I’m in Bangkok visiting an orthopedist for the second time in four years. The last visit was the result of running into a doorway in Nepal during the 2013 Manaslu Stage Race, hitting my head at literal breakneck speed and resulting in a two fractured vertebrae (see ‘A Pain in the Neck‘, Journal of Wilderness Medicine. Sept 2015). This visit is the result of another trail race, albeit much further away and different in attitude and altitude.
I close my eyes and hope for the same positive prognosis – things will work out and I will be able to hit the trails in a couple more days in Nepal. I am co-leading a fast pack into Langtang Valley with Sudeep Kandel and Himalayan Adventure Labs, The doctor examines the gash on my shin and pushes and prods the swollen tissue around it, making me wince and jerk away. Involuntary squeals come out of my mouth and I feel pathetic.
Surveying the scratches on my legs, he asks me again what happened. I try to tell him about this run called the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee, which some consider the hardest trail race in the world. I tell him about the thorns, the hillsides, and how a rock tumbled down smashed me in the shin. I tell him how I accidentally punched the wound while trying to tear an elastic bandage in half. He isn’t impressed and sends me off for an x-ray shaking his head at the dumb foreigner with his first world problems.
Five days prior to this hospital visit, I was fitfully sleeping in my tent at Frozen Head campground, wondering when I would hear the sound of the conch echo across the campground signifying that the race would start in one hour. No one knew when it would blow other than sometime between midnight and 11am. I had been at the campground for a week, exploring marked trails and getting ready for Barkley whose tagline is ‘The race that eats its young’. Initially the campground was filled with families, but they soon emptied out only to be slowly replaced by an odd assortment of runners from around the world – classified as ‘virgins’ and ‘veterans’ and collectively referred to by many as ‘morons’. How had we come to be here? The application process for Barkley is a secret, yet I heard over 1400 people had figured it out this year. Out of that pool, 40 of us were hand selected by the race director Gary Cantrel, aka ‘Laz’. I was one of the lucky (?) few and managed to make the draw.
Amidst us was one ‘sacrificial virgin’ who was expected to fail miserably. But the truth is we all are expected to fail. One of the first people I meet is my neighbor Lynn who is a Baptist Minister and goes by the nickname ‘Reverend Gump’. He is infallible kind and always has a big campfire going and delicious food to share. I discover this is a commonality among ‘Barkers’ and in the days leading up to the race enjoy meeting everyone and especially hearing stories from the veterans.
Someone I didn’t’ expect to meet was Billy Simpson – a mutual friend had introduced us via social media about a year prior and I had shared some tips and connections with Billy for a trip he was planning to Nepal. We kept in loose touch after that on facebook, his wandering style of adventure was fun to follow and it seemed likely someday our paths would cross. That came to be at Barkley and in short order we were sharing a campsite, laughs, dreams, and plans for him to help my sister Robin crew me if I made it through a loop.
When I first heard about Barkley, and even during the three years that I applied, I had a lot of conflicted feelings about the race. Everything it stood for was designed to ensure failure. Only 14 people had ever finished it since it started in 1985. The course wasn’t marked at all, there were no aid stations, no pacers were allowed, the start time was kept a mystery, the vertical gain was an unbelievable ~60,000+ feet over ~130 miles, 2/3rds of the course was off trail on insanely steep mountain sides that you were not allowed to explore prior to the race, and to top it all off you had to find 13 books scattered around a rough ~26 mile loop through the woods and mountains. Each book was hidden and a set of cryptic clues, along with a rough map, were handed out the night before the start. When you found a book, you had to rip out a page corresponding to your bib number to prove you had followed the course. After finishing a loop and turning in your pages, you were allowed to be resupplied by your crew before heading out for another loop if you were not over the time limit. Any time someone finishes Barkley, Laz changes things to make it harder – always pushing the envelop of what is humanly possible. This year he moves the location of two of the books, and tells us we are going to reverse directions on every loop, and then surprises us by blowing the conch at 1:42 am, sending many of scrambling out of our tents with little or no sleep.
So why do this? I had also been slowly finding myself disillusioned by the ultra running scene over the past few years. There are things about it I will always love, especially the community, but everything was designed to help people succeed in those events and the challenge and sense of accomplishment was slowly wearing off. Looking further afield, I started doing my own wilderness challenges – usually routes other people have designed that meander through beautiful wilderness settings with mixed possibilities of success. No crews at these, no course markings, no aid stations, no race fees, no set start time, no expensive fee, no t-shirts, no ego buckles to hang on your wall, and no friendly volunteer to feed you soup and shuttle you back to the finish if you decide to quit. Barkley was in line with these wilderness challenges and decidedly quirky to boot. When I finally received my ‘condolence letter’ from Laz (his version of an acceptance letter), I felt butterflies for the first time in far too long.
