MOVIE REVIEW: The Barkley Marathons
What I liked
Being an avid ultra racer and race director myself, the lure of this movie to me was obviously the race at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, where participants must navigate over approximately 100 miles of mountainous terrain, with ascents and descents equal to climbing Mt. Everest from sea level twice. If that weren’t enough, there are no course markings, participants are not allowed to carry GPS devices (one doesn’t know for sure how many miles the actual race is), and they have to hand-draw their own maps. The race provides no aid stations unless you consider stashing gallons of water at two locations on the 20-something mile loop to be “support” and when runners complain that the water is frozen, the cigarette smoking race director’s reply is “Well, it’s 10-degrees out”.
The race was founded in 1986 by ultra running friends Gary Cantrell and Karl Kenn after notorious Martin Luther King, Jr. assassin, James Earl Ray, escaped from the nearby prison and only managed to travel 8-miles during his 55-hours of freedom. When Cantrell remarked that he could’ve run 100-miles in 55-hours, the race was born. The movie accurately shows this event as a fat ass ultra marathon race with it’s $1.60 entry fee, little-to-no support and it’s mysterious entry process (hopefuls can only get entry information from other Barkley veterans) where acceptance into the race involves receiving a letter of condolence.
What I didn’t Like
One of the flaws of the movie comes from the extreme difficulty of the course and the task of trying to film in mountainous terrain that is impassible for most of the runners, yet alone for the film crew who are burdened by carrying equipment. As a result, much of the movie is filmed at base camp while most of the action happens out on the course. The drama of what goes on “out there” was often missed on film, an example being the top two finishers Brett Maune and Jared Campbell both started loop 5 within one-minute of each other (in opposite directions per the race rules) yet the fact of Maune’s finish four hours ahead of Campbell was totally missed by the audience.
What I liked
The shining star is Cantrell who narrates the movie with his slow southern drawl and twinkled eye. Cantrell who often goes by his alias “Lazarus Lake”, a name he invented for his email account to preserve his anonymity, brings life to scenes that would otherwise feel repetitive. The more you see and listen to Cantrell, you realize that this colorful figure contributes more to the success of the movie than does the race itself. While I’m happy Cantrell is a good part of this film, there is so much more about the man that could have been shown including the fact that he is a prolific writer with six books published (as Lazarus Lake) about his beloved Big, the brown pit bull that you see roaming in the background. Cantrell is a seasoned race director and viable part of the ultra running community as race director for Strolling Jim 40, Vol State and the new Race For The Ages; a fact that is overlooked by the movie.
What I didn’t Like
Speaking of the ultra running community, the movie missed the mark for me when it showed several people briefly interviewed about Barkley but failed to highlight their value to the race. One example is Frozen Ed Furtaw who graciously befriended and ran with me during my years in Chama, NM. In the movie, Ed tells viewers that it is his 16th year running but the sad fact is, you never learn his history with the race. The race started in 1986 as a 55-miler and in 1989, Ed was the first person to finish the whole course. For those who want a fun read about some Barkley trivia, pick up Ed’s book Tales From Out There: The Barkley Marathons
What I liked
Just as I was growing more frustrated by the emotional disconnection from the race participants, the movie finally redeemed itself by telling the motivating story behind the first ever third place finisher John Fegyveresi. I would have welcomed more deep interviews with other runners throughout the movie.
It may be comparing apples to oranges, but I can’t help but remember another documentary that inspired me to run a race touted as the “world’s toughest footrace”. Through no fault of their own, the inability of the Barkley film crew to be able to fully cover the agony and ecstasy of each hour out on the race course caused this movie to lack much of the emotional punch that Running On The Sun had. Being that we ultra runners seem to have an attraction to suffering, the Badwater movie wins in this category.
Links to the movie’s Facebook and Web Page: