Comparing the Barkley Marathons to Entrepreneurship

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“For the first time in Barkley history, three runners are out on the 5th loop.”

I started watching “The Barkley Marathons” on Netflix this past week. I’m always looking for a new, exciting documentary that brings me somewhere outside of my comfort zone. I’m a passionate runner and so when I saw the ‘s’ at the end of the word ‘marathon’, I was intrigued.

The Barkley Marathons

As the documentary unfolded, I was taken to a small, previously undocumented world in a small town in the mountains of Tennessee where one man, Lazarus Lake, has been organizing a 100 mile trail run for the past 25 years.

The race includes 5 twenty mile loops ascending and descending the Tennessee mountains where this small town is located. The runners receive a short break each time they complete one of the loops (which are rumored to be even closer to an actual marathon each time around), but there are no breaks for the night. The competitors are required to finish the full 5 laps in under 60 hours otherwise the race ends and they cannot be a finisher.

In the 25 year history of the race, only 10 people have finished and around 40 are invited each year. Some quick math and you’ll see that only 1% of competitors actually finish the race.

The documentary chronicles the 2012 Barkley Marathons as it introduces you to one of the founders and organizers of the event, Lazarus Lake, then to the 40 competitors from around the world who will be attempting to finish the treacherous race. The runners come from all over the world (most coming from US and Europe) somehow hearing about the small, unique race through their running community.

For most of the competitors, it is their first time at the Berkley Marathons. They came because it is a challenge in the running world that is known as “one of the most difficult.” As the documentary tells, most of the runners are acclaimed professionals with advanced degrees in education. They have succeeded all throughout their life by setting goals and following through with hard work and focus. The Barkley Marathons appeals to this breed of people because their is a strong chance of failure. For people who have succeeded all of their lives, they are attracted to that possibility of failure.

As I watched the runners set off on their 60 hour journey, it reminded me of my life as an entrepreneur.

How the Berkley Marathons Compare to Life as an Entrepreneur

For my entire career as an entrepreneur, there has always been a factor of possible failure (similar to the Barkley Marathons.) There are new articles published each year stating, “50% of all new businesses will fail within 5 years.” New statistics are released each year bringing to reality the risk of starting a new business and growing it to last longer than 5 years. As an entrepreneur, we much be definite and confident in our pursuit in order to make it to those milestones.

Every turn presents new challenges

The Barkley Mountains is five loops around the same course, but each loop is different because of the time of day and the direction that the runner is going. After finishing each loop, the runner must go the opposite direction around the loop. They’ve really designed the course to trip up the runners as their mental stability begins to deteriorate.

As an entrepreneur, we are constantly set on similar loops where we are met with new experiences and roadblocks. The first year, or loop, is always unique and exciting because you are getting a feeling for the foundation needed for your business. You are creating new systems and processes, learning about your customers, and making changes to your core product with your founding team.

As you make it past the first year, the loops become more familiar, but there is still an element of surprise and exhaustion at every corner. If it is your first time starting a business, there will be new challenges at every turn that you must learn about and make the best decision for moving the company forward. I’ve been through the formation of a new business over 5 times now and there are always new challenges that you can’t predict.

Very similar to the runners at the Barkley Marathons, entrepreneurs must stay on their toes and adjust to new factors of business as it comes along. Entrepreneurs must take small, short breaks in between loops to make sure that their thinking and strategy is sound. Many times, we can get so caught up in the present that we lost sight of where we are headed.

New businesses come and go

All throughout the documentary, runners dropped out of the marathons, all for a number of different reasons. Some dropped for injuries, lack of fatigue, lost at nighttime, exhaustion, etc. None of them ever wanted to quit without completing all 5 loops, but they made the conscious decision that quitting must be done. At a time when you’ve run your mind and body to such exhaustion, you simply know when it’s time to give in.

As entrepreneurs, we see the same occurrence happen to competition. At the time of starting a new business, there may be a collection of others looking to build a similar company. Their experience, expertise, and ability to grow a business will vary, but they’ll all be there for the same reason: to win. All are racing towards economic profit and on their way there, some fall off the cliff disappearing from the market.

