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I Spent 17 Crazy Hours In the Arkansas Mountains For the Arkansas Traveller 100

"Welcome to the dark side of the running world!" my uncle Jay says to me Monday morning. He's only partly joking... if that much. Because this weekend I did indulge in what to many (including those involved) would be considered the "dark side of the running world." Running a race with my uncle in the Ouachita National Forest sounds innocuous enough. But when you add in the additional fact that the race covered 100.3 miles and lasted almost 30 hours, it certainly starts to sound a lot crazier. And though I only personally covered 48 of those 100.3 miles as my uncle's pacer, I can say with relative certainty, that it is as crazy as it sounds.

This guy doesn't even know what he's getting into - but check out those gaiters
Founded in 1991, the Arkansas Traveller 100 was one of the earlier 100-mile races to come into existence. Winding through the mountain trails of the Ouachita National Forest, it's both a beautiful tour of the countryside and a torturous trip to the edge of human endurance. It's also populated with some of the nicest, most intense people you'd hope to meet on a hiking trail - and I'm talking about both the participants and the volunteers.

Friday afternoon I boarded a plane to Little Rock, Arkansas with only an inkling of an idea of what an ultramarathon was really like. I'd read a few books on the subject - from the mainstream ("Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner") to the lesser known ("To the Edge: A Man, Death Valley, and the Mystery of Endurance") but I had never experienced any aspect of it in person. I was heading to Arkansas with a pair of trail running shoes, a Nathan HPL 020 Vest, and a flashlight to find out more about this crazy world first-hand.

151 crew members at the starting line
The race started in the dark Saturday morning at 6am. Around 150 runners gathered on a lonely stretch of highway in the middle of a National Forest and without any fanfare the gun went off and the runners took off down the road, before quickly turning off onto a dirt side road that would eventually lead them onto the mountain trails that the rest of the race would follow.

Jay has run too many ultras to keep track of at this point (probably close to 50 he figures) and he was trained up for this one. As his pacer for the second half of the race, my job was just to make sure that he got to the finish line before the 30-hour cutoff. Since we would be meeting him at mile 52 later that evening, we headed back to the hotel to go back to sleep.

The "we" here is my dad (my uncle's brother) and my uncle's brother-in-law. The three of us made up the crew. And our whole mission was to support #151 and make sure he crossed that finish line by noon on Sunday. My uncle took his mantra from Diana Nyad: 1. Never quit. 2. You're never to old to chase your dreams. 3. It only appears to be a solo sport but it's actually a team effort. And as a crew we followed his lead. And we also just followed him. Luckily, as the pacer on the crew I didn't have to do any coordinating or driving. I just had to stay off my feet and let these guys get me to my starting line (which would be mile 52 in Jay's race):

We got to the aid station at mile 52.1 (which also served as the aid station for mile 63.7 after the turnaround) around 5:30 and hung out with the volunteers, pacers and other crew members while watching the runners come through. Since the station was named "Copperhead Road" the Steve Earle song of the same name was playing on repeat. Do you hear what I'm saying? The same song was playing on repeat ALL. DAY. LONG. Oddly enough, after about 30 minutes of it I stopped noticing and it just sounded like good background music. Also, it's just a good song.

Copperhead Road - runners came in from the right and took off to the left (and then turned around 6 miles later)
Jay showed up here at around 7:30 and the crew got him decked out with a freshly filled Nathan vest/backpack and we took off down the trail. By this time it was starting to get dark so I got my first lesson in running with a flashlight. 6 miles later I also got my first lesson in the difference between aid stations at "normal" races and aid stations at ultramarathons: on top of the various bowls of candies and snacks that were on offer, there were also fresh grilled cheese sandwiches. When you're used to running on Gu and Shot bloks, a grilled cheese sandwich is a marvel.

But 6 miles later when we got back to Copperhead Road (I could hear those familiar Steve Earle lyrics drifting through the night as we approached) I got something even better: a whole cheese quesadilla wrapped in foil to keep it warm. The rest of the night is somewhat of a blur. We ran along dirt roads, gravel trails and even through what seemed like just straight mountainside that had been run through recently with some kind of hardcore mower.

My view for several hours on Saturday night/Sunday morning
We hiked up mountains and jogged through plateaus and downward slopes (though as the night wore on it seemed like everything was turning into a climb). We talked about topics ranging from hallucinations to recent travel to life experience in general, and sometimes we didn't talk at all for long stretches of time, the only sounds in the woods being the sound of our feet on a branch or rock and the wind (along with the occasional runner/pacer group on their own journey).

The aid stations - sprinkled throughout the course every 3-6 miles started to seem more and more like part of some kind of dream sequence as they would suddenly appear out of the darkness, a barrage of noise and light and warmth staffed with smiling volunteers jotting down our number and eying us to make sure we were still stable (and sane) enough to continue. In my increasingly-exhausted and sleep-deprived mind it seemed that part of the challenge was convincing these volunteers that they should let us continue on our way. Despite their friendliness, I started trying to avoid talking to them or giving them much chance to talk to me (probably a sign they look for in exhausted runners, I realize in hindsight). My uncle was much more seasoned, saying "thank you" to everyone he saw and shaking their hands.
That crazy 6am look

At around 6:30 in the morning, we reached the aid station at Lake Winona (mile 83.9) and the other two members of our crew - who had spent a cold night in the seats of a truck waiting to meet up with us. They gave us some much-needed psychological encouragement and we got back on the trail with less than six hours and 16 miles to go.

