“The trick,” I tell Ka., Ki., and R. at our pre-race dinner, “is to have several fallback goals. You can shoot for your stretchiest stretch goal, but if you miss it you still have the next one drawing you on.”
I have dreams, but no realistic expectation, of finishing in 3:30. The only reason I even added it to my list is because it’s not that far under 3:35, which is the Boston qualifier time for my new age group, and which I think is just barely in reach if I can summon up a monster effort and the day goes perfectly.
R. has been my training partner for the last 18 weeks. He is not much for mid-week running, but I’ve been able to bumble my way through those runs on my own. The Sunday long runs, though, we did together. I’d never have made it through them without him. One Sunday got rained out, and I missed a handful of mid-week runs due to minor injury, but aside from that we pretty much nailed the training plan.
“Doc, my heart sucks and I think I’m dying.”
The seed for the audacious plan to try to BQ was planted in early 2022, but it didn’t sprout into my consciousness until December. I was out of shape. Just getting out of bed and making breakfast caused me to break out in a sweat. My heart rate shot up to nearly 100 just getting out of my car to meet R. for a run.
At my yearly physical in February I laid all my worries on the doc, “I think my heart is on its last legs, doc. Give it to me straight – how long do I have?”
“Well, how long can you run before you get chest pains?”
“Pains? I don’t really get pains.”
“Hmm, OK, how long until you feel exhausted?”
“I don’t know – 6 to 8 miles?”
“Maybe 10:00 or 11:00/mile?”
“You moron, you’re not dying. You’re just deconditioned. Get out of my office!”
I still wasn’t convinced, so before I left I secured a referral to a cardiologist. She ordered heart-monitoring, a stress test, and an ECG. I completed these tests and came back to her office to get the results: “Give it to me straight, doc. How long do I have?”
“From the looks of these results, about 30 to 40 years. You moron. Get out of my office!”
Chastened and encouraged, I decided that there was no better time to do some serious speed training.
Coros makes a great watch. The battery life is outstanding – I’ve never drained it below 90% at a race – and it’s lightweight & featureful. Their app allows downloading several training plans, for anything from intense speedwork up to 100 mile races.
I found a plan with the moderately clunky name “12 week run speed development” and resolved to follow it to a T.
At various times in my life I am reminded of the etymology of the word “decision”: “de-“, meaning “off”, and “-cision”, a cut. A cutting off of all other alternatives. I have de-cided to follow this speed training plan and get fast; all other alternatives such as skipping a scheduled run, cheating on the training pace, etc. are cut off. Get fast or die tryin’.
And it worked. Of course it worked. How could it not? We know that training works. You want to get fast? There’s no big secret. Do the work and you will be fast.
Flash forward to December, 2022. I have completed the speedwork program, and R and I are in the early days of marathon-specific training. Time to do some racing and put the training to the test:
I felt strong for the whole 10 miler, and had little or no soreness afterwards. The 7:24 average pace was encouraging, but how would that translate to 26.2 miles? That last 10k of the marathon is such a beast; I could easily lose 30+ seconds on my average pace if I blow up.
For the BQ I’d need to do 8:12 – and WTH, if I’m thinking about 3:35 I might as well put 3:30 on the table as well. That would be 8:00 pace. Let’s make a plan for it.
Easy enough – I know I will not negative split. I’ve never been fit enough to negative split a marathon, and I am in tune enough with my training to know that hasn’t changed now. That means I’ll need some cushion in the last 10 miles. I decide to target 7:50 to 8:00 pace starting out and see how long I can hold it.
Until the setback, that is. For some reason the taper runs after Reston are hard. Like, really hard. I feel sluggish and tired. I can manage to hold an 8:00 pace, but it’s a struggle. I’ve got an ache in my right hip that won’t let go. Even up until the last few days before the marathon I feel heavy and weak.
Maybe it’s time to be a little more realistic and preserve my more achievable goals. A new PR (< 3:57:04) should be no problem at all, and 3:45:00 is very realistic if I don’t go out too hot and blow up. Greed kills, speed kills. Run smart and go home with the PR. There will be more chances to BQ.
C is my ultra running idol. C is not fast. but she is gritty. Nothing can stop her. She runs with joy and determination. She messaged me not long before race day with some typically C-esque words of advice for my marathon: “May you be confident. May you trust your training and show up bravely, Ray!”
I guess I’m all in, then. 7:50s it is, for as long as I can keep it.
Race day dawns, and I’m up early. I brew some coffee in the hotel room and walk a couple of blocks to a 7-11 for some fast calories. I get a text from Ki. – he’s not brought any pins for his bib and what should he do? I recommend trying to cadge some from random hotel desks, or seeing if he can get random runners to give him one of their four; they should be fine with just three. I suddenly note that I have an extra two pins and offer to share them with Ki. if I can find him at the start.
I fail to find him at the start, but later learn that he cadged a stapler from a 7-11 and solved his problem thus. I also look for R., but he eludes me as well. With 5 minutes to the gun I head to my start corral, where I find my cousin W.
W. and his wife are running the half. I’d met up with them the day prior at the expo, and it was good to catch up. It turns out we have similar pace goals and he’s shooting for a 1:45 half.
We talk about maybe running together for the opening miles, but when the gun goes off I spot a gap between two runners ahead of me, dart through it, and I am gone.
My gear for this race included:
Four Gu liquid energy gels. I had hoped to carry these in the liner pocket of my shorts, so as not to need a vest, but in pre-race testing I learned that this resulted in a significant, annoying thigh slap. I decided to carry them instead in my…
Nathan Pinnacle 4L vest. This is by far the best hydration/running vest I’ve ever bought. Fits snug, no bounce, easy bottle access, plenty of storage space but contracts down when empty. I left the water bottles in the hotel and just used it to carry the gels and one 2Toms SportShield towelette in case my pre-race application failed me (it didn’t).
Saucony Endorphin Elite shoes. I don’t even know what to say about these shoes except that they are super amazing and you should buy some. Lightweight, highly cushioned, they just seem to propel you forward off your toes. Best shoe I’ve ever bought. (I was tickled to see that W. had the exact same shoe).
First mile, 7:52. Right on target. I feel great, The running is effortless. I started in the 3rd wave, and I steadily move up.
I feel so good. I feel unstoppable, Mile 2, 7:43; mile 3, 7:39; mile 4, 7:44. It’s too fast. I try to slow down, but it’s impossible. Any slower pace feels like standing still. The legs want what they want and I give them their rein.
The day is beautiful. It’s a little chilly in the shade, but the course is mostly sunny and I feel great. The next 11 mile splits are all within 5 seconds of each other, averaging 7:35/mile. It’s too fast, but there’s nothing I can do. I cross the timing mat at the halfway point and check my watch – 1:40:32. I have set a half marathon PR by over two and a half minutes. I am on pace to finish under 3:22. I know it’s unsustainable; I know I’ll have to crash and burn – but if this be wheezin’, make the most of it!
Down to the southern half of the course, and I still feel good. We run along the boardwalk for a couple miles; I don’t feel the breeze at my back, but I know it’s there. Then we turn off onto roads and it’s time to see how much guts I have.
The little speed bump just past mile 15 does not look like much, but it’s a significant hill, up and over a large bridge. This is where the magic starts to wear off. The bridge puts me over 8 minutes (8:13) for the first time on mile 16. I manage to drop back to 7:55 for mile 17, but mile 18 is 8:45. It’s one step forward, two steps back.
It’s a seesaw battle between fatigue and will. I pop back under 8 for mile 19 (7:57), and wind up just over for mile 20 (8:14). I’m still easily on pace for 3:30 with 10k to go, but there’s a lot against me in these last miles. I am really feeling the early pace and I am fatigued to the point where I have to walk a little bit each mile. I’m starting to feel some cramps flirting around my calves. And I know I’ll have to face that bridge on the way back.
Now the wheels are falling off, and I am losing my cushion fast. Each mile is slower than the last:
Mile 21 through military housing , 8:33
Mile 22 through the same, 8:41
Mile 23 back over the bridge, 9:06
At this point I am about 3:02 into the race. A quick calculation tells me that to make 3:30 I’ll need to average about 8:50/mile the rest of the way. Not happening.
But the BQ is still on the table – I only need about 10:25/mile to beat 3:35. I dig deep and get ready for the attempt, but as we turn back onto the boardwalk I realize the breeze that had been at my back is now a vicious gale in my face. My lips are red and raw; my vest is chafing bad under my right arm; my legs have got nothing left, and this wind feels like it’s going to toss me into the ocean. Mile 24 is slower yet, 9:35, but that cuts my goal pace down to ~11:00/mile for the BQ. It’s a race against the elements now.
I have just another mile of boardwalk, then it will be out to the roads then back south with the wind at my back. Mile 25 is the slowest yet, 10:16.
I cross the last timing mat at mile 25.2. One mile remaining, and the time reads 3:25:10. I’ve got 9:50 to finish this. There’s no fatigue or loafing in the last mile; buckle down and get it done.
A right and then another quick right and I’m back on the boardwalk heading south. A huge statue of Poseidon is looming, and just past him, the finish line. Ka. yells to me from the sidelines. I’m going to make it.
I start to kick for the last quarter mile and my right hamstring completely seizes up, bringing me to a screeching halt. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no!” I can see the finish, but I can barely move. Limp, stagger, grab leg, limp, dig and gouge and massage hamstring, stagger, limp, check watch, f*** it, just run. If I die I die.
The leg will seize or it will not. I will make it or I will not.
The line is closer and the leg is rowdy, but it’s holding. Closer. Closer. I could crawl now and make it.
The last mile was an even 8:00. Finish time, 3:33:10. That’s a massive 23:54 PR and a BQ for this old man.
I see Ka. briefly then head back to the hotel to change and shower before coming back to watch R. finish. Once I’m in the room I get debilitating chills; I can’t get warm. I crank the heat up high in the shower, and I dread having to get out.
Outside it’s cold, and waiting for R. seems like an eternity. He finishes with a 30+ minute PR though, and there are many congrats and hugs.
I learn that W. bettered his previous best for the half by over 12 minutes. W.’s wife, M., and Ki. each finished the half with a very respectable time. It’s a beautiful day all around.
This is the first time I’ve finished a marathon and felt like more was achievable. The first 15 miles of this race went very, very well, and not all of the last 10 were disastrous. I have no doubt that with more training I can run strong the whole 26.2. I don’t think I’ve set my last PR.
Disce hinc, quid possit fortuna; immota labascunt, Et quae perpetuo sunt agitata manent.
Friday morning, September 17
As the plane descends through the Knoxville overcast, I see the rolling hills of Tennessee, part of the ancient Appalachians, once as mighty as the Alps or Rockies, worn down over the ages by ceaseless mountain streams.
It is my fifth time visiting Tennessee. In 2015, I achieved my first did-not-finish result at the Barkley Fall Classic, the lite (50K) version of the Barkley Marathons, the infamous 100-mile race that often has no finishers. In 2016 I returned for another DNF, slowed by yellow jacket stings and hot weather, I missed the time cutoff by a few minutes. In August 2017, I drove to Oak Ridge to see the Great American Eclipse,then in September I went back for a charmed third attempt in Frozen Head State Park. Five hours in, I made a wrong turn at an unmarked fork on the trail and lost hours wandering in the wilderness, spoiling my chances of a 50K finish.
After each failure, I got a flimsy dog tag in recognition of completing the marathon portion of the race, swore I would never return to Tennessee, and went home to lick my wounds. A few months would pass, and I would put my name on the waitlist for the next BFC just in case, and then a midsummer invitation would arrive and I would heed the call of unfinished business. But three strikes were conclusive. I changed my focus to beating the Oprah Line and enjoying trail events close to home that are too long to worry about speed.
One day I noticed that the 2021 BFC would fall on my birthday, and I made a reminder on my calendar, years in advance, noting that it would be a good chance to check that to-do list item off after setting a respectable personal best at the marathon. I signed up for the Richmond Marathon in November 2019, but logistics fell apart and I bailed out. 2020 came and went with most events cancelled and nothing to train for. A friendly instigator suggested the Baltimore Marathon in October 2021, providing a training spreadsheet. I had never been organized about training, just doing some long runs on the weekend and at occasional events. What might happen if I actually prepared?
April 29: 3 miles in 29:28
I started training for Baltimore with a short run along the Washington and Old Dominion rails-to-trails bike path. I would get to know this path well, running it more than 70 times through the summer.
Friday afternoon, September 17
On the way to packet pickup at Frozen Head, I visit the K-25 History Center recently opened near the site where I watched the 2017 total solar eclipse as part of an American Museum of Science and Energy tour. Oak Ridge was a key site for the massive World War 2 effort to enrich uranium for the bomb, and K-25 was once the world’s largest building.
I am charmed by a gallery of photographs of Tennessee mud, a recurring theme in the oral histories of the site. I anticipate seeing more mud before the weekend is over.
June 5: 12.4 miles in 3:21:46
I joined a running group for a training trail run near Browntown. We kept the pace casual as Caroline added a 24-hour 100K to her impressive resume a week before. I asked for training advice and they said “If you want to run faster, you have to run faster,” the apparent tautology referring to advanced techniques of intervals and ladders, mixing intensity.
Friday evening, September 17
I arrive at the park to pick up my race packet and, most important, the course map, a closely-guarded secret that varies each year. I am shocked: the course is very different from the three similar routes I ran and have studied exhaustively. There is a new loop I have never seen, designated as the “50K Only” section. To qualify for this loop one must reach the decision point within 11½ hours. The three times I entered, this decision point came after 9½ hours, leaving almost four hours to hike in the final loop. If I just make the cutoff and go for the 50K, I’ll have less than two hours to complete this loop, which begins with a steep climb up the switchbacks of Bird Mountain.
Rat Jaw, the most famous and challenging climb, straight up a mountain overgrown with thorny briers, features twice. We will have to climb the upper half and then, after completing some other obstacles, come back and climb the whole thing.
As I worry over the route, I hear people talking about a mistake on the map. Apparently it is misprinted, and we will have to do the new loop twice, once at the start and again if we can beat the cutoff at the end. My optimism has dissolved, but I try to hide my dread. Jenny Thorsen, another three-time starter, is taking photos this year and will provide the cover image and photos for a race report in the November issue of Ultrarunning magazine; I smile for the camera.
As my race seems more and more hopeless, I try to relax by chatting with other entrants over the chili dinner. Many are new, and I don’t refrain from offering advice. The early cutoffs are very generous, as race director Laz doesn’t want people to be sent home before they have had a chance to suffer many of the main attractions, so you can’t rely on beating cutoffs for pace. Course marking is minimal, as demonstrated by my 2017 race ruined by going off course. I describe some of the tough challenges and the spartan nutrition provided at aid stations. Someone asks if he should bring his head lamp. I tell him I have never needed one, neglecting to add that I have never actually finished. The cutoff for completing the 50K will be at 8:20 p.m.
