YABRR: Barkley Fall Classic 2021 Edition
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
AKA: Pelicans, Pelicants and Ratjaw
Thanks to Shellene for letting me out without adult supervision. Thanks to all the aid station workers, they were plentiful and helpful, when you could find the aid station (my fault, not theirs)
If I was to tell you that you couldn't use a GPS during a race, some runners would consider skipping the race.
If I was to tell you that you wouldn't know the exact distances between aid stations, some runners would consider skipping the race.
If I was to tell you that the distance is 50k, but just looking at the park trail mileage you're already over 33 miles, some runners would consider skipping the race.
If I was to tell you that the only course markings would be at trail junctions, some runners would consider skipping the race.
If I was to tell you that you "might" have to bush wack through a 2 mile uphill briar patch, some runners would consider skipping the race.
If I was to tell you that some of the trails have colorful names, like "Rat Jaw", "Testicle Spectacle" and "Meth Lab Hill", smart runners would consider skipping the race.
But that is all the mystique of Barkley Fall Classic, and "Laz". BFC is a race, but it is not just for runners. When it takes a fast runner longer to run "50k" than they take running 108k (okay, not even fast runners, my PR for Running the Rose is sub-13), you know it's not about how fast you can run - although that helps.
Laz has requested that runners don't post too much information about the exact course run, to keep the mystique. I will respect that, but if you want a breakdown of what I really saw, come run with me and get me talking. I promise you that you will be entertained for hours on end. So here is a general breakdown.
The start Got to the race early and relaxed, finally joining the crowd on the course, and it was a crowd. I started mid-pack and Agustin found me. We couldn't find his nutrition bottle, so he went to find Armando and arrange to get it later if possible. We started with a nice road run to the Yellow Gate, and then the fun really began
Aid Stations. They were stocked with a good selection of prepackaged food, including biscotti. I was a happy eater. The major ones had the Coalfield school football team as volunteers, these young men had played a hard game Friday night, and then gave up their Saturday to volunteer, you cannot ask for better people than that. At the prison aid station there was a young man (maybe 10) who was listing all the food so I asked for a Ding Dong. As I opened it he said "You're not going to eat that in one bite, right?" and I responded "You've been watching the runners eat." I actually took three bites and then asked for a second. The one thing that I didn't see at any aid station was sodas, but as I was approaching the prison I spotted a runner with crew drinking a Dr Pepper and asked if they might have a spare - they did. So, as I moved into the prison, I was on a pretty good sugar rush, gearing myself for what I knew would be my hardest part of the course: the ladder over the prison wall.
The map and markings. At packet pickup you are given, amongst other things (including a compass), the official cloth map. It is good sized and quite readable, with all the trails marked, distances between aid stations and cutoff times at each. This is the first true hint of how bad it might be. The second hint is hearing someone say that they heard it was wrong. The thing is, if you've been there before, the map isn't that important, you know where you need to go, once you know the trails. The course itself was well marked, except where it wasn't.
Since Laz posted this, after the race, it "should" be good information and important since Laz used both capitalization and punctuation : "DO NOT TURN LEFT AT THE ROCK ON RAT JAW!!! that is going into the woods. there is a crack to go up on the right!!" Of course, I didn't see that post until after the race.
At one point I was down to my final water bottle and hadn't seen any other runners in a while, so I was a bit concerned and actually pulled out my map (compass was on my wrist). Just as I did so, here comes Dena wearing a TROT shirt, with other runners following. Shortly after we passed a ranger, and then hit the aid station.
There were two intersections that I wasn't sure which way to go. One was heading towards the prison and I almost made the fateful mistake of going the wrong way. Again, pulling out the map just in time to see other runners not even hesitate and go the correct way. The second intersection was even easier, I was running with a 3 time finisher and we didn't even slow down for it. Okay, we were actually walking so if we slowed we would have stopped.
Other runners and the race itself. This is what makes or breaks the Barkley, even the BFC. I know I can run, I know I can navigate, but having runners nearby who have done it before makes it easier, since they can tell you what you are about to get hit with. Of course, since the course changes every year even they don't know it all. This was the first year that Laz threw ************** at the runners. Early on I was in a small group that was breaking up. Having been listening to one of the runners, it was obvious that she had been here before, so when she and another runner let the pack go, I stayed back as well. Spent some time running with Fireball, getting insight into the true nature of the trail section we were on. She is one of those runners with multiple finishes who wants to race the Marathons. As we were going up one climb, I hit a decision point, either spike my HR to keep the pace, or give up the course knowledge. I slowed down. After I finished that climb, I had my first encounter with the local wildlife. It seems that there is a reason why the Coalfield school mascot is the Yellow Jacket. I only got stung once though. It was in this section that I had my first gut check. If you've watched enough Barkley Marathons videos you've seen the rock formation that they run the top of. Again, being afraid of heights I knew I would go slow over them, and I did.
Gallery Photos by Jennifer Thorsen
Running with Dena helped, knowing that Trevor was well ahead of me helped, as did knowing that Agustin was somewhere behind me. If those two had been swapped, I would have been concerned just a little. Covered miles, some trails, some jeep roads, some up, some down, some sideways. Then it started to rain. Got passed by ATVs. I've done plenty of miles in the rain, in gumbo mud, in slick mud, in lightning storms, just keep moving. One thing I had never done was "run" up a briar patch under a power line on my hands and knees on a slick muddy trail in a lightning storm. I get to cross that off my bucket list now. Actually, the first time up it wasn't slick yet, and the second time the lightning had stopped, uncheck. I got to the top where there was a photographer, and yelled out "I love you, since you being here lets me know I've made it", and that was just doing little rat, it hadn't even gotten to be fun yet. We still had to run Tennessee's largest slip and slides. Again, you've seen photos of runners digging in with trekking poles going up the loose dirt hills. In our case, we didn't have poles, and it wasn't loose dirt. Everyone was on their butts sliding downhill in the pouring rain just laughing at it (except maybe the folks in short shorts). There were a few people who ended up sliding into small briar patches, or over rocks in bad places, but I think most survived. Going back up was an adventure in creativity, you really can't bear crawl when you're sliding backwards. I had grabbed a good sized tree limb near the aid station and used it as much as possible, then switched over to tree hugging and dodging downhill sliders. From there, one more slip and slid section and then the prison. In that final descent I actually started a small mudslide which made breaking so much easier.
