On the Scene at the Absolutely Insane Barkley Marathons

Cary Norton
Cary Norton

This story originally appeared in print in the August issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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.

Not here.

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.

Cary Norton

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.

Cary Norton

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.


8 Bizarre Fan Theories About Your Favorite Holiday Movies

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

We all love a heartwarming holiday movie. On a cold winter’s day, few things are more comforting than curling up on the couch and getting into the Christmas spirit with a holiday movie marathon—no matter how many times you've seen the films in the lineup before.

While the plot lines rarely yield any surprises, multiple viewings of a movie can allow you to start to notice some things going on under the surface. With the rise of Reddit and other social media networks, fan theories have become a popular pastime for many pop culture fiends—and these alternate interpretations can sometimes go to some pretty dark places.

From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Home Alone, here are some bizarre fan theories about the holiday movies you only thought you knew.

1. The Santa Clause proves that the North Pole is full of cannibals.

On the surface, The Santa Clause series is the heartwarming tale of Tim Allen taking on the duties of a fallen Santa in need. But Twitter user Hannah Priest thinks it’s about something else entirely: The North Pole is inhabited by cannibals. Her evidence? The elves’ casual attitude toward death and a “new” Santa just taking over, the hundreds of elves (and Mrs. Clauses) who apparently go missing over the course of the series, and the size of the oven in the kitchen. “The elves are clearly baking women (& possibly children) in their oven, then using the bodies to make ceremonial cocoa, which they then feed to future Santas,” Priest tweeted. But this is one theory that’s best read in full (which you can do here).

2. Santa in The Santa Clause is actually an exiled wizard from Harry Potter.

Another theory about The Santa Clause would have you believe that Santa is an alumnus of Hogwarts. We all know Santa is magical, but the evidence does stack up. How does Santa get up and down chimneys? Floo powder, of course. And why can’t we see him? And how does he get to every house in one night? These jobs are made a little easier with an invisibility cloak and a time turner, of course.

3. Home Alone's Kevin McCallister grew up to be Saw’s Jigsaw.


20th Century Fox

In 2014, Grantland’s Jason Concepcion proposed a brilliant, if dastardly, theory that suggested a connection between holiday classic Home Alone and the terrifying Saw horror franchise. In a nutshell, he believes that Kevin McCallister and Jigsaw are the same person—and he made some pretty solid points.

For one, even at the tender age of eight, Kevin shows a talent for setting up some pretty elaborate traps, and he also has a clear obsession with recorded video. He’s also almost too interested in the rumor about Old Man Marley, his neighbor, who is rumored to be a serial killer. Some of the torture from the Saw movies also end up being eerily similar to the “pranks” Kevin pulls on the Wet Bandits. Concepcion goes even deeper, and you should read all of it here.

4. John Candy’s Home Alone character is the devil.

Kevin McCallister isn’t the only Home Alone character with a purported dark side. There’s a lot of suspicion surrounding John Candy’s character, Gus Polinski (a.k.a. the “Polka King of the Midwest”) as well. One Reddit theory goes like this: at one point in Home Alone, Kevin’s mom says that she would “sell [her] soul to the devil” if could just get back to Chicago to be with her son. The next time we see her, Gus Polinski appears and offers her a ride back to the Windy City. Coincidence? Not everyone thinks so—and this theory goes even deeper. Gus plays the clarinet, which is a woodwind instrument, and woodwinds are considered the instrument of Satan.

5. No, wait: Mia from Love Actually is the devil.

Not to be outdone, yet another popular holiday movie fan theory states that Mia (Heike Makatsch)—Alan Rickman’s wannabe-home wrecker of an assistant from Love Actually—is actually the devil. This one is actually a two-part theory, which posits that Rowan Atkinson is an angel while Mia is the devil. Adding credence to the latter part of this is the fact that the film’s writer/director Richard Curtis actually confirmed the former part.

Atkinson’s character was meant to have a larger role and serve as a sort of guardian angel to several of the film’s characters, but the filmmaker eventually decided it would be too much. But Mia’s devilish behavior is on full display: in addition to her repeated attempts to lure Harry (Rickman) away from Karen (Emma Thompson), she shows up at a company holiday party wearing devil horns.

6. Buddy the Elf is a creep.


Warner Bros.

Buddy, Will Ferrell’s maple syrup-loving character in Elf, is beloved for his childlike demeanor and over-the-top Christmas spirit. But some people believe this supposed naiveté may all be a ruse. And if that is in fact the case, then Buddy’s behavior is … questionable at best. Buddy, under this theory, would be a sociopath who forces his way into a random home through coercion and befriends a young child, all while stalking a random woman (Zooey Deschanel) he met through a job for which he was never actually hired.

7. Rudolph is Donner’s bastard son.

As compelling as it is absurd, one Redditor believes that Rudolph isn’t being told the truth about his parentage. We know, of course, that Rudolph doesn’t look like either his mother or his father. And that the other reindeer “used to laugh and call him names.” And that the father of Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice, seems incensed at the idea of his daughter being seen with a red-nosed reindeer. “The only explanation is that the red-nose is like a scarlet letter A,” the theory goes. “Rudolph is an illegitimate child, a bastard, an unclean birth.” (You can read the full docket of evidence here.)

8. Arnold Schwarzenegger is psychotic in Jingle All the Way, and Sinbad is a figment of his fractured mind.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In Jingle All the Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely seems stressed out about trying to acquire a Turbo-Man—the hot toy of the holiday season—for his son. But has all that stress led to a psychotic break with reality? One Redditor believes that might be the case, as Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) suspiciously only seems to see Myron (played by Sinbad) in his most stressful moments. It could be a coincidence, but as Arnold’s hijinks escalate, there’s Sinbad egging him on every time.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

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