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?
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yhlee: counterpoise trebuchet (trebuchet 1 (credit: <user name="vom_mar)

From: [personal profile] yhlee


Being a soldier.

Mainly, I'm curious because, as far as I can tell, EVERY SINGLE SKILL REQUIRED to be a good soldier is something that I actively suck at. I suck at taking orders (I am actively oppositional). I am the least athletic person I know who is not physically disabled. I have mental health conditions that would disqualify me for any kind of useful service; God knows they pretty much disqualify me for anything but being a writer. I'm probably too squeamish. I hate being around other people. I have no sense of direction. I get tunnel vision, real live actual tunnel vision, from sound effects in first person shooter computer games. And that's not even getting into things like military ethics, which is a topic that fascinates me but it's only ever going to be academic. I mean, you name J. Useful Trait for being a soldier, I don't have it.

If everything above (plus all the other stuff I'm not thinking of) got reversed, I would seriously consider trying it. I spent part of my childhood on two military bases. My dad used to be an Army surgeon. The core value of service really appeals to me. But I'll never know.
ellen_fremedon: overlapping pages from Beowulf manuscript, one with a large rubric, on a maroon ground (Default)

From: [personal profile] ellen_fremedon


Huh. There's no way I would ever do the Barkley because I find running miserable and only do it if I'm chasing a bus, but if it were an endurance walk with a lot of wayfinding I would find it kind of tempting.

I am very good at persisting with difficult things as long as I'm learning, not even how to do them, but how to learn them. I am stubborn as hell with meta-puzzles. I am much less stubborn with puzzles I know how to approach; I loved grad school right up to the point where my field started to make intuitive sense and then I got very bored very quickly.

If there's no puzzle at all, just a thing I need to practice, and I have already identified the thing and determined that I can't progress without practicing it...yeah, at that point I have virtually no ability to self-motivate unless I really, really like doing the thing. And even then I can't make myself practice the boring bits. So I can knit pretty well, but I don't do anything that requires grafting or blocking because I don't like those parts and won't do them; I'm a good cook, but my knifework is shit; when I'm in practice, I can play the piano and bass clarinet at a pretty high level of difficulty, but my technique is still super sloppy; and so on.

And I've never yet found a physical practice that I enjoy doing enough that I'm willing to, well, practice it. I curled for five years and liked it a lot until the geometry and physics started to make sense, but after that it was just a lot of running around on the ice in front of stones whose trajectories could be left as an exercise to the reader. I do enjoy walking! But I only really enjoy hiking in unfamiliar surroundings--I get bored by the second or third time I've taken a particular route--and it's hard to get to new places to hike without a car :(.
Edited (spelling) Date: 2017-01-23 10:29 pm (UTC)
yhlee: soulless (orb) (AtS soulless (credit: mango_icons on LJ))

From: [personal profile] yhlee


...I feel you. I lose interest in most things once they get too easy. The main reason I decided to become a writer, I realized in retrospect, was because for over ten years my parents told me it was a stupid and pointless thing to be doing, and it was hard to get published. Half the attraction of majoring in math was that I had to work for it.

(Although there needs to be a sweet spot for me--if improvement is too slow, I just give up. I'm so clumsy and physically inept that most physical activities fall into this category for me.)
dhampyresa: (Default)

From: [personal profile] dhampyresa


If I could, I think I would. It sounds like fun -- the miserable kind of fun, granted, but still fun.

I kind of want to swim across the Channel or across the Strait of Gibraltar. Sounds a bit ridiculous, but it's humanly doable. Maybe I'll be able to swim across a breton bay this summer.
commoncomitatus: Chiana doing what she does best (✺ chiana: slow with the soul)

From: [personal profile] commoncomitatus


I'd never heard of the Barkley before this post, but it sounds incredible.

And, well, I'd love to say that in theory I would totally do it, but I'm self-aware enough to know that my lack of self-esteem and/or generic cowardice would probably preclude me even if I knew I had what it took to physically pull it off. It sounds like the sort of thing I would love to push myself and test my limits with, but ultimately, I think it would just end up being a case of "the heart is willing but the mind is weak".
ellen_fremedon: overlapping pages from Beowulf manuscript, one with a large rubric, on a maroon ground (Default)

From: [personal profile] ellen_fremedon


Same! I majored in linguistics because it was the only undergrad subject I got Bs in.

(For me, seeing improvement doesn't really help--I can see plenty of improvement from practicing scales and Hanon, or whatever the equivalent is in other disciplines; I'm just not sufficiently invested in the idea of my own success to make it worth my while to endure scales and Hanon.

Basically, I need to enjoy doing the thing badly to have any hope of learning to do it well.)
ellen_fremedon: overlapping pages from Beowulf manuscript, one with a large rubric, on a maroon ground (Default)

From: [personal profile] ellen_fremedon


I don't give up on meta-puzzles--figuring out the steps it would take to solve the puzzle. Once I've figured that out I may or may not care about grinding out the actual solution.

