Only 12 People Have Finished This Secret Trail Race. Ever.

The Barkley Marathons is a 100-plus miles trail race with a 60-hour time limit in the Tennessee mountains.

By | Hub Health |
Trail runner photo via Shutterstock

Trail runner photo via Shutterstock

Are you running the Boston Marathon this year?

The New York Times published a story this week on the most difficult trail race ever invented called the Barkley Marathons. It isn’t a marathon, it’s a 100-plus mile trail run through some of the toughest terrain imaginable. So tough, in fact, that the terrain is what ultimately captured James Earl Ray (the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.) after he escaped from prison. Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, which closed in 2009, sits on the eastern edge of the Tennessee state park where the race takes place. Ray only made it eight miles in 54 hours before being captured. According the the Times, he was found lying face down, his body scratched up, completely defeated by the terrain.

That story is what inspired Gary Cantrell, race director and founder, to create the Barkey Marathons, named after his friend, because they though they could at least beat Ray’s pathetic time and distance. Nearly 800 “ultrarunners” have attempted the race, and only 12 (and as the Times points out, the same number of men as have walked on the moon) have finished it—since 1995. There are no comfort stations and no GPS or cellphones are allowed. Runners get a map six hours before race time.

Entering the race is almost as miserable as completing it. It’s not about the fee, which is only $1.60. If you can figure out how to apply, which is an amazing feat in itself, then you have to follow specific rules and regulations. Tennessee parks only allow 35 runners to compete, and Cantrell tells the Times that he gets offers of thousands of dollars from people that want to enter. “You can’t buy the Barkley,” he tells the Times.

The Times explains how to enter, if you dare:

“There is no Web site, and I don’t publish the race date or explain how to enter,” said Cantrell, an accomplished ultrarunner who has never come close to completing his own race. “Anything that makes it more mentally stressful for the runners is good.”

Because so few participants are allowed, the details of how to apply are a closely guarded secret. The first step is to figure out where and when to send a required essay on why one should be allowed to compete. Runners are also required to complete a bizarre entry form with questions like, “What is the most important vegetable group?”

So why would somebody put themselves through this? Some ultrarunners won’t even enter (if they even knew how) because they say it’s more of an adventure then a race. But Cantrell tells the Times, “Humans are made to endure physical challenges,” he said. “The real joy is seeing people who find something in themselves that they didn’t know was there.”

So the next time you are considering running the Boston Marathon, or even a 5K charity race, think of this and maybe the 26.2 miles will seem like a Sunday stroll.