The Allure of Barkley Marathons

Michiel Panhuysen Ultra X

Written By Michiel Panhuysen

Michiel Panhuysen is a journalist, ultrarunner, and the author of two acclaimed books in Dutch: De wietindustrie (co-authored with Nicole Maalsté), about the Dutch cannabis industry, and In de ban van de Barkley (In the Spell of the Barkley). He is a veteran of long-distance endurance events, none of which could adequately prepare him for the Barkley..

18 April 2023

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

The 100-mile race so hard that in its long history only 17 runners have finished. There is a secret entry procedure, a very peculiar race director and some strange rituals. The Barkley Marathons is in multiple ways an extraordinary race.

I started running in 2009 and used to run my weekly 25 km. A year later I read about The Barkley. From the first moment I heard about it, the race tickled my imagination. In 2010 it was hard to find information about the race – in fact, there is still no website or trustworthy source of information. The Barkley is shrouded in mystery.

I was so fascinated with this mystery that I decided to visit the race in 2011 and write an article about it for a magazine for pot growers in The Netherlands. During the race weekend I got trapped in a mindset that influenced me in a strong way across the years that followed. That weekend I stayed mostly at the campsite in Frozen Head State Park in Eastern Tennessee (US). I saw runners returning from their attempt to run their (5 x 20 mile) loops in the forest. Their skin was scratched from the briars as a big part of the course track doesn’t follow trails, but crosses the forest. I saw exhausted athletes that returned to the campsite after they got lost in the middle of the night, defeated by the Barkley. At the campfire by the Yellow Gate that marks the start of the forest track, I listened to the runners that reported about their experiences ‘Out There’ – Barkley language for the Barkley-miles in the forest. It was all so fascinating. After more than two days and nights of running, only one of the runners reached the finish line: Brett Maune. During his last loop he had to by-pass some parts of the course because some natural gas wells caught fire. All this spectacle was overseen by Gary Cantrell, a race director with a very special style and ideas about running competitions.

This mystery and suffering and extreme running was planted deep in my brain. For months after my return back to Europe I started training longer distances in more difficult terrain. One Barkley loop counts about 4,000 metres of elevation in steep terrain without trails. This needs specific training. I started to do hill repeats while carrying a 10 kg load of stones on my back. There’s no signposting in the Barkley, runners use a compass and map to navigate to unmanned checkpoints. At these checkpoints, runners take a page from a book that corresponds to their race number. Every new loop the runners get a new number.

Gary Cantrell, most people call him Laz (short for Lazarus Lake) counts the pages after a runner finishes a loop. Even just one page missing means disqualification.

My training became more and more ‘Barkley-ish’. Besides elevation change, my focus was on running in more adventurous and unpredictable terrain and I started to run ultra-distances. In 2012 I participated in my first Barkley as a runner. Of course I didn’t finish. During my 25-hour attempt, I learned my first ultra lessons: an ultra is always further than you want – to finish you have to enter a zone in your mind that makes you do things you do not really want to do. Ultra running is managing pain and discomfort. After I discovered ultra is not about having fun, I continued running long distances to learn how my mind and body function under difficult circumstances. In order to train my mind to accept the pain and uncomfortable situations I started participating in long mountain races. Ronda dels Cims (170 km) and Euforia (200 km with 20,000 metres of elevation) in Andorra, Legends Trail (250 km) in Belgium in wintertime, or Tor de Geants and PTL, two 200-mile races with a cruel elevation change in rough terrain. I always considered these races as training for the Barkley, even when they were longer distances, because this strange race had been my zero-point in ultra-land. I compared all other running activity to Barkley as a standard.

Three runners finished the Barkley in 2012, the first triple finish in Barkley history. In 2013 I returned to the race, and again in 2014. In both years runners finished and in 2014 Jared Campbell finished for a second time. Not me. I ran my last two Barkleys in 2016 and 2019, I never finished. Even with some more experience in the Barkley and running very difficult long trails in Europe I didn’t manage to complete even 3 loops, of the so-called ‘Fun Run’. The main difficulties are the time limits, which are pretty tight. Few runners that manage to finish have enough time to sleep for an hour or two during their race, they need all their time to stay ahead of the 12-hour time limit per loop. Good navigation skills are useful in this race, though most participants who run for the first time (the virgins) tend to follow a more experienced Barker (a veteran) to learn the route. Of course no one memorises a 20-mile stretch through a forest after one or two attempts, but it helps when someone is explaining to you which landmarks he or she uses for navigation

Gary Cantrell is the genius behind the Barkley. His idea was to create a race design in which humanity is challenged to perform in the best possible way. The race must be ‘finishable’, but in order to finish a runner has to go deeper than ever before. Creating an extreme race that cannot be finished by any runner is not difficult. To create a race that can be done by the strongest runner under favourable circumstances is way harder. With this philosophy of a ‘just doable race’ in mind, Laz makes some changes to the track of the race after every Barkley edition that has a finisher.

In 2016 Jared Campbell completed his third Barkley and in 2017 John Kelly completed the 5 loops within 60 hours. After 60:00:06 hours (6 seconds after the time limit) the Canadian runner Gary Robbins touched the yellow gate. But he got lost in the last part of his loop and came at the finish by a wrong way. He was disqualified. Dramatic pictures of Robbins laying on the ground before the Yellow Gate (the finish) shocked many. After Kelly no one finished until this year. In March 2023 Jared Campbell and John Kelly participated again, as well as 2013 finisher Nick Hollon. Kelly finished, as well as Aurelien Sanchez (winner) and Karel Sabbe. The Barkley was defeated for the first time in years. UK based Jasmin Paris and Damian Hall both ran three of the five Loops, which counts as a ‘Fun Run’. Hall also finished the fourth Loop, but had to quit in the fifth and final Loop. Paris did not manage to finish the fourth Loop within the time limit. However, the performance of both runners was remarkable.

To this day, no woman has ever finished the Barkley 100. Jasmin Paris finished the Fun Run in 2022 and 2023. The Barkley community is looking forward to the first woman who runs the 5 loops within the time limits.

This extraordinary race with its strange habits has inspired me since the very first time I heard about it. It introduced me to ultrarunning and guided me through many long-distance races. It became part of my running soul and I wrote a book about it in my native tongue Dutch. The English translation of the book is available in April.

In the Spell of the Barkley by Michiel Panhuysen is out now.

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