I return to the motel and have a traditional pre-race meal at Los Primos across the street. I draw a simplified map of the course on paper, knowing that I won’t be inclined to spend time pulling the big cloth map out of my pack during the race. Over the past weeks I have been learning to draw the park map from memory, with trail names and blaze colors and intersections, hoping to avoid surprises, but none of this helps me know what to expect. At least I know the course now, and we received assurances that race officials would direct traffic at the important waypoints.
June 13: 13.5 miles in 2:33:57
Brood X cicadas were everywhere. Baltimore training run #32 called for 8 miles on the schedule, but I felt good and went for a half marathon. I also ran on the previously scheduled rest day, an exuberance I would eliminate as training distances increased.
Saturday morning, September 18
Friday night I can’t sleep. I take a hot shower to try and relax. Back in bed the A/C cycling on is too loud, so I put in earplugs. Then I can hear a high-pitched whine coming from the fridge, so I unplug it. I read a few pages of something unrelated to running. I take a Benadryl pill. I was going to buy sleeping pills for just this scenario, but learned that they have the same ingredient as the antihistamine I brought for bee stings. The diphenhydramine makes me feel fuzzy and awake. The earplugs become uncomfortable, so I remove them, and turn up the A/C so it won’t cycle on and off. Then it gets too cold. I turn it off. It gets muggy. It’s 4:30 a.m. and I get up. I try to poop and nothing happens. I am feeling despondent, dreading a day of misery ending in failure.
June 20: 9 miles in 1:42:13
It was very warm and humid, but I managed to finish the scheduled distance in time to attend Father’s Day brunch. After 38 successful training runs I was feeling good and looking forward to Baltimore.
Race Start to AS1: 3.5 miles
Cutoff 8:45 a.m. Target 8:00 a.m.
Lingering in the motel room, I fill my water pack and eat a banana with some coffee. My gear is ready so I sit down and look at the map again. At the restaurant I had started writing out a race card but couldn’t come up with goal times for the waypoints. I write a new card and just wildly guess how long it might take me to finish each leg of the course, smoothing out the hours so I would get to Laz at the decision point cutoff just in time at 6:30 p.m.
Somehow this written plan, however unfounded, makes success seem possible. I don’t know if I can hit these target times, but I don’t know that I can’t. I try again on the toilet and succeed at the mundane but essential task. The despond clears and I put on my shoes and head out.
I follow an ambulance all the way on the half-hour drive from the motel to the park. I am directed to a parking space far from the start, where I take my time with a breakfast pastry and some orange juice. When I hear the announcements start, I join the crowd and try to squeeze my way a little closer to the front, but at 7 a.m. I’m still in the back half as we set out.
We follow an “unimproved” jeep road that goes slightly uphill. The footing is tolerable and I am able to run at a comfortable pace, not overtaking many people but not being overtaken. As 8 a.m. approaches I start to worry I’ll get behind on my guesswork plan right away. My watch hits 7:59 and I am confused to see runners going the other way higher up on the mountain, but there wasn’t any switchback on this leg until … sure enough, the aid station appears just ahead and I arrive within 30 seconds of my target.
July 11: 13.1 miles in 2:30:23
The schedule called for 12 miles, but when I reached six I was getting close to the trailhead and couldn’t resist continuing so I could see all the mile markers on the way back. It was quite hot and I didn’t bring any food, just water and S-Cap salt/electrolyte tablets. Had to walk the last half mile home and it felt great to finish.
AS1 to AS2: 4.1 miles
Cutoff 10:45 a.m. Target 9:30 a.m.
I can’t tell if the distance accounts for the mistake on the map; including the extra loop seems to make it longer than 4.1 miles but it’s mostly downhill so I budget 90 minutes. The first part is great single-track dirt running, except for the part where I step off the trail to pass someone, almost sink my foot in a yellow jacket nest and get a sting on the shin. One sting isn’t worth worrying about, and I continue on to the loop we will repeat in the evening if we get to Laz by 6:30 p.m. and choose to go for 50K. The last part of this loop is a rough downhill jeep road. I am very slow on the technical descent, nervous about falling or turning an ankle, and many people pass me. Just as I start to worry about my time, I see activity ahead, and I am in the bib punch line within a minute of my goal.
I note that it took me about 30 minutes to come down that jeep road to what will be the 50K finish.
July 24: 15.0 miles in 2:29:59
Baltimore training run #59 called for 14 miles, the longest day yet. I reached mile 7 and went an extra half-mile to reach the Difficult Run crossing.
AS2 to AS3: 6.5 miles
Cutoff 1:55 p.m. Target 12 noon
It’s time for Chimney Top. On my previous visits, this grueling switchback climb followed by a few miles along the ridge was the 50K extra distance, so I have never seen it, but I have heard reverential stories about the ascent, nicknamed Big Hell. People suggest planning on two hours to reach the summit, but I can’t find that much time in my budget so I hope to crest in 90 minutes, then take another hour to reach AS3. I see roughly 20 switchbacks on the map, and count them as we go up. Ismail Tekin comes up from behind; I tell him I saw him on the entrants list when I was looking for people in the D.C. area to carpool with, and congratulate him on finishing the C&O Canal 100 Miler in April. He is probably creeped out by all this personal information, but his distinctive name made it easy to find out that he is a well-known hairdresser at the Four Seasons in Georgetown.
When he advances ahead, I notice that I can hear my heart throbbing in my ears. I use the digital Casio watch I bought for an earlier BFC (where GPS is prohibited) to count the beats and find my heart rate is 160, a bit high. I pause to lean against a tree now and then to manage my cardio. As 11:00 approaches, I have counted 14 switchbacks, and think I’ll probably need two hours to reach the top after all. But after a few more switches I see the massive boulders that line the ridge and it seems I am on schedule. I hike a bit longer on the ridge trail, then start trotting again. I can visualize where I am on the park map and recognize the hairpin turn and anticipate the junction to Spicewood Branch trail which is close to AS3. I end up reaching the aid station at 11:50 a.m., now ten minutes ahead of schedule.
An invitation to join the BFC arrived in my e-mail, with a prominent “Decline Offer” button hinting at the wise course of action.
July 28: 8.1 miles in 1:22:52
I was very preoccupied pondering the invitation. The years-long tug of unfinished business was compelling in the abstract. But compared to having a nice normal birthday observation at home with family, devoting three days to hunting my white whale seemed self-indulgent and eccentric. Nor did my 0-for-3 record bode well for success at capturing the illustrious Croix de Barque medal awarded to 50K finishers, without which I would return home utterly defeated.
But sometime after 7 a.m. on a warm summer Wednesday, while distractedly running along the bike path and reflecting that I might not ever have a better chance, I saw some deer and decided that paying for a race spot, arranging time away from work and family, two seven hour drives and two hotel nights: all that would be the easy stuff. So I did the easy thing and signed up.
AS3 to AS4: 2.5 miles
Cutoff 3:10 p.m. Target 1:15 p.m.
I am delighted to be ahead of schedule, five hours in. I take on some water and grab an apple pie pastry, coated with sugar glaze and filled with sickeningly-sweet filling, just the empty carbs I crave. I’ve already taken one salt tablet, and I am drinking water regularly, but the overcast sky seems like ideal weather, until the first thunderclap warns of rain on the way. I use some of my ten-minute cushion to walk out, enjoying dessert. Then we jog down another rugged jeep road to get to the midpoint of Rat Jaw. I continue to find the descents tough on joints and feet, and I feel slow and unsteady as it starts raining. But I try to make the most of the moment, remembering the horrors that loom just ahead.
Soon we turn onto the mining trail on which I made a wrong turn in 2015, and then Rat Jaw is revealed: a treeless power line cut that goes straight up the mountain. In 2016 the saw briers had been cut down, but this year they are thick on both sides of the narrow dirt path. The leaders have forced a way through (photos online would show the dermatological consequences of trailblazing) and we start marching up as the rain begins pouring harder.
It is like climbing unstable dirt stairs, and I am content to pause and breathe at the many bottlenecks that form below particularly tough spots. But footing in the damp soil is still pretty good and the rain is amazingly refreshing. I make good progress and don’t have to constantly drink water. I notice that people keep talking about rattlesnakes, making rattlesnake jokes, singing rattlesnake songs. It’s a crazy camaraderie and I can hardly believe that going up Rat Jaw is not completely miserable. Everyone around has a positive attitude, joking about the wisdom of grabbing the fallen cable while lightning flashes all around.
I’ve given myself an hour and fifteen minutes for this climb, but get back to the aid station in an hour (assisted by getting a bib punch at the bottom of the steel lookout tower rather than climbing to the top in the electrical storm).
August 8: 13.2 miles in 2:29:01
Planning for a family vacation, I joked that August would be a rest month, but I knew I had to get some miles in as the marathon was two months away, and BFC was becoming more than a fantasy.
We were visiting Athens, staying in Edem Beach about 8 kilometers from the Acropolis. As we toured around, I watched for good places to run and noticed Panathenaic Stadium, the world’s only all-marble stadium and finishing point for the Athens Classic Marathon honoring the legend of Pheidippides.
Running log notes:
Early entry to Panathenaic Stadium for joggers is a myth, opening was at 8 a.m., so I took a peripatetic detour around the serene Lyceum of Aristotle. Bought a second half-liter of water from the kiosk (the vendor had heard of Kipchoge but no Olympics news) outside the stadium then did a few laps to get my miles. The view is inspiring but I looked more and more like Zatopek as the sun rose. The way back was harder, following GPS breadcrumbs with no excuse to stop for map checks. At last, saw the sea in the distance. Θάλαττα! θάλαττα!
AS4 to AS5: 3.0 miles
Cutoff 4:40 p.m. Target 2:15 p.m.
At 12:50 I am back at the aid station, now 25 minutes ahead of schedule. I am soaked and, amazingly, chilled after climbing Rat Jaw and jogging back from the tower. The snacks are now floating in trays of rainwater, so I grab a tangerine and use some cushion minutes to stroll out. I pull two Band-Aids from a pocket and apply them to my front, having learned how quickly discomfort sets in when running in a rain-soaked shirt.
Our next challenge is a steep descent down another power line cut. I’ve always enjoyed this part; it’s too steep to run and many places offer no alternative to buttsliding. This year the dirt slides are slick with mud as the rain continues. I find a stout, two-foot stick and use it as a primitive brake to at least avoid crashing into people. Soon I am so muddy there’s nowhere left to wipe my hands before wiping a clod of mud from my face.
Ismail is climbing out and I tell him he is looking strong. Other people returning give updates on the conditions below and distance to the aid.
My watch is too muddy to read when I reach the aid station sometime around 2 p.m. I drop my stick to get my hands rinsed and ask a volunteer for tips on getting over a muddy ditch on the way back. We watch a guy run a few steps, leap across, splat into the mud and slide back down like a cartoon character. The volunteer says that people have more success bushwhacking through the weeds alongside the ditch. This way turns out to be filled with thorns; mud and thorns are the two options on the day’s menu.
August 15: 18.3 miles in 3:22:08
While on vacation I skipped short training days, and we were in Izmir on the next long day, a 17-mile Sunday. Using Strava’s heat map I was able to plot a route all the way around the harbor, from one ferryboat station to another, including a visit to the 1850m track around Kültürpark, frequented by street cats and dogs.
Running log notes:
“Kolay gelsen!” [may your work be easy] calls a passing cyclist at mile 5; “Sağ ol!” [Thanks / health to you] I answer. By mile 9 I need a pit stop and ask security at Alsancak station. She directs me to a cami. I’m not dressed for a mosque, and outside the station I see the same cyclist. He also tells me to look for the cami. I never see it but find a public toilet, the door still open as someone is just leaving so I pretend not to see the coin slot (I have only a 10 and 100 in paper money). There is 2-3 cm of water on the floor, but I don’t hesitate as the clock is still running. Suddenly water starts spraying from the walls, fortunately below knee level. “This is fine” I tell myself, trying to finish up. Then the toilet folds into the wall with a mechanical noise. I finish peeing onto the floor, avoiding a turd that is immobile in the ongoing spray. No photo of the moment as I hustle out of there.
It is delightful to see the destination throughout the run, but the last kilometers are slow, sustained by some sugar cubes and another half liter of water bought with unusual difficulty as shops are still opening. I see the 9:00 and 9:15 ferries depart on time and wonder if I can make the 9:30. I just miss the 9:45. On board the 10, I buy a mask indulgence in the form of coffee & simit, take a seat on the outside deck and enjoy reviewing my route as we steam toward home.
AS5 to AS6: 2.0 miles
Cutoff 5:40 p.m. Target 3:30 p.m.
Laz miles are known for understatement; perhaps he measures the map with a straight ruler. Some entrants would later plot the route using online tools and suggest that 38 miles was closer to reality for the allegedly 50K course, with some 12,000 feet of accumulated elevation gain. For this leg the climb back up the mountain and down “Meth Lab Hill” on the other side is about two miles as the crow flies, but we are crying murder as we struggle through one foot at a time. The mud slides are impassable upward, so we tramp through thorny brush on the edges. Focusing on short-term goals has been working so far, so I aim to reach the top by 3 p.m. That works out, and I immediately plunge down the other side.
Meth Lab is a joke. I am incredulous. Normally, it’s a very tedious and demanding downhill through a rocky ravine. It’s a place that brings the two meanings of talus into focus at once: the unstable piles of broken rock you have to navigate over, and the bone in the ankle that promises to snap at any misstep. Today, everything is wet, attractive stepping stones are painted with mud from previous runners, and the path traces the edge of a steep gully sometimes six feet deep with a roaring muddy stream at the bottom. Running seems impossible, but I sort of hop and shuffle my way down. There are some unavoidable butt slides as well, but now the mud is spiked with sharp rocks. I miss my stick, trying to go down at a controlled rate.
We emerge in the little town of Petros, and I jog up to the aid station outside the prison. It’s 3:30, but I know the cutoff point is actually Keith Dunn’s bib check behind the wall, so I feel behind schedule for the first time. I fill up my water pack, get another apple pie treat (“The whole thing?” the volunteer asks) and walk up toward BMSP.
As I walk along, a volunteer or someone’s crew chases me down and starts firing friendly, helpful questions. How am I feeling? Am I getting enough water? How’s my nutrition? Do I need any salt? Salt! I’ve only taken two tablets since the morning. I’m not sweating as much as I would on a sunny day, but I’m sure I’m sweating. I thank her for the reminder and wash another electrolyte tablet down with the pie.
