Sunday, July 20, 2014

The meaning of "Stairway to Heaven"

When I run or hike my mind often plays songs repetitively. If I don't like the song or don't know enough of the lyrics to make it a pleasant experience the resulting monotony can get quite burdensome. But if I'm lucky, a beautiful ballad that I know and love will play and I can enjoy the experience. "Stairway to Heaven" is one such song. Written in 1971 by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, performed by the incomparable Led Zeppelin, it played endlessly on the radio when I was in high school. And every time it came on, I turned up the volume and let the spell of that song carry me away. At over 8 minutes long, with lyrics scattered sparsely throughout, it's arguable that the lyrics aren't central to the song. It's one of the greatest rock anthems of all time - who even listens to the lyrics? I certainly didn't. Not until it started playing endlessly in my head. When you are forced to listen to a song 15 times in a row, you get past the awesome guitar solos and the ethereal mood of the song and you start to wonder, "What the F--- is this song really about?" At least I do.

When I first heard the song it seemed to be about some rich lady who bought her way into heaven. The line "your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know" seemed appropriate to the endless loop I was experiencing. But it took a long time for the story to come together in my mind.

As I got into it, there seemed to be a lot of non-sequiturs. Consider the line "in a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven." Where did THAT come from? We were just talking about the Stairway lady. It made me wonder.

In time I realized the song is not a linear story. It's a series of images altered by the later context. It's kind of like a movie that starts in the middle of the story and only later supplies the context to understand what you've seen.

"There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven." The lady and her stairway represent materialism. There's also a hint that she may be misguided because all that glitters is NOT gold. "When she get's there she knows, if the stores are all closed, with a word she can get what she came for." Money, privilege and power. Pretty simple so far. "There's a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure, 'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings." She doesn't trust anyone. Money has cut her off from people.

Then comes the apparent non-sequitur. "In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven." So far the song has been about a lady and a stairway, or if we're already on the metaphorical bandwagon, it's about materialism and the way that cuts us off from other people. We can't understand this line except in the context of the rest of the song, but we'll soon see that a change from an old way of thinking to a new one is the real theme of this song. So eventually we'll understand that this line starts the real theme of the song and everything that came before it is a metaphor for the old way of thinking.

The refrain is "Oooo, it makes me wonder." Wonder what? The singer is rethinking something. But what?

The story takes a personal turn with the line, "There's a feeling I get when I look to the west and my spirit is crying for leaving." This is a lovely poetic line that boils down to "Facing death makes me think about what's important in life." Because the sun sets there, west has been a metaphor for death since at least ancient Egyptian times.  

"In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees and the voices of those who stand looking." Rings of smoke denote campfires, indicating that people live there, despite being hidden. Those who stand looking are people who witness evil, but say nothing. The people in his thoughts are coming out of hiding to stand up for what's right. 

"And it's whispered that soon, if we all call the tune, then the piper will lead us to reason." The vision continues.The tune and the piper are musical metaphors connoting the spread of the goodness and truth seen in the vision. "And a new day will dawn for those who stand long and the forest will echo with laughter." As the vision gathers momentum, the people are no longer hiding in the trees.

But we're still not sure what this great vision really is. Does it have anything to do with the lady or the materialism she represents?

In the next few lines, we the listener are brought into the song somewhat ambiguously. "Your" and "you" could refer to the lady, but as we'll see later, they don't. "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a spring clean for the May queen." Very poetic again, and very British. Some translation is needed. In rural England the hedgerow is the line of shrubs denoting the property line between your estate and the next, so a "bustle in your hedgerow" means something is changing in your life or your mind. The May queen was chosen by a village to represent youth, beauty, newness, and hope for a better future. So this line boils down to "if your old ideas start crumbling, don't be alarmed, you have new and better ideas forming in their place." It's also possible that the May queen is another reference to the lady, though significantly changed in her ways.

"Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on." This is a major clue to the still nebulous vision. It's a vision about a change for the better, one that we the listener can make.

"Your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know. The piper's calling you to join him." Since the bustle, hedgerow and May queen were so mysterious, this stanza restates and clarifies the previous one. The piper, as mentioned earlier, represents the vision, now evidently an idea because it is humming in our head. It's also a popular idea because here the piper is portrayed like the Pied Piper whose pipe magically lured rats and children to follow him.

"Dear lady can you hear the wind blow, and did you know, your stairway lies on the whispering wind." There's a lot going on here. Blowing wind is a metaphor for popular opinion, just as it was in many other songs from this era. Now we see the flaw in materialism, represented by the lady. Her money is only good if people accept it. And her reliance on it has cut her off from those people to the point where she may not be able to hear them at all. "Dear lady" is a clue that the lady also represents the materialist part of ourselves, one of the "two paths you can go by."

"And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls." I really love this image. This song could have been about other people's flaws, but it's not. As time goes by, we inevitably grow more materialistic. One day we realize that we haven't lived up to the idealism of youth. Our material selves are now more important to us than our spiritual selves. 

But why shadows? A close inspection of the entire song shows a consistent differentiation between things seen and things heard. Things seen are false and misleading. Things heard are real and from the heart. This might seem strange, but remember, we're listening to a song. The truth is coming to us aurally, not visually.

"There walks a lady we all know, who shines white light and wants to show, how everything still turns to gold." The shadows of the previous line come from the shining white light of a materialistic point of view. If we cast a shadow, it's because our materialism is showing.

"And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last." The tune returns. Like last time, the tune is the new way of thinking, the second path, the non-materialist way of living that is more genuine, and keeps us connected to other people.

"When all are one and one is all. To be a rock and not to roll." It's too bad this line is so hard to understand in the recording because it really ties everything together. If the new way of thinking is good for one person, it's even better for a group. If enough like-minded folks get together and form a community then we'll live in a real, solid and reliable paradise.

"And she's buying a stairway to heaven." If not, the materialists will take advantage of the rest of us.

So that's how I interpret the song. It has added immensely to my enjoyment of Stairway to Heaven. I hope it does the same for you.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

It's been a long time

To date I've used this blog exclusively for trip reports. But it's been almost five years since I last posted one. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is I'm old enough now (53) that what I accomplish in the outdoors is no longer newsworthy. No FKTs, no high placings, no races at all lately. I've been recovering from an ankle sprain that I refused to acknowledge until it got much worse than it ever should have. It had been so long since I got injured, I thought it would never happen to me. Live and learn.

I've also known for many years that I write best during or after solo hiking or running. I've never been more prolific than during my Calendar Triple Crown. On that trip my journal was my substitute companion. When I came back a minor celebrity, I had more human contact than I could handle and the writing suffered. I tried to write a book about my big trip, but I just didn't have the time or desire to write it. On the other hand I came back so much more confident and happy that my life quickly changed for the better. I started a second career as an adventurer. I got married, something I had all but given up on after turning 40. I helped raise an amazing step son who is now in college. The marriage didn't work out, but Sophia and I are still great friends, so there was a minimum of grief involved. Neither of us wanted any of our friends to have to choose between us, so we kept the separation quiet. When people found out, it was old news and we could prove to people there was no drama. Some people understood; some didn't.

