The race that eats its young

Why would you want to do anything as crazy as that?!

As I get a lot of questions about this topic, I decided to write a blog about my experience with what is said to be ‘the toughest ultramarathon on earth’, AKA The Barkley Marathons. For most people I know it came as a complete surprise to see my name pop up in the tweets posted by Keith Dunn. I had the honor to participate in this race, after having tried to get in for some time already.

So how did I end up there in the first place? Or to phrase it in the words of some of my family members; why on earth would you want to do that? Shouldn’t I spend my time, money and energy on useful things, like work, study or helping out at home? Even to some of my running friends my participation made as much sense as when your grandmother of 90 years old would set out to do the Six Major marathons. With effectively only 1 year of ultrarunning experience (I ran ultra’s from 2018 to 2019 and then I quit ultrarunning for two years) and hardly any trailrunning experience, setting out for such an endeavour made no sense at all. But still, I had my mind set on it, and when that happens, no rational argument or insight can get in between me and My Plan. I applied in the first try, but that failed. The second year covid was limiting foreign participants so I did not apply. The third time, I thought I would do it the smart way and try to enhance my chances by qualifying for Big Dog Back Yard Ultra because in 2021, you could go to the Big Dog Back Yard Ultra if you won one of the golden tickets by winning a golden ticket backyard ultra race. And if you made it to Big Dog Back Yard Ultra, you could directly qualify for the Barkley, if you won. A lot of ifs and buts, but optimistic as I am, this did not demotivate me. Last minute and after almost two years of hardly any running, I decided to go to The Great Dane Backyard ultra. I loved running there, but of course, I failed miserably and became third in ranking. This is a positive way of stating that I DNF’ed, because in Backyards you either have a DNF or you win; there is no ranking). I had given up my hope to ever be able to participate, but still decided to apply again in the ‘regular’ way. I never expected this application to be successful, and as I had just decided to make a career switch from physics to medicine, as of september 2021 I was quite busy with studying medicine and running had moved to the background again.

There is still a glimmer of hope

To my surprise, a few months before the race started, I opened my e-mail and read the infamous condoleances for being allowed into the race. I could not believe it! Of course, I was as happy as I could be, but it also terrified me. One line stated that ‘there is still a glimmer of hope if I choose the alternative of opting out’ which felt as if it was written especially for me. I had already made the number one mistake Laz talks about in some of the video’s: when you apply, you already have to be training for quite a while as if you would actually run the Barkley, because when you hear that you are on the starting list, there will be too little time left to train. There is an element of uncertainty in this that makes it difficult to motivate yourself to put all your spare time into a thorough Barkley training; it may well be that you never get in at all.

However, at the Barkley you can never use this as an excuse; if you decline to use your spot on the list, you can’t just postpone it to next year but you will be taken off the list. So I decided to go into damage control mode; I can’t change the past and I can’t change not having trained the past year, so I have to make the best of it now. I know I won’t be able to perform at the Barkley as I had intended to when I conceived my plan to participate, and whatever happens, I will be left with a feeling of failure and not being satisfied with the result. But that will still be a better option than not participating at all.

I decided to start training again, without thinking too much about whether I would still have enough time left. And then, just when I made the decision to go ahead with it, right at that moment I contracted COVID and even though it was mild, I could not do any physical exercise after that for quite some time. Two weeks before going to the US, I did my only training run after getting Covid and before setting off for the Barkley. It was an easy run at 5 min/km pace and I almost could not keep up and was completely out of breath. It was very clear I was not in good shape. Talking to a friend about this, he assured me that ‘running a trail is often just hiking, it does not require you to run close to your lactate threshold’. Doubting about whether I should go at all, I tried to get advice from friends and family but they where pretty consistent: ‘you did not even train enough to run a marathon and you have not recovered from Covid; just stay at home’. Adding to this, in the week leading up to the Barkley, I learned that more people knew about my participation, even though I had explicitly asked people to not tell anyone else about it. I got some very unfriendly comments with statements like ‘why is SHE allowed to run there, she does not belong at the Barkley and has no business being there’. It made me doubt about why I should participate, more then ever.

