What do you get when you combine an International Mountain Biking Association “Epic” trail with part of one of the longest hiking trails in the mid-west, attach them with gravel and paved roads to create a 60 mile loop in the middle of the Ouachita Mountains? You get the leg smoldering, glute searing, ego busting Ouachita Challenge. When mountain bikers from out of state ask local riders where to go, the Womble Trail is almost always mentioned as a must-ride. The Ouachita Challenge event is no different, it is a must-do. It has become such a vital event in the mountain biking community that the 250 slots available for the race sold out in about 13 minutes this year. Would-be racers set alarms, then set a second alarm just in case for the morning the race opens for registration. Social Media outlets are set ablaze with messages of joy or bitter disappointment as friends and teammates share whether or not they got lucky. Lucky. Some would question that word choice.
The Ouachita Challenge is split into two days of riding. Saturday is the tour, a slightly easier ride with the same mileage as the race but a long tough mountain climb is removed from the course. Although it’s called a tour, finish times are posted and there are time cut-offs that have to be met. On Sunday it’s full on racing with 5700 feet of climbing starting with three major mountains on the Ouachita National Trail: Brushy, Blowout (the aptly named mountain that is circumvented for the tour) and Chalybeate Mountain.
The Ouachita Challenge starting line is at Oden High School. This community has welcomed the race for 13 years now and the race attempts to repay the kindness of the community by making the weekend a fundraiser for the needs of the school and the community. You can camp on the grounds or sleep in their gymnasium, the cafeteria serves a pasta dinner on Saturday night and a pancake breakfast on Sunday morning, all for donations. This is an event with a symbiotic relationship with the community.
The rolling start leaving the school is fast and punctuated by crossing Big Brushy Creek. There was a good amount of rain in the days preceding the race this year and the water was well above the low water bridge for Saturday’s tour and still several inches deep on Sunday. Watching the mass of bikes at the creek crossing was reminiscent of a stampede of horses ripping through the water. In a moment, they vanished into the woods heading for that first big climb. Tough climbs and technical descents are the essence of the Ouachita Trail section of the race.
Once off the Ouachita Trail racers head south, grabbing a little rest from the dirt on the road to Sims, Arkansas nearing the halfway point of the race. The race follows a short section of pavement, crossing the Ouachita River (by bridge luckily) and back into the woods for more single track and finally reaching “The Womble”. The Womble Trail is known as a fast, flowy single track trail that is primarily along a ridge in the Ouachita Mountains. It is arguably among the best trails in the country and for many riders, getting to the Womble section of the race brings a sense of relief and anticipation of the relative delight of riding that flow after the ruggedness of the Ouachita climbs.
Years ago when I did the race, I was feeling totally beat when I hit this section and suddenly felt rejuvenated by the pure joy of the ride…at least that’s how I remember it. The curse of the race and tour are the checkpoints, they have cutoffs. Miss a cutoff and you’re done. This agony is something else I remember from my last chance at the race. On Saturday we commiserated with a few riders who felt that same agony though at least one was trying very hard to convince us and herself that it was a relief.
The checkpoint at Gaston Mountain is notorious for ending the race for many participants. Even those who make it face more climbing on the loop to Norfolk Lake and with a tough climb back up the gravel on Gaston Mountain as a reward for making all the checkpoints. In the end, the compensation for the last few miles of climbing is the mostly downhill ride for the four miles to the finish.
There is one final challenge, a grassy knoll leading up to the finish line with all the spectators watching, even with worn out legs and burning lungs, no one wants to walk this. Riders are greeted with cheers and pizza at the finish, pats on the back, a bike wash and the ultimate reward of finishing one of the toughest races in the state. This is the place for spectators to enjoy the show of riders exhibiting their skills, like popping wheelies despite the exhaustion. For some, getting across that line means it’s time to collapse. Whether it was a sub 5 hour finish or an 8 hour finish, these men and women left their guts, sometimes literally, out there on the trail for the glory of being called “finisher”.
The local community of Oden, Arkansas and surrounding towns are very supportive of the race, tour and participants. Food, free camping, use of the high school are all great but it was the kindness and smiles that struck me. Good old Arkansas hospitality. For some racer perspectives check out Cliff Li’s and Andrea Wilson’s race reports. Something like 1600+ photos from the race available for free download, tagging, commenting, sharing, or whatever on our Facebook Page, enjoy and recover well.