>*warning, this is the longest post ever…so grab a snack!*
Day Zero: Travel
Up at 4 am, I checked and double-checked my bags making sure I had everything: Three pairs of shoes, 40 Gus, Ziplocks of Perpetuem and HEED, hot weather gear, cold weather gear, rain gear, etc etc etc. As much as I would like to think that as long as I had the basics I could get anything else I needed in Arkansas – I wasn’t sure what the town would be like where I was going, and I didn’t want to count on that.
Arriving at the airport I stopped for water and a granola bar. When I saw the total came to $6.66 I was a little weary. Then, seeing that I’d be flying in one of those little prop planes I was a little more worried! Alas, everything was fine and there was no need to be superstitious. I arrived in Little Rock, checked out my rental car – a nice little Versus – and went to find lunch. Hoping to find some BBQ or something, I drove around for a bit, However, I was still “in the city” of Little Rock so there wasn’t quite was I was looking for – and so I settled for Wendy’s for the sake of time.
After lunch I headed out to Allison, a little town just north of Mountain View. The drive out there was pretty rural, but it was nice to see the mountains in site. I did make one stop on the side of the road at a “self-service” honey and jam stand! I was relieved to find a Walmart in Mountain View, and after checking in to Jack’s Fishing Resort I headed back there to pick up some groceries and then over to the race site. At the campground where the start/finish would be, I found the usual scene the day before an ultra – a couple people milling around and a few coolers – but otherwise a quiet place. Picked up my race number and headed back to Jack’s to make myself some fajitas for dinner. Then Survivor came on, and I was able to get to bed early.
Day One – 50K
Since this was just a 50K there was no need for an early start, so I was able to get out of bed at 6:30 and make a full breakfast of oatmeal and a bagel before heading over to the race site. They wanted us to be there around 8 for the 9am start to check us in and brief us on the course. Slowly people started to arrive, and the Race Director came out to introduce a few of the standouts this year (Dave Wakefield, multi-year winner of the stage race, Ashley Nordell – multi-year female stage race winner, and some others who have done the stage race each of the years it has been held.) He also told us that the trails we’d be running today were in great condition, and we were to follow the yellow and black striped flags.
A quick go and we were off – I watched the lead group take off fairly quickly, and settled into a rhythm with a couple others. The man I ended up running the majority of the race with was from Kansas City, and had done the race the previous year. He gave me his words of advice, but also scared me a little bit by saying that the 3-day race was harder than a 100. We worked well together – he pushed my pace on the downhills and the flats and I kept our pace quick on the climbs we walked. My main focus for the first 2 days was to really be aware of my heartrate and to keep my effort level from peaking. If I ruined my legs too early by pushing it too hard up the climbs; or hammering too hard the downhills, I’d be in trouble. I knew early on that I was in 3rd place – Ashley was in first, and another woman who was only doing the 50K/20K was in second. That was fine by me, as it was a pretty challenging course and I felt comfortable, but was still making good time. By mile 24 I had moved ahead of both the men I was running with, which made that last 8.5 miles back home pretty rough. I concentrated on staying on course, and when I hit the campground with 2 minutes before 6 hours hit, I had energy left to get to the finish in 5:59:35. Looking around, I was surprised as I wasn’t too far behind the lead group.
One of the pieces of advice I had heard from Kansas City man was to definitely take advantage of cold river water next to the campground. He said a soak in that would keep me in the game for the weekend. So minutes after I finished, I grabbed an Ensure to get some calories in me, and headed to my car to get my flip flops for a soak in the river. I saw another man waddling to his car, and I asked if he was headed there as well. He said he didn’t know if he could stand it, he felt pretty rough after the rocks today. I told him I wasn’t sure either, but I heard that it makes a big difference, so he shrugged his shoulders and said he’d come with, introducing himself as Mike from Chicago. We waded in up to mid-thigh, and there we met Jamie Anderson from Hot Springs, another of the stage race runners. We all exchanged stories of the day, then had to help each other back out of the water. Back at the camp dinner was being made, and Mike, Jamie and I sat down with some others and made some more friends. By that time, I headed back to Jack’s to meet my dad who had flown in for the remainder of the weekend. I was surprised at how generally tired I felt and was a bit concerned about the day to come, but the worst of it was mostly my toes taking a beating from running all day in wet socks. I was also starving, so I got my dad to cook me up another dinner of eggs and cheese!
