A few weeks ago I ran the 2020 edition of the Barkley Fall Classic “50k.” 50k in quotes because it is likely longer than a 50k, estimated to be more like 35 miles, with 10k-12k feet of gain and loss. I finished in 12 hrs, 49 minutes, and 6 seconds.. mere seconds before the cutoff!
Due to a drastically reduced field size this year (typically 400+ racers, this year had just over 100), there was a prerequisite for the race that you had to be a previous finisher of the 50k. I previously had completed the race in 2018 and 2019 so was thankful to have “qualified.” Prior to the race, runners were prepared to expect a heavily modified race format. The biggest of which were:
- The race started at 7AM and sent groups of ~20 runners off in waves every 15 minutes, however the overall race cutoff remained the same for all runners, 8:20PM. So if you started in a later wave, you just had to run faster! I started in wave 3 at 7:30AM.
- No food at aid stations, you had to carry all of your food for the day, which could easily be 10-13 hours, on your person.
Packet pickup, which is usually the night before along with a pasta dinner, was now race morning, about 40 minutes before you were scheduled to start running. Meaning that you saw the race map about 40 minutes before. Not the worst thing, since this was a field of veterans that should have a basic mental map of the park and what to expect for the race, but still, that added to the unknown.
The start line was staggered by our numbers. We all stood next to distanced signs, then lined up right before we started running. Then we were off! Up to Big Cove, up Bird, then on the North Boundary Trail to the Garden Spot. Down to Tub Springs, then down/up Testicle Spectacle and then down Meth Lab Hill. There are several portions of both hills, Testicle and Meth Lab, that are near vertical descents and climbs in spots, where your only choice is to butt slide down or to climb up on all fours. I was glad I had my garden gloves on me!
The temperatures were on our side this year, with 50 degrees at the start line and only up to 75 degrees during the day, a huge break from the 90 degree, sunny races of past years! I was very thankful for the cool temps, it really helped on the exposed power line hills.
After Meth Lab, we started the first of TWO climbs up Rat Jaw. Rat Jaw is a briar infested power line cut that has about 1k feet of gain in less than a mile. Before heading up I got to see my friend Keith Dunn who was manning the bib punch at the bottom of the hill. There are a variety of bib punches along the course to ensure that you made it to each point. Keith had some encouraging words to share.. I think he reminded me that the sooner I get up the hill the closer I am to dinner and beer. So I started up the hill. The briars were lush this year! I followed the path of the runners that had cleared the path before me, up and up and up. Made it to the top without much trouble, but it did take over an hour! Up to the fire tower then back to Tub Springs for the “decision point,” which is where you decide if you’re going to continue the 50k, and do Rat Jaw again, or do the marathon. I reached the decision point 1:20 hours before the “decision cutoff” so of course I was going to continue to the 50k.
I refilled my water and continued on down the jeep road, until I got to the Old Mine Trail, which is where I made my huge mistake. The turn was marked with an orange ribbon, but we had already passed this on the course before, was the orange ribbon there before? I couldn’t remember. I even took my map out and looked at it! Argh, I made the dumb decision to keep going down the Jeep road until I reached the highway, following the course from before. When I got there, there was a ranger there, I said “hi, which way?” and he said “oh no, you’re not on the right route, you missed a turn about a mile back” Ahhhhh! The damn Old Mine Trail! It was a mile back, and UPHILL. So I turned around and ran back to the orange flags that I had seen before. The whole ordeal probably took at least 20-30 minutes off my time, but I have no idea exactly how long because I didn’t look at my dumb watch (no GPS watches allowed). It was more mentally taxing than anything: How could I have messed up, I even looked at my map, now I’ve lost all this time and have expended this extra energy.. Ugh. I started down the correct “trail” aka through the steep, uncleared woods that shot off from the Old Mine Trail and it popped me out at the bottom of Rat Jaw. I got my second bib punch from Keith and he had some helpful words to share, “You still have plenty of time, you’ve only lost some extra energy.” Well that was kind of true, I still had hours to finish and I did lose extra energy running an extra mile down and uphill, but I can’t go back and change that so here we are. I started up Rat Jaw for the second time. There were way less people around me than there were on the first time up; I only saw maybe 1-2 other people total for the whole hour+ climb up. Definitely felt like a more real Barkely experience, being alone on Rat Jaw for that long. I made it to the top for the second time, up the fire tower, and back down to Tub Springs to get water and head to the finish!
At Tub Springs I put away my leather gardening gloves, aka climbing gloves, and got out my Patagonia Houdini and headlamp. The sun sets at around 7:30PM and I knew I was going to be out later than that. Temps would be dropping and it would soon get dark.
I started off on the Chimney Top Trail (CTT) with a little over 2 hours until race cutoff at 8:20PM. My legs were really feeling the miles and elevation of the day at that point, with over 10 hours already on them, and a couple of more hours to go, so I was moving along at a slow but steady pace. I thought I had plenty of time, but I kept hitting false peaks on CTT (which I expected) and never seemed to start descending. Time went on, the sun set at around 7:30PM, and twilight ended soon after. I turned on my headlamp, and with about 40 minutes to go until cutoff, tried to ignore all of the leg and foot pain and started running. As time clicked on my jogging turned into what felt like a full sprint downhill in the dark. Finally I exited CTT at the ranger station with 6-7 minutes until 8:20PM. If I wasn’t in a full sprint before, I was now. I no longer felt any pain in my legs and only wanted to get to the finish line before cutoff; I was flying down the road like a bat out of hell. Finally, I saw the lights from the field and rounded the corner to the finish. The few last remaining people came over from their cars to jump and scream as I sprinted it in. I was the last person to finish before cutoff at 8:19:06PM. I was so happy I made it! I stood there for a few seconds in disbelief as the official timers counted down to the final cutoff for the race. Definitely too close for comfort!
Thank you to all of the race volunteers, park rangers, photographers, timers, and organizers who gave their time in what was a very unique race and circumstances to make sure we were safe.
Biggest thank you to my husband Ian who is the best supporter through all of my races 🥰