Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The race that Eats its Young

A few weeks ago I was reading a chapter of the book Running Through the Wall and came across a race that in 23 years only 8 people had completed and the course record is over 55 hours for 100 miles! The race is called The Barkley Marathon.
After reading about this race I decided to look at just what it is that makes it the world's toughest 100 miler.
Course designer Gary Cantrell was inspired upon hearing about Martin Luther jnr's assassin, James Earl Ray, escaping from prison and only getting 8 miles in 55 hours of running in the woods. He said to himself "I could do at least 100 miles".  Thus the Barkley Marathon was born.
It is held in the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee sometime in April with unpredictable weather and if you have seen The Blair Witch Project, then that is what it looks like but with hills - lots of them.  The thought of wandering about in the dark out there is enough to make you say "f..k that".

To give you an idea of the standard of athletes running in this event, I am going to set out the achievements of two men who have completed the race and their mind blowing performances outside of  The Barkley.

Brian Robinson, the current record holder at 55 hours in 2008, set a record for completing the 3 major n-s US trails in a single calendar year.  The Appalachian, The Continental Divide and The Pacific Coast, a total of 7400 miles in 300 days - 25 miles every day!

Andrew Thomson in 2009 finished with a time of 57 hours and he holds the record for the fastest single attempt on the Appalachian Trail, completing all 2160 miles in 47 days - 46 miles every single day !!!

The reason I wanted to list the achievements of these runners is for you to see that some of the best ultra runners in the world just make it inside the 60 hour limit when doing the Barkley.

Entry is a secret and you need to email the director with an essay saying " Why I should be allowed to run the Barkley".  If selected, you then get an entry and the fee is $1.60.  Yes, $1.60 and an old car license plate from your home state.  You are only told the actual race day once you get accepted and start time is 1 hour after a conch shell is blown at the camp.  Maps are only given out the day before so you can't train on the route.

Here is the real killer - it's 5 laps with 2 unmanned stations with only water and you have to find 9 books and take a page from each as proof that you have completed each lap.  The thought of going back out into the wilderness having just completed 1,2 or 3 laps is just too much for most runners and hence the high drop out rate.  In 2009, 35 started and only 11 runners finished 2 laps then only 3 finished the 3rd lap but only Andrew Thomson started the 4th lap to do the last 40 miles on his lonesome. 

The course route has names such as Zip Line, Chimney Top, The Bulger, Rat Jaw, Testicle Spectacle, Squire Knob, Leonards Butt Slide and Little Hell which alone has a climb of 1500 feet in 0.6 of a mile at a 50% grade.  The total climb for the race is 53,000 feet and the same decsent, making it more than any other 100 mile race in the world. 

In 2001 David Horton and Blake Wood became the first Americans to complete the Barkley and it is their run that is described in Running Through the Wall. They started at 9.00am on the Saturday and finished at 7.30pm on the Monday night and UltraRunning Magazine chose their performance as one of the most notable of the year.

It's not just the severe course that stops runners finishing.   It's the mental torture thinking about another lap of hell, the cold, the dark and the lack of sleep causing them to become lost and failing to find the 9 books.

This is one race I would certainly be giving a wide berth as The  Blair Witch Project scared me shitless!

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