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What Makes the Barkley Marathons the World’s Most Grueling Trail Race?

Margaret Lipman
Updated May 16, 2024
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Many people learned about the Barkley Marathons trail race for the first time this week when Jasmin Paris made headlines as the first woman to complete a race that is almost universally described as “brutal,” “grueling,” and “unforgiving.”

Yet for those who follow the sport of ultrarunning, the Barkley Marathons is already world-famous, with many describing it as the most difficult foot race on the planet. In addition to being incredibly challenging, the race format is highly unusual. Founded in 1986 by former long-distance runner Gary Cantrell (better known as Lazarus Lake or Laz) and named for his longtime running companion Barry Barkley, the Barkley Marathons is held every spring in Frozen Head State Park in eastern Tennessee. Participants are tasked with running five loops of around 20 miles (32 km) each, for a total of at least 100 miles (161 km). The terrain is brushy and steep, and athletes will gain around 63,000 feet (19,202 m) if they complete the entire race within the 60-hour time limit, which most never come close to doing.

Since the race was extended to 100 miles in 1989, it has been completed 26 times by 20 runners. There were no finishers in 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022. The race wasn’t held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and three people completed it last year.

This year’s Barkley Marathons saw a record five finishers, including Paris. Ihor Verys of Ukraine was the winner, with a time of 58:44:59. John Kelly and Jared Campbell, both of the United States, came in third and fourth, respectively, and Greg Hamilton of New Zealand finished in fourth. It was Kelly’s third time completing the Barkley and Campbell’s fourth, a record. But it was Jasmin Paris, a 40-year-old British veterinarian and mother-of-two, who grabbed all the headlines this year. Besides becoming the first female finisher in the history of the race (though many women have tried), Paris completed the course in a hugely dramatic sprint finish with less than 100 seconds remaining before the 60-hour time limit expired. Her time of 59 hours, 58 minutes, and 21 seconds is now the women's record.

”The race that eats its young":

  • Just having the opportunity to compete in the Barkley Marathons is an achievement. Information about the application dates and process is not published online and is mainly spread by word of mouth. The application involves writing an essay on why you should be invited to compete. There is a $1.60 entry fee and several other obscure requirements, which are subject to change every year.

  • Forty successful applicants are invited to compete with a "letter of condolence” from Cantrell. During the race, they are responsible for navigating without the help of course markings, mobile phones, GPS, race marshals, or aid stations (except for two water points). However, to ensure that they are running the correct route, they must reach certain checkpoints consisting of a paperback book and collect the pages corresponding to their unique bib number. The route changes every year, and runners are responsible for studying and copying a map before the start of the race.

  • Navigation is made even more difficult because runners go in a clockwise direction for the first and third laps and counterclockwise on the second and fourth laps. The direction of the final lap is chosen by the first-placed runner at that point, and all others have to run in alternating directions. At least two of the laps are always run at night.

  • Further complicating matters, runners don’t know when the race will start on race day – it could be any time between midnight and noon. They have an hour’s warning when they hear a conch being blown, and the race officially starts when Cantrell lights a cigarette.

  • Cantrell had the idea for the race after hearing of how James Earl Ray, the convicted murderer responsible for Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination, had covered only 12 miles (19 km) in just over two days after escaping from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. Cantrell guessed that he could complete 100 miles in that time.

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Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman , Writer and editor
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.

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Margaret Lipman

Margaret Lipman

Writer and editor

With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
Learn more
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