Arkansas Traveler 100 – A Pacer’s Perspective


By Gordon Cherr


Prologue: I went to the Arkansas Traveler 100 in Perryville, Arkansas, with the express purpose of pacing Jeff Bryan through the last 33.7 miles of his first 100 mile race. Actually, Jeff really didn’t ask for a pacer and I strongly suspect he would have made it through without one. Perhaps not as fast and it sure is nice to have company. But it didn’t hurt to go and he was in favor of me going, and I had my own reasons to go, as well. First, to get in what should be a relatively easy all night trail 50K with little or no pressure (easy because the runners would have already completed about 67 miles before picking me up at the Power Line aid station, on their way back to the finish, not easy because of the course itself and the fact that my portion of the race was almost entirely at night on unfamiliar trails), and second, to work on a nasty calf cramping problem that had been bedeviling me in my last four ultras and marathons, causing me to drop out of three and hobble to the finish in the fourth. Plus, I wanted to be there for one of my running buds. Plain and simple.

The 12 hour drive from Tallahassee to Little Rock was uneventful but for Jasper, Alabama, where Jeff wanted to stop for a cold one (or two) at the “Booby Trap” on state road 78. Actually, I seconded the motion but our driver and crew member, Jolena Pace, refused to acknowledge our pleas and stop. By the way, another plus for the town of Jasper is a barbeque restaurant (we stopped on the return trip for lunch) by the name of Jim ‘N Nick’s. Their motto: “Our butts are smokin!”. The BBQ was exceptional.

Another place to visit while in Perryville, is the gas station/convenience store at Williams Junction. You want it, they got it. I have never seen so many different varieties of Moon Pie in one place. This is also where pick up trucks go to die. Every pick up that showed at the station was damaged beyond recognition, belching heavy clouds of white and gray smoke through a non existent exhaust system. Yet, everyone save the local hunters (the race was run, coincidentally, on the opening day of bow hunting season), was friendly and accommodating beyond belief. The only negative experience all weekend was at the convenience store at Williams Junction, where the “cook” at the back of the store, steadfastly refused to identify the “meat” which could be put on a pizza. Hey, maybe it was road kill ‘dillo, possum, kitty cat or Chihuahua, or whatever was missing from the neighborhood that day. She refused to tell us, so we passed on that topping. We also passed on the sandwich menu (bologna loaf, chicken loaf, turkey loaf, LIVER LOAF…). Maybe next time.

The race: Started at 6:00 AM with a howitzer blast that almost knocked me down flat. About 120 runners took off in the dark on their initial 17 mile loop. After that there was an 83 mile out and back to contend with. Jolena and I had little to do now but to monitor Jeff at the few aid stations that allowed for crew access. It was 6 AM, and I didn’t expect to start my leg until past 10 PM. Fortunately, we had run into Jim Sullivan prior to the race. Jim is from Orlando and well known to ultra runners from Tallahassee. Jim is a veteran finisher of more than 100 marathons and an additional 100 or more ultras, and he and Jeff decided to hook up if at all possible. I knew that Jeff would be in good hands with Jim, who knew what it took to finish, and finish on his feet. Jim would control the pace and keep Jeff from getting impatient. Again, I’m not certain that Jeff needed that, but having such an experienced head along must have been good for his confidence.

We first wandered down to nearby Lake Sylvia, the first aid station where crew access was allowed, at mile 17. It was a perfect morning for running. Some crew members and runners complained about the heat. If you were from Florida, it felt like a cold wave. I thought that this would be very good. Last year’s winner, Jim Kerby, from Washington, came through first with a commanding lead. He was followed eventually by Scott Eppelman and Tim Mussleman, who were running in tandem, together. This aid station, like all of the many aid stations, was working flawlessly as the crunch of runners continued for more than an hour. I had a short encounter and helped Sean Luitjens (who eventually finished well in 25:30:52), from Kentucky, with whom I had been corresponding on the ultralist. He looked good, as did Jeff and Sully. As usual, Sully saw to his own needs, which was mainly drinking a Boost, Jeff switched out hand held bottles of Accelerade and wolfed down a Slimfast. That was to be his usual crewed aid station routine and he stuck with it all the way to the finish. As early as mile 17 it was getting easy to see who might not be around for the finish.

