Meet The Barkley Marathons: Everything You Need To Know About ‘The Race That Eats Its Young’

Gary Cantrell's iconic sufferfest chews up and spits out the hardiest runners.

“Barkley’s out there at the edge of possibility and impossibility. There is no other event that I know of in this world that is this hard.” – David Horton, Barkley Marathon Finisher

In this Barkley Marathons guide, we will discuss what makes the Barkley Marathons Ultra earn the tagline: “where dreams go to die.”

the barkley marathons
Photo credit: 2 x Barkley Marathons runner, Tim Waz, Grounded Running Beaufort 

What Is the Barkley Marathons?

The Barkley Marathons in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, is one of the most unique ultras in the United States. 

It used to be the secret society of ultras, known only by a select few. Still, after being highlighted in the well-received documentary, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats its Young,1Iltis, A., Kane, T. J., & Lake, L. (2016, October 1). The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. IMDb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2400291/ awareness and interest in the race skyrocketed. 

Designed to be essentially impossible, only 17 runners have ever finished the course in its 36 years of existence. 

Frozen Head State Park and Tennessee in the spring can experience any type of weather, including howling winds, sleet, ice, and snow, which adds to the challenge of this trail race. 

The Barkley Marathon was designed by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell (Laz) and Karl Henn (Raw Dog), who named the race after Cantrell’s longtime running buddy and neighbor, the late Barry Barkley.

The idea for Barkley was borne after Gary Cantrell heard about the 1977 prison escape of James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King Jr., from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. 

James Earl Ray barely ran more than 10 miles after 54.5 miles, which the now notorious Lazarus Lake thought was pathetic and remarked that he “could do at least 100 miles.”

the barkley marathons
First-time Barkley Marathon entrants have to bring along a license plate.
photo credit: 2 x Barkley Marathons runner, Tim Waz, Grounded Running Beaufort 

What Is the Barkley Course Like?

“When you talk about being the hardest (race), there’s really not such a measurement because you have races that are in extreme heat, races that are extreme altitude, so we never really thought that this would be the hardest race, but we felt like you would put something out there that was right at the limit of what people could do.

One of the big motivators in ultras is that people want to challenge their limits. They want to see how much they can do. And you can’t really see how much you can do until you try to do something that’s more.” – Laz

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

The “Fun Run” is three 20-mile loops.

Each Barkley course loop requires 12,000 feet of elevation gain and 12,000 feet of elevation loss for a total of 120,000 feet of elevation change, which is the equivalent of climbing up and down Mount Everest twice.

A dark wood.

Each loop is run clockwise during the daytime and then clockwise at night time and then the counterclockwise direction during the daytime and the counterclockwise direction at night time.

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, the Barkley Marathon Race Director 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).

The Barkley Marathons course changes every year.

Therefore, even veteran racers who have completed the full race or multiple loops one year aren’t necessarily at a huge advantage the second time they come aside from having a taste of the physical and mental challenge and what to expect on race day.

the barkley marathons
Photo credit: 2 x Barkley Marathons runner, Tim Waz, Grounded Running Beaufort 

There is no available course map, and you can’t train on the course ahead of time. However, you can run on the designated marked trails at Frozen Head State Park.

This won’t be very effective for training because only about 1/3 of the Barkley Marathons race course is on the actual trails; about 2/3 of each loop consists of bushwhacking, not on actual cleared trails, so runners can’t directly train for that.

To prove they completed each loop of the Barkley course, racers must find between 9 and 14 hidden books at various checkpoints along the course, rip off, and return a page that corresponds to their bib number.  

These racebooks are not in plain sight and can sometimes be hidden in trees, buried, or otherwise covered by rocks, leaves, etc.

Racers get a map and compass, but they can’t use GPS.

There are only two water stops (no fuel) and they are at altitude, so the water is sometimes frozen blocks of ice.

the barkley marathons
Photo credit: 2 x Barkley Marathons runner, Tim Waz, Grounded Running Beaufort 

How Many People Have Finished the Barkley Marathons?

Since the race began in 1986, only 17 runners out of about 1000 participants have successfully finished the Barkley Marathon within the 60-hour cutoff. 

A few of the successful Barkley Marathon finishers have gone on to repeat their success, so there have been a total of 21 successful Barkley race finishes wherein the five-loop course has been completed in under 60 hours. 

“It’s highly unlikely that anyone will die out there because we try to make sure that people know what they are doing and you have some control over the situation. But they are going to figuratively die; they’re going to fail… they are people who are used to succeeding.

We have such a high percentage of people who have graduate degrees because they set goals; they accomplish them. They don’t let anything stand in their way, and I think the race appeals to them because they could fail.” – Gary Cantrell

Mark Williams of the UK was the first Barkley finisher in 1995, finishing the ultra trail race in 59:28. In 2023, Karel Sabbe posted the slowest valid finish, just six seconds under the 60-hour time limit.

No woman has ever finished the Barkley Marathons.

In the 2023 Barkley Marathons, Jasmin Paris achieved the furthest distance covered by a woman thus far, but she was over the time limit on the fourth loop, so Paris could not continue.

Several women have finished the Barkley Fun Run, which is three loops in under 40 hours, with a cut-off of 13:20 per loop, but Jasmin Paris was only the second woman ever (after Sue Johnston) to start the fourth loop.

the barkley marathons
Photo credit: 2 x Barkley Marathons runner, Tim Waz, Grounded Running Beaufort 

How Do I Enter The Barkley Marathons?

The Barkley entry procedure is secret, and there is no official website, so you can’t just go to UltraSignup and register for the Barkley Marathons.

Even more convoluted is that the Barkley Marathon is not listed in any race calendars and the race date changes every year, though it is always held sometime between mid to late March and early April.

Prospective racers have to email the race director on a certain secret day of the year, and though more people are figuring out how to register for the Barkley Marathon, even the email address is not easily found, and race registration fills up the same day that it “opens.“

Reportedly, several hundred hopeful trail runners and ultra runners apply every year, but only 35 are accepted.

The most effective route for Barkley Marathons registration is having an inside source—someone who has run it before and can walk you through the process of registering.

A person blowing into a conch shell.

The good news is that if you can figure out how to register for Barkley Marathon, the application fee for “virgin runners,“ or those who are going for their first time, is only $1.60.

But, you must also bring a license plate from your home state and write an essay on “Why I should be allowed to run the Barkley” to be considered for the race.

If you are accepted into the Barkley Marathon, you will then receive an official entry form and will be notified of the actual race date.

If you’re going to face a real challenge it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure. Pretty much everyone you see go out there, you really want them to succeed.

You know that most of them won’t and maybe there is kind of a dark humor to all of the things that go on. Some of the failures are spectacular and really funny, but you like to see people have the opportunity to really find out that something about themselves.” – Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell

If you want a crazy challenge without the satisfaction of finishing the race (in most cases), the Barkley ultramarathon is a notorious event to set your sights on.

If you are interested in an ultramarathon plan to get you started, check out our database:


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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

3 thoughts on “Meet The Barkley Marathons: Everything You Need To Know About ‘The Race That Eats Its Young’”

  1. 99% DNF plus prospective applicants looking for years to find the way in adds to the draw of this event. The difficulty, distance, and uncertainties of this course make it hard to say you want to even try. I read about this race in a magazine and it inspired me with a secret idea to try.


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