The Barkley Fall Classic
It’s around 2.15 pm of a much awaited Saturday in woods of Tennessee. I’m bleeding from scratches on right leg, the toe in the right shoe is crushed, I barely have a few ounces of water left in my blue hydration pack. The last I saw any course marking was over an hour ago when I got lost and returned on right trail, but I’m still running as hard as I can. There are more than twenty runners following me as I run down the hill on winding technical trail, something that is my biggest weakness. But today, I’m running them fast. Faster than ever in my life. Because I’m chasing a cut-off here. I must see Laz before 4.30 pm in order to continue this race, The Barkley Fall Classic, otherwise I’ll be sent home with disgrace. As I scramble over a few rocks and blowdowns, I find myself in a space with pink flag stating “Park Boundary”. The rocky section still goes ahead, but I am not sure if that is the way to go. I quickly take out the map and compass, and try to locate myself as I wait for others to reach that junction to suggest which way to go. There are at least eight runners in the group, who have been on this trail before, but even they are not sure where to go now. Time is slipping out of my hands and for past 10 minutes we are just talking and doing nothing. With every new thought thrown in discussion by a new runner, our combined IQ is going steeply down and my cramping calves want me to stop and stay here forever. We cannot go back as this seemed to be the rightest trail. I guess, the chase of making it to Laz in time is over. All of us are lost!
Frustrated by just talks and no action, I fold my map and compass, put them back in the transparent ziplock hanging in front with my GoPro and start descending down the hill on rocks, that looked like trail. Some decide to still look around to find a way, while others follow. A “virgin” is leading the pack in the woods of Frozen Head State Park, where even most experienced orienteering campaigners often find hard to find the way out. So, there’s always a chance of getting lost again. The cramps in calves suddenly explode into spasms and I pull out on corner as others overtake me. I look up the hill in disdain as others continue to climb and think, the big chase is finally over.
The Barkley Fall Classic is an annual 50K event in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, on the same trail as of World’s toughest and infamous The Barkley Marathons. Perhaps, Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake or Laz) and Steve Durbin brainstormed this event to give people a taste of what it feels being “out there” on thier own with no technology and then navigating out of that jungle alive under 13.20 hours. While registration for The Barkley Marathons is still a hidden secret known among few, BFC sells out within an hour – thus making hard to get accepted. Unlike 5 loops with 9-11 books of The Barkley Marathons, BFC has manned aid stations on the one solitary loop which is required to be completed. One must get his/her bib punched at various locations disclosed in pre-race meeting to confirm they have completed the loop. What stays the same is the course map – in both the races, course map is revealed just a day before the race. No one, not even volunteers, know the exact route till they are summoned by Laz. The course is not marked, however, few important junctions are. There are times when you will think “why is that even marked – all this, for a different reason”. Each marking comes with a torture, that you must experience while being there. (Learn to navigate here) Not everyone finishes 50k. Not everyone starts with an aim to finish 50k. Runners must make it to 22 mile cut-off under 9 hours and 30 minutes to meet Laz and continue the race. This is the decision making point – runners are given a choice. If they make it within the cut-off, with Laz’s permission they may continue to the final brutal climb or may choose to surrender and head to the finish line to secure a “lame” marathon finish. If you miss the cut-off, then you are going just for the marathon finish, which is a polite way of saying “You suck, but I’m not giving you DNF. Go and salvage some pride. Come back trained next year”.
I signed up for Barkley Fall Classic to live the stories of The Barkley Marathons I’d heard from Naresh Kumar, only Indian to have walked on that trail (2012). I knew this race had similar suffering, however, that didn’t matter. I see ultramarathons as a tool to grow in to a better human – more the suffering, greater is the wisdom you gain out of it. But, things didn’t quite fall in place. I spent whole of my summer volunteering in Algonquin Park (Ontario), making sure I didn’t run at all. A DNF around halfway mark in Eastern States 100 a month ago, had crushed all my confidence when I wanted to back out of the race, fearing a failure that looked inevitable. Somehow, I convinced myself and made it to Start Line with Ian Campbell and his friend Shawn.
As I stand on Start Line, I knew I was the least trained individual on this side of the timing clock. As per the rules, I had map, magnetic compass, whistle, water, food and a non-GPS watch. On my chest, I was also wearing a GoPro mount to capture some videos, whenever I get a chance. In the email, Laz had mentioned “If you want to take home the croix, you must run all the flats and downhills”. I know I suck at downhill running, so in the morning I had taped both my ankles to avoid any serious injury if I roll them again. Despite having logged not even 1% of required miles and elevation, I wanted to earn the croix at any cost and like always, I was ready to give my all.
