The masochist’s marathon

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - Words by Ge­orge Pen­dle Pho­to­graphs by Alexis Berg

Since 1986, the world’s top ul­tra­run­ners have fought to com­pete in the Barkley Marathons that runs through 100 miles of hellish Ap­palachian moun­tains. Ge­orge Pen­dle takes a hike, Alexis Berg snaps the ca­su­al­ties.

A man is beg­ging on the side of a Ten­nessee moun­tain. He’s crum­pled on the ground, his clothes are soak­ing wet, and he’s suck­ing air hard. His wife weeps as she hud­dles over him, her hands rest­ing softly on his arm. Above them stands a bearded fig­ure in a wide-brimmed hat and a worn-out oil­skin duster.

“I got all my pages!” pleads the man on the ground. His voice is shrill, hys­ter­i­cal. “I dropped down the wrong side of the moun­tain in the fog. I had to swim a river.” He gasps for air again. “I got all my pages!”

A small group of on­look­ers cover their mouths and stare. They look from the bro­ken man on the ground to the in­scrutable face of the bearded fig­ure loom­ing over him.

“He got all his pages,” re­peats a voice in the crowd. “He got all his pages.” FOR MOST OF US, the 26.2 miles of a marathon rep­re­sent the epit­ome of ath­letic en­durance. For others, there are the ul­tra­ma­rathons, races that stretch to 50 or 100 miles or more through some of the world’s most in­hos­pitable re­gions. The Bad­wa­ter 135 winds through the mid­dle of Death Val­ley in July. The Marathon des Sables is a six-day, 156mile race across the Sa­hara Desert. The Hardrock 100 is a high-al­ti­tude 100-miler amid light­ning storms and avalanches. And then there is the Barkley Marathons. Of­fi­cially, it con­sists of five loops through Frozen Head State Park in Ten­nessee, to­talling 100 miles, but most par­tic­i­pants be­lieve it to be closer to 130. Run­ners must as­cend and de­scend about 120,000ft of el­e­va­tion—the equiv­a­lent of climb­ing up and down Mount Ever­est twice. And all this must be done in just 60 hours. As of race time this year, of the more than 1,000 peo­ple who have run it, only 14 have fin­ished.

It costs only USD1.60 to en­ter. An ap­pli­ca­tion must be sent to a closely guarded email ad­dress at pre­cisely the right minute on pre­cisely the right day. The email must include an es­say ti­tled “Why I Should Be Al­lowed to Run in the Barkley.”

You must then com­plete a writ­ten exam that asks, for in­stance, “Ex­plain the ex­cess positrons in the flux of cos­mic rays” and “How much but­ter should you use to cook a pound of liver (with onions)?” New run­ners, known as “vir­gins,” must bring a li­cence plate from their state or coun­try. “Veter­ans”—re­turn­ing run­ners who did not fin­ish—must bring an item of cloth­ing. One year, it was a flan­nel shirt. An­other year, it was a white dress shirt. This year, it’s a pack of white socks. The few who have fin­ished the course and are crazy enough to re­turn, known as “alumni,” need only bring a pack of Camel cig­a­rettes.

The race can be­gin any time be­tween mid­night and noon on the clos­est Satur­day to April Fools’ Day, al­ways ex­actly one hour af­ter a conch is blown. Run­ners are not given a map of the course, which is un­marked and largely off-trail, un­til the af­ter­noon be­fore. They must rely on com­passes and the race’s ob­scure of­fi­cial di­rec­tions to find their way. GPS is for­bid­den.

Run­ners must lo­cate 13 books in each loop and tear out a page cor­re­spond­ing to their race num­ber. This year’s batch in­cludes Un­rav­elled, Lost and Found, and There Is Noth­ing Wrong With You: Go­ing Be­yond Self-hate. Af­ter each loop, the pages are counted and each run­ner is given a new num­ber. There are no aid sta­tions, just two un­manned water drops that are of­ten frozen solid. Those un­able to fin­ish are ser­e­naded by the Barkley’s of­fi­cial bu­gler play­ing a dis­cor­dant ren­di­tion of “Taps.”

