On June 11, 1977, when James Earl Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and was at large amid Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, Gov. Ray Blanton preached calm. In the prison’s 81 years of operation, he told The Washington Post, no one had ever permanently escaped. In fact, Ray had already tried and failed, twice—first in the summer of 1970, when he left a dummy in his bunk and tried to go through a steam tunnel, then, a year later, when he tried to cut a hole in the ceiling. Indeed, flight seemed to be Ray’s natural state. On April 4, 1968, when he assassinated the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. with a single shot of his Remington hunting rifle from the parking lot of a Memphis motel, he was already a fugitive from Missouri State Penitentiary (he’d snuck away in a bread delivery truck), where he was serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery.
But on the Saturday evening on which he made his escape from Brushy Mountain, conditions were ideal for a breakout. As prisoners played basketball and pitched horseshoes in the jail yard, a fight broke out, distracting the guards. And strangely, there was no guard to distract in Tower 8, the turret nearest the corner of the 14-foot stone wall over which, at 7:30 p.m., the 49-year-old Ray slung a makeshift ladder made from water pipes. With six fellow prisoners in his wake, he scrambled over the wall and under a wire carrying 2,300 volts of electricity. By the time the guards took notice, shooting the seventh escapee, Ray was already running through the woods of Frozen Head State Park.
A manhunt—consisting of prison guards, state and local policemen, sheriff’s deputies, and FBI agents—ensued and Ray returned to the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted List. For three nights and two days, Huey helicopters—the kind flown in Vietnam—hovered over the mountains of East Tennessee. But in the end, it was a team of six men on foot and two bloodhounds, Sandy and Little Red, who tracked the escaped assassin down. Picking up Ray’s trail on Monday night at
11 p.m., they followed his scent through the brush, across bluffs, and along the banks of the New River. At times they came so close they could hear his breath. “It’s like running a rabbit,” Donald Daugherty, a corrections officer, told The New York Times. “You try to go where the rabbit will run.”
At 2 a.m. Tuesday morning, they found their rabbit. His sweatshirt soaked from the river and his legs lacerated by briers, Ray was hiding in a pile of last fall’s leaves. He’d been on the run for more than 54 hours; perhaps because he’d gone entirely without food or because he had been running in circles, he’d only made it eight miles from Brushy Mountain. “I thought that was pitiful,” says Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, then a 21-year-old college student in nearby Shelbyville who was logging 100-mile weeks training for marathons. “I figured I could make it 50 miles the first day and be in Kentucky by the second.
“I was mostly fascinated by the thought of the escape itself,” Laz continues. “Not that I wanted to be a fugitive, but the idea of being pursued through the mountains by people with dogs sounded intriguing. I was pretty confident that I would never be caught.”
Nine years later, in 1986, Laz held a race in those woods to prove it. He named it the Barkley Marathon, for his friend Barry Barkley, a chicken farmer who donated 25 birds for the race’s campfire. The course would be five loops of the 20-mile perimeter trail of Frozen Head State Park—trails that had long captivated him. “Anyone who knows contour lines would immediately recognize them as some rugged trails—rugged enough that guys with dogs would never catch me there.”
Now, the whole weird world of ultramarathon running is fixated on those Tennessee woods each spring, when Barkley Marathon runners recreate—or reinterpret—James Earl Ray’s famous escape. Competitors wade through a drainage tunnel beneath the prison, navigate a hellacious off-trail route, and climb over six Smoky Mountain peaks—a 26-mile course that they repeat five times. That’s not to mention the bugs, briers, and befuddling race rules: Laz gives runners only vague information about the course and changes it each year, keeping the prospect of finishing at the ragged edge of possibility. Assistance is banned on the course: Crews of family and friends are allowed only at the campground at the end of each loop. Also banned are phones and GPS devices—for navigation, runners are allowed only a compass. (There are, however, no restrictions on the amount of food and liquids runners can carry in their packs.) So few are able to finish—just 17 of 962 starters in the last 28 years—that it’s widely regarded as the world’s most difficult footrace.
