I was fit to fry already. My adventure began with a malfunctioning tent, forgotten sleeping bag, and parking mishap that resulted in my car needing to be towed an impressive four feet. I was already on pace to end up in another state mid-race when I learned the news Friday afternoon. You'd think it would have come as a relief. I mean, when expectations bottom out, there's really no place to go but somewhere else, even if that somewhere else is a buttslide lickedy split through a gambit of briers, sticks, and past bewildered squirrels and birds. I'd seen a program on the National Geographic channel years ago about the Mayans leading poor young girls, primed for a glorious death, to the top of a volcano where they'd be left to be struck by lightning as an offering for the gods. I'm sure the townspeople, spared the rod of lightning bolts, told those girls their role as a human sacrifice was an honor, too. But, truthfully, I hadn't expected to be bestowed with such an honor as being holed up on a mountain until either the wild hogs staged a fantastic attack, flanking from all sides, or I ended up in another zip code. I was the Human Sacrifice this year at the Barkley Marathons. Me.
If you want to see how fast you can run 100 miles, you run Umstead; and, if you want to prove how tough and durable you are, you run Hardrock. If you want to find out when the bell tolls-- if you want to know just how much you're capable of withstanding, where to draw that perimeter around your mental and physical limits, you run the Barkley. It's a place, a thing, guaranteed to expose layers of yourself that, alone on a ridge, balancing your body and brain, you did not know existed.
Knowing someone who's seen the ship sail, or the bad things happen, if you will, is the first step to getting into the race. After all, it's well known that the entry process is guarded like the Bush's Baked Beans secret recipe. Then, of course, you have to trust that your friend isn't selling you a load fit to make you look like an idiot, cause, you know, I've heard that sort of thing happens. I didn't spend a great deal of time composing a witty little ditty, complete with sheet music for the banjo, nor did I bribe, beg, or make outrageous promises. I set my alarm for three minutes before the entry time, and scraped up two or three very sincere sentences. In fact, I was so tired and disoriented when I sent the letter that I wasn't even sure if I'd put it together in intelligible English. I had to go back and read it twice. Then, I had to wait. For days. Race director Gary Cantrell, better known to potential Barkers as Lazarus Lake, actually threw me off completely by asking those who'd gotten in to "out" themselves days before he'd sent out the condolence letters.
But, my letter of condolence came, and I accepted the challenge. I mean, I'd been stalking this thing like a creepy voyeur for years, so I knew the back story and some of the many successes and phenomenal blunders-- people spending 30+ hours on the course only to come back with one book page, buddying up on Rough Ridge under a space blanket for the night, things like that. I knew that Barkley miles were like miles on another planet, and that 60 hours to cover the course had only proved possible for 14 men. Some of the best trail runners, male and female, legends-- super stars, had come to be humbled by the challenge the Barkley presented in its unique setup. In its five 20-mile loops, runners climb more than 65,000 feet, and spend a great deal of those miles bushwacking, buttsliding, climbing pitches that ascend 1,000 feet in a mere half mile, and doing a lot of off trail running. The pages that had to be retrieved from 12 books stashed in hollowed trees and under rocks, weren't found by following streamers and pie plates; runners had to navigate the course via compass and map. I knew all of this.
I also knew I was fat and had slumped into the worst training of my non-pregnant adult life, after a masked man broke into my house, waiting for me to come home from work in November to do any number of unspeakable horrors. After 17 years of competitive running, it had become a major accomplishment to convince me to jog more than 50 feet on the road without wielding a hammer or an open box cutter like Michonne from the Walking Dead. But, my Rocky Balboa bravado at getting in was soon met with Ivan Drago gym sessions that topped out the incline on the treadmill, and weekend excursions to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to run trails and hill repeats, with and without a tire trailing me on a rope. By the first of March, I'd done as much as I was going to do, and two weeks before the Barkley, I won the women's division of the Buzzard 100k trail race on account of everyone else dropping out, thanks to freezing rain, ice, mud, and the misery that would accompany 62 miles of that. I rationalized that this was the best approach I could take, and that sometimes it isn't enough to just be fast; sometimes the winner is the one willing to withstand the most blows-- physical and mental.
The morning of the Barkley was ablaze with antsy runners and a lot more media people than I was accustomed to seeing at trail events. A French reporter interviewed me, and I told him I hoped to finish two loops and get out on the third. A "Fun Run" (60 Barkley miles) would be an impressive accomplishment, but I was really just there to see why this race had earned the reputation it had. I'd run 100 miles, I'd won races, I'd seen parts of this course before. That wasn't why I was here. I wanted to find out just how much I could take, and test my own tenacity. I wanted to find myself out there. I wanted the adventure. At a quarter to 10, people had begun to make their way to the yellow gate, like spectators coming to enjoy an afternoon picnic at a public execution. The conch sounded at 10:22, and before I knew it, the hour had pegged me mid-pack following Jodi Isenor and Nicki Rehn up the first series of switchbacks, Jamil Coury and Chris Gkikas nipping at my heels.
