Mount Nebo is one of those places in Arkansas that I haven’t explored as much as I would have liked; however, the only two times I’ve been there in the past have been pretty epic adventures, and this past weekend was no exception. Mount Nebo State Park is located just west of the city of Dardanelle, Arkansas and was designated as a state park in 1927. The majority of the amenities found in the state park were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Against my better judgment, I decided to do the Arkansas Ultra Running Association (AURA) Mt. Nebo Trail “Fun” Run. This race is the second in the 2015-2016 Ultra Trail Series. The run starts at the top of the mountain in the vicinity of the pool/bathhouse/picnic area/campsites, and racers run the paved road out to Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, then drop down onto the Bench Trail for 1 1/2 laps. The runners then run down the paved road to the bottom of the mountain, turn around and go all the way back up to the top for a total distance of close to 14 miles. The final climb is brutal, with an elevation gain of over 1200 ft in just 2.5 miles and an average grade of 10%.
Some of my previous highlights at Nebo include sleeping 6 people under a small tarp while the rain poured on us overnight, having to confront a meth-head firebug that assured us it was okay to burn trash on state park property (it’s okay, the ranger told me so), and seeing my son take second place in his age group at his first trail run race (Mount Nebo Bench Trail 4 Miler).
After staying up way too late the night before and getting up way before I really wanted to, I made the just over one hour drive out to Mt. Nebo, arriving about 30 minutes before race start. Dawn was breaking and it revealed an overcast, cool, foggy start, which was pretty much ideal conditions for the race. After signing in, I returned to my car and spent a few minutes getting ready. Water bottle? Check. Huma gels? Check. Spibelt? Check. One thing I appreciate about running races over mountain bike races is that it requires way less gear and way less time to get ready.
I made my way to use the restroom one last time before getting into race mode and say hi to several of my friends from the Little Rock Hash House Harriers. It was at this point that I ran into my friend Shelley Sparks, who I first met at the Full mOOn 25K Run just a month or so ago. She had come up from northern Louisiana to run in several of the AURA races and didn’t know a soul. We befriended each other during the Full mOOn Run and discovered we had very similar fitness levels and a similar running pace. While I shared my local trail knowledge with her, she was a great motivator and helped me beat my PR in the Full mOOn Run by over 16 minutes! I was excited that she made it up to Nebo as I really enjoyed having a running partner that complemented my own style/pace. She introduced me to her husband James who had come to support her and was planning on doing his own shorter run.
Since the Mt. Nebo run is a “fun run”, there are no frills, just a sign in sheet and clock. No timing chips, no race numbers, no fees, which was fine with me. They encouraged donations which would go towards the food provided to the runners after the race was over. A few quick announcements about the course, and instructions for those who didn’t want to do the whole thing, and we were off.
I had several friends from hash who were running the race and I would see them off and on throughout the day as the pack thinned and our pace varied. Shelley fell in next to me and I told her that because of my lack of sleep, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel today and that she shouldn’t wait for me if she was feeling good. We jogged slowly to warm up our bodies and I soon found a comfortable pace about mid-pack. Out to Sunrise Point, we went as the fog slowly lifted. It was quite a beautiful morning. Once we reached Sunrise Point, Shelley and I stopped for a couple of quick photos, as we were in no hurry. We simply wanted to “experience” everything the race had to offer, and we weren’t going to be disappointed by losing a few minutes for some photo ops. The vista from Sunrise Point was spectacular and worth the few minutes we stopped. Most of the pack had passed us by this point and we picked up the pace to rejoin them and made our way to Sunset Point. Shortly after leaving Sunset Point, we turned off the pavement onto a dirt road which then changed to a loose, gravel road that descended sharply onto the Bench Trail below.
This is what I enjoy most about running, technical trail that requires some sure footing and concentration. I descended pretty quickly, probably faster than I should have, but made it to the bottom without incident. I had pretty much left Shelley in the dust and waited for her to catch back up. This was her first time running somewhat technical trail so she was going slow and steady. She remarked, “you must have imagined yourself coming down that on your mountain bike, didn’t you?” Yeah, I couldn’t lie, that did cross my mind at one point.
We spent the next little while running the bench trail and admiring the lush, beautiful wilderness around us. I shared stories of my previous adventures there, and she regaled me with her cross-country team races. We ran enjoying each other’s company and walked in brief spots when the elevation kicked up. Around we went and after 6 total miles on the Bench Trail (and 9 total miles), we returned to the road for the grand finale.
We had a 2-mile descent to the base of Mt. Nebo and then a 2.5-mile climb back up to the very top to finish. After a quick stop at the aid station again to hydrate and cool off, we made our way down the steep road with endless switchbacks. I meant to count how many there were on the drive up, but lost count. Our strides lengthened and our pace picked up. Here we caught up to one of my hash friends and we descended together. I stuck out my arms and pretended I was a plane “flying” down the mountain on several switchbacks. Shelley found great enjoyment in this and asked me to pose for a couple of photos. I do admit that I did make jet noises at some point. Hey, whatever it takes to keep it light-hearted and fun.
