10 Reasons the Barkley Marathons is Truly Fascinating

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The Barkley MarathonsThe Barkley Marathons is wildly, gleefully, and purposefully different. It was created by two friends, Gary Cantrell (a.k.a. “Lazarus Lake,” or “Laz”) and Karl Henn (a.k.a. “Raw Dog”) in 1986. It occurs every year on Brushy Mountain in Frozen Head State Park, deep in the Cumberland Range in Tennessee. Widely regarded as one of the most challenging ultramarathons in the world, the Barkley is one of the most fascinating and truly unique spectacles in the extreme sports industry.

10Background of the Idea

Brushy Mountain State Prison

The idea for the Barkley Marathons was inspired by James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. Ray escaped from the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977 and only managed to trek approximately eight miles in just under three days. Gary Cantrell and Karl Henn jokingly criticized the fugitive amongst themselves for only covering that much ground; thus the idea for a race in the same area came to fruition.

To show acclamation towards their inspiration, the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary has been incorporated into the race every year since inception. Participants are required to navigate through a dark tunnel beneath the prison grounds where James Earl Ray made his escape. Cantrell has mentioned that he sporadically receives hate mail from people accusing him and his team of commemorating the man that murdered one of the most iconic men of American history, but continues to deny that notion.

9The Application Process

The Barkley Marathons

The vast majority of ultramarathons have a website that provides potential participants with information regarding the course, social media handles that promote where the race is and where it takes place, as well as the use of other platforms to gather as many entrants as possible; which is what makes the Barkley Marathons completely unique. The only way to submit an application to compete in the race is by sending the owners an email stating “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run the Barkley.” With that said, the only way to obtain the evasive email address is from someone that has gone through the process before.

In addition to the email address being almost impossible to retrieve, only 40 applicants are selected to participate and another 50 populate the “weight list,” which is the list of replacements for the first 40 runners. Because the start date of the race is unknown, it is common for qualifiers to decline their invitation due to short notice. Any marathoner that does not contact the owners before the start of the race are disqualified from all future events.

8The Founder is Interesting

gary cantrell - barkley marathons

Gary Cantrell created his pseudonym Lazarus Lake, or “Laz,”to protect his identity when he first started the Barkley Marathons. Laz started his running career in junior high and eventually became addicted to cross-country races and ultramarathons. After realizing there wasn’t a challenging competition within a reasonable distance, he decided to start his own. Though the Barkley is his most notorious creation, Laz is also responsible for coordinating the Strolling Jim 40, Vol State Road Race, and the Backyard Ultra.

Cantrell has attempted the Barkley five times and never came close to finishing, despite his impressive ultrarunning background. From the moment contestants apply for his event, he continuously mocks and questions them for wanting to partake in the marathon and experience what he’s created; but he has made it known that he actually wants his peers to succeed because of the self-gratification and sense of accomplishment that finishing administers.

In the real world, Laz is an accountant, a profession stereotypically known to be completely disconnected from physical activity. He has also published numerous columns in Ultrarunning Magazine, often times sharing experiences and providing general advice related to running marathons. Everything from his mountain man appearance to a surprisingly professional background makes him truly unique, a perfect fit for the director role of the Barkley Marathons.

7The Entry Fee

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Most long-distances races that are comparable to the Barkley demand entry fees that could reach as much as hundreds of dollars. The cost to send an application to run in Gary Cantrell’s masterpiece is a measly, un-refundable $1.60, which was determined by adding the 100 miles of running and 60 miles of “fun run.” Cantrell and Henn have repeatedly declared they aren’t driven by money, and have even rejected thousands of dollars from potential challengers trying to buy their way into the race.

As well as the $1.60 application fee, all runners selected to run the race must pay a supplementary expense depending on their varied experience. Virgins, who are first-time marathoners of the Barkley, must donate a license plate from their respective state or country. Veterans of the race supply Cantrell with an article of clothing that has continuously rotated over the years; whether it be a pair of gold-toed socks, size 18 flannel shirt, or white button-down dress shirt. Finally, alumni who have completed the race donate a pack of cigarettes to the owners.

6The Course is Physically Exhausting

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The Barkley excludes the glitz and glamour most ultramarathons exhibit, but it proves to be one of the most physically demanding events in the world. To complete the Barkley Marathons, contenders must endure 5 loops of the course, or 3 loops to complete the “fun run.” Fun runs are non-competitive, friendly races that allow runners to experience an organized race at their own pace. Competitors have differing goals they want to be accomplished when they are admitted into the Barkley; some train and focus on attempting to complete the full 5 loops, while others are content with the 3.

Each loop consists of supposedly 20 miles, even though veterans contest that 26 miles is a more accurate measure. The marathon has a time limit of 60 hours from the moment Cantrell lights his traditional send-off cigarette. The clock never stops until either the time limit has been reached or the last active participant either quits or finishes their final loop. Because the timer is running continuously, competitive marathoners are obliged to run through the night to have any desire to finish 5 loops.

To enhance an already overwhelming experience, the Barkley’s five loops include 60,000 feet of both ascension; comparable to hiking Mount Everest twice. The trek also includes several miles-worth of trail covered in irritable thorns and various bodies of water that induce blisters and rashes on runners’ feet and legs for the length of the race.

