How Tough Is The Barkley Marathons?

So, for almost anyone who has been involved in or around the ultra running world for any length of time, chances are you’ve heard of the Barkley Marathons. Though it’s kinda been a bit of a “hidden jewel” for years, the recent documentary Barkley Movie has begun to shed more light on this crazy and mysterious race.

Personally, I read about the Barkley back when I was still in the Navy. Long before I had ever ran my first ultra, my first marathon, or even my first half marathon. Even back then, I thought it sounded rather interesting and intriguing.

Though I have only heard about the course and the mystique of the race from acquaintances I know who have done it, or those I know who have ran parts of the course, I’ve always wondered how tough it really is?

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Barkley Marathons. Over the course of these 30 years, only 14 people have finished, though there has been one 2 time winner and this year’s winner, Jared Campbell, become the only 3 time winner.

The race itself is labeled has a 100 miler, broken up into 5 x 20 mile loops. However, if you ask those who have done even one loop of the race, they say it’s closer to 25-28 miles per loop, totaling 120-130 miles and boasting 60000 feet of elevation gain (yes, you read that right..supposedly there is 60k of elevation gain, not just elevation change).

From second hand chatter, as well as the documentary and various articles on the internet, most participants say that aside from the climbing, it’s the orienteering and contention with the famous saw briars that make Barkley so tough.

Unlike your typical 100 mile race, Barkley has no aid stations (outside an occasional water drop), and is one of very few where the course is not marked. To navigate the “course”, one must use actual land navigation skills to find various ‘check points’ out on the course, that are comprised of the runner having to rip pages from a book that correspond with their bib number, to ensure they actually hit the checkpoints and don’t cut/cheat the course. This year alone, I saw a couple social media posts from actual race entrants who were “timed out” on the first loop because it took them several hours of searching to locate one of the books. So, as you can see, it takes more than just physical ability and skill to become one of the very few finishers of Barkley.

So while there is no doubt in my mind that Barkley is both physically and mentally demanding, is it as tough as it looks or sounds?

Now, before most of you roast me and scoff at the fact that I would even ask such a question, please continue reading.


So by looking at the list of finishers, you can see that it took nearly 10 years before Barkley got it’s first finisher. After Mark Williams became the first finisher, it was another 6 years before the next finisher(s) completed the race. In 2006, not even one person finished the 3 loop/60 mile “fun run”. In the 30 years since it’s inception, only 6 of those years have had even one finisher.

By pure numbers and statistics alone, it would be safe to assume that Barkley is hands down one of, if not THE toughest races on earth. But, is it?

Here we go!!

So while the number of finishers are quite small, so are the number of entrants. Every year, only 40 entrants are allowed into the race. Of those 40 entrants to toe the line, only a handful from those 40 even believe they can complete the ‘fun run’, let alone the entire distance. If you watch the documentary, even one of the co-founders of the race says something to the effect “every year, you have those people who show up that have no business being here”. If you ask me, that number is far greater than is told.

Of the few people I personally know to have attempted Barkley, all but one of them have never stood a chance. Despite a race that boasts 60k worth of elevation gain, I often see those who toe the line not having done barely any incline or strength training to prepare them physically for such a demanding course, let alone the land navigation skills it takes to find those damn books. Many of the entrants love the mystique and appeal of the Barkley but, it seems that most are grossly under trained and unprepared. While toeing the line is an accomplishment in itself, the vast majority never had a chance in hell to finish it.

Hell, just recently I have had several friends and acquaintances take on the Barkley Fall Classic, a race that does 30-ish miles of the Barkley Marathon course. Of those friends/acquaintances, 2 have finished and 9 have DNFd. With this event being 2 years old, there have been 264 finishers and 213 who have DNFd. Personally knowing the training of several of those entrants, I can say for sure that majority of them were grossly unprepared. When you fail to prepare, you have to prepare to fail. In my opinion, far too many people go into those mountains with 1.) lack of respect for the course and 2.) lack of specific training and preparation needed to even have a fighting chance.

Now, aside from those toeing the line who probably shouldn’t be, there has only been a small number of top tier ultra runners who have even attempted Barkley. Whether it is the quirky registration process, the lack of prize money or bling, or fear, we’ve yet to see the biggest names in ultra heading to Frozen Head State Park. As of now, there has been not one woman finisher and to my knowledge, only a couple to complete the 60 mile fun run. So, with all the badass women out there, you’re telling me this race is so difficult that none of them can finish, or, has there just not been enough badass women to enter?

Of the very few finishers over the years, you’ll note that those who have finished, have been those who have done fairly well in other tough events like the HardRock 100 or the Hurt 100, etc.

Essentially, to have even a snowball’s chance in hell of finishing the Barkley, it looks like you better be capable of going well under 20 hours for a flat course 100 miler, and even then, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to handle the rigorous climbing that smacks you in the face at Barkley.

Now, having never actually set foot in those mountains that host The Barkley, I have driven through and around the area and, that terrain is just gnarly and unforgiving. I have no illusion that my name will ever be on the list of Barkley finishers, however, I can say with confidence that I know how to train for it and how to train others for it. So, while it is a bucket list race for myself, as well as a few other Endurance Project athletes, I personally have already started the foundation building of what it will take to finish that race. While the registration process itself seems to be quite the task, rest assured that if I ever get to toe the line, I’ll be prepared to go the distance. There is no way in hell I’d ever go there knowing that quitting was a high likelihood.

I know every runner to toe the line at Barkley has had their own WHY and, I commend anyone who has even taken on something so daunting. Whether they have finished or even completed 1 loop, to be a part of something so tough and so mysterious, they have been part of a very very small group and, that in itself is something to be proud of.

So, until I can be a part of that group, by way of finish or DNF, I’ll just have to dream of those mountains, and train for them the best way I know how.

To read more about the craziness of Barkley, check out the link here Barkley and, checkout the documentary that was linked above (it’s now on Netflix by the way).

Congrats to those who recently took part in the race this past weekend and big congrats to the winner and only 3 peat champion, Jared Campbell!!


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