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Greig Hamilton on the Berkley Marathons  
By Christo Peters - Sat 2 Jul 2022 8:43pm
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If you think “Rip a page from a book” might make a change from SI Air, and maps with minimal or inaccurate vegetation could be fun, then the Berkley Marathon might be your event. It has worldwide notoriety, and a small hardy field of entrants in a ‘last man standing’ style-event that not many finish – only 15 runners have completed it in 36 years.
The race director Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell has been quoted saying, “To be successful at Barkley you have to do 1,000 things right and you can’t afford any major mistakes.”
Harvey Lewis, another race participant, discusses the navigation: It was “the most concern leading up to the race. I tripled my skills since November but on a scale of 1 to 10, with the average person perhaps at a 3, I’m still a 5, and someone like Greig Hamilton and a handful of others are a 10 in this domain. He was spot on with navigation. One has to be really quick, differentiate seemingly minute details, and make no catastrophic mistakes. “

Greig Hamilton gave this race another crack earlier this year, so we asked him to answer a few questions about a race that is a bit of an enigma, as it really doesn’t have much in the way of coverage.

So when did you first attempt the Barkley Marathons? Do you know anyone else personally who has done it? What made you head there for the first time? I first attempted Barkley back in 2019. I knew Matt Bixley had been to the race in 2015 and had managed a couple of loops and I’d talked to him about the race. I’d known about the race for a long time before this and found the race intriguing. It took a number of years before I finally felt I had enough experience and was at a level where I thought I might have a chance of finishing or at least doing well. During this time I spent time researching how to apply for the race, so once I finally decided to enter I had everything I needed. The interesting thing with the race is that each time someone finishes, the course gets harder, so had I entered when I first found out about the race the course would have been noticeably easier. The reason for wanting to do the race was to see if I could complete the course. I felt fairly confident I had most of the skills required but I was curious with how I’d go and what I’d learn about myself and potentially what weaknesses might be exposed that I would need to work on. Really it was a chance to discover a bit about myself.

What sort of training locally in Christchurch do you do in preparation for this?  What was your weekly training like? My training was pretty standard, the usual 120 mile weeks with up to 10,000m of climbing and several track interval sessions per week. In reality, I mainly focused on running consistently in the months leading up to the race. Most of my runs were in the 1hr-2.5hr range on the Port Hills in Christchurch. I only did a couple of longer day trips which were a good chance to test out food and make sure my feet were in good condition. I got a reasonable amount of vert in each week just from running on the hills most days, I didn’t really resort to doing hill repeats or anything like that as it’s mind numbingly boring. And just in case it wasn’t obvious I never did 120 mile weeks with 10,000m of climbing. 🙂

The navigation part of it, what is it like? We have heard the forest has quite low vis with lots of undergrowth, and challenges on the vert. The navigation is both easy and hard. If you’re a competent navigator, reasonably fresh and it’s day time then it’s not too bad. Once night falls and it starts to rain it gets harder because everything looks different and it’s so cold that you need to be able to navigate and fix mistakes without stopping. Then with the rain, there is usually thick fog and both times visibility has dropped to only a few metres. This makes things significantly harder because now you’re cold, wet and most of the features you were previously using to navigate by are hidden. It also requires a different technique to avoid getting lost, lots more compass bearings and being able to judge how far you’ve climbed or descended. Finally after a day or so you’ll start to get mentally tired from the constant concentration and then things that were trivial on loop 1 are now massively harder, you’ll start making mistakes and because you’re tired you won’t realise straight away so they’ll be big mistakes and because you’re tired it’s harder to work out what’s happened so it takes longer to fix up. So overall the navigation starts out reasonably easy but by the end it feels really hard. Another twist is loops 3 and 4 are done in reverse and the navigation is quite a lot more tricky in that direction but you don’t get to experience it until you’re already sleep deprived.

Physically and mentally how does it compare to other adventure races you have done?  It’s similar and different to an adventure race. One of the big differences is that you’re part of a team in an adventure race. At Barkley this year I was with others for the first 12hrs then by myself for the next 1.5 days. You have to be very internally motivated to keep pushing when you’re by yourself and also comfortable alone in remote areas. Being alone and having to navigate the whole time means there is a constant mental load and no chance to switch off to recover. In an adventure race if you’re tired you can often let someone else navigate for an hour and you can just follow along without really thinking, this isn’t possible at the Barkley, there is no down time. Physically the races are similar, you have to be able to move fast over steep rough terrain, the intensity at Barkley is quite a bit higher, this is partly due to it being shorter than an adventure race and partly due to the incredibly tight cutoffs.

Did you meet Laz?  What did you think of him? Has he created a monster event that is getting harder than in the past?  Yes I met Laz, we didn’t get to chat much this time. I like Laz, he’s a very intelligent person and he wants to see everyone do their best. I think he’s often portrayed as someone who’s trying to make the runners suffer but that’s not the case at all. The race is getting harder but that’s not his doing really, it’s the fault of the finishers. He only really increases the difficulty each time someone finishes. The course changes slightly each year but it stays at about the same difficulty. There have only been two people to finish the course in the last nine years and the last finisher was five years ago, both have attempted the new course multiple times and neither have gotten past a fun run. The course has definitely increased in difficulty since the last finish but it doesn’t appear to be impossible, maybe just improbable. 

What are your thoughts after finishing this time, do you think you would try it again? Would your family let you escape a third time?  I really enjoyed the race and also catching up with those involved in the event. I felt the first 2.5 laps went well and there was a possibility of finishing, then I had a few small misjudgments which compounded and my chances of finishing evaporated. From the family perspective it’s a massive commitment from Clare as she’s left at home looking after three young kids and working for two weeks while I’m off having fun. That’s far harder than the race and there is very little recognition or reward for doing it. So if anyone wants to follow me at the race again then I’ll gladly accept all child minding offers for next March 🙂

Greig Hamilton answers questions from Joolz
Photos by Sam Hartman

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