Howie Stern Photography

 

It was 1:30am on Wednesday, March 21st and we were in Knoxville, TN. The temps were just below freezing, with a stiff wind gusting over people. Snow was accumulating on the ground and my family, collectively my parents, wife and son, were walking between the hotels in the immediate vicinity asking if they had any available beds for the night. We had of course booked our own hotel that evening, and we were all in fact sleeping soundly just minutes before, but currently there were a few hundred people braving the winter conditions in their pajamas as firefighters streamed into the building.

When the hotel alarms were triggered my mother thought it was her alarm clock, and she called front desk complaining that she couldn’t turn it off. She was informed that this was the fire alarm and she was to evacuate immediately. My own room, with my wife and son, was half a hallway away from my parents, but my mother and I somehow opened our doors into the main hallway in unison and I waved at her with that look that says “damn fire alarm, I guess we should evacuate just to be on the safe side.”

I walked down the hall with Linda and Reed, towards my parents, whose room was directly across from the second floor stairwell. As I was getting them all set someone barreled through the door onto the second floor, with their full rolling luggage bag in tow. He looked like he was being chased by a bear and he simply yelled, “FIRE!!” then promptly dove back into the stairwell and outta site.

Okay, shit, this is actually happening right now!

I direct my family down the stairs and then walk back the length of the second floor saying in a calm but loud voice, “There is a fire in the building, please evacuate immediately. There is a fire in the building, please evacuate immediately.”

It was amazing to me in that moment how many people were still attempting to wait this out in their rooms. The alarm noise leaves no doubt and certainly no desire to attempt to ignore it. My head hurts now just recreating this and thinking about it. I ducked back into my own room to grab my wallet and keys to our rental SUV, as I was now envisioning that we’d be spending a few hours out in the cold. I had thousands of dollars in electronics with me, between my computer, battery packs, watches, etc, etc, but I stayed calm and rational, all of that was replaceable and I wanted to be in and out of my room in a matter of seconds, so I didn't even attempt to take more than my wallet and keys.

I did one final check of the entire second floor and no one remained, so I headed down the stairwell and out into the frigid night to locate my family.

 

When Linda and I had checked in exactly 24 hours earlier we were placed in a “non-smoking room” on a smoking floor. I had no idea smoking was even allowed in hotels any longer, but here we were. I retreated to the front desk and asked if in fact there was a non-smoking room available on a “non-smoking floor”, what a concept. The front desk attendant was helpful enough and we were moved one floor lower. I mentioned my folks were checking in the following day and requested the same for them. Linda and I were initially placed in hotel room #313 and I’d later discover that the person in room #312 (the one we would have been sharing a wall with) had fallen asleep while smoking in bed.

 

My wife, son and I had arrived in Tennessee 26 hours earlier, and it had already been an eventful first day up to this point, what with an ER visit for our two-and-a-half-year-old son’s first ear infection, and our rental car agency messing up our reservation and not having a child seat available for us upon arrival. I had a full Jerry Seinfeld moment;

“You see, you know how to *take* the reservation, you just don't know how to *hold* the reservation. And that's really the most important *part* of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take them.”

Hands up in the air and all.

By all accounts our first day had not gone so smoothly, but that’s why we decided to fly in a day earlier this year, to get all of the rental car issues, hospital visits and hotel’s burning down out of the way early.

I eventually located two available rooms at an adjacent hotel, and at 3am we all attempted some fitful shuteye.

I don’t believe in omens. I don’t subscribe to luck, but it was undeniable by this point, I’d been sensing for quite a time that nothing was going to unfold the way I’d hoped it would at this year’s Barkley. Every time I had this fleeting thought of impending doom, which had been ongoing for weeks, I’d repeat a Macklemore lyric in my head (mock me if you will, I really don’t care. That’s not the lyric, that’s me talking to you) “they ain’t givin’ it, I’m takin’ it” and it was just a reminder that I had to get my headspace right and to not allow any expectations, distractions, or excuses to creep in. Nothing about the Barkley is supposed to be easy, you want an excuse, I’ll give you 100 of em in under a minute, “they ain’t givin’ it I’m takin’ it”… “nobody’s gonna make this happen but you Gary, control what you can control and forget about the rest.” The hotel fire would make for a great story and It was but one night of lost sleep. I didn’t even talk about it again until after the race, because as we drove out of Knoxville and towards Wartburg, it was already literally and figuratively, behind us.

Frozen Head

We arrived at Frozen Head late on Wednesday and were greeted by a familiar site in an unfamiliar location, snow, and lots of it. I managed to get out for a sundown run up England Mountain and the snow drifts along the top were shocking, some being knee deep. “This could get interesting” I thought, but the forecast for the following days was promising enough and most people expected the course to be free of snow come race day.

 

One of the rules of the Barkley, and Frozen Head State Park, is that you’re not allowed to depart the ‘candyass’ maintained trails at any point outside of the race. If you are caught going off-trail outside of the 60 hours of the race you are removed from the race by Laz immediately and escorted out of camp, likely to never be drawn back into the event again. I was hoping for a bit more daylight so I could scout my end of lap five error from 2017 a bit further, but within minutes of cresting the high point I had all the information I needed. Twenty feet. Six meters. That is the actual margin of error that lead to my coming in from the wrong direction one year ago. Twenty feet at the end of 60 hours of effort. I never did write a race report about it. I sat in an internet café for seven hours on a rainy day in April last year and I had managed to recreate all but one paragraph of my experience. I just didn’t have the desire to relieve it blow for blow. A common misconception that’s taken hold is that I hit the trail and simply turned the wrong way, going right instead of left. I knew I was to go left and was expecting to T-junction with the trail. If I had, I would have turned left and run down into camp to close out the race with a few minutes to spare. I would have become the 16th finisher of the Barkley Marathons, and I wouldn’t have been standing there now, staring down thoughts of why and how, and attempting to put a positive spin on things.

 In the end I learned that in 2017 I was about twenty feet too far west, and the trail curls away at that point. When I finally found the trail I was parallel to it, while knowing I was supposed to T-junction with it, then I trended into it, more of a merge really, and somehow as the trail was on my left at this point my 60-hour sleep deprived brain went “left side, left turn, all the same, you’re on the trail now run it in!”

Anyways, they say American football is a game of inches, and the Barkley is no different. Small mistakes rapidly become big mistakes, and that was one of my mantras this year, along with "go slower, to go faster.”

 

Friday arrived in no time and before we knew it the map was out and things were getting real. There were three changes to the course for 2018, two of which favoured the runners in terms of appearing to be slightly faster than the previous book locations, whereas one book location was most certainly much longer than the year prior. In the end I guessed this 2018 course to maybe be in the range of 7-12 minutes longer per loop, or 30-60 minutes harder overall.

The total climbing stats for 2018 would come in at 13,484ft per loop, or a whopping 67,420ft for the full pull. If Laz adds one more 500ft climb to the mix in the coming years, the Barkley will be a 70,000ft race! Read that again and let that sink in.

The Conch Is Blown

Save for our fire alarm evac on Tuesday, I’d slept great all week, and thankfully Friday night proved no different. I passed our just after midnight, after already being in bed for three hours, and likely ended up with about six hours of reasonable sleep. When I awoke just after 7am I eased into the morning and the conch was eventually blown at 8:33am for a 9:33am start. Jamil Courey and I were the first two runners to greet Laz as we awaited our official “Barkley watch”, the $10 Timex piece that is the only watch you are allowed to carry for the race. This watch is set to “race time” or “zero time” so when the 24hr watch goes to zeroes you start running. When the watch hits 12:00 on your third day, time has officially expired (60 hours).

My strategy was simple going into the first loop, go slower to be faster, get through it mistake free, refresh my memory as to the nuances of the course and go from there.

Just prior to the start I’d somehow managed to bump my watch and it reset the seconds back to zero. The seconds must’ve been counting up in the 50’s, about to turn over to a new minute, because my watch showed the race starting about a minute early, and I was scrambling just a bit to get through the pack at the back and up near the front as we all streamed past the yellow gate. We were about ten minutes into the first climb when I questioned someone else as to the start time and then realized my watch was out by over a minute. Runners know that the watches will be out vs the “master watch” that Laz wears but only by a few seconds over the duration of the 60 hours, and by coincidence when I initially compared my watch with Laz’s we realized my total time variance for the 60 hours would be seven seconds, meaning my watch, set to race time, could not go above 11:59:53 on day three. Not that any of this ended up mattering in the end, but it is just another example of the attributes that make the Barkley so unique.

As we worked our way up the first climb, on a few miles of candyass trail, this was the slowest I’d ever started The Barkley, following my race plan perfectly. In the previous two editions a lead pack pushes off the front and crests the first climb in about twenty-five minutes. We were closer to thirty minutes and there were at least 8-10 runners in front of or around me. We snagged our first page and proceeded to drop off the mountain towards book two. The race always seems to splinter here, as runners scramble for position after the first backlog of pages being pulled, and this year was no different. By the time we intersected the river below I’d found myself at the front of the race, earlier than anticipated, and already down to a group of about six.

