2017 Barkley Strategy, Gear, & Nutrition

I was done with Barkley posts, but this is one that I told quite a few people I would make and hopefully it will answer a number of the questions I’ve received. After this, though, I’m done for real. If you’d like to revisit anything else related to the 2017 Barkley you can find it at the Barkley Archive.

This post is meant to give a small glimpse into my Barkley strategy, gear, and nutrition choices this year. Parts of this might seem like plugs for my partners, but there’s a reason I work with these companies. They make great products that I’ve found are the best for me. If they weren’t, then I’d work with someone else and you’d see them here instead.

Strategy – Disaster Avoidance

My strategy has evolved quite a bit over the past three years, and the name of the game this year was something that I took away from studying Jared Campbell’s race reports: disaster avoidance. Barkley has a multitude of places where disaster can be waiting. For many of these the choice ranges from charging ahead to maximize your expected speed or proceeding with a bit of caution to minimize risk. The faster of a runner you are, the more of a buffer you have that can be used for minimizing risk.

If we model the finish time as a Gaussian (any good engineer knows we can assume that everything is Gaussian), then we can see two of these risk/speed choices below. The blue gives the more reckless approach: a faster expected finishing time, but a long tail to the right past the 60 hour cutoff due to the added risk. The distribution is skewed because there are no magic unicorns at Barkley that are going to cut a bunch of time off, but there are navigation errors, bad weather, poor footing, thickets, and plenty of other things to ruin your day and push that finishing time to the right. The green gives the more cautious approach: higher expected finishing time, but not nearly as much risk of going over the cutoff.

The thing to remember is that everyone’s distributions will look different, and tradeoffs exist across many variables. There is no single strategy that is best at Barkley. There isn’t even a single goal across all runners. The only thing that’s constant is that everyone should minimize their risk for their chosen goal. In finance this is the Markowitz efficient frontier. My goal / desired return was to finish in any amount of time under 60 hours. Whether it was 55 hours or 59.9 didn’t matter. So at the outset all of my choices: gear, nutrition, and every other piece of strategy were focused on going under 60 hours with as little risk as possible.

The efficient frontier


I’ve relied on Ultimate Direction’s Adventure Vest for all three years. The first two years I had a PB Adventure Vest 2.0, and this year I added an AK Adventure Vest 3.0. The original vest has now seen 9 Barkley loops and is still in great condition. The extra vest helped my crew be more efficient and it also reduced risk in case something catastrophic did happen to a vest. Both vests have a lot of easily accessible storage that’s great for separately storing critical items like pages, map, food, and different fuels. Being able to quickly access specific items individually can really help save a lot of time over the course of the race.

Inside those packs I had largely the same gear I’ve had in previous years. First up are the headlamps: a main one (Black Diamond Icons) and a backup (Black Diamond Storm or Spot) ready to go for each pack. And batteries. Always extra batteries. Being caught out at night at Barkley with a broken or drained headlamp is a fatal mistake. The extra weight might slow you down, but it removes an enormous risk.

Speaking of risk, there is an element of physical risk at Barkley. You’re never in an extremely remote location, and you’d be found within a day, but a basic first aid kit is still absolutely necessary. The stated goal might be to finish, but the primary goal is always to stay safe. No amount of return is worth eschewing basic precautions, as I kind of learned myself the hard way on a short backpacking trip when I first started getting back into running. As a nod to that trip, you’ll notice there’s also an extra compass in my little emergency kit. I also had a 3rd compass on the band of my Barkley watch. Having no compass isn’t as disastrous at Barkley as no headlamp, but they don’t weigh much and it’s definitely not a situation you want to be in. For the Adventure Vest 3.0, my emergency kit was in a hard water bottle, which itself was part of the kit. As much as I love soft flasks, there’s a risk they can bust that I was not willing to take on.

Next up is any extra clothes that I might need. These were fairly limited this year because we didn’t face the extreme cold that some years have seen. I don’t normally wear a visor, or any kind of warm weather headgear, but my BOCO Gear visor was extremely comfortable and crucial in keeping sun and sweat (and to some extent briars) out of my face during those hot daytime loops. I also had an equally good BOCO Gear toboggan that’s warm and thick, but decided to go without it on loop 5.

