Tuesday, April 01, 2008

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times!"

The Barkley 100 Miler has come and gone. Just like that it's over. Still, I find myself sitting here some what dazed and confused, trying to figure out what exactly happened to me.

December 26th, 2007, I send my application in for Barkley 2008. I'm doubtful that I'll even get in due to the popularity. A couple weeks later I get an email from Gary Cantrell with this very memorable line, "Hi Joe, be careful of what you wish for." Being a young strapping man I let this comment slide. How tough can it be?

I put together what I consider to be a pretty comprehensive training program for the upcoming race. I spend weekend after weekend running local hills and trails. Many of the hills aren't that tall but really, how tough can Barkley be? I've been to Himalayas for crying out loud.

The weeks roll by and Barkley is almost here. Nicole organizes a surprise Barkley fundraiser event and invites many of my friends. Great people, good times and it's time to go.

Saturday, March 22, I land in Nashville, rent a car and off to Wartburg TN I go. Roll into Frozen Head State Park about 5pm in the evening. Set up my tent, organize race gear and I'm ready to go. Uh-oh, need a map of the park. Ranger Michael pulls up and we chat. Great guy. He has an extra map at the station and goes to get it for me. Very cool. Now I'm ready to go scout come first light.

Sunday morning, I awake to temps in the 40's. Yikes, this is cold for a So Cal boy. Takes me a couple hours to get things organized and ready to go. Gotta have my coffee, eggs and bacon first. Necessary gear - check, compass - check, map - check, I'm ready to go or so I think. I know how to navigate using a map and compass. Used to do it all the time when I was with the 10th Mountain Light Infantry Division. Should be no problem even though that was 15 years ago. I head out on the trail and find Book 1 no problem. This is going to be easy. The next portion is unmarked trail meaning no orange blazes or road signs. Now the real navigating test begins. Within an hour I find myself terribly lost. Use the map dummy. Uh, I can't even find myself on the map. This could be a problem. It's getting cold, don't have much food or the necessary warm clothing. Now I think, great some Girl Scout troop is going to find your frozen carcass out here come spring. Survival mode takes over. Using my compass I shoot an azimuth in the direction I think I need to go to return to camp. Unfortunately this means wading streams, busting through briers and climbing impossible inclines. Onward I stumble for a couple hours only to eventually come across the trail that I needed 4 hours ago. Nice job stud. Hurriedly I make it back to camp to lick my wounds and get ready for day two. It's got to be better.

Monday morning I awake to about an inch of snow on the ground and frigid temps. Ok, this is officially no fun. Be tough ya big wimp. Ok, yesterday was a disaster but it'll be better today. Right? Let's hope so. Out I go to pick up the trail I stumbled upon towards the end. Got it. Onward I go. Ok, not so bad. Orienteering skills are coming back. I find Books 2 - 7. It's a great navigating day. But wow, is this trail brutal. Are we really supposed to run this?

Tuesday morning comes, still cold and now I have a sinus and lung infection. Thanks irony, just what I need while climbing mountains is to be out of breath. Ok, only 3 more books to go. Off I go and have no problem finding them. My map reading is back. It's about time. Feeling confident. No problem.

Wednesday. It's taken me 3 days to locate and cover the 20 mile loop that is supposed to take me less than 12 hours. This could be an issue. I decide to wake at 0430 hours and attempt the entire 20 mile loop in the reverse direction. A little voice asks, might this be just a little too many miles on your body this close to the race? Let's see, 13 miles on Sun, 20 miles on Mon, 10 miles on Tues and now another 20 miles today. Hmmm, 63 miles less than a week before the race. Yes, this could be an issue. Do I risk over training or the possibility of getting lost during the run? I decide to risk the over training. I've put in lots of hill training before hand and should be fine. Unfortunately I make the wrong decision. The climbs along the way are no problem, but the insanely steep descents start to make my knees sing. And it's not a very pleasant tune. I've never had patellar tendinitis but have read about it in books. Lucky me, I feel all the symptoms that I've read about in my own knees as I stagger back into camp. I'm worried but what can I do. Ok, two days to go, get plenty of rest and you'll be fine by race start on Sat.

Thursday I pick-up Jeff Martini at the Nashville airport. Luckily Jeff has volunteered to come and crew for me during the race. Thanks Jeff. We head to Darnelles to buy more supplies. We're ready to go. I've got plenty of coffee, pb & jelly, POP Tarts, Snickers bars and everything else. Jeff has plenty of beer and lighter fluid to play with the fire while I'm gone. We're set.

Saturday morning comes. The big day is here. We awake around 6am to a cold thunderstorm that has continued throughout the night. Great. This is Barkley for ya. Expect the worst weather. Now I know what they mean. Jeff makes a hot breakfast. I get all my gear ready to go. Nerves are on edge. They blow the ceremonial conch shell to signal one hour until race start. It's almost here. What to wear? I decide to wear my Army pants that I trained in rather than shorts. This will turn out to be a bad call. Food is packed, water bottles filled and we line up at the start.

