Thursday night, February 2, 2017, wasn’t the first time I’d encountered a film about these ultrarunners and their journey to overcome human and personal limitations by scaling and descending a trail equivalent to twice the height of Mt. Everest in under 60 hours. The route is an arguable 100 miles, with over 40% of the course off-trail. Participants must navigate it and its dastardly briars and punishing incline with only a compass and a map. No phones, no GPS, no pacers. Only 1% of runners have completed it during the decades its crazy creators have designed, and re-designed it.
I was first introduced to the event a few years back, when an enterprising friend on Facebook began to publicly chronicle his journey from flab to fab. He was mostly silent before sharing his story, and kicked it all off by posting at the tail-end of his transformation. The inaugural post was a side-by-side that showcased a formerly doughy physique juxtaposed with his newly toned body, jawline and abs in tact. The key to his regimen included a heavy dose of running, he explained. Running was the primary catalyst to his fitness triumphs of weight loss and that carved physique.
Eventually, his new lifestyle got him fit enough to join running elites. The impressive long distances he demonstrated trekking through photo evidence and the odd video were exemplary and inspiring.
As any good marketer knows, friend testimonials are powerful influences. When you see someone you know or relate to transforming themselves, you’re, if not absolutely then at least somewhat, more likely to follow suit. And that’s pretty much what began to happen. I saw the awesomeness of his progress, and knowing it was possible, he inspired me to step up my fitness game. I’d always been interested in body sculpting, and using exercise to overcome my asthma. In the 2000s I took up yoga and light running. I had a stretch of ultra fitness from 2011-2012. I ran for two hours every day, did yoga 2-3 times per week, and added in a little strength training for measure. I was absolutely fabulous by the time summer of 2012 rolled around. But eventually, I got too busy, and didn’t have great reasons to trump my eventual excuses, and I fell off. I didn’t totally let go, but I lost all my muscular progress. By the time 2014 rolled around, my stamina was low and my abs were flabtabulous. I was still relatively trim, but I certainly wasn’t able to dominate a treadmill like my former self.
I was pretty happy when I had someone in close social proximity to look up to. I found myself on the treadmill more, and I also got a road bike.
Most of his posts were still followed by long silences. But when he shared, it was always worth paying attention to. And then, a few months into his story, one of his wholly substantial entries led me deep in to the recesses of this blog’s foundational inspiration: those legendary Barkley Marathons. [Note: according to the intro of a book by a Barkley veteran (which I am currently reading), “Marathons” is always plural.]
The participants, the event creators, and its extended community were focused and amazing. They were made of a niche group of intensely driven trail runners who actually pushed themselves. They ran record times. They were runners who might have started in their thirties. There were all kinds of relatable stories. But why would they participate in this insane event created by an even insaner guy, that no one seems to finish? Why punish yourself? What moved someone to put themselves through total hell? I gobbled up all the media I could on this compelling story of ultrarunners compelled to try, but destined to fail.
The story was weird, and it was philosophical. I liked weird. I liked the creator’s genuine touch. I’m skeptical of material things that are not totally necessary. Your physical body, on the other hand, is very real. I knew from past exercise efforts that focusing on empowering your mind’s storehouse was highly fulfilling. It’s empowering to give your mind and body the TLC that comes in the form of pushing yourself a little bit to strengthen your physical and mental muscles.
This wasn’t just a story of running. This was a story of becoming an ultimate person. Your best self.
I was hooked.
…for a day or so. And then the daily grind of life kicked in. As much as I was inspired, I wasn’t disciplined enough to put my inspiration into practice. I also wasn’t part of a running community that held me accountable. And so the Barkley Marathons’ lessons were harder to keep with me. Soon enough, I forgot all about it and moved through my life difficulties with no real anchor.
A few days ago, the world and happenstance decided it was time to rekindle the magic again. On that quiet Thursday February night, during a particularly uninspiring Netflix browsing session, I finally stumbled upon the Barkley Marathons’ 2014 documentary thumbnail. It had been a few years by now, and I had no recollection of what I’d seen prior. The movie title looked familiar, but I couldn’t conjure any poignant images.
