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60 Hours: What You Need to Know About Barkley Marathon and the First Woman to Finish it

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCF chapter.

58 hours, 58 minutes, and 21 seconds. That’s how long it took Jasmine Paris to complete a race so elusive you might have never even heard of it.

The Barkley Marathon is considered one of the hardest and most gruesome to complete races in the ultra-running community. In 1977, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., James Earl Ray, escaped from the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. Ray made it about eight miles through the mountains before being caught and returned to the prison. Gary Cantrell, a Tennessee local, was unimpressed by the low mileage of Ray and believed he could make it around the penitentiary. Thus, the Barkley Marathon was born. 

Original photo by Johanna Weeks

Located in the mountains of Tennessee, the race spans 100 miles and takes about 60 hours of non-stop movement to complete. Around 40 people participate each year with running abilities varying from elite runners to people whom the Cantell states have no business being there. The course layout is known to nobody and changes every year. However, annually the course takes you through some variations of the Tennessee Cumberland Mountains 24,000 acres. To finish the race, participants must complete five loops of the course with the distance of each loop averaging  20 miles. One of the things that makes this race so challenging (besides having to run for 60 hours, duh) is the notable elevation change. If all five loops are completed, that equates to an elevation gain of 60,000 feet, equivalent to climbing Mount Everest not once, but twice.

The race is held around the first weekend of April but has been run in March in previous years to trick spectators. The race usually starts between midnight and noon but racers are never told what time to officially line up. When it is time to start, Cantrell will blow into a conch shell to signal that the race begins exactly one hour from that time. Once racers line up an hour later, Cantrell lights a cigarette to start the race. Participants then have 60 hours to finish. To finish the race, participants complete each loop in 12 hours. Runners must touch a yellow gate as they leave for each loop and once they complete a loop, they must touch the gate again to show they finished. Once you finish a loop, you can go to your crew and recover until the next loop starts. This means if you finish the first loop in nine hours, you have three hours to recover until the next loop begins.

There is no GPS technology in this race, and runners must find checkpoints throughout the race that have page numbers corresponding to each participant. Runners must rip their designated page out to complete the loop. The lack of GPS assistance makes this race even harder than it already is, with many runners missing the 60-hour mark to complete the race due to getting lost. In 2017, runner Gary Robbins was six seconds off from finishing because he came from the wrong direction.

The first official running of the Barkley Marathon was in 1986, yet no runner was able to finish the race until 1995. From 86’ to 2024, only 20 participants have been able to complete the race. Out of those 20, only one is a woman. 

Jasmin Paris, a 40-year-old British vet, ultrarunner, and mother of two, finished the race with only 99 seconds to spare. This was her third year attempting the race and Paris spoke to BBC saying “I did it for me and I’m super happy that I achieved what I set out to do after the three years of trying. But I’m glad that I kind of did it for women worldwide as well– not just runners– but any woman who wants to take on a challenge and maybe doesn’t have the confidence. The idea that I might have inspired them to believe in themselves… that’s huge, especially [for] the young girls– you know how hard it is to keep young girls in sports.” Paris grew up in the Peak District in the UK and started racing seriously in 2008 after a colleague suggested a local race to her. She wakes up every day at 5 AM to train and completes a variety of running exercises ranging from a 10-minute run to a four-hour one in the mountains. 

Besides finishing the Barkley marathon, Paris has also won the Montane Spine Race in 2019, the World Extreme Skyrunning series in 2016, came second at Dragon’s Back in 2015, and broke the record of the Jura Fell Race in 2015. Next up for Paris is the Scottish Islands Peaks Race on May 17th, followed by the Tor des Geants in Italy in September. 

Having finished such a grueling and challenging race, Paris has proven to be inspirational for women worldwide. With her win at Barkley, hopefully, this opens a door for more women to go out and not only participate but finish the 60-hour-long marathon.

Roxana-Maria Caramaliu is a sophomore majoring in biomedical sciences with a minor in magazine journalism at the University of Central Florida. This is her first year as a writer with Her Campus UCF. She was born in Romania but grew up in Boca Raton, Florida. She loves going shopping, going to the gym and beach, finding new places to eat, and golfing. Her free time includes reading new books, learning to crotchet, or playing video games with her friends.