Barkley Fall Challenge 2018

I have never seen so much carnage in a race as I saw in Frozen Head State Park for the 5th annual Barkley Fall Classic:

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(A compilation of a few shots shared on FB after the race.)

Grown men and women would crawl into briars to sit or lie down to escape the relentless sun and find just a little shade.  Projectile vomiting was seen many times.

But, let me back up.  The Barkley Fall Classic is an attempt to simulate one loop of the infamous Barkley Marathons.  I won’t go into details here of what that race is all about, there are many other sources including two fantastic documentaries (“The Race that Eats its Young” and “Where Dream Go To Die”).  Anyone who has done a loop of the big Barkley will say a single BFC loop is much easer, and that’s hard to fathom, but at the same time, after having suffered one loop of BFC, believable, due to the fact that big Barkley has a lot more navigation required, plus some loops will be at night.

I’ve long been more than just a bit fascinated with Big Barkley, since an article first appeared in Adventure Racing magazine almost 20 years ago, long before it became as notorious as it is today.   And as much as once every month or two, I am asked if I’ve heard about it (or even if I’ve done it!).  Laz, the RD (creative / evil / mastermind), has said the Barkley finds you if you are meant to be there.  And I’ll leave it at that.  🙂

Last year I was on the wait list for BFC, which gave me a small window of opportunity to sign up for the 2018 BFC before it was opened to the masses.  Good thing, as BFC registration typically crushes Ultra-sign up, and I got in (though still had some issues getting through!).

Rewind a bit in 2018 and I’ve only done two big runs:   Run Across Haiti and Boston.   After those two runs, I have to admit, I struggled both physically and mentally.  It didn’t help that some close friends were going through some tough times.   I finally started to pull out of it in late summer, but a bit late to be as prepared for BFC as I would have liked to be.  But then again, how often do we ever feel as prepared as we want to be for our biggest races?

A few days out from BFC, Hurricane Florence started making it’s way towards NC, which altered the plans of many.   But it looked like our home would be relatively safe, so I went for it.  (Kelly and the kids lost power for about 20 hours on Saturday, which meant I had no contact with them from Friday night until Saturday afternoon, but nothing more than that happened.)

On Thursday I drove up to Boone to secure the 7D home, stayed there, and then took off for TN early Friday a.m. to meet some people that wanted to do a shakeout run in the park.  I made it to the yellow gate in time to get a couple of miles in, and then headed over to packet pick up where we picked up the map.  (The course is different every year, so the course reveal at packet pickup is exciting!)  I totally missed Laz, who had flown in on a red-eye the night before, literally a day after he finished his lazcon, a walk across the entire country!  (Makes the Run Across Haiti seem a bit trifle in comparison!)  I also missed Jared Campbell, the only 3 time finisher of the Big Barkley.

Several of us headed over to Brushy Mountain for lunch and to study the maps:

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They sure like their moonshine in TN:

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I opted to skip the pre-race dinner, movie viewing, and football game, mostly because I can’t eat pasta without serious GI issues, but would have loved to spend more time with everyone.  I was able to get to bed at a decent time, slept fairly well, and woke up around 4 a.m., about 30 minutes before my alarm was to go off.  I had brought my jet boil to my hotel room, so I could make (good) coffee and heat up some oatmeal.

Game face on / Time to Earn It!  — this was taken about 5 a.m. before I drove the 35 minutes to Frozen Head State Park.  This shirt has got to go for hot humid races — for some reason it does not do so well in those conditions!  I pulled it off at Salvation Road and went shirtless.

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I arrived at the parking area with plenty of time to spare, and just relaxed waiting for the seven a.m. start, speaking to a few other runners, but not doing much else.

The race has a history of long conga lines on the first climbs, until the field spreads out, and this year the course would be on the roads for nearly 1.5 miles before hitting the single track.  So the question is always do you go out a bit hard to not get too far behind said conga lines, and risk red-lining too early and blowing up, or do you take it easy, knowing you have a 10, 11, or 12+ our day in front of you?  I opted for a decent pace that I thought was conservative and felt fine to the single track, with at least 50 people getting there in front of me.  And yes, there were lines, but who am I kidding.  It’s not like I was going to run up the mountain anyway.  A good strong power hike was all I would do, and the line I was in was content with that too.  A few people made passes, and we passed a few.

We reached the top and started a strong descent.  I was bit worried about how that would go – if everyone would be good or bad on technical descents, but it wasn’t too bad.   I left the group I was with, but soon caught a group in front, but it’s not like we were going very slow.

About 5-10 minutes into the second monster climb is when something went drastically wrong.  I got light headed, and had to step aside.  I watched 20, 40, 60, maybe 100 or more people pass on this climb, as I had to step off for 30 seconds to a minute at least 5 or six times.  I’ve never gotten light headed / dizzy like this in 20+ years of racing.  It would stop within those 30-60s of rest, and I’d go on, so I wasn’t too concerned about overall health.  I never felt like I was going to pass out.  But it would soon come back.

The next thing to go wrong was that about 3 hours in, my toes started cramping.   That would stick with me for the rest of the race, but the cramps worked their way up from my toes, to my calves, to my quads, to muscles I didn’t know I had above the quads.   About 10 hours in, my middle finger on my right hand cramped!  And then post race at dinner, both hands were cramping trying to eat chips and salsa and tacos.

Thankfully I have a few photos from photographers on the course:

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We finally left the single track climbs and started a long gravel road section down, with some pretty steep descents at places, as well as monster mud puddles that you could try to skirt, but risk falling in.  I slid into at least two of them.  I ran almost all of this strongly — the toes only cramped on technical sections with rocks and roots, and the rest of me felt good.  No light headedness on the descents.  I probably passed 25-30 (or more?) people in this section.  I reached the 1st aid station about 4.5 hours in, and was so hot I pulled off my shirt and raced w/o, even though I knew the pack would chafe without a shirt.  I refilled water and was quickly out, now ready to tackle some of the famous sections of the Big Barkley.

A view of Testicle and one of the lines forming in front of me…

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Me coming out of testicle:

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And about to drop down Meth:

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Meth had some 70% grades (drops) on loose gravel and rocks, and at one point we saw a swarming bees nest to the side, so we literally slide 30-40 feet as fast as we could hoping to not get stung.  I used my garden gloves and shoes to keep my butt off the ground.  Much of this was exposed, and the sun was really starting to beat down.

After Meth we had a bit of road to run (and walk) to get to the prison, all in the sun.  Thank goodness the aid station here had ice.  I took some and put it in my hat, as well as filled one bottle with it.  We ran up to the prison, through the prison yard, and then had to “escape” on these ladders:

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My toes cramped at the top and going down the back side, so I didn’t realize Jared Campbell himself was punching bibs there (and cheering us on from the top! see photo).

After the prison escape, we went through the tunnel, which is much longer that I ever thought after watching the documentaries.

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After the tunnel is Rat Jaw.  I really have no words to describe the hell that was rat jaw! But I will try.  First, you come out of the tunnel from the prison, climb a bit of a gully, and turn to see the 1st pitch:

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It’s loose dirt and gravel, with not many roots to hang on to.   You make it over that, and it’s nearly a mile at an average grade of 40% (you climb close to 2000 feet in that < mile), with some sections like the one shown above.   And much of it is covered in briars, as seen here:

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And this year, the sun was beating down on us.  It had to be over 90F in the sun, and there is little shade to be found.  Unless you crawl into the briars to sit and lie down.  Which many did.  As did I.

It was by far the hardest mile of my life.

Finally, after well over an hour (probably close to 90 minutes), I came out at the top – thanks to Misty Wong for these fabulous photos.

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I’d like to say that after that last one, I yelled out something like “I conquered Rat Jaw!”  Instead, I found a bit of shade on the road, and sat down for a few minutes.  There were may of us there with a look of shock and bewilderment.  EMTs were treating one runner, with a pulse oximeter on his finger.  Maybe lack of oxygen would explain my light headedness, but I didn’t stick around to have mine measured!

I did eventually get up, climb the “far tar” (fire tower), and run down the half mile or so on the gravel road to the next aid station.  There I stayed a bit longer than normal, trying to get some calories and water down.   I had gone much of rat jaw with no food, it was just so hot.  I was still struggling with cramping, as well as the light headedness on the big climbs, and knew this was the chance to try to refuel and rehydrate.

