Lazarus Lake is a renowned ultramarathon runner and designer. His most famous creation (along with his friend Raw Dog) is the Barkley Marathons, an absurdly difficult 100-mile race through the Tennessee wilderness that only 17 people have ever finished in its nearly 30-year existence.
Tyler and Laz discuss what running 100 miles tells you about yourself that running 26 miles does not, why so many STEM professionals do ultramarathons, which skill holds people back the most, why his entrance fee is no more or less than $1.60, the importance of the Barkley’s opaque application process, how much each race costs to mount, whether he sees a decline in stoicism and inner strength in America, what accounting taught him about running, which books influenced him the most, who’s going to win the NBA title next year, how he’s coping with increasing fame, the competition he’s most focused on now, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded June 29th, 2023.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today we have a running episode. I am chatting with Gary Cantrell, who is better known as Lazarus Lake. He is an endurance race designer and director as well as a former runner himself. He does ultramarathons. His races include the Barkley Marathons, Big’s Backyard Ultra, Vol State 500K, A Race for the Ages, and much more. Lazarus is also star of a 2014 film, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young.
Wikipedia states, and I quote, “His races are known to be especially grueling. Trail Runner magazine called him ‘an evil genius,’ ‘the Leonardo da Vinci of pain,’ ‘a master of sadomasochistic craft.’ Yet, his races have developed an almost cult-like following.”
My view, of course, as your podcast host is much more positive than that. Since Lazarus’s event at Frozen Head State Park began in 1986, only 17 people have finished it. In most years, there are no finishers at all within the 60-hour time limit. Entrance pay, I believe, is $1.60 to face the challenge. Lazarus also has worked as an accountant and a city treasurer. Lazarus, welcome.
LAZARUS LAKE: How’s it going?
COWEN: All is going well. I have some very simple questions about what you do. What does running 100 miles tell you about yourself that running 26 miles does not?
LAKE: [laughs] I guess it probably tells you four times as much about yourself. It’s not really an extension of the same thing. It’s a whole day instead of just a morning.
COWEN: People come away and they report what to you about what they learned?
LAKE: I think each time you step up a level, you find out that you can do a lot more than you thought you could do.
COWEN: Do you think that’s true in most human spheres of endeavor?
LAKE: I think it would be true in all of them. I think that the experiences people have improve them across the sphere of their lives.
COWEN: Why are there so many STEM professionals doing your ultramarathons? Why are they so well represented?
LAKE: The races that we have, the one like Barkley — it’s a problem-solving exercise. There are a lot of different variables that you have to be able to master in order to be able to complete it, and they like challenges.
COWEN: What would some of those variables be?
LAKE: Of course, you have to be able to use a map and compass. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest orienteering expert, but you have to be competent. You have to be able to find your way around in the woods. You have to be able to manage your own physical well-being because there’s no aid station, so you have to pack and prepare for what you need to maintain your run. Then, in addition, at Frozen Head, you have a highly variable climate where you could encounter — it could be 80 degrees and 15 degrees on the same loop.
COWEN: How do the runners manage their water supplies?
LAKE: They have to carry it with them. We put a couple of water drops out on the course so that they could restock. But if it’s below freezing, that water might be frozen, and they might have to find some in a stream somewhere, or a spring.
COWEN: Of all of those skills, which is the most scarce? Which holds people back the most, apart from just the running and the endurance? What are they most likely to screw up?
LAKE: I think these days, navigation is a bigger problem than it used to be because people have become dependent upon GPS. If you don’t use part of your brain, it withers. If you’re not accustomed to knowing, in your head, where you are and just listening for a little voice to tell you when to turn next, it’s something of a problem because they don’t get to take GPS.
COWEN: They literally end up lost in the woods, some people.
LAKE: It happens.
COWEN: What happens to them then? They stay there for the rest of their lives? They wander slowly back to civilization, or . . . What becomes of them? They send out a call for help?
LAKE: If they don’t find their way out in a couple of days, we’ll go look for them. Usually, they will. So far, they’ve always found their way out.
COWEN: That’s the incentive.
LAKE: Sometimes they wander around for an extended period of time lost, but that’s what they signed up for. They’re on their own. All the electronics and all the conveniences of modern life are gone, and they just rely on themselves.
COWEN: If someone sprains an ankle, eventually you find them, or they try to hobble back?
LAKE: We have a 100 percent self-extraction, including a couple of broken ankles, dislocated clavicle, a fractured kneecap. The people that do this are a different breed. They’re physically pretty tough, and they get themselves out.
