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James Elson about his adventure at the Barkley Marathons 2019
La Sportiva UK ambassador James Elson reports his adventure at the Barkley Marathons, the 100miles self-supported ultra race with more than 70000ft of gain.
James Elson is not only race director of Centurion Running that runs classic 100 and 50 miler races, but he's also an incredible ultrarunner himself and a UK La Sportiva / Lyon Equipment athlete. Having travelled the world to conquer a truly epic list of bucket list races 2019 was the year James decided to head out to the US and find out what the Barkley Marathons was truly like.
Text by James Elson
Photos by Jack Atkinson
The Barkley is a truly special, one off event that happens in Frozen Head State Park. South-East Tennessee around April Fools weekend each year. This was the 34th time the event was held and part of the folklore of the event surrounds the fact that in that time, only 15 people have ever finished the race. Numbers are only so relevant here. The purported 5 x 20.00 mile loops, each with around 14,000 ft of climb (and descent) to total up 100 miles with 70,000+ of gain, each have a 12 hour cut off under which runners must make it in order to carry on and complete the distance under the total allotted 60 hour limit.
Beyond the physical challenge of ascending and descending so much over such a distance, the route is largely off trail. Which means traversing extremely difficult ground and coming into contact with a lot of the flora of Frozen head state park which is predominantly at this time of year, deadfall from the dense woodland and saw briers which tear runners to shreds. Then there is the self-supported nature of the race. Once a runner leaves on a loop they may accept no aid or help whatsoever, except from the other runners. They must carry on them what they require to survive a loop (and potentially much more if they end up getting lost), plus the map and compass which will guide them through the woods. No electronic equipment is allowed, no phone, no GPS, not watch - beyond the $12 Walmart digital watch the race director, Laz, gives you just prior to the start.
As Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell says, this is a test of man against the wilderness. No help is coming.
The race is somewhat shrouded in mystery, with no website and with course/ entry details remaining somewhat secret. Runners respect the stipulations of being a Barker - I won’t share anything on those subjects. But there are nuggets of info out there from previous runners and I was lucky enough this year to get to toe the line and learn something about what makes this such a special race, why the community is so strong here and why Frozen Head State Park is a special place.
Having learned I was one of the lucky 40 starters for 2019, I made preparations in the UK for specific training. A hard thing to do when one cannot see any images of the course or gain a true idea of the terrain. We also live in flat south-central England - so the majority of my conditioning came via climbing and descending short steep climbs in the woodland over at Wendover in Buckinghamshire. Wendover has a western flank that falls approximately 300 feet in 0.3 miles all the way along and for sessions I would repeatedly climb and descend that area for up to 7 hours at a time, clocking up a handful of sessions measuring just 13 miles with 10,000ft of climb and descent. One more substantial run in the Lake District allowed me to tip the scales at 100,000 feet of climb in the 25 days peak training block I had set myself as a target. This proved to be adequate training somewhat surprisingly, as I felt physically very strong during this year’s Barkley event.
I got used to going out in the wet, deliberately picking days with poor conditions to test footwear. My go to were the La Sportiva Mutants, but I rotated in use of the Bushido II and the Kaptiva, both offering great grip on the woodland terrain and good support. In the end I opted for the Mutant - as much as anything because the last two official Barkley finishers are also La Sportiva athletes and wore the Mutant to great effect - John Kelly and Jared Campbell. I felt really well prepared going into the race and had done as much research as I could.
One of the challenges one faces at the race, is not knowing when the start will be. There is a 12-hour window during which Laz will give runners just one hour of warning that the race will begin. He does this by blowing a conch shell and he blew this year at 08:23 meaning a 09:23 start. We all got ready and amassed at the start line. Part of the challenge of the Barkley loop is finding books that Laz has placed around the course as unmanned check points. They ensure each runner has traversed the actual route - when there are no markings to follow. In this area, veterans to the race have a significant advantage in that many of the book placings remain the same year on year and they are therefore able to find the books more easily on the whole. “Virgin’s” or new runners which referred this year to roughly half of us, often try to tag along to a veteran in order to gain a navigational advantage. I had thought beforehand that it would be great to hang out with say John or Jared who know the course better than anyone, but reality is that these guys are running at a really high level and imploding by trying to stick with them would be a fools endeavour. I also wanted to be responsible for my own race.
