The Barkley Marathons, a 60 Hour Race so Intense Only 14 of Over 1,000 Ultramarathoners Have Ever Completed It

Frozen-headThe Brushy Mountain Penitentiary, where they used to house some of the worst of the worst criminals, is located on the eastern side of Frozen Head State Park in the Tennessee mountains. Although escape attempts were rare, the prison’s ideal location reduced the chances of prisoners safely making it back to civilization. Beyond being a maximum security prison, if an inmate did happen to evade the guards and get over the two exterior walls of the penitentiary, the Tennessee mountains might as well have been a gigantic third wall.

Brushy Mountain State Prison, Petros, TennesseeThat’s not to say escape attempts didn’t happen. In 1977, James Earl Ray escaped from the Brushy Mountain Penitentiary where he was serving time for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The escape plan was simple- while fellow inmates staged a fight to distract the guards, Ray and six other convicts used a makeshift ladder to scale the walls. While one convict was shot before making it over the wall, Ray and five others managed to escape into the snake-infested Frozen Head State Park.

After 50 hours of searching, James Earl Ray had still not been captured and many thought he was likely halfway to Mexico at this point. However, local authorities knew better- the surrounding terrain was simply too brutal for a person with no supplies or support to make it very far in that amount of time. After 54 hours, Ray was finally found a mere eight miles from the prison lying face down in a pile of leaves, exhausted, cold, and hungry with scrapes all over his body. James Earl Ray 0, Tennessee mountains 1.

Upon hearing of Ray’s failed escape attempt through the wilderness, Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell and Karl Henn embarked on a backpacking trip in 1985 to scout the area and determine how someone with so much incentive to flee as quickly as possible could go such a short distance over such a lengthy duration of time.

While they found it difficult, unlike James Earl Ray, the two friends managed to navigate their way through the park in about a day, despite the rangers indicating there was no way they’d make it. In the process, the pair had an idea for an ultramarathon. And so it was that the Barkley Marathons challenge was born- in the beginning a roughly 50 mile race to be completed in under 24 hours, with the course specifically designed to be so difficult that almost no one could finish it. (And if you’re wondering, Laz named the race after one of his close friends who had been injured in Vietnam, Barry Barkley. Despite his friend’s inability to run the race due to a war wound, Barkley had always been a huge fan of the ultramarathon sport.)

In 1985, 13 people arrived at Frozen Head State Park to run in the first Barkley Marathons. To no surprise of its creators, no one finished. After the race, Cantrell was quoted in UltraRunning magazine as feeling the race was a “rousing success all around.”

Ultimately, according to Cantrell, no one managed to complete the race until 1989 when one “Frozen” Ed Furtaw managed the feat. Now thinking the route was too easy because someone actually managed to do it in the allotted time, the co-founders decided to increase the race to roughly 100 miles. (The actual length of the race varies a little from year to year as the exact course is continually modified to make it harder and harder after someone finishes it.) After switching to this longer distance, it took another six years before someone completed the race within the now 60-hour time limit, in this case one Mark Williams of the United Kingdom.

It should also be noted that the difficulties of this race don’t just start when the race starts, but long before, when one first considers entering. Most ultramarathons have a website dedicated to the race, complete with contact information, date of the event, registration information, and the like. But not the Barkley. There is an email listserv, but in order to get the specifics one typically has to manage to befriend someone who has raced in the Barkley before and not all are willing to give up information easily. In fact, it’s something of a game for veterans of the race to mix lies with truth in giving potential racers information on the race and how and when to apply. And timing is critical in the application process. Once you manage to figure out when the current year’s application time slot is, as one veteran of the race, Beverly Abbs, noted, “If you send [the application] in five minutes early, he’ll delete it. We had to send [it] at exactly midnight on Christmas Day in Gary’s time zone…”

The difficulty in registering and the race’s veterans being so reticent to help newbies join is partially because only 35 people are allowed to participate in the race each year due to park service regulations; so for every new runner, a veteran may lose his or her spot.

Once one does manage to apply, the registration fee is one cent per mile or a total of $1.60 (100 mile race plus the 60 mile “fun” run, for those who want to try that). In addition to the entry fee, racing hopefuls have to submit a personal essay on “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run the Barkley.” If accepted, first time runners of the Barkley, known as virgins, are also required to bring a license plate from their home state or country, and veterans usually bring some sort of clothing of Cantrell’s choice, like a flannel shirt or a pair of socks. Veteran finishers of past races bring a pack of Camel filters so Cantrell has something to smoke while he patiently waits at the start / finish line.

Hundreds of people apply for the Barkley each year, but since only 35 runners are accepted, racers are chosen based on a weighted lottery system. The first lottery is to choose the sacrificial lamb.  These are a selection of candidates that Cantrell thinks have no business even applying for the race, let alone trying to actually compete in it. That’s right, of the dozens of elite, veteran ultramarathoners who show up at the starting line, one novice will be included who has absolutely no chance of completing one lap, much less five. Why do this? Cantrell noted, “I do it mainly because it provides great amusement to myself and the other runners.”

