Guest Post by White Trash (Alan Abbs)
The worst part is seeing yourself fall apart – that dissociated feeling in which you know things are going downhill, yet you’re powerless to stop the slide. If you’re lucky, things magically improve, but usually you sink lower and lower until you’re mentally and physically done. When I daydream about racing, this never happens. I’m rock solid. I run the climbs effortlessly. My feet land when and where I want them. Machine-like, I eat and drink at the exact right time, always having reserves to dip into. When I daydream, I finish the Barkley. As I finished loop two in waning daylight at this year’s Barkley, only 19:30 in, I was living the dream.
The first two loops seemed easy. 1:06am start with no sleep – no problem. Blake Wood set a steady pace up Bird Mtn and waved me through at the top for an exhilarating nighttime downhill. I caught Byron and Carl Asker at Book 1, and we set a steady pace to the Garden Spot and up Stallion Mountain. On Stallion, a convergence of thunderhail and different routes lead to a group of five (Carl Laniak, Brett, Henry, Byron, me) and then four as Byron held back going up Testicle Spectacle. It all seemed so easy, no heavy breathing and no leg cramps as we went up and down Rat Jaw, up the Bad Thing, down Zip Line, and up Big Hell. What little talking we did was about the course, pros and cons of the early start, and what we’d do on loop two. At Chimney Top, we started into a steady jog and came into camp, 9:15 in. Slower than my first lap last year, but as we all seemed to agree, loop two in the day would be significantly faster than a normal nighttime loop two. Carl, Brett and I agreed to 25 minutes to regroup. Bev had food all ready- grilled cheese and soup plus other snack foods, and repacked my pack while I dried and lubed my feet, and changed clothes. Twenty five minutes later I was at the Yellow Gate with Brett, with Carl promising to catch us as we set back out.
Brett and I started out easy up Bird Mtn, occasionally seeing Carl below us on a switchback. At the summit, we fast walked the downhill, got to Book 1, and started up the next climb. Looking back, we saw Travis had caught Carl, but they were still at least five minutes back. As we got to Jury Ridge and were ready to go downhill, Brett and I had a quick discussion, “Do we wait, or do we go?” Five seconds later, we were running towards the Coal Ponds with our loop two plan. Brett leads through Stallion, and I on the section from the prison to Chimney Top. It all seems to fall in place as we have almost no problems. We run down Chimney Top as the sun goes down, hitting the road with a bit of light left, and we walk into camp without headlights, 19:30 in. A 9:45 2nd lap, and two hours faster than my previous two loop split in 2010. We agreed to 30 minutes, and retired to our camps for maintenance.
I was feeling great. We had four hours of cushion on a five loop finish, and I had two hours on my 2010 attempt, with a 30 minute turnaround vs a 90 plus minute turnaround last year. Five loops was going to happen because we were going to do a 12 hour nighttime reverse loop split and come in at the 32 hour mark with a daytime loop four in front of us. With the cushion, a slow and methodical fourth and fifth loops could still get a finish. I ate soup and a sandwich, some canned fruit, a recovery drink, a cup of coffee, and took a caffeine pill. With a grilled cheese in hand and 2700 calories in my pack, I met Brett at the Yellow Gate and we were off at the 20 hr mark.
The strategy was the same, I get us to the prison, and Brett gets us through Stallion. Somewhere near Rough Ridge we meet Carl and Travis, and we figure we have an hour on them plus any time they spend in camp. We talk hypothetically about the fifth loop, which direction would be the best. On the climb up to Chimney Top, I start to falter and have trouble keeping up. I ate plenty in camp so it’s not that I tell myself. I drink a bit, but the water seems really cold and it makes me shiver – I don’t like it. I feel hot, then cold. I know when things like this happen that I’m on the edge, and that I need to do something, but what? I take some electrolytes and choke down some more freezing water. We get to Chimney Top and start down, navigation made easier by heading towards the lights of Blake, the large group after him, and Dale Holdaway. I’m hoping that the downhill will let me regroup, but Brett sets a fast pace down to the Beech Tree. I fill my bottle with what seems like ice water and we start up Zip Line, Brett once again setting a pace I can’t match. I grab some food but it takes me 30 seconds just to swallow it. My stomach says no, but I eventually force it down. The climb is taking its toll. I slip, I have to climb sections with my hands, I have to rest. Brett patiently waits because we had a deal. With only a little nav difficulty we get to Indian Knob and start down to the prison. I’m hoping I’ll recover, but I don’t know how I’m going to do it. The thought of eating more wasn’t working for me, and cold water wasn’t a fun thought either. More electrolytes? I don’t know. Brett sets a fast pace down, and with no rest we get to the prison.
