On the western edge of Frozen Head State Park, just before dawn, a man in a rust brown trench coat blows a giant conch shell. Runners stir in their tents. They fill their water pouches. They tape blisters. They eat thousand-calorie breakfasts. Some pray. Others ready fanny packs. The man in the trench coat sits in an ergonomic lawn chair beside a famous yellow gate, holding a cigarette. He calls the two-minute warning.
The runners gather in front of him, stretching. They are about to travel more than a hundred miles through the wilderness—if they are strong and lucky enough to make it that far, which they probably aren’t. They wait anxiously. We, the watchers, wait anxiously.
At 7:12, the man in the trench coat rises from his lawn chair and lights his cigarette. Once the tip glows red, the race known as the Barkley Marathons has begun.
The first race was a prison break. On June 10, 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from a federal penitentiary and fled across the briar-bearded hills of northern Tennessee. Fifty-four hours later he was found. He’d gone about eight miles. Some hear this and wonder how he squandered his escape. One man heard this and thought: I need to see that terrain!
Over 20 years later, that man, the man in the trench coat—self-dubbed Lazarus Lake (known as Laz)—has turned this terrain into the stage for a legendary ritual: the Barkley Marathons, held yearly (traditionally on Lazarus Friday or April Fools’ Day) outside Wartburg, Tennessee. Laz used to run the race himself, but never managed to finish it. Only eight men have ever finished. The event is considered extreme even by those who specialize in extremity.
What makes it so bad? No trail, for one thing. A cumulative elevation gain nearly twice the height of Everest. Saw briars that turn a man’s legs to raw meat. Hills with names like Rat Jaw, Little Hell, Big Hell, Coffin Springs.
The race consists of five loops on a course that’s been listed at 20 miles but is more like 26. Standard metrics are irrelevant, the laws of physics replaced by Laz’s personal whims. Guys who could finish a hundred miles in 20 hours might not finish a single loop here. If you finish three, you’ve completed what’s known as the Fun Run. If you do not finish, Laz plays taps to commemorate your quitting.
There are no published entry requirements. It helps to know someone. Admissions are decided by Laz’s discretion, and his application includes questions like “What is your favorite parasite?” Only 35 entrants are admitted. This year, one of them is my brother. Julian is a “virgin,” one of 15 newbies who will do their damndest to finish a loop.
The day before the race, runners start arriving at camp. Their license plates say 100 RUNNR, ULT MAN, CRZY RUN. They bring camouflage tents and orange hunting vests and skeptical girlfriends and acclimated wives.
I help sort Julian’s supplies in the back of the car. He earned his PhD at age 25 and, in his non-superhero incarnation as a development economist, is working on a microfinance project in Liberia. Here, he needs a compass. He needs pain pills and NoDoz and electrolyte pills and a blister “kit” (a needle and Band-Aids). He needs tape for when his toenails fall off. He needs batteries. Running out of batteries is the must-avoid-at-all-costs worst possible thing that could happen. Julian’s coup de grâce is a pair of duct-tape pants designed to fend off saw briars.
Traditionally, the epicenter of camp is a chicken fire. This year it’s manned by someone named Doc Joe. We arrive as he’s spearing the first thighs from the grill.
At this particular potluck, small talk rarely stays banal for long. I fall into conversation with a bearded veteran. Our conversation starts predictably. He asks where I’m from. I say Los Angeles. He says he loves Venice Beach. I say I love Venice Beach, too. Then he says, “Next fall I’m running from Venice Beach to Virginia Beach to celebrate my retirement.”
I learn that there are a couple of major contenders to complete a hundred: Blake and A.T. They are two of the “alumni” (former finishers) who are running this year. Finishing twice would make history.
Blake Wood is a nuclear engineer at Los Alamos with a doctorate from Berkeley and an incredible Barkley record: six for six Fun Run completions, one finish, another near finish blocked only by a flooded creek. In person, he’s a friendly middle-aged dad with a salt-and-pepper mustache.
Andrew Thompson is a youngish guy from New Hampshire famous for a near finish in 2005, when he was strong heading into his fifth loop but literally lost his mind out there. He completely forgot about the race.
