Ultra-marathons, the endurance races held in exotic locations the world over such as deserts or inside the Polar Circle, are designed for genuinely fit - and possibly crazy - athletes, but one secretive event in the US takes the genre to a new level.
The Barkley Marathons, held each year since 1986 over 100 miles of rough terrain in Tennessee, is arguably the toughest race in the world. Just 14 of around 1,000 entrants in those 28 years can say they have managed to complete the course within the 60 hour cut-off.
That the inspiration for the race came from a jail-break tells its own story. Escaped prisoners rarely have an easy time on the run, as Martin Luther King, Jr's assassin James Earl Ray found out as he fled the authorities in 1977.
He ran for 55 hours after breaking out of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, but was recaptured after being tracked down by bloodhounds having coveredjust eight and a half miles.
Even so, he claimed he could "do at least 100 miles", a quote which gave Barkley Marathons designer Gary Cantrell a bright idea years later.
Cantrell's course in Frozen Head State Park changes every year, but there is a definite recurring theme for participants: pain. The most recent version demands runners to climb a total of 59,100 feet - twice as high as Mount Everest - over five 20-mile loops, with no aid other than two water stations and their own parked cars at the beginning of the loop. There is no path, forcing entrants to fight their way through thick, prickly bush, and temperatures can flit wildly from freezing to scorching hot on the same day.
Along the way, to prove runners have indeed completed the requisite 100 miles, they must find a certain number of books which have been planted on the course and tear out the page which corresponds to their race number.
Cantrell recently summed up the race's modus operandi: “The Barkley is a problem. All the other big races are set up for you to succeed. The Barkley is set up for you to fail.”
Adding to the mystique of the event is the difficulty with which it is to enter. How to go about submitting a registration form is a closely guarded secret and only 35 applicants are accepted each year. Those who do find out how to enter must submit an essay titled "Why I should be allowed to run in the Barkley".
“There is no website, and I don’t publish the race date or explain how to enter,” said Cantrell. “Anything that makes it more mentally stressful for the runners is good."
Those who are given the green light must bring their vehicle's registration plate, which is then hung from a tree in one of several bizarre rituals the race boasts.
Others include: runners refusing to run in front on Cantrell, instead walking the first few hundred metres of the race before turning a corner and then breaking into a run; the start being signalled by the lighting of a cigarette; and hecklers berating competitors along the course.
Bonkers? Nearly as much as the people who actually want to race the Barkley Marathons.
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