The Ultimate Challenge

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This weekend, I had the dual opportunity to seriously ramp up my training for the Superior 100 and to get a faint whiff of one of the most unique events in all sports, the Barkley Marathons.

The Barkley is almost indescribable–it is a race that is designed to be at the limit of human capability. Set in the wild mountains of Tennessee, it is a combination of running event, hiking challenge, and adventure race so difficult that there have only been 15 finishes out of nearly 1000 attempts. It is also extremely creative and filled with rich, colorful characters and Appalachian humor. Here are some descriptions that are well worth reading:

For years, I was fascinated by this race and wanted to visit just to see the event, but I never thought I’d make it down there. Upon moving to Cincinnati last summer, I realized I was close enough that this might be possible. Then, while running with some new friends a few months ago, a miracle happened–one of the runners, Joe Kowalski, casually mentioned that he was training for a race in Tennessee that he thought no one had probably heard of. It turned out to be the Barkley, and he had been going for years. What’s more, he eagerly invited me to come down and help him train on the rugged course at Frozen Head State Park. Sold!

IMG_1486We headed down on Friday, and hit the trails Saturday morning, to discover almost perfect conditions–clear and cool but not cold. As we approached, the mountains got closer and more intimidating by the mile, and they were making me increasingly nervous:

As we parked in the lot at the base of the mountains, we unexpectedly met two more folks who were training for the race, Dusty Hardman and Hiram Rogers. Dusty was confirmed to run and had driven up all the way from Florida just to check out the course (the race is March 28th this year) and wanted to get some course tips from long-time “Barker” Hiram.

We jogged up the road to the famous Yellow Gate where the race starts:IMG_1498Then we went up, up, up Bird Mountain, 1500 feet in 1.5 miles. This is known as the easiest section of the race, but it wasn’t runnable (at least not for me), and it went up a long time. From there, we hit snow, ice, sloping trails that headed almost straight down,. After Hiram and I each slipped off the “trails” and down the steep slopes before sliding into trees below, we quickly changed our route and took some “easier” trails. You are not allowed on any of the off-trail portions of the course except during the race, but these were more than hard enough for me, and at times made me wonder how much more I could handle. We managed only 21 miles in 9+ hours of running and mostly hiking. Here’s what the harder off-trail sections are like, luckily we had to do very little of this:

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What we did paled by comparison to the race itself, but my calves and quads were aching by the end. Best of all was getting a flavor of the race from the stories told throughout the day by Joe, Dusty, and the extremely gracious Hiram. Thanks all for an epic day!

Here are a few more pictures that only partly demonstrate the amazing beauty that is Frozen Head:

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Here is our route:

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13 quite sore miles this morning, and I made it through my toughest training weekend so far! Then a delightful but very slow walk with Jason around Sharon Woods Lake, where he shouted “hi”, “good job”, and “peace out!” to every walker and jogger he saw. What an inspiration, and what a weekend!

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