UK runner becomes first woman to finish infamous race with torturous rules to make sure people lose

An England citizen became the first woman to finish an infamous and sadistic Tennessee foot race where participants are forced to eat undercooked food and time their runs around an official’s smoking schedule.

Jasmin Paris, 40, of England, finished the grueling course of the Barkley Marathons Friday with under 100 seconds to spare before the race’s 60-hour cut-off.

The race is designed for failure, with participants tasked with finding pieces of paper hidden in the woods.

Paris became the first woman to successfully complete the five loops around Frozen Head State Park — which contestants and organizers say is anywhere between 100-130 miles, with enough combined altitude to equal climbing up and down Mount Everest twice.

The ultrarunner collapsed at the finish line due to exhaustion, but told BBC News that she was “overjoyed” by the accomplishment and had a “strong feeling” that she was in good enough shape to finish the race — a feat equaled by only 19 other runners since the race’s inception in 1986.

Barkley Marathons is the concoction of director Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, who began the contest with Karl Henn because they thought they could cover more ground in the densely forested Cumberland Mountains than James Earl Ray.

Jasmin Paris is embraced by race director Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell after making history. Greig Hamilton (second from left), Ihor Verys, John Kelly and Jared Campbell also completed the event’s 2024 running. Gary Robbins / Facebook

Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., “only” managed to cover 12 miles in 54.5 hours in the steep rough terrain after his 1977 prison break from a now shuttered penitentiary on the current race course, according to the documentary “Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young.”

Cantrell’s eccentric race starts with a complex application process that he changes to make it more difficult every year.

Would-be runners have to email in an essay to Cantrell on a certain time of a specific day of the year, according to the documentary, runners’ message boards and published reports.

If applicants don’t know when that is, or where to send it they’re out of luck. The race has no website or official entry lists.

Out more than a thousand typical annual applicants, Cantrell sends “condolence” letters to about 40 successful ones, some of whom are handpicked by him to be “human sacrifices” because he knows they will fail.

The letter reads, in part, “Good luck, morons.”

The race is inspired by the prison break of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin — and that’s far from the most controversial thing about it. Gary Robbins / Facebook

Those who make the cut have to send in a $1.60 fee, a license plate from their home state or country, a specific piece of clothing or one pack of Camel cigarettes, depending on the applicant’s status.

The race is always in the early spring but its exact date is intentionally kept shrouded in mystery. When runners finally arrive, they are treated to a prerace BBQ where some of the meat is intentionally undercooked by Cantrell — just to keep the runners on their toes.

Then, to dial up the phycological warfare, the race could start anywhere from midnight to noon, depending on the director’s whim.

He gives the athletes a one-hour heads up by blowing into a conch shell, and then officially kicks off the proceedings by lighting one of those Camels — which functions as the starting gun.

No it’s not an April Fool’s Joke. Nick Gracie, in black shirt at lower left, looks at a map with Brian Robinson, with yellow hat, as they traverse the course for the Barkley Marathon on Saturday, April 1, 2006. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Then there is the actual race. The course map is provided only on one single sheet of paper, which runners have to study and memorize. There are no markers on the “unforgiving” trail, which is run in both directions at all hours of the day and night in weather ranging from below freezing to stifling hot, depending on the altitude.

The contestants are required to find and rip out about 60-75 pages corresponding with their bib number in notebooks hidden along the route to prove that they had been there — and the bib number changes during each lap just to keep them honest — along with the direction of the course.

There are no aid stations on the course, except water at two places.

Phones and GPS equipment are apparently not allowed.

If anyone fails to finish a lap in less than 12 hours, they are disqualified. In 2017, runner Gary Collins was deemed ineligible after traversing 67,000 feet of elevation because he finished the race six seconds after the 60-hour cut off.

All these challenges and setbacks made the accomplishment even more sweet for Paris, who has set records in the Bob Graham and Ramsay Rounds, as well as winning the Dragon’s Back Race and  2019 Montane Spine Race.

This year marked Paris’ third straight attempt at finishing the Barkley Marathons; last year she became the first woman to finish four laps.

She collapsed in agony and ecstasy at the finish line, her legs scratched from bushwhacking the ungroomed course with her bare legs.

“It still hasn’t really sunk in that I’ve finally done it,” she reportedly said, as word of her triumph went viral in the UK.

“This year I had a strong feeling in the months of training and run up to the race that I could do it. Those final moments have redefined for me what I am capable of.”

Photographer David Miller captured her victory, which he called the “greatest ultramarathon achievement of all time.”

“There was a lot of anticipation at the finish line and three minutes before the 60-hour cut off we heard shouting and a roar and it was people cheering Jasmin on.

“The final minutes were so intense, after all that effort it came down to a sprint uphill, with every fiber of my body screaming at me to stop,” Paris told The New York Times. Gary Robbins / Facebook

“She was sprinting and giving it her all as there was no room for error because otherwise she would not have made the cut off,” he said of her 59:58:21 finish.

“She touched the gate and collapsed in exhaustion. It was the best thing I have ever seen, it was unbelievable.”

Four other racers also finished the race this year, marking an astonishing success rate for an event that has seen no finishers on more than half the times it has been held.

With Post wires

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