Don't Run the Barkley Marathons — Because You Will Fail

You will fail.

That is the promise. Good luck even trying to enter. There’s no website on the internet, there’s no mail in form, people who have done the race will lie to you, there is barely even an entrance fee ($1.60 and a license plate from your home state), so forget buying your way in, only 14 runners have completed the race since it began in 1986 and it is continually modified to ensure one thing … that you will fail.

The Barkley Marathons was brought to my attention via a blog post my friend Toby sent me with the somewhat cryptic challenge of, “try this one next.” After reading through the post I was transfixed by the idea of this almost mythological race through the Tennessee mountains that, despite being the subject of an upcoming, crowd-funded documentary and having been a featured story in the New York Times, still remains an elusive and unflinching race in its resolve to stay the same even as everything around it changes.

Ultra-running, in the wake of such books as Born to Run, has become a trending sport among many people because there is nothing to lose by doing it. Ultra-running is an accessible sport in the way it continually challenges and it turns a blind eye to age, PR times or lifestyle. All it takes is a mental resolve to show up, devote the time and run. It is a worthy and welcome trend that anyone should feel welcomed to join in on.

But, as is the way with trends and the internet, things have a way of becoming well-trodden paths by the time you even hear about it. Everything has a way of selling itself out. People find something that they feel passionate about, spend, at most, a day's worth of research on a few websites and blogs and they are ready to pursue it free of trial and error. They know what to expect.

This is not to call out ultra-running as “sold-out,” as someone who was personally inspired by Born to Run, I am probably one of the late-comers to the long-distance running table and I am in no place to call anyone out. Rather, a race like the Barkley Marathons is a welcome change in the way it remains designed for people to not succeed. No one is meant to finish. No one is meant to win. It is set up for cold, hard failure.

There is not enough of that going around.

With running as just one example, most races that are entered come with the expectation of success. One enters to succeed and usually only enters when one knows she or he can succeed. There is a vanishing sense of the unknown when it comes to races (among so many other things). There are increments and working up to points and rights of passage that are being conquered by more and more people. What was once Mount Everest is now just an expensive, slightly uncomfortable vacation for many people.

 

The Barkley Marathons promise nothing. There is no prize if someone wins. There is tradition and an ideal in keeping the race as elusive as possible. The race was born from the attempted escape of James Earl Ray (the man who assassinated Martin Luther King) from Brushy Mountain State Prison which sits on the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee where the race is held. James Earl Ray escaped from the prison and he was found after 54 hours, lost, only eight miles from the prison.

This intrigued Barkley co-founder Gary “Laz” Cantrell who still presides over every race and chooses the 40 or so runners. Returning veterans bring him a pack of Camels to smoke while he waits for runners to quit. He chooses a “sacrificial lamb,” someone who has no business being at the race and the rest of the first timers must bring him a designated article of clothing, their home license plate and $1.60 (one cent for every mile of the course).

Those who want to race it bad enough find a way. There is no website and no sign-up sheet. According to an interview with Mr. Cantrell in Outside Magazine, you have to submit an essay at just the right time or else he deletes it and no one is told what time to submit the essay at. In the past it has been on Christmas Day, but who can really believe that? Half of the battle is actually getting selected to run in the first place.   

The rest of the race is an over-100 mile mixer of mislabeled maps, non-stop hills and books such as Heart of Darkness lying on the side of the trail waiting for runners to come rip out the page with their number on it. And don’t lose it.

For every runner who fails to complete the race, Cantrell personally plays them taps on his bugle when they finally make it back to camp.

The race promises failure and exists for no purpose.

With the 21st Century feeling of everything having been done before, it stands out when things remain elusive and made so that they remain untouched and un-glorified. Like art for art’s sake, a race for the sake of running, free of sponsors or returning (and expected champions) is a breath of fresh air. An event like the Barkley Marathons stands out because it takes a steady determination to even make it to the race. There is no prize given to the winner and there is no fear of failure because anyone who makes it to the starting line is probably going to fail.

The process of entering and running the Barkley relies on the determination of the runner alone; no one is there help you get there.

It is like finding an endangered species in the wild and while I may never compete in the Barkley Marathons, it is reassuring that not everything can be bought or sold out. Some things remain a mystery for the sake of being a mystery, remain unconquerable to most, with no prizes for the few and remain free of a bottom line or mission besides an unflinching desire to simply exist.

“You will fail,” should be the best reason to do anything. Did I mention that the race starts with the lighting of a cigarette? Badass.