16 September 2017


Magical moment midrace.
"The extreme highs and extreme lows of the Barkley Fall Classic 50K" would be an appropriate title for my race experience this weekend. Let's start with the good news, I finished. However, there were a lot of things that transpired between starting the race on a mild Saturday morning at 7AM and finishing the race around 6:30PM on the evening of that same day. Yes, you read that right, it took me more than 11:30 hours to cover the 50K distance, but that is actually not all that unusual when you are talking about the Barkley Fall Classic 50K, also lovingly referred to as the "Baby Barkley". But first things first.

Rob Youngren and I carpooled to Wartburg, TN, leaving Huntsville around noon. Dana Overton had reserved a camping spot at Frozen Head State Park and was kind enough to let us share her spot, giving me the opportunity to test out some new camping gear ahead of a couple of major adventures, but that's another story. While I was "glamping" last year by staying at the Holiday Inn, this year camping at FHSP sounded like a fun idea. Rob and I arrived at packet pickup with plenty of time, chatted with a few folks and then left to head to the campground to set up camp. Dana joined us shortly after and we all went to the most happening Asian restaurant in town for our pre-race meal where we were coincidentally joined by DeWayne Satterfield. If you've seen the Barkley Marathons documentary, then those names should ring a bell, but enough with the name dropping...
The weather gods were kind enough to shroud Testicle Spectacle in clouds, so our ability to comprehend the immensity of the challenge ahead was limited.
We returned to camp right around dark and everyone pretty much turned in for the night right away. I dozed off pretty quickly, but after waking up around 1AM to rid myself of some pre-hydration fluids, I was unable to get back to sleep, so I laid there for another 4 hours until my alarm finally went off. After a quick coffee, breaking down camp and short bathroom stop, we were off to the race start, arriving around, giving me plenty of time to say hello to the large group of Huntsville runners and other running friends who had made the trek to Frozen Head State Park to get just a glimpse of what it may be like to be "out there".

I toed the starting line alongside about 350+ runners and only a third of them would return in time for an official 50K finish. Regardless of the finish, be it a 50K, marathon or DNF, I venture a guess that everyone had a blast. Where there low points? Of course. Where there high points? Hell yes! Was it the both the hardest and longest 50K anyone had ever done? Quite possibly, but I'm not looking to start that discussion. I definitely experienced all of the above.
Shuttle for those that couldn't or didn't want to face Rat Jaw. 
I had run this race for the first time last year and before my skin had even healed from the 2016 BFC 50K, I had signed up for this year's edition. I had done pretty well considering my state of training at the time and I actually had a great time as well, so why not. I really had no expectations for this race as I was coming off my goal race of the year, Fat Dog 120, four weeks earlier. However, my vert training leading up to Fat Dog had given me just a bit of confidence, so much so that my secret goal was a top ten finish, but since I had no idea who else was running, it really wasn't that important of a goal. The plan was to start extremely conservative, just like last year and to slowly pick up effort once the race was well underway and I knew how I was feeling on the day.

Well, leave it to Laz to create plenty of buzz, excitement and nervousness by making some subtle changes to last years course. The sections were essentially the same as last year, but the order was changed around and there may have been a section run in reverse.

As the race got started, I had lined up somewhere in the middle of the pack, maybe just at the tail end of the front third of runners. I was looking around for familiar faces and kinda fell in line with some of them as we made our way up the gentle 4 mile slope that was the first climb of the day. The usual train of runners had formed, ensuring that I wasn't going to be running too fast too early in the race and as the trail widened, I started to pick up the pace just a little. A quick stop at the first aid station and I was on my way again. This next section was all runnable as we approached the first mayor highlights of the day, Testicle Spectacle followed by Meth Hill. Everything looked way more overgrown than last year.

I put on some work gloves and started my descent down Spectacle. About halfway down, David Riddle came past me in the opposite direction, leading the race just as I had expected. However, another runner followed by a large lead pack were hot on his heels. I was surprised to see them this close, but David had told me that he had initially missed the turn down Spectacle, losing some valuable time before realizing the directional error. Runners kept passing me in the opposite direction and I quickly lost count. I really was surprised just how many runners were ahead of me at this point. It seemed the course change had either invited runners to "bank some time" early or I was moving much slower than I thought. Oh well, I thought, there's a lot of race left to do and a lot of things can change. Boy, was I right!

I continued my descent, got my bib punched at the next aid station and returned back the way I came. Up and over the hill and down Meth Hill I went, butt-sliding through briars until we finally entered some runnable terrain again before arriving at the prison at the bottom of Rat Jaw. A "minor" clarification on the race rules (i.e. stay under the powerlines at all times) combined with 8ft tall briars all along the Rat Jaw power line cut that had not been cut this year led to some serious doubt in my mind. I'm not gonna lie, there was some serious cursing going on before, during and after this section. I may owe a few peeps with sensitive ears an apology for my choice of language at times.
The only time you will ever see me ahead of David Riddle.
I refilled my bottles at the prison, only to realize that I had not only lost all of my salt, I had also lost my flask with nutrition, leaving me with a small ziplock bag with chews and my two water bottles, not what I would call a sound nutrition plan for what lay ahead. Here, I caught up to DeWayne and we started the ascent up Rat Jaw together. Initially, the briars were not too terrible. Don't get me wrong, there was no path and they were bad, but it would only get worse as we continued to climb. Just as we cross at the "halfway point", a little spot were the powerline cut levels out for just a moment, one of my worst fears came true. I got stung my a yellow jacket. I am somewhat allergic, but thankfully, I had not stepped into a nest, so two Benadryl seemed to do the trick. I'm sure the kick of natural adrenaline I experienced in that moment helped. The briar cuts also started to mask the pain of the sting.
The home stretch and most definitely my fastest split:-)
As we continued to climb, I started to lift my head to look ahead. I was trying to spot the cliff that runners had to get around before they could continue their track to the fire tower. I literally could not believe my eyes. There was David Riddle just about 100 yards above us, and 30 yards behind him was a large train of about 30 or so runners, seemingly standing still. Within a few minutes, we caught up to them. We weren't sure why they weren't moving and then it hit me, they were moving, the briars were just slowing them down that much.

