In the dark ages of running, before waffle shoes, runner's high and orthotic devices, there was this thing called loneliness. Dreamy, solitary men plodded on for miles, deaf to calls of "Hey, Jack, the race was over yesterday." Or rather, "Hey, Park," because this is the story of Park Barner Jr., who deserves to win a Nobel Prize for loneliness.
Park Barner is a 34-year-old computer programmer from Enola, Pa., Planet Earth. The latter fact is important because there are those who doubt it. In the last seven years Barner has completed 41 races of 50 miles or longer, and won 19 of them. Only one other runner has even finished as many as 16, and he is New York's venerable Ted Corbitt, now 58, for decades the country's greatest ultradistance runner.
They call Barner the Machine. What—or who—else could run for 24 hours and all but refuse to stop at the end? That is what Barner did one afternoon—and night and morning—last month on a quarter-mile cinder track at New Jersey's Glassboro State College. He set an American record of 152 miles 1.599 yards, breaking the record of 136 miles 716 yards held by Don Choi. That is a pace of 9½ minutes per mile, and let those who would sneer "Jogger" at such dawdling time devote a day and a night of their lives to seeing what they can do.
Barner seemed stricken when the whistle blew, signifying that 24 hours had elapsed. "Aw, I could have gone 300 miles," he said. "When are we going to have a 48-hour race?"
November 20, 1978
During his run Barner consumed three quarts of Gatorade, two quarts of orange juice diluted with water, one quart of coffee and 1½ gallons of water. He stopped momentarily at 103 miles to change shoes, because the soles had worn so thin that he could feel the cinders through them. The track was a mess of ruts and lumps. Tom Osier, the race director, said later, "The world record for 24 hours was set five years ago by England's Ron Bentley, 161 miles and 545 yards. But on a decent track Park Barner is easily capable of going farther."
There were nine starters at Glassboro. Finishing second was Choi, a 30-year-old San Franciscan, with 113 miles 1,320 yards, despite having to drop out after 20½ hours, hobbled by an ankle injury and shivering uncontrollably in the below-freezing temperatures. The other eight contestants were bundled in sweat clothes, but not Barner, who wore a T shirt and shorts. After the race he napped for two hours and then drove to Towson, Md. for a 50-miler the following day.
Barner awoke at six to discover a gaping hole in one of his socks, his only pair, a considerable problem for most runners. But he thought, "Oh well, it's only 50 miles." Indeed, the time he spent running, 8:16:21, good for fifth place in a field of 11, seemed like a coffee break.
After finishing one ultramarathon, most runners wouldn't be ready to compete in another for, say, six months. But the following weekend Barner ran in a 50-miler in New York's Central Park and then took part in the Harrisburg, Pa. marathon the following day. His times were 6:37:30 and 3:26:41.
Normal men—those, say, with one heart, two legs, two arms and the requisite amount of marbles—do not attempt ultradistance races or even marathons two days in a row, certainly not four on consecutive weekends. But Barner, who is so unassuming that he makes Don Knotts seem like Don Rickles, has run 14 "back-to-backs," as he calls them, nine of them combinations of marathons and runs of 50 miles or more, and he says, "I usually feel better the second day." Last year he set a course record of 6:13:22 in the Stone Mountain, Ga. 50-miler—the race committee paid for his motel, a first for Barner—then boarded a bus and rode 19 hours to arrive five minutes before the 7 a.m. start of Maryland's Beltsville marathon. The bus seat was so cramped that the 6'1½", 162-pound Barner could not even bend over to change his socks. He ran a 3:01:22, sweaty feet and all.
"Park is a very unusual creature," says Osier. "People always ask me, 'Is he human?' " says Choi. The day before the Glassboro 24-hour run, Barner ate 1½ pounds of oatmeal cookies. Driving from the New York City 50-miler to the Harrisburg marathon he stopped at a McDonald's, where he had two large orders of French fries, three milk shakes and a piece of apple pie. He says he rarely eats steak or chicken, and his normal lunch on a workday consists of a bag of peanuts, popcorn or corn chips. He also takes wheat-germ oil and multivitamins with minerals. His training is equally iconoclastic. He never does stretching exercises, calling them "a waste of time."
"Haven't you ever pulled a muscle?" he is asked. "Once," he says, "when I tried running fast in high school."
