I heard about Barkley Marathons for the first time many many years ago. Since then running the race has been my dream. The reputation the race has as being the toughest 100 miler in the world inspired and lured me. Watching all those videos on youtube and reading old race reports just added the complexity and mysterious of the race.
The Barkley family is something special. We could feel that with my wife and coach Sari right from the beginning when arriving at the Frozen Head State Park camping site. We were welcomed by everyone and help was offered by the whole family and especially by Keith. We found a nice spot for our camper van which also gained a lot of positive attention. All the logistics at the campsite were quickly learned.
The evening before the race was special. As a Barkley virgin the excitement was getting higher by each passing hour. Talking with Gary and Ed made the situation more surreal when realising the fact that this is now THE Barkley Marathons and you are in the race! Just in a few hours the race you have dreamed about for so long time is starting. It was also nice to notice the openness of other runners shearing their knowledge and experience from previous years and other races. These discussions were more valuable to me than probably any other thing I had done prior the race. Especially talking with Johan Steene about the route and the map gave me a whole new understanding what was to be expected. Johan had participated in Barkley in 2015. We also discussed about starting the race together and check how our paces would match. Another memorable discussion was with Mike Wardian. Here I was talking to one of the most well-known ultra-runners in the world. And Mike was just as excited about the race as any other runner in the camp.
After the sunset the campsite got quiet. The last two years the race had started late in the morning and Sari had a feeling that this year the race would have an early start, perhaps even before 3am. She stayed awake in our van as I was trying to get some sleep. Only 42 minutes after midnight we could hear the conch. I had not slept any but the adrenaline level after heading the conch blown was way of the scale. Sari prepared some breakfast as I finalised the race gear. The one hour between the conch and the cigaret is extremely short. I got my race watch just six minutes before the race started.
When the cigaret was lit we started our first ascend towards the first book. The fog was so thick that you could not see much with the headlamp. Fortunately the night was so dark in Frozen Head that you could see nothing without the headlamp. Finding the first book was really exciting. There must have been over ten runners getting their own pages at the same time. The place was just filled with light and excitement.
Our paces with Johan seemed to match quite well. During the first part of the loop I just tried to follow the map and learn the course. Johan pointed out different land marks as we navigated from one book to the next. Jean Ranney and Benoit Laval were progressing with the same pace so a group of four was formed with almost same route choices. Coming down from the Fire Tower I heard a voice from behind. ”On you right!” John Kelly was cruising down the descent at a pace I could not understand. Next time I was able to glance up he was already gone. Just remarkable.
Taking the tunnel under the prison was again one of those memorable moments. It was all familiar from the past reading but now doing it for the first time yourself is something different. The rest of the course was quite clear and we had no major problems with the navigation. I got back from the first loop to the yellow gate with all my pages in 10:00 hours. It took me around 20 minutes to eat the food Sari had prepared and refill by backpack with energy. Johan was ready a little earlier and started already his second loop.
During the first loop I had already started to feel some pain in my knees. My pace slowed dramatically on the first parts of the second loop. I was not able to catch up Johan. The descends were slow as I had to carefully check every step I took. Another slowing factor was the navigation as I had no others to rely on. Luckily at some point I was able to get back with another group of runners which meant saving time in finding the next books. I was struggling to keep up with the group during the ascend to Fire Tower on the second loop. On my way back down I lost the contact with the group and also made a navigation mistake. I made my way still to the next book but decided then to quit the race. The pain in my knees was already quite severe and I knew they would not get any better during the race.
Even if the race result was quite different than what I expected I cannot say that I’m disappointed. Every time I have started a race I have been confident that I can finish the race, even during Saturday night at 1.42am when the cigaret was lit I was confident about myself. Even if the elite runners can finish Barkley by a very small marginal I was still confident that I could do it. But Barkley Marathons is something more, something different. After watching John Kelly’s and Gary Robinson’s performance during the weekend I know now that finishing five loops in Barkley will likely never happen for me. Not at least with these knees. I do not mean to sound arrogant. On the contrary, the race makes me humble. The magnitude of Barkley can only be understood by taking part in the race. It cannot be understood by reading other runners race reports.
”The Barkley Marathons: Where Dreams Go to Die.”
Big thanks to the whole Barkley family for letting us be part of something special. Special thanks to Johan, my Barkley mentor, for letting me accompany him the first loop while he was showing me some of the secrets of the park.
ps. luckily there is also the Fun Run…maybe someday if I get a second chance…