2024 Barkley Marathons – Five for the Ages

I’ve now been involved in the Barkley Marathons in some form for a decade, and seen both incredible triumphs and agonizing defeats, but I don’t know if there will ever be another year to match 2024. Last year I saw Karel Sabbe finish on his third attempt with only six minutes to spare. I’ve experienced the agony and ecstasy of my own first finish, pushing my body beyond what I thought was possible while most parts of my mind had abandoned me. I’ve seen years with no finishers, experiencing defeat myself multiple times. In my second finish I had the joy of leisurely watching a beautiful sunset while I looked down from the mountain that I looked up at through my childhood bedroom window.

In 2015, before this ridiculous race through the woods that I was going to try one time and be done with

I sat right in front of the heartbreaking scene of Gary Robbins coming up just short. I’ve known close calls both ways myself – coming in like a zombie and starting loop 5 with minutes to spare, and stopping before loop 4 after spending hours searching for lost pages.

Gary and I after a loop in 2017. Photo: Josh Patton

Last year Aurélien Sanchez became the first finisher for France, after decades of frustration for a country so enthralled by the race. Karel’s finish was the first for Belgium. This year Ihor Verys was the first finisher for both Canada and Ukraine, with Greig Hamilton getting the first for New Zealand and also making it the first year with more than three finishers.

The 2023 finishers, the first since 2017. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

We then got to sit front row as Jasmin became the first woman to finish Barkley, touching the gate with just 99 seconds remaining and absolutely nothing left other than her relentless focus and determination. Seemingly everyone had conceded she wouldn’t make it, everyone other than her, as she pushed alone down the long last descent and over a stretch of painfully runnable terrain leading up to those final few minutes when she arrived within sight of camp.

Jasmin arriving at the fire tower before the last big push. The homestretch… the three and a half hour homestretch with two major climbs, three descents, and zero minutes to spare (ok, technically one minute to spare). Photo: Jacob Zocherman

In yet another first, Carl Laniak waited at the gate as the effective race director, laz having handed most of the operations over. But laz was there as well, delighted to see what he had spent so many years saying couldn’t be done. Frozen Ed Furtaw, the first finisher back in 1988 when the race was three loops, stood with his trademark beaming smile. Jared Campbell and I, both now with white streaks in our hair and between us accounting for over a quarter of all Barkley finishes, couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We excitedly glanced back and forth between each other, our watches, and Jasmin as she willed herself up to the gate.

Most people have seen Howie’s view from the gate that made the cover of Ultra Running magazine, so how about a side view of the finish? Photo: John Clarke

In that moment, seemingly the most unexpected and pivotal event in the history of an event known for its unpredictable changes, what became clear is that this is the constant it was meant to be all along. The new was built upon the old, all of us pushing our individual and collective limits, bricks in a tower that now reaches to previously unimaginable heights. The race itself will continue to evolve, forcing us to grow further. Who knows what will be built upon this latest brick – who will be inspired to pursue their passion and take on challenges that they otherwise might not have considered or thought possible.

No caption needed. Photo: David Miller Photography

How did we arrive at that point this year? After by far my longest introduction ever, let’s get to the event itself and see. Or just reference my tl;dr illustration below (see the full-size image here).

Pre-race

One of my favorite parts of Barkley, and the main reason I see myself continuing to be involved in some way indefinitely, is that I get to return to my home terrain and welcome people from all over to our remote little nook in the mountains of Tennessee. “Hey y’all, let me tell you about that creek over there! Wanna hear a story about how that mountain got its name? Here, have some cornbread and biscuits! What’s a coal bench… well, I sure am glad you asked.” Much like the written course description, and this race report itself, actual useful Barkley knowledge is buried somewhere amongst all the irrelevant details.

This post-race photo is a bit out of place here, but I love how I kind of match the Tennessee flag in the background. Photo: Drew Darby / Singletrack

Once we arrived at camp this year, it was quickly down to business. Carl was quick to get people checked in and get the map out, which was drawn with far more detail than in previous years. I considered redoing all my compass bearings, but instead once again impatiently copied them from a previous year’s map for the portions that had not changed. Preparing my map is probably my least favorite part of Barkley, and it’s now incredibly rare that I actually use it during the race. It’s even more unlikely that a few degrees difference in compass bearing is going to make a difference. Contrary to popular belief, it is not an orienteering event.

Just before heading to camp. Clearly if Jim and Damian had moved over to their right a bit here then they would have finished. 😉 The peak in the background is Chimney Top. Photo: Jodi Isenor.

Once we were finished going over the map and course changes, everyone headed to bed anticipating an early wake up after last year’s pleasant sunrise start time. One luxury of it being my “home” race is my camp setup – insulated from sound and weather in the back of my vehicle with a legitimate mattress, full gel pillow, and weighted blanket. Upper Kelly Camp is known for its chigger infestations, but Lower Kelly Camp is Frozen Head’s finest accommodations.

My setup prevented me from being woken by a car alarm that went off in the early morning hours, which caused many people to start getting ready prematurely. It was another hour before the conch blew, and although I had not been completely immune to nighttime disturbances, I managed a total of around six hours sleep.

A recurring theme for me these days in Barkley (or really, any event) is “I’ve seen worse, and it worked out, at least sort of.” After my 2017 finish came with a 1:42 AM start in dense fog, the confidence that comes from six hours of sleep is immense. To boost that further, I found that the alarm on my cheap race-provided watch worked this year! I would not be so desperate on later loops to rely on mud to wake me from a nap.

