So, full disclosure… I am not an ultramarathon runner. I mean, I guess I am technically now, but prior to September 15th, 2018 I had never run a distance longer than 26.2 miles. And other than a year of cross country in high school I have never run any trail races. So how did I end up signed up for the Barkley Fall Classic (BFC), basically the hardest 50K around? Well it all started a couple years ago. I remember getting a text from my brother Andrew about a Netflix documentary he had watched about something called the Barkley Marathons. I had never heard of it, and actually just watched the documentary (now on Amazon Prime) this morning. I highly recommend this for anyone, not just runners to watch: The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. But anyways, he told me about this mythical 100 mile race in the Tennessee trails that hardly anyone had ever finished and no female had ever completed. I was intrigued. I had raced many marathons and was just getting into Ironman races so I was always looking for a new challenge. I searched online and found that really my only option would be to get on a wait list to enter something called the Barkley Fall Classic, or the “Baby Barkley.” Eh…Oh well. I put my name on the list and went on to forget about the whole thing.
Over the next couple years I completed my first Ironman races and thought that there could not be anything harder than 140.6 miles of swimming, biking, and running. Right around the time I was about to run my third Ironman in Maryland I received an email about an early registration for the BFC. I would have to sign on around midnight and maybe, just maybe, if I entered my information faster than the hundreds of others trying to get into the race I could nab one of the coveted spots. I didn’t think that I really had a shot but I logged in and pretty soon saw the message that I was in. How could I turn it down? I mean, I was in shape enough to do Ironman races. I knew that bike miles did not equate to running miles, and road miles were not even close to trail miles, but I would have a year to train. So what the hell? I grabbed the spot with the full intention of entering some longer running races in the next year.
Except I didn’t do that. I finished my Ironman in Maryland however it was my worst race to date. My nutrition was horrible and I cramped for almost the entire run. I was so upset with my performance that I signed up for another Ironman in May to try to get my nutrition right and get that bad taste out of my mouth.And in the process I forgot about the race at Frozen Head. In between I also ran the Boston Marathon in April in the freezing rain, but that’s a whole different story. Anyway, I finished my Ironman in Santa Rosa and felt much better with myself. Then I went on with my typical workouts-biking, road running, swimming, weights at the gym. And in June I received an email from Ultrasignup. It was about still having time to receive a partial refund for the BFC. I almost asked for it. But I didn’t. I felt like I would regret it if I gave up my spot, and I have serious FOMO. “I’ll just start training better,” I thought. I added some hills, but they were on roads. And the elevation and descent was nowhere near what I needed to be doing. I started searching for race reports from the Barkley Fall Classic trying to get an idea of what I would need to do to prepare. I had never even run with a hydration pack! The closer the race got, the more I knew it was a bad idea. But I knew if I dropped out, September 15th would come along and I would be sitting in my apartment upset with myself for not trying. So I picked up some cheap gloves, because previous runners said you needed those for Rat Jaw, and a head lamp just in case I made it to Laz. I bought a hydration pack and ran a couple long runs with it on my back. And I kept reading the Facebook page for the BFC realizing that I was going to be on the same course as people that ran 100 mile races. Yeah…like I said. This was just not smart.
Anyway, September 14th rolled around and I made the five hour drive up to Wartburg, Tennessee. I picked up my packet and map and made my way up to Frozen Head to pick up a park map and topo map. I could feel myself getting nervous already. Then I went back to the Comfort Inn in Oak Ridge to study the map…and I had no idea what I was looking at. I was trying to compare it to GPS maps and eventually thought I had an idea of where I would be going and just hoped I would have others to follow. Well…I was right and I was wrong as was soon to be discovered. I willed myself to sleep…I just wanted tomorrow to start so I could stop thinking about how much I would be suffering and just get it started.
I woke up at 4:30, filled my hydration bladder with ice, pinned my bib to my tank top, threw my gloves, head lamp, clif bar, dates and ziplock bag of tailwind into my Nathan VaporHowe and started the drive to Frozen Head. Once I was parked there I filled my hydration bladder with water and tailwind and sprayed Deet on my legs and arms to try to at least limit the tick and chigger bites that were waiting for me out in the woods. I looked around and I felt so out of place amidst all these accomplished runners. They had stickers on their cars and shirts celebrating their 100 mile and 100K races through rough terrain and trails. What was I thinking running alongside these guys?
