The Barkley Marathons: the 100-mile race from hell with 15 finishers in 36 years | Sport

AOn March 8, 2022, at 6:54 am, Johanna Bygdell, 39, from Sweden, was sitting by her tent in the middle of Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, having breakfast with her boyfriend when she finally heard the noise he so longed for and dreaded It was the sound of a conch shell, marking an hour until the start of possibly the most hellish race in the world: the Barkley Marathons.

“Finally, let’s start the party,” he thought.

Bygdell made his final preparations, packed clothes and food, and honed in on his goal of finishing the annual 100-mile ultra-endurance challenge. This year, around 40 other determined runners from around the world gathered behind the race’s famous starting line, a yellow gate, with the same hope.

But finishing the Barkley Marathons is an anomaly. Since its conception in 1986, only 15 riders have managed to conquer the unforgiving course, which features punishing sections with names like Checkmate Hill, Little Hell, Rat Jaw and Testicle Spectacle.

Most years see no finishers at all in the 60-hour time limit of the race. And 2022 was no exception.

Despite no one finishing, a Barkley rookie, Jasmin Paris, beat the clock to become the first woman in a decade to complete three laps, also known as the ‘fun run.’

“This was one of the years where Barkley felt like an entity unto itself, taking out people one at a time that you thought would finish,” says race director Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell (most runners simply call him ‘Laz’), who co-founded the race in the decade after the 1977 escape of Martin Luther King assassin James Earl Ray from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. During his 55 hours of freedom, Ray covered only 12 miles of ground. “He could do at least 100,” Laz scoffed.

As is tradition, Laz lights a cigarette to get started: an unorthodox start to an unorthodox career. When the coals glow, participants have just 60 hours to complete five rounds of the same 20-mile unmarked loop (give or take): twice clockwise, twice counterclockwise clock, with the lead runner dictating the final direction of the loop, if any do so. far. A hundred miles in 60 hours may not seem like too much of a task; after all, the world record for walking distance is just under 11 hours. But the Barkley Marathons course is unmarked (competitors are allowed a map and compass), has a cumulative ascent of more than 50,000 feet through thick forest, and is subject to extreme temperatures.

“The first lap was run in very hot conditions, too hot for my liking, and then the second lap was the complete opposite, unbelievably cold with lots of rain,” said British racer Nicky Spinks after competing in the 2019 race. .

Meanwhile, runners must locate hidden books along the route as proof of completion. That task was something beginner Enrico Frigeri, a 34-year-old Brazilian teacher and personal trainer, struggled with amid the twisting terrain and extreme weather.

After completing the first loop alongside a race veteran, Frigeri entered loop two alone, but had trouble navigating the course and therefore locating the books in time. “That’s when I knew Barkley had won,” he says.

Still, it was an impressive feat, given that he only started training for the event 45 days earlier, after being hospitalized for three months. “Just completing the loop was fantastic. I feel very satisfied,” he says.

With no official race website, flamboyant race legends are left to reverberate within the running community, some true, some not.

After paying just $1.60 to apply, successful entrants receive a ‘letter of condolence’. “Virgins” (first-timers) must contribute a license plate from their home state or country as part of their race fee, while returning competitors must submit an additional requested item. Changing from year to year, the above examples include a pair of socks and a flannel shirt. In the rare event that a previous race winner returns to take the course, a pack of Camel cigarettes is sufficient payment – the antithesis of today’s ultramarathon race fees, which can sometimes run upwards of $1,000 for known races.

Laz laughs when asked about “human sacrifice”. He or she is the runner that Laz supposedly thinks he is least likely to complete a lap, and is assigned bib number 1.

“It’s a common misconception,” he says. “People write and say ‘I want to be the human sacrifice, I’ll be terrible!’ No. Everyone there is an accomplished runner. All who are there belong. The people who are the human sacrifice are the people who don’t want to be the human sacrifice.”

Race veterans play a crucial role in the race, with their accumulated knowledge helping to maximize your chances of success.

“You have to have a mix of people,” says Laz. “Very few people are going to give their best effort the first time. So once people have gone through this whole process, you try to give them the opportunity to do their best. If they were all new, it would be catastrophic.”

With many veterans returning this year, including ultra-record-breaking runner Courtney Dauwalter, Laz is surprised 2022 hasn’t produced a champion. “You are always rooting for people to complete it. You know how much they invested and how high their hopes are, but you can’t always count on it. I really thought we would have a finisher this year,” he says.

One veteran, Tomokazu Iraha, a 44-year-old Japanese trainer, was “very excited” to return for his third attempt in the race after an involuntary hiatus due to the pandemic. With two years of Barkley experience behind him, Iraha felt confident.

“I was mostly alone unlike the last two attempts,” he says. “She felt great!”

However, despite his experience, he was one of the first to be “doomed”, according to Laz, proof that predicting the Barkley is nonsense. Iraha fell and hit his knee on a rock during the first loop, and time constraints forced him to retire after the second.

“When I got to Little Hell, the heavy rain made the steep climb very slippery, so it was like taking three steps forward and sliding two steps back,” says Iraha. “My feet [were] wet and cold until they finally went numb. I had five hours… to go under loop two cut [26 hours 40 minutes], but not for a five-loop cut. So the best thing I could have done at this point was a fun run.

“When you’re fresh and in a different mindset, you think you should go for that third cycle. But after you get hit and have a low core temperature after a very cold and rainy night, you don’t have that mindset anymore. I knocked on the yellow door at 26:15:27, giving me plenty of time [to consider] a third cycle rotation. Laz and everyone else encouraged me to do it: ‘You got it, Tomo!’ So I went to the bathroom to rethink as I sat under a warm shower to bring my body temperature back…but my body refused to come back…my third Barkley was over.”

However, like others, Iraha is not intimidated; he aspires to be the first Asian man to finish the Barkley. “It’s kind of scary to take on a challenge when there’s so much chance of failure,” he says. “But I’m sure that’s the beauty of the Barkleys. And that’s why I’m so hooked.”

Laz shares Iraha’s optimism for 2023. “There are people who are ready,” he says. But it’s the Barkley Marathons after all. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

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