WARTBURG, Tenn. — The convoy of minivans and U-Hauls eased down a narrow, winding two-lane street in northeastern Tennessee. It passed circles of razor wire, a prison and a cemetery to reach its destination: a race marked by a yellow gate that has attracted the imagination of the ultrarunning world.
The people inside the vehicles had come from France, Germany and Japan. They had come to be tested by Gary Cantrell, the mastermind of the five-loop, 100-plus-mile Barkley Marathons.
But on the cusp of 70, Cantrell, better known as Lazarus Lake, showed signs that he was loosening the reins over his magnum opus.
This year, Carl Laniak placed 12 of the 13 books — whose strategic placement marks the Barkley course — in Frozen Head State Park. Cantrell used to place all of them. This year, shuffling with a cattle prod through muck and mud, he was only able to do one.
A master map of the locations is provided by Cantrell. To prove they’ve run the course correctly, runners must find each book and present a page from each, correspondent to their bib numbers. This is done every loop with the help of a compass. They have 60 hours to complete five.
Physical hurdles over the years have hampered Cantrell’s movements. He’s battled toenail problems and Graves’ disease, and he has a blockage in the femoral artery of his left leg. But his greatest enemy, he feels, is time. His mother died just before Christmas and Big, his beloved 15-year-old Pitbull rescue, died in February.
In many ways, Cantrell’s life has always been a race against time. When he was 12, a doctor shined a light up Cantrell’s nose and saw a tumor. The doctor didn’t say it directly, but Cantrell could feel it: His life was in the balance.
His family had just moved to Tullahoma a few months before, a small city of less than 15,000 in southern Tennessee. Cantrell, the son of an aerospace engineer during the height of the space race, was a bookish boy who entered semesters halfway through and left before report cards came out. This wasn’t the way Cantrell wanted to start the eighth grade.
Operations were yearly ordeals throughout high school and, when puberty abated, so did the growth of the tumor. Given the option of another surgery to fix his disfigurement, Cantrell decided he would rather be lopsided. He worked as an orderly in Memphis, where he often carried bodies to the morgue — and, on the weekends, ran ultras. There weren’t many to choose from, and most were far away. So, he created his own in 1979, the Strolling Jim 40, a race of just over 40 miles in Wartrace, Tenn.
In 1985, he envisioned a different kind of race. One that wasn’t fair, because life wasn’t fair. The Barkley was born the next year.
“It’s not about winning,” Cantrell said. “It’s about trying to win — trying to reach your potential.” Each time there was a finish, he made the race harder. His goal was to keep it at the very horizon of human potential. Only 17 people have ever finished, all men. Many have questioned whether Cantrell finally set the bar too high. He disputes that. Creating a truly impossible race would have been easy and boring.
To enter the Barkley, runners first have to figure out how to apply. Then, there is a test. This year’s questions were as follows: What will be the 119th element on the periodic table? Explain the cause of the “great unconformity.” Write the Gettysburg Address in Sawveh. What even number is not the result of two prime numbers? Who built the Khatt Shebib?
This is followed by a written essay. Cantrell says he can tell from entrants’ answers how likely they are to finish. Only 40 runners are accepted.
As runners came to check in on Monday, Cantrell was sitting behind a large picnic table. His eyes were warm and jovial, yet devious. He prompted the runners one by one as they sat in front of him. He told them how easy the course was this year — or joked that maybe they should just go ahead and smash their heads into a rock. Some get his sense of humor, others don’t.
His approach has at times led to controversy. One quirky element of Barkley tradition is the requirement that first timers bring a license plate from their home country or state. Hundreds hang from the trees as mementos. One license plate has a Confederate flag. “I would definitely think twice about it now,” Cantrell said.
In the summer of 2020, Cantrell and a team of moderators deleted hundreds of political posts on a Facebook page for a virtual race he organized across Tennessee. One such post included discussions around the race and a photo of a runner wearing a Black Lives Matter singlet. Cantrell said he had no problem with the post, it was the responses that became an issue. They were filled with “the most offensive, typical white supremacist” language, he said, adding a profanity. He eventually deleted the post altogether and faced pushback over perceived censorship.
“People had political axes everywhere,” he said. “I don’t do political.” The group, he insists, is about sport and bringing people together.
When this year’s class of runners arrived at Frozen Head State Park, they were faced with a reality far worse than what could have been reasonably expected. On Monday, the weather shifted as soon as the caravan arrived. The sun vanished and a swift, constant wind accompanied temperatures that plummeted far below freezing. Sleet turned to snow, then to icy rain, and the land looked angry. Most members of the media abandoned plans of staying overnight and fled to hotels 30 miles away. The rest hunkered in vehicles and tents. How could anyone endure 66,000 feet of elevation gain over 100-plus miles in these conditions?
“The way he sees it, his job is to create a unique environment where people can find greatness in themselves,” Harvey Lewis, a two-time participant, said. Lewis has never finished the race.
Cantrell keeps his mind busy doing just that. He has a new 370-mile race set to begin in August. To enter the race, runners must have completed both his Vol State race and his Last Annual Heart of the South trek. The latter race drops runners some 350 miles away from their cars. They have to race (and navigate) their way back.
But the teeth of the Barkley get the attention. On the last day of this year’s race, only five runners remained. Four were on loop five, a record. Jasmin Paris was on loop four, the second female ever to make it that far. She’d been out all night in the cold, and rumors were spreading that she might be lost.
Cantrell and Keith Dunn stood watch. If many notorious races include some sort of live coverage, the Barkley features coverage by Dunn. He carried three phones from three separate carriers, waiting to document the next update for his 65,000 Twitter followers. Neither man had slept in two days.
Finally, Paris appeared at the bottom of the hill after 52 hours of running. She pushed her pace up the incline and touched the yellow gate. All eyes were on Cantrell, unsure if they had, in fact, witnessed the first woman to do four loops. But this was the Barkley, and Paris was over the time limit. She nodded knowingly. She’d made it farther than any woman to date.
“Do you think you can get 100?” Cantrell asked. Paris said she thought she could and smiled. He smiled back.
While the rest of camp waited, a devout group of volunteers began packing up. Most have been with Cantrell for years — even decades — and their roles have been increasing. Mike Dobies flies in from Detroit and Naresh Kumar from St. Louis. Larry Kelley drives from Iowa, and Cantrell’s wife, Sandra, is the rebar in the concrete of the whole operation. They keep Cantrell’s races sailing year after year.
After 58 hours 23 minutes, Aurelien Sanchez finished the Barkley. Less than 20 minutes later, John Kelly arrived. Karel Sabbe, who was brought back to camp last year in a police vehicle after becoming disoriented, finished with less than seven minutes remaining.
The other 37 entrants failed to finish.
According to Cantrell, he’s failed at most things in life. Ambitions of being a great football player didn’t meet reality when he entered high school at five feet and 70 pounds. Too small for even the lightest weight class in wrestling, he ran track and cross country, but he wasn’t fast. He was an excellent accountant, until he was laid off. In 2011, after he retired as city treasurer for Shelbyville, Tenn., he applied for a job at Fleet Feet, a running store, doing anything they’d let him do. He was turned down. The store managers were afraid he’d scare the customers.
But failure, he feels, is essential to growth — and sorely lacking in most award-driven ultras. He hopes to provide a setting for both, for as long as he can keep the wind in his sails.