Almost a month on from when I toed the line at The Barkley Marathons and I am literally still unable to feel most of my toes. The scars from the briars have mostly recovered and my energy levels slowly return to normal, though I do swing between feeling near 100% and knowing I still have a ways to go to get back to 100%.
The Barkley, quite simply, was the toughest race I've ever attempted, and although I did come up just short in the end I was able to take away nothing but positives from the experience, at least after I'd slept on it a few days and come to terms with it all.
The Barkley documentary that recently made its way to Netflix certainly affected things this year, most notably in the media coverage during and especially after the event. To speak specifically to the documentary on Netflix, having now experienced all that Barkley is I can say that the doc does a pretty good job of capturing the essence of The Barkley, with its quirkiness, unique characters and appeal on all levels. Where the documentary falls flat on its face though is in showing how difficult the Barkley really is. In hindsight I believe the documentary softened my expectations of the purely physical challenge of the event and as such the very first words out of my mouth after my first lap, to Laz were "This is WAY harder than I expected it to be. I'm enjoying it mind you, and I kinda like what you've managed to piece together out here."
Beyond all the things that makes The Barkley a near impossible undertaking I like to sum it up like this, I know track running and what happens in Frozen Head State Park could not be more diametrically opposed but bare with me here. Consider the sub 4-minute mile, for many years it was considered impossible and at the outer reaches of human possibility, but since Roger Bannister became the first to break the barrier in 1954 the record has dropped by almost 17 seconds and high school runners have since broken the mark. Take the sub 4-minute mile and after every single runner breaks four minutes tack on another 50 meters / 50 yards to the distance, but keep calling it a mile. This is The Barkley.
Lap 1 - Let's Get This Thing Started Already.
I had been warned that Jared would take it out hard, at least in comparison to what you'd expect a "60-hour" pace to consist of. I decided that I would hang with Jared and the lead pack for the first thirty minutes, no matter the pace, and then assess from there if it were sustainable or not. I thought we'd see a bit of a false charge, or a "scraping" of people as soon as possible. When I veteran makes a move to drop a virgin, it is referred to as scraping them.
Sure enough just a few minutes in and we were running the first climb. The grade was nothing serious and you'd run it without question during a shorter endeavor as it was a maintained trail, also known as a "candyass trail", but to assess this as a 60-hour pace or not would certainly return with only one answer of "oh hell no." Thankfully, and as expected, once we'd established our lead group of seven the pace eased ever so slightly to a more reasonable clip. Our group consisted of Jared, John Kelly (so local that one of the hills/mountains is named after his family), Andrew Thompson (2009 Finisher), Adam Lint and two french runners. Not a bad group to find yourself with this early on.
As a virgin I knew the only shot at success was to latch onto a veteran and attempt to learn as much as possible while not getting dropped. My intent, if I did get scraped by Jared and co. was to immediately stop and await the next group of runners to catch up to pair up with them. I did not know Jared in advance of the race beyond a one hour phone call we'd had after I reached out to him asking him if I could run a few questions by him. The main piece of advice I took away from that was, "follow a vet for two laps, ideally someone who is slower than you and take on as little stress as possible while learning as much of the course as you can." We never once spoke about the "what if" of if we would pair up together, but it was always my intent to stick with Jared for as long as it made sense to do so.
We rapidly veered off the candyass trail and through the forest towards our first book. Once we located it I became jubilant, my first Barkley page! On the way into Frozen Head State Park there is a house just before the turn with a small sign for self defense classes and a rather large red sign on the roof of the building simply saying "NINJA". I told Linda I would celebrate each and every book along the course by simply saying NINJA when we found it, whether out loud or to myself I did keep this promise and it helped to keep my spirits light as the race progressed.
As I was celebrating people were pulling pages passing the book along and then darting out of sight. There's no "I" in team and there are no teams in Barkley. As the last person to pull a page I now had a gap to Jared and co. at the front. As we started down our first off-trail descent we were forced through a pinch point in some rocks. I lept forward, caught mud at the bottom and was thrown to my butt for a slide of about ten feet. My backside was covered and people continued to peel away from me. I found myself with AT, asked him about his course knowledge and he said it'd been years since he'd lined up and he was in fact not 100% confident in his nav skills for this new course. He himself was following the leader and we were both about to get scraped. I immediately leaned into the descent and rather recklessly went about attempting to make up ground before the leaders were in fact out of sight. One of the french runners was between myself and the lead pack and he was all that kept them in sight initially.
