This race was certainly the hardest “50k” I’ve done but probably not why you think it’s hard. Sure, the distance was more than 50k since this race is sort of similar to the actual Barkley Marathons. It was 34.1 miles long. The elevation is also nothing to scoff at either with 11,220ft of gain with some portions being extremely steep. No, the real killer for me was the heat. It totally controlled my race and almost ended it.
I had been training for Spartathlon all year with the hopes of getting off the wait-list but I ended up being 11 spots too far down the list to get in. So in August I finally accepted my fate of not getting in. I had been training for heat and mostly roads so I had to quickly switch to getting lots of elevation. Of course 4 weeks isn’t enough hill training but I wasn’t worried too much, I’d be sore but I’d survive. I was doing great with heat training working every hot weekend doing landscaping and running on the hot weekdays similar to my training for Volstate. Then we got a cold spell in MN for 2 weeks the beginning of September and it all went away. The forecast for the race was hot and humid and they were correct!
I’ll step back a little just to mention that this is the first race I’ve ever flown to. It just made sense it being such a long drive and such a short race with no need for many supplies or anything. I flew into Louisville for super cheap and drove the 4 hours from there. The packet pick up was in Coalfield, TN and I’d get there at 5pm. I ended up driving through Rocky Top, TN to get there. The old song about it came flashing back to me even though I hadn’t heard it for over 30 years. If you don’t know it here it is.
That’s the version I always heard although there are others. Unfortunately since I didn’t use any music during the race, it’s also about the only song I had in my head the entire day during the race! If Rocky Top ever was a nice town, it certainly is past it’s prime now. Every store front I saw was closed and most homes were trailers or pre-fab homes similar to parts of northern MN.
Anyway, I finally got to the packet pick up and the man checking names off the list knew my name from following Volstate. That was surprising and kind of cool. The packet had the map which is printed on cloth so it’s waterproof (and washer safe by the way), a booklet about the things in nature that can hurt/kill you in the county, compass, whistle, shirt, bib, Dum Dum sucker, fake Yellow Jacket, maybe some other stuff I forgot. I didn’t stick around the school very long. There was a crowd around Laz and I just let him be since I’ve gotten a selfie with him in the past. I quick updated a few things on my phone since there was WiFi and then left for my hotel in Harriman.
I got something to eat and then got down to business studying the map.
It’s covered up since you’re not supposed to put up photos of the map. I’ll give you a hint though, some race reports are very detailed in the description of the course to the point that if you have a map in front of you, it is very obvious what the course was that year. The race course is changed every year if you didn’t know and you don’t get the map until the day before the race at packet pick up. Some I’m sure got there right at noon so they’d have the most time possible to look it over. I had already studied race reports to figure out what most of the trails would be as some just can’t be changed due to this race having aid stations. This year did surprise me with part of the course going on Fork Mt which I don’t think was ever done in previous years.
I spent probably 3 hours going over everything and looking at certain details on Google Earth. I already had a good description of the Cumberland trail since that is on the Cumberland trail website. Having been on the trails now though I can say that their description in one spot was not what I saw on the trail. I can’t stress enough how helpful Google Earth was. I suspect it will somehow be made illegal next year because of it. Now might be a good place to talk about all the rules there are that most races don’t have.
No GPS, either from a watch or a phone. You can carry a phone by the way but I didn’t since I didn’t want it getting wrecked. I still have an old plain watch with a timer on it so I wore that. I can’t believe how many people absolutely lose their sh*t on Facebook over someone using GPS and posting their track online in years past. 1. This isn’t the real Barkley, 2. All these trails are public other than the power line cuts and a short path from coffin springs to cold gap although I never saw a no trespassing sign on those either, 3. GPS was allowed for a large part of the history of the Barkley Marathons. I honestly don’t know why so many people get bent out of shape, but it’s a rule so I follow it.
No gels. You can put them in a flask though which is what I did.
You need to get your bib punched at several places along the course. The bib already had a few letters on it so I was able to figure out what it would say if you made the Laz cut-off or not. It probably didn’t hurt that I watched Wheel of Fortune with my in-laws the night before.
No poles until after the Laz cut-off. I’ve never used them so it didn’t affect me. I just used sticks the few times it was necessary (and there are times you will want them).
Stay under the power lines on the power line cuts. This one is always broken by people including some of the people in the top 10 unfortunately. It’s tempting to go in the trees as it’s much easier than going through thorns in the sun.
I think that’s all of the them. The other rules are pretty routine, move over for faster runners, no cutting switchbacks, carry a whistle, headlamp after the Laz cut-off, etc.
