For seven years now, I have made a trip over into Arkansas to do the Athens/Big Fork Trail Marathon. This tough trail race begins in the community of Big Fork and crosses over 8 mountains on an old mule trail used a hundred or so years ago to get mail from Athens to Big Fork. It is an incredible trail, scenic, steep, technical in places, and the hardest race I have ever done. Yet each year, I drag my bones back for another dose of punishment.
Big Fork is not much more than a wide spot in the road if even that. Big Fork boasts the Big Fork Mall. Twice now, I have intended to take a picture of the mall, but we always seem to be anxious to get to the race start, and afterward, we are too beat to stop for a photo-moment. This pic is obviously taken by bicyclists in the warmer months. This store has sodas, and a few snacks, and not much more. The owner (Raymond I think) has half of the store devoted to paintings, and he'll give you a tour to show off his work. I have not stopped to visit the store in the past few years, so if things have changed, so be it. The other building in town is the Community Center where the race begins. After checking in, getting our race numbers, catching up with old friends and such, we pose for a group picture. This picture at times has been helpful to identify missing runners as it is easy to make a wrong turn in the mountains. What should be a 26.2 mile trek for some ends up being 30+ miles. I had made the trip down with Jason and Lisa, and we met Bill Richardson, another TATUR in Mena at the Sun Country Inn to get a sleep the night before. TATUR was also represented by Randy Ellis and Tom Brennan. The race started at 8:00 (8:01 by my watch.) I had started my Garmin whilst inside, and it was slow in getting a signal, so I cleared the mileage and started it just as the race started thinking it would pick up soon. But of all the rotten luck, the memory was full! I was having trouble reading the numbers and could not seem to figure out how to delete laps or clear the memory as I had lost my glasses the day before. Sux to get old! I decided I would just have to go data-less and rely on my watch for my time. The time I had spent jacking with my Garmin had put me about 1/4 mile behind all the runners....but no worries--this is a race where a slow start is beneficial. I settled into a steady zombie-shuffle and gradually caught up with a few of the runners. The plan was to run with Lisa, but she ran her pace and figured I would catch her later, which after about 5 miles, I finally did. A/BF begins with about a mile of pavement, and then turns onto a gravel road for about 1.6 miles before reaching the trailhead. That's where the fun begins. Below is an elevation profile borrowed from Arnold Begay's blog from last year. The profile should be symmetrical, but on the right side of the graph, you'll notice a discrepancy where Arnold made a wrong turn and added about 3 bonus miles. This race is one where a wrong turn can be costly. If one does the marathon, he/she will have climbed about 9,600 vertical feet. That's like climbing the Empire State Building 6 times. This amount of climb would take you from the base of Pikes Peak to the top with 1400 feet to spare. I did get the memory cleared on the Garmin just before I reached trailhead, and at least had a hint of how slow my pace really was. Sometimes the only good thing about a Garmin is hearing the darn thing beep at each mile.
It's hard to capture in a snapshot the severity of the slope of a climb. Not every uphill is as steep as climbing stairs, but some inclines are almost at a 45 degree slope. Most of the trail is nice single track--some pine needle blankets like pictured above, some craggy rocks, some nice soft dirt, some green meadows strewn with rocks--a nice mix. This year, the saw briers were not as bad as in past years, but the top of the first mountain had a bad patch.
My ability to make good time going up needs work, but my downhill running helped out. Often, well about 14 times +/- I was able to bomb the downhills and make up a little time. A couple downhill slopes were rocky to necessitate a slower pace.
While descending one mountain, the next one seemed to rise toward the sky. At times, I wondered why I was back here again. A glutton for torture....yup, I is dat.
After 5.5 miles, I finally caught Lisa, and we stayed close for the remainder of the race. She is better on the uphills than I was, and I would catch her on the descents. (Gravity is my friend while going down.)