I queued it up, and like Barkley Marathons founder Gary Cantrell (Laz for short) lighting his cigarette for every year’s race kick off, the documentary signaled a new start, and I was suddenly off. The magic of the Marathons all came flooding back, and here I was, in love with the concept of pushing yourself again. My type-A personality was on the edge of my seat for the duration of this telling of how a meaty three people completed the 2012 course. Most years, none would. What a feat of will.
Never mind that I’d never, ever consider doing something like the Barkley Marathons. I totally know that this specific event is not in my cards. I’ve learned my physical limits, and some of them I know I definitely never want to reach again.
What is in my cards: community and mental possibility. Becoming someone who is proud to say, “I tried.” Putting your best foot forward and seeing what you’re made of was the heart of this film. These were the main themes that resonated with me.
Key to this resonance were the amazing quotes the documentary filmmakers scored from Laz. Every time his face appeared on the screen, I wanted to lean in and leverage each morsel of his wisdom to improve my own scattered sense of life.
“If you’re going to face a real challenge,” he counseled in one scene, “it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”
Coming from a more business-like person, a quote like this wouldn’t have the same effect. But Laz’s laid-back demeanor, lack of concern for health (I mean, he’s a runner who smokes), and willingness to register runners based on merit rather than their financial wellness was altogether inviting. He charged an entry fee of $1.60 and a piece of clothing because he recognized the kind of people a deal like this would bring. Only the slightly crazy, only the fanatics, only those people looking for a little something more out of life by facing a ridiculous labyrinth with equally unreasonable parameters, were likely to show up. Characters. The crux of human life. People needing more than a boring routine.
That’s exactly where I’m at right now: at a crossroads where I can throw in the towel, let my losses in, and watch helplessly as they pin me down hard, paralyzing me and any hope I had of making an extraordinary life for myself.
Maybe I’ve got a little more in me.
The story that especially resonated with me was 2012 marathon finisher John Fegyveresi‘s story. He, like myself, had at once reached a low point in his life. And then one day, he decided to wake up and put his all into living his best life. From what I gathered, his best life meant being wholly present in his moments and appreciating each minute opportunity to breathe. He’d recognized the limits on life, and as such, experience trumped bodily preservation. Bodily preservation is, thus far, impossible. Mental and physical challenges, and using this world to see what you are truly made of, are the stuff of life.
So, what now?
I’ll use this blog to track and chronicle my efforts to sharpen myself mentally and physically. I want this to hold me accountable, and I want this blog to help me keep the goals of living positively and fruitfully top-of-mind.
It’s just a few days later, and I’d like to keep the momentum and energy I received from the Barkley Marathons story going this time. It’s so easy to get mini inspirations, and then lose them to the mundane things that effortlessly capture your attention. I don’t want to get lost again. I want clarity. I want to create a purpose for myself. And like my Facebook friend, I want to be able to inspire others to do the same.
What’s on the menu?
I’ll leave myself with three things to focus on:
1. Have a physical routine. Be it morning yoga, a weekly run, or a nightly bike ride. Just, invite some sort of regular physical exercise into my routine.
2. Write in this blog at least three times per week. Writing here will help keep me focused, and also help me to reflect on how I could be doing better.
3. Eat good. I’ll keep this open ended, since I’ve been working on my diet the past few years and seem to have something that works for me. It’s not the healthiest, however. Maybe I can start by incorporating more water.
And that’s what I’ve got. If you find this, and feel like following along, cool.
If not, I hope my focus will show itself in real life, and resonate positively with the people I know, love, work with, and are fortunate to meet.
Let’s get to know our limits, and and see how far we can push past them.
Cheers to a successful year!
And to get started, here’s some supplementary viewing material from the Ginger Runner that gives context to the ridiculousness of the Barkley. Ultrarunner Gary Robbins scored a record time for running the 96 miles of the Mount Rainer trail, but was still unable to complete the Barkley Marathons.