A year ago, at the Barkley Fall Classic 2019, I found myself laying on the ground in a tunnel underneath the six-foot briars on Rat Jaw, cramping and telling Frank Gonzalez to crawl over me if he wanted to get by. I wasn’t the only one sitting or lying on the ground. We were a lead group trying to break trail through the insane briars on Rat Jaw, the infamous powerline cut up a steep mountainside in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. Going through them was too much, too painful, too thick. But you had to. So, we were literally crawling on our hands and knees, creating tunnels and what ended up feeling like the worst kids fort ever.
One or two people would be painfully breaking trail, while the rest of the group would just stand (or lay) there. It was just as painful to stand there and wait as it was to break trail. Standing there, you would get all frustrated and motivated to start breaking your own trail, then you would find yourself completely stuck about 5 feet into your shitty new trail, and then you would have to back up and rejoin the main group who had in the meantime made 3 feet of progress. It was maddening.
I had run out of water and food and had resigned to the fact that this race was most definitely not going as I had planned or hoped. People who had arrived to Rat Jaw an hour behind us were now fully caught up to us and in high spirits. When we finally made it to the top, I was wrecked. I was wrecked physically because I was overheated and dehydrated and cramping in all sorts of new places that I had never cramped before. But what ate at me for the next year was that I was wrecked mentally after those briars and that climb. I can accept the fact that I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into and I was unprepared for the specific new challenge of crawling uphill for 2 miles under briars ripping me open. I ran out of water and I most definitely hadn’t prepared my “crawling muscles”. But mostly, I was disappointed that I let all of that bother me so much and I kind of just gave up on Rat Jaw. I could’ve been tougher and I could’ve been smarter, but I left the top of Rat Jaw a broken runner. I was so flustered that I totally screwed up getting enough nutrition at the next aid station which made the next 2 hours of legit trail running to the finish that much more miserable.
When registration opened up just a few weeks later, as much as I didn’t want to, I knew I had to go back and caused quite the family argument when I notified Michelle what I had done…
Boston Marathon – cancelled. MMT100 – cancelled.
Besides all my races being cancelled, one of the big after-effects of COVID is that Michelle and I came to realization that we were going to need to close our running store, Crozet Running. It is very hard to close something that you have poured your heart and soul into for 7 years. Crozet Running hasn’t just been a small business to us, it has been a true community project, intertwining everything from our love of mountain running to our love of our community. Letting this go was hard. I think I was just born with a pretty happy-go-lucky temperament but I was more rattled and stressed than I thought I would be. Emotions of abandoning the community we created, financial stress, and the how-do-we-do-this parts were very taxing and my running all summer, though consistent, felt labored.
Once we decided to close our shop and set a Sept 30th closing date, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to run the BFC on Sept 19th. This would be square in the middle of our liquidation sale and it would be all hands-on deck. Michelle and I were now the only employees, and so four weeks before the race I emailed Laz and Durb and told them I wouldn’t be able to make it. Sending that email hurt. First world problem, but crushing to me deep down inside. I wanted that redemption and mostly I just wanted to race.
And then we announced our closing and the most amazing thing happened. The community came out in droves and cleaned us out. The first week of our closing sale was intense – we were so busy, it was just insane, and so much emotion. But there we were just two weeks after announcing our closing and our shop was 3/4ths cleared out. One more week and Michelle and I realized that there was no sense in staying open until Sept 30th and decided to close our doors for good on Friday Sept 18th.
Once we decided that, just one week before the race, I think Michelle just read my mind as she said with resignation – “well, I guess if you still want to go down to Tennessee…” Minutes later I emailed Laz asking if I could “undrop” and minutes later he replied simply “Your spot is waiting for you.” Heart lifted!!
Now I did have the minor problem of no accommodations and the fact that I was now scheduled for a full day of work Friday before the race, but these are also first world problems! I was clearly going to be dirtbagging this thing, but dangit I’m gonna go race the BFC!
And so this brings us to Friday before the race. I was fortunate to be able to leave work “early” at 4:15pm and drove home to load up the car. I swung by Crozet Running to be with Michelle and one of our best friends Jena Spearin for our final minutes as we closed the doors unceremoniously, forever. Finally, at 5:30pm, I hit the road for the 6-hour journey down to Wartburg, Tennessee where I had permission to sleep in the gravel lot behind the American Legion building.
