Friday, September 7, 2018

How to Survive the Barkley Fall Classic (maybe)

Some Intro Stuff

What follows is a list of advice for anyone who is considering running the Barkley Fall Classic. Heeding this advice will not guarantee that you finish. But it might make your DNF less painful. Before we start, here are some answers to questions you might have.

What is the Barkley Fall Classic?

BFC is a "50K" which follows many of the same trails as the Barkley Marathons. It covers about 35 miles of rugged terrain in Frozen Head State Park and includes somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 feet of climbing. Portions of the course follow power line cuts through briers and thorns.

Yikes! Why would I want to do that?

Possibly because there's something wrong with you. If so, read on. If not, the rest of this post will probably not interest you.

Who the hell are you to give advice?

I'm not an expert in ultrarunning. I'm not the toughest runner, nor the fastest, nor the best technical runner. What I am is a guy with average athletic ability who has finished some difficult races, including this one, due to careful training and preparation. Here's my race report from 2016.

Now that that's all settled, let's get to the good stuff.


1. Start now!

(Actually if you're running the 2018 race, start a long time ago)

BFC is really. Freaking. Hard. You will need to train.

But dude, I'm like, really tough.

BFC is not a Tough Mudder (nothing against Tough Mudders - I've done lots of them). You cannot get by on just "toughness" or "grit" or whatever people call it when they neglect their training and then suffer through a race. Unless you have superhuman athletic abilities, you cannot wing it and expect to finish under the cutoff. Want to show everyone how tough you are? Good! Go outside and run 4-6 days a week. Starting now. Build your aerobic base over the summer and then do more specific work outs closer to the race.

But it'll be funny when I tell everyone how little I trained!

Maybe. But keep in mind that you're occupying a spot that could have gone to someone else. Someone who perhaps would have trained harder. Honor that privilege and do you best to finish.

2. Volume

My rule of thumb is to at least match your race distance and elevation in a week, preferably for 3-4 weeks in a row. This means 30-40 miles with 10,000' of elevation gain every week for a month.

But I don't have the time for that!

Take a look at this picture:

Hell has a name, and that name (other than hell) is Rat Jaw
Photo by Carolynn Nauta

That nastiness is known as Rat Jaw. It is the signature climb of BFC. Do you think Rat Jaw cares whether you have the time to train for it or not? Go out and run!

3. Hike Up, Run Down

BFC is mostly run on established trails, so it's not necessary to train by running through thorn bushes. However, you need to practice moving on the type of climbs and descents that you'll find on the course.

Find the steepest hill around, and do hill repeats on it until you accumulate a few thousand feet of elevation gain and loss. This should take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours. Focus on maintaining an efficient uphill hiking pace and a fast downhill running pace. Pay attention to how your quads feel on the downhills at the end of the day. If a 3,000 foot workout kills you, think about how 12,000 feet will feel on race day.

But there are no big hills near me.

John Kelly finished 5 loops of the Barkley Marathons by training on an 0.05 mile, 95 foot tall hill near his house. He had to run up and down that hill 10 times to get one mile and 950 feet of climbing.

This is what toughness looks like.
From John's blog

Surely you can find a way to get some elevation gain in your training runs.

4. Nutrition

If you are successful at BFC, you will spend somewhere between 8 and 13 hours on the course. You will also spend several hours at a time between aid stations. You will need to eat and drink, both in large quantities. Use your long training runs as an opportunity to figure out what works for you. Everyone is different, so experiment with different combinations of gels, powders, and real food. Oh and bear in mind that Laz banned gel packets from the race, so you might need to invest in a gel flask if that's your fuel of choice.

Race Day

1. What to Wear

Both times that I ran the BFC, the weather was hot. In 2016 it was in the mid-80's and humid. You will probably be tempted to wear long sleeves to protect yourself from briers, but I recommend shorts and short sleeves to stay cool. Calf sleeves are a good idea, however. And a good pair of gardening gloves will help you claw your way up the power line cuts.

You know what hurts worse than a few scratches? DNFing.

