Monday, January 14, 2013

Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon Race Recap

This IS the toughest marathon in the south.  I heard several people say just that the morning of the race. Eight mountain crossings on the out and then you turn around and cross the same eight mountains on the way back.  After running this I will be one of the ones saying it is the toughest marathon in the south.  Here is the profile from my Garmin report of the race. 

Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon Profile

Who could have known before the race that it was going to be this hard?  Well, the race organizers give you a hint to that with this warning on the race website.

NOTE: This event is NOT for trail-newbies.

If you are not an experienced trail- or ultra-runner (or adventure racer), we happily invite you to one of the other UTS runs, BUT NOT THIS ONE. This is a difficult event on a difficult trail that presents many opportunities for one to get lost, injured, exhausted, or incapacitated--with sparse access for rescue.

MORE Notes:

Please do not be enticed into trying this run because of the difficulty warning--it is merely an honest attempt at preventing the run organizers from having to find and rescue someone ill-equipped for the event.

A cut-off time of 10:30am (2.5 hours) will be enforced at the turn-around (half-way) point for the 17-mile run. Runners reaching that point after 10:30 must turn around (--NOT proceed on the marathon course).

If you cannot find the Big Fork Community Center without further instructions--please disregard this race.
That’s a pretty serious warning and you need to take it at face value.  We took it serious, but thought we were conditioned for it and decided to give it a go.  We setup three goals prerace so as to keep things in perspective.
  1. Finish the race in 8 hours
  2. Finish the race
  3. Finish the Blaylock Creek Fun Run (17 miles)
I got up at at 3:45 and picked Scott up in Conway at 4:45 and headed on to Big Fork Community Center.  We stopped and grabbed some breakfast in Hot Springs on the way.  We arrived later than we had planned and didn't get much of a chance to socialize with the other runners.  We made our donation to the community center, purchased a t-shirt from the race and after a brief instruction we were lead to the highway in front of the community center and we were off.

The first 2.5 miles are run just a little on a highway and then on a county road with a gradual incline.  Nice easy warm up before you hit the first climb.  The first climb (Missouri) is a bit overrun with undergrowth so staying a good distance back from the runner in front of you is needed so you are not popped by a recoiling tree branch.  After ascending and descending this first mountain you come to the first aid station at around 4 miles.  This aid station (run by TATUR) was well stocked and friendly and had the music cranked up. 

The next section of the race until Blaylock creek crosses 4 mountains (Hurricane Knob, McKinley, Brier Creek, & Leader).  It's a nice stretch of trail with some technical parts and a few sections of scree.  It finally ends with a crossing of Blaylock creek and arriving at the Blaylock creek aid station.  This station was also well stocked and manned by a very friendly crew from AURA.  This is the turnaround point for the fun run.  At this point you have a decision to make.  If you are feeling anything less than great I would suggest turning around here.  Scott and I discussed our three goals briefly and decided to push on. Goal number three was no longer an option.  It would be goal one or two.

Scott crossing Blaylock Creek

The next mountain (Brushheap) is the monster on this trail in my opinion.  The climb out of Blaylock creek and up this mountain seems to have the highest gradient and seemed to go on forever. If this were a cycling course I'd have to rate it HC.  Someone had bulldozed parts of the trail and near the trail and the race organizers did a good job of putting down flour markings to lead you the correct direction. 
I really enjoyed the next mountain (Brushy).  It had some great views and seemed match well for my descending.  At this point it's important to note that I am more comfortable descending faster than Scott.  So we would power hike the hills together and then I would descend off the front.  Once at the base I would walk/hike until Scott joined me to hike up the next mountain.