The infamous Brushy Mountain Pen and the Bus of Disgrace.
Time to get serious. At this point on the course the runners have done the majority of the famous climbs that were being offered, and have 10 miles to get an official finish (5 for the marathon). Of course, that one remaining climb is one that they partially sampled and that may be on their mind as they get on the bus, I don't know, I wasn't worried about the climb, just the ladder. While stuffing my face at the aid station, the driver said he already had 20 takers. When I got to the base of the 20' ladder, I made sure that there wasn't any runners close by. When I got to the top, there were runners that had to wait. With a little encouragement from them, as well as the puncher on the other side, I was able to swing my feet over to the down ladder. From there it was easy, down to the tunnel and then find the climb.
By this point, the rain and other runners had made a glorious mess of Rat Jaw. I was behind one runner who was not having a good time, at one point he stopped, planted both feet and started to fall backwards. I stopped him by the most expedient method, hands on his ass. He tried to slide back about three more times, each time I was able to stop him. He finally asked how I had traction, and I told him that I was wearing Salomon SpeedCross shoes, with massive lugs. I had actually packed both my SpeedCross and my Sense Ride shoes, figuring it would be a race day decision. During the first half of the course I thought I had chosen poorly, SpeedCross are great but they don't grip wet mossy rocks well at all. By the time I hit the mud, I was very glad of my choice. At the starting area pre-race I was talking with a runner wearing trail Vibram 5-Finger shoes. I wonder if he made it. Anyway, back up Rat Jaw I went. I was very thankful for every upper body workout I have done, as I was using my arms almost as much as my legs on the climb, grabbing trees, cables, roots and briars. At one point there was a female runner looking like she was about to slide downhill, so I called out "If you slide down, I will stop you by putting my hands on you, I hope you don't mind." We spent most of the climb together, I could have passed but I wasn't going that much faster. As we were approaching the top she said we have enough time to walk it in (Britt was after her 4th finish here), and that's what we did. There was one more gut check for me, on the way back we hit that little stepping stone section again. I let the runners behind me know that it was going to take a bit as I crossed it by lowering down, climbing back up and crawling. I had already slipped on one slick rock, and had no intention of going airborne there.
Decision point. We made it to the last aid station (she proved smarter than me and went to wash her hands), so I got to Laz before she did. He pointed out that if I took a left, I could run .2 miles and win the marathon. Contrary to popular belief, I didn't tell him to get stuffed. What I said was "Is it okay to tell the race director to get stuffed?", which got a laugh. As I was waiting, other runners passed through with nobody taking him up on his offer. There was one young runner who looked at him and was thinking about it, with comments of "I've never won a race" and "I could get more sleep before I have to get up at 3:30 for my flight". Every runner within earshot is saying "no!!", and finally the runner said "Well, I do want to run the Barkley Marathons one day", got the bib punched and headed out on the final loop. I had told myself going in, that if I made it to that point before the cutoff even if it was with only a minute left, I was going out on the final loop, to me BFC is either a finish or not. Anyway, the issue was not in doubt, we had plenty of time on the clock, Britt knew the course and we had good walking legs. I'm pretty sure that if we needed to, we could have actually run.
After we finished I was slowly making my way towards food when I heard a voice call out "DDR doesn't get any points for this one." It was Trevor sitting with Dena, he didn't have the race he wanted, but finished. Dena finished as well, and intends to go back. Sadly, Agustin took Quitters Road after little rat, I'm hoping he actually has time to train next year. As for me, I am one-and-done.
My numbers for the race, 31.1 miles with 0 feet of net gain in 13:05:46. 1 yellow jacket sting. Mud in places I didn't even know existed.
Also, in true Bryan and Agustin road trip tradition, this is the first time that there was serious rain at the BFC, go figure.
A few thoughts for those considering BFC 2022
1. Gear choice for shoes. There is no perfect shoe! You will (probably) have to run all out down a hard packed rocky Jeep road, so you're going to want a shoe that can handle it. You're going to be moving over slick/mossy rocks, so you want a shoe with soft grip. You're going to need lugs that can dig into the soft sand while climbing, and if it rains, they really need to be solid lugs (I wonder if Laz would allow microspikes, probably not). The good thing is, it's not Texas Gumbo Mud. Given the amount of time I lost slowing down (and crawling) over the wet mossy rocks, versus the amount of time people lost slipping on the climbs, the shoes with solid lugs were the correct choice. 2. Gear choice for gloves. The gloves I had were acceptable, but I would go with something heavier if I went again. While my palms were protected, the back of my hands were not, and I got stabbed there a few times when I backhanded briars over my head. 3. Gear choice for raingear. Don't bother unless it's going to be very cold (race day choice), and make sure it is packed inside something to protect it. I ripped my vest in the briars, but the bag holding my rain jacket didn't get damaged. 4. One thing I did after Cruel Jewel (since I was in a running funk) was spent time working on mobility to build core strength as well as true upper body weight workouts. When I was going up RatJaw I was able to effectively pull myself up the cables.