18 September 2016


It's easy to smile when you don't know exactly what lies ahead:-)
Training for and running ultras in Huntsville, Alabama, it doesn't take long until you hear about two things, the Mountain Mist 50K and the mystical Barkley Marathons. In case you didn't know, Huntsville is one of the original meccas of ultra-running. Don't believe it? Just check out ultrasignup.com and other related sites featuring ultra race results from the 80s and 90s and you'll notice quite a few wins and course records by local Huntsville runners. In other words, there are more than your normal number of "ultra studs per capita" that call Huntsville their home and when you consider doing a particular ultra marathon anywhere in the US, there is usually one of those local studs available to give you info about that race, because he or she had won it a few years earlier or at least done extremely well. It doesn't matter if it's a 50K, a 100 miler or a multi-day event, these guys have done it and excelled at it. But unlike these races scattered around the continental US, Mountain Mist and Barkley usually come up without anyone asking about it. Mountain Mist is the local premier ultra race and the Barkley Marathons had legendary cult status around here long before Netflix.

As a result, the second ever ultra marathon I ran was the 2010 Mountain Mist. I had a blast and have run it every year since (with one exception due to illness). An up close and personal introduction to Frozen Head State Park would not follow until the Spring of 2015, when one of our local "legends" allowed me to tag along as one of his "crew" during his latest Barkley Marathons attempt. It was an unusual experience to say the least, but it did not deter me from wanting to do more at FHSP than just crew someone, I wanted to get "out there" myself, not any time soon as I did not feel ready mentally or physically to even attempt such a thing...yet. And then I found out about the Barkley Fall Classic and after hearing people talk about its inaugural event and missing registration the second year, I made sure to get in as soon as registration opened for 2016. This would be the perfect introduction to FHSP and the myth that is Laz and the Barkey, or so I thought at least. I was not disappointed.

Most unique swag to date, most of it with a specific purpose for race day.
The last time I was at FHSP, it was a cold and sleeting day in April. When I arrived in Wartburg, TN on September 16 with my buddy Paul, it was warm and sunny. We parked in front of the local police station and walk over to the American Legion building that was hosting packet pickup in it basement. There were lots of familiar faces around and it didn't take long for most of the other Huntsville runners to arrive as well. There were probably 20 of us, so it almost felt like any another local event...almost.

Paul and I got our race packets, checked out the map, compass, emergency whistle and "one of a kind" race shirts along with some other cool swag and continued to catch up with friends I hadn't seen in a while. My buddy Cary recommended a small local Asian joint, so that's where some of us met up for dinner right after packet pickup. Paul and I were staying in a town about 25 minutes from the race start and we got back there with plenty of time to get our stuff ready for race morning before heading to sleep for a full 8 hours. I don't think I've slept that long or that well before a race...ever. I guess when you feel like you're in way over your head because you haven't really run a hill in more than 3 months prior to toeing the line of the toughest 50K in the Southeast, maybe even the entire US, there really is no reason to worry or be nervous. You just now you're gonna suffer, no whats or ifs about it.

Escaped prison, scaled the prison walls via ladder and made it through the tunnel, up next...Rat Jaw
We arrived at the race start just outside FHSP about 45 minutes prior. Finally, nervous energy started creep up inside me and rise to the top. I was no longer worried about what lied ahead. I was absolutely aware and ready to embrace the pain that lied ahead. I was excited about it. There were no concerns about times or splits or heart rates, or distances or elevation profiles. I was going to spend about a half a day in the woods with a bunch of other likeminded individuals. What could be better?

My "race" strategy was simple, start slow and keep putting one foot in front of the other for as long as possible. I didn't care about my time. Paul and I had reviewed the first part of the map the night before. I also had been reminded that there were some tricky sections on the course where one would really need to mind the map. While well marked, the course did not provide any reassurance markers that many trail runners have become so accustomed to. What does that mean? It means there is a real chance to get lost or at least take a couple of wrong turns, which is exactly what I did. However, I was smart enough to stop to look at the map at times when I was sure something had gone wrong. In other words, I didn't double down on a bad decision.

A cigarette was lit at 7AM sharp and we were off. I settled in the back half of the field, slowly jogging along and readying myself mentally for the first of 4 major climbs. I figured if I expected the worst, then I would be ready.

The first climb up "Bird Mountain" was challenging. Up and up we went and just when we thought the climbing was over (due to a deceiving descent), it would go up again. But I wasn't one to complain, at least there were plenty of switchbacks. The climbing continued. Once we reached the top, I was still in great spirits. I was still running/hiking with friends and according to the map there would be an aid station coming up soon. While I'm not giving a blow by blow of the race or the course, I will note some of the sections that were the toughest for me. This first section was tough, but it didn't beat me down.

As Laz and others had said, the climbs were tough, but everything in between was runnable. They were right...well, if you had any legs left to do it that is.

The next major section is affectionately referred to as "Testicle Spectacle". This is one of the sections that "encouraged" wrong turns, at least for me. A turned over and misplaced sign here, a confusing arrow there was all it took for me to second guess my directional choices. This section required runners to slide on their behinds more than once, unless you were willing to tumble down head first a briar-infested slope. This section offered more than just a couple of challenging climbs AND descends requiring not only the use of your feet, but hands as well. In fact, halfway through I decided to pull a pair of working gloves out of my pack to keep briars from impaling my palms and fingers. That worked fairly well.

