Since my previous post about trail racing has strangely been one of the most viewed pages on chattavegan, I feel it necessary to share yet another one of my crazy race adventures here as well. Last time it was the 2017 Georgia Death Race, and this time it’s the 2017 Barkley Fall Classic.
If you’ve never heard of the legendary Barkley Marathons, then do yourself a favor and immediately add this to your Netflix queue. I’m not quite crazy enough yet for the full race that runs over 100 miles with only a handful of folks ever finishing within the 60hr cutoff. I am, however, just dumb enough to sign up for the Barkley Fall Classic 50K. This event guarantees you’ll hit the iconic and torturous landmarks of the full race (the affectionately named Meth Lab Hill, Rat Jaw, and Testicle Spectacle), but you only have to stomach somewhere between 30-40 miles to get it done. The race fills up almost immediately after opening, so when I attempted to sign up in summer 2016 I was put on a wait list. While I missed last year’s race, my spot on the list granted me early access to register for 2017. I immediately pulled the trigger and had nearly a full year to think about what I’d just done.
Coming up on the event I had little time to spare for training. With everything from protests to volunteering to meeting new friends at a pig sanctuary, I saw my planned training runs getting the ax for more important events. I committed to running at least two miles every day about a year and a half ago, and as the race approached, you can see my two-mile runs were just about all I had going for me. Nevertheless, as soon as we packed up from our amazing chattavegan event at PARK(ing) Day on Friday, September 15th, I immediately grabbed a jackfruit BBQ sandwich from Cashew and drove myself up to Wartburg, TN.
Another interesting “feature” of the race is that the route changes every year, and no one knows what they’ll be running until they pick up their map the night before. After snagging my map, compass, whistle, and bib, I immediately retreated to the comfort of my Comfort Inn and studied the route like Jessie Spano cramming for the SAT. I could see we were hitting some of the roughest climbs early, which sounded great in theory. I would later find out how incredibly wrong that theory was. With my gear all prepped, I attempted to get some sleep, but as is the case with most races, it did not come easy. Quickly I realized there was a bright-as-the-morning-sun street light right outside my window, so at almost every 30-minute interval I found myself awake in a panic thinking it was sunrise and I’d slept passed the start. With maybe 4-5hrs of inconsistent sleep under my belt, I fled the tiny town of Harriman and journeyed north to Frozen Head State Park.
The crowd at the start was much bigger than I anticipated. The field at the starting line was packed pretty tight, but I still managed to catch my favorite Huntsvillian runner Cary Long as he made his way to the road. Being a veteran of the BFC and someone who endured 37 yellow jacket stings at the previous year’s race, I asked him for some advice. He gave me two delicious truth nuggets: 1) “Yellowjackets love vegans” 2) “If you make it to the marathon cutoff with any time to spare, do not settle. Try for the full 50K or you’ll always regret it.” I wasn’t sure if the first point was a blessing or a curse, but after seeing three swarms later that day and suffering no stings, their love must’ve been the “we’ll leave you alone” kind. The second point requires a bit of explanation. With the BFC you have an option at mile 22ish to quit when you see the famous/infamous race director Lazarus Lake. Here, if you so choose, you can collect your things and settle for a marathon finish. If you’re under the 9.5hr cutoff, however, you can choose to continue on another 9 miles up and around Chimney Top Mountain for a full 50K finish. Cary’s advice here would prove to be instrumental in the remainder of my day.
At 7 AM we were off. Taking the advice of greater men and women that came before me, I found a spot near the front of the pack so I wouldn’t get stuck behind a slow group once the single track quickly kicked in. I was thankful for my position as we headed east through the wilderness, as the needs to pass were few and far between, and the opportunities to do so were even less frequent. At one point a runner in our “bus” asked what landmark we’d see first, Rat Jaw or Testicle Spectacle. Having ferociously studied the map the night before, I told him TS was up first. A veteran ahead piped up to “correct” me. “Nah, that was last year.” Well, ok then. I knew I was right, but I kept my rookie mouth shut. Once we split from each other, I never saw that guy again. Several got lost later in the day, some for hours at a time. I’m going to assume he was among that unfortunate crew.
