This year, I joined the Barkley Marathons as a member of the media. This is a peek at my experience.
Everyone at the Barkley, no matter in what capacity, will endure adversity. This I learned quickly as the weather shifted as soon as the runners checked in. A wind came upon us like a monstrous hand from the sky and tore through the mountains and into camp. What had been moderately warm weather turned frigid. Snow, then icy rain.
Most of the journalists and camera crews fled 30 miles away to Oak Ridge and the comforts of hotels. One of these was a German crew that had arrived a day early. They missed the start by 10 minutes.
When night fell and you could hear the wind whistling on top of the mountains, the enormity of what these runners were going to be asked to do made you think of war - how nature didn't care what silly cause your were fighting for - how it was going to do its thing regardless. In Frozen Head State Park, it felt like the land wanted its space back. Mike, a journalist and photographer, shared my parking space with me. I could almost hear him shivering in his 4x4. I certainly was in my rented Nissan Murano.
I'm a film person. I process things through films stored in my psyche. For me, I was reminded of "The Amityville Horror," specifically the scene where the priest enters the bedroom on the second floor. He was already in a cold sweat when a voice came from somewhere in the walls: "GET OUT."
At 11 p.m., camp went to DEFCON 3. At any moment in the next 12 hours, Laz could blow the conch and send crews and runners scrambling to get set for a cigarette and a start. Sent to cover the race for The New York Times, the last thing I wanted to do was wake up to daylight and the knowledge that I'd missed it. Exactly how loud would this conch be anyway? Twice a person in a tent next to me blew their nose like someone trying to work a duck call. Both times, I jolted upright and looked around for signs of life in the camp. Are we on?
I checked my phone out of habit, but it was useless. I've seen one bar and sometimes no bars on my service icon. This was the first time I saw an "x." We were cutoff and alone. We were on unfriendly ground. Hundreds of prisoners had died in those mountains, buried without ceremony when the walls of a mineshaft would cave in. The guards would just leave them. You felt for these people. Given the manner of their deaths, you were certain they weren't in hell. But... given what they'd done to get into Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, you were fairly sure they weren't in heaven either. You got the sense they were in limbo, in the park itself, and roamed restlessly looking for souls to harass. Ahab at the gate with the mountain-man beard and the "Geezer" toboggan seemed to invoke them. He sat next to a kerosene lamp, smoking a cigarette.
Sometime around four a.m., I nearly ended the Barkley before it began. I'd gotten too cold. In my thermals and down and under three of my grandmother's quilts, I was turning into a human-flavored popsicle. But, I had another problem. I couldn't turn on the blasted heat. The rental car had fog lights that would not turn off. Yes, I know the switch on the left-side handle that you can usually rotate and cut them, but it would not, I repeat... would not work on this vehicle. This meant that if I turned the car on to get warm, I'd be shining light into numerous tents, interrupting the much needed pre-conch sleep of the runners. But I had to move - take action. This race was about making decisions. I obviously had come in underprepared, but no sense wallowing in it now. Let's go.
I had the idea to make it to the bottom of the camp where there was a much larger parking lot and a light pole. There, my lights would bother no one, and I could get warm, crack a window so I wouldn't suffocate, and get some sleep. But would I be able to hear the conch?
Anyway, I was moving, my hands shaking on the wheel. Unwilling to hit the entire camp with my light beams, I drove with only the fog lights on. I weaved down the narrow lane between the dark shadows of tents and campers like a slalom skier. I nearly took out Harvey Lewis' whole setup but with a quick jerk to the left, I whispered right by him.
Safely at the bottom, I got two and half hours of perfect sleep. Warm as a bug in a rug. Then, nerves got the best of me. Had I missed it?
Back into the slot next to Mike, I saw a few signs of life but nothing out of the ordinary. A lady was exiting her RV in the spot next to us. "You hear the conch?" I asked in a raised tone, not wanting to step out into the cold unless need be. She shook her head side to side. Ah, no way to go back to sleep now, I thought. So, I layered up and stepped out. No sooner had my feet hit the ground then I heard the moan of the conch. Nope, if I was asleep, I never would have heard Laz's one-hour to "places people" call to camp.
It was like dropping a smoke bomb in an ant mound. Arms and legs and faces were scurrying about in all directions. They carried food and thermoses and running gear.
I made my way to a rock behind Laz and Keith Dunn and suddenly... a powerful feeling poured over me. This was the Barkley. Behind them stood the gate and beyond that were faces and names I'd written about for years but had never met. They were strangers to me, but I knew them in some way. At least, I had the warm feeling that I did. They were familiar. In a malevolent place like Frozen Head, it was comforting.
Laz lit his Camel and off they went. "It's fun time," he yelled back up the trail behind them. And suddenly I was wide awake. My fatigue had vanished; the cold and the sleet and the sleeplessness were rendered irrelevant. This was a race. This was the Barkley.