Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake, is well known for the unique and tough Barkley Marathons, but he is currently busy with the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee 1000k. Gary has attracted over 19,000 runners from 77 countries to this event that started on May 1st and ends on August 31st. Not surprisingly, several folks have already managed to run the 1023 km distance from the very southwestern corner of TN to the most northeastern tip, but most of the participants in this event aren't ultra runners and thus are challenged as they have never been before. For those who started on May 1st, it means running or walking enough to average at least 5.1 miles per day over the 4 month period.
But Lazarus Lake is ever present with words of advice and encouragement, and he is also among the 19,000 runners crossing the state of TN. These runners also donated more than $100,000 to the food bank in TN, and once all the expenses are calculated and all the helpers are paid, Lazarus and his crew will calculate how much additional money can be donated to the food bank. But if you do the simple math (and this should be interesting to all race directors), 19,000 x $60 entry fee is $1,140,000 - a very substantial amount collected in the span of couple weeks.
I had a chat with him about the Barkley Marathons virtual race, and much more, on May 20th as he logged GVRAT miles and tried to dodge the rain, but it took a few days to transcribe the 40 minute chat. Earlier that Wednesday, Gary had posted a note saying, "the old wolf hunts with the teeth he has got," an inspirational piece on the Facebook group page for the GVRAT1000k runners, and I added it to the bottom of this interview. It is great advice for a wide audience.
I'm actually participating in the event, too, and have logged 390 miles so far, but seemingly injured myself the day after my chat with Gary. However, here now is that interview.
Slowtwitch: Thank you so much for your time Gary.
Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake): Yeah.
ST: You are likely best known for the unique Barkley Marathons event. Is that how you would like to be remembered?
Gary: [laughs] I don’t expect to be long remembered actually, and thus haven’t given it much thought. I am just an old hillbilly who lives in the woods, and around here that is not such a big deal. Because you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an old hillbilly who lives in the woods.
ST: But maybe the other old hillbillies don’t put as many miles in as you, independent of pace.
Gary: I have been known for my pedestrian habit for a long time, back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s before there really was anyone out there who ran. And back then I could run, and run fast. That was considered something pretty unusual. Everyone knew who you were – you were the running guy.
ST: And now you are the Barkley Marathons guy.
Gary: I was periodically recognized after that documentary came out. You just would never know when someone would say, "Are you that Barkley guy?"
ST: The Barkley Marathons has changed over the years in terms of distance and difficulty. Can you share how you decided to make such changes, and what made you want to change things in the first place?
Gary: It changes every year and it hasn’t actually gotten harder and longer. Because the finish rate is probably higher in recent years. Not maybe the last years, but since 2000, so it couldn’t be harder.
ST: Is it longer in distance now?
Gary: No, that is just what the runners like to say. Do you want to admit that it took you 17 hours to do 20 miles?
ST: [laughs] I guess that makes sense. Can you talk about how many applicants you usually get for the race, and how you decide who gets in?
Gary: We look at the essays and the credentials. You don’t want to waste a slot on someone who doesn’t belong there at all. We look at the people who come there to challenge themselves as opposed to the people who come there to say they have been. You feel like you wasted a slot if someone goes 3 miles and then quits because they already got the shirt.
ST: But someone is designated as the human sacrifice. I don’t think you expect them to finish.
Gary: The human sacrifice has finished in the past. Even the human sacrifices are accomplished ultrarunners, they just have something about their preparation or approach, they are usually first-time runners, and maybe not with the full skillset that you need to do the race. It leans towards people who have single solutions to all problems. If it is someone who just relies on toughing it out, that’s not going to work. Or if it is someone who is really, really fast and does all the prep with speed. Because when you have a navigation issue, speed is really not a good solution.
ST: I hear you. Well, is there as much demand for your other races?
Gary: The Barkley has the biggest demand, but since we introduced the Fall Classic, that has reduced the demand for the Barkley some. Because people do the Fall Classic and say, "Oh my god, is that the equivalent of a Barkley?" And you tell them, no, it is not even close. For a lot of people that means, "Ok I won’t be sending an essay because I don’t want to do something worse."
ST: Often races are made easier to attract as many entrants as possible, but I don’t think that is true for the races you are involved with.
Gary: Well, the Barkley is a 1% race. 1% of the people can try, and out of that 1% who try, you only want about 1% to finish. It is a real measuring stick. There are only about 15 guys who haven’t gotten a full measure of themselves out there because they did make it. Although for the most part they would have pretty much reached their full measure when they get to the end. And some of them have tried it more than once and not made it. Runners say they want to find out how much they can do. There is no way to find out except to do more.
ST: The COVID-19 situation has also forced you to cancel races. Can you talk about how that has impacted you?