Me to myself, "This is NOT a sensible pace right now Gary." "Thanks Captain Obvious, how bout ya shut the hell up and focus on not throwing our race out the window before book two?" "10-4"
At about this time the reality of the Barkley starts to unveil itself. The terrain underfoot is steep and buried beneath organic material, mostly leaves. Every footstep crunches like you're on a early morning winter frost, and every footfall breaks through into something unknown beneath. A patch of mud, a tangled root, a slippery rock, you are constantly being thrown about and often to the ground only to have to pick yourself up time and time again. It is glaringly obvious that the number of ways for your race experience to end prematurely are all but infinite. The Barkley is thrashing me about and I'm not even an hour in, picking myself up off the ground again and again. Thankfully I am closing the gap and by the time we find ourselves at a river crossing to step back onto some candyass trails I'm up in the lead group of four again. Heads down, moving militantly up the second climb, I look down the trail to see AT working hard to catch back up. One French runner is gone and I realize in that moment that there's no messing around here, this isn't an easy stroll in the forest, we're racing.
On the now off-trail descent to book two I am all but attached to Jared at the hip in the two spot. Jared sticks to what he knows which is kind of a two step approach to the book, follow this ridge to this rock, then take a bearing straight shot, while John Kelly opts for a direct line. It would be the last we would see of John until the beginning of our third loop, while going counter-clockwise and we would later learn that as he was heading towards the book he became entangled in a briar patch. The briars took him down and wrapped around his neck and John would end up looking like he'd escaped a cougar attack.
Book one had been fairly straightforward, but book two would be all but impossible to find as a complete virgin. Jared hit it straight on and all of us doted appreciation on him as we realized how vital he was to our success in that moment.
We started the near 2000ft off-trail climb away from book two and another member of our group started to falter. As we topped out on some candyass connectors the pace quickened once again and you could hear the scraping sound. We were down to four, Jared, AT, Adam Lint and myself.
As we collectively approached book three, a newly added book for 2016, all but Jared started searching the rock features for where it might be hidden. You are given instructions as to how the books are placed, things such as, and I quote
"If you go to the exact juncture of the two creeks, and cross over to the west bank, there will be a steep earthen embankment directly in front of you. Go left, downstream, until you see the path climbing onto that earthen bank, and turning right to go up the crest. This is only about 30 or 40 feet. Climb up the trail until you are directly above the juncture of the creeks. You will be standing next to a Beech Tree with a Hollow at the bottom. Inside the hollow is book XX"
The instructions mostly make sense if you hit your target spot on, and can kind of make sense for the 101 ways you can slightly miss your target.
Jared goes straight for a rock on the ground while saying, "I think Laz would put it HERE." Bingo. Slow clap. Ninja.
Onto book 4, standard stuff. From book 4 towards 5 AT tells us stories of how he sat in a mudpit in this area on the 5th and final loop years back squishing mud into his toes for over an hour. He was so delusional he had no idea where he was or what he was doing anymore. He obviously did not finish that year.
Book 5 involved a short but steep descent and once again we all relied on Jared's precision to save us valuable time.
Somewhere between Rat Jaw (shown below) which is book #9 and book #12 AT fell off the back and it was but three of us, Jared, Adam and me. We actually waited a minute hoping AT would catch up before turning and continuing on without him. Such is the respect level for a previous finisher of the race. Jared continued to show us the ways of The Barkley and collectively we made haste towards the end of the first lap.
In the clockwise direction the final four miles are candyass trails and they are after you've collected the final 13th book. As we ran down those 2000ft to close out the lap we started talking transition. Adam straight up said he was not continuing at our pace and as I was thinking Jared might declare twenty or twenty-five minutes of "interloopal" time when he spits out,
Excessively long pause while I process the influx of emotions that came with this tidbit...
Woohoo, camp! Our first lap time was 8:01:19. The conch blew at 9:42am for a 10:42am start time. It was now 6:43pm with a sunset time of just after 8pm and a sunrise time of just before 7am.
Me to Laz as he's counting our pages, "This is WAY harder than I expected it to be. I'm enjoying it mind you and I kinda like what you've managed to piece together out here."
To Jared, "See ya in ten."
To my amazing support crew who consisted of my beautiful wife Linda and our then 7.5 month old son Reed, a buddy from highschool in Newfoundland who now lives three hours from Frozen Head, Shawn Martin, Ethan Newberry (aka The Ginger Runner) and his lovely wife Kimberley Teshima, and finally Matt Trappe...
"WE'VE GOT TEN MINUTES!!!!!!!"
If I could insert a GIF of the Tasmanian Devil spinning in circles it'd be perfect. Ten minutes later,
"Oh hey Jared, that was fun wasn't it, did you sleep? I thought about it but figured it best to focus on breathing for fifteen seconds."
