Nicky Spinks has spoken of the extreme challenges faced by runners in the 2019 Barkley Marathons – a race which no-one finished for a second successive year.
The tough 51-year-old inov-8 ambassador and breast cancer survivor was the last-woman- standing alongside fellow participant Stephanie Case in the 100-mile mountain event, widely-regarded as the world’s toughest ultramarathon.
Nicky and Stephanie completed the first 20-mile lap together, before dropping out partway through lap two amid plummeting temperatures and appalling weather conditions.
Only 15 runners – all men – have finished the full five laps of the notorious Barkley Marathons inside the 60-hour time limit since its inception in 1986. This year saw five male runners complete three laps, but none achieved four, let alone five.
The race, made famous by a 2014 Netflix documentary, saw 40 selected runners self-navigate their way around an unmarked course, tearing pages from hidden books as they went, and returning them to the enigmatic event organiser.
Staged in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, USA, each lap included around 10,000ft of brutally-steep, obstacle-laden, muddy mountain ascent through thick woodland.
UK-based Nicky, the record-holder for epic 100+ mile mountain challenges like the Double Bob Graham (England) and Double Ramsay Round (Scotland), said: “The Barkley Marathons was extremely tough, in many ways. The first lap was run in really hot conditions, too hot for my liking, and then the second lap was the opposite, unbelievably cold with lots of rain.
“I ran with Stephanie, who is a Barkley veteran, and she was brilliant in helping me learn about the unique elements of the race. Lap one took us about 11-and-a-half hours, which was longer than I had hoped, but the temperatures, the difficult terrain and the time spent trying to find the well-hidden books all played a part.
“Together with male runners called Micheal Panhuysen and Billy Reed, we all had a quick turnaround with our support crews, and then set out as a foursome on lap number two in the dark. The weather forecast didn’t really detail just how cold it was going to be in the mountains and none of us had extreme winter kit in our race packs. It turned out to be incredibly cold and wet which, together with the darkness and fog, made for slow-going.
“When we realised we had no chance of completing lap two inside the time limit, we took an escape route back down a valley to the camp. At this point there were three of us, as Michael was behind, having decided to go slower. I’m not one to give up on anything, but I’m glad we made the decision we did. It was the right decision. Even coming back down the valley, away from the higher ground, we were still struggling with the cold. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that cold.
“We returned to camp in the early hours, though I’m not sure when exactly as the watches Laz (race organiser Gary ‘Laz Lake’ Cantrell) made us all wear didn’t tell the proper time!
“I think that to complete the full five laps is, well… I can see now why only 15 people have done that in 33 years. Laz makes the race harder and harder, changes the course so even the Barkley veterans don’t know where the books are, and this year I think he added in even more uphill climbs! That’s all part of what makes Barkley Marathons the race it is.”
Asked if she’d like to return and give the race another shot, Nicky, who wore inov-8’s MUDCLAW G 260 shoes with the world’s toughest graphene-grip, added: “I do think that to finish Barkley Marathons, you need to go back a second or third time to do so. I talked to Stephanie about this as we hiked back to camp in the cold and I said I was unsure about returning. She said words to the effect of ‘see you next year!’”
*inov-8 Czech ambassador Pavel Paloncy retired after lap 1 following some navigational difficulties and a fall.
PRE-RACE BLOG POST
Runner Nicky Spinks was dubbed “Britain’s Toughest Woman” by media following her pioneering completion of a 116-mile Double Ramsay Round over Scotland’s unforgiving mountains in 2018.
Now, however, the 51-year-old breast cancer survivor and inov-8 ambassador faces arguably her toughest running challenge to date – the notorious Barkley Marathons, a ‘race’ no woman has ever finished.
And with new graphene-enhanced MUDCLAW G 260 shoes on her feet, it will be a case of Britain’s Toughest Woman (armed with the World’s Toughest Grip) Vs the World’s Toughest Ultramarathon.
