Back to Fitness: Barkley

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Rat Jaw. Photo: Chris Roberts.

I find motivation in many forms and many places, but one of my favorite sources is David Goggins.  His message is not for everybody, but he cuts deep to the truth of motivation and success and continues to challenge me to be better at everything I do.

David Goggins is a retired United States Navy SEAL, and then some. His military service and training accolades are impressive alone, but he is also an incredible endurance athlete and ultramarathon runner.

But it is not Goggins’ current success or grit that defines his message. It is where he came from and how he learned not to put any limits on himself that truly inspire. He grew up in a pretty messed up home and by the time he was in high school was far from what anyone would describe as successful, tough, or athletic. He eventually learned that he had to stop making excuses for himself based upon his past life and his current situation. His story is not one of talent or luck, but of hard work, grit, and no excuses.  

Last December he published a book titled Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds that, while full of plenty of swear words and not-quite-for-children content, is refreshing in its honesty and brutal in its accountability. If you’re not too easily offended, I highly recommend reading this book and also following David Goggins on Instagram, where his posts seem to stick in your head all day.  

Recently, Goggins made a post that has been rattling around my head and is the source for this month’s motivation. I will quote the first paragraph to set the tone:  

“A lot of us are full of sh**! We think we are doing more than what we truly are. We are under a false illusion that just because we are working, we deserve and are supposed to be exactly where we want to be in life.”

Goggins goes on to smash the common perception many of us have that “We’re working our butts off!”

Are we? Are you? Based upon what? Compared to who?

This is not to say that we shouldn’t at times be proud of ourselves when we are working hard towards a goal, be that fitness or something else important in our lives. It’s important to stay positive, and part of that is taking some pride in what you have accomplished. However, at some point, we all put limits on ourselves. We hit a wall where we are no longer willing to sacrifice any more or hurt any more, and we say, “I’m working so hard – why haven’t I accomplished my goal yet?” and we start to blame circumstances. Goggins slices through this topic with a machete so, again, if this column piques your interest thus far, read his book and follow his social media.

Shortly after this particular Goggins post, I had a race where this played out in real life. On September 21st I traveled with two of my teammates from our Crozet Running Ultrarunning Team, Michael Dubova and Frank Gonzalez, down to Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee where we competed in the Barkley Fall Classic 50k. If the name “Barkley” sounds familiar, it’s the name of the legendary Barkley Marathons, a 100-plus-mile ultramarathon that in its 33 years has only produced 18 finishers. Now don’t be too impressed; the “Fall Classic” is just a 30-something mile loop around the same park and is a totally different event, but it does share some of the same madness that the Barkley is famous for. Specifically, breaking trail through briars under powerlines. 

That’s right. After 20 miles of tough mountain trail running, we arrived at the power line sections where essentially the course rules are “stay under the power lines” as we traveled for several miles through thick briars with no trail whatsoever.  

The worst part of the day was arriving at “Rat Jaw,” an infamous climb of 2,000 vertical feet over two miles, all through briars under a powerline cut going straight up the mountain. And when I say thick briars, I mean 6- to 8-feet tall Tennessee Saw Briars, occupying every inch of space in the powerline cut. Arriving at Rat Jaw in 5th place, there was not much trail that had been broken and in fact I quickly caught up to 2nd-4th place as they were stymied by the saw briars. Incredibly, the first-place runner, Crozet’s own Michael Dubova, was nowhere to be seen. He somehow tore through those briars with hardly a trail to follow.  

Our group, on the other hand, was making terrible progress. We were getting ripped to shreds.  Quite literally.  Arms and legs were painfully and constantly torn by the thorns.  After struggling for about 100 yards, we finally came to the conclusion that getting down on our hands and knees was the only way to make any decent progress. So, for the next 2 ½ hours, we crawled through those briars at a painful 90 minute/mile pace.  

Frank was with me the whole time, and we were miserable. I was cramping, because bear crawling was not quite something I had practiced in my training. We were hot, running out of water, and making frustratingly slow progress. Frank and I kept looking at each other thinking, “There’s got to be a better way,” but each time we tried to break from the group, we got caught in even thicker briars, torn up more than we were already, and quickly rejoined the group.  

After 2.5 hours of this, we finally broke free and finished the next 10 miles of the race, with Dubova winning, Frank second and me ninth. It was an awesome day for Crozet!  

However, I keep going back to that time on Rat Jaw, and it nags at me that I didn’t do it better. Yes, we did great! We were bear crawling up an impossibly steep mountain through briars in the full sun!  We were bleeding and in true physical pain!  On paper, how could we not be proud of that?  How could we not say we were working our butts off?  

But when I look at it from a different lens, I know that I surrendered a bit on Rat Jaw. If I would’ve been willing to take a little more pain and be a little more brave, I would’ve climbed Rat Jaw much, much quicker. Not quite like Dubova, but better than we did. Dubova was willing to pay the price.  At some point, I was not. And that bothers me.  

Yes, this is an extreme example, but I hope it resonates. It applies to all of us, every day. What is keeping you from your goals? Is it the briars? The heat? Cramps?  

Nope.  

It’s just you. 

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