Barkley Ultra 2011: Squashing You Like a Bug

Meeting the Group of 7, finding Conch shells in Tennessee, searching for a Pig’s head, eating more Chinese Buffets than a Beijing native, sleeping at the home of “the bomb,” Oak Ridge . . . read this delightfully engaging, funny, and engineering-precise tour of the 2011 Barkley as told by traveling ultra-envoy, Al Holtz.

At Frozen Head State Park I witnessed Brett Mauvre’s fifth loop completion in about 57.5 hours. Neither a 1:07 a.m. start—earliest ever—hail, snow, rain, heat or a surprise course adjustment caused by an out-of-control wild-fire kept Mauvre, a Barkley virgin, from completing his task. Amazing.

The sawbriers—(their pain is thought to be a remnant of Adam-and-Eve’s travails. ED)—on Rat Jaw were over six feet tall; I don’t think anyone traveled up and down that mountain under the power lines through those briars like the course instructions demanded.

“The Barkley will squash you like a bug where your best is not good enough.” These words from Cantrell ring very true to most Barkley runners. They certainly are reality for me. More than any other race, the Barkley will challenge limits on every imaginable level.

By creating a race with a measly one percent finish rate, Cantrell has truly provided a magical test of nearly everyone’s ability where personal victories can be defined in small increments.

This year, coming off a one year hiatus, I hoped to complete three loops termed a “fun run.” My first two attempts of the Barkley ended in overtime after one loop. Loops are time as follows: for three loops it is a 13:20 time limit per loop; I finished one in 16.

The other was for 3 loops at a 12 hour limit per loop for a five-loop goal, which would be a complete race if I had made it that far. Getting lost accounts for too much time. My third attempt enjoyed the benefit of the navigational wisdom of racer Leonard Martin. Until striking out on my own down the section name Zipline on loop two, I was on target for a “decision” regarding a nighttime counterclockwise loop 3.

Navigation is a serious personal challenge. My Barkley history is one of being barely fast enough and needing near perfect navigation for continuing. It is really amazing how fast time flies when you are studying maps and compasses uncertain where to go. I assumed my previous three attempts would be enough to eliminate navigational errors this time, so even at age 61, I thought the “fun run” was a reasonable goal for me.

I left home in Oakdale, Minnesota, Monday about 4:00 p.m. I arrived at my early campsite—the car at the Oak Ridge, Tenn. Walmart—Tuesday 4:00 p.m. I ate at the Super China Buffet that evening (the cornerstone of every nutritious pre-race meal. Ed). My fortune cookie, prophetic I hoped, said “come rain or shine, conquer your day.”

On Wednesday, I reserved a Big Cove campsite (No. 17) at Frozen Head State Park for Friday through Monday. On Thursday morning I shopped for a rain suit, something tough to fight the Rat Jaw briars; I had been forewarned about them by Chip Tuthill earlier. That afternoon I drove to Armes Gap and hiked a bit south to look both ways at Testicle Spectacle (top photo). I was walking slowly while wearing my new rain suit, a comfortable combination given my pace and the ambient temperature at the time. I wanted to test my briar armor so I walked down Rat Jaw a little bit. The suit seemed to pass from a durability and protective standpoint although forward movement was extremely difficult—even downhill—through those briars.

On Friday I checked-in, talked with new and old friends, and enjoyed some Barkley chicken along with competitor Abi’s banana-cream pie, David Hugh’s baked beans, and lots of cookies, plus cake with my own fruit salad.  I showered, lubricated and dressed in my running clothes, while finishing my backpack by 9:30 p.m. I then made the mistake of spending an hour reading the course instructions before going to sleep. I should have bedded-down hours earlier; here’s why:

At 12:35 a.m. I was kindly awakened by window rapping and loud shouts from my site-mate, “The conch shell sounded 30 minutes ago!” the official wake-up call. I am eternally grateful for this as I was soundly asleep and totally missed the conch sound. I quickly consumed an additional meal of two slices of bread, one Nutrigrain bar, a granola bar and banana, washing it down with chocolate soy milk.

I made a quick check of my preparation and cinched my back pack in place. I secured a 32-oz water bottle and 32-oz bottle of home-made gel cross-shoulder. I wore a headlamp, shaded hat, handheld light and a hooded shell jacket over a stretch long sleeve shirt with long nylon pants and new INOV8 X-Talon shoes over Injini toe socks. On my hands was a light pair of nylon and imitation leather gloves.