It’s time for the climb of Big Rat- the prison to the Firetower. Nineteen hundred feet vertical of briars between me and a chance to rest. I think I choke down a Pop Tart as we start up. We get to the guard shack and the half way point of the climb and I’m redlining. Brett only slows down when he’s waiting for me, and at the Firetower Brett has both pages from the book and hands me mine as I get to table. We fill water bottles and I finish off a jug with difficulty because it’s just so hard to swallow. We calculate that it took only 4:45 to get here, boding well for a 12 hour loop as most of the difficult navigation is behind us. We set off, and once again I’m struggling to keep up. Everything hurts, but I tell myself I have to stay with Brett and get through Stallion Mountain. We go down Pigs Head Creek, cross the highway, go down the cliff about 10 ft from Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall and get the book at Raw Dog Falls.
Going up the Butt Slide is agony, and I dip into my reserves even more just to get to the top of it, with a couple hundred feet more to get to the top of Meth Lab. Brett easily puts 50 yards on me going down Testicle Spectacle, and once again hands me my page as I get to Book Four. He mentions that we’re falling behind our 12 hour pace, and I give him the go ahead to leave me, but he honors the deal to get me through Stallion Mountain, and off we go. At this point I just need to get to Stallion Mountain so I can stop. It all becomes a blur as I trudge up the climb, with the only thing keeping me close being that Brett occasionally stops to figure out where to go next. I lose him at the summit, and all of a sudden there he is with my book three page in his hand. Duty done, he heads out as I yell “Good Luck,” and collapse against a tree. Let me tell you, Brett is one honorable guy, and he deserves any and all adulation, because he could have left me anytime during that loop.
I start shivering uncontrollably and put on my jacket. I’m incredibly thirsty but I can barely drink the water. The food tastes horrible but I slowly swallow it. I take some electrolytes and a Tylenol. I close my eyes and count backwards from 50, slowly get up and start moving towards the Garden Spot. I start running times through my head- a 13 hour loop and maybe I can salvage this, and I think with a 14 hour loop and I can’t. If I can’t do 14 hours now after a clean navigation of Loop 3 and getting to the Firetower in good time, how could I possibly go faster alone on loop four? I get to the Garden Spot and take another 10 minutes and eat and drink a bit more. I start down through the Coal Ponds with a bit of darkness left and have trouble finding the trail just like last year, but I’ve learned enough that I take a bearing and hit the trail leading to SOB Ditch at first light.
I’m going slow. Everything hurts. My feet, my stomach, my legs, my back, my arms. At this point I see I’m blowing my 13 hour loop. I tell myself I should run, but I can’t. I see a burrito on the trail that I remembered seeing on loop two (meaning someone dropped it 30 hours ago on loop one). I pick it up and look at the cheese covering the inside of the bag and wilted lettuce. I think about eating it- from my days working at a landfill I know that one man’s trash can be a landfill worker’s tasty mid day snack, but instead I pull it out and throw it down the hill in rage. I’ve eaten most of my food except for a gel that I refuse to take, and I had rationalized that I didn’t need to eat the burrito.
