The runners’ bibs say something different each year: SUFFERING WITHOUT A POINT; NOT ALL PAIN IS GAIN
May 7, 2011 9:41 AM   Subscribe

The Immortal Horizon: Thirty-Five Runners Face Hollers and Hells, a Flooded Prison, Rats the Size of Possums, and Flesh-Flaying Briars to Test the Limits of Self-Sufficiency in a race only eight men have ever finished.
posted by The Whelk (37 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Doc Joe, by the way, really is a doctor.

Fascinatingly extreme event and a reminder that in true endurance situations, it is often the terrain/obstacles that outweigh the total distance to travel.
posted by malusmoriendumest at 9:49 AM on May 7, 2011


If you're not from the southeast, by the way, you may not pay much attention to the "saw briars." They are, however, bad enough to render terrain impassable. They tend to grow in large tangles; I've seen briars covering half-acre meadows. The classic "briar patch" is more along the lines of blackberry briars, which are passable with difficulty; I would walk hours out of the way to bypass a sawbriar tangle.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:56 AM on May 7, 2011


That's a fascinating story, and damn well written. I must admit to a few moments of skepticism over whether this was fiction masquerading as non-, but wikipedia and the Washington Post have set me straight.

That said, however, the stuff like this scattered throughout the piece...
The first race was a prison break. On June 10, 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and fled across the briar-bearded hills of northern Tennessee [...] "This is almost exactly the same place James Earl Ray went over," the instructions say. "Thanks a lot, James." [...] Thanks a lot, James—for getting all this business started.
...makes me squirm a little. The race is basically celebrating the time Dr. King's assassin escaped (however incompetently and temporarily) from prison? That seems... in questionable taste.
posted by dersins at 10:02 AM on May 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


If you want to see what this race can do to one's feet...
posted by Trurl at 10:09 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have a buddy who does this race... toughest guy I've ever met. He did Hardrock alone without a pacer -- that's how you get invited to participate in the Barkley. I believe the most he's ever completed out there is a single loop.
posted by ph00dz at 10:27 AM on May 7, 2011


This will not be the last time, I suspect, that I catch Barkley at the game of crafting its own legend.
That's the money quote; I suspect that much of the mental and physical challenge of the race comes from running an unmarked route without the help of GPS, following deliberately erratic directions. I wonder how someone with Special Forces training in exactly that kind of thing would do with this race.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:47 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's a great piece, thanks for posting. I'm not much of an athlete, but I have done some endurance events (24-hour offroad motorcycle races) and she captures the feel of them really well. I managed a paltry 8 hours on the bike during my one Ironman-class attempt, at the end of which my arms had swollen to about half again their normal size from compartment syndrome and felt like there was a razor blade in each tendon. The guys who were finishing fought through that as a matter of course; I just gave up because it hurt too much.
posted by hackwolf at 10:53 AM on May 7, 2011


The race is basically celebrating the time Dr. King's assassin escaped

Huh. I didn't read it that way. More like, celebrating the terrain that kept a desperate escapee from actually escaping.
posted by rtha at 10:59 AM on May 7, 2011 [17 favorites]


Incidentally, one of the guys mentioned in the article, Charlie Engel, is his own interesting story... he's in jail now, having used the proceeds of some mortgage scheme to run across the desert. 'Course, that begs the question -- how do you punish the kind of guy who enjoys this stuff?

Also... when did the Believer get to be a good source of running articles? THE RACE THAT IS NOT ABOUT WINNING is also a great read...
posted by ph00dz at 11:03 AM on May 7, 2011


I have to agree, my immediate reaction was that this is essentially a celebration of the "manliness" MLK's assassin.
posted by molecicco at 11:05 AM on May 7, 2011


As a born and bred hillbilly, who has spent his fair share of time climbing in and out of hollers with names like Devil's Hollow, and Fox's Hollow, and wandering around in briar patches, wondering what the fuck I was doing there, I have to say these people are nuts. Also, I'd love to read about this from the perspective of someone who participated. Some of us just know there are places you don't go unless you're not right in the head.
posted by dortmunder at 11:22 AM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, I'd love to read about this from the perspective of someone who participated.