Lap 2 - Second Verse Same as the First.
Into the night.
As Laz is handing us our new bibs he reminds us that once we take the bib our crew and camp is off-limits again until either dropping or completing another loop. "Make sure you've got everything you need."
Two headlamps, three batteries, 12+ hours of food, waterproof breathable kit, just in case, cold weather gear as the temps are expected to drop to near freezing, etc, etc. The pack is loaded, weighing maybe ten pounds. We grab our bibs and are off, attempting to cover as much ground as possible before needing to turn on our headlamps. It is now down to just Jared and me and we move remarkably well up the first climb to snag book 1.
At book 2 we come across Canadian Rhonda Marie-Avery, the runner with 8% vision. We are on loop two, somewhere around nine and a half hours in and Rhona, along with her guide, are still searching for the second book. You want dedication? You want resolve? You want inspiration? Look no further. They were within throwing distance of the book and yet they just could not locate it. To their great relief Jared helped them out, I gave her a hug, and we were off again. There was no downtime, there was only focus.
The sun set on us shortly after this and we next lapped runners at book 4. From book 3 we could see a light at book 4 and when we arrived there about thirty minutes later the light was still searching. Starchy, someone I've met at the HURT 100, was going in circles looking for the 4th book. Again the runner was all but right on top of it, but at night the navigation becomes even trickier. We all grabbed a page, placed a rock atop a cairn memorial, and as Jared and I proceeded on towards book 5 we came across a group of maybe five runners. The group was a mix of "get me the hell out of here and back to camp" and "please, please, please just help us find this one next book."
We attempted to convince everyone to come with us towards book 5 but a few were so shell shocked that they were hearing none of it. The group split and Jared helped the eventual group of three, Kimberly, Brad and Starchy, who would go on to set the new longest first loop record of, are you ready for this, 31h59m. We were directing them to book five on their first loop, and we would pass them again on our next loop. I said this afterwards via the Barkley message boards, they, along with Rhonda, were my "heroes of the weekend". No one leaves camp with 32 hours worth of food on them, and very few depart with 32 hours worth of fight in them.
Jared and I had gotten to know each other pretty well by this point and we were clicking along like a well oiled machine, right up until we ourselves got lost in the night. Being very experienced at getting lost in adventure racing I have at least learned one thing over the years, small mistakes become big mistakes and limiting those loses is key. Jared and I were attempting to figure out where we were, while thinking we were perilously close to the one house on course in which the pre-race instructions clearly stated "DO NOT got to this property for help as the owner is entirely likely to shoot any and all trespassers on site" when Jared says,
"East? How are we going east? We should be going west, can you reference your compass here."
Yes, we were that turned around. At this point I said we needed to sit our assess down and talk this out. In under five minutes we were in agreeance with where we were and just a few minutes after getting up and proceeding in the agreed upon direction we found ourselves back on course. I had helped with something! I felt just a little bit less like a deadweight at that moment and I celebrated the knowledge that we were in fact working as a team and we were most likely in this together until we both made it to the 5th lap.
We proceeded through the rest of loop two without and major hiccups to close our our second loop in 11h01m.
Jared, "Ten minutes?"
Me, "Ya know, an extra five would be dreamy right now."
Jared, "No worries, sounds good."
"WE'VE GOT FIFTEEN MINUTES!!!!!"
As I was packed up and ready to head to the gate my bladder seemed to have exploded on my bag. Shit! Thankfully I had packed two of every essential (pack, bladder, compass, poles, etc)
Me to Jared, "My bladder exploded, just need another minute."
"No worries" as he proceeded to the gate and hung out with Laz for a bit. I was not being scraped, we were a team and a damn fine one I might add with how well we worked together and how there was an unspoken bond between us. We got to talk about anything BUT how we were feeling, how we were doing, what our time looks like or how much pain we're in, etc. We can ask questions of each other as long as they don't pertain to these items, and we can randomly spit out any stories that pop into our minds as we go. We were less than 24 hours into this thing and we pretty much knew each other's back stories, kids names, how we each met our wife, etc. It was rather quite pleasant.
Lap 3 -Counterclockwise.
I tried to go the wrong way while leaving camp. Nope, it's counter-clockwise time now. About thirty minutes out from camp John Kelly came running down the candyass trail looking strong. We had no idea his story at that point and hadn't seen him since book 2 on loop 1. It was nice to be going in the opposite direction so that you could interact with the rest of the runners who were still in this thing.