COWEN: How many military people or, say, former Navy SEALs do this? Or are they not a major clientele?
LAKE: You do get special forces, not just from the US but from other countries. It’s the kind of thing that appeals to them.
COWEN: You had some Ukrainians recently, is that correct?
LAKE: We have people from all over the world. I know we’ve had Ukrainians in the past. I’m not sure we’ve had one in the last couple of years.
COWEN: If you think about the motivations of these people, how much is it they’re bored with their old goals, or how much they want to show status, or are they wrestling with inner demons, or all of the above? How do you think about what brings them to do this?
LAKE: Different people would do it for different reasons, but for the most part, they’re really seeking the freedom that comes with being totally dependent on yourself. Then on top of that is the challenge of doing something that is about a 1 percent finish rate. You have selected the best of the best, and out of those, only the 1 percent make it. Everybody would like to think that they’re 1 percent of the 1 percent.
COWEN: Before your health interfered, you used to run ultramarathons. What were your goals?
LAKE: I was never more than a mediocre runner, so my goals were to do better than I had done before. I set lofty goals and didn’t always achieve them. I actually thought at one point I could finish the Barkley.
COWEN: Did you try?
LAKE: Oh yes. I tell people I got my hundred miles, but it took five years, which is not a bad time at the Barkley.
COWEN: You’ve designed the course. In terms of when and where to turn, you would know that more automatically than the other participants.
LAKE: I definitely had a big leg up on finding my way, but I actually did take a wrong turn once that cost me about four hours.
COWEN: Let’s say a friend of yours went to you and said they wanted to train their kids or their grandkids in resilience, sticking with it, durability — what advice would you give them based on what you’ve learned?
LAKE: I think being in any sport helps you develop those characteristics. I would recommend for kids that they play sports that are appropriate to their age with people their age. If they were a runner, that they should run track and field and run on the school team or the club team with other athletes that are the same age. The ultramarathons are more a place where older people are involved.
COWEN: When you say older, you mean in their 30s or much older, or?
LAKE: From their 30s up. We have the ARFTA race, A Race for the Ages. We’ll have 35 or 40 runners in the field every year that are over 70, with the oldest runners up into their 90s.
COWEN: How old do you think is the oldest finisher of the 17 [finishers of the Barkley Marathons]?
LAKE: Oh, that’s easy. David Horton did it when he was 50. It was his 11th attempt.
COWEN: Do you think it’s possible to do it at 70?
LAKE: No. [laughs] I bet it’s not really possible to do it at 50.
COWEN: But someone did it.
LAKE: Someone did it, but we like to do the impossible.
COWEN: What’s special about that guy who did it at 50?
LAKE: David Horton — he’s one of the great ultrarunners. He’s considerably older than 50 now, but he was, through his career, one of the better ultrarunners in the country. He was good at all the skill sets, and he kept trying and honing it down. He had several near misses before he finally got it.
COWEN: Why is it that it’s running as a sport that is correlated with the endurance mentality? I never see endurance tennis matches or endurance basketball games. Not even endurance podcasts. Why running?
LAKE: [laughs] I guess because it lends itself to it. People want to see how far they can go.
COWEN: The people who want to do that — if you think of the evolution since 1986 — how have those people changed as a group or a class of participants?
LAKE: Humans have a collective ability. I guess it’s unique among animals that we can compare what we’ve learned and learn from each other. The skill sets of the people that tried it first in 1986 were not comparable to today.
And the equipment is a lot better. In 1986, state-of-the-art lighting was a carbide lamp because your old flashlights with the bulb — you’d have to carry 10 pounds of batteries to get you through the night with good light. Now, they have those little LED bulbs, and it just takes a battery for the whole race.
COWEN: As for the people themselves, what’s the main dimension along which they’ve improved?
LAKE: Just all of the fine skills of finding their way using the map, how to prepare the map, what to carry for nutrition. Of course, their clothing has improved as much as their lights have. You don’t have to carry as bulky of clothing. You have to carry a light enough pack that it doesn’t destroy you to carry it up and down all those big hills, but you have to be able to cope with it being 80 degrees or 15 degrees.
COWEN: I read one source online. It suggested that going up and down the hills was basically the equivalent of twice the height of Mount Everest. Is that true?
LAKE: It’s a little more than that, and that would be from sea level. I don’t know why that’s an important distinction to me because it doesn’t mean anything to most people, but from the base of Everest to the top is not 29,000 feet. That’s how high the peak is from sea level.
