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The Barkley Marathons: Everything I Feared and More

In the worlds of academia and industry, students and professionals are asked to prove competence through rigorous exams. SAT's, ACT's, GRE's, LSATs, MCATs, and the list of acronyms goes on. One could argue that if such a thing as a mountain-ultra-trail running aptitude exam exists, then that test is the Barkley Marathons. If Barkley is the test, then the finishers, a mere 15 in the race's 32 year history, are members of a select trail-Mensa club. The race stats alone are staggering with a tight 60 hours to cover 120,000 ft of elevation change and over 130+ miles. Yet if the Barkley could be reduced to just these numbers, the odds of finishing wouldn't be quite so bleak. If one's performance was based solely on athletic skills like climbing and descending prowess, the ability to negotiate gnarly terrain, and the will to continue moving forward in a sleep deprived state, it would be like so many other ultra running events already in existence. What makes this event so spectacularly difficult is the cognitive wherewithal it demands. Make no mistake about it, the Barkley is a thinking person's game. Not in the traditional realms of math, science, and vocabulary, but in other peripheral yet vital components. In the Barkley, without the ability to memorize topographical lines and descriptions of the route, to show confidence with navigation while recognizing when to adjust course to minimize errors, and the willingness to work together while simultaneously existing in a non-dependent state, a contender's athletic potential is never fully realized. Still, a grueling physical training regimen coupled with obsession over course details will only get you so far. Come race weekend, the Barkley Marathons is, perhaps above all else, a task of constant decision making. Consistently good decisions may very well lead to a 5 loop finish, though it's incredibly unlikely.  Poor decisions however, which are easy to make and nearly impossible to recover from, are destined to cascade and lead to spectacular failure. If you ask the race director, laz, of all the decisions to be made "out there," the best one is to probably avoid this senseless suffering altogether. 

This year I was chosen as one of the 40 individuals who had the cherished opportunity to sit for the Barkley exam.  I arrived at Frozen Head State Park Wednesday before the race and got to know many of the other runners. Everyone I met had amazing stories of adventure which had earned them a shot at the Barkley. Folks like Seth Wolpin, who had summited Everest, Michael Vergsteeg who had set the FKT on the Arizona trail, and Ed Thomas who had completed the Arrowhead 135, a running iditarodesque race in single digit weather where racers mushed their gear over snow dragging a sled behind them. There were other well known names like Gary Robbins, Michael Wardian, Jamil Coury, and Heather Anderson. For me though, despite being in the presence of these celebrities of endurance, one of the most salient features of the Barkley was the overwhelming sense of community. Veterans and virgins alike appreciated how truly fortunate they were to have a chance to line up at the yellow gate. Additionally the small field of competitors living communally in the campground fostered real connection between people. As I joined the assembly of extraordinary achievers and pitched in to help unload the communal firewood, I realized that the widespread kindness and humility on display impressed me more than any adventure credentials ever could. 

A community of Barkers unloading firewood. Photo Ann Labosky

Going into the Barkley, I don't think I could have felt better trained or more rested. Later of course, I would realize that there were many changes to my training and preparation that would have perhaps led to a different outcome, but putting 250,000 ft of climbing on my legs since the beginning of the year and having the experiences of Nolan's 14 and the Colorado Trail had me feeling cautiously optimistic about what I'd soon face. 

On Friday afternoon, runners turned in their license plates and picked up their race numbers before the course map was eventually displayed and taped to a picnic table. Runners huddled around, waiting for their opportunity to trace the official route onto their own park map. Once preparations were complete, I settled in around 9:00 pm to go to sleep in the cargo van I had been calling home. Saturated with slumber, I got a couple hours of shut-eye before my dad rapped on the van door just after 12:40 am. The conch had sounded and there was now one hour until race time. 

Unique to this year's event was the prohibition of personal watches. Once the conch shell had been blown, runners could pick up their generic timepieces from laz which were set to "Barkley Time" and would read 00:00:00 at the start of the race. A cold rain had been falling for several hours and as the runners stood silent behind the gate, we listened to laz pay tribute to the old Barkley runners. "They're not here this year and they're not going to be back...remember these guys, they'll never be here again but they'll never be gone." In accordance with tradition, ashes from some of the old Barkers would be spread along the course by some of the runners. It was clear that the people of Barkley were family. 