Point of no return

My doubts continued up until the point I got on board the airplane. Or actually, my doubts were still present as my plane landed in Atlanta. There was a problem when I wanted to pick up my rental car and for a moment it seemed as if there was no way for me to get from Atlanta to Oak Ridge. My family tried one last time to convince me to just go home; I could not get to Oak Ridge any way so just take the first plane back to Amsterdam, right?

But I did not get myself into all this trouble to give up now. I believe that it is always better to try and fail than to never try at all. I may never get another opportunity to run at the Barkley if I cancelled now. Besides, I would give in to the people saying that I do not belong there, that I am not really an ultrarunner, that I can’t do it and that I am only chosen as the perfect human sacrifice. I had to continue, no matter what happened.

When the problem with the rental car arose, my guardian angels from Belgium saved me, as it later turned out they would do so several times in the next few days. The guardian angels were Merijn Geerts, who would also run at the Barkley, and his support team, Frederique and Tim. In the weeks leading up to the Barkley, the dutch and belgian runners learned about each others participation, and I was offered the opportunity to join Merijn Geerts and his support team in the US. I had never met them before, but the offer came as a nice surprise, as my own supporter had just -sensibly- refused to come with me because of the shape I was in. Teaming up with Merijn turned out to be nice in several ways. First of all, with their help I was able to rent a car, only a day later than what I had planned.

In addition, it made the trip much more fun, but also did it allow me to get more acquainted with trailrunning skills, such as how to use the poles in a proper way (yes, I never held a pole before) and how to prevent falling down. He even tried to boost my confidence during our test runs through Frozen Head state park as he noticed I was crapping my pants to get to the starting line. During our stay, we met several other Barkers and the days leading up to the race I had the time of my life. I was flabbergasted to see how much experience the other Barkley runners had, but also by how much they already knew about the event. Many of them already had maps of the route from previous years. One of the runners was already at Frozen head state park for several weeks, just to train and get experienced with the course. They were all more experienced than I was and they all had run one or more races that were at least 400 km and spanning several days.

Race bib bravery

Nerves started hitting me again when the event officially started with handing out the BIB numbers and sharing the route and the description of the location of the books. Just a day before, I got an allergic reaction from a skin cream I bought in the supermarket (what kind of horse medicine do these Americans put in their skin cream?) and my face was swollen up like an inflated balloon. I felt pretty dizzy as walked up to the tent. I was a bit embarrassed to go in the tent with my butt-like swollen up face, but luckily no one seemed to take any notice. It felt as if I walked right into a movie, as all the people from the documentaries and books turned into reality. Laz was sitting in the tent, handing out the BIB numbers to some of the best ultrarunners in the world while other people put down wood for the campfire. The starting field consisted of a wide variety of runners.

As I got to know many of them during the days, I found that there were three categories. The first category consisted professional sponsored top athletes, like Courtney Dauwalter, Yasmin Paris, and Harvey Lee Lewis. The second category consisted of simply very experienced runners; runners that have finished several ultralong races of 500 km or more, including rough terrain trail runs.

And then there was the third category of runners, that seemed to be more of an exotic choice as they were much less experienced. Because of their lack of experience with long races it is not really clear why they have been chosen. I grouped myself in the class of exotic runners, as I may have actually been the one with the least experience. In addition, in no way do I fit the stereotype profile of a ‘though ultrarunner’. I don’t have any tattoos; I don’t have a troubled youth or any serious trauma’s; I have quite girlish hobbies like horse riding; I own a tiny chihuahua that I preferably carry with me wherever I go; my favorite outfit consists of a dress with heels. I am in no way credible as a tough ultrarunner who is capable of running the toughest race in the world. Therefore, I was still very much worried that I would be the human sacrifice; something that the hand full of people I had talked about my plans consistently gave as the most likely scenario.

