You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need
We’ve all at some point or another had those lyrics stuck in our head, and we’ve all probably had a number of situations where they were quite appropriate. I think a key word that really gets overlooked, though, is try. You don’t just sit there and have what you need fall into your lap.
The abridged version
I returned to Barkley this year to see what it would be like to run it with the perspective of an “alumnus” (Barkley’s term for a previous finisher). I wanted to see what I could still do and how my different mindset would affect that. I also just wanted to be back out there. However daunting, painful, and terrifying Barkley might be, I just love running through and exploring those mountains. That sense of adventure on the first loop when first turning off the actual trail to go crashing through the wilderness is something that I have not been able to replicate.
In the end I got an answer that maybe shouldn’t have been all that surprising, but that did come sooner than I expected. After loop 2, with a good amount of time left and feeling pretty strong physically, I realized that my mindset and motivation this time around had no chance of getting me through what I knew I would face on loops 4 and 5. I had found the answer I was looking for. I was also no longer having fun at that point. With nothing left to discover and no enjoyment out of it, it did not seem worth it to me to bear the physical and mental toll that I knew would come from continuing.
The greatest hesitation came from thinking of all the people who supported me in even making another Barkley attempt possible. My family making me food and preparing other things I would need for the race, John Fegyveresi (Fegy) coming down from Boston with his wife Christine to crew for me, people in the local community sharing their resources and knowledge of the mountains with me, sponsors working with me to get the right gear for the race… the list goes on. I owe a huge thank you to all of them, and I did not want them to feel as if their efforts had been wasted. But in the end those are sunk costs, and I’m also fortunate to be able to say that all of those people and companies understand and support my decision.
For some, that synopsis is probably enough. For those who want more detail, read on. And if you’re an aspiring Barkley entrant, know that reading reports like this one can be even more valuable than reading ones from a finish, like mine from 2017.
Are we there yet?
I arrived in TN at my parents’ house nearly a full month before the race, with a moving truck filled with nearly all of our remaining stuff. The plan was to head over to the UK to get things prepared for my family to come in April, come back to the US to spend some time with family, then make the return trip to the UK with Jessi and the kids. Barkley happened to fit right in with that time back in the US, and my parents happen to live right across the highway from Frozen Head.
Unfortunately there were some delays in processing my family’s visa applications, so I ended up spending nearly the whole month in TN. The silver linings are that it of course gave me some more time with my parents and also gave me plenty of time to explore in and around Frozen Head, finishing off my Frozen Head Strava project and capping off my 2019 Barkley Marathons training.
In a way, it kind of seemed like I was hanging out at the park waiting for everyone else to show up. It was quite fitting given the difference in my mindset and approach this year: letting the race come to me rather than bringing my whole life to it.
Quick, they’re coming!
I had avoided all of the long drawn-out stress previously associated with Barkley preparation, but when the time came it was down to business to ensure everything was ready. Fortunately things came together pretty quickly since I was mostly using my same plan from 2017 and John Fegyveresi was returning to crew me along with support I’ve received from my cousin Joe every year I’ve run it (my Barkley crew over the years has had John, Joe, Julian, Jessi, and Jodi, my main “tour guide” my first year was Jamil, and I mostly tried to copy Jared with my gear and approach. Oh and of course my own name starts with a J too…).
Once camp was set up, race check in started. Jodi managed to get his bib and directions before the line formed, so we huddled around to figure out the course changes. It turns out that I had done what might be harder than finishing. I predicted laz. I have the emails to Jodi and others to prove it; I predicted what he would add and what he would remove. OK to be fair I gave three possible additions and he used two of them. As happy as I was to have predicted the unpredictable, it didn’t help me much since I had never been in those areas (you’re not allowed to go in them other than during the race). And I guessed one of the sections when running along a trail a week earlier, looking down and to my left and thinking, “you know, laz could add that climb and it would be the new hardest one on the course.” That climb is now known as the meat grinder.
I went with my entry fee, two packs of Camel cigarettes since I bought the wrong kind the first time, to get my own bib and directions. Not long after that I had the old sections of the course copied from my old map, then double checked the new sections with Jodi, and was ready to go without even having to go see the master map. For once, I wasn’t rushing at the last minute to finish getting ready.
