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Is this the toughest race in the world?

Every year 40 athletes are chosen to race in The Barkley Marathons, and in the last three decades, only 15 people have successfully crossed the finish line

Posted: May. 28, 2018 3:38 AM
Updated: May. 28, 2018 3:38 AM

Fifty years ago, a career criminal named James Earl Ray traveled from Atlanta to Memphis, stalking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader was there to energize a strike of sanitation workers asking for better working conditions and higher pay. Ray was there to assassinate him.

While King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel (now a museum for peace), Ray accomplished his sinister goal with a single shot from more than 200 feet away.

Over the next two months, while on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives List, Ray was on the run, traveling to Europe on a false passport. He was eventually caught at London's Heathrow Airport. He pleaded guilty to avoid a jury trial and the death penalty, was sentenced to 99 years and sent to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in eastern Tennessee, surrounded by thick wooded hills.

In its day, it was considered one of the toughest state prisons, where inmates frequently killed each other. In the novel "The Silence of the Lambs," Dr. Hannibal Lecter negotiates a transfer to the prison.

Brushy was also nearly impossible to escape, but Ray managed it with the help of six other convicts in 1977. All were recaptured within days, though "rescued" is probably the better description. Cold, hunger and disorientation brought them to their knees, and their own fiction-worthy plot turned from "The Great Escape" to "Blair Witch Project."

Ray himself traveled only 8 miles in a little over two days, a detail that made one local long-distance runner, Gary Cantrell, think to himself that he could make it 100 miles in that amount of time.

And thus the seed of the Barkley Marathons was planted.

Man vs. land

Cantrell, whose nickname is "Lazarus Lake," or "Laz" as he is known by everyone, was further inspired to start his own race by this rugged land he knew so well. The name "brushy" is fitting for a rural area thick with undergrowth, briars and hidden obstacles that inflict cuts, bruises and falls. It's so dense, you can't see the top of any of the peaks from the bottom.

These mountains, where a day hike can be a challenge, are where truly competitive racing should be held, he thought, not on a flat, paved, well-marked course.

The Barkley consists of five loops of 20 miles each (though runners swear it's more like a marathon-length 26 miles). All told, it has about 67,000 feet of elevation -- from sea level to the peak of Mount Everest is 29,000 feet -- not that the other 67,000 feet of descent are much easier.

The loops are run back to back over three sleepless days and nights, on unmarked trails. Runners must trace the course from a topographical map hours before the race begins. Most other distance races -- with their clear routes, aid stations, teams of helpful volunteers and throngs of encouraging spectators -- are designed so racers finish, but the Barkley is designed so racers fail.

And fail they do. Of more than 1,000 who've entered, only 15 have completed the full distance in time. "It's a good place for your ego to take a beating," Laz said before this year's race, sporting a red beanie labeled "Geezer." His insightful quips are often followed by a cackle of delight, like the Yoda of the runner's world.

Among ultramarathoners, the Barkley is considered one of the hardest -- a superlative that is subjective, of course. There are footraces that cross deserts, traverse tall mountains and even go greater distances than Barkley's 100 or 130 or so miles. But it's the unique combination of impediments, punishing conditions and lack of assistance that makes this race the stuff of legend. It's even the subject of a documentary; a cameraman had to be rescued by rangers more than 12 hours after he got lost.

It's only in the face of such opposition that the highest peak physical and mental experiences are achieved. That's the idea, anyway. Among ultramarathoners and elite trail runners, the Barkley is the Holy Grail of races.

How it works (or doesn't)

For a competition that thumbs its nose at conventional rules, this anti-race race does have a number of parameters in which it operates (not written down, of course), all to maximize the challenge. Some of the choice unwritten rules include:

  • No GPS or phones. The only permitted technology is a cheap watch from Walmart, handed out by Laz to each runner and synchronized to his watch.
  • Unmanned checkpoints (13 this year), which are paperback books. You rip out the page that corresponds to your bib number to prove that you reached it. You must have all the book pages in hand at the end of each loop. The books are hidden under rocks or taped to trees, usually.
  • 60-hour cutoff. Two years ago, Gary Robbins got turned around in his exhaustion with only 2 miles to go, arriving at the campground a few seconds over time, disqualified not just for missing the time cutoff but for going off-route.
  • No aid stations. Philosophical Laz: "Being totally free doesn't come without risk."
  • No outside assistance. No friends and family to meet you with food or socks except at the camp between loops. No hints as to the location of checkpoints or map secrets. This year's theme, according to cackling Yoda-esque Laz: "Help is not coming."
  • Start time TBD. A conch is blown one hour before the race starts, but that can be anywhere between midnight and noon. "The uncertainty is half the fun," Laz said with a chortle, "and one of the hardest things to deal with."
  • Entry fee is $1.60, a pair of socks (this year) and an essay. Other ultras charge hundreds of dollars, but Laz isn't in it for the money, though he's partial to a specific brand of dress sock.

