The Barkley Marathons Test Entrants Resolve


Photo: Michael Hodge / Flickr

Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell lights the starting cigarette to begin the Barkley Marathons.

Zoe Plattner, A&E Editor

Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell stands at the gate, an orange beanie blazing atop his head and his grey beard a cloud perched on his chin. Just beyond, a throng of runners wait, shifting from foot to foot in anticipation.

Slowly, calculatedly, Cantrell lifts a cigarette to his lips, a lighter at the ready. As the first curl of smoke drifts into the clear Tennessee air, the crowd surges over, around and through the gate as they begin the first lap in the Barkley Marathons.

These are just a sampling of scenes that can be witnessed in the 2014 documentary, “The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young.”

The film follows runners as they encounter challenges such as getting lost, losing sleep and going head to head against all the things that make the race truly special.

Cantrell’s brainchild, the race consists of five marathon length loops (allegedly 100 miles total, no one knows for sure) over the course of 60 hours in the backcountry of Tennessee. It forces his hand picked contestants to brave weather conditions that range from snow to extreme heat. Those aren’t even half of the unusual quirks the race offers.

The Barkley Marathons occur once a year, never on the same day and never on the same route. In 34 years, only 15 people have completed the course within the time limit. There are no course markers — instead, each of the 40 participants gets a map, a compass, and a challenge: find each of the checkpoints and get back alive.

The run is based on the escape made by James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but it is by no means a tribute.

Ray’s escape lasted the same 60 hours, but he only managed to make it nine miles before he was apprehended. The Barkley Marathons can be thought of as a slap in the face from the living: ‘You made it nine miles, but we just ran 100.’

Cantrell picks the course, sets the entrance fee, selects the participants and lights the starting cigarette. An avid runner himself, he has his fair share of unusual experiences. In 2018, he covered the U.S. by foot, starting in Rhode Island and ending in Oregon.

For those looking for an escape from the drudgery of quarantine life, the Barkleys are a great place to start.