RDRC Interview with Tomokazu Ihara: the Barkley Marathons

RDRC Interview with Tomokazu Ihara: the Barkley Marathons

Tomokazu Ihara’s story is well-known to many members of the Red Dot Running Company community. In 2007, Tomo was an overweight Japanese salaryman with an unhealthy lifestyle, but having just joined a sporting goods company, he entered a company-wide competition to see who could lose the most weight within three months. He set himself a goal of running 5 kilometres every day, and lost seven kilogrammes, winning the contest. After that, 5km turned into 10, then 15, 20, 50 and 100, and now Tomo is in the process of running 100 miles 100 times.

Until 2018 Tomo had finished every 100-miler he had started (at that time around 30 100-milers), and he was confident he would crush the Barkley Marathons, an event that had been described to him as the hardest 100-miler on earth, and that has had only 15 finishers in 34 years. Most of you know the Barkley, but for those who don’t, it’s a wilderness ultramarathon inspired by the 1977 escape from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary of James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr’s assassin. Caught by police after 55 hours, Ray was only 13km from the prison, prompting Barkley race founder Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell to think he could have covered 100 miles (162km) in the same time. The nominal distance of the Barkley Marathons is 100 miles (162km), to be completed within 60 hours, but a more realistic estimate is 210-220km.

RDRC: When did you first hear about the Barkley?
TOMO: Five years ago, when one of my ultra friends was in the race. But he didn’t even do a loop. He found five pages and got lost.

RDRC: At that point, how far were you from thinking, ‘I can do this.’ Or were you already thinking, ‘I can do this.”?
TOMO: At that point, it just was a story. I forgot about it. At that time I had done around 20 100-mile races, and I had heard about it, but it didn’t really interest me.

RDRC: And when did you think ‘I gotta do this thing’?
TOMO: After I set as my goal to run 100 miles 100 times, I decided I wanted to do all sorts of different 100-milers all over the world, including fun ones, easy ones, fat-ass ones, but also the ones you hear about, the Hardrock, the famous ones. And Barkley came back onto my radar, and one day I asked my friend who didn’t finish a loop, “How do you get into Barkley?” and he said, “You write an essay, and on this particular day, send it to Laz. And he told me all the details, and on that day I sent my essay to Laz, saying ‘I’ve run a lot of 100-milers, and I’ve finished them all, so Barkley’s going to be another one that I’m going to finish.”

[Both laugh. For a long time.]

RDRC: You arrogant bastard!
TOMO: I was very arrogant! And Laz said, ‘It’s the wrong date!’ It turned out I had written in on the North American entry date instead of the international date, which was a month earlier. So he wasn’t going to let me in. But he wrote in his email he has a ‘mini-Barkley’ called the Barkley Fall Classic in September, and he said, ‘Why don’t you run that, because if you win it, you get straight into the Barkley, and it covers most of the Barkley course?’ So I said, ‘I’m going!’ And that was my first time going to Tennessee, and I met Laz, and the race is tough. In the Barkley you have briars you have to fight through, but at that time of year, it’s not as bad as it is during the Fall Classic [around 50km], which makes you fight through a forest of briars. It does have course markings, but it doesn’t have them where you want them, where you’re going to turn right or left. Laz has put the course markings in the places you already know you have to go straight. He’s just having fun with you. Like when he puts signs out that say ‘Almost there!’ and there are still 20 miles to go. I came second in that race, and I had a chance to talk to Laz, and say thank you, and present my interest in running the Barkley, and I flew home. Laz told me the exact date for entering the race, and I sent in my essay, and I got a ‘condolence’ letter from him saying I had been accepted for the 2018 race.

RDRC: So the first time you turn up for the Barkley, in 2018, you were fortunate in that you had already been there, for the Fall Classic. You knew the landscape, you knew what to expect in some ways. What was your strategy? I mean, were you still thinking, I’m going to knock this out of the park, I’m going to be a finisher?
TOMO: Yes. I was thinking, ‘It’s gonna be a piece of cake!’

RDRC: You had no doubt in your ability to finish?
TOMO: No doubt at all. But if I had the chance to meet myself, two years back, would definitely tell that guy, Tomo, ‘Your chances of finishing the race are ZERO. You know NOTHING! You’re not going to do it!’

RDRC: So in terms of preparing for that first Barkley, how did you prepare? Was it going to be just another 100-miler, did you think? Two pairs of shoes, some Tailwind, or whatever you use, and that’s it?
TOMO: Yeah, well, I had done around 30 100-milers at that point, and I had always finished, so I knew I was going to finish. I thought, yes, just another 100 miles. But the main difference from my past ones was – there’s a book that gives the history of each race over the past 15 years or so, gives the split times and other details, and from the finishers, the fastest guy was something like 52 hours, and the slowest was 59 hours – so basically you’re going to spend 50 hours out there, and I did not have that experience. My longest was around 30 hours, which means 20 more hours. So before the race I thought I would come back to camp, get some sleep in between loops, and if I could manage my sleep, I could finish it. But at the end, I didn’t even do one loop. I was out there for like 18 hours, and I came back to camp with all the pages, but that didn’t mean anything for finishing the Barkley.

