By Erik Storheim
The Barkley Marathons is held every year, in early April, in the steep, overgrown, inaccessible and remote wilds of Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. Since the event began in 1986, only 14 participants out of about 1000 have finished within the 60 hour cutoff. The race is nearly impossible in many respects,: physically, emotionally, psychologically. To top it off, the application process is convoluted, secretive and requires some mental endurance as well as a fair amount of luck. In many regards, just getting in, is a good indicator of what will come at you on race day.
This year, as the letters of condolences were sent out to 40 successful applicants, I found myself sitting at #11 on the weight list. Historically, there are enough successful applicants who come to their senses and drop out of the Barkley, that being #11 on the weight list is almost a guarantee of being able to stand at the Yellow Gate come race day. This year, however, the dropouts have been few, and after a month and a half, and race day another 7 weeks away, I find myself still training at full effort, wondering if I will have an outlet for all the hard work I’ve put in.
The Barkley has about 65,000 feet of vertical gain over it’s roughly 100 mile distance. That is a LOT of up and down. About 50% is on established “trails”, meaning that the other half is off trail. Bushwhacking, through thick trees, dense undergrowth, and nasty terrain, is the order of the day. To mimic this in training, I’ve found myself needing to get creative. On the advice of my friend Jared Campbell, who has finished Barkley TWICE, Grandeur Peak, in the Wasatch Mountains, has become my training ground. With 3300 feet of vertical gain over 2.25 miles, it has the elevation needed to condition my legs and body to the relentless wear and tear that Barkley will dish out. With multiple routes and ridges, I can focus on the main trail up the west face, or throw in some off trail accessory ridges for some scrambling. There has been a lot of snow this winter in the Wasatch, so post holing, trail breaking, and runs in whiteout conditions have been pretty commonplace. While this hasn’t served to prepare me for the saw briers and bad footing, it’s been a mental exercise in staying positive and turning the monotony into a rewarding experience. There have been days when the snow has been coming down so fast and the wind blowing so furious, that on each lap up and down the mountain, the trail has been filled in, and I’m looking at a blank canvas of snow to plow through again. The varying conditions on one mountain have been a great proving ground to try out and test the gear I will be using when I make it off the weight list and get my chance. Shoes, hydration systems, lighting, socks, nutrition, base layers and outer layers are all being put through the wringer as I trudge up and down the mountain.
A typical week of training over the past 6 weeks has gone about like this:
Monday- a trip up Grandeur in the morning or after work.
Tuesday- Early morning workout at the gym. Typically addressing full body strength. At this point I don’t need any cardio, or specific leg strengthening.
Wednesday- An early start with multiple trips up Mount Wire (2200 ft vertical in 2 miles) before work. Then another lap up Wire during Lunch.
Thursday-Grandeur after work.
Friday-1-3 laps of Grandeur depending on my work schedule
Saturday- 1-3 laps of Grandeur depending on Friday’s outing.
This is all fairly fluid since my work schedule can change, I am married and have 4 kids, and am involved in a number of other extra-curricular, neighborhood and religious activities. Most of my training starts before dawn, with the alarm going off between 3:00 and 4:00 am so I can be home in time for real life stuff.
To be honest, while the physical aspect of the Barkley is intimidating, the parts that have me really worried, and that will offer the biggest challenge are the orienteering and the sleep deprivation. My map and compass skills are rudimentary from Boy Scout days, and while I’ve actually gotten myself out of a tight spot a few times while on hunting trips in the West, the type of terrain and the potential for thick fog, endless trees, and no high vantage points have put a lot of people at Barkley on ‘Quitters Road’, walking the slow walk back to camp to be tapped out.
Being on my feet for 50-60 hours will prove to be a bit of a challenge as well. The longest I have been out for one time is around 40 hours, while completing the Millwood 100, and that was with on a fairly established trail, with pacers along for the ride to keep me company. At Barkley, there will be no pacers, there will be few well traveled trails and there will be plenty of spots where a slight lapse in concentration and judgement could send me down the wrong ridge wondering where the heck I am. I can beat myself up to be prepared physically, I can ensure that I have high quality and dependable gear, I can train to use a map and compass in varying terrain and conditions, but I truly wonder if the 3 am wake up calls on 4 hours of sleep will be adequate to prepare myself for sleep deprivation.
All of this, of course, is dependent upon enough people ahead of me quickly coming to their senses, and dropping out. Without that bit of bad luck, I may never know if I have what it takes to be a Barker.
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The perfect beanie for high-output activities. While moving fast in windy, cold conditions it kept my head warm without feeling overheated. Slim enough to be layered under a helmet or hood without feeling bulky.
When paired with the Altra Lone Peak Neoshell trail running shoe, my feet have never stayed so dry and warm while on long runs in deep snow. The Stretch watergate fabric breathed well, and the double zipper pull made venting easy. A great winter gaiter.
While not a sub zero glove, these gloves were awesome for anything above that. Used extensively during high-output, long distance mountain runs, the X-Country gloves kept my hands warm, the leather palms didn’t wear out when used with trekking poles or scrambling on mixed rock/ice, and the breathable stretch fabric and liner kept my hands dry even during maximum output.
In order to begin a journey of training for yourself, we are giving away a set of Outdoor Designs gear!
***Editor Note – Since this article was written, Erik has received his letter of “condolences”, signifying his acceptance into the race this year – so all of the hard work will at least give him his chance to start at the yellow gate and put his training to the ultimate test at Barkley!