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All Photos Courtesy of Mal Sebeck | 1611′ Photography
There’s no gun.
No timing mat. No official start line.
The Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon starts at the Big Fork Community Center, the barn-quilted hub of an unincorporated community in southern Arkansas boasting 179 residents, at last count. Nestled in the Polk County region of the Ouachita Mountains, the trail itself was constructed by the U. S. Postal Service 125 years ago along pre-established Choctaw and Caddo trade routes and game trails and was partially restored in 1986. Summits along the course, which boast (according to my GPS, though the thick foliage can fool even the highest of tech) almost 8,000 feet of climbing, are charmingly named Brushy, Big Tom, Brusheap, and Hurricane Knob. The average grade is 12%.
I was drawn to this race after reading about it in this very magazine, a story called The Toughest Trail Marathon You’ve Never Heard Of. After seeing how close this southern trail test-piece was to the Ozark hills, where I spent my childhood, I was drawn by the allure of something that felt comfortably familiar, and familiarly uncomfortable. There’s a warning on the race’s website meant to deter beginners. Below that, a secondary deterrent should the original warning have the opposite of its intended effect.
“Please do not be enticed into trying this run because of the difficulty warning–it is merely an honest attempt at preventing the run organizers from having to find and rescue someone ill-equipped for the event.”
For the uninitiated, the trails of the southeast are punishingly steep and Dantean in nature – where the trail exists at all. For much of ABF (what locals lovingly call the marathon) the “trail” is in fact, a dried-out ol’ crick. Mossy “baby-heads” (aptly named rolly-polly rocks approximately the size of a baby’s head) and slick roots cackle at the futility of rubber outsoles and lugs. Forest Service literature euphemistically refers to it as “unsurfaced”.
There’s no entry fee. No timing chip. No YouTube stream.
But what it lacks in high-falutin’ swag, it more than makes up for in community and character. While there are speedsters at the front of the pack, pushing each year to lower the course record (now a mind-boggling 4:07:48), some runners take well over nine to complete the course, marshaled by regional runners and the Ouachita Amateur Radio Association.
The race is capped at around 90 runners and remains small enough to fit all entrants in an annual start line group photo. The race is the destination, not a waypoint en route to some larger, shinier thing.
“I think that ABF has always been special because it is one of those events that feels like a big family reunion,” says Stacey Shaver, who’s been the race director for ABF for the past five years. “It’s also just a cool corner of the state, where you can forget that modern (in)conveniences like smartphones and email exist for a few hours. We have runners come back year after year and from across several states. Even for runners new to our event, it feels like going to grandma’s house. Grandma’s house means fun, games, laughter, and leaving well fed. That is exactly what our runners get.”
In addition to the homey feel of Grandma’s house, the past few year’s awards for first place finishers have included hand-harvested local honey, hand-soldered fork statuettes, and a charming cross-stitched winner’s plaque.
As more races are becoming consolidated under increasingly large banners, company sponsors, and race series, many runners are looking to smaller, home-grown events with a family feel. Few things top the feeling of seeing friends and run family out along the course and feeling supported by your home community.
Runner Justin Grigg recommends Missoula, Montana’s Double Dip race for just that reason.
“You’ll usually see friends racing, but also working aid stations, spectating along the course or gathered at the start/finish area. With the two out-and-back sections, you more than likely will see friends who are racing ahead of or behind you, and people who aren’t racing will run up University and Sentinel to watch,” says Grigg.
Many runners appreciate being able to share their race-day experience with the larger community and enjoy being cheered on while they’re competing. Live music, food, and adult beverages don’t hurt either when it comes to incentivizing community members to come and bask in the finish line stoke. Some events can almost feel at odds with the communities they happen in, and it’s a breath of fresh air when everyone feels included in race day festivities.
Close to Home
The International Trail Running Association (ITRA) estimates there are around 3,600 trail races every year, and approximately 1,400 of those are in the U.S. While big events garner the most press and social media attention, there are hundreds, if not thousands of smaller, local races that are providing the bulk of opportunities for runners to lace up their shoes and hit the trails.
