The Masochist’s Marathon
A man is begging on the side of a Tennessee mountain. He’s crumpled on the ground, his clothes are soaking wet, and he’s sucking air hard. His wife weeps as she huddles over him, her hands resting softly on his arm. Above them stands a bearded figure in a wide-brimmed hat and a worn-out oilskin duster.
“I got all my pages!” pleads the man on the ground. His voice is shrill, hysterical. “I dropped down the wrong side of the mountain in the fog. I had to swim a river.” He gasps for air again. “I got all my pages!”
A small group of onlookers cover their mouths and stare. They look from the broken man on the ground to the inscrutable face of the bearded figure looming over him.
“He got all his pages,” repeats a voice in the crowd. “He got all his pages.”
For most of us, the 26.2 miles of a marathon represent the epitome of athletic endurance. For others, there are the ultramarathons, races that stretch to fifty or one hundred miles or more through some of the world’s most inhospitable regions. The Badwater 135 winds through the middle of Death Valley in July. The Marathon des Sables is a six-day, 156-mile race across the Sahara Desert. The Hardrock 100 is a high-altitude hundred- miler amid lightning storms and avalanches.
And then there is the Barkley Marathons.
Officially, it consists of five loops through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, totaling one hundred miles, but most participants believe it to be closer to 130. Runners must ascend and descend about 120,000 feet of elevation—the equivalent of climbing up and down Mount Everest twice. And all this must be done in just sixty hours. As of race time this year, of the more than one thousand people who have run it, only fourteen have finished.
It costs only $1.60 to enter. An application must be sent to a closely guarded email address at precisely the right minute on precisely the right day. The email must include an essay titled “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run in the Barkley.”
You must then complete a written exam that asks, for instance, “Explain the excess positrons in the flux of cosmic rays” and “How much butter should you use to cook a pound of liver (with onions)?” New runners, known as “virgins,” must bring a license plate from their state or country. “Veterans”— returning runners who did not finish—must bring an item of clothing. One year it was a flannel shirt. Another year it was a white dress shirt. This year it’s a pack of white socks. The few who have finished the course and are crazy enough to return, known as “alumni,” need only bring a pack of Camel cigarettes.
Read more at Esquire.