My Barkley Story
People Paid to Do This??? Aka Barkley Fall Classic 2015
My Barkley story starts several years ago. As a native Knoxvillian, I grew up near Frozen Head but had never actually been to the park until my friend Liz Norred was running in a race called Barkley Fall Classic in 2015. This is oftentimes referred to as the baby Barkley, a 50k version to give more people a taste of the spirit of the big Barkley. I was racing in a lot of triathlons at the time, and would be attempting Ironman Chattanooga on the next weekend. My type A, technophile, road-running, pace-obsessed triathlon world was about to crash into the laid-back, burrito-fueling, mud and dirt, power-hiking world of ultra-running. I grabbed my camera and hiked up to the one place where I was allowed to see Liz – the fire tower. I arrived at the top in time to see most of the participants make it to the top of one of the biggest climbs in the race. Runners were rolling over the top of the hill and collapsing, emerging out of head-high briars, covered in mud and blood. These people were crazy! This did not look like a running race at all. Certainly no one was running up that hill. What kind of people do this thing??
The Race That Eats Its Young
Fast forward a bit to 2016 and I went to watch a screening of the documentary “the Barkley Marathons – the Race that Eats its Young” with Liz and a few other friends. I was very intrigued by the history and quirkiness of the big Barkley race by this time, as many people are once they hear about it. It sounded pretty cool, but amazingly hard, and I never imagined that I would be in it. I enjoyed staying on the outskirts, hearing about it from some friends who were lucky enough to get in, friends that I highly respected for huge feats of endurance. Over the next few years, as I got more into trail running, friends suggested that I apply for Barkley but I knew that if I were ever to even try to get in, that wasn’t the time. I would want at minimum the experience of a 100 miler and some long self-supported events before suggesting to Laz that I thought I belonged. It seemed to me like the type of race that would come to you, if you were meant to run it.
Barkley Fall Classic 2020
Over the next few years I ran a few 50ks – Duncan Ridge Trail, Barkley Fall Classic, and Quest for the Crest and decided I really liked mountain and ultra trail races. My first few times at BFC I managed to get myself off course pretty bad around the Garden Spot area and had to rally to recover. I planned to run in 2019, but had some health issues so had to delay a year. In 2020, I was determined to try to get in a solid race (in other words, one where I didn’t stray off course.) 2020 BFC was a different kind of race. We started in waves based on our previous BFC finish times, due to Covid precautions, and the overall field was mostly all veterans, yet much smaller than normal. I started in the last wave which meant we wouldn’t need our headlamps at the start, but it also meant we had an hour less time to finish than the first wave. I was pretty concerned about this at the time. Much of the race went as a normal Barkley Fall Classic would go – power hiking the hills, running the flats and descents, and fueling as much as possible throughout. But this year we had to do Rat Jaw twice! The first climb up Rat Jaw was pretty brutal and left some good marks on me, but on the positive side, it is super easy to navigate. The second climb passed by much faster than the first, somewhat surprisingly. Before I knew it I had caught up to the only other female runner ahead of me along the course and I was technically in first place. She had started in an earlier wave so she would need to beat me to the finish by at least 15 minutes in order to finish in front of me. I also knew, however, that one of the other females in my wave was a strong descender, and there would be a lot of descending in the final 7.5 miles or so back to camp. I hadn’t seen her in awhile but had a feeling she might be quickly coming after me, and all she had to do was beat me by a second to win. I hadn’t expected to be in that position, but if I was currently leading the race, I didn’t want to squander it by doing something silly like getting off trail or getting injured at that point! I took off towards the finish, focusing on not injuring myself or blowing up in the home stretch. Well, I did not see a soul after leaving the Tub Springs area until I got to the finish line. I kept second-guessing if I had gone the wrong way, or where everyone else went. It was a very quiet final 7 miles. Finally I popped out into the parking lot at the bottom of the Chimney Top trail and sprinted the final stretch of road to the finish. I had finally done it. I finished the race solidly, not getting off course once, and had come away with a win in the process. Not less than 2 minutes later, the other female from wave 5 finished right behind me. I had had no idea how close she was.
So I found myself in the situation of winning an entry to Barkley, without the normal background experience and was unsure what to do at first. Do I see if I can enter but defer a year and use that year to gain experience? Do I just enter and go for it? Someone finally talked some sense into me and told me to take the amazing opportunity I had while I had it, as you can never take the next year for granted. So enter I did! Considering that I didn’t have many races or self-supported adventures to put on a race resume with my application, I kept it short and sweet. Something like – “I won BFC and want to take this opportunity while I have the chance!” Then I waited. Because of the cancellation of 2020 Barkley and the rollover of the entire field, at first I was not guaranteed entry to 2021; but by mid-February, I heard that I was on the official roster. A surprising twist that many of my friends did not know, was that my boyfriend Chris also found out he would be in the official race field around that time as well. He had spent the more traditional multi-year wait on the weight list, and was finally getting his chance. This worked out wonderfully because we could train together, discuss past race reports, and basically sleep, eat and breathe Barkley for several months without thinking the other was crazy. Another interesting sidenote is that we actually first encountered each other while lost in a group at BFC 2017, and then had started dating the next year after running into each other at Frozen Head again, and we didn’t even live in the same state.