There’s J.B., Jonathan Basham, A.T.’s best support crew for years, at Barkley for his own race this time around. I mainly hear him mentioned in the context of his relationship to A.T., who calls him Jonboy.
There are some strong virgins in the pack, including Charlie Engle, an accomplished ultra-runner (he’s “done” the Sahara). Like many ultra-runners, he’s a former addict. He’s been sober for nearly 20 years, and many describe his recovery as the switch from one addiction to another—drugs for adrenaline, trading that extreme for this one.
Watching Laz from across the campfire, I can’t help thinking of Heart of Darkness. Like Kurtz, Laz is bald and charismatic, leader of a minor empire, trafficker in human pain. He’s a cross between the Colonel and your grandpa. There’s an Inner Station splendor to his orchestration of this hormone extravaganza, testosterone spread like fertilizer across miles of barren wilderness. He speaks to “his runners” with comfort and fondness. Most have been running “for him” (their phrase) for years. Everyone pays a $1.60 entry fee.
All through the potluck, runners pore over their instructions, five single-spaced pages with details like “the coal pond beavers have been very active this year, be careful not to fall on one of the sharpened stumps they have left.” The instructions tend to cite landmarks like “the ridge” or “the rock” that seem less than useful. And then there’s the issue of the night.
The runners are out on their loops anywhere from eight to thirty-two hours. Between loops, if they’re continuing, they stop at camp for a few moments of food and rest. Dropping, unless you drop at the single point accessible by trail, involves a three-to-four-hour commute back into camp. Which means that the act of ceasing to compete in the Barkley race is comparable to running a marathon.
Ten books are placed at various points along the course, and runners are responsible for ripping out the pages that match their race number. Laz is playful in his book choices: The Most Dangerous Game, Death by Misadventure, A Time to Die—even Heart of Darkness.
The talk this year is about Laz’s latest addition to the course: a quarter-mile cement tunnel that runs under the old penitentiary, where, rumor has it, the snakes are the size of arms. Whose arms? I wonder. Most of the guys here are pretty wiry.
Laz gives himself the freedom to start the race whenever he wants. He offers only two guarantees: that it will begin between midnight and noon, and that he will blow the conch shell an hour beforehand.
At the start gate, Julian is wearing a light silver jacket and his duct-tape chaps. He looks like a robot. He disappears uphill in a flurry of camera flashes.
After the runners take off, Doc Joe and I start grilling waffles. Laz strolls over with his glowing cigarette, its gray cap of untapped ash quaking. I introduce myself. He introduces himself. He asks us if we think anyone has noticed that he’s not actually smoking. “I can’t this year,” he explains, “because of my leg.” He has just had surgery on an artery and his circulation isn’t good.
I tell him the cigarette looks great as an accessory. Doc Joe tells him that he’s safe up to a couple packs. Doc Joe, by the way, really is a doctor.
I ask Laz how he chooses the time.
“One time I started at three,” he says, as if in answer. “That was fun.”
“Last year you started at noon, right? I heard the runners got a little restless.”
“Sure did.” He shakes his head, smiling at the memory. “Folks were just standing around getting antsy.”
As we speak, he mentions sections of the course—Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall, Raw Dog Falls, Pussy Ridge. Laz’s greatest desire seems to be to devise an unrunnable race, to sustain the immortal horizon of an unbeatable challenge. After the first year, when no one came close to finishing, Laz wrote an article headlined: THE “TRAIL” WINS THE BARKLEY MARATHONS.
Two public trails intersect the course, although Laz generally discourages meeting runners. “Even just the sight of other human beings is a kind of aid,” he explains. “We want them to feel the full weight of their aloneness.”
Whenever I see Laz around camp, he says, “You think Julian is having fun out there?” I finally say, “I fucking hope not!” and he smiles.
But I can’t help thinking his question dissolves precisely the kind of loneliness he seems so interested in producing: The idea that when you are alone out there, someone back at camp is thinking of you alone out there, is, of course, just another kind of connection.
When Julian comes in from his first loop, it’s almost dark. He’s been out for 12 hours and is in good spirits. He’s got 10 page 61s, including one from an account of teenage alcoholism called The Late Great Me. The duct tape has been ripped from his pants. “You took it off?” I ask.
