They Call It the Barkley
By Gary Cantrell
Myself, I first met the Barkley in 1973. Back packing in the (then) remote Frozen Head area, I noticed, on the map, a trail around the park boundary where the contour lines were merged into a single black blur. My prophetic observation; "man, would that make a ball-buster of a marathon, or what??"
In 1976, James Earl Ray escaped from the nearby Brushy Mountain prison, into the Frozen Head Park. 56 hours later he was captured having managed a meager 4 miles. As a marathoner familiar with the area, my prophetic remark: "man, I could have gone 100 miles in 56 hours, EVEN at Frozen Head!!"
1985 arrived, and I was planning a backpacking trip with the Raw Dog. I wanted to go and see this fearsome boundary trail. When we applied for the special permit to hike that trail, we were told to be "sure and check in with us when you give up." Well, you can imagine how well that went over! My prophetic reply; "give up, hell. We're scouting this trail out for a RACE!"
Only the oldest of the old timers can remember what it was like then. Raw Dog and I fought through unbelievably dense undergrowth and billions of virgin blow-downs during a continuous heavy downpour, eventually requiring 10 hours to haul our heavy packs the first 7 miles. After getting dry, having a steak dinner, and over-nighting at Coffin Springs, we battled our way through the remainder of the loop on day two, finishing in time to stop at the headquarters and set a date for the first race.
At the first Barkley, no one finished. No one was even close. The so called "trail runners" had never encountered anything like the Barkley. (Most of them sincerely hoped they never would encounter anything like it again.) But the important thing was that the bug had spread beyond myself and the Raw Dog. Because the ones who did not leave like scalded dogs were hooked. If there had ever been a chance to stop the Barkley, it was gone now.
The second Barkley, likewise featured no finishers. Not until Frozen Ed Furtaw turned the trick in 1988, did the race feature a finisher. And he only completed the fun run. The 100 miles remained unsullied until Mark Williams' breakthrough performance in 1995. And to date, Williams remains the only successful 100 miler in history.
So that is how it all started, the question is how it has lasted. Why does a brutal race that virtually no on finishes exert such an attraction? What sickness drives runners, some among the best in the world, to return to Barkley, and FAILURE time after time?
None among us can offer anything but theories. What cannot be denied is that to attempt the Barkley is to risk joining the addicts who can not get enough. It isn't called the Crack Cocaine of Runner's High for nothing . First, because it is a body slam of a race which destroys its participants physically and mentally. Second, because it captures their souls, leaving them as pathetic shells of real runners, perpetually dreaming up wild, unorthodox plans to achieve the immortality of the 100 mile finish.
What is Barkley like? Well, the course itself is a real Bastard. Start with 1000 feet of elevation change per mile. That amounts to an AVERAGE gradient of nearly 40% (For perspective, a 4% grade on a highway is usually respected with those STEEP GRADE road signs, a 6% grade is a real killer. Those sort of hills do things to your legs over distance that you cannot imagine until you experience them. Ultimately. most runners quit in FEAR. FEAR of facing any more of those hills "out there." And it isn't made any easier by the fact that 1000 feet a mile is an AVERAGE. Individual climbs such as "Hell" (1240 feet in 1100 yards), Rat Jaw (1020 feet in 930 yards), Big Hell (1600 feet in 1500 yards), and Leonard's Butt (600 feet in 400 yards), will absolutely evaporate the desire from your heart.
By themselves, these big-ass hills would crush most runners, but the situation is exacerbated by the trails themselves. Blow downs beyond counting criss-cross the trails. Clearing them stops being funny before very many miles pass. By the first water stop, clearing them is a major burden (More than one runner has compared it to running a trail 100 with 400 meter hurdles all the way around.) And while the briers, admittedly, don't abound like they did way back in the early days, there are still enough of them around to slice and dice the ill-clothed participant.
Then there is the "aid." Water at 3 to 5 hour intervals, depending on how slow a runner is going. Genuine aid only at 8 to 14 hour intervals. Survival depends on being your own "mule." And while a runner can easily carry plenty for the trip, what is really missed is the support. Nobody is out there to bolster your spirits or stroke your ego. Nobody is there to carry your stuff, and find the trail, and set the pace, and (ultimately) to do all the hard work when you get tired. Nope, the only other humans "out there" are in the same desperate straits as you. This is one 100 miler that you have to do yourself.
Which brings us to the final burden for the Barkley runner to bear. Running an unmarked, unmanned course, without a fresh pacer to do all the work, requires total, and unbroken, focus. If a runner wants to complete the Barkley, then that runner must be paying attention at all times. Slipping into the briefest "running coma" immediately results in running off course. At Best.
Actually, nothing more than a single careless moment is required to terminate a Barkley. This is running at the edge, at the very edge of human potential.
Given all these obstacles, then what possible reasons could runners have for attending the Barkley? Perhaps it is the desire to find out what sort of "stuff" they are made of. To complete so much as a lap at the Barkley is an achievement. Finishing a second marks a runner as something special, as someone capable of facing ANY challenge running can throw their way. Someone not likely to die in the woods.
Even more appealing than the pure challenge, is the opportunity for victory. NO-ONE is fast at the Barkley. Only 7 humans have ever completed the fun-run in less than 30 minutes per mile. At the same time, the most pedestrian runner can log sub 40 minute miles. Despite routinely featuring world-class fields, the Barkley has been won by runners who would not have a prayer of winning at any other ultra. Success at the Barkley requires a splendid sense of direction, an unwavering will to finish, the hill climbing ability of a goat, total focus despite days of endless suffering, and monumental physical courage. All are abilities which can be developed. (Raw speed will just get you killed.) Only the Barkley can truthfully say that if you can finish, you might well win. And in the 100 miles, finishing virtually assures victory.
Naturally, at this very moment, you probably either believe you can do this thing, or else you have been here before, (And, if you don't learn from experience, maybe both.) Remember, even though a handful of very average athletes have survived the fun-run, a large number of the best trail runners on earth have FAILED. At most ultras, a runner needs to Respect the course in order to have a chance. At the Barkley your best bet is to FEAR it. Because, if you go "out there" without FEAR, you will damned sure find FEAR is waiting for you. Never forget how most Barkley attempts end. Not with success. Not by getting hopelessly lost. Not by getting timed out. Most Barkley attempts are ended by the unwillingness to continue. People just flat quit.