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Karen Jackson 2021 Barkley Marathons Interview

KJ in Car

Karen Jackson in Car before Race - Credit KJ

This Karen Jackson 2021 Barkley Marathons interview shows us how an experienced competitor prepares for an ultra, even if the race didn’t go so well. Karen started the Barkley late and ended up injuring herself alone, in the dark, on the first loop. But she brings a great attitude to an otherwise disappointing result, and that’s probably what the Barkley requires more than anything else.

Q&A with Karen Jackson

How did you hear about the Barkley?

I read Charlie Engle’s article in Runner’s World in 2011, even before I ran my first ultra. It stuck with me though:

My name is Charlie and I am addicted to suffering. I have a long and storied history of making poor decisions. As I understand it, the Barkley course is very well marked and should be easy to follow. I love that Barkley even gives medals to runners that just give it their best shot. It’s a lot like doing a local 5K. There really are no losers. – Charlie Engles

I met Gary, Laz, as well as John Fegyveresi in 2013 when I went to crew a friend at Vol State. After that, there was no other option for me but finding out how to apply and trying to get in.

What were you most concerned and excited about?

I was most concerned about my fitness level for climbing. With COVID restrictions, and living in the low country of SC, training specifically for hills was limited almost exclusively to my incline trainer.

I was excited about getting a second chance to make better decisions than my first go at it. Also, as much as I hated the way COVID affected the entrants’ list and how we could interact in camp, I was trying to embrace it as the opportunity to run it more “old school” like in the years before the documentaries started coming out. Just a bunch of mostly American runners showing up to camp, alone, no crew, no media, and navigating around the woods.

None of my expectations or concerns matched what actually happened. If you didn’t already know, I’m the one who started late. I came without a crew, slept in my car, did not hear the conch or any activity in camp, and was awakened by Mike Dobies eight minutes AFTER the start. I started 58 minutes late and was reduced to navigating in the dark and fog alone from the beginning.

My fitness was better than I thought and I moved well until I fell, backwards, sliding twenty feet and breaking my tail bone. However, I was determined to come back with a page, and did that and returned to camp before dark, because knowing that I couldn’t make a loop under cut off or anything close, it was the responsible thing to do.

KJ Bib 49

Karen Jackson #49

What did you emphasize in your application?

I emphasized mental toughness over physical achievements because due to COVID, the year had certainly produced no real notable running accomplishments. But I had dealt with a lot of mental and emotional challenges.

What training worked best?

The incline trainer was awesome. It’s really the only Barkley-specific training I did but prepared me better than I thought.

Was one support person enough?

One support person is plenty. I went with no crew. In order to allow the maximum number of runners, crew had to be fully vaccinated or medically recovered from COVID. No support probably would have been fine if I’d enlisted someone to at least make sure I woke up. There’s not a lot to do except help a runner turn back around quickly to start the next loop.

Did you try to stay with veterans on the first lap?

I certainly intended to. What made this easy / possible / impossible? Missing the conch while sleeping in my apparently sound-proof booth of a car made that impossible.

Would you say the Barkley or Bigs plays more to your strengths?

Bigs, for sure. I’ve had a good run out there before. My first year at Bigs, I was the last woman [standing]. I think it was 27 hours? Maybe we were down to 7 runners or something. Several more dropped almost immediately so I was a little bummed that I had stopped. Gary says “you don’t stop when you can’t run anymore. You stop when you think there’s no one left you can beat.” That was so true. I’m not going to say I wasn’t getting close to also being physically unable to make a loop. I was definitely hurting. But I did have some more in me. I just saw no cracks in those guys yet. I think a few were secretly trying to outlast the last girl.

But yeah, time management, logistics, planning, I love all that stuff. I’m not fast, but I can be consistent for a very long time. I had a friend describe me as a tank once. Which I didn’t think was all that flattering at first. But he said “you have one gear but it seems like you stay in that gear forever!” Anything that levels the playing field and makes managing your resources & being consistent assets over pure speed, like Bigs does, is going to play to my strengths more than Barkley.

At Barkley, speed still can be a huge factor. If you can move fast to make up time you lost looking for a book, you’re more likely to be successful. I was supposed to do a last man standing format race last weekend and was really looking forward to it. Staff issues caused me to have to stay home and work. I think I have an even better Bigs or last man style event in me.

What were your personal goals?