As we were honing in on book 2 in this direction I stepped on a rock that was about a square foot in size, it rolled back and as I slipped behind it it slammed into my left shin. I crumbled to the ground while writhing in pain. Jared was ahead of me and he stopped to ask if I was alright with a bit of a look of what the heck just happened to you?
On my final long training session leading into Barkley, the overnighter I posted a video about, I'd managed to injure myself. I knew going into that training session that I was in "gravy time" with training and I felt no need to push things, so I agreed to shut it down at any point that night if anything felt off. Nothing did, it went great and I celebrated the training session as I was driving home for breakfast. As I arrived home I stepped out of my Xterra and could not walk without significant pain in my lower left shin. What the hell? Where did this come from?
Throughout the night of the training session, on one small section of trail, I was postholing through a thick ice crust while coming down the upper parts of the snow covered mountain. The first time this occurred I remember thinking, holy crap that feels terrible, but nothing more than that so I proceeded lap in and lap out to posthole and ignore this discomfort. It would take three more days before I learned that I was suffering from tenosynovitis, initially diagnosed as a tendinopathy. Basically the postholing through an ice crust created an impact injury on my shin in which I'd damaged the tendon sheath, caused an inflammation and could not walk without significant pain. There were 15 days till race day when this first occurred and I was told that the only true remedy was time and rest. Things that could help with recovery included a topical anti-inflammatory, massage, ART work and cold laser therapy.
The following week, with less than a week to go until we flew to Tennessee I was driving all over Vancouver, North Vancouver and Burnaby getting as many treatments as possible. I spent over $400 on sessions and have never been so stressed while leading into a race before. I was unable to do much of anything in the taper phase, which is certainly not ideal, and on one particular day my quads nearly shut down on me while out on a short steep walk working on my compass skills. I had gone from 60 - 0 in training and you just can't apply the handbrake while cruising the highway and expect things to go well. I arrived home after that compass session and declared this was all for naught, I had not purchased refund insurance on our flights so we were heading to Tennessee and if things managed to recover enough to allow me to even start I'd see if I could make it at least a few laps.
I did not talk about this to anyone who did not need to know about it because I didn't want to believe it was happening, and I could do without the sympathy, support or condolences which would only make it more real. Linda did manage to make me laugh but once when she said,
"It's as if Laz is a wizard and he could see how confident you were in your training so he cast a spell on you just to see if you could handle it."
It almost goes without saying that it is NOT difficult to picture Laz wearing a wizard's hat.
I started the race with nothing but uncertainty, but I also knew that I'd never been so mentally dialed into an endeavor before and I believed deep down inside that I had a chance, even with this obstacle. I asked my practitioners before departing BC what the worst case scenario was and I was told that a lengthy recovery period was the worst case, if I were even able to continue to push through the pain and swelling to get it to that point.
The rock took me down. Jared asked if I was alright.
"I will only speak of this once. I started this race injured, I've been ignoring pain since mile one and my downhills are seriously compromised by this injury (I couldn't remember the word tenosynovitis at that point so I simply said) called a tendinopathy. (As I picked myself up) I'm fine."
Jared, "I've had that before, it really hurts."
And that was that, back to business.
Through book three and four and while going for book five, up Rat Jaw we came across Kim, Brad and Starchy...they were still going on loop one....we were closing in on the halfway point of the 100 miles.
A few hours further along and I asked Jared what his preferred direction of travel was. There is no way in hell that I would have had any shot at this thing without his assistance and it was just a bonus that we were enjoying each other's company along the way. Jared said clockwise and I said great, you go clockwise and I'll go counter when we both get to our fifth and final loop.
If you don't know, the first two laps are clockwise, the following two are counter and on the final lap is runner's choice, but if multiple runners make the fifth they must alternate direction so that they can no longer work together. I actually really like this rule and believe it adds a wonderful dynamic to things.
We were still on three but now Jared forced me to lead while he instructed me as to what to look for along the way. We were pretty much doing this all along, but now he placed me in front so as to ensure I collect every bit of knowledge to ideally succeed on my final loop by myself. There was absolutely nothing more that Jared could have done to set me up for success and without him this race report would have ended long ago...so it is JARED'S FAULT that this F-ING RACE REPORT is so F-ING LONG ALREADY! Thanks Jared!!
