In 2015 I took my first shot at Barkley. Like most things I’ve done, from my first marathon to my first triathlon to my first startup, it was supposed to be one and done – to go out and give it my best shot and see how I could do. But also like those other things, I didn’t feel afterwards that it had been the best I could do. So in 2016 I tried again. I seemed to be so close to a finish that in 2017 I went back. I vivdly remember Gary Robbins and I discussing that year, as we ascended Stallion Mountain: “if you finish will you ever do it again?” The answer for both of us was a pretty emphatic no.
The finish came for me in 2017, but then after crewing in 2018 I decided to go back out there myself in 2019. It was largely a curiosity; a personal psychological experiment. How could I do with the different perspective after finishing? The answer was not good. Despite leading after 2 loops, I quit. I was cursed with the knowledge of what the later loops would bring, and I simply did not have the necessary motivation or desire. But I didn’t want my Barkley experience to end like that. I got my mindset in a much better place, and I was ready in 2020. Then Covid came, and I was at Frozen Head alone. In 2021 the race was there, but due to Covid travel restrictions I was not.
This year, with my finish from five years earlier still the most recent finish, everything seemed to be in place: I was physically and mentally ready to go, I was at Frozen Head, and so was Barkley. I ended up with just a Fun Run finish, and it will now be at least a full decade between finishes from anyone other than me or Jared Campbell. It was definitely not the outcome was I was aiming for, but the experience largely was what I wanted. It was really what I was hoping it would be in 2019. It was fun. Mostly type 1 fun even. I had no pressure or stress. The race had not consumed my life, taken excessive time to prepare for, or put a burden on my family. But unlike 2019 I was still motivated. My mindset was right for a finish.
I was fortunate to have massive support from my family again, with my wife Jessi boldly holding down the fort with four kids back in the UK, my coach David Roche managed to continue progressing my fitness and confidence while I blindly followed his plan through a number of life events that held my focus elsewhere, and this year I had Maggie Guterl as crew (whose middle name starts with J, to keep the pattern alive of all my crew at Barkley being J names). Thank you so much to them and to everyone else who has continued to provide encouragement and support through what is now my longest string of DNFs (although only one of those was in a “normal” race).
About those flags
Before getting to the actual race, a note about the flags seen on our packs in many of the pictures. By themselves, those flags are just a gesture that do nothing other than maybe make some people feel good. Please help it be a bit more than that.
One of my colleagues at work is from Kharkiv and the links at linktr.ee/randomforestrunner are mostly ones that he has shared for providing aid to Ukraine. While a bunch of fools were running around the woods in Tennessee, Ukrainians were defending their homes, their families, and their right to exist as a country. Be entertained by us if you’d like, with our “courage” in the face of contrived obstacles. Save your admiration and support for them.
I flew in from the UK two days before the race, and I was thankful my body was still mostly in that timezone the evening before the race. I got to sleep early, and then after lying awake for a few hours before the conch blew at 6:54 AM, I was actually a bit disappointed we didn’t have an earlier start.
One of the course changes this year sent us straight up a steep ridge from camp, but we still arrived at the first book in a bit of a crowd and had a line for everyone to be able to get their page out of the book. After just a few hours, though, there were six of us in front: Karel Sabbe, Albert Casas, Michael Dubova, Courtney Dauwalter, Thomas Dunkerbeck, and me. The conditions were great, and we were making the best of them that we could knowing that the coming night would not be as kind. There were other veterans in our group, and all very capable navigators, but I was having fun playing tour guide (although it was a bit of added pressure). There were a couple of minor mistakes but we had no major problems and I was surprised myself in a few spots when I ended up right at the book on some tricky descents. I was trying to share as much as I could on landmarks or other tricks that could help when it got dark, or foggy, or the direction changed, or all of the above.
By the time we reached the fire tower we were down to five. It was a bit different this year, since we didn’t come up Rat Jaw and the weekday start meant there wasn’t the normal crowd at the fire tower. Since I didn’t get to enjoy the climb I had to have double the fun on the descent to make up for it. 😉 My fun didn’t last long, though… with the earlier start this year Rat Jaw hadn’t been mowed yet. My speed at the top was forcefully restrained lower down by hundreds of briars taller than me reaching out to pull me back. It was what I imagine lathering myself in milk and then running through a herd of rabid cats would be like. It was also a significant cost to our time on the loop.
The final book on Chimney Top had a beautiful view that day down towards my family’s farm. Four of us remained. Our loop 1 time of 8:07 was my fastest ever, and I felt we were in a perfect spot. We hadn’t made any significant mistakes and we had made good use of the conditions without overdoing it.