Gary: Well, it is not the biggest tragedy among all the effects of COVID. I think to miss a race is not the worst thing that has happened. We only missed the Barkley, because it was impossible at that time to even attempt it. We had a really reduced version of the Strolling Jim (a 40 mile event in Wartrace, TN) where, instead of 600 runners we had 32, and they ran out in 3 minute intervals. And the guy who actually won ended up finishing closer to the guy who started in front of him than where they started. It wasn’t your classic foot race, but we just wanted to have something. You try to adapt and move on.
Now we are looking at the Heart of the South road race coming up next and thinking that we are probably going to be able to have a race. That one is a bit of a different kind of journey. The runners meet at the finish area and we have a parking area mowed out. They park their cars and we load them on tour buses and drive them three hundred and something miles away. This year they did know that we are shuttling them to Arkansas, but in the future they won’t have any idea where the race starts. And they won’t know where they are going until the bus takes them. It will be about 320 - 330 miles from the finish line and they have 10 days to get back. It is a true adventure.
ST: You have another 300-plus mile event called Last Vol State 500k - did that have to be cancelled?
Gary: No, that is coming up in July. Everything really rides on what happens with the virus. Don’t really know because there is no actual plan for how to get past it. The only national plan that I can tell we have right now is to obscure information and keep people from knowing what is happening. So we have to play each of those by ear as they both involve riding from the finish line to the start in tour buses. The weak link is whether the tour buses can go. Once you are out on the open road you are probably as safe as you can get as you are not near anyone.
ST: Talking about being not near anyone, the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee seems to fit that model, too.
Gary: [laughs] We are having a ball with that. Everyone is wherever they are, and we have about 19,000 runners from 77 countries.
ST: That is really a wide range, and some folks have not even started yet.
Gary: We have about 12 or 13 people who have finished and we are right at day 20 days now, and we have one poor guy who has been stuck at 1003km and he is 19km from the finish line and we think he is not aware that he has not finished. [laughs]
ST: I guess he thought 1000km and done, but he is likely not alone in assuming the race is exactly 1000km.
Gary: He is actually sitting in Virginia about 19km from the finish. The event is from the very southwestern tip of the state to the very northeastern tip, the longest distance you can cover. Which is roughly 1000km, but it is actually 1022 point something kilometers. You know those people who don’t pay close attention to things, there is a penalty that comes with that. I know all about it because I have been guilty of it myself. I think we all have.
ST: Since registration is still open, do you think you will still get folks to trickle in?
Gary: Yeah, because you start when you start. We had some of the people who entered late and they have gone back and put down miles before they started, as we had not yet closed off the ability to do so. We are going to track them down and make a list to notify them that they need to start when they started. Other runners noticed it. They noticed someone all of a sudden in front of them with a bib number in the 18,000 range, and somehow they are ahead of them and have miles for all the days. That is not right. It would be equivalent to being in a marathon and having your crew drop you off at the 5-mile mark because that is where you would have been if you had started on time. I think other runners would object.
ST: In your wildest dreams, what did you think would be the largest number of entries?
Gary: I made a post on my Facebook page and wrote an email to the ultrarunning email list and that was it. We got a pretty good surge early on, and by the end of the first day I said, "Oh my God, we are going to get 1,000 runners in this thing." And then it spread kind of like the virus itself. It would break into a new area and then there would be a surge from that area, and then a surge somewhere else.
ST: Our website has a lot of type A personalities. Folks who have done many Ironman events and other tough challenges. How would you encourage someone like that to start late with only a bit more than 3 months left?
Gary: If I could still run, I think it would be fun as hell to jump in late because you would be flying up every day to see how many people you could pass. You would start in 19,000th place and right away pass more than 1,000 people by Memphis, because they struggled or have given up, or never figured out how to enter the mileage. Every day you would be passing hundreds of people and I think that would be fun.
ST: Can you talk about the charity aspect of this event?
Gary: Over $100,000 has been donated directly to the food bank. We were thinking maybe we would get 200 [starters], but we might only get 50. So we set up a direct donation to the food bank and that way money was guaranteed to go there. And then, we figured depending on how the finances work out, we could donate an additional amount. Right now the entry is so high, we just need to control the expenses, because shipping this stuff everywhere all over the world is not a cheap thing. But we really hope to have a huge donation once we can pin down what the total expenses will to be.
ST: What do you think that amount might be that you can donate, in addition to what was already given?
Gary: I have an idea that I am hoping for, but I'm always loathe to say the number, because if it doesn’t turn out like that, then it sounds like we failed. But I am hoping that we can at least match what the runners donated.
We also looked closer at how the food bank works, as we did not want to donate the money to the top of an organization where a substantial amount would go towards salaries and advertising and stuff like that. So we pinned it down to where the food is distributed to local food banks from four major food banks in Tennessee. We are splitting the money we have into quarters, and will give a quarter of it to each one. That way we put it as close to the final recipients as we can get it.
ST: You were also able to pay folks to make all the t-shirts, medals, etc. And clearly managing all this data and the servers requires people.