All run­ners must sign a le­gal dis­claimer that reads: “If I am stupid enough to at­tempt the Barkley, I de­serve to be held re­spon­si­ble for any re­sult of that at­tempt, be it fi­nan­cial, phys­i­cal, men­tal or any­thing else.”

“The run­ners come for some­thing they could fail at, that they might not be able to do,” the course’s de­signer, Lazarus Lake—laz for short— tells me. “And the less likely it is that they can do it, the more at­tracted they are to it.”

The Barkley course was in­di­rectly in­spired by James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr’s as­sas­sin, who es­caped from the nearby Brushy Moun­tain State Pen­i­ten­tiary in 1977. When he was re­cap­tured af­ter 56 hours on the run, Ray had barely gone eight miles. Upon hear­ing this, Laz thought he could have made it at least 100 miles. (As it turns out, he couldn’t. He’s never done more than two loops of the course him­self.) The race was named af­ter Laz’s friend Barry Barkley.

The first Barkley Marathons was held in 1986. Thir­teen peo­ple par­tic­i­pated. No one fin­ished. The next year, Laz made the course harder. No one fin­ished. And so on un­til 1995, when an English­man named Mark Wil­liams, fu­elled by tea and cheese sand­wiches, com­pleted the five loops in 59 hours and 28 min­utes.

IT’S CHECK-IN TIME at the Frozen Head campground.

“To­mor­row, I’ll be call­ing you an evil man,” says one run­ner.

“If that’s all I’m called,” Laz says, “it’ll all have been a fail­ure.”

“How are you?” a smil­ing French run­ner asks ner­vously. “Bet­ter than you!” Laz shoots back. The mas­ter map is re­vealed, duct-taped to a pic­nic table. The run­ners crowd around, ea­ger to copy the var­i­ous sec­tions of the course—rat Jaw, Gnarly Mouth, Leonard’s Butt Slide, Fool­ish Stu, Bad Thing, Hillpoca­lypse—onto their own maps. They can also con­sult Laz’s printed di­rec­tions, such as they are: “Look for a weird rock at a con­flu­ence of two streams, cross over that, turn left, and go down a hill­side. If it looks too steep, that’s the right one.”

Com­plet­ing three loops of the Barkley is known as a “Fun Run.” Dur­ing the last two loops, how­ever, ex­haus­tion forces the run­ners into a kind of up­side-down world. In 2005, one run­ner on loop five be­came con­vinced there were houses on top of one of the moun­tains and that he was a garbage­man sent to empty the trash.

Laz likes to say that to fin­ish the Barkley all you have to do is av­er­age two miles an hour for 60 hours. How dif­fi­cult can that be? A few min­utes walk­ing the course gives you some idea. The slopes are so steep that they look like they’re fold­ing over and back down on you. A thick blan­ket of de­com­posed leaves hides rocks and fallen branches, and the bare trees turn the whole park into one dis­ori­en­tat­ing panorama of brown. Cen­tury-old coal-min­ing paths can oc­ca­sion­ally be glimpsed, but even these in­dis­tinct mark­ings dis­ap­pear com­pletely at night.

This year, Gary Rob­bins is the favourite to fin­ish. Pow­er­fully built with a shaved head, Rob­bins spe­cialises in moun­tain trails, the tougher the bet­ter, and is a peren­nial podium fin­isher at the HURT 100 race, held in the moun­tains of Hawaii. He ran the Barkley for the first time last year and man­aged to get as far as the fifth loop—an in­cred­i­ble feat for a vir­gin—be­fore quit­ting. His red beard has its own Twit­ter ac­count (on which #gog­a­rygo has been trend­ing), and he ar­rived at this year’s race with his own videog­ra­pher.

