The Barkley Marathons
March 27, 2010
Wartburg, TN – Frozen Head State Park
5 Loops – Each Being 22 Miles Long
w/24,000′ of Elevation Change
After 21 hours of driving we arrived at Frozen Head State Park under a canopy of fog and the lightness of a falling rain. Trying to find a campsite was a chore in the dark though it was great knowing that we were finally “there.” Andrew Thompson was awake, greeted us with a friendly hand shake and tried to help direct us. We found a spot and while the Robert Boys chose to spend the first night in the car I stood outside in the falling rain and set up my tent. I fell asleep that night after quite good deal of tossing and turning. No idea what to expect, no clue what I was even doing here. Do I deserve this? Did I deserve the invite? Can I even find a book let alone 10? My thoughts ran through my head like a pack of racing horses. I fell asleep and a few short hours later awoke to a full day of plotting, planning and gathering as much advice as I could get.
On Friday, the cast of characters that are as unique as the Barkley course itself began to show up. After spotting Gary “Laz” Cantrell and noticing that folks had begun to copy the map I was anxious to check in and get the show on the road. I stepped up to the tent and shook hands with Gary who gave me a hearty handshake with a “Shepherd John…” Gary immediately went under the tent and got my Bib Number and race packet. I followed him in and officially checked into the race. He explained that if I wanted to drop I could and that plenty of folks wanted my number. “In fact, some folks might pay you quite a bit of money for your number.” As I looked down into my hands I see that I’ve been handed bib number #13. Closer inspection of the bib and I see this years race motto, “Not All Pain Is Gain.” I gave Gary my license plate from my state, an item that all virgin runners must submit in order to run. Josh had forgotten to get one so he ripped his from his truck before we left it in Vermont… thats dedication to a race and he’ll need to buy a new one.
Gary explained the race packet to me. My bib number is 13 and for the duration of Loop #1, I had to tear page number 13 from each of the ten books hidden out on the course. The front page of the race packet was the official race projections for ever runner entered. Mine said, “Disappears before the start, found a week later hiding in the campground bathrooms.” How appropriate for me given much of my previous history in races. Then there was the incremental profile of the entire course. A course elevation profile which was beyond ridiculous. Then there was the directions to each of the 10 books. The directions to each book was very detailed, including information that was helpful and tons of info I felt was completely useless. I would later sit down with a highlighter and simply highlighted just the info that I truly needed to find each book (ie. where is the damn book). I explained what I had done to another runner later and he said, “Thats a bad choice.. you need ALL of the info on that sheet..” Following the directions to the 10 books was the directions to the same 10 books only in reverse.. for the reverse loop should you be lucky enough to run it of course.
I walked over to the picnic table where the master map was laying. I sat down beside a few other runners, picked up the highlighters and began to trace the master map down onto my purchased map. Inside I laughed the entire time. A former Barkley runner, and wait lister for this years race laughed at us when he heard we hadn’t bought a map yet. “You mean you didn’t come down here with a map?! I would have purchased one weeks ago! When you get down there, you better buy 3 as you’ll need them.”  I took this advice lightly, only purchased ONE map and even chuckled while I marked it up. Exactly as it lay there, I traced the route and labelled where the 10 books were verbatim. I then returned to my campsite where I took immense care in laminating my map with clear packing tape. I taped both sides of the map and then placed it inside my map protector. I’m not sure why I’d need more then one.. I didn’t plan on losing this one given how I intended to carry it out on the course and I doubt the weather was going to effect it given my double lamination and map carrier. Fair enough.
The rest of the day was spent hanging around the fire and trying to listen in on as much advice as I could. It was a real treat to watch the likes of Charlie Engle sit down and copy his map. Knowing I’d be running the same course as Jonathon Basham and Andre Thompson, Blake Wood, Charlie Engle and countless other accomplished and under-appreciated ultra-runners was starting to give me chills. I wondered again why I was here, wondering if I deserved it, if I belonged. I’d been questioning my place in this sport for months now… trying to decide if I really wanted to keep going. I’ve been at it for 5 years now. I’ve been called a joke, told I was just a flash in the pan and I’d disappear soon.. yet here I was at the Barkley.. Gary showed Joe how to cook the frozen chicken. Frozen bricks of poultry that came tumbling out of a big plastic bag. The race is named after the gentleman who donates the chicken to the race every year. Gary shows Joe how to turn it, how to care for it and I stepped in to help Joe for a few hours. Together we put the can of beans into the fire, I used a stick to help balance the chicken upon each turn and I chuckled as Joe spread the BBQ sauce with his bare fingers again and again.