But now I hike and run alone again much of the time, and I find stories bubbling up from my subconscious. So I've started writing again. About anything. It doesn't matter. Like running, writing well takes lots of practice. So I hope you enjoy reading my blog. But it's going to be different this time.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

2009 Western Status Endurance Run

2009 Western States Endurance Run

11 ½ hours to Foresthill. Then another 11 ½ hours to Auburn. That’s the short version of my race report.

I have trouble keeping my expectations realistic in a 100-miler. It’s due in part to the slow pace inherent in such a long race. It’s hard for me to believe that five miles an hour is a blistering pace. Other people’s high expectations are another factor. Because I’m a well known hiker, some people assume I’m also a great runner. Two years ago a couple people actually picked me to WIN Western States! Whoa! Even with a Barkley course record now added to my resume, I’m not in the same league as the real contenders. A sub-20 hour finish is about the best I could ever hope for.

Because this year’s Western States was a focus race for me, I expected to better my 21:20 finish of two years ago. As mental preparation, I visualized a breakthrough sub-20 hour finish. I also tried to embrace secondary goals of a PR and a silver buckle, but thoughts breaking of the 20-hour barrier made that difficult. It never crossed my mind that I might not finish.

At the starting line I was relaxed and ready. When the gun went off, I was well back from the line and about 100 people started ahead of me. But my efforts not to get caught up in the mad dash were undermined. A huge group of runners took a wrong turn in the first mile. When I got there, people off to my right were yelling “Wrong way!” and turning around. I stayed straight and suddenly there were only about 10 people in front of me! We all knew the thrill would be short lived but several of us took turns in the lead before the big dogs came charging through. It was hard to stay cool and gauge my proper pace amongst the likes of Jurek, Mackey, and Koerner so I arrived at Escarpment way too soon. At least I wasn’t out of breath.

I calmly let the faster runners pass as I settled into a comfortable pace, enjoying the views of the high country and cruising through the early aid stations in the cool morning air. At Robinson Flat I was surprised to see my wife, Sophie. She was surprised to see me as well since I was 15 minutes early, but had an Ensure waiting for me nevertheless. Her day was shaping up to be even more trying than mine - and a lot less fun.

She had some last minute logistical scrambling when the crew vehicle broke down the night before the race and was towed to Tahoe City. As we walked a mile to the start, Sophie reminded me that I’m good at being self-sufficient, and apart from a headlamp there was nothing I really needed from them. She guaranteed that she would find a way to get to Foresthill.

The plan had been for Sophie, a former WS top-10 woman, to pace me from Foresthill and our good friend Roger Dellor, WS 60+ age group course record holder, to crew me at Bath Road and Rucky Chucky Far Side, after both volunteered at Dusty Corners. In the revised plan, volunteering at Dusty was impossible. After the start, Roger stayed behind and handled the car repair while Sophie searched for a ride, which she fortuitously found with Darcey Rambach.

Sophie met me again at Michigan Bluff, where I was still 15 minutes ahead of my splits. But it was brutally hot. She didn’t want to blow my confidence by saying anything, but we were both thinking the same thing: Shouldn’t I slow down a little in the heat? But I rationalized about being a powerful hiker; climbing out of these canyons is where I’m strongest. Besides, I feel great!

Roger was there to crew me at Bath Road. He had found a rental car and drove all the way to Dusty Corners, long after I’d been through, to bring them ice and apologize for he and Sophie not showing up to volunteer. He would meet Sophie and me at the Far Side with our headlamps. We wouldn’t have to run down to the river in the blazing afternoon sun carrying our lights after all!

I arrived at Foresthill School at 4:35pm, now 25-minutes ahead of schedule. I couldn’t help but rejoice. I was out of the canyons and seemed to have survived the worst of the heat. I was running in the top 20 and feeling good enough to race from there. And I had the best pacer in the world to help me do it. In short, I was having the race of my dreams!

I exuberantly waved to friends as we turned onto California Street, but as soon as we hit downhill trail, my quads started hurting and I said I needed to slow down. Sophie started encouraging me to keep up my spirits but I reacted badly, wondering why she was breaking out the kid gloves already. Was I not crushing the course? But she could see what I could not, that I’d started struggling, abruptly, on cruiseable downhill. By Dardanelles, it was obvious to me too. Running had become difficult. At the aid station I tried to regroup. I put ice in my hat, ate a Gu and took off quickly, wasting no time. I was looking forward to a walk break on the big uphill just ahead. In the canyons every uphill had perked me up and renewed my spirits. But this time is different. My legs are jelly, my energy is gone and my stomach is getting upset.

This is new for me; I’ve never been nauseous in a race before. If I have gastro-intestinal problems, it’s always extra bathroom stops; annoying, time consuming, but otherwise benign. At Peachstone, I down a Coke, hoping the sugar and caffeine will revive me, but I don’t feel right.

I sit in a chair for the first time and promptly throw up. I’m scared. I don’t want to get up. Sophie insists I sip on broth if I’m sitting. She reminds me of friends who have had similar experiences and came back running after a death march. I just need to take care of myself. And I need to keep moving. Krissy Moehl races through. She had recovered well from a bad patch and went on to finish strongly. Sophie finally coaxes me out of the aid station, but I refuse to even try to eat or drink anything. I am afraid of throwing up again.

I stagger horribly up the big climb just before Ford’s Bar. I shuffle, hunched over, arms clutching my queasy stomach. Sophie demonstrates strong hiker form, coaching me to use arm swing to power my legs forward, calling on muscle memory from thousands of miles of hiking to override my defeatist thoughts. She tells me I don’t stagger when I use my arms, but I’m paying more attention to my ailing stomach than her words. I’m nauseous and dizzy. Sophie tucks in behind me, watchful that I don’t stagger off the trail. She cools me with water from her bottles. She reasons with me, trying to get me to understand that I am bonking for lack of fuel, but I refuse to eat or drink.

At Ford’s Bar, I spend even more time in the chair. Again, Sophie makes a deal with me: I’m allowed in the chair as long as I am trying to eat. The watermelon goes down surprisingly well, but I can’t stand even the thought of anything else. She coaxes me to sip on the salty soup. Everyone says I look better, but I still refuse to get up. She challenges me, “You’re tough enough to finish Barkley! This is much easier than Barkley!” Although she doesn’t say it, all I hear is “wimp.” While I sit, more runners pass through the aid station, but I don’t care. Victor Ballesteros sped through leading a train of others running to the river. Craig Thornley calls out encouragement, but I don’t have it in me. I want to quit. Sophie wants me to leave with them, hoping their energy will pull me. She resorts to tough love. “No! You have to get moving now. You don’t want to stop here! This is the worst place to quit!” (Apologies to the good folks volunteering) There is applause when I finally stand up. Side-by-side we leave the aid station as Dan Barger effortlessly floats by, disappearing on the switchbacks below.

