Monday, April 30, 2 p.m. ET

Why We Compete

Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007; 2:00 PM

The Washington Post's Eli Saslow will be online Monday, April 30 at 2 p.m. to discuss the first part of a new series exploring why sports endure and why we compete.

Saslow began the project by talking to runners of the grueling 100-mile Barkley Marathons, completed by only six runners since its inception in 1986.

A transcript follows.


Eli Saslow: Thanks for stopping by everybody. I'm hoping my Internet connection will stick through the next hour here. I'm actually on vacation right now, in South Padre Island. It's a much more luxurious trip than the five days I spent camping out in the mountains with the folks who ran the Barkley.

That race -- and the people who run it -- captivated me more than just about anything else I've covered for The Post. As a casual runner myself, I found it fascinating to watch people push themselves like that. It's half crazy, half admirable. And the people who organize the race and compete in it are great. Only one problem: to spend any more time with them, I'd actually have to train and go try to run it.

And that's absolutely not happening.

If I don't answer your question here, or if you have one later, e-mail me at And now, to the questions...


Virginia Beach: First off, I loved the article. I don't know if any non-runners could relate to it and most probably just said "what a bunch of idiots," but I couldn't stop reading it. My question is this: After being around these guys for this amount of time (albeit a snip-it), is there any ego involved or is it a genuine desire to push one's limits? Is it a love for running or to impress people/friends/family? Would YOU ever try anything like this??!!

Eli Saslow: If there's one thing I'm sure about at the Barkley, it's that ego is not a part of it. So few people have heard about this event that there really is no acclaim to be gained in all of this suffering.

And I hope, in some way, both runners and non-runner can relate to the people who compete in this. I think all of us want to bump up against our absolute capacity in some way. Hopefully, we usually chose to do it in a manner that's not quite as painful as this.

And as for actually trying it? I don't think so. I'm going to stick with trying to manage a few simple, well-marked marathons. But our photographer for the story, Preston Keres, might just give it a try. He hiked all over the place to get great photos and got a good feel for the course. I think he's tempted now. Look for his name in the results next year.


Brooklyn: Are all the runners in this thing male, or just all the runners that you profiled? What's up with that? (Compare to Badwater, for example, which is usually around 20 percent female.)

Eli Saslow: There was one female starter this year, and she finished one loop. The same woman, Sue Thompson, has actually finished a "fun run" in the past. She's pretty awesome.

The Barkley encourages just about everyone to enter. They love having women, and they love runners of all ages. This year, they had a 20-year-old and a 75-year-old. You're never too old or too young to be humiliated by the Barkley.


Chevy Chase, D.C.: Eli:

Fascinating piece. I am having trouble getting my arms around how indistinct the trail is. Using a compass? There are no trail markers of any kind? I am at loss as to how one could navigate in the dark.

Eli Saslow: The trail is pretty well marked, but it's difficult to follow. When each runner arrives, he gets a packet of very detailed instructions around the course. He gets specific directions to each of the 10 books. He gets a map of the state park, on which the Barkley trail is well marked. He can take a compass (GPS, etc., is considered illegal).

But here are the problems: fog, darkness, fallen trees, overgrown thorn bushes -- all of these things tend to obscure the trail. Some runners come to the Barkley early to scout the course, and some have been around the loop 25 times. Still, almost always get disoriented at one point or another. By the third or four loop at the Barkley, you barely know your own name -- much less how to follow a complex route through the dark forest.


Cleveland Park, D.C.: How much does insanity play into a Barkley runner's decision to compete? Are these really people who fit into mainstream society? It all just seems so masochistic.

Eli Saslow: The easiest way to explain the Barkley would be to agree with you here; to say that, Yes, Barkley runners are just crazy. But that's really not the case.

