The Barkley Months: The Joys of Ignominious Failure and Hypothermia
Why I’m Proud to be an American or my submission to get into the Barkley Marathons
December 24st, 2012
You have to write a haiku about Barkley to even get onto the mailing list to send the letter requesting a chance to run Barkley. They made me write five. This is the one they finally accepted: “Death is how James Earl/Ray escaped Brushy Mountain/Lucky dumb bastard”
When America fails, she fails on the grandest scale.
I do not mean this as a criticism. It is our legacy and our gift. Our greatest failures sit right next to our boldest successes: the Constitution, Neil Armstrong walking on the surface of the Moon, the American Standard flush toilet.
We thought Little Big Horn was a good idea. We added roller skate wheels to our children’s sneakers and patently refuse to believe they need helmets. We elected George W. Bush twice. Whether you loved or hated the man, we’re optimists.
My high school physics teacher was a man named Kurt Van Luew. He had been one of the finalists for the teacher in space program and when they had the Challenger launch, they flew him and the other eight finalists to Cape Canaveral to watch it explode.
I have often wondered how conflicted he must have been at that moment. Not getting into the space program had to hurt but boy oh boy did he dodge a bullet but everyone in the universe remembers Christa McAuliffe and no one but me remembers Kurt Van Luew.
Barkley is the most American race in America. It is the biggest, baddest way for a perfectly well trained, even mildly heroic athlete to fail on a mind bogglingly gigantic scale. It’s as if you see the giant hump-backed, bull-horned Devil slouching toward you and you don your weapons, roll up your sleeves and steadfastly refuse to run away.
The thing you have to understand about me is that when I went out for that last failed loop at Big Dog, my intention was to make the bell. When I was limping toward the half way mark with twenty minutes before the next bell, I knew I could run fast enough to finish.
This isn’t one of those “failure is when you don’t try things.” I was just dumb enough to believe I could do it. I prefer it that way. I toed the line of my first 5K, right up front on the line, looked around and thought, “I got all you saps beat.” I’m just that optimistic.
Sprinting the first one hundred meters off the line and up a hill, I bent over trying catch my breath and vomited on my shoes. I looked around and then kept running. I believed, all the way to the finish, that I still had a chance. I have been running that way ever since.
I was born to run Barkley.
I told my friend Vince that the biggest thing I having working against my getting into Barkley is that you know me. There is no getting past my limitations as an athlete. I am not the fastest, strongest or smartest.
I have heard many of the stories about Barkley failures but I would feel safe to say that if they represent most of the attempts at finishing Barkley then those who have completed the race are missing the point. Those souls who have gone all the way have in completion managed to fail miserably.
I’m not saying I plan to lose. I plan to win. I do not even understand how this will happen. Faith is like that. You see the canyon and then jump across it. You have no choice but to jump. There is no acceptable outcome but to land somehow on the other side.
I heard a story about a soldier in World War I who was buried under debris so that only his hand stuck out. Other soldiers marching or walking by would shake his hand, one might imagine, as a morbid play with Mrs. Death herself.
This is why I should be allowed to run at the next Barkley.
Quitter’s Road: Barkley Marathons – March 30th, 2013
(We got to book two, or mile 7, that took us five hours. We spent the next 5 hours running up and down Stallion Mountain looking for Book 3. I quit 3 times before we actually quit. It took us four hours, running in the rain-soaked dark to get back to camp, three rotten dogs tapping out to instantaneous sweet release and total devastation. They played Taps for us, one rendition at a time, so that we all understood how badly it had gone.)
This will probably beat you to Tennessee but then again this is more about how I screwed up and that is more about saying “thank you for giving me the chance to screw up”. The fact that I screwed up didn’t hurt so much until Dan Fox showed his face in the darkness, dropped off his pages and then headed out on his next lap.
You got to know I took every word you said about the race to heart and fought out the training season running up hills and through mud and briars, getting lost all day long. It’s a damn shame what they say – that we’ll often be let down by our own best efforts – but there it is.
It kept me up for a solid week worrying about what you meant, “God help them all” and “You had better be in the best physical shape of your entire life”. It just goes to show how much you meant and how little I understood.
I thought I was taking it to heart, had deliberated long enough. It’s like that scene from Red Dragon when Hannibal Lechter asks Will Graham if Will thought he caught Hannibal because he was smarter than Hannibal and Will says, “No sir, you were at a disadvantage. You were insane.”
Wanting to run Barkley is a kind of madness. I don’t mean because it’s hard but it blinds you to how hard it might actually be. It’s like the Indians who couldn’t see Columbus’ boats sitting out in their harbor. They had no way to understand frigate. That ship and your damn race are just impossible for most folks to get.
I read everything you can read about Barkley and training as hard as I trained, I still failed to grasp Barkley’s Leviathan nature. It still baffles me, after seeing what little I saw, how anyone could get their brain around how hard things would get.
I look at all the one loop finishers, advantaged by experience or not – superior fitness or not, and take a breath to pause at their courage and will. I could dally around excuses all day but it does not change my messing up. I want to blame you or the course or anything but my own weakness.
It seems to me, we should all be prepared to go and finish. I could not even get started. It’s like the boy who jumped off the troop carrier at Omaha Beach and got blown up just getting his feet in the ocean.
He’s floating with the tide, looking up at Heaven, trying to cipher what the hell just happened and when he might have a chance to do what he came there to do. I looked around at all the athletes that came to Frozen Head and thought, Jesus, I hope he lets me back in some day.
We always imagine, humanity that is, that things will work out artfully. Our last blinking image of life won’t be the dirty polyester woven carpet strands or our pale naked selves and the water below as we fade slumped over on the john.
We expect more than that. We expect to have a moment. I reckon it’s more like Groucho Marx put it. His grandfather was on his death bed and he looked at Groucho and said, “I really don’t have a damn thing to say.”
There is this and there is that. That is Barkley and this is me waiting out what could be the longest winter a man could know holed up with one good book to read until someone comes to find me dead or man up and boot stomp out a there.
I would like to tell you that it won’t ever happen again, that I won’t get caught that unprepared but likely this last failure is just a different take on a lifetime of poorly thought out choices. It is, in fact, the medical definition of insanity that I would hope for a different result.
I showed my wife that picture of you and me standing together and she said you looked like a woodland creature. I wonder how she knew.