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Barkley, « the toughest race in the world, » What’s that?

The Barkley is a foot race of 100 miles (theoretically) and 20,000 meters of positive elevation change, which must be finished in less than 60 hours. It takes place every year in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, USA.

The theoretical 100 miles are actually about 200 km in the field, and the aim is to achieve 5 passes around the same 20 mile circuit, each in less than 12 hours in one direction, then by night, then in the other direction, then by night, etc …

The origin of this race was born after the spectacular escape of James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, from the Brushy Mountain Prison in the Frozen Head Park border. James Earl Ray covered just 13 kilometers before being caught nearly 60 hours later. A local ultra-runner, Gary Cantrell, joked with a friend that they would have done at least 100 miles during those 60 hours. The idea of the race was born, and the Barkley Ultra still takes place today; even including the tunnel under the Brushy Mountains prison, the same place of the escape.

Among many other quirks, the start time is revealed only one hour before the actual race starts, the d-day occurs when Laz (Lazarus Lake, Gary Cantrell’s nickname) blows into a conch (large shell), the race begins when Laz lights his cigarette. The route is not marked, half of the course is off-road on steep slopes and more or less over-run with vegetation, the map is revealed only the day before in the late afternoon. We must find a dozen books on the route, and snatch a page from these books which matches our bib number to justify our passage.

40 runners are annually chosen by a complicated and secret process. Laz, the famous bearded man who lights the cigarette, organizes this race alone. The two faithful friends whom merely watch over the stewardship that consists of cooking grilled chicken and red beans for the runners, and playing the bugle song of death « tap » for the newcomers who failed in the quest of the five towers.

It’s extremely difficult physically with its outsized route, with all the psychological pitfalls that Laz incorporates before and during the race, over a thousand runners tried their luck before this 31st edition, with only 14 finishers, barely just 1% of all competitors; which gives Barkley the reputation of being the hardest race in the world.

For this edition in April 2016, I was lucky that my candidacy had been approved by Laz for this legendary race along with four other French runners, Rémy JEGARD, Dominique ECOIFFIER, Fabien DUFLOS and Eric LEMUR. I shared this adventure with Karyne « Yogathletic » for assistance and social networks, Alexandre Gilles from the “Raidlight Team Réunion” for video, Erik Sempers and Eliane Patriarca for photo reports for VSD and Jogging-International. A beautiful adventure shared with hundreds of followers on Facebook (thank you for the encouragement!), with my great team (thank you for putting up with me!), with the other racers, the “Barkley brotherhood”, and our famous Laz.

Here is MY Barkley J

Let’s get straight to the point: the race was indeed extremely difficult and physically demanding!

I had no doubt that I needed to be truly prepared for this adventure; however, we must experience it to truly see it, believe and understand it. The terrain is consistently tiring with its mixture of the brutality of the slopes, along with permanent grinding of the muscles caused by soft ground, dead leaves, fallen trees, brambles, rocks … It is possible to run, and it is imperative if you want to complete on time that you do.

The navigation itself is not that difficult. “This is just navigation” as Laz says, and he’s right. But outside of marked trails, the map is just « green », no mention of all the old roads for mines, no mention of the cliffs, so you always have to make a detour to overcome them, and of course, no mention of the particular vegetation there. Overall, it’s easy to find your way, but the difficult elements in the field are always a cause for drifting from your line. After x hours, and even more at night, do not lose your line for more than five minutes, otherwise it’s fifteen or twenty minutes lost to get back on track …

Among other difficulties, there is the one of finding the books; with the definition sometimes a bit esoteric (we’re often looking for a tree in the forest J). This year the weather was very mild but the water in the cans at the supplying point was still frozen on the surface, and for us French, English language always adds a little extra hurdle especially with Laz’s puns and the third degrees.

All this explains why that just after half-loop, I was already exhausted.

