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John Kelly on how to get into the Barkley Marathons – and his first application essay

Jonathan Turner
News Director
Updated on
Endure 24
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John Kelly, one of only three people to finish the Barkley Marathons more than once, has heightened anticipation and “provided a window” ahead of this year’s event with a captivating blog post that explains many of the nuances of trying to get a place.

He also reveals – with permission of race creator ‘Laz’ Lake – the letter sent out to unsuccessful 2024 applicants. And Kelly even publishes his very own first-ever application essay.

It’s fascinating stuff for the many fans of the Barkley and underlines that we’re counting down to the publicly-unknown start date which is usually at some point in March but has also been in early April.


John Kelly at the Barkley Marathons

Ultra-running legend Kelly is inextricably linked to recent Barkley history – his first appearance came in 2015 when he completed three of the possible five 20-mile loops, impressively earning himself the status of a ‘fun run’ on his debut.

In 2017, having learned from the previous two years, he became just the 15th finisher of the Barkley Marathons.

Until last year no one was able to follow in Kelly’s footsteps, with no more finishers of the infamous race.

But then Kelly himself, France’s Aurelien Sanchez – who won – and Karel Sabbe of Belgium all completed the five laps in a remarkable renewal at Frozen Head State Park.

The event is shrouded in secrecy but Kelly has again helped demystify it a little, while also retaining just what makes it so special, with his insights.

His “basic understanding” of how the field of 40 is curated each year illustrates the complexities – and can be accessed via the embedded tweet below.

He caveats the information by saying: “This post contains all of the facts and opinions I have on how people are selected for the Barkley Marathons. I have zero influence or involvement in this process.”


‘Unique and fortunate position’

Kelly concludes his detailed thoughts by saying: “It is not mathematically possible for a race that thousands want to enter and only 40 per year get to participate in to be anything but “exclusive.” But it is not artificially so, and I think it does about as good of a job as possible of selecting people and giving the opportunity to a deserving, representative group from those who apply.

“I recognize that I’ve been in an extremely unique and fortunate position for this race.

As much as I generally prefer to keep to myself and avoid most social interactions, I try to be as open as possible about Barkley to provide a window into the event.

“I honestly think it’s kind of cool that for an event with the limitations it has, there’s still a chance for nearly anyone regardless of ability to work their way towards eventually getting in.”

John Kelly Damian Hall Barkley Marathons 2023 loop three with Laz photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram
John Kelly hands pages to ‘Laz’ Lake at the 2023 Barkley Marathons [Photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram]

John Kelly’s first Barkley essay

A key part of the process is submitting an essay setting out why you deserve a place and Kelly admits that looking back to 2015: “I cringe a bit now reading my first application essay… Reading this nearly a decade later there are definitely things I would say differently or not at all. ‘I haven’t done a 100-miler yet, but I ran a 2:49 marathon this year. 😂😂 But I haven’t changed a single word.”

Again, that’s accessible on Kelly’s website via the tweet above.

Looking back he feels a big part of the reason he was accepted was because of the fact he grew up in the exact area the event takes place, explaining: “My strongest criteria was what I list as number 3: representation of a group that has not previously had a finisher, or possibly even an entrant.

“Where I come from, where Barkley takes place, is a rural community in southern Appalachia. Our patron saints are Dolly Parton and Jed Clampett. No one runs, and the thought of doing it for more than a few miles at a time is mostly an unheard of concept. The schools don’t have track teams, and when I ran cross country at nearby Oak Ridge High School there was no shortage of teasing from my friends back home. The odds are astronomical of someone coming from this area who runs, wants to do Barkley, and even might have a legitimate shot of finishing (if laz actually thought that at the time).

“One of the coolest things for me in my early years at Barkley was seeing the support from the local community, and seeing them become more and more proud of this event, their park, and some of them even taking up running themselves. As for me, Barkley is where I was born as an ultrarunner. Everything that came after is built from that.”

The next edition of the Barkley Marathons will soon be upon us – who will add their name and exploits to the event’s rich history?

John Kelly start Barkley Marathons 2023 photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram
John Kelly at the 2023 Barkley Marathons [Photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram]

Jonathan Turner
Written by
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is News Director for both TRI247 and RUN247, and is accustomed to big-name interviews, breaking news stories and providing unrivalled coverage for endurance sports.  


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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