“You Can’t Accomplish Anything Without The Possibility Of Failure”

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An Awesome Documentary Got Me Questioning How Hard I’m Willing To Push Myself – Mentally, Physically & Emotionally – To Achieve What I Want.

This weekend I spent some time looking for upcoming local races, both 5 and 10Ks. I’m always way more consistent in training when I have a deadline I’m working towards. That’s when I came across the most amazing race I’ve never heard of – The Barkley Marathon.

I learned about it via a documentary that’s currently on Netflix – The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It is an amazing story that spotlights the quirky traditions and oddball personalities surrounding this race.

But what I loved most happened after watching the movie. More on that below. But first, What is the Barkley?

The Barkley is a 100-mile ultra marathon in the mountains of Tennessee. However unlike other ultra marathons, very few runners finish the race. In reality it seems like an absurd joke designed to break participants physically and emotionally.

Only 36 people are allowed to run the Barkley each year. And one of those 36 is designated the sacrificial lamb – someone who has no business running the course. The entry fee is $1.60…if you can find out how to enter. There is no website with an entry form to fill out. Would-be contestants have to do some serious sleuthing on where to submit their essay. That’s right, an essay.

You have to submit an essay on why you should be allowed into the Barkley.

If you are allowed in the race, you receive a letter of condolence from Gary Cantrell, the oddball who created the Barkley. The quirks of the race pretty much go hand in hand with this loveable goofball and his love of the absurd. Cantrell created a race so difficult that no one crossed the finish line for it’s first 10 years.

The Barkley Quirks
The race is a 20-mile loop through the Appalachian Mountains that must be completed 5 times. But since Cantrell changes the course each year, most people believe it is actually 125 miles total. When all is said and done, the total elevation change during the entire race is equal to climbing Mt. Everest.

Every race I’ve entered always has a start time. Not the Barkley. Instead runners have a 12-hour window when the race could start. The result is runners who don’t get any sleep before the race for fear of missing the start time.

There is no buzzer or sound to indicate the race has started. Cantrell just lights a cigarette.

There is no course. Cantrell provides vague directions (“turn left at the tree with the double trunk”) and runners cannot use GPS but are allowed 1 headlamp when running at night. Oh and you have just 60 hours to complete all five loops.

Runners go through brier patches, unruly forests, creeks and a prison (yes, a real prison!). They experience fog, rain, intense heat and humidity, and snow.

To prove that they are not cheating, there are books along the course that serve as a sort of checkpoint. Runners must rip out the page that matches his entry number. These pages are submitted at the end of each loop and must be verified. You are then given a new entry number for the next loop.

How difficult is the Barkley? Finishing three loops – The Fun Run — is considered a major accomplishment. And something that very few people actually do.

How Barkley Got Me Fighting My Own Resistance Again
The quirks of the race are hilarious. But the most amazing thing is the people who endure the Barkley. The documentary focuses on a few of the runners. They have the absolute right attitude about the race.

What struck me as I watched was that no one used the word “winning” when talking of the Barkley. One of the runners finished the Barkley the previous year. I don’t think he called himself the “winner” of the Barkley once. He says he “finished” the Barkley. His goal this time around was to finish the Barkley in record time and be the only 2-time finisher.

The only winning with the Barkley is testing your endurance and seeing if you can push yourself further than you think you can go. All runners are focused on personal best.

No doubt, that’s due to Cantrell’s selection “process” of who can enter the race.

Runners help each other before and during the race. If you drop out you stay and cheer the other runners on. The race is about challenging your own mental and physical strength. If you come into the Barkley with an attitude of winning, the course will eat you alive.

Could I run the Barkley? Hell no. Not now. But the mental toughness the participants have inspires me.

The concept of pushing yourself, digging deep to see what you can accomplish, is missing from our culture right now. Why? Because we fear failure. We are so risk averse that we can’t let ourselves succeed. Instead we settle for our lot in life.

It’s so much easier to let self-doubt consume you. Or focus your energy on getting angry. It seems like every little thing outrages everyone these days.

The truth is life is the Barkley. I think that is Cantrell’s point in designing this race.

To me, choosing outrage or moaning over your current circumstances makes you the sacrificial lamb in your own life.

Lately I’ve wasted time doing both. Sure, my hormones are all messed up, but I also know it can be used as an excuse to settle and not try. I thought I stopped feeling sorry for myself 5 years ago. Ha!

Fear of failure is an ongoing battle that will never end. Steven Pressfield calls it “resistance.” Resistance is with us as soon as we wake up each morning. You have to fight it every day.

Last week when working on core with my trainer, I turned a corner with resistance/failure. For weeks, when holding the plank position, I haven’t been able to go past 25 seconds. During my Thursday session, while holding the plank, once again my resistance told me “OK, your tired now…let go.” I wasn’t tired. I was afraid to fail if I tried to hold longer than 25 seconds. I realized it was BS and kept going for 35 more seconds.

Hot damn!

It was one of my happiest moments over the last couple of weeks — a 1 minute plank. Sound stupid? Nope. Something seemingly so insignificant rebuilds my confidence for bigger and better things.

As Gary Cantrell says in the film, “If you’re going to face a challenge it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.” 

Cancer, menopause and my weight gain are pretty real challenges. Failure isn’t an option.

I don’t have to run the Barkley to accomplish all that I want for myself.  I need the mental toughness of those runners dig deep, challenge myself and not let the fear paralyse me.

It’s the only way to really live life to it’s fullest.



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