After the first aid station, we had some generous downhill on a gravel jeep road. The sunrise coming through the fog and the trees was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I joked to the guy running alongside me, “I assumed I’d die out here, but I didn’t think we’d be going into the light this early.” The light from the sun became brighter, and as we emerged from the trees to see powerlines I knew what was next. Testicle Spectacle was our first taste of hell in the race. I saw folks ahead begin to pull out their gardening gloves, so I knew it was about to get serious. I left mine in the pack for the time being since we were initially going downhill to the church at the bottom to get our first bib punch. At various spots in the race to prove we navigated the course correctly, volunteers would punch a letter in our bib. You’ll see my completed bib later on.
TS had only the trail that others before me had made, so I followed the path of least resistance (briars) and hiked/slid my way to the bottom. After grabbing a punch and some pretzels at the church, I finally put on my gloves and started the trek back up Ol’ Testy.
Since this was an out-and-back section, I got to see friends and other runners as I headed back up. Passing made the climbs that much more difficult, however, as you had to either find new paths or keep an eye out for people sliding down into your face. At one point I swear I saw a woman in what looked like a complete beekeeper’s outfit (sans mask). She must’ve really hated the idea of crawling through briars all day. Most of us crazies loved it. Much like how Six Flags takes your photo just as the log flume plummets downward into a pool of icy water, photographers waited up top to see us emerge the climbs of TS. You can see the look of sheer joy on my face here.
After I said cheese, I immediately began my descent down the other side of the powerlines in Meth Lab Hill. This was mostly a waterslide, except less water and more thorns. The various makes and models of underwear I witnessed through ripped shorts during the remainder of the day could all be attributed to this hill. During one particularly sketchy slide, my leg got caught up under me as I bent my knee and I had an immediate cramp from my thigh to my toes. This was somewhere around mile 9, and I would fight this thing all day for the next 22 miles. As I neared the bottom and followed the creek (again, no trail) toward the next checkpoint I heard a scream up ahead. Based on previous years, I knew this waslikely a rattlesnake or yellowjacket sighting. I kept my eyes peeled and was very careful as I came around the next few corners. Typically the more deliberate I am in my footing, the clumsier I become. That was the case here as well, but thankfully I caught myself seconds before I fell face first into what the woman ahead was screaming about. An extremely dead deer was sprawled out before me, with maggots pulsing through its face and abdomen numbering in the hundreds of thousands. I collected myself and refrained from spewing, hurling, and/or blowing chunks, moving onward to the prison.
The next bib punch was given for escaping Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. This facility is known for housing James Earl Ray after his assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Ray escaped the prison in 1977, but after three days on the run, he only made it 8 miles before being recaptured. With about 11mi already under my belt, I felt I could best Ray and successfully bust outta there. We entered the prison through the front door and ran through various cellblocks until emerging out the back. Up ahead was the prison wall and a 15ft ladder. Having a slight fear of heights, the climb up and over was probably one of the most nerve-wracking parts of my day. I got my punch on the other side then headed through the tunnel to emerge at the base of Rat Jaw.
When you think of Barkley, you think of Rat Jaw. This 0.8-mile segment is basically straight up through an unforgivable growth of weeds, shrubs, and briars. Mostly briars. I neglected to consult my old school Timex, but my assumption is that it took every bit of an hour to make it less than a mile to the top. Nearly halfway up, that lingering cramp came back harder than ever. I was immediately immobilized and fell to the side of the path into a “soft” pile of thorns with my leg muscles seizing. Thankfully another group of runners was close by and helped pull me to a less painful position. Knowing I was cramping, someone quickly handed me three salt tabs that I took without hesitation. For all I know they could’ve been anything from Tylenol to MDMA, but I swallowed them down and the placebo effect thankfully kicked in within seconds. I had slow but forward progress from then on out, meeting a few great people along the way. Shana from Oklahoma became my navigator for a bit as the path seemingly disappeared, and we were forced to get creative as we crawled ahead. It was here that I was happy to spot another Chattanoogan, as David Dye passed us just before reaching the top. We all breathed a sigh of relief as we finally saw trail, photographers, and volunteers. The comfort was brief, however, because we still had to climb to the top of the fire tower to get our next punch.
