By Matt Mahoney
The Barkley marathons are held in late March or early April at Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. The 100 mile "men's race" is regarded by many as the toughest race in the world. Since 1986, about 600 invited runners have attempted it and only 6 have finished within the 60 hour cutoff, twice the usual time limit for this distance. The course record is 56:57. There is also a 60 mile "fun run", or "women's, children's, and weakling's race" with a 40 hour cutoff. The average finish rate for this is 15%. The fun run course record on the current course (it gets harder each year) is 30:57.
The course is a 20 mile loop with no aid except unmanned water jugs at 2 locations. To prove you ran the course, you have to find 11 books in the woods and return a page from each book. The route is mostly on trails that have not been maintained for 50 years, if ever. There is over 10,000 ft. of climb per loop.
The field is limited to 35 runners. Entries open Dec. 26 and fill that day. To enter, you must write an essay on "Why I should be allowed to run the Barkley". The entry fee is $1.60 and (for first timers) a license plate from your home state, which is displayed at the race headquarters campsite (above). The race date is not announced until your entry is accepted. The start time (generally 7-9 AM) is not announced until one hour before the start by playing "Reville" by the race bugler.
There are no awards, but if you do not finish the men's race (even if you finish the fun run), your DNF is announced to all in the campground by the playing of "Taps".
The race begins when race director Gary Cantrell lights the starting cigarette. I actually held the lead for a few seconds while I took this picture.
The first mile climbs 1500 ft. of "candy ass" maintained trail to the top of Bird Mt. Nobody was running here.
But wait! There's more! Most of the trail looks more like this, if you can call it a trail. It is steep. Any trees that once had blazes marking the trail have long since died and fallen across it. There are sawbriers growing in the middle of it. Sometimes there is no trail at all and you are just bushwacking through the woods and navigating by compass. You won't be doing a lot of running, even if it's downhill.
This, of course, is uphill, but you will get your chance to run down it on loops 3 and 4, which are run in the reverse direction. On loop 5, the first runner gets to choose the direction, and any remaining runners must alternate.
Runners collect their pages at book 1, Map and Compass. Other titles include Is My Child Overtired?, Lost and Never Found, The Walking Dead, etc. On each lap you get a new race number and tear out the pages that match your number.
This is way too easy. Obviously we are lost. There are a lot of unmapped 4 wheel drive roads like this outside the park where they strip mined coal. Runners have been known to follow them and end up 30 miles from the park because it was easier than staying on the course.
Back on course, descending Leonard's Butt Slide, the first of the really "big" hills. The slope is greater than 45 degrees in some places.
Refilling water bottles at the New River "aid station".
Climbing "Little Hell", 1500 ft. in 0.6 miles. The climb took me almost an hour. The book at the bottom was Ascent into Hell. Still to come: Rat Jaw, the Hump, Zip Line, and Big Hell. On loop 2 we get to do this in the dark with a flashlight.
This was my 9'th failure to finish the fun run. I ran the first lap in just over 12 hours, finishing in the dark, then continuing without sleep I missed the 26:40 cutoff for 2 laps by about 2 hours. It was the 5'th time I had missed this cutoff. In the other 4 attempts I quit during the second lap. 2004 results. Barkley Home Page.