Another Barkley Marathons is in the books and the latest chapter has reaffirmed the race’s longstanding reputation of being as hard as any race comes with time running out on all 40 starters before anyone could complete a fourth much less a fifth lap. Though only 14 individuals have ever completed the 100-or-so mile run over the last three decades, it has been seven years since the race ended without a single finisher and what little media coverage was devoted to this year’s Barkley honed in on and parked solely upon the seeming preposterousness of all who started failing. Of course, the validity of that premise of preposterousness depends on your definition of failing and, regardless, it falls well short of capturing the full allure of the Barkley Marathons for those who show up with true intentions of five circumnavigations of the course.
“Those who perpetually seek their limits are drawn to Barkley because it is the perfect place to find them. And finding your limits is how you grow and how you learn about yourself. Those who say that the Barkley is pointless because of its “impossibility” are the ones missing the point.” –Heather Anderson a/k/a “Anish”, two-time Barkley participant and holder of the fastest known time for an unsupported thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail
I had never been to tiny Wartburg, Tennessee before, never stood by the famed yellow gate to see runners off or see them come back in (in varying states) to the Big Cove camping area at Frozen Head State Park. Every race report, snippet of YouTube footage, or article I’d come across painted a picture of inhospitable gloom that initially had me wishing that this race, no matter how much I wanted to witness it, could be held somewhere, anywhere else than at Frozen Head.
“I have always seen Frozen Head State Park as a dichotomy of sorts. Beautiful yet ferocious, calm yet hostile. Whenever I drive through those gates to Frozen Head and up to the campground, I feel an enormous peace settle over me. It feels like a homey place, where terrible things are going to happen, yet they will be contained within this magical corner of the world that has borders around it. A stage, perhaps. I like being on that stage, where nothing else matters except moving forward in the right direction.” –Nicki Rehn, three-time Barkley participant
A 10-hour, all-night drive in an early-spring thunderstorm that seemed to stretch from the East Coast all the way back across the country seemed an appropriate precursor to the festivities and it was almost a relief to arrive at the park in the deep darkness just before sunrise. When the sun did finally begin to filter light into the valley and splay across the surrounding ridges, it revealed a relatively colorless landscape, a stark, weathered woods posturing properly unwelcomingly and hung with a melancholy lingering from a winter that had just recently, and barely, departed.
Unless you looked a little closer.
Eastern forests stretched across stooped, aged Appalachian Mountains harbor a beauty that requires proper inspection, sometimes true introspection on the part of the viewer, and so they don’t often find their way into trail running centerfolds or grace wall calendars. Their trails don’t lead to expansive alpine overlooks, do not cling to seaside cliffs, or wind through otherworldly rock formations or towering cavern walls. Believed by geologists to predate the Himalaya, the Alps, and even the Rockies by millions of years, the elder statesman Appalachians are subdued, comparatively, in their presentation but are also the owners of an enduring resilience, a wisdom hard-earned from simply having been and remaining to be. They possess stories, important stories, stories that sometimes require a lean-in listening more intent than comes naturally to inhabitants of a modern world that tends to shout and clamor for attention. It’s not an ‘easy’ picture postcard beauty, but it is a rewarding beauty once recognized, IF recognized.
“A Tennessee sunset from the top of England Mountain or a sunset from Chimney Top can challenge almost any I’ve seen before. For me, the Barkley course really just feels like home and I can’t wait to get back.” –Jamil Coury, finisher of a three-lap ‘Fun Run’ at Barkley in 2013 and the only participant to go out for a fourth loop this year
Proclaiming the forest to be a dull grey is to unwittingly confess to a myopia that fails to appreciate life slowly bouncing back from a purposeful winter slumber. A closer look and listen reveals winter runoff feeding established creeks and forming rivulets where there are no creeks to feed in a relentless gravitational toppling from the ridgetops. That same moisture, coupling with the slowly creeping warmth of late March sunlight, is nudging buds from the tree branches and pushing up spring beauties, bloodroot, and trilliums, lovely wildflowers that shyly cloak their early growth behind and beneath a blanket of strewn, moldering leaves. The mountain laurel is not yet ready to bloom, counting the days until May, but a vibrancy is returning to its leaves and if you’re observant you can sense the gathering strength.
