The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (doc. 2014)
Directed by Annika Iltis, Timothy James Kane
Amazon Prime (1:29)
A few days ago one of my Twitter friends asked for suggestions for the best documentaries of the 2000s. Several good ones were offered up, but no one mentioned one of my personal favorites, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. So I recommended it and decided to rewatch it, modifying my original review from 2016.
The Barkley Marathons is an ultramarathon trail run held each year in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee. The 100-mile race is to be covered in 60 hours. The course is divided into five “loops” of 20 (some swear it’s actually 26.2) miles. Even after all the runners have arrived, no one knows exactly when the race is going to begin. When you hear the sound of a conch shell blown (which could be in the middle of the night), you have one hour until the start of the race. At the conclusion of each loop, you can come back to the camp (starting point, pictured above) and rest for awhile, keep on going, or call it quits. The course is extremely rugged, and the total elevation is 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 runner, mountain man, and just possibly lunatic. Cantrell 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!” (You can read more about the escape and the history of the race here.)
Cantrell began the race in 1986. It took ten years before anyone completed the course. In 35 years, the full five-loop course has only been completed by 15 runners. (The race was cancelled in 2000 over a "political thing" and in 2020 due to the pandemic. More on the race here.) At each race, a bugler blows “Taps” every 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 by hand), 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? Nope. No GPS devices are allowed. (They probably wouldn't help you anyway.) Each runner is given a numbered 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 bib 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. And woe to you if you receive race bib #1. That number goes to the "human sacrifice," the person Cantrell believes has absolutely no business attempting the race.
I could tell you more about the insanity of the race: the registration process, the "instructions," and so many other bizarre things, but those are best left for you to explore throughout the film. At the center of it all is Cantrell, whom you’re never really sure whether 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 the race 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 long before that. And if you think Cantrell will cut you some slack, forget it. A runner in 2017 missed the 60-hour cutoff by a mere six seconds.
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 and if you should be pushing yourself harder, reaching for the unreachable. But how do you know what's unreachable until you challenge yourself? Even if running is the farthest thing from your mind, I urge you to see The Barkley Marathons, now streaming on Amazon Prime.