“Two things are worth remembering: 1) you will never achieve great things with small goals; and 2) there is no guarantee you will have another chance tomorrow.” –Lazarus Lake
The Barkley Marathons. The stuff of legends and where dreams are put to rest. I’ve been dreaming about Barkley since 2005 when Jim Nelson told me about his successful 5 loop finish the previous year and 2016 would be my chance to turn dreams into reality. I prepared the best I could. I logged endless hours up and down some of the iconic peaks visible on the Salt Lake Skyline during winter. Mt Wire, Grandeur Peak, Mt Olympus. I got up early to hit the gym for total body fitness, I stayed up late to do night runs testing my body, mind and equipment. I went through a LOT of shoes. Altra Lone Peak 2.5’s and especially the Lone Peak Neoshell’s which kept my feet the most comfortable they have ever been during long, cold, wet winter runs.
I arrived at Frozen Head State Park ready to give it all I had and ready to enjoy myself doing it. I enjoyed the pre-race traditions of handing in my entry fee ( a license plate from my home state), copying down the Master Map while trying to glean as much information from veterans as possible, eating the infamous Barkley BBQ chicken and meeting the various runners -past and present- who were gathered in little groups throughout the campground swapping tales of Barkley’s past and speculating on what the outcome would be this year.
“The Cigarette” lit at 10:42 a.m. We relaxed into a good pace up Bird Mountain, and by the time we got to the top of the first climb, I had settled in with Ty Draney (fellow virgin), Jason Poole (veteran) and George Kunzfeld (veteran). With a few others adding and subtracting over the next few hours, our group stayed together and made a good, functional team. Jason is a National Orienteering Champion, George had participated the year before and Ty was excellent at picking out landmarks and committing them to memory for future laps. I felt wildly fortunate to “be along for the ride.”
We descended nasty ridges; crossed creeks and swampy areas, trying unsuccessfully to keep our feet dry; climbed interminable hills; and then did it, again and again,…and again. Names I’d read over and over in race reports and Frozen Ed’s book came to life. Rat Jaw, The Garden Spot, Leonard’s Butt Slide, Big Hell, Chimney Top… We got turned around a couple times. I took off after John Fegyveresi, descending off Fyke’s Peak and promptly got scraped, spending the next thirty-minutes thrashing down to New River through the wrong drainage, luckily discovering myself reunited with Jason, Ty, and George. Though I felt strong on the last big climb of Loop One, towards Chimney Top, an occasional stab on my left knee’s medial side had already begun. “No biggie,” I thought, as many of us do. “Aches always come and go and I’ll have many more in the hours ahead.”
We made a smooth, and swift twenty-minute transition into Loop Two, with my brother attending to a nasty laceration on my backside. I caught up with Ty and Jason, who had left camp a few minutes before me and made good time back up Bird Mountain. The thrash down to Book One was indeed a thrash as I realized just how different it was navigating in the dark. Over the next two climbs and descents, while still feeling strong with good energy, the stabbing in my knee became more and more severe, changing from an occasional twinge to a constant, acute, throbbing pain. By the time we got to the top of Bald Knob, I was slowing Ty and Jason down and putting most of my weight on my right leg and two trekking poles. I took some ibuprofen and told myself I’d decide what to do when I got to The Garden Spot.
Well, the ibuprofen took care every other little ache I had, but did nothing to diminish the pain in my knee. Having had debilitating ankle surgery two-years ago, the thought of permanent damage to my knee and starting down that same path was convincing. I decided my time on the Barkley was over. True to form, the Barkley ate its young.
I told Ty and Jason I was done and while expressing sympathy and concern, they didn’t try and talk me into continuing, for which I am grateful. It was hard enough as it was. Standing in the middle of the trail, I waged my internal battle of disappointment and watched their lights fade over the next ridge. An intense emotional war raged, playing over and over in my mind as I stood in the trail, immobilized while trying to decide if I’d made the right decision. “Screw it!!!” I screamed to myself and started running after Ty and Jason, only to be brought to a stumbling halt by the unseen icepick stabbing my knee. I sat slowly in the middle of the trail and cursed my knee, cursed Barkley.
Two a.m. and after ten-minutes of self-pity I pulled myself up, put on a pair of pants and jacket, and spent the next hour with map and compass riddling how to get myself to Quitters Road, the infamous path that most Barkers take for “our” long walk down. Three and a half hours later, Laz greeted my arrival at the Yellow Gate (Barkley starting point and where many dreams have been put to rest). With a genuine air of concern, he asked what had happened. He commented on how surprised he was to see me since I had looked so strong and positive leaving for Loop Two. He then said, “The bugler’s asleep, so I’ll have to tap you out.” Laughing, I asked if I could play my own taps and we both enjoyed a brief chuckle. As instructed, I turned towards camp and played myself the worst rendition of Taps I think the Barkley has ever heard. Much like my attempt at Barkley, my attempt at Taps quickly began to sputter, until I let loose a final, feeble note to pitter out over the sleeping camp. My Barkley was over.
Am I disappointed? Yes- and no. More like frustrated. I prepared myself as best I could, in all aspects required for a successful attempt, and still my body didn’t hold out. This is what the Barkley does. It brings everyone to their knees. However, I am profoundly grateful for my experience and for the beauty tucked among the saw briars, everywhere I looked. It’s good for the soul to be humbled now and again.
“Two things are worth remembering: 1) you will never achieve great things with small goals; and 2) there is no guarantee you will have another chance tomorrow.”