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?
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Ha, wow. :D The Barkley sounds amazing in every sense. I was going to say I would never do it, but then I started reading the article and wondering if any Alaskans have ever tried it (Alaska being what it is, you really can't throw a rock in any direction without hitting a completely cray-cray ultramarathon up here, like the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which is a thousand-mile foot race through the Alaskan wilderness in winter) and wondering how hard it would actually be -- answer: probably WAY TOO HARD FOR ME, but I'm morbidly curious.

It's really not that I am in any way an athletic person, but the casual level of closeness to actually doing that kind of thing here is -- closer, I think, than most places. Most people have not only at least tried something along those lines (not nearly at that level of difficulty, more like bushwacking through unexplored wilderness, whitewater rafting 500 miles from anywhere, running a marathon; that kind of thing is just "baseline normal, everyone probably tries this once"), and most people have their own "that time I almost died in the wilderness" story -- chased by moose, lost in a blizzard, almost drowned, etc. Most people do actually know at least one person who HAS actually died in the wilderness. (I do -- among other people, my dentist back in the '90s was killed in an avalanche while snowmobiling in the mountains, and a neighbor when I was a kid was an amateur bush pilot who flew too low and got tangled up in trees.)

My actual ability to push my physical limits when I was a teenager was high, but it was just necessary, not something I went out of my way to do. I grew up as a (partly) disabled kid in the middle of nowhere, in a cabin that was only accessible via landing a float plane on a creek and then walking up a 4-mile trail. So there really wasn't much of a choice about it. I once fell down a hill and broke my leg and walked back to the cabin on a broken leg because what ELSE are you gonna do, just lie there? During the year or so that I was recovering from that (the tl;dr is that I have a fragile bone disorder, so I used to break things a lot and they heal slowly) my grandfather died and I talked my mom into leaving me out there to watch the cabin by myself while she supported her mom through the funeral preparations, having figured out ways that I could, while on crutches, do daily chores which included carrying 5-gallon buckets of water to the house up a hill. I did it by picking up the buckets, moving them a step forward, moving me a step forward, repeat until house is achieved.

The woods I grew up in were just miserable for hiking through -- all the things [personal profile] isis was describing above as miserable things, WE HAD SO MUCH OF. Creek crossings, dense tangles of brush, no trails, extreme vertical climbs, slogging through swamps. Not to mention chokingly dense mosquitoes (plus, in my case, being on crutches a fair amount of the time). We did it, though, because those were our woods for hiking in, and we were damn well going to hike in them. XD

I think as I've gotten older I've become a lot less willing to do hard things just for the sake of doing hard things. But I actually DO feel like it's psychologically healthy, for me anyway, to keep pushing myself occasionally and not let myself fall into the trap of only doing things that are easy. I was cluebatted with that when I had to drive in Britain this summer. I honestly have to say, that stupid easy thing, driving in a country with reversed traffic flow, is literally one of the hardest things I've ever had to make myself do, in terms of emotional fortitude. I still can't believe how hard that was. I'm not great with spatial-relationship stuff anyway, and having to reverse everything in my head -- all the driving-related tasks, including not only which way you do everything on the street, but also which hand you shift with and where the mirrors are -- at high speeds while frequently having near brushes with death, and being increasingly terrified of it the more times I almost got sideswiped by a car or went the wrong way around a roundabout, and all of this while trying to explore new places and visit and be social and basically act normal, just blitzed my brain. It was one of the most fucking exhausting things I've ever done in my life, and this includes things like a near-vertical off-trail hike in the mountains in which I lost nearly 5% of my body weight in 24 hours from water loss. I would lie in bed at night for hours absolutely paralyzed with terror of having to do it again the next day. I rarely reached any destination without getting out of the car and collapsing in tears from accumulated stress that I'd been pushing down while I was focused on driving. But I did it! I'm not going to say I did it well, but by the end I was actually managing to navigate reasonably well, I did not fail to drive to a single place I was planning on going because of being terrified of it, and I took that damn rental car back 2 weeks later without a single scratch on it.

And ... it felt good, afterwards. It made me realize that, left to my own devices, I do let myself slide on willpower stuff a lot of the time. I like the way that I feel when I manage to do something that's really hard. It makes me feel more capable of doing other things that are hard, and I guess that's why people do things like the Barkley in the first place.

... that said, I think [personal profile] recessional makes a really good point about not doing things that are miserable that you don't get any benefit out of. Which honestly is why I haven't done a lot of things I used to want to do in my life, because I grew up and realized that the benefit I'd get from having done them would be much less than the amount of misery I'd suffer through in order to accomplish them, and so, nope. It's definitely good to be able to draw that line. Honestly I think part of growing up -- or, I should say, a very useful skill to acquire in becoming a well-adjusted adult -- is learning the difference between doing an unpleasant thing because you want to do it and the result is worth it, and doing it because someone else wants you to do it or because you feel you should.