Among their challenges are to find 13 paperback books—including Heart of Darkness, The Most Dangerous Game, and A Time to Die—hidden along the course, tear a designated page from each, and then hand them to Laz after each loop to prove they stayed on course. Runners must complete all five loops in 60 hours or be disqualified. And they don’t even know when the race will start—only that Laz will blow a conch shell at the campground start area sometime during a midnight-to-noon window to signal they have one hour to get ready. Then he lights a cigarette—Laz’s signature stand-in for the traditional firing of a starter pistol.
The application process used to whittle down the 1,200 annual applicants to 40 starters is nearly as daunting as the race. There is no race website. You must figure out Laz’s address, take an exam, and submit an essay on why you want to run Barkley. “This weeds out the impulse shoppers and tells me something about their experience and motivation,” Laz explains. “Even if they’re not articulate, the writing reveals something of themselves.” If you’re accepted—Laz favors a mix of elite runners, race veterans, and ordinary-but-eager runners from around the world—you receive a “condolence letter” and must bring a license plate from your state or country (they’re hung from wires tied to trees at the start), a T-shirt for Laz’s closet, and the $1.60 entry fee (a penny for each of the race’s 160 kilometers).
At 12:42 a.m. on April Fool’s Day, a little more than two months shy of the 40th anniversary of James Earl Ray’s fateful dash for the hills, Laz blows the conch. On just an hour or two of sleep, the runners hastily prepare for the next two and a half days: Packs are packed, muscles are stretched, feet are taped, headlamps are donned. Soon the runners take off from the campground’s yellow gate as they have since the first Barkley in 1986. “After I light my cigarette, I can relax,” says Laz, now 61, who chain smokes through the entire race, never leaving the campground so he won’t miss a runner’s arrival. “Now it’s time for them to sweat.”
Frozen Head State Park, in northeastern Tennessee’s Coal Country, is a mountainscape of peaks, ridges, and escarpments, its deadfalls and leaves concealing roots and rocks like land mines. Many of the hardwood trees are an arm’s length apart, turning the off-trail scrambling that accounts for most of the route into a slalom course. Precise compass reading is critical. So is hill climbing on aptly nicknamed Hillpocalypse, Big Hell, and Zipline. On Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall, runners must grab boulders, branches, or bare soil in front of them to prevent a face-plant. Thousands of blown-down trees and creeks form a natural obstacle course. A Hungarian runner impaled his knee on a broken branch in 2007. Two runners have broken their ankles.
This year, the first to cry uncle—seven hours into the race—is a runner who slept through the start and couldn’t even locate the first book. The second is Edward “Frozen Ed” Furtaw, in his 20th and final start, who called it quits after nine hours, after tumbling down the Flume of Doom—one of many sardonically named terrain features.
“Barkley has taught me humility,” says the 69-year-old retired engineer, who came in part to fulfill a fellow Barkley veteran’s last request: to scatter his ashes along the course. Furtaw then shows off a gash on his right forearm, acquired from his fall down the Flume of Doom. “The fog was so thick that the lights from my headlamp reflected back in my eyes. I couldn’t see a thing and ended up on the edge of a cliff.”
Next in, some three hours after Frozen Ed, is Lynn Turner, also known as Father Gump, a bald, bearded Oklahoman also foiled by the fog. “Next year I’ll give my $1.60 to a homeless guy and have him beat me with a stick,” he groans. “It would feel better.” Like other disappointed dropouts, he arrives via Quitters Road, which slices through the middle section of Frozen Head State Park. In mock ceremony, a bugler plays “Taps” for the expired runners as those in the fireside congregation place their hands on their hearts and salute a fluttering American flag.
Nine-and-a-half hours after Laz lights his cigarette, the Loop 1 leaders arrive together: John Kelly, 32, a serious, svelte data analytics director from Maryland, and Gary Robbins, 40, a solidly built trail-race organizer from Vancouver with a bushy red beard. Last year, they were the first two runners to ever finish four 26-mile loops but not the fifth; both were too disoriented and exhausted to continue (Robbins was hearing voices). This year, they’re back for redemption.
