Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail to someone

The brutal Barkley Marathons is competitive distance running on steroids, or perhaps more accurately, distance running on ayahuasca, as it pushes runners to places within themselves that they may not have known existed.


In 1985, the first Barkley Marathons was run at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. To the delight of the race’s founders, none of the 13 entrants was able to finish.

''At Barkley, we must proceed as if we can succeed. If limits of our abilities do indeed exist, they will smack us in the face in due course, regardless of our beliefs. Of course, those smackings occur sooner for some runners than for others.''

— Frozen Ed Furtaw, on running the Barkley

Four years later, “Frozen” Ed Furtaw became the first athlete to complete the circuit which was inspired by a prisoner’s futile escape attempt from Brushy Mountain Penitentiary. Thereafter, race co-founders Gary Cantrell and Karl Henn decided to increase the race to 100 miles.


In 2018, participant Jamil Coury documented the Barkley in a year in which no one finished — which in Cantrell’s mind constitutes a good year.

In its current format the Barkley has only been completed 18 times by 15 runners. Only Brett Maune (2011, 2012) and Jared Campbell (2012, 2014, 2016) have finished the race multiple times.


The Barkley is comprised of an approximately 20-mile loop that runners must navigate five times within a total of 60 hours. While that might not sound so hard, the course has contestants ascend the equivalent of two Mount Everests over its unmarked, trail-less length.

Among the many quirky details of the race, is that it’s started not by the firing of a pistol, or horn, but by self-proclaimed geezer Cantrell lighting a cigarette.

First time contestants — known as virgins — must bring a license plate from their home as an entry pass.