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Barkley Marathons. Not all pain is gain…

Barkley Marathons. Not all pain is gain…

Poster_FB_5_8The marathon, at a distance of 42.195km, was once considered by many to be the ultimate test of human endurance. Legend has it that a Greek messenger, Pheidippides, ran from Marathon to Athens in 490BC to announce that the Persians have been defeated in the battle of Marathon, in which Pheidippides was fighting in. It is said that he ran the entire distance without stopping and burst into the assembly, exclaiming Nenikekamen, “We have wοn”, before collapsing and dying.  I have pondered about this legend many a times before and asked my self the question, ‘I wonder that if Pheidippides had survived the run from Marathon to Athens, if he would have ever considered to one day run the marathon of marathons, the infamous Barkley Marathons? In my podcast with Charlie, I attempted to lure Charlie into talking a little about the “Fight Club of Running”, the Barkley Marathons, The race that eats its young. It is considered by many to be the hardest, meanest, badass ultra marathon out there. Engle once competed in the Barkley Marathons, and like many before him, failed to finish race. Charlie skillfully dodged my question, and gave me an answer I didn’t know I was looking for, and it was like a moment of Buddhist enlightenment, I saw the light. But more about that later. 

About a year ago I first heard of the Barkley Marathons, and was intrigued by its mystery. The race that eats it young… Not many people are familiar with the Barkley Marathons, and there is a good reason for this. It doesn’t really exist. Its the “Fight Club” of running. First rule of Barkley, people don’t talk about Barkley… Spill the beans on how you got into the Barkley and you will never run it again, that is if you dare to enter again.

The race director, Gary “Laz” Cantrell, created the toughest trail in the world with no equal. Since the race’s inception in 1986, only 15 runners out of about 800 have completed the 100 mile race within the official 60 hour cut-off. In 2006 nobody finished even the 60 mile ‘fun run’ in under 40 hours. Less than 2 percent of the nearly 800 ultrarunners who have subjected themselves to this punishment, three more than the 12 men who have walked on the moon, have finished the race in its current iteration. The only prize is that after 100 miles, they get to stop.“All the other big races are set up for you to succeed. The Barkley is set up for you to fail says race director Cantrell.

This race is designed to make you suffer, there are no aid stations along the 20 mile loop, only two water points. The race is limited to 40 runners and usually fills up quickly the day registration opens, and potential entrants must complete an essay on “Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley.” Then there is the small matter of actually finding someone willing enough to share Cantrell`s email address with you . Remember rule number 1…. 

I can imagine you sitting there thinking, “man, I should enter the Barkley and give it a go…. ” You see, the problem is figuring out how to enter the race which is an achievement in itself. There is no web site, and Laz doesn’t publish the race date or explain how to enter. Cantrell believes that anything that makes it more mentally stressful for the runners is good. Because so few participants are allowed, the details of how to apply are a closely guarded secret. The first step is to figure out where and when to send a required essay on why one should be allowed to compete. Good luck with that!

Charlie Engle wrote in his Runners World race report how he got into the race;

“By asking around I had determined that to enter the race, one has to find Cantrell’s e-mail address to request an application, which includes an essay explaining why you deserve to be granted one of the 40 slots. If you’re lucky, or maybe I should say unlucky, Cantrell will pick you. The trouble is, the best way to get that address is from someone who has previously entered, and those runners guard it carefully. They don’t want to hurt their chances of being selected by increasing the pool of applicants.

Eventually a former entrant gave me Cantrell’s e-mail address and I received an application. Now, I have run dozens of marathons and adventure races in more than 35 countries including the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, the Eco-Challenge, and the Raid Gauloises; once, I even ran more than 4,500 miles across the Sahara. But submitting a resume boasting of running accomplishments seemed too ordinary for this event. Instead, I opted for weird. My application contained language like:

My name is Charlie and I am addicted to suffering. I have a long and storied history of making poor decisions. As I understand it, the Barkley course is very well marked and should be easy to follow. I love that Barkley even gives medals to runners that just give it their best shot. It’s a lot like doing a local 5K. There really are no losers.”

It worked. Several days later, I received the bad news:

“Our heartfelt condolences on your recent selection into the Barkley Marathons field. Even though the odds were all in your favor, with six applicants for every slot, in any drawing someone must lose. This time it was you.

“Should you come up with any plausible excuse to avoid the painful failure that is the Barkley, please let us know as soon as possible. As incredible as it might seem, those other five people still want your slot.

“Otherwise, there is a very bad thing waiting for you.”

Charlie mailed in the $1.60 entry fee (the cheapest Ultra Marathon in the world at $1 per kilometer, take note race directors) deliberately absurd, like everything else about this enterprise, and patiently waited for race instructions to arrive. Nothing. Cantrell did send one e-mail announcing the location of the race. Containing only the most basic information, it read, “If you can’t find Frozen Head State Park on your own, you shouldn’t be coming to the Barkley.”

Runners are also required to complete a bizarre entry form with questions like, “What is the most important vegetable group?” In addition to the $1.60 entry fee, first-time entrants must bring a license plate for Cantrell’s collection, which he displays next to the race’s starting gate. Veterans who have never finished are required to bring him a specific article of clothing. You don’t get more underground and quirky if you asked me.