The next crew access was at Lake Winona, mile 32 (approximately). The leaders were all the same, and now it was plain to see that Tracy Thomas (from Illinois) was the first woman. She was also running number 4 or 5 overall. One thing about Tracy, she wasted zero time at any aid station. Her one woman crew had her in and out in less than a minute, they worked the aid stations together to perfection all day and all night. In contrast was Robert Curci (from New Jersey), who was more deliberate and saw to his own needs. We chatted at one time and he refused any help at all except from the aid station workers who filled his bottles and waited on him and all of the other runners, hand and foot. Enough cannot be said about the skill of the aid station workers at this race. There are a phenomenal number of aid stations in this race (25 excluding the start and finish at Camp Ouachita), and all are staffed and supplied to the max. No problems for Curci, who finished 5th in 22:38;40. Jeff and Sully passed through without incident, both looked strong and were running conservatively.

From there it was on to the Power Line, which is hit twice, coming out and then back. Out at mile 48.5, the runners have come over Smith Mountain and the Smith Mountain climb plus combined mileage had clearly taken a toll. Runners begin to drop in earnest at the Power Line. In the meanwhile, the waiting game was making me crazy, Jolena and I got there at about 3 PM after a long rocky drive on forest road 132. The Power Line location is out there in the open, in a clear cut zone, under the power lines (obviously). But this allows the wind to come belting up from the canyons and lower elevations below, and this is likely the coldest spot on the course, with little cover to get out of the wind. Jolena and I set up camp behind a white pick up truck to avoid being blown off the mountain. Then we waited and waited and waited some more. The aid station workers fed me well, mostly chicken noodle soup, which I ate for the fluids and the salt. That must have helped although I did eat so much and drank so much I must have whizzed 20 times over the last 34 miles which I ran. More on that later.

Jim Kerby came through the Power Line aid station looking like he was still out for an afternoon stroll. I imagine that he had at least 1.5 hour lead over Eppelman and Musselman, who were followed a bit more closely now by Tracy Thomas. It was quite shocking to learn that at the Turn Around, about 10 miles up two more rather substantial climbs, Kerby suddenly dropped out with a hamstring pull. When that bit of information came over the ham radio, it caused quite a stir among the aid station workers and crew members there for the duration. In the meanwhile, the toll among the runners began to mount. More and more runners sat down in chairs at the aid station, eating and drinking, changing socks and maybe shoes, but with that vacant stare signaling the realization that he/she was not going to make it. The wind was becoming more of a factor up here and it was getting dark. Runners headed up to the Turn Around. Scott Eppelman came racing back as the leader but was now much more deliberate in picking up food and fluids as well as a headlamp. Tim Musselman, who had been shadowing Eppelman, was nowhere to be seen. It was clear that something major had happened to him over the last 20 miles from the Power Line to the Turn Around and back. Eventually Musselman returned and sat for a long, long time in a chair, holding his head in his hands, looking dejected or much worse. It was just a matter of time for him and it was no surprise when he surrendered his arm band and DNF’d. But it was of no shame either. He may have run over his head for the first 66-67 miles, but in my view, he let it all hang out and took the risk and accepted the challenge like a true champion.

Bang, Tracy Thomas was in and out of the Power Line aid station in what seemed like a microsecond, and I had that undeniable feeling that she was going to be in contention overall even though she was still a good solid hour behind Eppelman, who is no slouch either. Young John Muir came through too, looking strong. He had a regular cheering section with him at every stop all day, lead by his dad. You could see it in his father’s tortured expression, that dad was running every step with John, at least in his heart. John eventually did them both proud, finishing 6th in 22:38:54.

Jeff and Sully came in before dark, on their way to the Turn Around. The miles were starting to take their toll. Jeff was about to enter unknown territory for him, beyond 50 miles. He knocked back his Slimfast and switched out his bottle of Accelerade. He complained about a blister and I yanked off his shoes and socks. Phew, a stinkin’ runnin’ Superfund site! I tended to the blister which was on the back of his Achilles and heel, sticking a needle in it to drain the fluid. Guess what, no blister at all, a callous. He never felt a thing. Don’t tell him. Body Glide his feet, clean, dry socks were in order too. I helped him with his headlamp, and Sully with his night time gear too. They were off to the Turn Around, and my anticipation was growing.

Then they were back, alive and well, in about 4.5 hours. It was about 11:15 PM. Finally, it was my time to hit the trails.

