Why were two ultra runners disqualified from the brutal Barkley Marathons within the first few seconds of the race?

A man runs down a mountain slope.
Only 17 runners have ever finished the mysterious race, and these two won't be joining them (Image credit: Getty Images)

Ultra running's most secretive and brutal race has gotten underway in Tennessee with a dramatic start that saw two runners disqualified in the opening moments.

The Barkley Marathons, famously dubbed "the race that eats its young," kicked off at 5:17 a.m. on Wednesday in Frozen Head State Park. The 100-mile race consists of 5 laps of a 20-mile circuit and is known for being extremely challenging and highly unusual.

The race, which was devised in 1986 by Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell (who went on to formulate the backyard ultra) and Karl Henn, is largely shrouded in secrecy. Only 35 runners are permitted to enter and they are hand-picked after applying with an essay on why they should be allowed to run and paying a fee of $1.60. It's never publically announced when the race will begin or who is racing, and in the nearly 40 years of the race's history, only 17 runners have finished. 

Though we're only about 24 hours into the race at the time of writing, it's certain that at least two runners won't qualify for a finish even if they complete five laps, as Keith Dunn, who provides the Barkley Marathons' only official news feed, announced on X that two had already been disqualified at the start of the race, which is marked by the lighting of a cigarette.

"Two runners threw trash on the ground at the start. We are trying to identify them so they can be disqualified."

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Though the event is quirky, littering goes against what rules there are and runs contrary to all trail running etiquette. Frozen Head State Park prides itself on what it calls its "densely forested, unspoiled mountain splendor."

Many followers of Dunn's feed feel certain that anyone elite enough to make the Barkley Marathons must be aware of the principles of Leave No Trace and chalk this up to a mistake, urging others to withold judgement, however some came up with creative ideas to punish the pair.

"Make 'em run the whole race, then tell them," suggested one fan.

Though there's been no update on whether the runners have been identified yet, Dunn has already reported that only about 10 runners have any realistic chance of finishing. 

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.