Monday, April 10, 2017

2017 Barkley Marathons - Second Fun Run Done!

Barkley Marathons Selfie (Photo: Eric Fritz)
Loop 2, Top of Rat Jaw with Brandon and Husky (Photo: Kendra Miller)
The whole world holds it's breath after Laz only counts 12 of 13 pages! (Photo: Karen Jackson)
Finished the Fun Run... AGAIN! YES! (Photo: Billy Simpson)
Quick Summary of Failures

This past weekend was the 31st edition of the Barkley Marathons held at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee.  This race is considered one of the most difficult 100 mile races on the planet.  The five loop race has 67,000 feet of climb (and 67,000 feet of descent) which is more than any other 100 mile race.  Since 1986 only 15 runners out of just over 1000 have finished within the 60 hour cutoff.  The loop is unmarked, brutally steep, and is almost entirely off-trail; the only provided aid are a couple of water caches (gallon jugs of water); no GPSs, pacers, or cell phones, and only the race provided wrist-watch could be worn.  To prove you’ve completed the loop correctly, runners must locate several books spread around the loop (typically at the high and low points of mountains) and remove a particular page and turn them in at the completion of the loop. 

I trained harder than ever for this year’s race, lots of hill climbing and long, solo hikes and runs.  My goal was to finish all five loops under the cutoff.  Unfortunately some early navigational issues during the first loop in the dark and heavy fog slowed just about everybody down including myself.  I ended up a couple hours slower than expected on the first loop.  However, the second loop (opposite direction) went much better with only a few navigational issues, but the reverse loop is a lot more tricky and the climbs much steeper which makes it a slower loop anyhow.  By the third loop I was still feeling very good but was well outside the time frame needed to be allowed to start a fourth loop (runners must start 4th loop within 36 hours), however I still had time to finish the loop under the cutoff for a “Fun Run” finish (3 loops under 40 hours).  I finished the Fun Run in 39:03 and was just 1 of 6 runners (40 starters) who managed 3 loops or more; most quit after the first loop.  Two runners made it to the fifth and final loop but only one managed to complete the course correctly and under the final time limit; he was just the 15th finisher!  This was my 8th start and second Fun Run finish; only 34 people have finished Fun Run (or further) 2 times or more in the history of the race. 

*** Quick WARNING: this is a long, mostly stream-of-consciousness account, I don't do this to embellish, I do this so I can look back, years from now when I read it and hopefully remember these events in a more clear way.  Also this is for my friends and family to read and hopefully appreciate, at least in some small way, what it's like to be Out There.  ***
You've been warned! :)

I first learned about the Barkley Marathons from David Horton many, many years ago back in March of 1997 while participating in one of his infamous “Barkley Training Run” events.  David and I spent 23 hours together on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia covering the 89.4 miles between Black Horse Gap and the Tye River. We were the sole finishers of this run out of I believe 14 starters including some names like Mike Morton, Courtney Campbell and oh, Andrew Thompson!  At the time this was the most difficult run I’d ever done. Very minimal support and many long, difficult miles; but the conversations were great and after half way it was just me and David.  I know we talked about the Barkley Marathons at some point and I became convinced I needed to give them a go one day.

However, I was still very young, na├»ve and really just didn’t “get it.”  My first five visits to Frozen Head State Park were miserable failures. Here is a quick summary of my previous performances at the Barkley Marathons:

1999 – 1 Loop in 8:55 then quit. Ran way too hard in the heat, ran out of water at bottom of Zip Line and drank from the stream; two weeks later I had some serious intestinal issues!

2000 – 1 Loop in 9:07 then quit. Ran way too hard again… didn’t really have the “head” for it.

2003 – Quit after Book 1 (Phillips Creek) on Loop 2 in 15:00 (Snow!). Ascended Jury Ridge after Book 1 then decided to drop out; very cold and trail impossible to navigate in 4 inches of snow; continued up Jury Ridge (off trail) to Bird Mtn. Tr. and returned to camp. Had a better head for it this time around but the cold and lack of course confidence did me in…

2004 – 1 Loop in 8:45 then quit. Ran way too hard (as always) with Hal Koerner and company; just really didn’t want to be Out There, perhaps I need a break?

Seven year Hiatus…

2011 – Quit after Book 6 on Loop 2 in 21:47. Thought I had the head for it this time around, really did; but course confidence was lacking; so many changes in the past 7 years!  Didn’t train right either; not enough quad beating work outs.

2012 – Finished the Fun Run in 35:36.  Had less than 24 minutes to get back out on the course for loop 4, however I was so overcome with making it this far after so many failures that I refused to continue and was tapped out right there at the gate.

2015 – Quit at the fire tower (Book 5 on Reverse Loop) on Loop 3 and limped back to camp in 34:35.  Monstrous navigational issues early in Loop 1 led to panicked second half of the loop that ultimately left me so spent that Loop 2 was nothing but one lucid, stumbling nightmare.  Managed to make it back into camp with 13 minutes minutes to leave on Loop 3 before the cutoff; I just made it by 5 seconds!  Unfortunately, I had no water and only heavily used headlamp batteries.  Being so cold out and facing a cold night ahead where I’d probably have to bivouac until sunrise (and finish loop over the cutoff) I decided to drop at the fire tower.

2016 – Injured myself in training in February before the race; severe MCL strain forced me to take off too much time to get back into any real fitness before race day so I gave up my slot.


My approach this time around was a bit different than year’s past.  In the past I focused exclusively on vertical training, basically getting in as much climbing as I could in training with specific weekly targets and I pretty much was just hiking everything.  This year I wanted to not only increase those weekly vertical targets but also still try and maintain some good leg turnover speed as well as fit in several long runs over 30 miles; after all to be successful at the Barkley you have to be able to run when you can and let’s remember five loops is in the neighborhood of 130 miles now!

So, from the second week in January through my peak training two weeks out I amassed over 170k’ of climbing (average of 17k a week) which was about 30k more than 2015 and 50k more than 2012 (my last successful Fun Run).  I had a peak week of over 40k including a non-stop, 20k trek that lasted from sunrise to sunset.  I also had several single outings of over 10k of climb each.  But still, looking back now, it wasn’t nearly enough to have a real shot at five loops.  I really need to amass more mileage along with the climbing via some more two-a-days and I needed to really practice trying to run more of the climbing mileage and not just speed-hike it.  Lessons learned.

