Matt Bixley tells us about his greatest failure- Quieting The Barkley Marathons.
How do you write something about a race that continues to strive to remain a mystery, an enigma. I tapped out on Sunday afternoon, it’s now Wednesday and it’s still difficult to find the right terms to describe “What is the Barkley?” in any sense that can convey what the Barkley actually is. Because for the majority of those who would like a slot, it’s not what they think it is.
I arrived at Frozen Head State Park and the Big Cove Campground a week before the race was to start. Part recovery from travel, part course learning on the candy ass trails and part getting into the culture of the event. It’s that final part that I think most are missing when they think of the Barkley. Hanging out with the Characters, learning about the history of the race, the variations on the course and the unbelievable fight that continues to this day to keep the race alive and well in Frozen Head. The Park Superintendent doesn’t want it there. But there are good people fighting for it and I got to meet those people and feel their passion for the race.
I’d done my research, so I had a very good idea where everything lay on the park map. There were pieces that were difficult to decipher from all the descriptions, but once Nicki Rehn (Aussie/Canadian – but definitely an Aussie twang) showed up with her old maps I was able to piece together the final sections and hear from a fellow Rogainer her interpretation of the course in terms that I could relate to. But Navigating is just one of the myriad of skill sets required to successfully negotiate the Barkley. The tried and true approach for a virgin is just to follow a Vet and learn the lines and book locations. That’s all well and good but if they’re too fast or too slow for your goals or if they don’t know where the books are then eventually it will go bad for you. Actually it will go bad for you anyway.
Sunday to Tuesday I ran parts of the course on the candy ass trails, having a look and getting a feel for the shape of the terrain, the underfoot conditions and the unrelenting steepness of the off trail climbs. If I was able to describe a single climb and the terrain it would look something like a vertical slope up a distinct ridge, with a few rocks here and there. There bush is sparse, mature Oaks, with very little ground cover. Perhaps like running through beech forest with 70% of the tress missing. Sounds easy, and it is, for 1 climb, but each loop has 13 of them.
Loop 1 – Laz finally, to the frustration of the vets, blew the Conch at 10:22 for an 11:22 start. Why? Because exactly 9 hours later it was the end of Civil Twighlight and the 2nd loop would start in the dark for everyone. Book 1 was negotiated with a large group following multiple fun run finishers, Alan and Bev Abbs, we then shot down to Book 2 where Alan may have been playing games and didn’t hit it. Virgin scrapping is taken seriously, Tim Dines and I left them to get a fixed point and came back to the book and then started up Hillpocalypse, at a rough grade of 40% for the next 30 minutes or so. Across to the Garden Spot and Book 3 with another vet, but then a missing turn found us well above where we needed to be for the Buttslide and Book 4 followed quickly by Book 5 and then the complicated descent of Stallion/Fykes Peak to the New River. I dropped the vet I was running with here to catch another going through the now infamous Vagina Book on a new section and then the new descent to Raw Dog Falls. Now the biggest choice of the whole day. Danger Daves Climbing Wall or Pussy Ridge. Danger Daves it was and a scramble up an 80% slope to drop down onto the Barrel and Book 7 before the monumental climb up Rat Jaw and the plummet down to the Prison, the Tunnel and more rock climbing up a vertical wall. Just 2 more huge climb remaining, the Bad Thing and Big Hell with the shitty descent down Zipline to the Beech Fork in between. After the 45 minute run down from Chimney Top, if Laz had the Easy Button out I’d have hit it. But I was under no illusions of how difficult things were going to get. By the time I arrived 3 had already tapped out and in my turn around I heard the bugle play twice more.
Loop 1 – ~9:30 about 12th place
Loop 2 – With a goal to be efficient, Mike Dobies (card carrying beer SNOB) who’d been mentoring me for the week in both the course and beer tasting, had me turned around in 12 minutes and only 25 minutes down on the Abbs, who’d left a trail of virgin carnage in their wake. The night was cold, there is much debate as to how cold it really was. It felt around the -5 Celcius to me, but others will swear black and blue that it was lower than -10C. I was still running in shorts until 1am or so, with an Icebreaker T, Thermal Top and light Shell, eventually putting on thermal pants when I waited for a vet just behind me to help get the correct line through the Garden Spot-Buttslide section. Didn’t quite nail the descent off Stallion this time but still hit the road crossing, then Book 6 where the Abbs had dropped after spending some looking for it. Rat Jaw was now a feared beast as the sun rose and the expectation was a 2 hour climb, but pleasently just 1:20. Night had taken it’s toll on many and slowly those in front came back to us, even at the glacial slowness we were moving. Back at the Yellow gate after a cleanish but somewhat slow 14.5 hour loop and a meagre 4 minutes inside the cut to continue for the 100.
Loop 3 – having joked at the gate that I wished I was slower so that I didn’t have to go back out there, the reality was I felt fantastic. Legs obviously tired, but mentally alert and ready to tackle each of the climbs one at a time as efficiently as possible and carry on getting pages until Laz said I couldn’t anymore. The 3rd Loop is the 1st in Reverse. So I left the gate, now in 4th, staring at a 1.5-2 hour climb up over Rough Ridge and on further to Chimney Top. It was going fine until the last steep upper section and I found myself lying on the ground (sounds familiar to Ben & Blake at Buffalo last year). I have no idea what happened which threw all sorts of doubts into my head. I dropped back to the saddle and lay in the sun and napped for a few minutes. But I think I’d already quit. I was disconcerting to know that there were places I was going where collapse could cause a lot of problems for a lot of people, at the Barkley you rescue yourself. In the 30 years of running, no one has ever needed to be rescued. They ALL find their own way back to the yellow gate. As it turns out, everyone around me also tapped out or endured a long 2nd night completing the loop only to be tapped out at the gate. Three even tapped out within 1km of where I lay on the course. All strong people, all found a limit that seems so short, but going further and further away from the gate with some many hours to face alone, it gets to you.
The Barkley attacks you, but it is addictive. It is not the race the many who seek to do it, think it is. Please don’t ask for the details, especially if you’re a girl, the race is too hard for girls. Laz genuinely wants people to do well, he doesn’t need to extend the already extensive list of people with no hope of anything more than 1 loop. Yes It is actually hard to get around 1 loop. The ground conditions, while OK by NZ standards, are rough. If you want to line up, you should consider yourself one of the best Adventure racers or Rogainers in the Country. The closest I can get to describing how hard it is, is to imagine doing the Motatapu Adventure Race, from Fernburn to Macetown, then return, then go back to Macetown etc etc. Now imagine doing the out and back and it feels easy. That is as close as I can get to describing how monumentaly hard and unrelenting the course is.
A huge thanks to Ultimate Direction for all the gear, there were numerous PB Adventure Vests on course and it was fun camping with the US Ambassador Heather Anderson. Also to Andrew and Heather at Enduro Safety for their support.