A 100-mile suffer-fest like no other, the Barkley Marathons, staged in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, USA, sees runners self-navigate their way around an unmarked lapped course. Participants tear pages out of hidden books as they go and return them to enigmatic race organiser Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell, otherwise known as ‘Laz’.
The course, which can change year-to-year, is kept largely secret, just like the entry process and the date of the event (usually late-March/early April, with spectators discouraged from attending). Each lap (of which there are five in total) tends to be 20-plus miles in distance and includes about 12,000ft of brutally-steep, obstacle-laden, muddy mountain ascent through thick woodland.
15 men have finished Barkley Marathons. No women. Yet.
Of the several hundred runners who have started the Barkley Marathons since its inception in 1986, only 15 have finished the full five laps within the 60-hour time limit, one having done so three times and another twice. All 15 are men. No women. Yet.
Last year saw nine well-established female ultramarathon runners and long-distance hikers among the 40 selected starters but, amid terrible weather conditions, none completed a second lap within the time limit. Best male was Gary Robbins, who managed what Laz calls the “Fun Run” – three laps within a 40-hour window.
Details found online suggest that six women have completed the “Fun Run” over the last 33 years, with only Sue Johnston (in 2001) doing so inside the 36-hour barrier that allows a runner to start a fourth lap. Records show Sue completed a total of 66 miles.
Record-breaker Nicky Spinks ready for Barkley Marathons challenge
There is no doubt that Barkley Marathons pushes runners to the limit, both physically and mentally, but Nicky is no stranger to such limit-pushing. In 2016 she celebrated 10 years post-diagnosis by becoming the fastest person to run a Double Bob Graham Round (132 miles, with 54,000ft of ascent, twice summitting 42 English Lake District peaks) in a time of 45hrs 30mins.
Two years later, Nicky became the first person to complete the Scottish equivalent, a Double Ramsay Round (116 miles, with 57,000ft of ascent, twice summiting 24 mountains) in 55hrs 56mins. She followed this up by winning the women’s race at last September’s Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (a 105-mile event through the Italian Alps that includes 37,000ft of ascent) in 37hrs 11mins.
Through these challenges – and many more – Nicky has so far raised £18,000 on her JustGiving page for Odyssey, a charity that helps people with cancer regain their self-confidence and enjoyment of life through a variety of activities.
Looking ahead to her latest challenge, the beef farmer from Yorkshire, who was awarded the British Empire Medal last year, said: “I’ve done challenges that no woman has done before in the past, and I know a woman can complete Barkley Marathons, so I will be giving it my best shot. I know, however, that it is a very unpredictable race and I think you need to have a lot of luck too.
Nicky Spinks: “I need to get inside Laz’s mind”
“Going into something not knowing if you will finish is tough, but it’s similar to when I did the Double Bob Graham and the Double Ramsay Round. I approached both of those planning to finish but knew that it might not happen. I’ll do the same at Barkley. I will think about it as a five-lap race and look after myself in a way that would allow my mind and body to do all five laps.
“I’m also hoping that having done something similar to laps on the double rounds that this will help me mentally at Barkley. Laps are tough, really tough, and I think that’s why some Barkley runners don’t go as far as they possibly could because it’s mentally difficult to go back out and run/hike the same ground you’ve already covered.
“Another big challenge is getting inside Laz’s head. The navigating through mountains, the time limits, the distance, I feel okay with all that and will handle it the best I can, but it’s things like not knowing the course and not knowing where Laz will put the books, that I am more worried about. I think there could be up to 10, maybe as many as 13, books to navigate too, and once at a location it won’t be like an orienteering event where there’s a big orange kite to go to, it will instead be a bit of a game trying to get inside Laz’s mind to find the exact placement of the books.
“Then, of course, it’s a case of trying to remember where the books are so I can find them again on future laps…. keeping in mind that I might be coming at them from either a clockwise or anticlockwise direction depending on which way round Laz decides to send us on each lap!”
