|Lazarus Lake, the architect of our misery|
On September 17, I ran the Barkley Fall Classic. Mile for mile, it was the most difficult race I've ever done. It was awesome.
A Quick History Lesson
On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, TN. He was caught and sentenced to 99 years in Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison in the heart of the rugged mountains of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. In 1977, he escaped over the prison wall and fled into the steep brier infested wilderness. After 54 hours, he was found hiding under a pile of brush. He was cold, hungry, and exhausted. He had managed to go less than 8 miles in that time.
A cocky young ultrarunner named Gary Cantrell found Ray's feeble effort hilarious, and boasted that he could go 100 miles in that time. In the spring of 1984, he created the Barkley Marathons, a 60 hour 100 mile run through the heart of Frozen Head. Of the 800+ people who have attempted the Barkley since then, only 17 have finished, making it one of the most difficult endurance events on the planet. It is so difficult, in fact, that finishing a single 20 mile Barkley loop is considered a major accomplishment. Finishing 60 miles is considered a "Fun Run" and is the crowning accomplishment in some runners' careers. There are many peculiarities which make the Barkley unique and more difficult than other ultramarathons. For a more comprehensive description, I highly recommend watching The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young.
In 2014, Gary (who has since adopted the moniker Lazarus Lake or simply Laz) created the Barkley Fall Classic, along with the help of Steve Durbin, aka Durb. The BFC is a 50K race designed to give runners a taste of the big Barkley. Unlike its predecessor, the BFC course is marked and has aid stations at regular intervals. Like its predecessor, it contains some heinous climbs through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet. The prize for finishing is a Croix de Barque, pictured below. I earned one in 2015, and I was hoping to earn another this year.
|Hard earned hardware|
Speaking of Laz...
Most race directors try to develop a strong rapport with their runners, sending informative and friendly messages before race day. Laz, on the other hand, has a wry sense of humor and sends sarcastic, often dis-informative messages to the racers, and even engages in friendly pre-race heckling. Some examples:
"i will be surprised if more than 10% of the starters
can bring home the croix de barque.
if you get one of those babies,
it will mark you as a MAN among men
(we will be surprised if any women win one)"
All Barkley Fall Classic Aid Station Fare is guaranteed to be totally inorganic. Our aid station offerings are the product of multiple levels of processing, and can not be traced to any living source, plant or animal. Artificial preservatives are not required, as no microorganisms have yet evolved that can survive on this stuff."
But, like the Oracle in The Matrix, he is not telling you the truth, nor is he necessarily telling you what he believes to be true. He is telling you exactly what you need to hear to succeed in his race. Or, occasionally, he is just amusing himself. I was raised on a steady diet of sarcasm, so I find Laz's brand of humor hilarious. His comments are sprinkled throughout this report for your (and mostly my own) amusement.
|Laz and I bonding at the 2015 BFC. He refused to get closer than this because I was too sweaty and smelly.|
Laz also has a funny way of measuring distances in his races. Most big Barkley runners will tell you that the 100 mile course is really more like 120-130 miles. A "Laz mile" tends to be a little farther than a statute mile and much more difficult. In a Laz race, you have to redefine your concept of how long a mile takes to run. To add to the confusion, no GPS's were allowed in the race (due to the use of private property), so runners had no way of knowing how far they had gone except at aid stations.
The Early Trails
After months of sacrificing our weekends for long trail runs and hill repeats, Alex and I arrived at Frozen Head State park just in time to hear the ceremonial conch shell being blown, signaling one hour until the start of the race. At precisely 7am, Laz lit his cigarette, and the race was on.
|Waiting for the race to start, back when we were young and happy|
The first mile of the course was on a paved roadway. Last year I had started conservatively and ended up behind a line of runners when we got to the narrow single track trails. This year, I decided to start more aggressively to get out in front. Unfortunately, it appeared that everyone else had the same strategy. By the time we reached the famed yellow gate, there were at least 100 runners ahead of me. I planted a kiss on the gate (at the request of Kat Bermudez, whose husband Jun ran the big Barkley this spring), and began my ascent on the Bird Mountain trail.
|Conga line on the Bird Mountain Trail|
Photo by David White
"The worst climbs are in the second half of the course. The importance of this information will become obvious, when you start doing the climbs in the first half."
