Barkley Marathons

Barkley Marathons

Barkley Marathons Reading Barkley Marathons 25 minutes Next Falling – by Angus Kille

This month the 2023 edition of the Barkley Marathons took place and SCARPA athlete Tom Hollins was one of the (un)lucky few to take his place on the start line.

If you don’t know about the Barkley Marathons check out our blog with all the details:

Here is Tom’s review of the event.

I have no idea where I first heard about the Barkley. As an ultra-runner, it seems to be one of things I have always known about. What is concrete fact and what is myth is often hard to pin down – this is part of the race’s mystery and one of the factors that makes the race so difficult to prepare for.

Amongst the legends about the race there was only one thing I was sure of – It’s the world’s hardest race to complete – and I wanted in. A lot of races say they are tough, but Barkley has the lowest finishing rate of them all.

Prior to this year’s race no one had finished the race since 2017. Laz (Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell – the race founder) makes the race route harder every time someone finishes. It is designed to be a continually evolving marker for the limits of human endurance.

The course is very steep and on technical terrain. Both these factors make the race more difficult but tend to suit my skill set. You also have to find pages of books hidden under rocks at each checkpoint and no forms of navigation are allowed other than a map and compass – as someone who was an early adopter of GPX files and electronic navigation I knew this aspect was likely to be more difficult… 

I decided last year that to have a chance at the race I would need to train my head more than my legs. I entered my first orienteering events and significantly improved my navigational skill set (while getting told off more than once for still being out on the course after the event had finished) and decided to head out to the event 2 weeks before the race to recce the course for a week and then taper for a week – 3 weeks holiday being a big commitment but places in the race are hard to come by and you never know if you will get one again. 

Now by ‘recce the course’ I mean run the trails in Frozen Head. You aren’t allowed to run off the trails within the national park at any time except during the race. It’s also illegal to tell others details about the route prior to the race. Most of the race (and all the difficult sections) take place off the trails making a proper recce impossible. This is a significant factor in keeping the race difficultly high.

Laz is clear that this is not an orienteering event. He wants you to follow his route. You will not see any of the names Laz gives to his route on a map. Those are Laz’s special names like ‘Hell’, ‘Butt Slide’ and ‘Meat Grinder’. I found out later that the names are pretty accurate descriptions.

The trails (referred to as candy ass by Laz) go over most areas of the park and I found that running them built up a good idea of the overall topography. From others blogs I had also gained a rudimentary idea of where some of the frequent course lines are and tried to eyeball the entry and exit points of these lines to the trails – marking the features for micro nav.

The route takes the form of clockwise and anticlockwise laps. I worked on a plan that doing all the trails in both directions would be useful. 


The map used during the race is the topo map available from the park rangers (the rangers are happy to tell any visitors to the park this info). The map covers most of the national park area but not all of it. It also covers a couple of areas which are outside the park.

The map contours are poorly defined and the rivers are hard to see. I found comparing my recces and the map to a detailed online electronic map useful. I also found out that the map is not even vaguely waterproof. In fact, it seems to have a similar absorbency to toilet paper and I dissolved a couple within a week’s recce.

Even one I had applied Sellotape to leaked in and washed away during a classic Frozen Head downpour.  I worked out that having a copy of the map prior to the race, drawing in the rivers before race day to bring them as well as the contours out, marking up the course on race day following Laz’s big reveal then having a means to waterproof your map is the way to go. 

The rangers are amazing and are really keen to tell you information about the park. They and all of the Barkley family involved in the race are keen to stress the need to protect this wilderness. This is a very important and understated part of the race – Celebrating the wild and preserving it for future generations.

Which brings me back to recceing. If you plan to recce and do your research you will work out that a couple of books are often not far from the trail. The temptation to go and take a look at these sites is high. Don’t do it – the books at these places are easy to find in the race and it is best to preserve the magic of discovery as well as preserve the park itself.

So following my taper I arrived back at Frozen Head the day before the race having collected my wife Sara from the airport for her week of annual leave as my support. She was also pretty keen to learn more about the race and its characters. Although it is also hard for support, I know many supporters have described Barkley as the one of the best experiences they have had. I hoped Sara would get the same vibe.

At check in I was given number 5 meaning I had to collect the 5th page from each book. I handed over my license plate and a T-shirt for Laz. This was also my chance to exchange pre-race thoughts with my fellow runners. The first few laps the Barkley is often a team event but a big team can pull you back more than push you forward.

