Only fourteen people out of around one thousand have finished what is called the Barkley Marathons. Yes, I said fourteen.
This annual race held at the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee has been around since 1986. Bear with me here while I put this in perspective. If only fourteen people have finished the race throughout its thirty year history… that’s about less than half a person finishing every year on average. So, yeah. There are years where some people don’t finish. There are some years where the runners don’t even make it to the second to last loop. And by loop, I mean marathon. Each loop is said to be about twenty miles long, but it’s not. Each loop is usually closer to being a full marathon long. And there are five loops in total. Twenty miles done five times is a hundred miles, but twenty-six miles done five times is a hundred and thirty miles. The distance isn’t tracked either, so it could even be longer than that.
Essentially, the race is pure hell.
There is so much beautiful agony that occurs when you watch someone do this race. It’s human reaction at its purest form because, as humans, our body rarely reacts in coordination with our minds. With this race though, you have to maintain both to even think about finishing one loop, let alone all of the loops.
I’ll start at the beginning because this is a complicated race with a complex history. It’s one of the most intense races I have ever seen. It’s not just about the athleticism that is involved. It’s a race that requires multiple skills: physical strength, endurance, intelligence, stamina, emotional stability, a good memory, and a whole lot of luck. You could be one of those people who run ultra-marathons (one hundred mile long races) and still not have a chance when it comes to the Barkley.
It starts with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. He was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. Ray ended up going to Brushy Mountain State Prison which is literally located in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee. It’s located in the mountains where no one can reach it because this is where the worst criminals are supposed to be held. Knowing that this prison has some of the worst inmates in the country, you would think that it would be on total lockdown almost all of the time. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Ray from escaping in the late 70’s. He was gone from the prison for fifty-four hours, but only made it eight miles far.
This was huge news and a topic for discussion at the time for the entire country. It was scary and saddening. That being said, when Gary Cantrell and Karl Henn, two former runners and hikers who knew the area, had their conversation about it it went a little differently. They thought James Earl Ray thought too highly of himself. Not only did Ray try to escape after committing a horrific crime, but when he escaped he only made it eight miles. Just eight puny miles.
Cantrell and Henn thought they could go a hundred miles within that time. Thus, the Barkley Marathons were born.
And the race is named after Barry Barkley who is a farmer and has nothing to do with the prison escape or the race whatsoever.
That’s just the history of how it started. We still haven’t even gotten to the actual race itself. And we aren’t going to get there just yet. First, we need to talk about the application process because I’m pretty much convinced that it’s easier to apply to Harvard than it is to apply for this race. On a website (not the website), this is what you will find if you look at the instructions of how to apply:
“The entry procedure is secret. There is no official website. This is not the official website. This (other) site mostly has pointers back here. The race is not listed on any calendar. You have to email the race director on a certain day of the year. The race will fill up on that day. In 2010 there were about 200 entries and 35 were accepted.”
“For entry information, contact the race director at the address from this 1995 entry form. (Note: he has since moved, but it’s a small town and maybe they will forward it).”
When I did my research, I found the website http://www.mattmahoney.net/barkley/. It doesn’t claim to be the official race website and neither does this website: http://barkleymarathons.com/. To see the 1995 form, which I’m pretty sure does not work and they just want to see who tries to do it, click here: http://www.mattmahoney.net/barkley/bark-ent.txt.
These websites just claim to have some information. You see, it’s not a race you just apply to online. If you want to be part of the race, you have to email Gary Cantrell on a certain day at a certain time. Plus, if you don’t make it within like, a five minute window, you don’t make it into the consideration box. The day is unknown. The time is unknown. Cantrell’s contact information is unknown. But, hey! Let’s say you somehow get through. After all of that, you were able to reach out. Kudos to you! Here’s the thing though: the actual application does nothing. It just shows them that you are interested. Once they know you are interested, there is a screening process, a test, and they also highly encourage for you to write an essay proving yourself to them as to why you should be able to run this course. In order to be part of the forty out of hundreds, or even to make it onto the waiting list, you have to prove yourself.
The competitors who make it in are usually highly educated athletes. We will use my awesome significant other, Brennan, as an example. Brennan is an actuarial analyst and a competitive runner. He graduated from Wake Forest University, one of the best schools in the country, with a degree in Mathematical Economics and Statistics. While there, he was also captain of the club running team. I’ve seen him place in every race he has ever run. Yet, we don’t think he could ever qualify. Don’t get me wrong, he’s scared to apply because of course there is a chance he could be chosen. And apparently “if you’re chosen, you can’t say no!” Which, I think you can, but whatever. His chances are slim, though. The people who are selected have doctorates or are extreme athletes, people who have dedicated their entire lives to challenging themselves. They are people who are the best at what they do always.
