The Barkley Marathons 2024: The World's Hardest Race - The Running Channel Advertisement

The Barkley Marathons 2024: The World’s Hardest Race

BY: Mark Dredge
22 March 2024

At some point between midnight and midday a man called Lazarus ‘Laz’ Lake will stand next to a yellow gate in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, and he will blow on a conch shell. Exactly one-hour later, 35 people will stand in front him, ready to run The Barkley Marathons.

Widely considered to be the world’s most difficult running race, and certainly one of the most idiosyncratic, the run officially begins when Laz lights a cigarette. Runners then have 60 hours to run five unmarked, viciously hilly, and thorn-covered off-trail loops of the park, collecting pages from books at checkpoints along the way. The race has a 98% failure rate.

At 5.17am on Wednesday 20th March, Laz lit his cigarette and the 2024 Barkley Marathons was underway. Those who followed along for the full 60 hours of the run were rewarded with one of the most thrilling and important finishes in the race’s history.

THE WORLD’S TOUGHEST ‘MARATHON’

It’s called a marathon, but really it’s more like five marathons back to back, covering over 100 miles, with the equivalent elevation of running up and down Everest twice, without any significant waymakers or technology to help, most of it off trail, and a lot of it run at night. If runners have any hope of completing it, they won’t sleep for the next 60 hours. Over 1,000 people have attempted The Barkley Marathons, and only 17 have finished it, with no female finishers.

Each of the five loops begins and ends at the yellow gate, and collecting pages from books proves that runners didn’t take any shortcuts on the unmarked course. Runners change direction each loop, and if anyone makes it to loop five, then the first runner chooses their direction and runners behind them alternate. Runners can have a crew to help them in the race camp, but on the course there’s no support, and just two locations to fill up water bottles. 

It’s one of running’s most obscure and challenging events, and yet it’s become one of the most infamous because of several brilliant documentaries, including The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young and Where Dreams Go To Die, which have told the world about this mad run in the middle-of-nowhere that destroys the world’s greatest ultrarunners.

And so this race captures an obsessive momentum each year as those in the know follow the sufferfest from afar, hanging on intermittent updates posted to X by a man called Keith.

KEITH

As it is every year, Keith lets us know that the conch has been blown and the cigarette has been lit.

For the next 60 hours, running fans get race developments through his short posts, an anachronism which somehow suits the race’s analogue approach in which runners are given a map, a compass, and a basic digital watch without any GPS (the watch isn’t even set to the right time). There are no live video feeds, no 5K splits, no dots to watch, and supporters have no way of knowing how runners are doing until they make it back to the yellow gate – assuming they make it back.

For 60 hours we hang onto Keith’s updates, reading things like “A tall skinny guy in a red hat is past the fire tower,” or “Nondescript guy is somewhere between the fire tower and someplace else.” We read times and cut offs and none of it really makes much sense, but that’s part of the joys of The Barkley Marathons.

LOOP ONE & LOOP TWO 

This year, 35 runners start the race in the dark, head torches on and blinding the few camera phones which are recording. It’s hard to tell who’s taking part, and there’s no official starting list to help us.

There’s a secrecy to the race, and while online whispers give us clues as to when it might begin, we don’t find out much information until the race progresses, with details and pictures beginning to find their way online, and spreadsheets become populated with names and loop splits. There are some big names running in 2024.

John Kelly, seven-time Barkley runner and two-time finisher is here, as is Aurélien Sanchez, who won in 2023. Harvey Lewis, the Backyard Ultra world record holder, is returning for his third Barkley Marathon having twice previously failed to complete his second loop. Ihor Verys, who took the ‘assist’ in Lewis’s world record, is starting his first Barkley. Veteran Jared Campbell is back to race again, looking to finish his fourth Barkley (he’s the only three-time finisher of the race). Briton Damian Hall, who finished four loops in 2023, is back, as is fellow Brit Jasmin Paris, who completed three loops in both 2022 and 2023, becoming only the second woman to ever begin loop four. No woman has ever finished a fourth loop.

All of this information comes in while we wait for more updates on the runners.

A little before 2pm on the first day, the first runners complete their first loop. It took them 8 hours and 31 minutes to return to the yellow gate and hand in their book pages to be checked. Laz has a busy 15 minutes as 11 runners return close to each other. Most spend less than 20 minutes in camp before beginning loop two. 

Of the 35 starters, only 23 begin loop two, and only 13 finish that loop. Five of them come in together after 19 hours and 27 minutes: John Kelly, Jasmin Paris, Damian Hall, Ihor Verys, and Frenchman Sebastien Raichon. It’s a harsh course, even in the bright sun. Photos are posted of determined yet dishevelled runners, with legs, hands and arms criss-crossed with thorn scratches. 

It’s Groundhog Day for Harvey Lewis, one of the world’s greatest endurance athletes, who fails to complete loop two for the third time. After dropping out, he posted his thoughts to Instagram. “The toughness of the course is difficult to put into words.” 

