At the bottom of a deep gorge on the banks of the White River in North Central Arkansas sits the Blanchard Springs Recreation Area. Fifteen miles from the nearest town of Mountain View, Arkansas and situated amidst the mixed forest and craggy peaks of the Ozark Mountains, Blanchard Springs has, every March since 2005, served as the staging area for the Three Days of Syllamo stage race.
The brainchild of local ultrarunning legend Steve Kirk, “Three Days,” as it’s known to the regulars at Syllamo, is a stage race featuring a 50k on Friday, a 50 miler on Saturday, and a half marathon on Sunday. All three races take place on the rugged trails of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests and test runners’ endurance and versatility year after year. Last weekend, I finally had the chance to make the pilgrimage to Blanchard Springs and experience first hand the magic of Three Days.
A few minutes before the start of Stage 1, current race director and multiple-time Three Days finisher Jake Anderson introduced Steve Kirk and invited him to say a few words. After sharing some background on the race and thanking all the regulars for coming back year after year, he said, “I have one more thing I have to tell you: Everything you’ve heard about Three Days is true!” And he turned out to be right.
There are certain parts of the race that make it distinct from other events and two, in particular, stand out. The first is that the courses change every year. While the races cover many of the same trails year after year they often change direction, use different cut throughs, and ford different creeks. This serves to make the experience, even for folks such as 17-time finishers Paul Schoenlaub and Stuart Johnson, fresh and a little different every time.
The second differentiator, and the one for which Three Days is infamous, is the way the course is marked. From the very beginning, Steve Kirk wanted the race to be a true test of ultrarunning skill and that included following a course and remaining alert and aware of your surroundings. As such, while the courses are all clearly marked, they are only marked at intersections and places where one might wander onto a fainter trail or a gravel road. For those ultrarunners who are used to the modern-day ultra course with ribbons and “confidence markers” every 10 meters, Three Days can be disconcerting at best and downright intimidating at worst.
I spoke with Jake Anderson after the race this year and asked him about the challenge of minimalist course marking. “I direct a handful of other races in the area and I am known for overmarking my courses. So, doing Three Days really requires discipline because in order to honor the tradition of the event I need to take what is, to me, a counterintuitive approach.” And indeed, each evening back in camp after the day’s events, there are a handful of stories of missed turns or lost markings that ultimately serve to make the race more interesting and more rewarding. “Ultimately, our primary focus is on making the runner’s experience as good as it can be.”
The ultra-hangout culture is most certainly alive and well at Three Days and the isolated location made this year’s COVID-19 protocols straightforward and easy. In fact, from the time I parked my car on Friday morning until the time I left on Sunday afternoon, I was outdoors all but the few times I used the bathroom and I never ventured away from the campsite and start/finish area except to run. Jake’s wife Melony Anderson and mother Debbie Anderson as well as Peggy Freeman prepared excellent meals for the runners each night and the aid stations were top notch including such favorites as bacon, avocados, quesadillas, grilled-cheese sandwiches, and my personal favorite, freshly grilled cheeseburger sliders at the 31-mile mark of the 50-mile day.
Perhaps the most outstanding testament to the wonder of Three Days of Syllamo is the way that the culture has been built around the “repeat customers.” In addition to Paul Schoenlaub and Stuart Johnson, who have run all 17 editions of Three Days, Stuart’s wife Deb Johnson has run 11—she ran the 50k this year—and Ashley Nordell has completed 10. One of the highlights for me at this year’s race was running the last few miles of the 50 miler with Paul Turner, known to everyone as “PT,” as he was completing his 10th edition. All in all, there were 17 states represented among the 140 or so runners who competed in one, two, or all three days, and 60% of the entrants were male while 40% were female.
At the end of the long, tiring weekend, I asked Jake Anderson what he felt like he needed to do to keep the strong race culture alive at Three Days. He replied, “If we listen to the runners, stay true to the roots that Steve laid down, and continue to celebrate the community of people who come back year after year, we will have succeeded.”
AJW’s Jake Anderson’s Beer of the Week
“Norfork Brewing Company brews in Norfork, Arkansas along the banks of the White River, in the Ozark National Forest, using crystal-clear water welling up from the famous limestone aquifers of the Ozark Mountains. They use non-GMO grains and locally foraged wild fruits. Scurvy Dog Ale is a light and citrusy New England India Pale Ale with hints of grapefruit. It has a hazy, golden appearance and hits the spot after a long day enjoying the good, old Ozarks.”
Call for Comments
- Have you ever run Three Days of Syllamo? Leave a comment to share your stories of racing, volunteering, camping, and hanging out at the event.
- And, if you ran this year’s edition, share a story from the weekend!