British runner becomes first woman to complete the world’s toughest and quirkiest race, The Barkley Marathons

On Friday, March 22, Jasmin Paris became the first woman to ever complete the infamous Barkley Marathons. The 40-year-old mother from Scotland completed the 100-plus mile race in 59 hours, 58 minutes and 21 seconds. That left just one minute and 39 seconds to spare when she hit the yellow gate. “At the end every fiber of my body was screaming to stop,” she told reporters. “I didn’t even know if I touched the gate. I just gave it everything to get there and then collapsed, gasping for air.” She is the 20th runner to ever fully complete the race.

This year a record-setting five people finished the race out of the 40 participants. This is incredible given that in 55% of years, this unique ultra has zero finishers. Another record was set with seven people being able to start the fifth 20+ mile loop of the race.

Paris, a native of Manchester, UK, is currently serves as a small-animal veterinarian and University of Edinburgh professor. She wrote her doctoral thesis on “Novel regulations of cancer stem cell biology in acute myeloid leukemia.” Paris attempted the race in 2022 and 2023, in which she was the first woman to finish three of the 20-mile laps in over two decades. In 2019, she became the first woman to win the United Kingdom’s 268-mile Montane Spine Race where she broke the female record by over 12 hours, even after stopping periodically to breastfeed her newborn. She stepped into a more prominent role in the Ultra running community in 2015 with a second overall finish at the five-day Dragon’s Back Race in Wales. Since then she has had many podium finishes and course records in races such as the 2016 Tromso SkyRace, 2016 Ultra SkyMarathon and 2021 Ultra Tour Monte Rosa.

So what is the Barkley Marathons and why is it considered the toughest and quirkiest race in the world? The race became famous from the 2014 documentary “The Race That Eats Its Young.” YouTube vlogs and training videos have been made by participants and have received millions of views. The race began by former ultra-runner Gary Cantrell, better known as ‘Lazarus Lake,’ and his friend, Karl ‘Raw Dog’ Henn in 1986. To Henn, Cantrell had mocked the seemingly unathletic escape of James Earl Ray, the assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who covered only 12 miles during his 60 hours on the run, saying, “I could do at least 100 miles in that time.”

It was from that joke and Lake’s twisted sense of humor that the Barkley Marathons were born. Originally the race was approximately 55 miles with 25,000 ft of elevation gain, but was later extended in 1989 to 100 miles.

While the race distance, course and elevation change slightly from year to year, it always starts in March at the same yellow gate at Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg, TN, about an hour west of Knoxville with forty accepted participants from around the world. Applicants send in a nonrefundable application fee of $1.60, an essay on “Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley” and a unique item of Cantrell’s choosing. These vary from white socks to flannel shirts to boxes of cigarettes or anything else that Cantrell has been craving during that time. Accepted runners and their families camp outside of the park with all the supplies they’ll need for the two-and-a-half-day adventure. 

The race can start anytime between midnight and noon on race day with a one-hour warning from the sound of a conch shell. Later, the lighting of a ceremonial cigarette marks the race’s official beginning. The 20-mile loop covers the exact horizontal distance and does not take into account changes in elevation, indirect paths or getting lost.

One of the other quirky dimensions of the race is that runners are required to find 9-14 books around the state park and take out page numbers that correspond to their changing bib number each round. They must return the pages to Lake every lap to prove they didn’t take any shortcuts.

Cantrell expects runners to complete laps in 12 hours on average. In 2006, no one finished lap three. Over three dozen competitors over the years have failed to find the first book located at about 2-3 miles in. Of the over 1,000 starts, only 26 attempts have made the 60-hour cutoff, and 20 individuals have completed it. CalTech professor Brett Maune has the current record of 52:03:08 from his attempt in 2012.

Current list of finishers:

1995 Mark Williams 59:28:48

2001 David Horton 58:21:00

2001 Blake Wood 58:21:01

2003: Teddy Keizer 56:57:52

2004: Mike Tilden 57:25:18

2004 Jim Nelson 57:28:25

2008 Brian Robinson 55:42:27

2009 Andrew Thompson 57:37:19

2010 Jonathan Basham 59:18:44

2011 Brett Maune (1) 57:13:33

2012 Brett Maune (2) 52:03:08

2012 Jared Campbell (1) 56:00:16

2012 John Fegyveresi 59:41:21

2013 Nick Hollon 57:39:24

2014 Jared Campbell (2) 56:00:16

2016 Jared Campbell (3) 59:32:30

2017 John Kelly (1) 59:30:53

2023 Aurélien Sanchez 58:23:12

2023 John Kelly (2) 58:42:23

2023 Karel Sabbe 59:53:33

2024 Ihor Verys 58:44:59

2024 John Kelly (3) 59:15:38

2024 Jared Campbell (4) 59:30:32

2024 Greig Hamilton 59:38:32

2024 Jasmin Paris (59:38:42)

(Featured image photo source: The New York Times)

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