A man is begging on the side of a Tennessee mountain. He's crumpled on the ground, his clothes are soaking wet, and he's sucking air hard. His wife weeps as she huddles over him, her hands resting softly on his arm. Above them stands a bearded figure in a wide-brimmed hat and a worn-out oilskin duster.
"I got all my pages!" pleads the man on the ground. His voice is shrill, hysterical. "I dropped down the wrong side of the mountain in the fog. I had to swim a river." He gasps for air again. "I got all my pages!"
A small group of onlookers cover their mouths and stare. They look from the broken man on the ground to the inscrutable face of the bearded figure looming over him.
"He got all his pages," repeats a voice in the crowd. "He got all his pages."
For most of us, the 26.2 miles of a marathon represent the epitome of athletic endurance. For others, there are the ultramarathons, races that stretch to fifty or one hundred miles or more through some of the world's most inhospitable regions. The Badwater 135 winds through the middle of Death Valley in July. The Marathon des Sables is a six-day, 156-mile race across the Sahara Desert. The Hardrock 100 is a high-altitude hundred- miler amid lightning storms and avalanches.
And then there is the Barkley Marathons.
Officially, it consists of five loops through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, totaling one hundred miles, but most participants believe it to be closer to 130. Runners must ascend and descend about 120,000 feet of elevation—the equivalent of climbing up and down Mount Everest twice. And all this must be done in just sixty hours. As of race time this year, of the more than one thousand people who have run it, only fourteen have finished.
It costs only $1.60 to enter. An application must be sent to a closely guarded email address at precisely the right minute on precisely the right day. The email must include an essay titled "Why I Should Be Allowed to Run in the Barkley."
You must then complete a written exam that asks, for instance, "Explain the excess positrons in the flux of cosmic rays" and "How much butter should you use to cook a pound of liver (with onions)?" New runners, known as "virgins," must bring a license plate from their state or country. "Veterans"— returning runners who did not finish—must bring an item of clothing. One year it was a flannel shirt. Another year it was a white dress shirt. This year it's a pack of white socks. The few who have finished the course and are crazy enough to return, known as "alumni," need only bring a pack of Camel cigarettes.
The race can begin any time between midnight and noon on the closest Saturday to April Fools' Day, always exactly one hour after a conch is blown. Runners are not given a map of the course, which is unmarked and largely off-trail, until the afternoon before. They must rely on compasses and the race's obscure official directions to find their way. GPS is forbidden.
Runners must locate thirteen books in each loop and tear out a page corresponding to their race number. This year's batch includes Unravelled, Lost and Found, and There Is Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self-Hate. After each loop, the pages are counted and each runner is given a new number. There are no aid stations, just two unmanned water drops that are often frozen solid. Those unable to finish are serenaded by the Barkley's official bugler playing a discordant rendition of "Taps."
All runners must sign a legal disclaimer that reads: "If I am stupid enough to attempt the Barkley, I deserve to be held responsible for any result of that attempt, be it financial, physical, mental, or anything else."
"The runners come for something they could fail at, that they might not be able to do," the course's designer, Lazarus Lake—Laz for short—tells me. "And the less likely it is that they can do it, the more attracted they are to it."
The Barkley course was indirectly inspired by James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin, who escaped from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. When he was recaptured after fifty-six hours on the run, Ray had barely gone eight miles. Upon hearing this, Laz thought he could have made it at least one hundred miles. (As it turns out, he couldn't. He's never done more than two loops of the course himself.) The race was named after Laz's friend Barry Barkley.
The first Barkley Marathons was held in 1986. Thirteen people participated. No one finished. The next year Laz made the course harder. No one finished. And so on until 1995, when an Englishman named Mark Williams, fueled by tea and cheese sandwiches, completed the five loops in fifty-nine hours and twenty-eight minutes.
It's check-in time at the Frozen Head campground.
"Tomorrow I'll be calling you an evil man," says one runner.
"If that's all I'm called," Laz says, "it'll all have been a failure."
"How are you?" a smiling French runner asks nervously.
"Better than you!" Laz shoots back.
