What Is The Barkley Marathons, And Why Has It Exploded In Popularity

March 26, 2024

Even the biggest non-runner would be doing well to escape the coverage of The Barkley Marathons in the past few days. But what exactly is it and why has it exploded in popularity?


For starters it's not a typical marathon, or marathons at all. It's an ultramarathon race held every year located in Tennessee's Frozen Head State Park. The race format requires entrants to complete five 20-plus mile loops with the course route varying every year ending up with a total of 100 miles/160 km. There's a total time limit of 60 hours to complete all five loops meaning 12 hours per loop. Anyone who makes it back to the start with time to spare can use that time to rest, refuel and prepare for the next loop.

Runners are permitted to inspect and replicate the course map prior to the race, but during the event, they must navigate solely by their personal notes. The arduous loop commences and concludes at the yellow road gate, serving as the focal point for participants and supporters alike.

With an accumulation of 54,200 feet of vertical ascent and an equivalent descent, the 100-mile run of the Barkley Marathons stands as one of the most formidable ultramarathons in the United States, if not the world. The race operates on strict timing parameters, with a 60-hour overall cut-off for the 100-mile race and a 40-hour limit for the 60-mile variant, inclusive of any rest periods between loops. Competitors are tasked with locating between 9 and 14 books scattered along the course, extracting a page corresponding to their race number as evidence of completion.


The conception of the Barkley course can be traced back to Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell and Karl Henn (Raw Dog). The idea for the race was sparked by the remarkable escape of James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. Ray managed to cover a mere 12 miles (19 km) over the course of 54.5 hours while evading air searches during the day.

Contemplating Ray's limited distance, Cantrell jestingly remarked that he could surely manage at least 100 miles, thus laying the foundation for what would become the Barkley Marathons. The race was named in honor of Cantrell's longtime neighbor and running partner, Barry Barkley, and debuted in 1986. Tragically, Barkley passed away in 2019 at the age of 70.


The Barkley Marathons is an exclusive event limited to 35 participants, with registration typically filling up rapidly upon opening. The requirements and application timeline are shrouded in secrecy, with aspiring entrants compelled to craft an essay titled "Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley," accompanied by a $1.60 application fee. Successful entrants receive a "letter of condolence," while first-time participants, humorously dubbed "virgins," must present a license plate from their respective state or country as part of the entrance fee.


Since it's beginning in 1988 only 20 entrants have finished the event within the 60 hour limit and completing all 5 loops. Three have completed it more than once. Brett Maune recorded the current fastest time in 52:03:08 in 2012 which was his second finish having also finished in 2011.  John Kelly has three finishes to his name in 2017, 2023 and 2024. However Jared Campbell leads the way with an incredible four finishes 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2024.

Ukrainian-Canadian runner Ihor Verys was the first finisher this year in 58:44:59, John Kelly was second in 59:15:38 while Jared Campbell was third in 59:30:32. New Zealand's Greig Hamilton was next in fourth arriving in at 59:38:42.

The wave of popularity around the Barkley Marathons began to explode this past weekend when Britain's Jasmin Paris became the first ever woman to finish with a gripping 90 seconds to spare. Paris is not unknown in the ultra running scene and has recorded victories in the 2016 Skyrunner World Series along with winning the grueling Spine Race in 2019.

Jasmin's finish has been documented in online in various images and videos showing just how much determination and grit the 40 year old showed to cement her place in Barkley history. If you're intrigued to learn more around the event we recommend watching 'The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young'.

Main image credit - Howie Stern

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