2023 Barkley – Third Time’s the Charm the Second Time

It took me nearly three months to get started by writing the title. I assume the rest of this will be quick and easy. I also still stand by my mini Barkley Marathons report I originally posted:

The course looked reasonable & the conch blew at a comfortable hour. The forecast was fantastic. I got to share time w/ some incredible people. Well into the 2nd loop there were a lot who could still finish. Then some got too cold. Others got too exhausted, some got too lost, many were too sleepy, & most just moved too slow. Three of us did not. The end.

Or, my “small” race report can be found over on La Sportiva’s blog. But much like drink sizes at Sonic, which is probably who should be sponsoring this post, we’re going to take this all the way up to the “Route 44” size, where the most likely outcomes are that you fall asleep before you can finish it or you just skip to the end after spilling most of it everywhere because it won’t fit in your cup holder, I mean phone (yes Google Search Console, thanks for letting me know you’ve discovered Mobile Usability issues… again).

For those unfamiliar with Barkley, which is probably no one who has bothered reading even this far, it’s a race in the mountains of east Tennessee put on by a Dr. Pepper-loving Camel-smoking mad genius with the demeanor of a rhino* and the heart of a golden retriever. The race has been finished (spoiler alert) by just 17 people since its inception in 1986. It’s designed to be just at the edge of what’s possible, both psychologically and physically crushing, with 60 hours to make it 5 loops totaling around 130 miles with 67K ft of ascent / descent on an unmarked course through rough overgrown terrain with no GPS, unpredictable weather, and an unknown start time. Books stashed along the course serve as checkpoints, each person removing the page for their bib number. The race is meant as an opportunity to stare likely failure in the face, and in pursuit of that slim chance of success discover much more than books out in the woods.

* I actually have no idea what a rhino’s demeanor is… I just assume it’s intimidating, headstrong, and not something you want to make angry

In addition to the $1.60 entry fee, first time entrants bring a license plate. All of them from years past hang around camp as a memorial to the DNFs that have come before. Photo: David Miller Photography

To prevent harm to sensitive ecological areas, the race is limited to 40 people each year and the course is not public. As a side effect, this creates separation between runners which adds to the difficulties of navigation and managing mental fatigue. The field is chosen to best fulfill a number of requirements: a maximum expected number of total loops completed, enough veterans so that navigation is not an insurmountable challenge, “elite” runners with a legitimate shot of finishing the race, non-elites who have proven they’ll make the best of the opportunity to pursue a big challenge, and people who have any chance at all of finishing who represent a group that has never had a finisher before (congrats to France and Belgium on their 1st finishers this year! Sorry, spolier alert again). This year I finished on my 3rd attempt at becoming a 2-time finisher, after also becoming a 1-time finisher on my 3rd attempt (ah… that’s where the title comes from 🤔).

I don’t have much time these days to keep up with blog posts or podcasts, or be very engaging on social media, but for Barkley, due to the entry limitations and lack of information out there, I try my best to be as accessible as possible. I believe that with limited access those who do have the opportunity to participate have a bit of a responsibility to help others at least get a good vicarious experience. You can dive into my full Barkley archive or listen to one of the couple dozen podcasts I did after this year’s race. But now, finally, let’s get to the race report!

Pre-race: Once two strangers climbed ol’ Chimney Top

The story begins at Sonic (because of course it does). Damian Hall, my friend and rival from my time in the UK, had come over early to learn as much as he could about Frozen Head. And the culture of southern Appalachia of course. Or maybe it’s just that I refused to provide one without the other. He hadn’t yet been won over by the timber rattlesnake we saw on our first day, a fine selection of sweet tea, or the prevalence of big trucks and SUVs in our entirely vehicle dependent infrastructure. But then came tater tots. And french toast sticks. And cinnasnacks! I’d have him singing Rocky Top yet.

Still sporting a cast on my left wrist, which I managed to break about six weeks earlier, along with bruising my ribs, by being an idiot on a ladder. The doctor gave me the go ahead for the race (I didn’t press him with much detail beyond “it’s a long race in the woods”), and Barkley itself was my first run without the cast.

I showed Damian what I could that week, but also didn’t want to rob him of an “authentic” first time experience out there. Over the course of three years in the UK I received a tremendous amount of support in some huge adventures. I didn’t have the opportunity to return the favor to all of those people, so I was left with little choice but to focus as much of that as I could on Damian. I also knew how much it meant to him to take the flight over for it, and wanted him to be able to make the best of it. Most of the rest of the UK Barkley contingent did at least show up early enough for a southern breakfast and run around our little family farm.

Nicky, Damian, me, John, Jodi, Jasmin, and Emma

Shortly afterwards we all headed just a few miles down the road to the campground. I was joined by John Fegyveresi, who would be crewing for me as he did in 2017. It’s invaluable to have someone who knows me well and has his experience, a Barkley finisher himself.

In years past, the day before the race was stressful for me, filled with anxiety over the unknown of what the following days would bring. Now it’s like Christmas Eve. Tracing the map and copying over my compass bearings is still one of the most dreaded parts of the race for me, but purely because it’s tedious and takes time away from seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and watching the anticipation of first timers as the course instructions are given out. Eventually, whether we expected coal or gifts in the morning, we all settled in early for a night of attempted sleep.

