Bill (The Geeze) Rumbaugh
I’ve been reading a bit lately about the Barkley Run, or simply “The Barkley.” There was some information on the ultra list about it recently. A guy wrote in and said he would be visiting Tennessee about the time of the Barkley and wanted the details about it. He was considering “doing the Barkley.” One of the listers responded, “You don’t do the Barkley, sweetheart, it does you!”
Hmm, I had heard of this one, maybe it was time to dig a bit deeper. So I downloaded several reports and other articles and printed them out for reading when I get an odd few minutes here and there. Made for some fascinating reading, but then I love reading race reports and all the lore surrounding Ultrarunning. Here is a gathering of some of the information that is out there, I hope you enjoy it.
The Barkley Run is held in Eastern Tennessee not far from Knoxville, in a park named Frozen Head State Park. There are two state prisons adjacent to the park. The story has turned grim already. Cool. The park land was originally part of the prison property and convict labor was used to extract coal from several mines in the area. One of the prisons was where James Earl Ray was confined. He escaped in 1976, and it was 56 hours before they caught him, in the same area as the run. He had managed to get only 4 miles, a testament to the terrain. A guy named Gary Cantrell, an experienced runner and hiker, read about that and thought he should be able to beat Ray’s time. So he and a friend known as Rude Dog tried it one weekend and did not get as far as they thought. After a few more trips to the area, they got the bright idea that this area would be a good venue for a really tough race. They were right. It has been speculated that excess beerage may have been involved.
The first Barkley was run in 1986, with Gary Cantrell as its Race Director (RD). It’s a 100 mile run, 5 times around a loop of 20 miles. You have 60 hours to complete it. Most 100 mile races have time limits, or cutoffs, in the 30 hour range, and most who apply to this one are world class trail runners. The shorter “fun run” version of the race has a cutoff of 48 hours and is “only” 3 loops. It is held in the Spring, and it invariably rains. If you’re lucky that is, because it often snows. High winds, thunderstorms, low temperatures and dense fog are much more common than good weather.
There actually was a trail over most of the course at one time, and it is said to be marked on topographic maps of the area. The bad news is that the “trail” has not been maintained in more than 50 years, so there are trees down everywhere that you have to climb over or under. Sawbriers on much of the land that is traversed by the course shred clothing and skin alike. The trail is not marked, you have to use map and compass. Navigation is difficult given the usual weather conditions, and losing your way constantly is the normal state of affairs. There are two unattended “aid stations” where they put out jugs of water. But they are sometimes frozen solid, so you can’t really depend on them.
There is approximately 1,000 feet of elevation change per mile. This is about a 40% grade on average. Some places are even worse, such as “Hell” (1240 feet in 1100 yards), Rat Jaw (1020 feet in 1500 yards), Big Hell (1600 feet in 1500 yards), and Leonard’s Butt Slide (600 feet in 400 yards, named for one Leonard Martin, an early entrant). For comparison, a 4% grade on a highway is usually marked by special signs cautioning truckers to use lower gears, etc. There are few highways over 6% due to the dangers involved with such a steep slope. Besides those mentioned above, there are many other colorful names dotting the course such as, Chimney Top Trail, Zip Line Trail, Indian Rock, Coffin Spring, Bobcat Rock, Jury Ridge, Bald Knob, Anklebreaker Trail, Garden Spot, SOB Ditch (which is 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep), and my favorite, What Trail.
Sounds like the course is difficult, to say the least? Nothing about the race is easy. They don’t publicize the start date or the time, there is no official website for the race. Veterans say that if you can figure out how to get into the race and where it is, you’ll find that it is usually the weekend closest to April Fool’s Day. The Race Director (RD) goes by a pseudonym. It costs $1.35 for first-timers to enter. If you have run the course before, you are to bring a new, white dress shirt in “Gary’s size.” Part of the “registration procedure” is to bring a license plate from your car. You don’t have to take it off your car, just be sure you bring one. You are expected to show up about the date it’s supposed to start and hang out in the camp until the RD is in the mood. One hour before the start, the RD blows a conch shell. That’s the only notice you get, and it could be anytime, day or night. To announce the actual start, he lights a cigarette (some years it’s a cigar). And the runners are off through the Yellow Gate, which serves as starting line and finish line.
The pre-race meal is a festive event held the night before many races. The Barkley version is frozen chicken, grilled. The outer part is black, the inside is still frozen, with a tasty, bloody layer in between. So you eat the black char off of your piece and take it back for another grilling. Repeat until consumed. Yum. (Most attendees are smart enough not to eat Barkley chicken.)
To prove that you have traversed the course, they have pre-positioned various books at 9 places around the course, not in plain sight of course, that would be too easy. You have to look for them. You tear a page out of the books which corresponds to your race number. (You may or may not get a bib, you have to remember what your number is on the second and subsequent loops anyway.) You present your pages to the RD when you complete a loop. Then you get a new “race number” for the next loop. The book titles are invariably something amusing, such as, “Shadows Out of Hell,” “Why Aren’t They Screaming,” “Temporary Insanity,” “Don’t Cry Now,” “The Very Bad Thing,” and “The Long Way Home,” all of which have been used. The first 2 loops are clockwise. The 3rd and 4th loops are counterclockwise. Given that it takes about a half day to complete a loop, you essentially run one in daylight and one in the dark. Then, when changing directions, it’s very much like a new trail each time through. The 5th and final loop, you are allowed your choice of which direction you want to go. Oh, and by the way, if you are with another runner, you have to run in opposite directions.
As noted above, the race was first run in 1986. It wasn’t until 1988 that anyone finished, Ed (“Frozen Ed”) Furtaw. And he only completed the fun run. The full 100 miler was not completed until Mark Williams managed to complete it in 1995. This was the first year that the weather was actually decent, and in those days, you could run all 5 loops in the same direction. Each time someone figures out a way to do part of the course, the RD changes the rules. One constant about the race is that the rules keep a-changin’. Like it wasn’t already tough enough. No woman has ever completed the 100 miler, but a few years after Williams’ victory, the first two women finished the fun run. One of them was NTTR’s own esteemed RD of The Grasslands Run, Suzi Cope. Less than 1% of the entrants finish the course. One year, two finishers were disqualified because they walked along the wrong side of a creek for a few hundred yards. The course had been changed from the previous year and they did not know about the change. This was their reward for walking along the HARDER side. The fact that they finished together was what probably led to the rule that two runners cannot go in the same direction together. If you drop from the race, as nearly everyone does, they blow Taps on a bugle, take your pages from you and throw them into the campfire without looking at them. You are done, “tapped out.”
I wondered several times why the runners don’t use GPS systems to stay on course. Silly me. I found out later that they don’t allow such newfangled contraptions on the trail. It would sully the purity of the challenge. Such is The Barkley…