As I continued to take in the words and thoughts of others I began to realize the most important piece of Barkley advice I now own. Those who have travelled the fewest miles on the Barkley course seem to “know” the most and talk and talk and talk. Those who have travelled the farthest.. those who contain the information you want and so crave.. they creep around camp silently with nary a word to share. Like a scared fraternity they hold their tips and tricks closely to their soul and save it for only those who they know have a chance at immortality. I’m not one of those people… so I take and leave what info I think I need and head to bed. Sometime within the next 24 hours, Gary will blow into a conch, signaling that we have exactly one hour before he’ll light his cigarette and the race will begin. Only Gary knows those time, so as I lay my head down for rest I was surprised that I slept like a baby. That night I dreamt of the best advice I got before the race started. It game from Rich Limacher, a man who sat out in the middle of nowhere a few years back. Rain and sleet came down on him and another runner as they spent the night, lost in the desolate woods of Frozen Head. Rich told us of the Limacher Hilton, pointed out yonder and said it’s not a place we should care to make a reservation to.
I woke up from a sound sleep at around 6:00 AM. I looked at my phone to see the time and wondered if I had missed the conch and if not, wondered when it would even be blow. And then, a few minutes later this short blast of a conch shell was blown as the echo bounced off of each hillside throughout the entire valley. I now had exactly one hour to get ready to run. I laid in my tent, motionless for a few minutes and pondered my existence on top of where the hell I even was. Was this real? Should I pinch myself? Here I was laying inside my tent at Frozen Head State Park. Over 1000 miles from home about to start the Worlds Toughest race (sorry Badwater, get your facts right). Was I really here? Yes I was.. and I was about to embark on one of the most incredible adventures of my life. I hear Josh moving around in his tent and we both share the same sentiments. In disbelief that we’re actually at the Barkley. Josh and his dad Rik are about to become the first father son team to ever take on the Barkley course.
The night before I had gotten my pack ready to roll, my map was marked laminated and in its protector. Directions to each book was in a plastic bag and stuffed into one of my pack pockets. My pack also carried 2L of water, 24 oz. of gatorade, 2 bottles of boost, 4 PowerGels, 5 Succeed! Caps, 6 “buddy bars”, a 5 hour energy shot, headlamp, Fenix Handheld Light, chapstick, Aspirin, a lan-set, rain jacket and pants, stuff sack full of gloves and hats… My pack weighed a ton and the moniker Sherpa was ever fitting. And then in that moment, as I had slung my pack onto my back I had an amazing flashback to my first Ultra ever. The Damn Wakely Dam ultra in 2005. My pack was huge at that race, a 32 mile trail run through the Adirondack Wilderness. No aid stations and only YOU are responsible for YOU from beginning to end. Strange how some five years later, as I readied myself for the Big One.. the Bad Thing.. that I can remember back to ultra #1 and see such similarities and in that instant I remember why I was here. And I was ready to go.
(Photo Courtesy of Wakley Dam)
I actually pulled myself from the Bathroom with about 15 minutes to go. Sorry Gary, I wasn’t about to miss the start of this. I had my fleece lined tights on, 3 shirts and a down jacket. Yeah, I was over dressed for the climb ahead but it was a damn cold 30 degrees this morning. I walked up to the gate and leaned against it so I could have my photo taken, smiling, before the race started. My blood surged, my heart raced and my eyes opened. I am ready to go… or as ready as I think I could be and as I stand there I look over and see Gary. With a cigarette in one hand and a lighter in the other he checks his watch. And within the blink of an eye, the cigarette is to his lips, the lighter is flicked quickly and a puff of smoke rises into the air… the race has begun.
