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The Barkley Marathons is a 100-mile endurance run through the brambly hills of Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. It’s thought to be one of the most difficult ultramarathons in the world. The race is known for its crazy rules and its even crazier course—think bushwhacking, route-finding with (very) limited course markings, crawling and climbing a cumulative 54,200 feet of vertical, all while branches are clawing away at your skin.
Gary Cantrell (a.k.a. Lazarus “Laz” Lake), the brains behind Barkley, came up with the idea for the race after he heard that James Earl Ray—the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.—spent 55 hours running through that same Tennessee wilderness when he escaped from a nearby prison in 1977, and made it only eight miles. (He was promptly caught and returned to prison.) Cantrell wanted test whether he and other runners could go farther than that, and thus Barkley was born.
Typically, the Barkley Marathons is put on in March, and entrants must complete five laps around the extreme course, taking up to twelve hours per loop. To put the difficulty into perspective, only about 15 out of every 800 participants finish. This year, not a single person crossed the finish line.
Starting in 2014, the Barkley Fall Classic, a shorter version of the same race, has given runners a taste of the Barkley experience. The event was held this year on September 19, with “marathon” (22.8 miles) and 50K courses. Despite the significantly shortened distances, one third of participants did not finish.
Brandon Yonke, a young ultrarunner and photographer, was at the Barkley Fall Classic to cover the event, and captured the gritty, gnarly spirit of the race in a series of photographs from Rat Jaw, one of the course’s fearsome climbs, and the start/finish area. (These photos first appeared on his blog, and are republished here with his permission.)
Look on for a glimpse into one of the world’s most difficult ultras. Who knows, maybe you’ll be inspired to test yourself next year!
Rat Jaw, one of the defining hills of the Barkley course, is a completely off-trail climb through thick briars that tower over the runners’ heads in places.
Caleb Denton digs deep on the way to the top of Rat Jaw.
Emerging from the briars is, indeed, a reason to smile.
With each step forward, Troy Allen slips a little bit backward on the loose, uncertain mountainside, but ultimately reaches the top of Rat Jaw.
Runner Josh Berry took a fall on the way down Rat Jaw. The rocky footing cut his knee down to the bone. Berry walked four miles down Rat Jaw to the next checkpoint, at 22 miles, skin flapping open with each step. Laz, one of the Barkley race directors, informed him that “there’s no Boston Qualifier at stake, no PR to shoot for. We can have somebody drive you back [to the finish] so you can get stitches.” Berry politely declined the offer for a ride, instead, picking up a hiking stick and walking himself to the paramedics, and from there to a “marathon” finish.
The treacherous footing on the way down Rat Jaw.
Scott Breeden, the eventual men’s winner, is the first runner to the top of Rat Jaw. Having fought the briars, rocks and trail-less mountainside for over a mile, his game face is impressive.
Alicia Rich is the first woman to the top of the climb, on her way to becoming the first women’s finisher in 8:57.
An athlete shows off some battle scars.
After reaching the top of Rat Jaw, runners must climb to the top of an observation tower, which serves as a check-in point. (Athlete pictured: Jason Lantz.)
After 50 kilometers, this group of runners has earned the right to call themselves finishers of the Barkley Fall Classic.
There was an abundance of excitement and amazement at the finish line. Here, two finishers watch as a fellow runner rounds the corner and runs the last steps of the Barkley Fall Classic.