Resting my body on an idle Monday allows me to vaguely remember the nightmarish experience that I took part in, willingly, in the far northwest corner of Arkansas.
The Back 40.
After one sprained ankle, one sprained cuboid bone (that is a thing), and a rather annoying pain in my hip from running; it would only make sense that I would sign myself up for a random race, a brand new race, a race away from many of my running friends, in the winter, and at the similar distance of my previous experience in Nebraska.
Truly, I am dumb.
After threatening the STUCO convention students sprinting down the hallways at 10:30 PM Friday night at our hotel in Bentonville, Arkansas; my wife and I made a made a short trip to Bella Vista, Arkansas.
What Bella Vista is known for: golfing and old people.
What Bella Vista is not known for: holding the devil’s own homemade trails that weave throughout the mountainside.
Saturday morning started off like any other race day morning; cold, cloudy, and full of bitterness. However, walking (hiking) to the start point revealed a little community of trailers nestled together creating this fun little place of happiness. We had stepped into the headquarters of The Back 40 Trail Race.
A man with a beard that qualified him as either a modern day hipster or a true mountain man found in the wild started the show…in the exact way you would expect.
*with no mic or horn* HEY Y’ALL GET OVER HERE SO Y’ALL CAN LISTEN TO WHAT I GOTTA SAY TO YA. YA CAN’T HERE ME? WELL GET CLOSER!
This man was the race director. What I didn’t learn until a fist-bump much later was that he was also a top-3 finisher in the 40 mile version of this race.
All things considered the race started without a hitch; the 20 and 40 mile runners started together on half a mile of asphalt before beginning #1 of the eventual #2,562,332,557,676,545,343…repeating…switchbacks on the course.
First off, the course is gorgeous. The trails are newly made, and the scenery is to die for. Truly take a moment and just explore the trails in northwest Arkansas because it is worth the time.
Second, if you are going with the first suggestion, please lift weights before you go out on their trails. The Back 40 was deceptive; it is like the terrier dog your suburban neighbor has. They look cute on a leash, but once you get to know it, you realize that its entire objective is to chew you up and destroy your soul. The course is not necessarily rocky, it is not necessarily covered in roots. Instead, it is covered with this weird ‘moon powder’ substance laced with broken fragments of slate and limestone.
Translated: You are running on powder and if you fall, you are falling onto natures bed of razor wire. Plus, you are in the woods, no one can hear you scream.
The course has a lot of climbing at a steady pace. The tricky parts are the corners of the switchbacks; they are more like a straight incline with a weird curve. The kind you dream of driving a sports car on in some enchanted forest. Only you are doing this with your shoes, socks, and the path is slowly crushing soul with each hike.
Additionally, did you know The Back 40 is also a mountain bike race? Yes! The day after the trail race, they offer the same route for the mountain bike folks. How did I know this?
My hips still have not spoken to me since Saturday. There are so many moguls (small, repetitive hills) that my internal suspension was shot within the first five miles. They are so short and so close together that even with your mind telling you what you should be doing, your body tends to not to respond to the request until it’s too late. So. Many. Moguls.
After settling in for a few miles, I enjoyed my extremely slow pace for the race. I had made the mental decision that due to the insane injuries I had received in previous weeks, and a looming 50K race in February, this course was all about finishing. Because of this pace, I didn’t necessarily plan accordingly for fuel and things along those lines. I chose not to take my bladder to my vest (no regrets) due to the amount of aid stations, but I also had not packed any Tailwind into my handheld. Since I use that powder so much during races I really had forgotten why I had needed it to begin with.
At mile 7 my stomach began to growl. So much so that out of heartbreak I nearly ate a half-eaten Honey Stinger Waffle that someone dropped on the trail. Turns out hunger on the trails is one of the worst sensations you could imagine. Slowly maneuvering to the second aid station (the first aid station had Old Man’s Blue Stuff which was a concentrated Gatorade blend so strong that it burnt the top of my mouth…true story), I was thinking about peanut butter, bananas, and jelly beans because…trail running. As I slowly cruised in I told the folks that I was a tad hungry.
Did they offer the pretzels?
Did they offer the peanut butter?
Did they offer me the stew they were cooked over the campfire?
