[Editor’s Note: In the spring of 2014, Jared Campbell accomplished the rare feat of finishing the Barkley Marathons held in Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park each year. The race consists of five nominally 20-mile loops, each of which must be completed in under 12 hours for a total time of under 60 hours. The first two laps are run clockwise; the third and fourth laps are run counterclockwise; and the final lap is run as a runner’s choice (with the exception of if there are multiple runners still on course). In addition to his 2012 finish, Jared was the only finisher this year and just the second person to finish Barkley twice, joining Brett Maune. Keep in mind, there have only been 16 finishes by 14 finishers since 1995 when the race began running close to its modern iteration. Here, Jared puts the 2014 Barkley into words.]
There are lessons in life that can only be learned through fairly massive deviations from our normal, comfortable routines. These lessons alter our perspective on life and better equip us to deal with life’s unforeseen challenges. They can sharpen our optimism and generate a deeper appreciation for the simple things in life.
The Barkley is a very niche race in the niche sport of long-distance trail running, a sub-culture within a sub-culture if you will. It is unique enough, in fact, that I actually consider it outside the sphere of traditional ultramarathons. It stands alone at the intersection of endurance run, vertical-gain extravaganza, orienteering challenge, and survival contest. Success is heavily dependent on strategy, planning, terrain memorization, disaster prevention, and mental control. The creators of Barkley are guided by strong, self-defined ethics and unique end objectives. At first glance, the unique aspects of Barkley are often deterrents for most; they were for me initially. Over the past three years, I’ve come to truly appreciate Barkley for all that it is… and isn’t.
I’ve run (or attempted) Barkley the past three years (2012, 2013, and 2014). Every year the course has been modified to be slightly harder than the prior year. While not formally written, it is clear that Race Director Gary ‘Laz’ Cantrell wants to keep the race as difficult as possible… but still possible. This explains why having zero or just one finisher is fairly common and why all the finishing times are not too much faster than the maximum allowable time. On three different years (2001, 2004, and 2013) there have been two finishers, and in 2012 there were a record number three. The course is evolutionary and self-correcting to maintain the apparent ‘barely possible’ objective. The 2014 course removed a section of the beautiful North Boundary Trail and replaced it with a steep new descent known as Hiram’s Vertical Smile, and a solid thrash back up an adjacent ridge to re-acquire the North Boundary Trail further east. Two new books were installed to prove runners had completed the new section. It’s interesting to note that there are still some significant sections of ‘candy-ass trail’ (Barkley speak for an actual trail), so there remains room for increased difficulty in future years… I fear what it will look like in 2020!
Terrain and Navigation
The standard put-your-head-down-and-just-follow-the-markers mindset that mainstream ultrarunning has nurtured over the years simply does not apply at Barkley. Anyone starting who doesn’t realize this is hosed. There are no course markers and route finding can feel near-impossible, especially during storms. Interestingly, this forces you to learn more about the terrain than you ever have before. If you’re wise, you’ll study the maps, memorize the nuances of the drainage systems, plan out compass headings, and construct game plans for imperfect navigation. Should you hit a river upstream of a critical confluence, how will you know and what will you do? How much volume of water is there both above and below the confluence? These are questions worth answering on lap one.
Lacking a trail or course markings forces (or should force) you to pay significantly more attention to everything, which can feel unnerving at first. With time you realize how much more ‘real’ this makes things. Early laps should be used to learn the topology and look for nuances. My advice to Barkley virgins is to definitely follow a veteran but also to keep your eyes wide open with the ‘record’ button on. A photographic memory would be helpful.
In 2012, I was a Barkley ‘virgin’ and had not taken a single step on the course. This meant that my only option was to stay with a veteran. Fortunately, Brett Maune was kind enough to let me tether along with him for the first four laps, something I am to this day incredibly grateful for. It might be possible to get around the loop using only map/compass/directions, but it would be incredibly time-consuming.
In 2013, I thought I knew the course well as I had been around it five times (with the exception of the new section). But, all it took was a thick fog on lap two and the mistakes quickly started. With the foolish mistake of descending before verifying a compass bearing, I dropped into an incorrect drainage and spent seven hours thrashing around in the rain, flirting with hypothermia. Upon completion of the ‘Fun Run’* in 2013 (where I called it quits), it was clear I had failed because of my own stupidity. I vowed to return for redemption. Failing in this way was good for me as it forced me to become more diligent, more methodical, and more patient. Sufficient gear, redundant compasses, and pausing to verify directions, this would be my approach in 2014.
