Monday, January 9, 2012

Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon Race Report

"It's 3:00 AM, time to warm up the burritos and put your trail shoes on."

That's how my morning started last Saturday, January 7th. A crew of NWA GOATS were meeting at 0400 hours to make the trip down to the Ouachitas near Mena, AR. to take on the legendary yet little known ABF Trail Marathon. This race features a full pull marathon and the Blaylock Creek Fun Run clocking 17 miles. I had volunteered to make a pile of breakfast burritos and muffins to get us off to a good start. The rally point was, surprise, Rush Running in Bentonville. The best damn running store, period. If you are not familiar with the ABF do yourself a favor and hit the link above. Then click on the part that says "Click here if you have never run this run before!" Do it now, then come back and finish up here....

OK, so it is clear what is to be expected, right? More on that later. Back to the trip down. Our driver, Stephen O'Neal, was gracious enough to not only drive four of us down but also provided a viewing of Unbreakable for our pre race entertainment. What better way to get amped up for an epic trail run? I mean c'mon, breakfast burritos and that film. The movie did not disappoint, a great race amid spectacular trails. We arrived with plenty of time to change, register, stretch out and get ready. The weather was great, I would guess low 40s, a bit humid and no wind. Checking in was a very laid back process. Sign a waiver/registration sheet, pick up your number, make a donation to the Big Fork Community fund and chill out with some friendly trail nerds from across the region. I met folks from Texas, Louisiana and Kansas. After I race briefing we met out front for a group photo. Then we toed the line and were off.

That's me approaching the TATUR aid station on the out portion. Photo by TATUR.

The first few minutes are spent on asphalt getting to the gravel road that leads to the trail head. Altogether there is about 2.5 miles of easy running before hitting the trail. Just gentle rolling ups and downs. The single track leading to the first aid station about 4 miles in was very straight forward. Nothing too strenuous. The TATURs from Tulsa had the initial aid station going down. As always, TATUR does things right. Offering to refill bottles, plenty of good trail grub, music and words of encouragement. Leaving the AS it is a short distance before hitting the first steep climb (not too technical) before descending back down through some sketchy stuff. This section of the trail was pretty overgrown so bushwhacking was in order. As was giving some distance to the runner in front of you or paying the price with a branch swinging back and hitting you where it counts. After a water crossing it was another steep climb, this one a little higher before another wickedly steep downhill (also a little longer) and more water. And then, guess what, another peak to summit and descend and more water before aid station number two at 8.5 miles. This was the turnaround for the Fun Run. Along the way to this point there had been several downed trees across the trail. Most of them large enough to force a break in stride going downhill given the rocky trail. Leaving the AS there is more climb and then a nasty downhill and more water before the killer. At least for me it was. It was steep, it was rocky, it was wet and oh so long. By this point Tom "Slow" Lane and I had been playing leap frog. I would pass him going up (power hiking) and he would fly by me descending. For a guy his size he has some light feet, just danced down that stuff. I'm jealous. So we would check on each other while passing and more or less stayed together on the one section of flatter trail that goes along the creek bed. Before the race started we pretty much had the same time goal in mind so I thought it was a good thing for us to push and pull one another. Eventually we made it to the final peak before the turnaround. In an event with such a small starting group it was nice to have somebody to run with for a while. Especially a true GOAT like Tom.

Crossing the top was strange. The other side was draped in fog. It was like walking into a cloud. The final AS before the turn was manned by a group of runners from Texarkana. And they had chicken noodle soup. Very nice. Tom and I hung out for a few minutes enjoying the break before I got antsy and headed back. I figured he would catch me on the next descent. Unfortunately I never saw him again until after I finished. I passed a few runners on the next couple of climbs and hooked up with Todd from Louisiana. We paced each other for a few miles before getting off course and earning some free bonus distance. Maybe a mile, perhaps a bit more. We missed a hard left coming out of a creek crossing and continued on a rough road before realizing the mistake. All in all we maybe lost 20 minutes overall. On the way back to the trail we picked up two more runners before getting back on track. Todd and I continued together going up, down and getting wet before he pulled away on the descent before the next to last aid station at about 18 miles.

Soaking my feet for a moment coming back at TATUR station. Again, photo by TATUR.

I was trying my best to keep up with him but my quads were trashed. I simply couldn't go downhill with any speed at all. Not that I'm good at that to begin with but I was actually faster on flat stuff than downhill at this point. My hamstrings were also at the point of burning on the climbs and I'm sure I had slowed there too. That may have been part of the reason (trying to not lose Todd) that it happened. On one of those large downed trees across the trail I broke my rule of not stepping on top of an obstacle. I decided to jump on top and glide over so I didn't break my rhythm. My plant foot slid right off and I proceeded to have a spectacularly colossal yard sale. My hands took the brunt of the fall. Fortunately my handheld bottles provided some cushion. The landing was hard enough that the top of my left bottle was blown off and all the fluid was gone. The other one was OK but was also all but empty now. A physical inventory showed no real damage. A cut on my left ankle, bruise on left arm, dirt here and there but all the parts that were supposed to move still did. I retrieved my bottle top, worked it back on and continued the short distance to the aid station where I refilled, grabbed some grub (down to the pick over offerings) and motored onward.

