which galaxy I was roaming. That moment haunted me for a year; it was when I knew my race was over.
The rawness of the Barkley and its intimacy have drawn me to the event since I read about it a decade ago. It encompassed all the things I loved about the sport and excluded all the bullshit I hated, with the added bonus of a certain amount of mystique and exclusiveness that actually prevented me from taking it serious for several years. After all, if only a few dozen runners were granted entry each year and the entry process was shrouded in secrecy, how might I ever gain access?
Following Hiram Rogers up Hillpocalypse after nailing the second book head-on, two things became apparent: 1. I couldn't feasibly go any faster if I had any hope of surviving the next 15 miles; and 2. I had to go faster if I had any hope of making the cutoff. Reality hit hard: if anyone could pace this course to a 12-13 hour loop, it was Hiram. And, while I was able to gain ground during the descents, I was falling further behind with every ascent. By the time I got to the high wall, I felt like I was going to shit my pants and have a seizure, and Hiram was barely a dot in the stratosphere up above. Joel Gat slowly plowed past me, and then John Kelly-- clearly having been lost-- scurried by. And, then? And then it was just me. This was that defining moment. Though, I had no idea just how defining it was, and what kind of party favors were waiting to pop out of the can at me further down the road.
I'd superstitiously wanted to keep my entry status a secret from Day I, and was rather distraught when posts began to sprout like dandelions all over my facebook wall within minutes of the much-anticipated "Weight List" being published for the Barkley email listserv. The jinx jumped out as a thing of legend and evolved into a very real entity with the passing weeks, and with every mention of The Race, I became more concerned that people were going to build a very unrealistic expectation for me-- especially with the ill-timed release of the documentary that prompted droves of people to proudly proclaim, "pshhh I'm gonna do THAT", as if it were a hop-skip over a ditch and a trotted block to the candy store. At some point I realized how ludicrous the entire process had become; I was revering the name "Barkley" publicly like it was Voldemort, or one of those Bloody Mary-Freddy Crougar double dog dares from childhood (during which we'd lock ourselves in the bathroom, turn off the lights, and say the name 3x in hopes that we'd turn on the lights to face some sort of monstrous entity). Saying "I'm running Barkley" had almost become synonymous with a wish for imminent death-- or at least something really awful, and I half expected to wake up bald and bloodshot with my fingernails missing for having done it.
Compared to last year, I felt much better prepared. I'd obsessed over the park map, and carrying all the right gear. I'd had my sister drop me off several times at 8pm to run alone overnight for 12+ hours in sub-freezing conditions, and I spent hours at a time climbing on the treadmill with the incline maxed. In the fall, prior to submitting my request for entry, I'd pushed myself through a gamut of races that included the Barkley Fall Classic-- a 50k race through the same Frozen Head State Park that included an estimated 15,000ft of ascent and incorporated some of the beloved Barkley features; a 50k with 5,500ft of ascent in Chillicothe, OH, a 100k with 11,000ft of ascent at Oil Creek park in Titusville, PA; a trail marathon in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park; and finally a 100 mile rail trail race in Vienna, IL-- which finally allowed me to beat the coveted 24 hour mark, something I'd wanted for years. Having completed all of these events within an 8-week window, and having done well, served as a tremendous boost in confidence; and with the completion of two more 6-hour trail 50k races in mid-February and March, I was convinced I should be able to eke out my first Barkley loop in the ballpark of 11:30-12:00.
