It’s around 2 pm of a much-awaited Saturday in the woods of Tennessee. I’m bleeding from scratches on my right leg, the toe of my right shoe is crushed and I barely have a few ounces of water left in my blue hydration pack. The last I saw any course marking was over an hour ago, but I’m still running as hard as I can. This is the Barkley Fall Classic.
No Course Markings In Sight
There are more than twenty runners following me as I run down the hill on a winding technical trail – my biggest weakness. But today, I’m running fast. Faster than I’ve ever run in my life. Every second counts. I must reach Laz before 4.30 pm in order to continue this race, The Barkley Fall Classic, otherwise, I’ll be sent home in disgrace.
As I scramble over a few rocks and blowdowns, I find myself in a space with a pink flag stating “Park Boundary.” I quickly take out my map and compass and try to locate myself as I wait for others to reach that junction to suggest which way to go. Time is slipping out of my hands. Every new thought thrown into the discussion by a new runner brings our combined IQ way down.
Frustrated by just talk and no action, I fold my map and compass and start descending down the hill the fastest way possible – by scrambling on rocks. I notice other racers hesitate. They look around to find another way. But others follow. The cramps in my calves suddenly explode into spasms and I pull out on a corner as others overtake me. I look up the hill in disdain as others continue to climb and I think, the big chase is over. I’m finally defeated.
The 411 on the Barkley Classic
The Barkley Fall Classic is an annual 50 km footrace in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. It’s on the same trail as the infamous Barkley Marathons, known as the World’s toughest. Perhaps the race directors Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake or Laz) and Steve Durbin brainstormed this event to give people a taste of what being “out there” feels like as racers are on their own with no technology, navigating out of the Tennessee jungle alive in under 13.20 hours. While registration for the Barkley Marathons is still a hidden secret known among few, Fall Classic sells out within minutes – thus making it hard to get accepted. Unlike 5 loops, each with a hunt for 9-13 books in the Barkley Marathons, Fall Classic has manned aid stations on the one solitary loop which is required to be completed. One must get their bib punched at various locations disclosed in the pre-race meeting to confirm they have completed the loop.
The Barkley Marathons and the Barkley Fall Classic are very different races in terms of the challenges they offer. Uncertain extreme weather conditions, steep off-trail climbs, sleep deprivation, an absolute lack of course markings, solitude, self-doubt and difficult cut-off times – All of this from the Barkley Marathons is missing in Fall Classic. What stays the same is the secretive course map. In both races, the course map is revealed just a day before the race.
Lofty Goals, Little Training
Not everyone finishes 50k. Not everyone even starts with an aim to finish 50k. Runners must make it to the 22-mile cut-off in under 9 hours and 30 minutes to meet Laz and continue the race. This is the decision-making point where runners are given a choice. If they make it within the cut-off, with Laz’s permission they may continue to the final brutal climb. Or, they may choose to surrender and head straight to the finish line to secure a “lame” marathon finish. If you miss the cut-off, then you are going just for the marathon finish.
“Standing on Start Line, I knew I was the least trained individual on this side of the timing clock.”
Standing on Start Line, I knew I was the least trained individual on this side of the timing clock. As per the rules, I had a map, magnetic compass, whistle, water, food and a non-GPS watch.
My Indian Role Model – Naresh Kumar
In my head, I was recalling the Barkley Marathons documentary that was screened the previous night. It showed flashbacks from the tales of Naresh Kumar, the only Indian who ventured on this trail earlier. As Laz lit his cigarette to signal the start of the race, runners took off with the first drag. Metaphorically, we drag a load of our own insecurities in a race. My right ankle felt fragile from training, so I taped it as best I could. Somehow, the taping backfired and I succumbed to the pain due to the heavily resisted movement of my calf muscles. Within the first hour of climbing, I was reduced to a slow walking pace. Soon, I was the last runner struggling to keep the pace with Sweep. If Sweep overtakes me, he has the right to throw me off the trail and my race is over in the second hour.
Over Before it Starts?
After losing an enormous amount of time on a trail where most everyone else blazed, I ran the downhill after removing all my taping. The next major climb was the highlight peak of the Barkley Marathons, Testicle Spectacle – the steepest climb of the whole trail. There was a sliding puddle with absolute no traction decorated with saw briars. We must go down the hill, get our bib punched and then climb back. With nothing to hold, I would climb three steps up and slide two of them down. At that point, I believed I would never even make it halfway.
In order to reach the “Prison” section, one had to butt-slide down the “Methlab” hill amid rocks and thorny bushes. With bleeding open wounds, I entered the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and then broke through prison climbing the wall using a ladder to enter the infamous tunnel. On the other side of the tunnel was “RatJaw” – the most infamous climb of Frozen Head due to its incline and the whole length being covered by blood-sucking saw briars. The course was unforgiving and merciless. The heat, high humidity, bleeding scars being scratched again, sweat and cramps defeated dozens of runners on RatJaw ahead of me. Those who fail at RatJaw get a ride back to the Start line on a special vehicle, the “Bus of Disgrace” that bears the picture of Laz, laughing on their defeat.
Death Sounds Better Than This!
“Is mercy killing legal in North America?” I asked fellow runners while climbing. Could you please kill me? I don’t want to quit and I can’t move any further!” We chuckled and continued climbing on all four limbs through 6-8 feet tall saw briars. Close to 100 minutes after leaving the prison, I made it to the top of RatJaw. So much for work just one mile! With only 2 hours and 20 minutes to make it to Laz, my head was down, my calves were in the grip of spasm and my body felt dehydrated, yet my spirit was unbroken.
I Must Make it to Laz
I’m still sitting on the corner of the trail, sipping last few drops of water from the tube. I get up, pop in few almonds and dry apricots, and start crawling again. As I make it to the aid station at Bald Knob, they inform me that I’m 6 miles away from Laz with a little over an hour to go. It’s now or never. I blaze down the hills and soon hit the uphills again. I think this is the Bird Mountain climb, the last one before I reach Laz. A few tens of meters later, I start throwing up as my dehydrated body gives refuses to move on. But I push harder and find myself near the base of the hill, lost again, with 35 minutes to go to see Laz. As I continue to go down, I see a runner who guides me back on the trail and informs “Bird Mountain is yet to be climbed!”
“I died a thousand deaths on Rat Jaw. And a million more on Bird Mountain. But, this is beautiful and I will return.”
I did not make it to Laz in time. I crash on the ground and want to hide somewhere in shame where I can never be found. I feel humiliated like never before in my life. However, I remind myself that I started the race with a purpose. In order to salvage some pride, I must get up and accept the defeat. I must get up to see more of the trail. I must get up to keep the promise I made to Brian (chief of the rescue team) that they will not have to come look for my body in the woods. I get up and finally reach Laz, something I was chasing since morning, leaving a bloody trail behind me. I see a bit of shame reflecting in his eyes yet he smiles “How was the trail? Was that easier than you thought?” “I died a thousand deaths on Rat Jaw. And a million more on Bird Mountain. But, this is beautiful and I will return.”
Death Before Shame
Laz laughed as I got my bib punched. I leave this final aid station thanking the Frozen Head State Park for spitting me out “alive.” Although I walked the remaining trail to Marathon Finish as a failure, I had my share of success and learning. I overcame the fear of fast downhill running, conquered some of the world’s toughest technical trails and became the first from my country to run the magical race – The Barkley Fall Classic – that still eats its young, so to speak.
I’m not sure when I’ll return on that trail again, but, whenever I do, I’ll know “I’m home!” The trail’th await, the young shalt return!
Feature Image © Susan Typert