[* Editor’s Note: The Barkley Fun Run consists of completing three of Barkley’s 20-mile loops in under 40 hours.]
I returned in 2014 for Barkley ‘Part B,’ pure self-sufficiency on the course. ‘Part A’ is the tethered version. I craved the self-sufficient experience and was ready for 60 hours of loneliness if that’s what it took.
The Conch sounded at 5:45 a.m. to which I easily awoke, thrilled to know that we’d start before 7 a.m. My gear was ready to go so I stayed in bed for another 10 minutes. The camp was quickly rustling with excitement. The temperature was perfect and it wasn’t raining… yet.
I was close to Laz for the starting ritual, wondering if it was the special cigarettes I had brought him. I quickly assumed the lead and jogged up the 14 pleasant switchbacks on the starting candy-ass trail. I was on autopilot down to book one and made quick work of the Jacque Mate descent. The North Boundary Trail (NBT) felt great up to the departure ridge to the new book two. New sections always bring a bit of anxiety, but I fortunately found the book easily. A quick compass bearing (50 degrees) and I was off, charging down Hiram’s Vertical Smile. I hit a river confluence perfectly and started scouring for the book. But, no book to be found! Was I at the correct confluence? After 10 minutes I started going downstream until I hit another confluence. This feels right… but still no book. The written description was almost comical, “Look for two trees roughly 20 feet apart…” I chuckled and continued downstream. Eventually, I ran into another group: John Fegyveresi, Alan and Beverley Abbs, Jamil Coury, and a couple others, I think. It was nice to see them and we worked together. First, downstream until we saw power lines and knew we had gone too far. Then, back upstream to one of the confluences I had previously scoured. We quickly found the book as someone else had beaten us to it and left it in a more obvious location.
I was on a mission so once I had my page from book two, I pressed on up the ridge at a strong pace. I got to see about six to eight friendly faces along the way including Nicki Rehn from Australia and Michiel Panhuysen from Holland. I don’t think there is a situation in life where seeing Michiel wouldn’t make me smile; the guy simply radiates good energy. My mind flashed to the fun times we (my wife Mindy, Michiel, his wife Nicole, and I) had last summer in Spain and Andorra prior to Ronda dels Cims. I gave him a friendly pat on the back and pressed onward. Soon, I came to the rock wall on the new section. I love such obstacles in Barkley as they break things up. I found a nice, muddy class-4 line through the small cliff, which worked perfectly. I made a mental note of exactly where my route was so I wouldn’t lose time looking for it on laps three and four when I’d be downclimbing it. Back on the NBT it was clear there was a single set of fresh tracks in the mud. Eventually, I caught up to Nikolay Nachev just before the climb up to the Garden Spot. He’s an orienteering guru and has competed on the World Orienteering Championships. I regret not stopping to chat more with him.
Lap one is always fun because you get to see the books for the first time; some of them are hilarious. Book four was my favorite, Don’t Count Yourself Out: Staying Fit After 35, by Jimmy Connors. I turn 35 later this year, so I was happy to be collecting some pointers!
The next four books of the course went perfectly. No navigational errors, I felt great, and was moving well. I love the route just to the right of Dave’s Climbing Wall. It’s super steep and there are a couple ‘techy’ moves between small exposed tree roots. I thought to myself, “This is probably 5.5/5.6 vegetation,” which made me chuckle. The upper pitches of Rat Jaw were extremely slick from the rain, but I’ve developed a strange attraction to it. I thought back to a quote from Blake Wood, “Climbing Rat Jaw was like scrambling up a playground slide in roller skates.” Yep, that was fitting for the current conditions. It just meant more climbing with hands. It’s possible to get creative and move from stump to stump like handholds on a climbing wall.
The silver lining of wet conditions at Barkley is that you slide through saw briers far easier. I focused on that.