Just a bunch of grizzled veterans able to enjoy the calm before the storm.

Loop 1: Welcome to the jungle

I still remember before my first Barkley in 2015, when I looked Bev Abbs straight in the eye and informed her of my plans to latch onto them and hang on. I felt dumb the moment I said it, and am fortunate she at least appeared to not resent the comment, with her and her husband Alan helping guide me around the course for the first loop (before I hopped between hosts like a flea and latched onto Jamil Coury for loops 2 and 3).

Although it’s rare for someone to be bold enough to come and directly tell me they’re going to latch onto me, I’ve fully assumed the role of tour guide. And I love it. I get to pay forward some of what I’ve been given over the years, and proudly share my mountains and some of their history.

Fortunately there’s a picture of me before each loop to see the descent into madness. Photo: David Miller Photography

At 9:54 AM we set off from the yellow gate. The first climb is like hors d’oeuvres before a big party – everyone making introductions and brimming with excitement. But everyone is eager to get to the main event, and there’s inevitably a pileup at the first book. One of my other past Barkley regrets is at the first book in 2017 where, still stinging from my early separation from the lead group in 2016, I was overly aggressive getting my first page and probably a bit impolite to Heather Anderson and Adam Lint in the process.

The start time of the race is only known to be between midnight and noon. A conch shell is blown one hour before the start. Over the years I’ve gotten slightly better at not waking up thinking every single little sound is a conch shell. Late starts still mess with the mind a bit, though (“surely it must be any minute now!”). Photo: David Miller Photography

This time, Jared Campbell selflessly sacrificed himself, calmly taking the book and patiently handing each person their page, saving himself for last. No one would dare reach for the book from the hands of the race’s only three time finisher. Respect is assumed, but in a race where burning metaphorical bridges increases the odds of facing very real navigational challenges, self-preservation provides a guarantee.

It’s around this time that that veteran guidance becomes most crucial. The course is still new to many people, but there’s no longer a giant conga line to aid navigation. In these woods it doesn’t take a very big gap to lose sight of someone. This is honestly the part of the race where I now get the most nervous, as I take the lead on some fast and tricky descents knowing that if I make a mistake a lot of people following me are going to lose valuable time very early. Fortunately I navigated to Garden Spot flawlessly, along the way doing my best to point out landmarks and other tricks I use to keep myself on course.

The loop can roughly be broken down into thirds: the northern section from camp around to Garden Spot, the eastern section largely on Stallion Mountain and then back up to the fire tower, and then the southern section which includes many of the race’s more well-known sections: rat jaw, the prison, the infamous beech tree (yes, that one, over there, no not this one or one of those other thousands in the park), and culminating on Chimney Top before descending back to camp on actual trail.

There was really only one remaining section that concerned me on navigation: a short but incredibly steep out and back just after Garden Spot called Leonard’s Buttslide. The way down is always ever so slightly different, due to the number of rocks, overgrown sections, and otherwise impassable spots that cause slight changes of direction, ones that can add up to big deviations if not careful flying down a steep descent. It also lacks clear handrails and some of the other terrain features I rely on with other descents. But again, we arrived right at the book. I was no more sure of how than of how birds manage to return to the exact same spot after migrating.

Ah, that nice alert and focused feeling of loop 1, approaching the fire tower and the biggest crowd of the race. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

By that point we had started to separate into smaller groups. I was with Damian, Albert Herrero Casas (a world rogaining champion), and Christophe Nonorgue (world record holder for most elevation gain in 24 hours, as well as the holder of the toughest uphill Strava crown at Frozen Head after taking it from me a couple of weeks before the race). It was good company to be in and we moved well together, with complementary strengths and navigation styles.

The joy of Rat Jaw – one of the few places on course where you can just let it rip. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

We completed the loop in 8:17, a fast time but actually 10 minutes slower than Karel Sabbe and I in 2022. That year, though, we had to make hay while the sun was shining, before freezing rain moved in on the second loop. This year we expected calm, clear weather throughout, the least bad Barkley forecast I had ever seen.

A note on “teams”

Groups form on loop one around veterans like drops of water coalescing as they run down a windshield. Eventually, groups are well defined and spaced out, each one forming an alliance of convenience that will remain together as long as they keep moving in the same approximate direction and speed.

At Barkley, one careless mistake can be disastrous. And everyone out there, regardless of experience, will make a careless mistake at some point. There are simply too many decisions and too much mental fatigue to never make one. Moving together massively reduces the probability that those little mistakes become major problems.

As an example, assume for each decision we individually have a 5% chance of a mistake. If there are 50 independent decisions then there’s a 92% chance at least one of them will be wrong. If there are two of us, and our mistakes are uncorrelated, then the chance we both mess up on the same decision is only 0.25%, meaning if we can correct each other then after 50 decisions there’s only a 12% chance we’ve messed up. With three people that chance drops to less than 1%. Those numbers are oversimplified, just like the chart below is, because in reality not all decisions are equal and there will be some correlation in our stupidity. In the case of group think, the advantage disappears entirely. For this to be effective everyone needs to be independently evaluating each decision, ideally using a diverse set of skills and prior experience.

Simplified chart showing the probability of collectively screwing up at least one decision.

