“Hooty Hoo!” shouts Brian Young, my host for the big weekend at the Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, as we continue to climb up Chimney Top chasing the third aid station at Tub Springs. I soon catch Brian sitting on the corner of the trail, punching his cramped quads vigorously, furious. Apparently, he’s never had cramps before. As I quickly pull on the side, and spray the magic potion on his quads to ease his cramps, he insists to leave him and continue my race. And I begin the long climbs to the Summit of Chimney Top. “There is no summit of this mountain. Just keep climbing till you see jeep road” screams Brian from behind as I march on, from one switchback to the other.
Chimney Top trail goes gradually up, then down and then steeply up again. It keeps going up till you are exhausted. Then you see a patch of rocks and then it keeps going up until you die. Whenever you begin to realize you have reached the summit, another climb will punch in your face. There are numerous false summits and all look like final ones. The trail then opens on a ridge, continues to go up and down until you finally reach the top, where it drops quickly again to take you to either to the next aid station or the park office. On the steepest section of the climb, I overtake numerous runners and reach the top. I’m exhausted but I have not given up hope. It’s almost 2 pm and I have three hours to make it to the decision point to see Laz. Three hours and about 7 miles. In any other race, this is an easily doable pace. But, at Barkley, numbers don’t add up. Those 7 miles are a myth. Those three hours are a myth. The maps guys behind me are holding, are a myth. The only truth is – the hell is real. And it’s in Eastern Tennessee.
I pop in another pair of painkillers and storm down the trail to reach the jeep road. I can’t feel my left foot anymore. So, for past many hours I am slow on uphills, downhills, flat trail, technical trail, grass patch, asphalt road, gravel road and rocks. As I march on the jeep road, I overtake half a dozen runners more but now I am beginning to lose hope. Two hours and forty minutes remain, and the Tub Springs aid station is still nowhere in sight. It seems, the dream of taking home Croix, is once again all, but over.
It was 2017, when I was in Frozen Head State Park last time for the annual 50K race of The Barkley Fall Classic. A shortened and simplified version of The Barkley Marathons. The two races must not be confused. They are two entirely different demons as I had explain in this post. Then, I had an epic failure. I got lost half a dozen times, was slow on uphills, died a thousand times on Bird Mountain and Ratjaw. And returned home with a dog tag that signified DNF with a marathon finish. But, I had found the park as my home. I had left a piece of myself there. I had said, whenever I will return, I will know I am home. That’s exactly how it was when I reached Wartburg, TN on Thursday. Met some old and new friends, watched my first football game, and cracked endless jokes with Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell on how ridiculous this weekend is going to be like. I knew what challenges park has to offer, so this time I was better equipped. I was mentally prepared to tackle those long climbs. For past many months, I had been living in Newfoundland that has probably world’s most rugged landscape. So, there was significant amount of climbing and running down technical trails under my legs before I took off from St. John’s to Nashville the other day.
The race was flagged off today in the morning before the sunrise with traditional first smoke off Laz’s cigarette and all were sent out chasing the first cutoff of 90 minutes. Unlike last time, I chose to not tape my ankle so I can move fast. Also, I trusted my training. I would fly down crazy East Coast Trail with ease, every weekend. Bird Mountain can’t be tougher than that. Stuck behind a conga line, I did make the first cutoff within an hour, but I had lost a bit of time. In order to pull things back a bit before we hit next set of long, merciless climbs, I stormed pass a pack of runners, quickly juggled my feet and then! While going down fast with momentum, I failed to find any ground for my right foot, hopped on left foot from one rock to the other, other rock slipped and I rolled my left foot. The surge of cold wave shivered down from hip to the toes, I continued moving down fast – this time more cautiously – but, I had lost control of my foot. It rolled at least 5 more times by the time I descended about 1500 ft of North Bird Trail and in less than 90 minutes from the start, my race was almost over. In pain, I crashed on a rock in the dry creek, wrapped my foot in all the tapes I had in my hydration pack for emergency and continued my climb, ever so slowly, thinking there will be some trail magic on the way and I could still pull it off.
By the time I made it to the first aid station at Bald Knob, I was 36 minutes behind my target pace, and running even on reasonably easier jeep road was next to impossible. Then, suddenly, a bright white light descended and a trail angel appeared from the woods. Dressed in yellow tank and black shorts, she offered a couple of painkillers to ease my suffering. I popped in two of the tablets, hobbled down the jeep road and started day’s longest climb – Chimney Top – an hour behind the target time.
Right now, going down jeep road towards the third aid station, I’m busy doing the math in my head. 6 miles and 2.5 hours to go. The six mythical miles include going down the signature hill Testicle Spectacle, climb back up and go down even steeper Methlab hill, and cross the prison wall, walk through the tunnel, climb up 2000 ft in less than a mile of briar infested Ratjaw, climb firetower and then half a mile more to reach Lazarus to have any right for a decision to be made. About 4000 ft of climbing in about 6 race miles. I think it is possible. But, on a fit body. Can I pull it off on one leg? Hiking poles are not allowed at The Barkley Fall Classic, so that is out of question. Since, race clearly dictates no external support, unlike many others I do not want to pick up a stick from the forest floor either until I reach the decision point.
