Arkansas Adventure

 

There is a great advantage in training under unfavorable conditions. It is better to train under bad conditions, for the difference is then a tremendous relief in a race.

       -Emil Zapotek

After training all winter, race weekend finally arrived.  It was the first event of the season and I was unsure what to expect. The usual questions and apprehensions passed through my mind:

  • Had I trained enough? Probably not, it's hard to get up to run at 3AM when it's below zero in a Janurary blizzard. Of course, do ultramarathoners ever feel we've trained enough?
  • Would I get injured? I hoped not. To be injured early in the year might mean missing most of the 2010 racing season. Now THAT would annoy me!
  • What would it be like to run multi-day stage race? I expected I would be tired and sore… but on the other hand, I've attempted to run farther without taking any break at all. Having an evening off between stages to eat, sleep and recover should make it easier than trying the entire distance all at once.
  • Would I bonk? If I did, when and how bad??? I was sure I would bonk, probably sometime during the 50 mile race on day two.
  • But when would it happen? Mile 40? Mile 20? Mile10?!?!?
  • Would I be able to work through it and keep going? Or would I be weak and give up?

Realizing that much was out of my control and there was no point worrying about that, I decided to focus on that which was, including my mind-set, my gear, eating and resting each night and so on.

Besides being the first event of 2010, this was to be a race of two other firsts for me: my first time running in Arkansas and my first time running a multiday stage race.

Although running the entire race would be a great confidence booster for another 100 mile attempt later in the summer, I promised myself that I would not try to do it at the expense of injury.

I had nothing prove; this run was primarily to be an early season training run for me. Any accomplishments beyond that would be appreciated but not expected.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 1

3 days of Syllamo is a multiday stage race on the trails of the Ozark National Forest in northern Arkansas. The total distance to be run over the three days was 150-kilometers or 93 miles. The start/finish and race headquarters were located at the campground near Blanchard Springs Caverns.  

The first day's stage was to be "only" 50 kilometers. Barring injury or other unforseen circumstances, I knew that I would have no problem finishing it, having run countless 30+ mile training runs and races before.

The main challenge would be to hold back and go even slower than I might normally go (if that's possible for slow poke me!). Every time I felt myself trying to keep up with the pack, I reminded myself of what it would be like to run 50 miles the next day.

As this was training for future 100 mile attempts, I tried to stay as close to my 100 mile race pace as I could.

Slowly the pack drifted off and I let them go. 

The key to success to anything, not only running, is knowing one's limitations and accepting/working beyond them. I don't have natural speed, I never have and never will. Of course, I can work through that and try to train so I will be less slow than I am.

What I don't have in speed, I try to make up in attitude and mental toughness. When others are giving up, I try to see the bright side and keep going. Situations are rarely completely hopeless. We might not be able to control the weather, the trail conditions or the anatomy and physiology we have inherited- but we can control our attittude.  

I am certainly not perfect in this. I'm only human. I need to keep working on my attitude and outlook just like everyone else.

Some days I'm more successful in achieving this state of mind than others…

This was my first time seeing Arkansas from my own two feet. There is no better way to see and experience a place than to run or hike over and through it. The only way that comes close is riding over it on a horse. My friends who bike say it their experience is similar.

In our haste to get from point A to point B, too many of us miss the sights along the way. The purpose of running, or any journey, is not only getting from one place to another but also what we see, learn and experience along the way.

You could say that in many ways, ultrarunning can be a metaphor for life

 One thing impressed me within only a few miles: this is really big wild and scenic country.

I admit that as a western trail runner, I'm a bit of a "snob" thinking that big and rugged country like this exists only in the western half of our continent. Although the highest points in this race may not be all that high in total elevation, the constant up and down made for slow and tough going.

The total elevation gain/loss over the three days was over 24,500 ft. That's as much as many of our mountain ultramarathons out west.

Yes, there is no better way to see and experience a place than on your own two feet!

The area and race is named after Syllamo- a Creek Indian who was tolerated by the natve Shawnees. He  roamed these parts in the 1800s. Syllamore Creek was one of his favorite hunting grounds.

