Tennessee’s infamous Barkley Marathons
Photos by Geoffrey Baker
A mud-covered, briar-scratched 22-year-old man, his hair adorned with burrs, pulled himself up Rat Jaw, a slick, steep slope of thorns and damp grass. He was naked from the waist up, except for the worn yellow pack, sticky and wet with old gels and half-eaten bags of rice, clinging to his shoulders.
“Barkley,” he yelled, “you have taken my blood, my pride and my strength and left me nothing.” He pulled himself, step by step, up the hill. “And so I will strip you bare!”
Semi-delusional after 50 non-stop hours of running through damp, hilly forests at the 2013 Barkley Marathons, Nickademus Hollon imagined he could do physical harm to the grueling race. Earlier, he had dipped his fingers into the clayish Tennessee mud and rubbed it across his face, his arms and his chest, thinking it was “Barkley blood.”
Nick, of San Diego, California, was on the fifth and final loop of Barkley, a notoriously difficult 100-mile race through Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. As Nick’s girlfriend, I was crewing for him along with his mother, Marina Parenti, and his father, Troy Hollon. Of the 10 or so climbs in the race, the water station at the top of Rat Jaw—just a few gallon jugs on a table—was the only place we could watch him on the course. There were no aid stations doling out hot pasta or saccharine cookies. Runners were on their own in some of the nastiest terrain east of the Mississippi for 20 miles at a time.
With less than 10 hours left before the 60-hour cutoff, Nick needed to hustle. Of the 40 starters, only Nick and one other were left.
A runner faces down Testicle Spectacle, one of Barkley’s brutal climbs
Mention that you plan to attempt “Barkley” to a trail runner and you’re likely to receive one of two responses. Those who know nothing about the bizarre event will stare blankly. Those in the know will likely exhibit respect.
And, indeed, their respect is warranted: the 100-mile Barkley course is made up of five 20-mile loops, with more than 60,000 feet of gain and 60,000 feet of loss. For perspective, the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run, considered one of the most difficult 100-mile races in the world, has just under 34,000 feet of gain. Many runners don’t even make it through Barkley’s first loop. Race director Lazarus “Laz” Lake, 60, of Bell Buckle, Tennessee, hides 11 books along the course. Runners must find every book from directions provided the night before the race, rip out an assigned page and present all 11 pages to Laz at the end of every loop. There are no trail markings. The course is a series of indistinguishable hills covered in damp yellow leaves and half-rotten logs, with thick patches of briars that break the skin on runners’ legs. Inclement, unpredictable weather, including deep fog, pouring rain and even snow, adds to the difficulty. In 2012, muggy temperatures and hot sunshine gave runners cramps. In 2013, a late spring snow made for a slow, slippery course.
Laz decorates the campground with license plates brought by Barkley “virgins.”
Since the race’s inception in 1986, only 14 of the roughly 1,000 runners who have tried Barkley have completed it. More than half of the contestants each year are previous Barkley veterans. Frozen Ed Furtaw, author of Tales from Out There, a historical account of Barkley, has attempted the race more than a dozen times. 1999 Hardrock winner Blake Wood tried Barkley eight times between 1997 and 2011, but only finished once, in 2001.
“The hardest part is returning to the start every lap,” says Wood, now 56, of Los Alamos, New Mexico, “which makes it very tempting to stop.”
Barkley gets harder each year, as Laz increases the amount of climbing by adding another hill or changing the course. Laz, a pepper-bearded, trench-coat wearing, chain-smoking man with a literary bent (he has authored three books about his pit bull Big, and writes race reports in free verse) wants to see people challenge themselves on the near impossible. More often, however, he sees even the most impressive runners fail.
In one race report, Laz, in his characteristic lower-case style, writes, “for all the talk about exploring human potential, and seeking our limits, ultrarunners tend to play it safe. they line up ‘challenges’ they know they can finish and run them carefully well within their ‘limits’ … at the barkley, success is about over-reaching our abilities, and living to tell about it. sometimes, success is getting your ass out alive.”
The race bibs, too, have a dark sense of humor
Even Laz hasn’t finished his own race, despite his hefty ultrarunning background. “I tried Barkley five times,” he says, “and I failed all five times.”
Laz began running in 1966, with high-school track and cross country, but it wasn’t until 1979 that he attempted his first ultramarathon. Most of the ultras he has run over the years—the Original Mississippi 50 and the Haverford 48-Hour, for example—no longer exist, says Laz.
