I was about an hour into the 2018 Barkley Marathon and had just reached the Pillars of Death (a series of lichen-covered rock columns that you hopscotch over) when I looked down and saw that the waterproof sleeve holding my map was gone.
My gut dropped, and I felt dizzy.
The two veterans I was keeping in sight had moved on. I spun back and forth, scanning the area, only to conclude that my map now resided somewhere in the depths of the Pillars. I considered climbing down in hopes of retrieving it but…no way.
I’d made two copies of the course, which loops through the savage hills and thick underbrush of Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park, using the master map provided by the day prior by race founder Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell — but I was only carrying one on me. Stupid!
OK, calm down. Time to take a breath and think. And pray.
My curiosity with Barkley had started three years earlier in March 2015, when I heard a fellow ultrarunner rhapsodizing about “the world’s toughest footrace” and how “bad things” happened when you were “out there.”
Could it really be as insane as he made it sound? Quirky rituals, notoriously awful conditions, agonizing physical and mental exertion, life-changing consequences for finishers (and quitters).
Inevitably, I began to scratch the itch and discovered that the application process itself is a challenge, with arcane requirements that are closely guarded by race organizers and participants alike. And, so, I researched and probed and networked, and months later I was finally able to figure out how to apply.
I landed on the “weight list,” so named because it gives preference to those who have a chance of finishing the race 100-mile race. Cantrell must have seen something he liked in my application, or maybe he was lining me up to be a future “human sacrifice,” the person who has no business running Barkley but whose certain failure provides comic relief.
I started training but ended up missing the cut in 2016. I advanced to number three on the weight list in 2017 but once again received no condolence letter. (Those “lucky” enough to get into Barkley receive a condolence letter from Cantrell rather than a congratulation letter.)
So, I did what any stubborn ultrarunner would do and applied again. I patiently waited until, one afternoon while out running errands, my phone pinged to notify me of a new email. My heart skipped a beat. There it was: the treasured and dreaded condolence letter. I was in the 2018 Barkley Marathon! I was ecstatic!
OK, calm down. Time to take a breath and think. And pray.
I was stranded on the Pillars of Death with no map. Was my much-awaited Barkley experience over so soon?
After mentally kicking myself — hard, several times — I decided to wait for the next runner to come up behind me, hoping I could hang with them and knock out at least one of the five 20-mile loops required to finish the race.
Just then, Amy Winters came around the bend, and after a brief introduction, we decided to work together. I would need to run at her pace, which was fine as long as we finished the first loop within the 13-hour, 20-minute cutoff. Except it was going to be slow. Winters, it turns out, had a prosthetic leg and had been invited to Barkley because Cantrell wanted to see “if a girl with one leg could finish a loop.”
I was instantly in awe. Winters moved amazingly well on the ascents, much better than I did. With me navigating and both of us keeping a steady stride, we made it to the first of the 13 books we needed to find and each ripped out the page corresponding to our bib number. All was not lost!
Soon after, runner Melody Hazi, who had blown past book one, caught up to us, and the three of us made our way to book two together. We were about three or four hours into the race at this point, and more “bad things” were about to start happening.
Between books two and three, Winters first ran out of drinking water and then food. Because I had plenty of both, I offered to share with her, but in the back of my mind I began to worry. Barkley is self-supported, last-person-standing kind of competition. There’s no margin for error; any small mistake can lead to a catastrophe.
Would I regret the decision to share my provisions? I empathized with Winters, because, who am I kidding, I was the dumbass who had lost her map an hour into the race. Still, it was hard to understand not having packed enough water or food for a grueling undertaking like this.
More bad things. Hazi had pulled ahead and disappeared, leaving Winters and I to find Bald Knob and book three on our own. Just as we got our pages, I looked over the edge of the hilltop to see a dense cloud of grey fog roll in. It was earie, and visibility was shot. Was it still daylight? It was hard to tell.
A steady drizzle began while we made our way back down the hill, and Winters said she was worried about carrying on in the fog and darkness that lay ahead because she had no headlamp. What!?! I didn’t know how to react to this: How does someone attempting the Barkley Marathon not pack a headlamp?
With each passing hour, daylight faded. The drizzle became a downpour that only grew worse as dusk arrived. I’d packed two headlamps with three sets of backup batteries, so, doing the math, I figured we could keep moving into the night. I tried to stay positive, but I wasn’t sure if my food and water would be enough for both of us. We just needed to finish a loop, I kept telling myself. Then, I could re-supply and hit loop two.
Following the Barkley course along the park boundary, we made it to Garden Spot in the northeast corner of Frozen Head, took our pages from book four, and put on our rain jackets and extra layers of clothing. Temperatures were dropping steadily, and thundershowers were coming down with no sign of stopping. Every footfall felt like stepping in slop.
In a rush, we blew past a course change and ended up at an intersection with a Jeep road. I stopped, trying to figure out which way to go, when runner Thomas Armbruster appeared out of nowhere. He said he’d been going up and down the road in both directions for the past two hours, unable to find his way. He’d finally decided to throw in the towel and was headed back on Quitter’s Road, where it would take him another three hours to reach the start/finish line.
Not even quitting Barkley is easy. Self-extraction is mandatory, and if you dare to go out there, then you better be able to get your butt back. Help is not coming.
After a brief chat with Armbruster, Winters and I decided to continue to book five, but I was no longer sure if we were headed in the right direction, since none of our surroundings appeared to be on the map — no Jeep road or anything familiar.
Wandering around for an hour in the downpour, we were nowhere close to any of the landmarks mentioned in the course directions. It was full dark, and I handed my spare headlamp over. I was drenched from head to toe, my hands shaking, brain muddled and rain pouring off the bill of my jacket hood like an awning.
We needed to backtrack to a point where I knew where we were on the map, so we hiked back from the Jeep road. After finally getting a better handle on our location, we, like Armbruster, made the difficult decision to hike back to the start/finish. I was hypothermic and knew our shared supplies wouldn’t hold out forever.
I located a marked trail on the map and we used it to make our way back to camp, picking up Leonard Martin along the way. He had turned around after book eight, unable to ascend the steep, thorny climb at Rat Jaw due to poor footing, torrential rain and zero visibility.
Back where we had started the race 13 and a half hours earlier, we each earned a round of taps blown on the bugle — another of the race’s traditions. It was a humbling experience, one shared by all 40 entrants in the 2018 Barkley Marathons. There were no finishers (in fact, only 15 individuals have finished the race in its 32 years) and just one runner, Canadian Gary Robbins, completed the “fun run” this year by doing three loops in under 40 hours.
“Sometimes the Barkley wins,” said Cantrell at the end of the 60-hour time limit for race. “They couldn’t beat the mountains.”
True, but there’s always next year, and given the chance, you can bet I’ll be “out there” again.
Shalini Kovach is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine and founder of Terrain Trail Runners.