It was Aussie ultra stalwart, Phil ‘Spud’ Murphy that first opened my eyes to the world of the Barkley Marathons. This mental race, deep in the Tennessee countryside contains nearly 20,000m of vertical (and down don’t forget), with no actual route or markings. Just some books placed randomly on the course whereby you rip out a page number that correlates to your race number as proof that you’d followed the designated pathway. There’s no aid station support, no sympathy and definitely no excuses if you got lost or are DNQ’ed for going off route by a few hundred metres.
Welcome to Barkley, which in my opinion, quite rightly lays claim to the toughest footrace on the planet. There’s no website, no clue as to how you enter (apart from twisting the arms of those who have done it before), a small window of opportunity to send in your race application essay and then a token gesture of $1.60 entry fee and number plate from your home State or Country that bags you a place should you have complied with all of the above.
Simply entering the damn thing is a mission in itself, completing is another matter altogether. More men have set foot on the moon than have finished this race in 27 years, just 14 from over 900 starters – that’s a 1% finish rate. In fact the race is so damn hard it took ten years before anyone did finish it, and the current course record stands at 52 hours.
52 bleedin’ hours for 100 miles!
These facts alone should stir the loins of any ultra runner looking to push themselves beyond what they deem possible and as the title suggests, discover the line between the impossible and the possible.
I feel highly honoured to have spoken with Nick Hollon, winner of this year’s race and just the thirteenth person to have finished since it began in 1986. As we struck up our conversation, one of the most immediate things that came out of his mouth was “I’m broken”.
Five loops and 60 hours to complete it. But for four of those five loops, Nick tells of the anxiety he suffered of constantly watching the clock and wondering if he was going to make each cut off, before on the final loop after the first climb he was able to relax and enjoy the beauty of trail running, knowing he was going to finish.
But first of all, a little bit of background on Nick. He’s not a global superstar name or someone you may have come across before. He’s no Anton Krupicka, Kilian Jornet or Tim Olsen, the guys who dominate the 100 mile scene. So how does a typically ordinary guy get to win one of the most coveted races in the world against guys who knock off 15hr 100 mile runs for breakfast?
Nick started running at the age of 13 after seeing his mother complete her first marathon. It was that moment of inspiration that led him to want to don his trainers and complete his own first marathon aged 15.
At 18, he saw a dear friend suffer with an acute form of leukemia and Nick wanted to help. So he ran 100 miles around the school race track, picking up dollar donations along the way. Nick likes doing it tough, and from there he made it his mission to find the toughest races in the world and put his body through intense emotional and physical pain.
Nick’s attempted Barkley twice before. And failed. Failure is not something he wants to experience again, so having gone through it twice previously, what was different this time round and how did he turn it into a winning performance?
“There’s a whole lot of praying that goes on when you enter Barkley”, Nick jokes, “But before I don’t think I was either physically or mentally prepared for what Barkley was going to throw at me. It’s no good being fast at 100 miles if you can’t navigate and you need to be able to know where you’re going if you want to get anywhere near remotely finishing this race. I also turned up a few weeks early this time so that I could get out on the course and get to know it a lot better than I had before. The difference it makes knowing each of the climbs and the surrounding is immense.”
But how do you train for a race like Barkley? With the much touted elevation, a common mistake many who are training for Barkley make is to focus most of their training on the uphills, something Nick is all to aware of, “It’s true that hills training is a vital part of getting ready for Barkley, but you need to remember that while there is over 50,000ft of climbing, there’s also 50,000ft of decent too. You can be the best climber in the world, but if you can’t then run the flats and downhills, you’re not going to finish Barkley. I think this is where I had a real advantage this year. My ability to run those bits of the course, coming off the back of a monster uphill made all the difference for me.”
But then there’s the mental side of things, as well as having a vague degree of intelligence, “I think I’m probably the least well-educated Barkley finisher”, quips Nick with a laugh. “If you have a look at the guys who have finished Barkley, you’ll see that quite a few have Phds, or are mathematicians. You’ve got to be able to know that you’re running at 20 degrees for example through wind, rain, mud and sometimes snow. You can be the fittest guy in the world, but if you can’t navigate you’re going nowhere at Barkley.”
So with the preparation accounted for, how was the actual race? As I mentioned above, for four of the five loops, for Nick it’s about survival. “I was constantly watching that clock and there’s such a sense of anxiety about the race. You can’t go out there and enjoy it for the most part as the fear of failure is only just around the corner with each footstep.”
But it was loop five where Nick felt as though he could simply enjoy trail running for the very reasons we take up the sport, “At the end of loop four there was a huge sense of relief, but I was in and out of the start/finish area very quickly. I’d lost my ipod in the forest on that loop, so my mother handed me hers and for the first hour I was listening to some crazy techno and things were a little weird for a while. The anxiety was still there. But as I came up and over the first big climb at Chimney Top a sudden calm and relaxation hit me.
“The sun started to rise, which was the first time it had done the whole time we had been racing. Call it what you want, but it was as if I’d been lifted and found a new burst of energy. It was at that point that I knew I was going to finish this thing. This energy just took me on a ride and somehow I managed to complete the first stage of the reverse loop in 4 hours flat, as opposed to 4:45 for the previous loops. A PR (personal record), on my final loop for crying out loud!
“I don’t know how I did it, but it must have been from the sheer enjoyment of relaxing somewhat and taking in the energy around me.
“In ultra running, and in particular in races, we don’t often take the time to appreciate our surroundings and we can sometimes forget why it is we start the sport in the first-place, but that final loop reminded me as to why I love what I do. As I rose on that first climb I remember saying something quite out of the ordinary to the forest,
“You’ve taken my blood, my pride and my weekend and now I’m going to take your blood”, and with that I smeared some mud all over my face (as you can see on my picture). Don’t ask me why I did it, but I guess it’s one of those things whereby you get caught up in the moment and it drives you on to the finish.”
So what is it like to finish and become only the thirteenth person to do so?
“It’s all rather strange to be honest. A mixture of pure elation, but also sadness that the journey is coming to an end. The finish itself is brutal – a 1,300ft (400m) climb over just half a mile (800m) and then a 2 mile decent down to the famous yellow gate. Lord knows how, but I knocked off those final two miles at 6.50 mile (4.15km) pace. I was laughing, crying and screaming at the same time. Happy and both sad that it was over and that I’d poured everything I had both mentally and physically into the race. It’s a strange sensation to have.”
So will Nick be going back and what does the future hold?
“Well put it this way, the race record still stands :)”, jokes Nick “But so much of that depends upon the weather conditions. You’ve got to have luck on your side if you want to have a crack at the 52 hours, so there’s a good chance I might be back, should I be accepted. As for the future, the next immediate race on the radar is the Tour des Geants, all 330kms and 24,000m vertical of it.”
So another Barkley year comes to a close and we have a rather unique situation of having two finishers, along with the three from last year. That’s over a third of the all-time finishers across the race’s 27 year history finishing in the last two years. So is Barkley becoming easier? Probably not. Runners are becoming more adept and understanding as to what’s required to finish this race, and will continue to do so.
Does this mean Barkley will be even harder in the future – we hope so! And for the record, as far as we know, an Aussie is yet to compete in the race – who’s going to be first?