As more minutes passed I became increasingly impatient. Those who know me would not be surprised at that statement:-) I turned to DeWayne and suggested we cut our own way past this large group. Just I said it, Rob had caught up to us and literally threw himself backwards into the briars, DeWayne and I pushing ahead right behind him. Rob continued to push throw and DeWayne and I and a couple of others followed. Within a couple of minutes we had movd past the train of runners and were making slow but significant progress, extending our lead over the other group. Rob continued to do the majority of the work, sacrificing his body as we pushed behind, trampling down the briars. As we pushed past the cliff, David had joined in with us to get to the top. David was running in second place at this time with the race leader about 15 minutes ahead of us.

I finally stepped up to take the lead after Rob had done the majority of the work. The briars were relentless and with every cut, my cursing got louder. We continued on and finally crested Rat Jaw to the cheers of a large crowd of onlookers and supporters. I was now in third place overall. I had never before been so glad to have been done with a section of a race. We continued uphill and up to the top of the fire tower to collect another punch before heading down the jeep road to the next aid station. This would be one of the easier course sections. There was some jockeying for position on the downhill to the aid station, but I was excited to still be running in the top 5 as I left the next aid station. My secret goal of a top ten finish seemed very realistic at this point. I knew what lay ahead and figured nutrition would be my only challenge, since I had lost all of mine. The next bib punch would be at the Garden Spot, so I settled into a steady pace. Ah, there was the gate that gave me pause last year when I had to resort to the map to confirm that I indeed needed to climb across it to continue on. This year, we came from he opposite direction, but no confusion here.
Atop Testicle Spectacle just before descending down Meth Lab Hill.

Then my troubles began. Eventual third place finisher Ihara Tomokazu was running just ahead of me as the trail appeared to split in a "Y". I know, I know, it's not a intersection, just a short spur going off to the left while the course continued up on the left towards the Garden Spot, but that's not how it looked to me in that situation. I grabbed the map, even yelling at Ihara to stop and turn around. He either ignored me or did not hear me. Either way, I sure am glad he didn't.

I checked the map and noticed a Y-intersection noting the left spur as a red trail, so I needed to go right, I figured. I made two mistakes. First, I got the distances wrong or else I should have noticed that I passed the red (off course) trail much earlier. Second, I did not pay attention to the topographical detail on the map. I knew I needed to climb to the Garden Spot, but I figured the trail would just dip and then climb again. It did, about three quarters of a mile later and after two T-intersections. Why did I not turn around immediately. Well, I figured no arrow at the Y-intersection, so maybe no arrows here either? I don't know. When I finally decided to turn around, DeWayne showed up, oh good, I was on the right trail after all. Nope, he was lost, too. How is that even possible? Anyway, I finally tracked back. I figured I lost about an hour total. Got confused one more time at the next directional arrow and then finally made it to the Garden Spot for my punch. I was the 75th runner to receive my punch, what??? 70 runners had passed my while I was off course. I was deflated.
Me during a creek crossing just before I busted my @$$.
So much for a top ten finish. This one gnawed on me for a long while. I had tried to make up time and that combined with the lack of salt and fuel put me at the lowest point for the day. Luckily I caught up to Dana and Jeff Deaton, so I ran/shuffled along for a while, dropped back, picked up pace again and so on. As I started to climb the backside of Bird Mountain, I decided that I was done once I got to Laz. I had gotten my finish last year, I was tired, why would I want to continue? I spent the better part of the climb and even the descent in an inner monologue of why I was right. There was nothing inside me disagreeing with me. As I was going on, I realized that this was typical DNF talk, justifying quitting to yourself. I was done, but I decided to not call it quits until after I drank my Pepsi and sparkling water that I had stashed in a drop bag. I never ever use drop bags for a 50K, but I had decided to bring trekking poles to train for my Everest race, so I figured I'd stash some refreshments as well. When I finally got there, the drinks were still cold inside my little plastic drop bag.

All day, most things seemed to have gone wrong for me, but now my drinks were somehow still icecold after laying outside for nearly 10 hours. I drank the water, the soda and two containers of coconut water, then I went to tell Laz I was done. I had chatted with Luke Hough and a few volunteers convincing them that I was making the right direction. Luke, figuring that I knew what I wanted, let it go. The other volunteers, however, would not. And when Laz chimed in as well, reminding me of the dreaded DNF regret, I had already decided to go on. I had enough time, my body wasn't as battered as I had expected and another finish would be much sweeter than conceding defeat.

I grabbed my trekking poles and took off. I made it across Chimney Top in less than three hours and clocked my fastest split from the final timing mat to the finish. In the end, I crossed the finish line in just over 11:30 hours, elated to get another "Croix de Barque", this time with a nice shiny star for a second finish. Thanks again to an amazing group of volunteers and for Laz and company for thinking up this and other crazy events for us to find and push beyond our limits. Congrats to everyone that finished or attempted to finish. Will I be back next year? Who knows...
Crossing the finish line exhausted and ecstatic.

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