We left the tower to get back to aid station #4. Aid stations are typically a great spot to alleviate some stress and refuel/regroup. At Barkley, this wasn’t necessarily true, especially as a vegan. Pre-race I received an email with the following:
If you have special nutrition needs and would like the Race Administration to fulfill those needs, please make a list on a piece of paper. Take that list and put it in the toe of an old sock, and bury the sock under a tree in your backyard…
I’d also heard tales of aid stations having little more than water and Slim Jims. I assumed they were false, but that description was pretty accurate. There was indeed a large tray of jerky, but thankfully I did have access to pretzels, bananas, and an occasional fig bar at most stops. Sword (electrolyte drink) was also available, but the concentration from one aid station to the next either left me calorie depleted or feeling like I was swallowing ocean water. I left AS #4 with an awful saltiness that I could not escape. Thankfully within the next mile, I met Zandra, and after hearing me whine, she offered up a peppermint that probably saved me from puking. We had a similar pace for the next several miles and kept each other on track as navigation became a little trickier. It was in this stretch that we also met Moses. I neglected to get his real name, but he was a tall dude who’d found the most amazing walking stick that he clung to for his life. Even on the flats and downhills, he refused to give up his Gandalf-esque staff. I was fully prepared to follow him all the way to the Red Sea and/or Mordor. The three of us stayed in proximity for a while, assisting each other when turns got iffy. It was in this area (Garden Spot) that most people got lost. A group of us banded together at the most confusing turn and each scoped out the trail options before we finally found the right path, wasting only a few minutes instead of the hours that others lost.
When we arrived at Garden Spot for our next bib punch, the volunteers asked us if we’d brought our pages with us. With an absolutely straight face, they explained that much like the real Barkley we needed a page to turn in. The men said it was supposed to be the page of the local phone book corresponding to our bib number. At any other race I wouldn’t have believed this for a second, but because this is Barkley and because we did randomly receive a phone book in our packet the day before, I went into a panic. I think the guys saw the despair on our faces and couldn’t contain their joke any longer, so they punched our bibs and allowed us to continue. We warned them they were bound to make others cry with such a cruel joke, but I bet they kept that hustle going all day long. Chatting in relief as we left, I nearly turned in a direction going completely off course. Thankfully Zandra was there to catch me before I made a huge mistake. We kept roughly the same pace until we were safely at the next station.
Up next was the North Bird Mountain Trail, a path with so many switchbacks I honestly found myself getting dizzy. It was in this section that some of the faster, lost folk started to make up ground, and I found myself being passed by the guy I’d previously seen hours before in first place (later determined to be David Riddle). I was also passed by a familiar, but still unknown face. Because we’d entered a part of the course full of downed trees, I was able to chat with her for a while. A few minutes into the conversation we realized we were both Chattanoogans, and I was chasing the one and only Eunice Campbell! It’s crazy sometimes how it takes circumstances like these to meet someone you should have met years before. Eunice was a name I’d seen all over race results and Facebook groups for years, but somehow we’d never been at the same place at the same time. It was fantastic catching up with a local, and she was instrumental in keeping me out of a bad head space I would have normally been in at that point in the day. Eventually there was no keeping up with her speed, and she bombed some downhills while I tried to ignore the cramp sneaking back up in my right leg.
Bird Mountain was relentless. Neverending uphill followed by neverending downhill. I finally made it out to the road nearing the marathon checkpoint. I was forced to walk at this point because my leg cramps were not subsiding, and I was having trouble keeping my breathing in check. As I walked toward the checkpoint I still had at least 30min left before the cutoff, but I decided I was done. There was nothing in my drop bag that could cure how awful I felt. Even the vegan Slim Jim I brought so I could fit in with the cool kids tasted like garbage. I walked over to a volunteer and asked how to end my suffering. “What?! You look fresh and ready to go. You’ve got 30min, why don’t you think on it?” Crap. I guess I have to think on it. I went back to my drop bag and thought about the wise words of the great Cary Long. “DO NOT settle or you will regret it.” Then I thought about all the people that donated to my Team Humane League campaign. With this asinine race goal, I’d convinced friends and family to donate over $500 to save farm animals. Was I really prepared to let them down? Would I lose influence in my advocacy if I became a quitter?