Loop 2: For those about to rock

Everyone on team AC/DJ (apologies that my name doesn’t start with a C) made a quick turn around and got back out for loop 2 in the evening light. As night fell, the temperatures dropped hard. It was the one caveat for this year’s otherwise great conditions. I would much rather have cold than hot, wet, windy, foggy, or muddy, but that doesn’t mean that cold is without its difficulties.

Hey that was fun right? And we’ve got tots! Let’s do it again. Photo: David Miller Photography

The water at the fire tower was already nearly frozen when we arrived. After stopping at the highest and coldest spot on the course, drinking a good amount of the ice water, filling two flasks with it that were held against my chest, and then stopping shortly after to get a book page, I began shivering with cold. I knew I didn’t have long before my core temperature dropped, leaving me in a condition that would be difficult to recover from. I added the light puffy jacket I had tied around my waste “just in case” and apologized to the others before continuing – getting my body moving and heading down from the summit. Albert had taken responsibility for the book, distributing everyone’s pages and putting it back in place before catching up.

Fortunately I warmed back up relatively quickly, but it threw my body off a bit. I was feeling a little queasy and out of it, unable to move fast and generally just “off.” It was my turn to latch onto the back, mentally drafting until I popped back out of my low spot. I knew it was only a matter of time. I had been in that spot countless times before, many of them much worse. I just needed to put my head down, keep moving, and get through it bit by bit.

So that’s what I did. Gradually, I regained my strength and focus, and after my respite tapped back in to my leadership role. We were moving well and keeping ourselves in good position for a finish. We finished loop 2 at a total time of 20:07. It was over half an hour behind the pace Karel and I had set the year before, but I was feeling much better.

Fegy getting me bundled up and to the bathhouse, with Jodi in the back leading Damian to the warmth. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

It’s actually a bit baffling to me now, comparing the times, that the year before we were faster after the overnight downpour we had gone through on loop 2. We were only slightly faster than Gary Robbins and I were in 2017, after a disastrous night start in dense fog. I’m now not sure if I was actually physically feeling better, or if I was just more confident and less anxious about the unknown. I tried to reguarly reassure the others that we were in a great spot, hopefully buoying their own confidence.

Loop 3: Just another day in paradise

We headed to the warmth of the bathhouse, but still made a fairly quick transition. Christophe wanted a bit of a rest before the third loop, so unfortunately we were down to three. Otherwise, things were generally looking up.

I had pulled back out of my loop 2 low, it was daytime, the weather was nice, and we navigated well together. There were a number of small mistakes (which can really add up!), but nothing catastrophic. The most notable thing was on Leonard’s Buttslide, the steep out and back where there’s a good chance of crossing paths with anyone within an hour ahead or behind. We saw 3 or 4 groups with around a dozen people total – all of them still theoretically had a chance to finish. I knew that most of them wouldn’t, and some might still not even make it back around for a 3 loop Fun Run, but I had never seen that many people still with that possibility two and a half loops in. Each group even still had strong veterans in it, people who wouldn’t be caught off guard by the difficulties of loop 4.

Still, even with the good conditions and things going well, loop 3 is where the doubts can easily start to creep in. I let my thoughts lose focus of what’s directly in front of me and consider the larger picture. I still had over a day left. An overwhelming task remained. Could I really make it that far? Did I even want to? Why am I doing this?

I’ve found that when things seem overwhelming, a counter-intuitive approach of zooming even further out can help. It’s just one more day. That’s nothing. How many days have gone into preparing for this? How many days will I remember this one remaining day? Sometimes I go so far out it gets downright nihilistic. We’re all just specks of dust in an unfathomably large universe caught in the currents of the infinite river of time. None of this matters. So I might as well continue. That’s what I set out to do. My thoughts circle all the way back around and my focus returns to the next book, the next step of the task small and simple enough for my mind to still grasp.

Hooray! Rat Jaw! Photo: Howie Stern Photography

Albert, Damian, and I finished the loop in nearly an identical time as loop 2, with our total time now at 32:04. That’s nearly an hour faster than Gary and I were at the end of loop 3 in 2017, and the forecast for the remaining 28 hours looked great. My mind shifted entirely into disaster prevention mode as we prepared for the loop where disasters seem to happen more often than not.

I might have largely retained teenager looks into my late 30s, but you can see the “wisdom streaks” starting to form on my sideburns here. Not sure what to blame for them, but I guess Barkley could be a candidate. Photo: David Miller Photography

Loop 4: Here I go again on my own

Albert decided he wanted a nap before leaving camp, but with a bit of daylight left and neither of us feeling sleepy at that very moment, Damian and I continued on. Daylight is precious at any time, and by that point it’s critical to take advanage of any moment of clarity. They can entirely and suddenly end at any time.

It wasn’t long before the mind tricks started. On the first climb one of us stopped for just a moment. In the dense trees and undulating terrain of Frozen Head that’s all it takes to get separated, especially at dusk. There’s a slight dogleg right on the climb, and shortly after taking it I glanced to my left and saw Damian’s silhouette against the sky as he went up the crest of another spur. We were still quite close, but he couldn’t hear me when I called out to him. There was almost no way he could see me in the waning light, deeper down in the woods.

