Tom Hollins: Barkley Marathons Debrief (part 1)

Having taken part in the legendary Barkley Marathons in 2023, #TeamMontane ultra runner Tom Hollins shares how the race action unfolded.

One of the great quirks of the Barkley Marathons is the mystery surrounding the exact date of the race each year. Officially signalled by the blowing of race director Laz’s iconic conch, what follows is a true test of athletic and mental strength.

Having been personally invited by Laz to take part in the 2023 Barkley Marathons, #TeamMontane ultra runner Tom Hollins now knows only too well the challenges of this race. Discover how he prepared in our first official Barkley Marathons blog, or keep reading to hear how he got on…

An overview of the Barkley Marathon 

(Photography credit: David Miller)

Checking in 

At check in I was given number 5, meaning I had to collect the 5th page from each book. As is customary, I handed over my license plate and a T-shirt for Laz. This was also my chance to exchange pre-race thoughts with my fellow runners. The first few laps of the Barkley is often a team event, but a big team can pull you back more than push you forward. You also have to do the last loop on your own (should you get that far). 

People are generally a bit cagey about teaming up. You need someone with a similar speed and, preferably, complementary abilities. There was a strong UK and Irish contingent this year, as well as a lot of Montane Spine Race vets. I had got to know a lot of these runners over the years and know a lot of their strengths and weaknesses, as they know mine. Before the race, Eoin Keith suggested that we may well end up running together, and he was happy with this, should it happen. He is a Barkley vet and also a good navigator. 

Through Eoin I had also met Billy Reed, a lovely guy, Barkley vet and quality orienteer. Although I had recceed, I knew that I would be the weak link in any team and told Eoin so. ‘Your company would be good enough’ he said. High praise indeed from a man who is as entertaining as he is a good runner. 

Despite receiving that bit of warmth from my fellow runners, I went to sleep that night freezing in the van, wearing everything I owned. I knew that the blowing of the conch signalled 1hr to go to the start, and that this could take place at any time from midnight. This was not the most relaxing set of conditions to aid a full night's sleep….  

The Conch blows

The morning of the race the conch blew at 08:54, signalling 1hr to go to the start. I had not slept till around 4 am, but had then got a solid 4 hrs so things were not too bad considering we were in the back of a freezing cold cargo van. At the start, I was feeling good. It was beautiful weather – sunny but not too hot. Previous finisher, local hero (and honorary Brit) John Kelly said that he had never seen as good weather before at the Barkley. Laz gave a pre-race dedication to those that were no longer able to be there and Taps was played for them on the bugle. After a moment's silence, Laz lit his cigarette and we were off. 

The pace up the first hill was fast as the front runners went away and many of the virgins tried to keep up with them to get into a team with someone who knows the course well. I played the long game and, with that in mind, set off at a ‘5 lap’ pace. This put me in the rear quarter of the field. 

I could see Nicky Spinks and Billy just in front and Eoin, Johan Steene and Wes Thurman just behind me. Johan - I know from the Montane Spine Race and is a quality runner as well as a Barkley vet - I decided to keep my eyes on him, as well as the others. Wes -  I had met on the trails during my recce. He seemed like a nice guy and was also a vet. I was in good company and decided to keep going as I was. 

We crested the first hill and made what seemed a tiny descent to the first book. The book was already out of its hiding place with the front runners and we took our turns to pull our pages. I decided to put my poles away as well as store my page safely. Lose a single page and you DNF, whether you collected it or not. 

From here we ran along a bench (old area of strip mining) which is a more runnable section of the course. Wes was just in front of me, pushing hard. I asked him what the rush was and he said he was wanting to keep up with Johan for this first section and he had nipped in front while we were storing our pages. This seemed like a plan, so I decided to follow. 

Although I was faster on the hills, on the more runnable sections I couldn’t keep pace without heading towards the red zone. This I didn’t fancy so early on and, as I slowed to negotiate a few brambles, I lost Wes. I was on my own. I had no idea if Wes and I had been heading the right way as I had just been following on. 

