inov-8 ambassadors Damian Hall and Nicky Spinks have given their thoughts on an historic Barkley Marathons 2023 that saw three runners finish the world’s most notorious 100+ mile ultramarathon.

Aurelien Sanchez (58:23), John Kelly (58:42) and Karel Sabbe (59:53) all made it round the full 5 loops in under the 60-hour time limit. For John, it was a second finish following his first successful completion in 2017.

It means a total of 17 runners – all men – now have their names on the roll of honour, signifying them as the only finishers since the Barkley Marathons began in 1986.

Agonisingly for Damian he fell one loop short of joining Aurelien, John and Karel in the history books. The 2023 Spine Race winner completed four loops of the insanely tough course with 47:39 on the clock. That gave him just over 12 hours to try and complete a fifth and final loop within the time limit.

Damian was the final one of the four runners to start loop 5 (a record number to enter the final lap), with the other three already out on the course when he arrived into camp from loop 4.

On every loop – run in alternating directions – participants had to visit the same checkpoints. At each checkpoint was a hidden book from which they had to tear out numbered pages and then return them to enigmatic race organiser Laz Lake at the end of each loop.

Unfortunately for a sleep-deprived Damian he was frustratingly unable to find the first book on loop 5, which he was running in an anti-clockwise direction (the same way as Aurelien, with John and Karel going clockwise). After an hour of searching, he eventually gave up looking and returned to camp.

Ultra running veteran Damian, for whom it was a first time at the Barkley Marathons, said: “I’m feeling a mixture of frustration and satisfaction. I set a ‘Fun Run’ (3 loops) as a minimum accomplishment, so I’m chuffed with 4 loops.

“However, I’m annoyed I somehow couldn’t find a book I’d only recently located. It was amongst some capstones on Chimney Top, where there are loads of good book hiding places. I began believing it had been stolen, by a crow or something. I was very sleep-deprived. Yuk.”

Reflecting further, he said: “I got back to camp at the end of loop 4 about 20 mins before the cut-off and I was buzzing. Everyone, including Spinksy (Nicky Spinks) and my amazing crew, five-time Barker and fellow mohawker, Canada’s Jodi Isenor, were so encouraging. I even got a fist bump from Jared Campbell. #LifeGoals. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and I had 12 hours left. Anything seemed possible.

“But sleep deprivation was growing. I’d tried two power naps – one with the Tea Dodger (John Kelly), where we slept on a book so the next runner would wake us – but both unsuccessful.

“For the fifth lap I was going the opposite way to what I had done on loop 4, which meant the first book would be the most recent one and had seemed easy to find coming the other direction. However, Chimney Top has a lot of capstones with numerous book-hiding options. After an hour of searching (and two full days without sleep) I was growing increasingly confused. Caffine, calories and a third attempt at a power nap didn’t work. I decided, whether I wasn’t compos mentis enough to find the book, or it was somehow missing (stollen by a crow or something?), both things were race ending.”

Asked if he had a pre-race plan with his friend John Kelly, with whom he ran for the first three loops and onto loop 4, Damian said: “Not exactly. I knew my best chance of doing well as a Virgin was to stick with a ‘Veteran’ for as long as possible. John had been an immense help beforehand, so I didn’t want to take the biscuit (that’s a British biscuit rather than a US biscuit, which it turns out is a scone). But he was moving well at the front and I could mostly keep up, so it worked for a while.

“On loop 4 he was sometimes having to wait for me at the top of climbs and I didn’t want to compromise his run so I told him to push on. I also knew I needed to learn to be independent with that fifth loop in mind.”

And when quizzed about whether he felt he could have completed that fifth loop were it not for the book location failure, he added: “That’s the question! As I left camp to start loop 5 I felt optimistic. But seasoned Barkley watchers will know a Virgin doing a sub 12-hour loop solo as their fifth was unlikely… but I wanted to try!

“Overall, it was a more beautiful area and more fun than I thought it would be, and the Barkley Marathons community are more welcoming than I had imagined. But the terrain is so gruelling. I don’t need to look up any steep wooded slopes in the dark any time soon!”

Staged in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, USA, a total of 40 chosen participants started the race, attempting to self-navigate their way around the unmarked lapped course, all set amid steep-sloped, thick mountain woodland.

Each loop was 20+ miles in distance and included about 12,000ft of ascent. Runners tackled the loops in both clockwise and anticlockwise directions.

inov-8 ambassador Nicky Spinks was another of the starters, competing in her second Barkley Marathons. The inspirational veteran ran a strong first loop but was unfortunately timed out on her second loop. Laz had cheekily given her the number 1 bib for the first loop, deeming her, in his eyes, the participant least likely to finish loop 1. Nicky proved him very wrong! Nicky retired from loop 2 in 2019 when she and Stephanie Case were the Last Women Standing.

Nicky said: “I arrived with no expectations as holidays and tooth problems had hampered my training. My number one aim was not to make a fool of myself by getting lost! The weather was perfect and, unlike in 2019, I made sure I had more warmer clothing. I was happy to team up with Billy (Reed) and Eoin (Keith). I wanted to embrace and enjoy the whole experience, and that’s what I did – from arriving early and running the trails to making sure I chatted to everyone and supported friends like Damian and Jasmin (Paris).

“Loop 1 went really well. Eoin was totally on it with navigation, with me and Billy helping. We had a good pace, without killing it. We were joined by two other runners, one being Tom Hollins.

“Loop 2 was in the dark and it went well with just one glitch halfway through when were about 100m off a book. Tom thought we could get back to camp before the cut-off but the last two climbs were so tough. Tom went ahead, while me, Billy and Eoin chilled and enjoyed the rest of the loop in the sunshine. It was very special.

“Overall, I enjoyed it more than 2019. I did wish Steph (Case) could have been with us to enjoy the great weather, unlike what we had to endure four years earlier!”

Like in 2022, the brilliant Jasmin Paris completed three loops within the time limit, thus achieving what Laz calls a ‘Fun Run.’ Unlike in 2022, she was within the time rules that allowed her to start a fourth loop, becoming only the second woman in history to do so after Sue Johnston in 2001. Jasmin was eventually timed out on loop 4.

Three words to describe Barkley Marathons

Damian: Confusing outdoor library.

Nicky: Brutal, sociable, satisfying.


Will you return to Barkley Marathons?

Damian: Definitely., because I loved it. The puzzle, the camaraderie, the intimate atmosphere, and to get a photo with Keith Dunn. Because it was both hugely satisfying and hugely frustrating.

Nicky: No. I don’t somehow think Laz will give me another chance.


All photos within the blog post were taken by David Miller. Follow him on Instagram.


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