I consulted my compass and mental map, confident that our slightly different lines would rejoin, him having just done a bit of extra work to get there. So I continued on, keeping an eye on him as he paralleled my ascent. A bit farther up I could start to see some of the rock features near the top, and realized I was heading away from them. It was actually me who would be doing a bit of extra work – I had turned too far to the right lower down. The course is actually designed to usually be the path of least resistance between books, with any slight deviations resulting in natural penalties. It was another small mistake, but again not disastrous. I scurried over to rejoin Damian and we continued on to the top.

We’ve got this. Just need to stay awake. And maybe something else I think? Photo: Howie Stern Photography

Before we knew it we stood at the top of the dreaded Meatgrinder, a hill that had been added in 2019 and in my opinion is the worst of them all. I started flying down the rocky, overgrown, easy to mess up descent, trying my best in the dark to get occasional glances of the ridgelines to either side and listening for the sounds of the creeks to funnel us in the right direction. The ground flattened out and we arrived at a confluence. Perfect! I had nailed it and turned eagerly to celebrate with Damian. But then I turned back around and something wasn’t quite right – where was the book location? At night, with foggy minds, the location seemed correct. But it was off.

The darker it is and the deeper it gets into Barkley, the more everything looks the same. Frozen Head, nature’s hall of mirrors. After a few moments of panic I realized my mistake – the next, nearly identical confluence is where we needed to be. I had nailed the descent but had just stopped too early. We took off and shortly arrived at the correct spot.

We carried on until the mental tricks started to turn to outright exhaustion and delirium. We both agreed a power nap would be a tremendous benefit, so I started trying to figure out how to work the alarm on my cheap race watch. It wouldn’t work. I thought I was setting the alarm, and it seemed like it was going off, but the display would just blink and there was no sound. Even in my sleep-deprived state I was becoming convinced that something was wrong with the watch instead of me (I was correct, even after Barkley I never could get that alarm to work). I continued to fiddle with it, until I looked up and realized that we had managed to go off course on one of the easiest sections, a short stretch of somewhat flat terrain alongside a series of small ponds left from strip mining.

We wandered aimlessly for a bit, seemingly only a few minutes, but probably actually closer to half an hour. I’ve found that these situations seem to have some kind of time dilation delirium, as if the mind truly is floating free way out in space somewhere observing the body getting sucked into a black hole (slip a reference to gravitational time dilation into an ultrarunning blog post… check). Eventually we stopped to come up with a more deliberate plan and concluded that if we just went straight up perpendicular to the mountain’s contours that we would eventually have to come to something we recognized and be back on course.

It worked, and right about the time we were back on course we looked back to see another light approaching from below. Was it Albert, Karel (who I knew had no plans of ever sleeping in camp), or someone else? We quickly hatched a plan to make the short climb up to Garden Spot, get our next pages, and then one of us would lie down on top of the book so that whoever the approaching person was would have to wake us up. In our own minds we had gone from dunces to geniuses.

As we got ourselves comfortable in a luxurious patch of grass on the exposed bluff, book securely tucked underneath Damian, we figured we could slip in a solid 15 minutes of sleep. About 30 seconds later, before I had even closed my eyes, I saw Albert coming towards us out of the woods. Given how confused he was when I alerted him, it’s possible Damian might have managed to instantly plummet into deep sleep and snooze for a few seconds.

It was a given that we would continue with Albert. Our brilliant alarm clock plan now had no guarantees, and someone catching up to us at that point also had the benefit of providing a bit of a shot of adrenaline. That shot likely wouldn’t measure up to the benefit of Albert’s nap in camp, though. I felt a bit like a racecar driver who had gambled by not stopping for new tires and now with a long way to the finish had already lost the lead to someone with a fresh set.

We were a bit over 1/3 of the way through the loop, with the next 1/3 covering the rugged trail-less portion along Stallion Mountain east of the park boundary. As far as I recall (which is no guarantee here of what actually happened) we did pretty well for a nighttime loop 4. We set off up Little Hell (which in my opinion is much worse than its Big counterpart), eager to reach the fire tower.

The steep slope is covered in rocks and the remnants of old mines: leftover coal piles, rusty abandoned equipment, and large ventilation shafts that remain wide open to the depths of the mines below. In 2022 I had been forced to do a few hours of repeats on this hill after losing my pages. Even with that extra practice, this was one of the few climbs where I had never found a “good” line to the top. I wasn’t sure one existed.

Miraculously, in the dark on loop 4, I finally managed it. I was approaching the top having maintained a steady march all the way up without needing to scramble or re-route around a rock wall a single time. I turned to share the good news with Damian and Albert, lifting my hand expecting a fist bump since we were all probably too out of breath for actual words.

My expectations were quickly shattered. I was alone, not even a glimmering light below me. In my tunnel vision to keep a steady pace and a true route I had pulled ahead without even noticing. It was possible that they were right below me, behind a rock or briefly hidden by a sharp drop in the terrain. But I couldn’t risk it. They could just as easily be on an ever so slightly different line hidden in the same way, and I couldn’t afford to lose the fragile rhythm and focus I currently had.

