The Barkley Marathons is an ultramarathon trail race held in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee. Runners may elect a ‘fun run’ of 60 miles or the full course of 100 miles. The race is limited to a 60-hour period, and takes place in late March or early April of each year.
With 54,200 feet of accumulated vertical climb, the 100-mile run is considered to be one of the more challenging ultramarathons held in the United States, if not the world. In some years, no one has completed the entire course. The Barkley starts any time from midnight to noon on race day, with one hour till race start signaled by blowing a conch. The race officially begins when a cigarette is lit by the race director.
The Barkley course was designed by Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell. His idea for the race was inspired upon hearing about the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr, from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Ray covered only 8 miles after running 55 hours in the woods. Cantrell said to himself, ‘I could do at least 100 miles,’ chiding Ray’s low mileage. Cantrell named the race for his longtime neighbor and running companion, Barry Barkley.
The Barkley is limited to 40 runners, and usually fills up quickly the day registration opens. Requirements and times to submit an entry application are a closely guarded secret, with no details advertised publicly. Potential entrants must complete an essay on ‘Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley,’ pay a $1.60 application fee, and complete other requirements subject to change. If accepted, an entrant receives a ‘letter of condolence.’
Upon arriving, new entrants (first time runners) are required to bring a license plate from their state/country as part of the entrance. People who have run the race previously are required to mail in an additional ‘fee’ which in the past has included things such as a white shirt, socks, or a flannel shirt, as a donation for being non-finisher. If you have finished the race and are running again, your entrance fee is a pack of Camel cigarettes, which is given to Laz at the race.
The course itself, which has changed distance, route, and elevation many times since its inaugural run in 1986, currently consists of a 20-mile unmarked loop with no aid stations except water at two points along the route and the runner’s parked car at the beginning of the loop. Runners of the 100-mile version run this loop five times, taking a counterclockwise direction for loops three and four, followed by each runner alternating direction on loop five, after the first-placed runner’s choice. Runners of the 60-mile ‘fun run’ complete three circuits of the loop.
In addition to running, competitors must find between nine and eleven books along the course (the exact number varies each year) and remove the page corresponding to the runner’s race number from each book as proof of completion. Competitors get a new race number, and thus a new page requirement, at the start of each lap.
The cut-off time for the 100-mile race is 12 hours per loop, and the cut-off for the 60-mile version of the race is 40 hours overall, which averages out to approximately 13 hours and 20 minutes per loop. Out of about 800 starts, the 100-mile race has been completed within the official 60-hour cut-off 18 times by 15 runners. The best women’s achievement is Sue Johnston’s 66 miles in 2001. The 2012 Barkley was covered in a full-length documentary titled ‘The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young.’