Friday, April 15, 2016

The Experience. My Barkley Report 2016

“The idea isn’t to go out and have an “experience.” It’s not to do one, two, or even three loops, and then say ‘it was tough, I gave it my all, and Barkley won.’ The idea is to finish. The goal is five loops, and there’s really no room for any thought other than that.” 
                         – Me (Embracing Monotony, published in TAUR March 30, 2016) 

Famous last words, right?

I made it 1 ½ loops, then dropped due to intense knee pain, walking a slow, frustrating, seven-miles back to camp, via “Quitters Road.” Turns out, Barkley gave me exactly what I had snubbed with the above words—an experience. An experience that ultimately surpassed any pre-conceived expectations or dreams present upon arrival. An experience that was soul-searching, eye-opening and awe-inspiring.

The Yellow Gate
with license plates from everywhere

The weekend in Frozen Head State State Park made me aware of a few “Barkley Truths:”

Being there—regardless of your ambitions or goals, just being there is a one-of-a-kind opportunity. I met Rhonda-Marie, the first blind entrant and one of very few women to set out. With the aid of a guide, she made it through four books and some incredibly rough terrain. Starchy, Brad and Kim had the time of their lives during their thirty-two hour first loop. Hometown hero, John Kelly inspired everyone (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram followers included) by promptly laying down for a nap, just outside of camp, after starting his beleaguered fifth loop. When he woke, he looked back at camp, only 100 yards away, then turned his back and shambled up the road – a very conscious decision to keep moving, beyond the pain we all felt with him. Just remembering this heroic effort gives me the chills...
Barkley isn’t just a race—in fact, it’s not a race at all. It’s a…a…wait for it…, yep, an experience. It is submitting a license plate from my home state as part of my entry fee. It’s sitting next to "veterans" and “virgins” alike, staring at the Master Map, gleaning little tidbits of precious information, trying desperately to commit them to memory while transcribing map details and determining compass bearings. It’s wondering if I dare eat a piece of famous, digitally prepared, Barkley chicken as a pre-race meal. Luckily, it was dark as I tore it apart, so I couldn’t really tell if it was still frozen in the middle. It’s reading through wildly subjective course descriptions like, “Book Five is found at the top of the knoll, to the right of the big hollow log, nestled under the medium-sized rock with the smaller rock leaning on it.” The medium rock with the smaller rock leaning on it… Can it get more ambiguous? It’s sitting by the campfire with other “Barkers” who’ve also tapped out, sharing stories of wrong ridges, endless wanderings looking for the book that seemed so easy to find on Loop One, wondering if it’s the second or third confluence of the creek that I’m staring at. It’s forming a bond unlike any other with people who were complete strangers twenty-four hours ago. Thrashing through the hills and hollers of Frozen Head State Park for hours, then days tends to have that effect. Barkley is an experience.
Barkley is family—I witnessed this as the nearly mythical Barkley names were brought to life. Laz, Frozen Ed, Limacher, Little, Stu, Hiram…the list goes on. As the names became real, they also became people who were incredibly fond and incomparably supportive of each other. I immediately felt myself as a member of their family. I could walk into any campsite, sit next to any fire, and instantly feel like I was sitting down at a kitchen table at home. Stories swapped, advice dispensed and snatched, and jokes were plentiful. Family.
Stark Beauty.
It was seldom that we actually went straight along a ridge like this.

As for my actual time on the course, I’ll try and keep it brief, because it was brief—well, relatively. I told Laz at the end of Loop One that the previous ten-hours were the most fun I’d enjoyed on trails in many years. And I wasn’t lying. I told others the same.

“The Cigarette” lit at 10:42 a.m. We relaxed into a good rhythm up Bird Mountain, and by the time we got to the top of the first climb, I had settled in with Ty Draney (fellow virgin), Jason Poole (veteran), and George Kunzfeld (veteran). With a few others adding and subtracting over the next few hours, our group stayed together and made a good, functional team. Jason is a National Orienteering Champion, George had participated the year before, and Ty was excellent at picking out landmarks and committing them to memory for future laps. I felt wildly fortunate to “be along for the ride.” Still do.

We descended nasty ridges; crossed creeks and swampy areas, trying unsuccessfully to keep our feet dry; climbed interminable hills; and then did it again, and again…and again. Names I’d read over and over in race reports and Frozen Ed’s book came to life. Rat Jaw, The Garden Spot, Leonard’s Butt Slide, Big Hell, Chimney Top... We got turned around a couple times. I took off after John Fegyveresi, descending off Fyke’s Peak and promptly got scraped, spending the next thirty-minutes thrashing down to New River through the wrong drainage, luckily discovering myself reunited with Jason, Ty and George. Though I felt strong on the last big climb of Loop One, towards Chimney Top, an occasional stab on my left knee’s medial side had already begun. “No biggie,” I thought, as many of us do. “Aches always come and go, and I’ll have many more in the hours ahead.”

