This is a race that I honestly didn't even know existed until September 2021 when my friend found out just days in advance that he had gotten in. I knew about the Barkley Marathons and of course watched the documentary and got on twitter one day every year to stalk the race. So when I heard about the Barkley Fall Classic I became obsessed pretty quickly, as all good runners do.
If you haven't heard of the Barkley Marathons I highly recommend checking out the documentary The Race That Eats Its Young --the name should tell you a little about this fun adventure. Getting in to the Barkley Marathons is a pretty secretive process and in order to get picked you need to be the best of the best. The race is 100+ miles and is mostly off trail in Frozen Head State Park . There are time limits for each loop, book pages to find in the woods, crazy weather, and all the usual fun that comes with running this distance with some serious elevation gain. To put it into perspective how hard this race is: since it started in 1986 only 15 people have ever finished it and the last time someone finished was 5 years ago.
This is not the race I ran but it is created by the same infamous man, Lazarus Lake, and it does take place in Frozen Head State Park. The big differences are that this is a 50k race and it takes place mostly on trails. The process to get in is a lottery and even though 1000+ people apply and there's around 400 spots, your chances of getting in are pretty good as people tend to drop throughout the year. This race caught my attention because I knew it was likely the only shot I had to run on some of these iconic places like Rat Jaw, Meth Lab, and Testicle Spectacle and of course to see the yellow gate.
I put my name in for the lottery in September 2021 and found out just a month later that I got in. To say I was excited is an understatement. Unlike when you celebrate something that most people understand like getting promoted or having a baby--I was pretty alone in my celebrating as most of my friends and family had no clue what I was talking about.
I had a few races on my plate to tackle before Barkley Fall Classic 2022. I ran a few 50k's, 50 miler, 6 hour race and probably a few others I'm forgetting. The part that I didn't think about when I signed up was that I would be training over the summer here on the coast of South Carolina. In the summer I usually cap my long runs to 10-12 miles because it's pretty miserable. I focus more on strength training and run less miles. But that wasn't an option because this race takes place in September. Training was TOUGH. Between the heat and battling with some low ferritin that made my legs feel incredibly heavy--it was not a fun few months. I love training so this was a whole new experience that I had to just push through. I averaged between 45-60 miles per week with 1-2 strength training sessions thrown in. Back to back long runs happened most weekends ( I build for 3 weeks and then mileage comes down for 1 week).
Finally race week was here and the family loaded up and we headed to Tennessee (with a pit stop in North Carolina first to go hike and pick apples). I was feeling good but also really nervous. I have never got a DNF before but knew that despite my best effort that this was a likely result. Most years about 40% of runners who start the race will finish the 50k--that's a lot of DNF going on. I also live on completely FLAT land and had taken a few weekend trips to the mountains to train but the majority of my training was on very flat conditions.
I met Laz at packet pick up and I kid you not, the first thing he said to me (while laughing) was, "What are you doing here? You look to wholesome to be here?" I was dying. I have no idea what my response was but we are both laughing in all of the pictures so it must have been a good time.
My birthday was the day before and honestly I kept forgetting because I was so excited about the race. I had my usual pre race dinner of pizza and started packing my hydration pack for the next day. My friend laughed as I stashed tons of food in my pack and told me there was no way I was going to eat all of that. I like to eat foods that I know I can tolerate so there's no surprises on race day. So if everything went according to plan and I was out there for the entire 13hrs and 20 minutes I would indeed eat all that food. I practiced running with a full pack so I was used to it and not concerned.
I slept well the night before and woke up ready to get after it. We headed to the park and I just sat in the car until about 1 minute until the start. I was in the zone. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to get out there. I lined up and we ran down a paved road up to the yellow gate. I took a second to touch it and appreciate where I was and what I was about to do. We climbed up a jeep road for a few miles and the pack spread out pretty nicely. I saw pictures of the dreaded conga line that happens when you reach the first climb but that wasn't the case this year (at least not for me). The next part was a lot of switch backs which is something I don't think I've ever trained on. It was fun and I was moving at a good speed and felt really in control most of the time. The one thing that was hard to do was eat. I remember opening a skratch crispy rice cake and then all of a sudden I was running downhill and it was impossible to eat it. I held it in my hand and watched it crumble away until nothing was left. This was my first warning sign that this day may not go as I had planned.
This was called the "warm up loop" and I felt good coming into the aid station and even got to hit up the bathroom at the campground. The bladder in my hydration vest was almost empty so I knew I was doing a good job hydrating and getting my electrolytes in because I was using Tailwind. Next up was a climb that I actually believed would never end. You can't wear a GPS watch so I have no clue how long it was or how much elevation was gained on this part but this was tough. I met a runner who was suffering from an upset stomach so I offered him some ginger chews. We sat on a rock for a few minutes and then continued on. My legs felt pretty good and I was excited that the climbing wasn't hurting me like I figured it may. I remember looking down at my hands and they looked puffy. My watch felt tight. My head started to feel a little off. I went from feeling great to feeling bad pretty quickly. These things can be signs of hyponatremia (can occur from overhydrating which leads to low levels of sodium) but I definitely wasn't over drinking. I think if anything--I may not have been getting enough sodium despite using the Tailwind because on those switch backs it was hard to eat. I was still drinking but I wasn't eating enough which was also supposed to be helping me meet my hourly sodium target. Another thing that likely played a part in this was that I may have been under hydrating once all the climbing started and the temps were rising and the extra jostling around of the food in my stomach may have caused it to get angry.
