Looking at the starters of this year's Barkley Marathons, I thought, "This year it's going to be a race, not just a race of attrition." But it feels that way every year. If this was any other race there'd be no question about finishing. But this is "the race that eats its young." "The only thing that buckles here is your knees."
Blake Wood and Jim Nelson were there, two of the 6 past finishers. Andrew Thompson, Blake and I are the only ones ever to embark on an ultimately futile Loop 5. All three of us were there. Greg Eason and Andras Low were back after successful "Fun Run" finishes last year.
In putting together a plan for this year's run, I reviewed everything I've done right and wrong preparing for Barkley over the last two years. The first thing I got right was to train hard. Before the 2006 race, I hiked with a pack up and down the steepest hills I could find. Because "running" 100 miles in 60 hours is a 36 minutes per mile average pace, I wasn't worried about having to run very much. But just being in good shape wasn't enough. I lost way too much time to navigational errors. My time for 3 loops was too slow even to qualify as an official "Fun Run" finish. Barkley is notoriously hard on "virgins." Read my 2006 race report here.
For 2007, I did similar training and focused on learning the course. I arrived at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee a couple days early and scouted the sections that had given me the most trouble. I did much better, finishing 4 loops just under the 48-hour time limit, and set out on a 5th loop, but quit in a sleep-deprived stupor when it became clear that I could not finish under 60 hours. Read my 2007 race report here. More great information can be found on Matt Mahoney's unofficial official Barkley site.
This year I decided the key would be making time to sleep during the race, and the only way to do that is to run faster. So the crux of my training was running, not hiking, up and down lots of hills. I limited my long runs to about 3 hours so I could run hard the whole way. Only when my time on a 16-mile run with 14,000-feet of elevation change got down to 2:42 did I switch to a 20-mile route with 16,000 feet of elevation change. To get the effect of a longer run, I ran the same course on two or three consecutive days. Laz has commented about me logging my runs in feet of elevation change rather than miles, and it's true. I consider elevation change to be more important than miles when training for Barkley.
The hard running paid off handsomely. I was repeatedly able to recover from hard efforts during a loop and maintain a faster pace. Sleep allowed my brain as well as my legs to function better. With a total of just 3 hours sleep over two nights, I seldom felt sleepy on the trail and never hallucinated. I had much less trouble navigating at night, even though it was foggier this year than last. With no fog in my mind, the fog on the course didn't seem so bad.
I also wanted to lighten my load. The past two years were so hot it was necessary to carry a hydration bladder. When race day dawned rainy and cool, I switched to a water bottle. The cool forecast also allowed me to wear most of my clothing. The past two years my rain gear spent most of the time in my pack; this year I wore it almost all the time. I also reduced the amount of food carried by eating more between loops. With all the reductions, my supplies fit into a fanny pack instead of a backpack.
Unlike last year, I didn't lead from the start. Byron Backer took care of that with a blistering pace up Bird Mountain. I barely kept him in sight. The rest of us strung out down the switchbacks in small groups of just 1 or 2. Byron had just torn out his page when I arrived at Book 1, got my first page, filled my water bottle in Phillips Creek and took off after Byron. We were more or less together from there to Bald Knob. Byron had scouted this section a few days before and gotten lost. Even together we both managed to miss the first switchback descending from Bald Knob. So we ran cross-country until we picked up the trail again just before Squire Ridge. We had no more problems until Fyke's Peak where we searched 20 minutes in vain for a missing book, looking under every root ball in the area.
Down Fyke's, Byron got ahead of me several times. He had scouted the ridge and was choosing better routes. I spotted him up ahead from the top of a cliff before back-tracking to find a way down. I was very impressed that he wasn't following me around. Byron told me he'd probably struggle at night, but if he can overcome that weakness, he has a bright future at Barkley. He and Carl Laniak distinguished themselves among this year's rookies as "Fun Run" finishers.
Unfortunately, Byron's independence cost him at Book 5. By the time he found the book, I was just a tiny figure nearing the top of Testicle Spectacle.
I cruised through the rest of loop 1, and after a short break, most of loop 2. Night fell for the first time as I arrived at Raw Dog Falls. Rat Jaw was easy to navigate at night because the saw briers had been cut down. With the power line overhead, and a huge swath of open ground to follow, I erased all memories of struggling in the fog last year.
