Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lessons from The Barkley

photo by Mike Bur

"There was a day when the Barkley runner need go no further than the trailhead to get out of the comfort zone.

You all know about the comfort zone.
That's where most ultras take place.
Running ultras is all about staying in the comfort zone.
All our strategies revolve around staying in the comfort zone.
All our advice is about staying in the comfort zone;

"Start slow"

"Walk every uphill"

"Don't take any chances"

For all the talk about exploring human potential, and seeking our limits, Ultrarunners tend to play it safe.
They line up "challenges" they know they can finish.
And run them carefully
Well within their "limits".
We believe that success is never failing.

At the Barkley success is about over-reaching our abilities,
and living to tell about it.
Sometimes success is getting your ass out alive.

Some people "get" the Barkley. Some don't.
But the Barkley is all about leaving the comfort zone.
The Barkley is about taking our chances with failure.
True success is not the absence of failure,
It is the refusal to surrender.

--excerpt from 2010 Barkley report by Lazarus Lake, Barkley RD

When I read Laz's report last week after inov-8 teammate JB Basham became the 9th finisher of the Barkley Marathons, I started thinking---a lot---about why I run ultras. I have always admired Laz's insights on the intersection of life and ultrarunning. He has a wonderfully poetic way of expressing what many of us think about, and he does a great job of getting us to question our prior assumptions.

When I forwarded this to my buddy Mike Bur---a Last Great Race finisher and Barkley 2.5-looper-- his response was this:

"Normally, we can control many of the aspects of any given event. Part of the Barkley experience, particularly for the virgin, is surrendering that control and availing oneself to the unknown -- that's what holding you back, in my observation."

Yes, I took the bait that Bur left so deftly in the email. I started asking myself if I truly had the guts to let go and surrender to the unknown. It's interesting to look at my race plans for 2010 and see the races I have lined up---all are events I have run before, have comfort in by knowing the course, and all are well within Laz's definition of the comfort zone that I *think* I am leaving when I race... but don't really. what does that say about me as an ultrunner? Bur knows. As a Barker and a Hardrock finisher, he knows that after 8 years of running tough races like Grindstone, Hellgate and Highland Sky, I haven't even begun to stretch myself. That doesn't mean that I have to run the Barkley for that next test, but I am inspired by the spirit of the event like no other. I have read everything I can about its history and traditions, and deeply respect the unspoken "rules" that keep it mysterious and mythical. Its mere presence on the ultra calendar is a reminder that I need to get off some of the candy ass trails I love so much and take a chance on failing.

If you need some inspiration on stretching yourself as a person and as a runner, read a bit about the Barkley. I am grateful there is an event out there that honors the old time ways of our sport and challenges its participants to strive for excellence (even if it takes many years---and failure), and to let go and live.

"You don't have to go to Barkley to "get it".
"it" is nothing more than putting something on the line
taking a chance and trying to do something you do not know for certain you can do.

There is no success
if failure is not in the mix.

And this is why the "sick-o's" keep applying and re-applying at Barkley. This is why there are so many requests for so few slots. This is why those lucky 35 strap it on and march into a hellish ordeal with a smile on their face and a song in their heart.

Because we are never so alive as when we put it all on the line. And at Barkley the only guarantee is that you will be pushed beyond your limits. Everything is on the line."

--Lazarus Lake

Endurance Planet's podcast interview with JB Basham--very good

A repeat of Endurance Planet's podcast of "The Marathon No One Could Finish" based on Blake Wood's essay in Running Through The Wall---also very good.

Matt Mahoney's Barkley page with photos---addicting


Alan said...

You drive home a good point. We all do our favorite races over and over again, but after the first one all the subsequent ones are accomplished without the threat of failure. I think we all fall into the trap of thinking we're doing all this to stretch our limits or some other cliche' but in reality it is very seldom that we ever really put it all on the line. This was apparent to me after finishing my first MMT in 2006. After the race I wrote

"I had wanted to experience MMT for myself. And yes indeed. I did. I found success beyond anything imagined. I think somewhere, out there, just out of reach, that I’d foolishly thought there might just be some answers to be found. Who am I? What am I made of? What am I capable of? These answers, of course, aren’t to be found among the rocks and trails; the woodlands, whippoorwills, lady slippers, peaks and valleys of the Massanuttens. Nor are they waiting there at the end of that grassy lawn.

