Barkley 2007: More than a fun run
by Flyin’ Brian Robinson
As I write the first draft of this report, it’s been more than 24 hours since I returned to camp after bailing out of loop 5 of the 2007 Barkley and I’m still trying to clear the fog in my mind. I’d been running so well. What went wrong? It’s hard to remember through the fog of total mental and physical exhaustion. But through the fog, I remember … fog. It was real fog, I think, but that’s jumping ahead.
Like last year, I tried to come well prepared. One of the less obvious challenges of running well at Barkley is the training. You either train all winter or ramp up very quickly after the holidays like I did this year. In early January, I logged just 11 flat miles as my wife Sophia and I moved into a new home in Monterey , California . Eight weeks later I logged 79 miles with 45,000 feet of elevation change.
Mental preparation is just as important for an “impossible” run like Barkley . In 2006, I hadn’t been allowed to scout the course. Getting lost cost me any chance of finishing, so just after the race, I wrote down every detail I could remember. I reviewed those notes as I trained, hoping to avoid the navigational mistakes that cost so much time.
Scouting the course was permitted this year, so Wendell Doman and I arrived Wednesday night with plans to scout the next two days. When the first hike took over 7 hours, we both worried that we might be wearing ourselves out, so the next day we scouted just one mile of trail to find the location of the newly placed Book 6.
Saturday morning I awoke at 3:30am , ate breakfast and went back to sleep. When the conch shell sounded at 7:11 , signaling one hour to the start, I had one less thing to do getting ready. That really helped keep me calm when Washington Post reporters started taking pictures and asking questions.
At 8:11am Gary lit the starting cigarette, and we were off with a whoop. David Horton and I planned to “run” together, but our running turned to walking in less than ¼ mile. The Bird Mountain Trail, one of the easiest on the course, is too steep to run, rising 1,300 feet in just over 1 mile.
I was a little surprised that no one challenged me for the early lead. This year’s field was particularly strong. David Horton , Jim Nelson , Andrew Thompson , Andras Low , Mike Dobies , Greg Eason and a host of others were content to stay back a bit. More surprising was how much of the field was keeping near the front. I counted at least 20 of the 35 entrants each time the trail switched back. Going down Bird Mountain the pace sped up, the field spread out but, Jim Nelson was right on my tail. We arrived at Book 1 together, got our first pages and crossed Phillips Creek. Jim stopped for water, so I got ahead, but not for long.
The rumors that the Park Service had flagged the North Boundary Trail were true. So at least in daylight, navigation was easy. Even so, I lost confidence between ribbons, and Jim , who knows the trail better than I, got ahead. Andrew , David and some others were right behind as we all followed Jim .
The course changed dramatically in 2006 and the new sections start just after Book 2. So I expected a group of frontrunners to follow Jim and me closely through the new sections. But as I left Book 2, only Jim was in sight, still coming up from the Coal Ponds, and he appeared to be alone. So as I headed up Stallion Mountain , I figured only Jim had any chance of keeping up with me. He and I’d lost a lot of time together as we traversed the new sections for the first time in 2006. The other potential frontrunners would have to pay that penalty this year, or wait for the next person familiar with the course, presumably Mike Dobies .
Because I’d gotten lost here, this was the first place I’d come to scout with Wendell before the race. The preparation really paid off. I ran at full speed with complete confidence from Book 3 on Stallion Mountain to Book 4 on Fyke’s Peak. It felt good to be making up so much time over last year.
The route down from Fyke’s is a string of animal trails, but the right route is fairly obvious to me. I pretty much stay on the ridge, but make sure to follow the animal trails through the rock ledges, avoiding the cliffs. I also remember precisely where to leave the Park boundary and head down a draw to cross the New River . I came out exactly where I hoped, right where it’s easy to cross with dry feet.
I then crossed Highway 116 and headed up Testicle Spectacle, a steep power-line scramble. Unless my memory of misery is faulty, the saw briers were bigger, greener, healthier and thicker this year than last. But the trail through the middle is fairly obvious and I made good time. It was hot, though, and my skin paid the price in blood for wearing shorts. Hopefully it made a good photo. The Washington Post photographers were waiting near the top. As a photographer clicked off a couple shots at ankle level, I said, “Did you know this was going to be a blood sport?”