Loop 1 : 10h 41m, Dark Till Bobcat Rock

The conch blew (signally 1 hr until race start) at 12:42 a.m. EST.  Luckily I believed rumors of a night start and so had all my gear packed and ready to go before I went to bed.  After the conch I slowly got dressed inside our rented cargo van (yet another new thing I did this year) and remarked how warm it was for that time of night.  I headed to the yellow gate along with my crew, Kathy and Fritz about 10 minutes before the start to retrieve my “official” wrist watch.  New this year, runners could only wear a wristwatch provided by the race as there were to be no questions if a runner’s own watch had GPS or other navigational capabilities.  The interesting quirk of THESE watches was that the clock was set such that it would read 00:00:00 when Laz (the race director) lit his cigarette indicating the start of the race.  This ended up being quite handy as it was always good to know how long we’d been Out There and how much time we had left before the cutoff at a single glance (but more on that later).  What I and many other runners didn’t count on was that the watches were still packaged and zip-tied; locked down!  Even in the last minute, runners were frantically trying to tear the watches out of the cases!  Fritz used his Jaws teeth to bite through my zip-tied watch!

So, taps is played in remembrance of all those Barkers who’ve passed and then the cigarette is lit and away we go!  I start out at a pretty good running pace, feels like 10km pace, just to get up with the quickly separating lead group.  My plan is to try and stick with the leaders through at least half the loop so I can learn some of the line choices for the newer (to me) book locations.  After that I figured I’d need to back off the pace a bit and I was comfortable navigating the rest of the loop solo if need be.

Off the road and onto the first section of switch backing trail I find myself running in a group of probably 10 runners who are quickly moving up the mountain and away from the rest of the starters.  Even by the next couple of switch backs their head lamps look quite distant.  Why?  Because we were quite literally running up the mountain like I’ve never done before; typically I speed-hike up this hill but we were running a lot more of it than I expected.  Phew!  I could tell it was John Kelly in the lead with Gary Robbins right behind.  I believe Scott Breeden was up there along with Sean Ranney, Johan Steene, Benoit Laval, Mikael Heerman, Michael Versteeg, Jamil Coury, Brandon Stapanowich and who knows who else (Michael Wardian?); a lot of speedsters. 

We reach the top of Bird Mountain in around thirty minutes and back our way towards the Fangorn Forest and the slightly modified Book 1 location.  One thing we notice instantly on peaking out is that there is FOG; thick FOG!  Ugh!  We start down through Fangorn Forest navigating okay but it’s a mad, cross-country dash; everybody trying to keep up with John and Gary.  After a short ways something doesn’t feel right to me and I pull out my compass to check our heading.  Sure enough we’re heading too far West; actually more like due West instead of almost due North.  I try to yell this to the group but nobody says anything and keep following John and Gary.  I should have known better and gone on my own then but I kept following as well.  Soon we find ourselves on the correct bench but, again, my compass is showing a very WEST heading.  I tell this to John but he’s convinced we’re on the Eastern side of the mountain and we need to head West to correct.  I tell him I disagree and that I made this exact same mistake two years ago (in the daylight), I also told him that I had us on a very West heading BEFORE we reached the bench so there was no way we could be on the Eastern side.  So we all back track along the bench, through many vines and some briars until we soon arrive at the right location only to discover the chase pack has already arrived at Book 1.  What transpires next is best left undescribed but picture a scene from Hunger Games or a Mosh Pit.  At any rate, by the time I get my book page I’m all alone the lead group having jetted away into the London like fog.

I’m a bit bummed but I’m not going to panic and try and race after them.  Instead I carefully make my way over to the top of Checkmate Hill.  But before I can get there I see a gaggle of headlamps heading back towards me on the bench; it’s the lead group again.  Ha!  So together we all start down the insanely slippery and steep slopes of Checkmate Hill.  It’s a wonder to behold.  There I am, it’s just about 3 a.m. and there is a parade of lights in the darkness all around me; some far in the distance, others far up behind me, all making their way down this ugly slope; slipping and sliding and falling and cursing.  I’m having a great amount of difficulty keeping up now as our group is passing right through a few other groups and you can’t tell who is who; instead all you can do is concentrate on the next foot step or tree to grab onto to to arrest your controlled fall down the hill.  I slip and land flat on my back in the mud more than once moving too quickly.  I finally realize I’m redlining my heart rate and risking injuring myself I’m falling so much so I make the conscience decision to back off and stop trying to keep up with the lead pack.  Honestly, I’m pretty pissed with myself at that moment.  Genuinely upset.  All this training and I can’t even keep up for an hour!  But I keep moving forward and soon emerge at Phillips Creek and begin making my way up to the next ridge line; I can already see many lights way up on the higher switch backs.  Damn! 

In a bad mood already I power hike up and up the trail.  I believe this is where I caught up to the two lead women, Megan Farrell and Kathleen Cusick.  I was hiking right behind another runner but am not sure now who that was, Dale Holdaway perhaps?  Anyhow I just trying to get back into the zone but honestly I’m already beginning to think quitting thoughts and this is not healthy thinking!  I’m still thinking dark thoughts as I reach high ridge and begin down Hiram’s Vertical Smile towards Book 2.  This book I had trouble with two years ago so this time around I did a bit more map work and talking with some of the other vets so I thought I had a pretty good set of bearings to work with.  Turns out I did pretty good, stuck with my own plan despite seeing other runners not exactly along my heading and arrived at the confluence and Book 2 almost spot on! Boom!  Nailed it!  I arrived in a huge gaggle trying to find the book, I confidently walked right up to it and retrieved my page. 

