I don't want to be an epic failure. I just want to be a regular failure like everyone else
I never really sleep well before the start of a race, I am too paranoid about somehow sleeping though my alarm and missing the start. I am always in a daze and looking at my clock to see that it only 1am and with the start not being till 9 I still have lots of hours to get some rest.
However I have not set an alarm for this, this will be done for me. It's 1am and I have no idea whether I have 1 hour or 11 hours till the start of the race. I have no idea whether I have a nights sleep between now and the start or a mad rush to get all my gear together and set out on the run. This time last year the race was about to start. Who knows?. Every noise in the campground startles me, a racoon scrabbling around the bins, a car alarm or even a fart from a nearby tent. This is no way to rest for a race.
This is no ordinary race.
It gets light around 7am and I decide not to bother trying to sleep anymore, it's too frustrating. There are a few other runners up and about speculating as to when we might get to leave. I pack my bags, eat and drink as much as my knotted stomach will allow and sit. And wait.
The ideal start time would have been around 4am. At least then while we are all grouped together we could do the first few miles with help from those who knew the way and then the harder miles of the loop in the early morning daylight. It was going to get warm later.
Then there is a dull and distant sound of a conch shell signifiying that there are now 60 minutes between myself, 39 other hopefuls and possibly one of the hardest endurance challenges imaginable. It's 8.11. I am already ready. Well, my bag is packed. In the bigger scheme of things I am far from ready. The gnarly terrain of the Frozen Head National Park in Tennessee is waiting to flick me off like a slightly annoying knat. In fact it's not even waiting. It doesn't even notice I am here.
I can't remember the first time I heard about the Barkley Marathons, it was not a significant moment for me like learning about Badwater, Spartathlon, LANY etc. I think it was in the book "running through the wall" where there was a race report on the Barkley. Sounded like fun, skip through some forest, bound up a few hills and collect pages from books to show that I had completed the whole course. It didn't strike me as a "must do" race at the time and anyhow, I was concerned only with doing the toughest races on the planet. Those of course are the Marathon Des Sables and Badwater, because it says so on their website and you can't lie on the internet can you?
Barkley doesn't even have a website.
However while doing these races I was really plodding through a valley while ignoring the view just up from me that reached into the sky. The Barkley Marathons has (yes grammar pedants it's singular) has been here all along. Way before I started running ultramarathons. It will be here for a long time too, regardless of my own feeble attempts at it.
The Yellow Gate
I have seen many pictures of the Yellow Gate and read the legendary stories, all of which have begun there, some have even ended there. One key thing different from the photo is that it does not show the hill it's on. It looks flat on the pictures but it is definitely a slope, one that should be power-walked at best. Laz the race director tells us that there are 60 seconds till the start of the race and that this is the time when most race directors give some good advice. He said that since we were here we clearly never listen to good advice anyway so he won't bother. Everyone watched carefully for him to light the cigarette that starts the race. It was lit and we were off.
The race instructions give us the terrain of each section and categorise it as one of three types. "candy ass trail", "real trail" and "what?". The first couple of miles are on "candy-ass" steep switchbacks up to the first mountain. By candy-ass he means anything that could theoretically be run on. In all the races I have ever done I think 99% has been on candy-ass trail. The only times I have hit proper "trail" as defined here are probably Bovine in the UTMB and Sangras Pass in the Spartathlon. I wasn't looking forward to "What?".
I wore calf guards at the start, to stop my calves from ripping open by their exertion or by the briars, however they were screaming right from the off, really painful and I was less than a mile in. Two days ago when I did this same section it did not hurt at all. What was wrong? Don't panic. I pulled the calf guards down and that seemed to do the trick. Looks like I was in for a day of laceration.
At the top of the candy ass trail I was following a bunch of guys who know where to go for the first book and getting there felt like a landmark. At least I got a page from a book, not getting even one page would be a poor effort even for Barkley. When interviewed at the start as to what my "goals" were for the race I just said that I don't want to be a miserable failure, I just want to be a regular failure like everyone else.