The more eyes the better, was also something I’d been telling myself. No need to shrink the field until we’ve at least collectively located the new books together. I had mentioned to Guillaume Calmettes a day earlier that I intended to up the pace a bit after book seven, which in the clockwise direction would be the third and final “new book location”, but until then I saw no reason thin out the field.

Our now lead group nailed book two, thanks in no small part to Nova Scotia’s Jodi Isenor (a previous fun run finisher) and as the book gets handed around to pull pages I glance at the cover. The book is titled “Six Seconds” and I temporarily lose my mind. “F@#K YOU LAZ!!” He is an expert at mental warfare. As we started up “hillpocolypse” which in the clockwise direction is the first off trail ascent of the race, our group consisted of myself, Jodi, Guillaume, Jamil, a Scottish bloke named Ally Beaven and another overseas runner whose name was James. Before we topped out on this climb we’d be down to four runners and I’d be down to one trekking pole, somehow managing to snap one of my poles within minutes of pulling them out.

Jamil Courey certainly knows the course well and he was a huge asset as we proceeded along without issue. When we arrived at book five, the biggest change of the year, he zoned in on it like a hawk. It was really impressive and I knew my decision to not forge on was paying dividends.

What was really surprising to me was how well Guillaume know the course. He’d done his homework, having travelled out just a month or so earlier to run all of the trails you’re allowed to scout outside of race weekend, and Guillaume took the lead on some sections as he was in fact the person in our group who’d been over some of the terrain the most recently. All in all, we were moving right along and accomplishing exactly what I’d set out to do, which was to put in an error free first loop.

At book seven, the third and final alteration to the 2018 course, I went right to a set of trees that matched the description, had a poke around, saw nothing, and began moving away from there, then Jamil comes in just behind us, goes to the exact set of trees and pulls out the book. This is one of the things that people fail to recognize about this race, you can literally be standing on top of the book at times and you still won’t see it unless you dig for it. Books are buried in tree stumps, under rocks or just anywhere that makes it as hard to locate as possible. Jamil informs us that “this was the location of this book in 2014.” Cool, good to know. Okay, all new books have now been established and it’s mostly smooth sailing in regards to my own course knowledge.

For the first time in my three attempts, the course goes up the infamous “Testicle Spectacle”. Over the past two years the book near Testicle has been off to one side of it, in 2016 it was in the left hip, if you will, and 2017 was in the right hip, so I’ve never done this route in its entirety, and I’m excited as it feels like a right of passage.  

It had rained overnight from Friday into Saturday and we were warned of an incoming “weather event” from late day Saturday into Sunday. As we started up Testicle the hill just continues to slop away from under us. It was a complete pile of mud and not a single inch was gained without slipping backwards to some degree. I was no longer enjoying my right of passage. The thrill of the new climb had lasted all of, well, six seconds really.

We crested the climb, now down to three, myself, Guillaume and Ally, and proceeded towards book eight. My line was off a bit and sure enough captain consistent Jamil catches back up to us. I lead us all up Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall and the onwards towards Rat Jaw.

Rat Jaw is a bitch. There is not a single picture ever taken of Rat Jaw that can accurately display its gradient and inherent challenges. Every year pics are posted from Rat Jaw and inevitably people following along online think “oh that doesn’t look so bad” “oh hill x-y-z that we have here locally is at least that steep.”

We were in for a special treat on Rat Jaw this year as the recent rains, not just overnight but over the last few weeks, had turned its clay like dirt into a vertical skating rink. No matter how fast you are moving up until that point, or how strong you might feel, Rat Jaw is am absolute soul destroying grind from bottom to top. There is an old cable that lays on the ground along some sections, and this cable becomes a life line. You drag yourself up this slope, one agonizing step at a time, and then you hang on for dear life on the downslope, using the cable as you would a climbing rope that’s been strung over a rocky slope to allow for safe passage.

By the time we’d topped out it was but myself, Guillaume and Ally. We might have been a few minutes slower going up than I’ve been in previous years on the first lap, but we’d exerted so much more energy in doing so. It was a fight for every step and for the first time in my three years at the race I actually had the thought, on the first lap, of “I can’t even imagine the effort that’ll be needed to get up this thing on laps three, four and five.”

Bottles filled, page pulled and careening down the mountain. I slam hard at one point but immediately bounce back up and keep running. My tricep is screaming at me and I think it’ll dissipate, but it never does. I attempted to arrest the fall by leaning into a pole and ended up straining my arm. Even as I type this almost a week later the tricep still has a ways to go to get back to 100%. Only at the Barkley are you as likely to experience an upper body injury as you are a lower body injury. The amount of upper body strength needed for the Barkley is often underestimated, and it’s a whole-body workout for two and a half straight days.