So now it was time to climb the Hillpocolypse.  One of the longer and steep hills on the course.  But at least now the navigation was quite simple.  Just climb.  When in doubt, just head up!  This was not the first time that the trekking poles came in real handy.  You could get in a good rhythm using the click of the poles like a metronome.  Anyhow there was a sizeable group heading up with me, mostly still including Megan and Kathleen.  At the end of the steepest grades we arrived at a cliffed out section that you can either climb directly or work your way around the side.  The group just ahead decide to work their way around but Megan, Kathleen and I opt to climb straight up which though a bit tricky and dangerous was actually quite easy; plenty of hand and foot holds.  Past the cliff we continue climbing and soon arrive back to the candy ass trail   and make our way towards Bald Knob in the thickening fog.  There is no sign of any other group but I’m confident on our route now (at least I think so) and only after a slight overshoot, make our way to Book 3 and find it relatively easily.  However on our descent back to the candy ass trail we end up on some double-track which I quickly realize is Quitter Road.  Whoops, in the dark and fog we’d somehow turned a bit too South instead of East.  We quickly correct and back on the NBT encounter a group asking if we’d found Book 3 as they hadn’t, we tell them where to go and continue on making towards S.O.B. ditch and the coal ponds.  Many downhill switchbacks latter we arrive at the ditch and all of a sudden there is a swarm of runners around us again.  Yes, it was the lead group once AGAIN!  Ha!  They explain they nailed the confluence at Book 2 spot on but thought they were still too high and dropped further downstream!  Doh!  I sort of start to go with them then quickly think again.  I’m doing all I can do; best to keep navigating steadily and make up time later. 

As we traverse through the coal ponds I realize Scott Breeden has lingered behind with us saying he was getting tired of all the extra work!  Ha!  So my group has grown to four now as we angle up from the coal ponds back towards, we think, the Cumberland Trail.  Looking back now I think we passed the correct turn up the mountain and instead traversed too far East.  In the thick fog it’s easy to get turned around.  We actually thought, at the time, we’d turned too early but we never saw the trail?  Anyhow we knew the Garden Spot was above us so headed, steeply, up that way all the time trying to keep a look out for trail blazes.  Nothing.  Soon we emerged onto an old road which looked familiar.  Now, this next bit I have no idea where we went.  Based on the boundary markers we were seeing and some compass bearing magic we eventually found the corner of the park and then began to look for Book 4.  By now the fog was so thick you could barely see your own feet!  So our group of four began to spread out looking for the book, following a heading we thought would get us there based on the fact that we’d also run into the cliffs that are near the corner boundary.  We continued to wander around the flat ground for a while finding exactly nothing.  So frustrating.  All of a sudden another couple of groups emerge out of the fog.  Yes, it was the leaders again but also I believe Heather Anderson and Henry Wakley and god only knows who else it the fog was so thick and the darkness so complete.  And just like that, magically Book 4 appeared quite literally right in front of our collective groups!  Amazing!  We’d probably stumbled by this exact spot several times over the past 15 minutes!

Our pages collected we carefully made our way out of the area back towards the Garden Spot and back out to the jeep road; though even that simple task was confounded by the fog. But soon enough we were back on the jeep road and my bearings and faith in humanity were restored; I now knew exactly where I was and where we had to go next despite the fog. 

We now headed over along the flanks of Stallion Mountain and made our way towards the Gnarly Mouth Branch generally heading towards Book 5 at Leonards Butt Slide.  We nailed the cross-country navigation perfectly and arrived at Bobcat Rock just as it began to get twilight.  I believe we picked up Henry in this stretch as I recall discussing different line choices as he was stopped somewhere along the way pondering.  Anyhow as we headed down the steep coal-rich slaggy slopes we encountered another group that I think included Erik Storheim among others.  I think they had some difficulty finding the Book but we quickly found it and it was mess.  Apparently some animal had torn open the plastic bag that was protecting it and the thin pages were soaked!  It was a real exercise in patience trying to carefully remove ONLY your page; sort of like a Smithsonian conservationist working tediously to tease apart separate layers of some ancient papyrus scroll.  We were all impatient to be on our way as day was breaking, but we took our turn at splitting hairs and were headed back up the coal slag slopes to Bobcat Rock.

Back up at the jeep road we continued up through Bobcat Rock and steeply up the Foolish Stu Trail to Fykes Peak passing by Hiram’s Pool & Spa along the way reaching Book 6 in no time.  Now it was time to descend Stallion Mountain down to the New River and the new book location near Testicle Spectacle.  I knew this line really well and so we had no trouble making our way down to the river and on across the Highway where there was a film crew of some sort there filming our way out of and back into the woods; exciting footage for sure!

Book 7 was at a new location this year on a ridge I’ll call Butter.  Yes, Butter Ridge because it was quite possibly the smoothest way I’ve seen yet up to Ass Hole Pass; much easier than past routes.  Smooth as butter I tell you!  No briars and not overly steep; just some Mountain Laurel to deal with along the way but nothing major.  We collected our pages along the buttery route and emerged at the pass in no time.  From there we headed towards Raw Dog Falls along a familiar ridgeline descent that gradually got steeper and steeper as we went and soon we found ourselves butt sliding down the thick, dead leaf covered slope down to the falls.  We actually emerged right at Raw Dog Falls and across from where an old book location used to be; that could have been important in the past, but not this year.  Still, nailed it!  On to Book 8 in a rusted out barrel and then up Mount Trashmore to the highway once again and then the climb up Pighead Trail.

I like my line up Pighead Trail, it only gets crazy steep for a little bit to reach the old mining trail.  Not too bad.  Onto the old mining trail we make short work up the rest of the steep trail to one of many old mining roads that take us to the base of Upper Rat Jaw.  We arrive at Upper Rat just in time to see I believe Benoit heading down; we saw no others on this out and back section of Upper Rat!  So we head up Upper Rat and I quickly find myself pulling ahead of Megan, Henry and Kathleen but Scott is still close behind and I can just see another group back there catching up.  Anyhow we clear the three steep sections going up and make good time the rest of the way to the top of Frozen Head Mountain and the fire tower where we pick up our next page and quickly re-fill our hydration bladders.  Surprisingly there is only a modest amount of spectators this early in the morning; the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see anybody up there until we’d almost emerged onto the last bit of jeep road to the top of mountain off of Rat Jaw.

Anyhow, Scott and I quickly descend Rat Jaw to the Prison with Megan and the rest not too far behind.  At the outskirts of the main prison wall we enter the drainage tunnel that runs underneath the complex.  It is a cool, wet, but spooky 1/8 mile upstream traverse that’s impossible to stay dry.  There is a beveled concrete divider that runs down the middle of the spillway but in the darkness that’s more of a liability than an asset.  As my feet have long been soaking wet I don’t hesitate and marched right through the stream to the far end of the tunnel; actually cutting on my headlamp for a bit more underfoot confidence.  Was a good thing I used the light as there were some large rocks along the floor of the tunnel that I could easily have literally stumbled upon.  I bypass the air vent chimney climb in lieu of a deeper water but easier exit from the stream and stroll over to collect my 10th book page.

