Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee is an area of rugged beauty, covering more than 97km² and located just over two-and-a-half hours east of state capital Nashville, in Morgan County. It's also, as Lazarus Lake will fail to inform you, in a completely different time zone to Nashville, because it's in Eastern Time instead of the Central Time of the western side of the state. Thus, when Lake calls to ask why we’re late to a meeting, we thought we were about to arrive early to, we’re understandably worried. After all, Lake has a reputation for being secretive and sometimes difficult. Have we blown it before we’ve even begun?
It turns out we needn’t have worried. We find Lake in his car, parked outside the Frozen Head visitor’s centre, looking relaxed and happy to meet us. Dressed in jeans, a plaid overshirt and a red woollen beanie with the word ‘Geezer’ emblazoned across the front, Lake appears to be in no rush to get moving. His eyes dart mischievously behind his metal-rimmed glasses and he walks with a loose shuffle – the gait of a man in no particular hurry.
Frozen Head State Park is all bare trees swaying from the sides of mountains rising up around us. We’ve agreed to meet here because it’s the home of the infamously brutal – and eccentrically pluralised – Barkley Marathons, aka The Race That Eats Its Young, as it was called in the title of a 2014 Netflix documentary.
Right now, Lake is feeling loquacious. Things Lake wants to talk about include, but are by no means limited to: college football, the origins of Osage oranges, the natural history of American geography, spikes in wild bear fatalities, the local cicada population and America’s declining roadside rest stops.
And despite having competed in his youth as one of the first ultramarathon runners, going on to found six unique races, and having just completed a 126-day, 5,100km, coast-to-coast trek across the United States, Lake wants to make it clear that he doesn’t particularly like exercise.
“I can’t stand it,” he says with a laugh. “It signifies doing something pointless, at the end of which you have nothing to show. Instead of lifting weights, I built rock walls. I accomplished the same thing, but at the end I had something to show for it.”
Lake is a contradiction. He devised the most infamous ultramarathon in existence, but he prefers to slow down and hike a trail rather than run it. He smokes like a chimney, buys his beef by the cow and continually has a soft drink to hand. He also loves butter. “I’ve never eaten something and thought, ‘That could use less butter,’” he says. “You know when you’ve got too much butter? It’ll tell you – it just slides right off.”
Perhaps it was Lake’s off-kilter humour that prompted him to create the Barkley – renowned as one of the toughest ultramarathons around. Physical and mental fitness are essential components, yes, but it would be remiss to attempt it without a sense of humour, too.
Founded in 1986, the Barkley is a looped ultramarathon beginning and ending at a yellow gate located at the start of the Frozen Head trail. It consists of five laps, each roughly 32km (although runners maintain each loop is actually a full marathon of 42km).
The first two laps are run clockwise, the second two anti-clockwise and – should you make it that far – the fifth and final lap is run in the direction of your choosing. Each loop contains almost 3,700m of climb and an equal descent, for a total of 37,000m of elevation change – the equivalent of climbing and descending Everest twice.
The race is traditionally run on the closest Saturday to April Fool’s Day and starts at some point between midnight and noon. A conch shell is blown to notify runners that it will begin in 60 minutes’ time, then Lake lights a cigarette to kick things off.
The trail changes each year, but it will always include iconic obstacles such as Testicle Spectacle hill, Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall (an area of exposed routes and sandy banks) and Rat Jaw (a slope of tree stumps and razor-sharp briars). Runners are outfitted with a compass and a map with which to navigate the course, and GPS is banned.
At points during each lap, competitors must locate a certain book that's been placed along the route, and retrieve the page that corresponds to their race number. Not only is this the only indication that a runner is on the right track, but the counting of the pages post-lap is a sure-fire way for Lake to know a runner has indeed hit every checkpoint. As the race takes place in March, runners must battle through snow, sleet, rain and fog. Often, it’s difficult to see as far as 10m ahead.
I think that people who go through this are better for it. They’re better for what they’ve asked of themselves
The Barkley must be completed inside 60 hours, which limits runners to brief pit stops between laps, when friends and family will force food into their mouths, soothe their scratched legs and attend to their blistered feet. Then it’s back to the race.
The record time for the course belongs to American runner Brett Maune, who finished it in 52h 03m 08s in 2012. To date, only 15 competitors have ever completed all five loops.
“I think that people who go through this are better for it,” says Lake. “They’re better for what they’ve asked of themselves.” The plan, he claims, was never to make the Barkley the hardest race in the world; it was simply to test what people could do.
The idea came when, in 1977, James Earl Ray – the assassin of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr – escaped from Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, sparking the state’s biggest-ever manhunt. Ray was captured in the woods 54 hours later, having covered less than 13km. Convinced he could achieve a distance of 160km in the same timeframe, Lake set up the Barkley – and the rest is history.
Not that getting accepted is simple. Each year, runners from all over the world apply to take part, but only 40 make the line-up, including one “human sacrifice” who Lake says has no business competing. To win a place, potential competitors must write an essay about why they deserve a place, and pay the non- refundable entry fee of $1.60 (around £1.20/€1.40). Those who are accepted receive a letter of condolence.
