Laz Lake blew the conch at 8:54 a.m. on Tuesday, signifying that the 2023 Barkley Marathons would start in one hour. The race in Frozen Head State Park, near Wartburg, Tenn., is considered one of the world’s hardest ultras, in which a small field of runners are given 60 hours to complete five 20-mile loops through steep and unforgiving terrain while using their orienteering skills to navigate the unmarked course. There have been no finishers since England’s John Kelly in 2017; Kelly returns for his sixth start at the Barkley Marathons.
(Note: this story has been updated.)
Will we finally see a finisher in 2023?
There are several big names in ultra trail running at this year’s race, including former Spine Race champions Kelly, Paris, and Ireland’s Eoin Keith, all of whom have raced the Barkley at least once previously. (The Spine Race is a 268-mile ultra in England and Scotland’s Pennine Mountains, held in winter.)
Last year, Belgian dentist Karel Sabbe came closest to finishing, but he was picked up by police after wandering off the course during his fourth loop. He returns for another shot at the Barkley in 2023.
British fell runner Damian Hall makes his long-awaited debut at Frozen Head State Park. Hall and Kelly have both held the Pennine Way FKT, and have been training together at Frozen Head in recent weeks. Hall has raced UTMB five times; his best finish was fifth place, in 2018.
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The race has never had a female finisher, but race director Laz Lake said prior to Jasmin Paris’s debut in 2022 that he believes she has the potential to become the first woman to complete five loops. Last year, Paris became the first woman in nine years to complete a “Fun Run” of three loops.
After a year away from the race in 2022, Jared Campbell of Salt Lake City, Utah, returns for his seventh Barkley. He is the most experienced Barkley runner in the field at Frozen Head, finishing the race three times (2012, 2014 and 2016) in six attempts. In his last two attempts in 2021 and 2019, Campbell completed a fun run (2021) and dropped out due to injury (2019).
The race has approximately 40 starters every year. Runners have 60 hours to finish the race. The course changes every year, and GPS watches are not allowed; each runner is issued a cheap watch with very little functionality beyond telling them how much time has passed. Runners must also collect pages corresponding to their bib number from 13 books hidden on the course (they receive a new bib for each loop); missing pages mean automatic disqualification. There is water available on the course, but no aid stations per se; runners only receive aid between loops, in camp.
Runners who finish three loops in under 40 hours (approximately 60 miles, or 97 km) get to claim a “fun run,” if they drop out at that point. (They can’t claim a fun run if they attempt a fourth loop. And a fun run is still technically a DNF. They may only attempt a fourth loop if they finish the first three in under 36 hours.) Runners must change direction with each loop. If multiple runners begin a fifth loop, they are sent off in alternating directions. In 2022, three runners completed fun runs: Jasmin Paris (U.K.), Thomas Dunkerbeck (NED) and John Kelly (U.S.).
Gary Robbins is the only Canadian runner to come close to finishing the race, missing the 60-hour cutoff by six seconds in 2017.
There are no Canadians in this year’s race, though Jodi Isenor of Nova Scotia, who has made five appearances at the Barkley, is crewing for Hall. (Note: incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.)