Andrea Larson Prevails at the Barkley Fall Classic. Now Barkley Marathon Bound.
Note: To maintain the mystique of the race, I am purposely not naming specifics about the race course.
I made the 13-hour drive to Tennessee with a single goal – win the Barkley Fall Classic. Winning would nab me an invitation to the world’s toughest race, the Barkley Marathons (popularized by the Netflix documentary, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young ). With a lot of sweat, followed by blood then mud, I thrashed, slid, and burrowed myself to the finish line.
Although the Barkley Fall Classic is coined a 50K distance, in reality, people estimated this year’s course (it changes every year) to possibly be the longest, likely over 40 miles. Although, it was still my shortest individual race distance in a decade, finishing times do not reflect this on the brutal course. Known as the Baby Barkley, the Barkley Fall Classic takes place at Frozen Head State Park, the same location as the Barkley Marathons. The Barkley Marathons boasts only 18 finishers over the race’s 35 year history. And only one woman has started a 4th lap (race is 5 laps). I’d like to help change that.
Almost immediately during the Barkley Fall Classic, I questioned if I had it in me to finish the race. I was quickly dropped on a climb that no one mentioned as a challenge. I quickly found myself struggling to just walk up the trail. I was only 2 hours into the race and wondered how I’d endure the infamous climbs still awaiting over the next 8 hours of racing. My mojo had taken a hit with two DNFs in a row and I couldn’t afford another, but things were not looking good. I had to gather all my willpower to not sit down on the trail but trudge on. My legs felt leaden and when I attempted to run the flats, my lungs gasped for oxygen. Once I began clawing up the first infamous climb, I had to stop for several breathers. The top of the climb was no where in sight. My confidence waned.
Then just like that, the tide turned when I caught up to a pack. They were burrowing under the briars and creating a path up one of the most iconic features on the course. During this time of glacial speed, I used my adventure racing tactics to refuel, empty out the debris in my shoes before I formed nagging blisters, and get some much needed recovery. Although I hadn’t practiced crawling in my training, it gave my legs a much needed break from running. The roughly ¾ mile took an hour to crawl up. Near the top, I learned I was now in the lead pack and only a couple more racers had caught up to our pack. All the time I had lost on earlier climbs was neutralized.
In many past editions of the Barkley Fall Classic, the sun beats down and scorches runners. This year, the heavens opened and thunder crashed as we descended and ascended the epic course. As the rain began to pour down, we headed to the second infamous hill. My confidence had returned along with my energy levels. Due to the especially slick conditions, I could simply go down steep sections like a muddy slip-and-slide, which I found far easier than attempting to stay upright. Due to a wrong turn by the lead pack that had gotten a bit ahead of me, I was told at the next aid station I was only the third person to arrive. Although I felt bad for their misfortune, my confidence surged along with the rainwater flowing down the slopes. As I ascended, the adventure turned epic crawling and grabbing whatever I could to pull myself up the slick slopes. I figured this was a lot more fun (and cooler) than other years. Another plus was I could follow the flow of water down the hills on the next non-trail section. I even had the opportunity to do my fair share of work, breaking trail through briars after quickly catching the leader on the next briar-filled slope.
Double the fun
We had the opportunity to ascend one of the infamous climbs a second time and it was a completely different experience. The first time we burrowed on hands and knees most of the route, but after several hundred runners going through, it had turned into a super highway. Now there was a 3 foot wide path that often turned into a slip-and-slide (in the wrong direction) from the rain that fell since our first visit. Luckily there was an old cable we could frequently grapple to drag our bodies uphill. We overtook a few runners still on their first time up the hill and had to bear hug them as we grabbed the cable on the other side of their bodies to prevent sliding down and taking out the rest of the lead pack. After unrelenting forward progress up the hill, I thought the rest of the lead pack was on my heels, but was surprised to find myself alone at the lead. I knew it wouldn’t last long as I couldn’t descend the trails as fast as the others.
My race mantra was “Aggressive but controlled.” Aside from one superman fall with only minor abrasions, I was able to follow this mantra. This was especially important due to my multiple ankle sprains over the past year to ensure I’d make it to the finish line. When I reached decision point (the point where people can either finish the full course or short course straight to the finish line), Laz didn’t even ask me where I was headed. He must have seen my look of determination. I made sure to push it to the finish as I had no idea how many racers were nipping on my heels. At the finish, I was awarded moonshine for my first place finish.
Thanks to Laz, Steve Durbin, all the volunteers (including volunteers at check-in that patiently answered my course clarification questions) who put together this epic event. I am grateful to all the racers that helped me reach the finish line – those that worked together to clear a path through briars, veterans that helped me navigate, and those that offered encouragement along the way. Congrats to all 416 racers that had the courage to toe the starting line and especially all 176 finishers.
Be sure to follow this blog – https://www.ironbull.org/blog – as I provide periodic updates on Barkley training and other great stories past, present, and future. Bring on Barkley!