The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir



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.


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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Adventure Travel

Jul 31, 2018

Kayaking’s Elite Return to India at the Malabar River Festival

During the week of July 18th to 22nd, the Malabar River Festival returned to Kerala, India with one of the biggest cash prizes in whitewater kayaking in the world.



Brooke Hess

A $20,000 purse attracted some of the world’s best kayakers to the region for an epic week battling it out on some of India’s best whitewater.

The kayaking events at Malabar River Festival were held on the Kuttiyadi River, Chalippuzha River, and the Iruvajippuzha River, in South India on the Malabar Coast. The festival was founded and organized by Manik Taneja and Jacopo Nordera of GoodWave Adventures, the first whitewater kayaking school in South India.

Photo: Akash Sharma

“Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there”

One of the goals of the festival is to promote whitewater kayaking in the state of Kerala and encourage locals to get into the sport. One of the event organizers, Vaijayanthi Bhat, feels that the festival plays a large part in promoting the sport within the community.  “The kayak community is building up through the Malabar Festival. Quite a few people are picking up kayaking… It starts with people watching the event and getting curious.  GoodWave Adventures are teaching the locals.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

Vaijayanthi is not lying when she says the kayak community is starting to build up.  In addition to the pro category, this year’s Malabar Festival hosted an intermediate competition specifically designed for local kayakers. The intermediate competition saw a huge turnout of 22 competitors in the men’s category and 9 competitors in the women’s category. Even the professional kayakers who traveled across the world to compete at the festival were impressed with the talent shown by the local kayakers. Mike Dawson of New Zealand, and the winner of the men’s pro competition had nothing but good things to say about the local kayakers. “I have so much respect for the local kayakers. I was stoked to see huge improvements from these guys since I met them in 2015. It was cool to see them ripping up the rivers and also just trying to hang out and ask as many questions about how to improve their paddling. It was awesome to watch them racing and making it through the rounds. Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there.”

Photo: Akash Sharma


“It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake”

Vaijayanthi says the festival has future goals of being named a world championship.  In order to do this, they have to attract world class kayakers to the event.  With names like Dane Jackson, Nouria Newman, Nicole Mansfield, Mike Dawson, and Gerd Serrasolses coming out for the pro competition, it already seems like they are doing a good job of working toward that goal! The pro competition was composed of four different kayaking events- boatercross, freestyle, slalom, and a superfinal race down a technical rapid. “The Finals of the extreme racing held on the Malabar Express was the favourite event for me. It was an epic rapid to race down. 90 seconds of continuous whitewater with a decent flow. It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake.” says Dawson.

Photo: Akash Sharma

The impressive amount of prize money wasn’t the only thing that lured these big name kayakers to Kerala for the festival. Many of the kayakers have stayed in South India after the event ended to explore the rivers in the region. With numerous unexplored jungle rivers, the possibilities for exploratory kayaking are seemingly endless. Dawson knows the exploratory nature of the region well.  “I’ve been to the Malabar River Fest in 2015. I loved it then, and that’s why I’ve been so keen to come back. Kerala is an amazing region for kayaking. In the rainy season there is so much water, and because the state has tons of mountains close to the sea it means that there’s a lot of exploring and sections that are around. It’s a unique kind of paddling, with the rivers taking you through some really jungly inaccessible terrain. Looking forward to coming back to Kerala and also exploring the other regions of India in the future.”


For more information on the festival, visit: http://www.malabarfest.com/

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