The Barkley Fall Classic: When Bad Things Happen to Stupid People
There is no telling you this story without telling how I blew off Terri. She’d invited me to run the last South Carolina edition of her classic 50k. It meant a lot that I’d even received an invitation as only 40 people were invited and I accepted.
I planned for this race. Time passed. That’s when the emails started, the usual kind RD’s send out updating campsite information, cut offs etc. More time passed. That’s when the weird emails started. She was having issues with the park, she said.
There would be no aid stations or maybe a mobile aid station. There would be no numbers. There would only be forestry trail blazes on trees and no turn or confidence markers. Finally, she told us she was completely at odds with the forestry service who didn’t want us there.
They said we couldn’t run in groups. They said we would harm the trail. Terri had no insurance. They said that was a violation of Federal law. They cited 8 other Federal laws we were violating. I’m a “Stick it to the Man” kind a guy but this was feeling like a lone hike and not a race anymore.
Eric told me I could probably just stay in Tallahassee and violate Federal law. This is when fate intervened. I hadn’t planned on running the Barkley Fall Classic. There was a wait list and I was at the bottom. I offered to be a course sweeper. I offered to bribe the race directors. No dice.
Something like a miracle happened. The RD, the infamous Lazarus Lake, scared the sweet Jesus out of so many runners that the wait list emptied out, leaving 18 slots needing to get filled. My entry was instantly paid for and I was in the race.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Barkley Marathons and Frozen Head State Park. I never wanted to go back there but I knew I had to go. The BFC wasn’t Barkley, by a long shot, but it was FHSP and that had to count for something. Sorry Terri. I made a choice.
I couldn’t see myself driving to both races, 7 hours each way, and running two tough races that were two weeks apart. I chose the BFC. Terri can hate me if she needs to hate me. Likely she’s just disgusted. I’ve bagged on her more times than is right.
The BFC is a 37 plus mile race around the perimeter of FHSP with 20,000 feet of elevation change, conceived as a fundraiser for the Wartburg, TN high school athletic department. The race course hits some famous Barkley masterpieces: SOB Ditch, Rat Jaw, Chimney Top. It isn’t Barkley though.
The BFC is all trail except for Rat Jaw which is a 1 mile vertical crawl in sand and dirt through saw briar bushes. The BFC was too easy to be anything like Barkley. They showed us the Barkley movie the night before to make this point and to put the fear of God into us.
Sitting out in my buddy Jim’s trunk drinking beers after the movie, he couldn’t stop talking about toxins in different local snakes snake bites. Rattlers will kill you but they’ll hear you coming 100 yards away and scoot so likely you’ll never get bit. Copperheads wouldn’t kill ya’ but you’ll wish you were dead.
We packed that night at the campsite. Jim had a few more beers. We tried to sleep. The next morning we caught a ride to the race start with Charlie, sitting in the bed of Charlie’s truck. It was the last pleasant thing I did that day.
Look – it’s an ultra – there’s a lot of running and a lot of walking. There was 37 miles of it. This won’t be a blow by blow. Go run it next year. This is more a Joe Friday thing. Just the facts or in the case of anything involving Mr. Lake something approximating facts and, maybe a few lies.
The most important thing to know about the race is that I alternated between pain in my legs (Rat Bites, poisonous plants and relentless forward progress) and pain in my back from multi-hour ascents. I ate just about anything put in front me that anyone called food. I ate prunes, God help me.
There was 12 miles of switchbacks up and over the ridgeline half a dozen times, a 4 mile out to steep ascent up a desolate peak climb and 4 miles back to the utter hell that is Rat Jaw, 6 or so miles way the hell up Chimney Top and then a bunch of down to the finish.
I’m not even going to count if I got the miles right. There was a lot of them and most were uphill. It might have all been uphill. I saw five people quit right in front of me all at different places in the course. One dude quit three miles from the finish because he didn’t believe it was three miles away or that the race would actually finish.
I saw one dude weeping into his hands thinking he’d reached a peak that was still a mile or two away. I offered a big corn fed dude 100 bucks to punch the RD. I made sure the RD knew the haymaker was coming being polite and all. I took a nap on the trail with three other runners. Don’t judge.
I met some amazing people. I met Craig who has DNF’d every ultra he’s ever run but keeps on coming. I met Johnny who always kept it easy even when it was pure hateful misery. I met a Sherpa girl who ran down every hill like a cool sweet breeze. I met Susan who danced across rock fields like a ballerina.
Going up Chimney Top, we traded off resting against trees and puking. I ran out of water twice and both times people offered me theirs. We fought together and when the time came, we left each to suffer alone. It had to be that way.
My buddy Jim had run 200 miles out in Tahoe just a few weeks before. I tried to stay with him for a while but he had his own battles to fight. His feet were raw and torn from the previous race, his muscle still empty. We kept meeting up though.
I would leave him and then he’d find me. He’d leave me and then I’d find him stopped against a rock on the mountainside. The last time we connected, I was on top of Rat Jaw and he heard my voice and called up a litany of names I can’t repeat here. He meant it like normal people would mean a warm embrace.
Susan and I raced in the last three miles hopped up on caffeine and desperation. Johnny said he heard us talking and laughing all through the valley. When you can smell the barn, you bolt with legs you never knew you had. I ended up dropping Susan in the last mile.
I finished the race in 12 hours and 20 minutes. They gave me a medal, John Price bought me a sandwich and I caught a ride from a family of racers up to my camp. The lady runner in the truck was downing peppermint schnapps. She looked back at me with dull numb eyes as if to say, It’s just like that.
I was feeling the beginnings of hypothermia out alone in the cold dark night. I met this family of campers who had a huge fire. They welcomed me in and fed me corn on the cob and home fries. I took a shower and drank a bunch of beers hanging out with the mighty Tim Dines, Bill Lovett and Tim Waz.
I got back to camp and found Jim back and in his tent. We talked for an hour like that, me standing in the dark and him in his tent occasionally moaning as his muscles cramped up and his skin burned. Neither one of us slept that night.
The next morning, Jim and I built a fire, drank fresh coffee and ate apple cobbler. We packed our gear and swore we weren’t ever coming back for this stupid race and then swore we would because how could doing anything else. Jim told me Charlie came in an hour late, missing the cut off, but finished.
Driving down the mountain later that morning, my cell phone finally got a connection and I saw an email from my girl Abbi who said my boy Brian was stranded in McMinnville, two hours west of me and would I mind going to get his sorry butt? It’s just like that.