Extract from application essay, 2021.
I can’t recall when I first heard about the Barkley Marathons, but I do remember that at first, I wasn’t at all convinced. The event sounded contrived, the course repetitive, and the emphasis on suffering strange. A few years later, after running the 2019 Spine race, I was already changing my mind, but I knew I needed to be 100% committed to Barkley if I was going to do it justice. By summer 2021, that moment had arrived, and I was suddenly excited by the scale of the challenge. Not for fame or recognition, but for myself, because there is something strangely addictive about pushing oneself to the edge of what is possible.
Months later, I arrived in Frozen Head State Park for my virgin attempt at the Barkley Marathons. I’d spent the winter training specifically for this race, building up distance to weeks of 80+ miles with a maximum of 35,000 ft (10,700m) ascent. My training was all done in the early mornings, typically at 5am, and the longer weekend sessions sometimes started even earlier, as I was keen to spend as many daytime hours with the children as possible. January and February seemed to bring one storm after another here in the UK, which probably provided ideal Barkley training, in terms of mental resilience - it certainly took great resolve to leave bed and head for the hills with sleet whipping into my face, and wind knocking me sideways. To maximise ascent and steep gradient whilst remaining safe from the worst of the wind, I did many sessions of hill repeats, accumulating 18,000 ft (5,500m) ascent in 22 reps of Castlelaw (a local hill in the Pentlands) on one occasion. Our dog Moss clearly thought I was mad, and quickly learnt to hang back as we neared the top or bottom, sensing that we’d soon be heading back the same way. The rest of my family got involved with the training efforts too, my brother and mum both organized practice Barkley Marathon events for everyone, complete with undergrowth to test the hardiest of bushwhackers, and old magazines to collect pages from. (My brother Vaclav even went so far as choosing National Geographic titles such as ‘Journey to the South Pole’, and ‘Disasters.’)
I arrived at Barkley feeling that I’d done all I could (as a working mum of two small children, aged 4 years and 20 months respectively) to get physically fit, but the many unknowns ahead of me were intimidating; weather, terrain, navigation, and sleeplessness all being factors in what should, statistically speaking, almost certainly be eventual failure. Nevertheless, I was excited to meet Laz, and hand him my UK car registration plate (a requirement for all race virgins), as well as the huge wooden ladle my mum had carved out of cherry wood collected from the Longdendale valley where I grew up - Laz seemed pleased by this, pronouncing that it would be excellent for ice cream.
Laz hung out the flags, as is custom on either side of the track from the gate, starting with that of Ukraine, and we marked up maps according to the master copy and race instructions provided.
A fortunate result of arriving from Scotland only the day before the race was that my body clock was still on UK time, and I managed to sleep despite the knowledge that we could be woken at any moment by the conch, signaling one hour to the race start. In the event, this happened shortly before 7am, at which point the camp came alive with last minute preparations. As we lined up by the yellow gate, a stranger approached me to say my run at the Spine had given his young daughter the confidence to keep playing football with the boys at primary school, which was a wonderful thing to contemplate at the start of that next big adventure.
Laz lit his cigarette, and everyone rushed forwards excitedly, relieved to be running after all the anticipation. For the first couple of books we moved as a group, and I was delighted to chat to the inspirational Courtney Dauwalter as we ran along dodging briars on a rare flatter section. I can’t think of a better place to have met.
The first descent was a rapid introduction to Barkley terrain (rocks, slides and undergrowth included), and I arrived at the bottom to find my compass had disintegrated somewhere along the way, leaving me with just a plastic rectangle for navigation. Thankfully I had a spare, which I guarded nervously from that point onwards.
|Enjoying loop 1, credit Simon Franklin|
The field started to spread out, and I settled into my own rhythm, deciding that this would be preferable to chasing the leaders. Luckily for me, I was joined by veteran and fun-run finisher Guillaume Calmettes, who gave me a guided tour for several hours that followed, kindly pointing out landmarks to look out for in the reverse direction as well. That period was genuinely enjoyable, with company, sunshine and fresh legs making easy work of the course. On the climb to the fire tower Guillame dropped back a little, and I briefly joined the group of Paul Giblin, Aaron Bradner and Tomas Oderud, before taking the lead. I navigated the last few books of the first loop alone with no issues, arriving back at the gate after 9 hours 13 minutes.