The 1,500 foot climb up the Bird Mountain Trail was slow but fairly uneventful. I chatted with the other runners as we power hiked our way up the fourteen switchbacks to the ridge line. The descent, however, was slow and painful. I like to fly on the downhills, and there was a huge line of runners in front of me who were tip-toeing cautiously down the trail. Ultrarunners refer to this as being in a conga line. Unlike weddings, conga lines in races are not enjoyable, at least not for me. I started to get antsy. As The Dude would say, I could not abide.
I began passing runners two or three at a time whenever the trail was wide enough. Most of them were kind enough to step to the side of the trail when I asked to pass, but others were a bit more stubborn and forced me to go off-trail to get around them. By the time we reached the end of the descent, 1,500 vertical feet later, I had passed about twenty people. I paid for this improvement in the form of a twisted ankle and an epic faceplant half way down the mountain. Luckily, no serious damage was done, except to my ego.
The second climb and descent on the North Boundary Trail was more of the same. During the ascent, I spent a few minutes talking to Christian Griffith, who led a blind runner through half of a big Barkley loop earlier in the year (BAMF!). Christian would go on to finish the full 50K in 11:42 after, for reasons unknown to me, stripping down to just his compression shorts. Running through Frozen Head does strange things to people's minds. After 2 hours and 15 minutes of hard work, I finally reached the first aid station... at mile 7.6. No, that number is not a mistake. Yes, that's an average pace of about 17:45 per mile. And yes, fellow BFC runners, that mileage is accurate (check the Frozen Head Park map). That's just how much harder a "Laz mile" than a normal mile.
After quickly refilling my water bottles, I was back on the trail and heading toward The Garden Spot. I got my bib punched by Barkley Fun Run finisher Mike Dobies, who offered the following sage advice: "You know, you're supposed to use your map." However, I would eventually decide that the best use of the cloth map was mopping sweat off my forehead.
The next few miles were fairly runnable (by Barkley standards), and I made good time to the Tub Spring aid station at mile 12.4. I don't remember how much time had elapsed at this point, but let's just assume that it was a lot. On the other hand, I was steadily passing people on every flat or downhill section, so I figured I was doing well. The following miles were again fairly runnable, and we eventually came to a ridge with a steep descent on either side.
The Hard Parts
"there will be times that you look at what lies ahead and think.... "no way!"
This is where the course gets interesting. And this is what separates the Barkley Fall Classic from other races.
There are three off-trail hills in the Barkley Fall Classic, all of which have creative names and follow power line cuts. The first of these is Testicle Spectacle. As the legend goes, Barkley legend Frozen Ed Furtaw was scouting the course with Laz when they stumbled upon a monstrous climb through briers and brush. In awe, Frozen Ed crossed himself and said "spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch." Laz misheard him and named the hill Testicle Spectacle, reasoning that a climb this severe would be a display of testicular fortitude.
Pictures don't really do justice to this hill, but here's an attempt.
|Testicle Spectacle from near the top of the climb|
Photo by David White
But that picture makes it look a little too peaceful. Here's one from down in the trenches.
|Runners climbing/descending the Testicle|
We started at the top of this hill, followed the power lines to the bottom, frantically bushwhacked through the woods to get to an aid station, and then did the whole thing in reverse. Some of the descents were so steep that people were sliding down on their butts. I attempted to ski down them by pointing my feet to the side and sliding down slowly. This seemed to work well. On the ensuing climb, many sections required us to crawl on all fours, grasping desperately at roots and briers growing on the dusty hillside. All told, this single hill took 90 minutes of time as well as most of the skin on my thighs. On the bright side, I ran into Alex shortly before the summit. She was in good spirits and was not too far behind me. We exchanged a gross sweaty kiss in the middle of the trail before going our separate ways.
Next up was Meth Lab Hill, which (as far as I know) does not actually have a meth lab on it. It just looks like it should. This was another brier strewn descent, but mercifully we did not have to climb back to the top. It did require more bushwhacking as well as my remaining skin, however.