Now, you might be saying, “why didn’t you take that toboggan and some warmer clothes on loop 5? I thought you were trying to minimize risk.” Well, by the time I left for loop 5 navigational errors had eaten into my time buffer enough to where the equation shifted a bit. I needed to go for speed and accept a bit of extra risk in the process. Warm gear would have added a lot of bulk to my pack, and I knew that as long as I kept moving well I should be warm enough with what I had. And if I wanted to finish I absolutely had to keep moving well. So essentially I could move well and finish, or I could slow down and get cold, in which case I might as well drop out anyway. The little bit of cold also made me just uncomfortable enough to stay more alert. The one time that I got pretty cold and more than just uncomfortable was on Rat Jaw. That’s of course where I found the gems below: my new orange toboggan and my briar-shredded grocery bag poncho.

The rain jacket I had with me was a bit heavy and not all that breathable. I would much rather be wet and a bit cold than trapped in a sauna with my own sweat. If I had had the Ultimate Direction jacket that I do now, which is lightweight, highly packable, and breathable, then I would have probably taken it with me and the grocery bag poncho would still be sitting on Rat Jaw.

My Louis Garneau gloves were amazing this year. I fully expected them to get ruined, but they still look brand new. Quality gloves are key for getting through briars. The fingerless bike gloves were on my hands from the second the race started until after I touched the gate. Again I didn’t need any real cold weather gloves this year, but I had those ready to go as well just in case. In addition to biking, Louis Garneau actually has a lot of great winter apparel (it’s a Canadian company, so I guess they have to).

My shoes this year were a huge gear change (and improvement) from previous years. Last year I had three pairs of new shoes that all got destroyed by the course, with lugs torn off or the soles cracked on every single pair.

This year (thanks to a tip from Jared) I turned to La Sportiva Mutants and Akasha. The lacing system on the Mutants cradles my foot more comfortably and snugly than any pair of shoes I’ve owned, and the grip on them is incredible. The Akasha are slightly roomier with more cushioning, perfect for that final loop when my feet have started swelling and hurting. They got the glory of the finish, but the Mutants did all the work on the first four loops. And now after the race I’m pretty sure that if I washed them off they would still look like brand new shoes. I was pleasantly surprised by how amazingly well they held up.

The other pieces of gear I had with me on every loop were my trekking poles (donated by Fegy after I snapped one of mine on the first loop), Dirty Girl Gaiters (which did suffer a puncture wound but otherwise held up much better than what I’ve used in the past), and my calf compression sleeves. The sleeves were more for protection than anything, but you almost need leather chaps to be fully protected. They were also white as snow when the race started. Now they’re more of a brownish gray.

Another thing people have asked is, “what’s Every Man Jack?” or, “why a men’s care company?” Well, they’re an incredibly supportive company that makes high quality, affordable, natural products, and everyone needs shampoo (ultrarunners probably more than the general population). Of course EMJ helped me clean up nice after I was finally done, but it might come as a surprise that it was also used for the race itself. When Fegy is hurriedly applying sunscreen between loops? That’s EMJ. Not a single pink spot after 2+ days out there.

Image courtesy Josh Patton Designs


My poor nutrition strategy was what doomed me in 2015. I did much better in 2016, but this year I got it pretty well nailed down. I can’t stress enough that nutrition is highly individual. Everyone has to learn what works best for them, and largely through trial and error (I’ve made my fair share of errors). When assessing a food the most important things to consider are its appeal, digestability, and nutrition. In an ultra, energy has to keep flowing steadily from fuel to muscles, which means food has to agree with your mouth, gut, and body without hitting a traffic jam anywhere along the way. For the race, I had pretty big menus for things that went in my pack and things that I could grab in camp. The primary purpose of food in camp was to give me options that wouldn’t be practical for taking with me, whether that be something that’s warm, too messy or heavy for my pack, wouldn’t keep well, etc.

