MORGAN COUNTY, Tenn. — Only 15 people have finished the ridiculously difficult Barkley Marathons in the previous 34 years. Now you can make it 35 years.
Tennessee State Parks canceled all events to help slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). That means Frozen Head State Park in Morgan County is no longer available for the Barkley Marathons, an annual off-trail race with a global cult following. Around 40 runners each year get a shot to complete the more than 100-mile race on an unmarked off-trail course within 60 hours.
The race's eccentrically entertaining director, Gary Cantrell, is commonly known to fans by the alias "Lazarus Lake" or "Laz." Whatever you call him, he said the cancellation did not take anyone by surprise.
"I felt like a couple of weeks ago, it was destined not to happen. I've been talking to people in Italy and they are a couple of weeks ahead of us. It felt like it was coming," said Cantrell.
Cantrell said the off-trail nature of the race does not allow the event to be postponed.
"The date that we have the race is deliberately set up so that we do our race right before the spring bloom of everything. That way if we make marks on the course, instead of sitting there eroding away they are covered with new growth," said Cantrell.
The Barkley Marathons is secretive in terms of the exact date the event will be held and who will be among the 40 elite runners invited to participate. There is no online registration. Participants have to figure out how to apply through word-of-mouth, write an essay explaining why they want to run the Barkley, and pay an entry fee of $1.60. First-time runners also donate a license plate. The plates are displayed each year at the campground in Frozen Head State Park where a yellow gate serves as the start and finish line.
"I was really looking forward to it. We had such a great field this year and we had great book titles set out," said Cantrell.
Runners are required to find books on the unmarked course and tear out the page that corresponds with their race number to prove they ran a full loop. Runners are given a new race number for each loop.
The Barkley Marathons has developed a huge following on social media with fans tracking the progress of the race with the hashtag #BM100.
Many runners and fans have expressed sadness about the cancellation of the Barkley, but also generally comment it was the correct decision.
Cantrell said he is personally disappointed because the 2020 field is especially strong. He also said the runners invited to participate this year will be invited for 2021.
"For the first time ever, everyone knows they'll be in and they have a whole year to prepare instead of just six months. The 'Barkers' will be back. We never give up and we never quit," said Cantrell.
When jokingly asked how much money he will lose with the cancellation of the 2020 Barkley Marathons, Cantrell laughed out loud.
"The same amount I stood to earn, which is none. The Barkley fund has expended money, but the race has always existed on donation," said Cantrell.
The Barkley Fall Classic is still scheduled for September 2020. It is a 50-mile version of the race on a marked course to give runners a small "taste" of the terrain of the actual Barkley Marathons.
The Barkley Marathons mocks the failed escape attempt of James Earl Ray from Brushy Mountain State Prison in 1977. Ray was in prison for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he made it over the wall of the prison, but only made it a few miles after two and a half days of running through the steep surrounding terrain.
"I said in that length of time I could have gone 100 miles, because I was young and cocky. That stuck in my brain and we eventually set that out as a challenge to see if it could be done," explained Cantrell in a WBIR interview in 2014.
The Barkley Marathons' course changes every year, with two exceptions. The start and finish line are always at the yellow gate at the campground in Frozen Head State Park. And the course always goes through the site of the former Brush Mountain State Prison, now a tourist attraction and moonshine distillery.