John Calabrese

Barkley Fall Classic Race Report

I took it easy leading up to the Barkley Fall Classic race weekend because I knew what was coming. I had just run The Ring but got in a lot of rest and easy runs.

Erick Kuhlmann and John Calabrese pre-race

On the Friday of the race my girlfriend Denise Freeman and I drove to Staunton, to pick up my buddy Erick Kuhlmann. Erick and I have driven together to the Barkley Fall Classic four times, and this was going to be our fifth. Erick and I always stay with our friend Malinda Honkus in Knoxville. We both met her at a race, and she introduced us. Malinda is super cool and always helps the trail community.

We got to Malinda’s and hung out, caught up, then Denise and I drove to packet pickup to get our bibs, see the map, and talk to friends. When Denise and I returned to our friends, we discussed the map and strategies, then ate lots of food and went to bed.

The next morning, we got up at 3:30am and started getting ready. The park can be real crazy on race day so we like to get there early. We said our goodbyes to Malinda and headed out. We got there and prepped, took pictures and lined up.

John and his girlfriend Denise Freeman

This race is not like normal races. If you want the 50k,you have to know your strengths and weaknesses and play to them. My first 2 attempts at this race ended with me missing cutoffs and settling for marathon finishes. I’ve gotten much better though, and been getting the 50k, but it’s because I know specifically what I need to do.

I have to go fast on all road, jeep road, etc. stretches because when it comes to the hard parts like Meth Lab, Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw, it takes me a long time. Embarrassingly long amounts of time.

Gary Cantrell - better known by his nom de guerre of Lazarus Lake - gets his BFC show rolling.

So with that, I went extremely quick on the road and got ahead.

I was doing very well until I hopped a downed log and got attacked by bees. I slowed down but was still running. My buddy Casey came up on me and we talked a bit. I started feeling rough though and began bonking. Ran out of water and got stung again! I managed to fight and claw my way to the aid station and drank a lot of water.

Next portion had a significant amount of downhill and road so I tried to take advantage because we had a huge climb coming. Chimney Top took a long time. I tried to just move with purpose but not get too messed up.

Slip sliding away

Aid Station Surprise
I rolled into the aid station, and they had iced Coke! I was so happy. But if you get Coke on this race you know some serious bullshit is coming. I proceeded to Rat Jaw. We were going to have to go down it. I absolutely hate going down Rat Jaw, I just let anyone I see go by me because I’m a sloppy mess. Briars wrap around my ankles and bring me down. It’s just extremely difficult to get momentum and I’m not good at sliding either, so it’s pretty tough.

Rat Jaw is only a mile, but it probably took me over an hour. I don’t want to even know my time, it’s just depressing.

Laz Lake checks John in

The last part of Rat Jaw you have to slide down and are greeted by a legend, Laz himself, waiting for you because, if you make his Final Cut, you get to go back up that nightmare!

Unauthorized Aid
My girlfriend, Denise Freeman, was on the prison wall volunteering, and we were happy to see each other, and Keith Dunn was there talking trash-it was funny. I had to move so we said our goodbyes and I proceeded to a place where I really suck.

Up and over the prison wall

Meth Lab
As soon as I headed over the wall, it started raining. This is the absolute worst scenario because the hardest parts of the race would be muddy. These sections are hard normally but if you add mud they’re a total nightmare.

I climbed Meth pretty well but the back of my head was very worried because we had to go back down this later when it was going to be a sloppy mess.

Testicle Spectacle
This section usually breaks me. Lots of sliding- it doesn’t even feel like real life. It gets really weird out there. I kept falling over and over on the mud, slid into briars and was just a complete mess. Luckily this section isn’t long but you have to turn around and climb it, which is rough, too.

Laz in his element

I got to the aid station and didn’t stay long as I was starting to get concerned about time. I wasted a lot on these parts but I was still okay. On the way up, for some reason, I greeted everyone who was coming down Testicle heading to the turn around and said, “Hey how the hell are you?”

The reactions were priceless and people going my direction started laughing and doing the same thing-it was awesome. It was also needed because it sucked climbing up sloppy mud to get back to Meth Lab, which I seriously was not looking forward to but needed to move quickly there to get back to Laz to make it before the cut.

Is this even real??

Like when I went down Rat Jaw earlier, I just let everyone pass me, I moved so slowly here-there’s some terrifying parts when it’s muddy. I found myself just looking at other people going the other direction and we exchanged “holy shit why?” looks. I was basically flailing around in the mud this entire section, just trying to slide with my legs spasming out. It was so painful that I was extremely happy when I got to the end of Meth Lab.

Running through the former Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary - the Prison.

Erick caught up to me! We ran through the prison, said hi to Denise, then headed to Laz for the decision. Laz was trying to sell us a 3rd place marathon spot instead of continuing on for the 50k, but Erick and I weren’t having any of that, so we disappointed Laz and moved on. Almost immediately I had regrets as I started to climb Rat jaw. It was muddy and hard to find spots to climb. I kept pushing on and trying hard not to look up. Every time I looked up I’d see people all over climbing, struggling, or resting. It was stressful so I just focused on what was immediately in front of me and kept moving.

The thing with climbing Rat Jaw is it’s horrible in spots but if you keep moving it does flatten out some but even with the trail being traveled there was still some annoying briars, mud and you really have to get creative to find things to use while you climb. There is a power line you can use that helps but sometimes using briars, and plants works better.

Making progress …

I was in a pack with about 5 people and I lost Erick in that mess. We were in finish mode now. We got our final bib punch and headed to the end. We had an hour and 20 min to go 4 miles. That sounds like a lot of time but we were wrecked and we definitely needed to be careful.

Final Push
The main thing here is I had to remain shuffling, and as long as I did that, a finish was guaranteed. The question after Rat Jaw though is: can even run at all?. Some years, I’ve had no running gear after battling the Rat. The good news though is, this time, I had gas in the tank to run, so I got into a comfortable shuffle and headed to old Mac. Erick passed me here. I was glad to see him because I wanted him to get that finish.

I wanted to be done so bad. These miles were easy but took forever. Laz had one more surprise for us. We got to the road and thought we were done but, oh no. He had us go through a creek and got us soaked. I guess he thought it was helpful because we were all so dirty. Slowly I started to faintly hear the crowd. Louder and louder until I saw the timing station and boom!! Done!! Denise, Erick and Jana Fridrichová were waiting for me. We all hung out and swapped war stories.

Erick, John and Jana Fridrichová with their finishers’ medallions

Clean Up On Aisle John
I was a muddy/bloody disaster and Denise was instrumental in helping Erick and I become humans again.

We left to head back to Virginia and hit up all the food along the way.

Next year I am going to lobby Denise to run this with me. This race will test the limits of our relationship to the brink.

I am so thankful for not only getting back in this race again but how amazing everyone who is a part of it was. Steve Durbin, Laz, Keith, Terri and all of the organizers and volunteers, you did a phenomenal job. There’s no event quite like this out there and nobody can do what you do.

Special thank you to friends Malinda, Gary and Joe for helping us out! Couldn’t have done it without you. We had so much fun hanging out!!