(Wow, self: long comment much??)
Edited Date: 2017-01-23 11:46 pm (UTC)
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


YES THAT. I really think you can relate better than almost anyone I know, aside from the nonzero (but still small) number of people I actually know in Alaska who had a similar kind of childhood - hazardous, strange, totally foreign to most city-living Americans, surrounded by hostile wilderness and crazy people. Under very different circumstances (and much less traumatically in my case, I'm pretty sure) but I think it's relatable.

And yeah, that's the aspect of the Barkley that hits me exactly. There is NO WAY I could do it in the allotted time. I don't even jog. But I'm not only reasonably confident I could deal with that kind of challenging terrain, but the idea of trying is weirdly appealing.
sholio: bear raising paw and text that says "hi" (Bear)

From: [personal profile] sholio


... lol, and then in a coincidental display of Alaskana, I know there is a moose browsing in the yard, because I saw it just a few minutes ago out the window, but now it's vanished so I DON'T KNOW WHERE IT IS. Which would be fine except I have to go across the yard to feed the boiler (we have an outdoor wood/coal boiler), and I know there has been a very aggressive cow moose with two calves hanging around, and I think this was one of the calves. Also, it's getting dark and it's fifteen below zero, so the house is going to cool off pretty quickly if I don't keep the fire going.

Frozen or stomped - just an everyday sort of decision around here. XD
Edited Date: 2017-01-24 01:19 am (UTC)
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


I did actually find it shortly afterwards! I think when I was looking for it earlier, it must have been right up against the creek bank where it was hidden from view (I first spotted it in the frozen-over creek beside our house, browsing on willows). Anyway, it climbed out and spent some time browsing around the deck this afternoon.

SDC17258

SDC17256
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


This morning's sequel:

SDC17261

I went outside when I got up as usual to feed the boiler, did my usual "look both ways before crossing the yard" thing, saw no moose, and proceeded. When I came back in, I went upstairs to check my email, came back down, and literally JUMPED because Ma and Kiddo were RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE WINDOW. They had to have been somewhere on the blind side of the house where the garage is -- either that, or they'd just come into the yard and were moving fairly quickly through the yard. (By the time I ran upstairs and got my camera, they'd already moved into the trees at the edge of the yard. They're totally gone now.)

But yeah, I've lived around them all my life, and they're STILL super weird. They look like a made-up animal. And still pictures don't even do justice to it, because they have a high-stepping "show horse" type gait, due to walking through deep snow. Here's one deciding to fight a pickup truck because she thinks it's after her babies:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-4p9be2sR4

You can also really see the "show horse" thing with the legs when this one is chasing a dog:

https://youtu.be/eSQjzmfrIxk?t=74
Edited Date: 2017-01-24 07:41 pm (UTC)
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


I can believe them showing up on Earth in, say, the Pleistocene. It's having them on Earth now that is weird. Like fanged deer, there is something just not right about it.
loligo: Scully with blue glasses (Default)

From: [personal profile] loligo


I came back to see if there'd been a moose encounter -- and lo, there was!

At our old house we had coyotes and snapping turtles in the yard, and presumably venomous snakes once in a while though we never made a sure ID. But ironically it was the ticks that turned out to be the most dangerous...
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Oh, those are cool too, though! :D Coyotes are really neat, and I've never seen a snapping turtle.
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)

From: [personal profile] rydra_wong


I just wanted to thank you for posting the pics and to say that I am in suitable awe of your TERRIFYING PREHISTORIC MEGAFAUNA OMFG.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Thank you! :D Ha, it's interesting how living with terrifying prehistoric megafauna is something you never really get blasé about. You can see moose every day for a week and it's still WHOA, MOOSE!!
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)

From: [personal profile] rydra_wong


Also you should totally post these to [community profile] common_nature. Your everyday backyard wildlife sightings are a lot more impressive than most people's. *g*
snippy: Lego me holding book (Default)

From: [personal profile] snippy


No, I wouldn't do it. I have nothing to prove in that area--the ability to tolerate misery. I've been a hero, that's enough-I've saved other people's lives and my own, and I resent the necessity, I don't celebrate my achievement. I've endured hunger and cold and neglect and abuse as a child, I don't see anything to be gained for myself by choosing them to test my adulthood. My tests are other: can I be a different person from the people who did it to me? Can I be a different person from the one who did what it took to survive (because the behaviors and choices that you learn in order to survive abuse turn out to be counter-survival among healthy adults)?
.

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