“This isn’t what I trained for,” I muttered to myself. I reflected on endless hours postholing, on wrecking myself physically, day after day all winter long, in the endeavor to push my physical limits as far as I could. Instead of pushing, I was slowly schwacking back to a patch of trail following misconstrued instructions on a slightly mismarked map.
The ‘course’ would be impossible to navigate without prior course knowledge, as a ‘Barkley virgin’ (new to the race) runner, and alone for the first time. After losing precious time and putting space between “vets” and myself, I recognized that I was a leech. I was required to be a leech. I had to back off what my body desperately wanted to do and learn the course, slowly, with the closest vet to me. Moss was everywhere, encroaching the trunks of trees, decaying the rotting woods we trod through.
Moss on trees, lichen on stone. The only colors to thrive in an un-woken spring forest.
I thought of how I was like the moss, a parasitic fungi. I didn’t have much to offer a vet besides the brownies in my pack. I chose to follow the closest vet that I knew couldn’t drop me. I gave her distance. I loathed that I couldn’t survive on my own. I am a dreamer to a fault—an idealist. I bitterly accepted that I was limited from even attempting to pursue dreams, and I tried to balance following at a distance, taking notes, and figuring out what I was doing on various life levels I couldn’t avoid reflecting on.
We formed a team, Heather and I. Out on loop 2. I still didn’t have much to offer. I knew I had overshot the first book in the dark, and I chose to wait for her and ask if she’d allow me to team up with her. I knew she’d appreciate company through the night and an extra set of eyes. I could try to push her pace, to pick the lines uphill, or to use tracking to find where we’d been before to pinpoint a book in the dark. Still, the skills I could offer as a virgin were minimal at best and my forward progress was completely dependent on her.
So maybe moss isn’t parasitic. It doesn’t steal from the trees it grows on, it is a single cell organism utilizing light and water not from the tree, but from the world around it. Like lichen, it still requires a place to grow from… and the circumstances, though grim, which encourage its growth… I started looking at the moss with more fondness that night. It soothed me, seeing something so green, so alive, perhaps even thriving, in the grim Tennessee woods.
I am unsure on if my presence discouraged or encouraged Heather. I will treasure the friendship forged, and only those who have been “out there” can truly understand what I mean when I say I couldn’t have done any of it without her.
Barkley is much like doing a Braille crossword puzzle while running, and only the vets have a Braille alphabet card. This leaves the newbie’s (virgins) to hopelessly follow them around, shouting, “Hey, hey, 4 down, does it start with B? Really though, what’d you get for 9 across?”
I didn’t go out there to quit, and despite my outrage and entire lack of patience, I decided to stick with Heather and to do what I could. She’d tell me, “You need to be with someone faster than I,” to which I had no comment. Then she’d say, “You should just take off, you don’t need to keep waiting for me.” I’d respond, “We both know if I took off right now I’d be lost in an hour and asleep in my emergency blanket…” to which she had no response.
Facts don’t elicit a response.
Halfway through loop 2 the sun had risen. Simple math was that it’d take 7:30 to finish the loop (it’d taken nearly 7:20 from that point on loop 1) and we had less than 6 hours on the clock. I kept asking Heather what her plans were, as I tried to assess how long I personally wanted to continue in what appeared to be a hopeless situation.
She finally encouraged me to continue on. I tried to argue, there isn’t enough time, I stated, I can’t navigate two of the trickier descents alone. She encouraged me to put faith in my navigation. It was the look she gave me when she told me, “YOU still have a chance.” The look told me – You have the speed, take the chance.
And it dawned on me. Maybe I hadn’t trained to have my mind abused on a non-sensical course. But I had trained to run steep vert, and to run it hard. I did have a chance, a chance to at least start a third loop, a chance that thousands of applicants wanted, a chance that every person who started the race wanted, a chance that Heather, whom had been so patient and giving of herself to me, wanted. Who was I to not try?
So I took off. I wore my compass as a necklace and held it in front of me as I ran. I ran every uphill, I ran up an empty Rat Jaw. I ran every briar-filled hill. I yelled at myself with pep talks, I tried to recall all the long training days. I had to run that section an hour and a half faster than I had previously done it – and that was with fresh legs and an incredible navigator (Heather) guiding me. I had to do it fast and alone.
I knew my chances of finishing loop 2 before the time cut-off were minimal—but I knew that if I finished 10 minutes after the cut-off having given every ounce of myself I’d have at least done what I came to Barkley to do—to give all I had to give.
I was fueled by flawless navigation. Maybe the trail gnomes guided me, maybe it was luck or chance or fate. The more the navigation was nailed the harder I pushed physically. I reached Rat Jaw 2 minutes over my “time cut-off.” I darted down to the prison right on time. I hit the beech tree 5 minutes early, then Chimney Top 5 minutes late. I tried to convince other runners to push it in with me, saying they’d regret not trying to be an official two-loop finisher. Mig, from France, hearkened my encouragement and pushed himself in 2 minutes before the cut-off, radiant.
As I ran up the road, knowing I’d have 10 minutes to spare, I beamed. I saw Heather sitting in her car, and thanked her. I wanted to stop and hug her, but I didn’t want to cry, and I knew I had to keep going.