We went through the prison, up and over the final two climbs and down into camp after what could readily be described as a perfect first lap.

With about a mile to go, Guillaume says to me, “so how long do you think you’ll spend in camp?”

I’ve had a year to digest last year’s failure. I’ve watched Ethan Newberry’s documentary about it 17 times on the big screen (WhereDreamsGoToDie.com). I do not see six seconds as being the difference, I see the better part of 45 minutes that could have been improved upon. Goal #1 for 2018 was to be more dialed in camp, to be better organized from the start, and to “leave no doubt”. Leave nothing for chance. Be better, from lap one through lap five.

Laz changed the rules around camp for 2018 and each runner was allowed but two crew members. This meant Linda +1. This meant no Ethan, no Kim and no Shaun Martin. In the end my crew ended up being Linda + John Kelly, and we shared John Kelly with another runner, the aforementioned Jodi Isenor. John would have his hands full, crewing for two people, but there was no better person for the job. I was honoured that he’d dedicate his weekend towards my own hopeful success. My parents were staying at a hotel in Oak Ridge and would come to camp for Interloopal, taking Reed off of Linda’s hands so Linda and John could focus on the task at hand. Every – second – counts.

Me to Guillaume, “five minutes best case, seven minutes worst case.”

Guillaume, with a pause…”okay”.

We hit camp in 8h38m.

In 8h45m, after a full gear change from head to toe, socks, shoes, shirts, lube, everything,  I was sprinting back out of camp. It was, easily, the best I’ve ever felt after a lap at the Barkley. Things were going perfectly.

I spotted Guillaume and Ally scrambling to get to the gate to claim their second lap bib, as I was exiting the campground. I did not have a desire to move on without them, I had a desire to finish the race. Every – second – counts.

There was about ninety minutes of daylight remaining when I departed camp on lap two. For 2018 the direction of the loops was set as;

1. clockwise

2. counter

3. counter

4. clockwise

5. choice

The Second Lap - Counterclockwise

I put in a good push to get up and over the first climb, claiming book #13 (or the first book going ccw). As I dropped down the first off trail section of lap two I thought it about the right time to pull out my headlamp. The weather, as had been predicted, was setting in and it was foggy, cold and starting to rain. They were calling for up to 30mm of rain. The “weather event” had begun.

I clicked on my headlamp but nothing happened. I tried again…nothing. Tried one final time, but still zero. I always carry two primary headlamps of 350 lumens, the Princeton Tec Apex rechargeable, and a third emergency light of just 100 lumens, the PT Remix.

I attempted to fire up my second Apex light but it too was dead. This had never happened before. I pulled out my backup, backup light and turned it on. There was no way in hell that this emergency light was sufficient for navigating in the dark, and I didn’t even have spare batteries for it. I was far too far out of camp to head back and fix this. The sun was all but gone, the fog had rolled in, and my race, was about, to end…

“GUILLAUME! ALLY! GUILLAUME!! ALLY!!”

I knew they’d be close, but if I was unable to locate them I’d be hooped as there were no other runners close to us at this point.

Thankfully Guillaume started whistling back to me and we worked towards each other through the dense laurel brush.

“Oh my god, thank you! My headlamps are both dead, do either of you have a backup main light?”

Neither did but both offered what they did have. Nothing added up to a working solution though (extra batteries specific to each lamp) and I was forced to continue with my “AAA” powered Remix. I need to explicitly state at this point that my headlamps were not malfunctioning. It was not a product issue but a user mistake. We as a crew made an error and learned a valuable lesson in real time. The lamps were both dead, but through no fault of the manufacturer.

Myself, Guillaume and Ally were a team again, whether they liked it or not 😊

I lead us to our second book and as we made our move towards the third book a pack of runners headed our way at the end of their first lap. I asked everyone if they had any light source or “AAA” batteries to spare and a TN runner was kind enough to spot me his emergency light which was also “AAA”. This would at least get me closer to being able to cover the 12hrs of darkness we were now confronted with. (if you are reading this please message me so I can get your light back to you)

As we navigated towards our next book the epicenter of the storm started to unleash on us. We had curtains of rain rolling over us and visibility was down to about a foot or two at most. Neither Guillaume nor Ally had ever been on the Barkley course at night before, this was their first counterclockwise loop, we were in a rainstorm, on a pile of mud, in the Tennessee wilderness, with temperatures in the single digits, and their fearless leader had 100 lumens of light to work with.

The death by a thousand briar cuts had begun.

We blew this book in significant fashion and by the time we did locate it we were all soaked through to the bone and on the cusp of hypothermia.