I floated quietly and silently down the leaf-covered trails. The only sounds I heard was that of my own beathing and the call of an occasional pileated woodpecker.

I wondered: how many times in the past had stone age hunters traveled quietly down these trails as we do today?

Anybody can be a runner… We were meant to move. We were meant to run.

    Bill Rodgers

Occasionally I'd glimpse other runners through the trees. For the most part, however,  I was completely alone. I enjoy the conversation and camraderie of running with other like-minded souls, but I also enjoy the solitude too..

In true ultrarunner fashion, I hiked the hills, jogged the flats and ran the downhills.

One thing I realized during this race: I'm strong in the rocks.

Although I may not have the natural VO2 to ever be fast, running in the rocks, particularly running downhill is more about skill than it is about physiology. I found myself passing many runners on the downhills.

I train on the steep rocky terrain of the Black Hills of western South Dakota. Running in the rocks is nothing new to me. There is a technique to running fast in the rocks. It involves moving your feet quickly and lightly. I never commit fully to a footstep until I'm sure that my foot can be safely and firmly planted. Rather than looking down to where I place each and every single step (such an intense level of concentration would exhaust you in no time) instead I keep my head up, look further ahead on the trail and already have my next three or four steps in mind. 

If one foot placement doesn't work out, a rock I've stepped on rolls or my ankle gives way- I don't place all my weight on that step but instead I "float" on through the next step and the one after that. In this way, I've learned to blast down though the rocks more quickly than many others can run on an open flat trail.

Of course, the only way to acheive such skill is by practice, practice and more practice.  

Unfortunately, in extended flat sections, I am caught and passed by others with a faster natural cruising speed. It is impossible for me to stay with them for long without bonking. Too soon I'm  left behind.

Oh well, we each have our strong points and our weaknesses. The challenge is recognizing and learning to work with them.

 We had several stream crossings.

Another thing that surprised and impressed me was the clarity of the water. I previously had thought such crystal clear water existed only in the Rockies or other high mountians. Another western trail running snob's misconception was laid to rest.

The water was ice-cold. Many of these streams are spring fed trout streams. We spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way across without getting our feet wet. Soaked feet in a trail race can later result in blisters. We try to keep our feet dry whenever possible. As I do before all of my races, I preventively taped my feet. Since doing so, I have had few problems with blisters.

How would my feet hold up after being soaked in stream crossing and a few day of running?

I would find out soon enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally we approached a stream with only one way to cross it- we had to wade straight on through.

Brrrr! that water was COLD!

The rocks were slippery and I came close to falling a few times.

My shoes were soaked and full of water. Amazingly, after a few miles most of the water was squished out of them and they were only slightly moist.

It was here where I started running with Sherry from Texas. I had met her briefly last year at the Lean Horse Hundred.

She is very chatty- even more so than I am- which says a lot!

After a while, I gave up trying to put in many words edge-wise and simply let her ramble on about past races,ultra-people she knew, bonking, getting lost- the usual topics ultrarunners talk about.

Sharing a converstaion is one way to take your mind off the pain and fatigue. Similar to starting a conversation with a stranger sitting next to you on a long plane flight-without realizing it several hours have gone by un-noticed.

Before you know it- your run is almost done!

We passed many caves and unusual rock formations. Had I not been running an ultramarathon, I would have stopped and spent some time exploring them.  If I ever come back to visit without running, maybe I will.

Soon the sun began to sink towards  the horizon. Sherry said we'd better get moving faster.

I told her to go ahead without me.

The final cut-off for the 50-kilometer stage on day one was 9 hours. I told Sherry and several of the other runners- only half-jokingly- that any finish time faster than 8:59:59 meant that I had gone too fast and hadn't stuck to my plan of holding back  to save a little for the following days.

I was running all alone again.

Doing some quick calculations in my head, I expected a finish with about a half hour left on the clock.

"Perfect." I thought, "There's no need to push it; I've got plenty of time and might as well take it easy. I'll need whatever I can save for the 50 mile stage tomorrow."

