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The Bizarre Odyssey of the Barkley Marathons

Inside the legendary ultra challenge, which reminds us why it's good for runners to face defeat every once in a while.
The start of the 2009 Barkley Marathons.

The start of the Barkley Marathons in 2009.

The 2018 Barkley Marathons is over. The legendary ultradistance challenge consists of five 20-mile loops (although sometimes the distance can be as many as 26 miles per loop) through the savage hills and thorny underbrush of Tennessee's Frozen Head State Park.

On March 24th the race started exactly as it has started for the last 32 years. Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell, the race's founder and organizer, lowered his head, struck a match, and did something that belies his status as one of the nation's earliest ultrarunners: He lit a cigarette and took a drag.

Two and a half days later, with the 60-hour limit reached, every runner had either dropped out or failed to meet one of the time cutoffs. Canadian ultramarathoner Gary Robbins, who last year endured the agonizing experience of finishing the Barkley six seconds after the cutoff time (after going off course near the finish)—was the only athlete who managed to complete the so-called "fun run" by doing three loops in under 40 hours.

Not finishing the Barkley is undoubtedly disappointing. But with only 15 runners ever having completed the course in the allotted time (that's about 1 percent of all runners who have done it), it was hardly unusual for the race's bugle boy to step up and—another one of this race's quirky rituals—mark the failure of each of this year's 40 entrants by playing "Taps."

The Barkley Marathons is sort of the Ulysses of long-distance running. Few know how to even approach the thing (the application process is notoriously arcane, as much of a state secret as can be kept these days), if they do get accepted they quickly get lost, few finish it, and those who do make it to the end experience the kind of euphoria that only comes from the soul.

As a case in point, watch the reaction to John Kelly's 2017 finish—in the first two minutes of this clip. After an outburst of applause, a profound kind of quietude settles over the scene as a catatonic Kelly sits in a chair and experiences something ineffable. The next scene is Robbins' excruciating realization, as he finishes, that he'd gone off course. The emotion throughout is awe-like.

In other words, the Barkley experience is special in a life-altering way. Recalling that the United States banned Ulysses for a dozen years after its publication, it is also safe to say that the Barkley—in what it asks of its participants—is a little obscene. "Sometimes the Barkley wins," Cantrell said, clearly pleased with the results of this year's contest. "They couldn't beat the mountains."

As the proverbial author of the Barkley, Cantrell has succeeded in creating something that, also like Ulysses, defied a genre people thought they understood. His inspiration, appropriately enough, was rooted in criminal activity.

Buried in the jagged hills where this race transpires is the maximum-security prison that once held Martin Luther King's assassin, James Earl Ray. In 1977, Ray escaped and, over the course of nearly 60 hours, covered less than eight miles before getting caught. When Cantrell, who was then at the height of his ultramarathoning powers, heard this news, he scoffed and said he could have covered at least 100 miles in that timespan. Thus the race was conceived.

What really makes the Barkley unique is more than its weird rituals and absurd level of difficulty. The Barkley resists being hacked by canned training methods, nutritional regimes, and increasingly superior equipment.

On April 16th, tens of thousands of runners will run the Boston Marathon. By any standard, the course is unusually difficult, with a series of hills humbling runners between miles 16 to 20. Thousands of runners who have been training for this year's race have been following a hot new training approach outlined in a book called The Hansons Method: A Renegade Path to Your Fastest Marathon. Chances are good that they will conquer those hills and see much improved times. And that'll be great for them.

Gary Cantrell lights a cigarette to signal the start of the Barkley Marathons in 2009.

Gary Cantrell lights a cigarette to signal the start of the Barkley Marathons in 2009.

But it's also kind of predictable. Both professional and dedicated recreational runners have been steadily improving times, setting higher and higher standards of success along the way, by benefitting from the variety of methods we devise to make the challenges we face more likely to be conquered. Notably, as marathoning itself becomes much more of a recreational activity, and more people run-walk courses (or just walk them), average marathon times have gotten slower. But for those who want to set a goal to run faster, they can, through means that have less to do with sheer guts and more to do with sticking to a prescribed plan, do so.

But the Barkley Marathons is immune to such stratagems. This year's entrants included a star-studded field of the world's strongest ultramarathoners, probably the most impressive set of entrants ever. And the outcome was as dismal as it has ever been. "I thought I was better trained than ever," said Barkley veteran Jamil Coury. "I was humbled more than ever. This was supposedly one of the strongest fields ever. I wouldn't have believed you if you said that was the result this year."

The humbling nature of the Barkley has a hidden benefit. People who run ultramarathons tend to be people who are accustomed to many forms of success. Recent research exploring the downside of frequent success hypothesizes that when success becomes ingrained in a person's identity "individual often develop an overblown belief system, suggesting a high level of entitlement and an exaggerated sense of hubris."

Return to that clip of John Kelly's finish in 2017 and you'll see that even the few who finish this race find themselves silenced by pain, suffering, awe, and a delirium of humility. Cantrell is sometimes criticized for being a sadist who panders to masochists. Here's another way to look at him: as a person who understands the value of highly accomplished people giving everything they have and, at the end of the effort, having nothing to show for it but an out-of-tune serenade of "Taps."