Guest Post by White Trash (Alan Abbs)
Twenty three hours into the 2010 Barkley Marathons, I shuffle up to the infamous yellow gate to check out on Lap 3. Laz makes a joke about how now that I’ve done 2 loops, the next 3 should be easy. I play along, because there’s still that slim chance I can get the 3rd loop done by 36 hours, then I can try my 4th, and then bag the 5th before 60 hours is up. I grab my number, a real race number that says “Barkley Marathons- Not All Pain Is Gain”, and I start out on loop 3. It’s still dark. I’m now alone. I’m starting reverse loops. I’m a Barkley Virgin. My feet hurt, it’s cold, it looks like rain, I’m dirty, I’m chafing, I’m sore, I’ve been pierced by briars, and I probably smell. I’m twenty minutes behind fourth place, and it’s only a matter of time before Blake Wood, Charlie Engle, Jason Poole, and Andrew Thompson get their numbers and set out in pursuit. This is what it’s all about at the Barkley- who can go the hardest and take the most abuse for the longest amount of time. It’s the best deal in ultrarunning- all this for only $1.60 and a license plate.
Halfway up the first climb on the “candy ass” trail to Book 10, I come upon Carl Laniak, but since I had seen the 2nd place person heading back to call it quits, all of a sudden I’m in 2nd and I don’t want to chat. I get up near the first book of the loop, the fog is in, it’s clouding up, and in my mind I just can’t play this section of the course backwards to get myself to where I need to be. I’m just a 40 year old virgin, and I was fortunate for the first 2 laps to be allowed to travel with Jon Basham (the eventual 9th ever finisher), Andrew Thompson (a 6 time fun run finisher and 2009 full course finisher), and Jason Poole (a previous fun run finisher). Carl arrives, a previous fun run finisher, and I follow him to the book, and in some manner we agree to stick together for a couple books, or at least he agrees not to be visibly annoyed if I follow him. There’s still time to make that 36 hour cut off. We descend “Big Hell” and it starts to rain. Next we climb up “Zip Line,” and by now the rain is epic- big drops, windy, cold. My non rain pants are soaked and I’m shivering. Survival is a good motivator, and we make it to the top of Zip Line to get under an outcropping and put on more clothes. Rain pants go on, and for some reason I had decided to take a second rain jacket along, which I put on under my other one. An excellent choice, after hearing some parts of the course experienced hail.
We get down to the Brushy Mountain State Prison, and head to the storm water tunnel that gets us from one side of the prison to the other. Earlier in the race you could do most of the 200 yard tunnel and still keep your feet dry, but the rain brings the water level to our shins, with pipes discharging water into the tunnel from overhead and the sides- cold water that makes me shiver and turns my feet to blocks of ice. We exit the tunnel, Carl stops to compose himself for the briar-choked climb up Rat Jaw, but I decide to press on. I’m alone again- a Barkley Virgin on lap 3. Roughly 2,000 feet of climbing over a mile and a half, Rat Jaw is hard even without the briars and slick mud that developed in the rain. I use all fours to get up, which means grabbing briars to keep from slipping backward. At the top is Book 6- 5 more and I’m done with the lap. The rain lets up, but I hear afterwards that it was enough to cause everyone but Andrew Thompson (behind me) and Jon Basham (in front of me) to call it quits.
I head down Rat Jaw to make the traverse to “Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall.” I was too much of a wimp the first two laps to climb this near vertical pitch, but I think maybe I’ll go down it. I sit down at the top, dangle my feet over, look down, and chicken out. Instead, I take the “Longcut” to get to Book 5 at Raw Dog Falls, do a quick contour over to grab some briars to get up “Butt Slide 3.0” and “Meth Lab,” and then quickly shuffle down “Testicle Spectacle” to get Book 4. Perversely, I think to myself I might just be fortunate enough to get out on Lap 4 if I don’t make any mistakes.
I cross the highway and one third of the way across the New River I almost get knocked over, so I go back and grab a stick to help myself across. I start the climb up the Park Boundary marker, and I nail the route all the way up to Stallion Mountain. I think to myself “You’re the Man,” right before I get near Fyke’s Peak and realize I can’t visualize the location of Book 3. Ahead of me? Behind me? To the right? Left? Laz had “helpfully” given directions for the backwards loop, consisting of the original directions printed backwards (letter for letter), so I pull out the forward loop directions and try to piece together how it looked when I last came through in daylight twenty four hours ago. I walk past it and downhill before I see the blue coffee can near a tree that jogs my memory. I’ve wasted about 30 minutes. Has Andrew Thompson passed me? I bypass the water drop to get to the Garden Spot (Book 2) at which I figure I’ll be home free- 8ish miles of candy ass trails and maybe 4,000 feet of climbing. The thirty six hours probably won’t happen, but I’ll still have a “fun run” finish of 3 laps in 40 hours that’s rare enough, especially for a virgin.
I’m so confident, I fold my map to take me to the finish, leaving out the next two miles I have to travel. How hard can it be, it’s all candy ass trails right? My next landmark involves going through the “Coal Ponds,” and as I strain to follow a trail that I absolutely should not have been on, I look down at the Coal Ponds and think “Huh, it’s another area that looks like the Coal Ponds!” I keep following this trail up, telling myself alternately to keep my focus and not screw up this virgin fun run, and thinking “where are those Coal Ponds?” I get to the top of the climb and see a sign. “I don’t remember seeing this sign before,” I think, and to my horror it references a landmark that’s a mile or so off course. I’m about to panic. I unfold my map and confirm my stupidity in taking this last section for granted. I quickly come up with a plan to backtrack and make a strategic cut to get to the Coal Ponds. My feet really hurt now, and although I realize I haven’t been drinking and eating enough, I feel like there’s no time to sacrifice. I start running times in my head, and think that now I need to have a mistake free end to make 40 hours. I try to remember how long these sections took when we were fresh and the trails were dry, and then extrapolate, but I never like the answers I get. After what seems like forever, I get to Book 1, and it’s a 1,500 ft climb followed by a 1,500 ft downhill to the finish. I think I can do it. The climb is endless and at the top there’s an intersection- I go right. I look at the trees and notice the blazes have gone from red to white, and try to remember if that’s what I want. Should I have gone left? I don’t know if I’m going to go down this hill and end up in the wrong place. I run scenarios in my mind where I end up coming in after 40 hours, further panicking me, but I soon just go with it and come out right where I’m supposed to- 200 yards from the best looking yellow gate I’ve ever seen. I turn in my book pages, Laz expresses mock amazement at my blistering fast 15 hour loop, and I stand as Taps is played to signify the end of my day- 3 laps, 38 hours and 45 minutes, a virgin fun run, and 3rd place. Or as Laz might mischievously say- another failed attempt.
In the days since, I’ve had intriguing thoughts about Jonathan Basham’s outstanding 5 lap performance, and what I would have needed to do that day to get to that level. Could I have given up sleep between laps 2 and 3 to ensure I got to start lap 4? Would I have learned enough on the 3 laps to get through lap 4 alone in the dark, and then be able to start lap 5? Would I be able to handle the mental and physical stress to properly take care of myself and keep making cut offs? Now that I know what I know, can I take it a step further in future years? I’m in a long line of folks that desire the annual abuse that the Barkley gives, and so for now I can only daydream. Ah, sweet dreams!
For those interested, a good photo tour of the forward loop can be seen at http://mattmahoney.net/barkley/2010/