On the Scene at the Absolutely Insane Barkley Marathons
Inspired by a flubbed prison escape, the Barkley Marathon is a ludicrously challenging 100-mile race only a handful of runners have completed. Finishing it twice? That's next to impossible.
By Lisa Jhung
It's reverently quiet when Jared Campbell comes running down the trail and into camp. He’s looked better. For one thing, his facial muscles appear to be asleep, even as he somehow keeps moving. He’s wilted from hours of exposure to the cold and rain, his skin covered in bloody scratches and caked with mud. The crowd—similarly battered runners and assorted spectators—is quiet for the first time in hours. The only sound is that of Campbell’s footfalls atop the soggy earth.
This silence is significant. The bugle has already sounded for most other runners at this year’s Barkley Marathons. Whenever a damaged competitor returns to camp, defeated by the course, a bugler blows “Taps” (this is called being “tapped out”). It happens to almost all the athletes who muster the courage—or insanity—to attempt the world’s most confounding foot race. Last night, in freezing rain, snow, and 45 mph icy gusts, it sounded 19 times.
Finally, one onlooker’s voice softly breaks the silence: “He’s running. He looks good.” The crowd around the fire rolls into applause. When Campbell catches his breath, he reports on the conditions: “It snowed a lot up there. It was really pretty, but it was cold.” The 34-year-old mechanical engineer from Salt Lake City reveals he slept 20 or 30 minutes on the trail at sunrise—“until I started shivering.”
And then, just like that, he’s gone again. Campbell is attempting another loop.
Here in the backwoods of Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains, a “loop” is 20 miles. Specifically, it’s 20 unmarked miles that traverse thick brambles, prickly briars, and relentless hills that bring more than 60,000 feet of elevation. The course’s difficulty is only amplified by the maddeningly slippery footing. To finish the Barkley Marathons, a runner has to complete five loops. It takes days, if it happens at all. Since the race began in 1986, only 14 people have finished it.
Ultra-distance 100-mile trail-running events have become popular lately in the United States, with 125 such endurance tests taking place in North America this year. Most of them, despite being difficult to qualify for, sell out within minutes. Races like California’s Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run have aid stations stocked with food, drink, medical assistance, and volunteers shouting words of encouragement. Routes are marked, and pacers—running buddies who keep delirious competitors on course and on pace—are standard.
The Barkley Marathons is purposefully, gleefully, and wildly different. It was created by two friends, Gary Cantrell (a.k.a. “Lazarus Lake,” or “Laz”), a bearded, bespectacled Tennessean with a love of the outdoors and a daft sense of humor, and Karl Henn (a.k.a. “Raw Dog”). They were inspired, if inspired is the right word, by James Earl Ray’s 1977 escape from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Martin Luther King Jr.’s killer was at large for 54 hours before he was found, collapsed in the woods, just eight miles away. Laz and Raw Dog had spent years backpacking the park near the prison and they found amusement in Ray’s defeat. “I was a young, cocky guy,” says Laz. “I thought, ‘I could have gone 100 miles in 54 hours.’” That’s when the idea took. He and Raw Dog decided to see whether they could travel 100 miles in 60 hours “in those woods.”
Almost a decade later, Laz and Raw Dog backpacked an 18-mile loop of their own design through the park and completed it in two days. “I’d been hiking and backpacking with topographical maps for a long time,” says Laz. “I thought this would be a great deal of fun.” The following year, they invited some friends to join them in the challenge. They called it the Barkley Marathons, named for a friend who’d been wounded in Vietnam and can’t run.
A couple of years later, the two started placing paperback books with humorously ominous names on the route—titles this year include If Tomorrow Comes, Unless You Die Young, and Don’t Count Me Out. These are the trailmarkers. Runners have to navigate to find each book and tear out the page denoting their bib numbers for that loop (runners receive a new bib number per loop); if a runner is No. 63, he or she tears out page 63 of each book along the course and delivers the pages to Laz to prove that a lap has been completed.
