Barkley Marathon returns again, but can anyone complete it?

Barkley Marathon: by Larry Carroll

If you complete 60 miles, your fellow marathoners may congratulate you on your “fun run.” An annual event, it was inspired by the real-life jailbreak of one of history’s most notorious assassins. Dozens of athletes line up to run a race which often has no finishers, beginning not with the shot of a starter’s pistol but the lighting of a cigarette.

Welcome to Barkley, the world’s most eccentric ultra-marathon.

Photo Credit: Barkley Marathon

To know Barkley is to know Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell — the enigmatic, brilliant, endearingly abrasive founder of the race. In 1977, much of the country watched in horror as James Earl Ray — killer of Martin Luther King Jr. — escaped Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. For 54 hours, Ray fled on foot across the unforgiving woodland floor before being apprehended by FBI bloodhounds, who found him in the dark buried under half-rotten leaves, covered in sweat and mud. When Cantrell heard reports that Ray had covered 8 miles, inspiration hit and he mockingly responded: “I could do at least 100 miles.”

Now, every late March/early April, runners gather to do exactly that. Limited to 40 participants, Barkley fills up fast despite a labyrinthine registration process. A secretive “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run” essay must be submitted (no details are advertised), along with a $1.60 fee and a license plate (if you’re a first-time runner), gold-toe dress socks (if you’ve run before) or a pack of Camel cigarettes (if you’re a returning finisher). One race applicant is summarily deemed to be least likely to finish even one lap — and receives bib number one along with the Cantrell-approved title of “human sacrifice.”

Photo Credit: Barkley Marathon

Although the race has changed over the years, it currently is made up of a 20-mile loop — unmarked, with no aid stations. Runners of the 100-mile version do this loop five times, two of them at night. Overall the race has more than 52,000 feet of accumulated vertical climb, frequently aided by less-than-ideal weather conditions, and if you drop out you’re greeted by a bugler playing “Taps” upon returning to the starting line.

It may come as no surprise, then, that Barkley has had been started more than 1,000 times but finished only 18 (by 15 different runners). In 2006, nobody even completed the 60-mile “fun run” under the time limit — and last year, below-freezing temps, heavy rain and fog marked an installment which saw no finishers and had runners wearing bibs emblazoned with the back-breaking, all-caps phrase: “HELP IS NOT COMING.”

The 2019 Barkley will be run in the woods of Tennessee on March 31. Now 71, “Laz” is still overseeing the race and coming off his own 3000-mile, 126-day run across North America. Recently, the race’s official Facebook page posted a picture of a massive anvil with the message: “Barkley runners now will be required to carry this anvil on loop 5.” We think it’s a joke — but remembering the eccentric nature of Barkley, there’s no way to be certain until the end of the month when that cigarette gets lit.

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