“I think I’m going to go over,” I said rather matter-of-factly, glancing quickly over my shoulder as I slid towards a short but steep drop-off. I struggled to secure my poles in the mud to stop my descent, arms straining above my head in an unnatural pose. It was barely twenty minutes after the rain started and the ground had already gained the consistency of chocolate pudding. “Go around to the left!” I said to the others behind me, but there was no need – they were already picking their way down a much safer part of the slope to the North.
I pushed my right knee into the hillside as my left foot tried to find ground, flailing off the end of the hillside. Leaning into my left arm, gripping my pole above me, I dug my right knee into the mud where it thankfully met with a hidden tree root. I inched my knee up just far enough to provide me with an anchor point from which to shimmy myself back up on to solid footing. I quickly skated over in the direction of the others, sliding through a tangle of branches and around the rock face I had just been hanging over. Shining my head torch in the direction of my thumb compass, I checked to make sure we were still on the correct bearing. On track.
I was just over 13 hours into the Barkley and feeling fairly strong on the start of my second loop. Only 28 people had finished loop one and just 22 people had started loop two, which was about on par with the poor performance of the previous year, so I was pleased to be pushing onwards in good form. However, I knew from my previous attempt that the situation could change in an instant. One minute you could be on track for a 12-hour loop. The next minute, you could be standing within five feet of a book hidden underneath a rock, unable to see the treasure in front of you. That is the Barkley – nothing is a sure thing.
* * *
I first got into the Barkley in 2018, wholly unsure of the challenge before me. I had first learned about it 2009 at the Vermont 100 from John Fegyveresi (who went on years later to become one of the only 15 finishers in the Barkley’s history). As I said in my Barkley application essay:
I was so new to the sport that I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to do it. It sounded like complete hell. I hated the idea of not having a course to follow or people to give me hugs at manned checkpoints. It sounded lonely, brutal, and masochistic. I ended up winning the Vermont 100 that year, with the aid of a pacer, volunteers cheering me along the way, constant supplies of food and well-marked trails. That was tough, I thought.
But fast forward a decade later and my thinking had completely shifted. I had tested my limits in desert, ice and mountain ultras around the world, both multi-stage and single-stage. I had run for four days straight in Tor des Geants multiple times and finished on the podium. Was I the fastest or the strongest in these races? Certainly not. But I could enter them with a very high degree of confidence that I would get to the end, and maybe even finish near the top. I wasn’t interested in doing these races better. I was interested in trying a different type of race.
My first Barkley attempt was everything I thought it would be: a cold, wet, scrappy fight that ultimately ended in failure. I hung on to a couple of very, very experienced vets during loop one, squeaking in just under 13 hours. When I headed out again just under the 13h20min cutoff for a fun run, I pronounced to my Dad at the yellow gate that loop two would “probably be faster” as I had taken great care to learn the course (oh the naivete…). I rolled in about 21 hours later clutching all of my pages. “Losers, not quitters,” my friend Gab and I said proudly as we touched the yellow gate.
I didn’t imagine that the following year I’d come back as both.
* * *
This year’s Barkley was going to be a bigger challenge for me than last year for a couple of reasons. One, my running partner, Gab, wasn’t going to be there. In 2018, we navigated the Barkley together, and there was a significant amount of comfort in knowing that I wouldn’t be alone ‘out there’. No dice for 2019. Despite being one of the few competitors to make it around the course twice (albeit outside of the time limit), Gab didn’t get back. This year, I would be on my own with no safety blanket.
Two, right after the Barkley last year, I deployed to Afghanistan, where I’ve spent the last year working for the United Nations. My training ground has consisted of running in tiny loops around my compound or on a treadmill, breathing in air that makes Beijing look like a lung’s paradise. Not exactly ideal.
Not surprisingly, Laz threw another challenge into the mix this year by bringing in some major course changes, including the re-introduction of ‘Little Hell’ by New River Valley. Whatever challenges I had going into the race were not unique – everyone, including past winners, would be fighting out there, which strangely provided me with some comfort.
The night before the race start, I marked up a fresh new map of Frozen Head, highlighting the major river crossings, drawing in the jeep roads, writing down key compass bearings and marking in the odd reference points that I could remember. With a few wise words from my Swedish buddy, Johan, I was as ready as I could be. Time to bed down in the tent and wait for the race to start. My trail puzzle awaited. All I had to do was put the pieces into the right places.
