‘The Barkley Marathons’: Film Review

The Barkley Marathons - H 2015
Courtesy of The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young
Irreverent homespun Zen gives this doc zing.

First-time documentarians head for the hills to follow a secretive ultra-marathon in Tennessee.

If you build a super-secret, super-challenging, super-quirky race, the ultra-runners will come. As an engaging new documentary explains, they’ve been converging for decades in the mountains of Tennessee, where the pseudonymous, wise-cracking Lazarus Lake and Raw Dog created a course so tough that only 10 people completed it during the annual event’s first quarter-century.

In The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young, first-time directors Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane honor the elements of secrecy that give the marathon its cachet among certain adventurous types. That condition of access necessarily limits how deep they can go, and some questions remain naggingly unanswered. “The truth is malleable,” on onscreen title declares at the beginning of the doc. It’s also somewhat elusive in this saga, which is less an investigation than a spirited tribute. But the combination of humor and grit is always intriguing, and the feature, opening on one screen in Los Angeles, should prove a long-distance runner when Gravitas Ventures takes it to digital platforms in North America on Dec. 8.

Other docs have captured the world of ultra-marathons — the blisters, fatigue and delirium. But as they follow the 2012 edition of the Barkley, Iltis and Kane, whose assistant-camera credits include stints on AMC's Mad Men, zero in on a subculture unto itself. What truly powers their film is the portrait, no less magnetic for being incomplete, of co-founder Lake, the wry ringmaster who marks the beginning of each race by lighting a cigarette.

The filmmakers focus on a few participants in the male-dominated field, but beyond the runners’ determination to complete the 130-mile, 60-hour ordeal (or, in some cases, to throw in the towel while they still have the strength), they don’t etch particularly memorable profiles. While the competitors’ eagerness to test themselves comes through, it is Lake’s comments that give the onscreen events resonance.

The bearded driver of a sky-blue truck who says the "E" on his gas gauge stands for "excellent," Lake, whose real name is Gary Cantrell, holds the screen with his twinkly aura of profound amusement. A onetime ultra-runner who has never himself finished the Barkley course, he gets to the heart of the matter with folksy philosophical insights. Lake pinpoints the high probability of failure as a key attraction of the race for goal-oriented, high-achieving types (a number of scientists hit the 2012 trail). The marathon offers an exceptional degree of unpredictability, too: Its exact route through Frozen Head State Park changes from year to year, as does the start time. Lake clearly gets a charge from keeping the participants off-guard. “It’s not going to be the way you planned it,” he says with perfect understatement.

Though they don’t admit everyone who applies, Lake and co-conspirator Raw Dog (real name Karl Henn, seen relatively briefly) infuse the Barkley with an anti-elitist ethos, beginning with the $1.60 entry fee. Some sort of written exam is involved — no details are spilled in the doc — and the 40 hardy, or foolhardy, applicants who are selected each year receive the news in a letter of condolence. An offbeat sense of irony underlies most everything about the Barkley, which was born out of a twisted impulse to mock a notorious killer. The 1977 escape from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary of James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., sparked the idea. In the terrain that’s now the inhospitable home of the Barkley, Ray had traveled only eight miles in two days when he was captured.

Some Barkley participants don’t fare much better. With its gruelingly steep climbs and descents through places with names like Pillars of Doom, its wide swings in temperature and proscription of GPS, it’s no wonder that most runners surrender well before the finish line.

The burning question through all of this is, Who is Lazarus Lake/Gary Cantrell? But that may be more a reflection of our insta-info digital age than anything else. Maybe it’s enough to know that he created this bizarre test of body and spirit, to hear his quietly barbed jokes, and to see the enjoyment in his eyes.

Directors: Annika Iltis, Timothy James Kane
Producers: Annika Iltis, Timothy James Kane
Directors of photography: Timothy James Kane, Annika Iltis
Editor: Mariana Blanco
Composer: Tyler Gibbons
No rating, 90 minutes