Tennesse Three

“And if you have a minute, why don’t we go
Talk about it somewhere only we know?
This could be the end of everything
So, why don’t we go somewhere only we know?
Somewhere only we know”


It all started, like a lot of these things start, with my friend Ray getting a hare-brained idea after watching something on Tik Tok or Youtube. About 5 years ago he’d stumbled across a documentary on Youtube about an insane ultra marathon in Tennesse called the Barkley Marathon –  ‘The Race That Eats Its Young’ and thought that it would be the ultimate challenge for our friend Annamarie, who happily runs 4 marathons back-to-back over bank holiday weekends, runs 100 mile races from Belfast to Dublin overnight, and is on a current streak of 1700 consecutive days of running a minimum of 5k per day.

It’s not often that in any group of three people that I’m the sensible one, in fact its unique. This is that group.

Ray had also said all those years ago that if Annamarie ever got into the Barkley, that he and I would go to support her. I wasn’t ever asked if I thought it was a good idea, or if I was even interested in going, but as I didn’t think it would ever happen, I just smiled and said nothing.

Then two completely unconnected things happened. I was ill last year and decided to stop saying no to any invitations or suggestions of trips and adventures, even if the suggestion comes from Ray, and Annamarie applied for a place in the Barkley Fall Classic.

So last week we all ended up in Tennesse together.

This is not a diary of all that happened. We had so many highlights that meant so much to us, but are hard to put into words, and may seem innocuous or trivial if you weren’t there…and you weren’t.

Little things made a big impression on us.  

Pancakes for breakfast at iHop , the size of the Walmart store, the drugs you could buy off the shelf in Walgreens, Buc-Ees , the world’s largest gas station, bars with 50 beers on tap, those same bars closing at 10pm, the size of the food portions, everyone’s genuine friendliness, being called ‘Sugar’, and, or ‘Honey’ in restaurants, the complete lack of Trump, or any political flags, anywhere, and the only guns we saw were being carried by police officers or park rangers, the passion everyone had for their local team, be that high school, college, or city, the size of the cars and jeeps, the quality of the burgers, the cleanliness of streets and parks, the ever changing speed limits on what to us looked like the same road, how mad for HallowEen they are…in September, the huge number of Baptist Churches, the lack of bars, the lack of public transport, how busy Nashville is of a Monday afternoon.

But all of these were peripheral to the main event , the Barkley Fall Classic, 50k through Frozen Head State Park, with a total elevation of 18,000 feet, that’s like climbing Carrauntouhill 3,047 feet, Slieve Donard 2,790 feet, and Lugnaquilla 3,035 feet ….twice !

We got up at 5.00am on the Saturday to drive from our Breaking Bad motel in Oakridge to Frozen Head for the start of the race at 7.00 am. In keeping with the general lunacy of the whole event, the race starts when it’s instigator, Lazarus Lake, lights a cigarette.

We waved Annamarie off and decided to go for a 10 mile run ourselves as part of our own training for the Dublin City marathon at the end of October, hoping to be finished in time to cheer her through the end of her first and second loops. We’d 4 miles done through the gentle rolling hills of the carparks and campsites when we realised she’d shortly be passing the famous Barkley yellow gate. This gate is similar to the gate at the start of our own weekly Parkrun in Rossmore Park, but this one is famous in the ultra running world as the finishing point of the main Barkley Marathon in April.

“You mean that this insane Fall Classic isn’t the toughest race ever ?”

No, the fall classic is one marathon distance, the main Barkley is 5 marathons, all back-to-back in one go. In that race you have to touch this yellow gate after each marathon loop to stop the clock…except that they never stop the clock.

We waited at the gate and cheered on everyone that passed. Annamarie looked to be in good form. At this point she had completed the first five mile loop and was now on the second 8 mile loop. Ray and I headed off to run our own next 6 miles, taking in Debord Falls and Emory Gap Falls. We spotted Panther Trail, and remembered that it was on the first loop Annamarie had just done, so we decided to head up it so we could say that we’d experienced a part of the race. It was two miles uphill, on incredibly narrow paths, so narrow in fact that we both agreed that there was no way that the race could have come up this way, it was too dangerous. We later discovered that they had indeed, all 400 of them, run up this hill, and that it was the smallest hill that they would run that day.

We made it to the finish of our run, and had a quick dip under the Emory waterfall, in time to see Annamarie reach the second loop checkpoint. She still looked to be going strong, smiled and waved at us, filled her water bottles and trotted off to start the next loop. This loop was long and nasty, which gave Ray and I time to drive back to our motel, shower , change, have the 2x2x2 combo in our local iHop…

“What’s the 2x2x2 combo ?”