After a few more quick miles, now running completely alone, I reached the aid station at the gates of the now defunct Brushy Mountain Prison. Here a wonderful volunteer offered me a couple of ice cubes to put under my hat and the most delicious sip Coke I've ever had. He also informed me that I was somewhere around 20-25th place. Cool!
|Brushy Mountain State Penitentary, surrounded by the mountains of Frozen Head State Park|
Photo by Carolynn Nauta
The course wound through the main prison building, which had been left to decay after it was shuttered in 2009. It seemed more like the setting of an 80's horror movie than a competitive trail race. But it was also a temporary reprieve from the scalding sun, so I wasn't about to complain. I followed the course markings through the building and into the back courtyard, where a ladder was propped against the against the exterior wall. My eyes lit up. We were going to escape from the prison! I climbed over and took a mental picture of my surroundings, disappointed that I hadn't brought a camera. Luckily, some friends of mine did.
|Climbing the prison wall|
Photo by Alex
|The view from the prison wall|
Photo by David White
It was here that I caught up to a group that included Barkley Fun Run finisher Byron Backer and British runner Tobias Sangster-Bullers. Byron appeared to be suffering but would go on to finish the 50K in 12:50. Tobias seemed cheerful, but he would choose not to continue after completing the marathon distance in 8:12. Together we navigated to the prison tunnel, a water filled tunnel which runs underneath the prison grounds and features heavily in the Barkley documentary. The tunnel was pitch black except for a pin prick of light at the far end. I walked slowly and deliberately, happy to have some time for my heart rate to settle down before the next climb.
|Walking through the prison tunnel|
Photo by David White
"the BFC is going to break you down like a shotgun."
If you told me to design the least runnable mile of terrain I could imagine, I would show you a picture of Rat Jaw. Speaking of which, here's a picture of Rat Jaw.
The old Barkley course, when drawn on a map, resembled a rat's head. One of the more brutal climbs on the course, a 1.2 mile off-trail trek which ascended 1,700 feet, appeared to be the jaw of the rat. Hence the name. Rat Jaw is another power line cut which barrels uphill from the prison to the highest point in Frozen Head State Park. Last year the climb was infested with ten foot high saw briers (pictured above) which made forward progress impossibly slow. This year the briers were mowed by the power company, possibly in an act of pity. This had the unfortunate side effect of removing all shade, leaving us to bear the full brunt of the sun on what was now a 90 degree day.
The first couple feet of climbing give you some idea of what you're in for.
|The first pitch of Rat Jaw|
Photo by Mary Hosbrough
If this was in a climbing gym, it would be considered a low grade bouldering problem. If you make it to this point in the course, there are two things to consider. The bad news is that this is only a small fraction of the climbing involved in Rat Jaw. The good news is that some day, the sun will engulf the earth in a fiery inferno, and life as we know it will cease to exist. The point is that there is a definite end to the suffering.
|Somewhere in the midst of the Rat|
Photo by Carolynn Nauta
There are no words that can adequately convey the amount of suffering involved in scaling an infinitely long, impossibly steep, brier strewn, hot as balls hellscape. Perhaps the best account comes from Mean Jean Baker's race report: "Rat Jaw became my new childbirth experience and horrifically reset my pain tolerance."
|Finally reaching the top in the 2015 race|
After many, many, many (MANY!) false summits, I finally reached the top of the climb. I had started from the prison with a group of three and I was again by myself, having slowly eked away from them over the course of the climb. I glanced at my wristwatch. It had taken 59 minutes to go 1.2 miles. In a race. Where I passed people. The climb was hard, I guess, is the point I'm trying to make.
Once at the top of the climb, I scaled the fire tower for another bib punch. I took a second to enjoy the view...
Photo by Alex
...before making my way back down to Tub Spring, where I voraciously gulped down several bottle fulls of water. After another 4 or 5 downhill miles, I got to Laz at the decision point. If I went straight and chose the marathon finish, would be done in ten minutes and have my head buried in a cooler full of ice shortly thereafter. This seemed tempting. If I turned left, I had a grueling 9+ mile 2,000 foot climb and descent ahead of me before I could cool off.
"if it was easy, what would be the point?"
Needless to say, I turned left.
One Final Push
After a quick sock change and a swig of Coke from my drop bag, I made the left turn to continue on to the 50K finish line. Laz's parting words were "the rest of the course is a gentle downhill." Ha!
The one redeeming quality of the Chimney Top Trail is that it's an actual trail, unlike the previous climbs on the course. Unfortunately, it is also a viciously steep and poorly maintained trail. With the help of another runner, I navigated the tricky beginning of the trail and then began the long march to the Chimney Top capstones.
