top of page

The Barkley Marathons – A 2021 Adventure

After weeks of wondering if the Barkley Marathons would happen, 36 of us were able to make the trip to Frozen Head State Park and compete. The event had been canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, and with travel bans still in effect for most of the international runners, the field was largely domestic. My aunt was able to be my crew member, and despite being one of the 36 people who were unable to finish this year, I had a fantastic time having an epic adult scavenger hunt on the most unforgiving terrain. Here is how it went:

The cigarette was lit, a stream of smoke drained from Laz’s mouth and we were off.

The first two miles of the course are on the Bird Mountain Trail. I had scouted this section leading up to the race but still cautiously fell into the pack, letting an experienced runner lead the way. Our line of headlamps marched into the darkness, up the side of the mountain. The rain fell as it had for hours, turning the trail into a muddy stream. There was never a thought of dry feet, only of if the creeks and rivers would be passable. The rhythm of the group quickened after our first intersection. Then we crossed the Pillars of Death and the magic of the Barkley Marathons was realized.

Jared Campbell, the only three-time finisher, abruptly turned to the right and crashed through the bushes. We all followed at a dead sprint. The gentle tromping through the muddy trail was replaced with a stampede through the forest. Runners crashed through the undergrowth, branches, and through briars. It was a mad dash down the hill. Everyone knew the value of saving every second of time. Our group of six came to the flat spot in the mountain and didn’t see the book. We knew we were close but were unsure which direction it was. After a couple of minutes of scouring the mountainside, we heard shouts of joy coming from another group. We followed the sound and fell into line for our pages. One book down, 12 to go. 

It was a rapid descent, giving up all the ground we had worked to achieve. People were running every which way, screaming with joy and flying down the leaf-covered ground at astonishing speeds. We were on an adult scavenger hunt, wrecking our bodies in search of books to prove we had experienced all of the unforgiving terrain. I followed Jamil Coury and we hit the Flume of Doom dead on. With the mud and water, it was simply a slide. We sat on our butts and pushed off down the 30-foot slick rock chute. All the way to the bottom we went. And when we had fully descended Jaque (Check?) Mate Hill, we crossed a stream and joined a park trail. The climb led us up near Jury Ridge where we darted off the trail and into the unmarked forest once again. The route led us straight up a Mountain where the next book was waiting under a rock. Two books down and the runners had begun to spread out. I was confident as the instructions we were given before the race seemed to perfectly match the route. But then the fog rolled in. 

Mud at the Barkley Marathons

The visibility dwindled and soon I found myself with only two other runners in sight. We joined up and continued down a relatively new section of the course called “The Meatgrinder.” I was a Barkley virgin who had lost the veterans. The instructions on Book 3 matched perfectly as we joined a creek and found a confluence with another creek. Just above two unique-looking trees was our book. But at first, we couldn’t find it. Fifteen minutes went by and we followed the creek further downstream. Then I spoke up. We went back to the confluence, tore our pages, and started charging up the hill.

I had confidence. Three pages were safely folded in my Ziploc bag. But now it was straight up. The path was straightforward but the hill was steep. At a large cliff the runners I was with tailed around the side but I saw a small chute with tree roots lining the dirt. I decided to climb it. The going was slow and it was a terrible waste of my limited upper body strength. By the time I crested the 50-foot cliff my companions were gone. I was alone but I knew the route from here. It continued straight up and intersected a trail. It was impossible to get lost here. I kept climbing.

I had no idea where I was at in the field of runners. Everyone was either just ahead or just behind me, and the higher I climbed the harder it was to distinguish lights. At the top of Hillpocalypse (official Barkley hill name), I found the the nearby trail. At every point during the race when the terrain and features matched the instructions, I was elated. It was instant gratification and a signal that I was doing it right. The trail wound through the foggy forest before I left the trail, ascended over a knob, and immediately dropped back down to it. This was the flat portion of the course and I had to run. 


The oscillating trail to Son of a Bitch Ditch was simple to follow yet extremely muddy. At every turn in the course, I had to slow down for the risk of sliding right off the edge of the mountains. The mud was thick and already covered everything. As I arrived at Garden Spot and pulled out my instructions the first light was shining through the clouds. It was a welcome sight as the dark morning felt so long. The rain was light and my confidence was high. The instructions rambled through about the litany of roads and how to follow the correct one up to a large cairn. On the first try, I found the cairn and Book 4. Now the most confusing part of the course began.