COWEN: All this is taking place in eastern Tennessee. Is that correct?
LAKE: It is. They’re little puny mountains by Western standards. The highest peak is 3,380 feet. It’s only about 2,000 feet from the bottom of the mountains to the top. You just do that distance repeatedly, and they’re extremely steep because of the geology of the area.
COWEN: Would you describe it as fairly rocky? Or what else would you say about the environment?
LAKE: It’s pretty rocky, but there’s a lot of undergrowth. It’s not as rocky as the Western mountains, which are newer and don’t have as much soil and undergrowth on them, plus they extend higher into the atmosphere.
COWEN: What’s the chance you run into a bear?
LAKE: [laughs] Not very good because you’re making too much noise. You’ll probably be around a bear, but they’ll hear you long before you get close.
COWEN: Which are the elements of those races that most often break people when they break?
LAKE: I think it’s the cumulative climb. The race is 100 miles, and the time limit is extremely slow by 100-milers. For people who run distance, they’re thinking 100 miles in 24 hours is hard. This one gives you 60 hours. They perceive it as being extremely extended low-level effort, but because the pitch is so extreme, it’s actually a really slow time, which requires you to have all of your gauges, we like to say, on the red line. You’re pushing it as close as you can get to blowing your motor.
COWEN: Pacing themselves is one of the skills they need to have. Is that correct?
LAKE: Yes. They have to be physically in the best condition of their lives. The training takes people right to the edge of injury just training for it. Then you have to be able to push your body to its maximum extent without something breaking down.
COWEN: Are you ever worried about government regulation intervening and stopping what you’re doing? Would they allow this in Massachusetts?, is one way to put it.
LAKE: I think that we’re greatly aided by being grandfathered in. When people try to set up similar events, say, in Europe, they make them put a tracker on everybody because the government wants to protect you from yourself. But we’ve always done it. They’ll say, “Well, the tracker wouldn’t make a difference because it doesn’t tell the runner where they are.” But it tells the runner someone knows where they are.
When they get out there to make these decisions on how to approach different things, they have to bear in mind, there’s no tracker on them. Nobody knows where they are. If they do something really stupid, they’re going to end up being somewhere that they have to wait until someone finds them, and it does have an effect even if it doesn’t tell you where you are.
In today’s world, being totally separate from your electronics is . . . In 1986, it wasn’t that big of a deal because you weren’t constantly in contact, but now people are wired all the time.
COWEN: So they have a withdrawal, some of them. Like, “Oh my goodness, where’s my email?”
LAKE: No, they have plenty to occupy their mind. Probably if you just took all their electronics away and sent them on an average day, it’d be a struggle. It would be a struggle for me without my email to check. What am I going to do?
COWEN: Do you think it’s easier when people say, “Oh, I’m just going to take this race one step at a time,” or is that a mistake?
LAKE: It’s a combination. In any of the endurance events, you really have to have two things in your mind. One is that you’re focused on finishing. You can’t do any 100-miler and say, “I’m going to run 50 miles and then evaluate,” because that can save you a lot of trouble if 50 miles, you’re going to decide to stop. At the same time, you have to live in the moment. You can’t think about how much is ahead of you because your mind just can’t wrap itself around all of it at once.
If you’re in a lot of discomfort right at this moment . . . The races have a trajectory. You’ll have up periods and down periods and up periods and down periods. When you’re on the downslope, your mind just projects it to go down forever, and you think, “Oh, I can’t go that low.” But if you just stay in the moment, in a while, you’ll find yourself in a better place.
COWEN: There’s a researcher named Ethan Kross, and he’s argued that if you keep on saying to yourself, “You can do it. You can do it,” a kind of self-talk, that helps. Do you agree?
LAKE: For myself, when I’m involved in something like this, there’s not really time to give myself a pep talk. I’m totally absorbed with doing what I’m doing. I actually prefer to approach things with a little bit of doubt. A couple of years ago, I walked across the country. I walked from the East Coast to the West Coast. While I could still smell the ocean, people would say, “You’ve got this.” I would think, “Well, then, why go through all this discomfort if I already know I can?” I believed I could make it to the Pacific Ocean when I topped the last mountain in the Coastal Range, and I could see it.
COWEN: You didn’t just walk along interstates?
LAKE: No. I walked some interstate, I walked open range, I cut across parking lots. I was committed to having a continuous string of footprints from coast to coast, but I was not committed to them going any particular place. The easiest way I could get through, the better.