This adventure started at 10:42am, at the first puff Laz has of a cigarette. My bib number is 19 for the first round, the Corrèze department number, a good sign. The first ascent is in an average pace, we are a dozen following the King, Jared, three times finisher. I put in a small boost of acceleration to get the chance to be the first one to take my 1st page of the book with the leading group, then I let the first ones go ahead from the first descent. After finding book 2 the group dispersed in the forest, and the solo race began. Ten minutes were lost finding Book 3. The second group of runners arrived. I was just ten meters from it; but had to completely lift a rock to find the book. I thought that they would always be apparent, especially in a location where there were a dozen or more larger rocks…..no. This is the Barkley J!

My navigation continues well, I take my time physically, but even so the exhaustion builds up, and it goes up and it goes down … then comes the famous ascent of « Rat Jaw, » named because of a carpet of thorns that line the straight route, where the old mining cables ran to tow carts up … When the slope is less steep, you fight the brambles clinging to your legs, arms or even your head. This is the Barkley J! A switchback to return to the watchtower, then a great descent to the bottom of Rat Jaw, to enter the prison. Following a passage of two hundred meters into the tunnel below through which the river flows results in very soaked feet. Again a surreal moment, and a book is found here with the evocative title: « What did I do wrong! » Barkley humour J

Next followed the final two climbs of the loop, « The Hell », right in the steepest parts of the deciduous forest, « only » 400 vertical meters for each, however, they feel like an eternity. The slope is never dangerous, but it varies between steep and very acute. It made me remember a few corridors in mountaineering, I was sure that here the slopes are sometimes 50 °. The descent ground is awful, there are always leaves, steepness and also a lot of rocks that can twist ankles and wetness under the leaves which immediately makes you « slide on your backside » … I managed quite well on the last ascent, 700 meters /1 hour of climbing. But no less, this is the pace needed: a simple calculation of the height difference report / distance, shows that we must do on average 600m / h for ascent and descent for 60 hours …

The first loop was completed and not so bad time wise; I got to the yellow barrier just before night fall, 9:36pm. The Raidlight gear is perfect, a pure delight. The orienteering mini-gaiters, the formidable grip of the RL004 on any terrain, and the prototype of the 20 litre Responsiv Lazerdry backpack. We put so much passion into product development in the workshop of Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse…….it is fantastic to reap the benefits of these shared passions.

35 minutes spent at the supplying place, eating two freeze-dried meals, drinking almost two liters, changing, joking a little bit, I really needed to rest but then I had to repack my bag for the second loop. My folding 5 USD chair is very comfortable……., but alas I must already start. Actually, it’s been ten hours and fifteen minutes, and the time advantage of the watershed after the first loop of the day is dwindling …

Laz gives me my bib for the second loop, 95. It is now very dark, and I turn on the Petzl Ultra, a big powerful lighthouse. The first climb is tough: you leave the warmth and civilization for the cold night, and with a full stomach, making an effort is difficult. However, and this happened several times, I am surprised how quickly I arrive at the top of the slope, although I then spend time searching.

First book, easy, inevitable, and yet … I lose 25 minutes gardening!! I was just ten meters from it, but the night enveloped everything and what is obvious during the day is not so obviously in the dark. I go too far down the cliffs. So it’s back up the slope in the “jungle”; my compass gets damaged and I lose the bevel, it becomes un-useable.  I retrace ten meters back, but given the undergrowth, I am unable to find it. I take my spare compass that I have in the backpack and resume. Book 2 was ok, but the next climb was very difficult, very steep.

I see the time running out, and I am walking … where I spent 2 hours in the first round, I spend 3:30, this time! Obviously at the beginning of the race I was much faster in the 1st round, as is normal, but my mistake in finding Book 1, and traversing the terrain at night had allowed time to slip. In many places during the day you can toddle along, but at night you can barely anticipate terrain and navigation points, therefore you walk. Slowly, book by book, fortunately we did it the day before …

I fail in finding the book, below Buttslide, the slope of death, again I must have gone just next to it. Only twenty minutes lost but five downhill means fifteen to go back up… The exit of the Stallion Mountain proves to be even more epic. I zigzagged all the way down from impassable cliffs all around, following peaks and unmarked tracks on the map that lead me each time in the wrong direction. The progressive muscular exhaustion is certainly a factor in this decision too, I was trying to avoid direct and steep slopes, searching for a better terrain.