Aside from the accessibility, there are economic and environmental reasons that racing closer to home is more appealing.
Sam Robinson, from Oakland, California, loves the local Woodmonster Trail Race because it’s practically in his backyard.
“I’ve run over every trail in the park numerous times. The main climb in the race is a spicy 0.9-mile ascent with a 14% grade—one of my favorite hills to run up in California. I know and love almost every inch of those trails and that makes the race joyous to me.”
Traveling is a hassle. Trying to make sad hotel-room oatmeal in a tiny coffee maker from the 1990s at three a.m. before having a blow-out fight with my phone’s GPS system to find the start line in the pitch dark of rural Nowhere is never fun. You know what’s even better? Sleeping in your own bed, eating your own properly-cooked oatmeal, and navigating your own self to the start line.
Race locally. If not for the community or environmental plusses, then for the extra 20-90 minutes of sleep.
It’s Not About Speed
“I love when a race director focuses more attention on the experience than the results of the race itself,” says pro athlete Jeff Colt. “it makes the event fulfilling for the entire field instead of just some of the top runners. Jemez Mountain Trail Runs is another good example of this — instead of making grandiose prizes for the top three or some fancy sweatshirt included with registration. It makes the event fulfilling for the entire field instead of just some of the top runners.” Colt’s favorite small race is the Randolph Ramble, based in Randolph, New Hampshire.
Many RD’s are subbing out swaggy grab bags filled with gear and gels no one wants with bespoke items and experiences instead. “The Jemez Mountain Runs offer breakfast before the race, amazing aid stations, a live band at the finish, and a full dinner after the race,” says Colt.
Registration for the Ramble? Just $45. Many big ticket races cost hundreds of dollars to enter, before even forking over cash for housing and meals, making smaller, local races an affordable alternative. Washington State’s Capitol Peak 50 only costs $50. At a dollar a mile, you’d be breaking even, even if you didn’t have a lick of fun. Additionally, many smaller races like ABF invest in their home communities. Every cent raised at ABF goes directly to the Big Fork Community Center.
The community created by the races is important, too. While many larger races inspire buy-in from the community they happen in (I was recently blown away by the volunteers at the Western States Endurance Run, many of whom abandoned their weekend running plans to stand in a river or hand out flat coke), many volunteers at smaller races aren’t trying to up their chances in a lottery or waitlist. They’re simply there because they want to be. Whether it’s operating a HAM radio or flipping pancakes at the finish, a race that’s stacked with community-run aid stations feels extra special.
“I want to meet people at races and the ones that foster community are the ones that attract me the most. The Randolph Ramble welcomes runners in and makes them feel like a neighbor. I’d be surprised if you didn’t end up with a new running buddy after running the Ramble,” says Colt.
The worse the website the better the race.
The worse the website the better the race. For years, the race existed only as a Facebook page, with no website or online registration, a testament to the “if you build it they will come” spirit nascent in the true grassroots of trail running.
“At the Ramble, expect lumberjacks to be out there in their leather hiking boots, elite trail runners who prefer to stay out of the limelight, mountain wanderers who descend from above the clouds only to resupply for food and to run the Ramble, and other local north country neighbors who want a good morning workout,” says Colt.
Race Director Doug Mayer (also a columnist for this magazine) says that the community feel is very much by design.
“We turn to our community for everything we need, from food courtesy of the local pub and cafe to handmade finisher awards. There’s a strong sense of community and self-reliance in the White Mountains, so we’re used to thinking this way. If you just stop and look for a moment, you’ll discover all kinds of talents and services practically at your feet. And when the community is powering the event, almost by default it will have a great local vibe,” says Mayer.
Are Small Races on the Rise?
“The big races grab the headlines, but under the surface, every day and all around the country, local trail runners are coming together to create authentic, unique, and wonderful events,” says Mayer. “Most of us got our start that way. I’m deep in the world of marquee races now, but it’s still true that nothing makes me happier than seeing 100 runners head up Mount Crescent at the start of every Ramble.”
