WARTBURG Tennessee, September 20 2014
Geoffrey Baker describes the Barkley Marathons thusly:
In the fringe world of ultra endurance sports, there is an outlier: The Barkley.
With 59,100 feet of climb and decent [sic] over 100 miles, it’s considered the most difficult endurance event on the planet. In its 25[+]-year history, only twelve [fourteen, as of this writing – RWH] men … have actually been able to finish the race. No woman has successfully completed more than sixty miles on the course.
The race has no website.
It is not on any race calendar.
The entry procedure is a well guarded mystery. Ask a veteran how to enter and you are likely to be sent down a rabbit hole.
The race director lives under an alias.
There are no manned aid stations. You must carry everything you need to survive “out there” including a map and compass (no GPS allowed) to navigate the course.There is no official race start time. The race begins when the Race Director decides to light his cigarette.
I did not run the Barkley Marathons.
But when “Lazarus Lake”, the evil genius who designed the Barkley course, announced earlier this year that he would be putting on the Barkley Fall* Classic – an easier, more traditional race held on much of the same terrain as the Barkley – I had no choice but to sign up.
The trip to Frozen Head State Park was long, some 500 miles from The Aerie. It was a pleasant drive through the mountains surrounding I-81, though. The weather was turning ahead of the leaves. The traffic was not too bothersome, mostly big rigs carrying the nation’s lifeblood down one of its eastern arteries.
I arrived at the American Legion hall in Wartburg, Tennessee late Friday evening. I was a little unsure about which entrance packet pickup was behind, and I wandered around aimlessly for a bit until I heard a lady call out “Are you from Maryland?”
“Virginia,” I replied, confused until I remembered I was wearing my race shirt from the Rosaryville Off-road Half Marathon. It turned out that my new friend was from Annapolis. We chatted very briefly, then she directed me to the basement, where packets were being handed out.
Pickup was very smooth. An efficient volunteer handed me a bag and said “There’s a compass and an emergency whistle in here. Make sure you bring them tomorrow.” Uhhhh, dude. I might need a compass and an emergency whistle. Well, you paid for that kind of a race, why are you surprised when that’s what you got?
I rooted through the bag, and sure enough, there they were. I had stolen The Boss’s large capacity race vest and had plenty of room for these items, so I made a mental note to stow them in the vest when I got back to the hotel.
The rest of the night was uneventful. I went to the hotel, called The Boss, prepared my gear, took a shower, and headed to bed early.
I was back at the AL hall at 0500 the next morning for the pancake breakfast. It was good. When I was about halfway finished eating, K. from Annapolis hailed me with a hearty “Virginia!” We chatted a little about DC area commutes – We are both pretty fortunate by area standards; I get to my office by bicycle and train, she by foot – and about the race.
We were soon joined by B., who as a local had solid experience on the Frozen Head trails. We picked his brain as best we could, then we all wished each other well and headed out for the short drive to the park.
It was dark at the start area. I texted The Boss that I was safely on site, then set about making sure my gear was ready, shoes were tied, etc. I repeated these last steps over and over; aside from my regular OCD, I knew I’d need to give myself every possible advantage if I wanted to finish.
The race is a nominal 50 km, with a cutoff time of 13 hours, 20 minutes. That alone should give you an idea of the difficulty. You also have to figure in, though, the course designer’s cruel penchant for lowballing mileage. The actual race ended up being somewhere north of 35 miles.
There were echoes of the real Barkley at the start. Laz blew the conch at 0600, indicating one hour until the scheduled 0700 start. At the true Barkley, the start time is unknown until the conch blows.
We made our way over to the starting area, some 250 nutjobs awaiting the lighting of Laz’s cigarette, which would start the race. I looked around and saw several people I recognized only from getting to know them online through the ultramarathon mailing list I subscribe to: Dan B., Keith D., Joe F.
Joe, an outstanding runner in multiday events, was there to observe and volunteer. Dan is over 80 years old and holds the record for the worst performance ever at the real Barkley – something like 8 miles in 36 hours. Today he would turn back at the top of the first climb and only get 10k or so in. Still, he won his age group.
And then we were off. I was in the back, so I only learned we’d started by the motion of the runners around me. Suddenly we were running down the road towards the fabled yellow gate, and even though it was only the Baby Barkley, still, I was there. As I crossed the start line I followed the example of runners ahead of me and gave Laz a clumsy handslap.
The road was easy. Maybe a mile of it until we reached the yellow gate. Our path took us off to the left side of it, but some runners could not refrain from quickly going over to lay a reverent hand on it. Pffft. Fanboys. I just ran on.
Very soon we were climbing the first set of switchbacks. They were long. Like, real long, but not as steep as I’d feared, and not terribly technical. I settled into a pretty good hiking rhythm, just keeping my place in the conga line. Very occasionally someone would zip past or fall back, but mainly we all held our places.
