by Leon Lutz
A flicker ignites the end of a cigarette. A deep inhalation precedes a release of smoke into the Tennessee sky. Less than three weeks later, this very gesture will launch 40 people into the wilds of Frozen Head State Park as it begins to emerge from a long winter’s nap. On this early March evening, it serves solely as reflective pause before Gary “Lazarus” Cantrell’s answer to the question of whether the participants of this year’s running of the famed Barkley Marathons, the race he’s directed since its inception 30 years ago, really understand the journey on which they will embark.
“When we started, there were definitely a lot of people who had no clue. I think now, however, people have a better idea of what’s coming.” Laz ponders before continuing, “You know, at this point, you could charge $1,000 per spot and fill it, but we would not have the kind of people that we do. You’d just have the people who were trying to buy a great experience. The whole thing about the Barkley is you can’t buy it with money. You gotta buy it with your soul.”
For a select group of ultrarunners, December brings not only holiday cheer, but also notices of Barkley race entry acceptance. Their belated gift of more than 100 miles, over 60,000 feet of vertical gain, an unmarked course and inhospitable terrain won’t be theirs to unwrap until April.
As Jared Campbell describes first finding his way to the starting line, “It’s pretty much, ‘You’re in, figure out how to get there,’ and if you can’t figure out how to get there, you probably shouldn’t be there.”
Barkley is still a few months away, and Jared is discussing his experience with the race from his home in Salt Lake City. One of only 14 finishers, and only the second of those 14 to successfully complete all 5 laps under the cutoff on more than one occasion, he is a revered veteran of the race, the very “kind of people” that Laz claims makes the race so special.
Almost better described as a modern day explorer than pigeon-holed as an ultrarunner, Jared has established a multitude of mixed-discipline routes in his home state of Utah, has finished the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run 10 times and won it outright in 2010, is one of few to have completed Colorado’s infamous Nolan’s 14 line within its allotted 60-hour cutoff and has competed in some of the most renowned ultra races across the world. Not that you’ll hear Jared say much about any of those accomplishments, as his seeking spirit is likely already planning the next adventure rather than revisiting those past.
“The main thing, I guess, is we all like to put ourselves up against challenges and we extract something from the experience, something in our identity that makes us feel alive,” offers Jared when speaking about his return to Frozen Head after a one-year hiatus. “Barkley is that to a much bigger level relative to other ‘normal’ races. I love that and I missed that last year. It surprised me a bit, but I really felt an emptiness that has me excited to go back.”
Others are likely excited that he’s back too. As Lazarus is quick to point out, the whole field has a better chance of going farther when there are returnees who know what they’re doing. “If I just took all the entries that came in as a single pure random draw and ended up with 40 people, not one of them who had ever been there before, they’d all go out and be lost in the woods all day. Maybe a few people would finish one loop and that would be it,” he says. “You’ve gotta have that mix.”
Pacific Northwest-based Heather Anderson is returning to the Barkley for her third attempt. Last year she was one of only a handful of participants to head out on a third loop, and her confidence can only be bolstered by having since completed the fastest ever self-supported thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, a distinction that she already held for the Pacific Crest Trail.
That level of accomplishment also generates external pressures, especially when no woman has finished Barkley and so many would love to see that change. As Heather shares in early February, just days before heading to New Zealand to run the Tarawera Ultramarathon and do some exploring in the Southern Hemisphere, “I don’t do things to push any particular agenda. I do things because I want to. That said, I’m not completely walled off from the world in which I exist, and I hear people talking about whether or not a woman can finish Barkley. While it’s part of it, it’s not that on my mind.”
What Heather finds more interesting is progressing and building on her prior experiences at the race. She explains, “There’s something enticing about Barkley that makes you want to come back… I haven’t quite figured out how to do it. It’s a puzzle and I have to figure out how to put all of the pieces together.”
To complicate matters, the course continues to change slightly most every year. It’s intentionally made more difficult in races successive to years when there has been a finisher. Jared hasn’t seen the course since his successful finish back in 2014. He freely admits, “Some people ask ‘Are you gonna be a good veteran and help guide some people through?’ and, you know, it’s just not like that. It’s not that easy, not a walk in the park for me. I have to invest every part of my soul just to have a chance at finishing, so I can’t just be a tour guide.”