The Barkley Marathons, a 100 mile, five-looped, trail/mountain race with 130,000ft of total elevation change, was an hour from starting when Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake, or "Laz") blew the conch shell at 9:43am on Saturday, April 2nd. Last minute preparations and photo-ops whittled that hour down to minutes, and before I could get caught up in the anxiety of the pre-race hubbub, I was bringing up the bottom 1/3 of the pack, comfortably following Hiram Rogers and Kirby Russell up Bird Mountain. Following closely behind were Karen Jackson, Brad Compton, Finnish runner Mariana Zaidova, and Starchy Grant; blind runner Ronda Avery and her guide were following below us a couple switchbacks. Having climbed these switchbacks a number of times, I was mildly concerned about how far behind the rest of the runners we were given what I felt was a realistic pace, but still confident that I knew the course well enough that it wouldn't be problematic. After all, there were a number of previous finishers, Fun Run (3-loop) finishers, and elite runners in this year's race; and I knew heading into the event that I was considerably slower than most of the field. We made the turn-off toward England Mountain, crossed the Pillars of Doom, and finally began the descents through Hiram's Gambit and Fangorn Forest. The first book passed without a hitch, and then I hit the descent toward the park boundary-- a less pretty line than last year, although it went much quicker and with much less confusion. Heading up the marked trail toward Jury Ridge, I knew I was going to have to employ a different tactic if I wanted to keep pace with the runners immediately in front of me. Up to that point, I'd considered myself an excellent climber, but these men were putting me to shame. At Jury Ridge, I felt really good for about 10 seconds before I became entangled in a terrific mess of saw briers, one of them slicing deep enough to leave a clear stream of blood snaking its way down my shin. I began using my trekking poles like the Sword of Truth, slashing and swinging at anything that came within a foot of my body, although half the time the things I swung and sweeped only snapped back and clawed at me from another direction. It was a maddening chaos that ended directly at the Raider creek confluence and book 2; though, bloody legged and filthy and sweating profusely, I was astonished that my race was progressing so well.
My trekking pole slipped on the wet, clay-like earth that was shoulder-level, and sent a huge chunk cascading below. I couldn't have picked a worse spot to try to get over the highwall. My water bottle was struck next and somehow jumped ship and went tumbling down. I looked up: Hiram was disappearing above with Jim Ball and Kirby Russell. I sighed and took a drink of Gatorade. Nobody was coming behind me, which meant the rest of the group must have had trouble finding the second book. This climb was harder than I'd remembered it being, and by the time I got to the top, I was relieved to be heading onto a runnable marked trail. For some reason I became convinced that I was at Bald Knob and that the rocks in front of me were the remnants of the capstones, and I spent an outrageous amount of time wandering around here looking for the third book. Finally, after about an hour, I decided this effort was going to be fruitless, and began to make my way back down the trail on the switchbacks. Not far down, I took a bearing and realized, around the same time that two hikers approached from the opposite direction, that I was heading in the wrong direction. It was embarrassing and I swore profusely at the error. Who the hell just starts aimlessly running without bothering to see where they're going-- especially when heading left of the north boundary markers? Left of north is west, and I was supposed to be heading east. This was a gem of idiocy that was clearly in a league of its own. Now, I was not only too slow to keep up, but I'd wasted more than an hour rooting around for a book in the wrong area before heading down the mountain in the wrong direction. It was looking like a 15-16 hour loop day.
I climbed back to the top and then began to make my way down and then up in the opposite direction. Choosing to wear two long-sleeved shirts had seemed like a good idea in the morning, but now I was hot. I sat down on a rock next to a small stream trickling down the mountain and pulled out a pack of Honey Stinger chews. The contents from my first bottle were empty, and the second bottle was half empty. The water here looked clean, and I was thirsty, so I filled the bottle and added a purification tab, sucked down a Hammer gel, then another, and finally half of the contents of the Gatorade-filled bottle. With a little luck, I should reach the top of this next ascent in time for the water I'd just filled to be drinkable. Just as I was preparing to stand up, I heard voices. Close to Bald Knob, it reminded me so much of last year that I actually laughed maniacally as I leaped to my feet. "People!" I screamed, as though I'd been lost for more than just a couple hours. How in the dickens had this awful situation managed to repeat itself so perfectly? Clearly I was not, in fact, the last person trolling the mountains, destined for a disastrously slow loop alone. But, it wasn't looking pretty. A quick count indicated there were four: Karen, Brad, Patrick Doring, and a guy I'd met the night before named Ben. So, this was it: let the Canterbury Tales begin, right?