For training I’ve come to rely quite heavily on Chopt salads, as I can fully customize things to get exactly the type of nutrition I need depending on my training plan. As an added bonus they’re also right by my office and it turns out the food is pretty delicious (and this coming from a guy who used to consider salads to be rabbit food). Unfortunately, salads don’t work very well for eating on-the-go while running, and they’re not exactly calorie dense enough for what I was burning.

After quite a bit of experimenting, I’ve found that Hammer Nutrition works best for me during races in terms of keeping my energy levels steady and preventing gastric distress. Again, people are individual, but Hammer also backs up their products with data better than I’ve seen from any other nutrition company. No sports nutrition company that I’ve seen does rigorous, peer-reviewed, double-blind studies, because those are expensive and then none of us could afford any of it. Hammer does base their product development on 3rd party peer-reviewed studies as much as possible, though.

My food for each loop started with my foundation of Hammer options: Hammer Gel flasks with amounts and flavors that varied by loop, Hammer Bars (I prefer oatmeal apple during races due to their carb/fat/protein content), Perpetuem (a bottle to start each loop), and Fizz. In addition to helping me with electrolytes, the Fizz gave a nice taste to that prison drainage water. Endurolytes were used as needed to balance electrolytes, and Anti-fatigue Caps, Endurance Amino, and Tissue Rejuvenator were used to help keep me going. Tissue Rejuvenator helped me recover in time to train for the race from a couple of injuries I suffered in December after trying to ramp my mileage back up too quickly, so it seemed natural to trust them for the race itself.

For a 60 hour race, though, it’s impossible to rely solely on engineered food, no matter how well engineered it is. A huge variety of real food was in my packs and ready for me between loops. My aunt Brenda and my mom both made me cookies, my aunt Mary Ann made me homemade bagels, and my wife made me pineapple and rice burritos, chocolate rice muffins, PB&J waffles, and my secret weapon: salty maple nut energy bites from fANNEtastic food. I’ve taken quite a few great recipes from there for race food and everyday food.

Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that I had my fair share of “junk” options available during the race. Reese’s Pieces, Nutty Bars, and honey buns were all on the menu. For a long, sustained, lower intensity effort sometimes it’s necessary to eat whatever you can (bad calories are better than no calories). The most visible example of this was between loops 3 and 4 when I was stuffing pizza down my mouth, including a piece to go. This approach comes into play more later in the race, when the stomach can start to be more unpredictable. For early loops I relied mostly on Hammer fuels and didn’t have much more in my pack than needed for one loop, but the amount I carried increased loop-by-loop until I had a whole buffet with me. There was no way I would eat all of it, but it was important that I had whatever sounded appealing at the time be available to me. Again it added some pack weight, but risk minimization was critical.

The junk food extends a bit to post-race for me, at least for my main races. Generally I eat pretty healthily (e.g. Chopt and fueling with Hammer), but I do have a bit of a sweet tooth and enjoy my desserts after the race. For me, these give me something else to look forward to and are a way of rewarding my body for what it just went through for me. In addition to great recipes I’ve also learned a lot from fANNEtasic food, like Being Healthy Means Not ALWAYS Being Healthy. I’ve already introduced you to the Krispy-Bo, but for immediately after Barkley my go-to is a Butterfinger Blast (partly because Sonic is the one of only a few restaurants for miles around, and partly because they’re awesome).

Oh, and if you’re interested in what kind of caffeine I was using, it was Military Energy Gum. I don’t drink coffee or any other sort of everyday caffeine,and the gum works amazingly well for a while. After 59 hours out there, going on close to 80 hours with ~1.5 hours of sleep, there was nothing that was going to help, though.

6 thoughts on “2017 Barkley Strategy, Gear, & Nutrition

  • 2017-09-22 at 2:16 PM

    Fantastic advice John, and congrats on the amazing finish!

  • 2017-10-16 at 1:33 PM

    Great post John! I rediscovered your blog after watching Where Dreams Go To Die last week and Ethan was nice enough to feature you in his documentation of both the 2016 and 2017 race. It’s always educational to see what other people use.

    • 2017-10-16 at 11:17 PM

      Thank you, glad it’s helpful! I’m looking forward to seeing Ethan’s film myself next week.


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