The race begins when the organizer lights a cigarette. Runners assemble to take their mark an hour earlier when that same organizer blows a conch shell. Could be at noon. Could be the middle of the night. Runners mark passage of the required laps, or loops (5 loops of roughly 20 miles each comprise the race), of the course by ripping the page that matches their bib number out of a book placed on the route. The whole thing takes place under a veil of semi-secrecy in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. To enter, one must mail in an application and pay a $1.60 fee. But where to mail the application is itself something of a secret. 40 runners are selected and condolence letters are mailed to their homes.
To say it’s an eccentric’s ideal of an ultramarathon is an understatement. Founder, Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, with his holed running shoes, bushy beard, and affection for Camel cigarettes, certainly qualifies. Since it is usually held on a Saturday near April Fool’s Day, you’d be forgiven for assuming the race was a joke. But it’s very real.
It’s also incredibly grueling. Much of the race is off-trail, so orienteering is as much a part of the skillset required to finish as is extreme endurance. The race has a hard cut-off time of 60 hours, which doesn’t so impossible for 100 miles (if you’re a practiced ultramarathon runner) but then there are 60,000 feet of elevation gain. Two Everests’ worth of climbing.
Since it began in 1986, 1,000 runners have attempted the Barkley Marathon. Only 15 have finished. It took a decade for the first person to finish the course in 60 hours, Mark Williams back in 1995.
This year, like last, nobody finished in time.
It wasn’t for a lack of talent. There were two runners on this year’s course who’d finished past Barkley races, as well as the current thru-hike speed record holder of the Appalachian Trail. Only six runners completed three loops of the course, the sadistically called “Fun Run.”
The rest all tapped out, signified fittingly with a bugle mournfully blowing “taps” to announce yet another runner has met their match.
The world’s toughest trail race beckons next year, if you can figure out how to enter.