Ever since I stood in the shower at 2 am in Frozen Head State Park last year bawling my eyes out I have wanted to return. I knew I hadn't fully had a chance to test myself on that course, quitting because of the cold in loop 2. I spent the last year training primarily off trail and acquiring the gear pieces I felt I was missing while "out there". Even so, I was surprised to receive condolences.
I arrived in Knoxville on Tuesday and met up with Nicki who was also running the race. We carpooled to the park and set up camp. The next two days we spent running the "candy ass trails" in beautiful spring weather. I could feel the energy of the forest readying itself to burst into leaf and blossom. Still, rhodies and saw briar stood out against the brown as emerald patches that would both be our guides and our nemesis in a few days time.
I was more calm this year leading up to the race. I was not, however, any more confident. Once again as I met and chatted with the other participants I was reminded that I was so out of my league: runners who I could never hope to keep up with, orienteers who have been on their national teams, Barkley vets who have accumulated more time in that little state park than most locals. I crawled into my tent Thursday night and cried. What in the world was I thinking coming back here? I will never be fast enough, strong enough, or good enough to even finish 3 loops.
Yet, once Laz appeared on Friday and I had my bib in hand I felt a little better. At the very least I was going to go run around in the woods all day (and night and day and maybe night). It would be good to see if my navigation and my time training off trail had helped at all. My feet would be warm in my Seal Skinz socks. I focused on the positives and tried to forget the colossal feeling of being an impostor in a campground full of elites.
I laid awake in my tent all night. A light wind was shaking the canvas tent nearby, and even with earplugs, my light sleeping tendency won. I dozed intermittently, but when I finally crawled out at daybreak I knew I'd be in trouble. The sleep deprivation had already begun to accumulate.
The conch blew late--later than ever I heard. We started running around 11 I believe. Time is fairly irrelevant at Barkley and so I didn't even bother to keep track. I hiked up the first climb with Nicki and Jodi. Most of the field pulled away from us. Last year I had hustled to keep up, but this time, no. I was more honest with myself and my lack of ability to run up a steep climb.
We found the first book easily and navigated to the bottom of Jaque Mate ridge nearly flawlessly, but at the bottom we went downstream instead of crossing and had to backtrack. Jodi was fighting a lingering chest cold and Nicki and I pulled away gradually.
Up, down, up, down. This is the rhythm of the Barkley. There is essentially nothing flat and when there is you have an eerie sensation that you are surely off route. Nicki and I caught up to two virgin runners who accompanied us for most of loop 1. Our navigation was excellent with very few errors.
We saw Jodi on the out and back portions and at the New River. His dedication to training was evident, despite being very sick he was moving at a 10ish hour pace. We traveled as a loose group of 6 from the New River to Rat Jaw, but the steep briar shrouded slopes easily space people out. It was getting toward evening when I am strongest and I surged up the climb. I remembered what a mess it was with mud last year and was thankful for dry "trail".
On our way down Rat Jaw we saw Jodi one more time. He wished us a safe night and I could see in his face that the Barkley had used his illness to win. Barkley is never fair, never bold. It takes whatever weakness you have and it crushes you with it. I thought about my cold hands last year and the anger I'd felt. "This is not FAIR! I am able to go on so much longer. Taking me out with COLD HANDS?! Really Barkley? That's the best you can do?"
The four of us pressed onward, sloshing through the prison, climbing up Indian Knob. It was there that I laughed aloud in the growing gloom: the book was titled "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City". Yes. Yes indeed.
We reached the Beech tree just at dark. Big Hell seemed to go quickly and soon we were racing down switchbacks destined for camp. Our turnaround was swift due to an excellent crew, Leon, Mike, Keith...Thank you all. I can't have asked for better assistance!
The second loop is still "fun," but it is certainly where you begin to feel the enormity of the endeavor. As we climbed Hillpocalypse for the second time I repeatedly said aloud, "We have to almost be at the top." Sorry Nicki! As we slipped and slid down and up the Buttslide in the dark I realized how thankful I was to be with others there. Finding these books in relatively unremarkable terrain is an incredible challenge.
It was here that the wheels began to fall off of our little group. Nicki was ill and vomiting. My water and primary calorie source were both frozen in the near 0 degree weather. As a whole we were moving slower. Another experience Barker caught us and he pulled our virgin along with him. Climbing to Hiram's Pool and Spa Nicki and I watched their lights grow smaller and eventually be swallowed by the forest and the night.