In 2015 and 2016, we had late starts. Both years I hardly slept the night before, starting the race already at nearly 24 hours without sleep. In 2017, we started at 1:42 AM, leaving me again with almost no sleep before the race. This year I got a solid 8 hours, waking up only once in the night and getting out of bed about an hour before he blew the conch for a 9:20 AM start. My mind had predicted the course changes and it was as if my body had predicted the start time. Things were lining up quite nicely.
I got ready, and excitedly headed up to the gate for the adventure to begin.
Where’d everyone go?
Loop 1 started as usual: a group of about 10 charging up Bird Mountain, some chatting and exchanging banter and some clearly nervous and already worried about getting “scraped” (e.g. 2015 me). We made it to the 1st book and the attrition began. We shot down Jacque Mate, the first descent, and then there were 8. We made the next big climb all the way up Jury Ridge and then there were 6. We took off down the meat grinder. For a brief moment we checked our bearings on the way down and I looked around and saw that we were down to 3.
I was shocked to see that Jared was not one of those 3. Oddly enough, we were descending to the same book as when we were separated in 2016, that time from me getting clothes-lined by a briar. He mentioned after the first descent that he had rolled his ankle, but he pressed on with us up the climb and I assumed it was one of those rolls where you just walk it off. Turns out, it was a pretty nasty sprain. I’m absolutely amazed he was able to finish an entire loop after seeing it.
We continued the rest of the way down the meat grinder, at one point reaching high enough speeds that I reached out to hook my arm around a tree to slow down. It worked, but I realized about an hour later that the tree had put a nice little gash in my forearm and in the process ripped my special race-issue watch off of my wrist. For the rest of the race I had absolutely no idea how we were doing on time other than when Guillaume would update me. I’m just glad laz opted for the $10 watch. the $20 version with the sturdier wrist band may have stayed on and tried to take my hand with it.
We headed back up and over Bald Knob and started one of the few actual trail sections of the course, heading up to The Garden Spot. Before I knew it, we were 2: just me and Guillaume. It was not surprising to me at all that Guillaume and I found ourselves on a similar loop 1 pace, but just like in 2017 when Gary and I found ourselves alone at around the same time, I did not expect to be in such sparse company so soon.
It felt entirely different to me, though, and was a potential role I had been looking forward to. In 2015 I was the one hanging on as Bev and Alan Abbs and then Jamil led me around the course. In 2016 I got the solo experience. And then of course in 2017 I had the partnership with Gary. Now, I was the alumnus and I wanted to try to pay back some of the help I had received in my early years. In exchange, Guillaume would teach me French. 😉
I quickly found out, though, that Guillaume did not need anything in exchange for his French lessons. He is quite the capable navigator, and with his 2018 experience plus his thorough research of the course, he was at times leading me. On the new sections we rather quickly fell into a pattern: I would find the general location of the book, and then he would almost immediately find the right rock that the book was tucked behind. For the lead group on loop 1 that’s often not a trivial task, as the books have to be hidden away from anyone else who might randomly happen to pass by, and from animals who for some reason like to chew on them.
We both knew the value of working together, and as long as we were moving at a similar pace we agreed to continue. He was also great company. The only problem was that he has an accent even harder to understand than Gary’s (says the guy from east Tennessee 😛). In all fairness, almost anyone is impossible to understand when you’re running through leaves and have pouring rain falling on top of your hood and toboggan (it just doesn’t feel like a Barkley race report for me if I can’t get at least one toboggan reference in).
We moved along with caution on some of the new sections, but never with any navigational mistakes. And for those who think Barkley is orienteering, we paused to consult our maps just once. I never even pulled out my compass. The course almost entirely follows quite clear terrain features. Granted, I have the benefit of now being intimately familiar with those features, but basic navigation skills and a knowledge of the lay of the land go a long way.
The one-two punch added back in this year of Little Hell followed immediately by Rat Jaw is tough, but for some reason I’m always energized by Rat Jaw. It’s one of the few places where you can let your mind rest while your body does all the work, and it’s the only place where you can look forward to spectator support. With our arrival being in the afternoon of a beautiful day, it was especially strong this year. We surged to the top, bolted back down, and finished the loop without incident.
