Again, no one finishes the Barkley Marathons

The secretive event rolls together an orienteering challenge, a natural obstacle course and sheer eccentricity into what has been called the hardest ultra marathon in the world.

Emma Jones 9 minute read March 11, 2022
Athletes running in a cross country marathon

The first marathon was completed by the Greek messenger Philippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens, Greece to announce the Greek victory at the battle of Marathon. He died of exhaustion. GETTY

On top of a quiet lookout, the only sound is the falling rain. Two competitors break through the mist that surrounds the hill and begin to clamber up the steep incline, pausing only briefly to fill their water bags from the multitude of jugs placed on a wood table. More competitors join, swapping out soaked layers of clothing for whatever they have in their pack, some jamming pages ripped from a book into plastic bags, protecting them from the rain. After only a brief pause, the competitors are off again, disappearing into the dense tree cover at the base of the hill.

The Barkley Marathons, thought to be one of, if not the hardest, ultra marathons in the world drew to a close Thursday and for the fourth year in a row — not including 2020, when the race was cancelled because of COVID — no runner finished. Only 15 runners have completed the full distance in its history.

Beginning in 1986 (then, the distance was a mere 50 miles/80 km), only 40 participants are sent an invite each year. The runners have 60 hours to complete five loops of a loosely marked trail through the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, without a GPS tracker and limited access to aid stations or their support team. To prove that they ran the entire loop, runners must locate one of the books stashed at various intervals throughout the course and tear out their assigned page. Missing a book page or taking too long to complete a loop means disqualification.

For Chantal Demers, an ultra-marathon runner and a Paramedic Logistics Supervisor in Ontario, Canada, part of the draw to the Barkley is the audacity of some of the obstacles. Demers is aiming to compete in the full Barkley marathon and recently completed the Barkley Fall Classic, a “short” 50 kilometre variation of the Barkley marathons also held in the Frozen Head State Park.

“I remember being on my hands and knees trying to get through these Briar tunnels,” says Demers. “It’s hilarious; it’s quite painful.”

Officially, each loop of the full marathon is said to be 20 miles (32 km) long, bringing the total distance to 100 miles (160 km). There is debate about this measurement, however, with some runners pointing out that the official distance doesn’t take into account the considerable elevation changes. The full distance, they argue, is more like 130 miles (209 km).

A rough road

Paths are not entirely manicured and runners are out in the woods, on their own or with only a couple other runners, for extended periods of time. The round-the-clock nature of the race also means they must navigate parts of the trail in the middle of the night. Extreme fatigue is a constant threat to participants.

Why go the distance?

As the legend goes, the first marathon was completed by the Greek messenger Philippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens, Greece to announce the Greek victory at the battle of Marathon. He died of exhaustion, having covered 25 miles (40 km). This story is thought to be slightly exaggerated; the ancient historian Herodotus wrote of Pheidippides, a trained runner who ran from Athens to Sparta to request assistance before the battle of Marathon — a distance of 150 miles (240 km).

Regardless, the question remains: with death permanently woven into the fabric of long-distance running, why would an otherwise healthy human choose to do this in their spare time?

“[For] some people, that’d be absolute punishment, but for me…it’s a spiritual experience,” says Jacob Puzey, an ultra marathoner and director of Peak Run Performance. While Puzey has not competed in the Barkley, his most recent accomplishment is the Javelina Jundred, a 100-mile race held each year in Arizona.

“All I have to do is focus on the next lap and just not even think about anything outside of that small space,” he says.

Both Puzey and Demers talk about these distances as if they are meditative experiences — a chance to unplug and focus on themselves, their physical ability and the trails they find themselves on. Getting through the last marathon distances after having already clocked tens of miles is a daunting prospect, but Demers says that during a race the only concern is the next ten miles. The concentration is on managing the roller-coaster of emotions that one experiences during a race, from bouts of self-doubt to absolute euphoria. Each goal is never farther than the next aid station.

And although the runners joke about becoming addicted to the pain, at the heart of their conversations is a deep respect for what the human body can accomplish, their form of living life to its absolute fullest. Puzey hints at a difficult past few years driving him to experience something that few people have.

“My brother called me [about the Javelina Jundred]. He was on life support for four months and then was going through chemo,” Puzey recalls. “This used to be something that we used to do and, I mean, he’s a better runner than I am. It’s a really beautiful experience to get to take it all in and put some closure to the last couple of years. Like a rebirth, so to speak.”

The only race where buying a pack of cigarettes is not just encouraged, but necessary

Qualifying for the Barkley Marathon is as convoluted as the trails it is run on. Applicants must email the race director on a specific day of the year, however, what the email is or what day the application is due is not publicized.

“You get little tiny pieces [of information] from a few people and you try to put it all together,” explains Demers.