Another runner and I get mixed up with tourists visiting the prison, trying to find our way along the course. I see runners coming out the tunnel on the right and head for the front door we used in previous years. Someone shouts at us and waves from the left yard, while a tourist shouts and points us toward the other runners he sees on the right. We go left, and a volunteer sends us through a side door to the back yard. As we hike toward the ladder set up to scale the wall, she is talking in defeated tones about how Rat Jaw was too much the first time around. I feel like I’m still in it, but can’t get myself to hustle and end up holding the ladder as she climbs over.
I follow and say hi to Keith as he gives my bib another punch.
August 21: 8.0 miles in 1:18:25
My flight out of Athens was delayed and the gate agent wouldn’t send me through as I would miss the connection in Toronto, so I ended up with an unplanned layover and a free room at the airport Sofitel. I was hoping to be home Sunday for an 18-mile training day and had to make the best of the situation.
Over dinner I plotted running paths to Marathon (27 km away) and the nearest Attica wildfire (14) to kill time after a flight delay scored me my first ever free hotel night. A 500 cc dose of Φιξ (Fix) beer dulled these ambitions, and I scaled back to the scheduled 8-mile day. A dog guarded the long term parking lot, but she was too skittish to photograph. An army of taxi drivers idled around the perimeter, some eyeing me with curiosity, one offering a ride. Orange helicopters ferried water south as the moon rose over the airport.
AS6 to AS7: 2.0 miles
Cutoff 6:35 p.m. Target 5:30 p.m.
It’s 3:40 p.m. and I am ten minutes behind my guesswork schedule as I press Keith for an honest assessment of my position. Laz has allotted 55 minutes between cutoffs to get from here to the top of Rat Jaw, an absurdity resulting from having to align the easy early cutoffs with the finish line reality. By now the “virgins” will have seen the major sights so it’s time for them to go home and try another year.
Keith is the chronicler of the Barkley Marathons and the BFC, his Twitter feed the main source of live updates to outsiders. He assures me that two hours is enough for Rat Jaw, and I have almost that much time in my budget. I walk through the dark tunnel and jog over to the base of Big Rat where half a dozen runners are struggling. It’s a sheer dirt face 10-12 feet high with almost no vegetation or firm footing. A runner at the top is kind enough to pull people up from halfway, but there is a queue for this service. I start up a bit to the left and when I am as high as I can climb, my reach is several inches short of the base of a woody stem that looks like a good handhold.
I jump up and grab the stem, slamming uncomfortably into the wall. Pulling my knees up, I am poised like a spider but with nowhere to go. Looking up I see only weeds and weak roots to grab at. Above and to the right there’s another jug just out of reach. I think of Tommy Caldwell trying again and again to complete a “kinetic” maneuver in “The Dawn Wall” but don’t want to risk dropping back down this face, despite its ridiculously miniscule scale in comparison to El Capitan.
Giving up on strategy, I get up over the edge with brute stubbornness, clawing at whatever I can. I have a pair of gardening gloves in my pack, but the fact that my hands are already torn up and my reluctance to stop and take off the pack convince me to go on without them.
The lower half of Rat Jaw is sloppy after the rain but doable. I am behind a runner who is incredibly poised; she takes short regular steps, never wavering or flailing around, making slow but smooth progress. I focus on her shoes and imitate her foot placement.
Eventually we reach the midpoint where we joined Rat Jaw in the morning. A park truck is nearby and a ranger watches us climb up. He says “I’m gonna give you the spiel. There’s a thunderstorm 25 minutes out and you’re going to be on Rat when it hits. I suggest you take the road up to the aid station and a DNF, but the decision is up to you.”
“Okaythanks” I reply without breaking stride. Later a runner would express profound regret at following the ranger’s suggestion to bail out. Another runner would express regret for not taking the advice.
John Fegyveresi is one of 15 people who have ever completed the real Barkley Marathons since the first race in 1986. He completed the five loops around the park in 59:41:21, just ahead of the 60-hour limit. BFC is one loop which keeps more to established trails. Feeling that “a loop around the park on trails would be a nice change of pace and a great way to spend a day at Frozen Head,” Fegyveresi entered the Barkley Fall Classic in 2019.
After dropping down from the wall, we walked through the tunnel (which is always fun), and then began the long, brutal climb up the Big Rat….during the absolute hottest part of the day. There’s no simple way to say this. It was pure misery. The briers were over 6 feet tall, and in many parts I had to crawl on all fours to avoid a complete butchering. I had forgotten just how long the combined lower Rat and upper Rat climb was (over 2000 feet of gain). Just making the mid-point of Rat Jaw (the part where the famous powerline section starts) seemed to take forever. When I did make it there, nearly out of water, I found over two dozen runners simply laying down…totally exhausted. It was like a war zone. I fought off the enormous temptation to join them, and simply trudged onward. I knew that the upper part of Rat Jaw can be broken into three manageable sections. As long as I was moving, no matter how slowly, I’d be making progress.
As before, I am greatly aided by the overcast skies and tolerable temperature in the 70s. But the refreshing rain has converted Rat Jaw to mud. The middle of the channel is almost hopeless, full of long parallel streaks carved by shoe lugs sliding down. I can find some purchase along the edges, on top of the trampled down saw briers, but get more entangled in the standing plants. There’s nothing to do but plod on. I see the previously poised runner again, now she is crawling on elbows and knees, groaning with every advance.
Some videos posted after the race give an idea of the conditions on the ground. But nothing conveys the scale of the climb like David Martin’s drone video over the 2019 race. In full screen with high resolution, you can pick out the entrants making their way up like a line of ants.
Despite the difficulty, the atmosphere is often close to jovial. We are certainly getting what we came for. I am followed by a runner from Colorado who is full of the can-do positive energy of military experience. He is constantly chatting with people ahead and behind, providing a welcome distraction from the slog. At one point both my feet lose their grip and he arrests my slide with a firm shove on the backside. I thank him for the support and he suggests I think of a way to explain the muddy handprints to my wife. We keep ascending, making what use we can of the cable that is now coated in mud. When someone loses control they swing wildly into the brambles on the side, sending people above and below off balance. I focus on goals within goals; the aid station is far in the future, but the next power line pole is in view, my next step in reach.
It seems to take forever, but time creeps when you’re having this kind of fun, and I eventually top out, get another punch at the base of the tower, and re-tie my shoes alongside two other guys who found their laces pulled loose. I arrive at the aid station at 5:20 p.m. and call out to no one in particular “Which way to Laz?” I have seventy minutes to reach the decision point where I can choose to drop down to a marathon finish or go for the 50K.
August 23: 18.1 miles in 2:58:50
After returning home from vacation, I went to bed at 6 p.m., hoping to preserve the jet lag that makes early rising easy. Not sure what kind of run I was up for after a transatlantic flight, I left the house at 4 a.m. with nothing but a water bottle. A runner immediately glided by on the sidewalk, shoes blinking in the dark. I headed west on the now-very-familiar bike trail, figuring I could turn around any time I started feeling tired. At five miles I felt great and kept going. I reached Difficult Run, eight miles out, and continued to the next road crossing to set a distance record before turning. I was out of water by the time I got home, but added two more miles to reach the 18 on the schedule for my travel day. My pace was 9:52 per mile, faster than I normally do shorter distances. I noted the benefit of a long break in regular training.
I started lurking in online channels for BFC intel, mostly finding sarcasm and crazy horror stories.
AS7 to Laz: 2.6 miles
Cutoff 6:30 p.m. Target 6:30 p.m.
All I have to do is get to Laz. If I can reach him in an hour, I’ll be eligible to do the final loop and complete the 50K. If I am late, I’ll get the consolation prize, my fourth dippy dog tag with an image of Laz’s face. My mind returns to 2016, when I left the same aid station with a deadline to meet Laz at the trailhead to try and continue. I think I had about 50 minutes that year, but the trail was tough on weary legs and I arrived three and a half minutes too late. This year I have 20 minutes more time, and, though I don’t realize it until after returning home, we are on South Old Mac Trail, not North Old Mac Trail, and it’s considerably shorter. So I am delighted when I see a sign for Judge Branch, recalling that it is more than halfway on the park map.
I arrive at 6 p.m., half an hour ahead of my goal. I am perfectly elated, and walk right past the aid station up to where Laz is sitting in a camp chair with his bib punch. “You can take the marathon and be second overall” he says, a canned lie he tells everyone. “I didn’t come here for another dog tag” I answer as he gives me the punch, spelling I NAILED BFC on the bib (some get an F in place of the N). I start to go back to the aid station for a last refill but Laz stops me, pointing out that I’ve already crossed the timing mat and have to continue. No problem, I have at least a liter of water, a package of peanut M&Ms I’ve been saving all day, and a bag of sugar cubes. I ask for directions, confident that navigation is the only thing that can make me fail now. I’ll continue on the park road we started on eleven hours ago, pass the famous yellow gate, then left up Bird Mountain. I walk up the road, rewarding myself by burning a few minutes of my cushion.
August 24: 5.0 miles in 43:38 September 4: 5.0 miles in 39:53
As September 18 approached, I scaled back my training, hoping a long taper would give me as much strength as possible. Skipping longer runs made me want to perform more on shorter distances, and I beat my 40:09 race PR for the five mile distance.
I had never trained like this before, multiple times per week through the hot, muggy summer. I could see my numbers improving, and with them, my confidence. Maybe I could beat Oprah at last. But I had one more task before Baltimore in October.
Laz to 50K Finish: 5.0 miles
Cutoff 8:20 p.m. Target 8:15 p.m.
I feel like my chance of victory has risen from minimal at the start, to maybe 40% at the prison, to maybe 90% now. In the past the 50K bonus mileage has been difficult, but with a generous time allotment that allows time for hiking after a long day. We have two hours and twenty minutes, normally plenty for five miles, even five Laz miles, but we will start by climbing the long, endless switchbacks of Bird Mountain.
As I walk up the road, another runner jogs past me, not showing much interest in my cheerful chatter. I pause at the yellow gate to get a quick photo before heading up into the woods.
The Bird ascent was my first exposure to Frozen Head, and I have no misgivings about hiking. I am slow on descents, but make good time climbing, passing two or three people on the way up. The switchbacks go on forever, but finally we reach the intersection with the turn for the last loop. There are no course markers, but the park signs clearly indicate the trail we followed when we came through in the morning.
The path is flatter now, but I am still hiking. I recall in the morning it took me half an hour to get to the bottom once I reached the jeep road. Maybe it will take me 45 minutes in my current condition, so I should get to the jeep road by 7:30. It’s already 7, so I switch to a shuffling run, not much faster than my walking pace. After a while I hear voices behind, a group of five or six guys sounding strong, running together and supporting each other. That’s what finishers sound like, I tell myself. I step to the side of the trail to let them pass, then join them from behind. It is hard to keep up, but I recognize the feeling of strain from my training runs; it’s not supposed to be easy. We go on a while, then the caboose falls off. Not me, but the runner in front of me lets the train move on ahead. We are still keeping a good pace, so I stick with him.
We take a walk break on a short climb and talk a bit. Neither of us have finished before, and we are not sure where we stand. I dig out my peanut M&Ms and offer to share, but they have gotten wet and look nasty with most of the candy dye washed off. I eat a few and throw the rest into the woods, tucking the wrapper into my trash pocket. We continue running where we can and walk the rises. He mentions the “wildlife” we faced earlier, and I ask if he got stung by the yellow jackets. No, he’s talking about the rattlesnake on Rat Jaw. What? I thought that was a lot of joking around. Later I’ll find discussion of a six foot snake coiled two feet off the path, rattling at everyone going by. Someone recorded video that doesn’t show the snake clearly but depicts a runner going out of his way to stay right.
I am glad I didn’t see it, the second pass through Rat Jaw was intimidating enough.
Where is that jeep road? It is starting to get dark and someone occasionally passes us with a head lamp. I brought a head lamp but left it in the car; I never needed one before…
Finally I see a light ahead going downhill to the left. Soon we reach the turn and emerge onto the rugged road where at least there is more light. Everyone is concerned about time and I lose my running mate as I focus on my footing. More people pass me as I continue pounding my knees and toes. I’ll have to pay a two-toenail tax for all this banging down Meth Lab Hill and Ross Gap.
A guy comes from behind with a brilliant lantern that turns dusk into day. He is flying, and I can’t imagine how we ended up at the same point in the race if he is so strong. “We got this in the bag!” he calls out as he bounds downhill. Maybe your bag, I mutter miserably. I watch his light fade into the distance ahead as I pick my way along in the gloom. It’s getting closer to 8 p.m. and I am desperately trying to remember what we saw on the morning pass. The jeep road went on a while, then there was an intersection where a woman stood with a dog sending everyone left. Then it was a half mile or so through the woods before we emerged at the start/finish area.
Headlights ahead, coming up. I stop and stand on the side to let the vehicle pass, but the driver shuts off the engine and shouts that he will wait for me. I scramble down and he says there’s “a little more than a mile” left to my great relief. I ignore the quiet voice reminding me that “just another mile” is the joke message that is scribbled on course signs over the last half of the course. I confirm that there is just the one left turn ahead and continue on.
Before long I come up behind a runner with a light. She checks to make sure I am not a wild animal and then offers to let me pass, but I am only too content to follow behind. She is nervous about the cutoff, but doesn’t want me to tell her how much time we have left when I check my watch at 8:02 p.m. We hit the left turn and are now in the woods, where it is very dark. I pull out my phone and struggle to get it unlocked and turn on the back light with my grimy hands. I feel ridiculous putting my fate in the hands of a little LED and know I have to stick to my guide whatever comes. She is keeping a strong pace under the deadline pressure. Her light illuminates several feet ahead of her, and I have to plan where I’ll put my feet two or three steps ahead of time, my phone light almost useless. Fortunately the trail is pretty smooth with only occasional rocky patches.
We hear voices ahead, but agree that it’s hard to distinguish between a finish crowd and rowdy runners thinking they can smell the finish. There are no cowbells or music or loud cheers, just some yelling. I can’t decide if I am more incredulous that I’m going to succeed or that I’m going to fail.
The minutes tick away and at last we see a clearing ahead. As if in slow motion we enter the chute and my reflex is to give a kick and advance one place in the standings. But my light provider has absolutely saved my race and I let her go ahead. I am forever grateful to Amie #252 of Coxs Creek, Kentucky for lighting my way as I cross the line in 13:12:46.
At the finish I am in a daze. Ed hands me a Rat Jaw bumper sticker and the finisher’s medal I have been seeking for six years. SURVIE D’ABORD is engraved under Laz’s grimacing portrait, the same face that adorns all my race maps, right over the words “Better be off the Trail Before Dark.” I met Ed at the chili dinner last night but don’t recognize him. I walk in circles, then wander over to the meal tent for a veggie burger and diet Mountain Dew. Once I sit down I sip at the soda but it’s a while before I feel good enough to keep the burger down. My body seems to sense that the job is done and it’s time to start complaining, the beginning of a recovery that will take most of a week.
