The Barkley Marathons: a crazy event that’s loved and feared

The Barkley Marathon 2023 has started. (Picture: Twitter Geert van Nispen)

The Barkley Marathons is perhaps the most famous ultrarun in the world, while at the same time there is no other event around which there is such a hint of mystique. As always, it is unclear when the race, where only 17 ultrarunners have crossed the finish line since 1989, will take place this year, but it could happen at any time. What exactly is the Barkley Marathons event?

In the Barkley Marathons, participants run five laps through rugged terrain and navigate themselves, without GPS. Every year the route is different, so preparation is not possible. Participants run past checkpoints each lap: simply a place where a book is hung in nature. There participants tear out the page corresponding to their bib number as proof of completing the full lap. Missed the book and thus checkpoint? Keep looking, or you won’t be allowed to start the next round.

In total, participants in the “Five Loops of Death” conquer some two hundred kilometers and around 20,000 altimeters. This takes sixty hours, but no one actually makes it: as mentioned, only seventeen runners since 1989. The so-called “Fun Run,” in which three out of five laps must be completed, is also achieved by very few participants. Twelve hours are specified for each lap, but in practice that often proves to be too much. Most participants drop out after one or at most two loops.

The event actually originated in 1977, when James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. escaped from prison in Petros, Tennessee. There was a two-day all-out search for the killer, who was found to have traveled only 13 kilometer in the inhospitable area of Frozen Head State Park – the area surrounding the prison. Gary Cantrell, who lived in these parts, thought that was a distance of nothing and felt that he could have covered at least 160 kilometers in the same time. Then, in 1986, the first edition of the Barkley Marathons took place, but it wasn’t until three years later – in 1989, that is – that participants had to complete the still famous five laps. On paper the distance of the Barkley Marathons is 160 kilometers, but in fact the finishers almost always cover 200 kilometers. There is hardly any race where so few participants eventually reach the finish line.

The inhospitable area – where nature is still untouched and navigation proves extremely difficult – makes the run relentlessly tough. Also, the fact that participants have to move consistently for about sixty hours makes the Barkley Marathons almost impossible to finish. It would not be the first time participants have been plucked from the wilderness completely hallucinating and disillusioned, and thus from the race. It happened as recently as 2022 to Belgian Karel Sabbe – who would be added to the illustrious list of finishers a year later – when, due to lack of sleep, he stood at a trash can (!) asking for directions, whereupon a local decided to inform the local sheriff.

The tinge of mystique surrounding the race is mainly related to the fact that no one really knows how to register, where to register and when the race starts. Despite having over a thousand registrations each year, only forty runners are admitted. High registration fees? Not at all: you pay only $1.60 to participate and you bring a souvenir. In addition, you write a letter with a motivation why you think you should be allowed to start in the Barkley Marathons. Luguber: when you are admitted to the race, you get a letter of condolence sent home with an invitation to participate.

Even though nothing is clear at the moment about the Barkley Marathons 2024, it seems that we may soon get ready for another undoubtedly spectacular edition. After all, the race almost always takes place in March or April. Do you see someone with bib number 1? Then make sure to be warned, because according to Cantrell, that’s the runner least likely to cross the finish line. The runner with bib number 1 is seen as the ‘human sacrifice’.

Participants who are allowed to race never know exactly when to start, either: Cantrell will blow a conch shell sometime within a 12-hour period, and from that point participants have one hour until the actual start. The now-famous fence where runners gather each year for the start ánd begin their next laps hours later then fills up. When Cantrell lights a cigarette, the Barkley Marathons begins.