Most of the people who run the Barkley are smart, high acheiving professionals. They're lawyers or doctors or engineers. They're perfectly social. After they finish -- or more likely, quit -- they like to sit around a fire and drink Budweiser. They like to listen to music and complain about their aches and pains. They're actually frighteningly normal, which makes me think there's a little of this competitive masochism in all of us.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm surprised that race hasn't killed anyone yet. In this age of lawyers and insurance premiums, how on earth do they even get away with it? I'm glad they manage to do so!

Eli Saslow: Everybody who runs has to sign a waiver. And everybody has to agree to pay for any search and rescue efforts sent on their behalf.

I also expected to see and hear about more people suffering severe injury. But I think the lack of disasters at the Barkley is actually a testament to how well these people prepare. They are smart enough, and practiced enough, to navigate through the dark without hurting themselves.

A park ranger in Tennessee gave me good perspective on this. He said that the park usually closes at dark. But, if a Barkley runner comes to Frozen Head and wants to train deep into the night, the ranger usually lets him. "These people know how to take care of themselves out there," he said.


Denver: Did you run any part of the course? What got you interested in this story? Are you an ultra runner or marathoner?

Eli Saslow: I ran (okay, make that walked) about a mile of the course. I finished exhausted, with a pair of jeans that had been absolutely shredded by thorn bushes. I think I drank about two liters of water during the next 40 minutes.

And the truth is, I'm not pathetically out of shape. I run three or four times a week. The course is just really that hard. The three of us who made the trip for The Post -- Preston the photographer, Alex Garcia the sound techinician and myself -- had to walk around a lot. Just getting out onto the course was a workout.


Greenbelt, Md.: My husband and I (both marathoners; he finished the JFK 50 miler this year) read your article with fascination this weekend, quoting lines back and forth to each other. Neither of us has any inclination to do to ourselves what the Barkley would do to us. And yet, as I read an article on the Comrades Ultra in the most recent issue of Runner's World, I though, "wow - that would be fun!" Can't wait to read the rest of the "Why We Compete" series.

Eli Saslow: Thanks so much. I hope the rest of the stories intrigue you similarly. And you two sound pretty qualified. If you get brave, you guys might want to find a way to e-mail Gary. He's always looking to indoctrinate first-time Barkley runners...


Chicago: How can I get in the Barkley? I'm a pretty experienced runner -- not an ultra-runner yet -- and I think I could make it at least a loop. Do you know how I can work my way in?

Eli Saslow: I thought we might get a question or two like this, and I think that I would actually prefer not facilitate the entry process. Part of the whole point of the Barkley, I think, is that the people who want to run it want that badly enough that they find out how to enter, how to get through to Gary, by themselves. I think changes that would really impact the integrity of the event. But if you really want in, I'm sure you'll find a way to contact him.

I will say, though, that a "pretty experienced" runner might have some trouble at the Barkley. Some of the best ultrarunners in the world can't make it around the Barkley loop once. It might be best to try out a few ultramarathons first.


Columbus, Ohio: Did you have a chance to find out what kind of training schedule these guys have? I know there is probably no way to prepare, but how many miles per week do they run/hike/walk? Do they have jobs!?

Eli Saslow: They do have jobs, but they spend a lot of time training around those jobs. Most of the people I talked to for the Barkley train by running stairs, climbing mountains and logging a ton of miles on treadmills, roads, etc. They search out hilly, mountainous areas near home and run through them in the dark. It's a taxing event just to train for. I think most runners probably log about 100 miles per week while training for the Barkley. One runner I talked to TRAINED by running in back-to-back, 50-mile races over a weekend.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a runner and I hate it when someone says how impressed they are by these people who run ultras. I'm not impressed at all. These guys have never run a decent marathon and instead of trying to get better, they opt for some dopey long distance event that's not even a race. It doesn't take any special talent to complete an ultra. You just have to log in the miles.

Eli Saslow: I'm not sure we agree on this one. I think it requires a lot more than "just logging the miles" when you've already put 60-plus miles on your feet. Completing an ultramarathon -- especially this one -- requires an incredible tolerance for pain. These people are ignoring every ache and moan in their bodies for 30, 40 and even 50 hours. That might be crazy. But it's also impressive.


