Don’t fall again, those slip-and-slide splits from earlier were a bit much. Jesus loves me? That’s what the sign outside the church said this morning as I drove to the trailhead. Does he still love me if I curse when I run? Lots of thorny bushes here, my legs look like I’m losing battle with a herd of kittens. It’s hot, no, the desert in two weeks will be hotter. This pack is ridiculous, just ridiculous.
Gosh, I love Coca-Cola. When is the next aid station and please let them have soda. Should I invest in Coca-Cola? I’m lonely, just a little bit. I haven’t seen another human being for 10 miles. Oh yes, the iPod picked a great song. I love it so much I’m going to play it again. And sing out loud. And no one will ever know.
Do mountain lions live here? If one ate me now, would anyone know? I wish I could chuck this pack in the woods forever. Okay fine, the pack is not that bad. That turkey vulture is giving this ridge line a Top Gun-style fly by. When did I see the last flag marking the course? Where are the other runners? Is this a race? What’s my name? Does it matter? Does it ever matter?
These are some of the thoughts that went through my head during the 50-mile stage of the recent 3 Days of Syllamo (Psst, hey Northerners, this is pronounced Sigh-lah-mo. The locals will be gentle in correcting you if you mess this up.) in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains.
Before I left for Arkansas and because I’d never been there, I Googled this neck of our nation’s woods and formed an image of what I would find: a land of tall trees, rolling hills, and millions of armadillos. Truth: I was going to Arkansas to see an armadillo. Having never glimpsed one in the wild, I figured it was about time. Mother Nature delivered on my late-night drive from the Little Rock airport into the mountains. The little guy/gal and its cream-colored armor stood frozen on the road’s yellow lines. Before the race even started, my raison d’etre in the Ozarks had been fulfilled. I knew this would be a fine weekend.
The next morning, I toed the line with 70 other stage-race runners and probably two or three-dozen folks signed up for this single day of running, a 50K loop. I would be running the first two days with the pack I’ll carry during next month’s Marathon des Sables (MdS). (MdS is a race of self-sufficiency. Race administration gives you water and shade under which you sleep/hang out between stages. You carry everything else you need for seven days and 150 miles of running in the Sahara Desert.) On this day, I would lug 15 extra pounds around the woods with me.
I was bashful—among this group of sleek, svelte folks and their handheld water bottles and minimalist shoes—of my big pack. I pretty much hid by my car until Race Director Steve Kirk told us to go. I thought that, by getting onto the trail, people wouldn’t notice my pack. I was dead wrong. Three minutes into the race, a man said through a grin, “You know they have aid stations out here, right?” The jovial commentary about my pack continued for two days and I eventually developed a retort, “I’m the roving aid station. Can I get you anything?”
I’ve been running with a weighted pack since November, but 15 pounds is always lot of extra weight. I felt immediately lethargic and just plain heavy. I slipped into a not-happy mental place and stayed about there until mile 15. During that time, the humidity was oppressive, every hill was a mountain, and I wondered why I choose to torment myself in this way. I don’t know what happened at about mile 15, but my physical body came to peace with the weight and my mind followed suit. Soon the trail was rainbows and flying unicorns and I couldn’t believe I’d wasted time in a poor head space.
I have a thing with closing strong in races that, I think, stems from a history of painful finishing bonks. On this day, I told myself that, if I felt awesome at mile 25, I’d press a little harder. I felt great, so I blissed out on tunes and the rolling singletrack until I crossed the finish at around 6:30 elapsed time and feeling little like I’d run 31 miles.
The finish-line atmosphere was real chill and the race’s cooks served up salad, pasta, and garlic bread for us runners. After chatting and eating 72 pieces of garlic bread, I called it a night back at my hotel in Mountain View, a small town about 25 minutes away.
As we runners danced up the first hill from the starting line, I knew today would be a personal proving ground. MdS has a 50-mile stage on Day 4, where you’re running with legs that have 60 or so miles and three days of running already on them. Of all the training days in my six-or-so months of MdS prep, I knew today as the crux. I vowed to be kind to myself and to stay positive as I carried my 13-pound pack (the approximate weight of my pack during MdS’ 50-mile stage).
The course was an out-and-back. The first nine miles were buffed-out, completely runnable trail. Miles 9-ish to 18-ish (and, thus, miles 31-ish to 40-ish on the way back in) were probably my favorite miles of all the trails we ran this weekend. Primitive singletrack curved and contoured among a sea of green-treed hills in what I learned is quintessential Ozark Mountains scenery.