The master map is revealed, duct-taped to a picnic table. The runners crowd around, eager to copy the various sections of the course—Rat Jaw, Gnarly Mouth, Leonard's Butt Slide, Foolish Stu, Bad Thing, Hillpocalypse—onto their own maps. They can also consult Laz's printed directions, such as they are: "Look for a weird rock at a confluence of two streams, cross over that, turn left, and go down a hillside. If it looks too steep, that's the right one."
Completing three loops of the Barkley is known as a "Fun Run." During the last two loops, however, exhaustion forces the runners into a kind of upside-down world. In 2005, one runner on loop five became convinced there were houses on top of one of the mountains and that he was a garbageman sent to empty the trash.
Laz likes to say that to finish the Barkley all you have to do is average two miles an hour for sixty hours. How difficult can that be? A few minutes walking the course gives you some idea. The slopes are so steep that they look like they're folding over and back down on you. A thick blanket of decomposed leaves hides rocks and fallen branches, and the bare trees turn the whole park into one disorientating panorama of brown. Century-old coal-mining paths can occasionally be glimpsed, but even these indistinct markings disappear completely at night.
This year, Gary Robbins is the favourite to finish. Powerfully built with a shaved head, Robbins specialises in mountain trails, the tougher the better, and is a perennial podium finisher at the HURT 100 race, held in the mountains of Hawaii. He ran the Barkley for the first time last year and managed to get as far as the fifth loop—an incredible feat for a virgin—before quitting. His red beard has its own Twitter account (on which #gogarygo has been trending), and he arrived at this year's race with his own videographer.
Behind him is Mike Wardian from Arlington, Virginia. In January, he completed the World Marathon Challenge, running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. Then there's the neon-drenched ultrarunning fixture Jamil Coury, aka JamJam; Heather Anderson, one of six women competing in the Barkley this year, who crushed both the women's and the men's records for hiking the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail unsupported; Anderson's boyfriend, Adam Lint, a Barkley veteran favored to reach loop five this year; Brandon Stapanowich, one of a handful of finishers of Nolan's 14, a race across fourteen of the highest peaks of the Colorado Rockies; Mike Versteeg, who smashed the record for the 830-mile Arizona Trail run by six days; and Johan Steene, a Swede who can easily cover 150 miles in twenty-four hours. There's a Navy rescue swimmer, a Zen Himalayan adventurer, and half a dozen Frenchmen. Each of the forty competitors has been chosen for his or her particular skill set and general badassery. It's like The Dirty Dozen meets Chariots of Fire. Or should that be Deliverance?
On the Friday before the race, the weather is looking favorable. Robbins has even gone so far as to predict that four runners will start loop five, the most ever.
"It's true—we've got some really fast people this year," Laz says. "But, you know, speed kills."
What does he think of Robbins's chances?
"He's good, there's no doubt, but he's put an awful lot of pressure on his shoulders." Laz points up the hill we're climbing. "Public opinion ain't going to mean much when he's out there." So who does Laz think can finish the course? "Well, no one seems to be mentioning John Kelly at all."
John Kelly is the local boy. His family has lived on the edge of the park for two hundred years. This is Kelly's third attempt at the Barkley. Last year, he was garrotted by saw briars—the vicious inch-long thorns that lace the course—which left bleeding gashes across his neck. By the end of the fourth loop, he was unable to recognise his crew, and he fell asleep a hundred yards into the fifth, a spot since christened "Upper Kelly Camp."
Like many Barkley runners, Kelly has an advanced science degree, and when asked to try to explain the race's difficulty, he does not compare it to another ultra but instead to the qualifying exam for his Ph.D. "You write a paper, you present on it, and then three professors grill you on whatever the hell they want until they find your breaking point," Kelly says. "It's not a matter of 'Did you break?' It's a matter of 'How far can you make it before you break?'"
It's like The Dirty Dozen meets Chariots of Fire. Or should that be Deliverance?
By 10:00 p.m., the campground fires have been extinguished and conversation has quieted to a murmur. Up at the yellow gate, which serves as the race's start and finish lines, Laz is laughing hard and glancing at his watch.
A deep, harsh note booms under the trees. The conch has been blown! Tents light up like colorful mushrooms. It's 12:42 a.m. on Saturday, April 1. The temperature is in the mid-40's, it's drizzling, and there's fog. Fog is the worst weather condition to have at the Barkley, far worse than rain or snow. "Headlamps are no use—everything turns into a wall of white," Laz says. "Turn your headlamp off and it's a wall of black. There's going to be a lot of people not finishing loop one."