In the backpack I carried the rain suit along with microfiber pants and shirt, another pair of warmer gloves, another full 32-oz water bottle and a 20-oz bottle of gel, a small bottle of iodine tablets, extra S-Caps and an emergency whistle. Around my neck hung a compass. In one pocket was a laminated set of course instructions and a laminated park map. Another pocket protected my book-pages, stuffed in a baggie, I would collect at each “book shelf” to validate I had found that check-point.

Attached to the front of my pants via a built-in belt was my water-resistant camera. After waiting a minute at the yellow gate, the official starting signal—a cigarette—was lit at 1:07 a.m. Saturday, April 2, 2011. Heading up Bird Mountain on Candy Ass Trail’s, there appeared to be an endless snake-like stream of misty light, the runners spread out according to their individual speed.

I had no trouble securing book 1 (photo “The End of the Road”), leaving that site 72 minutes after the start. I knew I was going much faster than I would be able to maintain (average heart rate 125 beats/minute – maximum 140), but did not want to risk losing sight of the group of 7 (included Ed Furtaw, Abi Meadows, Sue Thompson and others), which I was a part.

Somewhere just before the coal ponds, a storm of hail, snow and rain began. Fortunately it did not last 30 minutes, and the hail never got larger than ¼-inch. On a couple of climbs some members of our group had leg-cramping issues. I hoped that would not happen to me.

A combination of the early start, ingesting solid food just prior to the start, and the “fast for me” first few miles, created severe lower-stomach cramping. This was shortly after SOB ditch while passing the coal ponds about halfway up the final switchback climb to the Garden Spot, approximately mile 8 of the 20 mile loop.

Now I was alone after having stopped off the trail to resolve the stomach issue plus I was in the dark, both literally and figuratively as soon became apparent. I self-navigated the remaining switchbacks to the road leading to the Garden Spot, but somehow missed the painted rocks and went to what appeared to be the end of the road. I’m not sure how much time I wasted looking for the book, but finally with my page (44) from book 2 in the bag, I left for book 3 at 4:20:57 into my run . . . ok, a walk. Due to my potty stop and slowdown looking for book 2, my average heart rate had dropped to 113 with a maximum of 137 for this section. At the water drop, I refilled my shoulder-slung bottle. I had not yet touched my backpack bottle.

On the road to Stallion Mountain I saw two other runners coming toward me. I knew I was on-trail at this point, so this was not good for them. I asked them where they were going, and they replied, “Looking for book 2.” Shortly after that brief human encounter, I made a navigational error.

After much sawbrier scrambling (photo, foggy briers) I found myself below and to the right side of a huge vertical wall of rock. I knew I was off course but not sure why. I thought as I moved away from this cliff that it looked a lot like Yellow Indian. It did not register with me in fact it was the Yell
ow Indian, and book 3 was atop the rock. I followed swamp, briers, roads and road crossings until reaching the 5-way intersection and fire ring. I decided I needed to consult the directions and map.

At this point I confirmed I was back on-course, but had missed (by a lot) getting book 3. So I backtracked and retrieved book 3, retracing steps to the fire ring. I was 6:20:02 into my run when I finally got my book 3 page.

It was light out; I knew then there was no way to complete this loop in the 13:20 limit. Getting from book 2 to 3 should have taken me perhaps 30 minutes, but ended up requiring two hours. My average heart rate for this section, with all my stopping to consult map and directions was only 87 with a maximum of 128.

Losing confidence in having picked the correct path, one slows down, as deadly of a sin for completing the Barkley as being lost itself.

My frustration was evidenced by my failure to record on my watch segment times between books 3, 4 and 5, finally remembering to do so again retrieving book 6 atop Rat Jaw. My total walk time was now 12:37:08 with an average heart rate between books 3 – 6 of 96. I had navigated reasonably well after book 3 to book 5 at Raw Dog Falls.

My uncertainty where to begin the descent of Fykes Peak was magnified as I didn’t find the described landmarks for the Inverted Cone, but I successfully wound my way down that mountain, noting the park boundary markers and the partially-downed power lines before crossing the New River.

I did not worry about wet feet in the New River, although I did find the underwater rocks to be rather slippery. I found the stream coming down the far side of the road with the power-lines overhead as described in the directions.

Then I followed a valley with a tiny stream down to the “partially downed power lines (bottom photo)” that I traveled under to the New River where I crossed.

