Imagine a race with a total distance so long that it is referred to as “marathons” rather than a “marathon.” A race with 59,000+ feet of elevation gain. A race that has been in existence for 30 years but only flaunts 14 finishers. And a race that has yet to see a female complete the entire course. That is The Barkley Marathons.
A “Race That Eats Its Young”
Started in 1986, the 100-mile Barkley is affectionately referred to as the world’s hardest race. The application process is a secret and the course is unmarked, with only a map and compass allowed. Runners are asked to complete five loops of the 20-mile course within 60 hours. The 2015 race took place at the end of this past March and after the dust settled, Barkley reigned supreme—not a single one of the 40 participants was able to complete the race.
Jeremy Ebel is an accomplished ultrarunner with multiple 100-mile and 50-mile finishes under his belt. In 2013, he even set a record at the Silverton 1000 by completing 350 miles of running in six days. He made the trek to Tennessee in March to tackle his first Barkley.
As it would turn out, all those miles couldn’t help Ebel survive The Barkley Marathons: he finished two loops over the time cap, so he wasn’t allowed to continue. We sat down with Ebel to talk about The Barkley, his training, and why in the world he would ever want to run this brutal race.
Alright Jeremy, what is the big deal with The Barkley?
Barkley is a unique race in that it is masochistically designed to break even the most experienced runners. You need to have experience in many different areas to even have a shot at finishing. Running 100 miles is one thing, but then there is the ~65,000 feet of gain; the lack of trail; the briar patches; and the slopes so steep that you need to get on your hands and feet to claw your way up and down to a dozen checkpoints hidden throughout the course.
The course is always evolving and changing to keep the finish out of reach to all but the best of the best.
Explain a bit about the mystery of registering for this race. It’s not like traditional registration processes, right?
There is no website. There are no public rules for registration. There is an application process and the people invited to run the race are selected by the race director on a weighted scale, entirely based upon their projected ability to finish the race. If you’re a race virgin, registration costs $1.60, plus a license plate from your home state. Of course, this is in addition to whatever else the race director asks for from the veterans (this year it was socks).
Tell me about race day. Obviously you didn’t finish the race; what was the hardest part for you?
The race started late morning so I had everything ready to go the day before. As soon as the conch shell was blown, I just threw my running stuff on and head to the start line. I was pretty relaxed and just excited to finally run the thing. Hands down, navigating was my weakest link. I made an effort to stay by myself, navigate and find everything on my own. I made several time consuming mistakes in the process but I was happy that I got to experience everything Barkley had to offer.
How did you train for The Barkley?
My training consisted of shorter runs with a lot of vertical gain throughout the week and longer runs on the weekend. I would do a “long” run/hike every other weekend, trying to immerse myself in the crappiest conditions I could find. I don’t think there is a perfect way to train for a race like this; rather, you need to come to terms with and focus on improving your weaknesses.
Why did you want to run The Barkley? What’s the appeal?
It’s impossible to prove that one race is more difficult than another because every race is unique and has its own set of challenges. But, if I had to pick, this one would be close to the top of the list. I’m always trying to test myself and find my limits, my breaking point. You need to be prepared for everything.
Would you ever run it again?
Hopefully I’ll be able to take another stab at it next year…