Ireland’s top Ultra Runner, Eoin Keith is about to embark on his toughest challenge to date. The Columbia Sportswear sponsored athlete has managed to secure a place in the hardest running race there is, The Barkley Marathons.

We use the word secure, as entry to this event is a mission. Firstly you must send an application to a closely guarded email address at precisely the right minute on precisely the right day, along with a payment of $1.60. The email must include an essay titled “Why I should be allowed to run in the Barkley”. Then it’s onto a written exam which asks questions like “How much butter should you use to cook a pound of liver (with onions)?”

Those who are successful will receive a letter of condolences confirming their place. Newbies or virgins as they are known must then bring a licence plate from their state or country to give to race organiser, Lazarus Lake. Veterans, returning runners who failed to finish the race, must bring an item of clothing of Laz’s choice. While finishers who are mad enough to return for a second go need only bring a packet of Camel cigarettes.

10 Reasons Why The Barkley Marathons Is the Most Ballistic Thing on Earth

The course itself is technically 100 miles, but previous competitors claim it is closer to 130. The terrain is horrendous. With a total of 120,000 feet of elevation (that’s twice the height of Everest), competitors have to complete five loops of the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. 1,000 people have taken to the start line of this iconic race. But there have only by 18 finishes by 15 runners. The odds of Eoin reaching the finish line aren’t great. However, we reckon he has a pretty good chance.

Eoin Keith UTMB
Image: Valerie O’Sullivan

We caught up the man himself to find out a little bit more about how he is feeling ahead of this epic race.

Eoin, you are due to fly to Atlanta tomorrow, how the hell are you feeling?

I am feeling pretty good. I am nervous and excited at the same time. It’s going to be one hell of an experience no matter what. God, it’s going to be tough. Plus there is the whole logistical thing right now of packing tonnes of gear. I will probably forget something, but at least I’m not going to Africa!

What on earth attracted you to this race?

It is the hardest running race there is. It is such a challenge. It is the first time in over 10 years that I have gone to a race and rather than be worried about what position I can get, I am worried if I can survive it. Do I have any chance to finish it? And that is a feeling I haven’t had for a long long time. It makes it a very different race for me.

“I’ll go in with the plan to finish but not with the expectation to finish.”

Only 15 people have succeeded in finishing this race. Do you think you could be the 16th person to complete the Barkley Marathons?

It is my first time which is a disadvantage as I won’t be familiar with the course. But I am the kind of person who gets familiar with places quickly enough. Hopefully after the first two laps, if I get that far, I will be reasonably familiar with the route. But we must remember that some of the best racers on the planet have often not made it through one lap. On paper, I do have all the skills to complete this. I am good in bad weather. I am a good multi-day racer. I am good with sleep deprivation. I am a good navigator. I am good at getting lost and finding myself again. That’s on paper, but reality can be a very different thing. I’ll go in with the plan to finish but not with the expectation to finish.

Do you have a strategy heading into the race?

I think it will evolve as the race goes on. I would be happy to team up with people early on in the race. When you are looking for obscure paths or books hidden in the trees, it helps if there is more than one of you, particularly if one of you has done it before. I know a couple of the other people doing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up running together for a bit of time. But you just never know with these things.

“I also have an inherent fear of failure, failure is not just a possibility but a probability in this race. I have to psyche myself up to confront that fear.”

What are you most worried about?

Navigation will be the trickiest thing. Getting lost and trying to find yourself will be where you will lose the most time. It is a map and compass only affair. You are not even allowed your own watch. The weather will also be a challenge. There is a lot of rain forecast. Misty weather will make the navigation even tougher. The terrain will be fairly horrific. There is a huge amount of climbing and descent which means I will have a lot of walking. I also have an inherent fear of failure, failure is not just a possibility but a probability in this race. I have to psyche myself up to confront that fear.

“If it does rain it could work out well for me as I will be able to wear my Columbia Outdry Extreme jacket and pants. They are so strong and durable against brambles.”

The terrain is very tough with razor-sharp brambles and thick bush to get through. How will you protect yourself?

If it does rain it could work out well for me as I will be able to wear my Columbia Outdry Extreme jacket and pants. They are so strong and durable against brambles. If it is too hot for waterproofs I’ll hopefully be able to wear long leggings. Failing that I have orienteering gaiters to protect my calves. I also have two pairs of gardening gloves and a pair of leather Columbia Outdry gloves.

What are you most excited about?

I am excited about the whole experience from start to finish. It is such a legendary race. I will be following in the steps of legends and in amongst the legends. I cannot wait to meet Laz and his crew. I have read so much about this race, it will be incredible to immerse myself in the gang!  My support, Richard Nunan, will be at an advantage there. While I am off running in the wilderness, Richard will be enjoying a beer and a BBQ back at base with the whole gang!

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