The 2019 Barkley Marathons

I have wanted to do the Barkley Marathons ever since meeting Jon Barker while running the 2012 Dragon's Back Race. Jon (a Brit living in Georgia, US) had attempted the Barkley twice when I met him and completed 2 loops, then a Fun Run which is three loops. However farming was too busy for me to get away in springtime and also I didn't think I could deal with the sleep deprivation and length of course (five loops of 24 miles) until I had done the Double Ramsay in 2018.

The entry process is secret (so don't ask me) but I managed to get an entry by Jan 2019 and so it was a bit late to start training! I had kept up my training but what with a holiday to Argentina, Christmas and getting flu I wasn't overly convinced I was fit enough. However I rarely think I'm fit enough and yet have achieved some huge challenges. I tried to find out as much as I could about the route, kit, mishaps etc and prepared as well as I could.

I was in contact with Jon Barker a lot for advice and logistics information but managed to miss the best direct flights from Manchester to Atlanta by delaying my booking too long. So through Dialaflight we flew via JFK to Atlanta with Virgin/Delta. Jon recommended going Premium and so that's what I did. On the outgoing flight it was amazing but the return was more like normal service! We flew out with Matt and Ellie from Summit Fever Media who are making a film of my Barkley attempt supported by Two of our bags had missed our flight and so we waited at the airport for them with Jon Barker. Arriving at Jon's house in Big Canoe, Georgia around 10pm we were ready for a beer and then bed!

The next day we spent sorting kit and food with Jon and Diane (Jon's wife). Di made up my pasta, sausages and bean casserole which was lovely of her. Matt and Ellie collected our Cargo van around 3pm, loaded it all up and then set off for Frozen Head State park as they were booked on the Prison Tour at 9am the next morning. We headed out for tea and then fairly early to bed and although I wasn't sleeping well I felt rested the next day.

I had decided to wear the - Graphene Mudclaws as in all the photos and route descriptions that I had found, the route looked very slippery and steep. I have been very impressed with the grip and the comfort of the Mudclaws over the last year. I also tested and tried the new Race Ultra pro 2in1 vest - I was very pleased with the fit and the pockets and so wore that for all my training runs and then for the Barkley. I loved the secure zip up pocket where I put my Barkley pages in a plastic bag; it was ones of my main worries that I would lose a page and not even be counted one loop. I also intended to take the Protec shell Waterproof Jacket as I had read that the weather can be wet and cold in Frozen Head State Park (how right that proved to be!).

The other main items that I used were Alpkit's Rhythm Cycling Gloves because I saw many people using similar - I imagined it was to protect your hands from the briars. On the changeovers I needed a warm jacket so I used the Alpkit Katabatic jacket. The other item I decided I wanted were Orienteering Vapro OLP Gaiters  from Ian at Ultrasport was very helpful and sent the gaiters out immediately. Again I saw that lots of runners wore compression socks but talking to orienteers in the UK everyone recommended gaiters. I've been using poles for many years now on 100 mile races and have found the Leki Micro Vario Carbon to be light and strong so I took those along with the Alpkit Marathon Ultra Compact Poles

It was a leisurely drive to Frozen Head State park where we met up with Matt, Ellie and also Pavel Paloncy who was also doing the Barkley this year. Lots of runners and support were mulling about waiting for Registration. I spoke to Billy Reed from Ireland - who I had been messaging and looked for any prospective Veteran that might be might be my pace! Registration opened about 3pm and I was one of the first to meet Laz and present him with my number plate - M29 EAT which had come off a landrover we had owned about 10 years ago. Laz laughed at the MEAT bit which was nice. The map came out about 5pm and there was a mad rush to get the individual maps marked up. I spent ages marking the maps up and reading instructions but in hindsight could have done it a lot more efficiently! Not knowing when Laz might blow the conch it was 9pm bed in the cargo van for me. Steve came into the van as well and he soon fell asleep. But not me. I listened to campsite noises and thought about everything else in an attempt to relax. I did sleep a little in the end and was surprised when it was 7am. I went for a shower and had breakfast. Still no conch. Then at 8.18am Laz blew the conch. The next hour went very quickly but I was ready for the off.

