In­side the Barkley Marathons

An in­ti­mate look at what it was like to be one of the only spec­ta­tors to wit­ness Gary Rob­bins’s in­sane run in the Ten­nessee moun­tains.

Canadian Running - - FEATURES - By Wing Tay­lor

North Van­cou­ver’s Wing Tay­lor was one of the only spec­ta­tors to wit­ness the in­tense and un­pre­dictable 2017 Barkley Marathons, a 100-mile race that many con­sider the hardest en­durance test in the world. In this first-per­son ac­count, Tay­lor looks back on Canada’s Gary Rob­bins 2017 at­tempt as he pre­pares to hope­fully fi­nally con­quer the Barkley this year.

Be­fore trav­el­ling to Frozen Head State Park and Nat­u­ral Area in April 2017, I in­tel­lec­tu­ally un­der­stood the Barkley Marathons. Like many, I had seen the doc­u­men­tary (in my case, I had seen it ap­prox­i­mately 10 times), I read race re­ports, and I vo­ra­ciously con­sumed all the blogs, vlogs and ar­ti­cles that came out lead­ing up to the race. I agree with the sen­ti­ment ex­pressed by Gary Rob­bins in his race re­port from 2016 – there are many won­der­ful sto­ries in the doc­u­men­tary and other Barkley con­tent, but they all fall woe­fully short in one im­por­tant area: they do not re­motely ex­press the dif­fi­culty of the course. You see that peo­ple are re­ally tired and beat up. You see that they get lac­er­a­tions on their legs from the bri­ars. But the im­ages only con­vey the af­ter­math – not the de­tails of the chal­lenge it­self. The stats – more than 200 kilo­me­tres (even though the “of­fi­cial” dis­tance is 100 miles) with over 18,000 m of climb­ing and the same amount

of de­scent – can im­part some of the dif­fi­culty to those who have run in a trail ul­tra­ma­rathon and might be able to ex­trap­o­late from their own ex­pe­ri­ence the enor­mity of those num­bers, but to the un­fa­mil­iar there must be no way to re­ally quan­tify them. I mean – it’s a lot – but what more can you say when just look­ing at num­bers writ­ten down?

Even though, as a trail run­ner, I thought I was able to some­what ap­pre­ci­ate just how to­tally wacko those num­bers are, it was only in be­ing there, see­ing some of the “trails,” ac­tu­ally hik­ing on a small sec­tion (with race di­rec­tor Lazu­rus Lake’s per­mis­sion – in fact, with Laz), hear­ing the first-hand ac­counts from the run­ners as they all (ex­cept one), in­evitably, tapped out, and liv­ing through the weather changes in camp over the course of the 60 hours the two men spent on the course, that I de­vel­oped a much deeper ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the event. The in­sane to­pog­ra­phy. The dis­tance. The fact that you must ori­en­teer around an un­marked, off-trail course in all man­ner of weather con­di­tions (in­clud­ing thick fog and heavy rain which, at hour 50, felt just plain evil) and un­der an ag­gres­sive time limit? Un­be­liev­able. Im­pos­si­ble. Al­most im­pos­si­ble.

And that is only the phys­i­cal side. What about the men­tal and emo­tional side? You are will­ingly tak­ing on a chal­lenge that is well known to be out of reach for 99 per cent of hu­man be­ings. You are sub­ject­ing your­self to the al­most cer­tain prospect of fail­ing to reach a goal that you have worked in­cred­i­bly hard to

achieve (whether that’s a five-loop fin­ish or even just a three-loop “Fun Run,” as Laz calls it); a goal you have strug­gled and sac­ri­ficed for, and that your fam­ily has sac­ri­ficed for. Imag­ine what it would be like men­tally to sign up for your next marathon or trail race if you knew that there would be a hard cut-off time at the very edge of your max­i­mum ca­pa­bil­i­ties. That only on a per­fect day with per­fect con­di­tions and your ab­so­lute best all-out ef­fort would you be able to fin­ish and that any other out­come would mean that you fail. No fin­ish. No medal. No belt buckle. Noth­ing. You would still have to train just as hard – harder. You would still have to sac­ri­fice all the time, work out all the sched­ules that real life de­mands, eat, sleep, and train for months. But un­less you put in a per­for­mance at the 99.99 per­centile of your ca­pa­bil­i­ties and got lucky with the weather, it would be a fail­ure. Would you still sign up? All the run­ners of the Barkley did.

It was easy for me, in the lead-up to the race, to think only about the “higher-pro­file” run­ners like Gary Rob­bins and John Kelly, Mike War­dian and Jamil Coury (as a North Amer­i­can, the Euro­pean con­tin­gent was strong and I am sure their run­ners are well-known there, I was sim­ply un­fa­mil­iar with them). But all 40 of these run­ners were to­tal badasses.

Re­search the field. Just look at the col­lec­tive re­sumés of these run­ners. Run­ners with mul­ti­ple 100-mile moun­tain ul­tra wins, fastest known time records, sum­mits of Ever­est – you name it. And most of them com­pleted only one or two loops. It was both in­tim­i­dat­ing and in­spir­ing to min­gle with these war­riors as they signed in, read the race in­struc­tions, and marked up their Frozen Head park maps.