Behind him is Mike War­dian from Ar­ling­ton, Vir­ginia. In Jan­uary, he com­pleted the World Marathon Chal­lenge, run­ning seven marathons on seven con­ti­nents in seven days. Then there’s the neon-drenched ul­tra­run­ning fix­ture Jamil Coury, aka Jam­jam; Heather An­der­son, one of six women com­pet­ing in the Barkley this year, who crushed both the women’s and the men’s records for hik­ing the 2,189-mile Ap­palachian Trail un­sup­ported; An­der­son’s boyfriend, Adam Lint, a Barkley vet­eran favoured to reach loop five this year; Bran­don Sta­panowich, one of a hand­ful of fin­ish­ers of Nolan’s 14, a race across 14 of the high­est peaks of the Colorado Rock­ies; Mike Ver­steeg, who smashed the record for the 830-mile Ari­zona Trail run by six days; and Jo­han Steene, a Swede who can eas­ily cover 150 miles in 24 hours. There’s a Navy res­cue swim­mer, a Zen Hi­malayan ad­ven­turer, and half a dozen French­men. Each of the 40 com­peti­tors has been cho­sen for his or her par­tic­u­lar skill set and gen­eral badassery. It’s like The Dirty Dozen meets Char­i­ots of Fire. Or should that be De­liv­er­ance?

On the Fri­day be­fore the race, the weather is look­ing favourable. Rob­bins has even gone so far as to pre­dict that four run­ners will start loop five, the most ever.

“It’s true—we’ve got some re­ally fast peo­ple this year,” Laz says. “But, you know, speed kills.” What does he think of Rob­bins’s chances? “He’s good, there’s no doubt, but he’s put an aw­ful lot of pres­sure on his shoul­ders.” Laz points up the hill we’re climb­ing. “Public opin­ion ain’t go­ing to mean much when he’s out there.” So who does Laz think can fin­ish the course? “Well, no one seems to be men­tion­ing John Kelly at all.”

John Kelly is the lo­cal boy. His fam­ily has lived on the edge of the park for 200 years. This is Kelly’s third at­tempt at the Barkley. Last year, he was gar­roted by saw bri­ars—the vi­cious inch-long thorns that lace the course—which left bleed­ing gashes across his neck. By the end of the fourth loop, he was un­able to recog­nise his crew, and he fell asleep 100 yards into the fifth, a spot since chris­tened “Up­per Kelly Camp.”

Like many Barkley run­ners, Kelly has an ad­vanced science de­gree, and when asked to try to ex­plain the race’s dif­fi­culty, he does not com­pare it to an­other ul­tra but in­stead to the qual­i­fy­ing exam for his PHD. “You write a pa­per, you pre­sent on it, and then three pro­fes­sors grill you on what­ever the hell they want un­til they find your break­ing point,” Kelly says. “It’s not a matter of ‘Did you break?’ It’s a matter of ‘How far can you make it be­fore you break?’ ” By 10pm, the campground fires have been ex­tin­guished and con­ver­sa­tion has qui­eted to a mur­mur. Up at the yel­low gate, which serves as the race’s start and fin­ish lines, Laz is laugh­ing hard and glanc­ing at his watch.

A deep, harsh note booms un­der the trees. The conch has been blown! Tents light up like colour­ful mush­rooms. It’s 12.42am on Satur­day, April 1. The tem­per­a­ture is in the mid-40’s, it’s driz­zling, and there’s fog. Fog is the worst weather con­di­tion to have at the Barkley, far worse than rain or snow. “Head­lamps are no use—ev­ery­thing turns into a wall of white,” Laz says. “Turn your head­lamp off and it’s a wall of black. There’s go­ing to be a lot of peo­ple not fin­ish­ing loop one.”

At 1.42am, in­stead of fir­ing a start­ing pis­tol,

Run­ners must as­cend and de­scend about 120,000 feet of el­e­va­tion— the equiv­a­lent of climb­ing up and down Mount Ever­est twice.

Laz lights a Camel. And with that plume of smoke, the run­ners are off. Just as the last of them dis­ap­pear from view, there is a loud crack. Twenty feet from the gate, 100-foot oak tilts and crashes to the ground. The stunned si­lence is bro­ken only by the sound of Laz cack­ling. “I wish that had hap­pened two min­utes be­fore the start!”