At 1:42 a.m., instead of firing a starting pistol, Laz lights a Camel. And with that plume of smoke, the runners are off. Just as the last of them disappear from view, there is a loud crack. Twenty feet from the gate, a hundred-foot oak tilts and crashes to the ground. The stunned silence is broken only by the sound of Laz cackling. "I wish that had happened two minutes before the start!"
When I met Laz at his home outside Bell Buckle, Tennessee, three weeks before the race, he was wearing a flannel shirt over a white dress shirt and, no doubt, a pair of white socks under his boots. He puffed enthusiastically on a Camel. A red beanie embossed with the word Geezer crowned his head, covering some thinning hair pulled back in a knot. His face, apart from his bulging bespectacled eyes, is largely obscured by an unruly gray beard. In short, he looks like the hillbilly of your backcountry nightmares, an image only deepened by the presence of Big, his giant red pit bull, who seemed to be considering whether my skull would fit in his mouth. Big had been shot in the chest and abandoned when Laz found him. "Someone wanted him for a fighting dog," Laz said, "but he just didn't have the nature for it." Laz nursed him back to health, and now the two are inseparable and, in a way, similar. Despite his fearsome demeanour and reputation, Laz is not a fighting dog by nature, either. He pores over science and history books and writes short stories, all in lowercase, about his dog's adventures, like the time Big swallowed a whole skunk. He's on his fifth collection.
Laz's house is nestled in dense woods at the top of a hill perforated with caves. Some Carolina wrens have nested in a box on the porch, where a funnel spider's web has been allowed to stretch across a chair. There are swifts in the outdoor chimney.
Inside, there's a room with half a dozen beds covered with quilts made from Laz's old race T-shirts, ready for any itinerant runners who happen to be passing through. The house is filled with boxes of animal skulls he picked up on his runs, arrowheads he collected with his father, and stacks of National Geographic magazines. Laz offered me a pull from a jar of moonshine. He gets it made local, though his favorite supplier was recently arrested. Among the oddities and archaeological finds is an intricately sculpted marble ball covered in fine latticework and geometric designs, a gift from an Indian runner who took part in the Barkley some years ago. It's only when I took a closer look that I noticed a thousand different tiny spots of glue catching the light. "When it arrived, it was shattered," Laz said. "But I found two pieces I could stick together. Then I put it aside and searched for new ones." He had no idea what it was supposed to look like, but he stuck with it for months, painstakingly finding matching fragments even when most people would have given up or gone insane. "I didn't know until it was put together that it had elephants on it," he said.
Forty-five years ago, Laz began highlighting every road he had run on a local map. When he exhausted the roads on one map, he'd get another and tape it to the first. Today, the maps have become like a medieval tapestry, a dozen feet across. Laz set out to run across all of Tennessee's ninety-five counties, an odyssey that would allow him to immerse himself in the state's geology, biology, and history. He explained how over the years he has followed in the footsteps of the armies of the North and South; and before them the settlers and the Cherokee; and before them the Woodland people, whose villages you could still see as faint dark outlines in tilled fields; and back ten thousand years to the Clovis, whose pointed projectiles could still be found; and back further still, over ground once trod by mastodons and saber-toothed cats, running through not just space but time. Last year, Laz crossed Unicoi County, the last county on his list.
"I never meant to be Laz," he told me, sipping one of the many Dr Peppers he consumes each day. About forty empty cans are stacked on the kitchen sideboard. Born Gary Cantrell, he first came upon the name Lazarus Lake in a phone book while running across Tennessee. Initially, he used it as his email handle, but it soon morphed into his ultrarunning persona, and now it's unshakable.
Laz's family comes from Oklahoma, but when his father got a job working on the space program in the 1960s, they moved to Tullahoma, Tennessee. It was here, in 1966, that Laz's father saw a news report about a family in Texas who jogged.
"It's not a matter of 'Did you break?' It's a matter of 'How far can you make it before you break?'"
"It became the first running craze," Laz said, "and my dad started going to the track every day with his buddies from work to try and run an eight-minute mile." Laz, who was twelve at the time, accompanied his father on these excursions. "It was the first thing I was able to beat him at, and my dad was very competitive. When you won, you won because you won."