Rain, rain, go away
We finished loop 1 in 8:31. I had planned on spending less than 2 minutes in camp, but after spending a bit of time trying to unsuccessfully convince laz to let me use one of the remaining watches and double checking my water supply after what turned out to be a hot first loop, it turned in to 6 minutes. It was kind of funny to see a barricaded transition area, with the pit stop at the gate being something my crew and I thought would be our secret, unique plan just two years earlier.
Guillaume had a quick turnaround and we were back out together, just barely succeeding in our goal of making it down the meat grinder before daylight disappeared. We moved a bit slowly at first, though, both of us being dehydrated from the first loop and taking time to get fluids back down and refill at creeks.
Shortly after night fell and we had enough water back in our bodies, we had far more than we wanted on the outside. We thought the rain would last no more than 3-4 hours. It was constant for the rest of the loop. Well, except when it turned into sleet at the higher elevations.
Maybe if that had been our expectations, it would have been different. But as it was, I feel that I at least wasted a lot of energy wondering when the rain would stop instead of just focusing on the race. After the muddy climb up Rat Jaw (think of starting to go down a big water slide, but then realizing your keys came out as you were getting on and trying to claw your way back to the top), I just wanted to get back to camp.
The rain lasting longer into the night also meant that it overlapped much more with colder temperatures, and also brought with it the worst of the many possible Barkley weather conditions: fog. Like everything else that loop, from dehydration, to rain and mud, to cold and wind, we dealt with it without disaster. But the small things really started to add up, and before I knew it a loop I had planned for 10.5 – 11 hours turned into over 12 and I came in at 21:02.
As I charged down from Chimney Top, trying to escape the fog and the sleet (the fog was thick enough that even running on the trail was difficult), I had time to let my mind think about things other than staying on course. In miserable conditions, that can be a dangerous thing when heading in to camp. I tried to put a bit of distance between myself and Guillaume so that I at least wouldn’t infect him with any negative thoughts or energy during his pursuit of a finish. At first, I decided I might need a short nap. Then, the thought actually entered my head of whether it was worth it to continue. In previous years this thought would have been unfathomable, and I had given my crew clear instructions to not let me quit in camp unless a large object was sticking into or out of me.
I did not do that this year, and as I sat in the warm bathhouse in the middle of all the gear and food my crew had laid out for me, I put that thought out in the open. They did what any good crew should: try to convince me to at least go back out, but without forcing me. I sat there for a bit, then I tried to nap, then I went to the van and napped. Jared came by and chatted with me about it, a very welcome and appreciated surprise. I called Jessi to talk to her about it.
There are very, very few people, though, who could at that point relate to how I felt as much as Fegy. He finished Barkley and then he returned, thinking he was going in just as motivated but then finding out that he lacked the same fire that the race requires. To succeed at Barkley you have to be 100% all in and want it so badly that it hurts more than the 5 loops you have to go through. This whole experience put me in even further awe of Jared and Brett, in being able to come back and repeat their finishes.
As I thought through things, I realized that I just wasn’t all in. Not right then. As much as I wanted a 2nd finish, it didn’t carry the same level of motivation as the first. I’m moving with my family to another country this week. We’re finally in the process of building out our startup to where “tech team” isn’t just a synonym for “John.” I have a lot of exciting races and other things planned for the rest of the year that I don’t want to be burnt-out or injured for. In 2017 if someone had come to me mid-race and said, “Alright here’s the deal. You can finish, but afterwards you’ll be so mentally and physically wrecked that you won’t be able to do any races the rest of the year.” I would have said yes. This year, nope.
And while the goal had diminished in relative value, I was cursed with the knowledge of what the goal would still require. I knew what loops 4 and 5 would take: how much they would hurt physically, how deep I would have to go into some very dark places mentally. I had complete confidence that I could go back out and do a 3rd loop, and at the very least start a 4th, but this time around I did not believe I had the right mindset to make it all the way. At Barkley if you do not believe that you can, then you cannot.