WHEN I MET LAZ at his home out­side Bell Buckle, Ten­nessee, three weeks be­fore the race, he was wear­ing a flan­nel shirt over a white dress shirt and, no doubt, a pair of white socks un­der his boots. He puffed en­thu­si­as­ti­cally on a Camel. A red beanie em­bossed with the word “Geezer” crowned his head, cov­er­ing some thin­ning hair pulled back in a knot. His face, apart from his bulging be­spec­ta­cled eyes, is largely ob­scured by an un­ruly grey beard. In short, he looks like the hillbilly of your back­coun­try night­mares, an im­age only deep­ened by the pres­ence of Big, his gi­ant red pit bull, who seemed to be con­sid­er­ing whether my skull would fit in his mouth. Big had been shot in the chest and aban­doned when Laz found him. “Some­one wanted him for a fight­ing dog,” Laz said, “but he just didn’t have the na­ture for it.” Laz nursed him back to health, and now the two are in­sep­a­ra­ble and, in a way, sim­i­lar. De­spite his fear­some de­meanour and rep­u­ta­tion, Laz is not a fight­ing dog by na­ture, ei­ther. He pores over science and his­tory books and writes short sto­ries, all in low­er­case, about his dog’s ad­ven­tures, like the time Big swal­lowed a whole skunk. He’s on his fifth col­lec­tion.

Laz’s house is nes­tled in dense woods at the top of a hill per­fo­rated with caves. Some Carolina wrens have nested in a box on the porch, where a fun­nel spi­der’s web has been al­lowed to stretch across a chair. There are swifts in the out­door chim­ney.

In­side, there’s a room with half a dozen beds cov­ered with quilts made from Laz’s old race T-shirts, ready for any itin­er­ant run­ners who hap­pen to be pass­ing through. The house is filled with boxes of an­i­mal skulls he picked up on his runs, ar­row­heads he col­lected with his fa­ther, and stacks of Na­tion-

al Ge­o­graphic mag­a­zines. Laz of­fered me a pull from a jar of moon­shine. He gets it made lo­cal, though his favourite sup­plier was re­cently ar­rested. Among the odd­i­ties and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds is an in­tri­cately sculpted mar­ble ball cov­ered in fine lat­tice­work and geo­met­ric de­signs, a gift from an In­dian run­ner who took part in the Barkley some years ago. It’s only when I took a closer look that I no­ticed a 1,000 dif­fer­ent tiny spots of glue catch­ing the light. “When it ar­rived, it was shat­tered,” Laz said. “But I found two pieces I could stick to­gether. Then I put it aside and searched for new ones.” He had no idea what it was sup­posed to look like, but he stuck with it for months, painstak­ingly find­ing match­ing frag­ments even when most peo­ple would have given up or gone in­sane. “I didn’t know un­til it was put to­gether that it had ele­phants on it,” he said.

Forty-five years ago, Laz be­gan high­light­ing ev­ery road he had run on a lo­cal map. When he ex­hausted the roads on one map, he’d get an­other and tape it to the first. To­day, the maps have be­come like a me­dieval ta­pes­try, a dozen feet across. Laz set out to run across all of Ten­nessee’s 95 coun­ties, an odyssey that would al­low him to im­merse him­self in the state’s ge­ol­ogy, bi­ol­ogy and his­tory. He ex­plained how over the years he has fol­lowed in the foot­steps of the armies of the North and South; and be­fore them the set­tlers and the Chero­kee; and be­fore them the Wood­land peo­ple, whose vil­lages you could still see as faint dark out­lines in tilled fields; and back 10,000 years to the Clo­vis, whose pointed pro­jec­tiles could still be found; and back fur­ther still, over ground once trod by mastodons and sabre-toothed cats, run­ning through not just space but time. Last year, Laz crossed Uni­coi County, the last county on his list.

“I never meant to be Laz,” he told me, sip­ping one of the many Dr Pep­pers he con­sumes each day. About 40 empty cans are stacked on the kitchen side­board. Born Gary Cantrell, he first came upon the name Lazarus Lake in a phone book while run­ning across Ten­nessee. Ini­tially, he used it as his email han­dle, but it soon mor­phed into his ul­tra­run­ning per­sona, and now it’s un­shak­able.

Laz’s fam­ily comes from Ok­la­homa, but when his fa­ther got a job work­ing on the space program in the ’60s, they moved to Tul­la­homa, Ten­nessee. It was here, in 1966, that Laz’s fa­ther saw a news report about a fam­ily in Texas who jogged.

“It be­came the first run­ning craze,” Laz said, “and my dad started go­ing to the track ev­ery day with his bud­dies from work to try and run an eight-minute mile.” Laz, who was 12 at the time, ac­com­pa­nied his fa­ther on these ex­cur­sions. “It was the first thing I was able to beat him at, and my dad was very com­pet­i­tive. When you won, you won be­cause you won.”

