Preparation, Gratitude, and Trashed Feet: An Interview With Ihor Verys After His 2024 Barkley Marathons Win

An in-depth interview with Ihor Verys after his win at the 2024 Barkley Marathons.

By on March 27, 2024 | Comments

At an event that tends to favor those with previous course knowledge, Barkley Marathons first-timer Ihor Verys of Ukraine but living in Canada won the 2024 edition of the infamous event on March 22 in a time of 58 hours, 44 minutes, and 59 seconds.

Verys credits working together with veterans of the event for the early laps, running alongside a strong group including John Kelly and Jasmin Paris at times, for his own success and that of a record-breaking number of runners this year. The relative newcomer to the sport put on a masterclass on navigating the physical, emotional, and psychological difficulties of the event.

In this interview, Verys talks about his approach to the race as a first-timer, why he thinks there were so many finishers this year, his relative newness to ultrarunning, his enjoyment of his first Barkley experience, and whether he intends to return in the future.

Learn more about this year’s Barkley Marathons in our results article.

[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

Ihor Verys - 2024 Barkley Marathons winner - holding Ukraine and Canada flag at finish

Ihor Verys (left) and Jodi Isenor, who crewed Verys, pose with the Ukrainian and Canadian flags at the 2024 Barkley Marathons finish. All photos courtesy of Ihor Verys.

iRunFar: Ihor, congratulations on your Barkley finish. That’s incredible. How do you feel about that?

Ihor Verys: It’s still sinking in. It might take a few months, maybe years. I still can’t believe it. I still sometimes feel like I might just wake up somewhere in the middle of Frozen Head State Park, and I just fell asleep and it’s all just a dream. [laughs]

iRunFar: You’ve still got 37 hours and a whole lot of books to go.

Verys: Yeah, I’m lost on the way to book five, and I just dreamed about finishing, but in fact, search and rescue has been looking for me for days now. [laughs]

iRunFar: [laughs] Well, it means you’re sleeping well. Congratulations on that.

Verys: Yeah, thank you.

iRunFar: Before we get into the details, it’s really rare for a person to finish Barkley, but to finish it on their first try. I’d love to hear your perspective on that. What do you attribute to being able to finish on your first time out there?

Verys: They say that there are more failers than finishers, but I always try to have a different mindset, looking at the people who finished it and say, I know most of the people fail at Barkley, but there are 17 finishers. So why can’t I be one of them? One of my inspirations was Aurélien Sanchez from last year. He was also a Barkley virgin, yet he completed it the very first year, and he finished being the first one last year. So I looked at previous cases and scenarios, and many other Barkley finishers did it on their first attempt, and I definitely derived a lot of inspiration from them.

Of course, I feel like it can also be attributed to all the training and preparation that comes with gearing up for Barkley. It’s not your typical race. You can’t just show up just having a few miles on your legs over previous months. You have to train your strength. You have to train your navigation skills, and I spent many, many months and years doing so. And when they came down to Barkley, I was just ready.

iRunFar: Yeah. It’s far from easy, but do you think it is slightly easier that we now have 20 finishers and all the experience of the years of people who didn’t finish, such that a lot of lessons have been learned? For instance, did you learn a lot from previous Barkley entrants, whether they’re finishers or not?

Verys: Absolutely, you can definitely learn from them. I think another reason why we had five finishers this year it has nothing to do with the course being easy, in fact, the course was harder, new sections were added is just that we worked as a team for the first four loops. So we worked against Barkley, and by putting all of these minds together, we were able to accomplish such a feat as five finishers. It’s a historic finish, and I’m really proud to be a part of it.

Ihor Verys - 2024 Barkley Marathons winner - crew planning with Jodi Isnor before race

Ihor Verys prepping maps and waiting for the conch to sound before starting the 2024 Barkley Marathons.

iRunFar: That was my first question about the play-by-play. That first lap it did seem like folks were working together. That was the case?