Onward I trudge, and as any Fun Runner will tell you, getting to Jury Ridge seems like an endless undertaking. I get there and think maybe I’ll finish the loop in 13:45. I pass in and out of shade, alternating between hot and cold with my nighttime pants and long sleeve shirt making me too hot in the sun. Down I head to Phillips Creek, thinking “What if Brett didn’t make it through the Coal Ponds and I’m here first?” but the book confirms he has, and I start climbing up Bird Mountain. The sun pounds down on me, and I get to the top and see I’ve blown a 14 hour loop time. I’m broken as I hike down. On the way up I pass a hiker telling me “Bev says you have to run,” but I’m not running. I walk in to the Yellow gate and touch it, three loops in 34:15, with a 14:15 loop behind me.
I lean with my head on the gate. Everyone expects me to get ready for a fourth loop, but I’m a broken man. “How about take an hour and come back? How about just go out to Chimney Top? Are you sure you want to stop? You still have time.” In the back of my mind I know I should take that hour, and just start on that fourth loop, but my mouth keeps saying NO. After several minutes, the bugler steps up, looks at me and says “Done?” I say “Done,” but as he raises it to his lips my mind says “No!” yet nothing comes out of my mouth. As Taps is played I don’t look at anyone, and as it finishes I look at Laz and he’s standing at attention with his orange hat over his heart. I think to myself that I should have been standing at attention as well. As I walk back to camp, I start crying because I realize I had given up when I had been telling myself for months that I would keep going out while time allowed. “Talk is cheap” as they say. I apologize to Bev for stopping. Carl Laniak comes in a while later and does a quick turnaround and goes out for loop four, and I feel even worse. I should have done that, even if the odds were slim that I’d get very far. Carl, if you’re reading this, I have tremendous respect for what you did there.
A week later and I still don’t know why I let the competitive fire get snuffed out like that. Two loops in and I was mentally and physically a million bucks, and a few hours later I just wanted to be done with it all. Should I have just solo’d loop three at a slower early pace? Did I eat too much? Not enough? Let myself get dehydrated? Or was I just not in good enough shape? Who knows. I tell myself that two Funs Runs in two attempts is pretty good, and taking 4:30 off my previous Fun Run is great, but when it came time to stare down the Barkley, I blinked first. The Barkley wins again.
Click here for results and more info on The Barkley Marathons
I gotten a fair amount of comments sent to me via e-mail and facebook, rather than through the blog. One from a Tevis Cup competitor included a quote from Teddy Roosevelt that seemed appropriate, so I’ll post it.
Man in the Arena
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Alan, I have read and re-read this multiple times and I really don’t know what to say except to thank you for writing so openly and honestly. Not sure I’m going to be sending Laz my entry essay anytime soon but instead of “hell no” I’m now thinking “maybe someday.” Many of us yearn to get tested like you were, but maybe not with all those damn briars.
Do it, Craig! Do it for next year. I will be there for my first (after 4 previous dropped entries) and last (in all probability) time, and would love to have at least one familiar back to look at as it moves ahead of me.
I am with Craig – your open and honest account of this year’s Barkley is incredible. Having read through it numerous times, having visited some of the spots on the course, and having seen everything from two finishes to quite a few Fun Run completions to people who came back the wrong way after many hours on loop 1, what you described so honestly, emotionally, and in such detail is at various points exhilarating, excruciating, explanatory, gracious, and much, much more. Thanks for the incredible report – and I hope to be in TN next year to see you out there again, holding the stare.
Great post. You’re a tough hombre, Alan. Nice job out there. You won’t catch me out there. I’d get lost in the parking lot.
You have expertly put into words what most runners, who have run a certain number of ultras, have no doubt in parts experienced themselves, at an ultra at some point in their ultrarunning career.
That is why anyone who has, and reads your post, will think, if not actually write, “Thank you for your testament of truth.
And then the perfect Roosevelt quote as a follow up.
Thank you, for vividly sharing your experience, and to Craig for posting it.
I have always wanted to attempt Barkley. Great heart felt write-up, thanks for sharing. I’m not sure if this intrigues me more to take that chance or the opposite. I do love a challenge and this would definitely be that.