Bib numbers had been assigned in rough order of ultrasignup rank. Mine was 243, near the bottom. I quickly took an interest in finding runners with numbers near mine, in hopes that they might set a pace I felt comfortable with. I noted one participant a few positions ahead of me in the conga line whose number was 248, and resolved to stay near him.
We continued up the switchbacks. My shoes were a half size too large, and they were loose. Near the top of this first climb I was ascending a particularly steep, winding section, and my foot somehow came out of my shoe, which then proceeded to start to tumble away from me down the mountain. Averting disaster, I turned and snatched it up. I lost only a few seconds sitting on a rock and replacing it.
Then a long descent. It was reasonably technical, but not too bad. My splits show that I was slow here – some 18 minutes per mile. Then another long, grinding series of uphill switchbacks.
Maybe two-thirds of the way up this section I heard someone near me call out “Sniper!” I looked ahead and there was David Snipes, a fixture at VHTRC events around my local Northern Virginia. He was hiking alone up the switchbacks, and the group I was with was slowly gaining on him. As we reeled him in, and one-by-one passed him, he was looking at us with mock indignation. “Really? Really?”
“Can I get by? Thanks, buddy,” I said as I passed him. Then a beat later he called after our departing queue “How y’all doin’ – Kilians?” I was later very sorry to see that David was in the one fourth or so of starters who failed to finish.
Soon we found ourselves at the first aid station, mile 8 or so. The volunteers were local high school athletes, earnest and eager to help. I got some calories in me and headed out, feeling pretty good. There were not many runners behind me at this point, but there were some. I felt like this first segment was not as difficult as I had feared it would be – I had taken the Baby Barkley’s first punch and was still in the fight.
Then there was a long, rolling section along Frozen Head’s North Boundary Trail. After a while we came to one of the colorfully-named landmarks from the true Barkley, Son of a Bitch Ditch. It really wasn’t that bad. Down, across, and up. Then nearly as far as The Garden Spot before we took a right and headed down Coffin Springs Trail, then onto some jeep road on the way to AS 2.
On this jeep road section I caught up to #248, whom I’d targeted earlier. It turned out he was from Fairfax, Virginia, just down the road from my home in Manassas. We chatted a little bit, both of us expressing some desire to drop at AS 4, which was a short walk from the finish area, then I got up ahead a ways.
Carl L., a veteran of many attempts at the true Barkley was one of those manning AS 2. As the group I was with arrived he was saying something to the effect of “Y’all are OK on time now, but you don’t want to fall any further back.” I thanked him for this advice, and for his assistance, and headed on out towards Fodderstack.
This out-and-back section was some three miles each way, and mostly jeep roads. Not far into it I saw Leonard M. coming up behind me. I knew his name as another true Barkley veteran – he even has a hill on the course named after him – and I recognized him from my DNF at this year’s MMT, when Caroline W. greeted him at the aid station where I had dropped.
“You’re Leonard, right?” I asked him, and he graciously allowed as he was. I introduced myself, and he was very willing to grant me his mentorship. Leonard had a great deal of facts and figures about the rest of the course, and how fast we could expect to complete each segment. He seemed to do very little, if any, running, depending instead on a metronomically consistent power hike. The terrain was pretty easy around here, so eventually I decided I should run a little and get up ahead. Leonard would have no trouble catching me when things got steeper and more technical.
At one point the jeep road crossed a somewhat larger road, and there was a gate separating the two. There was no good way to get around this gate – I don’t remember why now, must have been rocks or something on either side – and so we had the choice of up or under. My legs groaned in protest as I ducked under, and I remarked to someone near me that getting past this gate was the hardest part of the course. I was wrong of course; I’d have to go under it again on the way back with even more wear on my legs. And even that was not the worst – Rat Jaw was still looming.
This out and back was a good opportunity to see who was ahead of me and who was behind. There were, of course, far more of the former than the latter. I remarked more than once to runners heading outbound with me that there were a lot of low bib numbers coming towards us hung on wasted-looking runners.
Near the top of the jeep road I thought I heard someone call my name. It confused me for a moment until I realized it must have been B., from breakfast. He was heading back inbound with a small group. He looked strong.
I chatted briefly with a tall, older racer here. I thought he may have been Ed Furtaw, many time true Barkley participant and friend of Laz, but apparently he was not. We both complained about the hills a little bit, and then I said something like “Well, we all knew what we were getting into when we signed up.” “Not me,” he said, “I’m from Iowa.” I laughed a little bit, then eventually power hiked ahead.
