Editor's Note: Here at Jen Raby Fitness dot com I like to maintain an air of professionalism. That being said, the story as follows is a personal account from yours truly, the certifiably insane ultra-runner, and not necessarily Jen Raby the personal trainer. There will be colorful words and rude gestures because trail runners are nothing if not brutally honest. Enjoy!
Before I’d had a chance to absent-mindedly peel off all my scabs while sitting in Atlanta traffic, before my right big toe had stopped yelling at me with every hill or stair case, before I had even had a chance to sit down and start writing this race report --
-- I found myself in front of a computer, clicking “Register” for the 2017 Barkley Fall Classic.
In the past year or so trail running, I found myself seeking out longer and longer routes with ridiculous amounts of elevation for each training run or race. I went from a relative newbie to that jerk who says things like “It’s only 22 miles,” or “I think it only has about 7,000’ total vert.” Yes, vert. Because that’s how the cool kids say it. A 50K race that will take twice as long as my PR because there’s a mountain in the way? Sign me up.
When it came time to prepare for the 2016 Barkley Fall Classic, I already felt like I had something to prove because I had begged my way off of the wait list. A DNF was NOT an option, and the only way someone would see a DNS by my name would be if someone went all Tonya Harding on me as I left my tent Saturday morning. But I didn’t have any enemies that I knew of, and I had more than a few long races under my belt, so I was calm and determined as I toed the line and awaited the starting cigarette.
I was one of many people who had not run in Frozen Head State Park before, so I, like them, was not sure what kind of trails we would be treated to. Luck was on our side, however, with dry conditions and not too much technical terrain in the first 10 miles of the course. Aside from some cambered single track that forced me to baby-step on some descents, I was able to maintain a steady push up and down the first climb of the day.
There were about a dozen other runners I leap-frogged with during the first half of the race. This proved to be beneficial as amongst the group were a couple people who had been there before. More than a few times we’d have to stop and double-check our handkerchief map; something we had bargained for knowing the history of the Big Barkley. While this threw a wrench in some peoples’ races, we all knew that Barkley wouldn’t be Barkley if there were not plenty of opportunities to second-guess our decision to turn right or left. A few people would jokingly call out “What does your GPS say?” and we’d all have a good laugh.
After plenty of what I call “cruise control” miles, the kid gloves came off, and the work gloves came on. Enter Testicle Spectacle. Now at this point, there are already plenty of race reports detailing just how much of a blast this portion of the race was. I will testify that I only swore about seven times. Slips, falls, briars, mud, and confusion as the trail disappeared at the bottom of the hill. When I reached the creek we had to cross to get to the next aid station, there were guys on the other side basically saying, “You have to come this way, but you can’t come this way. You have to go that way.” as they pointed up stream toward a patch of woods without a trail, forcing us to bush-whack our way to the clearing just before the aid station. Here, I was momentarily tempted to stop and curl up with some adorable puppies dozing underneath the aid station tables, but there was no time for cuteness. Back up the Spectacle we go.
More slips, falls, briars and mud, this time UP hill, which at least made the falling a little less dangerous. But navigating a narrow swatch of trail as runners are now moving in both directions, without accidentally shoving each other off into a pile of thorns, proved to be trickier than thought. It was here that I was happy to have pushed early on while the running and hiking was easy. For those of you reading this hoping to glean some information that will aid you in your attempt at the Barkley Fall Classic next year, know this: Any time cushion you build for yourself will get eaten up. Fast.
The Spectacle broke up our band of runners and now I was with just a handful of people, with an ever-widening gap growing between us as we all entered into our own headspaces and worked through our individual struggles. For me, I was blowing through my Tailwind and having forgotten the lid to my Camelpak bladder, I was working with only being able to carry 44 ounces at a time between my various bottles. I became a little more conservative with my pace and took full advantage at each aid station to top off every container I had. I thought 1,000 calories of Tailwind plus some snacks would be enough, not thinking the heat would be as great of a factor as it was. After just one packet of Stinger Chews I gave up on solid food, relying solely on liquid calories. This is normally not a problem… if I pack enough Tailwind! Luckily, another purveyor of electrolytes was on the course which helped me stave off absolute disaster. Lesson learned, and next time I will triple-check my gear and overload my pack with enough calories to carry me through and then some.
Back to the course.
Another descent. Another climb. Another descent. And then… pavement? What? I thought this was a trail race. This mini vacation from the woods was hot, uncomfortable, and short-lived.
I loped along at a manageable pace as I fiddled with my phone (which was in airplane mode and NOT USED FOR GPS thankyouverymuch) to get my Barkley playlist cued up for the fun that was to come. I have had dreams before races that were pretty bizarre, and they almost always have me running through a building or someone’s house and private property. So this… this was just, eerie.
Despite my personal feelings about the course up to this point, the fire tower at the top of the climb gave us the most rewarding view of the entire race.