RDRC: Okay, then, you’re very confident at the start. In the 10 minutes before the start, how did you feel? Just another race? Normal butterflies, but … ready to go?
TOMO: Yes, ready to go. For a virgin to finish the race, you need to follow a veteran. That’s the only way to go. So I had a couple of guys I was going to follow. But on the other hand, to finish 100 miles you have to pace yourself. At the start I had five guys I had thought I could follow, but very soon three of them were way ahead, so I had only two cards left to play. And the problem is, when you go to the first book, it takes time to find your page, and tear it out, and maybe take your gloves off to get the page, and stow your page away, and you look up and the guy you were following is long gone. I did train to navigate, but I was not good enough to have confidence in where I was, and my plan was … immature. So my ‘strategy’ was just my overconfidence in having finished 30 100-milers before that. I didn’t actually have a strategy. After the first book, I found similar people to me, people who knew nothing – bunches of idiots trying to navigate to the second book. So of course we got lost trying to get to the second book. We finally found it, after 2-3 hours, but that was the end of my Barkley, because if you don’t get back to camp within 8-10 hours, you’re not going to finish it. I know that from the data of the 15 finishers over the past 35-40 years. There is a schedule and you must come into camp at certain times or you’re just not going to make it.

RDRC: So before the race, what was your target time for finishing the first loop
TOMO: Nine hours 30 minutes.

RDRC: And you came in …
TOMO: Eighteen hours 30 minutes …

RDRC: And how many pages were there on that first loop?
TOMO: Thirteen.

RDRC: Eventually you got into camp, and I suppose technically you could have gone out for another loop, right?
TOMO: I wanted to, but no. The cut-off for the first loop was 13:20. Laz did not even count my pages.

RDRC: So what did you learn?
TOMO: I learned that navigation is really, really important. There’s a map, but also Laz’s written description of the course, and the written description is more accurate. I hooked up with a guy named Byron, who had run past Barkleys, and I learned a lot from him. He didn’t even carry a map, just the written description. At a certain point, I’m running with Byron, and with Michael Wardian, and another guy from Switzerland, Cyrille, and we’re sheltering in a cave in the woods, because there’s a freezing rain outside, and we’re getting hypothermic, and Michael and Cecil say they’re going to quit the race, and take a shortcut back to camp. And I say I’m going to keep on going. Because in my mind I was thinking about next year, about 2019, because 2018, I’d already fucked it up. And I wanted to learn as much as I could about the course while I was there. So that became my goal. And Byron said, “I’m going to go with you, Tomo.” Eventually, we were able to find the books together and that was it for the first year.

RDRC: Not long after, you’re on the plane on the way back to Tokyo. What are you thinking?
TOMO: I was looking out the window, and I was thinking about the podcast I do here in Japan, about my goal of running 100 miles 100 times, and I was thinking “Are people going to laugh at me?” It was my first DNF, and I didn’t care so much about that, but it was a reality check, a slap in the face. Two slaps in the face. And I learned so much, and I was thinking about all the things I needed to do in order to finish. I decided I needed to run the same distance and same elevation on my home course to show myself I could do even that. So two weeks after I got home to Japan I told myself I was going to do 14 loops of the 15K course in my back yard within 60 hours, and if I don’t do that, I’m not going to even think about Barkley. Because if I don’t think I can finish, there’s a lot of people who want to run the Barkley, and I should give my spot to someone else. But if I’m able to physically do that, I want to give it another try. I did the 224 kilometres, with almost 22,000 metres elevation, in 57 hours 3 minutes. And then I was thinking about the next year’s Barkley, and I had almost 11 months to train for it.

RDRC: So you wrote again to Laz, on the appropriate day.
TOMO: Yes, I wrote to him and I said I was an arrogant bastard, but had learned so much from the previous year’s race. I came away with a list of things I needed to do to finish the Barkley, and I told him I was going to knock out all the things I had to do, and be the first Asian finisher of the Barkley. And he let me in.

RDRC: Time passes, and you fly to Tennessee again. Aside from having practiced navigation, were there any physical preparations you made that you thought were important?
TOMO: Yes. The most important thing I had been doing was visualizing the course whenever I had a free moment. I didn’t want to forget anything from the previous year, and the key to finishing the Barkley is to know the course. The only time you want to take out your compass is when you’re really lost. The guys who finish the race know exactly where the 14 books are. If you have to open your map, and consult your compass all the time, you’re not going to finish it. It’s a race, for 60 hours. Knowing where you need to go is most important.