A well-known tradition in the race is that one runner gets race bib number one, and, unlike in normal races, where number 1 is often one of the best runners, the Barkley number one is the ‘human sacrifice’, deemed by the organizer of the race as someone who should in fact not be running Barkley at all and won’t even be able to finish just one loop. From what I know about the race, this prediction is mostly right.

When I went to the BIB tent and I heard that I was not number 1, my nerves turned into euphoria; somehow this idea of being found unsuited for the Barkley and being the Barkley outcast made me feel sad, even though rationally I knew this made no sense, as most people fail at the Barkley. But it turned out, I was not number one! As I sat at the table to collect my race bib, I was too stunned to say anything sensible. I rambled something about my allergic reaction reaction, apologizing for my swollen butt face. Laz did not seem to be bothered by it. He routinely accepted my license plate, gave me my bib, and picked up a sheet with race predictions. Everyone gets a personal ‘race prediction’ that is ‘calculated by supercomputers using dedicated algorithms’ -as Laz introduced it- that will predict your performance at the Barkley. My race prediction told me I ‘would find out too late that the marathon of Berlin and the Barkley marathons where held in different realities’, a statement that was actually quite accurate, considering my lack of experience with Barkley-like races and having mainly road race experience.

Sigarette smoke

After collecting the race bib, with regained self-esteem and an optimistic mood, we set out to study the route and preparing our backpacks for the next day. Again, Merijn and his crew, Frederique and Tim, who as organizers of the Legends Trails in Belgium have a lot of experience in race organization, prevented me from making some serious beginners mistakes, making sure my lights were charged and that my map was plastified. I wrote down all the bearings on the map, studied the route in detail, and read the description of how to find the books extensively. And then we tried to sleep. I decided to not wear a pyama but instead put on my running clothes so that I could jump out of bed and be ready to run.

The racedirector decides the exact time of the start and it could well be that he chooses the starting time to be in the middle of the night. As I remembered from race reports of previous runners, the uncertainty about when the race will start and the excitement that this causes can make it difficult to sleep at all before the race.  Everytime a car door is opened or closed it woke me up, thinking it could be Laz, leaving his car to start the race. Somewhere in the middle of the night, car alarms go off and it makes my heart skip a beat. Luckily, it is not Laz trying to wake us up, and I manage to get some extra sleep. Eventually the horn is blown around 7.00 o’clock; a perfect time to start the race! Also the weather is perfect; not too warm, not too cold and no rain or snow. Would he choose this time, because he desperately wants to see someone finish this year? We will never find out because before I know it, I am at the gate, ready to start.

Laz goes through a list of names of people related to the Barkley that have passed away. Then the sigaret is lit and we set off.

Collecting the first books

Just as I remembered from the race reports, some enthusiastic people take off in a firm pace- not quite what you would expect for a 100 mile race. As I am scared to death of not finishing a single loop, I focus on running safely, taking off with some of the slower runners. One of them is a previous female winner of the spine race; she turns out to be a veteran. The other is John Clarke, a guy who went to MIT and who prepared extensively for the Barkley, knowing the route by heart. The rest of the group consists of a french guy who to my surprise does not use any trailrunning poles, a Brazilian guy who seems to be quite friendly, and a happy-go-lucky guy from Canada – the first guy that we loose along the way.

The first descend leads us across a river. Many ascends and descends will follow and after some ascending and descending I understand what they mean when they say that the course in Barkley is unlike anything you have ever seen. Little did I know that the difficult parts were yet to come. I recognized the son of a bitch ditches – these I could handle. The meat grinder, a steep descend which will make your butt hurt, is more difficult. Along the way we pick up several books. I notice that the books are actually not extremely well hidden; they are placed in a way so that the runners can find them and the boars can not. The descriptions fairly accurately pinpoint where the books are.