As Laz lit the cigarette, runners took off with the first smoke, and I followed somewhere in the middle of the pack. Somehow, the taping backfired and my calves and Iliotibiolar Band were frozen under stress of taping. As soon as we hit the first climb, that was gradual, I succumbed under the pain due to heavily resisted movement of muscles, that within first hour I was reduced to slow walking. Glutes and lower back were crying in pain with every step. My only hope was that taping would loosen up as I continue to move and then I can take off. By the time I realized this was not working and I must stop to remove all the taping, I found I was walking with last few runners. Soon, I was the last runner struggling to keep the pace with Sweep. If Sweep overtakes me, he has right to throw me off the trail and my race is over in second hour. No, I didn’t travel 40 hours away from home, for this. I couldn’t even stop as that would cost time and probably, the race. I somehow made it to first aid-station and quickly removed my shoes to remove all the taping.
After losing enormous amount of time on a trail where everyone blazed, I started to run the downhill feeling a little better, but, already a lot of damage was done in ITB, lower back, calves and time. Next major climb was the highlight peak of The Barkley Marathons, Testicle Spectacle – the steepest climb of whole trail. Already far behind the clock, I began to overtake runners to escape the grip of sweep and soon found myself in briars, that marks the beginning of a nightmare. We must go down the hill, get our bib punched and then climb back – through a ridiculous slope that was a sliding puddle with absolute no traction and surrounded by saw briars. Somehow, I survived, reached down the hill, walked across the stream with a body of dead deer (smelling worse), got my bib punched and began the toughest climb of my life. With nothing to hold, I would climb three steps up and slide two of them down. There I believed, I’m never going to make it even half way, such ridiculed I was feeling – sinking in my thoughts, lonely among 400 runners, I just kept head down and continued to climb. Scars of briars began to bleed as I made it to the top of Testicle Spectacle and began the next section of the trail toward the prison.
To reach the prison, one must go down the Methlab hill, which was a further ridiculed version of Testicle Spectacle. Lot of rocks and mud with more saw briars lining the visible section of the trail, made sure it was one of the most painful descends of the day. Sliding on my butt on most of sections, I was much faster in downhill running than others who were more fearful of getting injured. Somehow, I passed them after a long hassle and made it to the road to prison. In the meantime, I met a couple of friends of friends, shared some light moments and kept on talking everything but running. May be, this was the anxiety of the major climb of the race I was charging at.
After a quick break at the aid station, I entered the prison and then broke through prison climbing the wall using ladder to enter the tunnel. I requested Keith to punch in my heart instead of bib or keep me in prison forever, but save me from climbing the next hill. But, that was not an option. I always love going through the tunnels, especially when I’m not expecting a train to run over from the other end. On the other side of the tunnel was Rat Jaw – the most infamous climb of Frozen Head due to its steepness and whole length covered by blood-sucking saw briars, that are unforgiving. Although I could see the trail carved by runners I was chasing, but my scars from Testicle Spectacle were scratched again leaving me in immense pain. The day had been very humid since morning, and now with added heat, I was quickly getting dehydrated and cramps begin to show up in calves and quads very early in the climb. Now, bleeding wounds had a covering of mud, sweat and it was burning.
After an hour of climbing, I reach a junction that looked like a graveyard. Over a dozen runners dead on ground, defeated by Rat Jaw and forest rangers were speaking with them “Next section is only two-third as steep as this. You must make your choice. Either we can take you down to the bus or you must start climbing soon.” Those who fail at Rat Jaw, get a ride back to the Start line on a special vehicle, Laz fondly calls “Bus of Disgrace” with his picture on both ends, laughing on your failure.
Out of curiosity, I asked “How far have I climbed? How much more is left to the top?”
“You are half done. You are through the easy part, now begins the climb”
“WTF! Tell me you’re kidding. I’m climbing this goddamn hill for past one hour, and you’re saying I’m only half way in and climb has just started?” Laz had said it takes 45 minutes to climb. Were those 45 Laz minutes, like 100 Laz miles of The Barkley Marathons? I crash on ground with loss of hope in heat, feeling defeated. Then, I was joined by a few runners, and I asked
“Is mercy killing legal in North America?”
“No” replied a woman.
“Could you please kill me? I don’t want to quit and I can’t move any further. I’ll do anything, but, please kill me!”