Kelly compensates for modest natural talent by focusing all year on Barkley-specific training—setting his treadmill on the steepest settings and doing up to 120 repeats of a short, steep hill near his Maryland home. He’s driven by a desire to become Barkley’s first homegrown finisher, having grown up on land two miles from the Barkley course that’s been in his family for 200 years—in a house on Kelly Drive, alongside Kelly Creek, at the base of Kelly Mountain. And like Laz, he grew up hiking and running in the surrounding hills, and would flush grouse out of their laurel thickets and briers while hunting with his father and brother. “It was the same as running Barkley,” Kelly recalled at the campsite prior to the start of the race. “Pulling myself up banks, using roots and trees to squeeze my way through the thickets.” Kelly even has a connection to the prison: His great-grandfather and grandfather worked there as guards; his father did some rabbit hunting with the warden on duty during Ray’s escape. As he writes in his race essay, “Those mountains are in my blood, and it’s only fitting I give them a chance to reclaim some of it.”
Robbins, in contrast, is a thoroughbred, a winner of numerous ultramarathons and the record holder for the highly competitive HURT 100-Mile in Hawaii. He was drawn to Barkley, he later said in an email, “because it’s almost impossible to finish,” a common refrain among starters. In the weeks before the race, he ran the vertical equivalent of two Mount Everests in the mountains of British Columbia to steel his body for the near impossible.
Reaching the gate after Loop 1, Kelly tells Laz, “At one point, we were asking each other, ‘Where’s the book?’ And it was two feet away.”
“That fog was so thick,” Robbins explains.
“We’ve got some more planned for tonight,” Laz deadpans.
“That’s wonderful, I really enjoyed it,” Robbins says, grinning.
Californian Sean Ranney comes in next with a French runner, noting that the book at Buttslide was “wrecked so bad it’s a blob.” They later surmise that a wild boar chewed through the two plastic bags protecting the book. Fortunately, enough pages survived to avert a crisis.
After the Loop 1 time limit expires, 14 of the 40 starters are “tapped out.” All are dirty, weary, and scarred by briers, which leave every exposed inch of their legs covered in spiderweb-shaped lacerations as closely spaced as the topographical lines on their crumpled maps. The dropout everyone’s talking about is Michael Wardian. A former Ultra Runner of the Year, Wardian recently won the 7 Marathons in 7 Days on 7 Continents Challenge, averaging a record 2:45 per race per day. In preparation for Barkley, he talked and trained with race veterans and even took an all-day navigation class. But the showdown between America’s most indestructible runner and America’s most destructive race was no contest.
“I’m here mostly because Barkley scares the heck out of me,” he admits during the prerace campground potluck. “I haven’t been on the trails, and I don’t navigate well, so I see Barkley as a three-year plan. The first year I’ll learn from mistakes, the second year I’ll screw up in some other way, and maybe the third year I’ll finish.” As a race virgin he had the huge disadvantage of not knowing the course. Sure enough, soon after finding Book 1 along with the top three runners, Wardian lost his way in the fog, wandering for 14 more hours before returning to camp, shell-shocked.
On Loop 2, Quitters Road is soon congested with other haggard souls: Only eight of the remaining 26 runners beat the 12-hour time limit. “Barkley runners do not quit,” Laz muses, gnawing on a chicken leg. “They are beaten.” “Taps” echoes through the dark campground. The survivors are led by a still buoyant Robbins alongside Kelly, followed, six hours later, by three more pairs of runners. Running in pairs or groups is not required, and most of these duos have never met before the race, but nearly every Barkley runner ends up doing it, binding their own prospects for survival with a comrade’s.
By the time Kelly and Robbins return to camp after finishing Loop 4, it’s after midnight; they’re the only runners left. Both wear looks of concern in the glow of Laz’s lantern. Loop 4 had taken 13 ½ hours, their slowest yet, and they would get only 13 ½ more hours to complete Loop 5 before the 60-hour cutoff. And because of a cruel race rule that runners must choose opposite directions on the final loop, each would be, for the first time, alone. Now facing solitude, fatigue, sleep deprivation, nightfall, a forecast of rain, and an impending deadline, they look to be headed for a replay of last year, when both came up short.
