Wausau Pilot & Review

IRONBULL Executive Director, Andrea Larson, is competing in perhaps the world’s toughest and quirkiest race, the Barkley Marathons.

More people have been to the moon than have finished this race since its inception in 1985. No woman has finished.

After the race director, Lazarus Lake, blows a conch to signal one hour to the start, forty competitors from around the world head “Out There” into the Tennessee wilderness upon the lighting of a cigarette. Racers battle briars, 70,000 feet of elevation gain and descent, unpredictable weather, and sleep deprivation to finish the unmarked course under the 60 hour cutoff.

Each racer is only allowed a single crew member who can only assist racers between each of the five loops. During the 8 to 20+ hours in-between, racers only have themselves and what they carry to withstand the challenge. There are no trackers, so runners prove they completed the course by turning in pages from books hidden along the course. The event’s only public updates are via Keith Dunn’s Twitter feed.

Hundreds of athletes throughout the world navigate the secret application process in hopes for one of the forty coveted slots. Larson earned a guaranteed slot by winning the 2022 Barkley Fall Classic, finishing better than any woman in the history of the event.

In preparation for the Barkley Marathons, she racketed up to training ascending over 250,000 feet and logging over 250 hours of training over a three month training cycle. But physical preparations are just one leg of the stool. Runners must navigate an unmarked course, frequently bushwacking through Frozen Head State Park Natural Area, which is the only time people are allowed off the park’s designated hiking trails. Additionally, athletes must be prepared for the microclimate of Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains which has daily temperature swings up to seventy degrees.

“I’ve never prepared so much physically for a race which is just the tip of the iceberg,” Larson said. “This race exposes runners’ weaknesses, requiring a multi-faceted approach. I spent countless hours scouring race reports, researching gear, and practicing navigation, yet there will be variables beyond my control.”

Last year, a record number of racers started the second loop, but then the field was decimated with twelve hours of cold rain through the night plus a series of calamities including lost compasses and book pages to unfortunate runners. Frequently, thick fog disorients runners, causing them to go off course and lose precious time. However, the race director selects some of the hardiest runners for the event, who have always extracted themselves despite injury such as a fractured knee cap, or having to hunker down through storms.

The odds are stacked against any racer, particularly a woman. If Larson completes just three of the five loops, called a “Fun Run”, she will become the first American woman in over a decade to do so. If she completes four loops, she’ll go further than any woman in the history of the event.

If she completes five loops she’ll be the first finisher since 2017, when John Kelly finished just under the 60 hour cutoff.