Pun­ish­ing Race Is An En­tic­ing Lost Cause

WHY WE COM­PETE Cu­rios­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - Story by Eli Saslow Pho­tos by Pre­ston Keres The Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

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