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Inside The Barkley Marathons, one of the toughest races on Earth

Posted on 18 Feb 2022

The Barkley Marathons is a race like no other, known only by true insiders until relatively recently. In this extract from 'The Finishers', which tells the stories of the few who have completed it, its creator, Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell, explains what makes The Barkley Marathons unique.

When Raw Dog and I backpacked the first Barkley Loop some thirty-five years ago, little did we dream what the race would become. Oh, we were fully aware it was going to be a bear of a race and, after taking ten hours to cover the first seven and a half miles (twelve kilometers) in relentless rain, we knew we had stumbled on something special.

Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell, © Alexis Berg

It took three years for the first person to finish the Fun Run. It was seven more before the first person took home the 100-mile (160-kilometer) course, and six more for a second and third finisher to join him. During this period, the reputation of the race grew, while at the same time the route grew more difficult. It would be another decade before the race’s fame spread beyond that exclusive community of “people who do this sort of thing.” But within that community, the race had already taken on mythical proportions… And the people who finished it became legends.

Over the years we have found that there is something different about those who join that short list of finishers. Everyone who steps up to the gate on race day is an accomplished runner. Those who answer the call of the conch are all tough. They are all in exceptional physical condition. They all are skilled navigators and woodsmen, capable of enduring extreme weather, monumental climbs, and screaming descents. They all come determined to finish.

© Alexis Berg

But those who touch the yellow gate five times have something more. We see it in their eyes when they arrive. They are there, but not there. They have come for one purpose only: to finish. Everything else is secondary. They may fail. They may fail repeatedly. But they never look for an excuse. Each failure is seen only as the opportunity to improve. No matter what happens to stymie their attempt, it is only a lesson to learn; an obstacle to overcome; another skill to develop; another puzzle to solve. Their response is always the same, no matter how unfair the defeat may seem… “I have to get better.”

We never imagined there would come a day when finishing the Barkley would have so much meaning. For most, it is a defining moment in their athletic career. The fifteen finishers are not necessarily the strongest, the fastest, or the most gifted. But from the moment they touch the yellow gate at the end of the fifth loop, everywhere they go they are regarded as elite. It is something deserved. They have succeeded where thousands of others have failed. They are the 1% of the 1%.

In The Finishers, Alexis Berg and Aurélien Delfosse have set about discovering what makes these fifteen people so special. What is different about them? Why are they capable of succeeding where so many great athletes have failed? Have the authors managed to find this out? Have they found a secret ingredient, a magic formula guaranteeing entry into this very select club? I cannot say. But I have been there to see all fifteen of the finishers come in for the final time. I watched them endure the unendurable and accomplish the impossible. I have seen them go out to start a loop, so battered that any reasonable person would quit. And every time that I have seen them come in for that fifth time I feel that I have been somehow elevated, just by being there. And today when I am faced with great challenges, the strength that I have gained, just by being exposed to their iron will, gives me the will to persevere.

© Alexis Berg

The Finishers

The Barkley Marathons Alexis Berg, Aurélien Delfosse