We loose some runners, and every now and then we gain some runners. At some point Merijn joins us- he took a small detour and I decide to speed up a little bit, so that we loose the others. After some time we get caught up again by the group even though we ran faster; apparently we again took the less optimal route. A reminder of the fact that navigation is just as important as running skills. Every now and then I see a Bulgarian guy bushwacking through. He seems to follow an alternative route, ocassionally coming in from the left, and at other times from the right. He is definitely running at a faster pace but we keep running into him. I spot a girl running towards us, seemingly in a hurry, and apparently not in any way bothered by the fact that we run in exactly the opposite direction. The raging runners that keep popping up every now and then remind me of what Merijn had taught me just days before; when it comes to navigation, speed can actually be problematic. It is better to slow down and take time to rethink your navigation, then to keep running in a fast pace, if you are not sure where you are going.

Down a slope we see the first water bottles. We slide down and pause to eat something. At these moments, it does not feel like a race at all but like a nice -albeit challenging- hike. When we get to Stallion Mountain, I am happy to recognize the roads we took two days before the race, and this helps me navigate. Even though I wrote down all the bearings I needed to take, John Clarke is faster with his compass than I am, so I frequently follow his direction. As we run and gather books, I realize that I would learn more if I would run on my own, but at this point, I don’t have enough confidence in my navigation skills and I don’t want to risk finishing this one loop.

Rat Jaw and the fly trap

Then when we go up Little Hell- a fairly steep climb up to the fire tower, I see the Bulgarian guy again, and now he is not running but lying on the ground with a cramp. I give him a salt pill, but I don’t wait for him, which makes me feel a bit guilty. Luckily, after some time, he is bushwacking through the bushes again, leaving us behind. We get to the fire tower and I see Tim and Frederique. I had not realized this before, but there are strict rules about contact with non-runners and we are not even allowed to talk to them. It feels unnatural as they came there just to support us, but we decide to play it safe and be silent.

After our second break we get to Rat Jaw; a descent from the fire tower to the prison and a notorious part of the course. As we descend I notice that the slope of the descend is not what makes Rat Jaw notorious. The slope gives me a nice cadance down without having to worry I will fall and I enjoy running downhill. Yes, there are briars, but they do not really hurt, at least not when you have long sleeves and manage to not get completely entangled in them. The only parts that are a bit tricky are the parts where I get completely caught up in the branches of the briars, like a fly getting stuck on a fly trap. I don’t see any of the other runners getting stuck like this, and I am a bit embarrassed by my flytrap versus fly imitation. The final part seems to be a bit more tricky, as all sorts of cables and wires are at the perfect height for tripping over them. After doing a lot of butt slides, which because of my lack of experience to me felt like the safest alternative to descending on your feet like the other runners mainly did, I came to the realization that butt slides may not be so safe when the slide consists of soft ground alternated with solid big rocks.

When my feet finally touch the grass below, to my right the prison is visible as a dark tunnel. I run into the tunnel, but can’t see a thing. The runners in front of me seem to know what to expect and just keep running but I just don’t know what is in the tunnel and loose the group. By holding my trail running poles in front of me while walking I test the ground in front of me and manage to go without tripping. After some confusion on where to go up, we climb up to indian knob, where the 12th book is. John, who is walking behind me, tells me I have teared my pants. Of course, it makes perfect sense that I tore my pants after all the butt slides I made, so I wonder why he tells me this as he must know that I am not carrying a sewing kit with me while running the Barkley. I quickly check if it is not my entire butt that is hanging out of my pants, but luckily it is just a cut. For a moment I worry about the fact that this is my only running pants, but as I will later find out, the further runners get into the race, the less you care about such things.