We had about a 4-5 mile run on single track, mostly down, to Laz, and the decision point. I was able to run all of this pretty well, and passed something like 8-10 people.   It’s here at Laz that if you make it before the 9.5 hour cut off, you get to decide if you want to go and get the 50k, or be relegated to a marathon finish as a consolation.  There was never any question in my mind, even though I had suffered today like no other day in my racing career, that I was going to give it a shot.  But I was surprised how many other runners in my general vicinity opted to stop!   We had reached Laz more than an hour before the cut off, but still some didn’t go on.

I took my poles from my drop bag, grabbed some food, changed socks, and grabbed a dry shirt, and headed out for the last 9 miles of the race.  The hike to the top of Chimney Top was long and slow, and there are some super steep sections near the top.  I was still having to pull over and stop to wait out the light headedness, yet at the same time I was still passing other runners.

A group of us reached the last aid station, and then 3 of us took off, again passing 8-10 runners before we reached the road at the bottom.  I have to give thanks to the guy that ran in front of me to the road, as I would not have run that much without him, but when he reached the road he had to pull over as he was close to vomiting.

I did make the finish, but man was I spent.  I quickly found some shade in the grass and sat down for a while.  Thanks to the other runner who brought me a few cups of water!

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Here are my split times:

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This year, of the 400+ starters, there were 203 50k finishers,  127 marathon finishers, and 123 DNFs, one of the highest finishing rates in the race’s history.  (Which likely means next year will be harder!)

Someone on FB posted split analysis, which shows me as 146, 91, 104, 81, and 82 for each leg.  That 1st one was rough, when at least 100 runners passed me on the 2nd climb as I really struggled.  But after that I was much more consistent…  What’s most interesting to me is that for Prison to Shelter C, I was only 5 minutes slower than the eventual winner.  That shows how hard Rat Jaw would be if you were the one that has to bushwhack the briars, creating the eventual path later runners follow (including me!).

The Croix de Barque, the hardest medal I have ever earned, given to 50k finishers.  For multiple 50k finishes, you get multiple stars:

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I was pretty disappointed with my day at BFC, but after looking at my ultra signup rank, maybe I shouldn’t be.  The USR rank is your time divided by the winning time, and my BFC ranking of 76 lines up with my historical ranking of 74%.   However, knowing how bad the cramping was and the strange light headedness that stuck with me most of the day, I 1st have to be proud of the fact that I was able to finish, and 2nd know that I can do better.  I sure hope I can get in again next year to give it a another shot!

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The shoes stayed in TN.  They did have over 600 miles and were starting to tear.  I figured the BFC was a good way to end this shoe’s career.

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Gear:  Hoka speedgoat 2’s, Ruhn compression shorts (the longer ones), injinji toe socks, inkburn shirt to start, shirtless for most of the race, then light icebreaker sleeveless for the last few hours, UD vest (the big one of the 3 I own). UD bottles and 70oz bladder.

Nutrition:  Mostly tailwind (4 or 5 packs), vFuel (equiv of 7 gels), and a few date rolls;  a couple of chips and granola at one of the aid stations.  Total was pretty low on calories — maybe 2000 for nearly 12 hours and 301+ (++?) miles, but that is going to be the case in that kind of heat!  I took in more salt in the form of Endurolytes than I have ever taken, but maybe Endorolytes are a bit low in sodium after all.  (Per some recent podcasts I’ve listened to, though those guys are far lower on the LCHF spectrum than I am.)   Also took in BCAAs like normal.

Tetons Day 7: Cascade Canyon

Day 7 we awoke in Jackson and had a leisurely morning, before heading back into the park for Cascade Canyon.  This was the busiest place we had been — some of that was due to nicer weather, but some of it was due to the popularity of this hike!  We made it a little over 5 miles, to just before the Canyon forks north and south.  We again had a hot lunch and chilled for a bit, before heading back down.   This hike gave us a little over 50 miles of hiking and backpacking!

For dinner, we spoke to the hotel receptionist about some options, and decided on The Lift, a 15 minute walk towards the town ski slopes.  I imagine during the winter this place is happening, but at this time a year, it’s away from the down town business, and is more of a locals place.  We both had excellent meals.

On the walk over we saw a glass building with all kinds of colorful florescent lighting.  Upon closer inspection, we discovered it was an indoor garden, growing all kinds of vegetables on rotating shelves.  Pretty cool to see!