Gary: It has been great. We had a computer terminal set up and it worked perfectly fine, and the computer guys told me that they discovered its real capacity and it could have gone up to 2,000 entries. But we ended up having to create a new system based on the old one, on the fly, with runners actually in the process of running. Because it just blew up and we had 240 programmers working.
The orders for 19,000 t-shirts are spread across the US, Canada, England and Singapore. So we have given substantial orders to four different companies. We put in an order with the local business that supplie us with awards for races we normally put on, and really tried to steer all the associated business to other small businesses. The one with the biggest t-shirt order - it has been lifesaving for them. They have been able to call people back that were laid off.
ST: It is hard to predict when we will be past this COVID-19 situation, but do you think that the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee might be around even when things return to normal, or whatever will be the new normal?
Gary: This year is not even over. This year has to end first. I posted something for the runners yesterday to think about, where they are in the race. If this was a 1-mile race, we would be at the 260-yard mark. [laughs]
So how it all is going to end up is hard to say. It has been phenomenal because it is not 19,000 ultra runners. There are so many of these people for whom this is going to be the biggest challenge they have ever taken on. They are getting 100 miles done in a couple weeks, when they have never done 100 miles in a month before. How far are you?
ST: I am at about 350 miles in.
Gary: Oh, you are hopelessly ahead of me. [laughs] I was trying to figure out if I had a shot, but at the end of the day I am only going to be at 161 [miles].
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Gary: Probably so, but I don’t know. I can’t think of it of the top of my head. Well, if they are going to start late, I hope they don’t catch me. [laughs]
ST: Well, thanks again for your time.
Gary: And you have a good one.
You can still sign up for the event and their runsignup page and start the hunt to catch the slower wolves. You have more than 3 months to run or walk 1023km.
Here is the post "Lazarus Lake" put on the GVRAT1000k FB group page on May 20th.
"The old wolf hunts with the teeth he's got.
It is easy to relate to those of you who are a little rattled by the numbers some of these people up front are throwing down. I spent a lot of my running career struggling with the comparison of my results to the results of others. Sometimes it just seemed like it was not worthwhile to be out there, when there were other runners next to whose performances, my own efforts seemed almost shameful. But I persevered because there was something about those days when I reached beyond what I thought I could do that made me feel so alive. I could have gone along and just enjoyed the running, but there is something in us as humans that drives us to reach for the stars.
There came a day for me, as there comes a day for every athlete, when the comparisons became a little more cruel. The years added up, and they did to me what they do to every athlete. The runner I could not compare to was me. The me that was still young and strong and on the way up. I could no longer even dream of doing the things I used to do. We are lucky as runners. In other sports there comes a day when you can no longer play. We still get to play, but we have to understand where we are in life. Our days of leading the pack are a thing of the past. The old wolf has to hunt with the teeth he's got.
There is a gift that we get from this understanding. We can see so clearly what we missed when everything revolved around records and victories and championships. We see all around us that every wolf hunts with the teeth he's got. There are great performances all around us that we never saw before.
19,000 people set off from Arkansas. Some to see how fast they could reach Buckeye Hollow. Some to see how many times they could make it back and forth. But the real stars are the ones who have set out to do more than they have ever done before.
This race is for those people. There are no records to be set. No championships that will go down in the lore of ultrarunning. But thousands of you are writing your personal stories that are as inspiring as any world record performance. I relish the posts from those who are covering more distance than they have ever covered. The posts that exude the personal thrill of reaching 100 miles. (100 miles is really far!).
But, as a wise old runner often uses as a point of reference, if this were a mile run, we would only be about 250 yards into the race! We have scarcely begun.
The real race is just beginning. Now it becomes a test of your will, your focus, your determination. Your willingness to stick with the job until it is done. The fresh and new has worn off. And this is where you get to begin measuring yourself against the great ones. To go out there day after day. To keep putting in the miles you can, regardless of whether you want to do it that day. There are going to be storms. There is going to be heat. There is going to be fatigue. Life is going to try to get in the way. You are going to have to take that first step on many, many days when that is not what you want to do. We have a long summer ahead of us, together... those of us who can make it through. Many are going to fall by the wayside.
It is too far ahead of us to really think about right now. But August 31 is going to be a magical day. The survivors, who have made it through for four long months, we will get to share something special that last day. Whether we are forcing ourselves to reach some personal goal before midnight, snatching that buckle, that pin, that mankie at the last second, or just putting the finishing touches on our summer of fun. We will come away with something special It won't be there for all the ones who will fade away as the weeks pass. It will not be there for those who waver thru the summer , and put in a few miles here and there, then show up at the end hoping to taste the magic. The world will little note, nor long remember what we do this summer. But you are never too old, or too slow the enjoy the thrill of the chase.
Those of us who survive are going to feel the thrill of the chase, no matter the outcome. We are going to hunt with the teeth we got.
All images courtesy of Sandra and Gary Cantrell