Face planting my way to the finish

As the sun is about to go under, we get our lights and continue to little fork mountain for book 13, and then to chimney top mountain for book 14. After the final book, a candy ass trail leads us back to the starting line. While I go down the candy ass trail in an easy pace, I think to myself that a loop is really not that hard. We seemed to have managed the loop without any serious issues, we mainly hiked, and we took several breaks. But just when I am thinking about this, I trip over a rock and fall down flat on the ground. Because of the impact, my fall makes quite a sound and John must have heard it, but he keeps on running. I feel left alone but I realize that it is the only sensible thing he can do- if you take the Barkley seriously enough, you can’t wait for others but you need to focus on your goal. As he disappears from my sight, I feel a bit dizzy from the fall and stay on the ground for a while. As I slowly get up I check whether I have broken anything and I seem to be fine even though my left arm, which I have broken before, hurts. When I want to start running again, I notice I do have a bit of an injury and can only limp. I feel a bit stupid for this mistake, and wonder if I can even make it back to the yellow gate. which the candy ass trail leads us back to the gate. As the trail seems to continue for a long while, I decide to run again even though I go slow because of the limping. As the minutes pass, my running seems to improve and without any serious issues, I make it to the visitors center and from there, back to the gate. Even though I am completely on my own and everything hurts from the fall, I enjoy the final part. In a serene silence I run in the dark as if I am the only one there. I see the road I need to take to finish the loop. I put my hands on the gate- I made it!

Even though my main goal was to finish one loop and even though I knew it was not realistic now to go for a fun run, I still wanted to go into the second loop. This first loop did not feel extremely difficult, but as I sat down, I notice I feel quite exhausted. The steep climbs have taken all of my energy from me. I sit down and start doing the one thing I am good at no matter what my level of training is; eat! I never have stomach issues, so I know I can eat whatever I want. I take pasta, soup, chips and a lot of cola and feel better again.

The Inevitable End

I go out for loop 2 and immediately notice my left knee has swollen up during my break, but it does not seem to limit my running much. As I descend to the river and want to make my first ascend, my knee makes a popping sound. I get a bit worried; what if something has teared in my knee? Ever since I had a stress fracture in my femur, several years ago, I am overly careful. When I had this stress fracture, I noticed I was limping just a little bit, but ignored it and right in the middle of a marathon, the stress fracture worsened while running and I suddenly could not put any weight on it anymore and the pain was unbearable. If I would have continued I could have broken my leg, but I already made it much worse than it should have by continuing on with it. Since then I made the rule for myself; if I start limping, I need to stop, even when there is no excruciating pain yet.

I decide to take a little break, lie down on a tree log and put my leg up for a while. It had just started to rain, but the sky is clear enough to see the moon through the tree tops. I notice how beautiful the sky looks and how quiet it is while laying there on my tree log. The leg feels warm, but when I hold it up it feels better.

Just when I lie there enjoying the silence and resting my leg, I see a runner looking like a Viking, walking towards me. I recognize the runner; it is Leif, a very experienced runner who recently finished the Spine. I must have shocked him with my appearance, lying there as if I am dead. I decide to sound as normal as possible and tell him I am perfectly fine but I am just resting a bit. I ask him what he is doing here, and as I hear myself ask him this question, I realize that is a weird question. He tells me he is heading back to the camp as he has had enough. He feels it is crazy to go out there on his own, in the rain and the dark again, and he sees no point in doing so. I can relate to his emotions, but I don’t follow him back to the camp. Instead, I lie down again in the hope that my leg stops swelling. While rain keeps falling on my face, I think about all the books that I need to find and how I think I can do that if I am not even able to walk. I worry about what to do if I am further from camp, in the middle of the night and there is no help available to get me back. If I continue now, and if at some point I really can’t use my leg anymore, it can take me the entire night before someone finds me and I am able to get back at the campsite again. And besides that, only the integer number of loops count; getting 13 books and not finishing is just as much worth as not collecting any books in the second loop, right? All these thoughts make me believe there is only one sensible option; to turn back to the camp. Instead of getting better, the knee actually seems to be much worse than it was before and now I can’t even seem to walk normally again. I limp back to camp and walk to the gate; I give up. The bugel player plays his song for me, and at that moment I feel quite happy to be able to experience all of this.

No use crying over spilled milk

The feeling of regret only came to my mind when I lay down in bed. I the pre-Barkley preparation stress I did not think of arranging a sleeping place for myself besides the car I had rented, but luckily I could stay in the minivan that Tim and Frey had hired.

As I lay in my bed thoughts entered my mind. Why did I quit, really? My leg only started to become an issue after the many breaks I took. If I had simply continued running and hadn’t paused for so long, I would maybe not have gotten the swelling in my knee in the first place. I think back of a few months before, when I also could not run without limping, after I sat down for half an hour. It turned out to be an innocent baker’s cyste that only became a problem after not running. Why didn’t I keep going?

