The Barkley Marathons 2021

What the bleeding heck are the Barkley Marathons and why are so many people intrigued by them?

The Barkley Marathons 2021

Header image credit: Michael Hodge

For those who haven't heard of them; the Barkley Marathons are a yearly ultramarathon event held in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, US. As a spectator it is fascinating to watch due to the sheer difficulty of the event, the high level of it's competitors and strangeness of it's traditions.

The challenge is to complete a roughly 100 mile course (5 laps of the route) within 60 hours. and as an event it attracts the toughest competitors in the sport due to some unique conditions, namely:

  • The course is a rough, unmarked off-trail run with over 16,000 meters of climb
  • The cut off times imposed are brutally difficult for the course
  • The route is changed every year and distributed to runners in the form of rather cryptic instructions. No filming of the route by crew is allowed.
  • No GPS or tracking devices are allowed, only the route instructions and compasses.
  • Whenever there is a finisher, the course is made harder to keep it at the limits of human endurance
  • To prove they have completed the loop; runners have to find 13 hidden books and tear out a page corresponding to their race number
  • The start time is not know to runners, instead they wait for a conch to be blown, which gives them 1 hour to get ready
  • Race director Lazarus Lake marks the beginning of the race by lighting a cigarette
  • Only 15 people have ever finished the Barkley Marathons, and within the last 3 events it has had no finishers at all

By far my favourite running documentary was on Gary Robbin's 2 attempts at the Barkley, which also gives a good overview of the event

There is also a highly regarded documentary about the event itself here:

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

The 2021 Event

The last few days have mainly involved me obsessively checking twitter to see how the runners have been getting on, with the event having kicked off on March 18th at 03:04am.

Two competitors stood out for me that I was rooting for this year:

  • Courtney Dauwalter - a fantastic ultra runner who's been smashing records left right and center in her career, a favourite to be the first woman to complete the event
  • Jared Campbell - the only person to ever finish the Barkley Marathons 3 times and a hopeful for being a finisher this year

The last finisher was John Kelly in 2017 (who incidentally now lives nearby in the Mendips, a good indication of the quality of trail running in the area!), with no finishers in 2018 or 2019. 2020 was, as with most things in the world, cancelled due to Covid.

Leading up to the event was heavy rain, making the already difficult track even worse, whilst over the course of the race was deep fog, hail, thunder and rain showers. This lead to challenging conditions and slower loops all round, the fastest being 10:21 from Campbell for the first loop, stretching to 13 hours for the second loop.

Courtney managed to complete the second loop, missing the cut off time by 12 minutes so was unable to continue.

Jared kept on to the third loop, finishing it successfully but missing the cut off to run the 4th loop.

So the Barkley Marathons in 2021 ended once again with no finishers.

I can't wait to see 2022, my big bet and hopes are on Gary Robbins, who deserves a win so much after his previous 3 attempts and was unable to easily attend this year due to Covid border restrictions coming over from Canada.