During the infancy of morning that is often mistaken for night, a flick of a lighter smoldered the end of a Camel cigarette. The Barkley Marathons had begun. The race started with a lead group of ten people building separation from the pack as the course left the jeep road to climb single track switchbacks. I quickly regretted wearing too many clothes from the start and fumbled to remove my jacket and gloves while trying not to lose contact with the group. Though a bit awkward and inefficient with managing my layers, I felt comfortable with the pace climbing on the trail and traversing over the Pillars of Doom. My world would soon turn upside down once we left the blazed trail to descend towards Book 1 however. It was on this first descent that I was introduced to the gnarly footing that was ubiquitous at the Barkley. At least a foot of loosely piled oak leaves in various stages of decomposition covered rocks and tree branches. The ground, slick from the night's precipitation, made for treacherous footing while the dense fog impeded headlamp visibility. While the pace itself was probably manageable had it not been for the technicality of the terrain, to me, the effort seemed reckless. Runners all around slipped and fell trying to keep up. Though I had intentions of being a good student and following along with my map and compass, there was simply no time to reference such things for fear of losing the headlamps in the darkness. Unfortunately, our group mis-navigated to Book 1 and by the time the error was resolved, the rest of the field, who had been more deliberate with their bearings, had already settled on its location. A backlog ensued at the first checkpoint as people desperately grasped for the book to tear out their page. "You're all worse than a bunch of piranhas!" someone shouted. The chaos was just beginning.

The lead group, now splintered because of the literary feeding frenzy, had somewhat coalesced ahead of me. For the second time however, navigational miscues had them turning back towards the rest of the field, who were now shooting down a creek drainage and the Check Mate ridgeline behind me. I followed suit and on the descent, runners fanned out in the darkness, fumbling to try to find the most efficient line down. People, myself included, were crashing and stumbling all around as LED torches dotted the foggy landscape. Steep cliffs and frequent losses of balance, however, didn't seem to deter anyone from continuing to bomb with what seemed like reckless abandon towards the creek. For me, fifty six hours of Nolan's 14 was characterized by a steady, controlled effort burn. My first impressions of the Barkley, by contrast, were highlighted by intervals of suicidal off trail and downhill sprints, offset by periods of confusion and wandering. It was immediately clear that this was a very different beast. As unexpected and as uncomfortable as the frantic effort made me feel, the essence of lawlessness and free-for-all nature brought me back to childhood when playing in the woods had little real purpose outside of exploring. While a considerable part of me feared this freneticism was not sustainable, I found myself at least a little exhilarated by the madness.  

Crossing the creek, the course returned to candy ass trail as it climbed to the ridge. By this time, it was painfully clear that rapidly descending non-candy ass trails was not a relative strength of mine and I would need to use the climbs to reconnect with the lead pack. The front group was several switchbacks ahead and I was able to reel them in just before leaving the candy ass trail. Once again, I prepared for another wild descent. High stepping and hurdling branches on the awkward slope, I heard periodic shouts of jubilation ahead. Sporadic sections of game trails were becoming apparent, which signified to the group that we were on the right path. After following blindly over what seemed like non-trails for the majority of the race, this was proof that the Barkley was actually held on trails, just varying definitions of the word. Our instructions said Book 2 would be located near a confluence of creeks and in my mind, the group had nailed it as it appeared that we had arrived at this particular feature. In the darkness though, it was so easy to become disoriented, and it seemed that our cohort was continuing downstream. Discussions started and there was still more confusion and uncertainty. Though I have an idea of what may have happened, I'm still not quite sure it accurately describes where the mistake was made and how it was resolved. Nevertheless, after seeing this lead pack continue to struggle and make what seemed like the third major miscue before even finding the second book, I made the decision to take my chances and fall in with a smaller gang of Jamil Coury and Michael Versteeg. While our trio still floundered around for a little while looking for Book 2, we eventually located it and continued on.