And why didn’t I take the risk of not being able to get back to camp? The weather was not that bad, I would not have gotten hypothermia, even when I could not run or walk anymore for the entire night. I could have at least learned more if I just tried to collect as many books as I could, even if I knew I would not have finished the entire loop.

Lying there for a few hours, I realize I can’t sleep because the knee is still quite painfull and I decide to get up to watch the race.

Tough, tougher, toughest

As I try to get up my knee is causing problems and I can hardly get out of the camper. I decide to use my trailrunning poles to get back to the yellow gate, even though it is just a distance of twenty meters. It is two o’clock at night and not much seems to be happening. As I carefully sit down on a bench next to the campfire, I suddenly realize that I should contact my family and friends to tell them how it went. I haven’t contacted anyone for a long time, and they must be pretty worried. They were not very enthusiastic about me going to the Barkley anyway since I showed them part of the famous Barkley documentary on netflix. Especially the part where it is explained that the Barkley is considered to be ‘the toughest ultramarathon in the world’ did not make them enthusiastic, to say the least. Of course, I should just have told them I would go to Tennessee to run a 10 k race, without ever mentioning the word ultramarathon. This little lie worked perfectly back in 2018 when I ran my first 100 km but now I was so enthusiastic about the Barkley I told them everything about it. It was clear right away that my enthusiasm was not their enthusiasm. I tried to explain them that it was just a matter of definition; the Barkley is said to be ‘the toughest ultramarathon in the world’ because it has the lowest percentage of finishers of all races. In its almost forty years of existence, only 15 people have ever finished the race. As I learned by talking to people at the Barkley, it seems to be a common thing among ultrarunners to measure the ‘toughness’ of a race in terms of percentage of finishers. Because of this, to my surprise, the Marathon des Sables, which I always thought was one of the toughest races in the world, was actually considered to be a race for pussies, as the percentage of finishers is as high as 90%. However, in my opinion, it is still just a matter of definition. You could for example also define toughness in terms of how many people have died during the race. Marathon des Sables would in that case be ‘tougher’ than the Barkley.

But of course, there is a reason why there is no race that advertises with having ‘the highest number of deaths’ during the race. It would simply be really bad marketing. Besides, the race organization may get some issues with insurance if they advertise with having people die every race.

During the Barkley, no one has died yet, so in that sense you could consider it a safe’ race.

Surely, you will not die!

As I sit there daydreaming about what makes the Barkley so tough I think of the title of the book that was put on stallion mountain: ‘Surely, you will not die!’. According to the dictionary, ‘surely is used to emphasize the speaker’s firm belief that what they are saying is true and often their surprise that there is any doubt of this’. It is only in the perception of the speaker -or in this case writer- that you will not die. Realistically speaking no one can give you any guarantee.

My thoughts wander off, back to my very first marathon experience in 2018. It was a nice and very warm spring day in April. We were in London were my friend would run the London marathon, which was part of his six majors endeavor. At that moment I did not run any marathons yet and I had no ambition to ever do so (why on earth would you want to do that?!). I was part of the crowd and my only role there was to cheer the runners on. It was extremely crowded and to get a better view of the runners, and to hopefully shout some words of motivation at my husband (‘Run! Stop complaining, just run!’) I decided to move across the street where there seemed to be a bit less people. As I made my way from one of the side lanes to the main road again, I saw there was an ambulance parked. Seeing an ambulance at a big event is not a strange thing, but what drew my attention were the two feet that were sticking out of the ambulance. As they did not seem to have time to fully get him in the ambulance, it was clear there was something wrong and they were in a hurry. I noticed that his feet were moving rythmically as if someone was shaking him to try to wake him up. As I got closer to the ambulance, I saw what was really happening; two healthcare workers were frantically performing CPR on the guy lying in the ambulance. I just stood there, feeling the adrenaline flow through me, adrenaline that only made me shake but was not beneficial in any way. I could not fight or flee, I could not help or do anything about the situation that I witnessed in this ambulance. I could only stand there and be annoyed by my feeling of helplessness and by how the entire world around this ambulance seemed to continue, as if nothing was happening and as if it was just like any other very nice and sunny day in the spring. After some time had passed, the ambulance closed its doors and it carefully drove off through the crowd.