Sleep, Eat and Breathe Barkley
For the 6 months or so leading up to the race, Chris and I were already preparing in case we got in for 2021. We both considered what our personal goals were and we considered what we could do at that point to give us our best chance of meeting those goals. For me, I wanted to use this experience to gain confidence in my ability to navigate through confusing terrain, to pace myself sustainably for a longer time than I had ever gone, and to hopefully complete one loop and get all the book pages. It seemed like one of the biggest risks facing us was navigational errors so we spent the majority of our free time looking at topo maps online of the park and surrounding area and practicing navigating by land features while out on training runs. I started wearing my thumb compass on neighborhood runs and while running errands just to get familiar with how it worked. We tested out every pair of socks imaginable to see what might be best in steep, wet conditions aka Barkley weather. We tested so many combinations of shoes, socks, clothes, pack, lights, compass, etc. trying to be prepared for almost every condition possible. It felt like we were studying for a final exam but we had to guess what the subject would be.
Photo credit: Christopher Hanlon
Bib Number 1
Finally the race week arrived. I was feeling pretty confident about my knowledge of the park terrain and my “at best” basic navigation skills, although keenly aware of my relative inexperience. Well, as soon as check in started, I got a surprise that shook that confidence a bit. I got Bib Number 1. Aagh! Ok, so I knew that shouldn’t change anything but getting that number can kind of mess with your mind at first. Shortly after, I began to embrace it, and decided that by having that number, it would be easier to surpass expectations. It became a welcomed challenge to surpass. I can’t lie though. I was still pretty terrified of the unknown as I lie on the air mattress in the back of our car that night. I told myself all I could do was take it calmly, and step by step and that if I got into a bad situation, I would get myself out of it.
Photo credit: Christopher Hanlon
My Experience as a Human Sacrifice
Mentally and physically, I was prepared for the worst. I had imagined my worst fear, accepted it very likely could happen, and prepared my perspective as such. It helped to remind myself that I had the skills, knowledge, and gear to safely get myself back to camp if needed at any point, but ideally I could make my way around the course to all of the books. Besides, I also told myself that there were 34 other people who would be out there in the same conditions I was in, so we were all in it together. The conch finally blew at 2:04 am. The hour before the cigarette was lit flew by, and before we knew it, we were standing at the gate. Laz said a quick remembrance of the fallen Barkers, and then we were off! I hung back to let the mad rush head up the trail so I could settle into my own pace as I hiked up the park trail, disguised as a creek bed from all the recent rain. There were maybe 4 or 5 people behind me at that point, and I realized Jamil and few others were directly in front of me, which made me chuckle to myself. I knew several people had talked prior to the race about trying to keep up with Jamil, and I was sure they had passed him while trying to get to the front of the pack. I got hot in my wind jacket after just a few minutes, and took it off and adjusted my waist light, which I was very glad I had. In the fog, it worked great and I could see much more than with just the headlamp. I was also already glad I had worn my VJ XTRM shoes, as the ground was soft, wet and muddy, and would be for awhile. I was super thankful that I was by myself at the Pillars of Death. I went embarrassingly slowly over them, carefully made my way over them as if they were made of glass. When I was heading into the forest in the fog, I remembered Hiram’s wise words from the day before: Multiple lights and eyes are very helpful in the thick fog when you can only see a little bit in front of you. I paused and decided to wait for the runners that I could hear coming shortly behind me. Glenn and Matt, both virgins from out of state, started coming down the hill, thinking I lost something and was looking for it. “Nope, I just thought we would have more luck working together.” This began the start of my time as a lead navigator of a group of a few virgins around the course.
