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Athletes

Apr 11, 2018

Running a 100-Minute Mile at The Barkley Fall Classic

It's around 2 pm of a much-awaited Saturday in the woods of Tennessee.

WRITTEN BY

Gaurav Madan

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.

Photo © SusanTypert

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.

“Frustrated by just talk and no action, I fold my map and compass”

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.

Race Map Photo © Gaurav Madan

Read Next on The Outdoor Journal: Running a self-supported ultra – Kerala’s Ultra India Race.

Lofty Goals, Little Training

“Standing on Start Line, I knew I was the least trained individual on this side of the timing clock.”

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.

Only the tough runners survive.

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.

Race Bib and Gear Photo © Gaurav Madan

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.

Read More on Naresh Kumar on The Outdoor Journal: ‘Indian completes Te Araroa trail in sandals, nominated for Outdoor Hero award by Kiwi magazine’.

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.

Read Next on TOJ: Follow Gaurav as he becomes the first Indian-born racer
to complete the 120 km Actif Epica in Manitoba, Canada.

I Must Make it to Laz

“I died a thousand deaths on Rat Jaw. And a million more on Bird Mountain. But, this is beautiful and I will return.”

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 did not make it to Laz in time. Instead, 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. Finally, I get up and 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.”

Photo © BFCTeam

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.

Photo © Steve Durbin

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!

Read Next on TOJ:The Incredible Story of Mira Rai—Adventurer of the Year 2017

Feature Image © Susan Typert

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Columns

Jul 04, 2018

How I Became a Runner

This article originally featured in a print issue or the Outdoor Journal.

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WRITTEN BY

Rachel Toor

You can subscribe here.

It’s hard to start running, but eventually the sound of your feet on the pavement, on the trail, on the earth – starts to sound like music. Rachel Toor recounts how she became a runner.

Let’s begin by admitting that when you start, it’s awful. After you lace up your new running shoes for the first time, step into your short shorts with the built-in panties, pull on a tee-shirt made of recycled plastic bottles or some other technical material that will, eventually, start to stink in the armpits no matter how often you wash it, when you head out the door for that debut run, you might feel good for the first few minutes. You might even feel great. You might hear Bruce Springsteen singing in your own head that tramps like us, baby we were born to run.

For those first few minutes.

And then everything will start to hurt. Each leg will feel like it weighs eight hundred pounds. You will appreciate oxygen in a way that you only appreciate things once they’re absent. Your heart will pound so hard you’ll think it’s as detectable as the organ in an Edgar Allen Poe story. It will tell the tale of your woe. And you will, make no mistake, feel filled with woe.

You may have been told to start out by walking fast to warm up and then running for a limited time, four or five minutes, maybe. Alternate walking and running, you may have been told. But you never knew minutes could last so long. You don’t think you can keep going. You never appreciated how nice it is to walk. You can breathe when you walk. Breathing is a good thing.

Your eyes may water. You may make wheezing noises. You may think you’ve coughed up a chunk of your lung.

All that money you spent on buying the right gear, the right clothes and shoes and maybe even a new big old ugly GPS plastic watch? Wasted. Halfway through your first run you decide you’re going to give it all away. That new tee-shirt won’t have a chance to get stinky, not from your pits.

Somehow, though, you make it through. You’re out there for however long you thought you should be. Maybe it’s ten minutes, maybe twenty, but you’ve done it. You feel a little good about yourself. You think maybe you could have gone a little longer.

Until the next morning when it hurts to get out of bed. You hobble around and nurse yourself with ice cream and think, What a silly idea that was. I’m not a runner. The next day is even worse. How can you be more sore the day after the day after you’ve run? Because that’s how it works.

But for whatever reason—stubborn pride, those few extra pounds around the middle, an upcoming reunion—you put on those sporty clothes again and venture out, once more into the breach.

Weirdly, it’s easier this time. You do the walking parts a little faster, run a little slower, and it feels almost good. Twenty minutes goes by and you think, Hey, this isn’t so bad.

Slowly, slowly, running becomes something you do.

Some days it’s good. Other days you can’t believe how hard it is. Some days, you have to trick yourself to get out the door. You don’t want to go. So you say, Maybe I’ll just put on my running clothes. You say, Maybe I’ll just go for ten minutes. You say, Maybe I’ll take it really easy and run extra slow. But once you get out there, you’re kind of happy. You like the way the air feels against your skin. You notice the call of birds you can’t identify. Your body begins to recognize the motion, the clip clip clip of your feet on the pavement, on the trail, on the earth. You settle into breathing.

Sometimes, you’re able to let your mind wander. You’ll find yourself thinking of people you’ve left behind. Or conversational topics you want to broach. You end up figuring out the solution to a problem you hadn’t quite realized you had.

Sometimes, you will put on headphones and run to the rhythm of a band you love, you’ll listen to a singer whose voice jabs you in the heart, and your mind will go effortlessly blank. You’ll be able escape from yourself.

Sometimes, you will meet a friend. You’ve been running enough now that it’s not impossible to talk. You would not have believed this could ever be the case, but in fact, you are able to carry on a discussion with someone whose company you enjoy. You might end up running farther than you thought you could. You might make a date to go again. It might become a weekly ritual.

Sometimes, you will want it to hurt. You want to make whatever emotional pain you’re feeling—the breakup of a relationship, a death, a failure—manifest. You will want to take it out on your body. You will enjoy the physical challenge of pushing yourself into agony. You will run so hard you think you might start bleeding from your eyeballs. You’re pretty sure you might collapse. You tell yourself that the German philosopher was right: that which doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. You pull out a bunch of other clichés about sports you’ve heard and realize that clichés are almost always true.

Sometimes, you will have a bad run. You will not be able to account for it. You will have gotten enough sleep, eaten well, be rested and healthy and nothing will have changed, but sometimes you just have a bad run. Even after you’ve been doing this for years and know to expect it, you are, nevertheless, always surprised when it happens.

Eventually, your body will change and harden and reconfigure itself. You will look down at your legs one day and not recognize them. When did they become so muscular? When did the jiggly bits stop jiggling? Where did those extra pounds around your middle go? You haven’t been dieting. In fact, you’ve been eating more than you used to. You’re hungry all the time. You start to see food as fuel.

Eventually, you will begin to recognize other runners. You will run past them on the street and raise a hand in greeting, which they will return. You’ll notice people wearing those big ugly GPS plastic watches with their civilian clothes. You’ll start to pay attention to race shirts.

Eventually, you might even start to enter races. You will be surprised that you get faster at each one. You’ll try different distances. You’ll wonder: Could I run a marathon? You’ll realize that you could. Of course you could. You might even want to go farther. You see the possibilities.

And eventually, running will stop being just something you do and instead it will have become a part of who you are. A runner.

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