A Few Runners Actually Finished America’s Hardest Marathon

No one had completed the diabolical Barkley since 2017

Three runners running into the fog at the Barkley Marathons.
Only 18 runners have finished the notorious race since 1986.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

When a runner officially taps out of the Barkley Marathons, a diabolical,130-mile race up and down the southern Cumberland Mountains, a man plays “Taps” on a bugle.

It isn’t uncommon for the defeated runner — accustomed to being the most relentless and unflappable mother-you-know-what for miles around — to stand there and cry. They couldn’t finish the race. Of course they couldn’t. Only 15 have managed to make it to the finish line since race operator/jolly masochist Lazarus Lake invented it back in 1986.

Which makes the success of this year’s competition somewhat shocking. Three runners completed the Barkley, and one more got awfully close, making it to the final, 20-mile-ish loop. It’s the first time since 2017 that anyone’s completed the race, and only the second time (the other being 2012) that three of the 40 runners have finished.

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For those unaware: the Barkley was created after Lake (whose real name is Gary Cantrell) read about the escape attempt of James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, who broke out of the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. Ray lasted only 12 miles in the Tennessee wilderness before he was recaptured; Cantrell reckoned he would’ve been able to travel at least 100 miles, terrain, elevation change and weather conditions notwithstanding.

The Barkley became a cult classic amongst the ultra community over the last 35 years, as runner after runner tried and failed to complete the course. It calls for five loops of somewhere over 20 miles, which must be performed through the night in order to meet Cantrell’s 60-hour time limit. There’s about 63,000 feet of elevation gain, all told, and entrants must rip pages out of books scattered throughout the course (that correspond to their bib numbers) in order to prove they’ve completed full loops.

Things generally stay the same year over year: Cantrell populates the race through ultra-secret means (race “virgins” must write an essay explaining why they should be allowed to run the race; if accepted they recieve a “letter of condolence.”) They’re also expected to bring $1.60, a license plate from their home state/country and a pack of Camel cigarettes. Returning runners must bring whatever Cantrell needs that year — white shirts, socks, or a new flannel. The race officially starts when Cantrell lights a cigarette, and ends with a bunch of broken athletes heading home.

But in the 2023 installment, John Kelly (an American), Aurelian Sanchez (a Frenchman) and Karel Sabbe (a Belgian) all managed the race with at least 30 minutes to spare. A fourth runner, Damian Hall of the United Kingdom, got lost on his fifth and final loop, and had to call it quits after 53 hours on his feet. Other distinctions: Kelly’s finish makes him only person ever to finish the race more than once, while Jasmin Paris’s effort, which saw her start the fourth loop, set a new record for the woman’s side.

Has the Barkley lost its edge? Almost certainly not. This year, a lot went right for three talented men who came hungry and prepared. Kelly said it best, posting on Twitter after the fact: “Thank you to everyone for the support, and I hope some of what we get to discover out there is a shared experience. Or, if we’re all just a bunch of idiots running around in the woods, that at least it’s entertaining.”

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