My first tough challenge came on the one major course change. This year the Camel Humps were reinstated to compensate for improvements to the North Boundary Trail. I was lost in the fog for quite a while. Eventually I followed the cliff tops and made slow progress. After that I fell hard coming down the Chimney Top Trail. Anticipating a sleep break when I got back to camp, I was running fast when I hit a muddy spot, crashed hard and slid off the trail. By the time I got back to camp, the bruise didn't hurt anymore.
Loop 1, at 7:07, had been so fast that I worried about blowing up, but after rounding Loop 2 in 9:23 feeling good, I stopped worrying. It was 1:30am, time for a well-earned rest. Sleeping in multi-day races makes so much sense I'm surprised how few people have tried it at Barkley. Nighttime pace can be glacial, so sleeping at night doesn't sacrifice much mileage. And the dividends paid are tremendous. After sleeping, I made fewer navigational errors and ran faster, more than making up for the time lost.
Loops 3 and 4 are reverse loops, which make Big Hell and Zip Line very tricky in the dark. I'd been hoping to start down Big Hell at first light, but I was well ahead of that pace and unwilling to give up too much time. After a 2 1/2 hour pit stop in camp to eat and sleep, I set out at 4am. I arrived at Chimney Top in total darkness. In the fog, I walked 3/4 of the way around Chimney Top before backtracking to the book. As I set my compass bearing to descend Big Hell, Carl Laniak, Greg Eason and Andrew Thompson were just topping out. Andrew said Blake Wood was somewhere behind, so I descended Big Hell looking for lights. When three lights suddenly appeared, I scurried off to my right to meet them coming up. Eventually I realized the lights were not runners but houses way off in the distance which became visible when I broke below a fog bank. Rats! I was lost on Big Hell. When I reached the bottom, I was in thick brush on an unfamiliar hillside above a near vertical drop into the creek. There was less brush down below, so I decided to slide down. I fell so fast, I panicked, grabbed hold of a sapling, and wrenched my left shoulder. The reflex action had been pointless because I had to let go again, sliding into the water. As I scrambled out, I could barely move my left arm. I thought my race might be over, but even if it was, I had to hike out. From the size of the creek, I decided to search upstream for the confluence, and as I walked, the pain in my shoulder subsided to a manageable level. I would learn later that I dislocated my collar bone where it attaches to the sternum.
When I got to the beech tree and retrieved my page, it was light enough to put away my headlamp. I could the water bottle with that hand, or feed myself with it, but I couldn't use it when scrambling uphill or downhill because it hurt too much to reach out. In the daylight, I started cruising again. Except for the shoulder, I felt almost as good as the first day. With no more navigation problems, I completed Loop 3 in 10:41, for a three loop total of 29:56:49. I was thrilled to finish the Fun Run in under 30 hours!
Since it was daylight and I was feeling pretty good, I wanted to minimize the time spent in camp. But my feet were pruned up from all the rain and I decided to let them dry thoroughly before applying Hyrdopel. The stop took half an hour.
I began Loop 4 a little after 3pm wondering how far I could get in the daylight. Big Hell and Zip Line were certain, but by pushing hard, I got over the Humps, down Rat Jaw, up Meth Lab and down Testicle before breaking out the headlamp! It was an unmaintainable pace, but I didn't care. I just kept rejoicing every time I passed another spot that would have been tough to negotiate at night. It was rainy, wet, foggy and muddy, and I knew it was going to be a very bad night.
Darkness immediately confirmed my worst fears. After taking just 5 1/2 hours to do the first half of Loop 4, it took another 3 hours to cover the 3 miles up Fyke's and over Stallion Mountain. The fog was simply awful. Going up Fykes, I kept getting lost and having to backtrack. Wearing my headlamp was useless; the fog was so thick I could barely see the ground. On Stallion Mountain, even with the headlamp in my hand, I could only see halfway across the width of the road. I had to angle back and forth to identify all the junctions properly.
The worst moment came near the summit. There's a big blow down to walk around and the road turns before emerging on the other side. The whole area is relatively open and flat, so it is very difficult to tell which way the road continues, even in daylight. Fortunately I'd made a mental note of the problem spot. Even so, I walked around the entire blow down several times before finding the road. By then I was completely disoriented. I had to get out my map and compass to be sure I was following the road in the right direction.
