Seth Wolpin, left, with Barkley race director, Gary Cantrell. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

Canadian endurance runner Gary Robbins had been running—which is to say, sliding, clawing, and bushwhacking, with a bit of sleep-deprived hallucination thrown in—through the unforgiving outback of Frozen Head State Park for more than 59 hours straight. With all 13 book pages in his pack and only maybe twenty minutes of running left, he calculated he’d make it, he’d actually finish the infamous Barkley Marathons within the 60-hour time limit. Failing in 2016 had been devastating, but he’d pulled it together, trained even harder, and now the months of dedication, the miles, and careful calculation were about to pay off.

“...and then I came to a staircase. There are no staircases on the Barkley course, not a one,” Robbins wrote later in his blog.

It dawned on him—in his sleep-deprived state, he’d made a wrong turn. Two miles from the finish of a 130-mile trial of the soul. Desperately, he decided he didn’t have time to retrace his steps, and headed straight to the yellow park gate that serves as the finish line, willing his exhausted body to one last push. Which included fording a rain-swollen river.

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“I had less than three minutes left till the sixty hour cutoff,” Robbins wrote. “I thrashed my way to the road and put my head down and gutted out the hardest three minutes of my life to collapse at the gate, overtime, and from the wrong direction. I did not finish The Barkley Marathons, and that is no one’s fault but my own. That one fatal error with just over two miles to go haunts me.”

Robbins finished in 60:00:06. As he lay on the ground at the finish, sodden and babbling, the man who invented both the Barkley Marathons and a persona to match stood watching. Robbins was marked a DNF.

Gary Robbins collapsed; his wife pleading. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

The Barkley Marathons consists of five roughly 20-mile off-road loops (most agree the actual distance is closer to 26 miles, thus, Marathons, plural) in Frozen Head State Park, in eastern Tennessee. Each loop features about 13,400 feet of elevation gain and loss, two-thirds of which does not follow an existing trail. The early spring race date practically insures foul weather. Entrance is limited to 40 people who must navigate the unmarked course without GPS, hitting 13 unmanned checkpoints along the way. The checkpoints are books stashed under rocks or wedged between trees from which the runner tears the page that corresponds to his bib number, turning in the pages after each loop to prove he finished the whole route.

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Crew are restricted to the campground that marks the start and finish of a loop; There are no aid stations. Participants must complete a loop in less than 13 hours 20 minutes and have all of their book pages to be allowed to start the next loop. Three loops—so, somewhere north of 60 miles—completed in under 40 hours is the “fun run”; a Barkley finisher must complete all five loops, with book pages to prove it, in less than 60 hours.

Not surprisingly, the Barkley has only been completed 18 times since 1986, most recently this year when native son John Kelly (a mountain in Frozen Head is named for his family, who have lived in the area for 200 years) finished in an amazing 59:30:53. Of the more than 1,000 starters over the years, 30 failed to even make it to the first book on the first loop.

2017 Barkley finisher John Kelly, wearing a plastic bag and a hat he found in the woods. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

The Barkley is the invention of a Camel-smoking, scruffily bearded contrarian accountant and ex-runner named Gary Cantrell. According to legend, Cantrell derided Martin Luther King Jr.’s killer James Earl Ray, who escaped from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary only to be captured 55 hours later a mere eight miles away. Talkity-talking, Cantrell bet a person could make 100 miles in that amount of time, hatching a race that would similarly mock any human foolish enough to take him up on that bet.

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He created the anti-race. Virtually every aspect of his baby flies in the face of traditional race procedure—how and when to apply for entrance are not published, nor are qualifications or requirements; many ultras have a $1,000+ fee, the Barkley’s is $1.60 plus an item of Cantrell’s choosing such as a pair of gold toes dress socks; runners will be apprised of the race date upon acceptance, and they don’t know the course until the night before; the start time is again at Cantrell’s whim within an 11 hour window; the race starts when Cantrell lights a cigarette; and of course, all the training in the world is meaningless if you go off course ... which is unmarked, and not accurately measured. Instead of a post-race celebration for all the finishers, every Barkley drop-out is announced by a bugler playing Taps, hailing another failure. Some years, no one finishes the Barkley, and when someone does, like this year, Cantrell will add some new twist to make next year’s version even harder.

The potentate of the anti-race, the maker of any and all arbitrary rules, is Lazarus Lake, a name Cantrell ran across accidentally and adopted. Laz is the Barkley. Stories abound about this character cheering runners with “Good luck, morons,” announcing that they still have the opportunity to do the right thing and go home, anointing one runner each year as the “human sacrifice,” talk of suffering and punishment and failure—Laz, like the Barkley, is complicated. Does he get a kick out of seeing people fail? Is the whole event an adult dose of dark humor (when exhausted runners find a book out in the woods, it will have a title like Where Do We Go From Here or Virgin Sacrifice)? Is he mocking the recent flood of world’s toughest races graduating lots and lots of world’s toughest athletes?

