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My Barkley Marathon – Matt Cantrell 2021 Barkley Marathons Race Report

Barkley 2021 Finish Matt Ashley Hiram Tim

Barkley Finish 2021 - Credit Ryan Davis

This Matt Cantrell 2021 Barkley Marathons race report offers great insight from a Virgin Barker you might not know much about. Matt is an experienced runner with a strong background in 50 mile, 100 mile and other ultras, and he clearly has the positive attitude and grit required for success at the Barkleys. Enjoy.

My Barkley Marathon

Training & Transformation

I am not an elite athlete. I suffered from a lot of imposter syndrome prior to this event, but that’s nothing new to me as a veterinarian. I set my sights on a goal very likely outside of the realm of my abilities, and I got to work. I’m a back-of-the-packer with more DNFs than 100 mile finishes, but I needed to put myself into unknown territory. How do we know our limits if we don’t challenge them? Obliterate them.

Matt Training in Florida

Matt Training in Florida

I knew in November 2020 that my name would get called (after years on the “list,” and with COVID raging, the writing was on the wall). So when I finished my own tangle with COVID, I started getting myself back in shape. I needed this…I had no races / finishes that whole year to reminisce about. Build up the legs, build up the lungs, start prepping for an unimaginable number of miles and gain.

November…December was a great month…and then January brought the madness. Miles and vert like I’ve never done before. Thank the firmament for my beautiful wife and family, as I became a nonfunctional member of said family. I mean I still took out the trash and scooped the kitty litter, put the kids to bed. But otherwise, complete waste of space! Megan made this whole thing possible, and I’m forever grateful and indebted for that.

My life was now work, run, eat, drink, bare minimum family functions. For the most part, I was happy about that. Yeah it got tiring — I definitely had less patience for working long hours. But seeing myself get stronger, watching the 18 extra pounds melt away, blowing by those PRs and milestones, THOSE things were fantastic. And you know what? We aren’t supposed to spend too much time at work anyway.

Matt Cantrell with Family at FHSP

Matt Cantrell with Family at FHSP

My guides were the reports of those who went before me, my textbooks the various maps of Frozen Head State Park. Laz was super helpful: “panther branch trail will be pretty representative of the whole course!” I completely agree, go run that a few thousand times. I studied as much as I ran, sometimes simultaneously. You will not survive long at the Barkley if you’re relying on a narrow set of skills.

I spent time at Frozen Head, three weekends to be exact, and I will say it seems impossible to me that anyone could finish this race without knowing this park intimately. The weekend excursions — Friday work til 6 pm, drive six hours, up to run early Saturday all day, sleep, repeat Sunday, drive home get minimal sleep before starting a new work week — were great preparation. As we all know, you better be ready to go at any time.

I made up my mind early on this had to be a life-changing experience, and it was. The vast majority of that change, as of the time of this writing, was during the training. I improved my mind and body. I learned a ton (many things I’m trying hard not to forget). I became stronger. I built a base that I intend to carry me into the future. A future that is full of physical, mental and spiritual challenges.

At Frozen Head

I arrived at Frozen Head five days in advance of the race. I rented a van (that was a mini adventure) and spent those days doing minor reconnaissance and prepping my gear. You can’t do well at this race if you’re not prepped for all five loops. I had some awesome conversations. I made friends with people I never would have met. That trend would continue. I missed my family, but this week was about perfecting myself mentally before the race. And since I couldn’t have my family with me during the race, I needed to toughen up.

Matt Cantrell Training at FHSP

Matt Cantrell Training at FHSP

My crew for this endeavor wasn’t someone I had known long, but he was amazing. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing for every Barker to have to have crew they don’t know. My experience was elevated by (1) not relying on any emotional attachment to family in camp, and (2) learning VERY quickly to trust someone I didn’t know. There is great good in humanity...not sure if you have to look exactly, but I’m continually seeing it.

Day before the conch: I studied all freaking day. Not much more I can say about it. I took the directions, studied. Compared to the map. Studied. Went over things with my crew, studied some more. Vital things were covered, course was gone over, and in the end I continued to study. It was the first time in 11 years I felt like I was in Vet School again (outside of nightmares), but I will say I was extremely pleased at my ability to mobilize those skills. I rocked the memorization.

Sleep came at…never. Started attempting at 10:30ish, then came the rain. Pouring, cascading. My van was under a tree. Deafening differences in water splatter timbre on the top of the van is what I believe kept me up, constantly changing over the next few hours. I guess it could’ve been nerves, it just didn’t feel like it in the moment. Nonetheless, I fully heard the conch at 2:04 am. I sat straight up and got to work preparing.

Aaron was ready and made sure I was awake. Lots of activity. I went and collected my timepiece (!). Funniest part of the morning was when I handed the watch to Aaron for safe keeping. When he handed it back to me later, he told me:

“That dickhead didn’t even set the watch correctly! I fixed it for you!

Hahahaha oh man “No! It’s set to Barkley time! Can you put it back?”