Five days a week his workout consists of two four-mile jogs to and from his office in the state Department of Revenue building in Harrisburg. He rarely goes faster than eight minutes a mile. He enjoys the scenery, especially from the Taylor Bridge across the Susquehanna. He carries his office clothes bunched up in his hand, and he wears nothing more than a T shirt and shorts, even in 10° weather. "Don't you ever catch cold?" people ask. "Yes, I did once, in 1972," he says.
Nineteen seventy-two, the year he caught a cold, was memorable in many ways for Barner. He had never won a race of any kind until then, and it had begun to look as if he never would. As a high school miler (Eastpennsboro in Enola) his best time had been 5:45, and in 1969, after he'd spent four years in the Army, a doctor looked at his aching knees and told him, "You'd better forget about running." But he had always dreamed of competing in the Boston marathon, and three months later he hobbled through it in 5:16. He was training all wrong, people told him. He refused to change.
One weekend, a month before the 1970 Boston marathon, he ran 45 miles on Saturday and 36 on Sunday, and on the big day he reached the Prudential Center in 2:47:45, in 135th place. At the starting line the next year he met Corbitt and asked, "How do you run 100 miles?" Corbitt replied, "You just have to tell yourself to keep going." That day Barner's time was 2:50:30, good for 134th place, and he knew he would never do much better in the marathon.
But one thing he could do better than anyone else was "keep going," and in February of 1972 he entered his longest race yet, a 50-miler in Central Park. At 36 miles there was only one runner ahead of him, and when he passed him on the way to winning, in 6:04:01, he wept. It was the first time in Barner's life that he had led in a race.
The longer Barner went the more unbeatable he became. In May of 1974 he won the first U.S. 100-kilometer (62-mile) race. Since then he has run nine more 100s, winning seven of them, and last year he ran a 7:11:44 to break his American record for the third time. In early November of 1974, after running a total of 700 miles in October, he ran a 50-miler in 5:50:09 in New York City and a 2:44:30 marathon the following day in Harrisburg. He ran them to prepare for the three-day Chesapeake and Ohio Canal 300-km. race (187 miles) two weeks later, from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Md. The race was in its second year—the runners stopped each night—but no one had ever completed it. Barner's total time was 23:53:54; his 100-km. times for each day were 7:51:53, 8:11:07 and 7:50:54, when he stepped up his pace for the last 23 miles. Six other runners entered and one finished; his time of 46:46:00 was almost double Barner's. Two weeks later, Barner ran his best marathon ever, a 2:37:28 at Baltimore, and he added a 2:39:26 a day later in Philadelphia.
Barner's achievements were understandable, people said, because he trained so much. With reason, that rankled him. "I wanted to prove they were wrong," he says. So for the first eight months of 1975 he averaged only seven miles of light running per day—"not enough to run a marathon," he says—and on Aug. 16 he entered a 100-mile race at New York's Queensboro Community College, 400 laps around a quarter-mile track. He won, of course. His time of 13:40:59.4 was a little less than seven minutes slower than Ted Corbett's American record, set in 1969. The following year Barner was six miles in the lead after 67 miles, but his hip hurt, the temperature was in the 90s, and he realized it was no day to break Corbett's record. So he dropped out and decided to redeem himself at the next C & O 300. He would run it non-stop.
The race started at 7 a.m. in front of the Watergate Hotel. All went well until dark. Barner had run 75 miles by then, but clouds hid the moon and he started tripping over fallen branches. The temperature fell to 18°, and twice he had to remove his shoes and socks to wade through waist-deep water where the running path had been flooded. At 3 a.m. he started nodding, and the urge to lie down was overpowering. But in the extreme cold he might never have awakened, so he kept shouting, "No, I've got to keep going!" and plugged on. His handlers couldn't find him for a while, but at 124 miles they finally met; Barner had something to eat, slept in their car for half an hour and felt better. He covered the last 34 miles in 6½ hours, and his total time for the 187 miles was 36:48:34, including four early-morning hours during which he waited for repairs to his handlers' car. The other five entrants stopped each night. None finished.
Recently Barner decided that he doesn't need supermileage to train for ultradistance running. His average monthly total now, including races, is 350 to 400 miles. But every now and then he likes to take a healthy non-competitive run, to get the blood flowing, so to speak. Two weeks before he set the record at Glassboro he ran from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg. 203 miles, no sleep, three meals, in 36:43:20. As a member of Barner's Harrisburg Road Runners Club said, when told that sometimes in winter Park doesn't use the Taylor Bridge but runs across the river ice, "That's nothing. He's been walking on water for years."