Look how fancy it is! I’m saving this one for important business meetings.

Loop 1

I was thrilled to have Gary Robbins back in Frozen Head, and was woken by him shortly after the conch blew at 4:17 AM for a 5:17 AM start. I view 5 to 8 AM as the perfect start window – late enough to get some sleep and have daylight by the time it’s useful but early enough to not have to wait around for the start and to finish in daylight.

Gary was completely on top of things for all four loops (there’s really nothing left that crew can do once someone starts loop 5). Photo: David Miller Photography

We had the usual conga line up the first climb, and the swarm around the first book as everyone tried to get their page. No one wants to get separated early. It’s still easy for me even to get caught up in it, frantically looking around thinking I can’t get left behind before remembering that I’m now one of the people everyone is trying not to get left behind by. I can’t get left behind by me, at least not until my mind goes its separate way on loop 4 or 5. So I hung back at a more reasonable pace.

I couldn’t help but chuckle when the lead group came back around a corner having missed the first descent. I pointed them to the correct spot, and they dashed down from there almost immediately veering too far south. A great feature of the Barkley course is that mistakes are almost always self-penalizing. The best line is the correct line, so if someone goes off course they naturally lose time.

We started to spread out a bit going up Jury Ridge, but regrouped with over half the field on Bird Mountain. The book was in the same area as previous years, but stashed in a different spot. A lot of books used to be under rocks, but hollowed out trees seem to be favored now. I believe that’s because it’s much less likely that wild boars will dig the books up and eat them. So we all fanned out looking for the hollowed out tree, everyone checking the correct and most obvious one but in the darkness no one saw it down at the very bottom. I think most of us probably couldn’t have even reached it. After what felt like an eternity, Greig Hamilton reached his long arm down to locate it and pull it out. Another swarm ensued.

We rushed off down the slope known as Meat Grinder, trying to make up for the lost time as if the race were decided in those first few hours. The person in front of me stepped on a stick just right to where it popped up at an angle like in movies when the foot soldiers raise spears against charging knights. I couldn’t react in time as it went right into my crotch. With the yell I let out people assumed I had sprained my ankle that I injured in the Spine Race. Fortunately the stick broke before anything of mine did, and after a minute I was able to continue and lead the way to the next book, one I’m all too familiar with due to previous years’ mistakes.

After another climb and descent our group was still 16 strong as we made it up Guinea Hill, a new briar-choked cliff-covered climb, and hit the loop’s halfway point. A large group is useful for locating new books. Of the first nine, four were entirely new and three were slightly moved. But a large group is also costly – precious minutes lost as each person takes a turn getting their page. There’s also not exactly an orderly queue, and it’s easy to get passed by someone while waiting for your page.

Trying to get my drink mixes prepared ahead of time so I don’t use any more time than necessary at the water stop. Photo: Jacob Zocherman

We cleared the new sections and located the last new book near the bottom of Stallion Mountain. Then I started to push the pace a bit heading up Little Hell to the fire tower so that we could get some better spacing. I was told before the race that Rat Jaw was mowed, but it was only the top 50 meters or so. Being the first down it, we were periodically halted by the tall thick briars, caught in them like flies in a morning web. Still, we made a relatively rapid descent. By the time we were back to camp there were six of us remaining at the front.

We touched the gate in mid afternoon after an 8:27 loop, about 10 minutes slower than last year.

Loop 2

After just six minutes for swapping out my pack and getting some food down at the gate, I was the first to set off on loop 2 (counter clockwise). One of the nice parts of switching directions is being able to see others as they finish the previous loop and it was great to see Jasmin, Jared, and many others still not far behind. By the end of the climb up Chimney Top I was joined by Ihor, Damian, Barkley Fall Classic winner Maxime Gauduin, and Tor Des Glaciers champion Sébastien Raichon. Those who had taken longer in camp paid the penalty of extra effort to catch up and benefit from the group.

Unfortunately we still overshot the descent down Big Hell, a mistake that’s easy to make. I’ve seen it often enough that I was able to quickly get us back on course. This is a key element of Barkley, and in particular this year was my main focus: fix mistakes quickly. Little mistakes add up, but one big mistake can end someone’s race. It’s why it’s so important to know not just the course, but the surrounding terrain. Sometimes out there I find myself someplace other than where I want to be, but I am never lost.

Do Barkley, they said. See beautiful Frozen Head, they said. Rat Jaw will be mowed, they said. Photo: David Miller Photography

We made our way up and over Indian Knob to the prison, where we next had to climb southern-facing unshaded Rat Jaw in the afternoon sun. Generally I prefer cold conditions, especially at Barkley where more apparel means more briar protection. Some in the group began to struggle on the climb, and as I sipped the last of my water, I glanced back to see who was still there. Unexpectedly, amongst those starting to drop back there was someone gaining ground.

It was Jasmin! I had feared we wouldn’t see her again. There’s teamwork at Barkley, but it’s no charity. No one is waiting around, no one can carry you up the hills, no one can force you to move at the necessary pace. She knew that, and had a quick turnaround in camp, went through the first section flawlessly, and by the time we made it to the fire tower at the top of Rat Jaw she had fully reeled us in.

