The Barkley Marathons have a legendary status amongst ultrarunners and particularly amongst the American ultrarunning community. A recent discussion on the ultralist debated whether or not the most difficult ultra was Barkley or Hardrock and it came to apples and pears.
Though the route has changed over the years since its inception in 1986 in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee until this year only 7 runners had completed the 100 mile race within the cut-off time of 12 hours per loop.
This year out of 35 starters one more man joined the elite club – Andrew Thompson finished the five loops in 57:37.
How difficult these five 20 mile loops are is difficult to appreciate, after all, 12 hours to run 20 miles seems a generous cutoff within most peoples capacity. Well, for those for whom 100 miles is too much, there is a fun run of 60 miles. It has 52,900 feet of climb and 52,900 feet of descent. First time runner Lora Mantelman covered about 5 miles in 18:55 minutes. Not the record. That belongs to Dan Baglione, who at 75, in 2006, covered 2 miles in 32 hours. Right.
This year apart from Andrew Thompson only 2 other people made the 60 miles in the time limit. Mark Williams, one of the elite 8 finishers was back again this year but was not among the fun run finishers.
Allan Holtz posted his account on the ultralist and kindly gave me permission to re-post it here. Also read Andrews account which can be downloaded as a pdf, entitled Like Water from the race site along with other race reports and photos of this years event.
Subject: Barkley 09 Report – Allan Holtz
Date: Wednesday, April 8, 09, 7:55 PM
This was my 4th trip to Frozen Head State Park and my 3rd attempt running the Barkley Marathons. This year I left Monday evening and arrived Tuesday evening.
I slept in my car and went for a hike of a few of the little hills on Wednesday with Chip Tuthill from Colorado, a runner from Italy and two of his friends and Rich Limacher from Illinois. We took 2 cars, leaving mine at the Armes Gap turnoff of Highway 116 and Chip’s wife drove some and then returned to camp. First we walked up the gravel jeep road to the top of Testicle Spectacle and hiked down the backside to the Neo-Buttslide. We then followed the bench around the mountain west to Raw Dog Falls. The Italians had translated last year’s instructions into Italian and tried to find this year’s book at the Falls to no avail. The Italians then crossed the stream and would not follow the rest of us down the dirt road towards the Pig’s Head climb. We did not see them again till back at camp.
At the top of Pig’s Head we took the old mining road down to the bottom of Rat Jaw. A couple prison guards were supervising a group of 13 prisoners replacing broken electrical insulators on the power lines going up Rat Jaw.
I hope they shut off the power first! Rich, Chip and I slowly worked our way up Rat Jaw. The saw briers and blackberry vines were cut low and had not started this year’s growth yet, so other than the steepness and length of the climb, Rat Jaw was not too bad this year. The gate to the tower at the top of Rat Jaw was open, so Chip and I climbed to the top for a 360° view and pictures of the surrounding mountains as this was the high point of the park. After our descent, we took the easy Spice Wood trail back to the main trailheads and up the paved road to camp. All total about 8 miles.
It rained fairly hard that night. On Thursday, Chip rested while Rich and I hiked up Bird Mountain and the improved portion of the North Boundary Trail. We then took the jeep road back to camp. All total about 10 miles.
I rested on Friday, checked out this year’s instructions and map course outline. BBQ chicken was ready about 6:00 PM along with various other food items that the 35 runners and other friends and family members shared. I had made some pasta, opened a gallon of peaches and cooked some vegetables. I had the vegetables in the new 2 litre pan that came with a small propane/isobutene fuel-blend burner I had just bought from REI. After I finished cooking the vegetables, I had put the plastic cover over the heat transfer fins on the bottom of the pan to protect the fins from any mechanical damage. I had the pan on the picnic table and after awhile the remaining vegetables got cold and some idiot placed my pan atop the hot grill over a wood fire to reheat the vegetables, instantly melting the plastic bottom. And these guys plan to run the Barkley?!
One of Abigail Meadows 5 kids had a birthday Friday and Abi’s mother had made a frosted chocolate layer birthday cake, a large cookie sandwich and a cheeseball covered in pecans that was shared with the group. I brought some ice cream and chocolate syrup. Pretty good last supper.
One of the highlights of the Barkley is the uncertainty of the start time. This year Laz decided to have a late start, ensuring most loop1 finishers would be finishing in the dark. This was OK with me, as it gave me more time for my breakfast to settle and time for another reading of the course instructions. At 9:53 a long loud blow on a conch shell meant the lighting of the cigarette signalling the start of the race would be promptly at 10:53 AM.
With the improvements (removal of downed trees and tree swatches for trail markers) along 2/3 of the North Boundary Trail, I was well ahead of my previous time and keeping up with a group of reasonably fast runners. Then I tripped, bruising my upper arm. I was OK and five minutes later I noticed I had lost one of my two water bottles. It took me 10 minutes walking back uphill to the bottle (where I had fallen). At that point I was alone. I proceeded OK back down and past SOB ditch and through the coal ponds. Then a spread of streams through a rock garden at the base of a hill left me confused as to where to go, there being no obvious path in any direction. About 10 minutes later though Leonard Martin and a couple other runners arrived. Leonard has been over this course maybe 16 times and he knew where to go very well. I stayed with him the rest of loop 1. There were a few moments of uncertainty on his part, but only regarding the absolute best line to take on some of the bushwhacking sections, nothing serious.
