People who run often have goals — weight loss, cardiovascular health, bragging rights or valuable prizes are all reasonable rewards sought by marathoners and distance athletes.
Then there are runners of a more extreme variety — ultrarunners, those who trek for days on end across the length of multiple southern states in mid-summer.
Their ambitions tend to be unique.
“I have always wanted to have a hallucination,” says White Rock area resident Novle Rogers.
To become weary and sleep deprived to the point of delirium would be but a by-product of the paramount physical, spiritual and mental experience.
Pain and exhaustion-induced visions are a common side effect of tackling a 500-kilometer run — that’s 314 miles — something Rogers and his friend Oak Cliff resident Steven Monté did this past summer.
The race lasted in excess of a week for them and most participants, beginning with a ferry ride across the Mississippi River, from Missouri to Kentucky. Once there, the race director, an eccentric Tennessean named Gary Cantrell, better known as Lazarus Lake, signals the start by lighting his cigarette.
Cantrell recently became famous with the release of a popular Netflix documentary, “The Barclays Marathons,” about his crazy, secretive 100- (well, maybe 130-) mile footrace through the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee — the course offers a cumulative elevation gain of 60,000 feet (equivalent of climbing Everest twice from sea level). To date, just 12 men, of 800 competitors since 1985, have completed The Barclays Marathons. Mystery shrouds its registration process, just a forshadowing of the complexities of the actual event.
“There is no website, and I don’t publish the race date or explain how to enter,” Cantrell told the New York Times. “Anything that makes it more mentally stressful for the runners is good.”
There is a glimpse into the brain behind Monté and Rogers’ quest, titled The Last Annual Vol State Road Race (it’s not the last, this time, but someday it will be — that’s Cantrell’s reasoning behind the tongue-in-cheek name).
By comparison, Cantrell’s 314-mile Last Annual Vol State — “on foot, along highways and back roads, from one small town to the next, over hills and across rivers, up mountains and down long valleys, all the while accounting for all of their most basic needs such as food, water and sleep,” as he describes it — it is the gentler endeavor.
“Oh absolutely it is easier [than Barclays],” Monté says.
Both Monté and Rogers are experienced ultrarunners who have tackled multiple 100-mile races through hills, extreme weather and mud, but running 314 miles was like nothing previously imagined, they agree.
With each passing year, the Vol State race’s popularity increases, and residents of the towns along the course help out the so-called “screwed” runners, like Rogers and Monté, who do not have a crew helping them. (Entrants assisted by a crew, “crewed” runners, are not allowed to accept any outside help).
“Every year they say more and more people are popping up to help,” Monté says. “They are called ‘road angels.’”
Still, the super-long-distance runners often are a strange sight, and scent, to observers.
“We were resting outside a convenience store when a little kid asks his dad, ‘What’s that smell?’ and that gave us a good laugh,” Rogers recalls.
One fellow participant, a woman prone to roadside naps, was called in as a dead body to police, they recall.
“Twice,” Monté adds with a chuckle.
There were no visions, unfortunately, Rogers says, but the experience was transformative nonetheless.
“I had built preconceived ideas and notions on what to expect as I entered this race. I set out with a plan of action on what to do and a specific time in mind. I didn’t even come close,” Rogers says. “But by the time I finished, not only were these assumptions shattered, they were replaced with a new philosophy. By the time you finish, as Lazarus [Cantrell] predicted, you have new notions about success and failure.”
Monté learned his own lessons on the road.
“Vol State taught me that there is a way to break anything down, make it doable.”
So do they plan to take on the famous, weird and wonderous Barclays Marathon next?
Just to get accepted into that field could take three to five years, Monté guesses, especially now that the movie is out.
“I hope so, because I need the time to prepare,” he says, adding that all the training he does now — such as running circles around his neighborhood park dragging a tire tied around his waist, and regularly registering for 50 and 100-mile trail runs — is in preparation for a future Barclays attempt.
Rogers — who also does the tire-dragging thing, up and down the hills at Norbuck Park — says he would not turn down the opportunity to try if he ever finds out how to enter. (And, no, he won’t simply ask Cantrell, fearing he might lose the man’s trust).
Meanwhile, both plan to run Vol State again next summer.
“Apparently you don’t do this just once. A lot of the people there had done it multiple years,” Rogers says.
Most people would not find this to be fun, they both acknowledge, but they say, for them, it is that and more.
“The lure of this race is there’s a certain subculture of trail running that is pure, do-it-for-the-fun type deal and you see a lot of those people at this race,” Monté says. “The oldest finisher was a 75-year-old race veteran … he was clipped by a car a few days into the race but finished anyway,” Rogers adds.
None of it makes much sense when you try to put it into words.
Maybe it’s just knowing that “anything can happen in any given race,” as Monté says, and the longer the race, the broader the scope of possibilities.
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