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She’s the First Woman to Finish the Barkley Marathons—Ever. Here’s How She Did It.

Jasmin Paris did the “impossible” with the same pair of shoes she wore in her first two attempts. The Barkley Marathons is not a race in the traditional sense. It’s a war of attrition where participants, at times, work together more than they want to beat each other to the finish line. Completing five 20-ish mile laps under the 60-hour time limit is the goal—the order of the finishers is secondary.

The 2024 edition of the race, which started at 5:17 a.m. on March 20 and concluded 2.5 days later on March 22, was historic. Five runners completed the arduous race—the most in one year ever—including the first woman to finish, Jasmin Paris, a 40-year-old British mother of two.

Skeptics, including the race’s controversial organizer, Lazarus Lake, have stated in years past that it was impossible for a woman to complete Barkley. But Paris broke the glass ceiling, finishing with less than 2 minutes to spare, in 59:58:21. (At this year’s race, only four of the 40 participants were women.)

“I’ve always enjoyed proving people wrong, especially if it’s something to do with being told that a woman can’t do it,” Paris said after the race. “It gives me great satisfaction.”

Runner’s World caught up with Paris, fresh off a well-deserved vacation with her family, to talk about how she prepared for the unpredictable ultramarathon.

Hills pay the bills

Barkley is a race where experience matters. It’s uncommon for someone in their first year to finish. But after becoming the first woman to complete three loops in 2022 and again in 2023, Paris was hungry to come back. 

“The first time, I was intrigued by this idea of something that was on the very cusp of what was possible,” she said. “And clearly, the likelihood is that you would fail. But there’s still this glimmer of a chance that you might not fail.”

Barkley is difficult to plan for because of secrecy. It’s invitation-only, and participants are quietly told that they can race an undisclosed amount of time before the event. The starting date changes year-to-year, but it’s generally sometime in March or early April.

Paris had an inkling that she’d be given a chance to become the first woman to finish, so she planned her winter training on the assumption that she’d line up. Metatarsal pain in November and December forced her to cross-train on the elliptical or bike for six weeks, but by Christmas, she was back running.

Paris then hunkered down on hill work. At Barkley, a race with an estimated 65,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s essential to practice climbing—something that Paris doesn’t shy away from anyway. For years, she honed her skills at fell races—a niche sport where runners race off-road over hilly terrain—and this Barkley cycle, she added even more elevation than in years past.

As a cornerstone of her training, Paris added circuits of hills into her long runs around the foothills near her home in southern Scotland. She would also supplement her running (and hiking) with sessions on the stair climber, where she’d knock out 3,200 feet of climbing in 40-minute intervals.

About a month out from Barkley, Paris completed her toughest week of training yet: 90 miles of running with an extra 20 miles of hiking. She estimates she traversed around 36,000 to 39,000 feet of elevation that week. (Mt. Everest is 29,000 feet tall, for comparison.) 

Her most Barkley-like training run was a 22-miler over the winter. Usually, Paris will run before she drops her kids off at the pool on Saturday mornings, but she planned a long workout, so she went to bed at 8 p.m. the night before and started her run at 1 a.m. The session, in driving rain that turned to snow, simulated the testy conditions she might experience at Barkley on a bad day. Since a large portion of Barkley isn’t on marked trails, Paris logged much of the eight hours of hills off-trail, totaling over 15,400 feet of net gain. 

"That was really good training for Barkley,” she said. Strength training is key

The biggest change that Paris made in recent years was adding more strength training into her routine. 

As a girl growing up in northern England, Paris was an avid horseback rider, competing in competitions as well as riding for fun at the local stables. But when she was 17, she partially tore the ACL in her left knee after falling off her horse and landing on a fence—then fully tore it chasing after a train. Paris never got reconstructive surgery, so to this day, the ligament is not connected in her knee. 

Trail running can test your balance, especially on technical courses with hairpin turns, so Paris has focused on strength training in recent years to stabilize her knee. Now, the joint is as strong as ever, she said, and weights have become a fixture in her training routine. 

Paris takes a 30-minute online strength class three times a week, where a virtual coach monitors her form and prescribes movements like lunges, single-leg squats, bridges, and sit-ups. But Paris said that advancing past bodyweight exercises to weights has especially leveled-up her strength. 

“I definitely felt stronger going into this year,” she said. “Not just my legs, but my core and my upper body as well.”

Don’t stress over the little things

Part of what makes Barkley so tough to complete is its unpredictability. The spring weather in Tennessee can be bitterly cold or sweltering hot, but participants don’t know what to expect until days before, since the start time is kept a secret.

Paris, in turn, took a laissez-faire attitude toward her race preparation.

The 60-hour time limit at Barkley leaves little room for sleep—Paris told The Guardian she slept about 3 minutes during the race—but she doesn’t believe in simulating tiredness before the event. In fact, quite the opposite. 

In the lead-up to Barkley, Paris focused on starting the race feeling refreshed. And although she knew exhaustion was inevitable, she said that coming over from the U.K. was actually an advantage. Because her hometown is five hours ahead of the time zone in eastern Tennessee, Paris said the middle of the night—when sleepiness would naturally kick in for U.S.-based athletes—felt like the morning to her since she was still used to U.K. time. 

Nutrition is also difficult to dial in, or anticipate, Paris said, because she usually doesn’t have trouble eating until the 10 or 12-hour mark of an ultramarathon. And that’s if she’s moving fast. She rarely trains that long, if at all, so it’s difficult to simulate hunger.

“It’s hard to repeat in training that sort of dry feeling [where you] can’t swallow,” Paris said. At Barkley, she turned to moist foods, like frittatas, pizza (without the crust), and hot cross buns with raisins. 

Paris packed for the race intently, although she admits she forgot some things, like electrolytes. An ardent environmentalist and co-founder of the The Green Runners, Paris prefers to use existing gear, or borrow from others, rather than buy new products—even if hers is worn. 

Days before Barkley, Paris’s mother helped sew up the holes in her pants. Paris even wore the same pair of shoes that she used during her previous two attempts at Barkley, Inov-8 Mudclaw G 260s, after repairing some holes in the uppers.

“You don’t really need the newest stuff; that’s not really what makes you able to run well or what keeps you going,” Paris said. “It’s more about what’s in your head and what training you’ve done.”

 

 

(05/12/2024) Views: 294 ⚡AMP
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