How to Get In to the Barkley Marathons

Most posts on my blog have a half-life of about a day, and within a week they’re mostly buried amongst the noise of all the other posts that get periodic random visits here and there. The biggest exception is How to Apply to Barkley, which is nearly seven years old but on an annual basis remains the most visited post. In terms of all-time views, it’s more than double the runner-up (which, of all things, is my post on the 2019 Barkley Marathons where I quit while leading after two loops mostly because I just didn’t feel like doing any more).

Originally my motivation for that post was somewhat selfish – I was tired of constantly answering the same questions about applying to Barkley and instead of ignoring them altogether thought I could just send a link to the post. It worked (mostly). I admit I have similar intentions here, and hope that rather than having endless social media debates on the exact same thing every year (oftentimes when I’m still exhausted by the race itself) I can just point people here.

This post contains all of the facts and opinions I have on how people are selected for the Barkley Marathons. I have zero influence or involvement in this process. No matter how clever or unique someone thinks their question is, if the answer isn’t here then I do not know. There is nothing more I can add. Here is another description of the process. Below I’ve also included the detailed email that laz sent to the people who did not get in this year, shared with his permission in its original, entirely unedited, mostly uncapitalized form. This is not the first time I’ve shamelessly copy / pasted. The other time addressed the delicate balance of media and publicity at Barkley.

Just as a quick primer – many apply to Barkley each year, many more would but don’t want to enough to figure out how, and in the end only 40 can participate. Another 50 are put on the “weight” list (a term used because each person’s credentials are weighted in the selection process) and move up to replace anyone who has to withdraw before the race.

It is an actual gate, but it’s not meant to also be a figurative one.

How I understand it

This is my basic understanding that I’ve scraped together over the past decade. I’m sure I’m still missing pieces, and parts of this could also be wrong. Let’s start with the basic individual criteria:

1. Guaranteed entry due to:

  • Deferral. If someone has a spot in the race or on the weight list, and they withdraw due to absolutely any reason at all, as long as it gives the next person time to prepare for the race, they’ll get their spot back the next year. To my knowledge this has always been Barkley policy and continues to be despite the chaos it caused for a few years due to Covid travel restrictions.
  • Winning the previous year’s Barkley Fall Classic or Big Dog’s Backyard. These were added as auto-qualifiers in recent years. Unfortunately for me, the reverse isn’t true (finishing Barkley doesn’t guarantee entry into Big Dog’s Backyard).
  • Being a finisher. I suppose this is the “prize” for finishing – the perpetual right to come back and do it again for those of us who are crazy enough.
How many loops did we do at Big Dog’s Backyard? And Barkley is only five? Can’t be that bad. (Pictured are Harvey Lewis and Maggie Guterl, Big Dog’s Backyard champions) Photo: Samuel Hartman

2. An actual non-zero chance of finishing. This could be called the “elite” criteria, but Barkley is so unique that it’s incredibly difficult to predict success based only on other ultras. So someone could meet this criteria from ultrarunning results, or from a number of other areas like long distance backpacking, rogaining, special forces training, etc.

3. Representation of a group that has not previously had a finisher, or possibly even an entrant. From license plates hung at the main campsite, to flags at the gate, to humorous race predictions in each person’s native language, the race has always tried to embrace diverse representation. This is to help the stories and lessons learned from the race propagate as far as possible from a limited number of participants, and to cast a wide net looking for those people who might be able to finish. In this post I’m not going to delve into the topic of license plates and flags that people have objected to in past years, but I have discussed that before. Last year we had the first finishers for both France (Aurélien Sanchez) and Belgium (Karel Sabbe). I’ve also posted before about women at Barkley. Last year Jasmin Paris had the best ever female performance, finishing four loops over the time cutoff. I have yet to see someone who meets both criteria 2 and 3 not get in within a few years; usually they do on the first attempt.

I would love to see Jasmin make it around five loops. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

4. Unfulfilled Barkley potential. There’s definitely a learning curve at Barkley, and I think only a handful of people have gone out there and had close to their best possible outcome on their first try. Most people are given another chance to find their potential, particularly if the first outcome proves the person meets criteria 2. This is one reason why some people might get in multiple times in a row, but if someone doesn’t continue to improve and show further potential, then they no longer meet this criteria (and also probably not criteria 2).

