The Barkley 2019 has rendered its verdict. Just like last year, there will be no finisher. Only 6 runners out of the 40 starters reached the 3rd loop, and none of them has been able to do all 5 loops expected to complete the Barkley, nor even the 4th loop. The 1% finishers statistics set since the first edition of the race have been proven right : in 33 years, there are still only 15 runners who accomplished that feat…
For my 4th participation, this is the worst result I have ever done : only 1 loop (validated), a spin around and I go back home. It is a steep and tough learning curve, as the previous years I had done more or less 2 loops within the allocated time (only 2 loops validated in 2017).
Yet, I feel like I climbed many steps of the « ladder of experience », which is undoubtedly the one fundamental, unavoidable element to this unconventional, unmarked, all-terrain race, completed during both daytime and night time… And there are so many of Laz’spitfalls along the way, and you will need to overcome all of them, in hope to succeed.
This year, I ran the loop almost without having to refer to the map, except for the new segment of the race which covers a few kilometers. It is so pleasing to explore this end of the world,considered to be hostile, with a sense of having finally –almost- mastered it. And it is truly stunning to realize that your memory can recall such accurate details from the middle of the forest, a year after.
Maybe because learning has been done through the suffering of past mistakes… Last year longer than a week after the Barkley, I was still being woken up at night by my brain repeating continously some of the details of the race and in the forest, trying to memorize them …
For me, this 2019 campaign had started back in September with an initial early trip here, in Frozen Head in Tennessee, for the Barkley Fall Classic. This race, the « BFC », is coordinated by the same organizer, Laz, in order to let about 500 runners get a « taste » of what the Barkley really is. The 50km route is unmarked, half of the tracks followed are from the Barkley , there is much less off-road segments except for the two famous climbs along with their meaningful names of « Testicle Spectacle » and « Rat Jaw ». Only half of the runners finish the BFC race, and most of them finally tell themselves : « Okay right, this is what the Barkley looks like, it was nice, well I’m going to refrain from the Big one then ». I highly recommend the BFC race for the ones who wish to have a first glimpse at the Barkley, it is a fully-fledged and great race, which I would describe as « bloody »…
I won the BFC 2018 : just to bring a better idea of the gap between this « initiation » race and what it takes to complete the true « Barkley », hence my far less glorious result…
This winter, since November, I had been doing an extensive preparation, with more than 120.000 m D+, and as much descent. It is a lot, but I know it is about a third less than the volume produced by the last finishers. Still it is a significant aspect for me, as it means I enjoyed putting the efforts into it without feeling like I’m being a slave to training. I spent two wonderful big weeks, the first one exploring again the island of La Réunion, and the second discovering places in Cap Vert. Working with one great team, we reviewed together our guidelines for night orientation during the 95km Raid 28, the Scia more or less hundred meters climb, the mountain that starts right from my place in Chartreuse, day and night, with a sunny weather or heavy rain, accompanied by Manu or Claudie, Jupiter or Osaka… it was a pleasure renewned each day.
The night before the race, when Laz could finally blow into the conch shell, at anytime, announcing the start would take place an hour later, went pretty well. I had slept perfectly until the early morning. This stillness and peace of mind almost got me… to worry. At 8 :20 am, when Laz blew the conch shell, I was feeling relaxed, and ready to face the beast once again, the toughest race in the world, the new climb towards hell named « Little Hell » added for us by Laz this year, withstand the forces of nature, challenge myself … all that being fully aware of the uncertainty of the result.
The race promised high performance, just like the other years. At the Barkley start this year, there are 40 seasoned runners, about 15 nationalities, that have been selected carefully and at a high price. There is Jared CAMPBELL, the only 3-times finisher, and John KELLY, the latest, being the 15th finisher. And many others whose illustrious record will simply join the Barkley’s collective failure, like before.
