Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Barkley report 2012

Peter Fish, Barkley 2012: The Rape of the Watch

This report is aimed primarily at runners who will never see 65 again, who may be considering attempting the Barkley Marathons. Those who don't expect to be still running at 75 can ignore it at no risk. Samuel Johnson's characterization of a woman preaching -- "what is remarkable is not that it's done well, but that it's done at all" -- comes to mind.

My addiction to Barkley began in April, 2000, when I read a cryptic remark on the ultra list, which said "Blake went out on #5," or words to that effect. Before long, I learned a bit more about the context of that statement: the event was Barkley, and Blake had ventured where only one person had gone before in the 15 years of the race's existence. A few days later, I read his entire report, which ended with his turning back mid-loop from the swollen and impassible New River. Since then, I have applied for entry, and been accepted, nearly every year since 2005, and have a collection of condolence letters from laz pinned to the wall above my bed, in a spot often reserved for crucifixes or portraits of illustrious ancestors.

What has taken me so long to get there?

Three things come to mind: age (I turned 76 nine days after the start, making me the oldest starter ever), distance (2730 miles by car from Gold Hill, OR), and circumstances. The distance is hardly worth mentioning, as there have been many starters in recent years from as far away as Ecuador, Italy, and even Antarctica. As for circumstances, my life seems to involve recurring crises, either business or personal, in the late winter, and this year I had to assert firmly that nothing short of alien abduction would prevent me from going to Frozen Head for Fool's Weekend.

The age factor imposed some limitations. I have never entered a race I didn't think I could finish (although I have an impressive list of DNFs, especially at 100 miles). Barkley is a special case, as you're not meant to finish it; in fact, a finish almost amounts to a demerit against the race director, which he will, notoriously, attempt to rectify before next year's event.

The conditions for entry that I came up with were:

1) having at least two weeks available to explore the allowable parts of the course at Frozen Head, and

2) believing that I was capable, on paper, of a Fun Run finish.

For the first condition, I set aside two and a half weeks for the trip, which was achieved with my wife's blessing, largely, I think, due to the appearance of the adventures of Big in book form, which she has followed avidly since they first appeared in the ultra list. The second condition requires a little bending of the mind. In August, 2011, on my fourth attempt in 7 years, I got to the finish line of the Waldo 100K in central Oregon for the first time since 2004. A couple of months before that, I did a solo fundraiser for our local skatepark, doing my age (75 miles) in under 24 hours on the middle school track. These two things gave me the confidence that my chances of getting through at least one loop were, though barely possible, yet not altogether laughable.


I'm not a high-mileage runner, but I stay pretty consistently around 200+ miles per month. In the last couple of years, with Barkley in mind, I have put more stress on hills, doing at least a vertical mile a week, and up to about 12,000 feet. I think this is what got me through Waldo, and the Barkley training has probably extended my running career by several years.

The first day I was there, I did an out & back to Philipps Creek, inadvertently discovering part of the new section, the aptly named Pillars of Death on the Cumberland trail, which I started up by mistake. When I saw that formation, I decided that it couldn't be part of the course, because if it was, it would have had a name. The next day I took the Chimney Top trail to the fire tower and came back on S. Old Mac. If I'd had another day available, I would have taken the N. Bird trail to the Garden Spot, and perhaps have come back by the Coffin Spring trail and N. Old Mac. Rich Limacher very kindly drove out with me to the east side of the course, and helped me locate the river crossing after the descent from Stallion, and both ends of the Testicle Spectacle, with the beginning of the Pig's Head trail.


Trying to be sure that I would have equipment and apparel for all the unpredictable conditions at Frozen Head led to my packing everything but the kitchen sink, resulting in a decision to drive rather than fly. In retrospect, it would have been better to fly, rent a car in Knoxville, and spend more time exploring the park. A week of exploration and a week of rest would have been more beneficial than four days to explore and two days rest, in the middle of 9 days on the road (for the homeward leg, I am claiming the M75-79 record for 2730 miles solo and unsupported in a 4-cylinder sedan: 100 hours flat). At least 3/4 of what I brought was never used.