After a quick descent off the tower (With stairs! And railings!) I napped for a few miles to the next aid station. I only say this half-jokingly. I actually just kind of blanked out for a while and tried to relax to the ambient tones resonating through my earbuds. I needed a mental break and the downhill provided just that. Any shred of determination and fortitude I had left would have to be reserved for the final climb, so I took it easy here so I could put on a brave face for Laz at what would be the second-to-last aid station for some, and the last aid station for others.
Here is another tidbit of information for next year’s newbies: At this point in the race, you are running with your mind, not your body. Your body has long since tried to throw in the towel. All you have to rely on here is your grit. You will be asked if you want put it all on the line to carry on to a 50K finish, or take an equally acceptable marathon finish. You will look at the amount of time that has passed. You will question the distances marked on your map. You will know even without the forbidden GPS that you are going to spend way more time and many more miles in the woods than you had planned that day. Making the decision to continue or finish comes down to one of two options:
YOU deciding you can do it.
Or YOU deciding you can’t.
There is no room for doubt. There’s no time to think. You either go, or you don’t. And it takes a whole lot more than weekly mileage to be able to make that choice.
I was one of the fortunate few who were still well ahead of the cutoff. I was also on target for my A-Goal, which was to be among the top 5 female finishers. As I approach the aid station, Laz chirps “You can catch the next girl on this nice easy downhill!” I laugh, knowing I have no intention of catching her, or any business pretending to try. “Nice easy downhill… for some reason I don’t believe you!” I reply. He jokes again that she isn’t that far ahead (which I know to not be true) as I disappear back into the woods.
I started the next climb with plenty of time, but unbeknownst to me, I was soon to become a bit unhinged. The first half was as gentle as the beginning of the race, with relatively low-grade switchbacks (this is in comparison now to Rat Jaw). I was able to keep a steady rhythm working my way toward the top. But as the trail leveled off and went into a bit of a downhill, all the issues I had somehow managed to keep at bay started to rear their ugly heads. Side stiches. Angry IT band. Angrier toes. And the icing on a very unappetizing cake was the steep turn up toward the sky indicating we had way, way more climbing to go.
Here, over 50K into a 50K, by my best guesstimation, struggling on the ups and not even able to run the downs, I hit my low.
While only a few years into my ultra-running career, I have become well-practiced in the art of staving off negativity. There is simply no place for it in a race because I know that once my brain decides to go all doom and gloom on me, it’s really hard to crawl back up out of that hole. And yet, despite all of my mental training, there I was, sliding into the black.
“What if I can only walk the rest of this race? Am I seriously going to have to walk the REST OF THIS RACE?! Why did I have to forget the lid to my bladder?? Stupid! Stupid!”
I leaned my forehead against a tree, felt sorry for myself for about 10 seconds, then stood up and said out loud, “Enough.” I had to decide that if I was going to continue to be pissed, I had to be pissed but moving forward. Onward, and upward I went.
Another runner I had been back and forth with for a while caught back up to me and I allowed myself to express a few frustrations to him. He was able to assure me, as he’d been here before, that after finally finishing the climb we were only a couple miles from the last aid station. I told him if he was toying with my emotions I’d find where he lived. But as a couple vehicles and a few people came into view with gallons of water, lined up like the pearly white gates to heaven, I proclaimed that this runner was my personal savior. Thank you, Dave!
Amazingly, all it took was some water, that glorious H2 to the O, to bring me back to life and allow me to pick back up to a respectable shuffle for the last 4 miles to the finish. I caught back up to another guy, Jason, who had also commiserated with me in my misery on our final climb. Friendly chatter, plus Dave’s gleeful whoops from behind us as we neared the trail head, made the last few miles go by much quicker than I had anticipated.
I asked Jason if he was a “kicker,” and he chuckled. “Yeah... maybe. I don’t know. I guess!” For me, any kind of kick at the end of a race like this would be better classified as quick shuffle, or perhaps an exuberant jog. Well Jason did kick and entered the shoot a few seconds ahead of me. I maintained my shuffle and finished in a blazing 11 hours and 10 minutes.
Of course, none of this actually tells you why I was so quick to register for next year’s race. Why choose something that takes an entire day to finish when I can do other 50K races that might take me only 5 hours? Why subject myself to a truly masochistic course? Why tempt fate after learning I had only narrowly missed being attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets or stepping on a rattlesnake?
Here are a few reasons:
And in true Barkley fashion, next year’s race will surely give us something new that anyone outside of Wartburg, TN would likely be completely unable to prepare for. We won’t know what the new challenge will be, but I am now morbidly curious. Paraphrased below is one of the questions asked as part of the registration:
If given the opportunity to attend Big Dance, would you?
I am going back, because I answered yes… although I am not 100% sure I mean it. That uncertainty in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge is something I want – I need – to overcome. Another BFC finish, to me, is the only way to know for sure that I have what it takes to eventually put on my dancing shoes.
See you next September, Laz.