I carried on up to the tower and down Rat Jaw to the prison, starting the climb up the Bad Thing along Razor Ridge confident I would be alone for the remainder and already starting to formulate a plan for my final stop in camp. The real difficulty with having such limited remaining mental bandwidth is that if there’s a distraction it consumes all brain power, not even leaving enough for a reminder that distractions have to be avoided. It’s like the sign I recently found for my dad: “The thing I forgot to do is the thing that keeps me from forgetting to do things.”

So with my brain fully occupied pondering plans for camp, I mindlessly drifted south on the climb, actually heading straight towards the top of Kelly Mountain. Fortunately, I had made that same mistake before, way back in 2016. Something buried in my subconscious slapped me across the face and brought me back to the present moment. It was a significant mistake, but again full-on disaster had been avoided. I course-corrected, looking down below expecting to see lights closing in on me. I was still alone.

I made it the rest of the way around without any more major incidents and as I climbed Rough Ridge, the final little annoying on-trail bump between Chimney Top and camp, my mind returned to my plan for camp. I would take a 30-40 minute nap, consuming those dawn hours when I always struggle and ensuring I had enough of a recharge to make it around one more time. I had plenty of time and everyone else seemed to be far behind – it was a precaution I could easily afford.

Then right as I hit the top I looked back before starting down. I saw a light making its way down the switchbacks coming off of Chimney Top. It was moving quite well. I arrived in camp with the clock at 46:02. It hadn’t been a stellar loop, but I was still 24 minutes ahead of 2017 and I had a daytime loop 5 in outstanding conditions to look forward to.

Loop 5: I know the sun’s still shining when I close my eyes

I knew someone wasn’t far behind me. It wasn’t the competition that concerned me, but I knew that if I wanted to choose my loop direction I could no longer afford to take a nap. Earlier in the race I had considered what I would do if Damian, Albert, and I were all still together at this point. Still feeling pretty good at that point, I thought that in that situation I would let them choose their direction. I had already finished, with less to gain than them from another one, and I felt I could complete loop 5 in either direction.

I can’t get the time thingy on my arm to make the beepy noises that make me no sleep. Photo: David Miller Photography

But as these things go, with my body and mind having come closer to the point of desperation, my reasoning turned more towards doing whatever it took to make it back around one more time. I was slightly more comfortable in the clockwise direction, in particular wanting to avoid going up Meatgrinder. And besides, with less course experience wouldn’t the others be equally uncomfortable in either direction? It seemed like sound logic at the time. I also yearned for an experience I missed out on in 2017 due to rain and brain fog: to enjoy the triumphant final climb up Chimney Top overlooking my childhood home.

Five minutes later my pursuer arrived. It was not Albert or Damian. It was not Karel, Jared, Jasmin, Tomo, Christophe, Stringbean, Guillaume, Johan, or any of the other strong veterans who had still been in contention halfway around loop 3. It was first timer Aurélien Sanchez, who had absolutely crushed loop 4 and gained nearly an hour on me. As I rushed to make a quick transition, he casually asked which direction I planned. When I responded I could tell he wanted the same, but had accepted that he probably could not get back out ahead of me.

My tiny mental errors began to stack up even in transition – putting new shoes on before taking my tights off, forgetting where I put the food I was eating five seconds earlier. But I was still ready to head back out in just 12 minutes, my quickest transition of the day. I had 100% confidence that Fegy had everything I needed ready to go in my pack. I was back out in the clockwise direction, just minutes later hearing the cheers as Aurélien took off the opposite way.

Woooo! Everything totally makes sense right now! Completely coherent. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

It wasn’t long before I started to regret my decision for a quick turnaround. I had reached the point where I could hardly keep my eyes open, staggering along struggling not to fall asleep on my feet. I still had the problem of the non-functioning alarm, and was worried that if I took a nap I would sleep for hours, waking up far too late to finish. In these situations it’s usually the “easy” parts that are most dangerous, going up an actual trail where my mind thinks it doesn’t have to think and gradually drifts off.

So on the switchbacks heading up Jury Ridge I lay down with my head and back in a cold creek. It’s a tried and true strategy for me (I think first attempted on loop 5 during my 2017 finish). I knew that at some point my body’s discomfort would exceed its sleep deprivation, waking itself up to urge me to get moving and warm back up. Even with extensive experience, though, it’s a difficult tactic to execute with any precision. I woke up after only about 6 minutes. It would get me a bit farther, but I knew it wouldn’t be enough.

I made it to the top and headed back down Meatgrinder with the comfort of knowing it would be my last time. The following mundane and seemingly endless climb up Hillpocalypse is where I started to struggle again to not fully cross into dreamland. Some people have lucid dreams, where they know the fantasy isn’t real. When sleep deprived I have non-lucid reality, where I don’t know that reality isn’t fantasy.

Somehow I made it to the water drop about 1/3 of the way around the loop. It was near quitter’s road, where I could see muddy tire tracks. Having failed to get just the right amount of discomfort in the creek earlier, I immediately thought that the tire tracks would be perfect. But it was also later in the day and warmer, so I poured some water on my head first to try to calibrate things just right.

Picture taken on a summer return visit to my 5 star accommodations.

