Arkansas Traveler 100
Report by Dave Billman
Lining up for the start of the Arkansas Traveller was surreal. It was 6:00 am, dark and cool as 133 runners prepared to run 100 miles. This was my first attempt at anything past 50 miles, and although I didn’t feel nervous, friends and photos would say otherwise. I had been planning this run for a long time. The training, the gear, studying topo maps, estimating times, arranging crew and pacers – it was a consuming endeavor to say the least. My running plan was simple. Finish the first 50 miles in 12 hours and that should leave me with something to push into, and hopefully finish, the second 50 miles. The starting gun sounded and we were off like a pack turtles. In the first mile I found myself talking to runners, comfortably in the very back of the pack, which was just fine. A long day was ahead of me.
The dirt and gravel roads wound and climbed through the woods. Real woods with real trees, not little trees like around Dallas. The climbs were longer than I was used to, but the plan was to walk the uphills. After several miles and one aid station, the road began to switchback up a hill, a long hill. I was near several runners and all were walking, most slower than me. As we approached the top of the switchbacks and the next aid station, I dumped my bottle of Gatorade planning on switching to HEED (the official aid station drink). One bottle with HEED, one with water. Some advice: never dump a drink bottle. The aid station had run out of water! Fortunately my water bottle was still over half full, and with 3 miles to the next aid station I would be fine.
At this point we entered the only single-track trail of the race. Eight miles on the Ouachita Trail, the first three were all downhill to the next aid station. This is my kind of running. After passing some slower people, I cruised comfortably down and into the next aid station. They had pancakes and bacon, but I opted for some crackers and grapes. Over the next mile or so, the trail climbed out of the valley and wound though the forest. I passed a few more runners along here and eventually the trail turned downhill and into the Lake Sylvia aid station. This was the first crew access point and my wife Paula (my crew for this run) would be there. She had a PB&J sandwich ready as we had planned and I was out in less than a minute.
We were back on the dirt roads now, and would be on gravel and dirt roads for the rest of the event. Some, I would hesitate to call roads, I certainly wouldn’t take my truck on them, but they made for good running. The road climbed out of Lake Sylvia for a mile or more, giving runners time to eat, drink and rest. Along here, I overtook three friends and we ran as a foursome for several hours. Around mile 22 we started the second major climb up to Electronic Tower aid station. The four of us were joking and having a great time and the climb passed quickly. Reaching the aid station I knew we had a long gradual drop to the second crew point at mile 32. We passed several more runners along this stretch.
Arriving at the Lake Winona aid station and crew access point, I was met by the NTTR pit crew. My water bottles were taken, I was directed to a chair, my drop bag was there waiting – boy, did I feel special! I pulled off my left shoe to apply Bag Balm to a hotspot on my heel, grabbed a cap for the sunny afternoon, drank an Ensure and headed back out. Lynn was at that aid station, he would later pace me through the night. It was good to know he had arrived and would be ready at Powerline aid station. I was ahead of my estimated time at this point, feeling good, so all was well.
Leaving Lake Winona was four miles of uphills and flats. The sun was getting warm, but not too bad. The temperature would reach the mid to upper 70’s, and only for a couple hours. My three running partners slowly fell off my pace. I wasn’t going fast, but the heat may have been getting to them. I needed the alone time, and drifted to a good “mental place” as I covered these miles.
The first sign for Club Flamingo aid station announced Hula girls ahead, the aid station themes were great and the volunteers were having a blast. I had an ice cold Mountain Dew, which I would later rename rocket fuel, and soaked the bandana around my neck in cold water. Peanut butter crackers and a slice of orange, and I was running again. I was pleased that my aid station stops were short. I find it very easy to linger for too long.
The Mt. Dew had me running well and I wanted to slowly take in caffeine all day to help stay awake through the night. Coming into the Smith Mountain aid station I ask if they had Mt Dew. “I got some Jack Daniels,” was the response. He was pouring me the Mt Dew, but I think if I had said ok, there would have been some JD in it. I didn’t need that, but I appreciated the joke. Next up was the climb up Smith Mountain. Some people call it hard, some call it nothing. My plan was to power walk up, so bring it on! It was more trail-like the road-like, which was a welcome change. The weeds were cut down and the rocks were visible and avoidable. I actually passed five more runners while walking up. Running down Smith Mt was fun. The ground was softer than the gravel roads and the slope was gentle. It coaxed your running rather than controlled it. A check of the watch told me I would reach the Powerline aid station about ten minutes behind my predicted time. This was 48 miles in, and ten minutes late is on-time at this point.
At Powerline was the first weigh-in. No change, great. The NTTR pit crew jumped into action again, as my bottles were filled, Mt Dew brought, etc. I put Bag Balm on my right heel this time. I rarely get blisters, and now both feet were starting to go. They say things come up in hundreds that don’t appear at shorter distances, and this was one of those things. I had another Ensure, a PB&J sandich and headed out. Lynn was joining me here, so I knew I wouldn’t be running alone for the rest of the event. That was comforting, as I was starting into mileage that I had never done before.
The stretch from Powerline to the Turnaround and back was tough. This covered mile 48 to mile 67, almost 20 miles, the sun went down and darkness fell, and the temperature dropped. This was my first real low point of the run. A lot of runners dropped out along this stretch, and I may have been one of them had I been alone. Conversation with Lynn was keeping my mind focused on moving forward. He knew I wasn’t eating enough and got me to try a few different things at the aid stations. At the Turnaround I had some chicken broth, crackers and another Mt Dew. Around me were some pretty miserable looking runners slumped in chairs. Best to move out of here as soon as possible. We headed down the road and soon the Dew kicked in. My mood was better, I was talking and more importantly, I was running again. We were now at mile 60 and I was beginning to sense that the effort was becoming more mental than physical. Keep focused and fueled, keep the blisters under control and the finish line will come.
We finally made it back to Powerline and my crew around 11:30pm. This was the second weigh-in, down one pound, still good. I changed into a long sleeve shirt for the night, grabbed my larger flashlight and we moved on. I wanted to get back over Smith Mountain, as I felt that would give me a psychological boost. Two miles later we met a runner from Alabama. She had made a five-mile off-course mistake and was pretty mad at herself. She walked up Smith Mountain with us and was a very animated talker, a real hoot. As we crested the mountain, Lynn and I started running again, she kept walking. We never saw her again, and I think she eventually dropped. We made good time going down Smith Mt, and into the next aid station. (And no, I don’t want any Jack Daniels this time either). The aid station had some chocolate pudding, which was great. I never thought of that for a run, but in the middle of the night, it was good!
More dark, gravel roads, more hills, more pain from the blister on my right heel. Soon we heard the generator from Club Flamingo. They had Tiki torches lining the last 200 yards of road into the aid station. Then lights, music – a party in the middle of nowhere. More Dew, more PB crackers. I pulled off my right shoe to look at the blister. It was getting bigger, so I added more Bag Balm. I probably should have done more to it then, but I didn’t. We headed out in the moonlight and soon reached Pigtrail aid station, still more than 3 hours ahead of cutoff. I knew I was way ahead of cutoff, but I had to ask. Just part of that mental game, I guess.
Shortly out of Pigtrail we reached the 80-mile point. I thought, great I only have 20 miles to go. I had to remind myself that 20 miles is a long way and a lot can still happen. A long gentle downhill took us into the Lake Winona aid station. I weighed-in, down 8 pounds. No way, I would be feeling a lot worse if I was down that much. The worker made a comment about the scale not being accurate and told me I was fine. By the numbers, that was only 2 pounds above my limit to be pulled from the run! Yeah, a lot can happen in 20 miles. I walked to my crew chair and decided it was time for some blister surgery. I quickly drained and taped the blister on my right heel, and decided the left was no worse than it had been 40 miles ago, so I’d leave that one alone. I shoved a pair of gloves on my pack, downed another Ensure, and headed out. This was where Lynn was stopping and Jackie (a good friend) was taking over the pacing duties. Lynn was strong enough to take me to the end (and I know he really wanted to), but Jackie wanted to help, and this seemed like a good job for her. She was definitely pumped for those last 16 miles.
Leaving Lake Winona, my right heel felt worse, but after a few minutes, the pain all but stopped. Surgery was the right choice, and I should have done it sooner. We passed by the spillway for the lake, and into a patch of very cold air. I almost put on the gloves, but I knew we’d climb out of this valley soon. Soon we were trekking up the last major climb to Electronic Tower aid station. I was tired, a sleepy kind of tired. For me, this was the toughest part of the night as far as staying awake. I just wanted to lie down and sleep. We were keeping a decent pace up the climb considering how far I’d come, and were surprised by voices of two runners overtaking us. It was a runner and his pacer engaged in a lively discussion on gay marriage. The pacer told me she brought it up because she knew it would get him revved up, and it did. They led us into Electronic Tower. It was getting lighter now and I was again waking up. Your energy does come back with sunrise. I had another Dew, some crackers and we left the aid station. There were five of us now, three runners and two pacers. I was still running the downhills (well, some of them anyway), as the five of us ping-ponged down into Pumpkin Patch aid station. I filled my water bottles, slammed another Dew and we headed out. Only 6.25 miles to the finish, just a short 10K. After a few minutes the Dew kicked in and Jackie and I trotted ahead of the other runners, quickly putting them out of sight. Soon we caught another runner. I felt sorry for him, as he definitely looked like one of the walking wounded. Run, walk, run, walk, we put the miles behind us. We climbed a longish hill, that I was glad to top. As tired as I was, I wanted to run a bit, and this uphill was preventing it. Over the top and down one mile to Lake Sylvia. We passed two more of the walking wounded on this downhill. Near the bottom another runner was walking back toward us. He thought he was lost, but we assured him this was the correct way. He fell in with us as we ran/walked to the paved highway and walked up the last short climb. At the top there would be an eighth of a mile of downhill to the finishline. Jackie asked if I wanted to run it in. I had been thinking about this part for over 20 hours! Yeah, I want to run it in! Past the parked cars, right turn into Camp Ouachita and 60 yards down to the finish line. 27 hours, 17 minutes and 50 seconds. I was done, my first hundred miler. Until you’ve done it, you don’t fully understand the feeling. Hugging my wife and pacers, for those few minutes nothing hurt, nothing mattered. Everything was just perfect!