For most of my life I have not been a risk taker. As I have gotten older I have worked hard to change that. In September of 2019, I competed in The Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) at Frozen Head State Park in TN. I can tell you this much, the person that begins the BFC is not the same person that finishes the BFC! I was tested on that course in countless ways and I had to overcome things I wasn’t sure I could. The course had a lot of technical single track and some of the most difficult climbs I have ever experienced. Having just completed Ironman Wisconsin less than two weeks prior, I wasn’t sure what to expect from my body going into the race. I had done very little trail running for the year and no specific training tailored toward the BFC course. Earlier in the year, my training was heavily focused on running 244 miles in nine days for MS Run the US in April. After that, it was all about triathlon. As I prepared for and raced Ironman I questioned if I would be ready for the challenges that lie ahead at Frozen Head. My confidence level was not where I would have liked it to be. I certainly embraced what Laz has said many times concerning his races, “If success was guaranteed what fun is that?”
My plan was to run with one of my great friends Tom and Kristina(Fireball), who I’ve run the MS Run the US relay with for two years. They are both unquestionable beasts and their resumes in ultra racing are very impressive! We knew the key to not getting caught up in conga lines during the initial climbs were to get to the base of the first climb quickly. The plan to stay together dissolved quickly. Both Tom and Fireball made it to the first climb just before me. The entire climb I could see them both above me on the switchbacks. Once they hit the top, I would see only one of them again until we all were back at the start/finish line.
The switchbacks at Frozen Head are long and plentiful. There were many moments when I thought I was at the top of a climb only to find out it was an illusion and the switchback would take us in another direction revealing even more climbing before any relief could be found. After reaching the top of that first climb on Bird Mountain, we began an even longer descent down the backside of the mountain. I was trying not to slow the runners behind me but after two narrow escapes of almost rolling my foot I chose to take a much slower and cautious approach. I thoughtfully decided to let many other runners pass on that long single track down the hill.
After that first ascent and descent there was quite a bit more distance to the first checkpoint than I thought there was. Clearly, my recollection from studying the map the night before was not as crisp as I had thought. I eventually made it to the checkpoint and was welcomed by many of the wonderful and energetic high school volunteers from Morgan County. From there it was all downhill to finish the first section of the race. As I reentered the campground that I had left earlier in the dark I was feeling good and very confident despite the fact that it took me almost three hours to complete that first section. A section comprised of only 10 Laz miles.
I had no idea how quickly that confidence would evaporate into the late September air. Initially, the climb up Chimney Top was much like the switchbacks on Bird Mountain. So much so that it had lulled me into a false sense of security. I felt like a fool for not remembering my friend Larry’s warnings that those switchbacks would disappear and the climb would go straight up until we reached the top. I was leading a group of about half a dozen runners as we reached that sudden steep climb. As we slowly reached what was yet another false summit, the trail branched off into two directions. I started down one, and thankfully, one of the runners behind me halted my progress when she said, “When in doubt, always go up!” With those six simple words, what felt like a death march, continued. I finally reached the top completely spent and somewhat delusional. I was forced to stop on the side of the trail and proceeded to puke. That final push up Chimney Top had sucked out my soul! Doubt creeped into my mind for the first time of the day. I hadn’t even reached the notoriously tougher climbs and my body was already turning on me. Would I have what it took to finish the day?
After regaining my composure, I made it to the next checkpoint where Laz was waiting. He gleefully let me know that the he would beat me to the decision point, “Which is right over there,” he claimed. “I know a shortcut,” he chuckled as he cautioned me from attempting a 10K PR on the six miles that lie between then and when I would see him again to make what was expected to be the toughest decision of the day. I jokingly thanked him for his advice and assured him I would see him again.
As I traversed the next section and crossed the park road at Armes Gap I passed a volunteer drinking a Sprite and commented how refreshing that sounded. He offered what was left to me and I gladly started a trend for the day; taking random drinks of soda from complete strangers.
Soon, I was at the top of the first power line cut of the day called Testicle Spectacle. As I was getting ready to descend the cut, Fireball had just finished her trek back up and looked very strong. She said she had seen Tom and, not surprisingly, said he was looking like a beast! I was not surprised hearing that or seeing how strong she was. I told her I had struggled mightily on Chimney Top and she let me know in no uncertain terms that I would be fine. I had what it would take to get the job done. The course this year took us down Testicle Spectacle, where we would get a punch and then turn around and go back up. The faces of runners that I passed returning to the top on my way down did not help boost my confidence at all. Several competitors had stepped off the trail and were just sitting there with blank looks of despair. I was pleasantly surprised on my climb back up the cut. Even though it was tough at times, it was significantly easier for me than what I had experienced earlier on Chimney Top. As I made my way back up I met three other people from my hometown as they were headed down. They all looked really strong and seemed to be in good spirits. It was encouraging to see them and know they were doing well.