As I jogged, I noticed things I hadn't seen on the way out that morning.

"Hmmm… that white rock," I wondered, "strange why I hadn't noticed it before."

And "why didn't I see that crooked tree this morning?"

It was then thatthe realization came to me that  I'd made a wrong turn!

I programmed my GPS to help me find the way back to the start/finish. It told me that I had run an extra mile off course!

Oh #$%#$  #%$#!!

I had been taking it easy all afternoon because I knew I had a comfortable 30 minute cushion. Now  because of neglecting to pay attention to trail markers- I might not even be able to make it under before cut off and I would officially be a DNF!

As soon as I recognized my mistake, I sped off not wasting any more time.

Fortunately, the last mile and half was almost completely downhill. I sprinted a 8 to 9 minute/mile- difficult for slow poke me to maintain on any day- but even harder after having just run 30+ miles!

I entered the campground and looked at my watch- only a three minutes left and a half mile to go!

Shit!

I dug deep and gave it all I had. My legs cramped. I gasped for air. My heart was pounding so hard- it felt as if it would rip out of my chest. I entered the meadow and saw the last few dozen yards before the finish. The other runners who had already finished started cheering.

Up ahead, the time clock turned over to 8:59:00!

The gal who was the timekeeper was no where near the clock. As soon as she heard the crowd sheering, she looked up and saw me. She started running for it.

"I'll sprint right on past her if I have to!" I thought, "but I'm gonna make it under 9 hours no matter what!"

As the crowd realized I had less than a second before cut off, their cheers grew even louder. I made it in 8:59:11! I will never get a chance to be cheered for placing but I sure can get some shouts for finishing with only a second on the clock!   

I had been joking about trying to finish as close to final cut off as possible. I never intended to cut it so close.. The most amazing thing is that this is not even my personal record for closest finish before cut-off. That record stlll goes to Greenland 50-k in 2008 when I finished in 7:59:25 with only 35 seconds to spare before the eight hour cut off..

After getting congratulated and catching my breath, I went to calorie-load on the pasta dinner. I also enjoyed a couple of cups of Fat Tire Ale from the keg that the race director had thoughtfully gotten for us.

To my surprise, Sherry and a few other runners finished a few minutes later. They to missed the same turn I did. Unlike me, it took them a few more miles before they realized their error. They ran an extra 5 or 6 miles instead of extra 2 miles as I had.

Even though they'd run the entire distance and then some, because they finished after cut-off they were officially considered DNF (Did Not Finish). 

Day 2: 

I slept fitfully. Morning came quickly. I was stiff as expected. 

"It's going to be hard to get moving today," I thought.

Despite how I felt, I purposely did not take any Aleve or other NSAIDs because they are strongly associated with hyponatremia, especially in slow back-of-the-pack runners like me. Death during an ultramarathon is exceedingly rare. When it does occur, the most common cause is cerebral edema due to dilutional hyponatremia. 

I made sure to fill my stomach at breakfast. I would need every calorie I could later.

I had no idea what to expect during day two, the 50 mile stage.  After having run 33 miles the day before, I expected that I would bonk or "hit the wall" today, perhaps several times..  

The question is: when would it happen? And what would I do when it did?

I wished that I'd not needed to push it so hard those last few miles to make the cut-off. yesterday That was energy-spent that would've best been kept in reserve for today.

Oh well, the past is in the past- no sense worrying about it now.

 

In the pre-dawn darkness, we gathered and put on our headlamps.

Race director explained the out-and-back course. He advised us to be careful and pay attention to trail markers. If at any time we didn't know where were were, we should stop and if we were still on the trail- backtrack until we knew where we were. If not, or if we were injured, then we should stop and wait for help to come find us.

 These important words of advice should best be heeded as we would all learn later.

To my surprise, I had woken up that morning with a blister on the outer part of my right heel and a hot spot in the same location on the left. I usually never get blisters. Oh well, if it's not one thing then it's another.

