The Barkley Marathons: Toeing the Line Between “Extreme Sports” and “Prank”

a man in an orange knit hat lights a cigarette
Barkley creator Gary Cantrell lighting the cigarette that signals the start of the race. (Photo by Michael Hodge via Flickr, CC BY 2.0).

The Barkley Marathon, held once a year in eastern Tennessee on a secret date, is five 20+ mile unmarked loops through the woods — with massive elevation gain — that runners must navigate without GPS or sleep in under 60 hours. (If you want to try the “fun run,” you only have to finish three loops.) Sarah Barker, in Deadspin, explores the event itself and the people who attempt this race-slash-ordeal.

He created the anti-race. Virtually every aspect of his baby flies in the face of traditional race procedure—how and when to apply for entrance are not published, nor are qualifications or requirements; many ultras have a $1,000+ fee, the Barkley’s is $1.60 plus an item of Cantrell’s choosing such as a pair of gold toes dress socks; runners will be apprised of the race date upon acceptance, and they don’t know the course until the night before; the start time is again at Cantrell’s whim within an 11 hour window; the race starts when Cantrell lights a cigarette; and of course, all the training in the world is meaningless if you go off course… which is unmarked, and not accurately measured. Instead of a post-race celebration for all the finishers, every Barkley drop-out is announced by a bugler playing Taps, hailing another failure. Some years, no one finishes the Barkley, and when someone does, like this year, Cantrell will add some new twist to make next year’s version even harder.

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