Barkley Marathons kicked off: one of the toughest ultra runs in the world

(Archive photo: Suunto)

It’s known to be one of the toughest ultra runs in the world, maybe even the toughest. The Barkley Marathons are famous and notorious, and they have kicked off again yesterday.

There’s an interesting story behind the Barkley Marathons. The race was founded by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, after James Earl Ray, the murderer of Martin Luther King Jr, in 1977 escaped the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. He managed to outrun the police for two days. Funny thing is that in these days he only covered a distance of 13 km. That surprised Cantrell, because he thought he should’ve been able to cover at least 160 km in that time, through the rough terrain around the prison.

In 1986 the first edition of the Barkley Marathons took place. Every year after that, around 40 runners were allowed to participate for a price of only one US dollar. The runner with start number one is the runner who has the smallest chance of reaching the finish line, according to Cantrell. A funny detail is that every participant receives a letter of condolence when they enter.

In total, participants run five loops of approximately 32 km. However, often runners have to leave the course because the terrain is too rough, which makes them usually end up at a distance of one marathon per loop. Only one hour before the start, after Cantrell has blown a shell in the middle of the night, athletes will know when the official start signal will sound. Although, it’s not much of a real start signal, because one hour after blowing the shell, Cantrell will light up a cigarette, and that’s how you know the race starts.

If you manage to complete all five laps, you need to complete each lap in a time of twelve hours. If you don’t, you will be taken out of the race. The majority of participants doesn’t even last one lap. In 2021 no runner reached the finish line of the first lap and that was already the third time in a row. Since the first edition, only fifteen people finished the Barkley Marathons. Jared Campbell is the only athlete who finished more than once: he successfully completed the 2012, 2014 and 2016 edition.