Chapter 1: Ambition
The cigarette was lit and we all took off hurriedly up the trail. We cross over what I call A Bridge Over Trouble Water and immediately hang left taking it to the first big climb up the flanks of Bird Mountain. Up ahead of me I see Blake Wood, running, yes running uphill with a tight group of 4 runners on his tail. “What the hell….?!?!” I can’t even imagine running up this hill. A hill so steep that it’s laden with switchbacks from the get go. One of the pieces of advice I got before the race was to find a veteran who knows the course and stick with them. Within 2 minutes of the race start I was saying out loud, “Bull shit!” There was no way in hell I was going to keep up with anyone and I refused to be pushed. I spent about an hour the day before this race trying to find out if my map was oriented to true or magnetic north and what the declination of the area was (4 deg). I went so far as to calling the United States Geological Survey to get the info I needed to use this map correctly with a compass. Confident in the info I had, confident in my navigational skills, I elected to ignore the advice of following a vet and running my own race. This has worked in so many ultra’s before, I figured it had to work now.
As we climb the first hill the sun continues to rise in the sky. Not sure I ever needed my headlamp on my head, I stop to take off a few layers and to stuff the headlamp into a pocket. I shove my down jacket into a sleeve and I’m good to go once again. As we wind our way up and around each switchback, I am treated to the views of the runners behind me (below) and the runners ahead of me (above). We moved briskly, spreading out quickly and before I knew it.. the front runners were out of sight and out of mind. I was floored at their abilities and once again began to wonder if I had bitten off more then I could chew. In the mean time, I looked up to see the trees glistening in the sun. They had been covered in rime ice from the fog that rolled through the night before and now.. it was helmet weather as chunks of ice rained down with a thud onto the trail.
After cresting the ridge on Bird Mountain, I began my decent into the valley on the other side. The trail follows switchbacks that go back and forth over a ridge line. At one point.. I am following what I think are foot prints only to soon realize it’s a herd path that fizzles out.. and the prints I had been following belonged to deer. I turned around and headed back to the trail, I had been passed by 4 runners but was now back on track. I easily missed the turn of a switchback and was eager to pick up lost time. Follow a vet? I’ve been off course all ready. Thankfully I am lucky to have an ability to sense when something doesn’t seem right. When Iw as off course I looked at my map quickly knowing that the decline of the mountain was supposed to be on my left and not my right. Oops. Back on track and running ever so swiftly into the drainage, I come to the corner of the park boundary where 3 or 4 other runners have gathered. On top of the dismantled cairn is a book sitting outside of the baggy it lives in. Ambition is it’s title. I open the book to find my page. I don’t see a page #13 but assume the earliest page in there was it. A page of advertisements on both sides. An advertisement for books titled Bye-Bye and Flying Out With The Wounded. How appropriate. I hand the book to Rik Robert who wishes me luck and says Good Bye. I had reached my first goal.. to find A book. That wasn’t so bad… but what about the 9 others?
Chapter 2: The Power of Positive Thinking
I leave book #1 and head off up hill to a place known as Jury Ridge. As I top out on the ridge I see a rock outcropping that reminds me of a court room bench. No wonder this is Jury ridge, but I wonder who is judging me now. Was it god? Life? Was it just the essence of adventure? Or can I simply hear the echos of those not here, who know not of what I am enduring, who sit at home and have placed bet on my ability to finish even one loop? I come to a sign that says “Closed.” The North Boundary trail has been closed for over 27 years but recent efforts to clean up blowdowns and to re-dig the tread way have re-opened it. However, the closed sign still stands. I laugh in thinking that it means “closed to sane individuals” and only we are the ones who dare go beyond.. the one’s who dare to be “out there.” I come to another sign on the ridge with a quote from Thoreau, “Wilderness is the preservation of the world.”
I end up running behind a man known as Steve Durbin. Steve has been to Barkley 4 times before, the furthest he had ever been was finishing 2 loops. Steve came to a switchback and I watched as he went off trail. He soon became disoriented and seemed lost. I looked left and saw that the trail had switched back to the left, “Over here Steve..” He thanked me and followed suit. A few moments later we came to what is known as Son of a Bitch Ditch. As I glared down into the hole I had to laugh. I’d seen pictures of this place and thought it had appeared and had been described as more daunting then it actually was. Steve took to the down limbs and began to climb. I went up into the ditch and crawled up and over the embankment without a problem.
We continued to run around Bald Knob and across the ridge to the coal ponds. This area was fascinating. Old ponds left behind from the digging of coal mines. Somehow, someway The elusive Mountain Beaver had been active up here. As we ran across the uneven terrain, it was interesting knowing that one fall step, one fall down could see you impaled on the stumps the beavers had left behind. Coal littered the area, the water was a clear to blueish color. And yet we climbed one more steep pitch. We followed a combination of switchbacks and orange surveyors tape. We topped out on the ridge of Stallion Mountain and the Garden Spot.
