Sunday, April 7, 2013

More lessons from The Barkley, 2013

"There was a day when the Barkley runner need go no further than the trailhead to get out of the comfort zone.

You all know about the comfort zone.
That's where most ultras take place.
Running ultras is all about staying in the comfort zone.
All our strategies revolve around staying in the comfort zone.
All our advice is about staying in the comfort zone;

"Start slow"

"Walk every uphill"

"Don't take any chances"

For all the talk about exploring human potential, and seeking our limits, Ultrarunners tend to play it safe.
They line up "challenges" they know they can finish.
And run them carefully
Well within their "limits".

We believe that success is never failing.

--excerpt from 2010 Barkley report by Lazarus Lake, Barkley RD

I opened my 2010 blog post, "Lessons From the Barkley," with this quote, so it seemed appropriate to share it again as I reflect on my trip down to Frozen Head State Park last weekend. This was my first visit to the Barkley Marathons, a race that captured my imagination after I first read about it in a 2003 Trail Runner magazine article written by Neal Jamison...and then again when Mike Bur posted his classic 2004 report to the Ultra List. I have been an avid fan of the event for years, so much so that I created a "mini-Barkley" for my JV lacrosse team to complete each lacrosse season. When I realized I would be able to crew for my friends Mike Bur, Keith Knipling, and Eva Pastalkova this year, I jumped at the chance.

Much has been written about this event, considered by many to be the world's toughest ultra (14 finishers in 27 years, with about 12,000 feet of climb per 20-mile loop). The old timers and loyal followers associated with the Barkley seem both supportive and resistant to the rest of the world learning about their special event, and when the New York Times published a piece on the Barkley three days before the 2013 race, there was much hand wringing and worrying going back and forth on the Barkley email list about the article exposing some of the well-kept secrets of the event.  But RD Lazarus Lake reminded his supporters that *some* positive media exposure actually keeps the race alive amidst pressures from the park service and other groups that have not been so friendly in the past.

Mike Bur, Eva Pastalkova, and Keith Knipling before the start of the 2013 Barkley
 I traveled to Frozen Head Natural Area, outside of Oak Ridge, TN, with Jenny Nichols on Friday morning. We both enjoy geeking out on all things ultra, so it was extra fun to take in the sights and experiencing the lure of the race, LIVE. Jenny wrote her own thoughts on the Barkley experience on her blog. As her photos show, we had a great time running the "candy ass" park trails with our partner-in-fun Gary Knipling, hanging out in camp taking in the Barkley mythology--the Yellow Gate, the license plates, the chicken dinner--and watching the runners arrive at the top of Rat Jaw, a brier-infested power line climb where Book 7 was located along with a water drop, about 12 miles and 6 hours in the race (yes, that is correct, 12 miles in six hours). Rat Jaw is the only place on the loop where spectators are allowed, and runners are forbidden to take any aid or drop off unnecessary clothing, equipment, etc. Given it's location along the loop, it is also a perfect venue to assess the physical and emotional statuses of the runners.

Keith Knipling (foreground) and Mike Bur arriving at Book 7 at the top of Rat Jaw
 We had been expecting Keith up Rat Jaw sooner, but a few "navigational difficulties" eventually hooked him up with Mike Bur. Bur was going for a Fun Run (3 loop, 60+ mile) finish, one that been eluding him ever since bailing on 2.5 loops in 2005, and if there is anyone who knows the Barkley course and necessary mindset to be successful, it is Mike Bur. As they were tearing out their pages to Book 7, the veteran Bur commented, to no one in particular, "The biggest mistake of the Barkley virgin is hubris."

Teacher and student, Mike Bur and Keith Knipling, at Book 7

Hubris: Noun: Excessive pride or self-confidence;(in Greek tragedy) Excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis.

