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Karen McNeany 2021 Barkley Marathons Interview

Karen McNeany Running 2021 Barkley

Karen McNeany Running 2021 Barkley - Credit Matt Cabbage

This Karen McNeany 2021 Barkley interview (post-race) dives into what Karen experienced and learned at this year’s Barkleys. She joined a powerful contingent of women at the race, including Liz Canty, Courtney Dauwalter and Maggie Guterl, and quickly proved her designation as the Human Sacrifice was dead wrong.

How did you first hear about the Barkley?

In short, several of my friends from Knoxville had done Barkley and BFC [Barkley Fall Classic]. I heard about it from them starting in 2014-2015. It was way above my capability to even enter at the time. More in my race report about this.

What were you most concerned and excited about going in?

I thought about this a lot beforehand. Like, what is the one thing that scares me the most about attempting Barkley? I had read in an article somewhere that Laz, the race director (RD), said Barkley will force you to deal with your biggest fears, or something to that effect. It stuck with me. I thought really hard about what was the one situation I wanted to avoid so I could come to peace with it beforehand and it would lose its power over me. I believe it is unique for everyone.

As background context, this was my first race longer than BFC, first time running through the night, first race using trekking poles, first time navigating during an event, etc.

For me, that situation was the thought of being alone, in the dark, disoriented, cold and wet. I realized that instead of doing everything I could to avoid my fear, I needed to prepare to face it, both mentally and physically. As the race approached, the more I thought about being alone in unfamiliar territory, I was actually getting excited to take on the challenge!

I made sure that I had all the items I needed for safety in an emergency, as well as the most basic navigational concepts down so that I could return to camp in the most dire of circumstances. And just knowing I had those backups was reassuring.

I would say that what I was most concerned about became the thing I was also most excited about. Confronting my fears and navigating around the course were my biggest challenges but I was excited to see if I could do it.

It actually turned out that I didn’t get to a point in the race where I was alone in the dark. I was willing to be there, and had hung back at the beginning to purposefully get away from the majority of the racers. But at the point where I stepped off trail for the first time, a few other virgins came up behind me and we were able to benefit from multiple lights in the dark and fog. However, by making peace with that fear beforehand, I avoided much of the pre-race anxiety that I would have faced.

What type of training did you focus on for the Barkley when your BFC 2020 win got you in the big race?

My training runs for Barkley differed mostly in the fact that I needed to gain new skills and experience very quickly. While my boyfriend Chris Hanlon and I enjoy running in the mountains as much as possible normally, we needed to spend more time practicing navigating by terrain features, using a compass, using trekking poles, getting comfortable with off-trail conditions and moving efficiently in the dark.

My training actually decreased a bit in mileage, increased in vertical gain per mile, and included more slow miles in dark, unfamiliar, off-trail type conditions but still included many runnable miles as well. I would even consider reading race reports and studying topo maps, current and historic, as a major part of my preparation.

While I would change my approach for a second year if I get in again, it would only be because I now have more confidence in some of the basics like compass use, running trails in the dark, things that I had never done prior to Barkley, so I wouldn’t need to spend as much time on that. I would next focus on being more efficient overall, advancing my compass and navigation skills, and trying to run as fast downhill as Chris does on off-trail descents! I get frustrated sometimes in our training runs because he often leaves me in the dust on tricky descents.

I think all the training and prep was useful. I would say number one, most useful preparation, was the time spent learning how to read maps and learning the terrain layout at the park from the maps. Secondly, getting some time hiking up and running quickly down 30+ grades using the race gear was very beneficial. Thirdly, would probably be the normal miles that I get while exploring mountain trails with big climbs, descents, technical running.

If I was going to put numbers on it, around 50+ miles a week, 15,000’+ of vert a week, and 15+ hours of time on feet a week consistently over the last several months. I would want to increase these numbers for my next attempt to go along with my new goals.

What do you think it will take for a woman to finish the Barkley?

I can see a woman getting a fun run again at some point. I could even see at least one of the women from this year getting a fun run at some point soon. I can’t speak for what slowed the others down as it might be different for each due to their relative strengths and weaknesses.

If a fun run is possible for a woman, I wouldn’t rule out a 5-Loop finish, but I believe it would most likely be an iterative process. The chances of success at Barkley go up with experience in the race and on the course itself. It would have to be someone who is very determined, resilient, strong, skilled at navigation, patient, fast at off-trail terrain, among many other traits. My comments may be naive at this point, but I like to say,”never say never!”

What were your personal goals for the Barkley, and have they changed?

My main goals this year were to face my fears, gain confidence, locate all the books, get to loop 2, and prove Bib 1 wrong [Karen was the Human Sacrifice]! I didn’t get to Loop 2 this time, but I did meet my other goals.

I would love the opportunity to go back out there and improve upon my weaknesses some more! Of course one of my main goals next time would be to complete loop 1 under the time limit. I felt that navigation speed was the limiting factor this year.