In many ways cut from the same cloth as Jared, and also residing in the Salt Lake area, Barkley first-timer Jennilyn Eaton acknowledges, “I feel like I identify less and less as time goes by as a runner. I’ve always been a bit of a mountain person. I want to be out there, and move across a lot of land, and mountains in particular.”
She’s learned that she’ll have the opportunity to do just that come April. “As a woman, I can say that we aren’t as fast as men, and that’s ok, but I still think it’s about time we had a woman finisher,” says Jennilyn, conceding her own personal interest in taking a shot at putting the “no woman has ever finished Barkley” stigma to rest.
A tireless, focused athlete who holds several ultra course records and has many fastest known times for women to her credit, she acknowledges that she intends to continue to build fitness to put herself in the best possible position to be successful on her first Barkley attempt. “My primary strategy is going to be to be in good enough shape to not only keep up for a couple of laps, but to be able to take the notes necessary to navigate myself,” she shares, adding, “Being lost is slower than sticking with slower people who know where they are going. I think it would save quite a bit of time if I can keep up.”
With more than 16 years of racing experience, accomplished ultrarunner ,but first-time Barker, Ty Draney is also hoping to learn from the veterans. “Maybe I can birddog early and learn some of the course, so that even if I get scraped by the vets I can figure it out,” he says.
A close friend of Jared, Ty openly confesses to getting the final nudge to apply during a trip they spent together on California’s John Muir Trail back in August: “Jared has this way of making these horrible ideas sound so awesome, but then I spend time not with Jared, and convince myself there’s no way, only to talk to him on the phone or get out on a run with him and by the time we’re done I’m convinced again that it’s a great idea.”
While clear in their intentions to finish, both Ty and Jennilyn are honest and open in their understanding that the odds are stacked against them. As Ty puts it, “I’m hoping to have the strength and wherewithal so that they have to tap me out, that I don’t tap myself out… I’m experienced enough to think that I could finish it, but I’m also experienced enough to know that I probably won’t.”
THE WEIGHT LISTER
Canadian Gary Robbins just wants the opportunity to test his own strength and wherewithal, but is uncertain as to whether he’ll have that chance. When entry notifications were first announced, he wasn’t among the chosen 40. He was, however, eighth on the Barkley “Weight” List. As he reports from his North Vancouver, British Columbia, home on February 1, “I’m number 7 on the list right now. When the draw happened and I didn’t get a letter of condolence, I was really disappointed and pretty upset about the whole thing, but George (Kunzler, another veteran returning to Barkley after completing two official laps and starting a third in 2015) messaged me to say, ‘You’re number 8 on the Weight List, you’re in.’”
Several years prior, while in Virginia to run the Mountain Masochist, Gary found himself in the presence of two Barkley finishers, Andrew Thompson and Jonathan “JB” Basham, as well as Travis Wildeboer, who had not yet finished Barkley, but would in 2013. The animated conversation about Barkley that ensued simultaneously sparked an interest and convinced Gary that he wasn’t yet ready to give it a go.
JB, especially, left a lasting impression. As Gary recalls, “He said, ‘You have to embrace the suffering from the very start and stop trying to prevent it.’ He looked at me, threw his arms out, and said, ‘You know how you finish Barkley? You know how? You gotta want Barkley.’ And I’ll never forget that.”
Gary continues, “I’ve understood for many years what JB meant, and every year I would ask myself ‘Do I want it enough?’ And the answer was always ‘Not enough…’ This is the first year, in stepping back and asking myself if I want it enough, that, yes, I’m ready, I want it bad enough, and I want to define my year this year by Barkley.”
The HURT 100 course record holder and the man who recently set the FKT for the Wonderland Trail that encircles Mt. Rainier, Gary certainly possesses a considerable amount of talent and willpower, but neither will matter if he remains stuck on the Weight List.
Though not designed specifically as a Barkley training run, the Running Up For Air (RUFA) 24-Hour Grandeur Peak Challenge, put on by Jared to raise money for efforts to improve air quality along the Wasatch Front, provides an excellent systems check for Jared, Jennilyn and Ty. Held on February 27th and 28th, RUFA tests participants to see how many times they can climb to the top of Utah’s Grandeur Peak and return to the trailhead over the course of a single day. Each lap measures roughly 10k and serves up 2,500 feet of gain.
