The infamous murderer’s prison escape that inspired a near-impossible ultramarathon

06:21 - Source: CNN
Is this the toughest race in the world?

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The Barkley consists of five loops of 20 miles each and about 67,000 feet of elevation

Of more than 1,000 who've entered, only 15 have completed the race

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Petros, Tennessee CNN —  

Fifty years ago, a career criminal named James Earl Ray traveled from Atlanta to Memphis, stalking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader was there to energize a strike of sanitation workers asking for better working conditions and higher pay. Ray was there to assassinate him.

While King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel (now a museum for peace), Ray accomplished his sinister goal with a single shot from more than 200 feet away.

Over the next two months, while on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives List, Ray was on the run, traveling to Europe on a false passport. He was eventually caught at London’s Heathrow Airport. He pleaded guilty to avoid a jury trial and the death penalty, was sentenced to 99 years and sent to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in eastern Tennessee, surrounded by thick wooded hills.

In its day, it was considered one of the toughest state prisons, where inmates frequently killed each other. In the novel “The Silence of the Lambs,” Dr. Hannibal Lecter negotiates a transfer to the prison.

Brushy was also nearly impossible to escape, but Ray managed it with the help of six other convicts in 1977. All were recaptured within days, though “rescued” is probably the better description. Cold, hunger and disorientation brought them to their knees, and their own fiction-worthy plot turned from “The Great Escape” to “Blair Witch Project.”

Ray himself traveled only 8 miles in a little over two days, a detail that made one local long-distance runner, Gary Cantrell, think to himself that he could make it 100 miles in that amount of time.

And thus the seed of the Barkley Marathons was planted.

Man vs. land

Cantrell, whose nickname is “Lazarus Lake,” or “Laz” as he is known by everyone, was further inspired to start his own race by this rugged land he knew so well. The name “brushy” is fitting for a rural area thick with undergrowth, briars and hidden obstacles that inflict cuts, bruises and falls. It’s so dense, you can’t see the top of any of the peaks from the bottom.

These mountains, where a day hike can be a challenge, are where truly competitive racing should be held, he thought, not on a flat, paved, well-marked course.

The Barkley consists of five loops of 20 miles each (though runners swear it’s more like a marathon-length 26 miles). All told, it has about 67,000 feet of elevation – from sea level to the peak of Mount Everest is 29,000 feet – not that the other 67,000 feet of descent are much easier.