As with the failed nap Damian and I had on loop 4, I saw someone approaching almost immediately after I lay down. I instantly recognized one of my childhood friends who I hadn’t seen or talked to in about 20 years walk by with what I assumed were his wife and two kids. Without even thinking, I greeted him by name. He just laughed and said, “That’s a John Kelly nap if I’ve ever seen one!” My memory is a bit murky after that, but I believe I responded with something about it being loop 5 of Barkley and that I just needed a quick nap, unsure of whether he knew much about the race. His wife looked a bit confused (as she should have!), but they just kept right on walking and I put my head back down in the mud.

Unfortunately I had mis-judged my level of discomfort again, and the extra water on my head made me too cold to fall asleep at all. After a few minutes I got back up and continued on.

Purple haze all in my brain

I’ll pause for a moment, and follow-up on this crazy side story. I thought nothing more of this chance encounter in the woods until a day or two after Barkley, when I had regained some semblance of coherent thinking. I work as a data scientist, and my job is basically to determine probability distributions for unlikely events. The more I thought about it, the more impossible it seemed that I had actually seen my old friend on loop 5. I had never had a full blown persistent hallucination, but “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle via Sherlock Holmes)

After discussing it with a few people and checking with people in camp if anyone had seen a family hike through that afternoon, I arrived at four possibilities:

  1. I had actually seen my old friend
  2. It was an actual person, but I just mistook them for my friend
  3. There was absolutely no one there and I was talking to myself
  4. I had an imperceptibly short nap and dreamed the entire encounter

I had started to rule out option 1 – what are the chances that I would see a childhood friend out in the woods on a Thursday afternoon in Frozen Head? And would I even recognize him after that long, especially in my impaired mental state? Even fully coherent I often struggle to match names to faces of people I met the day before. And who on earth walks by someone in the woods lying face down in a muddy tire track and just continues on like it’s perfectly normal and everything is fine? If it was who I thought it was, there’s no way he wouldn’t stop to make sure I was ok and get me off the mountain or go get help.

No one saw anyone come through camp, which would have almost assuredly been how they left. So I ruled out option 2 as well.

Some details were pretty murky, but I remembered quite clearly checking my watch and seeing I had gotten no sleep. I saw no way that I had actually dozed off long enough for that dream. But, it was possible.

The remaining explanation was number 3. I was convinced that I had finally had my first hallucination! It’s something many people experience on multi-day ultras, and I somewhat felt like I had been missing out. It was something I needed to experience once just to know what everyone was talking about, like a brain freeze (I’ve never had one… my superpower is that I can down one of those Route 44 slushes without even hardly stopping to breathe).

But I wanted to be sure. So I made the somewhat awkward step of reaching out to my friend for the first time in decades to ask if he saw me lying in muddy tire tracks in Frozen Head. I tracked him down on LinkedIn, of all places. I fully expected him to respond thinking I had gone insane or become a drug addict (although I guess maybe ultrarunning qualifies as either of those). When I read the first line of his response I even thought he was trying to mess with me. But it turns out, I’m not crazy! Not only was I not hallucinating, but what remained of my mind correctly identified someone I think I hadn’t seen since high school. We had a nice chat, and hopefully I’ll see him again soon on a more normal day out in the woods.

Snap back to reality

I continued on from my failed nap, heading towards Garden Spot. For the entire loop I had mostly been focused on staying awake and avoiding mistakes. I wasn’t concerned at all with racing Aurélien, and the only times I thought of him were as I approached a book: doing the math to decide if I might still have time to finish if I napped on the book and didn’t wake up until he made it around in the opposite direction. Garden Spot was the first place that seemed somewhat possible, and I wasn’t entirely sure I could make it to the next book without sleep.

In the exact same luxurious patch of grass Damian and I used on loop 4, I went down for my third attempt at a nap. This time I was in the sun, dry, and comfortable (relatively speaking), but I was so far gone at that point the nap seemed less risky than continuing.

Almost right at 15 minutes, I woke up. It was not Aurélien that saved me from eternal slumber, but my throbbing knee that I had banged on a tree descending Meatgrinder on loop 1. Rejuvenated nearly as much by the excitement of waking up at just the right time as by the nap itself, I rose to my feet and headed towards Stallion Mountain. I felt that the nap and some caffeine would sustain me long enough for the finish line adrenaline to kick in.

I arrived at the bottom of Leonard’s Buttslide to find Aurélien’s page missing. The steep slope is overgrown with tightly spaced tiny spurs, like someone dropped a boulder on the hillside and sent ripples out across it. We could have passed by each other right on opposite sides of the same ripple and not known it. He was moving well, and likely 30-60 minutes ahead of me at that point.

Back near the top of the out and back, I crossed paths with Karel as he started down. He was about an hour behind me and confirmed that he had also just seen Aurélien reach the top. There was no time to waste for a chat, so we wished each other the best and kept moving.

By the time I came off of Stallion Mountain I was getting a bit dehydrated and stopped to filter some water before the long climb up Little Hell. One of the main difficulties with Barkley conditions is their volatility, and it’s always a bit of a shock to the body to have warm weather after a freezing cold night. It was still much preferred to the rainy, foggy, muddy, and cold conditions of loop 5 in 2017, and I was starting to feel that a finish was all but assured if I could avoid making an awful mistake.

