The Barkley Marathons is one the hardest races in the ultrarunning world. Created by founder Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, the race provides one of the most grueling ultramarathons ever created. Here is what you need to know about the mysterious race that takes place in the hills of Tennessee.
In 1977, James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in the town of Petros in Morgan County, Tennessee. A massive manhunt took place over more than two days, but Ray only made it roughly eight miles through the hills and backwoods surrounding the prison before being caught.
Uninspired by the low mileage of the criminal, Cantrell believed he could make it 100 miles in the mountains around the penitentiary. Thus, Barkley was born.
The name is said to come from Cantrell’s neighbor, Barry Barkley. The reason for this is unclear. The first official running of the Barkley was in 1986.
Field Size and Composition
Though the race has grown in popularity over the past few years, the race caps participants to around 40 people (men and women) every year.
The field consists of runners of all abilities, from elite runners to people Cantrell says have no business being there. This is especially true for whoever receives bib No. 1. That is known as the human sacrifice—a.k.a. the one person Cantrell thinks has the least chance of finishing. For many years, the official participant list for the Barkley Marathons was kept hush-hush until the race began, but with growing interest in the endurance event and social media being what it is, many dedicated runners announce if they are selected ahead of time on their own platforms.
How Registering for the Race Works
The race is popular, but the application process is not your typical race sign up. The information that exists says that mailing in an application, which is subject to changing each year, and a non-refundable registration fee of $1.60 is all it takes to enter. However, when and how is a well-kept secret. There is no official race website.
If you are accepted into the race, you receive a letter of condolences from Cantrell. Racers are also expected to pay another fee, which often takes the form of an article of clothing such as a white, button-up shirt or socks. Cantrell picks the item to bring to the race each year.
First timers—or “Barkley virgins” as Cantrell calls them—are also asked to bring a license plate from their state or country.
A Brief Look at the Course
The course is not well-known outside of those who have attempted a loop of the fabled race, but for your main reference you should know it takes place in the Cumberland Mountains within Frozen Head State Park, which is in Wartburg, Tennessee. From there, all you need to know is it takes you through the park’s more than 24,000 acres, by the closed Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, and up and over wicked terrain and switchbacks.
You must complete five loops of the course to earn the title of Barkley Finisher. The distance for each is about 20 miles, according to Cantrell, though runners often dispute the claim saying it is roughly a marathon. (Add in the fact that it’s easy to go off course, and you can see how it becomes longer.)
The elevation is one of the most notable challenges of the race. The total elevation gain (60,000 feet) if you complete all five loops is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest twice.
Being in the woods and often off blazed trails, runners are subjected to the thorns, briers, and other unpleasant plants to run through. Runners often return from a loop battered and cut up.
The race historically takes place around the first weekend in April, though it has been run in March before as a way to throw off spectators. Only racers are allowed on the course. Spectators are kept to only two spots while crews must wait at the campground near a yellow gate in Frozen Head State Park as they await runners returning.
In the race’s history, the event has only been canceled twice. The first time came in 2000 when an issue kept Frozen Head State Park from honoring the event permits. The second time came in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic forced park officials to cancel the race. A safe version of Barkley Marathons was held in 2021, with COVID-19 protocols in place.
For the fourth event in a row, the 2022 Barkley race had no finishers. However, five runners completed a “Fun Run.” (See below.) Jasmin Paris became the first woman in 10 years to complete three loops.
How the Race Works
The start time occurs between midnight and noon, usually on a Saturday. However, racers are never told when the race will officially start. The only indication they receive for the start time is by Cantrell blowing a conch shell, which could come in the middle of the night, to signify that the race will start exactly one hour from that time.
Once the hour is up, runners line up at the yellow gate at a campground within Frozen Head State Park. When Cantrell lights a cigarette, that starts the race along with the clock. Participants then have 60 hours to complete the race. That is a hard cutoff, as learned by Gary Robbins, who appeared to be six-seconds off the cutoff time in 2017. (It was later deemed that Robbins came in from the wrong direction.)
To complete the race, you must complete five loops of the course. The first two are often done in the same direction (like clockwise). The second two are run in the opposite direction, and, it can be one or the other on the final loop. Each loop must be done in 12 hours to even attempt the full course, unless you’re attempting the “Fun Run”—that’s three loops with a time limit of 13 hours, 20 minutes for each loop (40 hours total).
Runners must touch the yellow gate as they leave for each loop. When they complete a loop, they must touch the gate again to officially finish. Once touched, they can go to their crew and recover. The faster you finish a loop, the more time you theoretically have to recover before. (Example: If you finish a loop 1 in 10 hours, you have two hours until you have to start your second loop if eyeing a chance at the full course.) When the racer is ready to go back out, they receive a new bib and touch the gate to start again.
The bib is very important in this race. It does not track the runner or splits; rather, each loop requires runners to make it to various points in the park. At those checkpoints are books that Cantrell has placed there. Your bib number is the page number you need to rip out of that book. Typically, nine to 11 books are placed in the woods, and if you are missing a page then you didn’t officially complete the loop. There is one map at the start line for runners to copy, and no GPS technology or course markings are available for runners.
Most runners struggle to complete one loop. It is considered a high honor to complete the “Fun Run,” which is three laps within 40 hours.
If you drop out, you surrender yourself at the yellow start gate and “Taps” is played on a bugle to symbolize you tapping out of the race.
It shouldn’t be hard to believe that there haven’t been that many finishers over the three decades the race has been around. The “Fun Run” wasn’t even completed until 1988 by “Frozen” Ed Furtaw when it was a 55-mile race. After that, it took until 1995 for someone to complete all five loops. The best women’s finish is believed to be by Sue Johnston (66 miles) in 2001.
Only 15 individuals can call themselves official Barkley finishers by completing all five loops in less than 60 hours. Here’s list of each finisher over the years:
- Mark Williams (1995)
- David Horton (2001)
- Blake Wood (2001)
- Ted Kaiser (2003)
- Mike Tilden (2004)
- Jim Nelson (2004)
- Brian Robinson (2008)
- Andrew Thompson (2009)
- Jonathan Basham (2010)
- Brett Maune (2011, 2012)
- John Fegyveresi (2012)
- Jared Campbell (2012, 2014, 2016)
- Nick Hollon (2013)
- Travis Wildeboer (2013)
- John Kelly (2017)
Want to know more? You can read about Cantrell and the race from a 2011 Runner’s World classic titled “Notorious,” or you can check out a newer feature from Outside. In 2021, a book titled The Finishers was announced to showcase the stories of the 15 individuals who have completed all five loops.
The Barkley Marathons has gained in popularity over the past few years, mostly because of new documentaries and stories that take you inside the race weekend. One of the most popular is The Race That Eats Its Young, which came out in 2014. Another new film, titled Where Dreams Go to Die, documents the two-year stretch where ultrarunner Gary Robbins attempted to complete all five loops. You can view it on YouTube below.