“If you’re going to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.” –Gary Cantrell (aka Lazarus Lake)
I had heard of the Barkley. The more I ventured into the world of running, the more interested I became in learning about the prestigious races and the people who run them. Perhaps that’s the academic in me, but I can’t help but dive into my interests and research the hell out of them. It’s a hobby of sorts. Most trail runners know of the Barkley, even if only peripherally. This was the case for me. I knew it as an insane race in the mountains of Tennessee with the sadistic race director. It didn’t sound remotely appealing. Alexander and I had a conversation about it once, and I remember him saying that the race director smokes a cigarette at the beginning of the race and suggested that the guy wasn’t even a runner. I also seem to recall an NPR piece painting Gary Cantrell in much the same light. The mythology presented him as a guy who gets pleasure out of torturing runners and designing a race that no one can finish. I didn’t get it, but, at the same time, the idea of that race lingered in the back of my mind.
March found me in State College, PA for a conference. Under the weather and conference weary, I returned to my Air B&B flat on my final night with some vegan bar food take-out, ready to relax before my break of dawn flight. Scanning through Netflix for something to help me unwind, I stumbled across the new documentary about the Barkley. I figured I would watch about 20 minutes of it while I ate, then shut it off to grab a shower and head to bed. To say the film captivated me would be an understatement. I couldn’t pull myself away, and after taking in the entire film, I spent the rest of the evening reading the 2012 race reports, beginning with Beverly Anderson-Abbs’ and working my way through as many as I could consume before my eyelids willed themselves shut.
There’s an understandable frustration for those who were in the know about the Barkley before the so-called “Netflix effect” that so many people became fascinated with it after viewing the film. I can appreciate that. For me, while I knew of the race in the most basic sense, the film gave me a knew appreciation for Gary Cantrell and his motivation for creating it. While I’m not naive about the means by which a documentary can manipulate its subject (having a brother who edits documentary films for a living, I know the power of the cutting room), I did see laz in new light and was intensely drawn to the race itself.
What grabbed me was the concept at heart of the film, encapsulated by the epigraph above: the driving purpose of the Barkley Marathons is to give runners an opportunity to test their mettle and see what they are made of. This spoke to me so deeply and completely. In the film and in other interviews, laz mentions that so many of the people that the Barkley attracts have graduate degrees; they are driven people who like to be challenged and are accustomed to succeeding. As I read and learned more about ultra runners in general, they also seemed to be as obsessive with researching and learning everything knowable about races and almost anal in their preparations and training. This felt familiar; it felt like me. The academic part aside, I was also at a point in my life where I wanted to test myself physically and mentally. I felt like I had something to prove to myself and that I needed to make up for lost time spent nursing a broken leg. In some ways it seemed like perhaps I was having a mid-life crisis before I even reached mid-life. I haven’t accomplished all that I had expected to by 37 and felt as is my prime years were slipping by. This sounds like the premise for a terrible film that I would never lower myself to watch, but it really is how I felt.
I needed to do something that could result in failure. I needed to know that I was strong. I needed to know I could do something bigger than me. I needed something like the Barkley.
Two days later, while searching for a race or two to run while visiting family and friends in Ohio and Michigan this fall, I remarkably stumbled across The Barkley Fall Classic. It would be a 4.5 hour drive south and necessitate rescheduling some plans, but there it was, a taste of the Barkley. I didn’t pounce on the opportunity, though. I was a little afraid. It was already sold out, but there was an option to put your name on the wait list. I hesitated and decided to mull over the possibility .
I spoke with some running friends the next evening while out for an easy 3 miles, and then discussed it with Alexander. In true Alexander fashion, he said he didn’t understand why I just don’t put my name on the wait list. I think part of my dilemma stemmed from the fact that I hadn’t been back to visit family in the two years since I have lived in Washington.
“Hello, family and friends, I know I haven’t been back in two years, and I’m only in for a few days, but I need to head down to Tennessee for the weekend to run this insane race. Bye bye!”
Again, in true Alexander fashion, he gives me the look that says, “just sign up,” and so I do. In that moment, even though I was only on the wait list, butterflies began fluttering inside me. I was absolutely thrilled.
An old college friend, who is one of my running idols, added her name to the list as well and we began daydreaming about running the BFC. The next day, Crystal received word from the race director (“Durb”) that we will know if we get in by June 1st. She also learned that most people on the wait list actually get in. I tried not to get too excited because this still felt very unofficial and June was still a few months away. I’m excited, but there’s some skepticism.
Durb’s subsequent email, in which he gave me official notice that he sent me an invitation to register for the BFC, will forever stand as one of the most important correspondences of my life. Little did he, or I, know, what the BFC would come to mean for me. That afternoon, Dexter had his final chemo treatment. After a year of almost weekly chemo, he was finally in remission and could settle in to enjoy the rest of his life without the infusions and blood work.
I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful day.
From that day forward, the Barkley Fall Classic has been in every breath I take. It fuels me to work hard and push my limits. I certainly won’t be the fastest runner out there, but I am perhaps the one who wants, and needs, this race more than the others. It’s this that makes me the dark horse in the race.