Barkley or the Olympic Trials?

AJWs TaproomGreetings iRunFar Nation! I know we’ve been mixing things up a bit here lately with last week’s column coming a day early on Thursday and now, what the heck, a Tuesday column! But, such is the life of a diuretic ultrawriter. :)

Last month, I queried my “friends” on Facebook about what they thought was more difficult, finishing the Barkley Marathons or qualifying for the United States Olympic Marathon Trials (USMOT). Not surprisingly, like many things in our sport, the responses were bifurcated and no clear winner emerged. So, as with many things in my life, I was left to decide for myself and here is the deal:

  • Barkley requires ridiculous endurance and a certain amount of luck.
  • USOMT requires ridiculous speed and a certain amount of luck.
  • Barkley means you have to battle day and night with the elements and a certain degree of inflexibility on the part of the race organizers.
  • USOMT requires that you battle with the race organizers and deal with the elements they give you.
  • Barkley says it’s my way or the highway.
  • USOMT says, well, this is the highway!
  • Barkley punishes the capricious and rewards the patient.
  • USOMT punishes the patient and rewards the capricious.
  • Barkley says you need to understand that the start time is variable.
  • USOMT says you need to understand that the finishing time is variable.
  • Finish Barkley and you’re done for a year.
  • Finish USOMT and you’re done for a week.

In the end, of course, the question is as silly as the asker as we all know the comparison is ridiculous. That said, how great is it to know that a discussion like this can even take place? When all is said and done, testing ourselves against ourselves is what keeps us coming back for more. It makes us stronger and more complete. As bizarre and out there as the Barkley is there are some who have made a lifetime of it. And, as pure and simple as the marathon is there are some who have yet to master it. It is that mystery, that hope of finding some deep something within us, that extra thing that makes us go out for that “fifth loop” or that final “10K” that keeps us going after it day after day.

Until Friday!

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Yuengling Traditional LagerThis week’s beer of the week is easy. Since Bryon has enjoyed a few of these this past weekend we must, with this Tuesday edition of the Taproom, pay homage to America”s Oldest Brewery, D.G. Yuengling and Son in Pottsville, PA. Their Traditional Lager has been an East Coast staple since 1829 and never fails as a go-to beer.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
I’d like to frame this (civil) conversation by reiterating that this comparison is ridiculous. It’s not our intention to instigate a fracas about which goal is more difficult, but to flesh out the challenges inherent for accomplishing these two incredible… and incredibly different goals. With that in mind, please share where you can add positive insight while taking the time to be respectful of others.

  • Which challenge do you enjoy more: walking the razor’s edge of effort or enduring days of unspeakably harsh environmental conditions?
  • Whether you’ve started the Barkley or made an attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials Marathon (successful or not on either goal), we’d love to hear what there the biggest challenges you faced in trying to reach your goal as well as the rewards you got out of making the attempt.

[Editor’s Note: I’ve got to thank AJW for this bonus Taprooom piece as I’m down for the count. – Bryon]

There are 49 comments

  1. swampy

    Is there some sort of ethical reason beer companies don't sponsor ultras or has it just not been tried? I for one, daydream of the "Lagunitas 100"

  2. Jeremy

    Yang-Lang. That panther piss is filtered through fly ash. Only one step above Race Car (American Lite) beer and two above Rolling Rock. Oh well, I have certainly partaken a time or two, most memorably while at a Tom Petty concert. When I go back to my hometown in NE Ohio, I reach for a Great Lakes Brewery product. The only good thing to ever come out of Cleveland. Elliot Ness Amber, Dortmunder Gold, Edmond Fitzgerald Porter…all solid choices and available most anywhere Yung-Lung is sold.

  3. Steve Pero

    I have run (?) the Barkley fun run in 2001, it was the hardest thing I have ever attempted.

    I have also run a 2:48 marathon a long time ago…no way could I even be considered to run the Oly Trails!

    The training for the trials is much harder….I'm sure the running of the trials hurts a lot more. Barkley is an intense stay awake hike….

    I agree with Jeremy as per Ying-Ling…check out Santa Fe's Java Stout, by far my fave beer this year! …but I think my own extra IPA that is brewing now will be this year's tops ;-) I should have some at Hardrock, visit the Avon early evening ;-)

  4. AK

    Coors was the sponsor of Leadville for many years. There were always bins of iced cans available at the pre- and post-race ceremonies. Now don't go and get all snobby on me and wonder why it couldn't have been a microbrewery sponsorship… :-)

  5. Aaron

    Good ol Laz took away the ability to carry an altimeter this year on the course.

    This just made Barkley an orienteering course using map and compass only.

