Taking on the ultimate ultra race: the Barkley Marathon | SierraSun.com

Taking on the ultimate ultra race: the Barkley Marathon

Elizabeth A. Davis
AP Sports Writer

Photo by Wade Payne/APBlood and scratches mark the legs of Barkley Marathon participant Jim Nelson as he makes his way down a short stretch of highway before entering the woods again Saturday in Wartburg, Tenn. Nelson completed the entire 100-mile course in 2004 but not this year. The race is considered one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world.

WARTBURG, Tenn. (AP) ” A failed escape into East Tennessee’s mountainous terrain by convicted assassin James Earl Ray in June 1977 gave Gary Cantrell an idea for a race that has become known as one of the world’s hardest ultramarathons.

Set on an unmarked, rugged course through briar-infested woods, the Barkley Marathon is so difficult some runners don’t consider it a real race.

Only six people have finished the entire 100-mile journey ” five times around a 20-mile loop in Frozen Head State Park ” in the allotted time of 60 hours.

Other participants choose the “fun run” of 60 miles, or three loops, in 40 hours. Most people are just happy completing one loop.

Ray, the confessed killer of Martin Luther King Jr., was captured 55 hours after his escape only 8 miles east of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, which is bordered by steep hillsides and the state park.

“In that length of time, I could have made 100 miles,” Cantrell, a long-distance runner and hiker, recalls saying back then.

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“It turns out it’s not that easy.”

Run since 1986, the Barkley has drawn the likes of athletes who hold speed records for the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails and made hobbies of running 100-milers such as the Western States Endurance Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Hardrock 100 in Colorado and the Badwater Ultramarathon starting in Death Valley.

Even military personnel including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets have tried it.

And then they find out why the Barkley has become known as “the race that eats its young.”

Truckee resident Kathy D’Onofrio, a 41-year-old ultra runner who plans to compete in her 10th Western States Endurance Run this summer, said she has heard a lot about the Barkley Marathon but has never competed in the race.

“I’ve always wanted to,” she said.

D’Onofrio has competed in four different 100-mile races: HURT 100-Mile Endurance Run in Hawaii, Leadville 100 in Colorado, Western States Endurance Run and Hardrock 100. The toughest of those, she said, was Hardrock, mainly because the high elevation. The second hardest was HURT, she said.

Don Allison, publisher of Ultrarunning magazine, said it takes a different breed of athletes to take on such brutal races.

“The whole sport is odd, but within the sport it’s even an odd kind of race because of the fact that it seems so difficult,” Allison said. “Those who do it seem to love it and embrace it. Others kind of look askance on it.”

An ultra race is considered anything longer than a 26.2-mile marathon. People outside the sport may not even know longer races exist, but there are many variations held on roads and trails that last for days or longer ” testing the limits of human endurance.

“We do things that most people think are impossible,” said 58-year-old Ed Furtaw, who recently ran in his 10th Barkley and was the first person to finish the “fun run” in 1988. “This event needs to exist. Otherwise, people won’t know what they can take.”

This year’s race began, appropriately enough, on April Fools’ Day and again had no 100-mile finishers.

Only two participants out of 33 ” Nick Gracie from England and Brian Robinson from California ” finished the “fun run,” but they came in a few minutes over the 40-hour limit and were not allowed to continue for a chance at the 100.

Temperatures near 80 on the first day made it difficult for the runners to stay hydrated, and only 22 completed the first loop. Five finished two loops.

Four hours and 34 minutes into the race, the first four racers emerged from the woods, crossed a curvy highway and hustled up a hill beside a small waterfall. Jim Nelson, who completed the 100 in 2004, had bloody cuts all over his legs.

About 30 minutes later they crossed the road in another place and climbed a steeper embankment overlooking the old prison in Petros, where Ray made his daring escape.

Ray, who died in 1998 while serving a 99-year sentence for King’s murder, was found cowering under a pile of leaves. The prison’s warden was quoted at the time as saying: “You might get over the wall, but you’ve got to get over a new wall ” and that’s the terrain.”

The Barkley course starts in a campground in the park in Wartburg, about 40 miles west of Knoxville in the Cumberland Mountains.

Racers might run in a few spots on the Barkley. Crawling and sliding is acceptable. Much of the course is up and down steep hills. The entire 100 miles would total 100,000 feet of elevation change, the equivalent of climbing and descending Mount McKinley two and a half times. McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, is 20,320 feet.

“You can’t understand unless you’ve done it,” Cantrell said. “There are hills you can actually stick your hand out and touch the ground without bending over.”

Cantrell, who declared on this year’s entry form that “the Barkley will squash you like a bug,” said the origin of the marathon’s name was rather prosaic ” Barkley is the last name of the man who provides chicken for the pre-race meal.

Cantrell signals the start of the race by lighting a cigarette. The racers ” only 35 are allowed each year ” start making their way with a topography map, compass and detailed instructions to find the intended path, which often is overgrown with briars and downed trees. It gets really tricky in the dark, even with flashlights.

Unlike other ultramarathons, there is no aid except two water drops. If a person quits, he has to walk back to the start, where “Taps” is played on a bugle.

People who finish the course sleep very little and eat even less as the hours go by. Those who make it to the fifth loop often have hallucinations, and some have gotten disoriented and forgotten why they were out there.

“It’s a slow death,” said 56-year-old David Horton, who finished the Barkley in 2001. He was an observer this year after completing the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails last year.

“This is harder to finish than those (trails),” he said.

Despite the incredible difficulty, the participants share a sense of humor about their mission.

“What we’re doing is kind of absurd,” Furtaw said. “We’re crazy, and we know it.”

Sylas Wright contributed to this story.