Surprisingly, the rhythm during the first climb is quite easy-going, we walk and chat a lot. I take my responsibilities, which are to do the race and manage the efforts without worrying about the others, and I take the lead, at my own rhythm, and find myself alone in front. It is way less stressful than focusing on others, and it reduces the chances of stumbling. Having already lived it, I know how «dangerous » it can be to stay in the first platoon, as when the first descent comes everyone tries to gain positions in the race to avoid traffic and grab their pages without losing the group, after a year of extensive training and cumulated stress. So I go at my own pace, without putting too much efforts, being perfectly aware that it won’t last long.
I get Book 1’s page, I am still alone, but I can already hear the group catching up behind, gaining ground.
I then enter Jake Mate Ridge, the great descent, the real one, one of the most sloping terrains of the Barkley. I remember this first descent the first year, literally in apnea, awed by my own presence here, overtaken by events and drawn in by this pack of runners, ones being reckless, others refusing to give up already. This time with experience, I decide to go down at my own pace, cautiously, and as expected I quickly see the others passed me… Down the hill, the first pack has runners have passed.
The weather is good, in the early hours the sun shines through this beautiful forest, all is quiet and maybeit seems too quiet, like before some battles. Here comes already the end of the 2nd of the 9 climbs.
Follows the first new surprise Laz found for us this year, his new signature, the little pleasure he wishes every runner to tell him about when the race ends … the « Meat Grinder »…On the ground it is a 2.000 feet descent, very long and steep slope. It is sometimes slippery, sometimes in the rocks, and of course there are some fallen trees to climb over. This slope has no escape at all, it just goes very steep, and all you can think of is that you’ll have to climb it again during loops 3 and 4…
The Barkley already has effects with sore muscles. Behind the yellow gate, Laz must be looking at his watch, knowing us here, light on a cigarette and while blasting on it, imagine us here … and smile, maybe even laugh out loud.
I keep going at my pace, within if still possible given the slope, I slowly let the others take the lead way ahead, but I take pleasure a bit further when I find a path used by boars that takes me easily to the rocks where Book 3 is hidden.
I meet Valéry there. Valéry is my duo. We shared the preparation as well as the camping car since last year. A great runner whose hour of glory came when he won the Transpyrénea, a little journey of non-stop 800km from the Mediterranean sea to the Atlantic ocean… We go in the second platoon. Tomokazu IHARA, a Japanese runner, starts the conversation, we have a good friend in common. This humble samurai has, I am told, ran over a hundred 100 miles races in his life … we gladly cooperate. At the Barkla ey, everyone knows working together is the best option, that the adage that one is stronger within a group has been proven to be true, so that of all of us maybe, at the end, one survivor can remain. So we continue the journey together, speaking little. Halfway into the descent, at one of the few turns, I look back, and realize Valéry has completely vanished. A pressing need I assume, I tell myself he will come back behind, and continue on my way.
The positive and negative elevation keep going and follow one another, we only reached one third of the 1st loop and I can already feel my muscles tensed. I drink, I empty my reserve of 1.5 Litre, and soon get to the first water point. I fill my 2L water bag, and drink what is left of the gallon in one gulp, which contains about 2L as well. With this,I hope it will be enough to ease the muscle cramps I start to feel. I start walking again, at moderate speed, in the Frozen Head State Park that I now know better. I try to optimize the tiny passageways and hidden trails, I do not stress, I keep drinking and eating, and remember to walk when needed. But these muscle cramps are not going away, they even strenghten, despite all the water I am drinking and the fact that I still haven’t stopped to pee since the race started.
I navigate on my own, which is perfect to restrain energy. I go down peacefully, very peacefully, in an attempt to spare the pain caused by cramps which, instead of slowly disappearing, become more and more troublesome.
Here comes the second new segment. I take the map out to orientate myself, to try to print every possible detail of the terrain in my mind, and identify them on the map to find them for next crossings. We arrive now at this year’s second novelty, this little paradise named « Little Hell ».