Day 2 – 50 Mile – “This is where the fun begins”
Since this was a 50 on a tough course, we were given a 14 hour time cut-off, but with that comes an early wake-up time. At 4 am the alarm rang to make sure I was up for the 6am start. This morning people were slightly less cheery than before, definitely more nervous, and much more slow moving toward the start line. When Steve yelled “go”, you could actually count a second or two before anyone even started to move. Today’s trail would take us on 50 miles of the 100 mile course Steve had designed. The 100 was cancelled last fall, but will hopefully be held this year. All we knew was that this course was “challenging”….murmurs of if rivaling Masanutten surface, but no one knew for sure. It was going to be an out-and-back course, designed to follow the permanent blazes on the trails. An out and back course really is my favorite for anything longer than a 50K. You can leave things knowing you’ll come back to them, and you know exactly what is to come when you hit the 25 mile mark. It eliminates a lot of the thinking required for the run.
Today started out much slower – one because the lead pack was even feeling the effects of yesterdays 30 miles, but also because we start heading up into the mountains. About 2 miles in I had the lead pack in sight but had fallen off a good bit, and found a comfortable pace. I was surprised at how good I actually felt, but didn’t want to push my luck – I had a long way to go. I heard a voice speak up from behind me – “Hey, it’s Mike, your buddy from the river last night – how do you feel today?” I said I felt pretty good but wasn’t going to set any records today, and asked him how he felt. He said he felt good also, and his only goal for the day was not to get lost. I laughed as I remembered his story from yesterday where he got lost when he was about a mile from the finish, and said I think we can make that happen. For the next 4 hours Mike and I ran together, alternating pushing each other up the climbs and keeping each other busy with stories so we didn’t think about the actual running we were doing. One of the 10 mile stretches of trail was particularly brutal. The ice storms from the year before, as well as the tornadoes they had recently, tore up the trails and the trees. Most of the trail was completely banked on the mountain, so you were either falling off the ledges or just running with your ankle cocked to the side. And for the brief sections where there were no rocks, there were plenty of downed trees to jump over or slide under. With the condition of my toes from the day before, I did my best to put the feelings of blisters forming out of my head. It also helped to have my dad out there today – he was in charge of documenting the race with my cameras at each of the aid stations. It turns out that means that most of the pictures he got are of me eating, but oh well!
About 10 minutes after left the 19 mile aid station, mike started having some stomach issues and dropped back. I was concerned, but obviously this was nothing unusual, so he thanked me for the run we had so far, and I went on my way. I headed out to the turn-around, and saw I was in 6th place. The only female ahead of me was Ashley, and then there was 5 other guys, one of whom was only about 4 minutes ahead of me. I was in good company, and that gave me the confidence boost I needed to get back up the climb at the half-way point. I also saw Mike at this turn-around, and he was about 6 minutes behind. He smiled, gave me a high-five and said he felt a ton better, and he’d see me up there.
At this point I was counting down the miles and I was on a roll. My legs felt better today than they did the day before, and my stomach was giving me no troubles at all. I was rocking the perpetuem, S! caps and GU on my usual schedule, and augmented that with saltines with PB and mountain dew at the aid stations. It was like magic. Plus, the weather was 40s and drizzly – absolutely perfect! I kept running into Jamie at the aid stations on the way back, but he would leave a minute or two ahead of me and I couldn’t get sight of him on the trail. With around 20 miles to go, I ran into a group who was still running towards the turn around and they said “Go get that guy in front of you! Ashley is in the lead! You girls are rocking it today!” That was all I needed, and as I hit a section of jeep road I picked it up a little. Turning back on the trails I finally caught sight of Jamie up ahead. He must have heard me because he quickly stopped and turned around and said “THANK GOD! I’m hurting real bad, I need some conversation.” So I jumped in front, and we started chatting to pass the miles. The things you talk about with the people you run with are pretty unique, so Jamie and I got to know each other pretty quickly. He had also seen Mike close behind at the turn around, so we both looked back from time-to-time expecting to see him. The only other company we had for the last 15 or so miles was brief – a runner who had the energy left to really get moving for those miles came through quickly. At mile 9 we had the last manned aid station, so I checked in with them to see the status of the leaders. I found out that Ashley was winning, and her 2 strongest competitors had both dropped, putting Jamie and I tied for 4th place! Woohoo. That was all I needed, and we headed down the trail again. The last 9 miles are some of the nicest. Jamie and I stuck together – he swore he was going to drop before he saw me and I was the reason he kept going, but truthfully he was the one keeping me running. Finally we crested the top of the final climb and heard a cowbell. “There it is!” He said as we came down the steep descent into the campground. “You go ahead, I’ll follow you in.” No way I said! We’re finishing together. With a little more convincing he conceded and crossed the line even with me, in 10:55:xx. Smiling seeing we were under 11, we both had a lack of words due to extreme tiredness, and set off to get comfortable and find some food.
After another soak in the river and some dinner, I asked Ashley if she had seen Mike come in. No – she was wondering the same thing, she said. Hmm. At this point so many other had come in, it really pointed towards him having dropped. Of course that’s not ideal, but who knows what may have happened in his last 25 miles, and sometimes that is the best option. I figured I would see him in the morning, and I went back with my dad to get some sleep before day three.
