The Barkley Marathons

Barkley belt buckle?

I find myself getting really sick of talking about the Barkley …then, I just keep talking about the Barkley”
— Carl Laniak

An Emotional Mess

Sometimes it sucks being an overly-expressive, emotional dude.

Emotions swing from extreme to extreme as I try to make heads or tails out of what I just experienced at my first attempt at The Barkley Marathons in the burly Tennessee mountains.

Did like it?

Did I hate it?

Was I properly trained? Prepared?

Does that even help…?

And when I touched that yellow gate 12 hours and 20 minutes after the start, why was I one hundred percent sure that one loop was enough?

How come I wasn’t sad? Dejected? Defeated?

Sitting here now, I still don’t have any answers to any of these questions – but one thing I know for sure is that there’s a group of kindred souls reading this that knows exactly where I’m at with this overwhelming feeling of wishing I was still out there, wishing I wasn’t still “out there.”

Barkley license plates
photo: sort of a display of dreamers.

A Legendary Event

For those who don’t already know, here’s a quick summary of the Barkley (from Matt Mahoney’s Barkley web site):

The Barkley is considered one of the toughest 100 mile races in the world. It has 52,900 feet of climb (and 52,900 feet of descent), more than any other 100 mile race – more than the 33,000 ft. of climb at Hardrock, and more than the 45,000 ft. at Nolan’s 14.

Since the race began in 1986, only 8 runners out of about 700 have finished within the 60 hour cutoff.

No aid, no support, no pacers, no crews, no GPS.

You’re on your own.

Runners can expect tremendous climbs, most of time without any kind of discernible trail, along ridges covered in sawbriers, some of which are a couple of inches long, with very poor footing – a recipe for “falling on razorblades.”

You must complete a first loop in 12 hours for a shot at the hundred, or 13 hours (13:20) for a shot at a 60-mile “fun run”.

Rumor was that this year was sure to be the most difficult since “Laz” (Gary Cantrell, race director) had some secret plans for making sure that runners hit a whole new level of suffering.

The day before the race, runners are given a couple of pages of vague directions, a map to copy (don’t make any mistakes), and all kinds of useless statistics that make the course seem manageable …but that are also complete lies.

There is no definitive start time. Runners must camp out the night before and wait for Laz to blow the conch shell. This can come as early as 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning or as late as …well, as late as he wants (right, 2009 runners?)

When you hear the conch blow, you get one hour to prepare your gear and get to the yellow gate ready to start your adventure.

The race begins when Laz lights up a cigarette, and takes that first long draw.

Two Words – Human Sacrifice

photo: Some of my favorite UltraList characters: Matt Mahoney, John Price and Sherpa

Friday afternoon I learned what I had already suspected since I received my Barkley invitation – I was the designated Human Sacrifice. There’s always one, and this year it was to be me.

I did my best to copy the master map, shook a lot of hands, posed for (and shot) lots of photos, and retreated to my sleeping bag to read the directions, study the map …and perhaps find Jesus.

I had been super confident for two months coming in to the event, but by lights out, I was petrified.

What if I don’t hear the conch blow?

What if I forget something?

Being a navigational idiot, what if I get lost?

Man, I didn’t sleep at all.

I just laid there, in the dark cold night, waiting for the damn conch to blow.

6:13 a.m. – Thar’ She Blows

At the start of the 2010 Barkley

Shivering my sleeping bag and staring aimlessly at the ceiling of my truck, I heard a faint, hollow sound.

“Is that the conch?”

I shot up and looked around but the windows were all fogged up.

“Am I just imagining it?”

I sat up, turned on the heat, defrosted the windows, and starting seeing headlamps scurrying around tents and vehicles.

“Oh sh*t, here we go!”

…and I started gathering everything together – packing my food, filling my water bladder, sorting my gear – I was so excited I was sure I was going to forget something important.

As I made my way to the gate, Sherpa John popped up and we headed to the starting gate together – two eager virgins, ready for a thorough deflowering.

…when you get to the top of each climb, remember that the next one is worse than the previous”
— Gary Cantrell, race director

Book 1 | Run while you can

The quote {above} from Gary that morning would ring through my head all day long.

The first climb to Bird Mountain is actually acceptable. This is your typical trail climb similar to something you might experience along the rugged Appalachian Trail, but it’s still 1500 feet of “strenuous” climbing so you’re sweating right off the bat. Many runners were shedding clothes as they charged up this first mountain.

