Tom Hollins: 2023 Barkley Marathons Debrief (part 2)

#TeamMontane ultra runner Tom Hollins shares the dramatic conclusion to his Barkley Marathons experience.

(Photography credit: David Miller)

With loop 1 officially conquered (check out how this shaped up in our part 1 blog) Tom Hollins discusses how the rest of his Barkley Marathons race played out. For those unfamiliar, take a look at our overview of the Barkley Marathons to get up to speed. For everyone else, keep reading for a unique insight into one of the world’s most legendary and mysterious races…

Loop 2 commences

On the first anticlockwise ascent, Dale couldn’t keep the pace and dropped back. This was a shame, but we still had the core group together. We saw Wes coming in from his first loop and Thomas Van Woensel returning after the first anticlock ascent feeling too unwell, having knocked out a 10hr30 first loop. This happened repeatedly in front of us. Those that had tried to hold on with the front runners now seemed to be paying the price. We seemed to be slowing a little, but nothing significant. 

We collected the first few books. Billy seemed a little more tired now and Eoin took over the majority of the nav. This was going well even in the dark. We were having to adjust our lines a little more often but nothing significant. The group in front now contained Johan and we caught up with them a couple of times, ending up in front as they moved off quickly, and then kept rerouting to end up behind us. I felt good about my earlier decision to stick with the team I was with. Around the fire tower we added Andrea Larson to our group. Her companion had decided to drop and she had noted that we kept catching everyone up while moving more slowly. She thought we would be a good group to join. Good thinking, but in a twist of fate, that was when some navigation errors started to creep in. 

Navigating navigation errors

We were no longer landing on the books with precision and seemed to be adjusting our lines more often. This culminated with a 30-minute search at the top of Stallion mountain for a book which is in a straightforward location, but just below the crater at the summit. We got onto the summit and then got disorientated as to which corner the book was off it. Here, there are saw briers everywhere. 

Prior to reaching the summit, I had decided to walk into a magnificent patch of briers and was fully entangled with them wrapped around all 4 limbs, plus my neck. It took me a good 5 minutes to extricate myself, during which time the others had moved on assuming I would catch up as I had been doing previously. The gap was such that I just ran to the lights rather than concentrating on where the others had ended up. Not that I am saying if I had been with the group I would have prevented this error. The opposite – I am hoping that me screaming in a bush wasn’t so distracting that they lost concentration. 

We checked the remaining time. 5 hrs 30 to go till cut off. We knew there were a couple of steep hills remaining but thought this seemed a reasonable time frame. I found myself increasingly in the front over the next section, and the rest of the group, other than Andrea, did seem a little more tired. The sun came up and the nav was a bit more simple from here on. I started taking more bearings in advance anywhere I was waiting and pushing on ahead. I could see that I was taking the right lines as the others were following, but I wasn’t really gaining us any time as I could also see they were rechecking the bearings behind me. Who could blame them? I hadn’t been that much use thus far. The only points where I was pulling a bit of time back was if I got the pages out for everyone and I tried to get ahead and do that where I could. 

Barcley Marathons 2023 | David Millar

(Photography credit: David Miller)

We got to the bottom of the meat grinder, the second to last hill and looked up. It was massive and seriously steep. When we went down it had been early doors in the race and it hadn’t really registered. This was going to be tough. We had 3 hrs to go. This meant an hour for each of the big ascents and half an hour for each of the descents. This still seemed doable but it was getting tight. I set off at a reasonable pace and could see the others were slower. I pushed on knowing that the next book was easy to find and thinking I would get the pages out. Halfway up I looked back and I had seriously gapped everyone except for Andrea. I called out but they were out of voice range. I paused for a couple of minutes and still no sight or sound. I realised I was going to have to make a run for it if I was going to make the cut off. I called my plan to Andrea and she started to speed up. At the top I got the page numbers out for us both and then we pushed on. 

Pushing on

I felt really bad after all that effort by the rest of the team on my behalf but felt I had no choice if I was to have any chance of making the cut off. Eoin later said to me with a grin “you did exactly the right thing, you treacherous b*st@+d”. The others got to the top and decided the game was up. They sat and had a picnic in the sunshine before moving on at a stroll, eventually arriving at the finish 2hrs after myself and Andrea. I think they had the better run in! 