Using supplies I had in my foot care kit, I'd applied Spenco 2nd Skin, cut mole foam to fit over each blister, and taped over them with Kinesio-tex.

Right now they felt perfectly fine. But would my handiwork last all day?

Beside running in the rocks, another strong point I have is that I don't mind- indeed, I enjoy- running  in the dark. Part of it is because I train in the dark all winter and part of it is that I'd rather run when it's cool at night than on a hot sunny day.Where some might only see something to complain about or a challenge that must be overcome, I try to focus on the positive and whatever there is to be grateful for. .

The pack drifted off again and again I let them. I was now in DFL- dead flippin' last- place. 

"There'll  be plenty of time to pick up stragglers later," I knew, "I've got all day. It'll be easier to keep track of the other runners if they're all in front of me and I know where they are."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The light slowly came across the land.

Today's stage was over even more rugged terrain than yesterday. We followed the stream, alternating between running along the stream bed and then going up to the tops of the bluffs above them. There were many switchbacks and up-and-downs.

Only three miles from the start, I caught up with Sherry. She was not looking so good. I guess the previous day had caught up with her.

She made a comment about being out of the race because she missed the cutoff yesterday.

 I tried to be upbeat and said, "But today's a new day! Yesterday doesn't matter!"

Neverthess, she would soon drop. So much of our success depends on our attitudes and mental. If you believe– then you can, within reason of course. The opposite is true too. I'm absolutely sure she could've physically gone farther than she did, had she really wanted to.

I know well how that story goes, having been there too many times myself. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scenery and views were amazing. They  helped take my mind off the fatigue and stiffness from the day before. 

I caught up with another runner- Brad Bishop. He is one whom I would consider among the elite. He had been hoping on finishing in the top ten but now his knee was bothering him and he was hobbling along.

I slowed and walked with him. He warned me that our pace was too slow and we'd never make the cut-off times if we continued as we were.

I told him, "No problem, this is only a training run for me. I never turn down a chance to go slower anyway."

Brad warned me that we he's tired and feeling sorry for himself he starts telling some really bad jokes. True to his word, he did just that. He told some real groaners. I don't what was worse- his jokes or the fact that I laughed at them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The trail ran along limestone bluffs and cliffs over looking the stream. Occacionally, we had to squeeze between rock formations.

One wrong step and over the edge you'd go. I paid extra special attention to where I put my feet. As slow as I was going, it wasn't hard.

Soon we reached the 9 mile aid station (41 mile station on the way back). I was hungry and my stomach was growling. I ate some boiled red potatoes in salt, a half a banana and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drank it all down with some HEED sports drink.

Mmmmm…. good! 

Now that's much better! 

I prefer turkey and cheese sandwhiches when running to peanut butter and jelly- but I was hungry enough that I didn't care.

Beggars shouldn't be choosers anyway.

Brad saw some other faster runners he knew. He was feeling better. He thanked me for pulling him out of a rough spot and went ahead to run with them. .

No thanks needed, others have done the same for me. I'm only glad to return the favor to whomever needs it whenever I can.

He took off rather quickly. I was impressed by his rebound. But that's how it is when you're ultrarunning. One minute, your'e ready to give up and all hope appears lost- the next you're running again as if nothing ever happened.

After many hours and miles on the trail, I've learned that such ebb and flow of how you feel is normal and to be expected. Just don't let the bad spots get you down too much and enjoy those good moments as fleeting as they sometimes can be- and you'll make it to the finish. .

To quote one ultrarunner when asked how he was feelling during a race: "Right now? I'm feeling GREAT! But I'm sure I'll get over it soon!"

The stiffness and pain from the day before slowly went away.

It had taken me almost ten miles but finally I was feeling like running.

I even passed a few runners, again by blasting on by them in the rocky downhills.

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Of course, as soon as we entered flat terrain again- many of the runners I'd passed earlier caught up with and passed me.

At least no one caught me on the downhills or the uphills! 

"Now if only I were able to maintain cruising speed on the open sections-now  that would be something!" I daydreamed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The aid stations were located 4 to 9 miles apart. Some were fully stocked- others were unmanned and had only water and sports drink. Each was a welcome sight.

