The Barkley Marathons are the brainchild of Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake. He had the idea for the race after James Earl Ray escaped from the local penitentiary and only made it 8 miles in 55 hours. He thought that he could do 100 miles in that time. So, he created the 100 mile+ race. Participants have 60 hours to complete the race. Those that make it 3 laps (60+) miles are given credit for a fun run.
The Race That Eats Its Young
The Barkley was first run in 1986. It is widely known as The world’s toughest trail race, and for good reason. The race consists of 5 loops, totaling 100 (or more) miles. The first runner to finish all 5 laps was Mark Williams in the 10th year of The Barkley. No one else finished the race until 2001, when there were 2 finishers. In total the race has been successfully completed 18 times by 15 men – in 31 years. It is no wonder that The Barkley marathons has been dubbed as ‘The Race That Eats Its Young”.
There was just one finisher this year. John Kelly became the 15th man to finish The Barkley Marathons. He finished in a time of 59:30:53.
This was the first year that I followed The Barkley Marathons live (as much as that is possible). This year the race started at 1:42 AM (The start time is unknown to the competitors until a conch shell is blown 1 hour before Laz lights his Camel cigarette to signal the start of the race. The fog was heavy and visibility was zero. I assumed that this race may have been the most difficult conditions in the history of The Barkley. In an email interview, Laz, corrected me:
“it was really pretty average.
we had rain, fog, freezing temperatures, gale force winds, hot sun, then more rain, fog, and finally a little snow and hail.
on the whole, it wasn’t too bad.
there have been years when the weather got really nasty.”
I asked Laz about the difficulty of the course: Michael Wardian is an accomplished marathoner and ultra runner. He’s won the RNR DC Marathon multiple times, he’s a past 50km, 100km and 50 mile champion. He recently completed a marathon in 7 continents in 7 days in the fastest time ever. Michael finished just 1 lap of the Barkley – it took him over 15 hours. Twitter was organizing search parties and putting his picture on milk cartons.
— The Barkley Course (@BarkleyCourse) April 1, 2017
I asked him if the failure of so many was actually a source of pride:
“i don’t know that i would call it pride.
it is satisfying to see that the objective of having a race that requires preparation has been achieved.
as at every level, and in every sport,
gifted athletes often rely heavily on their talent.
barkley requires too many skill sets for that approach.”
I asked him (jokingly) if the race was getting too easy. It took 10 years for the first runner to finish. There have been 12 finishers in the last 11 years.
“it is no harder than it ever was.
it is keeping it in that sweet spot that is challenging.
making a race no one could finish would be easy.
making one that everyone can finish would be easy.
trying to keep it right on the edge,
as the cumulative knowledge and skills of the participants increase…
that is the challenge. “
I would say that Laz has found that sweet spot. With an average of 1 finisher a year over the last decade or so, it’s not impossible. But, to complete The Barkley is probably the greatest achievement in endurance running.
I asked Laz about “The Human Sacrifice”. The Human Sacrifice is the one runner that has no business being there. The Human Sacrifice is given bib #1 at the start of the race.
“everyone thinks the human sacrifice is the slot to aim for.
not sure why.
there is only 1 human sacrifice,
and 39 other spots.
and it is not assigned to a volunteer.
even the human sacrifices are accomplished runners
(michael wardian was very close to being the sacrifice this year)
they do not find out until they pick up their stuff,
and find they have been assigned the number 1.”
And with that, he shot down my dreams of ever being considered for entry to The Barkley Marathons. I will save my $1.60 application fee.
No One Gets a Medal
I asked Laz if the setup of Barkley – no medal, no swag was a statement of sorts against the “Everyone gets a medal” mentality.
“i never really thought about it as a statement.
barkley is not for people who want to do it to tell their friends.
it is for people who want to do it for themselves.
a few years back our school board stated that their goal was for every kid to be in the top half.
(think about it)
people come to barkley to prove they are part of that top 1%.
that means 99% must fail.
And for the 1% that succeed, they do it for pride, for themselves.”
The “Everyone gets a Medal” mentality is typically discussed with chidren. But it has now bled into the mentality of many adults, and many marathons. Nearly every day, something like this comes to my attention. I’ve posted it before, but it’s the best example. This was from a Disney race.
The “balloon ladies” are volunteers at Disney events that run at the back of the pack, just under the cut-off pace. Get passed by the balloon ladies, and you are in danger of getting swept. They are to be feared, they are evil. They actually should be used at The Barkley Marathons.
