Friday, October 19, 2018

Les Trois Croix - Barkley Fall Classic 2018

"It doesn't get any easier; you just get faster" Greg LeMond

You also don't look any prettier.
Photo by Misty Wong

I'm going to be honest with you guys. I was not in a good place after Fat Dog 120 was canceled in August. I had put months of hard training into that race, and I arrived on the west coast feeling the fittest I've ever been. Flying home without a buckle was demoralizing. I felt like I had wasted all of those long weekends that I spent logging tens of thousands of feet of climbing and descending.

I needed a win. And by that, I mean that I needed to get my ass kicked in a race.

That's where the Barkley Fall Classic comes into this story.


I have written extensively about the history behind the Barkley Fall Classic, so I won't go into much detail here. Suffice it to say that the BFC is one of the hardest 50K's in the country, combining a stout 11,000+ feet of climbing and descending with extended sections of bushwhacking and a bit of navigation through the backcountry trails of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. The winning times have varied from 7.5 hours to 9.5 hours over the years, and the top male and female receive a guaranteed entry into the Barkley Marathons.

I had run this race in 2015 and 2016, back before the Barkley Marathons was catapulted to worldwide fame by a documentary. When I tried to sign up for this year's race, I quickly learned that this little known 50K had grown up. The massive wave of people simultaneously attempting to register crashed UltraSignup for several hours in the middle of the night. But when the dust settled, I was in!

The Wednesday before the race, I got a text from my buddy Mike Siudy asking if he could drive down to Tennessee with me. He had just gotten off the wait list 11 months after signing up! Three days later, we found ourselves standing at the starting line of the Barkley Fall Classic, ready to tackle a beast of a race.

It Begins... (Start to Salvation Road)

At precisely 7am, Laz lit a cigarette and we were off.

Lazarus Lake is the conductor in a symphony of pain
Photo by Kristopher Cargile

About a week before the race, I had written a snarky condescending post titled How to Survive the Barkley Fall Classic (maybe), in which I recommended training hard and starting the race at an easy pace. So naturally, I showed up to the starting line in questionable shape and I hauled ass for the first 1.5 miles to get around the teeming crowd of runners.

So uhh... do as I say, not as I do.

By the time we hit the narrow singletrack of Bird Mountain Trail, I found myself in about 50th place which seemed perfect. I was quickly passed on the first climb by Mike and Giuseppe Cavallo (with whom I had shared some miles at Manitou's Revenge) as well as a half dozen other runners. 60th place was fine too.

I plodded onward, allowing my heart rate to settle a bit after the frantic start. The first several hours of BFC are all on well established trails, and it's almost impossible to get lost. I say almost impossible because I had to correct several runners who inexplicably started to follow unmarked game trails or dry creek beds during these early miles. But then, who am I to judge other runners for poor navigation.

♫ Makin' my way uphill / Walkin' fast, trees pass / And I'm Rat Jaw bound
Photo by Misty Wong
Lyrics by Vanessa Carlton, sort of

The first few climbs and descents were uneventful. As usual, I got passed or maintained my position on the climbs and then passed other runners on the descents. I reached the first aid station in just over two hours, which was about 10 minutes faster than in 2016.

The aid station volunteers were football players from Coalfield High School, and they proudly informed me that they had won their game the previous night. In fact, I found out later, they had crushed their local rivals by a score of 49-0! Despite their victory, they were extremely humble and supportive of the runners. Most of their questions and statements were followed by the word "sir."

"Can I fill your water bottles, sir?"

"You're doing a great job, sir!"

I felt like a celebrity getting that kind of treatment, aside from the fact that I smelled and looked like some kind of drowned woodland rodent.

Anyway, back to the race. The new section of the course on Fork Mountain was covered in mud and standing water, but was otherwise pretty runnable. On the long descent down to Rt. 116 the trail became more exposed, and the heat and humidity started kicking in. I absolutely hate running in the heat, and the forecasts had called for a heat index of 98 degrees during the afternoon. I took the next few miles pretty easy to keep my core temperature down, and then I immediately doused myself in creek water when I reached the Salvation Road aid station.

