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Interview with Jasmin Paris, who was the first woman to finish the Barkley Marathon

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Interview with Jasmin Paris, who was the first woman to finish the Barkley Marathon

99 percent of those who start the Barkley Marathon do not make it to the finish line. The founder once said the race was too hard for women – a 40-year-old British woman recently refuted the prejudice.

Jasmin Paris in one of the numerous climbs in the Barkley Marathon. Over the years, the steepest passages have been given nicknames, for example “meat grinder”.

Howie Stern

The Barkley Marathon takes place every spring at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee and is considered the most brutal race in the world. There is no set route or developed trails on Barkley. The race director Gary Cantrell alias Lazarus Lake and his colleagues hide books in the area that the runners have to find.

If you want to be considered a finisher, you have to complete five laps of 20 miles (around 32 kilometers). You have 12 hours per round. In addition, the runners overcome a height difference that is twice as high as Mount Everest.

The race is surrounded by numerous myths. On the course through the wilderness, runners pass Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, a prison that was closed down in 2009. James Earl Ray, the murderer of the US civil rights activist Martin Luther King, was imprisoned there. He broke out in 1977, but didn’t get far in the rough terrain. Race founder Lake followed the hunt for Ray on television and told the NZZ last year: “I would have done 100 miles, not James Earl Ray’s paltry eight. So I decided to invent a 100-mile race.”

Since 1986, thousands of ultrarunners have attempted Barkley, including the best in the world. The starting field is limited to 40 participants. Anyone who wants to take part must send Lake a letter of motivation. Only 20 people in the history of the race have completed the full five laps within the time limit. The 40-year-old British Jasmin Paris was the first woman this spring.

Jasmin Paris, you reached your big goal on your third attempt and finished the Barkley Marathon. Will you be returning to this race?

It was probably the last participation. I don’t think I’ll find the motivation to focus and torture myself like that again. I also felt guilty every time I flew to the USA for the Barkley. I want to fly as little as possible for ecological reasons. I’m not saying I’ll never fly somewhere for a race again. But the occasion must have a great appeal for me to get on a plane. The Barkley had that power – until I finished it.

They crossed the finish line completely exhausted, just a minute and a half before the time limit expired. How did the last few kilometers feel?

I noticed six hours in advance that it was going to be tight. I still felt euphoric and believed I could do it. The last kilometer was brutal, it was a steep climb and I realized that I could fail at the very end. That was a terrible moment. I had difficulty breathing, constantly coughed, and my throat was dry. My head and body told me to walk instead of run. But then it wouldn’t have been enough.

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How did you manage to torture yourself like that?

I had been telling myself for hours that I would do it. I told myself that I couldn’t go until the last kilometer. But I ran out of time, so I decided to keep running as long as I could. It was an intense moment that I have never experienced before, a mixture of despair and euphoria. It was the first time that I had exhausted myself so much.

How much did you actually notice from the finish line?

I had tunnel vision and only saw the gate that symbolized the start and finish. I noticed that there were people there. I heard they were cheering me on. I ran like a robot, it felt like I had no control over my body. I just wanted to get to that gate. I lay there for minutes trying to catch my breath.

In the days after the race, did you think about what would have happened if you had failed so close to the finish?

Failure kept running through my head. It would have been a big disappointment. I tried not to think about it too often, thoughts like that send shivers down my spine.

It is said that disaster awaits behind every tree on Barkley. How did you experience that?

I twisted my knee while running downhill on the first lap. I was in severe pain for several hours but managed to block it out.

How do you forget when something goes wrong so soon?

At first I was frustrated and angry with myself. Up until this point I felt strong and was making good progress. I convinced myself two things. Firstly, that at some point another part of my body will start to hurt and I will forget about my knee. Secondly, that I was lucky that it didn’t get worse and I can still run. I have also prepared myself for the fact that there will always be setbacks at Barkley. Nobody gets through without problems.

99 percent of those who start fail at Barkley. How did you deal with the idea that you would most likely not make it to the finish line?

Failure is a magical attraction for me; it is the main motivation why I took part in Barkley three times. There is a small chance that you can do it after all. Can I be that person? Am I capable of this? These were the questions that bothered me. I also like the idea that the Barkley isn’t a real race.

What do you mean?

We runners don’t fight against each other. We all face this tough course together. You help each other along the route, run together if possible and motivate yourself. The camaraderie is one of the best things about this run.

Barkley founder Lazarus Lake says he wants to tease the participants. Did this man make you angry when you experienced Barkley’s brutality?