“Nope,” he says. “Course took it off.”
He eats hummus sandwiches and Girl Scout cookies and gulps a butter pecan Ensure. He takes another bib number, for his second round of pages, and Laz and I send him into the woods. His rain jacket glows silver in the darkness.
Julian has completed five hundred-mile races so far. He explained to me that he wants to achieve a completely insular system of accountability, one that doesn’t depend on external feedback. He wants to run a hundred miles when no one knows he’s running, so that the desire to impress people, or the shame of quitting, won’t constitute his sources of motivation.
It starts to rain. I make a nest in the back of my car and try to sleep. I’m awoken every once in a while by the mournful call of taps.
Julian arrives back in camp around eight in the morning. He was out for another 12 hours but reached only two books. There were a couple hours lost, another couple spent lying down, in the rain, waiting for first light. He is proud of himself for going out, even though he didn’t think he’d get far, and I am proud of him, too.
We join the others under the rain tent. People are speculating about whether anyone will even finish the Fun Run. There are only six runners left. If anyone can finish the full hundred, everyone agrees, it will be Blake.
The wife of one of the runners has packed a plastic bag of clothes and is planning to meet him at Lookout Tower. If he decides to drop, she’ll hand him his dry clothes and escort him down the three-mile trail back into camp. If he decides to continue, she’ll wish him luck as he prepares for another uphill climb—soaked in rainwater and pride, unable to take the dry clothes because accepting aid would get him disqualified.
The crowd stirs. There’s a runner coming up the paved hill. Coming from this direction is a bad sign—it means he’s dropping rather than finishing. People guess it’s J.B. or Carl, but after a moment Laz gasps.
“It’s Blake,” he says.
Blake is soaked and shivering. “I’m close to hypothermia,” he says. “I couldn’t do it.” He says that climbing Rat Jaw was like scrambling up a playground slide in roller skates.
Laz hands over the bugle. It’s as if he can’t bear to play taps for Blake himself. He’s clearly disappointed, but there’s a note of glee in his voice when he says: “You never know what’ll happen around here.”
How does the race turn out? Turns out J.B. pulls off a surprising victory. In my attention to flashier runners, I’d somehow managed to forget about J.B. Good old Jonboy. This is what Barkley specializes in, right? It swallows the story you imagined and hands you another one.
Why do people do this, anyway? Whenever I pose the question, runners reply ironically: I’m a masochist; I need somewhere to put my craziness; type A from birth. Nobody has to answer this question seriously, because they are already answering it seriously—with their bodies and their willpower and their pain. Maybe this is why so many ultra-runners are former addicts: They want to redeem the bodies they once punished, master the physical selves whose cravings they once served.
The persistence of “why” is the point: the elusive horizon of an unanswerable question, the conceptual equivalent of an unrunnable race.
One of the most compelling inquiries into why lies in a tale of temporary madness: A.T.’s account of his fifth loop back in 2004. He describes wandering without any clear sense of how he’d gotten to the trail or what he was meant to be doing there: “The Barkley would be forgotten for minutes on end although the premise lingered. I had to get to the Garden Spot, for . . . why?” His amnesia captures the endeavor in its starkest terms. But his account offers flashes of wonder: “I stood in a shin-deep puddle for about an hour—squishing the mud in and out of my shoes. . . . I sat and poured gallon after gallon of fresh water into my shoes.”
By the end of A.T.’s account, the facet of Barkley deemed most brutally taxing, that sinister and sacred “self-sufficiency,” has become an inexplicable miracle: “When it cooled off, I had a long-sleeve shirt. When I got hungry, I had food. When it got dark, I had a light. I thought: Wow, isn’t it strange that I have all this perfect stuff, just when I need it?”
This is evidence of a grace beyond the self that has, of course, come from the self—the same self that loaded the fanny pack hours before, whose role has been obscured by bone-weary delusion, turned other by the sheer fact of the body losing its own mind.
Leslie Jamison is the author of the novel The Gin Closet (Free Press). Excerpted from The Believer (May 2011), a literary-minded magazine featuring book reviews, interviews, and long-form journalism.www.believermag.com
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Utne Reader.