Last week Netflix received a new documentary about the Barkley Marathons held in March in Frozen Head Sate Park in Tennessee and Robert and I were inundated by friends who watched it and wanted to know if we had heard of it. For all those wondering, yes we have. We had previously watched a documentary about the marathon on YouTube that actually takes place in 2014 unlike the Netflix addition that follows runners doing the 2012 race. If you do not have Netflix or a friend who will let you borrow their account there are many short clips you can can watch on YouTube, but this is the original film that got us amazed by this Ultra Marathon.
After watching the documentary or even clips on YouTube people get excited about the event. There are some crazy components to the race, but I’m more interested in why everyone is so intrigued. Robert and I share our running experiences with our friends and family all the time. We talk about races we have heard about that we would like to try and pass on stories we have heard about runners in tight predicaments achieving phenomenal feats. Yet this race makes even non runners stop and listen to us talk. I’m beginning to wonder why.
The Barkley Marathons only allow 40 people to enter the race each year. To apply for the race you have to figure out how to. There are many loops to jump through including an application and exam, but the information on the race is not readily available to people. If you are meant to run the race you will find the information you need somehow. New runners must bring a license plate as part of their entry fee. The race costs less then two dollars to run and contains five loops of a 20ish mile trail that usually is five or six miles more than twenty. The course is changed every year and is unmarked. Runners are given access to a master map which they must copy from to learn their route before beginning their journey. In order to ensure that runners stay on the correct course during the race there are novels along the way that runners must rip pages out of that correspond to their bib number. At the end of each loop Laz makes sure all the pages are accounted for and hands the runner another bib number.
Interested yet? It gets better. The race must be completed in 60 hours. It starts an hour after Laz decides to blow a Conch shell, which can take place anytime from midnight to noon on the Saturday of the race and changes every year. Only 14 people have finished the race, and many years there are no finishers. Finishing three loops is known as a “fun run” and even this is not attained by most runners, especially on their first attempt. The race has never had a female finisher, but females have competed and are seen in the Netflix documentary running the course alongside men. The race features 59,100 feet of ascent and descent throughout the five loops.When a runner does drop from the race “taps” is played to announce their defeat. I could go on, but if you are interested you should really check out the documentary or at least read the article 60 Hours of Hell that interviews the race directors and some participants.
So I return to my original question. What makes an impossible race so appealing to everyone? Now I know some of the people who are inspired to try it after watching the documentary truly have no idea of the physicality of the event, I have run some pretty mean trails in my opinion, but I can admit that the idea of the trails at Frozen Head State Park terrify me. They would kill me, kick my butt into submission and send me crawling home if I could even complete one lap. However a lot of people are telling us how they want to try to complete it. So why? What is the point of starting something that may defeat us? Why is the race so popular?
I’m beginning to think that it is less about the race and the time. As runners we often get so consumed with our watches and what place we come in that we forget about all the other amazing facets of our sport. The physical demands that push us beyond all we think we are capable of. The mental demands when we are out on our own in the middle of nowhere and every muscle in our body is screaming at us to stop and convincing us that we are meant to fail at our endeavor. The sacrifices we make to dedicate ourself to our training and success. Maybe Barkley is about that instead. Maybe it’s about remembering the beauty of the sport and why we do what we do. Humbling ourselves to remember that no matter what we have accomplished nature can always challenge us to new extremes. Most of us never enter a race that we assume we will drop out of. Most of us assume that our training will pay off and even if we fail to PR or place where we want to we will at least complete the race. This is not the case with Barkley. There is a huge question mark looming over it and in some odd way I think that is what appeals to people. Not only is it next to impossible to enter the race, but it is next to impossible to complete it. It appeals to our sense of adventure and challenge. 14 people have completed this impossible task, some of them have done it more than once. They were all extremely talented runners, but they were all human just like us. If they could achieve the impossible maybe we all can.
This race allows runners to achieve the impossible. Not every runner, but a few. That could also be the draw for people. Most people will be unable to finish it, but a few will. A few will be able to overcome all the odds and finish five loops they will prove that mere mortals can achieve greatness and show that human will can overcome. Our world is a really scary place, just turn on the news and it looks like something out of a horror movie most days. The recent popularity of superhero movies reflects the desire of people to have people around them who are limitless and who can save themselves and the world against all odds. Maybe the Barkley finishers are the runner equivalent of superheroes. Maybe that’s the appeal. Runners are often an overlooked bunch, we perform our tasks in the middle of woods and hit our peaks on long stretches of roads when no one is looking. In a small race of only forty people, one finisher may come across their fifth loop in the dark of night, but they still finished. They overcame and stepped up when no one expected them to be able to. No wonder the race seems to attract so much attention and excitement, it enables everyone the chance to become a superhero or to go out fighting like a warrior. In our world those seem like pretty good options.