Two fried eggs, two pieces of bacon, and two pancakes bigger than your head, drowned with a bucket of maple syrup.

We made it back to Annamarie’s next checkpoint, which was at the abandoned Brushy Mountain Prison. To reach this checkpoint she had climbed Chimney Top , 3,046 feet, and then climbed the five storied fire  tower at the top, before descending the cutely named Rat Jaw hill, which was a bramble and briar strewn steep descent, with no path, and then running through a tunnel under the prison, climbing a ladder into the prison , and then running to the checkpoint. She’d been on the go for 9 hours at this point…oh, did I mention that a thunderstorm had also erupted ?

She was covered head to toe in mud and her arms and legs were shredded by the brambles…and she still gave us the thumbs up, smiled…and warned me not to post any pictures on social media…but I assumed she was joking…

She now headed off to the delightfully named mountains Meth Lab, and Testicle Spectacle, which she had to climb and then turn and come back over them to the prison again. At that point you’d have done 42k, a marathon distance and could finish there and get your Barkley marathon dog tags, or you could go back up Rat Jaw and complete the last 8k and get the BFC medal. But if you decided to continue past the marathon point and then didn’t get to the 50k point in under 13 hours and 20 minutes you got no medal at all, no marathon dog tag and would be listed as DNF, did not finish. And if you didn’t get as far as the 42k point at the bottom of Rat Jaw by 11 hours 20 minutes they wouldn’t let you go any further anyway, as no one could complete those last 8 k in under 2 hours…not even Annamarie.

The thunderstorm was getting worse. Ray and I couldn’t see out of the car windows as the rain pelted down. We saw more and more people quit the race, bedraggled, bleeding, and covered in mud. As we waited at the checkpoint we heard safety officers on the radio talking about someone who’d broken their femur at the top of Rat Jaw and that they’d have a 6 to 8 hour wait, as the thunderstorm was making it impossible to get a helicopter up there and they’d have to be lowered down manually on a stretcher by a rescue crew.

The 11 hour 20 minute cut off was approaching and there was no sign of Annamarie. She’d said all along that she’d be happy with the dog tag, but we were sure she’d go the whole way. That was before we saw Rat Jaw, the thunderstorm, and heard about broken bones.

The cut off came and went, still no sign. More and more runners pulled out of the race. And then they said that they were closing the prison. We panicked, thinking she had to get back through it in order to get her dog tag. Ray told me to go and stand in the prison gate to stop them closing it while he went off in the car to see if he could spot her and tell her to hurry. Thankfully he didn’t meet her, as I’m sure she’d have murdered him on the spot if he’d dared tell her, after 12 hours running, to ‘hurry up’. And we found out that they were still allowed to run around the back of the prison to qualify for the marathon.

We spotted her on the road coming up to the prison around 12 hours 20 minutes and we both cried and hugged each other with relief, but had manfully recovered before she caught up to us. She ran around the back of the prison , ran through the tunnel underneath, climbed out, and up to Lazarus at the foot of Rat Jaw to claim her dog tag with an hour to spare.

She was thrilled, beaming , bloodied, muddied, and GLORIOUS !

Ray and I beamed from ear to ear. We were so very proud.

She got the school bus back to the start, and we darted off to buy bin bags to line the back of the car to take her back to the motel.

421 people started the race at 7.00 am , 13 hours and 20 minutes later 205 people finished it, 135 completed the 50k , and 70 finished the marathon.

The whole way back to Oak Ridge that night she told us off her exploits on the trails, the brambles, the climbs, and we listened in rapt attention, simply saying ‘Wow !’ every so often.

We got her home at 10 pm.

Annamarie, being Annamarie, called us the next morning , yes, a Sunday morning, at 7.00am to join her for a 5k run. We joined her…and couldn’t keep up with her.

We had another 2x2x2 in the iHop, and then drove back out to Frozen Head to get a photo at the gate.

People familiar with the race, with Lazarus Lake, and the gate say to each other “If you know, you know.”

Ray and I always knew Annamarie was incredible, but the dial has shifted into awesome territory.

I always knew I had great friends , but that measure has also increased.

And I also know that five days away from my Soulmate may just be 4 too many.

Oh, and on the Monday we went to Nashville……

But that’s a story for another day.

Toodles, Sugar.


Author: paul

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