Navigating Stallion was not too hard. In fact we were impressed at how well we traveled down the mountain under the conditions. We reached the New River just before dawn. We found a place to cross and practically crawled up the steep embankment to the highway. Nicki sat down and announced she was done and going to walk back on the roads/trails. We consulted the map together to figure out where we were (about 1/4 mi upriver). Reluctantly I left her after repeated assurances that she was ok. She turned and started walking up the road and I turned and headed down.
A humongous wave of apprehension washed over me. I was alone on the Barkley course for the first time since I'd come down Quitter's Road in a bitter snowstorm last year. I whispered a prayer that was more of a statement, "Well, God, it's just you and me and the mountains now." Somehow, uttering that gave me confidence and assurance. God, me and the mountains is, afterall, my preferred arrangement in life.
The sun rose, drenching the forest in reds and golds. I saw deer and rabbit and birds sang. My water hose finally thawed as did the Trailbutter I'd stuffed in my jacket. I sucked down my first fluids in hours and sucked on the Trailbutter as I hiked. I washed it down with Perpetuem. I finally felt my energy returning.
The navigation presented no problems. Rat Jaw was actually lovely in the morning light. I arrived at Indian Knob after surviving "another bullshit night" and soon was cresting Chimney Top. It was afternoon and I looked at my watch. I did the math over and over, my mind turning sluggishly. If I could get to camp and back on the course in an hour I could still start a third loop.
The first few switchbacks I jogged in disbelief. I could not wrap my mind around the fact that I was not only going to finish a second loop, but I was going to do so in the cut-off. The hopeless feeling from the past few hours faded and I began to run in earnest.
I came running up to the yellow gate with 12 minutes to spare. I handed Laz my pages and declared with a 5-year-old-in-a-candy-store smile that I wanted to go out again. Karine whisked my very out of it self over to Mike's camp and I swear there were 10 people feeding me food and packing my pack. I ripped off my layers that I hadn't stopped to remove for the sake of time, even though it was a warm day. As Laz yelled, "3 minutes!" I said, "Just throw it all in there anyway you can. I'm going to stop and repack it in a little while." Then I was at the yellow gate taking my third bib and running the counterclockwise direction away from camp.
I stopped a short ways down and dumped my pack. I repacked it while eating as much as I could manage. I realized that Jodi, who had been packing it, had been right. I probably had too much stuff. But, I knew that if I were going to be out all night I'd rather have too many clothes than not enough. I would not quit because I was cold again!
The climb up Chimney Top seemed long. I laughed at myself. My body was pretty jacked. I was sore and tired...and gleeful. I was on my third loop!
I gathered my page and set out on my bearing. I went about 2/3 of the way down Big Hell and suddenly nothing seemed right. I felt like I was in a gully instead of on a ridge. I didn't remember the cliffy rocks. I couldn't see tracks in the leaves. I began hallucinating. I felt waves of hunger. I stopped for a few minutes and studied the map. I began to shake and got very cold. I recognized the signs of depletion. I climbed back up Big Hell convinced I'd done something wrong. At the top, I realized I hadn't, but yet nothing looks the same in reverse. I thought back to the JMT last summer when I had argued with my compass and GPS because my vision and mind told me one thing and they another.
I should have followed my bearing to the river and used the remaining hour of daylight to find the beech tree. With that tricky maneuver complete I'd be able to continue on in the dark.
However, I made the race-ending mistake of sitting down. I thought I was only sitting for a few minutes trying to figure out the best course down the mountain. But, when I finally pulled my mind away from the hallucinated backpackers and monkeys and back to reality I realized the sun was almost setting. I have no idea how long I sat there with my mind wandering into another realm, but it was long enough that I knew I would never finish the loop in the cut-off, and likely I'd be wandering around the river for a long time before I found the beech tree.
And so, in a seemingly logical choice I allowed my mind to turn my body around and I walked back to camp.
I do wish I had gone on, at least to Indian Knob. However, I feel like I did more than I really thought possible. And, the fact that I quit where and when I did leaves me with an agonizing wonder, "Could I actually finish a 3 loop "Fun Run"?
Before I boarded the plane for Tennessee I had told myself and everyone who asked that this would be my last Barkley. That whatever I did this year would be the best that I could do. That I was out of my league on this course and that I would never be able to do well there and I was done with futile attempts.
But as I drove away from Frozen Head I looked up at Chimney top and thought to myself, "Until next time, Barkley."