The header on the Syllamo Events webpage includes this invitation “Welcome to our playground!” Playground indeed. For any outdoor adventurer, the Sylamore Ranger District in the Ozark Mountain National Forest has something to offer: mountain biking, backpacking, camping, caving, hiking, or trail running. Spanning the weekend of December 10-11, 2022, trail runners were provided a one of a kind trail running experience on the Syllamo, Sylamore, and Ozark Highlands trails. Race directors Jake Anderson and Rusty Harvey along with a stellar staff of volunteers gave runners a chance to complete a 55K (34 miles) and a 105 mile distance trail run designed around rugged terrain and minimal aid.
2022 marks the first official year of this event. The idea for this race germinated in 2021 as a challenge between friends; a friendship that includes encouraging each other to test the limits of endurance, strength, and tenacity. The original iteration of the run was an effort by Rusty Harvey on a day racked by scattered storms, high water, and fog. He and his support crew thought that the adventure was worth sharing. So a few months later, seven gutsy souls set out to repeat the course. Four of them finished. For the second effort at the course, a few volunteers came out overnight to provide aid at two places on the out and back part of the course. This provided the runners four opportunities for aid, but not until they were well into the mileage count. Runners had to provide for themselves for the rest of the course.
At packet pick-up the night before the official 2022 race, Rusty proclaimed the race Legendary. I am 100% sure that he is correct. This race is speeding into legendary status, already.
The 55K distance is 100% single track on the Syllamo Mountain Bike Trail System starting from the Blanchard Springs Campground, the location of race headquarters for the weekend. All runners completed this loop. Once back at the race HQ, the 105 milers could take advantage of the bathrooms, drop bags, and the encouragement of volunteers at the pavilion before moving on to run the 35 miles on the Sylamore and Ozark Highlands Trails to Matney Knob before returning on the same course to get the final 35 miles in. The scenery along these trails is breathtaking. Bluffs, overlooks, and small waterfalls are abundant. While the almost constant rain during the first several hours of the race may have dampened bodies, it didn’t seem to dampen spirits. 105 distance winner Stewart Gray even commented afterward that the cold rainy conditions may have helped him, he loves running in that kind of weather. It did make the many stream crossings on the course a little higher and faster than they might be after a dry spell. Wet crossings, wet rocks, and fog added to the adventure of rugged single track with serious elevation change. The 105 miler boasted 33,000 ft of elevation change (16,500 gain) with the 35 having about 4600 ft of gain.
For the race this year, runners were able to have drop bags and more aid stations than the test runs had. Multiple aid stations were provided offering up the usual ultra fare of pb&j, bananas, and candy bars. But the star aid station attractions were egg muffins, sausage links, grilled cheese, and even Korean pancakes. With long distances between aid stations, runners still had to think about carrying what they needed to potentially self-sustain for hours at a time. Stewart told us his pockets looked like someone sent a 9 year old to the convenience store with $20. His favorite race snack: sour patch kids.
Be on the lookout for more Syllamo Events. The Ozark Highlands Endurance Run 35K and 50K is coming up in March 2023.
A couple of hundred photos of the runners are available on the Arkansas Outside Facebook Page.
Thank you to all the volunteers, especially those at race HQ and aid stations on the 105M course. Many of you went overnight without sleep, just like the runners you were serving. We all owe you a big thanks.
The story of this event would not be complete without acknowledging the trail work and stewardship that went into it. The trail was in incredible condition for this event. Arkansas Outside mentions “trail fairies” regularly; those folks who spend their time and energy building, cleaning, repairing, maintaining, and working on the incredible trail systems we are so lucky to enjoy in Arkansas. Much credit to race directors Jacob Anderson and Rusty Harvey and their spouses Melony and Amanda for untold hours of work on the trails. The Ozark Highlands Trail Association crew help maintain 240 miles of trail. USFS Rangers Chaia Gibson and Jim Suchland not only cleared much of the trail for the race, but stayed out in the cold rainy weather for hours assisting race staff in making sure all the runners were safe. Find out more on the OHT Association page and the Syllamo Events page.
I just love Stew’s gusto for life! Absolutely, it is possible to run the outdoors and just let loose and enjoy. Thanks, Stew, for being such an excellent teacher and model for us all!