As the saying goes: an ultramarathon is like any other all day and all night party- the only difference is that the all-you-can-eat buffet tables are spread out every few miles! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Experience has taught me how important it is to just keep going, focusing on running fast and relaxed. Eventually it passes and the flow returns.

    -Frank Shorter

Before today, I'd wondered when and where my previous day's miles would finally catch up with me.

Well they finally did at around mile 20.  I started seeing some of the front runners. They'd already made it to the 25 mile turnaround and were well on their way heading back home.

They all told me , "Lookin' good!" "Keep it up!" or other words of encouragement.

I knew I was not looking good at all. However, I sincerely appreciated their kind words all the same. In ultramarathons, we run with and not against other runners. The elite front of the pack runner today could be the one struggling in last place tomorrow. Unlike shorter distance races, big egos never get you very far out there on the trail.   

I was tired. I had no energy to go any faster than a walk. Other than that I didn't feel too bad. My hydration status was fine- I wasn't dehydrated- I was simply out of fuel.

Expecting it and recognizing it when it happened made it easier to accept. I ate some Clif Bloks and Sports Jelly Beans. I felt better but the effect was only temporary. I needed some real food. The next aid station would be at mile 24.

 

4 miles is not far but it's far enough when you are bonking and borderline hypoglycemic.

I came upon the race photographer maybe a mile from the aid station.  

You know it's very embarrassing to be walking at the same pace as a non-running photographer.  "Oh well, at least I'm still on my own two feet and moving." I tried to think positive..

On the trail I saw a lemon cookie someone had dropped. I love lemon cookies.

"Gosh that looks good," I heard myself thinking as my mouth watered.

I was extremely tempted to pick it up and eat it.  You know you are bonking hard when you're seriously thinking of trail scrounging food others have dropped.  I told the photographer what I was thinking. He told me to hang on and not to worry,  the aid station was only a couple of hundred yards ahead.

"Heck, I'm not doing too bad. At least I'm not thinking of eating stuff with someone else's teeth marks or footprint on it!"

At the aid station I refilled my bottles and ate some boiled potatoes, chicken broth with noodles, more peanut butter jelly sandwhiches, potato chips, a couple of cookies and some other stuff. Gosh,  I WAS hungry!  I put extras in my fanny pack for later.

I didn't begin running immediately but I did feel much better. In a few minutes, I could even muster up a slow jog.

"At least I know I will beat the race photographer now! "I smiled. 

It always amazes me how a little nourishment can turn things around so quickly and completely..    

At the 25 mile turnaround, there was a sign with a "code word" on it which we were advised to remember. On the way back, we were asked by the  aid station volunteers what it was so they could document that I'd made it the entire way before turning around.

I took a picture of it for future reference, in case I bonked again and forgot. You never know what might happen during one of these races.

It was around here I caught up with Brad again. He was not about to rally this time. Nevertheless, I was and am still impressed by how far he'd come despite how poorly he'd looked this morning.

Before I left him, he encouraged me to go on.

"If you can run a 12 min/mile," he encouraged, "then you can make it to the 32 mile aid station before cut-off."

"I know," I responded, "but if I do, then they'll just  make me keep going."

"Yeah, but that's the point!" he said.

When you think you've gone as far as you can- in reality you've went only about half as far as you possibly could.

    -Author unknown

As I slogged (slow-jogged) on, I thought about his suggestion to push it.  If I made it past mile 32, when and where would the next cut-off be? Mile 41?

I didn't relish the idea of struggling to make the cut-offs all afternoon.  Unconsciously, perhaps even a little on purpose, I slowed down to a more comfortable pace. If it was going to be a struggle to make it before cut-off then what would be the point?

I immediately recognized the self-defeating thoughts for what they were. Such self-talk within one's mind is normal during ultras.

It gets progessively worse and worse as the hours go by….