The strategy of getting in and out as quickly as possible between loops, particularly after the first one, is no longer some sneaky secret. Karel and I were back out in under 10 minutes, and by the time we reached the first book we were alone. We continued on, moving well together and navigating flawlessly. Our lights came out as we finished the long climb up Hillpocalypse a few hours into the loop and rejoined the trail for one of the more runnable sections of the course heading towards Bald Knob. I was thrilled to nail the navigation on the dark descent down Leonard’s Buttslide, and we made it back up to take shelter under Bobcat Rock about an hour after dark to put on our first layer of rain gear.
I went straight from hot and still a bit dehydrated, to cold and wet. Unfortunately this meant my base layer was already wet from sweat, and my rain jacket was nothing more than a membrane separating two different kinds of moisture. I had an extra base layer, and I should have swapped it out right then. If I’ve learned anything from my time in the UK, it’s how ineffective a jacket is for warmth if base layers are already wet. But at the time I didn’t expect it to get much colder and I was under the common race delusion of “I can make it back to camp / an aid station / support before things get bad.” When it comes to warmth, hydration, and nutrition, it’s always the best strategy in the mountains to act as if there is no support, that no help is coming – not in an hour, not ever.
It wasn’t long before we were pulling out more gear. At that point it was too late to swap my base layer. There was no shelter and the rain was so heavy that it would have gotten soaked just taking it out of my dry bag and putting it on. Fortunately, other than a few tight spots getting through mountain laurel and new growth, our navigation was still good. A few brave souls awaited us at the fire tower before we plunged off the side of Rat Jaw again. The good news is that our rain gear largely protected us from the briars this time. But also, that rain gear now has a number of tiny non-waterproof holes in it.
By the time we started the final climb I was starting to get actually cold – not just chilled or uncomfortable, I could tell that my core temperature had started to drop a bit. Once that happens, warming back up can be a lengthy ordeal. I put on another jacket and hoped that the long climb would help. But the rain continued and it kept getting colder and windier. After grabbing the last page, I wasn’t wasting any time on the descent. Unfortunately I was also starting to have my first bout with sleep deprivation and was having trouble staying awake (which could also be because I hadn’t been eating enough because I was cold because I wasn’t eating enough because I was cold… and so on). Karel was introduced to my habit of yelling at myself to stay awake. Meanwhile he had been stoic the entire time – I don’t even remember any outbursts when he got snagged by briars.
In terms of the big picture we were in great shape finishing the loop. 19:34 with the worst of the conditions behind us… a finish seemed inevitable. But in the immediate picture I wasn’t in a good spot, and it’s never good to arrive in camp like that. It’s too tempting to stick around and indulge in the luxuries, like shelter, warmth, and food. I asked Maggie to set up in the warm bath house, hoping I could quickly get dry, warm, and fed. Once I sat down, even after changing into dry gear, I was shivering uncontrollably. After a few minutes hoping I could magically warm up, I decided to try to nap. Karel and I had planned to head back out together, so I sent someone to tell him of my changed plans. In hindsight, I should have hopped in a hot shower to try to warm up quickly, and gotten back out with him.
I hoped that a quick nap would allow my food to settle, warm me up, take care of my sleep issues, and allow the rest of the rain to pass. Unfortunately it took me longer than expected to warm up, and I was too cold to get much sleep. I was in camp for nearly two hours – far, far too long. Still, though, I was heading back out on loop three at approximately the same time as 2017 when I finished. This time I was in better shape, knew the course better, and conditions for the last three loops looked better.
Once I got going I felt great. I had the added energy boost of seeing a few people coming the other direction finishing their second loop – first Thomas Dunkerbeck, and then I was thrilled to see Jasmin Paris near the summit of Chimney Top still on pace for a Fun Run. Then Tomokazu Ihara… and that was it. Greig Hamilton had come in and gone back out while I attempted to nap. On loop two I had been amazed that nearly all of the loop one pages were gone from the books. Thirty people completed loop one within the time limit, and eight more completed it over the cutoff. Then the night, the rain, and the cold came. There were only six of us left on course.
I started to make some minor navigation mistakes. I hadn’t done a counter-clockwise loop in five years, and my justified confidence on the early loops was now manifesting as carelessness in the counter clockwise direction. Still, Karel and I had done well enough on the first two loops that a finish was still within grasp. I made the long climb up Rat Jaw, which in the wet conditions was actually reminiscent of my final loop in 2017 – like trying to ice skate uphill. Just as he had back then, Alexis Berg was there to capture my misery (Alexis and Aurélien Delfosse have also just put out a great book called “The Finishers” that tell many of these Barkley stories).
