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Cary Norton

On the Scene at the Absolutely Insane Barkley Marathons

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Cary Norton

This story originally appeared in print in the August issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

Inspired by a flubbed prison escape, the Barkley Marathon is a ludicrously challenging 100-mile race only a handful of runners have completed. Finishing it twice? That's next to impossible.


By Lisa Jhung

It's reverently quiet when Jared Campbell comes running down the trail and into camp. He’s looked better. For one thing, his facial muscles appear to be asleep, even as he somehow keeps moving. He’s wilted from hours of exposure to the cold and rain, his skin covered in bloody scratches and caked with mud. The crowd—similarly battered runners and assorted spectators—is quiet for the first time in hours. The only sound is that of Campbell’s footfalls atop the soggy earth.

This silence is significant. The bugle has already sounded for most other runners at this year’s Barkley Marathons. Whenever a damaged competitor returns to camp, defeated by the course, a bugler blows “Taps” (this is called being “tapped out”). It happens to almost all the athletes who muster the courage—or insanity—to attempt the world’s most confounding foot race. Last night, in freezing rain, snow, and 45 mph icy gusts, it sounded 19 times.

Finally, one onlooker’s voice softly breaks the silence: “He’s running. He looks good.” The crowd around the fire rolls into applause. When Campbell catches his breath, he reports on the conditions: “It snowed a lot up there. It was really pretty, but it was cold.” The 34-year-old mechanical engineer from Salt Lake City reveals he slept 20 or 30 minutes on the trail at sunrise—“until I started shivering.”

And then, just like that, he’s gone again. Campbell is attempting another loop.

Here in the backwoods of Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains, a “loop” is 20 miles. Specifically, it’s 20 unmarked miles that traverse thick brambles, prickly briars, and relentless hills that bring more than 60,000 feet of elevation. The course’s difficulty is only amplified by the maddeningly slippery footing. To finish the Barkley Marathons, a runner has to complete five loops. It takes days, if it happens at all. Since the race began in 1986, only 14 people have finished it.

Ultra-distance 100-mile trail-running events have become popular lately in the United States, with 125 such endurance tests taking place in North America this year. Most of them, despite being difficult to qualify for, sell out within minutes. Races like California’s Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run have aid stations stocked with food, drink, medical assistance, and volunteers shouting words of encouragement. Routes are marked, and pacers—running buddies who keep delirious competitors on course and on pace—are standard.

Not here.

The Barkley Marathons is purposefully, gleefully, and wildly different. It was created by two friends, Gary Cantrell (a.k.a. “Lazarus Lake,” or “Laz”), a bearded, bespectacled Tennessean with a love of the outdoors and a daft sense of humor, and Karl Henn (a.k.a. “Raw Dog”). They were inspired, if inspired is the right word, by James Earl Ray’s 1977 escape from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Martin Luther King Jr.’s killer was at large for 54 hours before he was found, collapsed in the woods, just eight miles away. Laz and Raw Dog had spent years backpacking the park near the prison and they found amusement in Ray’s defeat. “I was a young, cocky guy,” says Laz. “I thought, ‘I could have gone 100 miles in 54 hours.’” That’s when the idea took. He and Raw Dog decided to see whether they could travel 100 miles in 60 hours “in those woods.”

Almost a decade later, Laz and Raw Dog backpacked an 18-mile loop of their own design through the park and completed it in two days. “I’d been hiking and backpacking with topographical maps for a long time,” says Laz. “I thought this would be a great deal of fun.” The following year, they invited some friends to join them in the challenge. They called it the Barkley Marathons, named for a friend who’d been wounded in Vietnam and can’t run.

A couple of years later, the two started placing paperback books with humorously ominous names on the route—titles this year include If Tomorrow Comes, Unless You Die Young, and Don’t Count Me Out. These are the trailmarkers. Runners have to navigate to find each book and tear out the page denoting their bib numbers for that loop (runners receive a new bib number per loop); if a runner is No. 63, he or she tears out page 63 of each book along the course and delivers the pages to Laz to prove that a lap has been completed.

