The Race that Eats its Young

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Dec 28, 2016

Filed under: Movies 48 comments

I watched the documentary The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats its Young a few months ago. It describes one of the most brutal races in the world, and follows a number of contestants as they tackle the challenge in 2012. The movie has stayed with me since then. I keep thinking back to it and wondering at the strange quirks and personal drives that compel people to do this to themselves.

I know calling something “The Dark Souls of [thing]” is horribly cliché by this point, but The Barkley Marathon really is the Dark Souls of footraces. It’s a 100 mile ultramarathon race. It consists of five loops around a 20-mile course. It must be completed in 60 hours or less. The course involves a great deal of climbing and overcoming physical barriers like mud, water, rocky terrain, prickly plants, and the more general inconveniences of untamed wilderness. It has considerably more elevation change than any other 100 mile race. There are no markers denoting the boundaries of the course. Navigation is done by way of written instructions describing natural landmarks, and the course changes every year. To keep navigation interesting, runners change direction with each lap. There is no aid along the way, aside from two places where the runners can acquire water. (And on one particularly cold year, some of the water had frozen.) The race is set up so that some of the laps are run in the dark.

Like all sensible sporting events, the starting signal is when host Gary Cantrell lights up a camel cigarette.
Like all sensible sporting events, the starting signal is when host Gary Cantrell lights up a camel cigarette.

The Barkley course was conceived by one Gary Cantrell. He came up with the idea when he heard about the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Ray spent 55 hours in the woods, but when he was recaptured he’d only made it about 8 miles from the prison. Cantrell – unimpressed by Ray’s low mileage – said, “I could do at least 100 miles.” So he made a 100 mile race through the woods, not far from the Penitentiary.

I’m not just calling the Barkley Marathons “the Dark Souls of footraces” because it’s hard. Although to be clear: It is really, obnoxiously, unreasonably hard. The race began in 1986. Since then, over 1,000 hopeful runners have set out. To date, only 14 have finished in the allotted time.

But what makes Barkley so Dark Soulsian isn’t the difficulty, but the sheer indifference of the thing. The race doesn’t care if you finish it or not. Gary Cantrell isn’t a gleeful sadist taking joy in the suffering of the contestants. He’s also not trying to inspire people to push themselves. He’s like the classic stoic game master in a tabletop game. He doesn’t care if your character lives or dies, only that the rules are followed. In 2001, runner Blake Wood and David Horton finished the race with about an hour and a half to spare. They’d tried several times before in previous years, but this was the first time they finished the course. But then it was discovered that they had incorrectly gone 200 yards off-course at one point, following the more familiar route of previous years. Cantrell disqualified them both. Rules are rules.

If Cantrell seemed at all invested in the success or failure of the contestants then I’d probably hate his guts. But his casual detachment makes him captivating. He maps out the course, sets the rules, screens the contestants, and officiates the race. But when it comes right down to it, he seems less interested in the results than in the process. The race has countless little traditions, in-jokes, habits, and rules. He creates, sustains, and propagates these customs, probably as a way of keeping himself amused while he’s sitting around base camp during a lap, waiting to see who makes it and who bails.

The race is about to start. Statistically, basically none of these people will last all the way to the end.
The race is about to start. Statistically, basically none of these people will last all the way to the end.

The entry procedure is secret. You have to email the race director (what’s his email?) on a certain day (what day?) of the year, and you must submit your qualifications (how?) in order to have a chance at winning one of the limited number of slots in the race. In 2010 there were about 200 entries and only 35 were accepted. None of this is explained in an official way. You’re supposed to find out how to join by learning from previous contestants, although you can probably figure things out if you know how to internet. Even then, it’s a strange process driven by luck and secrets.

As you can imagine, the race is hard. If you watch the documentary, you can see what it does to people. Aside from the obvious challenge of conquering 100 miles in 60 hours, the course tries to twist your ankles, tear your skin, sap your strength with cold, and make you lose your way. It’s a heartless meatgrinder, but Cantrell seems content to have several years pass by without anyone completing the course. He doesn’t seem inclined to make it easier, but neither is he driven to keep ramping up the difficulty. The race just is, and it’s up to you to figure out if it’s something you can do.

