WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
Listen, guys. I am not a sports writer and I probably will not write much about sports in the future of this page. But this is a) one of my favorite athletic events to read about and b) one of my favorite moments in an athletic event of all time, so strap in to learn a little bit about a really bizarre marathon, and a really heartbreaking loss.
The Barkley Marathons were created by Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell. It takes place yearly in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. The race is about 100 miles long (though most runners think it is longer), and must be completed within 60 hours. The course is made up of 5 20-mile loops through extremely rough, off-trail terrain.
The race is extremely secretive, and registration for the race is extremely difficult to find, let alone get into. The race is made up of some of the most successful ultra-marathoners in the world, and people who are able to run 100+ mile marathons on a regular basis struggle to finish even 1 loop.
The first race was in 1986, and nobody finished until 1995. As of the 2019 race, it has only been finished 18 times by 15 different runners. Runner Brett Muane finished twice in back-to-back years in 2011 and 2012, and Jared Campbell finished in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
But what I'm here to talk about is runner Gary Robbins. In 2017, Gary was setting out to finish for the first time. He had participated in 2016 and finished 4 of the 5 loops. He set out, trained, and showed up again in 2017, ready to add his name to the small list of people who could claim "Barkley Finisher" on their running resume. And then, by 6 seconds, his dream was crushed.
A BIT ABOUT THE BARKLEY
The Barkley Marathons were actually sparked from the escape of James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., from prison. He had escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, but after running for 55 hours through the woods, he had only covered 8 miles. "Laz", as he is called by the racers, thought to himself, "I could do at least 100 miles in that time", and thus, the Barkely Marathons were born. (1)
The race was named after Laz's good friend and running companion Barry Barkley, who died at age 70 on December 5 of last year. It was first run in 1986 and has occurred annually since. The race was cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (1)
Registration is one of the first bizarre parts of the race. You can't just go online and register. The race is limited to 40 runners, and there are almost no publicly advertised details or any information as to how to submit an early entry application. (1)
The registration consists of an essay titled "Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley", and they must pay $1.60. Runners receive a "letter of condolence" if they are accepted to participate. (1)
First-time runners are to bring a license plate from their home state/country as a part of their entrance fee. Runners who have raced before, but did not finish, are given different items to bring for their entrance fees, including tee shirts, socks, or flannels, considered donations for not finishing previously. (Apparently, the items are based on things that Laz needs at the time) Returning finishers of the race are to bring a pack of Camel cigarettes as part of their registration fee. (1)
In one of the saddest parts of the race, but also kind of the most hilarious, bib number one is given to the runner deemed least likely to finish one lap of the race. Laz calls this person a "human sacrifice" (1). (As much as that probably sucks for the person wearing bib #1, it is pretty common to not finish the first lap. In 2019, 28 of 42 starters finished one lap, 26 of 44 in 2018, 26 of 40 in 2017, 28 of 40 in 2016...) (2)
So, once runners have a) found the weird secretive way to apply to run the race, paid $1.60 and written an essay, b) brought a license plate, cigarettes, or some other random item the race-creator needed at the time, and c) gotten their bib numbers and were potentially humiliated in front of all of the racers, it is time for them to get onto the course. (1)
The course is really hard. It is really just one 20-mile loop that can be run clockwise or counter-clockwise. It has no aid stations, except 2 water stations along the route. The loop starts at a yellow gate, which, on the other side, the runners cars' and their supporters can stay. They typically have a station set up to eat, recoup, change clothes/shoes, and even nap at their cars. (1)
Runners go around the 20-mile loop 5 times for a total of 100 miles. The direction of the loops change. Typically, it is clockwise for loops 1 and 2, counterclockwise for loops 3 and 4, and runner's choice for loop 5. Runners can work together during loops 1-4, but if more than 1 runner is left during loop 5, they must go in alternate directions. The runner in first place gets to decide which way he wants to go. (1) (I say "he" not because women can't participate, but because only men have ever made it to loop 5). (2)
Runners can also try to complete just the "fun run", which is 3 loops instead of 5. Though a fun run may indicate ease, it is really anything but. In the last 5 years, there have been 18 "fun run" finishers out of 206 people who started the race. (2)
There are 54,200 feet of vertical climb, and the race is considered one of the most challenging ultra-marathons in the world. There are no finishers in the majority of the races. Though the loop is 20 miles, that only accounts for horizontal distance. With the elevation changes in the course, some say each loop is closer to 26 miles, for a 130-mile race. (1)
Besides running for 60 hours pretty much non-stop, another difficult part of the race is the timing. There is no set start time from year-to-year. The race begins at any point between midnight and noon on race day. A conch shell is blown, signaling that the race will begin in one hour. Because the race is 60 hours long, no matter when the runners start, they will be running through the night at some point, but starting a race at 2 in the morning would be pretty jarring. The race officially starts when Laz lights his cigarette, and runners can take off. (1)