The absurdly challenging race is also absurdly selective. A secretive online registration process weeds out applicants who don’t pay attention to detail. (Laz has been known to disqualify applicants who submit forms five minutes too early, for example.) It costs only $1.60 to enter, but all would-be racers must write a personal essay explaining why they should be allowed to participate. (“I am foolish enough to want to run the Barkley, and for this, I should be both rewarded and punished,” reads one.)

Ultimately, 40 runners are given bibs every year, each of them hand-selected by Laz. Some want to see if they can complete one lap. Those who have never run before are called “virgins”—Laz makes sure to choose several of them each year. Some come thinking they’ll complete three—Laz calls this a “Fun Run.” And then there are those deluded enough to think they’ll complete all five.

Stuart Gleman has attended the Barkley for 20 years and has run 17 times. This year, he intended to run but wasn’t feeling great. At the eleventh hour, he made a tough decision. “I’m giving my spot to a virgin,” he tells me.

Thirty-eight-year-old Tim Bird, who was on the waiting list, has come to the campsite, just in case a slot opens up. Gleman has Bird repeat the words "I want to run" and hands Bird his number. Later, after the race begins, Gleman weeps for a few minutes.

Cary Norton

It's not an accident that the race is held on the last weekend in March, close to April Fool’s Day. It starts when Laz decides it starts—anytime between midnight and noon. And that’s how it comes to pass that, on March 29 at 5:46 a.m., a low hum rumbles from a conch shell across the Big Cove Campground. Within a few minutes, dozens of tents light up. Soon, a symphony of tent zippers swells.

An hour later, all 40 runners are standing behind a yellow gate on the Firetower Road trail. They carry maps, compasses, and six pages of instructions explaining course idiosyncrasies. To wit: “There will be a pig head on a stick to make [the trail] easier to identify.” Laz’s starting gun is a cigarette. When he lights it, the runners move out. The temperature hovers around 50 degrees, comfortable for this time of year. Four hours later, it drops into the 30s. A hard and steady rain begins to fall.

With the rain comes mud. By late morning, it’s caked to Campbell as he crests a wickedly steep, brush-riddled slope from a deep valley below—a stretch known as Testicle Spectacle. And yet Campbell is all business. Earbuds in, small backpack over his fit frame, he moves efficiently over slick turf, then descends quickly beneath power lines enshrouded in fog.

That afternoon, the rain falls, crooked and relentless. The only time competitors find shelter is when they travel through an 800-foot tunnel underneath the eerie abandoned state prison that once housed Ray. There, the water hits mid-calf, cold as ice. And then there are the rats. It’s from this tunnel that Eva Pastalkova, a 38-year-old neuroscientist from the Czech Republic who now lives in Virginia, emerges with an unlikely expression: a smile. She’s having “good fun,” she says, resembling a kid stomping through mud puddles. She rips her appropriate page from The Bad Place and drops it into a plastic bag. Then she heads back into the woods to find her next trophy: a badge of how far she’s come, undaunted by the weather, the terrain, the pain.

Back at camp, 32-year-old Tetsuro Ogata is back and showered, tapped out seven and a half hours after the start. His mistake, he says, was following Campbell. “I was with him for two miles. He’s fast downhill, then he turned uphill before I could catch up, and I was lost for hours.”

When a newbie gets shaken off by a veteran, it’s called “virgin scraping.” But Campbell and Ogata are friends, and the snub wasn’t intentional. “Jared is going to be disappointed in me,” says Ogata, who traveled 29 hours from Japan to get here. Yet there it is, another smile.

Campbell arrives back at camp eight hours and two minutes after starting, ceremoniously touching the yellow gate to mark his official finish of loop one. An avid rock climber and a fan of running “link-ups,” where one runs and climbs in the mountains for days on end, he finished the whole race on his first try in 2012 and got lost on loop two—a long story—in 2013 before dropping out during loop three. He turns his 13 book pages over to Laz, who counts them before giving Campbell a new number for his next loop. Eighteen minutes pass—clothes are changed, the backpack is reloaded, fresh headlamp batteries are secured. Then Campbell bounds away.

