Tuesday, April 7, 2009


I decided to the Barkley 100 mile race this year. This race has more climbing (and descending) than any other 100 - nearly 55,000 feet. It is a 20 mile loop done 5 times. Since its start in the mid 1980's, only 7 runners out of 650 starters have finished it. I was not to be #8.

I flew out to Nashville on Thursday April 2. On the plane they showed an episode of The Office where there was a charity 5K run. The main character collapsed and just barely finished. I thought that was a good omen to have on my flight. Once at Nashville, I met fellow Barkley runner Robert and we drove to Frozen Head State Park - home of the Barkley. We didn't get there until after one in the morning so we slept in the car. The weather was a promising rainy night.

The next day we met with fellow runner Abi from Texas and helped set up some of the camp.

Then it was off to meet race director Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell. Laz was a great guy - absolutely triggering a smile or laugh with every word (or sometimes a shudder of fear when discussing the course).

Around his site were the "prayer flags" banners made up of the license plate each first time runner (virgin) had to submit with their entry fee. He handed out numbers (I got #24) and race instructions.

As someone had asked if he was to give instructions for the reverse loop (after loops 1 and 2, runners must then switch directions and run the loops in counter-clockwise) Laz graciously complied and handed every runner a set of directions that would only make sense if held to a mirror (that is right - word for word of the clock-wise directions printed backwards).

We all carefully copied the route from the one single master map onto our own maps. There were 11 books spread out along the course and we made careful marks on the maps as to their (non-exact) locations. We purchased our race t-shirts. This year's showed an old lady lighting a cigarette from a cake that read "100". As starts the Barkley 100 by lighting a cigarette this was a great image. It also mentions the "Rat Bites" a reference to the lashes that runners receive as they pass through the saw briars on the course, especially on Rat Jaw. That night it was the pre-race dinner. Generally this is a pot-luck of food plus BBQ "Barkley Ranch" chicken (some years burnt on the outside - raw on the inside....the opposite of most runners after the Barkley).

One of Abi's son's was celebrating his 15th birthday so he received a round of "Happy Birthday" from all.

This was one of the best parts. I was able to put so many faces to names. I had exchanged many e-mails with runners about Barkley and other races. Now I had a chance to meet them. To the last one, they were a great group of people. Very outgoing and friendly. I guess the crazy and/or condemned reflect that "bird of a feather" concept.

Then it was off to a restless sleep. I came very unprepared and woke up in my tent freezing all night. Oh well....Barkley baptism.

The next morning we all gathered our gear and talked nervously and waited. There is no set start time for the race. Instead, whenever Laz feels like it, anytime after 12;)01 Saturday, he can blow the infamous conch shell. This gives runners a one hour notice that the race was about to begin. Laz made us wait and wait until almost 10:00 am (meaning almost all would be starting loop 2 - if they made it that far - in the dark). Finally, he let loose with the conch call.

Then we all scrambled. I gathered my gear, stuffing cold weather cloth in my pack. I decided to start with my Moeben sleeves and my Zensah calf wraps to help protect my recently healed calf. The day was actually already getting warm so I put the rest of my rain and cold gear in the bag along with my food and supplies. On my belt was my compass. I had my map and instructions in a bag also strapped to my belt. Frozen Ed and I chatted for a bit before the start.

Then we headed off to the start to await the ceremonial lighting of the cancer stick. Laz stated that "Now is the time in races where you receive the last minute words of advice. However, this is the Barkley." and then he lit his cigarette. We were off.

The run started up a series of switchbacks up Bird Mountain. This was a tough way to start, but not too bad. I had told myself not to push it and was actually holding back a bit. Yet I still found myself with some of the front runners including Mark Williams the first ever person to finish the full 5 loops of the Barkley. Also included was Claudio a runner from Italy. They started to out climb me near the peak, but then we reached a series of downhill switchbacks. I was having the time of my life - flying down the wet muddy switchbacks, with "trails" barely wider than the width of a show at pints...the wet dirt sometimes collapsing beneath and causing me to slip. It was in a beautiful forested area. As I continued down I started passing runners including Claudio and Mark (this would be the only time I would be in front of Mark who graciously stepped aside as he heard me coming). We reached book #1 - a Harrold Robbin's piece entitled: Never Enough. I tore my page (corresponding to my race number out) and continued on. Later I read my page.....interesting: Generally the books had titles related somehow to the race - this year it included: Children in the Woods; Adult Male Americans - Candidates for Heart Attack; Roughing It In The Bush and a Lazarus' Revenge, etc.

Across a small stream and then we started to climb. I had to stop and place my page in a baggie (virgin mistake - not being prepared) so lost touch with the group. But then I was off on my power hike up the hill. Soon I caught Claudio again. By the top of the climb a group of about 7 runners caught me and we headed off down into a briar patch near Bald Knob. I was leading but some took an alternate path through some briars that proved a bit faster so I found myself mid-pack. Then we came upon book 2.

