The start of the Barkley Fall Classic
The Barkley Fall Classic 50K is a “lower calorie”, so to speak, variation of the full Barkley. It has all the same great taste and flavor we’ve grown to love. However, it contains the same level of briers known to the state of California to cause bleeding and induce panic in ultra runners. The Fall Classic version of Barkley is only 50 kilometers, or 42.5 Garmin Miles. Let’s focus on a unit we really care about – the same length as if someone were to link up 562,428 pints of The Tonight Dough Ice cream.
I don’t suggest leaving that many pints out in Frozen Head State Park unless someone really wants to upset all the park rangers. It’s not their fault the park is named after my favorite section of the grocery store. Also a quick minor complaint – they didn’t accept my loyalty rewards card at the aid stations. Laz might need to fix that for next year so their Barkley frequent runner miles don’t go to waste.
If you’re really interested in learning more about the Barkley Marathons there are plenty of articles and rumors available online. Feel free to even start your own. What makes Barkley unique to other adventure races is the need to know Orienteering skills, and the ability to traverse 20,000 feet (6096 meters) of elevation change per loop. Oh, and the briers. So many briers. Luckily they left many parts that make the real Barkley so hard in there so that we could experience equal suffering if not more. The entire race starts with the light of a cigarette.
The course is located just east of Wartburg Tennessee. I’ve provided a hastily drawn map to improve my cartography skills and to help clarify that location.
When the Barkley Fall Classic starts to eat your young
The first half (minus ‘Testicle Spectacle’, I’ll share that soon) of the course is single track hiking trails that range between 1,500feet and 3,100feet. The terrain is steep with lots of drop-offs within inches of the narrow track. Multiple switch backs took the group on a steady climb up hill after hill. Somewhere around the 2nd peak there was an aid station to refill water, Sword, and devour Lay’s potato chips. Protip: The chips were in individual snack bags instead of large party bags dumped into bowls. This makes it much easier to grab a bag and sneak over to a pile of dirt to snack out of the way of other runners.
Soon after the first aid station, the course unzips it’s pants and shoves it’s Testicle Spectacle into your face.
I like a good hill, but love mountains. When standing 2,500 feet up looking at two valleys, one larger than the other, it’s breathtaking. The first valley to the left side is labeled as the spectacle on the map, and newly included in this years Barkley Fall Classic. There’s a group of people standing near the top giving advice freely. Put on your leather gloves now. Slide as much as you can to avoid falling. Don’t forget to get your punch at the bottom. When you get back you are half way done. They should say “if” you get back.
The climb down and then back up is roughly a mile long and takes most runners approximately 40 minutes to complete. We finished it in 46 minutes with many small breaks to take photos, high five trees, and share a sweaty hug with a mossy log. The log was in the middle of the hill and on a very steep 50-70% grade. There were a lot of people on their way down rushing to climb up the log, but for those of us on our way back up the hill, this tiny moment of downhill sliding felt like an easy way to break a leg and pride in one swift move.
Once reaching the top of the hill we learn a man was found unconscious while we were on the way to the bottom. A 911 call was made to get him assistance and for a minute I thought it might be a good idea to phone an Uber ride for ourselves. We quickly cleared the top and ran into the downhill on the other side, known as Meth Lab hill, before our brains had a minute to reconsider. Some solid advice from Nick Hollen when running Barkley is to avoid being anywhere that could be described as “comfortable”. These areas are prone to dropping since there’s little work necessary to drop. It’s best to be far away to the point that the effort to drop is as much as it would be to just finish.
This photo really gives some scale to the elevation. See how far away the runners in the photo are and the distance to the bottom ends up being around a mile directly. It’s not possible to just run a mile down the hill though. It’s important to step carefully through deep mud cracks, shifting rocks, and of course more briers. Briers are the chocolate chips of the Barkley Fall Classic. If someone had offered me to eat a bag of Nestle Brand briers at the bottom of this hill to be able to end Barkley Classic I would have happily poured it over my ice cream and enjoyed every bite. Instead we got to the bottom of the hill to a road aptly referred to as ‘Meth Lab Road’. The sun was out with no breeze or trees to protect us. Thailyr and I quickly joked how this felt just like the Keys 100 again. It was only 95 degrees when I checked to measure it on the road.
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary
Approaching the prison gives off a terrifying feeling. We are in the gully between mountains, surrounded by thick brush full of even more briers. In the distance I noticed a very tall peak to the right side of the prison. It’s unclear since this is our first time here where the trail is taking us, but are guided by signs towards the entrance of the prison. The map says we are about to enter rat jaw, but the views around us at the prison are so distracting with history it’s difficult to build up the right amount of fear and concern.