It had taken myself and Andrea an hour to the top, pushing hard. On the descent Jury ridge was slow because of the terrain but once back on the boundary trail I was struggling to keep up. I could see that Andrea was still strong and together we stood some chance. 45 minutes later she collected both our pages at the next book and I led up checkmate hill. Miraculously I took an even better line than the one Billy had coming down, and we got onto the bench in 50 minutes. 35 to the finish seemed very much in reach. 

I now realised that the reason the bench had been so fast running clockwise was that it was slightly downhill. We were now running uphill and, within 24hrs, the brambles seemed to have somehow grown significantly. The mile along the bench took us 10 minutes and I hadn’t seen where the book had come out from on the first leg, as it had been handed to me by a person in front and I had then handed it on. Andrea to the rescue. She bought us straight onto it and we turned for home. 

The tiny descent-now-turned-ascent was in front of us. Funny how things seem at the start of races. It was a 400 ft climb. It took us 15 minutes to get to the top, leaving 10 minutes for the descent. At the top I had gapped Andrea a little and, like the lady she is, she told me to run for it down the ridge. I should have stopped to take a bearing, but I knew the descent was likely to take more than 10 minutes and I had to be fast.

A mad downhill scramble

I set off  like a lunatic, butt sliding and jumping down. Andrea later pointed out to me that when she got to the top she could see I wasn’t on the ridge from the start. I knew that to go too far right was to miss the campsite and certain doom. I angled left a little early and decided if I came out too high I could still handrail the creek to get down to the exit point. I did this but, after following the creek for a couple of minutes, there was still no sign of the exit.

I assumed I must have entered too low down and decided to climb out of the creek on the opposite side to see if the boundary trail was still there. Then I would know if I was too high or not. After chewing my way through a few more bushes, I found the trail. I was far too high but the best thing to do now was to keep on the trail back into camp. I duly did and, as I got to the last section, I could see Andrea touching the gate a couple of hundred feet in front of me. I did the same. We were 20 minutes over cut off and it was time for taps to play on the bugle to mark the end of our adventure. Johan had made it just in front with 5 minutes to get back out to start loop 3. Sadly he didn’t complete the fun run. 

Post-race verdict

My post-race emotion was mainly disappointment. I still had working legs at the end and, although I would have struggled with the nav in the dark on lap 3, I wanted to give it a go. Still, I think I made the right decisions. When others support you, you need to do the same in return (even if ineffective) and behave as a team, until the team cause is lost. Perhaps we could have predicted that a little earlier, but that is how it is. 

Other obvious regrets were the time I spent in a bush on Stallion Mountain and the 2 out and backs to the water stop which we didn’t need. I later learned that most of the other runners skipped it…. I also felt bad that Sara had come all that way to support me and endured significant discomfort for me only to do 2 laps. 

Barkley Marathons 2023

(Photography credit: David Miller)

She had believed in me all the way and had prepped a fresh rucksack so that, to carry on, all I needed to do was to drop the one I was carrying and strap a new one on. Fortunately, she had been having a great time making new friends in camp. And as the Barkley does not require support to drive between checkpoints, she had also discovered that the one thing Americans love more than doughnuts and beer is doughnut-flavoured beer. She says she would happily come again…

So assuming I can get a place, I could go back for a future attempt armed with course knowledge. However, the weather was amazing this year and I know many others who have come repeated years and said that this was the best opportunity ever to go deep into the race. The weather usually stops play much earlier doors. It is a big commitment coming to Tennessee, but Frozen Head and the Barkley are an amazing combination. There is time to think on and to try some more nav events in the UK…

In the end, I got to see 3 finishers smash the course, including John ‘pseudo Brit’ Kelly. (He is the local legend and part of the Barkley family, but I wonder if we can convince him to get at least dual citizenship?) Damian and Jasmin also did great. Damo really struggled with the nav once dropped by John (I think he managed half a slower loop after that – but it was his 4th loop). Jasmin had a knee injury pre-race and still completed 4 loops, even if 1 of them was over time. Legend. I would still like to see her be the first female 5 lap finisher, but I think she may also think that this year was her best chance of that.  

The last thing Laz does before leaving the campground is to set the date and time for next year and adjust the route to make it harder. Of course, he doesn’t tell anyone else the details… 

Looking for more ultra running inspiration?

If Tom’s Barkley Marathons experience has got you eager for more extreme events, take a look at the races we’re sponsoring in 2023, including the Summer Spine Race and Dragon’s Back Race