Gary Robbins & The Barkley
Read what happens when this Canadian ultra runner and endurance coach gets his shot at going 'Out There'
Faces, like ghostly apparitions, came to life within hanging leaves on tree boughs. Random numbers appeared on trees and then disappeared into the blurred landscape, only to return on different trees and then depart once more. All around him the gentle sound of running water from creeks and small waterfalls, typically offering a soothing natural backdrop, suddenly morphed into a choir of chanting voices, an unnerving soundtrack that filled his muddled mind.
But Robbins, the decorated ultra-runner from North Vancouver who has run some of the world’s toughest trails, had been to this place before. He was familiar with its unpredictability and utter absurdity. “I was aware of things not being reality,” he says. “Amid all the discomfort, it was kind of entertaining to watch all of this happening before me actually.” And so, with madness unravelling around him, he kept on running. Barkley very often did this to its runners. And the clock was ticking.
Since 1986, the Barkley Marathons have been held in late March or early April each year in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, a landscape marked by an endless expanse of isolated and densely forested plateaus and peaks. The Barkley, as it is commonly known, consists of 5 loops of a ‘nominal’ 20 mile course, which is actually closer to 26 miles. The race boasts a strict 60-hour cut-off and is the brainchild of Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell, an eccentric former trail runner, who, according to hearsay, was inspired to mimic the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jnr, from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Ray managed to cover a mere 8 miles after running for 55 hours in the woods. Lake, somewhat familiar with the region from his trail running adventures, mockingly proclaimed that he ‘could do at least 100 miles in that time,’ and thus the Barkley Marathons was born.
The Barkley is limited to only 40 runners, carefully selected by Lazarus Lake, though each year many more athletes hope to gain a start. Requirements and times to submit an entry application are a closely guarded secret, with no details advertised publicly. Potential entrants must complete an essay on "Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley", pay a $1.60 application fee, and complete other requirements subject to change. As if that isn’t quirky enough, once accepted, entrants receive a "letter of condolence".
The course itself, which has changed distance, route, and elevation many times since 1986, has no aid stations except water at two points along the route in addition each runner’s parked car in the campground at the beginning of each loop. Athletes must run loops number one and two in a clockwise direction, taking a counter-clockwise direction for loops three and four, followed by each runner alternating direction on loop five – should anyone make it that far.
In 2016, Robbins said the course registered over 66,000 feet of accumulated vertical climb. As testament to the extreme toughness of the event, there have been many years where not a single runner has finished the Barkley, and in 20 runnings there have been only 14 finishers in total.
The event starts any time from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. on race day, with one hour until race start signaled by the blowing of a conch shell. The race officially begins with the lighting of a cigarette by Lazarus Lake. Throughout the run, competitors must find a set number of books along the course (13 books per loop in 2016) and remove the page corresponding to the runner's race number from each book as proof of completion. Each passing year the number of books typically grows. Competitors get a new race number, and thus a new page requirement, at the start of each successive lap.
When asked what initially comes to mind when he hears the word Barkley, Robbins barely pauses before commenting on the Netflix documentary. “Before that was made, the race was very obscure,” he says. “By that documentary really changed everything.” In the next breath though, he shifts his focus toward the cold hard facts of the Barkley course. He mentions the difficult terrain, despite his first impressions that the event “can’t possibly be so hard.” “It’s just so isolated. There’s no assistance, which means you’re always thinking, always navigating. There are next to no views out there, meaning little reward for your efforts. And the level of uncertainty is really high.”
Asked whether the event is entirely unique amongst an ever-growing number of ultra distance runs across the globe, Robbins responds without hesitation. “There’s nothing quite like it. There may be longer races, or events with more pure climbing, but when you factor in all the idiosyncrasies of this race, there is no dispute amongst ultra runners that it is the hardest foot race in the world.” Elsewhere, Robbins is quoted as saying, “The Barkley is beyond classification and hard to put into words.”
