“The Barkley Marathons:” A Documentary about Giving Up

by Danny Stout

Forty at the starting line; none at the finish line. Usually. The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young is the saga of an ultra-marathon with 14 finishers in 30 years. The eerily quirky documentary depicts a five 20-mile loop course where runners rip through rough punishing Tennessee terrain; high altitude with snow to low humid valleys. Rain. Muddy marshes. Sleep time is minimal with the 60-hour time limit.

     The idea, “Laz” Lake says, came from James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther king that escaped Bushy Mountain State 635704960738463422-barkley-photos02Penitentiary in 1977, only to cover eight miles in 55 hours. Images of the hapless criminal agonizingly befuddled by the dense thorny landscape, made such an impression on Lake, that he conceptualized an endurance event with minimal chances of completion. The film’s more about stories, rituals, and folklore, than the marathon itself. Laz, a jovial yet borderline sadistic Dickensian character, belly laughs as the course crunchily smashes participants like army boots crushing slow roaches on a cement floor. “Ha, ha, ha, done already? That sucks! You suck!” A bugle plays “Taps” for each non-finisher.

     Hopefully, his fiendish demeanor is façade, but the traditions are everything to Barkley’s founder, most of which are narcissistic and egocentric. A lengthy essay, “Why I Should be Allowed to Run the Barkley Marathons” accompanies each application with a measly check for $1.60. Forty runners are hand-selected from hundreds of hopefuls; each must bring a present. They range from license plates to this year’s flannel shirts that Laz gloatingly holds up to admire sarcastically.

Baffling is the “sacrificial lamb,” a person selected that’s ill-prepared, and obviously uninformed about the treachery. “This person has no business being here,” Cantrell chortles. “Back already?” he booms as the conquered staggers back to camp after a quick couple of hours. What he gains from the prank requires a therapist, but he revels in the defeated.

Barklay is a platform for Laz’s ruminations, falling short of philosophy: “Graduate students do well; they think before doing it.” Obviously, it is a daunting undertaking, but the organizer doesn’t articulate a purpose beyond the standard: hard things teach you something. Even the name of the event bewilders; Mr Barkley is a Viet Nam buddy Laz respects. Barkley has never attended, struggling to grasp why the event is named after him. “Some day I’ll go over there and check it out,” he responds, clearly mystified.

The documentary requires a post-viewing thought session to discern it coherently. An easy chair with the beverage of your choice video-featured(I recommend Yerba mate “Orange Exuberance” to stimulate the brain cells) is recommended while untangling the puzzle. The ultra-marathoner instantly takes something away; typical viewers won’t, I surmise. The initial tendency of focusing on the heroic finishers leaves one unsatisfied. Not that Jared Campbell, who won in 2012, 14, and 16, and Brett Maune with the record-holding time of 52 hours and three minutes don’t deserve the highest accolades. Completing a physical task of such magnitude deserves a documentary and subsequent film review all their own. The camera’s deviation from the actual running to the crestfallen quitters suggests that this is more about the misunderstood allure of failure. Or, whether the concept of losing is merely a psychological construction.

The Aristotelian notion of auto-telics, or doing something for its own sake is a dominant theme. The action exceeds the result. One by one, battered souls with blistered heels and toes succumb to Laz’s endless guffaws. But, a strange fulfillment is clear; they don’t seem to hear the bearded bully. While winning dominates the West, these warriors are more like the barefoot indigenous Taramahara of Mexico. Once they get started, running is about humility, ceremony, and a coming-of-age rite of passage. Where you finish is of little consequence. The physical and, perhaps the psychologically painful test, is the prize of high meaning.


In my twenties, I entered two marathons, dropping out of the first at 16 miles, ten from the finish line. About a year later, I completed the 26-mile run with energy to spare (not much, I admit). Surprisingly, I treasure the failure most. The mental cornucopia of thoughts, ideas, and knowledge of self remain salient in my memory today, while I can hardly remember the day I conquered the course. I’m reminded of Janet Fitch’s thought, “The phoenix must burn to emerge.”

Within the Church, are there alternative ways of seeing failure? Could the losers really be champions? When Polish sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began the statue of Lakota barkely-composite-blog427-v3American Indian leader Crazy Horse in 1948, the largest statue in the world was envisioned. Well before his death in 1982 at 74, he realized it would not be completed in his lifetime. Yet he labored on undaunted. What went through his mind as he chiseled day after day on something that may never be realized? Was it his love for art itself? Perhaps he was undyingly committed to a people that had lost their sacred home? May be it was an indiscernable feeling that derives from the flow creativity mixed with sweat of the brow. His work carries on today, with the University of South Dakota carrying out his vision with a center at the foot of the Memorial still in progress.

Be careful not to judge the “loser” or the “ne’er-do-well,” or the “drop-out.” Their relationship with Christ, although often misunderstood, deserves more respect and less judgment.



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