No matter who you are, or how physically skilled you are, you’re going to want to quit at some point
On race day, first-timers must bring with them a car number plate from their home state, while the rare few who have completed the Barkley are asked to provide a packet of Camel cigarettes. Those who've taken part before but failed to finish must supply an item of Lake’s choosing. In the past, this has included a plaid shirt, a white dress shirt, and socks.
While Lake is aware that he could charge more, keeping the fee low makes for an eclectic mix of entrants – one of whom is Washington DC native and 2017 Barkley winner John Kelly, who happens to be setting off around Frozen Head as we pull up. Slim and serious, Kelly sees the Barkley as the pinnacle of trail running. “It’s about being able to seek your limits,” he says. “You’re not going to finish the race with mental resilience alone. Nor is it just about being physically skilled. No matter who you are, or how physically skilled you are, you’re going to want to quit at some point.”
Kelly finished the Barkley on his third attempt. “I was in a delirious state. It took a while for me to be able to sit down and say, ‘No, you did that. It really happened.’”
Lake was born Gary Cantrell in San Marcos, Texas, where his father was assigned to the Edward Gary Air Force Base. (He later adopted Lazarus Lake as an alter ego to safeguard his first personal email account – “Like I have all these big secrets to protect,” he laughs.) The Cantrells lived near student housing, and a young Lake hung out with football players, confirming a lifelong love of sports.
Then, in 1966, there was a piece on the evening news about a new craze called jogging. Lake’s father and his friends would head down to the local track to attempt a sub-eight-minute mile. The first time Lake went along, he outran his old man. “I’d never beaten him in anything,” he says, laughing. “We were a very competitive, sports-oriented family and the kids weren’t allowed to win. When the kids did win, they knew they’d really won.”
I wanted to be a good runner, but I was never better than average. It turns out I do a lot better as a race co-ordinator
Reasoning that he must be a good runner, he took up track and cross-country, which led to road races and then marathons, with Lake competing in everything from state-wide events to international runs.
Eventually, Lake decided that the ultramarathon was where he would excel. The closest ultras to Tennessee, however, were in Miami and Philadelphia, so Lake decided to start his own, the Strolling Jim 40, in 1979.
In the intervening years, injury and the accumulative damage of a life pounding pavements have ruled him out of running. Though he still gets the occasional itch, Lake knows his talents lie elsewhere. “I wanted to be a good runner, but I was never better than average,” he says. “It turns out I do a lot better as a race co-ordinator.”
Now 64 and retired from his career as an accountant, he runs five races each year in addition to the Barkley Marathons, including the Barkley Fall Classic (a sort of beginner's equivalent) and Big’s Backyard Ultra, an endurance race in which competitors try to complete as many laps of a 6.7km loop as possible, setting out every hour on the hour. Fail to set out again at the start of the hour, and you’re out. In 2017, the winner managed 456km.
The day after our meeting at Frozen Head, we catch up for lunch in the middle of Nowheresville, Tennessee, at a roadside rest stop that functions as a general store, antiques boutique and the best fried-chicken joint going. Ancient farming equipment hangs from the walls, and the crowd is mostly old boys in dungarees.
At least once a week, Lake will walk 16km to eat here, then go home the same way. But this pales in comparison with the epic cross-country walk he completed in September 2018. Following 10 months of recovery from an ankle injury, Lake had decided that he wanted to hike through 12 states. And despite his doctor pointing out that the femoral artery in his left leg was no longer functioning, Lake was determined to see it through.
“Why would anyone want to do this, you might ask. Why would anyone not want to do this?” he says over a hamburger. “I’d always intended to do it, but I was so busy – I realised that if I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t be physically able to do it.”
Beginning in Newport, Rhode Island, and following Route 20 to Newport, Oregon, the trek only took Lake one week longer than the expected 120 days. Walking 12 to 14 hours a day, he lost a total of 18kg. Often, strangers would offer to crew sections of the trip. In the western deserts, people would stop and give him water. He marvelled at the thousands of stars visible from the empty plains of Nebraska.
He took a detour to Wisconsin when the gravel trails of Illinois proved too sharp to walk on, and hit a late-stage hurdle when he discovered that Oregon was mostly desert, not lush woodland as he’d believed.
In between, he tackled every mountain range the country could throw his way. And then there was the small matter of fracturing his hip almost 700km from the end. An awkward twist of the body was all it took, Lake says. Deciding he was too close to turn back, he soldiered on.
“The first two weeks after I got home were a blur,” he says. “I think I just sat in my chair. All my life, at school or work, I wanted to be outside. Now it’s finally the other way around.”
You only get so much life; it’s how much living you can pack into it that counts
We pay the bill and bid goodbye to the rest stop. Lake has to return home and sift though a pile of entry forms for the upcoming Barkley. He may no longer run, but his days are still packed with logistics and his own wanderings. It’s unlikely that he’ll slow down any time soon.
“A lot of people live their life as if they want to turn in their equipment in mint condition,” says Lake. “I want them to look at me and say, ‘My God, everything is worn out.’” He smiles. “You only get so much life; it’s how much living you can pack into it that counts.”
And just like that, Lazarus Lake climbs into his car and disappears down the road into the backwoods of Tennessee. Back into legend.