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?
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.)

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