Barkley Fall Classic "50K"
Veni, Vidi,... Vici????
Well maybe not so easily, but I did finish. BFC lived up to all my wildest expectations and more. The taste of Barkley I was seeking, I got.
On Thursday evening, September 17th, we started driving. We made it to Roanoke before stopping around midnight. The next day we drove straight to Clingman's Dome to "summit" our 6th highpoint.
|A rare, clear day atop Clingman's Dome.|
Ryan and I successfully summited. Titus did not. We were turned around half way up the .5 mile paved path by a park Ranger (who was quite nice and just doing his job) who gave a us a written warning for having a dog on what is consider a park trail. Dogs were allowed in the parking area but not on the "trails" and we totally missed the tiny "No Dogs" sign at the base of the path. After the Ranger ran Ryan's license for any outstanding warrants and wrote us the citation (again, the Ranger was super nice..and Ryan has no outstanding warrants!), we put Titus back in the car and hiked up the .5 mile path in 8 minutes. Later we read in the brochure that on average visitors should plan for the .5 mile (330 foot of vert) to take 30 minutes. Based on the amount of tourists, young and old alike, huffing and puffing their way to the top, I believe it.
|Notice Ryan gripping the railing for dear life.|
The view from the top was the best we have seen yet and after Ryan's quick trip to the gift shop we were back on the road headed to Historic Rugby, TN where our cabin awaited.
|Apparently a gift shop essential for Ryan.|
Around 7pm we arrive in Historic Rugby and stop at the only restaurant in the vicinity. Luckily, our host for the weekend, John Sharp, happened to be at the restaurant already. (I say luckily because there was no cell service there and we definitely would have had trouble finding the cabin on our own). With him were his two friends, Gina and Kyle, who were also racing Barkley.
Eventually we head back to the cabin, prepare our packs for the next day and after a very helpful Barkley 50k course tutorial from Gina (who ran last year) we all head to bed. I think every runner at Barkley can agree that the cloth map we received with our bibs is by far the most memorable, useful piece of race swag ever.
I was more nervous than I thought I would be by the time we got to the start. Driving in through the fog in the dark and past Morgan County Correctional Complex and towards the entrance of Frozen Head State Park was surreal. MCCX is the prison that replaced the famous Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex allowing for its closure.
Never in all my racing thus far have I ever carried so much crap with me. My Nathan VaporAiress was loaded up with a bladder 2/3 full of water, Hammer gels, electrobites, Endurolyte Extreme in the handy water proof pill pocket, a 12oz bottle of Tailwind, backup Tailwind packets, my handy cloth Barkley 50k course map and my Zephyr 300 handheld flashlight (because i was told we need it to run through the dark prison) and work gloves. Yes I was told leather work gloves were a necessity!
Steve Durbin,the official RD, gives a quick intro.
Laz lights his cigarette.......
Running down the road to the actual Frozen Head State Park entrance sign is even more surreal. Shortly after we pass the sign, we make a left and head up a jeep road and soon enough we are on single track and we begin to climb. Switch back after switch back, climbing and climbing. I feel like I can run the whole climb but I remind myself this is only the first climb so maybe I should chill. I begin to leap frog with one of the women. At this point I was pretty sure this woman and I were the first but knowing where all the women are ends shortly after we make our first wrong turn. One of many. I lose track of placement eventually and decide to just run, enjoy and not to worry about if I win or lose. Although I came to try to win the Barkley entry, I realize part way through its about way more than that. I came to see! And see I did!
Lots of wrong turns and lots of doubt make up my Barkley experience. What is usually a solitary venture eventually blossomed into a team sport. Ran some jeep roads with a PE teacher named Josh from Florida. Living in Florida didn't stop him from being a beast on hills.
We reached Testicle Spectacle together and he said "Well, here is where the gloves come out!" Work gloves on I follow him down this steep as hill completely covered with over grown briers. The hill follows power line so all the trees had been cut down and John had advised me when I get to this point to head for the tree line. Do not go down the middle. This is the part where you begin to choose your own route. Josh disappears down the hill. I begin my descent and find myself laughing out loud at how ridiculous this just got! Everyone tells me Rat Jaw is worse. How can it be worse!?!? Don't ever pose that question at Barkley! I can always be worse.
Those briers! I do not regret wearing a singlet and shorts but damn did they sting. It wasn't the saw-briers that hurt so much while they were cutting you, it was being so sweaty and having tiny cuts all over your arms and legs. This is what I came for though, the Barkley experience. And I had my gloves which really helped me blindly grab things to hoist my myself up the hill. I remember going hand over feet part way up, sweat is dripping off my nose and I am pulling myself through a thick area of saw-brier and thinking this is freaking crazy awesome. I also remember thinking how in the hell would someone do this 4 more times over the course of 2 and a half days...and more importantly how would I?? Or could I even??