  • Should I quit or should I go on?
  • Maybe if I stop for a few minutes and eat, I'll feel better and can keep going, don't you think?
  • It's not so bad- you can still make it if you take it easy and pace yourself.
  • Wouldn't it be easier to quit? You could be showered and sleeping in your bed by now.
  • Why are you doing this to yourself anyway? Isn't this supposed to be fun? Well, it isn't.
  • What made you think you could even do this? What does it matter? Who even cares?
  • MUST…..  KEEP….   MOVING……   FORWARD……
  • This is SO stupid! You are stupid.
  • You're not really an ultraunner. Look at yourself-  you shouldn't even call yourself a runner! 
  • Admit it- you totally suck!  If you had any sense you would STOP! 
  • Stop right now!
  • Hey you! Yeah you! I'm talkin' to you!  S-T-O-P!!!!
  • Are you even listening to me?!?!?!

Don't laugh. This kind of conversation with one's inner voice really happens.

Once at another race, I met a runner sitting in a chair at an aid station crying and saying out loud to herself, "Why am I here? I shouldn't even call myself a runner!"

She was saying this after just having run over 40 tough miles in the heat. "Not a runner? You made it this far despite all that happened- why you're a HELL of a runner!" 

She definitely had hit a rough spot.  But to think herself as not being a runner? Absurd!  

Of course, it's easy to recognize this when it's happening to someone else. When it's you who is the one in a funk,  it's hard to look beyond it and realize that it's only your mind trying to get you to stop. You should't blame your mind. It'is only doing it's job.Your mind is only watching out for your safety and well-being.

Only by fighting negative self-talk and the ever increasing urge to stop can you have any hope of going the distance.

 

Today, however, I decided to not fight it and just give in. I didn't feel bad- I only didn't want to go anymore and was ready to stop. .

I know, I know.

Giving in willingly to such thoughts without hardly a fight is what a quitter does, isn't it?  

At that moment,  I also realized that this was a training run and that's it. It did not make any sense to me beat myself up for only a training run.

Another (and maybe even the real?) reason I was so ready to stop was that I was getting tired of boiled potatoes and peanut butter jelly sandwiches.

I craved real food. 

For the last two days I'd been salivating over the thought of eating some of that delicious smoked barbeque I'd smelled the other day in town.

Eat now- or in several hours?

My decision was an easy one. As I entered the 32 mile aid station, I saw several others who had been cut.

I was not alone.

Great! They're already packed up and ready to go. I won't have to wait before we go!

The sooner we leave, the sooner I can EAT!

After gorging myself on smoked brisket, pulled pork and a rack of ribs, I went  to the start/finish where I could cheer some of the other runners. I was still hungry and decided to eat some of the red beans and rice they were serving.

Two dinners in the same evening- how could I complain? I was GLAD I stopped early.

Although I would have liked to have gone the entire 50 miles on day two, I was completely satisfied with my performance.  Going 65 miles in two days over rugged country  is nothing to be ashamed of, especially for an early season training race.

In hindsight, I suspect the reason why I had such an incedible urge to stop was because I was calorie-depleted and needed to eat.

Day 3:

That night, I slept soundly and well. I don't know if it was because I wasn't worried about having to do only 20-kilmeters on the last day, because I had a full stomach or a combination of the two.

Although I was stiff tired the next morning, I'd resolved to do the entire distance. The cut off was very fair: if we could run, walk, limp, hobble or crawl at a 29:20 min/mile pace or faster than we could do it.

The handiwork I did on my blisters the day before had survived intact but now I had new blisters on the tips of my toes. I've never had blisters on my toes before but then I've never run in a multi-day stage before either. After attending to them, I was ready to go.

"If anything," I  thought, "I'm certainly learning about blister management during this race."

As I drove to the race start/finish, however, I knew that something was amiss. I saw sheriffs vehicles driving around and a few forest service rangers on four wheelers. As I parked and got out of my car, I saw a helicopter circling overhead. My heart sank.

"That can't be good," I thought to myself, "someone must be still out there on the course."

Sure enough, one of the runners was missing. Mike from Illinois was in 6th place when he checked in at the mile 41 aid station. I had actually met him the day before.