Book 5 at the top took me a moment to locate as the photographer snapped a few more shots. I’m sure he knew where it was, but he did a good job of not tipping me off. But I found it, ripped out my page as the camera clicked and was on my way down the Meth Lab Trail. It’s another power line with more saw briers and more blood. But I worried about the Neo Butt slide at the bottom. I remember the slide emptying out into saw briers last year, but I guess one year of use ripped out the worst of the buggers. The slide was perilously steep, but mostly free of briers. Whew. I turned right and headed into the woods.
Because I’d scouted the new location of Book 6, near Raw Dog Falls , I knew there was a jeep road between me and the bottom of the ravine. I didn’t bother taking a compass bearing, I just contoured slightly downhill until I hit the road. Book 5 was just uphill to the right.
By comparing notes with other runners after the race, I think I bypassed Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall by going downstream too far before crossing over and traversing side-hill to lower Pig Head Creek. My route is longer, so I think it cost some time. Lower Pig Head Creek is literally a dump. It lies just below a turn out on Highway 116 so we walked through everything from old tires and a computer monitor to miscellaneous household trash. There was even a rotting carcass of some small animal, covered in maggots. Yuck!
Crossing Highway 116 brought me to upper Pig Head Creek and the start of Rat Jaw Junior. It’s a very slow climb following the creek bottom up to where an old road crosses. I believe I wasted some time here as well. The instructions say it’s okay to jump out of the creek bottom sooner and pick up the parallel road high on the ridge to the left. At the very least, this would have avoided a lot of poison ivy.
The climb up Rat Jaw Senior returned us to a Barkley route that’s been in use for several years, so I knew my route-finding advantage was over for loop 1. However, I hadn’t seen anyone behind me since I topped out on the Testicle, so I hoped to maintain my lead for a while. I didn’t remember exactly which animal trails to take up this power line cut, so I worried about hitting a dead end in a saw brier patch and paying the proverbial pound of flesh. Fortunately, I remembered where to cross from side to side, but my confidence was low. Finding Book 7 was easy though.
Topping out on Frozen Head is fun. After the endless climb up Rat Jaw, a cheering group greets us runners as we go by. I felt like a conquering hero. I filled the hydration bladder in my GoLite 24 pack at the water cache and was off. The next two miles follow easy jeep road and improved trail. It’s a good place to eat a meal without worrying about tripping. I made the most of the opportunity and ran as best I could while wolfing down a couple turkey sandwiches.
The Barkley course gets back to the craziness that passes for normal after Book 8 on Indian Knob. The route down Zip Line is completely off-trail, very steep (1,600 feet in ¾ mile) with not even a power line to help guide the way. I just headed straight downhill hoping to recognize the creek at the bottom. Soon I was at the confluence of two creeks and found Book 9.
From there the last big climb goes straight up the other side. It’s called Big Hell for good reason. 1,600 feet up in ¾ mile, a perfect reversal of Zip Line, except this climb follows a ridge. Navigation is easy; just keep following the ridge straight up. My hill training was good this year; I made it to the top without pause. Since I was still in the lead, I had to unpeel about 10 yards of duct tape holding Book 10 to the side of a tree, a task that took about 5 minutes.
It’s supposed to be easy from there, but that’s where I took my first wrong turn. Instead of crossing over the saddle between the first and second Chimney Top rocks, I stayed right of both and ended up on a trail back toward Mart Fields. But I didn’t go far. I backtracked and picked up the correct route. I lost at least 10 minutes though and wasn’t sure if anyone had passed me until I arrived back in camp in first place. Gary counted my pages and congratulated me on finishing Loop 1 in 8 hours 17 minutes. Yes!
I shared a crew with David Horton , and they were amazing. They had a chair waiting with all my stuff arrayed around it. They scrambled six eggs as I washed my feet and changed into fresh shoes and socks. As I ate, they restocked my pack with two turkey sandwiches, 100oz Gu2O, Ensure, my flashlights and other nighttime gear. I was off again in just 13 minutes! I was surprised that no one else arrived before I left.