Cheating at The Barkley?
Yes, laz explains, there have been attempts.
One runner attempted to complete the course by collecting pages out of order, attempting to navigate the course using the shortest distance possible. He still didn’t accomplish anything of note. Other runners did take notice and reported to laz.
“one year we discovered reflective thumbtacks marking the route down a challenging trail
we figured out pretty sure who did it,
but they did not make it that far on the night loop.
if they had,
they would have found a trail of reflective thumbtacks that led them far, far from the course before suddenly ending where the only recourse would be to bushwhack to a highway
and hitchhike back to camp.”
“Close, But No Cigarette”
From watching the documentary, I was left with the impression that figuring out the correct route was as much of a challenge as to physically complete the course. I thought that finding the checkpoints (books placed along the course) was like a low-tech geocaching adventure.
Michael Wardian described the race as “an awesome treasure hunt” I asked Laz if that’s how he would describe it.
it does not require more than average navigation skills to travel between the books.
the real race begins when you navigate well enough for the accumulated elevation gain and loss to take a toll.”
He also commented on the ultralist. A throwback group of ultra runners – a place where laz fits in perfectly. When someone compared the race to orienteering – where you take whatever route you please to get to checkpoints, and referenced a common misconception that there is no trail and that a compass is needed, laz responded:
“i hate it, because this tale perpetuates the myth that the barkley does not have a course.
the barkley is a footrace.
it is not an orienteering contest, nor a scavenger hunt.
the books are nothing more than unmanned checkpoints.”
Much of the post-race attention was given to Gary Robbins. He was seeking to become the first Canadian to finish The Barkley Marathons. He would come agonizingly close. He touched the gate 6 seconds after the cutoff. But , the narrative surrounding this in most reports was incorrect. He was NOT 6 seconds away from being a finisher. I asked Laz to explain what happened.
“it was foggy, cold, and windy
(not sure if he was still getting hit with snow and hail.. a combination maybe only available at frozen head)
and he had been running for nearly 60 hours.
he made a right, instead of a left.
with the fog, he did not immediately recognize that something was wrong.
he did recognize that the next landmark did not come where it should,
and he consulted his map.
it did not take him long to figure out the error,
but he did not think he had the time to return to the course and finish in time.
he was only looking at about 5 minutes ahead of the cutoff before the error.
so he cut across to the park road
and ran back up it to the campgrounds.
basically, that route circled the campgrounds,
and came back in from the opposite side.”
“i keep reading people saying he was disqualified.
that is not true.
DQ happens when people cut a course and pretend they finished.
gary never made any pretense about what happened.
he did not finish,
but he was not disqualified.
DQ makes it sound like he did something wrong.
and he did nothing wrong.
he only made a mistake.”
Gary Robbins wrote about his experience in this post. Close, But No Cigarette. He was gracious, and accepting of the result. He knew he made a wrong turn, and wouldn’t be able to finish. He used every last ounce of energy he had to touch the yellow gate. He did not ask for the proverbial medal or an exception.
Watch the video. It’s heartbreaking.
The next time you see someone taking a shortcut, or begging for a medal for a race they did not complete, share this with them. the respect I have for Gary is not just for his toughness, but for his dignity and integrity.
The Barkley Marathons is not an orienteering style race. You do not get to select the route that best favors you between books. You need to navigate between books, off trail, but in a very specific direction of travel. My finish, even if it were 6 seconds faster would not have counted. I put Laz and the race in a precarious situation and in hindsight I’m glad I was six seconds over so that we didn’t have to discuss the validity of my finish.
The dignity and integrity he shows in what must have been an incredibly heartbreaking moment for him should be a reminder to others. Whether you are running a 5k, a 1/2 marathon, a marathon or an ultra. For some people, running an entire 5k represents a huge accomplishment. Everyone’s circumstances are different. But, whenever a runner claims a race that they did not complete, or claims to be a marathoner when they ran 19 miles, it demeans those that actually complete the required distance at the actual race.
Lately I have heard some of the most ridiculous excuses from some runners. Runners that have cheated or sold bibs have begged for me not to turn them in, playing every card in the book.
Yes, it is sometimes difficult to be dealing with the negative stories every day. It’s exhausting dealing with people that cheat, steal, and lie their way through races and to Boston. This story struck a chord with me. I am hoping that it will impact others as well, and maybe help them understand the meaning of true accomplishment. Be proud of your effort, but don’t claim a result that was not earned.
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