All 2014 Reports

Barkley Fall Classic (31-35 miles)

20 September 2014

- Dave MacLuskie

I have never been that nervous before a race. This race is a "lite" version of the infamous Barkley Marathons in the hills of Tennessee. It was promised to be possible (unlike the original Barkley), and open for sign ups for the first lucky 300 people.

There is a general rule in racing along the lines of "nothing new on race day". Race day isn't the day to be experimenting with new foods, new clothes, or new tactics. I usually follow the rule but for this race I shattered it. Before my last training runs in the mountains of Virginia I noticed that most of the sole of my trail runners was flopping off. I shoe-gooed it for the training run but wasn't confident it would hold for the race. My new pair of shoes (same model and size) came in the day before I was to leave.

Furthermore, I have a few running vests but the larger one is broken and unrepairable. I wanted to carry a few things with me (jacket, heavy gaiters, water filter, extra bottle, snacks, headlamp) and my small vest just won't fit it all. Loathe to spend $120 on a running vest I decided to make one. I whipped up a prototype at the last minute and proceeded with the real thing two days before the race. There was hints that we might hit some briers during the race so I sewed up some knee-high gaiters out of heavy rip-stop the night before I left.

I managed to get all my gear piled up the night before I left for Tennessee and I even found all the parts I was looking for. It turns out my extra head lamp got packed up inside the tent the last time I used it and my running gaiters had fallen behind the dresser. I packed up the car Friday morning noting that although I can fit 5 days of gear and food in a single backpack, it takes half a car to pack for a 1 day race in Tennessee. Interesting.

BJ and Kaylee assembled in coordinating outfits to wave me off as I backed out of the driveway. I shared my doubts about this race with Kaylee but she ensured me I'd do fine. The drive was long; a solid 8+ hours. I remembered to bring the newly refreshed iPod with lots of stories and podcasts and forgot to bring the cable to plug it into the car. Instead I wore out the SCAN button on the radio.

I arrived at Frozen Head State Park, TN a bit later than planned. I had a campsite at the park and wanted to get checked in before it got dark. It turns out that wasn't necessary but you never know. Aaron Bradner (a co-workers son) was already on-site and set up. After a quick handshake and greeting I got back into the car and headed the few miles into Wartburg, TN for the "dinner and a movie" event. The presentation of the Barkley Movie was well received by all and well worth watching if you are curious about the race. It didn't help my nerves though. I headed back to camp with my pickup packet (race number, map, compass, whistle, and t-shirt). I've never been given a compass and whistle for a race before. They were appropriately ominous. (I brought my own compass anyway!)

Back at camp I got the tent setup before dark and chatted with Aaron a bit, poring over the map and taking in his limited experience on these trails. By 9pm we had exhausted our supply of knowledge and headed to our respective tents. I did a little work pre-taping my heels before bed to ensure I did a good job and didn't feel rushed in the morning. My heart raced and pounded in my chest all night. Acorns, hickory nuts, and who knows what else fell like artillery fire every time the wind blew. Car alarms fired up every few hours. Something loud and screechy kept moving about as well and there were several unidentified metallic bangs. I'm fairly certain I got no sleep at all.

By 5am I was up and enjoying the cool morning air. Hiking pole weren't allowed for the first 20 miles but we could pick them up at the next to last aid station if we wanted. My tent uses the poles for support so I had to take the tent down. I rolled it up, pad and quilt still inside, and tossed it in the back of the car. My stomach was far too unsettled to eat but I managed to choke down three cookies and a bottle of water. I doubled and triple checked my newly home-made running vest and drop-bag before hopping into Aaron's car and riding down to the start (only about 1.5 miles away).

About 250 runners gathered on the road, some with head lamps, some without. I left mine in my pack figuring the sky would be bright enough by the time we hit the trails. At 7am Laz started the race in his traditional way: lighting his cigarette. He high-fived runners as the pack ran off up the road. Soon we passed the campsite and then the famous yellow gate which serves as the starting point for the Barkley Marathons, the progenitor of the Barkley Fall Classic. I touched the gate before heading up the jeep road into the mountains.

The first climb was long and steady with a dozen long switchbacks. I powered up with a steady stride and passed a few folks. I'm not sure what time I crested that first hill but it took a while. Soon I pounded down the backside in at a decent run. Cheryl Lager, another VA runner, passed me just as some of snacks came soaring out of my new running vest/pack. Apparently my cleverly designed mechanism for securing the top wasn't sufficient for trail running. She attempted to figure out my contraption but I let her go and pocketed the crackers.

About half way down the slope one of my water bottles fell and started rolling down the hill. I stopped, considered, and chased it. The front of my home-made running vest has a water bottle pocket on each side. The left one had failed -- the bottom fell out. I had no way to fix it in the field so I just carried the bottle in my hand. I was concerned that the right side would fail but it never did. A little while later I torqued my left foot on some rocks. The sharp pain on the outside side of the foot when I stepped on it wrong made me think of broken metatarsals. My mood at this point was plummeting fast. Equipment failure and a potentially injured food and I was less than 2 hours into the race. Fortunately the foot thing eventually went away and hasn't returned so it must have been nothing.