You were allowed one support person this year. Was that enough?

Well, considering I didn’t need help transitioning from loop 1 to 2, I didn’t need too much extra assistance during the race itself. Matt Cabbage, who is a fellow ultra-runner and physical therapist, was my crew this year. He was vital in getting food before and after the race, in helping set up our crew area, and most notably, in waiting for me at the fire tower for hours in rain, hail, etc. when I was several hours later than I had anticipated.

I was happy we were allowed to have a crew member, but I did not feel like the limit posed any challenges on me. This was actually the first race I did where I could have a crew so at first I wasn’t sure what to do with him!

What’s the best and/or worst advice past Barkers have gave you?

I’d say you don’t need to stick with a veteran at all costs, like many people say. We had heard that prior to the race, but both Chris and I made it around the course without a veteran. Chris was much faster than me, and he ran mostly by himself yo-yoing with Jared and Luke in the first loop before he succumbed to a hip injury. Best advice was probably to trust the compass. When I stopped relying on it and even doubted it, was where I got in trouble.

What gear choices were you most focused on and what worked / didn’t? How did you protect yourself on Rat Jaw?

Shoes! I spent so much time trying to figure out which shoes I was going to wear. After months of deliberation, I finally decided upon a lineup of shoes with my number one pair determined to be the VJ MAXX. Well…when we got to camp the day before the race, I was doing one last check of all my gear and realized I forgot my number one choice at home. I had a mini-panic and tried to send a text to Matt to see if he could go to my house and get them.

I was explaining the story to Larry Kelley, when I realized Keith Dunn, the race twitter guy, was standing next to me. I was sure he was going to tweet to the world that the Human Sacrifice arrived at the race and forgot her shoes. Luckily, he let that one slide. I relaxed and realized I could wear any of my backup shoes and would be fine. After all, it’s my feet that run the race, not the shoes. I was really happy with the VJ XTRM that I ended up wearing because they were snug around my foot and the lugs dug into the mud well.

A few other gear choices I was glad I used:

The one piece of gear I never used were my Safety glasses. I really wanted to use these but with the rain and fog, they wouldn’t stay clear enough to see. I wore them on top of my head the entire race.

Karen McNeany's Rat Bites at 2021 BFC

Karen McNeany’s Rat Bites at 2020 BFC – Credit Karen McNeany

The briars at Rat Jaw actually aren’t too bad this time of year compared to in the fall at BFC. I had let them go to town on me in the 2020 BFC, and you can see in the photo how much they can beat you up. I won’t let them do that again. I did have knee-high socks and arm sleeves that I wore for the entire race, but I would say the worst briars I got into were at other parts of the course, not Rat Jaw.

What worked or didn’t for hydration and nutrition?

I had prepared bags of 3,600 calories each for 3 loops ahead of time, just in case I made it to loop 3, knowing that was mostly unlikely this time. I included a mix of items: Uncrustables, pb crackers, dates and nuts, Snickers bars, fruit slammers, granola bars, tortillas and cheese. I had two Salomon bottles with filter caps so that I could easily refill at streams along the way. I was happy with those decisions.

I ran out of food after book 9 because I hadn’t expected to be out for 17.5 hours, but I was able to bum two gels and some pb pretzels from other runners on the trail in the last few hours.

How did you prepare for the extreme heat and cold you might experience?

I always go out in whatever conditions there are at the time I’m going for my run, whether it is hot, snowy, raining, etc. So we did train in some weird conditions including post-holing in snow on North Boundary Trail or going up and down a muddy power line near my house in the rain at night. Chris and I didn’t really do anything specific to prepare differently for the weather, besides buy and carry gear that would allow us to adjust to different conditions.

I wore Capri pants, tall socks, shorts sleeve wool shirt, arm sleeves, gloves, and visor for most of the time, and only put on a wind jacket briefly during the hail and on rat jaw. However, I had rain pants, a VBL jacket, an emergency trash compactor bag, wool beanie, wool fleece pullover and buff with me that I never used. I imagine those would have been used on loop two though during the 2nd night if I made it that far.

What was your favorite / least favorite moment in the race?

Karen McKeany Showing Laz L1 Pages

Karen McNeany Showing Laz L1 Pages – Credit Jenny Thorsen

The worst moment was wasting so much time at book 7. I hopefully won’t forget the mistakes I made there so I never make them again.  My best moment was getting book 13 and knowing I was going to make it back to camp with all 13 books–and I’d proven the bib 1 prediction wrong!

About Karen McNeany

Karen McNeany and Chris Hanlon after the 2021 Barkley

Karen McNeany & Chris Hanlon after 2021 Barkley – Credit Matt Cabbage

Karen is an experienced ultra runner, BFC 2020 woman’s winner, and was a Virgin Barker at the 2021 Barkley Marathons. She was also the Human Sacrifice, but proved that designation was 100% wrong. You can see her other results on UltraSignup.

More about the Barkleys

We hope this interview with Karen gave you an appetite for more:


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