We opened the book and most of us were surprised to see that someone had gotten to the book and removed blocks of pages. We decided to move up to the 300's so as not to take any other runner's pages and I took 324 of a Sydney Sheldon novel. Then we were off. As I climbed over a fallen tree my shoe caught something and I spun to the ground landing on my side and crashing my left knee into a rock or stump. Ouch! I checked to make sure I had everything and then headed down another series of fast and, at times, hard to switchbacks. These lead to a stream and twice I found myself below the actual "trail". Finally we reached the Son of a Bitch Ditch and I crossed it by tight-rope walking across a fallen tree that bridged the gap. Then I was off again.

Soon I neared the Coal Ponds - pits left from earlier coal mining that had been filled with water. There were beaver stumps all around. I got to the end of the pond and.....was alone saw no trail. I stood there and pulled out my compass and tried to see where to go and then noticed a trail dropping down to my left. I started to follow it but it went off the wrong way. As I turned around I saw Frozen Ed and a couple other runners heading up the hill. So I turned around and headed up there. It was a good climb and when I finally reached the top, Robert passed me. He looked very strong. We all got to book 3 at the Garden Spot and then headed down the trail to water stop # 1 (the only support on this race was two water stops). I grabbed a water jug and filled my bottles.

The trail continued up a bit and very soon we came across book 4 hidden in some stones on Stallion Mountain. I grabbed my page and then tore down the mountain. I got to a point where I was confused and started studying my map. Then another runner came up and he and I went down the trail. Here it was downhill...but I could not really run it. There were rocks to climb down and "trails" that I had really trouble spotting. Once I smashed my right foot into a hidden rock - my big toe is still oozing blood today and the nail is a fatality.

We both stopped a few times, but he had trained there once before so he had a better idea of where the trail was so off we went.

Soon, we came to the New River. We crossed this thigh-high river (felt good - but the briar scratches burned a bit). Then off to the other side. It was a very short climb to the road and then, in front of us, was Testicle Spectacle.

Wow - that Testicle Spectacle sure is a steep m-f'er. At the base was book 5 (see it hidden in the tree hallow?): We stopped and each grabbed a quick bite. I snapped a few photos. Then we were off....slowly up the climb.

At times the dirt was muddy and it was difficult to not slip down. As I passed some folks from a local university that were there filming, I looked at them and gasped: "I hate climbs" - the one guy smiled and said "I can see why."

I continued up and reached the top. The other runner had gotten there first and was already going down the jeep road on the other side. I also started down the road. It was pretty steep but I was in my element and was cruising the downhill. At this point I was starting to feel pretty good. My legs were strong, a little tired, but definitely strong. I had put one of the 3 big climbs behind me, had all 5 prior books with no issues, and had plenty of time.

At the base of the jeep road came the Neo Butt Slide. This was a perpendicular descent down some rocks which I took slowly. Then onto a trail which entered some woods. The instructions said that if I came to a road first I was below the target (Raw Dog Falls) and if I came to a stream first, I was above the falls. I came to the stream first and for whatever stupid moronic dumbass idiotic f'd up reason, mistakenly told myself that, despite the clear instructions, I was below the falls so I started following the stream up the mountain...and up....and up...through briar after briar. I came across a couple pig skulls. They had the same amount of brains in their empty dried up skulls as I had in mine at that moment.

Finally near the top of what turned out to be Armes Gap, I realized that something was not right. I consulted my map and compass and was feeling that I was stupid. I then re-read the instructions and confirmed that I was stupid.

I tore down the mountain through briars not carrying at all. Finally passed the falls ( I had to have been no more than 100 feet away from them originally before heading up hill). I gathered my book and found John Price there. The two of us started across the stream. There we had to get over an embankment and could use one of two routes: a straight up shorter climb called Danger Dave's Climbing Wall or an easier longer climb. We pussed out and chose the easier road (although not the one less taken I believe). We exited the Hallow and climbed to a road. Across the road was Pig's Head Creek...so noted by a pig's skull (much like the one I had found earlier) tied to the tree. John and I climbed that trail. It was pretty steep and full of briars. Soon that intersected an old jeep trail and we took that to the base of Rat Jaw.

At the base of Rat Jaw (a torturiously steep climb to the 3324 peak of Frozen Head mountain) were an old abandoned guard house and an old mine. We took about 2 minutes for some photos and then started climbing.

This climb starts up the mountain and then west towards the tower. A soon left John a bit behind as I turned left. I climbed to the point of a rocky bluff.

