The Barkley Marathons Is the Toughest Race You've Never Heard Of

At Frozen Head State Park each year, a 100-mile ultramarathon tests the endurance of some of the world's hardiest trail runners

It's just a few minutes before midnight on April 1, and Gary Cantrell, the founder and organizer of the 100-mile Barkley Marathons—one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world—is preparing to give his runners a big surprise. Sitting beneath lantern light at a picnic table in Frozen Head State Park, about 50 miles northwest of Knoxville, near Wartburg, Tenn., Cantrell is surrounded by maps, entry forms, camp food, soda cans, and beer bottles. The night is cold and getting colder, and storms are headed toward the park. He looks very pleased with himself, which isn't unusual at this time of year; since 1986, Cantrell has staged this grueling, sometimes terrifying endurance event crowded by its own odd and colorful underground culture, and he seems to take special delight in frustrating the ambitions of runners who come to his race.

It has already been an odd night. An hour earlier, a race volunteer had encountered a naked man covered in tattoos running around near the entrance to the park. Rangers arrested the man later that night—he'd been on a days-long meth binge. For a while, though, people gathered in camp wondered if the spirit of the Barkley had somehow manifested itself in human form.

Cantrell, a stout and mischievous man who resembles Teddy Roosevelt and appears to be in his 50s (he won't reveal his exact age), wears a long leather duster and a headlamp over a bright orange knit cap. He is holding a brand-new digital watch, which is counting up to 12:07 a.m. When the alarm beeps, he picks up a conch shell from the table and walks purposefully out from under the tent for the weekend's big surprise. He raises the shell and blows a short, sharp blast to announce that the race will start in exactly one hour. Race tradition dictates that Cantrell can blow the shell any time between midnight and noon, but it has never been this early.

It's cold and dark, and the runners will be starting a multi-day, 100-mile footrace through the wilds of Morgan County on just a few hours of sleep, or less. Half of the course is off-trail and unmarked, requiring navigation by map and compass. Aid along the course isn't allowed, aside from two water stations, so runners carry whatever they will need—lights, clothing, rain gear, and food and water—for each 20-mile loop, which can take anywhere from eight to 23 hours to complete. (Runners who finish over 12 hours aren't allowed to continue.) When the loops are evenly divided by darkness and daylight, as the 1:07 a.m. start ensures for most of them, they have to carry more for the changing conditions.

Unlike more traditional ultramarathons, the Barkley seems like it is designed to make runners quit. It isn't a coincidence that the race is held on April Fool's weekend. Through 2010, only nine people had finished the full five loops under the 60-hour cutoff. (The course record for the Western States Endurance Run, another prestigious 100-mile race, in California, is just over 15 hours. The Barkley record, by contrast, is 55 hours and 42 minutes, set by Brian Robinson in 2008.) Some of the most distinguished ultrarunners in the world have been defeated by Cantrell's race.

"We used to get a lot of the best 100-mile runners, and they all did spectacularly badly," Cantrell says.

It is also designed to hurt. "Frozen" Ed Furtaw, who has run the Barkley 15 times and written a book about it, estimates that the actual distance is 130 miles. The elevation gain over five loops is roughly equivalent to two times the height of Mount Everest. GPS isn't allowed, and much of the unmarked course goes straight up the sides of the park's many 3,000-foot peaks, through downed trees and patches of malicious sawbriers that rip runners' arms and legs to shreds. The Barkley community has given unofficial names like Testicle Spectacle, Rat Jaw, Son of a Bitch Ditch, Meth Lab Hill, Big Hell, and the Bad Thing to the park's geographic features.

"This is not a race, this is a colonoscopy gone wrong," one runner said after finishing a single loop in 2010.

When Jonathan Basham, the 2010 winner who has been camping in Frozen Head for three weeks, tells Cantrell that six or seven trees blown down by recent winds are blocking the easiest section of the trail, the race director cackles and rubs his hands together.

"Good," he says. He's even happier when a late-arriving camper informs him that rain, sleet, and hail are moving in the direction of the park.