The quirks of Barkley Marathons & Laz Lake
Barkley Marathons is inspired by the real-life jailbreak of a notorious assassin, who escaped Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. He fled on foot over the unforgiving woodland terrain, covering 8 miles, before being caught 54 hours later. The story goes that Laz mockingly responded: “I could do at least 100 miles.” And so, the Barkley Marathons was born, held on the same ground that the assassin made his failed escape.
Made famous by the 2014 Netflix documentary The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (Trailer featured above) and a number of other films that have followed, the event requires participants to start and finish each lap at a yellow gate, close to where their support crews wait. Out on the course they have to be totally self-sufficient, helped only by two water stations.
But it is the quirks of the event – and particularly its organiser – that have made it into one of the world’s most iconic ultramarathons. Amongst those quirks are the following:
1) It is limited to 40 entrants each year. The entry process is largely secretive but involves writing an essay to Laz and paying a $1.60 application fee.
2) First-timers must bring a vehicle registration plate from home and give it to Laz (Nicky’s registration plate rather aptly, given she’s a farmer, reads M29 EAT – see photo at top of blog post).
3) One participant is deemed the least likely to finish the first lap by Laz and receives bib number one.
4) Barkley can start any time between midnight and noon on race day. When a conch (large-sized shell) is blown, that means there is one hour until the race starts.
5) There is no starter’s pistol, instead the race begins when Laz lights a cigarette.
6) Runners must navigate their way to set locations and find books placed out on the course by Laz. They must tear the page out of each book that corresponds to their bib number and return them to Laz at the end of the lap.
7) Runners receive a new bib number each lap.
8) When a runner drops out, a bugler plays “Taps” upon their return to the yellow gate.
Getting to grips with Barkley Marathons
Nicky said: “It’s going to be very different to what I’m used too but I’m looking forward to it. Training has gone well with lots of long days out in the Welsh mountains and time spent hiking in Argentina. I’ve also done at least an hour a day of online Barkley research over the last couple of months, and tested all my kit, including the MUDCLAW G 260 graphene-grip shoes and some shin protection guards that orienteers call ‘bramble bashers.’
Both the shoes with their super-aggressive studs and the guards with their tough protection will be invaluable for all the muddy terrain and nasty undergrowth I’m likely to encounter on the course.
“As a Barkley ‘virgin’ I’m hoping to find a reliable Barkley veteran who is running and maybe team up with him/her on lap one. It seems veterans help virgins at Barkley, they don’t try to ‘shake them off’ like you might find at other races. Veterans have a better idea as to how Laz’s mind works and will know the kind of pace you need to run/hike to get back within the time limit. The event is so tough that it’s a case of participants versus the course, rather than participants versus each other.
“Whether running with someone else, in a group, or alone, one thing I’m determined not to do is switch-off mentally. I need to keep my brain switched-on at all times and be using my compass. When you’re tired it is easy to switch off and let your thoughts wander. I can’t afford to do this at Barkley. There appears to be a lot to think about in terms of navigation, as well as fuelling yourself and, of course, keeping all the pages from the books safe, secure and dry in my pack. My biggest nightmare has been the thought of losing a page somewhere out on the course. Do that and you’re stuffed!”
Barkley Marathons “Fun Run” finisher crewing for Nicky Spinks
Crewing for Nicky will be Jon Barker and his wife Diane, who live in Georgia. Nicky met Jon during the 2012 Dragon’s Back Race and the pair have remained friends. Prior to that Jon had started three Barkley Marathons, with his best result being a completion of the “Fun Run” in a time of 39hrs 39mins in 2011. His experience, know-how and insight will be crucial in Nicky’s attempt to go the distance at Barkley.
Jon said: “Barkley is as tough as everyone says it is. The terrain is very difficult, and the navigation can be somewhat sketchy until you ‘learn it.’ Opportunities to quit show up at just the right (or you might say, wrong) time, while the vegetation can be unfriendly, and the body gets beaten down quickly.
“It’s not a race per se. It’s everyone versus the course, which is not flagged, and the description given to you takes some translating. You are really out there without support for each loop and not necessarily in control of where you are going. It’s five times around the same difficult route, if you can keep on course. It gets progressively harder and there are changes in direction on some loops.
