If you follow trail running or ultrarunning, odds are you know about the Barkley Marathons. You might not know much about the race, but you’ll at least know it’s incredibly difficult. So difficult, in fact, that only 15 runners have ever completed the roughly 100-mile run through Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park in its 35-year history. A new book titled The Finishers has been published in French (with an English edition on its way), which tells the stories of those 15 Barkley Marathons finishers, as well as the tale of the event itself, through photography and runners’ stories from one of the world’s toughest races.
Laz Lake is well known in the world of ultrarunning. He has created several races, all of which are long, gruelling affairs, but his most famous event is the Barkley. The first running of the event was in 1986, and it didn’t see a finisher until nine years later, when Mark Williams completed the full route in 1995.
Since then, 14 more runners have joined Williams on the short list of finishers, and a couple of men have recorded multiple finishes (Brett Maune finished in 2011 and 2012 and Jared Campbell finished in 2012, 2014 and 2016). The most recent finish belongs to John Kelly, who was the only person to complete the race in 2017. (Gary Robbins of Chilliwack, B.C., has raced the Barkley three times, and came close to finishing in 2017.)
Around 40 runners get to race the Barkley Marathons every year, and the run through the woods and mountains of Tennessee starts when Lake lights a cigarette – one hour after the conch blows. Participants (and that’s what most will be — participants, not finishers) have 60 hours to navigate the five-loop course, which is not marked, and GPS devices are not allowed. In addition to running and navigating, runners must find books hidden around the course, tearing out the page corresponding to their bib number (which is different for each loop) – turning the ultramarathon into a brutal scavenger hunt.
If a runner can find each of the books (the number varies from year to year) and make it through all five laps, they will have covered about 100 miles and climbed around twice the height of Mount Everest in 60 hours or less. Finishing the first three loops in under 40 hours counts as a “Fun Run,” and is required to be allowed to attempt a fourth loop.
French photographer Alexis Berg and friend Aurélien Delfosse (a writer for the French sports newspaper L’Équipe) teamed up to put together The Finishers. As Berg says, he “had the crazy idea to make a very long trip through the U.S.,” and after pitching it to Delfosse, they set off on their journey, travelling around the country to talk to the 15 Barkley Marathons finishers.
Some of these athletes were easy enough to find and interview, while others had never spoken to the media, despite their monumental accomplishments in Frozen Head State Park. “If this book has any lasting meaning, it is in the depiction of these shadowy figures, seemingly ordinary yet extraordinary,” Berg says. “Each meeting at their home was, for Aurélien and me, a moment of grace, heart and intelligence. We will remember these moments all our lives.”
Berg and Delfosse endeavoured to share these meetings with the world through photography and text, and The Finishers is their final product. The book even includes a preface from Lake himself. Berg notes that this is far more than “just a sports book,” though, as it looks at the Barkley as a whole, from its inaugural running to its most recent, and uses the race to “explore our bodies, minds and the real or invented barriers that every day we decide to push back.”
The Finishers is available to purchase in French, and the English version is set to be released in March 2022 (although it can be pre-ordered now, and orders will be shipped by the end of 2021).
To learn more about The Finishers, click here, and to keep up to date on the 2021 edition of the Barkley Marathons (which we have reason to believe may be starting very soon), be sure to check in on the Canadian Running website and social channels.