Barkley Marathons 2005
It was a lovely, wooded residential neighborhood; although I had never seen it there before. Each house hidden nicely in the trees, and only the seldom car wheeling up the dirt road. How nice it must be living so high in the mountains. Large trees lined the old road with driveways peeling off toward each home. It was a sunny day. It was loop 5 of the Barkley Marathons. And I was losing my mind.
The 2005 Barkley Marathons began in the rain. People rushing about in rain gear, trying to stay in motion until the starting cigarette was lit. I never trust runners. I am a hiker. I had just descended from New Hampshire, and it seemed like a good day for shorts. Off we were, and within a few hundred feet of elevation gain, the rain turned to snow. Dryer, better, less wet. It felt good to run on bare ground, instead of post-holing up to my eyeballs. A few of us motored on, easily ahead of the field. Before long they were out of mind. A pattern soon developed: rising into the snowline, strong wind, very cold—dropping below snowline, calm, warming-up. After collecting our page from Book 2, we passed through a gap before Coffin Springs (water drop 1), and I made the correct prediction that many runners would drop here. The wind and snow were pumping through the gap and continuing seemed bleak. With each passing mountain top, the cold bit in a little more, and the chill set in a little deeper. I was doing everything I could to conserve body heat given my paltry provisions. I ate everything I could spare, I drank all I could, and I tucked-in and cinched-up my sparse clothing. I increased pace to maintain circulation. I dreaded my clothing miscalculation and couldn’t wait until camp so I could make corrections and put this chill behind me. By Book 4 I peeled off my soaked polypropylene gloves and pissed on both my hands, long and hard, in order to regain dexterity. Jim Nelson and I had settled nicely into first place and we were the ones that were forced to scrape and claw at each book to displace it from its perch, wrapped tight in several layers of duct tape. I chose sharp stones and Jim used the edge of his compass to score slashes in the layers of the tape. At least we would only have to do this on the first loop. We grappled with every book, climbing leg-up on a tree or stump opposing one another and tearing fiercely for each new book. Descending Frozen Head Mountain, just below the summit cone, Jim said, “Get ready.” One step later, rounding the bend down the fire road, an icy blast welcomed us to the second to last of the exposed sections of Barkley Trail before reaching the promise of camp. This was fine by me. I had never yearned for the blessed torture of Big Hell more, as it would provide the inferno of precious body heat needed to deliver us out of this icy mess. We collected our final page of loop 1, and out of the snow we descended--to the land where spectators felt nothing but warm rain.
Entering camp, Jim and I made the pact to continue as a team, into the prospect of the nighttime forward loop 2. We had not lost too much time to the weather, and after refueling, making loop 1 corrections and grabbing our lights, we ascended Bird Mt. for the second time in 10 hours. We were in scarce company, but all would be far behind and never seen again. No mistakes were encountered on the nighttime loop. Stars came out ascending Jury Ridge, and good weather would be the theme for the remainder of the race. Jim and I moved reasonably well on loop 2—considering the side-hill mud swath that was now Barkley Trail and returned to camp as planned early Sunday morning.
Again, in the final meters, we renewed our pact to continue on as a duo. Here in camp at the loop 2-3 turn-around I slipped, for the first time in my ultrarunning career, into a severe bout of nausea. I ate nothing and drank nothing at camp, except for a single Pepcid pill (given to me by Mike Tilden). I almost vomited at the smell of the prepared beef stew, which Jonboy (my longtime support crew) had made ready. I told Jonboy to give it to me in a Ziploc bag to carry (this is a method we use anyway, putting hot food into Ziplocs, biting the corner off and squeezing it down like a giant gel). After some minor foot taping to save slight hot spots in the middle of my forefoot on both feet, we were gone. By Chimneytop I felt better. By Indian Knob I was inhaling food like a starved P.O.W. This was my first miracle of the run. We passed three runners continuing in the opposite direction: Craig Wilson on Zipline, who was all done and making his way back to camp, Wendell (?) who was somewhere (I don’t recall), and Mark Dorion on Rat Jaw. We hammered the remainder of loop 3 and finished with enough time to tackle Big Hell in daylight on loop 4, my fourth consecutive fun-run finish.