The instructions said "follow the bluff on your right". Being the stupid moronic dumbass idiotic f'd up person I am, decided that meant to keep the bluff to my right as I started climbing along to left side of it. Man - that was one of the deepest concentrations of briars I had come across. I was looking for a crevice to climb that also housed book 7. I hiked the length of that bluff and never found it - checking every possible crevice. I turned around and retraced my steps (and reaquainted myself with each briar) trying to find that crevice and book. I finally got back to the point and wondered if I should have gone to my right. I took no more than 20 steps and there was the crevice. I think Laz could hear me cussing at myself way back at camp.

Thanks to my two bonehead mistakes I easily burned nearly 2 valuable hours. I grabbed my page and climbed the crevice. I started up the final (very steep) climb to the base of the tower. Did I mention it was steep? By now I had gotten into the habit of using a piece of wood as a hiking stick and found a nice one with a point already carved on it. I reached the top to find the Troubador waiting. He pointed me to the water jugs and off I went to the final water stop (not too soon either as I was out of water). I filled my bottles and ate some tuna fish I had packed and downed a coke that was there. I pulled on my jacket and started on down the road.

The next book was placed up on something called the Hump. I followd the directions and found the small square stone marker that indicated the "path". The instructions said that this was a "new" trail....I think it meant we were the first to blaze it. Anyway, I followed a tiny trail of newly turned leaves straight up and easily found the next book behind a log...where John Price was sitting.

We gathered our pages and took off. It was just getting dark so we snapped on our lights and headed through a forest of saw briars towards a campground. Campers greeted us and we headed on through. Then down a rocky trail to the next book. This book was pretty easy to find, in a crevice in a rock formation called the "Needle's Eye" - a stone tunnel of storts. We grabbed our page and left. Straight down was a briar infested hill of boulders and brush and mud that was our next trail - called The Zip Line.

Because it was dark we couldn't really sight on anything so John and I used compass readings to get down this hill. John would usually sight and I was leading picking a trail. I would shine my light where I intended to go and he would indicate left or right per the compass. Every so often I double checked with my compass. Every now and then one of us would catch a briar across the leg or arm or lip or scalp. Plus, there was the random slip and falls. But, using this method we made it down the zip line between two streams. The instructions said to follow to where the streams merged and there would be book 10.

John and I got to the merge - but could find no book. We searched and searched. Finally I saw some lights to our east. I suggested we go to those lighst and soon we came upon another stream. We followed it until it merged with our first "stream". But another problem. The instructions stated that there was a high dirt embankment at the merge. Here there was none. John and I searched and searched. We had burned at least an hour looking for the damned book. Finally we started heading downstream some more and came across yet another merge. This one had a high dirt embankment. I climbed it and John stayed at the merge. I searched every f'n tree in an acre around that merge and could find no book - not even a pamphlet or postage stamp. Nothing.

We had lost upwards of two hours and with only 20 minutes before cut-off (and a huge climb called Big Hell between us and the finish) we knew we were done. No loop for us. We followed the stream down to where it met BeechFork road. We followed that out to the highway (Highway 62 I believe was the number). We were both frustrated, cold and disappointed. As we trdged down the highway with atleast another 5 miles back to camp, a truck pulls alongside and the driver asks if we would like a ride back to teh camp. It was David Horton - a Barkley alum!

We jumped into his truck and he drives us back. John knows this legend well - it was my first opportunity to meet him. He asked us about our race and we told him about our futile attempts to find book 10. He stated: "Hey - that is where I was disqualified that one year". Once we got back to the camp, John and I sheepishly exited the truck and walked up to Gary. He simply smiled, pulled out hus bugle and played the requiste "Taps" for each of us. I chatted with Gary for a bit and then headed off to the showers. Soon I was in bed, still kicking myself for burning so much time on my stupid navigational errors and not being able to find, what Gary called, the "easiest book to find".

In the morning I congratulated other runners on their completion of a loop and then cheered on others as they completed 2 loops and even a few on their Fun Run finishes (3 loops). Among the 2 loops finishes where Frozen Ed and Carl Asker and Johnny D.

Gary was kind enough to play for them, along with all other runners (well, almost all - see below) Taps on his bugle:

One runner, Andrew Thompson was still out going for the full 5 loops. He looked incredibly strong as he headed out on loop 5. Gary started his loop with the ringing of the cow bell symbolizing the bell lap. Shortly thereafter the weather turned from cold to sleet. Then it started to snow. But Andrew did it - completing it in 57:37!!! It was great to be there and witness history (I saw him head off on loop 5 but because I had to get home for my upcoming wedding in 3 days, couldn't hang around for the finish. Sorry Andrew).

