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‘Lazarus Lake’ completes challenge in Unicoi County

By Brad Hicks

Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, who has concocted some of the most daunting and brutal running competitions ever conceived, was nearing the completion of a challenge he had laid out for himself.

As he walked from Johnson City and crossed over into Unicoi County, the mountains around Spivey Gap began to peek above the horizon. The destination grew clearer with each step.

Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, right, walked through Unicoi County last Wednesday with Steve Durbin, a fellow race director and friend. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)
Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, right, walked through Unicoi County last Wednesday with Steve Durbin, a fellow race director and friend. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

The end of a journey that began nearly 45 years ago was in sight.

“I enjoyed coming over the first rise where we could see the mountain in the distance, but it had a lot of special meaning,” Cantrell said. “We’ve approached mountains many times from many places, but this one had special meaning because it was like, ‘When you get up there, I will have walked them all.’”

Cantrell, a legendary figure in the ultramarathon community, was in Unicoi County last Wednesday to walk from one end of the county to the other. Unicoi County was the last on Cantrell’s list, as he had already run or walked through other counties in the state of Tennessee.

Cantrell sat down about 15 miles into the trek, rewarding himself for reaching the midpoint of his trip through Unicoi County with cigarettes and a bottle of Dr. Enuf, which he discovered during the visit. As he rested before completing the remaining 15 miles, Cantrell provided details on his background and the events that brought him to Unicoi County.

The catalyst that would eventually lead Cantrell to Unicoi County occurred more than four decades ago. In 1971, Cantrell’s high school cross country team made the run from Tullahoma to Estill Springs and back, crossing over from Coffee County to Franklin County in the process.

After high school, Cantrell said his interest in long-distance “journey runs” and ultramarathons, which are races more than the traditional marathon length of 26.2 miles, increased. He found that preparations for the marathons and these journey runs were taking him even further out.

“My training runs got longer and longer, and I branched over and I hit Bedford County and Moore County, all the local counties,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell took maps of the counties through which he had run and taped them together. Impressed by what he had accomplished, Cantell was struck with inspiration.

“It dawned on me, ‘You know, I could run every county in the state,’” he said.

Cantrell developed a plan. He knew that his new goal would involve a lot of traveling and much time to accomplish. As he figured it, he ran through each of Tennessee’s 95 counties in less than 45 years.

Cantrell intentionally saved Unicoi County for last. His plan was to travel through the county up to Spivey Gap, crossing the state line and ending on the Appalachian Trail.

“I just thought there was something poetic about connecting my journey to the journey of so many other people,” he said.

But Cantrell admits his “run” through Unicoi County was more of a walk, with years of running having taken their toll. Still, he expected his approximately 30-mile journey through Unicoi County, which began at around 3 a.m. last Wednesday morning, to finish that evening.

“There are tens of thousands of miles of highways in Tennessee,” he said. “I used to run them, and then I got to where I would run and walk sometimes to keep from getting stiff…Now I’m old and beat up and I mostly just walk.”

But marking the state’s counties off his list has been far from Cantrell’s sole focus over the years. The actions the self-described “toothless hillbilly” has taken ever since his high school cross country team made its first stride toward Franklin County and have only served to grow his stature in the distance running world.

What immediately stands out in regards to Cantrell, perhaps even more than his long beard or colorful footwear, is the aliterate moniker held with reverence in the world ultramarathoning and the name that should be feared by couch potatoes everywhere.

Cantrell said he came up with the Lazarus Lake pseudonym while participating in a journey run. During the run, he stopped in Bolivar, located in the western part of the state, and began perusing the local phone book to just see what unique names the area had to offer.

“Every town has them,” he said. “I’m sure Erwin has some surnames that are unique to the Erwin area.”

One in particular stuck out.

“I saw the name Lazarus Lake and I thought it was just a cool name,” he said. “Other than that, I didn’t think anything of it.”

But that changed years later as Internet access increased and more and more people began using email. Not wanting to use his real name to create his email address, Cantrell pulled the name Lazarus Lake from his memory and has been using it since.