How many times have I driven down I-81 on a Friday at dusk, leaving the chaos of real life behind as I journeyed to a race somewhere in the mountains… Driving by the views of the mountains that hold Grindstone, Promise Land, Hellgate… and the air just crisp enough to set the fall racing tone just right. It was a perfect start to the drive. “Long Journey” by Sarah Jarosz came on and man, that pretty well put together all the feels from the summer up to that point. (give it a listen)
I finally pulled into that well-lit gravel parking lot at midnight and predictably had the worst 5 hours of sleep I’ve had in a while. At 5am, I woke and found that there was actually a Hardees that was open – yes! Coffee and hash browns and a bathroom break and I was back in business. I stayed in that Hardee’s parking lot as my pre-race command center as I tried to prepare for whatever it was I was about to get myself into.
And here we are at the race report. Note, part of the Barkley lore that extends even to the BFC is that there is no GPS and no sharing course maps – there must be just enough lack of information and disinformation to rattle anyone “not in the know” who may try to get a feel for what this race is all about. You don’t know until you know is the truest of race slogans. Last year, I didn’t know and got my ass handed to me on Rat Jaw. Note – nothing I will share about this race couldn’t be easily found on the race website or the BFC Facebook group, I have done by best to share a good story but keep details of the course fuzzy…
For this year’s BFC, COVID seemed to inspire Laz to be extra hard on us. There would no real aid on the course, only jugs of water, so runners would be responsible for carrying all their own food for this 9-12 hour 50k. No problem, I got here at midnight last night after a 6-hour drive!
Also, just to totally screw with the “planners” of the group (me!), we would be given the course map just 45 minutes prior to the race start. And there would be minimal course markings. You know how you like to plan your food and stuff for ultras based upon the distance between aid stations, and how you kind of need a course map and some time to figure that out? Well, yeah… No problem, I slept in a well-lit gravel parking lot last night!
And so I did the best job I could at “pre-preparing” for this sufferfest – plenty of food options, gels in flasks, different amounts of tailwind in baggies, and drove to grab my bib and packet at the Morgan County education building and then as quickly as I could drove to Frozen Head State Park, arriving with a comfortable 29 minutes to look at the course map and make final preparations for the race.
At this point, it’s just resignation – carry as much food as you can and you’ll just have to look at the map more once you are out running on the trails (which is like texting and driving, btw). Also this year, because of COVID Laz broke the race up into waves, but had the slower folks start first so that cutoffs were easier to make. I was in the last wave and thus would need to pass folks all day long on the narrow single track of FHSP. No problem, I spent 2 hours at Hardees this morning!
One thing I can share about the BFC is that it is indeed a mountain trail race. It’s just the interpretation of “trail” that gets a little fuzzy at points during the event. The trails at FHSP are tough and go on forever. What Frozen Head lacks in altitude it makes up for in steepness and technicality. As we stared the race and got into the groove of the first climb, I knew from last year that it would be a long day and the mantra for the morning was just “take care of your body”, which is not something you typically think of for a 50k.
The morning was sublime. Cool air, beautiful forest, and the passing of other runners was surprisingly refreshing – “Hey! We’re doing a trail race! No COVID or politics out here, just us and these dang mountains – YES!” About halfway to the first aid station I was reminded that Barkley is full of Horton miles – it takes FOREVER to get anywhere on these trails and I realized I was clearly going to run out of water before the first aid station. No problem, I’m no longer the co-owner of a retail shop!
As the hours passed on, with some great running and conversation with new friends on the trail, the race eventually entered some of the parts where the word “trail” gets fuzzy. To be honest, in most of these sections I am in my element. There are a lot of times where you just feel like a kid taking some ridiculous shortcut to your friend’s house (who lives far away, at the other end of some powerlines, that happen to be filled with briars..).
And then, there is Rat Jaw.
I don’t think I am spoiling anything to say that we did indeed go up Rat Jaw, and we did so twice this year. I’m not sure the exact terminology of Rat Jaw/vs Big Rat, but the whole thing is approximately 2000’ over 2 miles. The rules state that you must stay under the powerlines, and about 500 yards in you realize that you are in for a very big shit show.
Because of this year’s wave starts, I fortunately had a small group from the earlier waves breaking a small trail up the lower half of Rat Jaw. It was still tough going and I was getting ripped open plenty by the saw briars but it was already going faster than last year. I learned from last year to not wear a tank top and I wore arm sleeves and calf sleeves which really did help. I got into a group with two other guys and we made some solid time up that first half. I was carrying so much water and tailwind, I was NOT going to run out of food or water. I had also done a little bit of bear crawling practice believe it or not this summer which I think maybe helped just a bit.
At one point we crested a steep pitch and I looked in front of me and saw about 50 yellow jackets swarming at the ground. “Bees! Back up!” I yelled and we backed up and tore a new trail around this area and somehow none of us got stung. That would’ve been very uncomfortable.