Once you arrive at the start Laz continues with the mind games and runners are encouraged to get themselves ready to race and go into standby mode. There is no set starting time for the Barkley, believe it or not. You idle at the camp site until you hear the loud call of a conch shell, and that is the start of the 60 minute countdown before Laz lights his Camel cigarette, signaling the start of the Barkley Marathons. This takes place whenever he feels like it, sometime between midnight and noon. The start of the race involves a curious tradition in which participants try to refrain from letting Cantrell see them run. They will walk the first few hundred meters, until they turn a bend and begin running once they are out of his sight.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 9.28.49 PMNo gadgets are allowed while running Barkley. You will not find a ChampionshipChip on your shoe recording your time and no real time tracking. No fancy Garmin or Suunto on your wrist to guide the way. There is a master route map spread out and taped to a picnic table the day before the race, and each runner must buy his own park map and copy the course onto it. Not that the course is precisely rendered on the map—the checkpoints are roughly indicated, and written “directions” are provided, along the lines of: “Look down. See that steep hillside with the narrow passage? That is the Zip Line Trail. Go down, and bear only a little to the left.”  The course is not marked and runners must use a map and a compass to navigate the trail. The checkpoints are also not manned, no one would want to sit and wait for wayward runners in freezing conditions.


Each runner must navigate to find the 10 books that have been placed along the course by Cantrell. When a runner finds a book, he or she, and yes, a few women have entered, though none have made it to the final circuit, must tear out his assigned page number to prove they were there. Runners get new page numbers for each loop, and anyone who finishes a loop without all 10 pages are disqualified. Books Cantrell prefers for his checkpoints have titles like Death Walks the Woods ,The Road Not Taken and A Time to Die. Nice. There are also no medical staff to assist along the way and you have to make sure you are able to drag your broken body back to the starting line. The race has a 60-hour time limit, but each loop must be run in less than 12. Runners can rest after finishing a loop, but must start each subsequent loop before the 12-hour mark has elapsed. This means that they must start Loop 2 before 12 hours has elapsed, Loop 3 before the 24-hour mark, and so on and so on. 

Sleep-deprived runners who make it deep into the race tend to hallucinate, and the few who make it to the finish line are shattered when they arrive. Few would dispute the difficulty of the race, but some renowned ultrarunners avoid it, saying that because it involves navigation and an unmarked trail, it’s more of an adventure race than a true ultra marathon.  Charlie Engle failed to complete even the Fun Run portion of 60 miles. And he is as hard as nails. This race is not for the faint of heart.

Barkley 1The beauty of the Barkley Marathons is its secrecy. When I spoke to Charlie a few weeks back, he talked about how runners use running to “escape” the world, the daily grind, seeking freedom. We hit the trails with iPods, iPhones, GPS trackers, 4G internet connection, and rushing though a run so we can upload the run to Strava, hitting the share button as quickly as possible, waiting for ‘likes’, enjoying the virtual interaction, and forgetting how we felt while out on the trail. Breathing in fresh air, the uneven trail trying to trip you up, leaping over streams and logs, powering through sand and mud, sprinting away after hearing what can only be a snake in the long grass. How ironic. How many times have you left the house for a run only to find that you have forgotten to charge the GPS, feeling irritated with yourself as you will not be able to record and share your run? Many people head back inside as they are no longer amped to run without being able to record the run and share it with the world. We have become obsessed with our stats, and have forgotten what it means to run free, truly free, to be one with the trail, and most importantly, taking the experience in and banking that feeling deep inside of you, that feeling of trail stoke. Do you remember that feeling? Ask yourself when is the last time you went on a mission, and headed out the door, not advertising it to the whole world, and did a run purely for yourself,  and no one else?

I am not saying that you should ditch your equipment and go out the door naked, I love my Garmin and iPod just as much as the next runner. All I am saying is that there are times when you should get back to basics and enjoy the trail for what it is.I would like to challenge you, to go out and find your own adventure. Get a few of your best friends together, learn to read a map and use a compass, go out for a few days and nights, carry your equipment on your back, find a spot to sleep under the stars. And tell no one about it. Treasure it and make it yours.

The promise of comfort will always be alluring, choosing the easy way out.  However, the power of human resilience is only realized through true pain and suffering. Roughing it, feeling uncomfortable, vulnerable and exposed. That is why races like the Barkley really matters and should be protected by its runners and organizers with everything they have. Its not really about finishing the race, its about your relationship with yourself, and your journey of self discovery, and feeling what it really means to be alive.




Photo Credits : Geoffrey Baker Photography

Barkley Marathons Movie Poster :

Annika ILTIS
Codirector/Coproducer, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young
A Documentary Feature Film

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Adam Du Plooy

I am a passionate South African trail runner living in Dubai. I completed the 250km Marathon Des Sables in 2010 and look forward to running various multi stage races over the next few years.
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About The Author

I am a passionate South African trail runner living in Dubai. I completed the 250km Marathon Des Sables in 2010 and look forward to running various multi stage races over the next few years.

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