COWEN: Did you listen to music or podcasts while you were walking?
LAKE: No, that would interfere with the voices in my head.
COWEN: What did they tell you?
LAKE: [laughs] Actually, I spent most of the time . . . Between days, I would read about the geology of the area I’d just seen and read about the history and other things of the area I was going into. Then local people would tell me things about the places I was that otherwise, you wouldn’t know. It was an intense educational experience that really kept me mentally fully occupied all the way across.
COWEN: For ultramarathons, how much do shoes make a difference?
LAKE: I prefer to wear shoes. I know there are people that go barefoot, but shoes are better.
COWEN: Why do they prefer barefoot? That seems odd to me.
LAKE: I won’t speculate whether there’s some real benefit to it or not, but shoes greatly reduce the number of injuries you’re going to get to the skin on your feet.
COWEN: How prevalent is doping when people do ultramarathons?
LAKE: I don’t think it’s really prevalent because there’s not a lot of real motivation to do it. Nobody’s making big bucks as an ultramarathoner. I suspect you see it to some extent among people where you would wonder why? You’re an age group competitor, you’re not running at the front. But about anything there is that people could do, somebody does it.
COWEN: What are some possible ways people might try to cheat?
LAKE: The most common one is to cut part of the distance off. You do occasionally have people who cheat. You read about them in marathons, and you would have periodically the same thing in ultrarunning. I don’t think anybody except them really understands why they do it because ultramarathon performances don’t mean anything to anybody but you.
COWEN: You have a book-page method to stop that, correct?
LAKE: In the Barkley, it’s pretty effective. We have checkpoints that are paperback books. Everyone tears out the page of the book that matches their bib number. We count all the book pages when they get back.
COWEN: If they don’t have the page, you figure they cheated, or somehow they just don’t win.
LAKE: Well, no, if you don’t have all your pages, you don’t count. It doesn’t matter. We don’t really correlate it that you cheated. Usually, people have lost a page, forgot to get a page. They’ve made some kind of other mistake.
COWEN: And they don’t count as having won. If they’re missing a page, that’s it, right? No go.
LAKE: If they’re missing a page, there’s no go.
COWEN: How do you choose which books to put out?
LAKE: That’s a lot of fun. We pick books that have appropriate titles.
COWEN: Such as?
LAKE: My favorite one was the last book on the loop. It wasn’t always easy, but I sure had fun. We have a theme every year. One year the theme was “the Barkley Marathons, where dreams go to die.” Another year it was “the only thing that buckles here is your knees.” Buckling is a runner’s term for finishing within a certain time and winning a belt buckle. We take that year’s theme, and we try to pick books that fit with the theme, and then we go through the course.
Since we know when it starts, and we know where it goes, and you have an idea what runners have been through, what they’re coming to, what time of day it is, a little bit of a peek into their mind about what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling — you try to make the book titles match. Ninety percent of the people — they don’t ever notice, but some of them catch on, and they think we’re really messing with them with the way the book titles are laid out.
COWEN: Why don’t you charge more than $1.60 for people to run?
LAKE: Because it’s only a small number of runners, and we don’t want it to be a feat of finance. You have a lot of things that people do, but it’s really like going to the Titanic. Going down on a submersible to see the Titanic doesn’t require skill or dedication or effort, just money. We don’t want money to be the deciding factor for the Barkley. We want it to be a physical test, not a financial one.
COWEN: Why don’t you charge less than $1.60, then?
LAKE: Well, then I wouldn’t have money to buy Dr. Peppers with.
COWEN: The early history of your races, how were they influenced by the experience of James Earl Ray?
LAKE: [laughs] Not really at all. That’s a connection that seems to be popular with the media because this is where he escaped, and certainly, it was a big national story. It was a bigger story in Tennessee than anywhere else. It was really interesting to me because I had been hiking all through those mountains for years, and since I knew the terrain he was on, I was quite interested in seeing how he did. But I think any comparisons we make to James Earl Ray are belittling his escape attempt more than anything else.
COWEN: How did he do?
LAKE: He didn’t even make it the equivalent of a loop.
COWEN: And that was with his supposed freedom at stake.
The signup process for the Barkley Marathon — it’s often considered opaque. How is it you decide who gets to run and who does not?
LAKE: Even though we try to make it a little bit difficult to even submit an application, we get way too many. They write an essay, and you look at the essays and try to pick out people who are going to get something from the experience. You don’t want people who only are coming to post on Facebook that they came, or to get on the entry list so they can post on Facebook that they were entered and then drop out before they have to hurt. You still end up with a huge number of people.