FInally 7 am arrived, Laz lit his cigarette and we were off. The first mile or so was a nice paved road. I knew this would end soon and sure enough before you knew it we were at the trailhead for Bird Mountain. Laz had specifically said that in order to finish the 50K we would need to run this, so I listened. It was a slow go but I picked my way through those that chose to walk, squeezing by on the left as I heard many of them note that they “would not advise running on this type of trail.” Um…Ok, well I am. Once I finally separated myself from part of the group I switched off fast walking with jogging up the never ending switchbacks. Finally after what seemed like ages I made it to the top and started the descent down another set of steep switchbacks. Being new to trails I quickly learned that I am awful at running downhill on rough terrain. Add to the fact that I was wearing triathlon running shoes with absolutely no grip really did not help. I found myself tip-toeing in areas where other runners were blazing down and found myself stepping aside often to let faster runners pass. But I was still ahead of time for the cutoffs, and tumbling down the mountain would ensure a DNF. So slowly but surely I made my way down. Eventually we started up again and made it to the first aid station which was marked at about 7 miles on the map, but who knows what the real distance was. I topped off my hydration bladder, ate a few dates, and started back along the trail. I was feeling pretty good actually. However, I knew from the map that I could get lost on the next stretch. Turns out I was right.
After some more trail running we eventually came to the Garden Spot for another bib punch. We were running on jeep roads now which was nice and there were even arrows! I was so happy, thinking that I couldn’t get lost now. I continued running down the rough gravel road, through a few mud puddles. I spotted a girl running ahead of me and caught up to her. Problem was, there was no one else around. We both had a feeling this wasn’t right and that we had missed a turn. We started back but then spotted a group of guys running our way. “Did we miss a turn?” I called out to them. They didn’t think so, and since I was horrible with navigation I wanted to trust that they were right. I also thought it would be better to be lost with a group than lost alone. Well….we ran and ran and ran and I knew we were going too far east. We came out on a main road way east of where we were supposed to be. Luckily this would eventually meet up with the main course, but after 3 or 4 extra miles of running. Now the cut off to Laz was seeming less likely to me. There was no way I could add on more miles and still get there in time. But I had no choice but to keep going. I knew I was still ahead of time, but with Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw to come that time was going to get away from me fast. As we ran down the road a golf cart with a couple park rangers drove by. “You’re a bit off course guys!” they smiled at us. Apparently we weren’t the first ones that had missed the turn towards Stallion Ridge and they were headed out to check out the signage. They assured us the church was about a half mile up. I guess they worked in Laz miles too because we ran way longer than that before we finally saw the main course meeting up with the paved road. We rejoined the rest of the runners and made it to the aid station for our third bib punch.
Surprisingly I hadn’t used up much of the tailwind/water drink in my pack yet so I just refilled a small water bottle I had and grabbed a few more dates from my bag. I wiped off some of the dirt with some antibacterial wipes I brought and started up the next ascent. It was pretty obvious I was new to this and I was cursing myself for the stupidity of not wearing trail running shoes. Gripping the dirt was impossible and I knew that the up and down hills were going to take a toll on me. But I was determined to get to Laz by the cutoff. Pretty soon we were ascending Testicle Spectacle. It was quite a spectacle. How could Rat Jaw be taller than this? “This looks like a monster,” I thought. Again, my shoes proved to be an issue but I was able to bear crawl up and also to use a cable that was buried in the ground to help move myself up the mountain. All those pull ups in the gym were finally coming into play in real life. I reached the top to cheers from the spectators and a “Birthday Girl” taking pictures, welcoming us to her birthday party. The support at this course was amazing, and even though I was in pain I had to smile. Next was down Meth Lab Hill, and honestly this might have been my least favorite part of the run. Well, other than Rat Jaw. But like I said, I could not run downhill and this was steep and unrunnable at points. I found myself sliding on my butt down half of it. The skilled trail runners were flying by me and I was just doing all I could do to stay out of their way. I hated slowing anyone down due to my lack of preparation. Finally I made it to the bottom and out of the woods. My quads and ankles were on fire from the descent. I ran through a driveway to a main road and could see the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in sight. I hit another aid station where I refilled my water, added in my tailwind, and grabbed a few pretzels. I really couldn’t eat much at this point. I knew Rat Jaw was coming up though and wanted to make sure I had enough hydration. I had read about this climb and knew with the heat it was going to be brutal.