I finally make it down the hill and get my bib punched. Instead of book pages like the real Barkley, we have to get our bibs punched at each checkpoint sectioned on our bib. Each punch had a different shape so you couldn't fake it. On my climb back up i see John making his way down. I hear him first before I see him. The Texan always makes his presence known. I was shocked and relieved when he catches up to me on his climb back up. At least I was with someone who might be more sure of where they are going. From here on out we generally leap frog with the same people the rest of the race. I had been told at the last aid station that I was in second (female) and that first place, Alicia Rich was only about 5 minutes ahead of me. Well I never saw her on my way down Testicle Spectacle so she was either way more ahead or choose to come up a totally different way than I went down.
At the top of Testicle, John and I begin our descent down Meth Lab Hill. Eventually we head back into the trees and my feet slip out from under me and BOOM! Flat on my ass in a pile of mud. Blood, sweat, and now mud. Now I just needed some tears to bath in.
Brushy Mountain Correctional Facility
Eventually, we emerge from the woods and actually come out onto a road. And there it is! Brushy Mountain Correctional Facility. Nestled among the giant Tennessee hills, sits at the bottom, the old prison. If you don't know your Barkely lore and the significance of this prison, do yourself a favor and google it. In true Barkley fashion, I am not going to "map" it out for you.
Heading towards the prison, I am excited I might get to see Ryan and Titus. Ryan still injured had to sit this one out, once again. We get to the road to cross it and I see my car driving towards us! Its Ryan and he is leaving! I flag him down and he turns around and meets me at the Brushy Mountain entrance. I have only run 18 miles at this point (around 5 hours) but it feels like an eternity since I have seen Ryan. "This is crazy!" I tell him. He tells me there is a chick way, way ahead of me. I tell him I don't even care at this point. I say good bye to him and Titus and head into the prison with the small group of us who have been leap frogging. When we get to The Hole, the bib puncher doesn't make himself known immediately so we are fumbling around in the dark not sure where to go. Then he emerges from a solitary confinement cell, punches our bibs and we head out.
Up Big Rat, straight up climbing. Gloves back on and grabbing whatever root, rock or tree branch we can get our hands on. "Is this Rat Jaw?" I asked John. "No! Rat Jaw is worse," he replies. Another guy Ron who is also from PA and has run this before replies, "This is Big Rat."
We come out onto what looks like another jeep road and more power lines with brush 5 times thicker than anything on Testicle Spectacle. Welcome to Rat Jaw. Straight up. I don't see the top but apparently there is a tower we need to get to at the peak. Now five of us remain together at this point. Ron, the Barkley 50k veteran, from State College, PA. Russ from Bloomington, IN. John Sharp, the Loud Texan from Selma. Troy from Columbus, OH who in my head I nicknamed Skrillex before I learned his real name. And just like that Team Rat Jaw assembles!
|Team Rat Jaw: Russ|
|Team Rat Jaw: Troy|
John leads the way into the briers as we plow our own switchback to the treeline on the opposite side of the hill. No exaggeration but from the base of hill at the prison to the tower at the top of Rat Jaw must have taken us at least 90 minutes and I am not even sure it was a mile total. I had no GPS (unwritten rule or written somewhere depending on who you ask, that there is no place for GPS at Barkley). After a lot of team work, more blood, sweat and some cursing, we helped hoist each other up over a small rock face and emerged from the brush over the last steep, dirt hill. Cheering spectators were there to greet us and one woman captured some amazing shots of most all of the runners. We climbed the metal tower to get our bib punch, took in the view for a second and headed back down. John assured me that from here on out we were back on single track and no longer needed our gloves. What a relief. After that,I was definitely ready to run again.
|This doesn't even do it justice.|
|Checkpoint at the top.|
Only 4 miles to the next aid station and the cutoff for the marathon distance for those would not have time to do the final "9 mile" loop. Coming down a bit of single track before reaching the aid station where Laz would be waiting to punch our bibs for the second to last punch, I hear the pounding footsteps of someone running strong. I take another step, stumble and for the 3rd time that day get a debilitating calf cramp. As i bend over, cursing and rubbing my calf the blond girl I remember from the beginning of the race (she had a documentary crew following her) blows by me like a freight train. SHIT! I yell and take off running, completely placing the calf cramps from my mind. We reach the aid station and I see her just ahead of me. The drop bags are here and I grab my ziplock bag of 3 more Hammer gels and a PB sandwich. I am so hungry at this point and was really looking forward to having that sandwich but blondie has ruined that for me. :) No time! All I can do is jam the ziplock bag in pack and head to Laz for my bib punch.
