Barkley Fall Classic 50k: A PREVIEW J. Vidmar

INTRODUCTION less than a week I'll be down in Frozen Head State Park toeing the line at the Barkley Fall Classic 50k. Some might describe it as the little brother of the "Big Barkley"...but, a more apt analogy may be that third cousin that you see only every few years at a family reunion. Sure, there is some shared DNA...but, not much in common in terms of disposition.

The BFC does share some of the famous climbs and terrain associated with the Big One (e.g., Rat Jaw, Testicle Spectacle, Chimney Top, etc.), and adds some unique variations (such as a portion of the route that passes *through* Brushy Mountain State Penn...the course literally runs through the solitary confinement area and past James Earl Ray's former cell). And, co-creator Laz's stated purpose in creating the race is " give the runner a taste of what the Barkley Marathons is all about." But, unlike the Big One, the course is marked and has aid, that's an incredibly huge difference in terms of race management.

A course marker inside Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. From the 2015 BFC. Credit:

But, just about *any* footrace compared the Big Barkley is going to come off looking pretty soft.

That said, by most metrics, the BFC is as gnarly as any 50k race I've certainly seen: purportedly closer to 35 miles, and as Laz puts it, "with a ridiculous amount of climb and descent." From the limited data points I have gathered, it appears to be in the neighborhood of 11,000 - 12,000 ft. of elevation gain. That's comparable to compressing the Twisted Branch 100k course down to the Patch Road AS, and adding 2-3 more Mt. Washington ascents in for good measure. About 50% more EG than Battle at Bristol Mountain 50k. A comparable amount of climbing (but likely a bit more) as Run the Rut 50k, and even the Great Range Traverse. GPS is outlawed for this race, and race co-creator Laz notoriously despises Strava (and has been known to hunt down and ban anyone who posts race data there)...but, the data I have found shows a handful of 1500-1800 ft. climbs strung together.

One of the elevation course profiles I was able to find on-line...this is from 2014, when Laz apparently considered the course way too easy. It was revamped in 2015, and supposed to be even harder in 2016. Credit: "The Bakley Fall Classic 50k - It gets worse.",


So, how did I get involved with this whole shin-dig, anyway? I basically signed up on a whim immediately after watching the "Barkley Movie" on Netflix this January...something about the race really enthralled me. I'm pretty sure it had to do with the ridiculousness of it...but, also the simplicity: mostly off-trail, no electronics, no aid stations, no markings, unknown course, unknown start time, etc.

The Big Barkley is basically the opposite of other big, media-driven ultras like Western States or UTMB in terms of style. I had recalled noticing the BFC 50k race "derivative" during the prior year, and was hopeful in that it might provide a small sample of the real thing. When I checked Ultrasignup that Jan night, the 400-person cap was already reached and I thought there was no way I'd get in. But, I decided to wait-list anyway, and lo-and-behold, I got the email that I got "selected" off the wait list only several days later. Huh. Why not?

Some images of the carnage/obstacles from BFC 2015. Last photo is the shot of the infamous Raj Jaw climb, with saw briars reportedly reaching up to head level. Photo Credit: Brandon Yonke. Source: "Of Blood and Bones and a Ton of Vert",

It turns out that "Why not?" is always a much easier question to ask than "Why?" Especially when it comes to the ultra or extreme adventuring class of activities, I've found it is often pretty hard to nail down why we are drawn to do some of the things we do. I've no doubt gone through some evolution this year in terms of what place running and training has in my life. That will be a post for another time and day, but this quote from Laz might capture what draws me to certain events or adventures these days:

"You can't accomplish anything without the possibility of failure." -Lazarus lake


In terms of race prep for BFC, it hasn't exactly been surgical...more of a total hack job. Perhaps, non-traditional is the better term. But, at this stage in my life, I need my running/training to be extremely flexible and seamlessly integrate into what is usually a pretty hectic schedule...and bigger/growing commitments at home and work. Running is something I really enjoy...but, I've had to limit the time I can give it.

Strava training-log from Aug-Sep (biking/running time). Not including weight training time. Not a ton of volume in terms of mileage (usually, 20-25 mpw), but reasonably consistent in terms of time. That big bump was pacing at Twisted Branch...if I can channel even a tenth of Danielle's performance that day, I should be good.

