What I Learned at the 2017 Barkley Marathons

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On April 1, 2017, in the thick, dark woods of Frozen Head State Park, Jamil Coury stared at waterfalls sparkling in the light of his headlamp and thought, “I haven’t seen these before. That’s not good.”

The next ridge over, Brandon Stapanowich stumbled through briars, straining to not lose sight of the bobbing lights ahead; without them he’d be lost.

In a nearby drainage, Mike Wardian and Anne Lang celebrated ecstatically, having found book number three.

Over the next several hours, all four runners would individually find their way back to basecamp, exiting the race.

Just 40 runners are accepted to the Barkley Marathons race each year, and only 15 have ever finished. The race consists of five roughly 20-mile loops, mostly off trail, with nearly 11,000 feet of vertical gain per loop. Runners navigate to find books that act as unmanned checkpoints, and must finish all five loops in under 60 hours to count as a finisher.

“I don’t usually repeat races,” says Stapanowich, who finished second at the 2016 Behind The Rocks Ultra 50 Miler in Moab, Utah. “I don’t want to repeat the same flavor of suffering. But Barkley is different. It tickled my brain.”

Preparing for Barkley takes a special combination of navigation skills, downhill running technique, strong climbing legs, split-second decision making and mental grit. We caught up with veterans and “virgins” alike to ask how they prepared for this year’s Barkley Marathons and what they’ll do differently next time.


Jamil Coury – More Sleep, More Vert

Jamil Coury, 32, of Phoenix, Arizona is a two-time Barkley veteran. Climbing, he says, is a necessary component of his training. This year he didn’t get as much training as he would have liked, due to physical and motivational setbacks.

When the conch blew at 12:40 a.m, he’d only managed a few hours of sleep. “Shit,” he thought. “Here we go.”

Between loops two and three, that lack of sleep caught up with him. “I had some time, so I decided to nap. Then someone knocked on the door of my van and was like ‘Are you going to keep going?’ Apparently I’d slept for three hours.”

Not one to go down without a fight, Coury leapt up and headed back out. But after the first book, he lost the route and wound up in front of that unknown waterfall. Then he became sick from too much sodium.

He knew he wouldn’t make the cutoff, so he continued as far as he could before reluctantly making his way back to camp. “I’ve never really DNF’d before,” he says. “So I had to swallow a bit of humble pie.”

Training for next year is all about vert. “I guess this makes it public,” he says, “but I’d like to run one million feet of vertical between now and next year’s Barkley.”

Hopefully he’ll get a bit more sleep, too.

Brandon Stapanowich – Down, Down Baby

Stapanowich, 32, of Manitou Springs, Colorado, is on the short list of people who have completed Nolan’s 14  (14 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado’s Sawatch range, in under 60 hours), which he finished in 54 hours 47 minutes in 2014. He thought that experience might be good prep for Barkley.

But, he says, Barkley didn’t require  “the composed, conservative approach I expected. My strength was climbing uphill, but I hadn’t trained on that type of downhill. Jamil and Michael [Versteeg]’s ability to descend off trail quickly was so impressive. It was like watching deer sprint.”

Stapanowich also wants to work on his navigation and decision-making skills. He’s considering the John Fegyveresi approach. Fegyveresi finished Barkley as a “virgin” in 2012. “Fegy would go to parks and trails he wasn’t familiar with and purposely get lost,” says Stapanowich. “Then he’d figure out how get himself back to the trailhead.”


Mike Wardian – Be Prepared For Anything

Michael Wardian, 43, of Washington, D.C., races with more frequency than perhaps any other elite trail racer, but, for him, running Barkley was like running his first ultra. He went to running stores, outdoor stores and grocery stores, stocking up on everything and ultimately ringing up a $700 tab.

“You’d think I was headed to Mars,” he says. Even with a trunk full of homeopathic ointments and organic fruit, Wardian took 15 hours to complete the first loop—more than an hour and a half over the “fun run” cutoff. “I’ve never had to chase a cutoff before,” he says. “We were reading and rereading the directions and searching the map for where we were and how we got off course.”

Wardian also wants to work on downhill speed for next year. “[The other racers] were running downhill off trail at such a ridiculous pace, bordering on dangerous… while navigating,” he says.

Anne Lang – Night Vision

Lang, 33, of Columbus, Ohio, felt ready for Barkley. She’d visited the area for the last three summers with her family, she’d trained plenty and she had enough sleep. Women’s champion of the 2016 Across the Years 72 hour race, Lang felt like a “kid on Christmas morning” when the conch blew.

Quickly, however, she wished she’d had more navigation training. She took several orienteering courses in 2016, but plans to do more nighttime orienteering courses, if only to boost her confidence. “There were so many times, looking back,” she says, “when I knew what to do, but the group think really influenced my decisions.”

Lang spent the better part of nine hours with a group that kept making mistakes. “At one point, we realized we were about to head into someone’s backyard. I was so embarrassed.”

And at the six-hour mark, Lang began her grieving process, knowing she wouldn’t make the cutoff for the first loop. Though she trained specifically for Barkley in 2016, Lang hopes to ramp it up even more for next year. With plans for a 100-mile training race, Lang will continue “training 18-20 hours per week” and will throw in “two speed workouts per week.”

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