* * *
The conch blew at 8:22 am, almost the exact same time as the year before. Before I knew it, I was powering up the first climb up Bird Mountain with a surprising amount of ease. Despite the fact that my muscles were sore from a mere 20km recce run on the North Boundary trail just a few days before, I was feeling good. I sneaked past Maggie and Jamil, which didn’t concern me too much as I knew they’d fly past me on the downhill (they did). Counting the switchbacks out of habit, I smiled in between breaths. This year was mine to own. Whether I did well or whether I bombed out early, the result would be 100 percent mine – I wasn’t relying on a veteran or a friend to pull me through. I was relying on my map and compass instead.
I fell in behind a Dutch runner, Mig, and jumped over the Pillars of Death, remembering how slippery they were the year before covered in rain. I saw another runner – a Barkley virgin – starting to veer off course ahead with his map in his hand and a confused look on his face. So many runners get caught up in the excitement and make simple mistakes early on, which can be hard to recover from. Last year, I missed an easy turnoff towards book one, but there was no chance of that this year. I had gone over the turn and the terrain in my mind a hundred times – it was almost as if I could see a marked trail disappear over the hill.
Maggie and Jamil (as expected) ran past as we descended to the first book. “You taking notes?” asked Maggie, referencing the need to always stay sharp for the next loop. “You bet,” I replied, shutting my eyes briefly as I thrashed headfirst through a patch of bushes. We ripped out our pages and rushed off without any pomp and ceremony – no time. Jamil and Maggie darted off to the left while I continued around the mine bench with Mig and a couple of virgins – Nicky Spinks and Billy Reed – right behind. “Is this right, Stephanie?” one of them asked. There’s no easy answer to that question in the Barkley as there are varying degrees of both right and wrong. What I knew was where this path would get us, and that it would take us to the book. So the answer, in short, was yes.
Mig and I worked together through the next few books with Nicky and Billy on our tails. I could feel the power emanating from their legs, but the course was brand new to them and I think they were happy to stick with us, even if it was at a slightly slower pace than they might otherwise have used. I had done the same last year to learn the course, so was happy to try to help pass the torch – this is the Barkley virgin-veteran dance. Mig and I covered the holes in each other’s memory, calling out course corrections where we felt appropriate, and nailed our navigation without too much difficulty.
As we headed down Leonard’s Butt Slide, I spotted Maggie’s shorts up (down) ahead, and knew that she had either gotten lost or was struggling – it was the latter. The temperature reached the 80s during the day, which she indicated may have been a factor. I, on the other hand, felt completely comfortable even fully covered up, perhaps from having trained in Afghanistan. Despite being slower than she had planned, she was in great spirits and I was happy to run alongside another Barkley veteran (particularly another female).
My book pages were starting to pile up in my pack, but I knew Stallion Mountain would be a test. My memory of it from last year was a confusing mess of dirt, brambles, roads and more dirt. I couldn’t seem to piece together a coherent map in my brain of the terrain ahead of time, which worried me. However, somehow – miraculously – it all seemed to make sense when I got there. Past the dirt pile, straight into the bush – little to the left and head towards the creek. Take that route there, remember? It’s a bit easier to navigate on this side. That’s it…
Mig and I continued to play off one another, taking turns in the lead with the other providing backup. It was working well. We hit the power lines in good time and pulled out our maps. This part was new – uncharted territory – and we all had a slightly different interpretation of what Laz wanted us to do.
Barkley hopefuls, let me give you a tip: when in doubt, trust a veteran, and the more years he or she has, the better. It doesn’t matter whether the section you’re on is new or not. People who have run the Barkley before have developed better ‘spidey senses’ as to what Laz intends. It isn’t something you can learn in any book – you have to learn it ‘out there’, and the more attempts at the Barkley, the better. After a few minutes of debate (read: faffing), Mig set off to the West and I quickly ran to catch up. “Democracy has no place in the Barkley”, he said later. “You just need to make a decision and go with it.”