It is, indeed, very steep. It has been over a decade since this descent has last been part of the Barkley, for lack of an authorization by rangers. Yet, it was Laz’s favorite …
Before climbing, I consider napping for a short time, two minutes, to relax. Bad idea. I instantly find myself with cramps in my ribs, in my hands and even in my jaw … So I drink again, and eat again an energy bar. It has been 5 hours since we left, the weather is not too hot, around 20-22 degrees, we are still in the shade of trees, and I already drank 5 litres. I don’t get it, but I don’t give up neither, not yet …
I slowly and cautiously enter the nightmare of Hell. At the top, I get confused with the description of the location of the book, I do a bit of gardening for fifteen minutes trying to find it. “Hidden in a fault under a rock, covered in moss” : under a rock covered in moss, among at least fifty rocks covered in moss…. I tell myself it is like looking for a tree stump in the forest of the Terminorum… After the race, I realize chatting with others that for many found it without so much trouble, so it must be me who got confused in the 3 Romanesque lines describing the book’s location. It will be my only loss of time due to navigation, so it’s not that bad.
We will soon be arrived at the highest peak, the Tower of Frozen Head, the second water point, the only place where the crowd can have a good look at us without providing assistance… But to get there, we have to climb Rat Jaw, this exposed track under the power cable, filld with chopped off bramble bushes. Chopped off, but still grab onto us and slash our thights and calfs… This time I am completely stuck in the dry and steep slope, also due to the cramps getting strong. At the top, the second water point awaits us, I need to climb … I am harshly being lapped, but it doesn’t matter, all I need is to get up there.
I collect my page. I grab my almost 4L gallon, and I go to lie down against the wire grid, feeling groggy. My team is doing its job and cheering me up. I drink large amounts of wter, it should be my salvation. Again, I drink about 2L on the stop, and eat. But even as I am lying down, I feel muscle cramps throughout my whole body. After a break during which I watch nearly ten runners pass by, I get back on track. Walking, indeed, because until I get to the ups and downs, from now on I am going to walk…
It is, however, about time that I resurrect from these cramps, and for the hydration and food to finally take effect. Since I started running ultra trail races, I am well aware it’s possible to recover from cramps, and that by drinking a lot, you can repair the damage and get going again. But for now on I am having a very hard time going down Rat Jaw …
I chuckle when I reach the book at the corner of the prison, called “Shoot him if he runs”… Well, my dear Laz, it won’t happen today! I look through the book, quickly searching for the plot, who could have possibly written a story with such a title and what could the story be about… My legs as well as the rest of my body are baked, although my mind is clear and lucid and allows to fully appreciate each step and each parcel of this incredible forest. I think I begin to love Frozen Head, and I feel as if I was in my own garden. In comparison with my very first participation, when runners onlyfeel as though running through a lost and hostile forest, today I have Frozen Head in my head and in my hand, and I feel good here.
To complete the loop, there are still two apocalyptic climbs, Razor Ridge and Big Hell, and their descending counterparts, equally acrobatics. If I have to survive and crawl through the ups and downs, I take the opportunity to assimilate and memorize each detail, and mentally photograph everything. And yes, despite another dismal failure, since completing one loop is already a never ending nightmare, and I am physiologically stationary, “Almost Dead” as described in one of the book’s titles, and I am well aware that I won’t go further than the yellow gate … I definitely intend to come back here, at day and at night, next year.
“Hurry Sundown”, here’s the title of the second to last book when the red sun passes over the horizon. A bit further I will take my last break, lying down. From here I can see this curious pine tree on the mountain ridge, the only one of all the mountainside, sticking out. I see this big liana going through a hight tree fork about twenty meters above ground. It is quite hard to explain what I am seeing, but it feels peculiar, and it troubles me to understand how this liana could have gone up this high and fall back to the ground without touching the trunk… Maybe it has gone through this fork when the tree was only a few inches, has grown with it, and would have stretched at the same time…? Yes yes I am doing the Barkley, but this stop only lasts a few seconds. At the same time, it is right to de-dramatize, enjoy the moment and find interest in it, and forget a little about the cramps …
Now it’s the middle of the night, but I haven’t gotten my pocket torch out and I run the last kilometers in pitch black. It’s “fun”, like doing a training in a foggy night, like last year. To cross the last river I didn’t even get wet feet.