It was under the Lazarus Lake pseudonym that Cantrell created the Barkley Marathons around 3 decades ago.

The Barkley is held each spring in Frozen Head State Park in the Warburg area. The race consists of a 20-mile unmarked loop that runners participate in the full race are required to complete five times within 60 hours.

Since it began in 1986, only 14 runners out of hundreds of participants have completed the Barkley.

“The Barkley has grown into something unbelievable,” Cantrell said. “People come from all over the world. We have thousands of applicants for 40 slots. It’s hard to believe just a couple of old hill people put it together.”

So renowned yet mysterious – as registration details are not advertised – is the Barkley that the race is the subject of documentary featuring Cantrell called “The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats Its Young.”

The Barkley has become so popular that the Barkley Fall Classic, which will take place in September, was established. The more than 30-mile race is held in the same area as the Barkley Marathon.

Like the original Barkley, the Fall Classic has also become popular among runners wishing to test their limit.

“After the Barkley Marathon movie success, we went from 300 to 450 and 200 on a waiting list, just like that,” said Steve Durbin, a fellow race director and friend who traveled with Cantrell last Wednesday. Also traveling with Cantrell was his wife, Sandra. 

Cantrell has also other popular runs over the years. The Strolling Jim 40 ultramarathon was established nearly 40 years ago. This approximately 40-mile race, one of the longest-running ultramarathons in the country, is held annually in the Wartrace area.

The “A Race for the Ages” event is held each year in Manchester. Runners participating are to run one hour each year of his or her age, so a 30-year-old runner would run for 30 hours. Everyone taking part finished the race at noon on Labor Day, so a runner’s age determines how soon he or she is to begin the run.

“Because I’m lucky enough to have survived so long in the sport, my friends from the old days are all the people who were once the best runners in the country, so it’s all these guys who were just world-class runners in the ‘80s and ‘70s and even the ‘60s,” Cantrell said. “It’s like one of those old-timers’ baseball games, except you get to play.”

Cantrell has also authored several books about his rescue pit bull, Big. Cantrell said Big also has “his own race” known as the Backyard Ultra, a grueling ultramarathon held annually in the Cantrells’ backyard.

The Backyard Ultra begins at 7 a.m. on the day it is held, with runners completing a 4-mile race. Another 4-mile race begins at 8 a.m. that morning, another 4-mile race at 9 a.m., and so on, until only one runner can complete the loop. It took 49 hours to determine a winner in last year’s Backyard Ultra, Cantrell said.

Big sits near the starting line and watches as the race goes on.

“We like to say Big is the only pit bull who puts on a contest where humans fight to the death,” Cantrell said.

Later this week, the Cantrell-founded Vol State Road Race will be held. This 500K, or approximately 314 mile, race see participants begin in Missouri traveling through portions of Kentucky and Tennessee before completing what Cantrell called a “huge adventure” by racing to the top of Sand Mountain in northwestern Georgia.

While the concept may seem exhausting to most, Cantrell said ultramarathons have grown in popularity over the years.

“And then, somehow, somebody like me that’s just a guy who lives out in the hills in the woods gets a lot of the credit just because I was around before anyone else,” Cantrell said.

Along with the completion of traveling through each of Tennessee’s counties, Cantrell’s walk through Unicoi County marked another accomplishment for him.

“It also marks my 41st consecutive year of at least doing something over 30 miles,” he said.

Cantrell said he has taken part in ultramarathons “from Hawaii to Maine,” but added there are other accomplishments he wants to mark off his list, such as completing a 400-mile journey.

“I’ve got lots more walks that I want to do,” he said. “I want to do a transcontinental. There were county seats I missed where I went though counties but didn’t go through the county seat, so I’ve got to go back and clean that up.”

Cantrell said his “crazy hobby” has allowed him to see the world, adding that his walk through Unicoi County will be memorable for more than just the completion of his personal challenge.

“Erwin is great,” Cantrell said. “We have really enjoyed this walk. This is as pretty as any place in Tennessee.

“I hope people are proud of what they’ve got.”