As we neared in on the end of three I was pushing up against the longest I'd ever been on my feet continuously. I have completed expedition adventure races before with the longest taking me and my team nine days to reach the finish line, but those are multi-sport and at a slower overall pace. The combination of not sleeping the night before the race, being on foot for over 30 hours, now having covered nearly 39,000 feet of climbing and descent, and then realizing that we were only 3/5ths of the way through this thing lead to my own armour showing chinks. My mind, the number one tool in any Barkley attempt had been my greatest asset up until this point in time, but now it was thinking things through. I was doing math, I was extrapolating pain and thinking it forward, I was losing absolute focus and struggling to believe I could or should go on past this third loop, the Fun Run. I had no interest in a Fun Run (three loops in under 40 hours) and not once had I told myself I'd be happy with this. There was no reward for me in only doing 3/5ths of what I trained so diligently for and what I knew conclusively that I could accomplish, yet here I was, completely entrenched in doubtsville.
We agreed to attempt to sleep after this lap and that we'd spent a total of 90 minutes in camp. Sleep as much as you can in that amount of time but don't be late getting back to the gate. As we thumped down the candyass descent of 2000ft feet at the end of loop three I started a chant in my head,
"Just keep your feet moving. Just keep your feet moving. Just keep your feet moving."
Nothing else went through my head for the final twenty minutes into camp. Nothing else was welcome there.
We arrived after an elapsed 31h27m. They call this 60 miles, but the true distance is at least 78. Those first three laps at Barkley stand up as being tougher than any 100 miler I've yet to compete in, without question. I believe Hardrock will eventually prove to be harder than three laps of the Barkley (when I get in via the lottery), but the HURT 100 is not and UTMF is not.
Laz actually looked impressed and the glint in his eye showed a hint of excitement. He knew he'd at least have some 5th lap runners this year.
I announced to the team that we had 90 total minutes and that I needed to try to sleep. I fell into my chair, removed my shoes and socks and attempted to eat some real food before laying down. I had onset of trenchfoot but it was not yet full blown. As I was cramming food into my mouth, and rubbing a topical anti-inflammatory across my injured shin, uncontrollable tears started to slowly trickle down my cheeks. I did not know how to go on. I did not understand how this thing called Barkley was in fact possible. I was embarrassed by these tears and yet I could not prevent them. I crawled into my sleeping bag and asked Linda to sing to me. I requested the song we sing to our son when we put him down at night and the uncontrollable tears continued behind my sleep mask.
It was evening in camp and camp was active. I had in ear plugs, I had on a sleep mask, and I had a comfy sleeping pad on a flat surface, but sleep would not find me. Dogs were barking, the bugle was tapping people out and I think a car alarm went off once. I was all too aware of the fact that my 55 minutes of actually laying down was about to expire, and all at once I was up and getting dressed again.
I did not, for one second, hesitate. I was robotic in my movements while still telling myself to just keep my feet moving. I was up against the wall of The Barkley and that wall was constructed by a master of drystone masonry. I could not conceive of how to get through this wall and as I walked up to the yellow gate with Jared to collect our bibs for the 4th time I passed on through the wall as if it did not exist, for in fact it didn't, it was all a construct of my mind. As we departed the campground on lap four I felt a surge of energy. Before even getting to the first climb on lap four I now knew I was going to make it to lap five. The first crux of the Barkley had been negotiated.
Lap 4 - Who Is This Guy In Front of Me?
We were heading into the night, our second. Night nav is incredibly difficult at The Barkley, night nav after being awake for two straight days takes on a whole other challenge.
As we proceeded through the fourth lap and through the night we made small error after small error. Every micro-error leads to lost time that won't come back to you, and as Jared and I both dealt with hallucination issues we did express that we weren't leaving ourselves much room for error on the fifth and final lap.
At one point during loop four I'm following Jared through the night and I realize I have no idea of who is in front of me. I start a mental roll call of who it could be, is it my high school buddy Shawn Martin? I almost laugh, nope Shawn is a wonderful friend and we've shared some fun adventures but he is not a runner. Is it Andrew Thompson? No, I don't think I've seen AT since we departed on loop two. Is it Eric Carter? (Eric is an adventure buddy and my partner in our coaching business, no I did not just put him in here to work in a plug for our business I swear) It can't be Eric, he's not on skis and I haven't seen Eric in running shoes in over six months. Who is this guy in front of me? OH, is it Jurgen? I think his name is Jurgen...no...Jared! I then repeated the name Jared five times in my head before speaking out loud.
"Jared, I'm struggling to remember who the hell you are right now!"
His response, with a bit of a laugh, "I'll be whoever you need me to be, let's just keep moving forward."
Our micro-errors were adding up and the hallucinations were increasing. There are two water drops on the course and as were were closing in on the second water drop over halfway through the lap Jared mentioned being tired. I knew we were both struggling but was aware of the fact that sleep would be challenging, even in our depleted state, as it was a windy and chilly night. The water drop was in a bit of a sump so my hope was that it would protect us from the wind.
