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
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.