When I think of my Outback relay team, the Grand Funk Railroad tune We’re an American Band comes to mind. “We’re comin’ to your town, we’ll help you party it down” seemed to be our team mantra as we made the caravan trek to Eureka Springs for packet pick up. It was a unique collection of personalities which took to the road that day, all of us members of the Team Honey Badger Running Irregular group out of Little Rock, Arkansas. We’re a rowdy bunch, and I knew that many tales would arise from the weekend. I was dubbed the “Inbredded Journalist” and it was my job to record this experience for Arkansas Outside.
This was the second year for Outback in the Ozarks, a two hundred mile relay race, based on events like the Ragnar relay series and the Hood to Coast relay in the Pacific Northwest. Our goal was to run through the rural roads and trails of five Northwest Arkansas state parks. Each runner would be responsible for six segments of the trail averaging a little more than thirty miles by the time the race concluded. Our team, the Go Rock Runners consisted of six experienced ultra and distance runners and three crew members who were divided between two vehicles. We had 36 hours to complete the task. We were led by our able team captain Alex Wan who took on many roles including stern task master, chief organizer and logistical genius. James McManners was our de facto co-Captain who scouted out amazing trails for training runs in the weeks leading up to the race. The rest of the team was rounded out by James Ryken, Lisa Luyet, Glori Toro and yours truly.
An operation as large as the Outback race required crew support, and I can’t say enough about our amazing race crew. Lalita Flagg, Becky Humes and Jen Freilino gave all their time and energy to get us through this experience. All are fantastic ultra-runners and in the case of Jen and Lalita, both were fresh off completion of the Ouachita Trail 50 miler and 50k respectively. This was their “rest weekend”. Jen and Becky were the “Thelma and Louise” of the outfit offering aid punctuated with smiles, laughs, off color comments and numerous “that’s what she said” retorts. Items as innocent as sunscreen tubes and avocados became fodder for risqué innuendoes. One particular episode of avocado sandwich preparation became a swooning contest of sorts reminiscent of Meg Ryan’s famous scene from When Harry Met Sally. Jen and Becky were also pilot and co-pilot for vehicle one. During the night legs, they kept their runners supported by following them in the dark. When Alex got chased by a dog, Jen shooed the mutt off the road with her skillful driving. Lalita was pilot and den mom for vehicle two ensuring that we stayed hydrated all the while dispensing training advice like an expert sports physiologist albeit interjected with copious F bombs. All three were the perfect antidote for tired runners recovering from particularly difficult legs.
The pre-race briefing took place at the Forest Hill Restaurant in Eureka Springs on Thursday evening. The dining room was crowded with various teams from around the state and even groups from other states. Teams were divided into “competitive” and “non-competitive” categories. Competitive teams were required to meet certain cut off times in order to stay in the rankings. Our particular competitive team was classified as an “ultra team” meaning that 4-6 runners divided up the 36 legs of the race where each runner averages a distance greater than 26.2 miles. Most other teams in both categories consisted of 12 runners. Todd and Kimberlee Guin, the tireless race directors for Outback in the Ozarks, provided a detailed briefing describing the course, potential safety issues and procedures for checking in at one of the 36 Exchange Points.
The race started at Lake Leatherwood City Ballpark in Eureka Springs on Friday morning. At 7:00 am runners powered down the trail including Alex who ran the first leg. He was followed by Glori and Lisa Luyet. It was at Hobbs State Park where we runners of vehicle two awaited the completion of the first phase of the race. Lisa came flying into the Exchange Point to pass the green team slap band to James Ryken who sped down the trail for leg 7. He was followed by James McManners whom I met at War Eagle Mill to start my own part of the race for leg 9.
