The Barkley Marathons is* an ultra marathon held in the mountains of Tennessee every spring. It was featured in this award winning documentary (available on netflix) and has fascinating me for years.
In its full form, the race consists of five loops of twenty miles each run through unforgiving Frozen Head Park. That the sixty mile version of the race is called the “fun run” gives you a sense of the race’s whimsical sado-masochistic qualities. The course is not marked and most of it takes place off trail. Participants must navigate by map and compass to a series of books placed on the course, pull the page which matches their race number, return to the start, and present the pages to the race’s mastermind, Lazarus Lake*
It is an insane event and for that reason it appeals to the certain type of masochistic ultra-runner. Every year, the Barkley Marathons gets more and more publicity, and every year, Lake makes the race harder and harder. Yet as the Barkley gets harder, it appears that better and better athletes become interested in this, the most impossible of ultra races. And now, it seems like every year someone finishes the race.
This past year, there was one finisher — the super accomplished ultra runner Jared Campell. Here’s a great short film on the race and Jared Campbell’s victory.
The film touches on everything that makes the Barkley so compelling – its difficulty, its willful obscurity, and, in a world where ultra racing is becoming a bigger deal, its stubborn refusal to be accessible or, really, even finishable.
I’ll never run this race. I have a terrible sense of direction and nothing sounds less appealing to me than being lost in a fog, freezing my ass off, while some maniac cackles at my misfortune at a camp strewn with license plates.
Still, its fun to follow.
If you want to dig deeper into the crazy, there’s a book about the race’s early days. And here’s a website compiling race reports for the 16 runners who’ve completed the race. And here’s another compiling more information on the race. And yet one more from the Believer.
Race Director, Lazarus Lake.
* This race is bizarre and filled with a myriad of idiosyncratic rituals and traditions. For example, Lazarus Lake is not even the race director’s real name. Entrants must bring a license plate as part of their entry fee. The race starts whenever Lake feels like it, and it’s beginning is marked by the lighting of a cigarette. I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s a zany little race in the woods that happens to be nearly impossible to finish.