My goal changed over and over as I trained and as I got out there on the course. If you don’t think you’re at least capable of finishing, I don’t think you should be out there. Knowing that every single thing has to go your way to finish, or even to do well, doesn’t mean you think you aren’t capable. I definitely wanted a whole loop, under cut-off, and take it from there. I had a moment of stage fright my first time out and followed the pack when I should have taken a minute to check a compass heading, which led to a snowball effect of getting behind and having to come back to camp without a loop.

KJ Before Your Quit Bag

Do Not Open Until You Feel Like Stopping – Credit KJ

I said when I came back to camp that I threw myself at the mountain and it threw me back, twice. And maybe I should stick with what I’m good at, like Vol State. But being home for some time, and knowing that I was able to get in shape, even with all the restrictions of 2020/2021, I’m slowly warming to the idea of giving it another shot. I definitely think I have a better run in me. My goal would be to take it one loop at a time, but definitely get that first loop under cut off.

Did you get one page of a book? What was the book?

As I was leaving camp alone for loop one, Dobies called out “only one person overslept the conch and started this late before! They didn’t get a page. You’ll do better than that. You can get a page!” here was NO WAY I could return without a page. And one page I got. It was book 1, Going Underground.

I was determined to find a book alone and when I navigated too far to the eastern side of where it’s located, I briefly considered abandoning book one and moving on to book two, with the possibility at that point of maybe encountering other runners. I’ve heard of runners in the past, unable to find a book, just move on and try to get as much of the course as possible before returning to camp. But something about moving on without the first book really bothered me, even though I was closer in proximity at that moment to book 2.

KJ Book One

Karen Jackson Book 1 Page – Credit KJ

I chose to head back to book one, basically from the direction I should have just come from had I found the book and was continuing on. That’s also where I fell, heading to book one, uphill in the opposite direction. My one consolation was that if I was really hurt I knew I was on course and would eventually be found. I think adrenaline carried me after the fall because I didn’t realize how hurt I was until after I was back in camp. My thought process was that I had to get myself out & just get back to camp. From there I knew where the book was and it was daylight, all the features were recognizable. I went straight there, retrieved my page and got on back to camp, mostly laughing about my misadventure.

Did you see another runner when you were out there?

Not even one.

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

Wow. I think probably someone who is okay with being uncomfortably close to cutoffs, working with a small margin for error, to start with. Also, willing to come back enough times to figure out the puzzle.

The weather definitely was a factor, for everyone. It was no more a factor for women than for men. When the only three-time finisher [Jared Campbell] doesn’t finish, you know the conditions were extraordinary. It’s hard to say that no fog, or less fog, would have resulted in any finishers, let alone a female finisher. To point to some factor as being an obstacle for any particular group collectively, other than all runners collectively is patronizing that group.

KJ with Courtney

Karen Jackson with Courtney Dauwalter – Credit KJ

I certainly believe most of the women this year are physically capable of completing Barkley. I imagine every woman’s reason for not finishing is personal and unique. There’s a learning curve to Barkley. Most people never finish, let alone on their first try. One will make it back enough times to fit the pieces together. I hope when a woman does finish, it’s in a nasty weather year and with a horrible start time, so no one can say, “Well, it was the best weather we’ve ever had and the whole first loop plus part of the second were in the light…”

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

“It’s all about the vert,” Hiram Rogers on training for Barkley.

What clothing and gear choices did you focus on?

I concentrated on layering because I knew weather would be a factor, but also I know how hot you can get climbing hard, even in cold weather. I have a pair of Inov8 trail shoes that I’m happy with and wore them in training leading up to get used to wearing shoes and find the hot spots. I pre-taped my feet before falling asleep the night before.

What would you do differently next time?

I was happy with my gear choices. I don’t think I’d do anything different. I dealt with dark, fog, wind, rain, hail and heat in the distance of finding one book and felt I had everything I needed. Rat Jaw was a non-issue since I didn’t make it there, but I wore long tights. I’ve done the BFC a couple of times and that’s plenty of protection.

What about nutrition?

I had pre-measured Sword packets to add to my water, and plenty of snacks, nuts, Cliff bars, PB&J although I’m notoriously bad at not eating enough. I only ate a fraction of my food because I just wanted to keep moving.

How did you prepare for the weather?

I didn’t do any weather-specific training. As I said above, I layered my clothing to have something available for almost any possible weather on a loop and I was satisfied with what I took.

How did it compare to your 100+ mile races, including Vol State?

They are all challenging in their own way, especially when your goal isn’t just to finish, but to improve or compete. But Barkley stands alone. You can’t google map the course and figure out in advance where to shave time. You can’t even go train on most of the actual course. All you can do is study up on navigation, try to train on similar terrain, run BFC. Nothing is familiar until you’ve seen it in person.

