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All 40 Runners Fail at 100-Mile Tennessee Mountain Race

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“The mountains won,” said Gary Cantrell, who created the event in 1986. “I was pleased with the outcome. It’s a competition between the humans and the mountains.”

Photographer: Michael Buteau/Bloomberg

None of the 40 runners who attempted to finish the 100-mile Barkley Marathons in the mountains of eastern Tennessee completed the race, the first time since 2007 that the endurance test had no finishers.

“The mountains won,” said Gary Cantrell, who created the event in 1986. “I was pleased with the outcome. It’s a competition between the humans and the mountains.”

In 30 years, 14 out of about 1,100 runners have completed the race, made up of five loops around a mountainous 20-mile course. With a finisher rate of about 1 percent, the Barkley has been labeled by many as the world’s hardest race.

The 60-hour time limit passed Monday with no one having completed the race. A search began for the final runner on the course -- Jamil Coury of Phoenix -- when Coury hadn’t checked in 7 hours after the 48-hour limit to finish his fourth lap. He showed up before dark.

“I got a little confused where I was,” Coury said upon returning to camp, explaining that he took an eight-hour nap on a mountaintop after getting lost. “Thanks for waiting.”

Matt Bixley traveled from Dunedin, New Zealand, to compete. He said his goal was to see what he could find out about himself.

Passed Out

Instead, he found himself passed out on the ground after completing more than 48 miles in about 28 hours of running and climbing through the mountains of 24,000-acre Frozen Head State Park.

“I passed out or collapsed,” said Bixley, 42, a quantitative geneticist with New Zealand’s AgResearch. “Something happened. It wasn’t sleepiness. I don’t know. I spent some time thinking about what that might mean and where I was going. It was a boundary I wasn’t prepared to cross, and I quit.”

Only one other runner, John Kelly, a 30-year-old electrical engineer from Rockville, Maryland, completed three laps this year before quitting. No other runner completed more than two laps.

‘You’re Done’

“It was a heck of an experience,” said Kelly, who grew up near the course in Joyner, Tennessee, and now works for Lockheed Martin in Maryland. “The first loop was a ton of fun. The second loop was fun. After that, that’s where it really starts to go to pieces and you have to hold it together. All it takes is one tiny thing to go wrong in any area and you’re done.”

Kelly, who is married and has an 11-month-old son, said he plans to try again if he can find the time to train.

“Now I have a measuring stick,” he said. “I’d rather do something like this and know where I stand coming out of it than do something that’s easy and know I can do it. That doesn’t really tell me anything about myself.”

Two runners, Dale Holdaway and Toshi Hozaka, finished three loops but were seven hours over the time cutoff.

Race Inspiration

Cantrell was inspired to hold a race in the rugged mountains by James Earl Ray’s failed 1977 escape from Brushy Mountain State Prison. Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, only managed to get 8 miles from the prison in 54 hours before being captured.

Along with a handout that includes race directions, participants are only allowed to use a map and compass to find their way. There are no medical aid stations on the course, which covers more than twice the elevation gain of Mount Everest over the full 100 miles.

No woman has finished the race. This year a record nine attempted it, including Nicki Rehn, a 40-year-old Australian who is an assistant professor of education at Ambrose University in Calgary. Rehn completed 1.5 laps this year before succumbing.

‘It’s Eerie’

“You don’t come here to be victorious, you come here to be humiliated,” she said. “It’s lonely out there. It’s eerie. You have to be comfortable being inside your own head. Everyone comes back pretty broken. That’s the goal. To break people, and he (Cantrell) does that.”

Rehn and Bixley both said they were pleased that no runner was able to reach the 100-mile mark, resetting the race’s status as the world’s hardest to finish.

“It’s a bit of a victory for the race,” Rehn said. “I’m behind the race more than anything so I’m happy that the Barkley won. You’re worried when somebody finishes it, because you know that he’s going to raise the bar again.”

(Adds additional performances in 13th paragraph.)
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