8:41 AM and Gary lights the official race starting cigarette. And we're off. Loop 1 goes smoothly. I find all the books and am back in camp in around 9 1/2 hours. Way ahead of schedule. Unfortunately it's now much hotter than the previous days and my clothes are soaked with sweat. I know that I have to change into dry clothes or I'll freeze during the colder night temps. No more pants but shorts should be fine now. Wrong. This will turn out to be a very painful lesson. I also decide to leave my jacket behind thinking that a lightweight long sleeve shirt is enough. Wrong again. Off I go. The sun sets quickly, the temperatures drop and it begins to rain. Uh-oh, it's getting real cold all of a sudden. Just move faster I think. This should work. It does for awhile. I get out my new REI flashlight. Time to test you out. Another HUGE mistake. You don't test out new gear during a race. Batteries go dead in about an hour. I change them. These go dead. I change them. Last set, they go dead in about 15 minutes. Oh crap, it's cold, rainy, very foggy, extremely dark and I'm under dressed. Nice job Einstein. I've got 10 miles to go and only have a very crappy headlamp that can penetrate about a foot into the thick fog. I stumble on. Through brier bush after brier bush I go. My body eventually shuts out the pain inflicted from each cut. They begin to feel like being emerged in warm water. Ok, this is probably not good. I'm up, I'm back down, I fall sideways, I fall forward and I fall backward. This is ridiculous. It's virtually impossible to stay on my feet in the rough terrain without light. This is what ya get for pulling such a moronic move. I want to strangle the salesperson that sold the light. Luckily for me I'm able to hook up with Blake that has done the race before. He has a good light and let's me follow along. Half way down Zip Line ridge I slip off a wet rock, fall about five feet and feel my already sore right knee twist painfully. I knew it right then that my Barkley race was over. You're done buddy. No, this can't be. Try to shake it off. I stumble on and am able to cover about 5 miles in 6 hours.

Even though I still have enough time to continue on for the 3rd loop and a possible 60 Mile Fun Run finish, I know that it's not worth it. I might have considered it at an ordinary 100 miler but not at Barkley. Quit. Drop out. I've never had to do this before. But this is what I now must do. Wow, what a hard pill to swallow. I feel completely fine and know that I could go on if only my knee wasn't throbbing. Gary comes by and I give him the news. I'm pretty sure that I'm not the first nor will I be the last. I head up to the race HQ and let the bugler play Taps for me. Ok, this really sucks.

So, what exactly happened the last couple weeks? It seems like a whirlwind. What just occurred? Still trying to sort things out. What an absolutely incredible, wonderful, powerful, painful, discouraging, enlightening experience. Am I depressed or upset that I didn't finish Barkley? I don't think so. I actually feel a little giddy maybe even happy. Why you might ask? Even though I didn't complete the 5 loops that I so desired, I did learn a considerable amount about myself out there on the trail. They say adversity creates character. If that's true, my character just doubled. Also, I now have something to look forward to next year. Barkley is my personal mountain to climb or ocean to cross. I told Gary that I'll continue to come back year after year until I complete the 100 mile course. It might happen next year or possibly never. Regardless, I have a goal, a challenge, a dream. I think that this famous line from the movie Fight Club sums it up best, "I ran. I ran until my muscles burned and my veins pumped battery acid, then I ran some more!"

A special thanks to Nicole for holding down the fort while I was gone, to Jeff Martini for hanging out in the woods with me, to all the people that supported me with this crazy endeavor and to Laz for making this friggin' insane event known as The Barkley possible. Thank you all!


Jim said...


Sincere congratulations on a truly incredible effort...I've been looking out on the web for updates of the event. Its an incredible inspiration to everyone to put yourself out there and put yourself through this crazy stuff.

Reading stuff like this keeps me motivated to push forward with life's daily challenges.

Best of luck with whatever the next step is. Please keep us all posted and if you need crew members for next year, I'm in.

Kind Regards, Jim B.

George said...

WOW. That pretty much sums up after reading your report Joe.. what-a-guy!!!!!!!


im sure ull complete this mountain and many others ..GOOD LUCK.. GOD BLESS YOU!

Upamanyu Sarmah said...

hi Joe... for me Barkley made u seem more human than before. earlier i tht "..... OK!!! Joe Decker" somewhat of a THING...a machine..programmed to do the impossible... but i was wrong...and thank god i am...bcoz now i seem to have more faith in ur words. i am sure u'll scale this mountain of urs...while i get busy scaling mine..i gotta get back to shape... :) thanks for being my inspiration. the first pound i lose is dedicated to u ;)

Unknown said...


Tough luck but what a man-sized effort! That mountain better be ready for you next time.

Anonymous said...

Well, even "only" two laps is more than 999 999 people out of million are able to do. You are tough guy (what kind of human is finisher Brian Robinson then? :-)). Good luck next year.

Anonymous said...

We are in 2011 and you didn't go back to Barkley yet. What's happening bro!

Joe Decker said...

Leave tomorrow for one more attempt at this beast! Hopefully this is the year. Will keep ya posted!