Note: Some people have gotten the impression that I didn't have a good time at Barkley. I guess my proclamation that it was AWESOME wasn't strong enough. Quitting something is hard. But it's also valuable. I enjoyed every aspect of Barkley, including the failure. It's all a beautiful part of living life.
I first heard of the Barkley a few years ago. I'm not at all sure where or how. Just at some point I knew of it. At the time I remember thinking it sounded like the most brutal adventure possible and I was drawn to it. However, the hoops and secrecy of even getting into the race turned me off. I decided that a race that makes it that hard to apply wasn't worth my time. Fast forward to Thanksgiving of 2013. A friend mentioned he was applying, and I asked about the entry procedure. So, on a whim, I applied. I was shocked when I received my "condolences" a few days later.
I trained for Barkley. But really, I was just training. HURT and Barkley were the immediate benefactors since they were smack dab in the middle. My realization of just how much training volume I can take increased dramatically last summer and so, for once, I actually pushed myself in the winter rather than curling up next to the fire to read or work on a quilt.
I arrived at Frozen Head 4 days early. I hiked 50 miles over 2 days on the legal trails. The first day I was blasted with blizzard like conditions and bitter cold. It was a foreshadowing of the race. I returned to my camp that night and texted my boyfriend, "If the weather is like this Saturday, I don't stand a chance."
Over the next few days I met people as they rolled in to Big Cove Campground. I enjoyed meeting the "old timers" and hearing their stories. In fact, I enjoyed that more than mingling with the other people my age or the other virgins. I asked a few questions, but mainly I just listened. I felt like a sponge absorbing a piece of ultra-running sub-culture. The license plates went up. I met Frozen Ed Furtaw. I was introduced to Laz.
I slept in my car because the nights were too cold for my summer kit. I divvied up clothes and food for laps. I listened, dumbfounded, to the other virgins talk about their preparation. Hours of physical training beyond what I had done. Orienteering classes. Hours spent pouring over Google Earth and alternate maps of the area. I saw their course maps marked with bearings and vectors and they discussed various methods and techniques. I began to feel so underprepared. Who the hell am I to be here with these folks? I showed up knowing I can go forever, with only the compass skills I'd gained in snowy PCT conditions and from navigating my way from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. I marked the race route onto my map and went to bed.
The conch blew at 5:37am. I crawled out of my bag, already dressed. I filled my water bladder and slipped on my shoes. I ate a couple of bars and was ready to go. I stood at the yellow gate with everyone else. Anish at a trailhead, ready to hike. Laz lit his cigarette and everyone was off. People jogging down the road, packs sloshing and rustling. I jogged along behind mid-pack as always. We hit the Bird Mountain trail and began to climb. One after the other I passed people, hiking uphill in the darkness, trail gliding underfoot. I caught the tail end of the lead pack and hung on. These people were all much faster runners than I, but on a hiking grade, I could manage to keep up. We hopped across the pillars of death and veered off the trail. I had a moment of butterflies, but soon we were plunging through Fanghorn Forest toward the first book and I forgot all about everything else.
The group converged on the book like wild animals. People yelled at one another for cutting and not taking turns. I took a step back and stared, mortified. If this was what this race was like then I wanted no part. Holy shit people, it's the difference of a few seconds...
Everyone took off. I pulled out my page and handed the book to the last person there. I trotted into the woods and shot my bearing. In retrospect I should have done so from the book itself. I went a little too far down a finger before descending the leaf covered slope. I hit a cliff and found my way down, but I was to the north where I should have been. Another runner appeared and we hustled down the forest together. We hit Phillips Creek downstream. He paused and I motored uphill, popping out on the switchback near the confluence. There I saw two other runners and I fell in behind them as we ascended Jury Ridge. I calmed down. I'd only overshot by 200 yds. Not much in the scheme of things. I arrived right at the second book. I followed my bearing and hit the 3rd book only about 100 feet upstream. From there we climbed the Hillpocalypse and other people appeared out of the woods. We merged onto trail and by the time we left the coal ponds on a "Barker's only" trail again there were four of us.
One of the men said that we needed to follow the earthen berms to their end before going up. We followed and crested them until I felt like we'd gone too far. I pulled out my compass and sure enough, we were heading North. I looked uphill and spied pine trees. With a sinking feeling I realized where we were...several hundred vertical feet below the Garden Spot. Forget nice switchbacks, this was gonna be a shitty climb. I told them to climb toward the pines and when we reached them we'd intersect the Cumberland Trail. Go right. Sure enough we hit the trail right where I had anticipated. We turned and I led the way to the fourth book at the Garden Spot.
Stallion Mountain is a tad confusing, but at that time a group of about 5 people including some incredibly experienced veterans engulfed us. We fell in with them, following them to Leonard's Buttslide and up to Fykes and then down all the way to the New River. I was thankful to have someone to follow, but I knew it was going to make it harder when I was solo through here next time. We were moving fast and I didn't have a lot of time to cross-check with my map to see what it was that I was doing. The first note for next time I would write when I returned to my car at the end would be, "Go alone, not along."
