Saturday, January 8, 2011

Home Trail Advantage

Another difficult Athens-Big Fork Trail run is over.  I have done this run for eleven years.  The first year was right after the ice storm of 2000.  Hard to believe that that much time has gone by already.  That year was my first trail run and we slipped and slid on the ice and snow and hurdled down trees the whole way.

Fast forward eleven years and here we are again.  The A-BF is such a great way to start the year.  It requires a hard effort and it feels great after two weeks of cabin fever during the holidays.  This year would not disappoint as the weather was perfect and the views gorgeous.  One year it was 35 degrees and rained the whole time so we have been very lucky these last couple of years.  In fact, if the race were held tomorrow, it is suppose to be heavy ice and snow.

Before I continue about this race, I have posted the warning that is issued on the A-BF  website below:

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 3-hours will be enforced at the turn-around (half-way) point for the 17-mile run. Runners reaching that point after three hours 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.

This is an elevation profile of the course.  Thanks to Badwater finisher Arnold Begay for providing this.

While I think this warning is a little bit over the top, every year a lot of people get off trail and some have had to be found.  One year I went off the trail for over seven miles.  So then again, maybe it is better to be safe than sorry.
This year there were a lot of people and a number of friends from Poteau and eastern Oklahoma.  I have almost always gone to this race alone so it was fun to see so many friends join me for this challenge.

This is the picture from last year at the start.  The photo has now become a tradition.  Thanks to Trail Zombie Ken Childress for many of these photos.
At the start, my friend Matt Aguero was there but I thought Matt would just use this race as a training run.  Matt is a 2:30 marathoner and typically runs the roads so I did not expect him to take this race seriously.  Then I saw Nick Lewis.  Nick is an amazing runner who got 2nd at Leadville.  Nick would be tough to beat and I am sure was going after my course record set last year at 4:26.  I ran against Nick several years ago and won at Sylamore but that was his first trail run so I think he could take me now.
Then there was always my friend Josh Snyder and Jeff from Louisiana.  They placed 2nd and 3rd last year respectively.
So we begin the race and I'm talking with friend Paul Schoenlaub trying to get pointers for Leadville this year.  When I look up Josh and Jeff have already moved quite aways ahead and are running pretty quick and then ahead of them is Nick and then Matt is beyond Nick!  It was only then that I realized that Matt was actually running this thing for real!  Oh boy.  This could be big trouble.  I could never hang with Matt.  But then again, it is a trail ultra and anything could happen and I did have experience if not speed. 
So I quite worrying about Nick and Matt and ran with Josh and Jeff.  I ran the entire first mountain.  There are eight mountains (really just large hills) to cross on the way out and of course eight to cross on the way back.  Over the next couple of mountains, tie my shoe and Jeff pulls away for a little bit.  I just made sure to keep him within my sights and it took quite awhile before I was able to catch back up to him at Blaylock Creek which is mile 8 1/2. 

Very steep trail.
It was there that Jeff asked how far ahead the other two were.  I really didn't want to ask because I did not want to be discouraged and I though they must have a good ten minutes on us.  To my amazement, Big Shot (who I cannot say enough about for being out their and providing the aid station at so many races) tells us that we are in the lead.  That no one has been through.
Of we go and I just cannot believe it.  Jeff and I deduce that Matt and Nick must have taken a wrong turn.  I suggest that they were moving so fast that maybe they came through before Big Shot had a chance to set up the aid station.
Well soon enough we came to the turn around and there was no sign of Matt and Nick.  At that point I was pretty sure what likely happened to them.  Had they gotten off the trail at any point, they would not get off for more than 5 - 20 minutes because they would have noticed that there was no white blazes.  If that were the case, they would have caught us or at least be hot on our tail.
Unless they took the Albert Pike Campground Trail which is also blazed with white paint!  This is the wrong turn that I took some eight or nine years ago.  That must have been what happened.
No time to worry about that now.  I felt bad for them but Jeff was hot on my tail and I was going to have to run strong to beat him.  Last year I went out in 2:16 and came back in 2:10 to set the course record.  This year, we were moving so fast that we went out in 2:10!  I didn't think I could come back as fast as last year because I felt I had burned up a lot of energy keeping up with Jeff going out but I certainly was going to try and get the reverse split again.

So off I go and during the first climb back I stop hearing Jeff's breathing and foot fall and figure he is at least a little way behind.  But the fear of seeing Jeff and of him catching me was always with me.  And I could not be sure that Josh wouldn't pull a World's Highest Hill on me and kick my tail end up one of the mountains and leave me behind.  But in the back of my head I just tried to stay relaxed and focused and for the most part I was able to do so. 

Pictures do not do justice to the beauty of this place!
I thought if I could do that, then I could run close to a reverse split and maybe another course record.  If one of the other guys beat that, then great for them because I gave it all I had.  So up and over the mountains I went.  Like last year, I felt great!  The mountains just easy and I felt like I was having little trouble running them.  Over the last mountain I again went through the briar patch and then ran as hard as I could to the finish.

That darn briar patch was really bad this year.
The last two miles were probably the hardest beause it is on dirt road and then pavement but once I saw 4:22:55 on my watch, it made it all worth the while!!  A new course record and first place!!
As for Matt and Nick, sure enough they had taken that wrong turn.  I know exactly where that turn is because I have taken it before.  Definitely home trail advantage for me.

Someone should tell Matt that his is what a white blaze looks like on the trail going to Athens, not Albert Pike.
I really feel bad for Matt and Nick but I hope they will forgive me for enjoying my moment.  I have to enjoy it for now because if they come back next year, they will not make the same mistake twice and could quite likely destroy my course record.  I hope they do because I really would like to see what they could do and I think they would have really pushed each other.
As for me, no more course records, I'm taking it easy next year.

Here's what the briars did for me.  Believe it or not, there were others who were a lot worse off than me.

Poteau Runners gather for photo after the hard race.
What was great is that the Poteau Cross Country team came and four young men finished the 17 mile fun run.  This is one of the most difficult trail races around and they should be very proud.  I don't think I would have had the fortitude to do such a race when I was only 16.  Coach Hall ran a PR for the seventeen miler.  My friend Chris Montgomery had his first trail run and finished the 17 miler rather comfortably though it is always a little hard.  And Josh Snyder beat his time last year by a mere 55 seconds.  Kristen Snyder ran the seventeen toughest miles in Arkansas or Oklahoma and claimed to love it!!  What a great run.

Friends relaxing by the warm wood stove in the Big Fork Community Center.
Nothing is so great as sitting in the warmth of the sun with friend and drinking a few beers as our hard-earned reward.  It was Miller Time baby.

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