In 493 B.C. the Athenians were under attack from the Persians on the plains of Marathon, Greece. Outnumbered 4:1 the Athenians sent a messenger the 150 miles across rugged, mountainous terrain to Sparta, asking for help. The Spartans agreed, but would not join the fight, due to a religious celebration, until the moon was full. The messenger returned with the news.
By the time the messenger, Pheidippides, returned, part of the Persian army were heading towards Athens while the remaining Persians had been defeated. News of the situation needed to get to Athens, so Pheidippides was on the run again.
Legend says that he arrived and proclaimed victory, then collapsed and died.
The modern marathon is much less intense than the one Pheidippides ran. Most are on nice smooth roads, relatively flat and usually there are many other runners to keep you company.
The one of the exceptions to this is called the Athens-Big Fork Marathon. It starts in the small community of Big Fork, Arkansas and runs to a town called Athens via an old mail route trail.
After the heartbreak at Leadville, I was informed that I would be running in this marathon. Everything had been arranged everything, including time off from work and getting me registered. I was excited and nervous. I had just failed at a mountainous race, how would I be able to do this other one?
This race has 8 mountains on an out and back course, meaning 16 climbs. Some of these are actually steeper than Hope Pass in the Leadville 100, although not as long.
I went into this race, admittedly undertrained. It seems that this is easy for any of us to do in those races immediately after the holidays, but add that I had been fighting a cold the week before and you have a recipe for a disastrous race. I was not about to pull out of this one, I had wanted to try it for way too long.
The morning started off in the mid 30’s with a light rain. The temperature was suppose to get into the low 50’s. I knew that the rain was to only get heavier as the day wore on.
As we took off, I ran with my friend, Ken. We kept a decent pace, but I wasn’t feeling great. I guess my lungs were not back a full capacity, I just could not catch my breath. I told Ken to go ahead and run his race, I didn’t want to pull him down. In my mind, I was thinking that I could turn around at Blaylock Creek aid station at the 8.5 mile mark and accomplish the shorter 17 mile “fun run”, but I refused to make that decision until I got there and took a minute to reset my mind.
By the time I got there, the rain was still light plus I saw friends and family there, it was a small mental uptick, so I decided to continue for the full marathon.
One of the toughest climbs in the race is right after leaving this aid station. As I climbed, that’s when the RAIN started, I would not be dry again until I was finished.
Runners often hear Forrest Gump comparisons ad nauseam, but I felt like I was in that movie. Not the running parts, but the scenes of the rain in Vietnam.
“We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.“
We all go through ups and downs during a race, this one will cause you to do it mentally and physically. I was no longer counting miles, I was counting mountains. I knew there were a total of 8 each way, 16 ascents, 16 descents.
Forget the GPS watch, when I hit the top of number 8, I knew a downhill and a little bit of dirt road, then back to the start-easy enough, or so I told myself. Many times the “out” is much easier on the mind and body than the “back” in a race like this.
All the rain had started turning the trail into creeks. I asked myself out loud if I had signed up for a trail race or a duathlon. The small creeks and streams that I had crossed on the way out, were deeper now and flowing a little faster.
Up to this point, I had never made the connection that Pheidippides ran a mountainous trail to Athens to carry a message of victory and here I was on the old route that was for mail delivery…to Athens.
Things started coming apart on me somewhere around the 9th or 10th climb, my thighs began to seize on me. All the braking I had been doing on the downhills because of the mud was starting to take its toll on me. I kept telling myself, just make it to the next aid station, just after mountain number 11. I could sit down, reset mentally and get some food. This would be the aid station where my friends were. (It’s also the one known for their “Arkansas Crepes”-pancakes with peanut butter and jelly.)
The few minutes of rest and some nutrition were exactly what I needed. I felt ready to finish. My legs felt like they were coming back. I wasn’t sure how far it was, maybe 8 miles or so, but I knew I had 5 mountains left. I got a rhythm in my head, 3 mountains, an aid station, 2 mountains, then some dirt road, and 3/4 mile of paved road, then I would be done.
And that’s where my problems started. It was actually 4 mountains, before the next aid station. While it didn’t change the distance, it can be demoralizing when you expect an aid station and you see another damn mountain. I was towards the back of the pack by this time, so I was alone on the trail. I started to question whether I was still even on the course, I saw the marking but I was second guessing them. By now the worst rain of the day was hammering me as I started to climb that fourth mountain. The sound of wind and rain inundated me, I couldn’t hear my feet hit the ground. My legs were getting worse than they had ever been. My calves were starting to cramp, visibly.
This is probably the lowest I have ever been while running.
Here I was, on a 25% grade, winds howling, rain pounding, all I could do was dig deep and hope for the best. I was in too far to quit, all I could do was push on. After watching Leadville slip away, I could not let this one get me also. Athens-Big Fork was not going to break me. There was no option, other than finishing. Plus, there was a burger for me at the finish line and that sounded like it would hit the spot.
Finally the rain had let up and I was on a little downhill, then I saw a creek crossing. There are many creek crossings in this race, but this one had a directional marker for runners that I remembered. I knew that just beyond it was the last aid station! Then, I could hear the volunteers. Going into the last aid station is a boost to the moral of any runner and a boost was needed at this point.
One mountain left to conquer. Now, on paper, this last mountain isn’t all that bad. In fact it’s probably the shortest climb of all, but I wasn’t dealing in theories. I had around 22 hard miles on my legs by this point. Most of those were either hard climbs or steep, muddy downhills. What got me over that 16th climb was my mind. I was all but done and I kept telling myself that I was a finisher. I just had to prove it by getting over one more mountain. I hit the crest of 16 and through the trees I saw a field in the valley below, the valley where the finish line waited.
As much as I love downhill running, this was not the time for it. My legs and the mud would not allow me to enjoy that last slope. I slid down the best I could, then found that dirt road. Just a couple of miles to go. I decided that I would alternate running and walking. While I wasn’t moving fast, I was moving and soon, I could hear cars. The highway was near.
While we like to think of race finish lines where there are lots of people cheering and encouraging the runners, this is not the case in most trail and ultras. Especially at small runs like Athens-Big Fork. I came up the road and turned into the Big Fork community center and was greeted by the race director, Stacy, and the time keeper. That was it, no crowds, no frills, no medals. But I did get the pride of accomplishment and the deep-self satisfaction of finishing one of the toughest trail marathons around and that’s better than any medal collecting dust. I went inside, changed into dry clothes, got my burger and went home.