Now it’s time for The Bad Thing.  A very steep climb out of the hollow up to Indian Knob.  Steep is an understatement, but we throw ourselves into the climb and soon make the correct traversal to Razor Ridge and continue to slog ever upwards.  After what seemed like forever we can see more sky line above us than mountain indicating we’re near the top.  Sure enough I can see the many cap stones that line the ridge and begin a long, gradual traversal over to the correct cap stone where the Eye of the Needle is and Book 11. Next it’s time to for the last technical, cross-country downhill of the loop: Zipline.

This descent is tough to botch too bad but you can definitely choose lines that are worse than others.  What seems like a good line at first can quickly turn into a slippery boulder hopping fiasco or you can be lured towards the sounds of water falls only to find yourself cliffed out in a beautiful area.  I think we ended up taking a pretty good line down towards the stream confluence which was our target and end up with a minimal of rock hopping and cliffs.  Just as the way levels out at the bottom of the drainage Erik Storheim comes blowing by us; I guess he found an even better descent line than we did!  However, we all arrive at the Beech Tree book at the same time and begin the final climb of the loop: Big Hell.

Easily the longest climb on the course, but the navigation is easy: just go up!  It’s a long ways up a relentlessly steep slope but me, Scott and Erik are climbing well and make it to the cap stones of Chimney Top relatively quickly to collect our final book page of the loop.  From there it’s an easy (mostly downhill) jog down some candy ass trails back to camp.  As we’re heading down the trail we begin to wonder when we’ll see the first runners making their way back uphill towards us on Loop 2.  We’re sort of surprised we haven’t seen them by the time we reach the lower slopes of Rough Ridge.  However, just as we’re in sight of the gap there is John Kelly looking pretty fresh still and he asks us to tell Gary to speed up and catch him.  We don’t see Gary right away but soon after we reach the gap and start heading downhill again there he is; probably no more than five minutes behind.  Anyhow, we make short work of the rest of the loop and the three of us touch the Yellow Gate in 10:41 and after having my pages counted by Laz and confirmed I make haste with my crew to our campsite to quickly re-supply.

Loop 2 : 14h 05m, (25h 5m 56s Total) Light Until Yellow Indian

I spent around 19 minutes in camp and left right at 11 hours elapsed race time; all re-loaded, re-caloried, and re-hydrated.  I had supplies to get me through another loop; this time in the counter-clockwise direction; something new this year.  As I jogged down the road leaving the camp ground I saw Scott still sitting in camp looking very uninterested in continuing on.  I don’t blame him, he’d taken a hard fall (or more) early in the first loop in the darkness and fog and didn’t want to risk further aggravation.  He’s a fast dude so I totally get it.  I also passed by Erik’s campsite (right next to my own) and see he’s about ready to head out into the next loop.  I tell him to catch up as I’ll largely be hiking fairly slow because of a full belly back up to Chimney Top.

The really cool thing about Loop 2 being in the opposite direction this early in the race is that you get to see the other runners finishing up their first loop.  So as I make my way back up the mountain I spot a lot of friends and fellow Barkers (some more bloody and beaten up than others) on their way down.  By the time I reach the end of the real switchbacks and gain the high, shouldering ridge of Chimney Top, Erik has indeed caught back up and together we climb up the much steeper ridgeline trail and then head out to collect our first book page for the loop.

Then we’re onto the now long descent of Big Hell.  In this direction the line isn’t quite so simple.  Not for the first time (nor the last) I dial in the appropriate compass heading and keep checking it regularly as we shuffle through the deep leaves downhill.  When I first learned that each loop this year would be opposite the direction of the previous I thought that would come in handy on the Big Hell descent which is notorious for botched navigational errors.  I figured we’d be able to spot runners coming up from the Beech Tree and so be able to use them to guide us on the right line.  No such luck this time around. 

Climbing up, navigation is easy as all lines of ascent converge; the opposite is true downhill where a slight error in heading can put you way off your intended goal.  Luckily we were joined by Jamil Coury, Brandon Stapanowich, and Michael Versteeg as we started the descent.  Having more eyes on target the better.  However, both Jamil and Michael were descending much more rapidly than I dared and quickly were far ahead and below us.  I just kept checking my compass bearing and adjusting my heading accordingly.  As we’d just passed through this area (in the opposite direction) it was all fairly familiar.  I believe we got on a line that was a bit too far to the left but that’s the safe way to navigate to this book because you can use a stream as a navigational “hand rail”.  I knew we were getting close when I saw the familiar Mountain Laurel.  I believe this is about where we ran into Mikael Heerman from Finland.  We’d seen him earlier starting his second loop as we were finishing our first.  He’d been wandering around trying to find the Beech Tree for quite some time.  Together with Jamil and Erik we located the correct book location after overshooting by just a small bit downhill.  Unfortunately, during the descent Michael had sped away out of ear shot of the yells for him to stop!  He ended up dropping right out of the valley and hitch hiking back to camp!

After collecting our pages we all big the technical climb up Zipline.  Not long into the ascent and still among the various streams in the lower levels we come across “Iron Mike” Wardian with a couple other runners.  He’s all smiles and fist-bumps.  Pretty cool to see him completing a loop with all his pages even if it will be officially over time.

Our ascent line up Zipline wasn’t too bad.  I knew from prior experience to stay out of any stream bed or drainage as most of them trend away from Indian Knob too far to the South.  I made that mistake two years ago and ended up somewhere way South on Kelly Mountain (yes, it’s actually named after the ancestors of The John Kelly!).  But not today, I kept us on a line firmly wedged between known cliffed out areas and the other drainages and after much effort arrived not far from the Needles Eye to collect our next book page.  Now I was in comfortable navigational territory.  We make another gradual traverse to get to the upper slopes of Razor Ridge and nail the descent popping out right at the water towers by the prison.  Boom!  By now it’s afternoon and getting a bit warm out but nothing like it was in 2012.  Still, the cool air and water underfoot is much appreciated in the tunnel; too bad I couldn’t bottle it up and take it with me for the long warm climb ahead.