The pacer’s job is a varied one. Generally you need to do whatever needs to be done to keep your runner moving towards the finish line. Lie, cheat, tell jokes, threaten bodily harm, you need to gauge your runner carefully and be attentive to his needs. But it has to be tough love. In all honesty neither Sully nor Jeff ever showed any real signs of quit, ever. We had our moments, but they were rare and not too serious. Yet the valleys certainly came and went. Several times. Moreover, you don’t want to be left behind, nor do you want to destroy your own runner with too wild a pace.

Sully made it clear early on as to what he wanted. He wanted me usually a little ahead but not too far or too fast. I wanted them to make the calls on running or walking and we easily decided to do what they had done all day to that point, walk the uphills, run the flats and downhills. Where the footing would let you. That was a major issue in the Arkansas Traveler 100. The footing was rugged in some long stretches, with a lot of loose rocks and ones that could quite easily cause you to turn an ankle. There were stretches where we would walk in the dark silence, punctuated only by an occasional “ouch” or “sh*t” or “f*ck”.

When we left out of the Power Line at about 11:15 PM, the first real order of business was Smith Mountain. We walked this one hard both up and down, just getting used to three of us interacting on the trail instead of two. I didn’t find Smith Mountain very difficult, then again I had only been at this for about 4 miles and Jeff and Sully had been pushing it for 71. I was hydrating every few minutes, taking 1-2 Succeed per hour. If I needed a supplement, I usually carried Crank. The first aid station at BM Road came and went in a flash. All I recall is the women in the red pajamas and the other with her bra outside of her blouse ala Madonna. The Smith Mountain aid station was well stocked and the ribs and chili smelled good, but I knew better than to indulge. I was drinking Ultra or Amino with some water, and picked up some boiled new potatoes at that stop. Dipped in salt, they were incredibly delicious. But that salt proved to be a problem because I had overdone it. After about 15 minutes my hands began to swell, my wedding band became tighter and tighter. It was time to hydrate and drop the elctrolytes if at all possible. Pretty soon I couldn’t even see my knuckles or close my stiff hands. We kept moving though, through the pitch black, punctuated only by our headlamps, alternately running and walking.

There was a big crowd at Club Flamingo, which was apparently the most popular of all aid stations. This was at mile 76.4, and there were several drop outs there. We were in and out within 3 minutes after sitting a short spell. Several others joined our group and then left us, either going faster or slower. We stayed on our pace. I was wearing a heart rate monitor and never saw my heart rate go above about 60% MHR while walking, even uphill. This was going too easy.

Somewhere after Club Flamingo and the Pig Trail (mile 79.3) reality began to settle in for me. The slow running was no big deal, but I wasn’t prepared for all of this fast walking. My thigh adductors began to talk to me, protesting more and more vigorously. Walking the uphills and flats hurt some, the downhills became very painful. At this point we were moving well on long uphills and long downhills in the night. The course was well marked with surreal green glow sticks or pink ribbons with small orange reflectors. Jeff had begun to limp more noticeably on his right foot. Sully, who had been regaling us with his ultra yarns, started to dig deeper, and quieted down. He grew more agitated about his urine stream, worrying about whether he was peeing blood. It was hard to tell in the beam of the green LED flashlight which he was carrying. Several groups of younger runners, male and female, had been passing us for a while now. It was all I could do to not start to race these other runners, it was so tempting, but patience was the order of the moment. And control over one’s emotions, which were beginning to get more raw as more time and miles passed.

At some time past the Pig Trail aid station, we wondered whether we were still on course. I had grabbed a handful on chocolate M&Ms at the last aid station, they nauseated me thoroughly. But that passed within 15-20 minutes. We knew that we could not possibly be off course, there was nowhere else to be, but we hadn’t seen a glow stick or ribbon/reflector for what seemed an eternity. Then good news, for out of nowhere Jeff happened upon a major mass of vomit in the middle of the trail. Now, that was either from a runner or a bear. We opted for the runner. Then we saw some additional glow sticks and ribbons and our fears subsided. We were still on course! You can’t believe how dark it is in the Ozark Mountains at night. Eventually we walked/jogged into the Lake Winona aid station (mile 83.9) and met our crew. Jeff and Sully took their time at this aid station, I switched out my bottles for some more Ultra or Amino, took more Succeed or K-Mag, and added some tonic water. Karl King had suggested supplementing with quinine after about 20 miles to also help stave off calf cramps. Schweppes is a great invention! And Karl knows his stuff. Soon we were out of there.