I never had feelings like that. I don’t know Lake personally that well. But I have a lot of respect for him, he’s smart, that’s why he was able to invent a run like this. I admire him for creating something so difficult for us runners to test our skills on.

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You said that you learn a lot about yourself while running ultras. What did you learn at Barkley?

I want to preface this by saying I know how privileged I am to be able to attend Barkley. For people whose lives are less simple, torturing yourself for fun must sound absurd. I lead a comfortable life at home in Edinburgh. I could just let myself go with the flow, without any borderline experiences or difficulties. At Barkley life becomes simple, you spend hours alone in the wilderness, it’s just about basic needs, eating, drinking and walking. I learned that it can also work without comfort. Barkley also showed me what I’m capable of. Before the race I didn’t think I would be able to run up this last climb.

Jasmin Paris reaches the finish completely exhausted. She says: “I didn’t think I could run up that last climb.”

Were there times when you enjoyed the race?

This year the first two rounds were a lot of fun. I ran with four men, we were a good group, it felt like a team sport. And the sunset on the first day was beautiful. In a strange way, I also enjoyed the last six hours, even though I was tired. I liked the feeling of being all alone in the wilderness. There were a lot of butterflies in the forest this year, I was happy every time I saw one.

This is your third time participating in Barkley. When did you realize you could make it to the finish?

There was no exact time, consciousness slowly seeped into the brain. I felt very comfortable this year. The terrain was familiar to me from my previous two participations. The preparation went great. Thanks to my experience, I had no problems finding the route. On the second lap, after a climb, I was able to catch up with John Kelly and Aurélien Sanchez, who had completed the Barkley last year. Then I felt that I was strong and thought for the first time that it could be enough.

There is little time to recover between rounds. What were the breaks like?

My husband Konrad, also an ultra runner, looked after me wonderfully. At the start and finish he gave me porridge, rice cakes, bananas and cola. On the route I had cold pizza and cheese sandwiches as well as sports nutrition in my backpack. There was no time for sleep. Apart from a power nap of a few minutes, I didn’t sleep for 60 hours. Instead, I regularly lay down in a stream and then I was awake again.

The stress at Barkley begins the night before the start. From midnight there is a twelve hour window during which Lazarus Lake can give the signal that there is still one hour left for the start. How did you experience the night?

This year the signal came at 4:17 a.m. The time before that got on my nerves. I was lucky I was still jet lagged. I read in the tent and then fell asleep. I then woke up at exactly midnight, realizing that it could start at any time, and I became nervous. Luckily I was able to sleep for a few more hours.

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Organizer Lake once said the Barkley was too hard for women. What does it mean to you that you were the first to do it?

It’s a fantastic feeling, but I always saw Barkley as a personal challenge. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And not show the world that a woman can do it. Of course I’m happy that I was able to refute Lake’s statement. The best thing was the numerous messages I received from other women. They wrote to me saying that I had inspired them by achieving this goal as a working mother.

You work full-time as a veterinarian, teach at the university in Edinburgh and have two small children. When do you train?

I get up at 5am, eat a slice of toast, drink a cup of tea and run. During the week I train for one and a half to two hours every day, always early in the morning before work. This is only possible because my husband makes breakfast for the children and gets them ready for school. We are very adept at multitasking.

Did you prepare for Barkley differently this year than usual?

I did more strength training and ran uphill more often. After I completed my run, I would often run up and down a steep hill. It may sound strange, but there is little running at Barkley. The climbs are so steep that it’s more like hiking. I prepared for the climbs by often climbing 1000 meters on the stair climber in the fitness center at the end of the day.

They had to find their way through the wilderness using a simple map and compass. How did you prepare to navigate?

I have already completed a number of mountain marathons in the UK, which work in a similar way to orienteering. So I had some experience using a map and compass. One advantage was that I already knew Frozen Head State Park from my previous Barkley participations. I made a lot of mistakes in the first two years, but I also learned a lot.

What will you miss about the Barkley?

The other runners and the family atmosphere. The Barkley was an important part of my life. For me over the last three years it has been a symbol of the change from winter to spring. I will also miss the forest in Frozen Head State Park, even though it can’t be described as beautiful. I still fell in love with the area because I associate experiences with many of the places along the route and remember overcoming obstacles and difficulties.

Completely exhausted, Jasmin Paris reaches the finish line of the Barkley Marathon in Frozen Head State Park in the state of Tennessee. The race founder Lazarus Lake (left) is already waiting there.

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