How Martin Luther King's convicted killer inspired an ultramarathon
Day four of our look at some of the toughest ultraruns in the world leads us to Tennessee in a trail that was inspired by the convicted killer of Martin Luther King. No, seriously.
By Declan Whooley
The Barkley Marathon, Tennessee
Since 1986 over 700 runners have attempted the Barkley Marathon in Tennessee and just twelve runners have completed the 100 miles within the official 60 hour cut-off point.
If that doesn’t scare you even slightly then you must be one of the twelve triumphant runners. Or else you are off your meds.
The course is often altered but is a 20 mile loop to be completed five times. There are no aid stations, in fact there isn't even any medical staff. There are two water points and the runner’s car at the beginning of the loop.
Loop three and four are run in opposite directions and the final lap is the runners choice. The cut-off is 12 hours for each loop which may seem more than achievable, the severe climbs have to factored in.
Climbs at the Barkley commonly rise 2,000 feet in little more than a mile so runners experience crushing climbs and quad bursting descents. The accumulated climb is 54,200 feet, almost double the height of Mount Everest. Oh, did I mention that the route is completley unmarked? No? Well it is.
The race is limited to just 35 runners and all entries must contain an essay on ‘Why I Should Be Allowed to Run In the Barkley.’
Here is ultrarunner Charlie Engle telling of his attempt to join the elite band of finishers, sharing his fears and nervousness ahead of the big run. Check out the other Youtube clips on his page to see how he managed in the end.
The organisers are strict in their implementation of race rules. In 2001 Blake Wood and David Horton thought they had managed what most can’t, finishing the course with less than two minutes to spare. To their dismay they were disqualified for inadvertently leaving the course to follow a parallel route for 200 yards.
For many, the lack of navigation aid is as daunting as the physical exertion itself.
Competitors must find between nine and eleven books along the trail and remove a page from each book as proof of completion. More than 30 competitors have failed to reach the first book at two miles.
Facts and figures
Gary Cantrell came up with the idea for the race after some unlikely inspiration. James Earl Ray, convicted of the assassination of Martin Luther King, escaped from prison in Tennessee but made it just eight miles after running for 55 hours in the woods. Cantrell believed he could do 100 miles and so the race was born in 1986. He never did and it was nine years before Mark Williams became the first man to have completed the race before the cut-off.
Incidentally Ray always denied the murder and recanted his original confession. The King family met with Grey and concluded he had nothing to do with the murder and even campaigned for his release. He died in prison in 1998 from Hepatitis C.
$1.60 and a licence plate from your home state or country.
2012 winning time
52 hours, three minutes and eight seconds (course record)