There are reasons behind the picking process. First, the race is one third on a trail, two thirds off of a trail. It’s a combined run and hike. There is a map that changes yearly, but the master map is only presented on the day of check-in for the race. You have to copy the map yourself and figure out the distances. There are no mile markers. You have to understand the elevations and know how to maintain your body throughout the race since, you know… the race could kill you if you don’t know what you were getting into. You have to understand how your body works, how the earth works, and also be extremely athletic. It’s intense to say the least.
Also, the race entry fee only costs $1.60, a license plate from your home state or country, and whatever else the race director wants. Sometimes he wants white shirts; sometimes he wants socks.
The Barkley is in spring, but the weather in Tennessee can change. Some of the races have been icy with snow and some have been blistering hot. They don’t tell you when the race will start until one hour beforehand. It can start at 1:00 AM or at 9:00 AM. As I said before, the race consists of the same twenty to twenty-six mile loop of a course, but it’s done five times. The first two times, you do the loop clockwise. For the second two times, you go counter-clockwise, meaning that you go the opposite direction. If you make it to the final loop by yourself, you get to pick which direction you complete the final loop in. If you make it to the final loop with someone else, the person who starts the final loop first gets to pick the direction, and then the next person goes the opposite direction.
The five loops have to be done in under sixty hours’ time. When you make it back to the base camp (also known as the starting line and the finish line), you can rest up, but most likely you aren’t going to be there for that long. Great athletes can run a full marathon course in three hours, but this isn’t really a course. It’s a trail run with a lot of hiking, then a lot of climbing, then crawling through a tunnel that is underneath the still active Brushy Mountain State Prison, then do about twenty other ridiculous things… Oh! I’m pretty sure there is a part where you have to jump on rocks that are high in the air and also go through some rapid rivers. There are also plants that scratch up your legs to the point where your skin is made up of only scratches. It doesn’t sound fun because it isn’t. It doesn’t even sound like someone could live going through it just once.
To be fair to all the runners, there are books along the way. There are no chips that the athletes wear in order to be tracked. They are literally stranded in the woods of mountains when they do this. In order to know that the runners went along the trail and didn’t just hang out for some time before heading back to base, there are about eleven books scattered throughout. The number you are given at the start of the race correlates to the page number in each book. If you want your loop to count, you have to come back with all eleven pages that correlate to your specific number at the end of each loop.
Let’s say your starting number is 28. You have to come back with eleven pages from the specific books that have the number 28 in the corner. If you ripped out page 29, it doesn’t count and you’re out of luck. When you start the next loop, you are given a different number and the process starts over again. If you go through and forget to tear off just one page, your loop doesn’t count which is why the mental part plays such an important role. You have to stay focused.
For some people, just completing one loop is awesome. For others, completing what is called the fun run, which is doing the first three loops, is the goal. And for others, finishing all five loops in less than sixty hours is the only measure of success.
On Netflix, there is a documentary called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It highlights the race during 2012. I highly recommend watching it. There is only so much that I can describe. To actually see the race and see the bodies of the men and women who try it is a whole different experience altogether. It’s kind of insane, even more insane than how I’ve been describing it.
For the record, I am interested in doing the Barkley. I am a twenty-three year old, five foot tall female who has a degree in creative writing and has trouble reading maps. I had a chronic muscle pain disorder for most of my adult life. The farthest race I have done is just a half marathon. I don’t really seem like the ideal candidate. And yet, I’m interested.
And I bet you are too.
Per Outside Online, Gary Cantrell described his perspective of the goal of the race:
I don’t know if the Barkley is supposed to teach people about failure. What the Barkley does is force people to go deep inside themselves. It’s hard to explain. You reach the limit and find out that there’s a little more.”
Cantrell is right. For the people who are determined, who won’t ever stop challenging themselves, who will do anything to feel as though they have accomplished something, this is appealing. We figure out who we really are when we test ourselves. This desire to just contest our own selves is why Brennan doesn’t want to apply. He knows the appeal would be too great if he was given the chance. The desire to see how far we can push ourselves is why I’m so incredibly intrigued. I pride myself on being mentally strong. The desire to live life during our prime is pure human reaction. Those with passion will not tell themselves they cannot, but will tell themselves that maybe they just can.
Societal pressure will convince us that we have to do nothing and save up for retirement before we can live out the lives we truly want. This race challenges that. This race tells you to try now, to see how far you can go, to figure out what your body and mind can handle. If you are ever given the chance to try the Barkley, go for it. Who knows? Maybe you will become the fifteenth finisher.
But, you probably won’t be.