I had wanted to scout the unnamed and unmapped roads on Stallion Mountain before navigating the area as part of the Barkley Marathons, but I was unable to. And, this lack of knowledge and familiarity would come back to hurt me.

I followed the first jeep road down and past the first water drop but then the number of roads and the uncertainty of where to turn off the roads left me questioning my directions at every intersection. I went back and tried again. One particular road that formed a “U” shape presented a particular challenge. I wasn’t sure which way I was supposed to follow the road. The instructions stated I should be able to see Stallion Mountain, but in the fog nothing was visible. Too uncertain to continue for fear of becoming more lost, I retreated back towards Book 4, hoping the third time would be the charm for navigating the myriad of jeep roads.

As I walked backward on the course I began to panic that I had used too much time wandering in circles. The Barkley Marathons are an emotional rollercoaster. My legs felt great and I wanted to run but I simply didn’t know which way to go. As I came around a hairpin turn I met two other runners. Karen and Peter had a good idea which way to go in this section and I joined them. Karen was from Alabama and was able to drive up to Tennessee to train on the course. Her familiarity was invaluable at this moment

Elevation Gain in the Barkley Marathons

Karen led us confidently through numerous turns and intersections before she abruptly scampered off the road and through the weeds. Apparently, this was our turn and we automatically followed her. Through the undergrowth, across and road, and then turning onto another road, I quickly realized the value of experience on this section of the course. We arrived at Bobcat Rock and Butt Slide began. 

It was straight down to the river, a hunt for a book, and then straight back up the Butt Slide. After losing nearly 1,000 feet to drop down, we searched for a clearing with an old stone foundation. The only trouble was everything looked like a clearing, and an “old stone foundation” could be deceived at nearly every turn. We struggled, looking up and down the river until another runner, Glen, shouted at us that he had found the book. We tore our pages and shot straight back up Butt Slide. 

When we reached where we came down, we kept climbing, through the rock feature. There was a small hole in the capstones that we crawled through. It was a simple ascent to the next book, just past Hiram’s Day Spa and to a giant kitchen table-sized rock with a hole in the corner. It was Book 6. Nearly halfway! But, the mistakes were adding up and we needed to nail a few books to avoid missing the cutoff for loop 1. 

Down to Book 7, we dropped. At first, the descent was tame, but then a big drop-off materialized and the only way down looked to be sliding 50 feet on our butts. It was not a mild slide, and Peter crashed into a patch of briars, but we all got up and kept on descending back to the river again for the next book. It was easy enough to find the water, but it quickly became a series of riddles to find the book. The first thing we were trying to find was a small waterfall. With hours of heavy rain overnight, small waterfalls were everywhere. We couldn’t even distinguish which creeks were named on our maps and which were simply the result of the heavy rains. 

Barkley Marathons – Gear List

We thought we saw a waterfall and began looking for “Pillars.” In this section of the course, moss was everywhere and covering everything. Every rock looked like a pillar and every pile of stones looked man made. Up and down the river we walked, never finding our book.

Frustration mounted as the time ticked by. We searched for an hour, then two. The race was lost looking for this simple book. After nearly three hours Glen and Karen had wandered up a different direction, leaving Peter and I searching high and low on the terrain we had already thoroughly scoured. We decided we would go back to the spot we had first dropped to the river and go through our instructions line by line. We did exactly that, and where we had originally followed a faint road, we stayed to the right this time. Past some ruins and then pillars. The book was just behind them under a rusted skillet. Relief washed over us and we tore off up Little Hell. 

1300’ of climbing and this book was easy. It was under a rock right at the edge of the point. The simplicity of Book 8 compared to the frustration of Book 7 perfectly summed up the Barkley. Sometimes it feels natural, straightforward, and simple, yet at other times it seems impossible. It has some magical lore that makes the Barkley Marathons so special.

Looking Down Rat Jaw

Looking back down Rat Jaw

A hundred yards behind the book was a gravel road and we joined it. Rat Jaw was coming up and we first had to descend on the jeep road to the powerline cut. Even though we could not make up all the time we had lost, Peter and I were still running down the road. No matter the issues we had up to this point, we were going to give the race our all. 

Down the Prison Mine Road and we opened up into a powerline cut by an old guardhouse. Up was the direction and the powerlines showed us the way. It was a muddy mess of briars. The rain had wrecked this portion of the course and two steps forward meant one step of sliding backward. The hill felt twice as long, and steeper than it actually was. Some portions had down cables we could use to pull ourselves up, and through other parts of the climb, we walked on top of the briars because they gave us more traction. The whole time we ascended, we kept thinking that at the top we would simply tear out our page and come right back down.

