Barkley 2005

By Matt Mahoney

Barkley Home Page

The Barkley 100 mile run and 60 mile "fun run" have been held at Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee each spring since 1986. The Barkley is widely regarded as one of the toughest races on earth. The average finish rate is 1% for the 100 mile run with a 60 hour cutoff. The fun run finish rate is 15% with a 40 hour cutoff.

The race is so popular that the entry procedure is secret. You have to know someone who has run it before to find out how to enter. The entry includes an essay on "Why I should be allowed to run the Barkley". The starting date is not revealed until your entry is accepted.

Apr. 2, 2005. Thirty three invited runners line up waiting for the race director to light the starting cigarette. The starting time is announced one hour in advance by the sound of a conch shell in camp. It is about 35 degrees and raining.

The first mile climbs from 1500 ft. to 3000 ft. elevation on trail. This section is pretty easy. The course is a 20 mile loop repeated 5 times. There is over 10,600 ft. of climb and 10,600 ft. of descent per loop, an average grade of 20%.

Once over Bird Mountain in the first mile, the trail is not so easy any more. The North Boundary trail has not been maintained for over 50 years. The course is not marked except on your map. Any trees that once held blazes have long since died and fallen across the trail.

There are no aid stations. To prove you ran the course, you have to find 11 books whose locations are marked on your map and tear out the page matching your race number from each book. You get a new race number each lap. These two runners have just collected their first page at Phillips Creek, about 3 miles. It had taken almost 2 hours to get here.

As we climbed and descended, the weather changed between rain and snow. Either way the trail (when we could find it) was a muddy, slippery mess, very difficult to run.

The footing is less than ideal.

Descending Stallion Mountain at Leonard's Butt Slide, the first of the really steep hills. Portions of the descent that aren't clogged with underbrush are muddy tracks at a 45 degree slope. Already about a third of the runners have quit after 8 miles. Keep in mind that most of these runners had at least completed a 100 mile trail race or had similar qualifications.

Mile 10, crossing the New River, a convenient place to fill your bottles if you are low on water. This is followed by Little Hell, a 1200 foot climb in 0.6 miles.

The next big climb is Rat's Jaw, 1000 feet in half a mile up a power line clearcut. The ground is matted with cut down sawbriers to discourage climbing with your hands. At the top, a few runners took the easy 3 mile trail back to camp and quit, rather than continuing over the Hump, down the Zip Line and up Big Hell. Only 18 of the 33 runners finished the first 20 mile loop within the 13 hour and 20 minute cutoff, many after dark.

Here I am enjoying a day in the woods. I was the last finisher of loop 1 with 6 minutes to spare. I quit at that point, as did half of the remaining 18 runners. I suppose I could have gone on, but in my previous 9 attempts I never made the 26:40 cutoff for loop 2. My best time was 28 hours on an easier course in better weather, and I was already 2 hours behind that pace on the first lap. I have mixed feelings about quitting. On one hand, the outcome would very likely have been the same if I hadn't, but on the other hand I'll never know for sure.