The Barkley Fall Classic exists to give runners a taste of the real Barkley, a 100 mile race that is known for being the most difficult and secretive trail race in the world. Unlike the original Barkley, anyone can register for this one and you can get along just fine without a compass. The Fall Classic is also “only” a 50k, although that is contestable, with the option of a bailout marathon for anyone not meeting the time requirements and/or for those who decide they’ve had enough. To quote Laz, the goal for the Barkley Fall Classic is to provide a “finish.. attainable for anyone, but easy for no one”. The Barkley, on the other hand, is known as “the race that eats its young”. It is supposed to make runners fail and has done a pretty good job at that, with less than a 2% finish rate in over 30 years.
But even though the BFC is easy compared to the real Barkley, it still crushed my soul. I can normally squelch the negative thoughts that pop up when running but halfway through this race I got deep into the philosophy of pain and suffering – “Do I even like running?” “How could it be THIS hard?” “WHYYYY???”
But that is the point of the race after all, to challenge us to reach within ourselves and if need be, to embrace failure. For the first time ever in a race, I had to take the bailout option due to being twenty minutes past cut-off. I still got my dog tags for completing the marathon but it wasn’t the race I had set out to finish. After 10 hours and 17 minutes of blood, sweat and
tears sweat in my eyes, I failed. And now, less than a week later, I want more. Just like many of the runners out there, I have written off the hardships and am ready to try it again. I’ve replaced the memories of wanting to lay in fetal position mid-race with thoughts of how great it would be to cross that finish line and retrieve my croix-de-barq.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
For the weeks preceding the race I attempted to sort the sarcasm from the truly useful information, especially coming from the BFC Facebook page. I got that it would be hard, there would be briars and it was hinted that there were some new additions to the course that were especially exciting. I was secretly hoping we’d get to run through the tunnel that runs through the old Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary featured in the real Barkley. What we got was even better.
The day before the race, I rounded up my kids and my things and drove up to Wartburg, TN to view the course map for the first time. My mom met me there to help with the kids and the look on her face was priceless as we listened to a volunteer describe the course: “You go up the candy-swear-word trail (the name was changed to protect the innocent)… down testicle spectacle.. down meth lab hill, into the prison, up gunnysack…” My mom told me later that she questioned whether she and the kids should be there. I was mostly just excited that we were going to run inside the prison. The map was printed on microfiber and like Linus from Peanuts, I carried that thing everywhere as I studied and memorized it. I even took it with me to bed, hoping to look at it more after the kids fell asleep. But also because it was so dang soft.
Race day came and I easily woke to my alarm at 4:30AM and made myself a large hobo breakfast of all the leftover foods my kids didn’t want to eat the night before. My dad drove me to the race start as I tried to decide – long socks or short socks? Compass or no compass?
Runners, including myself, lined up haphazardly on the road in preparation for the race start. I headed to the middle of the pack, where I feel most at home. I chatted with Wade and some nearby runners and we preached to the choir and joked about how long of a day we had ahead. We talked about taking pictures but instead just took in the moment. After less than a mile on the road, we turned left and ran past the infamous yellow gate, the start of the real Barkley. The grade was not too difficult but many people were walking and lines were forming so I followed suite and joined the conga line of hikers climbing the Bird Mountain Trail.
Climbing 1,600 ft in two miles is not what one would traditionally classify as easy but it was on real trail and there were people all around so that was nice. It was a surreal experience, getting to be involved in a trail race with so many people (214 started the race). When reaching the top of a long climb people would hoot and holler in excitement, giving hope to the runners below. Within the first hour, the branches and leaves overhanging the trail were glistening from the sweat of other runners. I chuckled to myself when I saw how sweaty the poison ivy was. For the first two hours I was in pretty good spirits, talking with others and generally enjoying myself. Someone mentioned that we should be going faster because it would only get harder but there were too many people to get ahead by much anyway. Then I got hungry. My effort was a little too demanding to get any food down so I decided I’d wait until the aid station and focus on eating then. But none of the food at the aid station (bananas, chips, slim jims and trail mix) looked good to me. I had been sick for the week prior and still had some lingering nausea issues that left me feeling very picky. I forced a few chips down and a banana down, said hi to the rangers, thanked the volunteers and went on my way.
This is when I noticed my pace on the uphills going from a brisk hike with intermittent jogging to a walk. I still jogged the downhills but couldn’t will myself to go any faster up the hills. I now recognize that my hunger played a pretty big role here but since my time machine can’t transport food just yet, I can only prepare better for next year. I was still occasionally passing people and still ahead of cut-off times so I wasn’t too worried.