Shortly after leaving the fire tower is when disaster struck. I had been carrying my book pages, the ones that prove I’ve visited the course checkpoints, in a waist belt. On the next descent I stopped to pee, looked down, and it was gone (the belt, I’m talking about the belt). The feeling was strange – of course my heart sank and there was a momentary panic, but there was also a nearly instinctive acceptance. As if my subconscious just said “ah, well… ya know that’s the sort of thing that happens at Barkley ain’t it.”
I spent nearly three hours essentially doing hill repeats on a section known as Little Hell, scouring the hillside thinking it must have been ripped off by a tree or during one of the many times I fell on the steep muddy slope. I discovered a number of hidden gems, like a giant ventilation shaft from the old mines with a metal casing around it, as if a grain silo had been shoved 20 meters into the ground and then chopped off at the surface, leading to a cavern with no discernible escape. I hadn’t discovered my lost pages, though. After nearly giving up all hope, I returned to the very top of the climb. There it was. My belt was right in the middle of a gravel road that I crossed before starting the descent.
I checked my watch, did an about face, and flew down the hill. I was now in the familiar position of needing to be cautious because I couldn’t afford to mess up, but needing to move fast because I didn’t have time to go slow. I made it around to the last page moving well and with only one minor navigation error. All that remained was a descent on a new section, named Wrong Way Ridge in honor of Gary’s fateful wrong turn at the end of loop five in 2017. I went down the wrong wrong way ridge. I’m fairly confident I went down the one that Gary actually went down, but that wrong way wasn’t the right wrong way. I had to go back up and over to the correct ridge, and by the time I made it back to camp just over half an hour remained for me to start loop four.
Had I not finished before, or had I felt like I would benefit from more time on the course, or if I weren’t still at the point in my career where I’m trying to regularly compete in other things, then I undoubtedly would have quickly headed back out. My legs were still feeling great, by far the best they’ve ever felt after three loops. I was mentally very alert. It was a far cry from my quick turnaround in 2016 when I barely made it 50 meters away from the gate before taking a nap. Still, I knew that that drowsiness was inevitable on the second night. I would have to stay awake, move well, and navigate nearly flawlessly to have a shot of starting the fifth loop.
Maybe I could have. It seemed nearly impossible to finish but probably not entirely impossible, and that in itself is the very premise of Barkley. Also, though, for someone as stubborn as me deciding not to continue was immensely difficult. The chances are high that I would have just broken myself and still not finished. The risk / reward ratio was terrible. I have other big plans this year: another attempt at the Wainwrights before I leave the UK and my first go at Hardrock are both within the next four months. I would have been pursuing a miniscule chance at another Barkley finish while likely sacrificing a large chance of doing well at Wainwrights and Hardrock.
I’m not saying I only want to play the game if the odds are in my favor. Nearly everything I do in running has odds massively against me. But the game itself is largely about making those terrible odds as good (or as least bad) as possible. Then with enough rolls of the dice there will be some big wins scattered amongst the epic failures. Even outside of running I view most decisions in terms of optimizing the sum of probabilistic outcomes – that’s kind of how a random forest works. The models I built that formed the foundational technology for our startup are based on this idea.
I’ve had over a week now to process things a bit more. I feel I missed a great opportunity to finish, and there’s still a part of me that wishes I had gone back out on loop four. The frustration of this one outweighs any of my other Barkley failures. One reason I pursue big challenges is that I feel I grow more even from a failure than I do from success at something more reasonable. I don’t have any huge lessons learned here, though, and despite the numerous intended ways to fail at Barkley I feel I managed to fail in an unintended way. When Karel and I came in from loop two in a bit over 19 hours with the worst of the weather behind us I could already smell the finish, and probably my biggest mistake was stopping to warm up and snooze while the rest of the rain passed instead of heading back out and continuing to work with him. He probably would have kept me from losing my pages and I probably would have kept him from ending up lost and wandering around Petros.
But I’m not injured, I got to enjoy 36 hours exploring otherwise inaccessible parts of mountains that I love, and I’m pretty happy with where I am now. My body and mind feel great, with runs feeling 100% normal just a week later, and I’m energized for the rest of the year. If I had continued, I’d likely still be a bit physically broken and mentally questioning my life choices.
