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)
- 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.”
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.