Barkley Marathons: Education 101
Preface: Let me start out by saying that I wasn't going to write a race recap, because I felt that I would not do the race justice. Instead I decided to recap my time "out there" rather than the course itself.
Remember what it was like on your first day of school each year? You wore your best outfit, you were excited to see your friends again, and while there was a nervousness in the air, no one would ever let on that they were anxious about what this year would bring. Pulling into Frozen Head State Park had the same feeling. I've looked forward to this for so long and I could not actually believe that it was finally happening.
In January of 2014, I moved off the "Weight List" from the #3 position and was granted a seat in Lazarus Lake's class room. I knew a few of this year's classmates from years of stalking them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and the rest of the class would not be strangers for long.
Karen Jackson, fellow Barkley Weight lister, joined me in the 8 hour trek to Tennessee in hopes that the stars would align and she too would be standing at the Yellow Gate when Laz lit his cigarette this year. The drive was pretty uneventful with a quick stop for lunch in Spartanburg with Tiana Cain. When we reached the state line going into Tennessee, the snow started and kept falling, and falling. We were both in shock with how much snow was actually coming down. It continued to fall until we made a pitstop for dinner with my Mom and Grandmother at Calhoun's on the River in Knoxville (a belated birthday dinner). Grama was not impressed with the idea of the race and thought that the race and director were "stupid". Maybe she was the only sane person at the table that night.
We rushed through dinner to get up to FHSP and set up camp before the storms blew in and it got dark. The first night in camp was miserable. A frozen 15 degrees with winds that didn't quit. It got so cold that our propane tanks actual froze in our space heater. Morning could not come fast enough, and we actually got up before the sun did just to start moving around. A quick pancake and bacon breakfast with some French press coffee hit the spot and Karen and I were past the gate heading up Bird Mountain for a day of hiking. It still did not feel "real" yet. Just an idea that we were at FHSP "out there" training.
Half way up Bird Mountain, we met Barkley veteran Chip Tuthill and was given the VIP park tour. On day one we spent 7.5 hours on the trail and saw a good bit of wildlife including a sounder of wild boar including several young piglets. Note to self: Boar do not like it when you crest a hill and your hiking partner suddenly gets cell coverage and her phone begins to ring nonstop with Text and Facebook notifications. When we made our way back to camp, we realized that we needed several items including propane and decided to head into Oak Ridge to hit up Wal-Mart and decided to grab a pizza while in town. A sleepless night and a long day on the trail left us both staring at our pizza before calling it an early night. We had big plans for Thursday!
Thursday morning was still brisk but warmer than yesterday. We met up with Bill Lovett and headed out on the trails. We returned mid-day for lunch and was lucky enough to meet up with Frozen Ed Furtaw and reviewed the park map with him for quite some time. This picture was by far one of my favorite from the entire weekend. Frozen, talked with Bill and I for almost an hour before we headed off to camp for a nice thick Bacon Cheese Burger for lunch (we ate good all week!!!) Frozen Ed is a pioneer in the Barkley and knows these trails like the back of his hand. I wanted his autograph, but was too caught up in the moment to ask. These "old" guys are my heroes!
We still wanted to head up to the fire tower before dark and to see Rat Jaw, so we wrapped up lunch quickly and headed back out that afternoon. Bill was our tour guide and we hiked up the "candy ass trail" to the summit. The amazing thing about FHSP is the wind. It can be calm as can be one second and then you turn a corner to 40mph headwinds and this is what greeted us at the top.
At the top of Rat Jaw, you finally began to see and identify how much climbing there actually is "out there". The climbs never seem to end. On Thursday it was clear as could be. We could see clear into Kentucky, North Carolina and even Georgia, but race day would be something else. Visibility would be limited to 10 feet or less on certain climbs leaving you wondering if you'd ever reach the top. We played tourist at the top, with a few pictures and Bill was even able to get enough cell coverage to make a quick call home while the nerves began to set in as we saw more and more of the course.
