Fact or Fiction: The most difficult foot race has only been completed 18 times by 15 runners.

runner in a field at sunrise

Fact: The Barkley Marathons, commonly accepted as the most difficult foot race, takes place annually in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. The event, first run in 1986, is limited to 40 participants, and only 15 runners have ever completed it.

Here are the numbers: The course, which changes every year and is largely on unmarked terrain, consists of five loops around a “20-mile” course. The total distance is somewhere between 100 and 130 miles. The combined vertical elevation over the race is more than 60,000 feet, which is equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest twice. Participants have 60 hours to complete the race, which goes on day and night. Completing three loops is called the “fun run.”  

The challenge begins with the application, and requirements and timing are kept secret. The application fee is $1.60, and each entry requires an essay as to why the runner should be allowed to compete. Successful applicants receive a “letter of condolence” announcing their acceptance into the race field. 

Additional fees vary from year to year and typically relate to what Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell, the race’s designer, happens to need that year (a pair of white socks, a flannel shirt, your standard basics). A license plate from the entrant’s state or country is also required.  Each year the number 1 bib is given to one runner who has absolutely no right to be involved in this type of race and who has no chance of finishing. This entrant is known as the “human sacrifice.” 

Participants write down the race course based on the master copy, drawn on a map of the park. The actual course is not marked. The race director takes no responsibility for copying errors. The race start time varies each year but is set within a 12-hour window (midnight to noon). Naturally, this is not announced in advance. 

A conch shell is blown an hour before the race starts -- an appropriate warning, and the fun begins when the race director lights a cigarette. Between nine and 14 books are scattered over the course, and runners must tear out the page corresponding to their bib number to prove they actually followed the course. New bib numbers are distributed each lap. The runners don’t get any help on the course, with the exception of two water stops (though at that time of year in Tennessee, the water bottles may be frozen. Or replaced with alcohol, all in good fun). Taps is played on a bugle for each participant who drops out. 

In 2006, Dan Baglione set the record for the slowest race pace. He got lost two miles into the race and found his way back to the start line 32 hours later, which worked out to 16 hours per mile. The few participants who make it to the fifth loop tend to hallucinate, and some have fallen asleep in the course.

The race prize for finishing the Barkley Marathons? You get to stop running.

Cantrell has lent this creativity to other original races:

  • A Race for the Ages: Runners 40 and under have 40 hours to run as many miles as they can on a course that is a 1-mile loop. Runners over age 40 have the number of hours equivalent to their age to run as many miles as they can. Whoever runs the most miles wins. The current record is 230 miles, set by Bob Becker at the age of 74 in 2019.
  • Big’s Backyard Ultra: The course is a 4.1667-mile loop around Cantrell’s property.  Every runner who completes the loop in under 60 minutes and is at the start line ready for the next loop stays in the race. Each loop starts on the hour. Once you finish the loop, you can do whatever you want until the next loop starts. The race continues until only one person is left. Everyone else receives a did not finish, or DNF. Courtney Dauwalter is the current record holder, as of 2020, with 68 hours and 283.33 miles.

Are you ready to race now? Let’s go!


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