Once you peak here, the directions send you down a very technical, washed-out and muddy ridge trail – but you can at least run.

I was happy to cut loose and found myself running with a very intense, seemingly focused runner whom I recognized as the legendary Barkley participant Mike Dobies, known as the “scrape-meister” due to his ability to “shed” virgins like summer dog fur.

We were both running a solid clip over some pretty treacherous terrain, and hanging with the guy had me passing quite a few people early on …almost all of whom came back and got me later.

At the base of the wild descent we ran into a bit of crowd, all eager to get the pages from book 1.

That’s all I needed to calm the nerves a bit – just getting to that first book.

Book 2 | Chasing a legend

The next series of climbs and descents sort of run together for me since I don’t understand Frozen Head all that well, but we remained on what Gary calls “candy-ass trail” along the north boundary of the park.

I continued to stay near Mike Dobies – not too close to annoy, but close enough to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes.

But this guy started blowing me up.

He’s so steady on the climbs. Not super fast, just much more consistent than me and I found myself fighting to keep up with him on those long switch-back climbing sections.

And on the descents he continued to open up space between us. The footing was pretty crazy, but this guy charged it like a frickin’ bull.

By the time we hit SOBD (“son of a bitch” ditch), I lost him – and found myself wandering around the “coal ponds” wondering where to go and feeling less-than-confident about my abilities to navigate this race without someone to follow.

Luckily, I chose the right direction and found myself at the base of the 800 foot climb up to Garden Spot.

Problem was, I could see Dobies who was now ahead of a small pack, and all them seemed to be on some kind of switch-back trail.

But I couldn’t find any switch-backs. In fact, I couldn’t find any trail at all – but there they were – waaay up the ridge now, getting further ahead of me while I stood at the bottom frantic because I was about to lose them all and I had no idea where to go.

So I just went straight up.

I grabbed a stick to use as a climbing pole, and started up the VERY steep grade, expecting to eventually cross the trails the other dude’s were on and get back on track — but I never found the trail.

I ended up bushwhacking the whole way up the pitch to the old jeep road.

Lucky for me Zane Smith had just grabbed his page and told me where the book was – but then he was gone.

Cool, book two done, but now I’m all alone.

Book 3 | A navigational idiot

I tried to understand Laz’s directions from here but none of it made sense to me.

Because I’m an idiot, I missed the first water drop, and later found myself at an intersection of old jeep roads, some kind of trail to my right, and some kind of not-so-much trail to my left.

One of the European runners caught up to me while I floundered there and we argued a bit about the right direction to take. He thought we should take the “not-so-much” trail up the ridge to the south, and I thought we should stay on the old jeep road which started to descend (which by the way was also “to the south”).

He went with me, but we quickly realized I was stupid, and we cut left and climbed the pitch to the top of Stallion Mountain.

Two detours in a row, both being a bit more challenging than was necessary, but both of which eventually got me to where I needed to be.

Laz’s directions read something like, “you will see a tree with three trunks, and directly behind it is a tree with four trunks and a flat rock at the base…”

and I’m thinking “cool, cool, I see it” and kept reading…

“…that’s where the book was last year – it’s no longer here.”

{sigh} Good ol’ Laz…

But I was finally able to decipher Laz’s directional silliness and found myself on a beautiful bluff with incredible views, tearing out my page from book 3.

Book 4 | Now it gets crazy

By this point, I was pretty sure I was out of my league on the navigation side and committed to finding and staying with veterans who knew a majority of the course.

Just then, Frozen Ed Furtaw, author of “Tales From Out There”, a must read for any Barkley affection-ado or hopeful participant, came running up with New Hampshire’s Sherpa John Lacroix and a couple more Barkley veterans, Chip Tuthill and Steve Durbin.

Hell yes!

I hung in this foursome through the crazy sections of Stallion Mountain (and I think Fyke’s Peak).

Honestly, most of this race, I had no idea where I was at all. I just followed people and hoped they knew what they were doing.

One thing was for sure though, without this pack o’ dudes, I would have had ZERO chance of completing a loop. I had no clue where I was, no idea how to figure it out, and I was so panicked so as to not lose them, I never pulled out my directions from Stallion Mountain until loop completion.

Blind trust and faith.

