The Barkley 100-Mile Marathon, held annually in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee, is considered to be one of most challenging ultra-marathons in the world. So tough, in fact, that only 14 people out of about 1,100 participants have ever managed to complete it since its inauguration in 1986! That’s just two more than the number of people who have walked on the moon.
The 100-mile run, which some claim is actually 130 miles or more, has a cumulative elevation gain of more than 60,000 feet – the equivalent of climbing mount Everest twice, from sea level. It consists of a 20-mile loop around a mountainous course that participants need to complete five times. Loops three and four need to be run in the opposite direction, with the direction for loop five being the runner’s choice. Experienced runners looking for something less extreme can opt for the 60-mile ‘fun run’, where they have to run the 20-mile loop just three times.
Photo: Barkley 100 documentary caption
To make matters worse, both the Barkley 100 and the easier fun run have very strict time limits. The first has to be completed in less than 60 hours, with a maximum of 12 hours per loop, while the 60-mile run has to be completed in 40 hours, with a time limit of 13 hours and 30 minutes per loop. There are no medical aid stations located along the route, and runners can refill their water canisters at only two fixed locations. Participants may not use GPS tracking devices or cellphones to find their way. Instead they are given a handout that includes race directions, and are only allowed to use a map of the area and a compass.
Not only are the runners expected to navigate the terrain and stay on the right paths, but they also have to find books placed along the course and tear out the page corresponding to their race number as proof of completion! If a page is lost, the runner is disqualified.
Photo: Michael Popov
The Barkley Marathon is the brainchild of Gary Cantrell, who was inspired by the story of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassin James Earl Ray escaping from a nearby prison. The man could only cover eight miles after running in the woods for 55 long hours! Cantrell and a friend who liked to hike in the area apparently thought they could do much better, and that’s how the race was born. The old prison is now part of the Barkley course.
The race is limited to only 35 participants per year, and the slots fill up quickly on the same day the registration opens. Interestingly, potential runners have to not only meet stringent fitness criteria, they also need to write an essay on ‘Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley’. Even figuring out how to enter the race is a challenge in itself. “There is no website, and I don’t publish the race date or explain how to enter,” Cantrell said. “Anything that makes it more mentally stressful for the runners is good.” There are reports of him turning down offers if $1,000 from people who wanted to enter the race. “You can’t buy the Barkley,” he stated.
Photo: Tennessee Home&Farm
“If you sent it (the essay) in five minutes early, he’ll delete it,” said Beverly Abbs, who completed three loops last year. “We had to send the application at midnight on Christmas Day in Gary’s timezone, and you have to figure out which one it is on your own.” Cantrell apparently loves applying “psychological torture” on applicants and will often send acceptance letters late just to make them think they failed.
None of the 40 runners who took part in this year’s 100-mile were able to complete it. In fact, the organizers had to search for the final runner on the course, he failed to check in seven hours after the time limit for the fourth lap. He finally showed up before dark. “I got a little confused where I was,” he explained, adding that he had taken an eight-hour nap on a mountaintop after getting lost. “Something happened. It wasn’t sleepiness. I don’t know. I spent some time thinking about what that might mean and where I was going. It was a boundary I wasn’t prepared to cross, and I quit.”
Photo: Barkley 100 documentary caption
30-year-old electrical engineer John Kelly was the only other runner this year who completed three laps before giving up. “It was a heck of an experience,” he said. “The first loop was a ton of fun. The second loop was fun. After that, that’s where it really starts to go to pieces and you have to hold it together. All it takes is one tiny thing to go wrong in any area and you’re done.” Kelly says he wants to try again if he can find the time to train.
51-year-old Brian Robinson, from California, who was the first person to hike the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails in a single calendar year, failed in his first two attempts at the Barkley – in 2006 and 2007. He finally managed to complete it in 2008. 34-year-old Brett Maune, a physicist from the Bay Area, is the only person to ever finish the Barkley twice – in 2011 and 2013.
Gary Cantrell a.k.a Lazarus Lake (Photo: Barkley 100 documentary caption)
No woman has ever completed the Barkley 100-mile Marathon. A record nine attempted to do so this year, but they all failed.
“The mountains won,” Cantrell said with pride, shortly after this year’s event ended. “I was pleased with the outcome. It’s a competition between humans and mountains.”
Here’s a fun fact: although he is an accomplished ultrarunner, Cantrell himself has never come close to completing his own race!