Barkley Marathons 2007

David Harper

Just a few thoughts about my first experience with the Barkley. Click any photos for larger images, click links for video.

What an event. I have to say, now that I’ve been there, this is an event that you have to experience to appreciate, not how difficult, but in my mind how IMPOSSIBLE this event truly is. At least for 99.9% of us.

More than ever, I can’t imagine anyone going 4-5 laps out there. I can see two laps, though thinking you can and doing it aren’t the same thing, are they? I don’t know about 3, that would be quite a stretch to comprehend.

You do have to be an idiot to do it,(We are all considered idiots as concerns this race, with Laz, the race director the Chief Idiot) I acknowledge that for sure. But my idiot mind admires those equally or more idiotic than myself.

I was there, I finished one loop getting all 10 books in 15 hours and 8 minutes.

In case you are wondering, that puts me in the DNF category. Same place any out of shape person in the general population could finish in. Think about that, I did almost 11,000 feet of climbing, the same amount of treacherous downhill, bushwacked through briars, rocks and trees, carrying all the food I needed for the whole loop, locating 10 books hidden in the woods, and finding my way back to camp, over a 15 hour and 8 minute timeframe of seriously difficult effort, and I’m DNF, zero loops officially finished. Ya Just Gotta Luvit.

Now I can say that I comprehend the term, Endless Suffering Without a Point. Do understand, I’m not complaining, I wouldn’t have it any other way, it’s what makes Barkley, Barkley. It’s crazy hard, you are going to suffer, and you are going to fail miserably. That’s it. Accept it or don’t come.

I made some stupid rookie mistakes that cost me a chance for an official one loop. The people I was with, in front of me and behind me, made it, had I not made a wrong turn in the most obvious of places, I would have too. Even if I would have finished that loop, I would have had no chance for completing a second loop on this day. My feet were too beat up, I was much to tired and weak to continue.

Climbing at Barkley? They claim over 10,000 feet of climbing and 10,000 feet of descending per 20 mile loop. An exaggeration? Hardly. My watch logged just under 11,000 feet of climbing and descending. I did a little extra, so that puts the official number right on.

The photo that is the background of this page is a skull I found at the reservoir below the highway going up to Pig Head Creek. It was buried in the dirt, and I pulled it out and shot this photo. I would say it pretty much sums up Barkley for me. Now I wish I’d kept it as a souvenir.

Click photo for larger image

My 2007 Barkley Marathon

David Harper

Step by Step race report

At 7:08 am, the conch shell blows. My FIRST fear is now behind me. I did not sleep through the start of the race. I had woke up about 6:00am, and was afraid I had missed the start. At Barkley, we do not know when the race will start, until the conch shell gives us the one hour warning.

I’m immediately up making oatmeal and coffee.

Before the Start

At 8:08, we are assembled at the yellow gate, the starting cigarette is lit, and off we go.

The Starting Cigarette

The first climb, up Bird Mountain was not bad, but I was pretty winded and sweating good on this climb. It’s hard for me to start out on a climb with no warmup, and my Florida training does not incorporate 1400 foot climbs in 1.4 miles. Though at Barkley it’s considered a ‘Candy Ass Trail’. Weather was perfect, it looked like a great day ahead.

First Climb

I kept the pace reasonable, and the cruise to the top was not bad. The downhill towards Book 1 was nice, a good easy jog. I found all of this simple enough, the trail easy to follow, plenty of other runners around. On the way down, the first casualty at Barkley. Someone had twisted an ankle, pretty badly. They were done.

So, my SECOND fear is now behind me, I’m not going to be the first person to drop at Barkley. A bad way for them to end their event, but I’ll tell you, if it had to happen, that was probably the absolute best place. There are some places that would be almost impossible to get out of in that condition.

On the way to Book One, I see another runner off in the woods, I tell him I’m on the trail. He says he’s looking for Book One, and I know he’s been here before. I stop and again look at my map. I don’t think are there yet, though I consider going out and looking also, I don’t. I’m almost sure that I have farther to go. I continue, and shortly, exactly as I thought, Book One, “Lucky You”. How appropriate. I’m pumped, I take my page 25, and my confidence and cockiness grows, I don’t need a veteran showing me around here. Oh you foolish, foolish boy.