It might appear that I had given everything possible in four loops in 2016, but fortunately I was given the opportunity to come back a third time and finish in 2017. Photo: Leon Lutz

5. Persistence in applying. I don’t know if there’s an official formula for the number of tickets that someone has like in the Western States or Hardrock lotteries, but people who continue to apply will continue to get more weight. Once someone is on the weight list, they’re guaranteed to continue moving up it each year as long as they continue applying.

6. An extensive, even if not elite, career in ultrarunning. If someone has done their time in the sport, with experience and contributions spanning many years, it’s likely to help their odds substantially.

Charlie Taylor was a legend, who continued to run ultras while fighting cancer. I’m glad he got to put in some loops around Frozen Head, and everyone at Barkley was fortunate to have him there. He definitely showed me I had more in me than I thought I did.

7. A good essay. The purpose of the essay is really for someone to highlight how they meet the other criteria above, but having a bit of wit and demonstrating the right mindset to succeed at Barkley can also help. Just keep it to a page. He doesn’t have time to read a thousand novels.

8. Luck. At some point, there is simply no way to select the 40 “best” applicants in a perfectly fair way with algorithmic precision. As with any application process, whether it be for a job, college, or anything else in life, some deserving people will be turned away and some undeserving people will get in. I certainly haven’t agreed with everyone who has or hasn’t gotten in, but I absolutely do not envy making those selections and know that I would make mistakes if I were the one doing it.

On top of those individual criteria, there are some overall limitations:

1. The agreement with the park states that the race has to come as close as possible to 80 total loops across all runners. The race goes off trail, where the public cannot normally go, through sensitive ecological areas, dangerous sections littered with old mining shafts and equipment, and places where poachers would love to have a nice beaten down path to follow. Around 20 years ago the race was nearly shut down by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and it took a resolution from the state legislature to ensure it could continue. This is also the reason why the course is kept secret.

2. The campground facilities are small and can only accommodate race staff and about 40 runners with one crew each. This is the main reason why the exact dates of the race are kept secret. There simply isn’t room for crowds of spectators, who inevitably descend on the campground because you can only see each runner about once every 12 hours anyway.

When we come in between loops we need to be able to use the bathhouse – one of the two toilets, the only shower, a trash can to puke into, or maybe just a warm, sheltered space to completely zone out and question our decisions in life that led us to that point. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

3. There has to be a good mix of veterans and first-time participants. Without any veterans to help guide the way it would be even harder than intended and likely result in chaos with no one ever finishing. Without any first-timers the race would fail to promote the opportunities for personal growth and the representation it seeks. My first year I relied heavily on Beverley Anderson-Abbs, Alan Abbs, and Jamil Coury and there is no chance I would have completed a Fun Run and earned my spot for the next year without their guidance.

Fortunately, there are a few of us foolish enough to come back and help show people around through the woods.

So with all of these factors, there is just no possible way to distill it down to some simple equation. Maybe if everyone were given a 1-10 rating for each of the criteria above and a formula calculated their exact weight which was then used for a publicly broadcast lottery then no one would accuse it of being exclusive and lacking transparency. But they probably still would. Some would say it went too far one way, others too far the other way.

It is not mathematically possible for a race that thousands want to enter and only 40 per year get to participate in to be anything but “exclusive.” But it is not artificially so, and I think it does about as good of a job as possible of selecting people and giving the opportunity to a deserving, representative group from those who apply. I recognize that I’ve been in an extremely unique and fortunate position for this race. As much as I generally prefer to keep to myself and avoid most social interactions, I try to be as open as possible about Barkley to provide a window into the event.

I honestly think it’s kind of cool that for an event with the limitations it has, there’s still a chance for nearly anyone regardless of ability to work their way towards eventually getting in. I’ll never be able to play in the Masters Tournament. No matter how many times I tried to call the Texas Rangers last year, they simply wouldn’t give me the opportunity to make their World Series roster. Heck, eight years after I started trying I still haven’t even gotten in to Western States.

Letter to people who didn’t get in

Instead of rambling on about how I think it works, bel0w is what was sent out this year to people who applied correctly but didn’t get in.


To whom it may concern,
Your application to run the barkley marathons was recently received and reviewed.

