In 35 years, only 15 runners were able to complete the 160km of the Barkley Marathon, most giving up because of the rigors and lost their way.
The Barkley Marathon is neither the most attended nor the grand prize tournament, but it is appealing to those who like a challenge. In its 35-year history, only 15 people have completed this extreme race, three more than the number of people who have ever set foot on the moon.
The Barkley Marathon was first started by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell in 1986. The idea of the race was born from the 1977 story of James Earl Ray, a murderer, who escaped from the Mountain State prison in Morgan County, Tennessee. After 60 hours of encirclement, Ray was caught in a net just 8 miles (12km) from the prison.
Gary Cantrell heard this news on the radio, he laughed and thought that in that 60 hours, he could run more than 100 miles (160km). With that in mind, Cantrell created the Barkley Marathon on the very forest next to the old prison. The prize was named by Cantrell after a friend who lived next door with him when he was young.
Unlike any ultramarathon in the world, to win the race, athletes in 60 hours must complete 5 laps, 32km each, through the forests of the Cumberland Mountains, Frozen Head National Park. Dubbed “the tournament that kills athletes’ spirit”, Barkley Marathon challenges the legs to run with mountain ranges with a cumulative height of up to nearly 19,000m, twice the height of Mount Everest.
The track doesn’t have any trails either. Runners will have to find their way using a compass or map and won’t be allowed to use a phone. Allergies, scratches, slips and falls on the slopes, the pouring rain or the fog blocking the path have become the specialty of the tournament. Not stopping there, the organizers also increased the difficulty of the race by scattering 9-13 books along the forest. Athletes must find the book, tear off the page number corresponding to the bib number to prove that they have completed the round, otherwise they will be disqualified. After completing a round, the athlete will be able to change the number of bibs and continue to have to find books.
The first two laps, athletes will run in one direction. Two laps later, the remaining players will run in the opposite direction. In the 5th round, if there is more than one person, they will be forced to run in opposite directions. If 5 laps are not completed, runners can also complete three laps in 40 hours for a “Fun Run” certification.
In fact, every year, Cantrell tweaks the track a bit to make the Barkley Marathon more difficult. Most runners when participating will give up in the first two laps due to getting lost or exhausted. Many times organizing tournaments can not find anyone to finish. Karl Henn, co-founder of the tournament once shared: “Many times I thought it would make the race easier, Cantrell objected. Each year, Cantrell adds a mountain to the route to make the race impossible. It’s funny that the athlete did not complain, on the contrary, was more excited about the track.”
Not to mention completing 5 laps, participating in the Barkley Marathon is already a huge challenge. Each year, the tournament only accepts about 40 athletes to participate. To be selected, runners must write an essay with the topic “why should I choose to participate in the tournament” and send it to the organizers. Those with the most impressive essays will enter the race for a fee of just over a dollar. Someone once bribed $ 1,000 to participate, but Cantrell flatly refused.
The selected athletes will gather at Frozen Head National Park. A yellow gate will be placed here. The gate is also the starting and finishing point of the running legs. However, no runner knows exactly when the race will take place. Cantrell will blow a horn at any time, even in the middle of the night. After the horn, the runner will have an hour to prepare for the start of the race. Runner will wait at the golden gate. When Cantrell lights up his favorite Camel cigarette, the race will officially begin.
During its 35-year history, the tournament has only had to be canceled twice, in 2000 and 2020. Also during this time, only 15 athletes have completed 5 rounds. Jared Campbell is the only person to have finished the race three times in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Meanwhile, Brett Maune has finished twice and is also the record holder with a time of 52:03:08.
But those records are only a few. In 2017, a rare story happened at the Barkley Marathon. Gary Robbins, after nearly three days of conquering the mountains, is approaching the finish line. Everyone thought Rubbins would become the 16th athlete to finish the race. He collapsed on the finish line and mumbled something. Then they all realized Robbins had reached the finish line but in the wrong direction. He tried to complete the race but in the end the result was not recognized because he went the wrong way, missing 3km of the total 160km to complete.
Robbins showed Cantrell a wet map, pointed at it, and said, “I was wrong, it was my mistake. I had to turn right instead of left. I realized my mistake but too much. It’s too late to go back to the old ways”.
Cantrell encouraged: “A lot of people compete with high determination. But without tragic moments like this, there would not be the glory that burst when we win.” But, even if Robbins finished on the right track, his result was not recognized because he was 6 seconds late after the allotted time.
Defeats like that of Gary Robbins have become routine at this tournament. In 2015, a runner even went missing because he lost his way and fell asleep for 8 hours in the forest. John Kelly, an athlete who completed three rounds in 2015 shared: “Completing round one is fun. After two rounds, the fun decreases a bit. By the third round, everything is confusing. Just you lose practice. middle, you’ll never be able to finish the lap.”
Since John Kelly completed the race in 2017, to date, no athlete has been able to complete the Barkley Marathon. This is enough to show the rigors of the competition. From Mike Versteeg, who broke the record for running the Arizona trail 830 miles in six days, to Johan Steele, a Swedish runner who easily covered 240km in 24 hours, to Mike Wardian, who completed the world marathon challenge.. All of them succumbed to the track of the Barkley Marathon.
In 2021, the race was held with an elite runner lineup. Including Jared Campbell, who has won three times before. Along with that are challengers like Maggie Guterl, the first female champion of the Big’s Backyard, Courtney Dauwalter, the 2019 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc champion.
Even so, only 16 runners completed the first lap. After the second round, only 10 athletes remained and only 2 runners completed three rounds of Barkley Marathon 2021. The race ended without finding any winners.
In ultramarathons, the rewards for the champions will be very generous. This does not exist in the world of Barkley Marathon. Prizes are something of a luxury. Athletes who do not complete the race will have to return to the golden gate, listening to a trumpet for the loser. And the reward for those who have enough willpower to complete 5 rounds is… no more running. The winner will sit on a chair in the middle of the golden gate and tell everyone about his winning journey.
The Barkley Marathon is known as “the race that corrodes youth”. Throughout history, conquering 5 rounds of the tournament is a challenge that makes any runner “pale” when thinking about it. To date, no female runner has conquered this tournament. However, the race still has its own charm. The 15 names that have successfully conquered the Barkley Marathon up to now are not too famous athletes but the most resilient and persistent. The journey of Barkley Marathon will continue and glory still awaits runners who dare to desire and have enough energy to conquer.
Hoai Phuong (according to Runner’s World)
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