I finally get to the finish line. My support team who’s been waiting for hours jumps on me, and tries by all means to resurrect me. They do their job perfectly, with a support that could easily help do 3 or 5 loops, no doubt. But I do know this is where I’ll drop out this year. They pull each and every possible mental spring and trick to put me back on the track, but I know them too. The problem isn’t related to the mindset but is definitely physical, and physiological : in 12 hours since it started, I drank almost 9L, and only went to urinate a little one time. Something real is going, my body is far from having fully recovered, and I can’t go back to face again so many steep slopes in pitch black and with these cramps.
I’ve had much time on my hands during the last hours to think about the “why” of these cramps … And I did not find. I didn’t leave dehydrated, the previous night I got up twice and I did again before the start. The breakfast went normal and I felthydrated. No medication, except for 1 gram of Efferalgan at the Tower, in the hope that this could help. No stress, I slept great, almost being nervous about the fact I wasn’t worried any more. It was a bit hot, but only about 22°.
Did I start too fast? I began exactly like previous years, and even if I did, it would be really surprising to get such cramps in my whole body after climbing only 1.200 m of ascent. In any case, it isn’t a problem directly related to legs muscular attitude, but linked to hydration, as I can feel the cramps not only in my legs, but also in my hands, in my jaw, my back, and I only went to urinate one-half time, I who often stop way too many times. Even though I drank a lot, about 9L, and from the very beginning. All that is unexplicable, baffling and irrational. Maybe it was just a day “without”.
What is more surprising, is the coincidence that Valéry encountered… exactly the same problem. Happenstance, or not really, neither of us had eaten anything special, anything too unusual or exotic. And Valéry was at the top of his form… to finally get down the last slopes in reverse gear. In reverse.
One single point to specify maybe : in the USA mineral water is less mineralized than it is in France. We had been very careful to take only spring water and not osmosis or distilled water as is often the case here. Maybe it was a lack of sodium or other minerals then, more than water deficit ? No answers, but it was probably due to small cumulative factors… And as Laz reminded me when I got to the yellow gate, the Barkley offers no spot to recover, which means when something goes wrong, it can only get worse as the race continues…
This year, therefore, the Barkley won again. Against me, but also against the 40 participants… No finisher. Jared got an ankle sprain at the Meat Grinder, and John explained he didn’t have the outstanding mindset required to go beyond 2 loops, in all humility and without looking for excuses. Guillaume CALMETTES, our valiant French man from California completed the Fun Run, being 3 loops, “the race so women and kids can participate too”. Honestly, bravo Guillaume!
And two neo-barkers, Karel SABBE from Belgium, and Greig HAMILTON from New-Zealand, stood out by starting loop 4 but came back soaked to the camp, in the middle of the night. Double applause for them too. Three other brave warriors completed the Fun Run, impressive guys too and each one of them having a list of victories of about two arms’ length, Johan STEENE, Jamil COURY, and my Japanese Tomokazu IHARA, with the greatest humility.
On the spot watching the bloodbath take place in Frozen Head, everyone gets a chance to seize better what kind of victory it is to complete one only loop, why doing three of them is a feat, and in rare cases, the masterstroke runners do when joining the 1% finishers of the notorious Barkley, plus considering the fact Laz manages to make the race a bit tougher every year.
So, did I learn anything ?
Of course, I will reflect upon this hydration and cramp problem, and try to find a remedy to fix the problem next time. Also, I did recognize the new segments, Little Hell and the Meat Grinder, so all is not lost. And I get more and more familiar with this forest, I found new landmarks and characteristics everywhere, making Frozen Head’s garden seem a little bit smaller to me for next year.
