The Barkley Marathon may be the most difficult cross-country race in the world. The race consists of five 20-mile loops. The first is run clockwise, the second counter clockwise around the course. Loops three and four repeat the format of the first two. If there are runners to start the fifth loop the first runner chooses a direction then each runner follows in the alternate direction. The course winding through Frozen Head State Park is not well marked so there are books tied out in the woods and each runner must pull out the page corresponding to their bib and bring the pages back to the starting yellow gate to signal completion of the loop. The runners have 60 hours to complete the race and the start time can be anywhere in a 12 hour window.
The race creators Gary Lazarus Cantrell and his partner know as Raw Dog got the idea for the race from the failed escape of James Earl Ray from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. Ray managed to get 8 miles from the prison before capture. Cantrell figured that if Ray could do 8 miles he could run 100 miles in the woods leading to the first Barkley Marathon in 1986. The race comes by its reputation honestly. In the first 25 years only 10 runners had finished the race. The elevation and decent during the race is the equivalent to summiting and descending Mont Everest twice. The Tennessee woods is full of jagged rock rockface, thorny bushes and changing weather that offer unique challengers to the runners.
Directors Timothy James Kane and Annika Iltis spend the first portion of the film introducing the audience to some of the potential contenders for the 2012 race, characters that run the race on a regular basis and pretenders that have no shot at winning. The race coordinators show their evil side by giving one of the 40 spots to an applicant that has no business being in the race dubbed the Human Sacrifice. They also instituted playing taps for each contestant as they drop out of the race. Two of the prominent entrants are Brett Maune who is one of the few that finished the race before and Jared Campbell who has the potential to finish and makes a smart decision to follow Brett's lead.
However Cantrel is the heart and soul behind the race. As the action progress he gives his comments about the contenders, talks about the tough spots on the course such as Checkmate Hill, the Pillars of Doom, Testicle Spectacle, Rat Jaw and chats about the contenders pace encouraging racers with potential to keep going. He's the one that determines the entry fee based on what he needs. The $1.60 deposit is standard as is the licence plate from the home state of each first time participant plus the letter of condolence each runner receives when their application is accepted. For a while Cantrell needed white shirts so that was the entry fee, then it switched to socks and is currently a flannel shirt.
The film is shot from specific locations on the course that give a wide view of the runners. One of the runners also donated their head cam footage that gives an in the action feel of the race. The retirements begin right away on the first lap. Soon the numbers are down to 10 then 7 then to 5 by the completion of the third loop affectionately called the fun run. The compelling part of the race is the comradely built amongst the runners as the race goes along. When the numbers dwindle to a final few The experienced runners that have dropped out and are still on hand offer their guidance on feet heath, calorie intake and what's the best strategy to continue on in the race. It's as if they are all in it together in an attempt to get someone to the end.
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats its Young is a production driven by the unique characters that organize attend and participate in the race. It's a rarity in the documentary field that the audience is actually entertained and has several moments where they can laugh. It has a secret entry process and the fewest finishers of any ultra marathon or endurance race in the world. The directors present the essence of the event in a film that I can recommend.
*** Out of 4
The Barkley Marathon; The Race that Eats it's Young | Annika Iltis/ Timothy James Kane | U.S.A. | 2015 | 89 Minutes.
Tags: Endurance Race, Ultra Marathon , Cross Country , Base Camp, Brushy Mountain Prison, Tennessee, James Earl Ray.