Affording armchair athleticism at its finest, “The Barkley Marathons” provides a possible world-record-setting gap between viewers’ pleasure in watching the action on screen and their likely extreme disinclination toward emulating it. The titular event is an annual endurance footrace in rural Kentucky so arduous, so downright daft in certain regards, that only 20 people managed to finish the course in its first quarter-century of existence. Following the 2012 competition, Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane’s debut feature documentary finds plenty of rooting interest and colorful characters in a competition whose willful perversity brings an inevitable, generous side helping of gallows humor. It opened at Los Angeles’ Downtown Independent on Nov. 27 for a week’s run, amid scattered one-off theatrical dates, and after picking up several audience awards at festivals. Long-term popularity among running enthusiasts in home formats is assured.
Founded by locals Lazarus Lake (aka Gary Cantell) and Raw Dog (aka Karl Henn) — the former much in evidence here as a sort of genially caustic host — the Barkley Marathons was originally conceived as a sort of mocking hat tip to the brief escape that Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray, and several other convicts made from a state penitentiary in 1977. (While the course changes every year, one regularity is that participants have to traverse a tunnel that actually passes under the prison.) Ray managed to cover only eight miles over 55 hours in the surrounding woods; Lake figured, “I could do at least 100.” Thus, this ultra-marathon consists of five loops (the event’s headquarters/campsite is in their central point of intersection), each one supposedly 20 miles in length, totaling 100 … except that somehow, 20 can often creep toward 26, and 100 toward 130 or so.
Despite all attempts at secrecy, plus an absurdly complicated application process further designed to discourage people, hundreds from around the world now attempt to enroll each year. Only 40 are accepted, largely based on the organizers’ whims. With an application fee of just $1.60 (plus random requested gifts, such as socks and exotic license plates), they’re not doing this to make money, and in fact don’t want it to become an elite sporting event with the kinds of Type A competitors who will fuss over rules and conditions.
While those who make it are largely driven, adventurous achievers in one way or another, they’re also the sort who enjoy challenging themselves not solely to win, but when there’s a chance — even a statistical likelihood — of failure. Though the springtime weather is unusually warm during the 2012 race (other years it’s gotten down to 10 degrees), the Barkley routes are so tough that just 24 hours in, only 15 runners remain.
“Runner” itself seems a puny term given what’s demanded here: Each loop has approximately 12,000 feet in elevation gain, and as much in descent; about two-thirds of the whole course is off-trail, with racers barred from using GPS and other devices to locate landmarks they must prove they found (by tearing off pages of books planted there). Those points are often stuck with humorous monikers unknown to the Park Service, such as “Son of a Bitch Ditch,” “Rat Jaw” or “Pillars of Doom.” Negotiating them is often less amusing, however, as running by necessity turns to leaping, sloshing, crawling and practically rappelling up steep slopes — while sometimes having one’s legs shredded by the aptly named “saw briars.”
Runners must decide for themselves when to sleep, or whether to sleep at all, lest they run afoul of a 60-hour deadline for completing the event that most end up seeing from the sidelines. Completing any of this race is a considerable accomplishment. Lazarus Lake admits, however, that “some of the failures are really spectacular, and very funny,” with “a certain dark humor” deliberately woven into the overall design. Each year one contestant is accepted specifically for his or her obvious unsuitability (in 2012, that designated “human sacrifice” quits halfway through the first loop), and whenever anyone throws in the towel, there’s a trumpeter on hand to publicly blow “Taps.”
Because the failure rate is so high, there’s an unusual degree of camaraderie as the dropouts become the de facto support crew for those remaining in the game. And because it’s so easy to get lost in this Tennessee hill country, many ostensible competitors partner up: Two who end up doing very well this year, returning finisher Brett Maune and Barkley “virgin” Jared Campbell, run as a team for almost the entire event.
What can you say about a tournament in which the statement “My feet were destroyed and I was dehydrated and hallucinating” seems almost too obvious to bother mentioning? While the protagonists here seem as likable as they are admirable, most viewers will be all too happy experiencing this bloodbath from a safe, ottoman-supported distance. One gratuitously gruesome blister-popping moment aside, however, “The Barkley Marathons” is more delight than ordeal to watch. There’s a lively pace and considerable variety of content to the well-edited package, which is nicely complemented by Tyler Gibbons’ bluegrass-inflected score.