“Do you want to know the course?”
...said Laz, pointing the 2018 Barkley Marathons master map in my direction…having just given me bib No. 1.
Now, in any other race bib No. 1 is reserved for the elite. At Barkley, No. 1 is for the Human Sacrifice. The person Laz thinks most likely to quit, and return to camp first. And he does have a knack of getting it right.
Laz cares deeply about his runners. He treats veterans as if they are family. And in a way they are. At registration, Laz is only concerned with the person in front of him. With an infectious smile and twinkle in his eye, he takes his time to talk to each runner. And for virgins, he remembers something about you. There is a connection. In that moment, you become part of the Barkley.
So after 15 or so people had registered it was my turn. The following happened in slow motion, in a Spidey-sense sort of way. You know when Spiderman is about to get punched, then moves out of the way, as he watches the person’s fist pass in front of his face. A runner, after receiving their number, gave me the slightest of looks when they left registration. As I sat down at the table in front of Laz, I noticed my name at the top of the list. And then Laz’s words echoed in my head from earlier in the day “Kaz…you’re going to have a great day”. At the time I thought it was an odd thing to say. Then in that split second, as if all of the planets aligned, Laz smiles, and gives me No. 1.
The gasp from runners behind me was loud. I mean loud. I am pretty sure it wasn’t because I had been given No. 1, but because they wouldn’t be. I struggled to turn around. When I did, the ever so cool Howie Stern, photographer and friend, was to my left…I looked at him, smiled, and mouthed HELP. It’s then that I saw the words at the bottom of our bibs.
HELP IS NOT COMING
I am not very good at quick, funny replies. All I could think of doing was offering Laz more chocolate for a different number. He asked, “Do you want a different number?”
Dang…a question like that, to me, has only one answer. And as close as I was to saying YES! I said No. And thanked him for the challenge. When things quietened down, John and Georganna, my crew, gave me the biggest of hugs and the most kick-ass of pep talks, as they knew I was a little spooked behind my smile. A mug of tea later, we studied the map and Laz’s instructions, and made our plan of action. Deep down I knew an arbitrary number couldn’t dent my training, impact my performance or destroy my focus. It was game on.
Barkley is an extraordinary event. Laz has fought hard over the years, to retain its true spirit. From the minute you arrive at camp you realise just how special this race is, because it is so low-key. There is no hype. There are no loud speakers. The connections made between runners and crew, the moments shared around camp, the discussions about previous years, the weather, the course, and the friendships made, are like the race…real and honest.
Barkley is about you and the mountains. It is not one thing. It is about everything. You can be the fittest, fastest or strongest person on earth. The mountains don’t care.
Just as there are no training hacks, there are no Barkley hacks. That may sound like a cliché or a bumper sticker. Life is about letting go, cancelling out the noise and opening yourself up to the world. And Barkley is all about the letting go.
Laz blew the conch at 8h33 Saturday morning. On the sound of the conch, runners have 1 hour until the start of the race. My pack had been ready since the afternoon before, as the race can start any time between midnight on Friday and midday on Saturday. Deciding what kit to wear wasn’t difficult. It was cold and it was going to be wet. At 9h15 I left my base camp and walked towards the yellow gate. Each runner is given a watch. It is the only watch you are allowed to wear during the race. No phones or any other GPS devices are permitted. The watch starts when the race starts. And it tells the time, sort of.
Waiting at the yellow gate for Laz to mark the start of the race by lighting a cigarette, was absolutely surreal. Yet at the same time the most normal thing in the world and the perfect start for this race. It was time to step out there and face the unknown.
A small group of us arrived at the top of the first climb together, including one veteran, who dialled in on Book 1 with incredible accuracy. The book was passed from runner to runner, and when it was my turn to tear out my first page, I smiled the biggest smile. Fuck yeah, this was Barkley, and I was smack bang in the middle of it. At that point, I thanked Laz. Page 1 is the easiest page in a book to find. And I was going to get all 13 pages…come hell or Big Hell!
