The Psycho-Ultra

2 May 2007

Abandon all hope, ye that enter here.

Life in the developed world used to be nasty, brutish and short. People eked out meager existences, dependent on land, vagaries of weather, or whims of monarchs. Beyond war, oppression and occasional ritualistic flagellation, they rarely invented ways to beat themselves into dust. Everyday toil was sufficient. Free time was, put mildly, elusive. The Double Whopper with Cheese was yet a blip on the distant horizon.

Today, we’re prosperous beyond the wildest dreams of our progenitors. We have leisure to spare; leisure to invest; leisure to give to the poor. We’ve arrived at the backswing of the pendulum. Fed up with excess relaxation, we actually search out physical pain and mental exhaustion. Thus the running craze. From the great beyond our ancestors are shocked that we pursue the hardship they longed to escape.

By hardship, I don’t mean the marathon, or even the ultramarathon. A new deranged category has emerged. Call it the psycho-ultra. Consider Badwater, the jewel of the ultra belt buckle. It’s a 135 mile race from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in the dead heat of July. It’s unbelievably severe. Just watch the documentary and cringe.

Yet Badwater may simply be the Barkley Marathons of the West. Held in Tennessee, Barkley gives appalling a new meaning. The 100 mile run consists of five unsupported twenty-mile loops through largely untraveled, highly difficult trails. With a grueling 52,900 feet rise in elevation, the course breaks even elite athletes.

Participants must carry a compass and whatever food and drink they can. They have twelve hours to complete each circuit. To prove it, participants must retrieve pages from books along the course. Getting lost is likely, and potentially costly. Anyone missing a cutoff by two hours agrees to pay all search and rescue expenses.

Eventually, everyone quits. Well, almost everyone. In twenty-one years, 600 people have attempted Barkley. Over the entire history of this event, a grand total of six people have completed it.

Six.

Paging Don Quixote…

I can barely comprehend this. I’m still trying to understand why I run at all, let alone develop a frame of reference for survivalist ordeals.

The Washington Post offers an excellent article on the grisly Barkley. You simply must read it. Then, contrast that account with the matter-of-fact style of Barkley’s official site. It states that the race “will leave you a struggling shadow of yourself.” Ah, perhaps that’s the draw; to unravel all layers of the onion to see what’s inside.

Our forefathers might understand this sentiment, but for them it was all in a day’s work.

- Dean
White Space

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