Not far behind this group was a pair of international runners: one French, the other the Finnish human sacrifice. Our quintet had become a septet, and we were slowly moving forward. I wasn't worried about Ronda, who was hiking with a guide, but what had become of Starchy was uncertain. He'd not passed me, and I hadn't gone off-course. It wasn't possible for him to have reached book 2 faster than I had; we'd chosen a perfect line and had descended directly at the confluence. So, he must be behind, although it was almost inconceivable that anyone could be behind us at this point. The pace was staggeringly slow, but I didn't think it was necessarily a good idea to just charge ahead. By the time we got to book 4 at the Garden Spot, we'd had to stop a half dozen times to wait for the French runner to catch up. I remember thinking that at this pace I'd have missed the marathon cutoff at BFC by a landslide. It had taken 7 hours to reach the water jugs, and daylight would be fading over the next couple hours. I tried to console myself with the thought that the last few segments were relatively straightforward, and if I could just survive Stallion without losing a limb, I might still be able to make it back to camp in 17-18 hours. Sure, it was embarrassingly slow, but it had been done before.
Large groups at Barkley are a terrible idea. The more minds and bodies, the wider the gap in ability and the more potential for variation in opinion; and it became abundantly clear that we were not all on the same page heading out onto Stallion Mountain. We passed the dirt pile on the road without realizing what it was, and just kept up heading out until we were at a clearing that was impassable in three out of four directions-- impassable by human standards rather than Barkley standards, at least without proper rock climbing equipment or maybe hazmat suits. This was obviously the wrong place. A compass bearing indicated we weren't even heading in the right direction, even if we'd managed to conjure a magic carpet to fly us over the deathly drop-off. The foreign runners were convinced they'd found the turn-off to Quitter's Road, and insisted we follow it just to make sure. When the rest of the group refused to go with them, they left us and disappeared around the bend. I never heard from or saw them again, though I hear they spent the night further down the road under a space blanket before heading back to camp. After backtracking to the water jugs, the five of us again made our way out and then south, once again reaching the same crossroad. Frustration was building, and dusk was falling. Headlamps were making their way out at the same time as jackets were being zipped. Minutes turned into hours, and finally, Karen and Ben decided they'd had enough. With Patrick, they headed back toward the park boundary, our group of five whittling down to two. We were now 10 hours into the race, and stil hadn't found the descent toward Barley Mouth, the Buttslide, and book 5. It would take Jared Campbell and Gary Robbins and another hour before we'd finally see Bobcat rock, the water, and Starchy Grant.
"This can't be right", I told Brad, climbing to the top of an embankment that had dangerously inadequate footing.
"That road didn't go anywhere", Brad said, referring to the road that ran past Bobcat rock. "It didn't start sharply downhill. It can't be the right one".
I was staring out into the night when a light caught my eye. "There's somebody up there."
"Up here!" the voice belonging to the lighted figure yelled. It was Starchy. He explained that he'd spent 6 hours looking for book 2, and we explained we'd spent 5 hours looking for the turn off toward Barley Mouth, and together we decided we were going to finish this thing no matter how long it took. Interestingly, it never occurred to me how incredible it was that someone else was on loop 1 in the same place at the same time more than 12 hours into the race; and, it never occurred to me how incredible it was that at this point nobody who'd come into camp was a partial looper. I didn't know, officially, but suspected it, having seen every single person in the bottom 1/4 of the starting field and knowing most of them had been clogged at the Garden Spot with us.
We easily spotted the Buttslide trail and began the descent toward book 5, and with a bit of elbow grease, grunt, dirt, help from John Kelly, and the lucky shining of my headlamp directly onto it, located the orange park boundary stake and the book. This probably could have been an opportune time to make a joke about there only being eight books left, but we just rather obligingly began the slow climb back up the Buttslide and across the road to Bobcat rock. The climb to the top took much longer than I expected (a repeating theme), and once there it wasn't terribly long before we were standing in front of a rather surreal sight: a round body of water and what looked like the back seat of an old van, overlooking the world below. If it weren't for the presence of these things in the woods back home, I'd have probably been even more astounded or perplexed-- even though I knew they were there. But, there are a number of bathtubs in the CVNP that I've posed in doing all sorts of cute and inappropriate things over the years. Finding a couch at the top of a mountain is almost blase when you've pretended to cook a Thanksgiving turkey in a bombed out old stove in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, a little way past this, it was apparent we were on somewhat of a trail, and within minutes I'd spotted the rock-filled borehole on a large sheet of rock that sat between knee and waist level. "Book 6!" I yelled. At least there'd been less than an hour between these books.
