A Test of Body and Mind

The Barkley Marathons course is con­sid­ered the most dif­fi­cult in ul­tra­ma­rathon­ing, a sport that rev­els in ex­tremely hard cour­ses. Its el­e­va­tion changes 103,800 feet in 100 miles. Only six peo­ple have fin­ished the five-lap course since the race be­gan in 19

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ready had worn holes. Hor­ton had stopped three times on the course to dunk his head in streams and es­cape the 75-de­gree heat. Now, sit­ting in his chair, he poured cold wa­ter over his head and ate an ice cream sun­dae. One of his crew mem­bers mas­saged his legs.

“I can’t go back out there,” Hor­ton said. “It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it.”

“Come on, Horty,” friend Jonathan Basham said. “You can’t give up yet. It’s a Satur­day. You’re here. You might as well try.”

“Might as well?” Hor­ton said. “That’s the worst rea­son I’ve ever heard. Go­ing is stupid. It’s like tak­ing the worst beat­ing of your life, then de­cid­ing to leave again know­ing the next beat­ing is go­ing to be even worse.”

Un­will­ing to com­pete through an­other 20-mile loop of pain, Hor­ton quit, and he spent the next two days sit­ting near a fire and watch­ing the rest of the field grad­u­ally join him. Twenty of the 35 starters quit dur­ing the first loop or be­fore the sec­ond. Nine more quit af­ter the sec­ond. With only six run­ners left on the course dur­ing the third loop, the rest of the run­ners sat in the camp­ground and shared sto­ries about Barkley-in­flicted suf­fer­ing from years past.

Mi­lan Mi­lanovich from Swe­den: Dur­ing the sec­ond loop one year, he took a wrong turn and ran into the fence of the Brushy Moun­tain State Pen­i­ten­tiary. Sus­pi­cious prison guards, alarmed to spot a hiker in such a re­mote spot, forced Mi­lanovich to the ground at gun­point. With his lim­ited English, Mi­lanovich tried to ex­plain the con­cept of the Barkley. This re­in­forced what the guards al­ready be­lieved: Mi­lanovich was crazy but harm­less, they thought. Three hours later, they let him go.

Jim Nelson from Utah: On his fi­nal loop in 2004, Nelson saw boat docks, chairs and houses in the woods. He per­se­vered and fin­ished the fifth loop be­fore the time limit ex­pired. When he re­turned to camp af­ter 57 hours 28 min­utes in the woods, Nelson learned that he’d lost the race to Mike Tilden, an­other 100-mile fin­isher, by slightly more than three min­utes.

Dan Baglione from Cal­i­for­nia: Then 75 years old, he made it to the first book in 2006 be­fore los­ing his way in the woods for the rest of the night. His com­pass broke and his flash­light died, so he slept un­der a tree. In the morn­ing, he re­mem­bered the re­lease all Barkley run­ners must sign. If I fail to re­turn to camp within two hours of any time limit, I agree to pay, in full, for any search and res­cue ef­forts. Baglione walked un­til he found a road, and then he hitch­hiked back to camp just be­fore Cantrell or­ga­nized a search party. Baglione re­turned with a new course record for fu­til­ity: two miles in 32 hours.

“Now I’m of­fi­cially banned from the Barkley for life,” said Baglione, who came to watch the race this year. “How lucky is that?”

The Barkley in­flicts unique mis­ery, run­ners said, be­cause it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to ar­rive pre­pared. Most run­ners choose from three train­ing strate­gies: climb­ing stairs, run­ning or hik­ing. None of those three — even in com­bi­na­tion — proves ef­fec­tive.

What would work? Try run­ning up the long­est, steep­est hill in a nearby moun­tain range. And make sure it’s cov­ered with thorny plants that tear through cloth­ing and skin. And it’s muddy. And there’s rarely a path. And it’s pitch dark. And it’s pour­ing rain. And you’re sleep-de­prived and ex­hausted af­ter 40 hours of con­tin­u­ous ex­er­cise.

In day­light, the Barkley course is a gor­geous maze through a green-and-pur­ple rain­bow of oak and po­plar trees. Thir­teen peaks in Frozen Head State Park tower more than 3,000 feet, and the course forces run­ners to as­cend al­most all of them. It’s im­pos­si­ble to run about half of the 20-mile loop. The most dif­fi­cult sec­tions re­quire run­ners to pull them­selves up 80 per­cent gra­di­ents with climb­ing poles and leather gloves.

