Sanders finishes toughest race


By James Phillips

People who spend any amount of time driving in, or through, Harperville have most likely passed Greg Sanders running down the country roads. On average, Sanders runs approximately 50 miles per week as part of his training for endurance races and marathon runs.

Sanders has completed numerous races and triathlons around the country, but nothing could have prepared him for the challenge of the Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) he completed two weeks ago.

Labeling the Barkley Fall Classic as only an endurance race, or marathon, is a tremendous understatement. This extremely challenging race was established in 2014 to give ultrarunners and marathoners the opportunity to experience parts of the world-renowned Barclay Marathon.

The original Barkley Marathon was established in 1986 and is one of the most grueling endurance races in the world. Each year the race includes 40 runners from around the world who travel to Tennessee to do their best to finish the 100 miles in 60 hours. A feat only 15 runners have accomplished over the last 33 years.  

The BFC is a closed race that invites 500 runners, out of thousands of applications, each year since 2014. The BFC course changes each year and is approximately 30 miles in length. During the race it’s not only a runner’s speed and running endurance that is tested. Competitors much traverse climbs, trails that are covered with briars, climb over fences, go through creeks all while using a handheld compass to navigate the course which includes trails that are not always clearly marked.

To add another level of difficulty, each runner is given a race bib with a GPS chip that tracks their on-course progress and verifies that each runner makes it to eight preset check points within the allowed time limits. If a runner fails to make it to a check point in the allowed time, their race is over and they must leave the course.

“We got a map and a compass and you must use your navigational skills in order to complete the course,” Sanders said. “This is not just a long trail run, this race tests every ability you have. If you don’t make the check points within the time limits you receive an automatic DNF (Did Not Finish) and you are immediately pulled from the race.”

The course for the BFC changes every year and the race maps are kept confidential until the racers are provided the map on race day. All around the course there are numerous ascents and descents that include 12,000 feet of elevation change throughout the 30 miles. Each of the climbs, or descents, have unique names like Rat Jaw, Bald Knob, Chimney Top Trail, and some that are not proper to print in this paper. The names were created by the eccentric race founder Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell.

“The Barkley Marathon originated after Cantrell learned of the escape attempt of James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary,” Sanders said.

During the escape attempt, Ray was only able to cover eight miles in 55 hours because of the rough and ragged terrain. Cantrell believed he could make it at least 100 miles within that time, thus the Barkley Marathon was born and later led to the creation of the Barkley Fall Classic.

“We actually went through the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary as part of the course,” Sanders recalled. “I had to climb the wall with a ladder and then run through the prison retracing the escape route Ray took in 1977. The prison has been closed for quite some time, but it was just another of interesting parts of the race.”

To say Sanders was surprised to get the invite to participate in this race would be an understatement. “I was totally shocked when I received my invite to this year’s race,” he said. “The race has a lottery system where thousands of runners from around the world apply and the organizers only invite 500. When I submitted my application, I never thought I would be invited, but I was excited and started thinking of the challenge I had ahead of me. This is one of the most difficult races in the country, if not the world, and it’s also one of the most difficult races to get in.”

Sanders continually trains throughout the year, but he knew that he would have to find somewhere with elevation changes in order to really prepare for the BFK. “I have been section hiking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. I started at Springer Mountain in Georgia, and I have made it to Damascus, Virginia completing about one-third of the complete trail.

“I traveled to Oak Mount State Park in Alabama where I would run 32 miles at 7,000 ft. elevation, and I run countless miles here at home. Even with all of my prerace training I don’t think anything could have fully prepared me for the actual race itself.”

Sanders has been running in competitions since 1993, but knew this race would test the limit of both his abilities and endurance. Once he was invited, he wanted to set realistic goals about his first attempt at the gauntlet of a race.

“I set my goal to finish the BFC marathon of 26 to 30 miles since it was my first year and I am 56 years old,” Sanders said. “I told my wife this very well may be my first ever DNF in a race, but I did not quit. I had never had a DNF in a race, and even though this was the toughest challenge I have every had I was able to finish the race.

“It did not start off good. Coming down from my first climb after 10 miles I had severe leg cramps and thought I was in trouble, but another racer saw me in trouble and gave me some pills for cramping and that really helped me continue the race.”

Sanders said that the race as a whole was truly an experience like nothing he has ever done in his life, and there were so many things to test every facet of your ability.

“One part of the course was so steep it was 2,000 feet of elevation change in only nine-tenths of a mile. It was a tough climb on the way up and then I was literally sliding on my butt coming down,” said Sanders. “We also had to pay attention to the huge briars everywhere and the wildlife in the area like rattle snakes, feral hogs and wasp to name a few. When I was on one trail, I heard this loud scream and then as I ran by there was a very large coiled up rattle snake. That made me climb and run a little faster.”

The time allowed to finish the race is 13.2 hours. Sanders was able to complete the course in 12 hours and 40 minutes. Of the 464 runners that started the race less than 40 percent (186) of runners actually complete the race.

“I have ran in so many races and marathons, but this was the most difficult challenge I have ever had and I was very blessed to be able to finish, especially with leg cramps,” said Sanders. “I have never been beat up and torn up by briars like that before in my life, but it was truly a wonderful experience. I hope I’m selected to run the race again in the future, I would really like to complete the whole race.”

This year’s Barkley Fall Classic included runners from 49 U.S. States, 10 Canadian Provinces and 34 countries around the world. Sanders said he was honored to be selected this year and hopes to run the race again in upcoming years.