Verys: The first loop was unique, according to the veterans. Because it was my first year, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how many people would be able to be in the lead pack, and we ended up having almost 20 people close together for most of the first loop. When I chatted with John Kelly, I asked him, “Is it normal?” And he said, “No. By now there should be five people maximum. I’ve never seen such a big train this far into the first loop.” I asked him, “What do you think, is it a tough crowd, or do you think people are just running not up to their means?” And he’s like, “Well, I guess we’ll see later.” [laughs]

The crowd was getting smaller and smaller. And at the end, we had this little group of seven people, and six people, and then just five people that would be in the lead. Then, there was another little group with Jared Campbell and Greig Hamilton a little bit behind us. They had their own group there. We were trying to stick together. I guess it was John, myself, Damian Hall, and Jasmin Paris always around there. And for some time, Sébastien [Raichon] from France was there as well. Sébastien might not necessarily speak English, but we were able to speak one navigation language, which was amazing. He helped us, we helped him, and it was teamwork. It was truly teamwork out there, and I think that’s why we had five finishers.

iRunFar: How long were you running with people? I mean not necessarily every minute, but for the most part.

Verys: In the second loop, five of us finished with Sébastien, but Sébastien wanted to take a longer break after that. So, for the third loop, there were four of us: John, Damian, myself, and Jasmin. The four of us lasted quite a while, all the way into the fourth loop. And then it was John, Damian, and myself on loop four. The three of us worked together. Jasmin was just behind us. Then, loop five, we’re all on our own. We have to take [alternating] directions. This is where true Barkley starts, on loop five, because it’s just you and the course, and if you haven’t learned by now, Barkley will teach you a lesson.

Ihor Verys - 2024 Barkley Marathons winner - night pit stop

A calm and composed Ihor Verys performs nighttime pit stop chores between loops.

iRunFar: Was it ideal timing for most of loop five to be in daylight?

Verys: The first three hours were in darkness, and then the sun came out, beautiful weather. I was joking that Laz[arus Lake, the race director] did the start so that it ends at 5:00 p.m. so he could go to bed right after. [laughs]

He was like, I don’t want to deal with that in the middle of the night.

iRunFar: On that lap four, I’m just going back a little bit. Did you find yourself running out in front alone at any point later on loop four?

Verys: All three of us were together. I left a little bit early on loop four because there was a little trail, so I took it easy digesting food that I took at the camp, and I loaded up a lot of calories so that John and Damian could catch up. Once they caught up with me, the three of us worked together. I did not want to go on my own. I was fairly comfortable going completely on my own for loop four, but I figured if we have this opportunity of working together for one more loop, why not take it?

iRunFar: So basically, did you do the whole loop together?

Verys: Yeah. Loop four was the slowest because it was the second night. Everyone’s sleep-deprived and tired. We made a bunch of mistakes, but those were not crucial mistakes. I think our loop four was 14 hours, which is very slow. But hopefully we were able to fix those mistakes and get ready for loop five.

iRunFar: So you’re finishing loop four. Maybe there’s one direction that most people feel is easier, or you personally feel is easier. How did you decide who was going to get to choose first and in what direction for loop five? Do you sprint into the checkpoint to get up first or did you actually discuss it as a group?

Verys: The rule is that whoever is ready to leave first gets to choose the direction. I didn’t want to sleep. I just needed to change socks and shoes, and I’m ready to go. John wanted to take a nap, as he was falling asleep a bit, and we lost Damian by the end of the loop four in the darkness. I don’t know where he went, but he might share that story at some point. But anyway, as we were finishing up loop four with John, I asked him, “Is it okay? I think I’m not going to take a lot of time in the camp. I’m just going to eat, change shoes, and I’m out of here. And I will take clockwise.” He said, yeah, he’s fine with that because he wanted to take a break. And for me, clockwise. The reason why I wanted to take it is because I just came from counterclockwise, so it’s kind of fresh in my brain. I was thinking during those first three night hours, I should be able to locate those books. And hopefully, when the sun is out, there will be relief.

iRunFar: You thought that’d be easier than, even though you’d gone that last lap in the other direction, it had been 14 hours plus your break that you had gone?

