By Nick Yeates
Wow, what a tough race. I already told people that 2014 was the toughest 50k I’ve done – now it’s a whole ‘nother level! They took out one climb and replaced it with three climbs plus extra miles. The climbs were both Barkley Sr. “signature” hills. I had heard they got remarks last year that it was too easy for a Barkley-relation. Welp, they definitely fixed it this year! They also sneakily added a cop-out option where runners could stop at marathon distance and still get a finish. Roughly half of the playing field finished the 50k, down from 67% last year. Mostly it was the time requirements and caliber of the hills for the first 26 miles that got people. I literally came into the 50k decision spot with 10 minutes to spare.
The 2015 course started out, as last years inaugural event, up North Bird Mountain, winding its way up a steady but acceptable climb. There, I saw Tim Bird, who I met on the same hill last year. We have since followed each others adventures on facebook. I met a girl carrying a bottle of beer with her, Carolyn. I only remember her name because I associated it with Princess Carolyn from the adult cartoon, Bojack The Horseman. I digress. So I blaze down the back side of Bird Mountain, like last year, and then head up Jury Ridge and Bald Knob. First Barkley-style hill! Hella steep in very little mileage. 2000 ft vertical in 2 miles. That is a 2 story building every 100 ft! I slowed down on this in 2014, but felt better sorta this year. I gave out a Maryland Heat Race sticker to someone I was talking to from Virginia (self promoting my trail
partyrace is often in my mind only early during an event), and then hit Aid Station 1 – Bald Knob. 7.6 “Laz” miles, though more like 8 or 8.4. “Laz miles” are my term for Lazarus Lakes (the progenitor of the Barkleys) intentional mis-estimating of mileage. Laz, Steve Durbin, the RD, and Mike Dobies are lead characters I have enjoyed seeing the past two years. People truly can make or break a race. These guys are a bit cuckoo, but also happen to be smart and put on superb races.
Next we hit “S.O.B. Ditch”, which I powered over while other wussies climbed some easier roots. It was like a 10 ft wall of dirt. Little did I know, later I would become the wussy not running fast enough 🙂 Next we went through an added loop at “Garden Spot” for a second bib punch and extra miles as well as added knee numbing downhill. There were a number of required bib punch spots to prove you were on course. The letters of the punches ended up spelling “I heart LAZ”.
We hit fire roads that slowly meander up to Tub Springs Aid Station 2 at 12.9 miles (but likely more like 13+). The aids have some basics, but really are sparse compared to what I’m used to at ultras. It IS Barkley after all! I cooked up my own boiled salted potatoes, eggs, and brought bananas and trail mix bars. The bananas squished and went bad in my pack. The potatoes were good for a few hours then spoiled and got squishy. The trail mix and bars and massive amounts of salt / electrolyte tablets saved me. I think I ate forty of those pills! The aids had plenty of water, SWORD water, salty chips and some sweets. Some bananas this year. Not much else. The later stations seemed stacked with very experienced runners willing to go beyond normal conditions to help. A note on the SWORD water: it is an electrolyte rich gatorade replacement; However, the comedy I found in it was that at every aid station, as you approached you would hear “Do you want water or sword?”. I couldn’t help but imagine someone behind the aid bench unsheathing a knights sword and stabbing it through a runners belly. “Well, you asked for the sword, right?”
Now comes the FUN and PAIN. The real Barkley experience. We head down a steep fire road to Armes Gap in 1 mile. Police and rangers this year kept the highway crossing safe and we say thanks. Race management has been good about garnering community support. We head up a heart pounding, breath-gasping fire road which is only the start. They have added an up and down of “Testical Spectacle” and a down of “Meth Lab Hill”. The names are entertaining and testicle about blew mine off! It ranks up there with “Rat Jaw”, the grand-daddy hill of them all. I knew Testicle was steep… But wow. It has zero switch backs, straight up the mountain in a cleared power line or gas line forest break. Sun beats down at times, some thorns materialize … And suddenly you have unconscious runners and 20 foot butt slides!
