I am obsessed with the Barkley Marathons!

If you are a runner, or even if you’re not, and you don’t know what the Barkley Marathons are, you are seriously missing out!

My wife and I took a vacation to Florida in March, and before the flight I wanted to download a movie to my iPhone from Netflix. Love that new feature by the way.  So being the runner that I am now, I looked up movies on running and I found this off-beat looking documentary called “The Barkley Marathons: the race that eats its young.”  I thought I’d take a chance on it, and boy am I glad I did.

I won’t get into too much of what the Barkley Marathons is, but in a nutshell it is the most cult-followed, quirky, grueling, nearly-impossible, “running”, adventure test of humanity, on the planet!  Yup! that about sums it up.  It is a series of 5 loops through the mountains in Tennessee.  They say each loop is 20 miles, but it changes every year and is closer to 25 or 26 miles.  So, the runners have a hard deadline of 60 hours to finish the 130 mile race. 

There is no trail… There are 11 books hanging on the “course” and each runner has to pull the page that corresponds to their bib number from each book to prove they made the full lap.  Oh, and runners cannot use GPS either.  The elevation changes are so severe, that over the 5 loops and 130-ish mile course, runners could have scaled Mt. Everest twice!  Each time runners finish a loop, they touch a yellow gate, then do the same loop in reverse.  If a runner finishes 3 loops, that’s considered a fun run.  Lol. 

Just how hard is the Barkley Marathons you ask? 

Only 15 people have finished all 5 loops in the 60 hour window since 1986!  Most years, there is not a finisher!  However, at the time of writing this post, the 2017 Barkley Marathons just ended.  It was miraculous.  Two runners started loop 5, with only one, John Kelly from Washington DC finishing in time.  John finished in 59:30:39.  The second runner, Gary Robbins from Canada, completed 5 loops in , thusly missing the 60 hour cutoff.  However, it really did end in heartbreak for Gary… He finished in 60:00:06… He missed the cutoff by 6 seconds.  Apparently the got disoriented in the fog and accidentally added in 3 extra miles.  I guess that’s the Barkley Marathons for you.

Want to run in the Barkley Marathons? 

Good luck!  There is no website, and no formal application.  Event founder Lazarus Lake, says, “if you are meant to be in the Barkley, you will find a way.”  What does that even mean?! Ha.  Then if you can even get an application in, it costs you a whopping $1.60 application fee.  Hundreds of people managed to get an application in, but only 35-40 are selected each year.  If you get selected, you receive a letter of condolences.  You then have to show up on race day with a license plate from your state, and a pre-determined item that Lazarus Lake needs.  One year it was white dress shirts, the next it was flannel shirts.  I believe this year it was gold-toe dress socks in either dark blue or black.

Like I said before, a truly quirky, cult-followed, grueling test of humanity.  Would I ever aspire to run in the Barkley?  Haha, no way in heck.  But I am definitely an obsessed fan.  Right now there is no media coverage, by design.  So the only way to follow the race is by people there live tweeting the race.  Which sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it is the most engaging, addicting, thumb-numbing experience.  60 hours of updates on how the runners are doing, or how quickly they are dropping out.  Then as the last few hours come about, if there is anyone on course, or two people like this year, it is absolutely incredible. 

I cannot even explain the feeling of following John and Gary on Twitter for the last couple hours of the race.  The love, support, and good cheer from all the twitter followers was incredible.  Such a passion and so much emotion.  Everyone was clearly so happy for John for finishing, but there was an equal amount of support and heartbreak for Gary.  It took John 3 attempts to beat the Barkley, so let’s hope Gary comes back and does the same in his third attempt next year!

Right now, the Barkley Marathons is so pure and obscure, that it makes it almost magical and incredibly inspiring to even think about.  My selfish hope is that it doesn’t get too publicized and somehow become too commercialized and lose it’s charm.  I guess only time will tell.

To learn a lot more about the Barkley Marathons, check out this article on ultrarunning.com.  They did a great job going into detail.  Also, if you haven’t already, watch the documentary on Netflix.

Also, for a 2017 Barkley Race recap, including the heartbreaking video of Gary Robbins finishing 6 seconds late, click here.

Well, with this year’s Barkley in the bag, I’m going to keep on my running journey, and use those Barkley runner’s experiences as motivation to dig deep and do my best.

All the best, push yourself, and stay safe out there.

~Jay Cunningham

Jogger’s Journey