I eventually hit upper Rat Jaw and jogged up to the handful of spectators who were braving the now miserable weather. I grabbed my page and took off back down the playground slide. Descending Rat Jaw during a rainstorm is a lot like glissading down a steep snow gully. On the second pitch from the top, I miscalculated while moving too quickly and lost control, falling head over heels 25 feet down into a large, concave ditch. When I came to a halt, I had to do a full body check to make sure everything was still operational. No bones protruding from skin, check. No brier stumps or old power line cables penetrating through my thigh, check. I couldn’t believe it, I was thrilled! The brier gods were looking out for me. I stood up, climbed out of the ditch, and took off with a little extra caution in my step.
I slid down the cables to the prison, crawled through the tunnel, grabbed my page, and vectored up to Indian Knob. Thankfully, I read the climb perfectly. (This is where I made a major mistake in the fog last year.) After a quick thrash down the Zipline and a nice climb up Big Hell, I was en route back to camp on the candy-ass trail. It would be a slower lap than I wanted (just over eight hours), but nothing to stress about.
I left camp feeling great and was at the top of the switchbacks in just under 30 minutes. On the climb up to Jury Ridge I was surprised to see Matt Mahoney and Cat Lawson coming backwards on the course. What? Apparently they made a handful of navigational errors, never found book three and eventually turned around. It was still light so I was happy to see the new section again and work to commit it to memory. I found books two and three without issue. The weather was on-and-off gnarly and wet and the temperatures were dropping.
I had a strange burning in both Achilles tendons, presumably from my shoes, which hadn’t been properly broken in. It got intense on every steep uphill and forced me to not step straight on, rather taking every step on either side of my foot. I knew it was temporary and related to my footwear so I tried not to stress.
The silver lining of the pain was that it forced me to ascend in creative ways, which spread the wear-and-tear out over my body. It would also make switching shoes for lap three something to look forward to. I focused on that.
Headlamp on at Pighead Creek. As I rounded the corner to Rat Jaw I was surprised to see several bright lights. It was one of the camera crews there to get some ‘real’ footage. I was impressed by their fortitude as the conditions were downright miserable. I can’t wait to see the footage they got. I tiptoed my way up the upper pitches of Rat Jaw and pressed on to Frozen Head Peak. It was now a mix of freezing rain and snow, which started to accumulate. The wind was howling. I was careful on the descent, as I didn’t want to test my luck again with the brier gods.
On the climb out of the prison the visibility dropped significantly and I started to have flashbacks of last year. It’s amazing how quickly one can get disorientated in Tennessee fog. Similar to vertigo, one’s sense of orientation and heading can fade in an instant. I stopped dead in my tracks to check my compass bearing. I followed the bearing religiously for the remainder of the climb and was relieved to find the book at Indian Knob. Whew, disaster avoided. Other than picking a terrible line down Zipline, the remainder of loop two went without issue.
I took a little extra time to put myself back together at camp and make sure I had everything I needed. The first counterclockwise loop, I was both excited to see others (who were finishing up their second clockwise loop), but also nervous about the two descents from Chimney Top and Indian Knob, both of which are notoriously tricky. Sure enough I blew the first descent, vectoring too far down canyon. I lost about 30 minutes, but eventually get back on track near the Beech Tree. It was here that I ran into Alan, John, Jamil, and Jodi Isenor. We chatted for a minute then parted ways; I took off bound for the steep grind up Zipline. On the descent down to the prison I ran into the incredible Eva Pastalkova and partner, both appeared strong and focused. The precipitation was finally slowing, but the temperatures would remain cold for quite a while. Near Pighead Creek I ran into Jeff List. He would be the last person I’d see on the course.
As I descended Testicle Spectacle there was finally enough morning light to turn the headlamp off. The weight of the approximately 24 hours thus far weighed on me and I stopped for a five- to 10-minute trail nap with shivering as my alarm clock. Nothing like a nice rest on the ol’ Testicle. I awoke and pressed on to the next book. While I repackaged the book after removing my page, the musty odor of the page between my teeth was strong and I thought, Where had this book been? Where did Laz find it? Had it been stored away in an old library or in someone’s basement collecting dust? What a strange fate for this book and this page to be torn out, bitten, folded up, and dragged around Frozen Head State Park.
