Huddled around a fire at 2am with other crew members from all corners of the world, we waited anxiously for Laz to come crawling out of the back of the Uhaul truck where he slept, signaling the start of the 2023 Barkley Marathons. While the campground at Frozen Head is small and the chance of missing the conch is slim, there is still that chance. Myself and the others waiting around that fire in the early morning hours did not want to be responsible for our runner missing the start of something they have likely dedicated years of training and planning to be a part of.
This year I was fortunate to be crewing for my friend Tomo Ihara at a race that I myself have dreamed about starting. This race has occupied a corner of my mind since I began trail running over 15 years ago. The chance to actually be at the race and watch it unfold was a truly special opportunity and I jumped at the chance to support Tomo. I met Tomo at the Hurt 100 in 2013 and since then we have raced several 100’s together, including pacing him to a sub 24 hour finish at Hurt in 2020, right before the world shut down.
Tomo might not be as well known in the US as some of the other big names on the Barkley Marathons start list this year, but if you know his resume he is truly one of the strongest ultra runners in the world when it comes to pushing the absolute boundaries of what is possible. He has completed 60+ 100 milers around the world with the ultimate goal of running at least a hundred 100-milers. To give a sense of his ability and preparation for Barkley he won the 2023 edition of Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge– a 298km race–and did so in an inspiring fashion where during the race he took the time to make sure a fellow competitor could continue safely in the difficult conditions. In a world full of disappointing figures in sport, Tomo is someone you can safely emulate.
While the conch never blew that night or in those early morning hours, the crews that stayed awake got a chance to get to know each other before the race began. In particular, I got to know Naresh Kumar, who I recognized from when I raced the Barkley Fall Classic last year and is a critical part of Laz’s race staff. Naresh shared his story around the fire that night, growing up in poverty in India, and the work he had to do to get to where he is today. There was a complete sense of awe in the few of us huddled around the fire as we learned what he had overcome and what he has accomplished in his life.
The race finally got underway that morning at 9:54am, which marked the start of a multi day cycle where I would prepare gear, clothing, and food for the next lap. If time permitted between grabbing a few hours of sleep, I would make the run up to the tower to see Tomo pass through the one spot where we were able to view our runners on course. On my first trip to the tower I was fortunate to run into Micahel Brower, who was up the first night awaiting the starting signal with me. Michael is a purist in his respect for this race and someone who shared a great deal with me over those few days including a Reny DIPA from his brewery in Muskegon, Michigan (it was excellent). He let me know that while at the tower it is fine to clap, but better to reserve yourself to the role of a spectator in the truest sense possible with the athletes, as the runners are not to receive aid in any form.
Tomo nailed his navigation and pacing plan through the first lap and with a navigation error on his second lap where he mostly navigated solo through the night. Tomo at this point had about 90 minutes he was hoping to scrape back as he started his third lap in the daylight. If he were to make it to the finish of this 3rd lap within the cutoff it would mark his 2nd time achieving a “Fun Run” at the Barkley Marathons. It should be clear that although the title is Fun Run, making it that far in this race is truly an epic effort where actually finishing all 5 laps of this race threads the very needle of impossible.
I caught my second look at Tomo at the tower and saw he was moving strong and determined as he made the climb up Rat Jaw now over 27 hours into the race. I was left feeling excited with how he was moving, but the coach in me knew that there was a chance that he might be pushing too hard here to make up for lost time due to a navigation error that first night. I jogged the park trail back to the campground leaving me with hours to go before I could expect to see him touch the yellow gate again so I used this time to make a trip into town to grab a few things.
Throughout this race and leading up to it Tomo had a camera crew from Japan filming a documentary on his Barkley journey with the goal of capturing what this race is and what it means to him. Sho Fujimaki and Norichika Inoue had spent the days prior to the race filming and interviewing runners and locals about the race. Both had been awake throughout Monday night as well, hoping to capture the energy in the campground as runners prepared to start the Barkley. Sho and Nori worked continuously throughout the entire event and that late afternoon on Wednesday might have been the first time those two slept more than 15 minutes as they were continuously filming trying to capture the essence of this race.