At five feet tall and seventy pounds in his sophomore year of high school, Laz naturally drifted to the cross-country team. One day, the team ran from Tullahoma to the neighbouring town of Estill Springs and back again. "It was just so cool running from one town to another. It kind of stuck with me."
Laz had always known that extreme long-distance running was possible. In Oklahoma, his father had grown up on a farm next to Andy Payne, who in 1928, at age twenty, won the Transcontinental Footrace, a PR spectacle popularly known as the Bunion Derby totaling 3,422.3 miles in eighty-four days.
In the 1970s, there were only a couple hundred ultrarunners at most, and only a handful of official ultramarathons. None were in Tennessee. So Laz set up his own, the Strolling Jim, a forty-mile race named after a champion walking horse. "I wasn't very fast," Laz said, "and I didn't have outstanding endurance, but I could take a lot of punishment."
While crewing for another runner at one ultra, Laz was passing the time by knocking back a few beers. The race had long since started, but he was feeling good. Really good. "I reckoned I could start now and beat them all. I ran like the wind. I kept flying. Best twelve hours I've ever had. And I thought I'd discovered the secret to ultras—beer! I had the answer! But it was only the answer that day. I tried it again and it was a catastrophe."
Today, Laz coaches basketball at the local high school, but for most of his career he was an accountant, a job he enjoyed for its mental challenges. "I used to love being given an insoluble problem—you can't figure out how to do it, and you're frustrated, and you might walk away from it a time or two and say, 'I fucking give up!' But then you let it roll around in your head. And when you solve it, you say, 'Man, that was fun.' But no, it wasn't! It sucked the whole time! You kept doing it because it needed to be done. We need challenge to be happy. We need things to be hard."
In May 2016, a runner named Robert Young made national news when he announced his intention to break the record for running across the United States. Young started off at a remarkable pace, averaging more than seventy miles a day, uplifting a nation as word of his heroics spread through social media. But not everyone was impressed.
"He was posting pictures of himself on Facebook doing handstands on the road, playing soccer with a bunch of kids!" Laz said. "On a real journey run, you only have time to run, treat your injuries, and rest." There was only one conclusion: "The guy clearly wasn't doing it." Laz suspected that Young was riding in the back of his support crew's RV when nobody was around. So he and his wife decided to go to St. Louis and follow him.
Laz drove behind Young, walked alongside him, and even offered a few tips. "We dogged his ass every step of the way." Young had been running for twenty-four days up to that point. Within five days of Laz's arrival, Young sought treatment at a hospital.
"He was really a nice guy, but he was a fraud," Laz said with a sigh. "All I really wanted to see was that he suffered the way you're meant to suffer." (Young has denied any wrongdoing.)
Seven hours into the race, three runners have already dropped out. It's not until 11:12 a.m. on Saturday that Gary Robbins and dark horse John Kelly trot up the road together to finish the first loop. Any chance at finishing the race under the time limit is now seriously unlikely.
Robbins darts back to his tent to repack food, new headlights, and clothes, while Kelly, his knees already bleeding from the saw briars, gets sprayed with sunblock—it's going to be 80 degrees today. Just as the two differ in their strengths, so too are their camps a study in contrasts. Robbins's giant space-age tent has been dubbed the "Tent Mahal." Kelly, meanwhile, is fed and changed at the yellow gate in full view of everyone. A hush surrounds the Robbins camp, whereas billowing wood smoke and chatter churn out of the Kelly campground across the road as his Carhartt-clad family floods in to offer support. Other runners arrive in groups of two or three.
The preferred food during the Barkley is junk: chocolate doughnuts, whoopie pies, peanut-butter-and-Nutella sandwiches, instant potatoes—anything that delivers the most calories with the least chewing. One runner weeps as her support crew shovels macaroni into her mouth.
Some runners finish the first loop but shake their heads at the gate: They're not going back out there. After thirteen hours of slogging up 40 degree gradients, who wouldn't want to give in to the siren song of tent and sleeping bag? "Taps" is played. The hours pass.
