Barkley Marathons: Breaker of the Best in the World
Amongst the many physical tests of will that humans have endured and overcome, one challenge stands out amongst the rest as the ultimate personal challenge – the ultramarathon.
Literally and figuratively going the extra distance, ultramarathons extend well past a marathon, reaching obscene distances all the way up into the hundreds and even thousands of miles.
While different ultramarathons around the globe all have their own special form of obstacle(s) that make them stand out from the rest, nothing compares to the notorious Barkley Marathons, widely considered by many to be the most ruthless race in the world.
Lace up, step out of your comfort zone and into the brutal world of what makes the Barkley the most notorious, fear-inducing footrace on the planet.
In Eastern Tennessee’s Morgan County by the southeast corner of Frozen Head State Park lies Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary or, as locals call it, “The Castle.”
Now abandoned, this maximum-security prison once housed some of the state’s most notorious criminals.
Turn the clocks back to 1977 when The Castle held the infamous James Earl Ray, the man responsible for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
At this point, Ray had been locked away for years, but June ’77 marks a time when, very briefly, Ray was a free man.
Ray and six other inmates crafted an escape plan and, during a staged fight between two inmates, used a makeshift ladder to scale a 14-foot wall and escape.
The guards realized what was happening and shot one fugitive just outside the wall, but Ray had already disappeared into the mountains.
Ray and the five other remaining fugitives were the first ever to escape the penitentiary. Little did they know, getting out of the prison was far from being the hard part.
With that, the largest manhunt Tennessee had ever seen ensued, traversing treacherous terrain to find the escapee. Thanks to the help of bloodhounds tracking the scent, Ray was captured after 55 hours on the run.
Other than the fact that Ray was able to get away with such a large group, what was most incredible about the escape was that after roughly two and a half days, he only covered 8.5 measly miles!
MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER
Before diving into the Barkley Marathons, we need to pick the brains behind this beastly race.
The mad scientist responsible for concocting this Tennessean odyssey goes by the name Lazarus Lake. The key phrase there is “goes by,” since Laz’s real name is Gary Cantrell.
Much like everything else about the Barkley, even the man’s name is a curious oddity.
Born and raised Gary Cantrell, the Tennessee native grew up an avid runner, which is how he came across his adopted name.
During one of Cantrell’s countless runs across the state, he happened upon a phone book where he spotted the eye-catching name.
At first, he just used the Lazarus Lake title for an email handle, but over time it became Cantrell’s ultrarunning alter ego.
It may sound silly to adopt a pseudonym for the sake of ultras, but with the punishment Cantrell’s put himself and so many others through over the years, it’s actually quite fitting.
Between the outdoorsy “Lake” surname and biblical origins of Lazarus – a beggar whom Jesus raised from the dead – it’s almost like it was meant to be… as you’ll soon see.
Along with the world famous Barkley, Laz actually runs another five ultramarathons… you know, because one “toughest race in the world” would be silly.
The other five ultras include the Barkley Fall Classic, which is a 50K (roughly half the Barkley) that guarantees the winner entry into the Barkley Marathons.
The other four are the Big Backyard Ultra, A Race for the Ages, the Strolling Jim 40 and Last Annual Vol State Road Race.
No questions about it, all of these Tennessee ultras test runners in various ways, but the Barkley’s got them all beat by a country mile… a bunch.
BRAINCHILD FROM A BRUTE
By the late ‘70s, Laz was already on the cutting edge of ultra-marathons.
He loved distance running, but it was such a new sport that runners only numbered in the hundreds with few official competitive courses actually established yet.
In ’79, Laz had already launched the Strolling Jim ultra (40 miles), then upped the ante with The Idiot’s Run in ’81 (76 miles) only to tack on another 30 miles the following year.
Ray’s escape planted a seed in the twisted mind of Lazarus Lake.
It doesn’t take a crazy athlete to scoff at Ray’s 8.5 miles and think they could go way further in 55 hours. Even with setting up camp and getting a full eight hours of sleep on each of the two nights in that time seems easily doable.
“I could do at least 100 miles.” That summed up Laz’s thoughts on the matter. Go figure.
In reality, it was a perfect illustration of just how treacherous this neck of the woods is in Eastern Tennessee.
These early ultras were fun (for Laz, at least), but considering Ray’s escape – an area he had hiked numerous times – with a mind like Lake’s is like pouring gasoline on an open flame.
And so the beast was born.
Laz and his friend Karl Henn, or “Raw Dog” (because normal names are apparently for Western Tenn.), hiked the roughly 20-mile boundary trail of the Cumberland Plateau surrounding the prison by Frozen Head State Park.
