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The Great Outdoors

Nobody Finished The Barkley Marathons, Yet Again

Competitors psych themselves up before the race starts
Screenshot: YouTube

Tennessee’s Barkley Marathons stand alone in the world of big-time ultramarathons, chiefly because runners are less concerned with finishing with a good time than finishing at all. Only 15 total people have finished the race in the 36 years it’s been run. This year was no easier.

For a runner to finish Barkley, they have to complete five laps within 60 hours. A lap is roughly 20 miles with roughly 12,000 feet of elevation gain, though completing a lap cleanly is notoriously difficult in its own right, as there are no course markers, GPS devices are banned, a good deal of the race takes place in the dark, and the terrain is extremely imposing. Descriptions of notable points along the course (July Ridge: “In 2006, runner Dan Baglione set a course record for futility, when he got lost here, two miles into the course, for 32 hours.”) sound less like descriptions of a voluntarily contested race and more like something a sadistic Dark Souls NPC would say (“Runners use leather gloves to pull themselves up Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall, an 80 percent gradient of rocks and mud that ascends 400 feet in one-fifth of a mile.”)

The race was inspired by James Earl Ray’s 1977 escape from prison in the same part of the Appalachians—really—and preceded by the lovingly named “Idiot’s Run,” which organizers bragged of as “the the single grimmest race held anywhere in the world,” so pretty much everything about its founding points to it being the product of twisted minds. Runners must retrieve pages from a series of books scattered throughout the course to prove they completed a full lap, with page numbers corresponding to their bib numbers. One runner this year saw his attempt end when he lost a running belt containing all the pages, and though he found it, doing so required him to spend “nearly three hours essentially doing hill repeats on a section known as Little Hell.” Fun!

Runners who finish three out of the five laps in under 40 hours are credited with a partial finish award known as, fittingly, a Fun Run; Jasmin Paris, one of five this year, became the first woman to complete a Fun Run since 2013. Only Karel Sabbe of Belgium and New Zealand’s Greig Hamilton finished three laps under 36 hours, which allowed them to keeping going on a fourth lap. Neither finished, as Hamilton hiked back after the fifth lap start cutoff time and Sabbe succumbed to a wicked combination of navigational trouble and hallucinogenic fatigue.

Maybe someone will finish this race in 2023, but until then, the Barkley Marathons can enjoy their five-year run of victory over human endurance.