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Review: The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

The Barkley Marathons - posterThe first rule of Barkley is you don’t talk about it. If you talk about it then you’re not going to be part of it.
– a Barkley race participant

I suppose I’m out of contention to register (for the race) because now I’m going to talk about The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. I probably wouldn’t have cared a few years ago, but after being a newly minted ultrarunner and after watching this documentary, my curiosity was piqued by the challenge and would actually consider running this… at the end of the world (ok, maybe a more distant future).

That should give you an idea on how I feel about The Barkley Marathon — not because I was invited to screen it (I know a girl who knows a girl… shout out to @thechrislam! though see my disclaimer below) — but more on my renewed mindset for ultramarathon endurance races and I have my ultrarunning sis and friends to blame for that!

I’ve seen other running documentaries (Spirit of the Marathon, and Running the Sahara are my faves) and The Barkley Marathons is on par as far as production quality. The film’s directors did a wonderful job capturing the quirky essence of the race from the opening sound bites to the end credits. The storytelling is entertaining, owing to the co-founder’s personality and the perplexing nature of his event which they have tried to make comprehensible. Sort of. Regardless, you don’t need to be an ultrarunner or a runner to understand it. Although, I’m not sure if you would watch this with young children, those easily offended, your significant other, or mother — unless you’ve explained to her what really goes on in ultramarathons! Then again, maybe you should  have her watch this and say, “see, Western States* or Badwater* isn’t even this tough!” Because this race, it is brutal. It is tough. It did eat its young. Spoiler alert: grown, bearded, fit men do cry. 

From the get-go, the film explains the uniqueness of registering for this event through interviews with the chosen few (i.e., competitors). It takes a special kind of someone (read: mad and/or brave, definitely both) to be able to complete this race which, in its 20-year history, has seen 15 finishers. The competitors recall what we already can garner: this is not an event where you can just go on or more appropriately, Ultra Signup to register. Without giving too much away (too late), you would need to submit an essay, complete a test and then if selected from the hundreds of applicants, pay the $1.60 application fee plus whatever the race fee is for that year (e.g., a white collared shirt, socks, and a flannel shirt have been the previous entry fees). Oh, and if it is your first time running (see, there are repeat offenders), you would need to bring a license plate from your home state or country. Yes, this race attracts international entries. The race director could very well fill the event with only accomplished ultrarunners or go for traditional elites (professional athletes) or those who can afford to pay exorbitant fees. His method ensures that at The Barkley just about any Tom, Ricardo, and Harriett can put their name in the hat.

The film’s star is definitely the race director and co-founder, Lazarus Lake (played by Gary Cantrell — don’t worry, it’s the same dude). His eccentricity (the needle on his fuel gauge points to “E” for “Excellent” not “F” for “F*ckedup”) is genuine if not a little scary knowing that he is the mastermind behind this sadistic torturous trail race thanks to its tortuous course. In fact, his co-founder War Dog once suggested that they make the course easier; if my spoilers weren’t obvious enough, the course doesn’t get easier.

Scene by scene, we discover why there’s a certain notoriety to The Barkley Marathons. We find out that this race does not have mile markers or flags evenly spaced at every quarter mile or so. That you can’t use GPS technology or an altimeter, but you can bring a compass and there is a map which you would have to copy (trace) from Laz’ master map. It’s a 20-mile loop course (plus possibly 5 to 10 miles of getting lost) with two target distances. Complete 3 loops within a time limit and you’ve done a “Fun Run.” Complete all 5 loops within or at 60 hours mean you hold the coveted title of “Barkley Finisher”. Laz expects you to be self-supported when out on the course. But for your base camp, this event barely has an aid station — just jugs of water left somewhere on the course; where during one race, the water froze and runners weren’t able to refill their hydration systems. The unofficial checkpoints are paperbacks buried under rocks or hanging and protected in a ziplock bag with ominous titles such as “The Body in the Woods” or “The End” or “Damned” and where you’d have to tear out a page that corresponds to your bib number.

I’ve already said too much. I may be hunted as I train in the desert for revealing details about this race, or worse, bothered while I play an intense session of Bingo at Red Rock with some really competitive 80-year olds!

The Barkley Marathons is replete with the beautiful, at times haunting scenery of Tennessee’s backwoods, accompanied by a soundtrack worthy of the race’s setting. It is equally peppered with emotions from the men — and very, very few women — who attempt this feat, and some of their worried loved ones waiting at base camp. The film moves at a pace that would have you question all of the race’s details, and will have you wonder why — considering all the other choices for ultra trail races — hundreds still apply for one of 35 coveted spots even if it meant a very probable DNF**. But that may be the very thing that this film is trying to accomplish: to reveal that Laz’ twisted mind could actually be brilliant since he sees our human potential and knows how to challenge our spirit via The Barkley Marathons. That we may really need to come from the brink of death — bleeding, egos bruised, bodies tattered— in order to know how to fully live.

“If you’re going to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”
– Lazarus Lake, co-Founder of The Barkley Marathons


You can watch this race documentary for yourself! Find The Barkley Marathons on iTunes (to watch on your iPhone, iPad or laptop) or go directly to for other formats.


*Not that I have firsthand experience on the toughness of the Western States 100 or Badwater 135! My minimal exposure is to the animated firsthand accounts of those badass ultrarunners who have completed the course.

**DNF = Did Not Finish. Three letters any runner does not want to hear or see on their Athlinks or Ultra Signup profile.


Disclaimer/Disclosure: I received a temporary link to screen the film digitally and provided my unfiltered thoughts in the form of this review freely, and have shared a link on how my friends could see the film themselves, without any compensation other than being able to watch the documentary for free.




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