Word trickles back that Mike Wardian, who was considered a serious contender, was last seen charging through the undergrowth in confusion. A search party is just about to leave when he finally trots back in. It's taken him more than fifteen hours to complete the loop. He's over the cutoff time.
After thirteen hours of slogging up 40 degree gradients, who wouldn't want to give in to the siren song of tent and sleeping bag?
"I've never had to chase a cutoff before," he says, baffled, as if he finally feels what it's like to be mortal. He rubs a tired hand over his face. "But you know what? I had a great time out there." A few hours later, he is already considering the Knoxville Marathon the following day. Of the forty starters, twenty-four begin loop two.
By Saturday night, the temperature has plummeted from 80 degrees back to 40. Laz stands at the gate, accounting for every arrival, departure, and DNF (Did Not Finish). Locals from the nearby town of Wartburg, who know the woods well, come to watch the exhausted runners stagger to the gate. A former guard at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary named Mark, who with his bald head and shades and leather biker gear cuts a severe figure, was the first person to show Laz the old coal-mining trails around the prison.
Robbins and Kelly arrive together from loop two at 10:00 p.m. and immediately head to their campsites to eat and power-nap. They're both out of camp again by 11:10 p.m.
Most runners quit during loop two, and the ones dropping out now are crushed and sour, their bodies beaten. There are tales of loose rocks and thorny trip wires. One runner estimates he fell down more than two hundred times. The weary, off-key notes of the bugler sound throughout the night.
When dawn breaks on Sunday morning, the campground has the air of a battlefield encampment. Feet stick out the back of SUVs. Laz snoozes in a camp chair next to the gate. Mike Versteeg, who bailed out on loop two, strums aimlessly on a guitar. "Why can't I be good at something that doesn't make me feel miserable?" he says to no one in particular. Megan Farrell, the fastest woman on loop one, who dropped out the night before, is more philosophical. "I have a friend who believes in type-one fun and type-two fun. One is fun you have now. Two is fun you enjoy later on. This is definitely type-two fun."
At 10:42 a.m., Robbins and Kelly appear in lockstep. The wear is starting to show, and their appetites have been destroyed. A member of Kelly's team wedges a slice of pepperoni pizza into his mouth as he starts the next loop.
Loop four is where the Barkley turns from a collaborative endeavor into a competition. Whoever finishes loop four and gets out of camp first can choose their direction for loop five, at which point the runners are forced to split up, with one running clockwise and the other going counterclockwise. Clockwise is generally seen as the slightly easier direction. "John can't outrun Gary, but he knows the course better," Laz muses. "Maybe he'll take a tactical break—let Gary go off by himself, hoping he gets lost."
Laz directs five races besides the Barkley. There's the Big Backyard Ultra, a race through the woods around Laz's house in which participants must complete a four-mile loop every hour until only one runner is left. In 2014, two competitors were locked in a dead heat after forty-nine hours of running. The race only ended because one of them had to catch a plane.
Then there's ARFTA—A Race for the Ages—in which runners have staggered start times depending on their age: If you're eighty years old, you start eighty hours before the set finish time; if you're thirty, thirty hours before. Whoever completes the most laps of the one-mile-loop course is the winner.
And then there's the yearly Last Annual Vol State Road Race, a five-hundred-kilometer race across the whole of Tennessee in July. "After so many days on the road, you know you have a job and a family, but that's more like something you read about once in a book," Laz said. "The real is what's in front of you, and you break down your life into 'What am I going to drink?' 'Where will I find something to eat?' 'Where will I take a shit?' 'Where am I going to sleep?' And that's really all that matters. It strips you down."
In a way, Laz's races can be viewed as a form of artistic expression. Like any artwork, they are designed to make you feel something—pain or inspiration, motivation or despair. The meaning is subject to interpretation.
Laz doesn't run anymore. After one hundred thousand miles, his legs finally gave up on him. Now retired from his accountant job, he concentrates on directing his races and being a trickster figure to the ultrarunning community, which has grown exponentially since the 1970s. Most ultrarunners today like their races to be run on single-cut trails, in spectacular landscapes, with plenty of aid stations and a feeling of communal optimism and high-five congratulation.
"It's much slower now," he said. "Originally, everyone who ran was serious and competitive. Now people just do it to do it. They race now not necessarily to finish their best but to finish with the minimum of discomfort." Laz also frowns on the use of pacers, earbuds, and conventional running advice.