I was also actually really enjoying it out there for the most part. Legitimate type 1 fun even in most places. The experience was what I was hoping 2019 would be: relaxed and fun, but still with the motivation to finish. Before the race I wasn’t planning on doing it next year. Now I probably am. And probably the year after that. Iff (iff, along with xor, is something I feel very strongly should be part of everyday language and not just used as a logic operator) it continues to be fun, without it being a big stress on me or my family, and I retain the motivation to finish, I see no reason to not do it as long as I have the physical ability to finish or help others finish. I’ll be living nearby, I love exploring those mountains, and the whole experience is just such a massive adventure compared to a normal trail race. Those mountains have always been in my blood; it seems fair a bit of my blood stays on those mountains.
|2015||3||Poor nutrition and lack of experience causing a lack of will to continue|
|2016||4||Early navigation error leading to insurmountable sleep deprivation|
|2018||0||DNS – did not start (crewed instead)|
|2019||2||DNC – did not care (enough)|
|2020||5*||*Five fake on trail “Barkley Challenge Loops” with the actual race canceled|
|2021||0||Could not travel to US due to Covid restrictions|
|2022||3||Lost waist belt with pages|
|2035||5 loops at 50?|
|2045||sexagenarian Fun Run?|
|2055||still dragging people around one loop hoping that they’ll eventually go on to finish?|
|2065||trick the grandkids into a “character building” exercise with promises of a fun hike at an easy 30 minutes / mile pace|
|2075||I stop at the Garden Spot memorial cairn, refusing to continue and yelling at runners to get off my porch and let me go out with my boots on|
I also actually really loved playing tour guide on loop one, and getting to help people out and show them the course and some of the land’s history. Hopefully one of those people can become a finisher – honestly it was neat for a few years being the most recent finisher but at this point someone needs to finish the dang thing. I’ve made a lot of good friends out there, and I want to see them succeed the same way that people like Bev and Alan Abbs, Jamil Coury, and Gary Robbins helped me succeed. I’m also excited by the possibility of a woman finisher. Courtney has been really strong out there, Maggie can do great things when she’s in it again, and Jasmin completed the first Fun Run for a woman since Bev Abbs in 2013 (which also happens to be the year before Laz made a major increase in course difficulty after having nine finishes in six years).
I even enjoyed a bit of the tour guide experience outside of the race. After three years of being the guest in another country I got to show some people around my home. It was awesome. Maybe next time they’ll stick around for the bowling alley and the Science and Energy Museum too. After that I’m pretty much out of ideas. That’s all we’ve got.
Gear and Nutrition
Note: I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes, see this page.
Well, I guess the obvious place to start here is that waist belt. I’ve worn the UD Race Belt for countless adventures in the past, and have never had it come off. I can only assume that the Barkley gremlins must have crawled up and undone it when I momentarily sat down at the tower. But don’t be surprised if I have one next time that’s stitched directly into my waist. My Ultimate Direction FK Poles, Mountain Vest (including the upcoming 5.0 version), and other gear were all perfect. My waterproof ultra jacket and pants even didn’t get entirely shredded by the briars.
I went with the La Sportiva Cyklon for shoes, which I’m really loving as something that for me is a bit of an upgrade over the Mutants I used to rely on. The BOA dial lets me adjust things on the fly much easier. The only downside I’ve found is that I do typically have to tighten them up just a bit after starting.
All of my XOSKIN base layers and socks kept me fully chafe and blister free again, and my Petzl Nao+ was great as always. Every year, though, I do tell myself that next time I’ll have a waist light for fog, and then I never do. At one point looking for a book Karel pulled out something that I’m pretty sure he stole from the top of a lighthouse, but I didn’t ask him how the weight and battery life are on it. On my wrist was whatever $10 watch Laz picked up from Walmart, but my COROS Vertix 2 was at least invaluable in mapping out and navigating some long training runs leading up to the race.
Nutrition is probably something I should do a separate post on at some point. I’ve had a rather rough go of that lately, with severe gut issues derailing me at a number of things recently. I think they largely stem from personal GI / heartburn / food intolerance related problems that aren’t caused by but are exacerbated by running. Leading up to this I did a few things to identify, isolate, and mitigate those issues, and they at least appear to have helped. Part of that included tests, doctor visits, diet modifications, and consultation with Doc Nicki Lygo, inarguably the most valuable person in my support crew for the past couple years, whose help has extended well outside the start / finish bounds of my adventures.
Another part included simplifying my race nutrition, and in long training runs leading up to Barkley I took in around 50% Tailwind (which also helps ensure I get in electrolytes), 25% Supernatural (which is extremely easy on the stomach and ensures I get some good, satisfying non-liquid fuel in), and 25% miscellaneous other food. During Barkley this ratio was probably closer to 60% / 30% / 10%, I think largely because the cold and rain made it more difficult and annoying to get other types of food out. In any case that was an outcome I was quite pleased with, and I plan on continuing with the Tailwind + Supernatural + occasionally something else strategy. Next up is Wainwrights, so it will be interesting to see how that strategy evolves over 5+ days.