Adventure Running

After I (slowly) ran a 19 mile race with only 1 week of training, I figured with 5 more weeks, I could run an ultramarathon. This was obviously a terrible plan, but we all know that I don’t always make the best decisions when it comes to outdoor adventuring. With the overwhelming emptiness that filled me after I finished my Bolivian peaks and not having been able to run in all 2021, having a goal and working toward toward something difficult and really badass was too tempting. Why else would the universe have scheduled a 35-mile trail race through the Ozark mountains on my last day in Arkansas if I wasn’t meant to run it? So this is what I did:

I do not advise following my training plan, especially when you have a “significant tear” in your left meniscus, as my MRI this week revealed. At least I know the source of what has been been plaguing me since March 2021. But I have to say, the more I ran, the better my knee felt. All the PT I did was no substitute for the real deal of hard running and building up my hamstrings and glutes. I did enjoy a host of other pains during my insane training plan – like problems with my right hip flexor, the arch of my left foot, and some weird pelvic floor pain. But on race day, I felt tip-top!

I said I make bad decisions about outdoor pursuits. To some degree, this is because I tend to not pay attention to all the relevant details. I saw “35 miles” for the Spirit of Syllamo race and thought, awesome! A new farthest distance for me. I completely ignored the word “adventure” and this lovely description in the runners packet:

The area is a highlands range, described as “broken” by the National Parks Service. By definition, highlands are plateaus carved out by water. It is rugged, dense, and inconsistent. In a single mile, you might traverse a rock garden, soft pine needles, and a sand pit. The next mile might cross a creek, ascend a mountain, then descend to a waterfall.

Now, throw in 5 solid hours of rain in 40 degree temperatures and a little hail for good measure and you’ve got yourself one hell of an adventure! Quite a few people didn’t show up at the start, and it briefly crossed my mind to not start too, but only briefly. I really, really, really needed to run another ultramarathon. So there I was getting my photo taken at 5:58 AM, the last time I would be dry until I got into my car at 3:30pm.

The race was everything the packet I didn’t read said it would be. At least 8 river crossings with water up to mid-shin sometimes, lots more creeks, and probably 100 unavoidable puddles. Sometimes it was super rocky and technical, sometimes sandy, sometimes beautifully groomed single-track, and sometimes ankle-deep mud that sucked my shoe right off.

The rain alternated between light and downpour, but it was non-stop until 11 AM. Several people quit at the 17.7 mile aid station because it was just too cold. I almost did too. When I left that aid station, my entire face was chattering uncontrollably. Not my teeth – my entire face. My jaw was bouncing up and down like the teeth model in a dentist’s office for a full 2 minutes and I couldn’t stop it. I’ve never experienced a physical response to being cold like that before. I really thought I should go back to the aid station and drop out, but I couldn’t, not when my body felt so, so strong.

And I’m really glad I didn’t because about 2 miles later, I came up on a woman who was walking on a relatively flat section. We exchange pleasantries as I jogged by, and I think I buoyed her spirits a little because she picked up the pace and we ran together and chatted for a few miles. It was really nice to break up the monotony. I felt energized by the company too.

After a few miles she said, guess you’re the lead female now. I asked what she meant and she said that at the aid stations, the race director who checked in her bib number told her she was the first female. But she also said it was her first ultramarathon and she’d hit it to too hard at the beginning. She didn’t pace herself and she was already fading at barely over halfway where I caught up to her. She eventually fell behind and I really was the lead female.

I wasn’t getting up my hopes of winning at that point, though. With around 12 miles left, it was anybody’s race. I had no idea how far behind me the other women I’d passed early on were. They’d caught up to me at the 10.7 mile aid station while I was taking a bathroom and food break, and even though I hadn’t seen them since we left there, they could be just around the corner. You never know on a trail race.

I felt strong and moved at a decent pace for a while, but then I started to fade hard around the 28 mile mark. When I clocked in mile 29 at an abysmal 18:23, I finally convinced myself to stop and eat. I’d eaten at both the aid stations, but the last one had been almost an entire half-marathon earlier. I know it’s very simple: food in = energy out. But sometimes it’s still hard to convince myself that stopping to eat will turn out faster in the long run than trying to push on hungry.

Unfortunately, my fingers weren’t working. They were so cold that I had lost all dexterity and couldn’t open my snacks. And that’s when another runner caught up to me. Luckily, it was a guy. He was nice enough to open my food for me, and one Clif Bar and one cheddar cheese stick later, I was on my way. I reached a little drink station they had set up at exactly the 50 kilometer mark, right before a super steep mudslide of a downhill section, and downed a large glass of Coca-Cola, an homage to my Bolivian mountain guides! Turns out they were on to something because I had wings after that sugar bomb.