I rushed through a pan of pasta, changed into long trousers and top, and added a heavier waterproof jacket, spare gloves and waterproof over-gloves to the kit I was already carrying (which included waterproof trousers, hat, gloves, a spare thermal long-sleeved top and a fleece), aware that the forecast for the night was for heavy rain. Ten minutes later I collected a new number from Laz (corresponding to the pages I would need to collect from the books) and set off on loop 2 from the yellow gate, again in a clockwise direction.
|Starting loop 2, credit Konrad Rawlik|
The light started to fade as I started the first long descent, and I briefly joined Thomas Dunkerbeck to search for the second book, before he pulled away on the next ascent. As the darkness deepened, the rain set in. Hours passed, and the drumming grew louder, until water seemed to be everywhere, running from the trees, pooling in the hollows, turning the steep descents into a sliding quagmire. A fog drifted in, dazzling me in the reflected light of the headtorch, and forcing me to carry it in my hand, where it jostled for space with the map, compass and poles. The mud clogged the studs of my shoes, and I slid downwards through fallen leaves, snagging against briars and grabbing out to tree trunks for traction. At one stage, I looked up and saw two reflected eyes watching me from an outcrop above, watching my slow progress upwards.
I reached the summit and located the book hidden there, noting how much harder that was at night. I ran a short way on along the mining bench and then stopped, studying the blackness ahead, and trying to recollect the route down along the ridge, searching my memory for the clues Guillame had pointed out earlier. I made one attempt, recognised it was wrong and climbed back up again. I stopped to put on layers, grateful for the addition of warm dry gloves and fleece, before descending once more. Arriving at the edge of a cliff, I took a guess and headed right, fighting my way through briars as I searched for a way down. Suddenly a light appeared coming in from the left below me, and I instinctively started shouting, ‘Hello there! Hello there!’, excited by the sign of human life. The light turned out to be Thomas again, and he was equally pleased to see me, having been on the wrong line too far left.
Working as a team, progress improved. On occasion, Thomas would take off his waterproof over-gloves and empty them of water, a sign of just how wet it was. The descent from the fire tower was like trying to stand on an inclined ice rink - in the end we just sat down and slid the steepest sections, untangling legs and arms from the cable and briars at speed whenever they got snagged. I remember thinking how impossible it was going to be coming up in the opposite direction on loop 3, if we made it back in time to tackle that.
By the time we’d reached the final ascent it was starting to get light, and I encouraged Thomas to push on, as he seemed to be climbing faster. Just below the summit the flashlight of Grieg Hamilton appeared (already on loop 3), approaching at pace. He stopped as he passed me, lifted the cap of his hood and asked, ‘Who’s that?’, before moving on with a quick smile as I gave my reply. I must have passed Karel Sabbe sometime earlier, whereas I met John Kelly as I started my descent to camp. He shouted something like, ‘Get back out for that fun run’, which suddenly seemed doable now that it was light and no longer raining. I forced myself to speed up, preparing in my mind a list of things I would need to do at the changeover, to be back out again by 24 hours.
I touched the yellow gate at 23:38:31, and after a hurried bowl of porridge accompanied by chocolate milk, a new running pole (the second replacement in fact, having also broken one on the first loop), dry gloves and re-stocked food provisions, I collected my next number from Laz at 23:52:24, thus starting loop 3, this time in the opposite (anti-clockwise) direction. Thomas set off just behind me but quickly moved ahead again, so I was left alone with my thoughts. I’d been told at the changeover that most of the field had dropped during the night, and I knew that I was now the fifth and final runner on the course. At that point I was still aiming to try and get back within 36 hours, the cut-off to start loop 4, although I suspected that it would be tight. Realistically, I thought 12-13 hours was more likely, providing I could navigate my way around without mishap…
|Taking on water at the fire tower, credit Konrad Rawlik|
The first few hours went well, and I arrived at the fire tower in good time and spirits, buoyed to see Konrad there in a supporting role (even though he couldn’t say/do anything, as per race rules). I think I muttered something aloud about the inappropriately named ‘Fun Run’, before checking a compass bearing and disappearing into the woods once more. The hours that followed were less straightforward, and I struggled to find the line on the climb where I’d met Thomas the night before. Whilst I’d done the loop twice already, the change of direction made the challenge surprisingly different. The time losses were small, but continuous, and I was aware that the 36-hour cut-off was slipping away from me. On the steep descent that followed I fell heavily, and then again, both times hitting my arms on stones as I did so. The second time I lay for a moment, waiting for the intensity of pain to pass, before concluding with relief that there was nothing broken.