Rucky Chucky seems an awfully long way off. Sophie doesn’t even ask me to run anymore; a good walking pace is challenge enough. While trudging along the normally runnable Sandy Bottom stretch we are passed by a steady stream of runners, including Nikki Kimball, Caren Spore and Meghan Arboghast. Finally, I get it through my head that, yes, I AM bonking and eat a Gu. My entire stomach empties in rebellion. Copious amounts of liquid are ejected in four good heaves. Where did it all come from? Evidently my stomach hasn’t been processing anything I’ve consumed since the hot climb out of Volcano Canyon to Bath Road. I’m feeling better after the purge, but the experience has reinforced my fears. I refuse to eat or drink again. Sophie reminds me that I crossed the river at 9pm last time. My chance for a PR is vanishing with the daylight, but I don’t care. Mentally I’m done.

At Rucky Chucky, I step on the scale and surprisingly I haven’t lost any weight. Sophie urges me to cross the river in the last bit of daylight, but I sit down again, trying to get sympathy from the medical people. I just want permission to quit. They took my vitals and said I was fine to move on. The prognosis was that I was bonking and so, again, I was fed chicken soup. Three cups this time, but I couldn’t be enticed to eat anything solid. Scott Wolfe, who had endured a bad Cal Street section as well, commiserated in the chair next to me, but drank and ate what he could and moved on. Sophie pleaded with me, reminding me that Roger was waiting on the Far Side with our lights, worried about me. So I got up and we crossed the cold, waist-high river in the dark.

It wasn’t Roger waiting, or the headlamps that got me up. It was the thought of Roger’s rental car. I could quit over there. I just didn’t want to struggle through another 20 miserable miles. Sophie notes that I’m walking better than ever up to Green Gate, but in my mind I’ve only got two miles to go, not twenty.

At Green Gate she realizes that my mind is made up and knows this is going to be a battle of wills. I’m very stubborn when I’ve got my mind set on something. That usually works in my favor, allowing me to focus on a goal and persevere, but, what happens when my goals and expectations don’t match the reality of the moment? Does it have to be all-or-nothing? My sub-20 goal was long gone. I couldn’t motivate myself with a ”just finish” or even a “sub-24” goal. My will was on the wrong side.

Sophie used every argument she could think of, but in the end, she simply wouldn’t allow me to quit. She said I might hate her now, but I’d thank her later. She thrust a cupful of pretzels, fig bars and other nibbles in my hand and told me to eat as we walked to Auburn Lake Trails. She was right. Once I began eating, I started perking up. Though I walked that whole segment and the next, quitting didn’t enter my mind again. At Brown’s Bar my weight was down 3% and the medical volunteers held me until I drank a liter, but I was thirsty and it went right down - and stayed there! They allowed me to proceed. After that we started running short sections again; I was back from the dead!

I kept moving with renewed energy and spirit as I efficiently passed through Highway 49. I grabbed a Gu and chips at the long-awaited No Hands Bridge as if I was in a race. We finished in 22:52, well ahead of the 24-hour mark. Amazingly I’d finished in time for a silver buckle! It’s Sophie’s buckle – she earned it as much I did. Without her I would have quit and regretted it later. Sophie knew that; she knows me well. Like I said earlier, I’ve got the best pacer in the world!

Flyin' Brian Robinson

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Big Sur International Marathon

I've been interested in the Big Sur International Marathon (BSIM) since I moved to Monterey. It's by far the biggest race in the area. Skyler's Boy Scout Troop runs the aid station at the marathon finish and aid stations 3 and 4 at the half marathon. I've gotten directly involved as well by joining the BSIM board and taking over as aid station coordinator for the half marathon which is run in the fall.

There are lots of jobs to do for the marathon as well, but I've limited my participation to those jobs that will allow me to actually run on race day. The marathon is run in conjunction with several shorter events, but the 3K "JUST RUN!" kids fun run was moved to the day before the marathon, so I helped set up and take down the start/finish area.

Even though I was free to run the marathon, it was far from clear that I should. I have not run a step since Barkley. My left shoulder has been too sore. But if the pain relented, I figured I had enough left-over fitness to run. My wife said I'd be crazy to do it with nothing to prove and Western States coming up in June. Sophia is right, but I couldn't resist. Highway 1 is closed to traffic for the race! That's a superb drive, but seeing it on foot is even better.

The race was sunny and warm, just short of hot. The scenery is by far the best of any road marathon, and matches some of the best trail races I've run. With 4,500 other marathoners and another 5,000 people walking shorter sections, it's a very big event. But it never felt too crowded or disorganized. The live music along the course fit right in with the scenic beauty. A grand piano at Bixby bridge is the most famous, but the drummers at the base of the climb to hurricane point were my favorite, helping runners summon the energy to climb. I can see why Big Sur is a destination event that draws runners from all over the world.

I was happy just to be able to participate in this race, but I'm also a "results" guy at heart so I ran hard. My lack of speed training made my legs much more painful than my shoulder. Fortunately I didn't injure myself posting 3:19:06, 7th in my age group.

We never saw each other on the course, but my good friend Whit Rambach was just one minute behind! His wife Darcey and Sophia were awarding finishers medals, so our medals came with a kiss! We helped them out at the finish line the rest of the day, but Whit gets kudos for imitating Clark Kent. He wore his BSIM board uniform while working at the start line. Then he checked the blue blazer, white shirt, tie and slacks at the sweats check, and put them back on to work at the finish line. Wow! Why didn't I think of that?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Barkley 2008: A Full Measure of Fun

Looking at the starters of this year's Barkley Marathons, I thought, "This year it's going to be a race, not just a race of attrition." But it feels that way every year. If this was any other race there'd be no question about finishing. But this is "the race that eats its young." "The only thing that buckles here is your knees."

Blake Wood and Jim Nelson were there, two of the 6 past finishers. Andrew Thompson, Blake and I are the only ones ever to embark on an ultimately futile Loop 5. All three of us were there. Greg Eason and Andras Low were back after successful "Fun Run" finishes last year.

In putting together a plan for this year's run, I reviewed everything I've done right and wrong preparing for Barkley over the last two years. The first thing I got right was to train hard. Before the 2006 race, I hiked with a pack up and down the steepest hills I could find. Because "running" 100 miles in 60 hours is a 36 minutes per mile average pace, I wasn't worried about having to run very much. But just being in good shape wasn't enough. I lost way too much time to navigational errors. My time for 3 loops was too slow even to qualify as an official "Fun Run" finish. Barkley is notoriously hard on "virgins." Read my 2006 race report here.

For 2007, I did similar training and focused on learning the course. I arrived at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee a couple days early and scouted the sections that had given me the most trouble. I did much better, finishing 4 loops just under the 48-hour time limit, and set out on a 5th loop, but quit in a sleep-deprived stupor when it became clear that I could not finish under 60 hours. Read my 2007 race report here. More great information can be found on Matt Mahoney's unofficial official Barkley site.

This year I decided the key would be making time to sleep during the race, and the only way to do that is to run faster. So the crux of my training was running, not hiking, up and down lots of hills. I limited my long runs to about 3 hours so I could run hard the whole way. Only when my time on a 16-mile run with 14,000-feet of elevation change got down to 2:42 did I switch to a 20-mile route with 16,000 feet of elevation change. To get the effect of a longer run, I ran the same course on two or three consecutive days. Laz has commented about me logging my runs in feet of elevation change rather than miles, and it's true. I consider elevation change to be more important than miles when training for Barkley.

