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Barkley Marathons: From ‘sacrificial virgins’ to ‘fun runs’, five things you need to know

Tomos Land
Staff Reporter
Updated on
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Whilst being one of the most secretive races in the world has its perks, the mystery surrounding the Barkley Marathons also often leaves new fans of the race scratching their heads trying to figure out the what, why and who of the event.

Whilst our in-depth 2024 coverage gives a greater insight into the history and intricacies of the event, this article aims to highlight the main idiosyncrasies that make the race unique and to give you five examples to share with your training partners of just how bonkers this race is!

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The cheapest race you’ll ever enter

One of the most unique aspects of the Barkley Marathons is since its inception, it has managed to remain unaffected by inflation, financial crises and credit crunches to cost just $1.60 to enter.

Newcomers or “virgins” are asked to pay the entry fee, bring a licence plate from their home state and write an essay titled “Why I should be allowed to run the Barkley”. Doesn’t seem too bad does it? It doesn’t, until you realise the first challenge of the Barkley is figuring out where and when to enter.

John Kelly, who joined a select group when he finished the event for the second time in 2023, demystified the entry process ever so slightly recently when he provided his insights into securing a place at the event – and admits he now cringes at his first application essay!

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The sacrificial virgin

No need to worry, the race isn’t quite so crazy that a real human sacrifice is involved! Instead, the term refers to the person who is given the No.1 race number for the event.

In many events, the No.1 bib is reserved for the fastest runner in the field, or the top-seeded athlete. However, bib No.1 in the Barkley is reserved for the athlete who is deemed the least likely to finish the event, with this person referred to as the “sacrificial virgin”.

Race director Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell handpicks the athlete unlucky enough to earn the No.1 bib, with the person chosen for the “human sacrifice” or “sacrificial virgin” tag deemed by Cantrell as unlikely to even finish a single loop of the gruelling course.

In 2023 that went to legendary British ultra runner Nicky Spinks which seemed harsh – and so it proved as she duly completed the first loop.

No start time necessary

In typical Barkley fashion, the racers are kept in the dark about the start time of the event until very late on. After arriving at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, handing in their race entries (whatever they may be) and setting up camp, the competitors await their fate.

The race can start at anytime between midnight and noon, with Cantrell sounding a conch to signal an hour to go during any moment of that 12-hour period. Once the conch has been sounded, the runners make their way to the start, and one hour later, Cantrell lights a cigarette to signal the start of the race.

Runners begin from a yellow gate at a campground in Frozen Head State Park, with Cantrell’s cigarette signalling the start of a 60-hour countdown, which is the time limit for racers to complete five loops of the course and thus finish the Barkley.

Lazarus Lake start Barkley Marathons 2023 photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram
[Photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram]

A bookworm’s paradise

At the Barkley, some solace can be taken by competitors in the fact that it’s a great place to catch up on some reading. The route, which naturally is kept a secret, has between nine and eleven books hidden on every lap, with an athlete’s bib number corresponding to a page in a book.

Competitors must bring back their corresponding pages at the end of every lap, if they wish to be deemed to have officially finished the lap and be allowed to continue onwards. Most loops tend to be over 20 miles in distance with plenty of elevation gain, so finding books hidden under rocks, in ravines or halfway up cliffs adds a fun, educational element!

To help them remember the route, Cantrell allows competitors to make notes from his master map at the beginning of each loop, but after that, the runners are on their own to find the books and finish the lap. GPS devices of any kind are strictly forbidden.

John Kelly Damian Hall Barkley Marathons 2023 loop three with Laz photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram
John Kelly hands over his pages to Laz [Photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram]

The “fun run”

With only 17 different people to have ever finished, the Barkley is probably the hardest challenge in endurance sport and is widely renowned as the toughest race some of the world’s best ever ultra runners have faced.

Whilst the full five loops may seem out of reach, there is a challenge within the challenge, and that is to finish the “fun run” or three full loops. In 2022, Jasmin Paris became the first woman in ten years to complete the “fun run” – and she repeated the trick in 2023.

For the full distance, each loop must be completed in under 12 hours to finish. However, the “fun run” allows a slightly more lenient time limit, with runners attempting the challenge afforded an extra four hours for that third loop.

After four renewals with no finishers, 2023 saw that trend bucked in spectacular style as Aurelien Sanchez, John Kelly and Karel Sabbe all finished.

Tomos Land
Written by
Tomos Land
Tomos Land is a triathlon & running journalist whose expertise lies in the professional world of short course & long distance triathlon, though he also boasts an extensive knowledge of ultra-running.

THE SBRX Show

In episode 1 of our new SBRX Show we sit down with ultra runners and coaches Kim and Jayson Cavill to get their take on the Barkley Marathons and triathlon & trail running gear reviews, training tips and more

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