At five feet tall and 70lbs in his sopho­more year of high school, Laz nat­u­rally drifted to the cross-coun­try team. One day, the team ran from Tul­la­homa to the neigh­bour­ing town of Estill Springs and back again. “It was just so cool run­ning from one town to an­other. It kind of stuck with me.”

Laz had al­ways known that ex­treme long-dis­tance run­ning was pos­si­ble. In Ok­la­homa, his fa­ther had grown up on a farm next to Andy Payne, who in 1928, at age 20, won the Transcon­ti­nen­tal Footrace, a PR spec­ta­cle pop­u­larly known as the Bu­nion Derby to­tal­ing 3,422.3 miles in 84 days.

In the ’70s, there were only a cou­ple hun­dred ul­tra­run­ners at most, and only a hand­ful of of­fi­cial ul­tra­ma­rathons. None were in Ten­nessee. So Laz set up his own, the Strolling Jim, a 40-mile race named af­ter a cham­pion walk­ing horse. “I wasn’t very fast,” Laz said, “and I didn’t have out­stand­ing en­durance, but I could take a lot of pun­ish­ment.”

While crew­ing for an­other run­ner at one ul­tra, Laz was pass­ing the time by knock­ing back a few beers. The race had long since started, but he was feel­ing good. Re­ally good. “I reckoned I could start now and beat them all. I ran like the wind. I kept fly­ing. Best 12 hours I’ve ever had. And I thought I’d dis­cov­ered the se­cret to ul­tras—beer! I had the an­swer! But it was only the an­swer that day. I tried it again and it was a catas­tro­phe.”

To­day, Laz coaches bas­ket­ball at the lo­cal high school, but for most of his ca­reer he was an ac­coun­tant, a job he en­joyed for its men­tal chal­lenges. “I used to love be­ing given an in­sol­u­ble prob­lem—you can’t fig­ure out how to do it, and you’re frus­trated, and you might walk away from it a time or two and say, ‘I fuck­ing give up!’ But then you let it roll around in your head. And when you solve it, you say, ‘Man, that was fun.’ But no, it wasn’t! It sucked the whole time! You kept do­ing it be­cause it needed to be done. We need chal­lenge to be happy. We need things to be hard.”

In May 2016, a run­ner named Robert Young made na­tional news when he an­nounced his in­ten­tion to break the record for run­ning across the United States. Young started off at a re­mark­able pace, av­er­ag­ing more than 70 miles a day, up­lift­ing a na­tion as word of his hero­ics spread through so­cial me­dia. But not ev­ery­one was im­pressed.

“He was post­ing pic­tures of him­self on Face­book do­ing hand­stands on the road, play­ing soc­cer with a bunch of kids!” Laz said. “On a real jour­ney run, you only have time to run, treat your in­juries, and rest.” There was only one con­clu­sion: “The guy clearly wasn’t do­ing it.” Laz sus­pected that Young was rid­ing in the back of his sup­port crew’s RV when no­body was around. So he and his wife de­cided to go to St. Louis and fol­low him.

Laz drove behind Young, walked along­side him, and even of­fered a few tips. “We dogged his ass ev­ery step of the way.” Young had been run­ning for 24

days up to that point. Within five days of Laz’s ar­rival, Young sought treat­ment at a hos­pi­tal.

“He was re­ally a nice guy, but he was a fraud,” Laz said with a sigh. “All I re­ally wanted to see was that he suf­fered the way you’re meant to suf­fer.” (Young has de­nied any wrong­do­ing.)

SEVEN HOURS INTO THE RACE, three run­ners have al­ready dropped out. It’s not un­til 11.12am on Satur­day that Gary Rob­bins and dark horse John Kelly trot up the road to­gether to fin­ish the first loop. Any chance at fin­ish­ing the race un­der the time limit is now se­ri­ously un­likely. Rob­bins darts back to his tent to repack food, new head­lights and clothes, while Kelly, his knees al­ready bleed­ing from the saw bri­ars, gets sprayed with sun­block— it’s go­ing to be 27 de­grees to­day. Just as the two dif­fer in their strengths, so too are their camps a study in con­trasts. Rob­bins’s gi­ant space-age tent has been dubbed the “Tent Ma­hal.” Kelly, mean­while, is fed and changed at the yel­low gate in full view of ev­ery­one. A hush sur­rounds the Rob­bins camp, whereas bil­low­ing wood smoke and chat­ter churn out of the Kelly campground across the road as his Carhartt-clad fam­ily floods in to offer sup­port.