Testicle Spectacle was decidedly horrendous. But not because of the steepness or the briars, but because of the mud. Without trekking poles I was sliding on the clay slop. It was impossible to find purchase, even in my luggy Lone Peaks. I struggled up the slope using my knees, hands, elbows, toes, sticks, rocks, whatever I could jam into the ground, to haul myself up. I have never crawled so much in my adult life. The guys I was with spread out, faster ones pulling far ahead. I was wasting so much energy. Finally we descended and turned into the forest. I could keep up again. We reached Rat Jaw and I hit it with everything I had, refusing to let the mud slow me. I veered into thick briars to avoid mud, not caring that my hands and body and face were being sliced. I pulled away up the slope gaining significant time on my companions.
I entered the prison tunnel with someone else and we splashed our way to the next book. On the next climb I pulled away from him and caught 3 others. We tore our pages from the book and descended in two pairs, each going a slightly different way. It was inadvertent, a miscommunication. Jeff, another virgin, and I navigated nearly flawlessly the next two books. We once again hit trail tread and I took off running. I flew toward Big Cove Campground with only one thing going through my head.
"I just did a loop at the Barkley!"
I rolled in around eleven and a half hours after I started with a huge grin on my face. I gobbled down some food and packed my gear for the night. I discovered my friend Nicki was still in camp and I waited for her so that we could tackle the night together. My crew person asked what I thought and I said, "That was AWESOME!" I can't imagine something more fun than crawling through the mud and plunging through the forest, all while playing hide-and-seek with check points.
Nicki and I headed out at 12:05 race time. We hit the first book and descended spot on to the boundary. We were joined by Brad. Then the 2nd book came and went. We were off by a bit at the 3rd book and as we climbed Hillpocalyse we met one other person. The temperatures were steadily dropping and the wind was howling. We were all soaked from the day long pouring rain. One person turned back.
The rain turned to snow. The trail became a slip and slide of mud. We slowed down, unable to move fast on the surface. We lost feeling in our hands and our feet. We reached the Garden Spot and Brad and Nicki headed for Quitter's Road. I turned toward Stallion Mountain. I walked as fast as I could in the darkness. Despite the howling wind (as much as 40mph) there was fog. I could barely see the edges of the road. I tried to replay the morning in my head and there were some significant gaps in my knowledge of the next several miles. I became aware that my hands were painfully cold with numb patches. I stopped and pulled them out of their soaked gloves. I expected to see the typical Raynoud's white. Instead they were a dusky purple, swollen, with white patches.
"I am alone. I'm not sure of the navigation in the next section. It's foggy. I am going to be moving very slowly. It's 1am. I'm cold. My hands have never looked like this. I can't open my pack. I can't get food. I can't put on layers. My feet are numb. It's going the be hours before it warms up. Hours of slow moving in the bitter cold, howling gale. It's time to quit. I am risking my hands and maybe even my life if I go beyond here. Are you kidding? Quitting? This is only temporary. Fuck. Fuck my body and it's inability to handle the cold. I'll be fine. Do you remember that time Remy saved your life when you were hypothermic and you wandered off the trail convinced you'd bushwhack to Pioneer Mail? How several hours of your life that day are but a foggy memory with blacked out moments? It wasn't nearly this bad then. Do you really want to risk hypothermia here, tonight, for this? So someone can find your body out here when you've stopped shivering and torn off all your clothes, convinced you're warm? Fuck."
All of these things swam through my head in rapid succession as a few tears leaked out freezing to my lashes. I knew that I had to turn back.
I shuffle jogged down Quitter's Road. I could barely see the road, but it didn't matter. I'd know if I stepped off of it. My hands began to burn with pain. I focused on other things so that I couldn't feel them. I tripped and fell at least once. I reached the bottom only moments after Nicki and Brad, despite going on for a distance beyond them.
We stood and each received our version of taps, played by Laz himself. I scuttled to the bathrooms and held my hands under warm water for 20 minutes. Finally when I could feel most everything except the tips and a few other patches I climbed into the shower. I stood there with the hot water pouring over me and I cried. I cried for the fact that I had had to quit a race for the first time ever. But mostly I cried because it was my body that had limited me. That for once I had chosen to make a smart decision rather than force it to go beyond itself for the sake of achieving a goal. I hated how that felt. At that moment, in the shower, I wished I hadn't been reasonable. I would have rather lost my fingers than be standing there right then.
Slowly, over the next day or two with the return of feeling to my digits, came acceptance as well. Acceptance of rationality. That maybe my ability to push myself through anything is a gift, but that so was my ability to make a rational decision and not overrule my body for once. I still prefer the Anish who will sacrifice her body for the sake of a goal over the Anish who will not, but I accept that I am able to listen to my body and heed it. It may never happen again.
It is the kind of cosmic fate that only happens at Barkley that possibly the worst cold weather ever on race weekend occurred when I was there. The cold is my nemesis. It has always been the only thing that can stop me. My biggest fear. I went to Barkley for a challenge. I went there to quit. It's what I asked for. I asked for something to defeat me. I was not disappointed. Barkley takes your fears, your weaknesses, and it amplifies them. It will almost certainly conquer you. I went there to embrace that. To experience failure at something big. I am so thankful for that experience. Now, the question becomes, what will I do with it?