During the race and training runs, I wore my standard outfit for working in poison oak at home: light T-shirt under a long-sleeved cotton dress shirt, jeans, Thorlo crew socks over Injinji toe socks, and Inov-8 Terrocs. I carried an old Camelbak 70 oz. pack full of Gatorade (with additional powder in a baggie), containing a light rain jacket, an extra bottle (empty), iodine pills, 2 or 3 pounds of trail mix (salted cashews, dried apricots, Craisins), two bottles of Ensure, 3 Trailmix bars, a flashlight and two headlamps (I don't trust headlamps), a pair of leather gloves, a pocket knife, and a lightweight thermal blanket. On the front, I had a waistpack with the map and directions (in a Ziplok with the pages), S-Caps, and the all-important compass. I had trekking poles, with some light gloves to prevent blisters. I had a lot of stuff at camp in my car, in case of another loop. I also carried a camera, which wound up in my pants pocket, which I don't recommend, as it may be a total loss (I did get about 40 pictures, though, which I will try to put up). All of this seemed useful and appropriate, especially the jeans, which were better protection against the briars than they are against the blackberries at home. I use Ivy-X before exposure to poison oak or ivy, and shower with Tecnu afterwards, which has always worked for me. This time, I actually hada few mild spots of rash, an indication that I'm still allergic to it.

The Race

I had a chance to meet a lot of people on Friday, but neither of the veterans I saw the most of, Rich Limacher and David Hughes, were entered this year. I got to talking with Stu Gleman, who said he was thinking about a 20-hour first loop, and was planning, if he was alone at that point, to drop at Rat Jaw. Despite his low expectations, due to health issues and lack of training, he was about as well acquainted with the course as anyone, having set out the books. I decided to start out with him, and see what happened, and with the 20 hours in mind, threw some extra food into my pack.

The rest of the field were out of sight very quickly, and Stu told me to forge ahead if the pace was too slow. Despite what he had told me about his health problems (chemo and low hemoglobin), it felt like a good pace to me, so we continued up to the top and veered off on the Cumberland trail, squeezing through the "stepping stones" and continuing through Hiram's Gambit and Fangorn until we heard voices, just before reaching Book 1, where we found Matt Mahoney, Naresh, and a couple of others. With them, we followed the Jaque Mate Ridge (largely a buttslide) down to Philipps Creek, where (after a brief episode of roving about) we found Book 2. The others went ahead after that, and we didn't see them again (although Matt hollered to us from above on the way up to Bald Knob). We didn't clear SOBD in a single bound as instructed, in fact Stu took a whole series of pictures of me climbing out of there.

In most of this section, the trail was very well marked. The frequent blazes on the trees are quite different from what I am used to on western trails. On these (e.g. the Pacific Crest Trail) the trail itself is generally more visible, and there are few if any additional markers beyond the temporary ribbons used during races. On the Bird and Chimney Top trails, often it would be very difficult to see the trail because of leaves or rocks, but the blazes make it easy to follow. For the most part, I was following Stu, who would point out useful landmarks, such as boundary stakes or the evergreen hemlocks, which he called "Christmas trees," which stood out from the rest of the forest.

The section between Bald Knob and the New River (books 3, 4, and 5) is the most difficult to navigate of the part of the course I saw. I have mixed feelings about this. If I had been on my own, I would have gone much slower, because I would have had to consult map, compass, and directions continually. Even with the relatively late start (9:11 AM) there was still plenty of daylight left. I don't know if I would have been able to do the Prison and later sections on my own after dark, but it would have been more satisfying to make it up Rat Jaw to the Tower.

Anyway, to return to the course, we were doing quite well timewise after the Garden Spot (Book 3), although we hadn't caught up to anyone else. We found Book 4 readily enough and followed some discernable trails pretty easily through the high grass (I was leading there for a while). After Fyke's Peak we got on a road that seemed to be going in the right direction (slightly east of south), but after a while it became clear that we were not heading where we needed to be. At around this time, we both had our compasses out, and discovered a 90 degree discrepancy between Stu's and mine.(!) We weren't seeing the park boundary markers, and this was one spot where an altimeter would have been very helpful. We had evidently missed a point where the trail (if there was one) had left the road. After a certain amount of bushwhacking (literally), Stu was satisfied that we were in the right place, and very soon we emerged at the river, at the very spot where the log crosses it, that I had seen with Rich a couple of days before.

