Have you seen the documentary about the Barkley Marathon titled "Where Dreams Go To Die"? Well even if you haven't---that's a pretty accurate description of anything Barkley related. Before I dive into how things went this year, here's a quick recap of last year. If you want to check out my Barkley Fall Classic Race Report from 2022 you can check out the whole thing here.
Going into BFC last year I felt like I sort of knew what to expect. A friend ran it the year before and so I knew some basics like: get tough work gloves so you can hold onto the briars, don't carry 20lbs of stuff (didn't listen to that one), and that a lot of the race was on park trails but some of it wasn't and those are the parts that would take your soul. As a Dietitian, I felt great about my fueling plan. I had practiced it week after week in training runs and NEVER had a single GI issue. My training was mostly here in the Lowcountry (aka zero elevation gain except running hill repeats on the bridge) and I maybe went to the mountains once to train on terrain that would be somewhat similar to what I'd experience on race day. I'll cut to the chase---my stomach was not happy and either were my legs. I got really nauseous and could barely eat or drink anything which of course made me feel weak and tired on a course that does a good job of doing that for you even if you're fueling well. I laid on the ground at every aid station. I sat on rocks on the side of the trail. Going up Chimney Top felt like one of the hardest things I had ever done. I missed a checkpoint at 10hrs in and roughly around 22 miles in and my race was over.
This year I knew there were things I had to change. First up was training. I made trips to upstate SC and NC at least once a month (sometimes more) to have big training days in the mountains. I would literally spend the entire day out there getting as much elevation gain as I could and honestly had a blast. By the end of the summer I felt really confident in my ability to climb well. Going downhill is still something I struggle with---it scares the hell out of me. I also did repeats on the bridge almost every week and had a strength coach to help me get stronger all over. BFC isn't just running. There are sections where you're climbing on your hands and knees up a basically vertical 1 mile pile of dirt. I knew I needed to build up some upper body strength too. Training in the summer here in Charleston always sucks. There's no nice way to put it. It pushes you physically and mentally to your breaking point which honestly is great practice for race day. I definitely had moments where I felt like a terrible runner and that I still wasn't good enough to finish this race. BUT I also went back and looked at notes I took post race last year and one of them said "training in the summer paid off".
Next up was nutrition. My plan for BFC last year would have been great IF I would have practiced it on mountain trails but I didn't. I ended up falling behind on fueling because it was really hard to eat rice krispies treats while bombing down the side of a mountain. Being underfueled and dehydrated lead to some stomach issues and nausea. And of course I didn't feel like eating or drinking at that point and things kept getting worse. I felt sick. I felt exhausted. I kept pushing through but it was tough. I still had a blast but damn that was a hard fight. I knew I needed really concentrated sources of fuel that would be incredibly easy to eat in any situation. I used a combination of products: Skratch Super High Carb, Fuel For Fire Pouches, Skratch Hyper hydration, Spring Energy Awesome Sauce, and Sour Patch Watermelons made up the bulk of my fueling plan. Instead of filling up a 2L bladder with fluids like I did last year, I switched to bottles so that I could more easily see where I was with fluids/nutrition. I practiced it on summer training runs in the mountains and knew I had a winner.
Ok time to get to race weekend. My whole family was supposed to come but my husband ended up getting sick the day before we left so I ended up making the trip solo. I showed up to grab my bib and map on Friday afternoon and ran into a friend that I had actually sort of met the year before. We DNFd at the same place and had said a few words to each other but that was it. Fast forward to April of this year and I was at a race in SC talking about BFC and the only other woman in the race said "that's exactly where I DNFd too". We got to talking and realized that we had seen each other there and now here we were in this other race together. Last year when I met Laz he looked at me and told me I looked too innocent to be at this race. This year I asked him if he still thought that was true. He said " no I think last year scarred you and you're ready now". I felt the same.
I went over to Frozen Head State Park where the race takes place to get a park map and take a walk to the yellow gate. After that it was back to the house to study the map and try to get an idea of what was in store for me. I brought last year's map as well so I could compare. I also used the park map and wrote down what color blazes each of the marked trails were in case I got lost. Navigation wasn't tough last year but I certainly didn't want it to be the reason I got a DNF. You can't wear a watch or use anything with GPS during the race---just the map printed on a cloth. I went to the local HS football game to cheer on the boys that would be supporting us at the aid station the next day. I grew up in a super small town so it was really nice to see how much the community supports each other and this race. I left at half time because I wanted to attempt to get a good sleep.
