It’s a Mad, Mad Marathon
Modeled after a prison break, an extreme race tests the limits of self-sufficiency
Image by Flickr user: Michael Hodge / Creative Commons
On the western edge of Frozen Head State Park, just before dawn, a man in a rust brown trench coat blows a giant conch shell. Runners stir in their tents. They fill their water pouches. They tape blisters. They eat thousand-calorie breakfasts. Some pray. Others ready fanny packs. The man in the trench coat sits in an ergonomic lawn chair beside a famous yellow gate, holding a cigarette. He calls the two-minute warning.
The runners gather in front of him, stretching. They are about to travel more than a hundred miles through the wilderness—if they are strong and lucky enough to make it that far, which they probably aren’t. They wait anxiously. We, the watchers, wait anxiously.
At 7:12, the man in the trench coat rises from his lawn chair and lights his cigarette. Once the tip glows red, the race known as the Barkley Marathons has begun.
The first race was a prison break. On June 10, 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from a federal penitentiary and fled across the briar-bearded hills of northern Tennessee. Fifty-four hours later he was found. He’d gone about eight miles. Some hear this and wonder how he squandered his escape. One man heard this and thought: I need to see that terrain!
Over 20 years later, that man, the man in the trench coat—self-dubbed Lazarus Lake (known as Laz)—has turned this terrain into the stage for a legendary ritual: the Barkley Marathons, held yearly (traditionally on Lazarus Friday or April Fools’ Day) outside Wartburg, Tennessee. Laz used to run the race himself, but never managed to finish it. Only eight men have ever finished. The event is considered extreme even by those who specialize in extremity.
What makes it so bad? No trail, for one thing. A cumulative elevation gain nearly twice the height of Everest. Saw briars that turn a man’s legs to raw meat. Hills with names like Rat Jaw, Little Hell, Big Hell, Coffin Springs.
The race consists of five loops on a course that’s been listed at 20 miles but is more like 26. Standard metrics are irrelevant, the laws of physics replaced by Laz’s personal whims. Guys who could finish a hundred miles in 20 hours might not finish a single loop here. If you finish three, you’ve completed what’s known as the Fun Run. If you do not finish, Laz plays taps to commemorate your quitting.
There are no published entry requirements. It helps to know someone. Admissions are decided by Laz’s discretion, and his application includes questions like “What is your favorite parasite?” Only 35 entrants are admitted. This year, one of them is my brother. Julian is a “virgin,” one of 15 newbies who will do their damndest to finish a loop.
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