I may be a Florida girl but my home is in Tennessee where I grew up, and most of my family still resides. (Go Vols!)
I grew up in Knoxville which is located in East Tennessee and entirely in the Appalachian Mountains, one of the hilliest regions in the country. In fact, if you were to climb to the top of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, on a clear day you could see 7 states!
Located in the Cumberland Plateau is Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee which contains some of the highest mountains in Tennessee west of the Blue Ridge. It’s about 50 miles northwest of my hometown of Knoxville.
Wartburg has a history worthy of its own post but for the sake of this one, let’s just say it is home to Brushy Mountain State penitentiary. The prison closed in 2009 but at one time it housed one of the most notorious criminals of our time, James Earl Ray.
In 1977 Ray, along with several other inmates, escaped from the prison and fled to the mountains. He was captured after 55 hours and only a few miles away. That’s what inspired Gary Cantrell who said to himself “I could do at least 100 miles” to create the Barkley Marathons.
Born in 1986 the Barkley Marathons is a 100 mile ultramarathon touted as the toughest ultra in the United States, if not the World. The race is 5 – 20 mile loops with an elevation gain that is roughly the equivalent of two times the height of Mt. Everest.
Cantrell obviously has a sadistic sense of humor and it’s evident in this race. The course isn’t marked and only a compass and a map are allowed. Runners must navigate steep hills with gradients nearing 40 percent and brush that is so thorny it can rip the skin right off of you.
Of course if you don’t want to run the Barkley Marathons you could always just participate in the ‘60 mile fun run‘. I did mention that Cantrell had a sadistic sense of humor, right?
The Barkley chews a runner up and then spits him out. Since its inception only 14 runners have ever finished the course and every time they do, the course is tweaked just a bit. This year every runner who participated was a DNF. That’s right, no one finished.
There is no website, there is no official entry process, and there is not a chance in hell that most of you will ever get the chance to run this race unless you know someone, and if you do, you probably won’t finish anyway. The entry process is surrounded in a cloud of secrecy but what is known is that the entry fee is somewhere around 2 bucks, a license plate from your home state if you’re a first timer, and an essay on why you should be allowed to run the Barkley. I’ve heard some participants have been required to bring socks or cigarettes for entry but only those who have run it know for sure.
The race takes place the weekend around April fools and 40 runners participate. First time runners are called ‘virgins’ and one runner who race organizers don’t think will do particularly well, is deemed the ‘human sacrifice’. Cantrell doesn’t believe that women are made for the course and he will quickly tell you that. In fact, no woman has ever completed more than 60 miles of the course.
The course route is taped to a picnic table and the runners must buy their own maps and copy the course onto it. Directions are provided, but they are vague.
The race starts sometime between midnight and noon. Only Cantrell knows when the start time will be. Cantrell blows a conch shell to signal that runners have an hour until start time and then he lights a cigarette, which is the signal that the grueling race has begun.
The race has a 60 hour time limit and the runners navigate with only a compass and a map. Each runner must complete 5 loops and there are many obstacles along the way with names such as Testicle Spectacle, Rat Jaw, and Son of a Bitch Ditch. Runners even trek through a drainage tunnel that was previously used by Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Each of the 5 loops must be completed in under 12 hours. If a runner doesn’t finish a loop in under 12 hours, he is disqualified.
There are no course markings.
There are no manned checkpoints.
There are no aid stations, just jugs of water dropped along the course. Runners must carry any supplies that they may need.
Along the course runners must locate books with ominous titles such as, ‘No Exit’ and then remove the assigned pages proving they’ve run the correct course. If a runner finishes without all of the assigned pages, they are disqualified.
As runners fail, and inevitably most of them do, you’ll hear the sound of Taps played by the bugler at the yellow gate. Everyone can hear it. Everyone knows you’ve failed.
This year everyone knows that everyone failed. Cantrell wins again. The record stands, there are still only 14 men who have completed the Barkley Marathons.
Check out the Barkley Marathons Documentary!
Have you heard of the Barkley Marathons?
Have you ever run a 100 mile race and finished?
If you had the chance, would you attempt the Barkley? (I would because I’m crazy like that and I’m from East Tennessee so maybe I have something to prove?!?)