As has been pub­li­cized, the conch sig­ni­fy­ing the start of the race was blown at shortly be­fore 1 a.m. on Sat­ur­day morn­ing. The first loop would take place at night, and, as luck would have it, in thick fog. Just af­ter the start, a large tree came crash­ing down some­where nearby. Lazarus Lake lamented that the run­ners had not been there to hear it – it would have prop­erly set the tone. Af­ter the buzz of the start had worn off, those of us in camp re­turned to our tents for sleep, but it would not be long be­fore the first play­ing of “Taps” would drift through the camp­site.

“The in­sane to­pog­ra­phy. The dis­tance. The fact that you must ori­en­teer around an un­marked, off-trail course in all man­ner of weather con­di­tions… and un­der an ag­gres­sive time limit? Un­be­liev­able. Im­pos­si­ble.

“I think I had some­what fallen into the trap of be­liev­ing that a five-lap fin­ish was the only “real” achieve­ment at the Barkley, that a three-lap “Fun Run” was “nice,” and that any­thing less was un­re­mark­able. Wrong.”

“You had your choice – to­tal white­out from your head­lamp hit­ting the fog, or to­tal black­ness,” was the re­frain from the drop­ping run­ners.

I think I had some­what fallen into the trap of be­liev­ing that a five-lap fin­ish was the only “real” achieve­ment at the Barkley, that a three-lap “Fun Run” was “nice,” and that any­thing less was un­re­mark­able. Wrong. A Fun Run is an in­cred­i­ble ac­com­plish­ment. I can now say that I ad­mire and am duly in­spired by any­one who com­pletes one lap or even finds a few pages to in­di­cate that they’ve suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated their way through the ap­palling ter­rain in the Ten­nessee moun­tains. My hat is off to you (lit­er­ally be­cause when Lazarus takes his hat off dur­ing “Taps,” you re­al­ize why, and that you’d bet­ter do the same.)

By the end of loop three, 38 out of 40 had heard “Taps” (with six com­plet­ing a Fun Run). Some get­ting lost. Some ex­pe­ri­enc­ing phys­i­cal break­down (many run­ners came in say­ing they sim­ply could no longer climb or run down­hill – the to­pog­ra­phy and ter­rain are just too pun­ish­ing). Some tim­ing out. Some just los­ing the will to con­tinue.

When Kelly and Rob­bins came into camp af­ter loop

four, no one else re­mained on the course. They came in and touched the gate as a team; they had been work­ing to­gether for well over 40 hours. But the team would now be sep­a­rated. The at­mos­phere in camp was hushed as the two were at­tended by their crews and pre­pared to head out on the fi­nal loop in op­po­site direc­tions.

The weight of all that strug­gle and sac­ri­fice – and all our col­lec­tive hopes for them both to fin­ish – was in the air.

When they set out on the fi­nal lap, we all ap­plauded and did our best to en­er­gize them and cheer them on. When Lazu­rus Lake rang the bell (sig­ni­fy­ing the fi­nal lap as at a track and field event), I am sure I was not the only one whose eyes were welling up with tears.

Hav­ing wit­nessed all these tough, fit ul­tra­run­ners tap­ping out had put things in per­spec­tive – the per­for­mances of John Kelly and Gary Rob­bins were al­ready ab­so­lutely stag­ger­ing. The courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion they showed, the heart they showed, was mind bog­gling – and deeply deeply mov­ing.

They left camp for their fi­nal loop just af­ter mid­night on Sun­day night (47 hours af­ter they started run­ning). They had to be back by 1:42 p.m. on Mon­day, mean­ing they had just over 13 hours to com­plete the fi­nal loop. Once they were gone, many folks spent a lit­tle while hud­dled around the camp­fire ex­press­ing our hopes for them

“The first words out of John’s mouth af­ter fin­ish­ing had been “Where’s Gary?” and that thought weighed heav­ily over the en­tire camp.”

both to fin­ish. We even­tu­ally re­tired to our tents and tried to sleep. At around 7 a.m. the rain started. And we had learned that, in Frozen Head, with rain of­ten comes the dreaded fog. Our grip on op­ti­mism was ten­u­ous.

As we help­lessly sat in camp on this third day, feel­ing ex­hausted and emo­tion­ally drained with­out hav­ing run a step, we were en­veloped in the sheer over­whelm­ing scale of the en­deav­our and the sym­bolic na­ture of the pur­suit. The de­sire to have both John Kelly and Gary Rob­bins fin­ish was vis­ceral and in­tense. Even at the fin­ish line of a half-marathon or a 5k, wit­ness­ing peo­ple over­com­ing ob­sta­cles that, for them, are very chal­leng­ing and have taken courage and com­mit­ment to over­come, is a pow­er­ful ex­pe­ri­ence. But in this case, the chal­lenge is at an im­mense, un­fath­omable scale. And the emo­tions were built along that scale.