The climb up Fyke’s Peak involved perfect navigation, which I was very happy about. The morning sunlight woke me up, but I was still moving slower than I wanted to. It didn’t matter; this is how things go on lap three. I stomped out thoughts of laps four and five.
Garden Spot was simply beautiful with the fresh snow on tree branches glowing in the morning light. The NBT was remarkably cold. I blew the descent down to book three, vectoring too far right and thrashing off the side of the ridge. I vowed to not make this mistake on loop four. I found book two in reverse without issue, followed by one final hoof up Jacque Mate hill and then down to camp.
The silver lining of snow on the course meant I could more easily see and follow my footprints from the previous lap. I focused on that.
As I left camp, Laz reminded me that “it’s all downhill from here.” Thanks Laz. I commented back that it all starts here, which is really true. The physical and psychological degradation really start their domino effect on loop four. I blew the descent off Indian Knob again, this time hitting it too far upstream. But, I quickly got back on track and pressed onward. The precipitation had stopped which was very nice. I made it to partway up Fyke’s Peak before the headlamp came on for the night. I wasn’t moving well, but at least I was moving. About 30 minutes into the night, the song “Hearse” by Ani DiFranco came on. I crumbled some 37 hours into my adventure as I entered the second night.
From the beginning of the race I anticipated becoming overcome by emotion in the later stages. I had, after all, left my beautiful wife and four-month-old daughter at home, 1,700 miles away, so I could thrash around the hills of Tennessee. I knew this was coming and rather than having it turn into an opportunity for ‘what-the-hell-am-I-doing’ thoughts, I turned it around. This was the self-distillation I had come for. Here I was on the loneliest part of the course, the furthest point from camp halfway across the country from my wife and daughter and, paradoxically, I felt a sudden chain-link-solid bond to them. I lay on the ground staring up at the beautiful starry sky. My physical and emotional heart both raced. I got up and pressed onward with purpose in my step.
As I neared the top of the climb I somehow took an incorrect route back up to the road prior to the Garden Spot. After 10 to 15 minutes of backtracking I figured out where I was and tried not to let it stress me out. Near the top of the climb again I became incredibly tired; I had to sleep. I pulled the hoodie of my jacket over me and lay down for what was probably 10 minutes, eventually getting up out of frigid necessity. It was cold; I was stiffening up, and physically falling apart fast. I got moving again, but it wasn’t pretty. The 45,000-plus-feet of descending had taken its toll. My left shin was agonizingly painful and I had developed a sharp compensation-related right-knee pain.
The silver lining to colds temps during Barkley is that you can wear pants, which means you have protection from the briers and poison ivy. I focused on that.
On the ascent up the Vertical Smile I had completely lost my mental focus and my sense of direction went haywire. The climb seemed ridiculously steep; I couldn’t possibly be on the correct route. The three neurons that were still firing in my brain were with it enough to follow my compass bearing, despite the fact that it felt like I was on completely new terrain. I pressed on ever so slowly, with brief pauses of exhaustion. By what felt like a complete miracle I crested the ridge within 20 feet of book two! I was in complete disbelief and had been anticipating hours of searching. With a bit of renewed vigor I pressed on, only one climb left on loop four!
At the base of Jacque Mate my cognition and stability took a sudden dive, and then… crash… I was out cold…
I awoke in a vaguely familiar place. After several minutes I reconstructed where I was and where I needed to go. I had a concerning lack of control over my basic motor functions, but I had no choice but to press on. The climb had never felt so steep and never so long. Eventually I reached the top, grabbed my page, and set off for the final candy-ass descent into camp. I was in need of a resurrection and found comfort knowing Julian Jamison would be there to help. As I stumbled into camp I quietly informed him of my situation and that I needed to sleep for 45 minutes. I was optimistic knowing that most of lap five would be in the light with beautiful weather. I fell into an instant deep sleep in the car.
I woke to a strange person and was uncertain about where I was. It took me a good 60 seconds before I had any clue where I was and why Julian was telling me to get up. Reality started to take shape and I had to process what remained to be done. Wow, I was out of it. Interestingly, within 10 minutes I was geared up and ready to charge out of camp. I left feeling surprisingly good. I chose the clockwise direction, same as laps one and two.