Similar to the runners, the reasons for quitting greatly vary. They may have run out of money, built a product not desired by customers, or had a falling out with their co-founder. Whatever it is, they get lost along the entrepreneurial journey and give in to the outside pressures.

One of the most difficult aspects of being an entrepreneur is pushing through all of the times whether they are good or bad. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt absolute bliss, but then also have thoughts of wanting to quit in the same month. There is less security while being an entrepreneur and so you must learn how to deal with stress at a different level.

Nothing beats achieving your end goal

The documentary culminates with watching the 3 runners left compete to finish the 5th and final loop. (That’s right — three runners made it to the 5th loop!) As it stated at the beginning of this column, it is the first time ever that 3 runners were still competing to finish the race at the 5th and final loop. In many past years, no one would even make it to the final loop. I guess they chose a good year to make the documentary 😉

The first runner to finish the marathons set a new course record for the fastest time ever recorded in Barkley Marathons history. As he stumbles into the camp and touches the beloved yellow gate that marks the start and end of each loop, he appears almost ghost-like. His face is drained of all salt leaving him extremely skinny. He hasn’t slept in over 50 hours. And his body is scarred with battle wounds from the 50 hours that he has spent traversing the Tennessee mountains. He can hardly talk because of how exhausted he is and it doesn’t appear that he is fully comprehending what is happening in the present moment.

With all of that in consideration, he’s still able to muster up a small grin that says, “it was all worth it. I did it. I achieved the unbelievable. I did what everyone said couldn’t be done.” 

The second and third finishers held a similar grin on their faces as they make it into the town where it all started 60 short hours ago. They both look on in absolute exhaustion. They all battled and they made it through to the end.

For entrepreneurs, that end in sight is much more ambiguous than a set ending like what the runners have at the Barkley Marathons. It is very much up to the entrepreneur to set the milestones for each loop in their business and to push themselves to achieve those goals.

Similar to the runners that were able to finish all 5 laps, entrepreneurs that make it all become a reality sacrifice a hell of a lot to get there. Throughout the “race,” entrepreneurs sacrifice sleep, time with family, experiences with friends, financial opportunities, peace of mind, and much much more. Entrepreneurs are constantly battled both internally by themselves and externally by their customers and the other stakeholders of the business.

Many scars are acquired along the entrepreneurial journey that are absolutely necessary in order to make the ultimate vision become a reality.

Sacrifice is a part of the journey

As an entrepreneur, I have sacrificed a lot and taken on many challenges that I wasn’t always confident that I would be able to overcome. I’ve lost many hours of sleep and have had plenty of days when all I wanted to do was throw in the towel (very much like the runners of the Barkley Marathons.) However, I’ve also had those days when I reach the end of a loop and everything becomes worth it. All of the stressful days and conversations lead to what I wanted to create. Similar to the runners, reaching that reality almost becomes surreal in the sense that it’s hard to realize it actually happening. But when it does, that small smirk paints onto your face and you get to say, “I did it. I did what everyone told me I couldn’t. I’ve achieved the unthinkable.”

Being an entrepreneur is an exhilarating  journey that breaks you down one step at a time. For every small accomplishment that you make, there is another challenge of equal size awaiting you around the corner. Watching the Barkley Marathons reminded me of this amazing characteristic and life cycle of entrepreneurship. It reminded me of the highs and lows that we experience as entrepreneurs and how important resilience is in achieving your ultimate goal.

Similar to the runners, I don’t know how far the market, my brain, and the product will be able to go before it all reaches absolute exhaustion. That uncertainty, that fear drives me to keep going to figure out exactly what that limit is.

What is your limit? 

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About Connor Gillivan

In the past 10 years, I’ve started 7 businesses & built two to $10M+ in annual revenue, teams of 30+ & an exit in 2019. Today, I run SEO & growth for my 4 B2B companies while teaching millions how to make SEO simple.

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