Barkley Marathons: 22.3 Things It Can Teach Teachers (and Us)

I first stumbled upon the Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young Documentary when it showed up on my Netflix. It struck my curiosity so I saved it to my list to watch and there it sat for a couple of weeks. Now I’m typically not a documentary lover. I am more of Marvel comics spin off, terrible B horror movie (I know…its a problem) or a Sci-Fi movie kind of gal.

… one Sunday night I decided I’d give it a try.

I was instantly struck by the personality of Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell,  the creator of this race. His fiery and unique personality was a personality I was not expecting from  the creator of a world renowned race (and it was an impression that was completely changed by the end of the documentary).  I was pulled in when I learned this 100 mile run in Tennessee has potential entrants completing an essay on “Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley”, paying a $1.60 entry fee and completing other requirements that are subject to change depending on the race year. As the documentary went on to diagram the course, explain its quarks, share the racers stories and tell about the race and its rules, I was engrossed in this story and totally hooked. Within the first half hour I was sitting on the edge of my couch obsessed with this race and its story. Not only had its story connected with me as an educator (and equally as deeply as a person and athlete), I knew that this crazy amazing ridiculously awesome race had a whole lot it could teach teachers (and even a heck of a lot it could teach us about life).

22.4 Things Teachers (We) Can Learn From The Barkley Marathon…

1) Have a fun back story. Laz was inspired by the James Earl Ray escaping from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. His back story pulls us in, it makes us interested. Fun and interesting stories connect us to experiences. They can connect us to learning. They pull us in and makes us want to know and learn more. They hooks us!

2) A little mystery is good.  Laz gives the racers just enough information for the racers to get through most of the race. He shares only the race time frame and not the even the exact time the race will start. Mystery creates curiosity. Curiosity creates desire.Barkley Marathons: 22.3 Things It Can Teach Teachers (and Us) Quote via

3) Be smarter than you look. Underneath the beard and southern charm is an unexpected genius.  As the race plays out we quickly see Laz has amazing foresight and creative genius, hiding and carefully placing lessons in unexpected places. Be so creative and adventurous they will never realize the lessons they learned until it’s over.

4 ) Have High standards. Laz’s standards for a race are ridiculous but it is because of these standards that racers run the race and show themselves (and us) they are capable of incredible things. Never underestimate a student’s potential or what they are capable of.

5) Be inventive. No one had ever thought of creating a race like this before. Don’t be afraid to take the ordinary and make it new and fun and different.

6) Create things no one thinks can be done….and then challenge others to do it. Laz never asked permission to create this crazy awesome race. He loves racing. He loves this race. I am pretty sure no one said, “Hey Laz that’s a genius idea. Sure loads of people will line up to run a 100+ mile race and not sleep for 59ish hours and climb the equivalent of Mt. Everest!” but he created the marathon anyway. Don’t be afraid to go big, try something new, do something innovative. Don’t be afraid to share these new things with your class and/or PLN and ask them to try it out with you. Progress in learning and teaching doesn’t come from doing the same thing over and over again. It comes when we try new things, push the limits and show others it can be done.

7) Own who you are and what you do. Not once is Laz apologetic for who he is or this crazy awesome race he has created. He knows it is crazy awesome. He also knows it is his and he is incredibly proud of it! Crazy, different or not the norm…if you love doing it or if you feel passionate about it then make it yours and don’t apologize.

8) Have records / goals. Laz uses number of laps and race times to document racers progress.When students know the goals they are working toward everything becomes more purposeful. Setting and breaking records adds fun and competition to a classroom. Teach each student how to prepare for their own journey, their own way and then let them learn from the journey, make improvements to their learning and keep going.

9) Make the norm, fun, interesting and unique. The Barkley Marathon isn’t one of the top ultra marathons in the world because it is like all the rest. It is like nothing else out there. It is different. It is unique. Make your classroom, the learning students do in your classroom and/or the connection you have with them like none other. Make it unique, interesting and fun!

10) Give things fun names. Different parts of the race have different (super awesome) names. The names add humor to the race during very challenging times. Use fun names to name the mundane and difficult. It will give them new life, make them fun and add levity during challenging times!Barkley Marathons: 22.3 Things It Can Teach Teachers (and Us) Quote via

11) Make it accessible to anyone who wants to do it. The Barkley Marathon is open to anyone. Make sure your classroom is open to all learners and if it isn’t make sure the tools and “training” is there for them to be part of the marathon.

12) LOVE what you do and go big doing it. Laz’s passion and love for this race oozzes! He chats with and connects with each racer. From the time they sign in and on every lap they complete (or don’t complete) her is there to share their journey and cheer them on.  Be this excited, this passionate, this happy about each lesson you teach and each kid you work with!

13) Be so awesome others talk about you and others can’t wait to be a part of it.   Athletes from all over the world want to be a part of this marathon. They seek out information to be part of it(which is kept very secret), they try it (even more than once) because of the amazing marathon it is. The racers are even excited to be a part of the race “that eats its young”. Be the teacher and create the lessons that students can’t wait to be a part of, can’t wait to learn from and can’t wait to come back to again and again.

14) Make things just easy enough to be hard. The marathon dangles on the impossible. There are years that no racers finish but finishing is possible. Many have. Make learning accessible and possible for all but push the limits of just hard enough that students can’t help but want to keep trying!

15) Force students to use their knowledge + your information to discover the answers. Before the race Laz gives the racers just enough information about the course map so they might not/will barely not get lost. The best adventures are the ones we learn during. Give students the tools for success and learning but challenge them to apply those skills to discover the answers.

17) Puzzles, decoding, riddles add fun to the mundane. Laz uses riddles and humor to keep the race unique. Little surprises and unexpectedness add playfulness, excitement, energy and opportunities for teamwork to a classroom.

16) Pair experienced students with inexperienced students. The mystery that surrounds so much of this race does not allow for racers to be 100% prepared. This naturally causes Veteran and New racers to pair up and work together during part of the race. Success comes from learning from oBarkley Marathons: 22.3 Things It Can Teach Teachers (and Us) Quote via CarrieBaughcum.comthers. Allow students to pair up and teach each other, share how they did something and then help another student do the same.

18) Make failure awesome because they tried. Even when runners of this race fail, they have succeeded. Remind your students of the awesomeness of the race. Provide experiences for them that show them that is the race that is important, even if the finish line isn’t reached the first time or the way they expected.  

19) Create moments where students can get lost in the moment. Out on the marathon course runners can get lost in the moment,  revert into themselves and connect with themselves. Allow moments in your classroom where students are allowed to be sucked into their learning and lost in their moment.

20) Listen to your player’s suggestions. Over the years runners have given Laz suggestions for the race. Theses suggestions improved the race experience. Listen to your students and their suggestions. They’re often suggestions that will improve all learners experiences.

21) Consistent check ins with feedback, reflection, evaluation (yellow gate). Check points throughout the loop keep runners on track. Hitting the yellow gate gives runners instant feedback on how they are doing in the race. Make sure learning has checkpoints, both big and small / frequent and consistent, that keep our students on track and give them feedback toward meeting their goal.

22) The create the camaraderie of competition. Competition, no matter how fierce also brings out incredible camaraderie. Include opportunities for competition and for students to work together bring out incredible things in students and in learning.  

My love for this incredible race and its story is apparent. So much of it speaks so deeply to me as an educator and as a person. Most of all it reminds me of what people are capable of.  It reminds me why I gamify my classroom and why I love gamification so very deeply.  Most of all it reminds me that anything is possible. It reminds me that all of us have greatness in us, whether we are the race creator or the race runner!

Barkley Marathons: 22.3 Things It Can Teach Teachers (and Us) Quote via

You can watch The Barkley Marathon: The Race That Eats Its Young here…


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Barkley Marathon Documentary


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