The wind picked up as we crested Frozen Head Moutain, walked over near the lookout tower, and pulled our pages out of the book sitting next to the second water drop on a picnic table. It was cold at the highest point on the course and we didn’t stay long. We ascended as quickly as we could, but in the mud it was difficult. On one particularly slick and rocky section, my feet went straight out from under me and I crashed down hard on my back. Luckily, the padding of the running vest provided just the right amount of cushion to prevent anything major from occurring. But thus the descent went. All the way down to a small hill above the Historic Brushy Mountain Prison. This was Butt Slide 3.0 and Karen had joined us again for it. It was a 30-foot mud track that led straight into the briars. On a dry day tiptoeing down the steep embankment may have been possible, but not today. We all slid down and walked over to the stream under the prison.

Race issued Pocket Watch to keep time at the 2021 Barkley Marathons

Race issued Pocket Watch to keep time at the 2021 Barkley Marathons

If we hadn’t already been wet all day, there was no avoiding it now. We climbed down the bent rails and sank up to our knees into the fast-flowing creek. There was a small pinhole of light on the other side. We had to walk all the way to it. It was a trudge. The flowing creek worked against us and we couldn’t see the bottom. It was simply feeling out every step and splashing forward until we had completed the tunnel. Book 10 was on the wall of the prison, near the exact spot that James Earl Ray had escaped and the beginning of the events that led Laz to think up such a unique race.

Bad Thing (Barkley hill) leads straight up to the top of the Ridge. Now, these are obviously not all common park names, but simply the Barkley names of the more memorable parts of the course. Bad Thing is about ¾ of a mile at 37% grade, and it is one of the more tame climbs of the course. We ascended straight up it and found the Needle’s Eye in the capstones at the top of the Knob. Our book was in a hollow in the rock inside this small tunnel through the summit stones. We grabbed our 11th pages and continued through the Needle’s Eye. There were only two books left. All cutoff times had already passed, but simply continuing on to see all of this incredibly difficult course was still a thrill. 

We descended down Zipline to a series of creeks. Things were especially confusing with the excess of water and seasonal streams everywhere. Our instructions depended on us finding the correct confluences and following certain branches of these confluences to a small elevated plateau. I was lost here. Books 8 through 11 made sense and matched our instructions, but I depended on Karen and Peter here. I simply couldn’t distinguish between the creeks on my map and the creeks in the forest. Surprisingly, Karen didn’t have much issue and led us right to the Beach Tree that the book was inside. Book 12 had been found and now we moved up Big Hell.

This was the last big ascent of the course and it was a steep one. We took our last bearing of the course, but we didn’t need to. The route was simple. All we had to do was climb up to the top of Chimney Top Mountain, pull our book from a small hollow in the rock, and then run the few miles back to the yellow gate at camp. While the climb wasn’t quite as simple as the few words make it seem, after fighting through the briars and maintaining the steepest path up the ridge, we landed right at the capstones that housed the final book. We pulled our pages, found the “Candy Ass Park Trail” and descended down to camp.

2021 Barkley Marathons

It was a trail you could cruise on, and with the rain beginning to grow heavier and heavier, speed was something to be embraced. We spread out a little as we dropped down for the final time. It was one of those events in life that went by so fast, but also felt like so much had happened. The whole day was about overcoming obstacles, managing emotions, working with limited resources, and not giving up. It was disheartening to be running down the mountain with all my book pages but without the time to continue, but I vowed to focus on the fact that I DID find all the books.

I ran up and touched the Yellow Gate, ending my loop and attempt at the Barkley. I had a few special words with Laz and we discussed the incredible carnage that the race saw. I was no longer a virgin, and I hope to someday compete in the Barkley again as a Veteran. Never again will I forget where Book 7 sits.

The Books of the Barkley Marathons

Each year Laz picks books that match the race, their location, and pain that the runners are going through. Here is a photo of my book pages and the titles of the 13 books that were part of this year’s Barkley Marathons.

Barkley Marathons Pages

The Book Titles

-The Why of the Barkley -Dying Breath -Look Behind You -It wasn’t always easy, but I sure had fun -Nobody Wants Barkley -Is This the Way You Said? -Only the Losers Win -The Joy of Cooking -Missing Maybe Dead -Premonition and Capture -Meat Grinder Hill: The Rat Bastards -God can move mountains -Going underground

bottom of page