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What you need to know about the Barkley Marathons

The craziest endurance event in the world is this weekend. Here's a crash course in why it's so insane

Photo: Michael Doyle

The Barkley Marathons, a 100-miler in the Tennessee mountains, has become a cult classic in the running community. After a pair of successful documentaries about this peculiar ultramarathon, it caught the attention of the world beyond endurance sports. And following Canadian Gary Robbins’s dramatic failed attempt at becoming a rare finisher of the race, it became a fascination. This is in part because there are so many moving parts: the race itself changes slightly each year at the whim of its mercurial race director, a man who calls himself Lazarus Lake. 

RELATED: Gary Robbins “100 per cent” returning for 2018 Barkley Marathons

Let’s break down what you need to know in order to follow along from afar this weekend:

Barkley Marathons
This is the only watch runners are allowed to wear: a crappy Casio Lazarus gave to all runners, and it’s synced with the race start time. Photo: Michael Doyle / Canadian Running Magazine.

It will start at some point between midnight and noon on Saturday

One of the most challenging aspects of the Barkley is that the participants don’t know exactly when it starts. They must check in near the starting gate (the race starts and finishes at a yellow park gate) before the start window opens at midnight on Friday-Saturday. Then, they wait. When they hear Lake blow a conch shell, they have exactly one hour until the start. 

Last year, the race started at 1:42 a.m. Some runners relished not having to wait several sleepless hours before the start. Others were punished by the poor visibility. 

The runners have 60 hours to finish five loops of the course

This isn’t your ordinary ultra, in so many ways. Sure, it’s in the ballpark of 100 miles (160.9 kilometres). But runners only have a cumulative 60 hours to complete it in five 20-mile chunks. Piece of cake, right? Well, last year, the first loop started in the middle of the night, in dense fog. Runners reported nearly walking off a cliff at one point due to poor visibility. Many runners don’t complete even the first loop in the allotted 12 hours.

Yes, there is a fun run

If it’s nearly impossible to even finish, why bother? Well, completing a “fun run,” or three loops of the course, is by many considered to be a lifetime achievement in running.

Barkley Marathons
Photo: Michael Doyle / Canadian Running Magazine.

It starts with a smoke

Race director and master of ceremonies Lazarus Lake, a former ultraunner and heavy smoker, starts the race by lighting a dart. No gun, no horn – and runners charge off into the forest. It’s perhaps the most bizarre and ironic start to any sporting event in history.

Barkley Marathons
One of this year’s books is entitled “There’s Nothing Wrong with You.” Lazarus used to go get books from the used bookshop, but now people actually send him ones with fitting titles.

It’s all about finding the books

In order for runners to prove they actually did the course more or less the way it’s intended to be run, they must find several books hidden along the way. The books are selected by Lake, but also sent in by fans from around the world, and have recurring themes: suffering, madness, punishment.

Photo: Michael Doyle

You run around (and under) a prison

One of the legendary elements of the roughly 20-mile course is that runners must run around, and under, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, a former maximum security facility. More on that later, but the prison has been closed since 2004 (although runners used to have to make their way around it when it was still open, leading to a few encounters with guards).

It’s likely much longer than 100 miles

The Barkley is conservatively referred to as a “100-miler,” although runners swear it’s much longer. No one knows for sure, as GPS devices are banned. It’s five, 20-ish-mile loops (some claim closer to 25), if anyone even makes it to the final lap. 

Barkley Marathons
Kelly touches the yellow gate. Photo: Michael Doyle / Canadian Running Magazine.

Only 14 people have ever even finished

Since the race started in 1986, only 14 different people have finished the race in the allotted time. Last year, local John Kelly became the 14th finisher. Canada’s Gary Robbins, on his second attempt, came up just short. He is back for the 2018 race, and Kelly is volunteering to crew for him.