I had, up until this point in the race, not carried a watch. There was simply no point really as you're not allowed a GPS, and time of day could reasonably be deduced given our nice weather pattern over the weekend. I did not know the exact time of night, but I did know we were likely a few hours from sunrise.
"Do you have an alarm you trust?"
"We should sleep when we get to the water drop, how does fifteen minutes sound?"
"Sounds like a great idea!"
We trudged down to the water and filled our bottles. We knew that upon waking up we'd be freezing and we'd need to get moving immediately. I put on every additional layer and piece of clothing I had in my pack, but I wasn't carrying pants at this point and I had on knee high socks and a spandex short under a running short. I grabbed an empty gallon water jug, depressed a head sized pocket into it and I plopped myself down in the dirt. We set an alarm for seventeen minutes, to allow for two minutes to fall asleep and fifteen of actual sleep.
I did find sleep, though about twelve minutes on I started shivering from the wind catching my knees and in hindsight I should have pulled apart a box that the water was transported in and created a blanket out of it. I lay there shivering for a few minutes, knowing that Jared was asleep and not wanting to prematurely end his seventeen minutes of bliss, but alas my stirring lead to standing so as to attempt to stay warm and Jared awoke when he heard this.
"Time to go?"
"Not quite, but I'm shivering so I have to move a bit."
Up he popped and we simultaneously turned towards the slight incline away from the water drop and got straight back to work on the task at hand. The alarm sounded as we were ascending away from our five star accommodations. No wifi, but all you can drink bottled water.
The sun seemed to arrive all too early and we started feeling the pressure of the 60 hour time limit. A new hallucination began as any and all flowing water now became group conversations in my head. I could not discern words, just that I was hearing voices. Given how many water crossings there are on a Barkley loop it was one of the less pleasant hallucinations I would deal with. As we snagged the final book in the counter-clockwise direction and approached the candyass descent back into camp I felt the need to push the pace a bit. Jared had been dealing with his own knee issue for over ten hours already and collectively we made quite the site of hobbled runners. I should have removed a strap from my pack and tied our bunk legs together to create the first ever three legged race in Barkley history.
I arrived at the gate about a minute ahead of Jared, feeling like this was beneficial to both of us since it would allow Laz to count out pages seperately rather than collectively and thereby save each of us about thirty seconds. Yes this is a preposterous thought as I write this, but that's how up against the clock it was all starting to feel in the moment. In the end Laz showed his own sleep deprivation by restarting my page count no fewer than four times, and just enough for me to start worrying that I'd somehow lost or forgotten a page. In the end Laz counted our pages simultaneously and Jared and I headed into camp at the same time. We had taken 14 hours to complete the fourth.
My crew surrounded me in prep to get me set and the campsite was a buzz.
"Let's get me outta here ASAP!"
We were efficient, I knew what I needed and I was pumped. I was making it to the 5th lap! Jared described the fifth as a euphoric experience and adrenaline was surging through my body.
2012 finisher John Fegyveresi offered congrats and words of encouragement saying I had plenty of time to get it done. I responded by saying that I hadn't accomplished anything yet as I was all too aware of the fact that in the last 75+ hours I'd slept about 90 minutes. I knew I had the physical capabilities to close this out, but did I have still possess the mental wherewithal to figure it all out?
Coincidentally Jared and I walked right into each other in the campground as we were heading to the gate to collect our final bibs.
Me to Jared, "I've got an idea! Let's go to that gate, collect bibs and then head off in opposite directions. Let's high five at the exact midpoint on course and both meet back here before the 60 hour cutoff!"
The bibs are handed out and the bell lap is announced with gusto.
Lap 5 - Can I Get A Timeout Please?
In the counterclockwise direction the first mile or so is flat with a slight downhill before the climbing begins. It's about 10am, sunny and the day is promising to be the warmest yet. It's Monday. We started running on Saturday morning. There are film crews everywhere and cameras follow me until the grade kicks up. I'm lucid, focused, happy, and I'm running, like actually running. I reach the incline and continue to push the pace, climbing faster than I have yet to do in the counterclockwise direction. I know the adrenaline will wear off shortly but I can't stop my mind from going to what it'll feel like to hit the gate and close this thing out. I get excited, too excited and I quickly tell myself to "Chill the F out. Keep your focus. You haven't even collected a single page yet." I then go through waves of excitement that are followed by chanting "CTFO. CTFO."
