John Burton and the Primeval Allure of the Barkley Marathons
There are many difficult ultramarathons. But the Barkley Marathons is exemplary in its idiosyncrasy, challenge, and downright cruelty. Inspired by James Earl Ray's botched attempt to escape from a nearby prison, the course is an unmarked 20-mile loop through some of the most rugged terrain in eastern Tennessee. Runners must navigate the course five times without aid stations, alternating direction each time. During each 20-mile traverse, which includes around 20,000 feet of elevation change, racers must rip out pages from books placed along the course to prove they completed the entire loop correctly. You can get a few more quick details in this graphic created by the Washington Post for the 2006 race. But perhaps the most important thing to know is that in the 32-year history of the race, only 15 people have ever finished.
So when I found out John Burton was running the 2018 edition of Barkley, I couldn't wait to pick his brain. John is one of my favorite runners to follow in ultramarathoning. With belt buckles from Western States, Hardrock, and the Fat Dog 120, he is obviously an accomplished runner. But he also combines humor with an audacious approach to the sport. See, for example, his vertical twist on the beer mile. And Burton gave me one of the more memorable interviews I have ever conducted about his run at the Tahoe 200-Mile Endurance Run.
Below is an extended interview with John Burton about his experience at the 2018 Barkley Marathons. Amid atrocious weather conditions, he managed to complete two loops over 30 hours. Only Gary Robins managed to completed the three-loop "fun run". This year, no participants reached the five-loop finish line.
Sam Robinson: The visibility of the Barkley Marathons has increased significantly in the last couple years, especially since an outstanding documentary on the race gained mainstream attention. But there is only so much that video can convey about the experience. Why do you think people have become so fascinated by Barkley?
John Burton: The Netxflix documentary definitely exposed Barkley to a much a larger, broader, more mainstream audience. But it was Gary Robbins [in 2017] who really captured the hearts and imagination of people. There’s something about watching a heavily-bearded grown man sobbing on the ground, whimpering in mezzo-soprano, “But I’ve got all my pages, I’ve got all my pages.”
I’m not a cultural anthropologist or a psychologist (I majored in poetry), so I can only wildly speculate as to why modern-day “weekend warriors” like myself are drawn to events such as Barkley that chip away all your facades and veneers, revealing the foundation of who you really are. Sometimes you are happy with what you uncover (oh look, original hardwood floors); other times – as you stand staring at the crumbling remains of termite-infested framing – you simply bow your head and vow to rebuild.
And it’s not just Barkley. We’re also seeing increased awareness of and participation at other “extreme” events like Ironman, Western States, Badwater, Hardrock, World’s Toughest Mudder, or heck, even World’s Toughest Foam Glow 5K.
Who can say what motivates people to push the limits of absurdity? Ultimately, I think—and this is me speaking professionally as an unlicensed poet—people feel an intrinsic desire to explore the boundaries of what is humanly possible. The primeval force that drove Sir Roger Bannister to run a sub-4 minute mile is the same compulsion that inspires Joey Chestnut to devour 72 hotdogs in 10 minutes.
This year’s race had no finishers. Indeed, unless I’m mistaken, no-one even completed the three-lap 60-mile “fun run.” You've finished other insanely tough ultramarathons... but what makes Barkley so very difficult to finish?
JB: Actually, Gary Robbins did complete a three-loop “fun run” this year, well under the 40 hour “fun run” limit. However, his time of 36 hours and 12 minutes was just over the 36 hour cut-off that would have allowed him to go out on a 4th loop. Considering that he was able to complete almost 5 loops last year (coming up just 6 seconds short – after taking a bit of unintended shortcut), this year’s wet/muddy conditions clearly made the course much harder.
The running joke (pun intended) at Barkley is that you "only" need to average 30-minute mile pace to finish the race. Seems easy enough – especially when you consider that runners like me typically average 10 – 12 minutes per mile at other mountainous 100-mile races. However, those races are on trails. Marked trails. With aid stations.
But at the Barkley you need to carry all your own supplies—that’s 8 to 13 hours’ worth of gels and salted potatoes (or bite-sized Snickers and juice boxes… whatever). And because you are often running off-trail without any course markings, you need to constantly check your map, compass bearing, and written notes to make sure you are still (more-or-less) on course.
And at Barkley you are running (or let’s be real, hiking) up and down steep mountain hillsides covered with slippery dead leaves, fallen logs, sticks, rocks, briars, and the occasional remnant of a rusty fence strategically positioned just out of sight at ankle level to trip you up. So, as you might expect, there’s a lot of falling. And a lot of cursing.
Along those lines, I saw you post a ridiculous image of the watch you were required to wear out on course. With a $1.60 registration fee, conch-shell horn signals, and the official start being the director smoking a cigarette, zaniness seems to define the event. Were there other idiosyncrasies from the race that stand out in your mind?
JB: Nothing about Barkley is easy. Every detail—down to the mandatory race-issued $10 Wal-Mart watch—is designed to make things as difficult, stressful, and uncomfortable as possible.
