In 2011 out on a long run with Alan Miller and Anatoly Ross, Alan told us off this strange race he heard about called the Barkley Marathons out in the mountains of Wartburg, Tennessee. This is a crazy ultra marathon over 100 miles, no one really knows because GPS devices are not allowed, only maps and compasses. Runners have 5 loops to do in unmarked trails ranging from runable single track to relentless uphills and downhills going under uncut power lines. There is a 60 hour cut-off to complete the 5 loops in which each runner has to find hidden books in the forest and retrieve a page from each book corresponding to their bib number, and this is at every loop, day or night, rain or shine. 3 loops completed is called a Fun Run. Only 15 runners have completed the 5 loops since the start of the race in the 70s created by Lazarus Lake, the mastermind behind this race.
To learn more about the race you can watch the documentary on Netflix, The Barkley Marathons: The Race that eats its young.
When Alan told us about this race, I thought this was an insane idea and forgot about it (I had not run any ultra trail at the time and had no interest), Anatoly on the other hand was curious and looked into it to find out more. In 2014, Lazarus came up with The Barkley Fall Classic, a mini version of the Big Barkley. Anatoly eventually registered for the 2016 edition and this is how I got to register for 2017. With a few trail races under my belt, I thought it would be a nice addition to my 100 miler trophy case. At The BFC, you get to run 50km on most of the same course as the Big Barkley (excluding unmarked trails that are reserved for the big race), the course is somewhat marked with a few directional arrows, basically left or right or straight… no color markers or ribbons. You can get lost very easily. You get a map of the course the night before and you are not allowed any GPS devices, Garmin watch, iPhones etc (some people brought they phones anyway to take pictures). I bought a cheap watch with hands to keep track of the time and cut-offs.
There are time cut-offs at various points to thin out the heard. There are 7 check points where you need to get your bib punched, if you miss one you are disqualified. You get all 7, and it spells out I BEAT THE RAT, that would be Rat Jaw the nastiest never ending climb with briars that slice and dice your legs and arms. And one final cut-off before doing the last loop, this is where you meet Lazarus for the last punch on your bib. At this point you agree to "try" and finish… if you can't you get caught up by the sweepers and are disqualified. It's an incredible, crazy ass ultra race like I have never experienced. In some respect I found it harder than my 100 milers.
Out of 362 starters, 120 finished the 50k to get their "Croix de Barque" the ultimate prize, 178 dropped at Lazarus to get the "I couldn't make it all the way" prize for the marathon (about 36k) and 63 DNF, a 33% finishing rate. Many got lost and missed cut offs. Many were not ready for this and had no chance in hell of finishing. But they come for the challenge of seeing how far they can get… and get a photo with Laz. Most want to come back and try again. It is amazing to see the resilience of runners who come to the BFC!
I finished 37th overall, 32rd male, 4th 50-59, 2nd 55-59 with a time of 11h26. I was hoping for under 11h, but we lost a lot of time in the most difficult ascent which was filled with uncut 7 feet tall briars and as such got caught in a human chain that laboriously had to cut it's way through. I also lost about 20 minutes when I got confused on the last loop. I totally enjoyed the experience, went out of myself to get through it. I was never in danger of not finishing having enough lead time before cut offs, but I slowed down from fatigue in the last loop. But I got her done!
I travelled down to Tennessee with my friend and ultra running partner Anatoly Ross. We stayed over for a week in a small trailer at Brian and Evelyn's, two local friends of Anatoly that would give you the shirt of their backs. We met a lot of nice people from all over, drank a bit of moonshine and a had a great week. We ran a 30k exploratory run in some of the trails on the wednesday before the race. It tired me out somewhat for the race, but it saved me from getting lost. A good trade off since getting lost might have meant a DNF.
My training over the year and summer payed off. I was ready for the Eastern States 100 miler, and I was ready for this one. Anatoly wripped tthrough the course and finished hand in hand with a Japanese runner in second place. An incredible feat for a 53 year old runner!
Getting into the details of my race would be too long and I would risk execution by firing squad at the prison if any of it got to Lazarus, we are sworn to secrecy. That is the law of The Barque!
I plan on going back someday, but if I don't, I got a taste, ever so slightly, of the Barkley Marathons.