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“I would love to run the Barkley!”

It’s this generation’s version of “Yeah, I got into running after reading Born To Run.” (Gen Z’ers, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then damn, I feel old.)

Let me just say, you don’t want to run the Barkley. Actually, let me clarify, there is no running in the Barkley. There is only clawing your way up the side of a mountain and then subsequently falling down the other side of the mountain. And you don’t want to do that either. Trust me.

As I’m writing this, I “ran” the Barkley three days ago, and my arms are so sore from using poles and pulling myself uphill via tree trunks that I am currently looking into whether amputation is covered by my insurance.

text messages
text messages
text messages
For those of you who are like WTfuck is the Barkley Marathons, just go watch the documentary. If that’s too much work, here goes: The Barkley is the world’s most secretive and infamous ultramarathon. It’s been taking place in the rugged mountains of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee since 1986. In the 36 years the race has been held, only 15 people have ever finished it. One-five. No other race in the world is harder.

Why is the Barkley so incredibly difficult? You got a few hours?

In a nutshell:
The race is officially listed as exactly 100 miles. It’s actually closer to 135-ish.
It’s net elevation change is listed as 0 feet. True. It’s five loops. But each loop is believed to contain at least 12,000 feet of climbing and 12,000 of descent. So, math, that’s more than 60,000 feet totally climbing a drop, basically double that of any other ultra in the world.
Also, it’s basically all off-trail.
Also, the entire course is choked with brier-infested hillsides that will shred your legs to bloody, fleshy coleslaw and cliffs you could easily fall off to your death.
Also, the weather can fluctuate between bright and warm to epic downpours to freezing sleet to chunky-style-soup-thick fog in a matter of literal minutes.
Also, there are no course markings. You just have to copy a map and carry a set of very confusing directions.
Also, you have to find books hidden throughout the woods, tear out pages, and bring them back to camp to prove you were there. (This year there were thirteen.)
Also, the course changes almost every year, becoming increasingly harder. So each year your attempt the Barkley, it’s the most difficult iteration of the race that’s ever existed.
Also, you don’t know when the race will actually start. It could be any time from midnight until noon on race day. You have to listen for the sound of a conch shell being blown. Yes. A fucking conch. When you hear it, it means the race will start in an hour.
Also, you have 60 hours total to complete all five loops. And let me remind you, only 15 people have ever done that ever.
And all of this is the fever-dream of ultrarunning’s resident mad scientist Lazarus Lake.

So, do you still want to run the Barkley? No, no you do not.

But yet there I was, setting my tent up in Frozen Head State Park, hurriedly trying to beat the monsoon-level rains that were forecast to pound the course, just a few hours before the start.

I check in, get my race info. My bib has the number 59 on it, and a red balloon with “Be Very Afraid” written in big, bloody letters. I shudder, glad that I’ve never actually bothered to see It.

The Barkley Marathons bib
Andy Pearson at The Barkley Marathons
Anxiously, I prep my gear and pore over the map. Then the rain starts. A spit at first, but within minutes it’s drilling us. We’re safe under our makeshift tarp-roof-thingy, but the 24,000 vertical feet of elevation change per loop of the course is quickly turning into a brier-covered Slip ‘n Slide.

I eat my final meal of lentil soup and spaghetti. (“Lentil soup? What a lame final meal if I die,” I think.) I try to lay down to grab a little wink of sleep, but the rain sounds like a machine gun on our tarps. It’s loud, but what actually keeps me up is the anxiety—and very real possibility—that in all that noise, I will miss the sweet, dulcet tone of the conch shell being blown.

I rest but don’t really sleep. I find myself wondering if Laz uses a twelve-sided Dungeons and Dragons dice to determine the hour and minutes when the race will begin. (I’ve never played D&D, but I have listened to Weezer.)

Finally, at 2:04-frickin-am, the conch is blown. I hear it. But also because someone’s car alarm starts going off too. Less than an hour later, 37 of us are standing in front of the Yellow Gate.

