The Barkley Marathons: A Lesson In Failure

I just watched a film on Netflix about the Barkley Marathons. It’s an ultra marathon trail run held in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. It’s also a good lesson in failure.

I’ve never heard of it before and probably you haven’t either.

The organizer and Barkley Marathons, a lesson in failureinventor Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, does not publicize it much either, working on the theory that finding out about it and entering is part of the challenge.

The race was inspired by James Earl Ray’s prison escape from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977.  The route actually takes you though a tunnel under the prison.

When Cantrell heard that Ray only managed to cover 8 miles in the 55 hours of his liberty in the woods he jokingly said he could do 100 miles in that time.

And so the race was born and the first race was held in 1986.

From the hundreds of people who manage to it track down and enter, which costs $1.60, only 40 are chosen to run.

One entrant is chosen as being a no-hoper; someone they think does not have a chance of ever completing the course. There is a good reason for this as it teaches a valuable lesson in knowing your limits.

The course is a nominally 20 mile loop which has to be completed 5 times in 60 hours. Most competitors reckon each loop is  more like a 26 mile marathon.  It is unmarked and you have to make a copy of a master route yourself before you go.

Three loops are regarded as the “Fun Run”.

There are checkpoints where everyone has to tear out the page of a book that corresponds with their race number. The books are chosen to be relevant to the race, with titles like In The Valley of Death, Almost Home, and The Idiot.

It was 1995 before anyone completed the race. Up to now it has been completed 17 times by 14 different men (no women), Brett Maune completing it twice and Jared Campbell three times.

This film was made in 2012 when a record three men finished and the course record time was broken.

The no- hoper was out for six and a half hours and completed just over half of loop 1.

After 24 hours only 15 of the 40 remained. You can tell how tough the terrain is when the first finishers of loop 1 took over 7 hours and their times dropped to over 9 hours for the subsequent loops. Some took well over 12 hours.

What is the point of all this?

Cantrell says it “gives people the opportunity to find out something about themselves”

He did not think that anyone would ever finish the challenge. As it took 9 years before anyone did, it is obviously an extremely difficult event. That is the point: an impossible challenge.

The competitors are all successful ultra runners who are used to toughing it out, but many just manage the first 20 mile loop, so there is definitely something special about this event.

Many are also academic high achievers. Cantrell thinks that these people have succeeded in everything they’ve done and actually want to fail. It’s the prospect of failing that is attractive, especially to someone who has always succeeded.

The rest of them barely expect to complete the fun run; and that is a major achievement in itself. Most first timers go with the expectation of failing, but they go with the intention of doing more than they ever thought they could.

And this is the lesson for life. You can usually do much more than you think you can, but your expectations hold you back.

The danger is not that you aim too high and miss, it’s that you aim too low and settle for a hit.

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