Sleeping like Bears

“I’m going to sleep like a bear tonight” was the last thing AO contributor and friend Justin Cloar said to me after his 6:54 finish at the Ouachita Trail 50K. I returned good wishes for his peaceful hibernation, hoped the same for myself, and said goodnight. Instead of a peaceful night of deep slumber, I was awake at 1 a.m. watching Big Bang Theory and again at 4 a.m. eating Pad Thai and watching a painfully bad movie. Why? Because moving for 31 miles in a row does strange things to a body.

Writing that I ran 31 miles would be an overstatement, there was a lot of speed hiking and walking too. The Ouachita Trail 50K and 50 Mile course begins and ends at the Maumelle Park Pavilion with three miles of pavement on Pinnacle Valley Road and up the hill to the Pinnacle Mountain State Park Visitor Center where racers are directed onto the 223 mile Ouachita Trail that connects Talimena State Park in Oklahoma to Pinnacle Mountain State Park.

No folks, he's not being chased by a bear.

No folks, he’s not being chased by a bear.

 

The course gives runners a chance to build up speed on a few long flat sections, but more often, racers are treated to rolling hills and steep climbs that slow all but the fastest, strongest runners to a hike. None more steep than the climb over the East Summit of Pinnacle Mountain that begins four miles into the race.  For many runners, especially those from out of town or out of state who don’t regularly climb the mountain, it can be the hardest, slowest portion of the race. It happens to be my favorite part of the course and I am not alone in my love of the climb and the views. I never tire of hearing the exclamations from first time ascenders as they take in the view of the lush river valley below.

The East Summit Trail aid station was attended by colorful fans and volunteers.

The East Summit Trail aid station was attended by colorful fans and volunteers.

 

After descending the rocky slope on the west side of the mountain, more than twenty-three miles of rocks, root, and dirt still await 50K runners and 50 mile runners have forty-two leg pounding miles to go until tired feet return to the pavement for the final three miles. The Ouachita Trail is a popular trail for hikers and backpackers; some sections of the trail are also open to mountain bikes. The trail traverses scenic wilderness areas across western Arkansas and rewards hikers, runners and other lovers of trail with hollows and hills, vistas and views. The race has a long history, beginning as a 50 mile course in 1989, an annual event except 1998 and 1999 for lack of a race director. In 2001, current race director, queen of all things, and best pre-race instruction speech giver Chrissy Ferguson took over and the ultra running community has benefited from her dedication, kindness, chicken obsession and love for her runners and volunteers ever since.

Male Senior Grand Master Eunsup Kim heading for the turnaround.

Male Senior Grand Master Eunsup Kim heading for the turnaround.

 

My day began as most of my race days start, with me toward the back of the pack. I committed myself to running my own race, to pacing myself on my own strengths and weaknesses for as long as I could stand not having company. Of course there’s no lack of bodies for the first several miles, whether they are friend or stranger. On the way down Pinnacle Mountain, I was passed by State RRCA representative David Meroney. He passed me quickly and disappeared. I wasn’t sure if I would see him again unless it was after the turnaround station when he would be facing me, taunting me once again to catch up to him. At the first aid station at the East Summit trail head, I was happy to see lots of familiar faces cheering us on, runners supporting runners in the way the only people who have also felt the runner’s high and low can. I was feeling strong and was making good time, considering the long day at hand.

AO Contributor Justin coming into the Hash aid station.

AO Contributor Justin coming into the Hash aid station.

 

At the second aid station about mile eight, I refilled my water bottle, grabbed a banana, a handful of peanut M&Ms and kept moving. Soon after I caught up with a group of women who let me hang on for a couple of miles. We talked about other races we love to do or plan to do, like the Full Moon 25/50K and the War Eagle Tail Twister. Missy and Shauna, members of the Saline County Striders, gave me a little boost as I looked forward to getting to the super-secret-not-so-secret aid station manned by members of the House Hash Harriers. I was looking forward to the hospitality of my friends, a little beer, and getting to see my husband who was hanging out where the beer was. I rolled in to and out of the Hash station quickly as I had a goal time in mind and was right on target.

Party at Hash aid.

