Race Report Barkley Marathons

As I write this I’m back in Belgium and I’ve had some time to reflect on the past two weeks. What a rollercoaster it has been! I was expecting much from this event, but the actual adventure surpassed all my hopes and expectations.

It started off by flying into Atlanta with my wife and after spending a night near the airport we drove our rental car to an AirBNB near Frozen Head State Park. A beautiful wooden house that the man had made entirely himself, which was a great way to get into our “American dream” state of mind again, where my wife and I love all those classic American places and habits.

On monday I ran the 30 kilometer tour around the park, all on trails as except for the race weekend no one is ever allowed to go off trail, so the Barkley Marathons can keep on taking place in the future. I did have a look to the left and the right side of the trails every now and then, where based on my reading of race reports I figured we had to get off trail and start bushbashing.

Running this loop was at the same time comforting and uncomforting. Comforting in a way that I immediately liked the park, as it is beautiful and so peaceful, and the trails are awesome as well. Uncomforting in a way that running on the trails didn’t feel like it helped anything towards a possible finish at the race, because 80% of the race happens off trail and that is where things get serious.

So the day after I spent some time on Stallion Mountain, walking on some jeep tracks and getting acquainted with that area a bit, and as it is outside of the Frozen Head State Park, down there you are allowed a bit of off-trail bushbashing. This was more comforting than the run from the day before, as the steepness seemed to be what I had been expecting and the terrain was what I had trained for and was comfortable with.

The next 3 days I took it easy and as the campground started filling up I finally got to meet some people who were involved with the race. My wife and I pitched our tent on Mike Dobey’s “League of Nations” campsite, where we shared the site with some other overseas runners.

It was also great to meet some of the historic people involved, of course Laz is one of them, but also Frozen Ed and Raw Dawg, who are all very interesting people and they have hours of stories to tell, Barkley and non-Barkley related.

Karel and ‘Frozen Ed’ Furtaw

On friday things got a bit more serious with the seeing of the Master Map somewhere around 4PM and receiving the race instructions. Laz had already warned us that the course was going to be very hard this year, but sligthly shorter. I had guessed one of his course changes quite well and as he was calling it a “compressed Barkley” I was feeling confident as I really like elevation change and I tend to be able to keep climbing with not much loss of power or speed.

By the end of friday I was quite stressed out, because I wanted a written down race plan for myself so I didn’t have to bother with maps during the course, because that would take a lot of time. Having both clockwise and counterclockwise loops this took a lot of work and it was quite some time past sunset when I was ready with this.

This written down race-plan consisted of instructions like: climb that ridge at a 120° bearing, then at the summit you hit the trail, follow it to the left for 500m, then at the junction go off trail at a 140° bearing and at the very top underneath the rock is book 4. This worked out very well and this way, despite being a Barkley virgin, I didn’t have to pull out my map unless like 2 or 3 times when I was in doubt.

I went to bed and even though I had the feeling the conch wouldn’t be blown until late in the morning, I did have a lot of difficulties to sleep. I knew that in the past people had finished the race without sleeping the night before the race as well, so I had the mindset of being OK not to sleep, and being happy with wathever sleep I could get. I reckon I slept about 2-3 hours in blocks of 30-40 minutes.

At 8.17AM Laz blew the conch, and at 9.17AM he lit the sigarette, and off we where. Of course my plan was to stay with a veteran, but I absolutely wanted to avoid blowing up on the first 2 ascents just because people get excited and start too fast. This was a good decision, but it also left me without a veteran to follow. I ran some of those first sections with Jamil, but after loosing sight of him for a minute, I made my first big navigational error.

I thought I was further along the course than I was and I thought I needed to backtrack, by climbing up this random mountain that was next to me. Within a few seconds of thinking I was off-course I was already powering up that mountain trying to get on the course again. It is never a good idea to start climbing mountains on ideas that you get in split seconds.

Once at the top, I was completely disoriented and could not figure out where I was anymore. I called out loud to see if someone was around but heard no responses. I then though I was going to be THAT guy who gets lost on loop one and gets back at camp 24 hours later with 4 pages. I sat down, took a deep breath and compared the two maps I was carrying. Then I found out about my mistake and managed to get back on the course and catched up with Jared, who I had left behind some time before because of his injury, but who had catched up in the time I was climbing that random mountain.

He showed me the location of the next book and helped me out on the water drop as well. It was so sad to see such a great athlete in pain and in the impossiblity of showing his true strength because of a stupid rolled ankle on the very first descent. I was quietly hoping to spend many hours with Jared hearing him out about all his amazing trips he has already done (apart from his successes at Barkley), but 2019 wasn’t going to be the year.

It was then time for mistake #2: powerhousing it to catch up on lost time. There was no reason to panick at that stage of the race but yet I felt that it was not good having lost that 30-40 minutes and I started catching up with the runners again and passing them one by one. This 5 hour effort stayed in my legs for the rest of the race, whereas if I would have kept my normal climbing pace, which is usually already quite a good pace, I would have had legs that were less sore.

Karel on Rat Jaw

Anyway, the rest of loop 1 was pretty uneventful and I gave Laz my 14 pages and met up with my crew that consisted of my wife Emma and my brother-in-law Joe (who crewed me the entire PCT and AT as well) who had everything ready. We took a bit longer than we hoped, as I was too focused on getting my feet dry as during a record attempt like the A.T. or P.C.T. this is crucial, but here it is better to let go of that and just go through the pain of minor trench feet on further loops, but saving time because of that.