Climbing now towards Book 3 in a smaller group, things seemed less frenzied. There was time for me to reference the map, to check compass bearings, and to try to learn the ground we were covering. Still, navigating in the dark and in the fog, our group continued to make navigational mistakes on the way to Book 3 and Book 4. It wasn't until day break near Book 5 that we began to finally feel competent with following the course. We travelled down Leonard's Butt Slide, forded the New River, ascended the ridge adjacent to Testicle Spectacle, tagged the fire tower at the top of Rat Jaw, tunneled through the Prison, pierced the Needle's Eye, zipped down Zipline, and grunted up Big Hell. Along the way, we continued to rely heavily on Jamil, a two time veteran whose course knowledge was invaluable. Watching both he and Michael artfully glide down steep, technical slopes without hesitation was a sight to behold. We hadn't seen many runners until reaching the final sequence of books on Loop 1. At that point, we came upon small clusters of runners and while this reassured us that we were on the right path, it also confirmed that a lot of time had been lost searching for those first 4 books. 

The final candy ass trail descent into camp allowed for a wonderfully mindless stretch of sustained running. After almost 11 hours, we arrived back at camp and handed over our 13 pages to laz.  On the pages read things like "THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS," "BURN-OUT," "IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD," "UNRAVELLED," "THIS IS THE BIRTH OF SELF HATE," and "LOST AND FOUND."  Unfamiliar with proper page protocol, I dumped the crumpled wads of paper on laz's stone podium and, with the sad state of my submitted stationary, wondered if laz thought they had been used for hygiene purposes. Constructively, he suggested that folding the pages next time would cut down on the time it took to count them. 

Finishing Loop 1 with Jamil and Michael. Photo Ann Labosky

Presenting my wads of paper to laz. Photo: Ann Labosky

The interloopal period, after turning in your pages and before you get your new race number, is the only opportunity where aid is permitted. This transition lasted 10-15 minutes for me as my crew tended to my needs. My feet were powdered to address maceration, and I chased down a peanut butter and nutella sandwich with mouthfuls of instant potatoes. My pack was refilled with water and calories and I picked up a new race number before heading for the counterclockwise Loop 2. 

Jamil and Michael left camp a little before me but we regrouped along the candy ass climb towards Book 13. Now, working our way backwards from the direction we had previously travelled, landmarks were fresh and familiar. Seeing things for the second time allowed for more confident navigation. Along the way to Book 12, Michael took advantage of the descent and ran ahead to follow a ridgeline down. The bulk of the group however, which had now absorbed Rob, Eric, and Mikael, seemed to think that we needed to vear on a line further to the south. After some moments searching, we arrived at the book location, but Michael was no where to be seen. Pausing only briefly to refill water bottles from the creek, the group continued without Michael. This was a lesson in the harsh nature of the Barkley. Though I never saw any intentional "scraping" and cooperation was certainly helpful to an extent, working together had it's limitations and unwritten rules. To finish 5 loops, or even a fun run, the margin of error is so incredibly slim. As a result, few could justify jeopardizing their own chance of making the cut-offs, simply to maintain the whole of the group.

Descending Rat Jaw. Photo: Ann Labosky

The fog from the morning had burned off long ago and given way to blue sky and warmer temperatures. Somewhere along the descent towards the prison tunnel, I became acutely aware of sharpening pain in my left shin. I could still climb well enough, but the pain with descending, which seemed to be worsening, was forcing me to a hobble. Realizing this weakness, I knew I couldn't afford to stop long at the firetower if I had any chance of hanging with the group. So after tearing and neatly folding my page at the top of the climb, I got a head start and gingerly began down Rat Jaw. As expected, I was soon caught by Jamil who looked really strong and would go on to complete the rest of Loop 2 solo. Just behind him, Rob and Eric too caught up with me just at the point where we leveled out and turned on the old jeep road. Aside from my shin, all other systems felt great and I resolved to hang with them as long as I could. Over the next hours with Rob and Eric, I learned that they both had intimate course knowledge and I admired how they navigated, rarely referencing a map or compass. This was Eric's second Bark and Rob had been here several more times before. These guys reinforced how a thorough understanding of the course was critical to success. 

Before descending Leonard's Buttslide, the internal whining from my shin was becoming more difficult to contain. Eric offered a stretch of duck tape to see if compression would help at all, but stopping to tape it unfortunately didn't alleviate the pain and only cost us time. Night was settling in now and I recognized my role as the weak link in the group. Still, I knew I was responsible for self extraction and getting back to camp so I wanted to learn the navigation from my guides as long as I could. 

