Barkley Fall Classic “50k”
Frozen Head State Park – Wartburg, Tennessee
September 16, 2017
When Laz put the final punch in my bib Saturday he told me I’d have to come back next year to finish the 50k. Hesitantly, dirty and exhausted, I told him, “I’m not sure about that.” I had walked the last miles, some up a mountain that drained the last of my energy, and the final couple down to the finish. I touched the yellow gate, I admired the late afternoon sun filtering through the trees, and I daydreamed about Jared Campbell, Gary Robbins, and John Kelly running on these same trails.
After 10 hours and 42 minutes I crossed the finish line for a BFC Marathon finish.
Then I walked past the awards table without stopping.
I did not pick up a marathon finishers award. I didn’t drive to Tennessee to finish “just a marathon,” and I didn’t want a participation medal. Forget that.
I had lied to Laz. When I said “I’m not sure.” I should have smiled and said, “I know. I’ll see you next year.”
BFC was my ‘A race’ this year. I started a plan based on Jason Koop’s book Training Essentials for Ultrarunning back in March. I dropped 15 pounds, ran a strong 12-hour race in May followed by a mediocre 40 miler in July.
The June race did not go as well as I wanted. It shook my confidence, and mixed in with a couple week-long camping trips, my mileage suffered as the summer months unfolded. Somewhere in there I fell off my training plan and settled into a regular pattern of one weekly speed workout, two hill workouts, long run, and two to three recovery days each week. While I started strong, my summer of training was inconsistent at best. I had a handful of decent long runs and a few good trail runs, but the mileage was not where I wanted it to be.
The Barkley Fall Classic isn’t quite normal. My pre-race included a 10 hour drive, sleeping in a small car at an Ohio rest area, camping at a prison, grocery stores that don’t sell beer, and a spaghetti dinner next to a two time Big Barkley runner.
At dusk the night before the race I was sitting with a friend drinking beer and swapping stories. He told me a horror story about a guy who put dry drink mix in his hydration bladder and then found it was clogged when he added water and started running his race. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was foreshadowing.
In the morning I discovered that the Tailwind I had put into my hydration bladder to “save time in the morning” had clogged it. I spent 45 minutes trying to fix it while other campers were getting ready around me. As I ran out of time, I gulped down my coffee, shoveled instant oatmeal into my stomach, hastily rolled up my dew-soaked tent, and threw everything into the back seat of the car. It was a chaotic way to start the day, but I made it to the start line with plenty of time left to kill before the start. This was strike one against my nutrition plan.
Frozen Head State Park’s trails include several gently rolling hills, some mountains, and intersecting jeep roads. The often-passed-around wisdom is that if you run everything that’s runnable, you’ll do fine. That was my plan going in – run everything, even when it hurt.
After the opening cigarette is lit, there is roughly a mile of paved road before the first single track of the day. If you don’t get ahead of the crowds, you can get jammed up in a conga line for an hour or more right off the bat. At the start I passed as many people as I felt comfortable and hit the trails in a decent spot. Within half an hour I was in a small group somewhere behind the leaders but well ahead of the bulk of the runners. I never caught the woman’s name I ran with, but we hammered the first section together and everything felt awesome. It was a great start after a rough morning, and I caught myself thinking that these Barkley trails weren’t nearly as rough as I had been led to believe.
Then it got serious.
Sliding, falling, and stumbling down Testicle Spectacle was harder and steeper than I expected. The race leaders –some of them recognizable ultrarunners- passed me on their trip back up Testicle. If I was that close to the front, I must have been running too hard. I reminded myself to slow it down a notch and run my own race. I also reminded myself I needed to eat real food at the aid stations. I grabbed a Slim Jim at the bottom of Testicle Spectacle and forced it down. A minute later, after I burped, I realized how spicy it had been and not at all what my stomach wanted.
Half way back up Spectacle I pulled over and choked up some still spicy Slim Jim. Three quarters of the way up I went off to the side to dry heave and catch my breath. At the top, my oatmeal decided it needed fresh air, too. Gross. An empty belly is no way to run this race. Strike two against my nutrition plan.
Pulling myself back together, I made my way down the steeper-than-shit Meth Lab Hill and walked to the prison. Rat Jaw was coming and I wanted to have some strength for it/not puke again. Half way up Rat Jaw I found my buddy David Harlow snapping photographs for his volunteer position. It was fantastic to see a friend in the midst of this giant-ass hill! He told me I was only an hour or so behind the leaders, which boosted my spirits quite a bit. Things were looking up again, but I knew my stomach was still empty and it was only a matter of time before that came back to haunt me.
