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‘Fight Club’ for runners: Why the Barkley Marathons is the world’s craziest race


The Barkley Marathons is the toughest and most outrageous race in the world and under the instruction of race director Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell, it is also one of the most secretive.

Much like the 1999 movie Fight Club, there are strict rules around information that can be shared by those fortunate enough to be accepted into an exclusive club.

Finished by only 15 people since 1986, the five-lap, 100-mile Barkley Marathons makes the underground fighting ring in the classic David Fincher film look like a walk in the park.

Runners must find aptly named books hidden around the course and tear out the page corresponding to their race number, and should they fail to present a page at the end of a loop – in front of the famous yellow gate – they will be disqualified.

At the heart of the event in rural East Tennessee, the enigmatic Lake, who handpicks a ‘sacrificial virgin’ ahead of the race, is the character somewhat akin to Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden.

Barkley Marathons organiser Laz with famous conch and licence plates

A legendary figure in the running community, ‘Laz’ and his friends concocted the Barkley Marathons as they believed they could better the prison escape attempt of James Earl Ray, the killer of Martin Luther King, which saw him captured after covering just eight miles in 54 hours.

Now closed down, the prison still features on the route and serves as a reminder of the origins of the crazy annual event.

Entry ordeal

There is no application or entry system for the Barkley Marathons, nor a website or social media presence – those looking to be considered must find out from a previous competitor when and where to send an email.

They then must produce an essay detailing why they deserve to race, and should their application be accepted, they will be one of just 40 people to receive a ‘letter of condolence’.

However, successful entrants must remain tight-lipped about their inclusion, with Lake demanding that the start list remains a mystery until the day of the race.

One bonus for runners is that the entry fee is just $1.60 plus a car license plate from the runner’s home state or country, though Laz might request an additional offering such as an item of clothing; socks, shirts, or whatever he is short of at the time.

Start uncertainty

Outside of the 40 entrants and race organisers, the start date of Barkley Marathons remains unknown, and it could theoretically begin at any time, though it tends to be run in March each year.

But even the competitors themselves don’t know the exact start-time, as all that is disclosed to them is a 12-hour window when the race will begin.

Barkley Marathons creator Lazarus Lake

The method by which runners are notified of the start is brilliantly eccentric – the blowing of a conch cell signifies a one-hour countdown until the race begins.

After that hour, Lake lights a cigarette to signal the beginning of the gruelling challenge.

Route mystery

Another of the many huge obstacles for Barkley Marathons competitors is that they are completely in the dark with regards to the route – which is 80% off-trail and features no aid stations – until the day before, so there is no opportunity to scope out the area.

They know they will be tasked with completing five 20-mile loops and more than 54,000 feet of ascent in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, but that’s all.

Asking a former competitor isn’t an option either, as they are forbidden from sharing any information about previous runs, although parts of the route change each year anyway.

GPS devices are also outlawed meaning previous runners can’t even review the route they took, and fans are unable to follow the action.

The only updates fans receive are from Keith Dunn’s Twitter account, which notifies when a competitor has completed a lap or been timed out.

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