A local photographer talks about documenting the survivors of the toughest marathon in the world

When Geoffrey Baker doesn’t have a camera pressed to his face, he’s likely to have running shoes on his feet as they pound miles and miles down some Baltimore County trail. The 53-year-old professional photographer and Oella resident has for many years been an avid ultrarunner, training and running races at distances that stretch far past the usual marathon length—a typical ultrarunner marathon might go 50 or even 100 miles. Baker has photographed ultrarunners and ultrarunner events in the past for publications such as Trail Runner and Running Times magazines, but this spring he tackled a personal project that was quite literally off the beaten path: documenting the legendary Barkley Marathons, an unorthodox 26-year-old ultramarathon that sends racers scrambling up and down the rugged slopes in and around East Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park for 100 miles. A tall, affable man with the lanky build of someone who runs the length of the average Baltimore-to-Washington, D.C., commute on a regular basis, he met us at a Station North coffee shop to discuss Fight Club for ultrarunners.

City Paper : What got you interested in the Barkley Marathons?

Geoffrey Baker: I’d been hearing about it for years. And it’s kind of like one of those burrs you get in your butt, and it just sits there and every now and then it irritates you and you think about it. What is this whole thing about? You hear these stories that are just off the wall. So this year I learned that there was going to be a film crew shooting a documentary on it, and I thought if I’m gonna do something on it I’d better do it now. ’Cause I don’t know how they’re going to portray it, and this is my sport, so I want to have a counterpoint in case that’s a bad thing.

CP : My understanding of the race is that it’s, um, resistant to publicity—there’s no web site, entry is by invitation only, etc. How did you get permission to do the photographs?

GB: That’s where I think I had an advantage in being an ultrarunner. Even getting into the race is a bit of a mystery, and I’d always been really paying attention to how do you really get into the race. So I was able to connect enough pieces and approach the race director and say, “This is who I am, this is my background, is this OK?” And he was accepting of that, but he didn’t give me any other help. I had a whole lot of questions, and I started to ask him [via e-mail], and when I didn’t get responses I was like, Oh, OK, he’s treating me like everyone else. You’ve gotta figure it out.

CP : So you haven’t run the race yourself?

GB: No, but I’m thinking about it now.

CP : If you’re an ultrarunner, it must be tantalizing.

GB: It is.

CP : So can you go into more detail on the race for readers who might not be familiar with it?

GB: The genesis was when [Martin Luther King Jr. assassin] James Earl Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain State Prison [near Frozen Head State Park in 1977], and the race director saw that he only got . . . I think it was eight miles in 55 hours. And the race director was an ultrarunner, and he thought, heck, I could get more than 100 miles in that time easy. So he went and checked out the course and thought This is a great place to do a race.

So it consists of quote-unquote 20-mile loops, and you do five, and you reverse direction after the third loop just to make it more complicated. Everything about the race is designed to frustrate you and challenge you and make you fail. There are 11 books scattered throughout the course. There are no GPSes allowed, you have to use a map and compass. There are directions, but they’re a little bit obtuse. So you have to get to [each] book and tear out the page that matches your race number, so if you’re number 19 you have to tear out page 19, and successfully bring it back to camp to prove that you were out in the right place.

CP : Because nobody’s going to be watching.

GB: There’s nobody watching. There are no support crews, there are no aid stations. You are totally on your own out there. You have to bring all your own supplies out there. . . [for] fast people it’s seven hours the first time, but for most people it’s 12, 18 hours.

CP : For a loop?

GB: For 20 miles! Which is just off the charts.

CP : And you’re not running on a dirt road or path, right? The course runs up and down undeveloped mountainous terrain comparable to Western Maryland.

GB: Yeah, but it’s rougher than [Western Maryland]. It’s 59,000 feet if you do the whole hundred—59,000 feet of climb and descent. And each loop has a time limit. There are two divisions. There’s what [the race director] calls the “fun run,” which is anybody who can complete 60 miles—three loops—which is a worthy goal. And then there’s the actual full race, which is 100 miles, five loops, and that you have to do within 60 hours. If you’re trying for a fun run, I think the time limit [for a loop] is 13 hours, 13 and a half. Again, for 20 miles, which is incomprehensible [to ultrarunners].

That’s what draws people in. “Twenty miles in 13 hours! You can walk that. You can crawl that!” Till you get there and see it, you haven’t a clue.

CP : And people aren’t just running. The teaser trailer for the documentary you mentioned shows people walking, trudging, even kind of clambering along on all fours.

GB: [Climbing] hand over hand. Interesting sidebar about the documentary crew: The day of the race, the [film’s] director was manning a camera, and he decided he was going to go out to the first book and film the runners getting to the first book. Now, the first book is a mile and a half from camp, the start/finish line, [on what’s called] the Candy-Ass Trail. He went out there, found the book, filmed the runners, and promptly got lost. Not only did he get lost, he stayed lost for 16 hours. They had to send out a rescue crew to get the director a mile and a half from camp. So what we’re talking about here is truly the Bermuda Triangle of ultrarunning. Bad things happen. It’s just off the charts.

