When I checked my Twitter feed the other day, I saw that something called the “Barkley Marathon” was trending.
I was instantly curious. After all, I’d never heard of this particular run (even though I’m a runner) and there didn’t seem to be any terrorist activity associated with the race (thank goodness). So why was this obscure race dominating Twitter that on that day?
I had to find out.
One of the Tweets linked to an article that briefly described the race. The second sentence? “Only 15 runners have finished the race in its 32-year history.”
Wow. It was immediately obvious that this race was something special.
It turns out that “marathon” is a misnomer. Because this race is more than one hundred miles – that’s basically four marathons. And it has to be completed in under 60 consecutive hours.
But that’s not all. Just to add to the “fun,” this run is completed on an unmarked, unlit course without any aide stations or lighting (with only 60 hours to complete the course, they have to run through the night). And it’s not just the one hundred miles of horizontal distance these runners have to contend with, they also have to deal with a total of over eleven miles of elevation change over the entirety of the course!
And yet, people still sign up.
So of course, I had to watch the documentary about the race later that evening. I was captivated (and supremely humbled). One of my favorite moments came in a brief clip of an interview with one of the runners –
“I think we all could do with a little more pain in our lives,” he stated after describing what led him to ultra marathons.
And I think in many ways, he’s right.
Not that we should all sign up to run for two-and-a-half days through the untamed Tennessee wilderness, but that we all have capabilities and reserves that are left untapped. That we all are capable of so much more than we believe.
And that we all can gain from struggle.
Because when you struggle, you gain…
The only way to build your belief in yourself is to take on challenges where there is a very real chance of failure. Your confidence soars you face something that you fear and you somehow manage to summon the bravery needed to take that leap of faith. It matters less how well you do against the struggle; the self-assurance comes from meeting it head-on.
One of the more frustrating parts of teaching suburban middle schoolers is that they rarely understand how good they have it. It’s not their fault – they haven’t seen how bad it can be, so they haven’t gained an appreciation for what they have. There’s a reason that the first sip of a cold beverage is more satisfying after hard labor. When we have to slog through the hard times, we become grateful for even the smallest things.
We have a tendency to set up residence within our own heads. We often lose sight of what really matters and become fixated on the never-ending (and often frustrating) details of daily life. During times of crisis, we drop those details out of necessity and we often elect to leave some of them behind once we realize that they are not as important as we once believed.
When things are too easy, our brains have a tendency to invent things for us to worry about. For many of us, we worry more about what might happen than what actually is happening. Once we’re in the thick of it, the only option is to focus the efforts on getting through. Struggle acts to prune the mind of superfluous concern as we enter a state of focused intention.
It seems counterintuitive that struggle can make us happy. After all, in the midst of the pain and effort, we are often miserable and dispirited. Yet those very times that almost destroy us are the very ones that allow us to find and recognize life’s greatest delights. In struggle, we learn to believe in ourselves and to put our trust in others. Boundaries are bulldozed and bonds are built. We smile when we’re happy and we smile even more when we’ve fought mightily for that happiness.
One of my 6th grade students already understand the value of struggle. On a recent survey about accelerated math, she wrote the following:
“The challenge, risks and excitement I get in this class is what makes me want to go to school. The satisfaction I get from doing something right in math is one I want to keep forever. Sure, I don’t always get the BEST grades in math, but that doesn’t discourage me. You’re supposed to get confused, frustrated and struggle because that’s what math is all about. I feel as though this class is preparing me for the obstacles I’ll face later on throughout the years.”
Embrace the struggle.
Struggle is both life’s training ground and its proving ground.
Challenges teach us and they put us to the test.
Hard times shape us and reveal who we are.
So embrace the struggle. It will make you better.
Even if you never run a Barkley.