Ihor seemed amazed at how little water I seemed to be getting and drinking from the creeks. I don’t think he saw me lagging behind a bit at the two water drops to polish off gallon jugs. Left: Drew Darby / Singletrack, Right: David Miller Photography

It was just in time for me to make one of the two biggest errors I would make, on a section that I should know all too well – Little Hell. It’s where I spent hours doing hill repeats in 2022 searching for my lost pages. Instead of trusting my own experience and knowledge, which told me to turn left, I continued straight following a faint trod thinking, “This must be from where we all came up on loop 1.” It was a rookie mistake. I should know better. The mountains are covered with faint trails from deer, boar, and old logging, mining, and hunting activity. None of them can be trusted.

I felt terrible down to my core. It was careless, something people were counting on me to not be. I again managed to course correct quickly and what could have been disastrous only cost us 5-10 minutes, but that’s enough to change a race. As we set off after collecting our pages I quizzed the others on how I knew where we were and got back to where we wanted to be. Immediately Jasmin nailed it, “The river was flowing the wrong way.” I had also heard a vehicle go by on the nearby mountain road. At Barkley, everything is a course marking.

There’s no time for dwelling on mistakes at Barkley.

We re-focused and continued. We were still in great shape and most of the trickiest navigation was behind us. I just desperately wanted to get to the new section with light remaining. After a great climb up Stallion Mountain, Seb led a masterful descent from Guinea Hill to the last new book just before we had to pull out our headlamps.

The rest of the loop was mostly mistake free, and we came in around midnight in a total time of 19:27. We were positioned to start loop 3 about an hour ahead of my previous finishes.

Loop 3

We took slightly longer in camp, but still aimed for a turnaround of about 15 minutes. There was not the urgency of wasting precious daylight minutes or risking another large group pile-up, plus at that point we all needed a bit of maintenance. I was having some pain on top of my foot, so in a rare move for me I pulled all my socks off and found a piece of the KT Tape holding my ankle together had curled up, creating a pressure point.

Usually I don’t ever need to take my socks off at Barkley. Photo: David Miller Photography

My ankle itself had been doing ok. On loop 1 it hurt a bit on descents, and there were a few times that it started to roll over a bit, but it hadn’t gone far enough to do any damage. The intermittent pain had now all but disappeared (or was masked by other things) and it even felt more stable. It’s as if two loops of Barkley had been successful exposure therapy for my ankle. I cut the curled up tape off, got ready, and headed back out.

The comfort and relief to my foot were immediate, my spirts rising as we pushed up the first climb. Our group was down to four – me, Ihor, Damian, and Jasmin. Loop 3 is where things start to get real. The mind can start to lose focus, the body can start to really complain, and it’s easy to start losing instead of gaining time against the cutoffs. Like loop 2, we were slightly off on our first descent but only by a minute or two. Another fortunate aspect of the start time and the loop directions is that at night we were doing the sections that are easier to navigate, and we continued making good time.

Physically I still felt great. As we reached the top of Guinea Hill I paused to grab my quad, giving Ihor concern that I was cramping. He offered salt before I explained that I was just pulling a giant thorn out.

Mentally I also felt much better at that point than I had in most years. I was trying to hang back and force others to take the lead to learn the route better for facing it alone on loop 5. I think it benefitted me as much as anyone, keeping me more alert than if I had just been leading on auto-pilot.

Still, I intermittently lost focus. Heading down Stallion Mountain we found ourselves at a spot where the main spur splits, unsure if we should go left or right. Choose correctly, and we would be at the book. Choose incorrectly, and we would have to go to the bottom and circle back up, our most costly mistake yet. Fortunately daylight had come and we calmly took in our surroundings before choosing. We chose…wisely.

By referencing Ted Lasso and Indiana Jones in the same post I feel I’ve really bridged a generational divide here.

The rest of the loop was without incident. After finally mastering the Little Hell ascent last year on loop 5 I nailed it again, this time taking note of where I had gone wrong on the loop 2 descent. On the final climb, Big Hell, the temperature was starting to rise again and we spread out a bit before taking the long easy descent to camp. We arrived in about 32:35, Ihor running ahead to work on his feet. I was starting to feel hot and low on calories, but similar to the gelato from my crew that helped revive me at Tor Des Geants, Gary was clutch with a Sonic Blast.

“Wait, what do you mean his has Butterfingers in it?!” Actually, I have no idea what’s going on here. Clearly Damian must have said something mean. Photo: David Miller Photography

Loop 4

Ihor, Damian, and I set out counter clockwise for loop 4. Unfortunately Jasmin had dropped back a bit, but Jared and Greig were right behind us and I hoped she would stick with them for what is usually the most critical and difficult loop.

Alright, I’ve had my Sonic Blast. I’ve got some tots to go. Let’s do this loop 4. Photo: Jacob Zocherman

The sleep monster was mounting its first attack on me. The gradual trail up Chimney Top made me easy prey. It’s rarely the sections that are physically or navigationally difficult where I mentally struggle. It’s the sections where my mind thinks it’s not needed. Maybe that’s why I struggle with sleep even more at races like Tor Des Geants and Spine that are on an actual marked trail.

Some people hallucinate when they’re sleep deprived (I believe Jasmin has had her share of these), some seem to struggle to think clearly (seems to be the case with Damian), some seem to not need to sleep at all (Ihor), and then there’s me who just absolutely can’t keep my eyes open to stay awake. The yelling at myself and other strange noises started as we made our way up the switchbacks.

Once we made it over the top, got off the trail, and started straight down the other side I was ok. But then our mistakes began. A few minutes overshooting the Big Hell descent (again). A few more swinging too far out up Zipline (again). Not swinging out far enough down Bad Thing (a more costly mistake with some bonus ascent).