I turn a corner and the trail heads down for a bit. All at once everything feels entirely foreign to me. Have I taken a wrong turn? I look for the green blazes on the trees to confirm I'm still on the right trail, and I know inside that there are no other trails off of this one. Yup, green blazes, this is right, but it all looks wrong. Shit! Did I accidentally turn around at some point? Am I heading back towards camp or away from it? A long pause as I attempt to recall if I've stopped to pee. No. The adrenaline has dispersed and all I'm left with is complete and utter sleep deprivation and confusion. I make a pact with myself that whenever I stop to pee I have to take my trekking poles and place them on the ground pointing in the direction of travel so that I don't make this critical error. My mind is crumbling.
Book one is a near gimme in this direction and I find it without issue. From the first to the second book is fairly complex. I have a new mantra now. "Take a bearing, check a bearing, follow a bearing. Trust your compass." I start chanting this out loud to myself as I align compass to map and begin my descent. I am aware of the fact that I have little to no room for error now. I can make this happen, I can finish the Barkley in my first ever attempt, I just need to get everything right.
I look downslope to align my bearing and I see a vivid image of an industrial sized water container, the large white things that are the size of a transport truck trailer.
"Ok, shoot for that water container...wait, I've been through here four times now and I'm pretty sure there's nothing on this slope. Ok, I wonder what this'll actually be once I get to it."
I was at least still with it enough to recognize what was going on in my own head. Sure enough once I found myself in the clearing that was suppose to hold a water container there was nothing even remotely resembling one, not even a tree that I could believe had contributed to this illusion.
"Take a bearing, check a bearing, follow a bearing. Trust your compass."
The river came into sight, the confluence came into sight, the incline came into sight and the beech tree came into sight. HOLY SHIT, I DID IT! WOOHOO! Ninja.
Water. Voices in my head. Talk out loud to drown it all out.
"Take a bearing, check a bearing, follow a bearing. Trust your compass."
I triple checked before I made a single move. Down across the river and up towards book three. I peered up through the forest and I spotted a number on a tree, then another, then another. Clear as day, no doubting that my mind was seeing numbers on f-ing trees. I looked down, I saw faces in the leaves. Anything with two puncture holes became a face. Leaves everywhere = faces everywhere. I avert my gaze, my eyes pan across a pile of small rocks and I see my brother's face on a pebble the size of my pinky nail. "Was that Bryan?"
I try to reason with myself, to talk myself out of this malfunctioning mindset, to regain the necessary focus to continue error free. I again peer up slope and I spot two mule deer prancing through the forest. The deer are far enough away that I process no sound from their movements and all at once they are gone. Was that a hallucination too? Why does this feel like one of the most beautiful experiences of my life right now?
I topped out on my climb and I did not hit my target. The map came out as I started to piece together where in fact I was. My mind felt as though I must have continued too far north, when in fact I was too far south. I started to make the map match my mind rather than the other way around and I decided to move, rapidly, down a ridge in the hopes that I would all but collide with my intended point. I started jogging, then running and then all but sprinting. I was bleeding time but I could limit that by moving rapidly now. Before I even knew what had happened I'd dropped far too much elevation and I was intersecting with service roads. Another challenge of the Barkley is that a lot of gravel roads you cross or utilize on course do not in fact show up on the map.
As I was trudging one service road I caught my toe and wound up on my face before my deadened senses and reflexes could even respond. It was the harshest fall I'd taken all race and I lay in disbelief for about five full seconds before peeling myself out of the dirt. I quietly murmured "Fuck you Barkley."
The clock never stops.
One hour became two and for the first time all race I lost my cool. Success at the Barkley is predicated on keeping a cool head and dealing with any and all obstacles along the way as part of the challenge you've undertaken. Picking yourself up off the ground time and time again is par for the course. Briars ripping the flesh off of the back of your legs, where the knee bends, is standard fare. Getting lost is just part of the game. For over 50 hours I had slogged away at this thing and not once had I even so much as even flinched in anger, but that was over now, I was all but out of time to make up for this error. I stopped moving, through my arms up, and yelled from deep within,
"IT DOES NOT FUCKING END LIKE THIS!"
After two and a half hours I finally located book three. I briefly told myself that maybe I could push past this, that if I found yet another reserve of energy somewhere that maybe I could make up for my mistakes. I dropped towards book four, at the prison, ended up in the wrong gully, came out north of my target and had bled yet more time. This wound was fatal.
"Well I might as well climb Rat Jaw for the fifth and final time."
