Matthew Barnett, the 42-year-old who co-founded the L.A. Dream Center with his father, Tommy, was out of his league — way out of his league. He had just boarded the chartered plane for the World Marathon Challenge, one of the most — if not the most — difficult marathon series in the world!
What is The World Marathon Challenge? Run seven marathons (26.2 miles) in seven consecutive days on seven continents.
The participants? A relative handful of 32 veteran long-distance runners, with decades of running experience. Some of the participants, men and women, have run as many as 85 marathons and others are ultra-marathoners who run races of 50, 100, or even 150 miles.
By comparison, Barnett, the 33rd participant, had only run four marathons in his lifetime, had never run an ultra-marathon, no doubles (two marathons in two consecutive days), and had less than four years of running experience. “Rookie” was a generous term for Barnett.
But Barnett has something that many may underestimate — a passion to succeed coupled with a calling by God to serve. One doesn’t need to look far to see how Barnett doggedly hung on to God’s calling in order to see an unlikely experiment, such as the world’s first Dream Center, not only succeed, but flourish — and inspire the creation of more than 100 independent dream centers worldwide!
Barnett says that he never considered anything of this magnitude until a friend called him up and challenged him, stating that he would not only pay the $38,000 entry fee, but pledge an additional $100,000 to the Dream Center if Barnett would do it.
At first Barnett just laughed at the outrageous suggestion. But recently the Dream Center had completed renovating the final six floors of the old Queen of Angels Hospital (now the Dream Center) and saw the number of residents jump from 550 to 800 overnight.
The renovations, which included space for homeless veterans, a human trafficking shelter, and other ministries, left the Dream Center — which serves 50,000 people a month — with a significant deficit, complicated by the additional expenses due to the increase in residents.
“I ran my first marathon about four years ago as a fundraiser,” explains Barnett, who survived a pulmonary embolism prior to that and was told by doctors he would never run a marathon. “And since then, I’ve run three other marathons as fundraisers for the Dream Center.”
After a few days, the idea began to grow on Barnett. This could be a difference-making fundraiser for the Dream Center — if he could do it.
Barnett flipped the switch and decided to go for it, but he also texted a good friend of his, Olympian Ryan Hall, who happens to hold the American record for the fastest Boston Marathon (2:04). He asked Hall to join him in the adventure.
“Something about it just gripped me — I wanted to be a part of that,” says Hall, who retired in January 2016 and admits, after multiple injuries, he had come to the point where he no longer enjoyed running. “I love to travel and I would be doing it for the Dream Center. Anyway I can partner with the Dream Center and help them, I’d love to do that.”
For Barnett, the training was 10 months of slowly building up his endurance in order to handle the rigors of a septuple (seven marathons back-to-back). He ran nearly 3,000 training miles in all types of weather in preparation.
Although Barnett didn’t have the depth of experience, Hall confirms Barnett’s tenacity. “He has a really strong mind and a really strong drive in his spirit,” Hall says, “and that’s a massive part of getting it done in a marathon.”
The World Marathon Challenge (January 23-29) began with a brisk marathon on Union Glacier, Antarctica, with a windchill of -35 degrees. Punta Arenas in Chile came next, followed by Miami, Florida; Madrid, Spain; Marrakesh, Morocco; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and finally, Sydney, Australia.
Antarctica was as brutal as it was beautiful for Barnett. While running with the wind on the 6-mile loop, the cold was tolerable, but when running directly into winds of up to 50 miles per hour for 1.5 miles of every loop, the experience changed drastically.
“It felt like I was hardly moving — that 1.5 miles felt like an eternity,” Barnett says. “I had three layers on and the wind just cut right through them.”
Several of the runners suffered from the first stages of frostbite on their faces and feet due to the cold, while all had to wear sunglasses to protect their eyes from the sun’s reflection bouncing off of the snow. “We also had nostril burn — the sun reflected up off the snow and burned the inside of our noses!” Barnett says.
Completing the frigid run in a very respectable 4:45, Barnett joined the rest of the group in the five-hour flight to Chile, with that race beginning just 16 hours after the completion of first marathon. “That, by far, was my favorite marathon,” Barnett says. “I felt really good, the temperature was in the mid-50s, and I had stray dogs running with me for most of the way!” Barnett clocked a 4:05 time.
Three hours later, the runners were back on the plane and headed for Miami. It was a 12-hour flight, but two hours after landing, the third marathon began. Barnett was greeted and joined by friends and family members along the course, many running along with him. “There were so many people there supporting me, handing me water, taking care of me — I think that’s why I did so well despite the heat (topping out at 80 degrees).” He ran a 4:07 in Miami.
However, it was at this point that Barnett started feeling the strain of not only the physical punishment, but another increasing problem: lack of sleep. An extremely light sleeper, he had only been able to sleep for four hours in the last three days!
When asked, Hall pinpoints three keys to running: “Consistency [running regularly], calories [good nutrition], and sleep — lots of lots of sleep,” Hall says. “Get as much sleep as you can!” Barnett was in obvious trouble.
