This past weekend was the 31st running of the Barkley Marathon. I won’t go into the history here, because there is a great documentary available on Netflix, and multiple youtube videos available. Plus, I like to think that, by not telling you about it, I’m helping to keep some mystery in the event. What I do want to talk about is the finish and how it should be a life lesson for everyone, regardless of hobby, career, or age. And just so we are clear, I am not a super experienced runner and I have zero business discussing race strategy or performance, so I won’t
The cutoff time for the Barkley is 60 hours. There is a route you must follow. The weather is always some variety of awful. This year, a runner (Gary Robbins, extreme badass and super impressive human, who I know zero about, aside from that he is Canadian and a superb grower of beard) got off course in the last loop, came in from the wrong direction (which alone would be an issue) and came in six seconds past the cutoff. His result was a DNF – Did Not Finish. And I think that’s a good thing. You can read more about it here. Watch the video at the end. Note how he handles everything. Strive to be more like Gary.
We are so much a world of “your best” and participation trophies. We want to make people happy, and give them awards based on effort, not results. We want to look at Gary Robbins and tell him he is a Barkley Finisher. But Laz (the race director… seriously, go watch a video. I’ll wait) didn’t, and we can’t. As a public school teacher, I want to give Laz a huge hug and tell him thank you. My students are often complaining about fairness, about people not caring about what they are going through. They want full credit for half-hearted late work. They want extra-credit when they didn’t do the original credit. They want 5th chances and hand-holding. They want an A they didn’t work for. Today, I got to show them the video of Gary touching the gate six seconds late. I got to tell my kids about the Barkley, and everything Gary had to go through from application process to race days. I got to tell them that he did not finish, that there are rules in this world that are unbendable. I got to tell them that one day they will meet their Laz, and that they will be better for it. You see, sometimes, a person’s best isn’t good enough, and we are failing these kids by not teaching them that. Sometimes, you can give every ounce of yourself, and it won’t be good enough. If you have a deadline, it doesn’t matter how stellar your work is if it’s a day late. Some days, your 100% will fall short, and you’ll be a puddle of a human for a while. Gary knows this, and I bet has no ill feelings towards Laz. As a runner, I know that Gary will not be a puddle for long. Just like all of us runners, he’ll learn from this experience, and come back fighting. And one of the reasons he’ll be able to rally is because of people like Laz, who put out an expectation and didn’t budge. We have to stop budging for our kids, or they won’t get up from their puddle.
The last book we read with the Seniors, before graduation, is The Time Machine, by HG Wells. In it, the surface-dwelling race, the Eloi, appears to be of lower intelligence, despite their near perfect living conditions (lack of disease, lack of drought, lack of war, lack of natural disasters). The time traveller discovers that the utopian environment left the Eloi in a position with no struggle. They didn’t have to worry about food, or stress about politics, or fear the violence of war. What happened when they found a life of ease is that they regressed. They became weak of mind, and body. It is in the struggle that we grow. The fight is what brings evolution, and the challenge which brings enlightenment. When dealing with our youth, we need to be more like Laz. Our kids, you see, are forgetting how to struggle successfully. They are losing their fight. Without proper and purposeful struggle, they can’t grow. We have to stop holding their hands.
And to Gary, in case this goes viral and people miss the point of this post, you are amazing. You did brilliantly well. What impresses me most is your character in the face of something so deeply soul-shaking. You sir, are an amazing human. That, as an educator, is what I hope for all of my kids. Thank you for the life lesson.
You can read Gary’s initial thoughts on his finish on his blog. His words are beautiful and his attitude is admirable.
UPDATE* It’s been brought to my attention that portions of this could read as though I thought Gary was asking to be considered a finisher. That is not my belief, nor is it the case. As I discussed with my students, as we watched film of Gary’s collapse, he was the first to acknowledge that he got lost, and the finish didn’t count. That is the beauty of it. An athlete failed with grace and character. His failure does not detract from his accomplishments and experience on the trail. You can be a badass and a failure at the same time.