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April 07, 2017

Movie Review: The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young [Warden]

Some of my favorite movies are documentaries. It's a genre that almost depends upon luck as much as it does the technical abilities of the creators of the film.

And then there are some stories that are just lying there, waiting to be picked up. The Barkley Marathon is one of them -- a tale so rich in hilarious personality and quirky tradition that you almost couldn't screw up the telling of it.

Filmmakers, Annika Itlis and Timmothy James Kane, capture the pain, triumph and humor of this extreme endurance marathon in their film The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young, a race seemingly built for the express purpose of frustrating, punishing and ultimately breaking the hearts of its participants.

The marathon originated with and is administrated by Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell, a goofy hillbilly who delights in the offbeat and absurd. He's created a race so difficult that in most years no one is able to finish it at all.

Cantrell is the ultimate prankster and troll, seeding his event with oddball rules and surreal circumstances that defy logic. Officially, the race contains five 20 mile loops through the Appalachian Mountains, but the course changes each year and participants suspect that it's closer to 120 miles, as Cantrell never bothers to measure it. And if this weren't difficult enough, the entire race must be completed in less than 60 hours.

There isn't an actual course to run. Cantrell gives the participants vague directions to various checkpoints, each of which contains a book that the runner must locate, then tear out the page that corresponds to his entry number. A runner proves he's hit all the checkpoints by turning in the pages at the end of each loop. They are not allowed to use GPS to guide them.

Race hopefuls must submit an essay explaining why they are qualified to run. If accepted they receive a letter of condolence and must pay an entry fee of $1.60. Just 36 participants are admitted each year, one of whom is a designated "sacrificial lamb" who has no business even attempting the run.

The fuckery begins even before the race begins. Cantrell does not give them an official start time, but rather a 12 hour window in which they must be prepared to begin. Cantrell marks the start of the race by lighting a cigarette and that's when the fun begins--a course that, if run in full, features a total elevation change that is the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest--running the participants through creeks, brier patches and impossibly tangled forests in the rain, snow and darkness of night.

God knows why anyone would willingly do this--finishing even three of the five loops is considered a great accomplishment--but I'm fascinated by the personalities. These people are crazy, I think, but also so driven and mentally tough that I can't help but to admire them.

The filmmakers aren't remarkably skilled at their craft, but it doesn't matter. The story and the characters carry the film and they're competent enough not to ruin it. Near the end, they finally ask Gary Cantrell why he named this race the Barkley Marathon. His answer is every bit as random and goofy as the rest of the film. Smart placement by the filmmakers and a terrific way to button up a thoroughly enjoyable documentary. It's available on Netflix if you're interested.

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posted by Open Blogger at 08:20 PM

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