The next day we flew home.  We will definitely be back to hike the Teton Crest trail some day!  But we need to come in very late July or August, for that to be possible.

 

 

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Tetons Day 6: Paintbrush Canyon

After a warm night in a hotel, we both got in short runs, and then had great breakfast at the Trapper Grill.  We then headed up into Paintbrush Canyon, the canyon we had had permits to camp in the night before.  In the parking lot I saw a couple coming out with all the gear and talked to them about conditions they experienced, and it pretty much rained on them all afternoon, evening, and into the night.  So we felt justified that we had baled on our backpacking plans!

Paintbrush is a beautiful canyon.   It’s hard to pick a favorite, but it would come down to Death or Paintbrush.  They were so different.  Death definitely felt more remote, and the waterfall up was amazing.  Paintbrush had amazing open views of valley lakes.

We hiked up about as far as we could go — large snow field blocked the way.  At that point, looking further into the canyon was like looking at winter, but all you had to do was turn around and see spring.   We hiked back down a bit to an amazing camp site and set up our chairs, and cooked a hot lunch, and spoke to a few other backpackers that would be staying here this night.

When we got back to town we drove to The Bird, a burger joint about 10 minutes south of Jackson, that one of the local backpackers we had met coming out of Open Canyon had recommended.   It had a fun atmosphere and was quite good.

 

A bit of what some of the stream crossings are like:

 

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Tetons Day 5: Signal Mountain Lodge

We awoke to no rain, but we did have a decision to make.  Pretty much all of our gear was wet, other than the clothes we had on.  And the forecast was not looking good.  Our itinerary had us heading to the car, and driving north into the main part of the park to Paintbrush Canyon, so we decided to hold off on a final call until we were in the car.

On the way down we met three guys who had been out for the night at Phelps Lake.  We enjoyed talking to them, and when we reached our car at the trail head and it started to rain, we offered them a ride since their car was still almost a mile away.  They squeezed in, and we got them to their car.

Once in, Kelly and I made the call to see if we could find a hotel for the night.  We first tried Jenny Lake Lodge, but it was VERY EXPENSIVE!  We drove up to Signal Mountain Lodge, which was more reasonable, and checked in.  We had about an hour of very strong sun so I laid everything out and got it mostly dry, before the weather turned again.  We looked up in to the canyons and new we had made the right decision!  We enjoyed a nice meal and a warm bed.   And dry clothes!

(While we certainly could have trudged on, we would have spent many hours in the tent waiting out the rain.  The next day we hiked to Paintbrush and met a couple coming down how had camped, and they said they were pretty much poured on all afternoon, evening, and night!)

 

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Tetons Day 4: Open Canyon

 

After a night of mostly rain in Death Canyon, we awoke to a break in the weather that allowed us to have breakfast and pack up the gear.  I would have been tempted to stay another day/night in Death if it had just rained, even though our permits said to move out.  It was an amazing spot, and Kelly and I were the only ones for what seemed like miles.  No one else was in the Death Canyon camping zone!

A few minutes after we left the site with all our gear on our backs, Kelly suddenly stopped.  We had scared a bear cub up  a tree, less than 50 yards a way.  It was really cute, and I wish I had a picture, but we were also worried as we didn’t see Mama bear.  We stood very still and Kelly shook her bear bells, and after maybe 30-40 seconds, the mama appeared and ran up the hill.  Baby bear came down the tree and followed.  Shew!

We had to cross the same avalanche field and snow pack.  What was odd is that we approached the avalanche field, we saw a pack and poles, but no one around!   I yelled out, not wanting to scare anyone, and still nothing.  As we passed the bag I noticed a sheath and thought either “machete” or some kind of saw.  As we started to cross the field, it was apparent someone was out working trying to clear the field with a small hand saw!  Eventually we met the ranger and spoke to him.  His 1st question was “was anyone else up there last night,” to which we said “no.”  🙂

As we started down Death, it really started to rain and was really cold.  It was a bit of a death march, in some ways.  After an hour or two, I was getting really cold, but Kelly was marching along.  I started thinking of the B&B’s hot tub.  When we reached the fork in the trail at Phelp’s Lake, however, we did not turn back to the car.  We headed up towards Open Canyon.

