If you go down to the woods.............
On March 18th at exactly 2.04 am US Eastern Time the sound of a conch could be heard across a small clearing in the woods of Frozen Head State Park Tennessee signalling that in exactly one hour at 3.04 am the 2021 Barkley Marathon would officially commence and all competitors needed to be ready and at the now famous beat up old yellow metal gate by that time waiting patiently for Lazarus Lake to light his cigarette which signals the start of the race.
The Barkley, undoubtedly one of the toughest running races in the world is the brain child of one very eccentric Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, on hearing the story of the prison escape from Bushy Mountain State penitentiary by James Earl Ray who was serving life for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Ray was on the run for 55 hours and when he was captured cold broken and hypothermic he had only covered 8 miles in total and had been going round and round lost in the woods, On hearing the story Lazarus commented “I could have easily have done 100 miles in that time” and in 1986 he staged the first Barkley Marathon, a 100 mile race made up of 5, 20 mile loops, (though some of the participants would argue it’s closer to 25) through some of the hardest terrain, hills, bogs, thistles, dense brush and more. Nobody (well except Lazarus and his crew) know the exact distance and even then they’re not completely sure. You have exactly 60 hours to complete the 100 miles however to be able to set out on lap 4 you have to have completed lap 3 in under 36 hours those that only manage 3 laps and 60 miles are classed as being Fun Runners! As an additional complication to the distance, terrain, changing weather etc each competitor is given a number and whilst on a loop has to find between 9 and 14 books placed around the course and rip out the page corresponding to their number, on arrival back at the yellow gate at the end of each lap they submit their pages and are given a new number to remember for their next lap.
Oh and did I mention that the course isn’t marked out or marshalled and the competitors aren’t aloud GPS or fancy sports watches, at registration they are aloud to study the course map for a short period and then Lazarus gives each competitor a very cheap watch that just tells the time!
The field of competitors is limited to 40 per year and how to enter is shrouded in mystery, you can’t find out much about it online, there isn’t a standard web page you go to and fill out, to enter you have to write to Lazarus with an essay titled “why I should be allowed to run the Barkley” and pay a fee of $1.60! For the “lucky” chosen ones they receive a letter of condolence and later receive details of when they should show up for registration. When the time comes and you arrive at Frozen Head for first timers there’s a further fee of a number plate from where you live and for those who have ran before there is a non finisher fee which ranges between, white shirts, flannel check shirts and socks, all Lazs size of course. For any prior finishers that come back to try again an additional fee of a packet of Camel cigarettes is also charged. Race bib number one is always given to the person deemed to be the least likely to finish one lap out of all who have applied; a "human sacrifice," as Laz calls it.
In the 36 years since the race has been on the full 5 Loop 100ish miles has only been finished 18 times by 15 runners. If you do manage to be the first at the gate at the end of lap 4 there is a nice little twist, you can choose to run the lap 5 loop in either direction and whichever you choose any other runners coming in behind you have to run the opposite of you. In 2017, Gary Robbins reached the finishing gate a mere six seconds after the 60-hour cut-off, almost becoming the 16th runner ever to complete the Barkley. However, he had taken a wrong turn in the final stages of the race, thus cutting two miles off the course; he would have been disqualified even if he had been faster. "The time, in that situation, is meaningless," Laz said of the six-second time over the cut off. That year a film crew had documented Robbins attempt and went on to make the documentary film, Where Dreams Go To Die. https://youtu.be/NDZdsqbcGTU. Not the only film made about the Barkley but one of the best closely followed by The Race That Eats Its Young https://www.amazon.com/Barkley-Marathons-Race-That-Young/dp/B017Y43P3S both worth a watch.
So back to a very foggy very wet March 18th at 3.04 in the morning, 35 competitors mostly American lined up at the yellow gate waiting for the cigarette to be lit. 17 of them finished lap 1, 16 of them started lap 2 but only 2 finished and went on to start and complete lap 3! Out of those setting out on lap 2 were 3 amazing female competitors Liz Cant, Maggie Guterl and Courtney Dauwalter who stuck together working as a trio to navigate and support each other and did complete lap 2 in a time of 26 hours and 52 minutes which was 12 minutes over the cut off time deeming their lap unofficial, it’s tough out there and the rules are even tougher.
Luke Nelson and Jared Campbell were the only competitors comleting a fun run this year completing lap 3 in 39 hours and 4 minutes having also worked together and officially finishing within a second of each other just under the 40 hour cut of for a fun run but unfortunately over the 36 hour cut off to continue onto lap 4.
Finishing the Barkley has to be the ultimate accolade in endurance running, more people have been to the moon than finish the Barkley. The level of fitness required has to be off the scale, navigational skills second to none but the reality is you have to be a certain kind of crazy. But then to some ends aren’t all ultra/endurance runners a certain kind of crazy, I think maybe you have to be to be able to take your mind and body to places that the ordinary person has no place to be.
One thing endurance running definitely isn’t is a teddy bears picnic, so if you do go down to the woods today you are in for a big surprise..........