Soon there was a turnoff onto trail. I asked someone coming towards me how far the turnaround was, and she said about a half mile. This was not terribly inaccurate. The trail was steep, but not too technical. Most people coming the other way were running. After what seemed like a long slog I finally saw the sign for the turnaround up ahead. I made sure to walk all the way past it, impulsively kicked the back of it, then headed back down the trail at a mild jog.
There were more people behind me than I expected to see. I saw Leonard very soon after turning around. Then not far after that I saw the fake Ed Furtaw, and I impishly told him “just a mile to the turnaround!” I doubt he was fooled. Number 248 was hanging in, not too far down the trail. There was a fairly steady stream of people approaching me for a mile or so after the turn.
I finally saw K. from Annapolis, but she was way behind. Maybe a mile and a half from the turn. She said she’d gotten turned around after AS 2, and found herself on Rat Jaw before realizing she’d gone astray. She would have to push hard to make the cutoffs, and in fact I regret to say she wound up among the DNFs.
A couple miles further on and it was time for Rat Jaw.
Rat Jaw is one of the true Barkley’s signature climbs. It’s nearly a mile of mostly 40% grade through a field of saw briars grown over your head. This is not hyperbole. It really is nearly a mile of mostly 40% grade through a field of saw briars grown over your head. There were several runners paused at the bottom, preparing their anti-briar methods: Duct tape, calf sleeves, heavy gloves, etc. I rested a moment, relaced my shoes, then dived in.
It was tough. The temperature was up to some 80+ degrees, or at least felt like it. In the first section the briars were formed into a kind of tunnel system. We had to duck down and crawl up through them while trying to find footholds in the crumbly soil. a few times I started to fall back, and had nothing to grab onto except palm-shredding briar plants. It was a hot, sweaty, scratchy slog. At one point the tunnels ended and the plants became more upright. Around here there was a downed power line that people were using to haul themselves up the monstrous hill. Eventually we came out to a kind of plateau.
It looked like the top was near, but there was no beaten path through the briars. I wound up following a guy who claimed to have some experience at the true Barkley. He led a little group over to the left into the woods, and I followed. This group would wind up fracturing a few times. Each time some would go farther into the woods and some would turn back. I was always in the group that turned back – I felt like the true path should go through the briars as much as possible, so I didn’t want to stray too far from that briar patch.
Eventually we came back to Rat Jaw proper not far from where we left it. After struggling a short distance up the hill we saw the fire tower at the top, and knew we were near the end.
Finally we popped out of the briars, and the course markings directed us up the fire tower. Leonard was here, having used his Barkley skills to somehow get ahead of me on Rat Jaw. I climbed the fire tower and got a mark on my bib from the volunteers at the top. Then it was back down and a short run down a jeep road to AS 3 (the same station as AS 2).
Rat Jaw souvenirs
Carl L. was still here. I advised him that my group had gone a little astray back on Rat Jaw, but he said it was OK as long as we generally followed the course and did our best to stick to the intended route. He did say, though, that several people had gone seriously wrong on that climb and wound up coming into the AS from the wrong direction. He had told them they’d have to go back and do it right. Apparently only one runner acceded to this plan; the others said “Nah, bro,” and continued on. Carl had gotten their bib numbers, though, and he said they were DQed. I hoped they were not the cells that fractured off from our group.
From here to AS 4 was some easy running – 4 miles of lovely downhill down North Old Mac trail. I was feeling a little wiped at this point, and I wasn’t sure I would have the sack to continue on when I got to the aid station. AS 4 is less than a mile from the finish, but there is another 10 mile loop to do once you get there. I told myself “All you have to do is start down that loop when you get there. If you start, you will continue.” The time cutoff for AS 4 was nine and a half hours. I was pretty safe to make this time, but there was some tough trail in the next segment, if I didn’t drop.
I was making pretty slow time on this easy trail until someone came up behind me keeping a measured running pace. “I’m Terri,” she said, passing me, “excuse me if I fart.”
“That’s OK,” I replied, “it wouldn’t be the first time today. And, to be frank, it would restore a certain karmic balance.”
She laughed, then I asked “Are you Terri D.?” and she allowed as she was. I recognized her as the wife of the race director. I asked her if she minded if I paced with her for a while, and she kindly agreed. We enjoyed some conversation, then caught up with Leonard near the aid station. He was, of course, hiking, so I slowed to chat with him for a while and pick his brain about the final loop. Eventually he told me that I was walking too slow, and I should run or let him pass. I chose the former and hustled to catch up with Terri before the AS.
Laz was manning this AS and chuckling at us poor lost souls. I was just a couple minutes over nine hours here, some 25 miles in, so I had plenty of time to go on. “Are you going to continue?” Laz asked with a grin. “Darn right I am!” and out I headed. My strategy turned out to have been sound – once I got just a few meters down the trail it was unthinkable to turn back. Very soon, though, the final climb was looming.