RUFA’s final tally shows Ty amassing 7 laps for a total of 40.6 miles and 17,920 vertical feet. Of the 50 or so other participants, Jennilyn’s totals of 11 laps, 63.8 miles and 28,160 feet of gain are elapsed only by Jared’s 13 laps, 75.4 miles and 33,280 feet of gain.
A few days later, on the rare 29th day of February, for Gary Robbins, “The Barkley is a go!”
He hasn’t been idly awaiting that news, consistently cranking out 30,000–40,000 vertical feet-weeks of training soon after recovering from a second place finish at his beloved HURT 100 in mid-January.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Heather is bagging peaks herself, continuing her training while trekking in New Zealand.
The sun rises on April, and the mischievous initial day of the month finds the Big Cove Campground at Frozen Head State Park a flurry of activity as runners arrive. They hand Lazarus their non-refundable $1.60 entry fees and the customary license plates they’ve brought from home in exchange for their Loop 1 bibs. They anxiously transfer details from Laz’s official course map to maps of their own and mull over final pre-race preparations. Those preparations include decisions on when to turn in for the night, as many runners speculate that after last year’s 11:23 a.m. start, the conch blown to signal that the race is about to begin may very well sound closer to midnight than to midday tomorrow.
Nervous energy abounds as darkness settles in.
Hours later, morning breaks without interruption, and Lazarus mills indifferently about camp, leisurely walking his dog, Little, and giving no indication as to when the race will start.
Mercifully, the sound of the conch finally fills the air at 9:42. While confirmation that the race really is going to happen provides momentary relief, it almost immediately gives way to a spike of new anxiety over the fact that the race not only really is going to happen, but will do so in just one hour.
Writers and photographers, many of whom have come to Frozen Head clued in to the race only recently by The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young, a documentary that began streaming on Netflix earlier in the year, scuttle about in search of story-and-camera angles. Laz endures the cameras as the gentleman it might surprise many to learn that he is, but changes nothing about the way he whiles away the last hour before the race ensues.
He notes, “For the most part, we’ve been able to keep media from being out on the course, so the runner’s experience has basically remained the same.”
At the stroke of 10:42, after a reverential roll call of those past Barkers no longer living and a moment of reflection in their honor, another lit cigarette releases runners to the “very private and personal experience” that Barkley and its race director have promised them.
True to that promise, much of what manifests over the next 60 hours does so out in the steep drainages of the Cumberland Mountains, behind the ridgetops, amongst briars and undergrowth, away from the sight of anyone but the Barkers themselves.
As the runners seek out the 13 hidden books that contain the pages that need to return with them to camp to prove they have successfully navigated the course, storylines, like anxieties the day before, abound.
Rhonda Avery, legally blind, accepts the Barkley challenge. With the constant company of guide Christian Griffith, she collects pages from four books, and spends 30 hours on course before hitching a ride back to the fabled yellow gate in camp for the trumpeted taps that signals the end of a Barker’s race.
Starchy Grant, Kimberly Durst and Brad Compton blur the lines between futility and triumph, each collecting 13 pages and completing a loop, but taking 31 hours, 59 minutes and 9 seconds to do so.
Of the 40 starters, 25 venture out for a second loop and are reduced to just seven by the time the third loop begins.
There are three successful “Fun Run” finishers (three loops), all of whom also complete a fourth loop. The third of these three is John Kelly, the local son, who staggers down off of Bird Mountain toward camp, reaching the gate with 13 minutes and 2 seconds left before the cutoff to attempt the final lap. While he is physically present, it isn’t evident if his mind and spirit are fully in his possession.
Laz describes the scene with awestruck admiration: “Watching him come in, I thought that was the picture that should be shown to anyone who ever claims ‘I left it all out there.’ I have never seen anyone so totally destroyed. I was wondering if he was just moving on muscle memory (sort of like an echo) until he got close enough to touch the gate. That was the only thing that indicated he still knew what he was doing, and I thought, ‘Now, that is 100%.’”