I woke up early the next morning feeling ready to go. Had my usual pre run foods of pop tarts and a banana. I packed all my nutrition the night before so all I had to do was wake up, grab it and go. I got to the park early because there's one road in and out and I knew I didn't want to sit in traffic. I sat in my car and studied the map some more until it was time to go.
At 7am Laz lights his cigarette and the race begins. The course was made up of several loops and this year the first loop felt suspiciously easy. The climbs weren't bad, the runners seemed to spread out fairly quickly, and the downhills were incredibly runnable. I remembered the day before Laz had said that each loop will get harder. I was glad this first loop had felt so easy. Besides being stung by a yellow jacket within the first hour. We ran through the campground and I went by Keith Dunn (the one who's Twitter account we all follow for a few days every year to get updates on the Barkley Marathon) and he looked at his watch and then back at me and said "adequately done"---if the word adequate is used in a sentence to describe my performance in anything related to Barkley I'm pretty happy!
Loop 2 was on Bird Mountain and I had a few low moments here but was able to quickly get out of them. I just felt a little overheated and that my heart rate was higher than I wanted it to be. I was running a little low on fluids and was starting to conserve. My friend had ran out and I shared some with her so I'm sure I probably wasn't drinking quite enough on this section. My mantra all day was "this is temporary". Whether it felt good or bad, I kept reminding myself of those words. The way you feel can change in an instant and the only way to get out of feeling bad is to keep on moving forward. Last year I stopped a lot when I felt tired or just not in a great place. This year my goal was no stops except to fuel. Stopping is not getting you anywhere. Moving forward, even if it's slow, is still moving. I saw the next aid station and was SO excited to fill up my bottles. After that it was downhill and mostly runnable so I opened it up and headed for the next checkpoint before reuniting with Chimney Top.
Last year Chimney Top was the death of me. I remember sitting on a rock called Rough Rock and having a pity party. This year I blew right by that thing with the biggest smile on my face. I know it sounds crazy but I recognized some of the rocks and trees that I had stopped by last year. Cruising by them this year feeling incredible was a really big boost mentally. I didn't let all the false summits make me feel defeated this year. I knew the climbing in this race wasn't over until the finish line. The only part that straight up sucked on this section was running through yellowjackets. I heard people ahead of me scream and figured that was probably why. I saw and heard them but stupidly decided to just run through them. They were all around my head but luckily only one got me in the shoulder. After I had reached the top it started to rain. It was in the 70s so the rain actually felt really nice and I enjoy running in the rain. It was light at first but then it really started coming down and I don't know what happened but all of a sudden I felt like I wanted to push my pace a little. I took off. I passed a few people. Before the last little section up to Rat Jaw there was ice cold coke and it was just what I needed before this next section. We were about to leave the comfort of the park trails and go off into 3 big climbs/descends that aren't even trails. Up to this point I was 1-1.5 hours ahead of the marathon cut off times and righttttt on the cusp of the 50k cut off times. Fun fact---people plot this course out ever year afterwards and it's pretty common for the marathon to be closer to 28-30 miles and the 50k to be closer to 35-37 miles. With no GPS it's hard to say exactly how many miles you ran.
After climbing the fire tower to get my bib punched I shoved some food in my mouth, knowing it would be tough to eat for the next hour, and put my gloves on and made my way to the entrance to Rat Jaw. It's wild walking up to it. You basically look straight down into briars that go on for about a mile. Last year there was no rain and it was tough to get through and I still slipped and fell a lot because it's really steep but nothing at all like the mudslide that I was presented with this year. There was probably more sliding down on my butt than actually standing up on my legs. Some sections were ok and I moved through those as fast as I could knowing that the conga line was going to happen at some point as we encountered steep spots that were slick with mud. There are a few downed power lines that you can use to help repel yourself down in some spots. I watched several people lose their grip and go sliding down 30 yards and honestly it was scary. Knowing that all it took was one root, rock, etc.. to hit you in the wrong spot when you were sliding out of control made me nervous. If you know me you know that I love doing stupid shit. I like to take risks so it surprised me that this was freaking me out like it was. I was almost at the end and was making my way down sort of crab walking and lost my footing. I felt something tight around my ankle and figured it was a briar. It was a thin metal wire and if someone above me were to tug on it it could have ended badly. I asked everyone to not touch it and let me get my ankle out of it before trying to move. I got out and quickly got to the bottom, I was ready to be done with that part.