“Guys, put on every layer you have, this is not going to get any better and we won’t regret it if we somehow end up being a smidge too warm on the next climb up Rat Jaw.”

I was now wearing a long sleeve merino wool base, a short sleeve tech shirt, and hooded wind jacket, a waterproof jacket, a buff, a toque, I had a second thicker pair of gloves that I switched into, I had on a short pair of tights under a full pair of tights, and now pulled on my waterproof pants. On the bright side, my pack was now much, much lighter.

Guillaume Calmettes is certainly one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet, and he exclaimed with a smile, in his thick French accent, but with perfect English “ADVENTURE!”

Ally Beaven possessed a great sense of humour, the ability to tell a good story, and most importantly he understood the golden rule of not complaining out loud.

I would have classified us squarely in the middle of being a “Dream Team” and “The Three Stooges”.

We dropped down towards the prison in the most deranged conditions I’d ever witnessed on this slope. It was like the ground was no longer solid but had somehow decayed into a foreign, much more malleable surface. If I could not visually process that I was moving across a supposedly solid slope I would have guessed it to be ice and snow underfoot. Each time we slipped, and we slipped plenty, we’d go for a ride downslope of about five to six feet before coming to a halt, often against a rock or tree, and then we’d be forced to pick ourselves up and attempt a few more feet of actual forward progress. It reminded me all too much of this:

I mostly nailed this descent, placing us just a tiny bit south of our intended target. We claimed our book and proceeded to the prison tunnel.

I have done the prison tunnel and Rat Jaw ten times in my first two years, this was now my 12th pass of the tunnel. Down the center of the tunnel is a cement strip that’s about five inches wide and six inches high. If you are not wearing a headlamp you loose site completely for about 25% of the tunnel in a complete blackout. Jared called this one of his Barkley games, to see if you could navigate this while essentially blind and I’ve adapted this game. On lap one I’d make it through the tunnel without falling off and getting wet, now on lap two, by headlamp, I was presented with something new to me. The tunnel no longer offered a slab of concrete down the middle as an option. There was one steady stream of water flowing through the tunnel, seven plus inches deep throughout. We still tried to stay on the concrete as the water was only an inch above this, but unbeknownst to me there are “inflow” pipes up above and at one point a rather vicious waterfall from above forced us to hug a sidewall. We were essentially fording a river, through a tunnel, at night, under a prison. It was right about then that I started questioning where I’d gone wrong with my life? Up until that point I'd mostly believed that I'd made reasonably good decisions with my life, but in retrospect, my epiphany was that I’d just managed a positive spin on a series of really bad decisions. I do really stupid things, and I do them with stunning regularity.

Anyways, not like I'm making any big life changes at 41 year's old, might as well forge ahead as is...at the exit of the tunnel there was genuine concern for not getting washed over the edge, into a five plus foot drop.

“ADVENTURE!”

We cleared the tunnel and heaved ourselves up Rat Jaw, crawling through the mud and briars every step of the way.

John freaking Kelly was waiting up top yelling encouragement at us through the fog. There’s a fire tower up top and I couldn’t help but picture Lieutenant Dan in the Forrest Gump film, sitting on the topsail yelling out into the storm,

“IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!?”

John informed us that we had at least another six hours in this weather, but that it should start to ease through the night and, as forecast, it would blow through and the next 48 hours were in fact promising. He also admitted to me later that he got lost in the fog, on maintained and sign-posted trails, while heading up to the fire tower to cheer us on. I was uncertain in that moment who was more miserable, us, while plodding through this thing, or John, wearing every layer he owned and standing out in this mess awaiting our arrival.

We were effective through the next few books, skiing down a mountain of mud on both Rat Jaw and then Testicle, and fording the New River to start up what’s known as Stallion Mountain and the back-half of the course going CCW. I couldn’t help but think of Blake Wood, a true legend of the sport and Barkley finisher who during one particularly rough year found the New River impassable on lap five due to heavy rains, and he subsequently was unable to finish that year through no other reason than he didn’t have a boat with him. Laz instituted a workaround for any future years should this happen again, with a prescribed reroute, so we couldn’t even claim that this was the worst year on record, though we were later informed that it did rank right up there.

We made good time all the way to the top, snagged our book page and then turned to descend towards our next book, dropping through a feature known as Cougar Rock.