If that’s the worst that happens today, I’m in super shape! That hour flew by.

The Barkley Marathons

Up to the Yellow Gate with three minutes to spare. Memorial thoughts. Head spinning. It’s dark and headlamps are on, at least the rain has stopped. I found one person I figured I’d try to stick with. Cigarette was lit.

SHIT everyone is running faster than I’m prepared for. Okay people, I’ll jog, but I did not train to sprint…up…this…mountain. I realize very quickly the odds are essentially impossible for me to finish. I’m at the back of the pack and the back of the pack doesn’t finish. Who cares, I will adjust and I will do my own personal best out here.

This isn’t anyone else’s run right now. So move. Watching people move away. That’s okay, but damn it it’s hot (I’m dressed for rain). Hot and foggy. That second part keeps getting worse the higher we climb.

Together with two other virgins, we find Book 1. That wasn’t so bad. Good Lord, it is dark and foggy though. Oh man. And now we descend. And now comes Barkley Defining Moment (BDM) #1: descending for the first time, the deafening roar of rushing water and general difficulty (how the HELL did everyone move ahead of me so freaking quickly?!), combined with the terrain, left a giant impression in my brain of the impossible, grand, majestic LARGENESS of this Race. Holy shit is I guess the best way that comes to my mind to describe that descent. And Holy shit is beautiful. And painful.

Then we climb again, and on this climb I’m now left behind. Well, that sucks. But this is the Barkley. If you aren’t ready to be alone, best not be here. So I get to the next summit (that was hard…took way too long!), and I’m alone and I need to find a Book. What better Barkley experience?! I know where I am, but WOW fog and can I trust my compass and SHIT stop worrying! I know where I am!! I find the Book. Breathe. Headlamp in the darkness, “Hey let’s team up!” … “Ok.” This was all BDM #2.

BDM #3 was the next descent (there’s not much beyond ascents and descents): new teammate Ryan and I nailed most of this descent together just using our knowledge and our compasses. It wasn’t easy and can’t say it was fun, but looking back it’s super cool to know we stayed on course there.

And then we met the Harem. Led by Hiram, they seemed a merry band. My race quickly changed from trying to own every aspect of every step to just trying to keep up. Somewhere in the next few books I realized I was already calorie and hydration deficient. I started pounding both, and this paid off for me. But for a while, survival for me was just keeping up. As long as I was in the group, the dark thoughts of taking Quitter’s Road were kept at bay.

The harem was a jolly and positive bunch, and for the next (many) hours I learned what some superhumans look like. Hiram’s uncanny ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other; Carl’s uplifting attitude, getting funnier the worse he felt; Ashley’s ridiculously strong and positive outlook on the rest of the race.

I just soaked it all in. Watching Tim and Ryan’s quiet strength…each contributed their own relentless forward progress, and I only hope I can create the tiniest bit of inspiration for others as what they provided to me for the rest of that day!

Somewhere in the middle of the race, at the top of one particularly relentless climb, came BDM #4: leaving behind a compatriot. There are teams to form and help to give and receive at Barkley. But it’s still a personal race, and you cannot wait too long. Without our Veterans, we Virgins probably would’ve been tempted to wait longer, possibly to the detriment of our own race and abilities. We hooted down the mountain twice, waited a few minutes. We knew our compatriot would be fine, but with grim faces we moved on. Six down to five, the “race” continued.

Hiking up and down Rat Jaw was a beautiful, relentless, slippery and exciting experience. Iconic! We knew at this point we would be way over time, but we wanted every Book. Carl and Hiram were awesome: the mixture of simply watching how they navigated and then here and there being “forced” to try to find the next Book was a better experience than I could have asked for.

Up…down…up…snap a pole (huh, 1 pole seems to work just as well as 2)…down…and the long trek into camp in the dark. Somewhere in there multiple superhumans flew by us, and my hope of brushing elbows with these incredible people was fulfilled. I saw greatness, and it was a sight to behold!

For me, BDM #5 was the march into the gate and being tapped out. I couldn’t stop smiling. Sorry Dave, you still have another one to do! What a phenomenal failure this was, but it won’t remain a failure. I have leveled up in my awareness of what the human body and mind can do, and I will build on this experience to keep getting stronger/faster/smarter. Time for a beer, and this time when I lay in my cot I’m asleep before I can even think another thought.

The Aftermath

Transitioning back to “normal” life is a little bit of a challenge, because my brain is fully activated by this challenge. It’s tough to stop thinking about it and focus on the day-to-day. But that is GOOD. I’ve said for a long time running ultras is the crazy thing I do to keep myself sane.

And that’s truly accurate…we all need outlets and this is mine. It may be yours, although it can be anything. Embrace it! Don’t sacrifice those outlets, they’re too important to our experience as living beings. When the balance gets tough to maintain, work it out like a math problem and make sure to not lose that thing that keeps you happy and healthy.

Never ending thanks go to Megan and my parents for being there for me, even when you couldn’t be RIGHT there. I know that was the strangest of events for you, but you helped me attain an out-of-this-world experience.

