I first came across the Barkley Marathons through Gary Robbins’ 2016 race report. I was instantly captivated by the culture and legacy of the “race”. Race is in quotation marks, because this is certainly not your typical ultramarathon. In fact, out of about 1000 participants over 30 years, only 14 have completed the race. Are you interested yet?
(If you’re already familiar with the Barkley, skip the following paragraphs to read the actual review below.)
Let’s go back to the start. An ultramarathon is any race longer than 42km. Typical distances are 50km, 50 miles, 100km and 100 miles. (Yes, this is a thing that people do.) Of all the ultramarathons, the Barkley has long been known as the quirkiest, most mysterious, but above all arguably the toughest to complete. The Barkley, set in Tennessee, has been going since 1986. It took 2 years for the race to find its first victor – Frozen Ed Furtaw, now a Barkley veteran and all round legend. However, in its first few years, the Barkley was “only” around 50 miles, with 24,850 feet of climb (and descent) and a 24 hour cut off.
The modern day Barkley is a 100 mile course, with 59,100 feet of climbing and a 60 hour cut off. As the documentary points out, running a Barkley has an elevation change equivalent to climbing and descending Mount Everest…twice. (As you could imagine, “Barkley miles” take far, far longer to complete than your usual mile.) The layout of the course is as follows: to run a full Barkley, participants must complete five 20 mile laps with no aid. Whether or not these laps are 20 miles is a point of contention (i.e. they are most likely more). The first two laps are run clockwise, the next two counter clockwise. In the final lap, runners are sent in alternating directions, facing the course totally alone.
In addition to this, competitors are faced with the temptation of quitting at the end of every lap as they pass through basecamp. If they quit during a lap, they may sometimes face a 10 hour run back to camp. I also should note that there is never an official start time. Participants know that the race will begin within a 12 hour period. They are given a one hour notice when the race director blows a conch, then the beginning of the race is heralded by the lighting of a cigarette. Competitors are mind-fucked before they even begin the race.
Entering the race is a challenge. There are no clear guidelines on how to enter and no official sources of information. It is known, however, that participants must submit an essay on why they should be allowed to run the Barkley and pay an entry fee of $1.60 (some ultramarathons cost hundreds of dollars to run). Once you are selected, you must bring a number plate from your home state and an item for the race director – some years it has been cigarettes, other years socks or flannels. Most first-timers (dubbed virgins) get their information from veteran runners. This is of course, explained in the documentary but it occurred to me that most people reading a movie review blog would not have come across the Barkley before.
However, the most deadly aspect of the Barkley would have to be simply following the course. Participants are equipped with a map (copied from a master map when they arrive at camp) and a compass. No GPS, no other tools. All they have is each other. Imagine that you’ve been running and hiking for 30 hours straight (maybe with 20 minutes sleep if you’re lucky), trying to navigate a forest AND find very specific check points. Runners go off trail all the time, losing valuable time and mental strength. One year, a runner completed only 2 miles of the first lap in over 30 hours. And these aren’t laymen. These are experienced ultramarathoners who have been training for this event for months and months.
So basically – you’re running an incredibly difficult trail, navigating it yourself with no aid stations for 60 hours (if you complete the course). If this doesn’t sound like a great subject for a documentary, then I don’t know what is. That brings us to my actual review. So far, my writing has been concerned with the specifics. The what and the when, but not the who, how or why. The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young is concerned with the latter.
Although I have never been anywhere near a ultramarathon, let alone the Barkley, this documentary does well to convey the Barkley culture. As well as outsiders Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane can, that is. Iltis and Kane work very well with the characters of the Barkley. Their interviews with witty race director Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell and earnest underdog John Fegyveresi are largely what shape the film. We hear the legends of the Barkley, the tales from “out there” and endeavour to explore the attitudes of the competitors. Balancing the inherent awe of the Barkley, with its down to earth attitude is something Iltis and Kane do well. To be honest, they are working with intriguing material and I would implore any film maker to screw it up.
A review I happened across before watching The Barkley Marathons mentioned that the film failed to capture just how difficult this race really is. I can’t disagree. Don’t get me wrong – the documentary details over and over how hard the race is. We see competitors fail to finish, time and time again. We hear the challenges of the race outlined, extensively. But we never really see the Barkley in its full, wet-your-pants glory. Maybe it’s because the competitors basically come to fail the race? Maybe it’s because the Barkley is so deeply entrenched in gallows humour? Maybe it’s because the only way you can beat the Barkley is to simply grin and bear it? It’s always going to be difficult to portray the struggle of a sport that requires its participants to deny its struggle. Running is a head game, and runners will never admit how much they’re hurting during a race. If they have, they are going to quit.
The only way the audience will ever grasp the sheer magnitude of the Barkley is if Go-Pros were strapped to the competitors. This simply wouldn’t happen for two reasons. The first being, when it comes down to it, the Barkley is a solitary journey. The second is that I’m sure extensive footage of the race would violate Barkley rules, and overall, ruin the magic of the race. So maybe my criticism is an unfair one, purely because it is an impossible feat. None of us will understand what goes through the mind of a Barkley runner. And furthermore, I don’t think my laziness/lack of ability is a good enough excuse to ruin a cult event that is already becoming very oversaturated.
What I do think I can criticise Iltis and Kane for is how much Fegyveresi shapes the spirit of the documentary. Okay, dealing with hypotheticals is still unfair, but I wonder how The Barkley Marathons would have turned out without Fegyveresi. I should mention, John Fegyveresi is a competitor of the Barkley, whose life motto is to “suck the marrow out of life”. That’s the note the documentary ends on. Without Fegyveresi’s earnest sentiments, it would have been an entirely different film. The other competitors are less open, some are even grim. What would Iltis and Kane have done without this man’s generosity of spirit?
I don’t know if there was much worth in Iltis and Kane dangling the carrot of exploring the psychological journey that encompasses the Barkley. They briefly ask the runners why they decided to run the Barkley. The responses are basically either, “I don’t know,” or some kind of joke. But they don’t analyse it beyond that. It’s not really a fair question to ask, either. I don’t think I could ever understand why someone would run the Barkley, and if there is an explanation, I’m sure it would be very private and difficult to explain. I think a great follow up doc would be following a runner’s journey to the Barkley. That might help answer this question. Make no mistake – The Barkley Marathons is about the Barkley. It is not about its runners.
Now that I’ve finished my rant, I should praise the film. Iltis and Kane do an outstanding job of making viewers feel like they are part of the Barkley culture. To make something as obscene as the spirit of ultramarathons, feel accessible to laymen, deserves a round of applause. In addition to this, their portrayal of Laz felt both mythical and real – very close to how I imagine he would be in real life. Capturing Laz’s personality felt integral to capturing the spirit of the Barkley. Both were achieved.
Despite the fact that the last few paragraphs were me shitting on the filmmakers for things they couldn’t possibly control, The Barkley Marathons is a very nifty little flick. Catch it on Netflix if you’re bored one day. It’s probably the closest any of us will get to the Barkley.
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (2014): 9/10