Thursday, April 11, 2013

Holland, Czech Republic, England, and Bolivia- A Lesson in Barkley Geography (2013 Barkley race report)

It’s been widely stated that the Barkley Marathons is the most difficult footrace on earth, and I’ve yet to see any credible arguments to the contrary.  In fact, the main argument against is that it’s so difficult, it just shouldn’t be considered a race (something I’ve said myself prior to this year).  It was my absolute privilege to be allowed to run this race in 2013, which I now consider the greatest race I’ve ever seen.  I hope to participate again.  As this race seems to have attracted the attention of lots of my non-running friends, I’m starting my report by explaining what the Barkley is and why it is so unique.  Anyone familiar with the race may want to skip this section, or provide feedback on accuracy.  My actual report will start below the videos.  Warning: As someone with a history of long race reports, this is the longest race report of my life by at least a factor of 2, as I wanted to give a good representation of the most epic race I’ve ever seen and as I want to remember it for myself.  So grab some snacks, pull up a chair, and get comfortable. 

An Introduction to the Barkley Marathons

The Barkley can be traced back to 1977, when James Earl Ray, convicted of killing Martin Luther King, Jr., escaped from Brushy Mountain prison near Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee.  He headed into the mountainous terrain but was found 54 hours later just a few miles away.  A local runner, Gary Cantrell (aka Lazarus Lake, or just Laz) heard about this and commented that he could have run 100 miles during that time.  He mapped a course a few years later, and the Barkley Marathons was born.  Laz himself is an interesting character worthy of many words, but I’ll focus on the race for the sake of brevity [**cough cough**].  While the course has changed often (with every change making it more difficult), it currently consists of 5 loops of roughly 20+ miles each. 

The Barkley Marathons is quite unique, even in the strange world of ultra marathons, as it is purposefully intended to be just at the limits of human capability.  Whereas even the most difficult 100 mile races are aimed at encouraging and helping runners finish the race, everything in the Barkley is intended to make it more difficult, with the goal that no one finish it.  Most years, no one does.  About 50% of starters finish one loop, which is roughly the same percentage of finishers at the typical full 100-mile race.  Only 15% finish the 3-loop “Fun Run.”  And of the nearly 850 starters in race history, only 14 people have finished the entire 5 loops.  No other race on earth has a finishing rate anywhere near 1.7%.  For another comparison, the typical 100 mile race will see the winner finish somewhere around 15 hours and the last runner in double that time, about 30 hours.  Even at Hardrock 100, by far the most difficult 100 mile race in the US (other than Barkley), the course record is under 24 hours and the cut-off for the slowest runner is 48 hours.  Juxtapose this to the Barkley, where the course record is over 52 hours, and the cut-off is a very-tight 60 hours, though most runners stop long before then.  So what is it that makes the Barkley so hard? 

Most races start at a set time and traverse a known, well-marked course.  There are aid stations every 1-2 hours with volunteers, crew, food, and drink.  Runners can have pacers to run with them and provide company and assistance in the later stages of the race.  Most runners wear GPS and altimeter watches so they know where they are.  If they want to quit, the merely stop at an aid station and hitch a ride home.  At the Barkley, on the other hand, there is not a set start time- the race can start anywhere from midnight until noon, with runners only receiving a one hour notice when a conch shell sounds, and the race begins when Laz lights a cigarette.   There are absolutely no course markings, and at least half of the course is not on any discernable trail.  The course is not known ahead of time.  Instead, runners received typed directions (5 pages, single spaced) when they check in pre-race, and Laz sets out a map of the general layout of the course which runners copy onto maps they provide (one very nice Barkley quirk: in an era of $200-300 entry fees for 100 mile races, the Barkley costs only $1.60.  Plus a license plate.  It’s affordable, if nothing else).  The directions guide runners to 10 or 11 books hidden throughout the course, and they have to tear a page out of each book to prove they traversed the entire route, being assigned a different bib/page number to grab on each loop.  Book titles are fitting for the course, with 2013 book titles including Sweetbriar Summit, Long Lost, Signs in the Blood, The Virgin and The Veteran, The End of the Road, Managing your Anxiety, and A Baby’s Cry.  Even the most experienced runner may lose many hours trying to locate the books.  GPS is not allowed, only map, compass, and written directions.  In addition, at the Barkley there are no pacers or aid stations, with only 2 water drops located on the course consisting of gallon water jugs.  The jugs may be completely frozen over or may be missing altogether, both of which have happened.  Crews are not allowed other than at the end of each 20 mile loop, plus at one spot where they can cheer or jeer but provide no assistance.  In other words, runners have to be completely self sufficient for each 8-13 hour loop.  Mentally, physically, emotionally, alone during your time “out there”. 

