A Spectacle of Suffering
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother"
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother"
-St Crispin's speech Henry V Shakespeare
This story all started when I was coming back from a quad injury in May and I wanted to challenge myself with something extremely difficult. I heard about the Barkley Fall Classic and was stupid enough to sign up for it before my brain had a chance to realize what I’d just done to myself. In the ultramarathon running community "Barkley" is synonymous with suffering and extreme difficulty. If you've not heard of it, google search or Wikipedia search the Barkley Marathons then continue reading this article. The fall classic is an 'easier' version of that with only one loop to complete in 13:20. There is a 'marathon fun run,' and the '50k.' Keep in mind Barkley miles tend to be longer than regular miles by about 20% as a best guess. With time limit like that and the Barkley reputation I knew I was probably in way over my head.
The summer was spent climbing every hill I could find in flat Michigan and doing long boring uphill climbs on my treadmill. I tried to be as prepared as possible, which is to say I was probably not prepared at all for what lay ahead. About a week before the race my dad elected to join me for some father son bonding time and because I might not be able to drive (or walk) when I finished and we headed down to Frozen Head state park on Friday morning. Eight hours later we arrived at packet pick up in downtown Wartburg Tennessee where I met the man, Lazarus Lake, who made the original Barkley a reality and his partner in sadistic runner torturing, Steve Durbin.
We were given a course map, a compass, an emergency whistle and a tech shirt.
|Map, big and compass|
Upon examining the map I noticed right away that it was a lie. A big fat fib. The distance scale had miles and kilometers wrong, the distance between the aid stations was wrong (Barkley miles) We were informed that course marking would consist of signs with arrows on them at “important points of the race.” There would be no confidence markings anywhere on or off trail. Welcome to a Barkley race where up is down, and mind games are standard practice. We then ate dinner and watched an excellent documentary about the original Barkley Marathons with many of the other runners and then drove back to the hotel for a night of fitful sleep.
And suddenly it was Saturday morning and I was lining up at the start line.
Was I really about to do this? What the hell was wrong with me? But then Laz lit his cigarette as our signal to start and we were off.
|Running past the yellow gate at the start|
A quick 1.5 miles on flat pavement through the Frozen Head Park HQ and Big Cove campgrounds, we then ran past the infamous yellow gate and the running ceased as the climbing commenced up the 14 switchbacks of Bird Mountain then more switchbacks down.
|Ascending switchbacks on Bird Mountain|
|Bird Mountain trail around Aid Station #1|
Then switchbacks up to Jury Ridge. Then down. Then up again. Then down. The switchbacks seemed endless.
|Trails on top of Jury Ridge|
|Top of Jury Ridge|
And finally after nearly 9 ‘real’ miles we reached the first aid station and bib punch on Bald Knob. For this race you had to get your race bib punched at certain points on the course as proof you made it to certain places.
I grabbed some pretzels, some trail mix and slim jims, and drank my fill of water as it was already fairly warm and humid then headed back onto the trail. The trail here was mostly well defined single track and very runnable on the flats and downs. Knowing that the worst climbs were still ahead I stayed as controlled as possible with my pace. The next spot was a place called Deja Vu hill where we'd get a second bib punch and so named because you run a loop around a mountain, going up the mountain then down then back up again but it was a relatively easy and beautiful section of the course.
I paused at the bib punch and ate some Clif shot blocks and headed towards the turn off for the Jeep road that would take me to aid station #2 and then my legs started cramping a little. So I stopped to pop some salt tabs...except they were nowhere to be found in my hydration pack and the cramps were getting worse and hadn't done any of the biggest climbs yet!! I briefly kicked myself in the butt, why did I put them in a place where they’d fall out so easily??? How stupid of me! But then the ultra-running community saved my race. Another runner, Chelsie saw me gimping along the trail and she offered potato chips and salt tabs which I eagerly ate and I managed to work up a slow shuffle as the cramps subsided a little and she then took off on the next uphill.
|Jeep road leading to Aid Station #2|
I made it to the jeep road heading towards aid station #2 at Tub Springs. There another runner, Lael, offered me some of her salt tabs as well. RACE SAVED! Within 5 minutes the cramps were nearly gone and since the jeep road was very runnable I managed to work up a halfway decent shuffle and ran with a purpose because when I took the salt tabs I also drank the last of the water in my hydration pack. A Barkley mile later I arrived at Tub Springs aid station #2 and ate every salt covered thing in sight, refilled the hydration pack, stuffed some salted trail mix and slim jims into my pack and took off down the long downhill jeep road to Armes Gap.