Arlington, Va.: Has anybody written about this thing before? I can't believe I hadn't heard of it. It's the most memorable thing I've read in a long time.

Eli Saslow: Thanks a lot. Actually, not too much has been written about the Barkley, which is what made this story so fun. A few local Tennessee newspapers had written short stories before, but that's about it. The Barkley is sort of an underground event, even for ultra-marathoners. It's known about -- and highly regarded -- by only a handful of elite endurance athletes. In some ways, I think the Barkley folks like it that way. When I contacted Gary about writing this story, I actually worried that he wouldn't want us to do it. I'm so glad that wasn't the caes.


Herndon, Va.: I am appalled at the comparison that this attempts is tantamount to two Mt. Everest climbs. The author probably has no idea how tough the Everest climb is. The altitude, the temperature, the pressure, the oxygen, the deep crevasses, the ice are just a few extremes one will encounter in an everest attempt. The participants of this contest will encounter none such issues. On the contrary, the pictures show them in T-shirts! So Please do not insult Mt. Everest!

Eli Saslow: You're right, and thanks for allowing me the chance to clarify: The Barkley is not the same as climbing Mount Everest; but the total elevation gain is similar.

And at the risk of starting a war with the mountain climbing world, I'd say that finishing the 100-mile Barkley is in fact more difficult to ascending Everest. We're talking about something only six people have EVER accomplished. Everest, despite its formidability and danger, is managed by dozens each year.

But that comparison is really pretty useless. Everest climbers and Barkley runners are two very different types of athletes, and I don't think one would necessarily try the other. The Barkley is more about speed and endurance. Everest is obviously much more technical.


Washington, D.C.: I thought one of the strange/odd things about it was this effort to make it hard to find out about the race, to make it hard to register (only one day a year that he tells you about a few days before), etc. I don't get that. I've done a couple of marathons and I can understand the desire to test yourself, even at a very high level (ultras, ironmans), but I don't relate to this part of it at all.

Eli Saslow: My guess is that the Barkley folks believe the oddity of the entry process adds to the overall character of the race. They want a race that's weird, that's different. I think they'll do anything they can to deviate from the ultramarathoning norms. Most ultramarathons give out belt buckles to finishes. At the Barkley, each runner receives a race bib inscribed with the phrase: The only thing that buckles here are your knees.


Arlington, Va.: I just can't get over this story, but I really can't get over Gary Cantrel. He seems like one of the strangest people I've ever heard or read about. So what I'm wondering is, What do the runners think of this guy? Is there any resentment toward him? If I was running around in the woods, basically killing myself to get back to camp, I'm not sure how much I'd like a guy just sitting by the fire and laughing at me.

Eli Saslow: Gary is a complicated guy, but he's certainly not venemous. I think most Barkley runners adore him. He's crafted an event with so much character, and his cinicism is an intregal part of that. Even though he sometimes roots for the course, he treats all of these runners like close friends.

He's sort of like the villian that everybody can't help but like. He goes out of his way to make the most difficult race possible, and to make every runner extraordinarily miserable. But if he didn't do that, would the Barkley even maintain its appeal?


Norfolk, Va.: An ultra-runner has two schools of thought..The first one is either at the finish or his/her own finish point and this is where they say "Why the hell did I do this" and that statement is precisely followed by the second one, "I can't wait to do this again!"

Do a majority of these guys talk about coming back?

Eli Saslow: They all talk about coming back eventually, but I think the Barkley hangover is a little longer than the one that follows most ultramarathon races. When I left the Barkley, several runners I talked to grumbled that they wouldn't be back, that they couldn't suffer like this anymore.