Welcome to the Barkley Marathons, the race that eats its young.

***

James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King Jr., served as the initial inspiration for the Barkley when he escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. Ray was discovered three days later, just eight miles from the prison, shivering and cowering under a pile of brush and leaves. Cantrell, the city treasurer for Shelbyville, Tenn., and an accomplished runner of 50-mile, 100-mile, and multi-day races himself, figured he could have run at least 100 miles in that time.

"I wanted to prove that James Earl Ray could have gotten further," he says.

The first race was held in 1986. The official distance then was 55 miles. After "Frozen" Ed Furtaw completed all three loops in 1988, Cantrell added the option of a 100-mile race, though no one took him seriously until Mark Williams, an English runner, came to the Barkley in 1995. Williams apparently didn't get the joke; he stunned everyone at Frozen Head by finishing five 20-mile loops in 59 hours and 28 minutes.

Cantrell's personality—sarcastic, deadpan, and wryly poetic, with a mordant sense of humor—dominates the culture of the race. Odd artifacts and rituals have accumulated over its history: the conch; the bronze "Barkley 100" belt buckle (to be awarded to the first runner who finishes the race under 24 hours); the array of license plates (required of first-time entrants) strung up at race headquarters in camp; the frozen chicken, grilled unthawed on the Friday night before the race starts (a gift from Cantrell's neighbor and long-time ultrarunning companion Bill Barkley, the race's namesake); the designation of a three-loop finish as a "fun run"; the practice of laying out paperback books with grimly appropriate titles (No Exit was one this year) as checkpoints along the course, with runners assigned a specific page to tear out on each loop; the curious plurality of "marathons" in the race title, presumably because the original 55-mile distance was longer than two full 26.2-mile marathons; and the playing of "Taps" when a runner quits or is timed out.

The application process is a secret closely guarded by the Barkley community—it's nearly impossible for a runner who doesn't know someone who has run the race to find out how and when to apply. The number of available slots is usually divided between elite ultrarunners, some of them international, and beginners who just want to experience the race. First-time runners are referred to as "virgins," with one virgin in particular—usually one expected to fare exceptionally poorly—selected as that year's "human sacrifice."

The recorded history of the race, from newspaper accounts and blog posts to Furtaw's 2010 book, Tales From Out There: The Barkley Marathons, the World's Toughest Trail Race, is littered with memorable quotes of despair:

"I thought this would be the toughest thing I ever did. It's much worse than that."

"Every race has bad places, this one just doesn't have any good places."

"This is just meaningless suffering without a point."

"Going is stupid."

Barkley lore also contains chilling tales of adventures "out there," as the course is known—an epic mythology of suffering comprising injuries, getting lost, hallucinations, mistakes, and bad timing. Andrew Thompson, who finally finished all five loops in 2009, wrote a nightmarish account of his aborted fifth loop in 2005. Dan Baglione, 75 years old at the time and the race's oldest contestant ever, got lost before the first checkpoint in 2006 and wandered far outside the park, spending a night in the open before catching a ride back into camp. His time "out there"—almost 32 hours for just three miles on the official course—may stand forever as the Barkley's ultimate benchmark of futility. Baglione is the only person banned from the race by park officials.

"It wears on you to get lost," says Stu Gleman, a retired academic who lives in Franklin, N.C., and has run the Barkley multiple times. "And everybody gets lost a little bit."

***

Gleman, who had been ill in the week leading up to the race, is the first runner to quit the 2011 race, after a short but ferocious hail storm early Saturday morning. Cantrell announces his lonely, pre-dawn arrival at camp with a mournful rendition of "Taps."

Brett Maune, a 32-year-old physicist from California running his first Barkley, leads veterans Alan Abbs and Carl Laniak into camp a few hours later, at 10:30 a.m. All three look fresh and enthusiastic as they jog up the camp road to the yellow gate that marks the start and finish line. Abbs and Maune are back out on the course within a few minutes, after changing clothes and eating, with Laniak trailing just behind them.