Next up you run in a tunnel under the prison. In hindsight I wish I would have quickly gotten my light out because I moved pretty slowly in there since it was pitch black. After going down Rat Jaw in the rain and mud though, everything I owned and every opening on my body was filled with my mud. I tried to drink from my bottles and ended up drinking mud. I took my gloves off to get some food but it was everywhere so I ate mud. There was so escaping it. I realized my shorts were ripped and that my butt was hanging out. The girl behind me said it was " a good sized hole". The guy in front of me basically had nothing covering his butt and it was bleeding. We looked like we had just come out of a war zone. Surprisingly I still felt really good. I climbed up and over the prison wall and ran through the parking lot and out onto the road and a really runnable trail for maybe a mile. Looking back this is where I should have took a minute and caught up on nutrition and fluids from not taking much in on Rat Jaw. This was a mistake. I was starting to get worried about the time at this point and I wanted to take advantage of this runnable section so I kept going and I did eat and drink but I really needed to stop and get a big calorie hit in. At this point I also knew a 50k finish was likely out for me but I knew I had time to get marathon finish.
I got to the bottom of Meth Lab and because of the fog (and how steep it is) you can't even see the top. It's an incredibly steep climb that you basically bear crawl up. At least that was my strategy last year. This year the mud made that more difficult. There were several times where it took me a few tries to find a way up. There's barely any vegetation to grab onto and now that my shoes were caked in mud I had little to no traction. I struggled a lot on this part. I remembered having fun on it last year but there was no fun happening on this section this year. I made it to the top and the park rangers asked how I was doing. I said "great" and headed down Testicle Spectacle. This was the first time that I really felt bad all day. My quads were trashed. I should have ate more at the prison. Mud was literally everywhere. The scratches on my arms and legs from the briars were on fire. I started to see that marathon finish slip away. It got hard to remember my mantra of "this is temporary". Some really awesome runners let me know that they had cut a path through the briars because going straight down the center was so muddy it was almost impossible to get up or down it. Into the briars I went again. More scratches. More mud. Using every last ounce of strength my legs had to get down this without getting hurt. A few people had hit the turnaround and were coming back up and they had told me to get moving so I would make the cutoff. And I did.
I got to the turnaround with a little more than 5 minutes to spare which meant I had 1 hour to get back to the prison. A trip that took me 2 hours in the daylight. It was about to be dark. I sat down and started to cry. The incredibly sweet woman who was punching bibs told me that if I wanted to keep going I needed to go now. I told her that I didn't feel like it was safe to go back out and now climb Testicle Spectacle and descend Meth Lab. It was hard enough finding a way up/down during the daylight. It felt incredibly stupid and not safe to do it in the dark. Again---I like making stupid choices and being reckless to some extent but I also know my limits. I have absolutely no shame in saying that I chose to quit at that point because no race finish is worth getting seriously hurt over (there was a rescue that took 8 hours to extract because of the terrain). I'm not going to lie though---it felt weird to make this choice. It didn't feel like the "badass" that I view myself as. But I reminded myself of something I had said a few months ago: "sometimes being a badass means not being a dumbass".
An incredibly kind man who lives here locally and volunteers with his family ever year, drove my disgusting body back to the prison where I caught the bus of disgrace back to the start finish line. I got there in time to see people finish in the last 30 minutes before time ran out. My favorite was seeing the woman who finished 9 seconds past the cutoff last year. This year she finished with minutes to spare.
I have cried a lot of tears but I am also incredibly proud of my performance this year. I made it farther and I felt better. I knew what I needed to work on (more mountain running and changing my nutrition plan) and I made it happen. I felt 10000000000000000000000000 times better this year compared to last year. For next year I want to work on getting faster on the trails and learning the secrets to tackling those off trail climbs/descents faster! That's right, I said for next year. Every year I say I'm never doing it again because training through the summer is miserable but I don't think I can leave this one behind just yet. Crossing my fingers for the lottery next year.
My big takeaways for this year are:
Move even faster
I can likely shave some time off fueling stops
Figure out what I need to do to get through the off trail sections more efficiently
Try to figure out how long each section will take and set targets for myself
Mountain training worked
Nutrition worked REALLY WELL
Gear: I had no issues with any of my gear and will very likely be using these things again next year!
Shoes: Hoka Speedgoat 5
Socks: Drymax Trail
Shorts: Rabbit Surf n Turf
Hydration Pack: Ultraspire Zygos 4
Kayla Fitzgerald is a Registered Dietitian & Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and founder of Endurance Nutrition located in Charleston, South Carolina. She works with clients 1:1, through small group coaching, and self guided programs. Her goal is to help you fuel your body for whatever the day has in store whether it's a 100 mile race or getting through the work day.