Thousands apply every year, and only 40 are chosen. Just figuring out how to apply is a challenge: There's no website, email or physical address posted anywhere.

Would-be runners write an essay on why they should be allowed to compete, and Laz chooses among these, factoring in their arguments or, in some cases, poetry but also their proven ability to endure. Finishers tend to have bona fides that include setting speed records on famous long-distance national trails or climbing the highest peaks in the world. If accepted, runners get a "letter of condolence" and told the date of the race (also a secret), and they must bring a license plate of some variety to the race site that are strung up in walls of metallic memory.

'Good luck, morons'

This year's lucky (or maybe unlucky) runners -- 31 men, nine women -- gathered on a chilly April evening at a campground at Frozen Head State Park the day before the race. A single copy of the course map sat on a table as runners took turns tracing the route on their own topographical maps. The route changes in parts from year to year, and sometimes a peak is added. Veterans know to laminate them in clear tape to avoid disintegration from the elements.

Four or five pages of Laz's enigmatic and wry instructions are also handed out. These mainly help runners find the checkpoint books, which often have tongue-in-cheek titles such as "Where Do We Go From Here" and "A Time to Die." I asked one runner whether I could take a quick look at the instructions, and he seemed wary of handing over such well-kept secrets to a representative of a global media organization. One (non-identifiable) passage read, "You will be able to make out the trail that climbs directly to pulloff, unless it is foggy, then you will have to guess."

Chicken and beans, cooked over an open fire, were served as part of a potluck the evening before the race started. There is little to no alcohol, as that's not conducive to running 100-plus miles. Runners greet each other warmly and exchange war stories of past Barkleys. It's a rarified club to which they belong. A cake read, "Good luck, morons."

Because you don't know when the race is going to start, it makes for a fitful night's sleep, lest you miss the sound of the conch. This sleep-depriving FOMO was exacerbated by the cacophony of heavy rain pounding on the tents most of the night.

Mercifully, or just randomly, Laz gave everyone a full night of whatever sleep they could get, and the conch was blown at 8:30 a.m., under clear skies. When runners gathered an hour later to start, Laz gave few remarks, none particularly encouraging. After reading the names of Barkley veterans who died over the years, Laz removed his hat, and a bugler played taps, the traditional song of military funerals.

Tradition dictates that the start of the race is signaled by Laz lighting a Camel cigarette. Runners started trotting past him as he made his first exhale. The course begins with a steady incline that will reach 1,600 feet of elevation within just the first mile and a half or, as Laz described it, "the easiest hill they'll do all day. After that, it turns ugly."

Although he's done his fair share of endurance running (including a 318-mile course) and long-distance hiking (he's currently walking from Tennessee to Oregon), Laz has never competed in the Barkley himself. Neither has his friend Barry Barkley, for whom he named the race.

'4/5 Pure Joy, 1/5 Pure Hell'

The details of the race are a well-guarded secret, and they won't be divulged here. The names of landmarks in the instructions -- Quitter's Road, Rat Jaw -- don't correspond to labels on any official map.

The one portion that's not a secret is Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, which closed for prison business in 2009. Barkley runners jump into a creek and wade through a tunnel that goes under the jail, emerging just steps away from the wall that Ray and his fellow escapees jumped. You can arrange a tour inside the crumbling prison. Ray's cell was No. 27. My guide repeated that the place is haunted without a wink or any indication that she was kidding.

The race takes place every spring, a season when weather fluctuates from warm and muggy one hour to freezing and wet the next. Some years, there has been snow to run through and temperatures 10 degrees below freezing.

"This is the only place you can have 45-mile-per-hour winds and pea soup fog," Laz said, pausing for his punch line: "at the same time." This year, it started pleasantly cool and cloudy, but rain and cold punished them as the hours went by.

