It's all about the training, right?
I started training for this year's Barkley Marathons last October, following a move from "flatland" Eastern Shore, Maryland—where the nearest hill of even 500 feet was an hour's drive away—to foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. I was determined to build my climbing/descending chops, which had been lacking in my training. I planned to start smart and build to as much elevation change as I could before mid-April came around. I'd hoped to build to 50000 (100000 change) per week, but this proved too much for me time-wise and physically. During the past 8 weeks before heading to TN I did manage to get in 25000 to 40000 feet of climb (and the same descent) per week (over about 50 80 miles). I'd managed to find what I think still is a pretty good hill. Along with several others in the region, this hill in particular climbed 1500 in one mile. I focused on this place and put in up to eight repeats in a day (16 miles, 8 hours, 24000 elev change), climbing with 5-8 lbs. pack. In the early weeks, I would climb with a gallon of water, empty it at the top, which helped reduce the impact on my knees.
I approached the training as if it were a job, imagining what kind of work would entail climbing up and down a hill, over and over. I came up with the image of a goat herder, one with a large herd that needed breaking up into smaller groups because the difficult terrain. The whole herd needed to be brought up the mountain over the course of each training session. My intension was to develop the ability to incessantly (a la Barkley) climb up and down, over and over. I did this pretty well, I think. However, in retrospect I realize that I did not include enough high cardio work, aka racing. The Barkley Marathons is a race, and whether one considers it only a race against the clock, or a race against one's own limits, or a race between runners, the feeling impels you forward with a momentum missing from training. In fact, if I'd kept my pace closer to my training pace, I believe I would have finished multiple loops rather than one plus change.
During the days before the race I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of some great people. Travis and Alyssa Wildeboer were there and John Fegyveresi arrived shortly after I had. Camp was quiet when I got there, and quiet when I left, when only filmmakers Tim and Annika remained from the Barkley crowds. Local Leonard Martin and I headed onto the trails. And there were some great hikes with John and Wouter preceding the race.
By race day I was as rested as I wanted to be, no more, no less. The yellow gate saw the annual gathering and I headed up the path with determination and calm. Not in the front pack, I was amongst the second grouping heading over the top of Bird, then the first book and heading down the new section, Checkmate Hill. Along with Carl Laniak and Aaron Sorenson I made to Book 2, with Carl's amusing comment that this was a record time to arrive at Book 2 (traditionally the location of Book 1). Another group of runners came up behind when I was approaching the Coal Ponds and I kept them on course through there when they were starting up to what one of them called an "easier way," the trail above the ponds. I felt pretty good at that point, heading up a group of super runners (I think it included Aaron, Julian Jameson, Tim Englund, John Teeples, and one or two others). We hit the Garden Spot. I tore out my page and tore down the trail to Stallion Mountain. Just before starting the short climb to the peak I stopped and paused; I'd missed the water drop. Where the heck was it? When the others caught up they said they'd bolted after me thinking I was intending to lose them. I mentioned the water and someone said it had to have been back near Garden Spot. Okay, here's a perfect example of getting what you deserve. Myself, for mindlessly thinking the drop was at the junction of roads from Garden Spot and running right through the spot without looking off the side of the road to find it 20 feet beneath, on an adjacent road. I still had water in my pack and suggested that others might consider returning to get it. Losing even ten minutes is a tall order, yes, but if I'd been low on water I would have, and I reminded them that there was no water on the way down Stallion. Everyone elected to head on. My plan was to fill up at the stream across the road by the New River.
We found Book 2 and I told everyone to cinch up their pants—this was going to be a fast course down Stallion. Shortly after we came on John F, who'd joined in the descent. By the bottom of Fyke's it was John, Byron, and I who flew down to New River, John taking one way, Byron and I another. With my water gone now I dropped down to the little waterfall across the road, slipping on the rocks. It's there that I think I must have banged up my tibialis anterior which I didn't feel until I stopped running. By the time I got to the base of Testacle I saw Byron and John about halfway up already. I didn't see anyone behind me until I was nearing the top, so evidently some of the group had slowed down on Stallion/Fykes.
By this time of the day I was pretty much drenched in sweat. Again, with 20/20 hindsight I know I should have been pounding more salt. I felt I was okay with water and I was doing well with my fueling plans, which I'd practiced in my training. I kept to a fairly strict intake each half an hour, and that was working well for me. Still, it was getting warmer, and by the time I was approaching Rat Jaw on the short coal road, Carl had joined up, and offered some wise words about how those less smart will run it, while the smart will take the opportunity here to walk and eat and drink. This was the first time I'd done Rat Jaw with the Prison section and it was a nice twist, meeting on ascent those who were just ahead and heading down; then passing by those who were behind me climbing up, on my way down.
Just before reaching the prison I'd chosen to keep to the ridge, the lower portion of which was a freaking hairy saw briar patch. Carl was already down at the book, along with Aaron. As I was navigating the final tentacles I saw Nick Hollen happily jogging a pastoral field of grass to my left, having taken [the proper] jog off the ridge. Doh! Ran straight through the tunnel and found the group there at the book. We all headed up to Indian Knob, with the other three eventually disappearing up ahead of my slower pace. Travis caught up and we then navigated down to Beech Fork. I was impressed at his ability to hop down the rocky slope while concurrently studying his compass. We'd decided on the reading we would follow up top and it paid off, with some negotiation, when we found the way to the crossing and then down to the confluence and the next book. Travis headed up and I took more time up the never-ending hill called Hell. John T caught me toward the top and we paused a moment at the book, before heading down from Chimney to camp.
