It's been a bit since the running of the Inaugural Barkley Fall Classic and I'm still blown away at what all who toed the line accomplished that day. It's races and moments like this which will remain in my memory for a long time. Some 200 plus souls toed the line on Saturday, September 20, 2014 and 163 completed the full distance, which as it turns out was more like 35 miles instead of the advertised 50K, of course did we expect any different considering the who the race directors were?
I arrived in Wartburg around 4ish in the afternoon on Friday. My first stop was at the visitors center to meet and sign Gigi's visitor book as requested by Durb and Laz. All us runners have left an impression and Gigi has left an impression with all of us that dropped in. While there I met a couple other runners. We talked about the race and of course about the big dance that takes place in the spring.
After leaving the Visitor's center I headed for the American Legion to pick up my race packet and in general mingle with the other runners who were going to take on the challenge that Laz, Durb, and the BFC had waiting for us. Unfortunately I was just so immersed in the experience that I didn't even think to pull out a cell phone and take pictures. Probably should have. While there I got to talk with Laz again and also officially meet Durb. Great guys in all actuality, top notch indeed.
I also met up with fellow trail runner and friend Ben King. Ben actually got us all a campsite at the park so we wouldn't have to worry about rushing to the park in the wee morning hours and by we, I mean he, I and Stephanie Johnson, another Knoxville area trail runner (she was volunteering at the event). Finally it was time to head to camp and meet up with the family to get things set up but much to my surprise, when I got there Robin already had my tent and hammock all set up. Talk about grateful and very happy. I really do have an awesome wife. She did all that while in pain from her back issues. Thank you again babe. You really are the world to me.
Once everything was settled in we hung around camp for a bit allowing Bug time to play and have fun, for kiddo to chill in the hammock and Robin, momma, and I to hang out. It wasn't long before Stephanie showed up and got her camp space all set. Ben arrived back at camp after the pasta dinner and Barkley Movie premier. At dusk the family headed home. It was time for supper and soon after trying to get some sleep (a lot tougher than I thought it would be).
About the time I felt I had fallen asleep, my alarm was going off and it was time to eat and get ready. After a breakfast of oatmeal and a stop at the bath house to take care of business, it was time to head to the starting area. I got there and dropped my drop bag off and on the way saw that Robin had actually made it to see me off. After a couple shouts of her name, I heard "I'm here" and found her immediately. It was a great way to start the race. It was finally time. Everyone gathered at the start line and at around 7am Laz lit the cigarette.
It started out much like any other race, a huge crowd of people moving forward in one big surge. Up the road to the campground and eventually past the mythical yellow gate to start the real race. The distance from the start to the trail allowed a good bit of the crowd to thin before hitting the trail. I tried my damnedest to pace myself appropriately to the yellow gate. I think I was a little fast with all the excitement but knew I'd have time going up Bird Mountain to regain composure.
Up and up we all went. I didn't see much running up Bird Mountain, and with the 14 switchbacks, there were plenty opportunities to see ahead and behind where I was. It was a bit slow going up but I wasn't to concerned, I knew once we crested the top it would thin more as it was down hill for a bit.
Finally 3 miles in and I was on top of Bird Mountain once again (I've been up here several times before and it never gets old). From here it was down hill on the North Boundary trail aka North Bird Mountain trail and to Barkers aka Candy Ass Trail (any trail with markings is known as Candy Ass Trail or Quitters road). The pace quickened as we all headed down. However it wasn't quite fast enough but I was okay with it. I didn't want to gas myself or blow my quads and so patiently awaited for the chance to pass the slower descenders in front of me. There were a few who passed me and eventually went around the others.
I waited. I knew the next climb was coming as soon as we hit the northwest corner of the park boundary. The climb was up to Jury Ridge and it's tough. I've been up it 3 times previous to this and each time it's been a different beast. This time there were others there with me traversing the same ground. I had my chance to pass others and took them when they presented themselves. There we a couple times others passed me. It was all good.