Chelsea and DJ washed and lubed my feet, changed my socks and shoes, repacked my vest. Terry ran up the road with a lit stove and boiling water in hand to make me mashed potatoes that Mindy fed me as I changed. Several runners and crews surrounded me and made an amazing pit crew- I changed, ate 1500 calories (candy, a Gnarly Nutrition protein shake, egg sandwich,) and packed in minutes. Recharged, I left the gate with only 15 seconds to spare.
Sunrays have a way of shifting my perspective. Although it was afternoon, the gleams of sun were honey-colored as they glinted between leafless branches. I was calm, satisfied. Moss is, perhaps, the most sated plant.
I got lost going down Big Hell, and I chuckled remembering Heather’s story of spending hours going down the same section the year prior. I pulled out my compass and set my bearing—unfortunately in my sleepiness I set a bearing for a different hill, and I trotted off even further in the wrong direction. Remaining navigational sense let me identify that I was at an incorrect stream not too far along and got myself back on track… but I had lost at least one precious hour, probably more. I knew with the threat of night, and the daunting task of solo nighttime navigation alone, and in reverse, I did not have even an hour to spare.
Later I wasted time trying to remember what right and left were, and after spending 15 minutes trying to figure out how to get on the left side of the right stream, and being unable (I had been out of water for hours and hadn’t eaten since a few hours before that,) I decided to stop using my mushy brain and to start following only my bearing, which led me exactly to the book. I felt exhilarated. I knew I was 90 minutes behind where I needed to be. I decided to take my time and continue forward a few more books, and to get to Rat Jaw before the sun set to watch the colors from a high point before taking a candy-ass trail to claim my failure.
Friends were excited to see me at Rat Jaw. I was done, I knew I didn’t have enough time or light (I had borrowed a dim light from the persevering Kimberly who I had seen earlier finishing her first loop—she was part of a team of 3 that perhaps showed the greatest fight of all the starters—they finished loop 1 in 32 hours, and no one starts the race carrying enough food ,water, and fight for 32 hours.)
I handed Laz my pages with excitement. I was supposed to be sad when I was tapped out. Runners looked forlorn when they tapped out, some even teared up, emotional with the “failure.”
I beamed. I couldn’t stop smiling. I’ve never been so happy with a failure before. I “timed out” again and again, and I kept going. I spent 16 hours so frustrated I wanted to scream, and I kept going. I navigated 12 books alone. I ran as hard as I could run for nearly 6 hours. I had given the fight I had gone to give.
You know what? My fight wasn’t enough. Only one man’s fight was enough…
…to finish, that is. Because “failure” and “not enough” are the words Laz uses to make us bring the best versions of ourselves forward. I’ve never had a mental fight like that. The things I witnessed other people do—there aren’t words to explain. The small acts of kindness… the grand acts in human will… I’d never before witnessed, nor will I forget.
Moss is simple. Colorful. It is life in dark places. I wasn’t the only piece of moss, we all were, and we were all flourishing in a part of the forest more vast than we were, or would ever be. Each Barker grew and thrived in the simple acts of living, pushing ourselves, paying respect to those before us, discovering our limits, and continuing past them. There is something beautiful about that.
Thanks to DJ and Chelsea who flew across the country to take care of me. In so many ways, they take care of me, and I appreciate it. The support at camp from vets and crews alike—thank you. Those like Brad, Terry, Mindy, Heather, Leon, Jason, Ty, Ed, Erik, Billy, and Jared whom all took time in various ways to assist and encourage me out there—thank you. Thank you to my parents and sisters who kept tabs on me and followed the race with such enthusiasm and pride- I felt your love and support.
Also thanks Canice at Park City Running Co (my boss-man) for loving and accepting me as me and encouraging me in my dreams—it is a rare and wonderful to thing to have a boss as a friend.
Thanks to sponsors La Sportiva and Gnarly Nutrition-I know I’m not a traditional athlete, I have a difficult time talking to people (ok, so I tried to hide from the media out there) and I appreciate your patience with me and your support in pursuing my dreams, whatever they may be, with the highest quality products, and from companies who truly care about the people and the sport.
light catches between the trees.
we start together, up the trail
passing paint-stained trees and fading
footpaths. we start together,
before the trails dissolve.
books are burned into memory,
books are shredded into chest pockets.
the crunch of leaves beat to the sound
of a compass bearing.
it is human spirit versus a course. it is
human will whittled.
the naïve heart open
to loving the rugged
places that have not
the heart to love back.
beauty is in loving the unlovable,
when the mind and body
are, with will,
lost. for hours, we are lost.
shameless steps are not for the brave.
the deadfall shatters below our feet.
we fall off of limestone cliffs,
mutes our sound.
the brush mutes
our injury. sweat is
caught as paste
on dirty skin.
there is nothing to do but carry on.
when our time comes,
our clock stops,
the bugle plays.
we beam or cry.
we came up short,
so we wait at the hand of those
who continue on.
it was never for us
to quit. we cannot quit
another’s race. so we braid
the human will together,
we tow together hope,
because we know that human failure
precedes the might
of human accomplishment.
we know that witnessing the impossible
teaches us that
we are all
there is nothing to do but carry on.
Cover PC John Price