Short Story :
- I am thrilled to have dragged myself to the finish line after 5 laps at the infamous Barkley Marathons.
- I met and ran with many incredible and inspirational people.
- This course is as hard as they say it is.
- On the final lap 5, due to some extreme foot pain (skin) and sleep deprivation I experienced an incredible distillation of my physical and mental self down to a few basic senses and thoughts, which was both an educational and beautiful experience.
- I became the 11th person to finish in a time of 56 hours.
Long Story :
Being completely honest I have long put the Barkley Marathons into a category of races that I had no desire to do. Others in this category are Badwater and the long list of new ultras that are repetitive loop courses and/or mostly flat. I was simply not interested. Barkley seemed silly, miserable, pointless and when compared to the spectacular mountain and desert terrain I have easy access to living in Utah I simply said, why? However, Barkley stood out like a black sheep among the others in the list. It is far from being flat (with 59,000′ of up!) and it takes place in surprisingly rugged and, come to find out, very beautiful mountains. Also, several folks I really look up (Blake Wood, Jim Nelson, and others) appear to have been captivated by it so I’ll admit, deep inside I’ve been interested. About a year ago, in a conversation with my good buddy Ryan McD, we posed the silly question, “if you had to do either Barkley or Badwater, which would it be?” Without hesitation I said Barkley, while Ryan confidently opted for Badwater. Very interesting….
My wife, Mindy, and I dedicated the last half of 2011 to building our new solar (both passive and active) home. So, as 2011 came to a close I was extremely eager to put something burly on the calendar to promote “flipping the switch” back to training in the mountains. After several emails, an exam, a written essay, a wacky application which I had to have notarized, and a check for $1.60 what do you know, I got the famous “condolences” letter from Laz, RD for the Barkley Marathons. “We wish to extend our heartfelt condolences over your recent selection to the field of the 2012 Barkley Marathons….” I was in! January 1, 2012, training began.
Now, I’m not your “typical” long distance runner, which is good because Barkley is not really a race for runners. I fit in somewhere between mountain runner and rock climber; I simply love being outside. My favorite journeys are not trail races, but rather self-made outdoor mountain challenges that usually involve multiple disciplines of outdoor skill. In my past I rock climbed religiously for over 10 years, and have done quite a bit of canyoneering, biking, kayaking, skiing, etc. From what I could tell, Barkley was mostly a bushwhack on very steep unmarked low-elevation mountain terrain, which didn’t sound all that appealing, but honestly I fell into a common trap of being very interested by the extremely low ~1.4% finishing rate.
Training commenced and I found myself taking advantage of steep slopes on nearby peaks in the Wasatch Mountains. Hours Spent Bushwhacking (HSB), Vertical Gain (VG), and the Inclement Conditions Factor (ICF) were metrics I tracked. One thing I love about getting ready for really challenging events is that it forces you to shift your mindset regarding situations that would normally be looked at as unpleasant or unfavorable. I’ve noticed this mental shift for years now getting ready for races like Hardrock, or adventures like Wasotoja, Zironman, etc. Preparing for Barkley would intensify this mental shift. Prior to this shift, for example, I might have been bummed with day after day of terrible winter weather. However, given that I was training for something that would likely involve terrible weather, I now looked forward to running in the worst weather possible as it was an opportunity for some great training. I watched the forecast and prayed for wet cold-fronts to roll in. I even had Ryan excited to join me for a good battle up Grandeur in full-on blizzard conditions in full body wet-suits. silly. The same optimistic twist could also be applied to getting lost, running out of food, getting dehydrated, being torn up by scrub oak, bloodied by manzanita bushes, stabbed by yucca plants, having severe chaffage, being stung by insects, a stinging nettle rash, being in zero visibility conditions, gale force winds, or post-holing in snow for hours on end. It doesn’t seem to matter, it all just becomes “good training” and should be embraced. With this mental shift, what would normally be a cause for frustration could be spun into something positive and constructive. This would prove to be key as finishing 5 laps at Barkley is largely mental and it was guaranteed that something would be fairly sub-optimal in the latter stages of the event. Also, applying this mentality to other aspects of life can quickly turn just about any undesirable situations into something good. I call this conditioned optimism.
My 3 months of training went pretty well. Notable events included a 21 hr day on the west side of Grandeur Peak, logging about 34,000′ of gain in poor winter conditions as a fund-raiser, and then the week before Barkley I snuck in a 14 hour adventure with my buddies Matt Hart and Dakota Jones in Zion National Park that involved a bunch of route finding, bushwhacking, cold water, and night navigation. So, onto Frozen Head Tennessee I went feeling “ready enough”.
Several days before the race, Matt spontaneously bought a ticket and decided to join/crew me. I am still extremely flattered by his kindness and support, which proved critical. We arrived at Frozen Head, I turned in my license plate, received my computerized prediction of the outcome of my race, which read “Handcuffs himself to the Yellow Gate after loop 1”, chatted with Laz and the rest of the gang and then went back to camp to talk maps and strategy with Julian Jamison and John Teeples, two great guys who kindly opened their camp to us. They kindly shared their wisdom and knowledge of the course as we marked our maps out and compared notes. This, coupled with numerous conversations I’d had with James Nelson and I felt as confident as I could given that I’d not taken one step on the “course”. Off to bed…. The lack of a defined start time made for some interesting sleep, with me waking up every 10 minutes feeling like I had missed the start.