This is when the Barkley starts to get really challenging – We were now descending INSANE pitches with thick briers, gnarly cliff-type drop-offs, hidden rocks, slippery slopes, slapping branches of thorns… you know – the real Barkley stuff.

Barkley chaos at Stallion Mountain
photo: Ed Furtaw and I look for a way down amongst all the blow-down and massive thorns. This is straight down, literally, and total chaotic mayhem.

How these guys were able to navigate us through here still amazes me.

It was all a blur – just frantic downhill running, through non-existent trails, across some streams, more climbing …and before I knew what was happening, Frozen Ed sits down and starts pulling pages out of book 4.

Cool, we’re at book 4…

No wait, DAMN! …we’re at book 4. …the base of Testicle Spectacle.

Book 5 | Let the beatdown begin


Testicle Spectacle.

In my opinion, the first of the true beatdown climbs.

Everything to this point had been somewhat tolerable and I hadn’t really entered any kind of pain zone yet.

Yea, the thorns had torn me up already, and the steep descents were wild and hairy, but I had yet to get my ass kicked – until now.

Testicle Spectacle is a powerline climb. It starts as a significant climb, but by the time you get 3/4 of the way up, it becomes a wall – a rather short but slick wall with terrible footing, lovely thorns, and…man, it’s just hard.

I kept thinking about what Laz said to me two minutes before the start, “remember Christian, each significant climb is worse than the last one.”

And this was only the first killer one I’ve hit? Oh man…

After topping out at Testicle, the trail crosses a jeep road and then drops a looooong way down the other side of the powerline cut on some scree-like terrain that put me on my butt at least 5 times.

Somehow we lost Sherpa John, and Julian Jamison fired off ahead, but I stayed tight with Chip and Steve because they had run the Barkley numerous times before. I followed them down the butt-slide and back into the woods where we eventually found the 5th book in a tree next to Raw Dog Falls.

Book 6 | Caught in the jaws of a rat

I stopped here to fill my water bladder since I missed the water stop hours back and thought for sure Steve and Chip were gonna scrape me and I’d be alone again, sure to get lost …but they didn’t. I don’t know if it was on purpose or not, but I was thankful that they waited for me to fill my bladder pack and stumble up behind ’em.

I then officially introduced myself to my new running compadres and off we went around Danger Dave’s climbing wall and up some ridiculously steep pitch to the road crossing.

Steve pretty much sensed I never had a clue where I was, so he’d bark out announcements to me when we hit landmark spots in the course.

We crossed the road and began a nasty, nasty climb with horrible footing, called Pig Head Trail. There’s a pig skull mounted on a stick at the entrance of the trail but I must have missed it because I was falling down the whole time.

This climb was kicking our butts. They call it a trail, but I never saw a trail – we just went straight up the wedge between two mountains – resting every 20-30 steps.

We caught up to Zane and Julian again, and as a group we pushed up this incredible, trail-less, straight-up-the-gut mountain crawl.

I don’t know the elevation of this climb, but it was harder than Testicle (of course, because they all get harder, right?) and the footing was the worse I’d seen yet.

YET is the key word here.

But after the brutal climb up the Pig Head (no)Trail, we were blessed with about 1/4 mile of easy sloped jeep road and Steve and I got a chance to talk as he inquired how I met Gary (Laz) and what I thought of the race so far. He told me stories of the prison, and its association to all the mine ruins we came upon as we traveled this old overgrown mining road.

It was actually pleasant – but only for about a minute and a half – because, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves at the base of Rat Jaw.

Rat Jaw sucks.

And I loved it.

Why is it that I love that which sucks the life out of me?

Every possible horrendous challenge you can think of climbing a steep-pitched mountain slope, you’ll find on Rat Jaw.

Rat Jaw has the largest, thickest bed of thorns I have ever seen in my life. I wouldn’t be surprised if Laz planted extra ‘crops’ over the years somehow.

The first half of the climb is so steep, runners fall as far as they ascend. 10 foot up, 5 feet back, 12 feet up, 10 foot back.

Climb, fall, climb, fall. Stop. Rest. Cuss. Climb. Fall. Tear the skin. Yell. Climb. Fall.

You get the idea.

It’s long, tough, and everyone I saw going up this climb, and again coming back down, all looked like death.

This is where Matt Kirk introduced himself to me and that was cool because I read everything this guy does. He’s an incredible mountain athlete and getting to meet him face-to-face was a treat for a running nerd like me.