Stuffed into another cairn was Book #2, The Power of Positive Thinking. I ripped out my page and began to read, “1  Believe in Yourself    Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy. But with sound self confidence you can succeed. A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement.” It continues… and I take every word to heart.
Chapter 3: Obscure Destinies
I left the Garden Spot with a group of guys. Chip Tuthill, Steve and few others whose name escapes me. We drop down off of the ridge to the first aid station. A huge pile of water jugs are nestled in the hillside. I stop and refill my hand held bottle and grab a quick snack. “Frozen” Ed Furtaw is with me now and we run together talking for a ways. Frozen Ed wrote a book titled Tales From Out There, a comprehensive history of this race. I couldn’t get over the cast of characters that run here, and the distinct honor it is to share earth beside them step for step. I lead the way for a time and quickly we arrived at Book #3, Obscure Destinies. At the book is Christian Griffith. Christian looks hot and tired all ready. He take in a huge breath and hands me the book. I rip out my page from the first chapter “Neighbour Rosicky” and stuff it into my bag with the others. It has taken me almost 4 hours to run the first 8 miles of the course. From what I hear, it gets bad from here.. I can’t wait. I step to the edge of the cliff here, the top of Indian head and snap a few photos.
Chapter 4: Death By Misadventure
I left the top of Stallion Mountain and ran with Christian and Frozen Ed for a ways. It wasn’t long into the run with Ed that I could hear Chip Tuthill yelling “Hey!” to try and keep us on course. I cut in front of Ed and use my navigational skills and instincts. “You run like you’ve been here before Sherpa.. have you?” I explain to Ed that I am an Outdoor Education major at UNH and I’ve spent time studying and now acting as a teaching assistant with Wilderness Navigation. Before the race even began, I wrote down a few compass bearings to follow down on my map and the journey between books 3 and 4 was one of those places. It was also rather easy to follow the trail of scuffled leaves left hanging around by the runners head of us. It wasn’t hard.. you just need to pay attention. So I continue. We come to the edge of the ridge where a huge drop off leads us to a road below. I head down over the edge in a ballsy move that could have been not only the end of my race but the end of my summer. Christian and Ed look for a way around and then I hear Chip again. Ed doesn’t hear him, but I decide to stay up high and rejoin with the ridge. I run along the ridge and meet up with Christian and Ed down below. We all team up again with Chip and Steve… we’re quite the pack.
The sun is really beating down on us now as temps rise into the 60’s. I have to stop and I take off my running tights. I stash them into my bag hoping they’ll stay put. I put my pack on and keep running. It’s getting even hotter. I could heard the gang up ahead. I stop, take off two shirts and I’m now running in shorts and a short sleeve shirt. As I rise once again, the sounds of the others have vanished. I’m alone and an forced to rely on my map and compass. I get it all out and get right to work. I run down to a herd path that runs along the stream bed. I slip a few times and cut my hand open on a thorn. I try to catch myself another time and punch my fist into a cliff side. I’m bleeding bad and the blood is getting all over my map and pages. Ugh. I keep running down through the woods when I see what looks like a HUGE wild boar starting to run up hill at me. I stop dead in my tracks, adjust my eyes and see that its only a down tree. Soon I come to a jeep road, cross it and push through a section of thick briars. On the other side, I come to the stream. I stop to take a picture but my camera isn’t cooperating with the self timer. And then, “Danger” Dave Henn comes crashing through the woods and splashes into the stream. He soaks his feet, dunks his hat and lets out a “Whoo!” in response to the chilly water.
I walk in myself, cross route 116 and negotiate a few sections of sloppy mud. As I cross the road I re-enter the woods and push through a section of ridiculously long and sharp thorns. I stopped and looked at the branches with wide eyes, “Oh my god….” I look uphill at what is known as Testicle Spectacle. Yes… I’m going up there as the directions say. I start to walk when Dave says, “hey.. don’t forget the book!” Oh yeah… the book! I walk over to Book #4, reach down to find Death By Misadventure and tear out my page, “That’s all right.” I said quickly. “It’s just a small thing – not a job I want him to do. I’ll go through to the yard, if I may.”
