2017 Barkley Marathons Training

One of the first questions I normally get asked when people find out I’ve done / am doing the Barkley Marathons, is how I train for something like that. My training has evolved over the years, from 2015 when I had no idea what I was doing and just ran every hill I could find all the time at any time of day no matter the impact to personal life, to this year when I had a very set routine and fit my training around family and job rather than vice versa.

I also take a bit of a different approach to it, in that I do place a priority on mileage and intensity in addition to elevation. I think that over the year’s the pendulum has swung so far towards just focusing on elevation and nothing else that a lot of people spend their training hiking / walking up and down hills without any actual running. This could be debated ad nauseam, and there are too few datapoints from finishers to draw any real conclusions, but I believe that you have to do a significant amount of running and have some amount of high intensity work as well. Your body needs to be able to take the mileage, and your VO2max and lactate threshold have to remain high enough so that you’re not bumping into them when you do run (if you want to have a chance, you have to run whenever there’s an opportunity) or when you’re going up Rat Jaw with a full pack in hot temperatures.

Barkley has so many different physical demands, that I fear focusing on a single area is likely to result in failure. Of course all I’ve done so far myself is fail, and this could also be me trying to justify the fact that I don’t live in the mountains and the only way I have time to train on weekdays is to run to/from work on a relatively flat route. I get most of my mileage in on the weekends with a combination of long sets of short hill repeats and an incline treadmill. Essentially, my entire Barkley training block consists of the three runs and the traditional capstone described below. I don’t know if this is optimal, but to me it seems to be optimal for the time and resources that I have.

My total training this year, from January 1 until Fool’s weekend, was just over 1,000 miles with over a quarter million feet of climbing. Unfortunately probably about 40% of that climbing was on a treadmill, though, so my descent does not equal my ascent. The max distance and elevation below doesn’t reflect the 112 mile / 30K ft TWOT100 practice race I did in early February (awesome race by the way), which I saved as four separate runs on my watch.

Run 1 – Commute through Rock Creek Park

I have the incredible fortune of being able to run to and from work. It uses time that I would otherwise be sitting on a metro (and saves me money from the ridiculous WMATA fares at the same time), and it’s perfectly fine if I show up to the office sweaty, wet, or muddy from a run. I also am able to do most of the run through Rock Creek Park. The shortest route is just over 16 miles, with about 3 miles on road, 8 miles on bike path, and 5 miles on trail. It has roughly 1,500 feet of elevation gain (depending on the direction). I can of course make the route as long as I want, but generally stick with the one route due to time constraints. Effort varies all the way from easy recovery to high intensity intervals.

It’s amazing to have such a great route cutting through a dense metropolitan area where most people are stuck in horrible traffic. The daily time on the trail gives me exactly the recharge I need from work. On a typical week, I do this run 4 times usually. Occasionally I’ll do it twice in one day and go up to 6 times for the week.

Run 2 – Lake Bernard Frank Hills

One thing I originally did for Barkley training is to get on Google maps and find the tightest contour lines I could find in my area, and then narrowed those hills down based on accessibility and distance from my house. For the past two years, I’ve relied on a hill about 2 miles from my house that’s about 95 feet up over 0.05 miles. I do it 10 times to get 950 feet and one mile. It gets pretty monotonous, but it gets the job done. Getting both steep ascent and descent on proper terrain is invaluable to me in strengthening those stabilizing muscles that don’t use as much use on asphalt or treadmill.

If you look at the picture below you’ll see a trail. That wasn’t there before me, which is one of many reasons why training off trail in Frozen Head is strictly prohibited.

Run 3 – Treadmill at 20% Incline

There’s really not much to explain here. I absolutely hate running on the treadmill, and this is the first year I’ve done it. The upside is that I’ve caught up on quite a bit of TV that I haven’t otherwise watched at all for the past three years. The real motivation here, though, is that it allows me to stay home one day on the weekend so that my wife can get out of the house or catch up on sleep or whatever else she needs to do while the kids nap or play in the room right next to me.

Capstone – The Mar Lu Marathon

When I was scouting hills in 2015 I landed on Mar Lu Ridge. It gives about 550 feet of elevation gain in half a mile. It’s not as steep as my hill near my house, but it’s 10 times as long and comes with some great views (on a clear day you can make out the Washington Monument about 40 miles away). The main problem is it’s about a 45 minute drive, so doing that once or twice every weekend like I did in 2015 before we had kids is out of the question. I’ve gone back each of the past two years for my final big run, though, to do 26 repeats. That gives me roughly a marathon of hill repeats with around 14K ft of elevation gain.

Southern view: on a clear day you can see all the way down to the Washington Monument 40 miles away

This year the size of the field at the Mar Lu Marathon doubled, with Mike Wardian joining me. It was great to have some company out there and to share one of my favorite training spots with someone. Hopefully it gave us both what we needed. He even came to the traditional post-race meal with me at Sonic (to further simulate Barkley of course), but we unfortunately found that they really don’t have anything to offer vegetarians other than drinks / desserts and sides. I guess those are by far the best items that Sonic has to offer, though.

Northern view: the point where the river goes between the ridge in the background is Harper’s Ferry
Oh Butterfinger Blast, how I love you

 Addendum – Cross Training

In order to try to not entirely lose my bike and swimming fitness and form over the winter, I did do one day a week this year of a short strength session, followed by a swim and a ride on the trainer. I also use that as my “recovery” day from running. I don’t expect the swimming will help much at all (maybe a little with core strength), but I actually have some hope that the biking and strength training helped get my quads in better shape for Barkley, as those have been the first muscles to start feeling fatigue both of the last two years.

