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A Return to Frozen Head

If looking for the short, bulleted version of this race report click HERE

In 2019 when I first completed the Barkley Fall Classic I vowed to my wife as we pulled away from the park that I would never return to this race unless I was better prepared (I might have left that second part out, but I know she knew deep down we would be returning at some point). That race woke me up. Despite running long races on trails for some time now, work took over and fitness from years before faded. I made it through that 2019 race with very little fitness and relied on experience.

My focus in 2022 has been solely on running the BFC in the way I knew I could.  The mystique of this race is in the unknown elements which attribute to the level of trepidation runners have going into it. I focused on what I knew: the park trails are runnable, the race would be between 30-40 miles depending on the route given to us the day before, it would likely include the storied climbs that make this race unique, and the race would probably have between 10-15,000ft of climbing, depending on how frisky Laz was feeling that year.

One of countless switchbacks in the park

We arrived a couple days early this year and I got a couple short runs in on the park trails to remind myself they are just trails like anywhere else. Race morning was a reminder of how many runners take this race on as 400 runners bounced around in a field anxiously awaiting the lighting of the cigarette that would signal the start of the race. The cigarette glowed in the predawn light and we were off. I started conservatively down the park road thinking about my plan and how I was going to approach the day.

Long day ahead for Laz

Through the first aid station someone behind me asked how many are ahead and the lady responded with “1,” which surprised me. I assumed it was Luke Nelson who went off the front looking to secure an entry to the Barkley Marathon in the spring (the reward for winning the fall classic is an option to enter the Barkley Marathons). Through the next aid station and a couple hours into the race I was still in 2nd with a group of a couple guys. Knowing the length of the next section and the series of difficult climbs and descents this race is known for I throttled the effort back further, letting about 10 runners pass me through this section. There is a running joke with this race that all the runners are idiots, and I knew I didn’t want to be the 2nd idiot going through the wall of briars that early in the race. A sign in my head flashed “work smarter, not harder.”

The sounds of motorcycles at the distillery let you know you how close you are from the Prison

I spend a lot of time thinking about pacing, whether with the runners I coach or in my own pursuits. My master’s thesis was on pacing variance in 100 milers (to give a sense of how much time I spend thinking about it). Nothing is guaranteed in ultramarathons and things tend to fall apart to a degree as they progress no matter where you are in the field. Most of these races come down to when and what actions you take to either correct the situation or at the least slow down the unravelling. This year it was critical to not push the entire middle portion of the race and focus on calories and hydration through the crux of the course route so that when I came out the other side, I was excited to run.

1 of a 1,000 moments focusing on not eating shit.

Going into the Testicle Spectacle aid station I got a look at the front 3 runners on their way out. They had a look of focus that was trying to mask the despair of knowing they were only half way through the hardest part of the day. Getting to this aid station would be a highlight for me as a large man in a Tennessee orange volunteers shirt asked if I wanted a Coke. He then handed me a full can after filling my bottles with water and I was back on my way. That Coke was so good I hardly noticed the steep grade of the next climb as I enjoyed all 39 grams of sugar and 32mg of caffeine.

I crushed the can at the top of the climb and tucked it into my pack with another discarded can I had found on the course earlier. Littering is unnecessary and I was happy with the decision the race had made doing away with gel packets. I tried to encourage every runner I could on the following descent and through the next climb. The highlight of the route this year was being able to see all the other racers out there working their way to their own goals with this race.  

The course would take us under the prison through the drainage pipe twice this year

The last few steps up Rat Jaw

 After clearing the final big hurdle, I was where I wanted to be, motivated to run late in the race and somewhere in the top 10. I enjoyed a nice downhill section of trails I had yet to explore in the park and made my way to the decision point. Thanking the football players who took time out of their day to support us at the aid station,

Coalfield HS Football players volunteering their time at all of the aid stations

I made my way to the decision point where Laz was stationed waiting to see if runners decided to run the short stretch of pavement to the marathon finish or continue on and finish the full race. I stopped and talked with Laz for a minute while taking my shoe off to get a rock out that had been bothering me the last few miles. I joked that I planned on enjoying the next 7 miles to the finish and this tiny rock was standing in my way of that. I thanked him for making challenges like this possible.

By this point it’s hard to have a sense of where people are. I knew there was probably a handful of runners a few minutes behind but I wasn’t sure about the gaps in front of me at this point. In the last few switchbacks of the final climb, I caught a glimpse of 5th place and decided I would wait for the last long downhill to attempt to bring him back. This part of the park was peaceful at this hour with the sun cutting through the trees along the ridge of a trail I had yet to run in the park. I felt grateful for this experience.

This was the point in the race where I let myself think about the Big Barkley. 10 hours into this race and almost done and I felt good. How would I feel if I kept this up for another 10 hours? Could I put forth this effort for 60 hours? I know from experience that for big impossible goals they need to be chunked down into smaller manageable boxes that can be checked before moving onto the next. I imagine that is the only way to approach the longer race without it totally overwhelming you before even starting it.

 I do know I did not suffer racing the Barkley Fall Classic. I believe that term gets thrown around a little too easily. Recently I have had several friends lose loved ones. That is suffering. I can feel their grief and pain without it even being my own. Moving through the woods on a nice day is something I enjoy. Briars and thorns are a nuisance and the damage they do is more superficial than anything else.

I passed one last sign that says, “NO REALLY ONLY 1 MORE MILE” and I know that it’s probably one last chance to mess with runners and that it’s probably a mile and half to the finish. I know it will feel longer as perceived distance is always expanding at this point in a race. I pushed the pace during that final descent on a newly constructed service road before cutting back into the single track that would eventually take me the finish line. While I took time off the gap 5th place had on me in the final descent I should have started the push earlier on the last climb up Bird Mountain.

400 Starters // 108 finishers // 27% finisher rate // 6th Overall

Collecting my 2nd Croix at the finish I met another Mainer from Livermore Falls waiting for her runner to finish. Mainers always tend to find one another as there are not many of us. A bonus was finishing the race in time to make the dinner reservation my wife had made at the Dancing Bear Lodge. After rinsing the day off and sitting down to eat it was not lost on me how strange it is to spend the day in constant movement covered in dirt and cuts from briars and to then be still in a nice restaurant. The couple near our table was celebrating a wedding anniversary after capping off the end of a vacation. Our waiter Dan also happened to be from Maine where he used to have an ice cream truck. Maybe there are more of us than I think? Unprompted, he brought me extra bread. My wife laughed at me as my finger cramped trying to operate my fork.