It was very warm in the campsite - about 60F so about 15C so I went with a Dri Release Tee and my favourite Enso sport skirt. I packed a long sleeved thermal teeshirt and the Protec shell waterproof. I had loads of food - the usual Tunnock bars, Brunch bars, sweets and then noodles and gels. It was hard to know how much I was going to eat over about 24 miles and 4800m climb. And then we were all lined up at the Yellow Gate and the cigarette was lit. We were off !! Jon had said most people walk to start with but everyone was running, and running fast! It felt so wrong to be running uphill at the beginning of an Ultra but I remembered the pace at the start of the Ultra Tour of Monta Rosa and just thought I'd have to go with it for a bit. I very soon felt I was at the back of the field and Billy was right behind me. But I needed to slow down. A few ladies had passed me and spoke to me - Maggie Guteral and Stephanie Case that had done it last year. I tried to keep them in my sights. Approaching the end of the first climb I looked up and saw Pavel going left, I reached the spot and everyone else was going right - so I went right. We crashed through the trees and undergrowth and all of a sudden we were there - at the first book. To me it looked like anywhere in the middle of the forest. But I took my page in turn and got my compass out. Steph said "Oh we went right here a bit" and took off. The pace was so fast that I thought I'd stick with her and use my compass as well. Down this hillside covered in trees, fallen trees and rocks we went. The Graphene shoes were amazing and I then found the descending pace nice and comfortable as everyone else was sliding around in their trail shoes. Another man seemed to know exactly where he was going and without a map or compass just headed down and across streams. We were heading in roughly the direction I would have gone. Billy was still around but the rest of the field were now either miles in front or behind. It was much warmer than I had imagined and I was drinking a lot. From now on Billy and I stuck to Stephanie and the other man - Michael. We climbed up to Book 2 and then Michael stopped for food on the descent. I turned round to see him heading back up the hill - then he turned down again and caught us back up. "I've left my poles" he said. "But I will manage without them". He soon broke some sticks up though as the climbs were too steep and the descents too slippery not to have poles. When the descents were very rough we grabbed trees to stop us tumbling down - I was glad of my Alpkit gloves. The gaiters too were a godsend. The briars were at low level mainly and would have been shredding my legs otherwise. I was way too hot and had drunk all my litre of water but we passed many streams and me and Billy filled up constantly. I was worried about the fast pace but I think it felt fast because of the heat so I ate as much as I could to keep my energy levels up. I learnt afterwards the temperature was 70F/20C and humid.

The rest of the day went well. Stephanie and Michael found the books accurately while me and Billy made useful comments and tried to remember the route for the next time. I was glad when we reached the water drop and we all drank and filled our bottles up. From there we were on a few tracks that weren't marked on the map which was a pleasant surprise. The Butt slide wasn't too bad being dry and it was nice to see and chat to people coming back up it. I was feeling happier being half way ish round one loop and the legs and body were strong. We met up with Maggie Guteral and Gus (I think) and Stephanie told them she was having a great day so I was pleased that hopefully I was contributing to this! It really felt odd following and not knowing my own way as on all my rounds I have always reccied and had a good idea of my whereabouts and the route I'm taking.

We then had a long descent and a new book to find so with a bigger group the more eyes and brains were honed. Michael deciphered the instructions perfectly in the end though to find the new book. Time had been ticking on and I think we all knew it would be touch and go to make it back in 12 hours now. There were four big climbs still to do - the next one being the famous Rat Jaw up to the look out tower. With the briars mown in a haphazard fashion this was apparently better than normal but it was still horrid. Jared Campbell was hobbling down and he explained that he had twisted his ankle - it looked rather big and swollen. I shock his hand and he hugged Stephanie (I nearly asked for a hug too but chickened out!). Onwards we climbed.  The ground was dry and so we were getting grip ascending - especially me in my Mudclaws! I felt sorry for Michael using branches as poles though and said I had some spare  Alpkit poles back at camp he could use on the next loop. We all reached the top and it was book first then drinks as again we were all parched. It was odd but nice to see people up there - especially Matt and Ellie!!

