I woke up frozen. I was shivering and unaware of how long I’d been out.
Where was I? I couldn’t move or feel my feet. Everything was soaked. My clothing, the ground, the air itself. As I turned on my headlamp to look out from where I lay, a dense fog permeated the the beam of light piercing through the eerie night. Was this a dream? If I just closed my eyes would I wake up?
No. This wasn’t a dream…. but a living nightmare. I was losing my mind and sleeping away loop 4 of the Barkley Marathons. I was defeated and huddled under a large overhanging boulder that was providing a meager amount of shelter from the rain and cold moving in on me like tidal waves.
In the previous 3 hours I had moved a scant 1/2 mile and yet to collect my 3rd page from the top of Indian Knob. I simply couldn’t stay awake and alternated from napping while laying against a tree, sitting down to snooze, to just plain falling asleep face down on rocks… all the while the skies rained down upon me. I simply didn’t care and couldn’t pull myself together mentally to get up this climb.
Rewind another five hours and I had left camp around 10:00pm. I had completed my second consecutive Barkley Fun Run, this one 7 hours faster than last year and I had a 90 minute buffer before the 36 hour cutoff by the time I left camp for loop 4. I was fired up and ready to go after the full 5 loops. I was a man on a mission. I bolted out of camp at a jogging pace, into new territory. I was the lone wolf taking on the much respected and feared loop 4. A place only few have seen but many have lost their mind. Many 5 loopers have said that loop 4 is the crux. Going through the second night with no sleep leaves the mind vulnerable and primed for error. I didn’t think much about this as I headed up the first climb up over Rough Ridge. I was alert, hiking strong, even running the flatter sections of trail. I had sweet caffeine running through my veins and I was ready to unleash my “late in the game ultra surge” on the Barkley. After all, I’ve had a string of great comebacks in my ultra career and this could be my finest yet…
Heading up towards Chimney Top, I crested the ridge where we make the final ascent up to the Capstones and was met with a ferocious wind howling and ripping through the trees. I knew rain was in the forecast, but this was sending fears of last year’s challenging weather all the way through my bones. I had been enjoying the dry course and now feared for the worst. A 4th loop mud slog would not help me now. I almost missed the turn to the first book, but recognized my mistake 10 feet past the trail. I made my way across the ridge top and ripped out my first page of loop 4 and taking my bearing, headed down towards the Birch Tree. There was no turning back now – in my mind I was committed to Loop 4 at this point. I wanted to just be efficient and nail my navigation of this section, one of the most difficult on the course (the nighttime reverse loop 4 is historically difficult for the few that reach this point). Terrain is less familiar, and the way ridges fan out going down hill, if you pick the wrong one in dark, you may end up a half mile from your intended point.
I knew at some point going down Big Hell I’d have to veer left onto one of the long finger ridges in order to hit the correct confluence of streams where I would find book 2 in this direction. I lost some time here since I didn’t quite have a gauge of where to turn left (I didn’t have a discernible landmark in my mind, but still found the book without wandering around too much. I reached book 2 right around midnight and felt like I probably lost some time here. I was a little hard on myself and let the small mistake get to me mentally. I tore out my page and knew I had to cross the stream above the confluence and then find the old jeep trail. I stuck a little too close to the river at first, but then found a small narrow path that led to a wider trail that began to climb. I went over a couple of downed trees and was on a very clear path.
Then things started to get weird. I was climbing steeply now and the “jeep road” was now very narrow. The river was now a hundred feet or more below me to the right. This didn’t seem right. I seemed to be WAY above the river and there were thundering waterfalls below me. But I had only been going a few minutes up the trail past the confluence. I had recalled from loop 1 (descending down this way from the opposite direction) that I had chosen a path too high and I ended up seeing the Abbs & company way down below me. I thought I was somehow back on that path and no longer on the jeep trail. I though the jeep trail paralleled the river and that meant I was definitely off path. The flow of water also just seemed too great. Had I already reached the “waterfalls” which were a sure sign that I should have turned off on a side stream then I should be making my way directly up hill. I was now full on second guessing myself although I had most definitely crossed the stream at the right spot after the 2nd book and then found the correct “jeep road” almost immediately. My mind was tricking me. Barkley was doing what it does best.
I pulled out my map and compass and this only further confused me. I now believed I may not even be following the correct stream. I could be anywhere in this giant dark bowl. I decided to back track. I went all the way down to the river confluence at book 2 and then up again to where the jeep trail crosses the creek above the confluence – the part where we aren’t supposed to go because it was much easier than the “correct” route. I now knew I had to be on the right path (which I was on the entire time). I again went up and the trail again steeply climbed WAY above the stream below. As I went higher I again looked down to see thundering waterfalls. I simply don’t remember ever seeing these before this low down on the trail. I had confirmed I was on track but now I didn’t know how high to go before cutting across the stream. I began to doubt I was even on the right stream again. Maybe I had taking another confluence. No I just double checked myself. My mind was wasting away. How would I ever climb up the right slope and how would I find the top of Indian Knob? It was pitch black and I knew it would start to rain soon. I recognized now how tired I was. I sat down for a minute and set a watch alarm for 10 minutes. I would try to clear my head. I nodded off and when I heard my alarm, I “snoozed” it. But it didn’t go off again. I woke up 45 minutes later. Shit.
Time I couldn’t afford to lose. I didn’t feel any more alert or that I knew any better if I really was on track. I don’t quite recall if I napped again here or if I pressed on. Eventually I though I reached the correct spot to cross the creek since the jeep road had now come back close to the water at a higher elevation. I vaguely recognized a part of the creek where I could easily rock hop and thought I saw a familiar “trail” or set of footprints. It was here that it started to rain.
It was light at first but I pulled out my rain jacket. Then I laid down. I was sleepy still. Just a few minutes. I woke up to rain coming down and I was soaked. I don’t know how long I slept, but I stumbled to my feet and began climbing. I knew I had to go up and I then confirmed I had crossed the stream at the proper spot. I just need to follow my bearing and I would make it to the top of Indian Knob and be able to find book 3. But I was so tired. I lay face down on a rock. It was raining. I didn’t care. I was warm from the effort of climbing and already soaked. I slept for some time until my body heat dispersed. I stumbled to my feet again and repeated this process until the fog began to roll in and I reached the small trail that traverses across below the Indian Knob capstones. I made my way over but the cold and sleepiness would not relinquish their grip. I succumbed to their immense pressure and found a nice overhanging rock to get out of the cold. It was here I fell into a deep sleep curled up on the cold damp earth. When I awoke my feet were frozen and the fog of defeat had closed in around me. Now in survival mode and desperate to get warm, I pulled out my space blanket and wrapped it tightly around myself hoping for the best. The next thing I remember is waking up to the light of the morning and my loop 4 failure. I knew instantly it was over. The Barkley had won.