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Barkley Marathons, Outdoors, Running

“From Naked Meth-Heads to Forest-Fires” – 2011 Barkley Report by Lazarus Lake

Barkley Yellow gate

The Yellow Gate, Courtesy of Finally Found Something I love

The following 2011 Barkley Marathons report by RD and Barkley founder Gary Cantrell (aka Lazarus Lake) is re-printed with permission. The original post was on the Barkley mailing list on April 6th, 2011.

it seems like all the race reports come from the perspective of the runners.
and their experiences are certainly the crux of what ultramarathons are all
about. but there are other story-lines playing out during our races. the
crews have their own experiences, as do the volunteers. even the RD’s are
building their own memories. the common threads to all of them are endurance
& facing challenges.

while the runners are building a base, the RD is jumping thru bureaucratic
hoops; securing permits, purchasing insurance, and making plans. as with
any successful RD, i relied on the assistance of a number of unsung
volunteers to pull together the scattered pieces that comprise the barkley.
some tasks are tedious, others pure enjoyment, still others painful.
dealing with various officials fills the tedium bill (with a dose of
frustration now & then). book set-out is my day(s) on the course. probably
more fun for those of us participating than even the race itself, as we
both get to enjoy the rugged beauty of the place, and imagine the
experiences of the runners in the race to come. field selection is the
pain. every RD wants their race to become a destination event. but none
among us enjoys having to turn down entrants. and when the available
slots fall far short of demand, we end up turning away runners whose
participation we would prize. we watch our weight lists with anticipation.
every entrant who must withdraw is mourned. every weight lister we can
let in is celebrated.

while the runners are getting in the serious training, we are compiling
lists. our budgets are parsed over, and plans are laid. so much of race
directing is about the movement of material. but only so much can be
done in advance.

finally, as the runners start their tapers, the RD activity begins to
build to a crescendo. a growing warehouse of supplies is prepared for
transport to the race site. runners plan to arrive rested & ready. RD’s
hope to arrive with enough energy left to survive.

my barkley began on friday morning. having gotten to bed early, i awoke
about 5am ready for action & arrived at frozen head just at sunrise. to
my surprise, joe kowalski was there setting up a magnificent tent, with
walls and a roof. they say that no battle plan survives the first contact
with the enemy, and already i was having to adjust mine. my elaborate
plans for the sturdiest tarp-roof in barkley history were thrown out
the window. in this case the plan change was like striking gold.

in no time the supplies were unloaded, and runner registration begun.
the campground, already packed with barkers, just kept filling up. old
friends were greeted with pleasure. new friends with joy. after following
the runners’ preparations on the list for months, it was great fun to
finally see them all coming together.

the day flew by. in no time i was charring the outside of frozen chicken,
and handing it out to runners, whose polite upbringing forced them to
feign great enjoyment as they gnawed bloody strips of meat from the
bones. in self-defense, many runners had brought additional food to the
feast… the majority of it not only fit for human consumption, but
actually good.

all too soon, the runners began to filter away into the darkness, to
repack their gear one more time, and catch some sleep before the eagerly
anticipated start. before we knew it, there were mostly volunteers (and
a few foolhardy runners re-examining their map against the master). we
sat around the campfire, drinking moonshine and swapping lies until
naresh arrived with the wildest tale about a naked man covered with
tattoos jumping over his car. this was very funny until i realized that
this had transpired at park HQ, just down the road. convincing the ranger
on duty to get out of his comfy bed to investigate the report of a naked,
tattoed car-jumper in the park would have been a challenge any night.
april 1 was perhaps the most challenging night of all. fortunately, we
had silver tongued lawyer keith dunn on hand to take up the challenge.

with that taken care of, it was simply a matter of remaining patient
as we counted down to a midnight conch-sounding and the special surprise
of an early start.

at 1 am, the cigarette was lit, and a column of runners headed out into
the pitch blackness of a new moon. prior to the start, i had warned them
that they would have hail before sunrise… and they all laughed (maybe
the cloudless sky had something to do with their doubt).

raw dog & i walked a ways up the jeep road, and watched the string of
lights switchback its way up the first climb. we noted that even the
easiest hill on the course was sort of steep, and laughed. we watched
the frequent flashes, as a straggler swept his light in all directions,
already struggling to follow the trail… and laughed harder. we watched
until all the lights had finally gotten out of sight, then we went to
finish cleaning up the remains of the raw chicken feast.

eventually i got to retire for the night. one benefit of the early start
was supposed to be a decent night’s sleep during loop 1.
what is it they say about battle plans? i had slept maybe an hour, when
the van i was sleeping in erupted into a loud clattering. marble sized
hail was pounding my refuge in a torrent. smiling to myself, i settled
back down to sleep…

and then i remembered that i was counting on living in this campsite
for 3 more days. damshithell. i climbed out of my cozy nest and struggled
to dress in the confined space of the van, as the hail continued to hammer
away. i located my raingear, and wrestled it on, and finally tracked down
my umbrella, clambered out of the van… and the hail shut off like a faucet.

i wandered around, drying off the stuff that had gotten wet, making sure
everything was stowed away securely for when the storm returned, and
re-banking the campfire for the night. then i had another smoke, enjoying
the peacefulness of being alone in the woods.

just as i was preparing to return to the sack, a runner came traipsing
in. he had contracted pneumonia a couple of weeks before the race, but
with the preciousness of a slot in the barkley, had chosen to make the
attempt anyway. i felt bad for him, as i listened to his crouping cough.
but he was mostly worried about the indignity of being the first out.
the salvation of his dignity was that only he and i were there for the
first of many bad renditions of taps.

crews stirred restlessly in their tents and fell back asleep while
waiting to see if it was their their runner coming home to stay.

i checked my watch. sunrise was not too far off, and more dead runners
could be coming in at any time. so i just stayed up so that someone
would be there to note their passing.

with the dawn, the camp came back to life. we ate breakfast, told stories,
and speculated about what was happening “out there”. what was happening
out there was not a fast first loop, as the vanguard of finishers did
not start coming in until just past 9 hours. however, once they started
coming, the fatigue of my sleepless night was forgotten, as runners
arrived and went off to restock & recover, or checked out on loop 2
steadily all day long. emboldened by the daylight, an unprecedented
26 runners had the courage (or bravado) to face loop 2. for the others,
a steady stream of taps sounded across the camp.

as the time limit came and went, only 2 runners had given up on
loop 1.ultimately, 7 others would be timed out. however, loop 2 was
another story. even while loop 1 runners continued to come in, loop 2
runners began to return with their tails between their legs. the
excitement continued into the night. again and again, taps sounded out.
they came in bunches as runners quit by 3’s and 4’s.

bystanders began fretting about the runners still on loop 1 as the time
passed 16 hours. somehow, they construed a pace of barely one mile an
hour as indicating there was some sort of problem. i just laughed, and
assured them that those runners would have the best stories to tell.

besides, the frontrunners would soon be due in from loop 2. quitters
were staggering back into camp from all directions, and there was plenty
to keep me busy. i assured them that, if the missing persons were still
missing by sunrise sunday, we would “begin” to be concerned.

as the leaders began coming in to camp, we were able to verify that the
stragglers were still on course. they were moving at glacial speed, but
they were still on course. by 1 am, they were all safely home. they were
cut to shreds and beaten to a pulp, but they were safe in camp. once or
twice, i was called over to check on runners of particular concern, but
was able to ascertain that they were simply falling asleep on their feet.
none were in serious trouble.

and thru it all, taps continued to herald the shrinking number of runners
on course.

24 hours after the start, we were down to 13 runners still on course. it
was starting to get easier to keep track of which lap everyone was on,
and who was in camp mustering up the courage to go out for one more.

morning came again, and i had another breakfast before the leaders began
coming in. 9 of the 10 runners who started loop 3 were still on course,
and it wasnt safe to go to sleep, since a steady pace would have them
coming in soon. the leader came right on time, and took just over an hour
to head back out. the second runner had slowed considerably, and adamantly
refused to return to the course. taps sounded again. the third runner came
in perilously close to the limit, but screwed up the courage to begin loop
4. the remaining runners were all long overdue. morning turned to afternoon,
and i was pretty much reeling. i tried to set up facing the route of return, but kept dozing off in my chair. limping, people were everywhere, telling the tales of what had happened to them “out there.”

a day earlier, 18 people had the courage to predict that they would finish
all 5 loops. now there were only two left with any chance. 6 more had a
shot at a fun run, but the clock was steadily running out on them.

another runner came in. too late to continue? “aw, darn!” as best i could
tell, he shed no tears. the final 5 came in within a half hour of the
final 40 hour fun-run cutoff. all were hours behind their pace on the
first two loops, and they told harrowing tales of their struggles to
even maintain that pace. taps sounded out 5 times in succession, and
only two runners remained.

as darkness fell on sunday, it seemed i was finally going to get some
sleep. i went to my van, and this time made no effort to get into my bed.
after 2 and a half days up, i simply fell on my bed fully clothed and
passed out cold.

what must have been less than an hour later, there was pounding on the
window. there was a forest fire near the east side of the course, and
the ranger was there calling for the race to be stopped. the immediate
picture in my mind, as i struggled to get up, was of the ranger
surrounded by barkers and crews, each with their own idea of what
needed to happen… ranging from those demanding that the leader be
allowed to run thru the fire, to those insisting that the entire camp
should be evacuated.

