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Is the Barkley Marathons the hardest race in the world?

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A man is begging on the side of a Tennessee mountain. His clothes are soaking and he desperately sucks at the air. His wife weeps as she huddles with him. Above them stands a bearded figure in a wide-brimmed hat and a worn-out oilskin duster.

“I got all my pages!” pleads the man on the ground. His voice is shrill. “I dropped down the wrong side of the mountain in the fog. I had to swim a river.” He gasps for air. “I got all my pages!”

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Onlookers glance from the broken man on the ground to the inscrutable face of the bearded man. “He got all his pages,” repeats a voice in the crowd. “He got all his pages.”

For most of us, the 26.2 miles of a marathon are the epitome of athletic endurance. But for others, there are ultramarathons, which stretch to 100 miles or more through some of the world’s least hospitable regions. The Marathon des Sables is a six-day, 156-mile race across the Sahara Desert. The Hardrock 100 is a 100-mile run across Colorado’s avalanche-prone San Juan mountains.

Then there are the Barkley Marathons. Officially, the race consists of five loops totalling 100 miles through Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, but most participants believe it’s closer to 130 miles. Runners must ascend and descend about 120,000ft of elevation – the equivalent of climbing up and down Everest twice – in just 60 hours. More than 1000 people have attempted to run it. Just 14 have finished.

It costs only $1.60 to enter. An application must be sent to a closely guarded email address at precisely the right minute on the right day, along with an essay titled “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run the Barkley”. New runners, known as ‘virgins’, must bring a licence plate from their state or country. ‘Veterans’, the returning runners who did not finish, must bring an item of clothing. One year, it was a flannel shirt. Another year, it was a white dress shirt. In 2017, it was a pack of white socks. The few who have finished the course and are crazy enough to return, known as ‘alumni’, need only bring a pack of Camel cigarettes.

Lust for failure

The race can begin at any time between midnight and noon on the closest Saturday to April Fool’s Day, always exactly an hour after a conch is blown. Runners are not given a map of the course until the afternoon before. GPS is forbidden.

Competitors must locate 13 books along the course and tear out a page that corresponds to their race number. In 2017, the batch included Unravelled, Lost and Found and There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate. After each loop, the pages are counted. There are no aid stations. Those unable to finish are serenaded by the Barkley’s official bugler, who plays a discordant rendition of Taps.

“The runners come for something they could fail at,” says the course’s designer, Gary Cantrell – better known among runners as Lazarus ‘Laz’ Lake. “The less likely it is that they can do it, the more attracted they are to it.”

The course was indirectly inspired by James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr’s assassin, who escaped from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. When Ray was recaptured after 56 hours on the run, he had barely travelled eight miles. On hearing this, Laz thought he could have made at least 100 miles. (As it turns out, he couldn’t: he has never completed more than two loops of his course.) The race was named after Laz’s friend Barry Barkley.

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The first Barkley Marathons were held in 1986. Thirteen people participated. No one finished. The next year, Laz made the course harder. No one finished. And so on, until 1995, when an Englishman, Mark Williams, fuelled by tea and cheese sandwiches, completed the five loops in 59 hours and 29 minutes.

Brave companions

It is check-in time at the Frozen Head State Park campground. “Tomorrow, I’ll be calling you an evil man,” says one runner. “If that’s all I’m called,” Laz says, “it’ll have been a failure.”

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The map is revealed, taped to a picnic table. The runners crowd around to copy the various sections of the course – ‘Gnarly Mouth’, ‘Rat’s Jaw’, ‘Hillpocalypse’ – on to their own maps. They can also consult Laz’s directions: “Look for a weird rock at a confluence of two streams… and go down a hillside. If it looks too steep, that’s the right one.”

Completing three loops of the Barkley is known as a ‘Fun Run’. During the last two loops, however, exhaustion sets in and some runners have even found themselves hallucinating. In 2005, one participant became convinced that there were houses on top of one of the mountains and that he was a rubbish collector sent to empty the bins.

Laz says that to finish the Barkley, all you have to do is average two miles an hour for 60 hours. How difficult can that be? A few minutes walking the course gives you some idea. The slopes are so steep that they look like they’re folding over you.

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Gary Robbins is the favourite to finish the 2017 race. Powerfully built with a shaved head, Robbins specialises in mountain trails. He ran the Barkley for the first time the previous year and got as far as the fifth loop, an impressive feat for a virgin. Behind him is Mike Wardian from Virginia. In January 2017, he completed the World Marathon Challenge, running seven marathons in seven continents in seven days. Heather Anderson is one of six women competing; she broke the women’s and men’s records for hiking the 2189-mile Appalachian Trail unsupported. Each of the 40 competitors has been chosen for his or her particular skill set.

