barkley marathons

The Barkley Marathons: Inside the world’s toughest race

Inspired by a famous prison break, the 100-mile ultra is like no marathon you’ve seen before

In the backwoods of Tennessee lies a marathon like no other. A 100 plus-mile ultra founded to mock the jailbreak, and ensuing manhunt, of James Earl Ray – the felon convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King Jr – from a maximum-security prison near Frozen Head State Park, the Barkley marathons is almost certainly the toughest race in the world.

First run in 1986, the Barkley is among the most torturous ultra-marathons ever devised and was dreamed up by friends Lazarus Lake (real name Gary Cantrell) and Raw Dog (real name Karl Henn). To date, out of thousands of entrants, the full five-loop race has only been completed 18 times by 15 elite trail runners.

Gaining entry

So what makes this race so hard? Well, the first hurdle is simply getting in. With only 35-40 slots available each year, and hundreds of applicants from across the world, demand far exceeds supply. Rather than distributing entry forms, applicants must request a place by writing an essay titled Why I Should Be Allowed to Run the Barkley and send an application fee of $1.60.

It is this essay, and this essay alone, that dictates who is selected to run. Those accepted are then sent a letter of condolence notifying them of their successful application. Each year Lazarus also grants entry to one “human sacrifice” who has no business competing.

gary robbins barkley marathons
Gary Robbins pictured after collapsing at the Barkley marathons. Image courtesy of Alexis Berg.

Below is an outtake from the letter of acceptance sent to 2016 runner Gary Robbins. Gary failed to complete the fifth lap due to sleep deprivation and exhaustion. He returned in 2017, missing the 60 hour time limit by just 6 seconds, failed in 2018, and was forced to drop out in 2019 due to injury.

“Dear Gary,

It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that your name has been selected for the 2016 Barkley marathons, to be held on April 2-4, 2016, at Frozen Head state park, in the state of Tennessee, USA.

It is anticipated that this enterprise will amount to nothing more than an extended period of unspeakable suffering, at the end of which you will ultimately find only failure and humiliation. At best, you might escape without incurring permanent physical damage and psychological scarring, which will torment you for the remainder of your life.

You may, if you so desire, spend the intervening months between now, and April in a futile attempt to perform sufficient training to enable yourself to cover a greater distance before your ultimate demise. However, it would probably be better to spend this time putting your affairs in order…

Update your will, visit with friends and relatives, and otherwise tie up any and all loose ends.”

Once accepted the actual entry fee varies with experience. For those making their first attempt it is a license plate from their home state or country. For veterans (those who have failed before but are stupid enough to try again) the current entry fee is a pair of gold-toe dress socks (dark blue or black) although this changes yearly based on what Lazarus needs in his wardrobe. For alumni (any of the 15 runners who have completed the full Barkley) it’s a pack of regular Camel filter cigarettes.

The course

The Barkley course is a 20 mile loop (although most runners will tell you it is, in fact, closer to 26 miles). Three loops is considered a ‘fun run’, but it takes a full five loops to actually finish the Barkley for a total distance of 100-130 miles.

The first two laps are run clockwise (one loop during the day and one loop at night), the second two anti-clockwise and – should you make it that far – the fifth and final lap is run in the direction of the leader’s choosing, with any subsequent runners undertaking the final loop alternating the route selected by the leader. If the distance isn’t terrifying enough, each loop contains almost 12,000ft of climb and an equal descent, for a total of 120,000ft of elevation change. The equivalent of climbing and descending Everest twice.

lazarus lake
Lazarus Lake lights a cigarette to begin the race

The race is traditionally, and fittingly, run on the closest Saturday to April Fool’s Day and starts sometime between midnight and noon. Lazarus blows a conch shell to notify runners that the race will begin in 60 minutes and then lights a Camel cigarette to kick things off. In Tennessee, the weather is inclement with runners frequently battling through snow, sleet, rain and fog.

Understandably a common tactic for virgins is to stick with a race veteran. This can help as, although the trail changes each year and is 70% off-trail, it will always include famous obstacles such as Testicle Spectacle hill, Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall (an area of exposed routes and sandy banks) and Rat Jaw (a slope of tree stumps and razor-sharp briars). Runners are allowed a compass and self-marked map with which to navigate the course. GPS is banned and there are no route markings, meaning proper preparation and absolute precision is essential for any runner seeking success. Or survival.

With such an analog set up, Lazarus has invented a straightforward solution for ensuring competitors complete the full lap. Thirteen unmanned checkpoints are set up along the way in the form of books. Stashed under rocks or wedged between trees from which the runner must tear the page that corresponds to their bib number. Turning in the pages after each loop is the only way to prove they finished the whole route. Past titles have included Where Do We Go From Here and Virgin Sacrifice.

barkley marathons
Image courtesy of Jeremy Liebman

The winners

With a 60-hour time limit, runners are limited to brief pit stops between laps, when they will force down food, soothe scratched legs and attend to blistered feet. Then it’s back to the race. The record time belongs to American runner Brett Maune, who finished in 52h 03m 08s in 2012.

“I think that people who go through this are better for it,” says Lake. “They’re better for what they’ve asked of themselves.” The plan, he claims, was never to make the Barkley the hardest race in the world; it was merely to test what people could do. “Man can only enjoy that which is acquired through hard work and toil. The harder you work for something, the more you enjoy it. If something is easy, how much do you enjoy that?”

Now 64 and retired from his career as an accountant, he runs five races each year in addition to the Barkley marathons, including the Barkley Fall Classic (a sort of beginner’s equivalent, but remember who you’re dealing with here) and Big’s Backyard Ultra, an endurance race in which competitors try to complete as many laps of a 6.7km loop as possible. In 2017, the winner managed 456km.

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Further Reading