‘I understand now why Barkley becomes an obsession; in fact, I suspect I’m already firmly in its grip’.
My words, one week after my unsuccessful attempt (‘Fun Run’ completion) at the 2022 Barkley Marathons. By the time I wrote those words, I knew I’d be back, and imagined myself doing so at the peak of fitness, ready to take on anything. In the end, my autumn training was dogged by fatigue which forced time to be redirected from training to sleep, as well as the flare-up of a chronic knee injury, an MRI of which prompted the orthopaedic specialist to comment, ‘If you want to carry on running, stick to soft surfaces and avoid anything undulating’. I didn’t tell him I’d just received a letter of condolences from Laz…
In the end, thanks to the support of my family and the patience of my coach (Damian Hall), I managed 6 weeks of solid training in the final run up to Barkley Marathons 2023, and I arrived in Frozen Head excited to see what I could do. This year there were familiar faces and happy reunions to balance out my nerves, as well as a fantastic weather forecast for the 3 days ahead. I was convinced the conch would be blown in the night, so I was surprised to wake up in daylight, having managed 7-8 hours of sleep. At 8:54 it sounded, and an hour later we were jogging en-masse away from the yellow gate, into the quiet forest beyond.
|Pre-race chat. Credit: Howie Stern|
Loop 1 (clockwise in daylight, 8 hours 36 minutes) passed surprisingly quickly. The running felt easier than the previous year, and it was fun to be with other runners for much of the loop. My dodgy knee made me cautious downhill, and I wasn’t surprised to lose sight of Damian and John early on. Rat Jaw had been mown, removing the challenge of the neck-high briars we’d encountered the previous year. From the prison to the end of the loop I ran alone, but I managed to follow a reasonable line and lost no time finding the books. I entered camp to find the group of Jared, Karel, and Joe still present, so I made a quick turnaround to get out with them for the nighttime loop.
Loop 2 (anticlockwise at night, 12 hours 38 minutes) felt harder, and certainly colder. I hung on at the back of the group, although I could tell Karel was struggling a little too (he later posted that he’d been suffering the after-effects of a stomach bug). Being with others was a real boost, nevertheless we moved more slowly than we had in daylight and made an error which cost us a little time. The final two climbs of the loop were rough, and I realized too late that I’d run out of energy, which resulted in me getting dropped as we started the climb from book two. I watched the headtorches pull away into the darkness above, as I slowly clawed my way upwards. A stupid error delayed me at book 1, and I arrived at camp shortly after Karel and Jared’s departure.
Loop 3 (anticlockwise in daylight, 14 hours 24 minutes). The headtorch I’d started with was soon unnecessary, and I climbed to Chimney Top in a sky blazing with pinks. I heard a cheerful shout behind me and turned to see Joe approaching, refreshed after his brief sleep. We collected our pages, and I wished him good luck as he pushed on, hoping to catch the two in front. Not long after, arriving at the next book, I was surprised to find his page still present, and I wondered fleetingly what adventure he might be having, before turning my attention back to my own. The climb to the fire-tower felt long and slow, and I was glad of the cheerful support waiting at the top. I surprised myself by navigating the next few books with ease, only to get lost on a section of straightforward trail further on. I was acutely aware of time ticking away, and I anxiously calculated splits on every summit, hoping to make it back in time to start loop 4. Between book 2 and book 1, I met Damian and John, then Karel and Jared, all of whom encouraged me with friendly words, in my quest to reach camp before the cut-off to start loop 4 (36 hours).