There’s a whole complex process of how we divide them out into different groups because we don’t want to have an impact on the wilderness area where the race is held. That’s really dependent not on the number of people but the number of laps. You select people of different levels of ability so that the total number of laps will come out to around 190 laps. We can nail it pretty well.
But then you get down to the people in those groups, and you just have to draw. I use the Excel random number generator. Everybody’s put in a number that’s within a group, and I’m going to pick so many of them, and I just have it pick a number in that sequence, and that person gets in.
COWEN: And you think your process is working pretty well?
LAKE: We get the right number of loops every year. Even this year, when we had three finishers, which is really unusual, we still had just about the same number of total laps that we always have. It was fewer, actually, total laps than we had last year with zero finishers.
COWEN: And people need letters of recommendation when they apply? Is that true?
LAKE: No, they write an essay. Even if someone’s not particularly eloquent, if they write their essay, they reveal themselves. They show who they are. You want people that are going to get something out of the experience, not people that will hate it, and not people that really aren’t going to immerse themselves; they’re just going to dip their toe and then post that they were there and leave.
COWEN: You have staff who help you with all of this?
LAKE: I’m transitioning it over to a guy named Carl Laniak because I won’t be around forever. We just had to get rid of the nonproductive qualities. He had empathy [laughs] and other things that serve no purpose in a race of this nature.
COWEN: The people who help you — they’re volunteers, or you manage to pay them? How does that work? How do the economics of this hang together?
LAKE: They’re all volunteers. The race actually is not cheap to put on, and people donate. The biggest part of your donations come from entrants. We have a Barkley fund where we put the donations and use it to pay for the race, and it’s maintained a positive balance since 1986. It says something good about the people that run it. Then we get some donations from people that just follow it on the internet and think it’s important something like this exists.
COWEN: Are you at liberty to say what running one of these might cost?
LAKE: For the individual running?
COWEN: No, for the whole aggregate enterprise, all expenses.
LAKE: Oh, God, I should be able to pop up a number right off the top of my head. I want to say it cost $8,000 or $10,000 to put it on, but we do a lot of stuff that would not necessarily be necessary. We bring all the barricades and hang the flags of the countries and states where the runners come from, and having all these supplies requires us to rent a truck. When we first put it on, there was nothing. People showed up, and we ran.
COWEN: You light a cigarette and you blow a conch shell, right?
LAKE: We blow a conch shell to tell them that the start is an hour away. Uncertainty is built into the Barkley everywhere because uncertainty is the most difficult thing for an athlete to deal with. They don’t know where the course exactly goes until the day before the race. They don’t know when it’s going to start until an hour before it starts. They know it’ll start between midnight and noon. If it doesn’t start until after daybreak, there’s a lot of sleepless nights because people are afraid they’ll miss the conch.
COWEN: You can’t just Google online what time and place the next one is, right? That’s somewhat of a mystery, or how does that work?
LAKE: We don’t tell what day the race will be run except to the people that are entered. Of course, nobody knows the starting time. Nobody knows the starting time for next year’s race right now except me and Carl.
COWEN: Do you have media that show up? They somehow find out, or truly it stays a secret?
LAKE: [laughs] We kept it a secret up through 2000, and then we had some elements in the park system that didn’t want the race to exist. We realized in the struggle to keep going that we had to exist, so where we had been turning down media requests, we started accepting them. Strangely enough, especially in ultramarathons where you would kill to get media exposure, we have to select the media that we let in at Barkley because the venue is small and limited. You have to keep the number of people down, or there’s no place for the runners themselves.
COWEN: Which media do you choose and why?
LAKE: First come, first served. It could be just a freelance photographer or Sports Illustrated. It was just a matter of which one we heard from first. It seems fair.
COWEN: Putting aside your own events, do you feel that ultramarathons have become too commercial?
LAKE: They’re more commercial than they used to be. Everything changes. I think that there are still plenty of places for people to have the same experience, and the personal experience is not driven by the commercialization of it.
The slower time limits is a bigger change than commercialization. When I started running ultras, the time limits were really pretty strict, and everybody who ran was young and in the prime of their career. If you had somebody run into their 40s, or even 50s, they were this rare exception. Now, a lot more people can run for a long time. It extended my career because they didn’t have the strict cut-offs they used to have. Eventually, you get old enough, you can’t make the cut-offs anyway.