While every one of you receiving this note submitted a worthy application,
the end result is that we had enough qualified applicants to fill a field of 40,
along with a weight list of 50…..
and we could have done so several times over without re-using a single deserving athlete.

Your time has not yet come.
Your number was not pulled.

While we understand that the dominant emotion for most of you upon reading this note will be disappointment,
we do want to remind you that your loved ones will be thrilled.
They won’t have nightmares for the next 4 months about your poor shivering body being consumed by the brushy mountains.

By way of a further explanation for those of you who are new here,
the process of choosing the field and weight list is both an exciting and depressing effort every year.
And it only gets more exciting and more depressing as time goes on…

The number of excellent aspirants grows,
while the course’s ability to handle participants remains static.
and this year was the most impressive array of applicants ever.
we could hold 4 barkleys complete with weight lists
and still not get everyone in.

somehow it has to be pared down to 40.

We started with the 3 runners who were promised entry because they withdrew due to injury last year early enough for a weight lister to take their spot.
Then we added the alumni, and those world class competitors who’ve tasted loop 5 and really ought to get a follow up opportunity.
Last year’s virgin fun runners applying again get extra weight.
the window in each athlete’s career is so small.
and the odds against success in the first try so slim….

once they make the field we try to give those capable of finishing an honest shot at achieving that milestone.
even if it ties up a place for several years.

The winners from Big’s and the BFC (men and women) have a place reserved,
and all of a sudden the field is half full.

So many (literally HUNDREDS!) of applicants that we would be proud to have on the start line…
And now we are down to maybe 20 entry spots for several hundred hopefuls.
not good odds for anyone, even those that truly deserve a spot.

Filling out the field with a proper proportion (laz has spent nearly 40 years working out the formula) of Foreigners, Elite athletes, and every day Janes
is all fun and games while the weights are considered and the numbers pulled,

we look at the places filled and figure out what we need to flesh out the field.
there are several goals:
half overseas and half north american
(fairly well matching the proportion of applicants from each)
some from the “usual” countries (we could hold a totally french barkley if we wanted)
and someone or two from somewhere not previously represented.

then half (maybe a little less) athletes who seriously have the credentials to have a go at it.
but we need to select a field that will total within 5 loops of 80 when they are all added up.
you would be amazed how close to that we come year in and year out.
more traffic than that will damage the resource.
less than that and we have wasted spots.

we need a little over half veterans.
without seasoning the field with experienced runners
a random draw would just result in 40 people wandering aimlessly in the woods for two days.

so we look at last year’s weight list and the criteria for the places we need to fill:
we have already removed the few who failed to send in a timely application again.
now we remove them as they are drawn to fill specific openings.

a runner from overseas non-elite virgin new country
pick one
a us runner non elite veteran
pick one….

sometimes we have a place that has no corresponding runner on last years weight list
so for 1 or 2 runners, the first try is magic….

just the luck of the draw.
less than 1% chance of getting in that way.

after the field is filled we have a weight list full of holes
those who did not re-apply and those who have moved to the starting field.
then we delete the empty places at the top
since those are the first to be drawn for the new field
(this year everyone left from last year moved up 6 places!)

but the gaps remain on the rest of the weight list,
and we fill them by drawing applicants that give us the same proportions on the weight list as in the starting field.
that way withdrawals will not change the makeup of the field (much).

this brings us to the final step:
last year we replaced 6 runners leaving 6 empty places at the bottom of the weight list.
and we slid it up 6 places for those off the top of the list who immediately filled places this year.
this left 12 empty places at the bottom of the weight list.
and to fill those we throw it into the hands of fate.
we randomly draw those places from all the remaining runners
regardless of criteria.
still numbering about 200.

once someone makes the weight list they will only move up.
and they will remain as long as they continue to apply each year.
if you ever get on the weight list you can be assured you will get in…

eventually…

if you continue to apply.

We encourage you to maintain your efforts.
Persistence and struggle are part and parcel of the barkley.

When that time comes, and your number is pulled,
it will be all the sweeter because you didn’t give up.

