The Barkley Marathons race report

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The Human Sacrifice

Do you want to know the course? said Laz, pointing the 2018 Barkley Marathons master map in my direction…having just given me bib number 1.

Now, in any other race, bib number 1 is reserved for the elite. At Barkley, this bib number is for the Human Sacrifice.

The Human Sacrifice is the runner Laz thinks most likely to quit and return to camp first. And he does have a knack of getting it right.

Race Director, Gary Cantrell, known as Lazarus “Laz” Lake, cares deeply about his runners. He treats veterans – athletes who have run the race before – as if they are family. And in a way they are.

At registration, Laz is only concerned with the person in front of him. With an infectious smile and twinkle in his eye, he takes his time to talk to each runner.

For virgins – first time Barkley runners – he remembers something about you from your application. There is a connection.

In that moment, you become part of The Barkley Marathons.

Race registration

After 15 or so runners had registered, it was my turn.

The following happened in slow motion, in a Spidey-sense sort of way. You know when Spiderman is about to get punched, then moves out of the way, as he watches the person’s fist pass in front of his face. A runner, after receiving their number, gave me the slightest of looks as they walked passed.

Just when I sat down in front of Laz, I noticed my name at the top of his list. Then Laz’s words from when we had met earlier in the day around camp, echoed in my head.

Kaz, you’re going to have a great day.

At the time I thought it was an odd thing to say. Then in that split second, as if all the planets aligned, Laz smiles, and gives me bib number 1.

The Barkley Marathons race registration when Laz gave Kaz bib number 1

The moment Laz named me the Human Sacrifice and gave me bib number 1. 

The gasp from runners behind me was loud. I mean seriously audible. I am pretty sure it wasn’t because I had been given number 1, but because they wouldn’t be. I dropped my head.

When I did slowly look up, the ever so cool, Howie Stern, adventure photographer and friend, was to my right. I looked at him, smiled, and whispered help.

It’s then that I saw the words at the bottom of our bibs.

Help is not coming

I am not very good at quick, funny replies. All I could think of doing was offering Laz a years supply of Dr Pepper for a different number. He asked,

Do you want a different number?

Dang…a question like that, to me, has only one answer.

And as close as I was to saying yes, I said no and thanked Laz for the challenge.

I was the Human Sacrifice.

When things quietened down, John and Georg, my crew, gave me the biggest of hugs and the most kick-ass of pep talks. They knew I was a little spooked behind my smile.

A mug of tea later, and after copying the course route and book positions from the master map onto my map, we studied the course and Laz’s typed instructions, and made our plan of action.

Game on

Deep down I knew an arbitrary number couldn’t dent my training, impact my performance, or destroy my focus. It was game on.

The Barkley Marathons camp and the hanging license plates from past virgins.

Each virgin brings a license plate from their country, or state in the USA, as part of their entry fee.

The Barkley Marathons is an extraordinary event. Laz has fought hard over the years to retain its true spirit. From the minute you arrive at camp you realise just how special this race is, because it is so low-key.

There is no hype. There are no loudspeakers. The connections made between runners and crew, the moments shared around camp, the discussions about previous years, the weather, the course, and the friendships made, are like the race. Real and honest.

Barkley is about you and the mountains.

It is not about one thing. It is about everything.

You can be the fittest, fastest, or strongest person on earth.

The mountains don’t care.

Just as there are no training hacks, there are no Barkley hacks. That may sound like a cliché or bumper sticker. Life is about letting go, cancelling out the noise and opening yourself up to the world. And Barkley is all about the letting go.

The conch

The race start time is determined by Laz and RawDog (Karl Henn). The conch, a shell, is the one-hour warning sound.

Laz blew the conch at 0833 Saturday morning.

On the sound of the conch, runners have one hour until the start of the race when Laz lights a cigarette. My pack had been ready since the day before, as the race can start any time between midnight on Friday and midday on Saturday.

Deciding what kit to wear wasn’t difficult. It was cold and it was going to be wet.

The Yellow Gate

At 0915 the 3 of us, me, John and Georg, left our base camp and walked towards the Yellow Gate, the start line of The Barkley Marathons.