I spent the late afternoon and early evening hanging out with Larry Kelly, someone who also plays a critical role in the execution of the races there in Frozen Head and someone I recognized from the Barkley Fall Classic but never had the opportunity to really get to know. It got dark again in camp and the clock continued to run and this is the point in the race where a lot of the athletes who missed earlier cutoffs join the crew around the fire. The number of runners continues to dwindle – destined to become even smaller.
Being in campsite 6 had its advantages, as it was further away from the gate so it offered a nice separation from the constant buzz around the start/finish area, but with the time slipping away at this point in the race it became apparent that our normal interloopal routine would not be possible. I watched as Jasmin Paris completed her 3rd loop and did her transition in the barricaded area just in front of the gate before starting her 4th lap with minutes to spare.
This was the moment where I realized we would not have time to resupply Tomo the way we had previously if he were to come running into camp in those next few minutes before the cutoff to start Loop 4. I ran to the campsite and into our tent and threw everything I had laid out for his transition into loop 4 into a bag, and grabbed a bowl of soup and the hot food I had prepared and put in tinfoil next to the fire to stay warm. Within minutes of getting back to the gate Tomo arrived, completing his 3 loop and notching his 2nd official fun run in 35:55:24. Our interloopal transition times, not including the time it took to walk to campsite 6, were 15 minutes and 10 minutes previously, but this transition would prove to be the most difficult. In my own racing I have always viewed time spent in aid stations as time wasted when you could be moving forward, but with the scale of what it takes to make sure you have everything to complete a loop at Barkley at night and to do so safely is a whole separate challenge.
While Tomo inhaled what would have been his 7th bowl of noodle soup I had made for him, I dumped the contents of his pack with my checklist on the ground and started the process of getting him back out on course before being timed out. Those few minutes were a blur between replacing headlamp batteries and changing out shoes and a broken pole. He stood and we got his jacket and race vest on and continued to triple check his gear and calories as he made his way to touch the gate and begin his 4th loop. He began his 4th loop in 35:59:37. With 23 seconds to spare Tomo was once again on his way to pursuing his dream of finishing the Barkley Marathons.
This is where I first got to see how fine the needle needs to be thread if you expect to finish this race. After the excitement of what has to be one of the fastest interloopals in Barkley history, other crew and runners asked me how he looked. I had no idea. I caught maybe one glimpse of his eyes and they were the eyes of someone who had just done something that would be impossible to almost anyone, but also knew that they faced another loop of solo night navigation and two full laps for an official finish. I waited by the fire for the next 2 hours waiting to see his headlamp coming back into camp either because I forgot a critical piece of gear or he had done the math and realized that making the cutoff for lap 4 had become impossible.
I got a few more hours of sleep when he did not return and woke up again to a message from Sho, one of the cameramen, saying he made the decision to drop halfway through lap 4. He continued to push and navigate throughout the night and into the early morning hours until he knew for certain he would be well outside the time limit for completing loop 4 officially.
As he made his way back via standard park trails and to the gate to receive his taps, I got to really see how he was doing. It is difficult to convey or summarize the amount of training and planning and studying and total overall cost of pursuing a Barkley Marathons finish. The closest analogy I have come up with is that finishing a regular 100 mile trail race is like graduating high school, while completing the Barkley Marathons is like graduating from a Phd program and then being asked to build a rocket to send someone to the moon and back.
Tomo showered and changed and we all sat by our campsite fire with Sho and Nori still filming, as their job was still far from being over. After a few moments of staring into the flames Tomo said, “room to dream.” Those words would bounce around my head for the next few days. Anyone who has given themselves completely to pursuing something and then has come up short knows the true weight of that failure. He had come so close to actually realizing his dream but even in that sleep deprived state he was still able to conceptualize that while he had given everything he could he was still left with the dream that someday he would finish the Barkley Marathons.
This park in rural Tennessee is not a place where dreams go to die but instead a place that offers runners the chance to dream of going beyond the boundary of what they believe is possible.