A History of Women in the Barkley Marathons

By Madeline Price, National Director

When you hear the word marathon, typically your mind wanders to the obvious: the Boston Marathon, Maratona di Roma, the Kilimanjaro Marathon, or the International Marathon of Marrakech.

What you do not immediately think of is ultramarathons.

Whilst a traditional marathon is a gruelling 42.195 kilometres (or 26.219 miles, the distance from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium, as charted in the 1908 London Olympic Games), an ultramarathon is anything above that regulatory length. They are endurance races designed for the marathon runner who has conquered the traditional marathon and is looking for something more, something faster, something longer, or something higher.  

Typically, ultramarathons falls into two categories: a specific distance that runners need to cover (usually either 50 kilometres, 100 kilometres or 160.93 kilometres), or an event dictated by a specific amount of time (and the winner is the person who has gone the furthest in the allocated time period). Famous ultramarathons include: the Grand to Grand Ultra (winding through the Grand Canyon), the Amazon Jungle Challenge (featuring a 10 500 feet trek through the Amazon), the Badwater Ultra (racing through Death Valley in the heat of summer) and the Spartatholon (held in Athens over 36 hours).

But this will not focus upon the history of women in those ultramarathons or in ultramarathons in general. This will focus upon one very specific ultramarathon, that many would not have heard of: the Barkley Marathons.

Often touted as the ‘masochist’s marathon’ and one of the hardest ultramarathons in the world, the Barkley Marathons is a series of five loops totalling 100 miles (approximately 160 kilometres) through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, USA. Over the course of 60 hours, runners must ascend and descend about 120 000 feet in elevation – the equivalent of climbing up and back down Mount Everest, twice. Throughout the course, runners must locate 13 books hidden amongst the loops and tear out a page corresponding with their race number.

Since it’s commencement in 1986, more than 1 000 people have attempted to complete the annual race – but only 15 have done so successfully (the first person to complete the marathon did so in 1995, nine years after the race was founded).

To date, no women have successfully completed the Barkley Marathons.

In 2017, Heather Anderson was a favourite to be the first woman to complete the Barkely Marathon – she had already broken both the men’s and women’s world records for hiking the 2 189 mile Appalachian Trail (unsupported), she holds the unsupported records for both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Arizona Trail, she has run the Tarawera Ultramarathon, and participated in the Barkley Marathon twice before. Undoubtably one of the strongest female ultramarathon runners in the world, Anderson did not complete the Barkley Marathon on her third attempt.

In 2018, Amelia Boone, an attorney working for Apple, was a favourite. A three-time champion of the World’s Toughest Mudder competition and a Spartan Race World Champion with 30 first-place marathon titles to her name, Boone was one of only 21 runners (out of the 44 starters) who even began the second (of five) loop of the course.

Reflecting on the 2018 race afterwards (a race with no runners successfully completing the course), Boone noted:

For the first time, I had to swallow the very real fact that 99% of people fail at this race… [M]y failure at Barkley left me feeling more confident in myself than I’ve ever been. Confident as an athlete, and confident as a person. Confident that my body is not broken, confident that I’m strong, and confident that I can hang with the best. While I might have failed to live up to the expectations for the “year of the woman,” I’m at peace knowing that I gave everything I could and left it all out on the course in those conditions, and knowing that I’m capable of more.

That’s not to say that I’m satisfied.

Many people opine on whether a woman can finish Barkley. I believe one can, but it’s going to take a ballsy run. Those same people ask me whether I think I can finish. I think John Kelly said it best to me the other day: "I don’t know that you can. But I don’t know that you CAN’T. And that’s the best that can be said of anyone at Barkley."

Boone was amongst nine female runners in the 2018 race, amongst ultramarathon legends Liz Canty, Stephanie Case, Maggie Guterl and Nicki Rehn.

Despite the incredible athletic prowess of the individuals who have attempted to become the first woman to complete the Barkley Marathons (a race where 55 per cent of the races completed since 1986 have had no winner at all), the question is still often asked: can a woman actually win?

John Kelly, a data scientist and the most recent runner to complete the Barkley Marathons in 2017 thinks they can:

The average man cannot finish [the Barkley Marathons] any more than the average woman can… If we focused on genetic averages [then] I’m less likely to perform well at endurance-type activities [due to my DNA]. We also don’t care about comparing the best man versus the best woman – saying that the hypothetical best possible man is faster than the best possible woman does not preclude the best possible woman from finishing. What we care about is comparing the best woman against the minimum physical standard required t finish on the current course. Are there women who have more strength, speed and endurance than me and thus exceed that minimum physical standard? Absolutely! I have lost to women in ultras. I lost to five or six women at Kona. I don’t know if I could keep up with Shalane Flanagan if she were running a marathon and I was running a half.

Both Amelia Boone and Heather Anderson have expressed their desire to race the Barkley Marathons again.

Maybe 2019 will be the year of the ultramarathon woman.

Madeline Price is the National Director of the One Woman Project. In 2019, she is exploring the history of women in some of society’s most unrecognised professions, practices and activities. Whilst not an exhaustive history, join her in exploring the history of women in magic, theatre, intelligence, Disney and more throughout 2019.