Maybe a little of all those things, but six-time Barkley veteran Dale Holdaway, sees it differently. “I do not believe his goal is to make people suffer and fail, but rather to create a challenge that is so extreme and difficult it will take someone whose preparation and efforts are truly exceptional to succeed,” Holdaway opined by email. “Of course the flip side is that most will not succeed, but I really think on an individual level, [Laz] is happy to see success and also genuinely wants everyone—not just elite athletes—to have the experience of learning where their own personal limits are. Again though, the more success that occurs, the more likely the race will be made more difficult to maintain it at the very edge of what is possible.”

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No one would think of calling the race director Gary. So everyone calls a guy they know to be Gary, Laz. Like a king in a mythical kingdom of his own device, he makes all the rules but doesn’t write them down, so no one really knows what they are—fertile ground for an underground culture. Laz doesn’t like phones, Laz doesn’t like cameras. And the ultimate mind game, Laz doesn’t like rules. Over 31 years, Laz has built and manipulated Barkley culture, and the community of past and hopeful future Barkers is only too happy to self-police the borders of their exclusive group. Just getting in to the race, being selected by Laz, is an accomplishment. If you want to be invited back again—and many do—you’d better follow the rules. Which are unwritten. In the same way you have to follow the course which is unmarked.

Laz defended the idea of there being a definite course through the woods, and Gary Robbins’ seemingly cruel DNF in a statement on photographer Ian Corless’ blog:

I hate it, because this tale perpetuates the myth that the Barkley does not have a course. The Barkley is a footrace. It is not an orienteering contest, nor a scavenger hunt. The books are nothing more than unmanned checkpoints. The Boston marathon has checkpoints and you have to show up at all of them or you can be disqualified… that does not mean you are allowed to follow any route you choose between checkpoints. Now, the class with which Gary handled this terrible disappointment at the end of a truly magnificent performance… that was exceptional and is, in and of itself, a remarkable achievement. But he did not miss the time limit by 6 seconds, he failed to complete the Barkley by 2 miles.

So, how exactly does one follow an unmarked course through rugged wilderness and fog and black night? And what really is this ninth circle of hell like that reduces experienced endurance athletes to muddy-assed quitters?

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“I can’t say much about the course specifically,” Seth Wolpin said. “There is an understanding that people aren’t going to talk about it, though plenty of people have published race reports. It’s supposed to be a learning experience; you’re not supposed to finish it the first time. In fact, it’s probably impossible for a solo virgin to finish all five loops within the time limit. That’s the thing about the Barkley—it’s one huge cumulative learning experience. That’s the reason people don’t talk about the course.”

It was the anti-race experience that drew first-timer Wolpin. “I was looking for a challenge,” he said by phone. “Organized races help people finish—the whole course is marked, there are aid stations and crews and pacers, GPS, everything to help you succeed. I didn’t want that. I like the fact there’s no coddling to ensure your success.”

Wolpin, 44, is a bit of a nomad, but calls Seattle his home when he’s in the U.S. A self-described “mountain slogger and adventure thrasher,” that includes summiting Everest and running across the US of A. And that’s what put him at risk for the Barkley.

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“I don’t know why I was accepted this year, but I’m guessing summiting Everest helped,” Wolpin said. “Laz is fond of saying more people summit Everest than finish Barkley. Of course, lots more people attempt Everest but I know what he’s saying—there’s danger to climbing Everest, certainly, but you’re slogging away on fixed ropes. It can be done, I did it. My failing at Barkley would help reinforce how difficult it is.”

Wolpin spends a fair amount of the year in Nepal where he co-owns a fastpacking travel company and co-founded a nonprofit. He prepared for the Barkley by doing what he always does—lots and lots of off-road running. He spent the week prior to the race in Frozen Head State Park familiarizing himself with the marked trails, and the literal and figurative lay of the Barkley land. The only thing he knew about the course is that most of it would not be on actual trails. While reconnoitering, he met a couple Barkley veterans, Ed Thomas and Dale Holdaway. The three made a pact to stick together as long as possible, a practice that’s not only accepted but encouraged.

“I was worried about the time limit, and about finding the books,” Wolpin said. “Yes, you get a map and written instructions about how to find the books, but it’s much better to team up with someone who’s done this before. I was really fortunate to join these two veterans, Dale and Ed. They’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

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The night before the race, Laz laid a regular park map, the kind that’s available at the visitor center, on a campground picnic table with the route and the location of the 13 books drawn with magic marker, as well as his cryptically written instructions. The forty “fools” gathered around and transferred those lines and circles to their own maps. Snapping a picture of the map with a phone is not allowed. Phones on the course? Feels wrong, like it could be aid. Out on the course, or “out there” as runners ominously refer to it, they relied on a compass, their map, Laz’s written instructions, and for veterans, memory for parts of the course that hadn’t changed. Minutes before the start, they’re all given a $10.88 Walmart watch that’s set to race time because that’s all they have to know—how much time they have before they fail.

