Saturday, April 15, 2017

Staring Down the Demons at the Barkley Marathons

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:

“This 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. 
As 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……

Loop 1- Chaos
The initial climb up Bird Mountain was relaxed.  There was a light drizzle, and the higher we ascended, the denser the fog became.  I 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 of me.  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 fog.  This was repeated over the next 4 books.  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.  “This is stupid. What’s the point? Can I stick this out for another day and a half? Do I want to?”  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.
Clearing Fog
Photo: John Sharp
Loop 2-Demons
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.  Rob left 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.  This was Rob’s 8th 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.  We motored 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.  This was 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 here.  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 handle it.
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 good.  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 good.  
Brandon, Rob and I watched a spectacular sunset while climbing Stallion Mt, and we steadily made our way through the rest of the course.  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.  I 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.  15 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 quickly.  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.  We 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 splitting grin. 

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. 

Tapped out.
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 demons.