So, I've kept things dirt simple the past 4 months: run (or bike) about 5 hours per week, sometimes a little more or less. "Something is usually better than nothing" has been a mantra. This typically nets only 20-25 miles per week of running on most weeks (about a 50% cut from peak volume last year).

To make up for that low-ish volume and still be able to do stupid stuff, I've ratcheted up the intensity and variety: intervals, hill repeats, lifting followed by treadmill sessions, bike/run brick workouts, kettle-bell workouts in the garage every other day or so, adventuring and also chasing friends around on their adventures. I've also experimented with some truly dumb stuff, like hill repeats with ankle weights attached. (Fair warning: it's a real pain in the arse.) And mixed in a few epic treks here and there: Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim...Presidential Traverse...a fair bit of time in the ADKs getting totally beat-up. No proper training plan...which has taken a lot of the stress out of running for me, and returned it to something much more enjoyable and fun.

After trying to force mileage at several points earlier in the year, and walking away injured on more than one occasion, I've learned to take what's stop to look and listen and reflect...and not to force. One epiphany I had that seems so simple in retrospect, now, is: if you're not enjoying your training, then you might be doing it wrong.

Heading down the South Kabaib on a Grand Canyon double-crossing this June. 45.8 miles, 13,000+ ft EG, just under 18 hours on a similar training plan to what I've been doing for BFC. Hopefully it is an indicator.


Then again, it might be a stretch to call the BFC a "running" event. I'd call it a cross-hike...maybe hikelocross? Run when you can...which might not be often. And climb/hike the majority. After all, there is only so much you can do on a 40-60% grade...and there is a lot of that. I'm anticipating it will be more of a test of physical strength than it will be of top-end aerobic capacity...with plenty of pure grit tossed in. Laz does say that you can't make cut-offs just purely hiking it, though...

Yet, it is fun to check out some data on the finish times to get an idea of where things might end up. Last year, Jason Lantz, who set the Twisted Branch 100k course record this year in 11:06:54...finished BFC in 7:46:45. Impressive time on that course, though I'd bet it is several hours slower than his usual 50k time. In fact, at Hellgate 100k in 2014, where he finished third, he clocked in at 11:20:28. Fairly comparable to this BFC finish time. A lot of potential variables at play there, and dangerous to draw too many conclusions from that...but, gives you a feel for the relative effort level required at BFC. To his credit, Lantz didn't look any worse for the wear:

Jason Lantz during the 2015 BFC 50k...looks like the infamous saw briers said hello. Photo Credit: Brandon Yonke. Source: "Of Blood and Bones and a Ton of Vert",

Because I'm a bit of a data geek, I did some quick analysis on the finisher data from last years BFC available on ultrasignup. What I found:

  • The average finish time was 11.55 hours, which would be a 19.8 min/mi pace if the race is truly 36 miles. And, 21 min/mi if the race is 33 miles.
  • There were 101 finishers...and 44 DNFs. That is a 69.4% finish rate. But, the data is fairly skewed, since Laz offers a finish at mile 22 listed as a Marathon finish, and not a DNF. There were 69 marathon finishes...which would mean that the actual 50k finish rate was under 50%.
Finish time histogram from the 2015 BFC. While the overall average finish time was about 11 1/2 hours, the single biggest "bucket" was between 12.5-13 hours.


I am going to be incredibly fortunate to have Valerie coming down to Frozen Head State Park and crewing/supporting me on this one. The kids are going to have a grandparents weekend in Cleveland, and her and I are looking forward to making a fun road-trip / getaway out of it. [Aside: things to work on: start planning a road trip with wife that doesn't revolve around a sadistic running event.]

So: what are my expectations for this race? I'm honestly not quite sure. It is technically my first proper ultra race...but, feels more akin to a long day in the 'daks bushwhacking than anything else. Put some hills in front of me, and I'll try to climb them. Of course, I'd love to finish: I don't believe one should set out on an adventure if there is no reasonable expectation of finishing. I've been on several wild adventures this summer that have spanned 13 hours or that has lent some degree of confidence. And, I'm probably climbing as strong these days as I ever have. But, I'd be lying if I said I felt as well-trained as I'd like to be.

We'll just have to see if it is good enough. I'm looking forward to finding seeing if I can ride that thin line between peril and adventure, between success and failure. Laz also has another quote I really like:

"People have their own concepts of success and failure, and a lot of them, after they’ve been through the ordeal, really are not concerned how other people evaluate their performance." -Lazarus Lake

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