About halfway up I saw another runner near the summit though I’m not sure who it was. About a third of the way down the other side, I thought I heard voices off in the woods to my left. If so, those runners were off course. I slid down the short butt-slide and followed the shelf to my right around and down to the dirt road with about a 100-yard climb back up the road to the falls and book 5.

Then, another navigational error: I assume I did not travel far enough down the road before crossing the expected stream to begin climbing Danger Dave’s Wall. While using plastic tent spikes to assist my climb, I continued down the top of a narrow ridge and into a valley. Further down, crossing a dirt road that seemed to fit the course description, I started to see houses off to the side. I passed a goat pen, confirming in my mind I had somehow gone too far.

I took a gravel road up past a couple nice homes and saw the reservoir dam to the – not from above, but from below. Time spent studying the map helped me confirm the location, so I walked up through the grass, back into the woods and onto highway 116.

I started to climb highway 116, looking for the pig’s head on-a-stick marker. In prior years I had seen it from the road and expected to see it again. After many switchbacks of climbing I decided the coming switchbacks were very sharp and corresponded to some on the map way above the Pig’s Head turnoff. So I headed back down highway 116, still looking to find the pig’s head. I came to a nice large stream flowing down off of the mountain, but no head. Shortly afterward I met two competitors, Cheryl Lager and Joe Ninke, so I was indeed in last place of those continuing to move. Entering a climb next to a tiny stream, I assumed this had to be the entry spot although I did not see the pig’s head until starting up from the ditch. I turned; there on a stick tied behind a tree was the promised head, only visible after you had correctly chosen the path.

About halfway up the bushwhack climb to the old mining road, I caught Langer and Ninke. I assured them we were on course at that point, like I was a fine one to give course confidence. By the time I reached the old mining road turning left to Rat Jaw, I could no longer see them. Starting up Rat Jaw while under the power lines for maybe 20 feet, I decided to move left of the power-lines and climb there until the first shelf. Then I crossed to the right of the lines ascending through the cliff gap to find water and book 6 at the top.

As near as I could tell, no one had gone through the briers under the power lines up Rat Jaw. My path appeared very well worn. I had consumed much of my spare bottle between water drops. So at this one, I refilled both bottles while emptying my spare gel bottle into my main one.

Descending Rat Jaw to the stream exiting the prison, I retraced my steps to the prison mine road and continued down the path most traveled to the prison, meeting Lager and Ninke for the last time on this loop while they were coming up Rat Jaw.

At the prison I stayed on the large rocks bordering the stream and tunnel entrance, grabbed the open gate and pulled myself into the tunnel. That tunnel crossing was a cool experience. At the other end I choose the wetter but easier way out: the knee-deep-water rock climb rather than the shallow-water wall climb.

After getting book 7, failing again to get my segment time, I spent a lot of time determining the correct path to Indian Knob. The directions read “look south to the water tower,” only the water tower I saw was to the north. I walked to the far edge of the prison wall and could not see another water tower. The instructions said to go uphill to the left of the water tower. I saw a road extending uphill to the left of the water tower.

Was I to start up that hill on the road or simply bushwhack nearly perpendicular to that road up the mountain? I started toward two fuel-type tanks on a narrow shelf thinking, “is that the ridge referenced in the instructions?” I wandered toward the road and went up it a bit, but I finally decided to simply follow a rough SSE compass bearing from the prison up the mountain.

I reached the summit near capstones about 150 yards left of the Needle.

Unlike my visit on Wednesday, book 8 was now easily visible. I reached this book in a total time of 16:01:52 with an average heart rate of 90 maximum 116 from Rat Jaw.

Unlike my previous Barkley adventures, this trip down Zipline was uneventful and reasonably fast. I stumbled over rocks and downed trees and through some briers with occasional tiny stream crossings, but mainly followed a larger stream down the mountain till the proper confluence was reached. I used my altimeter to give confidence I was still on path. I picked up book 9 without a problem in a total time of 17:12:12 with an average heart rate of 88 and a maximum of 111 coming down Zipline.

My climb up Big Hell was six minutes faster than my descent of Zipline. I came right to book 10 with no problems 18:16:13 into my walk. Both were approximately the same distance with 1600 feet of elevation change, but the footing was better on Big Hell. In the past I had issues finding the Candy Ass Chimney Top trail, but not this time.