Nope, not a typo: I said Jamil Coury. I'd been so fucking stupid, I'd ended up ahead of one of the best trail runners in the world. Granted, Frozen Ed was also trailing me so closely we were making occasional conversation, but it wasn't until we'd turned west onto the Cumberland trail that Jamil finally scampered past me, heading over the Pillars of Death toward the turn off leading to the descent down Hiram's Gambit. I'd kept the others close enough that even though I was descending slower, they weren't totally out of sight, although after a jaunt through Fangorn Forest which is beautiful in a scary kind of way, I still had to locate Book 1 on my own. Unfortunately, after ripping my page, I made the ill fated decision to adjust my pack, and when I looked up, the others had shed me like a diseased layer of skin.
I set out around the mining bench toward the easter part of the mountain and then headed down Checkmate hill. Alone. I was running without caution, and so fast that it took me about 3 minutes to realize that absolutely nobody was anywhere near me. No voices, no movement, and worse-- no fresh footsteps to track. Clearly, I'd made a mistake. A quick compass bearing indicated I was heading south, and I figured that even if I dropped too far south, I could make my way over at the bottom of the spur where the ground leveled out. This proved much easier said than done. Rather than wait, I kept trying to head north through the brambles and over the rocks and trees until it seemed so Herculean and ridiculous, that I decided I'd be better off just heading back up and trying again further north. I probably fell 19 times climbing back up Checkmate, and felt like such a seasoned fool at the top (still nobody in sight; I'd clearly made a huge miscalculation) that I began running as fast as before so far north that I hit the impassable rock cliffs. "What the hell?" I thought, and after heading just a bit further back south, dipped back down. This time, however, I was smart about it, knowing that if I was north and headed southeast down the hill, eventually I was going to run into the creek. It was impossible to miss it. And, by the time I finally reached the boundary marker on the Northwest corner, I think I did the cha-cha and sang Hallelujah, doing all the parts in the choir along the way. Sure, I'd probably blown the better part of an hour on a reasonably easy section of route-finding, but I'd gotten to the book, and I was now well on my way to the second.
I moved deliberately slow up the switchbacks on the ascent to Jury Ridge to make sure I didn't miss anything, and made the turn off at precisely the right spot, following a creek all the way down to the first confluence. I knew this was not the correct one, but checked for the large stone anyway, moving painfully slow on purpose, remembering the story of Matt Mahoney's 8 hour search and book rescue attempt that resulted in utter failure. It was obvious to me that this was the place he'd spent all those hours searching. I continued further north until the flowing water picked up momentum and the sound of a second creek came into earshot. As they neared to the merging point, I made my way to the space between them, until I was all but standing in the water. "This is just a fucking gas", I lamented, "you've got to be kidding me". I'd done everything right, and it wasn't there. I squeezed my eyes shut, wondering if this was going to be the beginning of an epic disaster, and reached for the plastic bag containing my map and compass. Just then, when I ripped open the ziplock bag and reached for the map, something caught my eye: the book! I was literally straddling Book 2! I whooped and hollered with gusto and immediately sprang back into action after retrieving my page. I might be alone doing it, but I was doing it, whatever "it" was.
This is where my Barkley experience got real and got really personal, really fast. I began heading southeast toward the Bald Knob switchbacks, but couldn't make heads or tails of whether or not I was on the right ridge. I suspected I was too far west, I spent so much time climbing and scaling over on this section that it felt like I was an Ibex licking salt off some death cliff. One misstep and I was going to have a real story to tell if I made it back to camp before the vultures got to me. It was at a really vulnerable moment, left foot balancing on a rock and right foot planted on a large root, staring up and to the right at the horizon that everything Stu Gleman had told me about creating 3d models came together, and I was suddenly seeing the landscape come alive like the points on a grid, and I came alive with it. Up to that point, I was memorizing directions and listening for streams and looking for signs, but my conception of space was limited to myself passively studying at a trajectory drawn on a topographic map that had been a legend of obstacles rather than a place of which I was very much a part.
In that moment, I suddenly became afraid. Why? I don't know. Maybe it was because it was easier to be a passive part of the experience, looking for someone to follow, trying to find objects that aligned with the words on a piece of paper. But, I found myself standing on a switchback looking at the sky, knowing without a watch that it was about 4:00, and I was probably not going to make the 13:20 cutoff. Terror. It was going to get dark before I even got to the prison at this rate. At the top of the switchbacks where the trail starts heading back down, there I was, suddenly struck with a sense of both urgency and uncertainty. Wasn't I supposed to be crossing a coal road? Why more switchbacks?
I was completely and utterly confused.
I sat down where I was and opened my pack. Pancakes and bacon sounded really good right now, and cold water, too. I looked first at my map, and then took a compass bearing. Supposedly this was, in fact, the right way. But, these switchbacks seemed to descend into the next dimension. I plotted myself on my 3d grid of the mountain on the northwest side, which also seemed wrong. Shouldn't I be further east? I put away my pancakes, water, and compass, refastened my pack, and started heading back down the way I'd come. Was I even on the right damn mountain? I mean, this thought seriously began to creep into my head. Granted, I was still seeing the orange blazes I'd seen on the way to Jury Ridge, but I was also seeing the same white blazes I'd seen on the Cumberland heading west on England mountain. It was not possible I'd teleported back there, but the white blazes had really thrown me off. At a trail intersection, I pulled out my map again.
"Are you a runner?" came a voice further down the mountain. "Yes! I'm lost", I said, explaining I'd come down the switchbacks and had no idea where I was supposed to be. "You're going the wrong way; you're supposed to be going up the switchbacks".
Well, there was another hour in the landfill of lost time. I'd found Julie Pierce and David Hughes, two people who'd previously completed loops at the Barkley. After confirming we were all on our way to Book 3 at the Garden Spot, we slowly began climbing back up and down the switchbacks on Bald Knob, crossing Son of a Bitch Ditch and then taking in the view of the Coal Ponds. David made it clear he was taking Quitters Road at the Coffin Springs, but Julie said she'd reassess once we reached the Garden Spot. Daylight was waning; I'd wasted too much time sitting and backtracking, and I really didn't want to be faced with Stallion Mountain at night. I was really hoping Julie would be willing to go a few more miles until we reached Rat Jaw. I knew the way from there with confidence, and she could take Quitters Road a short stretch past the Fire Tower back to camp if she didn't want to continue.
But, after taking our pages from the book at the Garden Spot, she apologized for not being able to continue and said she'd be going back to camp with David. Between her knee hurting, and her kids waiting to see her, she didn't want to be out all night on a loop that clearly, at this point, wasn't going to be completed in any reasonable amount of time. So, I was at a crossroad. It was cold, about 30F and dropping, and nearly 7:00pm. I'd be alone on Stallion. In the dark. With wild hogs. And ghosts. And the four horsemen of Hell. Probably devils with pitchforks, too.
I have never quit a race in which I hadn't reached the pits of utter anguish and despair, whether I'm sick, injured, or hallucinating and falling asleep so badly that further progress is not feasible. If I drop, I'm suffering.
The trip on Quitters Road was the most heartbreaking trip of my life. I could run. I could climb. I could eat. I could still feel my toes. I had no blisters. I was peeing. I was laughing. I had no reason NOT to continue except my fear of being alone on that mountain at night, and the navigational errors that could potentially put me in a really bad place. People make choices when they're cold and scared that make or break their race, and I broke mine. I was tapped out around 9pm after a 6 mile hike back to camp on a jeep road, and fell into an internal debate that has haunted me since I chose to turn right at that Coffin Springs sign: I made the right choice. But, I could have continued and finished my loop, even though it probably would have taken me 15 hours to complete it.
I watched amazing things happen after I got done. I watched as one by one, some of the most tough and talented runners I've ever met were bugled out of the most difficult trail race in the world. They doubtlessly found themselves on those mountains the same way as I had, feeling more alive and aware than they've ever felt at any other point in their lives. The Barkley isn't about winning or losing. It is about finding out where that bell tolls, where your limits really lie. It's about meeting yourself out there on a trail or at a stream, and not being afraid of what you see, hear, or feel. I hope that next year I have the honor and privilege to be a part of such a special event again. If not, I will still be there, hanging on every second and view I can catch. Once you've been there, you become a part of the story and a part of the place, and it doesn't leave you.
I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to look at conventional trail races the same way again after this experience. The Indiana Trail 100 is in four weeks, but it feels like a completely different race now all of a sudden. Nobody finished the 2015 Barkley Marathons. But, you know, sometimes the beast has to eat, too. He gets a little more clever each time he's outwitted, and it had been 7 long years since he last had a full meal. I think you lose a little bit of yourself every time you're out there, lost in the mountains, consumed by the challenge, looking to find something that is hidden. Those lost pieces, and the stories we tell are what has made the Barkley Marathons what it is today, and what it's going to be next year when 40 brave men and women lace their shoes and fasten their packs, staring at the mountains that wait before them on the other side of that yellow gate.