Birds abound and busy themselves with the finding of mates and the building of nests. Warblers, chickadees, titmice, and juncos flit about the campground. Listen and you’ll hear eastern bluebirds cheerily announcing their return and, while northern flickers and pileated woodpeckers leave the singing to others, there’s no mistaking the sound of their workmanlike hammering.
“April at Frozen Head certainly isn’t July at Hardrock, beauty-wise, but it IS beautiful, particularly at the small scale. The trillium are out and many paths are covered with violets. Trees are beginning to leaf out. Red-spotted newts are frequently seen on the trails. The creeks are bubbling and splashing. In 1997 we had comet Hale-Bopp hanging in the sky before midnight. I’ve certainly spent some beautiful spring days on the course.” –Blake Wood, eight-time Barkley participant and a five-lap finisher in 2001
A closer look reveals a geological smorgasbord and a topography of twists and turns shaped by water, water, so much water pushing and pulling across all of that varied rock for millennia on end. Those applied pressures are to blame (deserve the credit?) for the coal that led to the ravenous man-made sculpting on Frozen Head Mountain and the many other peaks in the surrounding area in its pursuit. The scars of old roads, industrious power lines, the now abandoned Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, and the left-behind detritus of hardscrabble life do not make the wish list of many trail runners but they do confirm the legacy of determination and survival of a people whose existence depended solely on their own labors, their dogged efforts to carve out a place of their own in the world. They may not have left an aesthetic, physical beauty behind, but the legacy of their striving against the odds is certainly poignant and worthy of respectful contemplation.
Much like the earlier settlers in this corner of Appalachia, as the 40 Barkley starters struck off on their first lap, they were striving against the odds, but striving nonetheless. Nature indifferently accepted their presence and carried on as it would had they not been there. Temperatures dipped at night. Cold wind and rain pelted the mountains and swept across the valleys on the second night of the race just as they would had there not been a single biped wandering about in the darkness. The Barkley wasn’t putting up a fight, so much as a choice few determined humans were fighting against their own physical and psychological limitations in an attempt to just… keep… moving. As happens every now and then, time ran long and eventually ran out entirely.
Despite the implied accusation of an ugliness in not finishing, in succumbing to exhaustion or the breaking of one’s will, there is beauty in striving, beauty in gathering strength again each spring, and climbing toward the sun despite the inevitability of the eventual return of winter, of time running out. There is beauty in wringing every last bit of “try” out of your being even in spite of the unlikelihood of being able to finish and regardless of there being absolutely no buckle, medal, or trophy awaiting should you finish.
And there is beauty too in the resolute support and patient waiting for a runner by her or his crew members whether they can or cannot fathom the reasons behind the runner choosing to give Barkley a go. There are no pacers, no “see you at the next aid station” send-offs, only hours and hours of waiting without word of progress or position to inform friends and family of the runners whereabouts or condition. In reality, full waking days can pass between loops. For hours on end, hope, worry, and a small circle of others with those same two and just those two things are the companions of anyone crewing at Barkley.
Sometimes life is just about trying, really trying, when there are no guarantees.
“I grew up at the base of Chimney Top on land that my family has been on for two centuries. I feel like I used to take the area for granted and I never fully appreciated its beauty and its unique character. I’ve seen a lot of people saying that they go to Barkley to be ‘crushed’ or ‘humiliated.’ I absolutely did not go to Barkley for any of those things. I realized that I might end up broken and beat, but I knew that I would give it my best and I would come out with a better measure of who I am and what I’m capable of. There is nothing humiliating about that to me at all… what would be humiliating to me would be to only do things that do not require a full effort and never really finding out where I stand.” –John Kelly, first-time Barkley participant and one of only two runners to complete a ‘Fun Run’ this year within the allotted 36 hours
Forty started, 40 strove, and in the eyes of many, 40 failed. Preposterous? Perhaps, but likely not.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Were you one of the 40 at the Barkley Marathons this year? What was your experience like?
- When was the last time you failed at something? What came of it, introspectively?
- And, when was the last time you started something you knew you probably wouldn’t finish?