The first downhill finally ended and the climb began anew. My lack of sleep and food was starting to take a toll and my pace slowed a lot. I got passed by quite a few trains of people. Another climb. Another descent. Another climb. Evil thoughts began to enter my head. "You can stop at the aid station." I arrived at the first aid station at 10am exactly. It took me three hours to go 7.5 miles (actually 8 or 9 miles apparently). That pace was just about the minimum you could go and still finish on time and this wasn't the hard part of the course.

The folks at Aid Station 1 were quick to fill water bottles and got my race number punched to prove I was there. I took a moment to extract a snickers bar from my pack. I nibbled on it as I walked back to the main trail and onto the course. The calories started to kick in and my mood lifted considerably.

The trail continued it's up and down nature. I'm not sure there's more than a mile of "flat" on this course. I did a bit of leap frogging with "funky-dance-moves girl" for a while. I don't know if it was the music she was listening to or her way of maintaining balance on the trail but it was entertaining. At one point the trail seemed to simultaneously branch and vanish. A cluster of people formed and we determined a sort of direction based on what appeared to be the most used trail. After all, at least 100 people had come before us. I'm not an expert tracker, but that leaves a trace that's not too hard to follow. We crossed a big ditch, ended up tip toeing over a bit of muck, and seemed to bushwhack up a short hill when we spotted two guys and an arrow. That seemed promising. It was our second official punch. As I approached I noticed they were on a trail and we were approaching a bit off trail. I commented that I supposed we were suppose to have come up that direction and was shocked by the response of "No. If you had, we'd have sent you back." I recall some fun banter and I mentioned wanting to take the arrow so I'd always know if I was going in the right direction.

I spent a fair bit of the trip to Aid Station 3 by myself. I should have run more than I did along the jeep road. Eventually I arrived at AS3 and got my water bottles topped off. One of the volunteers mentioned that there was an 8 miles out-and-back coming up (the map says 6 miles) and some of it in the sun. I dug out a third empty water bottle I'd had stashed in my pack to use when filling up from streams. The streams were all dry anyway. With three full bottles and a bag of salty potato chips (yum!) I trotted off down the road and was soon running the descent to the "highway". The jeep road continues on the other side in the uphill direction. The map shows we climb mostly to the top of the next hill, turn around, and come back. Partway up the climb I asked someone if I was getting close. The hesitant "I suppose so" response was not encouraging. I wasn't that close.

Eventually the "U-turn" sign appeared and I trotted back down the hill, got my number punched again, and headed on back across the road and back up the other side. Instead of taking the easy road back to the aid station the course diverts do a "power line cut"; a very steep section of the hill that was at one point clear cut for the power lines but is currently overgrown with briers that are well above my head. No one can recall seeing them this tall and dense. This is "Rat Jaw", one of the climbs from the infamous Barkley Marathons course. It's our one true taste of "the real thing".

I arrived at Rat Jaw with a couple guys. We chuckled nervously as we sat and pulled on protective clothing. They each brought long pants. I had my pair of home-made knee-high gaiters that I slipped on over my shoes and cinched up below my knees. I also tossed in a pair of work gloves that morning after seeing some folks with them stuff in their packs. Fortunately I keep a pair in my car. Gloves turned out to be a brilliant idea. The climb up Rat Jaw was actually quite fun. A lot of the climb is hands-and-knees stuff. The loose dirt made it hard to get a good purchase. Frequently I was forced to reach above for handfuls of brier limbs to pull myself up through the briers. A sort of tunnel had formed and you couldn't stand up. A stooped crouch was about as tall as I could get and several times belly sliding was prudent. Every 100 ft or so I was forced to slow to catch my breath and reassess the right path. The general rule was the steepest, hardest way up was probably the right way up.

About half way up the slope flattens a fair bit and several options presented themselves. A small group has formed and we set off in a circuitous, and incorrect, direction. After 10-15 minutes we backtracked, bushwhacked, and got back on track through the briers with our destination in sight: the fire tower at the top of the hill. The last few yards were steep again but the briers were conquered. I trudged up the fire tower one clanging metal step at a time to receive my bib punch. I had exhausted all three bottles of water by now and felt really sorry for the folks that only had 1-2 to begin with. The aid station (same as number 3) was a mere half mile away and I cooled down and relaxed as I strode down the fire road.

I was really looking forward to another bag of potato chips at this point but the aid station was out of most everything except water. Woe is the life of the back-of-pack runner. A girl wearing a Grindstone 100 sweatshirt refilled my water and I asked if she was running again this year. The race takes place in Virginia just a couple weeks after the Barkley Fall Classic. She was, though I thought I detected a note of hesitancy in the response. At 100 miles and 23,000 feet of elevation gain, Grindstone is one of the harder 100's on the East coast and one of the few (only?) East coast 100 miler that's a qualifier for Hardrock. Good luck out there Grindstone girl!