Before driving down south, I had made two different kinds of trail balls for the race. We have a recipe for peanut butter and honey energy bites that are ridiculously good. I can eat them by the handful. The second flavor I made was a ‘sweet and salty maple syrup energy bite’ with a variety of nuts, dates, and maple syrup. I took that recipe from John Kelly’s blog about his Big Barkley nutrition plan. If it worked for him, it would work for me, right? Wrong. After the Slim Jim mistake, my stomach wanted nothing solid. I managed to get some pieces of bananas to stay down, but anything else made me gag. My nutrition plan quickly boiled down to salt pills, water, and any bananas I could get down at aid stations. All in all I ate one half of a trail ball all day despite carrying ten of then with me in a baggie. Strike three to my nutrition.
The next sections of the course are a blur. I ran everything I could, swallowed a salt pill when I felt weak, and kept a good pace on beautiful trails. A little before the third aid station I caught a group of runners stopped at a trail intersection. They were debating which turn to take. A group of us split off and headed to the right. Half a mile down the trail we were surprised by a group coming back toward us. We were all lost. The decision was made to run back the way we came from and figure it out. Word is the fastest runners lost upwards of 1.5 hours. I figure I only lost 20-30 minutes, but by the time we finally reached the Garden Spot aid station my lack of calories was taking its toll and time was increasingly meaningless. I could run and power hike, but I could feel myself getting weaker by the minute. I ate the best 1/3 of a banana to ever be grown and made the poor choice to drink too much water. Fifty yards down the trail the water came back up. I was 7 hours in and had 2.5 hours to reach Laz if I wanted to finish the full 50k. With an empty stomach and growing weariness, BFC was kicking my ass harder than I expected.
Then Bird Mountain brutalized me. During the never ending switchbacks I passed or joined up with some other weakened hikers, lost them, got passed by people still running, and took several breaks on boulders or well placed trees. Climbing over, through, and under blow downs became laying down on them and flinging my legs over. At one point I rested my head on a tree trunk and started drifting off to sleep standing up. I was done. It was over. Unfortunately I was on single track miles up a mountain. This was no place to stop, so I trudged toward Laz, the finish line, and a place to sit my exhausted ass down.
In the last mile of the Bird Mountain descent I had a world class wipe out. I tripped over a rock, and my weight shifted to the walking stick I had been using. It promptly snapped in half. I dropped to my knees, but the momentum carried me forward. I slid down the trail on my shoulder and face. Popping up, hoping no one saw that, I heard a concerned woman’s voice behind me: “Oh my god! Are you okay!?” I assured her I was fine and she could keep running. It turns out, of course, that she’s a friend of David Harlow. As she sat down to join us for dinner an hour later, she immediately asked if I was okay with a shit-eating grin on her face. I told her it was the cherry on top of my day, and, truthfully, it was. It was a rough day on a beautiful, challenging course. The famous climbs are steeper than they appear in pictures, the camaraderie between runners is the best I’ve ever experienced, and the switchbacks go on forever.
I’d love to be bitter that I wasn’t faster or didn’t push myself on Bird Mountain, but not finishing didn’t happen on accident. My training should have been better, my nutrition was doomed/nonexistent, and I overestimated my fitness. These were all beginner mistakes. Now I have a whole year to train, plan, and overcome these weaknesses. In 2018 I will beat this course, and I will bring home that damn Croix de Barque. Then I might do it again in 2019 just because I can.
What I Learned
My nutrition planning sucks. This was my 5th ultra and I still don’t have it figured out. I need to go back and start over from scratch. Dense, chewy stuff doesn’t go down well enough. I’m thinking of trying pureed food or getting creative with soup.
My cousin is getting married next year on the same weekend as BFC. Terra, I’m sorry. I won’t saving that date for you.
I need to get stronger. Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw are full body workouts. I remember doing “bear crawls” in high school football. They sucked then. As a 38 year old on the side of a mountain, they’re way worse. I found myself pricing a “maxiclimber” yesterday and browsing gym memberships.
The Barkley community is phenomenal. At the pre-race dinner, during the race, and after the race I talked to big Barkley runners, top ten finishers, back-of-the-packers. Everyone was cool. Everyone was supportive, happy to give advice, and went out of their way to make sure the people around them were doing okay.
I just added myself to the wait list for an October 50k, but there is nothing else on my calendar until the spring. Tentatively, next year looks like a “debut” half in April, 24-hour ultra in June, and a 100 mile Western qualifier in October.
And, of course, there’s a really cool medal that I want to earn down in Tennessee, so I’ll be making a second trip to Frozen Head in September as well.