Look, a rabbit sitting nicely beside me. I am staring at it to see if it’s true, but I think I saw a rabbit, a real one…… An uncertainty about one of my three basics senses makes me realize that it is unlikely I would be finishing this loop in less than the required 24 hr cut off, even though I am losing less time now, it doesn’t spur me on or motivate me … But anyway, this second loop, I will complete.

Finally, I arrive at the bottom of Stallion Mountain to cross the New River, salvation! It flows from right to left, normally, as I saw on the first round. At least it normally does… because the river before me this time is flowing from left to right! It is five in the morning, I sit down, have a drink, eat a Mars, and look at my map … After several perfectly improbable assumptions, I finally understand that I descended the last slope at right angles, and I am at the other river, on the left. No problem, just two kilometers more to do … This is the Barkley J

The road crossed, I decide a small break is needed. It is very cold; I will later see some icicles on rocks. Unfortunately, I forgot my jacket between the two rounds. I know exactly where it is, right in front of my chair at 5USD, twenty-five kilometers away. I even sleep for five minutes but am awakened by the cold. I see that despite these “little adventures” I was still not doing so badly; the group with which I have been playing “ping pong” with since book 1 has only just passed: so with everything accumulated, I conclude my fate has been no worse than others … that is though until I redo a beautiful mistake two books later, another book which was so easy to find during the day…

The sun rises with me on Rat Jaw. I definitely have lost hope of finishing within the 24 hours watershed. At night, the distances lengthen, and time shortens… (Leaders will need 11 hours for that night loop, against 8 for the first day- a 38% increase in time).

From the tower on the top, the camp is only in three kilometers if you take « quitters road. » It’s tempting, but I do not take it, I would do my two loops, even worn out demotivated to be out of time. I re-engage in Rat Jaw on the downhill side, the water under the prison is colder in the morning, and there are the two famous walls of hell left.

I walk very slowly, just to finish « peacefully ». Needless to say how hard and long it is, and the number of steps it takes to climb. But yet at no time did I curse Laz. Quite the contrary. He promised us the hardest race in the world, we had it for our 1,60USD, and if it were easy it would be disappointed. I’m thinking of those other thousand « Barkers » who went here, and went home after 1 or 2 loops, as do 90% of participants. Seen from the sofa this statistic seems incomprehensible, misconstrued or even fictitious.  From here I understand better: I’m now part of them. This is the Barkley J.

As I continue with my peaceful final moments of the second loop, I meet the lead runners starting on their 3rd round in the opposite direction, to the prison. And at the end of the last descent, around the 26th hour, I meet again some of the last few runners starting their third loop. Yet it is only an hour from the camp, so why could they leave after 24 hours? I asked Jennylin whom I met coming towards me, and on the fly she said « twenty six hour forty » …

… The time barrier was not 24:00 but 26h40! Let me explain … The Barkley is 5 rounds, 5 rounds of 12 hours, so 60 hours. So I selected the time barriers 12h, 24h, 36h, 48h, 60h. Mathematical. But inside the Barkley, there is the « Fun Run », that is to say, finish 3 loops « only », the « easy » race for which Laz allows 40 hours instead of 36 hours, as Laz said, « so that women and children are happy to participate. » Therefore, the time barriers at the end of the loop 1 are 13:20 and 26h40 for Loop 2 and 40h00 for loop 3 (even passing at 40 hours, there is no chance of to 48 hours at the end of the loop 4 …).

