Mistakes Costly at the Barkley, Ultra-Running’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

I can’t speak for anyone else, but the Barkley Marathons 100 Mile Run sure reduced me to a coward in just over half a lap (12 mi in 08:30). This is a tough post, but if you write about the good events and the good races you’ve got to write about the bad ones, or utter failures. I haven’t thought about too much else since I tapped out 1/4 of the way up the Lookout Tower climb late Saturday at Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg, Tenn.

I’d like to say I had a bad day, but the truth of it is I made a lot of mistakes stretching back through training, race planning, significantly in race planning and strategy, and was just plain under-trained for what Barkley requires of its contestants. My new goal in life (among several) is to re-enter Barkley, get another chance to run (even though I don’t deserve it) and at least finish a lap and still have the physical ability and mental fortitude left to fight through at least starting another lap.

Barkley is that hard.

I had the best event I’ve ever run 60 days prior, recovered, certainly didn’t over train, but thought I was still in good shape, and am. But not Barkley shape.

The course has just about 12,000 feet of climbing and descending per 20-mile lap, and not gradual. This is the first race I’ve run since Escarpment Trail in 2007 where I had to physically climb in spots; steep up, steep down, everywhere. It’s hard to describe the intensity of the required effort even though you’re averaging less than 2 miles per hour. Huge sections are downhill or uphill through trail-less, open woods, so you have to be able to execute map-driven land navigation rapidly.

When I finally located the steep route up to Lookout and started up, I had 2 kilometers to climb from 1,700 to 3,200-3,300 feet. That was also the next water point; I’d been out of water for over an hour (back to planning and mistakes), and I was sure I was probably the furthest back of whoever was left on the course at that point. I had a shooting pain in my interior right thigh I’d never experienced before and was barely moving. I figured it would take me more than 2 hours to reach the tower, and if I made it, I could re-tool on water, rest a while, climb all the way back down, at which point it would be well after dark and I’d already fell back behind the 2 Barkley vets to the point I’d never catch up. I was left with a certainty that I’d be wandering around in the dark for hours until I managed somehow to come in well after the 1 lap/13:20 time limit. Or worse, I’d wander around in the dark all night. That might not have been inaccurate either, as the harder parts of the course were still ahead.

So, I wussed out, retraced my steps down the climb and regained the only main road on this edge of the course with the intent to run the roads some 12-14 miles back around the outside of the park to the camp. Got picked up by one of the film documentary team members filming the race after a couple of miles.

Reduced to and ultra-running novice in 10 miles. What a race. I learned so much at Barkley though, and found it to be a great ultra community within the ultra community. Based on the experience, I’m re-tooling my whole training plan targeted at a measured level of success at Barkley. I virtually have no chance of ever getting to a point where I can finish the 5 lap, 100 mile course in 60 hours. I want to finish 2 laps, though. It’s hard to fathom, but I firmly believe if you can complete two 20 mile laps at Barkley under the 26:40 time limit, never mind under 24 or 25 hours, you can finish any other 100 miler in the U.S. under your own command without significant issue.

Most ultras, especially 100s, are designed to be very very difficult but to provide the measured support that will enable runners to tough it out and make the finish line. But the Barkley race director is a rare breed of cat. The couple of races he directs are designed to test the limits of human physical and mental endurance rather than to provide the type of situation where you’ll probably be successful. Just three runners completed the Barkley 100 this year, and that’s a record. Since 1985, only 12 runners have completed the 100 and less than 100 others have completed the 3 lap/60 mile fun run.

L.L./ G.C. uses ultras to explore the limits of the human spirit in much the same manner that Joseph Conrad used the written word; Barkley is ultra-running’s Heart of Darkness.

It was a privilege to participate in this event (even though I got my -ss handed to me) and a true wake up call. Growing up, my heroes were all professional athletes. Now they’re mostly all soldiers, ultra runners, and any runner who’s had the guts to start lap 2 at Barkley.
Marietta, NY

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  • Michael Nicolaides

    OMG I did not know you entered Barkley. I am awed by that race. I only heard about it this year because I was running the Knoxville Marathon while you were not far from me at Barkley! My friend John Price, who ran 3000+ miles across the US and finished dozens of multi-day races, started the Barkley 3 times. He has yet to complete a loop.