My biggest worry about Barkley was navigation. Over the years I have become lazy with the convenience of GPS and too often left the map and compass buried deep in my pack. Barkley disallows GPS devices and altimeters (Laz gives everyone the same cheap watch to use at the start of the race) and armed with a compass, a rudimentary map, and some cryptic written clues you set out in search of the books with the clock always ticking.
Adam Lint and Heather Anderson, both friends of mine on Team Seven Hills, were Barkley veterans and at Frozen Head getting ready to have another attempt. Heather holds the unsupported speed records on the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Arizona Trail. She is undoubtedly one of the strongest people in the world, on par with Lizzy Hawker in my book and a small handful of other people. Adam can hold his own too with a list of accomplishments including winning Plain which is considered one of the hardest 100 milers in the US (Heather has also won it). This is to say both know a lot about finding your way in the woods and forging ahead.
Their advice to me was to find a veteran who wouldn’t try to ‘scrape’ me, hold on and try to learn. Barkley wasn’t something that was finished on your first try, it was a cumulative learning process. That seemed to align with my unstated goal which was not to get stupid lost and to finish at least one loop under the time limit (one person infamously got lost within 2 miles of the start and emerged from the woods 30 hours later). Many of the veterans understood the topography and by following them you could learn the book locations much more reliably than relying on the cryptic written clues or compass bearings that were difficult to maintain while falling down a mountain side. The advice made sense and knowing that Adam and Heather were a lot faster than me, and would likely have a huge entourage of virgins trying to follow them, I set off to find a willing veteran. In my search, Billy introduced me to Ed Thomas and Dale Holdaway, I liked them as soon as I met them – seriously two of the nicest guys you could ever meet. This was Ed’s second attempt. He had made it to the second loop last year but then got stuck for six hours looking for the second book on that loop before giving up. Dale had attempted Barkley five times previously and had finished a ‘fun run’ (Laz’s terms for finishing 3 loops) but had been over the time limit. He was determined to finish a fun run in under the 40 hour time limit and to start a fourth loop. Both were welcoming and the night before the start we made a pact to try to stay together as long as possible.
So how did it go? I hesitate to do a blow-by-blow because one of the rules of Barkley is not talking too much about Barkley. It would also make this trip report way too long in the tooth. In many ways what we experienced was a lot like I had envisioned Barkley, there was an insane amount of crashing down steep hillsides in the dark, only to claw our way up others. We lost a huge amount of time looking for the first book in the foggy, inky dark.
The second book also gave us problems. Cryptic clues talk about looking for specific trees and rocks, but when you look around the forest is filled with rocks and trees that match the clues. There is a tremendous amount of confirmation bias in the course which can quickly lead you astray. The fog was intense and sometimes it was difficult to see more than a few feet in front of us, making running (when possible) otherwise impossible.
Despite these obstacles, or maybe because of them, I had a tremendous amount of fun on the first loop and at one point starting whooping and hollering so much I startled Ed who was in front of me and almost gave him a heart attack (his words). Later, as we tumbled down a hillside aptly named after a veteran ‘Leonard’s Buttslide’, a rock we had dislodged came rolling down and smashed into my left shin making me double over. But there were books to be found and we kept moving. Night gradually turned to day and about three quarters through the first loop, during one of the more difficult climbs called ‘Rat Jaw’, Ed starting falling behind and encouraged us to continue ahead without him. Barkley isn’t the kind of place you can wait for people, every second counts so we reluctantly pushed on, leaving a block of chocolate on top of the next book and sending him good vibrations. When we arrived back in camp, about 12:20 after starting, Dale and I made a plan to get out in under 15 minutes. We managed 12 minutes thanks to our great crews. I was able to unwrap the elastic bandage on my shin which immediately started to bleed and put a fresh dressing on, my sister worked on getting clean socks onto my feet while Billy shoveled baked potatoes into my mouth. A beer helped wash everything down. And then we were off again, this time in the opposite direction.