Other run­ners ar­rive in groups of two or three. The pre­ferred food dur­ing the Barkley is junk: choco­late dough­nuts, whoopie pies, peanut-but­ter-and-nutella sand­wiches, in­stant potatoes— any­thing that de­liv­ers the most calo­ries with the least chew­ing. One run­ner weeps as her sup­port crew shov­els mac­a­roni into her mouth.

Some run­ners fin­ish the first loop but shake their heads at the gate: They’re not go­ing back out there. Af­ter 13 hours of slog­ging up 40 de­gree gra­di­ents, who wouldn’t want to give in to the siren song of tent and sleep­ing bag? “Taps” is played. The hours pass.

Word trick­les back that Mike War­dian, who was con­sid­ered a se­ri­ous con­tender, was last seen charg­ing through the un­der­growth in con­fu­sion. A search party is just about to leave when he fi­nally trots back in. It’s taken him more than 15 hours to com­plete the loop. He’s over the cut­off time.

“I’ve never had to chase a cut­off be­fore,” he says, baf­fled, as if he fi­nally feels what it’s like to be mor­tal. He rubs a tired hand over his face. “But you know what? I had a great time out there.” A few hours later, he is al­ready con­sid­er­ing the Knoxville Marathon the fol­low­ing day. Of the 40 starters, 24 be­gin loop two.

By Satur­day night, the tem­per­a­ture has plum­meted from 27 de­grees back to 4.5. Laz stands at the gate, ac­count­ing for ev­ery ar­rival, de­par­ture, and DNF (Did Not Fin­ish). Lo­cals from the nearby town of Wart­burg, who know the woods well, come to watch the ex­hausted run­ners stag­ger to the gate. A for­mer guard at Brushy Moun­tain State Pen­i­ten­tiary named Mark, who with his bald head and shades and leather biker gear cuts a se­vere fig­ure, was the first per­son to show Laz the old coal-min­ing trails around the prison.

Rob­bins and Kelly ar­rive to­gether from loop two at 10pm and im­me­di­ately head to their camp­sites to eat and power-nap. They’re both out of camp again by 11.10pm.

Most run­ners quit dur­ing loop two, and the ones drop­ping out now are crushed and sour, their bod­ies beaten. There are tales of loose rocks and thorny trip wires. One run­ner es­ti­mates he fell down more than 200 times. The weary, off-key notes of the bu­gler sound through­out the night.

When dawn breaks on Sun­day morn­ing, the campground has the air of a bat­tle­field en­camp­ment. Feet stick out the back of SUVS. Laz snoozes in a camp chair next to the gate. Mike Ver­steeg, who bailed out on loop two, strums aim­lessly on a gui­tar. “Why can’t I be good at some­thing that doesn’t make me feel mis­er­able?” he says to no one in par­tic­u­lar. Me­gan Far­rell, the fastest woman on loop one, who dropped out the night be­fore, is more philo­soph­i­cal. “I have a friend who be­lieves in type-one fun and type-two fun. One is fun you have now. Two is fun you en­joy later on. This is def­i­nitely type-two fun.”

At 10.42am, Rob­bins and Kelly ap­pear in lock­step. The wear is start­ing to show, and their ap­petites have been de­stroyed. A mem­ber of Kelly’s team wedges a slice of pep­per­oni pizza into his mouth as he starts the next loop.

Loop four is where the Barkley turns from a col­lab­o­ra­tive en­deavor into a com­pe­ti­tion. Who­ever fin­ishes loop four and gets out of camp first can choose their di­rec­tion for loop five, at which point the run­ners are forced to split up, with one run­ning clock­wise and the other go­ing coun­ter­clock­wise. Clock­wise is gen­er­ally seen as the slightly eas­ier di­rec­tion. “John can’t out­run Gary, but he knows the course bet­ter,” Laz muses. “Maybe he’ll take a tac­ti­cal break—let Gary go off by him­self, hop­ing he gets lost.”

