Who is Lazarus Lake? Inside The Mind Behind Barkley And Backyard

Lazarus Lake is the man behind the Barkley Marathons and the Big Dog Backyard Ultras, two of the most mentally and physically challenging ultra-races in the world.

We spoke with Lazarus to figure out just exactly who he is, why he created these races, what he thinks it takes to succeed in them, and more. 

Ready for a dive into the mind that created some of the most grueling (and weirdest) physical events

Who is Lazarus Lake?

Lazarus Lake is Gary Cantrell, the creator and race director of two of the hardest ultramarathons in the world, the Barkley Marathons and the Big Dog Backyard Ultra

He has also created the epic virtual team event, the Circumpolar Race Around The World – which you and your friends can still join (if you dare!).

Related: The Barkley Marathons: All You Need to Know

who is Lazarus lake?

Are Lazarus Lake and Gary Cantrell the same people?

Yes, Lazarus Lake and Gary Cantrell are the same people. Lazarus Lake or “Laz” is Gary’s nickname, he told us. 

Lake was flipping through a phone book, looking at interesting names in the small town of Bolivar, on a short break during a journey run in 1985. 

On a journey run, you do the three Rs—run, rest, and refuel. I was doing my 5 minutes of resting when I saw the name ‘Lazarus Lake’ and thought it sounded pretty cool,” he said. 

About a dozen years later when he was setting up an email account, being a “suspicious guy”, he created an account with the name, and it “kind of stuck.” 

For the purpose of this article, we will call him by his nickname, Lazarus Lake.

Related: Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra’s Complete Guide

What races does Lazarus Lake direct?

Lake currently directs the Barkley Marathons, the Barkley Fall Classic, Strolling Jim 40, Vol State 500k, Heart of the South Mystery Run, and the Big Dog Backyard Ultra, a last-man-standing ultra. 

He also created the virtual Race Across Tennessee which took place during the pandemic in 2020, and the aforementioned CRAW (Circumpolar Race Around The World).

Laz is also responsible for the Race for the Ages, Bloody 11W, Bitter End, Nick Marshal 24-Hour track race, the Two-Bit Marathon, and The Idiot’s Run, a 123-mile race entirely on gravel roads “that would torture your feet.”

Lake has spent much of his time over the past year or so adjusting his races to bend with changes brought forth by the pandemic. 

who is lazarus lake
Lighting the ‘starting cigarette’ of the Barkley Marathons, 2009
(credit: Lighting the cigarette by Michael Hodge, under license CC BY 2.0)

Why did Lazarus Lake create the Barkley Marathons?

When asked why Laz has created such impossibly hard races he says, “they aren’t hard. They are fun. I created things I would enjoy doing myself.

The DNF rate for the Barkley is more than 99 percent with only 15 finishers in its 35-year history.

Lake got the idea for the Barkley Marathons while backpacking the trails at Frozen Head.

Being familiar with the Frozen Head Mountains, he had followed coverage of the 1977 failed prison escape from of James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary with great interest. 

A massive manhunt took place over more than two days, but Ray only made it roughly eight miles due to the thick briars and rough terrain surrounding the prison. 

Unimpressed by Ray’s low mileage, Lake believed he could make it at least 100 miles over that length of time in the mountains around the prison.

Remembering Ray’s “sad and futile escape attempt” sparked the idea for the Barkley to be 100 miles in 60 hours. 

Is Lazarus Lake a sadist?

People have called Lazarus Lake a sadist.

To this, he responds: “That’s a misapplication of terms. I do not get a sexual pleasure in seeing people suffer,” answers Lazarus Lake. “I do get a kick from hearing their stories,” he shares.

His races help people redefine misery. “People will be running for four days with no sleep, just a couple cat naps, and no food.

If you’re comfortable all the time, you don’t appreciate it.”

who is lazarus lake

How old is Lazarus Lake?

Lazarus Lake does not share his age. 

Where is Lazarus Lake from?

Lake’s family is from Oklahoma, but he grew up moving to various places before settling in Tennessee.

What is a typical day like?

Laz tries to walk 5-10 miles a day.

Has Lazarus Lake completed the Barkley Marathons?

No.

Lake has not completed the Barkley Marathons.

He attempted but didn’t succeed.

Is Lazarus Lake a runner?

Yes, Lazarus Lake was a runner.

He says he got interested in running because he couldn’t do what he wanted to do—be a football player.

He was too small, weighing only 70 pounds and standing only five feet tall by the time he reached high school. 

He stood outside his high school team’s practice, kicking field goals, trying to catch the coach’s eye. But he didn’t, assuming the coach thought he was too small to be a high schooler. 

So, Lake joined the track and cross-country teams. 

“I was never really successful like I wanted to be,” he said, although he did break 5 minutes in the mile. “If I worked really hard, I could be mediocre.”

How did Lazarus Lake get into ultra-running?

Lazarus Lake got into ultra-running and directing ultra-races by a “string of failures,” he says. 

Because he wasn’t the fastest runner, after high school, he kept moving up in distances. “I could work hard, stay in shape, and endure the punishment,” he shared. 

In college at Middle Tennessee State University, Lake had run multiple marathons a year and covered 80 to 100 miles a week, with 120- or 140-mile weeks in the lead-up to big races.

