If you are in to ultra running, chances are you have at least heard of the Barkley Marathons. In 2015, it was popularized with the release of a documentary film called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. As I write this, I realize what a daunting task it is to explain the Barkley. There are so many nuances to this unique and mysterious race. On the first week of April, in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, 40 unlucky souls line up for the Barkley each year. The race consists of five loops of "20 miles" each. That is in quotes because the exact distance is not known and is not relevant (and also much farther). There are no GPS devices allowed and the course is not marked. You navigate using a map and compass and landmarks. Runners have 12 hours to finish a loop and 60 hours overall to finish all five. To prove you successfully completed a loop you must come back with your assigned page from 13 different books hidden along the course. Do not confuse this with a scavenger hunt. There is an exact route you must follow. Fog and rain are a common occurrence in April in Frozen Head. There is no official website and the entry process is kept very secret. The race begins when the race director, Lazarus Lake, lights his cigarette one hour after he blows the conch shell at camp. Yes, all that I just wrote is a thing. The race started in 1986 and it took until 1995 for anyone to finish. Since then, there have only been 15 unique finishers (a "small handful" have attempted and finished multiple times). Most finishers had to attempt Barkley many years before being able to complete all five loops. One by one, as each person RTC's (Refuses To Continue) or DNF's (Did Not Finish... no option to continue), a bugler plays "Taps" for each fallen runner. There are countless blogs and articles written over the years as The Barkley's notoriety increases... rather, its infamy. So, if anything I just wrote intrigues you, I suggest you use Google after this interview because I have only scratched the surface. Before you go down that rabbit hole make sure to read this whole story because that hole is deep and dark and you will be there for a long while.
Cover photoshop job by Pat Ferrell
All other pics by James Whiteside
What was your preparation for this race?
MRW: My preparation was tons of vertical and lots of miles and as much downhill running as I could get in. I even took a map and compass class and spent lots of time talking to veterans. After running the race I feel like everything I did only scratched the surface of what you need to know to be successful. I think you really need to do the Barkley Marathons a few times to get a feel for what is necessary and that might put you in a position to finish if you can execute and not make too many mistakes.
How did it differ from other races?
MRW: The Barkley Marathons is different from other races because I believe at first it is extremely mental in that you need to learn the course, the lexicon, how to deal with set backs, adversity and once you have mastered that aspect of the race it is extremely physical, you must push the entire race, there is no opportunity to relax when you can run, you need to run if you want any chance of finishing. It is full on and you better be ready. It is also a lot longer than most races, you have to be willing to be "out there" for days.
What was your biggest concern going in?
MRW: I had so many concerns going in but some of my biggest concerns were navigation and that proved my downfall this time. I just wasn't able to quickly find the route and then the checkpoints. That was super unfortunate. I was also worried about:
1) lack of water
6) getting dropped
7) getting timed out
What went through your head when you heard the conch blow at 12:42am?
MRW: I was so stoked to hear the conch blow at 12:42am..I was super ready, I had slept and felt great. I was super ready and thought this is my day.
What was the start like at 1:42AM?
MRW: I love racing at night so I was really excited to start then and I thought it would be fun to run through the woods with everyone. The weather was chilly but not cold and there was a misty rain falling. The mood was excited and tense. My nerves were high and I was just so excited to see the gate. I was super nervous about how the watch that we were being given would feel and work and we only got it a few minutes before the start so I didn't have any time to learn what it is capable of so I just put it on and lined up. I said hi to a few people around me and just got as close to the starting line as I could. I was ready.
When did you form your alliance and with who?
MRW: I just went steady from the gun <but what Mike really means is "cigarette"> and wanted to stay with the group. I didn't want to be with John Kelly or Gary Robbins as I thought they would be too quick on the downhills and I was right so I stayed farther back on the first climb and just hung with Jamil and some others and it was great. We just chitchatted and enjoyed being together going on an adventure. I was in the first group to find the first book with a Henry and Jamil and it was amazing. I had dreamed about that moment for years and when it came true I really felt like no matter what the race would be a success. I then decided to just go for it and I followed Gary Robbins, Jamil and John Kelly down a huge decent to a river but by the time I got to the bottom they were gone and it was just a Frenchman named Remy and myself and we proceeded down a river the completely wrong way and lost about 1.5 hours and when we realized our mistake, we bumped into James from Scotland and Anne from Ohio and together the four of us proceeded to the 2nd book and stayed together for another 8 hours or so. It was super fun and cool and I enjoyed getting to share the day with them.
Was that your strategy all along or did you have a different plan?
MRW: No my strategy was to stay with a veteran for the first few laps and unfortunately that didn't work out which meant I had to figure things out with our team but that actually was pretty awesome and I think will help for the future.
What NATHAN pack did you use and what gear was in your pack?
MRW: I used a NATHAN prototype bag and it was probably bigger than I needed but as I didn't know what to except I thought it would be better to have too much capacity rather than less. If I can do the Barkley Marathons again, I would probably go with a tricked out VaporKrar 12L or something similar and if I made it to the 2nd loop I would have switched to the VaporKrar.
I also wore a NATHAN marathon belt with 2 pockets.
I had a ton of gear in my bag like
1) 2 x Petzl Nao Headlamps
2) 10 GUs
3) 3 Big Spoon Roasters Almond Ginger & honey sandwiches
4) 1.8 litter hydration bladder with water
5) 2 NATHAN ExoDraws
6) iPod shuffle (I didn't even use it)
11) Ziplock for book pages
14) Squirrel's Nut Butter
15) Rain Jacket
16) Rain Pants
17) Bivy Sack
18) Compressport Windbreaker
19) Hoka One One Trucker
20) GU waffles
What was the mood like at the camp after you finished and how did you feel?
MRW: By the time I got back to camp in about 15 hours there were quite a few people that had either timed out or had to return and I think the mood was still amped up and excited and Laz and company were very cool about everything. I loved the tradition of them playing taps after you can't continue and I enjoyed joking around with everyone. The mood was loose and congenial and just cool. I felt great physically. I was just bummed to not get to keep going but I understood and I didn't make the cut.
Are you going back?
MRW: I would love to go back if I can for sure.
With anything Barkley related, the more answers we get, the more questions we have. If this is the lot you find yourself in, comment with your questions and we will put together a follow up interview with Mike. Thanks for reading and enjoy that rabbit hole.