Finding Your Way to the Infamous Barkley Marathon
Of all the painful, miserable journeys that I’ve embarked on (or aspired to embark on), one of them sticks out as particularly brutal: The Barkley Marathon. This hundred-ish-mile race takes place each spring in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. Dreamt up by Gary “Lazarus” Cantrell, this is not a race for the faint of heart. In thirty-two years, only eighteen runners have ever finished the race, and no woman has ever completed it. Runners must complete five twenty-mile loops through the park. (Some runners claim that each loop is actually a full marathon, bringing the mileage substantially higher.) This must be completed in sixty hours, without breaks for sleep.
If this all sounds bad enough, I assure you, it gets even more ridiculous. The entry process is a secret, and to enter, you must convince a former entrant to guide you to Lazarus, who makes the final judgement call. Only forty runners are chosen every year, and competition is fierce. I’ve been sworn to secrecy about the process, and I won’t violate that trust, but I can offer the following advice:
Choose your target carefully.
My first thought was to ask for help from the other women runners. Girl power, right?
Well…not quite. When we’re all vying to be the first woman to cross that finish line, competition is fierce. Especially when Lazarus is notoriously wary of giving coveted entry spots to women. (A sore spot among the entrants.) I don't hold a grudge for their unwillingness to help me. Honestly, I'd probably feel the same way. But, unable to find any help here, I directed my attention toward the men.
I researched several past runners, and with the help of Facebook and Google, was able to find email addresses and social media accounts. One by one, I tried to convince them that I was fit to run the race. I told them about my exploits in Antarctica, my bike ride across the US, my mountain climbs…anything I could think of that would make them consider me their equal. Time and time again, they listened politely, but refused to share their secrets.
With only one name left on my list, I decided to switch tactics. My final hope was a young adventurer, a world traveler with marathons and mountain climbs under his belt. Instead of trying to prove my worth, I resorted to time-proven methods: flattery and adulation.
“OMG, you’ve been to Antarctica? I could never do something so dangerous!”
“You’re so brave! That climb you did was incredible!”
“I hope one day, I can do half the things you’ve done.”
Cringey? You bet. Swallowing my pride has never been easy, and reducing myself to a simpering fangirl was painful. But the old adage that flattery will get you everywhere proved true. Buoyed by praise, the runner finally gave up the secret, allowing me access to the Barkley entry process. A few obstacles later (I won't ruin the fun for new hopefuls), I was ready to finally send my submission letter to Lazarus himself. Below is my very first letter, one which didn’t gain me entry, but I think it was a fair attempt. Fingers crossed for a better outcome this year.
I am not a runner.
The most that can be said for my running is that it’s mildly entertaining for those around me. Arms akimbo, knees knocking together, all grace and dignity forgotten as I wonder why the hell I decided to go for a run in the first place.
I’m a mountaineer.
I climb for weeks at a time, until the altitude makes me puke and the weight of my pack rubs the skin off my hips. I’ve left blood on the highest peaks in Antarctica and toenails on glaciers in Russia, small sacrifices in the fight for a summit. The days stretch so long that the world around me begins to fade and the only thing that matters is that my feet continue to move, long after they’ve gone numb from the cold and pain. Thoughts of family and friends dissolve until the only people in the world are the ones I’m roped to. Despite the pain, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Back in the “civilized” world, I stand on my feet all day, cutting and coloring hair, just to earn enough money to spend a few more weeks trekking through the wilderness.
I’m halfway through climbing the highest peaks on every continent (Antarctica, Africa, Europe and Australia), and have been summiting mountains in the US for most of my 31 years. On the rare occasion that I’m not in the mountains, I bicycle. On a whim, I spent two months riding my bike solo from Florida to California, thinking it would be “fun.” It wasn’t. But it taught me the value of seeing an adventure through to the end, no matter how painful or lonely it becomes.
The Barkley attracts a wide range of masochists: marathon runners, through-hikers and Ironmen. But only one type of masochist loves to suffer in the very specific Barkley fashion. Mountaineers live to carry packs over hazardous terrain, tracing our fingers over the faint lines of our topo maps, eating Clif Bars for days on end while our joints scream with every ascent and descent. I’m ready to compete in your marathon, and I’m ready to be the first woman to complete it. Send in someone who’s been prepping for this challenge since she was a little girl on the Appalachian Trail.
Send in the mountaineer.
Thank you for your consideration,