The Barkley

Photo credit: Keith Dunn — Laz and his dog, Little

There is a race that’s one part epic, one part myth and one part absurdity and that’s why I love it and everything connected to it. Most especially, the race director is impossibly a chain smoker, running legend and what I can only imagine is a brilliant mind all rolled into one. His name is Gary Cantrell but most know him by his pseudonym, Lazarus Lake. And even still he’s most commonly referred to as Laz. He’s like Cher, Madonna or Sting in the ultrarunning world. He only needs one name.

With the brief uttering of Laz, what immediately comes to mind is an aging man who spends his days smoking, writing about his dogs, Big and Little, thinking about running while organizing his flannel shirts. This mess of shirts were the cost of entry into his race, which is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the ultra world. The race date is a secret to most everyone but the participants and they don’t even know exactly when the race will start until he blows the conch shell 1 hour before the start. And pay careful attention because the race “gun” is the lighting of a cigarette that he will smolder into a quiet burn with his inhalation of what’s about to be some 20-odd runners misery.

He delights in it… and frankly, so do the runners.

photo credit: Keith Dunn

Otherwise, why would you find yourself running around in the woods, on an unmarked course, looking for random books that are likely out of print in the rest of the world, and ultimately make your way into a flood drain under a prison?

I am not making any of this up. This is the Barkley Marathons and Lazarus Lake is its race director and it’s a toss-up to determine which one is more diabolical and magnetic all at the same time.

There are documentaries on Vimeo and Netflix that do their best to capture this enigma of race and man but I don’t believe either do it justice because there is too much they can’t show. The race course is not divulged until the day before the race. The course alters some every year and you cannot wear a GPS or any other type of device to later be able to trace your route.

@ajoneswilkins Twitter post of Amelia Boone at The Barkley 2018.

It’s an event of skill, determination, grit and oh yeah, some running. It is rumored to be a 100-mile race but many who have finished claim it’s close to 120 or so. Each loop is roughly 20 miles (unless you get lost, which you likely will) and every loop you go the opposite direction. Sometimes you start a loop in the daylight, sometimes at 2 am and almost always, there is weather to contend with.

This past weekend is no different as Frozenhead State Park, where the event is hosted, was plagued with thunderstorms, down pours and of course, the outcome that is mud.

John and I once visited Frozenhead and the now famous yellow park gate where runners check in and out for each loop or if they are done or miss the cut off are “tapped out.” This is one of the delightful quirks of the Barkley. When you are done whether by choice or not, taps is played on a bugle for your exit. Laz loves the drama of it all. He is elated in the participants’ collapse and disintegration but equally excited when one conquers the course that is The Barkley.

He loves to see people get right up to their capacity and either rise or fall — not because he likes to see people fail but he likes to see them test themselves in a truly epic way. And it’s amazing to watch. I use the term watch loosely as most of your tracking of the race is following Twitter feeds and sometimes Instagram postings. The most dependable updates always come from one of Laz’s friends, Keith Dunn.

photo credit: Howie Stern

When he’s not posting about The Barkley one weekend in early spring, he’ll regale you with his love for spam and grits. But during this one weekend a year he is the go-to for being in the know about all things Barkley, brutality and Laz. Sometime he posts photos of the charred chicken that Laz cooks on an open pit or of his favorite Dog, Big, who runs around the park like he owns the joint. Although I think he just might.

There is something refreshing about the simplicity of The Barkley. It’s you and the course. The other competitors are rarely your competition as you’re all fighting the same fight. Often runner will work together to get through loop after loop but Laz has planned for that so if you are lucky enough to make it to the start of  loop 5, you and your compadre will be summarily separated and you’ll each go in opposite directions of the other. Laz doesn’t believe in a free lunch.

That way if you do, in fact, complete The Barkley Marathons, you can say you did it on your own — mostly.

If you haven’t heard of The Barkley before do a little research, check it out on Netflix. I think you might love it and if you do, I have another race for you. It’s call the Vol State. It’s 314-mile race across the state of Tennessee. It’s equally crazy in its own right but we’ll save that story for another day.

If I had to sum up The Barkley Marathons and Laz, for that matter, in one quote, this one comes close in its imagery, absurdity and laughability:

Sunshine & Sarcasm,
Lowi & G

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