Rob, Eric, and I hung together until just after Book 2, the 12th book in this direction. At that point, our trio had travelled several hours in the dark together but what seemed to be a worsening anterior compartment syndrome had swelled to almost euphoric levels of pain. On the positive side, the intense, searing hurt was keeping me more awake and more alert than any dose of caffeine ever could. While one would think that being forced to slow to a crawl would mean less falling, this was not my experience. In fact, I was falling so much, that I didn't even realize that I had lost my map until I fell again, searched around, and discovered I must have flung it into the woods on one of the preceding missteps. My race was turning into a comedy of errors and I took this as a sign that it was time to cut ties with Rob and Eric. As they distanced themselves in the darkness, I too distanced myself from the hope of completing this, or any subsequent loops. Now alone, I tried to reference the vague park map stored in my head to find the easiest way to get back to camp. Luckily, John and Gary were heading up the trail towards me on their third loop. John assured me that if I stuck to this trail, it would take me up and over the final mountain and back into camp. Wishing them luck, I continued on.

Once I made the decision to forego completion of this second loop, the pain seemed to crescendo to still greater levels with every step. Though not the outcome I had hoped for, I was resigned to the fact that this was the right, and really only decision to make. After more than an hour of more limping I eventually reached the gate and informed laz that "It was everything I feared and more." After completing 1 and 12/13ths of Barkley loops in 25 hours, my race was over. I recapped the misadventure to the small crowd and sat reflecting on my time out there as Alternate Dave serenaded us with the most soulful rendition of taps. As I began gingerly walking away towards the van, someone noted the giant hole in my pants that I didn't realize had been there, probably for several hours. We shared a laugh, while inside, I secretly feared of the inevitable and unfortunate pattern of poison ivy rash that would appear in days to come.

So much fun I split my pants. Photo: Ann Stapanowich

Video: Ann Labosky

Not even completing two loops of the Barkley was not what at all what I was expecting and, from an outsider's perspective, it may seem like a colossal failure. Indeed, if the situation is broken to down into a dichotomy, into Finish or Failure, then I completely failed. But my prevailing sentiments from the experience, oddly enough, are excitement and hope rather than disappointment.  The Barkley is a process oriented undertaking and one that rewards patience and perseverance. The 25 hours spent out there were replete with moments of confusion, fatigue, and pain, but that doesn't mean they are components of failure. They were the tools of learning. The opportunity to struggle, after all, was what I was searching for anyway. As I've spent time reflecting on my preparation and performance, I've come to realize that the hours spent listening to podcasts, reading race reports, putting in the necessary training, and studying park maps were useful, but they weren't enough to prepare me for this experience. In truth, I don't know of anything that could have fully readied me for the uniqueness of the Barkley. Ultimately, I believe that specific experience is the best experience and I'm grateful to have had the chance to line up behind the yellow gate. Just being out there taught me more than years of training or studying ever could.

I have a lot of people to thank for supporting this adventure including my crew chief Brad Bishop, my parents, the Labosky's, Chris, and everyone that followed along this incredible event. And if you haven't seen it, the conclusion of the race with John Ke.... Barring injury and armed with a better understanding of the course, a back up map, and reinforced pants, I know I have a lot more to offer the Barkley. I can only hope for another opportunity to pass the exam. 

John Kelly, turning himself inside out to complete the Barkley in 59:30. Photo: Peter Stapanowich

Joy, Hope, Confusion, Exhaustion, Despair. A gamut of emotions in the span of 30 minutes. Photo: Peter Stapanowich

Some of the 2017 Barkley Family. Photo: Ann Stapanowich 

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Comment by Russell Ditsworth on April 27, 2017 at 3:45pm

I really enjoyed reading this one Brandon, I love the insight into this unique event and hearing about your experience through some excellent writing and storytelling.

Among the many nuggets of pure gold that I especially enjoyed: “You’re all worse than a bunch of piranhas!”, picture of Wardian running/sprinting as he helps with firewood (of course), and looking at the positive – “the intense, searing hurt was keeping me more awake and more alert than any dose of caffeine ever could.”  Awesome.

I’ve got to think this performance puts you on the shortlist of folks who will be unlucky/lucky enough to sit for the exam again in 2018.  Good Stuff!

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