But anyway, somehow, I eventually made it to the top. (and immediately collapsed)

I’m not sure, but it might be the highest point in the park. I sat down, ate a sandwich from my pack, filled up my bottles, grabbed my page from book 6, and prepared myself to go back from which I just came.

Local Georgia runner, Jason Barringer was there taking some pictures and was encouraging me and laughing at me all at the same time. To people who really know what your going through, there’s great comedy in this event – and especially at the top of Rat Jaw.

Book 7 | Running to a prison just doesn’t seem right

Last year, the Barkley runners got a bit of a reprieve where they could run down a jeep road after ascending Rat Jaw.

Not us.

This year, Laz took runners right back down Rat Jaw – waaaay down – all the way down to the prison.

Like an idiot, I left the top of Rat Jaw alone instead of waiting for Steve. As I descended, eating my sandwich and living in mental la-la land, I somehow missed a turn where the descent took a sharp right.

I looked up and could no longer find “power lines”

“Oh sh*t!”

Far off in the distance, I could see the power lines perpendicular from me.

“No problem, I’ll just cut back and reconnect”

Yea, right.

This was the sketchiest part of the race for me and I was all alone. See, it wasn’t just as easy as “cutting back”. The slope was hella’steep, loose leaf-covered and slippery.

One wrong move as I crawled horizontally and I could end up sliding down, with nothing to stop me nor grab on to, tumbling right over a 100 foot drop-off.

Halfway across, I got spooked, but I was stuck – if I tried to go back, I might fall going back – but if I kept going forward, I still might fall as it just continued to get steeper and steeper to my left.

I was stranded.

But I figured if I have two chances to fall over the drop-off, I might as well move in the right direction rather than the opposite direction, so that’s what I did.

I made it to an area of less concern – phew!– and not a moment too soon – because off in the distance, waaaay down Rat Jaw, I saw Steve Durbin again and he had hooked up with someone else. (Dave Henn)

I took off, practically killing myself on the final descent, just to catch up with those dudes.

I caught ’em halfway down, and the three of us (with me following way behind) descended all the way to the bottom of (uber) Rat Jaw – down to the abandoned Brushy Mountain Prison.

The prison was cool – perhaps the coolest section of the entire race.

Brushy Mountain Prison

This is the old prison that once housed James Earl Ray, killer of Martin Luther King, and escapee who’s escape effort became the inspiration for this entire event.

As part of the course, we had to drop down into this old tunnel that ran underneath the prison. The floor of the old stone tunnel was full of ankle-deep, ice cold water that stung the hell out of all my thorn-induced leg lacerations.

It was creepy and cool all at the same time. I felt like I was in a sort of horror flick.

Being that I remember Gary (Laz) telling me in an email that I’d “enjoy part of the tunnel with all my CrossFit stuff”, I decided to do it justice and crawl out of the tunnel through the 8 foot gap in the top rather than take the easier walk out the other end. This was pretty cool, and once I got out I found myself face-to-face with two prison guards.

Apparently, they have guards guarding an empty prison.

The guards were cool though as they pointed out Book 7 and told us a bunch of James Earl Ray stories. These were some good ol’ boy Tennesseans and I found them very comical.

One said to us, “Hell, I liked ol’ Ray – he was good ol’ fellar”

Then he says, “He didn’t do nutin’ none of us ain’t never done before…”


Didn’t he kill someone?

Anyway, we couldn’t stay and chat, we had “The Very Bad Thing” to climb – so we grabbed our pages and hesitantly headed towards the next ridiculous climb..

Gary has really outdone himself this year.”
— ‘Danger Dave’ Henn

Book 8 | The very bad thing is …very bad

This one killed me.


This is the climb – the climb to Indian Knob – that crushed me to pieces. 1700 foot climb in less than one mile. According to Matt Mahoney, the climb has a 36% average grade, but I think it was more like 60%. I don’t believe ANY of the statistics. I know better.

It took us about 1:20 to conquer this climb and it had every one of us visibly falling apart all over the mountain.

More than once I laid in the fetal position on the trail, using my climbing stick as a pillow, and begged for it to stop.

Sherpa John hit the top first, and the three of us (Steve, Danger Dave and myself) crested soon thereafter. We all took a moment to grab a page from book 8, collect ourselves, and eat a little before heading down the incredible 1600 foot descent (over only .7 of a mile) of Zip Line.