I had escaped torture on Testicle Spectacle but many other runners did not. I recall hearing one runner tell another, “Puke and rally man! Puke and rally!” A foreshadowing of what was yet to come for me. Many runners were milling around at the top of that climb but I didn’t want to waste any time. As soon as I reached the top, I crossed the jeep road and immediately began my descent down Meth Lab, the next power line cut. It was at this point that the BFC turned up the heat both figuratively and literally. You would think going down would be a time to catch your breath and get some recovery. How naive of all of us! There was no relief down that cut and the sun baked us. It was dry and dusty. The earth disintegrated from below you as you descended. I spent the entire descent either sliding on my butt and hands or turning on my side, leading with one of my legs as a break to slow my roll. I kicked up a lot of rocks and dirt on those below me and had the same dirty avalanche descend upon me from those above. Despite the dry and desert like surroundings, surprisingly out of nowhere, a large mud bog right in the middle of the hill towards the bottom threatened to suck your shoes off if you weren’t paying attention.
From there it was on to the prison. The same prison that James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., had escaped. His escape and the pursuing manhunt actually inspired what would become the Barkley Marathons and the Barkley Fall Classic. I knew if I was going to finish within the cutoff limits I had to run when the terrain was runnable. I had done that up to that point but on the road to the prison I just could not get my legs to move. A staggering walk was all I could muster. I was not alone. All the runners around me looked like the walking wounded. No one was running on the hot blacktop as you could literally see the heat rising from the road.
For the better part of the last 90 minutes, all I could think about was the bottle of Pepsi I had in my drop bag. Unfortunately, that was probably still two hours and a massive climb away. There was no guarantee, given how I was moving, that I would even make it there. As I came into the prison aid station I topped off my fluids and then noticed several coke cans on one of the tables. I couldn’t get to that table fast enough. My heart sank as I discovered not a drop was left in any of those cans. Then, from what seemed like heaven, an angelic voice said, “Let me check, I think there may be one more can left in the kid’s cooler. They will never miss it.” The swallows from that final can were like nectar from the gods. I had the aid station workers laughing as I said, “Bless your sweet angel’s soul,” to the woman that provided the refreshment.
My rejuvenation was short lived. After about 100 feet of a slow jog I was reduced to walking again. As I passed the outside area of the prison’s new restaurant, I heard my name. It was my friend Rob’s wife. She was there with the husband of another friend that was running, but I was so out of it I thought it was someone else and was very confused as to why they would be there in remote TN. It didn’t make any sense until I realized after the race who it was. I was told later that they knew I wasn’t doing well because I uncharacteristically stopped when I heard my name and came back to talk to them. If my wife had been there, she quite possibly would have had me evaluated right then and there.
As I made my way through the prison parking lot, two women were serving up fare out of the back of their van. They seemed to have everything and I took their offer of ginger ale. When I arrived at the prison wall to escape the yard I noticed some coke bottles at the base of the ladder and asked the volunteer if they were his. He said another runner had left them there. Once again, I grabbed one and took a big gulp. It was, what I thought I needed at the time.
After climbing over the wall it was time to trek through the tunnel underneath the prison yard. I chose not to dig out my headlamp as I could see the light at the other end. I knew there was some water but didn’t want to know what else I was trudging through or the size of the rodents that may be scurrying around. After the tunnel I made it to the bottom of the infamous power line cut called Rat Jaw; a measly eight tenths of a mile, 2000-foot gain climb. It would prove to be a showdown not so much between me and that hill, but rather between me and my own desire and will to battle further than I thought possible.
The briers on Rat Jaw grow anywhere between six and ten feet tall and they slice you up as you climb up the steep slope. You spend a large portion of the climb on your hands and knees pulling yourself up by the very briers that are conspiring against you. As you grab them, you hope they are deeply rooted so you don’t find yourself tumbling backwards. You haven’t gotten the full experience that is Rat Jaw unless that happens. Occasionally, I did find a partially buried cable that I was able to grab hold of and pull myself along. However, if someone else grabs the line it can throw you off balance and knock you off the line.
It was hot and dirty on that climb and after a short period of time I didn’t even notice the burning stings as the briers shredded my arms, shoulders and legs. The briers also kept grabbing my hat and played an evil game of keep away with me. About halfway up The Rat there is clearing with an access road. Race officials, medical personnel and park rangers were there waiting for our tired and beaten bodies. When I arrived it looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. Bodies were lying in the grass and cut down briers everywhere. Those still conscious were having debates out loud with themselves on whether they could go on. Others had already made the decision and were being loaded into ATVs. They would not get a ride down the mountain, but rather be taken to the top where they would have to make the humiliating four-mile journey down quitter’s road under their own power back to the start/finish. As I was observing the carnage, I felt queasy and began throwing up again. I questioned whether I could go on. I thought my day may be over and seriously considered quitting. Did I really believe I could get up the rest of this godforsaken hill, let alone traverse the many switchback climbs and descents after that to finish? Rat Jaw having been handed my soul from Chimney Top, was sautéing it and preparing to have it for dinner!
