A tiny town in Tennessee is the most unlikely of places you would expect to find the hardest trail race in the world
The Barkley Marathons:The Race That Eats Its Young (2014) directed by Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane. I have no idea why I chose to watch this but I’m so glad I did, the basic premise of the documentary is that it’s about a marathon which is run yearly. Does that sound interesting? of course not. The twist in the story is that The Barkley Marathon is an ultramarathon trail race held in Wartburg, Tennessee. The race can be ran as a “fun run” of 60 miles or the full course of 100 miles (roughly). The race is run over a 60-hour period and goes non-stop day and night.
Only 40 runners are allowed entrance into the race certain hoops need to be jumped through to be accepted. The rules for entry change every year. In the documentary the runners had to complete an essay on “Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley”, pay a $1.60 application fee, and complete other requirements which change year on year. If accepted, an entrant receives a “letter of condolence” a joke poking fun at how hard the marathon actually is.
The race was created and crafted by cocky marathon runner Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell as a joke of a famously televised 1977 prison escape that lasted 54 hours, all of which is explained in the documentary. On this unmarked course runners battle through treacherous terrain to find hidden books and tear out pages corresponding to their running number as proof of them following the route in the right order. If they make it to the end, they will have climbed and descended double the height of Mount Everest, in under or sometimes over 60 hours.
The Directors do an outstanding job of explaining the course with the help of on screen visuals and the use of simple graphics and sentences. So the course is basically ever changing year in year out, so even repeat runners never know what to expect but it is always set at the same distances. The course consists of a 20-mile unmarked loop with no first aid stations except water at two points along the route and the runner’s parked car at the beginning of the loop. Runners of the 100-mile version run this loop five times, running loops two and four in darkness, taking a counterclockwise direction for loops three and four, followed by each runner alternating direction on loop five, after the first-placed runner’s choice. The course is located in a huge forest and consists of 16,500m and vertical climb 100 miles of uneven ground, rivers, rocks, mud and thorns, unpredictable weather and wildlife.
The documentary focuses on a small group of the runners in 2012. Some past winners, some newbies, some from around the world and some that keep coming back every year to try and finish it. What really hooked me was how determined all of these runners were and how much this run meant to them and even-though some of them drop out very early they are still featured in talking heads and cutaways and they stick around to offer help and advice to remaining runners and in some aspects the actual course is the biggest character as you are constantly on it with the use of go-pros and aerial drones.
We find out early on just how hard the race is with a statistic like: In it’s first 25 years only 10 runners actually finished the marathon, out of about 800 starts, the 100-mile race has been completed within the official 60-hour cut-off 17 times by 14 runners. Then we learn that some years the course doesn’t even get completed and more than 30 competitors over the years have failed to even reach the first checkpoint which is only 2 miles in.
The documentary is cut with some story and history of the race and how it came to be so unforgiving but finding out about that and how well the directors pace the story segments is all part of this documentaries charm. Now I’ve never done a marathon in my life but I sat down glued to my screen for 1 hour and 30 minutes watching the events of this marathon unfold, It hurts me to see movies like this get no attention whatsoever. So I suggest you seek it out on video streaming services or DVD and get involved.