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‘A picture that captures the pure joy that is Barkley’: Photographing ‘The Race That Eats Its Young’

Jonathan Turner
News Director
Updated on
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We’re into March and for many ultrarunning fans that means one thing – the Barkley Marathons beckon.

The start date is shrouded in secrecy for good reason but this month has historically been when the event usually takes place, though it has been known to begin in early April too.

Rewind to last year and our coverage at RUN247 was enhanced by the stunning imagery of David Miller, one of three photographers embedded at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee to convey the race to the wider world.

The ‘Barkley family’

Late last year David was crowned the People’s Choice Winner of the Sports Category at The British Photography Awards for his image of Mathieu Blanchard lying on the ground at the finish line in Chamonix at UTMB in 2022 after an epic finish.

And his ultrarunning images have also been the subject of a recent exhibition in Bristol in conjunction with Allie Bailey’s acclaimed book ‘There Is No Wall’, for which he provided the cover photography.

But he admits that few things have stood out over the last 12 months like the Barkley Marathons and the opening question has to be, how did he get the gig in the first place?

He replies: “I think the same as the runners. If you want to be there, put in the groundwork. Do some digging, do some research, and that’s how you put yourself in that position. I put in the work to get there, tried to make the right moves and jump through many hoops to be able to get there.

“And as soon as I was there, it was quite laid back, actually. It’s one of the events where I just felt at home, because of the community that Laz [Lake] has created, they call it the Barkley family and really welcome you there as long as you stick to the rules. You’re part of the campsite and you’re part of the Barkley experience.

“Obviously, it’s quite tense when the conch goes off and you want to get set up and you don’t want to miss the cigarette being lit. But after that it feels like there’s a lot more time to set up your shots and have a think about what you’re doing compared to many other races I do when you are trying to capture everyone and everything.”

Lazarus Lake start Barkley Marathons 2023 photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram
[Photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram]

‘Emotionally attached’

And looking back, he says it was all about the amazing performances he witnessed, explaining: “I think the main thing to take away from last year was seeing three finishers [Aurélien Sanchez, John Kelly and Karel Sabbe].

“I think we’ve all seen ‘The Race That Eats Its Young’ documentary, which was centred around the 2012 version when there were three finishers, so to go and witness that was unbelievable. I don’t think I will be forgetting that in a rush.”

Reflecting in more detail on last year’s race, it’s clear that many strong bonds were formed.

Miller says: “The 40 runners start and as each loop goes on, it narrows down. But when you see the same runners on each loop, you’re almost emotionally involved because you really want them to finish, particularly on lap five.

“We’re also allowed at a viewpoint at the top of Rat Jaw, where the fire tower is and there’s a big water container which is often frozen, just depending on what time of day or night it is.

“But you can sort of surround the runner. You’re not allowed to talk to them or assist them, but you can just feel the emotion and you can feel they’re up against the time limit. I think the last runner I saw at the top of there was Karel Sabbe and he became the ‘slowest’ ever Barkley finisher I believe, which is a really weird thing to say.

“A Barkley finish is a wonderful thing but he was always up against it and I just felt like I was emotionally attached to the runners in front of me, for sure.

Karel Sabbe Barkley Marathons 2023 photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram
Karel Sabbe at the 2023 Barkley Marathons [Photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram]

“They’d almost given up on Karel and then he just made it in time. It was his third attempt and he’d got so close the year before when he was brought back in a police car [after struggling with hallucinations]. I think he was almost like the fan favourite.

“It was great to see it unfold and I think the likelihood of seeing that again is pretty much zero.”

Natural style

Miller’s imagery has a distinct feel and he’s made his mark in a short space of time, explaining: “I’ve been doing the photography now for four years and – almost not on purpose – just developed a style. And I think the Barkley was always the race that would probably suit my imagery the most.

“When I was out at the Barkley, obviously I had a plan of what sort of imagery I wanted to do, but I was working alongside Alexis Berg, who’s a French photographer, and Howie Stern, who’s an American photographer who goes every year. And we worked very well as a trio and all offered something different.

“When you look at our photos, they are all very different styles and it’s cool to see.

“But also, I went into the Barkley last year with more of a storytelling documentary approach and going forward with my photography in general – you might have seen it at the Arc of Attrition recently – there has been much more sort of photojournalism going on, almost black and white. So it’s probably something I’ll look to do more of, because it feels very natural now.”

Rat Jaw is one of the epic challenges at the Barkley Marathons photo credit Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram
Rat Jaw is one of the myriad of challenges at the Barkley [Photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram]

Finding new limits

Asked if there was an image of his from last year which stands out, there’s no hesitation: “Yeah, there’s one of Ben Yancey. There’s a picture of him in the shower room in black and white, sort of sat on the floor, and he looks both traumatised but really happy, too, and really proud of what he’s achieved.

“The morning after I took that, I was chatting with another photographer at the gate. I think the runners were out on loop four and Laz overheard my conversation about this photograph. I just said, ‘oh, I think I’ve got a good one here, it represents the Barkley’.

David’s shot of Ben Yancey which struck a chord with Laz

“And he asked to see it, and then I was obviously very worried because I thought, well, Laz is the Barkley, what happens if he sees this photograph and says I’m talking a load of rubbish?

“But he personally asked for a copy of it emailed to him. And when I landed back in London, after the Barkley, I saw he’d uploaded that photo onto his Facebook page, saying: ‘A picture that captures the pure joy that is Barkley. Believe it or not this man is gainfully employed and has a home.’ For me to go out there the first time and see Laz do that, I was very proud of that.”

Which begs a follow-up about Laz himself – what’s he like? “He’s a very intelligent guy. He really loves the sport, really loves pushing people to their limit, and I think that’s what the Barkley is about – pushing people to their absolute limit so they can find those new limits. He’s created a family there, he welcomes everyone, but at the same time, you just don’t want to break the rules or cross him.”

And Miller underlines just why those rules are so important, adding: “The race almost got cancelled in the past due to the ecology of Frozen Head State Park. And that’s the reason they keep everything a secret, so they don’t get a lot of spectators there. This race has been going for well over 30 years now and I think it would be a real shame if anything ever happened to it.

“I think the most impressive thing in this day and age, where people want things now and not tomorrow, is how they keep everything a secret and also keep everything so in house. I think that’s why the world is gripped when the Barkleys is on, just because of its secrecy.”

You can follow David on Instagram here.

Jonathan Turner
Written by
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is News Director for both TRI247 and RUN247, and is accustomed to big-name interviews, breaking news stories and providing unrivalled coverage for endurance sports.  

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