How To Get Into The Barkley Marathons: Finisher John Kelly Gives Insight Into Cryptic Entry Process And Essay

The persuasive essay is just one of the many cryptic steps when applying to the Barkley Marathons

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In the realm of ultramarathons, few races command as much respect and fascination as the Barkley Marathons. With its daunting terrain, unpredictable weather, and stringent entry process, securing a spot in this legendary event is akin to unlocking a mystery wrapped in an enigma. 

For those brave enough to attempt earning one of only 40 annual spots, navigating the labyrinthine path to entry is the first test of endurance on a journey fraught with challenges. 

The Barkley Marathons’ entry process is as mysterious and challenging as the race itself. 

How To Get Into The Barkley Marathons: Finisher John Kelly Gives Insight Into Cryptic Entry Process And Essay 1
Photo Credit: Michael Doyle

Unlike conventional races where signing up is a simple click away, the Barkley demands a far more intricate approach. Prospective entrants must first decipher the cryptic instructions laid out by the race organizers, which include a series of unconventional tasks and requirements. 

From essays detailing their motivation and readiness to take on the Barkley challenge to demonstrating a deep understanding of the event’s ethos, applicants must prove themselves worthy of toeing the start line.

John Kelly, a seasoned Barkley veteran, sheds light on the complexities of the selection process, emphasizing its exclusivity and the meticulous considerations involved. 

“It is not mathematically possible for a race that thousands want to enter and only 40 per year get to participate in to be anything but ‘exclusive,'” says Kelly. 

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Photo Credit: Michael Doyle

Indeed, with thousands of hopefuls vying for a handful of slots, the competition is fierce, and every aspect of an applicant’s profile is scrutinized.

Central to the application process is the submission of a compelling essay. In this essay, applicants must articulate their motivations, experiences, and readiness to take on the Barkley challenge. 

“The purpose of the essay is really for someone to highlight how they meet the other criteria above, but having a bit of wit and demonstrating the right mindset to succeed at Barkley can also help,” he explains.

In wilderness is the preservation of the world Henry David Thoreau

Kelly reflects on his own application essay, highlighting the importance of authenticity and conveying a genuine connection to the event. 

“I cringe a bit now reading my first application essay… Reading this nearly a decade later, there are definitely things I would say differently or not at all. ‘I haven’t done a 100-miler yet, but I ran a 2:49 marathon this year. But I haven’t changed a single word.”

But meeting the criteria is just the beginning. 

For those who don’t secure an immediate spot, hope lies in the weight list. Lazarus Lake, the enigmatic race director, manages this list with an iron hand, balancing the need for veteran presence with opportunities for newcomers. 

“If you ever get on the weight list, you can be assured you will get in… eventually… if you continue to apply,” assures Carl & Laz, the voices behind the Barkley.

Along with a well-written essay, the application process also involves paying the steep entry fee of $1.60 (because, as the website states, “in case it is not obvious, we are in this for the money”), the notorious license plate, which will be strung up at the camp, and usually, some object that Laz wants that year (previous years have seen socks and shirts).

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Photo Credit: Michael Doyle

Figuring out where to send your application is another feat as well.

The information isn’t easily available, and for good reason. Those who aren’t willing to go the extra mile to find out where to send their application probably aren’t the people with enough motivation to make it through the race.

Ultimately, navigating the Barkley Marathons entry process is a test of perseverance and determination. It’s a journey that begins long before the race itself and requires not only physical preparedness but also strategic planning and next-level motivation. 

For those who dare to dream of conquering the Barkley, the road to the start line is fraught with challenges—but for those who succeed, the rewards are immeasurable.

Interested in reading John Kelly’s first application essay? You can find it below.

How To Get Into The Barkley Marathons: Finisher John Kelly Gives Insight Into Cryptic Entry Process And Essay 4
Photo Credit: Michael Doyle

Why I should be allowed to run The Barkley Marathons by John Kelly

I grew up in Joyner, TN just across Highway 62 from the CCC road my grandpa helped build that goes up towards Chimney Top. I lived on Kelly Dr right next to where Kelly Creek splits off of Beech Fork at the base of Kelly Mountain (they spelled the mountain’s name wrong on the maps, but it sits below Indian Knob and across Beech Fork from Chimney Top). My family has been on that same piece of land for 200 years. There are currently plans to make the original Kelly homestead a welcome center for Frozen Head ( The prison that inspired the Barkley employed many of my family members. My dad, who for a time worked at one of the strip pits, regularly played softball just outside the Brushy fence.

I spent a large part of my childhood exploring those mountains, unknowingly training for the Barkley. Eventually, though, I ran off from my family’s longstanding home to get a Ph.D. like many past successful Barkley runners (mine is in electrical engineering). In the pursuit of that degree I went days without sleep on multiple occasions, which I now know was also training for the Barkley. I now find myself temporarily displaced to the DC area, but Chimney Top will always be home sweet home to me (as a TN resident yourself, I trust you’ll get the lyrical reference).

I’m also no slouch of an endurance athlete and mountaineer. I haven’t done a 100-miler yet, but I ran a 2:49 marathon this year. I’ve thru-hiked the 230 mile John Muir Trail in the high Sierra, where I was given the trail name “Navigator,” and I’ve backpacked many shorter trips with 35+ mile days in the same area. About a year ago I was out solo in the high Sierra and lost my compass just before an unexpected snow storm suddenly hit. I was 40 miles from the nearest road or person (I hadn’t seen human footprints in the snow for 2 days). I managed to get out of there within a day before I got buried by the storm, which required many hours of hiking at night.

I’m about as stubborn and determined as they come. When I ran my first marathon my schedule wouldn’t allow me to train more than 10-15 miles total per week. As you could guess, every muscle in my body completely locked up at around mile 18, but I drug myself those painful final 8 miles across the finish line. If given a shot at the Barkley I will absolutely not quit until I either finish that 5th loop or there is not a single second left on the clock.* The difference with my first marathon is that I will be prepared, or at least as prepared as any first-timer can hope to be.

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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