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Life Isn’t Fair. He Didn’t Want This Race to Be, Either.

  • March 18, 2023

As runners came to check in on Monday, Cantrell was sitting behind a large picnic table. His eyes were warm and jovial, yet devious. He prompted the runners one by one as they sat in front of him. He told them how easy the course was this year — or joked that maybe they should just go ahead and smash their heads into a rock. Some get his sense of humor, others don’t.

His approach has at times led to controversy. One quirky element of Barkley tradition is the requirement that first timers bring a license plate from their home country or state. Hundreds hang from the trees as mementos. One license plate has a Confederate flag. “I would definitely think twice about it now,” Cantrell said.

In the summer of 2020, Cantrell and a team of moderators deleted hundreds of political posts on a Facebook page for a virtual race he organized across Tennessee. One such post included discussions around the race and a photo of a runner wearing a Black Lives Matter singlet. Cantrell said he had no problem with the post, it was the responses that became an issue. They were filled with “the most offensive, typical white supremacist” language, he said, adding a profanity. He eventually deleted the post altogether and faced pushback over perceived censorship.

“People had political axes everywhere,” he said. “I don’t do political.” The group, he insists, is about sport and bringing people together.

When this year’s class of runners arrived at Frozen Head State Park, they were faced with a reality far worse than what could have been reasonably expected. On Monday, the weather shifted as soon as the caravan arrived. The sun vanished and a swift, constant wind accompanied temperatures that plummeted far below freezing. Sleet turned to snow, then to icy rain, and the land looked angry. Most members of the media abandoned plans of staying overnight and fled to hotels 30 miles away. The rest hunkered in vehicles and tents. How could anyone endure 66,000 feet of elevation gain over 100-plus miles in these conditions?

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