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Barkley Fall Classic Race Report

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Barkley Fall Classic Race Report

Post by echoguy on Tue Sep 20, 2016 7:11 pm

Hey Everybody:

Here's my report from the Barkley Fall Classic last weekend.

Barkley Lite 2016

While we were sliding on our rear ends down Testicle Spectacle at the Barkley Fall Classic 50k, one of my fellow participants asked me if we should consider what we were doing a trail race or should we consider it an adventure race. Realizing we would be turning around and the bottom of this hill and coming right back up, none of what we would be doing for the next hour or more would resemble trail running. But, since we did not need rafts or bikes, I didn’t think this version of the Barkley would be a true adventure race, but it comes as close as anything I have ever done before.

The Barkley Fall Classic was first held in 2014 and is considered the “spawn” of the springtime Barkley Marathons. The real Barkley is a notoriously challenging race held each year at Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, TN. This park is the woods where James Earl Ray entered when he escaped for 2 ½ days from Brushy Mountain State Prison in June 1977. A documentary about the 2012 Barkley and the relationship of the race to the Ray escape was released last year and is titled “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats It’s Young”. (available on Netflix) .

I was somewhat familiar with the Barkley from the race reports of friends, watching the movie, and brief articles in Ultrarunning Magazine. The race director, Gary Cantrell, (aka Laz Lake) is one of the truly colorful characters in the ultrarunning community. So when the lite version of the Barkley was started, it immediately went on my bucket list of races. This race gives a significant number of participants a taste of what only a few have been able to experience in the past.

I prepared myself to be both physically and mentally challenged. For the first time in probably 5 years I would be running or hiking without GPS because they do not want the specific course published on the internet. While they advised us most of the course would be on trails and most turns on the course marked, they still expected us to have some places of anxiety about which way to go. They provided us with a map printed on cloth to take with us, as well as a compass and a whistle. We were expected to have our bib punched at seven different spots along the route to prove that we covered the entire course.

Race preparation included several things unique for this race. I practiced running with a hydration vest for the first time in my life. I also did a good bit of hiking to work on my technique with trekking poles. (although poles are not allowed for the first 22 miles of the race). I also tried running in a pair of longer hiking shorts and eventually decided to run in them so that I would have lots of pockets for maps, camera, etc. Fortunately, I put the biking gloves that I use with my poles in my back pocket for the start of the race. They were very important for the climbing that required more than two points of contact.

I started the race with no time expectations. I hoped to be able to finish within the 13 1/3 hours that they allow for the 50k, but did not know how much room I would have to spare. I sat next to Buddy at the pasta dinner the night before the race and he had finished in 12 hours the year before and felt like he was about mid pack. At 22.1 miles, Laz gives each runner arriving within 9 ½ hours a choice to either go back out for another 9 mile loop or run one more mile to the finish line for what they call the marathon distance. I promised myself that I would try to finish the 50k if I made the required cut off.

Like the Barkley Marathons, the race starts with Laz lighting a cigarette. The first few miles are mostly on a paved park road to give us a chance to position ourselves in the group of runners prior to hitting the single track trail. I decided I would try to find a spot just a little ahead of the middle of the pack and settled in to what felt like about 9 or 10 minute per mile pace for the first few flat paved miles. Soon we passed the famous Barkley yellow gate and entered the single track switchbacks of Bird Mountain Trail. Looking at the map now, it looks like the first climb was about 1,500 feet (Flying Pig Eden Park is 300-400) For the next five miles my pace was pretty much determined by the runners in front of me as we formed a conga line going up and down switchbacks occasionally passing a tired runner who had stepped aside.

We had been warned to be on the lookout for snakes as the area is known to be home to both copperheads and rattlesnakes. This early in the morning I was not worried much about snakes, but I should not have been surprised when the runner in front of me screamed in pain just a few moments before I felt the first of my three yellow jacket stings on my head, wrist and ankle. For the next 30 minutes or so we could hear the occasional runner as they passed the yellow jackets and screamed from the switchbacks below. Also in the very first miles I somehow blew a hole in the top of my left shoe. I had remembered to bring my Dirty Girl Gaiters with me for this race, but now they would be pretty much useless for keeping debris out of my shoe.

During the early switchbacks I worried a bit that we were going a little too slowly and that we would be in some danger of missing the cutoff at mile 22.1. It seemed that when we would head back down the switchbacks the crowd would spread out a little, but then get bunched again on the up hills. I was relieved when we reached the two aid stations at mile 7.6 and mile 12.4 with over an hour to spare.