Time changes. I'd venture to say it really can speed up or slow down, or even cease to exist at times, if it weren't for the scientific proof against this claim. But, it certainly changes form to the brain sometimes. I think urgency pushes us into hasty decisions: quit when we've still got a few minutes; or, give up when it looks like it might not be possible to complete a task within a set period of time. But, when you're the Turtle in the game of the Barkley rat race, time no longer matters at all. I wasn't even wearing a watch, and I don't recall any of us compulsively flicking our wrists to catch a glimpse of the numbers on the display. The objective here was to collect our pages. Time was no longer of essence at all. Only finishing the loop mattered.
From here, it seemed we descended into the grips of Hell for a long time. It was freezing cold, and the numbers suggested by my compass indicated nothing short of a gamut of death traps. There were highwalls, brier-covered wooded patches, impossibly steep pitches. The first of many hangry, ugly grumbles erupted when Brad accidentally kicked a very large rock over Starchy's shoulder on a drop down to more level footing, narrowly missing his head. "Wait until I'm at the bottom!" With the two at the bottom, I came tumbling-- literally, immediately after, my poles ending up in the next dimension, scrapes and cuts covering my fingers where I'd been clawing at rocks in futility, trying to prevent the disaster. I don't know if it was here or at another messy tumble when I screamed "I'm tired of falling!" at a volume fit for Zeus, but I was certainly thinking it. From here, it was just a matter of getting to the river, crossing the river, and getting to the highway. Easy enough, right?
"That's Andrew Thompson. He must know where he's going."
What felt like, and likely could've been, hundreds of feet up what we later found out was called 'Little Hell', it occurred to me that this-- this just couldn't be right. Where AT was going-- anyone's guess was as good as mine. But, I'd never seen anything like this in the course description, and I'd seen where the highway overlooked the river. It was nothing like this miserable place. "We need to go back down; the highway is not up here."
"I hope he knew where he was going. It doesn't look like he's coming back", one of the men said.
"This isn't where we're supposed to be."
"You think we should go back down?" Brad asked.
"Yes", I answered. "This is wrong."
Looking down the steep descent, I was beyond the point of cursing missteps and mishaps; and I'd lost count of the number of times my legs had been wasted on a climb that wasn't a part of the course. It hadn't even occurred to me to be mad. And, anyway, there was no point in being mad even if my mind did manage to worm its way out of these Finish or Die shackles; it would have been a long time before we'd approach a jeep road that headed back to camp, and by then we'd have committed so much time to the full loop endeavor that stopping early would be even more ridiculous than following through with what we'd started. In short, quitting simply didn't my mind; and, I don't think it crossed Brad or Starchy's minds either. We were committed. It was just a matter of getting it done.
It took another hour, steep climb, and a quarter mile hike down the road before we reached the Armes Gap pull-off, but once there I was at least able to relax momentarily in the comfort of being in a familiar place. I knew the footing to the top of the ridgeline, and from there the old Testicle Spectacle was within view. I could tell by the sky that daybreak would be coming within an hour or two when we began the ascent with earnest up what was one of my least favorite segments of the entire course. There seemed to be many people here at the same time as us: Jason Poole and Ty Draney, a pair of international runners whose accents I couldn't quite place, voices to whom I couldn't connect a face or name. We found the 7th book after a short tree scouring mission and a lot of scrambles through the brambles. I made a silent note that there didn't seem to be one square inch of skin on my exposed legs that wasn't bleeding. We continued the ascent and the mountain spit us out near the place where the Testicle Spectacle meets the road: more familiar ground. From here we just needed to negotiate our way to the stream, and then follow it to Raw Dog Falls and the climbing wall.