The climb from the prison to the top of Frozen Head Mountain, Gunnysack Hill a.k.a. UberRat, is by far, the longest on the course.  This climb was also featured in the Barkley Fall Classic this past September.  It’s 2000’ of vertical in less than two miles of steep power-line cut.  It’s very exposed but thankfully ended up not being nearly as hot as expected; I think we had a nice cool breeze to assist us.  Erik, Jamil, Brandon and I all make great time on this ascent and arrive at the top to a sizeable amount of spectators and a husky that greets me by licking my face as I reach the fire road!  Ha!  Kathy and Fritz are there as well which was pretty cool.  The four of us hike up the last bit of road to get to the water cache and collect our pages. 

Now we head back down the upper section of Rat Jaw and, just like that, Jamil goes flying by us on a mission.  It’s like somebody flipped a switch.  Soon he was already out of sight!  So then it was down to me, Erik and Brandon.  Down Pigtrail is so much easier than going up!  We’re near the bottom very quickly and have a nice butt slide exit of the trail right before the highway (much easier and safer than trying to “ski” down it).  It’s around this time we start hearing gun shots; probably from target shooting but it’s coming from our next section of travel.  I wonder if they might have spotted Jamil and thought he was a deer as fast as he was running!  Thankfully the shooting stops as we descent Mt. Trashmore to collect our page at the rusted barrel.  The navigation back up and over the next climb and descent was uneventful though the climb from Raw Dog falls was brutal; this was my first time climbing this section and it generally was pretty awful.  As difficult as that climb was it was all made up for on the descent of Butter Ridge.  Nice and smooth!  Soon we’d arrived back at the New River and another wet crossing.  I didn’t mind, the cold water felt great on my aching feet!

So began our ascent of Stallion Mountain; a notoriously tricky section filled with all sorts of navigational pitfalls due to seemingly parallel universes of old mining roads, slag piles, briar thickets that all look the same.  Luckily we’d be tackling this section in the daylight which would really help our chances of success. Again it’s a trick of using the right compass headings at the right locations to keep you on the right ascent line.  Not too bad really.  In fact we nail the navigation and are soon at the vicinity of Fykes Peak and quickly collect our page.  The sun is getting low in the sky and shadows quite long.  Already the woods are getting dark and deep.  I’d like to clear the Stallion Mountain section completely before dark so we zoom down Foolish Stu to Bobcat Rock and pause briefly for Brandon to tend to his feet and shins.  Looking west was quite a sight seeing the dark silhouette of a rolling ridgeline framed in front of a setting sun.  Was quite a spectacular setting for a sunset.  Anyhow, we’re on the move again soon enough and retrieve our Leonard’s Butt Slide page and are making our way towards the Gnarly Mouth.  It’s twilight but still light enough to see as we climb up the Gnarly Mouth to an old mining road above it.  At the road it’s almost time for lights but not quite yet. 

It’s here where I make a semi-costly navigational error.  Instead of walking along the road for a little ways and then leave the road to make a shallow, cross-contour ascent to another mining road as a higher elevation bench; we leave the road too soon and climb too steeply and gain too much elevation.  We emerge into an area that, at first, seemed entirely unfamiliar to me.  We’d arrived at near the very top of Stallion Mountain north of Fykes Peak.  It’s all darkening sky around us and the song of toads or frogs among the thickets and small ponds.  It’s then that I realize that we’re on a part of the course we did in 2012 and so we shouldn’t be too far from the Yellow Indian.  In 2012 I finished the Fun Run so had passed through this area quite a bit.  In fact I then realized we were basically on that old trail!  Now that I had a point of reference I knew if we made our way North to the Yellow Indian we could traverse around the West side to get back to old mining road we’d missed.  So, Brandon and Erik received an impromptu tour of the Yellow Indian as we arrived just in time and in the right place to see the Indian profile in the rock face and the overhanging yellowish tree that resembled feathers from his headdress. Pretty cool and wonderful timing.  Wish I had a quality camera and knew how to use it; would have made for a great photograph from our unique perspective.

So, after a costly detour we returned to the correct old mining road and quickly made our way past the turn off for Coffin Springs and headed down to the water cache for one more re-supply.  It’s definitely dark by now and I’m getting a bit chilled so while the others re-fill I quickly don my wool layer and jacket; it gets a bit breezy up at these elevations on the North side of the park. 
We have considerably less trouble finding the Garden Spot book this time around.  I now realize I didn’t read the description correctly before the race and didn’t realize that this book location had changed significantly; no wonder I probably wasn’t as much help finding the book in the dark and fog of the first loop!  Sorry guys!  Anyhow it’s still a bit tricky in the dark but having more reference points this time make it short work.

We make pretty good time back through the coal ponds, SOB ditch and the climb over Bald Knob.  Next is a new section for me in this direction; the descent to book 2 down Hillpocolypse.  The climb, while difficult is a no-brainer; descending though care must be taken to get an accurate line.  We selected the appropriate bearing and followed it religiously all the way down the steep cross-country descent.  The only tricky part was getting down the cliffed out bluff in the dark.  Thankfully we found a safe way down and continued.  In retrospect I think at this point we should have adjusted our heading a bit to the North but at the time it still seemed like we were descending correctly.  However, after a short bit later when we started to hear the water from a roaring stream below us the terrain seemed a bit different to me.  Never the less we kept dropping down to the stream and when we arrived I immediately knew we were too far to the East; still upstream of the intended confluence.  No big deal, we followed the stream down hill towards the confluence but unfortunately the way was not easy among the many boulders and heavy vegetation.  But on the balance not a whole lot of time was lost as we found the confluence after a short traverse.

Now began one of the worst climbs I’ve ever been on; another first for me; up Hiram’s Vertical Smile.  Ugh!  I selected the appropriate bearing and off we went literally straight up a near 100% grade slope!  Unbelievable; reminded me of the steep parts up Check Mate Hill, another bad climb that I did have some experience with from 5 years ago.  It was a slow effort getting up that initial grade.  But even bad things come to an end and eventually we emerged onto the high ridge and the slope began to lesson just a bit.  A bit further and it was practically flat; a bit more and we were back on candy ass trail heading down to Phillips Creek.  It was at this time that Brandon asked me if the current trail, if he stuck to it, would take him back to camp.  I told him that yes it did and good luck.  And with that Eric and I continued down the many switchbacks to the bottom of the climb.  By now we’d eaten up a lot of time in this loop.  I knew before we even started that we were well behind to finish the Fun Run under 36 hours; or time enough to start a 4th loop.  I was okay with that.  But now, even though we had been making good time for the most part, a few costly navigational errors had really eaten into our buffer on having time to finish the Fun Run (3 loops) within the final 40 hour time limit.  I explained this to Erik and he agreed it was time to hustle.

So we quickly made our way down the many switch backs toward Phillips Creek.  If I recall correctly we ran into John and Gary somewhere on one of these switchbacks above Phillips Creek.  They still looked pretty good and were moving well.  At Phillips Creek we left the trail again and headed on up Check Mate Hill.  Honestly, compared to what we’d just been through up Vertical Smile; Check Mate didn’t seem quite so bad?  Then again, last time I did this climb it was during Loop 3 and perhaps I was a touch more exhausted?  Anyhow we motor up the hill pretty well but it’s still a much longer climb than I remember but soon we’re nearing the top nearly right at the very point of England Mountain.  Unfortunately in so navigating we emerged right into the walls of some very tall and sheer cliffs!  I did the same thing climbing up here in 2012.  That time I traversed to the left until I found a lower part in the escarpment to scramble up a large tree that had toppled against the cliff.  This time around, Erik led the way to investigate a gap in the cliff face just ahead of us.  Luckily it looked like a good way to get up the cliff band and it was.  Took a bit of finesse but the holds were good and so up we went to the top of the bluff.  We weren’t done climbing yet though so kept on the compass bearing and soon we arrived at the well-known old mining bench.  Only problem was that, in the darkness, we couldn’t tell where we were on it.  I felt like we were very near the very point of the ridge and proposed to hike one direction and see how our compass bearings changed.  Starting out we were going East and very quickly the old road turned and we swung to the South.  That told me we could only be in one place; right at the north end of the triangle.  We quickly back tracked and then found the roughed up flat ground that I suspect wild boar had been through; I recalled this area from Loop 1.  Erik felt like he could find the Book1 by the pond by simply listening for the toads or frogs.  We became extremely quiet and sure enough we could hear them.  So while he wandered off the bench towards the suspected book location, I wanted to be sure so hunted around for the old Book 1 location wanting to find the large flat rock.  I found it quick enough and then used it as a reference point as I too marched off the bench and back downhill.  Immediately I saw Erik at the book.  Boom!

We retrieved our last page for the loop and headed up and over England Mountain and made quick work of the candy ass Bird Mountain Trail back down camp.  On the way we passed by Johan Steene and Sean Ranney heading back out on their third loop; all things considered they were not too far ahead of us; we also over took another Barker heading downhill who turned out to be Brandon!  He had kept to the NBT all the way home; bypassing Book 1 in the process.  Too bad.  Anyhow, exiting the trail onto the old fire road heading towards the well-lit yellow gate, we agreed to meet back at the gate at exactly 26 hours on our watch; that meant we had slightly less than an hour to resupply and regroup.  At the gate there was still a sizeable group awaiting our arrival; both our crews and several others.  We turned in our loop pages to Laz who quickly confirmed we both had all 13.  Then we were off to our respective camps for some quick food and resupply.

Loop 3 : 13h 03m, (39h 3m 26s Total) Dark Until Bald Knob

During my 54 minute break I eat several grilled cheese sandwiches and other goodies, changed socks and clothes and even got to lie down with my eyes closed for 10 minutes.  But my crew’s watch alarm went off and so back up to the Yellow Gate I went to collect my new race bib (the number of the bib indicating what page I had to collect from the books).  Erik wasn’t quite ready to go but he said he’d catch up.  So right at 26 hours (just 40 minutes before the cutoff to start Loop 3) I grabbed my new bib, tucked it away, and begin climbing yet again with a full stomach!  It was a very nice feeling actually; to be out on loop 3; most likely my final loop for this year as, at best, we could still finish in time for an official Fun Run finish (under 40 hours).  However, we couldn’t afford many mistakes and we’d definitely have to run when we could and minimize breaks.  Make no mistake, it was going to be close!

I climbed fairly easily trying to let my food settle in my stomach and by the top of Bird Mountain, Erik had caught up once again.  Book 1 was an easy find this time around and while we didn’t take the best line down Check Mate it wasn’t fatal; in fact it was probably a bit better than the last time down.  Still a lot of slick places where I ended up on my rear end quite a bit but eventually the slope began to decrease and we found ourselves at the Phillips Creek.  Erik was definitely moving much quicker on the off-trail downhills than I was.  The lugs in my light-weight boots just didn’t have quite enough bite; something to improve next time.  So I was a bit more tentative with my steps having been slipping and sliding my way around for over two loops! 

Book 2 went much better than expected.  We largely were able to reverse the hellish route we’d just been on mere hours earlier; amazing how much easier it was sliding downhill!  On Hillpocolypse, Erik showed me a bit different uphill line than I was used to and it was a good one; definitely one to keep in my bag of tricks for next time.  It was definitely starting to get light out by the time we emerged back on the NBT and made our way over to Bald Knob once again.  So far we were making pretty good time and hadn’t made any navigational mistakes.  I felt good about our progress so we took a short break at the top of Bald Knob to enjoy the sunrise from an amazing panoramic view!  Far below to the North and South-West there was some very low lying fog along a river or other stream that made it look like a massive lake.  Beautiful. 

