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The Barkley Marathons 2021 are underway

With even less fanfare than usual, the Barkley Marathons has begun. Keith Dunn, who has long been the only reliable source of information once the race is underway, tweeted the following: “After a brief memorial for the members of the Barkley family who no longer are with us, the cigarette was lit at 3:04 a.m. The 2021 Barkley Marathons has begun.”

RELATED: Barkley Marathons book documents race’s 15 finishers

The race famously starts one hour after founder Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell blows the conch. 

The infamous 100-miler through Frozen Head State Park in northeastern Tennessee was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID, and this year’s race is a little different than in the past, with COVID passports and masking and distancing at the start. Participants (capped at 40 even in normal times) must either have been vaccinated or have had the virus and recovered. For obvious reasons, almost all participants are from the U.S., and there are more “Barkley virgins” (i.e first-timers) than usual.

Laz at the Barkley Marathons site. Photo: courtesy of Laz Lake

2019 UTMB champion Courtney Dauwalter and three-time Barkley finisher Jared Campbell are on the course. In 2019, Campbell had to bail after rolling his ankle badly on the first loop.

Five and a half hours into the race, Dunn tweeted that someone had already dropped. Around 9:20 a.m. he tweeted the runner’s name: Peter Mortimer. According to Ultrasignup.com, Mortimer is 39 and finished second at both the Elephant Mountain 50 Miler in Cave Creek, Ariz. in February and the Lone Cactus last-person-standing ultra in November 2020.

The race, which involves completing five 20-mile loops on unforgiving and steep terrain in under 60 hours, has seen only 15 finishers in its 35-year history. The most recent is John Kelly in 2017, who grew up in the area and who went on to win the Montane Spine Race, the 429-km race along Britain’s Pennine Way, in January 2020. (Kelly had attempted the Barkley twice before finally finishing. He crewed for Canadian runner Gary Robbins in 2018, who did not finish, and entered the race for a fourth time in 2019, shocking everyone by dropping out after two loops.) No women have ever finished the race. In 2019, fans followed avidly as U.K. ultrarunner Nicky Spinks, Canadian Stephanie Case and several other women tackled the course, but were unsuccessful. Fans are rooting for Dauwalter to be the first.

RELATED: Barkley Marathons book documents race’s 15 finishers

The race, a curious mix of 100-mile ultratrail, orienteering challenge and demonic scavenger hunt, takes place on a course that is not marked, and GPS watches are forbidden. In the past, racers have been issued a cheap Casio watch to track their time (Dunn reports that this year’s version is “a no-frills analog pocket watch”), and they change direction after the first two loops. Runners must find a number of books, which serve as “checkpoints.” To prove they passed each checkpoint, they must tear out the pages corresponding to their bib number and deliver them to Laz in camp after completing each loop. Highlights of the course include landmarks with names like Rat Jaw and Spectacle Testicle, and the abandoned Brushy State Prison, from which James Earl Ray, convicted of killing Martin Luther King, Jr., attempted to escape in 1977. (Race lore has it that Laz, a former ultrarunner himself, scoffed when he heard that Ray covered only eight miles in 55 hours, and the idea for the Barkley was born.)   

Barkley Marathons
Rat Jaw, a 300m climb over an 800m stretch on course, covered in briars. Photo: Canadian Running Magazine

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Dunn tweeted that it had been raining for several hours before the race started. He reports that one runner returned to camp 40 minutes after the start, having forgotten his bib, and that another runner started 58 minutes late.