B.C. man makes history as 1st Canadian to finish, win ‘insane’ Barkley Marathons

Click to play video: 'Chilliwack man wins gruelling Barkley Marathons'
Chilliwack man wins gruelling Barkley Marathons
It's said there are no winners in the Barkley Marathons, only finishers. That's because the course in rural Tennessee is always the winner. Ihor Verys of Chilliwack became the 18th person to ever finish and the first Canadian. John Hua reports – Mar 27, 2024

Gruelling. Painful. Insane. All words used to describe the Barkley Marathons, widely considered the world’s toughest foot race.

Until this year, just 17 people had ever completed it. That changed last week when Ihor Verys of Chilliwack, B.C., became the 18th.

He also crossed the finish line first, making him not just the first Canadian to complete the punishing test of endurance but also the first to win it.

“I like to think of it like I am a scientist conducting experiments on my own body and my mind,” the 29-year-old Ukranian-Canadian told Global News in a Wednesday interview.

“I always think about what our potential as a human being is, and every time I dip into that realm of impossible I feel very comfortable there and I love exploring there.”

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: '‘Dreams come true’: B.C. man, U.K. woman make history at Barkley Marathons'
‘Dreams come true’: B.C. man, U.K. woman make history at Barkley Marathons

To call what Verys has accomplished in Frozen Head State Park impressive is an understatement.

The gruelling endurance test requires competitors to complete a 160-kilometre (100 mile) run through the Tennessee woodlands in under 60 hours.

Completing the race involves gaining more than 20,000 metres of elevation (66,000 feet) over the course of five 32-kilometre loops.

Story continues below advertisement

The route changes every year, and ultramarathoners must navigate using only a paper map. They also must find books hidden at checkpoints, tearing out specific pages to prove they completed the entire course.

The race organization is kept highly secret, and just 40 people are invited to compete every year.

“You get a letter of condolences from the race director, you don’t just get an invitation. He’s basically saying ‘I feel sorry for you,'” Verys said.

“Everything you imagined, you hear, is true. It’s as terrifying as you can picture it in your head.”

Click to play video: 'Squire Barnes on the latest disappointment for B.C. runner'
Squire Barnes on the latest disappointment for B.C. runner

A 'phenom'

Verys’ performance is even more incredible considering he started trail running just four years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Story continues below advertisement

“Typically that takes a lifetime or decades at least to get to that, but he just showed up on the scene and started winning,” said Janet Vink, owner of Garrison Running Co. in Chilliwack, Verys’ home store.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

“I thought for certain he was a phenom of some sort. I’ve just never heard of that.”

Fink said Verys quickly became an integral part of the Chilliwack running scene, known for being friendly, humble and a community ambassador.

When he got the call to compete in the “insane” event, she said her gut told her he would win.

Jessica Vink, the store’s manager and now a friend of Verys’ recalled the first time they met, when she gave him his first pair of shoes from a sponsor.

“It was just like two friends meeting up for coffee … and then he just started winning all these races, and then he got invited to races,” she said.

“He’s setting himself up for success, he knows his body, he knows what he’s capable of and he’s not afraid to challenge himself.”

Click to play video: 'Ultramarathoner Gary Robbins looks back at incredible 60-hour race'
Ultramarathoner Gary Robbins looks back at incredible 60-hour race

Gruelling race

Veteran Barkley competitor John Kelly, who has finished the race multiple times, was on the mountain with Verys this year.

Story continues below advertisement

Kelly said runners that can keep up tend to group together for the first four laps of the course, before finishing the final circuit solo.

Verys, he said, proved he could compete right away.

“He helped keep a good pace, helped with some of the navigation,” he said. “Correcting each other’s mistakes when we inevitably have a mental lapse on sleep-deprived later loops.

“It’s so easy to just let your mind slip for just a moment and you turn heading down the wrong spur and by the time you get to the bottom you are just on an entirely different side of the mountain.”

Despite his success in numerous previous races, Verys said he still battles imposter syndrome at the starting line, and the Barkley was no different.

“I was extremely nervous but I was not scared … I did everything I could to prepare myself,” he said.

The course was every bit as bad as he imagined: steep with slippery rocks and mud and sharp, skin-tearing brambles everywhere.

“Slipping, sliding, sometimes I’d literally have to dig my hands in the dirt to climb this hill,” he added. “Sometimes you are thinking, ‘Oh my God, how did I not break my legs?'”

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'B.C. man heartbroken as he misses Barkley Marathons finish by just six seconds'
B.C. man heartbroken as he misses Barkley Marathons finish by just six seconds

Verys passed some other runners going the opposite direction on the final loop and believed he was actually behind them, so it was a surprise when he arrived first at the finish line.

“It probably will take years to sink in. I still can’t wrap my head around that I get to call myself a finisher,” he said.

“I was thinking about all those hours spent with those amazing humans, it was just an honour to spend so many hours with them to experience all those obstacles, all those curveballs that the Barkley course threw at us.”

The 2024 race ultimately proved to be a historic one for multiple reasons. Five competitors finished the brutal course this year, the most ever.

Story continues below advertisement

The 2024 race also saw its first-ever female finisher, British runner Jasmin Paris, who made it to the line with under two minutes to spare.

Through it all, he credits his time — and supporters — in Chilliwack as helping put him on the path to success.

“Chilliwack is a hidden gem. It’s a true trail paradise. It’s a small town, there is quite a big trail-running community, and everyone is extremely supportive and loving here no matter how fast or slow you are,” he said.

“I felt it, I knew everyone was behind me.”

Click to play video: 'Enduring the exhausting Barkley Marathons'
Enduring the exhausting Barkley Marathons

Sponsored content