But in the reprieve that comes at the end of a sunny day, captured within the melancholy that comes at the end of the great adventure, the world sheds it’s urgency and desires. And with calmness and clarity something sacred is revealed. I’m more."

The best description of "pushing" our limits I've ever read came from mountain climber Al Alvarez when he wrote

""But every year you need to flush out your system and do a bit of suffering. It does you a power of good. I think it's because there is always a question mark about how you would perform. You have an idea of yourself and it can be quite a shock when you don't come up to your own expectations. If you just tootle along you can think you're a pretty slick bloke until things go wrong and you find you're nothing like what you imagined yourself to be. But if you deliberately put yourself in difficult situations, then you get a pretty good idea of how you are going. That's why I like feeding the rat. It's a sort of annual check-up on myself. The rat is you, really. It's the other you, and it's being fed by the you you think you are. And they are often very different people. But when they come close to each other, that's smashing, that is. Then the rat's had a good meal and you come away feeling terrific. It's a fairly rare thing, but you have to keep feeding the brute for your own peace of mind. And even if you did blow it, at least there wouldn't be that great unknown. But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of, I can't think of anything sadder than that."

Let's get out there and give our rat a good meal!


alyssa said...

Sophie -
This is probably my favorite post of yours to date! Great job!

Very thought provoking...It's funny because just last month I was explaining to my Dad about Barkley. He naturally said "but you wouldn't want to do THAT would you?" I said no, probably not, knowing in the back of my head that my answer was only 50% true.

You're right. In many ways the Barkley does hold the ultimate test to ultrarunning, the human mind, and the human spirit. But at the same time, when I read "we are never so alive as when we put it all on the line" the first thing that comes to mind is the question of who is to say where each others individual "line" may be. For me, sometimes it's a new 50k course, othertimes it's a 50 mile course I have done several times over. And the biggest lesson we all know about ultrarunning, is that every race and every distance remains a test - no matter how many times you have run the course.

Ultrarunning has it's notable races - Western States, Hardrock, Barkley, JFK, Badwater, etc. Only having done two of those, and 20+ other races, I can honestly say I wouldn't trade the smaller races(highland sky, Bull run, GEER, etc) for anything. While the "famous races" may be fun to conquer one day, they're not the reason I run - the other races are.

Rick Gray said...

You seem to have a knack for getting us to think about ourselves and what we do as a past time (if you can call it a past time). I do know that we will not improve as a runner or grow as a person, if we do not challenge ourself. You make an excellent point as to how we challenge ourself. Other than a hard 100 miler, I go into every race knowing (unless I get hurt) that I will get through it. I never question the issue of a dnf and I certainly run within myself to accomplish my goal. Is my goal high enough, long enough or tough enough. It is funny that we are talking about Barkley, but just last week I ordered Frozen Ed Furrow's book "Tales From Out There". It came in yesterday's mail. After reading your post, I will certainly read that book in a new light. Thank you for helping us to step out of our box.

Sophie Speidel said...

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful comments. I am glad this post elicited such long responses so we can all benefit from one another's experiences.

When I read Laz's report for the very first time my reaction was "WOW". He got me to think about racing ultras in a totally different way---his arguments may have been obvious to most people, but not to me. When I broke 15 hours at Hellgate, for example, I was thrilled because everything in my race plan "worked" to perfection and nothing went wrong. I was totally within my comfort zone throughout the race because I knew the course, the weather was perfect, and all I had to do was run as hard as I could to get it done. It was exhilarating to finish---don't get me wrong---but after reading Laz's thoughts on leaving the comfort zone of traditional ultras, I realized that I had set myself up very nicely within my comfort zone for Hellgate...even inside the "pain cave" HA!

Alan, thanks for sharing the quote from Al Alvarez. He sums it up so nicely.

Alyssa, I agree---the big events of our sport are fun to try but the smaller, more obscure races and training runs (i.e. Catawba, Three Days of Syllamo, TWOT) are where I want to spend most of my time. I am still not sure I will ever end up "out there" at the Barkley but I certainly would jump at the chance to help someone else and observe the mystery of the event from up close. I also agree that each person has their personal "line" that they toe---whether it's their first 50K, 50M or 100M, or a race they have done before but have never gotten right.

Rick, I want to get a copy of that book! Let me know what you think---it looks fascinating.

Happy Trails out there, all!

ultrarunnergirl said...

Really great post, Sophie! Thanks for getting the wheels turning. Half the fun of ultras is the contemplation involved.
Knowing you, I've a feeling you'll be down south before too long for that challenge.