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The Legendary Lazarus Lake and the Barkley Marathons

17-Oct-17

Last updated: 31-Oct-17

By Alice Morrison

The word “legend” gets tossed about quite freely in ultra running circles, with good cause, as the feats people undertake are often magnificent. Lazarus Lake is definitely in that pantheon. He is a true original, the man who created the toughest ultra in the world, The Barkley Marathons.

He is also a man with a beautifully warped mind. How else do you describe someone whose life’s work is to keep his ultra at the brink of impossible, with just a 1% success rate.

People like challenges,” he says. “We seek out challenges and then break them down and make them not a challenge. It’s a never-ending game of move and counter move.”

Only 15 people have ever finished the Barkley Marathons, 18 finishes in total out of 800 starts. Over half of the editions have had no finishers at all. 2012 was a bonanza year when a stunning three people triumphed.

The cut off point is 60 hours and the distance varies but is claimed to be a 20-mile loop which is run 5 times. There are tales of that loop being as long as 26 miles, though. Did I mention the climbing? 16,500 m of vertical ascent, and that is through wild scrub and woodland.

An insight into Lazarus is that fact that he got the idea for the trail from the murderer, James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. Ray was held in Brushy Mountain State Prison, in the heart of the Tennessee Mountains. He escaped, and was on the run for 54 hours but only made it eight miles from the prison. Lazarus decided he could go further.

Now, it has become a test of human capability. “Determination is not enough,” says Lazarus. “It is like math – just because you can do math doesn’t mean you can do calculus.” You have to be at the top of your game to make the attempt and everything has to be in line: your preparation and fitness, your route finding, your nutrition, your race plan. This is not a forgiving race, deliberately so. “You are one mistake away from losing the time. Everything operates on such a narrow margin,” he adds.

Focus is the key

You have to stay focussed, you have no sleep. You are out there on your own. You have to remain focussed all the time. Sometimes, (in other races) you can close your mind off, part of you is alive, but your body is going through its motions alone. For this, you HAVE to stay there, you can’t escape. 60 hours of focus – that is a lot. In today’s world we don’t concentrate for more than 60 seconds,” says Lazarus.

If, (when) you DNF, he has a custom. A bugler sounds The Last Post/Taps as the disconsolate runner trudges across the start/finish line. 

What do they say to you?” I asked, thinking that a few well-honed expletives might be the thing. “The people that make the attempt… once they have composed themselves, they are filled with plans and ideas of how to do it better,“ is the answer.

The race is an emotional place for Lazarus. “It elevates you just to witness it. To watch them being whittled away. It is like a game they are playing but their body is the currency ... feet coming apart… Pain is just more data. Does this indicate something that I can’t recover from? Can I patch it up and keep going?

And when a finisher makes it across the line? “They collapse,” he says simply. ”You have to see those faces. It requires so totally everything. John Kelly, took three attempts. When he touched the gate and punched the button that says “that was easy”, he was brought a chair. People had to catch him and put him in it. It was like someone had cut the strings.”

No women finishers

With women recording better and better results in ultra races, I wanted to know why no women had finished and whether Lazarus thought there was a possibility of a future female completer. It is unlikely says Lazarus, given the statistics. “If you look at all the elite running events/records, our women are behind the men by around 10%. If you add 10% to the race, you are over the 60-hour time limit.”

An original

Make no mistake, designing this kind of race is a serious effort in itself, that line between no-one finishing and everyone finishing is difficult. “It’s really something of a challenge. Making it just barely possible is a challenge. Practice helps. I’ve had a lot of years to do that kind of thing and I enjoy designing the course. I design all the pieces and then put them all together.”

One of the delights of interviewing Lazarus, is that his joyous spirit and sense of fun shine through. We may live in an increasingly uniform world, but this man epitomises living life on your own terms and doing things just because you can. This manifests itself throughout the design of his race and all the traditions that have made him and his race a legend:

  • The race starts when Lazarus lights a cigarette.
  • If an entrant has finished the race previously and is running again, the entrance fee is a pack of Camel cigarettes, which is given to Lazarus at the race.
  • Race number 1 is always given to the person deemed to be the least likely to finish one lap out of all who have applied; a "human sacrifice", as Lazarus calls it.
  • Competitors must find between nine and 11 books along the course (the exact number varies each year) and remove the page corresponding to the runner's race number from each book as proof of completion.

Yes, there are lots of ways that the race is fun, along with the main objective which is to make it. When we first held the race, we discovered that no-one had a clue where they were in the woods. It was suggested that we take paperback books in there and take pages from them. The titles need to be entertaining. I put them together on a theme and fit the books to where they are – it relates.”

Psychological torture

If he hadn’t been a race director it seems to me that Lazarus would have made a fantastic psychiatrist or, indeed, torturer. It is that understanding of the human psyche above all else that makes the Barkley Marathons what it is. Take the example of the “Fun Run”. Instead of the full ultra, you can opt to complete the infamous fun run. It is three loops of the course, nominally 60 miles, and you have 40 hours to complete.

The Fun Run doesn’t exist, explains Lazarus, but the 3 laps option gives the mind every reason to quit. After three laps you are at a low point. If you continue, you have a whole another day ahead. You CAN stop and you still get something, you still get the completion of the fun run. If you continue, you will probably not make the finish time anyway. It is awfully tempting.

And that perfectly illustrated what makes Lazarus Lake a genius, he will take you at your lowest point and offer you salvation, or you can refuse the temptation of the devil and strive on in the – almost certainly vain – hope of the ultimate success.

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