Smoke signal

On the Friday before the race, the weather is looking favourable. Robbins has even predicted that four runners will start loop five, the most ever. “We’ve got some really fast people this year,” Laz says. “But, you know, speed kills.”

What does he think of Robbins’s chances? “He’s good, there’s no doubt, but he’s put an awful lot of pressure on his shoulders.” He points to the hills. “Public opinion ain’t going to mean much when he’s out there.” So who does Laz think can finish the course? “Well, no one seems to be mentioning John Kelly at all.”

Kelly is the local boy. His family has lived on the edge of the park for 200 years. This is Kelly’s third attempt at the Barkley. The previous year, he was garrotted by the inch-long thorns that lace the course, which left gashes across his neck. By the end of the fourth loop, he was unable to recognise his crew, and he fell asleep less than 100m into the fifth, a spot since christened ‘Upper Kelly Camp’.

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By 10pm, conversation has quietened to a murmur. At the yellow gate, which serves as the race’s start and finish lines, Laz is glancing at his watch. A harsh note booms through the trees. The conch has been blown! Tents light up. It’s 12.42am on Saturday, drizzling and foggy. Fog is the worst weather condition to have at the Barkley. “Headlamps are no use,” Laz says. “Everything turns into a wall of white. Turn your headlamp off and it’s a wall of black.” At 1.42am, instead of firing a starting pistol, Laz lights a cigarette. And with that, the runners are off.

Plotting the path

When I meet Laz at his home outside Bell Buckle, Tennessee, three weeks before the race, he is wearing a flannel shirt over a white dress shirt and, no doubt, a pair of white socks under his boots. A red beanie embossed with the word ‘Geezer’ covers his thinning hair, which is pulled into a knot. He looks like the hillbilly of your backcountry nightmares, an image only reinforced by Big, his giant red pit bull.

Big had been shot in the chest and abandoned when Laz found him. “Someone wanted him for a fighting dog,” he tells me, “but he didn’t have the nature for it.” Laz nursed him back to health, and now the two are inseparable. Despite his fearsome reputation, Laz is not a fighter by nature, either. He pores over history books and writes stories about his dog’s adventures, such as the time Big swallowed a whole skunk.

Laz’s house is nestled in dense woods at the top of a hill. Wrens have nested in a box on the porch, where a spider’s web stretches across a chair. Inside, there’s a room with half a dozen beds covered with quilts made from Laz’s old race T-shirts, ready for any itinerant runner who happens to be passing through. The house is full of animal skulls he picked up on runs and arrowheads he collected with his father.

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Among the oddities is an intricately sculpted marble ball covered in geometric designs, a gift from a former Barkley runner. It’s only when I take a closer look that I notice 1000 tiny spots of glue.

“When it arrived, it was shattered,” Laz says. “But I found two pieces I could stick together.” He had no idea what it was supposed to look like, but he spent months reuniting the fragments. “I didn’t know until it was put together that it had elephants on it,” he tells me.

Forty-five years ago, Laz began to highlight every road he had run on a local map. When he exhausted the roads on one map, he’d buy another and tape it to the first. He set out to cross all of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Today, the maps stretch a dozen feet across. Laz crossed Unicoi, the last county on his list, in 2016.

“I never meant to be Laz,” he tells me. Gary Cantrell first came across the name Lazarus Lake in a phone book. Initially, he used it as his email handle, but it soon morphed into his ultrarunning persona.

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In the 1970s, there were only a handful of ultramarathons, and none in Tennessee. So Laz set up the Strolling Jim, a 40-mile race named after a champion walking horse. “I wasn’t very fast,” Laz says, “and I didn’t have outstanding endurance, but I could take a lot of punishment.”

For most of his working life, Laz was an accountant, a job he enjoyed. “I used to love being given an insoluble problem: you can’t figure out how to do it, you’re frustrated and you might walk away from it a time or two and say, ‘I fucking give up!’ Then you let it roll around in your head. When you solve it, you say, ‘Man, that was fun.’ But no, it wasn’t! It sucked the whole time! You kept doing it because it needed to be done. We need challenges to be happy. We need things to be hard.”

Breaking down

Seven hours into the race, three runners have dropped out. It’s not until 11.12am on Saturday that Gary Robbins and John Kelly finish the first loop. Robbins hurries to his tent to stock up on food. Their camps are a study in contrasts. Robbins’s giant, space-age tent has been dubbed the ‘Tent Mahal’. Kelly, meanwhile, is fed and changed at the yellow gate in full view of everyone. A hush surrounds the Robbins camp, whereas the Kelly campground across the road is full of billowing wood smoke and chatter, as family members gather to offer their support.