All of these are just the things that happen. Things either change or they die.
COWEN: How close do you think we are to the ultimate fundamental limits on human performance in running?
LAKE: I don’t know. I think in a global sense, that’s what the ultrarunning is all about. Certainly, at the top level, it’s looking for what are the limits. We’re learning that people can learn and adapt to become better. Then there’s this ability of the mind to drive the body beyond what seems to be physically possible. Who knows where the real limit lies?
COWEN: If we look at all sports as a whole, what is the individual sports performance record that impresses you the most? I would say Joe DiMaggio’s streak: 61 [accurate number is 56] games in a row with a hit. You can’t miss once. That to me seems really quite hard, but what would you say?
LAKE: [sighs] I would have to sit and really think about that a long time because I’m an overall general sports fan, and there are so many amazing things that people have done. Then to try to compare different sports — you can’t even compare all the different running sports very easily.
COWEN: Have you ever seen the YouTube video where Steph Curry is shooting three-point shots? If memory serves, he hits 95 in a row without missing.
LAKE: [laughs] I’ve seen exceptional high school shooters that can shoot pretty close to that. On the one hand, I think you can’t have too much respect for people who develop that kind of consistency in their shooting, but it seems totally possible.
COWEN: Are there conditions under which you would stop a race?
LAKE: We haven’t hit them yet, but there would be conditions where you would have to stop a race. They had a backyard in Finland this year. It was their national championship race, and this huge storm went through with 100-mile-an-hour winds, and it strewed power lines all over the course. They had to stop. Only a fool runs through live power lines on the ground.
COWEN: If you put aside the 17 people who have finished Barkley and just look at American society as a whole, do you see overall a shortage of stoicism and inner strength, a decline of manliness? How do you view where we’re headed as a country?
LAKE: Well, up until just a couple of years ago, I was an assistant coach on a high school basketball team, and today’s kids are great. I go out and do these journey runs where I’m just exposed and out there with people, and people are good.
We just had an event where we took 82 people, and we put them on buses and we bused them 350 miles away. They parked in a hayfield on top of a mountain in north Georgia. We bused them 350 miles away and put them on the side of the road with a map. They had 10 days to get back to their car. They set out, the first few people that went through the towns on the way — they would think “That’s a really fast homeless guy,” and then they would ask, “What’s going on?”
The next thing you knew, people were putting coolers of drinks out by the road outside their house. They were loading up stuff and taking it and driving down the road to see where the runners were. The race is called the Heart of the South, and it’s not about the physical location; it’s about the people.
The rural South doesn’t have a great reputation as a humanitarian area, but the support that people got along the way and the help and the things that everyone did for them — and no one was asking who was a Republican or who was a Democrat. There were people helping people, being out on the road as opposed to just watching the selective stuff on TV, and working with the kids instead of just reading about them. This is a great place, and it’s full of good people. I think that if we just don’t lose our confidence in ourselves, this country is going the right way.
COWEN: But say I read in the newspapers, the military complains that some fairly high percentage of American kids are not in good enough shape to even join the military. Should I dismiss that, or is it correct? What do you think?
LAKE: I think that we probably aren’t raising a generation that is in as good a physical condition as they could be. Doesn’t mean they can’t get in shape if necessity requires it. Ironically, that was a complaint of World War II, that the recruits they got were not in good physical condition. That’s not something that’s written in stone and can’t change.
COWEN: Do you think disciplinarian coaches are still possible in 2023 America? Or the parents undercut them, the parents get too upset, everyone’s too much a wallflower? How do you see this?
LAKE: [laughs] Parents very often don’t make a positive input into the sports for their kid. Of course, I’m looking at high school coaches. I’ve not coached on the college level, so I don’t know the people. I think they’re really underappreciated — the high school coaches that I knew, and I’ve known a lot of them over an almost 40-year period.
The two things that you look at that you want your kids to come out of your program with are character and integrity. You’re proud of the games you win, and you’re there to win, but you’re really teaching the kids lessons that you hope make them better people. I don’t see that that’s really changed. Maybe the manifestations of it — maybe some of the stuff that you couldn’t do now, you probably never should have done, but you can have discipline without putting your hands on somebody.
COWEN: When you walked across America, which was the place that surprised you the most?
LAKE: No place really surprised me. I got asked a lot, what was my favorite place, and I always told them it was the place I was at because —
COWEN: I like to say the next place that’s coming.
