Punishing Race Is an Enticing Lost Cause
By Eli Saslow
Alone, 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 wind 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 start-and-finish line on the last Friday in March, he looked more like a woodsman than a runner. He wore a dark overcoat, and a long-brimmed 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 speed-hike 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 7 1/2 minutes. This year, he was prepared 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 e-mail 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, already 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 chose 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 forward. 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 60-hour 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."
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