Would you be interested in participating in an athletic event that’s been held annually for almost 30 years, attempted about 1200 times, and finished by only 10 people? It’s a race so punishing that most people quit before they’re even a fifth of the way through the course. “No,” would be the honest and sane answer. “Who on Earth would do such a thing?!” You’d be right to answer that way, and not many people would fault you for doing so.
The documentary The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young is about the few brave souls who gladly, and in many cases repeatedly, answer “Yes!” The film examines the event’s history and the athletes participating in the 2012 race, including their personal philosophies about life and what compels them to sign up for such a grueling few days. We then seamlessly transition into a competition documentary, to watch and wait for who – if anyone – will be able to complete the 60 hour, 100+ mile trial by misery.
It’s worth noting that there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about the way co-directors Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane shot or edited The Barkley Marathons. The style is a very straightforward look at the history of the race, its founder, and those participating in it. What makes it such a successful and entertaining movie is the rich subject matter.
The race’s founder, Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, is an enigma. A close friend tells us he’s a redneck, not too politically conservative, but definitely “not a bleeding heart.” The native Tennessean came up with the idea for the race when he heard about the prison break of James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King, Jr. Ray escaped Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977, not far from where Cantrell lives, and covered about 8 miles of the treacherous Tennessee mountain terrain in 55 hours before police apprehended him. Cantrell himself tells of jokingly remarking at the time that he could easily cover 100 miles in the same 55 hours. Thus the idea for his race was born.
Adding to the mystique of Cantrell is what he doesn’t say, or, at least, what the filmmakers leave out. Cantrell describes getting the occasional email or letter from people admonishing him for honoring Ray with his race. The old man gets serious for a moment as he says, without elaborating, that the reality is quite the opposite. We never discover what exactly Cantrell means. Did he create the race to mock James Earl Ray because of his backward, racist beliefs? Or did he do it simply because he thought Ray’s physical prowess and survival skills were risible? The documentary has much more ground to cover, keeping the question tantalizingly open. Knowing that Cantrell was an ultra-runner (covering distances of 30+ miles a stretch), and somewhat of a survivalist, makes me opt for the latter.
The race itself is just plain crazy. There’s simply no other way to put it. The course is one 20-mile loop – that must be completed five times. That 20 miles suspiciously changes year to year, both in length, elevation and terrain, with some runners supposing it’s actually closer to a 26-mile circuit, which is about the length of one full marathon. If you’ve ever participated in any professional race, you know that the details of a course are usually meticulously calculated, verifiable, and readily available. Not so with the Barkley Marathons. Cantrell is the only one with the actual course map, and the forty or so participants each year are given a few minutes with it so they can sketch the pattern onto their own maps before handing it over to the next runner.
If you think all that is overwhelming, wait until Cantrell really gets going. Each consecutive loop is run the opposite way (clockwise and counterclockwise), and alternates for both day and night runs. It’s a trail run with everything from brambles threatening to shred your legs to an unbelievable climb-and-descent, which over the whole 100-mile course is equal to climbing Mt. Everest. Twice. The last bit of fun the sadistic “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell has with his runners is making the actual start time a mystery. The race can start anytime between 11 p.m. and 11 a.m., with a one-hour warning signaled by the blowing of a conch shell.
So, who in the hell would ever want to participate in such madness? As it turns out, plenty of people. The Barkley Marathons spends time with a few of them, giving us a glimpse into why people feel the need to push themselves to the absolute limits of physical exertion. There’s a widely held stereotype that the only people with the kind of time on their hands to dedicate to such extreme hobbies come from privilege. This documentary would seem to support that stereotype. With the exception of a few women, the overwhelming majority of participants in this race are white men. The Barkley Marathons are world famous at this point, so there are many international contestants but the stereotype holds true with these runners as well.
That doesn’t make their stories, or their life philosophies any less interesting. Each runner that the documentary follows has a unique reason for signing up. One man tells of playing it safe before personal tragedy struck. His father told him the secret to the game of life was conservatively saving money over decades of hard work, then reaping the benefits and seeing the world in retirement. That was sound advice, the man thought, until his father suddenly died only a year before his own retirement. Carpe diem has become cliché, but that’s the only way to live for the man who understands the importance of experiencing the wonders of the world before it’s too late.
All this could be laughed off by the millions of people struggling to just get through the day-to-day as the extravagances of people with too much time and money on their hands. It’s the white, male, upper-middle class cry of Fight Club: “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” Acknowledging that critique doesn’t take all the power away from the experience of The Barkley Marathons, though. It’s an entertaining, thought provoking film that documents a test of endurance so outrageous, it must be seen to be believed.
Why it got 4 stars:
- In simple, non-critic terms, The Barkley Marathons is a hoot. Spending time with this cast of characters, from the eccentric founder to the dedicated participants, is a great way to spend an hour-and-a-half.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The Barkley Marathons is currently streaming on Netflix, so give it a shot.
- Cantrell has come up with his own signature way to start the race every year. He lights a cigarette. When that happens, the runners take off.