The 2021 Barkley Marathons – The Start

Rob Howard / 18.03.2021
Courtney Dauwalter is running the 2021 Barkley Marathons
Courtney Dauwalter is running the 2021 Barkley Marathons / © Courtney Dauwalter Facebook

The most infamous, hardest and bonkers ultra race in the world began in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee this morning.

The Barkley Marathons is a legendary event, and while it is technically a race it’s really all about getting to the finish line.  Only 15 runners have ever managed to achieve that, none have done so since 2017 when John Kelly finished, and no women have ever completed the distance.

We only know the race has begun thanks a tweet from Keith Dunn, which is often the only source of reliable information on what is happening, so don’t expect blow by blow race reports, tracking and updates. It’s a very secretive event!

The tweet read, After a brief memorial for the members of the Barkley family who no longer are with us, the cigarette was lit at 3:04 am. The 2021 Barkley Marathons has begun.”

That’s right, the start was at 3.04 in the morning!  The race founder and organiser, Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell never tells the assembled runners exactly when the start will be, it could be any time of the day or night.  He blows on a conch shell an hour before to the start to let everyone know, and lights his cigarette when it’s time to go.

If you think that’s strange, just getting to the start line is equally bizarre.  There is no race website and the method for getting a place is not made public.  If ‘Laz’ does accept you he sends you a ‘letter of condolence’ and there’s an entry fee of $1.60.

We don’t know who is racing this year, but news will come out in bits and pieces. We know 2019 UTMB winner Courtney Dauwalter is there trying to be the first female finisher. Keith has tweeted one retirement already (Keith Mortimer after 5 and half hours), and has said one runner returned to camp 40 minutes after the start as he’d forgotten his bib, and another started 58 minutes late.

Both of those runners will be up against it as the race is 5 punishing 20 mile loops, which need to be finished within 60 hours.  Very few make it to loops 3 or 4, let alone 5.  The distances are ‘nominal’ and the terrain is steep, with the full distance said to contain around 16,500m of ascent.  (No one can be sure as runners are issued only the cheapest digital watch to time themselves and the course varies.) 

The route isn’t marked of course and there are no trails, just brush and bush. On each loop the ‘checkpoint’ is a book the runners need to find and they tear out the page matching their race number to take back to Laz.  Those who drop out at the event campsite stand with Laz while a bugler plays ‘Taps’.

The race was cancelled due to Covid last year, and this year is only open to those vaccinated or who have already had Covid, so it’s an American field for 2021.

We’ll share any news we hear as the race goes continues.

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