That’s the Barkley Marathons, the toughest ultra-marathon trail race in the world, which this year will see KwaZulu-Natal’s Gareth Morgan, 37, at the start - one of only 40 runners from across the globe, and the only South African chosen to compete in the 2019 event, to be held at the end of March.
The 100-miler (160km) takes place in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, in the US, and has to be completed in 60 hours. The course consists of five loops, each one 20 miles (32km) long.
To be considered as a participant is the first test of a runner’s determination and endurance - prospective entrants have to write a motivation essay that has to be submitted on a specific date and at a specific time to an e-mail address which is a closely guarded secret. Hopefuls also have to undertake research, find necessary details, and write an exam.
And for Pinetown-born and bred Morgan, it was a challenge he was up to, as he received his official notification of acceptance last Saturday in the form of a “condolence letter”, saying he was one of the 40 competitors for this year’s race.
Morgan started running only three years ago to help him get through a difficult period in his life, and has since run two Comrades Marathons, receiving bronze medals in both, and completed the Washie 100-Miler, run between East London and Port Alfred, last year in just over 23 hours.
“When I ran my first Comrades, it was an unknown and I had butterflies in my stomach, but I was fine for my second.
“For the Washie I had butterflies again, and for this race (Barkley Marathons), I think it’s heightened as there is secrecy around it, and we only get to see the course an hour before the race starts,” said Morgan.
The Barkley Marathons route is kept under wraps and is never shared by previous runners. It starts at the same campsite, and the starting signal is a man lighting a cigarette.
“There is no GPS, no cellphones, no seconds are allowed. There are no marshals along the route, no markings. I’ll have to carry my compass and map, food, drinks, space blanket, clothing and first aid.
“If you get lost, it’s up to you to find your way back to the campsite,” he said.
This week, the temperature in Frozen Head State Park was -2ºC at night and 13ºC during the day, and the area is mountainous. No participants finished the race last year.
Morgan could find information about only one South African who had attempted the race. The runner dropped out after the first loop.
“It’s definitely a challenge; I want to see how far I can go. When I ran the Washie, I felt I could go further. I want to push the boundaries.”
To raise the funds to take part in the Barkley Marathons, he set up a crowdfunding site, and had assistance from friends. He will be leaving South Africa on March 26.
Morgan started training for the Barkley Marathons before he was accepted as an entrant, running 20kms a day and completing a marathon every weekend. With only two weeks to go to the US event, he has cut back on his training.
“Physically, it will be an unknown as I don’t know the terrain, but I’m looking forward to it.
“With marathons, you really get to learn about yourself and how to push through. There’s no prize money, but if you finish you are allowed to sit at the yellow gate at the start for half an hour,” he said.
Founder Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell was inspired to start the race after hearing about the escape of James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King jr, from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Ray managed to cover only 13km in 55 hours before being caught.
Mocking Ray’s attempt to cross the countryside to freedom, Cantrell said he could run 100 miles across the terrain, a quip that led to the first Barkley Marathons in 1986.
Alongside the Barkley Marathons, there is a 60-mile “fun run” for those looking for something a little less challenging.