MORGAN COUNTY, Tenn. — One of the world's most ridiculous and punishing endurance competitions kicked off in Morgan County on Tuesday morning: the 2023 Barkley Marathons.
Organizers picked a delightfully cold day to begin the trail race.
Freezing temperatures settled into East Tennessee in typical March fashion. It's only fitting that the race's founder, Gary Cantrell, would wait until the pleasant weather retreated to send an international selection of runners off on a nearly three-day race through the unforgiving hills of Frozen Head State Park.
►WBIR Vault (2014): One runner finishes Barkley Marathons
Roughly 40 runners from across the world were chosen in a somewhat secretive entry process and were given a time frame for when the race will start. After they arrived, they waited until a conch shell was blown to give them a one-hour warning before the race. Runners then lined up in front of the yellow starting gate and waited for Lazarus Lake, which is Cantrell's pseudonym, to give the official starting signal: him lighting up his first cigarette and taking a puff.
The 2023 race officially began at 9:54 a.m. Tuesday, according to Keith Dunn, one of Barkley's officials.
As the race entered its final hours on Thursday, Morgan County native John Kelly was one of the last runners standing on the fifth and final loop.
By 8:40 p.m. organizers said John Kelly became the third runner to finish the Barkley Marathons more than once, after stepping across the finish line. His final time was 58:42:23, according to organizers. He is a Morgan County native and was the last person to successfully finish Barkley in 2017.
Another runner finished before him, Aurélien Sanchez. That runner finished after around 58 hours and 23 minutes of traversing the loops.
Karel Sabbe was the last runner to complete the fifth loop and cross the finish line, with a final time of 59:53:33.
Cantrell said he was inspired to start Barkley as a younger ultramarathon runner in the 1980s after a notorious event that happened in the park. In 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and tried to evade authorities in the hills of Frozen Head.
"We were laughing at him [Ray] only making 8.5 miles in 54 hours. 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," Cantrell said in a 2014 interview.
The world-renowned race was intentionally designed to be absurd in all manners. It's been described as "the race that eats the young."
Runners are tasked with finding several books scattered along the course that act as loop checkpoints for each of the five 20-mile laps. In order to complete a lap, they have to rip out pages in each book that matches their bib number. A crudely marked map serves as a runner's only reference for where those checkpoints are, and they often involve off-trail trekking. To add some extra "fun" to the race, Cantrell reverses the direction of some laps to keep surviving runners on their toes.
If you miss a page on a lap, then it doesn't count.
The book hunt alone dooms many runners on the first lap. The rest typically fall out when they can no longer endure the brutal terrain or exhaustion. Even elite endurance runners who've completed races in some of the most austere locations will fall short.
There is little consolation for those that complete the Barkley "fun run," which is achieved by those who make it to the 60-mile mark. Runners have described the "fun run" as a kind of mind game that tempts them to stop.
Since the first race in 1986, only 15 people have successfully completed the full 100-mile race before the 60-hour time limit arrived.
Among the elite 15 finishers is John Kelly, a Morgan County native. He was the last person to successfully finish Barkley in 2017 and is competing again this year.
Runners who successfully endure days of physical pain, mental exhaustion and sleep deprivation to finish five laps before hour 60 arrives will receive only one prize: the satisfaction of completing the Barkley Marathons.