While Barkley is Laz’s most infamous creation, he’s also responsible for directing the Strolling Jim, a road ultramarathon that takes runners through quaint Tennessee towns, and Vol-State, a 500-kilometer (310-mile) race that begins with a ferry ride across the Mississippi river in Dorena Landing, Missouri, and finishes in the Sand Mountains of Georgia. But it’s the Barkley Marathons, and the trails of Frozen Head State Park, that he’s most enamored with, year after year.
Laz designed Barkley after learning that James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., escaped from the local prison but only made it a measly eight miles through Frozen Head’s hilly terrain before being captured 55 hours later. “I thought what a ball-busting race that could be,” he says. “After backpacking a loop, I knew it had to be.”
In keeping with its eerie beginnings, the race is full of peculiarities. Laz infamously serves a traditional frozen-chicken dinner. (“The frozen part is just a myth,” says Laz; it’s burned to a crisp by the time it’s done grilling.) The books collected by runners have ironic titles like Fatal Terrain, Curl Up and Die, Next Week Will Be Better and Going Nowhere Fast. “Virgin” runners string used license plates from their home states around the campground; previous Barkley runners are required to bring flannel jackets in Laz’s size, and finishers are asked to bring a pack of cigarettes.
Prior to coming to Barkley, Nick had never DNF’d at a race. He knew difficult, or at least thought he did: his stout ultrarunning resume included the Badwater 135, a scorching-hot race across the floor of Death Valley; the Arrowhead 135, a self-supported 135-mile race during Minnesota’s frigid winter; and California’s vaunted Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which he ran at the age of 20.
When Nick signed up for Barkley, it seemed like the next logical challenge. His background was unusual for a would-be Barkley finisher, though. Most Barkley vets have had, in addition to long ultrarunning resumes, prior orienteering or thru-hiking experience. In 2001, the same year as his only Barkley finish, Blake Wood summited all fourteen peaks of Nolan’s 14, an off-trail adventure run in Colorado’s Sawatch Range (See “The Nolan’s Project”, page 96). David Horton, of Lynchburg, Virginia, the other 2001 Barkley finisher, won Hardrock in 1993 and set the then-speed record for the Appalachian Trail in 1991. Brett Maune, of Agoura Hills, California, who finished Barkley in 2012 in a course-record 52:03, currently holds the speed record for the John Muir Trail. With no orienteering exploits or record-setting speed hikes under his belt, Nick was a dark horse at Barkley.
Nick Hollon during the 2012 race
Like many runners, Nick had started running with his high-school cross-country team.
“I always noticed that everyone else would moan and groan about a 10-mile run,” he says. “I’d be the only one smiling.”
He continued running longer and longer distances, and finished his first marathon at the age of 15, inspired by his mom, who had recently completed her first 26.2.
When Nick was 17, a close friend was diagnosed with cancer. For his senior project—a requirement for high school graduation—Nick ran 3,000 miles over the 10 months of the school year, raising $10,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. At the end of the year, he capped off the project by running 100 miles—400 laps—around a high-school track.
His curiosity was sparked: if he could run 400 laps around a track, could he finish a 100-mile race? Could he go even farther? “I just kept looking for harder and harder races,” says Nick, and his Ultrasignup profile shows it: Nick’s run everything from the Fuego y Agua Survival Run in Nicaragua, a part-swimming, part-tree-climbing, part-running challenge, to the 330-kilometer (205-mile) Tor des Geants, arguably the hardest race in Europe, to the World’s Toughest Mudder, an obstacle race held in Las Vegas. But for Nick, Barkley was the race with the baddest reputation, and he needed to try it.
So Nick signed up—no easy feat in itself—for the 2011 race. With no official website, and no link to Laz’s email online, runners can learn how to apply for the race only through word of mouth, which often means searching out Barkley veterans. After some digging, Nick found a friend who led him to the coveted application instructions, which include sending in an application at a specific date and time, along with the race entry fee—$1.60—and an essay on “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run Barkley.”
Briar-scratched legs are typical at Barkley
“I was told this race is a pretty easy jaunt through some hills and fog in Tennessee,” Nick began his application email. “Attached also is a race resume in case my amazing and outstanding essay isn’t enough.”