A local runner (and a very good guy) named Mike Bur finished two loops and said something to the extent of "I can't do this again. How much punishment can a sole take. I need a year off." I've exchanged e-mails with him since, and he's already changing his tune. I'm guessing he'll be back. After all, most of the Barkley runners are returning racers.


there's a little of this competitive masochism in all of us: not me. I hate how our society is becomeing more competitive: look at TV shows that thrive on making people try to beat other people. Cooperation and helping are for wimps.

Eli Saslow: But there is a lot of cooperation and helping at the Barkley. These runners are largely working together. They root for each other to finish. The experienced veterans help direct beginners around the course. There's nothing nasty about the competition at the Barkley. It's ridiculously punishing for the people who compete, but who else does it hurt?


Aldie, Va.: Sounds a lot like Hell Week during Navy Seal BUD/S training (albeit with less sand and more altitude) -- do Special Forces folks participate, and if so, how have they fared?

Eli Saslow: Some special forces folks do participate, and I think they do pretty well. If I'm not mistaken, I believe one of the six finishers is a Navy Seal who couldn't make it back to this year's race because he was overseas on assignment.


To Washington, D.C.: If you contend it takes "no special talent" to run an ultra, then I suggest you try one. You obviously have no idea what you're talking about and you will find out how wrong you are.

AND, you are also wrong in your statement that ultra runners don't run decent marathons. I personally have qualified for Boston, as well as 16 other marathons in the 3:30-3:45 range. And I have run 6 ultras.

AND, several local runners in the D.C. area ran a 50 mile ultra on April 14, then traveled to Boston and ran Boston on April 16. Their times ranged from 3:50-4:06.

Eli Saslow: I don't contend that it takes no special talent to run an ultra, and I'm not quite sure why you'd think otherwise. I think anyone who runs an ultra is remarkably talented -- and even more remarkably determined.

And likewise, I know that some ultrarunners run superb marathons. There was a runner at the Barkley who had recently completed a 50-mile race in less than six hours. Now that's fast.


Paul Melzer, Chesapeake City, Md.: I have to say, this was the most memorable trail challenge I've ever experienced. Great article and interactive pages you and your team put together, Eli. Thanks! And yes, it's all you wrote about and more. Wish I hadn't gotten lost for 2.5 hours on the first loop; running the course without the guidance of one of the veterans almost assured me of some errors (others, I didn't need any assistance in making). Still, I wouldn't trade my time out there for anything.

Paul Melzer, 7 books in '07.

Eli Saslow: Thanks Paul. I'm glad you enjoyed the interactive pages. The on-line and design component for this series was really remarkable. I'm not sure I've seen The Post collaborate so successful. The on-line designers and graphics folks did such an awesome job. Greg Manifold, who designed the spread for the paper, came up with something that looks like artwork. So many aspects came together to enhance the whole story.

And Paul, I'm really glad you felt like we captured the event a little bit. Thanks for helping me understand it all.


Washington, D.C.: Can you provide a preview of the future segments in this series, and what, if any, other events you may be covering? Thanks, and I really enjoyed the article!!

Eli Saslow: Without tipping our hand too much, I'll say that much of the rest of the series will sort of continue along this line of things that you might not normally read about. We'll write some about football and some about golf -- but we'll also write stories about hound dogs and an ancient game you've probably never heard of. I hope they hold your interest.


Washington, DC: Who is responsible for deciding the course each year, and getting the books and the water out there? Gary?

Eli Saslow: Yup, Gary is really the main guy in charge. He meets an old friend of his who lives near Frozen Head, and they hike out and put the books up there. It takes them two or three trips to hike out to all of the book drops. It's quite a process to set up.

And if needed, Gary changes the course from year to year. In 2006, he added a new section and changed another. The loop has evolved a lot since the race started.


Naples, Fla.: What kind of athlete is Brian Robinson? I've never heard of him before, and I follow a little ultrarunning. Were other runners surprised that he was the longest survivor this year?

Eli Saslow: Other runners had helped me identify Brian as one of the favorites before the race started. He's an excellent hiker. He's not the fastest runner at the Barkley, but he's a great navigator and he has a lot of endurance.