Give it up for southern hospitality. Regardless if the meat of choice was squirrel or beef, it was hot, delicious and kept me going. At least until the next aid station. By mile 15 I had gotten into a slow, comfortable rhythm of moguls and climbing. I also started to do math to predict the next road crossing.
Word Problem of the Day: If The Back 40 informed you that there were two dozen road crossings on the course, and you noticed a dramatical incline prior to coming to each road crossing, how many overly dramatic climbing and descending moments would a runner have due to the crossings?
Solution: Take two dozen (24) and multiple that by two (incline up and decline down); that gives us 48 moments on a 20 mile course that your body has an opportunity to seize up while being remotely close to moving traffic at 60 mph.
Props to Arkansas though; they have the fanciest road crossings I have ever seen. At each crossing there is a remote sensor that caused flashing lights to come on, on the road, for motorist. The crossings almost made up for the unplugged freezer with 3 year old calamari I found at mile six with the overturned sofa in the middle of nowhere, and the strange man in the forest chopping wood with an ax, laughing, at mile 12.
By mile 15 I was actually surprised I only had a few miles left prior to completion. I was cold and hungry (again), and thankfully the final aid station had pizza to share that they had just ordered via delivery (I am not making this up either). It was at this point that one of the aid station volunteers saw my jersey and exclaimed in humorous fashion:
Hey y’all! He’s with Run816! That’s the store I stopped at in Kansas City last time I was up there because I didn’t have shoes with me, only flip-flops. That’s a great place man.
Five hours from home, people knew exactly who I was running with.
I thought it had been interesting that between my slow movement and messing around at aid stations that a 40 mile runner hadn’t passed me on the course. At mile 16 my wish came true. Just like in fashion at GOATz, the first place 40 miler came flying up behind me, said the standard (and friendly), “You doing alright man? Keep going!” and was gone. He would finish nearly five miles in front of second place. This guy was in a world of his own.
While the moguls had been their own little piece of apocalyptic fun; I really had no idea that the final 4.5 miles would be the worse section of the whole course. The black diamond sign gave me a hint, but I thought it was just poorly placed since it could have easily gone for the entire path.
Nope, turns out life can get much worse. Imagine, you are already tired, you are cold, it is mile 17, and you can see a road crossing in front of you. Meaning; there is an incline. However, this incline isn’t a normal incline. In my young life as a trial runner; I witnessed my first climb that required my feet and my hands to get up. I want to repeat that; I HAD TO CLIMB WITH MY HANDS IN THE DIRT TO GET UP A HILL! As goes the recent motto of America; “This is not normal.”
Ironically, for all the complaining about all the climbing, the final two miles were a strange step into an alternate reality. After crossing the road, while being followed by Jason Voorhees*, I discovered that the final section of the course is a flat jaunt along the roadside into the park that we started on. Sounds easy, right? Except that at this point you’re internally (and possibly externally) crying, you’re cold, you’re hungry (again), and Jason is following you. All you want to do is finish, but you can’t, because you are just running straight for what seems forever.
With that said; I finally reached the asphalt that I had once started on earlier in the day, a Siberian Husky greeted me by barking “hello”, and I hobbled/walked/imagined I was flying into the finish line. There I was presented with a piece of wood with “Back 40” burned into the wood. Really, really cool.
I ate a burrito. Found my wife, who after finishing her 10K went and got Starbucks, took a selfie, ate breakfast, and then sat in the heated car waiting for me (I’m not bitter), and slowly started the process of leaving Arkansas.
While my adventure was hard; the event was amazing. Especially for the first year, this event is a must on your list of races. It is low key, wonderfully cheap, and the organization of the race is so, so well maintained. The course is incredibly well marked, there is a ton of volunteers everywhere, the local police man the road crossings, and there is support anywhere and everywhere. Coming from the Kansas City area this race easily ranks up there with any event hosted by the Trail Nerds and the Trail Hawks. While I could never imagine doing 40 miles out on that psychotic thing (10 hour cutoff mind you), I cannot wait to enjoy this race again in 2017.
*Jason Voorhees: Also known as the guy in the ski mask that walks down people sprinting away from him in horror movies. The last four miles there was a person behind me that walked the entire four miles. What was amazing (and slightly terrifying about the teleportation abilities) is that no matter how quickly I ran, jogged, hiked, anything; they were always right behind me. I could hear their breathing; they helped motivate me to finish (and empty my bowels).