From a Barkley virgin.
posted by Jehan at 11:48 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I entered the Barkley in the early 90's and never actually made it to the start line. I wrote the obligatory essay about "why I should be allowed to run the Barkley" marathon, got an entry spot, and talked to Gary Cantrell about training tips ("run lots of power line cuts -- they usually cut directly across the topo lines, best preparation you can do"). My plan was to try and get through the three lap "fun run" inside the cutoff. I wanted to see the course ahead of the race, so I convinced a buddy to go with me and we drove up to Frozen Head State Park in late February with the idea of fast-packing one lap of the Barkley. We had great weather for our lap. The course at that time followed some closed trails that had been built by the CCC in the 30's and had a lot of sections where the route was more of just an imaginary line on the topo map. We were both experienced at navigation in the back country, but still spent a bunch of time standing around with a topo map and a compass trying to figure out where we were. The course was a giant orienteering exercise. The ugly parts were the sections where the course just connects two hills with a valley in between and no trail: you are trying to go straight down or straight up some very steep hills. We were maybe 60% through the lap in about 6 or 7 hours and I severely sprained my ankle on one of the downhills -- it immediately swelled up like a balloon to the point where I had to take my shoe off. I crawled back uphill to an old railroad grade and we bivy'ed there for the night, then walked (or in my case, hopped on one leg) out on the railroad grade to a road. My buddy Ken then had a 15 mile run on roads back to the parking lot to get the car. It took a couple of months of PT before I was running again and of course I missed the Barkley. I've done plenty of trail racing since then, but haven't felt the desire to go back and try again. The navigation is pretty tricky (I thought) in the daytime because there is so much tree cover, you can't sight off any obvious landmarks. And this was in February; leaves would have been much more filled in by April. I can't imagine being out there at night, both from the perspective of trying to navigate or just trying to get down a 30 degree hill full of underbrush without doing what I did and spraining an ankle or breaking a leg.
posted by kovacs at 12:25 PM on May 7, 2011 [16 favorites]




Also, I'd love to read about this from the perspective of someone who participated.


Thanks. That was a good read.
posted by dortmunder at 12:55 PM on May 7, 2011


I hates the briers. I used to have to go down into the creek ravine next to the house and swingblade the brierpatch every year. That probably my least favorite job ever, growing up in Georgia.

Once, when I was a teenager, a few friends and I were in a neighbor's farm/garden on a lonely patch of land carved out of the woods not too far from our suburban subdivision. We had been dinking around for about 30 minutes when suddenly his pickup rumbles down the dirt road to the farm. Out he hops with his son. The father, from what we could see, was carrying a shotgun.

Needless to say we high-tailed it out of there lickety damn split. But the farmer, not content to let us just "git", actually ran after us, the crazy bastard! Our luck ran out when we ran into a greenbrier (aka sawbriar) thicket on the edge of his land. Try as we might, we just got cut up more. I remember the frenetic, cornered-animal look in Tony's face as we sat there in the briers, boodied and panting, staring at each other with wide eyes like a couple of hunted rabbits. But there was just no going through. And we'd run far enough in that we couldn't go sideways without turning back toward the farmer. It was either deal with the briers or the crazy-ass farmer.

Then the farmer shouted at us in the thicket to come out or he was going to start shooting. I shit you not, this guy actually threatened to fire indiscriminately into a brier patch where a handful of kids were hunched down cowering. In retrospect, I would like to think he was just bullshitting us.

So yeah, we sheepishly, slowly turned around to face justice at the hands of an armed, crazed farmer, rather than brave trying to muscle those briers again. Fortunately for us, the farmer was furious, but not violent. He angrily told us never to come back on his land or he'd call the cops and tell our parents, etc. We sheepishly walked past him and his son, past their truck and back to our neighborhood, nursing our bloody brier marks. Never did go down there again.

Damn briers.
posted by darkstar at 12:58 PM on May 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


More on Charlie Engle's legal problems from The New York Times.
posted by Floydd at 12:59 PM on May 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


I read an article a few years back about the Barkley, and it sounded awesome.

And it still does.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 1:05 PM on May 7, 2011


Incidentally, one of the guys mentioned in the article, Charlie Engel, is his own interesting story... he's in jail now, having used the proceeds of some mortgage scheme to run across the desert.

From the article: There are some strong virgins in the pack, including Charlie Engle, already an accomplished ultra-runner (he’s “done” the Sahara) and inspirational speaker.

Underlining mine. The moment you mentioned him, I immediately remembered who you were talking about from the article, and it's not because of the name or the desert.
posted by JHarris at 1:45 PM on May 7, 2011


An amazing piece of writing, truly exceptional.
posted by eeeeeez at 1:57 PM on May 7, 2011


My wife just ran a 5K "Rugged Maniac" race that included mud pits, cargo net climbs and tunnel crawls. It nearly killed her (she may have chipped her shin bone swinging it over one of the 7 foot walls on the course), but she loved it. This will give her nightmares.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:59 PM on May 7, 2011


> More on Charlie Engle's legal problems from The New York Times.

