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D: Annika Iltis, Timothy James Kane / 89m

With: Lazarus Lake, Brett Maune, Jared Campbell, John Fegyveresi, Wouter Hamelinck, “Frozen” Ed Furtaw, Julian Jamison, Nick Hollon, Raw Dog

It’s billed as one of the most challenging ultramarathons in America, if not the world. Founded by Lazarus Lake (real name Gary Cantrell) and Raw Dog (real name Karl Henn), the Barkley Marathon was inspired by a remark made by Lake in relation to the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King, was on the run for fifty-five hours but only covered eight miles in that time. Lake thought he could do at least a hundred miles – and so, in 1986, the Barkley Marathon had its inaugural run. It’s a punishing race against time: the competitors have to complete five “loops”, a circular route through the Tennessee mountains that begins and ends at a yellow car park gate where the entrants’ assemble. The first three loops are referred to as the Fun Run, while the remaining two loops are more challenging. Each loop is twenty miles in distance, all five have to be completed within sixty hours, and there’s a maximum of forty runners. As of 2018, around 55% of the races have ended without anyone completing the course…

Though the Barkley Marathon is an endurance test for those who compete in it – and many runners come back year after year, pushing themselves to do better than last time – what The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young does best is to focus in on the little details associated with the race and how its managed. From the entrance fee of $1.60, to Lake’s never having completed the marathon himself, to the collection of pages from books with titles such as The Human Zoo (found near to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary – part of the loop goes under it), it’s the paraphernalia attached to the race that makes it all the more appealing. It’s also a marathon that isn’t widely advertised, or easy to apply for. Many of the competitiors hear about it through word of mouth. With all this adding a degree of mystery and intrigue to the event, what emerges is a sense that the Barkley Marathon isn’t about its being famous or recognised across the globe (though it is), or even the challenge of taking part, but instead it’s about its existence and what it means to Lake and everyone who does take part. In many ways the race is a symbol, a metaphor for self-awareness, and how each entrant learns something more about themselves.

It’s not immediately obvious, but when each runner is given a number, the one to avoid is Number 1. Lake explains it all casually, and with a tinge of regret that he has to do it, but Number 1 is given to the runner who is expected to call it quits during the first loop. At first this seems unnecessarily cruel, to single out the weakest competitor (it’s even explained to them before they begin), but when it happens, that person somehow finds it easier to acknowledge that this isn’t for them. The message is clear: there’s no harm in trying, and there’s no shame in quitting, no matter how far you get; it’s about discovering and recognising the extent of your own strengths, and being comfortable with that. As the runners drop out, and the impact it’s having on them physically is shown, it’s hard not to admire these people for their perseverance and determination (and you may find yourself questioning your own limits as well). By focusing on the runners and the reasons they take part, Iltis and Kane have made their documentary about the human will to overcome – not the course and its numerous hazards, but each individual’s perception of their own limits. It all makes for an engaging, appealing movie that has a streak of mordaunt humour running through it, and a solid appreciation for the absurdities connected with a race that’s begun by the lighting of a cigarette.

Rating: 8/10 – with Lake acting as a casual but friendly commentator on the history and the background of the race, and the willingness of the runners to reveal their motives for taking part, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young is a low-key yet quietly compelling documentary that both surprises and delights; when a movie, fictional or otherwise, has you rooting for the runner who’s going to come in third, then you know it’s got its priorities right, and is doing justice to the material.