Erik and Ty heading back down Rat Jaw on Loop 1
PC: Leon Lutz

We made a smooth, and swift twenty-minute transition into Loop Two, with my brother Steve attending to a nasty laceration on my backside. I caught up to Ty and Jason, who had left camp a few minutes before me and we made good time back up Bird Mountain. The thrash down to Book One was indeed a thrash, as I realized just how different it was navigating in the dark. Over the next two climbs and descents, while still feeling strong with good energy, the stabbing in my knee became more and more severe, changing from an occasional twinge to a constant, acute, throbbing pain. By the time we got to the top of Bald Knob, I was slowing Ty and Jason down and putting most of my weight on my right leg and two trekking poles. I took some ibuprofen and told myself I’d decide what to do when I got to The Garden Spot.

Well, the ibuprofen took care every other little ache I had, but did nothing to diminish the pain in my knee. Having had debilitating ankle surgery two-years ago, the thought of permanent damage to my knee and starting down that same path was convincing. I decided my time at Barkley was over. True to form, the Barkley ate its young.

I told Ty and Jason I was done, and while expressing sympathy and concern, they didn’t try and talk me into continuing, for which I am grateful. It was hard enough as it was. Standing in the middle of the trail, I waged my internal battle of disappointment and watched their lights fade over the next ridge. “Am I being smart, or just a wuss? I’ve invested so much time and energy! My family has sacrificed so much while I trained. I have so many friends, well-wishers, supporters back home who... I DON’T WANT TO GO THROUGH SURGERY AGAIN! I WANT TO KEEP GOING!!! I am not a quitter...” My emotional war waged on, playing over and over in my mind as I stood in the trail, immobilized while trying to decide if I’d made the right decision. “Screw it!!!” I screamed into the Barkley night, and started running after Ty and Jason, only to be brought to a stumbling halt by the unseen icepick stabbing my knee. I sat slowly in the middle of the trail and cursed my knee, cursed Barkley, sobbing into the night.

Two a.m., and after ten-minutes of self-pity I pulled myself up, put on a pair of pants and jacket, and spent the next hour with map and compass riddling how to get myself to Quitters Road, the infamous path that most Barkers take for “our” long walk down. Three and a half hours later, Laz greeted my arrival at the Yellow Gate (the infamous Barkley starting point and resting place of many Barker's dreams). With a genuine air of concern, he asked what had happened (remember Barkley Truth #3 about family). He commented how surprised he was to see me since I had looked so strong and positive leaving for Loop Two. He then said, “The bugler’s asleep, so I’ll have to tap you out.” Laughing, I asked if I could play my own taps, and we both enjoyed a brief chuckle. As instructed, I turned towards camp and played myself the worst rendition of Taps I think the Barkley has ever heard. Much like my attempt at Barkley, my attempt at Taps quickly began to sputter, until I let loose a final, feeble note to pitter out over the sleeping camp. My Barkley was over. My entire statement about “The goal is five loops, and there’s really no room for any thought other than that” remains the same—in Laz’s words, “Two things are worth remembering: 1) you will never achieve great things with small goals; and 2) there is no guarantee you will have another chance tomorrow.” The goal is still five loops, just not this year.

Thinking back on the experience a week later, my thoughts continue. “Am I disappointed?” Yes, and no. Perhaps frustrated is a better word. I prepared myself as best I could, in all aspects required for a successful attempt, and still my body didn’t hold out. This is what the Barkley does. It brings everyone to their knees. It’s good for the soul to be humbled now and again. Despite the sacrifices made in order to train and prepare, the past few months have been incredible. I have established new, and re-established old friendships; and had fun with my family as I prepared. I was surrounded by beauty while making my way through Tennessee’s southeastern hills and hollers, beneath barren branches, newly tipped by millions of emerging leaves—a summit sunset on Chimney Top; the ghostly, white petal Trillium flowers shining bright as my headlamp hit them in the moonless dark; and the vivid bloom of hundreds of Redbuds and Dogwoods are absolutely stunning, permanent etchings in my mind. I will forever be profoundly grateful for my experience and for the beauty tucked among the saw briars everywhere I looked.


Thank you Barkley. Thank you Tennessee. And mostly, thank you Brooke, Sam, Andrew, Kate and Henry—for unconditionally loving and supporting me. Thank you to other friends and family who motivated, encouraged, woke at three a.m. with me, and believed in me. Thank you Laz, for creating the opportunity, and affording me my first try. Thank you Altra, TAUR, Wasatch Running Center, First Endurance, Gregory Packs, and Blistershield for providing top-notch equipment to train and race and my peak ability. And thank you to a loving God, for giving me two strong legs and a body that have taken me on such marvelous adventures, and a mind that can tell that body to take a break and survive to run another day.

My headquarters, and my Inspiration.
Looking down on Upper Rat Jaw,
waiting for Jared and Gary on Loop 5.