The climb out of Lake Winona signaled the beginning of some difficult and trying miles. There was what seemed to be about a 3 mile climb which took forever, we just dug in and marched silently, then running on the double track downhill when the last climb had been topped. Then a nasty climb up a rocky and steep Rocky Gap, where the footing was very rough and every ankle was in pain. The night was getting incredibly long, but it was a beautiful and starry night , which did not go unnoticed. Sully and I speculated about one orange looking star that stood out among all the rest. Jeff just kept on walking with his efficient, pigeon toed gate, saying little, and I knew my friend was fighting the demons who were trying to possess him.

There were always rumors of hunters messing with the trail markers and glow sticks. I thought of this when, of all things, we came upon what around here we call a “widow maker”. Someone had bent a young sapling (with a glow stick in it) across the trail, and kept it pinned down with a heavy piece of wood. If you try to climb through the branches of the sapling,the wooden piece slips and the sapling springs back up. If this hits you in the face or head, it will injure you seriously. Or the heavy piece of wood acts like a deadfall. Jeff and Sully said that that was definitely not out on the trail when they had first passed through, hours earlier. We stopped to discuss strategy for a moment, and then detoured off the trail, around the widow maker, I hoped that others behind us would see this for what it was.

The trail from Rocky Gap to E Tower, about 4.2 mostly rocky miles, was the worst for me. I was not alone. Jeff started to look for the 90 mile marker, a bad strategy. We never saw it, it was so depressing. Maybe we were just too tired to see it, maybe someone stole it. We were power walking now for all we were worth, even any running from here to the finish seemed out of the question. Sully complained about being dizzy but he never seriously considered stopping, and we would not have let him. I noticed that the beam of my headlamp became more and more diffuse, like my eyes were losing their focus. Then it struck all of us: the dawn was actually breaking! The mountain fog also rolled in and enveloped us in a secure, comfortable womb. We switched off our lights and strolled into E Tower at 91.4 miles! The night was over and we knew that we were going to make it. It was clear to me that Jeff and Sully simply would not be denied after coming all this way.

The trail from E Tower to the Pumpkin Patch aid station was only 2.3 miles. The road was rolling, lit and very runable. With that, Jeff and Sully took off at a fast trot and implored me to follow. To be honest, I was still holding my breath about my calf cramping, and the thought of running and cramping worried me immensely. It was a ginger trot at first, punctuated with several walking stretches, but at some point it became clear to me that whatever would happen, would happen. We took off, the three of us strung out across the road, energized and fresh. Passing two younger runners who had leap frogged us hours earlier, we rolled into Pumpkin Patch, the last aid station on the Arkansas Traveler 100 course. I was starting to feel the onset of an incredible runner’s high.

Jeff and Sully were out of Pumpkin Patch so fast that they left me standing there, filling my bottles for the last time. They were smelling the barn now and I really had to beat it downhill to catch them. I caught up with Sully, but Jeff was now pulling away. 6.6 miles to go on a gorgeous autumn morning for the three Floridians! Cramping no longer concerned me, I felt an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders. I ran free, really free, for the first time in many months, perhaps years. When I caught Sully, he told me to go on, that he would be fine. I didn’t want to leave him, he had done so much for me over the past 9-10 hours, but he insisted, as he had with Jeff. Sully is a class act. Thank you, Jim Sullivan.

Jeff saw me flying after him (it felt like flying, it was probably more like a 9-10 mile pace), and he waited up. Together we ran stride for stride up the trail. I was looking for people to pass, More rationally, Jeff was looking for home. Over the last 5 miles (these must be Horton miles because it felt like at least 7-8 miles) we passed at least 9 more runners and pacers. Jeff finished in 26:44:28. I was only out there for 10:31 but loved every minute of it, although not always at the time. Sully came in, in 26:57:43. With a big smile on his face.

Epilogue: Jeff swears that he is finished with 100 mile events. However, in Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s protagonist, young Chris McCandless states, in a letter:

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not
take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life
of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one
peace of mind , but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous
spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic cure of a man’s
living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our
encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than
to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and
different sun.”

I saw the two suns rise on October 1 and October 2 in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. So did Jeff. So did Sully . We’ll be back.