Adventures in Arkansas
by Ken Childress (10/11/2006)
This past weekend, I ran the Arkansas Traveller 100 mile race. The short version, I went, I ran, ate, ran, drank, ran, walked, ran, .........., and finally finished. In telling my story to some people, that is all it seems to be. But in my 47 year old slipping mind, it is a fairy-tale come true. I will never run "the perfect race", but this race was close. Not that I set any records, or set a PR that will never be broken. It was just special.
Five of us caravanned from Tulsa over to the hills/mountains of central Arkansas to run or crew or pace this 16th running of Arkansas most revered ultra race. Alex was attempting his first 100. My wife Dana was crewing for both of us. Brian (the Chief Tatur) was pacing Alex from the mid-point back, and Mike was pacing me, but had not yet decided what distance he was going to run with me. I had ran the Turkey and TATURs 50K three weeks before, and the Flat Rock 50K the Saturday before, and had wore myself out. My legs were still sore as late as Thursday, but I had ran a little each day and worked all of the soreness and stiffness out. Still, I wondered if I had done too much in the weeks prior. Alex and I had agreed to run together as long as our paces were matched. He was focused on going out slow so as to save energy for the later miles. Staying with me guaranteed a slow start, and our plan worked great for most of the daylight hours.
The five of us crammed into a double bed room in nearby Morrilton for an abbreviated night of shut-eye. Alex was jittery, I was tired, dana was a little uncomfortable what with sleeping in the same bedroom with four guys! We set and reset the alarm for 4:00 am, and called the front desk for a wake up call. We absolutely did not need any sort of an alarm clock with Alex in the room. He was up and bouncing off the walls at 3:30, showered, dressed, and ready to go. I slept, but not too well as the mattress was about as comfortable as an old haystack. Alex was chirping and chattering, rousting everyone from their slumber. He dragged the covers off of Brian, and twisted the sheet up and started popping him in the butt like guys with towels in a locker room. Brian had a few choice words for Alex's enthusiasm and he won the covers back and buroughed under them. Mike had slipped out of the room, and showed back up with a bucket of ice. That was thoughtful, as I needed a drink of water. BUT, before anyone knew what was happening, the whole bucket of ice was carefully poured all over a sleeping Brian! My sleep was over, nearly passing out from laughing. Plus, I sure did not want to be the next to be under attack!
We took three cars to the start area. Dana would be crewing, and Mike and Brian wanted to be able to scout out the course. (I suspect they did not want to be driven around by a woman.) I watched the thermometer on our Explorer, and the closer we got to the start, the lower the temperature dropped. It was 40 degrees when we got there. OMG it was cold! I had layers to put on, but had planned to start the race in shorts and a sleeveless tech shirt. I pulled on a pair of wind pants, and a COTTON long sleeved race shirt. I ended up ditching the wind pants just before the race which was a good idea. I stayed with the long sleeved shirt until the 16 mile point, which was also a good decision. I sipped a cup of mediocre coffee, and shivered as we listened to the last minute race directions.
Sooner than I imagined, the RD said go, and we were off. I was near the front, and just for fun, I sprinted for about 50 yards. "I AM WINNING!" I yelled like a complete goober. At least I could say that at one point I was winning the race. 127 people actually toed the starting line, and I had to look around a little to find Alex. We had both decided to start the race without flashlights since the first mile was on pavement, and the next several miles were on well maintained gravel roads. Again, this turned out to be a good decision since we did not have to worry about what to do with our headlamps after the sun came up. We had the benefit of a very bright full moon. At times, it was almost as blinding as the sun. The first rays of the sun first lit the upper boughs and leaves of trees on the tops of some of the mountains we would be soon climbing. The air was cool, clean, tasted good. There was not a cloud to be seen. Alex and I ran along and caught up with all the running news, hopes and desires for the race. Life was good. After running what seemed like about 6 miles or so, we reached the first aid station at Brown's Creek. Real freshly cooked pancakes, syrup, and crispy bacon was our treat, and breakfast food never tasted better. We were off again, and began a pretty good climb up to the Flatside Pinnacle aid station. I had a handful of M&Ms.
Eight miles down, and now we began the section that is on the Ouachita Trail. This was maybe my favorite section of the whole race. I still had fresh legs, and this section was a lot like some of the trails that I run on Turkey Mountain. The first 3 miles were a steady downhill, and I picked up the pace a little more, and by the time I hit the next aid station, I was flying and passing quite a few runners. Alex also must have enjoyed this section. He hit the downhill stretch and was off and out of site, but he did wait for me at the aid station. The first 16 miles of the AT are a figure 8 loop, and this aid station was Brown's Creek again, the same one we came through before with the bacon and pancakes. What a genius of an idea it was to have this aid stop twice so early in a race. Nothing like seconds of such great food! The last segment of the single track trail had a little more climbing.