I got through the climb and there was an aid station before the short run to the fire tower and Rat Jaw. I opened my pack and there was barely any water out of it. I knew I was in trouble for sure at this point. Trying to eat/drink anything made my stomach feel worse. Running made my stomach feel worse. I moved as fast as I could and drank as much as I could but I could feel myself getting depleted. I climbed up the fire tower and stood at the top of Rat Jaw which is a beast of a "hill" covered in saw briars that are taller than me. Luckily by time I got there a path had been worn through. I can't imagine what it was like for the front of the pack but I am thankful for them! Despite feeling like a dumpster fire this was one of my favorite parts of the day. This is what I came for. The pain. Pushing my limits. I fell a bunch of times going down Rat Jaw but had a blast doing it. Gloves helped to spare my hands from getting beat up but my legs and arms did have some battle wounds.
After making it to the bottom of Rat Jaw I went in the tunnel under the prison which felt AMAZING because there was cool water on my feet. Next is climbing up a ladder and over the prison wall. Running through the prison courtyard while regular humans were doing tours was pretty comical. I could feel them staring at us and wondering what all these idiots were doing and why did they look so beat up. I had gone down Rat Jaw and through the prison with another runner. I never got his name but he had on an orange shirt. I was feeling pretty defeated when we got to the aid station and I wasn't going to quit but I was starting to feel like there was no way I was going to finish. He looked at the map and said we had (I think) a little over an hour to get to the next check point so off we went. The next section was on road and fairly flat trail until you got to a sign with an arrow pointing up. I looked up and just started laughing. How was I supposed to get up that. It looked straight up.
I didn't have a plan except keep moving. At one point the runner in the orange shirt let me go in front of him and that was the last time I saw him that day. This wasn't hiking up a little hill. This was bear crawling and holding on to anything I could find and hoping it held as I pulled myself up. Again--this is what I came for. It was incredibly hard but I was starting to feel a tiny bit better and having fun. I got to the top and the rangers said that I had 5 minutes to get to the next check point. I didn't bust out the map. I didn't ask how far away it was. I just took off towards the check point. This next section was downhill and just as steep as the climb on the other side was. Lots of falling. Lots of sliding down on my butt. Other runners were telling me how great the next aid station was and to just keep going. When I first started on this section I felt like there were A LOT of runners around me going in both directions and then all of a sudden there was no one. I was completely alone for the first time all day. I kept moving. I came to a point where I figured there's no way this was the trail because it was a ledge with a maybe 10ft drop. I looked to my right and saw a much more gentle option to get down but knew I didn't have time. I laid down and held onto a root and hoped I could ease myself down. The root had other plans. It snapped and I went flying off the ledge and landed on my back. I hopped up and felt fine and kept going.
At this point running felt semi ok and I was back in the woods and took the trail until I came to a road and saw a few other runners sitting on the side of the road. I didn't make it. The aid station was broken down but they saw me behind them at one point and saved me a cold Coke. I hate soda but in that moment it felt SO good. I was crushed but also excited. Excited because I had made it that far (maybe around 20 miles) feeling like complete garbage. My mind was already thinking about next year and what I would do differently.
It was awesome to sit there and talk to the other runners and listen to their stories from the day. As a bonus, John Kelly, the last person to finish the Barkley Marathons 5 years ago was there and gave us a ride back to the start line. A much better mode of transportation than the bus of disgrace!
As a Dietitian that works with runners and athletes it was pretty frustrating to have the thing that wrecked my race be my fueling plan. I practiced that thing for a year and it was solid. Never any stomach issues EVER. Running up and down mountains is very different. Lots more jostling of the contents of your stomach. Eating solid food is harder because the trail is up and down instead of the flat that I'm used to. Before we even got back to South Carolina I came up with a new fueling plan to try and I'm going to test it out on some mountain runs over the next year before I'm back at Frozen Head.
My big takeaways from this race are:
I need to rely solely on liquid calories while running because I don't get to practice my fueling strategy on mountains which made it hard to eat enough
I will take a second to stop and eat "real food" either at aid stations and/or before a big climb/descent when eating isn't going to happen
I really wanted just plain water to drink in addition to the electrolytes. Next year I'll use 2 bottles in the front of my pack (one water and one electrolytes) OR bring a reusable cup to grab water at aid stations since there were no cups
Don't go into next year feeling intimidated by the race. Go in knowing I can do it and make it happen
I honestly didn't look at my map or the time at all and I liked just going as fast as I could at all times but maybe being more mindful of cutoffs would be helpful?
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: Nathan Pinnacle 12L
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.