It was after the first book that the Barkley really started, without any cue or landmark people just seemed to thrown themselves down a ravine covered in dead trees. I followed, trying to keep up while not slipping over or faceplanting. I did fall over several times.After some lovely bushwacking we hit a stream at the bottom and got to the second book. Two books within two hours, this might not be so difficult after all.
We were back on the candy ass again, some of it could actually be run and I did so. This was actually pleasant, I wonder if it will all be like this?
There was another series of switchbacks heading up to the top of a peak. Soon we were at the third book, first of two water stops and at the point where the race as going to get very interesting.
Having been able to follow a trail for a while and follow others I would only describe it at this point as very difficult. Having gone to get the water and following an overgrown old jeep road for about 50ft we then dropped off the side down into the trees into "Fykes Folly". I had to keep up with the guys ahead who were much better at skipping over down logs and thorns than I was. I took my camera out with me and did not take a single photo for two reasons. One that if I stopped for a few seconds I would lose the group of people infront and two it was in the same pocket as my pages. I could not risk losing my pages.
The group I was with consisted of Tim Dines, a really nice guy from Tennessee who was very helpful the previous day talking me and Tim Englund through some of the course. Dusty Hardman, Thomas Armbuster and Hiram Rogers formed the rest of the group. Hiram was doing this for the umpteenth time and we were all quite grateful for his navigation skills.
We were about half way through the loop, 10 Barkley miles and having completed about 5500ft of ascent and descent. However we were to wave goodbye for the candy ass trail and say hello to some of the things that have made this race so intimidating from afar. It was nice to be able to put a name to a hill after reading about them for so long. Actually no, it wasn't nice at all.
Having climbed out of a ditch and navigating through some barely noticeable trail and collecting the 6th book in some rocks we turned a corner to see one of the most intimidating sights I have seen from photos and up close it looked even worse. Testacle Spectacle, 800ft of climb in 0.58 miles. It's wasn't even in the top 5 of the big hills here.
The heat of the day was starting to kick in and this climb was exposed. We head up the "real trail" at some points climbing more than 45 degrees. I made such hard work of this, it should not have been too bad but at half way I was slipping around (I did not make the best shoe choice but I will make no excuses this thing was beating me). I had to pull over at the side to let those behind me get up as I was slipping about all over the place. I found a triangular rock which I grabbed and used as a pick to get me up which delighted the camera crew who were stationed at the top looking for evidence of suffering. This wasn't even a big hill and I was choking.
On finally making it to the top is is straight back down the other side via some sliding on my arse. I was losing the group and had to keep up. Thomas was behind me at this point but we were both Barkley virgins and therefore in deep shit if we lost the group. The rest didn't want to ditch us on purpose but they could not hang around waiting for us. I realised that I was no where near fit enough or good at hills enough to be here.
This is where the first person quit. One of the interesting quirks of the Barkley is the race between the first quitter and the leader of the first loop. Typically when quitting you'll be about 3 hours from camp albiet along some candy ass trails if you can find the right ones. The guys at the camp await eagerly for the race leader or the first quitter to arrive at camp. Reports say this year was a tie.
Pig Head Creek.
I didn't even register this as a major climb in the instructions but it was harder again than the Testicle. This was now through dense trees and steeper. I had no idea which way up we were going but just had to keep on going up. This is the point when Thomas and I lost the rest of the group and this is the point where I quit.
I was determined to at least finish a loop but here is where I realised that I was out of my depth. I can't climb hills like this. I was staggering up and grabbing onto trees and rocks to stop myself falling back down. I can suffer the rest of this just for today, but that's it.I think this was the first time in a race where my mind gave up before my body.
It took ages to scramble up Pig head and at the top the rest were nowhere to be seen. It was just Thomas and I in the middle of a load of trees near the top of something. I got the map and instructions out and figured that we just head upwards until we were supposed to hit a short section of trail. Thomas asked me "am I right in thinking you are the UK national orienteering champion?". I have no idea where this came from but I had to say no, not at all. And I think at that point Thomas knew we were screwed too.
We found this trail and actually it was familiar as John had taken me to it a couple of days ago. I knew what was coming up, something that was going to make me reappraise what I'd consider a hill. And I'd only just done that an hour ago.