The Barkley left me with great memories - and souvenairs of my attempt. I have a few cuts and scratches from rocks, some really nice poison ivy ony my legs and arms. I also have many Rat Bites - those beautiful loving kisses from the briars that their own unique hickies on my legs and arms:

As I was preparing to leave the college students interviewed me and Frozen Ed about the foods we eat on ultras. Then, they asked us to summarize "The Barkley" in one word. I said "Addictive" - because I truly am addicted to this event. The atmosphere, the people, the challenge - all incredible. As I drove back to the Nashville airport I contemplated that question and my response. Yes, I am addicted - it is a one hit addiction - that Barkley drug.

But I have reconsidered. If I have to describe the Barkley in one word, the word I would choose is "HUMBLING". I was humbled by the challenge - after doing Mont Blanc and Leadville successfully two weeks apart, after buckling at Badwater, after p.r.'ing at the Keys 100, I did not even do a single loop at Barkley. I was humbled by the poeple. The other runners, no matter their age, were much better than I (and were so modest and friendly, taking me in almost as family). Most did at least one loop, some 2, 3 and even 5. In their presence, my experience was put into perspective. Finally, I was humbled by the course and the surrounding nature to which I bore witness. The raw beauty of the forests, the ruggedness of the terrain, the serenity of the streams and the magnitude of the mountains put me in perspective. One's soul would have to be numb not to be humbled in Frozen Head State Park.


Peter Lubbers said...

Wow, Alan, that's one tough race! Hope you get all 5 next year.

Rajeev said...


Congratulations on yet another achievement - starting Barkley. I am sure the experience will let you get all 5 loops next year!!!

Proud of you!!!!!!


Pierre-Yves said...

Fascinating story Alan, thanks for sharing your experience. It seems so much beyond an ultra!

Thomas said...

That's a great write-up, Alan. I think Barkley is one I'll give a miss - I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to be looking for some damn books in the middle of nowhere.

It's a fantastic adventure, though.

Paige said...

Love it, GREAT report, Alan! I loved all the pic's too; it's cool to see a little bit of what it is you guys are talking about.

Unknown said...

Great report,what an awesome adventure!!

David Ray said...

Great report! Thanks for providing the insider perspective on a legendary race.

Paul said...


Your report was fascinating. I now have an idea of just how hard this event is, as well as an appreciation of the unique aspects of this race that draw people out there. Your final summation at the end was oustanding.

You are one crazy and inspiring dude.



christopher said...

Alan, your words and pictures mirror your heroic effort. thank you for sharing. I will join you soon at Barkley

Andy B. said...

Great report Alan. You really give a good "picture" of what it's like to be out on the course by your descriptions, and the photos are great.

Sorry you didn't finish the loop, but you'll be that much better prepared for the next time.

RetainingWallExpert said...

Alan - How could you miss the Beech Tree Hollow book? That one is nearly the THE EASIEST book to find! You did great and and should be proud - way to go! joek, cin, oh

Steve Pero said...

Hi Alan....

Great story and nice with the pictures.
In 2001 I went down and was able to get through the fun run. I was younger, fitter and probably stupider. But one thing I never said was that wanted to go back. I got the FR done, knew that the 100 was not possible (for me), so let it be.

Good luck with your new addiction,

Christian Griffith, Run100Miles.com said...


Right on Alan.

Great story.

See ya in one month

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Nice report, Alan-- gives me a better feel for the course than articles I've read. So yeah, maybe I WILL try that before I'm 50....

Hey, I thought lawyers were really good at interpreting the subtle nuances of words..... I'm sure you're experience is fairly common for a rookie, so don't feel too bad. It sound like you'll definitely be back and will definitely have at least 1 loop.

Clara said...

Awesome job! I'm sorry you didn't finish and were disappointed. I was looking forward to some of your messed up feet pictures?? Tuna during the run? Yuck! Random question- Did any women attempt the race?

Clara said...

Oh ya- congrats on the wedding! Have fun in Italy!!!

Unknown said...


Thanks for the great race report. I love the pictures and especially loved the video of Laz playing Taps. I hope I can get in next year, the more I read and hear about Barkley, the more I want to be a part!

Congratulations on your wedding!


Chris Roman said...

Hey Alan. Congrats on just being there, that is awesome in its own right. Your pics and account put that crazy race in even better perspective. Never thought of trying before and now NEVER will. What an awesome feat to accomplish that race in its entirety. Congrats on the wedding as well. See you in the Keys soon!

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Sorry you weren't successful at your attempt. It sounds like quite the adventure anyway though! I grew up trekking through the wilds of N. Carolina with my father, so this event has a twisted appeal to me too. There's definitely a trick to navigating briars!

I've tried smoked salmon and sushi on ultras, and it goes down nice. What is your fueling strategy, besides tuna?


32 degrees said...

what a story, and like you said... humbling. brutal pain-train. thanks for the great write up.