There’s an annual 100-mile foot race so hard that only 11 people have even finished it since 1985. The date is secret, the entry form is secret, and the entry fee is $1.60 and a pack of Camels
“WARTBURG, Tenn. — On Friday night, in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee, 28 men and 7 women will lie in tents half asleep in anticipation of hearing a conch shell being blown at Big Cove Campground in Frozen Head State Park. When they hear the call, which will arrive sometime between 11 p.m. that night and 11 a.m. Saturday, they will know they are 60 minutes from the start of an ordeal once referred to as a “satanic running adventure.”
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Geoffrey S. Baker
Runners in 2012 heading up an incline called Rat Jaw. Runners are required to complete a bizarre entry form with questions like, “What is the most important vegetable group?”
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Geoffrey S. Baker
Gary Cantrell, the Barkley Marathons creator, displaying license plates collected from first-time entrants.
It is a 100-mile footrace that some say is actually 130 miles or more, through unmarked trails that have names like Meth Lab Hill, Bad Thing and Leonard’s Buttslide and that are choked with prickly saw briers. Temperatures often range from freezing to blistering on the same day, and there is a cumulative elevation gain of more than 60,000 feet, or the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest twice from sea level.
A 60-hour time limit forces competitors to run, climb and bushwhack for three days with little or no sleep. They endure taunts from the race director, who deliberately keeps the competition’s entry procedure a mystery. It is a race in which there are no comfort stations, and runners cannot use a GPS device or a cellphone.
Less than 2 percent of the nearly 800 ultrarunners who have subjected themselves to this punishment — 12 men, the same number as 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.
This is the Barkley Marathons, the world’s toughest and most secretive trail race.
“The Barkley is a problem,” Gary Cantrell, 59, the race’s director and creator, said recently. “All the other big races are set up for you to succeed. The Barkley is set up for you to fail.”
As ultrarunning has increased in popularity, many of its signature races have evolved from low-key affairs to big-time events with corporate sponsors and entry fees of $1,000 or more. The Barkley costs just $1.60 to enter and has not grown because Tennessee park officials will not allow more than 35 runners a year. But with the sport’s popularity on the rise and the Barkley about to be featured in a documentary, many connected to it hope the competition known as the Race That Eats Its Young can maintain its eccentric, counterculture charm.
Cantrell got the idea to create the Barkley in 1985 after learning that James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., had managed to cover only eight miles in 54 hours after escaping from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. The prison, closed in 2009, is now part of the Barkley course. Runners wade into a stream that passes through a tunnel under the prison, and come out the other side, near the wall where Ray escaped.
The derelict prison sits on the eastern edge of Frozen Head State Park, where Cantrell liked to hike with his friend Karl Henn, known as Raw Dog. Cantrell and Henn, who became a race co-director, thought they could fare better than Ray, who was found lying face down in a pile of leaves, cold, hungry, scratched to pieces and utterly defeated by the terrain.
The next year, the Barkley, which Cantrell named after a friend and longtime supporter, Barry Barkley, was held for the first time. The course covered 50 miles, and there was a 24-hour time limit. None of the 13 runners came close to finishing.
“A rousing success all around,” Cantrell said of that first race in a story for UltraRunning magazine.
Ed Furtaw, a man known as Frozen Ed, became the first person to finish what was then a 55-mile race in 1988. The next year, Cantrell decided to make the Barkley more difficult by creating a 100-mile race, currently consisting of five 20-mile loops, while retaining a 60-mile Fun Run. Mark Williams, a Briton, became the first person to complete the 100-mile race, finishing in 59 hours 28 minutes in 1995. Only 11 others have completed the 100-mile race since. (There was no race in 2002.)”