by Flyin’ Brian Robinson
Prior to April Fools Day my mind vacillated between confidence and uncertainty. Did I really have a chance of finishing five loops at the Barkley as I dared to dream? The statistics say no. Only six people in 20 years have done so. I had never run a hundred miler, much less the “impossible one.” However, I was well trained and not intimidated by the distance, or even the 100,000-feet of elevation gain. But it takes a lot more than bravado to succeed. My biggest fears were course navigation and sleep deprivation, and for these I was not prepared. With humility, I accepted this may be an impossible dream, but was determined to give it my best shot and never quit.
Wendell Doman, Robert Andrulis and I traveled together from Nashville Airport and arrived at Frozen Head State Park about dusk. It had rained heavily much of the way and heavy showers continued through the night. We set up in site 20, right on the Barkley course. I checked in with Gary Cantrell and got a current map from someone with a spare. Wendell had given me a copy of last years’ map, which I had studied on the flight from California. I carefully highlighted the new course, and then laminated the map and directions with packing tape. That really helped with the wear and tear over the next two days.
I passed on the infamous Barkley chicken and socialized very little before going off to organize my supplies. I felt rushed. It was going to be hard enough staying alert for 60 hours even with a good night’s sleep. I got into my sleeping bag a little after midnight. Morning came early. When Robert stirred and said he was getting up, I said, “I think I’ll sleep a little more.” One beat later, as if in a sit-com, the conch shell, signaling one hour to race time sounded. It was 6:08am. (3:08 California time)
I hadn’t heard him, but David Horton arrived during the night. Last summer, as I guided him through the snowy Sierra on his record-setting PCT run, he convinced me I should try Barkley. He also shared his wisdom concerning how best to prepare for this epic adventure of a race. It was hectic, but David had everything under control. He made me breakfast and helped me with the last minute decisions, like what to wear and what to carry in my GoLite 24 Pack. Although early, it was neither cold nor raining so I chose to wear shorts, short sleeve shirt, La Sportiva Cardiff shoes, socks, gaiters and a hat. I carried rain pants, waterproof breathable jacket, balaclava and mittens, just in case…
Gary lit the starting cigarette at 7:08am, and we were off! No one ran more than a few feet before settling in for a hike up the first big climb, 1,500 feet in 1.4 miles up Bird Mountain on “candy-ass” trail. I stayed near the front of the pack and kept my eye on Jim Nelson, one of the six previous finishers. Scouting the course ahead of time is now prohibited. As a Barkley “virgin,” I wanted to follow Jim until I got familiar with the course. This year, an added challenge for the veterans (and those of us following them) was that over 5 miles of the course was changed. Gary kept the new route secret until the night before race.
Jim got ahead a bit and I passed Sue Johnston and several others when it was clear they weren’t going to keep up with Jim. Soon Jim Nelson from Utah, Nick Gracie from London, Todd Holmes from Colorado, and I were the lead pack. At Barkley, competitors band together like allies against a common enemy rather than square off against each other. We stayed together until we neared Bald Knob, between books 1 and 2 where the single-track North Boundary trail merged with an old jeep track. It wasn’t clear which way to go, so Nick and Todd scouted left, Jim and I right. Nick called out that the trail went his way, which it did, but Jim wasn’t so sure. I thought Nick was right, but didn’t want to leave Jim, still my top choice for a guide. It was a tough choice, but I stuck with Jim. We soon found there was no trail our direction and when Jim searched back down the hill we’d just climbed, I knew that couldn’t be right. I should have turned back and chased down Nick and Todd, but in a race “panic” I headed up Bald Knob figuring I’d pick up the trail on the far side.
I was alone. This is not what I had planned, but I had to make the best of it. Finding the trail was more difficult than I imagined. I didn’t pick it up again until after “Son-of-a-bitch-ditch” as I neared the coal ponds. I was about to go badly off course when luckily I heard Nick and Todd above me. They said they were on the trail. Although I believed I was too, I was not certain, so I scrambled up to join them. Jim Nelson caught up just after we arrived at book 2 at the Garden Spot.
On the way to Stallion Mountain I completely filled my 100-ounce hydration bladder and drank down a full hand bottle as I left the first water cache, about three-and-half hours, and a mere 8 miles into the run. It turned out to be a wise decision as the day became hotter and the next available water was hours away. Todd got behind again, but beat us to book 3 on Fyke’s Peak when the rest of us detoured to a lake we saw and thought it was the one mentioned in the instructions. It was the wrong lake and we weren’t supposed to visit it even if it was, so we followed the wrong road south toward Fyke’s Peak. We realized our error when it passed the peak and went around to its south side. So, we climbed Fyke’s via the route we were supposed to descend, meeting Todd at the book on top. Instead of learning the correct route, I didn’t get a good look at this section, which would cost me on the nighttime loop.
