The goal is to tap this gate at the Frozen Head National Park at Tennessee after a 20 mile (well, 26.2 or maybe longer) loop. If you do it 5 times (1 for each loop), within 60 hours, you are a Barkley Marathons Finisher.
100 miles (more like 131) in 60 hours. Sounds simple enough right?
This man will disagree. So will the stats.
The 1st Barkley Marathons was organised in 1986 by 2 men: Gary Cantrell (aka Lazarus Lake, the man in the picture) & his friend, Karl Henn (Raw Dog). Lazarus named it after his friend, farmer Barry Barkely as he thought the character of the race personified his friend's personality.
History Lesson: The idea for the Barkley popped into Laz's head after the famous James Earl Ray escape from the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. James, who was serving a 99-year sentence for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from the prison which resulted in a massive FBI manhunt. The terrain surrounding the penitentiary is extremely rugged and challenging and it got the better of James Earl Ray. When he was caught 54 hours later, James was found under a pile of leaves only 8.5 miles (~14km) from the prison.
Laz, who was young and cocky at the time, mocked James' pathetic attempt and remarked "I can cover a 100 miles in that sort of time".
And so it was born. The world's most obscure and challenging Ultramarathon.
What makes Barkley so unique:
Outrightly, it might not be the toughest Ultramarathon in world. There are many with start lines at higher altitude, or held in extreme heat or extreme cold. But there's a lot to the race which was pretty much obscure till the famous documentary "Barkley Marathons: The Race that eats its young" came out.
We as humans have a thing against unpredictability. We don't like not knowing things. We want things to be laid out, for life to follow the great plan. That's most of human life, right? You grow up, you get educated, you get a job, get married, have a kid or more, then you grow old and die.
But when things are unsure, those frown lines appear on our foreheads. I suffer from anxiety issues, so I have a hard time (atleast I used to, before I started working on it) dealing with things I don't know.
So get this, there is very little information (in this day and age, when you know that your friend is eating a burger at Burger King or flying to Vienna; all via the internet) on even how to apply to this race.
You have to do your research and apply on time, for a race which doesn't even have a fixed start date.
It happens in the spring and it can be either in the 1st week of April or the last week of March.
From what I know, there is an essay involved on "Why I should be allowed to run the Barkley?" and if Laz deems that you are good enough, he sends you a letter of condolence which states "We're sorry to inform you that you have selected to run the Barkley".
The application fee is $1.60, non-refundable, whether you get selected or not. Thousands apply, around 40 are selected.
In your 1st year, when you are Barkley virgin along with $1.60, you take a number plate of your home country. And then in subsequent years, you take what Laz wants: some years it is a pair of socks, or a white shirt or a flannel shirt.
I don't do many events in an year, for a reason. I kinda hate the commercialisation of the running world & the triathlon world. Even in India, there is a "race" every other weekend, with a panzy-ass finisher medal for running 21.1k or 10k or 5k. I'm not boasting but I have done over 100 runs of 21.1k + but done less than 10 official events for the same distance.
I can have 100s of medals for each time I run 21.1k, but I believe medals don't really validate who you really are. It is your hardwork.
My medals are those calf muscles. Lot of miles went into making those strong. Once in a while it is okay to check where you stand with respect to the rest of the world, but in the end your main competition is yourself.
There are many who get to Ironman Kona, through racing hard, carrying a will to improve and then there are those, who just have deep pockets. And I know, it is hard to hear the truth and it really pinches but lets be honest, you can clearly see the difference between the ones who qualified to be there and the ones who paid to be there.
And that's why I love the Barkley. It is not about the money. Or the ego. It is about pure running. Away from all the distractions, in complete isolation.
The Barkley Marathons boasts of the most exclusive finisher club in the world. Since its inception in 1986, 1000s have participated, only 15 have finished. This exclusivity is something people long for. Believe me when I say this (even I did this), the only reason people compete in an Ironman branded event is because it has the Ironman brand name attached to it. The Challenge family organises just as good an event as the Ironman, but if you are doing your 1st Iron-distance triathlon, the chances are, you will do an Ironman branded event because it makes you an "Ironman finisher" and it comes with the M-dot logo. Nothing wrong about that, it is just good marketing and brand association.