I had run out of water and the sun was beating down on me now. I was in full slog mode, no stopping, suffering every step of the way, my mouth becoming drier and more encrusted in salt with each agonizing breath. To stop is to only prolong this discomfort so just get to the top and the water drop. With maybe 1/4 of the climb to go you come into sight for any would be observers from the water tower. It is one of but two points on course where non-runners are allowed. To my joy and dismay a crowd had gathered and they started cheering. I wanting to vocalize something in response but my mouth was all but dried shut. I eventually topped out, went straight to the water table and collapsed in the shade beneath it. There was not enough time left to finish this thing and everyone knew it, especially me. I knew it was but impossible for me to get much further at all without some form of sleep, ideally at least three hours of it.
Andrew Thompson, John Fegyveresi, Heather Anderson, Billy Simpson, Nicki Rehn, along with others were all cheering me on while also seeming to derive some sick pleasure from witnessing someone so close to the brink of extinction. This group of people are some of the most accomplished you'll find anywhere and my respect for them is off the charts. They would not let me stop and eventually they kicked me outta there. Again the adrenaline surged a bit and as I descended Rat Jaw I harbored illusions of maybe finding a hidden gear. I did my best impression of a runner and was grasping at straws to keep my race alive. It was like a diesel engine that had run out of fuel, I kept cranking away hoping a spark would catch, but I'd only managed to roll myself onto a down slope and was utilizing gravity while it was on my side.
The terrain flattens and you take a left onto a service road. The adrenaline had worn off and I was struggling to stay awake. I needed sleep, there were no two ways about it, my eyes had to shut for a few hours. I didn't have an alarm I trusted and I was scared to put my head down for twenty minutes as I figured I'd wake up three hours later after the sun had set and I started shivering. I believed Jared might be an hour away so I sat down, removed my pack and was about to lay down, knowing Jared would wake me up when he came by...but then he literally appeared as I was about to go prone.
Jared to me, "What the heck is going on?"
I explained my plight and that I simply could not go a step further on no sleep. Jared looked sullen, he was genuinely saddened by learning that I would not become a finisher this year.
Me to Jared, "You're doing amazing man! Get on out of here and close this shit out! First ever three time finisher!"
Jared reluctantly departed. Not a minute later two people magically appeared while coming down from the lookout tower. I had gone through so many iterations of what to do next and in the end I was worried that Linda would be worried about me. I could either sleep for three hours, waking once the sun set, and then continue to grab books all night long, or I could accept my fate, ask for a ride back to camp and go listen to the bugle play me a song. I came to Tennessee to attempt to finish the Barkley and the Barkley had won. Nothing I could do in that moment would change this. I had failed and I had accepted it.
It took more than a bit of convincing to get the two people to take me back to camp for as they put it,
"We don't want to be the people who drove Gary Robbins off course."
"Well it's either you or the first car that picks me up hitchhiking once I drop down to the road crossing."
And with that we proceeded back to camp. I told my ride to drop me outside of the campground so that they wouldn't have to take any flack and I dragged my sorry ass up to the yellow gate.
Taps played. Danger Dave is not very good at playing taps which makes it sting all the more.
Barkley 1 - Gary 0
For 55 hours I gave myself to the Barkley, heart, soul, mind and body. I was all in. Nothing else in the entire world mattered for three full days, and I loved it. I did not reach the finish line of the Barkley Marathons but I got pretty damn close. As I mentioned leading into the race I knew it would challenge me in new and unforeseen ways and boy o boy did it ever. During the race I feel like I unlocked a door in my mind that led to a room I'd never entered before and in that room existed a near perfect version of myself, devoid of ego, free of judgement, removed from life's minutia, steadfast in purpose, distracted by nothing, heart wide open with a complete inability to overreact to any obstacle that stood in my way. I wish I could be that person more often.
To be continued.
This race report is ridiculously long so if you've made it this far I commend you, this probably means you could finish the Barkley since you're so dedicated to the process.
Thank yous - couldn't have done it without yous:
Jurgen Campbell - The ultimate badass and an incredible person to boot. Congrats on making history as the first ever three time finisher. I'll pay your entry fee if you line up with me again next year
Linda Barton-Robbins - my rock
Reed Robbins - my inspiration
Shawn Martin - best burgers in interloopal history
Kimberley Teshima - Reed is in love
Ethan Newberry - has a long ways to go on that new beard of his
Matt Trappe - master bladder filler
Lauren Eads + Jason Eads - don't sell your home in Nashville we want to come visit again in 2017 and we need to borrow your camping supplies
Georg Kunzfeld - a secret German spy
Lazarus Lake - the wizard
Keith Knipling + Keith Dunn + Raw Dawg - save my campsite for next year please
Frozen Ed - thank you for writing the definitive guide on the Barkley, it should be considered mandatory reading by those hoping to apply
Danger Dave - try playing taps more than just 39 times per year would ya
Image thanks to Melanie Boultbee