This is where our race went wrong.  I descended off of mountain seven (Brushy) ahead of Scott and proceeded to run to the base of the next mountain where I started to hike.  After about half a mile he had not caught me and I began to worry.  I stopped and waited, the time was 3:22.  At 3:29 another runner who had been behind Scott passed me and informed me that he had not seen Scott.  This meant that Scott was off trail.  I ran back down the mountain and out a short spur trail until I decided he wasn't down there.  I encountered another runner who had already made the turn around and explained he had been lost earlier by making a wrong turn at a T after Brushy.  I ran with him back to the T and sure enough it was a very confusing intersection.  On the way out it is a T after Brushy.  Looking left you see a tree with both a yellow and white blaze.  Looking right you see a tree with a yellow blaze.  Further inspection and you would also see a tree with a white blaze a little further.  Now, I'm not sure the point of having blazes on trees together versus having them on separate trees, but Scott only saw the white blaze to the left and he turned left.  This was the same mistake that the runner I encountered had told me he had made.  I was lucky enough when I came through the intersection just a few minutes ahead of Scott to pass 4 runners on their way back from the turnaround coming into the intersection.  I turned toward them and never considered which way was the correct way to turn.  So, I ran about a half mile down this trail and found Scott and five other runners running back towards me.  I latched onto the train, but soon Scott and I were both unhitched.  Here is the lesson, when you come to a T after descending the 7th mountain, TURN RIGHT!

Scott and I were on our way to the final aid station after mountain eight (Big Tom).  We arrived at the well stocked aid station run by a group out of Texarkana about 30 minutes behind where we were on pace to arrive as the trail debacle had cost us half an hour.  Scott had some chicken noodle soup and I had a large banana and took a second one for the run back.  It was obvious at this point that race goal number one, finish in eight hours, was no longer attainable, so we moved down to race goal number two.  We left the final aid station just as the last 3 runners were reaching it.
Scott at the turn-around post trail mishap.

We ran/walked/hiked the next three mountains back to the Blaylock creek aid station.  Scott told me more than once to go on, but pre-race we had agreed to stay together until 10K to go and then if either of us felt good and had a chance at doing better we would split up, so I stayed with Scott a while longer.  We went through Blaylock Creek aid station together and we left out just as the first of the last group was arriving.

We proceeded to go over mountain five (Leader) together and start up four (Brier Creek) together.  On the way up Brier Creek when we were about six miles out Scott could tell I was itching to take off.  I turned around to ask if I could go but before I could get the words out of my mouth he said "Just go man".

Scott after 20 miles
Kevin after 20 miles

I took off with intent on catching at least one person.  I power hiked up the remaining of four (Brier Creek) and flew down the other side.  I hit both three & two (McKinley, Hurricane Knob) with the same intensity and just as I hit the base after Hurricane Knob I saw a runner leaving the final aid station.  I picked up my pace and hit the aid station only long enough to eat a handful of chips and have my bottle refilled.  I was off.  Somewhere on the way up the final climb (Missouri) I hit my limits.  My walk/hike slowed to barely moving and for the first time of the day I was not able to run down a mountain.  I couldn't navigate the leaf covered rocks with my wobbly legs and I had to hike slowly down the mountain.  When I reached the base and the road I could not see the other runner at all.  I decided to just shoot for breaking 9 hours and slowly brought it in.

Meanwhile, Scott had gone over four and three (Brier Creek, McKinley) and topped out on two (Hurricane Knob) when he could hear the faint noise of the aid station at the bottom of McKinley.  He gained inspirations and picked up his pace.  He came into the final aid station strong and took in a variety of fuel before leaving out.  He powered up one (Missouri) and ran down the back side.  He finally hit the long dirt road and ran much more of it than I did.

I hit the pavement at 8:48 with only 8/10ths of a mile to finish the race.  Three cars full of runners passed honking and clapping as I neared the finish line.  Unbeknownst to me, the same three cars would honk and clap for Scott as he ran down the pavement just half a mile behind me.  I would finish in 8:58 as a couple of women got out of the cars and ran to the finish to cheer me in.  That’s just what these runners are like.  I proceeded into the community center to sign out.  A race organizer came in and said that 84 just hit the pavement.  I knew 84 was Scott and I ran (if you could call it that) out to the finish line just in time to catch him crossing it and cheer him in.

Scott finishing strong

We changed clothes and cleaned up the best we could at the community center before heading to Hot Springs and Rod’s pizza for some supper.  We recapped the race together and really enjoyed the day.  Scott stated he will never run this race again, but I’m not so absolute. Keep in mind, Scott always says he will never do something and before you know it he is doing just that.

The Rodfather Pizza at Rod's Pizza in Hot Springs
Garmin Link: ABF Garmin Link