I left the aid station a bit nervous about my time. The upcoming aid station had a 9:30 (race time) cut off. My shaky race-day math put it 4:30 pm. I found this section entirely runnable and very pleasant. The trail was soft dirt, mostly rock and root free, and I made really good time flying down the gentle slope and enjoying myself. This penultimate aid station is a less than mile from the finish line, but a good 8+ miles from the finish. I suspect it was put there to tempt people to quit. I was feeling pretty good and had realized that the time limit for the race meant I needed to finish by 8:20pm, not 7:20pm. I have no idea why I had 12 hours stuck in my head. I rolled into the aid station at 4pm exactly, 30 minutes before the cut off. I've done worse. Laz was sitting in a chair, grinned at me and said I had plenty of time, then punched my bib. Our drop bags were here and I found mine, extracted my hiking poles, stuffed my face full of cookies, and headed on up the trail feeling good.

The feeling didn't last long. I passed a guy sitting on the trail looking miserable. I offered some food but he said he couldn't keep it down. A little while later I passed another guy who was coming back down the trail I was climbing. I don't know why but I imagine it wasn't good. The climb up to Castle Rock eventually changed from a normal trudge into a true soul crushing experience. The climb just didn't end. When it seemed you were near the top, off to the left you could see something much higher across the ridge. To add insult to injury there's a drop half way back down the hollow before you have to climb back out of it again and on up to Castle Rock. Near the end the slope got so steep (especially on tired legs and lungs) that folks would walk 10 yard, lean on a tree, and let others pass them. It was a giant game of slow motion leap frog.

Finally the top appeared and I ran the ridge line to another insulting incline. The trail finally turned back and began its descent. I ran this section for the most part and came to the last aid station at 6:30 pm. I topped off water and ate a energy bar of some sort. I was promised that it was only 3.3 miles to the finish and it was all down hill. I had a brief flash of seeing myself knocking that out in 30 minutes and coming in under 12 hours. If I was fresh, and the distance was accurate, that was definitely possible. In retrospect I don't know what I was thinking. I jogged along, enjoying the downhill and knowing I had this thing beat. I figured I'd hit the drop-bag section (may or may not account as an aid station) in about 20-25 minutes and have a bit of time to run the rest into the finish on adrenaline.

Twenty minutes passed. Thirty minutes passed. Forty minutes passed. Still no aid station. I walked some. This has got to be the longest 3.3 miles ever. I hadn't paid too much attention to the distances of each aid station because I figured they weren't terribly accurate anyway. I've run enough of Dr. Horton's races to take inter-race distances (or race distances in general) with a grain of salt. Usually something like "5 miles" really means "at least 5 miles but likely much more".

The light was failing and I was starting to run out of mountain and knew the road had to be nearby. At one point I tripped on nothing (while walking!) and fell. I'd nearly fallen several times in the last hour or two as fatigue set in, but this time I went down. I managed not to hurt anything but both calves immediately seized up on me. I instantly adopted anti-charlie-horse position and managed to avoid complete catastrophe. I gingerly picked myself up and staggered on. Fortunately my calves loosened up quickly and weren't a problem. The aid station appeared (or what was left of it). Laz was still sitting in his chair. He gave a thumbs up and cheerfully announced there was only 5 miles go to. Funny guy!

I ran the whole road section. I was tired, but not sore. Mentally I wanted to walk, but really nothing hurt so why walk? I rounded the corner and heard some cheers. The big clock confirmed I could come in under 12:30 if I kept running so I picked it up a little and passed through at 12:29 and change. The medal bestower had to try a few times to get my finishers medal around my neck due to my staggering. Aaron was there and pointed me to some water. I relaxed and got to hear about his remarkable run and 14th place finish. Yikes that's fast!

Eventually we walked back to his car and he gave me a ride back to the campsite. The site had showers, which Aaron ensured me were sublime. He was right. I felt much better and was glad to have a chance to soap down any possible poison ivy. I had to wash my face about 3 times to get the salt taste to go away. I got dinner going on my little alcohol stove, setup my tent then collapsed in a chair and sipped on a hot meal. Aaron came back from visiting with some VA Tech friends and we chatted about our favorite parts of the course and our various challenges. By 9pm I was ready for bed. I snuggled under my quilt with some ear plugs in and closed my eyes. A moment later I opened them and it was past midnight. The cool air blew through the open tent. Acorns continued to bomb down with alarming force (on my car! I expected to see dents or a cracked wind shield in the morning but I didn't.)

I thought I'd hit the road by 7am but I didn't wake up until nearly 8am. Packing up went quickly and I was soon back on the road to Virginia.

I came in 125th overall. There were 164 finishers. I think about 250 started the race. Folks with GPSes have said they tracked the course in the 34-36 mile range. I believe it.

dave.macluskie AT