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July 27, 2016 Comments (0) Featured

Gary Cantrell: A race director from another time

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On the evening of April 4, Barkley Marathons race director, Gary “Laz” Cantrell watched as Jared Campbell — the only finisher out of an original field of 40 — made his way toward the yellow gate that serves as the finish line for the five lap, 100-mile course through the unforgiving landscape of Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg, Tennessee.

Unlike most race directors, Cantrell did not have a medal to drape over Campbell’s or any of the other runner’s necks, nor did he have a podium ceremony to announce the winner and present a cash prize. Instead, he had a lawn chair that he pulled up along the finish line for Campbell to to sit in and share stories from his 60 hour adventure in the woods. 

It is listening to the stories and enjoying the moment that makes race directing so rewarding for Cantrell, who has been been doing so since 1979.

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Laz running on a rare flat spot on “the walls.”

Cantrell’s career as a race director began not so much by chance, but by necessity, when he wanted to run an ultramarathon but couldn’t find one in close proximity to his home in Wartrace, Tennessee. He called the race, “Strolling Jim 40,” and was able to wrangle up 22 runners to attempt the 41.2 mile race through the scenic hills of Bedford County, Tennessee.

Today, Cantrell directs many races in Tennessee including the original Strolling Jim 40, the infamous Barkley Marathons that were immortalized in a recent documentary that aired on Netflix, as well as the Barkley Fall Classic that runs through those same unforgiving mountains.

According  to Cantrell, however, the race directing world has changed a lot in the nearly 40 years since he began.

“Back then, It was completely different,” he said. “The Strolling Jim entry was $4.00, the only thing runners asked for was water, and if you had Gatorade, it was a deluxe ultra.”

Cantrell family picture. Front: Alexis, Bryn, Chrys, Amy, Big. Back: Case, Sandra, Gary. "Everyone was laughing because Big was terrorizing the photographer."

Cantrell family picture. Front: Alexis, Bryn, Chrys, Amy, Big. Back: Case, Sandra, Gary.
“Everyone was laughing because Big was terrorizing the photographer.”

Cantrell admits, however, that ultrarunners back then were not just fueled on water, but arrogance and often booze.

He recalled a time when it was just those two things that got him through a 24-hour race as a young ultrarunner.

“In my mid-20’s, I went to a 24 hour race where a friend and I were crewing for each other,” he recalled. “I remember sitting beside a track, and my friend was struggling with injuries to his feet. I started drinking beer to pass the time, and began feeling pretty good, so I decided to start on my race. Surprisingly, I felt really good the whole time, and ended up doing 74 miles in 12 hours, and thought that I had found my magic formula. So the next ultra I drank a lot of beer. It was a bad plan. It only worked one time.”

At the Weston 6-day run

At the Weston 6-day run

It isn’t only the cheap race entries and lack of proper fueling that Cantrell misses about his early ultra racing and directing days, but he thinks often of the time that the ultrarunning community spent together on race weekends.

“The old ultras were social events because they were so small,” he said. “In the early days it was the only time you saw your running friends. We would have a fun run on Friday morning, race on Saturday, then sit around drinking beer on Sunday while everyone was going to church, then everyone would stay around as long as they could because they wouldn’t see each other for a while.

“Nowadays, there are so many races, and people are always in a hurry to leave. It’s not as special an event as it once was.”

Laz lights a cigarette PC: Jegard Remy

Laz lights a cigarette
PC: Jegard Remy

But, if you were to run one of Cantrell’s races, you might get a touch of that old time trail and ultrarunning community — just ask three time Barkley finisher, Jared Campbell, who was drawn to Cantrell’s events because they are so different than what runners are used to today.

“I always been drawn to the obscure,” Campbell said. “I love being around unique and creative people — people who do things differently. I feel like I learn more when someone thinks differently, and quite often I will search out a race that has a director who is different, because it opens my eyes to other things that are out there.”

Cantrell doesn’t see the way he does things as all that different, however. To him, hanging out in the woods with a bunch of friends shooting the breeze and telling stories after having completed an excruciatingly large number of miles over extreme amounts of time, is the way things should be.

Laz counts Erik Storheim's pages at the yellow gate. PC: Jegard Remy from

Laz counts Erik Storheim’s pages at the yellow gate.
PC: Jegard Remy from


To Cantrell, trail and ultra runners are his family — even if his (older than it used to be) body can’t log the miles it once did. 

“I’m lucky because my body is all beat up, but I can still race direct,” He says. “It is important to know who you are and to fulfil your role. To be honest, I’ve a lot more success as a race director than an athlete. I enjoy seeing people have a god time.”

And if your idea of a good time means pushing the very limits of your mind, body and soul, you may just find yourself at the start line of one of Cantrell’s races.

But he can’t promise you that you’ll actually finish.

Cover Photo courtesy Jegard Remy from

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