Gaining Strength thru Failure: Lessons from the Ultrarunning Cult



I used to think that marathoners were a little cuckoo. Why on earth would you want to run 26.2 miles? Even driving that distance is a pain (can you tell I’m from Rhode Island?)

And one day a friend convinced me to run a 5-mile race in Boston. I loved the feeling of running through the city streets, free of cars and alongside so many others, striving for the same goal. And so I signed up for another race, and another, moving up to a half marathon distance alongside other moms who became training partners and friends. And after a few glasses of wine we convinced each other to sign up for the tenacious ‘full.’


Meanwhile, my husband caught the running bug right about the same time as I did, but I found out that in our relationship, he’s the competitive, determined, and Forrest Gump-style completely crazy fool. After a couple marathons, he decided to mix it up by adding swimming and biking. Triathlons started with ‘sprint distance’, then worked up to Olympic, Half Ironman, and then, why not move onto a full Ironman (a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and if that isn’t enough to finish you off, a full 26.2 marathon). So after a couple of those, he decided he liked running on trails. He and his bearded buddies and their specialized powder drinks and goofy moon boot Hoka sneakers push each other to whatever distance they can manage – which at this point is 100 miles. Without stopping. Not even for sleep.


And the cult-like atmosphere of ultra marathon running not only allows for men and women to do the thing that they are afraid to do, but to treat that goal as a badge of courage and honor. Perhaps no event tells that story more than the Barkley Marathons, a story that has gained popularity since the release of this award-winning documentary.


As Matt Mahoney describes, “The Barkley is considered one of the toughest 100 mile races in the world. It has 59,100 feet of climb and since the race began in 1986, only 14 runners out of about 1000 have finished within the 60-hour cutoff. The Barkley consists of 5 20-mile loops with no aid except for water at two points. The 60 mile "fun run" has a cutoff of 40 hours, or 13:20 per loop. To prove you completed each loop, you must find 9 to 11 books (varies) at various points along the course and return a page from each book.”


The entrance requirements include a $1.60 race fee, contributing a license plate from your home state or country, and providing the race director with a selected article of clothing he desires that particular year (this year it was dark blue or black gold-toe dress socks). Most importantly, to be selected, the entrants must complete an essay on ‘Why I Should Be Allowed to Run the Barkley’ which you will not find examples of on the web. Even the location and time to submit the applications is a closely guarded secret that takes connections and extreme street-smarts.


The race is filled with so many sadistic nuggets designed to create and celebrate epic failure from race director Gary Cantrell (self-named Lazarus Lake). The playing of Taps whenever someone drops out. A condolence letter rather than an acceptance letter. Briers. An unidentified start time at some point around April Fools Day. Portions of the course with names like ‘Rat Jaw.’ No course markings. A course design that gets increasingly more difficult each year. Books hidden under rocks with names like A Time to Die and Heart of Darkness.


The invariable question we all ask is “WHY?” Why would you want to do something so difficult, of which you are likely to fail? Why take such risks? Why take on the impossible?

In the Barkley movie, Laz talks about creating an environment that pushes people beyond their limits. The race allows for incredibly high achievers to find that limit and test that space.

Record holder and three-time finisher Jared Campbell sums it up well: “There are lessons in life that can only be learned through fairly massive deviations from our normal, comfortable routines. These lessons alter our perspective on life and better equip us to deal with life’s unforeseen challenges. They can sharpen our optimism and generate a deeper appreciation for the simple things in life.”


What is your Barkley? When have you set yourself up to test the furthest limits (physical, emotional, mental) of your being? Strength comes from the experience of striving to be the very best and learning from failure along the way.

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