The hard running paid off handsomely. I was repeatedly able to recover from hard efforts during a loop and maintain a faster pace. Sleep allowed my brain as well as my legs to function better. With a total of just 3 hours sleep over two nights, I seldom felt sleepy on the trail and never hallucinated. I had much less trouble navigating at night, even though it was foggier this year than last. With no fog in my mind, the fog on the course didn't seem so bad.

I also wanted to lighten my load. The past two years were so hot it was necessary to carry a hydration bladder. When race day dawned rainy and cool, I switched to a water bottle. The cool forecast also allowed me to wear most of my clothing. The past two years my rain gear spent most of the time in my pack; this year I wore it almost all the time. I also reduced the amount of food carried by eating more between loops. With all the reductions, my supplies fit into a fanny pack instead of a backpack.

Unlike last year, I didn't lead from the start. Byron Backer took care of that with a blistering pace up Bird Mountain. I barely kept him in sight. The rest of us strung out down the switchbacks in small groups of just 1 or 2. Byron had just torn out his page when I arrived at Book 1, got my first page, filled my water bottle in Phillips Creek and took off after Byron. We were more or less together from there to Bald Knob. Byron had scouted this section a few days before and gotten lost. Even together we both managed to miss the first switchback descending from Bald Knob. So we ran cross-country until we picked up the trail again just before Squire Ridge. We had no more problems until Fyke's Peak where we searched 20 minutes in vain for a missing book, looking under every root ball in the area.

Down Fyke's, Byron got ahead of me several times. He had scouted the ridge and was choosing better routes. I spotted him up ahead from the top of a cliff before back-tracking to find a way down. I was very impressed that he wasn't following me around. Byron told me he'd probably struggle at night, but if he can overcome that weakness, he has a bright future at Barkley. He and Carl Laniak distinguished themselves among this year's rookies as "Fun Run" finishers.
Unfortunately, Byron's independence cost him at Book 5. By the time he found the book, I was just a tiny figure nearing the top of Testicle Spectacle.

I cruised through the rest of loop 1, and after a short break, most of loop 2. Night fell for the first time as I arrived at Raw Dog Falls. Rat Jaw was easy to navigate at night because the saw briers had been cut down. With the power line overhead, and a huge swath of open ground to follow, I erased all memories of struggling in the fog last year.

My first tough challenge came on the one major course change. This year the Camel Humps were reinstated to compensate for improvements to the North Boundary Trail. I was lost in the fog for quite a while. Eventually I followed the cliff tops and made slow progress. After that I fell hard coming down the Chimney Top Trail. Anticipating a sleep break when I got back to camp, I was running fast when I hit a muddy spot, crashed hard and slid off the trail. By the time I got back to camp, the bruise didn't hurt anymore.

Loop 1, at 7:07, had been so fast that I worried about blowing up, but after rounding Loop 2 in 9:23 feeling good, I stopped worrying. It was 1:30am, time for a well-earned rest. Sleeping in multi-day races makes so much sense I'm surprised how few people have tried it at Barkley. Nighttime pace can be glacial, so sleeping at night doesn't sacrifice much mileage. And the dividends paid are tremendous. After sleeping, I made fewer navigational errors and ran faster, more than making up for the time lost.

Loops 3 and 4 are reverse loops, which make Big Hell and Zip Line very tricky in the dark. I'd been hoping to start down Big Hell at first light, but I was well ahead of that pace and unwilling to give up too much time. After a 2 1/2 hour pit stop in camp to eat and sleep, I set out at 4am. I arrived at Chimney Top in total darkness. In the fog, I walked 3/4 of the way around Chimney Top before backtracking to the book. As I set my compass bearing to descend Big Hell, Carl Laniak, Greg Eason and Andrew Thompson were just topping out. Andrew said Blake Wood was somewhere behind, so I descended Big Hell looking for lights. When three lights suddenly appeared, I scurried off to my right to meet them coming up. Eventually I realized the lights were not runners but houses way off in the distance which became visible when I broke below a fog bank. Rats! I was lost on Big Hell. When I reached the bottom, I was in thick brush on an unfamiliar hillside above a near vertical drop into the creek. There was less brush down below, so I decided to slide down. I fell so fast, I panicked, grabbed hold of a sapling, and wrenched my left shoulder. The reflex action had been pointless because I had to let go again, sliding into the water. As I scrambled out, I could barely move my left arm. I thought my race might be over, but even if it was, I had to hike out. From the size of the creek, I decided to search upstream for the confluence, and as I walked, the pain in my shoulder subsided to a manageable level. I would learn later that I dislocated my collar bone where it attaches to the sternum.

When I got to the beech tree and retrieved my page, it was light enough to put away my headlamp. I could the water bottle with that hand, or feed myself with it, but I couldn't use it when scrambling uphill or downhill because it hurt too much to reach out. In the daylight, I started cruising again. Except for the shoulder, I felt almost as good as the first day. With no more navigation problems, I completed Loop 3 in 10:41, for a three loop total of 29:56:49. I was thrilled to finish the Fun Run in under 30 hours!

Since it was daylight and I was feeling pretty good, I wanted to minimize the time spent in camp. But my feet were pruned up from all the rain and I decided to let them dry thoroughly before applying Hyrdopel. The stop took half an hour.

I began Loop 4 a little after 3pm wondering how far I could get in the daylight. Big Hell and Zip Line were certain, but by pushing hard, I got over the Humps, down Rat Jaw, up Meth Lab and down Testicle before breaking out the headlamp! It was an unmaintainable pace, but I didn't care. I just kept rejoicing every time I passed another spot that would have been tough to negotiate at night. It was rainy, wet, foggy and muddy, and I knew it was going to be a very bad night.

Darkness immediately confirmed my worst fears. After taking just 5 1/2 hours to do the first half of Loop 4, it took another 3 hours to cover the 3 miles up Fyke's and over Stallion Mountain. The fog was simply awful. Going up Fykes, I kept getting lost and having to backtrack. Wearing my headlamp was useless; the fog was so thick I could barely see the ground. On Stallion Mountain, even with the headlamp in my hand, I could only see halfway across the width of the road. I had to angle back and forth to identify all the junctions properly.

The worst moment came near the summit. There's a big blow down to walk around and the road turns before emerging on the other side. The whole area is relatively open and flat, so it is very difficult to tell which way the road continues, even in daylight. Fortunately I'd made a mental note of the problem spot. Even so, I walked around the entire blow down several times before finding the road. By then I was completely disoriented. I had to get out my map and compass to be sure I was following the road in the right direction.

I heaved a big sigh of relief when the road to the Garden Spot finally appeared out of the fog. It was 11:30pm and all thought of cruising was long gone. I was just thankful that I still had some time in the bank, although that was disappearing fast. On my way to the Coal Ponds I got lost again, regaining the correct route only after crossing between two of the ponds. At Son of a Bitch Ditch and Bald Knob, I managed to stay on the trail only because I know those sections so well. But the fog got thinner as the trail improved.