And what are those loops like?  Most races have a “bad part” or a “hard climb.”  At the Barkley, there are no “good parts,“ though the easiest part would probably be wading through a creek in a tunnel under Brushy Mountain prison for 300 yards.  Seriously, that’s part of the route.  The entire course is unrelenting climbs and descents of steepness found almost no where else.  It’s common to have to climb more than 1700 ft in under a mile, or descend 1300 ft in half a mile.  For comparison, 800 ft climb in a mile is considered very difficult at a normal trail race, and the famed Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon rises a whopping 88 feet.  Yes, 88 ft- that’s a 4% grade.  The Barkley averages 23% grade over its entire 100 mile length.  My hardest race ever was the Bear 100, generally viewed as a tough, mountain 100 mile race.  It climbs 23,000 ft and descends 22,000 ft.  Hardrock 100 climbs 33,000 ft, an astounding number.  And the Barkley?  62,000 ft of climbing and 62,000 ft of descending.  That’s the equivalent of hiking from sea level to the top of Mt. Everest, back to sea level, back up Mt. Everest, and back to sea level.  Plus 4000 more feet, for good measure.  And this climbing isn’t on nice, groomed trails- it’s generally off trail, straight up and down, dodging rocks, mud, cliffs, trees, and briars.  Oh yes, the briars.  Thorns.  Saw briars.  Whatever you call them, they are essentially inch-long razor blades found throughout the course that will tear your skin and clothes to pieces, leaving you with hundreds of bloody cuts.  In addition, the loops aren’t really 20 miles.  They’re longer.  General consensus is somewhere between 22-26 miles, meaning 5 loops are actually as many as 130 miles.  Held the weekend closest to April Fool’s day, the weather is pretty much considered to be miserable at some point during the race- snow, rain, thick fog, hail, and very high temps have all occurred.  Sometimes on the same loop.  And when it rains, the already steep slopes turn into leafy, muddy messes.  One runner described the muddy climbs like trying to run up a playground slide while wearing roller skates.  And the nastier the weather, the happier Laz gets and the quicker the runners quit.  All this makes Barkley the most difficult race on earth. 

thorns thorns2- co Shannon Burke

Saw briars, photos from Shannon Burke during the winter

Even the act of quitting is difficult, as runners still have to extricate themselves from the course, which usually takes at least 3-4 hours and sometimes 10 hours.  Assuming you don’t get lost.  In other words, quitting the Barkley can take more time than finishing most races.  When you reach the campground after quitting, you stand while a bugler plays taps for you.  And if you do happen to finish, Laz will just make the race harder next year.  It took 10 years before anyone completed the 100 mile run.  The next year, Laz decided runners had to do loops 3 and 4 in reverse direction to make navigation more difficult.  Then two guys finished together, so Laz decreed that runners would have to run loop 5 in opposite directions, alone.  And he constantly removes the few remaining “easy” parts by adding in more climbs up and down mountains.  In 2012, he replaced a nice on-trail descent with a ridge traverse and a half-mile, 50% grade hill descent.  This year, a bit of jeep road was replaced with a descent so steep it’s known as Leonard’s Butt Slide (the only way safely down) and a corresponding climb.  Race virgins (first-time runners) try to survive by “latching” onto a veteran to guide them through the course, while veterans try to “scrape” virgins who stop to tie a shoe or can’t climb fast enough.  Though, to be fair, both virgins and veterans alike are almost guaranteed to go off-course or be lost as some point.  The record of futility is one racer who took 32 hours to travel 2 miles.  Even the fastest runners average less than 2 miles per hour, far slower than normal running pace of 8-10 miles per hour.

The Barkley has rightfully been considered an outlier, too extreme in difficulty for most runners to even consider it a race.  After all, it’s intended to make you fail rather than finish.  So what type of people finish the Barkley?  Only the truly dedicated, who can set a goal and see it through no matter the physical or mental barriers.  Almost all of them are Ph.D-type, scientist or engineers.  Laz wrote an article nicely summarizing the race, concluding that, “Success at the Barkley requires a splendid sense of direction, an unwavering will to finish, the hill climbing ability of a goat, total focus despite days of endless suffering, and monumental physical courage.” 

Long an underground race, it’s gotten a bit of press throughout the years- an entry in the Washington Post, a Runners World series with videos.  This year, it even had an article in NY TimesLeslie Jamison wrote a great article with insights into the physical challenge, but more so the mental challenge, that the runners face.  But the best way to understand it is to visit.  Short of that, look at some pictures.  Geoffrey Baker took some amazing pictures in 2012.  There was also a film crew making a documentary last year who put out a few short videos (interestingly enough, one of the film crew got lost on-course for over 12 hours).  You want to know what the climbs are like?  See the 1:00 mark of the top video.  And the descents?  1:56 mark.  Enjoy!  Once you’re ready, my report follows below.


My 2013 Barkley Report- a Geography Lesson

I first heard about the Barkley when I lived in Utah, but it seemed too absurd and too mysterious to take seriously.  When I moved to South Carolina, I suddenly found myself surrounded by real flesh-and-blood people who had actually run the race.  Then, I started meeting some of the rare Barkley finishers- JB, AT, Horton, Brett, Jared, Blake.  The race became far more real and I ate up every story I could hear.  When I didn’t get into Western States 100 lottery in December, I decided on a whim to apply for the Barkley.  I didn’t get in, but found myself number 13 on the wait list.  Lucky number 13 (even my email addresses have 13 in them).  Based on historical wait lists, I assumed I would eventually get in.  Sure enough, two weeks before the race while on a plane flying home from Chuckanut 50k in Seattle, I received an email from Laz.  I was in.  I borrowed a bit of gear and a lot of knowledge from Carl Laniak, a 5-time Barkley runner and one of my training buddies, then loaded my car with enough gear and food to invade a small country (30,000 calories!).  The drive to Frozen Head went quickly and I arrived at the famous yellow gate in the campground Friday afternoon.  I met Laz, gave him my $1.60 and license plate, and took my lap 1 bib, number 55.  The bib motto read “Good for One Visit to Big Hell”- past years have said “Suffering without a point” or “Not all pain is gain”.  I made small talk while waiting for the famous race master map to appear.  When it did, I did my best to copy down the route precisely, including borrowing a few notes from the very-helpful Jared Campbell.  I set up camp right next to the only two-time finisher and course record holder, Brett Maune, plus the very nice Julian Jamison and Carl, none of whom would be running.  I ate dinner at my normal haunt, Subway, and spent an hour there carefully laminating both copies of my map, earning a few wondering looks from the two teenage girls working the counter.  I was disappointed when Carl told me he would not be running, as I planned to latch onto him, but he gave me a few veteran names I should seek out.  I was ready and eager.