The race has a bizarre origin story

The Barkley started as a bet, of sorts. In 1977, James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King’s killer) escaped Brushy Mountain prison. He was on the lam for nearly 60 hours, but only managed to travel about eight miles. Lazarus Lake (whose real name is Gary Cantrell) jokingly stated that he could cover about 100 miles in that time. And the idea for the race was born. Lake has never managed to actually finish the course he created, he readily admits.

Barkley Marathons
Robbins after missing the time cutoff by six seconds. Photo: Michael Doyle / Canadian Running Magazine.

Gary Robbins is trying for a third time to finish

The Canadian elite ultrarunner bound himself to the lore of this race after two dramatic DNFs in 2016 and 2017. Going into his first shot at the Barkley, Robbins was confident, as he’d run some of the toughest ultras in the world. The 2016 attempt didn’t go well, with Robbins struggling with sleep deprivation and navigation issues.

In his second try, Robbins came tantalizingly close to becoming the 15th finisher–talk of him finishing just six seconds after the cut-off appealed to the mainstream media – but in fact he ran the wrong way on the last part of the fifth and final loop, disqualifying himself from the race. Heartbreaking images of him collapsing at the finishing gate from the wrong direction were shared on social media and videos were viewed by millions of people. 

Robbins is back for a third attempt in 2018.

Barkley Marathons
A view of camp. Photo: Michael Doyle / Canadian Running Magazine.

The course is a secret (and it’s awful)

The actual course map is a closely guarded secret. Runners are allowed to review it at the campsite for a set amount of time before the race starts, and are only allowed to use the paper map (purchased at the state park ranger’s office for a few bucks, and one hot souvenir). They must make their own notes to find their way. A compass is allowed, but no other aids. The course is covered in briars and incredibly steep. Oh, and runners aren’t allowed to actually run on any marked trails.

Frozen Head State Park isn’t a well-known place

The course takes place in a lesser known rural area of Tennessee (some mistakenly assume it plays out around the Smokies). Frozen Head is a less celebrated state park. In 2017, there was even talk of the park struggling to make ends meet with donations and campers.

Photo: Michael Doyle

Lazarus Lake makes it harder each time someone finishes

Lake has stated that each time a runner manages to figure out his puzzle, he adds a new wrinkle. Last year, he brought every runner a dollar store watch. They were all synced to “Barkley time” and that was all they had to go on: this crappy watch, counting down how much time they had left to finish each of the five loops.

It only costs $1.60 to enter!

On the bright side, it’s a very affordable event. All you have to do is bring Lazarus the right pocket change, another special request (which changes annually, but is usually either tube socks or white shirts) and, if you’re a newbie, a license plate from home. If you’re a returning runner, it’s customary to bring him a pack of cigarettes.

Barkley Marathons
The famous licence plates that runners bring for the race director. Photo: Michael Doyle / Canadian Running Magazine.

It’s nearly impossible to get a spot in the race

Lazarus Lake told us that over 1,500 people applied for the 2018 Barkley. He only lets 40 run, due to the size of the camping area in the park that graciously hosts the event. It may also have something to do with Lake not wanting to have to send out search and rescue for several lost runners after a day or two.

It’s harder than climbing Everest

Literally. Although it’s not at crazy elevation, runners climb 16,500 m over the course of the full run. And runners in the past who had summited Everest stated that a Barkley attempt was more challenging.

When you quit, you get “Tapped out”

It’s customary for those who have not completed the race to have the military song Taps played for them by a bugler onsite.

Not many are actually there to see it happen

Because the camp area is so small, and the race reduced to just 40 runners and under 20 members of the media, very few people actually see the race in person. The race traditionally takes place, fittingly, on April Fool’s weekend. In 2018, Lake cleverly moved the race up by a week, in part no doubt to maintain a sense of mystery around the event, and to reduce the number of fans making a spectatorial sojourn to Frozen Head State Park.

Somehow, no one has died (yet)

As of 2017, there have, miraculously, not really been any major mishaps at the Barkley. One runner did take well over 24 hours to find his way back to camp after getting lost on the first loop, however.

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