I made better progress on the flat section that followed, and I tried to use the opportunity to take on calories, nutrition having been neglected somewhat in the focus on navigation and terrain. I wasn’t enjoying food as much by this stage, but in contrast to other ultra-race experiences I had no problems getting it down, possibly because the pace at Barkley is relatively slow. I was keen to make the most of the remaining daylight and was pleased when I found myself with what I considered were all ‘straightforward’ books ahead of me as it grew dark. Alas, my confidence was ill-founded, and I made one navigational error after another. The 3 hours or so that I’d expected to have in reserve for a 40-hour ‘Fun Run’ rapidly diminished, and I was relieved when I finally reached the last summit, with an hour to make the descent. Once again however, I relaxed too soon. Somehow, despite theoretically running on a compass bearing, I gradually drifted off the ridge onto a diverging slope. At one point I saw a stream and made my way down to it, then changed my mind and inadvertently overcorrected, further exacerbating my misdirection. Eager to be home, I convinced myself that the stream I was following was the one I’d intended to arrive at, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. It wasn’t until I arrived at a waterfall and a large pool that the realization struck home, and with it a horrible sinking feeling inside. I checked my watch and for a moment I lost all hope, with half an hour remaining I surely couldn’t make it back in time. But then my resolve returned, and a huge wave of adrenaline kicked in. I was suddenly running back uphill and across, far faster than I’d moved since loop 1. I found myself encircled by mountain laurel bushes, and I raged at them, pushing against their strong arms and shouting out loud ‘Let me through, let me through!’, before recognizing the futility of my struggle and dropping onto my belly to slither forwards along the ground, desperately searching for an opening ahead.
Finally able to run again, I spotted lights to my side, but not the ones I needed. Breathing hard, I pushed over the next rise where I finally saw what I’d been hoping for. Continuing to the furthest point across, I re-joined the race route, and finally ran down the track to touch the yellow gate at 39:49:46. Counting my pages seemed to take forever, and there was a nervous silence as I scrabbled around amongst the sweet wrappers in my zip-lock bag for the final one, but finally I had it, and Laz was shaking my hand enthusiastically, whilst people congratulated me at either side. My heart was still pounding after the final sprint, and my legs suddenly felt drained and wobbly, as I struggled to process the fact that I was done.
|Counting the pages, credit Simon Franklin|
One week on, I’ve had time to be proud of myself and of what I achieved. I went to Barkley determined to give it my all, and I came away knowing I did. Whilst I made many mistakes, I also found the strength to overcome those disappointments, time and time again. I am already forgetting how hard my time ‘out there’ was, and in its place is a sense of nostalgia for the intensity of that effort, and the people I shared it with. I understand now why Barkley becomes an obsession; in fact I suspect I’m already firmly in its grip.
At this point I want to thank Laz and his team for creating and maintaining a challenge that is genuinely unique and wonderful. A huge thank you also to the fantastic Damian Hall for his coaching, as well as to Coach Dee for strength training, Shane Benzie for gait advice, inov-8 for kit and Supernatural Fuel for training food. Lastly, but most importantly, my husband Konrad for crewing and hugs, and my parents Alena and Jeff for looking after the children and dog at home whilst we were gone.
I’m overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the many congratulations messages I’ve received over the last week, and I hope that I can use a little of that attention for good, to inspire little girls playing football in primary school, amongst others.On my windowsill, there lies the little Ukrainian flag, which we all pinned on at the start of the race. Incredibly and symbolically, it made it through the briars and through countless falls, surviving mud slides, river crossings, and that final dash through the mountain laurels.