On the first descent the physical wear and tear was painfully apparent. My left shin, which had bothered me for the prior 15 hours, had reached a stage where downhills were truly agonizing and I was on the verge of not being able to load my heel at all as it would stress the inflamed tendons and ligaments. Like having a few loose lug nuts, quickly other parts started to come undone. The pain on the medial side of my right knee had become razor sharp, like your worst IT-band pain but on the inside of the leg. Interestingly, none of this mattered. If I could still make forward progress, that is what I would do, trying to not get frustrated by the slow speed. In the Fangorn Forest I somehow missed book one. I panicked, but quickly pulled out the map and compass and got back on track. I was pleased that despite having my internal compass completely jacked and feeling disoriented, I was still able to make decent decisions. Then, I blew the Check Mate descent, too far right. Hellacious bushwhacking marked this unnecessarily long descent. It must have taken me 45 minutes to descend, more than any of my ascent times. Twilight caught up to me at book two. I was happy to be able to see, but physically the descent was absolute torture. It’s amazing how creative your compensation becomes in the most painful situations. Poles helped.
I craved climbing rather than descending. This was relentless forward motion at its finest. At book five (Leonard’s Butt Slide) I set my pack down for the short out-and-back to the book. I went to pull out my bag of pages and… nothing! Gasp! I just about had a heart attack as I contemplated what this could mean. How could this have happened? I tore through my pack and thankfully found them. I had put the bag away in a different pocket. In a strange way this stress was like a quad shot of espresso and I felt alive again. I hobbled along, pecking away at the descents, and doing surprisingly well on the ascents. It felt good to know that every step represented the last time I’d have to make it. There is a satisfying finality to loop five.
The lowest level of hell in Dante’s Inferno is freezing cold, not the fire and brimstone we might expect. Similarly, my level of pain had reached a point where I went silent. By the New River I discovered I had a companion, a good friend who lagged just behind me. He was frustratingly slow, but I couldn’t separate from him. I had dissociated from my pain, as if surgically removing the defective parts on my body and molding them into a separate being who tagged along. We moved along together at a slow but methodical pace. Whenever I’d stop to get food or tear out a book page, as I started again I had a strong feeling like I might have left him. But, alas, he was still there.
Eventually, I found myself at the top of Frozen Head Peak and was surprised to see the camera team again. One guy followed me down Rat Jaw at my pathetic pace; we didn’t exchange a single word. I was met by another camera guy in the prison tunnel and he followed me through it. I did the series of chimney moves to climb up and out of the tunnel and was surprised to be met at eye level with four large cameras in my face. They followed me to the book where I removed my page, stopped to empty my shoes, and get some calories in prior to the second to last climb. It was hot, I was in an extremely focused headspace, and the bustling camera guys were strangely distracting. I wondered if they’d try to stay with me on the climb. They didn’t. Freedom came as I marched up the Bad Thing.
The silver lining to warm weather at Barkley is that the footing is much better. I focused on this.
The final off-trail descent down Zipline marked the last of the extreme pain. I paused at the final book after the Big Hell climb. I slowly tore out this final page, something I had visualized for much of the prior 57 hours and was surprised to find myself void of emotion. I had spent it all across the park. I shuffled down the candy-ass trail, crossed the final river, and jogged into camp. The finish line was beautifully simple.
The Barkley family is extremely tightknit. People stick around for days to see someone finish. I was surprised and flattered by how many people were at camp to meet me and I happily answered their questions by the yellow gate.
Several asked, “Did you have any moments where you wanted to quit or where you doubted your ability to keep going?” The answer really was, “No.” Most hundred milers and especially events like Barkley require complete commitment upfront. One can’t play it by ear or see how it goes; there must be 100% commitment from the start. Once this state is reached, one can focus on moving through the motions and not get stressed by the minutia, knowing that stress won’t render anything constructive. Find the silver lining and press onward.
[Editor’s Note: In production progress is The Barkley Marathons Documentary by Tim Kane and Annika Iltis. The film focuses on the 2012 race at The Barkley Marathons with footage and a bit of storyline from the 2013 and 2014 race editions. Kane and Iltis are currently raising funds via an Indigogo crowdsourcing campaign to finish the film. They expect to debut it in the summer of 2014. Below is the film’s trailer.]