A little way down the easy trail on a slow jog, I was passed by the lead pair on their second loop . . . Ouch! I picked up my pace to keep with them about 50 yards back for a couple miles until I tripped shortly before the stream crossing, about halfway down.

It was dark when I quietly strode up and touched the yellow gate signaling my end about 19:34 after I started.

I did not get my lights out of my backpack until I finished the loop; I listened to a mighty finely played rendition of Taps played for me and devoured more chicken, beans, cookies, large slices of pizza and banana cream pie. I had consumed about 2500 calories of gel during the loop and according to my heart rate monitor I had burned 6469 calories during the one loop.

Joe and Cheryl came in with all book pages in 23:31 ending the parade of first loop finishers. Their time might be a Barkley record for the slowest loop one where runners actually found all of the book pages.

After a needed nap in my car at the park Saturday night, I noted my weight was down to 156 pounds and 11.5% body fat Sunday morning. I had weighed 160 pounds at 10.5% body fat the Monday before leaving home (Now we know the body fat effect of banana cream pie. Ed).

I drove to the city of Oak Ridge and ate at Ryan’s Buffet Sunday morning. Returning to the camp late in the afternoon, I trudged up down the Old North Mac Trail to the intersection of Panther Branch. My legs were a little stiff, and my right knee joint was somewhat tender, but not too bad. Just a few rat bites and no blisters or abrasions. My shirt, shell jacket and long nylon pants and gloves had provided adequate briar stop protection. The temperature shot to 79°F Sunday afternoon and was still 74°F at 7:30 p.m., so it was hot for all the competitors still on the course.

Brett Mauvre finished loop 4 at 8:30 p.m. Sunday and started loop 5 (clockwise) at 9:30. Park rangers negotiated a course change due to the 50-acre wildfire east of Testicle hill that threatened the race’s continuation. Bulldozers were scrapping fire lines to protect a gas well and nearby homes.

I bedded down. The temperature was 60°F when I got up at daybreak on Monday. My weight and body fat now measured 161 pounds and 10 percent. At 10:27 a.m. Brett came walking confidently up the park road, touching the yellow gate and the “easy button” signaling a 5 loop finish.

While full of smiles and rat bites, he tossed his handkerchief and bag of book pages at Laz, with help double-checking them by Stu Glemen, verifying a successful completion of loop 5. Thus Brett was assured as Barkley finisher number 10, entering the ultra-running ultimate hall of fame.

I double-checked my belongings and headed to Oak Ridge for a final stop at the Super China Buffet (now ranking as their best customer. Ed) before starting the long drive to Minnesota. Through a good part of Tennessee and most of Kentucky, I encountered rain; at times it was hard to drive because of the many cars waiting it out aside the road.

At least Mauvre, a Barkley virgin by the way, did not suffer such a horrendous downpour during his 5-loop run; only hail, extreme sleep-deprivation, a nighttime counterclockwise loop 3 due to the early start, heat and a wildfire.

I arrived at home 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, April 5, 2011. I will make a small note sheet for next time . . . given my one-loop time this year, a next time opportunity might be a bit presumptive on my part. From the current course at least, I am using a string for approximate distance and a straight edge and compass to determine an approximate step-count and direction set from the map for the various less-than-obvious sections of the course. I can’t afford any navigation issues again. My final assessment? A super-fun time.

On my first time back on the tread mill, even though my legs felt okay at the start, my body was obviously not recovered. The Barkley will squash you like a bug.

write for phillip’s Ultra Superior, the only book on the Superior Trail Races, and HARMONIZING: Keys to Living in the Song of Life, a manual for living.

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About Phillip Gary Smith

Phillip Gary Smith, Senior Editor, published "The 300-Mile Man" about Roberto Marron's historic doubling of the Tuscobia 150 mile endurance snow run. He publishes "iHarmonizing Competition" on various forms of competition, including drag racing, his favorite motorsport. Earlier, he wrote "HARMONIZING: Keys to Living in the Song of Life" as a manual for life with chapters such as Winning by Losing, Can God Pay Your Visa Bill?, and a young classic story, The Year I Met a Christmas Angel. His book, "Ultra Superior," is the first written on the Superior Trail ultra-distance events. He mixes writing with his profession--the venture capital world--a dying art. He is a creator of CUBE Speakers, a group espousing themes in "HARMONIZING: Keys" in a unique way. Currently, he has two books in the works. Write to him at, or find him on Twitter or Facebook @iHarmonizing.