It is hard to describe just how brutal the terrain is. Each loop, if you navigate successfully, is approximately 40K with 4000m of ascent and descent. Climbs are largely straight up, no playful switchbacks. You are off-trail, and have to steer your way through forests and over watercourses. Underfoot is the forest floor comprising of decaying branches, fallen trees, roots, leaves and some large rocky sections to negotiate with crazy drop-offs.
There are 13 books around the course. It only took a few hours for me to understand why Barkley is Barkley. Ensuring you are heading generally in the right direction is critical. Pace also becomes important, in order to be able to complete loop 1 in time, and then with a sufficient buffer to be able to head out on the next loop.
I dropped off the back of this small group between Books 2 and 3. Did I panic when I realised I was on my own? A little. I stopped, checked my map, took a bearing, and told myself I can do this. It was about making sure I knew where I was…as best as I could…at all times. That was the plan.
Reaching a book, ripping out your page, putting it in your zip lock bag and then making sure the bag is safely stowed away, gives you a huge sense of achievement. When it is hammering with rain and you are being battered by high winds, making sure your pages are safe becomes an obsession. Part way round the course I met a runner who had lost all of his pages.
Around Book 4 I came across other runners, which I admit, was a relief, and it wasn’t long before I realised how extremely lucky I was. Our group of 5 included 2 amazing veterans that had raced Barkley many times. Over the years they had built up a mental map of the course, and apart from where books had changed location this year, nailed the navigation each time. They pointed out landmarks, shared stories and were genuinely happy for us to tag along. Wading through the creek that flows under the prison was like being in a movie and staring up Rat Jaw is a moment I will never forget.
When the storm hit late afternoon, so did the legendary Frozen Head fog. It got dark quickly. The rain was torrential and the thunder and lightening terrifying. At the top of the last climb, at Book 13, we separated, as some were able to run the descent back to camp, in the fog and rain, quicker than others. The last kilometre is a gentle trail that takes you to Big Cove campground and to that yellow gate. My crew were there, in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain, waiting for me, and they had been there for hours...just waiting. They were incredible and I can’t thank them enough.
I was so proud to complete loop 1 and in time. Of the 44 of us that started, only 26 finished loop 1. Presenting my 13 pages to Laz for him to count was dreamlike. Laz hadn’t got it right this year.
It was also hugely disappointing knowing my Barkley experience had come to an end when I had so much more to give. In hindsight, I should have headed back out there. Who knows what could have happened…but it’s easy to say that now. You have to commit to the decision you make at the time. With no one to head back out into the storm with, and my course knowledge not having had chance to sink in, deep down I know I made the right call.
It was a DNF but it was different. I was grateful, indebted and respectful of this unbelievable life experience. Time slowed down around camp after the storm broke. Supporting those runners (and their crews) still out there was rewarding and touching. It was a tough year. And for those of us who had been out there, we shared our stories. I loved every Barkley minute. And if I want to be back on Barkley time, all I have to do is look at my watch, which ticks on, resetting itself every 24 hours.
Being around the Barkley legends and amazing athletes that I toed the yellow gate start line with, was humbling. Friendships were made that will forever have a quirky and unique connection with a small part of Tennessee. And being a Barkley virgin, well, that was an honour.
A week or so after the race Laz sent us the following message
"Congratulations to all who fought on this day. The mountains might have won, but they knew we were there."
BIG SHOUT-OUT AND THANKS TO...
Lazarus Lake and the Barkley family; Johnla and Red-dog for their endless love; my crew-chief Georganna; TeamPyllon athletes - Taps Aff; FuckYeah; Big G; and of course The Boss Man - you guys are the best; and Chloe, for her amazing energy and perspective.
Barkley buddies - Jodi Isenor; Allie Beaven; Nicki Rehn; Grant Maughan; Hiram Rogers; Dewayne Satterfield; Gabriel Szerda; Stephanie Case; Maggie Guterl; Liz Canty; Cyrille Berthe; Benoit Laval; and Valery Caussarieu.
Pack: Nathan VaporShape
The current version of this is the VaporAiress
Jacket: Patagonia Storm Racer
Pants: INOV 8 Racepant Waterproof Trousers
Shoes: La Sportiva Akasha