As he was tearing his page out, Keith was lamenting (Keith later corrected me by saying he was "f%&#ing pissed off") about his decision earlier in the race to leave ahead of the front running group that included veterans and Fun Run finishers Alan and Bev Abbs as well as 2012 Barkley finisher John Fegyveresi, before Book 2... and Bur, his longtime VHTRC friend, was encouraging him to keep perspective and stay with him for the remainder of the loop. It was an interesting moment, one that revealed an essential truth to "success" at the Barkley: patience is the ultimate tool and  reward, not speed. Keith is a fast and very experienced 100 mile specialist and Bur (a Last Great Race finisher in 2003) is more of a mid-pack guy. But at that moment the playing field was level as the veteran Bur was calmly teaching Keith a key to succeeding at the hardest ultra Out There. I got goosebumps listening in.

After Bur and Keith departed Rat Jaw,  Jenny, Gary, and I ran back to camp on the sweet, smooth, runnable North Old Mac Trail. As we ran, we discussed the idea of hubris. Where is the line between hubris and plain old confidence? How much confidence does one need to enter the Barkley in the first place? Can one be a successful ultrarunner without some level of "hubris?" Can one finish five loops of Barkley without it? Isn't the desire to take risks and stretch our perceived limits one reason we attempt ultras--and don't we need confidence to take these risks? Isn't the reason lots of really strong 100 miler runners (such as Keith) succeed because they have confidence that they can? And, the big question: "What does it really take to be able to finish five loops at Barkley?

Keith managed to finish Loop 1 in a time of 10:23, and he quickly turned around and went out on Loop 2, only to be defeated by extreme fog, cold rain, and mud--and the risk of hypothermia.  He ended up quitting at the top of Rat Jaw, 12 miles on his second loop. Bur finished his first loop in 11:03 and his second loop in about 22 hours. Eva, our third VHTRC hopeful, dropped a page from Book 9 en route to finishing her first loop. True to her tough and focused reputation, she opted to re-trace her steps six miles to find the lost page, to no avail, and was not allowed to continue, as per Barkley rules. With fog and rain rolling in on Loop 2, many observers back at camp predicted no one would finish all five loops. Despite the horrendous conditions, two runners became Barkley finishers 13 and 14: Nick Hollon and Travis Wildeboer, both of whom had finished numerous Fun Runs in the preceding years, as well as holding multi-day Fastest Known Times of long trails in the U.S. They finished Monday evening in 57:39 and 58:41, respectively.

Keith, after quitting on Loop 2 (photo courtesy Keith Knipling)
 "I just have a lot of regret which festers.  A lot of personal faults revealed.  I am thankful for the lessons learned and all the nice people I met...have no regrets about attempting it, just how I did it and all of the errors and missteps (literal) made because of who I am." 
                                                                          --Keith Knipling, in an email to friends after Barkley 2013

When I read Keith's email, my first thought was an emphatic "YES." When an ultra experience reveals a bit of ourselves to us, we can either stuff it away or embrace it. Keith came for the Barkley experience, hoping to run five loops, but like all  Barkley starters, he no doubt left Frozen Head a different person and wiser runner, determined to learn and grow from the experience. The Grand Slam, Beast Series, and multi-MMT finisher has a new challenge awaiting!

Bur finishing Loop 2 (photo by Keith Knipling)
At the Barkley success is about over-reaching our abilities,
and living to tell about it.
Sometimes success is getting your ass out alive.  --Lazarus Lake, 2010

Bur returned to camp, wet and muddy, after many hours navigating in the fog and rain. I had no doubt that he would finish the loop in one piece, given his experience on the course and extensive preparation. Jenny and I were not there to see him walk down the road into camp (as we had to get home for Easter with the family), but the photo above reveals what I missed: the expression of a man not defeated, but satisfied with his effort, given the reality of the course and the extreme weather...and one who will be back for that third loop.

Some people "get" the Barkley. Some don't.
But the Barkley is all about leaving the comfort zone.
The Barkley is about taking our chances with failure.
True success is not the absence of failure,
It is the refusal to surrender.  ---Lazarus Lake, 2010

After spending two days watching the Barkley unfold, meeting the runners and crew, and listening to quiet conversations around the campfire about past experiences, lessons learned, and fears revealed...I am at once humbled and in awe. Keith Dunn, a longtime Barkley supporter, looked at me at Friday's chicken dinner and said, "You know, we are watching ultra history being made." As an observer, the Barkley more than exceeded my expectations. The media tries to explain the essence and the lure of the event, but fails to fully capture the nuances and the feel. It is the ultimate "old school" ultra, one where there are no trails to follow with confidence markers, no aid stations along the course with food and comfort, no schwag or finishers medals, no pacers keeping runners alert and on trail. As Laz observed in 2010,

For all the talk about exploring human potential, and seeking our limits, Ultrarunners tend to play it safe.
They line up "challenges" they know they can finish.
And run them carefully
Well within their "limits".

