Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Barkley Fall Classic: Like Nothing I've Done Before

I haven’t done a race report in a while, but Barkley is such a crazy, different experience from anything I’ve ever run before, I wanted to record the experience – as much to preserve my own memory as to share with others.

I registered for BFC50k on a whim, early in the morning before Georgia Jewel 50mi.  Growing up in the Huntsville, AL area and returning for a few years after college, I was steeped in Barkley lore by the likes of Dewayne Satterfield and Rob Youngren.  I wanted to experience Frozen Head State Park and see what all the fuss was about.  I expect many others have had similar motivations for toeing the line at the baby Barkley.

My wife and I had our first child a little over a year ago, and that has obviously changed my life, priorities, and running goals.  That, combined with the fact that I live in Cincinnati where you can only find about 300ft of elevation change as a time, I knew I wouldn’t be willing or able to prepare for Barkley with the focus and specificity that I have had for past races.  Instead, I tried to focus on the experience more than the competition, which has been a major motivator for me in the past.  I showed up Saturday morning confident in my fitness, but knowing I hadn’t run longer than 5 hours in the last 9 months.

The race began just before sunrise and quickly spread out up front with nearly a mile section on the roads.  I quickly settled into 2nd place as we transitioned to single track and climbed for several miles.  We climbed a bit longer on jeep road, hit the first aid station, and then descended quickly still on the jeep road.  I let the leader go on the descent knowing there was plenty of running to come.

A few minutes later the jeep road opened up and I encountered someone taking pictures.  Knowing a turn was coming, but knowing I wasn’t leading either, I asked if we turned or kept going straight.  The photographer replied with an unconfident straight.  I could see an open powerline cut to my right, but the next turn was a left, so I continued straight.  A quarter to half mile later I hit a fork in the road that was unexpected and unmarked.  I stopped and the third place runner soon caught me. We decided we must have missed the hard left turn and began running back with the leader somewhere behind us now.  The lady with the camera had been standing right in front of the “trail” where we were supposed to turn, and those that knew what they were doing were now breaking trail on the powerline known as Testicle Spectacle.

Testicle Spectacle was the first real Barkley-esque portion of the run.  There was no trail per se, but it was somewhat runnable.  I was in about 10th place now, but quickly moved around folks who were slower navigating the thick brush and occasional briar.  I was in the lead by the time I made it to the turn through the forest to the second aid station.  Around of the church and out of the aid station, it was straight back up Testicle Spectacle.  Magically, after some 300 runners had passed, there was actually a proper trail cut through the brush.  The difference in the conditions of the running path was just astounding.  Still the climb was slow, at times requiring some hand climbing and bear crawling.  The wet soil was turning to mud where those descending were sliding down the hill on their arses which made it a little more difficult to find traction.

I summited the Spectacle still quite alone in the lead and started down the other side which I saw when I initially missed the turn at the camera lady.  The descent down Meth Lab was rough.  It was much more overgrown with large portions of briars that were taller than me.  There was absolutely no trail, and we were required by race rules to stay in the powerline cut and not use the protection of the woods to advance more easily.  Clearing my way was slow and painful.  In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t take all that long, but at the time, it was not fun. A turn to jeep road finally came and I headed toward the infamous Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.  James Earl Ray’s escape from this prison inspired the original Barkley Marathons race.

Even though the intensity of running had not been that high, I had a bit of an upset stomach already at this point about 2:45 into the race.  A volunteer at the aid station kindly provided me some coke and I took a fig bar, but I felt the need to hit a port-o-potty heading into the jail.  Exiting still in the lead, I walked through the jail taking pictures and acting more like a tourist than a racer.  As I climbed the ladder over the back wall, the 2nd and 3rd place runners finally caught up to me (the first leader who also missed the turn was now back even).  We took the tunnel back under the prison and then turned left to climb.

Rat Jaw.  One mile.  Straight up.  All briars.  I don’t think my words would do it justice, so I might as well not even try.  By the time we reached the top over an hour later, it seemed like the entire race field had formed a conga line behind the leaders.  The briars were so thick it was infinitely easier just to fall in line and let the first “runner” split the briars.  After initially putting in quality time clearing powerline trail, the eventual 50k winner took a little more liberty than the rest of us regarding what he determined to be inside the powerline cut.  This allowed him to summit ~15min faster than the main line that now included myself and Huntsville friends Rob Youngren, Dewayne Satterfield, and Martin Schneekloth.