One admission- this is the first race I have ever entered not expecting to finish.  I don’t feel I was being pessimistic in that statement, just realistic.  I wasn’t so presumptuous as to think I had a realistic chance of finishing in my first year.  The type of people who finish the Barkley hike the entire Appalachian Trail, Colorado Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail (5300 miles total) in one year, or live in the mountains and run 100,000 vertical feet each week, or don’t have full time jobs and can spend a week or two at Frozen Head pre-race.  I have a full time job with minimal vacation, a wife with 4 young kids (the youngest born just two months ago), and the closest mountain of size is over an hour away.  I wouldn’t change any of it, but my chosen path in life does not afford me many of the opportunities needed to give me a realistic chance to finish this race.  In addition, my training had suffered the past month due to sickness and I had never visited Frozen Head to explore the trails.  Realistically, I set my stretch goal to finish a fun run and I felt confident that I had a very good chance to do that if things went my way.  At a bare minimum, I knew I would complete one lap so I could at least see the entire epicness of the course.  As long as the clock was ticking and I could move, I planned to keep running.  At least, that was the plan.

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Laz gets ready to cook his famous Barkley chicken

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Copying the map. I would spent many hours with Nick (seated, in black), Iso (seated, red hat), and Eva (seated, green hoodie)


Final lacing of my Pearl Izumi shoes

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Waiting at the famous yellow gate for Laz to light his cigarette

I slept fairly well, other than thinking Carl’s air bed pump was the conch shell at 12:45 am.  I woke up at 6 am, got dressed, and ate.  Just as I finished my breakfast, Laz sounded the shell at 8:04 am.  I finished packing my way-too-heavy pack and gathered at the gate.  The weather was perfect, about 40 deg and overcast with an expected high of 60 deg.  With a puff of Laz’s cigarette, we were off.  I was sad to see one of my planned latch veterans take off right from the start as I had decided to start slow, but I settled right behind veteran Travis Wildeboer (Vermont Long Trail FKT holder, 2-time Barkley fun run finisher, husband to my Team Pearl Izumi teammate Alyssa Wildeboer) as he walked up the trail.  Travis and I had met several years back and it was good to talk to him and other surrounding runners.  The first few miles passed quickly as we climbed Bird Mountain and took a new section over the Pillars of Doom to England Mountain.  Travis was in the lead of a group of 8 or so runners.  He seemed a bit impatient, while another veteran, Nickademus Hollon (22 year old running phenom, 2-time Barkley fun run finisher), was very talkative and going out of his way to point out landmarks and give other advice to the virgins in our group.  When we reached the first book, Travis grabbed his page and sprinted off.  I made a quick decision to stay with the big group and the tour-guide veteran, Nick.  We circled the mountain and reached the first real Barkley portion of the race- the descent down Jaque Mate hill (aka Checkmate hill), which drops 1300 ft in half a mile (45% grade).  Throwing ourselves down the mountain with near abandon, grabbing every available tree and bush to slow the progress, and still sliding on our butts with regularity, we reached Phillips Creek and the North Boundary Trail.  I had already learned 3 lessons- stow handheld bottles in my pack before steep descents to free both hands for grabbing trees, wear gaiters to keep debris out of shoes, and put on leather gloves before starting down. (Note- I didn’t carry a camera on the race, but am including some pictures taken from various Barkley runners throughout the years that I found on the internet.  Credit noted in all cases.  I’ll take any down that are requested.)

Psyche Wimberly shot of Jaque Mate hill descent

The next 2 hours follow the easiest trail on the course, the NBT.  Famous for switchbacks and tree blow downs, the park service cleaned it a few years ago and it’s now a regular hiking trail.  I stopped to tie my shoe, then passed several slower runners and caught up to a small pack.  It was obvious that this would be a good group to team with- veterans Nick, Iso Yucra (a Bolivian who was the first ever finisher of the Badwater World Cup, completing Badwater 135 across Death Valley in July, Arrowhead 135 across Minnesota in February, and Brazil 135), and Tim Englund (Ph.D Chair of Mathematics Department at Central Washington Univ), plus virgin Eva Pastalkova (Ph.D neuroscience researcher from Czech Republic, orienteering-extraordinaire, and winner of all six 100-mile races she has entered).  It was a pretty elite crowd and I enjoyed running with them.  We set a brisk but comfortable pace until Nick suddenly turned up the mountain at a seemingly-random spot and led us to a jeep road and book 2.  We each grabbed our page, stopped briefly at the water stop (race time was about 3:10-ish), then started towards the newest part of the course, Leonard Buttslide and Bobcat Rock, added this year.  Nick had been scouting the course for a week and knew exactly where to turn off the road onto some nice deer trail down Barley Mouth, down another jeep road, through a nasty bunch of briars, and down the buttslide.  We found book 3, ascended back up the steep and already-muddy buttslide, went through Bobcat Rock, and up Fyke’s Peak to a random sofa (literally, a sofa in the middle of nowhere) known as Hiram’s Pool and Spa.  We found our guide, Nick, resting peacefully on it with a grin on his face.  He immediately disappeared up the mountain with us tailing behind, and we shortly heard him calling to us as he pulled book 4 from a pile of stones.  Lap 1 literally could not be going any better.