“I don’t mind getting down and dirty, ripped up and destroyed,” he wrote in his essay below a picture of himself in a narrow slotted cave. “In fact, I did that on a daily basis while I was studying abroad in Mexico! Most claustrophobics would have died here; I personally like wiggling in small holes, devoid of oxygen!”
Nick was informed by email a few weeks later that he was #19 on the waitlist. Then, two weeks before the race, Nick received another email from Laz. “We wish to extend our heartfelt condolences,” the email began, “over your recent selection to the field of the 2011 Barkley Marathons, being held at Frozen Head State Park. We do not believe this is any way the result of God turning his back on you. Bad things sometimes happen to good people. With the sincerest sympathy, Laz.”
Nick had just enough time to practice his orienteering and pour over every map of Frozen Head State Park he could find. He arrived at Barkley the least prepared he had ever been for a race: no race-tailored training, no nutrition strategy and only an abstract idea of what to expect.
On the morning of the race, Nick and 39 other runners groggily edged their way to the race start, a bright yellow gate at the edge of the campground separating pavement from the leaf-cushioned trails of Frozen Head State Park. The night before, Nick had picked up his race packet from Laz himself at the “pre-race check-in,” the picnic table at Laz’s campsite. Written next to his name were the words “human sacrifice.” Every Barkley has had a human sacrifice, someone Laz chooses believing that the runner has no chance of making it through even a single loop.
Fist pumping at the start
Nick took the label in stride, and managed to finish more than 60 miles of the course, or the Barkley “Fun Run,” a whimsical name for completing three loops. Still, it was Nick’s first-ever DNF.
“It wasn’t so much of a failure thing,” he says. “I was actually pretty happy to have made it that far. I’d finally met my match: a race I couldn’t complete. That was something I’d been searching for since I was 17.”
Nick eagerly applied to the 2012 race. Weeks later, as he began preparation for his final exams, Nick received an email that began, “My condolences …”
“Although I’d been fortunate to make it into the race again, I was giving more time to maintaining my GPA than I was to training for Barkley,” says Nick, then a senior at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. In his training runs, he practiced bushwhacking through thick brambles and looked for the steepest climbs around campus. A few months later, he returned to Tennessee. With other runners, he waited at the start for Laz to light his cigarette, which functions at Barkley like starters’ pistols do at other races.
“I took off like a bat out of hell,” says Nick. He started the race with headphones, heavy dubstep blasting into his ears. He ran past everyone, arriving at the first hill minutes ahead of schedule, with no one else in sight. He kept running and missed the next hill. It was just a few hours into the race, and Nick was already off course. In his first loop, he wasted more than an hour and a half, but still came through in a speedy nine hours.
Loop two passed uneventfully, but during loop three, the midday heat was beginning to get to him and he had difficulty keeping food down. “My stomach now felt like barbed wire was crawling around inside of it,” he later wrote.
At the start of loop four, more than 32 hours into the race, the effects of sleep deprivation set in. Fyke’s Peak, one of the larger hills on course, “looked like Mount Everest,” Nick wrote. “My mind told my eyes that there were creatures darting in and out of the shadows. I told my mind there was nothing there. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, but I wanted to keep moving.”
Minutes later, his foot slipped on the mud and slick briars covering the ground. He hit the ground face first and passed out. He came to more than 30 minutes later, with no idea of where he was.
“I had to take off my backpack and investigate what was inside of it to understand what I was doing,” he says. “It wasn’t until I found the Frozen Head State Park map that I remembered I was in Barkley.” Nick was out of time and out of his mind. He DNF’d for the second time at Barkley.
Runners at the top of the Testicle Spectacle climb
On the last weekend of March 2013, on the afternoon before the start of Nick’s third attempt at Barkley, his parents and I arrived at the campground. I had only been dating Nick a few months, but it was long enough to know that his training runs weren’t of the structured variety practiced by top runners. There were no mapped routes, no target paces and certainly no schedules. Rather, Nick would find the steepest climbs he could and repeat them for hours at a time. When he wasn’t working on elevation gain, he’d turn to mileage, topping out around 90 miles per week. In other words, it seemed like perfect preparation for Barkley.
People milled about in the rain-dampened campground. Tents and tarps stretched between leafless oaks, and smoke spiraled up from the fire at the far end of the campground. Veteran runners like Frozen Ed Furtaw, Tim Englund and husband-and-wife team Alan Abbs and Beverly Anderson-Abbs, then 48 and 43, of Red Bluff, California, gathered under a white tarp, huddled in groups.