Okay, so we’re doing this. I dumped out my drop bag and reconfigured everything in my pack to shed weight. No need for gloves, extra chews, or extra water. It was time to stuff my face with what I could and get out with two bottles to get me to the last aid station. I ate some oranges I’d packed, then pulled out my secret weapon. You see, about 24hrs prior we had a contest at an event in downtown Chattanooga in which we had participants guess which foods were vegan, the trick being everything on our table was vegan. In the mix was a variety of junk food from Swedish Fish to Pringles to Sour Patch Kids to… Red Bull.
Now I’ve never actually had a Red Bull in my entire life, but because it was hanging around I thought I’d throw it in my drop bag just in case of emergencies. Whelp, this was a code red situation so I immediately chugged half the can. The other half I mixed with an old Coke to create what tasted like a slurpee someone left in a hot car for a week. But my oh my was it delicious in that moment. I threw that elixir in my left bottle with water on the right, then walked up to Laz to get my punch outta there. Knowing I had 9 miles left with the first half of those up a mountain, I grabbed the fanciest walking sticks I could find and began the death march up Chimney Top.
The switchbacks were once again absurd. I almost didn’t feel like I was making any progress up the mountain, rather simply pacing back and forth in a perpetual state of uuggghhhh. It was at this point I came up with a rule for myself. I would move relentlessly forward for 10 full minutes. When that was over, I could lie down for 60 seconds. Repeat. This may have been the smartest move I made all day. The absoluteness of my rule kept me moving and gave me a reward that I thoroughly enjoyed. And while Chimney Top seemed like it was the size of Everest, I eventually made it over the top and onward to the last aid station. It was here I heard perhaps the most beautiful eight words I’d ever heard in my life, “Less than three miles, all downhill from here.” I topped off my water and began the Corey shuffle.
The excitement of knowing even a slow walk would get me to the finish in time gave me so much energy I began to actually run. I felt like I was crushing 8min miles, but I guarantee if the data was available I would’ve probably still been in the 15min / mile range. I made it to the road and began to see some amazingly dedicated runners that were just finishing their marathon run. As I approached the finish, I’d already started to take off my pack because I was beyond done. Coming into the gate I was pleasantly surprised to be cheered on by my mom and dad who’d made the drive up to help me get home. I crossed the finish line at 12:43:13 and smiled as I knew the misery was finally over. I gave my momma a sweaty hug while my dad found me a cold Coke for the trip home.
As I look back on the race now, it’s difficult to remember the hard times. What I associate with the experience more than anything else is gratitude for the opportunity to spend an entire day in the woods with an incredible group of people. People who welcome a challenge, strive through hardship, and persevere through every obstacle in their way. People who, in the hardest times, never hesitate to help their fellow runner. To those people and to all the other endurance athletes I have the honor to share the trails with, this last bit is for you.
These events are a reminder of the privilege I have to take time out of every week to do something I enjoy in training for a race. My week isn’t full of worries, fears, and stresses. I don’t have to worry about finding a job or losing my hours. I don’t have to fear discrimination because of my race, gender identity, or sexuality. I’m not perpetually stressed about how I’m going to feed my kids or if I’m going to be able to pay for my prescriptions. There is a reason that when I toe the starting line I can look to my right, look to my left, and see a field composed of 70% male and 90% white runners, and it’s not athletic ability.
To all my ultra running friends (and to me, as this is something I need to remember): Value your position, and use your position for something of value. In the same way that you help guide the runner that lost their way or give them something out of your pack when you see them suffering, give yourself to those in need every single day. We have the luxury of choosing our pain. Most do not. Recognize your advantage and utilize it to elevate those around you that are suffering through their own ultra every day of their lives. Don’t follow the path of complacency, but blaze a trail of action.