My perspective on this became clear to me yesterday as I was nearing the end of the Athens Big Fork course, considering that I had just run up and down steep mountains on poorly marked and maintained trails contending with deadfall, briars, jumbled rocks, and cold damp weather for somewhere between four and five hours. In comparison, Barkley is 60 hours of far, far worse versions of the same sorts of conditions. It was in that moment that my understanding and appreciation of the physical and mental extremes experienced in some of the toughest ultra endurance events expanded just a little bit, and I was once again humbled by the relative normalcy of the challenge that I was about to complete.
The back-story to how I came to run the Athens Big Fork Marathon originated in the intrigue of it being a difficult event. Back in November I was looking for a race to run in early January. My criteria were to find a course near marathon distance in a place that I could find inexpensive transportation to with a course that looked both interesting and at least moderately difficult (sorry, no repeating butterfly loops through the 8 mile trail system of some state park). There were a few options that caught my eye but once I began looking at the events in detail I was immediately drawn to the description for the Athens Big Fork race. For starters, it appeared to be a very low profile event with a simple website describing very basic information on the event, the route of the course, and past results for the race. The website also presented the disclaimer that the race is very difficult and is designed for experienced and well prepared trail runners. The race is billed at 26.2 miles and 9200 feet of elevation gain, however both of these statistics are up for debate. No pre-registration is available for the event, and the registration process on race morning consists of signing a waiver, picking up a number, and dropping a donation into a box for the Big Fork community center which allows the race to use their facility. The picture that was painted by the sparse information I was able to pick up from the race website and race reports from past competitors deepened my level of intrigue, and before long I had decided that this was a race that I must do.
After arranging my travel plans and doing the routine preparation leading up to the race, I finally began my journey. On January 4, the day before the race, I flew to Tulsa and made the four hour drive to the tiny town of Big Fork, Arkansas in the middle of the Ouachita Mountains. I arrived in Big Fork in the early evening and drove to the beginning of the trail that I would be running on the next day. I wanted to scout the course just a little bit in order to give myself an idea what I was getting into, so I threw on my running shoes and headlamp and headed out up the first hill. The course for the race consists of an initial ~2.5 miles on paved and dirt roads before reaching the beginning of the trail. Once on the trail, the route follows a pattern of steep climbs and steep descents over 8 distinct mountains before reaching a county road and the turnaround point. The route then reverses back over the same 8 mountains, and back along the roads the final miles to the finish. The portion of the course that I scouted in the dark the evening before was the first and last of these sixteen sets of climbs and descents. I learned during my recon mission that the trail appeared to be lightly traveled, not well blazed, and fairly overgrown in places. I did, however, note a few pieces of pink ribbon strung along the trail that appeared to be course markings, along with white blazes on the trees which are the official markings for the trail. I could definitely see how losing the route would be a very easy thing to do, but I was somewhat assured by my preview of the course.
I camped that night at the trailhead and in the morning made my way to the small community center along the state highway that runs through Big Fork. After registering and getting my gear together, I jogged up and down the road a bit to get my legs ready to move. At about 7:45 the race director called all of the 100 or so participants into the community center to give the pre-race briefing, which mostly consisted of instructions of how to avoid getting lost on the course. The instructions seemed clear enough at the time, but I remained leery after hearing stories of most people doing significant off-route mileage at least once during the race, even if it wasn't their first time running the course. After the briefing, we made our way out onto the road and the race director said something to the effect of "let's go" and we were off running.
I settled in with a group of three others just behind the leaders as we ran up the road and enjoyed some good conversation. When we hit the first climb, the conversation mostly stopped as we pushed a good running pace to the top of the first hill. At the top of this hill, I moved ahead of the small group I had been running with and let gravity take over while keeping an easy but fast pace on the descent. I quickly caught up to the two leaders along with another guy who had stayed directly behind me, and the four of us grouped into a pack that we would keep together for the next 11 miles.
For the next several climbs and descents we traded leads several times among our group of four, and I started getting to know the guys who I was running with. It turns out that one of the guys in our group, Tom, is a many time winner and long time course record holder for Athens Big Fork. I felt comfortable with the pace that our group was keeping and it was easy to let the miles and the hills roll by as we had some good conversations. At the aid station at mile 8.5 after the fifth climb, I chose to run through and in doing so put a small gap on the other three behind me. The gap would not last long however, since at the top of the next climb I became confused about the direction we were supposed to descend, and Tom yelled out directions to me as he neared the top with the others. This pattern continued for the next few hills: I would maintain a short lead but then get confused and have to stop and try to determine the correct trail to take, then Tom would yell out to me which direction I should be going, and then I would take off once again.