Tom "Slow" Lane (white shirt/red hat) and Stephen O'Neal (blue shirt) 

It was then I realized that my legs no longer felt sore. They had moved on to numb. Which in a way was good. My mind didn't have to fight that demon of pain any longer. Now I simply had to focus on pace and actually moving my legs. It was as if I had lost an ever so slight amount of motor control. I stuck with the game plan of power hiking the climbs and doing my best going down. Before the next AS I caught up with Todd and another runner (one that got lost with us earlier) also fell in with us. We slogged over the last couple of peaks but I nearly lost visual of them on the final descent. At the final AS run by TATUR I quickly filled my bottles, grabbed some Pringles and a couple of Fig Newtons and headed out. I was determined to not lose these two guys. For one reason I thought it would help me keep pace and another was to hopefully not get off course again. Safety in numbers I guess. At least I wouldn't be lost alone. I managed to keep them in sight and coming out of the trees and back onto the gravel road they had a quarter mile of more on me. I knew at this point that not only would I finish but I would come in under my expected time. I also knew that I could push it and hurt for the next 2.5 miles back to the finish. And I knew there was cold beer there. I stopped to empty my bottles (less weight) and put my head down. I ran about an 8:30 min/mile pace on those roads passing them and reaching the end in 6h38m. At the finish was a group of runners, most of whom I did not know, to cheer me home. After a quick sit down break and a change of clothes, I grabbed my beer and joined them to cheer in more finishers. Pay it forward.

NWA GOATS (L to R) Me, Shannon McFarland, Jody Lingbeck, Ryan  "Gandolf" Holler, Tom "Slow" Lane and our driver, Stephen O'Neal (4th place overall) pose post race in front of the Big Fork Community Center.

The details: I wore my Saucony Peregrine trail shoes and felt they performed quite well. Balaga trail socks did OK. No blisters but they retained water from the creek crossings more than I would have liked. I went through 7 Gu gels, 6 S! Caps, various trail grub (ate a every aid station, the chicken noodle soup really hit the spot) and plenty of fluids. I carried one bottle of water and the other electrolyte drink (Gatorade or Heed). I had a slightly sour stomach from the start that lasted about an hour and then settled down. It stayed away until the last gel (Gu Jet Blackberry) with about 45 minutes left. My post race snack was a banana chia seed muffin and a cold Mustang Winter Ale. I logged 27.27 miles according on my Garmin 305 with 4,262 ft of ascent and 4,881 ft of descent. Not sure how that worked out but that's what it shows. My feet hurt, quads trashed, hamstrings fatigued, back hurt but I did good. At no point did the thought of dropping cross my mind. For that matter neither did the thought of stopping for more than a few minutes at aid stations. The longest being the soup stop. I simply kept moving. Jogging when I was able and walking where the course demanded. The conventional wisdom is to double your best marathon time. I beat that by about 1 hour. The website claims 7.1 miles of climbing with an average grade of 12%. The disclaimer is no joke. This is the hardest course I have run. Period. After the first peak it is an exercise of repetition. Up, down, water, repeat 7 more times. As soon as my legs really began burning from a climb it was time for a downhill. By the time they were ready to surrender from that it was back up again. I stopped briefly a couple of times in the creek to allow the cold water to run over my shoes. That felt good. I asked a few of the veteran trail runners if they had been on a tougher course. Each one answered no. This is the real deal. It may "only be 26.2 miles" but it is a full on kick in the nuts. If you want to test your mettle and see where you stand, come down to Big Fork next year and find out. This was, hands down, the most epic run I have had yet. 

The elevation chart from my Garmin for a portion of the course.

Ryan "Gandolf" Holler, always light and smooth.

The aftermath: Two days removed from ABF my body is doing OK. My left leg (with the torn meniscus) is actually pretty good. My right leg is still sore, especially my calf, makes me walk funny. I haven't run since Saturday but I have tried to move around, albeit slowly, as much as possible. I haven't had to go down stairs backwards yet and I haven't found myself stuck on the toilet. Back to training for Rocky Raccoon tomorrow with a nice and easy recovery run.

Aaron "Bulldog" Denson looking strong.

01/10/2012: I just tried a test jog at the house this morning. No dice. My right leg (quad/calf) nearly buckled. So I will scrap the plans for a run and opt instead for a hike around the art trail out at Crystal Bridges Museum.

Shannon McFarland having fun.

01/20/2012: The week following ABF I somehow managed about 35 miles. But it was ugly. Legs were dead, no pop at all even on short runs. I threw down 18 miles of hardtop yesterday and 10 miles of trail today and finally feel my legs are back. Just in time for the RR50 taper.

Jody "Mama GOAT" Lingbeck, always smiling. 

*Follow me on Twitter @RedDirtRunner*

All race photos on this post are courtesy of TATUR Russell Bennett.
Brandon BG Gardner (L) and Mike Rush (R) in the white singlets


  1. Nice report. You're gonna have a great Rocky Raccoon. I forced myself to walk to Crystal Bridges today around noon. Got in 4 miles, all walking. Considering how shredded my quads are, I'm convinced that my dropout at 17.5 miles was a good call.

    Thank you very much for the burritos and muffins!

  2. Great commentary for a spectacular run. I am so proud of your accomplishment. Not bad for an old family man and chicken farmer. lol Dad

  3. Ryan, thank you and walking sounds good today. No shame at all with a DNF on that beast. And the breakfast was the least I could do. It was comforting to know through it all that my fellow GOATS would be waiting for me at the end.

    Pop, thanks. Age is just a number and Ryan would attest with me that 43 isn't old. Maybe the chickens help me run better.