Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Barkley, Where Dreams Go to Die

"Barkley. Where Dreams Go to Die" -Gary Cantrell

The Race Start-Courtesy Leon Lutz

If you're hoping to read a detailed account of my experience "out there" in 2016 don't bother reading this post. This story isn't about what happened out there, because that doesn't really matter. It's a reflection on what happened in me, because that is what matters.

I came to my third attempt at the Barkley Marathons ready to finish 3 loops. I was bolstered by my 3rd loop start last year and the excellent weather conditions. My navigation on the first loop was almost flawless. I felt good. I felt strong. I was excited. Until I wasn't anymore. Until my body decided to freak out on me and the reality of failure (again) ebbed higher and higher throughout my second loop.

Finishing Loop 1-Courtesy Keith Dunn
Last year after my taps Laz asked me when I was going to "get serious" about finishing the Barkley. I came there this year believing that I was finally serious about at least a Fun Run. Yet over the weekend I discovered that I wasn't.

First ascent of Rat Jaw. I quit here on the 2nd loop.-Courtesy John Price

In my first application I told him that I needed to fail at something and that that is why I wanted to come to Barkley. So I came and I failed miserably. It was crushing and yet gave me the focus and the drive to set the AT FKT. Setting that FKT gave me the confidence to believe that I actually belonged at the Barkley this year.

My first set of Barkley Book Pages ever
I realized as my race ended and I watched the events of camp that I was coming to Barkley for the wrong reasons. First I came to watch my dreams die. And, while that was essential to me for my own path as an athlete, why did I return last year? And this year? Why tell myself I was serious when I really wasn't? Those were the questions that haunted me.

Getting Tapped Out-J. Kowalski

The answers surprised me. I was there because other people wanted me there. So many people believe that I can be the first woman to finish 5 loops at the Barkley. My entire life has been a quest to make others happy. To get good grades for my parents. To marry someone that wasn't right in order to please others. To enter a race when my heart isn't in it and hope for the best.

Just after Taps-Courtesy Joe Kowalski
This year forced me to take a step back from the pattern. To look at this cycle. To realize that the things I'm well known for: the records I have set, those times that I have stubbornly clung to perseverance despite everything being against me are when I have really, truly wanted it for myself. 

Moving across the country. Leaving unhealthy relationships. Quitting my job. Throwing myself into an FKT attempt on the PCT. These things didn't make anyone else happy. No one wanted me to do them. But I wanted to do them. I needed to do them. For Myself.

And I did them without regret and with a resolute, stubborn drive.

I have never come to Barkley with that drive.

"I'm done."-Courtesy Leon Lutz

I realized as I watched Jennilyn rocket up the ascents; and as I saw Gary, my friend and incredible athlete unravel in his 5th loop that I have never been invested in Barkley physically. In order to truly do well at the Barkley I have to be at the same physical level that I have been at in the midst of my record setting hikes. Where I eat elevation for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on little sleep for weeks on end. And I have to be at that level in March, without having the cushion of doing nothing but hammer out 45 mile days for a month beforehand. I haven't been willing. I haven't been invested in the training. I haven't wanted to finish Barkley enough to do what I have to do to be successful.

I watched John Kelly stagger into and out of camp during the transition from his 4th to 5th loops. I recognized that dreamlike stupor of fatigue that he floated in as the same thing I experienced in the High Sierra two years ago. I had wanted the JMT FKT like John wanted Barkley. I had wanted it enough to push my body through 80 hours of almost no sleep to the brink of death from HACE and HAPE. I had wanted to finish it so badly that even when I was coughing up blood I refused to stop.

JMT 2014
People ask me if I think I can be the first woman to finish the Barkley. I have always said "No, I'm too slow," or, "Of course not, no woman can" (echoing Laz's taunt). I've been hiding my lack of desire behind self-deprecation.

After this year I finally realized that I can finish 5 loops at Barkley. I have no doubt of that now. But in order to do so, I need to want the Barkley for myself.

Will I apply again? Maybe. But only when I have decided that I want it enough.

If I return to the Barkley it will be when I am ready physically and mentally to finish it.

Accepting the truth with tears in my eyes-Courtesy J. Kowalski


  1. If any woman can, it's you. I am one among many rooting for you.

  2. I love this so much there are no words.

  3. Great insight! I have wanted to attempt Barkley ever since I heard about in 2008, but like you mentioned, I won't apply until I fully know that physically & mentally I can complete the fun run. It's such an honor to start the Barkley and I would hate to waste or take away a spot from someone more capable. Someday, when I want it bad enough.

  4. If I was going to design the patch for your headsweats hat it would say,"The Barkley is Mine."

  5. Love the introspection. And I am still glad you went, because I enjoyed getting to meet you. I'm sure even though it didn't go like you wanted that you'll be stronger for the experience. Hope I run into you again sometime!

    1. Thanks Terry. It was great meeting you as well. I think no matter the experience, there is always something to be learned. I think I learned more this year than ever before at Barkley and I am glad for it.

  6. Really looking forward to news of your return.

  7. Self awareness is where life begins, so I really enjoyed reading this; thank you!

  8. Thank you for sharing your story. The Barkley taught you something very important about yourself, and in my mind, there is no failure in that. You are an inspiration.

  9. So beautifully written. Tearing up here! You are amazing and your words are perfect!!

  10. Amazing report! And phenomenal insight into what it takes mentally to be at the race. I was young when I first attempted it in 2011 and got timed out at loop 3, young again at my second attempt in 2012. It was the only DNF I'd ever had, and being young and stubborn "I wanted/ needed" a finish at the race and stopped at nothing until I had that in 2013. I would easily say one's physical fitness only accounts for at most 30% of what it takes to finish this event. Amazing report and thank you for sharing your insights! Hope to meet you in person sometime, only so many trails and crazy races out there...

    1. Thanks Nickademus! Deep down I knew these things, but this years Barkley really helped me refocus on the truth. I want it, now I just have to decide when I'm willing to devote myself to getting it. :)
      I'm sure we'll run into each other sometime! (pun intended)

  11. It's good and you're right you can do it.

  12. I may be one of those people who put his expectations on you. If so, I'm sorry. I did so out of the greatest respect for what you have accomplished. Desire IS everything. It may be that Barkley never piques your interest. If not, I know you will do other great things. I'm very proud of you.

    1. Thanks Brian. No one is at fault in any way. In fact, I think I needed this to remind me to keep pursuing that which I am passionate about. It's easy to get lost in expectation in all facets of life.

  13. Your honesty is a model for others. So easy to hide these things from ourselves!

  14. Just watched the documentary, loved it! Had seen your posts about it but it was foreign to me and I assumed just another event. Putting the two together was enlightening especially reading this blog post afterwards. Well said, analyzed and shared. Love the title and your sentiments.


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