Laz at the start of The Barkley Marathons
Runners at the start of The Barkley Marathons
A fun rub to this whole mess is a few years ago, Laz began prohibiting runners from wearing their own watches. Instead, they have to wear cheap gas station watches set to race time rather than time of day. (So you never really know what time it actually is.) As I look around, I notice that no one has a watch of any sort on. It’s three minutes before the race is supposed to begin. I lean over and ask someone, “Uh, aren’t we supposed to get watches?” “You don’t have yours yet?? Go up to the tent and get one.” I run over to the tent and someone hands me a box. I open the box, and instead of a cheap wristwatch, it’s… a pocket watch. A fucking pocket watch. Like, one of those old-timey ones on a chain. “Press the button on top to open it up and read the time,” the guy helpfully tells me. Gee, thanks.
Andy Pearson with pocket watch at The Barkley Marathons
And almost before I can think, Laz lights a cigarette, and the race is on. Thirty-seven of poor souls go pouring into the night on muddy, water-soaked trails.

__

We charge up the first climb, a jumble of legs and poles and headlamps. I’m in fourth place (like that matters). As we ascend, the fog sets in, and suddenly I can’t see more than about six feet in front of me. Gulp.

Eventually, we turn off the trail and start thrashing our way to Book 1. We’re a blob of runners, all following Jared Campbell, the Barkley savant who’s finished the race a mind-blowing three times. We barrel down the hillside, crashing through the underbrush until we arrive at about where the first book should be. Except we don’t see it. Everyone begins looking around, but it doesn’t smell right. People start peeling off to the left to look for the book. I look down at my compass, and it seems like we’re on the wrong side of the ridgeline entirely. But, like, who am I to tell Jared Campbell he’s wrong? More and more people arrive until half the field of runners is standing there trying to figure out what is going on. Finally, one person—a veteran—breaks from the pack and runs towards the direction I think the book is. That’s all I need. I take off too. Within two minutes, we’re tearing our pages out of Book 1.

With my book page safely secured (God, I hope) in my pack, I take off in the direction of the next book. Also, the direction of the next book is straight down the side of the mountain.

I go tumbling down, sort of half-running, half-falling, occasionally sliding. It’s a mess of mud, leaves, rocks, and downed trees, all pitched at what feels like about 80 degrees. I very quickly realize that it takes real technique to fall in a way that does not snap your trekking poles immediately. (Apparently, my brain has decided my poles are more important than my upper body. Fair.)

We ascend up another ridge on trail, then turn off the trail and are suddenly shooting straight up the side of the mountain. My legs begin to feel weak. It’s steep. Like, really, really steep. The fog begins to set in. I have to stop to adjust my shoes. A moment later I look up, and the people I’m following are just dim blips of light behind a curtain of fog. Must keep up. Must not get lost.

The next few hours are a sloppy, sloshy mess. The rain returns with a cold vengeance, swelling the creeks and minor drainages into major, roaring rivers. This is a problem. If you look on your map, you see a few creeks here and there that you use to nav. If you look around you, there are creeks everywhere, and you have no clue which of the five creeks you see is the one creek shown on your map.

I make it through Book 2, 3, 4 without any issues except that I’m redlining, so there’s that.

Headed down to Book 5, my thighs and abductors suddenly seize up simultaneously in a double Charlie horse. That’s the bad part. But the worst part is that I’m barreling downhill and am unable to stop myself, so my only course of action is to curse loudly in pain. It’s hour 3; I wonder how I’m going to last 57 more hours of this.

In Barkley strategy, a virgin (such as myself) should always try to glom onto a veteran to suck their brains dry of all their knowledge of the course. Of course, it’s just me and some other dude who’s also a virgin. Excellent. Eventually we pick up someone else who’s lost. He’s a virgin too. Excellenter.