He was right. After finding the next book wedged under an old skillet in a stone wall, we turned our faces to the South and headed right up another climb. With a cheek full of mini Reeses peanut butter cups and knuckles dotted with dried blood, I was in my element. It was almost as if I could see marked trails in the leaves, guiding me through the forest to the next book. I had my compass on my thumb, but I was looking at it less and less. Maybe I was just a bit tired, but it seemed like the puzzle pieces were snapping together. I was doing it – I was a Barkley vet – and I couldn’t have been happier.
* * *
I lunged forward at the yellow gate as if I were in a marathon photo finish, clocking in at a time just over 11.5 hrs. “Thanks for the skillet out there, Laz,” I said in a feeble attempt to make a light-hearted joke. “I made some eggs.” I pulled out my baggie of neatly-folded pages for Laz to count. “Oh nice,” he said. I learned this the hard way last year. If you carelessly stuff your pages into your bag in a hurry as you collect them, you’ll be left with a crumpled mess of paper for Laz to sort through at the yellow gate. You might be in a hurry, but he’s got all the time in the world, and so the easier you make it for him to count your pages, the faster you can start your transition.
“When are we meeting?” asked Nicky. She had asked if she could continue with me on the next loop. I’ve always thought it is better to just head out whenever you’re ready – it is very difficult to coordinate the turnaround at Frozen Head – but I didn’t mind if she (or Billy) wanted to stick at my pace. “Twenty minutes okay? Meet at five minutes to twelve? We need to get out in under twelve hours,” I said. I had no idea what time it was in normal-world hours, but I knew my watch said 11:35 in Barkley time, and that was all that mattered.
I plunked myself down into the foldable chair beside my tent, which was set up on Raw Dog’s plot near the yellow gate (thanks to his quiet generosity). My brother, Ben, was right there. “Your soup is ready,” he said, thrusting a styrofoam cup of ramen under my nose. “Careful, it’s really hot.” I wrapped my hands around the cup and breathed in the salty spices. My legs started to shake as I tried to go through a list in my head of what I needed to do in the next 20 – damn it, 17 – minutes. Food bag, waist torch, switch battery for head torch… eat sandwich. Get gloves? Have them already. Chafex. Change socks. Change head buff.
A cameraman to my left asked if he could film my transition. Truthfully, I hate the media interest and presence at the Barkley. It’s supposed to be the one time we have to be off the grid and, to me at least, media attention just doesn’t fit with the spirit of the Barkley. But they had a job to do, so, whatever. “Maybe for just a bit?” I said in between spoonfuls of noodles, and about a minute before the noodles came up again. You’re welcome, cameraman.
“I think I need to put something warm on,” I said to my brother as my body continued to shake. Without hesitation, he took the shirt off his back and threw it my way. I knew it wasn’t actually cold, but with the adrenaline of the race and the calorie deficit, I was feeling chilly. “Should I bring an extra thermal?” I asked my Dad. “Everyone keeps complaining about the heat, but I really don’t think it is that hot.” We agreed it made sense to layer up. While the weather forecast had improved over the last few days, there was still a 20 percent chance of rain the last time we’d checked and the temperature was expected to drop. Better to be overheated than cold, I thought. With two thermals in my arsenal, a waterproof, and a long-sleeved shirt, as well as gloves and waterproof mitt-covers, I thought I was well-prepared. Little did I know that the forecast had dramatically changed and I was heading into winter conditions.
I ran back to the gate with five minutes to spare, picking up a new bib – number 117 – for loop two, which was meant to be run in a clockwise direction again. Mig, Billy, Nicky and I set off together, but after a couple of switchbacks Mig dropped off. “I had a beer at camp and it was great!” he said. “But my stomach isn’t feeling too good now. You guys go ahead.”
As the only veteran left in the pack, I started to worry. I was fine getting myself lost, but I didn’t want the responsibility of leading the other two astray. Yes, Nicky and Billy were perfectly capable of running their own races, but the option of sticking with a vet is very, very seductive – I knew it well. I was happy for the company, but stressing internally about potentially screwing up their races.
Anyway, there wasn’t enough time to focus on the what ifs – I needed to focus on my compass and my surroundings. What would be, would be.
