For the second time in the race’s history, a record three athletes have completed the grueling Barkley Marathons, an unusual and near-impossible competition held each year in Tennessee.
The famed ultramarathon, the brainchild of runner Gary Cantrell (better known by his nickname Lazarus Lake or “Laz”), takes place in Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park. The route was inspired by the 1977 prison escape of James Earl Ray, who assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The race consists of five loops of around 20 miles each, for a total of between 100 to 130 miles through brushy mountains with an elevation gain of around 63,000 feet. Athletes run the course over three sleepless days and nights – and there are no aid stations, phones or GPS to help with navigation. Getting lost – as well as falling and getting injured in the brush – is par for the course.
The ultramarathon is marked with unique unmanned checkpoints, each of which contains a paperback book. Athletes must rip out a page corresponding to their bib number and have all the book pages in hand at the end of each loop to prove they reached each checkpoint.
Because of the array of unique challenges the race presents, only 17 individuals have completed the race since it started in 1986. For the past five years, no one has finished the race, Cantrell told CNN.
But this year finally broke that streak: Three athletes, French Aurélien Sanchez, American John Kelly and Belgian Karel Sabbe, completed the hellish five laps within the 60-hour time limit on Friday.
The only other time three racers completed the race was in 2012, according to Cantrell.
On Twitter, Kelly thanked his followers for their support. “Thank you to everyone for the support, and I hope some of what we get to discover out there is a shared experience,” he wrote. “Or, if we’re all just a bunch of idiots running around in the woods, that at least it’s entertaining.”
Jasmin Paris, who did not complete the course but made history as the second woman ever to begin the fourth loop, also thanked her followers for their support on Twitter.
“Conditions couldn’t have been better, and I was lucky to share miles on the trail with wonderful people,” she wrote. “I knew from the start that training hadn’t been ideal (time out for fatigue, then injury), but I gave it my best effort and I’m proud of that. I still think a woman can finish 5 loops, although I suspect Laz will make next year even harder.”