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:
(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:
They sure like their moonshine in TN:
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.
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:
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…
Me coming out of testicle:
And about to drop down Meth:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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!
Here are my split times:
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:
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!
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.
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.