“Based on history, the course will be no different than last year as no-one finished it in 2018 and typically Laz improves the course only the year after someone completes it.”
Asked why he thought no woman had finished Barkley Marathons and if 2019 could be the year it happens, Jon added: “Maybe that person hasn’t attempted it yet? I do, of course, think is possible.
“Nicky, like all the women, has a chance. We’ll do our best to help her by getting her fed, fixed and out of the rest area onto the next lap as quickly and efficiently as possible, while being sufficiently sympathetic yet firm. There’s no time to dwell on the past, we’ll help focus Nicky on the next lap ahead and make sure she has everything she needs for the next 8-15 hours.”
Laz Lake’s advice for Nicky Spinks & all 2019 Barkley Marathons participants
And what about Laz himself? The man behind the Barkley Marathons was kind enough to answer our questions… without giving away too many details!
Asked if he felt a woman would finish Barkley in 2019 and also what advice he’d give to Nicky, he replied: “So far the biggest thing stopping a woman from finishing has been stopping. We will be watching hopefully this year, but past experience has not done much to encourage that hope. My words of advice have not helped any of the women who came before. She just has to run a perfect race and never waver… that’s all!”
Then asked what he felt made Barkley Marathons so special, he added: “Because despite the low probability, it can be done. That draws people of a certain mindset, and those people make it special.”
The Czech Machine at Barkley Marathons
While there is no official entry list published, several runners have posted on social media that they are taking part at Barkley Marathons 2019. One of those is inov-8 Czech Republic ambassador, experienced ultrarunner and top adventure racer Pavel Paloncy, also known as ‘The Czech Machine.’
Pavel, a former three-time winner of the 268-mile Spine Race (the event won this year by Jasmin Paris), said: “Anything and everything can happen at Barkley Marathons. I expect it will be very demanding, both physically and mentally. Steep uphills, steep downhills, mud and undergrowth, the terrain will be tough, as will the route-finding against the time limit.
“I will use the same tactics I have used when trying something new, and the same I used for my first Spine Race. I will show respect to the course but be confident in my skills. I will go there open-minded, look around and learn along the way. I want to learn as much as possible on the first lap so I can use it later in the race.
“The odds are against me, the statistics of the race finishers are very depressing, but I believe I can finish it. If I didn’t think this, I wouldn’t be going for it.”
*Follow the hashtag #bm100 on social media (especially Twitter)…. but don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret!
*Photos (unless otherwise detailed in the captions) by Summit Fever Media, who are creating a film documentary about Nicky’s Barkley Marathons experience.
Nicky Spinks’ kit for Barkley Marathons
The MUDCLAW G 260 shoes Nicky will wear at Barkley Marathons are part of our revolutionary graphene-grip range, which includes shoes for trail running, hiking, fast-packing, as well as gym workouts. By infusing graphene (the world’s strongest material) into the rubber we’ve made outsoles that provide insane sticky grip AND increased durability – all in one rubber. There is no longer a need to compromise.
We are the first – and only – brand in the world to use graphene in sports footwear. Watch the video below to learn more about our pioneering graphene products and collaboration with world-leading graphene scientists at the University of Manchester.
To carry her kit, food and fuel on each lap of the Barkley Marathons course, Nicky will use the new RACE ULTRA PRO 2in1 VEST. She will wear it with the 10-litre pocket attached to the rear – this is one of two options for how the vest pack can be used. Nicky was extensively involved in the prototype testing of our new range of packs, helping us get the perfect fitting packs for both women and men.
The RACE ULTRA PRO 2in1 VEST gives Nicky multiple options in terms of how to carry fluid and store trekking poles. Watch the video below to discover more.
Her clothing for Barkley Marathons will include the super-lightweight STORMSHELL WATERPROOF JACKET, FULL-LENGTH TIGHTS and EXTREME THERMO MITT, though what she wears and uses will depend on the unpredictable weather conditions within the state park and on the mountains.