2. Start Easy

The first mile of the course is on a flat section of road. You will be tempted to go out at your 5K pace to bank time. This is invariably a bad idea. Instead of banking time, try to bank energy. Take your time, talk to people, and - as a race director once told me - choose which butt you want to follow on the long climb ahead.

Incidentally, starting easier is better for everyone around you, because then other runners won't have to pass you on a narrow singletrack trail when you inevitably slow down.

3. Find an "All Day" Pace

The first climb is pretty steep. Unfortunately, every climb after it is even steeper. If you are breathing hard in the first 15 minutes, you are going way too damn fast! Find a pace where you can comfortably talk to the people around you, and then ask them what the hell you go yourself into. Remember that you have 10+ hours of running ahead of you, so pace yourself accordingly.

Hiking up these switchbacks will be some of your fastest miles of the day.
Photo by David White

4. Run the Downhills

And I mean really run them. If you are hitting the brakes on these downhills, you will absolutely murder your quads before the end of the race. Those of you who are familiar with east coast trails will find that the terrain at BFC is surprisingly runnable. To finish the BFC, you will have to run Every. Single. Step of these downhills. There's even a short downhill section on the climb up Rat Jaw. Run that shit.

Doesn't this contradict your last point?

You'd think so, but no. The whole reason you trained to run downhill is so that you could do it quickly and efficiently on race day. You did train, didn't you?

5. Follow the Map

You were given a map and compass for a reason. While the course is marked, there are typically a few tricky sections. In 2016, some local kids removed an arrow. The runner in front of me missed the turn, but I checked the map and got us both back on course. A minute spent checking the map could save you ten minutes of running.

On a related note, follow the power lines on Rat Jaw, Testicle, and Meth Lab. There will be game trails through the woods on either side of you. You will be tempted to follow them because they are less steep and/or less brier infested. These are not part of the course, and you are cheating if you follow them.

6. Don't Neglect Your Nutrition

Aid stations at BFC are few and far between. Refill your bladder/bottles at every opportunity, and make sure you have enough calories to get to the next aid station. BFC miles take a lot longer than "normal" miles, so plan accordingly.

7. Remember to Get Your Bib Punched

At each aid station, a volunteer will punch your race bib with a hole puncher. Do not forget this. If you finish without one of your bib punches, you are DQ'ed. In 2016 a runner had to do Testicle Spectacle twice because he forgot the bib punch at the bottom. As fun as that hill is, I wouldn't want to do it twice.

7. Keep Track of Your Time

There are cutoffs at each of the aid stations. You should know how close you are to these cutoffs. Don't be the guy/gal who misses the cutoff at the final aid station by ten seconds. Laz will not allow you to continue, even if you have a really good excuse.

8. Don't Quit

The BFC is one of the hardest endurance events on the east coast. You might get to a point where you're not having fun, or you feel like you'll be out on the course forever. Keep going. The satisfaction of finishing will more than make up for the temporary discomfort you feel.

9. Have Fun!

BFC is a unique event, and the trails at Frozen Head have a ton of history behind them. Enjoy your day thrashing around in the briers. It might not seem like fun at the time, but the stories will stick with you forever.

It's not every day you get to do something like this.
Photo by Mary Hosbrough


Can I bring my GPS?

Nope! Strictly forbidden, and Laz keeps an eye on Strava to see if anyone posts their GPS tracks. He has banned several people over the past few years. This also means no Strava or other tracking apps on your phone. If you think you found a clever loophole in this rule, you are cheating.

Can I train at Frozen Head?

Yes, but only on the designated trails. The power line cuts are reserved for BFC and the Barkley Marathons. Running them outside of these events could jeopardize the future of the races. Laz has also banned people for posting photos and GPS tracks from their off trail training runs.

On a more life-altering level, the land owners in the area are wary of people trespassing, and you do not want to end up at the business end of a shotgun in rural Tennessee.

Can I bring trekking poles?

Yes, but you will not be allowed to access them until the mile 26 aid station. They wouldn't do you much good on Rat Jaw, Testicle, and Meth Lab anyway.