The course beyond the second aid station started with a double track jeep trail that was fairly steep downhill. Some runners took advantage and barreled quickly down the hill and spread out the pack. I tried to run fairly conservatively with forward leaning, short strides to preserve my quads as much as possible. I was already feeling a bit of the strain from the switchback downhills. I still took my first opportunity to fall when I tripped over a small rock and rolled over my shoulder.
Soon I found myself standing at one of the most famous Barkley landmarks, a powerline cut in the mountain trees known as Testicle Spectacle. I’d seen trails like this before, but generally on ski slopes with a smooth layer of snow, not full of runners and briars. I’m not sure how they do this bit in the regular Barkley, but we were to go down to the bottom, get our bib punched at the aid station, and then come directly back up. No more running for a while. For most of the descent I alternated between steep hiking, crab crawling on all fours, and sliding on my butt. I did a pretty good job on the way down of avoiding the briars and for the most part maintained my place.

I’ve been running for the most part of over 15 years, so my legs are strong and I am in excellent cardiovascular condition. But, my upper body strength is to be pitied, and I am neither limber nor nimble. So I was passed by several runners on the way back out who were better able to handle the terrain. I spent a good bit of the climb on all fours close to the limits of my ability to keep moving myself up. Not limited by my breathing, but by my strength. I did fall a few feet one time, but got myself wrapped around a tree and thus avoided taking out the runner behind me.

Upon reaching the top, we immediately went over the other side of the mountain again along a power line cut. This side was not nearly so steep as the other, but mostly too steep to run so I hiked trying to keep the pressure off of my quads as much as possible. At the bottom we popped out onto a fairly flat road leading into the now empty Brushy Mountain State Prison and an aid station just outside. I was immediately behind a group of younger local folks who had run this race once or twice before. They did not seem in a particular hurry to run down the road, or get through the aid station or prison. I decided they must know something that I did not. I was correct.

We had heard a bit about the prison during our pasta dinner the night before the race, so it was interesting to hike through the main building and yard to the wall James Earl Ray went over. They were kind enough to provide a ladder for us to scale the wall. We then followed a stream into a tunnel that goes under the corner of the prison to the base of the next big obstacle, Rat Jaw. Chatting with experienced runners prior to reaching this point, I was warned that Rat Jaw would be the most likely place to get discouraged. Now I found out why those in front of me had been in no hurry getting to and through the prison.

I wish I would have thought to take splits along the course as it would be interesting to see how long this climb of 1800 feet up Rat Jaw took me. Like Testicle Spectacle, Rat Jaw is a power line cut full of underbrush which had mercifully mostly been cut for us. I was advised to just keep moving the best I could and take breaks when I needed to. It seemed to be one false summit after another. Just as I would get hopeful that I was within sight of the top, another slope leading further up would come into view. In a few places we found cables that could be used to help pull ourselves up the slope. Again, I was passed by several who were more flexible, nimble and fitter (and mostly younger!) than me. Finally, I could see a fire tower and I figured it must be at the top, and it was.

The guy to punch our bib was at the top of the fire tower. Standing on the top of the tower, a few miles beyond the halfway mark of the race, I had pretty much had all of the adventure I desired. It had been hours since I had run more than a few steps, so I figured if I could just get the energy to go, I should be ok. I had been pretty good about eating energy bars at the aid stations and keeping well hydrated with the water I was carrying. Far from “hitting the wall” like I have done many times in the past, I was just running out of “want to”. But, then I looked at my watch and started to do some calculations.

I was in danger of missing the 22.1 mile cut off. I had figured my effort had stayed fairly consistent since the last cut off, but my buffer had gone from over an hour to what looked like may be 10 minutes or so. Motivation was back to get me running anything flat and smooth enough to run and power hiking the rest.

At about mile twenty a young woman came up behind me on the single track and I offered to step aside to let her pass. She declined and then asked me if I was trying to make the cut off and I told her that I was. She said she planned to just call it a day when she reached the aid station and head in to the marathon finish. I had not really considered throwing in the towel early, but now I also was faced with the decision. It was also a bit concerning to me to have someone who was planning to run the shorter distance be the first one behind me. Was everyone else behind me also planning to stop? Was I in last place of the 50k??? oh no!! I also took my last tumble in this section. Another head over heels roll that ended up with me sliding down the hillside along the trail. I took a few minutes to regroup and be happy that I had no injuries other than scrapes from my three falls.

At the aid station I was able to restock my supplies and grab my trekking poles. I was advised the last nine-mile loop had two long climbs. But, it was all on hiking trail and the climbs were on switchbacks. I had a bit over five hours to make it nine miles. I figured if I could keep somewhere close to 30-minute pace on the hills and could shuffle 20-minute pace for the rest, I should be able to finish. The problem was without GPS, I did not have a good reference for pace so I just had to go by feel. On the way out, Laz told me “it’s all well marked and downhill from here…..I haven’t lied to you yet have I?” I smiled and shuffled off hoping that I could keep going for another five hours.