RDRC: So, the first loop, how does it go? You’re a veteran now, right? So you have a pretty good idea of where to find the books, and the course?
TOMO: Normally when there’s no finishers, Laz doesn’t change the locations of the books. Maybe just a few. So when I got the written description, when I registered, I went through it and I knew which ones were the same as the previous year. And only three were different. So on that first loop I was in the top three or four, again trying to stay with guys I had picked out before the race, hoping they would help me find the books I didn’t know. My priority on the first loop was to gain confidence about the locations of those three new book locations, so I could find them on my own during the next loops.

RDRC: How fast did you finish your first loop?
TOMO: Nine hours 56 minutes.

RDRC: And your target had been?
TOMO: Eight hours 50-something. 

RDRC: Okay, so you’re an hour slow, but how did you feel?
TOMO: I felt … I got this!

RDRC: How long did you spend in camp after that first loop?
TOMO: About five minutes. But it was a special moment, because I had finished a loop. There was a lot of pressure. What If I hadn’t finished again? I was very happy to have finished that first loop.

RDRC: Then back out, second loop, opposite direction.
TOMO: Yes. In the dark. And I went out on my own, but I ended up going back and forth with a guy named Johan, he was a Fun Run finisher the year before, and he and I were running around the same pace, so my idea was to stick with him. The problem was, it was cold, it was pouring raining, and snowing at the end, and I forgot to put on my midlayer. And when you find a book, you need to take your gloves off, find the page, tear it out, and your body temperature is dropping very fast. When I finished the loop, I hadn’t realized, but my rain pants had a big, big hole in the seat. I had fallen so many times, and torn them, and they weren’t keeping out the rain at all. It took me almost 14 hours to finish loop two, so my total time was 24 hours 25 minutes, which meant I had less than 12 hours to finish loop 3 or I would have DNFed. But I still had the idea I was going to finish. The weather was improving and I thought I could still make it. I went out with Johan again, and we tried to knock off the books as fast as possible. When you’re tired, and you haven’t slept in a long time, you make mistakes. So if you have someone with you, you have two brains. And at that point, Johan and I had the same goal – finish the third loop in under 36 hours. Johan had more experience than I did, but I was the guy with the map and compass, doublechecking him when I thought we might have been going off-track. And I think that worked out well. We helped each other. With about three books to go, at around 33 hours, we realized we weren’t going to make it. By that time, Jamil Coury had joined our group, and the three of us knew we had a chance to make it under the Fun Run cut-off of 40 hours. So we aimed for that, and we finished together in 39 hours 38 minutes and 34 seconds.

RDRC: You’re coming down to the finish … what are you thinking?
TOMO: I kind of thought the Barkley was a race I wasn’t going to be able to finish. Because I did my best, and how can I finish two more loops within 60 hours? I had no idea. So I was kind of happy that I was the first Asian to do a Fun Run. Our Japanese national record was one loop, and I made three loops, so I raised our nation’s bar [laughs] and I was kind of proud of myself. But on the other hand, I thought, I can’t finish, so I’m not going to try this again.

RDRC: So that was what you were thinking then. Is that still what you’re thinking? You’re not going to do the Barkley again?
TOMO: No. So after thinking, I realized I can improve my endurance. I can improve my navigation. I can improve the gear I wear, and my nutrition. I now think that I do have a chance to finish the Barkley. So that’s why I registered for this year’s Barkley.

RDRC: So, it’s 2021, then!
TOMO: 2021! 

RDRC: So what are your goals right now? You’ve got your 100 miles 100 times. How does finishing the Barkley rank for you?
TOMO: 100 miles 100 times, I know I’m going to do it. It’s just a matter of years, and if I do like five a year that’s eight more years. I know I can get it. The Barkley, I still don’t know. Like I said at the beginning, If I went back to talk to this guy named Tomo, running his first Barkley, I’d tell him you’re never going to finish, because you know nothing. If I went back to last year, to talk to another guy named Tomo, running his second Barkley, I’d tell him the same thing. You’re not going to finish, because you still don’t know anything about the Barkley! What will I say next year, to that Tomo running the Barkley the third time? No idea! Maybe the same thing! At this point I’ve run around 55 100-milers. I do pretty well, I’m always in the top 10, but I don’t feel like I’ve learned a lot from my successes compared to what I’ve learned from my failures at the Barkley. My takeaway from my first two attempts to run the Barkley is that failure is a part of the process of succeeding. And that’s part of what’s driving my motivation to become a better runner.

Many thanks to Tomo for talking to us, and to photographer Sho Fujimaki for allowing us to use a few of his superb photographs to illustrate Tomo's story. Follow Tomo on Instagram here and check out his website here. Check out more of Sho Fujimaki's photographs here on Instagram, here on Facebook, and his website is here.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.