Finally at the top, I paused to take some pictures from the fire tower then it was back to running again, approximately 4:15 into the race.  The low intensity of the climb had actually helped my stomach recover, so I was feeling pretty good again and continuing to pursue my original nutrition plan.  I totally lost track of my place during my pause on the fire tower, so I continued on the jeep road alone and at my own pace.  I knew there were 5 Barkley miles to the next aid station so I settled in on cruise control.

Our map showed two trails breaking off to the left that we were NOT to take in this section.  There were no trails shown breaking off to the right, so I was careful to bear right and look for signs (the race had marked major turns, but there were no confidence markers).  I ran along Jeep roads until my foot pod measured that I should have arrived at the next aid station.  Maybe I should have realized well earlier, but I hadn’t seen anyone in over 30 minutes and it just didn’t feel right.  A couple on an ATV pulled up but couldn’t help tell me where I was on my map.  So I did the only thing I could do, turned around and headed back the way I came.

I eventually ran into more folks who had missed the turn.  There were probably 30 folks stopped on the trail trying to decide what to do.  My buddy Cary Long was one of them.  I love Cary to death, but I’m not supposed to see him after the gun fires.  I was way back in the field.  I worked my way back to an unmarked fork in the road that actually had logs placed across the correct direction.  It broke to the left, the direction I had been intentionally avoiding.  Up the trail a little ways there was an arrow (thanks, now you tell me) which makes me think it might have been vandals that removed the turn sign at the missed intersection.  I was at least an hour behind the leader now.

I carried on, passing many folks on the single track downhills, but beginning to slow on the climbs.  At 6:30 into the race, I reached the 5th aid station.  I carried on passing more folks and was still generally enjoying the single track trail.  This section was primarily down hill, so I was making descent time again.  But I knew there was a major climb left before the 6th aid station and the marathon cutoff point.  As soon as I started hiking this climb, I knew I was in trouble.  My stomach had shut down and I had no further desire to eat or drink.  I was belching constantly and almost vomited several times.  After hiking the entirety of the climb, I gingerly began the descent back to Laz’s aid station, feeling a little loopy at times.  I knew I would not be able to continue on to the 50k loop without taking in more nutrition, so I decided to drop down to the marathon and limped in to the finish.  I actually won the marathon in 8:36, but that wasn’t very reassuring, because I knew I should have been running to win the 50k. 

If you’re still reading at this point, you deserve to know that after I finished, I attempted to re-hydrate but promptly puked up everything.  The second time this happened, they put me in the ambulance to treat me for heat exhaustion.  After cooling off for over an hour after finishing, one swallow of Gatorade was, again, almost immediately rejected by my stomach.  The paramedics encouraged me to go to the hospital as their procedure would not allow them to treat me with nausea meds and IV fuilds without a trip to the ER.  I had a very similar experience after dropping out after Mohican 50 in June, but I drove myself to the ER hours after the race when I still couldn’t quit throwing up.  Long story short, after a short trip to the ER, I felt much better and was able to eat some soup before bed that evening.  Mohican was a much worse experience in the end.

I don’t know what’s going on with my stomach, but it sucks.  It’s taking much of the joy out of running and severely limiting what my legs can do.  Doctors suspect it could be acid reflux/indigestion and have suggested that I start taking an OTC acid reducer to alleviate my symptoms.  But how to do I test this theory?  It only happens in races longer than 5 hours, and when I trigger it, I end up in the hospital.  It’s not really sustainable, so racing longer than 50k is on hold for a while I suppose.

After all of that, I will say Barkley Fall Classic was fun.  It was a different and challenging experience.  I wasn’t constantly staring at my watch an wasn’t focused on hitting any particular splits.  I saw people during the race I don’t normally get to run with.  Even with the frustrations of missed turns, I ran free for 7 hours (until my stomach revolted).  It’s such a unique experience that I’m already registered to run again next year so I can finish the 50k. 


  1. Great report! We just happened to be trail running/visiting the same weekend as the race and that terrain is no joke.

    Sorry to hear about your GI issues. Good luck next year. My wife and I would love to give it a shot next year.

    After a run on Friday a bunch of guys familiar with the race begged us to enter, stating due to the hurricane there were a bunch of openings. Alas, I knew better... Unless you're Elite like yourself, you damn sure better have some training. Again, that terrain - not even taking into account the brambles - is a meat grinder.

  2. Sounds like quite the adventure, very barkley-esh. Minus the hospital visit.