|Credit: Alexis Berg|
Loop 4 (clockwise in nighttime and then daylight, approximately 16 hours 36 minutes). I took time at the loop 3 to 4 changeover to prepare myself for what I knew would be a difficult night, alone in the forests of Frozen Head. Having little more than 12 hours ahead of me to complete the loop, I knew the chances of getting back in time were low, but I was determined to get as far as I could. I ate pasta, Sonic™ potato tots (Damian and John’s leftovers I think!) and chocolate oat milk, and Konrad stuffed my pack with food I was still able to eat, including cold pizza, roasted salty potatoes, gels and sweets. I felt oddly elated heading away from the gate, knowing that I had already made it so far, largely under my own steam. I was rapidly reminded how fickle success is at Barkley, when I misjudged the start of the descent to book 2, ending up in a horrible mess of gulleys, crisscrossed with fallen trees and vine encased boulders. Unbeknown to me, in the time it took to correct my mistake, I’d been passed by Tomo, making me the last runner on loop 4. As the night wore on it became harder and harder to stay awake. The steep climbs were painfully slow, and the sight of leaves and tree trunks was more soothing than counting sheep could ever be. Trail with switchbacks was even worse, and I found myself waking up from microsleeps having missed a turn, debating which way to go. Reaching the ridge at Garden Spot it was suddenly bitterly cold, and I stopped to put on a padded jacket, just as I’d done the previous night. I knew I’d slowed down, and tried to force myself to pick up the pace, but it was so easy to lose focus, in the sleepy darkness. I was glad when the first light of morning came, as I reached the summit of Stallion Mountain, colouring the sky with the promise of a spectacular dawn. Much like the final evening on the Spine race in 2019, I think the dawn on loop 4 of Barkley 2023 will remain with me forever, it was that beautiful. The morning that followed was cold, bright, and clean. The fire-tower was quiet and peaceful as I passed by, as if Barkley was holding its breath in respect of the morning’s splendor. As I reached the bottom of the descent towards the prison my watch flicked over from 23:59 to 00:00 again, the 48 hours elapsed. I finished the loop by collecting the remaining pages (I wasn’t aware, or maybe just didn’t recall because of my sleep deprived state, that I should go straight back at this point. I don’t think it would have made a big difference anyway – and I’m glad I didn’t find myself debating it, since it would have been very hard to give up so close to the end of the loop). The last two climbs were accompanied by a bizarre mixture of old friends, family members, exotic animals and modern sculpture displays. I argued repeatedly with those around me that the climb couldn’t possibly be so long, and found myself amazed that the ground underneath my feet was the only thing matching what my eyes were telling me. The descent from Chimney Top was like a slow motion movie without sound, the forest still and warm from the midday sun, my shuffle through the leaves a distant noise on the outskirts of my consciousness. At the top of the last small rise, I saw a body lying across the path in front, but I knew that wouldn’t be real. Nevertheless it remained there as I got closer, until I was standing above it, at which point I realized it was Damian, asleep. I stood for a moment, then decided I should probably ask if he intended to be sleeping here. At which point he opened his eyes looking a bit confused, and asked me with concern ‘Are you ok?’, which struck me as somewhat ironic, coming from someone lying asleep across the path in a forest. We proceeded to discuss the location of the final book, which Damian had been unable to find in his tired state, and he explained to me that he’d brought back a leaf, and a small rock, to prove he’d been there. Although on second thoughts, he said, ‘that probably wouldn’t work would it?’, looking confused again. He continued to tell me that he’d also left two pieces of biscuit up there, for Laz to know he’d been there. The image of Laz wandering around Chimney Top searching for biscuit crumbs was amusing, but not out of place in my muddled thoughts, and I only pondered it briefly, before suggesting we return to camp together. It was a pleasure to cover those final moments of Barkley 2023 with a great friend, who did so well on his first attempt at the course.
When I reached the gate Laz looked at me enquiringly and asked whether I still thought I could do five loops. I looked at him and replied honestly that I thought I could. He smiled.
It was a great privilege and huge inspiration to witness Aurélien Sanchez, John Kelly and Karel Sabbe as they each finished the final loop of the Barkley Marathons and touched the yellow gate for the fifth time. I hope that one day I will do the same. Until then, I am grateful to have discovered a little more about myself, amongst the beautiful wilderness of Frozen Head.
My final thanks go to my family. To Konrad, for your support and for being my best friend. To my brother Vaclav, Agnese and Miranda, for welcoming us to New York and making the trip a true holiday. To my parents Alena and Jeff, for caring for the children whilst we were gone, and especially to my mum, who potty trained our youngest in the process! I bet there aren’t many Barkley competitors who have received inter-loopal potty training success updates!
|Credit: Alexis Berg|