In the long run

For folks who run 50 kilometers through the woods, success takes more than putting one foot in front of the other

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SITTING ON A BLUFF OVERLOOKING North Sylamore Creek, I spy flashes of color darting through the wooded, rocky landscape. Over the faint sound of cascading water echoing off the sandstone cliffs behind me, I hear footfalls and labored breathing as rays of February sunlight warm my skin. It’s not long until the leaders come into view, skillfully stepping over uneven rocks and flying by me as if on winged feet. I cheer on everyone who passes because as a trail runner myself, I know what a little encouragement can do to boost one’s spirits and energy level. And to tackle the Sylamore Trail 25/50K Run, a grueling race through the hills near Mountain Home, they’ll need it.

I’m not the only noncompetitor who woke well before sunrise to watch the race. Even though trail running is not a team sport, it’s rare for runners to be successful entirely on their own. There’s a whole community behind everyone on the Sylamore today. I’d watched as their friends and family lined the banks of the first creek crossing to cheer them, and about a mile down the trail from where I stand, there’s an aid station manned by volunteers. Located every five miles or so, the stations are stocked with everything—water, Gatorade, energy gels, orange slices, bananas, cookies, pickles, and homemade PB&Js—the runners will need during their five to 10 hours on the trail (two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half for the 25Kers). Between the stations, where the crowd thins, the racers cheer one another on, everyone urging their fellow competitors to run a little faster or dig a little deeper to make it up the next steep climb.

This is just one of many trail races taking place each year in The Natural State. With so many state parks and natural wilderness areas, Arkansas is ideal for folks seeking to leave the monotonous city pavement in search of ever-changing scenery and terrain. But while there are plenty of trails and races with reasonable distances (see our list to the right for a few of the best), trail runs are where the ultrarunners dwell. Most ultraruns—any distance farther than a marathon—take place on trails rather than pavement because the softer surface impacts the body less.

iStock_000086715497_LargeAnd though there are longer races, at just a hair over 31 miles, the Sylamore Run 50K is definitely an ultra. The course is an “out-and-back,” with runners starting and finishing at the Angler’s Restaurant in Allison. But here, the distance and elevation gain (the first major climb is over 450 feet alone) are not the only challenges. In a typical year, the conditions are often cold, if not wet and icy, and the runners must cross North Sylamore Creek within the first mile of the race, leaving them with cold, soaked feet and legs. Even when the weather’s gorgeous, as it is today—mid-70s, bright, sunny skies—the runners face challenges, namely in the form of the cramps and fatigue that come when their bodies aren’t acclimated to warmer conditions. But for some reason, they return year after year to test themselves against whatever nature throws their way.

Before too long, one of those flashes of color I see through the trees turns into Nancy Kirk, a 59-year-old race veteran, and I yell to get her attention. She smiles and stops briefly to chat. She says she feels strong and that she’s still on pace. But even though this is her eighth time running the race and the Sylamore Trail is literally her backyard (she owns an inn and two antique shops in Mountain View), she’s still relatively new to the sport. Her brother, Steve Kirk, is an accomplished endurance athlete and inspired her to first start running when she was 48 years old, and she hasn’t stopped since. She runs these trails multiple times a week. To her, the trail is her church, and the trees her sanctuary.

Though not terribly fast, she can keep moving for a long time. She doesn’t expect a place on the podium—her goal every year is to try and set a personal best. Racing is a testament to her toughness and perseverance (Nancy broke her arm at the race four years ago with 7 miles left and still managed to finish). “Trail running can be tough and painful at times,” she says, “but quitting is never an option. And the feeling of accomplishment at the end is worth it.”

She takes a drink from her water bottle, and I wish her good luck as she dashes down the trail.

After a little while, I see a familiar face and beard: Kyle Hicks is up from Little Rock to tackle this race for his first time. He started running back in 2009 and found he had a gift for it. He saw it as a personal challenge, and it soon developed into a passion. He even started a running club for his 16- to 18-year-old students at the Arkansas National Guard Youth Challenge, a resident program for troubled teens, and he rewarded those who found the same passion by taking them to races. That encouraged him to start a 5K race on his own, and he was humbled by the generosity of the running community who came together to help support him.

But today, Hicks is out here for himself and seems to be on track to hit the turnaround at the four-hour mark. He’s hoping to finish the race in nine hours, which would be a decent time for a first-timer, and looks strong and steady. He’ll miss that mark by a half hour. “The last 6 miles were extremely tough, and I walked a bunch of it,” he tells me after the fact, “and I think had I not done the Fort Smith marathon the week before, I would have had an easier time of it.”

No one ever said trail runners weren’t a little crazy.

After Hicks disappears down the trail, I make my way back to the finish line in the Angler’s parking lot to catch up with friends who’ve finished and to cheer on those still out on the course. A digital clock counts each passing second while race director Greg Eason and his staff man the timekeeping tent. As each runner crosses the finish line, Greg walks over, gives them a congratulatory handshake and hands them their “trophy,” an etched Sylamore Trail pint glass.

It’s now mid-afternoon, and the area is teeming with runners and nonrunners alike. They’re seated on coolers, camp chairs, pickup beds—whatever surface they can find—eating and drinking, mostly drinking. Every few minutes, another haggard finisher comes in—usually solo, but sometimes in small groups—and people cheer and ring cowbells to congratulate them. And this is what Greg says is so special about his race: the incredible energy in the air at the finish line. And I’d have to agree. I’ve been present at the start of many ultrarun events, and the positive energy and support can’t be found anywhere else.

I hear their stories. I listen as friends describe how shattered they feel and what they accomplished. I envy those who ran the entire race together and finished together. Those who finish today are now veterans of the race, and despite the challenges and difficulty they faced, many will be back next year, rain or shine, snow or ice, to do it all over again. And I’ve promised myself I’ll be there to run with them.