In Laz Lake's races, the oddity is part of the draw. In this article, Jared Beasley tries to coax Laz into opening up and offering insight into who he really is and what he believes in.
It’s an unusually warm January day, and I’m on the phone with Lazarus Lake, doing my best to keep him on target. He knows what I’m after – to get him to open up and give us some real insight into, well, Laz – perhaps the only subject he’s not interested in. Nothing comes easy with him, and it’s clear, whatever I get, he’s going to make sure I earn it.
The self-proclaimed hillbilly with “geezer” stamped on his toboggin thrives on keeping people off guard. When asked how he started running, he likes to say, “with my right foot.” Other curve balls: “I started running when I started smoking.” “The only running I do is through traffic.” “It doesn’t always have to be fun to be fun.”
I had a Laz problem of sorts. Like a lot of us, I was introduced to the enigma via documentary. But the image of the ultimate sadistic race director and at times controversial Facebook moderator didn’t add up with the reverence and tenderness many runners show him. Nor did the well-publicized cruelty of his races reflect the gregarious nature I got to know on the phone.
Our conversation lasts weeks over a series of daily walks with and without his dogs. There are pockets of dead air with no service and times when he comes through in a squeaky shrill like an old walkie talkie. He talks about everything from geology to psychology: the 10,000-ft mountain that once stood in the middle of Birmingham, the end of democracy, the brilliance of Ukrainian boxer Vasiliy Lomachenko, and the significance of little league baseball as America’s last great hope. But it’s as he’s finishing up a six-mile walk over his “backyard,” that he asks if I want to hear his new favorite math problem. I don’t. I’m not a fan of math problems. I don’t play Sudoku, and I don’t enjoy having my CPU overclocked when I see no reward. He throws it on me anyway.
ABCDE x A = EEEEEE
He repeats it a second time, slowly, as if assuming I’m writing it down. I am. “The fun thing about problems,” he says, “is you can’t do it, but you can’t let it go.” The Laz giggle’s there in full force, a steady vibrato in the back of the throat that oozes cigarettes and sarcasm. “Then you get an idea,” he says. “It doesn’t work out. But you can’t get it out of your head. Then, all of a sudden, ‘hey, I’m onto something.’” I feel some pressure to solve this thing on the fly. I fumble over it a bit, and my ego flares up. I was good at math as a boy. But by high school, it didn’t work with my brain. Algebra was tedious, geometry – torture. Still, I feel resolved in some primal sense to solve this equation.
“Go over it on a run,” Laz says. “Each time, you’ll make a little progress, and it’ll feel good.” That hits on my other weak point, patience. This was turning into a gin and tonic; I hate both gin and tonic – put them together, and I’d rather drink piss. But I can’t help but feel he’s giving me this cipher for a reason, a rubric of sorts for getting at the question I’m on him about: how did Gary Cantrell, the skinny bookworm, who’d been to 10 different schools by his sophomore year become Laz Lake the iconic race creator?
The math problem would prove, like the man himself, complex and had to be worked through in increments. Like the Barkley, entry seemed impossible. But was it really?
Long ago, when Laz was only known as Gary Cantrell, he was sitting in the bleachers watching his high school teammates run their last track meet of the year, the Tennessee state finals. It was his senior year, and having been eliminated, his season and running career were over. Or so he thought. The final heat in the two-mile relay was coming up but word was spreading fast that one of their best runners had just gone down. Coach Carden appeared in the stands looking for someone that could run the first leg, an 880 (800 meters). He needed someone clutch.
Laz was never the fastest on the team or even in the top six. His reputation was that of a practice warrior, a grunt that would keep the good runners from letting up when no one wanted to push. Laz was always pushing. Perhaps, that’s why in the bleachers that day, Carden called on him to run that crucial opening leg.
A former Navy man, Carden was blunt, opinionated, unbending, highly successful, and a major influence on Laz. “He was a good judge of humans,” says Laz, “of each individual on the team.” Tullahoma was a little bitty school, but Carden instilled a belief in them that they were going to win. His teams always stood out whether in football, track, or cross-country. When other runners from much larger schools would look back and see that reddish-purple uniform with the black stripe coming up behind them, their faces would visibly sag.