28 thoughts on “2017 Barkley Marathons Training

  • March 29, 2017 at 4:16 pm
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    Good luck dude! This is really the first year I’ll be following the Barkley in more or less real time (found out about it while it was going on last year).

    One day I hope I might toe the starting line

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  • March 31, 2017 at 7:05 am
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    Really interesting to see how you approach this. It shows a lot of discipline and determination. I’m sure it’ll pay off this weekend. Enjoy!

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    • April 5, 2017 at 11:37 pm
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      Thank you. It was definitely very fulfilling to have hard work pay off like that.

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  • April 2, 2017 at 7:55 am
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    I have so much respect for The Barkley and those who attempt it. I am following you and Gary closely via twitter. Here’s to a finish! But outside of that, another profound Barkley experience.

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    • April 5, 2017 at 11:35 pm
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      Thank you very much. The finish was incredible and the race was definitely a profound experience, one that I’m still processing.

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  • April 3, 2017 at 4:01 am
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    If not for one of my IG friends’ post that she was running Barkley, I wouldn’t have researched or followed #BM100 further. I read little info about it last year. I run marathons but no ultra yet (hoping next year). Thanks for sharing your trainings (very informational). Good luck to you & Gary (sending good vibes on your last loop)!

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    • April 5, 2017 at 11:31 pm
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      Thank you! I hope you enjoyed following the race and best of luck with starting your own ultra training

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  • April 3, 2017 at 1:32 pm
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    Congrats, John. Amazing perseverance and dedication. Respect. 🙂

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  • April 3, 2017 at 1:56 pm
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    Awesome post bro. Just found you on Twitter via the Marathons.

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  • April 3, 2017 at 6:57 pm
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    Congratulations on your amazing accomplishment!! Barkley2017!

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  • April 3, 2017 at 10:12 pm
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    Congrats on your unbelievable finish! I was glued to Twitter all weekend and I had a feeling that you were going to finish under the 60. It looks like all your smart training paid off. God speed!

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    • April 5, 2017 at 11:26 pm
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      Thank you! It was definitely a close call, and I don’t know that I could have gotten a single book more, so I definitely wouldn’t have gotten it without good training.

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  • April 3, 2017 at 10:56 pm
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    It was amazing to get the updates on you throughout the weekend – major congrats – what an unbelievable accomplishment. Would love to know how you handled nutrition over the 59.30 hrs. And your wife is incredible too – I would have been a wreck

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    • April 5, 2017 at 11:23 pm
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      Thank you! I’ll be sure to describe nutrition in my race report, but essentially it consists of Hammer fuels as a base plus a wide variety of homemade “real” food to be sure I always have what I’m craving when I need it. It’s taken a lot of learning over the years to get it right.

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  • April 4, 2017 at 8:15 pm
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    Congratulations on a phenomenal result and Thanks for insights Jon. I too am a triathlete who has come across to the ultra world with ambitions to do Barkley. I have started what I think is a 3 year plan to get there.

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    • April 5, 2017 at 11:19 pm
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      Thank you! I consider myself an ultrarunner who has temporarily come across into the triathlon world, but I definitely enjoy both sports. Best of luck with your plan, and it is good that you’re thinking so far ahead.

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  • April 5, 2017 at 10:22 am
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    I love how simple your training plan is – thanks for laying it out so clearly! Of course, simple is not at all the same thing as easy. I cannot imagine running on an inclined treadmill (or a flat treadmill, for that matter!) for almost 4 hours. That is insane. In a good way, of course.

    Congrats on Barkley!

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    • April 5, 2017 at 11:16 pm
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      Thank you! I hate the treadmill too, but I built up a tolerance to it (and caught up on a ton of TV, which I otherwise haven’t watched at all in years now).

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  • April 11, 2017 at 3:40 am
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    Hi!

    I must say that I was truly amazed when I read about your running. 4-5 hours of hill reps in different formats and treadmill? I mean, I couldn’t even imagine that. I’m a decent runner (and triathlete) with a standalone Marathon on ~2:45 but my training isn’t even worth thinking about when I saw this. You truly inspire, I hope I get the chance to test my mental capability at the Barkley some day.

    Best of luck with the rest of the season and upcoming training! And congrats on your result at Barkley of course! 🙂

    /Jonathan

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    • April 11, 2017 at 11:13 am
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      Thank you! Different training for different events, and for a triathlon or a marathon what I did for Barkley certainly isn’t necessary (or even good, really). Best of luck with your own training and with wherever your racing takes you!

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  • April 13, 2017 at 5:54 pm
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    Amazing job at the Barclays! What treadmill do you train on? Most that I’ve used previously don’t go up to 20%. Thanks.

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    • April 13, 2017 at 11:26 pm
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      Thank you! It’s an old Craigslist special NordicTrack X5i. It goes up to 40%. It only goes down to -3%, though, so not very effective for downhill training.

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  • April 19, 2017 at 7:19 pm
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    Hey John, As an someone who is trying to get the right balance of training and family (2 kids, a 3.5 year old and 7 week old), it is incredibly inspiring to see you pull off something like Barkley without sacrificing what is really important. To know someone who works and has kids can achieve the near impossible is awesome, and gives me hope and inspiration to keep chasing my goals! Keep up the good work and thank you!

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    • April 19, 2017 at 10:48 pm
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      Thank you very much! It’s a delicate balance for sure and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tough, but with careful planning and communication it’s possible. It’s not just about minimizing the impact of training on the amount of time together but also focusing on maximizing the quality of time together. Best of luck with your goals!

      Reply

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