Typical book placement, courtesy of Matt Mahoney’s website

Nick and I talked as we ran down Fyke’s peak, with me profusely thanking him for guiding us and saying he had certainly earned some good karma.  He continued pointing out landmarks as we descended the endless off-trail ridges down Fyke’s Folly, and I quickly realized it would be very difficult to navigate this by myself, especially at night or in the reverse direction.  The veterans knew exactly where to go (turn left at the downed power line, cross this creek here to stay dry, run up this bench, then cross the New River on this downed tree) and led us true.  It was awesome.  After the river, we crossed a highway and found book 5 at the marshy area, but not before getting a glimpse of the first tough section of the course, Testicle Spectacle.  Running clockwise as we were, the second half of the course is much more difficult than the first half, starting after book 5.  Testicle Spectacle climbs 800 feet in .6 mile up steep, clear-cut mountain under some giant power lines.  It is known for being one of the 3 truly brutal sections of the course for saw briars.  This year, fortunately, most of the briars had been recently cut down by some workers, though we certainly did not pass unscathed.  The trail gets steeper, muddier, and more briar-filled as you ascend, and I often pulled myself up by grabbing briars for support.  Needless to say, we were all bleeding from numerous cuts.  Nick slowly pulled away from the other 4 of us and crested the hill for the descent down Meth Lab Hill first.  Meth Lab was quite easy this year, running down a steep muddy jeep road until another butt slide.  Immediately after the butt slide, I turned right and soon found myself with the group at Raw Dog Falls and book 6. (Note- it’s frequent when you read Barkley reports from veterans, especially multi-lap finishers, for them to summarize entire sections of course by saying such things as “We navigated the second half fairly well and finished 5 hours after reaching book 5.”  They make it sound so easy, but I’m attempting to show how much that entails and how a virgin views the entire process for the first time.)

Allan Holtz picture showing the climb up the briar-fest known as Testicle Spectacle

At book 6, I almost made my first big mistake.  I paused briefly to fill a water bottle from the falls, only to discover the group already out of sight by the time I finished a minute later.  Slightly worried, I ran up the trail I thought they had climbed.  It ended at a jeep road.  Knowing we were going to cross the highway again, I incorrectly turned down the jeep trail until I found myself at a gate and looking towards a house.  Sensing this was wrong, I sprinted up the trail, looking for any sign of where they might be.  I consulted my map, trying to determine the proper direction.  Just then, two ridges over, I briefly caught a glimpse of someone moving.  I ran as hard as I could, red-lining and tapping deep into my reserves, desperate to not lose my group.  As I ran headlong through rocks, brush, and briars, I realized the highway was above me.  Guessing correctly, I climbed to the road and ran down it, looking for signs of life.  Suddenly, I could see Eva and Tim climbing far above me, ascending the steep Pig Head Creek.  I climbed hard, not resting until I finally caught them.  I was tired, but relieved to be back with the group.  Nick and Iso had pulled ahead and disappeared from sight while the remaining three of us finished the climb to the old Prison Mine Trail (numerous coal mines dot the area where prisoners used to work, watched-over by guards).  Tim encouraged us to walk down the trail as it would be the last chance to eat for a while. 

Jared Campbell’s picture of a coal mine at the top of Pig Head Creek

As a side note, many people hear about the very long time cutoffs at the Barkley (13 hrs for loop 1) and assume runners can leisurely make their way along the course.  In fact, I found the exact opposite to be true.  There is such an urgency that even momentary pauses are avoided.  You are acutely aware of the continual progression of the clock and feel like you can’t slow down at all.  Even if you have a buffer on the time, the looming risk of some waiting disaster presses you to continue to hurry.  As opposed to other races, though, the race is not primarily against other people, but instead is a battle against yourself, the clock, and the course.  I truly enjoyed this feeling during the race, especially how it enabled me to view other runners as teammates and compatriots rather than competition.

The road quickly led us to the famous Rat Jaw.  Ahh, Rat Jaw, you will forever have a special place in my heart.  For whatever reason, this is the most memorable section of the course for me.  Rat Jaw is another climb up a clear-cut mountain, with downed briars lying everywhere.  The climb starts off with a bang, right up a section so steep and muddy that you have to pull yourself up with a nearby downed cable.  It alternates very steep with kind of steep, climbing over 1000 ft in half a mile, all while treading through bunches of briars. 

The start of Rat Jaw, courtesy of Matt Mahoney (steep, ain’t it?!?)

Navigating briars on a flatter part of Rat Jaw- photo from Jared Campbell

Rat Jaw + power cable + saw briars = Guaranteed fun (photo from Steve Pero)

After 1/4 of the Rat Jaw climb, the clear-cut turns to the left and a lookout tower appears, sitting on top of Frozen Head mountain, the high point of the race.  This is the one spot people are allowed to cheer for their runners.  I can see the ridge lined with people, all eagerly looking, cheering, and jeering (not so much of the latter).  Half way up the climb, a lead group of Alan and Beverly Abbs, John F, Travis, and Toshi barrel back down Rat Jaw, chasing Jared Campbell (already down Rat Jaw).  I calculate they are 15-20 minutes ahead of my pack.  Nick soon summits well ahead of the rest of the group, grabs his book and refills at the second water stop, and recklessly charges after them.  Eva and Iso are just ahead, while Tim and I bring up the rear- I’m still gassed from my sprint to catch the group at Pig Head Creek.

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Tim and I slowly climbing Rat Jaw, approaching the tower (Thanks to Carl for taking the photos)

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It doesn’t look too steep, does it?

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What about now?  Is that steep enough?