Once atop Jury Ridge it was another fast descent. The fun began again, the chase and keeping up with others in front. North Boundary Trail is by no means easy, on the downs or the ups. It's gnarly, twisted, rooty, rocky, you name it. NBT claimed it's victims with no predisposition. It was after the race I learned of a friend who suffered a hard injury and was e-vaced from the course. I came upon one runner who had previously rolled his ankle and shortly after passing him I heard him roll the same ankle again. I offered assistance but he declined.
Onward by all means. The first aid station was close and I was looking forward to a short break and gear adjustments. The moleskin I had applied to various areas of my feet earlier had come off and needed to come out of my socks. With those out and feet all situated again, I grabbed some food, thanked all the awesome volunteers and was back out of the aid station and on the trail again. Oh I also got my bib punched at the aid station. One of the requirements of being counted as official.
The aid station was close to the top of Bald Knob. From there it was a little bit up and then another down. It wasn't long until we hit the coal ponds and around there it was another punch on the bib from Mike Dobies, and another up, down, and then up again. The trail rounded off to the south and a group of us was confronted with a decision to make as the trail came to a tee and no confidence markers. There was some confusion as to which way to go. This was close to the Garden Spot where the trail (Cumberland Trail) continues to the east and Coffin Springs trail goes more south. We all headed in the correct direction but still totally unsure of that. I took a moment to get my bearings with the map and compass whilst everyone else continued on as some had come back saying that might be the wrong direction. After a few minutes, I was confident in the direction and it wasn't long before I was upon the gate where you enter back onto Coffin Springs and then a shorty ditty to the Jeep Road towards the tower and the next aid station.
Along the Tower Trail section I ran with a group of two or three. We eventually came upon the photographer and had our mugs snapped into his lens a few times. It felt like we made good time to the second aid station which was located at the close to Tub Springs. After a refill of the Camelbak and some noshing of cookies and other accouterments it was time to continue on. This time it was downhill on the Lookout Tower Trail to Fodderstack Mountain Trail. It was a steady downhill jaunt for 2+ miles before we came out to highway 116 where we crossed over and proceeded to go nonstop uphill for almost another 2 miles. It was along these two sections of trail that I ran into Tony who was kind enough to spare a shot of bourbon and a few moments later Ben who also spared a shot of whiskey. Trust me, it helps. The sad part is they were headed back in the other direction as this part of the route was out and back.
More climbing and more climbing until we hit our turn around point. It seemed to take forever to get there but it finally came. Finally it was time to run downhill again. I love to run downhill. It's a chance to let gravity do what gravity does. It didn't take near as long to get back to the highway where just before crossing we got another bib punch. Once crossing the highway it was a slight uphill and then very much runnable all the way until we forked off the Lookout Tower Trail to the Old Prison Mine trail. It was only a half mile or so before we reached the infamous Rat Jaw. A lot of people are intimidated by Rat Jaw and rightfully so. It's a nasty climb through saw briers and thicket along a power-line easement all the way to the Lookout Tower. It is no easy task especially after about 15 miles or so up constant up and down (and these are long ups and downs). I stopped momentarily to relieve myself of some spare fluid, got my gloves out and on and I was ready to tackle the Rat.
It was very slow going in the beginning as it was indeed quite steep, steep to the point where you were scrambling with hands and feet, grabbing saw brier vines, roots or whatever else you could to pull yourself up and along. Alone it would take a bit, but having 5-6 other people in front of you makes it that much longer. after what seemed like forever we finally hit a small clearing. This was my chance to get ahead and not linger behind everyone else while they decided to figure out the best route. Off I went on what looked like the way everyone else before us had already taken. On my tail were about 4 others who were ready to get moving as well.