We laughed and decided to continue the climb that sure was looking even steeper. Now, finding myself in 8-10 feet tall briars, something I had never seen before, I was cherishing the shade they were providing while continuing to scratch my arms. Suddenly, I slipped, landed in briars on face down the hill. In panic, I quickly got up and continued the climb using a hanging cable that I was avoiding. A few meters later I realized, I could not see the top. Rat Jaw has many false summits, but, I could really not see even the next one. As I moved my hand towards my eyes to take off glasses and clean them, I realized – there were no glasses. I had lost them in briars during that fall and now, I had to get back and search for them. 10 minutes later, I found them and continued the climb as other runners continued. Close to 100 minutes after leaving the prison, I made it to the top of Rat Jaw. Half-dead. Heads down, calves in grip of spasm. Body dehydrated and spirits broken. When I reached the top and crashed on the first flat section in hours, one of the forest rangers calmly notified “Don’t stop yet. You’ve got that fire tower to climb.”
Mustering all the energy I could derive, I got up and limped up the tower, got my bib punched and embraced the view for a fraction of a second, and decided to go down. In my head, my first race was over. Now I had 3 hours and 20 minutes to make it to Laz. Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw are the most talked infamous climbs, chimney top the third. These are so talked, that I had no idea what rest of the trail looked like. I was nervous finding myself on my own when I crossed the aid-station after refueling my supplies of water.
I was exhausted, but, I could hear words of Laz loud in my head “If you want the croix, run when your body wants to walk”. I ran as hard as I could and passed a group of runners. I knew, I had limited energy, so I decided to join the group and work together. Soon, we reached the dead end with lot of spider webs, only to realize we were lost! Getting lost in the park, that was one of the top priorities in my “Things not-to-do”. Already falling behind the time, a few of them suggested they must have turned left and climbed up instead of going straight down the trail. Following a quick discussion, we started to head back. Many more runners were coming the wrong way, and I was just laughing in misery. The cramps continued shooting up my legs as I continued to stay in middle of the group to ensure a consistent pace with little effort.
We got our bib punched as we were on right trail and I decided to leave the group to run faster down the hills to save some time. I was scared if cramps got worse, it’ll be hard to keep up the pace. But, leaving the group was not the best idea. The lower back and calves got back in grip of spasms and I got lost yet again. After a minute or two, I heard runners talking among themselves while going down the hill, and I followed their voice to get back on track. I continued to overtake runners, and if I was counting, I must’ve overtook close to 150 runners since last time I saw the sweep near first aid station. Where one part of me was happy with the progress made, which was a tough ordeal, another part was scared of missing the cut-off.
Among all these mixed emotions, I’m still sitting on the corner of the trail, sipping last few drops of water from the tube and eating some dried fruits, as others are climbing past me. I get up, hold my lower back with both hands and start climbing the trail following others. The blowdowns we must get across are so huge, that I get stuck everytime on top of them, and have to fall on other side to keep going – this is annoying. As I gain some pace, runners often stop to give me a pass, but I hold back. Till next aid station, I decide to stay in the middle of the pack and then pace up again. As we make to aid station at Bald Knob, I dump lot of SWORD in my stomach with other energy bars and crispies, and continue to descend the trail. Aid station informed I’m 6 miles away from Laz. With little over an hour to go, it’s now or never.
I blaze down the hills on a pretty technical trail and soon hit the uphills again. I think this is the Bird Mountain climb, the last before I reach Laz. And suddenly, I feel the heaviness in my stomach making my breath very shallow and hard to walk. I see Lars from Alaska sitting on the trail, relaxing. He must have been cursing me, as I was partly responsible for getting him signed up for this race. I tell Lars that I feel like throwing up, and continue to walk fast. A few tens of meters later, I stop on the edge, shove the finger in my throat and begin to throw up. Runners passing by, seem a bit concerned but I continue to do my business following an apology.
As I dump the stuff out, I begin to run again, faster, up the hills and then down the steep slopes. Quickly, I find myself near the base of the hill with 35 minutes to go to see Laz. I decided to run that section with a thought of going as far and fast as possible till 4.30 pm and see if I can make it, and now I feel I can. As I continue to go down, suddenly, I see trail no more. I’m in middle of nowhere, this time all by myself and even map is not helping to locate. After spending a few minutes back-tracking, I see first runner who guides me back on the trail, only to realize Bird Mountain is yet to be climbed! This is a mental-disaster. The trail I was thinking, I had already climbed is still to go and now I have only 20 minutes left.
