I have put my running on the back burner for the past couple of years while I focus on coaching and completing my master’s degree at the University of Maine. I needed a race this year that would keep me motivated and moving more consistently but would also not be too big of an undertaking to the point that it would consume me and spit me out. I have for years been caught up in the lore of the Barkley Marathon and this has certainly become more of a mainstream infatuation over the last 4-5 years with the emerging coverage of this race.
The Barkley Fall Classic allowed me to get a taste of what the trails of Frozen Head Park are really like along with the notorious climbs of Testicle Spectacle, Meth Lab Hill, and Rat Jaw. Sometimes it can be difficult to gauge what a place is like when there is so much hype surrounding it. Leading up to the race it was easy to be consumed by the race message board and the strange mix of bravado as well as outright fear and despair this race seems to elicit from people. The factors I was absolutely certain about were that the race would be longer than a normal 50K, it would probably have between 10-15,000ft of climbing depending on this year’s route, and that the factors I had to really worry about were things like heat exhaustion (which has plagued me in the past) and the possibility of getting stung by wasps from one ground nests in the park.
There was no moment leading up to this race that I thought I would even consider not finishing a 50K. I have raced over 40 ultras now from 50K-106 miles, so I knew even if I am not in the shape I was 2 years ago, I had the experience to get me through most anything.
The race started and routine kicked in, and I started towards the front in a group of 10 and then 5 as we made our way down the park road and past the famous yellow gate. The first climb was uneventful with the sound of faint yells of excitement from people on the switchbacks down below, most likely nervous energy looking for any way to escape.
After the first climb I knew I couldn’t redline my way through this race as I so often have in the past during a 50K, because I just didn’t have that fitness and I am not that runner right now. My gait changed, my focus relaxed, and I dialed back. This was a place I wanted to remember, a place that without seeing I have thought a great deal about for over 15 years. Once I accepted the fitness level that I have right now the race completely changed. I focused on connecting with the runners that seemed to match my pace early, several of them locals. They told me stories of hiking here with their kids or that they have been coming back every year for this race as it has such a major impact on the small community in Tennessee.
I started to realize that I was going to have to really focus and put my experience to work to make it through this race when I got to the top of the Testicle Spectacle climb — both legs completely and simultaneously cramped from my hips to what felt like the ends of my toes. I pounded the 3 full bottles I had on me and probably 500 calories as I tried to make my legs work again down the steep descent towards the Brushy Mountain Penitentiary.
I had visited the prison the day before with my wife and while I am not a spiritual person it was the first place I have ever walked around where there was just this feeling of despair. I thought about how strange it was that a place that once probably housed people who were capable of the very worst human behavior now has a distillery in the driveway leading up to it, a restaurant, and a stage in the back corner for musical guests.
Members of the local middle and high school football teams greeted me under the shade of the trees that line the entrance, anxious to fill my bottles. I asked them what position they played and how they thought their season was going to go. The volunteers are always what make a race special for me, as they are a slice of that community and reveal that no matter where I decide to travel and race there are truly good people wherever you go. These kids took a day to come together as a team to help me and hundreds of others through this challenge and I was grateful for their time.
Through the prison gates and along the wall to the back, then up and over the wall via ladders, I found myself crawling into a tunnel that cut back underneath the prison. While running through a drainage tunnel underneath a prison probably ranks low on most people’s fun scale, it was several hundred yards that provided a break from the sun and the heat that awaited on the other side. I have read about this climb, seen photos, videos, and I knew it was going to be difficult but when I found myself 1/3rd of the way through it I wanted nothing to do with it. The heat of the day settled in amongst the briars that have been growing all summer well overhead.
While the grade was steep it was the fact that I could not stand to climb that made it so difficult, as the briars became so thick that they created an impassible webbing that could only be navigated by staying low, often with both hands in the dirt trying to avoid their barbs. There even came a point when I sat down amongst them trying not to pass out from the heat and the hopelessness that this climb seemed to conjure. This climb mentally drains you as it is about fully committing. While the thought of quitting entered my head multiple times this was wasted energy as that would require heading back through the same briars I just climbed through.
Emerging at the top covered in hundreds of little cuts and bleeding I finally felt relief because it was the first time all day that I felt the finish. My drop bag consisted of a zip-lock bag with two Cokes in it waiting to bring me back to life. I pounded one and poured the other into one of my bottles while walking towards Lazarus where I asked what the distance was left for the 50K finish and he sheepishly grinned, saying 9 miles to go. I thanked him for putting on this race as it became clear as the day went on the amount of work that went into making this happen. I jogged the next section for what felt like a little over 3 easy miles of running to the last aid station. I asked what I had left to finish, hoping to get a more accurate answer, and the woman said 8 miles to go.
I passed 5-6 people through this stretch, and it was the first time I had noticed position since the start of the race. I wondered how many times I could complete the loop I just ran. How much further could I go on a course like this with the parameters of the actual Barkley Marathons where there were no course markings and the required orienteering. Back to the road and blisters opened up that had been forming and I was happy to be done moving for the day 11 hours later. I spent some time watching other finishers come through, thanking the volunteers I could and checking in to see how the other guys from New England were.
In the car driving away I felt like I had gotten away with something. I had managed to finish this race with little running in the weeks leading up to the race due to a hip issue. The funny thing was the hip never really bothered me that whole day. I was lucky to avoid getting stung (allergies) and did not succumb to the heat which was luckily not that bad except during the exposed climbs midday. I will have to think long and hard about coming back or continuing to try to enter the Barkley Marathon in the spring. I currently don’t have the time that is needed to be successful here between work, school, and coaching. It is funny how less than a week later I am even considering these as options. For now Rat Jaw will have to wait.