Don’t worry, I’ll get to the actual race soon. With all the resources available I made a turn/description sheet and laminated it with tape as it was supposed to rain in the afternoon. That took most of the 3 hours I spent looking at the course but because of it I only took my map out once just to confirm something. I figured out some estimates of when I’d get to the aid stations and a finish time of 11 hours.
I got things ready for the race, put Vaseline on my feet since it would be a wet race going through water, set the alarm for 5am and went to bed. I couldn’t sleep very well but got enough.
Race morning went fairly smoothly. I got to the start line parking lot around 6am so I had an hour to put my drop bag in the trailer, talk to some friends, and use the port a potties. They were in very tough shape and I assume Laz just asked for the worst ones possible. Mine didn’t lock and had what I hope was paint all over the walls and door.
35 people didn’t show up which I was surprised by since there is a wait-list to take your place if you can’t make it. 416 of us started off at 7am. It was still kind of dark but light enough to see somewhat. We went on a road for about a mile before hitting the trail and it was light enough by then. I went fairly fast so I wouldn’t be behind a bunch of people going up the hill. A few people passed me as is usual for me going up a hill but I passed some as well. It’s not super easy to pass on the single track trails but not as bad as other races I’ve been too. I planned on it taking a long time to climb the first hill so I was surprised when I got to the top way ahead of schedule. I proceeded to pass a bunch of people going downhill. The trails aren’t very technical really. There are occasionally rocks and boulders at the stream crossings but otherwise very few roots and rocks on the signed trails. Most trails have different colored blazes on the trees so you know which trail you’re on which is nice. Although the trees aren’t very old, they are old enough to be tall and have an open understory which made the scenery quite nice.
I made it to the first aid station in just over 2 hours which was over an hour ahead of what I thought it’d take. The distance for this section came out to the same amount as listed on the map when I measured it on the map later at home. That wouldn’t be the case for every other section after (hint: they were all longer than listed; surprise surprise). I was feeling pretty good and refilled my bladder. This was also the first bib punch.
The next section was 8 miles and the section that some people got lost. Really I didn’t even need my turn sheet since the trail was marked much more than I thought it would be. Even so, I saw someone miss a turn and had to yell at him. The first part of this section was pretty much a continuation of the last section. I tripped once on some unknown obstacle and cut my hand a little and ground my shoulder into the ground. Nothing hurt so on I went.
Eventually you got to a more open area out of the state park where you get your bib punched and then go to Fork Mt. Going down Fork Mt was fast but not as fast as I wanted it to be. It’s basically dirt roads with lots of rocks to pound your feet on. There were plenty of areas of road under water so that slowed things down as well. Finally I got down to a highway and to the church aid station (aid station #2) and another bib punch. I crossed the timing mat in 4:01 in 47th place. This was over an hour faster than what I thought I’d be doing so I was feeling good about that. It was definitely starting to get hot now 86 degrees and dew point of 70 with full sun. I reloaded with water and tried to drink what I though I needed but this is where I started to get behind on fluids. The next 5 mile section (to aid station #4, there was an aid station #3 on the way) was the hardest for me. 3250 feet of elevation gain and overheating.
Next up was the power line cut called Testicle Spectacle. It has a few false summits and goes down in a couple places which sucks as well.
The leaders had made a pretty good path through the thorns and plants. I wore my hat over my ears to help protect them from the thorns brushing by. I also put on my work gloves. Getting sliced on your legs and arm at the same time hurts but at the same time you get used to it. I think the steepness just makes you hate that part even more than the thorns so you ignore them. There is one spot of this hill that was the steepest part of the race. Basically it’s best described as this; Place the tips of your fingers on a wall and stand back as far as you can while still having your fingertips on the wall and your back straight. Maybe move back a couple more inches and that’s what it was like. Nothing like trying to climb dirt like it’s a ladder. Ok, I probably didn’t have my back perfectly straight when I took that measurement but still it was very steep. Luckily there were kind of toe holds carved into it, probably left overs from the mud at the Barkley Marathons this spring. I had a dream about this race the week before where I had to climb a similar slope when it was muddy. I still somehow made it up in my dream.
The only “nature” thing I was worried about for this race was snakes. The friendly guide book in the drop bag said to never put your hand were you couldn’t see it so that you didn’t accidentally get bit. There were certainly times I couldn’t see what I was grabbing going up those hills covered with vegetation.
Of course the only “nature” thing I needed to worry about was the weather. I was getting overheated now and had to take a few 10 second breaks here and there. Usually there was someone ahead of me taking a break as well so it’s not like I could’ve gone even if I wanted to. Finally I reached the top.