As Laniak—a tall, lean runner with a long beard and hawk-like nose under a battered trucker cap—heads up the trail to start his second loop, Cantrell's feisty pit bull, Little, follows at his heels. Cantrell calls the dog back, but Laniak seems to appreciate the company.

"Aw, come on, she can do one loop," he yells over his shoulder.

"If we did that to a dog, they'd arrest us," Cantrell replies.

Ten more runners trickle back into camp over the next hour or so, all of them still contenders for finishing five full loops but facing ever more challenging time limits. A German runner hands in his checkpoint pages and tells Cantrell he's finished. "I can't believe people do five loops," he says.

Joe Decker, once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's fittest man, limps back to camp and calls the race "a hike of pain." "I started slow and went backward from there," Decker says. When Cantrell asks if he wants to save his checkpoint pages as a souvenir, he accepts. "I can show them to my grandkids, to show them how stupid their granddad was."

Cantrell watches from the gate as all 26 runners who start a second loop trudge back up the trail. He's seen all this before, and knows that the odds are against every single one of them.

"From here on out it gets really difficult to continue on for the 100," he says, to no one in particular.

***

Despite the morbid humor, and the overwhelming difficulty of the race itself, the Barkley is a serious athletic endeavor. The finishers all share exemplary ultradistance credentials: wins and high placings at numerous other ultra races, and, perhaps more notably, speed records for long hiking trails like the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail in Vermont, and the John Muir Trail in California.

"Those were solid experiences, going out there and doing 50 miles a day, dealing with sleep deprivation, hunger," says Basham, who set the record for the Colorado Trail in 2006 and for the Long Trail in 2009, just months before his 2010 Barkley finish. "On speed hikes, it's a lot like Barkley, you're just spending many, many hours hiking, really just putting your head down and hiking. You put your head down and that's all you do."

But the race is more than just a physical test. Gleman, who has been running ultramarathons for 20 years, talks about the Barkley and its participants in spiritual, almost religious tones.

"The thing is, they're compulsive overachievers and they've found something that convinces them they're still alive and doing something," he says. "Everybody here has seen the big sadness—even the young people have figured life out, and they're looking for something to convince themselves that they're real and they're accomplishing something. And the race is sort of like that, too. They're all very sensitive, very human people. The main thing is, it's not masochistic in the slightest. These people aren't into pain and misery and laceration and all that. They're into accomplishing something, matching themselves against a huge thing, even if it's just a joke, and taking it as far as they can.... One of the mistakes first-timers make is to try to conquer the mountain. That ends badly. What I tell people—and anybody who's done it, even the big dogs will tell you this—is to just give yourself over to it."

Cantrell is far more likely to serve up lacerating one-liners about the madness of the event than to offer substantive insight into his motivation. Occasionally, however, something heartfelt breaks through his taciturn mountain-man exterior to put the Barkley in perspective, and to help make sense of the terrible struggle.

"It's inspiring," Cantrell says. "This is an incredibly hard thing, and they're trying to do it."

***

By Sunday evening, the race has broken most of the runners. Maune is still in the lead, about four hours ahead of Laniak on the fourth loop. Abbs quit after the third loop; six other runners finish the third loop between 36 and 40 hours for official Fun Runs. Campers and tapped-out runners settle in for dinner and a long wait.

Then, within just a few minutes, just after 8 p.m., all hell breaks loose. Maune runs back into camp, completing his fourth loop in just 10 hours to spark speculation that he might break Robinson's race record. While Maune is repacking and eating, a ranger pulls into the campground to inform Cantrell of a wildfire in the park's southeast corner, close to where the trail crosses the hill known as Testicle Spectacle and dangerously near a group of oil wells on the other side of the park boundary. The ranger advises Cantrell not to send Maune back out there. Laniak's return to camp after quitting halfway around the fourth loop is almost lost amid the chaos. Cantrell and his Barkley henchman Karl "Raw Dog" Henn plot a course change that allows Maune to continue. The diverted course is longer, by about two and a half miles, but it's on pavement instead of straight up through a patch of briers. Cantrell isn't sure of the rerouting until he shows it to Maune on the map, and the last runner standing is dismayed.