Back into the briers I dove with the others starting to tail me. One was a Barkley vet and between he and I and the constant diving in briers and bouncing to the outsides of the easement we finally crested the top of Rat Jaw with minimal blood letting/sacrifice to the brier gods and made our way to the top of the observation tower to collect our next punch. Julian Jameson was at the top of the tower and I conversed with him about the race for a few minutes while I caught my breath and drank in the view. He was going to be running sweep for the last part of the race. I didn't stay too long, it was time to hit the aid station and take the long downhill to the drop bag zone at the bottom of North Old Mac.
It didn't take to long to descend and quite honestly it was a welcome relief to be going down rather than up or flat for that matter. I finally pulled into the aid station and starting looking for my drop bag, for in it was more sustenance and also trekking poles, which would be definitely needed for what face us next. Stephanie Johnson was there and assisted me with drinks, getting my poles out and ready and whatever else I needed. It was pretty cool. I've never been crewed before but it was indeed welcomed and I was thankful. Once I downed an Uncrustable PB&J and a Snickers (I think, details are foggy at best now), it was time to get back up and get back to moving. Laz was there giving out punches on bibs and as always with mischievous words like it's all downhill from here (knowing good and well there was still one terrible climb up Chimney Top, which only came after a small ridge climb and decent).
Off I was to tackle the last part of the course. I was in at that last aid station around 9 hrs into the race. My dreams of sub 10 or even sub 11 were pretty much out of the question so it was all about sub 12. Little did I know how close I would come to missing that one too. I knew I first had to get up and over Rough Ridge. There were a few people in front of me and a few back behind me. I start out with a pretty good paced shuffle until it was all ascent up Rough Ridge on the Chimney Top trail. From there it was a good paced hike. Having the poles with me was like having manna from heaven.
It wasn't long before I passed Tim Waz (another Barkley vet). He was having a rough go with major blisters on his heels. I kept with him for a few minutes as we conversed along the way. It wasn't long though that I pushed on. It was a nice little descent from the top of the Ridge and I took advantage of it because I knew the next couple of miles were going to be nasty. It was finally up and up again. This time climbing Chimney Top Mountain.
It all started as a fast hike. I was passed by a few runners (who were also hiking at this point). We were well passed the 21 mile mark at this point so the big climb on tired/half wasted legs were brutal. Above me I kept hearing, from time to time, another runner retching. I never did meat up with who ever it was. There was one group at one point sitting on the side of the trail, resting and deciding on whether to go on? I no less continued to press on for what seemed like an eternity.
And so it continued, I would be passed by someone, I would pass someone. It seemed like there was no end to the up but the worst was still yet to come. If you thought it was steep, that wasn't the half of it. I finally got to a rocky area, a point in the trail to where if you were familiar, you'd think you had reached the summit. Not even close. I pressed on. It wasn't as bad through here. There were some great views through the trees out to the mountains that surrounded us. I finally reached the worst of the mountain. Prior to this I had passed a couple more runners and just before the final pitch to the real summit I met up with another group who were resting. The group contained another Barkley Vet, Bill Lovett.
I stopped for a few to catch my breath and give my legs a moment before the start of this half mile or more steep section to the top. Bill and his group took off. They were about 15 steps ahead of me before I started going again. I kept them in my sites and always caught them when they stopped to rest and each time I caught up to them, they took off again while I rested for a moment. Again 15 - 20 steps ahead of me I'd take off again. This happened at least 4 times as we ascended the final pitch.
Finally the summit was in site and still Bill and his group were well in front of me. I watched as the went up and over a group of rocks signaling the end of the steep ascent. That was the last time I would see them. I finally reached the top as well. From here it was a series of ups, downs, as it was all ridge line for the next 3 miles or so. Over rocky outcroppings, through mountaintop wooded meadows, past a campsite or two and an actual chimney. I caught another run through this section as I trotted, hiked, and shuffled along the best I could. I think the 25 - 27 mile mark or so was along this section. I can't remember all that well. The only thing I was think at this time was to keep moving forward.
