Where are my pages
An experience of a Barkley Marathons quitter
I arrived at FHSP a day earlier just to get a feel of the park and the forest. I was planning on one hike/jog and just hang out at the campground soaking in the experience.
Weather was cool and partly cloudy 60 degrees throughout Friday. I got in a 2 hour jog to Phillips creek ( the NW border of the park) on the course’s starting candy ass trail. This was my first time in Tennessee and spending some time in the forest at FHSP felt very much like the woods in my home town in Bulgaria – Gabrovo. The oaks, the rocks, the steepness (ok, almost the steepness), the early spring unleafed trees. I felt comfortable right away.
Friday I organized my equipment, food and clothes, and picked up Duska, my crew, my support, my sane voice. Copied the course on my map and read the book location descriptions. All 8 pages of them. I thought those would be funny if they weren't the only lifeline between finishing a loop and wandering aimlessly in the forest. Of those 8 pages half of it was off topic, some funny, some overly detailed, some vague, some scary.
Went to bed sometimes after midnight and I was half expecting to hear the conch blow as soon as I close my eyes.
Fortunately we got some uncomfortable sleep and the dreaded sound came in at 5:45 AM. It was disconcerting waking up in the dark by a laud horn echoing from the mountain sides.
Then all came back to me. In one hour I’ll be out there. Soon everyone was at the gate waiting for the cigarette lighting. I have read many reports from Barkley veterans, but have not gone through the trouble to match race reports and names with faces, so everyone around me was just another lost soul waiting to be eaten out there.
And then we were off. Jarred took off away from everyone else (all names I am using here I have match post race) and the rest of us settled in a fast hiking up Bird Mountain. The main group of about 10 was going a bit faster than what I would have liked and hanged back staying with the next group of 5 – 6. All was good. Dawn was coming, I was congratulating myself for holding back and keeping my pace. Part of the plan was to be with a veteran throughout the first loop as much as possible. As orienteer navigating to the books was not what I was worried, it was actually finding the books once you are at the approximate location following Laz’s written directions. Those were in some cases half a page description how to approach the site and what tree or rock to look under. And I experienced this first hand on book one. Running down a gentle slope towards the book someone shouted here, see this fallen pine tree, take sharp left here. 10 seconds later we were at the book under a small rock at the edge of an abandoned and overgrown mining road. Laz is not changing the books very often so veterans actually know exactly where to go.
Light is enough now to turn off headlamps, and the next book is down a 1300 feet drop offtrail followed by some run along NBT trail. I am quick descending through the forest thanks to so many years of orienteering and running off trail. As I descended quickly away from the group I got book one with, I caught the main group of 10 just as I got down to Phillips creek. Love running downhill. We all got together to book 2, Allan Abbs and the other 3 lap finishers were in here. Jarred was somewhere ahead.
Followed another 1000+ descend to the new book location Laz added this year. Some creek junction. We hit the bottom of the valley couple of hundred meters lower than the junction and me and another virgin guy (sorry, bad with names) shouted to the group that we think the book should be upstream. We didn’t get as much as a second thought by the veterans, looked at each other shrugged it off and took off upstream. I got to the Book 3, shouted to the guy that started with me upstream, but he was nowhere to be seen. Well bu my count only Jarred was ahead of me now. I am running the Barkley and I am in the thick of it. The song of the race I have chosen was Happy, so I stashed my page and began the first off trail ascend of the course humming “clap along, if you know, what happiness is for you”.
There was a big climb followed by lots of trail running to Book 4. My plan was to take it comfortably expecting the group, or the faster people from the group behind me to catch up. Stallion Mountain is still ahead and while I am sure I’ll find my way down to New River, there are many old roads and using them could save time and energy. I would like to be with a veteran there. Well I got my wish, but not as I expected it. As I was cresting some switchbacks to an old mining road on NBT following my map and reading Laz’s directions, I see Jarred runs from behind me coming from the opposite direction of the road. He says hi and runs past me. I follow him as it is flat and we jog couple of minutes to the last ascend before book 4. Jarred is going way to fast though and there is no sense for me to go at that pace. He slowly disappears up the switchbacks, and that’s when I realize I was leading the Barkley, right there. For about 15 seconds Jarred must have taken a wrong turn at the mining road and as I crested the trail coming to the road he was coming back on course. That was pretty cool I thought.
Well after so much high there is bound to come a low. I ascended the last part of the NBT trail to book 4 but the trail disappeared on some old mine road not in Laz descriptions. I followed the road for a bit, getting more and more certain this is not the right way as it started to turn around the garden spot peak. Went back, still did not see the trail, then decided that was enough wandering and got straight to the top of the garden spot. But the book was not at the actual top but some ways off a jeep road that I eventually found and got my page probably 15 minutes dropped here. Now I was beginning to dread Stallion Mountain and the following two books, but was happy to see Alan, Jamil and Bev, I think.
Book 5, Book6, Book7:
For the next 3 books I followed the small group looking as much as possible at my map trying to remember all the switch backs, all the seemingly arbitrary places that we would take off of a jeep road to the woods just to pop out soon on another road. Not much else happening in my mind. I was 100% focused only looking at the woods, and my map, trying to keep up pace with our small group.