One of the most idiosyncratic things about Barkley is that runners never know exactly when the race is going to start—with the race start being anytime between midnight and noon on Saturday. On Friday evening, the race director, Lazarus Lake, posts a master map showing the course. Runners then scramble to crowd around the table and copy the route onto their own maps. This process typically takes several hours, as there are forty runners but only one master map. Eventually, after completing their maps, runners crawl into their tents (or the backs of their cars) and try to get a few hours of restless sleep, knowing that at any minute Laz could blow his conch shell, signaling one hour until the start.
To further add to the merriment (read, 'fuck with the runners'), Laz typically does a "practice" conch blow (or two) in the evening just as the runners are falling asleep. Invariably the dark, quiet campground is briefly filled with a cacophony of car lights, headlamps, dog barks, and cell-phone beeps and dings. No one sleep soundly, and no one wakes up well rested.
And of course, the biggest idiosyncrasy about Barkley, is the books. Unlike other races that use electronic timing of manned aid station, the Barkley relies upon a system of paperback books in Ziploc bags hidden along the course under rocks and in trees. To prove that you navigated the course correctly, runners need to find each of the thirteen or so books hidden out on the course and tear out the page corresponding to their bib number.
There’s a reason most people keep their books on their bed stands or coffee tables—and not under rocks or in dead trees in the mountains. If you’ve ever tried to find a copy of a French dictionary at night, in the dark, in the woods, under a rock, on top of mountain, in a rainstorm, with fog so thick you can’t see your own feet… C’est dommage.
The requirements to submit an entry into the race are a closely guarded secret, but it’s known that entrants must complete an essay entitled “Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley.” Can you tell us what your essay included?
Different people employ different strategies, but most essays seem to fall into three main categories: 1) the boastful “I’m going to pound this course in the rectum, no condom, no lubrication” braggadocio, 2) the jocular, “I’m woefully unprepared and have no business being here; sit back and chuckle as you watch me fail spectacularly”, and 3) the uninspired, “here’s my resume; blah, blah, blah”.
Last year, Laz received over 700 application essays. I can’t speak for Laz, nor can I purport to understand the wirings of his brain, but based on the few comments he made, my advice to people would be:
- Longer is not necessarily better; keep your essay short and entertaining
- Don’t just list your resume; show Laz who you are as a person
- Be witty; be entertaining; stand out
- Don’t bother applying if you haven’t significant ultra and wilderness experience. Yes, you need to be fast to have a shot at finishing (even just a three-loop “fun run”), but Laz also needs to know that you can handle yourself alone in the mountains and self-extract in case of emergencies.
- Be sure to mention if you have a PhD or a science/engineering background; doing well at Barkley requires an attention to detail, as well as good organizational and problem-solving skills
Here’s an excerpt from my Barkley application, where I was selected during my first year applying:
“Big Johnny Burton is not the fastest ultra-runner, or even the toughest. Though he is arguably one of the most handsome (despite being follically challenged and completely unable to grow a decent ultra-beard or even a modest ironic hipster handlebar-mustache). But, never one to be defined by perceived limitations, Big Johnny defiantly rocks what is perhaps the sparsest, most anemic excuse for a goatee in the entire ultra-running world!
Born on a small Indian reservation in the Northern Michigan, just stone-throw across the river from Canada, young Johnny spent the summers of his youth exploring the nearby Porcupine mountains with nothing but a diaper and a hydration vest. By age five, his feet were completely covered in thick callouses. His legs were scarred from epic battles with whitethorns and briars. And he had tan lines that would make any self-respecting pot-famer jealous.
Now, as a fully-grown man (who seldom wears a diaper anymore), Big Johnny enjoys the absurdity and suffering of life in all its glorious forms—whether that involves bashing his head open while solo-climbing waterfalls in the mountains, or chugging eight cans of beer while sprinting laps around a track. A two-time Hardrock finisher, 50K National Champion, and winner of Canada’s FatDog120, Big Johnny has now turned his sights to the-race-that-must-not-be-named, the race that eats its young.
Therefore, I hereby proclaim, that I, Big Johnny Burton, do solemnly acknowledge that I realistically, have little chance of finishing the Barkely. Much faster, stronger, more talented, and more heavily-bearded men (like Gary Robbins) have tried and failed, numerous times. But… something still compels me to try, to struggle, and to empty my soul (and possibly also my stomach) onto the sacred trails of Frozen Head State Park.
So here I am, standing in my American-flag speedo, arm panties, bowtie and cape… ready to fight (and perhaps fail) as spectacularly as any man ever has!”
Lol. I think I'm going to get some interesting online traffic sources because of these photos. Ok, so which books were out on course?
JB: This year we had to find thirteen books with a variety of confidence-inspiring and motivational titles such as:
- Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives
- Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
- Left to Die
- Left Behind
- How to Stay Alive in the Woods
- The Gift of Fear
- Just Tell Me When We’re Done
- You Can Run
- Help! I’m a Prisoner in the Library
- Six Seconds (a tribute/taunt to Gary Robbins who arrived 6 seconds after the cutoff on his final loop last year)
- 61 Hours (a reference to the 60-hour time-limit for the race)
- French dictionary (a nod to the 6 or so French athletes running the race this year)
- The Power Behind Positive Thinking
And as you were working through the books, you ended up joining a group that included filmmaker/podcaster Jamil Coury, obstacle course racer Amelia Boone, Eioin Keith, Maggie Guterl. How did you guys end up running together? Was the team effort planned beforehand or did you fall in together out on course?