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Stowing the page from Book 7 and refilling water

It was neat to hear the words of encouragement from Carl and the dozens of other spectators atop the tower, but my primary concern was a quick turnaround so I wouldn’t again be left behind.  I grabbed my page, filled my water, and ran after Iso, Eva, and Tim.  Back down Rat Jaw we went, doing our best to not get our feet snagged in briars and not fall “too” many times down the muddy slope.  We passed the starting point of the climb just as a tired runner appeared to start his climb.  We continued further down Rat Jaw, though, 2000 feet down, to perhaps the most cool section of any race, anywhere on earth.  Brushy State Prison.  The very prison that James Earl Ray escaped from 35 years ago.  The prison closed a few years ago and now allows the runners to go under it.  Literally.  Pushing through the most painful, thickest briar patch of the entire race (some briars actually grabbed my shorts and pulled them clean off me before I could tug them back up from my knees), we reached the walls of the prison and lowered ourselves into a concrete tunnel with a river running down it.  For 300 yards, we waded through ankle to shin-deep water in a pitch black tunnel directly underneath a prison before climbing a 10 foot embankment back out.  That was unique and just plain memorable. 


The tunnel

Brett Maune approaching the prison, 2012- picture by Jared Campbell

The Abbs entering the tunnel, 2012- by Jared Campbell

Inside the tunnel- by Jared Campbell

After exiting the tunnel, we circled the prison walls to a guard tower and climbed a rickety ladder, where we found book 8 sitting on a toilet in the middle of the tower.  After eating a little food, our pack of four runners turned almost due west to start the climb known simply as “Bad Thing”, rising 1700 ft in .88 mile.  The Bad Thing just seemed to drag on forever, and I was reminded that runners should never make decisions about races while slowly trudging up hills like this one- you just feel too tired to honestly assess your situation.  I had started doing weight lifting and upper body work in January and found it paid off during this climb, as being able to pull myself uphill using trees saved a lot of leg energy.  However, I did decide at this point to use a camelbak next lap rather than a handheld bottle as I found myself forced to choose between only have one hand to pull or stowing the bottle and not drinking for 30+ minutes.  In addition, I had my most difficult physical challenge of the loop as most of the climb was off-camber, sloping down to the right, which really aggravated the plantar fasciitis of my left foot.  The four of us finally reached Indian Knob summit and found book 9 in a small ledge in the Eye of the Needle, a cutout passing through a huge rock.  After sharing some food and discussing the race (Iso declared here that he thought only Nick and Travis would finish the race, no one else), it was time to dive down the famous Zip Line.

The Eye of the Needle, photo by Jared Campbell

Zip Line is known in Barkley lore as being one of the most difficult downhills- long, steep (1600 ft drop in .75 mile), very technical, briar-chocked, lots of cliffs, rocks, and downed trees, and easy to go off-course.  Perhaps it was because we chose a “good” route, but I don’t remember it being particularly hard.  We never cliffed-out, the briars were barely noticeable anymore (they were there, I just didn’t notice), and I had a blast plunging from tree to tree, like a leather-gloved human pinball.  I imagine I wouldn’t have such good memories if I had to go up Zip Line, but I enjoyed my first visit.  Many racers have lost countless hours searching for the infamous Beech Tree and book 10 at the bottom of Zip Line, but Tim and Iso led us straight to it.  At this point, I again needed a refill of water.  Not wanting to be left behind, I offered to fill everyone’s water and was happy to be handed some water bottle hostages.  After filling, we had only one more climb, this one known as Big Hell.  Laz’s directions do a nice job summarizing the climb: “All you have to do is keep choosing the steepest way up the mountain… until you believe that death is imminent.”  Pretty simple.  Head down, don’t look up, just keep moving forwards and upwards one small step at a time.  We reached the capstone rocks and quickly located Book 11, happily stowing the last page for a successful loop 1.  From there, we had roughly 4 miles on downhill, well-defined trail.  Eva pushed the pace hard, dragging Tim and I in her wake while Iso dropped 7 minutes back. 

9 hrs and 6 minutes after starting, Tim, Eva, and I arrived at the yellow gate to a smattering of cheers.  We turned in our pages and went to our cars for a pre-planned 20-minute pit stop.  I was very happy at this point- physically, I felt great.  Really strong, moving well, no major physical ailments, and I had been eating and drinking regularly.  I was buoyed by the fact that I could not have imagined lap 1 going any better- I hooked up with great, encouraging runners, the weather was nice, and we nailed the navigation to every book (I didn’t contribute much to this last item.  Or the one before it, for that matter).  I had not set any time goals beforehand, but was guessing a 9-10 hour loop 1 seemed reasonable, and I attribute the good navigation to our time at the faster end of that range.

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Happy to finish loop 1 feeling… very good, quite honestly. Very good.

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Eva, Tim, and I handing over our pages.

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Look, Marci, I even smiled! (she says I never smile in running pictures)

I didn’t have an official crew, but Carl, Julian, and Alyssa all helped me out immensely during the quick pit stop, filling bottles, grabbing food, even picking up my very stinky socks and shoes afterwards (eww- sorry, guys).  I changed shoes, refilled my food stores, put on new clothes for the night loop, and debated if I should take my extra layer of warmth.  I finally decided to bring it and hefted my now-much-heavier pack onto my back.  I wanted to eat, but was so rushed I only had time to drink about a liter of coke and ginger ale.  As I returned to the gate 22 minutes later, Laz inquired if the course was like I had expected it to be.  Unused to curtailing bodily functions after 9 hours on the trail, I let out a very loud belch.  Oops- so much for southern manners.  I apologized and told him it was indeed about exactly as hard as I had anticipated.  Interestingly, I would not say that it was harder than expected- just exactly as hard. 

