Day 6

The Barkley Marathons: The gonzo backwoods endurance race most people can't find, let alone finish

The gruelling, super-secretive Barkley Marathons gets underway on Saturday. The race is equal to five marathons through the punishing backwoods of Tennessee. You don't get a T-shirt, a medal or even a map. And in more than 30 years, only 14 people have ever finished it. John Fegyveresi is one of them.
Competitors gather for the official start of the 2012 Barkley Marathon in Wartburg, Tennessee. (YouTube/Barkley Movie)

On Saturday, 40 runners will gather in the backwoods of Tennessee for one the weirdest, wildest and most difficult trail races in the world.

The Barkley Marathons — plural because it's actually five marathons stacked together over 60 hours — is now in its 32nd year. A successful finisher will have to run 161 kilometres through rough, unmarked terrain, and they'll have to climb the equivalent of Mount Everest. Twice.

I think [these challenges] are good for people. It's important to be able to maintain your equilibrium when things are not designed to help you out.- Barkley co-creator Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake

They barely eat, and some won't get any sleep for two-and-a-half days.

98 per cent of the people who try to run the Barkley don't finish. But, as Barkley regular John Fegyveresi tells Day 6 guest host Rachel Giese, the pain is nothing compared to the pride of finishing.

"It's definitely one of the proudest moments I've ever had in endurance sport for sure," Fegyveresi says. "The Barkley was one of a kind for sure. It's the most poignant experience I've had at any sort of event."

He also says he wakes up everyday and wonders how he pulled it off.

"I feel like that didn't really happen," he says. "I'm not even an elite runner. I'm just a normal runner. How did I somehow pull this off?"

The Barkley's unlikely origin story

Gary Cantrell, who also goes by the pseudonym Lazarus Lake, is an ultra marathon pioneer. He's been coaching runners for decades and organizes a number of races in the region of Wartburg, Tennessee.

He started the Barkley with his friend Raw Dog, whose real name is Karl Henn, in 1985, after an argument over a prison escape. 

Like all prisons, the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was built to keep the inmates in, but the Tennessee backwoods surrounding it present an added challenge.

James Earl Ray, incarcerated for the murder of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., managed to escape in 1977. He ran for the hills, where he hid for two-and-a-half days. In that time, Ray only made it 13 kilometres.

Cantrell recalled this event and revealed his need for challenge and pain in a conversation with Day 6.

Lazarus Lake and Charlie Taylor at the 2016 Barkley Marathons. (The Barkley Marathons)

"Before he escaped, I saw those trails on the map and thought what a great place they would be to go, and even had a fantasy that you could run a race over them because it would be so brutal," he says. 

Ray's escape was big news but so was his inability to get very far.

"I was both an outdoorsman and a runner, and I said 'I could have gotten 100 miles in two-and-a-half days.' So when we put the race together, we said we'll see. We wanted to know if it could be done."

In 1985, Cantrell and Henn created The Barkley Marathons in Tennessee's Frozen Head State Park.

Distance and punishment

The Barkley has grown along with its personality. In the early days, there were just a handful of competitors, most of whom were friends of Cantrell and Hunn. Now, the pool is capped at 40, with an ever-growing number turned away.

The Barkley has also developed its own personality, with sections called Big Hell, The Bad Thing, Testicle Spectacle and Rat Jaw.
David Horton, a past participant in the Barkley Marathon, checks the map where contestants will make their way through the woods. Horton is one of 14 that have completed the 161 km course. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

"I think these challenges are good for people. It's important to be able to maintain your equilibrium when things are not designed to help you out. Not knowing when the race is going to start, not getting a course map until the night before the race — lot of things happen that keep you from preparing in advance so that you have to be reactive," says Cantrell.

It's a physically and psychologically debilitating adventure, one that you almost certainly won't finish. In fact, in 32 years,14 runners have finished a combined 17 times.

Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake, hangs licence plates near the start of The Barkley Marathon. First time runners have to bring a licence plate as part of their entrance fee. (The Barkley Marathons)

If the threat of a hellish experience isn't enough to steer most people away, those still determined have many hoops to jump through before getting registered.

For Cantrell, the application process offers a taste of what runners can expect for their future: intricate, confusing, and rife with unknowns.

There is no contact information on The Barkley Marathon blog and it's considered taboo to share registration instructions.

The two percenters

To some, The Barkley is nothing short of torture. To others, it's an irresistible challenge and a community. 

Fegyveresi completed it on his first attempt, and became the subject of a documentary in the process. He's been going back for more ever since.

John Fegyveresi touches the gate to complete his fifth and final lap. In 2012, Fegyveresi became the 12th person to ever finish the Barkley Marathons. It was his first attempt. (John Fegyveresi)

"I discovered the family atmosphere to this event. There's a really close-knit group of amazing people," he says. "I've really grown to enjoy the people, the company and the stories."

And Fegyveresi is no stranger to endurance challenges. He's completed the Badwater Marathon, which dubs itself "the most difficult foot race in the world." 

"When people ask me what's harder, that [Badwater] or Barkley, I don't even hesitate. It's definitely Barkley," he says.

Fegyveresi credits his success to a string of good luck and diligent preparation.

"You really just have to obsess over it," he explains, citing the months he spent memorizing a map of the park.

There are no prizes given to the Barkley Marathons finishers.

"It's really just an ultimate sense of relief that you've done it," he says.

The Race That Eats Its Young

The year Fegyveresi first competed in the Barkley, Annika Ilitis and Timothy James Kanea were on-site to film a documentary.

The Barkley Marathon: The Race That Eats Its Young brings viewers closer to Barkley's secretive, insider world and added to the growing public awareness of this secret society.


Fegyveresi says the newfound attention is "polarizing" to participants. He says the older generation prefers to keep it sequestered, while new runners are thrilled it's making a name for itself.

Aside from the differences in experience among newbies and legacies, Fegyveresi says there's not much else that characterizes the type of person who signs on for this.

"People come from all walks of life to this event. I guess they all have their own reasons but the underlying theme is that people just really want to try to see what they're capable of at the most extreme level," Fegyveresi says.

To hear Rachel's full conversation with John Fegyveresi, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.