I heaved a big sigh of relief when the road to the Garden Spot finally appeared out of the fog. It was 11:30pm and all thought of cruising was long gone. I was just thankful that I still had some time in the bank, although that was disappearing fast. On my way to the Coal Ponds I got lost again, regaining the correct route only after crossing between two of the ponds. At Son of a Bitch Ditch and Bald Knob, I managed to stay on the trail only because I know those sections so well. But the fog got thinner as the trail improved.
When I got back on maintained trail, I knew I'd complete Loop 4 before dawn. I tried really hard to start cruising again, reminding myself that the sooner I got there, the sooner I could get some sleep. But I was too sleepy to run well and the muddy trail was dangerously slippery. Jogging along as best I could, I never managed to get an efficient stride going. Fatigue set in on top of sleepiness as the hours passed. About 2:30am, on the way down Jury Ridge, I stopped for a quick nap. My sleepy eyes weren't working very well and I was risking a disastrous fall on the narrow, sloping side-hill trail. I lay down in the wet leaves with rain misting down on my face and rested my eyes until I started shivering, about 10 minutes. I got up and warmed up my cold cramping muscles by walking.
The sleepiness cleared as I reached the last book at Philips Creek. From there I was able to push myself over Bird Mountain and back to camp in an hour and fifteen minutes. It was 4am and I'd just completed Loop 4, the hardest loop at Barkley, in 12:52.
I was exhausted, but I forced myself to eat and tend my feet before going to sleep. At 4:15am I set my alarm for 5:45am and fell asleep in seconds. When I awoke, I took a caffeine pill. I was groggy, but able to focus. I lubed my feet and reapplied sunscreen for the last time. I put on dry socks and shoes, hoping in vain that it would ease the pain in my feet. The only thing I forgot to bring was a hat. Day 3 would be the sunniest yet, but a little sunburn wasn't going to stop me.
Starting in the dark at 6:06am, I decided to do Loop 5 clockwise. The first navigational challenges are farther out and easier to solve in that direction. I also find that the North Boundary Trail is best to do when fresh. It's possible to really cruise on it. Marching up and down Zip Line and Big Hell is slow no matter what.
Dawn broke just as I arrived at Book 1 and I put away my headlamp for the last time. I climbed Jury Ridge and Not Jury Ridge for the last time. Everything I did was for the last time. A new day was dawning. The last day. It was still raining, but the temperature was rising and I'd be done before it got cold again. Every hour I felt stronger. With each passing obstacle, I felt free to push a little harder. I'd be done soon. I'd be done sooner if I pushed and I really wanted to be done sooner so I could rest. I told myself not to think about rest yet. I needed to stay focused.
It was Monday morning. Fool's Weekend was over. I heard a crew with chain saws working near Rat Jaw, while back in camp, runners and their crews were packing up. Many had already left to catch planes or start long drives home. It's only fair, I guess. At most races the front runners go home before the last runner finishes. Barkley's different.
Meanwhile, I ran down Frozen Head and cruised over the Humps. At Indian Knob I faced the last cross-country downhill on Zip Line. It was the last section where I walked downhill. I cruised up Big Hell in just under 40 minutes, sweating profusely. For the first time in over 50 hours I took off my long sleeve shirt. When I hit the good Chimney Top Trail, I took off at a full run. My feet hurt, my knees hurt and my quads hurt, but I didn't care.
A shout went out as I came running into camp. I was early. It had been an incredible last loop. 10:17 was better than most people did on loop 1! My official finish time was 55:42:27, besting Ted "Cave Dog" Kaiser's 56:57 course record!! I can still hardly believe it. I have great respect for Cave Dog and his many achievements, and am very proud to have bettered one of his marks.
There are no finishers awards at Barkley, but Gary's warm handshake and congratulations all around were better than any bauble. The energy jacked me up for another hour. I felt fresher than I had all day. I stood talking to the 15 people or so who had waited so long to watch me finish. I signed a couple autographs, posed for some photos, including one with Blake and Jim welcoming me into the finishers club. It was wonderful.
Eventually the euphoria wore off and fatigue began to take over. I sat down. Andrew gave me a pair of Crocs to wear and cooked the last of the Barkley chicken over the fire as I took a shower. After eating, I slept for 9 hours, but that was only a start. Including naps, I slept close to 12 hours a day for much of the next week. My quads, knees and feet all hurt like hell, but should recover fully. My dislocated collar bone will leave a permanent bump on my chest, right where a finishers medal might hang. So it seems I got a Barkley "finishers award" after all.