Running The Barkley Marathons: An All Out Effort Toward Failure

Trail TalkJeff Garmire
Running The Barkley Marathons Race Report


The Barkley Marathons are designed to be impossible, and for many years the race was also obscure. Only recently has the event, with the tagline “Right on the edge of humanly possible,” garnered a cult following. At the event, there is very little information that leaves the campground and the entry process is the most secret part. But here is what I can tell you about the Barkley Marathons and my experience running it. 

The Barkley Marathons exploded in popularity when the movie, “The Race that Eats Its Young” was released in 2014. It spectacularly captured the only year there have been three finishers of the fabled race. The movie (Streaming on Amazon Prime) shows Brett Maune breaking the course record, Jared Campbell finishing the Barkley in his first year, and John Fegyveresi fighting the cutoff to complete the course just under the time limit. The drama was there along with the unique style of the race. 


What are the Barkley Marathons?

Running The Barkley Marathons Race Report


A 130 mile-ish race through the mountains of Frozen Head State Park. The course has 70,000 feet of elevation gain, does not follow a trail, does not allow GPS (or phones, cameras, watches, etc.), starts at an unknown time, has a secret entry process, and is regulated by tearing pages out of books. 

Each year 40 runners are selected to attempt the Barkley Marathons and they assemble in a small campground in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. The afternoon before the race the map is revealed to the runners and they are expected to copy the course down themselves. Each year it is unknown when the race will start. It is marked only by the blowing of a conch shell one hour before the race will begin. More info on the Barkley Marathons can be found here. This year I was a participant. 


Aspects of the Barkley Marathons

Start time

Unknown 

Best Guess

Between Midnight and Noon on race day

Exact course length

Unknown

Best Guess

130 miles

True elevation gain

Unknown

Best Guess

70,000 feet

Loops to Complete

5

Entry Process

Secret

Number of Finishers

15

Years in Existence

35

How the race starts

The lighting of a cigarette

Aid stations

2 water drops

Checkpoints

Pages from 13 paperback books

Inspiration for the race

A prison escape


I drove out to Tennessee, picked up my aunt, and prepared for the most unique race of my life. My aunt and I spent the day before check-in laying out food, gear, and clothing to be prepared for the fast-changing weather of Frozen Head State Park. But leading up to race day the weather was perfect. Each morning I went out into the park and ran some of the defined trails. 

After two days of nice weather, we went into the campground, claimed our campsite, checked in to the race, and awaited the start. Since it was my first year in the field I had to bring a license plate from my home state. I handed it over to the race director, Laz, and received my bib number and written instructions. 

The bib number signified which page number I had to tear out of each book along the route. Collecting all 13 pages would show that I had completed the loop correctly. The books are often placed at the bottom of descents and the tops of climbs to make sure that runners don’t miss out on any of the elevation gain. 


The Race

The rain began to fall before I went to bed. It didn’t stop and only increased as the night wore on. I couldn’t sleep because of nerves—both for the giant impending effort, and the fear of missing the start of the race. Eventually, I dozed off, only to be woken up by my aunt at 2:04 am. The race would start shortly after three in the morning. 

An hour later all of us runners walked up to the yellow gate and collected our official race watches. This year they were pocket watches, similar to something you would see in the 1850s. Begrudgingly, we all stowed them in our packs and stood still for a few minutes, patiently waiting for the lighting of the cigarette that would signify the start of our race. 

Running The Barkley Marathons Race Report


Then it happened, and we rushed into the woods. It was a frenzy of following a small group of runners through the course. At Book 1 there was a line to tear our pages out. The trek to Book 2 was simply a long line of headlamps charging up the mountain. But shortly after Book 2, the fog grew dense and visibility waned. By Book 3 there were only two other runners around. 

Not long into the race, I found myself on my own. It was a test of preparation, navigation, and mental toughness. I perfectly found the next book on my own, inflating my confidence to dangerous levels, and then it came crashing down. 

I was on a section of the course with a number of unmarked and unrecognized jeep roads on my map. It was nearly impossible to decipher which road matched my compass bearing for the next book. I walked back and forth on these roads for half an hour before two other runners came up behind me. 

They had been out here before and led me onward. Together the three of us found Book 5 under a rock and Book 6 in a hole in the side of a huge stone. We were almost halfway through the first loop! But the thing with the Barkley Marathons is that it can change so fast. We followed the wrong drainage and lost 2.5 hours looking for Book 7. All hope of making the cutoff was lost. 

But, instead of quitting, we went back to the last known place that the terrain matched our map and worked through it once again. We realized the mistake and found our book easily this time. 

The Barkley Marathons is a race of elevation. We had just been at a river, so naturally, the next book would be up high. The climb was 1300’ to Book 8 followed by a gentle descent on jeep roads. 

Running The Barkley Marathons Race Report


The afternoon had begun and so had the fickle weather. One moment the sun would shine and the next it would be heavily raining. It was unfortunate that the most exposed section was beginning. The route climbs up to the tallest point on the course by following a powerline cut. 

The climb is called Rat Jaw and has become famous for its steepness, briars, and exposure. It was an arduous process of climbing up the muddiest terrain imaginable. The footing was atrocious, and the heaviest briar sections were a welcome break with the traction they offered. 

Running The Barkley Marathons Race Report


At the top was the book, a water drop, and a lookout tower. There wasn’t much reason to stay atop Frozen Head Mountain in the awful storm, so we pulled our pages and dashed back down the muddy powerlines we had just ascended. 

At the very bottom was Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. A prison escape is actually the genesis of the event. After James Earl Ray escaped the prison and only covered six miles in 60 hours, the race director, Laz, said he could cover 100 miles in that time period and thus the race was born. Laz has never completed his own race despite trying in the early years. 

We grabbed our book from the prison, then ascended the nearby ridge for Book 11, before dropping back down to an obscure river to find our second-to-last book in a hollow tree. There was only one more climb left and in the Barkley Marathon circles this one is called “Big Hell.” 

The race is full of landmark names like: The Meatgrinder, Hillpocolypse, Zipline, Leonard’s Butt Slide, and Point Despair. The unique names give the race character but also add in the confusion of navigation. For 26 miles we navigated the loop with a map and compass, relying on crude written instructions that read more like a riddle than anything else. But the added difficulties made it even more fun. It is a race designed to result in failure, and every runner came to experience it. 

At the top of Big Hell we pulled our final pages, crossed the capstones and then dropped back to the campground on maintained park trails. It was finally a simple-to-follow route and a runnable trail from Chimney Top Peak all the way to the valley floor. 

Running The Barkley Marathons Race Report

 

I ran up and slapped the gate with all my pages, but long overdue for being able to go out on a second loop. It was an awesome experience—intense in every way. I hope to someday go back, especially now that I know what I would be in for!


Find the full 3,000-word trip report here.
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