As we got closer and closer to the bottom, we eventually saw the leaders of the race making their way up the mountain. They were actually running UP the mountain. I marveled at their strength, their fitness, and their finesse. They made running look so effortless while here I was, feeling like a lumbering, plodding giant. We cheered on every racer we came upon as they went on up and we kept on going down. I high-fived my friends and yelled words of encouragement when I saw them. 18 minutes after we started the descent, we made it to the bottom. And then we turned around.
Here I came up with a game plan with Shelley. We would run when we could, and only take short walk breaks when it was too steep to run (usually on the switchbacks). We were both feeling pretty good still, and we ran slowly up the more moderate slopes at the bottom of the mountain. About one-third of the way up, we reached the switchbacks and probably the second hardest part of the mountain. Some of the switchbacks were incredibly steep on the inside of the turn and we mostly kept to the less steep slopes on the outside. We sacrificed distance for reduced effort. At every point where it flattened out, we made ourselves run, and I started giving us micro-goals to hit. “Let’s run to that 2nd yellow sign, think you can do that?” “Okay, let’s walk until that stone wall and then run to where the wall curves.” By setting those little goals, we made ourselves run more than we walked and we made decent progress up the mountain. We started passing people and tried to give them encouragement too. We finally made it to the aid station at the bench trail and here’s the false flat that gets many people. When you get here, you think you’re home free, but that’s not the case. After a quarter mile of relatively flat road, the road kicks up again with one last climb to the finish. And this climb is a doozy. Tired legs and a road that goes straight and up, up, up, it seemed like forever until the final turn into the homestretch.
At one point, my friend Lance rode by on his road bike. I yelled at him, “you better watch out, I’m tempted to knock you off that bike and steal it from you!” Yeah, I was definitely wishing I had a bike at that point. As he rode by struggling up the hill, I ran behind him and with a sudden burst of unexpected energy that surprised even myself, I pushed him and his bike for a good 50 feet up the hill. I guess that little diversion distracted me from my pain cave. I turned around to see that I had left Shelley behind and she was trying to get her phone out to take a picture of my antics.
She told me that she was really struggling and the effort/mountain/difficulty was getting to her. She told me that I looked strong and urged me to go on ahead. I told her I ran with her all this way, I wasn’t going to abandon her so close to the finish. I quickly found a sign and willed her to run with me to the sign. She dug into whatever mental and physical reserves she had left and we slowly got moving again. We made it to the turn and I told her to look up to see we had made it. We had conquered the mountain and with the finish so close, we ignored our discomfort and picked up the pace as best we could and ran towards the finish. She spied her husband taking photos and slowed to wave/yell at him. I looked ahead and saw the clock ticking. 2:39 and 45 seconds, 46…47…48. I turned to Shelley and exclaimed, “come on, we can make it in under 2:40!” Shelley looked confused and even her husband was yelling at her to stop looking at him and to finish strong. We took off at a sprint (well, a slow sprint at that), and crossed the line side-by-side at 2:39:55, just shy of 2:40:00.
Not bad for a good morning “is that a mountain in your pocket or are you just happy to see me” run, and our first time doing the Mt. Nebo Trail Run. I was extremely happy with my result, and considering we had made some scenic rest stops, I knew I could have finished in a better time if I had wanted to. Shelley later told me that that was the hardest race she had ever done, both emotionally and physically. I said that I was glad she was there to motivate and inspire me. I grabbed a soda and then returned to the finish to congratulate some of my friends who were close behind when they finished.
We spent the rest of the early afternoon in the company of the Little Rock Hash House Harriers. I was eager to introduce Shelley and her husband to the group, since I had a feeling that they would fit right in. We enjoyed everyone’s company in the pool, and those shenanigans shall remain unwritten. We were treated to a light rain shower while we were in the pool which was heavenly. Soon after, the hashers left to return to Little Rock, and Shelley and James invited me to stay the rest of the day/night and to camp with them. We rode out a strong downpour in their tent and then had a most excellent Mexican dinner in Dardanelle, got to see the sunset from Sunset Point, and spent the rest of the night drinking rum and cokes and listening to music and talking. We parted ways after having breakfast at Cracker Barrel the next morning and promised we would try to get together again at some point.
Epilogue: After returning to Little Rock on Sunday, I received a special bonus Shelley/James visit as they stopped in Little Rock on their way home and came out to do the Sunday hash run. They certainly had the full trail/hash experience and lived to tell the tale. I’m sure they went home with stories upon stories of a most excellent and memorable weekend.
While not a native Arkansan, Cliff is an outdoor enthusiast that now calls Arkansas home after being here for 16 years. “There’s just too many great opportunities here to want to live anywhere else.” He is the Spokes mountain bike team captain and races mountain bikes in his spare time, but loves all aspects and types of cycling (including bike polo and cyclocross). He is actively involved with the cycling community in Little Rock. His other hobbies include writing, photography, adventure racing, trail running, hiking, and camping. He shares his love of the outdoors with his 3 kids. Read more from Cliff.