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Taking off my trusty Pearl Izumi shoes.  9 hours, absolutely no problems.

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Chugging coke before lap 2

Now, here comes a very Barkley-ish tale, both sad yet also humorous in a Barkley kind of way.  Midway through my pit stop, Alyssa ran up to tell me that Eva was somehow missing her page from book 9.  I had seen her take every single page, but somehow one had disappeared.  She would not be allowed to continue onto loop 2- I felt terrible for her.  However, being the very tough competitor that she was (certainly the toughest of our group of 4, impressively), she decided to backtrack all the way to book 9 in an attempt to find it.  Given that we had taken over two hours to traverse that section of course, it was doubtful she would be able to reach book 9 and return to the yellow gate within the 13 hour time limit to start loop 2.  Nevertheless, she tried.  She successfully navigated back to Indian Knob only to find that her page had indeed been torn out, meaning she had taken it already and subsequently lost it.  As a result, she would not even receive credit for finishing one loop.  But, that’s not the end of the tale, and here’s where this takes a very Barkley-ish twist.  Distraught, Eva accidentally put the book back in a nook on the right side in the Eye of the Needle, rather than the proper left side.  A few hours later, race-leader Jared Campbell had broken his compass and was ascending from the prison to Indian Knob in a thick fog at night.  He reached the ridge but could not find the cave, so traversed back and forth along the briar-infested ridge for two hours, finally finding the correct spot.  However, the book was in the wrong side of the cave from what he expected.  Without his compass to show him the proper way, he figured he had somehow gotten his directions switched over the past few hours.  Using the book placement as his reference to direct him to what he believed was Zip Line, he instead descended back down Bad Thing all the way to the prison.  In the meantime, the Abbs, Travis, and Nick all reached book 9.  Unable to see it in the wrong location on account of thick fog, they declared the book lost and continued onwards.  While this was happening, Jared reached the prison, realized the error, and climbed back up Bad Thing to book 9 (again), pausing to place it in its proper location.  He finished loop 2 hours later, looking somewhat dejected after having spent 7 hours lost.  Yes, he was lost on loop 2 for almost the same amount of time as he took to complete the entire loop 1.  So, in summary, here’s the tragic chain of events- Eva lost a page, tried to backtrack to find it, and put the book 4 feet away from its proper location, causing the race leader to get lost for hours, which inevitably contributed to him eventually dropping out.  When we heard this story, the only proper response was to shake our heads and mutter, “That’s the Barkley.”

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Starting loop 2 with Tim

Anyways, back to my race report.  After a very-fast 22 minute stop (thanks again for the help, Julian, Carl, and Alyssa!), Tim and I left the yellow gate to commence loop 2, sad to leave Eva behind.  With full stomachs and a long night ahead, we were content to temper the pace.  We spoke of many topics over the next several hours- Eva’s lost page, jobs, running, my new kid and Tim’s new wife (also a hardcore ultra runner who has won Badwater), and the Barkley.  I truly enjoyed these hours with Tim.  He led us directly to book 1, and we found Jaque Mate hill easy to navigate by following the churned leaves from the 45+ runners who had passed this way earlier.  Running sporadically, darkness found us traversing the NBT.  Just as we reached the coal ponds, 30 minutes before book 2, the nice weather turned sour.  A sprinkle soon became a steady rain and we stopped to put on raincoats.  However, I immediately ran into a severe problem.  Due to a recent bout of pink eye, I had to wear my glasses during the race rather than my contacts.  As soon as it started raining, my glasses completely fogged up.  Shortly thereafter, a real fog, thick, also moved onto the mountain.  I paused to wipe my glasses often, but this provided only a few seconds of improved visibility.  Previously, Tim and I had walked stride for stride.  Now, I immediately fell behind.  I was almost blind due to the two fogs, totally unable to make out even the well defined North Boundary Trail.  I navigated only by following the reflectors on the back of Tim’s pack, stumbling over every now-unseen rock and root.  In 10 minutes, I went from feeling great to feeling great but being completely blind and feeling deeply worried about my condition.

The steep yet short climb to book 2 was the turning point for me.  What had been an easy climb 10 hours earlier was now a slick mud fest that I was navigating blind.  I kept thinking how difficult it would be to climb Rat Jaw in the mud.  What worried me more, though, was the thought of descending these technical mountains near-blind, with a real possibility of going off one of the numerous cliffs dotting the landscape.  I was wavering and weighing quitting at this known-point rather than continue into the unknown (or, more accurately, the far-too-well known). 

Tim and I were surprised to see a headlamp coming at us as we approached Garden Spot and book 2.  It was the sacrificial virgin Toshi, who had fallen off the Abbs group.  He had been searching for book 2 for 20 minutes.  To give you an idea of the thickness of the fog at this point, Tim immediately pointed it out, 15 feet from where Toshi stood.  The three of us grabbed our respective pages (I was now page 97).  Tim could sense something had changed in me and asked what I was thinking.  I told him I was considering quitting.  To his credit, he would not give it any heed, telling me to grab my pack and get moving.  I did, following Tim and Toshi for several minutes to the water drop.  Struggling to see as I descended to the gallon water jugs, and climbing out again, I made up my mind.  I quit.  No excuses, I just quit.  The hardest part was knowing I would be leaving Tim, though at least he had company in Toshi.  Tim led me to where a junction where a rarely-used jeep road would supposedly take me further to Quitter’s Road (so named because of the many runners that travel it back to camp after quitting), then pressed forward down the course, telling me he couldn’t pause due to the on-setting hypothermia.  Watching Tim and Toshi’s headlamps disappear into the fog was one of the loneliest moments of my life, and I almost chased after them.  But they had bravely (foolishly?) continued onwards, and I was left behind.