The Barkley is our sport's most pure and ultimate test of endurance,  patience, and perseverance. And it was a privilege for me to be a witness.

Sophie, Bur, Jenny, Keith and Gary the night before the 2013 Barkley (photo by Keith Dunn)
Postscript: a few observations from Keith and Bur...

Bur: "My comment about hubris was firmly grounded in my own experience.  My
first year, I did similar to Keith but didn't make it as far, coming
in overtime for one loop.  I think it is hard not to do this,
particularly if you are fit and feeling good.  Had I stayed with Mike
Dobies and Craig Wilson like I had said I was, I could have gone
further...same thing happened - I was fit and grew impatient and
forged ahead, only to blow it navigationally, and then have them pass
me.  I almost caught back up --they were within eyesight going up
hell, I was only a few minutes behind.  But behind enough to make a
wrong turn and rather than take the trail back to camp, I went the
opposite way toward Mart Fields; the trails were not as well blazed
back then."

"One of the main reasons I persisted this year is that I've come to
realize that the only place and time that you can really "practice"
Barkley is *at* Barkley.  Nothing else really matches.  Making all the
little navigational mistakes that I made during that foggy loop 2 will
be useful to draw on in the future.  The other reason was, I've quit
at Barkley enough, it was time to just keep going no matter what."

"I think Eva going back for her page showed a lot of guts and character.
Not to mention, it provided her with some valuable extra practice
time on the course.  Just about anyone else would have sulked in camp.
So while it was persistent for me to continue on w/ loop 2, I think
she clicked it up a notch w/ her fool's errand."

Keith: "At Barkley, teamwork is absolutely essential.  Only when/if absolutely necessary (preferably on loop 3 or loop 4) should you leave the comfort of the group and go off on your own.  Otherwise, work with your "competitors" --- multiple eyes and minds are better than one person's.  This is how Jared Campbell finished last year.  He ran step for step with Brett until he was forced to separate on loop 5 [1].  Jon Fegyveresi similarly waited up for Bev through midway loop 3, until it was finally necessary for him to "be his own man." [2]

"I don't really regret at all dropping out on loop 2.  My feeling was that I had already tried to drop at the Garden Spot and the only reason I had made it to the tower was because of Henry (Wakely).  I would not have made it there on my own.  Ironically, at that point we had every reason to continue to the prison and beyond.  We quit just an hour before daylight, before sections that I had nailed navigationally the first time through.  But in my mind, there just seemed to be far more positive consequences for quitting than for continuing on.  I think this was mainly because of the disastrous first loop.  I had pissed away (or at least thought I had) any chance of finishing anything at the Barkley.  In hindsight, I probably should have stuck it out because stuff happens to everyone there (Bad Things…).  I know this lesson from many many ultras (things always get better) but I was so mad at my earlier mistakes and lost all composure to realize this.  Another lesson learned."

"I've thought about how far I could have gone had I stayed with the Abbs.  I *think* I could have stayed with them through three loops, perhaps pulling ahead on the third and making it in in time to consider a fourth.  But realistically, I think a fun run is the best I could have possibly hoped for in that weather.  And I might not have even done a third (although with company I think I would have tried).  It was tough and slow going.  I know I would not have finished 5.  In fact, when Nick and Travis went out for their fifth laps I did not think either of them would finish.  The climbs were just so slow.

From discussions I've had with Eva, I think she is in similar agreement on what her prospects would have been.  A fun run possibly, but probably no more.  Bur definitely gets my vote for VHTRC Performance of the Year.  He stuck it out and finished with a grin on his face.  Real persistence."

 [1] "Being a virgin, Jared was effectively tethered to me" (

To be continued...