Gary Cantrell: The marathon man

Gary Cantrell and “Little” wait patiently near the Barkley Marathon finish line in Wartburg, Tenn. — Photo Courtesy of ©Geoffrey S. Baker


kelly lapczynski


When contestants on  TV’s game show “Jeopardy!”  were quizzed on the Barkley Marathons, none of them knew the answer.  One man from the Tullahoma area, however, knew the answer intimately.

He is Gary Cantrell, a marathon notable who now lives in Bell Buckle and is known for organizing and co-founding the annual 40-mile “Strolling Jim” ultra-marathon  that begins and ends in Wartrace.

Under the pseudonym Lazarus Lake, Cantrell also has created other challenging races in the country, including the Barkley.

The annual Barkley Marathon, a 100-mile, 60-hour footrace through unmarked trails in Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, has been called “the race that eats its young.”

Though nearly 800 people have started the race since its beginning in 1986, only 14 have finished.

Cantrell has said that unlike other races designed for the runner to succeed, the Barkley is set up for them to fail.

“Every ultra has its signature hill, the nasty one that’s totally unreasonable and makes or breaks the race,” said Cantrell in an Outside Online interview earlier this year. “The Barkley is like all those hills put end to end.”

“It’s amazing that people want to do something like this,” said Cantrell.

Cantrell has himself been a runner for more than 37 years. He ran his first ultra-marathon in 1979, hoping that the longer distance race would help prevent his “petering out” during the last legs of a standard 26.2-mile marathon. It worked. Since then, Cantrell has completed dozens of ultra-races and, since 1981, has contributed a regular column to UltraRunning Magazine.

“I ran in high school and went on after that. I ran a road race, then a marathon, then an ultra marathon. I just kept on,” said Cantrell.

In addition to the Barkley and the Strolling Jim, Cantrell also organizes the Big Dog Backyard ultra and the Vol State Road Race, a 10-day, 314-mile (505K) race across Tennessee.

But it was the Barkley that earned Cantrell extra points with his adult daughter, Amiee.

“Dad was on Jeopardy!” said Amiee, pointing proudly to a cell phone screen shot of the trivia question.

Though Cantrell has been interviewed by The New York Times, has a listing on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) for his involvement in an upcoming documentary about the Barkley, and (under his pseudonym) is the author of several books, including the Amazon bestseller “My Name is Big” and its sequels, it took an indirect reference to him on the popular television quiz show to prompt his daughter to tell him, “now you’re cool.”

“It was the $1,000 question,” said Amiee. “No one got it.”

So what was the triple-stumper question that baffled every contestant in the show’s annual Teacher’s Tournament on Nov. 12?

“The brutal Barkley Marathons came to be after news of this assassin covering only eight miles after fleeing a Tennessee prison in 1977.”

The assassin was James Earl Ray, confessed killer of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Upon learning that Ray had covered so little distance in the 55 hours after his escape from prison, Cantrell thought, “In that time, I could have made 100 miles.”

Intrigued, Cantrell and race co-founder Karl Henn took a backpacking trip to scout out the area. “It turns out, it’s not that easy.”

Neither is entering Cantrell’s race.

The former Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary from which Ray escaped is now part of the Barkley course. Because Frozen Head park officials allow fewer than 40 runners a year, the details of the race are a closely guarded secret.

“There’s no website,” said Cantrell. “I don’t publish the race date or explain how to enter.”

Only after applicants have figured out how to enter and endured a bizarre round of qualifying questions are they finally given the date of the race.

But not the start time.

On the given date, runners convene in the Cumberland Mountains where they set up camp and wait to hear the 60-minute warning call of a conch shell.

When that call will come is entirely up to Cantrell.

“Sometimes he’ll just decide, “let’s start” at 2 a.m.,” said Amiee.

Cantrell says that the randomness is part of the design “so the runners cannot plan their sleep the night before the race.”

“Everything is geared towards making the runners deal with adversity and uncertainty.”

Sixty minutes after the warning is sounded, the race officially begins not with a pistol but with the lighting of Cantrell’s cigarette.

Gary Cantrell and “Little” wait patiently near the Barkley Marathon finish line in Wartburg, Tenn. — Photo Courtesy of ©Geoffrey S. Baker

Runners then face a grueling 20-mile trail loop around the perimeter of the former prison.

Because there is very little flat ground to run on, some argue that it’s not a race at all. Others argue that it’s not even a trail. But whatever they call it, entrants must complete the loop five times, tearing pages from books Cantrell has hidden along the route to confirm that they are on track.

The race ends when the last person comes in or after 60 hours, whichever comes first. And when runners give up, as most do, Cantrell, who waits with his dogs, Little and Big, is ready to treat them to a bugle rendition of “Taps.”

“People hate to have taps played for them, but they all want you to play it enthusiastically for the others,” said Cantrell.

“People like to have fun,” said Cantrell. “It’s not fun if it’s easy.”

As for Jeopardy!, Cantrell says he didn’t see it when it aired.

“I was at the game,” said Cantrell, who is a volunteer assistant for the Cascade High School basketball team. “We usually do watch Jeopardy!, but we had a game that night.”

“My wife is the scorekeeper. She came over; she was getting texts and phone messages about it,” said Cantrell.  Luckily, “My son taped it, so we got to watch it.”

Earlier this month, voters in Morgan County approved a referendum that would allow the Brushy Mountain pen to be turned into a distillery. Whether that will affect the race in the future remains to be seen.

“We are following developments and hope we will be able to cross the prison grounds as before,” said Cantrell. “If not, we already have adjustments in mind.”

Until then, Cantrell is working on a new book detailing his plan to run through every county in the state.

“I’ve got five runs to go,”  he said.

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