“We have a lot to do and not much time,” Robbins barks to his crew, who prepare to feed him, refill his pack, drain a blister, and change his socks, shoes, and clothes in rapid succession. The pressure of the clock weighs on his mind. His smoother stride—Kelly now runs with a noticeable limp—and superior racing credentials seem to give him the better odds of finishing. But Kelly knows the folds of these hills better. Ignoring his crew’s recommendation to carry rain gear, he heads up the hill. Robbins soon also vanishes under the cloud-smudged quarter moon, but in the other direction. The campground goes silent again until a pounding rain awakens crews in their tents at dawn. After three nights of this year’s low 40s temperatures and intermittent fog, the final morning brings lightning and a downpour that turns to hail and, as it dips below freezing, snow on the peaks. Dirt turns to mud, rivulets to creeks, creeks to rivers, the bare trees providing scant shelter from the storm.
At 1:11 p.m., 31 minutes before the 60-hour cutoff, the rain finally slackens to a drizzle as about 100 people stand around the campfire, devouring the last of the Barkley chickens. Looking up the empty camp road, it seems that this might be the 15th year without a single five-loop finisher. But then a slow-moving figure comes into view. John Kelly is wearing a tattered trash bag fashioned into a makeshift poncho and an orange beanie. A smile breaks through his grimace.
Tagging the yellow gate and slumping into a camp chair, he looks simultaneously contented and dazed and then concerned. “Where’s Gary?” he asks. “Does he look OK?” Kelly describes passing out for 20 minutes after reaching the final book, wakened only by the freezing cold to a state of utter disorientation. In a receiving line of sorts, his wife and crew offer congratulations, as do his Aunt Marcia (whose father was a Brushy prison guard who helped transport James Earl Ray back to the prison after the capture) and Frozen Ed. Kelly mumbles thanks between bites of mini-doughnuts. But he keeps his eyes fixed on the trail, watching for Robbins.
Suddenly there he is, charging up the final hill. It’s 1:42 p.m., at the 60-hour mark exactly. Robbins lunges for the gate and collapses backward onto the road. “Got all the pages!” he gasps. “Dropped down the wrong side of the mountain in the fog and had to swim a river. I got all my pages. I went the wrong way.”
Laz looks down at his race watch, which shows 60:00:06—six seconds over the 60-hour limit. Robbins had been on track to beat the cutoff by at least a few minutes until he missed a crucial turn at the final trail fork, two miles from the campground. Once he realized the error, he felt it was too late to go back, he later explains, so he covered extra distance, bushwhacked down to the camp road, swam across a rain-swollen river, and finished from the wrong direction, faintly hoping for mercy for his mistake.
Eventually Robbins stands, helped by his wife, who holds him from behind. On his wrinkled map he shows Laz where he’d gone wrong. It doesn’t matter. He’d missed a turn, and, regardless, “You missed by six seconds,” Laz tells him. “But it’s a story for the ages.”
Robbins lets the failure sink in, and gives Laz a bear hug. “You put on a wonderful event,” he mumbles. Kelly, watching the drama unfold from his camp chair, hobbles over to embrace Robbins. The bugler plays “Taps.”
As Robbins later tells a crew member, “I was killing myself the last 90 minutes to make it in time.” He’d spent an hour searching for Book 4 in a dense fog. All for nothing. Or was it? By Laz’s reasoning, Robbins hadn’t failed. He just hadn’t finished. As Laz puts it, “Barkley is so close to the edge that it takes very little to catastrophically end someone’s race. We saw tears of joy and tears of sorrow today, but it’s all tears.”
Long after the runners retire to their tents for fiercely needed sleep, Laz remains in his chair by the campfire. Taking a drag of his cigarette, he offers a final philosophical take on the past few day’s exertions. “I think that lots of trail runners secretly fantasize about being pursued through the mountains, like James Earl Ray,” he says. “Deep down, they believe they could outrun those dogs. I think the Barkley speaks to that desire in every runner. Maybe every one of us.” He takes a long look at the fire. “There’s something about being alone against the wilderness, running with the hounds at our heels. Barkley represents that attempt to escape—not from the bars of prison, but from the limitations of our human selves.”