Because I made such good time, I started Loop 2 at 4:41pm with lots of daylight left. It didn’t get dark until after Book 2 at the Garden Spot. Because I know the route around Fyke’s so well, I didn’t even really notice exactly when it got dark. I was just motoring. I do remember having some uncertainty going through the saw briers on the Testicle, but no real problems. Pig Head Creek was slower in the dark, but I kept seeing familiar landmarks. Rat Jaw was the first real puzzle, as I still wasn’t confident of the route, but a general compass bearing let me know I was piecing the trails together correctly and I had no trouble finding Book 7 at the Keyhole. Even Zip Line and Big Hell were routine. I completed Loop 2 in just under 10 hours and felt great! The evening air was warm and dry. It was 2:26am and I wasn’t even tired. I was feeling confident.
I spent longer with my crew this time. David Horton had ended his race after one loop, and he was a big help. He warned me to be careful navigating. I had a good run going and he didn’t want me to blow it by getting lost. They were leaving in the morning so I asked them to pass my crew notes to Wendell Doman if he was ready, or someone else if he was going for a fun run finish. Wendell took charge after he finished two laps, so I was in good hands.
It’s been said that loop 4 is the hardest. Like loop 3, it’s run in the reverse direction, but it’s run mostly in the dark. Amazingly, I was starting loop 3 before 3am , so I’d face a big chunk of that problem on this loop. I pondered how far I’d get before dawn and hoped this meant I’d have to do less of loop 4 in the dark.
As I headed up the Chimney Top Trail for the first time, I really had no idea who I’d see first, or how far back they were, although I expected to see Jim Nelson since he was the last person I’d seen on loop 1. For a while I thought I might make it all the way to Chimney Top before I saw a headlamp, but then I saw three! It was Mike Dobies , Greg Eason and Andras Low . Rain was just starting, but they were in good spirits. Not far behind them were Jim Nelson and Andrew Thompson , both a little tired and discouraged. After that encounter, it started raining hard and I didn’t see any lights on Chimney Top or down Big Hell where they might have helped me navigate the dark ridge. But I still came out very near Book 9 at the bottom. When I saw the creek, I knew I was upstream from the book, and then I saw another light! It was Wendell Doman . He found Book 9 first and yelled, making my search easy. We were both soaked, but still having fun.
The climb up Zip Line was tough. In the dark, I wanted to stay as close to the creek as possible. But it’s full of rocks and I had to backtrack a bit when I hit a small ledge too steep to climb. But following the creek exactly, enabled me to start exactly on track when the draw flattened out and the route headed straight uphill. Taking advice from David Horton , I angled slightly left and hit the trail coming from Mart Fields after cresting the ridge. Soon I had my page from Book 8.
Dawn ’s first light helped me avoid the mud puddles on the road to Frozen Head. Wind was blowing rain across the ridge and for the first time I was cold. I got out my balaclava, covered my wet head and cinched the hood on my rain jacket.
I don’t recall exactly when the rain stopped. The weather was cool enough that I left my rain gear on which helped protect me from saw briers, although I had to unhook my jacket quite a few times for fear of ripping a huge hole in it. What I do remember is my blistered feet. Even coated in Hydropel, which helped some, my feet pruned up and blistered, and the pain slowed me down. Hard rain also produced mud and slippery footing that required using the edges of my shoes for traction, further straining already tired feet. Still I ran when I could and made the best of it.
I finished loop 3 about 3:30pm . As I turned in 10 more pages, Gary asked how I was feeling and I said, “Good, but my feet are hammered!” My Fun Run time was 31:21, almost 9 hours faster than last year! That perked up my spirits, bad feet or no. Wendell had all my crew supplies laid out and scrambled six eggs while I assessed the damage to my feet. They were not as bad as I feared.
I never considered taking a nap. It was broad daylight and I wanted to get as far as I could before nightfall. Backwards navigation at night is what makes loop 4 so hard. I assumed I’d finish loop 4 before dawn, so the more miles I could do before nightfall, the less backwards night navigating I’d have to do. If I was fast enough, I could sleep before the start of loop 5.
