Another DNF at Barkley

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.

BFC_2016_cup

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)
  • Salt (S-Cap)

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.”

“Okay then.”

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.

BFC_2016_bib

Achieving DNF at Barkley

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.

BFC1_laz_lights

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.

BFC2_climb_ahead

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.

BFC6_climbing_out

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.

BFC4_bushy_entrance

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.

BFC5_bushy_interior

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. The 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 The 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.

BFC3_tower_body

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.

BFC7_with_laz

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.