This photo captures so much. If only it had captured my Reese’s Egg floating out of the tunnnel. Photo: David Miller Photography

None were major, but we couldn’t afford extra minutes on every book. We had a pep talk and refocused, but I immediately had my most tragic mistake yet – my hand slipping as I opened a Reese’s egg. I watched helplessly as it flew out of the package, landed, and floated into the darkness of the prison tunnel.

The lighting here makes my left eye look like some sort of cyborg eye. Would have rather had cyborg legs. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

We at least had Rat Jaw next. For all the attention it gets as a physically difficult part of the course, I mentally find it the easiest. There’s zero navigation risk, but the physical demands (and the briars) keep me alert. Unfortunately we were again climbing it in the heat of the day. It was supposed to be cooler than loop 2, but it at least seemed hotter. I laid down at the top and poured a jug of water over my face before continuing to my nemesis: Little Hell.

With some diligent watering, I thought maybe I could get those little bits of facial hair to grow. Photo: David Miller Photography

Finally. At last I figured out the Little Hell descent. It was probably a few minutes short of optimal, but I was fairly confident I knew where those minutes were lost and that I could nail it the next time.

We continued moving well and mistake free. All the tricky navigation was behind us, but loop 4 night brain was arriving. I became disoriented and messed up Meat Grinder – a climb that’s physically brutal but not difficult to navigate. It was the second of my two significant mistakes and it cost us valuable cushion.

We made one more small mistake coming off the top of Bird Mountain, and lost Damian in the process. He and I were both starting to struggle with sleep. Ihor was not. But he does drink water like a race horse, so when he needed a refill before the last climb I asked him to wake me in 2 minutes when he finished. The horse comparison extends to his seemingly constant strength. Nearly everyone has highs and lows in an ultra, but the only time we thought he was struggling was when he dropped back a bit to relieve himself.

Before we separated we had discussed loop 5 directions. As expected, Ihor and Damian preferred clockwise. I had no dreams of a sunset Chimney Top finish this year, and honestly I kind of wanted a counter clockwise finish – it was something I hadn’t yet done at Barkley. As a bonus it would mean sleep deprived nighttime navigation of the trickiest section, from Chimney Top to the prison. We hadn’t been faced with that at all this year.

For everyone to get their desired direction, I would need to be the second person to start loop 5. I wanted a nap, and could either get one in camp or go with my usual dirt nap strategy after starting the loop. Ihor wanted to fix his feet; Damian also wanted sleep. That meant I couldn’t get an immediate turnaround, so rather than just waiting idly for one of them to leave I decided to nap in camp. It would be the first time I had gone to my campsite since 2017 after loop 2, a dozen interloopal periods earlier for me.

Nope I’m totally fine. Everything’s fine. Just need a little nap. Photo: Jacob Zocherman

Ihor and I arrived at the gate in 45:46, just a few minutes faster than I arrived in 2023 but 40 minutes ahead of me and Gary in 2017. I got some food in then went down to my campsite. I climbed under my cozy weighted blanket and told Gary to give me 20 minutes. When I went back to the gate Ihor was long gone and I found Damian ready to go without a nap. I touched the gate a split second before him, sending us each in our planned directions.

Loop 5

I was still disoriented from my nap and hadn’t noticed / fully comprehended that Greig was also getting ready to start loop 5. He followed me in the counter clockwise direction and bolted by like he was running a 5K. Since the race started alternating loop 5 directions over 20 years ago, it was the first time two people had ever started loop 5 in the same direction at around the same time.

Me, Damian, and then Greig all about to start loop 5. Photo: Jacob Zocherman

Clearly we had different strategies, though, and I didn’t know if working together on loop 5 was in the spirit of the race. Plus, I really enjoy and look forward to my solo loop 5 time out there. It’s a special experience, where it seems as if the worries of the world have disappeared and it’s just me out there in my secluded peaceful spot in the woods. It’s always strange to have those moments where I do think about what’s going on outside that little bubble, back at camp and beyond, and all the things that have been going on in the 2+ days that I’ve been out there.

Despite my nap in camp the easy trail up Chimney Top lulled me to sleep just as it had on the previous loop. The way sleep deprivation hits me, it feels like general anesthesia. Any second I could be out. The only control I have is choosing where before it’s too late. Twice I lay down for five minutes. Once over the top I again became more alert, but I then faced one of the toughest stretches to navigate. Alone, at night, struggling to stay awake.

What makes the section between Chimney Top and the prison more difficult in the counter clockwise direction is that there aren’t clear backstops, handrails, or other terrain features to use as a reference. Going up Big Hell, all lines converge at the top. Get on the wrong one, and it might be slightly longer, but it ends up at the same place. Get on the wrong one going down, and it could end in an entirely unrecognizable area. At night (or in the fog), the probability is significantly higher of not realizing it’s the wrong one until it’s too late.

I managed Big Hell fairly well, but as I collected my page at the bottom I saw Greig’s headlamp coming back towards me, far off in the wrong direction. On Zipline and Bad Thing I made the same mistakes as loop 4 – swingout out too far on the former and not far enough on the latter. I again kept the mistakes from becoming disasters, and survived. One more trip up Rat Jaw, this time it at least wasn’t as hot. Then for my first time ever I perfectly nailed the Little Hell descent.

Alright this picture is from an earlier loop. I actually changed shirts for loop 5. Photo: David Miller Photography

I was through the worst of it, and daylight was coming. But for me, right around dawn is one of the two times of day when I struggle most with staying awake. “Just 10 more minutes,” I thought. If I could get 10 more minutes of sleep I would make it through this rough time window and have enough to get to the finish.