So I had found the answer I was looking for: how the different circumstances altered my motivation and how that motivation affected what I could do. It was not what I wanted the answer to be, but it was what I needed to know. Going further would teach me nothing else and would bring me no added joy. If the best possible outcome adds no value, then the only other obvious reason for continuing is to have fun. The 10 hours straight of night-time 35 degree rain had thoroughly ended the fun for me. I actually like running at night, and in the cold, and in the rain, but not all 3 at once! I would rather run in the snow at sub-zero temperatures than in 35 degree rain (especially on slippery slopes… at least colder temperatures would have frozen the mud).
As mentioned at the outset, the final remaining hesitation in quitting came from thinking of the people who had supported me in me being able to give Barkley another shot. For the ones that did make real sacrifices, I still do kind of feel bad. But I also knew that once my mind had blown through all of its internal motivation and was starting to seek external sources, that it was over. As I’ve mentioned in a number of posts before, external motivation alone just can’t cut it for something like Barkley.
After about 3 hours in camp, I finally accepted the decision that had seemed inevitable since my return from loop 2. I brought myself to tell laz, and then tapped myself out. I was the one who had ended my race; I was the one who should put the final stamp on it.
Like most things I’ve learned at Barkley, making this decision and being at peace with it is pretty big for me. I’ve always been that guy: too stubborn to quit or move on even when continuing is clearly fruitless or even counter-productive. Time is just too valuable of a resource to spend large amounts of it on things that aren’t yielding a high return.
Is this the end?
I don’t know. I probably won’t know for a long time. If I can figure how to approach the race the same way I did this year with training and preparation having minimal stress and no negative impact on my family, but then race with the same fire for it that I had previously, then maybe. I don’t want to take a slot or ask anything of those who support me if I know I don’t have the motivation to finish, and I certainly don’t want to revisit the days of Barkley training being an all-consuming focus like it was the first year I got in and before I had 3 kids. At this moment, I just have too much other stuff going on for that fire to be as strong. Maybe this failure itself will contribute to re-stoking it, but time will have to tell on that.
Unless you see me back out there again, please let’s just leave it at that for now. I have at least decided that if I ever do do it again, in order to help meet those two goals of causing minimal life impact and ensuring I have that internal fire, I’m simply going to not answer any questions about whether I’m doing Barkley (as opposed to this year, where I tried to cleverly answer without actually answering). I try my best to answer anything anyone sends me, but from here on this is going to be my exception.
Enough about you, what about the course and conditions?
Brett Maune’s 5 loop record at Barkley is an incredible, nearly unbelievable achievement. I don’t think it’s impossible for it to be broken, but it’s highly highly unlikely. I just hesitate to call it a “course” record because of how much the Barkley course changes every year. Essentially everyone who has won the race has a course record (so Brett has two of them).
Some years the changes are relatively small: move a few book locations, go one more spur over, add this minor climb, etc. Since Brett’s record there have been two years I would consider to be major changes: 2014 and this year. Only Jared and I have finished since 2014, with only his 2014 finish having more than 30 minutes to spare.
This year’s course changes initially did not look too horrible on paper. I felt confident that I could navigate them and one of my least favorite sections (Testicle Spectacle / Meth Lab Hill) had been removed. Once out there, it was an entirely different story. The terrain, the footing, the obstacles… all things that can’t really be seen on a map, were about as horrible as it comes. Talus too deep to get a foothold on, blowdowns and briars too thick to get through, slopes too steep to run down quickly and recover some of the time lost climbing them.
Then, the ordering was important. Rather than having the big climbs spaced out with a “small” one in between, they came 2 or 3 at a time. It didn’t allow any sort of physical or mental recovery by switching between uphill mode and downhill mode. I’d also be lying if I said that during my decision to quit the thought didn’t cross my mind of going counter-clockwise and climbing up the meat grinder and navigating down Little Hell. So overall I would say that yes, this year’s course was unquestionably harder than previous years.
As for the conditions, they initially looked like they would be fantastic as far as Barkley conditions go. In reality, they were sneakily bad. The first loop was forecast to be slightly warm but cloudy, and instead we found ourselves in full sun and temperatures that hit 80 degrees. That immediately switched over to a night where the cooling temperatures and rain that was refreshing at first and forecast to last for 3-4 hours turned into all-night precipitation with freezing temperatures, fog, and wind on the peaks and ridges. So there was never that acute, apocalyptic storm, but sometimes it’s the weather that’s just not as expected or just a bit off that can be more dangerous to the psyche and more difficult to prepare for. Overall it was neither the best or worst conditions that I’ve had out there.