Not me, but you get the idea
Photo by Mary Bogart

Beat the Rat (Salvation Road to Decision Point)

Now four hours and 15ish miles in, we were about to begin the crux of the race: the powerlines. The next five miles would take over two hours and include more than 4,000 feet of elevation change through briers, brambles, and brush (oh my!).

This was what I came for.

First up was Testicle Spectacle, a mile-long 800+ foot climb with multiple pitches, making it impossible to see the top from the bottom. The course followed rough jeep tracks briefly before crossing several dry creek beds and then ascending so steeply that I had to dig my hands into the dirt to pull myself up. I passed a handful of other runners in this section, one of whom was hunched over vomiting.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Yeah," he responded between heaves. "What's the name of this climb? I want to remember where I started puking."

Forty minutes later I reached the summit and was surprised to find a birthday party in full swing.

You never know what you'll find on the trails of Frozen Head

"Thanks for coming to my birthday party!" cheered a woman wearing beads and a party hat.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world!" I responded. The crowd seemed pleased.

That feeling when you get to stop climbing

Having gained a bunch of elevation over the past forty minutes, it was time to give it all back. The descent was down another steep slope known lovingly as Meth Lab Hill. As in previous years, there were clear butt slide marks down the steepest sections where other runners had abandoned all hope of staying on their feet. I managed to keep my footing by turning sideways and surfing down. Sadly I don't have any pictures of this. I'm sure I looked very cool.

I arrived at the bottom of the hill still feeling fresh, but much hotter than I would have preferred. I found a muddy creek and splashed water on my face and neck. If I turn out to have an e coli infection later on, I want it known that this creek was the culprit.

Having cooled off sufficiently in dirty Meth Lab Hill water, it was time to face the rarest of obstacles in the Barkley Fall Classic: a mile of running on flat pavement. How bizarre! I trotted along at a conservative pace, keenly aware of how quickly my core temperature was increasing despite being soaked in water.

A short while later, I arrived at the entrance of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Race volunteers directed me through the prison yard and up to the rear wall where James Early Ray had escaped decades before. Standing guard at the top of the wall was none other than Jared Campbell, the legendary ultrarunner, adventurer, and only three-time Barkley Marathons finisher.

Typical Saturday. Thrash around through briers and escape from prison. The usual.
Photo by Larry Perry

Before I left for Tennessee, Alex had told me in no uncertain terms to take a selfie with Jared. I'm not one to disappoint my wife, so I scurried over as fast as my legs could carry me and snapped a picture.


Jared directed me and another runner toward the prison tunnel. The other runner, who shall not be named here, was very dismissive. He informed Jared that he had run this race before and didn't need directions. Naturally he wandered off course during the next climb and I didn't see him again until after the end of the race. The lesson: when Jared Campbell gives you advice on navigating Frozen Head, you listen to him! (I would end up talking to this runner later on, and he's a good guy. Hey other runner, if you're reading this, please take this in the good nature it is intended.)


The prison tunnel was a welcome break from the midday sun, but it was short lived. At the end of the tunnel, we began the hardest mile of the race: a 1,700 foot ascent of Rat Jaw.

Let's set the stage. Most runners reach Rat Jaw during the hottest part of the day. Unlike the other power line cuts, Rat Jaw has no discernible path. The lead runners have to force their way through thickets of head-high briars, and subsequent runners can (sometimes) follow the faint trail that's left behind. Rat Jaw is also significantly longer and steeper than the prior powerline cuts. Oh and it's also exposed to the sun for its entire length. In short, it's a slog.

Spot the runner in the brier patch
Photo by Misty Wong

As you might expect, this was where the race really started to take a toll on the field of runners. One by one I passed people sitting or hunched over on the side of the "trail." More than once, I started leading a group of runners through the briers only to turn around and find that they had stopped when they found a small patch of shade. I knew if I rested, I would never be able to convince myself to get going again. Onward and upward, or some stupid shit like that.

As I remembered from previous years, the climb was endless. Time stood still on that mountain. I heard my heartbeat pounding in my ears as my head threatened to explode from the heat and exertion. I began to wonder if I had died and was sentenced to an eternity of climbing in this sun scorched hellscape. After weeks (months? years?) of climbing, the fire tower came into view.

