Punishing Race Is An Enticing Lost Cause
WHY WE COMPETE Curiosity
WARTBURG, Tenn. lone, running and hiking in the mountains for almost 50 hours, Brian Robinson’s mind had slowly unraveled. He had run through two sleepless nights, through fog and sideways rain, through thornbushes and over rattlesnake dens. Now, with 80 miles finished and 20 left in the world’s toughest footrace, Robinson no longer could differentiate between real and imaginary. Around each corner, he thought he heard picnickers laughing at him. At midnight. In the remote woodlands of Tennessee.
Robinson stumbled into the Barkley Marathons’ final aid station at 8 a.m., with black hollows surrounding his eyes. His hands trembled, a result of the five caffeine pills he had swallowed. Dozens of scratches covered his arms and legs. His dry-fit shirt was dingy and frayed. The slightest gust of
Awind knocked Robinson from side to side, so he leaned against a tree. A half-dozen friends and fellow runners — all of whom had quit long ago — rushed to prepare Robinson for the final section of the race. Two people changed his shoes. One person sponged his forehead. His friend, Wendell Doman, started cooking six eggs as Robinson eyed his watch.
“I need to get back out there now,” Robinson said. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to cook those, Wendell.”
“I know,” Doman said. “But you need the protein.”
“Just put them in a bowl,” Robinson said. “I’ll drink them raw.”
Only six runners ever have finished the Barkley Marathons since its inception in 1986, and the race teased and tortured Robinson and 34 other runners during the first weekend in April. Some of the best endurance athletes in the world traveled to Tennessee to test themselves against the hardest course in ultramarathon running: a cumulative elevation almost equal to two climbs up Mount Everest; trails too deteriorated to follow without a compass; temperatures that, in a single weekend, threaten both heatstroke and hypothermia.
Even if Robinson, 45, could force down runny eggs and drag his wrecked body 20 more miles within the race’s 60-hour time limit, he would fly home to California without prize money, fame or significant recognition. Like every other runner, he had come to Tennessee seeking a more personal result. Mainly, he was curious about how well he could compete. How hard could he push himself? How much could he endure before his mind and body surrendered to the woods?
Gary Cantrell conceived the Barkley Marathons in the late 1970s, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s convicted assassin escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary near Wartburg. James Earl Ray ran for 55 hours before guards found him eight miles from the prison fence. Cantrell, a local ultrarunner and accountant, followed the story and thought: That’s pathetic. I could have gone at least 100 miles in that much time.
Cantrell spent the next several years scouting the area for a race, and eventually he designed a 20-mile loop on rugged hills and overgrown mining trails. The path forces runners to hurdle hundreds of fallen oak trees and wade through raging creeks. Runners must complete that same loop five times to finish the race, or three times to finish the 60-mile “fun run.” To prove he had completed the remote course, a runner this year had to tear a page from 10 books placed along the loop. Cantrell provides detailed directions to each book, and he counts a runner’s pages at the end of each loop before allowing him to continue.
The Barkley has become a phenomenon among ultramarathon runners. More than 600 athletes have come to Frozen Head State Park to run 100 miles. Many arrive in Tennessee with unabashed bravado: One hundred miles in 60 hours? A pace of less than 2 mph? What elite ultrarunner couldn’t manage that?
But more than half of all Barkley entrants quit before the 21st mile. Less than 15 percent finish the fun run. All six men who finished the 100 miles consider that feat their greatest running achievement.
Cantrell, a heavyset man with runner’s legs, competed unsuccessfully in the race during its early years before injuries forced him to stop. Now he looks forward to the Barkley as his annual, sadistic joke. When he arrived at a campground near the startand-finish line on the last Friday in March, he looked more like a woodsman than a runner. He wore a dark overcoat, and a longbrimmed fedora covered his bald head. With a cigarette dangling under his scraggly mustache, he charged $25 for official Barkley T-shirts that depicted a picture of a rattlesnake and the slogan: “The best thing about the Barkley Marathons is the petting zoo.” Cantrell told runners that they should get used to seeing rattlesnakes; this year, he said, he had placed one of the 10 books in the mouth of a rattlesnake hole.