Guillaume was on lead, he was near perfect through this section in daylight on lap one, but this was a different beast entirely at night. In hindsight, I became a passenger, and it cost us dearly. When you’re dealing with conditions like we were it hinders your judgement, there’s no time to stop and reset because stopping for even a moment leads to a deep shiver that originates in your core. To move is to stay warm, to stop is to freeze. If you start shivering you might not be able to recover from it, so you push on. It is not until we are fully cliffed out that the severity of our situation overwhelms us. We’re in a bad spot, we’re lost, we’re bleeding time, and a misstep by any of us could lead to a serious incident. We retreat, we reset, we work together to figure things out, but the damage is done. We right the ship, find Cougar Rock, nail our next two books through what’s known as The Garden Spot, and find ourselves correcting for a small error on the third to last book.

We’re now down to the final two books and our best case scenario for this lap is 13hrs – high.

The lead is back to me and with limited light I struggle. I’ve already gone through two sets of batteries for my own headlamp and am now borrowing Guillaume’s backup light. A major marker I’m searching for is a sign off the side of the trail, it is less than two feet from the trail, I know this, I am looking for it, I completely proceed right past it and start down an unfamiliar trail and am confronted by a sign I’ve never seen before that reads “legacy tree”.

“F#@K.”

I scream back up slope to Guillaume who is third in our line,

“Did I miss the sign!? Can you see it?”

“Yes, it’s here!”

We retreat, reset, and then struggle with this descent. For the second straight lap, I snap my pole in pretty much the exact same location. We are anything but smooth and the clock is ticking. We eventually locate the second to last book and start up the second to last climb of the lap.

In the fog mistakes are made, I miss by a few degrees and we’re once again scrambling. I have a deep pit in my stomach. This feels fatal.

We locate the trail right at daybreak and I ask the guys if they’re okay with me pushing onward, saying every second is vital right now. They’re totally cool and off I went, somehow feeling like I was up against the clock on lap two, instead of lap five.

I got chased off the trail a short time later by four wild hogs but no harm was done. I get up and over “Checkmate Hill” snag my page and absolutely careen down into camp. Lap time was something like 14h30m. My entire body is numb, not from pain, but from fear and frustration.

The weather has passed and the forecast for the day is nice. I did a full gear change and bathroom stop, but there was a lot to address after that loop.

To add insult to injury I was up against the absolute worst chafing I’ve ever experienced in my life. My Squirrel’s Nut Butter had more than done the trick on loop one, but something went wrong on the second lap. I was continually reapplying but things were getting worse. It was not until I stripped down that I could spot the cause. I was caked in mud from head to toe, and we were so cold overnight that removing gloves just wasn’t an option. Every time I relieved myself I was inadvertently introducing mud into my tights and I’d created a sandpaper grit effect. I was officially no longer having any fun, though at least I knew it’d help keep me awake from here on out.

Linda learned to make sushi in the months leading into the race. If you want an idea of how all encompassing this race has become for our family, Linda spent months this year helping me with my food options for race weekend, and Reed has a tattoo across his shoulders that says “My Daddy has made it further in the Barkley than your Daddy.” Of course this means we can’t hang out with John Kelly, or Jared Campbell, or Blake Wood, or David Horton, but that’s besides the point, this thing never really leaves us alone for too long at a time. Linda stuffed a sushi burrito into my hand and walked me to the gate for my third lap.

I got out of camp before Guillaume and Ally arrived, and it was once again daylight. There was 12h15m left on the clock for the 36hr cutoff to begin my fourth lap. I knew I could manage an 11h30m lap if I pushed hard, and if I was calculated and focused. This wasn’t over yet. I also finally established my favourite direction of travel, clockwise, which would be the direction of the final two laps should I make it that far. In the CCW direction the “handrails” into books are a bit subtler than in the CW direction, and I am therefore faster and far less prone to errors going CW. I just had to lay down an 11h30m lap and to leave 12h45m on the clock for lap four. I believed in my heart that going clockwise was faster and that this was still within reach.

“I can do this, and I will do this.”

 

Lap 3 - Counterclockwise

I ran out of camp and focused on going fast when things were certain and slowing right down when they were not. I tripled checked everything, and though this lead to a few more minutes being eaten up, it subscribed to the “go slower to go faster” race plan.

I arrived a Rat Jaw a full 40 minutes quicker than lap two and there were a ton of people there to cheer me on. I was getting into some eating issues now, as I approached 27 hours of continual movement. I’d find myself dry heaving a bit here and there, but was thankfully still keeping things under control. It is a fight to keep the calories coming, and if you’re not dedicated to the fight than you’re all but done. At one point I opened an Endurance Tap maple syrup gel, sucked it into my mouth, but realized I was going to dry-heave again, so I promptly spit it right back out, but I spit it back into the resealable pouch, got over my dry-heaving, and then sucked down the vital 100 calories on my second attempt. I actually patted myself on the back for that one. “Nicely done” I thought, “that’s a first”.