Verys: Well, the reason it was 14 hours was because it was night. Night loops are always slower. The counterclockwise direction also starts with a trail section. So, it’s actually easier in the beginning at least. But then it depends, you know. Some people say it is easier, some people say it is not. I figured I’d take clockwise and take my chance on that.

iRunFar: How did that final lap go? Did you have any big issues or problems?

Verys: It’s funny, I was telling my crew, Jodi Isenor, that the only loop where I didn’t make mistakes was loop five. While I was very nervous because I was by myself, I did memorize a lot over the first four loops. And when they came to the point where I wasn’t sure if this was the spot, I just trusted my compass. The compass will never lie to you. I relied on the compass 100%, and it did not let me down. There was one spot with one book that I overshot a little bit, but I was able to figure it out and retrace it back and find it. But other than that, I landed pretty much every single book spot on. It did take me a little bit longer than if I were with someone else, just because I was always making sure I was in the right direction, I was in the right spot, confirming with a map, confirming with features, confirming with landmarks and my compass. And you know, if you trust your compass, it’s going to lead you to the right spot, and that’s what happened to me.

iRunFar: You had left on loop five with enough time that you were better to verify that you were in the right spot going in the right direction to spend a little bit of extra time doing that than guessing and just trusting without verifying.

Are there any highlights on that last loop? Anything that was just great or stood out positively?

Verys: If you find the book, or you know where you are, it’s just this little kid moment. I’m like, Oh my gosh, I did it! Heck yeah! And it just gives you that motivation and that energy to keep going. And you find the second book and you’re like, oh my god, I’m so good at it! It’s just those little moments and you’re like a little child there in the middle of nowhere, finding these little books, and every time I found it, it just gave me extra energy for the next push, even though I had pretty terrible issues with my feet. But it would help me to forget about that pain, to shelf that pain, leave it for later, and just move on to the next one.

Every time I did it, I was just so proud of myself, proud of everything that my crew, Jodi taught me, because I knew that I was not doing it just for myself. I’m doing it for him. I’m doing it for Canada and Ukraine. There are so many people that are behind me, standing for me, cheering and supporting me, and I just didn’t want to let them down. Having this thought in my head, it helped me to get through that loop on my own.

iRunFar: It sounded like by the end of the third loop your feet were in pretty horrible shape but what happened? You had a very long way to go on bad feet.

Verys: I ended up developing trench foot. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but I had the same issue at the Hurt [100 Mile] a couple of months prior, but I just had to go with them from one loop there, which is like five hours. Hereafter loop three, I already had them, and a loop takes 12, 13, 14 hours, so you can’t really change your shoes and socks, often enough. And my feet, I guess they have baby skin or whatever, and they develop those trenches.

Every step was very painful. When I finished loop four, I called my crew, and I think Laz heard that too because he mentioned it in his write-up. He actually saw my horrible feet as I took off the socks, and even Laz did not believe that I would be able to finish it. I just told myself one step at a time, one book at a time, and I shelved the pain. I forgot about it for a while and I just took it off the shelf at the end of the race.

iRunFar: Generally, the reports about you throughout the race were that you were calm, really clear-headed, and other than your feet, quite able-bodied. Were those reports right or was there a lot more suffering going on, and you just were able to stay calm outwardly?

Verys: I think those reports are fairly truthful. I did not have any other issues. I was very happy with the way my body responded. I had no issues with nutrition. I had no issues with sleep deprivation. Other than my feet, my body felt great. I had zero cramping. My muscles felt great. I felt good climbing. My quads were great descending. Other than those feet, which is nothing in the big scheme of things. Navigation was working well. So overall, these pieces of the puzzle, once I put them together and realized, you know what, there are so many things that could have gone wrong, but they’re going right. It gave me the confidence to look good, too. I guess people saw that in me and then they put it in their report.

iRunFar: Did you enjoy any of it?