"I was not happy with the course change," Maune says. "At the end of loop three I actually thought I was going to break Brian Robinson's record. The course change was designed to be the same amount of gain as the original course, but since you're following the highway, instead of going out Testicle Spectacle, the gradient of the highway is much less than the Spectacle, so it takes more distance to cover the same gain. The moment I saw that on the map—you're basically going from a nice straight line to a squiggly one, for the highway—I thought it was over. The record's out of reach. I essentially gave up on pursuing it at that point.

"I would have preferred going up the Spectacle twice rather than doing the course change. Not just being longer—the section where I had to go back down to Pig's Head Creek, I had to follow a bunch of jeep roads, and it's just a mess in that area. There's at least 10 jeep roads intersecting all over the place and you don't know which one to follow. And it was at night, and my headlamps were getting dim by that point. I went down a few times and had to go back up because I didn't choose the right one. I had no idea how to get to the right jeep road."

***

The Barkley does not seem particularly suited for spectators. Most of the action takes place "out there"; the campground itself offers views only of the first couple of hundred yards of the course in either direction, and runners escape to their own semi-private camps between loops. But there is a surprising amount of activity as the leaders finish the first couple of loops and the rest of the pack trickles in afterward. When it's down to the final handful of competitors on the third and fourth loops, tension mounts: Will they make it in before the cutoff time? Will they finish the full race? Will one of them approach the race record? It is, in fact, far more exciting than it sounds to wait 10 or 12 hours to watch someone run or walk for two minutes.

After finishing the fourth loop in surprising time, Maune asked Furtaw about Robinson's record. His chances to break it were good—he only needed to run the fifth loop in 11 and a half hours. But most of that lap would be at night, in the dark, and in a state of near-total exhaustion.

Almost everybody left in camp—Cantrell and his crew, runners who had quit, and the handful of innocent bystanders—is up early on the morning of Monday, April 4, awaiting Maune's arrival. Robinson's record time passes, and he still hadn't arrived. Cantrell starts packing up for the drive back home. A few people, with long drives or international flights ahead of them, have already left.

Finally, at 10:20 a.m., Maune emerges at the far edge of the camp road, slowly walking toward the yellow gate. He had started and finished each previous loop at a jog; now he's walking, slowly, bent to the side, obviously spent. As he finally approaches the finish, observers can see his scraped and bloody legs, his dirty face, his empty, glassy expression.

"Naked meth-heads, forest fires, nothing stopped you," Cantrell says.

Maune is coherent—Cantrell administers a basic comprehension test as he collapses in a lawn chair—but his far-away stare betrays that he's not all there at the moment. He can barely hold a bowl of chicken soup. The toughest guy within several miles has been reduced to a state of semi-invalidism.

"The fifth loop was total hell," Maune says later. "I just killed the fourth loop, but I knew the fifth loop was going to suck. It was at night. I'd had very little sleep, not just during the event, but leading up to it. I slept nothing before Gary blew the shell that night, so I had an hour of sleep, over I don't know how many days it was. I knew the fifth loop, the nighttime loop, would be a serious sleep-deprivation challenge, and it was. The terrain was terrible, these giant trees had been deposited from previous floods. It was just a tangle of brush. At the time I actually thought I was going to go down in history as the person to blow loop five with the most time in the bank."

Maune is the only runner since Mark Williams, in 1995, to complete the full race on his first attempt. He is only the 10th, out of more than 700 runners over the years, to have finished 100 miles of the Barkley. He has nothing to show for it except a T-shirt, a few days off from work, scars on his legs, and swollen feet that will keep him on the couch for three days when he returns home. And he's already said he plans to come back next year.

"I couldn't believe how awesome the event is. I was actually skeptical the event could live up to all the hype surrounding it," he says. "But then, after having gone there, it really did. The race itself is an amazing race. There's nothing else like it, as far as I know, in existence."