The Barkley Marathons and the Allure of Discomfort

Robert S. Hays

The Barkley Marathons is an once-a-year multi-day ultra that necessitates individuals to bushwack as a result of the wilds of Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park in an energy to total 5 roughly 20-mile loops in under 60 hrs. The odds of accomplishment are not significant. Given that the race was made in 1986, only 15 runners have conquered the complete course—out of the extra than 1,000 who have attempted. And however, even with the reality that failure is a thing of a foregone summary, every calendar year hundreds of candidates contend to protected one particular of the offered 35 to 40 slots. Why, one particular may wonder, are so a lot of keen to court docket their personal humiliation?  

That is the concern at the heart of “The Extremely hard Race,” a segment in this week’s episode of HBO’s Authentic Sporting activities With Bryant Gumbel. The 13-moment documentary involves footage from this year’s race, which was held final month and in which, legitimate to form, no person managed to comprehensive a lot more than 3 laps. As 1 would hope, the episode is geared in the direction of a common audience—“This is not your typical marathon”—rather than the ultra aficionados who will possibly be delighted or mortified that their beloved party is acquiring the 60 Minutes cure. Not that “The Extremely hard Race” feels like a recruitment video clip: we see many haunted people staggering by means of the forest and up hillsides so steep that it appears to be like like they need to be carrying a harness. There is a near-up shot of a blister becoming skewered with a needle amid exclamations of agony.

“Are you a sadist?” segment host Mary Carillo asks Barkley founder Gary Cantrell, the grizzled impresario of misery who usually goes by Lazarus Lake, or Laz for small. Cantrell replies that he is not, in reality, a sadist. “People enjoy it,” he states of his torturous party. “There’s just some pain associated.” 

But who are these people? Carillo interviews Greg Armstrong and Liz Canty, two veterans of the extremely circuit who participated in the 2021 edition of the race and who exude an intense air that’s in all probability an asset when you’re about to persevere by way of hours of tedium and ache. Both equally regard Cantrell’s manufacturer of rough enjoy as a perverse indication of passion. “He’s making an attempt to drive us all nuts,” Canty says when asked about Cantrell’s regular assertion that his race is far too rough for women of all ages. (Gals have taken portion in the celebration for years, although all of the finishers to day have been gentlemen.) “You’ve bought to goad us a tiny little bit,” she provides. “You just goad a full gender into finding indignant and training our butts off.” 

At this year’s race, Canty managed to make the time cutoff for the 1st loop. Although she would fall short to end the next loop just before the cutoff, she fared greater than Armstrong, who DNF’d on loop one, as did about fifty percent of individuals who began in 2021. Not that Armstrong felt that the pursuit was in vain. 

 “You find out so considerably about yourself when you take you to the breaking level,” Armstrong tells Carillo, who is not adequate of a jerk to request whether a person of the factors you master about you is that you want a new interest. “You just ruminate about it for yrs and you understand and expand. And Laz understands that. Which is why he makes this race.” 

For his aspect, Laz says that the people today who sign up for his situations are persons who are particularly drawn to endeavors wherever they might not realize success. The uncertainty is the level. “They really do not want to engage in within just the assortment of things that they know they can do,” he states.

Ok, great. But as any one who has at any time long gone soon after an audacious time intention in a dull aged road race can attest, attempting to do a thing quite difficult exterior of your consolation zone doesn’t have to have signing up for a 60-hour loss of life march in the woods. (Also is a DNF that is a lot more or considerably less preordained genuinely a DNF?) This has generally been my default, highway functioning snob response anytime I listen to the latest exploits of serious ultrarunning, even as the extremely fanatics in my orbit like to remind me that I live in ignorance of the profound psychological shadowland that 1 enters through the closing stages of a 100-mile race. 

Then again, who am I to sneer at those who get their kicks by executing these absurd events? In the close, it’s really just a subject of degree. The mainstreaming of the marathon in the latest decades has made it effortless to encourage oneself that jogging 26.2 miles is a practical kind of recreation. The extensive vast majority of my personalized acquaintances are non-runners, in the sense that, for them, nearly anything past once in a while undertaking a light jog or using part in a Thanksgiving 5K is a clear sign of unhinged fanaticism. 

They really don’t know what they are missing.

Direct Photograph: Geoffrey Baker

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