Verys: You know what? I enjoyed every single second of it. Maybe once on loop four in the middle of the night, we ended up in the wrong spot — I didn’t double-check and no one in our group double-checked. I was like, oh my goodness, I will never ever do it again, stupid. But it was very short-lived. Maybe a couple seconds after that I just felt so privileged to be able to do it.

My mindset was, I don’t have to do it; I get to do it. That’s what helped me get through it. Even the night before the conch was blown, I was there like a little kid sitting in my vehicle. I’m like, oh my gosh, I’m in the Barkley camp, waiting for the conch to be blown. This event has been on since 1986 and I get to be a part of it. No matter what the result is going to be, I’m a part of the Barkley family now. And that made me so happy and so appreciative of life and this opportunity.

Ihor Verys - 2024 Barkley Marathons winner - night with support crew Jodi Isenor

All reports coming from the race indicated a strong and happy Ihor. And they were correct.

iRunFar: I heard that you maybe joked when you finished that the race should be six loops, not five. Could you have done a sixth loop if you needed to or were you pretty done at that point?

Verys: Maybe my feet weren’t happy with that joke, but again, the rest of my body felt great. It was a joke, of course. I just looked at my watch and saw that it was still sub-59 [hours]. I’m like, whoa, we got another hour here to go. So, if you throw in another loop for 12 hours, we might be able to attempt it. But again, it’s all a joke. Of course every loop at Barkley is a grueling challenge. You see that half of the field was gone after the first loop, and Barkley is as hard as everyone imagines it. It’s actually worse than everyone imagines it. It’s really hard to explain because nobody’s allowed to be off-trail there. The only thing people see is rat jaw. And rat jaw, in fact, is one of the easiest sections on the Barkley course, just to give the perspective of how horrible the off-trail sections are. [laughs] But I truly enjoyed it. I expected that. I trained on something like that, and when I faced it, I was ready.

iRunFar: How did you train for Barkley?

Verys: Well, living in Chilliwack[, British Columbia], we are blessed to have a lot of crazy technical trails. Super steep, super rocky, super rooty. You don’t necessarily have to go off-trail, you can just stay on those trails. They’re pretty bad, being actually marked trails. So I spent a lot of time in my backyard climbing and descending those trails, building those climbing legs, building strength, making sure I could climb and descend for long hours nonstop.

I would spend a lot of time studying maps and doing navigational practices, which is probably the most overlooked part of Barkley, because many strong athletes can get through four loops, but the fifth loop when you’re on your own and you have to know the map. You have to know the compass. You have to know how to use it. And if you don’t have that skill, Barkley will eat you. So, I had to train in a lot of navigational aspects. I signed up with the local club and did orienteering races. I even did the Western Canadian Orienteering Championships, where I finished second to last. It’s all about experience. You don’t have to be a perfect orienteerer at Barkley, you just have to be a good orienteerer at Barkley. After all the months and years of training, this does prepare you for Barkley.

Barkley is tough. The strongest and smartest in the world, Barkley can still eat you, so you have to respect the course. You can’t just come unprepared completely. I’ve seen people who come who’ve never seen the map before and who don’t use a compass, and I’m like, you know what? This course will destroy you. This course will eat its young.

People want to rely on others, so they show up and they think they can latch on to veterans, but some of the veterans are exceptionally strong and fast athletes. You take John Kelly, he’s an incredibly fit athlete. And if you want to hang on to him, you’ve got to be super fit. Regardless, even if you can stick with a veteran or Jared Campbell, for instance, you can stick with him for four loops. Well, very cool, but what about loop number five, right?

This is where the race starts. Here, you’re on your own, and that’s how Barkley destroys so many good athletes.

iRunFar: You have just had great success at Barkley, 58 hours and change. You were out there with Harvey Lewis during his really long Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra last year. You were the second furthest ever, but you’ve also run 15:44 at Badger Mountain 100 Mile, correct? That’s running quite fast over 100 miles. Do you prefer these many-day events? Or do you also like the shorter, faster stuff?

