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.
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.