The loop, which takes as lit­tle as seven or eight hours for the best run­ners to com­plete, re­quires al­most twice as long at night. Cold winds whip over the moun­tains and cre­ate tem­per­a­tures so cold that, in some years, the most ded­i­cated run­ners uri­nate on their hands to re­gain enough dex­ter­ity to tear book pages. Most run­ners try to nav­i­gate through the dark with head­lamps and flash­lights. But dur­ing each Barkley, a few run­ners get so lost in the dark­ness that they choose to sit un­der a tree and wait un­til dawn. It’s bet­ter to waste time, those run­ners rea­son, than to stum­ble off a cliff.

Af­ter fin­ish­ing the fun run, Greg Ea­son and Mike Do­bies turned back to camp early in their fourth loop. Ea­son, a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist from Arkansas, was see­ing tree­houses and ma­chine-gun bunkers in the woods. Do­bies, an 11-time Barkley run­ner from Michi­gan, had feet so swollen they had out­grown his shoes. Both men hob­bled back to camp, glossy-eyed, at 1 a.m. on Mon­day. That left Robin­son alone on the course, nav­i­gat­ing his way through a dense fog.

Robin­son took 16 hours to fin­ish the fourth loop, and he left camp for the fi­nal 20 miles with feet that looked as if they be­longed to a ca­daver. Af­ter 80 miles on muddy, slanted hill­sides, Robin­son’s heels were white and crin­kled. He had at least a dozen blis­ters, in­clud­ing one on the out­side of his left foot that had grown to al­most the size of a golf ball. When Robin­son jogged down­hill, his wet feet stuck to the bot­tom of his shoes, even as mo­men­tum pulled them for- ward. With each step, he half ex­pected the soles of his feet to rip off.

Robin­son jogged out of camp for the fifth time wear­ing a back­pack filled with food and 100 ounces of wa­ter. Mud, sweat and blood mat­ted down his dark brown hair. On his way out of the camp­ground, Robin­son tried to settle into a com­fort­able pace. When he sped up, he ran out of en­ergy. When he slowed, he al­most fell asleep. Twice in the first two miles, he stopped for 15-minute naps that he hoped would re­fresh him. Within sec­onds of wak­ing up, he felt ex­hausted again.

As his chance to fin­ish within the 60hour time limit dwin­dled, so too did Robin­son’s fo­cus. While nav­i­gat­ing a dif­fi­cult sec­tion of the course, he couldn’t stop recit­ing a mean­ing­less nurs­ery rhyme. He thought he saw trail signs in sec­tions of the woods where no trails ex­isted. He stopped at a creek, sat down on a rock and scanned his sur­round­ings. Af­ter what felt like a few sec­onds, Robin­son looked at his watch. Thirty min­utes had passed.

Fifty-three hours and 85 miles into the Barkley, Robin­son be­came the last man to suc­cumb. Just to quit, he had to hike three hours back to camp. Once he fi­nally made it, he col­lapsed in a chair, in­haled two turkey sand­wiches and pulled a sleep­ing bag over his legs. Six run­ners and Cantrell, the race di­rec­tor, sat around Robin­son.

“Well, Gary,” Robin­son said, “it looks like you win again. I just lost it out there.”

“That’s the thing about the Barkley,” Cantrell said. “It’s what sep­a­rates the men from their cook­ies, isn’t it?”

Robin­son nod­ded. He had day­dreamed about a shower for the last 40 hours, but now, fi­nally back at camp, he couldn’t gather the en­ergy to lift him­self. He slurred his speech. Blood cov­ered his legs and arms. Yet slumped in his chair, Robin­son talked to other run­ners for three hours. He de­scribed all five of his loops and re­hashed his mis­takes. Some­body asked Robin­son if he felt dev­as­tated be­cause he had quit so close to fin­ish­ing.

“You know, I thought I would,” Robin­son said. “But I’m ac­tu­ally proud of a loss like this. Un­til you push your­self right to the edge, you haven’t re­ally pushed your­self. I have ab­so­lutely noth­ing left right now. That’s re­ally what I came here for.”


Cantrell ad­dresses the crowd at the start in early April. Ath­letes must con­tact Cantrell at a time he chooses to reg­is­ter, with a few days’ warn­ing. It was at 1 a.m. on Dec. 26 for this race.

Eleven-time Barkley run­ner Mike Do­bies rests his bat­tered feet be­fore the start of the fourth loop, which he didn’t fin­ish. His feet were so swollen, they didn’t fit in his shoes.

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