Race 99% Won’t Finish Takes 60 Hours in Tennessee Mountains

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Squeezed into the cramped “doggie seat” of a Toyota pickup truck as it bounces up a rain-washed Tennessee mountain road, past Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and out-of-business coal mines, it becomes clear that this will be the most comfortable part of the day.

Gary Cantrell, looking the part of a mountain man with a chest-length gray beard and worn brown leather hat, sits in the passenger seat while his high school friend, Karl Henn, drives through the fog-draped mountain pass. The two men are headed out to stash books under piles of rocks in desolate areas of 24,000-acre Frozen Head State Park.

They were preparing for Friday, when 40 runners descend upon the remote mountainous area in eastern Tennessee to start the 100-mile Barkley Marathons. Using the books as way points, the competitors have 60 hours to finish. It’s unlikely anyone will.

“We’re seeking to put people right at the edge of human capability,” said Cantrell, the 61-year-old founder and director of the race. “They torture themselves and are forced to go beyond where they are usually willing to go.”

In 30 years, 14 out of about 1,100 runners completed the race, made up of five loops around a 20-mile course. With a finisher rate of about 1 percent, the Barkley has been labeled by many as the world’s hardest race.

“I don’t know any other races that are at 1 percent,” Cantrell said. “It’s a trick to get 1 percent. It has to be hard enough that 99 percent will fail, and yet doable enough that 1 percent make it. People want to be part of that 1 percent.”

Traditional Test

In the burgeoning world of extreme races, such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race, where thousands pay as much as $175 to spend a few hours climbing over man-made obstacles, Cantrell’s event represents a more traditional test of endurance, both physical and mental.

“If you’re not totally all-in mentally, you won’t make it no matter how good of shape you’re in,” he said. “And if you’re not in just unbelievable physical condition, you won’t make it no matter how mentally tough you are.”

Cantrell was inspired to hold a race in the rugged mountains by James Earl Ray’s failed 1977 escape from Brushy Mountain State Prison. Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, only managed to get 8 miles from the prison in 54 hours before being captured.

Growing up hiking in the mountains around the prison, Cantrell and Henn laughed at Ray’s futility and decided it would be a great location for a race.

Entry for $1.60

Along with a handout that includes directions such as “take the right Jeep road, not the wrong one,” participants are only allowed to use a map and compass to find their way. There are no medical aid stations on the course. “We have duct tape and Vaseline,” Cantrell said. “That fixes anything.”

Unlike Ironman triathlons (entry fee: $750) or Tough Mudder races (entry fee: $175), admission to the Barkley costs $1.60 and a signed waiver saying runners are responsible for their own well-being.

“We didn’t want this to be something that people could buy instead of earn,” he said while eating a bologna and American cheese sandwich out of the rain under a rocky outcrop. “This is not a feat of finance. You pay for this with a chunk of your soul.”

A retired accountant who ran cross country and track in high school, Cantrell now earns his living staging some of the U.S.’s most-challenging races, such as the Vol State 500k, which has a $360 registration fee, and the Barkley Fall Classic 31-miler. He says he does this for the love of the event.

Written Essay

To enter the Barkley Marathons, applicants must also submit a written essay on why they should be allowed to compete. First-timers bring a license plate from their home state or country. Veterans must supply Cantrell with random items he requests. This year it’s a pair of socks. “I’m out of socks,” he says. If somebody is low on funds, Cantrell might waive the sock fee. “Don’t tell anyone that. I need the socks.”

Competitors are chosen from about 400 applicants. He reviews race results and sets up a weighted lottery that separates elite runners from possible contenders and people who have no chance.

The books Cantrell and Henn are hiding on this day will be checkpoints during the event, first held in 1986. Each runner must rip out pages matching their race number to prove they completed the course. There’s a 12-hour time limit per loop. In total, runners climb about 65,000 feet, more than twice the height of Mount Everest.

The race begins when Cantrell lights his Camel cigarette exactly one hour after he blows into a conch shell to alert runners of the impending start. The exact start time remains unknown to runners until the conch shell is blown.

Hiding Books

Cantrell spent five hours in the woods this day, placing books in spots requiring him to climb up wet, leaf-covered hills on his hand and knees, navigating through fogged bifocals. When mud gave way under him in an area of the course known as “Leonard’s Butt Slide,” his right foot became pinned behind him as his left leg slid down the slope. He cried out in pain and cursed at his failing knee. More falls and yelps followed over the next few hours.

Beverley Anderson-Abbs, who completed three loops of the course in 2012 and 2013 and quit after one lap last year as freezing rain took its toll on many competitors, can relate to his pain.

A 5-foot-2, 107-pound environmental scientist from California, Abbs is one of a select few women to complete 60 miles, a distance Cantrell has labeled the “fun run.”

Weekend Training

Abbs, 50, visited the park in February with her husband, Alan, who has finished three loops five times, for a weekend of training. The couple battled sleet and temperatures that froze their water packs and turkey sandwiches as they ran in the middle of the night.

“I really, really want to finish,” said Abbs, a two-time USA Track & Field Ultrarunner of the Year. “It’s something I have wanted for four years now.”

After tripping in a river one year, Abbs watched as all of her food floated away. “I remember standing out in the middle of the woods just screaming,” she said.

The tale brings a cackle from Cantrell.

“Everybody deserves to know what it feels like to stand in the middle of the woods and cry for your mommy,” he says.

Of the 14 100-mile finishers, several have been physicists and a few engineers. About 75 percent of entrants have doctorate degrees, Cantrell said.

“These are some of the smartest dumb people in the world,” he laughs.

‘Completely Shredded’

Among them is John Fegyveresi, a 38-year-old glaciologist who this month completed his Ph.D in geoscience at Penn State University. In 2012, Fegyveresi became the 13th person to finish the race, touching the yellow park gate that serves as the start/finish line in 59 hours, 41 minutes and 21 seconds.

“I just kind of wanted to see how far I could push myself,” Fegyveresi said. “When I finished, there’s no way I could have gone another mile. I was at the absolute limit of anything I was possibly capable of. I almost didn’t finish. I almost collapsed right at the gate. I went 60 hours without sleeping. I was so completely absolutely shredded. That’s the exact purpose of this race.”

What each 100-mile finisher is lacking though is two X chromosomes. Cantrell said about 120 women have tried. Abbs is one of a record nine women competing this year.

“They are starting to get a bit agitated that none have been able to finish,” he said.

With mud caked on his jeans and rain dripping from the brim of his hat, Cantrell shields his mouth to light a Camel as wind whips through leafless trees on the mountainside. He says he’d love to see a woman make it.

“It would be great,” he said. “Every time somebody finishes, I feel elevated just to be present when an achievement of that magnitude is accomplished. To watch them from beginning to end, what they have to endure, and just this absolute refusal to surrender. You feel like you’re a better person just because you saw someone that big.”

(An earlier version of this story corrected the description of male finishers in 31st paragraph.)

(Updates details of race start time in 18th paragraph.)
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