Many times during the day I recalled my wife predicting that I would finish this year. I always nodded and grinned hopefully, if uncertainly. I’ll be able to go home without shame, my usual determination to avoid Tennessee for the rest of my life a bit more credible.
I thought I would be dreading my early morning return flight, but I wake up before the alarm and am happy to pack my bags and clear out of town. At the departure gate I am zonked out in a chair when someone says “Those are the legs of a Barkley man.” I am wearing the race t-shirt of course, but my legs are lined with evidence of a Rat Jaw passage. The speaker sits down with her crewing friend, waiting for their flight to Philadelphia. She got a DNF this year and I commiserate. She is already talking about coming back to complete her unfinished business with Laz.
At the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, a Frenchman was able to read a poem on the ruins of Rome signed by Joachim du Bellay; a Pole knew the same poem as the work of Mikołaj Sęp-Szarzyński; a Spaniard, as the work of Francisco Quevedo; while the true author, whom the others adapted without scruple, was a little-known Latin humanist, Ianus [Janus] Vitalis of Palermo.
Czeslaw Milosz, The Witness of Poetry
Qui Romam in media quaeris novus advena Roma, Et Romae in Roma nil reperis media, Aspice murorum moles, praeruptaque saxa, Obrutaque horrenti vasta theatra situ: Haec sunt Roma. Viden velut ipsa cadavera, tantae Urbis adhuc spirent imperiosa minas. Vicit ut haec mundum, nixa est se vincere; vicit, A se non victum ne quid in orbe foret. Nunc victa in Roma Roma illa invicta sepulta est, Atque eadem victrix victaque Roma fuit. Albula Romani restat nunc nominis index, Quinetiam rapidis fertur in aequor aquis. Disce hinc, quid possit fortuna; immota labascunt, Et quae perpetuo sunt agitata manent.
Translated into French by Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560):
Nouveau venu, qui cherches Rome en Rome Et rien de Rome en Rome n’aperçois, Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcs que tu vois, Et ces vieux murs, c’est ce que Rome on nomme. Vois quel orgueil, quelle ruine : et comme Celle qui mit le monde sous ses lois, Pour dompter tout, se dompta quelquefois, Et devint proie au temps, qui tout consomme. Rome de Rome est le seul monument, Et Rome Rome a vaincu seulement. Le Tibre seul, qui vers la mer s’enfuit, Reste de Rome. ô mondaine inconstance ! Ce qui est ferme, est par le temps détruit, Et ce qui fuit, au temps fait résistance.
Bellay was translated into English by Edmund Spenser (1552/1553–1599):
Thou stranger, which for Rome in Rome here seekest, And nought of Rome in Rome perceiv’st at all, These same old walls, old arches, which thou seest, Old Palaces, is that which Rome men call. Behold what wreak, what ruin, and what waste, And how that she, which with her mighty power Tam’d all the world, hath tam’d herself at last, The prey of time, which all things doth devour. Rome now of Rome is th’ only funeral, And only Rome of Rome hath victory; Ne ought save Tyber hastening to his fall Remains of all: O world’s inconstancy. That which is firm doth flit and fall away, And that is flitting, doth abide and stay.
The immobile perish, and those that are ever on the move endure.
Sure, like certain other behaviors necessary to propagate the species, ingestion can be a pleasure, perhaps even elevated into an art form. But many of my meals are refueling stops, and even when the eating is fun, the prep work and cleanup is a drag.
All the more while running. Anyone preparing for a marathon learns that nutrition during the event is as important as pacing to make it to the finish. Runners experiment with fortified sports drinks, gels, candy and other high-calorie energy inputs. But carrying more stuff, fussing with opening packages and disposing of wrappers can be unexpectedly trying after twenty miles.
Race foods typically contain a lot of sugar. But if you research running and sugar, you mostly find the fashionable demonizing of “added” sugars responsible for so many ills, with advice that runners try a nice avocado instead.
If our bodies break down foods, especially carbohydrates, into simple sugars which provide energy to the muscles, why not run with the tank filled up with pure fuel? I decided to experiment with table sugar as food while running.
Sucrose and glucose are both simple sugars; however, sucrose (also known as table sugar) is made up of one glucose and one fructose molecule linked together. Glucose is the body’s preferred energy source because it circulates throughout the blood and provides energy, while fructose is the type of sugar found naturally in fruit. Researchers found when the two different sugar sources were combined, it increased how quickly the gut was able to absorb and process the sugar. This means table sugar mixed in water is a prime candidate for fulfilling the fast-energy needs of endurance athletes.
The idea was to take in just as much energy as I needed to offset the extra energy used by running, so my body would have to find some other excuse to slow down.
An online calculator estimated my basal metabolic rate at 1823 calories per day, just to stay alive and walk around. Since I would still have regular meals on a race day, I figured I could ignore this.
There are 49 calories in one tablespoon of sugar, suggesting about two tablespoons of sugar intake per mile. I did a trial run to work and back, four miles each way, carrying sugar packets. These were messy and troublesome, but I managed to get my sugar in without any digestive difficulties.
I then tried to cook up some measured lumps in 1 tbsp doses.
A bit of maple sugar provided some flavor and helped the lumps keep their shape, but a few hours running around in Great Falls Park left me with a Ziplock bag full of crumbly mess.
Finally I thought of ready-made sugar cubes as the best solution. A one-pound box of 198 cubes contains 453 grams; one tablespoon of sugar is 12.5 grams; the free energy released in oxidizing glucose by oxygen is ≈ -3000 kJ/mol … after spending too much time playing with numbers, I decided to eat six cubes every ten minutes and see what happens.
Test #1: Rosaryville 50K
This July event was ideal for my purposes: three trail loops without much elevation change, offering two chances to resupply at a drop bag, and enough distance to flirt with the wall.
Things went well on the first loop, as I enjoyed zipping past the aid stations without stopping and getting to know the course. I kept an eye on my watch, and the ten minute cycle seemed to be a good balance between having to pull out my sugar bag too often and having to eat too many cubes at once. The dry cubes did not create much mess, and my hydration pack helped wash them down.
I felt good at eleven miles, reaching my drop bag. Somehow while swapping my empty fuel bag for a fresh supply I also abandoned my medical bag, with electrolyte tablets and Advil and Band-Aids. But I managed another loop, only getting somewhat tired of my tedious regimen.
At the second drop bag stop, I took out the frozen washcloth I had left there in the morning. This pick-me-up is a wonderful refreshment, and I also grabbed my medkit and Bag 3 of the increasingly unappetizing glucose cubes.
During Loop 3 I postponed or skipped some doses, feeling I had enough to get to the finish. A few miles before the end, a heavy downpour began, turning the trail into a rapid stream. This was an exhilarating way to wrap up a race, and I arrived at the end feeling clean and alert. I hung around to watch a few more finishers come in before heading home.
The biggest difference I noticed under the sugar program was missing the insatiable appetite that usually follows a long event for a few days. Rather than getting hungry again an hour after each meal, I was satisfied with a normal meal schedule. Apparently I had defeated one of the great charms of distance running: the license to gorge.
Test #2: Boulder Beast
This marathon-distance course promised some energy burn with a vertical mile of elevation gain and a monstrous boulder field. I had admired this majestic challenge in satellite photos, and it was awe-inspiring in person. As we approached the base, the forest opened up to reveal a vast rockscape, dotted with brightly-clothed people creeping up to a distant ridge (which spectators were kind enough to inform us was halfway up). Most of the stones were well-anchored, but it still took both hands and both feet to maintain balance while scrambling along. I took a break from the sugar supplementation to focus on my footing, collecting a mountain-shaped, pocket-sized chunk of Tuscarora sandstone as a souvenir.
After enjoying the view from the top, the rest of the course seemed comparatively manageable. Whenever there was an especially silly pitch, and I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, I left a sugar cube near the top to encourage those following. I was pleased to finish in seven and a half hours, leaving time to enjoy the Pennsylvania scenery on the drive home.
My third attempt to finish the Barkley Fall Classic 50K appeared charmed following packet pickup Friday night. The course route was front-loaded, opening with a beeline run to the two major challenges, T.S. and Rat Jaw, getting them out of the way before the temperatures reached an expected high in the low 80s. The rest of the course is largely under forest cover, so I would be in shade most of the day.
Determined to make this trip to Tennessee count, I had actually performed some modest training. Most fitting was a June morning of “monster hill repeats” in Shenandoah River State Park arranged by Ray.
These diagonal drills were good practice for the terrain in Frozen Head State Park. To build some mental muscle, in July and August I did two long, boring runs on the mostly-flat bike trail near home, covering 21.5 and 23 miles. The second outing became a long walk in the second half, as I forgot to bring S-Cap electrolyte tablets and wilted under the sun. Biking to work and regular walks completed my defensive measures against that great enemy, the couch.
August also provided the inspiring vision of the total solar eclipse, which I viewed just 14 miles from Frozen Head, suggesting that 2017 might be the year in which I could check off two big goals.
We lined up in the Saturday morning gloom under a waning crescent moon, the end of the synodic month that had begun with the eclipse. Race Director Laz lit the starting cigarette at 7 a.m. sharp and we were off.
Leonard, the Barkley veteran and reliable finisher, was already hiking and expressed some optimism about the day’s course, saying that we needed to get to the lookout tower by noon to “have a fighting chance” at a finish.
Old Mac Mountain was a gentle giant, offering a pleasant warmup as the sun broke through the trees.
We cruised through the first aid station with water packs still full, then dropped into the first signature challenge of the course, shrouded in a cool mist.
Recent rains made the near-vertical buttslides smooth and slick, and I recall hearing the sound of laughter as we descended the steep incline. On two occasions I had to shout an embarrassing “No brakes! Sorry!” as I rear-ended another entrant, unable to resist gravity. Farther down into the fog the going got muddier, and it was soon clear that this would not be a dry feet day.
The Appalachians are home to a number of “Mystery Spots“— tourist traps where magnetism has no effect or water runs uphill. I discovered that Frozen Head has its own mysteries. As we descended toward the Salvation Road bib punch, we found ourselves mucking through a diagonal bog, where the water refused to seek its own level. Standing pools of runny mud sucked at shoes all the way to the bottom, where a stream crossing completed the formula for blisters.
The shade and mist also seemed to reduce the power of gravity over us. What I remembered in previous years as an ordeal, under the hot afternoon sun, wasn’t so bad in the morning. Climbing back out, we also enjoyed an unexpected treat: a therapy dog. The hound, wearing a hunting collar, easily kept pace with us quadruped humans as we grabbed at weeds and roots to clamber back out of the valley. I wanted to share my water with him, but he seemed fine, so I just gave him some ear scratches.
Once at the top, it was time to descend Meth Lab Hill via a steep and rocky gully that is usually brutal. But the sun was still low enough that it was shaded, and I found the going sufficiently easy to be annoyed at the occasional queues at the top of bottlenecks.
I was also motivated to get some ice at the aid station outside the prison, and was soon pleased to see the crenelated fortress of Brushy Mountain. The magical cooler of restoration was visible behind the AS table, so I requested a scoop in my water bag. I gathered up a few precious cubes that spilled on the table with my dirty fingers, eating one and putting the rest in the paper hotel cup I carried, then added half a can of Coca-Cola Red, a sugary indulgence that delivered as much pleasure as anyone ever got from the Marlboro Man.
Leonard had said he wanted to be at the prison by 10:45. Recalling how he passed me on Rat Jaw last year, I hoped to arrive sooner, but did not enter the front door until 10:47. I wasted no time getting through the dark corridors, then out the back, through the yard, and over the wall for another bib punch, then through the tunnel to get to the bottom of Big Rat.
I had gloves ready, but every time I faced an obstacle I thought I would give it a try barehanded first and put the gloves on if needed. I never did put them on, and my hands ended up in better shape than my forearms, which were far better off than my legs.
Rat Jaw also turned out to be unexpectedly non-lethal. The saw briars were grown up, but there was a clear path through them. The only difficulty was the slope, and the regular sight of yellow jackets flying around, reminding me of the stings that ruined my day last year.
I made it halfway up before one gave me a kiss on the cheek as I crawled along. I blurted out the first word that came to mind, and the person just ahead called back “You all right?” “Just got hit by a yellow jacket,” I answered. With nothing else to do, we kept climbing until I found a little clearing and sat down for the first time. It was 11:30 and I had taken an S-Cap at 9:30 and 10:30, so I washed another one down along with two of the Benadryl tablets I brought. I would look like a chipmunk carrying a walnut the next day, but otherwise the bees did not affect me.
But the tower seemed out of reach. I felt sure I would need two hours to climb up from the prison. I picked out a telephone pole a little ahead as a goal and optimistically decided to see if I could reach it in five minutes. My progress seemed too slow to have hope, but I forgot how much time dilates when you feel every second, and I made the target in four minutes. I continued one telephone pole at a time and made good progress, still in the shade.
The tower first came into view at 11:56, and I reached it just past noon. No guarantee of success, just Leonard’s “fighting chance” of a finish, but I had completed the two big obstacles already and just had to make similar time to previous years to get past Laz at the marathon cutoff (9.5 hours) and go for the 50K finish (with a comfortable 13 hour 20 minute limit).
I opened a bag of peanut M&Ms to celebrate and jogged along the jeep road toward the Garden Spot checkpoint. Things were looking great as I munched candy and passed a course marker, the last one I would see for several hours…
The first sign of trouble was a clot of runners stopped at a fork in the road, staring at their maps. The road continued straight ahead, and the left turn went up a rise to the left. There was a branch on the ground that seemed to be blocking off this turn. I had not noticed the park trails on the left side that were marked on the map but not part of the course, nor did I know if the course should go up, down, or stay level when we reached the correct left turn. I did not even have a good idea of how far along to expect the turn. Some of this intel might have convinced me to make the turn, despite the absence of any course marker and the suggestive branch.
The group continued straight, and soon hit more intersections without markers requiring more map checks, compass reads, and, well, guesswork. As Laz would put it later, “We want to correct our error going forward.” There was indeed an aversion to backtracking, but mainly we didn’t know if we were off course yet. Until we met a runner coming back toward us, saying the trail ahead ended at a lake. There were no lakes visible anywhere on the course map.
We turned around, then made a different choice at one of the Choose Your Own Misadventure points. We were encouraged to see footprints of at least half a dozen runners in the muddy bogs we splashed through or tiptoed around. Eventually we encountered at least half a dozen runners stopped on the trail ahead, despondently looking at their maps.
