Friday, April 7, 2017

Toughness and the Barkley Marathons


Today’s topic does not have a direct connection to business law, but I do think toughness is important to students, professors, and lawyers. And the Barkleys Marathon is all about toughness, and maybe insanity. So indulge me. I have been thinking about the race, which happened this past weekend, all week. My wife said I wasn't allowed to talk about the Barkley Marathons anymore, so I am going to write about it here.

If you have not seen the documentary on Netflix entitled The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young, watch it. See the documentary's trailers here and here. See more about the race here.

I will save you from this overlong, mostly unrelated post with a page break, but if you are interested, you can proceed and read below.


In short, the Barkley Marathons is an ultramarathon trail race in the mountains of east Tennessee. The race consists of five 20+ mile loops (the course is changed a bit from year to year, but most people think each loop is now around a marathon, 26.2 miles). Much of the course is off-trail, through briars, and up and down steep terrain. The Barkley tends to be included in lists of the toughest races in the world. The full course boasts a total of over 54,000 feet of vertical climbing, enough climbing to summit Everest twice. Only a few dozen competitors are chosen each year, including some of the top professional and semi-pro trail runners in the world (and one “human sacrifice” who is way over his or her head). Competitors are given a maximum of 60 hours to complete the five loops. Most sleep very little during the race, and hallucinations are reportedly common for the few who make the fifth loop. The race director, Gary Cantrell (aka “Lazarus Lake”), usually throws in new wrinkles from year to year to mess with the competitors a bit more. Since the race started in the mid-1980s, there have only been 15 total finishers.

Last weekend was the 2017 edition of the Barkley Marathons. I watched the hashtag #BM100 on Twitter with a sick curiosity. The race has an unpredictable start, within a given day, likely depriving competitors of even more sleep, given the anticipation. This year, the start was at 1:42 a.m. in the dense fog. One of the top trail runners in the world, Michael Wardian, got lost (navigation is required and the fog made this incredibly difficult), and Wardian did not complete one loop before the given cutoff time.

One by one the competitors dropped out or timed out with only two – John Kelly and Gary Robbins – making it to the 5th loop in the allotted time. Kelly finished all five loops in 59 hours and 30 minutes, wearing an orange beanie and a plastic bag that he found and donned to stay warm. Check out John's finish here and his brief race recap here. Gary Robbins took a wrong turn a few miles from camp, in the fog and sleep-deprived; he swam across a river (assuming that wasn’t a hallucination) and made it back to camp a mere six-seconds late. Robbins also went off-course and came in on the wrong trail, which would have been disqualifying even if he had been six seconds faster. Watch Gary’s heartbreaking finish here. For the record, I agree with this author/educator when she wrote that the race director was right in not allowing Gary's finish to count, but nonetheless Gary can certainly hold his head high and use the memories as motivation in future events. Importantly, both John and Gary showed not only an amazing amount of toughness, but also sportsmanship, humility, and concern for their fellow participants.

As far as I know, there is no financial incentive for finishing the Barkley. With the documentary’s success, there may be some sponsorships to be earned, but I don’t think you can explain this race in financial terms. The draw, it seems, is to test your limits and to test your toughness. And your mental toughness is likely tested as much, if not more, than your physical toughness.

Finisher John Kelly has a PHD from Carnegie Mellon University in Electrical and Computer Engineering.A surprising number of the Barkley runners have advanced degrees. These are motivated, tough people. He has three young children. How he finds time to train is beyond me. He finds some of the time by running to and from work. And his relatively newly born twins probably helped him practice dealing with sleep deprivation. 

As I have asked before, how can we, as educators, teach that toughness to our students? How can we teach ourselves toughness?

Personally, I have no current desire to do the Barkley Marathons, even though the race is geographically close to me. As a former law firm colleague of mine, who runs ultramarathons, said “100 miles is enough of a challenge for me without having to try to remember the course or bushwhack through stickers.” For me, it is a moot point, as I am not willing to allocate the time to properly train for a marathon right now, much less a 100+ miler. But I am learning a lot about myself running little local 5Ks and 10Ks as fast as I can. There is something really special, and transferable, about running up against your limits, failing, failing again, and then, perhaps, one day, breaking through and searching for new limits.

I have rambled on long enough, but I think “Laz” was right when he said, “[y]ou can't accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.” Unfortunately, I think many of us insulate ourselves from possible failure. We stand 100 feet back, not wanting to test our limits.

P.S. For a weak attempt to connect this more directly to law, can you imagine all the possible liability issues tied to the Barkley Marathons? There are no course monitors and often harsh weather conditions. Even after participants quit, often at the edge of their absolute limits, they still have to somehow make it back to camp. Perhaps they all assume the risk!

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