When I got back on maintained trail, I knew I'd complete Loop 4 before dawn. I tried really hard to start cruising again, reminding myself that the sooner I got there, the sooner I could get some sleep. But I was too sleepy to run well and the muddy trail was dangerously slippery. Jogging along as best I could, I never managed to get an efficient stride going. Fatigue set in on top of sleepiness as the hours passed. About 2:30am, on the way down Jury Ridge, I stopped for a quick nap. My sleepy eyes weren't working very well and I was risking a disastrous fall on the narrow, sloping side-hill trail. I lay down in the wet leaves with rain misting down on my face and rested my eyes until I started shivering, about 10 minutes. I got up and warmed up my cold cramping muscles by walking.

The sleepiness cleared as I reached the last book at Philips Creek. From there I was able to push myself over Bird Mountain and back to camp in an hour and fifteen minutes. It was 4am and I'd just completed Loop 4, the hardest loop at Barkley, in 12:52.

I was exhausted, but I forced myself to eat and tend my feet before going to sleep. At 4:15am I set my alarm for 5:45am and fell asleep in seconds. When I awoke, I took a caffeine pill. I was groggy, but able to focus. I lubed my feet and reapplied sunscreen for the last time. I put on dry socks and shoes, hoping in vain that it would ease the pain in my feet. The only thing I forgot to bring was a hat. Day 3 would be the sunniest yet, but a little sunburn wasn't going to stop me.

Starting in the dark at 6:06am, I decided to do Loop 5 clockwise. The first navigational challenges are farther out and easier to solve in that direction. I also find that the North Boundary Trail is best to do when fresh. It's possible to really cruise on it. Marching up and down Zip Line and Big Hell is slow no matter what.

Dawn broke just as I arrived at Book 1 and I put away my headlamp for the last time. I climbed Jury Ridge and Not Jury Ridge for the last time. Everything I did was for the last time. A new day was dawning. The last day. It was still raining, but the temperature was rising and I'd be done before it got cold again. Every hour I felt stronger. With each passing obstacle, I felt free to push a little harder. I'd be done soon. I'd be done sooner if I pushed and I really wanted to be done sooner so I could rest. I told myself not to think about rest yet. I needed to stay focused.

It was Monday morning. Fool's Weekend was over. I heard a crew with chain saws working near Rat Jaw, while back in camp, runners and their crews were packing up. Many had already left to catch planes or start long drives home. It's only fair, I guess. At most races the front runners go home before the last runner finishes. Barkley's different.

Meanwhile, I ran down Frozen Head and cruised over the Humps. At Indian Knob I faced the last cross-country downhill on Zip Line. It was the last section where I walked downhill. I cruised up Big Hell in just under 40 minutes, sweating profusely. For the first time in over 50 hours I took off my long sleeve shirt. When I hit the good Chimney Top Trail, I took off at a full run. My feet hurt, my knees hurt and my quads hurt, but I didn't care.

A shout went out as I came running into camp. I was early. It had been an incredible last loop. 10:17 was better than most people did on loop 1! My official finish time was 55:42:27, besting Ted "Cave Dog" Kaiser's 56:57 course record!! I can still hardly believe it. I have great respect for Cave Dog and his many achievements, and am very proud to have bettered one of his marks.

There are no finishers awards at Barkley, but Gary's warm handshake and congratulations all around were better than any bauble. The energy jacked me up for another hour. I felt fresher than I had all day. I stood talking to the 15 people or so who had waited so long to watch me finish. I signed a couple autographs, posed for some photos, including one with Blake and Jim welcoming me into the finishers club. It was wonderful.

Eventually the euphoria wore off and fatigue began to take over. I sat down. Andrew gave me a pair of Crocs to wear and cooked the last of the Barkley chicken over the fire as I took a shower. After eating, I slept for 9 hours, but that was only a start. Including naps, I slept close to 12 hours a day for much of the next week. My quads, knees and feet all hurt like hell, but should recover fully. My dislocated collar bone will leave a permanent bump on my chest, right where a finishers medal might hang. So it seems I got a Barkley "finishers award" after all.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Barkley 2007: More Than a Fun Run

As I write the first draft of this report, it’s been more than 24 hours since I returned to camp after bailing out of loop 5 of the 2007 Barkley and I’m still trying to clear the fog in my mind. I’d been running so well. What went wrong? It’s hard to remember through the fog of total mental and physical exhaustion. But through the fog, I remember … fog. It was real fog, I think, but that’s jumping ahead.

Like last year, I tried to come well prepared. One of the less obvious challenges of running well at Barkley is the training. You either train all winter or ramp up very quickly after the holidays like I did this year. In early January, I logged just 11 flat miles as my wife Sophia and I moved into a new home in Monterey, California. Eight weeks later I logged 79 miles with 45,000 feet of elevation change.

Mental preparation is just as important for an “impossible” run like Barkley. In 2006, I hadn’t been allowed to scout the course. Getting lost cost me any chance of finishing, so just after the race, I wrote down every detail I could remember. I reviewed those notes as I trained, hoping to avoid the navigational mistakes that cost so much time.

Scouting the course was permitted this year, so Wendell Doman and I arrived Wednesday night with plans to scout the next two days. When the first hike took over 7 hours, we both worried that we might be wearing ourselves out, so the next day we scouted just one mile of trail to find the location of the newly placed Book 6.

Saturday morning I awoke at 3:30am, ate breakfast and went back to sleep. When the conch shell sounded at 7:11, signaling one hour to the start, I had one less thing to do getting ready. That really helped keep me calm when Washington Post reporters started taking pictures and asking questions.

At 8:11am Gary lit the starting cigarette, and we were off with a whoop. David Horton and I planned to “run” together, but our running turned to walking in less than ¼ mile. The Bird Mountain Trail, one of the easiest on the course, is too steep to run, rising 1,300 feet in just over 1 mile.

I was a little surprised that no one challenged me for the early lead. This year’s field was particularly strong. David Horton, Jim Nelson, Andrew Thompson, Andras Low, Mike Dobies, Greg Eason and a host of others were content to stay back a bit. More surprising was how much of the field was keeping near the front. I counted at least 20 of the 35 entrants each time the trail switched back. Going down Bird Mountain the pace sped up, the field spread out but, Jim Nelson was right on my tail. We arrived at Book 1 together, got our first pages and crossed Phillips Creek. Jim stopped for water, so I got ahead, but not for long.

The rumors that the Park Service had flagged the North Boundary Trail were true. So at least in daylight, navigation was easy. Even so, I lost confidence between ribbons, and Jim, who knows the trail better than I, got ahead. Andrew, David and some others were right behind as we all followed Jim.

The course changed dramatically in 2006 and the new sections start just after Book 2. So I expected a group of frontrunners to follow Jim and me closely through the new sections. But as I left Book 2, only Jim was in sight, still coming up from the Coal Ponds, and he appeared to be alone. So as I headed up Stallion Mountain, I figured only Jim had any chance of keeping up with me. He and I’d lost a lot of time together as we traversed the new sections for the first time in 2006. The other potential frontrunners would have to pay that penalty this year, or wait for the next person familiar with the course, presumably Mike Dobies.

Because I’d gotten lost here, this was the first place I’d come to scout with Wendell before the race. The preparation really paid off. I ran at full speed with complete confidence from Book 3 on Stallion Mountain to Book 4 on Fyke’s Peak. It felt good to be making up so much time over last year.