Once the band snapped to my wrist, I was off on my first 8 mile segment cutting across the historic War Eagle Bridge to War Eagle Road. War Eagle Road was a 5.2 mile segment that ran through some very picturesque rolling farm land. There were also some beastly hills which I attempted to power up. Always in the back of my mind I knew I had to maintain at least a 10:30 pace. Alex’s voice was ever in my head exclaiming “You go faster!” Along the way, there were a number of dogs who came out to bark at me and chase me down the road. In rural Arkansas, a leash law is not part of the vernacular. One terrier in particular cornered me with a growl until a race volunteer drove up to shoo him off. I turned left on to Fate Anderson Road where I was met by friendlier dogs who were my pacers for a while. I came into the Exchange point running hot where I transferred the band to James Ryken. Since I had raced this rather hilly segment hard at an 11:30 pace, I was bonky and not feeling too well upon my return. The temperature had risen and I struggled back to our vehicle to get my bearings. I was feeling a little nauseated and the thought crept into my head that I might not be able to go forward with my race responsibilities. We were joined at this point by Jen and Becky who helped rehydrate me and made sure I had something substantial to eat. I hadn’t eaten well prior to the segment due to race butterflies, and I learned that even if you are not hungry, it’s important to eat something before and after a run to keep strength up and to rebuild muscle. I owe a lot to Thelma and Louise for keeping me in the race.
I was reinvigorated for leg 12, and sped down the road. This was a short and fun 4 mile segment which featured a lot of downhill. The last mile was a fantastic nature trail which was part of Withrow Springs State Park. Covered by a canopy of trees, this trail wasn’t very technical and is perfect for the new trail runner or the leisurely hiker. Spring wild flowers were in bloom and the trail segment took on a really beautiful glow when the sun began to set behind the mountains. I charged off the segment to pass the band to Alex. I finished with a not too shabby 11:35 pace. I was excited about running my next leg in the early morning hours.
Navigating in rural Northwest Arkansas proved to be challenging. GPS devices are imperfect creations at best and should not be relied upon as a sole navigation aid. One of our more interesting adventures occurred Friday evening when we attempted to drive to the exchange point at the Pig Trail Café in Crosses, Arkansas. The GPS coordinates directed us to take a series of remote county roads some no better than dirt tracks to get to the exchange point. Lalita ably navigated our large commercial van over these rather hazardous trails. We drove for miles until we reached a fallen tree and a river- end of line. An unattended campfire was still burning as if someone had left in a hurry. All the clichés associated with “lost in the wilderness movies” were not lost on us. Visions of Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes and Turistas crossed everyone’s mind. James McManners bravely got out of the vehicle and directed Lalita to move the van to a small clearing so that we could turn around. We were very happy to leave. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally found a paved highway and all of us vowed to never again venture onto the loosely termed county roads. Cue Dueling Banjos.
In the end, after all the effort and adventure, we got a DNF. Race volunteers informed Lisa who was in the process of completing leg 15, that we were in last place and did not meet the designated cut off time of which we were unaware. We were told to shorten our distance by skipping legs to move our team forward to finish. Other teams were told to do this and they complied. We did not. Our ultra-running community prides itself on integrity and good sportsmanship. If the distance is 200 miles, you run 200 miles by Hoyle. If there is a cut off time and you do not meet it, you withdraw from the field. The fact was that we were well on our way to meeting the 36 hour goal which we understood to be the time limit for the whole race. Everyone ran strong and no one could be considered slow.
At 2:30 am on Saturday morning, we voted as a team to pull out of the race. Our total distance was 90 miles. The sun rose on a new day and we decided we would meet with Kimberlee and Todd at the finish line at Prairie Grove in the spirit of gaining a better understanding about the rules for completion. We kept meticulous records and were diligent about recording our time. We stated our case in a spirited and gallant manner. Kimberlee produced a table detailing cut off times for making certain exchange points leading to the finish. From our team’s perspective, this information (posted online after final roster submission) was not adequately communicated to race participants. In addition, some of the pacing requirements were unrealistic considering that several of the legs including the one that Lisa was pulled from included some very steep hills. Todd and Kimberlee were very gracious and spent a great deal of time hearing us out. They were respectful of our input and were eager to have us come back next year. The irony of it all was that these discussions took place on a Civil War battlefield where the historical outcome was a tactical stalemate. I was never prouder to be part of this team and to call these runners my friends. We had truly “Badgered up” and added to our legend.
Outback in the Ozarks was a great experience. No one can quibble about a weekend in the mountains running amongst beautiful vistas. Our team learned a great deal and I think several of us came away with a willingness to try again. In hindsight, an ultra race is more about spending quality time with friends than it is about competition, and it’s those memories that I will always treasure. I’m ready to go again next year.
Editor’s Note: Here is a link to some more photos from Outback in the Ozarks.