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Barkley Marathons at Frozen Head State Park

Every spring, the famous Barkley Marathons take place in East Tennessee's Frozen Head State Park. (1) Arguably the world's most difficult ultramarathon, runners must run five laps of about 20 miles through the park; the lap begins and ends at a yellow gate. (2) Runners must complete each loop in 12 hours. (3) But they're not running along well-defined trails; they have to navigate the backcountry while looking for books placed along the intended path. (4) When a runner finds a book, they must rip out the page that corresponds to their bib number. (5) When they return to the yellow gate, race creator, Lazarus Lake (AKA Laz), counts the pages. The runner will only get credit for the lap if all the pages are present. (6)

This grueling race is endlessly fascinating. It began in the late 1980s and has changed a bit over the years. (7) Only 17 people have finished it in its current form. (8) The start date and time is a secret; as of this writing, the 2024 race hasn't started yet but is due any day now.

In March 2022, I got to watch the race as part of the media. While there, I met the first finisher of the Barkley Marathons and wrote this profile of him for Trail Runner. It was such a cool experience so I'm sharing some of my photos for today's post.

Don't travel to the park to watch; public attendance is discouraged. And I can tell you that while it's really cool to see the runners return to the yellow gate, nothing is going on the majority of the time since it takes runners so long to finish a lap. If you'd like to keep up with the race, follow @keithdunn on X. He is at camp for the entire race and does a great job of giving fans frequent updates.

My photos are below:

A Barkley Marathons race bib sits on top of fanned-out book pages on a dark green background in a framed display in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee
John Kelly, a two-time Barkley finisher, grew up near Frozen Head State Park.(9) When I visited the park's visitor center, I saw this display of pages Kelly collected when he attempted the race in 2016.

License plates hang from rope strung between trees in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee
First-time racers have to bring a license plate. (10)These license plates are displayed at the camp headquarters near the yellow gate.

A man in a red and black-checked coat stands under a blue awning near a yellow gate between stone pillars. International flags hang on metal gates lining the race pathway in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee.
Lazarus Lake waits near the yellow gate. Note the international flags lining the path.

Four runners, some in bright athletic wear, wearing small backpacks crowd around a stone pillar under a blue awning. Laz is on the other side of the pillar in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee.
Runners wait for Laz to check their book pages and credit them with the finish of a lap.

A young white man wearing a red shirt and black shorts and carrying a blue backpack pours a small plastic cup of fruit salad in his mouth in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee.
As Laz looks on, John Kelly eats a fruit cup on a quick re-supply break between laps. Look how cut up his legs are.

A runner drinks from a bottle while holding a camp pot of food while sitting on the ground as another laces his shoes while sitting in a chair with crew members and race organizers looking on.
Two other racers, one on the ground and one sitting in a chair, change gear and eat before the next lap.

A balding man in a green and orange jacket looks down at book pages while sitting in a black foldable camp chair in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee.
Frozen Head Ed looks over the book pages he collected.

A runner wearing all black stands at a stone pillar under a blue awning and talks to Laz. The seat of his pants are shredded.
Tomokazu Iraha, called Tomo, from Japan finishes a lap. (11) Look at how shredded the seat of his pants are.

When a runner quits the race, a bugler plays "Taps." The runner pictured above decided not to continue, and I took the below video of this ceremony. The runner is in the black pants and white jacket; he had already changed.


March 18, 2023


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