By the time I reached the top, my legs were covered in fresh blood, and the rest of me was covered in sweat, dirt, and debris. It had taken 62 minutes to cover the previous mile. Photographer Misty Wong snapped a picture of me smiling like an idiot, but she informed me that she wanted pictures of crying devastated runners, hence the picture at the top of the post.

Counting how many gallons of blood I spilled on the course
Photo by Misty Wong

The view from the fire tower was nice, but I didn't stick around any longer than necessary. I passed Giuseppe on the way down from the tower and wished him well.

You can see why they chose to build a prison in this wilderness
Photo by Sword Performance

It was time to get back on real trails and - get this! - run for a little while. The four mile descent to the decision point was pretty tame by east coast standards, but I couldn't muster anything more than a jog. Although my legs felt fine, the heat had sapped my energy. Fifty minutes later, I arrived at the decision point.

One Last Climb (Decision Point to Finish)

I stuffed some food and pickle juice in my mouth, refilled my bottles, and marched over to Laz for the final bib punch.

"Are you continuing on, or dropping down to the marathon?" he inquired.

"Laz," I responded, looking him straight in the eye, "I didn't come here to run no stinkin' marathon!"

The volunteers cheered, and I ran onward to finish the final nine mile loop: Chimney Tops. Now on it's own, the Chimney Tops loop is not particularly difficult. However, after 7.5 hours of running in the heat and humidity, this final mountain is a killer. Maybe it's the fact that there are multiple false summits along the way. Maybe it's the fact that the trails get progressively steeper the higher you go. Maybe it's the fact that there was a nest of angry hornets that decided to attack my quads half way up (yeah, that shit really happened).

Regardless of the reasoning, this climb destroyed me. In the two hours it took to reach the Spicewood Aid station, I went from a strong motivated runner to a shambling mess.

Thankfully the weather started to cool down at this point. After gulping down a bottle of water at the aid station, I realized that I had a shot at breaking 10 hours and setting a personal best for this race. I had to do the final 3.5 miles in 45 minutes. Beating my previous time (10:11) on poor training and in worse weather would be a huge accomplishment, so I left the aid station on a mission.

The 2.5 miles back to the decision point were entirely downhill, and I ran every single step. I passed through the aid station with 9:47 elapsed and couldn't remember how far it was to the finish. A mile? A mile and a half? I pictured myself crossing the finish line with 10:00:01 on the clock and decided that was unacceptable.

It was time to run myself into the ground once again.

Ragged breathing. The taste of blood in my mouth. Tunnel vision. The heat. Good lord, the heat. I've gotten used to all the side effects of pushing this hard at the end of a race, but that doesn't make it any easier.

I stole a quick glance at my phone. Seven minutes left. Was that good or bad? How far to the finish line?

Head down. Keep pushing. Keep breathing. Ignore the way that people are staring at you. Ignore the fact that the sun is literally baking you and every natural instinct is telling you to stop.

Six minutes left. Was that really only a minute of running?

Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Try to choke out a feeble "thanks" to the people clapping. Instead just snort at them like a bulldog with asthma.

Five minutes left. Holy shit, there's the finish line!

Try to compose yourself. There might be a photographer, and you can't use the picture if you're crying and/or soiling yourself.

Finally, after 9:56:19, I was done running! A 15 minute improvement on my previous time.

Post Race

Mike came over to congratulate me, but I made a bee-line for my cooler and doused my head in ice water. He had finished 20 minutes earlier and had overcome his own issues on the final climb, finishing 11th overall after running in the top ten for most of the day. Badass!

As for myself, I was 24th of the 400+ starters, and I was only an hour behind the winner. Not bad for a guy who didn't train and hates running in the heat.

Giuseppe came in a little while later, and the three of us posed for a picture showing how we felt about the course.
Dear Frozen Head, you're number one!

I received my third Croix de Barque and proudly added it to my collection when I got home. Then I threw them all in a drawer because I never know what to do with race hardware.

Les Troix Croix

Up Next

Three weeks later I would get well and truly destroyed by the Grindstone 100 in my worst hundred mile race ever. Stay tuned for a report.