The absurdly challenging race is also absurdly selective. A secretive online registration process weeds out applicants who don’t pay attention to detail. (Laz has been known to disqualify applicants who submit forms five minutes too early, for example.) It costs only $1.60 to enter, but all would-be racers must write a personal essay explaining why they should be allowed to participate. (“I am foolish enough to want to run the Barkley, and for this, I should be both rewarded and punished,” reads one.)
Ultimately, 40 runners are given bibs every year, each of them hand-selected by Laz. Some want to see if they can complete one lap. Those who have never run before are called “virgins”—Laz makes sure to choose several of them each year. Some come thinking they’ll complete three—Laz calls this a “Fun Run.” And then there are those deluded enough to think they’ll complete all five.
Stuart Gleman has attended the Barkley for 20 years and has run 17 times. This year, he intended to run but wasn’t feeling great. At the eleventh hour, he made a tough decision. “I’m giving my spot to a virgin,” he tells me.
Thirty-eight-year-old Tim Bird, who was on the waiting list, has come to the campsite, just in case a slot opens up. Gleman has Bird repeat the words "I want to run" and hands Bird his number. Later, after the race begins, Gleman weeps for a few minutes.
It's not an accident that the race is held on the last weekend in March, close to April Fool’s Day. It starts when Laz decides it starts—anytime between midnight and noon. And that’s how it comes to pass that, on March 29 at 5:46 a.m., a low hum rumbles from a conch shell across the Big Cove Campground. Within a few minutes, dozens of tents light up. Soon, a symphony of tent zippers swells.
An hour later, all 40 runners are standing behind a yellow gate on the Firetower Road trail. They carry maps, compasses, and six pages of instructions explaining course idiosyncrasies. To wit: “There will be a pig head on a stick to make [the trail] easier to identify.” Laz’s starting gun is a cigarette. When he lights it, the runners move out. The temperature hovers around 50 degrees, comfortable for this time of year. Four hours later, it drops into the 30s. A hard and steady rain begins to fall.
With the rain comes mud. By late morning, it’s caked to Campbell as he crests a wickedly steep, brush-riddled slope from a deep valley below—a stretch known as Testicle Spectacle. And yet Campbell is all business. Earbuds in, small backpack over his fit frame, he moves efficiently over slick turf, then descends quickly beneath power lines enshrouded in fog.
That afternoon, the rain falls, crooked and relentless. The only time competitors find shelter is when they travel through an 800-foot tunnel underneath the eerie abandoned state prison that once housed Ray. There, the water hits mid-calf, cold as ice. And then there are the rats. It’s from this tunnel that Eva Pastalkova, a 38-year-old neuroscientist from the Czech Republic who now lives in Virginia, emerges with an unlikely expression: a smile. She’s having “good fun,” she says, resembling a kid stomping through mud puddles. She rips her appropriate page from The Bad Place and drops it into a plastic bag. Then she heads back into the woods to find her next trophy: a badge of how far she’s come, undaunted by the weather, the terrain, the pain.
Back at camp, 32-year-old Tetsuro Ogata is back and showered, tapped out seven and a half hours after the start. His mistake, he says, was following Campbell. “I was with him for two miles. He’s fast downhill, then he turned uphill before I could catch up, and I was lost for hours.”
When a newbie gets shaken off by a veteran, it’s called “virgin scraping.” But Campbell and Ogata are friends, and the snub wasn’t intentional. “Jared is going to be disappointed in me,” says Ogata, who traveled 29 hours from Japan to get here. Yet there it is, another smile.
Campbell arrives back at camp eight hours and two minutes after starting, ceremoniously touching the yellow gate to mark his official finish of loop one. An avid rock climber and a fan of running “link-ups,” where one runs and climbs in the mountains for days on end, he finished the whole race on his first try in 2012 and got lost on loop two—a long story—in 2013 before dropping out during loop three. He turns his 13 book pages over to Laz, who counts them before giving Campbell a new number for his next loop. Eighteen minutes pass—clothes are changed, the backpack is reloaded, fresh headlamp batteries are secured. Then Campbell bounds away.