As we descended Fyke’s south ridge Jim, Nick and I dropped Todd again, this time for good. While easy to navigate, the abrupt cliffs along the way made it a treacherous place to run. We crossed the New River without getting our feet wet and climbed up a steep power line cut, the appropriately named Testicle Spectacle. I’m sure some people looked up there with dread and did indeed cross themselves, “Testicles, Spectacles, Wallet, Watch,” but my legs were still strong and I was thrilled with how easy this section was to navigate. My joy fueled a fast pace, but Jim and Nick were right behind me as I found book 4 at the top.
I wouldn’t have believed that it was possible to actually RUN a named hill on the Barkley course, but Meth Lab Hill was a cruisable downhill. Less steep than the Testicle, the lack of saw briers was a relief to my bare legs. That is until pole 284. There the gentle grade increases to something just this side of a cliff. Simultaneously the briers return with ferocity. It was as if a bulldozer had scraped them off the grade above and dumped them over the cliff at pole 284. They were on a grade so steep one couldn’t help but slip and slide right through them, leaving the proverbial pound of flesh behind. Even so, I was glad I had chosen to sacrifice the skin on my legs rather than overheat in protective pants.
The directions say to look for a couple rocks and turn right, off Meth Lab hill, into the woods. I was so eager to do so I took the first sign of a game trail and crawled underneath a 15-foot high barrier of tangled saw briers, so thick I doubt anything larger than a rabbit had ever gone that way. Nick and Jim followed behind me and we commenced searching for book 5 near “two downed trees.” Ha! Most of Frozen Head State Park has more downed trees than standing ones, but amazingly, the book wasn’t that hard to find. I tore out a page from a pristine copy of Dean Karnazas’ book “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner,” a book I would have loved to stop and read if this truly was just a “fun run.”
From there we made our way back across Highway 116 and rejoined the old course at the bottom of Rat’s Jaw, another brier patch baking in a power line clear-cut. Our reward for another hard, hot climb was the water cache at the top. Even with all my water carrying capacity, my bladder was empty. I was sweating buckets. I noticed Jim Nelson was carrying just two bottles, but he wasn’t complaining. Refilling my bladder and mixing in the Conquest delayed me at the water, so I had to chase after Jim and Nick. On road and good trail down from Frozen Head, we raced two miles to Indian Knob and easily found book 7 in the hollow of a big rock.
The Zip Line Trail zips straight downhill from there. Actually, there isn’t any trail, just a forested hillside that plunges 1,000 feet in just over a quarter mile. The directions say to find book 8 near the confluence of two creeks. Jim was back in familiar territory, so before reaching the confluence, he beelined directly to the book. Nick and I didn’t get a good look at the confluence, which would have been really helpful when we returned on loop two in the dark.
Still feeling strong, I power-hiked up Big Hell, a 1,600-foot climb that takes off directly from book 8. Jim yelled to me when I was nearing book 9, but I could already see it duct taped to a tree near the capstone. With nothing but easy trail the rest of the way, we made our plans for the next loop. Jim suggested that the three of us team up, which suited me just fine. Since I wanted to buy myself extra time to eat a hot meal, I ran ahead, getting into camp 5 minutes before the others.
Back at camp, David Horton’s positive energy was contagious. He fueled me up with hot soup, mashed potatoes, a couple bananas and two big dishes of ice cream. Between plates of food, David talked strategy, confirming what I already felt. The first loop had taken me over 9 hours, a lot slower than the 8 - 8 ½ hours we had hoped for, but it was still ahead of my 10-hour worst-case pace for a 60-hour finish. There would be no time for sleep between loops.
I checked in with Gary at the yellow gate as I left camp, making 9:29:21 my official time for loop 1. Nick and Jim were just ahead. 16 of the original 33 runners started the second loop.
