I don’t exactly know where to begin writing this report or epistle about the road I took towards my Barkley experience. Several times, during runs or hikes since then, I found myself trying to figure out how. Perhaps, because the experience is surreal. Normally, I am pretty good at it, especially in those solitary moments. I guess it will be safe to begin with how I got the Barkley wind.
I have known Barkley to exist years back because a then-boyfriend and now the husband of a friend ran it. However, it was only in December 2015, when Apple released the movie and I to fully understand the concept of it. The Apple release came months before the Netflix release so I, pretty much, got hooked on it even the rest of the world did. Watching the movie became so addicting. Perhaps, it is not from the fact that 2 amazing runners finished at the top 2 spots (apologies, Brett and Jared), but more because a 3rd person finished— one who was more of a mortal and a relatable character.
I cannot count the times I watched the documentary. I can almost memorize each line. It was almost my go-to movie when I used to train on treadmills for speed work. I had my quasi-intimate relationship with it. So when that movie came out on Netflix and everyone started to talk about it, I was, somewhat, devastated that that small race down in Tennessee became too exposed in the mainstream running world.
Now I am not the strongest runner. But I can be stubborn and ambitious. Weeks after watching the documentary, I thought relentlessly about the Barkleys. It was not about FOMO or the fear of missing out on this race. Far from it. But not exactly sure what it is.
One day I posted on Facebook about wanting to be the Sacrifice, if that was the only way to get in. After all, at that time, I knew I was way in over my head. Much to my surprise, one of my friends sent me a private message about helping me out and the husband. He said he was sharing the information on the basis that he actually thinks I have a shot at being a Sacrifice, while the husband has a high probability of finishing or, at least, doing well. It was at this point that I learned one “truth” about the Barkleys: the entry process can (almost) never be sought; it can only be earned through trust.
Long story short, we both applied and Jun (more known in the race as Conrado) got in a day before the race, after being in on the weight list; I didn’t. He finished a loop and 4 books. At the race, somehow, Laz found himself with an injured shoulder and Sandra asked for anyone who can help her put the make-shift, yellow sling on him. And I am talking about this for a reason…
Now, just as a recap, I did have a crappy 2016, running-wise. Except for finishing a trail 100-miler in February, I had mostly DNF’d and DNS’d races I signed up for. Then I had non-running-related back injury in September that took me out from the Barkley Fall Classic, which I thought killed my chances at being considered for the big Barkleys. I gained weight and just lost my interest in signing up for races. Outside of running, all I personally achieved was finishing grad school, which took 5 years.
Fast forward I applied when time came and I got the condolence a day after I sent in my application.
Shit, I thought to myself. Thankfully, though, I had gone back to running again and back to a plant-based diet that helped me shed unnecessary weight.
I guess when the appropriate impetus comes, you are propelled to take necessary actions so you can rise to the occasion.
For starters, I am a flat-lander, living in Jersey City. As an ER nurse, I work 3, 12-hour shifts a week and some of these are on weekends, so the question was getting in my mountain or hill training. So I did the unthinkable at the time: I signed up for a gym membership. I hated going to the gym so the criteria were to sign up where I would not have to donate hundreds of dollars for non-appearance AND for it to be close to home so I won’t have to drive. Thankfully, I found Blink Fitness, which was half a mile from where I live AND only costs $24.99 for a “passport” membership (allows you to attend other Blink gyms).
So I went to the gym and surprised myself on how I actually loved spending my time there. I got on the Stair Master and spent every visit there using the machine. I worked on my upper body for strength and did arm exercises. I must admit that before getting my condolence, I barely did body strengthening.
Also, after finishing grad school, I thought I was done with studying for anything academics. I even shoved aside any thoughts on pursuing doctorate studies because I was SO DONE WITH STUDYING. I decided to enroll, instead, in Norwegian language lessons after falling in love with Norway when I visited in January. Of course, I did this before thinking that the Barkleys will take up so much of my physical and mental self. Seriously, who studies for a race??? So after spending $$$$$ on Norwegian language lessons, I had to cancel that to focus on studying for Barkleys.
I enrolled on orienteering lessons, bought books, and listened and watched YouTube videos.
And every other time when I was not working, I spent in the gym, running, hiking, and doing hill repeats in Mount Tammany—the only sensible place to go that’s near Jersey City. To train, when I can’t come to Tammany, I ran up a section in the Jersey City and Union City that had a bit of an incline and did that over and over. When you’re a flatlander, you make do with what you have and improvise. I also did some hikes on our treadmill that did 40% incline.
On a side note, what is hard about getting into the race is that you have to keep your mouth shut. I had to keep myself from saying anything each time people asked me on social media about what race I am doing when they see me “training hard.”
Not even my closest friends knew I was running except for Susie and Harald and Rudy. Harald, who also did the Barkleys years back, found out, after he asked me what was next for me, race-wise, during a bagel breakfast. And then Howie and Francesco. And, of course, the person, who taught us the entry process. One or two had prodded but the more these people prodded, the more I shunned and got sarcastic and repulsive.
