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 9� 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?"
During his run Barner consumed three quarts of Gatorade, two quarts of orange juice diluted with water, one quart of coffee and 1� 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 20� 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 6'1�", 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 1� 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."