In this race report, runner Bucky Love shares what you should know about the mysterious Barkley Fall Classic before running this 50k event. (Sorry, no hints on elevation or course map!)
Race: Barkley Fall Classic
Runner: Bucky Love
Race Date: 9/18/2021
Location: Frozen Head State Park, Wartburg TN
3 Bests – What aspects of the Barkley Fall Classic 50k did you like the most?
1. I love the lore and general mystery surrounding the race.
2. Race route changes every year and you get the map the evening before the start. You never know how you will do because of this.
3. No GPS tracking is permitted. Distance and Elevation gain is mostly unknown.
4. Love the general community feel and the comradery amongst runners and the support given even to those who are clearly destined to fail.
Not so much – What aspects of the Barkley Fall Classic didn’t do it for you?
1. Covid protocols seemed to be close to non existent. Mask at the start and that is about it. Nothing at aid stations and nothing at pre-race pick up.
2. Getting questions answered if you have them can be very intimidating, as there are a lot of none answers, sarcasm and general harshness given. Don’t ask a basic question that could be answered with a little research.
3. They changed the map at the last minute and did not make a general announcement about it. You had to hear it through the grapevine or find out during the race when you get to the turn. To the RD’s credit they did place people at the turn to direct traffic, which they never do.
Weird factor – What’s the weirdest thing about the Barkley Fall Classic?
That the race course changes every year and that the failure rate is typically over 60% of the starters. You run through an old prison yard and up a ladder over the prison wall and in a tunnel under the prison. The race bib punches spell out something different each year. This year it was either “I nailed the BFC” if you made it to the decision point before cut off or “I failed the BFC” if you had to take the marathon finish route because you missed the final cut off.
Highlights of your race – What did you do well and enjoy about your race in particular?
I nailed the ups on this race and felt strong throughout, particularly compared to two years ago. I loved the challenge of literally fighting, clawing, and crawling up mud slides due to the rain on the bush whacking power line cuts (testicle, meth, rat). It used some much more than running muscles and really felt like an adventure race at times.
Lessons for others – Share your pro-tips on the Barkley Fall Classic to help the next runner
Best lesson is to power hike the ups and run the downs and flats. There aren’t a lot of flats. Use the park map that has the blaze colors and write on your course map the color of the blazes you should be on. They don’t place confidence markers but most of the trails are blazed in the park.
I also like to know if I am supposed to be going up or down on the trail sections so that if I accidentally take a wrong turn and I am going down when I should be going up, I will know it easily. Train for a 50 mile race with at least 14K in elevation gain and you will be fit to finish.
Finally, if you are going up Bird Mountain switch back trail at the start, then run fast that mile down the road before you start up, because it WILL BE a VERY SLOW and long conga line to work around otherwise. Get ahead of that the best you can.
Lessons you learned that will help you next time around
My take aways from this time is get better shoes with a rock plate in them or A LOT more cushioning and to work on my running/power hiking transitions. There are a lot of down grade gravel type road running and it is murder on my feet. By 5 hours in my feet were toasted and it made the last 10 miles (8 down hill and 2 up) absolutely brutal. I also need to work on my running, power hiking, and running again transitions. I have some kind of mental block with this and just stop caring to go fast when I can and feel like I still have the power/energy in me but lack the motivation to tap into it.
Most important course specific knowledge to know about the Barkley Fall Classic?
That it changes every year but that most of race will be on Frozen Head State park trails and that they try to hit the big named things from The Barkley Marathon (testicle spectacle, meth lab and Rat Jaw).
If you do this race, know that testicle hangs to the left into the woods and down to a road. You could easily miss this turn like the lead runners did this year. There isn’t a sign for it. Also, on Meth Lab when you hit the stream you want to look for a small opening in the embankment and not follow the stream all the way down. Finally, also on Meth lab after the left out of the stream you will be on an old road. You will make a right (usually signed), then another right (again a sign), you will see a shed, cross a small bridge and make a sharp left (usually not a sign) and take the road toward the prison.
Aesthetics – Is it a pretty course?
There aren’t any amazing spanning views, but the woods are pretty, but nothing special. If you are looking for a pretty course this isn’t the race for you.
Difficulty – Is it a tough course?
Yes, very tough, but most of it is runnable. Come prepared and accept that you are power hiking and/or bear crawling at points and you will finish.
Organized and well run – Did it feel like a well-oiled machine or were they flying by the seat of their pants?
I would say a well-oiled machine. Lines moved quickly at pre-race check-in, aid stations were supplied, they didn’t seem to run out of anything, had plenty of volunteers, and in general it all went smoothly.
Competition – Is there a strong field?
There tends to be a couple of big contenders, not necessarily world class known names, but very fast people looking to score a golden ticket into the Big Barkley. The male and female winners get that as an award.
Logistics – Does it require a special handshake, registration a year in advance, hotels all booked? Give us the low down on the nuts and bolts of getting into the Barkley Fall Classic.
Yes, yes, yes, and more yes. Register the day it opens and get in the lottery. It will tell you that you are on a waitlist but that is because everyone is then they draw the names usually around October 1st. Never withdraw even if you don’t get initially picked there is always a lot of movement throughout the year.
If you don’t get picked the first year then your name is marked and if you register that 2nd year then the first 100 people into the race are pulled from the list that didn’t get in the year before and so on and so forth. If you don’t get pick in that first 100 you name is still in the general lottery that year too.
It took me three years to get in the first time, but I got in back to back years thereafter. You will definitely want to book your lodgings well in advance, some people even book their camping spot or Airbnb before they even get into the race over a year in advance.
Aid Stations – Standard fare or anything special to know about the aid stations in terms of what’s available or when?
Very standard fare with pre-package food selections. Their drink of choice is Sword, which is very high in sodium. I suggest getting some and trying it out before the race to make sure it doesn’t cause you any distress race day as it is it not a well know electrolyte drink from what I can tell.
Weather and typical race conditions
It can very from hot and humid to a monsoon. Usually it is warm either way and I wouldn’t bother with rain or wind gear, if would just get shredded in the briars.
Gear – Did you need anything special or is there anything you’d recommend for the next runner?
I wore arm sleeve and calf sleeves to protect my skin from the power line sections which can have poison ivy, poison XYZ plant, and very thorny briars. While I wore the calf sleeves all day, I only put on the arm sleeves during the bushy whacking times. My first time running this race, I had a poison ivy outbreak, and this time I came out fine.
Spectators – Is the Barkley Fall Classic an easy course for your friends to watch?
It depends on the course route. They discourage people from standing around on the park trails but usually they run the course around the prison which would be the best spot for spectators to get to.
How’s the Swag?
Not that great. The first year I did it they gave out a fun book that talked about the race, and Frozen Head State park. Kind of a do and do not guide to finishing, but not this year. This year it was just a few pantalets and a t-shirt. The finishers medal is pretty cool. It is a French style military cross (croix)
The Overall Score – How many stars do you give the Barkley Fall Classic and do you recommend that others run it?
Overall I would give it a 10. There is nothing they could really do that would make me like it more (perhaps, I should ding them for the lack of covid protocols in my rating). This race is a good mix between running and a little taste of adventuring racing. If you are looking for a 50K PR this isn’t the race for you. Also, if you are looking for an all out adventure race this isn’t the race for you. If you are looking for a challenging race with a varying course and distance between 30-45 miles and 10-15K elevation and you like the challenge of bush whacking through some briars and challenging yourself in a race that most people fail to finish, then this is the race for you and you will have a lot of fun along the way.