and when i came stumbling out, that was indeed what i found.

this time, my mind struggled to wrap itself around the problem. i
extricated the ranger from the confusing mob, and knew that i needed
to alter the course (one of our trails was being converted to a
fire-line with bulldozers), but could not piece together the best
choice of alterations. at this point, raw dog stepped in with an
excellent choice. some rather nasty terrain was replaced with some
easier running, but the new course was longer. more important, it
kept the final stretch intact. most important of all, he would no
longer pass anywhere near the fire-fighting area. i could send the
ranger off with the assurance that he did not need to give us another

with that, i turned my attention to informing the runner. brett’s
campsite was now a beehive of activity, as he prepared to go out for
the final lap. altho he had come without a crew, an amazing thing
happens at the barkley. elite athletes; the best there are at what
they do; compete like mad until they are forced to drop. then they
become defacto crews for those who survive. brett’s crew was a who’s
who of multiday trail runners. their experience and knowledge was
unparalleled. two days earlier, 18 runners had an honest shot at
finishing the barkley. now they were all united in the effort to
get one man thru the gauntlet.

i am not real big on the “everyone is a hero” sentiment. and i think
it is nonsense when two people hold hands and tie (it is a race, for
god’s sake. intentional ties are an insult to the whole concept of
racing.) but to see people, whose own hopes were crushed, and instead
of sulking about they throw themselves into assisting a rival…
that is impressive.

truly the barkley is;”all the men against… that, out there.”
i didnt really feel completely comfortable with the course change,
until we showed it to brett. he was dismayed. if brett didnt like
it, it must have been the right choice. then we arranged for JB
(known to barkers as “9”) to meet brett at the point he was to
turn away from the fire zone. there was no need to take any chances
that he would be dancing around bulldozers building a fire line.

the penultimate runner returned from an incomplete 4th loop, and was
tapped out. brett left on 5, and everyone melted away to go sleep.
i waited. maybe i should have taken a nap, but my mind was too shot
to think of it. the darkness was filled with hallucinations.
irrational disjointed thoughts passed, unbidden, thru my mind. and
i wondered if i was speaking gibberish aloud. no matter, there was
no one to hear (except the hallucinations). somewhere “out there”
brett was supposed to be running up and down the mountains, in the
same mental state as me… or worse. god help him. i could not rest
until i was sure he was past the fire safely.

by the time i saw jb, it was the next day. raw dog brought me breakfast
again, and i thought; “this is my 4th breakfast today.” somehow that
seemed very funny. other than those, i had no real meals. i just
periodically went to the buffet table and ate something… and
(naturally) partook of raw chicken whenever i had the urge.

and i waited. daylight had chased the visual hallucinations away,
but the auditory were still going strong. i would hear loud cheering
out in the woods, and look to see if brett was coming in. then i
would think; “you idiot.the only things cheering for brett are rocks
& trees.”

time came for him to be in, and he didnt show. his metronomelike
pace was finally broken. somewhere, “out there”, brett was in barkley
hell. i knew the feeling. he was running loop 5 on fumes.

while we waited, camp came down. the license plates were packed. the
tent was struck. the last garbage bags went to the trash receptacles.
still no brett. we passed the point of counting how much he was overdue,
and began the countdown to 60 hours. would he fail now, so close? it
had happened before.

at last, he came up the road. walking slowly. he touched out at the
yellow gate and we hit the “easy button” one more time (man, did that
thing get some funny looks this weekend). number 10 was in the books.

just like always, i hung around camp too long. almost everyone was gone,
some had already returned to home and work, but i did not want the larger
than life weekend to end. however, i did have one last task. the drive home.

it was hell. an hour out, i ran into a line of monster storms. the van
rocked violently. sheets of rain reduced visibility to near zero.
branches came out of trees and banged loudly off the van. i was grateful
that it had no windows to break out! i reduced to 20 miles an hour and
put on my flashers. had this thing arrived 24 hours earlier, there would
have been no #10.

the drive was interminable. periodically i would simply start to fall
asleep, and pull off the road to move around inside the van (if it werent
pouring rain i would have gotten out) to get more caffein. i alternately
ate drank and smoked. anything to focus and stay awake.

about eight that night i arrived at the house. and changed my battle plan
one last time. i was not going to unload the van in the pouring rain, and
have to spend a week drying stuff out. i went inside, and my 85 hour day
was finally over.

now we start the preparations for barkley 2012. and all over the world
runners begin to think; “i could be #11. all i have to do is not quit.”


More Barkley Stuff

If you see any other race reports buy runners or crew,  or particularly good recaps, let me know. And as always, if you want to learn more about the Barkley, check out the following:

Peace, and good luck Out There.

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