Nonetheless, we make it through the next books successfully, nailing the navigation. I feel good. Probably too good, because we totally biff the approach to Book 7 and find ourselves bushwhacking up the wrong creek in search of the book. The mistake costs us maybe thirty minutes—I have no clue because I have yet to pull out my stupid pocket watch and check the time. On the plus, our mistake caused us to pick up an actual veteran, but also, he was lost too. (So, yay?)

The four of us eventually find the book and set off on the second half of the course. It is steep. The steepness cannot be properly described other than saying imagine the steepest hillside you can imagine and then imagine something way-the-eff steeper than that. And then add some more steepness just for good measure. At many points, I am literally pulling myself up the hillside by the trunks of small trees.

The problem with the Barkley course is that if you’re not going straight uphill, then you’re going straight downhill. Someone should fix that. The other problem is that the weather swings violent from fairly hot to dreadfully cold and soaking wet. At one point, I look down to see that it’s actually hail—not rain—that is pelting us.

Finally, we get to the most infamous climb of the race, a long, exposed slog under a power line cut that’s literally covered in sawbriers. This is where people get shredded and bloody. To my slightly “pleasant” surprise, they’re not as bad as I expected, and my legs are only torn somewhat to pieces rather than completely to pieces.

The Barkley Marathons course
Within twenty minutes, I’m picking my way through a pitch-black tunnel that funnels water under the Brushy State Prison, former a max-security prison. This is simultaneously the coolest and creepiest part of the race. I have to admit, it does feel like we’re trying to escape prison. Or hell. Saying goodbye to the ghosts of all those serial killers, we turn our attention to the last bit of the loop. Time to put my big-boy-Barkley pants on. There are some mean climbs ahead. We’re nailing the nav. But the mud, weather and vert have taken a toll though. Our group of four dwindles down to two. Then, down to just me. At Book 13, the final one of the loop, my new vet best friend Harald tells me to go on without him. (Unfortunately, it’s not quite as dramatic as those “Leave me here to die! Save yourself!” scenes in the movie.) So, I take off sprinting down the trail and back to camp alone.

Of course, since you’re coming into camp, you gotta make it look good. I approach the Yellow Gate and have Laz count my pages. “Fourteen?” Uhhh. “Lemme count again. Twelve.” Uhhh. “OK, one more time. Thirteen.” Friggin’ PHEW. My time for the loop: 12:22. Not great. But then I learn that that the leaders arrived at 10:21, which is the slowest frontrunner lap in Barkley history. Wow, I guess this year is tough. Maybe I’m not too terrible after all?

I retreat back to my campsite, change gear, and shovel as much food into my gullet as I can. We dry my feet. They legit look like a corpse’s. They’ve been wet for more than twelve hours now. Yikes. After about 30 minutes, I’m back on my feet and ready to head out on my next loop.

Oh yeah, and this next loop will be the reverse direction of the first loop, so any of knowledge I’ve gleaned from it will be totally useless. Back at the gate before heading out, I joke with Laz, “A virgin doing a counterclockwise night loop solo… what could go wrong?” What indeed.

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I leave camp, totally alone. Three and a half hours till sundown. Up and over the first climb, I’m feeling confident. I refound the first book, no problem. I shoot the bearing towards the next book on my compass. It seems… wrong. I do it again. Same thing. I look down at my compass. I’ve written “The compass doesn’t lie” on a piece of duct tape that I’ve put on the compass to remind me to trust it. Alright, compass, I think. Here goes nothing.

I start flying down the insanely steep hill towards the book. After a short while, I can see the creek below with confluence where the book should be. Perfect! I nailed it. Hell yeah!

I get down there. No book. No landmark I’m looking for. No nothing. It doesn’t look like the right part of the creek. Or the right creek?

I quickly decide to sweep down-creek looking for the proper spot. Nothing. I spend 30 minutes running up and down, looking at my map, shooting bearings. I’m dumbstruck. I have no idea where I even am on the map. Gulp.

