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A Barkley virgin reflects on the experience

Morgan Mckay of Ottawa had plenty of time for remorse and what-ifs after a rookie mistake on loop one

The Barkley Marathons, which concluded early Monday morning with no finishers, is part ultra-trail 100-miler, part long-distance orienteering challenge, and part scavenger hunt. In the 33 years Laz Lake has been running it, only 15 people have ever finished (with 18 finishes among them), all of them men. We talked to Barkley virgin Morgan Mckay, an OCR racer from Ottawa with several Spartan titles to her name (and a Guinness World Record for fastest 10K while carrying 100 pounds, male or female), about what it’s like to attempt the Barkley for the first time. (Spoiler alert: it did not go well.)

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Morgan Mckay at Barkley Marathons 2019. Photo: Brett Ellenor

Mckay reports that a fundamental mistake near the beginning of the first loop meant her race was over almost before it began.




“I was following a group of people up to book one, and they got just slightly out of sight in the dense forest. And then I saw another group of runners to my right, and they looked super focused, so I decided to follow them. They start going around a ridge and down the mountain… this seems like we’re headed to book two. I was just so excited to run with the group, because the pace was similar to mine… That group was just leaving from the first book, and I caught up in the excitement of being there.

“So then I had to go back. Everybody that was behind me was now passing me, and I’m completely by myself now. I was able to find book one and went back down, but everyone was gone.”

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Morgan Mckay at Barkley Marathons 2019. Photo: Brett Ellenor

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Mckay then encountered Leonard, the 23-year Barkley veteran in his 60s for whom a descent called (and you can imagine why) Leonard’s Butt Slide is named. Leonard could navigate the course in his sleep, and was happy to share his knowledge, but he is no longer fast. Mckay, along with Ben, another newbie she met at that point, ran ahead, but took a wrong turn or two and had trouble locating books, and Leonard kept catching up with them. 

Morgan Mckay with Laz at command central. Photo: Brett Ellenor

Since they were way behind schedule, they realized their “best bet [was] to go slow and steady with a vet who knows exactly where to go… Our goal was to finish the loop and get all the books, and have a wonderful experience with Leonard and hear all the stories. We were trying to find book eight. Leonard knows the park so well. It was pouring rain by this time, and getting really cold, because we’re not running any more. We couldn’t find it.


“Eventually we decided to hike back to the highway and go back to camp. It was about six or seven miles [10 to 11K]. Today I looked at the map and thought, we should have said screw book eight, let’s get book nine and do the rest from there, since it’s a similar distance. It’s crappy, because it’s one little mistake I made right at the beginning that put me in a bad spot. I would have had a chance [to finish loop one]. Physically I felt fine–I was in great condition. 

“I had so much more to give, and I didn’t get to give what I was there for. But I was very proud of myself for regaining my composure and taking a moment and being like, I’m alone, and I have to figure it out and keep going,” Mckay told us. “Not at all what I had planned, but I’m here to do my best…”  

Another decision Mckay regrets was trying to do without her trekking poles on loop one, since she’s used to OCR races, where they would only be useful in a few isolated parts of the course. Nicky Spinks‘ crew got a photo showing her poling up an ascent, with Mckay just in front, using improvised sticks as poles.

Nicky Spinks, with Morgan Mckay in front. Photo: SFMFilms/Twitter

Would she do it again? “That’s a tough question,” Mckay says. “When we got back to camp we were borderline hypothermic. I thought, no. But now, after a couple of days of thinking, the awesome part was running with Ben and Leonard, and how excited and proud we felt when we found the books. And what if I hadn’t made that mistake early on, and knowing what I’m capable of?

It definitely makes me think I might want to do it again.”