* * *
The option of dropping out didn’t creep into my consciousness until sometime in the very early hours of the morning. We had picked up another runner around book one, and he stuck with us on our way to book two. The rain was coming down pretty hard by that point and we were well into chocolate pudding conditions. In a matter of just a few hours, the temperature had dropped dramatically and we were wearing every layer we had with us. The thick slime of mud down by backside only exacerbated my chill. When we hit the candy ass trail at the top of the climb up Jury Ridge I suggested we stop briefly for a snack break and runner number four pulled out a plastic bag of mashed potatoes and a spoon. “I’m heading back to camp from here guys,” he said. What?? I didn’t understand.
“No, come on, stick with us,” I protested.
“You can’t change my mind, really,” he said, obviously content with his decision. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while.” I felt terrible for him and insanely jealous at the same time. He seemed so calm and collected, and it was unsettling. Does he know something we don’t? Is it worse out here than I realize? If he knew he was dropping out, why was he bothering to eat mashed potatoes? My brain starting spiraling down an unhelpful black hole and the only way to stop it was to start moving again.
Every time the wind picked up, it seemed to blow right through my bones. I knew Billy and Nicky were feeling it too, but neither of them were the type to verbalize it. It was the kind of cold that seeped in, under your clothes, through your skin, and deep into your core. The kind of cold that infiltrated your blood and slurred your speech. We just needed to keep moving steadily and make it until sunrise – then we would be alright. We had slowed down a lot in the mud, but we were still doing quite well with navigation. Despite the rain and fog, I wasn’t having too much trouble figuring out where we needed to go, and that was at least a relief. Books two and three went by without too much of a hitch, but the temperature kept dropping…
I checked my timex watch and Barkley time was around 17:00, which meant that it was about 2:30am in normal-world time. Surely this is the coldest time of day, I thought. Just a few more hours… But it was hard to keep my mind in check. The weather seemed to be getting worse and worse, and images of mashed-potato-man warm and dry in his tent kept creeping in. My fingers had long stopped working as individual units and I tried to keep reminding myself to wiggle them. I had gloves and waterproof mitts overtop, but without full-on ski gloves, it felt a bit pointless. This is just a low point, I reminded myself. You might be a loser, but you’re not a quitter. It’ll get better.
“SON-OF-A-BITCH,” I said out loud as we crossed the ditch by the same name. It was f&*king cold and I was losing my grip. I had tried to talk myself through that level of cold before during my accident in the Alps in 2017. I remember lying in the snow, watching my ungloved hand go numb as my body temperature plummeted. I knew the helicopter was on its way and I just needed to tough out the 30-40 minutes until it would arrive, but it was a mental battle to just accept the cold. There wasn’t anywhere near the same level of drama at that moment in the Barkley, but the feeling was similar – no matter how many times I told myself the cold was temporary and I wasn’t in any danger, it didn’t shut off that basic instinct to try to find warmth.
“I’m not going to lie guys,” I admitted to Billy and Nicky. “I’m struggling here…”
* * *
“Nimble hands! Can you just help me stuff my arm into my backpack? That’s it. Perfect.” Gareth, a South African Barkley virgin, gently lifted my left arm and tucked it next to my chest underneath the strap of my Salomon bag, Kilian-style. I didn’t feel a lick of pain until about 30 minutes prior at Garden Spot when we all decided to drop – at that moment, I suddenly became aware of all of the aches and pains I didn’t realize I had.
We met Gareth after the coal ponds on the way up to Garden Spot. Still on loop one, Gareth had gotten lost amongst invisible horses on Stallion Mountain and was trying to find his way back to camp. He was surprisingly cheerful and his hands still worked, despite not having any gloves, which was a huge asset at that point. We told him to come with us to the next book, after which point I promised to show him the turnoff to quitters’ road. By the time we got to the book, the rain had turned to sleet and snow, and the appeal of personally escorting Gareth back to camp was intoxicating. I hated myself for thinking it and even more for wanting it, but I knew it was my last chance to make it back to camp. If I continued to the next book, there was no turning back.
Ugh. I am not even going to try to discuss whether this was the right decision or not. It often feels like the right decision at the time and the wrong decision after, but in this case, it felt like the wrong decision from start to finish. But it was the decision I made, and I was – am – going to have to accept it.
I hadn’t peed in hours and when the pain set in, so did the realization that my bladder was full. However, my ice claws were incapable of pulling my pants down and that was one job I wasn’t going to ask of Nimble Hands (at least not without a proper dinner first to get acquainted).
