Limits And The Barkley Marathons

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest contributor Brad Bishop.]

It’s simple to create an impossible race. Put a 12-hour time limit on Western States. Require six summits of Pikes Peak in a day. Run a million miles in your lifetime.

It’s simple to create a race that most can finish. They exist in droves on the streets and trails in towns all around us, with training programs, aid stations, mentors, coaches, and liberal time limits so all can taste success at the finish line.

It’s difficult to create a race right on the edge. The edge is always changing. The Barkley Marathons currently puts forth this challenge: 60 hours to complete 100 (or more) miles, 67,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, an unmarked course, often extreme weather, and countless additional confounding factors. Over 32 years, it has refined itself to ride this very fine edge, remaining possible, but only for those with truly exceptional drive, dedication, and determination.

A Real Challenge

“If you’re going to face a challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.” – laz

Each year in Tennessee, people gather to test themselves.

Each year, nearly all participants find a limit. It may come in many forms: physical, mental, navigational, nutritional, or myriad combinations.

The Barkley requires a complete skillset. Fierce determination is a pre-requisite. Speed can cover for other lapses. Broad strokes include navigational prowess, adaptations to ever-changing weather, experience with long-duration intense effort, sleep management. A race can be broken by a lack of simple, specific skills such as foot care and preparation, finding and following a bearing, proper use of trekking poles, and napping prowess.

Success at Barkley has been correlated to two distinctive traits: post-graduate degree holders and thru-hikers. What do these have in common? Dedication. Months and years of preparation. Attention to detail. An aspiring Appalachian Trail thru-hiker should not appear at the trailhead with their standard day- or weekend-hike preparations. A doctoral candidate cannot present their defense without laying the groundwork of research and preparation. It is the same for a successful ‘Barker.’


“For some people, to finish the Fun Run is the accomplishment of a lifetime. And for some of them to finish one loop is the achievement of a lifetime.” -laz

What is success at Barkley, though? The implication is a finish. Five loops in under 60 hours. Yet this has only been possible for 15 people in 32 years.

Is there success to be found at Barkley other than a finish?

If I’m being honest with myself, I believe a finish is beyond my absolute limit. What motivates me toward that DNF, then? The allure of presenting my full self, applying years of preparation, development of skills, appearing in my peak physical shape–and finding out what the best version of myself can achieve.

When I first started pursuing Barkley, the differences between myself and finishers were many. In the pursuit of Barkley, I have been pushed to acquire new skills. Some I still strive for, and may never achieve: uphill hiking speed. An edge-riding, bushwhacking downhill pace. Some I have grown in greatly: comfort with severe terrain, confidence navigating in fog, practice with extreme foot care, experience in racing for 60 hours. But I reach for all regardless.

The Hardest Part

I’m often asked what the hardest part of the Barkley is. Is it the briars? The hills? The mud? The race director? In most races, you encounter stretches where you can mentally rest. You can follow a marked route through common terrain with definitive checkpoints. You can settle into a comfortable, sustainable pace and relax into the monotony.

The spaces for this at Barkley are few. Nearly every second you are out there, you need to be fully mentally engaged. Watch your foot placement. Check your bearing. Anticipate the next turn. Navigate the terrain. Monitor your energy, hydration, alertness, chafing, feet, and so much more. Maintaining this high level of mental functionality for 60 hours (or even 24) is to me the hardest limit.

Beyond Your Control

Other limiting factors exist that are out of a runner’s control: the start time, the weather, the course changes. Each of these can restrict how far and fast you will be able to travel. A prepared Barker does not allow these to become mental-stress points, however. They accept these factors, incorporate them as part of their training, and develop them as new skills.

Watch the runners’ faces when Taps is played. This year, like so many, the expression was often initially one of regret and disappointment. A runner stares off into the forest as the bugle’s notes ring out, and you can see their minds weighing the choices they made in their preparation and execution. Some show sorrow, others look as if they are already hungry for another chance. Those with that hunger are already taking stock of their deficiencies, preparing to overcome them, and return with that limit overcome to push even further.

Your Full Self

There are other ways to test your limit. You can strive for faster times. You can seek longevity. You can self-impose additional degrees of difficulty. On New Year’s Day of 2013, I registered for the Bighorn Trail 100 Mile, without considering my upcoming wedding plans for May 18 (one month before race day) or the rest of my life’s responsibilities. It took a couple weeks for me to realize that I could not 1) Work full time; 2) Plan a wedding; 3) Prepare to move; and 4) Properly train for a mountain 100 miler.