Book One

Jury Ridge and Bald Knob take a much longer time than I thought. We came to what I though was Bald Knob initially, but in fact, we were a long way from that. I know this is considered the ‘easy’ part of the course, but I find it fairly challenging. I was with some others back and forth, most of them faster on the uphills, me faster on the downs. I’m used to that. Eventually we get to Bald Knob, where we go off the normal trail, to circle around. I’m with three veterans, but all seem confused about where to go. Again, I felt I had the better plan, and struck off to circle around to the North. WRONG! Whatever I did, it was not right. I eventually decided I had to make my own way around Bald Knob, bushwacking my own path. My first taste of STEEP slope. I was going around, and trying not to descend too much, as I’d already gone down quite a ways. It was very hard work, I was using trees for both footholds and handholds to keep from sliding down the slope.

I kept circling around the mountain, eventually saw some runners way above me. Good, if I keep going, I’ll have to meet back up on the trail. Eventually, Leonard and David Hughes come around a bend right in front of me. I’m back on the trail.

At one of the many deadfalls, I see a pair of gloves. I think of leaving them, I don’t want to carry more junk that’s not even mine, but hey, maybe I will find who they belong to. A little goodwill, maybe it will come back to me in some way. So I retrieve them, stick them in my pocket.

We keep working our way along the North boundary, mostly I’m with David Hughes, through the Coal Ponds, SOB Ditch, and up to Garden Spot. David is a great help, and knows where he’s going. He’s got good advice to share.

We get to book 2, and soon head back down toward Stallion Mt, but first the water drop. There are a few others there, and I ask about the gloves. Leonard is just coming in, and it turns out they are his. He will pay me back for that later.

Book Two

Book Three

David, Leonard, John and I are all together off and on from here to book 3 and 4. It’s somewhat difficult to navigate, and as one stops to figure out where to go, another catches up and helps. Between Book 3 and 4, David and I come to a 20 foot cliff dropoff, looking down on a jeep road that will take us to book 4. ‘We need to be down there’ David says.

He starts circling around to find a path. I see a tree about 5 feet from the edge, that looks like a pretty good climbing tree. My son William loves nothing better than a good climbing tree so I notice these things. The thought that goes through my head is ‘What Would William Do?”. Well, I know, he’d jump out there and be down on that road in a minute. I don’t want to fall, it’s a long way down, but it does look like a pretty good tree. At 43 years old, I really shouldn’t be jumping off cliffs into trees. But I really shouldn’t be doing something called a Barkley Marathon where finishing is basically impossible, they light a cigarette to start the race, and serve raw chicken for a pre-race meal. What Would William Do? I suck it up and jump out to the tree, climb down, and am on the road waiting when David, John and Leonard show up. We continue right to book 4, and head South.

The Tree

Book Four

Down the Ridgeline, to the New River, I’m mostly with John Dewalt here. He knows his way, and is one impressive individual. We are back and forth, following the park boundary, each of us contributing to finding the way, I'm being generous to myself here, he was doing much more than me. I was the student for all three of these guys. I later failed to heed Leonard's warning that going fast is no good if you're going wrong.

All 4 of us cross the river at slightly different points, but come out and cross the road almost together. This began the first of the really difficult climbs. Testicle Spectacle. Oh my goodness. When I first saw it, I was shocked at how steep it was. The photos I’ve seen simply don’t do it justice. 1/3 of the way up, I removed my gloves and put them in my pocket, to eat a sandwich.

If it wasn’t so steep and there were no briars, it wouldn’t be that hard. (Which is kind of like saying that Leadville wouldn’t be difficult without the altitude, or Badwater wouldn’t be so bad without the heat, DUH! But it IS!) It was just brutal. Laz says, “Don’t worry yourself about how easy it is, it get’s steeper as you go up” And he’s not lying. It DOES get steeper as you go up. And I promise you, at the bottom it is very, very steep.

The sun was on us, hot and it was slow going. I had long pants that were protecting me from the briars, but these things were taller than my head. My arms were getting torn to pieces, even my ear got a nice rip from one. I reached back in my pocket for my gloves, they are gone. They dropped out somewhere below, and I hate that. I’m using these to protect my hands on the trees and briars. Damn!

Did I use my gloves? These were like new gloves before the start. Completely worn through by end of the loop.

Click photo for larger image


About 60 seconds later, Leonard calls up from below to ask if anyone lost some gloves. Uh, yes, those would be mine. I’d found his gloves after Book 1 and returned them to him a couple hours later by chance, now several hours later, he’s doing the exact same thing for me. What goes around comes around.