There wasn't a soul around or so it seemed for a while. I finally rounded a rocky outcropping and descended a short section when I came to the final aid station which was manned by a couple park rangers, Mike Dobbies, and another Barkley person (who's name I know not but I've seen him before). I was tempted by Mike that it would be a great time to drop. Hahaha. No I didn't come this far, to the final descent, to give up now. I got my water bottle refilled and grabbed a banana (that was all there was left at this aid station) and parted ways with everyone. I was time to let gravity do it's job. I caught one runner and then another at some point on the way down. At another point, Nick, (remember him from the ascent up Bird Mountain at the start of the race?) came hauling ass by me like a jack rabbit. He was definitely having fun. Down the mountain I continue on the Spicewood trail. I would be dark soon and if I didn't get moving I'd be "out there" in it.
Down, down, down. This late in the race even the down seemed to take forever. My legs only ran because gravity was working, and my legs at this point knew nothing else but to keep turning over and over to keep my torso upright. I was hard and painful to make them slow down or stop to maneuver over sketchy/technical switchbacks along the trail but as soon as they were crossed, the legs wanted nothing more than to move again.
Once again, I no longer saw anyone in front of me or anyone behind me. It was just me, my mind, the trail and the woods. Onward I kept pressing with the thought of dusk coming. Continuously down, knowing I needed to be out of the woods soon if I stood a chance and making sub 12. I no longer had my watch. It died before I reached the 21 mile drop bag aid station. I really had no clue as to how close I was coming. Finally I reached the bottom and I knew I still had a short bit to go before I was out of the woods and to the final (long ass) stretch of pavement to the finish line.
I moved as fast as I could. It was something that I don't think even resembled running but it at least kept me moving forward. I finally reached the end of the Old Mac Trail and past the bath house there at the trail head. through the parking area I shuffled along and out to the road that would take me to the finish line. I spotted another runner a good quarter to a half a mile ahead of me on the straight road out of the park. For a moment I thought maybe I could catch up to him. I saw him stop for a second and then continued forward as well. My legs reminded me how much they were done with the crap and I knew ice had a better chance of not melting in hell than I had in catching the runner ahead of me. I was now just a matter of getting to the finish line without collapsing.
The road seemed to also take forever until I passed the park office. The I passed the gate. I was then a stretch of road enclosed by trees on both sides and flat fork creek running off to my right. Finally the last curve that would lead me to the turn in to the volley ball courts and the finish line. I got to the bridge and saw a girl who I though was my oldest with our dog Clover. For some odd reason rationalized that Robin decided to bring Clover along to see me finish the race as well, and that Kiddo was walking her to go potty. I got closer and it finally dawned on me that it wasn't my kid or dog but a younger girl and different dog all together. I heard the crowds of other runner and spectators cheering etc.
Finally the last turn was in sight. I rounded the corner and heard people screaming my name, I then saw, Robin, Ashby, Dinah, and mom all sitting in the field cheering me on. My pace quickened, our local trail runners were cheering. Robin was snapping pictures, I made sure to smile. I saw the clock at the finish line, I think I might have sprinted, Poles in the hand I jutted my hands up in the air in celebration and finally crossed the finish line. My final time: 11:57:20. I made it. A medal was place around my neck, I was done. It was over. The joy, the elation, the pain, everything all melded together at that moment and it was unreal. I eventually made my way to the car with Robin's assistance. I was able to get some of the nasty, revolting, dirty, grimy, sweaty gear off of me and into something a bit more reasonable and comfy. I poured the beer I had waiting for me in the car into my metal Klean Kanteen pint. I rejoiced with family and friends. And then went home to savor the memory and be with my family.
The Inaugural Barkley Fall Classic is one for the books indeed and one that I am proud to say, I completed. I proved something to myself that day. Now I have unfinished business with the Barkley Marathons.
Not the full course as my watch died, but here's what I got from it: