A while back I reviewed a memoir by Lynne Cox, a record-setting endurance swimmer. The entry contains a fantastic set of comments recommending books and articles and media on the topic of mind-body experiences and pushing one's physical/mental limits.

One of the most interesting was on the Barkley Marathons, an extraordinarily challenging wilderness endurance run which is also extraordinarily weird. The entrance fee used to be a flannel shirt, but now it's a license plate from anyone's car but your own. This wonderful article is the best introduction to it.

It’s no easy feat to get here. There are no published entry requirements or procedures. It helps to know someone. Admissions are decided by Laz’s personal discretion, and his application isn’t exactly standard, with questions like “What is your favorite parasite?” and a required essay with the subject “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run In the Barkley.”

This LJ entry has a fascinating account of the Barkley by a guy who got so exhausted that he literally forgot where he was and what he was doing. Comments have some personal anecdotes of similar experiences, along with one of mine at the end.

This documentary is best watched after reading the article, as it minimizes explanation in favor of experience. It's quirky and rambling and fun, and has several satisfying narrative coups. One is when, about fifteen minutes in, it gets around to explaining some of the Barkley's more eccentric and difficult characteristics, in an understated manner with diagrams. They are so outrageous that I burst out laughing. Another is the origin of the name, which doesn't come up until near the end and neatly sums up the charmingly WTF nature of both the founder and the entire thing. The last is a question that kept not getting asked, and not getting asked, until I finally gave up on it. It's asked at the very end. The answer is perfect.

Right now, due to horrendous health problems, it's very questionable if I will ever again do anything more strenuous than walking a couple city blocks. So I'm glad I pushed my physical/mental limits while I could and wanted to and enjoyed it. Had I known what was coming, I might have done more. Probably not a lot more, because I was already doing everything I really wanted to do. But maybe a little more, just for the memories and to have no regrets rather than very few. But had I known what was coming, it would have depressed the hell out of me, so it wouldn't have been worth it. I'm glad I didn't know.

But even at my physical peak, I probably never could have done the Barkley. I don't think I ever had the level of athletic potential to be accepted - I was always more impressive in terms of spirit than in physicality. Technically speaking, I was not only not a world-class athlete, I wasn't even in the top five in my own dojo. Even if I'd somehow gotten into the Barkley on the basis of sheer mental fortitude, a lot of it involves finding your way around, and my sense of direction is wretched. Finally, I already had a sport. To train for something like the Barkley, I would have had to give up or cut way down on karate to devote myself to running, and I loved karate but I've only ever mildly liked running.

But if I could wave a magic wand and make all those obstacles disappear, I would love to try the Barkley.

It's one of the most hardcore tests I've ever heard of for some odd stuff that I am or was unusually good at. Obviously I don't have physical endurance in terms of stuff like training all day any more, but I used to have a fairly impressive amount for an amateur. It involves sleep deprivation, and I'm good at that. I've worked around the clock quite a lot in my life. I've gone entirely without sleep for at least 72 hours multiple times. My functioning degrades, but less than average based on what other people were doing under the same circumstances.

Most importantly, it's a test of persistence. That is something I still possess. I've met lots of people who are better than me at every other thing I'm good at. I have never met anyone who's better than me at not giving up. I am pretty sure I'm world-class at that one. If there's something I really, really want, and there's no reason to quit beyond that it's hard and giving up would provide quick gratification at the cost of the thing I really, really want, I have never quit.

The Barkley intrigues me for an odd motivation mentioned in the film: people run it because it's something they can fail at. It's a challenge for people who've never failed at certain things, and so don't know what their limits really are. The flip side is that maybe, if they can find a thing they could fail at, they'll be able to know for sure that they are limitless.

Is there anything that could make me think, "This is miserable, I know I'll get something I really, really want if I keep going, I'm physically capable of doing so and no harm will come to me if I do, but I'd rather give up and get some sleep?" And then actually make me give up, rather than have that thought and keep going?