Several runners and crew were there to send us off on loop4, and with another fast turnaround, we made our way into the dreaded, nighttime, crux of the run—the backwards loop 4. By then we had partitioned the loop into sections of alternating leading and following. Jim had nailed Big Hell backwards, along with Buttslide and Stallion Mountain. I had nailed Little Hell and the North Section. We had both contributed to a dead reckoning of Zipline. We were now operating in an unstated pact. Entering the woods on loop 4 (still daylight) I spotted Mike Bur exiting. He had dropped from loop 3 and was hiking back to camp. He talked briefly about his slowed pace and difficulty finding books alone in the reverse direction. I rudely cut him short, because Jim and I had unfinished business further on, and needed to press on furiously before dark. Off we went, and I knew the two of us were all that remained on course. I silently wished that Mike had persevered through loop 3. I had hiked with Mike before, and I knew he would be chiding himself in only a few minutes. We quickly notched off Big Hell, and Zip line. However, in our foggy demented outlook, we managed to fully botch Little Hell, placing us in dire straits in order to make the loop 5 cut-off. After regaining form and finding our book at the New River, we were once again enamored by the severe landslides along the river which managed to turn an ordinarily simple section into an unrecognizable slur of nonsense. Beyond the river, although on course, we slowed to a death march. In our sleepiness, and with the severely deteriorated footing, we abandoned our previous method of finding the logical route, and substituted finding any upward route to the summit of Stallion Mountain. From there to the North Section is a blur. Once on the North Section, we staggered and fought through false switchbacks, blowdowns, deer trails and miles of muddy mess until it appeared that we were moving forward for lack of having anything better to do. We switched taking lead many times, and were just barely hanging on to the time limit. Sleepiness was inevitable and the trail meandered onward. In the darkness we knew not whether we were ascending, descending, or standing still. I have always had a habit on the North Section of mentally clicking off each significant peak as they are encountered (even though I don’t really know all the names). I think it goes something like this: Squire Knob, Bald Knob, Not Jury Ridge, Jury Ridge. I had managed to do this still. Somewhere around Bald Knob, where the trail was blurring into an animated wave of dirt and branches and vines, Jim caught up with me. He said this: “I can’t go any more. I need to take a nap. We will be bugled-out in three and a half hours if we can’t make camp. You go ahead.”
I said not one word. (This is very uncharacteristic of me.) I don’t remember if Jim said that he couldn’t go on, or that he couldn’t go on without sleep. All I heard was ‘three and a half hours’ then ‘BUGLE’. I did not come here to be tapped-out. I was straddling a downed tree when he said his piece. My brain changed from a rotten banana into a laser. I had a goal; a very clear and defined goal—CAMP--in three and a half hours. I struck off and didn’t think about Jim again. I summited Not Jury Ridge and Jury Ridge, collected my last page and climbed Bird Mtn. The sun had come up and it was a new race. No more nighttime hallucinations, just the clarity of the immortal 5 loop finish. This was the second miracle of my run.
Coming down Bird, I let out my Whoop!, and was greeted by the remaining warm bodies in camp after a 15+ hour 4th loop. Jonboy had moved the truck next to the yellow gate and I had manufactured a thirty-minute buffer before the turnaround for the twelve hour loop 5. Everyone was very encouraging, and agreed that 12 hours was plenty of time for the forward loop 5, which I quickly secured. Mike Tilden was especially encouraging as he had been in my position just one year earlier and felt confident for me in my situation. I remember watching Mike a year ago, before his 5th loop. His entire being burned with purpose; he had the Eye of the Tiger—an unmistakable and intimidating glare that made everyone around him feel like naked school children in the presence of a lion. While changing shoes, eating and drinking, Gary called out “15 minutes!” at intervals, reminding me of my time limitations. He said, “I’ll make it easy on you”, and he gave me race number 250—a nice round one…easy to remember. With nine minutes to spare I shoved off to cheers—into the magical abyss of the Barkley 5th loop. I was on seldom treaded ground. I was one of 7 people in twenty some years to ever strike out into such hallowed territory.
