Young filmmaker tackles world’s toughest race

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Filmmaker Brendan Young is, well, young. And that makes his recent senior thesis film on the infamous Barkley Marathons—a 100-mile race in the Tennessee backcountry that many consider the most grueling in the world thanks to its 59,100 feet of climbing (Mount Everest is 29,000 feet high) and because only 14 out of 1,000 runners have ever finished it within its 60-hour cutoff—that much more inspiring.

“I have made several other small films for week-long assignments, but this was my first actual film,” says Young, 22, a D.C. native who has made Denver his new home. “I think I am just drawn to athletes as characters, the passion throughout sport, and the ability for sport to carry itself beyond the field, court, ice, etc.”

Barkley Marathons
War wounds from the Barkley Marathons. Screen grab from Barkley 100

Not only does Young capture competitors’ gruesome mental and physical breakdowns during the insane (and secretive) running race—it has no markings, no real aid stations, no pacers, and is 100 percent no holds barred—he tells a story of the human capacity to overcome despite the greatest of odds. It's no wonder the short documentary, “Barkley 100,” is currently making the rounds—and waves—on the Web. GrindTV caught up with Young to get the inside scoop on his film.

Barkley Marathons
Racers must navigate the Barkley Marathons course alone. Screen grab from Barkley 100

How would you sum up Lazarus Lake, the Barkley 100 founder?

On the outside, Laz in an incredibly quirky old man. If you get to know him, even if only for three days, you realize he seems to have the world figured out.

Barkley Marathons
Lazarus Lake founded the Barkley Marathons race in the backwoods of Tennessee in 1986. Screen grab from Barkley 100

Walk us through a racer's "typical" physical and mental breakdowns lap by lap (the race consists of five 20-mile laps).

Physically, you have to be a stud of an athlete. No matter what, you will cramp up, freeze, and get scratched to pieces by the native briars. Ultimately these factors get transferred over to the mental task: You have to endure and be able to remain focused and determined for 60 straight hours. Any lapses in focus or questioning of your motive and you are done. Then there is the navigation. You have to navigate through sections in the dark, sometimes alone, often using map and compass.

Barkley Marathons
Jared Campbell, the winner of the 2014 Barkley Marathons, and the race’s only finisher this year, heads out for his final lap. Screen grab from Barkley 100

Tell us a little more about the "winner" (the only finisher) of the race you filmed.

Jared Campbell was obviously an unreal athlete, physically and mentally. Having been out with him alone on the course in the middle of nowhere, and through our brief interview in camp, it was easy to tell how centered and humble he is. As Laz suggests, you have to be willing to accept defeat, but at the same time be able to physically and mentally push on through everything that is going wrong.

What are a few race "tactics" finishers have found most effective over the years?

Recently competitors have been running the course in small groups. Assuming they are physically prepared, this aids navigation of the course, especially at night. This is why Laz now makes runners split up, go out on their own, and go different directions for the final loop. That is, if there is more than one athlete remaining after four loops. Competitors who have done well have often also been to the race in the past, even if it was just to watch.

Barkley Marathons
Some competitors started working in teams to “beat” the course, so founder Lazarus Lake made up some new rules. Screen grab from Barkley 100

How can (and did) weather play a factor, especially in this part of the country?

The weather in this area changes rapidly and drastically. The race started with rain for almost 36 hours. This included freezing temperatures and snow during the night. It then cleared up and gave the remaining runners two hot and dry (80-degree) days.

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This year’s Barkley Marathons conditions were wet and wild. Screen grab from Barkley 100

What's most special about this Tennessee terrain/race location?

I think it is surprising to a lot of people how much elevation change there is in these mountains. People are shocked when they learn how much elevation gain you have to climb.

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Can you describe the support from the local community and the tight-knit community of racers crazy enough to enter the marathon?

There are many runners who enter the race but have no chance or aspiration to get close to finishing. These runners still look to test their limits but they also just enjoy being a part of the weekend. There are also many groups and individuals who travel from around the country just to watch the race and hang out with Laz and runners. It is definitely a passionate community.

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Racers clawed their way up the rugged Tennessee mountain terrain at the Barkley Marathons course, with double the elevation gain of Mount Everest. Screen grab from Barkley 100

What was the most poignant moment of filming these incredibly gutsy racers? 

Jared Campbell absolutely crushed loop 1. Then he crushed loop 2. Filming him out on the course, you could tell loop 3 was giving him some difficulty, and as he said coming back into camp: "That one was hard." But he was still going strong. He came into camp after finishing loop 4 around 1 in the morning. He was pale, obviously exhausted, and his strength quickly turned into fragility. He still had 20 miles or so to run, a full loop, which a large portion of the original field was not even able to complete, and he had not slept. His will between loops 4 and 5 was overpowering.

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