So we set off up the first climb and I made sure to keep referencing map and compass along with the written instructions. Over the first half of the loop, we got to see some incredible climbs and descents, not least the newly added section for this year - the Meatgrinder. I was partially alone and sometimes with others. But as we neared the mid-point I was caught from behind by a returning runner, Jodi Isenor. And he was gracious enough to work with myself and US 24hr team runner Steve Slaby through the remainder of the loop. His knowledge was invaluable. It was surreal and somewhat dreamlike to be climbing ‘Rat Jaw’ through the saw briers to reach the fire tower. To traverse under the prison through the waterlogged pitch black tunnel. And to experience just how steep some of the ground could be - Leonards Butt Slide/ Fykes Peak ascent which as an out and back featured 1300ft of loss (and then gain) in a 0.3 miles distance. Every climb and descent has a name at Barkley and Jodi helped us piece them together: Check Mate Hill, the Meatgrinder, Leonards Butt Slide, Little Hell, Rat Jaw, The Bad Thing, Zipline, Big Hell.
The course was everything I had hoped for and more and the 10.5 hours it took me to complete a loop were probably the most memorable hours I have ever had whilst running, everything was heightened and having forgotten to take the free watch from Laz I simply just didn’t know or care about anything other than going as fast as we could without making mistakes. We made no errors during loop 1 navigationally. The final climb up Big Hell, we were joined by Jared Campbell - the only three-time finisher of the race, who had injured his ankle badly on the first descent but who had struggled on using his poles as crutches to make it around a complete loop. To share the trail and some stories with him was a dream come true. He was extremely gracious given the disappointment of what had happened to him.
A quick transition was required between loops in order to make it out with as much time to spare and with 10:58 elapsed. My crew of two Drew Sheffield and Jack Atkinson made that possible, though it seems crazy to have a crew for ten minutes in each half day period. I left for loop two with Steve Slaby and Paul Giblin a superb Scottish runner who has finished top ten at WSER the last four years. We were then caught by Gavin Woody a strong Canadian runner and we found a lost French runner Remy Jegard a four time Barkley veteran, on top of the first climb. We proceeded on and somewhere between book 1 and 2, the heavens opened, the wind came in and extremely heavy rain came dumping down. It caught us unawares, given that it had been hot all day we were largely under prepared with lightweight gear for such conditions which really required full mountain equipment. Within an hour or so, my hands quickly became useless and the possibility of an accident on such severe terrain when already being dangerously cold was simply too much of a risk to warrant continuing on. I wasn’t 100% sure of the decision at the time, but as I turned and began navigating back to camp it became obvious that I had made the right decision. The rain turned to sleet and the fog blew in so that it became impossible to see more than a step at a time. Remy and I made it back to camp and Laz greeted us with taps and consolation. It felt like defeat.
The weather was not unusual, or particularly bad for Frozen Head, we just did not prepare for it as newcomers. All five of my group on the second loop came back within the space of a few hours.
Of the 40 starters, 28 finished under the loop 1 cut off and 22 of those made it out on to loop 2. Only 6 runners made the loop 2 cut off and each of those went on to finish a legal Fun Run - the name given to runners completing 3 loops in under 40 hours. Two runners began loop 4 but did not complete the lap. As in 2018, the 2019 race had no finishers.
Much of this story might read like lunacy. Some people would probably question the point of a race which is set up for there to be no finishers, most years. But as veteran David Horton says, “the point is that it is right out there on the edge of possibility.” Someone can and will finish this course one day.
They must be in exceptional physical shape. Be willing to put themselves in a horrible place for days on end. To have that deep need to finish. To be a competent navigator, to be self sufficient, handle extreme sleep deprivation and be able to focus when the brain is calling for nothing but for you to stop. And to be able to deal with the puzzle that is the Barkley Marathons.
One thing is for sure, this race gets under your skin and the sense of camaraderie and community has never been stronger at any event I have been to before. I hope one day to return.
La Sportiva Mutant
La Sportiva Rapid Short
La Sportiva Troposphere Base Layer (plus one spare)
La Sportiva Odyssey GTX Jacket
La Sportiva Blizzard Wind Proof
Drymaz Max Protection Trail Run Sock
3 x Gloves, 2 padded liner and 1 x Waterproof.
Naked Waist Band
UD Adventure Vest
Petzl Nao+ (Primary Lamp)
Petzl Reactik+ (Secondary Lamp)
Petzl Bindi (Back Up Lamp)
Black Diamond Z Poles
Suunto Compass x 2
Katadyn BeFree Fliter Flask
Survival Kit incl. Bivvy Bag, Spare Map, Med Kit, Whistle, Beanie
Fuel (one loop):
20 Gu Energy Gels
5 x Maurten 320 Energy Mix