The Barkley Marathons is an iconic yet elusive race like no other. In an age when publicity and slick marketing have increasingly come to the fore in trail and ultra-running, the Barkley is unashamedly the opposite. Race Director Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell revels in its obscurity and the near impossible challenge the course presents to even the best runners. After all, even entering the race is hard enough.
The Barkley Marathons documentary – The Race That Eats Its Young – does a brilliant job of capturing the uniquely crazy Barkley experience. The movie is warm and endearing while offering a genuine fly-on-the-wall perspective of what many regard as the world’s toughest race. It feels like a handheld camera documentary as we get up close and personal with ‘Laz’ and those taking on his fiendish race without the film ever looking and sounding like one. It is no surprise that it won a series of awards after its release in 2014.
Since then, the Barkley has grown in stature as ‘bigger names’ such as Courtney Dauwalter, Jasmin Paris and John Kelly have taken part, but the race remains as raw and quirky as ever. As a result, this film is just as relevant an insight into the race as it was back then. Indeed, it is shot in such a compelling way that you don’t need to have the faintest idea about trail or ultra-running to be thoroughly engrossed.
The Barkley Marathons documentary
The movie is set at the 2012 race, but don’t worry this review won’t give you any spoilers. Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake) and Karl Henn (Raw Dog) are identified as the race’s co-founders, but the documentary focuses far more on Laz. Its other stars are 2011 finisher Brett Maune, ultra-running champion Jared Campbell and Antarctica based postgraduate student John Fegyveresi, while there are many other enjoyable cameos.
You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell
Laz is wonderfully understated throughout and delivers all the best lines. In an early reflection on the race, he simply says: “It’s not going to be the way you planned.” We discover Laz sends the successful entrants letters of condolence, while they must pay $1.60, supply an item Laz needs and a licence plate from their home.
As we get ready for the race to start, Laz declares: “You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.” He describes the Barkley as “a ball-buster of a race” and “right at the limit of what people can do”.
With the action under way, another runner tells the camera: “There’s nothing in the military that’s as hard as this.” We learn about the idiosyncratic names of places on the route such as Testicle Spectacle and Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall, while gashes caused by briers are labelled “rat bites”. These prompt another runner, Beverley Anderson-Abb, to joke: “I guess I won’t be wearing dresses for a while.”
With a glint in his eye, Laz tells us competitor Tim Hardy is this year’s “human sacrifice” – a runner chosen to enter who will have no hope! Later on, a drop-out gives his view on the race: “I couldn’t even comprehend what it was. I thought I had an idea, but I didn’t.”
The Barkley Marathons appeal
Although he relishes pushing runners beyond their limits, Laz is no emotionless taskmaster. At one point he notes: “For some people, just to get back to camp alive is all they want in the world.” Laz also observes how the Barkley attracts high-flyers from other walks of life. He says: “I think the race appeals to them because they could fail.”
Another strength of the Barkley Marathons movie is the way it depicts how mentally scrambled runners become as the race progresses. Fegyveresi memorably comments: “My limit is 48 hours [without sleep]. I get kind of weird after that.”
While the film never tries to uncover too much of the Barkley myth, it ends with a delightful touch in explaining the race’s name. While most entrants come nowhere near completing The Barkley Marathons, The Race That Eats Its Young does not fail to provide a captivating insight into a truly unique test of running.