|The Yellow Gate.|
Where dreams begin and end.
After last year’s ho-hum completion of 1 loop and 4 books, I
thought there was no way I would be getting a second chance at running the
Barkley Marathons again in 2017. At
best, I hoped to maybe get on the Weight List, and over the next few years,
work myself back up onto the group of unfortunate 40 who get to toe the line. As
part of my essay (below) details, I acknowledged there was no real reason I
should be selected to run this year:
year I am hoping to do better. Although, in applying, I recognize that I
am no more qualified, in fact substantially less qualified, than most of this
years applicants. I haven't finished a 100 mile race since 2013
(Barkley being the only one I've started). I've struggled to find
"it" over the last 9 months, settling for long mellow hikes and
explorations with kids and neighbors and/or a bow and arrow, rather than
"training" hard. I've wondered if at 44, with a surgically repaired
ankle, and 4 kids (#5 due the end of April), I'm spread too thin to give
Barkley another go.
far as credentials go, I have nothing current to supply. I'm relying on
past accomplishments, wins, FKT's, etc. But I can promise you that if I
do happen to make it into the Unfortunate Group of 40, the past will be
forgotten, and the focus will be on the next 4 months. As I stated in a
post-Barkley race report earlier this year, "The goal is five loops, and
there's really no room for any thought other than that".
So when I received my Letter of Condolences indicating my
acceptance into the 2017 event, I was shocked (Brooke even more than me),
ecstatic, nervous, grateful, and overwhelmed.
|Obligatory Check-in Selfie.|
Which brings me to Friday, March 31, 2017. I had trained the best I could. I had gotten myself ready physically. I was
in a much better mental state than during the previous year. I was ready to
go. I checked in and handed Laz the pack
of comfortable white socks that along with $1.60, was this year’s entry fee. I
picked up my Loop 1 race # (49), and took a look at the Master Map to see what
changes would be facing us this year.
The map changes were small, but the big change was that instead of
running Loop 1 &2 clockwise, and Loop3 & 4 counterclockwise, each loop
would alternate directions. 1 clockwise, 2 counter, and so on. Wow-that was a change all right. There were plenty of veterans out there who
had never run a counter clockwise
loop, me included!! This could be interesting, and I was really excited about
the change. A loop 2 in the
counterclockwise meant I’d see it with a fresher mind and eyes, but depending
on the start time, it also meant it could be run entirely in the dark. But I wouldn’t worry about that until the
conch blew and we knew the starting time.
Just in case this year’s loop was an early start (which hadn’t happened
since 2011), I made sure my food bags were packed and labeled for each loop, had
my clothing and gear laid out, and asked Dale Holdaway’s sister and
brother-in-law, who I was sharing a campsite with, to wake me up if I slept
through the conch. I was asleep by 9:30 and all of the sudden someone was
knocking on the window of my van telling me the conch had been blown and I had
45 minutes. What the???? I had slept through the conch??? It was 1 am, with
light rain and camp was abuzz. By the time I got something to eat, got dressed
and took care of last minute details, everyone (but me) was gathered at the
gate. As I put my pack on, I heard taps being played for “those who have gone
before us,” and then the lights gathered at the gate let out a shout and were
moving up the trail, as I ran to catch up.
I’m embarrassed to say this wasn’t my first late start……
The initial climb up Bird Mountain was relaxed.
There was a light drizzle, and the higher we
ascended, the denser the fog became.
tried to figure out who was around me, and I remember talking briefly with Ed,
Sean Ranney, Mike, Kathleen, Henry, and a couple others. As we ran along the
ridge, Kathleen, right in front of me, excitedly yelled “ Hey it’s the Pillars
of Death!” One step later, she slipped, went head first, and caught herself at
the last minute. The Pillars almost lived up to their name. The fog was so
dense that at times, I could barely see my feet, and I resorted to taking my
headlamp off and holding it at waist level to better illuminate the ground in front
As we neared where Book 1 (which
had been changed to a new spot this year) was supposed to be, confusion set in.
There were searching headlamps everywhere,
and voices echoing through the fog asking if anyone had found the Book. Finally,
a voice called out that it was found, and all headlamps converged. Pages were
ripped out, and off the headlamps went to disappear once more into the
This was repeated over the next 4
Each time I arrived at where a
book was supposed to be, I’d start to hear voices drifting through night, and
then headlamps would once again shine through the mist, casting back and forth
until the book was found, and all the lights would converge.
Looking back at the situation, it is fairly
comical, but at the time, it was extremely frustrating, and with each book
search, I seemed to lose more and more time. As the sky started to lighten
while heading up Leonard’s Buttslide, I was already an hour behind last year’s
pace at this point. My prerace plan (to be in a position to attempt 5 loops),
was to finish an hour faster than last years Loop 1 time of 10 hours 10
minutes. I was only 5 books in, I felt like my race was already beginning to
unravel and the feelings of despair that had become so familiar over the last
year started to manifest.
stupid. What’s the point? Can I stick this out for another day and a half? Do I
It was getting dangerous and I
needed to get my head in a different spot.
