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The cigarette is lit and the Barkley Marathons are underway


The 2023 Barkley Marathons are underway, with the competitors starting their odyssey in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee following the traditional lighting of the cigarette by race director Lazarus Lake.

The start of the race is shrouded in secrecy in order to discourage spectators from attending due to concerns about the impact to the park’s ecosystem.

But the first hints that something was afoot came when the #BM100 hashtag on Twitter started to light up late on Monday night local time as runners (or their sponsors) began to announce they were taking part.

There’s a 12-hour window from midnight to midday for the start and when maverick race organiser Lake – real name Gary Cantrell – blew the conch at 0854 local time (1254GMT) on Tuesday, the 40 competitors knew they had an hour to get ready.

They were then sent on their way by him symbolically lighting his cigarette, with the only updates coming via the ‘official’ race feed from Keith Dunn on Twitter – and we’ll be keeping you up to speed with everything that happens via our in-running report.

No finisher since 2017

Dunn’s first update was to detail the icy conditions facing runners, whose first loop will be in daylight, setting off exactly two hours later than 12 months ago.

“It’s cold in camp; flakes of snow have been falling on and off all night. Should be really cold out there”

The race, which is widely known as one of the toughest endurance challenges on the planet, will throw everything it can at the field as the athletes endeavour to be the first finisher of the event since John Kelly – who is back again this year – in 2017, which means five 20-mile loops, each inside 12 hours.

Last year, Jasmin Paris became the first woman in nine years to complete the “fun run” – which is three loops of the course – in ten years and will this year attempt to go one better and become the first woman ever to finish the Barkley.

Confirmed runners have slowly been named on social media and they include inov-8 duo Damian Hall and Nicky Spinks, both from the UK – here’s the list we have so far.

Lazarus Lake start Barkley Marathons 2023 photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram
Laz Lake at the start of the 2023 Barkley Marathons [Credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram]

In January, Hall took down Kelly’s male course record at the Winter Spine Race in an impressive 84 hours and 36 minutes.

Hall, who previously held the Pennine Way record and has long competed with Kelly for FKT bragging rights, will hope that this year he can join his American rival in the record books by completing the Barkley but that is a huge ask on what is his first appearance.

Spinks has been there before. She has won multiple ultra races and set many records but was forced to retire on lap two in 2019 amid shocking weather conditions.

How to complete the Barkley Marathons

The Barkley, in many aspects, transcends the sport of ultrarunning. Since the launch of the Netflix documentary “The Race That Eats Its Young” in 2014 and Gary Robbins documentary “Where Dreams Go To Die”, the race has entered the public domain.

And with the event underway, now is a perfect opportunity to break down just what an athlete needs to do to complete the Barkley.

Throughout the race, there are two separate cut-off times that determine if an athlete can progress to the next loop.

For the main event, the full Barkley, athletes are given 12 hours to complete the roughly 20-mile loop and return with all the pages from the books left out on the course.

For those who are chasing the “fun run” badge of honour, the cut off time per lap is extended to 13 hours 20 minutes, essentially leaving a total of 40 hours for the “fun run” and 60 hours for the full Barkley.

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