Chapter 5: Death Walks The Woods
Danger Dave is all ready long gone and as I peer up at the Spectacle, I can see him quite high all ready. I stand there for a minute and adjust my eyes. With a squint and a closer look, I can see tiny little spec, runners, climbing up high. Steve Durbin and Christian are who I see, the only two dressed in white that I remember. I look up at the hill and just decide to tackle it. I begin climbing one step at a time. I catch Dave quickly and we start talking. He looks down at his watch, “Toughest part of the course during the hottest part of the day..” So far the course really hasn’t been that bad. The first four books I found pretty easily and without a hitch. Some alongside others, some alone. I was doing fine. However now in shorts and a short sleeve shirt, the race was indeed changing. It was as if the earth went and got completely pissed off. The the arms of a thousand rabid children reach up from earthy tombs.. yes, I’m speaking of the thorns which are now pulling and tugging as they scrape across my skin. With each tear of the epidermis comes a small trickle of blood, a burning sensation and a “Damn it!” from my mouth. I push ever forward, climbing steadily, and look back down what I had come up to see a few runners below. I take a photo of myself beat… and then decide to take another to show my joy in the climbing I so love.
At the top of the hill you glare down the other side. Down over what is called Meth-Lab hill you can see the sprawling metropolis of Petros, Tn. I start running down Meth-Lab along a narrow ridge of trail. I leave Danger Dave and start wondering where it is that I duck off into the woods once more. I see a trail and take it.. only to think that I was up far too high to duck in yet. I turn back and run a little further until the trail comes to a wall of thorns on top of a huge drop off. Can’t go any further here so I drop off into the woods once more. I take out my compass, take a bearing and keep walking. Soon I hear the sound of waterfalls. The directions had talked about Raw Dog Falls, I knew I must be close. I keep pushing through the green hue of thorns and come out on a jeep road. I see Christian and Steve walking away and I’m unsure how I caught them. They were so far ahead. I turn right and walk up the road where inside a tree hollow, directly across from the falls, I see the book, Death Walks The Woods. I take it out and rip out my page from the chapter, “A Room With A View.” I read the page briefly and find the perfect passage, “Unless something pretty drastic happens to me here,” he remarked to his wife at lunch, “I am going to become completely torpid.”
Chapter 6: Tales From Out There
I leave Raw Dog Falls hoping to catch Christian and Steve. I’ve found out quickly that while you’re “out there” being alone is amplified. Yet as I run down the jeep road, I don’t see or hear them. I keep running, cross a stream and find myself under the power lines. I didn’t feel right. I take out my map and realize that I had to turn before the power lines.. so I turn around and head back up hill. I take a left, duck off into the woods again and up ahead I see Danger Dave. I decide to follow him but before I know it, he’s disappeared and I’m still alone. And here in this place, I’m about to be faced with the biggest test of this race. Finding my way up to Frozen Head… alone.
I take out my map and start to investigate it. I walk slowly through the woods, for the first time all race I’m unsure of myself. I feel disoriented, lost, vulnerable. I look down at my legs and arms and they are pretty tore up. I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve got 5 books, I have 5 more to find. This place is crazy. For many miles now I’ve gone up and down hills of unthinkable steepness, 20-30% grades, no trails.. or what they call a trail here in Tennessee I call Bull shit back home. I turn my map left and right and walk up an embankment. I see a house to my left.. and I keep it there. On a ridge I look back and see a pond down left as well… and then I come up onto the road. I look left and I look right. I walk around the rail, and walk uphill to the right. I see a stream bed, thats my catch, I see nothing. I turn around and head back downhill to another stream-bed. I look into the woods and see a herd path… and then the skull of a pig head. I knew I was where I needed to be now..
I head into the woods and start climbing the stream bed. The trail is there.. and then its not. I struggle to figure out where to go. I know that up ahead is Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall… and there was no doubt that Danger Dave had all ready scaled it ahead of my once more. And then there is what Gary Calls “pussy ridge.” Well.. unable to find the trail through the drainage, I walk up onto the ridge, and follow it but not without much anger and frustration. I’m starting t get tired, I’m hot and I’m losing it. I’m not sure the ridge is a better choice then the climbing wall. The ridge line is a huge gnarl of thorns and briars, of which a tunnel has been carved through for passage. The tunnel is narrow, and the thorns rip at my skin. I push through and find the old jeep road up high. I take a left and head for the Coal Mine.
