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?
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional

I suppose then for me, if I quit something it's because it's not worth it anymore? All the things that are Insanely Hard/Crushing/Etc that I want, I'm still doing. (School, writing, being alive). It's possible I'll fail some day? But they're also kind of intertwined, sooo. >.>

I've given up on things that hurt to give up, but still weren't worth it. There are lots of things I could readily list where I wish that something about me/my abilities/my life were different so that it hadn't been a point where I had to realize it wasn't worth it? (My music degree/career, etc.) But I suppose the flipside of that is that things that are important to me are almost never single events - it's not The Marathon I give a crap about, it's being able to do the things that are behind the marathon? So I haven't failed until I give up, even if I don't succeed at that race. (As a metaphor.) Even if I fail at the one project, I can always try again at The Thing.

....but I also waited for three years with one inadequate light in my bedroom because I was tired of having one of the three bulbs in the room go out right after I changed one of the others so I was waiting until THEY ALL BURNED OUT GODDAMNIT and it turned out that was an extra-length bulb and it took that long to burn out. And it was actually super inconvenient and I had to physically stop a friend from replacing them FOR me at one point because god-damn it no I WAS WAITING, so I . . .have great faith in my stubborn.
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional

That makes sense.

For me it all falls down with the usual Events because I LOATHE physical discomfort (I am like just about every expected stereotype of the Taurus, but definitely the physical comfort one), so in order to make me put up with it it's got to be really necessary for something I really want.

The closest I've come is my tattoo artist calling a halt once because I was bleeding and shaking too much for her to be comfortable with continuing*. And especially since I can't control the bleeding, I've mostly established that my body will start doing weird things with stress hormones or whatever and make that bleeding happen before I tap out. Which in future made me more likely to tap out when I was starting to be unhappy - or at least get an estimate to finished and if it was too long tap out and make a second appt: past a certain point my meatsack was going to make this impossible and if we're getting close and I'm unhappy i might as well cut that short. ;)

And like for me that old guy didn't fail because he didn't stop he just ran out of time. >.>

*this is because it turns out that while I can tune out the pain from ordinary tattoo stuff, telling my body that yes I got the message but we're not actually being damaged, shut up, once the pain starts getting near my viscera (which this was, due to being up the top of my hip), my body GIVES ZERO FUCKS WHATSOEVER what the brain is thinking and is caught by the overwhelming desire to attack whatever it is that is making us hurt, and will not be redirected. I fully intended to stay there and keep still whatever my body thought until the outlining was done, but it was kind of unpleasant.
Edited Date: 2017-01-24 04:28 am (UTC)
rydra_wong: Text: "Your body is a battleground" over photo of 19th-C strongwoman. (body -- battleground)

From: [personal profile] rydra_wong

And like for me that old guy didn't fail because he didn't stop he just ran out of time. >.>

Or, looking at it the other way -- one of the things I find strangely beautiful about the Barkley is that it's set up to ensure, as much as possible, that almost everyone fails (apparently one year the t-shirts read "Where your very best just isn't good enough"). Some years they've had no finishers at all.

The fact that, occasionally, you have more than one finisher and there's actual competition to see who finishes first is more a coincidence than the point.

I get the impression that Baglione's record is regarded with a certain respect; it's not "haha he screwed up and should feel embarrassed", more "yes, that's an extremely Barkley experience".

Incidentally, I Googled and found his account:


I refer to Barkley as an event, not a race. It is my belief that, with possibly one exception, no Barkley participant has ever treated it as a race.

There have also been some great interviews with Rhonda-Marie Avery, the first blind runner to attempt Barkley (despite Cantrell pairing her up with a sight guide who was a Barkley veteran, they got so lost that they only covered 8 miles of the actual route but ran a good 50-70 miles more off-route -- which is really a very impressive showing, given the terrain). She's said some fascinating things about the equalizing power of an event where everyone's set up to fail, and wanting the chance to experience that failure.
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional

Yeah see for me this still honestly gets a head-tilt and the sense that this is a weird and, to me, nonsensical definition of failure, and also one that does not . . . actually make "failure" less scary?: they have literally succeeded at what they apparently set out to do (participate in this event and not give up), because they're literally not thinking of it as a race where they cross the finish line. Which means that, by definition, they did not fail.