Luckily, the sky lightened, the fog became less dense, and as typically
occurs with a new day, new hope came along with it. I had been tagging along
with Heather Anderson and Adam Lint since Book 3 and while we didn’t do much
talking, their company was appreciated! As we headed down towards the New River
we found ourselves close to Rob Youngren, Scott Breeden, Kathleen Cusick, Megan
Farrell and 1 or 2 others. Over the next 6-7 hours and 9 books, I focused on
putting one foot in front of the other and moving efficiently. And while I lost
my map temporarily just before Pig Head Creek, and was mostly by myself until I
caught up with Rob, Megan and Scott at the Beech Tree, I kept the negative
thoughts at bay and truly enjoyed my time in the Tennessee Woods, grateful to
even have the chance to be out competing against myself and the course.
Photo: John Sharp
Arriving at camp in 10 hours 42 minutes, Rob and I agreed to
head back out at the 11 hour mark. Dale Holdaway’s sister and brother-in-law
were extremely helpful in crewing me and while I changed my wet socks, ate what
I could, and got new food and batteries, Joey made me a 3 egg/sausage breakfast
burrito to take on the trail.
camp at 11 hours on the dot, and in what would turn out to be a recurring theme
for the rest of our time together, I left a few minutes later, and spent the
next 45 minutes catching up to him on the long trail up to Chimney Top.
Rob was a great companion, and I was
extremely lucky to be able to spend a little more than two loops (and 30 hours)
sharing the trail with him.
time at Barkley, and with a Fun Run finish in 2012, he was
about as experienced a participant as there was to be found in the woods of
Frozen Head that weekend.
along without any navigational errors and somewhere along the way (I don’t
recall if they caught up to us or we caught up to them) we hooked up with
Brandon Stapanowich, Jamil Coury and Michael Versteeg.
Heading down the Bad Thing, Jamil decided he
wanted to actually move and disappeared down the hill in about 3 seconds, and then
Michael did the same.
We didn’t see
either of them again.
Brandon, Rob and I
made a good team and seemed to be moving well, but at about the halfway point,
as we were heading down Testicle Spectacle, I realized that we had been out almost
7 hours already, and this would likely be a 14 hour loop, with the sun going
down in the next hour.
Holy (insert your
favorite cuss word)!! My 36 hour Fun Run was out of sight, and a 40 hour finish
was quickly becoming less likely. The demons that I had firmly put behind me on
Loop 1 came shrieking back and I quickly found myself in a very bad place
mentally, almost talking myself into quitting at the end of Loop 2.
I was starting to get tired, I didn’t know
how I could do another 20 hours of the relentless climbing and descending, and
I kept thinking to myself “This is stupid. What’s the point? Can I stick this
out for another day and a half? Do I want to?” I was so tired of feeling like
this, and finally, as this rolled over and over again in my mind, I remembered.
I remembered why I was here.
EXACTLY the reason I needed to be here. It was to remember what it was like to
be uncomfortable. To suffer. To feel the pangs of hopelessness. Not to “wonder
why”, but to KNOW why. And to embrace these self-doubts. To welcome them and
turn them into Strength. Resolve. Determination. I remembered something that
Laz had said. Something along the lines of “The successful Barkley applicant
will learn to Embrace that which they Fear the most”. That was why I was
My mental state leading up to
Barkley had been great, up until the week before the race.
Then my mind began to race, my heart-rate
would quicken as I lay in bed thinking about what was to come. I was almost on
the verge of panic.
And I realized that
it was fear. Not necessarily fear of failure (because most people “fail” at
Barkley), but fear of discomfort, of sleepless night(s), of screaming quads, a
rebellious stomach, and cramping calves. And fear that I wouldn’t be able to
So…in that moment, it all changed. Really. It was literally within
a few second span that my mind raced through processing this, and all was
Sure, it was going to be
uncomfortable, I was going to say to myself “Boy, Big Hell really sucks,” I may
not even make the 3 loop cutoff, but all was good, and the Demons of Self-doubt
that had plagued me since my Barkley attempt last year were banished for
Brandon, Rob and I watched a spectacular sunset while
climbing Stallion Mt, and we steadily made our way through the rest of the
Brandon’s left shin was becoming
quite painful and starting to slow him down and I was sad to see him drop
behind and out of sight before climbing Jaque Mate.
Rob and I decided that with the 36 hour cut
off out of reach, but 15 hours left for a 40 hour Fun Run finish, we’d take an
hour once back to camp to eat, and possibly take a nap.
|Feeling Better than I look on Rat Jaw.|
Photo: The RealHikingViking
Loop 3- Fun.
Again, Dale’s Sister and Brother in law were a huge help in
getting me turned around at camp.
changed socks, ate a pot of stew and climbed into my bag for a 20-minute nap. As
I lay there processing all the things I needed for Loop 3, I remember thinking
there was no way I was going to fall asleep, and then… my alarm went off and I
woke feeling completely refreshed.
minutes of deep sleep felt like I had been out for 3-4 hours.
