Ultrarunners make great strides in Arkansas Traveller 100
OUACHITA NATIONAL FOREST, Ark. — Nearly halfway into the 23rd annual Arkansas Traveller 100, N. Wesley Hunt thought something might be wrong.
Hunt, a 30-year-old lawyer who lives in Little Rock with his wife and three small children, had hoped to make it through the entire 100-mile footrace without spending more than a few seconds at any of the event’s two dozen aid stations. But eight hours into the race, as he left the aid station at Mile 48.2 in second place, just minutes after 22-year-old Brock Hime, Hunt decided to switch his minimalist trail running shoes for a more highly cushioned pair, in hopes they would help him cope with what was beginning to feel like ceaseless pounding.
Twenty-one hours later — 11 hours after Hunt crossed the finish line — the skin over the large metatarsal in his right foot was an angry-looking purple swell.
“I’m pretty sure I ran the last 60 miles on a fractured bone,” he said.
Hunt completed the Traveller, which began at 6 a.m. Oct. 5, in 18 hours, 6 minutes and 42 seconds — exactly one minute and eight seconds behind Hime, who won. It was the first 100-mile event either of the men had ever run.
People use words — staggering combinations of words — when crossing the finish line that cannot be reprinted in a newspaper. While the Traveller is not considered the most grueling ultra distance event in the country, it frequently exacts a toll that leaves participants simultaneously depleted and euphoric.
The race, which takes most who finish between 20 and 30 hours, is Arkansas’ premier event in the world of “ultramarathons” — defined as any distance longer than 26.2 miles. It attracts an anomalous hodgepodge of amateur athletes, most of whom get into the sport in their mid-30s or later, sometimes becoming runners for the first time so they can be ultrarunners.
For Chrissy Ferguson, who has organized the race for the last 13 years with her husband, Stan Ferguson, the event is more than a pastime. It’s nearly an all-consuming culture.
“The Traveller’s changed my life,” Chrissy Ferguson said. “I’m not close to the person I was before I started running the Traveller.”
In her late 20s, Ferguson left a career as an electronics development engineer in California and became a firefighter. She began ultrarunning two years later and discovered the Arkansas Traveller 100 in 1992. Now 52, she has run the event 16 times with completion times ranging from 17 hours, 53 minutes to 28 hours, 40 minutes. (She has also completed dozens of other ultras around the nation.)
“Your idea of distance drastically changes,” Ferguson said, adding that shorter events like 10K runs didn’t seem worth her time anymore, although she likes to compete and will enter shorter races in the Arkansas Grand Prix Series when she can. “You find out a lot about who you are, and how far you can push yourself. How tough you can really be.”
The Traveller visits abuse on the entire body, but reserves an especially intense punishment for the feet. At every aid station, many runners change out shoes and socks, revealing bandages made of everything from moleskin to duct tape, applying balms ranging from baby powder to Vagisil. It is not unusual to see them lancing blisters the size of quarters with pocket knives before hurriedly taping the wound shut and hobbling onto the course.
Blackened toenails are considered a rite of passage, and ligaments and tendons of the feet and ankles are a frequent source of pain or failure. Near the end of this year’s Traveller, at about Mile 97, David Stafford of North Little Rock lost the ability to flex either foot. After staggering the final three miles with the gait of a man literally walking on his heels, he was placed on a gurney and wheeled into the medical area at the Lake Sylvia shelter. He finished in 28 hours, 43 minutes and 27 seconds.
The effects of dehydration are the main danger to extreme distance runners. Matt Ganio, a professor of exercise science at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said that as runners lose bodily fluids to perspiration, heat stress can take an increasing toll on the body.
“You’re sweating a lot, and if you’re not adequately replacing the fluids, a lot of things can happen,” Ganio said. “Your body has a harder time regulating temperature. This can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which can be deadly.”
Ferguson, who takes pride in the fact that the Traveller has never lost anyone, said the race abides by a strict adherence to the “3-5-7 rule.” All runners are weighed the day before the race and their weight is inscribed on a wristband, which they’re required to wear for the duration of the event.
At several critical aid stations, runners must stop and be weighed. If they have lost 3 percent of their body weight, organizers will warn them to increase their food and fluid intake. At 5 percent, the captains at aid stations have the right to hold runners at the station until they have ingested plenty of food and water.
If a runner loses 7 percent or more of body weight, organizers have the right to drop the runner — take him off the course.
“If you come into an aid station and you don’t have a freaking clue who you are, we have problems,” Ferguson said. “When [a runner is] that messed up, people get angry if you say they’re not fit to go on. But they’re not in their right mind anyway. Usually, they’ll come back the next day and say, ‘Thank you.’”
Lee Galbraith, an advanced emergency medical technician based in Perryville who has worked with the medical staff of the Traveller for about a decade, said he and other health-care professionals arrive prepared to start an intravenous saline drip on every runner who starts the race, if necessary.