Cary Norton

A week before the race, Laz wrote me an email that resembled free verse:

“saturday night (all night) is the main event, as shattered survivors emerge from the woods from all directions, grateful to at last be safely back at camp. they will tell their tales of horror (with a haunted look in their eyes) with little or no prompting. everyone will laugh.”

Saturday night, a crowd huddles under a tent, trying to stay out of the rain. Fifty-nine-year-old Barkley virgin Billy Simpson approaches Laz with his book pages. He is a casualty, and he looks wide-eyed and incredulous, as though he’s outrun a ghost. “Dude,” he says to me, “this makes Hardrock look like a 5K.” (Colorado’s Hardrock 100 is widely considered the hardest ultra-running race in the United States.) “Laz, I don’t know if I should punch you or thank you!” he hollers, to roars of laughter. By morning, 24 hours since the race’s start, ten runners remain on the course: five on loop two, the others on number three. The rest have cleaned up, rested, and gathered around the fire—the sun finally shining overhead—to compare war stories.

The tales of agony and absurdity bond the runners, whether or not they finish. Similar to how some people collect stamps or cars, Matt Mahoney’s hobby is maintaining the closest thing the Barkley has to an official website. He posts results and recollections from various runners each year. Mahoney himself has 15 starts under his belt. This year, he and virgin competitor Cat Lawson from Great Britain roamed around before returning to camp 11 hours after the start. They had collected two pages—retrieved over roughly 3.5 miles—before giving up.

“I don’t know why I keep doing this,” he says, grinning broadly. “I know I’m not going to finish; I don’t have any hope of even a Fun Run.”

So what keeps him coming back?

“I don’t know.” He pauses. “Old friends.” In some ways, the race is a code these runners want to crack. It’s a puzzle to be solved, and it takes everything one can muster—mind, body, spirit, will. The extremeness is appealing. From the moment the cigarette is lit, life is simplified. It’s survival: going book to book, using only a map, a compass, and pushing an increasingly battered body on.

“You get out there and feel the pull,” says Steve Durbin, a six-time veteran. “You can’t escape it.”

“It’s like a game,” Laz tells me, “but it’s your body you’re playing with. And if your body doesn’t work, you have to make it.”

Just after 6 p.m. that day, 35 hours and 30 minutes after he first hit the trail, Campbell emerges partway down a climb known as Rat Jaw. He moves deliberately, purposefully, clambering over the brush and mud. Campbell walks to the table holding a page from a book.

“My Achilles are about to explode,” he says. “That doesn’t feel good, but whatever.” Then he heads back down the hill and out of sight.

Being out on a loop alone in the woods is known among the Barkley crowd as being “out there.” Campbell is still out there. He’s exhausted and “really out of it.” It’s about 2 a.m., more than 40 hours in, when he just falls over onto the ground at the base of a big climb. Between laps four and five, he sleeps a solid hour. On his fifth loop, he feels “surprisingly good.”

To date, only one person has finished all five loops twice—Brett Maune, in 2011 and again in 2012. Since then, three treacherous climbs—named Checkmate Hill, Foolish Stu (named after Gleman), and Hiram’s Vertical Smile (named after veteran Hiram Rogers)—have been added to the course. At 4:40 p.m. on Monday, 57 hours, 53 minutes and 20 seconds after Laz lit the cigarette, Campbell strides into camp. His fist clutches the evidence, and its significance is apparent: He’s become the second person in history to defeat the course twice.

Someone offers him a chair. Sleep-deprived and battered, he regards it warily, as if it’s the first time he’s seen such a thing. Slowly, he sits down. The crowd at the camp gathers to hear the details of his heroic tale. Later, after dinner at a Mexican restaurant, Campbell sleeps for eight hours in a motel room. Still cold to the bone, he hurts too much to get up in the night to adjust the thermostat.

A week later, Campbell feels a little sore in the shin but, other than that, he’s completely recovered. “I went there thinking it was my last time,” he says. Somehow he’s not so sure any more. The pull of the woods is still there.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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