Maybe I will buy a small shack at the foot of Rat Jaw to come spend all my family holiday here : eeeh nop, that’s just the joke I wrote on social networks on the 1st of April. What worries me, now, is that many of you did believe me… 😉
And also, watch out, drum rolls…. I completed the 5 loops at the Barkley, 5 validated loops, I’ve made it, it’s done !!! But … in 4 years … : LOL, far less praiseworthy, even perhaps something to give Laz good reasons to laugh at me again, kindly.
When I got back to France I also read an article about me and my sports and professional background, written in glowing terms, a true “winner” profile description, and I can only tell myself that this new “failure” at the Barkley is a good slap to remind me not to rest on my laurels. To keep moving forward, and feel alive … #Trail-to-be-alive, simply put.
And then, it feels right to recall the old adages. Like this one for instance : “Happiness is not the goal; it’s the journey.” Indeed, I did enjoy fully the entire period of training, and without this aim I wouldn’t have been able to do so many excursions in Chartreuse, at dusk and dawn. I wouldn’t have crossed the island of La Réunion again nor maybe ran across Cap Vert. I wouldn’t have had any pleasure in this forest in Frozen Head or within the Barkers community, where only a few words are needed to share and understand each others… And, let’s not forget, a week spent with 4 buddies in a motorhome in the United States, a very nice adventure I wouldn’t have done otherwise!
All of us had the opportunity to spend time with Master Laz, who insidiously taught us his science of running and proved once again he’s always ready with a comeback, during this extreme race also perfectly balanced that, first and foresmot, brings us back … to ourselves.
To conclude on an positive and upbeat note, and that’s the general feeling I carried with me after this new “dismal” experience at the Barkley … I realized even in hell some flowers grow, little flowers, white, violet, purple, like a sign of eternal hope, that things must and will be reborn again…
The Barkley is a Trail race (running), held for more than 30 years in Tennessee.
Originally a 100 miles, today it covers more than 200km, 25.000 meters of positive ascent and as much in negative ascent, and has to be done in less than 60 hours. It is known as the toughest race in the world, with only 1% of finishers, being 15 in total in 33 years. To understand the Barkley in 7 key elements : https://www.benoitlaval.com/la-barkley-en-7-lecons/
Results of the Barkley Marathons 2019
1 John Kelly TN 8:31:49
2 Guillaume Calmettes CA 8:32:35
3 Jamille Coury AZ 8:48:27
4 Karel SabbeBEL 9:27:49
5 Grieg Hamilton NZL 9:33:37
6 Remy Jegard FRA 9:46:11
7 Johan Steene SWE 9:46:30
8 Mikael HeermanFIN 9:46:31
9 Santiago Pinto COL 9:56:38
10 Tomokazu Ohara JPN 9:56:45
11 Paul Giblin SCT 10:01:41
12 Mark Laveson CA 10:27:08
13 Steve Slaby MD 10:38:20
14 James Elson GBR 10:38:21
15 Jared Campbell UT 10:38:26
16 Gavin Woody WA 10:38:27
17 Jodi Isenor NS 10:46:36
18 Stephanie Case AFG 11:32:51
19 MigPanhuysen NED 11:32:52
20 Nicky Spinks ENG 11:32:53
21 Billy Reed NIR 11:32:54
22 Benoit Laval FRA 11:39:12
23 Valery Causserieu FRA 11:50:03
24 Hisayuki Tateno JPN 13:08:54
25 Ed Thomas SD 13:11:26
26 Dale Holdaway IL 13:11:27
27 Zach Gingerich OR 13:13:15
28 Maggie Guterl PA 13:13:16
1 Kelly 21:02:54
2 Calmettes 21:11:44
3 Hamilton 22:06:31
4 Sabbe 22:57:19
5 Steene 24:20:10
6 Coury 24:21:23
7 Ohara 24:25:26
1 Sabbe 35:40:18
2 Hamilton 35:41:58
3 Calmettes 36:03:49
4 Ohara 39:38:34
5 Coury 39:38:35
6 Steene 39:38:36