I finished the Barkley Fall Classic 50k 2018 in 11:51:14. It was a crazy, incredible experience, and I am now completely impressed and mind-boggled by folks who attempt the big Barkely. This report is split into sections: Pre-race, Race, Gear, Helpful Tips.
We arrived to TN on Friday, went to visit Brushy Mountain Prison, now open for tours and they have a distillery! After that we went to packet pick-up where we saw Laz (who had JUST returned from walking 3k+ miles across the US from Newport, RI to Portland, OR), and Jared Campbell, 3 time finisher of the Barkley Marathons.
After getting the course map at pickup, I spent a few hours comparing that to the research I had done with the park maps available online prior to arriving. I attempted to make an elevation map from what I knew, and wrote down the blaze colors for each trail on a piece of paper (the blaze colors was the most helpful, elevation map didn’t help, just know that elevation is going to happen, a lot of it).
After this we drove back to the park for a couple pictures of the yellow gate, and went to the pre-race pasta dinner where they showed Where Dreams Go to Die by Ginger Runner, and then the runners were announced on the field at the Coalfield High School Football Game (go Yellow Jackets!) You’ll see why they’re called the yellow jackets soon enough :). The football players would be crewing the aid stations the next day for us so it was nice to be able to support them at their game.
Race morning I felt awful. I’d had a cough all week and wasn’t able to fall asleep until about 1:30AM because of coughing so much. The alarm was set for 4:45AM so I woke up with little more than a long nap under my belt. I felt terrible, coughing, dizzy from lack of sleep, and obviously really worried about the day ahead. I internally debated if I could live with myself if I DNS (no) so I put the clothes on and got out the door. Due to being sick almost all food was unappetizing so I didn’t eat as much as I normally do pre-race and was only able to get down 2 bananas, half a peanut butter sandwich, and coffee.
The race start is in a big field (where everyone parks too). Laz & Durb said some words and at 7AM, we were off! We ran out of the field and up the road, past the yellow gate, and began the ascent on BMT, what people affectionately refer to as the ‘conga line’. We went up several switchbacks, reached the peak, and continued down on the NBMT. For me, this whole section was about power hiking up, and running down the mountain. I grabbed walking sticks off the ground whenever I saw them to help with the climbs. We reached Aid 1 at mile 7.6, it took me 2.5 hours to get there! We continued and passed SOB ditch, up to the Garden Spot, and then on to a new section which is outside the bounds of the park map available online, but still in the park (I think?). It was an old jeep/coal road that went down to Aid 2 (took me 4:27:57 to get to Aid 2). Everything has been challenging but reasonable for a trail race with elevation up until this point. Now, all that ends. After Aid 2 we started the accent on Testicle Spectacle. This is unmaintained, and up a power line. There were points that were so steep that the only way to get up was on all fours, or to try to pull yourself up via plant roots. At this point it was mid-day so the sun was overhead, it was 90 degrees outside. It was extremely tough. The total up and down here is only a mile or two, it took me 1:43:45 to cover it. So we went up Testicle, we down Meth Lab hill (I think?), and then went to the Prison. The aid station at the prison had ice!! I really believe my ice bandana is the only reason I was able to get through the next section. Next we got to climb over the prison wall (where Jared Campbell was doing the bib punches!) and go through the tunnel under the prison (it is REALLY dark in there)! Next, we started up Rat Jaw. This was absolutely the most difficult thing of the whole race. I put my leather gloves on for the briars and started immediately overheating and getting really dizzy. After just a minute or two I had to pull the gloves off so I wouldn’t pass out, it was just too hot. Rat Jaw was like Testicle but worse. Steeper, more dusty places where it’s tough to get footing, there were people sitting and taking breaks all over the place. Carnage everywhere. I got to an old mine trail where Rat leveled off a bit and there were park rescue guys on ATVs talking to about (not kidding) 20 people laying in the shade taking a break. I stopped, I had to. I was dizzy, overheating, my heart rate was way too high. I was seconds away from calling Ian to tell him I was going to drop and get taken back to the prison. I sat in the shade on an ATV for maybe 5 minutes just panting and coughing and watching the world spin around me. I ate something, waited another several minutes, listened to the park rangers tell us we’d only done ⅓ of the Rat Jaw elevation so far, ⅔ more of elevation to go, which just seemed impossible. Finally one of the rangers said he could take 5 people back to the prison (of the 20 sitting there) and people just stood up like zombies and said nope and started up the trail. I didn’t look back to see if anyone had taken them up on their offer. It wasn’t good going up. I saw two people quit and come back down. I went up a little bit, took another break in the shade in another area where it leveled off a bit, ate more, then continued back up. Briars were scraping my arms and leg and more than a few times plucked the hat right off my head and I had to grab it off them. Finally after what seemed like an impossible task, and took such a long time, we reached the lookout tower. There was an awesome group of people cheering up there, their cheers could be heard most of the way up Rat, and it was keeping us going to try to get to them. I went to the top of the lookout tower for the bib punch, took a couple pictures (the only photos I took the entire race) and then went back down. Now just an easy peasy (comparatively) descent on NOM trail to see Laz and continue to the 50k!
At my bag drop at the checkpoint I was able to grab my trekking poles (life. savers.) and get my bib punched from Laz. As he punched he asked each person “Are you going to finish this race?” and I said “Yes. Yes I am.”
We started up CCT and I was so happy I had my poles, I felt determined and started strong power hiking up. The CCT is deceptive, there are tons of false summits. After the first several I pretty much stopped expecting to ever reach the top, but I eventually did, then started back on SBT. It took me 2:55:32 to do this section. I was so excited to finish that I ran it in and made it just under the 12 hour mark. I was so happy to be done. Huge thank you to Ian, as always, who did a great job cheering and photographing.
On me: Saucony peregrines, injinji socks, dirty girl gaiters, 2XU calf sleeves, Patagonia strider skirt, Patagonia shirt, Zensah sports bra, dirty german 50 hat, homemade ice bandana, nathan vaporhowe hydration vest
In my pack: Map, compass, food, bandaids, arm sleeves, leather gloves, refillable bottle (cupless race)
Train for this like it’s a mountainous 50 miler, if you do that, you should be ok.
Familiarize yourself with the park map and trails before arriving, note the color of trail blazes. (AllTrails app was helpful).
Read race reports from all years of the race, since it changes every year, and you’ll probably get some combo of what you read.
Have fun! Talk to people! Lots of folks on the course are very accomplished ultra runners and listening to their impressive resumes and stories can help pass the time.
Wear calf sleeves
Wear a hat
Drink tons of Sword
I didn’t end up using my leather gloves on Rat Jaw and my hands are (mostly) fine. No worse off than my arms or legs.
Feel free to holler at me with any questions, GOOD LUCK! Twitter & Insta: @brimil