You also have to do the last loop on your own (should you get that far). People are generally a bit cagey about teaming up as you need someone with a similar speed and preferably complementary abilities. There was a strong UK and Irish contingent this year as well as a lot of spine race vets. I had got to know a lot of these runners over the years and know a lot of their strengths and weaknesses as they know mine.

Before the race, Eoin Keith suggested that we may well end up running together and he was all good with this should it happen. He is a Barkley vet and a good navigator. Through Eoin I had also met Billy Reed, a lovely guy, Barkley vet and quality orienteer. Despite my recces I knew that I would be the weak link in any team and told Eoin so. ‘Your company would be good enough he said.’ High praise indeed from a man who is as entertaining as he is a good runner. 

Despite receiving that bit of warmth from my fellow runners I went to sleep that night freezing in the van, wearing everything I owned and knowing that the blowing of the conch signalling 1hr to go to the start could take place at any time from midnight. This was not the most relaxing set of conditions to aid a full night’s sleep…. 

The morning of the race the conch blew at 8:54 signalling 1 hour to go to the start. I had not slept until around 4 am but had then got a solid 4hrs so things were not too bad considering we were in the back of a freezing cold cargo van.

At the start I was feeling good. It was beautiful weather – sunny but not too hot. Previous finisher, local hero (and honorary Brit) John Kelly said that he had never seen as good weather before at the Barkley. Laz gave a pre-race dedication to those that were no longer able to be there and Taps was played for them on the bugle. After a moments silence, Laz lit his cigarette, and we were off. 

The iconic yellow gate which is the start and end of the race

The pace up the first hill was fast as the front runners went away and many of the virgins tried to keep up with them to get into a team with someone who knows the course well. I played the long game and with that in mind set off at a 5-lap pace. This put me in the rear quarter of the field. I could see Nicky Spinks and Billy just in front and Eoin, Johan Steene and Wes Thurman just behind me.

Johan, I know from the spine and is a quality runner as well as a Barkley vet – I decided to keep my eyes on him as well as the others. Wes, I had met on the trails during my recce. He seemed like a nice guy and was also a vet. I was in good company and decided to keep going as I was. We crested the first hill and made what seemed a tiny descent to the first book. The book was already out of its hiding place with the front runners and we took our turns to pull our pages. I decided to put my poles away as well as store my page safely. Lose a single page and you DNF whether you collected it or not. 

From here we ran along a bench (old area of strip mining) which is a more runnable section of the course. Wes was just in front of me pushing hard. I asked him what the rush was, and he said he was wanting to keep with Johan for this first section and he had nipped in front while we were storing our pages. Seemed like a plan so I decided to follow.

Although I was faster on the hills, on the more runnable sections I couldn’t keep pace without heading towards the red zone. This I didn’t fancy so early on and as I slowed to negotiate a few brambles I lost Wes. I was on my own. I had no idea if Wes and I had been heading the right way as I had just been following on. I hadn’t looked at the map due to the pace. I had a sudden moment of paralysing fear. I decided to stand still for 2 minutes and see who came behind. Imagine my relief as Eoin, Billy and Nicky emerged as a trio from round the bend behind me. ‘Hi guys – great to see you’ I said. Eoin smiled a knowing smile and welcomed me to the group. 

We headed down Checkmate Hill to the 2nd book. This was steep in places but so early in the race felt straightforward despite the rocks, brambles and ditches covered by old leaves. We had also picked up a fella from Michigan called Dale who was also a race vet. I appeared to be in good company. We found the second book and had moved in front of a group who had been moving faster but had gone off line.

Billy was doing most of the early nav and we dropped onto the 3rd book without any hesitation, deviation or repetition. We were taking it in turns to lead and regardless of who was up front the pace felt similar and good. Eoin suggested some ways to speed us up – when we dropped to a book 1 person was allocated to collect everyone’s pages, the others would sort their kit, take the next compass bearing, collect water if available etc. dependent on what was needed. Nicky was concentrating on the points of interest for micro nav, particularly landmarks we could use when doing the course in the anticlockwise direction on the 2nd loop. I meanwhile felt like I wasn’t offering a huge amount to the group, but I did at least have a clear idea of where we were and was able to take my turn leading on the trail. 

We continued like this throughout the whole of leg one. We ensured that we followed the prescribed route including the detour to the water stop. We had picked up water from the streams, but it was in the route description, and we wanted to do everything by the book and as per Laz’s instructions. Some of the nav seemed straightforward to me but even then, I would have taken much longer to find the book’s hiding place without the team.

