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The Toughest Trail Marathon You’ve Never Heard Of

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Although snow, ice and cold can limit mid-winter trail-racing options, don’t despair. There is an under-the-radar trail marathon that rivals any in the country for difficulty and vertical … smack dab in middle-of-nowhere, west-central Arkansas.

Held every January since 1999, the Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon is a roller-coaster race through the Ouachita Mountains. The rugged out-and-back course runs 26.2 miles over eight mountains (for a total of 16 climbs), racking up a total 9,200 feet of vertical gain. The high point is a mere 2,028 feet above sea level, the low point 1,023. And the first three miles are on relatively flat road, so the bulk of the climbing and descending takes place over one 10.5-mile stretch in each direction.

To put that in perspective, the Pikes Peak Marathon—an infamously difficult race in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to the top of 14,114-foot Pikes Peak and back—gains 7,815 feet.

“The Athens Big Fork Marathon is definitely a challenge right up there with the more difficult runs,” says Tommy Brennan of Poteau, Oklahoma, who has won the race an astonishing eight times. “There are so many climbs that there is hardly a flat section, and it’s really technical.”

For runners frightened by those numbers or the warnings on the race website—“NOTE: This event is NOT for trail-newbies”—there is also a 17-mile Blaylock Creek Fun Run that covers four of the eight mountains before turning around. Although the mountains lie far enough south to avoid the worst winter weather, race day typically sees temperatures in the 20s to 40s and, occasionally, ice and snow.

The unassuming Athens Big Fork Trail is located in Ouachita National Forest—the oldest National Forest in the southern United States—outside of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Nearly 120 years ago, the U.S. Postal Service built the trail using game trails and Native American paths.

“The trail served as a postal route for horseback riders carrying the mail between the communities of Athens and Big Fork, Arkansas, for over a hundred years,” says Brady Paddock, the race director and a two-time finisher. “Indian tribes traveled along these trails for centuries and the trees along the way are ancient and spectacular. It is a very spiritual place.”

Photo by Jeremy Duncan

The 10.5-mile trail runs north to south across the mountains, offering sweeping vistas of the rolling oak-and-pine hills from rocky summits. Marathon participants start at the local community center, run for a few miles along the road, then hop onto the singletrack that continues until the 13.1-mile turnaround. The trail, with almost no switchbacks, shoots up and down the mountains through thick brambles and over uneven limestone.

“We don’t really care who wins, and we don’t track runners’ times,” says Paddock. “We just say, ‘GO!’ Then when folks get back to the Community Center, they write down their times.”

On January 2, 1999, David Samuel, a local forest ranger who had often hiked and run the trail, put on the first Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon, with four runners. In 2015, a whopping 27 runners participated in the marathon event, which features no entry fee, merely an optional $5 donation to the local community center that helps organize the event. There are aid stations every three to four miles along the course, and the trail is marked by white trail blazes that are, at times, difficult to spot.

“It’s the best kind of race because it is low key and the people that come are like family. There’s nobody trying to make money off of it—at the end people sit in lawn chairs and drink beer,” says Brennan. “To be successful you just have to focus on each mountain. Throw the pace-per-mile out the window, because it is going to be ugly.”

>Race Day January 9, 2016

>Getting There Fly to Little Rock and drive about two-and-a-half hours west to Mena, the town closest to the race location.

>Accommodations The Queen Wilhelmina Lodge is a popular place to stay the night in Mena, and there are plenty of other affordable motels and campsites in the area.

>Post-Race Fun Take a drive on the Talimena Scenic Byway or explore the various trails and wilderness areas around Mena. If you’re hungry, grab lunch at the American Artisans restaurant.

>By the Numbers

16 Number of mountain climbs from start to finish
9,200 Total elevation gain, in feet
2,028 High point, in feet
4:39 Winning marathon time in 2015

This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.