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2019 Barkley Marathons is 'love and puppies' for Laz

Update: For the second year in a row, no one finished the Barkley Marathons.

WARTBURG, Tenn. — Updated Monday, April 1, 2019:

For the second year in a row, no one finished the Barkley Marathons.

Nobody completed more than three loops this year.

Forty runners from around the world packed up and left Frozen Head State Park before sunrise Monday.

The 100-mile race started Saturday morning, and the athletes have 60 hours to run five loops on an unmarked course.

Race director Gary Cantrell, also known as Laz, says it's good for the mountain to win.

"If we do it right and keep it right there at the edge, the mountain is going to win some of the time. They threw some real weather twists at us and the mountains won," Cantrell said. 

From Saturday to Sunday, the temperatures at Frozen Head went from close to 80 to down into the 20s.

This was the 34th year of the Barkley Marathons.

Only 15 people have finished the race within the time limit.

Updated Saturday, March 30, 2019:

The 2019 Barkley Marathons began at 9:23 a.m. Saturday. Runners have 60 hours to finish five loops, but there are cutoffs. If a runner does not finish each loop by a certain time, it is deemed hopeless and they have to stop. Here is when each loop must be completed to continue:

  • Loop 1 - Saturday 10:43 p.m.
  • Loop 2 - Sunday 12:03 p.m.
  • Loop 3 - Sunday 9:23 p.m.
  • Loop 4 - Monday 9:23 a.m.
  • Loop 5 (finish) - Monday 9:23 p.m.

There is a reason the cutoffs for the first two loops are more than 12 hours. It allows embattled runners to continue for a lesser-goal of completing a "fun run" of three loops. The deadline to finish the fun run is 1:23 a.m. Monday.

PREVIOUS STORY - Friday, March 29, 2019:

Elite ultra-marathoners from six continents packed the campsite at Frozen Head State Park on Friday.  Now they patiently wait for the unpredictable start of the Barkley Marathons, a sinister 100-mile race filled with obstacles that pester routine-loving runners.

"There is nothing out there but love and puppies," laughed Gary Cantrell as he read the text on this year's shirt.  "I think we'll have a higher finish-rate because of the positive wholesome attitude this year.  Aren't there little hearts up in this corner [of my shirt]?"

Cantrell, also known as Lazarus Lake or Laz, helped concoct the ridiculous race that only 15 people have finished in 33 years.  Some runners are repeat-finishers, making a total of 18 times someone has completed the 100-mile race within the 60-hour time limit.

Credit: WBIR
Gary Cantrell, director and co-founder of the Barkley Marathons at Frozen Head State Park.

If you have missed WBIR's many reports on the Barkley Marathons in previous years, here is a brief synopsis of the event:

  • Runners write an essay and apply for entry in the Barkley Marathons.
  • 40 runners are chosen each year from around the world.
  • Runners have 60 hours to complete five loops of 20+ miles through Frozen Head State Park.
  • The course is unmarked and changes every year.
  • Runners get a map (poorly-drawn) of the course before the race begins.
  • The start time is unknown, other than sometime between midnight and noon on Saturday.
  • A conch shell is blown to signal one hour until the start. 
  • Laz lights a cigarette to begin the race.
  • The yellow gate at the campsite and Brushy Mountain prison are always part of the route.

Keeping with Laz's positive attitude, there has technically been a winner every year of the Barkley:  a runner or the mountain.

"The mountain has been winning a lot more often than the runners.  I think it has won 1,302 and been beaten 18 times," said Cantrell.

As Cantrell said in 2018 when nobody completed more than two loops, "It is good for the mountain to win. It is not a contest if the mountain never wins."

Credit: WBIR
The 2019 Barkley Marathons shirt features colorful hearts and happy thoughts of "love and puppies."

The event continues to attract attention and draw competitors from across the planet.

"We have entrants from 32 different countries, states, and provinces. We have entrants from all six inhabited continents. It's rare you get all six in the same event because we have so few runners," said Cantrell.

This is the fifth attempt at the Barkley for Jamil Coury of Arizona.  He has come very close to completing the Barkley some years.  He has failed miserably other years, such as 2018 when no runner completed more than two loops.  But the Barkley has never broken Coury's spirit.  He keeps coming back.

"The biggest thing I've done differently this time is I took two trips out to the park in advance of the race. So, mentally it gives me a nice boost. I feel more familiar and it feels more fresh being in the woods out here. I feel really relaxed, so we'll see how it goes," said Coury.

Credit: WBIR
Runner Jamil Coury of Arizona relaxes while awaiting the start of his fifth attempt at the Barkley Marathons.

"We have a really strong field this year," said Cantrell, pointing to a list of entrants that includes a few previous finishers.

Along with experienced runners from around the world, there's also a first-timer who only lives a few hours away.  Travis Esterby of Clarksville sat at the campsite with his wife and a couple of crew members, ready to give the Barkley Marathons a shot.  Running is truly his life as owner of the Fleet Feet franchise in Clarksville. 

"Ultra-running is like the old man's fight club.  You're going to basically beat yourself up," said Esterby.  "I'm ready to get going. I'm kind of tired of sitting around."

Credit: WBIR
Runner Travis Esterby of Clarksville and his wife sit at the campsite at Frozen Head State Park prior to the 2019 Barkley Marathons.

Over 100 miles, the elevation change through the steep hills of Frozen Head State Park amount to the equivalent of climbing up and down Mt. Everest twice.

For now, the runners wait for the unpredictable start at the yellow gate, sometime between midnight and noon.  And Gary Cantrell hangs flags on barricades while relishing the 33rd year of this insane event.

"It is fun," said Cantrell.  "Why else would you do it?"

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