Somewhere south of Joplin, Missouri, the prairie buckles and sighs into the pines and oaks of the Ozarks. Fifty-degree springs push up from the ground, chert crunches underfoot, and Ovenbirds send their pulsing song from every wooded slope. In this landscape, I am at once filled with peace and energized with possibilities in the wilderness.
The Ozarks are the backdrop for the War Eagle Trail Running Festival. The 50-km, 25-km, and 10-km events utilize the extensive trail system in Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area, located about 25 minutes east of Rogers, Arkansas. The park boasts an excellent nature center where organizers stage the start/finish area.
Rick and I traveled here for the first War Eagle 50k in 2011. He ran the race while Adrian and I crewed. From the support side of the race, I noted beautiful trails, friendly and helpful volunteers, and easily accessed, regularly spaced aid stations. When I decided to run my first 50k, the 2012 War Eagle was the right race at the right time.
The Idiot Band
My Free State Trail Marathon race report highlighted in excruciating detail the struggle with my left iliotibial band. After Free State, I took a week off running to recover the IT band and shake a respiratory infection. Three weeks post-marathon, I ran the Rock On Lake Perry half marathon at full effort and angered the IT band again. In spite of a gimpy knee—and, more challenging, my daughter’s fifth-birthday celebrations—I trained through that next week and posted 40 miles. I took a couple days off, and then my remaining runs through the taper were, to my surprise, pain free.
During the taper, I prepared myself mentally by accepting this reality: Somewhere around ten miles into the race, my IT band would begin to hurt. Pain would intensify but couldn’t get much worse than I experienced at Free State. I would encounter a two-mile downhill stretch around miles 13 and 25. This downhill would be excruciating, so I would need to move as quickly as possible on the uphills and flats to make up for lost time. Then, eventually, I would finish the race, hopefully right around six hours after I started.
The Man Said “Go”…
…So I went. At 6:30 a.m., the shivering 50 and 25k’ers shuffled forward a short distance through the Visitor Center parking lot and organized single-file onto the trail. The front half of the 50k women’s field grouped together quickly and settled into a comfortable 9- to 10-minute pace on the opening downhill miles. I hung with some of them, trying to take advantage of their experience as local runners; they knew which hills to walk and which ones to run.
I worked to keep my brain turned off as fresh legs carried me forward, but doubts stubbornly crept in. So many miles—miles I had never run before—lay ahead. My legs moved effortlessly now, but I knew that sooner than later they wouldn’t move with such freedom. Cramps were starting low in my gut. And very subtle, brief twinges in the left knee reminded me that time was already running out for this adrenalin-laced, pain-free section of the race.
These negative feelings wrapped around me. I stayed on the heels of a group of runners, trying to slow my breathing. My gut rolled and cramped again. “You are nowhere but right here, right now,” I told myself, forcing away panic. “You are right here, right now.” I couldn’t worry about what was going to happen. I could only deal with the piece of trail immediately in front of me.
We hit a steeper climb about a mile from the first aid station. The local runners were on their toes, pushing it at a 9-minute-per-mile pace. I fell back to a hike. If my stomach was going south, I needed to correct the situation. I tipped back my bottle and drank as much as I could stand. When I hit the flat, dirt road to the first aid station, I settled into a steady jog and finished off the water. Already the cramps eased, and by the time I re-filled my bottle at mile 6, the stomach issues were forgotten.
“Okay, there you are,” I thought, and glanced at my Garmin. Seven-point-three miles. That’s how far I made it without IT-band pain. And once it arrived, it took a strong grip and hung on doggedly the remainder of the race. Sometimes it would ease for a mile or so, only to return, and a few times it sent a jolt of an electric kind of pain that scared me. But since I had accepted the discomfort as my reality long before the start of the race, it actually came as a relief when it happened. Now I could run without any anticipation. Just me and my malfunctioning leg, out for a run in the woods.
“Aid Station to Aid Station”
I have heard this phrase plenty of times from veteran ultrarunners, but it didn't make sense as a strategy in any of my other races. A marathon: that, my mind could comprehend. But add on an extra five miles: I was overwhelmed. And suddenly “aid station to aid station” made perfect sense.
The War Eagle course has aid stations lined up roughly three miles apart, and I found myself leaving one aid station immediately looking forward to seeing Rick and Adrian three miles later. Knowing they’d be there at the end of that section kept me moving, and I really didn’t start thinking about the finish line until I left the final aid station.
So, with that strategy in place, I ran as steadily as I could. Ate a GU every 30 minutes. Drained a water bottle between each aid station, and occasionally plopped in a fizzy GU Brew tab. Salted about every 90 minutes, though these came a little more frequently and irregularly toward the end. I only used the aid stations to fill up my bottle and relied entirely on gels for nutrition. Rick met me at each stop with a buffet of supplies laid out in the back of the Jeep, so I could grab and go without slowing down.
That hill at mile 13 and 25 did to me what I had expected: the first time down, I was involuntarily vocalizing the discomfort; the second time I was just numb. Temperatures had risen from around 60°F at the start to the low 80s, and the higher angle of the sun baked me between the Piney Road aid station and the final Townsend Ridge Road aid station.
At the bottom of the long hill, as I wandered beside a shady, cool stream, I looked at my Garmin to see the mileage: 26.8. “Hey, I’m an ultrarunner…” I thought groggily—and promptly tripped over a root.
Coming out of that creek drainage, the trail went up for a little over a mile before leveling out to the final aid station. The dull ache of muscle fatigue had just started to kick in, though it was difficult to gauge that discomfort over the sensations in my knee, as well as my ankles that voiced their complaints over the uneven terrain. The trail was very runnable ("...too runnable," I thought to myself a few times), but the small rocks made each foot placement variable and uncertain.
I reached the aid station and dully accepted the assurance that I had about two miles to go to the finish line. I gave Adrian a sweaty hug. About half a mile later, I hit an intersection guarded by volunteers. “That way to the finish,” they said. Then, another intersection: “About a mile to the finish.”
The final stretch to the visitor center rolls mostly uphill, but something that struck me as astonishing was happening: My Garmin was occasionally registering 8-minute miles, and the pain in my legs had disappeared. Part of me wondered if I should slow down in case I wasn’t giving Rick and Adrian enough time to drive to the finish line. With all the anticipation, that last mile dragged on, but the sound of distant cheering pulled me in. At last I crested the embankment, hit pavement, and—six hours and five minutes after I left—there was the finish line.
Life After Ultra
The race itself went smoothly and was generally unremarkable. The part that surprised me, instead, was how I felt after the race:
This year’s Free State Marathon left me completely drained in the days following the race. So, I expected to be exhausted and useless for at least a week after War Eagle. Instead, I rode an incredible endorphin high for the next three days, struggling to fall asleep and bouncing out of bed in the morning.
As a general rule, I finish my races dehydrated. But the night of War Eagle, I was lying awake with a headache, chills, and a diminished appetite—symptoms, I eventually realized, of low sodium (and too much water).
Recovery was not what I expected, either: I thought I would finish the race absolutely hobbled. The first 24 hours, the affected left leg was difficult to bend—but by Monday, I was able to run with minimal pain in the IT band, and Wednesday I had a completely pain-free five-mile run.
And one final effect of running this race that I hadn’t anticipated:
I can’t stop thinking about the next one.