“Trail running as a whole is growing, and people who can’t get into those events but still want the challenge of a mountain race will find that and much more at Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon but without the big race fees,” says ABF RD, Stacey Shaver.
“We simply ask people to pay what they can. We don’t want money to be the reason someone misses out on experiencing our races or feeling connected to the club and community. I also think it’s really special to help people see the fantastic beauty that we have here in our backyard. I always feel such a sense of local pride when I see the beauty here, and I’m so grateful that we get to enjoy it in this special way.”
Because local races are often directed by, well, locals, they can be more responsive and receptive to the community’s needs, whether that’s access or affordability. At ABF, it’s not uncommon to see competitors hiking in full hunting get-ups. I’ve seen makeshift garbage bag ponchos, blue jeans, and an actual, hand-carved wooden hiking staff. And maximizing points of entry to the sport via affordable local events is a great way to grow the sport.
But what happens when races become victims of their own success? As a younger runner, sometimes it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for a trail running world I never experienced but hear frequently about – one without waitlists or golden tickets, a utopic vision where you could register for marquee ultras day of, at the start line. The way these stories are passed down from my older trail buds, it seemed as though at every race you might see Scott Jurek flipping finish line pancakes, or that running Western States wasn’t a matter of “if” but “when.” It’s hard not to pine for the trail running days of yore, even if they frequently involved non-technical fabrics and carrying your water in a Gatorade hockey bottle a la Matt Carpenter. It’s not “Make Trail Running Great Again” nostalgia, but the ability to connect with the running community stripped of the pretenses of needing something flashier than the simple appeal to come and run.
Even so, I’m glad trail running is growing. And I’m glad it’s getting more competitive. I’m especially glad that more folks every day might have the opportunity to race, wherever they are, and fall more in love with this wonderful, heart-breaking, silly sport.
Should I be more worried about people “discovering” my favorite local race? Will gushing about its unique charms be the very thing that causes it to become a big box event?
“I’m not worried about sharing how great this event is with a national publication, because the beauty of this event is that it can be recreated with little effort, and SHOULD BE recreated in your little pocket of the country,” says Colt. “It’s a local race, but it is a great example of what is needed to replicate this in your own backyard. You need an idea, a desire to gather some runners together, and maybe some local sponsors who dig what you’re trying to do…Have a fun, local event on the 10K of trails nearby your house and build that community where you are. We all have the tools to make something special.”
There’s nothing wrong with big races either. Getting to compete with the world’s best athletes in amazing locations with well-trained aid station attendees is amazing – but it’s no replacement for the local rotary club dishing out Fireball and pie on a 30-degree drizzly morning in the Ozarks.
Meanwhile, Back at Big Fork
I’ll keep signing up for big races. I’ll keep accepting swag bags full of expired lube samples and discount massage flyers. I’ll keep setting alarms for the crack of dawn to register for races and I’ll keep refreshing my browser to see if my name is moving up the waitlist.
But, I’ll also still keep rolling up to the Big Fork Community Center on the second Saturday in January to subject my ligaments to the indifference of Ozark trails. I’ll keep showing up to run a course that’s only marked by comically sporadic blazes to get a result that will never show up on UltraSignup, or affect my ITRA score whatsoever.
I’ll keep running ABF because I like that you can’t upload the race to Strava for hours due to a lack of cell service. By the time you have enough bars to post a recap on Instagram, the urge to seek validation via screen has faded into a warm glow of post-run beer and real-life high fives.
I’ll keep doing it because sometimes my legs and my heart need a reminder of why I trail run: not for accolades, recognition, or points, but for community and homemade chili. In lieu of a finishing chute, there’s a chalk line etched onto the highway, a lone man clad in his warmest hunting wear with a clipboard marking down finishing times. Finish line IPAs and fresh biscuits are a bigger reward than any kudo, and time spent running in the woods with close friends will always be my favorite way to spend a Saturday.