I made my way across the prison yards while chatting with an older gentleman who had done this race several times. I believe this was his fourth? It’s hard to remember details anymore. We climbed the ladder over the prison wall, and with my legs shaking I was actually worried I might fly off the side. I mean this was like mile 17 or so. Maybe more. Who really knows? We then passed through a dark tunnel under the prison before finally we were at Rat Jaw. The first part of the climb I could barely get up. My feet kept sliding on the dry dirt and someone behind me actually helped push my heels up as I clawed at the dirt and roots above me. The rest of the hill, or mountain I should say, was steep but at least more climbable. The big issue, other than the constant briars ripping at my skin, was the heat. It was at least 90 degrees with no cloud cover. The sun was just blazing down on us. I could feel my heart rate shooting through the roof. I didn’t have my heart rate monitor because I was worried about carrying anything with GPS, but I swear it had to be over 200 beats per minute. I’ve never actually felt like my heart would explode until that day. All the way up there were bodies strewn along the hillside, trying to find any sliver of shade even if that meant sitting on saw briars or risking chigger or tick bites. In those moments, there was no rational thought. We were just trying to get our heart rates to come down even ten beats. There was a middle section that flattened out with more people just laying out trying to muster up the energy to continue. At that point, we were probably only a third of the way. I left this group after resting a couple minutes. The sweat dripped into the briar scratches on my arms, although honestly I barely noticed the stinging. I was so focused on trying to control my breathing. After what felt like forever you could finally hear some cheering from the top. It was a long way off but it gave me hope. I followed behind a small group and eventually we were there. I clawed my way up the last few yards. It had taken me about an hour and twenty minutes to go less than a mile but it felt like a victory to me. The watch tower, or “far tar” was in view. After climbing another three flights of stairs I had my next bib punch and about two hours to get to Laz. I snapped a couple pictures of the beautiful view, made my way back down the stairs, and began walking down the next road. I knew I needed to run so I started doing a sort of shuffle/skip/run thing because its all my legs could do at that point. Finally, the aid station appeared and I was able to replenish my water and grab a few more pretzels. Just down North Old Mac and I would be to Laz. I could do that in an hour fifty minutes right?
This was actually my favorite part of the run. It was a gradual downhill and shaded. I was still slow and let others pass, but I wanted to make sure I left enough energy to finish the entire race. This section was about 3.5 miles and it was a slow go, about another 50 minutes, but I made it to Laz an hour ahead of cutoff! Even with the added miles from my navigational error I was going to have a shot at the 50K. I grabbed my drop bag which had a dry pair of socks and an ice cold Coke. It was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted. I felt rejuvenated. I walked over to Laz for my bib punch. “Ready to finish this off?” he asked. “Lets do this!” I answered. Nine miles to go….
I made my way towards Chimney Top at a slow shuffle jog. Once I hit the trailhead I started going up at a fast walk. I did not have trekking poles since I had never trained with them before, but I am definitely going to invest in them in the future. Chimney Top was never ending. Up a bazillion switch backs that just kept going up and up and up. At this point I was starting to get a splitting headache. The nephrologist in me started worrying about hyponatremia and I was convinced I was developing cerebral edema. That’s when I remembered I had brought Base Salt with me. I opened the container and took a few licks of the salt. I actually did start to feel better after a few minutes. I also ate my clif bar which was the first solid calories other than some dates and pretzels I had all day. “Yellow Jackets on the trail!” I heard someone yell from up ahead. Sure enough I came across an angry nest on the left side of the trail. I went as far right as possible and moved as quick as I could but still got stung. At least it was only once. I had heard horror stories about runners being attacked and stung multiple times. I had got away lucky.
There were moments on Chimney Top that I was climbing with other racers but most of them passed me by now. I was hitting the wall. Finally I reached the top of the trail and the rain started pouring down. It felt wonderful but it did make some of the downhills a bit slippery. I fell once and almost slipped over the edge. I started getting a little nervous too. There was no one around me anymore. The trees were still showing the green blazes so I knew I should be going the right way but I kept second guessing myself. It seemed like I had been out there forever and that I should have been to the Spicewood trail by now. Fear set in, and a bit of delirium. Then I saw the snake. I jumped back and screamed. But it was only a stick. Great…now I was seeing things too. I regained whatever composure I had left and pushed on. It was so quiet and I felt so alone. Finally I heard some voices ahead. The final aid station! I had made it! I got my final bib punch which spelled out “I am a winner.” Well almost, I thought. Just a few more miles.
Spicewood trail wasn’t bad. It was runnable but I still struggled with some of the rocks and roots sticking up and had to walk quite a bit. It eventually turned left to a more packed down, wider dirt road that I was able to run. When I say run I mean I did more of the shuffle skip jog sort of thing because my legs weren’t functioning, but it was faster than walking I swear. And then at long last I was out! I made a left down the main park road towards the finish line. I was able to run this part more like a normal person and crossed the finish line in 12 hours and 15 minutes. I was slow but I had done it! I was dirty and smelly and could barely walk but I had my Croix de Barque.
For it being my first attempt at a trail run and first attempt at an ultramarathon I am pretty damn proud of myself. There is clearly a lot I need to work on and prepare for if I ever want to do it again, but I am in the 50K group now. I am just in awe of all the talented runners that were at the Barkley Fall Classic. I thought I was in pretty good shape but that race humbled me. Ironman races are hard, but this was a whole different level of suffering. This was not just about running. This race required full body strength, and a lot of mental and emotional fortitude. Once the briar scratches heal and I am able to walk like a normal person again I have a feeling I’ll be looking for the next trail race near me. If I am ever able to do the BFC again I will be better prepared next time.