Most of the 35 runners pulled pickup trucks and RVs into the campground Friday and set up their tents. For a group feast, Cantrell cooked 20 pounds of chicken — the race is named for the Cantrell friend who provides the chickens. Runners sat together near a campfire and studied a course map, then scattered to organize their supplies.
Early Friday evening, Robinson sat at a picnic table in front of his tent and laid out his trail food. Five years earlier, Robinson had quit his Internet job to focus exclusively on exploring his physical limitations and competing against himself. Instead of spending 40 hours a week in front of a computer, he searched for physical fulfillment. Could he run a marathon? Could he finish an ultramarathon? Could he speedhike for 300 days in one year? Intent on completing all five loops at the Barkley, he had brought two dozen eggs, a dozen protein drinks, a bottle of salt pills, enough turkey for 10 loaded sandwiches and 54 Snickers Marathon bars, at 220 calories each.
Robinson then turned over his suitcase and dumped out an entire wardrobe. He had brought three pairs of shoes, four shirts, two jackets and three pairs of pants. Last year, in his first trip to the Barkley, Robinson struggled through freezing rain and missed the 40-hour cutoff for the fun run by 71⁄ minutes. This year, he was pre-
2 pared for rain, hail and even snow.
“What, did you pack for a month-long vacation?” Cantrell said, walking past as Robinson sorted his gear. “Feels like it,” Robinson said. “After lugging all that stuff across the country,” Cantrell said, “you’ll at least have motivation to finish more than one loop.”
Cantrell’s sarcastic humor is wove deep into the character of the Barkley. He plays taps on a bugle for each runner who withdraws. To register for the race, athletes must e-mail Cantrell at a time he announces, giving only a few days’ warning. This year, he asked interested runners to email him at 1 a.m. on Dec. 26. He filled 35 slots within a few hours and then compiled a 20-person wait list.
The race starts whenever Cantrell feels like it. He awoke this year on a warm Saturday morning, smoked a cigarette and then blew a conch shell to signal that the race would commence in an hour. At precisely 8:08 a.m., 35 runners left the campground for a 1,600-foot climb up a mountain trail so steep it requires 16 switchbacks — by consensus, the easiest mile of the day.
It took 40 minutes for Balazs Koranyi to reach his limit. An 800-meter runner for Hungary in the 2000 Olympics and an All- Met runner for Walter Johnson High in 1991, Koranyi had trained for six months and traveled for three days in preparation for the Barkley. Tired from the initial climb, he tripped over a fallen tree about a mile into the course. Koranyi fell onto a protruding branch and punctured his knee to the bone. He hobbled back down the hill, saw Cantrell reclining in a chair near a campfire and asked the race director if he had a first-aid kit. Cantrell laughed.
“We’ve got duct tape and Vaseline,” he said. “That’s the only first aid we know at the Barkley.”
Koranyi withdrew from the race, walked to his car and drove 45 minutes to the nearest emergency room. He returned with two stitches in his knee before anybody finished the first loop.
The cruelest trick of the Barkley recurs every 20 miles, when runners steer back into the campground. That means that after each loop, a runner has to decide: Back into the forest for another 12, 13 hours of suffering? Or a hot meal and a beer by the campfire, with a shower and a sleeping bag nearby?
Runner David Horton finished the first loop in just less than nine hours and dropped into a folding chair near his tent. Perhaps the most accomplished ultrarunner ever from the United States, Horton completed the 2001 Barkley in 58 hours 21 minutes. He had returned this year to cruise through a quick fun run before driving back to Lynchburg, Va., in time to teach his exercise physiology classes at Liberty University on Monday morning. In one loop around the course, that goal went from modest to unimaginable.
After trekking through the thorny briars, Horton’s legs looked as if they had been through a paper shredder. His socks, still packaged in plastic a day earlier, al-
Above, Barkley Marathoners make their way up a rare clearing in the 20-mile course, which must be completed five times. Below, Brian Robinson shows the strain of the world’s most daunting footrace.
Brian Robinson searches for the fifth of the 10 hidden books he must find to prove he has completed a 20-mile lap of the Barkley Marathons. “Until you push yourself right to the edge, you haven’t really pushed yourself,” he said.
Race organizer Gary Cantrell has a sadistic streak. This year, he put one of the books in the mouth of a rattlesnake hole.