    A good answer to this question would be how many of the people who qualified for the trials could finish 5 laps at Barkley? Then ask them which is harder?

    1. Bryon Powell

      Aaron, while those sort of simple questions no doubt have an appeal, I think reversing the group in focus shows such questions end up making the group being asked the question the lesser group.

      For example, ask any of the Barkley finishers to go run the Olympic Trials Marathon qualifying time. Rather, have them try to run the OTMq pace for as long as they can and I very much doubt any of them would make it 5k just like I doubt many of the OTM qualifiers would complete a single lap of Barkley. It's pretty darn unlikely that someone from either successful set could accomplish the other goal in a short time frame. Anyone who succeeds at one of these goals has likely spent a good number of years honing very specific skills. That's what makes this interesting… it's comparing lychee to cumquats. :-)



      1. Jake

        Good thoughts Bryon. I think most people are smart enough to realize this is a comparison of two things on such opposite ends of the spectrum that you can't really even make a comparison. Most guys like me (working his butt off trying to run a sub 2:19 marathon) wouldn't even be interested in attempting something like Barkley… its so far off the radar… but I have a ton of respect for anyone who even gives it a shot! I'd rather run mile repeats all day than run a course like that. Its all running, but still totally different worlds. I'm impressed with the civil manner of the conversation so far and that it didn't turn into a typical letsrun thread! :-)

        1. Bryon Powell

          James, I was pondering the OTM qualifiers today and Max King is an obvious standout selection for someone who could crossover to take on the Barkley challenge. I don't know the talents of the vast majority of the OTM qualifiers, but the cross country/steepler guys would have the quickest shot transition. Still, I think it'd be a decently long transition (i.e., years) not so much to build leg strength and the like, but to gain the experience necessary to take on the crazy shit that goes on in a nearly 60 hour event.

          The (short) Barkley finishers list is made up of some of the best long trail folks out there, folks that have run countless Hardrocks, etc. Brian Robinson did the long trail triple crown in less than a calendar year… and he still only had four hours and change to spare when he set the race record… after DNFing on lap 5 the previous year.

  6. pittbrownie

    Your best beer of the week yet! Hooray Yuengling!

    AJW, what are your thoughts of DNFing at Barkley?

    Trying to think of an ultra sponsored by a brewery, but can't come up with any. That needs to change.

  7. Anonymous

    I remember at Miwok a few years ago they had Lagunitas with special Miwok labels. That's is sort of like a "Lagunitas 100" all I remember was it was damn good!!!

  8. Brent Broome

    AJW, you write: "And, as pure and simple as the marathon is there are some who have yet to master it."

    First of all, as Theloneous Monk used to say, "simple ain't easy".

    Secondly, you make it sound like some have mastered the marathon and some are still working on it, and I *know* you know better. NO ONE, not even Patrick Makau (the current WR holder) has mastered the marathon. As with everything in life, we are all students and there is always room for improvement.

    That all said, I'm a big fan of your column. Keep the ultra-philosophizing coming!

  9. Guy

    It really seems to depends on your inherent and developed skills. Even elite ultrarunners quake st the Barkley, and the record is held by a noted hiker, not runner. That challenge seems to require more orienteering skills and mental fortitude than actual running ability. Someone more adept to running might have the ability to qualify got the

  10. Ian Sharman

    Depends on if you're a man or woman – no female finishers of the Barkley and same cut-off as the men. While the OT times are different for the women to qualify (2:46) compared to the men (2:19).

    Using the 10-11% rule that generally applies to track, the equivalent women's OT time to the men's would be around 2:34 suggesting that for women to qualify for the OT is easier than for men (even if you disagree with 10-11% as the right figure, 2:46 is just under 20% on the men's time). And for women to finish the Barkley is harder than for men given they don't have any extra time.

    Even though I don't consider what I just wrote to be controversial, I'm sure it will annoy some people.

    1. Ian Sharman

      So I'd say for women, the Barkley is a much harder target than the OT. For men, I'd say the Barkley could be achieved by a larger proportion of ultra runners than qualifying for the OTs would.

  11. white trash

    I think there's probably males and females that could get a qualifying time for trials and put in a good showing at Barkley. If I had to put money on a female that barely qualified vs a male that barely qualified, I'd go with the female on a first attempt- the male would outrun everyone, get lost, and be discovered 6 months later wandering through Tennessee truck stops trying to find there way back to Wartburg. No one should even try though, because by DNFing, you never get Christmas cards from AJW again.

