Welcome to one of the most brutal races on human earth – the Barkley Marathon. This 100+ mile ultra-marathon trail race takes place in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. In the 33 years this race has been around only 15 runners (as of the 2019 event) have completed the race.
The history of the Barkley Marathon dates back to 1977 when race designer Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell mocked the prison escape of James Earl Ray (the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr.). James was serving his time in the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary when he escaped into the Tennessee foothills. James was captured in 55 hours and had only traveled approximately 8 miles. Hearing the news, Gary, a seasoned ultra-marathoner at the time, thought to himself “I could have done at least 100 miles” – and so it began.
The Barkley Marathon is not your typical race with a structured signup process, starting point, and route. It reminds me more of the horror film “Saw” when the villain says, “Let’s play a game”. There are no publicly advertised details on when and how to sign up, no website, and no help desk. Your best luck for finding information on when and how to enter the race is to track down a previous runner. Only 40 racers a year are admitted – most of which are accepted minutes after registration opens. Applicants are required to write an essay on “Why I should be allowed to Run in the Barkley”, pay a $1.60 entrance fee and complete other requirements that change yearly. If admitted, racers receive a “letter of condolence”.
Like something out of “Lord of the Flies” the race convenes with the blowing of a conch and can happen anytime between midnight and noon on race day. Which means racers must be ready to start at a moment’s notice. The course itself is completely unmarked with no aid stations (except for the start point) and consists of 5, 20-mile laps (most racers say each lap is closer to 26 miles). Racers run the first two laps clockwise, laps 3 and 4 counterclockwise, and the 5th lap (if a racer has made it this far) alternates directions for each runner based on the direction the first-place racer chooses. Before each lap the racers receive a book page number and the grid coordinates for where the book is located. Racers are required to navigate to the book, tear their book page number out of the book as proof that the point was reached, and make it back to the start point. Racers have 60 hrs to complete 5 laps and must have all 5 pages when they finish the race.
At first glance the 100+ mile race seems manageable compared to other ultra-marathons, but what puts the Barkley in its own league is the navigation required to traverse the brutal terrain. As I mentioned, the entire course is unmarked and GPS devises, and altimeters are strictly prohibited. That means that racers must navigate the entire 100+ mile course with a compass and map. Additionally, there are no “trails” or roads that easily traffic the racers. That means charging through untouched forest grounds, breaking brush, pushing through brier patches, and scaling cliffs. To top that off, the race boasts close to 120,000 feet of elevation change – the equivalent of climbing and descending Mount Everest twice.
Over 30 years and after hundreds of attempts only 15 racers have finished the Barkley. Some years, there are no finishers at all. To learn more about this race or to see what the terrain looks like I recommend watching the 2014 documentary called “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young”. You can access it on Amazon Prime.
We are all capable of achieving amazing feats – it’s in our DNA. It’s about believing in yourself and daring to risk it all. Make everyday count.