The collected pages pried from John’s hands, he is guided to a nearby folding chair by friends and family. As they encourage and attend to John, it seems unlikely that he can or even should muster the strength or will to rise to his feet and venture out in search of additional pages. Paradoxically, five, 10, 12 minutes somehow seem to pass both rapidly and glacially until, as Laz himself reports, “He went back out. So, even that was not quite 100% (probably 99.7%). He still had a few tenths of a percent left.”
John departs the gate to a choir of clapping, whistles and cheers that aren’t enough to sustain him any farther than 100 yards before he bends down in the warm late morning sun and falls fast asleep. A short time later, with the concerned and slightly stunned onlookers in camp as witnesses, he rises again to his feet, turns to face the trail ahead, and summons the resolve to slowly ascend Bird Mountain in pursuit of the first book.
He comes back again hours later after collecting just one additional page, but with his place in Barkley lore firmly established.
John’s return leaves only two runners out on loop five, each headed in different directions.
VETERANS, VIRGINS AND THE WEIGHT LISTER
This year, Heather runs her own race from the beginning, navigating almost flawlessly on the first loop, an accomplishment noted by several virgins who benefit from her presence as they labor to find their way around the course.
One of those virgins is Jennilyn. While having a strong physical performance, she struggles to solve the navigational riddle and find the precise location of the books on her own. As she recalls, “After four books on loop one, I realized that I had to reassess. I needed to find a motivation that wasn’t finishing because, time wise, that just wasn’t going to be possible.”
She and Heather end up moving in tandem for much of loop one and two, until Heather takes ill.
Heather said: “I insisted that Jennilyn go on without me even though we’d been together for much of those two loops. She had pretty much the same amount of time as I did last year and I said, “Just go, you can do it. If I did it, you can do it.’”
Jennilyn takes that urging to heart, navigating the rest of loop two on her own and completing the lap under the cutoff. A flurry of helping hands serves as pit crew to get her fed, dressed and back out of camp to begin a third loop with a broad grin on her face. Minutes before her departure, Heather marches into camp with stoic acknowledgement that she is returning without all of the necessary pages for an official two-loop finish. She receives a sincere “Thank you” from Jennilyn and warm words from Laz before an emotional tap out.
Teamed with Jason Poole, another seasoned Barkley veteran and a world-class orienteer, Ty leaves on his third loop less than an hour before Jennilyn. The two have spent much of the preceding day and night together.
As Ty and Jason collect their pages at the top of the infamous Rat Jaw powerline climb, about a third of the way through the third loop, they are still on pace but have not made up any ground on the indifferent clock as the sun begins its dip from the sky for the second time since the conch was blown. Barkley veteran Dale Holdaway arrives just behind them, rounding out a capable trio that will need to be spot-on navigationally the rest of the way in order to register an official three-loop finish.
Day has very nearly turned to night when Jennilyn reaches the top of Rat Jaw. While she still has enough in her tank to continue, the solo nighttime navigation looms that much more daunting, and she decides to end her race. She’s gone farther than any other woman has this year, farther than all but six other participants.
In the very early hours of Monday morning, after time has come and gone for a recognized three-loop finish, three headlamps approach the gate. Ty, Jason and Dale are in possession of all 13 pages, despite knowing for the last several hours that they’ll only be given credit for the first two loops.
The two remaining runners on loop five, headed in different directions, are Jared and Gary.
Stride for stride, they spent nearly every minute of their 47 hours on the first four loops together. Only having spoken once before coming to Barkley, they have forged a fast and undoubtedly lasting friendship in the Tennessee wilderness.
Having relied on Jared’s knowledge of the course through the first few loops, Gary had pressed him for his preferred direction for a fifth loop and insisted that regardless of their order coming into and leaving camp after loop four, Jared would have his choice of going clockwise or counter-clockwise. Jared chooses to go clockwise and as soon as that is agreed upon, the veteran begins teaching the virgin.
“After we decided which direction each of us would go on the fifth lap,” Gary shares, “Jared immediately had me start leading, telling me what to be looking for and giving me every bit of information that he could. He was showing me things on the course, making sure that I wasn’t missing things, so invested in my success.”