I added some hot water to the now cold
cup-o-noodles I had prepared, filled my water bottle with hot chocolate, and
headed out on loop 3, once again chasing Rob up the trail. He had left at 26
hours to the second, I was a few minutes behind, again. As I slowly caught up
to Rob, I thought I saw a light way below me on the switchbacks. Someone in
camp told me that Jamil had been asleep for a couple hours and they weren’t
sure if he was coming back out. I figured he must have decided it was time and
apparently the long nap had been good to him because he was catching up to us
Sure enough, Jamil passed us as
we were almost to Book 1, then took off down Jaque Mate. I’m not sure where he
went after that, because the next thing we saw of him was while almost to the
top of Jury Ridge, and we could see a light way below us, back where we had
just come from. Someday I’d like to talk to him, and see what happened.
Rob and I pressed on, knowing we had plenty
of time, but very aware that if wasted any time, or made any navigational
errors, our chances of a Fun Run would quickly be over.
Every time we came to a creek crossing, I
would stop and fill up my water bottle. Rob had a 60-70 oz reservoir and didn’t
need to stop so often, so he would keep moving and it would take the next 10-15
minutes to catch back up to him. It was a great motivator to keep me moving at
a steady pace! The rest of the loop was fairly uneventful.
The sun came up and what a spectacular
sunrise it was.
The sun a molten ball of
orange hanging just above the treeline above Stallion Mtn.
All the infamous climbs and descents came and
went and we plugged along. We ran into John and Gary at Indian Knob, a couple
hours into their 4th
loop and they looked as fresh as if they’d just
started. The only other notable moment (to me) was while descending to The
Beech Tree. Rob wanted to stay left, I wanted to go right, and being the
unflappable guy that he is, Rob agreed with me.
Well, I chose wrong and we ended up in a nasty section of rocks that ate
away precious minutes.
I could tell Rob
was a little stressed, so when we sat down at The Beech Tree to get our pages,
I said , ”Rob, If I suggest a route, and it’s probably not the best, just say
‘Bro-This is my 8th
Barkley and your 2nd
.” He smiled good
naturedly and just said something about not having much room for error. Then we
got up to move, I got something out of my pack, and spent the next 10-15
minutes catching up to him….
And then we were at Chimney Top, on Candy-Ass trail, and I
gratefully allowed myself the luxury of admitting that we were going to finish
the Fun Run.
I couldn’t believe it.
I don’t remember how many times I yelled out
to Rob running in front of me “Dude!! We’re doing it!!!”
“We’re going to do it!!” If I could of, I would
have flown down the trail at 6 minute pace. The reality was that I was happy to
stump along at half that speed.
crossed the creek, hit the walking trail, crossed the bridge, and finally,
luxuriantly, allowed ourselves to relax, walk, and enjoy the last 200 meters up
to the Yellow Gate.
|Fun Run Finish, with Rob Youngren|
Photo: The RealHikingViking
As I touched the Gate for the 3rd (and last)
time, a flood of emotions surged through me.
I struggled to hold back the tears of happiness and gratitude. The sense of accomplishment was almost more
than I could handle. In retrospect, I should have run high-stepping up to the
gate with fists pumping, high-fiving everyone I could get close to and yelling
at the top of my lungs. But…. I am a
fairly stoic person, and the only emotion I revealed was a huge, cheek
|Counting the final pages.|
Photo: The RealHikingViking
Rob and I handed our pages to Laz, and while he counted them
(Rob could only find 12 for a heart-stopping moment, then found #13 hidden in
his race #) we joked that the race issued watches were not synchronized. Mine was 4 seconds faster than Rob’s, so he
was winning the whole race. It turns out
that Laz’s was 2 seconds faster than mine!!
|All smiles. couldn't have done it without Rob|
Photo: The RealVikingHiking
After the hand-shakes, smiles, congratulations, and looking
for a place to sit down, I saw the bugler out of the corner of my eye, waiting
for his turn. Rob and I both stepped
back, and with hats off, and hands on our hearts, listened to Taps being
played. Twice. Once for each of us. We
had “failed”, because “The goal is five loops. And there’s really no room for
any thought other than that.” But I have seldom felt a greater sense of
accomplishment. It was a somber, yet oh-so-fulfilling moment, and one that
forever will be etched in my mind.
Photo: The RealHikingViking
Thanks go out to many- but foremost to Brooke. Without her unconditional love and support, I
wouldn’t be able to accomplish much. She sacrifices, and then sacrifices a
little more to encourage me to train,
sleep, recover and eat everything in sight.
Thank you to my 4 (5 in two weeks) kids who inspire me to be a good
person, and help me remember that there’s more to life than Barkley. Thank you to my parents for always being
there (if not always agreeing with where “there” is). Thanks to friends and
neighbors, and training partners who are willing to get up hours before dawn to
go on a hike. And thank you to God for a
body that allows me to do such marvelous things. Thanks to people and companies that have
supported me along the way. Altra, First Lite, Petzl, Wasatch Running Center,
and Trail and Ultra Running (TAUR). And my heartfelt gratitude to Laz, and all
the other volunteers and participants (past and present) that make Barkley what
it is, and continue challenging us to embrace our fears, and to chase away the