Testicle Spectacle One

Testicle Spectacle Two

Eventually, we get to the top, and book 5. “Bright Days, Stupid Nights”

Book Five video

Click photo for larger image

Just as steep as the uphill going was, now we go down. The Neo-Butt Slide… The video says it all, you can’t really do anything except sit down, and slide down the dirt and rocks.

Neo Butt Slide

Eventually we make a turn and head off into the woods for Raw Dog Falls and Book 6. The photographer from the Washington Post was there, and got photos of me making my way up the road to the book. Would love to get those photos if anyone knows how.

I get my page and proceed down to find Danger Daves Climbing wall. I see what I think must be it, but am told no, keep going. I go down further to where two creeks intersect. This seems too far, and I don’t see a ‘climbing wall that’s near vertical’, but I know that’s the right direction, so I go. I leave David and Leonard, who are stopped for a while. I feel pretty confident that I know where I’m going. Looking at the map now, I see I was actually a little far south, down to the south boundary of the park. So I’m sorry to say, that I in fact missed that little adventure on the course, of the climbing wall.

All the next section was essentially bushwacking along towards the Sawmill Hollow Reservoir, then up Pig Head Creek. This is where I took the photo of the animal skull that is the background of this page. Where we cross the road and begin up Pig Head Creek and the Rat Jaw climb, is where Leonard caught up with me. I stayed with him for a while, but he was moving better on the extremely steep slope and moved ahead, until I was alone again.

Briars? What Briars? I don't see any briars?

Now I know why I was dehydrated, I was bleeding out faster than I could pour water in.

Click photo for larger image


I eventually come out at some coal mine ruins, and old guardhouse.

Coal Mine One
Coal Mine Two
Coal Mine Three

The next instructions are for me to follow the powerline up, about ½ way to a ‘bluff’, for book 7. This is another steep, briar infested climb similar to Testicle Spectacle, called Rat Jaw. Don’t know why. It’s hot, it’s steep, it’s more briar infested than the other one. The problem is the powerline takes a left hand turn part way up. And my map shows this ‘bluff’ BELOW where the powerline makes the left turn.

Exactly where my map says the bluff should be, there is a rock outcropping. It’s not what I call a bluff, it’s not that big, and from what I know, I should be looking for something much bigger. But this is all I have, this is the only large rock formation I can see. I look around, can’t find a book, or anything that quite matches what I think I’m looking for. I decide I must climb higher. I go up 50 or one hundred feet, until I can clearly see the powerline making the left turn, and it also flattens out up there. Now I’m thinking that MUST have been the so called ‘bluff’, and the book must be there. I climb back down the other side, I go around, the briars around here are HUGE. They are killing me. I can’t find a book, I climb back up, but again, I cannot go past that left turn, I know the book is BEFORE the turn of the powerline. I go back down again. I’m hot, I’m tired, and I’m wasting SO much time and energy. I again do not find anything, so give up, I must go on and see what I find.

I go up, I get to the left turn of the powerline, and am staring straight at a huge rock bluff, with a crevasse holding Book 7, I went right to it. All that time wasted climbing up and down and searching, because I had marked my map just a little bit off.

Book Seven

From here, I continue up Rat Jaw, to the Fire Tower, and the water drop. A good thing because my camelback is dry.

The next leg looks fairly easy, with some road, and real trails for a change, I can relax my navigating a little. Oh you foolish boy. That will be nice, and I can run and make some good time. As I leave the Firetower, I see David down below on the climb. I seriously think about waiting for him, but no, I’ll continue. I’m doing fine, and ready to run, so off I go. The sky is overcast now, there is no sun and it feels great.

And I go, and I go. I’m running, I know from my map, which is folded at exactly this point, that I have a left turn on the road coming. I have to flip the map back and forth to see what I’m doing, but I come to the roads, AND I TAKE ONE. And I keep running.

Looking back on it now,it might have been wiser if I had taken the CORRECT ONE, rather than just ONE. Had I taken the road that curved around South, to Indian Knob, rather than the one that went straight NORTH, up to Coffin Springs, and eventually winds back to camp, things would have been different. Oh, but I’m just running and running, so proud to be making such good time. Oh Here I am, probably running faster than I have all day long, every step taking me farther away from where I should be.

I’m glancing at the map here and there, and eventually think I should be getting to some of these turn offs, I’m moving fast and should have been there long ago, to get off the trail back into the woods for Indian Knob. Odd. Surely somethings wrong, but what? A glance at the compass, it shows me going North. Impossible. There aren’t even any roads going North, (my map is folded, I don’t see it). I’m sitting down, figuring out where I could possibly be, and I hear voices. Cool! Up the trail, the opposite direction come a couple of backpackers. I thrust the map at them and ask where I am. No telling what they thought, but they did ask, “Are you one of those racers?” Uh, yea, but can you show me on the map where I am? He turns the map over, and shows me that I’m approaching the North side of the park! I’m at Peach Orchard Gap, towards Coffin Springs? I can’t believe it.