(but your poor shivering body will still get consumed by the brushy mountains)

carl & laz

Bonus: my application essay for 2015

I cringe a bit now reading my first application essay – looking at the things I thought qualified me. I was fresh out of grad school, and like a college admissions essay or fellowship application, you can’t be shy about what you’ve done. Especially if you haven’t done much. 😅 I would otherwise never say any of these things out loud, and reading this nearly a decade later there are definitely things I would say differently or not at all. “I haven’t done a 100-miler yet, but I ran a 2:49 marathon this year.” 😂😂 But I haven’t changed a single word below.

Cool, new marathon PR. I’m ready for Barkley now, right?

One thing I had going for me is that the race had not yet shot up in popularity – there were fewer applications so it wasn’t as hard to get in and there wasn’t yet the need for hard requirements to filter the applications down to a reasonable number. I don’t think anyone would be considered now without a one hundred miler under their belt (other than the auto-qualifiers like winning the Barkley Fall Classic).

My strongest criteria was what I list as number 3: representation of a group that has not previously had a finisher, or possibly even an entrant. Where I come from, where Barkley takes place, is a rural community in southern Appalachia. No one runs, and the thought of doing it for more than a few miles at a time is mostly an unheard of concept. The schools don’t have track teams, and when I ran cross country at nearby Oak Ridge High School there was no shortage of teasing from my friends back home. The odds are astronomical of someone coming from this area who runs, wants to do Barkley, and even might have a legitimate shot of finishing (if laz actually thought that at the time).

One of the coolest things for me in my early years at Barkley was seeing the support from the local community, and seeing them become more and more proud of this event, their park, and some of them even taking up running themselves. As for me, Barkley is where I was born as an ultrarunner. Everything that came after is built from that.


Why I should be allowed to run The Barkley Marathons
by John Kelly

I grew up in Joyner, TN just across Highway 62 from the CCC road my grandpa helped build that goes up towards Chimney Top. I lived on Kelly Dr right next to where Kelly Creek splits off of Beech Fork at the base of Kelly Mountain (they spelled the mountain’s name wrong on the maps, but it sits below Indian Knob and across Beech Fork from Chimney Top). My family has been on that same piece of land for 200 years. There are currently plans to make the original Kelly homestead a welcome center for Frozen Head (http://tngenweb.org/morgan/stonecipherkelly-home-place/). The prison that inspired the Barkley employed many of my family members. My dad, who for a time worked at one of the strip pits, regularly played softball just outside the Brushy fence.

I spent a large part of my childhood exploring those mountains, unknowingly training for the Barkley. Eventually, though, I ran off from my family’s longstanding home to get a Ph.D. like many past successful Barkley runners (mine is in electrical engineering). In the pursuit of that degree I went days without sleep on multiple occasions, which I now know was also training for the Barkley. I now find myself temporarily displaced to the DC area, but Chimney Top will always be home sweet home to me (as a TN resident yourself, I trust you’ll get the lyrical reference).

I’m also no slouch of an endurance athlete and mountaineer. I haven’t done a 100-miler yet, but I ran a 2:49 marathon this year. I’ve thru-hiked the 230 mile John Muir Trail in the high Sierra, where I was given the trail name “Navigator,” and I’ve backpacked many shorter trips with 35+ mile days in the same area. About a year ago I was out solo in the high Sierra and lost my compass just before an unexpected snow storm suddenly hit. I was 40 miles from the nearest road or person (I hadn’t seen human footprints in the snow for 2 days). I managed to get out of there within a day before I got buried by the storm, which required many hours of hiking at night.

I’m about as stubborn and determined as they come. When I ran my first marathon my schedule wouldn’t allow me to train more than 10-15 miles total per week. As you could guess, every muscle in my body completely locked up at around mile 18, but I drug myself those painful final 8 miles across the finish line. If given a shot at the Barkley I will absolutely not quit until I either finish that 5th loop or there is not a single second left on the clock.* The difference with my first marathon is that I will be prepared, or at least as prepared as any first-timer can hope to be.

Family hike up Chimney Top. I’m the 4 year old in blue.

Competing in the Barkley would mean a great deal to me, my family, and others in the community. I am proud of where and who I come from, but I also know that my heritage won’t get much given to me in life. I feel that Barkley success is one thing that it could help me get and if I’m allowed to run I’ll be out there as the “home team” running for more than just myself. Only a fool would think they can finish the Barkley, but I’m already a fool for wanting to run it. I believe I’ve at least got a better chance than most of finishing. Those mountains are in my blood and it’s only fitting that I give them a chance to reclaim some of it.