Standing next to me as I puked my guts out was a medical team member. I found it odd that he never said a word to me. Looking back, I think God was watching over and preparing me for what came next. After what seemed like an eternity, a park ranger came over and asked if I was OK. I may or may not have been entirely truthful when he asked if it was the first time I had puked that day. That question toggled a switch in my psyche. I knew if I was truthful I quite possibly would have been pulled from the race or made to stay there longer than I wanted. I knew if I did not keep moving my day would be over. When that switch flipped, I knew in my heart that I was going finish! I did not come this far just to quit.
After satisfying the ranger’s questions regarding my stomach, urination and dizziness, I wiped my mouth, took a drink and proceeded up the hill. “Puke and rally,” rang in my head! I thought of all the people that work harder than this just to make it through a normal day. I could not quit. I was teetering on the edge but knew I had more in me and had to keep going.
After almost 90 minutes, I reached the top of Rat Jaw, climbed the fire watchtower, and proceeded down the jeep road into the aid station. I had reached the decision point more than an hour before the cutoff time. I found my drop bag, filled one of my flasks with Pepsi and drank the rest of it. I grabbed a handful of potato chips and tried to eat them but ended up spitting them out. Before I left the aid station, my spirits were lifted after talking with Laz’s wife Sandra, and then it was on to Laz to get my punch and head out for the 50k finish. Of course, Laz tried to convince me that a finish was futile and I think I even heard him tell others we had less time than we actually had.
According to the map, we only had nine miles from that point to the finish. I have run a lot of miles over the years and I believe it was much longer than that but since GPS isn’t allowed it will forever be known as my slowest nine mile run ever. I was, however, rejuvenated from that point forward and kept telling myself that if I wasn’t climbing I had to be running. I knew I was capable of that. Such a contrast from just two hours earlier when I stumbled aimlessly through the prison area. I soon caught up to another runner from my home town and she seemed surprised to see me. Apparently she thought I would make the decision to just complete the marathon distance and in essence, quit. My only response was, “Really?!? Have you fucking met me?!?”
I coasted easily from the decision point to the final checkpoint and once there quickly fixed an issue with a leaking flask. In hindsight, I should have just let it go. Soon enough I was on my way again and after multiple descents and climbs I was on the final climb up the backside of Bird Mountain. I swear that Laz had somehow added more switchbacks since I had descended the same trail almost 11 hours earlier in the day. I just kept moving and passed one runner after another. I had found a walking stick shortly after I left the final checkpoint and used it to propel myself up the climbs. About three quarters of the way up that final climb part of the stick snapped off. I continued using it anyway and when I arrived at the top, there was Larry Kelly like a big welcome sign marking the end of the misery. He gave me a hug and then sent me and two other runners towards the finish. I flew down those final descends. I was much faster and more carefree on them than I had been in the morning. As I reached the park road there was a small group cheering me on. I knew I had plenty of time and could walk but it was important for me to continue to push and finish this thing out strong! Many other runners were walking on the road and all of them offered encouragement.
As I passed the ranger station I knew the end was eminent. I was soon able to hear the music and announcer talking and began to get teary as I realized I was in fact going to finish this bucket list race of mine and would be a Barkley Fall Classic finisher! From the decision point it took another 3 ½ hours until I would reach the finish. I passed countless other warriors during that time and there was always encouragement offered both ways. It was a true reflection of life in that during our toughest challenges we are never alone and we do help one another to overcome the obstacles in front of us.
As I crossed the line, my friend Rob was waiting and I caught him by surprise. He took a picture and exclaimed that I was early. I had to laugh at that. I certainly was anything but early. Once finished my body knew it had given all it could and I just flopped into a chair and for the first time ever after completing a race, medical came and checked on me. For the better part of 40 minutes I couldn’t stop shivering and just didn’t feel well.
As I sat there, trying to make sense of it all, I recalled another quote from Laz that I had read prior to the race, “You really can’t tell how much you can do until you try to do something that’s more.” It has certainly been a year that I have lived by that. I have grown and learned so much about myself. Some of it has been welcomed and other things, just like points in this adventure have been ugly. I know I am an imperfect being but I will go to my grave trying to be better and making a difference in our world. Every day I will strive to be the best version of myself in all aspects of my life.
Be Great! Be Strong! Be Determined!