I rose from my nap with pieces of leaves caked to the cuts on my legs just minutes before Ihor approached from the other direction. He still looked strong, and seemed to have avoided any careless nighttime mistakes.

At Guinea Hill I met Jasmin. She was moving well and focused but time was not on her side. I had hoped to see her somewhere near the top of Stallion Mountain, or at least by Garden Spot, for her to have a chance. She had not seen Damian, which meant his race was almost certainly over.

Almost immediately, Greig approached from behind. I believe it was the first time ever that three people had met on loop 5. He asked if I was confident of a finish. In my head I once again fell back to “I’ve seen worse.” It wasn’t cold and raining and muddy. I wasn’t wearing a grocery bag or pulling headwear out of the briars. I wasn’t losing my mind, I had had my nap(s), and my legs still felt great. Yes, I was confident. I might be constantly reassessing my situation and checking my splits at Barkley, but my mindset is always that I’m finishing.

A poem from Andrew Thompson, who had one of the greatest loop 5 experiences. Photo: David Miller Photography

I responded to Greig, “If I don’t mess up this descent I am.” I took a good line to reach the bottom but couldn’t immediately locate the book. I didn’t need to risk disaster. Instead of bouncing around to places where I thought the book was, trying to get the best possible outcome, I slowly and methodically grid-searched the area, ensuring I avoided the worst possible outcome. After about 15 minutes I had it. Checkmate, Barkley.

Greig passed me in the process, but my legs were ready for the final push. I caught him at the top of the climb, only to again fall back when I stopped at the water drop. Then at the bottom of the next descent his page was still there. I looked downstream with concern, thinking of my time lost in that area in 2016.

Up next was Meat Grinder. Navigation of the southern section from Chimney Top to the prison is one main reason clockwise is preferred. Meat Grinder is the other. Loop 5 had been the first time this year navigating the southern section at night, and it was also my first time going up Meat Grinder in the heat of the day. It’s straight up, is so steep it can hardly support its own dirt, and has multiple soul-crushing spots that fool someone into thinking, “Great, I’m almost there!” As I started up it I thought I could finish in about 58:30.

Forty minutes later I sat at the top, triumphant but completely cooked. It was ten minutes before I gathered myself enough to get up and continue, and thirty before my legs didn’t feel like worthless mush. My stomach and my head didn’t recover until after I finished.

I at least had enough left in me to taunt laz a bit. Photo: Jacob Zocherman

In a surreal daze I made it down the winding switchbacks of Jury Ridge, up Checkmate Hill, and down to the finish in 59:15 where Ihor was waiting. For 15 minutes I was tied for the most Barkley finishes ever. Then Jared came in. Then Greig. Damian came in as well, from the wrong direction with just a few pages. I hated to see it, but I’m also incredibly disappointed in myself that I didn’t jump up quickly enough to play taps for him. Maybe that’s the added motivation he needs – knowing that if he comes up short again he’ll have to face getting tapped out by me. 😉

Ihor is hard to read because he always looks great no matter how he feels. I think I might be hard to read because I always look terrible no matter how I feel. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

We all sat with front row seats to probably the greatest sports moment I’ll ever see, as Jasmin joined us with just 99 seconds left. Just as the last minutes of hope ticked away, and everyone’s thoughts turned to how far over the cutoff she would be, my son saw her approaching camp. On my last descent I had been thinking of how glad I was that I didn’t have to push at that point. Here she was pushing with everything she had left, and had been, up brutal climbs, down long punishing descents, and along a final stretch of flat painfully runnable terrain.

Ok, I couldn’t not include this perfeclty timed photo from Howie

I knew the look on her face. She could see and think of nothing but the gate. As she touched it her mind was freed, and her body called in the debt she had negotiated from it over that long final push. A woman finishing Barkley was a moment I knew was possible, but just because something is possible doesn’t mean it will happen. It took someone like Jasmin to step up and actually do it, to continue pushing against all odds and hanging on to whatever shred of “possible” remained, and to open the door to whole new realms of possible in the minds of so many people. I’m fortunate to have been a part of it, and above all to have my young daughters there to witness it.

Top photo: Jessi Kelly, Bottom: Harvey Lewis

I don’t believe I can say anything else that I didn’t in my original Instagram post, so I’ll just leave that below.

Recovery

It’s amazing to be able to leave camp and within 15 minutes be resting at my childhood home surrounded by family. I’m incredibly grateful for their continued support in this and other crazy events, and for welcoming so many others to come run around in the woods.

I’m much more thrilled than I look. I promise. 😅 Photo: Jacob Zocherman

With an evening finish it was perfect timing to get a legitimate meal and go to bed. But sleep does not come easy that first night as many assume it would. After a day spent trying desperately to not fall asleep, I spent a night wanting nothing more. I could still get a quick nap, but it would always be interrupted by a racing mind or an aching body before I could reach the type of deep restorative sleep I needed.

I mean, it’s better than nothing.

Again, though, it’s a sleep problem that Ihor doesn’t seem to have. 😂 Maybe the secret to not needing sleep during the race is being able to get much more outside of it. His crew, longtime Barkley veteran and supporter Jodi Isenor (whose wife Karine crewed Damian), had to wake him up in time to make a late breakfast before most of the British contingent departed. We shared stories from the race, enjoyed a great southern meal, and parted ways till the next time, wherever and whenever that may be.