So Laz was asked why he doesn't just jack up the race entry fee because many would want to be associated with the brand "Barkley" and he quipped "I could charge a huge fee but then you wouldn't get the same selection of people. People who will enjoy the race. People who would enjoy each other. Plus, for a $1.60 and a license plate, people could complain and I can just laugh."
Don't you just love this guy?
Ethan Newberry described him (very correctly, if I may be so bold) as "Equal parts: evil mastermind, stand-up comedian and Sadist".
There is further evidence to support that claim.
This race doesn't have a fixed start time. It can start anytime between 12 am on the Friday of the race-weekend and 12 pm on the following Saturday. Laz blows a conch shell, which marks 1 hour to the race start time. Basically, you might be starting at 1 AM during an year and next year it might be 10 AM. Fun, right?
And Laz just loves to toy with people with big egos. Out of the 40, he claims, "there's one who is way in over his/her head". So he gives that person, Bib no. 1. By that he means, that person is that year's human sacrifice aka the one who will quit 1st.
Terrified yet? No?
Let's look at the numbers.
Barkley in Numbers:
There is a reason why there have been only 15 finishers in the last 30+ years.
As I said before, there are 5 loops, each loop is 20 miles (as Laz claims). But anyone who has done a Barkley will tell you, it is more like 26.2 miles. Basically, he adds parts to each year's course and the distance remains 20 miles according to him. Haha.
Oh, by the way, every year someone finishes, he makes the course harder.
If you do 3 loops, you complete the Barkley "Fun-Run". The 1st guy to do that was "Frozen" Ed Furtaw, in 1988. But Laz calls the Fun-Run as the fallback mentality, saying that once the fun run started, people began to focus just on completing the "fun-run". The 1st official finisher of the Barkley was 9 years after its inception, was a British man named Mark Williams, who finished it in 1995.
The loops are done twice clockwise, once during daytime and once in the nightime. And twice anti-clockwise, again 1 daytime and 1 nightime. This makes each loop unique because it is the different direction or a different time of the day. (In 2017, it was a washing machine loop, direction changing every alternate loop.)
IF, you somehow make it to the 5th loop, the runner is allowed to choose the direction of the loop. And IF, there are more than 1 runners doing the 5th loop, then the other runner has go in the opposite direction as the 1st one.
So even if you are a Barkley virgin, you get to stick with a Barkley veteran for the 1st 4 laps. But on the 5th, you're on your own. And why, you may ask, is this a problem?
Well, the course is an unmarked trail. And there's no GPS or altimeters allowed. You are given a compass and a map, and you have to decode Laz's instructions(which requires you to know the history of his instructions) to even understand the route.
The elevation gain increases every year. But it is more or less, 12000 feet(3657.6 meters) of gain and 12000 feet of descent of each loop, which comes out to be 120,000 feet of total elevation change for 5 loops. This is equivalent to climbing and descending Mount Everest. Twice. Yes.
Veterans recommend if you choose to quit, quit in the camp or somewhere near a trail, otherwise it is 4-6 hours of misery just getting back to the camp, after you quit.
The "record for futility" is owned by Dan Baglione, who covered 2 miles (3.2k) of the official course in 32 hours, which comes out at 16 hours per mile.
Like Laz says, "It's not going to be the way you planned it".
All great races have a tradition. So does Barkley.
It starts from that Yellow gate, one hour after Laz blows the conch shell, with Laz lighting up a cigarette.
How badass is that?
The weather, like the race, is unpredictable. It can hot, or cold, rainy or foggy, ice, snow, anything at all.
Books serve as checkpoints for the race. The runners have to tear the pages from books which are hidden along the course, corresponding to their bib numbers, to show that they have covered the loop.
And the titles of the books are just as funny: "Idiot", "A body in the woods", "The end"
This photo below, is from the blog of the 12th man to finish the Barkley marathons, Mr. John Fegiveresi :
Each runner has 12 hours per loop and a total of 60 hours to finish the Barkley. You come in, you tap the gate and then you're in the "Interloopal period". It is the only time, between the loops, when you are allowed external assistance.