Photo Credit: Jenny Thorsen
Blind Leading the Blind
To save time while out on the course, I had made cue sheets with Laz’s directions about the book locations, along with some compass bearings and navigation notes from the map. I used these notes to guide the three of us down to Book 1 and then along the route to Book 2 through 4 with no navigation issues. At some point, Glenn and I separated from Matt and caught up to Peter, another out of stater. Once we got on the more runnable trail, he seemed ready to move on ahead of us and asked if the next section was pretty straightforward to navigate. I hesitated, because the next section was actually pretty infamous for getting people lost, and he decided to stick with us. We passed Ron shortly after getting Book 4 who had run into some trouble at one of the earlier books, then we filled up our water. After getting water, we ran into another guy heading back towards us from the direction we needed to go. He had gotten to some confusing strip mining junctions and wasn’t sure where to go. I told him to join us, that I felt fairly confident I could lead us around somewhat competently based on how we had been doing so far. I shouldn’t have spoken so soon though, because at the next book location, the group of us found ourselves spending some extra time looking for a book which should have been a quick find. A few minutes after looking too low, we heard a voice from above us yelling down that they got the book. It seemed like an apparition from Heaven because when we got up to the book, the person was nowhere to be seen. We grabbed our pages after a quick look around and headed off to climb again. Book 6 was a quick find, and we moved on quickly, passing Ron again who was heading back to find the book he had somehow missed. The next section was the kicker. I keep reliving my mistakes at this book over and over. At book 7, we got off course and spent a few hours going back and forth fruitlessly. My key takeaways from this are: trust your compass, use your compass, and never spend more than 10 or so minutes at a certain area because the book location should be relatively easy to find if you are in the correct spot.
Photo Credit: Matt Cabbage
It Wasn't Always Easy but I Sure Had Fun
A few hailstorms and hours later, Glenn and I were back on track after he asked if I wanted to “look for the book one more time.” We kept each other company to the next book and then decided to split up. I got to the tower about the time that I needed to be back at camp in order to continue on a second loop, so obviously I was going to be way over the time limit. I was okay with that though. While I would have loved to complete a loop on time, that wasn’t my main goal for this day. I was so happy to see Matt Cabbage, my crew, still waiting for me, even after I was so late! I will treasure the photos he got of me at the top of Rat Jaw. At that time, I also realized that I only had about 2 peanut butter crackers left. I had an internal debate about whether to take quitter’s road back to camp or continue on. I felt good at the moment and then I asked myself the question Laz would have asked: Why did you quit? “Because I felt good but worried that I wouldn’t later” didn’t seem like it would be a great answer to give, so I kept going. Luckily, I was able to catch up to the guys in front of me during the next descent, and they asked if I wanted to find the rest of the books with them. Yes! They said they would share some food if I helped them get to the books. Deal. Although it wasn’t long after our last book debacle, I was feeling confident again that I could lead us pretty directly to the books with my compass bearing notes. And every so often we would see footprints in the mud or slide marks in the leaves and get a boost of confidence that we were on the correct path. When we got to the next to last book, we saw Hiram and a group of 4 others sitting and having a snack. They seemed to be making their way around steadily and were in good spirits. I grabbed my page quickly and rushed off up the final climb of the loop, eager to get the final book and get back to camp before dark which was approaching quickly.
The final portion of the loop went smoothly, and probably was the fastest and strongest I moved all day. The final book’s title was perfect "It Wasn’t Always Easy but I Sure Had Fun." Then it was down park trails and back to the gate, only needing to turn on my light for the last 10 minutes or so.
Photo Credit: Jenny Thorsen
Things I Learned
- Good teamwork is helpful! But a team of nobody making smart decisions is not helpful.
- Multiple lights in the fog was amazing, as well as having company. But I keep kicking myself because none of us at Book 7 stopped, looked at map and compass, and actually trusted the compass. We were so convinced we were in the right area.
- Basic navigation skills can get you a long way if you use them. But they don’t lead to the fastest route. (I wouldn’t say we had the smoothest terrain, and talking with others afterwards, discovered that we may have been hugging the handrails a little too much and traveling down the rocky sides of creek beds when we could have been higher up on a smoother ridgeline, but it got us to the right locations. But never having been on the route before, for all I knew, the best route WAS climbing through thick briars and boulder fields side sloping next to creeks. This is Barkley after all.)
- Some gear choices were wonderful: waist light, VJ XTRM shoes, thumb compass. Some were not: safety glasses were wet and foggy with all the rain, so I ended up wearing them on top of my head the entire 17.5 hours.
- TRUST your compass.
- Fear of the unknown has always been scarier than the actual conditions themselves, in my experiences. This may not always be true, but more often then not, I have found it is the case.
- The way you feel does not correlate with duration in a race. There were times on that loop that I felt tired and like I didn’t want to climb another hill, but by the last few hills I was feeling my strongest of the day, even though I had never done anything longer than 11-12 hours.
- I was super thankful for having Matt Cabbage as my crew (and Jenny Thorsen as Chris' crew) who both helped out a tremendous amount before, during and after the event. Thank you both!
Photo Credit: Matt Cabbage
If you are interested in reading more about specific gear choices, race prep, and before/after thoughts, you can read an interview I did with Shawn Butler of CactustoClouds.com here: https://cactustoclouds.com/2021/03/25/karen-mcneany-2021-barkley-interview/