5Psychological Torture

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Cantrell and Henn figured if they were going to boast one of the most challenging competitions in the world, the physicality component of the course wasn’t sufficient enough. Cantrell has stated that applying psychological torment towards his contestants creates a competitive atmosphere that is completely unique to other ultramarathons.

The Barkley implements the same mysteriousness used in the application process for various other aspects of the race. Though the event is held in late March or early April every year, the actual date varies annually and is exposed to racers once the application process is concluded. The course map is also kept confidential until approximately six hours before the start and must be traced or drawn onto a separate piece of paper. The course prohibits GPS and phones, and only allows the use of compasses for navigation purposes.

More unpredictability occurs on the day of race commencement, as Cantrell haphazardly decides when to blow his conch shell, meaning the race officially begins one hour from then. To insure they hear it and can start on time, participants are often forced to stay up most of the night before considering the conch shell could be blown at any time.

The most demotivating element of the Barkley is the fact that after each grueling loop is completed, runners are re-introduced to their camp grounds stacked with food, water, rest, and sometimes family. Having to restart another punishing 20 miles of anguish requires extreme mental toughness, further reinforcing competitors’ fortitude upon completion of the race.

4Runners Embarrass Themselves

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Since the race began in 1986, less than 2% of the runners went on to finish all 5 loops of the Barkley Marathons. The first victor, Mark Williams from the United Kingdom, came 9 years after the inaugural race with only 32 minutes to spare. Reviewing the backgrounds and marathon accomplishments of some of the past runners, it’s evident the Barkley recruits some of the best ultramarathon runners in the world; and 98% of them fail.

The resumes of some of the winners include speed records of races in the White Mountains, Catskills, Adirondacks, and even the Appalachian Trail. There are runners who have failed to complete the Barkley dozens of times, and even some of the notable finishers were unsuccessful in previous attempts. For Instance, Brian Robinson hiked the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest all within a 300-day period. His first two attempts at the Barkley came up short before finally completing 5 loops in 2008.

There have also been many cases of contestants getting lost in the woods due to the unmarked trails, including Dan Baglione. Dan was an experienced ultrarunner and was only able to cover 2 miles of the Barkley before wandering off course and arriving in a completely different county. There was also an instance when a crew member that was helping film a documentary of the race, was lost for over 16 hours before a search party was dispatched to find him.

3Nature Escalates the Difficulty

barkley marathons

As if the psychological effects and the difficulty of the course itself weren’t formidable enough, Mother Nature presents additional challenges. One of the toughest aspects of the race is that a healthy portion of the course is off-trail, meaning runners are often left to just using compasses for navigation. Throughout the unmarked trails, wild animals, bugs, and natural obstacles present themselves.

Making the unmarked trails even more tenacious, varying weather conditions are known to occur during the event. Whether it be low temperatures, rain, snow, or heavy fog, an added complexity is almost guaranteed to surface over the course of 60 hours. The rain and snow make the course slippery and actuate blisters and rashes, while fog hinders vision and can tack on hours to a runner’s time.

Because the clock never stops, competitors are forced to run throughout the night if they want to accomplish all 5 loops of the Barkley. During these hours, marathoners only use a light on their head to navigate through unmarked trails and other dangerous hurdles in the woods. Also, because runners are required to fetch the pages of books that mark milestones throughout the course in order to prove they didn’t take any shortcuts, the darkness could restrict them from doing so.

2Many Want the Barkley to Remain Secretive

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The most intriguing aspect to the Barkley Marathons is the mysteriousness surrounding the whole spectacle. The unknown application process, exclusive annual participation, and the minimal success rate creates a uniqueness that is attractive to both casual runners and ultramarathoners all over the world. Gary Cantrell created a product that is so unshared and obscure, that every person who has an interest in running or extreme activities is lured in.

Veterans have gone on record stating they want to protect the secretive nature of the event as much as possible. Considering the only way new applicants can be granted access to the race is by obtaining Laz’s contact information from alumni, those seasoned runners have a say in how exclusive Barkley remains. When a reporter announced his intention to cover the Barkley, many veterans responded by saying, “Please don’t send us spectators. There is already too much information out there.” There was additional backlash when a documentary covering the marathon was presented to the public in 2014.

1Books Are Used as Milestones

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To ensure contestants aren’t cutting corners throughout the course, Laz places eleven books in the varying sections of the track. The conclusion of each loop requires every runner to deliver one page from each book along the way, ultimately informing Cantrell that no shortcuts were made along the way. If all eleven pages are handed over, access is granted for the next loop. Runners are disqualified if they do not present all eleven pages.

Every runner is granted a number at the beginning of the race, which corresponds to the page number they have to pull from each book. At the end of each loop, runners are given new numbers so there isn’t an instance of a page already being ripped out and missing. As expected, the almighty novels are partially hidden and sometimes reside off the beaten path. The titles of the books are also deriding, mocking runners for the situation they put themselves in. “Death Walks in the Woods” and “The Idiot” are examples of previously-used publications.

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