"How far ahead is first female?" I ask.
"No way you are going to catch her but you can over take second. Do you have water?" Laz asks.
"I don't need any, I just got some at the last aid station!", I mumble frantically.
"You cant leave here without water. People ran out last year. Someone get her some water." Laz shouts.
I reluctantly take off my pack and without removing the bladder I un-slide the top and hold it out for the volunteer to fill, she pours in only a bit before the bladder appears full.
"Wow! That's a lot of water you got there," exclaims Laz.
AAHHHHHHHHH wasted time I think (but we will get to this....). I head out in a sprint after the girl who is now in second. It is not too long before I pass her going up the hill, she looks like she totally died. So confused and running scared I begin the last major climb. I run/power hike as strongly as I can to put distance between me and Bec (I can stop calling her blondie now). I got to chat with her after and she is a sweetheart. She came all the way from Sidney, Australia and is crossing her fingers for a chance at the real Barkley in March.
I catch up with Troy at this point and he is looking rough but moving well. He tells me has has been out of water the majority of the race as he could not find his bladder before he left Ohio and that he is really feeling the effects. All he he had were soft flasks. "I can give you some water, no problem. I have way too much in here and it feels so heavy!" I tell Troy. I take off my VaporAiress and pour water from my bladder into his flask. Some of it gets on the ground and some of it gets in his flask but I fill it and then head up the hill. Troy falls behind and I am alone now.
This climb goes on forever but I am grateful to be on actual trails. Somewhere soon I will get my bib punched for the last time and finally head to the finish. I have been running for over 8 hours and am not even done yet! I go to take a sip of water. Empty! Oh the irony! Laz is probably laughing now, he knew. It's all part of his grand plan of pain and suffering. I think because i had so much crap in my pack and i didn't take the bladder out to refill it, it only looked full when we poured the water in. He warned me. People run out of water he had said... At this point even my toes were cramping. It was a weird feeling but there was nothing else to do but run on.
More doubting. Where was this last bib punch? I felt like I had been running forever and the last thing I wanted was to miss it. I kept stopping to look around and even check out behind boulders and ridges along the way to see if there was some hidden check point. Eventually, a good southern boy catches up to me with blood all over his face. I ask him where the hell this check point is and he assures me its ahead. A few times I turn around and wait for him and ask him again. It was the doubting..as well as my less than average downhill skills that ultimately lost me 2nd place. After reaching the last check point and stopping to get a bit of water for my pack (surprise water because I didn't know there would be any), I begin the 3.5 miles back down to the finish. And then I hear those foot steps again...... I don't even turn around this time. I know who it is. I step to the side and let her pass and then do the only thing I can. Run as hard as I can after her. Its not even that i suck so bad at downhills, its that Bec was soo good! I try to keep her in my sights but lose her at the first real turn. I think I know which way she went but doubt again causes me to refer to the map which I have had rolled up in my front bottle pocket for easy access through out the race.
Flying down the gravel path that leads to the road that leads out of the gate and to the finish, I think this seems an odd way to end this race. A sprint down the road. I hear cheers from the finish which i cannot yet see and reckon that those cheers are likely for Bec but i didn't want to take any chances and have her sprint by me again (in case she had taken a wrong turn and ended up behind me). So I run on.
|Ladies and Gentlemen, all the way from Australia.. Bec Wilcock!|
Turning the corner and running towards that finish line was a total relief. I was so glad it was over and I had decided along the way that I never wanted to do it again. I thought doing the real Barkley was out of the question and that I had gotten the taste i was seeking. The Barkley Fall Classic had cured the Barkley itch. I was wrong. Barkley haunts my dreams. Literally, haunts them. I have had a dream almost every night that I am on the Barkley course in one way or another. How do I make that stop? How do I quiet the Barkley voices? Maybe Laz knows.....
Because this blog isn't long enough yet...
As always, thanks to Team TROT. I think we should re-consider white singlets. :)
Thanks Altra! The Lone Peak 2.5s did the trick.
And of course Nathan Sports. My clothes and skin were sliced up the VaporAiress doesn't even have so nmuch as a tiny rip from all those saw-briers. That's quality!
And finally.....Titus got his high point of the trip the next day in North Carolina at Mount Mitchell!