It felt great to open my stride and actually run downhill on the easy jeep road, 25 minutes and 2 real miles later I was crossing highway 116 and climbing towards a section of the real Barkley, Testicle Spectacle.
As I arrived at the power line cut where the spectacle awaited I noticed a runner sitting on the ground staring off into the distance, looking frankly trashed, and I asked if he was ok and he responded without looking up, “Yeah my legs are gone, you’ll need gloves.” Heeding his words I pulled my gloves on and finally took a good look down Testicle Spectacle and realized that my goal of finishing the “50K” was probably going out the window and that finishing the “marathon” would be my primary goal.
|Looking up Testicle Spectacle from the bottom|
|Exhausted runners near the top of Testicle Spectacle|
The pictures just don’t do it justice.
|Last verticle climb before the top of Testicle Spectacle|
Imagine climbing down a mountain that is filled with briars, hell, sharp rocks, suffering, fallen trees, vertical climbing up and butt sliding down cliffs mixed with the broken dreams and crushed souls of many runners.
|Butt sliding down Testicle Spectacle|
Down I went slipping, sliding, and getting absolutely covered in mud. After 30 minutes I was at the bottom where a cheerful volunteer punched my bib and told me once I got to the top of the mountain I’d be halfway finished. I’ve never been so wrecked to hear that I was only halfway finished with a race.
|Vertical climbing on Testicle Spectacle|
The climb back to the top was misery. Opportunities for shade were limited and the temp had risen to the upper 80s. Everyone was seeking the smallest bit of shade they could find. Many of the climbs were so steep it involved being on hands and knees using rocks, roots, small trees and anything you could grab to climb 50 or 100 feet up and then pause to collect yourself and plot your next climb. My mind was working against me the whole time, all I wanted to do was to be able to actually RUN again. I was sick of the heat, sick of the climbs, and the idea of actually quitting kept creeping back into my mind. But after 40 minutes of climbing I had finally scrambled up the last vertical hill. I had went maybe 1.5 miles in an HOUR AND TEN minutes. I’d heard of Laz mention the day before of places where progress would be “measured in yards.” Clearly, I’d just been to one of those places.
But now that I was back on top of Testicle Spectacle, it was time to descend down Meth Lab Hill towards the town of Petros.
|Top of Meth Lab Hill looking down|
|Bottom of Meth Lab hill creek|
Once again it was a long, slow downhill with terrible footing, the baking sun and more butt sliding, but soon I was back in the woods in the shade running past what looked like an abandoned meth lab and a small creek then it was a long walk/run down a paved road into the old Brushy Mountain State Prison and a much needed aid station!
|Paved road leading to prison|
I topped the hydration pack off, ate more salty food and headed off into the prison itself.
|Brushy Mountain State Prison|
We ran through the prison past James Earl Ray’s old cell, number 28, and into the solitary confinement section AKA “The Hole” to get my bib punched again.
|James Earl Ray's cell inside the prison|
Running out of the “The Hole” I noticed people climbing up a near vertical hill using an old metal cable.
|Inside the prison|
The sightseeing tour over, it was time for Big Rat Jaw.
|Rockwall off trail on Rat Jaw|
Rat Jaw is legendary in the history of the Barkley races and we’d be climbing 2000+ ft in just a couple miles completely off trail straight to the top of Frozen Head Mountain. Rat Jaw is also a power line cut, but it’s filled with more saw briars and crushed Barkley dreams per square inch than anywhere in the USA. So up I went, using the metal cable to help climb up the slope, progress again measured in yards at a time.
|First vertical climb on Rat Jaw|
I cut into the woods to the right of the briars and it transitioned back into crawling on hands and knees scrambling for every inch up the mountain. I popped up next to the old coal mines and not seeing the runners I was following I decided to follow a pretty clear trail that went left past the old coal mines.
|The old coal mine on Rat Jaw|
But the trail quickly disappeared so I stopped and took a bearing with my liar map and truthful compass and started climbing a dry creek bed straight up the mountain. I was all alone and “out there,” but trusted my navigation skills to get me back to the power line cut and after more climbing I heard voices above me, and saw that I had come upon the left hand side of the power cut.