What goes up must come down so we kept on following the power line cut down Meth Lab Hill. This hill has a path down it so it was much easier. You could actually run down 90% of it. There are a few super steep spots where you had to slide down. Most people would go on their butt but I just put my hands down and slid on them and my feet. It took more effort but I didn’t have rocks in my crotch the rest of the day either.
At the bottom you have a short run on roads to get to the prison and aid station #3. I was still in 52nd place at this point so not many people passed me going up Testicle Spectacle. I reloaded on water but ended up not getting enough in the end. There was also talk of there being ice at this aid station but I didn’t see any and wasn’t offered any. The people I know that went through at the same time as me never knew about any either so I’m guessing it didn’t show up until later in the day. Ice would’ve completely changed my race! I lost an hour of time due to the heat the rest of the day and ice would’ve changed everything. In fact, I brought my insulated bladder specifically to keep water cold if there was ever ice around. You get what you get I guess.
After the aid station you run into the prison complex and into the prison yard. One of the cool things about this race is getting to go over the prison wall and through the tunnel under the prison.
On the other side of the wall was Jared Campbell punching our bibs. He’s finished the Barkley Marathons 3 times if you didn’t know who he is. It was a nice surprise to see him as I’ve never met him yet. To get to the tunnel you have to go through some shin deep water and then there is also water in the tunnel. Going from full sun to darkness really messed with my head. I basically was running blind. I could hear someone in front of me splashing but couldn’t see anything once we got in about 200 feet or so. I just hoped I wouldn’t trip on anything. It’s 840 feet long so it takes awhile to get through it. Finally it’s blindingly bright again and now the fun really begins.
Rat Jaw is the name of the next power line cut we went up. This hill has a much higher concentration of thorns than the others and it’s taller. There was a sign at the beginning saying it was only .89 miles long but I suspect it’s longer. It’s 1.19 miles long according to Google with 1825 feet of elevation gain. I suppose it’d be even longer if you figured in that you’re climbing a slope instead of a flat surface but it really doesn’t matter, it’s steep and sucky.
Here’s what the beginning looks like.
For this beginning part I found a couple sticks and just went up the dirt part until it leveled out a little again. I was hot! The heat index was in the upper 90’s with a temp of 91 and the dew point was still in the 70’s. The sun was also right on us now since it was just after noon. I kind of broke this hill down into 2 sections. The first is mostly straight with slight turns on it, basically just enough so that you can’t ever see the top to where it turns a hard left. The second part is from that hard turn to the top. The first part is .74 miles and 1300 feet of gain. The second is .45 miles and 525 feet of gain. There is great variation on how steep the hill is. A couple very short sections are actually flat or at least flatish, the rest is steep to crazy steep. A lot of it was hands and feet kind of climbing (scrambling). Partially from the slope and the rest due to overheating.
Almost immediately after the “fun” beginning to Rat Jaw my face was tingling and I could see stars every once and a while. I was breathing heavy constantly. There were some more steep parts we’d go up and just hope there was something to sit on or for the ground to flatten out a little so you could stop to rest. Stopping while on the steepest parts took almost as much energy as just continuing on. I basically had to pull myself up by grabbing thorn canes as they were the only plants that could support the weight of being pulled. I was very glad I had gloves on!
About 2/3rds of the way up the first part there is a old road cut and shade! I laid down for 15 minutes to cool down and drank everything I had. There were medics at that location and I must’ve not looked too bad off since they didn’t pull me off the mountain at least. All hopes of a good race time were gone. I knew I had plenty of time to make the cut-offs so I just stayed and tried to cool down.
Finally I could breath somewhat normal but my face tingling never did go away until after I reached the top. I had been eating pretty well and actually drinking a lot with adequate salt intake. I drank 30 ounces of fluids every hour this race and I was still sweating, but it still wasn’t enough. I’m guessing 40 people passed me going up Rat Jaw. My friend Ed caught up to me and didn’t sugar coat the suckiness that was still ahead after that road cut.
One foot at a time is all I could think about. I couldn’t even get that stupid Rocky Top song back into my head, even though it had been there all day. Anything to take my mind off the heat would’ve been great. Thorns did nothing to distract me from the sun beating down on me. Everyone was encouraging each other but it just seemed to register to me as the muffled sounds of Charlie Brown’s teacher. I was so hot and almost felt claustrophobic not being able to see anything due to the tall vegetation and steepness. My face was tingling. I was worried about passing out. In short I was feeling pretty crappy. There’s a reason you put a puppy halfway on a staircase to make it climb stairs; going down something that steep seems just as bad as continuing up.
So I continued up.
Going down and quitting would hurt just as much now and certainly much more later. It seemed crazy steep the entire way from the road cut until the hard turn left. I made the turn.