“Can you hold this?” asked Laz, passing his cigarette to me. He wore a neon orange beanie, old jeans and a flannel; in the next three days, I wouldn’t see him in anything else. That evening, Nick headed to bed early while other runners talked excitedly about what might unfold over the weekend.
Waiting for the starting gun, er, cigarette at the 2012 Barkley Marathons.
Barkley doesn’t start at a consistent time every year. Laz blows a conch shell sometime between 12 a.m. and 12 p.m. on the morning of the race. At the fog-horn-like blast of the conch, runners have one hour to prepare their gear and head to the start.
The conch shell sounded at 8:04 a.m. the next morning. It was drizzly and damp, and the temperature hovered in the low 40s. Runners emerged from tents, trailers and trucks, scarfing down toast and bars and moving toward the bathrooms, which housed the campground’s only heater. An hour later, in rain gear and gaiters, they shuffled to the start. John Fegyveresi, then 36, of State College, Pennsylvania, and Jared Campbell, 33, of Salt Lake City, Utah, who had both finished the year before and were back to run again, wished Nick good luck. Bev and Alan Abbs, readied their gear; they were running the course together. Brett Maune, 33, the current Barkley course record holder, was there crewing for Travis Wildeboer, also 33, of Winter Park, Colorado. Nick looked back at where I stood with his parents and smiled. Just then, Laz lit his cigarette, took a long drag and blew out a thin stream of smoke that sent 40 runners into the forest.
Eight hours later, as dusk settled into the campground, Nick came running in from his first loop with Bev and Alan Abbs, Fegyveresi and, minutes behind, Wildeboer. Campbell, in first place, had come in almost an hour earlier. As crew members attended to their runners, we stuffed gels, bars and bags of sticky rice, along with warmer clothing, in Nick’s pack. He wouldn’t be back here until early the following morning and temperatures would drop into the 20s overnight. Marina smiled at me. “He’s got this,” she said. Already 19 of the 40 starters had dropped.
Using a downed power line as a fixed rope on Rat Jaw.
Above Frozen Head, full clouds threatened rain. Nick took off to find Wildeboer, who was a few minutes ahead. Says Nick, “I knew he was running strong and I figured I might as well keep up.”
Thick fog set in. “I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of me,” says Nick. “My visual field was reduced to a radius of five feet around me.”
Every few seconds, the pair stopped to check that they were on the right path. As the night went on, the temperatures dropped. Nick began shivering; he was wearing only running shorts, a light rain jacket and weightlifting gloves. He thought back to Arrowhead 135, where temperatures were -40 degrees. If he could survive those conditions, he could get through this.
By the second morning, another 16 runners had dropped. After each DNF, Laz had played “Taps” on his bugle, another Barkley tradition. The charred, smoky smell of burning meat stung my eyes; Laz’s traditional chicken thighs were on the grill, where they had been cooking for what seemed like hours. His dog, Little, a sweet-natured pit-bull mix, eyed the meat. “You know that’s not for you, Little,” Laz said.
Then: “Runner!” The cry came from a woman drowning in a puffy coat and a wool hat, peering into the woods. Nick came hustling through the yellow gate, handed a bag containing the 11 pages from loop three to Laz and stumbled toward the men’s bathroom. After two laps, he was in first place, with a long way to go.
Tim Englund (left) and John Fegyveresi hand in their book pages to Laz at the end of a loop.
Overnight, Nick had transformed. He looked rougher than I had ever seen him: dark bags under his eyes, a dazed expression on his face, legs swollen. He sat motionless in a chair we had placed next to the bathroom sinks, his wet clothes dripping onto the linoleum floors.
“You have to really, really want this now, Nick,” Marina said as she filled his pack with bags of instant mashed potatoes.
At this point, only five runners remained: Wildeboer, Bev and Alan Abbs, Fegyveresi and Nick. We let Nick sleep for 45 minutes, which mostly meant Nick shivering in our tent. A few campground spaces away, Fegyveresi, close to hypothermia, was shivering violently. He wouldn’t start a third loop.
Like Nick, Wildeboer had attempted Barkley in 2011 and 2012, and completed the Fun Run both years. The past winter, Wildeboer and his wife had lived out of their camper, traveling to some of the country’s toughest trails, including the Grand Canyon’s Kaibab Trail and the Cog Trail at the base of Pikes Peak, to train. Bev and Alan Abbs both added impressive race resumes to the field. Bev has a string of first-place finishes at dozens of races, from 15Ks to 100-milers, stretching back to 2000. Fegyveresi, a scientist living in Antarctica, had trained harder than ever, running 100-mile weeks with 35,000 feet of elevation gain.
