The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

G 4 Star
The first rule of the Barkley Marathons is “if you belong here, you will find a way to get here.” That direct quote from race founder, organizer (and we use that word loosely), director, and course designer Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell (Laz) serves as the guiding vision for The Barkley Marathons.

The film accomplishes the impossible – defining the experience of The Barkley when there is actually so little information available. The short version is this – The Barkley Marathons is an ultra-marathon of 100 miles (give or take 20 miles) with an elevation rise of 60,000 feet then back down 60,000 feet. The 100 miles is divided among “5 loops” located inside Frozen Head State Park in the backwoods of Tennessee. Racers have 60 hours to complete the race (12 hours a loop). The course isn’t marked and no GPS is allowed. There is one map and you will have to make your own. You’ll find out the course one day before the race and there is a 12-hour window for the start time. You’ll be given a 1-hour heads up via the sound of a conch shell.

Most people consider it a life-goal to finish one loop. If you complete 3 loops, it’s called a “Fun Run.” And not all loops are created equal.

Loop 1 is run clockwise in the day.
Loop 2 is run clockwise at night.
Loop 3 is run counter-clockwise, day.
Loop 4 is run counter clockwise night.
Loop 5 starters alternate running directions.

However, you should know a couple of things before you haul off and add this to your list of “races I must finish.” Since the start of the event in 1986, only 14 people have finished all 5 loops. There are only 40 entries allowed every year and the entry fee is $1.60 plus an essay titled “Why I Should Run The Barkley.”

Having a hard time wrapping your head around this? Good. That’s the point. The Barkley Marathons is to ultra-running what Fight Club is to underground fighting. If you have to ask how – you don’t belong. If you talk about it – you’re not going to be in it.

The film does an outstanding job capturing the ethos of The Barkley Marathons while maintaining its mystery. That’s a huge accomplishment for directors Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane and was their stated goal from the outset. They didn’t want to do a full-out expose on the event – that would have compromised the very foundation of what the Barkley Marathons stand for in the first place.

The centerpiece of the film is Laz, as it should be since he is the life-force behind the experience. The unpretentious Jedi Master of the Barkley, Laz is the unquestionable conscious of the race. He maps out a different course every year and selects the books that will be the course markers. He unflinchingly designs a course that will bring the most punishment to the runners yet he ends being the hero – not the villain. It is like a common consciousness that he shares with the runners – we are doing this to ourselves to see just how far we can go and we won’t know how far we can go until we encounter something that about kills us. Not physically, but emotionally and mentally.

You’d think that a course this hard with so few finishers would create this atmosphere of ultra-competitiveness, cut-throat, win-at-all-cost fraternity. It’s had the exact opposite effect. What has been created is instead a quirky family from all over the world that are committed to bringing out the best in one another. They will run together, find the markers together. They look out for each other on the race. Those that fall out of the race become a part of the support team of those who are still running. They are deep thinkers who don’t take themselves too seriously. They form this community that you can’t help but want to be a part of it.

Just understand that membership is expensive. Way more than $1.60 and a flannel shirt.

In terms of the “look” of the film, it’s not going to knock your socks off. There is no ultra-HD shots from ridiculous angles that makes you go – “How in the world did they get that shot?” There isn’t much visually that is going to inspire. So yes, I wanted more in terms of cinematography. And I would have loved a segment seeing one of the runners get completely lost (which happens often) and the despair/panic/frustration that even the strongest of competitors experience at the Barkley. I think the pain – both physical and mental – that the Barkley produces was downplayed a bit more than necessary.

However, all of that may be by design. The directors wanted to maintain the mystery of the Barkley – this they accomplished without short-changing the ethos of the event.

In the midst of this, the power of community and the human spirit explodes off the screen.

It’s a fun watch, thoroughly enjoyable and inspirational.

And besides all of that, the soundtrack is perfect.

You can catch The Barkley Marathons on Netflix. It is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

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