I read Laz’s words of “encouragement” only minutes after getting a text from Jared, “Did you get a condolence letter?” I was as confident as I have ever been about anything- there’s no way I would be picked, With only 40 slots available and a surge in interest in Barkley due to the recently released documentary, surely I was off the hook. A paragraph from my entry essay summed up my feelings about my odds;
“A few years ago while adventuring with a good friend of mine, Jared Campbell, I was explaining which events were left on my bucket list, and which ones I would never consider. There is a running joke at my house that if I ever told my family I was going to apply for Barkley or Badwater that I was secretly crying for help- and by doing so what I really meant was “get the pillow” and put me out of my misery so I could go quietly in my sleep. Why the change of heart? I’ve asked myself that over and over again. I like to tell myself that it’s not just the surge in popularity of the sport or the race itself, or just another notch on my belt. I believe that it is possible to finish, yes, but I’m also experienced enough to know that odds are- it’s not going to happen, even if I do get in.”
Now I was most certainly in and it was time to pay the piper. My training was going okay. Busy with track meets on the weekends it was making it difficult to get in the time and the vert that I needed to be ready. My first test piece was RUFA in Salt Lake City. The last few years this has become an early staple in training. To add to the intrigue of repeated summits of Grandeur was that four of us were all in Barkley (at the time Erik was still on the weightlist, but would toe the line with us in April). Throughout the day and part of the night I watched Jared and Jenilyn just kill it. I took a bad fall on lap three and pulled out after 14 hours and 15k of climb and descent. This was an eye opener for me. I had a lot of work to do. At home I found a few bare side hills included a 1,248 ft. climb in .58 miles. Up and down I would go. Every morning, every night I would find myself and my dogs going up and down. I managed to put in a couple of 35k weeks and after a final “run” of 9 miles and 12k of climb without stiffness about 10 days out I knew I was as ready as I was going to be.
The trip to Frozen Head was uneventful. Jared and Mindy, Erik, and I were all on the same flight. Our only hiccup was when the room I had rented for us had recently re-glued the carpet. To avoid asphyxiation, we ended up at America’s Best….well, spoiler alert, it wasn’t. It was about 2.5 hours from Nashville to Froze Head. By the time we got there I was more than excited to get started. We picked up our maps at the visitors center then found a place to camp. Luckily the weather was stellar. I ended up throwing my stuff on the lawn and sleeping there for the rest of the weekend (trust me-there wasn’t a lot of sleeping). The check in was fun. I was anxious to meet Laz and start my Barkley experience in earnest.
After checking in we began the wait for the conch shell blast. The previous year it had been a very late start so most of us assumed it would be extra early. I do much better early in the day so I was hopeful. Again, Laz threw us a curve ball. After a fitful night of sleeping with one eye and ear open, I woke up and had a big breakfast, but till no conch. People were resting, pacing, and making last minute gear decisions. Anything to pass the time. Finally we heard it about 9:45. We now had one hour. My plan was to latch on to a veteran “Barker” for the first couple of laps to help with navigation. I knew that Jared and Gary’s pace would be too hot for me out of the gate. Jason Poole was gracious enough let us tag along. The first lap was as fun as I have had at a race in a while. the terrain was steep, there were innumerable leaves covering all the rocks and sticks making the going slow. We were rested, fueled, and having a blast. It was a big treasure hunt in the woods, but there were not any Easter eggs, just well-hidden books with titles like “Undead and Unfinished,” “Too Far From Home,” “Where Do We Go From Here?” and even a special treat of a book in Braille. Erik, Jason, and I kept cruising and working together for the entire first lap, getting in just after dark. We were no worse for the wear minus a giant gash Erick had on his right butt cheek after a fall coming down Stallion Mountain. Our first lap took us about 10 hours.
We quickly refueled and headed out into the night. This time we had the luxury of doing the second loop in the same direction, which was helpful, but not as helpful I one would expect. We knew that being sleepy and in the dark finding the books would be more complicated. We slowed considerably. Erik was having trouble with a knee locking up and we were getting tired. Erik agonized over his options. He had looked forward to the opportunity to run Barkley for so long- now his body wouldn’t cooperate. Jason and I continued on without him. We spent a little time wandering off course, getting too far west when dropping off of stallion mountain, we knew that eventually we would come to the New River highway crossing. Eventually after some time wandering around getting our bearings we found the highway and made it down to the crossing. The seventh book gave us some problems (again) then we headed up and over the new section of the course and thrashed through the brambles to Raw Dog Falls, to Danger Dave’s climbing wall. We were pretty efficient from there to Rat Jaw and up to the tower. It was cold and quiet at the tower. Some of the water was frozen. We grabbed our braille page and headed down through the prison, and up toward the last few books on Indian Knob and Chimney Top. In this section Gary and Jared came blazing past us. It was inspiring to see how quickly they were navigating the difficult terrain.
By the time we made it back to camp I had done the math and decided that there was no way to finish lap three in under the 40 hour cut off. I also knew that the peer pressure back in camp to leave again would be difficult to ignore. I was right. I was completely prepared to tell everyone to go to hell and take a nap but the energy at camp was too difficult to overcome. After a burrito, soup, and a hell-fire and damnation speech from Frozen Ed I found myself hustling to catch back up with Jason. Climbing back up Zipline we joined forces with Dale. His knowledge of the course helped us piece together some of the parts of the course we had been struggling with. He helped us nail the pesky 7th book and the way up Stallion. We made good time through the butt slide and we were hustling. We still might be able to make an official fun run. However after some problems getting where we needed to be at the Garden Spot and the second book put us over the limit. When it was apparent that we weren’t going to make it back to camp in under 40 hours we discussed our three options; find quitters road, take a nap, or keep trudging on. I really wanted to nap, and to get to the last (first) book. The climb up checkmate was as long and as difficult as anything I’ve done. I would find myself on all fours cussing climbing until I couldn’t then I would just lay down in the leaves and wait for Dale and Jason. We were going to finish this thing (whatever it was at this point) together no matter what. Every false summit continued to crush my battered morale. Finally we found the book and made our way back to camp. On the way down the final descent Jason and I briefly dropped Dale. We opted to sit for a few minutes, head lamps off and stare at the stars above Frozen Head. What an amazing experience. So disappointing and so fulfilling all at the same time. Once Dale caught up we cruised into camp. 42 hours and 4 minutes after we had started. After scrambling to find a bugler, we finally heard our taps played. The notes were spitty and pitiful, kind of like I felt at the time. A perfect ending to a great experience.
Even now I find myself struggling to articulate my experience at Barkley. I am incredibly grateful for the experience. When people ask how it went I simply reply- it was awesome. When they ask, “how did you do?” I tell them “ok” The always follow that up with – “Will you go back?” And that I don’t know. Thank you Jared for talking me into trying this beast. The whole thing had me way outside my comfort zone. Thanks to Erik, Dale, Jason and the others I leaned so heavily on to get around the course. Thank you Laz for giving me an opportunity to test my limits. Also thanks to Leon, Mindy, Billy, and others that were so helpful in camp during the race. I traveled to Tennessee to experience the Barkley, and experience it I did.