Darkness fell on us as we started up Big Hell. Leonard was not fully satisfied with the path we took down the Zip Line leading to Big Hell and vowed to do better next loop. A short ways up Big Hell Leonard and I caught up with another runner. As Leonard felt he could see better in the dim light of night on Big Hell without using any artificial light, I kept my bright handheld off until we reached the last book at the top. We found a couple more runners at that book and met another coming off of Chimney top on the last 3.5 miles of candyass trail back to camp.
Leonard and I came in together at 11 hours 32 minutes. The cut-off for the men’s race (5 loops – yeah right!) was to be back on the course by 12 hours and for the 3-loop fun run the cut-off to be back on the course was 13 hours minutes. After being well over the fun run cut-off each of my previous 2 Barkley attempts there was no way I was not going to start loop 2 this year. Leonard said he would be ready to go in minutes. I hurried to refill my maltodextrin bottle and my empty water bottles. I consumed about 2500 calories of maltodextrin during the first loop and burned (according to my polar heart rate monitor) about 5000 calories. Other than a little tenderness in my feet I felt pretty good.
Twenty Two minutes after finishing loop 1 I started up loop 2 alone, as Leonard was not back yet and I did not want to waste any more time. I expected he would soon catch up with me but I could not see his light anytime while climbing Bird Mountain. I found the first book OK by Phillips Creek at the bottom of Bird Mountain and while concerned I had gone past and missed the second book, I did find it OK tied to the branch of a downed tree in the middle of real trail. I had dragged myself though a thicket of saw briers and blackberry bushes on the way to book 2 that seemed much worse than I remember on loop 1. I was starting to wish I had waited for Leonard. Shortly after finding book 2, I saw roughed up leaves going two directions. I spent about 15 minutes trying to figure out where the path went, when Leonard arrived. He confidently took the correct path and we again stayed together until partway down Zipline I thought I saw a slightly better path and we started to separate.
Bad decision on my part. A ways later and I no longer saw him. As I continued to work my way down the steep briar infested, rocky, downed-tree strewn, stream-laden hillside, I started to convince myself I had gone too far and missed the major stream confluence marking the crossing point for book 10 and the climb up Big Hell. I had again lost my bottle and somehow managed to find it again. I went back and forth some and rechecked instructions and map, but not feeling any more certain about where to go. Finally I checked my altimeter reading against the map and concluded I needed to continue down. A ways later I found the crossing point and the next to last book.
I knew at that point I would be over the time limit to consider starting a 3rd loop and the soles of my feet were really sore now. So I slowly ascended Big Hell, unable to miss all the saw briars. I could see where people had gone to false tops (large rocks they hoped held the book), only to realize the mountain continued up a lot more after that point. Once at the top, this was the first time I had to figure out how to manoeuvre around the capstones at the top to find the candyass trail back to camp. I had always before reached this point with a course-knowing runner at night. So again I spent a lot of time studying directions and map and finally convincing myself I did need to climb over a few nasty downed trees near a second set of capstones and I then found the good trail back down.
Even with that good, smooth narrow trail and its 18 long switchbacks or so my feet ached with every step. I did run down albeit a slow jog. Then as the instructions directed I followed the Flat Fork Walking Trail along the Flat Fork River a ways till it crossed the paved park road again and then I took the road back into camp and up to the yellow gage as Laz came with his watch and bugle to officially play taps for my 09 Barkley closing ceremony as I stood at attention.
So this year I finished 2 loops in 29 hours 50 minutes. My first time beyond 1 loop. Leonard finished his 2nd loop very well and came in a few minutes under the 26 hour 40 minute cut-off, for an official loop 2 completion. He declined to start loop 3. So if you can keep from getting lost, be well trained, not go out too fast to start, dress appropriately (not too much or too little), not carry more supplies than you need (extra weight) and have appropriate footwear (no blisters and minimize internal foot bruising) a 3 loop fun run should be quite doable.
But each year Laz modifies the course and start time a little, the weather is very unpredictable and book placement for half the books will be different, so the Barkley is certain to challenge the limits of every runner, which is probably why I like it so much. Ed Furtaw (Frozen Ed) is in the process of writing a book on the history of the Barkley. This year’s race with mark the end of his book. He had several in-process manuscripts for runners to edit.
This year Andrew Thompson finished all five loops, becoming only the 8th person in 23 years to do so. First time finisher, Mark Williams returned this year and quit after 1.5 loops. So far no one who has finished 5 loops has done so twice. Once you complete the Barkley it seems the motivation to put yourself though that much pain again is lacking, and that little voice inside says “mommie, I want to quit…”
27 out of 35 starters officially finished the first loop this year. None of the 4 women to start finished the first loop. 11 officially finished the second loop, while John DeWalt (age 71) and I both came in after the cut-off on loop 2. 6 started and 3 officially finished the fun run and as mentioned Andrew Thompson finished loops 4 and 5. The weather was great, slight breeze 35-60B0F with mostly clear sky Saturday, Saturday night and Sunday. Then on Monday the weather got poor – rain, sleet and snow on loop 5 for Andrew. The race fought back, but Andrew persevered. See Matt Mahoney’s website http://www.mattmaho ney.net/barkley/ for pictures and further race details for this year and several previous editions of the Barkley.
I watched Andrew come in off of his 4th loop as he strongly ran down the paved road and touched the yellow gate. I was showering when he started his 5th loop and I was heading home when he finished. There were not many left in camp for the start of his 5th loop. I suspect only a very few stayed for his finish, which is too bad, because it is a great accomplishment and demonstration of human endurance, tenacity, spirit and perseverance.
Now that someone has finished the Barkley 2 years in a row, I can only imagine how Laz and Raw Dog plan to increase the difficulty for next year.