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The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

The man who calls himself Lazarus Lake is a gleeful sadist. As founder and ringmaster of the Barkley Marathons, Lake oversees a grueling endurance race (over 100 miles of mountain terrain in 60 hours) that pushes physical limitations, tests mental resilience, and challenges serious athletes to submit to his maniacal whimsy. While shooting the 2012 edition for this lighthearted and immensely entertaining doc, first-time directors Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane rarely find Lake not laughing.

He’s tickled that participants arrive with the requisite admission ($1.60, a license plate from their state or country, and a flannel shirt) and meticulously copy onto paper maps his exacting course through Frozen Head State Park. Merrily anticipating failure, Lake has a bugler on hand to serenade each dropout with “Taps.” Iltis and Kane detail the loopy logic of a punishing race inspired by a prison escape, where completing three of the five circuits (each equivalent to a marathon) is referred to as the “fun run.” But their film also delves into competition and camaraderie, pain and profundity.

Why tackle the Barkley Marathons? Even the loquacious Lake can’t fully articulate their appeal, other than to describe participants immersed in the experience, like the runner stumbling through the dark in the race’s final minutes, hallucinating and long past exhaustion, who recalls in voiceover the grief-filled year that led him to the demanding trail in Tennessee – and finally completes his arduous journey by returning to the starting line.

Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on November 27, 2015 by Gravitas Ventures
First published in LA Weekly, 2017.