LAZ DI­RECTS FIVE RACES be­sides the Barkley. There’s the Big Back­yard Ul­tra, a race through the woods around Laz’s house in which par­tic­i­pants must com­plete a four-mile loop ev­ery hour un­til only one run­ner is left. In 2014, two com­peti­tors were locked in a dead heat af­ter 49 hours of run­ning. The race only ended be­cause one of them had to catch a plane.

Then there’s ARFTA—A Race for the Ages—in which run­ners have stag­gered start times de­pend­ing on their age: if you’re 80 years old, you start 80 hours be­fore the set fin­ish time; if you’re 30, 30 hours be­fore. Who­ever com­pletes the most laps of the one-mile-loop course is the win­ner.

And then there’s the yearly Last An­nual Vol State Road Race, a 500km race across the whole of Ten­nessee in July. “Af­ter so many days on the road, you know you have a job and a fam­ily, but that’s more like some­thing you read about once in a book,” Laz said. “The real is what’s in front of you, and you break down your life into ‘What am I go­ing to drink?’ ‘Where will I find some­thing to eat?’ ‘Where will I take a shit?’ ‘Where am I go­ing to sleep?’ And that’s re­ally all that mat­ters. It strips you down.”

In a way, Laz’s races can be viewed as a form of artis­tic ex­pres­sion. Like any art­work, they are de­signed to make you feel some­thing—pain or in­spi­ra­tion, mo­ti­va­tion or de­spair. The mean­ing is sub­ject to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Laz doesn’t run any­more. Af­ter 100,000 miles, his legs fi­nally gave up on him. Now re­tired from his ac­coun­tant job, he con­cen­trates on di­rect­ing his races and be­ing a trick­ster fig­ure to the ul­tra­run­ning com­mu­nity, which has grown ex­po­nen­tially since the ’70s. Most ul­tra­run­ners to­day like their races to be run on sin­gle-cut trails, in spec­tac­u­lar land­scapes, with plenty of aid sta­tions and a feel­ing of com­mu­nal op­ti­mism and high-five con­grat­u­la­tion.

“It’s much slower now,” he said. “Orig­i­nally, ev­ery­one who ran was se­ri­ous and com­pet­i­tive. Now peo­ple just do it to do it. They race now not nec­es­sar­ily to fin­ish their best but to fin­ish with the min­i­mum of dis­com­fort.” Laz also frowns on the use of pac­ers, ear­buds, and con­ven­tional

run­ning ad­vice.

“Start­ing out ‘too fast’ has be­come a lost art,” Laz wrote in one of his oc­ca­sional col­umns for Ul­tra­run­ning mag­a­zine. “It has come to be de­fined as an er­ror rather than a cru­cial part of a run­ner’s sig­na­ture per­for­mance.... The thrill of achiev­ing a re­sult that seemed be­yond reach is greater than the thrill of merely sur­viv­ing can ever be. But that thrill can­not be known without risk­ing a poor re­sult, a death march—or even a DNF.”

AT 12.05am ON MON­DAY, two lights are seen on the hill. Rob­bins and Kelly run in hard and slam their hands on the yel­low gate. They both look aw­ful, though Kelly looks weaker. His right leg is bent in­ward and his mouth hangs open. Fall­ing into his camp chair, he flinches ev­ery time his feet are touched. “You look good,” a crew mem­ber lies. Who will leave camp first? Af­ter 12 min­utes, it’s Kelly who gets un­steadily to his feet and touches the gate to sig­nal he is start­ing loop five. He chooses clock­wise and hob­bles off up the trail, his eyes glazed. Eleven min­utes later, Rob­bins comes out of his tent and stiffly walks to the gate as his wife spoon-feeds him mashed potatoes. He touches the gate, kisses her, and then speeds back down the

There is no prize money for fin­ish­ers. No medal. But as Barkley de­signer Lazarus Lake says, ’Those who know what you did know that you did it.’

hill. Last year, both these run­ners made it to the last loop but failed to fin­ish. “It’s like hang­ing from a ledge by your fin­ger­nails—it hurts so bad, but you can’t let go,” Laz says.