The last of the worst of the climbs. Photo: David Miller Photography

I arrived at the tower to a small crowd. Barkley doesn’t allow any support there, and even cheering / moral support is frowned upon at that point. I went about my business methodically and carefully – rehydrating, getting some extra calories in, and mixing my final bottles of Tailwind. Those who were there said afterwards that I seemed to be in the zone and amazingly alert. If the zone is a place fully separate from the real world, where in my near catatonic state I was fully focused on the moment with zero room for distraction, then I guess they were right.

Yes, I am 100% in the zone. I’m not entirely sure where “the zone” is. But I am all there. Photo: David Miller Photography

But at that point I was on the homestretch. Three descents and two climbs, and I would be there. I became absolutely determined to savor the rest of the loop, this time soaking in those moments instead of deliriously wondering if the moments were even real. The remaining off-trail sections were still weird, though, each time getting confused and starting to drift off in the wrong direction before being suddenly pulled back in, as if I were tethered to the course by a bungee cord.

One last time down Rat Jaw. I promise I’m just as happy as on that loop 1 descent. Just on the inside. Or in that zone, wherever it is. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

Eventually, my moment arrived. Ever since Barkley piqued my interest over a decade earlier, this had been my dream. Every sport has those endings that people play out in their imagination: a World Series winning grand slam in the bottom of the 9th, catching a Hail Mary as time expires in the Super Bowl, scoring the winning goal in stoppage time of the World Cup. I was climbing Chimney Top, the mountain that had defined mountains for me as a kid. It was right at sunset, and beautiful red and orange hues stretched above my family’s farm below. It was even better than the other scenarios, as if I were able to slow down time and enjoy watching that Hail Mary sail through the air, knowing it was destined for my hands.

One of the tweets I scheduled before the race. Intentionally cryptic (whether I could push through or not, I would know the answer by then), and a bit of planned self-motivation knowing that this would be posted sometime during loop 5 and if I were still out there there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The climb was slow. At last I felt it was my legs, rather than my mind, giving up on me. But it was ok. I stopped, and turned to enjoy the view. I had plenty of time, and all lines converged at the top where the final book sat waiting. I was even wearing my own clothing, unlike 2017 when I was wearing a prisoner’s orange hat and a plastic bag that I had, umm, “engineered” into a poncho.

Sitting just below the location of the last book, probably 1988.

I finally reached the book and sat down, looking directly in front of me at the spot that I recognized from a picture of me sitting in my dad’s lap nearly 35 years earlier. I carefully counted my pages and tore out the last one, securely tucking them all away in a zippered pocket behind my left flask. Then I just sat. In 2017 I lost 20 minutes on Chimney Top. I’m still not sure what I was doing during that time. This year I’m not sure how much time I lost (probably 10-20 minutes), but I know exactly what I was doing.

Whenever people (including me) are struggling on Big Hell I like to remind them that throughout her 60s my grandma could still crush that climb, and even now she’d tell them to quit their belly-achin’ and get on with what needs to get done.

Having been crew myself at Barkley, I knew that people would be anxiously waiting for me back at camp, growing more uneasy with each minute past my expected arrival time. Plus, it was getting close to my kids’ bedtimes. I put on my headlamp, walked the short distance to the trail, and then took my foot off the brakes and coasted down the hill like a kid on a bike. This time when I crested Rough Ridge I saw no one behind me, but I thought I heard cheering in the distance. It was Aurélien arriving back at the yellow gate. He had run an absolutely masterful race, and became one of the very few to finish on a first attempt.

I jogged up the hill through camp, doing my best to take it in even in the dark. My incredibly supportive family, who also invests so much into these foolish adventures, was waiting there for me. I touched the gate, and joined Brett and Jared as the only people to finish Barkley more than once.

Great documentary from this year, focusing on Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy‘s experience. Link goes directly to the clip of my finish. In 2017 I ran through camp to the gate because I still wasn’t quite sure I was going to make it / stay awake. Not this year.

I embraced Aurélien, and we sat to wait. We were eager to welcome Karel and have a 3 finisher year for only the 2nd time ever. Karel had worked hard, and I knew how much he wanted this. But in the back of my head I feared a repeat of waiting for Gary Robbins to arrive. My mind continually did the math – there’s X minutes left, which means we need to see his headlamp up there within Y minutes or down there within Z. To be honest, I also wanted him to hurry up and finish so I could go home. My legs had started throbbing and I desperately wanted to go to bed, even if I couldn’t immediately fall asleep.

On the lookout. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

Finally, we saw his light. It was excruciatingly close, and he couldn’t afford to walk it in. He touched the gate with six minutes left. To put that into perspective: if he had taken an extra six seconds per hour, he wouldn’t have finished. It was an incredible thing to be able to witness.

And with that, we took a picture and were off to sleep (or, something sort of resembling it).

Three finishers. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

We’re still standing

Ok, still standing figuratively speaking. Literally, we were mostly sitting, lying down, or hobbling short distances between places where we would sit or lie down. The next day many of us did manage to reconvene to share stories, and it all ended the way it started, with some fine local cuisine. I’ve gone to Big Ed’s for post-race meals since middle school cross country and in traditional fashion I downed an entire large pizza. I believe that meal was also mandated by Coach Roche in my recovery plan.