The route down from Fyke’s is a string of animal trails, but the right route is fairly obvious to me. I pretty much stay on the ridge, but make sure to follow the animal trails through the rock ledges, avoiding the cliffs. I also remember precisely where to leave the Park boundary and head down a draw to cross the New River. I came out exactly where I hoped, right where it’s easy to cross with dry feet.

I then crossed Highway 116 and headed up Testicle Spectacle, a steep power-line scramble. Unless my memory of misery is faulty, the saw briers were bigger, greener, healthier and thicker this year than last. But the trail through the middle is fairly obvious and I made good time. It was hot, though, and my skin paid the price in blood for wearing shorts. Hopefully it made a good photo. The Washington Post photographers were waiting near the top. As a photographer clicked off a couple shots at ankle level, I said, “Did you know this was going to be a blood sport?”

Book 5 at the top took me a moment to locate as the photographer snapped a few more shots. I’m sure he knew where it was, but he did a good job of not tipping me off. But I found it, ripped out my page as the camera clicked and was on my way down the Meth Lab Trail. It’s another power line with more saw briers and more blood. But I worried about the Neo Butt slide at the bottom. I remember the slide emptying out into saw briers last year, but I guess one year of use ripped out the worst of the buggers. The slide was perilously steep, but mostly free of briers. Whew. I turned right and headed into the woods.

Because I’d scouted the new location of Book 6, near Raw Dog Falls, I knew there was a jeep road between me and the bottom of the ravine. I didn’t bother taking a compass bearing, I just contoured slightly downhill until I hit the road. Book 5 was just uphill to the right.

By comparing notes with other runners after the race, I think I bypassed Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall by going downstream too far before crossing over and traversing side-hill to lower Pig Head Creek. My route is longer, so I think it cost some time. Lower Pig Head Creek is literally a dump. It lies just below a turn out on Highway 116 so we walked through everything from old tires and a computer monitor to miscellaneous household trash. There was even a rotting carcass of some small animal, covered in maggots. Yuck!

Crossing Highway 116 brought me to upper Pig Head Creek and the start of Rat Jaw Junior. It’s a very slow climb following the creek bottom up to where an old road crosses. I believe I wasted some time here as well. The instructions say it’s okay to jump out of the creek bottom sooner and pick up the parallel road high on the ridge to the left. At the very least, this would have avoided a lot of poison ivy.

The climb up Rat Jaw Senior returned us to a Barkley route that’s been in use for several years, so I knew my route-finding advantage was over for loop 1. However, I hadn’t seen anyone behind me since I topped out on the Testicle, so I hoped to maintain my lead for a while. I didn’t remember exactly which animal trails to take up this power line cut, so I worried about hitting a dead end in a saw brier patch and paying the proverbial pound of flesh. Fortunately, I remembered where to cross from side to side, but my confidence was low. Finding Book 7 was easy though.

Topping out on Frozen Head is fun. After the endless climb up Rat Jaw, a cheering group greets us runners as we go by. I felt like a conquering hero. I filled the hydration bladder in my GoLite 24 pack at the water cache and was off. The next two miles follow easy jeep road and improved trail. It’s a good place to eat a meal without worrying about tripping. I made the most of the opportunity and ran as best I could while wolfing down a couple turkey sandwiches.

The Barkley course gets back to the craziness that passes for normal after Book 8 on Indian Knob. The route down Zip Line is completely off-trail, very steep (1,600 feet in ¾ mile) with not even a power line to help guide the way. I just headed straight downhill hoping to recognize the creek at the bottom. Soon I was at the confluence of two creeks and found Book 9.

From there the last big climb goes straight up the other side. It’s called Big Hell for good reason. 1,600 feet up in ¾ mile, a perfect reversal of Zip Line, except this climb follows a ridge. Navigation is easy; just keep following the ridge straight up. My hill training was good this year; I made it to the top without pause. Since I was still in the lead, I had to unpeel about 10 yards of duct tape holding Book 10 to the side of a tree, a task that took about 5 minutes.

It’s supposed to be easy from there, but that’s where I took my first wrong turn. Instead of crossing over the saddle between the first and second Chimney Top rocks, I stayed right of both and ended up on a trail back toward Mart Fields. But I didn’t go far. I backtracked and picked up the correct route. I lost at least 10 minutes though and wasn’t sure if anyone had passed me until I arrived back in camp in first place. Gary counted my pages and congratulated me on finishing Loop 1 in 8 hours 17 minutes. Yes!

I shared a crew with David Horton, and they were amazing. They had a chair waiting with all my stuff arrayed around it. They scrambled six eggs as I washed my feet and changed into fresh shoes and socks. As I ate, they restocked my pack with two turkey sandwiches, 100oz Gu2O, Ensure, my flashlights and other nighttime gear. I was off again in just 13 minutes! I was surprised that no one else arrived before I left.

Because I made such good time, I started Loop 2 at 4:41pm with lots of daylight left. It didn’t get dark until after Book 2 at the Garden Spot. Because I know the route around Fyke’s so well, I didn’t even really notice exactly when it got dark. I was just motoring. I do remember having some uncertainty going through the saw briers on the Testicle, but no real problems. Pig Head Creek was slower in the dark, but I kept seeing familiar landmarks. Rat Jaw was the first real puzzle, as I still wasn’t confident of the route, but a general compass bearing let me know I was piecing the trails together correctly and I had no trouble finding Book 7 at the Keyhole. Even Zip Line and Big Hell were routine. I completed Loop 2 in just under 10 hours and felt great! The evening air was warm and dry. It was 2:26am and I wasn’t even tired. I was feeling confident.

I spent longer with my crew this time. David Horton had ended his race after one loop, and he was a big help. He warned me to be careful navigating. I had a good run going and he didn’t want me to blow it by getting lost. They were leaving in the morning so I asked them to pass my crew notes to Wendell Doman if he was ready, or someone else if he was going for a fun run finish. Wendell took charge after he finished two laps, so I was in good hands.

It’s been said that loop 4 is the hardest. Like loop 3, it’s run in the reverse direction, but it’s run mostly in the dark. Amazingly, I was starting loop 3 before 3am, so I’d face a big chunk of that problem on this loop. I pondered how far I’d get before dawn and hoped this meant I’d have to do less of loop 4 in the dark.

As I headed up the Chimney Top Trail for the first time, I really had no idea who I’d see first, or how far back they were, although I expected to see Jim Nelson since he was the last person I’d seen on loop 1. For a while I thought I might make it all the way to Chimney Top before I saw a headlamp, but then I saw three! It was Mike Dobies, Greg Eason and Andras Low. Rain was just starting, but they were in good spirits. Not far behind them were Jim Nelson and Andrew Thompson, both a little tired and discouraged. After that encounter, it started raining hard and I didn’t see any lights on Chimney Top or down Big Hell where they might have helped me navigate the dark ridge. But I still came out very near Book 9 at the bottom. When I saw the creek, I knew I was upstream from the book, and then I saw another light! It was Wendell Doman. He found Book 9 first and yelled, making my search easy. We were both soaked, but still having fun.

