The Barkley Marathon, also known as “The Race That Eats Its Young”. This punishing 100 mile race has been operating under the radar as the world’s most challenging “anti- ultramarathon”. From an underground affair to cult obsession that attracts only the most hardened runners, we talk to the players and characters of ‘ the masochist’s marathon’.
John Kelly, 15th finisher of the 15 runners who have completed the Barkley.
It’s just a complete all round test of all your capabilities and limits. It’s about finding where your failure point is, where your weaknesses are, and how far you can push forward with those.
Where Dreams Go To Die
Founded over 30 years ago by the now fabled figures of Lazarus Lake and RawDog, the race was inspired by the failed attempt of James Earl Ray’s prison escape in 1977. Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr attempted a bold escape from Bushy Mountain State prison, one of the most isolated maximum security prisons in the state. After 54 hours and 8 miles later, the convict was captured , delirious and broken, having travelled only within the labyrinth of mountain and forest. When hearing the local tale Laz declared he could run 100 miles in the same amount of time, and thus, the Barkley was born.
The race consists of five loops of 20 miles ( although most runners believe they are closer to 26). It is in total, a 130 mile race within Frozen Head State Park. Runners must complete the race within 60 hours, although the “fun run” option available presents a mere 60 miles.
Outside of any clear trails, runners traverse a course that include a 45 degree mud slop ( known as ‘Leonard’s Slide’), ‘Rat Jaw’ a struggle through snarled saw briars, and navigate a 10-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep gouge within dense forest known as ‘Son of a Bitch Ditch’. The cumulative miles of ascent and descent amount to the equivalent of traversing Mount Everest, twice.
Since 1986 few have participated in it, and far fewer have finished. With only 15 finishers totalling 18 finishes between them, the race is nearly impossible, or at least absurdly difficult. Incorporating extreme physical endurance, sleep deprivation, military grade navigation skills and in many ways a deeply twisted sense of humour, it is easy to see how this race has been dubbed ‘the race that eats its young’.
Frozen Head State Park, the iconic entrance gate and start of the Barkley.
Annika Ilitis, Producer of The Barkley Movie
The point is you sort of know you will most likely fail.
Good Luck Morons
Filmmakers Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane created the documentary “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young” around the 2012 Barkley marathon. “Lazarus Lake and RawDog wanted to create something that was at the absolute limit of human capability. And the point is you sort of know you will most likely fail” says Iltis. “To start something like that, to start a journey as opposed to a destination, is so unique nowadays. Alot of people talk about how important failure is, but really how many people put themselves in that position?”
“You’ll most likely fail but how much will you learn about yourself in the process.”. The majority among those drawn to the Barkley as competitors are entrepreneurs, physicists, PHD graduates, engineers and scientists.
The direction list of the Barkley with corresponding books.
It really is a chess match. The race makes a move, and you’re trying to keep up.
Runners who complete the race don’t receive medals, acknowledgement or press. In an increasingly homogenised world, the hunger for challenge seems to present itself to a rarified few.. “For people who have finished it, it is all about that personal challenge, pure challenge… I know for me and the other finishers, that if we had finished and no one outside camp would have ever known, we would have been fine with that” says John Kelly. Kelly the 15th ever finisher of the Barkley grew up across the street for the Frozen Head State Park. His family having lived on the land for over 200 years, it was his third attempt at finishing the race. “It really is a chess match. The race makes a move, and you’re trying to keep up. Trying to think 5 or 6 steps in advance constantly adjusting. It’s not just a running race, it’s not just navigation. There is a huge amount of mental aspects, and you really have to go in prepared for anything”.
Books that mark the Barkley course. Runners tear out the page that corresponds to their jersey number.
Help Is Not Coming
With no official information about the Barkley Marathons published or publicly distributed, entry requirements alone are a challenge to navigate. Hopeful entrants to the gruelling marathon must submit a written testament to their dedication entitled “Why I want to run the Barkley”. This is accompanied with the compulsory donation of an entrance fee amounting to a total of $1.60. With only 40 volunteers are picked a year, the lucky few receive a welcome pack that encloses a condolence letter, and requests of material tribute. In some years, this has been a pair of white tennis socks, a plaid shirt, or whatever stock Laz requires. Other eccentric requests include that virgins of the race must bring a license plate from their home state, while veterans bring a packet of camel cigarettes for Laz.
Each year an unsuitable (and unfortunate) candidate is nominated as a ‘human sacrifice’. An individual is selected who is unsuitably prepared, but usually the most cocky for the Barkley. Their tenacity is swiftly distinguished and they return home with their proverbial hat in hand before the first loop. Other volunteers plummet into the depths of their physical and mental bounds, some training for years to reach the Barkley only to get lost within the woods.
Unmarked and unmanned, the trail is marked only by books sequestered at specific stations along the route. Runners tear the page according to their competitor number and deliver them to Laz at each loop. Titles have included: “What Did I Do Wrong?,” “Confessions of a Virgin Sacrifice,” and “How to Survive and Grow Richer in the Tough Times Ahead.”
Annika Ilitis, Producer of The Barkley Movie
Some people want to call him a masochist.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Lazarus Lake, a grey bearded man in his signature plaid shirt is really the heart of race. Leaning nonchalantly against the iconic yellow gate, Laz pulls his first drag on a cigarette which in turn marks the starts the race. “Laz himself, some people want to call him a masochist, under all the dark exterior and dark sense of humour” says Iltis, “but really he wants people to push themselves and do well”.
You have to get to a point where every single part of you is screaming to stop and give in.
The Bad Place
The Barkley may be the the ultimate test of human endurance, of sleep training, of navigation, of physical determination and training, but ultimately it is a deeply personal pilgrimage of endurance and faith for those involved. “There’s internal motivation and external motivation. No matter who you are if you’re going to be successful at the Barkley” says Kelly, “you have to get to a point where every single part of you is screaming to stop and give in. And external motivation, at that point, is not sufficient to push past that.”
It is a race, a puzzle, a drama, tragedy and comedy at the same time, but the takeaway from Frozen Head park seems to be a deep sense of humanity. In the face of failure the best emerges, “What I hope is that it motivates and inspires alot of people to see others being able to push themselves past their own limits, and use that as inspiration themselves” Kelly.
John Kelly is the 15th finisher of the Barkley. He has 3 small children and lives with his wife outside Washington DC and is currently training for a Kona Ironman World Championships while working full time as a Director of Analytics.
Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane are producers and filmmakers responsible for the smash hit documentary “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young”. After stints on Mad Men a short article on the Barkley piqued their interest. Within a month they were scouting locations with Lazarus Lake, they funded their documentary via Kickstarter and it went on to win multiple awards.
The film is now available for free to subscribers on Amazon Prime in the US & Canada, and available for rental or purchase on iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, etc. It is still available on Netflix in the rest of the world (until October).
You can find the film here.
Lazarus Lake is currently walking the width of the United States of America and was unable to comment.