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November 20, 2017

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FKT of the Ozark Highlands Trail

Run 165 miles through the wilderness, on sometimes non-existent trails, over the course of ONE weekend. Oh, and set the record for the Fastest Known Time (FKT) while doing it. Sound insane? Yeah, we think so. INSANELY AWESOME! As you might have heard rabbitPRO Ashley Nordell did just this a few weeks ago on the Ozark Highlands Trail. In this rabbit chatter, Ashley tells the story of this miraculous feat in her own words:

“ Look at that old car,” I remember saying to Faye. I can still see the image clearly, a beat up looking off road vehicle that was abandoned in the woods after breaking down or crashing. Except it wasn’t really there. Neither was the other vehicle, the building, or the boy fishing on the side of the road. But after over 54 hours, everything was a bit funky, and it made perfect sense that some half-jeep had found its final resting place in the Ozarks of Arkansas.

Ashley Nordell

It’s been a couple weeks since I spent my (entire!) weekend running, hiking, and often stumbling along 165 miles of the Ozark Highlands trail. The acute pains have subsided, along with the sharp memories of the lows, so all I can really conjure up are thoughts of what an amazing experience I had in one of my favorite states.

Although going for a record was a nice, tangible goal to focus on, the real joy of that weekend comes down to the friendships, challenges, and seeing a beautiful place that is so different from where I live. It’s not often that we get to experience something so stripped down that all you literally have to do is run. The external details are all being brainstormed for you, and your only responsibility is to put one foot in front of the next, while occasionally forcing down some food. The Ozark Highlands Trail website suggest 10-14 days for a thru hike from Fort Smith State Park to Woolum, Arkansas. To be able to cover that distance over the course of a weekend is such an incredible experience, it’s extremely hard to put into words.

Ashley Nordell

When I received a phone call back in early August from my good friend (and previous record holder) Steve Kirk offering his assistance if I wanted to attempt the trail, my thoughts went from “maybe one day” to “I’m totally doing this.” I decided if I made it through Cascade Crest 100 fairly unscathed, I was going to try  for the trail in late October. Part of the draw to this trail for me was to see the color change in Arkansas. Unfortunately, Cascade Crest left me with a hurt hamstring that didn’t seem to improve as the days went on. A month before my self-imposed window of dates (between my husband’s 40th birthday and Halloween), I went to a local PT and felt some immediate progress. Two miles into my first post-PT run I sent a mid-run text to Steve asking if we could still pull it off on such short notice. This impulsive text and plane ticket purchase was how I ended up flying into Little Rock at the end of October with a crazy adventure planned.

There were definitely moments of panic after I made that commitment, especially as the hamstring acted up again, and then when I got the stomach bug two and a half weeks out from my trip making me unable to even complete a three mile run.  In the two months between Cascade Crest and the Ozark Highlands Trail, I did not do a run longer than about ten miles, and here I was buying maps for a 165 mile trail. About a week before I flew to Arkansas I finally decided I had to turn off all the doubts that the setbacks were causing, and commit to the belief that I could do it. Steve had told me when he and Greg Eason ran the trail they didn’t even discuss possible reasons for stopping. He explained if you had those to fall back on when things got really rough, it would be too easy to stop. I took this to heart and made the decision that I would no longer even consider all the obstacles because they just provided excuses. People were giving up their entire weekend for me, so I could only begin the trail believing I could finish it, and the only finish line could be the Buffalo River in Woolum.

Ashley Nordell

Tim Ernst wrote an amazing, mile by mile trail description book for the OHT. He divides the trail into eight sections of 18-30 miles. The day before I began my run, I took an exacto knife and cut the book into each section and put them in Ziploc bags so I didn’t have to carry the entire book at a time. In my mind, I broke the trail up into these pages, and during the run, each time I swapped out bags, it was one section down. Anytime the enormity of the miles to come, or hours I had left, crept into my mind, I would try to go back to just a section of the book at a time. That, and seeing my crew every 7-20 miles, were what helped keep me going during all those hours. Steve Kirk, Greg Eason, and Chris Block were with me the entire trail, both crewing and pacing. I was joined mid-trail by two amazing gals I had never met before, Faye McConnell and Rachel Furman. Rachel paced me the long 20 mile stretch through the Hurricane Wilderness, and poor Faye jumped in the final 40 miles, which was an entire night and much of the last day. When I think of all the highs of this trip, the first and foremost one is this group of people. Steve put together the best crew and pacers I could even imagine.

Ashley Nordell

Overall, the logistics of the trek were amazing. Not ever having set foot on the trail before, I relied 100 percent on Steve’s planning. My only responsibility was to run. The first 55 miles of the trail went fairly smoothly in that department. Chris and I set off from Fort Smith at 4am on Friday, and all day long I alternated running with people or going solo. I would run the flats and downhills and walk the climbs. Chris joined me again after mile 55 and we began the eight mile climb into what the guide book describes as one of the most remote and least used sections of the trail. I had encountered some downed trees along the way, but in this stretch it seemed like every time I got into a rhythm we had another tree to climb over or bushwhack around, and then would lose the trail and have to try to find it again in the dark. As the night wore on, I struggled with staying awake, and my pace went from mostly running to mostly walking. Shortly after the half-way point, Greg jumped in and took me another 20 miles into the next day, crossing that magic 100 mile marker, which brought me into entirely new territory. Once the sun rose, my body woke up a bit and I could go back to slightly more running. Just like in ultras, it became a series of highs and lows. Around mile 105 my quads started hurting so badly I struggled with stepping down from rocks or climbing over the trees. There would be sections where, for hours, it would be all leaf covered rocks that on tired, shot legs I just couldn’t run. Miles can go by so slowly when reduced to often 2.5 miles an hour. 

Ashley Nordell

Despite the challenges with staying awake, freezing temperatures at night,  and dealing with the terrain and conditions of the trail, I don’t ever remember feeling like I reached a point where I wanted to stop. Again, it came down to the group of people I had out with me and as much as I wanted to reach my goal, I equally wanted to not disappoint them. I have funny memories of trying to carry scrambled eggs in a baggie and having them leak all inside the pockets of my capris, or Faye and I getting asked repetitively by a random guy in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere if we wanted to join his campfire, or hearing about how the guys had a pow-wow in a convenient store over how they would keep me awake on the second night that involved buying 5 Hour Energy and stuffing Espresso Hammer Gels in Faye’s pack with instructions to force feed me them if needed.  There were frustrating times getting lost or wishing there was even one section of trail that wasn’t composed entirely of rocks, but those aren’t the memories that stick with me when I look back at this weekend.

I remember the huge male elk (that my crazy brain first thought was a horse) that stood right on the trail in our way, the sections of bright blue water and orange and red leaves, and how absolutely incredible it felt to wade across the Buffalo River.  Scrambled eggs never tasted so good and then so bad, and five minute naps in the middle of the trail never seemed like such a luxury.

 I definitely struggled more with trail conditions than I had anticipated I would, but this was a new sort of challenge for me in so many ways, so it was hard to know what to expect. In the end, I can only be completely grateful that I had the opportunity to experience this trail in such a way with the people I had out with me. Friendships become extremely powerful in these sort of extreme situations, and I know they would have been there for me no matter how many hours it took to reach Woolum. And just like an ultra, where you swear “never again!” I am already in the brainstorming phase of what adventure to take on next.

- rabbitPRO, Ashley Nordell

Ashley Nordell


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