At the coal mine I see a few folks up ahead. I stop and take a photo of the gated up coal mine and walk up to the folks. It’s John Price and a few photographers from Runners World. I stop to chat for a bit while the photographers took what seemed like a few hundred photos. I take a moment to eat and drink while I look up at the briar laden hill. A thick red hue covers the mountainside and this is best known as Rat Jaw. I put my bag back on and bid the adieu. I start up the steep hill pushing my way through the chest high thorns. Some of them reach up over my head.. my arms are shredded and my legs are turning into hamburg, it’s hard to not think of The Passion Of The Christ. This is an out and back section, and as the runners start coming down, they are covered in sweat, blood, scratches.. their eyes look empty, they say nothing… I push on.
At the top of the mountain I come out on the jeep road. I walk up to the aid station and see some folks. I step up to the table and take my pack off. I see that I’ve lost my running tights. I have no idea where they were lost but I imagined they had come off at a tree I ducked under… way back before Testicle Spectacle. With rain and cold coming in tonight, I knew my race would be over after 1 loop without them. I had an excuse. I cracked open a coke and chugged it down. Grabbed my camera and walked to the top of the fire tower to take some photos. The most scared I had been all day was at the top of the tower, navigating through the “tourons.”  I return down and grab the book, Tales From Out There, Frozen Ed’s Book and tear out my page. I look down and the page is about the Saw Briars and thorns and how one could even shave with them. I put the page in my map protector, and take back off down the hill.
Chapter 7: The Road Less Travelled
I turn down the mountain and look back down what I had just come up. A long river of red flows down the hill side, and once again I walk right into the teeth of the Rat Jaw. Runners continue to climb and I look at a female runner who has something black hanging from her waist strap. “Excuse me.. did you find those tights?” Yup.. right there around her waist was my loop 2 excuse. There aren’t many times in life when your excuse gets handed back to you, this unfortunately was one of those times. I smiled, happy to have my best pair of tights back and wished her luck after giving her a hug. I continue to push down the trail running down down down. Near the cable I see Andrew Hackett and he’s is soaking wet with sweat and salt lines all over his pack and body. I ask how he’s doing, he feels great. I ask who the runner with him was and he flips out. “I don’t know but he’s not following the course. It says to go UP the Rat Jaw, not around.. and that guys going around…” I smile, tell him of the coke on the summit and take my leave..
Back down at the coal mine I take a picture of the old guard tower and the coal mine. Before the race I remember hearing a song, “Don’t come out of the hole..” and I finally learned what the song was about. years ago, the prisoners would work these mines and one day the mine collapsed. The guards left the prisoners in there to do… not to come out of the hole. Here I was in Tennessee, running up and down Rats Jaws, over dead bodies with many miles left to go. I turn and look down the cable line. more briars only this time a mix of brown, red and green. Thorns bushes thicker then your finger and thorns the size of your finger nail. I raise my arms and run through… my legs are tugged and scratched some more. Each time a thorn rips at my flesh I start to laugh. For some reason now, it’s comical, I’m going mad and the pain feels good..
I come out of the woods on top of a hillside that abuts the prison. There it is, Brushy Mountain State Prison. This is why it all began. In june 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who Shot MLK Jr, escaped from this prison. With a 55 hour head start on the authorities, and 30 helicopters looking for him, he only made it 6 miles through these mountains. The prison closed last year. In previous years, off course runners had been held at gunpoint here for hours. Not this time.. this year I looked out across the yard, and saw Steve Durbin, Danger Dave and Christian sitting on the wall above the stream. I take a photo and then they disappear.
I run down to where they were and come to the tunnel. A large steel gate is opened and the water rushes through. I climb down into the water and walk into the tunnel which travels under the prison. In all my life I never thought I’d be going under a prison. The water is frigid and cleans off my dust and blood covered legs. The cuts burn from the shock of the water an the salt flowing down over each open wound. Yet I hold my camera in front of my face and snap a photo of my euphoria. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. On the other end of the tunnel, I climb out of the stream and emerge into a field on the outside wall of the prison. The boys are here as are two guards, one of which says, “I miss ole James Ear, he was a good guy.” I’m sure he was. We grab Book #7, The Road Less Travelled, which is located at the spot where James Earl hopped the wall 30 plus years ago. My page was simple yet appropriate, “Section 1 – Discipline.”