Many people in camp were cheering. No one has much energy left after the Fun Run, so anyone setting out on loop 4 is really trying for 5 loops. Quite a crowd was wishing me well, letting me know I had ample time. If only my feet didn’t hurt so much. At the last minute, Leonard Martin lent me a pair of trekking poles. I left hoping they would help keep my feet from coming apart.
The first half mile is downhill on pavement. If you can’t run here, you can’t run anywhere. My spirits soared as my feet settled in without complaint. Yes! I can run! Wearing dry shoes and socks, I had hope for the first time in hours that my foot problems might be behind me.
I sailed up Chimney Top in fog left by the receding storm and cruised down Big Hell. It was daylight and the track of previous runners was obvious in the wet leaves. I didn’t need my compass, but I checked it anyway. David Horton ’s advice to be careful and make no mistakes stayed with me. Heading up Zip Line I was very optimistic. In the daylight, I could take an easier route slightly upslope, keeping the creek in sight. After following the creek’s right bend, I powered hard up the ridge using the trekking poles. Just as on loop 3, I angled slightly left, hoping to hit the trail to Mart Fields just beyond the ridge. Near the top, I hit an old trail angling upwards to the left that I now believe would have led me directly to Indian Knob. But I thought Indian Knob was to my right, so I ignored it, reaching the ridge soon after. I had only a few minutes of daylight left to help me find Indian Knob in the fog. Nothing looked familiar, but maybe it was just the fog. So I hopped over the ridge, looking for the Mart Fields Trail. Nothing. I went way downhill hoping it was just out of sight in the fog. No luck. I retraced my steps back to the ridge. I followed the ridge looking for capstones and found one. Then another and another, but no book 8. Then I checked the compass. Whoa! I thought I was searching south, but I’m heading east! This is not good. I feel completely lost and twilight is fading. My gut tells me the compass is wrong, but I know better. I tell myself, “Trust the compass. Figure out where you are.” There was only one possibility, I was southeast of Indian Knob. Angling upslope northwest, a capstone appeared out of the twilight in the fog. It was Indian Knob. I’d just lost ½ an hour.
The trail from Indian Knob to Frozen Head is very runnable, even in the fog. But my headlamp was worse than useless. Its bright beam scattered so much light that I could barely see the trail in front of me. I could see much better when I turned it off. My waist lamp lit up the ground without blinding me. But it’s not very bright, so I took off my head lamp and put it around my waist. That worked much better, but I couldn’t aim the beam. I took it off again and carried it in my hand. That worked, but with trekking poles and a flashlight, I had three items in two hands. I could no longer use the trekking poles to take any significant load off my feet. That had been working really well to ease the pain in my feet. Now in order to see, I had to walk in pain. Eating on the move was impossible.
When I reached the water drop at Frozen Head there were empty bottles down the road. At first I thought they’d blown there, but then I realized it’s a much warmer place to refill, out of the wind. I grabbed a full bottle and headed back. Then I discovered how disorienting fog can be. I accidentally walked toward the lookout tower, almost 90 degrees off-course! Whoa, I had better watch the compass more closely.
The next challenge was Rat Jaw, downhill at night in thick fog. Ugh. With the new book placement, I decided not to just charge downhill and sort things out when I got out of the fog. I had bad memories of getting lost on Fyke’s Peak last year. I was afraid getting lost would leave me wandering aimlessly until sunrise. Book 7 is just 400 vertical feet down the hill, and I really wanted to follow tracks or trail at least that far. My blistered feet also vote against rash action; I couldn’t charge downhill without both hands on my trekking poles. So I crept downhill trying to follow footprints and animal trails which I could only see about 10 feet in any direction. I was trying to be smart and not get lost, but it was late and I was tired. Progress is terribly slow. I kept stopping to check the compass and look around for signs of the power line. Eventually I lost all sign of tracks or trail and had to just follow a compass bearing and hope for the best. I still stopped every 20 feet and checked my bearing.