Could the 2017 version of me have finished on this course and with these conditions? I’ve thought about that a pretty good amount, and I really still don’t know. This year’s course was tougher, but we had worse conditions and a worse starting time in 2017 (I’m actually quite happy that I finished in a bad year as far as conditions go). We also made some mistakes in 2017.
So I think that without any navigational errors, 2017 me could have possibly finished this year. There are so many variables at Barkley, though. There has typically been some small buffer to allow for at least one of those variables to be at least somewhat suboptimal. That buffer, and any margin for error, is getting thin to non-existent. I’m a data scientist, and I’m used to giving all of my answers in terms of probabilities, but the chance that absolutely everything at Barkley aligns perfectly is one probability that I don’t want to try to calculate.
Gear and nutrition
If you want to see this laid out with some pictures, Canadian running did a good job putting some together for the gear:
I could almost copy and paste this from my Franklins 200 race report (ok, actually I partly did do that). It was essentially my gear and nutrition dress rehearsal for Barkley and I was happy with how everything performed. Most of the companies below are ones that I do have relationships with, which you can view in full on my Partners page. You can also find discount codes there for XOSKIN and Hammer if you want to try them out.
Up top, I had on the same XOSKIN form fit short-sleeved shirt as my base layer for the entire race. As the temperatures fluctuated I added an XOSKIN long-sleeved shirt over it, and then added an Ultimate Direction ultra jacket once it started raining (much better than a grocery bag!).
For bottoms I had XOSKIN lightweight compression shorts with La Sportiva shorts over top. I also wore XOSKIN calf sleeves, toe socks, and regular socks. I’ve found the double-layer approach of toe socks underneath regular socks works well for me on races of that distance and with that much steep terrain that causes extra friction. I used zero lube, and even with the rainy night I had no blisters or chafing.
I wore La Sportiva Mutants throughout the race. My plan was to change into either another pair of Mutants or a pair of Akasha after loop 2, but obviously we didn’t get that far into the plan. Taking away a lesson from Franklins 200, I had a pair of Akasha that were a half size bigger to accommodate foot swelling.
I wore my trusty Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 4.0 for the entirety of the race as well, the same line of vests that I’ve been using since my first Barkley four years ago. It held everything I needed snug and secure and fit comfortably throughout. I did want to turn the straw pass-throughs on the shoulder straps into extra pockets (I’m not a fan of straws) so my mom was kind enough to sew the bottoms of those pass-throughs shut.
I also used Ultimate Direction’s FK Gaiters and FK Trekking Poles, and both worked great. I specifically remember having a near fall where I ended up stepping full-force right on the middle of the pole and thinking “wow I’m sure glad that didn’t break.”
My nutrition plan at this point has gotten consistent enough that it’s honestly pretty boring (which is how nutrition should be – not consuming any mental energy during the race!). It works for me, so I’m gonna keep using it. For each loop I had a bottle of chocolate Perpeteum, a bottle of water with a Fizz tablet in it, a flask with a mixture of raspberry and peanut butter chocolate Hammer gel, a couple of Hammer bars (oatmeal apple and coconut chocolate chip), some homemade food like salty maple nut energy bites, my aunt’s sugar cookies, and my mom’s snickerdoodles. Between loops I had some higher calorie items like pizza that are harder to carry and that would have a chance to digest on the initial climb back out of camp. I also had Endurolytes, anti-fatigue caps, and tissue rejuvenator as needed, usually every 1.5 – 2 hours.
Lighting was with a Petzl Actik NAO+, which gave great vision and battery life that was honestly much better than I expected. I changed it with a few hours left in the loop but that was just because I was already switching out some other gear and didn’t want any risk of needing to stop again to swap. Guillaume actually had the same headlamp and showed me some stuff I didn’t even know about that can be programmed into it from a phone.
I also carried a Katadyn BeFree with me, which I had hoped I wouldn’t need but I’m sure glad I had it. After that hot 1st loop it was invaluable in getting rehydrated from all the streams. It was lightweight, quick, and convenient, and also a much better approach than my 2017 strategy: “if I get giardia it won’t be until after the race so that’s fine.”