The most grueling race in the World. And you can’t run it…most likely.

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!

Lookout Mountain
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.

Frozen Head State Park

Beautiful mountains, aren’t they?

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.

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

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.

Gary Cantrell    Source:  Metro Pulse

Gary Cantrell                   Source: Metro Pulse

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.

barkley marathons

Little Hell Obstacle


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.

running through briars

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.

barkley marathons license platesSource

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.

rat jaw of the Barkley Marathons

This is the Rat Jaw obstacle, Photo by John Price

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.

course map

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.

book pages from the Barkley Marathons

Ripping the pages from the located books.        Source:  Metro Pulse

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?!?)

14 thoughts on “The most grueling race in the World. And you can’t run it…most likely.

  1. I grew up in SWVA and I’ve never heard of this race. I ran the JFK 50-Miler, but it was wimpy compared to this. 17 miles were on the Appalachian Trail, the next 26 were on the relatively flat C&O Canal, and the final miles were on a rolling hills road. I like trail races, but there’s no way I’d even try to run one loop of the Barkley Marathons.

    • I’m pretty sure I would never get in but there is that East Tennessee girl inside of me that really, really wants to do it… I know, I’m crazy!

      And that JFK 50-miler was no joke, you are seriously a badass!

  2. Never will I EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I understand the natural “high” that some people get from these extreme races but there just is nothing natural about this for me. I would die…seriously…even if my life depended on it. Great story though…thanks for sharing via #TBB #LinkLove 🙂

    • LOL, those mountains are severe but having grown up there, I really want to run this thing…but maybe just the fun run 60 miles sounds much more doable than 100! 😉

    • It is insane and I can tell you from first hand experience, those mountains and ‘hills’ are legit hardcore! I once saw my cousin slide down one do those mountains backwards on his belly and afterward he looked like he’d been in an auto accident. It was ugly!

  3. Yes… actually i just wrote a post about this last week. My friend Jamil is one of the 14 who finished. He finished last years… this year he did not finish

    Not yet… first will be on halloween. Javelina Jundred 100

    Maybe…never say never right?

    • No way! I didn’t realize you had written about this. Not many people know about the Barkley Marathons but its legend in my hometown. I grew up playing in those hills and all of those around them. That’s so cool your friends with Jamil Coury. I’m so excited for you to be running the Javelina Jundred! We should totally run the Barkley together. We could be the first Hawaiian and the first female to finish! 🙂 (I’ve got big dreams!) And training wouldn’t be a problem, I’ve got tons of relatives who live all around….put it on the bucket list! Seriously, do it.

  4. How bizarre! I was on Twitter just before I read this post and Life Magazine posted a pic of MLK lying on the hotel balcony and less than 5 minutes later your telling us tales of James Earl Ray….
    Loved the pics, looks like a beautiful part of the country and not hard to see why you might be so attached to it.
    What an awesome race! Love it, especially the arbitrary aspect!

    • That is exactly why I love it. Who enjoys a systematic approach to running anyway? And I love that there’s a sense of danger in it as well. The documentary is great because you can actually see the twinkle in Gary Cantrell’s eyes. It’s infectious.

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