Thankfully, the conch didn’t sound until about 8AM, followed by the cigarette lighting one hour later signifying the start. We were off! With the exception of Nick Hollon everyone took off at a very conservative pace. It simply didn’t make sense to go fast given what was ahead. My plan was to make the first 3-4 laps “learning” laps, and I was determined to pay attention and memorize the intricacies of the course. Getting to the first book (of 11) solidified the fact that it was imperative to stay with veterans, I simply had no other choice. It would be near impossible to find all the books using just a map, compass, and written direction. After book 2 there were four of us together moving along at a comfortable but conservative clip : Brett Maune, Alan/Bev Abbs, and me. I really enjoyed getting to know all three of them. Brett is extremely analytical, smart, strong and seemed like my best bet as someone to follow. Alan was quiet, strong and also knew the course very well. Bev is a bad-ass, super strong, and fun to be around. Because everything was slippery we established a rule about proper etiquette. Given how slippery everything was, all runners should simply assume that every stone or tree was really slippery. A runner in front need only inform the runners behind if the rock or tree they were stepping on was actually dry. “Dry!” Bev would shout periodically. We all laughed as we weaved through the early stages of loop 1. The North Boundary Trail was quick going with only a few downed trees to maneuver. Onto the “Garden Spot”. I was shocked at the seemingly completely random spot that we took a 90-degree turn off the trail and straight lined it up a steep hill. The traverse of Stallion Mtn. and the descent off Fykes Peak was extremely tricky with many tiny turns, nuances, etc. How would I remember all of it? Turns out I wouldn’t, even on loop 5 I would get lost. Testicle Spectacle was a steep briar-fest, the descent down Meth-lab hill was steep but easy, and Raw Dog Falls was beautiful. The scramble up “Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall” was fun. Super steep, slippery, but kind of cool. I was thrilled to be on such a steep route and still be “on route”. The climb up and down Rat Jaw was fun and terrible at the same time. Fun climbing up extremely steep terrain, using downed power cables to pull myself up-hill, but riddled with shin-level briars that tore our legs to shreds. I grabbed my page at the top of the Fire Tower, put on my battle-ready leggins (thanks John McGuire!) and took off. The leggins were way too hot given the warm and humid ambient conditions, but it made plowing through the saw-briars a breeze.
When we got to the prison I felt like a kid, climbing down into the tunnel, travelling along an underground river for 100 yards, popping out the other side, and climbing out the same route that James Earl Ray supposedly did when he escaped from prison. I was having fun! The climb up to Chimney Top was STEEP! It was all-fours and grinding along in Low-4 gear.
We got to the book then began the descent down a descent called “Zip Line”. Wow, this was surprisingly rugged and slow going, but very beautiful and fun! Once in the main drainage I felt at home. It was just like thousands of other river routes I have descended while canyoneering. But, it was slippery so I had to be careful and consequently we moved so slowly. Eventually we reached the book at the confluence in the “Beech Tree”. I was honestly having the time of my life on this section. The final climb was steep as hell, but I was having so much fun, I felt so good, and it was so pretty in this canyon. We snagged our pages from the 11th book and then Brett and I took off at the advice of Alan and Bev.
Lap 2 was pretty much a repeat for me except it got dark at the end. Brett had eaten a large turkey sandwich after lap 1 that hadn’t cooperated with him so we moved at a slightly slower pace, but it didn’t matter we were still making good time relatively speaking. We made a good team and had great conversations about someday tackling the Colorado 14ers record together. When back at the Beech Tree we ran into 3 other folks who were still on their first lap! They must have gotten lost. Matt Mahoney was one of them and he quickly snagged his camera and snagged a couple photos of us all together. Brett and I took off. Back at camp we took a planned 1-hr sleep session to re-charge. We popped up and took off, both feeling pretty good. Somewhere mid lap 3 my feet started to fall apart. I’ve dealt with a great deal of foot pain in my past, but this quickly became some of the worst pain I could remember. Also, on the climb back up Zip-Line, Brett’s internal compass was off by about 90-degrees so despite some debate between us, we followed his suggestion and ended up quite a ways off of where we were supposed to be. A bit of thrashing and we got back on course. We finished lap 3, ate, and headed out for #4.
This was probably the hardest part of the race for me. I was quickly distilled to a pretty pathetic hobble from this point on. On lap 4 I was holding Brett back, but being that we had been tackling this as a team so far, he kindly stayed with me, despite my encouraging him to go on without me. Near the end of lap 4 I brought up the subject of lap 5 and asked him which direction he wanted to go (per the race rules, we had to take separate directions). He said CW, which didn’t surprise me. It was clear that my speed was very limited and he was holding strong. At that point I wanted nothing more than for him to take off and have a great lap 5. I knew I could slog to the end. We wrapped up lap 4, and I went back to camp to eat and sleep. I told Matt, wake me up in 2 hrs.