I dropped off Rat Jaw and had legs. I was moving well and the rains were behind us. I just had to keep pushing and stay focused.

I made great time through Armes Gap, across the New River, and back up Stallion. A small bump once again near where we messed up one lap earlier, but I was triple checking things so my small mistake stayed as just that, a small mistake.

Howie Stern Photography - descending Testicle Spectacle

The next few books were uneventful and I have ten pages in my pocket. I was doing some math and figured I was on pace for 11h45m at worst. I would have 7-10 mins camp time and be out on lap four with maybe 12h20m or so to work with. I was thinking about a lot of things, about if it were possible, about how this had gone wrong, about what it would mean to finish under these circumstances, about how fortunate I am to have such a wonderful family, my parents, my wife, our beautiful son. I was thinking about how much I wanted this, how much me and my wife have invested into this already, how much a finish would mean to us, forget everything else, that’s all white noise, this is for us. I’ve dreamt of becoming a Barkley finisher for ten years now. I was thinking about how good I felt overall, now having eclipsed 32 hours. This is probably the best I’ve ever felt at this point, though I was already on loop four by this point in my two previous attempts.

I was thinking about so much and getting into a nice running rhythm, I was thinking about absolutely everything BUT the one thing I should have been thinking about, book three.

There are varying levels of difficulty between books and some are considered “a gimme” compared to others. Book three is a gimme so you can often treat it as such…

“Whoa, did I miss Bald Knob!?”

I continued around the corner, seemingly confirming in that moment that I had gone too far, then I backtracked and headed up to claim my page.

I was about ten minutes up the slope when things started not adding up so much…

“Did I f@#K this up!?”

I pulled out my map, confirmed direction, moved up slope about another minute, and there it was, the Emory Gap Campground site…

“F@#K! F@#K! F@#K!”

Jared and I ended up here two years ago, at least I knew where I was. I shot a bearing and went to work on correcting my mistake. Maybe ten minutes later I pulled my page from the third book. This error, in and of itself was shitty and detrimental, but not fatal, it’s what happened next that buried me. I somehow dropped down off of Bald Knob too far North, thinking I was West. I thought I’d missed a prominent trail intersection and that I was South of where I needed to be. It’s at this point that I should point out that I’ve never gone more than 31 hours at the Barkley without sleep. I didn’t feel like I was necessarily sleep deprived, but this entire thought process is rather inexplicable to me post-race. I ditched another fifteen minutes piecing this back together, then really wanted to puke when I did a time check.

“GO, for f@#k sakes Gary, GO!”

I ran to my next handrail and then did something I’ve always struggled to do, I got the CCW descent into book two absolutely perfectly. I was still in this thing! About a quarter of the way down I spooked a dozen hogs of varying sizes though, and they continued down the exact line that I was. The last thing I needed was a standoff or a charge from one of them so I made as much noise as possible and after what felt like an eternity they finally dropped off of my line and to the west.

I ripped my page from book two and leaned into the second to last climb in the CCW direction. The sun was setting and my headlamp, which we’d figured out, was back on my head and shining brightly, all 350 lumens of it.

I made good time up Checkmate Hill and ripped my final page. I know my best case time from here to the campground and it didn’t look good. I had to get up and over England in record time and then lean into the descent to camp like my life depended on it.

I got over England, found the trail, hooked a left, and flipped my watch…I double checked the math, then triple checked it…checkmate.

Even if I found another plain to exist on for the next few miles I’d still come in about 90 – 120 seconds over time. I took my time dropping down into camp, not wanting Linda to worry about me once time expired, but also not wanting to rush the inevitable. I wasn’t ready to step aside, I hadn’t even gotten to the hallucination phase of the race yet. I trained for a 60-hour effort, not a 36-hour effort. “I’m not even going to lose all my toenails” I thought. Is there a greater indicator of failure at the Barkley than NOT losing all of your toenails? Probably not.

 

 

The Barkley Marathons is a personal goal that I am dedicated to. To finish, is akin to breaking a course record at a lot of other events, things have to go right, and some years it can feel like the odds are stacked against you. I want to go on record right now as saying the race was doable this year, I have no doubt of that. If you look back through the history of the event there is a higher likelihood of a finish when two knowledgeable veterans are able to work together through four full laps. Just one year ago John and I formed a great team in which we were continually correcting each other’s errors to prevent any small mistakes from becoming big ones. Having said that, the course has been completed numerous times by an individual, Jared being just one of them, and I believed that I had the skills to do that myself as well. I have the physical capabilities to outwork many of my mistakes, but until I eliminate those “zone outs” and “passenger periods” for 60 full hours, a finish will elude me, for as John Kelly so eloquently stated,

“The Barkley will find your weaknesses, and it will exploit them.”

