Do you know anyone who has run in the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run? Maybe you know someone training for this summer’s race. A hundred miles of rugged terrain, through the night in the Bighorn Mountains. Absurd, right?
Well, no offense to those maniacs, but the Bighorn Trail Run is a breeze compared to the Barkley Marathons.
Sorry, that’s sort of rude. I’d never consider the Bighorn Trail Run — or any ultramarathon, for that matter — a breeze. But the Barkley Marathons are for people who belong in institutions.
Here’s a pretty telling stat: last summer, 174 runners completed the 100-mile race at the Bighorn Trail Run. Only 15 runners have ever completed the Barkley Marathons, a “race” that began in 1986. That’s less than half a finisher a year.
And being half a finisher at the Barkley Marathons is a feat in and of itself.
The Barkley Marathons were the sick concoction from the mind of Gary Cantrell, or Lazarus Lake as he’s known among the marathons’ cult followers. When Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977, he wandered the woods surrounding the prison until he was captured 55 hours later — a mere 8 miles from his escape point.
Cantrell thought to himself, “I could easily cover 100 miles in that amount of time,” and the labyrinth quickly became the Barkley Marathons.
The race, which takes place in late March or early April each year — a beautifully cold, rainy time of year in Tennessee — consists of five 20-mile loops around the prison. To shake things up a bit, each runner completes the loops twice clockwise, twice counterclockwise and a fifth time based on the first-place runner’s direction of choice.
Good luck making it to the fifth loop. Shoot, good luck making it to the second.
A reversal of route is the least of a competitors’ worries in the Barkley Marathons. There is no course map. There are no check points or aid stations along the way. Laz briefs the runners on the “course” an hour before the race begins, where the racers quickly mark landmarks and potential paths on their not-that-close-to-scale maps.
No phones, no GPS devices. The only structure to the course consists of about nine books (the number varies) on the course from which each participant must find and rip a page corresponding to his or her bib number in order to prevent shortcuts or cheating. Some spend hours searching for one book before calling it quits.
Each loop is restricted to 12 hours, and the full race has a 60-hour time limit. Again, for comparison, the last-place finisher of the Bighorn Trail Run took just under 34 hours.
Laz isn’t trying to kill people. He’s not rooting for failure — although a bugle player performs “Taps” to participants who drop out of the race (pretty much everyone). He collects a $1.60 application fee, a license plate from the runner’s state and a pair of socks. That’s it.
The goal is to push people to their limits. How can you overcome the mental turmoil and the physical exhaustion?
“Barkley is not for people who want to do it to tell their friends,” Laz told marathoninvestigation.com. “It is for people who want to do it for themselves.”
For better understanding of the harshness of the event, I encourage you to watch the documentary about the race on Netflix. Or, simply just read the title: “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young.”
I don’t even like to jog on the treadmill. To each his own, I guess.
Mike Pruden is the sports editor at The Sheridan Press.