Barkley Marathons - What was I thinking?

When I got on the plane to Knoxville from London a few days ago I had a feeling that this wasn't going to be the last time of doing this. The only race so far that has gripped me into wanting to do it every year is the Spartathlon. I have finished that twice and the course does not change so I know I can do it. I think as soon as I stepped on that plane that I knew that success or failiure at Barkley I was going to try and come back. Again and again.

Tales from Out There - Frozen Ed Furtaw

This is a book written by one of the Barkley "Sickos" "Frozen" Ed Furtaw on the history of the Barkley Marathons. It describes in great detail the past runnings of the race (he has run most and attended some more).

The Barkley Marathons in case you don't know is arguably the toughest race there is. It is 100 miles long (though most others measures of the course clock it at about 130 miles), it's 5 loops around some trails in the Frozen Head National Park in Tennessee. The climbing involved is around 18000m, or twice Everest or twice UTMB. The trail is often overgrown with briars (I think that is American for thorns) and there is no support in the race apart from water left at two points along a loop and the camp ground at the end of each loop. In about 20 runnings of the event 10 people have finished the 100 mile race, the course record is 55 hours. The cut off is 60 hours. Every year someone finishes the race director Laz alters the course to make it harder since this is not a race of man vs man but of man vs that.

The accounts of his own attempts (I won't spoil it by saying how he did) along with the tales from Out There are really gripping and actually quite terrifying. Two things struck me about the race from reading the book, moreso than before.

1 - This race is a war. Or rather it's an arms race. You have probably read lots of stories about a man who gets beaten by a race and then vows to come back fitter and stronger in order to beat the race the next time. There are loads of stories like that right? Here it's just the same, except that when the race gets beaten by a man IT then comes back next time harder and stronger in order to defeat those who beat it the last time. It does not stay the same, does not get complacent, it changes and improves to win, and for this race to win it means all runners losing. I have never been part of an event like that before.

2 - Having read 100s of reasons why people drop out the reasons are very different to what I was expecting. There are a few tales of people getting lost, a few getting timed out buy the cut-offs, hardly any of injuries and not too many of complete exhaustion. The main reason people do not finish this race is that they just give up. After each loop you will be at a cosy campsite. You don't have to go back out there. Many chose not to. Then during the whole loop you are always fairly close to the "quitters road", an easy stretch of road going right back to the start. More than any other race I have ever heard of this one really breaks peoples minds.

Really really good read and recommended for anyone wanting to know more about the Barkley. The Barkley gets treated as "not a proper race" by many ultra runners today whereas reading this you may change your mind. You may even think that this is the only race there is, one where the course has a chance of winning too...




Sacrificing Virgins

So. I had not really got my race schedule sorted yet for next year. I really don't know what to do as there is so much on now. Loads of stuff going on the in the UK with the Centurion Running 100 milers on the Thames, North Downs Way and South Downs Way. The "Ultra Trail South West" 100 miler on the brutal coastaline of Cornwall and more recently the announcement of the "Relentless", a 30 day 1600 mile run around every county in England. Or the Dragons Back race, or the SPINE. For the first time ever I feel overwhelmed by choice and that is before even leaving this country.

Further afield there are some other races I want to do. I need to knock off the UTMB but would much rather run (walk/crawl) the Tor De Geants, 200 miles in the same area. The Donkey Run 135 mile run in Cyprus sounds harder than Badwater. A 100 miler in Andorra apparently makes the UTMB feel like Norfolk and of course the Spartathlon, a race I will always want to go back to.

And I still want to do so much in the USA, putting my name in the hat for all the 100 milers and just seeing where that gets me. Western States, Hardrock, Leadville, Wasatch.

WHAT DO I DO???? Photo coutesty of Matt Mahoney (There is no official website of the race)

Well, before I signed up for anything I sent an email to a crazy guy who organises a ridiculous race in the Frozen Head National Park in Tennessee. It's on my list. It's the Barkley 100. I was instructed a while ago to send an email in November to put myself in the hat for the race. I did this on November 1st, worried that I would sound a bit too keen I awaited the response.

And it came within 24 hours. An email that started with the words "commiserations" and then went on to tell me that I was one of two people who had emailed him on the 1st Novemeber and hence got a place in the race. The Americans will find out sometime after Christmas whether they got in.

So what is it about this race? It does not claim to be the toughest there is but this is the opinion of all those who have tried (and mostly failed) to complete it. It has a 1.5% finish rate over the past 20 years, with 10 out of about 600 people completing the five laps. The race was inspired by an incident where a guy escaped from a nearby prison and was found 55 hour later about 8 miles away. The race director said he could do 100 miles in that time. In 20 years not many people have done that.

So what makes it so tough? How can 100 miles be so difficult to finish in a 60 hour cut-off? I just can't imagine myself but clearly there is something (or lots of things) that prevent so many great runners finishing this. A few things it could be;

  • The 20 mile lap is apparently more like 25 miles. I am not sure whether it has been properly GPS'ed and such devices are banned anyway
  • The elevation is over 50000ft. It's like going up Everest and down again twice. The UTMB is less than 30000ft. There do not seem to be consistent and long ups and downs like in Hardrock or UTMB, it is just constantly up and down
  • The trail. There isn't one. You are fighting through trees and points.
  • Navigation. There is lots of it. I can only hope I can tag on to some guys who have done a loop or two before so I at least stand a chance.

But realistically I might not even finish one lap. Lot of people are saying I am wasting my money (The entry fee is $1.60) by flying out there to run what could be 3 miles of tree climbing and do come back with a DNF. A DNF is almost guaranteed in this. The guys who have finished this before are not only mentally invincible and resilient but they are also bloody good distance runners with records for long distance trails and wins at Hardrock and all that. My pedestrian amble across the States and a couple of middle of the pack Spartathlon finishes will probably make me the baby of the event. It's a feeling I've felt before, like at my first GUCR, my first Spartathlon and in LA.

But I think I've done enough now to at least give this a shot. I did not have to submit an essay to do this (as the US based runners do) but mine was simply going to read "I've finished most of these so called "hardest" races in the world and it's getting boring". If I get 3 miles in, break my leg tripping over a tree root and then spend 20 hours trying to find my way back to the starting area then at least it would make a great story. And that's the most important thing isn't it?

So I better get some hill training done and hope that my reason for being accepted is not to be the "Sacrificial Virgin".