Syllamo was a 3 day race. Friday was a 50K, Saturday was a 50 miler and Sunday was a 20+K. Brian, Rachel, Tanya and Jason Espalin (i.e. the Spleens), Ash and myself did the stage race together.
Great race setting – All of the races originate from the Blanchard Springs Campground in the Ozarks of Arkansas. Blanchard Springs Campground is nestled in a valley and has immediate access to a gazillion miles of trails.. It is very secluded and low key. In many ways it reminds me of the Lodge area at Hill Country State Park except more water (Sylamore River runs right through it) and bigger hills. There is a really nice pavilion area and a big grassy area that is great for relaxing post race. There is also the very cold Sylamore River readily available for a post race ice bath. Even though all races originate from the same area….the RD did a great job of making the course for each race feel quite a bit different than the others and emphasize different scenic aspects of the Ozarks. Most of the routes were single track with some jeep road mixed in.
Old school style race – After Sunday’s 20K, I made the comment to Steve (the RD) that it was an old school style race and he said that was his intent. What I meant by old school style race is that the race was low key (not a lot of fan fare) and non elitist. That is probably why the Legend didn’t come. While there were some very fast runners….there wasn’t a lot of fuss over them and the RD did a great job on congratulating everyone on their finish. There also weren’t a ton of runners…less than 200 for each race. By the first A/S the field was generally pretty well spread out. Even the markings were old school. When I first started doing trail races in 2005…most races were marked with flagging ribbon and flour (on the turns). There were never arrows or wrong way signs (yes Tejas Trails has spoiled us). At Syllamo the RD just used flagging ribbons at major turns (sometimes flour) with the occasional confidence ribbon. Honestly, the trails were well marked but one had to pay attention. Brian, Rachel, Tanya, Jason and Ash all missed one or two turns in the 50 miler. Ash was a funny story. I was about 50 yards behind him around mile 19 and we were running up a jeep road. I was alone in my thoughts (i.e. thinking about how miserable I was feeling) and heard some runners about 20 yards ahead of me yell ahead at a runner that he missed the turn. I looked up and it was Ash they were yelling at! The problem was Ash had his earbuds in and couldn’t hear them. Time to crank up the Chris Russell voice and it overpowered Ash’s earbuds and we got him back on track. Funny thing is the exact same thing happened about 10 minutes later. Ash learned his lesson and didn’t get off course after that. I was feeling smug about not being the only who didn’t get off course in the 50 miler but that was inviting too much bad karma from the Trail Gods. Tanya and I got way off course in the 20K and may have costs us close to 30 minutes. The flagging was clear (it was a sharp 90 degree turn) but I wasn’t paying attention.
Hardcore Runners – I was very impressed by the quality of runners at the race. A lot of the runners were older but it was evident they had been doing this for many years (including stage races) and I would often hear them talk about races they had done. I thought it was impressive that a good number of starters did finish the 50 miler within the tight 14 hour cutoff despite doing the 50K the day before. They were very smart in their pacing and recovery. Many do Syllamo every year. Even in the 20K on Sunday most of them were running right away and it took me about 4 miles before I found anything resembling running legs. To give an example of the type of runner there….I ran with a gentleman the first half of the 50K. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1988 which was same year I graduated from the Air Force Academy. So we had a bit of a bond. He told me that when he retired in 2012 he celebrated it by running across America. I asked him what route he took.? My assumption was he would tell me in general terms (went through such and such states in Northern Part of US). Instead he started off by saying, “well on Day 1 we did28 miles and we took such and such trail for 8 miles before we had to run on road for 15 miles, blah, blah, blah and then on Day 2 we went 35 miles etc……..”. I got the full blow by blow! It was great. Kept me entertained for a long time and I was amazed by his memory. For those curious he was able to heavily utilize a lot of the rails to trails projects in Northern part of US.
VRBO is the way to go – We stayed at a Vacation Rental By Owner which comfortably slept all of us. It was perfect for a stage race format. We each had our own bed but had a nice central living area to congregate in and hang out. Really made the event a lot more fun. Although actually getting into the house was a bit of a scavenger hunt. The directions for getting the key were a bit cryptic (open the gate by the back stairwell and the key will be on top of such and such). The gate wasn’t obvious (and a bit camouflaged) and once we finally figured it out it took several more minutes to find the door the key worked in. Felt like I was playing one of those old graphic adventures. The other good part of the VRBO was it made it a lot easier to get up in the morning for each race knowing that the others were doing the same thing (despite being sore and tired). Both Saturday and Sunday morning I looked at Tanya and said…”This is the dumbest idea ever”. A stage race would be tough to do solo.