It was over. I didn’t make a note of the time that we left the last known correct position, but it took 45 minutes to get back to it and take the correct turn. “These things happen,” a philosophical runner said, and I thought there was another word for these things.
By the time we got to the Garden Spot checkpoint, the bib puncher made a show of looking at his watch and asking where we had been. With no motivation to run, it was a long hike to the Bald Knob aid station.
The philosopher and I discussed taking a jeep road back to the finish, a quitter’s road that would save time but result in a DQ/DNF. Following the course back would add several miles and (I realized later) a lot of elevation change, but it seemed that we would have plenty of time for a drop-down marathon finish. I thought I would probably get lost on the jeep road anyway, so we got back on the course. He ran on; I ran for half a minute but couldn’t motivate myself to keep it up. It would be a long hike out, my fear of being on the trail after dark the main motivation to keep going.
At the last checkpoint, I was more than four hours late to try for the 50K. Laz grinned and asked “Looking for this?” holding up a hole punch. I delivered my prepared line about getting a punch in the face. I related my tale of bad nav and wandering in the wilderness, having heard that as many as 60 runners went off course.
“It was subtraction by addition,” he said, more to the few spectators still sitting around than to me. Individuals mostly made the turn, he said, but groupthink steered people wrong. I didn’t mention my doubts that a group would have outthunk a sign, figuring this was all part of the Barkley mystique. I took an awkward leave, thinking I would never see Laz again, just like I did last year, and walked off to the finish to get dog tag #3 after something under 13 hours. It wasn’t until I got back home that I noticed how Laz had mispunched my bib to pervert the “Can you beat the rat?” theme.
As I prepared this report, the e-mail arrived with a link to registration for the 2018 Barkley Fall Classic. As I did last year at this time, I intend to disregard this announcement. It took until February until I put my name on the waiting list. Then one day in March, while I was on hold with tech support to reset a password so I could do some work I didn’t care about and don’t remember, I got the message saying that a position had opened and I had the opportunity to pay a lot of money to drive a lot of miles to get a T-shirt and maybe another dog tag. I jumped on it.
The forecast was fine for the 25th running of the Bull Run Run 50 miler.
A bit cool at the start, and a bit warm by afternoon, but sunny and dry throughout. Earlier rainstorms had already left their mark on the course.
My training was typically inadequate, a few 5-10K runs around town, and nothing serious since the Barkley Fall Classic in September. I also got my heart rate elevated watching results trickle in from the real Barkley the previous weekend.
Inspired by seeing what serious training can accomplish, I set out to optimize my intentions, preparing a race card that would guide me to a glorious finish in 11 hours. Rather than shooting for steady 15-minute miles over a course that is anything but consistent, I set goals for each leg of the course based on my fastest completion of that leg in my three previous finishes.
These plans would be dashed at the start, when it was announced that we would be running the “high water” course to avoid the muddiest bogs at the northern end, with an additional passage through the White Loop added near the end to maintain distance.
Our team, Complex Roots of Unity, stood for a portrait and then we were off. I carried only a bottle on the way north and almost didn’t need it in the cool morning air. I planned to save time by buzzing through aid stations, and was pleased to see that I spent only 44 seconds at the Centreville Road stop. I Kobayashi’d a banana half and carried a cup of sports drink out. On the return visit I limited my stop to half a minute.
The first thought of quitting came at 12 miles. Not quite a desire to quit, but a strong urge to start walking despite the flat, comfortable terrain. Beautiful, even. The sun was peeking through the trees in the east, highlighting the exhalations of the runners ahead and illuminating the blooming bluebells, of which there was a rich crop this year.
The earlier rains left some of the crossings tricky, and I struggled to keep my feet mostly dry with careful stepping, but my shoes were pretty muddy and soggy by the time I got to my drop bag at the start/finish area at Hemlock. I was very happy to change into dry socks and clean shoes, and strapped on my belt. Sunblock and some snacking made this my longest stop, six minutes in total. I would spend under 15 minutes stopped all day, including one half-minute pee.
At the southern extreme, the Do Loop no longer seems as grueling as it did the first time. I heard a familiar voice and looked back to see Ray just behind, with two other runners. This put the pressure on to secure another pipe.
At 3:00 pm I saw the “10.0 miles to Hemlock” sign. If accurate, it would mean I could hit my aggressive goal of 11 hours by keeping a 15-minute mile pace. But was it ten miles, or did the high water course add more? I could only manage a pace of 16 or 17 minutes now anyway. The descents were very hard on the knees, and I actually appreciated the climbs as a legitimate reason to slow down.
I continued to express through the aid stations, sometimes basically walking through, though I did pause to let Alex P. dump ice water down the back of my shirt. It was as invigorating as an electrical socket, and he was pleased at my promise to give five stars to the Wolf Run Shoals aid station on Yelp.
I wondered if not resting might be slowing me down. One group passed me four times, always after a stop. But it seemed incorrect in principle to be at rest before the job was done.
Nearing the finish, I was mostly alone, plodding and plotting. Hitting 11 hours was out of reach, but 11.5 might be possible, a slight gain over my personal record, which I remembered as 11:34. But I couldn’t make the math work for a PR without knowing the course length; some people said it was longer than before, some shorter. I was at sea, just like the first time, simply shooting for 4mph. On average, I hit that target.
I slowed through an expanse of bluebells. With fatigue-heightened senses, the rolling green carpets dotted with blue-violet were entrancing. A gorgeous yet flimsy-looking butterfly fluttered past like a leaf in the wind. Such creatures cross continents? Some bees buzzed around as well, and the thought of their stingers prodded me back into a shambling run.
I thought of the many champions I had seen earlier, super humans with low bib numbers. Knowledge of the off-course hardships some of them had overcome left me staggered, stricken by their gutsy determination.
Finally came through at 11:36:24, which turned out to be less than thirty seconds slower than my previous best. Oh well! I stood by the finish line to cheer in a few more back-of-pack runners.
Last and greatest of all was Frank, bib #1, who finished the 25th Bull Run Run with under two minutes to spare before the 13-hour cutoff. He has finished all 25 races starting in 1993, completing the first one at age 50.
Our team would win the category of slowest finish!
Technical notes / TMI
I ingested only one gel all day. I carried three, and thought about taking another with caffeine, but took a 200 mg tablet instead. I popped one electrolyte S-Cap at the beginning of each hour from 10 to 4 and had no issues with cramps. Took about three Advil. It was very pleasant to get by on normal food and Gatorade, though I did not indulge much in the 5-star BRR buffets (saw stuffed grape leaves again).
Compression shorts under bathing suit worked fine, with iPhone in one pocket and a supply of oft-used tissues in the other (though I was chastened by another runner for my dainty and dignified “snot rags”). Vaseline in the unmentionable zone was beneficial but should have been more broadly applied. Body glide around waist and sunblock perhaps mostly psychologically useful. Nathan Triangle belt for bottle and meds and gels. Carried a phone charger but thanks to Low Power Mode and limited use (Runkeeper counting off miles in background and a few photos) arrived at the finish with 30% charge. BRR 2013 BRR 2014 BRR 2015
Q: What’s harder than failing to complete the Barkley Fall Classic?
A: Failing to complete the Barkley Fall Classic again.
Things looked promising at the start of the 2016 Barkley Fall Classic, the event at which I found my limit last year, when I did not finish the full distance and had to claim the “drop-down” option of a “marathon” finish.
Working against me was a slightly warm forecast, in the 80’s, and negligible training, just some cycling and 5K runs. But I was familiar with the course, feeling strong, and highly motivated to collect a Croix de Barque, the finisher’s medal which appeared quite glamorous compared to the dog tag memento I received last year. I knew what to carry: water, performance-enhancing tablets, and some solid nutrition, as gels are banned, and the provided aid was described as fairly spartan “light snacks.” Even cups were deemed too luxurious for this event, so I clipped a paper hotel cup to my pack, and got a mineral dose each time I stopped to pour sports drink into the dirt that accumulated at the bottom.
I had a sound plan: to at least pace Ray through the major climbs and never ever get behind Leonard, the Timex-like power hiker who knows every step of the course, always skirts the cutoffs, and always finishes just in time.
Everybody has a plan until they have to run through a swarm of bees.
The eternal switchbacks at the start were just like last year. We passed the Grim Sweeper at the top, a race official who would follow the last runners and make sure those who did not make a cutoff time were sent packing. He wore black and carried a large scythe for effect. I thought to snap a quick photo but decided against it; every minute would count today and there was no time for goofing around.
Conga lines formed where the trail was too narrow to pass comfortably, and these restricted my speed but helped me keep a conservative pace. I saved energy by walking at the same rate that people ahead and behind were running.
A few miles along, I heard screams and shouts ahead. Someone nearby wondered if a runner had taken a fall and gotten hurt. We approached a line of stopped runners, five or six, and I slowed as I passed by them on one side. I heard someone say “bees” and saw more people far ahead on the trail, beyond an empty, straight and slightly downhill section. Without stopping, I decided that there was only one thing to do, and sped up to a full sprint down the trail. I never saw anything, but suddenly felt like I had run through a swarm of bees, with a multitude of little bounces on the front of my body.
A few more strides at top speed and the stinging started on my lower legs. I began shouting, both to warn others that the danger was real and because it was fun to yell. Then I continued shouting because it hurt. I went on until I thought I must be clear of the swarm and stopped to swat away the yellow jackets I found on my calves and ankles. One had gotten down into my shoe and I had to fish it out with a finger, cursing all the while.
“Welcome to Barkley,” someone joked, and we continued along on the trail. I heard some terrible cries of pain from behind, reminding me of “the screaming bedlam of women” in the shipwreck scene of The Sea Wolf, the book I packed for the trip. I thought I should go back to try and help, but all I had was Band-Aids and Advil. I would later hear reports of people stung 40 times, and people with bees in their ears, so I felt lucky to get away with three or four stings around my ankles.
By the time I arrived at an aid station, two and a half hours in, I felt unwell. My heart rate was more elevated than it should have been and I felt a bit of nausea. I took on some fluids and walked out, making a note of the location in case I had to turn around and come back.
I walked slowly, and climbed very slowly, for about 45 minutes, and many people passed me. My ears were hot and itchy, my fingers were puffy and my palms tingled. Sometimes my ears would ring, but my vision was clear and I passed a self-administered MSE (though I had to think about my age because my birthday was the same weekend). I thought about the queries I would put into a search engine if I had a data connection: “bee sting symptoms,” or “antifrenetic” or “epipenetic” or “intergalactic” shock, whatever that’s called. I took an S-Cap electrolyte pill, which seemed the most useful item in the limited inventory of my Ziplock pharmacy.
An hour after the bees, I started feeling better. Anxious to get back into the race, I swallowed a drug cocktail, one dose of each remedy in my medicine chest.
Vitamin I (200 mg ibuprofen)
Go Go Juice (200 mg caffeine)
These did the trick, and my mojo was back about four hours after the start. I reached the first checkpoint and asked the bib puncher about my status.
“How we doing on time?”
“I dunno. You seen any sweepers?”
“No. Haven’t seen Leonard either.”
“Oh, Leonard’s up ahead. He passed a minute or two ago.”
I had seen Leonard at the start but didn’t notice him pass. If I let him get far ahead I knew I would fail. I started running at a sustainable trail pace, determined that I would not stop running until I either saw Leonard or else dropped out. I managed to go on a while until I saw one of those defeating upward-pointing trail markers and had to start walking the climb. I asked a runner nearby if he had seen Leonard. “Yeah, that’s him” he said, pointing just ahead. Relieved, I caught up, observing that Leonard is not a monotonous power hiker after all — he was running wherever possible like everyone else. While passing Leonard I said hello and asked about his feelings about our position. He courteously pretended to have forgotten my name, expressed concern about the hot weather, and mentioned some target times for waypoints to come. I jogged on, extremely relieved to be able to keep a reliable finisher in view behind me and feeling strong again.
I arrived at Testicle Spectacle and saw the newbies stop to gawk and snap photos just like I did my first year. I didn’t pause for a moment and plunged directly into the steep initial descent. With my gloves on I was able to do a lot of controlled falling, usually on hands and feet, sometimes in full butt-slide mode. The entrants coming back out were spread thin but there seemed to be a lot of them and I knew I was near the back of the pack. It was a long and hard descent and there was an extra leg with a loop added to the end, with a checkpoint bib punch outside a church.
Leonard was never far behind. He said he wanted to be back at the top by 1 p.m., six hours after the start. At 1 p.m. I was most of the way up, but still a good snowball’s throw from the crest. It took me twenty minutes to haul myself up that last section.
Then down the other side, dubbed Meth Lab Hill, toward the prison. I didn’t feel like eating, but forced myself to start on the bag of peanut M&Ms I carried, unable to contemplate my two Clif Bars. Washing down the candy caused me to finish the water in my hydration pack, but I remembered an aid station at the prison entrance last year. It was there as expected, and they had ice.
I will always remember that distant afternoon when, facing an imminent mortal threat, I discovered that cooler full of ice. A volunteer shoveled scoops into my empty bag while I watched with immense satisfaction. As another volunteer poured lukewarm water over the ice, I knew it wouldn’t stay cold long, but I would enjoy the refreshment while it lasted. We jogged across the prison entrance drive, then through the prison and around to the back, where this year’s theme came into play: “Over the Wall.” Extension ladders were placed to enable an escape over the high prison wall, then we walked through a long and dark tunnel to get to the base of the long, long climb up Rat Jaw to the fire tower.
At the base, the steel cable was gone or cut from the short, nearly vertical face, and people were scrambling up by grabbing roots and weeds. I went up just left of the conga line, where it was a little steeper but less crowded. Then the fun began.
It was really just steep. The saw briers had been cut down, an immeasurable advantage, though it meant no shade and no restful time spent hunting for a path. There was nothing to do but climb. Climb until the heart is about to burst, stop and rest a minute, then climb some more.
My climbing cycles became shorter and shorter. I used the proven motivational technique of choosing some point ahead and determining to march on to that point, forgetting everything else, then I would rest. Usually I could plant my feet and stand still and blow to recover, but sometimes I flopped over and sat for a minute or two. If someone was behind me, I thought I would have to let them pass, but they often stopped as well rather than overtake me. There’s a lot of camaraderie among the people foolish enough to sign up for an event like this, and the encouragement and “good job” salutes can start to feel a bit automatic and tedious after a few hundred times. On Rat Jaw the focus was on survival and relentless ascent and no calories were spared for salutations. I remember having a long sit, washing down another S-Cap and staring vacantly as some climbers crept past me. I spotted Leonard coming up and realized that sitting was the way to fail.