The four of us ran the long way down quitters’ road to camp, where we knew Laz would be waiting. “Who is it?” he asked as our head torches bobbed and weaved closer. “Ugh, people you don’t want to see,” I replied. “I don’t want to see myself.” I was dejected to say the least and couldn’t hold back the tears as we got tapped out, one by one. I was the first woman in off of loop one and had gone out with high hopes on loop two. And I had failed. What’s worse, I had quit. I had messed up on something that was totally within my control, and it was my fault. Not only that, but I felt like I had messed up Billy’s and Nicky’s races too. If I had toughed it out, I’m sure they would have kept going. Furthermore, if I hadn’t pushed them to rush out on loop two in under the 12 hour limit, they might have taken more time to put on more warm clothes.
“I regret that you couldn’t have suffered longer out there,” said Laz.
I had never felt more relieved or angry to be back at the yellow gate.
* * *
During the race, Gary Robbins, who famously finished the Barkley in 2017 six seconds over the time limit (but from the wrong direction), tweeted:
“Any1 who considers themself #bm100 finisher material & has decided 2 step aside / b tapped out b4 absolutely timing out has greatly compromised their eventual chances at finish. They have squandered 1 weekend/ yr where they can gain invaluable course knowledge 4 their next attempt.”
Last year, I would have said the same thing. It was miserable and I had no chance of completing loop two, but I was determined not to return to the yellow gate until I had all of my pages. It was my chance to learn the course and there was no reason to leave early, even if I knew I was going to lose.
This year was different. I went in with the same never-quit mentality and I repeated it out loud while on loop two, but I honestly just couldn’t do it (or could I have??). I will be wrestling with that for a while. The fact is, I messed up, but it was my failure to bring out proper clothing that compromised me.
Gary tweeted something else that caught my eye:
“There is a difference between wanting #bm100 finish & needing a Barkley Marathons finish. Wanting a finish will get you to the start line, but it is not until you absolutely need a finish & live with that knowledge every day that you’ll have a shot in (little) hell at achieving it.”
Hmm. That gave me pause. Was it true? Did I simply not belong there at Frozen Head? Was I a loser, a quitter, and an irreparable failure too?
I entered the Barkley because I am drawn to things I don’t understand, things that scare me, and challenges I’m not sure I will be able to handle. The Barkley was completely outside of my comfort zone and it represented the exact kind of challenge that I didn’t even know I wanted. After trying the Barkley last year and getting a taste of what it actually was – beyond the hype and the folklore – it was a privilege to come back. The Barkley wasn’t a bucket list item for me. It was a return to why I got into ultrarunning in the first place.
I don’t think I will ever need a finish at the Barkley. Yes, of course I want one, but I don’t need it – I’ve never needed any kind of specific race result and as unique as the Barkley is, I don’t think it is different in that respect. Will that mean I will never finish? Statistically and historically-speaking, I have virtually no chance of doing so, but I don’t think my failure to finish will be because of this lack of need.
The Barkley will mean different things to different people, but for me, it represents complete freedom – from pressure, from structure, and from predetermined outcomes. It helps me see the woods differently, the way I used to, when I was a carefree kid – every tree, crest and valley had a different story to tell and it was all at my fingertips (toes) to discover. Whenever I’ve had the chance to relate to nature in that way, I have surged ahead, beyond what I would have imagined. It’s the only way I will ultimately get to five loops. It’s the complete absence of need, rather than the presence, that will bring me back to the yellow gate time and time again.
No one can really understand the Barkley without trying it. No photo, interview or race report can convey what happens ‘out there’, or what it means to try it. There are people who come to do it once and maybe that is enough. The vast majority of the trail running community will never get the chance, so running the Barkley once is a massive feat in itself, no doubt. But when you come back, you know what you are choosing to do – you know what you are signing up for, and that is something very different.
I will head back to Afghanistan with a few more cuts and bruises, and another record of failure… but it’s a failure I’ll hold inside as a source of strength, and one I will hopefully have the chance to carry with me over some future loops.
Thank you to my Dad and brother, who spent a week supporting me in Frozen Head and literally gave me the shirts off their backs 🙂 And many thanks to Chafex, who has supported my running endeavours the past couple of years!