Extreme Self-Sufficiency and the Immortal Horizon

Leslie Jamison travels to Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee to uncover one of the most extreme endurance trail races you’ll ever read about — The Barkley Marathons. Yes, plural, as in people run five marathons in a row in the most extreme conditions and terrain.

What makes it so bad? No trail, for one. A cumulative elevation gain that’s nearly twice the height of Everest. Native flora called saw briars that can turn a man’s legs to raw meat in meters. The tough hills have names like Rat Jaw, Little Hell, Big Hell, Testicle Spectacle—this last so-called because it inspires most runners to make the sign of the cross (crotch to eyeglasses, shoulder to shoulder)—not to mention Stallion Mountain, Bird Mountain, Coffin Springs, Zip Line, and an uphill stretch, new this year, known simply as “the Bad Thing.”

The race consists of five loops on a course that’s been officially listed at twenty miles, but is probably more like twenty-six. The moral of this slanted truth is that standard metrics are irrelevant. The moral of a lot of Barkley’s slanted truths is that standard metrics are irrelevant. The laws of physics and human tolerance have been replaced by Laz’s personal whims. Even if the race was really “only” a hundred miles, these would still be “Barkley miles.” Guys who could typically finish a hundred miles in twenty hours might not finish a single loop here. If you finish three, you’ve completed what’s known as the Fun Run. If you happen not to finish—and, let’s face it, you probably won’t—Laz will play taps to commemorate your quitting. The whole camp, shifting and dirty and tired, will listen, except for those who are asleep or too weak to notice, who won’t.

This is perhaps the best piece of long form journalism I’ve read in a while. Yes, it’s about a trail race, but it’s really about the lengths that some humans will go to see what they are truly capable of. Here’s another part that stood out:

Julian [Jamison’s brother] has completed five hundred-mile races so far, as well as countless “short” ones, and I once asked him why he does it. He explained it like this: He wants to achieve a completely insular system of accountability, one that doesn’t depend on external feedback. He wants to run a hundred miles when no one knows he’s running, so that the desire to impress people, or the shame of quitting, won’t constitute his sources of motivation. […]

Why do I do it? I do it because it hurts so much and I’m still willing to do it. The sheer ferocity of the effort implies that the effort is somehow worth it. This is purpose by implication rather than direct articulation. Laz says, “No one has to ask them why they’re out here; they all know.”

It would be easy to fix upon any number of possible purposes—conquering the body, fellowship in pain—but it feels more like significance dwells in concentric circles of labor around an empty center: commitment to an impetus that resists fixity or labels. The persistence of “why” is the point: the elusive horizon of an unanswerable question, the conceptual equivalent of an un-runnable race.

The entire thing is worth your time. In the race’s history only nine runners have finished all five loops demanded of them. Which is downright bonkers when you think about it.

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  • Andy May 15, 2011, 5:20 pm

    Awesome article…thanks for pointing it out…well worth the read. Just wanted to say I’ve enjoyed your blog posts…eclectic and interesting. I appreciate the effort.

    Best wishes from Canada,