John showed me this a couple of days ago. A huge 40 degree lump of earth that shot up into the top of the tree line. "it doesn't stop there though, it goes round to the left". So I was prepared for this to go on longer than the eye could see. There was a cable going up the hill that could be used to help climbing however it went over some of the worst parts and so we didn't use it that much. It was another hands digging in the ground slog though to get to the first bench (a temporary flattening of a hill, I learned loads of new words here). Then as promised it turned left and went up some more.
One of the great things about this is that you eventually go down the same way you go up, meaning that you see people ahead and behind you. I saw some guys bounding down near the start of my ascent and thought "wow, I'm not too far behind these guys who look quite fast". I was only an ascent and descent of rat jaw behind some of the quicker guys. I was later to discover that that was a very long way indeed.
On approaching what I thought was to be the end of this bastard we came to a rock formation where we were supposed to go to the right and then head up through a crevice and continue the second half of the climb. "Second Half???" You mean that monstrosity was only one half of Rat Jaw? I could not quite believe it until I scrambled up between the rocks and saw that I had more of the same. Much much more.
There were spectators here too, this is I think the only place where spectators are officially allowed. No help is allowed at all. No one can give you anything, take anything from you, grab your hand to help you up a climb or even point you in the right direction. I think words of encouragement are OK, but yelling "you dumb fucking idiot" is probably more acceptable.
Among the spectators here I saw Keith Dunn who was tweeting updates of the race. I spoke to him over the previous days and said that I probably would not be allowed back out this far to do this race. He then laughed and said I then must finish as I only have one shot at this. As I passed him I said I think I have blown my one shot. I consoled myself with the thought that I was only going to do this once this year.
When I got on the plane to Knoxville from London a few days ago I had a feeling that this wasn't going to be the last time of doing this. The only race so far that has gripped me into wanting to do it every year is the Spartathlon. I have finished that twice and the course does not change so I know I can do it. I think as soon as I stepped on that plane that I knew that success or failiure at Barkley I was going to try and come back. Again and again.
Rat Jaw had been cleared of briars, well at least the 6ft tall ones. They were still there and doing a good job of halting our progress, that and the vertical. It got steeper and steeper as the crowd of people got nearer. Near the top Tim and co came back down and apologised for leaving us, I said that's no problem they should not be expected to wait. I grabbed hold of some clumps of something to give myself the balance to high five them on the way down. At the top of Rat Jaw was the second water stop and the 8th book. Two thirds of the way in? Nearly there right?
So fucking wrong.
Back down Rat Jaw was almost as horrendous as going up, tripping over thorns all over the place. If I properly fell on this I was not stopping until the bottom. I'd slide on my arse but that would mean those things harnessing me in and cutting right into my groin. There were a few others on their way up and we didn't really know what to say.
At the bottom of Rat Jaw there was another steep descent down to the prison where we were warned not to approach it from the wrong side as they have a shoot to kill policy. There was an almost vertical drop down about 10 meters to the road by the prison which we weren't too sure how to get to. The briars were head high and we didn't want to add to our bleeding. We eventually found a path that only cut us up a little bit more and were down level with the prison and about to enter one of it's newest but most iconic features, the tunnel under the prison.
There is a stream running through it. You can just about avoid getting wet if you balance along a short beam that runs along the middle but I didn't care I just splashed through the water. Thomas was keen on not getting wet though so tried to balance as best he could. At the other end of the stream there were two options of getting out of the tunnel. A climb over a 7ft wall or wade into deeper water out onto a bank and an easier way up. I took the latter as my feet were already wet. Thomas tried to scale the wall and in doing so fell off and into the stream. All that balancing was in vain. Book 8 was hanging outside the prison for us collect our page and then we looked at our maps to figure out in what direction the next little bump was.
Laz takes great pleasure in telling entrants that this race is really hard and you wont finish. He then laughs when people say to him at the end of whatever they did "that was really hard, how was I supposed to finish that?" and he replies "well that's exactly what I told you, what did you expect?" My favourite quote from one of the many race t-shirts I saw was "Barkley Marathons - where your best just isn't good enough".
At this point Joel, Jason and another chap had caught us and we debated a bit as to which way to go. Given that the name of the next climb was called bad thing I would imagine that we go whichever way was hardest.