  12. Bryon Powell

    Hey everyone, I just want to thank all of you for keeping this discussion so civil and positive. I'm a bit beat up/ill at the moment and will admit I braced a bit when I went to first look at the comments this morning as well as right now. Instead, y'all have boosted my spirits during a bit of a bad streak streak on my end. So thanks again!

  13. Jay P

    The Barkley…. yikes… That just looks to be a whole new definition of brutal. I must say, looking at the two it is the one I would rather attempt. The one picture with the caption showing "1500 feet of vertical in .6 miles at a 50% grade" made me crack a sadistic smile.

  14. Toe

    maybe we can get Mike Wardian to give the barkley a crack and see what he thinks is harder. Then again he will probably have run a marathon the day before.

  15. Nick P

    Perhaps a better question may be, given the generally appropriate background for each event, which requires more dedication and training to achieve? I would guess from this perspective the two are pretty similar.

    Would be interesting to know what Blake Wood thought – he has done Barkley, and I believe his daughter qualified for the trials. He would probably have the best idea of which is 'harder'

  16. Charlie

    USOMT – all participants expect to finish and hope to qualify.

    Barkley – very few participants expect to finish but all hope to experience something.

    I wonder if you interviewed all Barkley runners before the race how many would honestly be hoping to do all the laps. I suspect hardly any, which means Barkley's reputation has already beaten them before they start.

  17. fredprendergrast

    Seriously, what's the deal with Barkley? I looked at the race once, and it looks like they hide books up in trees and other obscure locations from which you have to tear out a page to prove you were there. I have also heard of people successfully orienteering to the location of the book only to not be able to find it and having to drop. Allowing the race directors to hide the book wherever they want allows them to keep their finishing rate (really) low. It seems to me that it should be more about peopl'e endurance, not whether they can find a book hidden by a race director that doesn't want people to finish and upset their (ridiculous) claim to be the toughest ultra.

  18. Rob Y

    The Books are not "hidden". In fact each participant is given a very detailed course description and access to a marked up route map (participants then mark up their own map). Actually, for the most part, year to year the books are largely in the same locations. No, this is not an orienteering challenge either as the course largely stays the same year to year. Sure you can get off route easily, especially at night, in fog, etc… Sadly the vast majority of participants quit in camp after having completed a single or two loops; often with plenty of time on the clock. Very few actually get timed out for missing the cutoffs. No, finding the books is the least of the difficulty of the Barkley Marathons. It takes having experienced this event to fully understand just how difficult it is. It is, by far, the most difficult ultra in the world. I have no doubt that the small entry field and even smaller number of strong participants is what keeps the finish rate small more so than book finding or orienteering challenges. The race is kept small because of park regulations, and the camping area is tiny (you must be present in order to know when the race starts). If the race allowed either only highly qualified entrants or the field size increased I'd expect to see a large rise in the number of finishers; but taking such actions violates the very spirit of this small, very difficult, grass roots event. Heck at $1.60 entry fee this is a huge bargain! :)

  19. Annika

    I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation as it was something brought up in an interview we conducted last week. It has also given me some great new questions to ask participants so thank you!

    Brian – As far as coverage of the Barkley for 2012, we are making a documentary about the race and will be there covering the whole thing! I will be updating our fb and twitter page throughout.

    ps. My sis lives in Philly. Love the Yuengling.

  20. Mike Hinterberg

    I am far from either goal, but I guess so are many.

    In either case, a person has to be sold on the importance of the goal and appreciation of the journey to get there. You have to buy into that "point" of doing either event.

    Ironically, I love bushwhacking, orienteering and logistics, trail running, and hiking (or skiing) in all kinds of weather, but the Barkley does not speak to me in terms of desire to do it, based mostly on the non-running arbitrary factors. But I appreciate that it's out there and interesting to some folks, and wish them success in their goals, whether it be finishing or enjoying the ride.

  21. Chris


    You are one of best runners I know and I love your blog and outlook on life, but man you are wrong here. Portland rules the beer world! Come on up and enjoy one of our 33 breweries then join local talent for a run in a park that has a trail that is 33 miles long, all within city limits!

  22. Aaron Sorensen

    A lot of good points.
    The way I look at it is , Gary is a top 3-5% Ultra Runner. He excels in tough runs from 18 to 30 hours and may be top 1-2% at what he excels in.
    Yet it takes every last bit of effort for him to get through 5 laps and almost finish after 2 years.

    So what number of ultra runners out there in the world are stronger than Gary?

    You could line the 40 most qualified people in the world at the starting line each year at Barkley and you would still more than likely average less than 5 finishers each year.

    Now you can line up the 1,000 fastest marathoners in the world (men or women) at the start of an Olympic qualifier and unless they are just not having a good day, pretty much every one of them will qualify.

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