Other runners arrive in twos or threes. The preferred food here is junk: chocolate doughnuts, Nutella sandwiches, anything that delivers the most calories with the least chewing. One runner weeps as her crew shovels macaroni into her mouth. Some competitors finish the first loop but shake their heads at the gate. They’re not going back out there. Taps is played. Of the 40 starters, 24 begin loop two.

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By Saturday night, the temperature has plummeted from 27°C to 4.5°C. Laz stands at the gate, accounting for every arrival and departure. Robbins and Kelly arrive together from loop two at 10pm and immediately head to their camp sites to eat and nap. They’re out again by 11.10pm. Most runners quit during loop two, and the ones dropping out now seem crushed, their bodies beaten. The off-key notes of the bugler sound through the night.

When dawn breaks on Sunday, the place has the air of a battlefield encampment. Feet stick out the back of SUVs. Laz snoozes in a chair next to the gate. Mike Versteeg, who once smashed the record for the 830-mile Arizona Trail, has bailed out on loop two. He strums a guitar and says, to no one in particular, “Why can’t I be good at something that doesn’t make me feel miserable?”

At 10.42am, Robbins and Kelly appear in lockstep. Their exhaustion is starting to show and they’ve lost their appetites. A member of Kelly’s team wedges some pepperoni pizza into his mouth as he starts the next loop.

The bitter end

Laz directs five races besides the Barkley, including the Last Annual Vol State Road Race, a 314-mile trek across Tennessee. “After so many days on the road, you know you have a job and a family, but that’s more like something you read about once in a book,” Laz says. “The real is what’s in front of you, and you break down your life into: ‘Where will I find something to eat? Where will I take a shit? Where am I going to sleep?’ That’s really all that matters. It strips you down.”

Laz doesn’t run any more. After 100,000 miles, his legs gave up on him. But he remains a trickster figure to the ultrarunning community, which has vastly grown since the 1970s. Most ultrarunners today like their races to be run on single-cut trails, with plenty of aid stations and high-five congratulations.

“It’s much slower now,” he says. “Originally, everyone who ran was serious and competitive. People race now not necessarily to finish their best but to finish with the minimum of discomfort.”

At 12.05am on Monday, two lights are seen on the hill. Robbins and Kelly run in and slam their hands on the yellow gate. Both look awful, though Kelly seems weaker. Falling into his camp chair, he flinches each time his feet are touched. “You look good,” a crew member lies.

After 12 minutes, Kelly rises unsteadily to his feet and touches the gate to signal that he is starting loop five. Eleven minutes later, Robbins emerges from his tent and stiffly walks to the gate as his wife spoon-feeds him mashed potatoes.

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At 6.45am, it starts to rain heavily. Kelly didn’t take any waterproof clothing with him. “One hour!” Laz shouts at 12.42pm. The rain starts to ease off.

“Forty-five minutes!” There’s still no sign of Robbins or Kelly.

Laz is about to call out “30 minutes!” when a cry comes from down the hill. A deathly pale figure is jogging up it, a plastic bag wrapped around his shoulders. It’s Kelly. The crowd cheers, and as he lays both hands on the gate, his face breaks into a sobbing grimace. Laz counts the pages. They’re all there. John Kelly is the 15th runner to finish the Barkley Marathons.

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There is no prize money. There is no medal. But as Laz says, “Those who know what you did know that you did it.”

There’s still no sign of Robbins. “Five minutes!” shouts Laz. Robbins’s wife appears distraught.

“One minute!” Suddenly there’s a sound. It’s Robbins. He’s sprinting up to the gate but from the wrong direction. Drenched in sweat, he throws himself
at the gate before collapsing. “I got all my pages!” he cries. “I got all my pages!”

“He got all his pages,” repeats a voice in the crowd. “He got all his pages.”

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Laz looks at his watch. It reads 60.00.06. Robbins is six seconds too late. Still lying on the ground, Robbins explains that he found the last book but then the fog came down again, and just two miles from the race’s end he took a wrong turn.

Laz shakes his head. Robbins went off the course. For all his effort, he’s just another dropout. The week after the race, Robbins will receive several emails that he’ll describe as “wonderful and appreciated”, signed Gary Cantrell, not Lazarus Lake. For now, Laz gives Robbins a hug and Taps is played. But unlike the previous 38 renditions, this time it sounds genuinely forlorn.

Words by George Pendle

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