As soon as we started Testicle, runners below yell “RUNNER UNCONSCIOUS, pass it up!”. I help pass the message up the hill and out of sight within 8 seconds flat. Pretty impressive us lot of runners. If ever I wanted to be saved by someone in the wilderness – an ultra runner it would be. I attempted to dial 911 on one bar of service. On the third attempt I get through to a scratchy broken operator. I begin to explain: “I am at a running race through the back country – I’m not sure where you are located and if you know about this. It’s closest to Petros, Tennessee, and called the Barkleys Fall Classic. I am out in the wilderness and there is an unconscious runner. We just passed police officers 1.5 miles back, but… Oh crud, I don’t know the road name. And um, well maybe you can contact the race director or those police. Otherwise, all I can tell you is that we are mid way down a hill we call Testicle Spectacle.” At this point, the operator has not said a word or asked any questions – which they normally do. I hear him wheel away from his desk, murmur to another person near him, and then come back to the phone line. In a broken crackly voice he says “Excuse me sir… Testicle Spectacle??!”. He thought it was a crank call or simply it was going to be impossible to have a fruitful conversation. I hung up. We worked our way down and a crowd of helpful runners helped the guy who had awakened now. I knew he was in good hands and continued. I heard later that he denied being unconscious, saying he was just resting and had closed his eyes. Others claimed his eyes were wide open and he was unresponsive. When getting him to the top, he wanted to go on, but helpers said he was delirious and not making complete sense. I heard he got out ok in the end.
The butt slides down this hill were fun yet dangerous. The girl ahead of me goes “If I rip a hole in my pants, your gettin’ a show!” It was so steep down, you couldn’t go down by foot. They punch my bib at the bottom and we head back into the sun soaked column. People going up, found the adjoining woods to be easier because you can grab trees and there is less moving dirt. Hiking poles were forbidden until 22+ miles. I had a big advantage of crafting and having a hiking stick as an “anywhere handhold”. Not sure why more didn’t join on this strategy.
At the top of Testical I was throughly beat and dirty and tired and even let some blood from my thumb. Now we needed to descend the other side of the power line – down the other side of the same mountain with a similar 1000 foot elevation drop. It’s called “Meth Lab Hill”, likely after having found something on it resembling it’s name. Straight down. Knee pounding and 90% sun in the mid days heat. I knew we still had another 2000 foot climb and half a dozen miles before another aid station and water. Me and a guy named Andrew decided to team up and do a water run – aka, fill up at a stream. I supplied the info, where the water would be, and he promised to provide his water bottles to fill my bladder. We got to the bottom, a small yet flowing creek that I had explored with Geoff Baker the prior year during some of his scouting. Not much water. It’s been a dry past few weeks. We finally decide it’s worth the risk of drinking creek water and we fill up. I thank him and he even waits for me. At this point, I had also been yo-yo’ing with Tin, an Asian guy who looks like a beast on the hills. We catch up to him after the water stop, right as we come out of the woods into someones nice house and front yard. We were now in the valley and farmland was abound. Tin is holding an ICE COLD coke and a huge grin as he leaves the yard and thanks the resident. Andrew and I, both jealous, look at him like he has gold. I say, half jokingly, but also hoping “You know you have to share now, right?”. Tin skips no beat and hands it to us. Ahhhh. Its not even the coke that was good. Its the coldness and pure sugar. Instant energy. Thanks Tin. I quickly take the can as Tin doesn’t know what to do with it and puts it on someones lawn. He didn’t think he was littering, but from past events where locals see trash, they get mad. Real mad. Good quick save, as the generous resident rolls down the hill in his truck!
Next off the Barkley list is the Brushy Mountain Prison complex. It is a piece out of history, up-kept to its former glory. They paint it, weed it, keep the grass down, and it still has circular barbed wire. They must spend a fortune upkeeping it, despite it no longer being used as a prison. We were told that we may not get another visit inside the prison because the state is purchasing and making it a distillery and possibly some kind of tourist location. We had free reign in it, while maybe the state could shut down a portion of it in the future, who knows. We went in the front gates, past the guard towers, and low and behold…. there is a WATER stop. Right after we get creek water, there is an unannounced water stop. Haha. Perfect timing though. We dump our crap water and get some real stuff, then head into the prison. We walk a quarter of a mile to the main building and its like something straight out of “Shawshank Redemption” or “O Brother Where Art Thou”. A 50’s / 60’s prison in its height. We walk into the front office and then into various sections of the building. Signs are curiously placed to kind of get us lost, but not completely. We step through the 4-story cell block and see James Earl Rays cell. We all take pictures “trapped” inside a cell 🙂 Next, we must get our bibs punched in “The Hole”. Solitary confinement had a series of 3 doors, each one getting darker. In fact, there were no signs, so we had to guess where to go, and Mike Dobies, the bib puncher laid in the dark awaiting us without a peep. He grabbed at someone and the girls screamed haha. Then, I asked if I could be put in one of the solitary cells and the door closed. Pitch. Black. Nothing. Ugh a man could go crazy. Though, I figured they would get some small percent of light when your eyes adjusted, and there were 4 other solitary cells next to each other so you could talk amongst each other. Still.