Thanks to my dedicated bunch of teammates at work, for making it possible for me to be away for a week and a half. Thanks for holding down the fort!

Thanks to Aaron for being the best crew I could ask for. If I’m lucky enough, and strong enough, I’d be blessed to actually give you the Interloopal experience at some point in the future!

Matt with Aaron at 2021 Barkley

Matt with Aaron at 2021 Barkley

And thanks to Laz and all the volunteers who make this event possible. It rocked my world and I’m grateful for that.

Q&A with Matt Cantrell

Q: Gotta ask: Are you related to laz (Gary Cantrell)?

No, though we did trace our family trees back to see. There are a lot of branches on the Cantrell family tree. His branch is a bit more twisted and gnarly than mine!

Q: How did you hear about the Barkley? What got you interested?

I heard about it the same way most people hear about it. My personality is drawn to solving problems and setting super high goals.

Q: What were you most concerned about going in?

There’s a lot to be concerned about, so while I tried to address all the areas in need of addressing I will say that I tried to keep my mind focused on the opportunity to improve myself mentally and physically.

Q: What training worked best and maybe didn’t work so well?

Visiting the park and getting some jam-packed weekends in helped a ton. I did a lot of incline trainer “runs” because I live in Indiana and can’t just hop on a mountain after the kids are in bed. The one thing I do wish I had worked on more during the training phase was descending quickly.

Q: What was the biggest obstacle you faced as a Virgin?

My personal biggest obstacle was not having a trusted resource. But looking back, I’m thankful for that. I didn’t rely on anyone to put in the work for me in the training phase.

Q: Do you want to run the Barkley again?

Despite what my results on UltraSignup may suggest, DNF don’t sit well with me. I’ll keep working to finish anything I start.

Q: Was one support person enough?

Some runners literally flew in from another country and got lucky to find rides into the campground. If I learned anything this year, it’s that we have the ability to be far more self-sufficient than we might think. 0, 1, 2, 5 crew…it’s your race.

Q: What’s the best or worst advice past Barkers have gave you?

Go train on Panther Branch Trail (thanks, Laz, very helpful). One of my favorite moments in talking to another Barker prior to the race was this: I asked him something along the lines of, “How many miles have you accumulated this year?” To which he essentially deflected and did not answer the question. It took me a few moments to realize this: who gives a crap how much someone else trained?

If he had answered that question and entertained the idea of comparing one to the other, one of us would’ve been given a reason to wonder if we could’ve done more. (1) Do the work ahead of time that you believe will get you where you want to be, and (2) Just celebrate that you’re both (all) there at the start line and don’t worry in that moment what others have done.

Q: What gear choices turned out to be right or wrong?

I wore a hat from a local brewing company (Books and Brews) that I wore all through my training. Other than that, pretty standard stuff and it held up well. We weren’t exactly tearing through the briars for most of the loop! I broke a pole on the way up one climb and realized pretty quickly I didn’t really need two!

Q: What food & nutrition choices worked well, or didn’t?

I took 3000 calories out on the loop with me and ended up needing to bum a little more toward the end of the loop. I hadn’t planned on being out there for 18 hours! I really enjoy Liquid IV for hydration, which I mixed with the race-provided water at the drops in my hydration bladder. Worked out perfectly.

Q: How did you prepare for the weather?

There’s only so much you can control. I think for a run like this, you just work your butt off in every condition possible. Be prepared for anything. Preparation leads to confidence, which leads to calmness. Those qualities help you think through whatever problem the Barkley may throw at you.

Q: How did you train for the navigational challenges?
Matt Cantrell at FHSP

Matt Cantrell at FHSP – Credit Matt

Study maps and learn terrain features. Sounds simple but takes a lot of effort!

Q: What was your interloopal sleep or rest plan?

My plan was to do whatever needed in the moment. If I had been blessed to finish a loop in time, I would’ve then started focusing on the next loop. I had all my gear and nutrition already packed for each loop (!), so I could figure out the rest coming into Interloopal.

Q: What was your funniest / best / worst moment in the race?

Funniest: the most laugh out loud moment I had was collecting my Pocket Watch after the conch sounded. Proudest: hearing taps played for me. Most memorable: what I described about the first descent. It’s almost impossible to describe the scope of going down checkmate with water roaring around you, falling on your butt all the way down.

Q: Silly question, what movies most inspired you?

I watched and listened to every movie / podcast I could find about Laz’s events. The one that most inspired me was the one about the 2019 Big’s Backyard (Finding the Limit). From Laz’s interviews, to Maggie’s quiet and unending determination to pretty much everything else that happened in it, I loved it.


More about Matt Cantrell

Matt is an experienced ultra-runner with numerous results on UltraSignup and it sounds like he’ll be back for more. You can also learn more about him in this great YouTube interview with friend Ryan Clayton:

Good luck Out There, Matt!

More about the Barkleys

We hope Matt’s race report gave you an appetite for more:


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