Book 9 | The Danger Dave caravan

More butt-busting, thick thorns, and continued abuse…

but again, I loved it.

Zip line was a rush. We moved fast down this descent, but really didn’t have much of a choice since it was incredibly steep.

As usual no trail at all.


I was amazed how well Danger Dave knew this course.

Had I been alone, who knows where I’d have ended up.

He guided us PERFECTLY to where we needed to be – and once we hit the streams, we saw Julian J. sitting at book 9.

Julian hurried off before we got to the book, and the four of us sat down to grab our pages and refuel for the final major climbing challenge – the infamous Big Hell.

Book 10 | Light at the end of the tunnel

I was actually ok at this point because I knew my destiny was fulfilled at one loop. At the end of the story I’ll explain more about how I came to this realization, but just knowing that this was the last of the beatdown climbs was very encouraging for me.

But it’s very hard.

It’s only about 100 foot less climb than “The Very Bad Thing”, and has some pitches that are ridiculously steep, and depending on where you go up, requires a bit of rock crawling.

We rested the first 500 feet, then the next 200, then the next 200 – then one more time – before finally making that last push to the top of Big Hell, a spot called Chimney Top.


The 10th and final book.

Christian at Barkley Book 10
photo: putting away my 10th book page!

We all had a mini celebration and I snapped a photo for Sherpa John as he tore out his tenth page.

The rest of the course was about (4?) miles of “candy-ass trail” back to camp.

…and Sherpa John and I ran the whole way back. I felt great to actually “run” after all that crazy trail-less climbing, bushwack descending, and sawbrier navigating.

The Yellow Gate

Running up the camp road, a few people starting cheering and yelling and I felt so happy to be back.

12:20 for loop one – giving me one hour to make a decision to go back out.

Laz had a grin a mile wide and I knew, that he knew, that I was a much more humbled man than I was twelve hours before.

He asked, “are you going back out?”

To which I replied, “there is no way in Hell I’m going back out there.”

People tried to push me to go, but I was done.

I was wiped out, but even if I had found the rest and energy to go after a second loop, I did not have the navigation skills to get it done on my own. It’s a 100% guarantee that I would have gotten lost.

The only times I found myself alone, I got lost, and at spots that aren’t really known for being confusing.

Stallion Mountain in the dark, alone? No way.

“The Very Bad Thing” again?” Nope.

If I finished a loop, I’d feel some semblance of success – If I found myself hopelessly lost all night on loop two, not so much.

I was smiling.

I was proud.


After 60 hours, the 2010 Barkley ended sorta like this: (according to the Barkley web site)

  • 6 runners quit before completing a loop
  • 7 finished a loop past the cut-off of 13 hours and 20 minutes
  • 16 runners completed one official loop
  • 7 finished an official loop two
  • 3 three-loop fun run finishers
  • 1 Barkley 100-mile finisher – (way to go JB!) – in 59:18

My approach to this sport will never be the same

Life after Barkley is vanilla.

I sat around and thought and thought about the best way to sum up my experience …and this report – but nothing I can think of is as succinct and complete as an email I got from a fellow participant – and one of my favorite athletes in the sport – just days after the event.

It went like this:

…and now you know the real deal…the hype isn’t hype and the very bad thing is indeed very bad. There is no way to do Barkley justice with words, people just think one is exaggerating…but those who have done at least a loop know the extremity of doing another with each additional loop exponentially harder than the previous.

I look forward to your report, but most will still not completely comprehend. But now you know…now you will have that look in your eye when someone complains about some 50K being tough…thinking to yourself “tough, hmmp, I haven’t seen a hill since I left Frozen Head…”. There is tough and there is Barkley tough. I hope to see you “out there” again next year.

Everything now just becomes training for the Barkley.

I will continue to do races because I love running challenging events across a wide variety of terrains and distances – but the Barkley will now forever be a focus. Something that will gnaw at me and pester me until I obtain the strength, skill, talent, perseverance, toughness, hard-headedness, and flat-out “balls” to get it done.

Every time someone finishes it, it’s going to get harder.

Someday maybe impossible.

…but every year, you can bet the house that at least 35 brave souls will be standing at that yellow gate, sure that this is their year, and that the impossible will become possible for them.

Like a hundred others, I’m already planning my strategy for a return.