That's a truly frightening article.
posted by darth_tedious at 2:31 PM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Charlie Engle's prison blog is fairly interesting.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:46 PM on May 7, 2011


I've hiked at Frozen Head a few times, it's a nice little park and I can totally imagine off-trail running to be pretty brutal, even a lot of the trails are pretty steep. Whichever one we took the last time I was there we had to tackle a pretty big section by stepping up sideways the whole way since going straight ahead with our packs on might have made up topple over backwards.
posted by ghharr at 4:06 PM on May 7, 2011


That's a truly frightening article.

Holy shit, you aren't kidding. That Nordlander guy is the reason people are afraid of the IRS.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:04 PM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


one of the most ridiculous things i have ever read.
posted by cacofonie at 8:05 PM on May 7, 2011


Dortmunder, there's a bunch of articles from participants, plus a heap of photos here.
posted by bigZLiLk at 8:14 PM on May 7, 2011


Great read, The Whelk. Thanks for the link!
posted by brundlefly at 9:02 PM on May 7, 2011


This is incredible--defies credulity. If I had just read this article without any context, I'd have assumed this was fake. I'm still shaking my head that such a thing and such characters exist. And wonderfully captured as well. Thanks The Whelk.
posted by jng at 10:11 PM on May 7, 2011


Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist.
posted by inedible at 10:45 PM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Being a vegetarian in prison is like being a whore in church. Everybody looks at you funny but they all want to ask questions in private.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:10 AM on May 8, 2011


About 15 years ago I started shaving my legs for triathlons. When I stopped doing triathlons I kept shaving them because truth be told, I like the way my legs look with no hair. I have temporarily suspended the shaving of the legs. For so many reasons smooth legs just seem like a bad idea in prison.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:14 AM on May 8, 2011


Great article, thanks The Whelk!
posted by arcticseal at 12:44 AM on May 8, 2011


With the important caveat that everyone is entitled to enjoy whatever they want, and everyone's entitled to enjoy their own type of exercise: this, to me, is literally the antithesis of everything I strive for and believe in as a runner.

Contrary to what this piece - and many runners themselves - would tell you, pushing to your limit, beyond your limit, through your limit isn't hard; it's easy. It's one act: Go. Sure, it may be go faster, or go harder, or go longer, but it reduces to the brutal simplicity of go, of be fast. Just be the same. Keep being.

I used to be like this (Note: Not an ultramarathoner). Pushing myself, as hard as I could. Until I spewed, until I felt like my heart was going to beat itself out of my chest, until the diarrhea had me bent double, or my calves were cramped and felt like granite to touch.

It feels good. It feels unbelievable. You feel like a million dollars. Strong. Brave. Better. When everything is reduced to a simple yes/no like that, the simplicity is thrilling and addictive - whether or not you're racing anyone but yourself. It's primal; it makes worries at work look like little midges before a gale of strength and willpower. That's very empowering.

Of course, I got hurt once. No running for several months. Then I got hurt, more seriously, again. No running for >6 months that second time, and I had to confront the possibility that the next time, it might mean no running at all, ever.

That - for me - was when I started paying a bit more attention to what serious, long-term runners were saying, both training-wise, but more importantly philosophy-wise. All that time, I thought I had been pushing myself to the limit. But, really, that was no limit. On the contrary; it was limitless: go as fast, as long, as hard as you can, regardless of limit. Ignore your body, bend it to your will, conquer it and its pathetic nerve signals, and tendons, and tiny bones. That is not pushing yourself "to the limit", that's ignoring limits.

So I started slowing down - boy I felt a loser! Started staggering my training more. I stopped dry-retching during and after runs, and stopped having nights of cramps when my electrolytes got a bit too out of wack. Stopped taking stairs like an eighty year old because my ITB was tighter than a steel cable. Stopped being limitless, in other words, and started being limited.

It's a personal, private battle, I face on every run I go on - still, after years. Do I push myself for these last 5kms? Should I crank it up a notch? Am I really maximising my training?

Now, I feel like I finally understand what those runners were saying when they said the only person you're racing is yourself. I always thought that meant trying for a personal best, trying to beat yourself. But that - to me - is not it at all. I'm always racing against the guy that doesn't care about anything but the run, about his physical limits, about work that night, or the next day, or his partner at home. I'm racing against him, and the other guy - who never gets off the couch in the first place. Who is the real winner of that race?

Now, I'm not trying to keep being (fast). I'm just trying to be. Some days, that might mean fast, and some days that might mean slow, and either way it's OK. Because whether I'm running faster or slower, on the treadmill or outside, more fit or less fit, I'm running, and that's the main thing for me. I am just being, and if I can get that feeling I get when I finish a good run, after every run, then I really feel like I've achieved something special. I don't need to jog barefoot through sixty miles of tabasco mixed with pig shit and razor blades to get that. I can get that in 1/2 an hour on a Wednesday night in between work and going home to cook dinner for the love of my life.

