Brushy Mountain is a maximum security prison 40 miles east of Knoxville, Tennessee, surrounded by 24,000 acres of wilderness. It is perhaps best known as the former residence of James Earl Ray, the shooter who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. It is also home of the hardest ultra-marathon in the United States, the Barkley Marathon.
Since its inception in 1968, only 14 people have finished this course. It was partially inspired by James Earl Ray's attempted escape from Brushy Mountain prison: In 48 hours, Ray and his six companions were only able to traverse 3 miles – the terrain was that difficult to navigate.
We attended the little brother of the Barkley, the Barkley Fall Classic. It uses the same terrain as its predecessor, but proceeds always go back to Frozen Head State Park and local schools. Just over 210 entered, 101 were able to finish the 50k, 69 finished the shorter marathon course, and 44 dropped out. Scott Breeden won the event; his time was 7:37:20 – an hour longer than it took him to complete last year.
Sections of the course included such colorful names as Rat Jaw, Testicle Spectacle, and Meth Lab. All are almost vertical climbs on your hands and knees, traversing briars 10 feet tall.
A small part of the course this year runs through the Brushy Mountain prison, and into a notorious section called the Pit. When the prison was open, this area was traditionally used for confinement and punishment for violent, unruly prisoners.
During the race, you have to get your race bib hole punched at certain points in order to get credit for completing. This year with the addition of the prison, that meant that, in the depths of the Pit, a guy waited in pitch black to punch your bib.
Founder Scott Black says that this event was the hardest thing he has ever done. He finished in 12:38:58. "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy."
At the finish line, we greeted participants at what we call the Rejuvenation Station. Ice cold Sword, ample shade, and good camaraderie greeted each participant. And the oasis came as a relief to those who finished and those who dropped out: Many arrived sporting battle wounds.