I hadn’t looked at the map due to the pace. I had a sudden moment of paralysing fear. I decided to stand still for 2 minutes and see who came behind. Imagine my relief as Eoin, Billy and Nicky emerged as a trio from round the bend behind me. “Hi guys – great to see you”, I said. Eoin smiled a knowing smile and welcomed me to the group. 

Painful hazards & team tactics 

We headed down Checkmate Hill to the 2nd book. This was steep in places but, so early in the race, felt straightforward despite the rocks, brambles and ditches covered by old leaves. We had also picked up a fella from Michigan called Dale who was also a race vet. I appeared to be in good company. We found the second book and had moved in front of a group who had been moving faster, but had gone off line. Dale had collected a large nail in the sole of his shoe from the old mine workings and stopped to pull it out. Fortunately it had gone in just far enough to irritate his foot, but not damage it. There appeared to be no end of potential hazards on the course. 

Billy was doing most of the early navigation and we dropped onto the 3rd book without any hesitation, deviation or repetition. We were taking it in turns to lead and, regardless of who was up front, the pace felt similar and good. Eoin suggested some ways to speed us up; when we dropped to a book, 1 person was allocated to collect everyone’s pages, the others would sort their kit, take the next compass bearing, and collect water if available, depending on what was needed. 

Nicky was concentrating on the points of interest for micro navigation, particularly landmarks we could use when doing the course in the anticlockwise direction on the 2nd loop. I, meanwhile, felt like I wasn’t offering a huge amount to the group, but I did at least have a clear idea of where we were and was able to take my turn leading on the trail. 

We continued like this throughout the whole of leg 1. We ensured that we followed the prescribed route, including the detour to the water stop. We had picked up water from the streams, but it was in the route description and we wanted to do everything by the book and as per Laz’s instructions. 

Some of the nav seemed straightforward to me, but even then I would have taken much longer to find the book’s hiding place without the team. In other parts, where the wood seemed endlessly symmetrical and without discerning features, the nav seemed almost magical. We just seemed to drop directly onto the book’s hiding place, taking perfect line after perfect line.


Loop 1 concludes

I am confident that I would not have managed even a single loop without being part of such an amazing team. We were also conserving a lot of energy. We passed a couple of groups but we also kept seeing a couple of faster groups again and again as they ran off in front, only to then reappear behind us after they had rerouted. We picked up Wes briefly after he dropped off the group in front, but after such a fast start, he then also found it hard to hold with us and he decided to take a break and eat. It was impressive stuff by our team – and I was the toddler in the company of the adults.

I continued to enjoy myself, particularly passing through those iconic sections of the route like rat jaw and the prison tunnel. As we got towards the end of lap 1, darkness descended but this didn’t seem to affect us either. We stowed our 13th page at Chimney Top mountain and I was feeling great. I had started by this time, when the route seemed easy, to push in front more often to scout out a better line or if the book was close to start searching for the location. To be honest, I wasn’t often gaining us time but I did feel like I was making more of a contribution. Both Eoin and Nicky described this later as trying to keep a puppy under control. I am hoping that I did fetch the squeaky toy more often than I pooped in the corner of the room. 

We arrived back at camp in 11hrs30. To aim for a 5 lap finish, you need to do every lap in 12 hrs or less (max 60hrs). For a 3 lap fun run, 13hrs20 (max 40hrs). A 5 lap finish seemed unlikely but I felt confident of a fun run in this company and the others seemed to think this was feasible too, provided we didn’t get too lost at nighttime. After a 20-minute pit stop, we headed back out. The majority of this loop would be in the dark and was also to be in the anti-clockwise direction so we couldn’t rely simply on making a repeat performance. 

Stay tuned for more Barkley Marathons insights…

Can’t wait to discover what happened to Tom Hollins on the Barkley Marathons? Take a look at part 2 of his official race debrief.