The Barkley Marathons: Taking extreme to a higher level

There have been just 14 finishers in 30 years in the Barkley Marathons, which starts on Friday. Matt Butler explains why

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Last weekend many runners completed their final long run before next month’s London Marathon. Some will have finished the 20-odd miles with a little trepidation: will I last six more miles? What if I don’t finish? Will the three-week taper destroy all the hard work I have done?

The odds are that they will finish. Of the 36,337 runners who started last year’s event, 35,803 finished it. Unlike the similarly named Barkley Marathons (note the plural), which has been taking place almost as long as London, and starts on Friday in the hilly backwoods of Tennessee.

The 40 runners who have been invited to this year’s race – it has been going since 1985 – will be lying awake in their tents early Friday morning, knowing full well they probably will not finish. It is not the fact that it is 100 miles long – there are plenty of races of that length that boast finisher rates high in the 70th percentile. Nor is it the fact that every runner who enters has no idea of when the exact start time will be (they are given an hour’s notice with the sound of a conch shell horn). And it is not because each runner has to search for books placed around the course and collect pages as proof of completion. Rather, it is the sheer brutality of the terrain. Over the distance of 100 miles, runners have to climb more than 10 miles in vertical. Or in other words, a couple of Everests. From sea level. Over thorny, muddy, tree-strewn ground.

The race – called “Marathons” because it involves five loops of roughly marathon distance – is held in the Frozen Head State Park and, of the 800-odd starters in 30 years, a mere 14 have finished. No women have completed the course. But every year runners return to the event dreamt up by Gary “Laz” Cantrell – having paid the entry fee of $1.60 and donated a car number plate from their home state or country, together with an essay entitled “Why I should run the Barkley Marathons” – to watch him light the  cigarette which signals the start of the race.

One non-finisher, Briton James Adams, from Bedford, attempted the race in 2012. He finished one loop. He wants to try again – but knows it will take months of preparation.

Adams is no shrinking violet when it comes to long distances. He has completed, among other races, the  153-mile Spartathlon in Greece, up against strict cut-off times, the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley in temperatures exceeding 40C and a 145-mile race along the Grand Union Canal from London to Birmingham. He’s even run 3,100 miles across America.

But the Barkley? “It is definitely the hardest race I have done,” he said. “Because the course can win as well as people. There are a lot of races around which say things like ‘toughest’ or ‘hardest’, that are doable for any human with a decent level of fitness. You can turn up and finish them. This one is different.

“The terrain is the biggest thing. It’s like the old Gladiators show, where the contestants had to run up a ‘down’ travelator. The hilliness and the softness of the ground made it difficult to stand still. A lot of it is not on trails. You go through dead trees. It has a haunting beauty, though, a little bit like the Lake District, but covered with slimy trees and undergrowth.

“When I had done one loop [outside the 12-hour cut-off time, but inside the requirement for the 60-mile ‘fun run’] I was literally scared to go on. There was nothing intimidating, I was well rested, but I was just scared. That had never  happened to me before.

“I might go back and maybe do two or three loops – and in doing them some random things might happen. I might have a hallucination midway through the second loop. I want to experience it again, to be in the trees and not be scared.”

Adams added that he is far from alone in wanting to return. The draw of the race is the experience of doing something that, for one, you have never done before and also that you might not complete.

He believes this was the intention of Cantrell, who he insisted is no “sadist”. “It wasn’t his intention to dream up something that is hard just for the sake of it being hard,” Adams added. “He wanted to create something that was out of most people’s reach. He is not a sadist who wants to destroy people. He wants to put on something that people haven’t done before. People do come back, even runners who have finished the course. Because there is no guarantee you’ll finish the next year.”

It is no surprise that the Barkley attracts a certain type of runner, apart from ones who are incredibly fit, not to mention tenacious. Runners after more than a medal, T-shirt and some boastful chat in the office. Adams said: “A lot of races, like the Marathon des Sables [an immensely popular, 150-mile race in the Sahara in Morocco, with an eye-watering entry fee], are done for bragging rights: people who want to tell their colleagues that they ran 150 miles in six days through the desert.

“But the Barkley attracts some of the best ultrarunners in the world. To finish you need pretty much a professional sportsperson’s level of fitness. But it is not one where people enter for bragging rights.

“People enter it for the experience. A lot of times in an ultramarathon the finish line is not the highlight. It is something that happens along the way. It may not be a good experience, but it will be memorable. And in the Barkley Marathons you know there will be something that happens along the way.”


“Running and Stuff” by James Adams is available for £9.99 from