Movie Review: The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

I'm writing this as a movie review, but there is very little to say about this film. It is an informative documentary on a little-known annual ultra-marathon race that happens in Tennessee. The filmmakers do an excellent job of capturing the character of the race and its organizers and participants. I was captivated the whole time, and the only negative thing I can say about the movie is that I didn't really feel like "I was there" in the same way that, say, Without Limits made me feel like I was at those track meets. But The Barkley Marathons is not a Hollywood docu-drama, it's a straight-ahead documentary, and it was a fun one to watch.

So that's my movie review. Now, on to the race.

Every ultra-marathon likes to bill itself as the toughest race in the world, because that's part of the "spirit" of ultra running. (One possible exception is the Leadville 100, which seems to bill itself as the fastest and/or most competitive ultra-marathon, but it is unique in that regard.) So, once we acquaint ourselves with the general concept of ultra-running and have possibly done a little ultra-running ourselves, we are no longer moved by claims that any one race is exceptionally difficult. That's what they all say.

So the next marketing ploy for ultra-marathons is to come up with a twist on the concept: Let's not just run 100 miles through the forest, let's come up with an idea that serves to attract more athletes or make our race sound more terrifying. Terrifying, in the ultra-running world, is more appealing. So, for example, we find races such as the Spartathalon, which runs a historic route from Athens to Sparta. Or, there is the Marathon des Sables, which pits runners against the actual Sahara Desert. Or, there is the Grand to Grand, which takes you from the Grand Canyon to the Grand Staircase Escalante. Get the picture? To have a really great ultra-marathon, one needs a good twist.

I had never heard of The Barkley Marathons before, and in watching the movie, I was pleasantly surprised. The concept is a genuinely interesting one. The goal is to run five laps of the same 20-mile course in under 60 hours. The course is mapped, but not marked, which means that racers basically have to find their own way through the forests of Tennessee. (This results in a phenomenon where a runner may ultimately end up running far more than the advertised 100 miles.) The course changes year to year, so runners never know for certain what they'll end up dealing with. The start time of the race is a surprise, and sometimes occurs in the middle of the night.

Putting it all together, we end up with something truly unique: A combination of ultra-running, sleep deprivation, and orienteering. The movie never seemed to bring this up, but it's interesting to note that unlike most ultra-marathons, the Barkley Marathons is one that seems to require equal parts wits and brawn. In that sense, it might be the best true testament to the spirit of persistence hunting as described in Born to Run.

It's no surprise that the hero of the film, a two-time Barkley finisher and course record holder, is a physicist by trade. The film mentions that many racers are people with grad school degrees, and the point seems to be that they are inertly persistent people. But I would also suggest that a race that requires intelligence to finish naturally attracts intelligent people.

I have no inside knowledge of the race, all I know about it is what is depicted in the documentary. So, when I make the following conjecture, take it in that light: I think the reason so few people have finished the Barkley Marathons is because it is hard to perform even simple cognitive tasks when one is subjected to extreme endurance conditions like ultra-running.

The concept of the race and the film depicting it were both fascinating to me. I highly recommend this movie to anyone interested in running.

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