Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Barkley Marathons: A Legendary Race and a Fascinating Movie

Gary Cantrell

The Barkley Marathons, one of the world's most grueling ultramarathon trail races, takes place every spring in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. An award-winning documentary on the event - Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats It's Young - was released in 2014. For the fun of it, I've bracketed some facts on the race and the movie with the words from an old Appalachian Bluegrass song. This version of I Feel Jesus was written in 1962 by Frances Reedy and recently recorded by the contemporary folk duo, Anna and Elizabeth. It very fittingly ends the film.

Ooh ooh ooh, my my my, I feel Jesus shut up in my bones.
  • Barkley Marathons was co-founded and designed by trail runner Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell in the early 1980's.
  • Cantrell claims to have gotten the idea for the race when Martin Luther King assassin James Earl Ray famously escaped from a Tennessee maximum security prison in 1977. Ray kept searchers looking for 54 hours but only travelled eight miles.
  • Cantrell gets hate mail from people thinking he is a James Earl Ray fan. Actually,  he thought Ray was a wimp for only getting eight miles. He felt participants in his race could do much better.
  • One bit of the race actually follows a sewer/stream that travels under the prison.
  • An "ultramarathon" is any race longer than marathon distance - 26.2 miles.
  • The Barkley distance is at least 100 miles. Some think it's closer to 125. No one knows for sure and Cantrell changes the route slightly each year.
  • These 100-125 miles are run through remote Tennessee woods and mountains.
It's Holy Ghost power shut up in my bones. I've got the one desire to make heaven my own.
  • The race is five loops of 20-25 miles each.
  • You have 60 hours to finish all five loops.
  • Finishing racers run the equivalent of two ascents and two descents of Mount Everest.
  • Out of 1000 competitors in 30 years, only 14 have ever finished.
  • In some years, no one finishes.
  • It took ten years for anyone to finish.
Ooh ooh ooh, my my my, I feel Jesus shut up in my bones.
  • The first two loops are clockwise. Depending on the circumstances, this means one is probably run in the light and the other is probably run in the dark
  • The second two loops are counter-clockwise.
  • The first place runner (if any) after four loops decides whether to run the last loop clockwise or counter-clockwise. The second place runner (if any) must run in the opposite direction.
Well, it'll make you happy, it'll set you free, It'll make you love your neighbor, it's a work of charity.
  • In the film, Cantrell comes across as a sort of benevolent/sadistic Santa Claus figure.
  • He has created a unique mechanism for entering the race. Anyone can apply by paying a $1.60 application fee. But you must also write an essay and fill out numerous forms. The criteria for selection is not transparent.
  • Only 40 per year are selected.
  • One of them is designated the "human sacrifice" - someone who Cantrell feels has absolutely no chance of completing even one loop, even though they might otherwise appear to be in good shape. He's always right. The "human sacrifice" shown in the movie was a Navy Seal.
  • If you're chosen, you receive a "letter of condolence."
  • At check in-time, you must bring a license plate and a "gift" for Cantrell. The gift has varied from a white shirt, to socks, to a flannel shirt - whatever Cantrell thinks he needs that year.
Ooh ooh ooh, my my my, I feel Jesus shut up in my bones.
  • The race has no preset start time. Rather Cantrell blows a conch shell at a surprise point within a 12 hour period. That signals that the race will begin within one hour.
  • The actual race begins when Cantrell, at the start line, lights a cigarette.
  • Very few even finish more than one loop.
  • If you finish three loops, it's called a "fun run."
  • As each competitor stops or gives up, a designated trumpeter plays "Taps."
It's resurrection power, shut up in my bones. It's got the same power to raise Jesus from the tomb.
  • There is no chip timing. GPS is banned. You only have a compass and a map. Every few miles in the loop, there is a pre-placed vintage paperback in a plastic bag. You must tear a page out of each book (corresponding to your race number) to prove you have stayed on the course. After each loop you give the probably crumpled pages to Cantrell who verifies them by lining them up on a stone wall.
  • The legs of most competitors are usually completely bloodied by a particularly hostile strain of Tennessee bramble.
  • After each loop, you can eat, rest, tape your blisters or sleep. almost no one sleeps (if they get that far). The leading runners usually spend no more than a half hour "in camp."
  • The course record, set by Brett Maune in 2011, is 52:03:08 - an average speed of approximately 2 miles per hour.
Ooh ooh ooh, my my my, I feel Jesus shut up in my bones.
  • "Barkley" is a Tennessee farmer and friend of Cantrell. He is amused that the race is named after him.
  • The movie is absolutely brilliant. I highly recommend it, whether you are a running enthusiast or not. It chronicles the 2012 race in which there were three finishers - a record.
Ooh ooh ooh, my my my, I feel Jesus shut up in my bones.

Here are a few trailers for the film - the full version of which is currently available on Netflix - as well as a short additional video featuring the mischievously charming Cantrell discussing why no woman has ever completed the race (although a number of women do compete every year), and a YouTube audio clip of I Feel Jesus.

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