Community Center: The Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon Links People With Places

The Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon in Arkansas connects people with each other and the Ouachita Mountains.

By on February 24, 2022 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This month’s Community Voices column is by Brian Hurley. Brian runs daily on the paths, roads, and trails of Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he lives with his wife and sons. He occasionally leaves town to explore the state by bike, canoe, train, and foot, and documents these trips in articles and on Instagram. In this column each month, we showcase the work of a writer, visual artist, or other creative type from within our global trail running and ultrarunning community. Our goal is to tell stories about our sport and wildlands in creative and innovative ways. Submit your work for consideration!]

What message could possibly be so important that you would need to carry it up this hill? I wondered. I trudged straight up the old roadbed that used to be the mail route between the tiny towns of Athens and Big Fork in Arkansas’s Ouachita Mountains.

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A view from the Ouachita National Forest. All photos: Brian Hurley

If I remember correctly, there are only two switchbacks on the course. The 16 climbs are not long, but they’re steep, cramming in over 7,000 feet of climbing in 26.8 miles. It’s technical enough that the downhills are barely runnable. The only flat sections are the beds of the many streams you cross.

Arkansas in January can easily be 70 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny, but this year it was closer to 30 degrees and pouring down rain. Still, the trail — which had turned into a creek itself — was full of runners testing themselves against one of the region’s toughest and most scenic courses.

The Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon is a small event in a remote area. This part of the Ouachitas seems to draw people who are trying to escape society. Cell reception is nonexistent. There are septic tanks and burn piles instead of sewer lines and trash pickup. Signs advertising unpasteurized milk for sale are nailed to fences along the highway.

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A sign wishing runners a Happy New Year out on the Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon course.

David Samuel, a forester with the United States Forest Service, started the race in 1999. He has worked in this area on and off since the 1960s, and was instrumental in creating this trail system in the 1980s. In 1999, there were nine participants — including David, who has run in some capacity every year, and this time completed 7.2 rugged miles at age 78. To get a spot this year, I had to be ready to sign up right when registration opened. It was full in a matter of minutes.

Part of what draws people to the Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon is the challenge of the course. It’s the most technical trail with the greatest elevation gain around. I tried it twice before and I came away beaten. One time I got lost, which is hard to do on this course. The next time, I couldn’t handle the hills.

My training on flat pavement didn’t cut it, and I found myself hobbled at mile 16, wondering how I was going to get back to the car. This year I tried to do it right, and sought out the terrain that was most like the course. People all over the state do this: running the steepest, rockiest hills they can find, doing endless repeats over a local 50-foot ridge, creating Strava maps that look like curly telephone cords. This tiny and free race can become the focus of your entire year.

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Runners converging outside the Big Fork Community Center.

On race weekend, the masses converge in Big Fork; 240 runners are “the masses” relative to the town of Big Fork, which has a population of 179. Besides the Big Fork Mall, a tiny store which I’ve never seen open, the only public building is the community center. This seems to have been an old school, and now serves as a gathering place for the town and lending library — the latter heavy on the James Patterson and Jude Deveraux.

This building is also the race headquarters, main source of lodging for racers who camp outside of it, and pre-run bathroom facilities. For years, locals have made sure the space is clean and the pot-bellied stove is lit the day before so the building is warm.

There are no official fees to run the race. Runners donate cash, which gets you a race number, food and (if you choose) liquor at aid stations, and post-race snacks. Other services such as the Polk County Sheriff’s escort down the first mile on the highway, and the HAM radio communication by the Ouachita Amateur Radio Association is all offered for free.

This year, my wife, Ana Hurley, who was running this year’s race as her first marathon, and I camped in the forest nearby, and got to the community center just after dawn. After a quick check-in and porta-potty stop, we lined up with the others across the two-lane highway. There was no traffic to block.

Stacey Shaver, who has been race director since 2018, gave the instructions. Follow white blazes. There’s no shuttle back, so you really can’t drop out. But if something happens, stay put. Sign out when you’re done so no one thinks you’re still out there staying put. Then we were off.

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Runners at the starting line in Big Fork.