As we arrived at book 7, I reached for the Ziploc bag with my pages collected so far, but it was not there. Searched all pockets and backpack nooks, with no luck…. uh-oh…. Rechecked again all my jacket pockets again with no luck, shouted the news to Alan and the group and headed back up towards Stallion Mountain book. I tried to retrace my tracks but most of what we traveled down from Stallion is off trail, on ridges or creek beds, so I was not holding my breath to find them. Any team I met going down I asked if they have seen my pages, and if they find them to put them at the next book location. I went back to top of Stallion, did not find anything, then went back down to book 7 and the bottom of testicle spectacle. The whole thing took me 2 hours and a lot of energy and stress. As no one have left my pages at book 7, I decided to continue and finish the loop even without the first 6 pages just for the experience.
Book 8 (now for real):
Ascended testicle spectacle, dropped on the other side as the directions said, contoured around some hill and dropped right on the road to the waterfall and book 8. Spirits were down, but I was still on the Barkley course going a nice pace. Just as I was approaching the book, I met John and ….. and they asked me if I have found my pages (they knew my story, as I told the teams I met going back stallion to look for them) My answer was no but I’ll go on and have fun. 30 seconds later, I reached the book and there it was the crumpled muddy Ziploc bag with my pages. Oh the joy! I was jumping like a small kid around, and Jon was laughing how lucky I am. I hugged them and went on.
Three major climbs were left to finish the loop, the tower, Indian knob and chimney top. I was happy and was looking forward the visit the spots I have read so much about. There was not much of a navigation from here to the end, go to the top of the mountain, then go down to the bottom on the other side.
Followed Laz’s directions closely as there were some warning notes not to go the wrong way and get disqualified while crossing the highway. Next, I got to the lookout tower nodding positively as I was passing people asking me if I have found my pages. I got a bit chilly at the top, but nothing a waterproof light shell and a warm hat couldn’t handle.
Down to the prison, couldn’t wait to go through the tunnel. Going down was a bit of a hassle, but way, way better than going up, that’s for sure. Going through the tunnel under the prison was great. Book was waiting on the other end of it.
Took me some 10 minutes to find the book going back and forth the capstones, trying to make sense of the map, Laz’s descriptions and the terrain.
All the way down to a creek junction. The way I took down from Indian Knob to the creek and the jeep road was full of rocks and I was looking left or right for a better terrain, but all looked crappy so I just sucked it up and went straight ahead.
Going up chimney top I caught up 5 – 6 people strung out on the ridge moving up quietly and resolute. I had to do the “aham I found them” act couple more times. At the top it took us about 5 minutes to find the page at the southernmost edge of the capstones.
Jogged the downhills back to camp and was happy to get back and put some dry clothes. Stomach was not feeling happy but I was feeding it on schedule and thought nothing of it. I was wrong.
Spent 45 minutes to change to dry clothes, re-tape my feet, fill up backpack with water and food and grab a sandwich and some baked potatoes. Then I was off. It was still light, and it was still raining.
Lap 2-Book 1:
Took me just 6 minutes slower to go up Bird Mountain this time, which was good, and spiked book 1 as darkness fell.
Took a bearing to the edge of FHSP where Philips creek and the NBT meet and went down. It is harder going down off trail at night even with good light as one can’t see obstacles or clean way far ahead, and one is in its own bubble. I hit the park edge with the creek and trail crossing head on, and followed up to book 2. Now my stomach was really complaining and even though I was not going fast, I was obviously not processing much of what I have eaten in the last hours. It begun to show on my going up hills. All of a sudden even the trails going up were a challenge.
Again, nothing interesting bearing, a bubble of light with me in the middle, and following my compass. I reached the flat part, then the creek, and recognized the book junction right ahead of me. Nicky and Heather with another guy were there just heading out.
Book 4 (Almost):
Slow slog up the ridge until rejoining NBT. My legs just gave up. Had to use branches to pull myself up the ridge, got some sandwich some baked potatoes. Just trying different foods, at the verge to throw up. I know the weather next day will be better, and was hoping to get through the night. For now it continued to get colder, with the rain turning into snow and beginning to accumulate on the ground. I was hardly keeping up with the group. After rejoining the NBT and reaching the bald knob switchbacks, my legs just gave up. I had to rest a bit every minute to continue going slowly up. The group continued ahead and I was considering my options. Thinking of all the mountains ahead and how I could not walk up the trail, I thought it might be better to not continue out especially with the snow and the wind. And conveniently there was a nice gradual trail going all the way back to camp. The decision was made, and I slowly started the descent on the Quitters road.
Takeaway: Great thanks to Laz, Mad Dog, Frozen Ed and everyone that help for the race. I am grateful for being at the yellow gate this year. All I can say is my hunger to be out there just got larger.
Would I do it again? hell yeah. I just need to convince Laz that I am not as wimpy as Barkley makes me look! I am a Veteran now.