The turnaround for the course was a short run up a county road after exiting the trail at the bottom of the 8th descent, and our group of four came into and left the turnaround aid station all together. Once we were back on the trail, however, was when the wheels started to come off for me, and as we made our way up that next climb I quickly fell behind the others. The onset of fatigue had come relatively quickly and I was now hiking grades that just a few minutes before I would have comfortably been running up. By the time I got to the top of the first climb after the turnaround I had lost sight of the others and had determined that I needed to pay attention to maintaining my own condition rather than focus on catching back up to them.
As I ground through the next couple of climbs, passing by the rest of the marathon runners still on their way out, I slowly began to realize that the reason for my fatigue was probably largely due to not having kept up with my nutrition well enough during the first half of the race. I had been drinking perpetuem, but not enough of it, and I had neglected to take any gels or salt tabs. I began downing gulps of my perpetuem mix more frequently and added in a gel and a couple of salt tabs periodically, and after a short while I could begin to feel their effect kicking in and I began returning to life to some degree.
Through most of the return trip I was able to stay vigilant of the places where we had made turns on the way out that I would have to repeat on the way back. I had also brought along a topo map of the course area with the approximate route of the trail marked on it, which I referenced several times to make sure that I was turning the right direction in the proper places. Despite my care to stay headed in the correct direction, I encountered a bit of confusion about halfway through the return trip when I reached a creek at the bottom of a descent. I knew that I was supposed to turn left to head upstream in the valley so I crossed the creek and started up what appeared to be a trail, but the trail quickly disappeared into a thicket of trees. I then spotted what looked like a trail a bit further south in the narrow valley and bushwhacked my way over, just to find that there was no trail there either. After double-checking my map I determined that the trail must have stayed on the opposite side of the creek so I bushwhacked back across the valley and across the creek, then quickly found the trail running along the opposite side. I feel very fortunate that this was my only off-trail mishap of the day, as I talked to many runners later who had ventured much further off route, many multiple times.
With three climbs left to go on the return, my general fatigue level continued to grow higher but some of the deadness in my legs was subsiding due no doubt to the aid provided by the salt and gels. As I finished out the last of the climbs I was truly dreading those last miles on the road to the finish. At that point I would have much rather faced another climb or even two rather than having to push out those miles on the flat road. When I hit the road, it hurt just as badly as I had imagined it would. My body was taking a beating with every step, but it would have been ridiculous to slow to a walk or a shuffle at that point on such easy terrain so I made every effort to push it out and maintain some semblance of a decent pace. As I turned onto the asphalt and neared the finish, a wave of relief hit me and I was finally able to celebrate the fact that I would get to stop running.
I crossed the finish line to the rowdy cheers of three people sitting in the back of an SUV next to the finish. I stumbled into the community center, wrote down my name and my time on the yellow legal pad of results, and plopped down in a chair. Tom, who had once again won the race, was curled up on a bench nearby, appearing to be in a good bit of pain. Josh and Cole, the other two guys I had been running with were sitting by the wood burning stove with their shoes off, looking a little bit dazed. Thus is the effect of running for hours through rough and indistinguishable terrain.
It didn't take long before we all started regaining our normal faculties and started discussing all of our individual experiences with the course. As the rest of the runners began trickling in we discussed and rehashed all of their experiences, and so it went for the next few hours. Despite being small in total numbers for the race, the support among the runners for their fellow competitors finishing the race was fantastic. Even though the weather was still somewhat cold, a crowd maintained their position near the finish line cheering in every finishing runner and filling the time between runners with sharing stories and having a general good time. One guy, upon finishing the race, made the comment that he had matched his personal best 50 mile race time, which is an impressive feat depending on how you look at it.
My closing thoughts on the race event are all very positive. I truly enjoyed the laid back community feel of the event which encouraged conversations rather than competitiveness. The course was just as tough as its reputation had suggested. I have tried to make a comparison in my mind between this course and other routes that I've completed with similar overall statistics such as Barr Trail, Four Pass Loop and others, but it's difficult to make a comparison because of the unique nature of this particular route. I've never done a route of any distance with so many distinct climbs and descents, and that factor alone sets this race apart from most others. Factoring in the grade and quality of the trail, as well as the general setting of the course, makes it one of a kind in my experience.