We met up with an old ultra-running friend, Rex. Rex has run over a hundred ultras, and was a wealth of knowledge. He advised us to go easy easy easy. By doing this, we would have energy to finish, and pass a lot of people in the later miles. I will say, we did follow his advice, but did push maybe a little more than he would have thought wise. Coming into Lake Sylvia, we had completed the loop portion of the course. The last 1/4 mile was downhill and I flew down the hill to the whooping and hollering of my crew. Brian, Dana, and Mike were there, the guys asking about the trail, and Dana tending to my nutrition needs. I felt great, and grazed like like a hungry puppy. I gobbled a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, drank an ensure, scarfed down some more M&Ms, filled my water bottle, and was off and running.
The next several miles had quite a bit of climbing. 2 miles straight were steep enough that we power-walked. I thought how nice it would be the next day when I could RUN DOWN these hills, and hoped I had enough gas in the tank to be able to run. It was somewhere along this section where we lost Rex. He had a potty stop, and we perhaps were running a little fast for his taste.
I will say that I don't remember a lot about the next few miles. We ran the downhills, the not-so-steep uphills, and the few flat sections (there were VERY FEW flat sections). It was during this stretch that the trails became a lot more rocky. There were also a couple of areas that were extremely steep and technical. I cringed at the idea of having to run them at night. I tried to eat at least a 1/2 sandwich at every aid stop. It seemed that ham on white bread with mayo was working best, which is strange as I never eat mayo, preferring mustard. I started having a little heartburn and reflux problems, and I drank a lot more water to try to drown this problem. That probably helped me to stay hydrated and I never had blister problems and other problems associated with dehydration. We trotted into the Lake Winona aid station My crew was there, and I was trying to appear strong. I ate more ham sammys, more Ensure, and was out of there before Alex. He needed a little more time, and told me to go on and he'd catch up. He thought we should slow it down, and the next 16 miles being the most rugged on the race, we did.
Miles 32 through 48 wore me down. I tried to not think of all the distance that had to be covered, but instead, I thought of how far it was to where I would see my crew. This 16 mile stretch had the Pig Trail station, the Club Flamingo, Smith Mountain, and Chicken Gap, which was manned by Charlie Peyton, a celebrity in his own rite among Arkansans. While our pace had slowed, we were still moving along, running way more than walking, and talking about how much fun we were having. (No lie! We really were!) We played cat and mouse with a few runners. We were moving a little faster than some, and others were a lot quicker in and out of the aid stations. All and all, we were picking off the miles. After the Smith Mountain aid stop, we got off the rocky roads and got onto a trail that was soft grass, pine needles, and dirt. It was mostly uphill, but not too steep, and I ran it fairly steady. Alex must have enjoyed it too. He picked up the pace and motored into Powerline, our next crew station. Being by myself for a few miles, I began to have a few negative thoughts. It was nearing dark, and I was tired, grumpy, but still very determined to keep going. At Powerline, I had to weigh. My weight was UP 10 pounds. Either their scales were a little off, or I had been making a pig of myself. "OMG! I AM FAT!" I joked. It seems that if I could be silly, I felt more like running and though less about how tired I was. More food, an Ensure, and I started to come back to life. I put on my Zombie Runner vest, took my headlamp, and pondered taking out.
It was then that Mike told me he was going with me. This was a little bit of a surprise to me that he wanted to jump in so soon. Mike's longest run prior to this was 31 miles, and he was jumping in at the point where it was 51.5 miles to the finish. He told me that he would run the next section to the turn-around and back, and maybe sleep a little and then meet me at lake Winona. But for now, I had a pacer. Mike was awesome. My spirits were back up and I felt as fresh as when I had first started. Much of the next 9 miles or so were downhill and we ran them at a good pace. We saw several people on their way back from the turn-around. Of course, everyone tells everyone how good they look, good job, and such. It seems sort of cliche-ish, but a kind word at the right time can work wonders. We rolled into the turn around station and finally found Alex. He had found a hot cup of soup and a camp fire. There were lots of pretty girls, good food, chairs, what more could a tired runner want. I refueled, bragged on my pacer, bragged on how awesome this oasis in the wilderness was, and in general, seemed like a blabbering idiot.
Finally, after a long stay, the three of us departed and headed back towards the Powerline again. We had 57 miles down, and 43 to go. Alex was really worn out. He had slowed to a walk, with just a few short runs mixed in. I was hyper and ready to run, but also wanted to stay with Alex. There were a lot of uphills and actually, walking was perfect at this point in the race. I was worried about Alex. He said he had not hurt anything, but I suspect he was experiencing "the WALL". Shortly after the Chile Pepper Station that was supposed to have burritos but I did not get one, Mike told me to go ahead and he would stay with Alex into Powerline where Brian would then pace him on in to the finish. I shuffled on, weighed at Powerline, and sat down for a while. I ate 2 ham sammys again and shared the second one with someone's chocolate lab. It was getting a little cold so I put on my wind pants again. Mike and Alex made it in, and Brian got Alex pepped up and they beat Mike and I out of the rest area. We did not catch them for about 3-4 miles. It seemed to warm up a few degrees, so I shed my wind pants. After Charlie's Chicken Gap stop, we got to the nice 4-5 mile downhill trail that was dirt and pine needles. Mike and I ran this pretty quick and passed quite a few runners. The Smith Mountain station was not all that friendly, and after that, we had a pretty long climb.