This is not happening. I’m not making it to Laz in time. I no longer want to continue walking on the trail. I just want to hide myself somewhere in shame, where I can never be found. I stop, eat some more calories in disgust and start contemplating all I did since the Start. Nothing worked today. There were some moments of success, but, failures at key moments were too heavy to bear. I’m trying to convince myself to move further as I gaze the map and point all the section where I could have improved, the group of girls catch up again – the ones I had left far behind, and they stop to check on me. In order to salvage some pride, I must get up and move fast as I can and reach the finish line. I must see Laz to look in his eyes, accept the defeat and promise to return next year. I must get up to see more of the trail, appreciate the beautiful FrozenHead park and create more lifelong memories. I must get up to keep the promise I made to Brian Young (my host and firestaff lead) that he will not have to come look for me in woods.
I get up, and start climbing endless trail of Bird Mountain with the group. Countless switchbacks on treacherous climb took its toll and lower back begins to give up again. We stop every two-three switchbacks. We are tired, exhausted, in pain and that trail is unforgiving. On every turn, I tell myself, this is the last one and then there is downhill. But, not today. Frustrated by its endless expanse, I leave the group for some solo time, and start climbing fast. Within a few minutes, I reach the top! Without bothering to look around, I start running down the hill, as fast as I can, with no fear of getting injured, nothing holding back. I’m happy if I die here, but, I must move.
I go past a dozen runners, and finally team up with one of them. We continue to run/walk the technical sections fast to finally end up on jeep road to the fabled Yellow Gate. I charge again, cross many walking people to find myself on the Fork Road that leads to Laz, who is waiting at the other end, to laugh at my miseries and punch my bib to throw me on course to Finish line, depriving me of climbing Chimney Top. A few minutes later, I finally reach Laz, something, I was chasing since morning. I see in his eyes with shame and he smiles. “You could have got I beat the Rat, had you arrived a bit earlier. How was the trail? Was that easier than you thought?”
“I died a thousand deaths on Rat Jaw. And a million more on Bird Mountain. But, this is so beautiful that I will return”
Laz laughed as I got my bib punched. I leave this final aid station thanking him for letting me run the race. As I walk towards the finish, I’m in a trans. I’m thinking about how beautiful the day was. How scared and energized everyone was on Start. How steep and tough the climbs were at Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw. How magical it was to run through that jeep road, breaking through the first golden rays of sun boosting our spirits. How meaningful every drop of blood was that seeped through our skin after being scratched off the briar to tell us – how alive we are. Silently, I’m thanking that majestic Frozenhead State Park for letting us make it our home for a day, and letting us walk through the trails of spiritual transformation we seek through suffering and getting a sense of accomplishment. I look at the soil on my shoes and thank it for saving me off crashing on rocks and letting plants grow, that provided me so much of support and shade.
As I walk, I look at the gate of FrozenHead State Park and think, every year so many in spring walk into this door of transformation and go back as completely different human. The park is not just a park, it’s a house of transformation that pushes you beyond your limits to achieve something never touched before. Although, I’m walking on this trail to Marathon Finish as a failure, but, today I had my share of successes and learning. I overcame fear of fast downhill running, conquered some of the world’s toughest technical trails and ran past hundreds of runners on toughest section of the race, making me trust my abilities and strengths more and walk back home with a belief – I can do it!
I get back to running again, and finish last half mile with a sprint, as I crash on the ground for next half hour, celebrating the new Gaurav I discovered there. Race Director Steve Durbin announces my finish time of 11 hours 38 minutes and 36 seconds, just second one from my nation to walk that trail. I believe I left a part of me in Frozenhead and carried some home. However, as I’m typing this I realize I’m slowly developing the ability to realize the power of “here”. When I was at FHSP, that was here. Now I’m home, so home is here. But, I realize I’m carrying my home with me, that means wherever I am that is HERE!
I feel highly grateful to be able to have walked the trail and meet some of the most amazing people. I’m not sure of when I’ll return on that trail again, but, whenever I will, I’ll know “I’m home!”
With apologies for something I might have done unknowingly that damaged you or connected elements in any way, I’d like to thank Laz and Steve, the park management, the volunteers, the runners, Brian Young, Ian Campbell and whole of Morgan Country for being such gems I found over the most memorable September Weekend! The trail’th waiting and this kid shalt return!
Photos: Misty Herron Wong, Susan Typert, David Harlow and more volunteers of BFC
Feature Image: Gaurav Madan