There are memes about how hard the course will be. In a Facebook group, folks posted recovery photos from previous years — red lines of thorn-torn skin or bulging places where wasps attacked.
In the ultra running community, and among those with a love of Netflix documentaries, the Barkley Marathons and its bearded, cigarette smoking race director is a kind of icon. Arguably the hardest race in the world, only a select number of people get to run the full Barkley every year. After decades, only a handful have finished the approximately 100-mile race in Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg, Tennessee.
For the more average of athletes, the annual Barkley Fall Classic offers a glimpse of the full race. This "Baby Barkley" is one loop in the park, covering roughly 31 miles and more than 10,000 feet of vertical gain. The course offers a taste of the full Barkley, including some of the most famous sections such as the brier fields, a run down "Testicle Spectacle" and climbing over the prison wall.
The unwritten rules of the Fall Classic prevent me from disclosing much about the course. For example, using a GPS tracker or posting a photo of the course map will result in a lifetime ban.
Those caveats aside, the terrain of Frozen Head and the machinations of the Barkley's race director, Gary Cantrell (better known as "Lazarus Lake"), did not disappoint.
On race morning, September 18, I was among the first group to get to "Rat Jaw," an off-trail bushwhacking section that involves crawling through a long stretch of briers. My group estimated the section we covered was about half a mile. Cutting a trail through that thicket took us an hour. The thorns ripped through my clothing and skin. For a week after, my legs looked as though I was in a deathmatch with a herd of feral cats.
Rain fell for much of the race, at times a drizzle and at times a downpour. Steep downhills became muddy slip-n-slides. Uphills were a lesson in patience — for every two crawling steps forward, one was rewarded with 1.9 sliding steps back. Some folks threw up their hands, graced the course with a few choice words and walked off.
More than 400 people began the Barkley Fall Classic on that Saturday morning in September. In the end, 176 people finished, a number some joked was too high and probably annoyed Laz.
The famous race director, a smile shining out from his gray beard, stood at the final aid station, there to greet his runners with a tempting choice. Turn right and face five more miles of the race. Turn left and, after hours of grueling terrain, find the comfort of food and friends right around the corner. Only those who turned right would be considered a "finisher."
As my group opted for another hour of rainy, muddy fun on the course, I asked Laz how he got such perfect weather. He scoffed.
"Well," he said with a smirk. "We ordered hail."