Each runner is given a Casio watch. It is the only watch you are allowed to wear during the race. No phones or any other GPS devices are permitted. The watch starts when the race starts. And it tells the time, sort of.

The Barkley Marathons runners waiting at the yellow gate for Laz to light his cigarette to start the race.

The Barkley Marathons yellow gate start line. 

Race start

Waiting at the Yellow Gate for Laz to mark the start of the race by lighting a cigarette, was dreamlike. Yet at the same time, the most normal thing in the world and the perfect start for this race.

It was time to step out there and face the unknown.

13 Books

A small group of us arrived at the top of the first climb together, including one veteran, who dialled in on Book 1 with incredible accuracy.

The book was passed from runner to runner, and when it was my turn to tear out my first page, I smiled the biggest smile and thought.

Hell yeah, this is Barkley, and I am smack bang in the middle of it.

Runners must collect a page from each book that matches the bib number Laz gives us. At that point, I thanked Laz. Page 1 is the easiest page in a book to find. And I was going to get all 13 pages, come hell or Big Hell.

It is hard to describe just how brutal the terrain is. Each loop, if navigated successfully, is approximately 25 miles / 40K with 13,100ft / 4000m of ascent and descent.

Climbs are largely straight up, no playful switchbacks. You are off-trail and steer your way through forests and over watercourses. Underfoot is the forest floor comprising of decaying branches, fallen trees, roots, leaves and some large rocky sections with incredibly steep drop-offs.

Aid stations

There are no aid stations around The Barkley Marathons course. Water bottles are left on a picnic table at Frozen Head Fire Tower lookout, and often freeze. There are stories of some of the water bottles being filled with moonshine, making them indistinguishable to the runners.

When I reached the Fire Tower I didn’t think to check if I was filling up on water or liquor. It was more about survival with laser beam focus on the next book. 

Topping up with water from water courses is also possible. It is only when you complete a loop and return to the Yellow Gate that you can receive aid from your crew. 

The Barkley Marathons Fire Tower at the top of Rat Jaw.

Frozen Head Fire Tower where water bottles are left for runners. 

Book pages

There are 13 books around the course. It only took me a few hours to understand why Barkley is Barkley and what it means to be out there. Because ensuring you are heading, generally in the right direction, at all times is critical. 

The term out there was first used in Laz’s 1986 article about the race.

Out there means being anywhere on the course, in Frozen Head State Park fog, surrounded by briars and more than likely lost.

Pace also becomes important. You want to be able to complete Loop 1 in time, and with a sufficient buffer, to be able to regroup and head out on the next loop.

I dropped off the back of this small group between Books 2 and 3.

Did I panic when I realized I was out there on my own? A little.

I stopped, checked my map, took a bearing, and told myself I can do this. It was about making sure I knew where I was, as best as I could, always.

That was my plan.

Reaching a book, ripping out my page, putting it in my zip lock bag and then making sure the bag was safely stowed away, gave me a huge sense of achievement.

When it is hammering with rain and you are being battered by high winds, making sure your pages are safe becomes an obsession. Part way round the course, around Book 7, I met a runner who had lost all his pages. I know, right!

Barkley legends 

After finding Book 4 I came across a group of runners, which I admit, was a relief. And it wasn’t long before I realised how extremely lucky I was.

Our group of 5 included 2 Barkley veterans, Hiram Rogers, and Dwayne Scatterfield. Hiram and Dwayne had run The Barkley Marathons many times. A hill was added to the 2014 Barkley course and named after Hiram, called Hiram’s Vertical Smile.

Over the years Hiram and Dwayne had built up an unbelievably accurate mental map of Frozen Head State Park and the course, and apart from where books had changed locations this year, nailed the navigation each time. They pointed out landmarks, shared stories and were genuinely happy for us to tag along.

As we navigated book to book, staring up Rat Jaw for the first time was priceless. Then reaching the saw briars of this fabled climb, my first rat bite – scratches from saw briars – brought to life everything I had read about these plants.

I was getting the full Barkley experience and it was thrilling.