It was brutal hiking start to finish. Perfect.
The first Barkley Marathons– named after friend and fellow running partner Barry Barkley – took place in 1986.
A total of 13 brave, or blissfully ignorant, pioneers served as the test subjects for the inaugural event. They and other participants through the years have come to be known as Barkers.
Originally, the grueling course “only” stretched roughly 50 miles and was restricted to a 24-hour time limit. Of the 13 participants, no one came even relatively close to completing the race.
Of course, to the curiously complex mind of Laz, this meant the race was a success.
The following year, 16 entrants tried and failed to complete the course.
Changes included flipping the route around from clockwise to counterclockwise, a last-minute section tacked on that even local park rangers were reportedly unfamiliar with, and a 36-hour time limit to complete all three loops.
No one finished.
The third event in 1988 grew in length (55 miles) and size (19 people).
Finally, a hero arose. “Frozen” Ed Furtaw completed all three loops in the allotted time to become the race’s first-ever finisher.
Rather than celebrate this feat, Laz saw an opportunity to really go over overboard, resulting in the prototype of today’s nightmarish 100-mile race.
In 1989, Laz introduced another two laps to nearly double the race to over 100 miles, and extended the cutoff to 50 hours. Two iconic pieces of the race were added, with the course now passing the prison and climbing the backbreaking slope called Rat Jaw.
Few survived long enough to even reach the fourth loop let alone finish. Over time, the loop was shaped into into the 20-mile layout of today, the initial three laps that made up the race was turned into today’s “Fun Run.”
60 miles in 40 hours … Barkers seem to be confusing survival with fun.
To be fair, it sure beats the Barkley’s finalized (definitely more than) 100 miles in 60 hours. Sheesh.
APPLICATION FOR PAIN
Laz spares no expense on making every last detail as obnoxiously arduous as humanly possible. That includes registration.
The application process for this ultramarathon is far from ordinary or easy. Instead, it’s a fitting reflection of the ridiculousness of the race itself.
A hefty fee of $1.60 must be delivered. That may sound like a silly, random number, but never underestimate the machinations of Laz’s mind. Even this little payment is representative of the total mileage between the Barkley and Fun Run, something that’s remained true since entry cost 50 cents in ’87.
An email containing a completed essay titled “Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley” must be delivered to Laz’s secret email address at EXACTLY the right time, otherwise tough luck.
There is also an addition fee depending on the entrant.
First-timers (virgins) bring a license plate from their state/country. Returning runners who didn’t finish (veterans) bring one article of clothing, which varies every year. The few Barkers who completed the race (alumni) instead bring a pack of Camel cigarettes. Laz loves his Camels.
There are already tons of precautionary measures taken to make sure this ultra stays as well-hidden as possible. Though this grueling endurance test has grew to such prominence that competitors from around the world attend, it is not by Laz’s doing.
Laz does his best to keep this race out of the public’s eyes, which is most notable by his decision to cap the number of entrants at 40 runners.
That only makes the stories of the select few who jump through all of the necessary hoops to gain entry all the more legendary.
AWAKEN THE BEAST
The Barkley takes place on the first Saturday before April Fool’s, which is yet another little glimpse at the twisted sense of humor Laz so fondly enjoys.
40 seasoned and new participants arrive at Frozen Head State Park, gathering at the trailhead’s yellow gate.
This gate marks the life and death of every runner – it is the beginning and end of the ultra to end all ultras. Here, they wait on the signal. It can be early morning, noon or night. There’s no set time.
The collective start to every race leaves as striking an impression as each runner’s individual end. A loud conch shell sounds to signal the race starts in an hour.
Rather than a gunshot, Barkers tentatively watch Laz, waiting for him to… get ready… light a cigarette.
Laz lights up. That’s the signal. The race is on. the runners take off.
Unlike the beginning, when a runner is disqualified or gives up, their departure from the race is accompanied in a far more audible tone…
BELLY OF THE BEAST
“The Barkley Marathons, where dreams go to die,” is one of the adopted slogans of the race from over the years, and it’s as fitting a motto as any.
In the early portion of the race, the strong separate themselves from the weak fast.
The first loop around often weeds out roughly half of the group. A defeated runner who gives up returns to the yellow gate to the tune of “Taps” by none other than Laz. Do we really think he’d let anyone else have that sort of fun?
The song “Taps” is actually another beautiful bit of symbolism. Whether interpreting it as honoring the dead or signaling the day’s (runner’s) end, the message is a clear: Another one down.
Laz doesn’t stop his sick sense of humor there.
