New on Sidetracked:

Touching the Gate

In Conversation with Jasmin Paris on the Barkley Marathons
Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by Jacob Zocherman

‘It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it was kind of fun as well.’

All eyes in the ultrarunning world were waiting for updates from the media-darkened Barkley Marathons, as news came that Jasmin Paris was starting the fifth loop – the first woman to ever make it this far. Finishers are rare in this 60-hour event, where many of the world’s most decorated ultrarunners succumb to the course’s peculiarities, including no use of technology, no route markings, changeable weather, and hostile terrain. When Jasmin started her fifth and final loop, only 17 individuals had ever ‘touched the gate’: the finish line of the Barkley.

‘It’s not a race where you’re only touching the ground with your feet,’ Jasmin tells me with the hint of a smile. ‘There’s a lot of physical contact between you and what you’re running through. Climbing or descending the steep hills, you’re either pulling on or hanging onto trees. There’s deadfall lying across the path that you have to throw yourself over or crawl your body under. You slide down muddy gullies towards little streams that you try to jump over. You fall over a lot. In between you might get a few seconds of normal running, but then something comes and you’re back to this obstacle course.

‘The brambles scratch you everywhere. They grab your shoes and socks, and your feet end up carrying so much of the forest with them. The brambles get caught on you, too; they pull at your legs and even wrap around your neck or get in your ears, and you have to keep pulling them off. I remember looking down at my arm and seeing my skin tented up where a thorn had grabbed me and hadn’t let go – I had to release myself from it.’

By the time Jasmin began her fifth loop, her body was already wearing the toll of four compounding loops, and it was showing. Tendonitis on her left side caused her to limp, and she recalls removing a sock at the end of one of the loops to discover blisters so bad that skin was hanging off in places. But there was no spare time to address that – she simply put her shoes back on and tried her best to ignore the discomfort.

It hardly sounds like a nice run. Fighting against the hostilities of the Frozen Head State Park forest through the cold nights and hot days. Holding a compass in one hand and removing brambles with the other. Always racing against incredibly tight cut-off times while trying to find the books – tearing a page indicating their own race number as the only proof of completing the course. While most of the world’s grandest ultra-races boast high mountains and famous vistas, the Barkley seems to only pride itself in how deeply grim the experience is.

‘Actually, there were so many butterflies. It’s something I remember really well – I called my dad right after I finished and told him about that. We have lost so much biodiversity at home that we hardly see butterflies any more, so I was mesmerised by them. Also, being alone in the forest on that last lap was special. I expected to see people at certain points, like the final kilometres, but I realised they were all at the finish waiting. The forest then felt like a stage, all quiet and waiting. I really enjoyed those moments, and felt really connected to the forest and the nature around me. That really helped.’

It’s hard to get Jasmin to admit anything negative about the event, especially her gruelling solo effort on Loop Five. ‘It was fun, in a way. By the time you get to Loop Five, it’s now within reach. For every hill I would say I don’t have to do this hill again, and so I would tick off sections of the course as I passed over them.’ But, despite these moments of joy and feeling like the goal was within reach, Jasmin was painfully close to the cut-off time – if she did not finish within 90 hours, she would take home a DNF. And she was cutting it extremely fine. ‘There’s a lot of pressure, because if you make just one mistake, you’ve potentially screwed the whole thing. So you have to focus on when you get it right – it’s such a good feeling to get the positive feedback. As I ticked off those final hills, I became really confident. It was exhilarating, knowing that I could do it, but it was still a huge challenge.’

At the finish, the leftover participants, crews, and limited spectators waited nervously as the cut-off time drew incredibly near. With less than two minutes left on the clock, Jasmin’s figure emerged from the forest. Trying to push through a limp caused by tendonitis on her left side, she charged towards the yellow gate, falling over it with only 99 seconds to spare, making history.

‘I had to give absolutely everything I had to reach the gate – so much that I didn’t have the capacity to think how I would stop when I reached it. That’s why I hit the gate rather than stopping at it. I didn’t have the brain cells left to decelerate and just touch the gate in a normal matter.’

Her final words on Loop Five? ‘It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it was kind of fun as well.’

Jasmin Paris completed the 2024 Barkley Marathons in 59 hours, 58 minutes, and 21 seconds, becoming the first woman to ever complete all five loops of the course within the 60-hour limit.

Read ‘A Single Moment: Loop Five’ in Sidetracked Volume 30. // @jennytough // @searchingforzocherman