It’s nearly impossible to even describe to someone who hasn’t been on the off-trail sections. Barkley is way out of my comfort zone but I can’t make myself give it up. I still want to improve. Knowing that you physically could have gone farther but you couldn’t make sense of the written instructions and map together fast enough is different. I think for most people who DNF another event, some physical issue stopped them. Both times at Barkley my short-coming wasn’t inability to move fast, it was the navigation/interpreting the written instructions.

Could you do the Barkleys in sandals?

No. I’m crazy, not stupid. I have worn my Lunas at BFC and they were fine, but BFC is not Barkley. All the off-trail stuff is too steep/pitched, rocky, covered in loose debris, to be safe when moving quickly.

How did you prepare for Barkley navigation?

Navigation at Barkley is an interesting topic, because there are two parts to it. It’s not orienteering. It’s putting general map & compass reading together with written descriptions of what you *should* be looking at or for. If you don’t know how to read topographical features and navigate in a general direction with a compass, you’re in big trouble.

Even excellent navigators have been unable to find the books due to their inability to properly interpret Gary’s written instructions. I’ve never been lost in the sense that I didn’t know where I was in relation to camp. But I’ve spent hours in the general area of a book and not been able to find it.

One other funny thing about pairing the map with the written instructions is you can convince yourself that your compass is wrong when the terrain doesn’t match what you think the turns sheets say. It’s one reason virgins rely heavily on veterans to get them around the course the first time.

Did you have an interloopal rest plan?

Other than planning to get a first loop and take it from there, no. The course is hard enough that I thought getting any loops after the first would be without any rest other than repacking my gear to head out.

What were your best and worst moments in the race?

Being handed a train conductor’s style pocket watch was certainly one of the funniest moments. I can only imagine what my expression was. Gary reached over to show me how to open it and I heard someone say “I think she knows HOW to open it. She just can’t believe that’s the watch.”

Barkley 2021 Medical Tent

Barkley 2021 Medical Tent – Credit KJ

My worst moment is probably a tie between falling backward and realizing I might actually be injured, and getting on the marked trail to go back to camp but inexplicably turning the wrong way. The only time I really got down on myself over how the day had gone was when I realized I was going the wrong way in the one place that should have been “easy.” I think it’s the only time I teared up a little. I remember thinking, “Geez, I can’t even quit right.” Other than that, I had really just taken my lumps and tried to enjoy the day, navigating alone “out there.”

More about Karen Jackson

Karen is an experienced ultra marathon runner, including 72 hour events and two finishes at the Vol State 500k. Her YouTube channel also includes gear advice for Vol State runners:

There’s no doubt she’ll be back to face the Barkley again, hopefully cracking the window in her car so she can hear the conch. 🙂

What’s your greatest non-Barkley ultra accomplishment?

Oh man, that’s hard. Maybe just the whole summer of 2017 where I strung together good performances at high mileage events and planned/attended my daughter’s wedding. June 2017, Nathan Dewey and I became the first ever finishers of the Hell Hole Hundred Devil’s Door Knob 2012 mile trail run. I think there’s still only one other person who has finished the summer version. Then in the end of June/early July Nathan hosted a “virtual Strava segment” event that I did well in.

Followed by a big wedding for my daughter, Sallie, on July 2. July 4th I had my best result at the Big Butt 50k in Lancaster, SC (and first woman). It’s a hot, all paved 50k in the upstate, super low key & old school, set up in Claude Sinclair’s front yard. Then about a week later I went up to TN for Vol State, where I ran my best time so far: 5:07:08:26. I’ve stretches of big mileage events really close together before. But they weren’t necessarily all good performances. Summer of 2017 everything was a good performance, even going back to Strolling Jim in May that year. None of them were about “Just finishing.”

What’s your next big goal for 2021/2022?

I still haven’t given up on a sub-5 day Vol State, or 5 days flat. I think I’m back in that kind of shape again. It takes a lot of planning and hard work, but also a little luck during the race. I’m not ready to stop trying just yet. And I’d like another really good performance at ARFTA where I manage all the hours I have. It’s been a few years since I put in a 100% effort there. I start having so much fun out there and do a lot of socializing and let my goals slide and end up taking a long nap some time during the event. I’d like to finish it again exhausted because I moved every minute I could and was totally efficient with my breaks.

More about the Barkleys

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



  1. Cassie Headden

    Hello! I am producing a documentary about Karen and wanted to include this article in it, please feel free to reach out/reply so we can get in touch.

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