5:30 am- The sun hasn't started rising over the trees yet. Huddled in nearby cars, a few runners soak in the last few minutes of warmth before the race. On the ground, remnants of last night's storm linger in puddles and debris. As the runners make their way to check-in, smoke forms on their mouths as it meets the chilled air. Jeff from Forge Racing gives last minute instruction as headlamps turn on and bodies are readied.
The Clear Springs trails amongst the Homochitto forest would be a challenge in the best of conditions. Today, they are anything but the best. The runners slide in mud and power their way up and down the harsh terrain. For nearly 36 hours some of them will run through the night with only their intuition and a small light to guide them. At the aid stations, volunteers recharge tired bodies with laughs and the occasional beer. Eventually, the groups thin out and the runners become few. "This is the hardest trail I've ever been on," one said ... and we believed it.
11:26 in and Nicki Klein of Team Backpacker strides in for the 50 mile overall win with a smile on her face, her pacer Bryan by her side. She beat her personal goal by 34 minutes, the fastest time a woman has completed the 50 mile on this trail. You can see the elation and exhaustion in her body.
Meanwhile at basecamp, onlookers welcomed the late sun peeking through the clouds as they slid their paddle boards onto the water; another group seemed to be playing keep away from Gibson, the black pup.
10:30 pm- There are only 5 runners now, the 100 milers. Eyes are tired but we know that what we are feeling is nothing compared to Mark, Jeff, Gerry, Ed, and Will... or anyone who was out there for that matter. We brew another pot of coffee, pile on blankets and settle in for a long night. Time passes slowly while we chat about the little things..and all the big things too. Some of these men and women are running their first trail race, some are seasoned veterans with familiar faces. When you show up at the starting line, you are all the same; There are no doctors or mothers or mechanics- there are just runners. The night becomes early morning and Dustan fights sleep as his head bobs against the fireplace- He's waiting for his friend Will to finish his 3rd loop. When Will arrives, Dustan refills his water and gives whatever aid he can. "I've never seen someone so determined," he remarks as his friend shrugs off most of the offers of food or pain relief. Soon, he disappears into the night and we are left waiting again. After 25:06:30, Ed Melancon jogs in for the 100 mile win.
There's so much more happening than a simple race. They are running for children with cancer, for a sense of accomplishment, to battle depression, for the sport of it all, and to still feel capable in their bodies. Some of them may never see one another again but as the banners came down and the last medals given, you know that you are bonded somehow through all of this. Until next year....
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If you are in the South, Forge racing is your go to for trail running.