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I stood under the jagged skyline of Frozen Head State Park, scanning the briars for signs of movement. I was at mile 18, and despite being four hours into the race, nobody had passed through. The sounds of cracking branches and distant yells of some athletes pierced the sky on occasion, making it known that they were coming.
Slowly. Surely. Painfully. A nearby spectator shook her head and with a sigh, recalled similar situations from past runnings of Barkley events. “If you ain’t ever prayed, this race will make you pray. If you ain’t ever cussed, this race will make you cuss too.” Followed by another spectator’s “whoever comes over that hill first is going to be bloody, muddy, and having the time of their life.”
A few tense minutes passed, then branches shook, rocks tumbled, and a loud grunt broke the silence. I rushed over to the edge of Rat Jaw to see which unfortunate runner had the privilege of blazing a trail up a hill that might as well have been covered in barbed wire. To my surprise, and that of the rest of the spectators, two runners appeared from the thicket of thorns beneath us. They made a final push up the last ten meters of the hill, falling on loose dirt, rocks, and briars as they half-scrambled to the service road. The look of relief on their faces quickly faded when they realized they had to climb three more stories of stairs to the top of an observation tower to make it to the official checkpoint.
The whole scene played out exactly how I expected it to. I’d heard and read the stories of Barkley, and I expected this to be relatively identical. The blood and hundreds of cuts on the arms and legs of the first runners accentuated the widely held notion that the 50k race is designed to lead to a DNF, just as its infamous 100 mile counterpart. An hour passed before the next runner made his way to the top, having gone off course for quite some time. Unlike the Barkley Marathons, the Fall Classic was marked, though with serious minimalism, which resulted in multiple routes for runners to guess their way to the top of the various hills. Unconventional gear was spotted all day long. Utility gloves and shin guards were some popular pieces of apparel, and one racer said half-jokingly that the cloth-printed map could double as a tourniquet if need be.
After a few hours on top of Rat Jaw, I ran down to the next checkpoint to catch the runners at the “26.2” mark. As I approached, I could hear an unmistakable, raspy, southern draw heckling runners. “Ya going to keep on going? There’s only nine miles left, all of them gradual downhills straight to the finish.” The race founder, Laz, stood in the middle of the trail, almost like an obstacle. Athletes either accepted further invitation to play his game, or added their name to the ever-lengthening DNF list.
One athlete in particular athlete got a bit different speech from Laz though. I spotted Josh Berry on the trail, blood down his leg and skin flapping at his knee. Some tough love from a rock left him cut down to the bone and sent him sliding downhill, which should convince the average person to call it quits. Laz even made a fair argument “You’re not going to make a PR. There’s no Boston qualifier at stake. You’ve got a good [wound] there. We could call the paramedics and get you to the hospital for some stitches. You’re going to need them.” Even the most sincere invite to sign the DNF list couldn’t sway Berry from finishing the truncated “26.2” version of the “50k”. He picked up his hiking stick and turned his sights for the trail ahead. One step at a time, the trail disappeared behind him until there was no more trail to cover, and crossed the finish line.
The day pressed on, and I moved to the finish line to capture some more photos. The finish line atmosphere was a testament to the spirit, heart and determination that trail runners of any distance have. I watched people limp, bleed, cry, cheer, and sprint as they came down that lone stretch of flat ground. I had only witnessed small pieces of their respective race experiences, but once again, I was reminded why I love this sport so much. Cheers to all of the athletes that were out there, crushing mountains, wading through thorns, and living out the sport with grit and perseverance.