On each of the five loops, runners have far more to worry about than keeping to the correct trail, though that is a challenge in its own right, as the trail is unmarked. The closest thing to markers on the trail are books.
Books certainly sounds like a weird way to mark a trail.
Actually, they aren’t used as markers at all, they’re actually carefully hidden throughout the woods. The roughly 13 hidden books (the number changes like much of the race) are an integral part of the race.
Runners have to find every one of the books on each lap, tear out the page that matches their bib number and bring them back to Laz as proof that they completed the loop properly and didn’t cut any corners.
So, in a way, each of the books does serve as a marker, though more for Laz than the racers.
After Laz counts all of the necessary paperwork from a runner’s first loop, he gives a new bib number for the next lap around.
Even books are clever jabs at the expense of the runners. While they test their mental fortitude, following instructions to spot the carefully bagged book, Barkers are met with titles like What Did I Do Wrong? and Death Walks the Woods and Alone.
Salt in the wound.
Making it to where a book should be and not finding it is one thing, but the hazardous terrain is another animal entirely. The cumulative elevation hikers climb is mind-boggling. The number is so staggering it almost makes the entire race sound fake.
The cumulative elevation gained is over 60,000 feet. That’s a big number, but what’s it mean?
Hiking to the top of Mount Everest is roughly 29,000 feet, so Barkers are pretty much hiking that beast twice!
For those thinking, “At least it’s warm in the south,” keep in mind this is in the mountains, where erratic weather is the norm. Temperature swings and quickly-onset inclement weather often makes for less than ideal conditions.
That means when a sudden downpour hits, Barkers find themselves running down 40-degree inclines. Mother of unholy nature, just imagine that – it’s like the equivalent of intentionally running down a muddy hill where, instead of grass, tree stumps, rocks and pricker bushes are there to cushion the fall.
With so many hazards around every turn, the area is fittingly named.
Titles leave very little to the imagination, though a blunt reality of one’s surroundings is probably for the best when considering some of these spots are called.
Runners traverse nightmare names like Rat Jaw, Gnarly Mouth, The Bad Thing Frozen Head (fittingly the highest peak on Bald Knob) Big Hell, Son of a Bitch Ditch, Testicle Spectacle, Leonard’s Butt Slide and Meth Lab Hill (not much left to read between the lines there).
Three things are certain: Lots of tiring ups, lots of trying downs, lots of painful saw briars.
FEARLESS HEROES OF FROZEN HEAD
In its final, 100-mile form (who are we kidding, it’s much longer), the Barkley’s first finisher didn’t come until 1995… on April Fools’ Day. Fellow Barkers undoubtedly must’ve believed that was just another sick joke by Laz.
It was anything but a joke, though.
When Mark Williams reached the iconic yellow start gate, completing the race with 31 minutes and 12 seconds left on the clock, the impossible became attainable.
While it was proven possible, not many have followed suit.
Years without a finisher are commonplace with the second finisher not coming for another six years (2001).
In total, there have only been 18 times a Barker has completed the race through 2018. Those 18 finishes were finished by an even smaller group of 15 people.
From 2012-16, Jared Campbell completed the race a record three times.
The record holder for fastest time came by the race’s only other repeat finisher, Brett Maune, who reached the end in 52:03:08, torching the second best time by over five hours.
One Barker’s story is hauntingly inspiration, a paradox that seems to arise here.
Gary Robbins, a competitor who did not complete the event in 2016, left a stirring blogpost written below. What’s most heart wrenching abouy this post is that Robbins would finish the following year… six seconds too late.
“For 55 hours I gave myself to the Barkley, heart, soul, mind and body. I was all in. Nothing else in the entire world mattered for three full days, and I loved it. I did not reach the finish line of the Barkley Marathons but I got pretty damn close. As I mentioned leading into the race I knew it would challenge me in new and unforeseen ways and boy o boy did it ever. During the race I feel like I unlocked a door in my mind that led to a room I’d never entered before and in that room existed a near perfect version of myself, devoid of ego, free of judgment, removed from life’s minutia, steadfast in purpose, distracted by nothing, heart wide open with a complete inability to overreact to any obstacle that stood in my way. I wish I could be that person more often.”
A RARE BREED
“The Barkley Marathons, the race that eats its young,” is another fitting slogan. The race is able to live on by devouring its babies. In the early years, Laz’s diabolical creation grew more devious every race and thrives today by cruelly crushing its participants.
The Barkley Marathons tests the mind every bit as much as the body. Few can say they participated in this Odyssey of earthly trials, but those who can say they actually completed the journey are in an exclusive group unlike any other.
It takes a bold breed to be a Barker.