To give you an idea of how well he was doing, as he arrived at mile 41- I was back at mile 32 dropping out of the race.

The day had warmed and he had only 9 miles to go so he switched from a long sleeve tech shirt to a short sleeve shirt. Planning on finishing hours ahead of sunset, he carried no headlamp or extra clothing.

But he never made it to the finish.

Some of the runners ahead of him said he was right behind them and then he disappeared.  The search began at 2AM with rangers driving up and down where trails intersect roads but there was no sign of him. A helicopter was brought in with thermal imaging but failed to locate any warm bodies.

At the time when the 20-k was to begin, one of the assistant race directors asked what we wanted to do. If we wanted run we could, it would not be in the search area.

No one was eager to run.

Someone suggested we volunteer to assist in the search and rescue efforts if needed. "It would be difficult to gather such a physically able group of people up for the task." he observed.  We all agreed- the 20-k on day three was cancelled. Anyone who was willing was encouraged to join in the search.

As the search and rescue organizers explained to us the process and what we were expected to do, I thought to myself:

Either the helicopter's thermal imaging has failed to locate a warm body because there isn't one anymore. The part of the trail he was lost on went past some steep cliffs. One wrong step and you'd fall to your death into the creek below

Or, the alternative possibility was that he got lost and instead of having enough sense to stop and wait, he kept going. If that was what happened, then by now he must be miles away and out of the area where they are searching.

We hoped it was the latter but we were not optimistic.

Finally the search and rescue crew finished by telling us: "You all need to know that it's possible that the genteman is deceased. If you're not OK with the possiblity of finding him like that, let us know, please back out now."

No one did.

We were driven to various points along the nine mile section and organized into search parties. The plan was for us to walk slowly in a line on either side of the trail and mark with plastic tape where the edge of our search was.

Quietly, I requested to have a position at the edge of the trail or between the trail and the cliff. Although I'm a really slow runner, I have a skill which is rare nowadays:  I am very good at reading tracks and animal sign.  I usually don't tell very many people about this because chances are they'll think I'm even more strange then they probably already do. As a child and young man,  I spent much of my free time in the woods following wildlife and learning to read the stories they left behind.

Having an eye for such things could be a very useful skill to have on this day. .  If someone had left our section of the trail on purpose, or by accident, I might be the one to notice it. A scuff mark, shifted pebble or a  few misplaced leaves might be the only clue of where he had went. However, once others had walked over the area,   it would be impossible to distinguish between them..

As we searched, I pointed out the sign of deer, turkey and even squirrel. I even found a old pig skull.

However, there was no human sign off the trail- other than our own.

Near the edge of the stream, I saw what appeared to be otter tracks. I asked one of the others if he knew if otters lived here.

He said, "No I don't think they do- but there are lots beavers." 

"I know, I've seen lots of beaver sign- but these tracks looks like where an otter came out of the water this morning- it doesn't look like a beaver." I replied, fairly sure of what I'd observed.

Some of the search area was straight up and down cliff faces, impossible to safely pass through without ropes. In other places the greenbrier and cane (a tall native type of wild bamboo) was so thick, you couldn't even see others in your search party only ten feet away. If someone had come in here, you'd never see them unless you were right on top of them.

Finally, we met up with another search party coming in from the other direction. We regrouped and started to head back. Then a call came in over the radio:

The runner had been found!

He was alive and he was OK!

Wonderful!  We were all so relieved!

As we headed back towards our vehicles, the guy whom I asked about otters met some local canoers. He asked if they knew if otters lived here.

They replied, "Yes! Actually we have quite a few. Sometimes you can even see them on the streambank playing with their babies."

After speaking with them, he jogged back to our group, and made a point of telling everyone the entire story.

Then he smiled in my direction: "It looks like we've got a regular Daniel Boone here!"

I grinned.  I might not and never will be a fast runner- but there are other useful outdoor skills to have besides only running fast!