Like I sort of get that these are mostly people who are so inundated and immersed and saturated in cultures of SUCCESS MEANS WINNING AKA BEING FIRST TO CROSS THE LINE OMG or something like that, that this is a new idea, and that those concepts are hard to drop? But especially if nobody thinks of it as a race, especially if the vast majority of people go in knowing that it's basically impossible, then to me the goalposts have obviously been reassigned to "stay going the entire limit of the race-time, working towards trying to get there".

I dunno: maybe its a hazard of being arts-raised and actually avoiding most sports because they seemed to have a zero-sum value system where if you weren't winning, you weren't worth much. It's not necessarily that the arts environment was more healthy, as it's where I get a lot of my own crazy from (the magic word there is "effort", aka "you must have performed effort at practice in a way that is generally understood to be effort, such as sitting at the piano endlessly repeating the parts you're having problems with for hours and hours and HOURS and hours", which among other things leaves no room for "so I have an undiagnosed anxiety disorder and it's fixated itself around practice and sitting at that damn piano is actively agonizing for me", or alternate learning styles, or anything)? Or something.

But especially if everyone's agreed, officially or tacitly, that winning isn't the point, and even finishing isn't the point, then literally your success or failure seems to depend on "did you quit?" So for me it's not normalizing failure, or making failure less scary, or anything of the sort: it's just changing what counts as failure. Success here has clearly become "did you stick it out the whole time block and/or perform a feat of endurance/physicality that adequately meets what people around you think Is Impressive Given Your Limitations (see: blind runner)." I'm not seeing much in the way of interviews or discussions with people who went out for an hour and went "and then I realized this was a bad idea for me and went home and had tea instead."

If there are, then I'll be impressed. I won't hold my breath, though, because Quitters Are Pathetic, and We Don't Like Quitters, and that is basically the atmosphere of every single physicality-focused organized event I've ever encountered? Soooo.

I guess the thing for me is: due to multiple experiences that are mostly, in hindsight, unbelievably . . . ill-advised on my part, I am absolutely certain of my ability, if I decided to do it, of staying out there until the end of the given time. I might well be much like that old man and end up going in circles in a two mile space, but I am absolutely stubborn enough to stay out there for that entire period and stick it out. I'm also pretty sure of my ability to do so in spite of a really high emotional and psychological cost and long term damage?

Which is why it would be a really, really poisonous thing for me to get involved with, and why the vast majority of these are that way, because: see original post. That's where my crazy resides, in the idea that quitting anything I have Set Out To Do is a mark of me being a failure, weak in discipline and willpower, and deserving of contempt. The thing I had to teach myself that I'm still bad at is to be able to look at the cost-benefits of a moment and go "this is stupid, this isn't worth it, I'm done." And to make that decision without guilt or self-abuse. Basically, for me not to need to prove to anyone at the cost of my own mental health (including myself) that I Am Tough Enough To Be A Worthy Human Being.

These days my sine qua non for that one is "I'm not dead yet/I haven't stopped writing yet." The advantage with that is that I'm pretty sure death won't be far BEHIND if I do the latter, and if I am dead, I won't know about having failed! . . . that's probably only funny to me. Ahem.

Events where the failure condition is "did you cross within the first ten people" or whatever are both harder and easier: harder, because the fact is I probably can't do them, because I probably can't beat the anhedonia/lack of executive function enough to drag my body into the kind of shape it would need to be to do them, so I would always fail. And on the other hand easier, because it's much easier for me to go "...but I also don't care enough about that event to bother."

Things where the actual goal is "show how tough-minded you are/how much you can endure/etc" are more dangerous for me. In part because almost everything ongoing can be pounded down to that. I feel like my "previous experiences" list is both depressing and seems like attention-seeking so I'ma skip it, but. XD

.....AND THAT WAS A DISCONNECTED RAMBLE, but yeah. I realize it's in some ways an issue of "what does this word actually mean?" but honestly for me the Barkley doesn't normalize or help to deal with failure, as such, it just redefines what success and failure ARE in this situation. Which may in and of itself be very useful for some people! But not me.
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional

Yeah I mean in case it got lost in my clog of blah, for some people these things are very valuable and that is totally fair. I've just had to sort of chuck out the whole thing because the bit that twists around and gets toxic for me is a knot of a particular shape, that means anything designed to Test Endurance for the sake of doing so is going to hit on it hardcore.
rydra_wong: Text: "Your body is a battleground" over photo of 19th-C strongwoman. (body -- battleground)

From: [personal profile] rydra_wong

I dunno: maybe its a hazard of being arts-raised and actually avoiding most sports because they seemed to have a zero-sum value system where if you weren't winning, you weren't worth much.