Party at Hash aid.

 

When I arrived at the turnaround station AKA The Pirate Ship, I was greeted by Elizabeth Kimble whom I met during this race one year ago. In a moment of pure joy/runner delirium, I launched into a mash up of Can’t Touch This and Baby Got Back. In return I got a sip of Goose Island 312, a cold washcloth from Badger Bill Dobbins, and a dance party with Elizabeth and Pirate Ship Captain Kristen Garrett. Too late, I realized I should have eaten more at this well stocked station.  The volunteers had almost anything I could have wanted yet I only took two chocolate oatmeal cookies before running back out to the trail. The cold washcloth was a godsend as the temperature continued to climb into the 80s and the sun was in full force. I stopped again at the Hash station where the husband continued to hang out with the beer. He gave me a little flat coke, a little beer, some peanut butter wafers and helped me change my socks. I left again without eating like I should have because I was still feeling so good. And then it hit. The bonk. The low blood sugar. The sinking. I started walking more than running and couldn’t shake the funk. I pulled out a packet of Justin’s hazelnut butter hoping a little protein would help. I turned on some music and just kept moving forward even if I didn’t feel like running.

Burgers and Dogs await the finishers.

Burgers and Dogs await the finishers.

 

Before the next aid station I caught sight of David Meroney’s bright green shirt and made a goal not to lose sight of him again. My calves were cramping a little so I added more Skratch hydration to my water bottle, ate a whole banana and part of an orange, and took a drink of the honey/sea salt mixture I was carrying.  Angie Orellano-Fisher was also in front of me and Bill Elmore had come up behind to form a loose group trying to finish those last seven miles. Bill and I discussed our thankfulness for the wet washcloths that were no longer ice cold, but still felt good when tucked into the neck of a shirt. As we were coming up on the last aid station back at the East Summit trail head, Angie called out to me to “come on!” I was finally feeling a little better and took her advice, in part because Meroney’s green shirt was still just ahead of me, crossing Pinnacle Valley Road to the trail on the other side. But also ahead was the steep climb up to the visitor center and the road. This is the place where tired legs and hearts take a beating. Many a runner has been reduced to grabbing a tree for support, huffing and puffing like a big bad wolf on this short but steep climbing section.

Finish line crazy.

Finish line crazy.

 

The long downhill on smooth pavement should be a welcome relief from the rocky undulations of the previous miles, but it isn’t as rosy as all that. Knees and quads are weak, the pressure of the downhill hurts, but if the body can take it, it’s a good time to let gravity do more of the work. I found myself catching up to the green shirt in front of me, he became the carrot to my rabbit, the rabbit to my greyhound. We made the turn to the road home and I had to start walking as soon as I hit the incline of the first hill. Gravity helped me down the hill again only to be smacked by another uphill. I could see David in front of me, I was desperate to catch up to him. As we both started the last mile and half of flat road, I began setting short goals: run to that mailbox, run to that utility pole, run to that driveway. Soon enough I caught up to David, gave him a pat on the back and said, “Come on.” My mini-bonk was over and I wanted to be done. I knew I had missed my goal time but that’s no reason to give up. I barely had time to cross the finish line and sit down with a cold beverage before Bill, David, and then Angie all finished to the cheers of the crowd, hugs from her supreme directorship Chrissy, and received the beautiful handmade art that hangs around every finisher’s neck.  Many of the earlier finishers were still around and would continue to stay until the 50 mile runners finished. We stayed to enjoy the company of good friends, old and new. We stayed to cheer the 50 mile finishers right up to the thirteen hour deadline. We stayed for sweaty, salty hugs; for congratulations! and well dones!; we stayed for those who danced across the finish line and those that struggled.  Congratulations to all the runners and a huge thanks goes out to Chrissy and to all the incredible volunteers that make the Ouachita Trail 50 such a great event.

Running into the finish.

Running into the finish.

Preliminary results are posted on the RunArkansas.com site. We have a mountain of photos on our Facebook Page, feel free to share, tag, download, like, comment on them all.

 

Comments

  1. Excellent write-up. And I’m so glad I wore the bright green to help keep you going. 🙂

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