Veterinarian makes history as first woman to finish Barkley Marathons

When Dr. Jasmin Paris isn’t teaching, she’s competing in—and winning—ultramarathons

Updated May 1, 2024

Forty ambitious runners gathered this March at the yellow gate in the dense forest of Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg, Tennessee. Most of them knew they wouldn’t complete the race. They just wanted to push their bodies to the limit.

The Barkley Marathons is unlike any other ultramarathon in existence, made up of five, 20-some mile loops. The race is designed to be more challenging each year, and nearly impossible to finish.

The trails haven’t been cleared in decades, and scrub brush and uneven terrain abuse the legs of exhausted participants. At times, participants climb on all fours up rocky inclines and slog through an aqueduct in waist-deep water under the defunct Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. When runners eventually drop out from injuries or exhaustion, a bugler plays taps to signify they’ve been pulled from the course.

Smiling veterinarian holds a white cat while listening to its heart and lungs with a stethoscope
“I’ve always been fascinated by physiology and pathology, and I love it when a challenging medicine case can be explained logically, piece by piece,” says Dr. Jasmin Paris, record-setting ultrarunner and veterinarian. She works as a veterinary surgeon at the Royal (Dick) Hospital for Small Animals at the University of Edinburgh. (Photo courtesy of the University of Edinburgh)

The Barkley Marathons attract the toughest endurance athletes from around the world annually.

Dr. Jasmin Paris, a 40-year-old mother of two, is one of them. She not only competes in ultramarathons around the world but also works as a senior lecturer in small animal internal medicine at the Royal (Dick) School for Veterinary Studies (Dick Vet) at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

This year, Dr. Paris became the first woman to cross the finish line at the notoriously grueling race, whose approximately 100 miles must be completed in less than 60 hours. She clocked in at 59:58:21.

The hardest ultramarathon in the world

The Barkley course, which changes every year, was created in 1986 by Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell and Karl Henn. Only 20 runners have finished the full race in the 38 years since it was created.

Woman with trail racing gear hiking up a hill in the woods
Dr. Paris’ self-belief remained strong throughout the Barkley Marathons, even when her timings on the fifth loop indicated she couldn’t make it back before the cutoff. “I’m sure that was what made the difference between finishing and not,” she says. (Photos by David Miller)

It’s entirely self-navigated and GPS devices, phones, or other navigational equipment are not allowed. Instead, runners use a map and compass. They collect book pages staged at specific checkpoints to prove they’ve completed the course.

Runners have 12 hours to complete each loop, and can stop for eating, bathroom tasks, or sleeping—that is, if they dare use up their precious time. For Dr. Paris, she opted not to sleep.

She had previously completed the Barkley “Fun Run” in 2022, which is what Cantrell calls the first three loops of the Marathons. The next year, Dr. Paris managed four loops.  

From March 20-22, despite the gruelling landscape, hallucinations from sleep deprivation, an upset stomach, and lacerations covering her body, Dr. Paris achieved her goal of completing the course. 

“I just had a really strong personal drive this year to prove to myself that I could finish five loops at Barkley,” Dr. Paris said. “I think having been the previous two years, I knew it was possible, and was excited by the magnitude of the challenge.”

Conquering challenges

Dr. Paris has wanted to be a veterinarian since she was 10 years old, growing up in Manchester, England.

“I think at the time I imagined myself as a farm vet, or at least mixed practice, like the stories of James Herriot,” she said.

Once at Edinburgh’s veterinary school, Dr. Paris switched her focus to small animal medicine with a specific interest in internal medicine. After graduation, she completed a yearlong small animal rotating internship at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

After receiving her veterinary degree in 2014, she completed her PhD at Edinburgh’s Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine.

Her research interest was studying the role of the RNA-methylation reader protein YTHDF2 in acute myeloid leukemia. She is currently working with a group studying human chronic liver disease, using a combination of single-cell and single-nuclei RNA sequencing and spatial transcriptomic technologies.

Specifically, she is focused on primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a chronic inflammatory and fibrotic disease affecting the bile ducts, for which there is currently no treatment.

“I’m starting to apply some of the techniques I’m learning in the human research setting to canine and feline chronic liver disease and hope to expand this work in the future,” Dr. Paris said.

More than a hobby

Dr. Paris has loved spending time outside since she was a child, but it wasn’t until 2008, while working for a year as a small animal veterinarian in Glossop, England, that she started the British sport of fell running. Fell running, also known as hill running, has participants racing off road, where a significant gradient is climbed. It also involves running between two checkpoints, often without a clear path.

Since then, Dr. Paris has won the U.K.’s Montane Spine Race along the Pennine Way, the Dragon’s Back Race in Wales, and set records for the Bob Graham Round in Lake District U.K., and the Ramsay Round in Fort Williams, Scotland.

Her work colleagues are very understanding and supportive of her running, particularly in terms of accommodating her races during the on-call and clinical duty weeks.

Woman wearing trail racing gear runs through woods
Dr. Paris is up and running before her children—Rowan, age 7, and Bryn, age 3—are awake. She runs each morning for more than two hours. “I love the way running takes me to the mountains and wilderness, that’s where I’m happiest, it’s where I can find a sense of perspective and peace,” Dr. Paris says.

“We are in awe of Jasmin’s achievements. She is not only an excellent sportswoman, but an amazing colleague and an inspiration to all of our staff and students,” said Dr. Lisa Boden, head of Dick Vet and dean of veterinary medicine.

Dr. Paris’ medical training came in handy during one race when another runner had a cardiac arrest on top of a mountain. She performed CPR until the helicopter arrived.

“That day is etched into my memory—the mountains spread out on all sides in the winter sunshine, and the way everyone worked together,” she said.

Dr. Paris describes herself as quite driven and stubborn.

“When I have a goal, I give it everything I have to make it happen, and I’m sure that drive was a key factor in finishing Barkley,” she said. “I work hard and aim high, but I think I’ve become better over the years at forgiving myself when things don’t go to plan, learning from the mistakes and moving on, which I think is a good skill for both veterinary medicine and ultrarunning.”

In May, Dr. Paris will run the Scottish Islands Peaks Race, a sailing and 60-mile fell running race along the west coast of Scotland, and the Jura Fell Race, a 17-mile race on the Scottish Isle of Jura.

Starting September 8, she will compete in the Tor des Géants race in Valle d'Aosta, Italy, which will be “another nonstop mountainous adventure” over 205 miles.

As far as athletic accomplishments and success in her career, Dr. Paris finds that the two complement each other.

“For me, running is the time I have to myself. It keeps me happy and able to cope with the challenges of motherhood and clinical academia,” she said. “My advice to other young women would be to find a sport that brings you joy, and to protect the time necessary to keep it up.”

Correction: A previous version of this story gave a different age for Dr. Paris’s son.