Why Is The Barkley Marathons So Hard?

Running ultramarathons is challenging and not for everyone. For those that run ultramarathons, the Barkley Marathons does not seem so hard when considered on paper. It covers 100 miles in 60 hours. Some ultramarathons are longer, and some are in hotter or colder places. What makes the 100 miles of the Barkley so challenging to complete?

The Barkley Marathons is purposely disorganized. There are no aid stations along the marathon route. The trail is not cleared or marked, and finding the trail through brush and briars is part of the race. There are massive elevation changes to negotiate and extreme weather conditions.   

The Barkley is truly a very different running event and has reached almost legendary status among its limited participants. People wait years to attempt the run. And the race’s history explains why it is such an arduous event.

Let’s take a closer look…

Where Is The Barkley Marathons Run?

Why is the Barkley Marathons so hard to finish?
Why is the Barkley Marathons so hard to finish?

The Barkley is run in a rural area of east Tennessee in Frozen Head Park. The nearest city is Wartburg, Tennessee.   

The reason the race is run in this area is steeped in history. In 1977, a criminal named James Earl Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. He was the man responsible for murdering Martin Luther King Jr, and a large-scale manhunt ensued.

Ray was caught after two and a half days and had only managed to travel 8 miles through the woods and hills surrounding the prison. Gary Cantrell (also known as Lazarus Lake), an ultramarathon runner, was highly unimpressed with Ray’s efforts and believed he could travel 100 miles through the woods in the same amount of time. 

Gary Cantrell discovered the terrain was brutal, and he began organizing the Barkley Marathon, named after his friend and neighbor, Barry Barkley. The first official Barkley Marathon took place in 1986.

What Terrain Does The Barkley Marathon Cover? 

Frozen Head Park is part of the Cumberland Mountain Range, and competitors can expect to deal with steep ascents and descents. The total elevation is 120,000 feet if you successfully finish all five loops. This is equivalent to negotiating Mount Everest twice in 60 hours. 

A fast marathon course, it most certainly is not. ;)

Running these ascents and descents is tiring and places enormous stress on the body. The runner’s feet and legs take a hammering from running both up and downhill. 

The route is made harder as it is uncut and wild. This is not a civilized event where the route is cleared of brush. Briars and other thorny unwelcoming plants bar the path of the runners. The competitors usually have scratched legs with abrasions and sometimes thorns stuck in their skin.

The combination of hill running and inhospitable vegetation results in the runners taking many spills and tumbles along the way. Just one of many reasons why the Barkley is considered one of the hardest ultra marathons in the world.

The Barkley Marathons Route Is Not Clearly Marked

Start of the Barkley Marathons
Start of the Barkley Marathons in 2009, CC via Michael Hodge

The Barkley Marathon route is organized by Gary Cantrell, affectionately referred to as Laz by the competitors. The route changes every year, and there are no clear route markers. The runners are allowed a map and a compass. A GPS is not allowed. 

There are five loops that must be completed. The first two are run in the same direction, the next two in the opposite direction, and the fifth one in either direction, which the lead runner can choose. 

There are 9 to 13 books hidden along the route, and participants must collect the page from each book that corresponds with the number on their bib. This unorthodox method proves the runners completed the loops. At the end of each loop, the pages are checked. 

The route is taped to a picnic table before the race, and the contestants copy sections of the course onto their own maps. Various sections of the course have names that are interesting, to say the least. They include 

  • Rat’s Jaw
  • Gnarly Mouth
  • Hillpocalypse
  • Testicle Spectacle
  • Checkmate Hill
  • Little Hell

Many runners struggle to complete one loop. Laz Lake says the loops are 20 miles long, but many competitors claim the loops are closer to 26 miles. Each loop must be finished in 12 hours to continue with the race. 

Runners can aim to complete the ‘Fun Run,’ which is three loops. Each loop of the Fun Run must be finished in 13 hours and 20 minutes. The Fun Run comprises 60 miles or more, which must be completed in a maximum of 40 hours.  

The pain of every patricipant is vividly depicted in the documentary – The Race That Eats Its Young – a must-watch if you are fascinated by the Barkley!

There are No Aid Stations On The Barkley

Uhh… what?

Aid stations form a feature of almost all running events in modern times. They are regarded as critical in supporting runners doing marathons or ultramarathons. 

But there are no aid stations on the Barkley Marathon route.

