The Champion Factor
Austrailia Runner / Kiwi Trail Runner
I was just talking on the phone to my friend Karen Barrett. As always, her voice was full of life and enthusiasm and more than once during our conversation I found myself being astounded by her energy. I had expected less of it as, little over 48 hours ago, Karen had set a new female course record in the Buffalo Stampede Grand Slam. Over three days and three stages she raced 137km through the Victorian Alps in southern Australia, clocking up 9329m of vertical gain. As I spoke to her, just hours later, she was still pumping with energy.
Ciggies and steel caps
Over the last two years, Karen has exploded onto the trail ultramarathon scene. Hers has been the sort of ‘overnight success’ born from relentless discipline, countless hill repetitions and a level of persistence most find unimaginable.
Karen had been a record-setting runner at school in the 800 metre and 1500 metre track events, but life circumstances prevented her from pursuing opportunities at the time. It wasn't until she was in her early forties that these opportunities presented themselves again.
In 2009 Karen was quitting a 2-pack-a-day smoking habit and struggling with the side effects of medication that was meant to be helping her. Walking became a leveler for her, as she headed out for a wander along local trails in her steel-capped boots after work. It was another two years before Karen switched boots for a pair of running shoes, and her first race bib as an adult was earned in 2013.
Will versus skill
My impression of Karen is as a very kind, gentle human - yet she races with such grit that I am in awe of her focus and ability to achieve. To be honest, I find it a little unsettling, but in a good way. She forces me to question my own attitude and mental strength, creating a delicious state of cognitive dissonance that is the catalyst of powerful learning.
I really want to understand the source of her champion factor, and during our telephone conversation, I start to peel back the layers to find out what was at the core of her recent achievement.
Karen doesn’t see herself as an elite runner, reasoning that she has arrived at the sport too late in life to match the speed of the younger generation of trail elites. But what drives her is a quote from Mohammad Ali; “The will must be stronger than the skill.”
According to Karen: "I know I’m never going to be the fastest but I can be stronger in mindset and it’s why I focus on endurance events.
"On the day I entered the race I made the decision I was going to win it. I looked through the top 10 per cent results of previous races and worked out my relative strengths and weaknesses. That’s what I trained.
"I wrote my goal down, stuck it on the fridge and looked at it every day - training my mind to win the race as much as my body. I worked out my race plan then, throughout my training, I visualized what it was going to be like arriving at each checkpoint at the target time. I stepped my mind through what was going to happen and how I would manage it."
Despite this dedication, Karen's preparation for the Stampede wasn't flawless. Work and life stresses and health challenges aside, she arrived at race day sporting torn ligaments in her ankle and a possible fracture.
"I had every reason to pull out. Instead I told myself not to worry about the last 3 months, I have been training for the last 3 years and everything I have been training for has led to getting across this finish line."
Once she committed to a goal, Karen doesn’t let herself off the hook until it is mission accomplished.
"There was a point on the Sunday [Day 3 of the Grand Slam] where I told myself that I was happy to come second - there were other runners near me and I was struggling. But as soon as the thought popped into my head it also popped out again because I didn’t come here for second. I bounced back quickly because I had trained my brain that I came here for first."
With all the work done in training, Karen maintains an open mind as to how race day will unfold. Her ability to deliver seems to come from being able to mix unwavering focus with a willingness to go with the flow.
"On race day I write my splits on a piece of paper, put it in a plastic sleeve and then tuck it into my pocket. I don’t look at it again until the race is over. I touch my pocket occasionally during the race to remind me, to focus my mind but I never look at them. I can’t control everything on race day and I need to work with whatever unfolds and looking at my splits would put me under the wrong type of pressure.
"Downhill is usually my strength, but because of my ankle, it was painful and slow, so I pushed harder on the climbs. On the Friday [Day 1] I was cramping badly so I tried different things. I started to sing. I was running down the hill and started singing. The people around me were throwing some strange looks but it worked. I chewed on crystalised ginger and the heat helped to snap me back into life. I have music on my ipod that makes me happy. The theme music from Rocky cut in and I started laughing.
Amidst all the positive, forward energy, Karen also readily admits there is a sting that propels her.
"Throughout my life I have always been called an overachiever. I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing or good thing because it sets you up for criticism. There are people who would love to see me fail and I don’t want to give them the satisfaction. People who doubt me are some of the driving force behind me."
initially Karen was uncomfortable with me referring to her as an 'emerging elite' and was reluctant to divulge her next goal - but I think this story is far from over. Karen Barrett is a true champion in my eyes and I am excited to see what she commits to next.