The Barkley Marathons is the hardest ultrarunning event on the planet.
The Barkley is an annual 100 mile race consisting of five 20-mile loops run in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee. First run in 1986, the Barkley includes 59,100 feet of vertical climb and an equal amount of descent, or the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest [Daily Dose, August 28] twice. Each loop begins and ends at Big Cove Campground in 24,000-acre Frozen Head State Park. The first two loops are run clockwise, the next two counterclockwise, and the direction of loop five is the lead runner’s choice, with each subsequent competitor tackling the final loop in an opposite direction. The “Fun Run” consists of three loops, which must be completed within 40 hours, while the cutoff for official completion of the Barkley is 60 hours. Contested in late March or early April, temperatures range from freezing to blistering, often on the same day. Runners get little or no sleep while they climb and bushwhack for three days. The course changes each year, and includes trails like Leonard’s Buttslide, Bad Thing and Meth Lab Hill, which are choked with prickly saw briars that tear up the legs. Some insist the race is actually 130 miles. Six hours before the race starts, a course map is posted that runners must copy onto maps they purchase. Participants are only allowed to use a map and compass to find their way. There are no course markings, comfort or medical aid stations, and runners are not allowed to use GPS or cell phones.
“The Race That Eats Its Young” was conceived by Gary Cantrell, an accomplished ultrarunner who was inspired by James Earl Ray’s failed 1977 escape from Brushy Mountain State Prison. Ray, who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, only managed to get eight miles from the prison in 54 hours before being captured. Cantrell wondered how far he could go, and the Barkley was born. The prison, which closed in 2009, is now part of the course. Cantrell, who has never competed in the race, named the event after long-time friend and supporter Barry Barkley. The competition started as a 50 mile race and there were no finishers until 1988. In 1995, the course was changed to its present format. The field is limited to 35 runners—200 or so do not get in–and has not grown because Tennessee park officials will not permit more than 35. The Barkley has an eccentric, counterculture charm and is intentionally mentally stressful for the runners. The entry procedure is a mystery–Cantrell does not publish the race date or explain how to enter. The Barkley has no website. The entry form includes bizarre questions like, “what is the most important vegetable group?” and entrants must write an essay on “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run the Barkley.” The application fee is $1.60—one penny for every mile and 60 cents for the Fun Run—and runners that gain entry are required to bring a license plate from their home state or country. The field is comprised of those that have completed the race and athletes with impressive ultrarunning credentials. Cantrell selects one “sacrificial virgin” each year whom he believes has no chance of completing the race. Runners are notified of admission via a “condolences letter” that explains they “have a very bad thing waiting.” Veterans who have never finished are required to bring Cantrell a specific article of clothing—in 2013 it was a size 18 flannel shirt—while those who have finished a Barkley need only provide him a pack of Camel cigarettes.
Runners gather at Big Cove Campground on a Friday. The exact start time is announced one hour prior to the beginning of the race by the sound of a conch shell, which Cantrell blows sometime between 11:00 Friday night and 11:00 am Saturday. Cantrell lights a cigarette at the gate to signal the start of the “satanic running adventure.” Runners have 12 hours to complete each loop, returning to the campground at the end of each. First aid, nutrition, hydration and rest are self-administered. Cantrell taunts the runners and Taps is played by bugle to racers who quit. To confirm that no one is cheating, ten books are hidden at various points on the course. Runners are required to rip out the page that matches their race number and turn them in upon reaching the finish of each loop. If a page is lost, the runner is disqualified. Since the Barkley began in 1986, 14 out of 1,100 runners have completed the race. The competition between humans and the mountains produces a finisher rate of about one percent, lower than any competition in the world. The race breaks people. One veteran observed, “You don’t come here to be victorious, you come here to be humiliated.” In 1995, Great Britain’s Mark Williams became the first to finish the 100 mile race, in 59:29. In 2012, a record three runners finished, while no one did in 2015. Two competitors, Brett Maune and Jared Campbell, have finished the Barkley twice. No woman has ever finished. Brian Robinson is the first person ever to hike the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails in one calendar year. He failed in his first two attempts at the Barkley before completing it in 2008. The Badwater is a 135 mile ultramarathon run in Death Valley, California, where temperatures reach 120 degrees during the race. John Fegyveresi, who has run both Badwaterdj and Barkley, calls the latter, “Considerably harder,” having finished Badlands 21 hours faster. Ultrarunner Charlie Engle, who once ran 4,500 miles across the Sahara Desert, failed to even complete the Fun Run.