We sped through SOB Ditch, the Coal ponds and had no trouble reconnecting with the CT this time around and Garden Spot book was so easy I’m still having trouble figuring out what we did during Loop 1!  Wow, the fog and night changes everything!  Anyways, it was light out now and still cool, but I knew we had a long way to go and a short time to get there (run Bandit run!) and it was forecast to get quite warm that afternoon. Ugh!  So I resolved to press hard now to hopefully build a little more time cushion on the cutoff.  We nailed the navigation down Gnarly Mouth Branch and on to Bobcat Rock trying to run as much as we could.  The Leonard’s Butt Slide book was easy pickings; much less drama this time around compared to two years ago when I had all sorts of trouble!  Then something strange happened.  After the book at Fyke’s Peak I had a mind blank.  We stayed on the ATV track a bit too long I realize now and ended up in a completely unfamiliar area to me; basically in my mind I was expecting to see something completely different and it made no sense at all.  So I did have a moment of panic as I was nervously looking at my watch repeatedly and doing the math about how far we had to go and what I could remember of how long it took during the first loop.  It wasn’t good.  Erik was great, he calmed me down and we simply retraced our steps back towards the previous book then turned around and sure enough, I finally recognized what I’d missed, the start of the ridgeline descending to the New River.  Game On!

The rest of the way down to the New River and on across the Highway and up Butter Ridge were a blur of flawless navigation and a growing sense of urgency.  This would be no coasting Fun Run finish.  We’d really have to keep working!

Then another weird thing happened.  I think the 3rd loop mental fog was starting to kick in.  After all we’d both been awake now for two nights and most of two days; except for a couple hours of sleep on Friday night I think I’d been awake at this point for well over 48 hours!  Anyhow, we took the Long Cut to avoid Danger Dave’s Climbing wall and, for some reason, I chose to cross the ATV path right then and descend into a little drainage that I mistakenly thought was the correct one that led to the rusted barrel and Mount Trashmore beyond.  Wrong!  Dumb!  It looked right at first but then, all of a sudden, nothing looked right.  Erik and stayed behind and had gone the correct way and shouted down to me he was on route.  Damn!  I was tired!  So I backtracked and soon joined him just past the old yellow gate and together we entered the correct drainage, retrieved our page and motored up Trashmore and Pig Head Trail beyond.

I really began to climb hard at this point.  In my mind I honestly thought we were behind schedule that we NEEDED to be already at the top of Rat Jaw in order to have enough time to finish.  At this point we still had some significant distance and a lot of vertical to get there though.  So I powered hiked with a purpose and soon crested Pig Head Trail all by myself and ran every bit of the flat Prison Mine Road over to Rat Jaw.  Erik was not in sight behind me.  That was a shame.  I honestly wasn’t trying to scrape him, I was just worried we weren’t moving quickly enough and need to set the pace.  However, by the second steep pitch of Rat Jaw I spotted Erik down below on the first pitch; not scraped after all; not by a long shot!

By the gentler uppermost slopes of Rat Jaw, Erik had caught up.  I apologized for pulling ahead but reiterated the sense of urgency we should be having.  I asked him if he recalled how long it had taken him to get from here to the finish on Loop 1.  He gave a number and I checked my watch.  Phew!  Even taking into account our overall slower pace on Loop 3 we still should have about an hour of buffer on the final Fun Run cutoff of 40 hours.  Even still, an hour isn’t much if we made a costly navigational mistake or had a bad fall; all things still highly likely with the balance of the course left to cover.

Working in our favor were the very dry and warm conditions.  Yes, it had gotten quite warm by this point but unpleasant.  The abundant sunlight had helped dry the muddy Rat Jaw slopes so we were able to safely run all the way down to the Prison without worrying overly much about footing.  Through the cool tunnel one last time I savored the cold air and the nice ice bath my aching feet were receiving.  At the far end I decided to attempt to climb up the ventilation shaft to the surface rather than take the traditional way out via deeper water.  It is one of the few areas on the course where, in the course description, you are given a choice of route.  Erik opted for the longer way around but I’m convinced it’s easier.  I had difficulty finding good holds on the climb out and nearly fell back into the tunnel a couple times before I managed to drag my tired body to the surface.  Ugh!  Well, I’ve been through this tunnel a bunch of times but this was the first time I’d gone that way.  Believe me, once was enough!

We collected our last Prison page and headed up The Bad Thing on a slightly different line than I’m used to but thankfully, the steep ridge we’d taken soon joined Razor Ridge and we found ourselves ascending on familiar ground.  But the mental fatigue was taking its toll.  I felt pretty good for the most part, definitely far better than my previous Fun Run, but even though I knew we were on the correct ridge there were times it seemed unfamiliar.  Like the little cliff band you have to ascend or bypass on the way up; totally don’t recall it from either of the previous loops…  Anyhow, didn’t matter, just needed to keep climbing until we could spot the ridgeline capstones and then adjust our route to the correct one to hit the Eye of the Needle one last time.

We did just that and arrived at almost the same time as John and Gary emerged from the other side of the Needle!  Ha!  First thing John said after consulting his watch was that we had ample time to get in for a Fun Run finish.  It was awesome to hear his vote of confidence; we’d certainly worked very hard this loop to regain that buffer!  John and Gary looked pretty good and were soon on their way down to the Prison, well into Loop 4.

Descending Zipline one last time I sort of let Erik lead the way.  It really seemed like he wanted to set the line so I followed.  However, I should have made more of an effort to correct him sooner because I felt like we were drifting too far towards the beautiful but cliffed out waterfalls.  Sure enough, we found ourselves doing a lot of boulder hopping but thankfully everything was dry so the footing was okay.  As I’d made this navigational mistake before I jumped out of the gully we were in well upstream of the cliffs and traversed back to the left to find the little finger of ridgeline that drops right down to merge with some old trail near the bottom of the drainage.  So, no real time lost just a bit of extra work.  It was all good.  The views from the set of cascades is actually worth the extra effort to get to especially as we avoided getting cliffed out.  (I’d actually ended up cliffed out in this area, in the dark of a botched Loop 1 two years ago so I was acutely aware of trying to avoid what I’d gone through then to escape!)

We reached the Beech Tree and our penultimate page easily and began one last, arduous climb up Big Hell.  This time around I chose an old familiar line that I recall Blake Wood and I used many years ago; perhaps during my first Barkley?  The route largely ends up on a nice, narrow, finger-like ridge that avoids a lot of briars and small cliffs.  Judging by the divots along the way, it was well trafficked which was a good sign.