|Vertical climb on Rat Jaw|
I ran into a runner that I’d seen on the course, Shenoa, and we decided to tag team the rest of the way up Rat Jaw.
|Shenoa and me having a ridiculous moment on Rat Jaw|
Initially, we stayed on the left hand side then I noticed the land was sloping downward so we made a decision to cross through the saw briars, a decision and situation so ridiculous we stopped and took a selfie of it while discussing how nuts we must be to PAY money to do this.
|Taking a moment to rest on Rat Jaw|
After crossing the briars we found ourselves ascending again until we came to sheer wall of rock and another runner said there was a path through the rock wall to the right side. This required crossing through saw briars a second time, which was even more absurd then the first time, but we found the cut in the rock and starting climbing, the terrain getting steeper and steeper.
|Shooting the gap in the rocks on Rat Jaw|
We could hear voices yelling and clapping, we were close to the top!! Shenoa said her husband was waiting at the top. I dug deeper than I’ve ever dug before in my life and climbed as fast as my bloody and battered legs would allow. I scrambled the last few feet up the near vertical summit…I made it!!! But to get my bib punched required climbing 3 stories of stairs UP to the top of the lookout tower. Choice 4 letter words for Laz were muttered very loudly. But 2.5 hours after I started I made it to the top of rat jaw. Bib punched, it was time to finish this.
|View from the top of Frozen Head Mountain|
As I came down the lookout tower Shenoa was having a celebratory emotional moment with her husband so I just kept moving. All downhill from here I told myself.
|Top of Frozen Head Mountain - all down here from here|
As I started to descend the jeep road from the tower back to Tub Springs aid station I was just hit with overwhelming emotion. I started sobbing so hard I had to stop running and walk. I couldn’t stop thinking about how bad my personal life had been a year before, but now I had the right people in my life, how in April I pulled my quad muscle and was sidelined with no running until mid-May, but now 4 months later I’d just finished climbing one of the most legendary mountains in all of ultra-running and even though I was going to miss the cutoff time for the “50K” by an hour, I was still going to finish the “marathon.” I’ve never felt such raw emotions in my life. I felt like part of my soul had been extracted and I had never felt so alive in my life and through all the tears, blood, pain and suffering I smiled.
I hit Tub Springs aid station with that smile on my face ready to finish this. I loaded up my hydration pack one last time, had a peanut butter granola bar which tasted like the best thing I’ve ever eaten at the time and started off for North Old Mac trail, 4 real miles until Laz, 5 real miles until the finish line. As I ran my legs decided one more time they’d try and cramp on me as I pushed the pace down the mountain and just as I was about to be forced to a walk again I spotted Lael in the distance, I caught up to her and asked if she had any salt tabs left. She did. Amazing! Legs refreshed one more time we started running and passing other runners. About a mile from Laz and my last bib punch I left her and a couple other runners in the dust. I needed to be done. I came down off the trail and found Laz, smoking a camel and relaxing. I shook his hand and thanked him for the slowest yet best first marathon of my life and promised I’d be back next year for the full 50K.
Now it was just a mile to the finish on flat pavement. Every step I took at this point felt like my legs were on fire from my toes to my thighs, I somehow managed about an 11:40 min per mile pace as my legs and brain screamed in anguish but nothing could wipe the smile off my face. I could hear the crowd, I could see my dad waiting, and he snapped a picture of me as I sprinted to the finish.
|Smiling at the finish|
11:03:15. 32 out of 51 males who finished the “marathon.” But the time didn’t matter, the place didn’t matter. What mattered was I finished. I finished one of the single hardest ultramarathons in the world. My own words fail to even scratch the surface of how difficult this race was, and this report was my meager attempt at that.
|Finishing with a smile|
But I’m not satisfied, I’ll be back next year, I still have Chimney Top trail to conquer, I still have unfinished business. I still need more of my soul extracted. I still have a Croix de Barque to earn. I leave you with some parting words from Laz:
“[Runners] made the choice to endure whatever it took to achieve their goal. Because that is what sports, and life, is all about. We never achieve great things by setting small goals and success is never guaranteed; it must be earned. The only thing more impressive than finishing a race like BFC is returning from failure, and doing what it takes to achieve success. If it was easy, what would be the point?”
|Dog tags for finishing|
For those interested in signing up? Check out this link HERE. Thanks Dave for sharing your experience and the great pictures of the race.
Have a great day and....Keep Running!!!!