I just a moment of being relaxed and following a road, I’d let my chance at a ‘official’ loop finish of Barkley get away from me.

What can I do, I turn around, and start running back, back to the intersection of roads, back to the trail/jeep road with the sign and the arrows pointing exactly where I should go. From that point, I go right to Indian Knob and Book 8, “The Reasons I Wont’ Be Coming” Well, the reason I won’t be coming is because I’m an idiot who can’t follow a road sign.

Book Eight

From there, I take the treacherous Zip Line down to book 9, non-event. Just brutally steep bushwacking down the steepest slope you can imagine. Grabbing trees to keep from falling. I get down, over the creek, up the 50 foot embankment, to Book 9 “Tough Trip Through Paradise”. Yes it is a Tough Trip, I’ll argue the Paradise part.

Book Nine

Now after 11 hours, I will start a climb called Big Hell. It’s a very appropriate name for it. It is Big, and it is Hell. It’s 1500 feet in ¾ of a mile. The instructions are ‘All you have to do is keep choosing the steepest way up the mountain’. That’s nice. It is correct.

I climb, I stop, I climb, I lay down, I climb, I lay down in a fetal position, I get disgusted with my weakness and decide to power over this mountain, I puke, I lay down in my fetal position again, I was hearing a voice crying ‘Mommy’, not sure who it was though, I never saw them. Couldn’t have been me. I climb. One hour and 36 minutes blistering minutes later and I’ve covered the ¾ mile and am with Walking Lazarus, Book 10.
3/4 mile in 1:36. ( “I only have to average 30 minute miles. Yea, right”) BUT my THIRD fear is behind me, I will not go back to camp without all the pages.

Book Ten

I’ve been out for 12:30 and some minutes. I have no idea how long it will take me to get back to camp, but I know it’s more than the 40 or so minutes I have left for an official loop to count.

I move up and on, around Chimney Peak, to Chimney Peak trail, and begin down. It’s a long way down, I go forever, I stop and sit a few times, I turn my light off. The woods are so nice. There is no wind, the temperature is perfect.

I continue moving down, and cross the creek that I am expecting, and begin up Rough Ridge. What would normally be a very easy climb, is pretty difficult now. I stop a few times, as I approach the top, on a flatter section, I stop again. I turn off my light, I sit, I lay down in the trail for a minute. It’s just so nice to rest for a minute. I close my eyes, and I must have dozed off. I have no idea whether I really did, or for how long. But I know I was startled to open my eyes and think I need to move on. So I get up, and start walking.

Kind of like when I TOOK A ROAD, instead of taking the CORRECT road. This time I just got up and TOOK A DIRECTION ON THE TRAIL, instead of taking the CORRECT direction on the trail. Oh you foolish boy. I knew I’d been close to the top of this climb, so it seems natural that now I’m starting down. But I wasn’t at the top, and I was going down exactly the way I’d come up. I went down, I heard a creek, hmmm, sounds just like the creek I’d left before. I keep moving. Hmmm, this LOOKS just like the creek I crossed just a little while before. Let me look at my compass. Hmmm, I’m going 180 degrees the WRONG direction. Back I go, up Rough Ridge.

You’d think Barkley itself would be hard enough, without me throwing in repeats up and down Rat Jaw and Rough Ridge. Leave it to me to make the impossible more impossible. So up I go, then down, down, down to the trailhead and my last fear is behind me, I made it back to camp, and am not having to spend the night lost, huddled at the base of some tree, waiting for first light to find my way out of the woods. And make no mistake, if you get lost in this park at night deep in the woods, that is exactly what you would have to do. No glowsticks to be found out here.

I follow the road back to the campground, and the yellow gate, and Laz, and TAPS.


I showered, ate, sat around the fire for a while, and called it a night around 1:00am.

When I came in there were three people unaccounted for still out on the course somewhere. Some had already stopped and taken shortcuts back to camp. Others were on their second loop, going later into the night. Some would make three laps, and more. But in 2007, not a single runner of all the starters could say they beat the course at Frozen Head State Park.

Oh, and the chicken? It's delicious, both before and after the race.

Have any questions or comments? Email me!