Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Tearing a Page from the Book of Ultra-Running History - The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats its Young

by Drew Martin
What do these books have in common?...The Valley of Death, Almost Home, The Body in the Woods, Fool, The End, A Week in the Woods, Damned, The Idiot, and Human Zoo.
Nothing stylistically but their titles are part of the quirky spirit of one of the most off-the-beaten-paths ultra-running races, the Barkley Marathons, which has no website, no publicly available information, requires an entrance exam, plus a $1.60 entrance fee (such events can exceed $500).

First-time runners are required to sacrifice a license plate of where they are from (the collection even includes one from Antarctica), and all runners must bring whatever the race-organizer, Lazarus Lake, needs that year. One year it was white-T-shirts, another year socks, and another year flannel shirts.

There is a race day chosen in the spring but there is no official start time; could be early morning or late at night, so the runners are delighted when they hear Lake blow a conch shell because it means they have one hour to start, which officially begins with his lighting a cigarette (he smokes a lot).

Barkley Marathons is named after an old farmer friend of Lake and it was dreamed up after the 1977 jailbreak of James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin) and other inmates from Brushy Mountain State 
Penitentiary in Tennessee. It was said that one might be able to escape the prison but that you could never escape the woods.

Ray was captured within eight miles of the facility. At the time Lake and his other trail-running friends – some of the first of to inspire the current movement, found that distance laughable and said they could get at least 100 miles out. The course has grown to 130-ish miles with a time cap of 60 hours, which is covered with five loops that are one-third trail running, and two-thirds trail-blazing.

The loops are run twice clockwise, twice counterclockwise, and if there are more than one person who make it to the final fifth loop, they are split up to compete in opposite directions. “If” because in the 25 years prior to the documentary only 10 people had finished it. For this reason it is considered the hardest ultramarathons in the world.

Despite the hundreds of applicants who somehow hear about the race and actually apply, only 40 are accepted. Even though people would pay hundreds of dollars to have the chance to compete, the $1.60 entrance never changes to ensure a cast of characters, which seemed to include a number of male graduate students of the sciences – possibly because while long-distance running is a real thinking sport, ultra-running requires a certain level of analytics to endure the physical and mental challenges.

GPS devices are not allowed so the runners have to find their way with printed maps and compasses. In order to check that the runners are roughly sticking to the course, 11 books are distributed as checkpoints. The competitors are given race numbers for each lap and must tear the page from the book that corresponds to their number. At the end of each lap the pages are counted while the runners recharge with food and drink, and tend to their wounds: cracked feet, blistered heels, brier-thrashed calves, and other aches and pains. Returning to the camp is also where many runners give up, which is followed by the playing of taps, as if they died. It is better to give up at the camp because giving up halfway out might require a ten-hour walk just to get back.

While the odds of completing the entire race are against the majority of the runners (some years nobody finishes) many come for the “fun run” a term typically tagged to the kids’ mile run, often held at local 5K events, but here translates as three-loops, about three marathons through the various areas named for their grueling features including Pillars of Doom, Checkmate Hill, Son of a Bitch Ditch, and Testicle Spectacle.

The humor of these names (like the titles of the books that change each year to taunt the runner in some way) is introduced from the start of the documentary. In an early scene, the off-camera interviewer sees the fuel gauge on E and asks Lake, who is driving the old truck, about their fuel status. He explains:

"E" means excellent and "F" means you are fucked.