The end of March finally came and Joe Galioto (who also got in) and I traveled to Tennessee. We are almost two clueless runners going out there. But Joe is a much stronger runner than I am, with a stellar running resume attached.
We headed to Oak Ridge and stayed at a hotel for 2 nights, despite having 2 nights rented on a campsite in Frozen Head. We both figured how we want comfort in preparation for the race. The day we got there, we immediately headed to FH to walk on the Cumberland Trail. I hiked without poles and managed to keep up with Joe’s pace.
The day after, my family came after a long drive from Jersey. Earlier, Joe and I went to hike Cumberland again and I had used my Z Poles and decided against them for race day, as it slowed me down tremendously.
Those two nights we were in a hotel in Oak Ridge, I tried to sleep well and eat well. I thought that if the race started early Saturday, I would need to bank on sleep.
Friday, the day before April Fools’ Day came and we headed to camp to register. Big Cove already got crowded with all the runners. It was so great to see runners from different parts of the country and the world.
Unlike the year before, Laz set up registration a little late this year— roughly around 3pm. From that, we kind of assumed the race would start later on Saturday. But then again, with Laz, you never know so I also imagined that race will start in the middle of the night to fuck up with our brains. After all, that’s, partly, what Barkley is about, in my opinion.
I lined up among the few early registrants. Honestly, I was hoping I did not get bib number 1—the Sacrificial Virgin’s number. Of course, when Laz handed me the bib, I can only laugh out loud. Darn it. I handed him a Philippine (because I am a Filipino citizen) license plate that reads IRUNDFL (I Run Dead Fucking Last), which is a replica of my New Jersey license plate, because as a virgin, that’s what he asks you to bring.
Soon after plotting the course from the master map into our own maps, we headed to Wartburg for Chinese restauarant dinner that would take eternity to cook. Gary Robbins would be in the same place, too, waiting for their take-outs.
By 8 pm or so, we were back in camp and I took a shower. I headed to sleep in our tent by around 9pm, still thinking the race could not possibly start early. I fell asleep and somehow woke up a little less than an hour to pacify a fight between Jun and Mariska. (Yes, this actually happened.) I fell asleep back again but then, come 0042 (12:42am) I heared a conch blow faintly and then another one, more loudly. Mother fucker. I looked at the time because, somehow, I felt somewhat rested that I actually thought it was later in the night. It was not. I only had about 3 hours of sleep.
Mind you, I was not so nervous about the race, except for the part where I would get lost and not getting enough sleep. So far, the lack of sleep part was taking shape at this point.
So I got up and Jun made me coffee. I have not had real coffee in 2 days, because I was hoping to bump up the potency of my caffeine intake on race day. And no, I cannot not have coffee for 2 weeks prior to a race like many others do because that would mean I will end up killing patients by accident when I work.
Jun also made some (burnt) vegan chicken strips and hotdog and I popped my Carbo Pro Motivator (caffeine pills) and VO2 Max and Amino Acid. He also mixed some Carbo Pro liquid carbs in one of my bottles. In the camp bathroom, I was so thankful Kendra Miller (Howie’s girlfriend) was there to help me by braiding my hair. That was my “game time” hair.
I decided on my compression capri, loose pants over it, a long sleeved shirt, my thin down jacket, and Gore-Tex rain jacket to wear because it had started to drizzle. Soon after, we were by the yellow gate.
Before the race, I had planned on following a veteran so as not to get lost. I had my eyes finally set on one before the race. I also thought about Frozen Ed but as Jun would say “He is fast for you.”
Going up on Cumberland, however, I ended up behind Frozen Ed. Eventually, it turned to become a 4-person group of me, Frozen Ed, Lynn Turner, and the French skipper, Cristophe.
Getting to the first book was not easy. It was foggy like no other. After almost 2 hours, we found the book, courtesy of Lynn’s keen sense of hearing. Not to elaborate, but it was the “frogs” that helped us find it. Soon enough, we were headed to Book 2. Oh, my lord. That climb was sick. I have not climbed, shooting up like that, ever, without any switchbacks that when I actually got on the switchbacks later, my Achilles hurt but made the hike up all the switchbacks going forward easier.
We climbed up and down looking for Book 2. In one of the downhills, however, I almost lost the rest of the group because of the dense fog. I thought “This is the part where I’d get lost.” But because I did not want to be in that position, I looked at my bearing on the compass and trusted the faint light I saw in the end. I managed to finally to catch the rest.
In our trek to Book 2, another group caught up to us and I glanced to see an image that resembled Mike Wardian. I asked if that was Wardian and, holy molly, it was him! That never happens in any other race and that’s when you know in this race, speed does not necessarily equal success at finishing. Sorry, Mike. However, because they were the faster pack, our group lost theirs, eventually. We stopped for a while to gather our bearings and after a while, we found Book 2.
However, Frozen Ed had to decide at that point to go back to camp because of some health considerations.
