There are marathons, there are ultra-marathons, and then there is the Barkley Marathon. If you haven’t heard of this one that’s okay because, like “Fight Club,” the number one rule is you don’t talk about it. But that’s bound to change after you watch the documentary “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young” (please take its subtitle seriously). It sheds light on this race which has developed a cult following over 25 years and gives its participants 60 hours to complete the equivalent of five marathons. Once you watch it, it will be very easy to understand why, out of the hundreds who have run it, only 13 people have actually completed the entire thing.
“The Barkley Marathons” introduces us to the event’s co-founder, Lazarus Lake, a man who is as idiosyncratic and unpredictable as the race itself, and he approaches the proceedings with an almost devilish sense of humor. Hundreds of people apply for it, but only 40 are accepted. Those accepted get a letter of condolence informing them they have been selected and only have to pay an entrance fee of $1.60 and bring with them a t-shirt or license plate from their home state or country. It all takes place at a park in Tennessee where the start time is not revealed right away, and the race begins at a yellow gate when Lazarus lights up a cigarette. What happens from there is really something to witness.
Directing this documentary were first-time filmmakers Timothy Kane and Annika Iltis, both of whom had worked as camera assistants on “Mad Men.” I got to speak with them and they described what inspired their decision to find out more about the Barkley Marathon and of the numerous challenges they faced throughout filming.
Ben Kenber: The documentary was inspired by an article you read called “The Immortal Horizon.” What was it specifically about that article which spoke to you the most?
Timothy Kane: Well when we read it we didn’t know anything about the Barkley at all and had never heard of it. We also didn’t know anything about the author, so everything was kind of new to us. We read it in the Believer magazine and what we learned was that Leslie (Jamison) was really, at that time, just a fiction writer and this piece on the Barkley was her first journalistic nonfiction piece. So when we read it, it really had a narrative style to it. It read kind of like fiction that it made it even, you know, more impossible to believe than just the facts do alone. Her writing really piqued our interest and made us want to get on a plane and go to Tennessee and find out what it was all about.
BK: I heard it was really hard to track down Lazarus Lake. How did you manage to find him?
TK: Well that’s sort of inside information.
Annika Iltis: Yeah, we’re trying to keep their anonymity as much as possible. In the opening of the film we say we’re going to tell you the truth but the truth is malleable. As much as it is a documentary and everything that you see in there happened, we tried to keep the Barkley world the same as when we started the film, and I think part of that is keeping Lazarus’ privacy and Raw Dog’s privacy as much as possible. Of course we know this film will probably change that.
BK: The way people describe the Barkley Marathon, it’s a lot like “Fight Club” in that the number one rule is you don’t talk about it. There must been a lot about the marathon that you could not include in this documentary, but how much of it percent wise did you manage to get in this film?
AI: In terms of like the geography of it, a very small percentage. I think it’s hard to say even what percentage it would be because over 26 miles of the loop, or 26.2 miles, we had about seven camera operators during the shoot. We moved around a little bit, but we did everything with Lazarus’ blessing and we only went to places that he was happy with us going to and that wouldn’t affect the runners’ navigation and that wouldn’t affect the race as much as possible. But we weren’t interested in running alongside them. That was never something that we wanted to do. It wasn’t something that we’d want to watch either. A lot of the action really happened around the gate. What we got was great for the film we were making.
BK: Regarding the seven camera operators, were they ever visible to the runners or were they put in spots where the runners couldn’t see them?
AI: They were visible, but all the places that they were placed were places where that were obvious points along the course. So navigation wise it was very obvious to where the runners knew where they were along the course that when they saw a person with a camera, they weren’t like hey there’s a person there so I must be going in the right direction. They knew where they were. And there weren’t many of us; it was a very skeleton crew. We kept it simple, and because of that we were able to get a deep part of the action without overwhelming people.
BK: What was the most challenging part of making this documentary for you two?
TK: There were so many things. Annika, one of the first things she mentioned was the vastness of the terrain. Trying to navigate around it was a challenge, and trying to be at the right place at the right time over a 20-mile square area through six or seven mountain ranges, that was a major challenge. It was a challenge to gain the trust of the runners. That was a big thing early on for us to try to make sure that they understood what we were trying to do. We’re trying to be as respectful of them as possible and to not affect their race. They worked hard to get there and we were just guests, so we didn’t once do anything that would jeopardize their experience.
BK: Were the runners open right away to being filmed or did that take a lot of trust building tween you and them?
TK: We did on the first registration day a lot of interviews and Annika was instrumental in getting a lot of those, and at that point there were definitely some people who were maybe nervous about the race coming up but were not sure what we were doing. In hindsight I’d say there was a little bit of hesitancy, but once they started running I would say that everybody was so focused on what they were doing that they really didn’t take much notice of us which was good for us.
