"Little dog, get over here,""Sorry you couldn't have suffered longer,""You think they're miserable, I can't even light a cigarette without them breaking in half." Just a few of the phrases in the air at the Frozen Head State Park Campground. That and "six seconds."
First off, you don't talk about Barkley. Thats the rule, so don't ask how or why I was there as a photographer. I have connections, and no you can't have them. If you are not familiar with Barkley, watch the Netflix documentary, that's the easiest way to find out more about this unique event. If not Netflix then check the Wikipedia article at least.
I want this post to reflect on some personal experiences and notes that I observed at the race and what the community around camp was like. The pieces I have written covering the event for publication talk more about the race and the dramatic finish which I will have posts about when they go live. But I want the community that is the Barkley to be highlighted and made noted.
First off, Laz is the same person as on the documentary. His wife is a super kind lady that is as invested into this event just as he is. Laz has a dog named "Little" who is protective over the yellow gate when around other dogs, it's pretty awesome. Also, the campground is nice, you should definitely go there, just not during Barkley. Spectators are somewhat shunned away from the area. If you don't have a purpose there, stay out and give the competitors space. Go to the fire tower to spectate, not the camp, please take that note.
In the down time between loop completion, camp is very quiet. If you happened to roll up to the camp you would never guess that some of the world's most elite runners were competing in an epic ultra just miles around there. When a runner rounds a corner about to check in at the gate the vibe changes very quickly. It goes from mellow camp vibes to a full on NASCAR pit stop. The seconds that a runner spends in camp can be very crucial; they can make or break the potential in finishing the next loop or making a time deadline. The longer the race goes the more intense these stops at camp get.
I caught some of the camp fun after loop one. If you notice in the photo, Henry, a runner from West Virginia (I think), has his feet over a fire to help them dry as much as they can before he begins the next loop. At one point in the race they have to fully submerge their feet into a creek to cross, enough water to make waterproof or fast drying socks or shoes inadequate. Most runners fully change gear and even packs when at camp so one set can dry out. The feeling of fresh clothes makes the next loop much more bearable.
During a stop at camp it was common to see soup broth, Little Debbie's, Honey Buns, cans of soup, pasta, and a lot of various calorie rich junk food being gulped down as quickly as possible. The runners bodies didn't care how bad the food was, they just wanted fuel. Gary Robbins, one of the superstars of this years event typically drank coffee just before taking off. The packs on their back consisted of tons of food, water, more food, a map and the pages from the books, and more food. Expect to run 20 miles and hopefully take 12 hours to do so with having to take all of your food when you left the gate. No support along the way.
When runners were not at camp, people would nap, shoot the bull, and relax around fires or go out for a short run/hike to the fire tower to maybe see the runners as they stop at the check point. No one is allowed on course, which only the runners know about. Even runners tapped out of the race are not to be on course.
There are two take homes concerning the camp environment. The first one is that being at Barkley, you are among some of the world's most elite level athletes. Professional ultra runners, world record holders, Mt. Everest summiteers, and a cumulative list of accomplishments that would humble the most elite in any field. You would never guess it without knowing the people, knowing their life at home, and knowing what they've done.
To talk to most competitors you would not know that they were an Everest summiteer, former Barkley winner, or a World Record Holder, they are quiet about that stuff. To just walk into camp you wouldn't know that these skinny, cut up, smelly, and worn out people were competing in what is arguably the worlds most difficult footrace. To stand around the fire at night and to hear the stories of weekend adventures, professional careers, and each other's future plans as if it was small talk over coffee is quite impressive. They are not there to boast; this is just a group of highly successful and accomplished professionals inside and outside the world of running. It's humbling and puts yourself into perspective to see what these people are accomplishing on an athletic front, while also obtaining massive success in a highly technical career field as well. It proves just because you are a dedicated career professional it does not mean that you can't run the Barkley. There are nearly 40 people every year that run the Barkley with full time, serious careers they go home to.
Second, this "race" isn't like most races. You are racing the clock, you want everyone to achieve as much as possible. You don't want failure. You don't want someone to quit. It happens and most do it with a smile because they know how extremely hard Barkley is. On loops 1-3 people are lighthearted with the support in comparison to loop 4-5. If you make it to loop 4 and have a chance of finishing the mood changes. It goes from everyone being supportive and encouraging to a deep sense of compassion, support and concern for those competing to finish. It's almost as if everyone there is a team member ready to drop and run to do what is needed for the remaining competitors. No one wants someone who has gotten that far to fail.
When you get to this point in the race everything becomes more fragile. The slightest mistake could mean the race is over. The concern of how the runners are at check points, how they are looking, weather, health, when they slept, what they've eaten and so much more matters on another scale now. The moments that lead up to the finish of loop 4 are nerve wracking, and exciting if they look as if they will have a strong chance to complete loop 5. When they come in from loop 5 the emotion is indescribable.
For John, who finished with 30 minutes left on the clock, family surrounding the gate, local boy who had dreamed of this, everyone was happy, and very proud. Smiles surrounded him as we all waited for Gary to come in. Time got shorter and shorter and there was no sign of him. Smiles turned to sadness as it looked as if he wouldn't complete it, but then he made it to camp with complete heartbreak. For Gary, who had a small mistake that landed him off course and 6 seconds over the 60 hour time limit didn't complete the race. The emotion was as if we had just seen a hero fall. As he laid on the pavement telling his story no one had a dry eye. Imagine a movie where the super hero dies in some heroic way. This was that times 1000, because it was real. He had it beat, but a slight mistake at the last 3% of the race cost him the ability to be a finisher. He said, " I understand," with a smile on his face when talking it out with Laz and knowing the grounds of disqualification.
It takes a strong group of people to be at this event, participate, and make this community what it is. Dedication has a different meaning with these people. Laz mentions in the documentary that you can't accomplish anything without the risk of failure. The higher the risk of failure the bigger the accomplishment. Everyone understands how big finishing Barkley is. Everyone knows what it means to finish. When you get as close as Gary does it's the most heart break the event can have. For John, finishing after a long time dream and growing up in these mountains is a beautiful story that everyone is proud of. Overall the heart of the ones invested into Barkley don't compare to that of any other group I have been around. There is a level of connection with this event that can't be recreated. It makes the Barkley what it is, which is a beautiful event that creates a family.