There was a word that I had never heard before until I heard it twice within the week leading up to this race. Red-lining. It sounds like a medical term, it's actually a financial term but in this context I think I know exactly what it means (and feels like). In every race I have done so far that has hills you can always make it easier on yourself by just going slower. Townes Pass or the Whitney portal in Badwater, the hill passes of the UTMB, you can just take it a bit easier if you think that your exertion is going to lead to collapse. These hills were different though, standing still meant sliding down, it was like you were on a reverse escalator. Remember the "travelator" at the end of the assault course on Gladiators where you'd scream at the TV for some guy just to get off his arse for 5 seconds and get up the thing. These hills feel like that for an hour at a time. I was leaping from tree to tree, taking about 10 steps up and clutching hold of something as I climbed my own height just one feeble stutter at a time. Towards the end of each rep I felt like my heart was going to rip out through my body. This wasn't even about hills anymore, it was about my fitness. I would not say I am unfit but I was no where near in shape to do this properly. My legs didn't hurt apart from a blister on my foot, even my lungs were ok and the asthma hadn't bothered me at all. The only thing that was hurting was my heart. It was making a desperate attempt to leave my body.
To make things worse some of the trees I lept for would just snap in my hands, they were dead. A piece of advice I got after the event was that I should always look two trees ahead when bushwacking. I tried not to look up, just look at the floor and keep crawling. Thomas and the rest of the gang were struggling too, I am glad it was not just me. I consoled myself once more with the thought that I only had to do this once this year. This race had mentally crushed me. I'd forgotten that it was hot and humid, these things don't affect me too much and I got some good training in last summer for this. Well the heat and fluid air amyway, not the hills.
It must have taken an hour to get to the top of Bad Thing, finding the book was easy after Ed Furtaw had caught us up while we red-lined up this thing. He said "you guys can't let me pass you, you are half my age". I replied "you're right, let's push him back down".
Ed was the first person John Price introduced me to in camp. I had read his book on the race and had got partially excited but mostly terrified about what was coming up. He was an amazingly nice and friendly guy as was everyone else in camp. Despite this being the most intimidating thing I have ever attempted I feel like I had the nicest camp experience of any other race I have done.
John Price (who is responsible more than most for encouraging me into this race) picked me up from the airport and showed me around some of the course in the days before the race. Lisa Bliss was there supporting her partner Tim Englund who were a delight to see. I met Tim Dines from the camp next to us who had completed 1.5 loops last year and was more than happy to share everything he knew with us before the start and to help us with the markings on our maps. In laminating my map I managed to screw it up slightly so that there was a crease in it. This caused concern with the others until I said "If I don't finish this race I can't say it's because there is a crease in my map". I don't think the details matter here.
In order to have a chance of finishing this race I would have to transform myself into a super human. While plodding along some of the breathable sections of the course I was plotting my course to doing this. I could ditch all the road stuff, run hills all the time. Do track sessions to get my fitness up. I will find the biggest hill in England and plant thorns all over it and slash my legs in hill repeats. I could drop two stone, eat healthier, never go to McDonalds again. Maybe even cut down on the beer. It soon went to even greater lengths of desperation. I could buy a heart rate monitor, or move to Tennessee.
The ninth book was at the top of the Bad Thing and we were on our way down again into the "what?" and down towards a stream. I remember getting loads of instructions as to what to do on this descent as this apparently is the most difficult book to find. I didn't remember a word, something about a stream and that we should cross it, or not cross it, stay on the right, or left. Was it even a stream? Anyway I tried to follow the now larger group down through the trees again and towards book 10. The books generally were easy to find so long as you were in the right place and this one was the same. Near a stream Leonard had caught up with us as instructed us that we were a couple of hours away from water and should get it from thestream if we needed it. Thomas and I did even though I filled up previously at Rat Jaw. One more big climb to do for the day. Like I said several times before, I had mentally checked out of this race.
I don't know why the name "Big Hell" seemed less intimidating than all the others. I've heard lots of things called Hell before and none of them compare to what I have experienced today and I guess for some reason I thought that it couldn't be that hard if it was called Hell. I would have been more concerned if it was called "fluffy kitten". However if I had only two words to describe what I had to climb here the first one would be "big", the second would probably be "hell".
