A little while ago, one of my running heroes, the one and only Smilin’ Southern Man Billy Simpson, posted a video on his Facebook page called Les Rescapés, a which literally means ‘the survivors,’ showcasing the 2014 Barkley Marathons. If I had to, which I often do, I’d describe this race I’ve never run as a kind of moving death, a seemingly impossible and unnecessary punishment packaged as a fringe athletic event. I would speak of its participants as only marginally sane and their chosen version of endurance sport as a combination of outright masochism and the kind of machismo that made movies like Manhunt and undertakings like polar dips popular in the first place. Face it–there’s something to it that sidesteps all reasonable philosophies. As a friend of mine often says, Barkley isn’t on “the Bucket List.”
My daughter looked over my shoulder as I watched the video. “Are you going to do it, Daddy?”
Pfft. Foolishness. No way.
Being a distance runner changes you, though. Learning to and then running through the forest all day long builds compassion and understanding, forces the mind to open as new experiences relentlessly encourage, even demand, altering perspectives. “To these monks,” says Scott Jurek, “the sacred is everywhere.” And like monks practicing their meditation, distance running teaches letting-go and letting-be in radical ways. As Sally McRae says of how she wanted to race Western States, which it seems to me is also how we all learn to approach our lives, it’s all about being “strong and passionate, but also patient and wise.” Sage words indeed.
There was something about Laz, though, something that made me pause. Something about the way this mountain of a man spoke of the participants; something like how I think a bard may have elegized early Athenian Olympians. And then there was something about the landscape–that it wasn’t ‘pretty’ or grand at all in the usual sense, that the trees were bare and sky grey and yet… and yet nature does not exist, like mountains seem to say, for our ‘ooos’ and ‘ahhs,’ it does not need to appeal to the human senses of calendar-stock beautiful to be everything we need.
And then there was the man Billy Simpson himself, the perennial strong finisher and long runner, happily bowing out and smiling as always (you do remember that photo of him from the middle of the night at Hardrock last year, right? Would you have been so happy and well?). There was Billy Simpson tapping out and shaking Laz’s hand and saying, “I’ll be back.” Happy.
I can admit it–the Barkley Marathons thrill me; not just in a boyish kind of way, but deep down inside. See, I’ve been surrounded by this kind of pioneering spirit my whole life and in so many ways events like these smell of sweet soul food. My brother-in-law was jumping out of planes when I was a kid, my father’s feats of strength are the stuff of legend in my family, and an even deeper piece of family lore has it that a great-great-grandfather marched his fine self some 150 kilometres through the brush of New Brunswick, Canada back in the day only to buy himself 200-pound bags of seed which he then proceeded to chuck over his shoulders and hoof back home again to kickstart the farm and save everyone from a winter that would’ve ended the Titus line right there. Then there’s the tale of my grandmother giving birth to my mother on the kitchen floor and, once she’d plopped her on the open oven door swaddled in blankets afterwards, went right back to cooking dinner. Toughness, fortitude, and a powerful sense of adventure pervades my bloodstream, it seems, and this rugged landscape of Barkley… this rugged landscape and the test it promises speaks to me of our humanity, of our own legends.
But I can admit this, too–it scares me.
When my good friend Jodi Isenor told me he was going to Barkley last year, I rolled my eyes and pffft’d him, just like most everyone–everyone except the one person who would prove us all wrong when he crossed the fun run finishing line, becoming the second Canadian to ever do so; his partner Karine, that is. She knew he’d get it done. It became a hot topic, though. Would he make it? Could he make it? What was his training? The odds were stacked against him–14 of 800 entrants have finished, for crying out loud! Fourteen! And badass entrants at that! Barkley had finished off mountain men and hardboiled women, runners and hikers, and some of the toughest, meanest trail veterans the world (yes, the world!) has to cough up. Have a look at them here on Geoffrey Baker’s website. It’s awesome what it does to people.
“Awesome.” Pffft. More like madness.
And who the hell would even think about it? Why, why put all that time training and spend all that money getting to a race where your chances of failure are so high? What are they testing? The line, we all seemed to be agreeing, between challenge and whacked had been crossed. Our friend, trail gods love him, had gone over the deep end. Clearly.
The German philosopher Shopenhauer says that all truth goes through three stages: that it’s first mocked, then violently opposed, and then accepted as common place. Look at anything from women’s rights to gay marriage and you’ll see the salience of what he’s saying. And maybe, just maybe, there’s some truth in Barkley itself; maybe because it is so extreme, because it does carry such a potential for failure, that it really is so utterly outrageous, that it’s worth doing. When I first heard of this race of all races, I scoffed it off–what lunacy. I laughed at the foolhardiness of it, at the death-wishers that played with its fire, and at the labyrinthine application process. When our friend Jodi said he was in, we mocked him on the outside, but I think we were all secretly cursing him and inherently challenging his bravery, wondering deep down if he hadn’t reached a kind of bravado that bordered on pure insanity. It’s clear to me that when we witness someone approaching the edge of the unknown, we react as if it were a personal affront. If you’d like proof of this, ask anyone in the running world what they think of Kilian Jornet’s bid for the summit of Everest. I somehow doubt their reaction will be lukewarm. There is always a hint of the ‘how dare he,’ of ‘he’s going to die.’ Just as we love to see celebrities drowned by the paparazzi in their worst moment, we reel back from anything remotely superhuman.
Well, why not Barkley? Why not Everest? Why not the South Pole on a bicycle, or a skydive from the outer stratosphere, or a base jump off a tower in Dubai? Really, why not?
I am taken not just by beauty, but by the poetry of excellence and extremes, by the audacity of this nearly impossible race in the middle of nowhere. Like the Spartathlon, Badwater, or the Idiatrod, I am more in love and awe of these things than offended, disturbed, or otherwise bothered by their extremity. As Eric Newby may have been when he first laid eyes and heart on the Hindu Kush, I am tipped over the edge by it, gobsmacked, righteously. This year, Laz won’t be getting a letter from me, because as I said to my friend Jodi who suggested (enthusiastically encouraged, even) that I enter, this is not yet my league. These runners and explorers of the human spirit, I told him, are building superstructures with bricks and mortar while I am still snapping Lego blocks together to fashion houses. No, this year I may try to run around an island in the north of Wales or eek my way into the books by setting an FKT on the Fundy Trail, but I won’t be there in the wild of Tennessee when Laz lights his smoke.
But I also won’t be mocking anyone who thinks they might. Instead I’ll tip my hat to them and give them that nod of awe that says, “Yes, I am impressed. No, I will not laugh at you or stand in your way. Yes, I take it as obvious why you would do this. We are human, and as long as there are grand things to try, we will lace up and plunge into the darkness every time.”
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you ever start things that you are truly unsure you can finish? In trail and ultrarunning? In the rest of life? From where do you find the mental strength to begin such things?
- What do you think when you see another person begin something that’s at the far edge of their capacity? When you observe the truest testing of limits?