Experiencing local culture part 1 – One of the best things about ultra running is it often takes us to places that otherwise we would never go. Gives us a chance to absorb local culture and get out of our respective bubbles. We were staying in Mountain View, Arkansas which bills itself as the Folk Music Capital of the World. Unfortunately the big folk music festival they had was a week prior but the evidence of its folk music heritage was all over. It is also the heart of Bible Belt (my people!:)). Consequently, one sees advertisements for things like a Bluegrass Gospel service (let’s blend some folk music with some bible belt). Being in the heart of Bible Belt meant we were in a dry county. This led to one of my favorite stories. Thursday night we decided to eat at Angler’s which is a catfish place. They had very good catfish (as evidenced by the 6 fillets I ate). However, in order to get around the dry county rules, they were technically a private club. So in order to eat there… at least one member of our party had to be a member of Angler’s (fortunately membership was free). So next time you see Brian congratulate him on his membership at Angler’s! We had a lot of fun the rest of the trip asking Brian about his Angler’s perks and privileges.
Experiencing local culture part 2 – Another favorite local culture story also involved Angler’s. Ash decided to get some salad to go with his catfish. They asked him what kind of dressing he wanted. Before I could warn him he asked for vinaigrette. Actually he was going to ask for balsamic vinaigrette but thought they might not have it so he ask for vinaigrette. Now when I was a growing up in Ok….there were 3 types of Salad Dressing offered….French, Thousand Island and Italian. Italian was the fancy one. After they invented Ranch they started to offer that. Well Ark isn’t much different than Ok. The very nice waitress informed Ash (and his elitis taste buds) that they didn’t have vinaigrette. He could have either Italian or Ranch (somehow French and Thousand Island have fallen to the wayside). After she left, Tanya told Ash that was why she brought her own balsamic vinaigrette and Tanya proceeds to show him a small glass container containing balsamic vinaigrette. Obviously Tanya has been to Arkansas.
Spleens and their “tricks of the trade” – Lodging with the Spleens is very intimidating as one gets to see all their “tricks of the trade”. They had 2 foam rollers, 3 rolling sticks, stretching bands, massage balls etc. etc, etc. After every race Tanya and Jason would lounge around in their “recovery” tights. Well actually Tanya did. Jason wouldn’t allow us to see him in his recovery tights and he would put those on when he went to bed. The pair of shorts I was sleeping in seemed woefully inadequate. But the kicker was the Himalayan Rock Salt. Having known the Spleens over the years I am aware of them always looking for any type of pharmaceutical or natural product that will give them an edge. A few years ago at Jemez they were taking some type of Nitro powder (or pill) pre race. This year it was the Himalayan Rock Salt that would give them the edge. I guess they mixed it with water and drank it. It couldn’t be any rock salt but apparently had to come from Mt Everest or K2 or one of those mystical places. So next time you see the Spleens…see if they can hook you up before it eventually gets banned
Hypothermic Ash – I don’t know if I have ever met anyone who dislikes cold more than Ash. The temps were usually in the 30s at race start and Ash is dressed like he is an Inuit Indian ready to go on a Polar Bear hunt. He did all of Sunday’s 20K in a puffy jacket and other layers. I had on a T-shirt. After Friday’s 50K we tried to get him into the river to reduce inflammation in his legs and he stayed safely on the banks. Probably a good thing to. As cold as that water was it was probably a wise move. He might have gone into hypothermic shock.
Ash’s man crush – Veteran Hardrock Runner Billy Simpson was there volunteering. Billy has finished Hardrock a bunch. He is 61 years old and can still run it in under 40 hours. Ash though he was pretty much the coolest dude ever and kept talking about how cool he was. The man has a presence. At one of the pre race briefings the RD is trying to get us to be quiet…not working…finally Billy yells…”Hey, Listen Up!”. Immediate silence. Brian agrees with Ash on Billy’s coolness. I honestly can’t argue with either of them. Likely is the coolest dude in ultrarunning.
Speedo dudes – By now you have all seen the horrific photos of Tanya frolicking with the guys in the tiny speedos. Here is the background. There is a group of guys who call themselves the “Panty Boys” for whatever reason. Every year they work an aid station…Friday and Saturday wearing some typo of crazy costume. This year it was red, white and blue speedos. Even in cold weather they wore them. I had forgotten about them at the 50K on Friday (we were warned prior) until I hit their A/S and I honestly didn’t know what to say. I was stunned. I was trying to get water and some food while avoiding looking at them. Even more unnerving was one of them looked like Rolando’s twin. Seeing Rolando in a speedo is not a sight I want to see. Another one of them told me, “Can you believe we still can’t get girls?”
Credit; Chris Russell