When we got back to the search and rescue headquarters which was at the Blanchard Springs Caverns Visitor Center, we finally were told the full story of what happened:

Somewhere along those last 9 miles, Mike took a wrong turn. Instead of stopping and backtracking back to the trail he should have been on, he kept going forward, hoping to find something he recognized.

That was mistake number one.

As I mentioned, this is big wild country, an easy place for a man to lose himself. In other places, after a mile or two one would eventually come out to a major road or somewhere populated.  Not in the wild Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.

As the sun began to set, he began to get worried. He had on only a short sleeve shirt and shorts. The night time temps get down below freezing this time of year. The weather was gray and drizzly  Hypothermia was a real possibilty. He kept moving to keep warm.

The trail even passed across an old jeep trail. Instead of stopping or taking the jeep road, he continued to follow the hiking trail.  That was mistake number two. Had he stayed on that road, one of the forest rangers would've found him late last night.

Finally in the dark, he lost the trail completely. Crawling on his hands and knees to avoid accidentally falling off a cliff, he finally did something intelligent. He piled together a bunch of leaves and crawled inside it to stay warm. Although he did not get much rest, at least he didn't die from hypothermia.

The next morning when there was again enough light to see, he started out again. He heard the helicopter. At one point he even could see it circling. However, it was searching in the area where he had been the day before- not where he was today.

Finally, some of his friends were driving the back roads when they spotted him walking slowly. He had gone ten miles completely out of the race area.

He was tired, cold and hungry- but he was alive!

All of us were thanked for our efforts. No problem and no thanks were needed.  Had it been one of us out there, we know that he would've gladly volunteered to search for us without a second thought just as we had for him. . We ultrarunners are a small, close-knit and eccentric family. We run with others- not against them. A lot can happen out there in the wilds. We  watch out for each other.

As I reflected on the race and the search efforts, I realized that you'd never ever hear of something like this happening at a regular 26.2 mile marathon or any other road race.

Can you imagine? One of our runners is lost and maybe even deceased!?!?

This situation reminded all of us why we do what we do. Ultramarathoning is not only about the running. Indeed, the running is probably third or fourth on the list of why we do it. If it were only about the running we could simply  run for a day on a track to see how many miles we can get in- at least that would eliminate the need for search and rescue and blisters from pebbles in our shoes.

Maybe that is why we keep coming back for more? To have the privilege of seeing and doing things that few others ever will?

Ultramarathoning is of course about the running but it is even more about the camaraderie, experiencing nature on its terms, and discovering our strengths and weaknesses (and being OK with them).

Most important of all, it is about never ever giving up, no matter how dismal or how hopeless the situation seems.  

This experience reminded the rest of us to continue to be grateful for the important things in life: our family and loved ones, our health and our well-being, the privilege of sharing the company of like-minded souls and being able to see places that few others get to see.   

 

Great is the victory, but the friendship of all is greater. 

 

       –Emil Zapotek

 

 

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8 responses

  1. Really excellent narration and photos to go with it. I really found the rock formations very interesting! THanks!

    April 5, 2010 at 6:03 am

  2. Great report, great attitude. I have a 50 this weekend and am under trained, not overly confident, thanks for reminding me why I am doing this. Best of luck with your race year.Mike

    April 5, 2010 at 5:48 pm

  3. Thanks!

    April 5, 2010 at 6:46 pm

  4. Thanks!
    As the saying goes, it always better to arrive at the starting line of an ultra a little undertrained than a little overtrained.
    Best of luck on your 50 but I'll bet you do fine and won't need any luck!

    April 5, 2010 at 6:57 pm

  5. [esto es genial]

    April 5, 2010 at 8:59 pm

  6. Good write-up, Tom. Sounded like a fun race…in that ultrathon kind-of-way. Good photojournalism.

    April 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm

  7. Thanks… I'm looking forward to Greenland too!

    April 8, 2010 at 8:09 pm

  8. Thanks Tim… I'm looking forward to running Greenland 50k… well, if not exactly with you…. then at least running on the same course as you. The calorie re-loading afterwards is the most fun of all.

    April 8, 2010 at 8:12 pm

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