{ETA: For values of 'puzzle' that include 'anything in my life that requires any labor whatsoever.' Story plots, schedules, shopping lists, packing boxes, menu planning--they're all puzzles, as far as I'm concerned.]
Edited Date: 2017-01-23 11:03 pm (UTC)
commoncomitatus: Dean in duplicate, ready to run (☂ run deano run)

From: [personal profile] commoncomitatus


Hm, possibly Iron Man. It passes by our building every year and I always get that "if only..." feeling. I imagine with something like that, there's just enough variation that a failure in one event wouldn't belittle the achievements in the others.
yhlee: Alto clef and whole note (middle C). (alto clef)

From: [personal profile] yhlee


Yes! Like, toward the end I took Intensive Latin for an elective and got an A+ in it hardly even trying. It liked the prof and it was fun while it lasted, but even if I'd been staying for more years of undergrad that would have killed my interest in doing more Latin. I sweated blood over the math and it was mind-bendingly beautiful.

I have a piano background (although can only play medium difficulty pieces) and I can't endure Hanon and scales either! My motivation to keep up with instruments was not performance, because in actual real life I don't care all that much. But I compose music, which is ongoingly interesting and challenging and fun, so my interest in various instruments (piano, viola, harmonica) was always driven by that.
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard


I hear you! I am the same way re languages. I'm clearly linguistically gifted and at the same time monolingual in large part because grammar is exciting and vocabulary is so tedious when there are so many other grammars I could be mastering. So I start a language, solve the puzzle of how it works, wow everyone with my learning speed, and then go haring off after the next language before my command of this one has gotten to the stage of being *useful*.

And I'm good at vocabulary! Not the best in the world, but I have a very strong memory that pays off. I just do not have the self-discipline to stick with it when--oh, shiny! New language!

After years of daydreaming about multilingual, I have finally accepted this about myself. Oh well.
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.
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard


Seconding this! Awesome book, highly recommended.
yhlee: soulless (orb) (AtS soulless (credit: mango_icons on LJ))

From: [personal profile] yhlee


I hate puzzles and use walkthroughs to get by them.

I also hate Rubik's Cubes with a passion. My mom got one when I was a very small child. She fiddled with it for about fifteen minutes, figured it out, and thereafter was instantly able to reorder an Rubik's Cube in her possession no matter how messed up it was in just moments. I have actually been to a fucking lecture on the group theory [1] of Rubik's Cubes and still can't solve the fucking things.

[1] Mathematical topic, where "group" is mathematical jargon that I won't bore you with. I wish I were making this up.
ellen_fremedon: overlapping pages from Beowulf manuscript, one with a large rubric, on a maroon ground (Default)

From: [personal profile] ellen_fremedon


I mean, I do enjoy all those things (and can get pretty invested in them--I used to be able to spend a whole afternoon on a Sunday NYT crossword and now I'm disappointed in myself if it takes me more than 15 minutes).
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.
ellen_fremedon: overlapping pages from Beowulf manuscript, one with a large rubric, on a maroon ground (Default)

From: [personal profile] ellen_fremedon


Same! This is why I love dead languages--no one will ever expect you to speak to another human being about how to get to the train station; you can just suck out all the delicious juicy grammar and morphology and leave the hollow communicative shell.
recessional: a photo image of feet in sparkly red shoes (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional


I actually spent a significant amount of time training myself to stop doing a thing if it's actually miserable, and there's not going to be consequences for dropping it.

There's enough stuff in my life that is constantly miserable, that will probably never stop being miserable, and that I will keep having to fight and struggle through very potentially as long as I live. I was also hardcore indoctrinated with the Gifted Kid "you should be able to do anything, if you CAN'T do it you're just not TRYING hard enough, if you stop trying you're GIVING UP, and GIVING UP means you're LAZY and UNDISCIPLINED". Combining that with my major depression nearly killed me, literally, more than once.

So I've actually made it a hardcore thing for myself: if I'm not enjoying it, if I'm miserable, and if what I'm going to get out of it is not worth this misery, I need to quit. That even if something at the end is something I really want, I am allowed to go "but do I want it that much?" And I'm allowed to say no, and go home and read a book instead.

Now like I've got qualifiers in there, which include "actually miserable." Because there's stuff that's kind of . . .technically miserable? Which are at the same time actually massively rewarding at the same time as it's miserable, and that's not going to make me quit. Writing, for example, falls under this category for me: the experience of writing is, for many reasons, more or less for me like the equivalent of some kind of horrible marathon, but at the same time as it's horrible, it's IMPORTANT or it's rewarding me in some other way that's incredibly important, and those I'll keep going until I'm dead.

And there's stuff I fucking hate that will AFTER IT'S OVER give me something that is in fact that rewarding so that the misery is worth it, and the answer to that question of "is this worth it" turns out to be "yes". (See also: school.)

But if it's actually miserable, the question of "is this worth it" is allowed to be "no". Which is actually still very hard for me.
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.
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard


I know, right?! Unfortunately, I couldn't even stick with a dead language long enough to be able to read the texts I wanted to in it at anything like a reasonable pace. If I'd stuck with Classics, I could be reading the texts I wanted to in Latin and Greek. Instead, I read a couple at a painfully slow pace and moved on to yet another dead language.

It worked great for historical comparative linguistics, which is why I ended up with my PhD in Indo-European studies and still can't sit down and read, say, Demosthenes for pleasure.
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