In the wee hours of the morning in the walking sections, sleep began it's attack. I must admit, that at times our power-walking did not have all that much power. Coming up a nasty steep hill, we started seeing tiki lights. It was signs of Club Flamingo. This was one of the best aid stations. It has a tropical theme, complete with Hawaiian leighs. Mike and I got leighed and had our picture taken, ate more hammys, drank a coke, and left out for more climbing. Mike was a godsend during the night. He told jokes (bloody Irish!!) told stories, and sang silly songs. He had me laughing all night long and took my mind way off the task at hand. But at around mile 80, we both were real quiet. We both were suffering from sleep deprivation. I noticed I was stumbling over rocks, and I doubt our pace was much faster than your local tortoise. Finally, after kicking more rocks than I want to ever remember, we reached some better gravel roads, and a little downhill stretch. Mike suggested we run a little to wake ourselves up. What a concept!! After a few steps, I actually felt like running and we picked up the pace quite nicely.
Motoring on into Pig Trail station, we gobbled down some Ramon noodles and departed for more miles. But OMG, those noodles were bad news. They tasted so good going down, but gave us both the most severe heartburn! I drank all of my water from my bottle, and crunched all of my remaining Tums. We had just a few miles back to Lake Winona, our crew, more food, more Tums, and daylight would be coming soon. It's weird how the road returning is way longer than the road going out. It seemed like we would never get to that aid station. It just had to be just around the next corner, then the next, then the next. I was just about pissed, but then I saw so many xmas lights that I though I was rolling into the north pole, or Six Flags, or who knows where. But, it was Winona, another scale to weigh on, and a chair to sit in for a few minutes.
We had finally caught up with John Hargrove, a friend who I have run a few races with. He is 62 years old and was having a super race, but had fallen and broke his glasses. 80 good miles down for him, and he had to run the last 20 without being able to see worth a hoot. He is an awesome runner and quite the inspiration to me. This section around mile 80-82 was also super rough on Alex. Alex was starting to get moving a little, and stubbed his foot on a rock and twisted his knee and had to drop around mile 82. Mike and I left our headlamps with Dana even though it was still dark. The moon was still out in full force, and the next several miles were uphill so I though we would not need them. They turned out to be a good decision again. The sun was up before we reached the long downhills where we needed to run fast.
All of the trip, I had been right on the 28 hour pace, but at Winona, our pace had dropped to about a 29 hour pace. I did not know that at the time, and we were still way ahead of the cut-offs, but Dana told us we had better hurry and she was worried that we might not make it. But I knew I had some gas left, and Mike was a trooper. When we finally got the most of the steep uphills out of the way, we really picked up the pace. It was strange. I felt fresh, like I could just run forever. We kept passing people. One by one, we passed all the people that had passed us during the night or who had leapfrogged us when we dawdled in the aid stations.
At the Electronic Tower, it was 95% downhill from there, and almost all on nice smooth gravel roads. We had 90 minutes to go 8 miles to get under 28 hours. I asked the aid workers if they thought that was possible, and they basically said no way. But, I wanted to make a run for it. There were just a few too many short uphills for that to happen though. But, there was one 3 mile steep downhill run from mile 92 through 95 that we ran like the wind. I would love to know actually how fast we were really moving. I would bet we were clicking out 6 minute miles on this downhill stretch. We ran 5 miles pretty hard, and then had a flattish section that was a little rocky and had a couple water crossings that we did a little walking. The last 2 miles were downhill, and we had about 10 minutes to get in under 28 hours, I knew this was not going to happen even though it was downhill. I was just beat! But we ran it in, not super fast, but we tried to look strong.
Finally, we saw some cars, signs of campers, the pavilion, the parking lot, and the finish banner. Turning into the parking lot and into the finish, they cranked up music that sounded like the Olympics. A voice said "Congratulations. You have just completed the Arkansas Traveller 100 mile race". WOW! Mike and I crossed under the banned hand in hand, fists pumping. We were through. We finished in 28:09:20, 56th out of 81 finishers. Dana was there, taking pictures, and carrying a plate of scrambled eggs and ham and pancakes. How she knew that was just what I needed at that moment? Maybe it was her food? I ate it anyway. It is amazing how well we were moving, and after such a short time how moving at all is such a challenge. Walking just a few steps is something to be contemplated, but now, a few days later, I am running just a little. My back is a little sore....not from the race, but from walking around sticking my belt line out to show off my awesome belt buckle!
I am so thankful for my friends. Brian, for his encouragement and praise. Alex, for hanging out with me and keeping me going for the first half of the race. Dana, my crew-babe, who has crewing down to a science and was the reason I ran so hard into the major aid stations where she was waiting. Last and best, Mike. You are the man!!!! So much of our downhill runs, we were matching our strides step for step. We both just got stronger as the night wore on. Without Mike, I would have been whining and whimpering big time in the wee hours of the am. Mike, you got me to the finish line 2 hours quicker than I would have done by myself.
I would recommend the Traveller to anyone who is crazy enough to do a hundred. It's a hard race, but great aid stations, beautiful scenery, and an awesome experience.
Thanks for hanging with my rambling