What drives people to do this to themselves? It’s certainly not fame. It’s not like this shit is gonna wind up on ESPN. If I climb Mt. Everest then I can show up at a party and tell everyone about it and they can be duly impressed. They’ve heard of Everest and they know it’s a big deal. But nobody’s heard of Barkley so I’d have to explain all the extenuating circumstances of the race before they could even begin to appreciate what I’d accomplished.

There’s no trophy. No prize money. No sponsorship deals. The only reward is that Gary Cantrell will write down that you won. In fact, the race seems designed to drive off the usual kinds of recognition and coverage. This is the kind of race that can kill somebody, and it’s not like Nike wants the bad press that would come if people found out they’d helped a guy run himself to death. Gatorade isn’t interested in making a commercial about some thirty-something athlete collapsing and going into shock in the Tennessee wilderness, miles from the nearest hope of medical care. (Thankfully, none of those things has happened yet. But it would be the kind of thing that people of Nike’s legal and public relations personnel would worry about.)

The Barkley Marathons are a race run in obscurity, for no profit, officiated by a guy who acts like the only thing dumber than applying for the Barkley is showing up to run it.

It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in years. It’s available for streaming on Netflix if you’re of a mind to see it. In case you’re curious: I haven’t spoiled much. It follows a handful of the runners in the 2012 Barkley. You can find out if anyone made it through, and what happened to them in the attempt.


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48 thoughts on “The Race that Eats its Young

  1. I saw this a couple of months ago, too. And it does stick. Especially Cantrell’s attitude that the race is a test of one’s own personal limits. How far are you willing to go? How far can you go? It’s a test that yields self knowledge, and because of that it’s an intensely personal act, regardless of whether or not you complete the race.

    I bet, if pressed, he’d admit that what the 14 people who have completed the race need most is something harder, because they haven’t reached their limits, yet.

    1. Sounds like Cantrell cares enough to let people rest between laps. But if you rest, can you even win?

  2. Fists says:

    “The 60 hours are not concurrent. There are periods of rest between laps.”

    Soft! I knew a guy the did it concurrently while playing guitar hero, blindfolded!*


    I don’t think it’s necessarily true that you don’t get bragging rights from an event like that, it’s more that it allows you to elevate yourself above the other people within a niche rather than at work functions. Most people down the pub these days will know what you’re talking about if you tell them that you set a record in the COD training time trial level (or they would have when COD was current) but if you’re in a group of gamers telling them that you beat Lovely Planet is what would actually impress them.

    1. treznor says:

      Not that it changes much, but the 60 hours ARE consecutive. Yes, you get periods of rest between the laps if you want… but they count as part of the 60 hours. Sleep deprivation is a very real part of why laps 4 and 5 are so difficult.

  3. Zaxares says:

    I think you’ve basically hit upon the answer in your final paragraph, Shamus. This race is one that appeals to the very small subset of people who do difficult things for their own personal sense of achievement/satisfaction. They’re not in it for the glory, for the recognition, or for the money. These are the people who see a challenge and go “I want to overcome that”. Their reward is simply the knowledge that they did it (and usually, once they do, it’s immediately off to the next challenge). In gamers, these are the sorts of players who do things like build Kairos.

  4. Tom says:

    I’d never even dream of doing this. I wouldn’t get ten paces. But I feel a great respect for it. It is a PROPER race. It is the antithesis to everything plastic and fake and sanitised and homogenised and spectated and commentated and franchised and stage-managed and book-ended with generic, burbling celebrities asking vague, meaningless things of the participants and plastered head-to-toe with advertisements in this so-called modern age.

    Sure, the Olympics and big stadium games and the like are real. But this is REAL.

  5. Armagrodden says:

    Cantrell ““ unimpressed by Ray's low mileage ““ said, “I could do at least 100 miles.” So he made a 100 mile race through the woods, not far from the Penitentiary.

    So the burning question becomes: has this guy ever completed his own marathon?

    1. Jean says:

      They ask him that at the end.

      1. Zak McKracken says:

        “Get a netflix account and sit through a long documentary to learn the answer to this one question which will probably not amaze you! But since you asked …”

        nope. Not up for that challenge tonight.

        My guess: Has has not finished himself. The race was founded because he thought he could do it. But then he didn’t actually manage. If he had actually done it himself, that would be part of the foundation story.

    2. Tea says:

      They answer this in the documentary. I highly suggest watching it

    3. krellen says:

      I am politely asking someone to stop caring about my precious spoilers and simply answer the question asked.