I continued setting small goals, advancing on them, and rewarding myself with a half-minute bake under the sun. Sometimes my objective was to get my feet on a root or lump of earth that I could have reached out and touched with my hands. My steps were short and monotonous, lifting the advance foot, putting it down twelve or eighteen inches ahead, then pulling the rear foot up behind. Step, step. Mortar. Block. Mortar. Block. Inexorable, slow progress toward a goal Ivan Denisovich would surely find quixotic.
It always seemed the top was just ahead. Then we would reach it and there would be a new top just ahead. Leonard caught up and I asked him what to expect. He said we were almost done with the hardest pitches, then the course would bend left and the climb would be less severe. He went on above me but I kept him in sight. When he passed a power line pole about 50 feet ahead I checked my watch. It took me seven minutes to reach the pole, seven minutes that felt like a week.
My sweating was profuse, which I took as a good sign. I popped another S-Cap every 45 minutes. The ground was so dry and crumbly, it was like climbing a sand dune. I tried not to look up often, and when I did it was always the same line of sitters and climbers up to the next crest.
Somehow I got out of it. The comparatively gentle climb under forest cover was a relief and I made the best time I could. When I sighted the fire tower between the trees I hooted with joy and scanned it for a sign of Leonard’s red hat. He was out of sight before I got there, using my arms to pull myself up the three flights of stairs. The bib puncher at the top said I had about an hour until the cutoff, and “four or five” miles to go, as if an extra mile were not worth measuring. My watch showed 8 hours 40 minutes, and I knew ten-minute miles even on level trail would be extremely optimistic. I swung myself down the stairs on the handrails and headed toward the next aid station, overhearing someone say “If they’re not charging down the mountain now, they’re gonna get cut.”
I spent half a minute at the AS, half-filling the two-liter bag in my pack which I had emptied since the prison. I was unfit to run, yet I ran. I slowed when my legs felt rubbery or the terrain was difficult.
I wasn’t sure if I could make it to Laz by 9.5 hours. He would be on gun time, synchronized with the start, but I started my watch a little later, when I crossed the starting line. Mainly I didn’t know how far I had to go. But it was slightly downhill, and the pain would be over sooner if I covered ground faster. I ran on. I imagined the pleading and justifications I might make if I were just a little late, hoping to get waved through, contrary to Laz’s reputation. Then I told myself I should focus on running instead of thinking of excuses for being late. Then I told myself to shut up, I was running, and needed something to take my mind off of that.
I passed some entrants walking; they courteously stepped to the side of the trail to let me by. I checked my watch at about 9 hours 20 minutes. I passed a guy lying flat on the side of the trail. “I’m okay” he groaned, not very convincingly. I ran on.
I heard voices up ahead. My watch showed 9:27. I ran on. The voices continued, but I didn’t see anything. I glanced at my watch again and saw 9:29:57. I ran on.
When I turned the last corner and saw the small crowd, I knew I was late, but pretended not to. I let out a whoop and bounded straight up to the RD and said “Great to see you Laz! Where do I get my bib punched?”
Laz replied calmly: “It’s marathon time.”
“Laz, I ran all the way down from the tower. I’m feeling great, you gotta let me go on.” He said I was three and a half minutes past the cutoff. I told him I could make that up in the next mile. I began remonstrating with propaganda prepared on the way. “Laz, I ran when I wanted to walk.” Some people around chuckled, recognizing the language Laz used in e-mail messages sent ahead of the event, vaguely threatening, but not really, but yes kind of. “I gave up a chunk of my soul on Rat Jaw.”
Laz wasn’t budging. Someone told me he had already cut off five other runners, dashing any hopes I had of an exemption. This was a lie, only one runner missed the deadline ahead of me, but he missed it by 9.8 seconds and was still cut off.
I stood rooted for a few minutes, staring up at the treetops to keep my nasolacrimal ducts clear, though I was too dried up to need to bother. I hunted down my drop bag, picked it up and started hiking to the finish, giving Laz an awkward fist-bump/high-five hybrid as I passed.
Later it would occur to me that I ought to have asked Laz if I was required to proceed directly to the finish, or if I could perhaps dawdle around a bit and maybe take a detour past Chimney Top on my way to the finish, staying on the marked course. He might not have DQ’d me, but I wasn’t going to get the Croix and have doubts as to whether I could have completed the full course, even with the additional 3 hours 50 minutes allotted for the last leg. I was spent.
Eighteen runners were awarded the drop-down marathon finish ahead of me; all but one were qualified to continue for the 50K but declined. Of 324 starters, 73 suffered DNF, 132 finished the drop-down, and 119 completed the full distance, including Leonard, who finished with eight minutes to spare.
I got another dog tag, which I’ll keep at the very bottom of my sack of race trinkets so I don’t have to see it often. But I don’t mind looking at the record of progress recorded on my bib. Each checkpoint had a punch in the shape of a different letter, to spell out a message compatible with the year’s theme of scaling the prison wall. I didn’t complete the event, but my bib spells out the theme and symbol of my day in the Tennessee mountains, i.e., S-Cap.
It was 6:59 a.m. on a warm September Saturday in Frozen Head State Park when I began the Barkley Fall Classic, the first running event I ever started that I did not finish. The letters DNF are often considered a badge of shame among runners, but I’ve come to believe that if you never fail, you’ll never find your limits.
We set off at the ceremonial lighting of a cigarette by Lazarus Lake, the race director notorious for devious and cruel events designed to break the will of the most hardened runners.
Laz is the man behind the infamous Barkley Marathons, held in the same mountains near Wartburg, Tennessee. According to race lore, he was unimpressed by the eight miles covered in 55 hours by escaped prisoner James Earl Ray. He mapped a course in the mountains around Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and challenged entrants to complete the circuit five times, for a total of about a hundred miles, with a twelve hour limit for each loop. Many years no one finishes. Recognition is offered for a lite version, the “fun run,” which consists of three loops.
“The Race That Eats Its Young” is therefore an unrealistic prospect for rational creatures, even those foolish enough to think that the word “marathon” is improved by the prefix “ultra.”
So Laz launched a baby version of the Barkley, the 50K Fall Classic. This requires a single transit of a Barkley-like course, with a seemingly generous time limit of 13 hours 20 minutes. (I am a dedicated back-of-the-pack trail runner, and needed 6½ hours to finish a Virginia 50K on a hot summer day.) As an added sop, a “drop-down” option of a “marathon finish” is available to those who complete the first 22 miles within 9.5 hours. Shortcuts back to the finish, termed “Quitter’s Roads,” are conveniently indicated along the way for those who decide to bail out early. (The 2015 results would show 101 finishers of the 50K, 69 who took the the drop-down option, and 44 DNFs.)
My strategy was to stick close to the heels of Ray, who had completed the inaugural BFC the year before. He treasured his medal from that event, and was determined to pick up the rare and illustrious Croix de Barque offered for the first time to finishers of the 2015 Fall Classic. Ray would be familiar with several signature features of the course, which changes every year, and his report from 2014 included intel he gathered from Leonard, a power-hiking veteran of the real Barkley.
The sun rose as we began our climb from the start/finish area into the mountains. Ray told me to expect a lot of switchbacks, and the trail delivered them. There might have been some people running near the front, but everyone I could see was content to march up the zigzag trail at a steady pace. I got a stinging welcome from a yellow jacket along the way. As a kid I was terrified of bees and would get an allergic reaction to stings requiring Benadryl and hours of cartoons. Now I laughed the annoyance off, certain that a bee sting would soon be the least of my discomforts. The switchbacks were tiresome, but eventually we reached a crest and started jogging along. “That wasn’t so bad,” I thought, the first of many positive thoughts to be dashed that day. The climbing soon resumed, and it was an hour before I reached the real peak, after a climb of about 1600 feet. I calculate that it would take a typical escalator half an hour to gain that much elevation.
Down the other side we went and then some more ups and downs until I reached the first aid station about eight miles in, more than an hour ahead of the 4-hour cutoff. Laz is an old-school cross country runner and doesn’t go in for fancy signs and flag-waving volunteers directing traffic at every corner. GPS is prohibited, and runners are required to carry a compass and whistle along with a cloth topo map of the current year’s course, a closely-guarded secret until packets are distributed the night before. Nevertheless, I spotted several course markers along the way, though I suspect that some of them were meant to dishearten as much as assist.
A few more hours of running and hiking and we arrived at the first real horror, a feature the map described as a “scenic side trip” dubbed “Testicle Spectacle,” allegedly named by a Barkley victim who made the sign of the cross upon first witnessing what lay ahead. We were at the top of a power line right-of-way clearing that stretched steeply down into the valley. Wasted-looking humans wearing colorful synthetic fabrics, slick with sweat, were clambering out of the void. Going down was quite challenging, with a few short nearly vertical drops and longer dirt sections that could only be navigated by butt-sliding. We struggled to the bottom, got our bibs punched at the checkpoint, and turned around to march out, crawling on hands and knees where necessary.
At some point my mind fused the identities of Lazarus Lake and Leonard Smalls, the Harley-riding villain of “Raising Arizona” played by Randall “Tex” Cobb. Ray would provide a reinterpreted description from the movie:
He was horrible. The lone race director of the apocalypse. A man with all the powers of Hell at his command. He could turn turn the day into night and lay to waste everything in his path. He was especially hard on the dilettantes – the untrained and the gentle runners. He left a scorched earth in his wake befouling even the sweet mountain breeze that whipped across his brow. I didn’t know where he came from or why. I didn’t know if he was dream or vision.
I dutifully crossed myself as I clambered up out of the valley and took a few minutes to regroup. There was a runner prone and getting some attention, probably in the early stages of heat exhaustion. Ray pointed out Leonard, the experienced power hiker, and I made a mental note of his appearance with his walking stick.
An entrant with a British accent asked me if I had any water to spare. I didn’t have a sanitary way to share water from my hydration pack so I declined, but kept an eye on him until we made the next aid station. It was at the bottom of the other side of the mountain, near the entrance to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
The prison was closed in 2009, and Laz had arranged for the course to go through it, passing the cell that once held James Earl Ray. There was a checkpoint in “The Hole,” a tiny cell in a pitch-black corridor. Runners clumped around anyone with a light and lined up to get their bibs punched.
The relative cool and shade was a relief, but the comforts of prison life did not last long. We were at a low point topographically, and would soon be at a low point spiritually. Big Rat was just ahead, to be followed by the infamous Rat Jaw ascent.
Rat Jaw is the stuff of legends. It’s a steep climb, of course, but overgrown with saw briars. These are too tall to see over and do to exposed flesh what their name implies. There is no trail, and the way is vaguely indicated by a fallen power line and an unrelenting ascent to a fire tower at the top of the mountain.
To get to this attraction, we had to scale Big Rat, a short but very steep exposed rocky outcropping. I put on my Harbor Freight oil change gloves to get a better grip on a steel cable that once supported a utility pole and hauled myself up. Under the sun it was very slow going.
I rejoined Ray at the base of Rat Jaw. I had some idea of what to expect based on his report. We plunged in, trying to pick out a path between the thorny bushes. The scratching was annoying, but the real irritation was the constant snagging on clothes and gear. My hat got snatched repeatedly and soon looked like it had been in a blender. We were making slow progress and at one point Ray stepped to one side and offered to let me break trail. Against my best judgment, I forged ahead, eager to take on the challenge.
Within 20 minutes I was up ahead but firmly stuck. In a half crouch I crept left and right but couldn’t find a way up. I couldn’t stand to get a look around and couldn’t sit to rest. Eventually I found something sort of flat to park my butt on and sat to drink some water and breathe. Between the tops of the briers I had a gorgeous view, all green hills. I shouted at Ray and added some oaths for good measure but didn’t hear anything back. For the first time, I was alone.
Really alone. Deep down I knew that by nightfall I would be resting in a clean bed, but for now I was exhausted, miserably hot, sucking tepid water from a rubber bag, scratched up and itchy, with no prospect of relief or forward progress. I passed a long dark half-hour of the soul, wondering how this was supposed to be fun and what I was doing in such a place. I didn’t care about finishing anything any more, I just wanted to be done with it.
There was only one thing to do: move on. After a while I found some beat-down paths and dragged myself along them, eventually finding my way to more of a cleared area that was still steep but showed signs of human passage. I kept climbing and finally found a proper trail. There were reassuring footprints so I hiked along a while until I walked through a spider web. That couldn’t be right, so I turned back the way I came, noticing that the prints were left by hiking boots, not running shoes. I thought about blowing my whistle, but wasn’t in danger and didn’t want to raise alarm. Continuing roughly upward, I encountered a wayward band of entrants and joined them.
It was a long hike up. I think Leonard must have passed ahead by this time. The last bit was another short vertical climb to a gravel road by the fire tower. I was spent and sat down to watch other people haul themselves up out of the forest.
Some volunteers were hanging around cheering people on and calling out directions to climbers below. I saw the power line and realized that it was the top of the right-of-way clearing that was choked with saw briars. I asked a volunteer if any runners came all the way up through the thorny bushes. “Yeah, the bloody ones,” he said. He told me he saw one guy slip and do a faceplant into the thorn bushes, letting out a daisy-cutter F-bomb.
Ray appeared and suggested that his race was probably over, it would be tough to make the time cutoff to qualify for the last section needed to get the full 50K distance. Some people were still running on, though. I felt numb and didn’t care one way or the other. I climbed the fire tower to the checkpoint at the top and took another breather. There was a body and a nice breeze. I enjoyed the view then climbed down and began the long slow hike toward the cutoff point.
Laz was there, making wisecracks about all the abandoned drop bags scattered around, wondering what they might fetch on eBay. There were lots of trekking poles. I was glad to know my ordeal was over, silently swearing I would never set foot in Tennessee again.
I asked Laz for a photo and he agreed to pose for my souvenir selfie. “This is for my lawyer,” I quipped, getting a chuckle out of the R.D. from Hell. I hung around a while longer, enjoying the banter between Laz and some volunteers and worn out runners, until I realized that I wasn’t done. It was another mile or two back to the start/finish before I could leave this place.
I walked along, now on a paved park road, dejected. I spotted the famous yellow gate that marks the start and finish of the real Barkley and stopped to take a photo, but I couldn’t find an angle that looked right. Eventually I realized it wasn’t the same gate. I walked on.
Sometimes runners would pass me, shuffling along like war wounded fleeing some atrocity. What’s the point of rushing, I thought. Then it occurred to me, they were still in the race, they had long since beat the cutoff and survived whatever trial by ordeal was on the last leg and were heading to a glorious finish. I goaded myself into a pained jog to maintain appearances.
At the finish, they didn’t check my bib for the missing punch but simply asked me how far I went. I got a dippy dog tag consolation prize for completing the “marathon” version. Failure is failure, but it was nice to get some recognition, and the official results included me as a finisher for the shorter distance.