Then, one last weird thing happened.  As we were ascending Big Hell coming from a bit more left to right than the more straight line ascents of the past, we reached the top at an angle that looked very strange to me.  For a moment I thought perhaps we’d somehow tracked too far to the left and had hit the ridgeline below Chimney top off the candy ass trail.  But I didn’t recall there being any capstones along that ridge.  But everything looked wrong!  When we finally did reach the capstones, I was convinced that Chimney top was further to the right along the capstones.  However, we also found ourselves on a well tracked trail that did look familiar.  Erik suggested we back track along this trail out around the end of the capstone just to be sure before we plowed ahead into the unknown.  Good he was thinking!  Because all we did was follow the trail back to the end of the capstone and arrived right at the last book!  Thinking about it now I think what happened was that on ascending that different line I thought incorrectly we’d be too far to the left on the climb so we began a traverse back to the right to get more in line with what I thought was the normal line.  In fact, we were already in line (remember how different ascending lines converge?) so now we were in a line that was too far to the right and thus why the capstones looked different when we got there as I wasn’t used to seeing them from that perspective!  Weird!

Anyhow, we collected our final page, but didn’t pause to contemplate the moment; we had no time to spare!  One last traversal back to the candy ass trail and then we sped down it at a comfortable pace.  We had plenty of time it seemed but I was taking nothing to chance at this point.  It was also getting quite warm the more we descended.  We kept running and running downhill and soon crossed a small stream and began one last brief ascent of Rough Ridge that seemed like a much bigger climb this time around!

We kept the good running pace up all down the final downhill though it seemed like it was a lot further than I remembered.  Did we have enough time after all?  Damn!  Our fears were finally put to rest once I could spot the park office and very familiar trail signs.  We’d done it!  Erik was going to finish his First Fun Run and I was going to finish my Second!  Woot!  We were both super excited and a bit incredulous actually.  We’d given up a lot of time to some costly navigational mistakes but still eked back just enough time by pushing hard when it mattered the most to buy us enough buffer for a Fun Run finish.  Definitely was a team effort.  While I had had some very dark thoughts early in Loop 1, I’d rallied largely due the constant company I’d kept the remainder of the way; a first for me Out There.  Having a good partner at the Barkley Marathons is priceless!  It’s good to have an extra set of eyes and, hopefully collectively we’d be functioning with the equivalent of one brain!  Still, partnering up has its risks as I’ve learned about from past failures where negative thoughts can spread like a virus from runner to runner; even the strong willed and unwaveringly motived are often susceptible!  Thank you so much Erik!  What a ride!

With that, we made our way slowly out to the final trail head then lazily jogged along the Flat Fork Creek trail back to the Big Cove Campground.  While we could’ve run up the hill to the gate, we opted to instead savor the moment with a leisurely walk!  The camp was abuzz but noticeably a bit less populated than Friday night.  Still, my crew spotted us coming up the road and joined us at a distance on our last hike up to the Yellow Gate and an awaiting Laz.  There was one last moment of drama.  I turned in my pages and as Laz counted them I began chatting to some of the others in the small crowd.  I minute later Laz spoke up and said that he’d counted my pages twice and only got 12. What!  It suddenly got very quiet.  I looked at the small, waterproof bag in which I’d been keeping my pages and couldn’t see anything at first except for my bib folded up in there.  But then Fritz said there was something else in there (it was a clear bag).  Sure enough there was a page all folded up hiding behind my bib!  Phew!  Everybody let out a collective sigh, or I might have been imagining that.  I handed over my 13th page and I was done!  Erik’s pages were similarly counted correctly and then Taps was played twice; once for each of us.  That bugle never sounded so sweet!


Once again I want to thank some folks who made this all possible.

First I’d like to thank Eric Fritz (and his family!) for giving up two days of work and a long weekend to come out and crew and support me.  I’ll pay back in full, no worries!  I have a feeling that Fritz will be spending some serious time Out There in the future!

Once again, thank you to David Horton for starting me down this path.  I still have a hand written letter (can you imagine?!) from him dated back to 1995 when I contacted him for ultrarunning advice while I was attending the Virginia Military Institute.  That advice became part of my early approach to the sport and still plays a large role in how I train today.

Thank you to Laz for providing this very opportunity and experience to truly test out if I was tough enough or had enough grit!  Perhaps I can buy you a beer at a honky-tonk of your choice one day; as long as we’re both wearing straw hats and long sleeve cotton dress shirts!

Thank you to DeWayne Satterfield.  You’ve been one of the local few that I’m around that “gets it”.  It was your Fun Run finish several years ago that finally forced me to get serious about training right for the Barkley Marathons! 

I have to personally thank Kurt Stockbridge and Kathie Townsend of the Skechers Performance Division for their many years of support and keeping me in shoes.  The Team did an awesome job building a "one-off", light-weight "running boot" for me this year.  I wore them during loops 2 & 3.  This was an idea I had last year to try at the Barkley Marathons after experiencing a lot of ankle pinching pain and tendonitis from all the steep grades and often cross-camber traverses.  Unfortunately I got injured last year and couldn't further test the idea of having a shoe with a lot more ankle support but still have good traction, stability and most of all be light enough to be viable.  This year they built something that was amazing; a variant of the GoTrail mid-top that used the GoTrail Ultra midsole-outsole for better underfoot cushioning but still had the wonderful, high heel collar for superior ankle support.  I'm happy to report that my feet and lower legs never felt better after such abuse!  Thank you so much!
I'd also like to thank the people at Sword for making an incredible endurance sports drink.  I've been running for over 26 years, ultras for over 20, and have tried A LOT of sports drinks.  I've enjoyed Sword like no other.  There is just something about the simple and few ingredients, and the right balance of maltodextrin and simple cane sugar and light taste that makes it enjoyable with every sip.  It's saying a lot that after 39 hours of continuous movement and drinking nothing but Ginger Citrus mix I was still enjoying every sip!  I've never experienced that before.  Typically drinks get too sweet for me and I end up just switching to water after half a day of effort.  Not so with Sword.  Amazing stuff! Thank you so much for making your product!

But the biggest thanks go to my better looking half and partner in crime, my wife Kathy  and my dogs Tracks and Sparta for putting up with my rigid training schedule that, by its very nature, had me gone all day on long solo runs and climbs (for some reason nobody wants to spend all day hiking up and down power lines!).  Kathy, I still think you’ve got a Fun Run in you given the right navigator (hint hint); you’re worlds tougher mentally and physical than I am!  After all remember that Laz said after 2012 that it was your turn!