A Morning with Lazarus Lake

By Jesse Squire

June 15, 2018

I just walked for an hour with Lazarus Lake.

His real name is Gary Cantrell. Maybe you’ve heard of him through the excellent film The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. Cantrell is the creator and director of that race, possibly the most difficult in the world.

Yesterday a birdie told me that Cantrell was passing through my neck of the woods. He is walking across the entire USA and has nearly 1,000 miles under his belt so far. By the time I knew what was going on he’d already walked through my hometown of Toledo and was crossing the state line out of Ohio.

So I drove west for an hour, and a few miles into Indiana I came over a hill and saw two men walking along the road. The one on the right I immediately recognized as Cantrell: bushy beard, and white shirt that likely had once been part of a race entry fee. I pulled over, parked my car along the side of the road, and walked back to meet them.

Gary is in his 60s now and, as a serious ultrarunner himself in the 1970s and 80s, had once thought about running across the USA. Age and injuries mean he’s doing it at a slower pace than he would have back then. Still, he’s going at a respectable speed for a guy with serious back problems who has been putting in 30 miles a day for more than a month.

We shot the breeze about many things. Cantrell is an interesting guy and “shy” and “quiet” have probably never been used to describe him. When he found out I am a math teacher he told me about the longest race he directs, the Vol State 500k. “It’s 314 miles. I tell everyone it’s 100π. It’s an irrational distance. We can’t tell them exactly where the finish line is, just when they haven’t gone far enough and when they’ve gone too far.”

You don’t ask an ultramarathoner why he is doing what he does because we all know the answer…there really isn’t any reason. They just want to do it. He does, however, have a tongue-in-cheek cause to promote at approximately 55 seconds into this video:

(Link here if embedding doesn’t work on your device)

Cantrell is following US Route 20, starting in Newport, Rhode Island, and finishing in Newport, Oregon. He’s seen much of the country but this route will help fill in many of the parts he hasn’t seen.

I also discovered a remarkable coincidence. I wondered if Cantrell was following the course of the 1927 Trans-American Foot Race, nicknamed the “Bunion Derby”. It was a stage race and traveling circus from Los Angeles to New York that was a huge media event in its day and largely forgotten decades later. Cantrell said he was not, although he’d coincidentally used many of the same roads in Ohio and Indiana. But he said he knew all about that race because his father grew up next door to Andy Payne, the winner of that 1927 race.

Is it a coincidence? I don’t know. Cantrell took up running as a boy when his father did, and that was when jogging was the new thing in 1966. Like most of us, Cantrell ran in high school and then went on to road racing and marathons. But unlike many of us, he kept on exploring his limits. Knowing that many otherwise ordinary people managed to run more than 3,000 miles across the United States may have given him broader perspective on what’s possible and impossible.

You can track Laz’s progress online and check his planned route. I’m sure he would appreciate the company if you want to join him for a while. I’ve been told “he likes Camels, whole chocolate milk, liver cheese (spicy greasy burgers will do), and Dr. Pepper”.

When parting I told him I was happy to have met someone I’d admired since I first heard of his crazy races long ago. He said he was just an old hillbilly from East Tennessee. I replied that he may be right, but he’s someone who has made the world a more interesting place.

Jesse Squire

I was second in the 1980 Olympic* long jump. (*Cub Scout Olympics, Pack 99, 9-10 age group.)