I took off for the last 4 miles now determined to win. I had so little to go and felt back to full strength, so it would have stung if another woman passed me at that point. The rain had stopped some time ago, but everything – myself included – was soaked. Because the course was a lollipop, I was heading back to the same few miles I’d traversed in the dark that morning, and those were some of the muddiest, rockiest, with multiple water crossings and large sections of trail that required running over slick rock, which was extra slippery thanks to the weather.

Part of my identity as a runner is falling. It’s just what I do on every long distance race I run. Frankly, I was amazed I hadn’t fallen in any of my training runs, especially considering how rocky the trails were and that the rocks were often hidden by fallen leaves.

But it had to happen, and so it happened at mile 33.04 that I ran onto a large, flat stone covering the trail and my feet slid right out from under me. I twisted so that I landed on my right side, slamming my knee, hip, and shoulder in the stone. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had broken all my bones; I still would have gotten up and ran. With 2 miles to go, no amount of pain was going to keep me down. I screamed a few curses into the frigid air and got my ass up and moving.

When I caught the first little glimpse of parking lot pavement and the roof the pavilion where volunteers were serving up hotdogs, soup, pie, and non-alcoholic beer, it was full on pedal-to-the-metal. I have no idea where all the energy came from. I wasn’t even thinking about being first; I was thinking about being done!

But win I did, finishing the 35.27 miles, 4,504 elevation gain run in 8:58:45. First out of 14 female finishers and fifth out of 22 finishers total. They gave me a Fireball shooter and this gorgeous plaque…made by one of the race organizers himself.

The race organizers are two really cool dudes who are legends in the Arkansas trail running community, and they know how to put on a good race. The whole event was on point – from the swag, to the trail prep, to organizing the volunteers and food, to hiring a photographer from a outfit that promotes outdoor activities, to cheering us on the with Spirit of Syllamo scream and cowbells every time we came into an aid station. I loved this event. They also put this race together out of love of Arkansas trail running and the Ozarks. This was actually the first year the race was official, and I’m sure it’ll attract more and more interest.

The whole trail running community in Arkansas is really awesome. A while back, Trail Runner magazine featured a different local Arkansas race, which is probably in my future, and a more recent piece in the same magazine offered a love letter to these small races. Trail running out here is tough, which makes the community super supportive. During my training, I was cheered on several times by random strangers. I wasn’t in a race and they weren’t just waving or saying hi – I’m talking full on cheering me on. So random and you can’t help but feel good about it. And the Ozark Trail Running Group on Facebook is constantly posting accomplishments of its members, facilitating group runs, encouraging runners to get together, and posting a list of all the weekly group runs in northwest Arkansas.

So, I feel incredible. I feel redeemed from the failure of 2021. I feel like I can do absolutely anything I set my mind to.

I love running in Arkansas and can’t wait to go back!

If you want to come experience an adventure run in the Ozarks and plan to train in northwest Arkansas, you have no shortage of amazing options. These are just places I ran, but there are dozens and dozens more easily accessible from Bentonville or Fayetteville.

Paved Trails

The Razorback Greenway paved path runs 38 miles from Bentonville to Fayetteville with dozens and dozens of offshoot pathways, like the 15 mile Rogers Railyard Loop. I’m sure you could run over 100 miles without covering the same ground twice. A few spots of the trail are broken up due to construction, but hopefully those will be restored soon. There are lots of different trailheads and plenty of clean, functioning public restrooms along the path. I did runs starting from Horsebarn Trailhead, Lake Fayetteville, Carol E Van Sycoc Trailhead, and Compton Gardens.

Mountain Bike Trails

Northwest Arkansas’s claim-to-fame is mountain biking, but runners and hikers are allowed on almost all these beautifully groomed trails too. I hardly saw any trails that were marked “bikes only”. And with the exception of the Slaughter Pen trails during after work / after school hours, the trails were never crowded and I never felt that sharing them with bikers was annoying. Here are a few to try:

State and National Parks and Forests

Forests are technical. They are rocky – golf ball and softball sized rocks littering the trails that will do some serious ankle damage. The trails can also be totally obscured by leaves at some points, so never go out without a downloaded map. You will get lost. You don’t have to worry about mountain lions in Arkansas, but there could be wild hogs, though I never saw any. You might run into some horse riders now and again, and be sure to wear orange during hunting season because the long trails will start in these parks but go off into public hunting land. And don’t be fooled by the low elevation profile of the state. You will get a lot of gain on these trails. The conditions are tough, but you won’t survive a trail race if you don’t train on some of these.

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