The prison grounds are quiet and well groomed. The signs on the course lead right up to the front door of the prison which has been left wide open letting the last of the flys escape. There’s paint peeling off every surface and the dark hallway just inside the door is unlit. Even with the windows visible on the front the bars covering restrict the light from entering just as much as they prohibit visitors from leaving.
It smells like an old school building from my childhood. The stale thick air within the confined corridors constricts around us as we start following a maze of hallways and signs through the building. I start imagining what life was like when people lived in here. Even more difficult to grasp was the sense of someone reporting to work here every day knowing this place was full of dangerous men. We exit one building to find a sign pointing us around the courtyard back into another.
Before entering the next building we catch a glimpse of runners off to our left exiting another building. Just beyond them we see faint movement up on the mountain side. It’s Rat Jaw. At this point we are still enjoying our history tour and keep moving along talking about how exciting it is to get a self-guided tour included. There’s no souvenir shop but at this point I’m guessing it would just sell briers. Maybe brier stamped shirts. Or brier covered trucker hats.
In 1977 the most famous escape attempt occurred. As you walk through the courtyard and see the steep mountain around you in all directions, it seems confusing how anyone could train to escape. We figure the inmates had to practice running in small circles to gain endurance, but what did they do about the briers? During the escape attempt James Earl Ray, whom became notorious for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., made it out of the prison walls by climbing a fence with six other inmates. He was currently serving a 99 year sentence at the time. The inmates worked as a team to stage a distraction for the guards while the escapees used a ladder made from plumbing materials to scale the wall.
Nearing the end of the prison tour we pass the cell where James was held. A few quick turns later we are directed down into the solitary confinement holding area, known as ‘the hole’. No light from the bright sun outside makes it to the cells. I pull out my light before we enter only to find someone standing inside one of the cells. He’s shocked we are the first people to stop and take the time to pull out a light. We get our bibs punched and climb back out of the dungeon.
Just a few steps out the gate to the left we encounter a small makeshift bridge that immediately scales up the side of the mountain. Before we get into Rat Jaw there’s a great video taken by one of the Barkley Fall Classic race directors Steve Durbin showing the prison tour starting from the courtyard and ending with Laz laughing in a maniacal fashion as he puts a sign into the ground directing the runners up Rat Jaw.
Rat Jaw – The climb you cannot forget
We were already feeling exhausted and beat before we even started the climb. There was no clear view of the top to this mountain. We knew there was a lookout tower up there that we needed to get a punch on our bibs but not being able to see it was unsettling. There was no clear path even with the dozens of runners that came through before us. Six of us bunched up as we stayed together crossing downed trees and bending briers out of the way. The exhaustion hit in waves making it difficult to climb for more than 50 feet at a time. Each stop was a chance to catch my breath and make eye contact with others in the group feeling the same way. Never in a race prior have I looked at another runner and seen such a lifeless, dull expression staring back. Nearing the top, the power wires could be seen still but the path to climb was impossible causing our group to split up into a few directions to find a passable route.
Progress was made on hands and knees. Climbing with our knuckles to the ground was the only way to keep our heart rates in check. The terrain started to level out after an hour of climbing and we could hear faint yells off in the distance. One of the runners mentioned this is where a large number of families come to view the course and runners. At this point I knew I was ready to drop out of the Barkley Fall Classic. I couldn’t take any more of these mountain climbs on my hands. Ty and I weren’t talking other than encouraging each other to get to the top of this mountain so we could stop climbing. We didn’t finish that sentence but we both knew it was going to be a discussion of how to drop out once we got to the checkpoint.
Once we got within a hundred feet of the top we could see people through the trees and climbed as hard as we could to end it. At the top there still is a climb to the lookout tower to retrieve the punch on the race bib. Knowing that if I stopped I would not continue I power walked the best I could right up to the stairs to climb the tower and began heading up. Thailyr was struggling behind me but once on top of the tower I stood long enough to get my punch then collapsed on the platform laying against the railing on my side. My lungs burned. My chest was on fire. Breathing was so hard I wasn’t sure if I could even keep doing that. Is there a DNF option to quit breathing and let someone else take over for me? I could see an ambulance at the bottom of the tower. I thought back to my last attempt to urinate during Barkley. Dark yellow with a hint of brown. I probably needed an IV at this point. I wasn’t drinking enough water. I’m not sure how I messed that part up. Normally I’m the one doing great with water and food and Thailyr is the one needing extra encouragement. I pulled myself up the railing and started my way back down. Something in my head clicked and I finished off the water in my bottles.
Thailyr and I finally discussed our plan briefly. Neither of us really wanted to use those terrible words. We knew we couldn’t drop right there. Laz added a marathon drop option and the next aid station was a short downhill from where we were. We had over 5 hours to make it to the marathon finish so even a slow walk at this point would work. There was a small crowd of spectators, or volunteers, it wasn’t clear who any of these people were. Everyone out there was helpful and encouraging to the point we probably didn’t even notice it was the same faces that helped us a few times. I needed more water and the thought of being so close with only downhill to the next aid station set us into a slow jog down the hill.
