The Barkley Marathons ultra-distance race in Tennesee is one of the world’s hardest running races.
There is nothing quite like the Barkley Marathons (sic) anywhere in the world. The 100+ mile race held annually in northeastern Tennessee is definitely one of the most bizarre races on the planet, and based on the finishing rate, possibly the most difficult event in the world.
On Monday, ultrarunner Jared Campbell finished the notoriously quirky race for the second time, making him only the second person to do so. The 34-year-old Utah resident covered what was believed to be a 130-mile route in 57 hours, 50 minutes and 20 seconds, touching the finishing gate with more than two hours to spare before the 60-hour cut-off. Out of the 40 daring starters at Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tenn., Campbell was the only one to complete the entire course this year. In fact, he was the only person to push beyond the 60-mile mark for 2014.
“The weather was really gnarly this year—everything from cold, to rain, to snow before it finally improved,” Campbell said on Tuesday evening. “I saw eight other runners when I was on my third loop and didn’t get the feeling many were going to hang on to the end, but I wasn’t completely certain.”
Gary “Laz” Cantrell and Karl Henn started the Barkley Marathons in 1986. After hiking the brush- and thorn-filled Tennessee mountain terrain and learning that Martin Luther King, Jr., assassin James Earl Ray traveled just eight miles in 54 hours when he escaped from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Prison in 1977, the friends thought it would be the perfect location for a brutal running race. The resulting route consists of five barely marked loops around the perimeter of Frozen Head State Park that measure at least 25 miles. (It’s usually stated that the loops are about 20 miles, but, according to Campbell’s calculations—he’s an exacting mechanical engineer by day—they are much longer, with the inside joke being that “Barkley” miles are longer than regular miles.)
The course also has more than 60,000 feet of elevation gain and loss over the total distance. There’s even a “fun” run—that is if three loops, totaling roughly 75 miles of running, is your idea of fun. (The stated distance of the fun run is 60 miles, but anyone who has completed it will say it is considerably longer.)
Campbell, who lives near Salt Lake City, has run more than 40 ultras, even admitted to the silliness of the event. There is no prize purse and no hero moment on the podium. It’s a race for personal accomplishments and perseverance. In 2012, Campbell finished the entire course, but was a distant second in 56:00:15 behind Brett Maune’s record-setting 52:03:08 effort. (Campbell and Maune are the only two-time finishers in Barkley history, which claims only 14 different individual finishers since its inception.)
Campbell has eight finishes at the legendarily difficult Hardrock 100 Endurance Run—a 100.5-mile race with 66,000 feet of elevation change in Silverton, Colo. He won that race in 2010 in 27:18:00, which makes him one just two runners to have won Hardrock and Barkley. Ultrarunning legend Virginia’s David Horton, a two-time Hardrock winner in the 1990s, won Barkley in 58:21:00 in 2001, when he finished in the same time as New Mexico’s Blake Wood. (Wood, although listed as second at Barkley in 2001, won Hardrock in 1999.)
Strangely, of all of Campbell’s ultrarunning accomplishments, his only three wins have come at Hardrock and Barkley. Last year, Campbell was the first of three finishers in the Barkley fun run, finishing in 35:02:00.
Campbell is also one of a handful of finishers of the event known as Nolan’s 14, a run (not a race) over the 14 summits higher than 14,000 feet in Colorado’s Sawatch Range. In 2012, he and Matt Hart completed Nolan’s 14 in 57 hours, 30 minutes.
“Barkley stands out as unique, it’s definitely the black sheep in the world of distance running,” Campbell said. “Differences, like no support and purposely hard routes, bring back elements that have largely disappeared from the world of long-distance running, but that’s what draws me to the race.”
In case you are looking for the URL so you can sign up, don’t bother. There is no website, race dates aren’t posted and figuring out how to enter can be a puzzle. You must pay the $1.60 fee and submit a personal essay stating why you should be allowed to run, but where to send your application isn’t made clear. First time runners also need to supply a license plate from their home state and veteran runners must pay an additional fee of a pack of Camel filters to Cantrell, who signals the beginning of the race by lighting a cigarette.
As for the race, participants don’t know the starting time until the Cantrell blows the conch an hour beforehand, it is unsupported, GPS devices are not allowed, racers have to find book checkpoints along the route and tear out the page that corresponds to their bib number and, in years when someone actually finishes, Cantrell and Henn modify the race course.
“Yaz (Cantrell) tries to keep Barkley at the limit of what’s really possible, and it’s been different and more difficult every time I’ve run it,” Campbell said.
Past finishers suggest orienteering skills, mental toughness and physical preparation as keys to surviving the event. Campbell, who has run the race three times, runs mountain trails throughout the western U.S. and credits his rock climbing background for helping him persevere on the technical route, relies on a race strategy of disaster prevention. He regularly runs the trails of Zion National Park in southern Utah and the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City.
“If there was ever a race where you wanted to be on top of taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally, it’s the Barkley,” Campbell said. “Little things can build up into race ending events.”
In this era of breaking records, Campbell isn’t sure if he’ll return to Morgan County to try and be the first to finish the Barkley for the third time.
“I have a tendency to repeat races, but I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe, maybe not. This was an impactful experience and I want to leave it at that.”