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What are the Barkley Marathons?

The Barkley Marathons are one of the stranger races on the planet. Imagine taking an ultramarathon, putting it in the forest, removing all 21st-century technology, and building your own aid stations. If you are picturing this in your mind, you are still way off.

The process to enter the race is a closely guarded secret, so we will gloss over the details involved in gaining entrance into the race or even landing on the “Weight” List.

How it Starts: Runners show up at the state park campground the day before the start window and receive their packet of instructions and a map of the course. Virgins (first-time runners) bring a license plate from their home state, and Veterans (prior starters but non-finishers) bring a random item as stipulated on the initial application. These can range from tube sox to button-up shirts. Prior finishers must show up with a pack of Camel Filter cigarettes. Once everyone is checked in and they have their first bib number (a runner receives multiple bibs during the race) the Barkley Marathons get even stranger.

The start of the race is floating. No one except Lazarus Lake knows exactly when the race will start. Runners are told of a 12-hour window in which to be prepared for the lighting of the cigarette, but the true signal comes only one hour before. A conch is blown in the middle of the campground at a time in the 12-hour window to signify that the race will begin in one hour.

After the hour has elapsed, all runners stand at a yellow gate and await Laz’s lighting of the cigarette. After the first puff of smoke, the Barkley Marathons have begun.

How the Race Works: The race is called the Barkley Marathons because each loop is about a marathon in length. Between each loop (and after-touching the yellow gate which signals the end and beginning of each loop) a runner may resupply and refuel at their campsite with their crew.

The race is 5 loops in length, and completing 3 of them in 40 hours signifies a “Fun Run.” The five total have to be completed in 60 hours to be a true Barkley Marathons finisher. There have been 15 finishers in recorded history.

Rules: There is no GPS allowed on the course, and runners are to rely on maps and compasses for navigation. In the dark and fog, this proves an even larger challenge. The route of the loops has a number of books. This is where the bib number comes in. The bib number signifies the page number the runner has to tear out of each book to prove they followed the correct route. At the end of each loop, the race director (Laz) checks the pages. As for keeping time on the course, each runner is given a cheap race watch that is set to “race time”

Other notes: When a runner quits or misses a cutoff, Taps is played by a bugler while the runner stands at the yellow gate. After a runner has started a loop and until they touch the yellow gate at the end of the loop they may receive no outside aid or help. There are two “water” stations on the course, but both are subject to being frozen and useless.

If you would like to learn more about the Barkley Marathons here are two links to Documentaries Where Dreams Go to Die and The Race That Eats Its Young.

What are the Barkley Marathons
The Barkley Marathons

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