I just watched the Barkley Marathons. I know, I know. I’m late to the game on this one. I’m genetically pre-disposed to not watching things just because people tell me I should watch them. But I have found that I have infinitely more time for Netflix now that I’m injured, so I finally caved to the social pressure.
And I loved it.
I didn’t love it because I want to run that type of race. In fact, I spent most of the documentary thinking that the participants were slightly off their rockers…and imagining how my map-reading ineptitude would lead to my certain death after I became hopelessly lost in the Tennessee wilderness. I didn’t love the race itself. What I love is how the race highlights the best parts of the human spirit and running community, how it redefines how runners view success and failure, and how it demonstrates just how far tenacity can carry you.
In the road races I’ve been a part of (and even the mountain marathon to a large extent), there’s such a competitive spirit at play that there’s little interaction during the race. Everyone’s in it to win it. It seemed as though in the Barkley Marathons, there’s a heightened sense of camaraderie and interdependence.
It’s not that there isn’t competition, but there is also a healthy respect for other runners and a clear community of support that is created among the runners. Laz comments: “They want to beat each other and they will race their guts out, but as failure for one reason or another takes each one of those top guys they become like a de facto crew of the people who are left and when it whittles down to that single runner who’s surviving he’s got an A crew who’s like a who’s who–the amount of knowledge and experience and accomplishments in that group helping him to go on so that someone can succeed.” The event is itself is bigger than any one runner. Runners lend their expertise to other runners, veterans pair up with and stick by race “virgins”, and just like that a community is formed.
Conventional definitions of failure lose their meaning in the Barkley. In a typical race, it’s about finishing the course and as fast as possible. It’s about PRs and getting ROI for your training. The Barkley is fundamentally different. It took 10 years before anyone finished the Barkley and another 6 years before a second person finished. There are still many years where no one finishes all five loops. Even those who tap out before the fun run see the massive accomplishment in persevering for as long as they could.
It’s not about the finish as much as pushing personal boundaries and discovering what you’re capable of. Laz describes it rather eloquently: “people have their own concepts of success and failure and they–a lot of them–by the time they’ve been through the ordeal really are not concerned with how other people evaluate their performance…they make their own judgments about success and failure.” There’s a beauty to an event that isn’t about the finish in and of itself, but instead is about the journey to get there.
Grit & Tenacity:
The role of mental fortitude far surpasses physical strength in this race. Sure, these runners are fit and trained, but they’re also able to grind through the exhaustion, the physical pain, the self-doubt, the voice that is telling them to stop. It shows just how far the mind can carry a battered human body. I love the moment where one of the runners about to start his fifth loop on blister-covered feet says “I just need to muscle through it for twelve more hours.” That is grit, pure and simple. I have trouble digging deep to muscle through another mile just to finish a 10-mile run! That same runner went on to finish and perfectly described the role that grit and tenacity play in this race: “so many people told me…you have to be super elite to finish Barkley. I just refused to believe that. I think if you really want it bad enough a joe shmo like me could finish. It’s not going to be pretty, it’s not going to be fun, but it’s gonna be possible.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
So while I won’t be throwing my hat in the ring for this particular race any time soon–or ever for that matter–I am totally on board for what it stands for and tip my hat to anyone who’s taken part whether for one loop or for all five.