The first part of this section is admittedly a blur for me. I know daylight opened the sky like the curtain on a stage, but the usual hope that comes with that light was, interestingly, not present. I think, in retrospect, that the kind of brain power required to stay on task in Frozen Head cured me of any anxiety I harbored toward night mountain running, and sunrise was, then, just that: sunrise. And, it came without mention, without marvel. Hope only exists with the possibility of failure. And, in that moment, failure simply didn't have a seat at the table; it didn't exist. We followed the sound of the water until we'd reached a steep pitch covered with leaves that ended just downstream from Raw Dog Falls. While the men climbed and scrambled down, I slid down on my butt. It was one of the single most painful lessons I've ever had in the art of laziness: a large splinter of wood approximately four inches long and a quarter inch thick became lodged in my left leg. If there was any single moment of desperation in my entire 2016 Barkley Marathons experience, it was here. I dropped my trekking poles and just started bawling, very very loudly. I couldn't pull the stick out of my leg, it was bleeding, and it fucking hurt-- really bad. It must've taken Starchy a solid 10 seconds to even realize anything was wrong, and Brad even longer; or, perhaps we'd become so oblivious to the tedius bellyaching about sticks and thorns and kicked rocks that my lamentation poured over them like sunshine or rain. Perhaps we'd just learned to effectively filter useful utterances from the non-useful? Anyway, removing the stick required a lot more effort than I think either of us anticipated, and led to even more blood and crying, and Starchy holding my hand and profusely apologizing. And then, just like the end of an act in a play, we simply recommenced our pilgrimage to the yellow gate as though nothing had happened, crossing at the falls and then climbing the steep pitch to the road. The mountains don't have sympathy. Nature doesn't have sympathy. We collected our pages from book 8 in the rusty barrel at the foot of Garbage Valley, and then silently climbed to the road, and stared ahead at Pighead Creek.
The sun was shining. It was gearing up to be a beautiful day, I thought, as we began the long, long climb up to the prison road trail. What better way to bring this Odyssey to a close than sunshine and the satisfaction of having fulfilled a promise? Halfway to the top, we ran into Jennilynn Eaton who was trying hard to finish her loop fast enough to make the loop 2 cutoff. "I'm only going to have a few minutes", she told us. My stomach was growling as we neared the crest where the road branched. Up to this point, I hadn't thought much about food. Now, more than 22 hours into the race, I was suddenly faced with the reality that it was getting hot, we still had 1/3 of the distance to cover, and my food supply had dwindled down to scraps. With the exception of a gel and a Cliff Shot Block or two, I was going to run out completely at the Firetower. As we rounded the corner and the long, ugly wide cut flanking the power lines came into view, Starchy whooped and charged ahead. "I've been looking forward to this for years!" he shouted. I sighed, groaned, and plowed up and ahead with considerably less gusto. I'd been here before, twice, and I knew it wasn't a picnic-- especially with the sun beating down and mats of cut saw briers to negotiate. At the top, I ripped the Braille page from book 9 and flung off my pack and dug into it like I was diving into a Chinese buffet. Maple almond butter. Ensure. There was fat, calories, and the realization that from here the course wasn't going to be overly tricky-- just two more grueling climbs and two more descents, something we'd been doing already for nearly 24 hours. I popped two Shot Blocks and a gel into a side pocket, readjusted my pack, and prepared for the climb down to the prison. I had just consumed 400 calories, 2,100 for the loop, and I had 300 to get me to the finish. It was going to be a hungry, hot, tiring challenge, but for the first time my mind was beginning to wrap itself around the idea of this journey coming to a close.