The climb up Zip Line was tough. In the dark, I wanted to stay as close to the creek as possible. But it’s full of rocks and I had to backtrack a bit when I hit a small ledge too steep to climb. But following the creek exactly, enabled me to start exactly on track when the draw flattened out and the route headed straight uphill. Taking advice from David Horton, I angled slightly left and hit the trail coming from Mart Fields after cresting the ridge. Soon I had my page from Book 8.

Dawn’s first light helped me avoid the mud puddles on the road to Frozen Head. Wind was blowing rain across the ridge and for the first time I was cold. I got out my balaclava, covered my wet head and cinched the hood on my rain jacket.

I don’t recall exactly when the rain stopped. The weather was cool enough that I left my rain gear on which helped protect me from saw briers, although I had to unhook my jacket quite a few times for fear of ripping a huge hole in it. What I do remember is my blistered feet. Even coated in Hydropel, which helped some, my feet pruned up and blistered, and the pain slowed me down. Hard rain also produced mud and slippery footing that required using the edges of my shoes for traction, further straining already tired feet. Still I ran when I could and made the best of it.

I finished loop 3 about 3:30pm. As I turned in 10 more pages, Gary asked how I was feeling and I said, “Good, but my feet are hammered!” My Fun Run time was 31:21, almost 9 hours faster than last year! That perked up my spirits, bad feet or no. Wendell had all my crew supplies laid out and scrambled six eggs while I assessed the damage to my feet. They were not as bad as I feared.

I never considered taking a nap. It was broad daylight and I wanted to get as far as I could before nightfall. Backwards navigation at night is what makes loop 4 so hard. I assumed I’d finish loop 4 before dawn, so the more miles I could do before nightfall, the less backwards night navigating I’d have to do. If I was fast enough, I could sleep before the start of loop 5.

Many people in camp were cheering. No one has much energy left after the Fun Run, so anyone setting out on loop 4 is really trying for 5 loops. Quite a crowd was wishing me well, letting me know I had ample time. If only my feet didn’t hurt so much. At the last minute, Leonard Martin lent me a pair of trekking poles. I left hoping they would help keep my feet from coming apart.

The first half mile is downhill on pavement. If you can’t run here, you can’t run anywhere. My spirits soared as my feet settled in without complaint. Yes! I can run! Wearing dry shoes and socks, I had hope for the first time in hours that my foot problems might be behind me.

I sailed up Chimney Top in fog left by the receding storm and cruised down Big Hell. It was daylight and the track of previous runners was obvious in the wet leaves. I didn’t need my compass, but I checked it anyway. David Horton’s advice to be careful and make no mistakes stayed with me. Heading up Zip Line I was very optimistic. In the daylight, I could take an easier route slightly upslope, keeping the creek in sight. After following the creek’s right bend, I powered hard up the ridge using the trekking poles. Just as on loop 3, I angled slightly left, hoping to hit the trail to Mart Fields just beyond the ridge. Near the top, I hit an old trail angling upwards to the left that I now believe would have led me directly to Indian Knob. But I thought Indian Knob was to my right, so I ignored it, reaching the ridge soon after. I had only a few minutes of daylight left to help me find Indian Knob in the fog. Nothing looked familiar, but maybe it was just the fog. So I hopped over the ridge, looking for the Mart Fields Trail. Nothing. I went way downhill hoping it was just out of sight in the fog. No luck. I retraced my steps back to the ridge. I followed the ridge looking for capstones and found one. Then another and another, but no book 8. Then I checked the compass. Whoa! I thought I was searching south, but I’m heading east! This is not good. I feel completely lost and twilight is fading. My gut tells me the compass is wrong, but I know better. I tell myself, “Trust the compass. Figure out where you are.” There was only one possibility, I was southeast of Indian Knob. Angling upslope northwest, a capstone appeared out of the twilight in the fog. It was Indian Knob. I’d just lost ½ an hour.

The trail from Indian Knob to Frozen Head is very runnable, even in the fog. But my headlamp was worse than useless. Its bright beam scattered so much light that I could barely see the trail in front of me. I could see much better when I turned it off. My waist lamp lit up the ground without blinding me. But it’s not very bright, so I took off my head lamp and put it around my waist. That worked much better, but I couldn’t aim the beam. I took it off again and carried it in my hand. That worked, but with trekking poles and a flashlight, I had three items in two hands. I could no longer use the trekking poles to take any significant load off my feet. That had been working really well to ease the pain in my feet. Now in order to see, I had to walk in pain. Eating on the move was impossible.

When I reached the water drop at Frozen Head there were empty bottles down the road. At first I thought they’d blown there, but then I realized it’s a much warmer place to refill, out of the wind. I grabbed a full bottle and headed back. Then I discovered how disorienting fog can be. I accidentally walked toward the lookout tower, almost 90 degrees off-course! Whoa, I had better watch the compass more closely.

The next challenge was Rat Jaw, downhill at night in thick fog. Ugh. With the new book placement, I decided not to just charge downhill and sort things out when I got out of the fog. I had bad memories of getting lost on Fyke’s Peak last year. I was afraid getting lost would leave me wandering aimlessly until sunrise. Book 7 is just 400 vertical feet down the hill, and I really wanted to follow tracks or trail at least that far. My blistered feet also vote against rash action; I couldn’t charge downhill without both hands on my trekking poles. So I crept downhill trying to follow footprints and animal trails which I could only see about 10 feet in any direction. I was trying to be smart and not get lost, but it was late and I was tired. Progress is terribly slow. I kept stopping to check the compass and look around for signs of the power line. Eventually I lost all sign of tracks or trail and had to just follow a compass bearing and hope for the best. I still stopped every 20 feet and checked my bearing.

The fog was so thick that I didn’t realize what was happening when I stepped near the edge of a cliff. It just seemed that the fog was thicker and I couldn’t make out the ground in front of me. But I rejoiced when I realized it was a rock at about same altitude as book 7! I worked my way to the base and could just barely see another rock adjacent. I walked from rock to rock, as they got larger and connected into a more or less continuous face. I carefully followed the indentations of that face, hoping to recognize the keyhole. The fog was so thick that I had to climb in and out of every cleft to get a good look. Suddenly I saw footprints coming out of a promising cleft. Book 7 was right in front of me. What a relief! That book had taken much too long to find.

I still couldn’t charge downhill, because I might miss the turn in the power line. But the fog was thinning and I could see the power line when I was standing close to it. After the turn, the animal trails were easier to follow and I stopped less often to check the compass. But my feet had gotten used to a slower pace and even as the fog in the air lifted, the fog of sleepiness in my head thickened. When I reached the penultimate road near the bottom of Rat Jaw, I followed it until I realized it wasn’t the right one. My mind just wasn’t working so well anymore.

On the right road, I forced myself to run despite the complaints coming from my feet and I started moving well for the first time in hours. However, Pig Head Creek slowed me down. The fog was completely gone, so I was wearing my headlamp again, freeing up both hands for trekking poles. Even so, the rocks in the creek bed were killing my feet.