AI: And once they knew what kind of film we wanted to make, which was basically capturing the soul and spirit of the Barkley more than exposing its secrets, then people were on board.
BK: It was interesting because part of me wanted to see more of the course, but after a while it’s easy to understand why you don’t see that much of it. Plus, it is said that the course changes from year to year.
AI: Yeah it does change most years. We were lucky to have one of the runners; he was going to wear a Go Pro camera throughout the course and offered up his footage, so we got to see parts of the course through that. But honestly to keep the narrative structure of the film and the pace of the film, we really wanted the film to feel like you were actually there watching this race that weekend and feel like you are part of the Barkley. So to keep that going I don’t think we could’ve put more of the course in there because it just would have been more running footage and more landscape footage, and we weren’t interested in that. We wanted to keep the narrative pace up.
BK: But even though we don’t see much of the course though, we do see what it does to the runners’ bodies as they come back with dozens of scratches on their legs. It doesn’t take long to feel how painful those scratches are.
AI: Yeah, that’s all from the briars. They are pretty rough and there’s just so many hours running on your feet and with moisture. You see that part in the film. It’s very difficult on the human body but also mentally for the runners, so we tried to capture that as well.
BK: Another thing I liked was how it showed that even though many of the runners don’t finish the Barkley, you still have to pat them on the back because at least they still gave it a shot and finished one loop. There’s something to be said for that.
AI: I think anyone who actually makes it to the starting line there has already accomplished a lot because that’s not the easiest thing to get there. Part of what was really important to us while we were focusing in on different people was including people with the varying idea of success and failure. We wanted to make sure that we showed all of those points because it is a very personal thing how people view their own accomplishments there, and that was a big part of the Barkley and why we focused on the various people that we did.
BK: Have you kept in touch with any of the runners since finishing this documentary?
AI: Oh yeah, we are in touch with quite a number of them. We’ve been back to the Barkley almost every year. We missed last year, but almost every year since we get in touch with a lot of folks, we see the ones we can and, as silly as it is or maybe not, we feel sort of a part of this thing now because it’s a very unique experience and having been there for three years is something we look forward to every year. I think the people that we’ve met in the experience of making the film is really, for us, the greatest accomplishment probably.
BK: It would be interesting to see a sequel to this documentary showing what the experience of running the Barkley has had on the runners’ overall lives, and that’s regardless of whether they finished it or not.
AI: It’s interesting because honestly I don’t think it really affected most of their lives very much, and that’s because it’s a very personal thing that they do. Most of the people who go out there are not doing this for any sort of a claim by any means. They are doing it for a very personal reason. Most of them have high level degrees in science and engineering, they have regular lives and they go back to work on Wednesday or whatever day of the week it is. They can talk about their experience, but I think in their daily lives this is just something that they did and then they go on and do the next thing which is amazing but that’s the kind of person who goes out and tries this.
BK: Did either of you have to pay the $1.60 fee or a license plate in order to get permission to film this documentary?
AI: (Laughs). I don’t think we did actually. We talked about it. We did bring lots of chocolate. We paid a lot of other tolls probably over the past four years to get through all the hurdles that we had to get through, but Lazarus did not require any of those items from his (laughs).
BK: Both of you came to this project after finished filming season five of the show “Mad Men,” and you’ve said that this was a great opportunity for you to create your own material. How fulfilling was it to go from working on someone else’s material to working on your own project?
TK: It’s hard to say. It’s almost like we are still so close to it. We are still in awe of so much of the work that’s going on that it might take a little bit of time to pass before we can really look back on it and see what we learned from it. We certainly learned a lot, but in terms of doing a film it’s something that we sort of dove into and it’s basically taken up all of our free time for four years the way a passion project does I guess. It’s really pushed us to new limits. We had a lot of creative battles back and forth with each other, and those things are interesting and hopefully we’ve grown as people and as filmmakers.
BK: Many documentary filmmakers I have talked to have said that it usually takes a number of years for their project to come to fruition in terms of filming it and then finding distribution for it. Did you have any idea of how long it was going to take to make this documentary?
TK: We had no idea, but we didn’t put a time limit on it because the nature of our work, being sometimes 70 hour weeks, we would have to take full chunks of time off, like six months at a time. In some ways we were tired of working on the movie every day, tired of talking about it at work trying to push something forward, but in terms of moving forward with the narrative of the editing or whatever needed to be it was very difficult to start something because we had such little time. You would start something and then all of a sudden you would have to get ready to go to sleep or go to work. I think if you had told us it was going to take four years we may have thought twice about it. But we do get this from everybody that does documentaries, and as a matter of fact a lot of people told us that’s not long at all.
AI: That’s like an average actually. We’re probably on the short side of the lifespan of a documentary in terms of getting it out there.
I want to thank Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane for taking the time to talk with me. Please visit the doucmentary’s website at www.barkleymovie.com to find out how you can watch it.