Life is not fair. He didn’t want this race to be either.

WARTBURG, Tenn. – The convoy of minivans and U-Hauls traveled down a narrow, winding two-lane street in northeast Tennessee. He traversed circles of barbed wire, a prison and a cemetery to reach his destination: a run marked by a yellow gate that caught the imagination of the ultrarunning world.

The people inside the vehicles came from France, Germany and Japan. They had come to be tested by Gary Cantrell, the mastermind of Barkley’s five-loop, 100-mile marathons.

But as 70 dawned, Cantrell, better known as Lazarus Lake, showed signs that he was loosening the reins on his magnum opus.

This year, Carl Laniak placed 12 of the 13 books – whose strategic placement marks Barkley’s journey – in Frozen Head State Park. Cantrell used to place them all. This year, dragging with a cattle prod through mud and mud, he was only able to do one.

A master map of locations is provided by Cantrell. To prove that they have covered the course correctly, runners must find each notebook and present a page from each corresponding to their bib number. This is done at each loop using a compass. They have 60 hours to complete five.

Physical obstacles over the years have hampered Cantrell’s movements. He’s battled nail issues and Graves’ disease, and he has a blockage in the femoral artery in his left leg. But his greatest enemy, according to him, is time. His mother died just before Christmas and Big, his beloved 15-year-old Pitbull, died in February.

In many ways, Cantrell’s life has always been a race against time. When he was 12, a doctor turned a light on Cantrell’s nose and saw a tumor. The doctor didn’t say it directly, but Cantrell could feel it: his life was at stake.

His family had just moved to Tullahoma a few months earlier, a small town of less than 15,000 people in southern Tennessee. Cantrell, the son of an aerospace engineer at the height of the space race, was a bookish boy who entered halfway through semesters and left before report cards came out. This was not how Cantrell wanted to start eighth year.

Operations were annual ordeals throughout high school, and as puberty waned, tumor growth also diminished. Given the option of another surgery to fix his disfigurement, Cantrell decided he’d rather be off balance. He worked as an orderly in Memphis, where he often transported bodies to the morgue — and, on weekends, led ultras. There weren’t many choices and most were way off. So he created his own in 1979, the Strolling Jim 40, a race of just over 40 miles in Wartrace, Tenn.

In 1985 he was considering a different kind of racing. One that wasn’t fair, because life wasn’t fair. The Barkley was born the following year.

“It’s not about winning,” Cantrell said. “It’s about trying to win – trying to reach your potential.” Every time there was a finish, he made the race more difficult. His goal was to keep it on the very horizon of human potential. Only 17 people finished, all men. Many have wondered if Cantrell ultimately set the bar too high. He disputes that. Creating a truly impossible race would have been easy and boring.

To enter the Barkley, runners must first understand how to apply. Then there is a test. This year’s questions were: What will be the 119th element of the periodic table? Explain the cause of the “major non-conformity”. Write the Gettysburg address in Sawveh. Which even number is not the result of two prime numbers? Who built the Khatt Shebib?

This is followed by a written essay. Cantrell says he can tell from participants’ responses how likely they are to complete. Only 40 runners are accepted.

As the runners came to check in on Monday, Cantrell sat behind a large picnic table. His eyes were warm and cheerful, but sly. He prompted the runners one by one as they sat in front of him. He told them how easy the course was this year – or joked that maybe they should just go ahead and smash their heads against a rock. Some understand his sense of humor, some don’t.

His approach has sometimes sparked controversy. A quirky element of Barkley tradition is the requirement that newbies bring a license plate from their country or state of origin. Hundreds hang from the trees as keepsakes. A license plate has a Confederate flag. “I would definitely think twice now,” Cantrell said.

In the summer of 2020, Cantrell and a team of moderators deleted hundreds of political posts on a Facebook page for a virtual race he hosted through Tennessee. One of those posts included discussions around the race and a photo of a runner wearing a Black Lives Matter jersey. Cantrell said he had no problem with the message, it was the replies that became an issue. They were filled with the “most offensive and typical white supremacist language,” he said, adding profanity. He eventually deleted the post completely and was pushed back by perceived censorship.

“People had political axes everywhere,” he said. “I don’t do politics. The band, he insists, is about sports and bringing people together.

When this year’s class of runners arrived at Frozen Head State Park, they were faced with a reality much worse than anyone could have reasonably expected. On Monday, the weather changed as soon as the caravan arrived. The sun disappeared and a constant fast wind accompanied temperatures that dropped well below zero. The sleet turned to snow, then freezing rain, and the earth looked angry. Most members of the media gave up on spending the night and fled to hotels 30 miles away. The others took refuge in vehicles and tents. How could anyone endure 66,000 feet of elevation gain over 100 miles in these conditions?

“The way he sees it, his job is to create a unique environment where people can find greatness within themselves,” said Harvey Lewis, a two-time participant. Lewis never finished the race.

Cantrell keeps his mind busy doing just that. He has a new 370-mile race due to start in August. To enter the race, runners must have completed both its Vol State race and its final annual Heart of the South trek. This last race leaves the riders about 350 miles from their cars. They have to run (and sail) to get back.

But the teeth of the Barkley attract attention. On the last day of this year’s race, there were only five runners left. Four were loop five, a record. Jasmin Paris was on loop four, the second woman to go this far. She had been out all night in the cold, and rumors were spreading that she might be lost.

Cantrell and Keith Dunn stood guard. While many high-profile races include some sort of live coverage, the Barkley offers coverage by Dunn. He was carrying three phones from three separate carriers, waiting to document the next update for his 65,000 Twitter followers. Neither of the two men had slept for two days.

Finally, Paris appeared down the hill after 52 hours of racing. She sped up the incline and touched the yellow door. All eyes were on Cantrell, unsure if they had, in fact, seen the first woman to do four curls. But it was the Barkley, and Paris had run out of time. She nodded knowingly. She had gone further than any woman to date.

“Do you think you can get 100?” Cantrell asked. Paris said she thought she could and smiled. He smiled back.

While the rest of the camp waited, a group of dedicated volunteers began packing their bags. Most have worked at Cantrell for years, even decades, and their roles have multiplied. Mike Dobies arrives from Detroit and Naresh Kumar from St. Louis. Larry Kelley drives from Iowa, and Cantrell’s wife, Sandra, is the rebar in the concrete of the whole operation. They keep Cantrell races sailing year after year.

After 58 hours 23 minutes, Aurelian Sanchez finished the Barkley. Less than 20 minutes later, John Kelly arrived. Karel Sabbe, who was brought back to camp last year in a police vehicle after becoming disoriented, finished with less than seven minutes to play.

The other 37 participants did not finish.

According to Cantrell, he failed in most things in life. Ambitions to be a great football player didn’t meet reality when he entered high school at five feet and 70 pounds. Too small for even the lightest weight class in wrestling, he ran track and cross-country, but he wasn’t fast. He was an excellent accountant until he was fired. In 2011, after retiring as city treasurer of Shelbyville, Tennessee, he applied for a job at Fleet Feet, a working store, doing whatever they let him. It was refused. Store managers were afraid he would scare off customers.

But failure, he says, is essential to growth — and sorely lacking in most award-winning ultras. He hopes to provide a framework for both, as long as he can keep the wind in his sails.

nytimes sport

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