Down Rat Jaw all the way to the bottom and the even more famous prison. It was an experience (mostly dark!) going through the tunnel with only a shaft of light and Steph's silhouette to guide me through. Another book and now only two climbs to go. The next one was I thought the worse of them all. Maybe it was because it was hot and humid but it just seemed to go on forever. I can't remember it all as I've blocked it out of my memory but I know I was glad to reach the top. It was a tricky book to find also but in daylight with four of us scattered about we soon located it. Not an easy one in the dark we all agreed. Straight down again through the forest to a stream and a trail apparently. One more book located and now the last climb to the last book. Now I kept wondering whether Steph would allow me to go round on the second loop with her. I thought for ages about how to bring the subject about and eventually on the descent to the camp I asked whether she was going out again (which I was 100% sure she was!) - and then asked would she mind if I came with her. She replied of course not - I'd like the company. We then turned to Billy and asked him if he's like to come out with us again. He replied and yes and so we said we would be ready when Steph was. She said 20 minutes so that we would leave before 12 hours was up. Michael also was up for another loop and so it was a merry team that ran up to the Yellow Gate and handed our pages over to Laz. This was a tense moment for me because even though I had carefully folded and put them all away - I was just worried I had dropped one somehow. But no they were all there and Laz said "very well kept too".

I ran down to our camping location and got ready to eat lots as I was starving. Everything tasted great - beans, sausages, tea, coffee, pasta. I added more food to my rucksack and took more noodles too. I changed a teeshirt and took an extra thermal. The forecast was for showers to move through quickly and as I had 3/4's, hats and gloves I thought I would be fine with my extra thermal and my Protec shell waterproof. Michael's support came and borrowed the Alpkit poles. I was heading up to the gate in 15 minutes as I didn't want to miss Steph. She was just checking out and Laz shouted at her for coming round my side of the gate to hug me! Oops! I hurriedly put my cup and past down and got my new number - 119 this time. Billy was just arriving and Michael was already through the gate. As we walked off we all felt strong and happy. Billy was still in his shorts too and we discussed how warm it was compared to the UK.

Back up the zig zags we went at a strong and consistent pace. Michael however was struggling and said all he's had in camp was a beer to settle his stomach! He told us to go on and although it meant we would sorely miss his navigational experience we had to go on. Nearing the top we entered the famous "Barkley Fog". It was unlike the clag we have in the UK. It didn't seem so thick but it clung to you, swirling around making visibility poor. I was starting to feel chilly and wanted to put my 3/4's on but didn't want to stop. We arrived at Book 1 and there were lights behind us - another runner but not Michael like we'd hoped. He asked if he could run with us and we said yes. While this chat was going on I quickly got my 3/4's over my shoes and gaiters and pulled up over my Enso skirt. That felt way better.

Now off down the descent. Already the rain had made it slippery and also the fog meant that instead of finding good ground we just seemed to find the worst ground possible. Discussing the descent and using the compasses we slowly made it down. Immediately I knew that unless conditions improved there was no way we would make it round this loop as fast as the first loop. But the weather forecast had said one band of showers passing through so I was hopeful as we all looked and felt strong. It started raining really hard and we decided to put the waterproofs on. I also put my Long sleeve mid layer on as I prefer to keep adding layers than take one off to add another. I was snuggly then for a while!

As we bashed up Jury Ridge the wind got colder and when we reached the trail the new runner turned right and said "I'm heading back". We were amazed. He was climbing well and didn't look in trouble or anything. After he had gone we ate some food and Steph suddenly said "We're not quitters, are we?". Me and Billy reassured her we didn't want to quit. She explained that even if we didn't make it back in time on Loop 2 that we shouldn't quit , that "Timed out" was better than "Quit". But she didn't need to explain - I had already decided that unless it was dangerous or we were so over time that people in camp would be worrying - that I wouldn't quit.