The day heated up as I climbed Bird for the 5th time in 49 hours, with no sleep. I knew not which bend in the trail would produce a Jim Nelson. After summiting Bird, and taking a few switchbacks down, he finally made his appearance. He told me to move quickly and to never stop, and to ‘get going!’ I made up my mind that if I never sat down, even at a book, I could save nearly an hour, and I felt that a 10 ˝ hour loop was possible. Down I went to Philip’s Creek for Book 1, and without sitting down to sort my pack; I was off, up Jury Ridge.
This is where things began to get hazy. It began subtly. I had packed light given the perfect weather for a daylight loop. Ascending Jury Ridge I had had peeled down to shorts and no shirt and things suddenly began to feel like any ordinary trail run—not the critical 5th loop. This I thought was funny, and I pressed on. In fact I felt so good and I was moving so well that on my loop 5, I could have buried any of the other competitors on their loop 1. Even funnier things lay ahead.
Continuing along the North Boundary Trail, I slowly became confused by intersecting trails that I would ordinarily follow or omit based on pure Barkley trail savvy. How had this route always been so second hand? Even in my rookie years? Switchbacks became confusing—not certain individual switchbacks, but the whole concept of switchbacking up a mountain became something so foreign that I felt I was walking forward and backward on a single stretch of trail 5-10 times, getting nowhere. The buildings and houses that I was hallucinating to be tucked away in the bush became entire neighborhoods of homes, lined up along the Boundary Trail. I was now a garbage man on his route trying to identify which house to visit for trash duty, and which to bypass. I was then a landscaper, then an ice-delivery man, (like in the old days in New Hampshire). Does this house need ice, or are they all set? I searched for wheelbarrows with which to clear the trail. The very concept of hiking became confusing, as if I were there to clear trail, or carry lawn refuse from a house to the street.
Through all of this, my habit of counting peaks along the North Section had survived, and it revived at the sight of the old Legacy Tree—an enormous ancient oak, posted with a small tin diamond, which was to save it from the cutter’s saw. I chided myself at the sight of the Legacy Tree. This is it! I’m not crazy. Me and Craig talk about this tree all the time! Then the huge cherries, and a second oak. Craig says, “The stories this tree could tell.” Dude, straighten up! You’re on loop 5! Loop 5! What the f%*k are you doing? Hike! Stop looking at things.
The remaining peaks somehow passed, and I knew I should begin looking for the ditch—that S.O.B. Where is the ditch? How do I get there? I blew through the clear-cut with no problem—somehow I had drawn upon previous planning, and I had one less obstacle between me and the yellow gate. I was then given a gift: a trail. My friend had given me this gift in order to find the ditch. (Are we starting to see my frame of mind?) All I had to do was run this gift-trail, and the ditch would be at the end, and then the ponds; but the gift-trail was long, and it was lined with houses—those touristy-types that surround the lake I live on in New Hampshire. Usually they cut all the trees down on the “view” side, and they all look ridiculous. Rayder Creek soon roared up ahead, and the S.O.B. came into fuzzy view. I crossed the ditch and looked for the ponds. Nothing. Just more trail. Back and forth I went, screaming like a lunatic in an evil nightmare. Where the hell are the ponds? The little trail that climbs the tailings, ‘piled high to the outside.’—where are they? I traversed this short stretch perhaps 5 or 6 times, back and forth. Even after finding the ponds, I returned to the ditch in disbelief of the distance between.
Where is Mike Dobies’ house? Who the f**k moved Mike Dobies’ house?!
