The Barkley Marathons: All You Need To Know + How To Survive One

The Barkleys Marathon is infamous for its difficulty and elusiveness.

It is known as one of, if not THE, toughest ultramarathon in the world. 

Here we try to shed light on the mysterious race and why so many ultrarunners want to try to conquer it (yet fail). 

What is the hardest marathon?

The Barkleys Marathon is arguably one of the hardest ultramarathons in existence. 

Its format makes it unique – instead of more traditional tough races like UTMB or Badwater, the Barkley marathon involves running 5 loops of a route through overgrown wilderness . . . and regularly ends with no finishers.

Where is the Barkley Marathons?

The Barkley takes place in rural East Tennessee in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee.

Why is the Barkley Marathons so hard?

The Barkley Marathons is one of the hardest ultramarathons for many reasons including its terrain, altitude, weather, and disorganization-by-design.

Most of the trails are not cleared and cut through briar patches leaving runners battered and cut up. 

The total elevation gain of 60,000 feet (if you complete all five loops) is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest TWO TIMES from sea level.

The total elevation gain and loss combined is close to 120,000 feet (so climbing and descending Mount Everest twice…from sea level!). 

The weather during the race is often cold, wet, and rainy

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

And, the race is low-key and seemingly disorganized—on purpose.

The idea is to complete 5 loops of the course- although on many years, no-one finishes.

And no one knows how long the loops actually are.

The race director says they’re about 20 miles, but many runners say it’s closer to 26.

However, since GPSs are not permitted on the course, there is no way of knowing for sure.

The start time of the race also remains a mystery.

And a bulk of the trails are uncleared.

Unlike other ultras in which race management and volunteers do their best to help as many runners as possible finish, Barkley is intentionally set up to minimize the number of finishers, while still trying to keep it within the limits of possibility,” Edward Furtaw, a Barkley runner, wrote in 1996

Who started the Barkley Marathons?

Gary Cantrell, also known as Lazarus Lake or “Laz”, created the Barkley Marathons.

He is also the mastermind behind the Backyard Ultra (or Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra) and CRAW – the Circumpolar Race Around The World

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 

Why was the Barkley Marathons started?

Lake reportedly got the idea for the Barkley Marathons after learning about a failed prison escape from the local penitentiary. 

In 1977, James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

A massive manhunt took place over more than two days, but Ray only made it roughly eight miles due to the thick briars and rough terrain surrounding the prison. 

Unimpressed by Ray’s low mileage, Lake, a former ultrarunner, believed he could make it at least 100 miles in the mountains around the prison, sparking the idea for the Barkley. 

When did the Barkley Marathon start?

The Barkley Marathon started in 1986. The course distance started around 55 miles but was increased to 100 miles (or probably closer to 130 miles) in 1989.  

Since then, there have been only 15 finishers.

Related: Ultramarathon Training Resources

How did the Barkley Marathon get its name?

The Barkley Marathons is named after Lake’s neighbor and friend, Barry Barkley who passed away in 2019 at the age of 70.

Barkley quietly helped direct the race with Lake.

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

Why is the Barkley Marathons so secretive?

Getting information about the Barkley, including how to even enter, is hard to find.

There is no official website.

No Facebook group.

Nothing is publicly shared or advertised.

If you run in the Barkley, there is an unwritten rule to not talk about it leading up the race

The secrecy adds to the difficulty and allure of the race.

Nothing about the Barkley is easy—including figuring out how to enter. 

How do you get into the Barkley Marathons?

To enter the Barkley, prospective runners must do some research from other previous runners as there is no official website.

In most years, an application must be mailed in along with a non-refundable registration fee of $1.60.

First-timers must also submit an essay explaining why they should be allowed to run.

Matt Mahoney, an ultrarunner who has attempted the Barkley 15 times but never finished, explained on his website that if someone wants to enter, they must get a person who has run the race before to reveal which day of the year to send an application to Lake

Allegedly, there is one spot saved of the forty or so spots for a “sacrificial virgin” in which they have little chance of finishing.

