The 2024 Barkley Marathons Is Underway: Everything You Need To Know About The World’s Most Secretive Race

You've got better odds of winning the lottery than getting into this race, let alone finishing it...

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The 2024 Barkley Marathons officially started at 05:17 a.m. local time, Wednesday (March 20). You can follow our live updates of the event here.

More than 20,000 people have completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, over 8,000 people have summited Mount Everest, and another 1,800 people have swam the length of the English Channel. Although completing any of these feats puts you in an elite club, there is no endeavor as selective as the Barkley Marathons.

Since 1986, only 17 people have completed the 100 miles of the Barkley Marathons.

The 2024 Barkley Marathons Is Underway: Everything You Need To Know About The World's Most Secretive Race 1

The Story Behind Barkley

Despite its appeal to elite ultra runners worldwide, the genesis of the Barkley Marathons wasn’t rooted in a remarkable athletic achievement but rather in a daring prison escape.

Frozen Head State Park, where the annual race is held, once housed the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. This fortress-like facility counted among its inmates James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. 

In 1977, Ray attempted a breakout. However, the dense vegetation and harsh terrain thwarted his efforts, allowing him to traverse a mere 8 miles over 54 grueling hours before authorities caught up with him, sprawled in defeat amidst the wilderness.

In 1985, Gary Cantrell, colloquially known as Lazarus Lake, stumbled upon the account of Ray’s failed escape. Unimpressed by the distance covered, Lake speculated that he could have easily traversed 100 miles under similar conditions.

Inspired by this notion and with the input of his friend Karl “Raw Dog” Henn, the concept of the Barkley Marathons was born.

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The Legendary Lazarus Lake

Lazarus “Laz” Lake is an iconic figure in the world of trail and ultra-running. He is the mastermind behind the Barkley Marathons, and his name resonates profoundly within the running community, earning him legendary status.

While Lake’s professional journey began in accountancy, culminating in retirement in 2011, his role as a race director has catapulted him into a busier phase of life than ever before. 

Alongside the Barkley Marathons, Lake curates a series of renowned races such as Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, the Barkley Fall Classic, Strolling Jim 40, Vol State 500k, and Heart of the South Mystery Run, each notorious for their near-impossible challenges and unique entry criteria.

Reflecting on his approach to race design, Lake offered insights into his philosophy during a 2019 interview. 

He articulates the delicate balance between crafting a race that stretches participants to their limits while maintaining a semblance of attainability. Despite the daunting nature of his races, Lake emphasizes that success isn’t solely measured by completion but rather by the personal growth and discoveries made along the journey.

Lake’s outward appearance, characterized by his self-professed “hillbilly” demeanor and the absence of 13 teeth, stands in stark contrast to his sharp intellect and burgeoning global admirers, despite his aversion to social media. 

Those who have crossed paths with Lake attest to his keen intellect and unwavering passion for the sport, coupled with an unwavering commitment to pushing boundaries within a tightly-knit community, albeit with strict adherence to rules and boundaries.

In wilderness is the preservation of the world Henry David Thoreau

The Nuances Of The Barkley Marathons

Qualifying for the Barkley Marathons

Securing a spot in the Barkley Marathons hinges on a blend of individual merit and logistical constraints, a complex dance orchestrated by Laz.

Here’s a breakdown of the known factors of the selection criteria:

  1. Guaranteed Entry: Participants enjoy automatic entry if they deferred from the previous year or triumphed in the Barkley Fall Classic or Big Dog’s Backyard. Finishers are also granted perpetual entry, earning the right to tackle the challenge anew.
  2. Potential Finishers: While elite pedigree is valued, Barkley’s unique demands make predicting success a daunting task. Candidates can demonstrate capability through ultrarunning feats or alternative endeavors like long-distance backpacking or specialized training.
  3. Diverse Representation: Barkley endeavors to amplify diverse voices, prioritizing groups lacking prior representation. This inclusivity aims to enrich the race’s narrative and unearth untapped talent.
  4. Unfulfilled Potential: Barkley rewards persistence and growth, affording repeat entrants opportunities to surpass prior performances and realize untapped potential.
  5. Persistence: Continued application enhances one’s chances, underscoring dedication and commitment to the Barkley challenge.
  6. Ultrarunning Experience: While elite status isn’t mandatory, a robust ultrarunning background bolsters one’s candidacy, showcasing years of dedication and contribution to the sport.
  7. Persuasive Essay: A succinct, compelling essay can bolster an application, providing insight into the applicant’s alignment with Barkley’s ethos and mindset.
  8. Serendipity: Ultimately, luck plays a role in the selection process, as the quest to identify the ideal 40 participants defies algorithmic precision.

Applicants are instructed to submit a postal application and, if successful, owe a non-refundable registration fee of $1.60 and a license plate from their home state or country. 

Details regarding when and how to apply are closely guarded, and there is no official race website. 

The 2024 Barkley Marathons Is Underway: Everything You Need To Know About The World's Most Secretive Race 3

Field Size and Composition

Despite its increasing popularity, now receiving over 1,000 applications annually, the Barkley Marathons limits its participants to just 40 runners annually

While predominantly elites, Cantrell reserves one spot for a runner deemed unfit for the challenge, known as the “human sacrifice,” who is assigned bib number 1.

When Does The Race Start?

Typically, the race occurs on the first weekend of April, although it occasionally takes place in March to maintain secrecy.

The start date is only made known to the inner circle and the 40 runners who have been accepted into the race. Although the start date is disclosed to the runners, the start time is not.