I was now losing my mind in the full definition of the phrase. The Barkley would be forgotten for minutes on end although the premise lingered. I HAD to get to the Garden Spot, for…why? Was there someone there?
Content with finally finding the ponds, although still confused as to the whereabouts of Dobies’ house, I climbed the tailings and motored around them to face the next significant climb of the Barkley Trail—Garden Spot. From the bottom I sighted the top, and I climbed in bee-line fashion along the North Boundary until finally nailing the summit, and book 2. I looked at my watch—12:30. Four hours, 21 minutes for Bird Mtn. and the North Boundary Trail. This was the last time I looked at my watch. It was the last time that time contained any sort of significance. It was my last forward step toward the yellow gate, and the Barkley 100 finish.
I sat beside Book 2 for several hours. I never collected my page. I didn’t know there was a page there to collect. Loop 5 became a final exam that I could just make-up later. I was a one-hour downhill away from the halfway point in the loop. There were cars down below me in the gap. Hikers maybe? Mountain dwellers? Who knows, just people moving about. Walking in their lawns, while neighbors drove past. The race just faded away. I was just….just…there--looking around. If my mother had walked up to me at that point, I would have looked at her like she was a falling leaf.
After some time I walked down to the gap so I could hitch a ride with one those cars, but they were all gone. (This is a profound concept. See, on a topo, it looks as if one could see the gap from the Garden Spot, and in the memory it seems so as well. But one could no more see into the gap from that position as they could see the campfires back at Big Cove. But I could.) So I stood in a shin-deep puddle for about an hour--squishing the mud in and out of my shoes. No cars. I inspected every 4-wheeler trail intersecting the gap, hoping to find a house. I walked long, up each road, but found nobody, and no houses. I walked down to Coffin Springs (the first water drop). I sat and poured gallon after gallon of fresh water into my shoes. I inspected each interesting landmark of the area, even the spring itself. The Cumberland Trail passes through here, and I marveled at the trail signs, and its white blazes. I inspected the painted trees, marking the park boundary; sometimes walking well into the woods just to look at some paint on a tree.
I had only one road left to explore, and the Cumberland Trail blazes followed it. So off I went, without any recollection of time, place, the Barkley, the people at camp, Jonboy, nothing.
I thought of Spring, and vernal pools, and spring peepers. I saw some tadpoles in the tire ruts filled with water. I expected a passing car at any moment so I could throw out a thumb. If one did stop, I would have been quite a sight. None passed. Not for 6 hours. I was on a gated road (which is now called a trail) that led directly back to camp. I could have been on numbered highway to Kentucky for all I knew, and I would have been just as content with that. I found a nice stick. It was perfect for bashing briars, which I did, on the roadside for extended periods of time. Just whipping them and bashing them. Then it was great for hitting small pebbles and hearing where they landed way down the mountainside. Keep your eye on the f*#king pebble, man.
When it cooled off, I had a long-sleeve shirt. When I got hungry, I had food. When it got dark, I had a light. Wow, isn’t it strange that I have all this perfect stuff, just when I need it? Whenever I needed something else, PRESTO!, right in my pack. Strange.
I rounded a bend and BAM!—Big Cove Branch. Oh, shi…….
It all came flooding back in waves of sickening heartache. The Barkley. Dude, you just pissed away the Barkley 100. Ironically, I returned to camp at the precise time I was expected—just from the wrong direction. There were the bodies, lined up at the yellow gate. Jonboy called out, “Ange!” (Andrew shortened) I felt sheepish. I felt like an utter loser. I was led to the fire, to add to the annals of epic harrowing tales of failure. Mine may be the best yet, and Blake may be the only one who can truly sympathize.
I gazed into the fire and spoke for a long time—eight grown men stood around listening silently. Oh, the fire was a cacophony of voices and faces and ancient script burned into the logs. Gary’s words seared my soul when he said, “When you left here, you looked to be in total control.” This is the final and most important quality of a successful Barkley runner—being in total control.
Andrew Thompson, 28, of Northern New Hampshire.