Coming down Rat Jaw, I passed Jared Campbell and Gary Robbins for the second time. Despite being in a great deal of pain at this point, I couldn't help but laugh. What were these guys thinking, lapping this motley trio for a second time? It amused me probably more than it should've, and I must've smiled the biggest, goofiest smile as Gary congratulated me for not giving up. What else do you do? We're all making our way. Some were just doing it a hell of a lot faster. After collecting our 10th book pages at the prison, we looked up and past the water towers. So, this was it: the climb called The Bad Thing, an ascent that could be, according to course instructions, "disastrously time consuming" if not nailed at the correct capstone. For whatever reason, I'd never really sweated this segment, and I think the confidence paid off. Though my right leg was becoming increasingly difficult to maneuver with the inflamed ligament, and though we didn't end up directly in front of the Eye of the Needle at the top, the quest to find book 11 wasn't nearly as time-consuming as I suspect it could've been, or as time consuming as other books had proven to be.
Coming down the Zipline, on the other hand, was an odyssey of its own. Horrible-- it was just horrible; there's no other word I can grasp that accurately describes the confusion, debate, and utter inability to make heads or tails of what we were doing that ensued here. It was hot--probably at least 65-70 degrees and 2:00pm when we reached what we believed was the creek confluence. By this point, I'd completely forgotten everything Stu Gleman had told me about the "Christmas trees" that flanked the beech tree at the bottom of the mountain. Instead, we began a very time-consuming, futile search and rescue mission up and down the land running parallel to the creeks that only ended when we ran into Dale Holdaway who indicated the beech tree was further ahead. At the tree (and book 12), I discovered that in addition to my course map (long gone at this point), I'd dropped my last gel and two Shot Blocks somewhere between the Firetower and Neverland, meaning I had absolutely nothing left to eat. Brad offered me a Cliff bar-- much appreciated calories, and Starchy filled his water bottle at the creek. One climb; we had one more climb, and then we could finally begin the trip back to camp.
I'm sure we were making conversation-- when I didn't feel like my lungs were going to leap out of my body and onto the trail, but I don't recall what words we exchanged. The climb to the Chimney Top capstones, also known as Big Hell, was excruciating for my protesting ligament, but finally ended with the discovery of book 13: The Undead and Unfinished. I don't think any title could've been more appropriate. The break here was brief: we waited for Brad to catch up at the top, and then almost immediately began the ascent down. For the first time in the 18-20 hours the three of us had spent together (and more than 30 hours since the start of the race), there was a sense of urgency, and for the first time we also began to wonder out loud what the rest of the world must be thinking of the three lost souls and their lost weekend in the mountains of Frozen Head State Park. As if it made any difference whether or not I had them, I must have patted the pocket of my pack that contained my 13 book pages at least a half dozen times to make sure they were still there. There was something about proving to myself, even if the world didn't care, that I'd completed the mission, and having those pages was paramount. The ascent from Rough Ridge to the walking trail was frustratingly long, and the euphoria and adreniline that built during our trek along it grew to an almost unimaginable height.
We turned and started a walk that built momentum and speed with every step until we were jogging, hand in hand, along the driveway through camp. This was it: the big moment of reckoning. The wave of emotion that came pouring in was almost too overwhelming to even process. I was hungry, tired, overjoyed, satisfied and disappointed simultaneously, and before I knew what was happening-- our hands came down on the yellow gate in unison. It was over. We'd finished the longest loop in Barkley's 30+ year history:
It really was over. Over: I could've repeated this like a mantra, with a cheeseburger and enough whiskey to tranquilize a bear in hand, and a hot Greek man fanning my poor ghastly body and soul to sleep. We'd done it. It was OVER.
My mission at Barkley this year, ultimately, was to finish any loop I started. I think you've got to be willing to do that, and you've got to have a tangible goal in mind upon which you're able to measure success. Ultimately, our failure was, by Barkley standards, one of the most spectacular in race history. I own that, and I'm not ashamed. To someone unfamiliar with the Barkley, it's probably hard to find any success in what unfolded during those 32 hours. But, to those who have been faced with those mountains, I don't think it's so hard to see at all. You just have to keep moving, keep fighting, and refuse to entertain even the whisper of doubt. As long as you've got a compass, water, warmth, and the will to keep pushing onward and upward, the creature comforts waiting on the other side of that yellow gate will embrace you in due time.