That, for me, is the true lesson of being a runner, and I keep trying to learn that every time I put my sneakers on. That's the real race, I think, and I think that's a race every runner - from couch to 5km to ultra - can, should, and probably does learn. That's, for me, what being a runner means.
posted by smoke at 1:49 AM on May 8, 2011 [16 favorites]


Another great write up (with videos) from someone who has done the trail - shows the briar damage.
posted by AndrewKemendo at 4:04 AM on May 8, 2011


You could classify me an enthusiastic distance runner. I completed my 10th marathon last weekend (Eugene Marathon! Had an awesome time). and I've also made it through three ultra marathons. So far I've done just the 50km variety which wouldn't even qualify as a Barkley Fun Run.
I'm no stranger to the pain tank. I do a lot of trail running and often spend hours of the weekend alone, running slowly through the woods. In my experience, trail running is like going into a void. What I mean by that is that I get to focus on one task while everything else in my mind gets very quiet. My only responsibility is to move forward. I'll think about a ton of other things during my run, but ultimately the only thing I HAVE to do it is to MOVE FORWARD. If I move forward, it's because I make it happen. If I don't move forward, that's on me too. Sometimes it feels terrible and sometimes I don't want to keep moving forward. The nutrition and the training part get complicated. But in the end I know if I keep moving forward enough, eventually I accomplish amazing things like finishing a distance I never thought possible. The sense of accomplishment I feel after a training run or at the end of a big race is addictive. I seem to love having what appears to be a monstrous problem or a monstrous distance and have that distilled down to a very simple task that just needs to be repeated over and over again. It's elegant. I don't experience that same kind of simplicity or focus in my other daily activities.
So when I read the article about the Barkley Marathons I was tempted to be like, oh my god, that is crazy. Who would do that? But then I started thinking about the characters in the article and I read the race report linked in the comments. Their experiences and their attitudes toward running are not much different from my own. It was interesting to find myself identifying with those I had written off as crazy not long before.
posted by heatherbeth at 10:13 AM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, I guess I'm finally officially qualified to weigh in on all this ultra distance running stuff, since there's actually a (fairly small) picture of me in the latest issue of UltraRunning.

While I'm hardly the world's greatest ultramarathon runner, it's no coincidence that I appeared in the ultra distance newsletter of record -- I've done so many of these races that I've lost count. I haven't done any of the races I'd describe as "pure torture" -- things like Barkley or Badwater, but I have done two 100s, including the Western States 100 (18,000+ ft of climbing) last summer. I'm gearing up for the AC 100 this summer. Which is to say, I ran r2r2r in the Grand Canyon last weekend and still ran 40+ miles this week.

For most of us, it isn't about the competition at all. We tend to be older, more contemplative... Just to echo what heatherbeth is saying, training for these races involves very long periods of time, just the thing to quiet an active mind. People talk about meditation being about "being in the moment." For me, that's trail running. My brain is going: rock... rock... rock... was that a mountain biker? ... rock... rock...

It takes real patience to run vast distances. It also takes a certain kind of attitude about the world. I was chatting with a runner a few years ago at Man Against Horse and I was like, "What do you think connects us all together as people who do this stuff?"

... and, without missing a beat, he said, "It's the Island of the Lost Boys." The adventure of traversing miles of mountains with your pals. It's not expensive. It's not complicated. It's not exclusive. People are friendly. There are no short cuts, no fly honeys waiting for you at the end. (Unless you brought your own.) There's definitely a nice cold beer and a burger, though... maybe even some soup.

Ultramarathon running, just as a general sport, is in a really weird place right now. On one hand, we've got these amazing athletes -- people like Geoff Roes, Anton Krupica, Killian Jornet, Darcy Africa, Nikki Kimball, etc... and some epic races for essentially no prizes. Hardly anyone in the sport is professional, strictly speaking, in terms of that's the thing they do for a living and nothing else. As a solidly middle of the pack runner / fan of the sport, it's great since all those folks are just around and accessible, but I do wonder how long that'll last. Most of these events are totally low key... probably because it's perhaps the most boring spectator sport in the world.
posted by ph00dz at 10:55 AM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I really appreciate the comments by smoke, heatherbeth and ph00dz. I'm starting to gear up for RAGBRAI, and even though riding a bike is much less stressful to the body than running, I'm starting to grasp the magnitude of how much preparation I have to do for the thing. One of the things that I found out during my first century is how much mental discipline it takes to keep going, and that's what I think I want to rediscover, to get back, from this.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:40 PM on May 8, 2011


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