*spoiler, I actually ended up quitting after 3 loops with a couple hours still left on the clock

And for 2024

By this point, I just don’t want to waste my own time or laz’s with a full essay. But I at least try to come up with something meaningful to say.


“The key to a 3-peat is change. You can’t ‘repeat’ the formula. Your opponent has already figured it out. You have to keep growing. Continue into the unknown.” – Phil Jackson

So I go once again into a new unknown against a repeat opponent that is never the same.

23 thoughts on “How to Get In to the Barkley Marathons

  • 2024-02-16 at 11:54 AM
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    So interesting for the Barkley nerds amongst us. Thank you.

    Reply
  • 2024-02-16 at 12:48 PM
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    Thank you for sharing this peak into the Barkley application process. So fascinating to people like me who will only ever enter in their fantasies but who are obsessed with the Barkley nonetheless! Can’t wait to watch you take on this incredible challenge once again! You are an inspiration!

    Reply
  • 2024-02-16 at 3:12 PM
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    Thank you so much for feeding the Barkley nerds! Looks like <redacted> will be in FH for 2024 if I am decoding Laz correctly! Will be rooting you 3 on from Canada (If only we could cheer on <redacted> too!)

    Reply
    • 2024-02-16 at 4:42 PM
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      Thanks very much Michael. There’s nothing in laz’s letter, though, or anything else here that should give away anyone (other than me) who will or won’t be there. 🙂

      Reply
  • 2024-02-16 at 6:04 PM
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    I may have miss-read, I assumed the virgin fun run finishers adding extra weight meant they would be there but on second reading it just means they are more likely to get an invite my mistake! Best of luck to you this year my fingers are already crossed for a good year for all of you!

    Reply
    • 2024-02-17 at 8:25 AM
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      They will almost always get back in, if they apply again. There have been unfortunate exceptions, for example recently due to the large number of deferrals from 2021 when it was still all but impossible for people to travel to the US for the race due to Covid. Thank you, and all the best!

      Reply
  • 2024-02-20 at 3:09 PM
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    Thanks for the great read John. All the best in your 3Peat attempt! Cheers Greg

    Reply
  • 2024-03-12 at 4:09 PM
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    has the 2024 barkley marathons occurred yet?

    Reply
    • 2024-03-23 at 1:57 AM
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      Won and done! 5 finishers 🙂 And the very first female finisher ever: Jasmine Paris #smalleuropeanwoman 💪🏻

      Reply
        • 2024-03-26 at 12:34 AM
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          Congrats John on your 3-peat along with the amazing Jasmin and Jared getting their finisher records😎

          Reply
  • 2024-03-23 at 8:52 AM
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    Thank you so much for this info – I loved the text of the rejection letter. It’s exciting that Jasmin Paris is a finisher this year!

    Reply
  • 2024-04-01 at 7:02 AM
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    A fascinating read John, thanks. Have got more and more invested in the Barkleys, even though I’ll never do them. Following the updates this year was obsessive and nerve-wracking. Many congrats on all you have achieved!

    Reply
  • 2024-04-02 at 6:07 AM
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    Intelligence test on 2 legs, for unbelievably motivated individuals with a keen sense of humour who are not put off by probable failure.

    Or

    Intelligence / problem solving ability depends in part on physical condition (pain, lack of sleep, cold, hungry etc).
    For a very few select individuals their intelligence is only minimally affected by extreme adverse conditions.

    Reply
    • 2024-04-02 at 8:43 AM
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      The sense of humo(u)r part is often overlooked. It’s hard for people who take themselves too seriously to be successful at Barkley. 😅

      Reply
  • 2024-04-03 at 5:57 AM
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    Thank you for information. as What happen after Jasmin Paris has inspired me and been watching documentary and thinking to enter it. But with all information as there is no chance of me to enter due to very limited, and not everybody will make it to 5th round.

    Reply
    • 2024-04-03 at 10:23 AM
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      You’ll never know how far you can make it till you try (in Barkley or anything)! The main goal of Barkley is to discover limits, which actually everyone there is successful at except the finishers. 🙂

      Reply

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