I climbed steadily for about half an hour before reaching a descent, which I recognized from last year as the first of many false summits. After a few welcome minutes of downhill running, the trail resumed its ascent of Chimney Top Mountain. My legs were starting to get tired, but nothing was painful yet, so I pushed hard during this climb. I caught up to and passed Dewayne Satterfield, who is a Barkley Fun Run finisher and elite master's runner. In our brief encounter, he paid me one of the nicest compliments I have ever received during a race: "Go ahead. Your climbing pace is faster than mine." The months of hill repeats had finally paid off!
|The sandstone caps at the peak of Chimney Top Mountain|
Photo from outdoorknoxville.com
The final push to the summit was so steep that I had to grab trees for leverage. It was hard to believe that this was an actual trail! After an hour and fifteen minutes of climbing since the decision point, I finally reached the capstones. I broke into a feeble jog, but the trail was so rocky that my pace was barely faster than a walk. I slowly descended a few hundred feet before climbing again to a neighboring peak. I still had some life left in my legs, but the trail was just to technical to allow actual running.
Half an hour after reaching the capstones, I came to the Spicewood aid station, which marked the beginning of the long descent to the finish. I was finally done climbing! I reached the aid station at the same time as another runner and decided that I was going to beat him to the finish. Luckily for me, he stopped for a while to re-hydrate and chat with the lone volunteer, while I stopped just long enough to fill a water bottle.
I took off down the trail, looking to put an exclamation point on what I considered a successful day of running. My quads still felt good, so I pushed hard on the runnable terrain. After thirty minutes, I had lost all of the elevation that I had fought to gain over the preceding two hours. As I rounded a bend, Laz and the aid station came into view. A few spectators clapped as I emerged from the woods and hit the pavement for the final mile of the course.
With no other runners around and no pressing time goals, I was able to enjoy the final few minutes of the race and take in the scenery. It was still blisteringly hot, but I was almost done. As I came into the finish area, I spotted Alex. This meant that she had not made the time cutoff at the marathon mark, which I knew would be heartbreaking for her. Despite this, she smiled and cheered for me as I ran past her.
|Coming into the finish line|
Photo by Alex
The finish line was pretty subdued since not many runners had come in yet (first world problems...), but I was ecstatic to be done.
Photo by Misty Herron Wong
I crossed the finish line in 10:10:47, 12th place of 324 starters. I had finished 47 minutes faster than last year on a harder course and in worse conditions. I had also posted the sixth fastest time on the climb and descent of Chimney Top, meaning that I finished strong. My race was a success!
"thank you for sharing your great adventure with me.
the mixture of joy and pain in your faces,
as you flew past me on the homestretch
will inspire me forever."
The one downside to my race was that I could not share my victory with Alex. Having trained for months specifically for this race, she was inconsolable about not being able to finish the 50K. More devastatingly, she knew that she would have to come back to the BFC again to finally beat the course. However, she had overcome the heat, the briers, the harder course, and four wasp stings to improve her BFC time by more than two hours since last year. She is an inspiration, and she will continue to improve as she develops more experience.
We lounged around for an hour, icing ourselves down while we watched the other runners finish, until the sand flies finally drove us away. We then spent a night in a quaint little bed and breakfast before driving down to Great Smoky Mountain National Park to continue our Tennessee adventure.
|Rat bites and a Croix de Barque: my Barkley souvenirs|
So How Hard Is It?
It's hard to describe the difficulty of this course in words. It has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
On one hand, most of the course is on established trails, which are not overly technical by east coast standards (west coast runners, who tend to have a different definition of "technical," might be in for a surprise though). In fact, there is almost no navigation required, unlike the big Barkley. On the other hand, the off trail segments are devastatingly slow. By my estimations, my pace on Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw were 45:00/mile and 49:00/mile respectively. And believe me, I was not dawdling on these climbs. Add to this the stress of thrashing around in saw briers, being stung by wasps, and the lack of aid stations, and you have one of the hardest 50K's around.
Consider the following fact: In 2013, Jason Lantz won the Vermont 100, one of the oldest and most prestigious trail ultras on the east coast. Over the course of that race, which cumulatively climbs 15,000 feet, he averaged 9:14/mile. At the Barkley Fall Classic, a race that is about one third the distance, he averaged 14:10/mile.
In a word, it's difficult.