Sorry we had to wake you up Ihor. Photo: Karine Isenor

Generally, recovery from these things has gotten easier over time. Partially my body is more used to it, but also my mind is just better prepared for what to expect. It was a few days before decent sleep, probably about a week before normal sleep, and around ten days before I could feel decent on an easy run. Two months later, I at least feel like I could have a legitimate race effort again. The main difference this time was the eating. My insatiable hunger and snacking normally lasts a week, two at most. It felt like it extended for a month – which I didn’t hate but did find odd.

Five Finishers

Before this year there had been 17 Barkley finishers and 21 total finishes (two for me and Brett Maune, three for Jared). We’re now at 20 and 26, very roughly a 20% increase for both in a single year of an event with a nearly 40 year history. We’ll ignore the fact that statistics do funny meaningless things with small sample sizes and go ahead and ask: how were there so many?

Five finishers plus Carl and laz. Photo: Sho Fujimaki

I’m not intentionally being a smartass, but there were so many finishers because there were so many finishers. If everyone had been working alone, without such a strong field, experienced veterans, and mutual support, there might have been one to two finishers if even that. For most of the race we were in two lead groups. One had me (22 loops prior to this year), one had Jared (25), and there was also Greig and Jasmin (6+ each) and Damian (4). Everyone was a solid navigator. Jasmin in particular seemed to instinctively know things, and Ihor soaked everything up like a sponge.

This was also the second year in a row with fantastic conditions. Last year was slightly too cold, this year was slightly too warm, but neither had the heavy rain or fog that can be so difficult at Barkley. The start time was in that ideal window just to either side of sunrise. That combined with the loop directions this year also meant that we never faced the toughest sections to navigate at night until counter clockwise loop 5.

The course changes were significant, but difficult to quantify. Leonard’s Buttslide, one of my least favorite sections, was replaced by Guinea Hill, my new least favorite. The number of books went from 13 to 15 – even if there had been no other course changes that would add about 10 minutes across five loops just to stop and get the pages.

Barkley Difficulty

Are five finishers too many? Will the course now get much harder? I don’t think so. Everything perfectly aligned, and none of the finishes were by a huge margin. Next year will probably have a worse start time, worse weather, and not as many strong veterans.

The race adjusts to improvements in gear (I can’t even imagine doing Barkley without trail running shoes, poles, LED headlamps, running vests, race nutrition, etc.), tactics (crewing at the gate, little or no sleep, working in teams, etc.), and knowledge (course navigation, training, etc.). It does not adjust to random variations in uncontrollable factors like the weather.

The “pipeline” of potential finishers has also been drained a bit. It’s often been the case at Barkley that people work towards it for many years, building their experience and waiting for that right opportunity. Before last year no one had finished since 2017. No one other than me and Jared had finished since 2013, the last year before a major course change that some people (not me, my first attempt was 2015) estimated added around 40 minutes per loop. Jasmin and Greig were both out there on their third attempt, just like I was for my first finish.

It reminds me of “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” (I think originally by Samuel Goldwyn, with a variation from Thomas Jefferson). What can sometimes appear to be luck is actually someone putting in immense amounts of work and persisting through multiple attempts until the conditions are right. Sometimes people do catch lightning in a bottle (congrats to them!) but in this case it still takes the right skills, mindset, and experience. No one accidentally finishes Barkley.

Is the goal in designing and adjusting the race for 1% of attempts to finish, 1% of participants to finish (i.e. Jared and I didn’t “count” this year), or for 1% of qualified applicants to finish? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that the field continues to get deeper, which will skew the statistics relative to any of the above measures. If only 1% can finish but that’s the 1% that are in the race, then in theory 100% of participants should finish (this is a hypothetical, that would never be the actual makeup of the full field).

Again, it’s a small sample size, but the streaks of finishers and no finishers below shows this pipeline effect. The finishing times also indicate to me that the race has gotten more difficult. One finish with nearly eight hours to spare says a lot more about difficulty than five finishers all with under one and a half hours left (which says a lot more about the depth of the field). None of that is attempting to take anything at all away from early finishers – again I can’t even imagine taking on Barkley without some of the gear and collective knowledge we have now. If people think Barkley information is difficult to come by now, imagine before social media.

1986 – 1994: No five loop finishers. No one even really thought the full distance was possible.

1995: Mark Williams, from the UK, apparently wasn’t in on the joke that it couldn’t actually be done, and went out and did it

1996 – 2000: no finishers

2001 – 2004: five finishers, average time 57:43, fastest 56:58

2005 – 2007: no finishers

2008 – 2013: nine finishes from seven people, average time 57:07, fastest 52:03, at least one finish per year

2014 – 2017: three finishes with just one new finisher (me, with the other two from Jared), average time 58:59, fastest 57:06

2018 – 2022: no finishers

2023 – 2024: eight finishes with five new finishers, average time 59:16, fastest 58:23

Cooperative Competition

Thanks to runner-philosopher Sabrina Little, I now know that the actual original meaning of the word compete was “to strive together.” Numerous studies have shown that people tend to do better in groups than solo, one particular study relevant to ultrarunning showed that people perceived hills to be smaller and less steep when they were with a friend. So there are benefits from groups to everyone at Barkley – even me and Jared. If our goal is to continue pushing the bounds of what’s possible, both individually and collectively, then those benefits and improvements become necessities rather than luxuries.

This year my role was mainly the “fixer” (sometimes of my own mistakes) rather than the guide. I wanted others to learn while ensuring no small mistakes became disasters. Little things can kill, but one big mistake could’ve ended it for everyone. After the race I tabulated all our mistakes and the approximate time lost and shared it with some of the others. It was around an hour total over the first four loops. That sounds like a lot, but by comparison Gary and I lost more than that in 2017 in the dense nighttime fog before we even got to the third book.