The thing that impressed me most about Brian was how well he prepared for each aspect of the Barkley. He scouted the course early, and he planned out exactly what he would take on each loop. I know he was at least a little disappointed not to have made it around the fifth time. He'll be back to try again.


Laurel, Md.: Why do "we" compete?

Well, we don't have to compete for food, clothing or shelter (or for most American, even a long, comfortable life).

So we create new competitions in controlled environments; although for most of us it's just cheering for the guys wearing the uniform of our metropolitan area against the guys wearing the uniform of the other.

Eli Saslow: That's an interesting take, and I think there's some truth to that. I think because our lives can be so comfortable, we do look for ways to push and test ourselves. This competition might strike folks as even more ridiculous in a place where people couldn't afford this much extraneous energy.


Correction: No, not YOU Eli. I am responding to the poster from DC who said it takes no special talent to run an ultra; that all you have to do is log miles and that none of these ultra guys have run a decent marathon. It was a post near the beginning of the chat.

I appreciate the article and think you did a good job. I wasn't scolding you--I was scolding the other guy!

Eli Saslow: Ahh, great. Glad to hear I wasn't the one being scolded. And better yet -- it looks like we agree!


Austin, Texas: Admission: I entered the Barkley a few years ago, so I am biased. Regarding the question of difficulty, some world class marathoners (also Special Forces, a team from the Eco Challenge etc.) have entered the Barkley and failed. Also, a far larger percentage of people succeed in climbing Everest than succeed in finishing the Barkley. Many people who enter the Barkley have the fitness to climb Everest, just not the $65,000 summit fee.

Eli Saslow: Vote one for Barkley.


Littleton, Colo.: Incredible article, Eli! What was your inspiration for this series? As a an athlete, what compels, or compelled, you to compete?

Eli Saslow: Well, in my ridiculously insignificant competitions -- casual running, some poor golf, maybe a little pick-up basketball -- I think I'm compelled by a lot of the things we're going to focus on in this series. Some curiousity, some community, some identity. Maybe even -- yikes -- some ego.


Bowie, Md.: Amazing race. My questions:

1. How do the runners make any progress in the night with so many obstacles both seen and unseen waiting to trip them up?

2. What emergency gear do they carry with them in case they get lost? For instance, does anyone carry a personal locator beacon with them to call for help if needed?

3. How do the runners handle snakebite, which would seem a common occurance?

4. Have there been any women runners to this point, and how have they done?


Eli Saslow: A lot of good questions, and I hope I've already answered some of them. But as for emergency gear, Barkley runners really don't carry much. They really hate taking extra weight. Some don't even take a second set of batteries for their headlamps because they don't want to be bogged down.

When they leave camp, they rely exclusively on their own survival skills.


Baltimore: Well, to truly compare the Barkley with Everest, you'd need to compare the proportion of people who finish--meaning you'd need to know how many people try each challenge in the first place and use that as a denominator. Yes, only six people have finished Barkley, but vastly fewer people have tried that race versus the number of people who try to scale Everest.

I'm interested in the man who was featured throughout the article (whose name I'm forgetting right now). You said he quit his job years ago--how does he support himself???

Eli Saslow: That's a good point on the Everest vs. Barkley debate. But I'm sure the percentage of people who successfully climb Everest is higher than those who finish the Barkley -- which is less than one percent.

And Brian supports himself with the money he saved from his Internet job. He told me that he might soon start to work at a running shoe store. He really wants, and needs, a flexible schedule that supports his training.


Eli Saslow: Thanks so much for all of the great questions. We got to most of them, but not quite all. If anybody feels like they still have something they would like answered, please don't hesitate to e-mail me.

OK, I guess I'll get back to my vacation. My friends are sitting outside of the hotel room, listening to Kenny Chesney and drinking Coronas. That's to tempting to pass up.

Thanks again for checking in.


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