In other parts where the wood seemed endlessly symmetrical and without discerning features the nav seemed almost magical. We just seemed to drop directly onto the books hiding place taking perfect line after perfect line. I am confident that I would not have managed even a single loop without being part of such an amazing team. We were also conserving a lot of energy. We passed a couple of groups, but we also kept seeing a couple of faster groups again and again as they ran off in front only to then reappear behind us after they had rerouted. It was impressive stuff by our team – and I was the toddler in the company of the adults. 

I continued to enjoy myself, particularly passing through those iconic sections of the route like Rat Jaw and the Prison Tunnel. As we got towards the end of lap one darkness descended but this didn’t seem to affect us either. We stowed our 13th page at Chimney Top Mountain, and I was feeling great.

View down rat jaw from the fire tower

I had started by this time, when the route seemed easy, to push in front more often to scout out a better line or if the book was close to start searching for the location. To be honest I wasn’t often gaining us time, but I did feel like I was making more of a contribution. Both Eoin and Nicky described this later as trying to keep a puppy under control. I am hoping that I did fetch the squeaky toy more often than I pooped in the corner of the room. 

We arrived back at camp in 11hours 30 minutes. To aim for a 5 lap finish you need to do every lap in 12 hrs or less (max 60hrs). For a three-lap fun run 13hrs 20 (max 40hrs).

A 5-lap finish seemed unlikely, but I felt confident of a fun run in this company and the others seemed to think this was feasible too provided we didn’t get too lost at nighttime. After a 20-minute pit stop we headed back out. The majority of this loop would be in the dark and was also to be in the anticlockwise direction so we couldn’t rely simply on making a repeat performance. 

On the first anticlockwise ascent Dale couldn’t keep the pace and dropped back. This was a shame but we still had the core UK & IE group together.

We saw Wes coming in from his first loop and Thomas Van Woensel returning after the first anti-clockwise ascent feeling too unwell having knocked out a 10hr30 first loop. This happened repeatedly in front of us. Those that had tried to hold with the front runners now seemed to be paying the price. We seemed to be slowing a little but nothing significant. 

We collected the first few books. Billy seemed a little more tired now and Eoin took over the majority of the nav. This was going well even in the dark. We were having to adjust our lines a little more often but nothing significant. Around the fire tower we added Andrea Larson to our group. Her companion had decided to drop and she had noted that we kept catching everyone up while moving more slowly. She thought we would be a good group to join. Good thinking but in a twist of fate that was when some Nav errors started to creep in. 

We were no longer landing on the books with precision and seemed to be adjusting our lines more often. This culminated with a 30 minute search at the top of Stallion mountain for a book which is in a straightforward location but just below the crater at the summit. We got onto the summit and then got disorientated as to which corner the book was off it.

There are saw briers everywhere here. Prior to reaching the summit I had decided to walk into a magnificent patch of briers and was fully entangled with them wrapped around all 4 limbs plus my neck. It took me a good 5 minutes to extricate myself during which time the others had moved on assuming I would catch up as I had been doing previously. The gap was such that I just ran to the lights rather than concentrating on where the others had ended up. Not that I am saying if I had been with the group I would have prevented this error. The opposite – I am hoping that me screaming in a bush wasn’t so distracting that they lost concentration. 

We checked the remaining time. 5 hrs 30 to go till cut off. We knew there were a couple of steep hills remaining but thought this seemed a reasonable time frame. I found myself increasingly in front over the next section and the rest of the group, other than Andrea, did seem a little more tired.

The sun came up and the nav was a bit more simple from here in. I started taking more bearings in advance anywhere I was waiting and pushing on ahead. I could see that I was taking the right lines as the others were following but I wasn’t really gaining us any time as I could also see they were rechecking the bearings behind me. Who could blame them. I hadn’t been that much use thus far. The only points I was pulling a bit of time back was if I got the pages out for everyone and I tried to get ahead and do that where I could. 

We got to the bottom of the Meat Grinder, the second to last hill and looked up. It was massive and seriously steep. When we went down it had been early doors in the race and it hadn’t really registered. This was going to be tough. We had 3hrs to go. This meant an hour for each of the big ascents and half an hour for each of the descents. This still seemed doable but it was getting tight.

I set off at a reasonable pace and could see the others were slower. I pushed on knowing that the next book was easy to find and thinking I would get the pages out. Halfway up I looked back and I had seriously gapped everyone except for Andrea. I called out but they were out of voice range. I paused a couple of minutes and still no sight or sound. I realised I was going to have to make a run for it if I was going to make the cut off. I called my plan to Andrea and she started to speed up, At the top I got the page numbers out for us both and then we pushed on. I felt really bad after all that effort by the rest of the team on my behalf but felt I had no choice if I was to have any chance of making the cut off.