This was the steepest yet and it was starting to get dark. It had cooled down some but the sweat dripping from my head every time I looked at the floor told me that it wasn't getting any easier. Remember you only have to do this once today because you have been beaten.
We went up a ridge towards the top but the top kept changing. It was hard to see where the hill might peak with the trees and the diminishing light but everytime we came to the top of something there was another something on top of that to climb. I can't imagine doing a whole loop of this in the dark, how does anyone know where to go? I was following people for most of the way round and still had no idea where I was.
I can't remember whether I said to the group I was with that I was only going to do the one loop. Laz spoke the previous day about "quitters talk". Another strange thing at the Barkley that works the opposite way to most races. Groups of people get together for combined strength, helping each other out through the low times. Here when people get together one person would decide to quit and then everyone else will follow. Being in a group is hazardous as you all end up convincing each other to quit.
Our headtorches were on before we got to the top and found the last book. My number was 3 and so I was tearing out the contents or title pages from most books (selected titles - The Idiot, Living through personal crises, the Human Zoo). It did make me laugh when some of the pages were in roman numerals and Laz had written their arabic number on to avoid confusion. Who says he is trying to make everything hard?
Once at the top of Big Hell it was candy ass all the way back to camp albeit some steep decents. We were going to miss the 12 hour loop cut off to stay in the 100 mile race but were going to be inside the 13.20 cut off for being able to stay in the fun run. For me though this was over. I was a little disappointed that I would miss some new hills on the reverse third loop, including the Zip Line and Laz's new baby "Check Mate Hill - where fun runs come to die". On Asking Alan Abbs how that was at the end of his fun run he simply described it as "not funny".
Three of us stuck together till the gate, Me, Thomas and ... Eventually we came off the trail and into the paved road that led up to the Yellow Gate which we touch and then hand over our pages for checking. Laz asked if I was going out for another loop. No I said, I quit. I still had a lot of energy, I wasn't even tired, giving up the caffiene the week before seemed to do the trick but the thought of ripping my heart out at all those hills again and in the dark was unthinkable.
Laz said that I will be noted down as an "RTC - Refused to Continue" and that I was the first ever to do that. I knew this wasn't the case but I did apologise for my pussy attempt at this race and for letting the fine British record get worse. I heard my taps played and then sat down to enjoy some of the chicken.
The Yellow Gate looks more menacing in the dark. As I bailed I saw Ed and Dusty ready to start a second loop. Ed looked like a plane ready to take off, both in really good spirits depsite what they have just been through. It did look like a runway, some people taking off, others landing, some in tents getting ready to come out. I just knew that if I went back out there I wouldn't even find the first book.
The next two days were great watching the race. I got a good nights sleep on the saturday night and woke up on Sunday to head over to the gate. Tim E had finished two loops and was about to head back out for his third and in reverse. People came and went over the nexr 36 hours and ultimately Brett Maune shattered the record by over 3 hours, finishing 5 loops in 52 hours. Jared Campbell came in 2nd in 56 hours and John was the first ever 3rd place finisher in just under 60. I bet Laz never thought he'd need a podium for this race.
As I watched this race I did have a little pang of regret for not staying out there. I wish I was among these multi-loopers but was just not fit enough physically. Initially I had two objectives for this race. To get my money's worth ($1.60) and to have something to write about. I certainly got the former and now 5000 words into this story I think I got the latter though I wish in retrospect I had something about the night to write about.
What I really wanted to happen was to reach the end of my physical limits here and say this race beat my body but not my mind. That didn't happen, I quit long before my body was done. My legs could have gone on I just didn't want to. This race beat me in ways I have never been beaten before. Everything I have done until now I considered hard but doable. In fact many of the things were hard but probably. I got beaten by something, I got what I wished for.
But now I have a new obsession, one that is going to be much harder than anything else I have ever set out to do. I want to finish this race, or die trying. It will involve a lot of work, chiselling a proper runner out of this flabby plodder who has been banging on on this blog for the past 5 years. It may take much longer than 5 years this time.
And of course it depends on me being allowed into the race again.
Did you know I had a book out?
You can buy it here.