I renewed my firm vow to never again make the mistake of taking part in such a foolish enterprise. I think I decided I was done with running altogether. It’s all kind of fuzzy now, as it’s been a year since the Barkley Fall Classic. Probably it will come back to me when I try my luck again in Tennessee this weekend.
Much was in my favor before the 2015 Bull Run Run 50 miler. I had survived the two previous years, giving me confidence of not only a finish but a lot of fun. I had been eating better and making more vegetarian choices for several months, leading to the unintended loss of a few pounds and a greater sense of well-being. And I had recently returned from a week in Paris, an ideal spot for carbo-loading. Jet lag had me asleep by 9 p.m. and up at 6 every morning during the week before the run. Friday I had four meals, followed by a dose of pizza Friday night at Ray’s place, topping off the tank.
I hoped these factors would compensate for my having run fewer than 25 miles during the previous three months. I hadn’t run more than ten miles in one go since the Canary in the Cave 25K+ five months earlier.
My “alpine style” success at that event led me to retreat from the siege mentality I had previously brought to Bull Run. I started with my utility belt lightly loaded with three or four gels and a half-full bottle of Gatorade. I knew I could survive the early miles in the cool morning without extra fluid.
Most important, I had a strategy. I reviewed my recorded pace data from prior finishes and saw wild changes in speed from mile to mile. 2014 was smoother than 2013, but it was clear that if I could avoid the egregiously slow miles of 20+ minutes and keep closer to my 15-minute target, it would be a big help, even if it meant giving up my occasional fast miles under 15.
To achieve my steady pace goal, I determined to start slow, even more than I determined to start slow in 2014. I started among the back of the pack with Bruce, my teammate on the “Wheezing Geezers,” a gang of four we thought might have a chance of taking the slowest team prize, if not the most aged. (Our average age of 45 was barely over the average entrant age of 43.) I took it easy on the early miles, focused on chatting, walking the rises, and patiently waiting at the crowded stream crossings.
I came alongside Ken Swab, who I had greeted in the morning with Mark Zimmermann. Ken told me that Mark preferred a steady pace, while Ken followed the “fly and die” philosophy. That sounded like my usual style, to run when the legs had run in them, but I was trying to maintain discipline, often putting on the brakes during these early miles. (Ken’s report, Mark’s report)
Ken mentioned that he had studied his past data, and prepared a pace card with his target arrival times at various points of interest. I had done the same, but forgotten to bring the slip of paper along. I also forgot to tie my shoes — or rather I had intentionally tied them very sloppily to make sure I would tie them properly before the start. I paused to take care of this business, and also made frequent stops to relieve pressure from sipping Gatorade while not sweating. I told myself these slow miles would be so easy they wouldn’t count against me in the second half.
I spent a brief minute at the first aid station, continued on to the turnaround, and counted other runners to determine my position: 64 from the back, my slowest start by far. The plan was working, now it was time to get to work!
I caught up with veteran Frank Probst, and mentioned to him that our team had been DQ’d because of one no-show. Frank had earlier expressed surprise, or perhaps umbrage, that our team would dare to attempt to claim the “oldest team” designation. His team, Huffin and Puffins, would win easily with four finishers of average age 66.
I arrived at the start/finish aid station (mile 16) after three and a half hours, a pace of just over 13 minutes per mile. Close enough to 15. I considered dropping my belt, since the weather was perfect and I could maybe get by with just a bottle like the elite runners, but wanted to keep my pocket pharmacy of band-aids, Advil, salt tablets, and caffeine-laced gels. Maybe next year I will start without the belt and pick it up after 16.
After six hours I had covered the marathon distance, with an average pace a little over 14 minutes. This is a psychological halfway point, though it is a peculiar kind of pick-me-up to say “just another marathon now.” I knew it was much less than 26 more miles, but it was still too early to start counting down. I kept shooting for 15-minute miles, and was usually within a minute or two of my target. The White Loop was not as defeating as before, though very solitary. The archery range warning signs and the bangs and booms from nearby Fairfax Rod & Gun Club always provide incentive to move along.
By the time I reached the Do Loop after mile 30 I was still on my pace target and knew I would have a good finish if I could avoid mishaps. The weather was still fine, though warmer, and I didn’t mind the frequent ups and downs with the views over the water. It’s the last one-way section, and with no witnesses I dared to take my shirt off. It was a pleasant sensation and helped take my mind off the long climbs. Toward the end there was a group of three spectators watching what must be a fairly boring spectacle, and I made a show of channeling my annoyance at the constant elevation change by charging up a rise. I didn’t regret it as much as I expected to.
Decently attired again, I resumed the homeward stretch with just over a dozen miles to go. I knew the fastest runners were already finished, and I was happy to get more for my money by hanging out in the back of the pack. I covered a mile with a serious runner who claimed to hold an age-group record for the course, but had been slowed this year by surgery, maybe knee surgery (apparently just a few weeks earlier; a doctor had vetoed his plan to do a marathon the previous week).
I saw an impressive pair of calves ahead, but did not know it was Gary Knipling until I caught up and recognized his infectious smile and cheerful voice. We chatted a bit before I pressed ahead and joined another low-bib-number veteran. His modesty belied a considerable amount of experience running trails. He said he could not recall better weather for a BRR, and I later learned that he was tied with Frank for the record 23 finishes. He did not mention his celebrity status, but I noticed that volunteers would cheer and call his name as we approached an aid station. I snapped a quick photo of legendary Tom Green at the superhero-themed Wolf Run Shoals aid station.
I finished in 11:36:01. By the nominal distance, my pace was under 14 minutes per mile, but Runkeeper shows a GPS-based pace right on target.
Excel confirmed my steadier legs.
The organizers seem a little touchy about the distance: “We believe that our course is about 50 miles long. That is all current management of the event cares about.” But the course notes also point out that “Some of the hills on the course are gentle, a few are rather steep.” These elevation changes add distance, of course, as Science-based Running investigated.
I did my own experiment, and found that my iPhone 5 did not give me credit for climbing a 50-floor building, showing only 48 feet of climb. So there is definitely some unreported additional distance. When my Runkeeper record appeared, a friend commented: “Dude. For real? 46 miles?” I felt a little cheated too, but perhaps I saved by running the tangents.
The New River, along with two other Appalachian rivers, is among the oldest in the world. It is also the site of one of my oldest memories. My grandparents lived in South Charleston, West Virginia, and I remember long drives along highways and hilly byways for Christmas and Easter visits. One year we visited the New River Gorge Bridge, perhaps around the time construction was completed in 1977. My father took a slide photo which ended up in my collection.
So when Ray suggested the Canary in the Cave “25K+” trail run, and I saw that the course would finish with a long riverside approach to the bridge, I had to jump in. Ray reserved space at the Morris Harvey House, the top floor of which we would share with Peter, the speediest of the colleagues Ray cajoled into coming.
The forecast was for a sunny and cold day, and we woke to 23°F and a dusting of snow on the ground. After chilling in the starting area, I got off to a fast start to warm up, finishing the first mile in 9:19, but soon found myself walking in a single-file conga line. But as the field spread out, I fell into a rhythm of consistent ten- and eleven-minute miles.
Going in to the race, the scorecard showed a lopsided 4-8 record against Ray, and that was counting a half-second photo finish victory at an earlier 5K. I had yet to win at a distance greater than ten miles. Ray was making the usual noises about injuries and lack of training, and I saw this as a desperate chance to begin to correct the 2-to-1 ratio on the scoreboard.
Despite my speedy start, I knew Ray would not be far behind, and I may have spotted him over my shoulder. As a PSYOPS tactic, I sped through the first aid station, hoping to appear stronger than I felt, grabbing only a paper cup of water. There were (false) rumors of inadequacy at the aid stations, including a shortage of cups, and I held on to that paper cup for the whole race, just in case. I was running alpine style, carrying only my phone and layered clothes, with hat and gloves. The outer layer came off early, and the event photographer captured my black with green accent ensemble, a photonegative of a Pamplona bull runner.
We continued along the ridge trails, struggling to pick steps through a layer of leaf debris and the snow. I kept to the middle of the path, trampled down by earlier runners, hoping to avoid invisible obstacles. Then, I fell.
Falling down must have been something my forebears got a lot of practice at, and the judges of fitness took notice. I don’t do it often, but I seem to be good at it. I don’t know how it started, but before I knew what was happening I had folded my knees to one side, rolled through on a thigh and hip, and splayed my arms ahead to sacrifice the more expendable joints on impact. I also heard myself emit a loud “puta madre” before landing, though I doubt it enhanced my survival chances. With an irrational concern for decorum, I bounced up right away, checking for witnesses while shaking the snow and leaf litter off, then continued on unharmed.
Ray appeared and said he had taken a tumble as well. He thought he was bruised, but the photographer captured evidence of a long thigh-scrape, a souvenir from the trail.
I got a compliment for bringing my own cup to Aid Station 2, but was too dull to come up with a better response than “Uh, it’s not heavy.” I took on some fluids, but it was still too cold to remove my hat so I wasn’t sweating much. I continued on, keeping up a fairly steady pace around 10-11 minutes. Then we started down the Craig Branch Trail, a gradual descent from the crest of the mountain. I had gotten ahead of Ray and was mostly unaccompanied through this section. It was a wide and flat road, stubbornly cut into the steep mountainside.
Trail runners speak of “runnable” terrain as wine drinkers use the term “drinkable” — something you might think goes without saying. This smooth road, padded with a layer of leaves, was like going down a slide. I knew Ray would be locomoting like a mofo through this section, so I pushed the pace, posting my fastest mile of 9:03 as I descended into the valley. Then there was a hairpin turn and we were finally heading back toward the finish, the New River to the right and the bridge a few miles ahead.
I was in a good zone and feeling strong, confident that I could make good time until the last two miles, where an arduous climb out of the valley was promised before the finish. I even paused to take a snapshot of an old mine entrance along the way.
I hit another aid station, presented my paper cup, and made a prepared quip about my “official Dixie Cup of the Canary in the Cave.” It was warming up a bit and I took off my hat. As I approached the climb out of the valley, a race official told me there was ice up ahead, and I said “Awesome, thanks!” imagining filling my cup with ice cubes. I’m not sure why that sounded appealing, since I wasn’t planning to improvise an ice pack for one achey joint or another. But ice cubes would have been preferable to the stream crossing ahead, slick with ice-covered jagged rocks.
The last climb begain at mile 15.5, with 25 kilometers done this would be the “plus” in the 25K+ event name. I started hiking up, pausing again for a self-portrait with bridge.
Before long I could hear my heart beating in my ears, and counted a 160 pulse, a tolerable level within my discomfort zone. It was about a mile and a half to gain 600 feet of elevation, costing me 17 minutes for my slowest mile. Coming out on top, I ran in a 3:22 finish and grabbed a quick shot with the RD wearing the gimme hat race premium, then jogged off to the parking lot.
I found Peter sitting at a picnic table, looking pretty ragged — understandably so, after his finish in just over three hours. He gave me the car keys and I retrieved my jacket, then jogged back to the finish line to see Ray and the others come in. I had just enough time to pose with my prop, a briar pipe, when he came over the line. It took a while for anyone to get the joke, that the leaderboard uses an ASCII pipe symbol for each win. I recorded this score with a more suggestive mark.
Geoffrey Baker describes the Barkley Marathons thusly:
In the fringe world of ultra endurance sports, there is an outlier: The Barkley.
With 59,100 feet of climb and decent [sic] over 100 miles, it’s considered the most difficult endurance event on the planet. In its 25[+]-year history, only twelve [fourteen, as of this writing – RWH] men … have actually been able to finish the race. No woman has successfully completed more than sixty miles on the course.
The race has no website.
It is not on any race calendar.
The entry procedure is a well guarded mystery. Ask a veteran how to enter and you are likely to be sent down a rabbit hole.
The race director lives under an alias.
There are no manned aid stations. You must carry everything you need to survive “out there” including a map and compass (no GPS allowed) to navigate the course.There is no official race start time. The race begins when the Race Director decides to light his cigarette.
I did not run the Barkley Marathons.
But when “Lazarus Lake”, the evil genius who designed the Barkley course, announced earlier this year that he would be putting on the Barkley Fall* Classic – an easier, more traditional race held on much of the same terrain as the Barkley – I had no choice but to sign up.
The trip to Frozen Head State Park was long, some 500 miles from The Aerie. It was a pleasant drive through the mountains surrounding I-81, though. The weather was turning ahead of the leaves. The traffic was not too bothersome, mostly big rigs carrying the nation’s lifeblood down one of its eastern arteries.
I arrived at the American Legion hall in Wartburg, Tennessee late Friday evening. I was a little unsure about which entrance packet pickup was behind, and I wandered around aimlessly for a bit until I heard a lady call out “Are you from Maryland?”
“Virginia,” I replied, confused until I remembered I was wearing my race shirt from the Rosaryville Off-road Half Marathon. It turned out that my new friend was from Annapolis. We chatted very briefly, then she directed me to the basement, where packets were being handed out.
Pickup was very smooth. An efficient volunteer handed me a bag and said “There’s a compass and an emergency whistle in here. Make sure you bring them tomorrow.” Uhhhh, dude. I might need a compass and an emergency whistle. Well, you paid for that kind of a race, why are you surprised when that’s what you got?
I rooted through the bag, and sure enough, there they were. I had stolen The Boss’s large capacity race vest and had plenty of room for these items, so I made a mental note to stow them in the vest when I got back to the hotel.
The rest of the night was uneventful. I went to the hotel, called The Boss, prepared my gear, took a shower, and headed to bed early.
I was back at the AL hall at 0500 the next morning for the pancake breakfast. It was good. When I was about halfway finished eating, K. from Annapolis hailed me with a hearty “Virginia!” We chatted a little about DC area commutes – We are both pretty fortunate by area standards; I get to my office by bicycle and train, she by foot – and about the race.
We were soon joined by B., who as a local had solid experience on the Frozen Head trails. We picked his brain as best we could, then we all wished each other well and headed out for the short drive to the park.
It was dark at the start area. I texted The Boss that I was safely on site, then set about making sure my gear was ready, shoes were tied, etc. I repeated these last steps over and over; aside from my regular OCD, I knew I’d need to give myself every possible advantage if I wanted to finish.
The race is a nominal 50 km, with a cutoff time of 13 hours, 20 minutes. That alone should give you an idea of the difficulty. You also have to figure in, though, the course designer’s cruel penchant for lowballing mileage. The actual race ended up being somewhere north of 35 miles.
There were echoes of the real Barkley at the start. Laz blew the conch at 0600, indicating one hour until the scheduled 0700 start. At the true Barkley, the start time is unknown until the conch blows.