Thursday night was T-bone night! We ate until our stomachs were full and then called it another early night. Friday was going to be a long day and my body was pretty tired from another long day on the trail. I slept like a rock that night, waking up to high winds and pouring rain well after 9am. Karen and I strung up our tarps the night before so we were able to cook breakfast without getting drenched. Bo Millwood made it to camp just before 11am and all the excitement of the race was now buzzing around camp. I turned in my virgin licenses plate, got checked in (Bib #9 for lap one) and got to meet a lot of the racers. My plan was to hang around camp until the map was put out, copy it with accuracy and then try to lay down for a quick nap. I opted for a short hike with Bo and Karen to burn off some nervous energy as it would be a few hours until the map was visible.
We took an easy stroll to the top of Bird Mountain again and I'm glad that we did. Sitting around camp in the damp rain was making my body stiff. When we got back I copied the route onto my map and got some last minute advice from the veterans before heading down to Jodi Isenor's camp to review the Stallion Mountain area in great detail. This proved very useful on race day and I'm glad I took the extra time as a lot of people find themselves lost on this section. Jodi was an awesome guy and you could just tell that he was going to do well on race day!
A nice pasta dinner followed by a hot shower had me backed up to "bed time" as the race could start as early as midnight. Bo volunteered to stay up and listen for the conch as Karen was still on deck with the possibility of getting into the race! Then I did something that I thought would never happen: I fell asleep and slept well.
The Conch blew at 5:47am and I jumped out of my sleeping bag like the tent was on fire. I thought I was going to vomit. The nervous energy that built up was sickening and knowing that in less than 58 minutes we'd be starting, was pretty damn awesome! I had all my gear packed and my clothes laid out. I ate breakfast: Bacon with rye bread, Ensure, Cracker barrel cheese and what seemed like a gallon of Orange Juice. This was the shortest hour of my life. We were now standing at the gate waiting on Laz's bad habit to send us off.
It was my understanding that the unspoken rule was that no one lets Laz see you run out of camp, but a pack of 15+ "runners" did just that... they took off... and ran out of camp. I was next to Frozen Ed and he counted the "fools" out loud. I turned around quickly and watched camp fade out of site as we began the very familiar climb up Bird Mountain heading toward book #1. I hooked up with Nicki Rehn on the climb up as well as Jodi and volunteered to pull them to the first Book and then back down to the North Boundary Trail. We had a flawless navigation and made the trek in exactly one hour. Jodi took the lead up to Jury Ridge and on to Book #2. Our small pack was moving very efficiently. We took a quick compass reading and headed off into the "new section" to Book #3. 1:45 into the race the skies opened up and the rains began to fall. This was the Barkley that I was expecting. We dropped off the trail exactly where we needed to be and I found the Book exactly where Frozen said I should look. We were still making great time but the climb back to the top of the ridge would give me an idea of where my failure would come this year.
The climbs at the Barkley are never ending. You think you're are the top, looking at what surely is the cap stones and then you climb some more and more and more. It was early in the race and my body was feeling pretty fresh so I pushed on. 3/4 of the way up Jared Campbell came flying by us like we were standing still (chances were pretty good that I actually was) and shortly behind him were veterans Alan and Bev Abbs. It took a few seconds to realize it, but for a few short minutes we were leading the Barkley past Book #3. We found out later that the leaders missed the compass heading off Book #2 and found themselves off course looking for Book #3. That alone gave me a nice boost of energy.
The North Boundary Trail is in fact a "candy ass" trail but it goes on forever and the trail was slick from the rain. Trying to run downhill in certain sections was very difficult as I continued to slip off the trail. I watched Jodi pull away and found myself alone for the first time as I headed towards Book #4 at the Garden Spot. Prior to the race, everyone said, don't be alone out there, latch onto a veteran that knows the course and hold on for dear life. I continued to navigate the NBT alone until 5-Lap Finisher John Fegyveresi came into sight behind me on the trail. I pulled myself up Son of a Bitch Ditch and continued towards the Coal Ponds as John pulled me along to The Garden Spot and Book #4 where the first water drop was located. Nicki also came up at this point and I was set on holding on to her throughout the rest of Stallion Mountain.