Edward Sandor shows the fog on Rat Jaw during the day.  Imagine this thicker and at night during a rainstorm…

I spent some time trying to find the jeep road to Quitters Road, but could not see any indications of a path, and I was not willing to venture far from my spot lest I not be able to find my way back.  I decided to try backtracking to the NBT, but similarly could not find where I needed to descend to the trail.  I was stuck.  The thick fog (one racer described literally not being able to see his hand in front of his face, a condition he hadn’t previously believed possible) had me trapped.  I mentally prepared to either spend the night at book 2 or wait till another runner came who could help me find the road.  Unsurprisingly, a large number of Barkley runners have been in my same predicament and actually spent their first night out alone, waiting to quit.  I didn’t know it, but my location at Garden Spot is one of the coldest areas on the course.  It was rainy and windy, and I started to get quite chilled.  Shivering, I put on every piece of clothing I had and started running back and forth to generate warmth.  Sometime after Tim left me (30 minutes?  60 minutes?  I couldn’t tell), a headlamp finally appeared.  It was Iso, wearing only a thin jacket.  He was surprised to see me and listened while I summarized my predicament.  He grabbed his page from book 2, then said he was coming with me to quit.  We discussed waiting for the runner Iso had seen some distance behind him to see if he wanted to quit, as well (it ended up being Keith Knipling, who did want to quit but similarly couldn’t find Quitters Road, so continued onwards 8 more hours to Rat Jaw), but decided to keep moving.

Iso and I ran to the junction and he ventured into the fog looking for the trail, returning to the sound of my voice each time he couldn’t find it.  Amazingly, he located the faint jeep road and we ran for a few minutes before it dead-ended at a gate.  Searching again, we finally found the real road after several minutes.  We had to run down different sides of the trail, lest we miss a junction on the other side of the road due to fog (yes, only 8 feet away).  We got off-track several times, and could only tell the path based on whether or not there was a clearing in the trees indicating the road.  I lent Iso a headlamp and several pieces of warm clothing just as we finally reached the obvious Quitter’s Road, an unmistakable gravel road.  Ninety minutes to two hours later, we reached the yellow gate, coming from the wrong direction.  Approximately 3 hours after quitting, my race was finished, 15 hours and 56 minutes after it started.  Officially, I traveled 20 miles (1 loop) plus 8 more more on-course (loop 2 book 2).  In other words, my “official” 28 Barkley miles were slower than my most recent 100 mile race!  In actuality, I travelled probably 34 to 36 miles on course plus 6 more to quit.  Physically, I felt just fine.  Strong.  Not sore.  It was the best I had ever felt after 16 hours of running.  I stood at the finish line talking to everyone for a while before finally being tapped out (Laz doesn’t play the best rendition of Taps on his bugle, but it’s heartfelt).  He told me his only regret is that I couldn’t stay out there longer to suffer more.  My only regret was that I couldn’t wear my contacts.  Iso and I were part of a steady stream of quitters over just a few hours, which is pretty common when the weather turns nasty.  From what I gathered, most of the quitters didn’t even reach book 2.  I took a shower and went to bed at 2 am.

I was awoken at 5 am by taps being played for Toshi and Tim, who quit at Rat Jaw then walked back.  I saw Nick start loop 3, five minutes behind Travis.  The Abbs came in, then left on loop 3.  Keith Knipling and Henry Wakley crawled in a few hours later from Rat Jaw, completely covered in mud.  They described trying to climb the muddy Rat Jaw, constantly slipping backwards, using sticks and rocks in their hands to try and gain some traction, then finally just climbing briars.  I’ll admit that a part of me wished I had continued on with Tim, but then I would think of my visual impairment and know I had made the correct decision given my situation.  I watched Jared Campbell finish loop 2, looking dejected after his 7 hours lost near book 9, but he turned around and head back onto loop 3.  He would be the last one to start that loop.  24 hours earlier, 40 runners had started the 2013 Barkley Marathons.  Only 23 finished loop 1.  Only 5 finished loop 2, and all 5 pressed on to finish loop 3 and the Fun Run.

I hung around the campground for a while, enjoying the atmosphere and camaraderie.  I had never told so many people “good job” for quitting a race before, nor seen so many people who had enjoyed a race despite quitting.  Each had pushed themselves to rediscover their personal limits, something the Barkley makes very easy to do.  For me, I had a blast on this epic race.  It was a great experience, and I didn’t want it to end.  I wished I was on loop 3 with the others.  I had only DNF’ed twice before- once for hypothermia during a blizzard (to my credit, they cancelled the race 20 min after I quit), and the other cause I was just being weak, stopping 75 miles into a 100 mile race with plenty of time to finish.  I immediately and forever regretted the second DNF, never the first.  Every time I think of the Barkley and wonder if I quit too easily, I just remember the futility of running with no sight, and feel reassured that I made the decision that made the most sense.  I’m not saying it was the “right” decision, but I have very little regret.  That being said, it puts a lot of fuel in my fire to return next year and finish at least the fun run- I know I can do it. Maybe someday I’ll do the whole thing.  I felt my training was sufficient for what I needed, my gear was good (with the loop 1 tweaks I noted), but I definitely need to do some training at FHSP to learn the course before I try again.  But, Laz willing, I will be back.