Terri had told me that we were facing seven miles of climb. Laz had said that it was five miles to the next aid station, but Laz lies. The truth, I figured, was somewhere in between. Chimney Top is not a seven mile climb, it turns out, but it feels like one.
It is just unrelenting. Switchbacks upon switchbacks, punctuated by short, sharp ups. It doesn’t end, but at least it’s not too steep. Well, until you get to the last mile or so. That’s pretty steep.
I usually do OK on heavy climbs. Today, though, I was about done in. Once we hit that über-steep trail to the summit my heart rate would skyrocket whenever I took more than 20 steps or so without resting. So I took the hill 20 steps at a time, punctuated by 20 – 30 second rests leaning back against tree trunks. I had dropped Leonard and Terri at AS 4, but they both passed me before I made it to the summit, Leonard at his rock steady pace, and Terri doing a marginally faster version of my walk-rest-walk pattern.
Finally, the summit. The trail turned down and I was pretty sure I had a finish in the bag.
AS 5 turned out to be 6 miles from the previous aid station. Not too bad for Laz miles. Here I met Mike D., another mainstay of the true Barkley. He told us it was 3.5 miles to the finish, and I regret to say that I did not receive this news as graciously as I should have. “Is that an honest 3.5 miles?” I asked, “Because they’ve been stretching the truth all day.”
“It’s 3.5 – I don’t lie,” he firmly replied, and I went so far as to ask his name (I didn’t know it at the time) so that I could curse it later, should the finish be farther than advertised. Mike, I would like to offer you my most humble and abject apologies – the distance was just as you said.
I left this aid station in the company of two young ladies, who would accompany me until we reached the trailhead. This section was a little bit of a death march. It was easy downhill, but we were not doing much running. I learned that one of my companions, M., had chosen this race as her first ultra. “That’s … uhh … psychotic,” I said.
“No, that’s badass,” T. corrected me. “Ah, yes. That’s what I meant.”
When we got down to a mile to go to the trailhead, per Mike’s promised 3.5, T. started frequently asking me for updates on our remaining distance. “I’ll tell you when we’re down to half a mile,” I told her. She replied “OK”, but still couldn’t keep from asking for updates now and then.
“Half a mile to go.” “Woot!”
“A quarter mile.”
“There’s a sign.”
“There’s the trailhead. And there’s Laz.”
He was waiting for the last few finishers to come through. It was nearly dark, but we didn’t have our lights out – the finish was just a few tenths down the road. I let the girls get up ahead and walked over to shake Laz’s hand.
“I hate you so, so much,” I told him, and he laughed. I doubt there was anything I could have said that would have made him happier.
The girls were fast on the road. They declared their intention to wait for me and finish together, but I insisted that they go on ahead. “I want my DFL,” I told them (I would proceed to fail in this aim – there were some eight official finishers behind me).
I knew I would easily make the 13:20 cutoff, but as I neared the finish area I realized that I could do a little better – 13 hours was quite achievable.
I broke into a shambling parody of a jog up to the turn leading to the finish line, whereupon I broke into a pathetic attempt at a sprint. There were loud cheers, which I welcomed. I crossed the line in 12:56:16 – a personal worst at the 50k distance** by some five hours, and a time of which I am very proud. Anybody who wants to tell me that’s slow had better run it themselves first.
I watched the last few finishers come in, then headed out in search of much needed food. Before leaving I saw Leonard and thanked him for his help out on the trail.
I stopped and ate some fast food, went back to the hotel, called The Boss to let her know I was alive, took a shower, then crashed hard.
The drive back to Manassas was pleasant. Autumn was finally in the air, and satisfying memories of an ambitious goal achieved carried me home.
Humble and sincere thanks are due to the following people:
- Terri D. for pulling me down North Old Mac. I’d’ve had a much harder time making the cutoff had I kept at my own leisurely pace on that section of trail.
- Steve D. for directing the race, and giving us all the chance to experience a taste of the Barkley course and achieve something epic.
- Carl L., Mike D., and all the other volunteers for making the whole thing possible. No way I was getting around that course without aid.
- Leonard M. for his kind and patient mentorship.
- Everyone else I shared a word with before the race or on the trail.
- Lazarus Lake for recognizing that people will rise to the challenge they are presented with, and for presenting us so many challenges to rise to. Thanks, Laz. Thank you, man.
You may also enjoy this report from Kimberly D., another BOP finisher (but at least she beat me).
*Even this is obfuscation and misdirection. The race was held in the final days of Summer, 2014.
**Actually more like 36 miles, with some 12,380 feet of elevation gain
Miles this race: 31 (officially)
Miles raced this year: 241.9