About this time Willy "Natureboy" Syndram came up on us and took off with a blaze and a quick "be sure to look for these rocks next time Tim, it's your marker to go down". Willy was looking strong and eating a tortilla wrapped hotdog. We continued to navigate to such famous Barkley markers such as Bobcat Rock, Leonards Butt Slide and Hiram's Pool and Spa. We hit Book #5 in 4:20 and the course was now soaked and muddy. I was loving every minute of it.
Then the real climbs began. Testicle Spectacle would be the location where I decided that I was missing a key piece of equipment: Trekking Poles. Everything at the Barkley is dead. Trying to find a walking stick that can hold your body weight as you scamper up the mud banks and to push down briars is harder than you'd think. Fortunately I was able to find two good candidates at the base of Book #7 to help pull me up to the top. Unfortunately, only one stick actually lasted to the top, but more importantly I was still hanging on to Nicki.
We passed Meth Lab Hill and Raw Dog Falls before seeing something that was my biggest fear coming into the this race. It was a ziplock baggie, filled with someone's lost pages. Someone was out here and they no longer had their "proof". We saw Nikolay Nachev back up on Stallion Mountain and he too was looking for his lost pages. The thought of being in that position just made me want to cry. A quick decision to bi-pass Danger Dave's Climbing wall and opt for Pussy Ridge was short lived and we continued to push on. I must have checked for my pages a dozen times over the next mile to make sure they were still with me.
The rains continued to fall as we reached the base of Rat Jaw and began our climb. I scrambled again looking for a second stick to use but came up empty handed. Using a single pole I developed a stab and pull method to get up some of the slicker and steeper sections as we rounded 7 Mine. Half way up, the fog rolled in and you could not see more than 20 feet up the trail. This was both negative and positive as you could not see the top, but at the same time... you could not see the top. A quick scramble to the top of a rock climb I found my long searched for second pole. I made good time on the next section as I was now singing in the rain and could hear voices coming from the top.
"Is that Tim?!?!" I heard Bo & Karen say and I responded with "Whats up Bitches... What does the Fox say?!?!" It was so good to see and hear their voices even though they could do nothing for me. I think they were both afraid to even touch me in fear that I would be disqualified. I reached the top and grabbed Book #9 and quickly topped off my water as this would be the last water drop until I got back to camp. The only thing I remember about this time with them was my comment of "you have no idea..." when asked how it was out there.
I scrambled back down Rat Jaw and met back up with Nicki as we headed for the Prison with a cool hike through the tunnels under the prison and up to Book #10. Damn that water was cold! As we started to climb up towards Indian Knob my body began to shake and my legs felt like bricks. I had to say good bye to Nicki, my tour guide, my confidence marker. I couldn't climb fast enough to keep up. We quickly reviewed the map and I sat down for my first real break in now almost 8 hours. My body was shutting down and I thought this was going to be the end of my race. The problem with the Barkley is that there is no easy way to quit. At this point I had to hike back to camp the same route as the race itself. I took a systems check and thought I might need more fuel. I ate a full bag of beef jerky and another of Trail mix. My water bladder was full and my backup bottle was topped off so I drank a little more than I was all morning. Thirty minutes burned away when I finally realized that I had to "move". From tree to tree I awarded myself with a strong "you've got this". Typically at this place in a race I reach out mentally to my kids for extra strength, but I was having a hard time focusing and couldn't get past the though of that next tree.
Five fee at a time, I started feeling better and better. But this damn climb would not stop. This damn rain would not stop. When I finally reached the top my body was spent but was quickly energized by locating Book #11. I was now a decent and a climb away from finding the last Book. I continued to eat and I continued to feel better. Book #12 was in my grasp and I was on my last long climb up Big Hell. My directions for this section was to "keep taking the steepest possible way until you believe that death is imminent." I hit rock bottom again but made it to the top and collapsed onto the capstone in total exhaustion. I pulled out my instructions and looked for the book. I couldn't find it. Was it here? Was I at the right spot? I learned back against the rock and something poked me in the neck. It was Book #13. I grabbed the book, now in the pouring rain and pulled out page #9. I had 13 Pages in my hand and was one Candy Ass trail decent away from finishing a lap at the Barkley.