David Horton cautioned me not to go up Bird Mountain too fast after eating so I wouldn’t lose my dinner. Nick and Jim were moving very slowly for the same reason. Both felt ill - Jim especially. I was chomping at the bit, wanting to go faster, at least until sunset, but I felt our chances were better if we stuck together through the night. After reaching the top, we jogged down Bird Mountain and picked up book 1. Nick felt better but Jim worsened. Soon Jim sat down and told us to go on without him. Later he backtracked to camp and dropped due to dehydration. I felt bad that I had not realized how much Jim was suffering. Barkley had me preoccupied with my own struggles. With Jim out, Nick and I, both Barkley virgins, were in trouble. There was no time for navigational errors. We pressed alone into the night, hoping for the best.
At Bald Knob, I followed Nick, since he and Todd had fared better here on loop 1 than Jim and I. Nick told me they had gotten lost when, at the next junction, the single-track to the right had petered out. We went left, marching off course. For the second time in two loops I missed SOB ditch. Eventually we got back on track by following a compass bearing, rejoining the trail before the coal ponds.
We reached the Garden Spot and retrieved our pages from book 2. We then left the trail to refill our water at the cache, but upon returning to the trail, we headed out the wrong way, back in the direction where we came. DOH! I can’t believe I made a newbie navigational error after so many thousands of miles thru-hiking. We would have quickly noticed our error when we returned to the Garden Spot, but we took the wrong fork and headed WAY off course. Nick and I finally noticed our error when the road turned sharply down and left, clearly wrong, and we got out our compasses. We backtracked to the water cache and started making forward progress again. It turns out we had passed very near where Dan Baglioni, having lost his compass and flashlight, spent all night shivering. We didn’t see or hear him, a shame since I was carrying four lights and could have spared one. Added to the lost gear in this “Bermuda Triangle” section was one of Nick’s trekking poles.
We ascended Stallion Mountain in full darkness. Since we had gone wrong here on loop 1, nothing looked familiar. We tried to follow the ridge by compass bearing and dead reckoning to no avail. With no moon, the only thing we could see beyond headlamp range was the silhouette of higher peaks against the starry sky. Every direction downhill looked the same. Over the next 2-3 hours, we scouted all over, bushwhacking down hillsides only to climb them again. Twice backtracking all the way to the obvious rough escarpment on Stallion Mountain. Eventually we were on a road we couldn’t identify, unsure if we were even past Middle Peak yet. We were about to head off-road down the hill yet again when we heard voices and saw three lights approaching. It was Mike Dobies, Craig Wilson and Greg Eason. They knew exactly where they were and in minutes, we were at book 3. We had been standing on the road circling the summit crater of Fyke’s Peak. We’d walked right by the rattlesnake den that hid the book several times already!
Having lost so much time, I was thoroughly demoralized. Completing five loops was now clearly impossible. I felt like quitting. As the five of us descended Fyke’s together, I brought up the rear, trying to get my head together. Before we reached the bottom, Nick and I found ourselves leading and pressed on, alone once again.
Following the power line clear-cuts on the Testicle Spectacle and Meth Lab hills gave us a reprieve from navigational errors. This was offset by the added challenge of moving through the thickets of saw briars. They seemed to multiply at night. I had put on long pants to protect my already shredded legs, but even with the relative cool of night, I was sweating from the exertion of the climbs. It was nice not to get chewed up, but sweat stung as badly as new scrapes.
Nick and I had little trouble finding our way up Rat’s Jaw and down Zip Line. Book 8 at the bottom of Big Hell was tougher. Jim had found it for us on loop 1. It was located near the confluence of two creeks, a spot we hadn’t seen in the daylight. We kept the stream within earshot and eventually found the confluence. As I puzzled over the map trying to figure out on which bank the book was, Nick yelled to me that he’d found it.
Dawn broke on the way up Big Hell and we had an easy run in on the well-maintained trail. David Horton was relieved to see us when we finally arrived. He’d been up since well before dawn preparing food and wondering what happened to keep us out there almost 15 hours. Speculations about our travails had provided entertainment for everyone back at camp. They figured correctly that two Barkley virgins who’d had trouble navigating in daylight would fair worse in the dark.
I called my wife Sophia to tell her the bad news that I wasn’t going to be a 100 mile finisher, but that three loops were in the bag. After a six-egg breakfast, I headed out on loop 3. Charging up Chimney Top I felt so strong that I had fleeting thoughts of going for 4 loops. The Barkley soon knocked me down a notch. Nick caught me at the bottom of Big Hell when I once again had trouble locating book 8 and we settled in for a day of reconnoitering the course for next year. My mind was still focused on 5 loops, even if it meant another year. We resolved to enjoy ourselves without pushing the pace. With daylight on our side and 15 hours to complete loop 3 within the 40-hour cutoff, we felt no pressure.
