‘The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young’ Chronicles a Race Like No Other

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I look at people who run marathons with a certain skepticism. After all, I’m not a particularly active person and don’t really understand the concept of subjecting one’s self to the grueling endurance test of running 20-plus miles in a day. After watching The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young, I’ve come to the conclusion that those who run in regular run-of-the-mill marathons may not be that crazy. Compared to those who subject themselves to the Barkley Marathons, they seem like entirely rational people. As a film, The Barkley Marathons finds the history of its oddball obstacle course and the humanity of its participants. Of course, the actions that everyone subjects themselves to don’t always make the most sense, but it still makes for an entertaining look at one of the craziest races in America.

Documentarians Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane paint a thoroughly entertaining portrait of the 2012 running of the Barkley Marathons. The race was co-founded by Gary Cantrell and every year he redesigns the race, which is run in the hills of Tennessee. With 60 hours to complete the task, competitors must complete five 20-mile loops around the path, ripping pages from books along the trail to prove that they haven’t attempted any shortcuts. Since the inaugural Barkley Marathons in 1986, only 15 people have completed the race. One of those that has finished the race is Brett Maune, who returns once again in hopes of breaking the record for the quickest time. Even if he doesn’t, he takes home the consolation prize of being the only person to ever finish the race twice, but finishing isn’t guaranteed here.

The race was inspired by the prison escape of James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, in 1977 from the Bushy Mountain State Penitentiary, which is actually part of the Barkley Marathons. Having only made it eight miles from the prison over the course of a couple days, Gary Cantrell felt he could do 100 miles in the same time frame, and thus the Barkley Marathons were born. But for those suspecting that this grueling marathon is an ode to James Earl Ray, Cantrell is quick to dismiss those notions and views it more of a tradition mocking Ray’s lacking toughness.

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young works as a movie because Iltis and Kane are able to get into this unusual tradition, and Cantrell is an odd figure who can be very entertaining in his quirkiness. The race doesn’t start until Cantrell lights a cigarette. The application fee is $1.60, which he keeps, and all participants must bring a license plate from their home town (people come from all over the world) and whatever other item Cantrell might desire – some years it’s white t-shirts, socks, or flannel. But the filmmakers also profile the participants, each with their own reason for subjecting themselves to this mad race.

There’s a wonderful balance between the madness of the event and the humans involved with The Barkley Trials. One doesn’t have to be a fitness nut to enjoy the story unfolding on the screen. At times, it’s rather rote but never dull or clichéd, and the sense of humor from its participants and Gary Cantrell in particular elevate The Barkley Trials from just a passable documentary to a genuinely entertaining examination of an event that many attempt and few finish.

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young is currently available on VOD.

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