Day four arrived with the runners in Spain after an 8-hour flight. Due to the schedule they had to keep, Barnett says they only spent two nights in a hotel during the entire trip and they regularly changed into their running gear in airport bathrooms before going directly to the race site.
“This is where the wheels really started to fall off for me,” Barnett says about the Madrid marathon. “Midway into the race, my knee went out . . . something right above my kneecap, it felt like it snapped or something,” Barnett says. “I couldn’t even move, the pain was so intense.”
Faced with the thought of going home as a “failure,” Barnett summoned the courage to lock his leg and finish the race. “I thought it was over,” Barnett admits. “But then I basically ran like Frankenstein — though it was more of a shuffle . . . , and the pain just kept getting worse.” He still finished in 4:50.
Praying for a Forrest Gump-type miracle in Morocco, where his pain would disappear like the braces on Gump’s legs fell away and he could run like the wind, Barnett was greatly disappointed. The searing pain remained, but he was determined to at least finish this fifth marathon.
“I started looking at lamp posts and playing a game with myself,” Barnett says. “I would run from one lamp post to the next, then shuffle-walk two, then maybe run two and then shuffle two . . . .” The distance varied based on how much pain Barnett could endure. He would complete the marathon in 6:05.
If Barnett thought Morocco was tough, Dubai was excruciating. Already having difficulty sleeping, his knee made sleep even more difficult. He would enter the sixth day and the sixth marathon on little more than 10 hours sleep while his body and mind struggled to cope with physical exhaustion, extreme frustration, and constant pain.
Barnett would start the Dubai marathon, finding he was only able to trot a few steps before having to drop back into a painful limp. The heat was blistering and there was no shade. He told himself if he could make it halfway, that would be far enough and he would quit and drop out of the challenge. It was the lowest point of the entire experience for him.
But then a strange thing happened. A stranger showed up about four miles before the midway point of the race. He told Barnett that God had told him to come out and run the rest of the marathon with him. Barnett let the man know he was quitting at the halfway point.
“But Ben [the stranger he met] started talking about life and so many different things,” Barnett says, “he basically distracted my mind long enough to allow me to think about going forward . . . he went the whole way with me, a grueling 7:34.”
Just finishing ahead of the cut off time, Barnett had to directly board the charter plane, without eating or showering, in order for the plane to arrive in Sydney in time. Hot, dehydrated, disoriented, and beyond exhaustion, Barnett collapsed into his seat.
About four hours away from Sydney, Barnett’s body finally went into full-blown rebellion. “I woke up and my heart was fluttering, I could hardly breathe, and I didn’t know what was going on — I was really disoriented,” Barnett says. “And with my medical history, I thought this could be a blood clot and I was going to die.”
When the flight finally landed, Barnett was immediately taken to the hospital. Doctors determined that the combination of physical, emotional, and psychological stressors had set him up for an anxiety attack — he would be okay. He was administered a couple of bags of IV fluid and told he could do the race, if he desired.
Although this final 26.2 was just as painful, it was the final leg and the pressure to be done by a certain time was off. “I started later than the rest of the runners, but they were all so encouraging to me as we passed by each other,” Barnett says. “And one of the pastors of Hillsong church joined me and did the entire marathon — the first of his life — with me.”
The winner of the 2017 World Marathon Challenge was ultra-marathoner Michael Wardian, who averaged 2:45 per marathon and tacked on extra miles after the Sydney marathon to get 200 for the week. Barnett would finish in 6:47 — 183.4 total miles run, on seven continents, in seven days, and all on about 14 hours of sleep!
Hall, who literally left his running shoes at the final finish line as a symbol of his retirement from running, suffered a hip injury in the Dubai marathon and ended up joining Barnett for several laps in Sydney, averaging a 3:39 time for the seven marathons. However, he says Barnett’s accomplishment is what deeply impressed him.
“I’ve seen a lot of great efforts in my life,” Hall says, “but I’ve never seen someone overcome so much pain and discomfort — and he did it day after day. He blew my mind on that trip. He had to dig down deep to a place most people can’t access to finish those marathons.”
Although Barnett prayed that God would provide healing for his knee so that he could run each race and perhaps meet his goal of a 4:30 overall average (he finished with a 5:28 average), God had another idea.
Barnett says God has shown him that his perseverance through the pain ultimately meant far more to those at the Dream Center than if he would have gone through the challenge without a struggle. Following the injury, Barnett says he received tens of thousands of contacts through Instagram and Facebook encouraging him.
“I walk down the halls at the Dream Center, and people are still stopping me, thanking me, telling me that they can’t believe I would go through all that for them,” Barnett says, pausing, as he’s overtaken by emotion. “People are relating my race to their own personal race, for whatever that means, and have been inspired to take on their own challenges.”
And in the end, although Barnett has since been diagnosed with a partially torn patellar tendon with a recovery time of about 10 weeks, an incredible $1.4 million was raised for the Dream Center.
What’s next for Barnett? A friend of his asked him to run the North Pole Marathon with him next year, though that hardly seems like a challenge after this year.
However, Barnett is quick to point out the major difference between Antarctica (and the other six marathons) and the North Pole Marathon: “There are polar bears on this one . . . and I don’t know about that!”