For almost two full days of the 2016 Barkley, Robbins ran alongside Jared Campbell, a humble and rangy long distance runner based out of Utah. Campbell had conquered the Barkley course twice before, just barely eclipsing the 60 hour time limit. At an event like Barkley, first-hand experience holds immeasurable value, and Robbins hoped to learn from Campbell throughout the first couple of loops. “We set off together and over the course of the next 2 days we struck up an incredible friendship,” says Robbins. “We chatted about our hometowns, our families, previous runs we had undertaken. The cool thing was that there was not a single complaint from either of us. Not one. We were tired and suffering at various times but there was nothing negative said. That made a huge difference.”
In an April 6 blog, Robbins writes, “I spent 47 hours with Jared during The Barkley and am now honoured to call him a friend. I would have struggled to complete a single loop without Jared's hard earned course knowledge and his calm, kind demeanor actually contributed to enjoying quite a bit of the two and a half days I spent thrashing through the Tennessee wilderness.”
In fact, Robbins and Campbell – who went on the complete the course with 27 minutes to spare to become the only 2016 finisher and the only man to have finished the course 3 times – agreed to embark on some future runs together. “I very much look forward to running with him again someday,” says Robbins.
Robbins recalls a brutal 15-minute stretch late in the race in which he had no idea where he was or who he had been running with for the past two days. The other runner, of course, was the tall figure of Jared Campbell. “I was doing a mental roll-call,” explains Robbins. “But for a long time I just could not figure out who the figure was. Finally I remembered Jared. I said, ‘Jared, is that you?’ He answered yes, and I explained that my mind was playing tricks and I was having trouble focusing. He said he was encountering similar issues. Then he said to me, ‘I’ll be anyone you want me to be. Just keep moving.’”
In the April 6 blog, Robbins writes, “Close but no cigar. The Barkley is tougher than I ever could have imagined and I'm incredibly proud to have made it almost four and a half loops into what is a notoriously difficult race to close out. On my 5th and final loop I was up against some of the deepest sleep deprivation of my life, having not slept the night before the race and being unable to catch more than a ten minute nap during the race, I was on about 90hrs since my last snooze.”
Robbins describes how the slight navigational error on the final loop cost him his chance of becoming the 15th ever finisher. “I shot a bearing, triple checked it, followed it as closely as possible and came up a just a few degrees from where I intended to be, yet in my sleep deprived state I processed that I was too far north instead of too far south of my target. The following decisions that somehow made sense at the time will haunt my dreams until I one day return. Small mistakes became big mistakes and turning right instead of left became my undoing.”
He wandered in circles for the next 2.5 hours in search for the next book as he “watched the merciless 60 hour time limit fade away.” He found the book but knew at that point that he’d time out on the fifth and final loop.
He decided to keep moving forward for a few more hours and dropped down a steep section of the course called Rat Jaw for one last time “attempting to generate enough adrenaline to stay awake,” yet at the bottom of the descent he sat down and “knew sleep was the only course of action.” He found a ride back to the campground and was met by the sound of the bugle, which is blown for all non-finishers at Barkley. “I had answered all of the questions I'd set out to source answers to when I lined up for this beast,” writes Robbins, “and I had nothing left to prove to myself on the course.”
Robbins confesses that in the immediate aftermath of his DNF he felt stung. It took him about a week to completely free himself of the disappointment. The fanfare amassing on social media forums took him by complete surprise and helped put things in perspective. Across the breadth of the nation, particularly in running and endurance circles, people were hearing about his efforts and tracking his progress via Facebook updates and tweets. “While we were out there running we had no idea who was paying attention,” says Robbins. For a humble and giving man as he is, the adoration and complimentary banter meant a great deal. Weeks after the race, in fact, the praise still humbles him.
Robbins verbalised his intention to return to Barkley in two years, but within 72 hours of his exit he knew he wanted to return the next year. So, in 2017, all being well, he will enjoy some ski mountaineering throughout the winter, then a heavy run specific training block, then he’ll return to the Tennessee wilderness for another round.
One of his last comments on the April 6 blog reads: “Lazarus Lake, thank you for introducing me to a side of myself that I believed existed but who I'd never met before. I liked who I became ‘out there’ and I look forward to giving it another go.”
Photos of Gary Robbins taken from his blog
Main article photo: Ethan Newberry
Secondary photo: Matt Trappe Photography