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The Barkley Marathons are a go for this spring

Laz Lake confirms all-American ultramarathon

One of the world’s toughest and best-known ultramarathon races, the Barkley Marathons, is a go for 2021. During a chat with Tennessee-based race director Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, the long-time running icon explained that although it will look different this year, the plan is moving forward to have a physical event. 

“We vacillate back and forth over whether we do it. And, of course, 50 percent of your field comes from overseas, but we will just have to put half the field on hold for next year.,” Lake says. “We’ve got an all-US Barkley this time.”

The race will follow the now-familiar format with the course snaking through Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg, Tennessee.  It’ll take five loops of the 20-mile course to be declared a Barkley Finisher. Sound easy? It isn’t. The last person to finish the race was John Kelly in 2017. And he’s in the United Kingdom this year. 

The terrain is brutal. Each loop must be completed by a hard deadline with the next loop starting 12 hours later, which means if you took 10 hours to finish you’ve got two hours to rest. Each racer is given a bib, and the number corresponds to the page of a book each person must tear out and bring back to Laz. There is no GPS technology, and there are no course markings. There is a single map at the base camp runners must copy. No big deal. 

Although this year, the runners will deal with their own book pages. 

“It'll be the same regular race, but now I'm gonna make people come in and count their own pages for me instead of piling up their wet nasty pages,” Lake says. “Because I have the excuse that I can do it.”

Usually, the race takes place in March or April, but this year especially Lake is keeping mum on specific start dates to make sure there are no spectators that would throw all the careful COVID-19 protocols into disarray. 

“A lot of our concerns are over keeping spectators from showing up,” Lake says. “It's always an issue because we have no room for them. This year, all of our careful protocols fall to pieces if a bunch of people just start showing up.”

There will also be a much smaller media presence this year, and any attending must have COVID passports, as do most of the crew on hand. 

“We've got it down to the smallest number of people possible,” says Lake. “Even then you still have all your protocols the same in terms of masses, campgrounds, bathrooms.” The event is even allowing RVs for the first time, simply because it will take the pressure off of the facilities. 

“As a staff, we have four people with passports and three without, one of those being me,” Lake says. 

Of course, Lake is tightlipped about who is participating in this year’s event, although one might glean a few well-known American ultrarunners such as Maggie Guterl who planned to attend Barkley last year. 

“We never list people who are in the starting field, okay. We've always done it that way because lots of the good runners that we've gotten to come to the Barkley can leave with their humiliation being only private and personal.  if you don't make it a single lap, you don't get listed in the official results. Nobody ever knows you there.”

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