Most runners stay in the Frozen Head campground so they will hear Laz blow on the conch shell sometime between midnight and 11 a.m., indicating an hour to race time. Most are worried about the hell that is to come, worried about the million details of keeping body and soul together “out there,” worried that they won’t hear the conch, so very little sleeping happens. Just another middle finger to organized racing—instead of preparing with a good night’s sleep, most Barkers are sleep deprived before they start. Wolpin went to bed at 9:30, laid there until he heard the conch, and started out at 1:42 am on April 1, April Fool’s Day.

“I completely underestimated the difficulty of the unmarked sections, how steep the hillsides would be, and how difficult finding the books would be,” said Wolpin. “About a third of the course was on existing trail, black marker on red trail, so I thought, oh great, easy peasy,” Wolpin said. “But the other two-thirds, the marker line went down a hillside, into a ravine, up another hill ... I thought, yeah, I can do that. But the park map is not very accurate, the scale is like 1:16,000. When you’re looking at the map, you think, I should run down this ridge to that river in the bottom, follow that river upstream til another river comes in ... But once you’re there in the dark, there are a lot of tiny streams and ridges that don’t show up on the map and they all look the same. The fog was so intense, you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you. Laz’s instructions were helpful but cryptic, like: Look for a weird rock at a confluence of two streams, cross over that, turn left and go down a hillside. If it looks too steep, that’s the right one.”

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Since the course consists of loops, in theory, navigating the second loop should be easier. But competitors switch directions each loop, and so completing four loops generally means completing a clockwise day loop, clockwise night loop, counter-clockwise day loop, and counter-clockwise night loop, meaning landmarks look different, unfamiliar, each time. A final nail in the coffin—if more than one person makes it to the fifth loop, they must go in opposite directions. That is, in fact, what happened this year—John Kelly and Gary Robbins had worked together for four loops, but were forced to face the final 12 hours or so sleep-starved, battered, fatigued, cold, and alone. Andrew Thompson, who made it to the fifth loop in 2005, penned a long but exquisite description of gradually, vividly losing his mind..

“Another Barkley vet told me beforehand he’d fallen probably 200 times on one loop. I thought at the time, how could that happen?” Wolpin said. “But the hillsides are so insanely steep, you really can’t stand up. You’re glissading on mud and wet leaves and, bam, you’re on your ass, in uncontrolled slides—there are sticks and cliffs and rocks. I can’t believe more people don’t have horrible injuries, you know, like getting impaled.”

“As we were scrambling up a hillside, a rock fell and hit my shin. About an hour later, I looked down and thought, I didn’t buy red compression sleeves. Damn, I’m bleeding. I was trying to rip an elastic bandage, pulling really hard. When it finally ripped, I hit myself on the injured shin. The worst pain.”

Wolpin’s leg post-Barkley

As gruesome as the terrain was—ridiculously steep with thick greasy leaf litter, tangled underbrush, so many thorns—Wolpin found navigation the hardest part.

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“It’s not like orienteering,” he said. “You can’t plot a bearing from point A to point B because there’s a cliff in front of you, or a big log. By the time you get around that obstacle, you might be following the same bearing but you’ve drifted right or left. You’re supposed to be within 100 yards of the route or so, but you might be one ridge to the left. I was with two vets, Dale and Ed, and we lost close to an hour trying to find the first and second books. When we couldn’t find a book, or felt like we were way off course, we’d go back to the last marked trail or last landmark where we were reasonably confident we were on course. At one point, we realized we’d gone in a circle.”

Wolpin and Dale Holdaway finished the first loop in 12 hours 20 minutes, banking an entire hour against future mishaps or fatigue. It was Holdaway’s sixth attempt at Barkley; he’d previously finished three loops, but over time. This time, he hoped to finish three loops under the time limit and start a fourth. The two started out on the second loop, but as the day warmed up Holdaway was nauseous and couldn’t keep food down, and Wolpin’s shin was bothering him. Five books, six—their time buffer had disappeared. It was getting dark and cold.

“We had deep discussions, would it be worth going over the time limit to finish this loop?” Wolpin said. “I had already gone farther than I had planned. There were a lot of things at play. I was tired, but I wasn’t completely wasted; I was still alert. I’ve done things that were harder and longer. After the seventh book, Dale said he had nothing left in the tank—he’d had zero calories all day. He encouraged me to go on by myself. We managed to get books 8 and 9 with some difficulty. I had a pretty good idea where books 10 and 11 were, but the last two would be pure hell in terms of the terrain. There was a good chance I’d lose hours finding them. Part of the reason I do this is because I like seeing beauty in the effort, and I didn’t see a lot of beauty in those last two books—I saw pure masochism. I thought about the responsibility of leading a trip in Nepal in a week. But most importantly, Dale had been my guide and teacher. I made this amazing friend—walking out with him sounded more fun than thrashing around for those last books. So we said, this is enough, knowing we would probably regret it later.

Wolpin, failed. Photo credit: Billy Simpson.

Of course, even quitting at Barkley is not easy. A jeep track, appropriately dubbed Quitter’s Road, arcs all the way through the park. After two hours of stumbling down the jeep road, Wolpin and Holdaway reached the yellow gate at about 4 a.m. The bugler played Taps. Laz said he wished they could have suffered more.