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Pagosan’s book illuminates world of the ultramarathon

“The Barkley Marathons, The World’s Toughest Trail Race,” written by Ed Furtaw, aka Frozen Ed, a resident of Pagosa Springs .

The Barkley Marathons was organized by Gary Cantrell in 1986. It is held in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee in the early spring, in late March or early April. The distance of the races are 60 and 100 miles.

Gary designed the race to keep it on the outer limits of human possibility. So he changes the race frequently to keep the runners always in a challenge mode.

Runners are given a map that leads them on different trails, roads, overgrown mining roads, and into the wilderness.

In the 1987 January-February edition of the Ultra Running magazine they named the Barkley as the world’s toughest ultramarathon. According to Ed’s research there is just over 1 percent of the starters who actually finish the 100-mile race. A GPS would be useful, but Gary banned them from the race.

Ed was the first finisher of the 55-mile Barkley in 1988. He states that most of his normal runs in 1988 took approximately eight minutes per mile, but on terrain like Hell Hill in the Barkley he could only average about 24 minutes per mile. Hell is an incredibly steep overgrown mining trail that goes straight up the side of Frozen Head Mountain. According to Ed, he literally had to pull himself uphill using the trees and brush. This kind of terrain is one of the reasons the Barkley is so difficult.  

The time limits are very short, considering the difficulty of this race. To satisfy the time limits, racers have to deprive themselves of sleep. In 1992, Ed tried to run the race with no sleep. He started the race at 8 a.m. and around 3 a.m. the next morning, his coordination was impaired and he lost his balance in the middle of a creek crossing. It was dark and cold and he was now very wet. Ed states that he learned a painful lesson: “Fatigue makes me stupid.”

In the 1995 race, Mark Williams, from England, was the first finisher of the 100-mile race, getting only five hours of sleep in a 59 hour-plus time period. 

Ed writes, “Mark’s breakthrough performance at the Barkley in 1995 was a testimony to the power of belief,” meaning most of the Barkley racers didn’t think it was possible to finish in the time allowed. Williams didn’t have that thought.. He was right: It is possible to finish, it just is not easy.

“Tales From Out There” is about the Barkley Marathons, listed in chronological order starting with the first race in 1986 and ending with the 2009 race. It is a detailed and informative examination of the competitors and finishers, and includes some of their stories about the Barkley Marathons.

Ed has included graphs, charts and some of the trail maps. Ed puts the reader in the race with humor and silly quotes. Readers who love pitting themselves against nature will sense the difficulty and strength it takes to finish this ultramarathon. The reader who loves learning will be intrigued by the amount of useless suffering these runners put themselves through.

The book is available for purchase at for $15.