A month ago I attended a Wilderness Medicine Conference where I got a little bit of training in topographical map reading. When I stopped to look at my map, it appeared that the biggest climb was going to come at the very end of the loop and the start was a very gentle grade up. So I was a bit shocked when within the first half mile what appeared to be a hill similar to the very first hill of the race rose up before me. I worried what the hilly part would look like if this was what I was reading as the relatively flat part. My fear was relieved when I realized I had not considered which way we would be going on the loop and in fact we would be going counterclockwise…Whew… So the big hills come first, and a gentle grade downhill to the finish. Yipee!!

I had a bit of a déjà vu moment on the climb. I was very much reminded of my springtime climb up Guadalupe Peak in the afternoon after running the El Paso Marathon in the morning. I was also pressed for time that day due to daylight and the grade and distance was about the same. The other similarity was my breathing. I don’t do much hiking where I my cardiovascular system is the limiting factor. But, in both hikes I was breathing pretty hard on the climb and getting as much help from my trekking poles as I could. The difference was that on Guadalupe I had run a comparatively flat marathon in the morning, had a nice lunch, and drove a few hours before the long hike. Still, I was encouraged by that feeling that I had done something remotely like this before.

Approaching the top of Chimney Tops I found myself all alone on the trail and I came to an unmarked fork in the trail. I didn’t have much extra time to waste wondering around for the correct trail, so I decided that I would first explore the trail that lead to the higher ground, figuring Laz would pick the more difficult trail. After about 50 yards the trail did not seem to be disturbed much by foot traffic, so I decided to reverse course and wait for other runners to come by. After a few minutes a group of about five young runners came up, some of whom had run the race before. They were somewhat sure the trail went up, but did not express enough confidence for me to follow them. The next runner by was very sure the trail did not go up and since I had not been on the lower trail yet, I decided to follow. Soon it was obvious we were on the correct trail and we yelled for the other group to reverse course and join us.

I did not learn the names of any of the runners that I encountered on this last bit of trail, but we became an encouragement team for each other. Nobody was feeling great and moving significantly faster than anyone else. But, we were all doing well enough that if we kept moving at pace, we would all finish well within the time allotted. My fuzzy math told me that if I could reach the last aid station by 12 hours (7pm), I should be able to finish on time, even if I had to walk a bit in the dark near the end.

We reached the aid station at 11:38 and were relived to be informed my map reading was correct, it was slightly downhill all of the way to the end. But, it was a bit concerning when he told us it was 3.8 miles to the finish rather than the 3.3 printed on the map. I had a very hard time judging how fast I was going at this point but figured that I was running well under 15 minute miles and walking very little. After about 30 minutes I was finally able to let down my guard a little and relax with confidence I was going to be able to make it. I felt a little bit of moisture welling up around my eyelids.

With a little under a mile to go, I went past Laz’s checkpoint just as he was taking it down. At first I ran right past. But after a few steps I came back to shake his hand and thank him for giving us the opportunity to experience the course and for making it a worthy but reachable challenge. He said we all need to try things in life where failure is a real possibility. I agree.

When I popped out on the road I recognized where I was for the first time in a long time and could completely relax and enjoy the run. I do get a bit emotional at the end of long races and this one was no different. Enough years have passed since my heart problems for Wink to feel a bit more confident I won’t do anything too crazy. But I do know this race was stretching the limit for her to send me off with little or no fuss. For her support, I am forever grateful.

I crossed the finish line in 12:33:28, so I had 45 minutes to spare. The records show I finished 76th out of 96 finishers and 324 starters. I pushed myself plenty hard, but never felt near the danger line. I gained great respect for those athletes who finished several hours before me as they ran many of the hills where I hiked and ran hard where I jogged. I gained even greater respect for those spring Barkley Marathons runners who turn around after a loop like mine and go back out for another loop. I encourage all of you who have maintained interest to this point to go experience this race for yourself. But…..I’m not going back out for a second loop!!

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Re: Barkley Fall Classic Race Report

Post by RoadKillBill on Wed Sep 21, 2016 6:59 am

echoguy wrote:I encourage all of you who have maintained interest to this point to go experience this race for yourself.

LOL...ain't gonna happen!

What an epic and memorable sufferfest. Congrats on the finish! Great race report, as always.

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Re: Barkley Fall Classic Race Report

Post by jerseyguy on Wed Sep 21, 2016 7:43 pm

Man, you biathletes, triathletes, ultra-runners and now "adventure" runners put me to shame.
Another fantastic essay! You do realize at some point you need to publish your running memoirs! Smile
Barkley Marathons is on my watch list for the weekend.

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Re: Barkley Fall Classic Race Report

Post by twal on Sat Sep 24, 2016 5:08 pm

Nice work.


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Re: Barkley Fall Classic Race Report

Post by Dave Tuttle on Sun Sep 25, 2016 8:30 pm

Wow Brian! Epic!!!

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