Dressed in street clothes, Laz borrowed shoes and a uniform, and walked onto the track cold. He listened as Carden told him he didn’t need to be a hero – run “this” pace – finish your leg in “this” time. He needed to be just fast enough to get the baton to the second leg without dooming the team with an insurmountable deficit.
Laz ran the slowest leg of the race, but it was enough to help his team win. Standing on the podium for the first time with his teammates, a gold medal in his hand, was one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. He felt valued. The experience was also chock full of irony: he’d never run the event, never trained for it, he was in someone else’s gear, and his season was supposed to be over.
As a race creator, this ironic dance between talent and hard work informs the Laz ethos, and his twisted ideations on the unexpected spring from his reality on that high school team. “Things are never going to work out the way you plan,” he’s noted as saying about the Barkley, and his creations can seem counterintuitive. How many races do you know where the best runners finish last? I can think of two: the Barkley and Backyards. And there was a hunger for that challenge spanning the world, a gap waiting for the Tennessee juggernaut to arrive. To Barkley and backyard-ultra fans, he is a wizard, a Willy Wonka of the woods, a thinking man’s hillbilly. Yet, the man who’s created some of the most innovative ultras in the world is not wrapped up in a box so neatly, impossible to encompass in a single anecdote.
“We Cantrells thrive on hard times,” he says. “We’re not fast, strong, or quick, but we can eat anything, and we’re hard to kill.” All American-born Cantrell’s, according to Laz, came from one guy, Richard Cantrell, who in the 1670’s arrived with the Quakers at the ripe age of 16. He too had a sort of tunnel vision; he left family, friends, everything behind in Europe for opportunity in the new world.
Laz’s family history could be something out of folklore, an archetype of the country-boy thinker. His grandfather left school after the third grade and hunted rabbits by throwing ball-peen hammers. But also taught himself algebra by writing calculations on the back of his shovel with a piece of chalk and built his own house, replete with a perfect circle for a door. Laz’s father worked a team of mules when he was little and rode a horse to a one room schoolhouse. Despite such humble beginnings, his analytical mind helped him become an aerospace engineer, eventually working on the Apollo program’s moon lander. Laz would follow that lead but with a more than healthy love of sport from his mother’s side.
Born in Norman, Oklahoma, a college town with a rich sport’s history, young Laz grew up in awe of Sooners football. Out of that came a yearning to be on a football team. In third grade, he got his chance, but it didn’t work out the way he hoped. They threw him on the offensive line despite the fact that he was far behind the other boys in size. “I was basically a body in a uniform.” Because of his father’s work, the family had to move a lot. On many occasions, Laz either came into a new school mid-semester or had to leave during one, and that made it tough to join teams. When he entered high school in Tullahoma, Tennessee at five feet and 70lbs, there weren’t many options for him. Football was out and the lowest weight class in wrestling was 90lbs. So, track and cross country it was.
Outside of sports, Laz was an introvert and a thinker. “That sure is a curious kid,” old folks used to say about young Gary Cantrell. The boy loved to read and when he did, nothing else existed. To his teachers, he was stubborn and pigheaded, engrained traits of his lineage.
While other fathers and sons were taking Rockwellesque camping trips, Laz and his father went on adventures of the mind. They would labor over topographical maps, look for ideal village spots of Native Americans – and search for arrowheads. He learned not to look for the arrowhead itself, but the worked flint sparkling on the surface. According to Laz, the brain has an algorithm for what is important to see, but first, and most importantly, you need to be curious – a theme that pours through any conversation with the race director. Laz was and is insatiably curious and despite the sadistic reputation promoted in most documentaries on him, he’s also surprisingly soft-hearted.
“Get out of there, Big,” he shouts. The old pit bull is tangled up in vines. A heavy rain is coming, and he has his two dogs doing driveway repeats so they can get their exercise yet retreat quickly if the storm hits. I ask him why I don’t hear him talk about Little, his Jack Russell – Bull Terrier mix. He says she gets overshadowed by Big’s personality. “She eats shit on the ground,” he says with a cackle. Then he coos, “she’s such a good girl.”
Big is 14, and in Laz’s words, “past his expiration date.” He was a rescue and had been mistreated. When Laz first taught him to walk on a leash, he picked up a stick and threw it. Big crouched down and shut his eyes, ready for punishment. Laz leaned in and told him, “You’ll never be beaten with a stick again.”
Now, Big’s hind legs aren’t doing so good, so Laz helps him manage the steps into the house and leads him to his bed. “Now that he’s so old, he looks forward to things,” he says. “A good example of how to live.” He tells the dogs he’s going for five more miles. They listen, he says, and need to know the timeframe he’ll be gone. According to Laz, “dogs have a lot of psychological needs.” Before he heads out, he turns the TV on so Big and Little will have something to listen to.
Back on the open road and free to let loose with his full attention, he returns to his point: curiosity. And he gives it to me in what’s best described as a Laz Storm. Knowing I’m from North Alabama, he spits out geological information on the area like a firehose on full tilt: Huntsville was once called Twickinham, the top of Alabama is like a Y down to Piedmont where the oldest stone in the state sits, rivers are the newest features on a landscape, the Mississippi is only 20 million years old and the Tennessee River will eventually eat into it, Decatur (my hometown) is on the highland West of the Cumberland Plateau, the Sequatchie Valley splits said plateau and runs 100-miles long and three-miles wide. And Alabama as I’ve known it wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Taconic Mountains in New York where I currently live. That’s evident by a thick layer of Chert. I would tell you what that is, but he wouldn’t like that. He wants you to look it up the same way I did.
For hundreds of years, my family has lived in North Alabama, and this was all new to me. But his facts were on point. He’s curious. Most aren’t. And that frustrates him to no end. Schools, he believes, are squashing curiosity out of children these days, and his outlook for the future is strained at best. His races and the hoops you have to jump through to get in them are his way of dropping puzzles to stimulate curiosity.
Laz revels in the idea of making people use their computer – the one between the ears. Whether it’s the idea of a 100-mile race, a 4.167-mile run, an undersized boxer’s talents at whittling away the psychology of his opponents, the geography around you, or a simple/impossible math problem you’re certain you don’t have time to bother with.
Last basketball season, a kid working the concession stand at a local game notices the heavily bearded, round-eyed race director approach and ask for a Dr. Pepper. The boy doesn’t say much and regrets it. After Laz’s gone, he reaches into his bag, grabs his track shoes, and asks for someone to cover him. He finds the Barkley mastermind up in the stands with wife Sandra. He swallows his nerves and asks Laz to sign his racing flats.
This rarely happens in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, population 544. “Most of the time I’m hidden out here in the woods,” says Laz. “And I’m not famous to my family.” His laugh returns, boisterous and self-deprecating. “My reputation is the old guy that walks a lot.”
Laz has never forgotten the importance of passing on the baton. When he notices the concession boy’s shirt reads, “Cascade track,” he can’t help but be reminded of his younger self and the older generation that’s no longer with us. For 35 years, he volunteered at Cascade middle school as a basketball and baseball coach, helping to shape young minds. In a rare moment of self-reflection, he admits he approaches the world as a coach. That’s what still brings him to the games – to see teams develop – to watch players and coaches make mistakes and learn.
After he signs the boy’s shoes, he tells him to hold on a minute. He looks the youth in the eye before urging him not to jump into ultras too quickly. “You learn a lot about the world when you slow down,” he says. “You see more on a bike than you do in a car – more on a walk than on a run.” Laz advocates the Robert Frost path in life, antithetical to today’s fast-paced hunger for instant gratification and dopamine clicks.
His races, at their best, bring this out in runners, encouraging them with a gentle, brute shock to ask questions, be curious, and explore new possibilities. Like his math problem, variables are usually presented at the outset and can be attacked with multiple methods. As you progress, you explore different possibilities, insert, and delete different options. You cut out what doesn’t add up and the problem builds on itself. The solution depends on early results but also adaptability. Your decisions propagate throughout, and consequences have impact. As in life, mistakes are inevitable. The important thing, Laz tells me in one of our talks, is understanding they are merely opportunities in disguise. And in true Laz form, you never give the answer away.
Featured art by Gordo Stevens.