I finally, wistfully left the park, arriving home in time for dinner Sunday night.  I spent Monday with the family and unpacking.  Monday night, almost 60 hours after the race had started, I learned that first Nick and then Travis became the 13th and 14th finishers of the Barkley Marathons.  I was ecstatic- it couldn’t happen to two more deserving, nicer, and downright tough guys.  Amazing.  When everyone else quit, they pressed onwards through rain, fog, mud, fatigue, pain, hallucinations, and gained… well, I’m not sure what they gained.  Laz says the only reward for finishing loop 5 is not having to go out on loop 6.  They certainly gained some fame, though it’s a small group of people who pay attention to such things as the Barkley.  I feel confident in saying that what they actually gained is something only they will know, something deep inside, learning about who they really are and what they are really capable of.  Isn’t that something all of us should strive for?

In case you didn’t pick up on it, the title of my race report, “Holland, Czech Republic, England, and Bolivia- A lesson in Barkley Geography,” is a tribute to my favorite part of the Barkley, the awesome people I ran with- Nick Hollon (Holland), Eva (Czech), Tim Englund (England), and Iso (Bolivia).  Thanks so much for the enjoyable time together, you guys.  And congrats again to Nick and Travis for being the toughest guys on the mountain and finishing what you started.

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Tim and I post-race

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My precious bibs and pages, 13 in all

One more personal item- In the past year or two, I’ve struggled to post on this blog with any regularity.  Going from 2 kids to 4 kids has greatly reduced my free time.  Effective today, I’m giving myself permission to only blog when I want and to not feel I should write a report for every race.  I may never write again.  Or I may.  Either way, thanks to all of you, my blog readers, for your many kind words over the years and for humoring my overly-long entries.  I wrote them not to boast or brag, but to remember, to share, and to grow.  I hope my adventures and words have inspired you to push yourself and be true to yourself.  You can do more than you think you can.

Special thanks to my wife and kids, as always, for putting up with this silly, time-consuming habit of mine.  Plus friends and family for their support.  And, of course, Pearl Izumi for the awesome support as a member to Team PI- Ultra.

I think I’ll let some thoughts by Laz close out this report.  This is what he emailed the runners just after he returned home from the 2013 edition of the Barkley Marathons:

4 days of wood smoke (and far too many cigarettes)
have left my throat feeling like it was worked over with a belt sander.
i am sore in a dozen unexplained places,
have numerous nicks and cuts,
of indeterminate origin,
and a splinter deep under my right forefinger-nail,
that makes typing this difficult.
(i wonder how long i had that)

the barkley is a race where the crews come out looking like they ran an ultra.
and the runners....

i saw a field of 40,
all  veteran ultrarunners with finishes of 100 miles... or more
reduced to 21 after 20 miles,
to 5 after 40 miles,
and only 2 after 60.
i saw 15 hour hundred milers surrender without a whimper after 30 miles, [Jon’s note- I think that refers to me]
and vol-state finishers beaten down after 8.

i saw bev and alan abbs timed out at 60

looking happy about it,
and jared campbell quietly watch his time limit expire.

i listened to talk of the soul-sucking checkmate hill...
the fastest ascent taking 30 minutes, others up to an hour or more...

it is a half mile.

and it is only one among many hills
that sear themselves into the memory of those who come to play.

there was rain.
never a heavy rain, but persistent,
that turned the hills into slicker slides;
runners using rocks and sticks to dig into the hillsides and pull themselves up,
or deliberately running in briers,
just for the handholds.

and the famous, fearful barkley fog.
which reduced the visual range until it did not include the runners' own feet.
fegys referred to it as "running by braille"
as runners could only stay on a road by shuffling their feet
to see if they were in leaves or not.

the conditions were impossible,
yet there were finishers.
nick hollon, and travis wildeboer,
each making their third attempt,
made a lie of human limitation...

at a price.

to be at the yellow gate after a barkley finish
must be experienced to be understood.
i felt like a child at the grownups table...
listening in...
13 and 14, collapsed in their chairs, bundled in blankets,
talking with the others who had been where they had been;
in the rarified air of loops 4 and 5.
talking of experiences i can only imagine
(with a combination of awe and shuddering fear)

their tales are harrowing ones.
of numbing fatigue, desperate climbs and heartstopping descents,
of constant fear and uncertainty
of a time limit that is always just behind them,
when a single error could bring down everything they had worked for.

i felt, at once,
both humbled...

and elevated...

at this glimpse into the thoughts of those
who have been where no man can go
and done what no man can do.
it is hard to explain,
but seeing the barkley done makes it seem more impossible.
not less.


  1. Jon, Hands down the best Barkley race report I have read; enjoyable a read as it is, there is still no way I am going out to find out about the highs and lows myself, i'll simply 'doff my cap' to you and the other entrants!

  2. Thanks, Alistair. Although 6 months ago I never imagined I would run it, so watch out- these things tend to sneak up on us.

  3. Jon, Always a great race report. Thanks for all the detail so we could know what you went through and learn something about the details of the race. I can appreciate how you learn so much about yourself in an experience like this. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Jon, thank you for this. Thank you for your effort, your inspiration, and your willingness to share it all. I've only met you once before, and it felt awkward being a "fan." Nonetheless, you inspire me to be better. Thanks for that.

  5. Otis- glad this inspires you. Hopefully we can all inspire each other to keep pushing harder and be better people.

  6. Jon, excellent report. It was so descriptive I felt like I was there. Sounds like you would have had a good shot of at least finishing the fun run if you could have seen where you were going. I noticed that Brett was there but didn't participate, was that planned before he came or did he get injured before the start?

  7. Another enjoyable race report, Jon. Gave me a taste of what it was like. Sounds like it "hurt so good!" The mental part of the race was especially intriguing to read about. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Jeremy- Brett hurt his back a month or so before while training so knew he wouldn't be running.