Sunday, January 8, 2012

Athens-Big Fork

Arkansas, that is. There is a trail run here that runs on an old postal trail between two tiny towns in western Arkansas. It's approximate marathon distance, give or take (I've never Garmin'ed it, and don't really want to know.) The catch? It goes up and over 8 Ouachita mountain peaks, then turns around and goes back. To say that it's tough is an understatement. I always wonder how that ever could have been a viable postal route. Or who was around to receive any mail in that area, for that matter.

So this run is typically the first Saturday in January, and always feels like one of those occasions that indicates that a year has turned, by which we can mark our calendars. Did I say that this run is tough? Every time, I give myself a little internal pinch and chuckle at the absurdity of what I am about to put myself through. Try not to think about it. And then we start...

(Big Fork Community Center... RD Steve told us this year that our donations helped to enable running water.)

And off we went. Lots of climbing, lots of picking my way around rocks and trying to stay in control on descents, and trying to assess the general state of things during the few flat stretches. Lately, I have been having alot of leg cramps, even on shorter runs. I am not sure if it's a phase, something I'm doing (eat, drink, stretch), or if it's related to the bizarre state of my muscles. Yesterday was warm, and I was very nervous about a lock-up. I had a few scares, any little slip during a creek crossing or a toe-catch would cause a calf to sieze, but by some miracle, it always released quickly and let me keep running.

Long runs are funny beasts. The first few hours of any run feel pretty much the same. The story of what kind of a day I'm going to have doesn't start to weave itself together until it's way too late to do anything about it. Which is one of the reasons why this stuff is so interesting. The consequences of a bad day at ABF are pretty heinous, as you are out in the middle of nowhere with no place to go but up and over those damn mountain peaks on your own two feet, regardless of how bad you feel or incapacitated you have become. There are plenty of meltdowns.

And yesterday's run churned on. A foggy day meant that several of the peaks were in the clouds, so damp that you could practically drink the air. It was beautiful in a surreal, running-in-a-cloud kind of way. I drank amply, paid attention to electrolytes, and grazed at aid stations (Pringles and oatmeal pies were the magic formula, who knew?). And the story of my run started to unfold. I had a good one. A very good one. I don't say this often, but I would live yesterday over again. The run is tough, but not a complete killer until you get to the turnaround and realize that you have made a huge mistake by not turning around 3 peaks ago at Blaylock Creek. The hills are worse on the way back in, too. Especially peaks 14 and 15, where people really start to crash, and where in past years I have experienced the sensation of falling backwards when my climbing momentum slowed. If you can simply survive the 2nd half, you are doing well. And somehow I found myself gaining energy and going faster and faster the further I went. It was happening. Don't ask, just go with it and hope it holds together. I started passing people going up the last few hills. They looked miserable, and I felt bad for them as I scooted up and around with sickening energy and positivity. Stay with me, legs! I came off of the trailhead and hit the last 2-3 mile road section as high as a kite. I didn't think there was a way that I could match last year's time (I had a good run last year, too), and yet I PR'd by about 15 minutes. I've had one or two road marathons where I felt better at the end than I did at the beginning, and maybe as many long-distance trail events. It's an amazing feeling.  Too bad it lasts only as long as your next run. 

(This feels darn near close to vertical. How do those guys out west do it?)

So that was my Saturday. May there be many more. Cheers,