The fog was so thick that I didn’t realize what was happening when I stepped near the edge of a cliff. It just seemed that the fog was thicker and I couldn’t make out the ground in front of me. But I rejoiced when I realized it was a rock at about same altitude as book 7! I worked my way to the base and could just barely see another rock adjacent. I walked from rock to rock, as they got larger and connected into a more or less continuous face. I carefully followed the indentations of that face, hoping to recognize the keyhole. The fog was so thick that I had to climb in and out of every cleft to get a good look. Suddenly I saw footprints coming out of a promising cleft. Book 7 was right in front of me. What a relief! That book had taken much too long to find.
I still couldn’t charge downhill, because I might miss the turn in the power line. But the fog was thinning and I could see the power line when I was standing close to it. After the turn, the animal trails were easier to follow and I stopped less often to check the compass. But my feet had gotten used to a slower pace and even as the fog in the air lifted, the fog of sleepiness in my head thickened. When I reached the penultimate road near the bottom of Rat Jaw, I followed it until I realized it wasn’t the right one. My mind just wasn’t working so well anymore.
On the right road, I forced myself to run despite the complaints coming from my feet and I started moving well for the first time in hours. However, Pig Head Creek slowed me down. The fog was completely gone, so I was wearing my headlamp again, freeing up both hands for trekking poles. Even so, the rocks in the creek bed were killing my feet.
The smell of the carcass in lower Pig Head hit me before I even crossed the road. I stepped very carefully through the garbage dump. It’s so easy to slip and fall when tired. But I perked up as I approached book 6 at Raw Dog Falls . The fire road was easier on my feet and I knew exactly where I was. Even the scary scramble up the Neo Butt Slide was a bit of relief. Adrenaline kept me awake for a few minutes as I worked my way up the muddy slope on hands and knees, using the tips of my trekking poles like ice climbing tools for handholds between tufts of saw briers. After that, the rest of Meth Lab Hill was easy. The top was wind-blown and cold, shrouded once again in fog. I got my page and figured would be a good place for a nap. I certainly couldn’t oversleep; the cold would wake me up in about 15 minutes. It did. Sleeping in the cold wasn’t very refreshing though.
My feet complained again going down Testicle Spectacle. Slippery mud threatened to send me sliding through the high saw briers, but I managed to hold fast. Or should I say slow? Slow certainly better described my pace. Sleep may have done my brain some good. I thought about the slow pace and checked my watch. It was 2:30am . I didn’t remember what time I left camp or when I expected to return, but I remembered that it should still be dark. 2:30am ? There wasn’t enough night left! I had to hustle.
The bottom half of the Testicle is less steep and slippery, so I ran to the road and down to the New River . Even though the rain had stopped hours ago, the New River was much higher than before. It was nothing like the torrent that Blake Woods reported on loop 5 in 1996, but it was more than enough to get my sore feet wet. So be it. I couldn’t afford to lose any more time.
Once again I had no trouble finding my way up Fyke’s Peak. The last wisps of fog blew across the ridge as I picked up my page from Book 4. The stars were bright. It promised a beautiful, clear, warm sunny day for loop 5. I thought about the time again. I doubted that I’d make it back to camp before sunrise. Then it occurred to me. 8:11am would be the 48-hour mark of the race. If I didn’t get back before then, there wouldn’t BE a loop 5. I’d been taking caffeine pills, but I couldn’t remember exactly when, so I took some more.
Clarity of purpose help focus even the tired mind. I ran from Book 4 to Book 3 and on to Book 2 at the Garden Spot. My feet complained, and my legs were tired, but they held together. The flag markers on the North Boundary Trail were of little help at night. I focused on landmarks and found my way down through the Coal Ponds, across SOB Ditch and over Bald Knob. The newly maintained stretch of trail was a reprieve. I ran as fast as I could through that section. Close attention to route finding was required again after Jury Ridge, and to find Book 1. I was doing the best I could, but it was getting light. Somehow I had to move faster.
As I crested the top of Bird Mountain , the sun rose. I had hoped to greet that third sunrise with more joy, but I only had ½ an hour left to finish the loop. I was going to make it, but there would be no time for sleep. I ran downhill, trying not to destroy me feet. I started thinking about loop 5. I was going to need those feet for another 12 hours. I walked short stretches, but there was so little time!