In the 12-hour window in which the race will begin, the blowing of a conch gives runners one hour’s notice.

Laz then signals the start of the race by lighting a cigarette.

lazarus lake

The Mysteries Of The Course

Starting at the iconic yellow gate one hour after the conch shell is blown, the full Barkley Marathons consists of five 20-mile loops for a total distance of 100 miles

Runners have to negotiate 12,000 feet of elevation gain with each loop, which is the equivalent of climbing up and down Mount Everest twice if you complete the entire five loops.

Each loop is run clockwise during the day and counterclockwise at night.

Reportedly, the final loop direction will depend on the runner ahead of you such that when the first runner to complete four loops comes through the checkpoint, Laz sends them in either the clockwise direction or counterclockwise.

Then, the next runner to reach the checkpoint for the final loop will be sent in the opposite direction. 

This pattern will continue for any of the remaining racers still running and eligible to start on the fifth loop (many runners drop out or fail to complete one loop, let alone four loops under the 12-hour time limit per loop).

There is no available course map, and you can’t train on the course ahead of time. And no, you won’t find previous routes on Strava either since GPS watches are prohibited during the race.

worlds toughest races barkley

What Makes The Barkley Marathons Near-Impossible To Finish?

Of the nearly 1,000 runners who have dared to embark on the Barkley Marathons, only 17 have reached the finish line. This remarkable rate of non-completion is no accident; it’s Laz’s deliberate creation. 

His intention? To craft an event that hovers on the brink of impossibility—an arena where participants confront the depths of their resolve and resilience.

“Unlike other ultramarathons where organizers strive to assist as many runners as possible in completing the race, Barkley is intentionally designed to minimize finishers while still remaining within the realm of attainability.”

Challenging Terrain and Weather

The Barkley’s rugged terrain and unpredictable weather pose a primary obstacle. 

Runners confront staggering elevation changes—equally punishing whether ascending or descending.

Ground conditions vary from boggy to uneven, slippery, or all three. Much of the course leads through dense forest, off-trail. 

Weather conditions range from scorching sun to freezing temperatures, pouring rain, dense fog, and even snow.

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Old-School Navigation

Unlike conventional ultramarathons, Barkley provides no GPS, waymarks, or aid stations. 

The route changes annually, with checkpoints marked solely by books hidden in obscure locations. Runners must locate these books to tear out a page, proving their adherence to the course set by Lake. 

Factor in darkness, physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and hallucinations induced by fatigue and challenging weather, and even seasoned Barkley veterans find themselves confounded year after year.

Since 2017, GPS devices have been banned. Instead, runners are provided with analog watches set to read 00:00 at the race’s commencement—regardless of the actual time. 

Unpredictable Start Times

Imagine heading to a race without knowing your start time. 

At any point within a 12-hour window, a conch shell will sound, signaling a one-hour warning until the race begins. Start times can range from 1 a.m. to 9 p.m. or any hour in between. 

Runners likely spend the preceding night anxiously awaiting the conch, deprived of sleep entirely, set out into the wilderness in the dead of night.

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What Do We Know About The 2024 Event?

How Can You Keep Up With The Race?

By this point you can probably guess that with all the secrecy surrounding the event, no, there is no live-streaming or broadcast.

Keith Dunn is the man you’ll want to follow on X if you want to get an idea of what’s going on during the Barkley Marathons.

The bad news? His posts on social media can sometimes be difficult to understand, even a bit cryptic (but considering how secretive the Barkley Marathons are, this shouldn’t be a big surprise).

The good news? We’ll have our editors keeping tabs on X and using our expert knowledge (we’ve even had one of them observe the event a few times) to decode what’s going down.

Is There A Startlist?

Although there is no startlist, there are some people who have earned guranteed spots into the Barkley Marathons via various performances at other events organized by Laz.

For instance, victory in the Big’s Backyard Ultra grants automatic qualification. In late 2023, Harvey Lewis claimed this honor and has since shared his Barkleys training journey.

Similarly, winners of the Barkley Fall Classic secure a coveted spot. This year, French orienteerer and trail runner Maxime Gauduin and American ultrarunning and Toughest Mudder star Kris Rugloski join the ranks.

As mentioned, each year, one runner, deemed by race founder Lake as a “sacrificial lamb” with slim chances of even completing the first loop, receives the No.1 bib. In 2023, this title befell British ultrarunning legend Nicky Spinks, who defied expectations.

a group of marathon runner discussing something on book

The Barkley Marathons Honor Roll

Getting accepted into the Barkley Marathons is an achievement in and of itself. Finishing the Barkley Marathons puts you in one of the most elite clubs in the world, one that currently only has 17 members.

Now with a better understanding of the challenges posed by this event, check out the 17 legends who have managed to successfully navigate the 100-mile course within the time limit.

Mark Williams199559:28:48
David Horton200158:21:00
Blake Wood200158:21:01
Teddy Keizer200356:57:52
Mike Tilden200457:25:18
Jim Nelson200457:28:25
Brian Robinson200855:42:27
Andrew Thompson200957:37:19
Jonathan Basham201059:18:44
Brett Maune (1)201157:13:33
Brett Maune (2)201252:03:08
Jared Campbell (1)201256:00:16
John Fegyveresi201259:41:21
Nick Hollon201357:39:24
Travis Wildeboer201358:41:45
Jared Campbell (2)201457:53:20
Jared Campbell (3)201659:32:30
John Kelly (1)201759:30:53
Aurélien Sanchez202358:23:12
John Kelly (2)202358:42:23
Karel Sabbe202359:53:33
Photo of author
Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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