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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Above And Beyond The Call To Duty

Despite having never met anywhere but online, I count Ron Moore as a true friend. He has helped me numerous times on the blog.  That, and the fact that he is both a better runner and much smarter than I, means I have much respect for him.

Thus, with this guest blog post, I hereby make Ron Moore the occupier of the Endowed Erwin Shroedinger Chair for Advanced Physics.  That simultaneously makes him both Co-Official Physicist (with Brian Boyer, who is actually a Nuclear Engineer anyway!) and NOT Co-Official Physicist of our group.  Congratulations, (and sorry) for these simultaneous announcements!

The 2017 Barkley Marathons - by Ron Moore

If you don't know about the Barkley Marathons, I will only describe it briefly here.  You can watch the documentary "The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young" on Netflix and various other platforms.  It's actually rather entertaining to runners and non-runners alike.  There is also a book written by a Barkley veteran Ed Furtaw called "Tales From Out There" that gives a nice history of the event.  Let's just say it's one of the world's toughest ultra marathons that takes place in and around Frozen Head State Park in Eastern Tennessee (and literally a one hour drive from my house).

Like last year, I was there for this year's race to crew for a friend in the race.  (I have been on the wait list the past 2 years, but too deep to make it into the field.)  As usual, 40 people toed the line.  (That's the limit.  This year over 1300 people applied via the not-so-secret-as-it-used-to-be process.)  The race begins sometime within a 12-hour window from midnight to noon, but the competitors don't know when until the RD, a.k.a. Lazarus Lake, blows a conch shell 1 hour before the start to wake up / startle the campground. (This year the start was 1:42 am.)  The course is not known to the competitors until the evening before the start when they transfer the course and checkpoint locations from a master map onto a map of their own.  The 12-13 checkpoints are (hidden) books from which the morons rip out the pages corresponding to their bib number.  They must present the pages to the RD at the end of each loop.  Oh, I forgot to mention - the course is not marked in any way.  Your map, your compass, and your ability to use them are your only guidance around a loop. (No GPS, no altimeters.)  How long is each loop?  20.00 miles according to the RD and it's been that way for years despite the occasional course changes.  (In reality, they're probably 25 miles or so.)  You need to run 5 loops to finish the race.  Did I mention the cutoff times?  A successful race is 5 loops completed within 60 hours.  Loop 1 and Loop 2 must each be completed within 13:20 in order to start the next loop.  If you have any desire to start Loop 4, you must finish Loop 3 within 36 hours.  If you have any desire to start Loop 5, you must finish Loop 4 within 48 hours.  A "Fun Run" is completing 3 loops within 40 hours. (Details on the start/finish time are being neglected here.)  Note that you get a new bib number for each loop, of course, so that you tear out a new page.  Before this year's race, only 14 people had ever finished the race including one 2-time finisher and one 3-time finisher.

The course itself is a true ball-buster - mostly off-trail, with very difficult climbs and descents (steep, filled with briars) usually 1300-1600 feet elevation change in a mile or so.  It doesn't sound bad at first to those, say, living in the Rockies, but this race is Special.  There are a couple of creek/water crossings that can be difficult depending upon the weather.  The weather is probably the biggest variable - the temperature can be anywhere between 10 and 80 degrees this time of year in TN.  Rain, snow, fog, hail - a real mixed bag.  Plus the mountains around the park can create their own weather.  Aid stations?  Jugs of water are stashed at two locations around the course.  What happens if the water freezes in the cold?  Too bad.  Hopefully you can make it to creek that is flowing.

To quickly summarize this year's race which took place this past weekend: of the 40 starters, 24 started Loop 2, and 7 started Loop 3.  Only 2 studs completed Loop 3 in time to pursue the full race; both completed Loop 4 in time.  Those 2 guys (Gary Robbins from Canada, and John Kelly who grew up in nearby Oak Ridge) had started Loop 5 last year only to crumble and fail to finish.  Gary and John ran together for the first 4 loops (a successful tactic that has helped folks in the past).  Note that the racers do not run the loops in the same direction each loop; this year they had to alternate directions each loop.  In addition, for Loop 5, the first person to head out gets to pick his/her direction; the next person must go in the opposite direction, and then any others alternate directions.  (There have been more than two 5th Loop runners only twice.)  That rule forces the former teammates to navigate on their own - a big challenge.

The weather was an issue this year.  The ridges were shrouded in dense clouds Saturday night, and caused problems for the runners to navigate that first loop.  As the RD remarked, "If you have your headlamp on, you see a white wall.  If you turn off your headlamp, you see a black wall."  The rest of Saturday and Sunday were quite pleasant.  After John and Gary started Loop 5 around 20 past midnight on Monday morning and not much time to spare (after each napping for ~30 minutes), showers and thunderstorms rolled through between 7 am and noon or so, drenching the course and raising the water levels.  (I honestly didn't think they had a chance.)

With most of his family and plenty of other race folks waiting anxiously at the finish, John Kelly became the 15th finisher of the Barkley Marathons in 59 hours, 30 minutes, and 53 seconds.  After some celebration, the crowd turned around to anticipate Gary's arrival from the other direction (since they had to go opposite ways for Loop 5).  You could feel the nervousness as time ticked down.  With less than 1 minute to go, an unexpected commotion from behind made everyone turn around - Gary was charging hard from the other direction!  What?  Normally, when someone returns from the "wrong" direction, it means they quit along the way and shuffled back to camp, but Gary's effort was inconsistent with quitting.  After touching the famed yellow gate that is the start/finish line, he collapsed and start whimpering about something.  The crowd was stunned and confused.  His wife rushed over to check on him and help decipher.  Eventually, we figured out he said "I came down the mountain the wrong way."  In the meantime, Laz (the RD) said Gary touched the gate 6 seconds after the 60 hour cutoff.  Unreal.  But, if he had arrived within the cutoff, he would have been disqualified anyway since he did not stay on the prescribed course (and he knew it).  But wait, it actually gets worse.  (It brings tears to my eyes to reflect on it and write it.)  Gary had all of his book pages for the last loop.  The last book was near the top of a mountain.  (I know because I helped set that book.  There's another story involved with that - for a later time.)  After picking out his page and climbing the remainder of that (off-trail) ridge, he came to the marked trail that would take him 2 miles back down the mountain to finish at the yellow gate.  However, it was foggy, and in his stupor of physical and mental exhaustion, he turned RIGHT instead of LEFT.  He also didn't realize that he did not pass the landmark "Pillars of Doom" that would have been only ~200 meters down the trail on the LEFT.  He ended up running an extra 2 miles or so by turning RIGHT.  How completely devastating for Gary and the crowd that was gathered.  He became the first Barkley runner to have gathered all his pages for a full 5 loops, but was not a finisher of the race.  Hearing the bugler play Taps for him (as they do for all quitters/non-finishers) was especially cruel.
Winner and only finisher, John Kelly.

Gary Robbins after his near finish.

I hope Gary finds the courage to return and suffer through the pain just to make up for that wrong turn so close to completing such a rare feat.

Despite knowing what I know about the Barkley, I still want the opportunity to find out what I don't know and to see how far I can go physically and mentally.

"You'll shoot your eye out, kid!"

Ron Moore

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