"Starting out 'too fast' has become a lost art," Laz wrote in one of his occasional columns for UltraRunning magazine. "It has come to be defined as an error rather than a crucial part of a runner's signature performance. . . . The thrill of achieving a result that seemed beyond reach is greater than the thrill of merely surviving can ever be. But that thrill cannot be known without risking a poor result, a death march—or even a DNF."
At 12:05 a.m.on Monday, two lights are seen on the hill. Robbins and Kelly run in hard and slam their hands on the yellow gate. They both look awful, though Kelly looks weaker. His right leg is bent inward and his mouth hangs open. Falling into his camp chair, he flinches every time his feet are touched. "You look good," a crew member lies. Who will leave camp first? After twelve minutes, it's Kelly who gets unsteadily to his feet and touches the gate to signal he is starting loop five. He chooses clockwise and hobbles off up the trail, his eyes glazed. Eleven minutes later, Robbins comes out of his tent and stiffly walks to the gate as his wife spoon-feeds him mashed potatoes. He touches the gate, kisses her, and then speeds back down the hill. Last year, both these runners made it to the last loop but failed to finish. "It's like hanging from a ledge by your fingernails—it hurts so bad, but you can't let go," Laz says.
At 6:45 a.m., it starts to rain heavily. Kelly didn't take any waterproof clothing with him.
"One hour!" Laz shouts at 12:42 p.m.
The rain starts to ease up.
Still no sign of either Robbins or Kelly.
Laz is just about to call out thirty minutes when a cry comes from down the hill. A deathly pale figure is jogging up the hill, an orange beanie on his head and a plastic bag wrapped around his shoulders. It's Kelly! The crowd breaks into cheers, and as he runs in and lays both hands on the gate his usually impassive face breaks into a sobbing grimace. Laz wipes something tearlike from his eye and counts the pages. They're all there. John Kelly is the fifteenth finisher of the Barkley Marathons.
After getting to the last book, Kelly says he checked his watch and saw he had an hour and forty minutes left. Plenty of time, he thought. He checked again, but now it read one hour and twenty minutes; he had passed out on his feet. In a panic, he realized he had to run not only to get back in time but also to make sure he wouldn't fall asleep again. One of the locals points out that the orange beanie he found most likely came from a prison work detail in the park. There is no prize money for Kelly. There is no medal. But as Laz says, "Those who know what you did know that you did it."
I spoke to Kelly a week later. He was suffering the dreaded Barkley hangover. "It's like every physical ailment I've ever had in my life all at once," he said. Kelly was proud of what he had done but seemed pretty sure that he was not going to run it again. "I'd had this grand vision in my head that I would get my final page and I'd enjoy the moment and look down over my daddy's farm. In reality, I got my page and it was foggy and rainy and I was so far gone I couldn't see a thing."
"It's like hanging from a ledge by your fingernails—it hurts so bad, but you can't let go."
There's still no sign of Robbins. "Fifteen minutes!" shouts Laz. Runners go up the hill in the direction Robbins is expected, to cheer him along.
"Five minutes!" shouts Laz. Robbins's wife appears distraught.
"One minute!" Everyone is looking up the hill when suddenly a sound comes from the other direction. It's Robbins! He's sprinting up to the gate, but from the wrong direction. He's drenched to the bone and throws himself, grunting, at the gate before collapsing to the ground.
"I got all my pages!" he cries. "I got all my pages!"
"He got all his pages," repeats a voice in the crowd. "He got all his pages."
Laz looks at his watch. It reads 60:00:06. Robbins is six seconds too late.
Still lying on the ground, Robbins gasps that he found the last book but then the fog came down again, and just two miles from the race's end he took a wrong turn. He realized this too late but thought if he could get back to the gate in time. . .
Laz shakes his head; Robbins went off the course. For all his effort, he's just another DNF. Even some of the veterans are teary-eyed. The week after the race, Robbins will receive several emails that he'll describe as "wonderful and appreciated," signed Gary Cantrell, not Lazarus Lake. For now, Laz gives Robbins a hug and "Taps" is played. But unlike the previous thirty-eight renditions, this time it sounds genuinely forlorn.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.