What a re­lease when John Kelly be­came the 15 fin­isher of the Barkley. Ap­plause and cheers erupted dur­ing his dra­matic ar­rival in camp, fa­mously wrapped in a torn-up plas­tic garbage bag and wear­ing a prison beanie he’d found in the for­est and,

out of des­per­a­tion, put on for warmth. The tears of his fam­ily mem­bers and crew were con­ta­gious. The ac­com­plish­ment filled the air and buoyed spir­its.

But soon enough, af­ter that ini­tial re­lease, the ten­sion de­scended again and mag­ni­fied. The first words out of John’s mouth af­ter fin­ish­ing had been “Where’s Gary?” and that thought weighed heav­ily over the en­tire camp.

When Gary Rob­bins ap­peared, com­ing from the wrong side of the camp­ground, there was at first un­cer­tainty and con­fu­sion, which was quickly re­placed by deep sad­ness. He had run the dis­tance (and then some), got all the pages in­di­cat­ing that he’d done the course a fifth and fi­nal time, but, hav­ing de­vi­ated from the course, could not be con­sid­ered for a fin­ish, even if he did man­age those six ex­cru­ci­at­ing sec­onds. Every­one who was stand­ing there at that gate, I am sure, felt deep com­pas­sion for him and his wife, Linda, in that mo­ment. (The out­pour­ing of sup­port and words of en­cour­age­ment that ex­ploded across so­cial me­dia echoed that com­pas­sion.) A dev­as­tat­ing, mer­ci­less fi­nal “Taps” sounded. And al­though the fi­nal emo­tion of the week­end had been a nau­se­at­ing gut punch at the yel­low gate, the fact is that we wit­nessed John Kelly achiev­ing the nearly im­pos­si­ble, and Gary Rob­bins leav­ing lit­er­ally ev­ery­thing he had out there in an un­guarded, all-in, soul-bar­ing ef­fort. Both were beau­ti­ful hu­man sto­ries to be­hold. I’m grate­ful for hav­ing been there to ex­pe­ri­ence it.

As I write this, Gary Rob­bins is pre­par­ing to re­turn to Frozen Head in a few weeks, and

“A dev­as­tat­ing, mer­ci­less fi­nal ‘Taps’ sounded.”

the hash­tag is al­ready cir­cu­lat­ing on so­cial me­dia: #nobu­gles2018.

The Barkley is a very in­ti­mate event. The camp­ground is small, and the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple there are ei­ther run­ners, crew and fam­ily or race or­ga­niz­ers. My brother-in-law, Ge­orge Pen­dle, is a writer who had been sent to cover the race for Esquire magazine, and he was kind enough to bring me down as his “crew” and com­pany. I think it is im­por­tant for peo­ple to re­al­ize that, un­less you are a res­i­dent of Mor­gan County, Tenn., it is not re­ally OK to just show up at the Barkley as a spec­ta­tor. There are such lim­ited re­sources and so lit­tle space there, that the ex­ist­ing crowds are al­ready test­ing the lim­its of the camp­ground – and the lim­its of Laz’s pa­tience. I am grate­ful to Ge­orge for bring­ing me, and I am grate­ful to all who were there for mak­ing me feel wel­come.

LEFT Laz places the book at Brushy Moun­tain State Pen­i­ten­tiary the won­der­ful sto­ries in Barkley many y and other woe­fully doc­u­men­tar they all fal­larea. he do con­tent, but im­por­tant­the diff­ishort in one ex­press see that not re­motely course. You and culty of the re­ally tired peo­ple are


BE­LOW Frozen Head State Park en­trance

ABOVE Laz blows the conch shell sig­nal­ing one hour to start time the conch sig­ni­fy­ing the start of the race was blown on at shortly be­fore 1 a.m. Sat­ur­day morn­ing.

RIGHT BOT­TOM Rat Jaw hill rat jaw hill

RIGHT Lim­ited ac­cess to power and wifi limit the amount of spec­ta­tors at the race

Al­most im­pos­si­ble.” Get­ting ready to start the 2017 Barkley Marathons

style Aid sta­tion, Barkley's

ABOVE Rob­bins and Kelly fin­ish­ing a lap to­gether When Kelly and Rob­bins came into camp ter loop four, no one else re­mained on the rse. They came in and touched the gate as a m; they had been work­ing to­gether for well r 40 hours.

BE­LOW The run­ners’ legs get sev­erly lac­er­ated by abun­dant briar patches

Lazarus rings the fi­nal lap bell

book pages on course


ABOVE Gary Rob­bins col­lapses af­ter miss­ing the cut-off time by six sec­onds


And a l t h ou g h f inal e m ot ion o f t he w eek­end h ad been a nau s ea t in g g u t p unch a t t h e y el l o w g a t e, t h e f a ct i s t h at w e w it nes s ed J ohn K el l y a ch ie v in g t h e n earl y i m pos s ibl e, a nd Gar y Rob­bins l ea v in g l it er­all y e ver yt h in g h e h ad ou t t here in an un gu arded, all in, s oul barin g ef f ort . ABOVE John Kelly touches the gate and be­comes the 18th fin­isher, wear­ing a toque he found in the woods

Count ing book pages

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