There can be few more daunting races for a first-timer than the notorious Barkley Marathons but equally the event provides an unmatched experience as we found out when catching up with Tom Hollins, one of this year’s ‘virgins’.
The Brit’s credentials were super-solid heading into his voyage into the unknown at what is arguably the world’s most exclusive ultra – he’s a winner of the Montane Spine Race and the first person to run non-stop up all 30 mountains in the Yorkshire Dales before taking his elevation challenges to the next level last year.
That was when he ran 195 miles up and down Pendle Hill in just over 112 hours – nearly the same amount of climbing as summiting Mount Everest five times from sea level. That saw him set all sorts of records including a new UK and Ireland 24-hour vertical best and also raise plenty of money for Covid Aid, a charity for those with long Covid.
‘I wanted in’
The Yorkshireman is a consultant anaesthetist at Airedale Hospital and he’s kindly shared his thoughts with us – from how he came to be running the Barkley Marathons in the first place through to what he made of the whole adventure.
He explains: “There was only one thing I was sure of about the Barkley Marathons; it’s the world’s hardest race to complete – and I wanted in. A lot of races say they are tough but Barkley has the lowest finishing rate of them all.
“Laz [the race’s creator Lazarus Lake] makes the race route harder every time someone finishes. It is designed to be a continually evolving marker for the limits of human endurance.”
Just to get into the race is a feat in itself but once he’d received his ‘letter of condolence’, which is sent out to all those invited, Hollins set about preparing as best he could.
And he knew where the biggest test was likely to come for him, explaining: “The course is very steep and on technical terrain. Both these factors make the race more difficult, but tend to suit my skill set. However, no forms of navigation are allowed other than a map and compass and as someone who was an early adopter of GPX files and electronic navigation I knew this aspect was likely to be more difficult.
“So I decided last year that to have a chance at the race I would need to train my head more than my legs. I entered my first orienteering events and significantly improved my navigational skills, while getting told off more than once for still being out on the course after the event had finished!”
The beauty of Frozen Head
And his lead in to the Barkley further underlined his dedication as he revealed: “I decided to head out to the event two weeks before the race to ‘recce’ the course for a week and then taper for a week – a three-week holiday being a big commitment, but places in the race are hard to come by and you never know if you will get one again.
“Now by ‘recce the course’ I mean run the trails in Frozen Head. You aren’t allowed to run off the trails within the national park at any time except during the race. It’s also illegal to tell others details about the route prior to the race. Most of the race – and all the difficult sections – take place off the trails making a proper recce impossible. This is a significant factor in keeping the race difficulty high.”
But Hollins did everything in his power to give himself the best possible chance. He read assiduously whatever was out there to try and build up a fuller picture, saying: “I won’t repeat what others have put elsewhere as this is part of the adventure of discovering the rich history of the Barkley. But I will say that Frozen Ed’s book [‘Tales From Out There’ by Ed Furtaw] is a great place to start.”
From running the trails he could, referred to as “candy ass” by Laz, he says he built up a decent idea of the overall topography but knew there was still so much to discover when the race came.
However, he added: “More importantly than any of the above I discovered that Frozen Head is a beautiful place and well worth visiting. The hills are covered in amazing, ancient deciduous forest and if you are really lucky you might see some of the local wildlife – my high point was a family of hogs with piglets near Coffin Springs.
“The rangers are amazing and are really keen to tell you information about the park. They and all of the Barkley family involved in the race are keen to stress the need to protect this wilderness. This is a very important and understated part of the race – celebrating the wild and preserving it for future generations.”
Countdown is on
Before he knew it, he’d been allocated number five for the race (meaning he had to collect the fifth page from each book) and the dream was about to become reality.
On a practical level it’s usual for ‘virgins’ to run with veterans, especially in the early stages as Tom explains: “People are generally a bit cagey about teaming up as 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 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 all good 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. Despite my ‘recces’ 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 and knowing that the blowing of the conch signalling an hour to go to the start could take place at any time from midnight, not the most relaxing set of conditions to aid a full night’s sleep!”
And then they were off
The conch was eventually blown at 8.54am and Hollins actually managed a solid four hours of sleep – “not too bad considering” – before the runners assembled at the start.
He recalls: “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.”
Hollins admits he played it cool at the start. While some other first-timers tried to keep up with the front runners so as to get into a team with those who knew the course, he was in the rear quarter of the field.
And that would play out nicely, even though he first had to endure a big fright not long after running alongside Wes Thurman. He recounts: “I slowed to negotiate a few brambles and 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 two minutes and see who came behind. Imagine my relief as Eoin, Billy and Nicky [Spinks] 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.
“Billy was doing most of the early nav and we dropped onto the third book without any hesitation, deviation or repetition. 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 loop one. 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 books 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.
I am confident that I would not have managed even a single loop without being part of such an amazing team.
“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 one 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!
All then had gone to plan on the first loop and the group arrived back in camp with half an hour to spare and after 20 minutes set back out again looking to replicate the performance in the opposite direction.
Things get tougher
Hollins picks up the story early on loop two, revealing: “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 nav errors started to creep in.
“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 for a book at the top of Stallion mountain.
“Prior to reaching the summit I had decided to walk into a magnificent patch of briers and was fully entangled – it took me a good five minutes to extricate myself.”
All of which was starting to add up, but there was still plenty of hope at this point as Hollins acknowledged: “We checked the remaining time – five and a half hours 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 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 in. 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 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.”
The problem by now is that what had seemed minor slopes at the start were now suddenly “seriously steep” while “the brambles seemed to have somehow grown significantly in 24 hours”.
And the moment of truth came with just under three hours left on the clock. Hollins recounts: “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 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.
“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’.
Time to reflect
“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 two hours after myself and Andrea. I think they had the better run in!”
Try as Tom and Andrea might they were 20 minutes outside the cut-off and it was “time for Taps to play on the bugle to mark the end of our adventure”.
Explaining how he felt at that point, he says: 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 three 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.
“I also felt bad that [his wife] Sara had come all that way to support me and endured significant discomfort for me only to do two laps. 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 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 the obvious point to end on is would he like to do it all over 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 try some more nav events in the UK…”