      Use spoiler tags if you really feel you must, if you really feel the answer to a simple yes/no question is actually a spoiler enough to keep anyone that actually would want to watch this documentary from doing so.

      But I will judge you for it.

      1. Shamus says:

        No. He’s never even tried. In his defense, he’s pretty old and he’s been a smoker for years. In setting up the race, he has to survey the course. He drives as much as he can, and then walks a few miles in the hills. Even this short walk is taxing for him. I doubt he could do a single lap. He did used to be a runner in his youth, though.

      2. MichaelGC says:

        I think a spoilertag is warranted if it would diminish someone’s enjoyment. Whether it would stop someone watching isn’t the relevant bar to hurdle. In a case like this where it’s very likely people are being introduced to the documentary for the first time, it would be churlish not to use them given the minimal effort involved.

  6. Hal says:

    So, kind of like trying to defeat the toughest monsters in the Final Fantasy X Monster Arena?

    1. MichaelGC says:

      Not quite – I’d say it’s more on a par with getting the King of Jump Rope item in Final Fantasy IX. ;D

      1. Abnaxis says:

        Uff, that and the damned stage fighting sequence. It was painful, but I managed them both back when I had a CRT without the extra challenge of screen-lag

        1. MichaelGC says:

          Wow! I’m impressed. I felt I’d achieved something and called it a day after I’d managed 20! (For those unfamiliar: you have to jump a (skipping) rope 1,000 times in a row. So I managed a whole 2% of the challenge…)

        2. At least the fight gets you 10K if you get a Perfect on it (I know, since I just did that yesterday in the Steam version), unlike the jump rope thing which just gets you two achievements and an item that does bugger-all.

  7. Christopher says:

    Now I wonder if there’s a market for some kind of Dark Souls LARP scene. You have to make your way past a number of monsters in some kind of ruin before taking on the boss on the other side of a white curtain. If any of the guys with skeleton masks beat you, they knock you unconscious, empty your wallet on the floor and carry you to the start of the ruin. If you get knocked out again they just pocket all your cash.

    1. 4th Dimension says:

      Except for the true Dark Souls expirience, NOBODY pockets the cash. The cash after your second beating actually gets destroyed. The mobs don’t care if you live or die or if you reacquire or not your money. They simply don’t like you being on their turf. It’s impersonal.

      1. Christopher says:

        How about Invaders, then? Someone from the neighbouring ruin can come visit and try to beat you up and take all your cash that way.

        But only if you phoned a friend and made him run the ruin along with you first.

        1. 4th Dimension says:

          Ah, but he still doesn’t get your cash. He gets rewarded by the game for coming over an “engaging in jolly cooperation” or ruining your day.

  8. Paul Spooner says:

    Seems like, for even more obscurity, difficulty, and challenge, you could just make up your own perilous race.
    Has Gary Cantrell ever completed the race himself?

  9. I watched this last week after your tweet about it, Shamus, and I was also captivated. One of the things I love about it is how nonchalantly, aggressively, delightfully surreal the rules of the race are. The application fee, the method by which runners collect evidence of their progress on each loop, the start time and the method of signaling it…and so much more.

    But I disagree with you that Cantrell isn't invested in the runners' success or failure. I think he genuinely wants them to succeed. He's just perfectly willing to see them fail, because (as he says) you can't have a real success without the possibility of failure. True, he's set the bar for success unreasonably, almost unthinkably high. That's so that the few””the VERY few””who clear know what they've accomplished. And that those who make a credible attempt to clear it know they did their utmost, and if they came up short, they made it a lot further than almost anyone else. He really does want to see people succeed, but not at the cost of making the race easier, because that would cheapen their success.

    That actually made me like him a lot more. If he were a literally disinterested rule-enforcer, I'd have found him annoying and possibly sadistic.

    (Also, small correction: the film follows the 2012 Barkley, not the 2014.)

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      I’d agree. He says so in this video here

      He loves being present when somebody manages to finish but the challenge was created as it stands and he’s not changing it, otherwise there’d be more people who finishand it wouldn’t be special any more. Therefore, from the perspective opf the runners, no, he does not care. He won’t move the goalpoasts a tiny bit for you. But he also won’t make your life any harder than what the rules say — which is arguably plenty hard enough.

  10. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Does it really count as a marathon if most of the time you are moving slower than walking speed?Because I could travel that distance on pavement in about 24 hours.If I were able to walk continuously for that amount of time,I mean.