I don't know, because nothing ever has. Not even this entire last year and a half, which as some of you know has been as tough as the Barkley but nowhere near as fun, and which often made me very seriously consider giving up. But I haven't.

So if I could, for all senses of could, I'd run the Barkley. I would probably spend the entire time limit wandering lost around the very first loop, like this guy:

Julian is a “virgin,” one of fifteen newbies who will do their damndest to finish a loop. He has managed to escape the designation of “sacrificial virgin,” officially applied to the virgin each year (usually the least experienced ultra-runner) whom Laz has deemed most likely to fail in a spectacular fashion—to get lost for so long, perhaps, that he manages to beat Dan Baglione’s course record for slowest pace. At the age of seventy-five, in 2006, Baglione managed two miles in thirty-two hours. Something to do with an unscrewed flashlight cap, an unexpected creek.

That is great. It's such a magnificent failure that it loops around into success. He may have only got two miles, but he kept at it for thirty-two hours. I respect the hell out of that.

I think I could match that level of sheer stubbornness.

If that's true, I'd like to know it. I'd like to find out if it is true. And I like to do difficult things because they're difficult as long as they're also in some weird sense fun, and unlike, say, climbing Mount Everest, the Barkley sounds both extraordinarily difficult and fun for certain weird values of fun that include most of it being painful and miserable. (I don't know if there are two groups of people, those who do difficult things because they're difficult and those who don't, but there are definitely two groups of people, those for whom the last clause of that sentence makes sense and those for whom it doesn't.)

So here is what I ask you: if you could (assume that for all senses of could, you at least could have gotten in and had some sort of shot) would you do the Barkley? Why or why not?

If you wouldn't have done that specifically, is there some specific difficult thing - climbing a mountain, doing boot camp, taking the bar exam - that you haven't done or couldn't do in real life, but have imagined doing? What is it? Would you do it if you could? Why?
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard


I may or may not care about grinding out the actual solution.

You know, this reminds me of something Neal Stephenson wrote about in the 1990s about cryptography then vs. the 1940s. In the 1990s it was all about mathematically proving that some methods are in principle vulnerable to certain kinds of attack, that this method is superior to that method, etc.

So his protagonist (this is Cryptonomicon) had very little experience actually cracking specific codes, so when he ran into stuff from WWII, when they actually had to know right now what the enemy was saying, it was a definite worldview shift.
yhlee: icosahedron (d20) (d20 (credit: bag_fu on LJ))

From: [personal profile] yhlee


I haven't read Cryptonomicon, but that sounds very much like today's mathematicians' crypto vs. pragmatic real-world security engineering we-need-to-deal-with-it-now crypto. Modern crypto grows out of number theory, which itself used to be the most pain-ass-takingly "pure math no applications need apply" branch of pure math.
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard


Yep, yep. I did number theory in college precisely because I had no interest in real-world problems, haha. Alas, since I ended up working in tech where a grasp of actual security engineering would have been useful.
yhlee: icosahedron (d20) (d20 (credit: bag_fu on LJ))

From: [personal profile] yhlee


Hee! I only have a B.A. in math, although I did some abstract/applied algebra because crypto was the ONLY math application that interested me in the least. Then I heard from one of my professors that the NSA was a miserable working environment and probably not great for women (I wasn't out as trans at the time), and changed my mind about aiming my life in that direction.

I always hated those math problems in K-12 where they show you applications, but I spent a brief part of my life as a high school math teacher and forced myself to emphasize applications because so many of my students related better to being taught that way, heh.

Someone in my university's Engineering college admissions department tried to get me to switch to their college away from Arts & Sciences, but I knew it was a bad idea--the thought of doing engineering gives me the horrors, not because it's not important, but because I am just so temperamentally ill-suited to it.
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard


I didn't specialize in number theory or anything, but I definitely selected all my math classes (B.S.) according to what had the fewest applications. Lol, self.

Yeah, engineering is something I am extremely temperamentally ill-suited to as well!
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