At the top of the first climb, maybe an hour later, I had to stop and adjust the new bandage because it was too tight and my shin was throbbing. A few minutes later, at our first book on this second loop, Dale stepped away and lost everything in his stomach. Things went figuratively and literally downhill from there for both of us, but we stuck it out for as long as we could. We went down from Chimney Top and worked our way back up to Indian Knob as the day heated up. Tiny bugs swarmed around our faces and I started to lag behind, occasionally telling Dale he should drop me because I didn’t want to slow him down. I reasoned that Ed was probably behind us and I would let him catch me and then try to partner with him. Dale wouldn’t have it and slowly my pace picked back up. We gained the top and went down again, this time escaping the heat by following a tunnel filled with rushing water under the prison that gave Laz the idea for the race. At the tunnel entrance, I threw my trekking poles down, intending to scramble down after them, but they fell in the water and were swept away. Dale took off running after them, balanced on a narrow strip of concrete to keep his feet dry. I don’t know how he caught up with them. We did Rat Jaw again and slowly watched our light fade away. Dale wasn’t able to keep any real calories or liquid down, leaving me amazed someone could go that long without any real sustenance or hydration. My shin hurt and I tried to avoid thinking about the books that stretched out in front of us and hurting myself to the point that I would be worthless a week later for my Nepal adventures.
As midnight approached, ‘Wilson’ from Taiwan caught up to us and said ‘It is terrible out there alone.’ As the the night wore on, all three of us ran out of steam and started talking about returning to camp. We questioned why we did this sort of thing and how bizarre it would seem to people in developing countries with less fortunate situations. I had entered Barkley with an unspoken goal of finishing one loop, much like my goal 7 years ago was camp 1 on Everest. My mother always says “Don’t let the best interfere with the good.” I had achieved that and then some. Our conversation turned to how we would regret it in the morning, but ultimately the draw of warm sleeping bags over the suffering that would be required to finish the loop, plus the multitude of reasons we were too eager to latch onto, triumphed. We reached two more books, increasingly bewildered by the dark and our fatigue and then called it as we intercepted a more direct path toward camp. Later, I learned that Ed, Heather, Adam, and many others would call it on the second loop. It took us 2-3 more hours to walk down a jeep track that loops through the park, affectionately known as ‘Quitters Road’.
We arrived around 3-4 in the morning to a small group of spectators including Robin, Billy, and Laz who instructed the bugler to play Taps for us, indicating we were finished. Someone asked me what was harder, Everest or Barkley? I answered Barkley and people laughed. Laz said his trademark quote, “I only wish you had suffered more out there.” As I write this, I rethink those words and feel some regret, and also some interest in applying again for 2018 and giving it a better shot, hopefully with the company of Dale and Ed.
Barkley has so many stories. The effort everyone puts into it is phenomenal, none more so than John Kelley and Gary Robbins who went out for fifth loops – each finishing in their own way. John became the 15th person to finish Barkley, Gary unfortunately went the wrong way near the end in the midst of fog and fatigue and reached the gate with quite likely the hardest bonus miles in the world and 6 seconds over the time limit. Watching these two push the limits of human endurance was bewildering, inspiring, and heartbreaking. All ingredients that seem emblematic of Barkley.
I started this trip report yesterday on the plane from Bangkok to Kathmandu. Six days after Barkley. As I finish writing, I am in my hotel room in northern Kathmandu. My left leg is elevated on a pillow and I have some pretty powerful antibiotics coursing through me – cellulitis seems to be the name of the game. Also known as subdermal bacterial infection. Turns out it isn’t good to run through the Tennessee woods with a puncture wound. Who would have known? Nonetheless, things continue to improve and the antibiotics are working. Fast packing for ten hours tomorrow should get the blood moving. Hopefully in the right direction. It is past midnight now and at 6:15am we head out of the city on foot for our Langtang Fastpack. We will be attempting the same lollipop route that Sudeep and I bailed on last fall when we ran out of time due to the monsoon rains and an insane amount of climbing (trip report). This time we will have more days for the route (13 instead of 5), but we need to acclimatize and we hear there is still a lot of snow in the mountains. Kanja Pass at 5,130m/16,830ft will once again be the crux and if it looks snowed in we will play it safe and back-track. It really is about the journey and not the destination.
We are joined by six hard core trail runners who are aware that all might not go as planned, that there will be some highs and lows, but that in the end it will be an adventure of body and mind. All have impressive backgrounds on trails and beyond and would be at home at Barkley. (Dan Letzler, Stephanie Gundel, and Emma Lee are also all veterans of our Annapurna Fast Pack). We are also thankful that all of them have helped with our non-profit Wide Open Vistas. Please check out Linda Quirk, Colin Suckling, and Sandy Suckling’s fundraising campaigns; donations will help support the ‘Girls in Action’ empowerment program in Nepal.
If you would like to follow along with our Langtang fast pack, a live map showing our progress can be found here, and we will be also posting to our facebook page. In many ways this is more my speed than Barkley, but it is also an adventure of Himalayan proportions and the butterflies are visiting. Wish us luck! (And if you would like more Barkley pictures, please scroll down).
Pictures from Barkley
Note that I didn’t carry a camera during the race – I don’t think it is allowed and it would have been broken within a couple hours anyway. But here are some before and after pics.