Once the sacrificial lamb has been identified, the rest of the spots are given to elite runners who have proven themselves worthy in various past competitions that included intense outdoor activities such as running and climbing. A few spots are reserved for international participants and every once in awhile an individual may be grandfathered in.

Once the racers are chosen, they get a “condolences letter” from Cantrell, which is the first of many attempts to psych the competitors out.  In fact, if you’re a woman and get accepted to race, Cantrell will also let you know that no woman could possibly complete the race, in an extra effort to get you to quit even before the race starts. (In recent years, women have comprised as high as about 1/5 to 1/4 of the competitors. The current record holder in the race for women is held by Sue Johnston. In 2001, she managed to complete three loops and made it about six miles into the fourth loop before quitting and heading back to the starting line. No small accomplishment given approximately 3/4 of the ultramarathoners each year, man or woman, tend to tap out before the halfway point of the race. And in that year, only 5 out of the 35 competitors, including Sue, even attempted the fourth loop, with just two completing that lap.)

Cantrell also builds a list of 50 backup individuals. Since the date of the race changes every year and is only revealed after someone applies, some don’t end up competing. On average, about 10 people may make it into the race from off the waiting list every year. This means for some of the backups who get in, they may find out they qualify mere days before the event.

Lightning the cigarette.As they wait for the race to begin, racers set up camp at Big Cove Campground in Frozen Head State Park, which serves as the home base for the Barkley. Cantrell is the only one who knows the actual start time of the race, which can be anytime between 11 p.m. on the supposed start date and 11 a.m. the following day. One hour prior to the start of the race, Cantrell sounds a conch shell. Many runners, in fear of sleeping through the signal, have a restless night’s sleep, which is the point of starting the race this way.

As racers congregate at the starting line, it is not the sound of a gun that commences the race, but the lighting of a cigarette; Cantrell will set a flame to a cigarette in his mouth and once racers see the glowing embers they start into the woods. Tradition has it that no one gives Cantrell the pleasure of seeing them run into the mountain, so they walk… until out of sight of the race’s founder…then they run.

So what makes the actual race itself so challenging?  After all, the Barkley is basically just a 20+ mile loop that must be completed five times within a total of 60 hours and a maximum of 12 hours per lap. That would normally be a piece of cake for most ultramarathoners. But as Cantrell himself summed up: “The best description of the course I’ve heard? Someone told me that every ultra has its signature hill, the nasty one that’s totally unreasonable and makes or breaks the race—the Barkley is like all those hills just put end on end.”

To be more specific, first off, the “trail,” if you can call it that, is almost completely unmarked. The afternoon prior to the start, Cantrell sets out a park map with the route highlighted and racers have to copy it onto their own pre-bought map. This map, a compass and vague and sometimes indecipherable clues are all that runners have to go on to ensure they follow the course correctly.

Okay, so you learn from your mistakes on loop one when you’re fresh and the rest of the four loops are easy sailing, right? Not really. The first two laps go in the same direction, but one lap is completed during the day and the next lap is completed at night, with only a headlamp for lighting. Then, laps three and four are traveled in the opposite direction on the largely unmarked course, again one loop during the day and one loop during the night.

Oh, and we should probably mention that the 100 or so miles of the race generally end up having the racers ascending about 60,000 to 65,000 ft of elevation gain or about twice the height of Mount Everest from sea-level… And because there is no real trail, participants find themselves having to traverse steep inclines on hands and knees, rather than using switchbacks or the like, all the while fighting their way through prickly saw briers and other dense foliage.  Needless to say, coming back looking like one tried to shave their legs with thorny rose branches is pretty typical.

As for the mountains and countless obstacles themselves, they have been given colorful names like Testicle Spectacle, Meth Lab Hill, Rat Jaw, Checkmate Hill (1,300 feet of climbing in under a quarter mile), Bad Thing, Son of a Bitch Ditch, and Leonard’s Buttslide (named after Leonard Martin, a dentist who tried, and failed to finish the race 17 times).

As if steep terrain, prickly underbrush, wild boars, snakes, and nighttime excursions through the wilderness aren’t enough, the weather is another contender for participants to face. In the same race a runner can experience a combination of extreme heat, fog so dense they can barely see their feet, sideways rain, flooding, sleet, and snow.

Even those select handful who finish don’t do so easily.  It is not uncommon for racers to hallucinate or find themselves having passed out or collapsed at some point during the race.  For instance, Matt Bixley of New Zealand managed to complete about half the race in 28 hours at which point, he states, “I passed out or collapsed. Something happened. It wasn’t sleepiness. I don’t know. I spent some time thinking about what that might mean and where I was going. It was a boundary I wasn’t prepared to cross, and I quit.”

Broken bones and hypothermia are also occasional occurrences.  In one case, one competitor broke his ankle mid-lap and had to hop through all those extreme conditions several miles back to the start of the race. Despite all this, to date, no one has yet died competing in the Barkley Marathons.