A week before the race, Laz wrote me an email that resembled free verse:
“saturday night (all night) is the main event, as shattered survivors emerge from the woods from all directions, grateful to at last be safely back at camp. they will tell their tales of horror (with a haunted look in their eyes) with little or no prompting. everyone will laugh.”
Saturday night, a crowd huddles under a tent, trying to stay out of the rain. Fifty-nine-year-old Barkley virgin Billy Simpson approaches Laz with his book pages. He is a casualty, and he looks wide-eyed and incredulous, as though he’s outrun a ghost. “Dude,” he says to me, “this makes Hardrock look like a 5K.” (Colorado’s Hardrock 100 is widely considered the hardest ultra-running race in the United States.) “Laz, I don’t know if I should punch you or thank you!” he hollers, to roars of laughter. By morning, 24 hours since the race’s start, ten runners remain on the course: five on loop two, the others on number three. The rest have cleaned up, rested, and gathered around the fire—the sun finally shining overhead—to compare war stories.
The tales of agony and absurdity bond the runners, whether or not they finish. Similar to how some people collect stamps or cars, Matt Mahoney’s hobby is maintaining the closest thing the Barkley has to an official website. He posts results and recollections from various runners each year. Mahoney himself has 15 starts under his belt. This year, he and virgin competitor Cat Lawson from Great Britain roamed around before returning to camp 11 hours after the start. They had collected two pages—retrieved over roughly 3.5 miles—before giving up.
“I don’t know why I keep doing this,” he says, grinning broadly. “I know I’m not going to finish; I don’t have any hope of even a Fun Run.”
So what keeps him coming back?
“I don’t know.” He pauses. “Old friends.” In some ways, the race is a code these runners want to crack. It’s a puzzle to be solved, and it takes everything one can muster—mind, body, spirit, will. The extremeness is appealing. From the moment the cigarette is lit, life is simplified. It’s survival: going book to book, using only a map, a compass, and pushing an increasingly battered body on.
“You get out there and feel the pull,” says Steve Durbin, a six-time veteran. “You can’t escape it.”
“It’s like a game,” Laz tells me, “but it’s your body you’re playing with. And if your body doesn’t work, you have to make it.”
Just after 6 p.m. that day, 35 hours and 30 minutes after he first hit the trail, Campbell emerges partway down a climb known as Rat Jaw. He moves deliberately, purposefully, clambering over the brush and mud. Campbell walks to the table holding a page from a book.
“My Achilles are about to explode,” he says. “That doesn’t feel good, but whatever.” Then he heads back down the hill and out of sight.
Being out on a loop alone in the woods is known among the Barkley crowd as being “out there.” Campbell is still out there. He’s exhausted and “really out of it.” It’s about 2 a.m., more than 40 hours in, when he just falls over onto the ground at the base of a big climb. Between laps four and five, he sleeps a solid hour. On his fifth loop, he feels “surprisingly good.”
To date, only one person has finished all five loops twice—Brett Maune, in 2011 and again in 2012. Since then, three treacherous climbs—named Checkmate Hill, Foolish Stu (named after Gleman), and Hiram’s Vertical Smile (named after veteran Hiram Rogers)—have been added to the course. At 4:40 p.m. on Monday, 57 hours, 53 minutes and 20 seconds after Laz lit the cigarette, Campbell strides into camp. His fist clutches the evidence, and its significance is apparent: He’s become the second person in history to defeat the course twice.
Someone offers him a chair. Sleep-deprived and battered, he regards it warily, as if it’s the first time he’s seen such a thing. Slowly, he sits down. The crowd at the camp gathers to hear the details of his heroic tale. Later, after dinner at a Mexican restaurant, Campbell sleeps for eight hours in a motel room. Still cold to the bone, he hurts too much to get up in the night to adjust the thermostat.
A week later, Campbell feels a little sore in the shin but, other than that, he’s completely recovered. “I went there thinking it was my last time,” he says. Somehow he’s not so sure any more. The pull of the woods is still there.