‘Frozen Ed’ | The first man to finish the hardest hike in East Tennessee: The Barkley Marathons

Back in 1988, some thought the Barkley was impossible. Then Edwin “Frozen Ed” Furtaw managed to finish it.
Only 15 people have completed this 100-mile backcountry race at Frozen Head State Park.
Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 2:39 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 16, 2023 at 1:09 PM EDT
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WARTBURG, Tenn. (WVLT) - Some might call the Barkley Marathons the hardest timed hike in the world. It’s a race competitors enter not just to try and finish first, but finish at all.

The Barkley was first held in 1986 by Gary Cantrell, better known as Lazarus Lake, at Frozen Head State Park. It consisted of three unmarked, backcountry loops with massive elevation gains adding up to a total of 50 miles with a 24-hour finishing time limit.

Read More: The Barkley Marathons: The toughest hike in the world, here in East Tennessee

Back then, just like now, competitors were allowed nothing but a map, compass and some basic instructions on where to go. It took three years before the first person, Edwin “Frozen Ed” Furtaw, managed to finish.

Edwin "Frozen Ed" Furtaw
Edwin "Frozen Ed" Furtaw(WVLT)

Furtaw grinned as he explained the “ancient history” behind the race and what it was like to be the first person to finish.

“He created this race in part because of the famous prison escape of James Earl Ray, who was the scoundrel who assassinated Martin Luther King. He was incarcerated at the Brushy Mountain Penitentiary, which is located on the perimeter of the park,” Furtaw said. “In 1977 Ray and several others escaped from Brushy Mountain. Ray was out there in the mountains for 54 hours and when they tracked him down with bloodhounds, he was only about eight miles from the prison.

Gary and his friend were familiar with the mountains here; they camped and hiked here. Gary said ‘in that amount of time, I could’ve done 100 miles,’ because he was already an ultra-runner in the late 1970′s.”

The initial version of the Barkley, which changes a bit every year, was that three-loop, 50-mile track. Furtaw said, before he made it out to Frozen Head, he thought he had a pretty good chance of finishing.

“He was calling it 50 miles; three loops adding up to a total of 50 miles, and he allowed a 24-hour time limit,” Furtaw said. “At the time, I was able to run most 50-mile races in about eight hours. So I was amazed to see that here was a 50-mile race with a 24-hour time limit, and no one finished it. Of course, I had never been to Frozen Head, and I didn’t really know what was involved.”

He wasn’t prepared for two Mt. Everests-worth of elevation gain, though.

“So he was promoting in ultrarunner circles that people come and try this race, and he showed me the map and I had never seen so many elevation contour lines on a map, so I could see right away this is serious mountains here,” Furtaw said.

The Barkley was swiftly proving to be one of the hardest challenges for any ultrarunner. The qualifications for finishing the Barkley are strict, even on top of the difficult terrain. The fact no one could finish the impossible race was one of the reasons Furtaw insisted on competing.

“So, he had the race again, the following year, 1987, and once again, nobody finished. Well, that was like a hook. I was like a fish on a hook with that,” he said. “I figured ‘Okay, I betcha I could do it. Fifty miles in 24 hours.’ So I came out here and trained on the course.”

That decision led to a chance encounter with Lake and a friend, who allowed Furtaw to check out the course with them. A course they were continually changing.

“Gary and his co-creator of the event, Karl Henn, they were coming out here to explore, to modify the course, and they invited me to come out here with them to scout out some new parts,” Furtaw said. “I really loved it, and I could see it was going to be closer to the equivalent effort of 100 miles, not just 50.”

Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell
Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell(WVLT)

1988 proved to be Furtaw’s year, but it wasn’t an easy race. In fact, he said he almost lost out to, who he calls, a better runner. The Barkley’s strict course meant Furtaw could take the title of first finisher.

“In 1988, I came out here, and there were a couple of faster runners than me, but I ended up winning the race because one of the faster runners quit, and another unintentionally shortcutted the course,” Furtaw said. “Gary had written explicit directions, but the really good runner who was here, who should’ve won the race, didn’t understand the directions properly, and he ended up shortcutting the course by about a mile and a half. So he was disqualified, and I became the first person to finish it.”

Even factoring in that shortcut, Furtaw added, the other competitor was the much faster runner.

“He got to the finish line in about 24 hours. It took me 34 hours, that’s how much better he was than I,” he said.

The Barkley is one of the toughest races in the world because there’s no help and no equipment, other than what the racers carry on their backs.

“The course is unmarked,” Furtaw said. “UltraMarathonss are usually held on marked courses with aid stations set up every couple hours along the way. This race doesn’t have aid stations. You’ve got to carry everything you’re going to need for a loop, which takes an average of 12 hours. So that’s a lot of stuff to carry.”

Lake’s Marathons isn’t a static thing, however. In fact, it gets harder every time someone finishes it, a feat that has only been accomplished 15 times in 36 years.

“Immediately after that year, starting in 1989, Laz created the 100-mile race,” Furtaw said. “Most people thought that was impossible, because most people couldn’t do the 50, let alone 100! He played with the course, he modified it. Eventually he made the loop a little bit longer, and the 100-mile race was five loops. Then he called the three-loop race ‘the Fun Run,’ and it was 60 miles.”

The race changes every year, Furtaw said. He laughed as he talked about how brutal Lake makes the Barkley every year.

“He’s trying to keep it at the limit of human-endurance,” Furtaw said. “That’s why he adjusts the course. He makes it harder when people finish it, and if it goes a few years where no one can finish the hundred, he backs it off a little bit. He’s really kind of a creative genius.”

I took years before someone managed to finish the new, even more difficult version of the Barkley.

“So right from the start, he made it more difficult,” Furtaw said. “But then in 1995, seven years after I finished the three-loop race, he lengthened the loop and made the hundred-mile race five loops instead of six.

“At that point, a good runner from England came over here named Mark Williams, and he finished the hundred his first attempt. It really amazed all of us; we had thought it was impossible, but he did it in 59 and a half hours. Right near the 60-hour time limit.”

One of the attractions for Barkley runners is how dangerous the course can be. It’s one of the reasons the entry process is so strict, and why runners have to prepare for what’s coming.

The Barkley runs off-trail, straight up and down the mountains of Frozen Head, avoiding the switchbacks local hikers might be familiar with. The park has had a rule for decades keeping hikers on-trail, but that rule goes out the window (with the park’s permission) for the Barkley.

“There was one year that we actually started a search party for a missing runner,” Furtaw said. “He was an older guy, about 75 years old. He went missing overnight, but eventually he got out into the state game land that’s adjacent to the far side of the park, and some local friendly people on ATV’s found him and brought him back to camp. So that’s the closest we’ve ever got to needing to search for a missing Barkley runner.”

Even now, it’s obvious that finishing the Barkley Marathons is something Furtaw takes a lot of pride in. Even after telling story after story, he didn’t seem ready to stop talking about the race he’s attended almost every year since he first won.

“Oh, I could go on forever!” he said.