There were several water crossings. At first, most people try to step across on stones or fallen trees....gotta keep the feet dry. But soon enough, it made more sense to just plow right through the water. Blaylock Creek had to be waded, and some years it is knee deep. This year, it was mid-calf deep....and icy cold!
This was where the second aid station was, and also the point where the 17 mile fun-runners turned around. Neither Lisa of I wee thinking about turning around early....gotta go for the full monty! A cold day--ice on the Icebreaker hat.
So Lisa and I are about 9.5 miles into our race, and Tom Brennan comes flying down the hill in first place....no surprise there. At our 9.5 mile point, he was over 7 miles ahead of us. Humbling! Tom held the course record here, running it in 4:34 a few years back. Today, he smashed his record by clocking a 4:26. Studly!
Another mountain to climb.
Not all of the trail was straight up and straight down. There were a few stretches that ran along streams for as much as a mile....very scenic and very runnable.
Next Tatur to pass us on the way back was Bill Richardson. Bill finished and was gone when we finished, some 4 hours ahead of us.
Randy was next. Lisa thought Randy would be miffed at her for doing the 26.2 instead of the 17 mile fun run. But I am sure randy was more impressed than miffed.
Please disregard the likeness of Oprah in the rock to Lisa's left. It is there because of a quirky requirement for one of my other blogs (Faster than Oprah). Hope I don't get sued!
Then we saw Jason and of course he and Lisa have to play kissie face.
Last mountain to climb before the turn-around.
Last descent....but of course, we have to make the return trip!
After refueling with some chicken noodle soup, we were heading back. I was beat down, dog tired, but very determined to get a finish.
On the way out, mountain #6 was a steep mile long climb....really socked it to us. On the return trip, the climbs were getting harder due to general fatigue.
The climb after the Blaylock Creek aid station though was off-the-charts steep!!
I would climb and count my steps, trying to make 100 steps before stopping to breathe.
I would grab a tree and hang on.
I also took several pics trying to capture the steepness.
Despite the temps starting out at 27 and maybe warming to 33-35 degrees, I was soaked with sweat. At the top of this climb, there were 4 more mountains, and the next climb and the last climb were not as severe. :-)
The mountain before Brian's aid station was long, very rocky, and possibly as steep as the hill I was whining about a in the previous paragraph. It was a tree hugging climb. I wonder if Tom Brennan just trotted up this hill? Tom? The next to the last one on the return trip....all running, some walking, some stops to catch your breath? Inquiring minds want to know!
Finally, the last stream crossing.... ....and the last aid station, manned by the Head Tatur himself. After some M&M and peanut butter covered Oreos, and a handful of Cheese-its, and a swig or three of cold beer, I was ready to tackle the last mountain. Actually, the last climb was the second easiest one, except for a few saw briers. Then it was a half mile of rocky technical trail with a few blow-downs to jump over or under. It was getting late in the day, but I knew we would make it. One needs for sure to be off the trail before dark, although Lisa did have a headlamp. Once off the trail, there was the 2.6 miles of gravel road and pavement, but that could be negotiated even at night. Picture taking became a lesser priority and possibility as the sun set. We ran most of the way once on the roads, and maintained a 12 minute mile pace including a few short walk breaks. Can't say our pace for the whole day was anywhere that fast, but it was enough to get to the finish line.
I Now have 4 finishes at A/BF. 2004 I ran it in 7:20, and have came nowhere close to that since. The next year I twisted a knee and turned around after 10 miles for a 20 mile run. I finished the next 2 years, and changed to the fun run in 2008. 2009, I was having a good race but tweaked my back 12 miles in and dropped at the halfway point. I really was wondering if I had what it takes to even finish this run again....after all, I am getting older. Although my time was slow, I felt great the whole day, and ran strong on the downhills. I never fell, and I have no boo boos or blisters. Vitamin "I" and I have this thing going, but after tomorrow, I will go without. Right now, I feel certain that I will be back next year for the fun run, or maybe the whole enchilada again. Anyone wanna join me?