So on we went. At Book 3 we were all soaked and very cold. The rain had just worked its way into our clothes and the constant falling into bogs and streams (that had been dry on Loop 1 but were now gushing ) constantly soaked us. I wouldn't have believed the terrain underfoot could change so quickly from something my Mudclaws would grip easily on to something nothing could hold on as the ground just slipped from underneath you. I was a lot better off than Stephanie and Billy - Billy having changed from Mudclaws to trail shoes as his feet were sore! There was no getting round the situation though - very quickly I had gone from cold to completely frozen. We stopped and put everything on - so that was another hat, two pairs of gloves and a buff for me. I wished I had some Scottish winter clothes with me - "Oh well - I was just going to have to eat more and jog to stay warm" - so that's what I did. I stomped my feet and waved my arms around, clenching and unclenching my hands in an attempt to warm them up. This worked for a while but every time we had a little delay they would freeze up again. I ate all my easy to get to and into food like gels and Tunnock bars (never have I been so glad they have a flimsy wrapper on them) but just couldn't get my hands to undo any Brunch bars.

As we climbed to the Garden spot the rain (and now it had been raining for four hours) turned to sleet. We saw a head torch coming towards us. The runner reached us (Gareth from South Africa - still out on his first loop!) and asked if this was the way to the campsite. Stephanie replied "No, you have to come with us and I'll point you down the Quitters road" as it's called. We all plodded up with me stomping and waving. Gareth had usable hands though so we all asked him to get our food out and open it.

I think the same thing was going through all our minds. We could quit and head down to warm showers and hot food. I was honestly worried about how near to hypothermia I was. I knew that if we stopped for more than 15 minutes I would be shivering and it would take me ages to warm back up again. Reaching the jeep track I thought I can't say it though. Steph had given us so much help on Loop 1 and to leave her on her own now would be wrong. I thought about asking Gareth for any spare clothes but then heard him say all his clothes were soaked. Steph then stopped and said "I've got be honest guys, I'm really struggling" I immediately said "I am too" and Billy agreed with us. It was unanimously decided "We should all head down Quitters Road and quit". We decided to go to the next book and get our page and then head down the Jeep road. We got to the Book and tore our pages out. After all the time we had been 100% spot on with our navigation, now we ran round in stupid circles trying to find our way back to the Jeep road. This is what we could have been like for hours had we carried on I thought. All of us weren't concentrating anymore because the cold had penetrated into our brains.

We found the Jeep road eventually and headed down it. Looking at the map it was still going to be four miles down to the campsite. We tried running to get warm but there seemed to be more up than down. More track junctions which weren't on the map meant more delays stopping to navigate. We chatted away though in between though and generally cheered up a little. Surprisingly even though we were running (jogging) downhill none of us warmed up at all. The sleet had turned to snow though! What must the temperature have been then?!

Eventually we spotted lights and the camp. Running down we were approaching the gate from the wrong way. Laz saw us and said "Who's that?". Steph replied and Laz was genuinely disappointed as he said we all looked so strong leaving camp for Loop 2. As soon as we stopped I started to shiver and when I shook Laz's hand he said he couldn't feel anything living in my gloves. I think he was right. We then stood as we were all "tapped out" by the bugle. Four times he played his sorrowful tune.

Off to our respective camps we went - me, Billy, Steph and Gareth. It had been an incredible experience. It was about 6am in the morning so we'd been out there together all that time and had had some brilliant, fun times then suffered some very hard, cold ones too. I would love to be back out on the Barkley with Steph and Billy but on leaving for Loop 2 we would all check with each other  "Have you got some winter clothes with you?" "Good, then let's do this"


More photos taken by myself, Steve Burgess, Matt and Ellie Green of Summit Media Fever/Inov-8 - Barkley 2019 Gallery