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One for the Books: A First-Timer’s Take on the Barkley Marathons

One for the Books: A First-Timer’s Take on the Barkley Marathons

Jeff Garmire, Calendar Year Triple Crowner/Mountain Athlete/Author

       The Barkley Marathons is one of the most unique events on earth. The name comes from the race director’s neighbor, Barry Barkley, and the five 26-mile loops that participants must complete to officially finish the event. The 130-mile ultramarathon is run without pacers, trails, GPS guidance, or aid stations. The race begins with the lighting of a cigarette, and runners prove they have completed each loop by presenting pages torn out of books strategically placed along the route. The race is almost entirely off-trail through the briar-infested forests of Tennessee. Only 15 runners have ever completed the race, and the course gets harder every year. Most years, there is not a single finisher.

This year I toed the starting line, and my race, along with every other competitor’s, ended in disappointment. Here is what happened. 

Yellow gate (start line) in perfect weather days before the race


Before the Race

     The weather leading up to the race was perfect. The sun was shining and the sky was a brilliant blue. But the nice weather was short-lived. The storms began the moment I received my packet and bib number. Rain fell the rest of the day, turning the trails into a muddy mess the day before the race. A stream of water flowed under the yellow gate that serves as the start line. Tents sagged all around the campground, and the forecast did not show an improvement. 

Mud the afternoon before the race

As the storm picked up, nerves were visible, along with every participant’s determination and dreams. Even making it to the Barkley Marathons starting line is an accomplishment, but every runner focused on what lay ahead to become a finisher. 

Time went by slowly, and we all wondered when the race would start. One of the unique aspects of this race is that the start can be any time in a 12-hour window. Midnight to noon is fair game, and the only signal that runners get is the blowing of a conch shell exactly one hour before the race will begin. It is unknown to everyone except the race director, Lazarus Lake. 

Night fell over our small campground in Eastern Tennessee, and runners retreated to their vans, tents, or cars to try to sleep for a few hours. The rain picked up. I tried to sleep in the back of my SUV with earplugs to drown out the storm, but I was restless and distracted. I dozed off and on until lights shining through the car woke me for good. The conch had been blown, and I had one hour to be ready to start. It was 2:04 am. 

“The conch had been blown, and I had one hour to be ready to start. It was 2:04 am.”

The Race

     I had one hour of frantically unpacking and repacking my running vest to make sure I had everything before walking to the yellow gate. It is amazing how quickly an hour can disappear. I walked up to the director’s tent in full rain gear to get my official race watch. Since GPS devices are not allowed, the race provides a timekeeping piece to participants. This year we received a pocket watch. It required pushing a button to open and was on a two-foot-long chain. It was the last thing you would want to run with. I can only imagine the race director chuckling as he picked them out at Walmart. 

Our race-issued pocket watch

With only minutes remaining before the start, Laz walked up in front of the Yellow Gate and began a speech. It was an ode to the runners and volunteers that have come before and simple encouragement and reminders. The anticipation ended, and his hand reached into his pocket for a lighter and slowly lit the unfiltered cigarette. We were off. 

The race started slowly up a steep climb. The pace was dictated by veterans leading the pack. But as we trudged along, we knew that things would pick up. At the top of the ridgeline Jared Campbell, the only three-time finisher, abruptly turned right off the trail and began sprinting into the forest. We all instinctively followed. The Barkley Marathons had begun. For the next two hours, headlamps darted every which way. We were all trying to follow vague instructions and a crude map to the books marking the off-trail route. We sprinted downhills and redlined up them, hollering back and forth in the rain. It was an elite adult scavenger hunt on the most difficult terrain. It was the most fun I have ever had running. 

“It was an elite adult scavenger hunt on the most difficult terrain. It was the most fun I have ever had running.”

Finding the books went smoothly through Book 4. The directions, map, and compass bearings all made sense—they all lined up and could be followed to the exact spot where each book lay. But between Books 4 and 5, I found myself on my own. I was a virgin without a guide through the most confusing area of the course. 

I followed the instructions connecting the myriad of Forest Service roads on Stallion Mountain, but they didn’t match my map. I retreated to the last known point and tried again. Three times I lost enough confidence to retreat to the last known location and start over. Then finally, two other runners came up behind me. It had been a wasted hour, and I was far from the lead pack. But there was still time. I latched on with the other runners and flew through the next two books. One of them lived locally and was able to train substantially on the course. 

We were through the hardest portion of the course and still looking good for making the 13-hours cutoff for the first loop. We just needed six more books and a return to the yellow gate. But, Barkley is not straightforward. We spent three hours on Book 7. At first, we followed the wrong watershed, and on the second try, we couldn’t distinguish between the creeks on our maps and the seasonal creeks created by the heavy rains. Finally, a fellow runner Peter and I decided to return to the last place we could decipher our instructions. From there, we would follow them line by line. We both agreed not to quit and finish the loop even though we would be well over the time limit. 

Our faint road finally materialized at the New River, and we followed it through old ruins. The instructions matched perfectly this time and led right to a book hidden under a rusted skillet. It will forever be etched in my mind as the book that ruined our race. Barkley is a race where experience carries immense weight. The course is learned by running it, matching the map and compass to the terrain. It was experience that I didn’t have. 

“It will forever be etched in my mind as the book that ruined our race.

We jogged up a hill, picked up the next book, dropped to the bottom of Rat Jaw, and quickly ascended to the highest point on the course under steep powerlines for Book 9. We dropped to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and flew through the ridiculously steep ascents and descents of the course’s back third. Our navigation was perfect, which only highlighted the impact of the blunder we made on Book 7. Tearing out the last page of the loop on top of Chimney Top felt like a major accomplishment. It was the validation that we successfully navigated the full course as virgins. Only a maintained park trail separated us from the campground. 

Looking back down Rat Jaw

The final 3.5 miles down the gentle switchbacks of a standard trail offered the chance to reflect on the day. It was exhilarating, frustrating, fun, stressful, and rewarding. I missed the cutoff to go out for a second loop but I had fought through the first one. The race hit the extreme of every emotion. I wondered what could have been while also acknowledging the feat of finding each book. I had dreamed of doing so much better, but everyone at the race did. 

I touched the yellow gate to close out my loop and had my final words with Laz. It is the perfect race, and that is what I told him. The Barkley Marathons is a race designed so that nearly every runner leaves disappointed. And with the likely result of failure, simply showing up is a great opportunity. But running away from the campground’s comforts and into the unknown is where the real adventure begins. 

I hope to try again in the future. There are many more stories to be had out there. 

Standing at the Yellow Gate after finishing a Barkley Loop


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