My main personal goal out there isn’t really to finish as fast as possible but to minimize the risk that I don’t finish. Of the finishers I believe I was the only one who slept at all, using around 50 minutes and actually sleeping for half of that. That probably wasn’t the best strategy for the fastest possible result, but it ensured I didn’t implode or mindlessly wander off course.

I also get more out of seeing a finish from people like Jasmin, Ihor, and Greig. I’ve got mine. There’s marginal value to more. You don’t get to the top and stay there by knocking everyone else down. Pull them up with you. Then when you inevitably slip they’re right there to catch you. I was helped by a number of people towards my first finish. Jasmin and Damian both supported me on many of my adventures around the UK. Damian and I pushed each other to do things on the Pennine Way that exceeded what we thought was possible. On my Wainwrights Round Jasmin covered a section that honestly not a lot of people could have done, and on the Pennine Way she led me over the Cheviots and at one point after a bog sucked my shoe off she got my laces undone, with her teeth, so I could put it back on. That’s dedication.

I hadn’t really been able to put concise words to how the race has changed for me over the years until Gary asked me about it in a chat for his Youtube channel. The first time was about just finishing, the second time was about enjoying a finish, and this time was about enjoying others finishing.

I was overly competitive at everything from a very young age, and there’s certainly that part of me that occasionally pops up and says, “I should’ve tried to scrape everyone, or not given any navigation tips, or at least skipped all those naps to try to win.” But honestly that side of me just doesn’t really surface at Barkley. I love seeing people succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and learning how to leverage my strongest traits while mitigating my weakest in pursuit of those goals is one of the biggest things I personally take away from challenges like Barkley.

Right is no more the absence of temptation than courage is the absence of fear. Courage overcomes fear. Strength moves obstacles. Right triumphs over wrong. None of these exist without the other, and Barkley gives me an environment that is highly motivating yet ultimately trivial for preparing for when those difficulties really matter in life.

Or, maybe I’m just playing the long game… causing the race to become increasingly difficult until no one else can finish once my Barkley days are over. 😂

Gary’s Final Return

It was great to have Gary back at Frozen Head, to spend some time with him before and after the race, and I’m thankful for his flawless support as my crew. It could have only been better if he had foreseen me losing that Reese’s Egg and stuffed an extra one in my pack. I was certainly not flawless when I crewed him in 2018 and managed to fry a headlamp battery, something I still feel horrible about even though it ultimately didn’t decide the outcome.

Gary has very publicly said that this was the end of Frozen Head for him and that he now has complete closure on Barkley. I know it’s disappointing for some, including me, to not see him get that finish, but I’m thrilled that he’s reached that point. I do at least hope he’ll consider a return to the area one day. If not to Frozen Head, then maybe Dollywood? 😄

Perhaps more than anyone, though, Gary has achieved the ultimate goal of Barkley. He discovered his limits, but without wondering if he could have gone farther. Laz has said essentially that it’s finishers who don’t get the full Barkley experience; they don’t get to find their limit. But those who don’t finish are always left wondering if they could have gone just a bit farther.

Gary’s 2017 race exists in this strange superposition of both finishing and not. Officially, he did not. But personally, he knows he was fully capable of it. Given the conditions that year I will forever consider it one of the best Barkley performances ever. To be able to confront those limits, yet at the same time arrive at that feeling of personal achievement and contentment without the need for external validation… that is Barkley. And that is something that anyone can seek with any race or big goal anywhere.

Gear and Nutrition

Note: I have relationships with many of these companies. For a full list, see Partners.

I relied on the La Sportiva Cyklon throughout the race as I did last year, and the Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest, the same series that I’ve used in every Barkley. For light, I again used a Petzl NAO+ as my main headlamp with an Actik Core as the backup.

I used XOSKIN’s XOUNDERWEAR throughout as well as their socks (toe socks with a pair of normal socks over top), with zero chafing or blister issues. I had some KT Tape on my right ankle, similar to this video. I didn’t do the third strip, as I find it doesn’t stay in place. Instead I wrapped a third strip around the back of my achilles and around to the forefoot on each side. The part of that strip on the outside of my foot is what started to get peeled back.

For nutrition I again used Tailwind in nearly every flask, accounting for almost all my hydration, electrolytes, and about half my calories. I use a Tailwind Recovery every 5 or 6 hours (usually one between loops and one on each loop). I used Maurten gels pretty extensively, and added the usual assortment of candy bars (Snickers and Goo Goo Clusters are my current two big ones), Little Debbie cakes (Oatmeal Creme Pies and Nutty Buddy Bars), and other assorted snacks. And of course one crucial Sonic Blast before loop 4.

Refueling at the fire tower. Look how awesomely color coordinated I am. Photo: Jacob Zocherman

27 thoughts on “2024 Barkley Marathons – Five for the Ages

  • 2024-05-12 at 12:20 PM
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    I have been waiting patiently for this race report since the finish, and it was definitely worth the wait! Thank you so much for giving us another inside look at the Barkley. Jasmin’s finish was unlike anything I have experienced before in sport & I don’t think I will ever be violently and relentlessly refreshing a twitter feed like I was while waiting for news of her finish. Gary crewing for you was heartwarming to see as someone who has watched Where Dreams Go to Die countless times while grinding away on Zwift during our long Canadian winters. Congratulations on yet another incredible year at this incredible event and thank you once again for everything!!!