We head out the prison yard and toward the infamous “Rat Jaw”. It is broken into two parts: Senior and Junior. I actually think Rat Jaw Jr has more of a bite, with more briars, and steeper climbs. We first scamper up a 70% all-dirt pitch. In fact, it is so bare of plants that the first person can’t make it up. Me being the mountain goat that I am, I jumped ahead of her and quickly saw a metal line from a telephone pole that is secured into the ground. Perfect for pulling oneself up a 70% pitch! This is short lived but fun and made for good pictures. Then we proceed up Rat Jaw Sr. which is sloped at a decent pitch, but nothing from what I recalled of Jr. during last year. Plus the briars weren’t as strong on the bottom part. BUT, it made us tired coming into the toughest hill of the event. Rat Jaw Jr: 1000 ft of vertical in 1/4 of a mile. It took me 1 hour in 2014. That is 7 stories of upward climb per 100 ft of forward progress. My dad asked “so… were you like rock climbing?”. The next step below that, yes. And in fact, we had to make it over / around / whatever a 20 ft vertical rock wall at one point.
At the bottom of Rat Jaw Jr. I look at my time, and I have 1 hour til cutoff. I DO A DOUBLETAKE. Wait WHAT?! I have to go up a pitch that took me hour on fresh-ish legs, then go up a 3 story tower to get my bib punched, and then run another 1/2 mile down a fire road to the aid station…. in ONE HOUR!? I started yelling to everyone that we had dire little time left. I booked it up past everyone. I was good for the first half, and by the last quarter, I started to tank. I was pushing it extra hard through the toughest climb and passing people left and right and getting completely off trail. In fact, the center of the power line cut is SO infested with Briars, no one ventured to take it this year. We all went into the woods right next to it. Just as steep, still all kinds of crap in your way, and only sometimes is there a trail. I got off the trail for a good 35 minutes and just was pushing straight up hill through forest and even once into brush that I had to get on hands and knees for. I came to the 20 ft rock wall and recalled form last year that we cut right, but I couldn’t find that trail. Lacking in time, I quickly decided I would climb the wall. Yes, now this course included rock climbing without ropes. Luckily I am somewhat experienced in this. I told the 2 people behind me that this was a “very hairy” route, and that they may want to choose some other way, but that I needed to make up time. “Up to you” I said and flew on.
By this time, I was running out of energy, wasn’t eating (in order to make up time), and felt like I was going to barf. I pushed on, knowing that my finish depended on it. This is the biggest time when I felt I had failed. 20 minutes to go and I wasn’t even to the top of the hill. All of a sudden I heard encouraging voices. The top!! Within 5 minutes I was at the top and pulling myself over the final 20 ft of near-vertical dirt mound. A picture of me was snapped as I pulled myself onto the lip and they clapped. I asked if we HAD to do the tower, and they said, yes, there is a bib punch. I jogged to the tower, and prepped myself for 3 stories of stairs. To my surprise, they were easier than the hill I was just on! The hill had so much crud and vertical gain, that it was considerably harder than 3 flights of steep stairs. I punched my bib, took 2 seconds to look at the amazing view, and then flew down the stairs, even yelling at some joking boy scouts that I had 8 minutes to make it to the next aid station, so “get off the stairs and let me go!”. They moved fast at that barking order haha.
I flew the last bit to the aid station and asked, “When is the cutoff?”
“There is no cutoff here, what do you mean?”, said the Aid Station captain.
“Ummm, huh?”, I said.
“We don’t have a cutoff here… not that we know of. Lazy (Freudian slip?) has the cutoff down at the bottom of the mountain, at the next aid station.”
“Oh. Well I have this sheet here that lists you and your cutoff as 5 minutes from now.”
“Not that we knew of. You now have 1 hour and 5 minutes to go 3.5 miles downhill.”
Phew. Relief. I made it. Or did I?
I refueled, re-waterered, etc here at Tub Springs Aid 4. I prepped to fly down hill. I get going and my knees are hurting on the downhill. I slow down a bit, hoping I have enough time. Then comes Tin. Rin Tin Tin. He flys by me as I yell “Yeah, wassup Boiiii”. I am now pretending to be Flava Flav, the old school rapper who wore a giant clock around his neck, in order to mask the pain and gain some sanity via comedy. I decide it might be a good idea to latch onto him. And I do so for the next 25 minutes as he pulls me like a wild caboose down the hill. “Word to yo mutha” as we pass yet another victim. “And a, tick tock, ya don’t stop” – hasta la vista person walking down this dreaded slope. Ok, so maybe I was mixing my old school rap quotes. It masked the pain and probably made Tin smile. The first half of the race was fun. Now we had entered the pain game.
