Yes, I aware it’s a cliche but Star Wars for me was a defining film, I saw myself as a Luke Skywalker, the kid with nothing except a bit of talent and a lot of rage. However, I’m sure you’ll be glad to read that I’m not going to review a 40 year old movie – no I’m going to be looking at a documentary I saw just a week ago and I’ve been processing ever since.
Not since I last watched Flash Gordon have I seen a piece of film so full of classy quotes …. I think most people would be better off with more pain in their lives, honestly.I think that, if nothing else, they would appreciate the pain-free times more.
Anyway The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young (to give the film its full title) perhaps needs a little explaining to those who might simply stumble across this blog.
The Barkley is a race, a running race (of sorts), an ultra marathon in deepest Tennessee, an ultra marathon of approximately (or exactly, depending on who you ask) 100 miles, in five loops and it’s 30 year history has had only 17 finishes.
Sounds hideous? Not your cup of tea? Let me explain why you should give up 90 minutes of your life to this story and discover ‘a new hope’ and why ‘The Barkley Marathons’ has more in common with Star Wars than you might at first glance think.
NB. This will be a spoiler free review
The documentary unfolds across the 2012 event with some history from creator Lazarus Lake. The documentary charts more than the history though, it looks at the infamous entry system, the runners who have involved themselves over the years and of course we are witness to some of the more exotic names of the challenges encountered – the ‘testicle spectacle’ and ‘rat jaw’ amongst them. It’s a race that brings together the most eclectic group of runners you could imagine with names as fitting as could be Wouter, Brett, Jared, John, Ed and you imagine there have a been a few people could Buzz or Lance along the way too.
It’s no secret that the failure or RTC rate is sky high and perhaps this is where it is most at it’s Star Wars like best – it’s a rag tag motley crew of the most dedicated taking on an evil Tennessee empire with Lazarus cast as a slightly more benevolent Death Vadar. The trouble is that there isn’t always a Luke Skywalker who can bullseye the Death Star reactor and complete the five loops.
The documentary is filled with amazingly honest interviews, pained moments and genuine distress but at each turn you are willing on the runners to go that bit further – you want them to succeed.
In many ways you want them to succeed because this is one of those great everyman challenges – like climbing Everest or scaling El Capitain. With the right training, tenacity and hard work these things become achievable but then you get there and you realise that while every man could attempt these brilliant challenges not every man will succeed and the Barkley explains in no uncertain terms that it really is the journey and not the finish that matter. Something I believe in wholeheartedly.
Perhaps the most memorable thing in the documentary for me was this from one of the runners
There was this focus when growing up to be conservative when it comes to your future and have some good plan for retirement and then travel and see the world and do all this fun stuff when you retire. I was really good about that but then, uh… Yeah, so kind of like in one year I had a series of a few deaths in the family and then I was in a relationship for 10 years and that ended so it was like all this crap just all happened to me in one calendar year. It was awful. I was in a really bad place. One of the deaths in this case involved was my father, who has done just what he told me and saved all of this money for him and my mom to travel the world and he passed away one year before his retirement. That’s when I realized you’ve gotta live. You’ve gotta live your life.
The documentary is a tour de force of the positivity of the human condition. I would urge you all to watch it and hopefully find something in it.
But what did you find UltraBoy? Ah well that’s easy – I found a new focus, I’d like an attempt at this race and as I approach 40 I realise I’ve been working my way up towards it – taking on harder races, more mountainous races, riskier races, races with a greater chance of failure. I was never going to be content returning to races year in year out that I knew I could do.
So why do I want to do The Barkley? Easy. Because it’s there.
Conclusion This is a brilliantly filmed documentary and feels like a piece of classic ongoing American history. The filmmakers appear to have taken pride in producing a piece about human beings will and determination under the guise of a race. It’s a documentary with heart and you’d do well to watch it whether you’re a runner or not.
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young directed by Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane is currently available in the UK on Netflix but for a more beautiful experience you can purchase the DVD/Blu-ray here.