The Toughest Race in the World Ended Without a Single Finisher – Again

Written by Charlie

The toughtest race in the world has continued its incredible reputation of defeating each person who started it this year. This is the race that “eats its young.”

What is largely known as the toughest race and the race that “eats its young” again was triumphant against all competitors. The very difficult Barkely Marathons ended last week in the same way it has so many years before – without a single finisher.

The Toughest Race in the World Ended Without a Single Finisher

Link: The Barkley Marathons

While I am sure many people have races that they would put at the “toughest” rating, all of those other races actually have people that have finished it! This race, the Barkley Marathons, more often than not does not have any finishers!

What is the Barkley Marathons?

The Barkley Marathons is an ultramarathon event run in the Tennessee mountains and is really an ultra-purist’s race. The race director, Gary Cantrell, started the race in 1986 as a result of hearing that an escaped prisoner (the man who murdered Martin Luther King Jr.) from a nearby prison was only able to make it 8 miles in 55 hours due to the difficulty of the mountainous terrain.

He thought it would make an incredible 100 mile event. In order to finish the Barkley Marathons, a runner must do it in under 60 hours.  The 60 mile “fun run” was added as well with a cutoff of 40 hours.

Even those distances are the ones given (there are 5 loops of 20 miles each), they are really more of an approximate distance. Since the course changes all the time, the distance can change as well and sometimes runners have said the loop could be as long as 26 miles each – making for an extra 30 miles over the full course of the race!

To add more to the interesting nature of the race, there is no official start time. It starts whenever Gary Cantrell lights his cigarette. Also, when each runner drops, or taps, Taps is played on the bugle for that runner.

The Entry Process for the Barkley Marathons

There is a unique entry process – it involves interested runners writing an essay-styled answer to “Why I Should Be Allowed To Run The Barkley.” As for the entry fee, it was one of the cheapest races in existence requiring only $1.60. They must also send or bring other things that have varied over the years – a license plate from their home state, a pair of blue or black gold-tie socks, a flannel shirt, a pack of cigarettes, etc.

The Barkley Marathons Race Course

It is a self-supported race with only 2 water stops on the 20 mile loop. Each year, there are 9-11 books on the course with pages that have the runner’s number on them. The runner is required to use only a map and compass to find each one along the loop, tear the pages out, and bring them back after each loop. For a loop to be completed, it requires each page.

This course has an insane elevation of over 60,000 feet – this is more than any other 100 miler. Only 15 runners have actually finished this race in the history of the race. The last winner and sole finisher (in 2017) did it in 57 hours and 30 minutes – a pace of over 34 minutes per mile!

The 2021 Barkley Marathons

This year, they had a number of first time runners due to the issues around coronavirus. Runners had to be vaccinated or to have had the virus and recovered (the event takes place in a state park). There was one runner that was at the 3:04AM start this year who had finished the race three times before – Jared Campbell. Considering the race has only had 15 finishers, that is pretty impressive! Courtney Dauwalter, the 2019 UTMB champion, was also on the course this year.

Several hours of rain, mixed with cold, made this year’s running more difficult than it might normally be. There were only two runners that made the cutoff to begin the third leg of the race (each leg being 20 miles). Jared and another runner, Luke Nelson, were those two runners. In the end, the course won again as they did not beat the cut-off to start a 4th leg but they did complete the “fun run”, the 60 miles in a time of 39 hours, 4 minutes, and 8 seconds for Luke and one second later for Jared.

S, the Barkley Marathons course, again, proved to be the winner but that does not take anything at all away from the 40 runners who had the guts to start this incredible race. There is a movie about it on Netflix if you want to see some of all this for yourself!


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About the author


Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.