Jared confides afterwards that he hadn’t fully understood his own motivations going into this year beyond hoping to finish the race for a third time. On course with Gary, that motivation crystallizes. “My first time I was being guided by somebody,” Jared says with regards to his first appearance in 2012, when he followed two-time finisher Brett Maune. “The second time I had the 100-percent solo experience, and then this year I got to be the guy helping somebody else out. It kind of defined why I was there, to play that role, and it was a lot of fun, primarily because Gary is such a great guy.”
While both athletes crave and relish the quiet, solitary moments that ultrarunning provides, they also concur that it was bittersweet to have to part ways for that final loop.
The next time they meet, it is clear that only one of them still has a shot at finishing the Barkley, and it is a poignant moment for both of them.
“When we eventually did cross paths and it was obvious that I was going to time out, there was a real look of dismay on Jared’s face that I wasn’t going to attain that finish,” Gary says. Having gotten turned around a bit navigationally, sleep deprivation certainly not helping matters, he has simply run out of time.
“It’s easy to screw up navigation. I was worried it might happen for him, and it did, which is really unfortunate,” says Jared. “He had such a strong race, and he has all the classic ingredients that you need to do well at Barkley.”
Possessing those very same ingredients, Jared draws upon all of them to become this year’s only finisher and the first person to ever finish Barkley three times, touching the yellow gate with just 27 minutes and 30 seconds to spare in an elapsed time of 59:32:30.
It is stamped right there on this year’s bibs: “The Barkley Marathons: Where Dreams Go to Die.”
For the uninitiated or those looking outside in, all too receptive to the narrow narrative of eccentricity, a sadist race director and a cast of masochistic participants, it is a tagline readily accepted.
“That made me laugh, because I thought maybe it’s where dreams go to change,” theorizes Jennilyn. “They don’t die, they just change a little, and you need to be ok with that.” She came to Frozen Head with a jaw set firmly on a five-loop finish. When navigation made that an impossibility, she didn’t bog down on what she couldn’t do, but focused instead on what she could do. “Stuff happens, and you can be defeated by it, or you can change what you’re chasing,” she states. “You could sulk. I didn’t. I kind of thought that if I had only done two and a half loops that I would feel defeated, but I don’t.”
Ty shares a similar perspective, stating that “It was plenty hard, no doubt about it. I don’t know that my skill set was enough there to allow me to purely push my physical limits, but it was very revealing of my limits.”
Despite not going as far this year as she did the year prior, Heather emphasizes that progression isn’t necessarily measured by distance traveled, and stresses the need to be open, flexible and understanding of your own motivations. She suggests, “I think it’s best to come to Barkley without expectations of what Barkley is, and instead simply embrace it when you get there.”
Heather also reflects on “being reminded that the desire for something is more important than just doing it.” She goes on, “I’ve always tried to live passionately and follow my own dreams. I encourage other people to do that, and maybe this was a little bit of a reminder that in a few areas I’ve lost some focus on that.”
For Gary, one of the most special things about the Barkley was “how pure that experience is to be away from it all. Jared and I talked about how wonderful it was to be immersed in moments of time where nothing else in the world mattered. I think so many of us desire that on a more frequent basis, and you don’t really have a shot at finishing Barkley if the mind is muddied or you’re finding yourself focused on anything other than forward progress.”
As Jared explains, “It’s inevitable that people get lost, right? That is Barkley. One, how do you prevent yourself from getting lost? Two, when you do get lost, how do you get back on track as quickly as possible? Every step we take in life leads us toward a place that helps us better define where we want to be in the future and where we want to go with our future.”
It’s true. As long as we’re willing to keep going, there’s always opportunity to better define ourselves, opportunity to redefine success and failure. Dreams don’t have to die. Not at Barkley, not in life. But every now and then, they need to change.
“Everything changes,” Laz replies to the question of whether the little less obscurity brought on by the documentary threatens the essence of Barkley. “That’s part of life. Everything always changes. Even though we manage to keep the quality of the experience the same, private and personal, it’s gonna change. That’s just the nature of the world.”
Change? Maybe. Die? Not likely.
As long as the race endures, as long as runners like John Kelly keep getting back up, keep wanting to truly test limits of all shapes and sizes, as long as there are people who are truly willing to buy it with their soul, then Barkley will continue to be a special opportunity to better define ourselves, an opportunity to redefine success and failure.
Just like life.