Wright On: With a ‘just go do it’ motto, Barnett is the anti-guru

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If you ever participated in organized sports at virtually any level, you’ve heard the coaching cliches passed down over the years to inspire, motivate and encourage players to achieve their goals.

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If you ever participated in organized sports at virtually any level, you’ve heard the coaching cliches passed down over the years to inspire, motivate and encourage players to achieve their goals.

You’ve heard that luck is the residue of hard work, that winning is its own reward, that the only time you are certain of an outcome is when you quit, because if you do, you’ll never find out what you might be able to achieve.

This column could be filled with these kind of aphorisms but the insight offered here comes from actual life experience, from the truth only reality can provide, by a free spirit who follows what could be considered, in reality, a road less traveled.

Except for Billy Barnett, it would be a trail less traveled. That’s where he finds wisdom and truth, which should be a victory for any of us.

He is from an open concept of inner peace that Van Morrison once devoted an entire album to in 1986. It was called, “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.”

You might not think you can trust yourself to do the right thing, you might feel more comfortable in a group, lectured to and instructed by others. But pay attention to what makes life real for Billy Barnett, a special needs teacher at Waiakea Intermediate and the top ultra-distance runner on the Big Island.

“My best advice to anyone wanting to get started,” Barnett said the other day, “is to not listen to advice. Don’t be dogmatic about it, don’t wait to be told what somebody else says you should do.

“Just go do it. Don’t go buy a bunch of expensive stuff, don’t follow someone else’s plan. If you want to release some stress, get active, just go do it, figure it out for yourself, it will work.”

The no guru approach has worked pretty well for Barnett, 33, a native of Virginia Beach, Va., who found his way to the Big Island and a life he celebrates on a daily basis, thanks in part to a spontaneous decision he made years ago with a friend.

Barnett played sports in high school but was uncomfortable with the structure and the win-lose component that is so much a part of it. He was 19, working as a lifeguard while attending Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., a city with a large number of parks and trails. He and a friend decided to go on a run in the woods for the purpose of conditioning.

“We just took off,” he said, “we spent all day running in the woods and at one point we realized we were lost, but we just kept going.”

They found their way out eventually and were later able to determine they had run about 13 miles. They went back the next day.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen, it was just something we decided to do,” Barnett said, “but that was an important day for me. Being out there, running at our pace in the woods, awoke something primal in me. I wanted more and more and if we hadn’t got lost I might not have discovered this feeling. I’m grateful to this day that we got lost in the woods the first time we tried to run.”

Barnett found his way to Oahu where his brother was a stationed in the Navy and, for as much as he liked the climate, he wasn’t enthralled with the Honolulu vibe. He found his way to the Big Island, did some important work with Pacific Quest in its wilderness therapy programs for young people and decided he wanted to teach.

It didn’t take long to get his teaching certificate and he spent a few years at Pahoa before moving to Waiakea.

Most people know Billy Barnett as the King of the Rock, or some such grandiose title, when it comes to long distance runners, but he’s really in a place almost all to himself.

Billy Barnett is, more appropriately, the Big Island Outlier when the discussion is about runners who go long. Half marathons are fine, a marathon is good, the Hilo-to-Volcano ultra marathon? That’s his groove. The longer the run, the more it fits his approach.

He is training for the Javelina Jundred, a 100-mile run in Fountain Hills, Arizona, in October, and yes, he’s competed in 100-mile runs before, including the Hurt 100 on Oahu.

“He ran (the Hurt 100) well,” said Rick Otani, former longtime president of the Big Island Road Runners, “and I know premier ultra runners who won’t come near that race, they don’t want to post a bad time, they just avoid it.

“I’ve heard before of Billy, ‘He’s not a world class runner,’ and I’m like, ‘The guy has nobody training him, he has no sponsors supplying equipment, he works full time.’ There just aren’t too many guys like Billy.”

Barnett keeps no records of his accomplishments, doesn’t make notes of his wins, or even all of the events he’s entered, but when pressed, he recalls he has competed in “over 30” ultra marathons, “about 8” 50-mile runs and two 100-milers

“The process is one of not stopping, experiencing all the emotions, all the distractions — your existence and what it means — things come up, and you have to find ways to keep going,” Barnett said. “I’m not interested much in results from the events, I care about the experiences I get that I can’t get from doing anything else.

“The experiences stick with you, you take them into your life, the results,” he said, “come and go.”

You may have seen these runners with the elite gear they get from sponsors, with the ability to pick and choose shoes, specialty running shorts and tank tops. Barnett usually runs shirtless. He has one pair of shoes. He was asked how that works exactly for a guy putting in 60 miles a week of running in one pair of shoes.

“How’s it work?” he said. “When I wear out a pair, I get a new pair.”

Yeah, dumb question, but it comes from being conditioned for so many years to the rigid conformation so often seen in elite athletes. They weigh their food, or maybe it’s their nutritionist who does that part, they eat on a schedule and they train at specific times and specific places.

Barnett puts on his shoes and goes running, often on the gravel side roads in Mountain View with Alec Richardson, a neighbor and the special education department head at Waiakea.

“He’s pretty good,” Richardson says, “our ideas about training are different, he’s a little extreme for me sometimes, like when he tried to talk me into going running once the snow at Mauna Kea. I passed on that one and he looked a little worse for the wear when he got back.

“But he would do it again, I’m sure,” Richardson says. “He is so trusting, in (special education) classes with kids, in running, in everything he does.”

Otani says there’s something else that separates Barnett.

“He is so, so humble, you would never know how good he is,” Otani said. “He has a spirit inside that drives him and it’s a pretty cool thing to see.”

Barnett probably doesn’t think of it as humility. He laughed at the concept of being a competitive Marxist, but, at some level, that makes sense.

“Coming in first doesn’t necessarily mean much,” Barnett said. “We all bring different experiences, and competition seems so cutthroat, I mean, ‘I win, you lose, is that what it’s all about? Is that really all there is?

“I don’t think so, I think we’re all on equal footing. How about the guy 30 years older than me who has never finished a half marathon? The day he finishes, that’s an experience that will stay with him the rest of his life. Where I finished in these things? I couldn’t even tell you.”

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No rules apart from experiment, listen to your body and just keep going.

If you’re lucky, you just might awaken something primal inside you didn’t realize was there.

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