I arrived at the Yellow Gate almost exactly at 8:00am , thinking I had 11 minutes to spare. Gary reminded me I had to LEAVE on loop 5 before those 11 minutes were up. I thought, “Oh my God! How am I going to get ready?” But it was morning, and everyone was up waiting for me to arrive. Everyone worked together as my crew! As I tended my feet, eggs are burned - err cooked, sandwiches made, bladder refilled; everything was taken care of. My feet were ugly. There was a blister the side of my whole thumb on the left side of my left heel and several smaller ones scattered around. My feet needed a lot of work, but I didn’t even have time to drain the big blister. I just shoved my feet in dry socks and put my shoes back on. If the blister didn’t pop itself, I could stop later, but I had to check out of camp NOW . I choked down the last of my scrambled eggs, handed the pan back to Wendell and checked out with 7 seconds to spare.
Peace of mind slowly returned as I walked back up Bird Mountain . I found a banana in my left pocket, but it was too late to drop the peel. I’d have to carry it the whole way. I thought about that as I climbed. “The whole way. One more loop. Not many people get to start loop 5, but most of those who do, finish,” I told myself. If they are fast enough to complete loop 4 backwards in the dark, 12 hours is enough time for a daylight loop.
More thoughts came back to me from those hectic 11 minutes in camp. Someone told me I’d taken 16 hours on loop 4. “16 hours! That’s almost twice as long as I took on loop 1,” I told myself. “What took me so long?” I didn’t remember much about the loop 4. Jumbled memories filled my mind. Had it raining last night, or was that the night before? I was so tired, but I needed to make good time on the North Boundary Trail. My feet wouldn’t carry me very fast over the rough sections later. “Oh God, what if I don’t make it? I’m so tired.” I took another caffeine pill, but they just weren’t working anymore.
By sheer force of will I crested Bird Mountain and descended to Book 1. The routine was automatic now. Take out my race number. Read it. Don’t relay on memory. Pull out the right page. Look at the number and compare it to my race number. Look at the shape. Just make sure it’s the right number and put it away. Make sure the zipper is closed. The job’s not done until the page is securely put away.
Up Jury Ridge, I really struggled. It was broad daylight, but I couldn’t stay awake. I stopped for a 15 minute nap. I set my watch alarm and fell unconscious in seconds. It was a warm morning and the sleep felt so good. But when the alarm went off, I got up and started moving. I just didn’t feel any better. I crested Jury Ridge and tried to run downhill on the newly maintained trail. It’s good footing, but I just couldn’t move fast. I stumbled with sleepiness. At the bottom I stopped for another nap. This time I didn’t even set the watch. It had taken me three hours to get to Rayder Creek. On loop 1, I had made it to the Garden Spot in three hours. I was going barely half that pace. I calculated that at that rate, it would be another 16 hour loop. I couldn’t afford the time to sleep, but I couldn’t go on without it. My race was over. I slept.
A naked fact about Barkley is you can’t just drop out. You have to get back to camp. The easiest way home from Rayder Creek is to continue on the Barkley course to Bald Knob, hop over the ridge and take the fire road back. So I continued forward for another hour, still technically in the race. But I was barely putting one foot in front of the other. I wanted to stop and sleep some more, but each time I stopped, my feet hurt so badly I regretted stopping. When I got to Bald Knob, I didn’t even consider continuing. I just wanted to get back to camp as soon as possible and sleep.
It took another 3 hours to get back. Some were surprised to see me; some were not. But I’d given it everything I had. That, and four official laps, was enough to be proud of. It wasn’t the result I hoped for, but it was enough for everyone else there. In time it would be okay with me too. It was actually easier to go down while still out on the trail trying. Last year I’d missed a cut-off when I still had some fight left and wasn’t allowed to continue. This year I had the chance to give it my all.
My first inkling of that acceptance came in camp. I’d staggered three hours thinking of nothing but sleep. When I arrived to heartfelt cheers and knowing condolences, I forgot about sleep. I sat down and traded war stories with my friends. I wanted to know how everyone else’s day had gone and they wanted to know about mine. The Washington Post reporters were there too, and recorded our conversations. I hope the confused musings of my very tired mind make sense when put down in print and read by others more rested.