At this point it really became more of a numbers game: could we cover the remaining ground with the energy - and the worn-down bodies - that we had left. 16 miles in five and a half hours might sound like plenty of time but at this point we weren't exactly speed demons.

But following the time tables that we had laid out before the race - and the map of each remaining aid station - we continued to put one foot in front of the other and hope that that would be enough to get us there.

As the sun came up and we were able to turn our flashlights off and once again focus on the view around us - we were on some truly stunning natural forest trails - we also started to feel the impact of not only staying up all night, but running/hiking through the mountains all night as well.

For what felt like eternity - but was more likely around four hours - I had the continuous feeling of "hitting the wall" in a marathon: it's a feeling of utter despair and disappointment. When your brain is telling you that you really should quit because there's nothing left and what's the point. And you have to tell your brain that it might be getting all kinds of input from the various muscles, tendons, organs, joints and nerve endings that it's connected to, but it really doesn't know what it's talking about and you're going to keep going.

Being followed by runner-zombies
When it's happening it's one of the worst feelings there is. But when it's over it's even more incredible to know that you didn't stop, even when that most sensible of voices in your head was pleading with you to do so. In other words, you realize that you're actually a little insane.

And I definitely was driven a little insane by this experience. Towards the end of the 48 mile/17 hour saga, I started to hallucinate. It wasn't anything extreme, but as I was fighting with my own mind and marching on despite its protests, I started to spot various runners squatting along the side of the trail relieving themselves.

I don't know why my mind chose that as what it would imagine but that's what I saw, on three separate occasions a group of bushes would appear to be a runner (not the shadow or outline of a runner but a fleshed-out person with running clothes on) until we got fairly close and then I would look away and the runner would turn back into the bush that it actually was... but on the fourth occasion... there was an actual runner on the side of the trail. She didn't disappear even as we approached and passed her. This only made me more confused.

When we reached the top of the last climb, there was a group of volunteers that told us we only had two miles left. Since we still had almost an hour remaining, this was honestly some of the best news I had ever heard in my life. I think I told the guy that and shook his hand with both of mine. But that might have only been what I wanted to do.

We descended the last hill and the trail turned back into a paved road, where my dad was waiting for us. Heading towards the finish line, I don't know that I've felt that relieved to see the end of a race in my life. The crew came out and walked the last stretch of turf with us and we finished with a 29:46:32. In a race where almost 1/3 of the participants dropped out, finishing is indeed winning. And it's hard not to feel like a winner when you've just finished 48 miles (or 100.3 in my uncle's case)!

Crew 151 just feet from the finish line


After crossing the finish line we chatted with a few other runners and then went and sat down. Sitting down wasn't quite the relief that I was expecting. I actually just felt extremely strange - like my mind had dissassociated from my body. It was a surreal experience. My reaction time was incredibly slow - someone would speak and I would have to first tell my neck to turn and then turn it before I could look at them and respond.

Luckily, we got into the car and the non-running members of the crew pampered us by stopping at a convenience store and buying a grocery bag full of ice cream, hydrogen peroxide and band-aids. That's what I call legit crewmanship.

A number of the ultramarathoners I met on Saturday and Sunday asked me if I'd be back to complete my own 100-mile race next year. At the time I was either too green or (later) too discombobulated to respond with a real answer. But after giving it some thought I'd say that the answer now is "No." 100 miles is not in the cards for me next year. But if Jay is running again, I know an experienced pacer who would be glad to hit the trails for another 48.

Because I've already somehow forgotten about the pain and suffering parts of this race because the impressions of the final triumph of crossing that finish line, sitting down and (later) taking a shower and getting into a hotel bed are so much more powerful.

I didn't sleep for long as I had to wake up and fly back out of Little Rock that evening. In a cab on the way home from O'Hare the driver asked me what I did that weekend. When I told him, he at first wouldn't believe me. But when I insisted he asked me:
"What do they give someone who runs 100 miles?!?!"
"A medal," I told him.
"What. The. Hell." he said emphatically, shaking his head. "That's crazy!"
"Actually," I said, "It is."

I don't think he knew exactly how right he was. And I don't know if it's possible to know until you experience at least part of it. An ultramarathon is actually crazy. That's what makes it such a good time. And that's what makes it such a love/hate experience.

And that's also what makes me running the Chicago Marathon this weekend not seem so crazy after all. 

A finish line has never looked so good

Comments

  1. Excellent article, believe you have captured the mystery of running into the darkness and emerging back into the light. Your description of the trail, the climbs, the aid stations, the volunteers.....made me feel like I was there with you for 48 miles...which is good since I actually was. Thanks again for getting me to the finish line, it would not have happened with out you. You are indeed the real deal.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Two of the most courageous men I know (... crazy?, but delightfully so)

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  3. Sounds like a crazy experience! I've never really had the urge to do an ultra, but trail running is fun. I would be up for more of that, haha :)

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