The second time at Tub Springs aid station I drank half a bottle of Sword and sat down on a nearby rock. Thailyr was refilling the bladder in her pack and at this point I checked mine. It was still nearly full. Rookie mistake that easily cost me all my enthusiasm I normally have in a race. I had a few coughing fits and realized I might be sick. Poor families might have to see what the inside of an ultra runner looks like if I can’t keep this water down. Thailyr and I talked a little more about our plan to drop at the bottom when we found Laz. Thailyr tried to act strong and hide her emotions and feelings from me at this point. I knew she could tell I was feeling bad but I’ve gotten used to her hiding this side of herself from me. She was in bad shape herself, but she wasn’t ready to quit. She even slipped up and told me she could probably go on alone for a little bit but wouldn’t. This was what I needed to hear. I knew we could finish but I just needed to take better care of myself. I got another water refill and we set off down the mountain at a quicker pace making up all the lost time we spent on Rat Jaw.
Ending the marathon and starting the final loop
Getting to the bottom and seeing Laz really gave us a fresh set of legs. We chatted with Laz and another runner who was injured about how we wanted to drop out at this point. They both laughed telling us we had plenty of time to finish. Refusing to accept our drop made it that much harder to ask a second time. The work we put in to get this far into Barkley Classic started weighing on our shoulders. I knew Thailyr could finish the full course. There were only two big climbs left and we had done something similar this late in a race when made it up Coosa Mountain during the Georgia Death Race.
We didn’t quite know the course well enough to figure out where the tops of the last two climbs were. I kept referring to the cloth map attempting to read the elevation marks to determine the point where the uphill stopped. After the first two peaks where we started to decline we thought it was all over and nothing but downhill ahead. The first peak was supposed to be Chimney Top and everyone had told us after that it was downhill. As usual I need to stop trusting people that aren’t running the race giving course descriptions. Thailyr and I started to really regret going on at this point wishing we had taken the exit at Laz. We needed the next aid station to regain confidence and the Garmin Miles were so badly inaccurate at this point we couldn’t tell even tell if we would make the cutoff time.
Our quads were burning to the point we couldn’t maintain a clear thought. For us and many around us it went a lot like this: climb climb climb, sit on a rock or lean on a tree and try to regain composure while holding on for dear life, convince yourself to start again and climb climb climb. Repeat. Seeing the last aid station ahead lifted my spirits to a whole new level. The park rangers staffing the station claimed the downhill section was roughly three and a half miles. With all the variation we experienced already I put it into my watch around 4.2 miles to keep our estimates modest. Also Thailyr was getting sick of my poor estimates from the cloth maps.
We pushed a modest pace around 12 minute miles down the mountain until we reached the Laz one more time. He thanked us for being a part of the Barkley Fall Classic and, even more excitedly, we thanked him for putting on the hardest race we have ever done. The final challenge, exit the park and run back down the road to our car.
We shuffled ourselves down the road to the finish line wanting to finish in the same minute as the sunset. I believe we made it within a few seconds and were too worn out to bother following the directions written on the signs telling us to smile.
Final thoughts on The Barkley Fall Classic
Overall the Barkley Fall Classic is hard. Very hard. Thailyr and I decided that the Barkley Fall Classic along with Barkley don’t have the marketing hype surrounding them that many other races with ‘Death’ in the name do. I’ve done enough adventure races to start to accept that the hype around them is mostly designed to spook out runners and break them mentally before the race even starts.
At Barkley Fall Classic the course itself breaks down runners mentally and physically hill by hill. We quit Barkley a few times and somehow still finished. This was a one and done race for me. Thailyr and I both realize we don’t have the interest in doing the full Barkley. Knowing other runners have even finished the Barkley Marathons is astounding on a whole different level. Navigating sections of that course in the middle of the day were hard enough. Trying to find a direction in the middle of the night would take even greater dedication and determination.
Thailyr and I did fall in love with the mountain aspect of the course. We became sold on the elevation challenge earlier this year and now UTMB is starting to become a destination we want to tackle. So who knows, maybe we will return to the Barkley Fall classic in the future. Right now we are both just happily nursing our poison ivy, bug bites, and brier scars back together so we can tackle our next local race.
Want to read more about The Barkley Fall Classic or Barkley Marathons? Here’s a list of links I’ve read:
Nicademus Hollon Finishes Barkley
Running with Waz – A race recap of the Barkley Fall Classicfrom 2014
Durbin Race Management – The official race page for the Barkley Fall Classic
Ultra Signup – Barkley Fall Classic
John Borowers Race Recap – From 2014
Barkley Fall Classic Facebook Group
Brushy Mountain Prison Wiki Page
Tales from Brushy Mountain – Stories from the prison