The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (doc. 2014)
Directed by Annika Iltis, Timothy James Kane
Netflix streaming (1:29)
The Barkley Marathons may be the oddest documentary I’ve ever seen. While watching it, I struggled with how much of the film was possibly being manipulated by the filmmakers, then at a certain point, I – like many of the runners in the film – quit thinking and just plowed ahead. Unlike the marathons themselves, this is a film that’s nearly impossible to stop watching once you’ve started it. It may also teach you things about yourself you’d rather not know.
The Barkley Marathons is an ultramarathon trail run held each year in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee. The 100-mile-long course is to be covered in 60 hours. The course is divided into five “loops” of 20 (some swear it’s actually 26.2) miles. After each loop, you can come back to the camp (starting point, pictured here) and rest for awhile, or just keep on going. The elevation on the course is so rugged it’s the equivalent of hiking Mt. Everest. Twice.
The race and the course were invented and designed by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell (above), a lifelong runner who’s equal parts mountain man and lunatic. He got the idea for the race after hearing of James Earl Ray’s escape from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. After 55 hours of running through the woods surrounding the prison, Ray had only covered eight miles. Cantrell thought that in 55 hours, “I could do at least 100 miles!”
Cantrell began the race in 1986. It took ten years before anyone completed the course. As of this writing, the full five-loop course has only been completed 17 times by 14 runners. At each race, a bugler blows “Taps” each time a runner gives up, which is often.
Did I mention that the loops are unmarked, that there’s only one map (which every runner must copy), and no aid stations? (Cantrell does supply water at two points along the course, but don’t be surprised if the water is frozen by the time you get there.)
But can’t people cheat on the course? No. Each runner is given a number (or racing bib). The number you’re given is very important: Cantrell has placed several books along the way. Upon finding each book, the runner must tear out the page corresponding to his number and carry it with him/her to the finish line, where Cantrell checks them. If you don’t have them all, you didn’t complete the loop.
I could tell you more about the insanity of the race: the registration process, how the race begins, and so many other bizarre things, but those things are best left for you to explore throughout the film. At the center of it all is Cantrell, whom you’re never really sure if he’s a wacked-out weirdo or a genius.
The race itself is preposterous. When you talk about “the ultimate challenge,” I can’t imagine anything more ultimate than this, yet Cantrell often treats it as if there’s nothing to it. Anyone completing the first three loops (60 miles) can congratulate themselves on finishing what Cantrell calls the “fun run.” Yet some seasoned runners are reduced to tears, giving up long before that.
The Barkley Marathons is ultimately about our concepts of success, failure, and humanity. In the midst of all the insanity, flashes of wisdom break through and you can’t help but examine your own life, asking yourself what you’re doing with it. Even if running is the farthest thing from your mind, I urge you to see The Barkley Marathons, now streaming on Netflix.
Update: The 2017 marathon just finished with only one winner. Another runner missed the 60-hour cutoff by a mere six seconds. More here.
Photos: Nuke the Fridge, YouTube, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
If you watch the film and insanity has truly gripped you, you can find application information for the race here: http://barkleymarathons.com/?page_id=208