The Barkley Marathons

The Barkley Marathons is set in the mountainous wilds of Tennessee on and mostly off the few trails that run through steeply wooded parkland. It is plural because it is actually a circuit of five marathons that must be run consecutively over a course of three days.

Though the distance of the marathon loop varies each year, the distance is always deemed to be twenty miles, making the official length of the race 100 miles, even when it is much longer. Only fourteen runners have ever managed to complete the five loop feat within the sixty hour limit. Three loops is called a Fun Run and must be completed within forty hours. If you attempt five loops, you will run through three days and two nights.

While the setting has a certain rugged beauty, calling the land cruel would be an understatement. Each loop includes an overall vertical ascent of more than 10,000 feet. Runners who finish five loops will have climbed the height of Mount Everest, from sea level, almost twice. There are cliffs, broken ground, brambles sharp as razors, a river that passes under a prison. Calling the hosts and planners of the event cruel would miss the point. The Barkley does not exist to coddle. It is there to test you, mind, body and spirit.

Body and spirit? No surprise there–it’s a marathon. But mind? The Barkley trail is unmarked. Gps is not allowed. You must break out a terrain map and compass and plan your own route. If you fail to find the 9-11 books hidden along the trail and tear out the page number assigned to you, you lose. If you fail, or quit, it still might take you ten hours to stumble your way out of the wilderness.

The Barkley has a complicated and severe application process. It is a demanding race and you are unlikely to be accepted. But everyone has a chance. Each year they accept the person most unfit for the challenge and secretly name them The Human Sacrifice. Perhaps the planners are a little cruel.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable documentary about an extraordinary group of people who have formed a community around their passion. The film is as much a study of the event’s planners as it is of the run itself. The bizarre idiosyncrasies of each make more than good entertainment, they have created a gruelling crucible that the world’s most competitive ultra-runners eagerly throw themselves into.