This was pretty much the worst night of sleep I’d ever had in my whole life. There were blisters in between each of my toes and on my heel, and I went through god knows how many hot flashes, sweating through my pajamas and just being super uncomfortable. I had a similar sleep after Western States, so I knew my body was going through some pretty weird stuff.
Day 3 – “where’s Mike?”
The arrival to the start for day 3 was even slower, though we did have the luxury of the 9 am start time again. I got out of the car and saw one of the men I spent some time with on the 50K and he told me that no one was signing in yet, because the race was up in the air at that point because one of the runners from the 50 mile was still lost from last night. Immediately I knew who it was, but I was hoping it wasn’t. Do you know who? I asked. “some guy from Illinois”. Yup – I knew it was mike. I went over to Liz, the RD’s wife, and gave her all the info I knew – what type of food and how much food he was carrying, water, clothes, etc. We also had plenty of video and a few pictures of him to help the others place who he was and try to figure out who had seen him They knew that he had made it through the 41 mile aid station at 3:10pm – about 30 minutes after I had left there. No one had seen him since. A couple of the guys had been out running that last 9 miles of the course twice over last night, going down the cliffs and looking for him everywhere. He also (obviously) never returned to the cabin where he was staying with some friends.
As more people collected for the race, one of the organizers gathered us together and gave us an option. We would be allowed to go out this morning on the run. If we did, they would just start a watch and we would sign in with our time when we finished. They also asked that we went out in pairs to prevent anyone else getting lost, since no one would be manning any aid stations for check points. The 12 miles of trail for Sunday’s race was in the other direction from the 50 mile, so we wouldn’t be interfering with the helicopters infrared search.
No one seemed very excited to run at that point, and quickly someone asked what was on all of our minds – how can we help search for Mike? We were told that the Forest Service would give us the okay at any point to join them in search parties and would definitely welcome our help. They just needed to get through a bit more of the searching by helicopter before they sent any more people into the woods. At this point a vote wasn’t even necessary – we all knew the race meant nothing right now, we wanted to help search. After about 30 minutes we mobilized at the ranger station with clothes and food, prepared to be out in the woods searching until 7-8pm that night. We had enough people for 4 groups of 10 to go out, each group covering 2-5 miles of the course where we thought he could be. As we were being briefed on how to properly conduct a search through the woods and be most effective, it really set in that this could be serious. There were plenty of places where you could trip and fall off the side of the mountain, and if the falling wasn’t bad enough, there were plenty of rocks along the way to hit your head on. And a night in the 30 degree cold weather in shorts and a t-shirt? Yikes. One of the couples in my search party had run 600+ ultras between them – and neither had seen a runner ever go missing for more than a couple hours. The fact that the sun had been up for several hours at this point and he wasn’t found was unnerving. I had to push these things out of my mind and stay positive, though. We set out searching, and diligently went through all the brush up the mountain for about 3.5 hours when finally we got the call – he had been found, and was tired/dehydrated/etc, but he was okay. He was about 20-25 miles away from where he should have been, well off course, and lord knows how far he actually travelled to get to that spot. As more of the story came out, we found out that he missed the turn onto the trail right after the 41 mile aid station. He eventually turned onto the wrong trail, and, well, two wrong turns in the woods and boom, you’re lost. With less than 2 hours of daylight, he had little to go on. At some point he hunkered down for the night, covering himself with leaves for warmth, and in the morning got up and started to walk again. He actually came across a group camping at one point, explained his problem, and said he needed to get back to the race start/finish. For whatever reason, the campers refused to help him, and he had to continue on blindly (he even offered them the $100 he had sitting up at his cabin). Luckily, we also had people out driving the jeep roads around the trails and one of the women came across him.
So the search was called off, and we happily came down off the mountain and enjoyed a few beers to relax. No one really minded that the 3rd day was called off. It could have been any of us that got lost out there, and the way everyone came together without question was more inspiring than anything anyone could have done out there on the run. We chose a sport that comes with sacrifice. One part of the sacrifice we often do not have to encounter is that of giving up the race. When you are out on the trail, situations can easily escalate and put safety into question. I feel honored to be a part of a sport where the participants will put the race behind them and help each other out first, no matter the price it has on the outcome of their race.
And that was that. My dad and I went in to town to have dinner at the Wing Shack, enjoyed our last night out in Arkansas, and I was up early again to make the 2 hour drive back to Little Rock for my flight Monday morning.
All in all, this race was a great experience – even without the 3rd day. The camaraderie that is present throughout the entire weekend is special and I would love to return again next year to give it another go. Whether it is a race weekend or just a good way to get in 100 mile training, it’s well worth the weekend to head down to Arkansas!!