Inspired by an infamous assassin’s escape from prison, the Barkley Marathons just might be the toughest race on the planet: a 100-mile-long, unsupported slog through the Tennessee backcountry that only 14 people have ever finished. Madison Kahn spoke to three of the event’s regulars to get the story behind the Barkley.
The Barkley Marathons is 100 miles long, but it’s not an ultramarathon. Runners competing in it slog through the mud, look for hidden checkpoints, and cross through a dark tunnel, but they’re not running in an obstacle race like Tough Mudder. The course is barely marked, and forces competitors to negotiate mountains and thick underbrush in rapidly changing conditions, but the Barkley is not an adventure race.
So what, exactly, is the Barkley Marathons, the legendary event that every year draws 40 people to Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park to attempt to finish a 60,000-vertical-foot course in under 60 hours? Ask anyone who has tried it, and you’ll get one answer: It’s the most brutal race on earth. Only 14 hardy souls have completed the full distance since the race started in 1986, including two runners at this year’s edition in April. And every time someone does, the course is tweaked.
Off the course, the Barkley is no less of a challenge. Runners have to decode a byzantine entry procedure just to get in the door, and the entry fee for newcomers is a license plate from their home state. We talked to two of the race’s original organizers and one determined competitor to get the story behind “the race that eats its young.”
Barkley’s co-creators drew inspiration from the rugged landscape of Frozen Head State Park in the Tennessee Mountains—and the story of a notorious killer.
Gary "Laz" Cantrell, Barkley Marathons Co-Founder: After James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., he was held in the park in Brushy Mountain State Prison, which is where they kept the worst of the worst because it’s surrounded by the Tennessee Mountains. They call those mountains the ‘third wall’: If you get over the first two walls of prison, you’re not going to escape the third. When Ray escaped, he was out for 54 hours and they found him only eight miles from the prison.
This got Karl and I all intrigued. So we went up there in 1985 for a backpacking trip to scout out the area. When we showed the rangers our route, they told us we wouldn’t be able to make it. The next day, after making it all the way around, we told the rangers that we had friends who would like to run that course.
We started putting out word within the ultrarunning community that we were going to have a race. The first year, 1985, we had 13 people who came to try it. No one finished. The next year, no one finished. Four years passed before someone finally finished in 1989—and that was just a 55-miler. It was then that we decided to make the race 100 miles. It took another six years before someone finished that distance.
I named the race after Barry Barkley, a friend of mine from way back. Barry was injured in Vietnam, so he can’t run, but he’s always been enthusiastic about the sport. He came once back in the 80s, but he’s a farmer, and spring is planting season. He keeps saying one day he’ll retire and come see it.
Most ultra-runs are designed to push participants to their limits. The Barkley is designed to make them fail.
Laz: 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.
Karl Henn, Barkley Marathons Co-Founder: Most trails are built with switchbacks or follow a ridge edge, but here in East Tennessee, you bring them straight up mountains. It may be a 1,500-foot climb, but it’s straight up the mountain through the woods, or through rocky terrain or briars. The weather can go from hot, which destroys runners, to raining sideways, flooding, or sleet or snow up on the tops. And you can’t use GPS; you have to find your way.
Laz: The course consists of five 20-mile loops around the perimeter of Frozen Head State Park. Sixty hours is where we set the time limit, making it a nice, even two-and-a-half-day race. I always try to introduce something a little bit new to the course each year.
Henn: Whenever I have an idea, it’s to make the race easier, and Laz doesn’t take that. Every time he changes it, I’m telling him, this is ridiculous, you’re adding a whole other mountain here. The runners don’t complain. It’s hard for me to understand it, but they like it.
Laz: It’s possible to go fast enough to finish, but it’s not really possible to build up much of a cushion, so you’re always under pressure.
At just $1.60, the entry fee for the Barkley is cheaper than most ultras—unless you count the license plate, the personal essay, and time it takes to figure out what to do with them.
Laz: We don’t publish the entry procedure. People who have business out there on the Barkley find out how to enter. That’s the whole race: Nothing is done to make it mentally easier. The race dates are not posted. There’s no website.
Beverly Abbs, Two-Time Barkley Competitor: There’s an email listserv for the Barkley, and when a new person gets accepted and starts asking questions on the listserv, the veterans will just lie. They’ll put up amazing stories about what needs to be done and what happens. For a virgin, half of getting to the start line is working through the lies.
Laz: We do a set of weighted drawings. The first lottery is the sacrificial lamb. We basically pick the people who have absolutely no business being there. I do it mainly because it provides great amusement to myself and the other runners. Then we draw the elite runners.
The first year that someone attempts the Barkley, he or she has to bring a license plate from their home state or country—that’s the entry fee. The subsequent years, it’s various things. This year it was a flannel shirt, one year it was a pair of socks—I really hate going to the store. And the entry fee for veteran finishers is a pack of Camel filters. That way I have a quality cigarette to smoke during the race.
To run a race as trying as the Barkley it helps to be tough—and a little bit of a genius.
Laz: It takes a different kind of mentality to do something that no matter how well you’ve prepared, you’ll probably fail at. There’s no room for error. There aren’t any stretches where you can zone out and run.
Crazy people don’t do well. There have been a lot of things that probably seem crazy to outsiders. We had a Swiss runner once who broke his ankle four miles into the loop and hopped the last 16 miles on one foot.
Less than five percent of our applications are from females. The thing is, no woman has ever made it to halfway through the fourth loop yet. We publicly state that this race is too hard for women and no woman can do it.
Abbs: It seems that the people who are attracted to the Barkley—and specifically those who do well—are quite smart. Up until this year, the only people who ever finished it were engineers, chemists, and people who had advanced college degrees. It takes so much to maintain control over whatever situation you can control, and to make sure everything is going to go the way it needs to go.
Laz: There are a lot of skill sets needed for the Barkley. You have to be comfortable in the woods. You might have to be able to find a single rock in the mountains, where the fog’s so thick you can’t see your feet. And of course you have to be able to go on without sleep. You also have to be in the best condition of your life.
Because of the kind of people who run ultras, more often than not, we’ll have a physician in the mix. Other than that, the race just has a roll of duct tape and a jar of Vaseline. Figure you can treat anything with duct tape or Vaseline.
The world’s toughest race starts not with a pistol, but with a cigarette. For most runners, it ends with a long walk back to camp, and the sound of "Taps" being played on a bugle.
Abbs: Any time between midnight and noon on Saturday, Laz will blow a conch shell, which signals one hour to the start of the race. The last couple years, he’s blown it shortly after 8 A.M. The year before that he blew it at 1:04 A.M. So nobody can sleep because there’s always the worry that he’ll blow it in the middle of the night.
Laz: The Barkley starts with the lighting of a cigarette. Then, it’s usually a very uninspiring start: [The runners] all walk past the yellow gate, and stroll around the corner into the woods. And then they run. They don’t like to give me the satisfaction of seeing them run.
Abbs: The names that have been given to the climbs are crazy. Testicle Spectacle is the first really steep climb. It’s usually pretty overgrown, with saw briars and plants that you have to bushwhack through, and it can easily turn into a muddy river. Then you go down Meth Lab Hill. Rat Jaw is one of the worst. Those who make it to loop three learn the joy of Checkmate Hill, which is 1,300 feet of climbing in a quarter mile.
Laz: There are paperback books at each checkpoint. They’re not hidden, per se, but you have to be able to find them in the forest. Then you get the same page number out of the book as the number on your bib, which means we can only use every other number. So all of the Barkley numbers are odd, which seems fitting.
I used to have to go and scout the used bookstores to get books with appropriate titles. Now people see books that look like they belong out there and they send ‘em to me. My favorite this year was What to Do When You Feel Lost, Alone, and Helpless.
Henn: Brushy Mountain Prison was a federal prison until just a few years ago. Gary somehow got the warden to show him this tunnel that goes underneath the old exercise yard. It’s a quarter of a mile long and there’s water flowing through it. There are no lights. Laz makes the runners go through it. If you didn’t believe in auras, you’d probably start believing in them if you went through that tunnel.
Laz: The course breaks your heart. People reach a point. They climb a hill, and know they’re done. Toast. Most of the time, people aren’t forced to leave or timed out. They quit on their own.
Everyone has to self-extract. People refer to it as the hardest race in the world to quit because it might take seven hours to get back to camp once you’ve decided that you’re defeated. Especially the first night, people come in from all directions out of the woods. Some give up and make their way out to a highway and hitchhike back to the park.
We play “Taps” on the bugle for each loser as they come in. It’s the final indignity: In the middle of the night people can come up to see who’s bit the dirt. People really hate to have “Taps” played for them, but they all seem to want you to enthusiastically play it for the others.
Just over a dozen people, all men, have gone the distance at the Barkley Marathons. This year, ultramarathoners Nick Hollon and Travis Wildeboer added to that number.
Laz: The prize is that you get to stop running. The finishers have a chair brought to meet them right at the finish line. They stay there for a long time. They talk and tell their stories, and the rest of us sit around and listen, and think Oh my God! Why can’t that be me? Oh yeah, I quit, I remember. I was going up Little Hell and it dawned on me that all I really wanted in the world was to get out of the woods alive, and never go back.
If no one finishes it could end any time. It doesn’t finish until the last person comes in or at sixty hours. When someone does finish, it’s just an incredible thing to witness. You feel like you’re elevated just being around it.
I don’t know if the Barkley is supposed to teach people about failure. What the Barkley does is force people to go deep inside themselves. It’s hard to explain. You reach the limit and find out that there’s a little more.