Race Report: The Barkley Fall Classic 2021
Running the legendary race without a route
I am alone, and everything hurts.
Hurts is an understatement. I don’t know how far I’ve run, or how long I’ve been out here. I don’t know where ‘here’ is. My hands are crammed under my hydration pack to keep the weight off my collarbones. My thighs shriek with every uphill step.
The plastic unicorn watch on my wrist hasn’t worked since the thunderstorm started. The first and only glimpse I caught marked three hours of progress.
Chimney Top’s trail is marked as seven point five miles to the top, and the top, barring injury, is exactly where I’m headed.
This is the opening act of the Barkley Fall Classic, and I waited six years to get here.
Baby Barkley’s rules are straightforward:
- Beat the cutoff times or take the loss
- No GPS
- No sharing of the map
There’s enough lore surrounding Baby Barkley and its race family to fill volumes, but it doesn’t matter. Until you’re in the thick of it, no description will do it justice. Its full distance is 50k; a marathon finish is awarded grudgingly. Trails are traced through places not open to the public. The map is released a day - or hours - before the event itself. It is never the same map. This year, our map has sections that no longer apply. I have been issued a compass and an emergency whistle.
As it turns out, that’s fine: on the trail, the map does not exist. In hindsight, I’m certain that sometimes hours pass between my glimpses of other humans. The forest is silent and heavy around me. I catch myself chasing footprints. Every aid station after isolation is a relief. I’m not lost. I’m not lost.
When I see the fabled Rat Jaw, a near-vertical .8 mile climb through a thicket of saw briars, I gasp aloud.
“What is that?” the runner next to me says. We’re already fumbling gloves out of our packs.
“Welcome to Jurassic Park,” I blurt out. I laugh. We are dragging ourselves up a muddy, liquid mountain of thorns. At times the runners above us heave the cable to one side and send us lurching wildly off our feet.
I slather my face and arms in mud to avoid the no see’ms biting me. Every new obstacle is as impossible as the last. My shoes are soaked. My everything is soaked. I wring filth from my gloves.
Someone says, “I don’t know why we’re still out here.”
I pass a girl weeping as she lowers herself down a boulder-packed ravine.
I watch a man complete a slide down another hill and pull glass from his palm.
We shake it off. We carry on.
The rain has wiped away any certainty beneath us. Descending, you slide on your hands and heels, desperate not to over accelerate or impact another runner. Ascending, you claw for ruts and roots and rubble in the mud, praying whatever you find holds your weight.
Sometimes the sheer magnitude of what we’re doing makes me dizzy.
The only thing that matters is moving forward.
I count my steps. One. Two. Three.
Nothing beyond the third step matters. I start again.
One. Two. Three.
Somewhere in the haze, a runner says, “I’m out of my league. I’m okay with it. I’m done,” and I feel quiet, chewing relief in response - I am not yet done. I hurt, but I have not surrendered.
A second runner repeats their need to quit. A third.
I lift my feet. One. Two. Three.
On flat stretches, one runner, then another, mutters a mantra given us in lieu of instructions: when it’s flat, you have to run. When it’s flat, you have to run.
Our staggering steps become desperate shuffles that cease when the uphill climb resumes.
The clock is ticking. The clock does not exist.
I drag myself along. I crawl. I mumble, “You too,” at each runner who gasps, “Great job,” as we pass each other. Ibuprofen. Salt tab. Handfuls of wet Sour Patch Kids.
A guy drops his cheeseburger in a puddle. He eats it.
I peel open a smashed oatmeal cream pie and scrape the plastic clean.
Across a barren, vicious climb, there’s a cheeky marker sign: JUST ONE MILE TO GO!
It’s a lie, if you had any doubts.
On a path with no room to spare, I step ever so carefully over a downed runner waiting for aid. He doesn’t blink. He doesn’t move.
I reach the prison, climb the ladder over the wall, and feel my way through the darkness of the tunnel. It will be my final bib punch for the day, ending my Baby Barkley journey somewhere after twenty miles, but before the full marathon distance. I’ve made this cutoff, but run out the clock on completing the next mile of climb.
For me, the 2021 Fall Classic is over.
I ride the Bus of Disgrace - banner and all - back to camp with maybe a dozen other runners. Spirits are high despite defeat: we deserve it, I think.
A day ago I was driving the littles to school with my hands on the wheel at ten and two. I was anxious about bills. I fussed about laundry. I cared about my hair.
Twenty hours ago, we were stranded at a Kentucky gas station while Mr. Presley did everything in his power to hold our car together. “You,” he said, “are not missing this race.”
Eighteen hours ago, we found our way to the starting line with the help of an absolute stranger who drove from race site and back to get us to the starting line.
I have finished exactly one ultramarathon ever, on well-supervised, smooth, paved ground.
And this morning, I climbed a mountain.
This afternoon, I defied every rational expectation.
I sweat. I bled. I blistered.
I faced every fear I’ve ever had.
I threw my ego and my pride to the winds.
And while I didn’t finish, I also didn’t fail. The Baby Barkley has not broken me.
At the finish line, Mr. Presley has waited through eleven hours of suspense, watching emergency crews being dispatched, eavesdropping on walkie talkie communications in the hopes I’m not one of the fallen. He volunteers to direct runners at a point of confusion. He sends me messages I have no way of receiving until I return.
He reminds me he’s proud of me.
When I stagger up to him, he asks if I found what I was looking for.
Two days later, I’ve still barely slept, the stairs are my nemesis, and I‘ve developed a thriving case of what may or may not be poison oak.
Ask me how I feel and I’d say… incredible. Humbled. Temporarily unshakeable. I miss the mountains before we cross the state line.
I feel unbelievably fragile, and human, and real.
In a few weeks, I’ll throw my name back into the lottery, and - Lazarus willing - follow the white whale of the croix back to sea in 2022.
Baby Barkley: 1
Like so many others before me, I’ll be awaiting my rematch with baited breath.
Author's Note: Since the time of this writing, the author has been selected to compete again for the 2022 Barkley Fall Classic, and hopes to suffer alongside some of you.