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Barkley Marathons: Five of the best documentaries to quench your curiosity

Jenny Lucas-Hill
Writer & Endurance Athlete
Updated on

The Barkley Marathons is an event like no other. A brutal ultra trail race held in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. Where the start date and even the route is shrouded in secrecy until the 11th hour. The obscurity only adding to the intrigue. Where the the one hour warning for the race commencing is signalled by the blowing of a conch, which can happen at any time in a 12-hour window. And the race start itself is signified by the mind behind the madness, Lazarus Lake, lighting a cigarette. Taking almost fiendish delight in the formidable nature of the event he’s created, he’s a legend like no other.

The usual high-tech GPS devices and tracking systems of ultras are foregone, with the few competitors lucky – or unlucky – enough to have a chance to take on the brutal Barkley handed a cheap Walmart watch set to race time on 24-hour mode – regardless of what time the race actually starts. The checkpoints are marked only by books, hidden in obscure places, which runners must tear a page out of, corresponding to their race number. The unforgiving terrain and unpredictable weather lies in wait to claim its victims. And it has claimed many: it’s not unusual for there to be zero finishers. And since its inception in 1986, to date only 17 runners have completed the full five loops.

As we eagerly await the start of this year’s event, we’ve pulled together five of the best Barkley Marathons documentaries to – if not satisfy – at least quench some of your curiosity about the world’s toughest trail race.

1) The Race That Eats Its Young

Released: October 2014
Run time: 89 mins
Watch on: Apple TV, Amazon Prime, YouTube

Trailer: Barkley Marathons Movie The Race That Eats Its Young

Perhaps one of the most well-known Barkley Marathons documentaries is The Race That Eats Its Young, originally streamed on Netflix and bringing the race out of total obscurity to a much wider audience. Though filmed at the 2012 race, it has maintained its integrity as raw, off the grid, and completely off the wall bonkers. It’s just as relevant an insight into the race now as it was when it was released back in 2014, to much acclaim.

Read our full review here.

2) 2023 Barkley Marathons Documentary

Released: July 2023
Run time: 41 mins
Watch on: YouTube

2023 Barkley Marathons Documentary

2023 was a year for the Barkley Marathons history books, with four runners starting the final loop for the first time ever. And only the second time in the event’s history that three runners have finished. And Jasmin Paris improved on her three loop ‘fun run’ from 12 months previously to start a fourth lap this time, the first ssince Beverley Anderson-Abbs in 2012, before being defeated by the Barkley beast. The 2023 documentary shows the struggles and the drama, as Aurelien Sanchez, John Kelly and Karel Sabbe fought their way to the finish.

That three-finisher stat has to make us wonder – what will Laz have in store for 2024 to up the ante?

3) Last Women Standing ft Nicky Spinks

Released: November 2019
Run time: 40 mins
Watch on: YouTube

Last Women Standing documents Nicky Spinks’ first Barkley Marathons attempt in 2019

To date, a woman has not finished the Barkley Marathons – with Jasmin Paris being the most recent female runner to come close having completed 3 loops in 2023. But Last Women Standing ft. British ultra runner Nicky Spinks carries with it a strong reminder that women are more than capable. At the start, Nicky reminds us that we don’t have to go far back into running history to find a time when women weren’t allowed to run – in any race. That means that we’re really only just at the start of seeing what’s possible for female runners.

Last Women Standing gives possibly the best insight into what it’s actually like to be out on the loops at the Barkley Marathons, documenting Nicky’s first Barkley attempt in 2019. Due to the event’s notoriously secretive nature, spectators are only allowed at one designated location. And there’s very limited access for film crews. But the use of a Dictaphone to capture Nicky’s experience adds a raw layer of storytelling that helps you to appreciate just how difficult it is to take on the Barkley, even for the most experienced of trail runners. In 2023, Nicky returned to the Barkley Marathons, where Lazarus handed her the ‘sacrificial lamb’ bib #1 – a race number reserved for the runner he believes won’t even make it round a single loop. She proved him wrong, making it out on to loop 2. But once again, that coveted finish wasn’t meant to be.

4) Where Dreams Go to Die: Gary Robbins and the Barkley Marathons

Released: May 2018
Run time: 1hr 16 mins
Watch on: YouTube

This Barkley Marathons documentary takes us along for the run as Canadian trail runner Gary Robbins attempts the race in 2016 and 2017.

Where Dreams Go to Die tells the tale of Gary Robbins as he faces defeat by the Barkley Marathons not once, but twice. With so many fastest known times, podiums and other trail running accolades to his name. It’s yet another example of how tough the Barkley truly is. What makes this documentary special is that we really get to see what it takes to even attempt to complete this dream-destroying event. After the first DNF in 2016, Gary shares that it took him six months to recover. And he didn’t do a single running event in the 12 months that followed. We get an insight into what it takes to train for the Barkley, as Gary self-films footage of himself running up and down a mountain solo all through the night as part of his training for his second Barkley Marathons attempt in 2017.

Watching the film provides inspiration and heartbreak in equal measure. And it brings into sharp relief just how much Laz Lake’s outlandish event pushes even the top trail runners to their absolute limit.

5) Out There – A Journey to the Barkley Marathons

Released: February 2020
Run time: 54 mins
Watch on: YouTube

Out There documents Karel Sabbe’s journey to his first Barkley Marathons attempt in 2019

In 2023, Karel Sabbe finally completed the Barkley Marathons after two failed attempts (see below). But the Out There documentary takes us back to the beginning – from the hiking trip that led him to ultrarunning in the first place. To using the famously tough Marathon des Sables as a training run for the Pacific Crest Trail (for which he still currently holds the fastest known time). His journey to the start line of the Barkley Marathons saw him achieve world records on both the Pacific Crest and the Appalachian Trail. But even that wasn’t enough to tame the Barkley best, at least not the first – or second – time round.

Since this article was written we’ve had the huge bonus of not one but two new documentaries, both featuring finishers from last year:

Aurélien Sanchez‘s incredible debut victory in Tennessee 12 months ago is the focus in this feature from France’s L’Équipe.

And Karel Sabbe has produced a brilliant free-to-view film on YouTube which provides many fascinating insights as he became finisher #17. We’ve embedded and written about that here.

Once this year’s event does start to unfold, we can expect little in the way of live updates. But we’ll keep you as informed as possible over on our race preview.

Jenny Lucas-Hill
Written by
Jenny Lucas-Hill
Jenny Lucas-Hill is a writer, content creator and communications professional. An endurance sport enthusiast, she has three full Iron-distance triathlon finishes under her belt

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