After this had happened, I could not really enjoy my day anymore. I did not know what had just happened: perhaps he was just unwell, and maybe after a check up he could go home again, right? In the evening, when we were back in the hotel, I decided to watch the news and I soon learned that one runner actually died during the marathon. It was a 29 year old cook that ran the marathon for charity. He was a healthy and experienced marathon runner, he really knew what he was doing; how can this be possible? I googled his name and found his instagram, where I saw a picture of his race gear. I immediately recognized the shoes that I saw sticking out from the ambulance and my stomach turned. I went to see a marathon for the first time in my life, and of all the people there, I just witnessed someone die- how unlikely is that?

After this shock, my only thought was; why on earth would you run marathons as it is clearly not healthy for you in any way! Following the London Marathon, it took me a while to get more positive associations with marathons again. After doing a bit of research, I soon learned that running is actually really healthy, and that marathon runners really do not have a higher chance of dying. Accidents happen and these accidents do not even have to be caused by physical impact. Anyone can get a sudden cardiac arrest and this happens to people all around the world. But just as with the Barkley, in the end, no one can give you any guarantee that you will NOT die. In fact, the opposite is true; you will most certainly die! But obviously, most people would prefer to die from old age, and not because of some exorbitant hobby and I count myself as one of those people. You only have one body and you’d better handle it with care.

I have an annoying habit of drifting off into daydreams, and this habit becomes worse when I am sleep deprived. I suddenly realize that I still have to contact my family, to tell them that I ‘surely did not die’! I look at my phone, and I see I have no signal whatsoever. I know I have good signal in the visitors center, but to get there I have to be able to walk more than a kilometre. Luckily Frederique, who also woke up in the middle of the night to hopefully see Merijn finish his second loop, tells me she already contacted my family.

Like a walrus wearing heels

I quickly decide to not go to the visitors center, but instead go to the showers, which are only a few meters away from the camper. I could easily limp my way to the showers; heck I can even crawl if I want to! To not draw any more attention to me then is absolutely necessary, I decide to not crawl or ask someone to carry me to the showers, but I limp as normal as I possibly can to the showering blocks.

As I try to open the door, I suddenly notice I already have a muscle ache in my upper arms. In a normal run, only my legs would be sore and my arms would be perfectly fine, but I quickly realize that using trailrunning poles for climbing does actually require a huge deal of muscle strength. Because of the muscle ache I need to put all of my weight on the door handle to be able to open it. As I let myself fall through the door opening I think of my preparation; did I perhaps think too lightly of the required training? I conclude that it would have definitely been smarter to practice a bit with my trailrunning poles beforehand. However, there was a reason I did not do this; I did not own any poles and it was a principal choice to not buy them; why would I spend more then 100 euro’s on simple sticks? What are these trailrunningpole companies thinking to ask that much money for plain poles! To not spend too much money, for the Barkley I did not buy poles but instead rented them, the day before I left. Just as I plan to stick one of these rented poles in between the door as a lever, I realize i still have to give them back; I’d better not break them!

After some difficulty I manage to get into the shower and I take my clothes off. Frozen head state park has the best showers ever and you can shower for as long as you like without having to push a button continuously to get more water. I was really looking forward to my warm and infinite shower session, when I suddenly feel a stinging pain as the water falls on me. Apparently, I had a bit more wounds on my body than I had thought, and somehow the water causes it to sting like hell. With mud still everywhere, I quickly turn of the water and dry myself off. I can’t get rid of the mud without making my towel dirty with mud and blood, so I decide to leave the mud where it is, and just get dressed.