After a few minutes we stopped for a warm lunch of rice noodle soup and tea, and though I was shaking from cold and wet, it made me feel a lot better.  And once we started up,  I did warm up.  I could tell Kelly was struggling, a bit.  Turns out her feet were pretty much ice blocks.  After a while we did come across three back packers — they were heading down and bailing — they had had a pretty aggressive plan of much higher peaks, and just didn’t have the gear.

When we found the site at Open Canyon, we set up, again just in time for a hail storm, though this one was much smaller than the night before.   We did have a brief, 30 minute period of sun, where we hung up our wet clothes to dry, but alas, it got dark too soon.

 

 

The river coming down in Open Canyon:

 

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Tetons Day 3: Death Canyon

Day three — time to start backpacking!  But only after an awesome breakfast at the B&B.   Again, to keep things simple, I’m just doing a single “tile mosaic” of all the images and will write at the top what we did, but will include videos here and there as well.

After breakfast, we headed into the park on Moose Wilson Road, a bit of a back door road into the park that passes by Teton Village, and then is 9 miles of tight and twisty road to the park.  Before the park, though, we hit the turn off for Death Canyon Trail head.   The 4×4 Jeep allowed us to drive the rough mile long road, through some major pot holes, to get all the way to the trail head.  We did pass a lot of cars parked much earlier, but in reality, we saw a minivan make it pretty far.  I personally would not have attempted that!

The trail to Death Canyon has a 1 mile lead in to a view of Phelps Lake, and then heads up the canyon.

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The 1st part of the hike, we saw a fair number of day hikers, but after that, we saw a few runners and day hikers.  One of the runners was wearing the same Prana shorts that I run in — something I’ve not seen before!  He also had no GPS and said he wasn’t training for anything, just out running.

The hike along the “river” (all snow melt) in Death Canyon was stunning:

 

We reached the top, where it flattened out, and we hiked along the creek with stunning mountain peaks and snow and waterfalls on each side.  We saw a few moose, and very few people.  One was a runner, who was wearing Prana shorts – something I’ve only know myself to do!  He had no GPS and said he wasn’t training for anything, just out for a 12-13+ mile run in an incredibly beautiful place.

We crossed a few snow packs, and even had to cross an avalanche field with down trees and snow:

 

After that, it was another mile or so until we found the perfect camp site.  We were on a bit of a rock knoll — really a 3 sided cliff – with a small flat grassy spot on top.  We set up the tent and grabbed a quick lunch, just before we got hit by a huge hail storm!

 

After the hail, it did rain for quite a while, but we were lucky enough to get a short window where we could cook dinner without  rain.

Photo’s from the day:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tetons days 1&2

Kelly and I celebrated 25 years of marriage by heading to one of our favorite places, Grand Teton National Park.  While we had wanted to backpack the Crest Trail, we were too early in the season.  The park ranges had told us we’d need to carry ice axes and know how to self-arrest!  We opted to do some canyon backpacking instead — in one canyon, then out to the next.   We still want to go back to do the entire Crest trail some day — but now know that needs to be mid to late July to (very) early September!

We flew in to Jackson Hole and had a couple nights at a fantastic Bed & Breakfast, Teton View B&B.   (When we landed in Jackso, the stewardess welcomed everyone there, but gave a special welcome to “Mr. and Mrs. Butler, celebrating 25 years…”)  The hosts of the B&B Franz and Carole were extremely welcoming and have a lovely set up.  They were especially helpful in finalizing our hiking and backpacking plans, which we would need to alter again based on input from the rangers as well, as to where snow was, etc.

I’ll just do a single photo mosaic below but walk you through what we did.  After arrival at the B&B, we headed to Teton Village and took the Bridger gondola to the top, which is free after 5 p.m.  We had a drink and a bite to eat, and then headed down to eat at the Mangy Moose.

The next day, we decided to day hike Amphitheater Lake.  We ended being turned back a little over 9000 feet, half mile short of the lakes, due to high snow.  We didn’t need to take any chances with Kelly’s knee before we started backpacking!   I did go one or two more switchbacks, but the trail wasn’t marked, and there was boot pack going in 2-3 different directions at each one, so decided it wasn’t worth it.

We headed back down and ended up at Trappers Grill at Signal Mountain Lodge, which has great deck seating and amazing views.  We ordered Reece’s favorite from last time — the huge plat of Nacho’s.

 

Here’s the Strava info for the Amphitheater Lake hike.