Following the course in reverse is a mental challenge, particularly when sleep deprived. For example, on forward loops, the trail leads directly to the capstone on Indian Knob hiding book 7. Reverse loops approach Indian Knob via the Zip Line, a cross-country route. We mistakenly headed for the wrong capstone – several times – before finding the one we were seeking. On Frozen Head, Nick suggested a15-minute nap. I had taken a caffeine pill and didn’t want to take the time, but, thinking we had hours to spare, I consented.
Not all our decisions were bad ones. I was running in shorts again because of the heat. The briers on Rat’s Jaw felt as if they were sawing off my limbs, making it a real pain to run downhill. Nick and I hit book 5 at the bottom of Meth Lab hill dead on using a compass bearing taken off the map. The Testicle Spectacle was almost easy going downhill and the climb to Fyke’s Peak was long, but we never lost the way.
On Fyke’s, we were anxious to see where we’d wandered all those hour the night before and to erase the mental picture we had of this area as a black maze of unrecognizable roads and trails to nowhere. We spent a lot of extra time scouting around and getting the map out just to reinforce our knowledge of the area, both for the forward loops and the reverse ones. As we left Stallion Mountain, I looked at my watch as the afternoon shadows were growing long. For the first time I worried about the 40-hour cutoff.
At the water cache near book 2, Nick went ahead while I mixed Conquest and filled my hydration bladder. I followed soon after, but didn’t know which fork to take in the road. I guessed to the right, which was wrong, but the detour allowed me to find the trekking pole Nick had lost on loop 2. Sometimes two wrongs DO make a right!
Eventually I joined Nick at the Garden Spot and we pondered our fate as we moved on. We had a little over 5 hours left for an official 3-loop finish. Dusk was about an hour away, thunder was booming and a big storm cloud was approaching. Nick spotted the coal ponds just before it really started to pour. With heads down, hoods up, and wind driven rain pummeling us in the stormy darkness, we missed another trail junction. Rain erased all evidence of previous runners. After heading south and uphill too long, we decided we must be on the trail to Coffin Spring. We backtracked yet again, wondering how many more mistakes we could afford to make.
Much of the North Boundary Trail is on a side-hill and has treacherous footing even when dry. Jim Nelson had told us how bad the footing was last year in the snow. He had fallen numerous times and had to slow way down, wasting energy just keeping upright. As the rain poured down on Nick and me, the footing deteriorated alarmingly fast. Creeks that had been easy to hop over the first two loops became small torrents. My feet had been holding up well for a day and a half, but were now macerating. I could feel blisters starting to form, but there was no time left to tend to them.
On this third and final loop, I saw SOB Ditch for the first time. By headlamp, I couldn’t see much. In addition, for the first time I followed the right trail around Bald Knob. Blow-downs littered the “clear cut” section, slowing our progress. We ran when we could, but the faster we ran, the more often we found ourselves on animal trails and had to backtrack when every minute counted.
After book 1, the trail was much easier to follow, so we really pushed once we each had our last page. I watched my altimeter click off the feet as we power-hiked the switchbacks up Bird Mountain. I figured that if the top was at 2,500 feet, we’d have plenty of time to make it down the other side, but 2,500 feet wasn’t the top. At 2,600 feet, there was still enough time; at 2,700 even less. When the top finally came at almost 3,000 feet, we had just 10 minutes left and barely a prayer. We missed one more trail junction at the top before we started sprinting down the glorious open trail and downhill grade of the Candy-Ass trail. I gave it everything I had left, but in the end, I missed the 40-hour cut-off by 7 ½ minutes! Nick was less than a minute behind me.
At first, it didn’t bother me that I missed the 40-hour cut-off. Nick and I had finished three loops and done as well as anyone. My focus had been on five loops, with anything less being, well, not a failure exactly, but not what I’d come for. Even so, I was proud that I’d come to Barkley and despite its fearsome reputation, I hadn’t quit, and, believe it or not, I had fun.
On the plane flying home to California, I had time to reflect. Despite the insignificant-sounding name, being a “fun-run” finisher IS a big deal. I would love to have accomplished that at my first Barkley. Losing those 7 ½ minutes really bothers me. There are dozens of places I lost that much time. Many of them were the inevitable mistakes of a Barkley virgin, but some were completely in my control. I don’t regret spending time scouting the course because that will help me next time. But why couldn’t I have done so 7 ½ minutes faster?