The smell of the carcass in lower Pig Head hit me before I even crossed the road. I stepped very carefully through the garbage dump. It’s so easy to slip and fall when tired. But I perked up as I approached book 6 at Raw Dog Falls. The fire road was easier on my feet and I knew exactly where I was. Even the scary scramble up the Neo Butt Slide was a bit of relief. Adrenaline kept me awake for a few minutes as I worked my way up the muddy slope on hands and knees, using the tips of my trekking poles like ice climbing tools for handholds between tufts of saw briers. After that, the rest of Meth Lab Hill was easy. The top was wind-blown and cold, shrouded once again in fog. I got my page and figured would be a good place for a nap. I certainly couldn’t oversleep; the cold would wake me up in about 15 minutes. It did. Sleeping in the cold wasn’t very refreshing though.

My feet complained again going down Testicle Spectacle. Slippery mud threatened to send me sliding through the high saw briers, but I managed to hold fast. Or should I say slow? Slow certainly better described my pace. Sleep may have done my brain some good. I thought about the slow pace and checked my watch. It was 2:30am. I didn’t remember what time I left camp or when I expected to return, but I remembered that it should still be dark. 2:30am? There wasn’t enough night left! I had to hustle.

The bottom half of the Testicle is less steep and slippery, so I ran to the road and down to the New River. Even though the rain had stopped hours ago, the New River was much higher than before. It was nothing like the torrent that Blake Woods reported on loop 5 in 1996, but it was more than enough to get my sore feet wet. So be it. I couldn’t afford to lose any more time.

Once again I had no trouble finding my way up Fyke’s Peak. The last wisps of fog blew across the ridge as I picked up my page from Book 4. The stars were bright. It promised a beautiful, clear, warm sunny day for loop 5. I thought about the time again. I doubted that I’d make it back to camp before sunrise. Then it occurred to me. 8:11am would be the 48-hour mark of the race. If I didn’t get back before then, there wouldn’t BE a loop 5. I’d been taking caffeine pills, but I couldn’t remember exactly when, so I took some more.

Clarity of purpose help focus even the tired mind. I ran from Book 4 to Book 3 and on to Book 2 at the Garden Spot. My feet complained, and my legs were tired, but they held together. The flag markers on the North Boundary Trail were of little help at night. I focused on landmarks and found my way down through the Coal Ponds, across SOB Ditch and over Bald Knob. The newly maintained stretch of trail was a reprieve. I ran as fast as I could through that section. Close attention to route finding was required again after Jury Ridge, and to find Book 1. I was doing the best I could, but it was getting light. Somehow I had to move faster.

As I crested the top of Bird Mountain, the sun rose. I had hoped to greet that third sunrise with more joy, but I only had ½ an hour left to finish the loop. I was going to make it, but there would be no time for sleep. I ran downhill, trying not to destroy me feet. I started thinking about loop 5. I was going to need those feet for another 12 hours. I walked short stretches, but there was so little time!

I arrived at the Yellow Gate almost exactly at 8:00am, thinking I had 11 minutes to spare. Gary reminded me I had to LEAVE on loop 5 before those 11 minutes were up. I thought, “Oh my God! How am I going to get ready?” But it was morning, and everyone was up waiting for me to arrive. Everyone worked together as my crew! As I tended my feet, eggs are burned - err cooked, sandwiches made, bladder refilled; everything was taken care of. My feet were ugly. There was a blister the side of my whole thumb on the left side of my left heel and several smaller ones scattered around. My feet needed a lot of work, but I didn’t even have time to drain the big blister. I just shoved my feet in dry socks and put my shoes back on. If the blister didn’t pop itself, I could stop later, but I had to check out of camp NOW. I choked down the last of my scrambled eggs, handed the pan back to Wendell and checked out with 7 seconds to spare.

Peace of mind slowly returned as I walked back up Bird Mountain. I found a banana in my left pocket, but it was too late to drop the peel. I’d have to carry it the whole way. I thought about that as I climbed. “The whole way. One more loop. Not many people get to start loop 5, but most of those who do, finish,” I told myself. If they are fast enough to complete loop 4 backwards in the dark, 12 hours is enough time for a daylight loop.

More thoughts came back to me from those hectic 11 minutes in camp. Someone told me I’d taken 16 hours on loop 4. “16 hours! That’s almost twice as long as I took on loop 1,” I told myself. “What took me so long?” I didn’t remember much about the loop 4. Jumbled memories filled my mind. Had it raining last night, or was that the night before? I was so tired, but I needed to make good time on the North Boundary Trail. My feet wouldn’t carry me very fast over the rough sections later. “Oh God, what if I don’t make it? I’m so tired.” I took another caffeine pill, but they just weren’t working anymore.

By sheer force of will I crested Bird Mountain and descended to Book 1. The routine was automatic now. Take out my race number. Read it. Don’t relay on memory. Pull out the right page. Look at the number and compare it to my race number. Look at the shape. Just make sure it’s the right number and put it away. Make sure the zipper is closed. The job’s not done until the page is securely put away.

Up Jury Ridge, I really struggled. It was broad daylight, but I couldn’t stay awake. I stopped for a 15 minute nap. I set my watch alarm and fell unconscious in seconds. It was a warm morning and the sleep felt so good. But when the alarm went off, I got up and started moving. I just didn’t feel any better. I crested Jury Ridge and tried to run downhill on the newly maintained trail. It’s good footing, but I just couldn’t move fast. I stumbled with sleepiness. At the bottom I stopped for another nap. This time I didn’t even set the watch. It had taken me three hours to get to Rayder Creek. On loop 1, I had made it to the Garden Spot in three hours. I was going barely half that pace. I calculated that at that rate, it would be another 16 hour loop. I couldn’t afford the time to sleep, but I couldn’t go on without it. My race was over. I slept.

A naked fact about Barkley is you can’t just drop out. You have to get back to camp. The easiest way home from Rayder Creek is to continue on the Barkley course to Bald Knob, hop over the ridge and take the fire road back. So I continued forward for another hour, still technically in the race. But I was barely putting one foot in front of the other. I wanted to stop and sleep some more, but each time I stopped, my feet hurt so badly I regretted stopping. When I got to Bald Knob, I didn’t even consider continuing. I just wanted to get back to camp as soon as possible and sleep.

It took another 3 hours to get back. Some were surprised to see me; some were not. But I’d given it everything I had. That, and four official laps, was enough to be proud of. It wasn’t the result I hoped for, but it was enough for everyone else there. In time it would be okay with me too. It was actually easier to go down while still out on the trail trying. Last year I’d missed a cut-off when I still had some fight left and wasn’t allowed to continue. This year I had the chance to give it my all.

My first inkling of that acceptance came in camp. I’d staggered three hours thinking of nothing but sleep. When I arrived to heartfelt cheers and knowing condolences, I forgot about sleep. I sat down and traded war stories with my friends. I wanted to know how everyone else’s day had gone and they wanted to know about mine. The Washington Post reporters were there too, and recorded our conversations. I hope the confused musings of my very tired mind make sense when put down in print and read by others more rested. The Washington Post article and some great audio content can be found here.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Barkley 2006: Not Quite a Fun Run

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. Greg Eason and Craig Wilson were the only other starters on loop 3 but turn back part way. 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?