The contestants may have a support team that waits for them at a yellow gate in The Frozen Head State Park campground. 

The yellow gate marks the beginning and end of each loop. Competitors must touch the gate at the start and finish of each loop. The competitors can go and rest and recover after touching the gate. The faster a runner finishes the loop, the longer he has to recover before starting the next loop. 

When the contestant is ready to begin the next loop, they get a new bib with a new number and touch the gate. If you decide to drop out of the race, you surrender at the yellow gate, and the bugler plays a rendition of Taps.

Runners must carry the water, drink, and snacks they need for the loop. There is no one to assist along the way. Despite this, the Barkley Marathon has never had a death. 

The first person to complete the Barkley Marathons was a British runner, Mark Williams, in 1995. He is reported to have sustained himself on tea and cheese sandwiches throughout the race. Tasty!

The Start Time Is Not Announced

The Barkley Marathons starting time is not announced prior to the race. Competitors must camp in the Frozen Head National State Park campgrounds waiting for the signal. Gary Cantrell blows a conch shell to announce the race will start in one hour. 

The race may start at any time but is usually sometime between midnight and noon. This disorganization means that runners must be ready to start at short notice. They need to keep themselves rested, well hydrated, and nourished for the duration of the waiting period. 

The start of the race is unusual. There is no whistle, gunshot, or siren. Cantrell lights a cigarette which signifies the start of the race.

The Weather During Is Unpredictable

The Barkley race takes place during April or sometimes March. At this time of the year, the weather in eastern Tennessee can be warm and even hot or dip low to below freezing, especially during the night. 

Rain often occurs, making the slopes and hills treacherously slippery. It is not uncommon for competitors to slip or fall at some stage of the race. 

Previous race contestants have said they have had uncomfortable heat one day followed by freezing rain the next. This adds to the difficulty of an already challenging event. 

The Application Process Is Rigorous

In most marathons or ultramarathons, the competitors follow an easy process of sending in entry forms that they can download from the internet. There is no website or information online about how to access the Barkley Marathon. 

Contrary to most events, runners must apply for selection to run the Barkley Marathon. Hundreds of applicants send in their requests each year, but only 40 are chosen to participate in the marathon. 

Secrecy surrounds the application process, and it is not as easy as downloading a form or obtaining an email address. If you wish to compete in the Barkley Marathon, you must research and contact a previous race participant to get the information on how and when to apply. 

There are myths surrounding the application process, which is said to change yearly. One legend says that new or virgin runners must send an essay explaining why they should be allowed to race. Whether this is true, and occurs every year, is not common knowledge. 

The application and registration fee is $1.60, non-refundable. Successful applicants get a letter of condolence from Gary Cantrell. 

Contestants must pay another fee, usually an article of clothing such as a pair of socks or a flannel shirt, but the item varies annually. 

If a contestant that has finished the Barkley Marathon returns, their entry fee is a box of Camel cigarettes. Barkley virgins, first-time contestants, must also bring a license plate from their home state.    

One applicant is designated as the “human sacrifice’ and given the number 1 bib. This person is the one Cantrell thinks is the least likely to succeed. 

How Many People Have Finished The Barkley Marathon?

Not many people finish the Barkley Marathon. The amount that will not finish is usually 99%. In the 36 years that the Barkley Marathon has been held, there have only been 15 people that have finished the five loops in 60 hours. 

In some years, no contestants finish the Marathon, let alone in the allocated time. Even completing the three loops that constitute the ‘Fun Run’ portion of the marathon is a great achievement.  

The bottom line?

The Barkley Finisher Club is a very, very select group.

Why Is The Barkley Marathons So Hard?

The Barkley Marathons is regarded as one of the toughest ultramarathon events in the world. It has a high percentage of contestants that do not finish. The altitude, hostile terrain, weather, and lack of race aid challenge a runner’s grit, physical condition, and race navigation.

This marathon is considered by many as the ultimate challenge, and hundreds apply for it every year. 

Author Profile

Alex Randall

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Alex is the editor at Revel Sports. It was his idea to take our post-club-run chats and build a website out of them. He is responsible for dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s when any of us have something to post. (Basically: it’s all his fault). A ferocious 5K powerhouse on his day, Alex is known for not understanding the meaning of the term ‘negative split‘.
Alex Randall

Revel SPorts Contributor

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