Nick started his third loop five minutes after Wildeboer, but quickly caught up. At Indian Knob, a house-sized rock formation thrusting up from the top of a steep climb, the pair found Campbell who, in Nick’s words, “was broken and beaten.” He had been lost for seven hours on loop two, in an attempt to find a book that had been accidentally misplaced by another runner. Nick came running through just before sunset, with Wildeboer an hour behind. We fed him warm foods, bundled him up and, after a short nap, sent him out to loop four. Due to the extreme fatigue and nighttime navigation Nick would face, loop four would be the hardest part of the race.
Nick and Wildeboer were the only two runners left on the course; Campbell had completed three loops, but dropped after. For morale’s sake, the two decided to stay together. Not far into the loop, Wildeboer began singing and Nick joined along. This kept things lighthearted until the pair reached the fourth book, on a steep hill called Leonard’s Buttslide, where Nick, who had pulled ahead of Wildeboer, began having serious hallucinations. He heard a baby crying in the distance, and saw centipedes crawling on the trees. “Snakes on the ground turned into sticks when I stepped on them,” he recalls. “A porcupine and a weasel—possibly real, possibly not—were playing on the trail.” Wildeboer caught up to him shortly after, and the pair once again decided to stay together. Wildeboer had seen the ghosts of prisoners at The Bad Thing, a section of the course that leads runners through a water-filled tunnel bordering the prison. Nick could no longer remember that his companion’s name was Travis, calling him Trevor instead.
A few hours before dawn on the third morning, Marina, Troy and I were squished into our rental car, jackets and plastic bags of food scattered about as we dozed for a few hours. A loud rap on the window startled us. I pressed my face against the glass of the car window and made out a muddy, haggard figure: Nick was back early, fourth loop completed.
Nick plopped himself down in the bathroom chair, looking far older than he was. His shoulders slumped forward and his legs quivered. Marina bent down to untie his shoes. As she slid the first muddy shoe off, she gagged, then ran out the door. Nick’s feet smelled like rotting flesh, and his toes were wrinkled like they’d been in the pool for hours. But she quickly composed herself enough to return and adjust the hydration pack hanging from his thin shoulders.
Later, when I asked Marina why she was so gung-ho about crewing for Nick, she said, “I was sick of hearing about Barkley. I didn’t want this damn race hanging around anymore than Nick did.”
While we filled Nick’s pack with his favorite foods—a bean-and-cheese burrito, candy and instant mashed potatoes—Wildeboer headed out on loop five. Since there were only two runners left, Laz forced them to run in opposite directions, so they wouldn’t be able to team up and make it just a little bit easier on themselves.
Despite having run for 40-odd hours, Nick said he felt good as he began loop five in the light of day. He sang to himself. He saw scattered logs turn into pigs, and twigs become snakes. At some point during that last loop, he had the pleasant thought that the deer he was hallucinating were his parents and me looking out for him as he ran.
Just before dusk, the few remaining Barkley diehards gathered around the spitting fire. Laz, still wearing his orange beanie and flannel, had fallen asleep on a chair in front of the yellow gate, a lit cigarette in his hand. Someone gently took it from his fingers and stomped it out. Little lay curled next to him.
Suddenly, someone yelled, “Runner!” Everyone sprang to their feet. Laz was startled into a coughing fit, but calmed himself enough to watch Nick come tromping down the trail. I had never seen Nick run so hard in his life. His legs, clad in a plasticky Gore-Tex material, swished with every stride and his eyes, though bloodshot, focused solely on the gate ahead. As he hit the last few yards, he screamed a deep, primal cry.
57 hours 39 minutes 24 seconds after the start of the 2013 Barkley, Nick slammed his hand down onto the yellow gate for the fifth and final time. He leaned on the gate for support, while Laz counted the 11 soggy pages of the fifth loop.
Grinning, Laz held out a Staples “That Was Easy” button, another ironic twist to his race, and asked Nick to push it.
“No way,” Nick mumbled.
Jade Belzberg is a freelance writer living in San Diego and working on a historical fiction novel. You can find her online at www.jadebelzberg.com.
This article originally appeared in our April 2015/DIRT issue.