Eoin later said to me with a grin “you did exactly the right thing, you treacherous …”. The others got to the top and decided the game was up. They sat and had a picnic in the sunshine before moving on at a stroll, eventually arriving at the finish 2hrs after myself and Andrea. I think they had the better run in! 

It had taken myself and Andrea an hour to the top, pushing hard. On the descent Jury ridge was slow because of the terrain but once back on the boundary trail, I was struggling to keep up. I could see that Andrea was still strong and together we stood some chance. 45 minutes later she collected both our pages at the next book, and I led up Checkmate Hill. Miraculously I took an even better line than the one Billy had coming down and we got onto the bench in 50 minutes. 35 to the finish seemed very much in reach. 

I now realised that the reason the bench had been such fast running clockwise was that it was slightly downhill. We were now running uphill and within 24hrs the brambles seemed to have somehow grown significantly. The mile along the bench took us 10 minutes and I hadn’t seen where the book had come out from on the first leg as it had been handed to me by a person in front and I had then handed it on.

Andrea to the rescue. She bought us straight onto it and we turned for home. The tiny descent now turned ascent was in front of us. Funny how things seem at the start of races. It was a 400ft climb. It took us 15 minutes to the top. Leaving 10 for the descent. At the top I had gapped Andrea a little and like the lady she is she told me to run for it down the ridge.

I should have stopped to take a bearing, but I knew the descent was likely to take more than 10 minutes and I had to be fast. I set off like a lunatic, butt sliding and jumping down. Andrea later pointed out to me that when she got to the top, she could see I wasn’t on the ridge from the start. I knew that to go too far right was to miss the campsite and certain doom.

I angled left a little early and decided if I came out too high I could still handrail the creek to get down to the exit point. I did this but after following the creek for a couple of minutes there was still no sign of the exit. I assumed I must have entered too low down and decided to climb out of the creek on the opposite side to see if the boundary trail was still there. Then I would know if I was too high or not.

After chewing my way through a few more bushes I found the trail. I was far too high but the best thing to do now was to keep on the trail back into camp. I duly did and as I got to the last section I could see Andrea touching the gate a couple of hundred feet in front of me. I did the same. We were 20 minutes over cut off and it was time for taps to play on the bugle to mark the end of our adventure. Johan had made it just in front with 5 minutes to get back out to start loop 3. Sadly, he didn’t complete the fun run. 

My post-race emotion was mainly disappointment. I still had working legs at the end and although I would have struggled with the nav in the dark on lap 3 I wanted to give it a go. Still, I think I made the right decisions. When others support you, you need to do the same in return (even if ineffective) and behave as a team till the team cause is lost.

Perhaps we could have predicted that a little earlier but that is how it is. Other obvious regrets were the time I spent in a bush on stallion mountain and the 2 out and backs to the water stop which we didn’t need. I later learned that most of the other runners skipped it…. I also felt bad that Sara had come all that way to support me and endured significant discomfort for me only to do 2 laps.

She had believed in me all the way and had prepped a fresh rucksack so that to carry on all I needed to do was drop the one I was carrying and strap a new one on. Fortunately, she had been having a great time making new friends in camp. And as the Barkley does not require support to drive between checkpoints, she had also discovered that the one thing American’s love more than doughnuts and beer is doughnut flavoured beer. She says she would come again…. 

So assuming I can get a place I could go back for a future attempt armed with course knowledge. However, the weather was amazing this year and I know many others who have come repeated years and said that this was the best opportunity ever to go deep into the race. The weather usually stops play much earlier doors. It is a big commitment coming to Tennessee, but Frozen Head and the Barkley are an amazing combination. There is time to think on and to try some more nav events in the UK…. 

In the end I got to see 3 finishers smash the course, including John ‘pseudo Brit’ Kelly. (He is the local legend and part of the Barkley family but I wonder if we can convince him to get at least dual citizenship?)

Damien and Jasmin also did great. Damo really struggled with the nav once dropped by John (I think he managed half a slower loop after that – but it was his 4th loop). Jasmin had a knee injury pre-race and still completed 4 loops even if 1 of them was over time. Legend. I would still like to see her be the first female 5 lap finisher, but I think she may also think that this year was her best chance of that.  

The last thing Laz does before leaving the campground is to set the date and time for next year and adjust the route to make it harder. Of course, he doesn’t tell anyone else the details… 🙂 

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