BELL BUCKLE, Tenn. (AP) - The idea of running 40 miles, to most people, sounds like a ridiculous, over-the-top challenge.
That’s because you haven’t heard about the other races Gary Cantrell organizes.
Chief among those is the Barkley Marathons, held each spring, not in Wartrace, but near Wartburg, in Frozen Head State Park in Morgan County of East Tennessee.
The Barkley Marathons consist of five loops around a 20-mile route - not marked paths, but rough trails through a wooded area. The course includes steep hills.
Competitors attempting to run the full 100-mile event must complete each 20-mile loop in 12 hours, or they don’t get to move on to the next loop. The first two loops are done counterclockwise, the next two are counterclockwise.
If you make it to the fifth loop, you get to choose your direction, and the next runner after you must run the opposite direction, with runners alternating from that point forward.
If you make it to the fifth loop.
This year, not a single person made it to the fifth loop. In 30 years of the Barkley Marathons, only 14 people have finished all five loops. While 94 percent of the people who have attempted the Strolling Jim 40 have completed the 40-mile course, only one percent of the people who run the Barkley Marathons are able to complete the event.
The time limits don’t allow for much in the way of rest. Cantrell said some runners try to speed up in order to build up enough time to sleep, but that just turns out to be even more punishing.
There’s also a “fun run,” which consists of only three loops, and a slightly-more-generous time frame. Only in the world of Gary Cantrell and others like him would a 60-mile race be considered a “fun run.”
The Barkley Marathons is unpublicized. It’s not exactly secret, it’s just that in its early days, the number of people who wanted to try it grew cumbersome, so they simply stopped announcing it.
“We don’t publicize it because the demand has become so great,” he said.
This year’s event attracted runners from five different continents.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” asked Cantrell.
Much of the press coverage surrounding the Barkley Marathons focuses on the organizer, the mysterious “Lazarus Lake.” Well, there’s not really a mystery; Lazarus Lake is Gary Cantrell.
Cantrell began using the name “Lazarus Lake” when he first signed up for an e-mail account, to protect his privacy. He’d seen the name in a Humboldt phone book once and it stuck in his head.
“When we first started doing it, we kind of avoided publicity,” said Cantrell.
Now, though, Cantrell seems to welcome the extra attention being paid to the Barkley Marathons, saying it helps give the event credibility when anyone talks about disallowing it.
It all started back in 1966. Cantrell’s father saw a news report about a new jogging craze. The news report featured a family in Texas. His father began running with friends, and decided he wanted to break an eight-minute mile.
Gary tried as well, and ended up running with his father.
That led to junior high track, senior high track and cross-country running.
“The next thing you know, you just can’t quit,” he said. He started running marathons - and then started trying to run further than 26 miles, in hopes it would improve his marathon time.
Cantrell said it takes a special kind of person to want to push themselves to that degree. It’s a test - normal 10K races, for example, are designed to be fun. Just about everyone finishes.
“I like the challenge,” said Cantrell. “I like to do things where you might not succeed.”
In 1979, he wanted to run an ultramarathon but could not find one within driving distance - so he started one himself, and the Strolling Jim 40 was born. The first race featured 22 runners, only three of whom had ever run an ultramarathon before. Of those, 19 finished the 40-mile course.
Last year, the Strolling Jim 40 added shorter-length options for the first time: a 10-kilometer race (a little more than 6 miles) and a 20-mile race. This year, the 20-mile race is being replaced by a traditional 26.2-mile marathon.
The Strolling Jim 40 will be run on May 2; Cantrell said this month that there were about 140 entries. Runners have come from as far away as Thailand to compete in the Strolling Jim.
Cantrell, a big booster of Cascade High School athletics, has been trying to turn the Strolling Jim into a fundraiser for the East Bedford Civic Club, which supports the school.
“We don’t have all the attention that the Barkley has gotten,” he said.
The idea for the Barkley Marathon came from an unusual source. Cantrell happened to hear that James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., made it only a few miles from Brushy Mountain State Prison following an escape attempt. Cantrell and a friend had backpacked in the area.
“I was familiar with where he was running,” he said. Cantrell began to fantasize about what it might be like to be on the run, trying to evade pursuers in the wilderness, and decided he could have made it much farther than Ray did in the 54 hours Ray was out of prison.
But then, he and a friend made a return visit to the area, and realized just how challenging the terrain was.
“Man,” one of them said, “this would make such a race.”
Cantrell also organizes the Vol State Road Race, which runs from Missouri to Georgia and which passes through Shelbyville. That 500-kilometer race, covering 314 miles, will take place in July.
And there’s the 50-kilometer Barkley Fall Classic, held in the same area as the Barkley Marathons but with more traditional amenities such as course markings and aid stations.
“It’s a difficult race,” said Cantrell, “but it’s not going to have a 1 percent finish rate.”
He also organizes a race through his own farm off Liberty Pike north of Bell Buckle. (The farm is in Rutherford County but has a Bell Buckle mailing address.) The “Race on the Farm” challenges runners on a 4.167-mile loop. They must run a loop each hour until they drop out.
“Last year, it took 49 hours,” said Cantrell. The final two participants, however, did not drop out from exhaustion. One of them, a Swedish business executive, had to quit in order to catch his plane back to Sweden. The other runner, from Colorado, did not want to win by default and so he quit as well, so that there would be a tie. Both are coming back this year, and both are shooting for an 80-hour target, said Cantrell.
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