Oh, me too. Not to mention the fact that since I'm substantially dyspraxic, I was the Kid Chosen Last For Every Team, etc. etc.. So not only was it a zero-sum game, it was guaranteed that I'd lose (and also not even be able to do anything that teachers or peers would consider a decent attempt). School put me off sports of all kinds for a solid two decades. Until I discovered climbing, which many climbers (me included) will insist isn't a sport, though it has sport elements.

I'm not seeing much in the way of interviews or discussions with people who went out for an hour and went "and then I realized this was a bad idea for me and went home and had tea instead."

Well, the people who do it are ultra-runners/trail runners to begin with, so it seems relatively unlikely that you'd get someone who'd go through all the arcane work of finding out how to enter, successfully get a place, train, and then go "... wait, why am I even doing this?" just an hour in. Though I'd be fascinated if someone did.

But it does seem to be deliberately set up to get almost everyone to that point of realizing it's a bad idea to continue and they have to quit, and the articles I've seen (like Jamison's) generally include quotes from people as they drop out and return to camp.

then to me the goalposts have obviously been reassigned to "stay going the entire limit of the race-time, working towards trying to get there".

Most entrants don't try to stay going the entire limit of the race time (60 hours), though; they hit that point of Done, wherever that is for them personally, where it would be stupid/dangerous/pointless for them to continue, and return to the camp.

I won't hold my breath, though, because Quitters Are Pathetic, and We Don't Like Quitters, and that is basically the atmosphere of every single physicality-focused organized event I've ever encountered? Soooo.

I know exactly what you mean, but my impression of the Barkley (obviously based entirely on articles and the film, and it's not something that I would ever be capable of entering, let alone doing) and what interests me about it is that it's genuinely something different from that -- it goes so far into deliberate perversity and pointlessness that it turns into something else.

It's not Quitters Are Pathetic, it's more like It's More-Or-Less Guaranteed You Will Have To Quit, and maybe you find something interesting/worthwhile in finding out where that point is for you, and/or valuable in the trying.

(Now I really want to rewatch the documentary again to refresh my memory of how it handles that.)

Which is why, I absolutely agree, it would be poisonous for anyone who is stubborn enough to stay out there at the cost of long-term damage to themselves. And I suppose I view it from the perspective as someone who is pretty good at Quitting, mercifully for me -- if anything, because of assorted childhood reasons, I skew towards the fangs-bared "NO FUCK YOU I CAN'T DO THIS AND I KNOW WHEN I CAN'T SO STOP TELLING ME I CAN" response. I can be tenacious with things that are unpleasant and difficlt, but only if I'm also finding them in some sense rewarding.

To me, the Barkley seems way less "Quitters Are Pathetic" in its overall attitude than many, many other sport events.

It may be something about ultra-endurance things -- once you get into the extreme distances, it seems to be a given that people will DNF (Did Not Finish) sometimes, even the most elite. And it sometimes seems that people get into it more in pursuit of self-exploration than to prove that they're Tougher Than That Guy.

Obviously, I'm strictly an armchair comentator here, because I personally hate running with a deep passion and dislike having to engage in almost any "endurance" type activity. But this is one of the very few running things where I've felt a spark of interest -- oh, they might be doing something non-standard and interesting here, that maybe resonates on some level with things I'm interested in.


No, good ramble! Making important points!

(Hence the delayed ramble in response, because I am still recovering brain function.)
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

That's really interesting for me to think about, because one thing the description of the Barkley reminded me of is long-distance dogsled racing, which is a Big Deal(TM) in Alaska. And it's very normalized in the culture of it that winning isn't really the big thing, it's more the effort and the willingness to try at all. Some people compete hard to win, but even the top performers, the people who win all the races, have still lost an occasional race because of stopping to help somebody along the trail whose dogs ran away from them or whatever. There's no stigma to finishing last; failing to finish is not even THAT big of a deal because it happens to a lot of people, and most people who do it repeatedly year after year have at least one year when luck or health failed them and they couldn't make it either.

It's not quite as extreme as the Barkley on the failure scale - it is still a competitive sport - but people who do it as well as people who follow it as a sport generally recognize that it's a heroically difficult thing to do, and that most people who do it, do it as a personal challenge and/or because they find that sort of thing fun, not because they're competing with each other as such.

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