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A mysterious race full of extremes is started by a cigarette. The first woman managed him, she was hallucinating – 2024-03-29 17:59:50

In 1977, Martin Luther King’s killer escaped from prison in the US state of Tennessee. Before he was caught, he covered 19 kilometers in 55 hours in difficult terrain. At that time, someone said in a pub that he could do 100 miles. That’s how the idea for one of the craziest races in the world was born, which is surrounded by many secrets, including how to sign up for it. Only 20 people have completed it since 1986, including the first woman this year.

Nobody knows when Gary Cantrell will light up a cigarette. It will definitely be between midnight and noon. Everyone who participates in the Barkley Marathon is eagerly waiting for it. It is at this moment that a cross-country race starts, which stands out from all the others. And not only because its participants do not know when exactly it will start.

There is also no publicly available information on how to register for the race. It is a mystery. The entry fee is less than two dollars, and for this it is necessary to bring a state license plate from the country where the competitors are coming from. In the national park around the prison, there are a total of five identical circuits with a length of 20 miles, i.e. roughly 32 kilometers. Every time in a different direction.

Runners are not allowed to use any modern technology, and certainly not the GPS watches that are so popular these days. No one is allowed to help them in any way. In difficult terrain, where there are no trails, they can orient themselves only by an old map, a long-winded description of the route and a compass. In each circuit, they must bring pages torn from books hidden on the track that correspond to their starting number.

Apart from the special rules, this is an extremely difficult race. Out of more than a thousand ultramarathoners who have lined up at the start of the race in 38 years, only 17 people have finished it until this year. It usually happens that no one finishes the race within the 60-hour limit. For example, no one graduated between 2018 and 2022. In addition, chief organizer Gary Cantrell, whom Trail Runner magazine described as the “Leonardo da Vinci of pain,” makes the next year’s race a little more difficult every time someone completes the race.

This year, a woman in a red jersey appeared at the finish line 99 seconds before the time limit expired, and visibly tired, her legs and arms scraped, she ran to the yellow barrier, touched it, and then collapsed to the ground in exhaustion. She could hardly catch her breath. The 40-year-old British Jasmin Paris became the first ever woman to successfully complete the race.

It was enough for her to stay anywhere a few seconds longer, and she would not have succeeded as in her two previous participations. “I was close to passing out. I felt I was going to reach the finish line or collapse before it. With eight minutes left I thought I really couldn’t make it. I had about a kilometer to go, but uphill. I was so desperate to stop. But my mind was telling me that if I can’t do it now, I’ll have to run it all over again,” she described to Britain’s The Guardian after the race.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. After that I just fell to the ground. I was breathing hard for five minutes. I’ve never had such a lack of oxygen,” she described the immediate moments after the finish.

Paris only slept three minutes during the entire 60-hour race and struggled with hallucinations. In her hallucinations, she saw many people in black cloaks climbing the same hill as her. Trees reminded her of animals. Until she got close to them, they looked like a cougar, a large dog, or lying pigs.

Brutally uphill

“From the point of view of completion, it is definitely the most difficult race,” Czech ultramarathoner Pavel Paloncý, who participated in the Barkley Marathon three times, but never finished it, explains to Aktuálně.cz. For example, he considers elevation to be extreme. Competitors have to climb a total of 16,500 meters, which is like climbing Mount Everest twice in a row.

“It’s extremely physically and mentally demanding. You have to constantly concentrate and divide your attention, because you need to look at the compass and the map, look around for landmarks. But it doesn’t go very well. Due to the extremely difficult terrain, you have to always look under your feet. It’s brutally uphill and practically the entire route leads off-road,” says Paloncý.

Czech ultramarathoner Pavel Paloncý | Photo: Archive of Pavel Paloncé

According to him, Jasmin Paris is the only woman who can currently complete the extreme race. At the same time, she does not run professionally, she is a veterinarian and works at the University of Edinburgh. The mother of two children, aged three and six, trains every morning from half past five in order to have time for her family. During training, for example, she ran up the local hill seventeen times between one and ten in the morning. In another training session, she climbed the Scottish mountain Ben Ledi five times. At the same time, the ascent takes four and a half hours for an ordinary tourist.

When she gave an interview to a Reuters reporter three days after the race, she showed signs of the extreme performance. Her hands were still black, she still couldn’t get the mud off her skin, her legs were swollen and she was battling tendinitis in one shin. “I accept new challenges because I love running in the mountains. I find it exciting to overcome myself and find out the limits of what I am capable of,” she described her motivation.

At the same time, she hopes that her success will motivate other girls and women to stick with the sport, even if they often lack self-confidence. “I’ve had a lot of young girls write to me that I’ve inspired them to keep playing football with boys and stuff like that. I knew if I could finish the race, it could happen,” she said.

In addition to Paris, four men completed this year’s Barkley Marathon, which is the most in the history of the race. Next year will be a bit harder, according to tradition. Although Paloncý does not expect that the difficulty of the race should increase rapidly. “The fastest runner only had an hour and a quarter to spare, and that’s not much. It would be enough for the route to become significantly more difficult and no one would run. And that would lose its charm. Anyone can build a race that cannot be finished. But this is a race , which can be completed, but it is extremely difficult,” says the ultramarathoner, who would like to return to Tennessee, USA, near the former prison. And this time, the man with the cigarette matured on the track.

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