I passed through a ditch (which will not be named) when Josh, a runner I had met at the Full Moon 50k, said hello and helped me climb out. Since my wrist had been broken and in a cast for the three races prior, I took a moment to appreciate how great it was to be able to use both arms and to feel the breeze on my arm.
Then I hit Deja Vu Hill, where we ran a loop, doubling back on part of the trail we’d just covered and continued on to the next aid station. Here’s where I joined up with David for awhile, who was cramping up and couldn’t find his salt tablets. I shared some of mine and we hiked and jogged together for awhile and swapped stories. I shared some chips and without thinking, pretty much just ran off like a jerk. I remembered my graham crackers that I was excited to finally eat only to realize they had fallen out of my bag. I complained out loud and a runner said she had seen some animal crackers and salt tablets on Deja Vu Hill. Nooo! My lunch and David’s salt tablets were gone AND we had littered.
We followed the signs on some easy jeep roads for awhile and I tried to appreciate how nice the weather was and how easy the trails were, despite how tired I already was. I talked with a woman for awhile who will also be running the Pinhoti 100 this year. It’s fun meeting so many people and re-meeting them down the road in this weird community that is ultrarunning.
Soon enough we were at aid station #2, close to 5 hours in. They described the next section and said it would be a lonnnng 5 miles until we got back to their aid station. For me, it was about 4 hours. It started out easy enough, basically jogging down a jeep road for quite some time. I was excited to see testicle spectacle (don’t quote me on that!), a tough part of the course that comes from the original Barkley. I asked some random trail runner girl who I thought was in the race if she had seen testicle spectacle and she looked at me like I was crazy. Ha! I couldn’t stop laughing about what she must have thought I was talking about. And then there it was, the powerline cut we had to go down just to come right back up.
There was a runner sprawled out on the ground, cramping up. He told me I’d understand his pain when I made it back up. I recognized some of the volunteers and talked with them while waiting on a guy almost passed out on one of the hands-and-knees type of climb. It was even steeper than I had imagined and even going down was tough. Many times it was easier just to slide on my butt. The jewel weed to me was beautifully ironic, since it is often used to calm itching and burning skin. I tried some on my legs but there wasn’t enough jewel weed on that mountain to calm the lashings my legs had already taken, and this was on the easier section. Despite all my complaints, I actually was having fun. One guy was taking a break on the side of the trail and said, “At this rate, I’m not sure I’m even going to make the cut-off!” I wasn’t really paying attention to the time or the cut-offs at this point but replied, “Don’t say that! I’m just now going down!”
Once at the bottom, we got our bib punched and just turned around. Looking up, I realized exactly then why this section was named testicle spectacle – boy, what a view! I wish I could describe how difficult it was, but I’m just going to have to use the old cop-out and say that words and even pictures won’t do it justice. I think at times we were trekking a 70% grade, using rocks, saplings and briars to pull ourselves up. I actually passed people going up and felt confident that I was making good time, especially with so many people around. This really was a fun section, getting to see all of the people I had met in the hours prior. And sometimes, it was nice to see people who were clearly in more pain than me.
Finally I made it to the top, crossed the jeep road and headed down a rockier but more tame power line cut – Meth Lab Hill. Some people ran down like it was nothing but I jogged down with caution, too worried to fall. The trail flattened out a bit, came out on someone’s driveway and headed towards the prison. I jogged and walked sections of the flat road which was clearly a mistake that I lost time on but I was just so hot and drained at the time. I hoped the aid station would have some fruit but they were all out and the chips, which are normally my favorite running food, were just not appetizing. Despite my pickiness, the volunteers were great and I excitedly entered the gates of the old penitentiary. After going a ways, I realized I forgot to get my bib punched at the aid station and started heading back. I didn’t get too far when I heard the volunteer yell that I didn’t need to get my bib punched there. Looking back on it now I think I could have made up the time I was behind on the cutoff by doing things just a tad differently, including getting a little more food in my system.
The course looped around in and around the old prison, offering an awesome preview of what used to be. This was the best part of the whole race. How awesome that the race directors were able to incorporate the actual prison into the event! For whatever reason the buildings were cold inside and it felt great compared to the heat from the asphalt. The course went past open prison cells, including the actual cell the notorious Earl James Ray was held in. Then we went into the “hole”, the darkest recess of the prison where no doubt the prisoners who escaped in 1977 spent their next days. It was too dark to see so I just said out loud, “Is there supposed to be someone in here?” to which a man replied, “You just passed me.”