Then it seemed to get easier.
It is indeed less steep overall and it seemed a more consistent slope. Really though I think all the water I drank started to get absorbed and I was just feeling better. The only time I stopped on this section was because I got behind a group of about 10 people that would stop occasionally. There is also a rock cliff you have to go around into the trees a little to get to this crack through and up it.
As you can see from the photo, the vegetation was quite high. You pretty much can’t see where you’re going unless you’re really tall. Also this last section was almost entirely thorns. My shirt got torn enough that I threw it away once I got home. I almost tripped a few times too since they’d wrap around your leg somehow. My deepest cuts were from these on the back of my legs. I think I just kept saying “ow” a bunch of times. Not a very positive mantra I guess but it got me through it. And I was just feeling so much better. I know with cooler temps, I could’ve climbed much quicker. I think it took me around 90 minutes to climb it and it should’ve been just an hour.
Those photos are taken just as you take the last step onto the road that’s at the top of the hill (what kind of race director doesn’t use the road for the course instead?) There is an old fire tower that you need to climb up and get your bib punched again. The view was quite nice and you could actually feel a slight breeze. You had to follow the road down a short distance to the aid station where I got some water but I should’ve taken more. I thought my overheating issue was fixed since I was feeling better. Nope!
The next section was 4 miles all downhill! And it was a nice and easy downhill and easily my favorite part of the course.
I passed the majority of the people who passed me going up Rat Jaw which was nice. But as I got down lower and lower I could feel the temperature going up and up. Also it just seemed more humid, probably because it would rain in a couple hours. I got to aid station #5 which is the decision point and where Laz punches your bib. The drop bags are right before you get there so I re-lubed my feet and put on dry socks since they were still wet from the tunnel. I got some more food and drank a breakfast shake I put in there as well. I also got my headlamp which was required to continue. I was hoping all the calories and fluids would help on the last big hill and 9.5 miles. Finally I crossed the timing mat for my punch at 8 hours race time. The cut-off is 9.5 hours at this spot. If you are over that then you just run the road back to the finish line for a “marathon” finish instead of doing the last 9.5 miles and hills. I was now only 20 minutes ahead of where I thought I’d be. The downside is that there was a lot more hills than I thought left and the distance was further than I thought it would be. I was now in 66th place which actually surprises me, I suspect there were people taking longer with their drop bags than I did so they just hadn’t crossed the timing mat yet.
The rest of the race was just me going painfully slow up the trail that really wasn’t all that steep but I just couldn’t cool down. There were a couple areas where it went down and I wasn’t expecting multiple peaks (I didn’t study that section of the course enough I guess) so that was a spirit killer. There was one point that people from up above me warned of a yellow jacket nest just off the trail. Someone was passing me just as we got to it so we smartly went around and didn’t get stung. The people we warned later just tried to run past it – they got stung. The hill tops in this area were quite pretty. I could tell that time was just slipping away from me but there was really nothing I could do, I didn’t want to get to the point of having my face go numb again and I never seemed to get an energy boost from the food I ate. Finally there was a sharp turn where I knew it would be flat to downhill the rest of the way to the finish line.
The last aid station and bib punch was at the point where it would be all downhill. It had started to rain and thunder now as well. I welcomed the rain hoping it would cool me off, it didn’t. The air didn’t get any colder at all. It basically just made the rocks slippery and the trail slightly muddy. Finally I made it to the last flat part of the trail and then the road back to the finish line. I wish I could say I ran the entire road in but I didn’t. I finished in 11:17 for 78th place. Of the 416 that started, 84 didn’t finish, 127 had to settle for the marathon and 205 finished the 50k.
I just laid on the ground for 20 minutes drinking ICE COLD water and trying to cool down. Awesome! My quads hurt some since I didn’t get that much hill training in. It basically was like running a 50 miler instead of a 50k as far as how it felt and how long it took. There was food at the finish line so I got that and ran into some friends from Volstate that I talked to for awhile.
I had to get back to Louisville for my plane the next morning so I didn’t stick around too long and drove away. The hotel I stayed at was a complete dump but I didn’t care enough to get a different room. I basically just showered, packed, slept for 4 hours, and left.
The scratches on my legs and arms got more visible as time went on. They started itching a few days later as the scabs were ready to come off. I never got any poison ivy, or poison oak either. I don’t feel left out at all though not seeing a snake, getting stung, getting chiggers, or poison ivy. I much prefer avoiding all those things.
All in all I’m glad I ran this race. I may go back again to see what I can do in better weather and the course always changes anyway. There are lots of other great races that time of year as well though, so we’ll see.