LAKE: [laughs] That’s a good way to look at it, too. I wasn’t ever sure I would make the next place.
But if I hadn’t been doing journey runs for a long time, I think someone that comes into it and it’s the first time they do it, they’re shocked by how good people are. You have hundreds of human interactions, and they’re all good.
You have numerous law enforcement checks because sometimes you’re doing things that don’t look quite right. Of course, when you’re crossing a mountain pass in the desert, and the nearest house is 50 miles away, the law enforcement is checking to see if you’re safe and sane — sane being a good question — but you got things under control. I got stopped walking through a really ritzy part of town at 4:00 in the morning, looking like a homeless guy.
COWEN: What city is this?
LAKE: I don’t remember what city it was; it was in Ohio. The policeman — he would be derelict in his duty if he didn’t ask why I was there because I didn’t belong. But after we talked a few minutes, he got out and took a selfie with me, and that says it. Then I walked through what were considered really terrible parts of big cities and talked to people. A smile and a wave work the same in every neighborhood. If you want to renew your faith in humanity and you want to renew your faith in the country, walk across it and put yourself dependent on the kindness of strangers.
COWEN: How did carrying bodies to the morgue influence your subsequent life?
LAKE: [laughs] How did you know I did that?
COWEN: Oh, I read it somewhere.
LAKE: One of my jobs. I worked the 11:00 to 7:00 shift, the graveyard shift, ironically. It didn’t really bother me to carry bodies to the morgue because the person was gone and just the body was left. I don’t think it probably influenced me. I was already maybe lacking that part to start with.
COWEN: What did accounting teach you about ultramarathons and running?
LAKE: Everything is numbers. I really enjoyed accounting. Your accountant knows more about you than anybody except maybe your doctor. You can look at the numbers and see what’s going on in places that you’ve never even physically been. I wasn’t really a math person who likes the pure math, but I love numbers for the information — in sports, in business, in everything. Numbers tell you everything.
COWEN: Where did you work as city treasurer? Bell Buckle or somewhere else?
LAKE: No. City called Shelbyville.
COWEN: That’s in Tennessee, right?
LAKE: Yes. It’s in Middle Tennessee.
COWEN: Was that fun?
LAKE: I enjoyed it greatly. I worked with a fellow named Ed Craig who was a really good city manager, and I felt like we did a really good job for the city. Always looked at it that you’re hired by the elected officials, but as a government employee, you work for the taxpayers. And I came away feeling that I really did good service for the people who paid the taxes there, so it was a satisfying stint.
COWEN: How does East Tennessee differ from West Tennessee? How should I think about that?
LAKE: I don’t know. Since I live in Middle Tennessee, they’re both slightly inferior to Middle Tennessee. [laughs]
COWEN: What makes them worse?
LAKE: They’re not Middle Tennessee.
COWEN: Yes, hard to see how they could be.
LAKE: I’m not there. East Tennessee is hillier, and West Tennessee — it’s got a great deal of the Mississippi alluvial plain. It’s more rolling hills, but the people have a lot in common. People everywhere have a lot in common.
COWEN: What makes Bell Buckle a special town? That’s where you live now, right?
LAKE: I live near Bell Buckle. It’s a small country place, and people know each other. I really live in an area I would call Short Creek. I went out before I came on here and did my morning three-hour walk. I usually see only a couple of vehicles. If I see somebody, I wave because they either know me or they’re going to stop and ask directions, because if you end up here, you are trying to get somewhere else.
It’s just pretty, and it’s green, and it’s not real densely populated, and I know all my neighbors for miles around because I walk every day. It’s special in the way someplace else would be if I lived there and had been there a long time.
COWEN: Do you have good barbecue there?
LAKE: I kind of lean towards the Texas-style barbecue, but they have good barbecue in Tennessee.
COWEN: Do you have good Waffle Houses in central Tennessee?
LAKE: [laughs] The Waffle House is the journey runner’s friend — a reliable meal and a 24-hour schedule.
There’s something else about Waffle Houses people wouldn’t know. Walking across the country and looking derelict, I’ll stop at one just because they have an indoor toilet, and then I buy something. On my travels, I think if I go to a business and use their bathroom, I should buy something. I might stop and just buy a glass of chocolate milk. I’ve had the waitress think I was down on my luck and ask if I needed them to buy me a meal because that’s how people are.
COWEN: If you go out to eat at a Waffle House, do you order waffles or you order something else?