Just. Breathe.

I look upstream and suddenly see an orange blob. It’s my vet friend Harald, standing in the exact same spot I had been standing when I realized I was in the wrong place. He’s also looking at his map, confused. It’s like dejà vú. I shout to him over the raging creek, and we try to figure out what’s happening. We have no clue. Reunited, we thrash up and down the creek again, unable to find anything that looks remotely like anything on our maps. We’d both following the correct bearing but ended up in the wrong spot. But we didn’t even know where that spot was. Thirty minutes later, we look up to see a THIRD guy standing in the exact spot we had been standing, now looking at HIS map confused. All three of us have done the exact same thing. The problem was, we don’t know what we’ve done.

We spend the next hour semi-frantically tracking up and down random creeks, staring dumbly at our maps and checking our compasses to make sure they haven’t magically become demagnetized. At one point, I found the skull of some animal. “It’s a sign we should probably get out of here,” I say grimly. But between the three of us, we can’t make heads or tails of anything. It’s starting to get colder and darker. Drizzle begins again.

The only thing we can do, we resolve, is to hike all the way back up to the top of the mountain and the previous book again in the hopes that we find some clue as to where we should go. We shoot our bearing. Theoretically, if we’re in the wrong spot but we follow the same bearing that we did on Loop 1, we wouldn’t reach the book. We spend 40ish minutes grunting up the climb and arrive exactly at the book. What the actual fuck. “We’re in the Barkley Bermuda Triangle!” I exclaim.

At this point, I figured the only logical explanation is that we were totally at the right spot but a tidal wave washed down the creek before we got there and swept away all the features and the book. It feels fairly plausible right now.

Nothing makes sense anymore. On top of that, we’ve lost sunlight on the climb. And a thick fog is starting to set in. Oh, and it’s getting colder and really starting to rain. We sit next to the book we already found, heads in hands. The book’s title is “It Certainly Wasn’t Easy But I Sure Had Fun.” Right.

If we can’t find the book with daylight and the correct bearing, we’re never going to find it at night in the fog and potential hypothermia. None of us want to say it out loud, but our Barkley is over.

After getting all the bitching out of our system for a few minutes, we swallow the remnants of our pride and turn to head downhill and back to camp. It’s a gut punch and a kick in the balls.

__

The Barkley will break you. Physically, emotionally, occasionally mentally. If you ever want to believe you are good at anything, don’t ever do the Barkley. All but fifteen people in the world have had the same fate: abject failure. And this year, the failure will literally be of historic proportions. Only two—yes TWO—people will go on to finish a second loop before the cut-off time. It’s the worst run in Barkley’s long history. Eventually Jared Campbell and Luke Nelson will go on to finish a third loop too, just barely before the 40-hour-cut-off, with only 56 minutes to spare.

As for us, we saunter back into camp amid a fresh downpour in the dark of night. Laz jokes, “But wouldn’t you guys rather be out there right now?” Yes, yes I would.

In a final act of humiliation (or is it respect? I can’t tell), “Taps” is played on a bugle to signify the end of the race for each runner. I’m tapped out, a bittersweet moment that I always knew was probably inevitable but still couldn’t consider.

I lower my head, thank Laz and everyone there, and then slink off to my campsite to shriek in pain and I make myself a cup of ramen noodles in humiliation.

The Barkley has won yet again.

__

So you still want to run the Barkley? Trust me. You do not. It’s way too much fun.

Who the heck is Andy?

Andy is an ultrarunner, creative director, and writer based in Los Angeles. This year’s other ill-advised adventures include Cocodona 250, Vol State 500, and UTMB. If he doesn’t die, you can probably follow along at @ievenshotthis on Instagram.

** Minus the photos of Andy’s pre-race text messages, bib, and trail pic, photo props goes to Michael Chamoun!

Barley 100 sign

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