The only post-race outfit I brought was a dress and heels. Wearing a dress feels like wearing a pyjama and to me they are a perfect post-race outfit. The heels, I soon realize, are less perfect. After my quick shower, I make my way back to watch the race. But because of the heels, not only can I not walk normally, but as I limp my way to the campfire, I realize my movements must resemble that of an injured walrus wearing heels. Even worse, I make noise with my clicking heels and this even has people look up at me. These few meters feel pretty embarrassing. Why can’t I ever be like normal people? Luckily, most people at the gate seem to have other things on their mind and the awkwardness of my heel wearing walrus imitation is quickly forgotten as one of the runner gets back at the gate.

Midnight mayhem

As I sit next to the campfire again, waiting for the sun to come up, I hear that most runners have already dropped out during the night. Apparently the weather was bad, with rain and fog leaving many runners disoriented and some runners close to hypothermia. I actually thought that the weather was perfect; there was not too much rain or wind, and it was not snowing, right? I soon realize that this may be one of the things that makes the Barkley so difficult. At the gate the weather may be perfectly fine, but when you are at an altitutude several kilomters away from the gate this may be completely different. You may have perfect sight at the gate, and no sight at all in the hills. To my surprise, Merijn dropped out; he got lost and could not make it on time for the cut off. Also Courtney Dauwalter and Harvey Lee Lewis dropped out. How can this be?

When we started the race, the day before, considering the number of top athletes, and considering the good weather and at the ideal starting time, I strongly believed that this year there may not be just one runner that finishes, but there may be several runners. How could I have been so wrong? How can it be that these top athletes already drop out in the second round? It was clear I underestimated some factors in the race; factors that I had not run into myself because I quit before it was even midnight. The fact that these top athletes dropped out in the same loop I quit did not give me a sense of relief (the top runners dropped out so I don’t have to feel to bad about my misperformance, right?), but in fact it only enhanced my feeling of regret; I quit before I could see a bit of the toughness of the Barkley; I quit without really understanding what made the Barkley so difficult and I quit before I could really learn from any of this.

As I see the sun come up, my feeling of regret quickly turns into feeling pretty happy; I still have 1,5 days here at the Barkley to enjoy this event! More people gather at the gate and there is a sociable atmosphere. As my planning did not extent beyond me running the Barkley, I did not think about what food I needed to bring for the remaining days of the Barkley. Luckily, I still had a great deal of running fuel with me; marshmallows, licorice and cliff bars -the perfect breakfast!

The barkley bubble

I spend the rest of the day sitting at the gate. As I have an exam the week after the Barkley, I decide to spend part of my time on studying. For some reason, me reading my book draws a bit of attention and someone from the Barkley support crew walks up to me to tell me that he never saw someone study during the Barkley. I look at him with an equal amount of surpise -why is that so unusual? My usual -very cheap but also very affective- strategy to deflect the attention away from something I don’t want to have the attention on (in this case; me studying), is to change the subject to something else. I ask him if he is helping out here, and how he got to be part of the Barkley crew. Apparently, the guy is a data scientist that helps Laz with many different things, like organise the virtual race across Tennessee. He also ran the Barkley once. He tells me about all the countries he lived in, and all the adventures he had. Compared to him, I feel like I have been living under a rock for the past decades.

This feeling of being less adventurous, less experienced and less interesting then all the other people that are there, will stay with me for the remaining 1,5 day, as I talk to more and more people. One other thing that is noticeable is that the crowd at the Barkley consists of a huge variety of people.

To be continued

2 thoughts on “The race that eats its young

  1. Hinke, thanks for the kind words in your report! I did not know you fell on the way down the Chimney Top Trail. I never heard you fall down. I did realize you were far behind about half way to the Visitor’s Center and saw your light up above. I figured you were bonking and just taking it slow. You seemed very strong all day even though your training wasn’t great and you didn’t have trail running experience. Great job given all those circumstances! John Clarke

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah dus daarom liep je zo soepel voor ons uit in Rotterdam zondag! Zo’n marathonnetje doe jij gewoon even tussendoor voor het ontbijt.

    1000x dank voor het pacen!


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