“The entry process for Barkley isn’t public information for good reason,” John Kelly, the fifteenth person to ever finish a Barkley Marathons, wrote on his blog Random Forest Runner. “If you’re unwilling to do the work and the research to figure out how to enter, you certainly won’t be willing to keep going in the race when all other parts of your mind and body are telling you to quit.”

Successful entries are allegedly placed into a weighted draw, the idea being that anyone who applies should have a chance to run regardless of their experience. Qualifications, like finishing other ultra marathons and helping out with previous Barkley races, will net more entries. Kelly claims that due to popularity of the event applicants now must have at least one 100-mile race in their resume, however, this hasn’t been confirmed by event staff.

Applicants are asked to pay a fee of $1.60 USD and accepted runners will typically be asked to donate a specific article of clothing as decided by the administrators. Race “virgins” who have never attempted the Barkley before are asked to send in a license plate from their home state or country, while alumni — runners who have completed a Barkley — are asked to bring a pack of regular camel filter cigarettes.

Runners who wrangle an invitation are told what day the race will start, but are never given a time. The only warning that the marathon is about to begin is the blowing of a conch shell, indicating that the race will start within one hour. Racers must then meet at a bright yellow gate within the park campgrounds. The ultra marathon begins when race organizer Gary Cantrell — known as Lazarus “Laz” Lake to the runners — lights a cigarette.

Becoming ultra

Training to be an ultra-marathon runner causes significant changes to the body, developed over hundreds of hours. These runners develop larger, more powerful hearts, dense bone structures and more efficient muscles. Despite the intense training and risk of injury from hours on the trail each week, these athletes are healthier than the average population, says Robert Bentley, PhD and assistant professor in cardiovascular physiology at the University of Toronto.

Maybe even more intriguing is the age of successful ultra marathoners. The average track and field sprinter (100 m, 200 m or 400 m) tends to reach peak performance in their mid-to-late ’20s, while marathoners generally reach their peak around 30. In comparison, ultra marathoners hit their best performances around 35 years of age.

“Ultra-marathon participants tend to be about 80 per cent male and about 45 years of age,” Bentley explains in an email. “Interestingly, the age of ‘peak’ performance tends to be about 35 years for ultra-marathon runners compared to 30 years for marathon runners — perhaps speaking to the dedication required to excel at this sport and the transition from marathon to ultra-marathon distances with increasing age.”

Mature athletes have more time to develop

Part of the reason more mature athletes have success in these races may be due to the amount of time it takes to develop the physical characteristics necessary, explains Bill Gittings, as assistant professor of kinesiology at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. Significant discipline and emotional maturity is also required to complete such a long distance, which is where adults can shine.

Genetics also play a role. Resistance to muscle fatigue, protection against tendon or ligament injuries, and ability to heal quickly (necessary for the extensive training regiment most ultra runners go through before race day) have all been shown to be influenced by genetics. Endurance runners may also have more “slow-twitch” (type 1) muscle fibres that can maintain a steady state of exercise, versus the explosive “fast-twitch” (type 2) muscle fibres typically associated with sprinters or weightlifters.

Eating for power

In addition to the physical characteristics necessary, there are also incredible nutrition requirements. Gittings says that the body typically stores enough carbohydrates for roughly 45 to 90 minutes of sustained exercise. A long race needs a detailed nutrition plan to ensure that athletes have enough energy to not only able to continue running, but to also ensure the body is able to take care of basic day-to-day functions.

“[If] the exercise you do consumes all of the energy that you’re taking in with your meals and there’s not enough energy for the basic functions of your body, that will lead to things like hormonal disruptions, or cause you to sacrifice the recovery or maintenance of your tissues,” says Gittings. “[For example] someone who has…low energy relative to their exercise, they might actually cause a decrease in bone mineral density over time, due to hormonal imbalances. That can be a major factor leading to stress fractures.”

Developing the knowledge and physiology necessary to excel at this sport takes time. Seasoned runners recommend that anyone looking to complete an ultra marathon should start small, from 5 km ‘fun runs’ to marathons, working their way up to a multi-day race. While the process can take years, Demers says the only person who can decides their limit is the runner themselves.

“It’s so easy for anyone to talk themselves out of trying something that seems so impossible, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you just give yourself permission to be uncomfortable,” she says. “As cliché as it sounds, everything is just so temporary. You could be running at the 50 kilometre marker and think, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t take another step.’ But at the 130 kilometre marker you’re like, ‘I could do this forever.’”

This story has been updated to state that it is the fourth year, not including 2020, the Barkley hasn’t had any finishers. An earlier version had the number at eight – we regret this mistake.

Emma Jones is a multimedia editor with Healthing. You can reach her at emjones@postmedia.com or on Twitter @jonesyjourn

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