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Wading through the creek that flows under Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was surreal. The water was freezing and fast flowing.

I shiver, even now, recalling when I first stepped into the icy cold stream that runs under the prison desperately trying to catch my breath and not fall over. 

Having read about James Earl Ray (JER), who shot Martin Luther King, Jr and Laz’s response when hearing JER had escaped the penitentiary on June 10, 1977, only managing to run 8.5 miles in 54 hours, Laz’s response was,

I thought I could go 100 miles out here in that length of time.

When the storm hit late afternoon, so did the legendary Frozen Head fog. It got dark quickly. The rain was torrential and the thunder and lightning terrifying.

2018 has become known as the year of lots of rain. 

The fog at Frozen Head State Park

The fog at Frozen Head State Park. 

Book 13

At the top of the last climb and at Book 13 our group separated. Some were able to run the descent back to camp, in the dark, fog and rain, quicker than others.

The last section is a gentle candy ass trail – part of the course that is actually on a trail – that takes you to Big Cove campground and to that beautiful Yellow Gate.

Due to the amount of rain, the screen of my Casio watch had misted up. I had no idea what time it was and if I was going to make Loop 1 cut-off. 

It was the middle of the night, my crew were there in the pouring rain, waiting for me, and they had been there for hours. They were incredible and I can’t thank them enough.

Loop 1

I completed Loop 1 of The Barkley Marathons in 13:08:32 which is within the official loop time.

I was, and still am, extremely proud of this feat of running.

Of the 44 of us that stood at the Yellow Gate, only 26 completed Loop 1. Gary Robbins, completed a Fun Run – 3 loops in under 40 hrs, but just missed the 36 hr cut-off to be able to continue onto Loop 4. There were no finishers this year. 

Presenting my 13 pages to Laz for him to count was emotional because of what it had taken to find each book. I will remember this moment forever.

I was brought to my knees more times than I could count when I was out there. But in those dark moments, I found something magical. I knew I would not give up.

Laz hadn’t got the Human Sacrifice right this year.

The Barkley Marathons, 13 pages from 13 books successfully collected by Kaz on loop 1.

My bib number 1 and 13 book pages.

Interloopal is the time in camp between loops when you get chance to change kit, refuel and regroup. This time counts towards your total race time of 60 hours.

I had until 13:20 to check out and commence Loop 2. By the time I got to the Rest Rooms, used by runners to get out of the rain, change kit and get ready to head back out there I had run out of time.

It was hugely disappointing knowing my Barkley experience had come to an end when I had so much more to give.

In hindsight, I should have grabbed some food from my crew and turned around at the Yellow Gate, immediately after Laz had checked my pages and headed back out there.

Who knows what could have happened. But it’s easy to say in hindsight. You must commit to the decision you make in the moment.

It was a DNF but it was different.

When a runner returns to camp defeated by Frozen Head State Park or does not start the next loop in time, a Bugler blows “Taps”.

Being “tapped out” of The Barkley Marathons was a touching and heart-warming experience. 

Barkley time

I am grateful, indebted, and respectful of this unbelievable life experience. Time slowed down around camp after the storm broke.

Supporting those runners (and their crews) still out there was inspiring and rewarding. It was a tough year. And for those of us who had been out there, we shared our stories.

I loved every Barkley minute. And if I want to be back on Barkley time, all I have to do is look at my watch, which dried out, and continues to reset itself every 24 hours.

From virgin to veteran

Being around the Barkley legends and amazing athletes I toed the Yellow Gate start line with, was amazing. Friendships were made that will forever have a quirky and unique connection with Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg, Tennessee.

And being a Barkley virgin was an incredible honor. I guess that now makes me a Barker – someone who has run the Barkley – and a Barkley veteran.

A week or so after the race Laz sent us the following message

Congratulations to all who fought on this day. The mountains might have won, but they knew we were there.

The Barkley Marathons post race chat with Laz.
The Barkley Marathons being "Tapped out" at the yellow gate after completing loop 1.
Magazine article on The Barkley Marathons with a photo of Kaz holding bib number 1.

Thank you for reading.