I recently watched a documentary about the Barkley Marathons, an ultra race in the back woods of Tennessee that turns out to be the craziest challenge imaginable created with the most awesome intentions in mind.
The race is supposedly 100 miles but the documentary claimed it to be closer to 130. It consists of 5 loops of a marathon-length course. Already, it just sounds ridiculous. Furthermore, the total elevation change of the race, if all 5 loops are completed, adds up to more elevation than one climbs when ascending Everest…twice. Granted, Everest sits at 29,000 ft above sea level while the Tennessee mountains don’t even hit 7,000 so maybe this is an unfair comparison.
But the real kicker of this course is that a very small portion of it actually follows pre-formed trails. The majority of the race is unmarked and there is no support staff to tell the racers where to go. Instead, there is a series of books from which each competitor must tear a page related to their race number. Oh, and GPS devices are not allowed.
So you combine an impossibly long distance, an unbelievable elevation change, and the high probability of getting lost, it is no wonder this is considered the hardest race in the world.
The best part, to me, is the application fee: $1.60. And the entry fee for the 35 selected racers is a license plate, a pair of socks, or a carton of cigarettes depending on your veteran status.
The priorities of this race have nothing to do with making money. Its creators are interested in only one thing: challenging its racers.
And this challenge has a set of values immanent to each racer. Some people finish only one loop of the Barkley (26 miles according to the documentary), and consider it the achievement of their lifetime. Some who finish 3 loops (called a “Fun Run”) can put that on their ultra-marathoner resume. Only 16 people have completed the full 5 loops in the more than two decades of the race’s existence.
But that degree of difficulty is what separates it from other races on a fundamental level. So many competitions imply the possibility of success. It is a forgone conclusion that most who enter a normal marathon will complete it so it becomes a competition between people. The Barkley is a competition against oneself because finishing it is the furthest from being presupposed.
It is the same thing in music. There are scarcely pieces that function like Barkley marathons: impossible, long, and ridiculous. So we resort to competing against each other.
But is the point of music to beat each other? Or are we in competition with ourselves to see if we can keep making things more artistic and more impactful?
Should we be living in a world of $100 application fees, trying to make money so we can prove our worth? Or should we be living in a world of $1.60 application fees, trying our hardest to benefit our community?
One of these worlds is the way it is right now, but I’m not sure it is better than the alternative.