Tin kept up his pace and I slowed as we reached the bottom of our 6th 1000+ ft decent. I come into Laz’s aid station, the “decision point” with about 17 minutes to spare. Immediately I run to the bathroom. Had to drop some luggage. I come back and I’ve got 10 minutes left. A volunteer with a runners pack latches onto me and heeds my every wish and command. I see he is serious and know his shit, so I start asking him for everything: “Find my blister skin in my first aid kit. Cut a few squares out.” I rip off my socks (I spared him of that duty) and we stick some blister padding on some hot spots. I find you don’t even need to spend time cutting a hole etc. just slap it on there. I learned that when Paul Sherlock smacked duct tape on my feet at MMT100. It works. The volunteer commences to take my trash, get me food, and help me get socks and shoes back on. I head over to Laz, get my bib punched, shake his hand, and say “Fuck you Laz” as my stomach gurgled and I knew what lie ahead. He laughed and let me on my merry way.
Up the last climb is a massive 2500ft of combined climbing across 4.5 miles – 1200ft of it being within 1 mile. This is after already having roughly 29 miles under our belts. It is a vomit inducing climb. In 2014 I heard the echoes of three people dry heaving at the same time. Like a melodious cacophony from hell. This year it was silent. Just two people passed near me as I ascended and I doubly slowed my pace. It seemed like I was alone. Maybe because I left with 5 minutes to spare til the cutoff? Were we last? Was I in last place?? Oh man.
My breathing was extremely hard and my heartbeat was through the roof. I took breaks every few minutes at trees and turns. I went slow and steady and didn’t push it too hard. I was told I had 4.5 miles of up, 4.5 miles of down, and 4 hours to do it in. I started calculating in my head. The downhill portion was roughly equivalent to what I had just done before the aid stop. So I could likely do this downhill in even less time. Say 45 minutes. And there is a road section at the end which I thought was 1/3 of a mile, and ended up being 2/3 of a mile. So I could do the final 4.5 miles in an hour flat. That gave me 3 long hours to conquer the uphill. Easy does it. It’s loong. Don’t push to stay up with others. Do your pace. And this worked! The others in front of me soon started taking longer breaks and we were yo-yo’ing uphill. A man and a lady, Richard and Donna, who I found later were married, kept about at pace with me. I was behind them for much of the uphill as we didn’t talk at first. It wasn’t possible to talk on such an uphill!
I kept hearing voices from below. They got louder. I thought it was some hicks in the woods or loud backpackers. I soon saw them as they slowly crept up on me. What runner could be talking so loud at this point?! Not a runner. THE SWEEPERS! I yelled down at a set of switch backs and indeed found they were the sweepers. Oh geez. I was dead last place. I kept my cool and continued my game plan. Soon enough I found myself looking at the map, counting switchbacks and preparing better for what was ahead of me. I gained ground on the sweepers and then even on the couple. Donna started to balk “we’re not gonna finish”. She was losing steam on the hill. Maybe she didn’t know that it kept going. I gave her some pep talk as her husband had gone up ahead, trying to pull her with him: “Listen, that is nonsense. Your going to make it. Let me tell you why: We are 3/4s the way up this mountain and we still have, what, 2.5 hours to finish. We’re going to have 1.5 hours to get downhill. Your going to run the entire thing. Your going to trash your knees, but who cares, because it’s the END. Were all going to finish.” It perked her up, and gave logic to her bad thoughts and from there to the mountain-top Spicewood aid station, the couple kept up with me and I with them. They even promised me a beer when we got to the finish line!
We passed through Spicewood aid with encouraged words “you all are moving good, your fine to make it”. I didn’t even fill my water. No need on a last sprint down a mountain. The couple had been pulling me slightly into the aid station, and we stayed with each other just out of the aid. As a group, over the past 5 miles, we had managed to escape the sweepers and even pass 4 others. About 300 yards after leaving the aid station, I was reminded of my prior long downhill with Tin. I turned on my afterburners, became Tin, and started flying by other runners and walkers. I left the couple in the dust and decided I was going to run the entire 4.5 miles down and to the finish line. I estimate I passed 20 people. Maybe more according to the results.
The trip down the mountain was magical, as the evening sun set and shone orange glowing hues through the canopy. The ground was ablaze. So were my legs. I danced across the semi technical rocky terrain. This is my favorite way to do it. On the teetering edge of a crash at any moment, but keenly aware of every step and of not crashing. I have literally had to train my brain 5 years for this kind of downhill jack rabbiting. It’s second nature now and I hardly trip or crash these days. I approach Laz, one last time, where we left him before. At this point I just want to finish, and I run by him giving him a big wave. I run in the final road section and pass another 6 people. I finish in the dwindling light of the day, 17,000 ft richer, somewhere in the range of 37 miles slower, and 12 hours 46 minutes elapsed. Less than half of the field finished the 50k! That’s down from 67% in 2014. 1 out of 2 who started, didn’t finish the 50k. 2015’s course was considerably harder than 2014. I think: I’m no where near last and I feel great about that. Then I collapse in the grass.