Mandatory post race Big Ed’s trip. Unfortunately Alex Ricaud (lower right) learned how strict some places in the US are about showing an ID to get a beer.

It would be difficult for a second finish to top the first one, but if I really try to look at it objectively this one was better in many ways. There was no stress or overwhelming pressure, no getting lost in the fog or desperately searching the briars for scraps of refuse that could keep me warm on Rat Jaw. I was able to help friends and cheer on two new finishers, and enjoy Chimney Top in a way I could have previously only dreamed about. It was awesome to see the hero’s welcomes that Aurélien and Karel received on their return, and the pride and inspiration their finishes created. Aurélien even received a letter from President Macron (still waiting on mine from Trump and Biden 😂).

In a way it was also a much more difficult challenge. Barkley requires an immense amount of motivation and willpower. At some point no matter how well things are going or how capable someone is, they’ll encounter the overwhelming desire to quit. Before finishing the motivation to finish is much higher, as is the blissful ignorance of what it will take. In attempting additional finishes more is needed but less is naturally available. It becomes necessary to manufacture more. I discovered that after I quit in 2019 essentially just because I didn’t want to continue.

I went into it not with the explicit goal of finishing, but with the goal of proving to myself that I could exert enough control over my own mind to do whatever I will it to do. In essence, my motivation was to prove that I don’t need motivation. If I could accomplish that, finishing would be one added result. Another would be confidence that in the future, when I’m overwhelmed or my mental bandwidth and clarity are limited, I could continue to the goal without having to stop to ask myself why. All I need to know is it’s something I had decided to do, and I should trust the earlier version of me who actually had the time and capacity to carefully and coherently think through things.

This is where I would normally ramble about the other things I learned out there, but the length of this post would already be starting to spill out of a Route 44 cup. I’ve started posting those lessons on social media and plan to continue doing so. The “grand challenges” is a reference to a post from many years back before I headed out on my first attempt at an adventure I called The Grand Round.

The first of the “lessons learned seeking grand challenges” posts.

I know a lot of people think the course will be much harder next year. It could be, but I really don’t expect that. When three people finished in 2012 it wasn’t until after another two finished in 2013 that a big change was made to make the course much more difficult in 2014. Of the three who finished this year, only two of them were first time finishers and one of them only had six minutes left. It was also good conditions, relatively speaking. Laz doesn’t want the race to only be possible in good conditions. Some years will be slightly worse and some slightly better, but they should nearly all still be possible. The first time I finished was horrible conditions with a horrible starting time. The thing that stings even more about Gary not making it is that in nearly any other year I believe he would have finished, and in my mind he still has one of the top Barkley performances ever.

As for my Barkley future, as long as I still have a chance of finishing or helping others finish, I see no reason to not be back if there are no schedule conflicts. It’s genuinely fun for me now (mostly type 1 even), it’s back to being a short trip from where I live, and it doubles as a family visit. It won’t be because I want to match Jared’s three finishes, or even because I want to finish. It will be because I want to, and that is enough.

Gear and nutrition

Note: I have relationships with many of these companies. For a full list, see Partners.

I relied on the La Sportiva Cyklon throughout the race, with the Cyklon Cross GTX on that first extremely cold night. My pack was an Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest, the same series that I’ve used in every Barkley. Fortunately the new model has a little zipper pocket behind one of the flask holsters, perfect for stashing my pages so that I wouldn’t risk losing them in a waist belt like last year.

I used XOSKIN’s XOUNDERWEAR throughout (actually I believe the same pair the whole time) as well as their socks (toe socks with a pair of normal socks over top), with zero chafing or blister issues. For light, I again used a Petzl NAO+ as my main headlamp with an Actik Core as the backup.

Nutrition this year was probably the simplest it’s ever been. I used Tailwind in nearly every flask (probably around 40), accounting for almost all my hydration, electrolytes, and about half my calories. In camp and leaving camp I used Supernatural, and I used Maurten gels pretty extensively. Those things accounted for the vast majority of my calories, with gaps filled in by the usual assortment of candy bars, Little Debbie cakes, and other snacks. And of course between loops, plenty of tots from Sonic.

Refilling at the tower on loop 3. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

10 thoughts on “2023 Barkley – Third Time’s the Charm the Second Time

  • 2023-07-28 at 6:11 PM

    Marvelous read, as always. Thank you for making the Barkley come alive, especially for those of us who don’t dare even to think about attempting it!

  • 2023-07-28 at 9:41 PM

    Thank you so much John for the narrative of your journey. I ponder if the thinking and writing of the report was as long as the race. Worth the wait for the read.

  • 2023-07-29 at 4:57 AM

    Great write up as always, thanks John.
    May you long be able to continue on this mad path.

  • 2023-07-29 at 8:44 PM

    I appreciate you taking us on your journey. Loved reading this, as well as your social media posts – I’ve found great inspiration in them.

    • 2023-07-30 at 9:09 AM

      Thank you, hope it helps just a bit towards some big journeys of your own. 🙂

  • 2023-07-30 at 7:32 AM

    Thanks for sharing John, as informative and inspiring as it is funny in places. Congrats on the second finish, good luck in the inevitable next attempt !

    • 2023-07-30 at 9:10 AM

      Thanks Greg. Maybe the first time can be the charm for me the third time.


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