“A lot of what happens is that people push themselves too far,” Galbraith said. “You have to understand, for 100-mile runners, they are very attuned to their bodies, and they really know how to run themselves. But they push themselves too hard for whatever reason.”
Galbraith said he had talked to runners who actually factor receiving an IV into their race strategy, although his crew tries to discourage that approach, and will not allow a runner to return to the race once that runner has received an IV.
“When they get dehydrated, their kidneys are shutting down,” Galbraith said. “So we only offer IVs at the finish point. If you’re here, you’re either finished, or you’ve dropped.”
The difference between a marathon and a 100-mile event is as stark as the difference between a 10K and a marathon. A runner’s comfort at one level could augur nothing at all for races of a larger magnitude.
In shorter races, runners can rely on accumulated glucose stores, burning through sugars in the blood stream to power through short distances. At the marathon level, skilled runners depend on their ability to hold back, spending stores of glycogen over several hours.
But at 100 miles, there is no real calorie budgeting for most runners. Just a constant feeding of the beast, shoveling in food and water in a desperate attempt to stave off absolute depletion for another five miles, and then another and another. The foods runners are able to tolerate changes over the course of the exertion.
The Traveller is widely noted for having extremely well-stocked aid stations offering every treat from M&M’s and potato soup to pickles, but many runners have “drop bags” at one or more station anyway. These bags will contain personal items such as additional clothing, flashlights and food. Many chug a can of Ensure, the dietary supplement, at several stations. One runner has three to four slices of cold pizza wrapped in tinfoil waiting for him at multiple points.
While the most determined competitors spend as little time as possible at each aid station, relying on volunteers to rapidly refill water bottles with ice water and electrolyte mixes, others take their time, noshing on sandwiches, fruit, potatoes and candy bars.
“Cheesy toast? That’s amazing,” said Monica Sholz of Ontario, Canada, a veteran distance runner, pausing at an aid station about 16 miles into the race. “I don’t know if I want to go on.”
“The reality of this event is that it is a 100-mile buffet,” said Joyce Taylor, an aid station volunteer from Little Rock.
Of 120 runners to begin this year’s Traveller, 77 finished the race. According to data maintained by race organizers, the race has an average completion rate of about 67 percent.
Like many long distance events, the Traveller attracts an older crowd: Of this year’s finishers, nearly a third were 50 or older. Hime, a senior at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is the youngest winner. Sarah Miller of Starkville, Miss., was the youngest woman to win the women’s division in 2012, also at the age of 22.
But most of the Traveller’s racers come to the world of 50- and 100-milers at a point in life when the technical focus shifts from running hard and fast to gliding along, relatively slowly. Over the past century, the average mile pace of male world-class marathoners has decreased from 7 minutes to 5. Hime’s pace at the Traveller averaged 10 minutes and 51 seconds per mile, a virtual crawl in most any other running competition, but fast enough that only 18 men and three women have completed the course in less time.
As Ferguson puts it, “I used to be fast and mean. Now I’m just slow and mean.”
It’s an effect of adrenaline that many racers feel the urge to sprint off the starting line, pushing a pace that will ultimately diminish their endurance. It’s an acquired skill to recognize and deny the impulse, forcing you to start slowly and easily.
Hime, who trained for the Traveller with a small cadre of race veterans including Stan Ferguson, said he had been warned by older runners not to give in to the urge to sprint through the early phases of the race.
“They said the one thing you can do [wrong] is go out too fast,” Hime said. “I was actually surprised when we took off Saturday morning — everyone took out so fast.”
Hime said his boss at the athletic shoe store where he works in Little Rock had promised him: “Go out slow tomorrow, and you’re going to win.”
“I went out pretty slow,” Hime said. “And it ended up paying off.”
Seven hours into Saturday’s race, however, Dustin Speer of Hot Springs was not thinking of Hime’s pace as “slow.” Like many competitors, Hime had asked for pacers to run alongside him to keep his progress steady and motivation high. Speer, a veteran distance racer himself, had volunteered to run with Hime from about Mile 48 to about Mile 67.
But as Speer monitored Hime’s progress through radio traffic at an aid station near the halfway point, he became worried that Hime would quickly leave him behind.
“I’m afraid my story is going to be the one of ‘the pacer who couldn’t keep up with his runner,’” Speer said with a grin.
Several of the station’s volunteers, many of whom had served as pacers for Traveller participants, wondered if Hime would be able to finish the race before things completely unraveled.
“That 100-mile pace, it affects you differently,” said Speer, who was aware that this was Hime’s first 100-miler. “It’s on your hips differently, it’s on your knees differently, it’s on your ankles differently.” As it turned out, Hime managed his time well. But he’s not “most cases.”
Michael DuPriest, a physical therapist from Little Rock and a six-time Traveller veteran, said that the lessons of ultradistance running have to be learned the hard way by most. “You get 100 miles under you,” DuPriest said, “it’ll change your behavior.”
Originally published Oct. 14, 2013 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette