The 3 Days of Syllamo stage race took place from March 12th to 14th near Allison, Arkansas, a town nestled in a valley of the eastern Ozark Mountains. This three day race is run almost entirely on single track trail with only short sections of fire and access roads sprinkled in. On Day 1 competitors run a 50k, Day 2 challenges runners with a 50 mile stage, and Day 3 usually wraps things up with a 20k. Individuals have the option to run one or two of the day or to compete in the stage race by completing all three days. With a race course that changes every year and an Race Director (RD), Steve Kirk, who does his best to lay out the toughest courses he can, Syllamo is always an interesting event and 2010 was no different.
Friday, Day 1 – 50k
Before the weekend’s events kicked off, runners met at the Blanchard Springs Campground, which would serve as the start and finish for the weekend’s events. We gathered around as Steve gave a general course description before describing trail markings and aid station locations. When asked directly if the distance for the first stage was more than 50k, he replied, “You guys are going to have a great day to see some beautiful stuff out there” and moved on to the next topic. By his response, we all knew we’d be getting our money’s worth for the day. The course was a lollipop shape covering 31-ish miles chosen from among the 150 plus miles of singe track available in the area.
At 9 a.m., Steve yelled “Go!” and we were off. We ran across the flat campground onto the road for about a quarter mile then hit the first climb. We ran this stage on the Syllamo Trail, which varies greatly aside from it being all single track. There is plenty of technical footing including loose rocks as well as roots and small boulders to dance around and keep your mind focused all day. Luckily weather was on our side. The sun stayed behind the clouds and temps topped out around 55.
The stage was won by Lief Seed from New Mexico in 5:07. David Wakefield of Topeka, Kansas took 2nd back by 6 minutes. The ever tough and multiple time women’s overall stage winner, Ashley Nordell, came in first for the women and 4th overall for the stage in around 5:23. Alyssa Godesky took second for the female stage racers crossing just under 6 hours. The overall stage race would not be won today. With only about 30 minutes separating the top 8 finishers and a tough 50 mile the next day many folks were still in the running.
Saturday, Day 2 – 50 mile
Runners set off on a 50 mile run just as the sun started rising at 6 a.m. on Day 2. The day’s course was an out and back on the Syllamore and Ozark Highlands Trail. The race website states that “This is where the fun starts.” Whether this statement is true or not really depends on your idea of “fun.” If your idea of fun is rocky footing, off camber running for long sections, followed by short steep climb after short steep climb, then you were in for a delightful day!
The top finishers from the 50k took the lead early. Leif, Ashley, and David all held the top 3 spots for the first 20 miles or so. Ashley and Leif ran neck and neck for the top 2 spots. There pair came into the mile 28 aid station together. David was having some stomach issues and dropped here. With this, veteran Paul Schoenlaub moved into the third spot. Alyssa was again sitting in second for the women as she ran with Jamie Anderson, who finished third for the men in the 50k stage. The two currently ran in the 4th and 5th position for the day.
Leif dropped with 9 miles to go due to foot issues. This left Ashley sitting firmly in the first overall for the day with 80% of the stage behind her. Paul was now holding on to second position, while I, Travis Liles, had moved up into the 3rd spot.
This is how the day would finish with Ashley coming in 1st, Paul taking 2nd, and myself taking the 3rd spot. Alyssa and Jamie finished together to round out the top 5.
Stage rankings going into Day 3 were Ashley – 1st, Paul – 2nd, and myself – 3rd.
Sunday, Day 3 – 20k
As runners walked stiffly toward the start for the third stage there was a notable difference in attitudes. Everyone was very quiet with many heads down. There was not any of the normal chatter, laughing, and talking that was present the previous two days. It was announced that a male runner had not come in from the day before. He had been seen last at Bark Shed aid station with 9 miles to the finish. Steve (RD), race staff, and some local runners who knew the trails had been up all night looking. As soon as the sun came up, Steve was up in a helicopter with the rescue team scanning the area from the air.
All runners were told that the official race was over and that the standings at the end of Day 2 were the final results. Runners were then told that they could run the course today to finish out the three days; however, race officials wanted everyone to run with a partner as to avoid any additional issues. In true ultrarunner fashion, when asked who would be out on the course running the final leg, everyone asked to skip the last leg and to assist the search teams in finding the lost runner.
We were all informed to meet at the Blanchard Springs visitor center to be broken up into search teams to help cover the area on and around the trail where the runner was last seen. There were 3 teams of roughly 15 people each. Every team had a lead that worked for the park and carried a radio for communications. Each team would have one member on the trail while the other members worked to the right and left of the trail in a line, always keeping the person on your left and right in eyesight. We looked under every log, leaf pile, rock overhang, and down the sides of cliffs for the lost runner while the helicopter continued to fly overhead. All hoping for the best and trying to stay positive.
At approximately 2:30 p.m. the leader of my group rounded us all up and turned up her radio. The voice said that we could stop searching and the runner had been found. He was out walking on a road and was picked up. His identity was confirmed and he was going to be checked out by the EMT’s to make sure everything was ok. He had been out all night in just shorts and a sleeveless shirt without a light and was tired, but apparently no worse for wear.
Alyssa Godesky‘s blog gives the following insight into the runner’s misadventure:
[When he was found] he was about 20-25 miles away from where he should have been, well off course, and lord knows how far he actually traveled to get to that spot. As more of the story came out, we found out that he missed the turn onto the trail right after the 41 mile aid station. He eventually turned onto the wrong trail, and, well, two wrong turns in the woods and boom, you’re lost. With less than 2 hours of daylight, he had little to go on. At some point he hunkered down for the night, covering himself with leaves for warmth, and in the morning got up and started to walk again. He actually came across a group camping at one point, explained his problem, and said he needed to get back to the race start/finish. For whatever reason, the campers refused to help him, and he had to continue on blindly (he even offered them the $100 he had sitting up at his cabin). Luckily, we also had people out driving the jeep roads around the trails and one of the women came across him.
As far as the race goes, it was tough. The 50k and 50 mile runs would be plenty challenging individually. The course is rugged to say the least with tricky footing and as much climbing and descent as you could want. Running aside, what made this race stand out in my mind is the absolute selfless attitude that was displayed on Sunday. What better group to help with a search in the woods than folks who voluntarily pay money to do basically the same thing. Not only are we willing, but we were prepared with hydration packs; high calorie, pocketable foods; and a mind set to just keep going until the job is done. Maybe the perfect type of people to have on a search team. Lost trail runners are unfortunate, but it really goes to show just how special the people that do this sport are.
Congratulations to Ashley Nordell for being the first woman to win the overall stage race, to Paul and Alyssa for their great efforts on a tough course, and to all the other runners that tackled either or both of the distances. This is a hell of a race format with beautiful scenery, and something I won’t soon forget. I’ll also learn a lesson or two from it. Lastly, the race staff and aid station workers were top notch! Thanks everyone for your efforts this weekend.
[Travis Liles is iRunFar’s Midwest contributor. He also publishes the website, Run the Ultras.]