Arkansas Traveller 100 | Arkansas | October 7, 2006
Good Hunting Grounds
By Gary Dudney
The local color at any hundred mile race is half the fun and useful in diverting attention from the blisters, complaining muscles and bleary weariness that accompanies the distance. The Arkansas Traveller plays on a backwoods image of Arkansas with taped barnyard noises running during race check-in, people decked out in bib overalls, underwear hanging out to dry, aid stations with names like Pigtrail and Chicken Gap, and some quirky graphics on the race clothing including a smiling frog saying “Gribbet!”
But beneath the surface lurks a serious and well oiled running event that flows from race directors Stan and Chrissy Ferguson. Both highly accomplished ultrarunners, they’ve arranged for first class aid stations, a well marked challenging course, smooth start and finish operations, great food service, comprehensive ham radio coverage, and local forest service support. The result is a 100 mile race that encourages serious competition up front and supports all runners in their bid to go the distance. A state to state competition also spices up the mix and leads to some good-natured Texas bashing.
Stan tends to play straight man to Chrissy’s over the top spark plug energy. A veritable force of nature, she’s a firefighter when she’s not winning races or bouncing through the pre-race briefing. She’s earthy and funny, perfectly at home swapping colonoscopy stories out on the trail or telling us at the briefing that if we leave the trail to take care of business, we should not gobble. She runs the race herself, talking nearly the whole 100 miles, and then presides at the awards ceremony. Wow!
Arkansas Traveller is set in the eastern end of the pristine Ouachita National Forest (pronounced WAH-chi-ta, as in washing machine), which is actually the South’s oldest national forest, set aside by Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. The area was explored by Hernando DeSoto’s Spaniards in 1541. The name is Native American and means “good hunting grounds.” The forest boasts deer, turkey, bear, quail, gray squirrels, and of course wild pig. The race briefing includes a warning about bow hunters as well as a warning about teenagers roaming the woods at night. “It’s everyone’s forest,” a park ranger reminded us. I was thinking I would take my chances with the bow hunters or with the teenagers but I’d rather not face any teenage bow hunters.
The race begins in the picturesque little Lake Sylvia camping area. First up is a sixteen mile loop that includes a good stretch of the Ouachita National Recreation Trail, a rocky single track that finds every little ridge in the forest and bends around every tree. Leaving the single track behind, the course follows an 84 mile out and back that comprises the balance of the race. The lion’s share of this part of the course is on jeep road, some well maintained and some not, lined with trees on either side. Sections of the road are covered with loose rock, which generally aren’t a problem until your feet blister. Then it’s a problem. The trees are varied, pines, maples, hickory, different kinds of oak, walnut, and locust, but the forest is very still and quiet. Even in a slight breeze it seemed like the heavy oak leaves were stuck in place. The abundant wildlife is nowhere to be seen. All day and through the moonlit night, the forest marches by silently and endlessly, which can make the Traveler into quite a contemplative, meditative experience. The hills come and go without a break but they are not steep.
Time and distance seem to merge and shift as the race goes on, but the many aid stations pop up at regular intervals (at an average of one every 4 miles) to jerk runners out of their reveries and get them focused back on the task at hand. The final two miles are blissfully all downhill on good road back to Lake Sylvia. After the finish, a great breakfast awaits and finally, the last act, a classy awards ceremony in which each and every finisher is called up and honored individually. The 81 finishers found about 50 different ways to limp from their chairs up to get their buckles. Spontaneous laughter broke out, though, when Kathleen Daumer, the women’s winner, got her award. She bounced up there so effortlessly and looked so perfectly comfortable and unaffected by the race that it seemed to us older achy warriors nothing short of a miracle. God bless her.