CP : I know there are other ultramarathons, but not like this, right?

GB: Oh yeah, it’s considered the toughest in the world. You look at other races like the Hard Rock 100 in Colorado, that’s got like maybe 30,000 feet of climbs. This is double that. The time limit is generous, but not for the course. Only 12 people have finished it in 25 years.

CP : And the guy who won it this year, Brett Maune, is the first person to finish it twice?

GB: Yes.

CP : And he beat his own time by three hours?

GB: Yes, he set a new course record.

CP : So how did you recruit participants for your project?

GB: The race director was kind enough to toggle me into an e-mail list of all the runners, and so a coupla weeks ahead of time I sent out my spiel, told them who I was, what I was doing. And I said if you’d like to participate, e-mail me back. And some of them did.

I got down there a couple of days in advance. I wanted to scout the course so I could actually go out and shoot on the course a little bit for the first loop. So that Thursday I went out and did that. And then I set up a pop-up studio right at the start/finish line, the “Yellow Gate,” next to my car, which I slept in with the hatch open—although “slept” isn’t [quite accurate]. I shot them Friday afternoon [before the race] and then as they quit, whatever time they got back.

CP : So you spent time with each runner before he or she started. What were they like in those moments?

GB: The veterans were relaxed. The people who were picked to go the farthest—the serious attempts at the 100—were very focused, very withdrawn and inside themselves. What they call the virgins were just lost in space. They were kind of giggling. They had no clue. They actually pick one person who’s the most cocky and boastful before the race and they call him a “sacrificial virgin.”

CP : And this is not a glitzy, international-sport kind of affair, right? There are no sponsors and no T-shirts.

GB: The whole sport of ultrarunning is sort of like what I imagine being a Deadhead would be, in that you travel around the country in this small tribe, you know everyone, and it’s a celebration when you get there, and a big party. That’s sort of what ultrarunning is—it’s a celebration of the training that you do when you take on these events.

There’s no hoopla. There’s no T-shirt. You’re camping out. Really there’s no media. It’s done just simply for the joy of doing it.

CP : And how does the race begin?

GB: Again, that goes to the Barkley mystique. It’s a mystery you have to unlock to figure all that out. As far as the start time, it can happen anytime from midnight on the designated day, and I won’t say what the designated day is, to noon the following day. What [the race director] does is he gets up and decides when the race is going to start, and blows a conch shell to wake everyone up, and then they have an hour warning to get your stuff together and get ready. And then he lights a cigarette [to start the race].

CP : From the way you’re answering some of these questions, I gather there is a lot more you could tell me that you’re not going to.

GB: That’s right. And anyone you talk to, I would assume, would protect the race in that vein to keep it as it is.

CP : How long did it take the first runners to return?

GB: They started at 9 [a.m.], and my first person was at midnight.

CP : How were the runners coming back?

GB: Tired. The virgins were just kind of laughing at themselves—how ridiculous [they had been]. Again, they had no clue. A lot of the virgins didn’t even get all the books. They got halfway in, got stuck, bailed out from there, and it took them 12 and 18 hours to get back.

CP : As you mentioned, if you quit running a loop midway, you still have to make your own way back, right?

GB: You have to walk back, and it’s generally a very, very long walk. Five, 10, 15 miles, and you have to figure out how to do that with your map and compass. And it’s not over till you get back to the Yellow Gate.

This one guy from Colorado, this guy called Frozen Head Ed who’d [started] it 15, 16 times, this guy is 63, something like that, all he wanted in the world was to do two loops, even if he was over the time limit. He did it in 26 hours, and he was so happy. He failed, but he didn’t fail. He achieved his goal, and he had a big smile on his face.

CP : What were some of the other physical tolls of the race?

GB: One guy who didn’t sign up with me, so I couldn’t really take his picture, at the first book he took a reverse fall into a rock [and hit his head] and was just covered in blood. Like, he should have gone to the hospital. But he continued.

CP : You photographed this year’s winner, Brett Maune, before and after. What was he like?

GB: He was very quiet. He’s a physicist, I believe, so he kind of fits that mold of quiet, introspective, inside himself. He was polite. He didn’t say anything. And even after the race he just kinda sat there and smiled really. Didn’t talk too much.

CP : Do you feel like you got what you were looking for in doing the portraits?

GB: Oh, absolutely. Even just quickly checking [the images at the time], I could see the dramatic change that “out there” imparted on these people. That was my whole goal, to capture how bad it is. (laughs)

CP : And you still want to do it?

GB: I would like to see if I could do a loop. It’s a test. It’s a quest. So few things in life you get to test yourself, have an epic adventure, and immediately know if you’ve succeeded or failed.

To see more of geoffrey baker’s photographs, visit geoffreybakerphotography.com.

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