Chapter 8: Sweet Death, Kind Death
Danger Dave, Steve Durbin, Christian and myself all leave the prison together. We walk passed the Water towers and look up at what is known as “Bad Thing.” For the next .88 miles we’ll walk uphill at a 37% gradient climbing 1700 feet. It’s a hell of a climb, one that for whatever reason I’m enjoying. I get ahead of the boys and find the saddle, I let them catch up and we mosey together for a short ways. Then we climb the ridge line, slowly to the top of Indian Knob. The boys are resting a lot. Christian is whipped, he admits it. He’s soaked and is tired. His legs are cut up, salt lingers in his hair and he’s the quietest he’s ever been in his life. The three of them stop and sit down on the side of the mountain to take a rest as I continue to climb.
Up high I hear some voices and as I look up I see two runners walking around capstones looking for the needle. I kick it into gear and keep plugging along. This is steep for sure, but it’s not the steepest hill side I’ve ever been on. I climb and climb and reach the top. I never find the old trail but I too work my way around the capstones and then I find it.. The Needle. Jullian Jameson is inside with another runner getting their pages from the book. I walk in and grab the book from them. Sweet Death, Kind Death is its title and I rip out my page, “He sounds a bit fey,” Reed said, “which may be either delightful or trying, depending on the chap.”
I sit down with my back to the rock and take a load off. I snap a photo of my disastrous legs and then reach into my pack for some food and drink. I sip Boost, drink some gatorade and munch on trail mix. I noticed my trail mix container had come undone, and now nuts, craisins and chocolate covered raisins littered my bag. I cleaned it out, salvaged most of the mix and dumped the rest out. The boys caught up to me, “Damn Sherpa, you are a climbin’ fool.” I nod my head with a smile. I look at my legs some more and notice that a cramp I had on the way up had formed a bruise on my knee. I’m a mess but loving it.
Chapter 9: The Late Great Me
Together the group of us rise once again and head off down through the green hue of thorns. We march down off the side of Indian Knob heading for the maze of brooks that cascade down and meet below. Danger Dave knows the way and I file in behind the boys and enjoy the time together as we march down into the valley. “Why is this called the Zip Line?” Christian asks Dave, “Because usually you’re flying down it..” We chuckle. It was amazing to me, listening to Steve and Dave talk. They point off into the woods at.. well at nothing.. and talk as if something was actually there. “Usually I’m over there..” Dave Says pointing off into the woods. How does he know? How does he even have a clue? I follow Christian who is dragging his feet along. He trips and falls a bit. As we reach the stream, the boys all reach down and capture some water into their camelbaks and bottles. “You ever had giardia Steve?”
We start talking about who of us will be heading out for a second loop to which Christian replies, “There is no way in hell…” We all chuckle and cheer him on into telling Gary that as his official reason. We follow along the streams, ensuring that we’re on the correct side for the loop to count. You know, the Barkley side of the river. The hard side where one must bushwhack. This is by far the prettiest part of the course as the water cascades down the mountain, over rocks and forming deep blue pools that look refreshing and cleansing. We round a turn and head up a trail I’m surprised we found. Dave reaches down and grabs Book #9, The Late Great Me. We all tear our pages out, “Okay, Joey will pass out your schedule cards. Please copy them down because, after you sign them, they’ll be collected, never to be returned. Sp the point is, animals, if you don’t copy them down, you won’t know where you’re supposed to be when. Not copying them will help most of you.”   Appropriate once more…
Chapter 10: Cry Uncle
We leave the hallow and head up Big Hell. The climb starts right away and it’s the last big climb of the course. I feel like a million bucks. How could I not? I’m on my way to my tenth book with time to spare. I’ve met people who would do anything to be here, who would kill for the chance. I’ve met folks who have had the chance and hadn’t even made it half this far. Yet we were out here, doing it. We climb another thorn carpeted hillside. The boys inch ever so higher, slowly, they’re tired. It seems as though every log they come to, they stop for a break, not that I mind. I snap a few photos of the boys taking a break and move along, sitting down beside them with a smile. I smile at Chrisitian, I think he’s getting pissed at me. I’m way too excited to be out here, way too happy at this point in the loop. And yet I’ve decided that one loop is going to be enough. One loop because I have nothing to prove, I’ve all ready proved enough to myself. Proved that maybe I do belong here, that I am capable of more then I think I am. Proved that I love this sport, I love the adventure, I’m born again, I’m ready, I’m rolling. I don’t want the journey to end, but I know I’d rather finish here with a feeling of euphoria as opposed to a feeling of misery. Knowing that at the end of this day, I’ll have finished a loop at the Barkley, in once piece, with a smile and a re-energized runner.