Between each loop, runners will eat, doctor their feet, maybe steal a quick nap. Some rest at base camp as little at 15 minutes, others an hour before being given a new bib number (to get a new page from the checkpoints). The direction of the race changes between loops as well, adding another level of difficulty and more orienteering. In the first four loops, two are clockwise, two counter-clockwise. If more than one runner makes it to the fifth loop, each runner is sent in opposing directions for the final marathon.

No one made it past three loops this year. Just over half made it to the second loop, five made it to the third loop, and only one finished the third. As racers dropped out, a bugler played taps. Like some previous years, it was played 40 times. Laz thought two factors that led to the lack of finishers this year were the weather and that he chose fewer Barkley veterans than usual.

Finishing is so rare, there is a web page of quotes on what the experience was like. Brett Maune, 2011's only finisher, calculated "4/5 Pure Joy, 1/5 Pure Hell."

Andrew Thompson finished in 2009, after setting the speed record for the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail in 47½ days. "Finishing [the Barkley] was not at all what I expected," he wrote. "All the emotion and hoopla and sense of accomplishment with which I had begun Loop 5 were quickly worn down to nubs. The 'victory' lap quickly turned into survival mode. I was sick, and cold, and damn happy to be done."

Only one person, Jared Campbell, has finished the race three times. "I am thrilled," he said after finishing in 2016, "setting a new personal standard for how much adventure I can extract out of $1.60." In 2014, he was more philosophical: "There are lessons in life that can only be learned through fairly massive deviations from our normal, comfortable routines. They can sharpen our optimism and generate a deeper appreciation for the simple things in life." And in 2012, he was nearly psychedelic: "Due to some extreme foot pain (skin) and sleep deprivation I experienced an incredible distillation of my physical and mental self down to a few basic senses and thoughts, which was both an educational and beautiful experience."

In 2013, finisher Nickademus Hollon quoted Plato: "The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself."

'A different breed'

To reach the Barkley, you will have done massive amounts of trail and endurance running -- even for the annual "human sacrifice," as Laz playfully labels one person who he predicts doesn't have the right stuff.

But if you're just getting into trail running or adventure racing, you have to put in your vertical hours. Many long-distance runners train in intervals, also known as periodization, building strength by alternating hard and easy weeks of exertion and recovery. Most of the runners in the Barkley run ultra-distances year-round so don't need a training program that starts with short runs.

In the case of the Barkley or other unmarked trail races, it is also essential to be able to read a topographical map, something of a dying skill as technology and a lack of wooded adventure rob us of it.

Unlike the documentary crew member and King's killer, no Barkley runner has ever got so lost in the area's woods (Laz: "100% self-extraction") that they needed rescuing before they faced starvation or hypothermia.

Although GPS devices aren't allowed in the Barkley, plenty of other gear is, including compasses, walking sticks and trail running backpacks with food and water. Many long-distance runners prefer quality, thick-soled shoes; a light but warm jacket for nights and peaks; a hydration pack; portable food; salt tablets; and a powerful headlamp for night running. Unlike other ultramarathons, this one does not have gear requirements. These runners know what they're doing.

Training in the sport also includes learning how to avoid injuries, but that's not always possible. Injuries such as cuts and sprains are typical on the Barkley, but nothing has ever halted a runner in their tracks. The worst injury was a kneecap that "snapped in two," Laz said, and the runner still finished the loop. "It's a different breed," he cackled.

Ultrarunners suffer about the same frequency of injuries as shorter-distance runners, according to a recent study by the University of California, Davis and Stanford University, though some wounds were inflicted by the obstacles of trail running. Among the 1,212 active ultrarunners in the study, injuries were also more prevalent among younger (under age 40), less-experienced runners. Most (64.6%) reported an exercise-related injury that resulted in lost training days over the previous year, but that didn't translate to additional missed days at work. The most common injuries were of the knee and foot stress fractures.

That study also found that while ultrarunners tended to be older than the general running population, they had fewer incidents of heart disease and other chronic conditions. They were more likely than the general population to have allergies, hay fever and exercise-induced asthma, probably due to high levels of exposure to pollen-gifting nature. In general, running is outstanding cardio exercise, benefiting much of the body and tied to greater health outcomes than the general population.

As for the mental rewards -- well, that's a journey that is as unique as the individual and certainly not guaranteed. A "sense of accomplishment" is an expression that grossly undersells the thrill of finishing a race as special and difficult at the Barkley. And yet to get to whatever personal heaven awaits you at the finish line, it most certainly means going through hell to get there.

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