While reading the recent update of something I like to follow about all things running, I couldn’t help but notice the results from this year’s Barkley Marathons. The winner was…the Barkley Marathons. Yes, you read that right. The event beat the contenders. Again. Renowned as the toughest ultramarathon race around, the Barkley Marathons involves running 5 times around an unmarked course completely off piste through the mountains in the state of Tennessee. With nothing to guide you but a map, a compass and your wits, it is not for the faint-hearted. Since the course was made even more difficult and was stretched to the current ‘100 mile’ distance in 1989, there have only been 15 finishers and the most recent was in 2017.
In reality, each loop is said to be at least the distance of a full marathon (provided you don’t get lost) with a strict cut-off time of 12 hours to meet before you are even permitted to start the next loop. You may think that it’s pretty generous, to get a whole 12 hours. You’d think that you could practically walk it…until you consider that the terrain is extremely treacherous, undulating and the elevation gain of running 5 loops is the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest twice. This year there were no finishers and in fact, only two competitors met the second loop cut-off time and were allowed to begin a third. Although they did not run it fast enough to be able to continue with the full race they both managed to complete the third loop in just under the longer overall cut-off time of 40 hours for 3 loops in order to have officially completed a Barkley Marathons ‘Fun Run’.
Although, like many people who are relatively new to ultrarunning I am both fascinated and horrified by the sheer challenge and brutality of the Barkley Marathons. But I am also not tempted. After all, trying to keep my toenails intact from the constant battering of training and running for a marathon is a difficult enough battle to face. A sketchy mountainous race through thorny bushes while trying to read a compass is more akin to a scavenger hunt from hell. It is way beyond my comfort zone. Nonetheless, as I read the results I realised that there was definitely something about the Barkley Marathons that I wanted to sign up to. What puts it apart from any other race that I’ve known is the concept of competing against an actual event instead of the other participants. In other words, you win by finishing.
Although this is not to say that there is anything wrong with liking a bit of competition among your fellow runners and many people thrive off that for the better. After all, the very definition of a race is that you are competing against something otherwise you are just going for a run. So I am not about to argue that the winners of races should only be awarded a participant ribbon as if they had been taking part in an underwhelming child’s non-competitive sports day. At the same time, after many years of entering different running events I have grown to really dislike serious competition. I know that I may belong to a very tiny minority of people but I think that competition sometimes comes at the cost of enjoyment. Simply put, I do not enjoy the pressure and the (not always) imagined judgement from others. I will never forget taking part in a tough cross-country race when I tried to start a friendly chat with another club runner I ran alongside. The look I got back made it perfectly clear that I had forgotten the unwritten rule of racing – everyone is a ‘rival’.
Some well-adjusted runners like to say that the way avoid feeling under pressure from the competition is to just not care about anybody else on the starting line. They rationally reason that you should only ever be racing against yourself and focusing on your own PB. But that is easier said than done when you are surrounded by other runners who are more invested and interested in comparing your latest stats than you are. My only solution has been to try and avoid any race that feels too competitive or serious because ultimately, I am only running for my own enjoyment and for the challenge. Funnily enough, as I have graduated to running and entering events for longer and longer distances I have found there are more people who are like-minded about competition. Perhaps it is because the tougher the event, the greater the achievement and maybe also the degree of camaraderie among fellow participants.
Nonetheless, until I had read about the Barkley Marathons, it had never occurred to me before to consider running races as if the competition was with the actual event. Sure, I had run some races in pretty difficult conditions where it had felt like the event was literally against me. But even when facing torrential rain and floods in biblical proportions it was still all down to me to succeed against the rest. Last December comes to mind, when I decided to run a Half-Marathon while still slightly ill. It was a horrible wintery day of gale force winds but I had faith in the well-known runner’s adage of You’re fine to run if your illness is from the neck-up. I have to say, following this sage advice meant that deciding to run only helped to kick-start some new GI issues from the neck down. Even though, the pressure to still do well and try to get a PB persisted with me during the race even when the conditions had made it completely impossible.
But what if I had taken a Barkley stance and focused on running against the Half-Marathon event, itself, instead of trying to outrun my own record? I know that the pressure would have been instantly lifted off my shoulders and I would have enjoyed the Half-Marathon far more. Trying to achieve a new PB definitely has a time and a place but that doesn’t have to be at every event. Could it be that the secret to making every race a great race is to only focus on beating the event? So…you win by finishing and destroying the race but not just like someone else who is wearing the same event medal. You win and triumph because you have done it despite whatever the event has thrown at you. I think I may have finally discovered my own Holy Grail of happy running…
Although this doesn’t mean that I will be training for the Barkley Marathons anytime soon, even if it has desperately lacked a female winner. Nonetheless, as I train for an upcoming 2-day ultra-marathon this summer I will trying to keep this new Barkley outlook in mind. I think it is time to park chasing PBs into the long grass and I will focus more on enjoying some new events. Ones where it is perfectly acceptable to have a chat while trying to tackle a hill or two…
While training for longer distances I have come up with a new recipe for a handy snack to take along with me, PB and banana ultra bars. But if you are training for something much reasonably shorter you can still enjoy them as a healthier pudding.