I slept very well, woke up when Matt told me to, put on some clothes, and mentally pulled it together. Going out for lap 5 is hard, especially if you take time to think about it. Thinking does you no good in camp at Barkley. Matt got me all fueled up and I left camp (in the CCW direction), feeling surprisingly good. The climb out of camp felt incredible! I was fueled by some serious adrenaline and caffeine in the coffee. If I could keep this up I could have an 7 hr lap… I made it up faster than any previous lap. But… the high I was on ended suddenly once I started the steep descent to the Beech Tree and my feet caught on fire again.
You have two choices at night, follow your compass bearing, or follow intuition and the faint semblance of trail that had formed from the previous laps. I chose the compass. Not that it was a bad choice, but the descent must have taken me over an hour and I found myself on very gnarly, loose, terrain. If I had slipped and injured myself, I’m not sure if I would have ever been found…. I hit the river way up-stream, and had to descend quite a ways to the Beech Tree. Climbing back up the Zip Line went well in that I read it perfectly, but I was moving so slowly due to the extreme foot skin pain. Every step from this point on was torture. Up, down, flat, it didn’t matter, I was way deep in the pain cave, digging an entirely new room. I saw Brett on Rat Jaw and he looked good, it was clear he was going to establish a solid course record and that brightened my mood quite a bit. I slogged on and eventually got to the New River, which I soaked myself in because I knew the next LONG climb would be hot and miserable. And, it proved to be just that, plus I got lost for about 45 minutes. I was worked, overheating, starting to hallucinate, barely walking, but strangely okay with it all. When lost, I laid down for about 10 minutes, cooking in the sun. My mind had reached a state of pure distillation. The noise floor of daily life was gone, and only a few specific yet amplified sensory tones made it through. The wind, while barely blowing, seemed pronounced and vocal as it danced through the branches of newly budding trees.
Alone in my head, I was startled to see another person! It was John Fegyveresi, from Antarctica coming towards me. It took a while for my brain to put together why he was here…. he was on his 5th lap! I was really happy to see him and gave him all the encouragement I could find in my numb state of mind. It took me about 15 minutes to perform the mental math required to convince myself that he could finish within the allotted 60 hrs. Awesome, this would be a 3 finisher year!
Finally, back to the Garden Spot. I tore my page out and took off, bound for the North Boundary Trail, a no-brainer where I would test how well I could shut off the pain and time perception valves to my brain. The ~7 miles on it felt like an eternity at my pathetic hobble of a pace. I thought ahead, visualizing the final river crossing before the climb up the new Check Mate Hill. When I reached the river, I stayed there for a good 5-10 minutes. My thoughts were few but specific. I cooled myself off in the river, drank plentifully, filled my bottles, and then sat listening to the multitude of conversations being had between the water and river rocks and the wind and trees. My lovely wife Mindy came clearly into my mind. She is beautiful, perfect, and calming. I got up, legs feel great, but feet were another story. Too bad I couldn’t devise a way to run on my knees, elbows, or hands. I was in a foot race and couldn’t use my feet. Frustrating, but at least the final climb is steep enough that I could use my arms to pull on trees. Low-4 gear again for 30 minutes or so and I was up to the service road and onto the final book. I whip out my trusty Black Diamond Z-poles, which are a a great supplement to faulty lower limb functionality. I get into a spider like motion using my arms to generate half my forward propulsion. The descent on the Bird Mountain Trail is painful, but eventually I reach the finish gate to the supportive words of several dozen folks. My rewards for finishing 5 laps was to not have to go out for a 6th lap. No belt buckle, no t-shirt, nothing other than the satisfaction of finishing. I needed nothing else.
Brett had gone on to set a course record of 52 hrs 3 minutes. I finished in 56 hrs 0 minutes, and John finished in 59 hrs 41 minutes with a whopping 19 minutes to spare. Watching him finish was incredible, he’s one tough dude.
Post Event Reflections
- Frozen Head State Park is beautiful. I now understand why Jim Nelson goes out of his way to visit it. Something about it is magical.
- FHSP is surprisingly clean and pristine. I felt very comfortable in the woods drinking and cooling off at every stream I could find. Man was meant to drink from the earth, not from plastic water bottles of chemically processed H2O.
- Moving through saw-briars is indeed something you figure out, get better at, and eventually they don’t bother you anymore. All my days spent in manzanita bushes in Zion NP make saw briars honestly feel pretty wimpy!
- The Barkley is an extremely unique challenge. It should not be compared with other 100 mile events, because it’s so different. It is it’s own sport.
- I understand the pull this event has on folks. I’ve found myself also thinking about returning someday…
- Given my slow pace, the impact to my body was minimal and my recovery has been remarkably fast. My muscular/skeletal system was 95% quite quickly, my feet are a different story and are fairly wrecked. Sleep deprivation always weighs on me for a week or two.
- I’m VERY excited to be done slogging and get back to running! Bring on 2012!
Pictures from the journey here.