I reach the aid station at 2.20 pm, refill my water supply and go down steep Armes Gap road to reach Testicle Spectacle. Irrespective of time of the year, TS is a nightmare that features a drop of about 1000 ft in quarter to half of a mile. It is briar infested patch of the mountain cleared for power lines. One must go down and climb back up under the power lines, exposed to heat and some loose muddy drop. I remember the words of Laz from past, “those who buttslide Testicle Spectacle are wieners and never make to 50K.” So, before I even arrived in Wartburg, the plan was no buttslides. So, I chose to stick to it.
As I start to descent quickly, I slip on the first big drop, roll my left ankle once again and this time I hear cracking noise. Did I just tear a ligament? I quickly get up and now my left foot bears no weight. I slowly descend further, buttslide the second drop and run to the volunteers in next 6 minutes to get the bib punch and collapse. They think I am exhausted and offer orange pop. Not knowing what to do next, I gulp in the pop and crash on the ground again. I see every second slip by as other runners behind me visit the camp, get their bib punched and leave. Me? I stay on the ground for another six minutes.
“Taking even an extra minute in an aid station, letting your guard and urgency down for just a second, that is quitting.” But, 300 seconds? Have I given up? I am in thoughts. Doing the math. I still have more than 90 minutes to make it to prison and start the climb of Ratjaw. It is easily doable. I get up, and start to climb back again. About 20 paces later, I drop on the ground, my heart rate continues to accelerate and I stay there for next few more minutes. As my eyes burn by the sweat, I muster all the energy to pull myself up again and continue the climb, but, ten more paces later I collapse. I can’t move any further. I am in thoughts, deep thoughts. Am I going to quit this race? Is that it?
Failing is not a crime. Lack of effort is. Am I putting in enough efforts? Or am I giving in to this moment? Once weakness starts to creep in, it does extraordinary things to make you stay in that comfort of no movement. Is the weakness overpowering me? I recall Laz’s words “True success is not the absence of failure. It’s the refusal to surrender.” I am heading towards the failure if I continue and get a marathon finish. But, surrender? I have never done that in my life. I have never quit a race in my life. How can I do that?
I recall all the times when I had looked into my eyes and said, I may be be slow, I may get timed out, but I will never quit a race. Time slips by and before I realize, the skies get dark, strong winds begin to flow and I am surrounded by dementors on all three sides in the town of Petros. Does Petronus charm work in Petros? Who knows? One of them gets closer and goes,
“Can you move? You still have time and you must make it to prison. You can’t stop here. Prison is the only place were you can stop. So, better keep moving. We will be back in a few minutes from the checkpoint down there” and they fly away, probably laughing at me.
I turn around, with my face in mud, and begin to crawl to the top of Testicle Spectacle. Park rangers and volunteers there are busy taking care of a man who is not responding. Probably a case of heat exhaustion. I lean on the edge of the vehicle for a few minutes to take weight off my feet, bend and tighten my left shoe further to provide some support, and look down at the Methlab before I start the descent. I take a few steps, realizing, my feet can’t take load and I climb back up.
Now, I am thinking, 4 weeks from now, I will be in Laz’s backyard chasing 60 minute loops of 4 miles. If knock my ankle again on Methlab, will I be able to recover in time? Forget about going down, I don’t know how bad my ankle is, given I am on painkillers for 6 hours. Will I be able to recover at all even if I quit? Park rangers offer a ride to Tub Spring and I deny. I can’t put down the guards like this. I am here to suffer. I am here to be uncomfortable. And that’s what I will do. If I have to die today, I will die with pride – fighting. And I decide to continue going down Methlab.
Before I start going down, the skies go dark again, the cold chill of winds strengthens and the dementors appear from behind and stop me. They go, “There is no bus at the prison. You must go with them to Tub Spring. We are sweeps and we will climb Ratjaw all the way to Tubs”.
I stand there in disbelief. I dragged my broken foot this far to be taken in a cart? I had put in all that I had, and then a lot more, but today is not my day it seems. Park rangers take me to Laz, who is ready to punch my bib.
As I stand in front of him, with no courage to look in his eyes, he bends, pulls my bib and says “You are late again. Mary wiener is the only way for you to go. Today, that is the only way”.
I suck in the tears and tell him that I haven’t climbed Ratjaw, so, there are no more punches for me. He released the bib and I vanish in the woods and cry my hearts out, recollecting the broken pieces I was shattered in while crawling to Laz. Other runners stop and ask if I would like to join them on the final walk of shame down the South Old Mac Trail to the finish area. That’s the only way out – there is no evacuation for quitters.
I hang my head down and make my way to Flat Fork Road, where people appload thinking we were going for the finish. That is my moment. Not of pride, but of grand humiliation. I had Quit a race.
As I write this report, I am still pondering deep, in thoughts, upon what would have happened had I continued past Methlab? I could have easily made up to the prison in time, and then climbed up to Laz had I pushed my ankle just a little extra. And walk the remaining 4 miles, that I anyways did, to salvage some pride on the way back home. Why did I give up? Was I weak? Or did I allow time limit to that job for me to save some pride and gain self-pity or sympathy? What difference continuing would have made?
The Barkley Fall Classic is a vicious cycle. And I will return for redemption!