Verys: The ultrarunning scene, in general, starts from 50 kilometers on, but I find my strength in those longer events where we take 100 miles and longer, especially the courses that require strength, so there will be technical, steep, slow courses. I’m not necessarily a very fast person. If you put me on the marathon distance, I’ll suck. But when it comes to something that’s going to last long and I can maintain a certain pace over hours, days, and nights, I think that’s very appealing to me.

I do really like that feeling when everything in your body tells you to stop, but your mind overrides it, and you keep pushing and discovering new boundaries of your body and mind. I really like to be in that space. That’s when I get a runner’s high. Sometimes I can surf that wave for hours. That’s what I truly enjoy.

Ihor Verys - 2024 Barkley Marathons winner - Jodi Isenor hug at finish

Ihor Verys gets a hug from his crew, Jodi Isenor, after winning the 2024 Barkley Marathons on his first attempt.

iRunFar: Running-wise, what’s next for you? Anything you’re looking forward to?

Verys: My next few races are going to be local here in Canada. I would really love to travel across Canada or visit different provinces, run races, in those provinces, and participate in those smaller events, and support those local race directors and our local races. I think they need a lot of attention and we can together both grow and develop our sport in Canada. I keep repeating that Canada’s very often in the shadows of ultrarunning. Our ultrarunners are exceptionally talented. We have so many of them, but they’re often forgotten, and I think bringing some spotlight to Canadian races and regions is something I would really love to work on in the next few months.

Then, outside of Canada, I’m going to Colorado in September to do the Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile. That’s on the schedule. Other than that, we shall see. My schedule is not set yet completely. So, I’m open to suggestions.

iRunFar: Do you see yourself ever trying to go back to complete Barkley again, or are you one and satisfied and done?

Verys: I will never answer that question because you’re not supposed to share that info. But, you know, on loop four again, when things were pretty low at some point, I told myself that, oh my goodness, I’ll never ever do it again. Why would I put myself through these rings of hell? However, when I touched the gate the fifth time, when I was able to chat with the older legends of Barkley, when I got to experience not only the course but the entire history and all the people involved in Barkley, all the culture. Barkley culture is so unique. It’s so historic. I told myself, it would be really cool just to remain a part of this family. We’ll see. Life will show if I’ll end up at Frozen Head State Park again, but you’ve got to figure out how to get in first. [laughs]

iRunFar: So going away from Barkley specifically, I’d love to know a little bit more about you, your personal background, generally and, then, maybe talk a little bit more about running. So where are you from?

Verys: I live in Canada. Originally, I’m from Ukraine, but I moved to Canada almost nine years ago now.

iRunFar: How old were you then?

Verys: I was 21 years old. I moved to Canada as a student trying to experience a new culture, a new language, a new country. I really loved the people and how they live here. I always wanted to stay here, and never went back. I got into running probably a year after I moved to Canada. I’ve never run before anywhere. I don’t have track experience.

iRunFar: Were you an athlete growing up?

Verys: Soccer, I guess. We were all playing soccer in Ukraine. It’s our sport. But that’s about it. I wasn’t an athlete. I actually hated running. We had those 3k races in school and I didn’t enjoy them at all. But then when I moved here, this was a good opportunity for me to find that mental health tool that will help me to deal with the stress and challenges of living in a new country. Running is a really cheap sport and you need a few runners, and you’re all set. So, I started running, just for fun trying to clear my mind. Eventually, I started doing half marathons, marathons, and after COVID-19, I transitioned to trails.

iRunFar: How did you find the trails? How did you come into that?