Ultimately just past the halfway point we reached the lead group of trail breakers, who ironically were actually about 45 minutes to an hour behind our group. They had done a great job and the small group I was in started to take over to give them a break.
And here is where Laz’s mission becomes clear. Throw something that seems utterly impossible into the race, with a high chance of frustrating and frazzling the runner, and see how they do.
I was determined to do my fair share of breaking trail. Although in the lead group last year, I broke very little trail because I was cramping so much. I really sucked! And so began the same challenge as last year. Crawling, pushing, stepping and twisting our way up those briars. That unbroken sea of horrible briars. And so we crawled and pushed and ripped. Pain is quite literally your barrier here. It hurts when briars rip at your skin. It hurts more when briars rip and your already ripped skin. You wish you could just be tough and run through them, but there’s just no way. One of the best examples of the limits of the briars are what I call the “scalp grabbers”. This is where a few strong and tough briars get you right on your scalp and literally lift your head back as you try to move forward.
Slowly, we moved forward. We took turns, working at a group, but also I didn’t want to work as a group – this is a race! But you needed to. The work was painfully slow, as expected, and I just had to accept that and keep moving forward without getting frustrated. As the line of new runners joining us began to grow, the racer in me began to fidget, but again, the pain of those briars keeps you from breaking away.
After what seemed like forever, we were finally approaching the firetower that adorns the top of Rat Jaw. As we got closer, all of the sudden a commotion arose from the conga line behind us. A few runners back there had finally lost their minds and were just ripping a line up the briars, led by a guy who looked like Rambo. I was not disappointed in myself for not being able to do this same feat, because the price was surely very high. I did however immediately jump in behind them and gratefully took their lead through the last 100 yards of Rat Jaw.
When we finally popped out and made our way to the top of the Firetower for a bib punch, I feel redeemed from last year. My body was in one piece, and most importantly so was my mind, because we now had some actual racing in front of us.
We followed a “creative” way back down to the bottom of Rat Jaw where I arrived in first place. I knew there were plenty of good runners just behind me, but I was feeling great and ready to actually race back to the finish. There was however one runner that I was worried about. I called him “Anton”, because he was tall and lanky and was wearing one of those little brimmed hats and so he looked like Anton Krupicka. I had also appropriately stalked the ultrasignup pages of a lot of the runners and this guy had some legit race results (his name was actually Ian Farris, a really good guy from Utah).
I fueled up at the bottom of Rat Jaw as fast as I could, ready for a second time up which hopefully would be a lot faster now that 124 other runners have made their way through (well most of them anyway). Sure enough, less than a minute after I left the aid station, “Anton” caught up to me and we made the approach to Rat Jaw together. This is where ultrarunning really speaks to me. Ian and I ran together a bit, shared our sufferings of the day and wished each other the best, but also both knowing that we each really wanted to beat the other and win. Epic.
As soon as we started back up the true pitch of lower Rat Jaw, I knew I was had. Ian was just better than me, as I simply could not match his powerhiking. In what seemed like no time, he was out of sight.
The second time up Rat Jaw was an incredibly different experience. Yep, it was still steep and yes there was still pain, but I’ll just let the time difference tell the tale. It took us about 2 hours to go up the first time, but only about 45 minutes the second time.
When I got to the top, Ian was still nowhere in sight but I decided to give it my all to try and catch him over the next long section of trail to the finish. I will spoil it now, there was no exciting finish where I almost caught him. His lead was insurmountable and he finished strong. But I think perhaps the take home here was, and the best memory of this race for me, was not giving up and chasing him down with a wild heart. I thought of a quote I read in Meghan Hicks’ report of her recent Nolan’s 14 FKT in which she recalled a runner at the Marathon Des Sables in Morocco telling her “you must believe!” And so I ran with some imaginary Moroccan on my shoulder telling me “John, you must believe!” Let me just say that continuing to listen to that guy, despite never catching Ian, was a very important experience that will carry over. May you never die, imaginary Moroccan man!
I did manage to at least catch up to Ian a bit in those last miles as I came through the finish in 8:35, just 5 minutes behind him. A few of us hung out for a bit as more runners started to finish, and then representative of COVID times, I hopped in my car and started the seemingly impossible trek back to Virginia. Tons of coffee, some Chic Fil A, and a dirtbag nap at an interstate rest area later, I finally arrived home from my “Long Journey”.
A new chapter begins. No more Crozet Running, but the friendships and need for adventure and Moroccan voices will remain. Huge thanks to Laz and Durb and the huge group of volunteers who made the Barkley Fall Classic happen!