F***, if I had known … If I had known, I could have forgone the half hour that I took earlier, for sure! Why did I not know, or rather not remember this rule that I read? Firstly, for the Barkley, there is no website, and no regulations written for reference. There are rules, immutable and intransigent, that Laz knows, and we know through experience and word of mouth. Word of mouth is a particular mailing list, where all the Barkers and the contenders sign up. More than 1,500 messages exchanged since November, anecdotes, third degree, everyone’s life, a lot of jokes to add pressure, etc … It is also the official information channel of Laz, whom distills from time to time vital any information amid thousands of messages … And that message with the time barriers, yes I read … of course I did not read before the race, as one might read a settlement, or a website. After a step back, I also believe that I did not retain this rule because I was too presumptuous. Honestly, though, I would have been at the limit of the watershed at the end of the second loop, ha, ha, ha…should haves…could haves…it does not concern me…! And anyway… It’s Barkley J.

So I finished “quietly” after “only 2” loops, with my ruined thighs, but with my 13 pages in my pocket, after 27 hours of effort, exhausted after 80 kilometers with 8000 vertical meters! Yes, “only 2”, LOL.

Here I am like many others, with a failure, and « tap » the bugle being played. But I am happy, very happy to have had a taste of the famous Barkley, seeing myself tackling its difficulty, for sharing this adventure with the family of Barkers; especially with Laz.

Laz, gruff, bearded, with a cap and always ready with an uncompromising joke. « You did 2 laps and found 13 pages, but you’re late, keep your pages I will not count them, it does not count » … And yes … It’s the Barkley J.

But do not think that it is vexatious as the fact that the first pages are vulgarly set on fire after the first loop, as if all the effort you put in was worthless. We came for « the toughest race in the world », and it is, in all areas, particularly psychological. Laz is the one we need intransigent about the rules, and always in the second degree, and we know that. Is it serious to commit to the Barkley, no, it is not serious, we’re here to have fun and seek our own limits.

And for Laz, the Barkley is the quest of the limit of human endurance, which he evaluates and pushes. I was lucky to go to his place and spent a night a few days before the race. Behind Laz « The big bearded man who limps and smokes » there is Gary Cantrell, the running enthusiast, who shares his life with his wife and three children, who ran dozens of races, 50 miles, 500 miles, a 500 kilometers that crossed the Tennessee …

While eating a great burger, I noticed a few race bibs with still hanging on the fridge, running baubles hang from here and there, in the room for passing runners, the quilt is made of a patchwork from old race T-shirt’s that Gary has done over the last forty years. The duvet is patch worked well on both sides, and there are 3 duvets as … Three double sided quilts! A novel standard for measuring the number of kilometers this avid runner has been able to do…

The Barkley, the escape of James Earl Ray, the challenge of running 100 miles in the forest, everything fits … The race has always kept its promises: nobody has managed to finish the challenge in the first three editions … And since then, every time the runners managed to finish he made it a bit more difficult, a little longer, a little elevation gain again, etc … today’s race is certainly twice the first edition, and 50% or more than fifteen years ago. But as the practice of running has also evolved, so has the psychology. Mentally there is always one more small steps to cross each time, as is the case in the evolution of all the world records. The Barkley, as is for Laz, is for us all, a human adventure to the borders of our limitations.

And so Laz manages his race with passion, humanity, and complicity with the runners. He does not manage 40 bib numbers, but 40 runners he knows by their first name, their history, and he welcomes personally to share everyone’s story on this race during 60 hours. That’s the Barkley J.

In the end, this year only one runner managed to complete the 5 loops, Jared Campbell, who managed this performance for the third time, but with only less than half an hour of remaining time. Congrats, exceptional. Garry Robbins managed to do four loops with Jared, before losing two and a half hours in the fifth on a not so difficult book, in the day time, which he had passed four times. But after fifty hours, anything can happen … John Kelly also gave up on the 5th loop, exhausted, who unfortunately lost 1 hour on the first loop, even when he grew up near to the course in Joyner, Tennessee. Only three runners finished the Fun Run (« the race for women and children”J) in time. All the French competitors made 1 loop, and honestly that’s not so bad! Nicky Rehn, a New Zealander, who has completed the Tor des Geant four times managed to do a loop and a half of the Barkley. This is the Barkley J.