Everytime someone quits or is timed out, another famous tradition is playing the "Taps" on the bugle by "Danger" Dave Henn.
Here, Dave is seen tapping out the very accomplished Ultra-runner, Gary Robbins. Full video here.
(Gary quit halfway through the 5th loop due to sleep-deprivation in 2016, missed the 60 hour cut-off in 2017 by 6 seconds and this year was timed out by 20 minutes after the 3rd loop. Makes me cry. It is very well documented in the movie, "Where Dreams go to Die", which you can purchase here.)
Oh and the runners, whether they finish or not, have to press the "Easy" button(it says "That was easy" when you press it, which is really ironic given the condition of the runners when they press it:
Well, I am an experienced Ultra-runner with a lot of miles under my belt. I can do it easily!
I don't know if you've heard of Michael Wardian. He's a really cool dude. An ultrarunner, elite marathoner, he competes in a lot of races. Last year he did 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents at an average of 2:45 per marathon. He also did the 6 world marathon majors at an average of 2:31 per marathon. He has managed to get timed out, twice, on loop 1 at the Barkley.
In 2018, no one finished.
Even the elites have a hard time. Jared Campbell, who is a past winner of the Hardrock 100 (a 100 miler with 34000 feet(10,000 meters) of climbing, and an average finish time of 41 hours), is also the only 3 time finisher of the Barkley.
Jared's best time here? 56 hours and 2 minutes. In 2016, he finished 30 minutes before the 60 hour cut-off.
John Kelly, who won the Barkley in 2017 (and was the only finisher), took 59 hours and 30 minutes. In contrast, he did Ironman Kona the same year and did a 1:07 swim, 4:58 bike and 3:00 run for a finish time of 9 hours and 13 minutes. And Kona is no piece of cake. He also holds the record for running the fastest marathon dressed as a video game character (2:57:xx).
When you are left to your own devices, with a map, a compass and cryptic instructions, on a course with crazy elevation change, crazy weather conditions, time cut-offs that will make you sleep deprived, vegetation in the form of briars, which will cut you like razor blades, running around in the woods searching for books hidden under a prison, that's when you really find what you're made up of. The Barkley takes away your soul, your ego, strips down each runner to equality and only allows those to finish, who can still function after that extreme torture.
Like Laz said in the movie "If y'all listened to good advice, you wouldn't be here". Haha.
So why do it at all?
Now, I shall speak for myself. Like I said before, I am someone who has suffered a lot from anxiety. Especially this part of my life (the era from 2016-2018, and I am still undergoing it), is a massive shit show. It has been nothing but bad news, after bad news. Every single problem in my life springing up at once. For every good news, I have 2-3 pieces of bad news.
But through it all, through this horrible phase of my life, there are some words that I have lived by:
There have been moments, when I thought of just ending it all. I have led a decent enough life and I have a good legacy that I will leave behind. Or have I?
Laz also said "Nothing good can be accomplished without the possibility of failure". To me, all the failures, all the downs, all the negativity in my life, feel like an immense burden. But am I the only one who is facing it?
1000s have voluntarily chosen to give themselves to this torture of a race. And despite all their talent, their convictions, they failed and they never came back. 15 chose to never quit and they finished.
If your goals really mean something to you, you never ever give up on them. There are 2 ways of responding to the bad times in life. To surrender to them and give up, allow the life to take you where it wants.
Or grab the life by its throat. Push it back and protect your dream. Fight for it. The fight isn't going to be easy, it will bruise you, it will scar you. But it will leave you wiser. And if you win, when you win, you will be like those 15 who didn't quit and life will laugh and applaud you. My legacy won't have the word "quitter".
This bad period in my life will end. Sooner or later. And when it does, I will figure out a way to apply for the Barkley, apply for a US visa and I will be there in Frozen Head Park at Tennessee, with my crew and my navigation skills sharpened and raring to go.
My life has been preparing me to deal with uncertainties, decoding cryptic messages and finding hope among ruins.
Maybe I can apply it at the Barkley and make it through the 5 loops, in under 60 hours, with all the pages from the books. It might 15 years, it might take 10. But I will be there.
I don't quit. I won't quit.