After collecting the pages from Book 5, I needed to do some serious eating, so Stu started up first, saying that I would certainly catch him before the top. After loading up, I set off after him. I could see him quite a ways off up the hill, but he soon disappeared into a dip in the climb. I don't know whether I was on the usual trail or not, but someone had certainly climbed it recently, as there were many marks of slipping feet. I added more of mine to these, as I fought for traction in many places (and this was in good dry weather!). Pretty soon, I was on all fours, down where the briars got hold of me more and more. I had been feeling fairly fresh at the beginning of the climb, but by the time I reached the top where Stu had been sitting for a while, I was exhausted. "Barkley 1, Peter 0," I said. Stu assured me encouragingly that there were three more climbs that were worse than that. He said he hated the down side, although it seemed easy enough at first. I saw what he was talking about when we came to the Neo-Butt-Slide, although that was not too bad if you took it a little bit at a time.

Between there and Book 6 (which we located with no trouble) I discovered that my watch was missing. Somehow the brambles on the ascent of the Spectacle had taken it off my wrist without my even noticing. For a moment, I felt like someone whose pocket has been picked, as if I had somehow been raped by the trail. We got a laugh out of this authentic case of trail rape, perhaps a defining Barkley experience. I told my daughter about this later, and she sent me a poem by Wallace Stevens that seems to capture this incident, with a little substitution:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,   
And round it was, upon a hill.   
It made the slovenly wilderness   
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.   
The jar was round upon the ground   
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.   
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,   
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

At that point, talk of quitting came up for the first time. Stu had been testing his hemoglobin from time to time, and found that it was quite low, and I think he had been disheartened somewhat by getting off course getting to the river. Testicle Spectacle had taken a lot more out of me than I expected, and I certainly needed at least a brief rest to recover for another hard climb. I think the problem at that point was that we didn't know each other well enough to make a good decision. I had no way of knowing how serious his physical situation was, and he had no way of knowing whether I could recover well enough to continue. We were in what may have been the worst possible place to drop, at Pig-Head Creek. In looking through my notes, I came across two pieces of advice by Stu himself (ca. 2007) that pertain to this situation:

"(1) know the course cold, day or night, rain or fog,
just absolutely know the course, and (2) run alone as in stay the
hell away from other people because the decision to quit is usually a
group decision."

At any rate, we elected to quit, and sealed the decision by taking the wrong way up to the road. Then we hiked down to the prison and spent about half an hour while the guard there, instead of shooting us, very kindly called some relatives about a ride, without success. So, it being dark by then, we got out our flashlights and hiked down to Petros, where by luck we found a store open and customers inside. Stu impressed a lady sufficiently with our civility and harmlessness that she and her husband offered a ride, not only to Flat Fork road, but all the way to the campground, refusing all offers of payment for the favor. On the way there, they discovered that they and Stu had a mutual friend, about which there was much conversation.

So we arrived at the Yellow Gate for taps, almost exactly 12 hours from when we left, and just in time for Frozen Ed to finish his first loop, looking far too chipper and ready for another one.

It wasn't until several days later when I got a look at the results, and found that Matt, Naresh and one other person finished loop one in about 18 hours, and realized that they couldn't have been far ahead of us the whole time.

So, I have written far too much about too little, but I wouldn't have missed a minute of it.

Six books
Six thousand miles
Twelve hours with Stu Gleman on (and off) the Barkley course


  1. hats off to you peter for starting that torture session of a race. thanks for telling your story.

  2. Yeah! Wallace Stevens makes it into the ultra running blogosphere!

    I was just going through my blogger blogs that I follow and found your post, since I've moved to underourbootsoles to have another go at blogging.

    Anyhow, you are amazing :)

  3. I just got the sad news of Stu's passing, and am posting a link of this report on FaceBook, as my personal tribute to his memory. RIP!