We climb higher and higher, over false summits until we reach the top of Chimney Top. I asked Dave and Steve if it was at al possible to compare the course from one year to the next. Indeed it was and this years loop, was by far the toughest ever. We all sat down. Three accomplished men, ripping pages from the book Cry Uncle. Dave had a look of exhaustion on his face, Steve all smiles and Christian was still quoting “No way in hell…” I happily ripped the page out of book #10 and folded it up and into my carrier. I had done it.. all ten books.
Steve and Dave decided they were going to walk it in while Christian and I were anxious to get our running legs under us. It had been quite a while since any running had occurred out here. As we rounded away from the top of Chimney Top we kicked it into a relaxed gear and headed off down the trail. Yes, a real life trail, without any rocks of roots on it. It was like running down a paved superhighway for this boy from the Granite State. We travelled down the switchbacks weaving left and right and as the sun set on Frozen Head State Park, we were elated to know our day was to be done. Neither one of us could imagine navigating those woods under the darkness of night. A task we thought not as impossible, but stupid. We remembered the many cliffs and drop offs we had come to in the light of day and knew that under dark of night, there was a good chance you’d walk off.
We continue to crash off the mountain, not only bleeding blood but now bleeding elevation. We wound around the basin to which I tell Christian that we need to climb up over this last ridge. He was pissed to hear we had another climb, but compared to all the rest it wasn’t that bad at all. We motored up and over and found ourselves down in the valley following Rich Limacher to the camp road. We knew we needed to be on the walking path, Rich told us it didn’t matter. We had followed the course this far, we’d be damned to get off it now. The trail ends up on the camp road anyway and Christian tries to get me to kick it into gear for one last trot. My legs are spent, I’m spent and I elect to walk. Christian reaches the gate first and I follow in.
My hands placed on the yellow gate I had officially finished one full loop at Barkley with all 10 pages in hand. I have never been so proud of an accomplishment in my life. As the race shirt says, “Sometimes success is measure by getting your ass out alive.”  Never have I been so alive. Gary tells us we have enough time to go back out. Christian gives him the “No way in hell!” I tell Gary I’ll start lap #2 after I come out of the campground bathroom… a week for now. He laughs, shakes our hands and says that he hopes that we now have something to measure against every other race we run. Indeed we do and without hesitation, the bugle hits Gary’s lips and he plays taps twice, once for each of us. I’m officially done.


Each Loop is 22 Miles long with 24,000′ of elevation change. Of the 35 who started this years Barkley Marathons, 27 of us finished one loop in under the 13:30 time limit. Of those 27 I came in 22nd with a time of 12:25:31.  Eight-teen of those 27 started loop #2 and only 10 finished it. Three finished the 60 mile, three loop fun run in under the 40 hour cut-off. Jonathon Basham became the 9th ever finisher of the Barkley with a time of 59 Hours 18 Minutes. Huge congratulations to him.
Josh and Rik Robert were indeed the first ever father son team to take on the Barkley. Rik dropped out down at Danger Daves Climbing Wall (Book #5) after 8 hours of running. Josh went on to find all ten books only to come in, happily, after the cut off with a time of 15 hours 39 Minutes.
Project 2010 is off and running with “success” down at The Barkley Marathons. I didn’t think words would ever be able to describe what I witnessed in Tennessee and after writing this report, I can assert that that is the truth, words cannot. However, Gary Cantrell certainly succeeds when he said, “I hope you now have something which to base all other races against.” Indeed I do. This truly is the toughest race in the world and god bless those nine individuals who have ever finished. Men who hold the same records on the Appalachian Trail, Long Trail, Colorado Trail, Pacific Crest Trail Etc. After my time at Barkley, I still truly feel like I didn’t quite belong there, amongst the crowd of those hallowed few. However, I remain euphoric in my success knowing that what I accomplished is indeed something special though for some odd reason, I still feel like I’m missing something. Hopefully as this year rolls along, I can continue to connect the dots, open the envelope and push the limits of my own human potential.. which remains endless..
Sherpa John

5 thoughts

  1. Great Job my friend. although it's so hard to write a race report after you have. I'll do my best to be the retarded step child of reports here in the next week or so. Can't wait for the next time we share some miles.



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