6th July, 2016
The Barkley Marathons has a richly deserved reputation as a tough race. In 1977 James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King, escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. The terrain around the prison is so brutal and unforgiving that after running away for 55 hours Ray had only travelled 8 miles. He was found torn to pieces by saw briars, trying to hide from police and sniffer dogs in a hole. Lazarus Lake, a Tennessee-based ultra runner, saw this and thought it would be a good idea for a race. The Barkley Marathons was created in 1986, with 40 runners taking part each year, but it took until 1995 for one person to finish the race. In total, to date, the race has been completed by just 14 people.
When I read that a blind runner, Rhonda-Marie Avery, was attempting it this year along with a guide runner, you might imagine my state moved quickly from 'aware' to 'interested'. This is a race where failure is expected, and very few people who can see have ever finished it - so for someone with 8% sight, as Rhonda-Marie, to want to try it is awe-inspiring. I followed the story, and after the race contacted Rhonda-Marie and her guide runner, Christian Griffith, and got their stories. And what I read made the hairs stand on the back of my neck.
First of all, it's a wonderful story. I won't give the game away because you can read it for yourself in Issue 5 of ULTRA. But suffice to say that it's as good as I could have imagined; but the beauty is that it is told from the perspective of both the runner and the guide. I first read Rhonda-Marie's account, which talks about sensations and sounds and smells, the spiritual side of the Barkley, the ethereal aspect of this brutal landscape, and I realised why she wanted to do it. The notion of expecting to fail at something is not an unnatural one for a blind person, so you get the feeling that this is her world; the Barkley is the environment that she occupies in everday life, failure is perhaps not expected, but neither is it unexpected.
Then I read Christian's account, and it's much more grounded, more practical, very much talking about ploughing on, sensitive to Rhonda's requirements but also the need to get on with it as the Barkley is not a forgiving race.
I loved this contrast, and I decided to try to combine the two stories into one narrative. It works really well, because they're telling the same story from two angles, and they cross over from time to time. My favourite is the section where Christian describes the moment after they met and were waiting in line for Laz to give them their bib numbers, and Rhonda reveals that she's never climbed a mountain before. "Oh, shit." is his reaction. Rhonda's account continues with child-like innocence: "I'm not sure Christian believed me when I said I'd never been on a mountain before. That set the tone for a while, I think."
Laz, when he read it, said that it's the Barkley write-up of the year. To read it, you'll need to get a copy of ULTRA Issue 5, which you can buy by clicking here.