Many people run to find out what they are capable of. But to truly discover the limits you have to do something that is almost impossible. Enter the Barkley Marathons
One hundred miles… some say 130. A 60-hour time limit. Unmarked gnarly trails through some of Tennessee’s least hospitable terrain. The Barkley Marathons take competitors on an uncertain journey across steep, muddy, vegetation-strewn rocky ground during which runners fall over rocks and roots while trying to follow often complicated instructions without GPS. Sections of the trail – if you can find them – have been christened Bad Thing, Rat Jaw, Meth Lab Hill… and other equally fluffy and welcoming soubriquets. Since the first event in 1995, only 15 runners have actually completed the course in the time allowed. Essentially, we’re talking about one of the toughest trail races in the world and subject of the 2014 now-on-Netflix documentary The Barkley Marathons: the Race that Eats its Young.
Now, that description alone may have the ultra-runners among you salivating over your Salomons, but hang on. You don’t just Google “Barkley Marathons” and enter online. Barkley Marathons has yet to submit to corporate sponsorship and remains a unique, quirky and relentlessly tough race – not only physically and mentally, but even finding the correct entry procedure is a challenge.
In June 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr, absconded from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. But the brutal landscape surrounding the prison – Frozen Head State Park – meant he only covered eight miles during the 54 hours until he was recaptured. The now-closed jail forms part of the current course, including a tunnel under the prison close to where Ray escaped.
Inspired by this, Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake, created the first Barkley Marathon in 1985, naming the event after his running mate Barry Barkley. He figured runners could manage more than eight miles, and the first event was set up as a 50-mile, 24-hour course… which none of the 13 entrants finished. Cantrell is famously quoted as having said: “All the other big races are set up for you to succeed. The Barkley is set up for you to fail.”
Now a five-loop event with an alternative 60-mile “fun run”, the field is limited to fewer than 40 runners, each of whom has to apply via an admirably secretive process. There’s no official website and you won’t find the Barkley Marathons on a race calendar. Instead, an email must be submitted to the race director on a certain date at a certain time, together with an essay outlining why you should be accepted as a runner. Oh, and the name of the race director isn’t public knowledge either. Some say that your best bet is to ask someone who’s run the race before.
The date of the race is released to successful applicants in a “condolences letter” and first-timers must bring along a numberplate from their home state or country for Lazarus Lake’s collection – alongside their US$1.60 entry fee. Returning veterans either bring Lake a pack of Camel cigarettes or a specific gift, depending on whether they’ve previously finished.
Unsurprisingly, the start isn’t at a fixed time: a conch shell is blown in camp an hour before the race begins, alerting the runners to their imminent fate. On each loop, competitors must locate a book and rip out a page corresponding to their race number. The books won’t be obvious – if you’ve followed the unmarked trail correctly, you may find what you’re looking for.
What sort of person runs the Barkley Marathons? The determined? The insane? Those who relish a challenge but aren’t wholly on board with the increasingly corporate nature of racing, perhaps. Renowned photographer Alexis Berg (the photographer behind the book Grand Trail) took his camera to the 2017 event, capturing the unique combination of inhospitable ground and secret-club vibe that makes the Barkley Marathons a genuinely un-imitatable event.
As I work in the world of ultra-running, the Barkley is obviously an important subject – a fantasy even. I had always wanted to go there. The Barkley really found its way into French consciousness in 2014, thanks to a documentary made by Intérieur Sport and shown on the Canal+ TV channel. I didn’t have to produce an essay to request a race place, as the runners do; I simply wrote a short message to Laz. His response was very simple: “You can come and photograph if you wish. However, I am not sure if it would suit your requirements…”
I was asleep in my car when the conch shell was blown. But I think that I was woken by some activity on camp, rather than by the sound of the conch shell. I wanted to take photos of this time, so straight away I started walking around. It was a quite silent time. Everyone was observing a type of meditation, quite solitary…
I didn’t have access to the whole route. Laz only allows access to a limited number of spots: at most five percent of the course. I respect that. It’s the Barkley, after all. There are mysteries and there is a certain sort of beauty in this unknown – the magic of the inaccessible. When I waited for the runners in the forest, I sang. I’ve therefore sung quite a bit during those hours of waiting.
I didn’t get lost, but sometimes I passed the same place without managing to remember the route, the relief of the land, or the trees. I must say that the conditions are continually changing, with the night, the fog… But the fundamental factor of the Barkley is that everything looks the same. The setting is so monotonous, almost abstract, that sometimes it is difficult to order the memories.
It’s such a long and intense course that it is impossible not to get close to the runners emotionally. Like them, I was missing sleep; I was dirty, I was cold. I didn’t experience any physical pain, but I was exhausted. I think that this was part of my photographic approach to the race, getting close to the subject. To align myself a little bit with the runners’ emotions. And, I think, of course, of Gary Robbins, whose distress affected all of us. [Canadian ultra star Gary Robbins took a wrong turn in the fog on his final loop, narrowly missed the cut-off time and registered a DNF, despite a heroic effort to run all five loops.] But also John Kelly’s worry while he waited for Gary. [John Kelly became the 15th finisher of the Barkley in 2017.]
The Barkley is superior to its participants. It is important to be humble in order to go far. Everyone who overlooks the extreme demands of the race hits the wall. The difficult thing is that a runner must be up to the task from the beginning until the end. You cannot recapture lost time. The Barkley requires an exceptional level of preparation, both physically and mentally. But also – which is quite unique – you must be ready intellectually as well. You must think. You must reflect. You must anticipate, predict and understand how this incredible machine that we know as our body functions.
When you have never participated in, or attended the Barkley, you only know its legend. I was expecting to be disappointed with its reality, which is quite normal with legends… The striking thing is that the Barkley genuinely matches up to its myths. All the rituals of the race seem a bit superficial to those unfamiliar with the event, but they reveal themselves as surprisingly authentic. They are part of Laz’s enchantment. And Laz himself… it’s crazy how he disappoints no one. He doesn’t play a role. He is not artificial – he is an absolutely magnetic character.
The second thing that differentiates the Barkley from all the other races I have photographed is that money is absent. The registration fee is very small. There’s no commercial pollution, no sponsor banners… this makes a very big difference.
It’s a fascinating race. It’s quite easy to imagine that the course makes plenty of people dream. I imagine that each participant has their reasons for racing. But the thing that brings all the runners together, without doubt, is the respect of the institution, its history and its rules.
Scenes from base camp
Words by Imogen Lees and Alexis Berg, a photographer, director, and running photography workshop host.
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