I started loop 2 9h37 into the race and geared up for some adverse weather conditions. My UD FKT vest was stuffed with warm gear and it was strange to head out with so much gear, but I knew temperatures were going to drop massively and that after a day in the heat and the sun it would change into sleet and snow for the rest of the night.

I was very happy as only a few hours into the night I was wearing everything I was carrying with me: a thermal top, a sleeveless down jacket, another down jacket on top and a sturdy rain coat on top of that. On my legs were long thermal trousers and above that the UD Ultra Pants. I got through the loop without being very cold but it did take me quite some time because everything turned into very muddy slides and for example “Leonards Buttslide” was already a buttslide in dry conditions earlier that day. Going up Rat Jaw was like going up a slide with rollerblades.

I was partly running alone, partly with Greig the Kiwi. Our dynamic didn’t get very well at that time, as I was climbing quite a bit faster than Greig but he catched up because he was navigating more efficiently, but it was hard to just take it on together as we would be slowing eachother down. We got lost a bit after our descent from Stallion but I managed to correct our error, and I felt proud of that because it saved us time and I was able to help out the World Champion of Rogaining on an orienteering mistake.

I was shocked on how he hit the book on Little Hell spot on, as I thought we were only half way and I was ready to veer to the left and climb more. This saved a lot of time. By the time we reached Rat Jaw on loop 2 I started feeling a bit weaker as I hadn’t eaten that much as with the cold it was just uncomfortable to open packages and things like that. I let Greig go on ahead and was alone for the rest of loop 2.

We did a pretty quick interloopal and at 23:23:23 I was out on loop 3. I didn’t focus on the fact I only had half an hour of cushion, whereas for a real Barkley finish you need quite a bit more at that stage. I did hope to do a 10 hour loop so I could have 14.5 hours for the night-time loop 4.

Loop 3 was the first counter-clockwise loop and the rough night had made most people stop. The temperature had dropped from 25° during the day to -3° during the night, only in a few hours time! During loop 3 the weather was fine and a little on the hot side as I was wearing thermals because it was very cold when I started the loop.

Sleep deprivation got a little bit to me during the afternoon in the heat as when I was on the Mount Stallion section I forgot what I was doing there, it felt like I was just on a hike. Luckily I continued in the right direction and went on with my loop as planned.

I then catched up with Guillaume but he was having a hard time, and I let myself think negative a bit as well because of that. I thought we’d have no chance at a 4th loop and that if we would make it before the cutoff that it would be of no use to start loop 4. When we catched up with the leader at the time, Greig, I found my courage back and powered up the Meat Grinder, the most infamous new climb on the course.

I gained a lead on Greig and Guillaume and finished the loop with a minor navigation error going up to book 1. I got down to the yellow gate about 20 minutes before the loop 4 cutoff, with 2 minutes later Greig also arriving. We both kind of had the idea to not continue but luckily my crew remembered that I told them that whenever there was time I was obliged to go on with the next loop, despite it looking improbable to make it.

I felt re-energised with the whole crowd cheering for us and knowing we’d be the only 2 still out on the course, both Barkley virgins. After a few minutes I told Greig we needed to go faster to make the loop 5 cutoff and he told me he wasn’t able to, but that I should go ahead and go for it. I immediately picked up the pace and did a very fast climb of Chimney Top. On the top I realised that my brain wasn’t that cooperative anymore.

I took 15 minutes to find the easy to find book, and then I doubted to wait for Greig to descend to the Beech Tree and book 2 as this is the most difficult descent when it comes to navigation. Luckily I didn’t wait for him because as soon as I started running up the mountain he decided to turn back to camp and tap out (which I didn’t know at the time).

I ran down Big Hell and when I was down I realised I didn’t reach the Beech Tree as planned. I was either upstream or downstream from it. I checked my compass and the direction of the stream and decided I was upstream. I went downstream over the very rough terrain with rocks and fallen trees for about 40 minutes but didn’t arrive at the Beech Tree. I kept going on though because all the time when I was considering to go upstream I thought: “But what if it was just another minute!?” . I then realised I must’ve been downstream from the book so I backtracked all the way and went upstream. Still, nothing made sense and I saw cliffs next to the stream that I hadn’t seen before. After 2 hours of bushbashing around the area I realised there was definitely no time to finish the loop in time.

It was a sad way to end because I would have preferred to finish the loop out of time than to go back to camp just like that. But I still hadn’t found the book so I went back up Big Hell and Chimney Top and went back to camp. I was completely disoriented at the top of Chimney Top as well and spent 20 minutes there not knowing at which capstone I was and thinking my compass had depolarised and that N had become S. I went back to camp and about 6 hours after leaving for loop 2 I got tapped out.

I had mixed feelings because I did really well as a virgin, navigating most of the course myself, but I still had a lot left and was sad that I couldn’t show what I still had inside of me. I was the last man standing though and I have learned a lot for a possible future participation.

I want to thank Joe and my wife for their great crewing, yet again, and Laz and the gang for putting up such a great event. I have met so many nice people and will remember this week for a long time! I hope to finish this unfinished business one day. For now, I’ll take some time off as this event came pretty close after the big project that running the A.T. was and I feel like it’s time for me and my wife to have a bit less running in our lives for a few months at least.

Thank you everybody for the enormous support and I hope to make it to 5 loops the next time!


Karel Sabbe and Gary 'Lazarus Lake' Cantrell

Karel and Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell