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Two Miles and 6 Seconds

Gary Robbins gets achingly close to becoming the 16th finisher of the Barkley Marathons

If you’re a fan of ultra-running, you no doubt were glued to Twitter and Facebook earlier this week watching the exciting culmination of one of the hardest athletic events on earth, the enigmatic Barkley Marathons.

The notoriously difficult event launched in 1986, and since then, a mere 15 people have finished the 100-plus mile footrace. The Barkley Marathons was dreamed up by organizer Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell to be all but impossible to finish, and it seems to get a little bit harder every year as the course changes, reverses direction, and traverses new mountains and brambles.

The start of the 2009 Barkley Marathons, photo via Wikimedia Commons

The course is set in the rugged Cumberland Mountains near Petros, Tennessee, around the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, the remote, maximum-security prison that once held Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray. Ray escaped in 1977, but the terrain around the prison was so difficult to traverse, he only managed to cover eight miles in the 52 hours he was free. (Watch “The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats Its Young” online for more on this fascinating event and the charismatic personality that shaped it.)

This year, 40 racers toed the line at the start of the first of the five, 20-mile loops of the course in Frozen Head State Park in early April. By the end of it, two runners remained. On his third attempt, John Kelly 32, of Washington, D.C. became only the 15th finisher in the history of the event. Robbins did not officially finish despite a very dramatic close call. See, Robbins had made a wrong turn somewhere in the fifth lap, and as he wrote on his blog, “In the fog I was a few degrees off course, and when I hit my trail, I must’ve trended into it left and then continued following it.” He arrived at the finish line 6 seconds over the cut-off time, enough for a DNF right there, but also came from the wrong direction, having missed two miles on the last loop.

Of his experience and getting disoriented in the woods after nearly 60 hours running on virtually no sleep, Robbins, a 40-year-old ultra-endurance athlete from Vancouver participating in his second Barkley Marathons, wrote, “The Barkley Marathons is not an orienteering style race. You do not get to select the route that best favors you between books [checkpoints]. You need to navigate between books, off trail, but in a very specific direction of travel. My finish, even if it were 6 seconds faster would not have counted.” Robbins was gracious in defeat. A consummate athlete who respects the rules of the race, he readily admitted that the almost-finish wasn’t quite good enough. Nevertheless, his run was extraordinarily gutsy, and in fact totally #mighty.

And with all this talk of Gary Robbins’ dramatic not-quite-success, it seems the other runner, John Kelly, who finished in 59 hours 30 minutes 53 seconds is getting a little overlooked. We wanted to give him a shout out, too, for a magnificent and awe-inspiring performance on one of the toughest courses in the world. Unimaginable drive, gumption, stamina, and heart went into that rare finish, and we are vastly impressed.

As T.S. Eliot once wrote, “only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” To all the intrepid ultra-runners who stepped up to the plate on the Barkley Marathons this year, we salute you. Go celebrate your #mightymoments.–Elaine K. Howley

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Photo via Canadian Runners World 

For more on the history of this outrageously difficult event, Matt Mahoney has you covered.

Canadian Runner’s World has more on this year’s race and what went down.

And you can see a map-infographic of the killer course on MapManUSA.

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