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 Benedryl 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. 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.
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.