Barkley Marathons, route, how to enter and finishers 

The Barkley Marathons has become the stuff of ultra-running folklore. Regarded as one of, if not the, toughest races in the world. It takes place annually in rural East Tennessee in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg. Since it was first run in 1986, only 15 people have managed to complete the full course. 

Here is our guide to learning about the event, following it or even taking part. 

Car number plates – part of the entry fee for the Barkley Marathons

Date, start time & live updates

The Barkley Marathons is cloaked in secrecy. There is no website or Facebook page. The start date is known only to those who have been accepted into the race, and even they don’t know the start-time – just the 12 hour window in which the race will begin. They will get one hour’s notice, signaled by the blowing of a conch shell. The race will start with the lighting of a cigarette by founder and race director Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell

There is no way to follow any of the competitors remotely as GPS devices are not allowed. Traditionally Barkley fans have tapped into the social media feeds of people like @keithdunn who provides an update via his twitter feed. 

How to enter

The race is restricted to just 40 entries and the first challenge is to be considered. You first need to find out when and where to send applications from a previous competitor. Your application must include an essay detailing why you feel you should be allowed to race. If successful, you will receive a ‘letter of condolence’. 

Barkley Marathons Race Route

The Barkley Marathons is made up of five 20-mile loops with more than 54,000 feet of ascent, each loop starts and finishes at the yellow gate where competitors and support teams make camp. In reality the loops are more like 26-miles long meaning that anybody who completes all five will have covered 130 miles. Any runners who manage to complete just three loops are awarded ‘fun run’ finisher status. 

The route changes every year and, as there is no GPS allowed, it is impossible to review. Roughly 80% of the race is off-trail and there are no aid stations – just two water points.  

Facts, Tips & FAQ

The race was born following James Earl Ray’s (the killer of Martin Luther King) escape from a Tennessee prison in 1985. He was captured after covering just eight miles in 54 hours. Lazarus and his friends felt they would have done a lot better, and the rest is history. 

The Barkley was made famous by a 2014 Netflix documentary ‘The Barkley Marathons – The Race That Eats Its Young’.

The entry fee is reportedly just $1.60 plus, for first-time runners, a car registration plate from their home state or country. An additional ‘fee’ may be an item of clothing such as socks, or a shirt – reputedly based on whatever Lazarus is short of at the time. 

Each competitor has to find books hidden around the course and tear out the page corresponding to their race number. Failure to present a page from every book at the end of each loop results in disqualification. The book titles have become part of Barkley folklore and previously included Death Walks in the Woods, The Valley of Death, Almost Home, The Body in the Woods, Fool, The End, A Week in the Woods, and The Idiot. 

Each year there will be one runner who Lazarus believes has no place being in the race as they have no chance at all of even completing the first loop. They will be given the No1 bib number. 

Barkley Marathons records and finishers

The full five-loop race has only been completed 18 times by 15 different runners. The current race record is 52:03:08 and was set by Brett Maune in 2012. 

1995: Mark Williams 

2001: David Horton; Blake Wood 

2003: Ted “Cave Dog” Keizer 

2004: Mike Tilden; Jim Nelson  

2008: Brian Robinson 

2009: Andrew Thompson 

2010: Jonathan Basham  

2011: Brett Maune  

2012: Brett Maune; Jared Campbell; John Fegyveresi  

2013: Nick Hollon; Travis Wildeboer  

2014: Jared Campbell  

2016: Jared Campbell  

2017: John Kelly  

Who is running at Barkley Marathons 2022?

The secrecy surrounding the Barkley extends to the entry list. Runners are instructed not to discuss anything about the race.  That’s no different for 2022. We do know that Legendary Canadian ultra-runner Gary Robbins has removed himself from the entry list because he announced it on his Instagram. And the 2021 Big Dog’s Back Yard Ultra winner, Harvey Lewis, has confirmed that part of his ‘prize’ for that victory was acceptance into the Barkley. Other than that, it’s a mystery. Although we can be sure that, despite the suffering they experienced, a number of previous entrants will line up at the yellow gate  again this year. 

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An experienced runner with numerous trail and ultra-marathons in his legs from races ranging from 30 to 110 miles. Racing and training has been focused mainly, although not exclusively, on the North Yorkshire Moors and East Yorkshire Wolds. As a journalist and sports industry professional for 40 years, Chris continues to love many sports but admits that trail running has become more of an obsession than a hobby.