Beating the Barkley Marathons | God's World News

Beating the Barkley Marathons

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    Jasmin Paris is the first woman to finish the Barkley Marathons. (Jacob Zocherman)
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    Jasmin Paris ran for almost 60 hours. (Jacob Zocherman)
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    Gary Cantrell organizes the Barkley Marathons. People racing for the first time must bring a license plate from their state or country. This photo is from the 2006 race. (AP/Wade Payne)
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    David Horton is one of the few people who has finished the race. (AP/Wade Payne)
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    People look at a map of the course. The Barkley Marathons are some of the toughest races in the world. (AP/Wade Payne)
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In March, ultrarunner Jasmin Paris became the first woman ever to complete what may be the world’s most challenging ultramarathon. How hard is the 100+-mile race? More times than not, this event has zero finishers.

Extreme elevation, thorns, hidden books, a conch shell blast—Barkley Marathons is supremely difficult and utterly quirky.

A Peculiar Origin

Running friends Gary Cantrell and Karl Henn concocted Barkley in 1986. The idea came from the prison escape of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassin. Running only at night, James Earl Ray supposedly covered about 12 miles in 54.5 hours in 1977. Cantrell scorned the low mileage, and a cockamamie idea was born.

The Barkley Marathons takes place in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. The course consists of five 20-mile loops mapped according to Cantrell’s whims.

That should add up to 100 miles. But race veterans put the actual length, including elevation changes and zigzags, at closer to 130 miles.

Strange Traditions

Each spring, 40 people who’ve paid a $1.60 entrance fee receive a “letter of condolence.” This document reveals the race date, which changes yearly along with the course.

The start can happen any time during a 12-hour window on race day. Participants arrive a day ahead and mill about until Cantrell blows a conch shell. That signals one hour ’til the race starts.

Barkley begins with runners passing the famous yellow gate. They must touch the metal—“Touch the gate!” barks Cantrell—after every loop.

On the course, runners navigate treacherous woods through daylight and dark. They may use maps, compasses, and headlamps but no GPS. Off-trail running means iffy footing, scrapes, and scratches. Altitude gains along the unmarked course total roughly twice the height of Mount Everest.

As if hard terrain isn’t enough, runners must also locate books hidden at checkpoints along the course. They tear out pages matching their race numbers.

Runners who quit for any reason must approach the yellow gate. A bugler plays Taps to signify “tapping out” of the race.

To finishers—should there be any—Cantrell holds out a big red button. “That was easy!” chirps the device.

Since 1989, only 20 people have finished.

Testing the Limits

This year, 40-year-old Paris, a veterinarian and mother of two, was one of a record five Barkley finishers. At the gate, she sank to the ground. 59:58:21—99 seconds to spare.

Paris hopes her feat inspires other women. “Everything in me was telling me to walk,” Paris says of the final grueling mile. “I somehow forced myself to go faster. I didn’t even know that was possible.”

While bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way. — 1 Timothy 4:8

Why? God gave humans amazing but limited capacities for physical, mental, and emotional challenges. When you face tough situations, His strength will always be enough. (Philippians 4:13)

For more on famous runners, see Eric Liddell: Finish the Race by John W. Keddie in our Recommended Reading.

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