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Ashley Blake 2021 Barkley Marathons Interview

Ashley Blake Climbing Rat Jaw

Ashley Blake Climbing Rat Jaw - Credit Ryan Davis

In this Ashley Blake 2021 Barkley Marathons interview, we hear from a Virgin Barker who brought years of ultra-running experience and BFC training to the Big Barkley. With only four weeks of training, she finished a full loop just slightly over-time, and learned some great lessons in the process.

Ashley Blake 2021 Barkley Q&A

How did you first hear about the Barkley?

I first heard of the Barkley from acquaintances asking me if I’d run it, knowing that I was a trail ultrarunner. There are few events that ask a runner to perform on the razor’s edge of human possibility. His events beg me to dream, to aspire to more than I currently am.

What most concerned or excited you going in?

One concern going in, since I only had four-weeks notice, was getting enough vertical training since I had been training for a flat 100 miler, not mountain running. I also needed to learn to accurately use a compass. My map reading skills were ready and I’ve been to the park countless times over the past decade. That foundation really helped balance the many other obstacles to solve. From being verified I was in the race to lighting of the match I was plagued with preparations, training, studying and learning. Even now weeks later, I am still having Barkley dreams.

Laz with Ashley

Laz with Ashley – Credit Stephanie Johnson

What did you emphasize in your Barkley application?

I actually never read any other application letters before writing my own. I think that was good for me, to help keep mine authentic and original to me. I’ve only seen one other letter. Laz has his own reasons for selecting a runner, which is the real mystery. I wouldn’t advise applicants to read other letters looking to copy a style or format to get inspiration; that part comes from your core.

What training worked best and maybe didn’t work so well?

Steep mountain repeats with a weighted vest were great. I am a big fan of visualization. I spent a lot of time at nights reading the map while visualizing the orientation and land features that would be surrounding me.

Ashley Studying Course Map

Ashley Studying Course Map (Redacted) – Credit Ryan Davis

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

I am calling on every woman who has the tiniest of dreams to enter, to apply with fervor and self-confidence. Women be bold. Show up at the gate with honed skills, physically prepared and mentally focused on finishing 5 loops. The mountains and weather are no respecter of persons. And that’s why we haven’t had one yet. But we will. We have a generation of female athletes applying and racing right now that all of history has never seen the likes of. Any one of them could have completed 5 loops this year. Unfortunately loop times across the board were hours slower due to weather, that’s the Barkley.

Ashley on Rat jaw

Ashley on Rat Jaw – Credit Kajsa Swanson

What were your personal goals for the Barkley?

My personal goal is to wring the most out of living as I can. That didn’t change at the Barkley, I felt very present with all that came my way. I wanted to tear every one of my pages from it’s binding and I did. I would have been over the moon to start a second loop, I fell short of that. I will apply again and again and again. I know some things now that I want to work on to keep pushing my very outer limit.

Was one support person enough?

To me one person is enough. I preferred having one person that knew all the details, gear and goals as much as I did. Yet, there are runners that don’t have anyone by choice.

What’s the best advice past Barkers have gave you?

I received sage advice from several other Barkers. Some of the first advice I got from Liz Canty was, to buy all the waterproof and windproof gear. I quickly upgraded a bunch of my kit. I didn’t want the limiting factor of my success to be gear.

Ashley at the Start

Ashley at the Start – Credit Ryan Davis

What was your favorite moment in the race?

I savored the moments that were unique to the race. For instance, I had never seen a ribbon of headlamps climbing Bird Mountain, or watched the sunset and the glow of the distant city lights from Chimney Top trail, because the park is closed during dark hours. It was a treasured experience seeing the quiet private spaces of the park that 40 lucky people get the privilege of traversing, since off-trail travel is prohibited year round.

Ashley & Team Touch the Gate

Ashley & Team Touch the Gate – Credit Ryan Davis

Did you try to stay with veterans on the 1st lap?

I had settled into my sustainable pace and quickly made a friend climbing. By the time we had made it to the top of the first mountain three veterans joined us. Several books later we added two more runners. Our group was a very jovial bunch, enjoying the day as it unfolded. The veterans taught as they relied on their skill and experience. I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world than on that course that day. I charged myself with keeping up, no matter the circumstance.

How ’bout hydration and nutrition?

I had my electrolyte mix and enough calories for 24 hrs, you never know what the day will bring. My snacks included performance gels, pizza, chocolate chip cookies, snack mix, chocolate covered nuts, gummies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pistachios . My mouth gets lonely, it needs food to chew. I like having options, salty and sweet, gels and ‘real’ food for deep hunger. Also, two water filter caps.

What clothing and gear choices were you most focused on?

I selected shoes that were very aggressive on the bottom, but when weather broke down surface conditions I still found myself sliding. I have run BFC three times and let the briars go to town. Being tired of that experience, I bought orienteering gaiters for the Marathons. They allowed me to not think twice about briars, I needed that bandwidth to focus on other things. In my pack, I made sure I had waterproof and windproof gear and layers to stave of hypothermia and harsh conditions.

Runners in the Rain

Taps in the Rain – Credit Ryan Davis

How did you prepare for extreme heat and cold?

The weather swings a lot in the crazy Bermuda Triangle of Frozen Head; sunny and dripping sweat in a t-shirt in the afternoon to hail to shivering in dark rainy fog. That’s when a pack with weather proof layers is essential. I did nearly all my training in the dark early mornings and I don’t allow any weather excuses. Race day doesn’t care if it’s ugly out. That has taught me to be adaptive, and rely on great gear.

In 2018, you and a friend found a litter of five puppies while training for BFC. How are the dogs doing today?

The families and I have a group chat to celebrate their ‘gotcha day’ and share their cute photos and habits. Another Barkley racer this year adopted one of the puppies and has his own Barkley the dog. My friend and training partner adopted his own Barkley, who I get to see now and again. All the dogs have spoiled rotten lives never needing for love and attention, which is just how it should be.

How has the Barkley changed you?

Barkley training and racing has changed how I move through parks. I used to follow a trail with tunnel vision, observing only the things in close proximity and moving on autopilot. Now I am watching for land features and feeling the topography change under my feet. Which makes me feel small in comparison to the mature forest and majestic mountains. It has brought a deeper sense of wonder for mother nature.

My Barkley experience has also illustrated for me that taking a chance on myself is worth it. I didn’t think I would get in but applied anyway. Had I made a decision based out of fear or anxiety I would have missed out in a big way. I wonder what life will dish out next as I keep throwing a caution to the wind.

About Ashley Blake

Ashley at the Yellow Gate

Ashley at the Yellow Gate – Credit Ryan Davis

Ashley is an experienced ultra-runner and Frozen Head local who spends her spare time setting¬†Fastest Known Times (FKTs), when she’s not out saving puppies. We can’t wait to see her Out There again in 2022 and beyond…

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