This sinister marathon ‘that eats its young’ has no winners
It’s hard to finish, but also hard to resist
Billing itself as the “Race That Eats Its Young”, the Barkley Marathons is the most evil event in sport.
More mean-spirited than Jose Mourinho protecting a 1-0 first-leg lead and more devious than an Eddie Jones press conference.
It took place last weekend, but you will not find any list of winners: for the second successive year, no one completed it.
Indeed, in its 33-year history there have been only 15 finishers in a field containing the world’s most elite ultramarathon runners.
To complete the Barkley Marathons, five 32km loops of the course must be navigated within 60 hours.
There are many longer ultra-marathons, some of which take place in 38°C heat.
What makes the Barkley so fiendishly tough is the unforgiving terrain of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee.
Runners who make it to the end will ascend and descend 37km – the equivalent of climbing up and down Mount Everest twice.
Oh, and there are no fixed trails to follow.
Instead, runners have to make notes from a master map and navigate thick undergrowth with nothing more than a compass.
To ensure no shortcuts are taken, 13 books (with titles such as Heart of Darkness and A Time to Die) are hidden along the route and runners must tear a page from the book corresponding with their bib number.
The first two loops are run clockwise and the next two anticlockwise, although few make it that far.
Just to complete three loops, known as the Fun Run, is seen as a considerable achievement.
By this stage, if the body is not screaming, the mind certainly is.
Sleep deprivation means hallucinations are a frequent occurrence.
In 2005, one runner was convinced that he was a dustman who needed to collect the rubbish from some nonexistent houses on top of the mountain.
Britain’s Mark Williams was the first to complete the Barkley in 1995, fuelled by tea and cheese sandwiches.
But every time the course is conquered, it is made harder the next year.
The diabolical mind behind it belongs to Gary Cantrell, inspired by the prison break of James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
The escape was not particularly successful. Ray went 13km in 54 hours. A keen ultra-marathoner, Cantrell figured he could have covered 161km in that time and so the Barkley was born.
As befitting someone who likes to go by the name Lazarus Lake, his race is full of eccentricity.
There is no official start time. Instead, runners will set off when Cantrell lights a cigarette.
He positively delights in telling people they are going to fail. Every time a runner either fails to finish or quits, a bugle plays the Taps, more commonly associated with military funerals.
All of this is recorded by an excellent Netflix documentary.
Cantrell limits the field to 40, and the application process is secret. This year, only six runners made it as far as the third loop, and only three completed the Fun Run.
None of this will deter thousands more from attempting to apply next year. The scent of evil is apparently impossible to resist.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)