Monday, December 07, 2015

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

Most people think running an ultramarathon is pretty crazy, but even among us ultrarunners, there are a handful of races that redefine insanity. Near the top of that list is the Barkley Marathons, that five-loop-through-uncharted-backcountry in Frozen Head State Park that boasts over 54,000' of vertical climbing in terrain so difficult it has had less than 10 finishers in its first 25 years, even with a 60-hour finish cutoff.

Most of us only find out about the race through rumors, trail stories, and Ultrarunning Magazine articles from the few survivors that keep going back. The lore is rich, and as true to ultrarunning culture as any race could be, so I was thrilled to hear about a new documentary film that does an incredible job capturing all of it - how it was devised as a mockery of James Earl Ray’s historic prison escape gone awry, backstory from the charmingly idiosyncratic co-founder Lazarus Lake, the goofy secret application process (and $1.60 entry fee), the unknown start time announced by a blowing of the conch, and many more unique features that has created the cult-like status around the race. After watching the movie, I am not surprised that is has already captured many awards. Available on demand on December 8th, this one is a definite thumbs up!

I had a chance to ask the Co-Directors Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane a few questions about this great film, which is touring the country as we speak: 

1. So why a documentary about the Barkley Marathons? Certainly there are easier documentaries to create. ;-) 

 We read Leslie Jamison’s essay, “The Immortal Horizon” in The Believer Magazine in the winter of 2012 and could not believe that we had never heard of the Barkley or the statistic of only 10 finishers in 25 years. We both wanted a creative challenge and it was fortuitous that we happened to read the article when we did. Shooting the documentary posed its own set of challenges due to the nature of the terrain, its vastness, and the likelihood that no one would finish. We went in without much thought to what the narrative would be, we only knew that we wanted to capture the spirit of the Barkley the way that Leslie did in that article. We also knew that we wanted to make a true documentary with a narrative; something that would be interesting for not only the running community, but also for filmgoers who enjoy a unique story.

2. For an ultrarunner like me, my reaction was “that looks awesome”, but I suspect most people will just scratch their heads and wonder what is wrong with us. What do you think creates that difference?

After 4 years of working on this film and meeting so many ultrarunners, we do think there must be something unique in the brain or the genetic makeup for those that look at the Barkley, or any 100-mile run for that matter, and start salivating. We WISH we had that special something that allows for this, but alas, we do not. We do find it especially inspiring when someone in their 40s or 50s starts running ultras. We have to ask, what changed? What flipped that switch? It is truly fascinating and seems to be a unique answer for those individuals.

3. What are your favorite quotes and characters? 

 Well, the quote from the film that always gets the biggest laugh is probably not printable here, but it is said by one Naresh Kumar, who is one of the most kind, inspiring, and joyous people we have ever met; which is probably why his quote is so funny. We’ll leave that one for the audience to see themselves.

 In terms of “characters,” Lazarus Lake is the anchor of the film and the venerable co-founder of the race. We could listen to him for hours, and we did! We never wanted to cut the camera around him for fear of missing out on something.

4. What was the hardest part of making the film? Anything really surprise you? 

 It’s actually almost impossible for us to pick just one thing that was the hardest part because pretty much everything was hard. Seriously. If we had kept track of every stumbling block or difficulty, from Tim getting lost in the park on the first day of shooting, to re-renting cameras we had used to recover pivotal footage that had not been downloaded, to the 4-year long process it would take us to actually get the film out in the world, we probably would have stopped a long time ago.

 In terms of surprises, certainly the events that transpired that first year we were there we never could have expected. For those, you'll have to see the movie!

So cool! Check it out here on December 8th!

- SD

1 comment:

  1. Just finished watching the doc on Netflix. Found the entire thing to be interesting. From the trail itself, the obstacles people face, and the individual characters you meet throughout. :)


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