There are tough ultra endurance events and then there is the Barkley Marathons. Since its inception back in 1986, the race has only grown in legend and stature, testing some of the best endurance athletes in the world on an annual basis. In fact, in its 33 year history just 15 runners have managed to finish the entire course, which requires participants to complete five laps of 20+ miles (32 km) each in under 60 hours. This year, the results were the same as they have been in most previous outings, with not a single runner managing to complete the course.
The Marathons, which are as quirky as they are tough, take place each year at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. That’s where race director Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell sets up the tough course through the dense forest and thick underbrush. The race’s start time is unknown to the runners, who camp nearby waiting for Cantrell to start the event. That can take place anytime after noon on the actual day of the race, with Gary lighting a cigarette to indicate that it is time to go.
There were 40 entrants that took to the line this past weekend, including Jared Campbell –– who has finished the race three times –– and John Kelly, who was the last person to finish two years ago. Also in the field was Karel Sabbe of Belgium who is the current record holder for a speed-finish of the Appalachian Trail. Despite these impressive credentials however, they all dropped off as the Barkleys took their toll. By the time the third lap was done, just six runners remained.
The weather was a bit of a mixed bag, starting off warm and sunny, but bringing cooler temperatures and rain later on. That brought mud and slop to the trail, adding a new level of difficulty. Just 22 entrants to the race started the second lap, with attrition bringing that down to six for lap three. Two runners made the cut-off for the start of lap 4 however, but both tapped out of the race during that section. Sabbe was the last person running at that point, but gave up at 2 AM on the third day.
In the end, 2019 was just like 2018, with no one managing to complete the course. Whether or not that streak can be broken in 2020 remains to be seen, but one thing is clear. The Barkley Marathons aren’t giving up their title of “world’s toughest race” anytime soon.
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