At 6.45am, it starts to rain heav­ily. Kelly didn’t take any wa­ter­proof cloth­ing with him. “One hour!” Laz shouts at 12.42pm. The rain starts to ease up. “Forty-five min­utes!” Still no sign of ei­ther Rob­bins or Kelly. Laz is just about to call out 30 min­utes when a cry comes from down the hill. A deathly pale fig­ure is jog­ging up the hill, an or­ange beanie on his head and a plas­tic bag wrapped around his shoul­ders. It’s Kelly! The crowd breaks into cheers, and as he runs in and lays both hands on the gate his usu­ally im­pas­sive face breaks into a sob­bing gri­mace. Laz wipes some­thing tear­like from his eye and counts the pages. They’re all there. John Kelly is the 15th fin­isher of the Barkley Marathons.

Af­ter get­ting to the last book, Kelly says he checked his watch and saw he had an hour and 40 min­utes left. Plenty of time, he thought. He checked again, but now it read one hour and 20 min­utes; he had passed out on his feet. In a panic, he re­alised he had to run not only to get back in time, but also to make sure he wouldn’t fall asleep again. One of the lo­cals points out that the or­ange beanie he found most likely came from a prison work de­tail in the park. There is no prize money for Kelly. There is no medal. But as Laz says, “Those who know what you did know that you did it.”

I spoke to Kelly a week later. He was suf­fer­ing the dreaded Barkley han­gover. “It’s like ev­ery phys­i­cal ail­ment I’ve ever had in my life all at once,” he said. Kelly was proud of what he had done but seemed pretty sure that he was not go­ing to run it again. “I’d had this grand vi­sion in my head that I would get my fi­nal page and I’d en­joy the mo­ment and look down over my daddy’s farm. In re­al­ity, I got my page and it was foggy and rainy and I was so far gone I couldn’t see a thing.”

There’s still no sign of Rob­bins. “Fif­teen min­utes!” shouts Laz. Run­ners go up the hill in the di­rec­tion Rob­bins is ex­pected, to cheer him along.

“Five min­utes!” shouts Laz. Rob­bins’s wife ap­pears dis­traught.

“One minute!” Ev­ery­one is look­ing up the hill when sud­denly a sound comes from the other di­rec­tion. It’s Rob­bins! He’s sprint­ing up to the gate, but from the wrong di­rec­tion. He’s drenched to the bone and throws him­self, grunt­ing, at the gate be­fore col­laps­ing to the ground. “I got all my pages!” he cries. “I got all my pages!” “He got all his pages,” re­peats a voice in the crowd. “He got all his pages.”

Laz looks at his watch. It reads 60:00:06. Rob­bins is six sec­onds too late.

Still ly­ing on the ground, Rob­bins gasps that he found the last book but then the fog came down again, and just two miles from the race’s end he took a wrong turn. He re­alised this too late but thought if he could get back to the gate in time. . .

Laz shakes his head; Rob­bins went off the course. For all his ef­fort, he’s just an­other DNF. Even some of the veter­ans are teary-eyed. The week af­ter the race, Rob­bins will re­ceive sev­eral emails that he’ll de­scribe as “won­der­ful and ap­pre­ci­ated,” signed Gary Cantrell, not Lazarus Lake. For now, Laz gives Rob­bins a hug and “Taps” is played. But un­like the pre­vi­ous 38 ren­di­tions, this time it sounds gen­uinely for­lorn.

DAY 3, 9.17am John Kelly, who has en­tered the Barkley twice be­fore—and twice failed to fin­ish—de­scends Rat Jaw on the fifth and fi­nal loop.

DAY 1, 9.02am Rob­bins, on the first of five loops, strug­gles to main­tain his bear­ings through a thick fog—the worst of all pos­si­ble con­di­tions.

DAY 3, 1.42pm Sixty hours af­ter the start of the Barkley Marathons, vet­eran ul­tra­run­ner Gary Rob­bins col­lapses at the fin­ish line. His wife, Linda Bar­ton-rob­bins, crouches be­side him.

DAY 2, 5.59pm A run­ner rests and re­fu­els at the camp­site. Barkley com­peti­tors gob­ble up junk food in be­tween loops be­cause it de­liv­ers the most calo­ries with the least chew­ing.

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