What Educators Can Learn From the Ultimate UltraMarathon

The next time you are looking for a good 90 minute watch, check out the Barkley Marathons documentary on Netflix.  The Barkley Marathons, conjured up by Tennessean Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, are a series of five 20 mile loops (in reality, Barkley runners say that each loop is more like full marathon distance) completed within a 60 hour time limit.

The Barkley Marathon is unlike any other ultra marathon in the world.  This race pushes athletes to the edge of their mental and physical limits as they navigate extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, drastic elevation changes, and severe terrain challenges through the day and night (Read these race reports from Barkley Marathon finishers to gain a glimpse of what they experienced as a Barkley racer).  Each loop  of the race must each be completed in 12 hours or less and in alternating directions.  This is exceptionally challenging considering that runners must bushwhack through much of the unmarked course to reach checkpoints (runners must return a specified page of the book at each checkpoint as proof of having found them all) buried in the woods of Wartburg, Tennessee.  Since the race began in 1986, only 18 runners have completed the entire Barkley within the 60 hour time limit.  

Are People Crazy?

Identifying our physical and mental limits, and setting goals for pushing those limits, is widely popular these days.  Consider the Tough Mudder phenomenon (said to be one of the fastest growing athletic events), the rising number of marathon completers each year (up from 350K in 2000 to over 500K in 2016), and even the growth mindset movement. People are becoming increasingly interested in self reflection, personal growth, and pushing their limits- in an effort to see just how far their bodies and their minds can take them.

Why are people so interested in Tough Mudders, insanely hard CrossFit competitions, or even the Barkley Marathons?   Why would people want to push themselves to the brink of their physical and mental capacities?

I think, in many ways, these events allow us access to the same feelings and challenges that professional athletes experience in their careers.  Although professional athletics will always be primarily a spectator event for most of us, these events allow us access to similar challenges that illuminate the depths of our perseverance, the limits of our grit, and the bounds of our resiliency.

What is it that we can draw from these experiences that can help us push our personal limits in the classroom?

Decide to be Great:  Professional athletes set their sights on a very high goal and then they commit to reaching it.  Although the goal may not be achieved today (often these goals are years in the making), professional athletes decide that they will get there.  Decide to be great in your classroom.  Set your sights on exemplary status and define what that looks like to you.  Then commit to getting after it.


Set Bridge Goals:   No one reaches peak performance overnight.   Set bridge goals that allow you to close the gap between your current practice and your ideal performance level.  Maybe you can’t go gradeless overnight, but you can start shifting your thought patterns to embrace the learning process and to providing quality, timely feedback.  THAT you can do tomorrow.  Maybe you can’t eliminate homework in your classroom this month, but you can provide meaningful homework activities that honor students and their family time.  THAT you can do tomorrow.   Set and achieve some ‘bridge goals’ as successful checkpoints on the way to your ultimate goal.


Chart Your Path:  Simply deciding to be great isn’t enough. Think about what it will take for you to achieve greatness.  Consider both the amount of time it will take for you to reach your ultimate goal, as well as the steps needed to make it there.  Start moving along this path of growth, just as runners follow a training segment to prepare for race day.  Your training plan will depend on the unique qualities, experiences, and gifts you bring to the challenge, so no two paths will be the same.

Surround Yourself with Top-Notch Personal Trainers (& Avoid Junk Food):  Elite athletes work closely with a team of people committed to helping them achieve their goals.  There are thousands of educators committed to your success as well.  They are present in your school leaders and colleagues, but also in a virtual PLN.  Surround yourself with those committed to the same work you are, and use them as 1) fuel for growth and 2) to counteract any negative energies that are bound to come your way (think of them as tempting junk food).  I use Twitter chats as a way to both fuel my soul and silence the negative energies that threaten to derail my growth.  Try joining one Twitter chat a week as part of your training segment.  Weekly interactions with those committed to the same educational goals you are can bring you much needed encouragement, support, and resources as you make your dreams a reality.

Explore Your Limits:  Every athlete and every educator has differing levels of tolerance for new ideas, change, and even professional growth. Test your limits by mentally exploring and testing new thoughts and strategies.  Reflect on those that make you uncomfortable.  What makes them tough?  Is the challenge impossible, or just out of reach today?  Is it a Tough Mudder that pushes you to the brink or would it take a Barkley Marathon? Does flexible seating make you uncomfortable, or does it push you to your limit? I going gradeless on the fringe of your comfort zone or is way outside? Find out what new idea or strategy pushes you to today’s limits and do it in the classroom.  Reassess in one month. You will likely find that your limits have expanded, and you can now add new ideas to your repertoire. You are moving forward in your training segment and getting closer to your ultimate goal of peak performance.

You'll never know how much you can do until you try something more_

Passion:  Elite athletes have a passion for what they do. Although the day-to-day grind of training may wear them down, they are able to draw strength from a passion for their sport and love for the game. What makes you love teaching? What’s your WHY? Keep your ‘why’ present with photos and quotes throughout your classroom.  Draw on them during long training days.


Ultimately, educators and athletes alike are in hot pursuit of accomplishing something meaningful – something real that lasts long after race day.  Commit with “every fiber of your being” to trying, failing, and reworking along your journey to greatness. Laz



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s