During this time, there weren’t a lot of races, especially ultramarathon races, so Lake decided to organize one himself. In 1979, he began putting on a string of low-key races and realized he was better are organizing races than running them. 

Does Lazarus Lake still run?

Due to some health issues, Lake does not run anymore. 

He does walk two to three thousand miles a year. 

Did Lazarus Lake walk across America?

Yes, in 2018, Lazarus Lake walked across America—from Newport, Rhode Island, to Newport, Oregon. 

When asked why he would want to walk across America, he says, “Now, that’s a question, I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t you? It was fantastic.

I saw things. I learned things… Life on the road is so simple; stay alive and keep moving with a purpose.” 

Lake averaged 27 miles a day to cover the 3300 miles which was a “really far… farther than I imagined,” he said.

He traveled mostly along US 20, taking backroads when possible, and using the interstate a couple of times in Wyoming and Idaho when there was no other option. 

“I wanted to create a continued string of footprints across America,” Lake said.

who is lazarus lake

Where does Lazarus Lake live now?

Lazarus Lake and his wife Sandra, live on a farm near Bell Buckle, Tennessee, a small town of about 500 people, an hour south of Nashville. 

What did Lazarus Lake do for a living?

Lake studied accounting and was an accountant for 35 years before retiring in 2011.

Being a race director was just supposed to be something to do with his spare time, but has expanded to a full-time job. 

“I have failed at retirement,” he said.  

He met his wife Sandra in their college’s accounting program. Sandra still practices accounting.

Is Lazarus Lake married with children?

Lazarus Lake is married to Sandra, who he met at Middle Tennessee State University.

They have three grown children, several grandchildren, Big the pitbull whom the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra is named for, and a Jack Russell mix named Little. 

Why make the Barkleys too hard to finish?

“It’s easy to design an impossible race, and it’s easy to make a race everyone can finish,” Lake told Outside Online. “It’s really hard to find that point where impossibility is just so close.” 

The Barkley is doable but only for the very best runners. It is a true test of human athleticism, skill, and fortitude, writes the author.

What is the secret to success for completing the Barkley Marathons?

According to Lazarus Lake, the secret to finishing the Barkley Marathons is being focused and goal-oriented. 

“This is why so many of the competitors have a Ph.D.,” said Lake. “They take a long-term approach. They treat it like a problem. The only trouble is their bodies pay the price.” 

Many of the competitors have attempted the race 10 or 11 times, coming back each time better prepared to meet the unique challenges that arise in the race after analyzing them over the previous year. 

“They come mentally prepared,” he explains. “You can tell the ones who are ready the day before the race because they are there participating in (the pre-race activities), but their mind is somewhere else.”

laz lake

Why have many of the most well-known ultra-runners not attempted the Barkley Marathons?

“I don’t know why they would,” says Lake.

“If I was a successful ultra-runner, I don’t know why I would try a race where there is such a big probability for failure,” adding that not everyone is listed that attempts the race. 

“Some pretty big names have come and gone without anyone knowing. If you don’t finish a loop your name is never listed”, he says.

What does Lazarus Lake look for in Barkley Marathons participants?

The participants of the Barkley Marathons are hand-picked by Lazarus Lake.

He says he looks for people who are physically fit and who will get something out of it mentally. 

“People write an essay explaining what they will get out of it,” Lake shared, adding the winner of the Barkley Fall Classic gets an automatic entry.

There is also a sort of randomization since there are more eligible runners than there are spaces (only about 40 compete).

The Fall Classic is an ultra-lite version of the Barkley Marathons and serves to cut down on the marathon’s interest.

Related: Attend the FREE Ultra-marathon Bootcamp

What advice does Lazarus Lake have for runners in the Barkley Marathons?

Lake says runners should have the right skill set to compete in the Barkley Marathons. “You need to know how to take care of yourself in the woods,” he says. “Because there is no one else. You need to know how to find yourself, use a map and a compass.” 

Was Lazarus Lake surprised by the notoriety of the Barkley Marathons?

No, Lake was not surprised by the rising fame of his Barkley Marathons explaining it was always well-known in the ultra-running world.

The Netflix documentary made it more well-known to the rest of the world.

“We had 13 people for the first race. It soon became known to the people who do this sort of thing, and had many more qualified applicants than places to put them. 

After the movie, we had a huge increase in interest from people who had no business being in it,” remembers Lake.

laz lake

What do runners gain for attempting the Barkley Marathons?

“Your job as a race director is to provide a platform for runners to find greatness in themselves,” Lake told Outside Online. “Everyone can find success within the process of discovering what they’re capable of. If they do that, they walk off feeling a winner.”

Lake tells us runners get a challenge, that people aren’t going to accomplish anything with small dreams so they need to set big goals to see what they can do.

With this, they also encounter failure. “Failure is not something to avoid. It is what you do with it that matters,” he says.

Seeing as Lake’s self-proclaimed “string of failures” is what led Lake to create these events that bring people together to uncover potential they never thought possible, good can come from the seemingly bad.

To learn about running ultra marathons, check out my Ultra Marathon Training Guide

Whitney Heins
Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the 2024 US Olympic Trials marathon.

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