I mustered up the energy to push on through the wind and rain and began running down the trail and back into camp. There was Bo! I made it. I put in my food order like I was at a cafe and headed off to get my pages counted. I couldn't go to camp until I was checked in. When I reached the gate Laz was in the process of checking people in and out so "some guy" reached his hand out to grab my pages and I refused to give them to anyone other than Laz himself. Sorry dude, but these 13 crunchy pages were my life at that moment. 1... 2... 3... 4... 5... 6... 7... 8... 9... 10... 11... 12... I think I actually pumped my fist when Laz said "thirteen".
A quick change of clothes and a refuel I was back at the gate with bib #19 in hand and I was heading out for more. It was going to be a cold and wet night but I was exceeding my own expectations at that point. The climb going up Bird Mountain would set my pace for the rest of the night. I had "no more up" in my legs, but I continued to push on. I was very comfortable getting to Book #1 and down the back side of Jaque Mate Ridge and ran into Bob Jones on his way back up to camp from Book #1. I talked him into following me to at least Book #2 and we headed off together. We followed our early tracks to the NBT but when we reached the creek bed at the bottom I felt lost. Nothing looked the same. The small creeks were now rushing streams and I couldn't tell if we were too far North or too far South. We hiked 30 Minutes North along the creek before realizing that we were not going the right direction. We turned around and hiked back to the point where we started and could not make heads or tails of our location. We sat down on a rock and then saw an Orange trail blaze on the tree in front of us. We had found the trail and decided to push on to Book #2.
The climb up to Jury Ridge was LONG. I still had "no more up" in my legs and the switchbacks seemed to go on forever. The wind was strong and the rain/ ice/ snow mix hurt when it hit your face. My core was warm even though my feet were drench from the rivers that now flowed down the trail. Bob and I found Book #2 and we each pulled out our page. In front of us was a tough decision. Do we push on into the "new section" for Book #3 and try to climb out or do we turn around here and start the long and hard climb back to camp. I had "no more up" in my legs and knew that we had at least 18 switchbacks of "up" directly behind us just to quit. That was the moment I quit the Barkley - It may have taken three more hours to get back to camp, but sitting at Book #15, I was done. The long process to get here was over and I knew that the education I got out there was more valuable than any lesson I could learn in any other classroom.
Friends that know me, know that I've been addicted to the Barkley Marathons for a long time. I'm very sorry to say that unfortunately it's now worse. I got a taste. I learned what I need to do to improve. I saw the books, I held the pages. Every once in a while you luck out and get what you really want and for me the education that I got through the slowest marathon I've ever run will be enough to keep me motivate until next time.
My piece of advice: Climb and climb and climb. When you get to the top, go back down and climb and climb and climb back up. When you feel like your legs are going to fall off, do it three more time and then repeat from the beginning.
I heard some amazing stories out there this year, Veterans getting lost before book one. Friends spending 9 hours and walking away with a single page. A two time winner running all 5 laps. Virgins completing their first Fun-Run. Champions loosing pages and their ways. The Barkley Marathon is truly unlike any race I've ever experienced before. The fight to get in and the nerves it takes sitting at camp knowing that you are 2 slots away from running the damn thing but still not 100% sure 5 minutes before the race starts is daunting. Every runner regardless of how many pages they got, or how many loops they completed is amazing. Amazing for wanting to go through Hell just to stand at its gate begging to be let in. Amazing for failing beautifully and then wishing for more in years to come. I posed the question early in the week as to why most of the veterans come back year after year willing to fail again and again and I found that the answer is that they don't have a choice. They have the Barkley in them. They are part of the Barkley. Now, I feel like I'm part of it too. Class dismissed.
Lap 1 Nutrition:
8 - Hammer Gel
2 - White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Clif Bars
1 cup - Beef Jerky
2 cup - Trail Mix
3.5 lt - Water
20 oz - Spark Energy Drink
Camp Nutrition before starting lap two:
16 oz - Chicken Broth
8 oz - Ensure
16.5 oz - Chocolate Milk
4 Strips of Bacon
1 Grilled Cheese on Rye (with two more slices of bacon)
Shoes: Inov8 RocLite 295 - Size 10
Goat Head Sole Pikes
Pack: Ultimate Direction - PB Adventure Vest 2.0
Headlamp: Petzl - MYO RXP