JB: No, this was not planned beforehand. The “Fabulous Five”, “Furious Five”, “Frozen Head Five”, or “Five Amigos,” as we have variously come to be known, came together organically on the course. I would say it was a combination of luck, providence, divine intervention… as well as a series of blunders, missteps, and gross navigational errors that ultimately brought us all together.
My plan going into the race was to try and work with a veteran runner named Jodi Isenor, who I’d been in email contact with leading up to the race, and who graciously offered to let me tag along. We were joined early on in the race by obstacle course racer Amelia Boone, with whom I had also talked (and trained a bit with) beforehand.
Things were going great until the descent down Rat Jaw from the water tower to the prison where Amelia and I both took a couple of hard spills on the steep, muddy descent. Unfortunately, we lost sight of Jodi and briefly missed a key, hard-to-spot turn off. By the time we corrected course, Jodi was already out of sight. Thankfully, Amelia and I were able to complete the rest of loop 1 on our own, with occasional help from other first-time “virgin” runners who we encountered periodically on the loop.
But, “shit hit the fan" on the start of the second loop as we tried to navigate the course in reverse—this time at night, in the dark, in the fog, in the middle of a raging rain storm. Somehow we failed to find the first book (which we had just found an hour before) and were forced to take shelter in a cave and wait—hoping that other runners would eventually pass by.
Eventually the duo of Eoin Keith and Maggie Guterl came along to rescue us. Thankfully, Eoin was able to find the book with relative ease. We wisely decided to pool resources and proceed together as a group. We found some more books. We got lost some more. And then we found some more books.
At some point we came across what looked to be a ninety-year-old shaman/guru sitting cross-legged in a cave on top of a mountain. Except, strangely, the long-haired disheveled shaman was wearing a headlamp and a Gore-Tex jacket. Turns out it was 4-time Barkley veteran (and famous ultrarunning film-maker/YouTuber) Jamil Coury. Jamil had been lost on the mountain, unable to find a book, for two hours – and had taken shelter under a rock overhang.
Jamil joined our motley crew, and played tour guide for the next 12 hours, showing us all the ins and outs of the course. If you haven’t seen it, definitely check out his video: The Year The Barkley Won: 2018 Barkley Marathons.
Finally, anything you think was interesting, unexpected, or exemplary would be great to hear! I’m curious what the most unexpected occurence out on the course, how the weather affected things, etc.
JB: Several things stand out:
- Barkley is probably definitely the only race where I have broken into an old abandon (and purportedly haunted) prison. Reminiscent of the Shawshank Redemption, we found ourselves climbing down into an underground tunnel, knee deep in (what I hoped was) water, telling ourselves that everything was going to be OK. Thinking back to my high school physics days, I reminded everyone of Bernoulli’s Principle, suggesting that we hug the wall of the raging underground river to avoid the strongest currents.
- Words can’t adequately describe the pain I felt watching my compatriot Eoin Keith fall on a descent and snap his collarbone. The mountains reverberated as he screamed out in pain. And then, moments later, he fell again. On the same shoulder. And then he fell, again and again. Each time screaming out various profanities. But to his credit, he never complained, and he always moved forward with a smile. I always knew that the Irish were tough bastards. But still… mad respect!
- There has been a lot of talk about whether a woman will ever finish 5 loops at Barkley. Beverly Anderson-Abbs has come the closest with a three-loop fun run—no easy feat. But having witnessed the performances of Amelia and Maggie as they completed two full loops (admittedly well over the official cut-off time) in horrendous weather and trail conditions, I am optimistic about what strong women can accomplish on this course, if they are given the chance. And not to call anyone out, but I’m thinking of a certain woman (yes you, Elizabeth Simpson of Logan, Utah) who might be able to give the Barkley a real run for its money.
- As the “Magnificent Five” (OK, I totally made that one up) sauntered back into camp, touching the yellow "gate of doom" in unison over 30 hours after the race had begun, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Amelia and I had run the first loop in under 11 hours (which included over 1.5 hours of standing/wandering around looking for books). But the second loop had taken 19 hours. That’s insane. I’m not sure whether to be embarrassed or proud? But that’s Barkley for you. Nothing comes easy… and you get what you pay for. What else do you expect for $1.60 race registration fee?
You can follow more of John Burton's adventures (and colorful commentary) on his blog. Additionally, John is active on Strava. Most of the photos on this page, including the magnificent thumbnail image, were taken by Deborah Brunswick, who braved the elements to take footage of the race. Take a moment and explore some of her great work on her portfolio. Finally, several images were screen captured from Jamil Coury's race footage. If you want to experience a bit of the race painlessly and vicariously, check it out.