They all start out about the same. Laughing, joking, chatting with old and new friends in the dark at the beginning of a very long journey. There are no guarantees as to who will finish. You’re just out there so long, and anything can happen. And usually does.
Arkansas Traveller is a well-oiled machine. I ran the 24th edition of the race, and it lacks for nothing. There are 12,000 feet up and 12,000 feet down on singletrack, forest, jeep and gravel roads. And there’s no shortage of rocks. They come in many varieties of shapes and sizes to keep you company all along the way. Aid stations are spaced no further than 6.6 miles apart, so food, drink and TLC are always close at hand.
The first miles tick away in the cool autumn darkness. The sun slowly rises, and a breeze blows gently. I’ve been running with a group for a while and feel great. Aid stations have been offering up pancakes, sandwiches and many other yummy treats. I eat often and a lot. I know eventually my stomach will protest, so I keep the calorie train going. I meet some awesome runners from Texas and hang with them on and off for a while.
There are nice rolling hills, and the terrain changes from easy to a bit more technical to keep things interesting. The temperatures rise, and the sun shines bright. It’s a beautiful day. I come and go quickly through the aid stations.
At mile 48, Powerline Aid Station, I have my light and warm clothes in a drop bag. It’s not even close to cool, but I wrap a shirt around my waist and shove my light in my pack. The sun will set at 7 p.m., and temps will drop quickly. I know I’ll get cold. I wanted to be at this aid station at 12:30 or 6:30 p.m. I was through at 10:56 a.m. or 4:56 p.m.
Saaaaaa-weeeeeeet! I felt happy and continued to run with small groups of runners.
Passing through mile 53, Copperhead Aid Station, you start an out-and-back that I find brutal. It’s about a 12-mile push altogether and just seems incredibly long. I make the turn right after dark and activate my headlamp and tutu. I’m starting to have upper back pain, and my stomach is nearing the end of solid food consumption.
Arriving back at Copperhead Aid Station, I feel horrible. I need to lie down and throw up. Aid station workers quickly start bringing food and drink. I don’t even get my head down when the Texas runners show up.
It goes something like this: “You are not laying down! You’re coming with us!”
“I don’t want tooooooo....” They each grab an arm, and I’m up and going. “But...I'm not...ready....”
“We’re taking you to the next aid station with us.”
So, arm in arm up the hill we go. Max and Butch had each completed the Traveller many times — 10 times and 8 times if, I remember correctly. We walk and trot the 4.1 miles to the next aid station.
I want to go with them, but they’re gunning for sub-24 hours and I don’t want to hurt their chances. Instead, I sit for a while, throw up and then have some soup. I need to go because I’m freezing. Quotes and advice play through my head as I put on a warmer jacket and gloves: “It doesn’t always get worse. You’ll feel better soon.” Out into the dark I go. Moving. Slowly.
The pain in my back is horrible. I’d been carrying my water bottle in the same hand until then. Maybe that caused it. With this revelation, I change hands and press on.
I’d filled my pack with licorice and someone gives me ginger chews. I’m managing about 2 mph but have to stop and vomit about once every 30 minutes. It’s gonna be a long night. Caffeine tabs and red Twizzlers are my diet for the next eight hours.
A pacer for another runner picks me up sometime in the dark. He chats. I don’t. The moon shines bright and big through the trees. I pray for a second sunrise. Keep moving. Any pace is better then no pace. A borrowed iPod plays new music and keeps me awake.
The night takes its time. Deer run in front of me, and owls hoot in the trees. I enjoy those fleeting moments. The push back over Smith Mountain is long and slow. But I’m moving. I keep finding positives when and where I can. At mile 87 I have a few saltines with peanut butter and a Sprite. It isn’t much, but it’s enough. A half-marathon to go.
I start running again and pass a few racers along the way. I feel I’m biding my time with my stomach. I make the last aid station, but can’t eat or drink anything. I realize at that point that my back has stopped hurting. I hug an aid station worker who remembers me from my other Travellers and she says, “You know what you need to do, so go do it!”
Only 6.6 miles to go. I could crawl and still make it. I’m really hoping not to have to crawl.
As I run down onto the paved road, I can smell the barn. Emotion washes over me. It’s been a long night getting to this point. I cross under the finish banner at 28:03. Happy.
Reflections about the race: Was it worth it? YES! Will I do it again? HELL YES! Maybe it didn’t hurt that bad after all, or maybe I just can't remember.
Author: Laura Range lives in Oakville, Mo. Ultrarunner, mom and defender of the universe.