THERE WILL BE NO MEDAL--BUT YOU WILL ENJOY RIDICULE
If you were here for the last two installments of the screed, you know that we've been ranting about an internationally famous cult brand that is sexy and enormously profitable.
That brand is filled with azure blue waters, white-sand beaches, suntanned, nearly naked customers, and the Caribbean's best pizza.
Here now, something else.
Here now, an internationally famous cult brand that is unsexy.
It is unlikely to ever be profitable.
It is filled with sweat, blood, grime, thorns, blisters and ridicule.
Customers around the world clamor to do business with this brand--and few ever get the opportunity.
AND IF THEY DO GET THAT OPPORTUNITY?
They can be guaranteed to endure pain, exhaustion and mockery.
Welcome to the Barkley Marathons.
Never heard of the Barkley Marathons?
You've certainly heard of the Boston Marathon.
It's the world's oldest annual marathon, established in 1897.
It is also notoriously difficult to qualify. And its economic impact on the city of Boston is estimated at over $170 million.
The Boston Marathon is the mac daddy brand of organized running.
Everyone who runs wants to get to Boston.
But maybe that's not you. Maybe you're just thinking of getting off the sofa and reaching for your running shoes instead of another slice of pizza.
SOMEWHERE, THERE IS A RACE FOR YOU
And if you want an "epic" distance, you can probably find a Rock & Roll Marathon near you. They presently run more than 30 events in nine countries.
The owner of the Rock & Roll Marathons was sold to a capital group in 2014 for $250 million.
Their races support you like crazy.
They have water, sports beverages, energy foods, aid stations, live bands, encouragement and cheering all along course.
And whether your distance is a half marathon or a full marathon, at the finish, there is always a medal waiting for you. (I should know. I usually finish in the middle of the pack, yet I have medals from half a dozen half marathons, one full marathon, and five triathlons.)
Organized road racing is a national phenomenon. Running USA tells us that in 2015, over 16 million people competed in an organized road race.
ALSO IN 2015, NOT A SINGLE RUNNER FINISHED THE BARKLEY MARATHONS
So what the hell?
The Barkley Marathons has become known as, "The race that eats its young."
Founded in 1986, it has been finished only 19 times by 15 runners.
The brainchild of a former ultra-marathoner in Tennessee, finishing The Barkley is almost impossible.
In fact, it's almost impossible to enter.
There is no official information anywhere about how to enter, how to contact the organizer, when the race is--and after you've entered, there isn't even an official start time. It's all at the whim of race organizer Lazarus Lake.
If you do figure out how to enter, the entry fee is $1.60. Your entry fee must be accompanied by an essay: "Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley."
AND IF YOUR ESSAY PERSUADES LAZARUS THAT YOU ARE BARKLEY MATERIAL?
He sends you a condolence letter.
"Dear Runner's Name, it is my unfortunate duty to inform you that your name has been selected for the Barkley Marathons."
He suggests that while you could spend the next several months in rigorous training, that time would be better spent putting your affairs in order and updating your will.
Or, you could come to your senses, bow out and he'll pass your entry to some other "unfortunate fool."
He will never tell you what time the race starts.
He will never reveal the course until the day of.
He will merely require that you and 39 other unfortunate fools arrive in Tennessee's Frozen Head State Park at the appointed time, at the infamous yellow gate, and wait.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN TO START?
Sometime between midnight and noon of race day, Lazarus Lake will blow on a conch shell.
That signals one hour until the start.
One hour later, he signals the start by striking a match and lighting his Camel cigarette.
Then, you and 39 others will be off.
It's a little different than starting the New York Marathon with tens of thousands of joyful goofballs shuffling along to a big-ass PA system belting out Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York."
IN THE BARKLEY, YOU WILL RUN A LOOP THAT LAZARUS CLAIMS IS 20 MILES LONG
Runners who've done it claim the loop is 26 miles.
You will attempt to run that loop five times in 60 hours.
Over those 60 hours, you will attempt to run the equivalent of five full marathons with an accumulated elevation gain of 54,000 feet.
And you will fail.
There will be no organized support, no aid stations, no live bands.
And there will be no medal.
But you will have survived areas of a course with names like Rat Jaw, Little Hell, The Bad Thing, and Testicle Spectacle.
YOU ARE IN THE BARKLEY
How did this all happen?
Why do hundreds of runners from around the world annually compete for 40 slots in this barely organized madness?
And of those hundreds of runners, who do so many of them shoot for the one, single slot open to the "sacrificial virgin," the one entrant deemed to have no hope at all of completing even one loop?
Welcome to the cult.
No prize money.
No 15 minutes of fame.
At best, you get a hearty handshake.
Lazarus Lake is relentless.
If you come in from one loop of the race and even look like you're going to drop out, he will goad you into doing more.
IF THAT FAILS, YOU THEN GET TO ENDURE THE BUGLER
The bugler announces your failure in the Barkley by playing taps.
Most years, taps is played at least 39 times.
Frequently, it is played 40 times, once for each failed runner. Once for every man and woman who made the attempt and went down in flames.
Like in 2015--when more 16 million Americans competed in an organized road race, and a year after the Rock & Roll Marathons organizer was sold for a quarter billion dollars--nobody completed the Barkley Marathons.
Somehow, there is one runner, a guy from Salt Lake, who has never heard taps played for himself. He's finished the race three times.
His name is Jared Campbell. And his blog is really interesting.
In talking about the Barkley, he uses words like "quiet," "introspective," "exhaustion," "exploits," "heroes," and "tireless. He also uses phrases like, "dark challenges," "preventable disasters," "swallow the pain," and "The Final Hallucination."
YES, THE RACERS WHO GET FAR ENOUGH WILL HALLUCINATE
And in a world of overprotective fussing in the big business that is organized road racing, Mr. Campbell's blog elucidates the appeal of the Barkley Marathons.
He refers to it as less a running race and more a psychological and social experiment.
He says it has taught him lessons about life, himself, and others.
That it has shaped who he is and how he looks at life.
And I get it.
As a guy who has twice crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a sailboat, who has spent nights alone on deck in the dark while the wind is blowing stink, having heated, one-sided conversations with the deity, and who has occasionally wondered whether This Is It, I get it.
It's a test. And it changes you.
The Barkley is something most people will never experience.
It is Everest.
NOT THE PAY-YOUR-MONEY-AND-BE-LED-UP-THE-ROPES EVEREST
It is the Everest of Hillary.
It is the Everest of the psyche.
It is the Everest of the soul.
It is a tight-knit group, a brother- and sisterhood, a dare, a genuine and immense challenge in an age marked by coddling and prefabrication and the inanity that is social media.
The Barkley is something that is becoming ever more difficult to find.
The Barkley core customer is a runner who craves a test of the mind, body and spirit.
And the one way that core customer should feel is that the Barkley is unabashedly authentic.
In the social, psychological and physical insulation of the 21st century, authenticity is dead.
Long live authenticity.
Condolences for entering the Barkley.
You will enjoy ridicule.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.