The race designed not to be finished. We explore this mysterious and secretive race and dive into why the Barkley Marathon is revered in marathon folklore.
The Barkley Marathon is the creation of a certain Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell and Karl Henn aka Raw Dog. The names give some idea into the bizarre and alternative, but frontier approach that makes the Barkley Marathon unlike any other. The idea behind the marathon came from Cantrell hearing about the tale of James Earl Ray – the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. Ray made an escape from nearby prison Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977.
In a little over 54 hours, Ray had managed a measly 12 miles. Ridiculing Ray's escape attempt, Cantrell reckoned he could do "at least 100 miles" and thus, in 1986, the Barkley marathon was born. It's so-called after Cantrell's neighbour and running mate Barry Barkley – who sadly passed away in 2019 – although Barry never knew exactly why it was named after him. Cantrell's liking for the macabre however does not end with the Barkley marathon's beginnings, it runs throughout its veins…
The Barkley Marathon is a 100-mile race consisting of five 20-mile unmarked loops held in the Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee with a time limit of 60-hours to complete. The ironically named 'fun run' is if entrants complete 60 miles of the course in under 40 hours.
However, these distances are nominal meaning they only represent the horizontal distance covered. One of the many difficulties of the Barkley Marathon is the elevation changes, as it uses the Cumberland Mountain Range as its playground featuring towering crags, massive bluffs, and dark caves. The Barkley Marathon contains 16,000 metres of vertical ascent – that's two Mount Everests in case you were wondering. Moreover, the course changes year on year with the actual route a closely guarded secret.
Not only is the distance, elevation and location designed to break you but Cantrell's masochism is also reflected in the direction. Unsurprisingly, GPS is forbidden as that would make it far too easy. Instead, Cantrell hands out one master map to all competitors. However, don't expect it to be particularly useful since it is filled with ambiguous descriptions designed to confuse and disorientate.
Moreover, don't think that once you've cracked the first loop it's plain sailing from there. Whilst the race starts clockwise at the fabled yellow road gate, loops two and four are anticlockwise. For the fifth loop, if you get there, each runner runs in an alternate direction going off the first runner's choice. Oh, and you must complete three of the five loops at night, just to help with your navigation.
Each loop has 13 (unlucky for pretty much everyone as it turns out) hidden checkpoints along the way. Each checkpoint is a book, with most having sardonic titles such as 'Death Walks The Woods', and runners must remove the page that corresponds to their running number. Don't return with all 13 pages and you can't complete another loop.
If you're going for the full five loops, each loop must be completed within 12-hours with whatever time left remaining you have to rest before heading back out again. If you're just doing the fun run, then you have a leisurely 13 hours and 20 minutes to complete each loop. With each loop you get fitted a new bib and number and simply touch the yellow road gate to start over again.
In brief then, you have to climb Everest twice, run 100-miles in 60-hours without a map, help or often sunlight whilst also finding books scattered across a mountain range. If you drop out, Taps is played on a bugle once you return to the yellow road gate to symbolise you tapping out. Simples.
If the above hasn't put you off and you're suitably sadistic to give it a try, then good luck trying to register. Only 40 competitors are selected every year despite the thousands of requests each year. However, the chosen 40 consists of runners of all abilities from elite runners to novices so don't let your amateur status put you off from trying. Requirements and times to submit are also closely guarded secrets. If you think there's a website then think again and no details are advertised. What we do know is that potential entrants must write an essay on why they should be allowed to run, pay a $1.60 fee and complete anything else that Cantrell may request. However, what we don't know is when you must submit an application, how you send an application and where and to whom you send your application.
If you do somehow manage to find out how to send an application, and if your application is successful then you are sent a letter of condolence courtesy of Cantrell. First time Barkley Marathon runners are required to bring with them a license plate to decorate the camp, return racers must bring something that Cantrell needs which in the past has been socks, and previous finishers must bring a packet of Camel cigarettes.
The number 1 bib aka the human sacrifice, usually reserved for the highest-seeded elite runners in normal marathons, is instead destined for the individual who Cantrell believes has no right being there deemed to be the least likely to finish one lap out of all starters.
As with everything with the Barkley Marathon, there is no fixed date or time. Historically, it has tended to be hosted in the first weekend of April but has also been run in March to deter spectators.
The exact start of the race is also designed to throw off competitors. The Barkley Marathon may start anytime between midnight and noon on race day with the only advanced notice being a 1-hour countdown being signalled by the blowing of a conch. Only the race director knows exactly when the race will start, with the Barkley Marathon officially starting when Catrell lights a cigarette.
The 2022 Barkley Marathon started at 07:54 local time but one runner, David Hughes, was 40 minutes late starting as he was still in camp chatting not realising the race had started. Thanks to good weather 30 out of the 40 runners completed the first loop but freezing rain, high winds and fog began to set in, and only five runners made fun run status.
No finishers completed the 100-mile Barkley Marathon in its 2022 incarnation. Only two people, Greig Hamilton and Karel Sabbe began the fourth loop. Hamilton however was over the time limit to start loop five and Sabbe was found lost and hallucinating with reports from him confusing a trash can for a person.
High praise must go to British hopeful Jasmin Paris who became the first woman since 2013 to complete the fun run (60 miles in 40 hours) coming in with 10 minutes to spare. American John Kelly tapped himself out after the third loop explaining that he had spent 3-hours looking for his waist belt which contained his book pages costing him a shot at completing the five.
The Barkley Marathon has been hosted every year since 1986 with only two years being cancelled, once in 2000 due to permit issues and the other in 2020 due to coronavirus. That means there have been 35 editions of the event. Given only 40 participants are allowed to race per year, that means there have been approximately 1,400 entrants in total. During this time there have only been 18 finishes of the five loop course within 60 hours. That gives you 1.29% odds of completing the Barkley Marathon.
Given what has been said, it shouldn't be much of a surprise to learn that there haven't been many finishers for a race that's been going on for over three decades. The three-loop fun run wasn't even completed until the third event in 1988 and it wasn't until 1995 before Mark Williams was the first man to finish the full five loops in less than 60 hours. Sue Johnstone is thought to hold the women's record by completing 66 miles in 2001. Only two people have finished the course on more than one occasion, Jared Campbell (3) and Brett Maune (2) meaning only 15 individuals have ever completed the Barkley Marathon. No surprise then is the Barkley Marathon is considered one of the toughest in the world. Indeed, Brett Maune currently holds the course record with a time of 52:03:08.
|1995||Mark Williams||59:28:48||First finish|
|2001||David Horton||58:21:00||New record|
|2003||Ted Keizer||56:57:52||New record|
|2008||Brian Robinson||55:42:27||New record|
|2012||Brett Maune||52:03:08||Current record|
|John Fegyveresi||59:41:21||Closest to 60|
|2017||John Kelly||59:30:53||Most recent finisher|