Running down the highway, the sheriff warned the few oncoming cars of our presence by driving partway over the double yellow with his arm out to flag them down before briefly explaining what was happening. First, a turn down a dirt road. Then, another turn onto the trail.

The first climb up Missouri Mountain is runnable enough to make you think maybe this won’t be so bad. I was tagging along with a couple of other runners: Chad, doing the full marathon, and Evan, a fast high-school runner, was doing the 17-mile “fun run.”

Trying to stick to my plan of patience, I told myself it was okay that I fell behind on the uphill. The first descent is the smoothest of the route, and I was able to catch back up. We all went through the first aid station without pause. It had been dry enough in recent weeks that for the first time in my running of this race, I was able to get across the Little Missouri River, which is just a creek at this point near its headwaters, with my feet still dry.

Rock hopping across creeks would become irrelevant as the downpour began shortly thereafter and didn’t let up the entire race. The other runners and I played cat and mouse on the next several mountains, where I would fall back on the ups, then catch up on the downs. We also began to catch up with some early starters who gave words of encouragement.

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The trails are wet, technical, and rocky, somehow the toughest of both worlds between U.S. East and West Coast races.

At Blaylock Creek, Evan turned around. As there are few switchbacks or views behind, I had no idea where I was relative to others, but kept on taking it easy on the ups, and trying to stumble quickly on the downs. After a fall on the final downhill before the turnaround, I popped out on the road.

Jim, an early starter who at age 65 was running the marathon for the fourth or fifth time, told me that the Fireball shots at the turnaround aid station were amazing. I was tempted, but passed. Once headed back, I could see that I had a few-minute lead, but still, anything could happen.

I continued with the same pattern of ups and downs, but on the return trip, I was fueled by getting to see the other runners. I ran into Ana, who was much further along than I expected her to be. I thought maybe she’d gone out too hard and would pay for it later (she wouldn’t), and wondered if she’d take a shot of Fireball at the turnaround (she would).

The rain and cold continued. My hands stopped working. High fives and words of encouragement replaced gels as my fuel as my fingers could no longer work the zipper on the pocket where I kept them.

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While some years the race temperature is a nice 70 degrees Fahrenheit, this past year it was close to freezing and rained the entire time.

The rain fell harder and the trails turned to streams. Just as my feet and legs were getting surprisingly and concernedly cold, I returned to Missouri Mountain for the final climb and descent before coming back to the road. The promise of smooth surfaces, a gradual descent, and sight of the end made it bearable.

Trail, then dirt road, and then highway. Finally, I could see the line of cars along the side of the road, which meant it was almost over. Coming back to the community center, freezing and dazed, I was greeted by a crowd who knew that in past years I’d gotten lost either physically or emotionally, and who were happy for me that it came together this time.

After a brief recounting of the race, I walked back to my car, and using my last bit of remaining dexterity, managed to turn the key. It took a full 15 minutes in front of the heater before my fingers were warmed enough to get out of my vest and about 45 minutes more until I was able to get into dry clothes and make it back to the finish.

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Ana Hurley warming herself by the wood-burning stove in the community center after the race.

One by one, runners came in. They shared their stories and made their way into the community center, where they got food and huddled around the stove, the site of the post-race recovery and celebration. For years locals have been supplying soup, baked goods, and barbecued deer meat for runners.

Recently, Stacey had added food and sweatshirts for purchase. To some, this threatened the no-frills spirit of the event, but the extra money has gone toward replacing the plumbing in the center and purchasing new equipment for the HAM radio operators.

Ana came in a close second in the women’s race, and then changed and sat as close to the stove as possible. We ate, drank, and talked: about the cold and mud and the falls and finding common ground in the challenging terrain. The trail, which has long been the connection between people in two small communities, now joins together so many more.

Call for Comments

  • Have you also participated in this event and shared in its community experience? Leave a comment!
  • Do you know of any more community-centric events like this in Arkansas or the surrounding area?
  • And how about in your local trail running community? What is your local, low-key event that’s most focused on connecting people with each other and landscapes?
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The race founder and first director, David Samuel (left) and current race director Stacey Shaver, holding the Big Fork.

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