The mile-25 turnaround was a random, unoccupied point on the trail with an even-more-random sign that read “Monkey Sam.” We were instructed to remember those words and report them to the next aid station to prove that we’d visited the turnaround. On this out-and-back course, I got distracted by greeting and chatting with passing runners that I forgot the magic phrase! Panic set in until I looked at the bananas on the aid station table and recalled by association.
My goal for the day was to start pushing the pace at around mile 35, which coincided with an unmanned water station next to a creek in the woods. I can honestly say that I pretty much hauled arse from there to the finish, feeling perfect the entire way. I crossed the line at around 11:18, negative splitting the out-and-back by 22-ish minutes. This day left the sweetest of tastes in my mouth for April’s MdS adventure.
The third stage was a 20K lollipop (okay, this day’s course was actually 14 miles) that repeated a few of the first day’s miles. I ran this stage unburdened, without my pack. Rain spurted from the skies at the starting line and it only rained harder as the morning progressed. After two days of perfect weather and this short day of running, the rain felt refreshing.
Miraculously, when Steve sent us into the woods, I felt outstanding. I gave myself two or three miles of easy running to let things loosen up before I tried to open up the pace. The body cooperated and, by the mile 8-ish unmanned water station, I realized my body still had more to give, so I turned up the effort another notch.
This day’s course lent itself to speed. The singletrack was perfectly surfaced and each grade entirely runnable. Here and there, we crossed wide, flat rocks that were wicked slippery in the deluge. I pretty much expected to fall a zillion trillion times on these rocks, but somehow managed to stay upright. I cruised over the finish line in about 2:21.
The finish-line atmosphere on this day was tempered by the rain and cold, but some hot chocolate and the awards ceremony kept spirits high. Ashley Nordell of Sisters, OR and Nick Lewis of Memphis, TN took home wins in the stage race. It should be noted that Ashley also gobbled up third place overall and that she’s got a nine-month old baby girl, Ryah!
Race Director Steve Kirk and the Ozark Mountains serve up a heaping pile of awesome with the 3 Days of Syllamo. The running itself is wicked good, and perhaps equal to that is the race’s friendly atmosphere. And, how could I forget the armadillo! Spring training has never looked so good.
Thoughts from Travis Liles
iRunFar.com team member, Travis Liles, finished fifth overall! He dishes here on his experiences:
If you really enjoy good, stable footing, look elsewhere.
- The best thing about the off-camber trail on Day 2 was that, since it was an out-and-back, you were afforded the opportunity for both hips to be sore.
- “20K” is really more of a low guesstimate.
- A grunt could be heard as far away as Little Rock when the words “Go” were shouted on Day 3 and the stage runners attempted to take off.
- Ashley Nordell is tougher than you. She ran every day, up front, and then nursed her nine-month old.
- Nick Lewis is not only fast, but makes a mean cup of hot chocolate.
- Soaking in the cold, spring-fed creek at the finish line is the best/worst thing you can do.
- The best thing about each day is finishing downhill.
- The worst thing about each day is starting uphill.
- There are more trails in this area than you can shake a stick at and, if you did attempt to do so, you’ll miss a turn and get some bonus miles.
- There are many stunning views that you will miss because you are trying not to trip on rocks and roots.
- Three days and 95 miles of running is hard.
- Three days and 95 miles up and down the technical trails of the Ozark Mountains is harder.
- Three days and 95 miles of mostly great weather and hanging out with some excellent people makes it a lot easier.
More thoughts from a Tracy Hoeg
Tracy Hoeg is a personal friend from the Midwest, a blogger, and an iRunFar reader. She placed second female in the stage race, and might I add that she’s also a momma to a seven-month-old! These women with kids are tough. She shared a couple thoughts on her experience:
My husband and I have noticed that, since we returned from Syllamo, we have a sort of new love of the southern US. Neither of us has lived in the South and just hearing that southern accent now makes us happy – all because of Three Days of Syllamo. I mean, from the moment we arrived, people were friendly and laid back.
The whole weekend felt a lot more like a shared experience than a race. The fun of competition was still there, it just wasn’t as important as getting to know the beautiful mountains, getting to know each other, and pushing yourself beyond what you may have thought was possible. I’m tempted to say Syllamo is my new favorite race, but that’s partly because it is so different from anything else I have experienced. I’d do it again in a heartbeat given the opportunity!?
Call for Comments
If you’ve run any of Three Days of Syllamo races, individual or stage races, this year or in the past, please share your thoughts!