I was hungry, hot and tired but still enjoying the race at this point. Then I rounded the corner to see a line of people waiting to climb Gunnysack Hill, the start of Big Rat and then Rat Jaw – the longest and most overgrown powerline cut featured in the race. This is where my race broke. Rat jaw was the worst thing I have ever encountered in a race. The briars were over my head and even though some of the weeds were trampled from the runners that had gone before me, there was no defined trail. Two thorns went through the rubber bottom of my shoe. I don’t know how but at one point I got a briar thorn in my underwear. If I had a quarter for every swear word I heard out there, I could have paid for my race entry and bought myself a nice pair of shoes.
I was going slow but kept joining up with other runners as they rested and tried to find the best route. I was really glad not to have to navigate this particular powerline cut on my own, I would have questioned every bit of it. I ended up with a group of about 10 others following a Barkley veteran (Leonard of Leonard’s Butt Slide). We spent an hour and a half climbing the stupid thing. A sat down for less than a minute and the group I was with disappeared. I could hear them yelling instructions down to us below but my hearing is really not the greatest so I just had to guess. I did hear someone say that we had thirty minutes to get to the aid station or we’d miss the cut-off and it didn’t mean anything to me. I saw a huge rock face and hoped I wouldn’t have to boulder up it because I would have rather laid down and died. Luckily, there was a nice trail-looking path along side of it that would eventually lead to the top. I yelled some instructions down to Heather and Greg, two runners I would spend the remainder of the race with. We hiked together, complained, and we even joked a little. Compared to the rest of the pain, getting stung by a yellow jacket was pretty inconsequential but I mentioned it anyway in case I had angered a hive. I think Greg even ran a few steps.
We heard shouting from the top and knew we had to be getting closer. The woman waiting up there was a heavenly sight. She swore at us in the nicest way and told us to get moving. So we did. We still had to make it up the fire tower to get our bib punched. Not even kidding, the stairs to the firetower were incredibly easy compared to everything else that had been thrown at us. Many inappropriate jokes were made as we were probably intoxicated by our lack of oxygen and our joy of having finished Rat Jaw. We went downhill for a quarter mile stretch until the aid station, where they told us we had thirty minutes to go 3.5 miles to make the cut off. I’m embarrassed to say this now, but we didn’t even try. Heather had been in a similar predicament the year before and ran a good pace the entire distance to the final aid station and still didn’t make the cut-off. So this is where we tapped out and we were all in agreement. I said that I would consider doing the full 50k if they would allow it (some races are lax on the cut-off times) but even I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go through with it. A man named Trung joined our little family on the decent down the Mac White trail and I enjoyed hearing stories of some of the epic races he has done. I decided that him and his family were basically super humans. We were still complaining at this point but we were all relieved to be so close to the finish.
When we got to Laz he asked if we had planned to continue on or take the marathon bailout option. Was the 50k still an option? I asked if he would allow me to continue on to the 50k and he said he would next year if I could get there 20 minutes sooner. I was disappointed but also relieved. We accepted our fate and continued on for the last stretch of road to the finish. Heather did what she said she was going to do and ran the last stretch. Greg, Trung and I were too spent so we did a walk-jog combo until the very last stretch. We passed Josh who was hobbling in with walking poles and a bloodied bandage over his knee. He ended up needing stitches but still managed a marathon finish.
I was so glad to be done. 10 hours and 17 minutes of very hard work having only eaten a banana and a few chips. I swore off running the Barkley Fall Classic ever again, let alone ever trying to enter the Barkley. Of course I have already changed my mind. Us runners are either like the majestic Phoenix rising from the ashes or like the Dodo, too dumb to ensure our own survival. Many people think we are super human weirdos who feel no pain. Really, all of us suffer through these races, it’s the finish line that we like. At times we hate running but normally forget about how hard it was within just a few days of the race.
But as Laz said, “If it was easy, what would be the point?”
So thank you Lazarus Lake and Steve Durbin, for the opportunity to fail and the chance next year to try again. Thank you to the volunteers for putting up with our complaints and our stench. Thank you to my family for watching my kiddos while I played in the woods all day. And finally, a thank you to the awesome skydiving company, JumpTN.com, for donating enough for the shoes on my feet and for my entry into this crazy race. I am truly grateful for you all.
A note for those who are foolish enough to sign up for this race next year:
- Remember that a Laz mile is about 1.5x a GPS mile and 100x more gnarly
- Definitely bring leather gloves
- Carry enough water to last you several hours
- Bring your own food if you’re picky
- Long socks and gaiters are helpful but not necessary
- You should definitely know how to read a map and follow signs
- Remind yourself that you will hate running for up to 13 hours and 20 minutes (but you won’t regret it)