Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Barkley Marathons

I've come to the conclusion that something is wrong with me. I know several people who would probably say that they could've told me that a long time ago, but it's becoming more and more obvious to me. How so, you ask? Well, maybe you didn't ask, but you're gonna find out anyway. Because I have a weird fascination with The Barkley Marathons and the more I read about the event, about how horribly, brutally punishing it is, the more I want to do it someday.

Okay, so a little background for the uninitiated. Chances are, if you're not an ultrarunner, you've never heard of Barkley. Hell, if you're not an ultrarunner, chances are you haven't heard of ultrarunning period, but I don't have the time to go that far back. To put it simply, Barkley is on the tattered fringe of a fringe sport. The race begin in 1986, but the race's roots actually go as far back as 1977. That was the year that James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., made an escape from the Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in Tennessee. Ray spent three days on the "run". In those three days he made it all of eight miles. Ultrarunner Gary Cantrell, known widely as "Laz" for reasons unknown to me, was convinced that he could've covered 100 miles in that time. And the Barkley was born.

The event takes place in the Tennessee mountains of Frozen Head State Park, immediately adjacent to the Brushy Mountain prison (in fact, the race course now includes a trip through a drainage tunnel under the prison, which has long since been abandoned). Everything about the event is just....different. The registration fee is $1.60. Why? No one knows (except Laz, I suppose). In addition, if you're a first timer, you must supply Laz with a license plate from your home state. The race has no official website, although through the magic of Google you can gather quite a bit of information about it. One thing you won't find via Google is an entry form. That's because the registration process is largely secret. Basically, you have to know someone who has done the race before or knows how you can get ahold of Laz. It is known that the entry process includes writing an essay explaining why you should be allowed to run The Barkley. Reportedly, Laz receives about 200 entries each year and selects 35 or so, possibly at random (although once you've participated once, it seems your odds of getting in again are fairly high). One entrant each year is designated as the sacrificial virgin, i.e., the one who Laz thinks has the least shot of finishing.

In reality, though, no one has a decent shot of finishing. The course consists of five, 20ish mile loops (some people claim the total distance is closer to 130 miles). The cut-off is 60 hours. When compared to other 100 mile races like Leadville (30 hours), Western States (30 hours) or even Hardrock (48 hours) this seems quite generous. But in the 25 year history of the race, only 10 runners (out of 700+ entrants) have ever finished. The course record is 55:42. Laz seems to delight in the extreme difficulty, and almost absurdity, of it all and also seems somewhat offended whenever someone actually does finish; a finish one year virtually ensures that the ever-changing course will be even more difficult the following year.

As for the course, it includes roughly 59,000 feet of elevation gain. That's nearly twice as much as Hardrock, which is widely considered the most difficult "conventional" ultra in the U.S. The route follows very little actual trail. Laz refers to any type of established trail, whether it's been maintained in the last 30 years or not, as "candy ass trail". Much of the course involves bushwacking, often through sawbriars, straight up and down the mountainsides. To prove that you've covered the entire course, on each loop you must locate 10 or 11 books that Laz stashes in specific locations. For each loop, you are assigned a number. Upon locating a book, you rip out the page corresponding to your number and continue on in search of the next book. At the end of each loop, you turn your pages in to Laz, are given a new number and sent on your way for the next loop (if you're brave enough). If you manage to finish three loops (60 miles) you go down in history as a Barkley "fun run" finisher. The chances of finishing the fun run aren't all that great either.

The race doesn't seem to have a set date, but it looks like it's always around April Fools Day, which Laz probably gets some twisted pleasure out of. The race starts sometime between midnight and noon on the designated day. Laz signals one hour until race start by blowing on a conch shell. Once the hour is up, he signals the start of the race by lighting a cigarette. Last year, he blew the conch at 12:07 AM and the race started promptly at 1:07. How's that for a good night's sleep before a race?

Sounds like a grand old time, doesn't it? So, I guess the real question is, why in God's name would you enter this crazy ass, brutally tough event that you know damn well you don't have a prayer of finishing? For me, it's the intrigue. Everything I've described above just seems too crazy to be true. The event has this almost eerie, haunted, surreal aura around it that some part of me wants to witness first hand to see if it really is as crazy as it sounds. Will I ever actually take that plunge? I don't know for sure. Hell, I don't even know where to send my essay. But I've obviously been thinking about it.


Danni said...

I've always thought it would be fun to do one loop (and one only).

mike_hinterberg said...

It certainly sounds interesting and engenders morbid curiosity...but, for me, more akin to "furries," Dungeons & Dragons experts, people that eat Big Macs everyday for years, etc.

The "race" part seems arbitrary to me, though -- why stop at just a poor night's sleep, random entry and race date, and a cloud of cigarette smoke at the start -- why not also kick each participant in the nuts at the end of each loop? For example. As long as we're Making Stuff Up, that is...

To each his own...
I'd love to see it and/or an interesting documentary about it, though!

JojaJogger said...

Good luck (I think) in your Barkley quest. I know a few people who have started the "race" and they say nothing prepares you for being "out there".

Chris said...

Mike, you're right in that calling it a "race" isn't really accurate. It's more like a game of survival. Like Stephen King's "The Long Walk". And be careful with the nut-kicking talk...don't give Laz any ideas...

Oh, and someone is making a documentary about it right now. Not sure when it's supposed to be done. You can find some homebrewed "documentaries" on YouTube.

Barkley Marathons Movie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barkley Marathons Movie said...

Hi Chris,
Your post eloquently describes why we wanted to make a documentary about the Barkley in the first place. It is the "intrigue" and "eeriness" that surrounds the race that makes it so attractive.

I am not a runner but as Laz was showing us around the course last week, I slowly started getting the idea that I, myself, would try it one day. And that's saying a lot!

We will be shooting this year's race and updating our progress on the documentary. If you are interested, here are some links:

I hope to see your name on a future Barkley list as you've caught the bug now!

dreauxntb said...

Does anyone have the address/info to apply?