We made our way over to the starting area, some 250 nutjobs awaiting the lighting of Laz’s cigarette, which would start the race. I looked around and saw several people I recognized only from getting to know them online through the ultramarathon mailing list I subscribe to: Dan B., Keith D., Joe F.
Joe, an outstanding runner in multiday events, was there to observe and volunteer. Dan is over 80 years old and holds the record for the worst performance ever at the real Barkley – something like 8 miles in 36 hours. Today he would turn back at the top of the first climb and only get 10k or so in. Still, he won his age group.
And then we were off. I was in the back, so I only learned we’d started by the motion of the runners around me. Suddenly we were running down the road towards the fabled yellow gate, and even though it was only the Baby Barkley, still, I was there. As I crossed the start line I followed the example of runners ahead of me and gave Laz a clumsy handslap.
The road was easy. Maybe a mile of it until we reached the yellow gate. Our path took us off to the left side of it, but some runners could not refrain from quickly going over to lay a reverent hand on it. Pffft. Fanboys. I just ran on.
Very soon we were climbing the first set of switchbacks. They were long. Like, real long, but not as steep as I’d feared, and not terribly technical. I settled into a pretty good hiking rhythm, just keeping my place in the conga line. Very occasionally someone would zip past or fall back, but mainly we all held our places.
Bib numbers had been assigned in rough order of ultrasignup rank. Mine was 243, near the bottom. I quickly took an interest in finding runners with numbers near mine, in hopes that they might set a pace I felt comfortable with. I noted one participant a few positions ahead of me in the conga line whose number was 248, and resolved to stay near him.
We continued up the switchbacks. My shoes were a half size too large, and they were loose. Near the top of this first climb I was ascending a particularly steep, winding section, and my foot somehow came out of my shoe, which then proceeded to start to tumble away from me down the mountain. Averting disaster, I turned and snatched it up. I lost only a few seconds sitting on a rock and replacing it.
Then a long descent. It was reasonably technical, but not too bad. My splits show that I was slow here – some 18 minutes per mile. Then another long, grinding series of uphill switchbacks.
Maybe two-thirds of the way up this section I heard someone near me call out “Sniper!” I looked ahead and there was David Snipes, a fixture at VHTRC events around my local Northern Virginia. He was hiking alone up the switchbacks, and the group I was with was slowly gaining on him. As we reeled him in, and one-by-one passed him, he was looking at us with mock indignation. “Really? Really?”
“Can I get by? Thanks, buddy,” I said as I passed him. Then a beat later he called after our departing queue “How y’all doin’ – Kilians?” I was later very sorry to see that David was in the one fourth or so of starters who failed to finish.
Soon we found ourselves at the first aid station, mile 8 or so. The volunteers were local high school athletes, earnest and eager to help. I got some calories in me and headed out, feeling pretty good. There were not many runners behind me at this point, but there were some. I felt like this first segment was not as difficult as I had feared it would be – I had taken the Baby Barkley’s first punch and was still in the fight.
Then there was a long, rolling section along Frozen Head’s North Boundary Trail. After a while we came to one of the colorfully-named landmarks from the true Barkley, Son of a Bitch Ditch. It really wasn’t that bad. Down, across, and up. Then nearly as far as The Garden Spot before we took a right and headed down Coffin Springs Trail, then onto some jeep road on the way to AS 2.
On this jeep road section I caught up to #248, whom I’d targeted earlier. It turned out he was from Fairfax, Virginia, just down the road from my home in Manassas. We chatted a little bit, both of us expressing some desire to drop at AS 4, which was a short walk from the finish area, then I got up ahead a ways.
Carl L., a veteran of many attempts at the true Barkley was one of those manning AS 2. As the group I was with arrived he was saying something to the effect of “Y’all are OK on time now, but you don’t want to fall any further back.” I thanked him for this advice, and for his assistance, and headed on out towards Fodderstack.
This out-and-back section was some three miles each way, and mostly jeep roads. Not far into it I saw Leonard M. coming up behind me. I knew his name as another true Barkley veteran – he even has a hill on the course named after him – and I recognized him from my DNF at this year’s MMT, when Caroline W. greeted him at the aid station where I had dropped.
“You’re Leonard, right?” I asked him, and he graciously allowed as he was. I introduced myself, and he was very willing to grant me his mentorship. Leonard had a great deal of facts and figures about the rest of the course, and how fast we could expect to complete each segment. He seemed to do very little, if any, running, depending instead on a metronomically consistent power hike. The terrain was pretty easy around here, so eventually I decided I should run a little and get up ahead. Leonard would have no trouble catching me when things got steeper and more technical.
At one point the jeep road crossed a somewhat larger road, and there was a gate separating the two. There was no good way to get around this gate – I don’t remember why now, must have been rocks or something on either side – and so we had the choice of up or under. My legs groaned in protest as I ducked under, and I remarked to someone near me that getting past this gate was the hardest part of the course. I was wrong of course; I’d have to go under it again on the way back with even more wear on my legs. And even that was not the worst – Rat Jaw was still looming.
This out and back was a good opportunity to see who was ahead of me and who was behind. There were, of course, far more of the former than the latter. I remarked more than once to runners heading outbound with me that there were a lot of low bib numbers coming towards us hung on wasted-looking runners.
Near the top of the jeep road I thought I heard someone call my name. It confused me for a moment until I realized it must have been B., from breakfast. He was heading back inbound with a small group. He looked strong.
I chatted briefly with a tall, older racer here. I thought he may have been Ed Furtaw, many time true Barkley participant and friend of Laz, but apparently he was not. We both complained about the hills a little bit, and then I said something like “Well, we all knew what we were getting into when we signed up.” “Not me,” he said, “I’m from Iowa.” I laughed a little bit, then eventually power hiked ahead.
Soon there was a turnoff onto trail. I asked someone coming towards me how far the turnaround was, and she said about a half mile. This was not terribly inaccurate. The trail was steep, but not too technical. Most people coming the other way were running. After what seemed like a long slog I finally saw the sign for the turnaround up ahead. I made sure to walk all the way past it, impulsively kicked the back of it, then headed back down the trail at a mild jog.
There were more people behind me than I expected to see. I saw Leonard very soon after turning around. Then not far after that I saw the fake Ed Furtaw, and I impishly told him “just a mile to the turnaround!” I doubt he was fooled. Number 248 was hanging in, not too far down the trail. There was a fairly steady stream of people approaching me for a mile or so after the turn.
I finally saw K. from Annapolis, but she was way behind. Maybe a mile and a half from the turn. She said she’d gotten turned around after AS 2, and found herself on Rat Jaw before realizing she’d gone astray. She would have to push hard to make the cutoffs, and in fact I regret to say she wound up among the DNFs.
A couple miles further on and it was time for Rat Jaw.
Rat Jaw is one of the true Barkley’s signature climbs. It’s nearly a mile of mostly 40% grade through a field of saw briars grown over your head. This is not hyperbole. It really is nearly a mile of mostly 40% grade through a field of saw briars grown over your head. There were several runners paused at the bottom, preparing their anti-briar methods: Duct tape, calf sleeves, heavy gloves, etc. I rested a moment, relaced my shoes, then dived in.
It was tough. The temperature was up to some 80+ degrees, or at least felt like it. In the first section the briars were formed into a kind of tunnel system. We had to duck down and crawl up through them while trying to find footholds in the crumbly soil. a few times I started to fall back, and had nothing to grab onto except palm-shredding briar plants. It was a hot, sweaty, scratchy slog. At one point the tunnels ended and the plants became more upright. Around here there was a downed power line that people were using to haul themselves up the monstrous hill. Eventually we came out to a kind of plateau.
It looked like the top was near, but there was no beaten path through the briars. I wound up following a guy who claimed to have some experience at the true Barkley. He led a little group over to the left into the woods, and I followed. This group would wind up fracturing a few times. Each time some would go farther into the woods and some would turn back. I was always in the group that turned back – I felt like the true path should go through the briars as much as possible, so I didn’t want to stray too far from that briar patch.
Eventually we came back to Rat Jaw proper not far from where we left it. After struggling a short distance up the hill we saw the fire tower at the top, and knew we were near the end.
Finally we popped out of the briars, and the course markings directed us up the fire tower. Leonard was here, having used his Barkley skills to somehow get ahead of me on Rat Jaw. I climbed the fire tower and got a mark on my bib from the volunteers at the top. Then it was back down and a short run down a jeep road to AS 3 (the same station as AS 2).
Rat Jaw souvenirs
Carl L. was still here. I advised him that my group had gone a little astray back on Rat Jaw, but he said it was OK as long as we generally followed the course and did our best to stick to the intended route. He did say, though, that several people had gone seriously wrong on that climb and wound up coming into the AS from the wrong direction. He had told them they’d have to go back and do it right. Apparently only one runner acceded to this plan; the others said “Nah, bro,” and continued on. Carl had gotten their bib numbers, though, and he said they were DQed. I hoped they were not the cells that fractured off from our group.
From here to AS 4 was some easy running – 4 miles of lovely downhill down North Old Mac trail. I was feeling a little wiped at this point, and I wasn’t sure I would have the sack to continue on when I got to the aid station. AS 4 is less than a mile from the finish, but there is another 10 mile loop to do once you get there. I told myself “All you have to do is start down that loop when you get there. If you start, you will continue.” The time cutoff for AS 4 was nine and a half hours. I was pretty safe to make this time, but there was some tough trail in the next segment, if I didn’t drop.
I was making pretty slow time on this easy trail until someone came up behind me keeping a measured running pace. “I’m Terri,” she said, passing me, “excuse me if I fart.”
“That’s OK,” I replied, “it wouldn’t be the first time today. And, to be frank, it would restore a certain karmic balance.”
She laughed, then I asked “Are you Terri D.?” and she allowed as she was. I recognized her as the wife of the race director. I asked her if she minded if I paced with her for a while, and she kindly agreed. We enjoyed some conversation, then caught up with Leonard near the aid station. He was, of course, hiking, so I slowed to chat with him for a while and pick his brain about the final loop. Eventually he told me that I was walking too slow, and I should run or let him pass. I chose the former and hustled to catch up with Terri before the AS.
Laz was manning this AS and chuckling at us poor lost souls. I was just a couple minutes over nine hours here, some 25 miles in, so I had plenty of time to go on. “Are you going to continue?” Laz asked with a grin. “Darn right I am!” and out I headed. My strategy turned out to have been sound – once I got just a few meters down the trail it was unthinkable to turn back. Very soon, though, the final climb was looming.
Terri had told me that we were facing seven miles of climb. Laz had said that it was five miles to the next aid station, but Laz lies. The truth, I figured, was somewhere in between. Chimney Top is not a seven mile climb, it turns out, but it feels like one.
It is just unrelenting. Switchbacks upon switchbacks, punctuated by short, sharp ups. It doesn’t end, but at least it’s not too steep. Well, until you get to the last mile or so. That’s pretty steep.
I usually do OK on heavy climbs. Today, though, I was about done in. Once we hit that über-steep trail to the summit my heart rate would skyrocket whenever I took more than 20 steps or so without resting. So I took the hill 20 steps at a time, punctuated by 20 – 30 second rests leaning back against tree trunks. I had dropped Leonard and Terri at AS 4, but they both passed me before I made it to the summit, Leonard at his rock steady pace, and Terri doing a marginally faster version of my walk-rest-walk pattern.
Finally, the summit. The trail turned down and I was pretty sure I had a finish in the bag.
AS 5 turned out to be 6 miles from the previous aid station. Not too bad for Laz miles. Here I met Mike D., another mainstay of the true Barkley. He told us it was 3.5 miles to the finish, and I regret to say that I did not receive this news as graciously as I should have. “Is that an honest 3.5 miles?” I asked, “Because they’ve been stretching the truth all day.”
“It’s 3.5 – I don’t lie,” he firmly replied, and I went so far as to ask his name (I didn’t know it at the time) so that I could curse it later, should the finish be farther than advertised. Mike, I would like to offer you my most humble and abject apologies – the distance was just as you said.
I left this aid station in the company of two young ladies, who would accompany me until we reached the trailhead. This section was a little bit of a death march. It was easy downhill, but we were not doing much running. I learned that one of my companions, M., had chosen this race as her first ultra. “That’s … uhh … psychotic,” I said.
“No, that’s badass,” T. corrected me. “Ah, yes. That’s what I meant.”
When we got down to a mile to go to the trailhead, per Mike’s promised 3.5, T. started frequently asking me for updates on our remaining distance. “I’ll tell you when we’re down to half a mile,” I told her. She replied “OK”, but still couldn’t keep from asking for updates now and then.
“Half a mile to go.” “Woot!”
“A quarter mile.”
“There’s a sign.”
“There’s the trailhead. And there’s Laz.”
He was waiting for the last few finishers to come through. It was nearly dark, but we didn’t have our lights out – the finish was just a few tenths down the road. I let the girls get up ahead and walked over to shake Laz’s hand.
“I hate you so, so much,” I told him, and he laughed. I doubt there was anything I could have said that would have made him happier.
The girls were fast on the road. They declared their intention to wait for me and finish together, but I insisted that they go on ahead. “I want my DFL,” I told them (I would proceed to fail in this aim – there were some eight official finishers behind me).
I knew I would easily make the 13:20 cutoff, but as I neared the finish area I realized that I could do a little better – 13 hours was quite achievable.
I broke into a shambling parody of a jog up to the turn leading to the finish line, whereupon I broke into a pathetic attempt at a sprint. There were loud cheers, which I welcomed. I crossed the line in 12:56:16 – a personal worst at the 50k distance** by some five hours, and a time of which I am very proud. Anybody who wants to tell me that’s slow had better run it themselves first.
I watched the last few finishers come in, then headed out in search of much needed food. Before leaving I saw Leonard and thanked him for his help out on the trail.
I stopped and ate some fast food, went back to the hotel, called The Boss to let her know I was alive, took a shower, then crashed hard.
The drive back to Manassas was pleasant. Autumn was finally in the air, and satisfying memories of an ambitious goal achieved carried me home.
Humble and sincere thanks are due to the following people:
Terri D. for pulling me down North Old Mac. I’d’ve had a much harder time making the cutoff had I kept at my own leisurely pace on that section of trail.
Steve D. for directing the race, and giving us all the chance to experience a taste of the Barkley course and achieve something epic.
Carl L., Mike D., and all the other volunteers for making the whole thing possible. No way I was getting around that course without aid.
Leonard M. for his kind and patient mentorship.
Everyone else I shared a word with before the race or on the trail.
Lazarus Lake for recognizing that people will rise to the challenge they are presented with, and for presenting us so many challenges to rise to. Thanks, Laz. Thank you, man.