I think it was on the Bad Thing, maybe even Rat Jaw, that I started sensing my coming demise. When I got back to camp I knew I'd beat my previous 2009 time for Loop 1—now a much more challenging loop, with Super Rat Jaw, Bad Thing, and Checkmate—by almost 90 minutes. And I felt much better than I had in either 2007 or 2009. Still, I felt trouble brewing and said so to Mike Dobies, who jumped on helping get me out on the second loop. I'd planned so well that it was not so much his physical assistance at that point, but his veteran wisdom that reminded me of just how much time I had for loops 2 and 3 to make a Fun Run. Just walk as much of it as I needed to keep going. I headed back out to the encouraging words of my Barkley tribe. I was happy to head out, even if I didn't feel that well. My climb up Bird took twice as long as it had on my first loop, but I wasn't breaking down—at a slow trudge I seemed to have no problem.
Rob Youngren caught me on the top and we navigated to the first book and then down Checkmate. These times of sharing the trail (or not trail) with fellow Barkers are highlights to remember. It's like your efforts are merging and this offsets the [ultimately] lonely efforts of the personal Barkley challenge—more on that in a moment.
At Phillips Creek I was again facing a slow ascent up Jury, slower than Rob, so we parted company. I enjoyed that by this time it was night. I looked back and thought I saw a light or two heading down from Book 1. What must have been some other lights, I also seemed to see a couple of headlamps heading down the next ridge over, the one that we'd been warned would cost us hours in delay; I felt at once bad for those who were heading that far off course, and amused by the image. Maybe halfway up Jury I threw up and while that relieves some upset, it doesn't fix whatever imbalance is occurring. At that point, or soon thereafter, I wish I'd started a reasonable dialogue between the one voice that said I was "toast" and the one that believed with some hour or more rest I would recoup and be good as gold. "Reasonable" is a subjective thing "out there." The pain I was feeling in my chest didn't make sense to me since I'd trained so hard. Something was either built into my physical make-up, or I'd badly misjudged how I was doing on the first loop. Or, as I learned later, was the small amount of salt such a huge influence on the strength of my ticker. My legs were strong. They were saying, "let's go, man, let's go." Regardless, the effect was that body had gone out of whack, something (a wall) that I'd hit in previous times between 6 and 8 hours. I'd even gone so far as to have a battery of tests done to find out what was up. Anyway, I don't have an answer…yet. Could be I'm just a wimp, but I don't think so.
I made it further this time than before but not nearly as far as I'd planned. Few can know with certainty they'll finish all five loops of the Barkley, but I would count myself among those who thought it possible by the time I was heading to Frozen Head. And yet, there I was turning back at Coffin Springs, starting down quitters' road, convinced without any doubt that it was not possible to continue. I had one voice at that time and it was unwilling to consider any dialogue with that other singular voice, the one that had promised to continue on no matter what. I see now that if I practiced a dialogue between those two absolutes I would have seen an option to continue on, now a missed opportunity. The feeling smarts more now than it did at the time and the few days following, there in camp. If I'd stopped on the trail, put on some extra layers, taken in some food and water and simply sat for a while, could this have fixed some internal imbalance that I'd hit hard? I'm not sure. I learned later what I should have known, that my electrolyte intake over that warm day was far less than I'd thought (e-caps vs. s-caps), and this could well have contributed to my quitting.
When I arrived back at the gate I called out to identify myself. I was met with the calls of my fellow Barkers who said "No, not Paul, not Paul…but you looks so strong." All I could say was "Ah, if only appearances could carry us across the finish line." Still, the belief of others in my ability will always move me when I remember that moment, mixed with defeat recognition of strength.
There's [understandably] less interest in studying the training method of someone like myself, who stops during the second loop. I'd studied only race reports of those who finished the Barkley or who'd at least finished the Fun Run. I've adopted many tricks of the trade, but in the end, as we all know, it's about how this sport being so unique to each runner. I'll continue studying other's experiences and methods of success, but I've come to know how little this ultimately affects my own successes and failures.
This time was different. As before, success was the only option, but this time I saw success differently. I'd failed to make five loops, or four loops, or three loops, or even two. But this time was different: I decided early on in my training to respect all the time and effort I was putting into it regardless of the final outcome. My training was a part of my Barkley experience, and the Barkley experience was a part of my life experience, without separation. That sounds like a truism—all my experiences are obviously part of my life—but in the past it's been easier to blame race failure on the training—not cognitively but subjectively. "I came up short, so all that training was wasted," was what I thought. What this has done in the past has lead me to begin reflection and remorse far too soon, which prevented me from both assisting others in their own success, and enjoying the collaborative time, the gathering of like spirits. This time was different: I threw myself into the whole collective Barkley experience and after my own failure I stayed to share in the success of my friends. I felt as though we had all engaged in a great battle and though I'd fallen, we had won. The troops had gathered; we had girded ourselves for the war, and though some of the battles were lost, the war had been won. In 2012 it had been won three times over, in fact.
With such baby steps toward a Fun Run or more—2007, 7 pages; 2009, 10 pages; 2012, 13 pages—I understand that I don't have much weight for next year's Barkley list, but I'll be throwing my hat in the ring nevertheless.
To those who believe I have a Fun Run in me, I say thank you (and I agree with you 100%). And thanks to everyone who shared the course for a few minutes here and there. I feel honored to have shared the battlefield with you; I'd go out again with any of you, any time. Thanks to all the veterans who've gone before of me. And of course, a huge thanks to Laz and Raw Dog who have made this immense and far-reaching thing called the Barkley Marathons.