Overall I am extremely satisfied with this experience. 90% of the satisfaction was made from pushing myself to be eaten alive after « only » two rounds, despite all the passion with which I prepared and researched about this “Barkley”. And then 10% frustration; but it is that which will give me the drive to apply for a second chance …

I gave myself a 50% chance to do 3 loops, and I had the presumptuousness to give myself a 5% to 10% chance of making 5, I did only 2. But even if I managed to go for the 3rd one, I could not have finished the 3 loops in 40 hours, no other runners of my « group » did. Only the first 3 finished the Fun Run! This is the usual ratio, it is Barkley J.

The Fun Run will be my goal next time and with my experience, that seems possible. As for the 5 rounds, certainly the motto this year was « The Barkley Marathons, Where the Dreams go to die, » but I’ll keep a shining star deep in my head, and believe in the 1% chance of getting there, going by the statistics of all runners of this famous “toughest race in the world” this is not a joke, it’s true, it’s Barkley J

How to finish this story without one last joke by Laz … We all think that the next edition will by default be harder as Jared put the bar a little higher. … But no, Laz will tell you that « next time will be even easier, because there will be a few more descents! ».

Thank you Laz J.


#Raidlight , #BARKLEY100

Pictures Erik SEMPERS and Karyne NGUYEN, videos Alexandre GILLES and Benoit LAVAL


Barkley Marathons Official Results



Loop 1  :

1           Jared Campbell               UT         8:01:18

2           Gary Robbins                  NWF     8:01:19

3           Adam Lint                       WA       8:01:23

4           Andrew Thompson         NH        8:14:44

5           John Kelly                        MD       8:58:16

6           John Fegyveresi                            VT         9:15:16

7           Benoit Laval                    FRA       9:36:13

8           Jason Poole                     CO        10:02:12

9           Erik Storheim                  UT         10:10:17

10         Ty Draney                        WY        10:10:18

11         Michiel Panhuysen         NED      10:20:07

12         Dale Holdaway               BRA      10:20:15

13         Georg Kunzfeld               GER       10:48:04

14         Dominique Ecoiffier       NCL       10:48:40

15         Ed Thomas                      SD         10:49:05

16         Nikolay Nachev               WA       10:55:20

17         Mikael Andersson           SWE      11:14:59

18         Jennilynn Eaton              UT         11:19:39

19         Heather Anderson          WA       11:24:02

20         Conrado Bermudez        NJ         11:33:37

21         Rebecca Wilcox              AUS      11:33:38

22         Niki Rehn                        NZL       11:37:36

23         Kirby Russell                   TN         11:37:38

24         Hiram Rogers                  TN         11:46:55

25         Remy Jegard                   FRA       11:46:56

26         Iso Yucra                         BOL       11:52:28

27         Hisayuki Tateno              JAP        11:52:32

28         Brad Bishop                    CO        12:56:51

40 Starters


Loop 2

1           Jared Campbell               19:02:32

2           Gary Robbins                  19:02:33

3           John Kelly                        20:13:43

4           Dale Holdaway               25:24:54

5           Jason Poole                     25:47:25

6           Ty Draney                        25:47:26

7           Jennilynn Eaton              26:28:37

8           Michiel Panhuysen         26:36:10

25 Starters


Loop 3 :

1           Jared Campbell               31:27:16

2           Gary Robbins                  31:27:20

3           John Kelly                        32:38:08

7  Starters


Loop 4  :

1           Gary Robbins                  46:39:04

2           Jared Campbell               46:40:06

3           John Kelly                        47:46:58

3 Starters


Loop 5  :

1           Jared Campbell               59:32:30

3 Starters




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