Since there are no checkpoints, no support teams, and no officials to make sure runners stay on course and don’t cheat, Cantrell devised a strategy to hold runners accountable for their progress. Scattered across the mountain at strategic points of the trail, Cantrell places paperback books. At the beginning of each loop, racers are given a number and once they find the books, they rip out and keep the page in the book that corresponds with their number. Cantrell likes to choose books with titles that resemble the tone of the race. For instance, books he’s used in the past include, Death Walks the Woods, Heart of Darkness, A Time to Die, and What to Do When You Feel Lost, Alone, and Helpless.

“Lost” and “alone” is right, as once runners enter the mountains, they are completely on their own. In most ultramarathons, if you quit or get seriously injured, your support team can take you back to the finish line and medical aid. Your support team also tends to carry all your needed supplies and follows along with you.  In this case, not only do the competitors have to carry anything they need with them each lap, the only medical aid available as a part of this race is a supply of Vaseline and duct tape back at the start point, kept because Cantrell feels, “You can treat anything with duct tape or Vaseline.” Those who quit or otherwise get seriously injured have to make it back to camp on their own. The one caveat here is that, prior to the race, Cantrell dumps caches of water at two locations on the mountain for runners to refill their water bottles. That is the only assistance they receive through the race, though all competitors will wait at the finish line for every racer that year to either finish, be disqualified, or quit.  If a competitor never shows back up far after the 60 hour mark, a search party will be sent, but so far that never seems to have been necessary despite a few close calls.

It should also be noted that while racers will be disqualified if they receive assistance from outside sources (like hikers or locals), there is no rule against helping each other. Whether it is to get back on course after being lost or gaining assistance in finding one of the books, runners do support the progress of each other. Many so-called “virgin” racers have found pairing up with or otherwise trying to keep up with a veteran is the only way they stand a chance at successfully completing one or more loops. Generally most competitors are more than happy to help out in this way as the race is less about competing with one another and more about defeating the mountains and testing your own mettle.

However, throughout the race, many groups get split up due to injury, fatigue, differing opinions on what paths to take, etc. If racers do manage to stay together for four loops, the rules of the Barkley force them to take alternate routes for the fifth and final loop. The first finisher of loop four chooses which way to travel loop five, and the next racer must travel in the opposite direction over the course.

If someone actually manages to complete the course in a given year, the following year it is typically made more difficult via various alterations, causing all the veterans who haven’t yet managed to complete the race, but intend to try again later, to cringe each time an individual finishes.

In its 30 year history, the Barkley has had about 1,000 racers compete, but year after year most racers return to camp to the sound of “Taps” being played on the bugle to announce their failed attempt to complete all five loops. To date, just 14 individuals have finished.

For those lucky few who finish, after 60 hours of tromping through the mountains and being pushed to their limits physically and mentally, battered and bruised finishers get the satisfaction that the race is over. That’s it. No hefty prize money, no individualized gold plaque, no parade in the competitor’s honor, not even a commemorative ribbon. Finishers just get to stop running…and they get a cheap foldable lawn chair brought to them at the finish line where they can sit and relax for as long as they desire while they share stories of their adventures with those present. It’s not uncommon at this point for these individuals to have little recollection of finishing the race or what they talked about after.  One man who finished, John Fegyveresi even rapidly consumed an entire tub of ice cream directly after completing the race, but shortly thereafter had no recollection of doing so.

Of course, participants know about “the prize,” or lack thereof, long before they enter the race, and they know their participation is not about winning, but about finding out where their own personal physical and mental limits lie. As Cantrell summed up, “Humans are made to endure physical challenges. The real joy is seeing people who find something in themselves that they didn’t know was there.”

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Bonus Facts:

  • Interestingly, while the race is extremely physically challenging, Cantrell notes that every single person save one to date who has managed to finish the race is not only in peak physical condition, but also has an advanced degree in some academic field, with most specializing in science or engineering.
  • Of the 14 who have completed the race, two individuals–Brett Maune and Jared Campbell–have finished the Barkley multiple times. Maune finished in 2011 and 2012; in his 2012 finish, he set the record of fastest time with 52:03:08. Jared Campbell is the only racer who has completed the Barkley three times, 2012, 2014, 2016. (Impressively, he’s also won the Hardrock 100, another of the world’s toughest ultramarathons.) His first year as a virgin, he followed veterans for most of the way before successfully completing the fifth loop on his own. The 2014 competition was his first solo attempt. Rather than follow anyone or join up with a team of others, Campbell completed the 100+ miles alone. When he returned in 2016, he found himself more as a guide to the newbies. He completed four of the five loops with newbie Gary Robbins. At the start of loop five, as per racing rules, they were forced to part ways and go in different directions. Campbell, though plagued with fatigue, injury, and hallucinations, managed to complete the final lap for his record third finish, while Gary succumbed to sleep deprivation and passed out about half way through loop five.
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