The Barkley Marathons: The toughest hike in the world, here in East Tennessee

Only 15 people have completed this 100-mile backcountry race at Frozen Head State Park.
Only 15 people have completed this 100-mile backcountry race at Frozen Head State Park.
Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 1:24 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 16, 2023 at 12:52 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

WARTBURG, Tenn. (WVLT) - If you go to Frozen Head State park just outside of Wartburg in late winter, you may run into a group of campers and runners crowded around a wall of license plates and a special yellow gate. They’re there for one of the hardest hiking races in the world: the Barkley Marathons.

The Barkley Marathons is not for the faint of heart. It’s a 100-mile, unmarked backcountry hike with a two and a half day time limit held every year at Frozen Head State Park. Gary Cantrell, who everyone knows as Lazarus Lake, designed (and continues to modify) the race to be as tough as humanly possible.

Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell
Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell(WVLT)

“It’s a 100-mile foot race, four 20-mile loops around basically the boundary of Frozen Head State Park,” Lake said. “It’s got about twice the climb of climbing Mount Everest from sea level. It’s on a lot of unmaintained trails; there’s no course markings. The runners have to carry everything they need to survive for each 20 mile loop.”

The logistics of the hike are just as interesting as they are difficult. Runners are assigned a number for each loop and must navigate using only a map and a compass to several spots in the woods where books have been placed. Those books act as proof that the runner has followed the required path; contenders have to tear out their assigned page numbers and present them to Lake after each loop.

First-time racers are required to bring a license plate from their home state or country to enter. Those plates are strung up at Frozen Head’s campsite, where racers prepare for the Barkley.

Those racers get a night (or less) to prepare. At a random hour between midnight and noon the first day of the race, Lake blows a conch horn to let racers know they have one hour before the Barkley starts. At the end of that hour, Lake lights the all-important cigarette that signifies the start of the race, and the contenders hop Frozen Head’s yellow gate and begin.

The Barkley Marathon: The toughest hike in the world, here in East Tennessee
The Barkley Marathon: The toughest hike in the world, here in East Tennessee(WVLT)

Lake and his friend Karl Henn created the race in 1985 after backpacking in Frozen Head. While those trips into the wilderness partly inspired the race, Edwin “Frozen Ed” Furtaw, the first person to ever finish the Barkley, said history helped inspire it as well.

Read More: ‘Frozen Ed’ | The first man to finish the hardest hike in East Tennessee: The Barkley Marathons

“He created this race in part because of the famous prison escape of James Earl Ray, who was the scoundrel who assassinated Martin Luther King. He was incarcerated at the Brushy Mountain Penitentiary, which is located on the perimeter of the park,” Furtaw said. “In 1977 Ray and several others escaped from Brushy Mountain. Ray was out there in the mountains for 54 hours and when they tracked him down with bloodhounds, he was only about eight miles from the prison.

Gary and his friend were familiar with the mountains here; they camped and hiked here. Gary said ‘in that amount of time, I could’ve done 100 miles,’ because he was already an ultra-runner in the late 1970′s.”

Thus, the race was born, at least the first iteration of it. The original Barkley consisted of three backcountry loops adding up to 50 miles with a 24-hour time limit. Since then, Lake has made the race harder and harder, adjusting the course until landing on the Barkley we know today.

“He’s trying to keep it at the limit of human-endurance,” Furtaw said. “That’s why he adjusts the course. He makes it harder when people finish it, and if it goes a few years where no one can finish the hundred, he backs it off a little bit. He’s really kind of a creative genius.”

Edwin "Frozen Ed" Furtaw
Edwin "Frozen Ed" Furtaw(WVLT)

Since the first race in 1986, only 15 people have finished the Barkley. Lake said he sees thousands of applications each year from top runners and hikers hoping to be number 16.

“There’s a 1% finishing rate; there’s been 15 finishers since 1986. People come from all over the world,” Lake said. “Some of the best endurance athletes around the planet come to see if they can become number 16.”

How do these runners enter the race? That’s kind of a secret, Lake said. Neither the application process, nor the dates of the race are published. It’s an exclusive club; of all the applicants, only 40 get to take the challenge.

“The entry process is not actually published, and we still get thousands of applicants,” Lake said. “Then we weed it down to the ones that really qualify to be here and do a drawing to get the 40 runners that come.”

Most ultraMarathonss have aid stations set up for runners every few hours. That’s sort of the case for the Barkey, but Lake said his stations might not be as much help to the racers, given recent weather at Frozen Head.

“We do have a couple of water drops, which today are actually ice drops,” he said. “But if they should have a need for 8.8 pound blocks of ice, we’ve got them for them!”

It’s an intense race, but one Lake said top runners are happy to take on.

“About 1% of the endurance athletes that there are around the world qualify to get in and they want to be part of the 1% of the 1%. It’s a tremendous personal challenge and it’s a lot of fun to be out in the wilderness and totally self-reliant,” Lake said. “It’s actually a lot of fun, even though there is some discomfort involved.”