Until this point hydration had not been a problem. I had decided to carry my UD SJ pack with a 50oz hydration bladder along with my usual two 18oz soft bottles in the front. I felt the 50oz extra were necessary to avoid any issues with hydration due to the warm temps, high humidity, a serious climbs that would make me sweat even more than usual. Salt and water would be the key to my race survival. Thankfully, that part of my strategy worked out nearly to perfection. I didn't dip into my hydration bladder until the very last major climb of the race and there I really needed it. I took base salt throughout the day to avoid a deficit resulting in muscle cramps. That strategy also worked out to perfection. I did notice lots of runners struggling with muscle cramps and stomach issues. I think I was able to avoid them mostly by seemingly never pushing too hard, trying to keep just below the redline. That didn't always work out, especially during the third major section (Rat Jaw), but it never turned my race south. Speaking of Rat Jaw, this was the most infamous of climbs at the Barkley Fall Classic. It was also the place were I witnessed real carnage.

After getting a tour of the prison, climbing a wall and feeling my way through the tunnel, I started the approach of Rat Jaw. Runners were literally scattered all over this climb. The neatly cut briars allowed the carnage to be witnessed by all. Some runners were toppled over, hands on their knees, trying to regroup. Others decided to sit down or even lay down. I heard more disturbing accounts after the race of runners lying down to nap or just throwing up on top of Rat Jaw.

This section was fully exposed and many runners paid the price. I took a short break halfway through, chugged a bottle of fluids and went on to tackle the second half. I continued to try to stay on top of my hydration by always downing at least two bottles of fluids while in every checkpoint along with emptying my two bottles between checkpoints.

Once I reached the fire tower and collected my punch, I continued on to the next aid station. This is were I finally felt the effects of the course taking their toll. My quads were starting to hurt as I was running downhill. I knew this was going to be a problem. I continued to run as I remembered the race description of "not only are the sections in between runnable, you must run them". I kept to that and ran everything flat or downhill. My quads started to complain more and more. This next section led to Laz' 22 mile aid station and it was indeed very runnable. Great, more quad pain. I continued to push, after all, there would only be one more climb left after rolling through mile 22. Ouch! I arrived at mile 22 in great spirits, but definitely battered. When Laz' asked which path I wanted to take, I forced a smile and responded: "I didn't come here for a marathon, I came her to run the whole race". Laz' kindly took a picture with me before I went on to continue my beatdown.

Mile 22 cross roads..to settle for a marathon finish or to continue? Duh!
I kept wondering how my fellow Huntsvillians were doing. I figured Rob and DeWayne would be way ahead. I was wondering though how long until Tim would pass me. He had been looking strong until cramps slowed him down going up Rat Jaw. I passed him, but knew it wouldn't be long until he caught me. However, I didn't expect him to catch me as fast as be did. I was ready to let him go, I was done and I had no desire to race. I was content to just try to make it to the finish line. Apparently, so was he. He slowed down and dragged my butt up "Chimney Top". I had finally hit a low point, but Tim was still moving well. He had taken a fall on the descent leading into mile 22, so he decided to take it easy. After all, we both just wanted to finish at this point. We continued the "final" climb up Chimney Top. It would never end. When it finally did end, it was a false summit and rather than continue on as it had, the trail decided to do away with switchbacks. Switchbacks? We don't need no stinkin' switchbacks! And so straight up it went and up some more...and then some more. When we finally spotted two "runners" ahead of us, one of them looked familiar. DeWayne had entered the same stage as us. His body was yelling at him. After all, he did run ARTFA again just to weeks prior to BFC and DeWayne does not sandbag...ever! The three of us stayed together for a while until we started to spread out a little, with me slightly ahead of Tim and DeWayne. To be clear, this wasn't a race, we were all just wincing with each step and trying to get it done. When I finally arrived at the last aid station and heard how much further I had to go, I finally started to smell the barn.

The elation of finishing the BFC
I arrived at mile 30 and went straight on to the finish after confirming the correct direction with Laz. No reason to get lost now. I was pumped. The final road section felt like a sprint to the finish, but I'm sure it as closer to 12 minute miles. These two finish line pictures tell the whole story of my race. Separated by half a second, the first one shows the excitement of finishing where the second shows the relief of being done. I started the day somewhere in 125-175th place, I ended the race in 13th overall. It is now a week later and my legs finally stopped hurting a day ago, although every decline still feels more uncomfortable than it should. If you want to know if I would do this race again, hell yes! Don't believe me? Just check the entrant list on ultrasignup:-) Which reminds me, has anyone else ever registered for a race while still being sore from the same race and still showing cuts from briars all over their legs? I certainly hadn't...until yesterday.

The relief of having finished the BFC
Thanks again to Laz and Steve for putting on this event. Thanks to my fellow runners for always encouraging each other and for suffering alongside each other. Thanks to Nuun for keeping me hydrated and to Altra for keeping my feet comfortable all day. I can;t ait to do it all over again next year!

Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw demand their toll

1 comment:

  1. Wow, just wow. Thanks for sharing, nice to know the Barkley continues to eat it's young



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