Would you be tempted to enter a race that covers 100 miles, has no set trail, and only nine people have completed? How about if you add a cumulative elevation of over 59,000 feet – that’s twice that of Mount Everest, natural obstacles of all varieties including thorns and rats, and no aid or resting stations along the way? Hundreds have entered and attempted the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee each spring, known as one of the world’s most challenging races. Even if you “only” complete the 60-mile “fun run,” chances are you’ll come out bleeding, sleep-deprived, and a little insane (though perhaps no more so that when you agreed to enter this run) and if you give up, you still have a few hours’ walk back to camp.
This month, Believer Magazine has a fascinating account of the people behind this insane race and the culture that has developed along with it. Gary Cantrell – known as Lazarus Lake or just Laz – started the race 25 years ago, inspired by the prison escape attempt of James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Junior’s assassin. Ray ran around the same woods for 55 hours during his attempt and made it only 8 miles, prompting Cantrell to imagine he could do at least 100 miles in that time. Now, Cantrell begins the race each year not with a starter pistol or bullhorn, but a lighter and a cigarette. Runners depart from Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, about 50 miles from Knoxville. There’s no set start time (runners camp out the night before and await the warning via conch shell from Cantrell) and runners have to chart their own course from a map made available the day before the race. Participants have 12 hours to complete each of 5 loops, and have to tear out a page matching their race number of a book on each loop to prove they made it.
You can read another account of the race on Runner’s World, and the author’s post-script is another amazing story: after attempting the Barkley and making a documentary about running across the Sahara Desert, he’s now serving prison time for mortgage fraud.
Still want to enter? Hope you have good Googling and writing skills – there’s no official website or entrance instructions and only 35 will be allowed in each year, after completing an essay called “Why I should be allowed to run Barkleys Marathons.” The race is held in late March or early April each year, giving would-be runners a head start on figuring out how to enter.
Photo courtesy Flickr user Michael Hodge