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    • 2024-05-12 at 12:52 PM
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      Thanks so much Michael. I’m glad you enjoyed it and hope you have some great adventures planned this year now that that winter has ended!

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  • 2024-05-12 at 8:59 PM
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    Thank you for another thoroughly riveting report! I truly appreciate you taking the time to share a detailed sliver of what most “normal” people will never get to experience. Looking forward to reading about your next adventure(s)!

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  • 2024-05-12 at 9:02 PM
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    P.S. Just the graph and Indiana Jones reference alone were worth the wait!

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  • 2024-05-12 at 9:26 PM
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    Thanks John, I really appreciate all your race reports and insight for this incredible event and other events you’ve completed.
    I was finally struck down with COVID in April after successfully avoiding it for years… whilst isolating I was catching up on any and all coverage of this year’s Barkley, plus rewatching Gary’s remarkable Barkley attempts.
    Sufficed to say it has lit a fire in me to begin my own ultra running journey, where it will lead, who knows?
    Thanks again!
    Calum

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    • 2024-05-14 at 5:41 AM
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      Sorry to hear about your covid, but it sounds like you’re making the best of the down time and have some great adventures in your future!

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  • 2024-05-12 at 9:52 PM
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    Thanks for the detailed report. The evolution of your “role” at the Barkley has been as interesting to follow as your race results. What a year this was! I’ve never done anything sporting of note, but I have lost a particularly treasured snack out in woods to clumsy tired fingers. I feel your pain watching dropping that egg!

    All the best…

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  • 2024-05-13 at 5:45 PM
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    Every time you drop a new race report, I have pretty high expectations but you keep meeting them again and again! I might have a few questions but I’ll ask you in September up Col du Loson… 😉
    PS: Special mention for your graph, just brilliant.

    Reply
    • 2024-05-14 at 5:43 AM
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      Maybe let’s try a different place this time. 😅 Thank you, and see you in September!

      Reply
  • 2024-05-14 at 6:36 AM
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    Thank you for this John – great writing and great to hear it from a runner’s point of view. My ten year old boy got completely hooked this year, staying up late to refresh my Twitter for news, initially on Jasmin, but he cheered each runner in. He also loves that this random guy called Keith is our main source of info – in a world of 24/7 sports coverage this really intrigued him. Since then he has devoured all the films on it he can and is currently reading In the Spell of the Barkley… He is now well aware of you, Jared, Frozen Ed et al. Thank you for being part of an inspirational bunch of humans…

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    • 2024-05-14 at 10:06 AM
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      Thanks Ciaran, that’s really cool to hear. My oldest son is the same age.

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  • 2024-05-14 at 12:28 PM
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    Masterpiece, as always. Thank you for the recap, John! 🙂 I still can’t believe how little water you drank…

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    • 2024-05-14 at 2:29 PM
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      Maybe I never needed any and you always did because I was stealing yours. 🤔 Thanks Ihor, till next time!

      Reply
  • 2024-05-14 at 3:38 PM
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    Your writing is as fantastic as your running! I love reading your recaps. Congratulations on another job well done. 💪

    Reply
  • 2024-05-16 at 10:46 AM
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    Excellent, detailed write-up!!! I love reading your race reports. You tell the story so well on many levels. Makes me feel like I’m witnessing it first hand. Plus you add so much of the “inner dialog” swirling in your mind. Congratulations on another finish! Now that Jared is done, surely the competitive side of you must be thinking #4 is out there for the taking…maybe even a #5 to stand alone among Barkley legends. Ha! Best wishes to you whatever you decide!

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    • 2024-05-16 at 2:09 PM
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      Thank you Steve, and we’ll see. It might not be a goal but it could be an outcome. 😉

      Reply
  • 2024-05-18 at 2:35 AM
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    Wonderful write up as always, thanks John. So many great lessons on life there. When I volunteered at The Winter Spine this year it was so evident that ultra runners and the people who support them are really the best of people and this confirms it.
    I love the photos of your children looking in admiration at Jasmin. Especially the one with your daughter.

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    • 2024-05-18 at 9:02 PM
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      Thank you. Hopefully next Spine I won’t be spending so much time at the checkpoints! 😅

      Reply
  • 2024-05-20 at 5:40 AM
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    I finally sat down to read your recap. Since it appeared in my inbox I knew it would take a bit of time. Well worth the wait as it was such a great write up of your experience. I was like everyone else and kept refreshing to get updates on you all. Amazing to have 5 fantastic finishers. I’m in awe of you all. Very emotional seeing Jasmine finally finish. You have such a way with words and your recaps are awesome. Well done to you!

    Reply
  • 2024-05-21 at 6:21 AM
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    What they all said ^ lol. Another amazing write-up. Just starting to get back into running after trashing my knee over-training for my first ultra, so DNS’d it. But hey, I’m only 66, bags of time and planning on a multi-day next year 😉 But seriously, great writing as always and an inspiration. Respect.

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    • 2024-05-21 at 9:49 AM
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      Sorry to hear about the knee, but yes, take it easy and consistent and you’ve got loads of time! A 73 year old just finished Cocodona. All the best for whatever you have next.

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  • 2024-05-21 at 5:07 PM
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    Great write up, as always John! Thanks for the kind words throughout, and for the opportunity to head back to Frozen Head one more time. It was an absolute treat to get to watch such a historic year with a front row seat .
    Dollywood does interest the whole family, so maybe we’ll see you there 🙂
    GR

    Reply

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