I decided to continue, at least, to Book 3 with Lynn and Cristophe, and take it from there.
The fog was still thick and it continued to be battle of feeling cold on the downhills and hot in the uphills. I had already taken my down jacket off and stowed it in my back pack, thankful that I decided not to bring poles because there was nowhere to stow them.
We got into Book 3 and I was so happy to have found it myself underneath a rock. Lynn decided to go back down where Frozen Ed had gone to head back to camp. At this point, I had asked Cristophe about staying with him going to Book 4 AND if there was any access to Quitter’s Road, should I need it from there… a question I should never have asked.
We got on our trek to Book 4 and Cristophe showed me the significant landmarks. Rhonda-Marie (a blind runner, who did it last year) warned me about a crevice on Sonofabitch Ditch and I finally understood what she meant when I got there. It was at this point in the race that I, despite the fog, got to appreciate the beauty of the course, perhaps, owing to some light overhead.
We got to Book 4 in a semi-open spot. It had a cairn and rocks arranged.
Before Frozen Ed left us, he entrusted Cristophe with the ashes of Stu, a Barker who had passed. Cristophe was to spread them on the memorial set up at that spot.
So when we got there and found Book 4, Cristophe did what he promised to do and laid the ashes to their final resting place. It was such an experience to be there and the experience became somewhat spiritual.
However, that also became the turning point for me, when I decided to end my Barkley journey.
I had still a lot of energy and physical strength to give but something in me did not want Cristophe to slow down because of me. I had to make that painful decision to have him show me how to get to Quitter’s Road.
After waiting for Cristophe to get water from the water drop, I found myself alone on the jeep road. Nick Hollon’s words reverberated “Quitter’s Road is so long…”
Now what’s bad about Quitter’s Road is that not only does it branch many different ways, but the farther you get to the race, too, the longer it takes to come back. I found my way walking back to camp, constantly looking at my map until they tore into pieces, and had sooooo much time to contemplate on what worked and mostly, what did not.
Quitter’s Road is so bad because it makes you introspect and question your decisions. And believe me, regrets came way too soon. I felt I should not have quit just yet, that I should have spent more suffering out there. It was also at this point when I realized I needed to learn more about navigation, which, in hindsight, was my weakest point, because I had apprehensions that if I fell behind Cristophe, I may not be able to find my way back. I thought, that if I only had that as a very strong asset, I would be more confident.
That is not to say the course was easy. It was hard– and I only reached Book 4; there were still the other mountains and Rat Jaw. While there were switchbacks, there were also crazy downhills and climbs that didn’t follow a trail, meaning, steep inclines. I remember jumping off a rock cliff or rock formation going into Book 1 that was about 15 feet high that further dropped into another loose soil that ran downhill. That was one of those moments, when I thought I’d give my mom a heart attack, if she knew what I was doing…
After an hour or so of walking, I managed to find myself heading towards the Fire Tower. I met 3 lovely people, Jean, Ron, and Pete, who were on their way back to the campsite. Jean’s husband, Hiram, was running and both Pete and Ron were helping and they were also on the weight list.
From the Fire Tower, it was another 2.7 miles to camp. En route, we saw other former Barkley runners, Fegy and Julian. It was not long until I was near the yellow gate and heard Laz yell “Is that Kat Bermudez?” After explaining to Laz what happened with the fog and all, Dangerous Dave, with his bugle, played Taps for me. That marked the end to my Barkley journey.
In hindsight, there is a lot to learn from this experience. I noted some of them above but also, I realized one important thing: When you run this race, you are on equal footing with other runners. There is no preferential treatment because you are a female runner. No one will wait for you and you have to work your ass off to keep up. I realized that when I fell behind the rest of the men in my group butt-sliding a steep mountain. They continued on their pace. And that was to be expected.
I learned the need to read up on the weather. Such a simple and trivial thing to think about on a day-to-day basis, but something that was utterly needed in races such as this. I knew that had I known the hourly weather forecast, I would have know that the skies would eventually clear out as the day progressed.
Another thing I learned is that this race is not all about speed. A back-of-the-pack runner like me can be there when Laz falls (because I still think part of the reason why I got in was because I helped Laz with his sling), take a shot at the application process and, if fortunate enough, be picked, and train. Hard.
And why did I do it? Do I have a self-destructive behavior, as some people people would say upon learning I was in? I do not. It is, perhaps, more because I needed to do something for myself, from the depressing state I was personally in in the past months. It was not for glory or fame– not that I stand a chance at having it, given my running record. But there was something about self-flaggelation and pushing one’s self, myself, to that level and beyond where I can do what I, otherwise, didn’t know I can or am capable of.
I do not know if I am even able to come back, considering I was picked as a Sacrifice or if, based on how I performed, I am still worthy of a spot. But, in hindsight, as well, the time spent at Barkley and in preparing for it, was a time worth giving attention to. The discomfort of it all gave me a new perspective, not only during the race but in my day to day affairs since then. I now have this new dictum of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because life is never always comfortable.