People who have DNFed and return are expected to give an entry fee of a shirt, socks, or some article of clothing for Lake, according to Business Insider.

First-timers—or “Barkley virgins”—are also asked to bring a license plate from their state or country.

If you are accepted into the race, you receive a letter of condolences from Lake. 

Related: Who is Dean Karnazes

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

How many people can enter the Barkley Marathons?

Hundreds apply every year but about 40 people are accepted.

What is the course for the Barkley Marathons?

The course of the Barkley Marathons changes year-to-year and is not well-known outside those who have attempted it.

It is 5 loops of a disputed distance in the Cumberland Mountains within the 24,000-acre Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg, Tennessee.

It is near the closed Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and includes brutal terrain, thick briars, and switchbacks. 

At least two-thirds of the course is off-trail and features nicknames from Lake such as “Rat Jaw,” “Testicle Spectacle,” and “Checkmate Hill.”

How many laps is the Barkley?

The Barkley is 5 laps of 20 or more miles which must be completed within 60 hours. 

How long is the Barkley Marathons?

Runners must complete five loops of a 20-mile course that most say is really around 26 miles, making the race somewhere from 100 to 130 miles in total.

For runners who complete 3 of the 5 loops, it’s called a “fun run.”

What is the elevation gain for the Barkley Marathons?

The total elevation gain of 60,000 feet if you complete all five loops of the Barkley is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest twice from sea level.

The sea level distinction is important, says Lake, because “people climb only about 11,400 feet from base camp to the summit.”

When is the Barkley Marathons?

The race historically takes place around the first weekend in April, though it has been run in March before to protect its secrecy.

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

How does the Barkley Marathons work?

Even the start of the Barkley Marathons is mysterious.

The start time is kept secret but occurs sometime between midnight and noon, typically on a Saturday. 

Racers know it is time to start when Lake blow a conch shell which signifies the race will begin in one hour.

Then runners line up at a yellow gate within Frozen Head State Park. The start isn’t by a gun or voice cue, but by Lake lighting a cigarette

Barkley racers then have 60 hours from that point to complete the beyond grueling 5 loops.

The first 2 loops are often done in the same direction.

The second two are run in the opposite direction. The final loop may be done in either direction. 

Each loop must be completed in 12 hours to even attempt the full course (unless you’re attempting the “Fun Run” of 3 loops with a time limit of 13 hours, 20 minutes for each loop, or 40 hours total).

After each loop, runners must touch the yellow gate to officially complete the loop before going to eat and recover.

When the runner is ready to attempt the next loop, they get a new bib and must touch the yellow gate again. 

How many people have completed the Barkley Marathons?

Only 15 people have completed the Barley in its 35-year history. 

What is the DNF rate of the Barkley? 

The DNF rate for Barkleys is more than 99 percent.

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

Why do people run the Barkley Marathons? 

Ultrarunners are drawn to the physical and mental challenge of the Barkley. 

“The Barkley Marathons is such a mental challenge which goes well beyond the physical demands that the course itself provides,” shares Tim Waz, an ultrarunner who has attempted the Barkley twice.

“I fell in love with the Barkley race in 1996 and spent the next 8 years trying to get in the race.

People ask me all the time if I’d go back and do it again, and without a doubt I would!”

Related: 20 Motivational Quotes

Has anyone died in the Barkley Marathons?

No one has died running the Barkley though runners do sustain typical running injuries, scraped legs, and hallucinations—which is common in challenging ultras. 

Has a woman ever won the Barkleys?

No woman has ever finished the Barkley Marathons.

In 2019, the UK’s Nicky Spinks was the last woman standing when she dropped in the second lap due to treacherous weather conditions.

How can I learn more about the Barkley Marathons? 

There is a Netflix documentary about the race called The Barkley Marathons: the race that eats its young. It can be viewed here

Many thanks to Tim Waz of Grounded Running Beaufort for kindly sharing photos of his two Barkley experiences!

the barkley marathons
photo credit: 2 x Barkley Marathons runner, Tim Waz, Grounded Running Beaufort 
Whitney Heins
Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the 2024 US Olympic Trials marathon.

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