Verys: COVID-19 happened and we were not allowed to be outside, right? You were supposed to self-isolate, and if you were running on pavement, everyone’s going to see you and everyone’s going to judge you. Like, hey, you’re supposed to be inside. You cannot be outside. So, I discovered trails. They were back in Manitoba, the province where I used to live. We had trails just outside of the city. So, I can escape to the trails. No one’s going to see me there and no one’s going to judge me, and that’s how I got into trail running.

Then, on trails, I ran into other ultrarunners or trail runners, and from them, I learned that people can actually run more than a marathon distance. I was like, oh, really? Let me look into it. So, I started exploring it. I was like, okay, it looks like I can go further than marathon distance.

Later on, I attempted a fastest known time (FKT). It was 125 kilometers, and I felt great. It was on a famous trail in Manitoba called Mantario Trail, and it’s a popular FKT trail. I felt really good, especially the second half, and I was like, wow, I think I’m hooked on going long distances now. After that, I moved to British Columbia, in the mountains where I live now, and I signed up for my first 100k mountain race, and I ended up winning it. It was my first ultra, and the rest is history. I’ve been doing these long-distance races ever since, and I’ve been enjoying it.

iRunFar: It’s just hard to imagine you found trail running only four years before finishing Barkley. That’s incredible.

Verys: Yeah, I guess it’s a bit less than four years. I never think of it that way. But I guess you’re right.

iRunFar: People think you might need decades of trail and ultra experience to finish Barkley. Nope, four years. And even less than that for ultrarunning experience. What was your first ultra-length run? Was it that FKT, or what was your first ultra?

Verys: It was in September 2021. There was a 100k race just on the island here, the Finlayson Arm 100k.

iRunFar: So basically two and a half years since your first ultra in September 2021.

Verys: Yeah.

iRunFar: Okay, that’s kind of humbling for the rest of the world.

Verys: [laughs]

Ihor Verys and his crew Jodi Isenor - 2023 Barkley Marathons winner - filling up between loops

Ihor Verys with his crew, Jodi Isenor, changing clothes and refilling his pack between loops.

iRunFar: If I were you, I’d have to be dreaming. Alright, “So what is possible? I can do this in two and a half years…”

Verys: I feel bad now. [laughs]

iRunFar: No, you shouldn’t. You’re even more superhuman than you thought you were.

Verys: I guess I just never think of it. I always think forward, and when I finish Barkley, I’m like, okay, what’s next? Where do I need to work to improve? I still consider myself a student of the game. I’m still learning some things. Just because it’s been only a few years, and I’m still learning, okay, what food will work? What nutrition, what clothes? Should I sleep? Should I do this? How fast? How should I train? I don’t have a coach. So, I’m trying to find what works for me the best, and I love to be a student of the game. I love to do all these challenging events because they always reveal your weak spots, especially in events like Barkley. It will definitely show your weak spots, but then you can work on them, improve yourself, and make yourself even better for future adventures.

iRunFar: You came to Canada to study. What were you studying?

Verys: International business. I just did a two-year college program. I had my degree in Ukraine. I have a bachelor’s degree in international relations. But because of the situation, because of the revolution we had there, I didn’t want to work for the government that was in charge at that point. It was an anti-people government. For me, as a potential for future diplomatic envoy, because that’s what the international relations faculty is teaching you, I did not want to represent that government, and therefore I made that choice to come to Canada and try a different path in my life. At that point, I was only 21, so that’s pretty young. This opportunity came up.

iRunFar: What does work look like these days for you? What field are you working in?

Verys: I work in insurance, which is so weird. I would never think I would end up in this field, but I’m doing commercial insurance as an account manager. I work for a big, international company called HUB International. I spend a lot of time in the office. Running helps me, once I’m out there, to ease the stress. I truly enjoy the outdoors, and when you spend that much time in the office, you definitely need the time out.

iRunFar: Yeah, well, you got 58 hours and change of time out this past week, so perfect. Ihor, thank you so much for your time, and congratulations on your Barkley finish.

Verys: Thank you, Bryon. It’s an honor and pleasure. I really appreciate your interest in my journey.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.