Ozark Trail 100 Mile | Missouri | November 5, 2011
Missouri’s Blair Witch Project
By Gary Dudney
Finishes never come easy in hundred mile trail runs, but it seemed particularly hard to wrest a buckle out of the clutches of the Ozark Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run, like the hillbilly race logo was hanging onto the buckle with his cold, dead fingers. The rugged point-to-point course follows the Ozark Trail through the Mark Twain National Forest in the rustic Ozark Mountain region of central Missouri near Steelville.
The race begins in five o’clock darkness at a rather non-descript trailhead on a non-descript country road, where in no time at all runners are swallowed up by the forest. Most of the next one hundred and two miles is single track trail covered over by fallen leaves that obscure the many rocks, ruts and roots that form pretty much a constant tripping hazard. It doesn’t take long for runners to learn they must adapt to this trail by slowing down, spreading their feet a little wider than normal, running a little more upright than usual, and sort of probing forward with a nice flat foot strike for almost every step of the way. This style of running gets tiring after, say, thirty hours of it, and despite the precautions, falls and twisted ankles are commonplace.
On top of the fact that civilization is not much evident along the whole course, darkness descends at six pm and doesn’t let up for the next thirteen hours, so there is a real sense of being out in the midst of nowhere for a very long time. From time to time, you pop out of the forest onto a deserted stretch of blacktop or an empty jeep road that only serves to highlight the loneliness and then you’re back in the forest. There’s something of a Blair Witch quality to following the trail at night. You sort of feel your way through openings in the trees, shadows jumping in a black and white world. Green spider eyes shine up from the leaves if you’re using the right kind of light. The isolation, the long night, the tiring style of running, and the relentless rise and fall in and out of the hollows and creek bottoms of the course all combined this year to bring the finish rate down to 50% with a good portion of the finishers grouped up around 30 hours and only one sub 24 hour finisher.
Helping the runners along, though, was a rather docile Mother Nature. She provided an overcast sky and cool temperatures all day Saturday and chose not to deep freeze us at night, although some strong winds Sunday morning swayed the trees ominously. The many creek and river crossings were down compared to the past two years of the race so there was really only one spot (Hazel Creek) where you had to get your feet wet. The real boon for the runners, though, was the series of excellent aid stations provided by race directors Paul Schoenlaub and Stuart Johnson. They had assembled a large crew of knowledgeable volunteers who really made a big difference when things were grim in the middle of the night.
For example, I was down to riding my running partner’s (Rob Mann) coattails and ready to quit when we reached the Berryman Campground aid station at mile 81.5. When we arrived, I found that someone had set a chair at a table and had my drop bag all emptied out so I could sit and effortlessly pick through my stuff. A down blanket appeared over my shoulders and soup and sandwiches were served like I was at a fine restaurant. Meanwhile, Rob was having some blisters expertly lanced, disinfected and dressed. After a fifteen minute nap under a pile of down comforters, I was up, back from the brink, and ready to go. Rob was relieved his feet finally felt good, and we left there and never looked back.
The final miles of the race after the Henpeck Hollow aid station wind back and forth over a ridge high above Courtois Creek (strangely pronounced “coat-away” by the locals). Race headquarters and the finish were located far below at Bass’ River Resort. (Yes, also strangely, not named after a “Bass River” or a river with lots of bass, but named after Bob Bass, the man who founded the resort.) Dropping down off that ridge after the long night and coming into sight of the finish is an ultrarunning experience not to be missed. This hundred mile trail race is a unique challenge that will call up your patience and perseverance like few others. Missouri is famous as the “Show Me” state, and the fact is, you’re not going to go home with an Ozark Trail buckle unless you’re able to show Missouri something out there in the dark woods that’s pretty special.