The Most Dangerous Trips: Running the Barkley Marathons

Tips for surviving seven of the world's deadliest adventures

Oct 3, 2012
Outside Magazine
Barkley marathon Tennessee dangerous race

Barkley Marathon.    Photo: Michael Hodge/Flickr

Ultramarathons are difficult by definition. But the Barkley Marathons, a 100-mile run through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee dubbed “the race that eats its young,” seems to be designed to cause maximum pain. That’s because the masochistic loop with 59,000 feet of elevation gain tends to destroy its racers—since it began in 1986, only 11 out of 700 competitors have ever completed the race in the allotted 60 hours. The race consists of five, 20-mile loops through the steep Appalachian forest, much of it off road and off trail, requiring a map and compass to navigate. Finishing one loop in under 10 hours is considered an elite time.

But the real danger is in the terrain. The slick climbs and ledges that racers navigate in the dark mean sleep-deprived runners can take a nasty fall at any moment. In 2006, one racer became lost in the woods for over 30 hours after completing just three miles of the course. No one even noticed.

So how do you survive the Barkley? Don’t worry, you’ll probably never get the chance. The 25 to 35 spots are allotted to elite ultramarathoners and hardcore amateurs who learn the arcane registration process—which includes writing an essay and handing over your license plate—from Barkley’s crazed alumni.