A LETTER OF CONDOLENCE

Only the best ultrarunners are selected to run The Barkley Marathons and yet the race has a 98% failure rate. You either fail or you complete it, but either way you suffer greatly for many hours. Somehow that suffering makes runners want to return again and again.

The race was inspired by the prison break of James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. As an air search happened above the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary from which he’d escaped, Ray was on the run for 54 hours but only managed to get 8 miles away from the prison because of the brutal and mind-bending landscape. Experienced ultrarunner Laz (real name Gary Cantrell) figured he could have got 100 miles away in that time, and so he plotted a race, and held the first one in 1986, extending the course to its current difficulty level in 1989. 

To enter the race, applicants have to write an application essay on ‘Why I should be allowed in the Barkley’ and pay a non-refundable $1.60 entry fee. Knowing when to write the letter, or where to send it, is information that you have to earn. If you happen to be accepted, you’ll receive a letter of condolence from Laz.

LOOP THREE & LOOP FOUR

If a runner completes three laps within 40 hours then it counts as a ‘fun run.’ Ihor Verys is the first to finish loop three, coming in after 31 hours and 31 minutes, five minutes ahead of John Kelly and Damian Hall. Jasmin Paris is 45-minutes behind, and after a quick turn-around she’s back out onto loop four. 

Of the 13 runners who start loop three, 12 complete the ‘fun run’ and get straight back out onto loop four – the most to ever get that far in a single year. The one drop-out was 2023’s winner Aurélien Sanchez. After the run he said: “I don’t know how I did that last year.”

Verys and Kelly complete loop four together after 45 hours and 46 minutes. Hall, Campbell and Greig Hamilton, a runner from New Zealand, are close behind. Then comes Paris, the first woman to ever finish loop four, and will be the first to begin loop five.

Verys is the first to start loop five, taking the clockwise route. Each runner starting loop five will alternate direction from there. Campbell and Paris leave camp at the same time, with Campbell offering Paris the choice of which direction she’d prefer. She goes clockwise.

With six runners out on their final loop, Sebastien Raichon, who had to go and re-run a missing part of the end of loop four, gets back to the yellow gate just inside the 48-hour cut-off time, and begins loop five with three minutes spare.

It’s the first time that seven runners have started the fifth and final loop in the same race. Between 2018 and 2022, no one even completed a fourth loop. But a finisher is still far from guaranteed.

LOOP FIVE 

Each of the seven runners finished loop one between eight hours 30 and eight hours 47. They finished loop two in around 11 hours. Loop three took 12 hours. Loop four took most runners over 14 hours. If anyone is going to complete the 2024 Barkley Marathon, they have to run their final loop faster than they finished loop four. Jasmin Paris has 13 hours and 30 minutes to become the first female finisher of the race. 

This is where the Barkley Marathon gets really exciting.

The quality and tenacity of the remaining runners makes us hopeful for finishers, but those seven runners are deep in thorny thickets, off-trail over some of the toughest terrain you can (try to) run on, exhausted to the point of hallucination, running as if being stuck in a fever dream where you’re late and lost. And while they endure the hellish conditions, we just wait to hear from Keith, who is posting cat pictures. 

Updates are sporadic, and hard to decipher. A certain runner passes a certain landmark at a certain time into the race, but that means almost nothing on a looped course where runners are going in different directions, having started their loops at different times. 

It’s that unknowing that makes The Barkley Marathons special. When supporters back in camp eventually see a runner coming through the trees, they won’t immediately know who it is. They also won’t know if they are still racing or if they’ve dropped out and are just finding their way back on ‘Quitter’s Road’. Anything can happen now. 

And what happens is exhilarating, even when experienced through Keith’s dry posts.

After 58 hours and 44 minutes, the first person to return to camp is Ihor Verys. He wins the race and becomes the 18th Barkley finisher. At the finish, he jokes: “Maybe you should add a sixth loop.”

There’s a 30-minute wait until the next runner comes into view. It’s John Kelly and he finishes his third Barkley.

Damian Hall is next in, but he comes from the direction in which he left. For the second year in a row, he fails to complete loop five.

After 59:30:32 Jared Campbell becomes the third finisher of the day, and completes his fourth Barkley finish. There’s less than 30 minutes left now, and still three people on the course, including Jasmin Paris.

Next into view comes Greig Hamilton, who touches the yellow gate in 59:38:42. He’s the 19th Barkley finisher.

The only thing to do is hit refresh over and over on Keith’s tweets. He posts that Sebastien Raichon fails to complete loop five – he just ran out of time. But where is Paris?

Refresh. Refresh.

And then it comes.

Jasmin Paris is the first woman to ever finish The Barkley Marathons, and she does it with 99 seconds to spare. One second per mile slower over the race and she wouldn’t have made it. She becomes the 20th person to finish the race. You can find out more about Jasmin here.

What a gruelling and incredible finish to an incredible race.

Here are the finishers of The Barkley Marathon 2024: Greig, Jared, Ihor, Jasmin and John. 

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