LAKE: [laughs] It varies. I like their hashbrowns with pretty much everything in it. An omelet, but I’m not much of a waffle eater because the syrup is too sweet for me.
COWEN: What are the books that have influenced you the most?
LAKE: Now, I’ve got to try to think of the name. I think the guy’s name is McPhee, and he wrote Annals of the Former World.
COWEN: John McPhee. Yes, absolutely great books.
LAKE: That’s a great book. I read mostly nonfiction and tend not to remember the authors and the names of the books.
COWEN: What topics? Do you read about sports or running or what else?
LAKE: I like to read about sports, and I like to read about geology. History fascinates me. Science, paleontology, archaeology, just almost anything. Chemistry or pure math are not really in my realm.
COWEN: Who’s going to win the NBA title next year?
LAKE: [laughs] The team that comes closest to running a real offense because that’s who always wins.
COWEN: Is that Denver?
LAKE: Denver looks good now, but it’s like AAU — they’ll redraw teams between now and then. It’s funny, the NBA game — the rules are designed to make it as much as possible a game of athleticism: run and shoot. I guess you’d call me a basketball purist. I like the passing, the offenses, the defenses, the teamwork, the skills.
I really like the high school girls’ basketball — the most beautiful basketball you see played. It’s almost an art the way that they play it. But at every level when you look, the team that is best at those aspects of the game is still the one that wins.
COWEN: Do you have a favorite player?
LAKE: Okay, Jokic I believe is his name.
COWEN: Correct. A tremendous passer, maybe the best passer ever.
LAKE: Best since Larry Bird. When you were talking about the guy hitting 95 three-pointers in a row, there’s a video of Larry Bird called 50 assists. Those are infinitely more impressive because of what they tell about the player’s court awareness — knowing where everybody is.
COWEN: Last two questions. First, over the last 10 years, you’ve become a lot more famous. How is that changing what you do? How do you cope with it?
LAKE: I’m lucky it didn’t happen when I was young and would think that it really meant something. I’m still just an old hillbilly that lives in the woods, and some combination of circumstances have led to all this notice and attention, but it’s not like I really deserve it. There are exceptional people all around who have done a lot more than I have.
If it gives you the ability to maybe do some things that are positive, or people will listen to you and you can give a positive message, then that’s a good thing. But it’s just a combination of circumstances, unfortunately, not reflecting something I’ve done.
COWEN: Last question: what will you do next?
LAKE: Whatever I can get away with.
COWEN: What will you try to get away with? A new race or a memoir? A documentary?
LAKE: I can’t get away with much because I’m old and slow, and I would be quickly caught, but I’m really putting a lot of focus on this thing called the Backyard Ultra. It’s just a different running sport. I think it emphasizes the aspects of competition that are more positive.
COWEN: Say a little more about that.
LAKE: You run a 4.16667-mile loop, and you do it once an hour. You have a start every hour, and you have to be there in the starting corral and start every hour and finish in time to be in the corral next hour. It just goes on until there’s only one person left. It’s not that hard to run four miles in an hour, but to do it on and on and on, and you only have this short time in between. We did the first one in 2012, and now there’s over 400 of them in 70-something countries.
The winner is the last person left, and he can only go one lap after everybody else is gone. Once you finish a lap by yourself, the race is over, so people who want to achieve big performances have to have other good runners out there with them.
There’s one winner; everybody else is a DNF [did not finish] because the distance of the race is defined by how far the winner goes, so everyone else didn’t finish. But people of all levels can go the farthest they’ve ever gone. It lends itself to that. It’s really more about the individual achievement. Then the last person who DNFs is called the assist because he’s really the one who decided how far the winner went. Without a good assist, you can’t have a big performance.
We’re having the World Championships in October here on my farm. We’ve got runners from 30-some countries and a lot of really exceptional athletes. I got to set it up where you remove the politics from sports. Everyone is there because they qualified. I never liked beauty contests in sports, when you’re picking all-stars or whatever. You like to get it down to be purely objective and no subjectivity in it at all. I think it’s a version of running that has a place for people at all levels to succeed and to accomplish something. It just seems like a worthwhile place to apply my time.
COWEN: That sounds great. Lazarus Lake, thank you very much.
LAKE: I appreciate you talking to me. Hopefully. I’ve seen the impressive list of guests that you’ve had, and I thought, “Oh, I’m being lined up as a change of pace.” [laughs]
COWEN: I really look forward to this one coming out. You put many of them to shame.
LAKE: Well, I appreciate that. I don’t believe it, but it’s still nice to hear.