To ensure that the runners are following the trail as planned, they have to find between 9-14 books along the course during each loop, and take out the page corresponding to their bib number. The pages are turned in at the end of each loop, and they get a new bib number (and thus, page requirement) at the start of each loop. (1)
The average to complete within the 60-hour requirement is 12 hours per loop, but there is no loop requirement. The entire race must be completed within 60 hours. Runners are allowed to help one another, but they can't have any other outside help. When a runner drops out of the race, a bugler plays "Taps" upon their return. (1)
THE HEARTBREAKING STORY OF GARY ROBBINS
In 2017, Gary Robbins arrived in Tennessee just as he did the year before, ready to add his name to the list of finishers. He had trained extensively. (You can watch the documentary WHERE DREAMS GO TO DIE on YouTube, which is specifically about Robbins' experience with the Barkley. I've watched it twice now, so some of this information comes from memory.) (3)
To train for the race, beyond running a comfortable double-digits run on a regular basis, he also trained in elevation gain. At night, he would drive to a mountain and go up and down until he had reached an acceptable accumulated elevation gain, sometimes until the sun came up. (3)
Robbins and another runner, John Kelly, worked together during the first 4 laps of the race. In loop one, they finished within 2 seconds of each other, both after about 9 hours and 29 minutes. (Can you imagine running for 9 and a half hours, and that only being 1/5th of your intended exercise?) (2)
They headed back out, finishing their second, third and fourth loops within seconds of each other. They worked together, pushing one another, directing one another and staying with one another through 46 hours and 26 minutes of running. (2)
But they were the only 2 runners who started lap 4. And when they both finished, the 5th-lap rule set in: They could no longer run together. Because Kelly arrived back 1 second before Robbins, he got to choose which direction he wanted to run, though they did discuss it together. They both took off for lap 5, their families and supporters cheering for them, excited to see them both cross the finish line in another 12+ hours. (2)
Robbins was on track to finish. At this point, it may be important to note that "finishing" is the same thing as "winning". Robbins and Kelly worked together, and discussed which way they would run, because it didn't matter if one of them finished before the other, or if they both finished: Simply getting to the finish line within 60 hours is how you win the Barkley. (4)
Robbins was within a few miles of victory. He had collected his 13th and final book page. He had moved non-stop, allowing no breaks on his final lap. He knew this trail. He had gone around it 4 times the year before, and had gone around it 4 times in the last 40 hours. So, he knew that next he would get back on the actual trail, take a left, and run into camp with 5 minutes before the 60 hour mark. (4)
It was extremely foggy. He hit the trail. He knew that he would have to take a final left turn, into camp, where he would run for 2 miles to sweet victory. But something didn't feel right. He was on the trail for too long. And, in his extremely exhausted, sleep-deprived state, he realized that he should have been heading east. Not south. But he kept running. Why could he not see the end? Was it the fog? He kept running, and came to a staircase. (4)
In his post-race report, Robbins wrote: "There are no staircases on the Barkley course, not a one." (4)
He pulled his map out and the gravity of the situation hit him. He would have to turn back, then finish the race going in the opposite direction. But he knew if he did that, he would not have been able to finish in time. However, he says that he regrets not making that decision. (4)
But he decided to stay the course. He ran down the mountain, instead of back up it the other direction. In an extremely stressed, deprived state, he jumped into chest-deep river water and swam through to the other side. And then he saw it. The gate. The finish. (4)
But when everyone else saw him, they were confused. Why was he coming from the opposite direction? Everyone was waiting for him, looking at where he should have come out, but he came flying in from the other way. But no one knew exactly what was going on yet. He touched the gate, to signify his finish. But it had been 60 minutes and 6 seconds. He didn't finish. (4)
At the time, that's what it looked like: A missed finish by 6 seconds. But upon further conversation and explanation, it was determine that he had gone the wrong way, missing out on 2 miles of the trail. (4)
In his post-race report, Robbins wrote: (4)
The Barkley Marathons is not an orienteering style race. You do not get to select the route that best favors you between books. You need to navigate between books, off trail, but in a very specific direction of travel. My finish, even if it were 6 seconds faster would not have counted. I put Laz and the race in a precarious situation and in hindsight I'm glad I was six seconds over so that we didn't have to discuss the validity of my finish.
Despite his loss, his loops 1-4 race partner John Kelly won, becoming the 15th person to ever finish the Barkley Marathon. Kelly joined Robbins' support crew for his 2018 attempt to finish the race, but he was only able to complete the "fun run" in 2018. Of the 44 racers, only 5 started loop 3, and Robbins was the only one to finish it. He did not start loop 4, and did not try again in 2019. (4)
The Barkley Marathon is a completely bonkers race, and one that I've spent a weird amount of time reading and watching about given the fact that I can barely even run 1 single mile. The race itself is just so mysterious and so crazy, and the fact that anybody could finish it is a human feat beyond what I can even imagine.
Additionally, Gary Robbins is just a really cool guy. Watching the documentary about his experience with the Barkley is so interesting, and seeing someone train so very hard for something, do it perfectly for almost 60 hours and then mess it up in the last few minutes is a sports blunder that seems more heartbreaking to me than any team sport.
Gary Robbins is an incredible runner with an incredible running resume, and maybe one day he will get to add "Barkely Finisher" to it.