The Barkley Marathons

My friend Gloria over at Harry’s Mama, recently posted on Facebook that she loved the Barkley Marathons.  I had heard about this but didn’t know much of the back story.  Then someone else on social media made mention of how great this documentary is and I decided it was time to sit down and have a movie night.

Years ago when we did our first marathon, I watched The Spirit of The Marathon before my first 20 miler.  Then we went and saw The Spirit of the Marathon II in the theater the week before the actual race.  It was inspiring and gave me that extra oomph I needed going into long runs.  So I decided to rent this movie off of Amazon Prime for $1.99.


If you know me, I don’t sit still very well.  I like to have the TV on as background noise, but I rarely sit down to watch a show.  I am always busy reading or doing some other crazy project.  I love HGTV but can rarely focus on an entire show.

For me to sit down and watch this until my eyes were ready to close and then find a time during Mary’s nap the next day to finish, tells you that this movie was pretty darn awesome.

This race is the most bizarre thing I have ever heard of and yet likely the most difficult race out there.  It first began in 1986 as the brainchild of Gary Cantrell after learning of James Earl Ray’s unsuccessful escape into the Tennessee mountains where he covered just eight miles in the 55 hours he was out there.   Cantrell who is both an avid runner and chain smoker exclaimed that he could cover 100 miles in that amount of time (which he admits that he has not done).  Thus began the Barkley Marathons.


I can’t explain why but I just love that the race starts with the lighting of his cigarette.

The course is held in Frozen Head State Park and consists of 5 loops of approximately 20 miles.  However, some runners speculate that each loop is more likely to be around 26 miles.  Over the course of the 5 loops, runners who make it the entire way will have covered the same ascent and descent as scaling Mt. Everest twice.

Hundreds of runners apply to run each year but only 40 are accepted.  All applicants must send a nonrefundable $1.60 entry fee and an essay discussing why they should be allowed the run this race.  Runners who are accepted receive a letter of condolence.

While I will spare you all of the details (because I think you should rent this movie NOW), I will say that I started out super inspired and ready to figure out how to sign up.  By the end, there is without a doubt no chance in heck that I could ever finish this race.  In fact, I don’t even know if I could finish the first loop.

While Cantrell is a bit of an odd fellow, there are many things I grew to really enjoy about him and his personality.  He is truly passionate about running and this race.  He certainly has created a challenge for runners and yet he does want to see people succeed.

As runners drop out of the course and stick around to see if anyone finishes (many years there is not a single finisher), Cantrell reflects on this notion and on the nature of runners.  He discusses how everyone toes the start line a competitor and ready to beat the other 39 athletes on the course.  However, as they drop out, they become the support crew and strive to help the others finish.  I personally find this to be a wonderful rarity that is unique to our sport.  We often train alongside our fiercest competitors.  While at the end of the day we would like to beat them, we can also be proud and excited for them if they are the ones to beat us to the finish line or achieve something we have yet to do.

Cantrell says that people have their own concepts of success and failure.  On this course, they become unconcerned about how people evaluate their performance.  Some people are there simply hoping to finish one lap.  Others have worked for years to finish a “fun run” which is 3 loops of the course.  Success isn’t always completing the full course.

I think this is a great reminder for both life and running.  We often apologize for being a slow runner or sheepishly say that we run but aren’t real runners.  Never apologize for who you are or what you do.  Success and failure are all relative, especially in running!

I rented this movie on Amazon Prime for $1.99.  I was not asked or compensated for this review, but I most definitely recommend it.

23 thoughts on “The Barkley Marathons

  1. We watched this last month and LOVED it!!!!! Absolutely amazing what those people do.

    I got a kick out of the idea of the sacrificial lamb. Is this sadistic of me?

    The race director is such a coot. Love him and his crazy ideas. I’d love to help crew one day.

  2. Now I want to watch this movie too! Equal to Mount Everest x 2, WHAT?!?!?! No wonder no one has finished it yet. Btw I’m totally the same way. I like TV as a background noise. I usually have to rewind so many times in order to actually watch something llol!

  3. I watched this a couple weeks ago after reading the RW50 article about it, and loved it! And also had absolutely ZERO desire to do the race. I know my limits! The comraderie though was pretty fantastic to watch.

  4. Kyle and I watched this a few weeks ago and LOVED it!! We started recommending it to all our family/friends and felt like it was inspiring no matter what you love to do as far as fitness goes. It did make me a little sad that I’m not currently training for any race 😉

    • It is inspiring but just think how grateful you are to NOT be training for this race ;). There will be plenty of races to come. Enjoy all that you have going on right now. It’s a special time.

  5. I heard about this on twitter a couple weeks ago and checked out the website real quick…i didn’t know there was a movie so will have to check it out. There is a also a docu-drama/movie about the Western States as well but i haven’t been able to find it to rent yet. This race has got to be absolutely insane, I thought I read that nobody has finished in 2 or 3 years and there are something like only 14 finishers all-time. Don’t know if anyone made it this year but I’m guessing not!

    • We bought the Western States documentary and it was awesome. There is also another documentary about three guys who ran across the Sahara. That was pretty nuts. The number of people who have finished Barkley’s is not promising for anyone hoping to do it. That is for sure!

  6. i feel like i need to watch this movie ASAP after reading this post. i’ve never heard of it but it sounds so awesome and inspiring, and i love the unique details you pulled out — the $1.60 entrance feel (lol what?!); the fact that some years nobody finishes; the condolence letter (!!!); the sense of camaraderie that forms around the runners in this race. sounds amazing.

  7. I wrote about this a couple of years ago. Jamil, a famous local trail runner here in AZ, ran the Barkleys–didn’t finish that year but was the one out the longest. He spoke to our running group and brought with him the book pages he had to find–I also got to ask him a few questions. If you search for it on my blog you can read it.

    I do have to say I’m a little bummed at how popular it’s becoming. I like things staying the way they are sometimes, lol

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