Not wanting to give a compromised effort to any of the former, I simply stopped running. Entirely. I showed up on the Bighorn start line having run a cumulative total of 16 miles from February 1 through race day. I powerhiked 66 miles before missing a cutoff. That was my limit that day. But it was contrived. It was not truly the full limit of my full self.

At this and many other races, I have started with something less than my best. While I find amusement and encouragement from those experiences, they do not give me the satisfaction of testing my limits. The challenge feels compromised, the success somewhat contrived, compared to the races that I gave a full, focused preparation.

Yet you can achieve a popular definition of success–a finish–while offering less than your best. Runners talk of their ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C’ goals, with a finish as the latter-most. There is satisfaction and joy in achieving that finish, especially when overcoming additional self-imposed challenges. Yet it comes with the weight of knowing there was more to gain.

What makes Barkley different, then? That same effort level at the Barkley will most often leave you short of any pre-imagined goal. A partial effort will not find the finish line. At Barkley, you have the opportunity to see what the best version of yourself can do. To find success at Barkley, your full self is required.


Brad traipses about the trails around Fort Collins, Colorado and beyond, dividing his time between running, family, work, and serving as the Hardrock 100’s Aid Station Director. His current life goal of completing 10 Grand Slams (two down, one in progress, seven to go) inspires both misty-eyed day dreaming and farcical self-ridicule. He has participated in the Barkley Marathons as a runner, crew, and media, and knows a Fun Run is within his limit.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Does something like the Barkley Marathons appeal to you? The idea of working at the very limits of your ability for an extended period of time?
  • What do you think about the concept of an event in which almost everyone ‘fails?’
  • Many people say that in ‘failing’ there is sometimes ‘winning,’ some feeling that despite not reaching a challenge’s end goal, the process of trying is a good experience. What do you think of that?

There are 9 comments

  1. Luke

    I’m glad the Barkley is exciting people and pushing them to find their limits and think about what it takes to do nearly impossible things. Personally I’ll look for those challenges with real possibilities for failure in other places that I find much more interesting and enjoyable. As a mediocre runner I have a wide selection of things that are at or beyond my ultimate potential, and there are so many beautiful and inspiring places and races in the world and for me this just isn’t one of them.

  2. Run2bwell

    The challenge in Ultra running will always be how to manage a full time job, full time wife, kids, and getting the necessary REM sleep which comes with 8 hours of shut eye. Great article.

  3. Andy M

    I second Luke’s general sentiments — looking for “challenges with real possibilities for failure” but also with real chance for success! Even for most of us who have completed trail 100-milers through mountainous terrain — what others tell us is unbelievable and crazy — Barkley is probably not in our wheelhouse. 100+ miles with 67k vert and no trail or aid stations? Heck, I don’t even like to drive that far!

  4. Drake

    What makes this so different from other races is the genuine love for running. There’s no gigantic entrance fee that can sometimes push out runners like myself who can’t afford fee after fee throughout the year. The creator is such an interesting guy and almost an American folk hero. I could listen to him tell stories for hours.

  5. Quigley

    The Barkley marathon appears to be a nice and fun, little quirky event. Speaking personally, I would love to try an event of that sort. That being said, I think it is really sad that this tiny event gets as much media attention as it does. There are only 35-40 slots at Barkley every year. That is basically the equivalent of zero. If you are interested in running realize that you will not get in. Sure, you could go to the area and run yourself, but that is not quite the same thing. Someone really needs to design an event of this type with open entry that anyone could go and try. Perhaps, something like Nolan’s 14 is similar, but even that appears to get only a tiny fraction of the attention of Barkley. I really think that irunfar and other media outlets should spend less type hyping and covering such a tiny and non-competitive event. Yes, there are a handful of outstanding athletes that have finished Barkley, but a race really can’t be competitive if there is no competition, and given the tiny field size, there never will be at Barkley.

  6. George

    I think Barkley isn’t really a race. At least not a race between runners, more like runners vs. trail.

    Similarly, here in Slovenia we have this Slovenian mountain trail. 600 km (372 miles) long journey through the Alps. Since 1953 more than 10000 people have finished it, but only 10 have run it. It is considered that you have run it if you finish in less than 14 days. So yes, only 10 successful runners in 65 years. And the trail is open all year long, no entry fees.

    Barkley is a huge challenge, no doubt, but there are many many other amazing challenges across the world.

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