I had described the experience going into this year like I was a prize fighter. One year ago, after being decisively ahead on the cards going into the 12th and final round, the Barkley got me with a lucky punch and left me TKO’d. It was the hardest defeat of my life and I’ve had to wait a full year for my rematch. This loss is more shocking, but somehow slightly less devastating, since I never even made it to the championship rounds.

As I sit here typing this I have but one “Barkley toe”, not ten (a completely numb toe). I will likely loose but three toenails, not the full set. I am tired, but not obliterated. I am sore from head to toe, cut up by briars, and flush with the usual unique recovery issues post-Barkley, but I will probably head out for a short run sometime this weekend. I did a 36-hour race, not the 60 hour event I’d set out to, and I am unsettled and rife with emotion.  

A Barkley finish likely means more to me than it should at this point and there’s been a crescendo through three years now that would have made for a perfect storybook ending this year, but that’s not how life works sometimes. I simply cannot express my true gratitude to everyone who has followed along and sent well wishes and words of encouragement along the way. This is my purge, please understand that this is my way of telling my story, and it is my preference to not have my life and every single interaction become about the Barkley Marathons. This has evolved into so much more than it should have. There was one goal, it was not accomplished, I’m proud of what I did do, but finishing a Fun Run is not even close to finishing the actual race. I don’t want to be “picked up from this”, that’s the reality and that’s where motivations are forged from. If I was okay with this already I would question how much I really wanted it to begin with. I will stand tall again when I am ready to, but right now I am processing my shortcomings and this is as valuable as any BCMC mountain lap repeat I’d perform in training. This is a period for introspection.

I will return for a fourth go, but honestly we don’t know when that will be. This is not like a year ago where we knew we were going again the following year but we didn’t want to talk about it, we really don’t know when we’ll go back and a decision won’t be made until well into the fall. I’ve missed my skis quite a bit this winter. I’ve missed having more days to teach my son to ski. I’ve missed having more adventures with my wife on a day to day and week to week basis. There are a lot of variables here.

In the grand scheme of things, this is just a race and these are trivial matters. My wife and I have our health, we have our happiness, and we have each other, and in the end, that’s all that I’ve ever wanted or needed. I will say that in three years the Barkley has brought us closer together and for that I’m forever thankful. Linda and I have always been a team, but we’re a tighter more cohesive unit than ever before, and our son Reed will reap those benefits throughout his life. Linda said this to Laz before we departed the park;

“In the end this is just a stupid race, put on by a funny man.”

True dat babe, true dat.

You can’t put yourself out there without expecting to fall flat on your face from time to time, sometimes literally. Life is not easy and pursuing the limitations of who you are will certainly be wrought with unforeseen challenges, but as long as you keep your head up and keep pushing onward towards your truth, towards your belief in who you can be, you will learn to enjoy and cherish the journey, to find positives where others only see negatives…even if you end up reaching your ultimate goal a little later than you may have expected to. Even if you find yourself at that destination a few years further along than your planned arrival time. 

GR

To Guillaume and Ally, I have no idea what either of you said at any point in time (that whole French and Scottish accent thing), but I did enjoy your company, and I really enjoyed your headlamps. Well done out there! Very impressive first go for both of you. 

To the Kelly family, John, Jessi, kids and John’s parents and cousin: Thank you for extending your home to us and for taking such great care of my wife, son and parents while I was on course. You’ve taken a race that’s already special to us and brought it to another level.

To the Barkley family, Laz, Sandra, Rawdog, Kathy, Dave, Ed, Gail, Keith, Rich, Mike and on and on, and all of the runners from around the globe. You are what make this so special. You are why we keep coming back. You are why we as a family will return again, at some point, because believe it or not, we really like you guys 😊

To my sponsors, thank you for believing in and investing in me. Salomon, Suunto, Princeton Tec, Drymax Socks, Trail Butter, Endurance Tap, Squirrel's Nut Butter.

and supporters: Fortius Sport & Health / Matt Thompson RMT 

To my parents, I love you so much and I'm so happy you were there and that you got to establish such a wonderful bond with Reed throughout the week. (this is but the second time my father has seen me race and the first time my mother has been to one of my races, given that we live over 7000km apart and I didn't start running till I was long free of the nest.)

To my son. You'll regret that tattoo when you're older.

To my wife. I'm sorry you learned to make sushi for nothing, maybe we should have relied more on the ketchup this year. #backtoketchup20??

Photo Thanks to Michael Doyle / Canadian Running Magazine

The following eight images are thanks to Howie Stern Photography

These final eight images are some of my own from the week

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