    1. Bubble181 says:

      There are a *lot* of 100k walking/running challenges, most of them gave a 24h limit to finish and require it done in one go. The “do 100 miles” bit definitely isn’t what makes this particular race so hard (note that I’ve only ever done about 50k, I’m not especially sportsmanlike and wouldn’t make it 10k in this one I’m sure – I’m not discounting the accomplishment at all). Rather, no stops, hard terrain, no pointers, no easy access to food or drinks.

      That said, for sheer lunacy of the walking/running, I’d say the marathon des sables is probably worse. It’s a six day race through the Sahara, over 270k (roughly a marathon every day, with one double, non-stop stage on the third day), and you have to carry your entire food supply and sleeping gear with you.

      I’m not made for that kind of self-punishment, but, like dark souls, I guess some people like the type of challenge.

    2. Syal says:

      Apparently they lie about the distance; they say it’s 100 miles every year even if it’s unambiguously longer than the previous year.

      Much of the challenge seems to come from the uncertainty of the thing.

    3. PowerGrout says:

      A hundred miles. In 24 hours. At walking pace?

      How long are your legs?

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        Not that long.Its just that my walking pace is slightly faster than regular.I can cross a kilometer in about 10 minutes.Which isnt exactly 100 miles,but somewhere around 140km(around 90 miles).Of course,I have never maintained such a pace for more than 3 hours,when I was younger,so its doubtful that I could cross more than 10 miles at that speed today.But if I were in shape,yeah I could walk around 100 miles in 24 hours.

  11. Leslee says:

    I could see the benefit of doing a race like this if you were wanting to train for the Army Ranger School, or something similar.

    But just for the fun of it? Yeesh… that’s a weird idea of fun.

  12. Alex Broadhead says:

    So it’s the Slash’EM of footraces? Or maybe just the nethack. (“NetHack doesn’t care if you live or die, but Slash’EM wants you dead.”)

    1. tmtvl says:

      Nethack is easy… if you use the spoilers… and get lucky.

      Actually, yeah, this does remind me of Nethack: if you were allowed to use electronic navigation aids it would be easy, but the point is not doing that.

  13. Lanthanide says:

    Consecutively, not concurrently.

    1. Shamus says:

      Heh. Now I’m trying to picture a race where you do all the laps concurrently.

      I suppose Dr. Who could pull it off. If it was a car race, then maybe Marty McFly could do it.

  14. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I did some reading about ultramarathons,and Im surprised there isnt an equatorial marathon.You know,running and swimming the whole length of the equator.

    1. Too much ocean and politically unstable countries are probably the reasons that doesn’t exist yet. It’d also be a lot more expensive since you’d need multiple ships to make sure you keep track of everyone and they don’t drown. Plus the average swimming speed is about 4 miles an hour so that’d take a very long time.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        Oh it will definitely take a looong time.But,if this guy manages to swim the pacific,the road will be set.

    2. 4th Dimension says:

      I you wanted to avoid all the swimming something like walking from most western point in mainland Portugal, through Europe, Russia over Bering Strait, Alaska down through Canada and into US to eastern coast would allow you to cover a big part of the globe. Or you might make the precious fools that you have running this thing run/walk down to the most eastern point of S. America.

  15. To quote Bill Watterson/Calvin’s dad from Calvin and Hobbes….
    “It builds character.”

  16. Blackbird71 says:

    I’ve never understood the idea of running marathons in general. Whoever thinks the following is sound reasoning or justification for action seriously needs to have their head examined: “Hey, the first guy who did this immediately dropped down dead afterwards. We should try it!”

    1. Galad says:

      It’s probably more of a “What this ancient person did is seriously awe-inspiring, let’s try to see who else can do it / whether modern people can do it, and let’s pretend we didn’t hear that part about dropping dead afterwards”

      1. Blackbird71 says:

        Well, you know what they say about those who fail to learn from history…

  17. Harold says:

    Would Cantrell be held liable if anyone actually died doing this?

  18. If you’re in a documentary-watchin’ mood, I highly recommend the 24-hour War by Adam Carolla. Very cool.

  19. D-Frame says:

    I watched the documentary yesterday after reading this (yeah, I’m a bit late). Really enjoyed it. The part with the frozen water cracked me up so hard I had to watch it three times.

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